Carnal Innocence (Page 17)

"Perhaps you'd like a glass of water, Mrs. Talbot."

Darleen looked at Agent Burns through red-rimmed, swollen eyes ruthlessly outlined with Maybel-line. "Yes, sir," she said meekly. In the last forty-eight hours, she'd learned a whole lot about meek. "I'd be obliged."

All solicitude, Burns rose to go into the bathroom and pour tepid tap water into a paper cup. He considered himself an expert interviewer-had even instructed a course on the subject. As he would have told his class at the FBI Academy, the first rule of a good interview is to know your subject.

Burns figured he had Darleen Talbot's number.

Sympathy, flattery, and kindly authority. Those were the watchwords here. Burns estimated thirty minutes for the interview, including a four-minute prologue to gain Darleen's confidence. Along with the paper cup, he offered Darleen a kindly smile. "I appreciate your making the time to come in and talk with me this morning, Mrs. Talbot."

Cautiously, she brought the cup to her unpainted lips. She'd lost her affection for red lipstick. "Junior said I had to."

"Well, I know it's difficult for a young mother to find the time out of a demanding schedule. Where is your little one today?" Burns crossed ask about family off his mental checklist.

"Ma's watching Scooter. She likes to sit with him." As her eyes darted around the room, lighting on anything but Special Agent Matthew Burns, she fiddled with the collar of her flowered blouse. "He's her only grandson, you know. My two sisters both have girls."

"A handsome boy, too," Burns said, though he didn't know if he'd ever laid eyes on the youngest Talbot.

"He is pretty. His hair's as curly as a little lamb." A ghost of a smile brightened her eyes. She figured-accurately-that the only reason Junior hadn't tossed her out of the house was his attachment to his son. "He's quick, too. He's like greased lightning on his hands and knees. I don't know how I'll keep up with him once he starts toddling."

"I'm sure he keeps you on your toes."

More relaxed, Darleen set the cup aside. Why, the FBI man wasn't so bad, she decided. People just didn't know him. "Do you have young 'uns?"

"No, I don't." Nor did the fastidious Burns intend to. Ever. "I'm afraid my work keeps me away from home quite a bit."

"Looking for criminals."

"Exactly." He beamed at her, as if she'd just answered a very complex question. "And it's concerned, responsible citizens like yourself who make my job easier." Still smiling, he took out his mini recorder. "This helps me remember accurately."

Darleen eyed the recorder with distrust. She began to twist her hands in her lap. "Shouldn't I have a lawyer or something?"

"Why, certainly, if you wish." Burns sat down behind Burke's cluttered desk. "But I assure you it isn't necessary for this kind of informal chat. I just need a little background information from you, on your friend Edda Lou Hatinger." He stretched out an avuncular hand to hers. "I know this is difficult for you, Darleen. May I call you Darleen?"

Why, he was just as polite as a waiter in a fancy restaurant. Though the comparison would have caused Burns to cringe, it made Darleen respond favorably. "That'll be just fine."

"Losing a friend is always painful, but in such a tragic way..." He trailed off, letting his silence offer comfort. "I'll try not to upset you."

It wasn't difficult or even painful so much as terribly exciting, but she pulled out a ragged tissue and dabbed her eyes. "Talking about it just tears me in two. But I want to help," she added bravely. "She was my dearest friend."

"I know." Pleased, Burns switched on the recorder. "Special Agent Matthew Burns, interview with Darleen Talbot re Edda Lou Hatinger. June twenty-five. Now then, Darleen, why don't you tell me something about Edda Lou?"

Darleen blew her nose loudly enough to make Burns wince. "She was my dearest friend," she repeated. "We went to school together, and she was my maid of honor. I guess she was like a sister to me."

"And like sisters, I suppose the two of you exchanged confidences."

"We never had secrets from each other. My own blood sisters, Belle and Starita? Why, I could never talk to them the way I could to Edda Lou." Another tear squeezed out, and she caught it with her knuckle.

"And I'm sure she felt equally sympatico with you."

Darleen frowned over the word. "I expect."

"I can see that you're an understanding, open-hearted woman. No doubt Edda Lou depended on you."

The image had her preening a bit. "She did tend to lean on me. I never minded."

"With you being a married woman, I'm sure Edda Lou came to you for advice-advice about the men in her life."

Advice hell, Darleen thought. Edda Lou had liked to brag. But Darleen didn't think she should say so. "We talked a lot. I guess we talked on the phone every single day."

"And at the time of her death, was Edda Lou involved with anyone in particular?"

"Well, sure. Everybody knew she was all wrapped up in Tucker Longstreet. She could've had lots of other boyfriends. Edda Lou kept herself up real nice, you know. She studied pictures in magazines for hairdos and makeup tricks and all, and she wouldn't step out of her room without doing her face up just so. But she'd set her sights on Tucker. Once she hooked him, I was going to... I mean to say, once they'd set a date, I was going to be her matron of honor. We went to Greenville and picked out dresses and everything." And wasn't it a shame she'd never have a chance to wear that pretty pink organdy gown with the puffy sleeves and the big bow?

With encouraging nods Burns made neat notations on a legal pad. "Mr. Longstreet and Edda Lou were to be married?"

Darleen licked her lips and stared at the recorder. She was torn between loyalty and truth-with truth standing in for self-preservation. Her episode with Junior had her inching back. "Edda Lou had her mind set on it."

"And Mr. Longstreet?"

"Well... she'd've brought him around. Edda Lou wasn't one to let loose once she got her teeth in something."

"So you believe she would have convinced Mr. Longstreet to propose?"

"I guess you could put it like that."

"Pressured him?" Burns was still smiling benignly. "Could she have known about some weakness, some problem, that would have convinced him to, let's say, come up to scratch?"

Darleen thought about that awhile, then to Burns's disappointment shook her head. "No, Tucker's not one for problems. He just shakes them off. Thing is, I tried to tell Edda Lou the reason he cut things off with her was because she was getting too pushy. Men don't like to be shoved into marriage."

Darleen drew from her vast scope of marital bliss. "You take my Junior? I just waited around, real calm and ladylike, for him to scrape up the courage to ask me. If I'd've been the one to bring up marriage, he'd've been off like a shot. Men just naturally resist the idea of settling. And that's what I told her," Darleen said with a knowing nod. "But she wouldn't listen. Stubborn that way. And she was dead set to live at Sweetwater. I mean, to be with Tucker," she corrected herself. "Edda Lou was wild for him."

"I'm sure her feelings ran very deep," Burns murmured, and Darleen smiled through the sarcasm. "She and Mr. Longstreet had an altercation the day she died."

"Edda Lou came to see me right after." Darleen wiggled more comfortably in her chair. It was just like Perry Mason, she thought. "She was spitting fire, too. You see, Tucker'd broke things off with her, and she'd figured on laying back a few weeks, until he couldn't stand being without her anymore. That's just how she put it. She figured with the sex being so good and all, he'd come sniffing back 'round quick enough." She caught herself and flushed. "What I mean to say is, she knew he loved her."

Face expressionless, Burns nodded. "I understand completely."

"She was starting to get a bit itchy. And then Tucker starts seeing Chrissy Fuller-her being divorced now and all. Well, Edda Lou wasn't going to put up with that, not for a New York minute. She tracked Tuck down at the Chat 'N Chew and told him what was what."

"And claimed that she was pregnant."

Darleen pressed her lips together and stared down at her shoes. "I reckon she made a mistake about that. She was that upset, you see, because Tucker was maybe going to slip away."

"Is that what she told you when she came to see you that afternoon?"

"She was that upset." Darleen began to twist her fingers together. "A woman's bound to say things when she's got a broken heart. She was storming up and down my front room. Said he wasn't going to toss her away like used goods. He wasn't going to do to her what his daddy had done to her daddy."

"Excuse me?"

Darleen perked up. It was always rewarding to be the first to pass along gossip-even if the gossip was more than thirty years cold.

"Years ago Edda Lou's daddy had been courting Miss Madeline-Tucker's mama? Or, well, he wasn't courting exactly, as people say who remember. But he wanted to. He really was set on marrying Miss Madeline, even though her daddy was a state senator and all and he was just a dirt farmer. Edda Lou used to say it was like a Cinderella story in reverse. But the thing was that Miss Madeline was crazy for Beau Longstreet. The more in love she was with Mr. Beau, the more Austin Hatinger wanted her. He never had much use for the Longstreets."

"So," Burns interrupted with some hope of making a long story short. "There's been bad blood between the families for some time."

"Real bad. He and Mr. Beau almost took each other apart at a church social. My daddy was one of the ones that pulled them apart, and he tells the story now and then."

Burns cleared his throat. "That's very interesting, Darleen, but-"

"What I'm trying to say is, because of all that, the way her father saw Beau as taking what was his, Edda Lou thought she deserved Sweetwater. And she went after Tuck, 'cause... well, he's real good-lookin' and he ain't stingy with his pennies like his daddy was. But mostly I guess she liked the ideal of riling her pa. So she was pretty hot about him-Tucker, I mean-telling her right there in public that he didn't want her. So she says to me: 'He's going to eat those words, Darleen. You wait and see.' "

"Did she happen to tell you how she was going to make him eat them?"

"She was going to get him alone somewhere and let nature take its course." Darleen sent Burns a coy wink. "She took real good care of herself, Edda Lou did. Kept herself up and knew how to dress so men would look twice."

"Any men in particular?"

"Before Tucker? She kinda played the field. Had John Thomas Bonny stuck on her last winter, and before that Judson O'Hara and Will Shiver. And there was Ben Koons, too. Though he was a married man and she never took him seriously."

Burns noted down the names in meticulous block printing. "With a woman as attractive as Edda Lou, there might have been a man who remained... stuck on her after she'd committed herself to Mr. Longstreet."

"Oh, Edda Lou liked to brag that men didn't get over her in the wink of an eye. She could've had any of them."

"I see. What about Toby March?"

"Oh." Darleen picked up the paper cup and drank the rest of the water. "Well."


"There is nothing to that, Mr. Burns. No indeed. Edda Lou like to tease some. That was just her way."

"She teased Mr. March?"

"It was just a little game." Darleen brought her thumb to her mouth and began to gnaw on the nail. "Edda Lou wouldn't be interested in a black man. Curious maybe."

"And she was curious about Mr. March?"

"It was just to hit back at her daddy. He'd walloped Toby some years ago. Gave him that scar. And Edda Lou's brother, Cy, he was friends with Toby's boy. Austin Hatinger raised holy hell about that. So Edda Lou just liked to flirt with Toby because he'd get all stiff and flustered."

"Did she have an affair with him?"

"I can't say." Darleen chewed the nail down to the nub. "It wasn't nothing serious. She was just teasing."

But it might have been serious for a black man, Burns thought. A married black in a small southern town where some lines were deadly to cross.

"When did she tease him, Darleen?"

"Oh, mostly after Tucker cut her off. That's when Toby was doing work at the boardinghouse. But she wouldn't have done anything, really. Why, her daddy would have killed her. He'd have strung Toby up, and he'd have skinned Edda Lou alive. If he didn't get to it himself, Vernon would have done it for him. Edda Lou and Vernon didn't have any use for each other, but Vernon couldn't have held his head up if it got around that Edda Lou'd-you know-with one of Toby's kind."

Burns smiled. That gave him three more suspects.

Three more motives. "Thank you, Darleen. You've been a big help."

While Toby and young Jim hammered away at the braces on her back porch, Caroline took aim at a chicken-and-rice soup can. And missed. "Sight a little more to the right," Susie advised. "You jerk toward the left whenever you pull the trigger."

"I don't know why I'm doing this."

"It's comforting. Hold your breath this time. Right before you nudge the trigger." Susie pursed her lips when Caroline fired again, missed again. "You'll do better once you learn to keep both eyes open. But I'd give this year's Fourth of July contest a pass."

"I'm going to hit one, just one, before I move from this spot."

"Maybe it'd help if you thought of that Luis again."

"Nope. I've just about gotten that out of my system."

"Well, hell, here I've been hoping you'd have a weak moment and tell me all the gory details."

"More cliched than gory. I caught him with another woman."

"Oh." Susie pursed her lips and thought about it. "Do you mean caught him with, or caught him with?"

"Capital-C caught." She steadied her hand and took aim. "I walked in on him while a big-busted flute player was giving him an oil change."

"My, my. Did you cut off his dipstick?"

The gun wavered as Caroline laughed. "No. I'm afraid this took place during my wimp period."

"You seem to be over it now."

"The wimp period or Luis? I am. Pretty much." She missed again, swore, and buckled down. "Dammit, I'm going to hit one. It's just a matter of practice. Nobody knows more about practice than a musician." She lifted the gun, sighted in. "I'm going to make that goddamn can sing."

She clipped the side, and while it didn't precisely sing, the quick bang was enough to satisfy her.

"Nice going, Dead-eye." Susie gave her a congratulatory pat on the back. "Why don't you take a break?"

"Why don't I?" Caroline meticulously unloaded. Unlike Susie, she was less than comfortable carrying a loaded gun. "I did better than yesterday. It took over two hours for me to hit one of those stupid cans. Today it took"-she checked her watch-"only an hour forty-five." For lack of a better place, she dumped the spare ammo in her pocket. "Want a drink?"

"I thought you'd never ask." They started back toward the house. "You're keeping Toby and Jim busy. I like the new blue paint. Really freshens the place up."

"They're going to do the porches, too. In white. Can we get through here, Toby?"

"Sure, just mind your step. Afternoon, Mrs. Truesdale."

"Hey, Toby. When you're done here, why don't you come on by and shame Burke into fixing my side door? It still sticks."

He grinned, wiping his face with his bandanna. The dirt from under the porch clung to his skin, settled wetly into the creases. "Now, I told him what needed to be done there. Musta been six months ago."

"He tells me he's getting around to it." She stepped around the toolbox. "I guess he's got a lot on his mind."

Toby's smile faded. "Yes'm. Jim, you hold that board steady now." He kept his eyes on his hands as Caroline ushered Susie into the kitchen.

"Well now, there's that little pup I've heard so much about." Susie crouched down to where Useless was huddled under one of the kitchen chairs-a position he'd assumed since the first shot was fired.

"Yeah, my fierce guard dog." Caroline watched as he trembled and whined and licked at Susie's hand. "I must have been crazy."

"No, just soft-hearted. Thanks." She stood, accepting the glass of iced tea Caroline offered. "I've been meaning to stop on out before. It's been real hectic since Marvella got engaged."

"I heard about that." Noting the look in Susie's eyes, Caroline searched through the cupboards for something high in sugar and low in nutrition. She settled on the cupcakes she'd bought to treat Jim at lunch. "Here, have some chocolate and preservatives."

"Thanks." Susie sniffled and tore at the cellophane. "I swear, I've been as bad as a leaky faucet ever since it happened. I just think about it and off I go." She bit into the cupcake. "I knew it was coming, of course. They've been mooning around each other for two years. When they weren't mooning they were scrapping, and that's a sure sign."

"But she's your little girl."

"Yeah." Susie swiped at a tear. "My baby. My first baby. I'm okay when I get caught up in the wedding plans, but if I just sit and think about it, I start dripping."

Caroline eyed the second cupcake, and decided she deserved it. "Have they set a date?"

"September. Marvella's always been partial to chrysanthemums. She wants the church full of them, and her five bridesmaids in fall-colored dresses. She's got her own ideas, all right. Russet and gold, she says." Firing up, Susie licked crumbs from her fingers. "Now, I say russet's like red, and seems inappropriate for a church wedding, but she's set. Won't even talk about pastels." Susie caught Caroline's look and grinned. "I know, I know, colors aren't so important as why. It's just easier for me to think about them, and the music, and if we're going to have the reception outside at the house or if we should rent out the Moose Hall." She gave a slow sigh. "Burke and I had a justice of the peace wedding."

"I'm sure between you and Marvella everything's going to be beautiful."

"I'd feel better if I could talk her into rose instead of russet." She polished off the cupcake. "We're going down to Jackson this weekend to shop. You're welcome to come along if you'd like."

"I appreciate that. But I don't have anything to shop for."

"When a woman needs an excuse to shop, she must have something on her mind."

Caroline licked some of the sticky white filling off her fingers. "I guess I do. I guess we all do."

"Burke's hardly been home to do more than fall into bed for a couple of hours since Austin took off." She tilted her head. "Honey, you're not worried that he's going to come back here and bother you?"

"I don't know." Restless, Caroline rose. "I can't quite dismiss it, though there isn't a reasonable motive for him to do so." She looked out the window, and her eyes were drawn to the line of trees, and the memory of what lay beyond them. "It's more, Susie. I suppose it feels like everything else has been covered up by this search for Austin Hatinger. I can't forget that just a couple of weeks ago I walked out there by the pond and found his daughter."

"Nobody's forgotten about Edda Lou. Or Francie or Arnette either. It's just if you think about it too much, you go crazy." She lowered her voice. "That Agent Burns is talking to everyone in town. He interviewed Darleen just this morning. Happy told me about it. The thing that's making it hard is he's not working with Burke. He's working around him. Doesn't want the local law messing with his federal case, I suppose, but it's a mistake. Burke knows these people, and they trust him. They don't trust some shiny-shoed Yankee."

Caroline had to smile and look down at her own shoes. "Mine haven't been polished in weeks."

"Oh, it's different with you." Susie waved Caroline's northern connections aside. "Your kin was here. Of course, you could say that you and that Burns fellow speak the same language."

Caroline lifted a brow. "You could, but I don't think it's quite true."

"It seemed to me he had a lot of respect for you."

"For Caroline Waverly, musician. There's a difference." On a sigh, Caroline sat again. "Why don't you tell me what you're dancing around, Susie?"

"It's just that I was thinking, with you and Agent Burns in the same circles, so to speak, he might listen if you made a suggestion."

"What suggestion would that be?"

"He can't keep cutting Burke out like this," Susie blurted out, and scowled down at the chocolate crumbs. "I'm not just speaking as Burke's wife, because I love him and know this is eating at him. I'm speaking as a woman, as part of this community. Whoever killed those girls needs to be caught, and it's going to be a whole lot harder without Burke smoothing the way with people, and getting them to open up."

"I agree with you, Susie. I do. But I really don't see how I can help."

"I just thought you might find the opportunity to mention it. In passing."

"How's this? If the opportunity presents itself, I'll try."

"I guess he didn't do anything for you," Susie said. "Romantically speaking."

Caroline gave a quick laugh and shook her head. "No, he didn't. And no man will again who thinks of my music first and me second."

"Oh. That sounds like a story." All anticipation, Susie propped her chin on her hands.

"Let's just say I was involved with a man who thought of me more as an instrument than as a woman. Agent Burns looks at me the same way."

"Did you get your heart broken?"

Caroline's lips curved. "Cracked, a little."

"Well, the best way to shore it up again is a nice fling with an easy man." She touched her tongue to her top lip. "I heard you went to the movies with Tucker the other night."

"Why am I surprised?"

"Josie mentioned it to Earleen. I'd think Tucker Longstreet'd be a nice, painless cure for a broken heart."

"Cracked," Caroline corrected her. "And we just went to the movies. That doesn't constitute a fling."

"A man who brings a woman roses is laying the groundwork for one." She grinned as Caroline shut her eyes. "He stopped by and took Marvella out for lunch while he was down in Rosedale picking them out."

"They were just a neighborly gesture."

"Uh-huh. Once Burke brought me a real neighborly bunch of violets. Nine months later we had Parker. Now, don't get all flushed and bothered," Susie said with a wave of her hand. "I'm just being nosy. And I thought if you had any... neighborly interest in Tucker, you might want to know that Agent Burns is asking a lot of questions about him."

"What kind of questions?"

"Questions that apply to Edda Lou."

"But..." Caroline felt her heart give one uncomfortable thud. "But I thought that he wasn't a suspect because he was home the night she was killed."

"Maybe the FBI would like to find a way around that. Of course, he's asking questions about a lot of people." She looked deliberately toward the back door, and the porch beyond where Toby was humming "In the Garden."

"Susie." Caroline bit her lip and lowered her voice. "That's absurd."

"You may think so, and I might, knowing Toby and his Winnie all my life the way I have, but Agent Burns has different ideas." She leaned closer. "He went by and talked to Nancy Koons. Wanted to know if Edda Lou and Tucker had had any fights there in the rooming house. If he'd shown her any violence. And he asked her about Toby, too."

"What did she tell him?"

"Next to nothing, because she didn't like the way he asked." Susie drew lines in the moisture of her glass. "That's why he needs to bring Burke in. Burke knows how to approach people. They'll talk to him. I have to figure he'll be out this way again soon, since you were the one who found the body."

"There's nothing I can tell him."

"Honey, seems to me he might be interested in the fact that Tucker's coming around here."

Caroline rubbed at an ache centered in her forehead. "My personal life is none of his business. That I will tell him."

Long after Susie left, Caroline worried over every point of the conversation. She listened to Toby and his son pack up for the day and worried some more. Alone, she wandered through the house, trying to pinpoint her part in the whole picture.

She was a stranger. Yet her family had sprung from Innocence. She hadn't known Edda Lou, yet she had been the one to find her. She'd never spoken a single word to Austin Hatinger. But he'd shot at her.

She didn't know Matthew Burns. Oh, his type certainly, but not him. Still, it was true that they moved in the same circles, knew the same places, spoke the same language. How that could help solve a crime was beyond her. Yet Susie had made her feel responsible.

She was-for lack of a better term-involved with one of the suspects. Another was working for her. So she felt even more responsible. Oh, she knew all about responsibilities. They snuck up on you, attached themselves to you like tiny, thirsty leeches until you were sucked dry. She'd had a responsibility to her parents, to her music, to her teachers, her maestros, her fellow musicians, to her fans. And, as he'd insisted right up to the last, she'd had a responsibility to Luis. Oddly enough, she'd come to Innocence to escape from responsibility for a little while, only to find herself bogged down in it all over again.

She could do nothing. She understood that now. It had always been her choice, and she had always chosen to give in rather than fight back.

But wasn't it different this time? Wouldn't she be giving in by doing nothing? Though she doubted she had anything to offer, she was involved. Not just with Tucker, but with Innocence. And for the time being, Innocence was home.

"All right, all right." She pressed her fingers to her temples. "I'll go talk to him. I'll make a few quiet suggestions, Yankee to Yankee."

She snatched up her purse and was heading out the front door when Matthew Burns turned into her drive.

Well, Caroline thought with a sigh. It must be fate.

"I've caught you on your way out," Burns said as he stepped from his car.

"No-that is, yes." Caroline smiled and altered her plans. "But I have a few minutes yet. Would you like to come in?"

"I would. Very much." The moment he stepped onto the porch, Useless began to growl behind the screen door.

"He's just a puppy," Caroline assured Burns. "A little leery of strangers." She opened the door and scooped the dog up.

"Cute," Burns commented, but Caroline heard the word mongrel clear as a bell.

"He's excellent company." She decided against setting Useless outside and carried him with her into the parlor. "Can I get you something? Iced tea, coffee?"

"Iced tea would be wonderful. I'm afraid I'll never get used to the heat."

"Heat?" Caroline said with the same amused derision she'd heard from so many of the locals. "Oh, it doesn't get hot until August. Please have a seat. I'll be right back." She snickered to the dog as she went into the kitchen. When she returned, Burns was standing, hands linked behind his back, frowning at the bullet hole in her sofa.

"An interesting conversation piece, isn't it?" She set the tray of drinks down. "I've about decided not to have it repaired."

"It's deplorable. Hatinger shooting into this house without any concern that you might have been hurt. He didn't even know you."

"Fortunately, Tucker thought quickly."

"If he'd thought at all, he wouldn't have put you in such a dangerous position."

Caroline took a seat, understanding that Burns's stiff manners wouldn't permit him to do so first. "Actually, I don't believe Tucker was aware that Austin was out with a rifle. It came as quite a surprise to both of us. Would you like lemon or sugar?"

"Just a little lemon, thank you." He took his place on the couch, shifting slightly to face her. "Caroline, as I've loved your music for years, I feel as if I know you."

Her smile remained pleasant. "It's funny how often people make that mistake. Actually, the music I play belongs to numerous composers and isn't mine at all."

He cleared his throat. "What I mean is, I've admired your talents, and followed your career, so I feel a certain connection. I hope I can speak frankly."

She sipped. "So do I."

"I'm concerned, Caroline, very concerned. I've heard talk around town that you've been seeing Tucker Longstreet."

She settled back in the crook of the couch. "That's the marvelous thing about small towns, don't you think? If you sit in one place for more than five minutes, you hear everything."

He stiffened like a poker. "Personally, I don't care for rumor, gossip, or innuendo." Her quick burst of laughter had him tightening his lips. "I'm sorry. You made that sound like a rock group or a law firm." She swallowed the next chuckle when he didn't respond in kind. Laughing at him was certainly no way to soften him up so that he'd listen to a suggestion. "Places like this run on gossip, Matthew. I imagine it could even be helpful."

"Indeed. However much I abhor such habits, I must take this professionally. You'd be wise to do the same. Tucker Longstreet is still being questioned regarding a vicious and brutal murder." Nerves had Caroline passing the glass from hand to hand, but her eyes remained level. "As I understand, several people are being questioned. I suppose that would include me."

"Your involvement with this is merely that of an innocent bystander who happened to find a body."

"There's no merely about it, Matthew. I found the body, and I'm a member of this community. I have..." Her lips curved at the truth of it. "I have friends here, and probably numerous cousins of one sort or the other."

"And you consider Tucker Longstreet a friend?"

"I'm not sure exactly what I consider Tucker." She gave him a bland look. "Is that a professional question?"

"I'm investigating a series of murders," he said flatly. "I have not crossed Mr. Longstreet off my list. I consider him someone to be watched, carefully watched. You may not be aware that he had relationships with the other two victims."

"Matthew, I've been here for over two weeks. I'm well aware of it. Just as I'm aware that Woodrow and Sugar Pruett's marriage is in trouble, and that Bea Stokey's boy, LeRoy, got a ticket for speeding out on route One. Just as I'm aware that Tucker isn't capable of doing any of those hideous things to those poor women."

A long, patient breath, and Burns set aside his iced tea. It never failed to fascinate him how easily women could be taken in. "People were fooled by Ted Bundy's charm and attractive looks. A serial killer is not someone you recognize as such in the everyday course of things. They are clever, manipulative, and often highly intelligent. And often, yes quite often, they themselves go for periods of time when they have no recollection of what they've done. And if they do, they hide it under a mask of affability or concern. But they lie, Caroline. They lie because what they live for is the kill. The anticipation of it, the skill with which they hunt, stalk and slay."

He watched her pale and reached for her hand. "I'm frightening you. I mean to. Someone, very likely someone in this small rural community, is hiding behind a mask, and plotting the next kill. I will use all my skill, all my knowledge, to stop him. But it may not be enough. And if it's not, he will kill again."

She had to set the tea aside. She needed nothing cool now, not when her blood had turned to ice. "If that's true-"

"It is."

"If it is," she repeated, "shouldn't you be using all available assistance?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"You're an outsider here, Matthew. Your badge doesn't change that. If anything, the fact that it's federal makes you more of an outsider. If you want to help these people, then use Burke Truesdale."

His smile was tight as he straightened his shoulders. "I appreciate your concern, Caroline, but the simple fact is you don't know what's involved here."

"No, I don't. But I do know about politics and authority. No one could perform with dozens of different orchestras under dozens of different maestros and not understand the food chain. My point is, Matthew, you-as I have been most of my life-are the outsider. Burke knows these people. You don't."

"Which is precisely part of the problem. He knows them, he sympathizes with them. He's related to them or has old friendships to protect."

"You're speaking about Tucker again."

"To be specific. The term is 'good ol' boys,' isn't it? They toss back a few beers together, shoot some rabbits or other small creatures, and sit on their porches and talk about cotton and women." He brushed a speck of lint from his trousers. "No, I don't know these people, Caroline, but I know of them. The last thing I need to solve this case is to enlist Burke Truesdale to pave my way. I believe him to be an honest man. And a loyal one. It's his loyalties that concern me."

"May I speak frankly, Matthew?"

He spread his hands. "Please."

"You're behaving like a pompous ass," she said, and watched his face fall. "That might work well in D.C. or Baltimore, but it doesn't cut it here in the delta. If someone else is killed-as you seem to believe-then look to yourself and wonder if it might have been prevented. If you might have prevented it by having a liaison to these people instead of standing back all smug and superior."

He rose stiffly. "I'm sorry, Caroline, that we're unable to see eye to eye on this matter. However you might feel, I must still advise you to curtail your involvement with Tucker Longstreet until this case is resolved."

"I've discovered a terrible habit in myself of ignoring advice."

"Your choice." He inclined his head. "I'll have to ask you to come in to my temporary headquarters tomorrow. Around ten, if that's convenient."


"I have some questions. Official questions."

"Then I'll give you answers. Official answers." She didn't bother to see him to the door.