Carnal Innocence (Page 27)

Screams shimmied on the hot air. High pitched howls echoed, chased by shrieks of wild laughter. Colored lights flashed and blinked and whirled, turning the fallow Eustis Field into a fantasy of motion.

The carnival had come to Innocence.

People readily dug out their spare change to be caught by the Octopus, whirled by the Zipper, and scrambled by the Round-Up.

Kids went racing by, their shouts and squeals rising above the piping calliope music, their fingers sticky with cotton candy, their cheeks puffed out with corn dogs or stuffed with fried dough. Teenagers scrambled to impress one another by knocking down bottles, ringing bells, or-in the words of one daredevil-riding the Scrambler till they puked.

Many of the older set settled for bingo at a quarter a card. Others touched by gambling fever lost their paychecks trying to outsmart the Wheel of Fortune.

To anyone traveling over Old Longstreet Bridge, it would look like an ordinary summer carnival on the outskirts of an ordinary small, southern town. The lights and the echo of that calliope might bring a tug of nostalgia to the travelers as they passed by.

But for Caroline, the magic wasn't working.

"I don't know why I let you talk me into coming here.

Tucker swung his arm over her shoulders. "Because you can't resist my fatal southern charm."

She stopped to watch hopefuls pitching coins at glassware that could be had at any respectable yard sale for half the price. "It doesn't seem right, with everything that's happened."

"I don't see what a night at a carnival's going to change. Unless it's to make you smile a little."

"Darleen's going to be buried on Tuesday."

"She's going to be buried Tuesday whether you're here tonight or not."

"Everything that happened last night-"

"Has been taken care of," he finished. "Billy T. and his asshole friends are in jail. Doc says Toby and Winnie are doing just fine. And look here." He pointed to where Cy and Jim were squished together in a cup of the Scrambler, eyes wide, mouths open in laughing howls as they were spun in mad circles. "Those two are smart enough to grab a little fun when it's offered."

Tucker pressed a kiss to her hair and continued to walk. "You know why we call this Eustis Field?"

"No." A smile ghosted around her lips. "But I'm sure you're about to tell me."

"Well, Cousin Eustis-actually, he'd have been an uncle, but there're so many greats in there it gets confusing-he wasn't what you'd call a tolerant man. He ran Sweetwater from 1842 until 1856, and it prospered. Not just the cotton. He had six children-legitimately-and about a dozen more on the other side of the sheets. Word was he liked to try out the female slaves when they came of age. That age being about thirteen, fourteen."

"That's despicable. You named a field for him?"

"I'm not finished." He paused to light half a cigarette. "Now, Eustis, he wasn't what you'd call an admirable man. It didn't bother him at all to sell off his own children-the dark-skinned ones. His wife was a papist, a devoted one, who used to beg him to repent his sins and save his soul from a fiery hell. But Eustis just kept doing what came naturally to him."


"To him," Tucker said. Behind him, a bell clanged as some hotshot proved his strength and impressed his girl into rapturous squeals. "One day a young female slave took off. She had the baby Eustis had fathered with her. Eustis didn't tolerate runaways. No indeed. He set out the men and the dogs, and rode out himself to hunt her down. He was riding across this field when he shouted out that he'd spotted her. She wouldn't have had much of a chance with him on horseback and a whip in his hand. Then his horse reared. Nobody knows why-might've been spooked by a snake or rabbit. Or maybe it was that fiery hell reaching out to grab old Eustis. But he broke his neck." Tucker took a last drag on his cigarette, then flung it away. "Right about there, where that Ferris wheel's standing. Seems fitting somehow, don't you think? That all these people, black and white-maybe some with a dribble or two of Eustis Longstreet's blood-should be kicking up their heels on this field where he met his Maker."

She leaned her head against his shoulder. "What happened to the girl, and her baby?"

"Funny thing about that. Nobody else saw them. Not that day or any day after."

She took a deep breath of candy-scented air. "I'd like a ride on the Ferris wheel."

"Wouldn't mind it myself. Afterward, how'd you like me to win you one of those black velvet paintings of Elvis?"

Laughing, she hooked an arm around his waist. "Words fail me."

"Don't you want to play some bingo, Cousin Lulu?" Ever hopeful, Dwayne pressed a hand to his jittery stomach.

"What the hell do I want to sit around putting beans on a card for?" Lulu stomped up to the ticket booth to buy another roll. "We only been on the Round-Up once, and missed the Scrambler altogether. That Crack the Whip's worth another go or two." She stuffed the tickets in the pocket of her army surplus slacks. "You're looking a might green, boy. Indigestion?"

He swallowed gamely. "You could call it that."

"Shouldn't have eaten all that fried dough before we took a spin. Best thing to do is bring it up, empty your stomach." She grinned. "A round on the Scrambler'll take care of that."

Which was exactly what he feared. "Cousin Lulu, why don't we take a turn down the midway, win some prizes?"

"Sucker's games."

"Who's a sucker?" Josie strolled up, carrying a huge purple elephant. "I shot twelve ducks, ten rabbits, four moose, and a snarling grizzly bear to win this grand prize."

"Don't know what a grown woman's going to do with a stuffed elephant," Lulu grumbled, but she took a shine to the rhinestone collar around the purple pachyderm's neck.

"It's a souvenir," she said, and shoved it into Teddy Rubenstein's arms so she could light a cigarette. "What's the matter, Dwayne? You're looking a little sickly."

"Weak stomach," Lulu announced, and poked a finger into Dwayne's midsection. "Corn dogs and fried dough. Boy's got all that grease floating around inside." She narrowed her eyes at Teddy. "I know you. You're that Yankee doctor who makes a living cutting dead people up. Do you keep the innards in bottles?"

With a strangled sound Dwayne shambled away, one hand clamped over his mouth.

"Best thing for him," Lulu declared.

"I guess I'd better go hold his head." With a sigh Josie turned back to Teddy. "Honey, why don't you take Cousin Lulu for a ride? I'll catch up."

"It would be my pleasure." Teddy held out his arm. "What's your poison, Cousin Lulu?"

Pleased, she hooked her arm through his. "I had my mind set on the Scrambler."

"Allow me to escort you."

"What's your given name, boy?" she asked as they wound through the crowd. "I may as well call you by it, as you're sleeping with my kin."

He gave a throat-clearing cough. "It's Theodore, ma'am. My friends call me Teddy."

"All right, Teddy. We'll take us a walk on the wild side here, and you can tell me all you know about these murders." Graciously, she handed him the tickets to pay their way through the gate.

"That Miss Lulu." Slurping on a Snow-Kone, Jim nodded in respect. "She sure is something."

Cy wiped purple juice from his mouth and watched as Lulu sat regally in the jerking, spinning car of the Scrambler. "I seen her standing on her head in her room."

"What she do that for?"

"Don't rightly know. Something about having the blood slosh into her brain so she don't go senile. One day I found her lying on the lawn. I thought she'd had a spell or was dead or something. She said she was pretending to be a cat for a day, and gave me hell for disturbing her nap."

Jim grinned and crunched ice. "My granny mostly sits in a rocker and knits."

They started to walk, taking time to stop by some of the booths and watch balls being tossed, darts being thrown, wheels being spun. They each spent a quarter at the Duck Pond, where Jim won a rubber spider and Cy a plastic whistle.

They debated having their fortunes told by Madame Mystique, then passed her up for a look at the Amazing Voltura, who absorbed a thousand volts of electricity while miniature light bulbs fizzed and popped all over her curvaceous body.

"Pretty fakey," Cy decided, and gave his whistle a toot.

"Yeah, I bet they use batteries or something."

Cy scuffed his shoe in the dirt. "Can I ask you something?"


"I was wondering. Well, how did it feel, stabbing John Thomas Bonny?"

Frowning, Jim dangled his rubber spider by the string. He figured he could get at least one good squeal out of little Lucy with it. "It didn't feel at all, I guess. I was all numb and my ears were ringing. I had Lucy hiding in the closet like Ma told me, but I figured he'd find her. And I didn't know what they were going to do to my ma, and my daddy."

"Were they..." Cy wet his lips. "Were they really going to string him up?"

"They had a rope, and guns." Jim didn't say anything about the burning cross. Somehow that was the worst part of all. "They kept saying he killed them women. But he didn't."

"They were saying my daddy killed them, too." Cy bent for something shiny, but it was only a piece of foil from a pack of cigarettes. "I guess he didn't do it either."

"Somebody did," Jim said, and the two boys gazed silently at the flow of people. "Might even be somebody we know."

"Almost has to be, if you think about it."



"When I stuck that knife into John Thomas Bonny? Made me feel sorta sick at my stomach watching it go in. I don't'see how anybody could stick people again and again. Less they was crazy."

"Guess they are, then." Cy remembered his father's eyes, and thought he knew all about crazy. Shaking off the sense of dread, he dug in his pocket. "I still got three tickets left."

With a grin, Jim dug in his own. "The Round-Up."

"Last one there pukes on his shoes."

With a war cry, both boys dashed off, making a beeline for the whirling lights of the Round-Up. Both Cy and his innocent pleasure came to a skidding halt when Vernon stepped out in front of him.

"Having yourself a high old time, ain't you, boy?"

Cy stared up at his brother, into the face that was a ghost image of their father, eyes glazed with anger as hard and cold as ice skimmed over a pond. He hadn't seen Vernon since Austin's funeral. There, his brother hadn't spoken to him at all, only stared at him across the hole in the ground where their father would spend his eternity.

The lights of the midway suddenly seemed to brighten, burning hot on Cy's face while the rest of Innocence played in the dark.

"I'm not doing anything."

"You're always doing something." Vernon stepped forward. From behind them Loretta clutched one child to the mound made by another and made a small sound of distress that was ignored by all. "Getting yourself a job over to Sweetwater on the sly. Spending all your time with this kind." He jerked his head toward Jim. "Don't matter to you that them colored's plotting against white Christians, killing white women, and your own sister among 'em. You got bigger fish to fry."

"Jim's my friend." Cy didn't take his eyes off his brother's face. But he knew those big hands were fisted, just as he knew they would pummel him to the ground. And because they were blood, there were many who would turn away rather than interfere. "We weren't doing anything."

"You got your colored friends." Vernon's lips twisted as he snagged Cy's collar. "Maybe you helped them get Edda Lou out there in the swamp where they could rape and kill her. Maybe you held the knife yourself and murdered her same as you murdered Daddy."

"I didn't kill anybody." Cy shoved at Vernon's hand even as he was dragged up to his toes. "I didn't. Daddy was going to hurt Miss Caroline and she had to shoot him."

"That's a filthy lie." Vernon slammed his free hand against Cy's head, and white stars exploded in front of the boy's eyes. "You sent him out to die and they hunted him down like a dog. Used their godless money to cover it all up. You think I don't know how it was? You think I don't know how you fixed it so you could live in that fine, big house, trading your father's life for a soft bed and a life of sin." His eyes flattened like a snake's as he shook Cy off his feet. "You got the evil inside you, boy. With Daddy gone, it's up to me to crush it out."

His arm reared back. Even as Cy was covering his face in defense, Jim was leaping. He grabbed Vernon's arm with both hands and hung on, kicking. Between the two of them, they were still fifty pounds short of Vernon's weight, but fear and loyalty added sinew. Vernon was forced to drop Cy in a heap so that he could buck Jim off. The minute he dragged Cy up, Jim was on him again, agile as a ferret. This time he hitched on to Vernon's back, hooking an arm around the thick neck.

"Run, Cy." Jim clung like a leech while Vernon struggled to yank him off. "Run! I got him."

But Cy wasn't going anywhere. After shaking his head clear, he got back to his feet. His nose was bleeding a little from his last fall, and he swiped a hand under it. He thought he understood now what Jim had meant when he'd said he'd been numb. Cy was numb. His ears were ringing-either from the blow or from adrenaline. Inside his thin chest his heart was banging against his ribs like a spoon against a kettle.

The lights were all on him. Beyond the circle made by him, his brother, and Jim, all was shadowy to his vision. The music of the calliope had slowed to a funeral dirge.

He swiped more blood away, then fisted his smeared hands. "I ain't going to run." He'd run from his father. It felt as though he'd been running all of his life. And here and now was the time to take his stand. What was left of his innocence had fled, and he was a man. "I ain't going to run," he repeated, and hefted his bloody fists.

Vernon shook Jim off and grinned. "Think you can take me on, you little shit?"

"I ain't going to run," Cy said again quietly. "And you ain't going to whip up on me anymore either."

Still grinning, Vernon spread his arms. "Take your best shot. It'll be your last."

Cy's fist snaked out. He would think later that it had been as if he'd had no control over it. His arm, his clenched hand, and the fire behind it had been something apart. And its aim was deadly keen.

Blood spurted from Vernon's nose. There was a roar from the crowd that had gathered, that blood-lust roar that humans seem unable to prevent when one of their kind wars with another. Cy heard it as a tidal wave of satisfaction even as the power of the punch shot pain up his own arm.

"Well, well." Tucker stepped out of the shadows misting Cy's vision, and stepped between them. "Y'all putting on a side show? What's the price of admission?"

Blood dripped down his face as Vernon bared his teeth. "Get the hell out of my way, Longstreet, or I'll cut right through you."

"You'll have to, to get to him." There was a trace of that lust in Tucker's eyes as well. The midway lights glinted on them, turning them gold as a cat's. "Taking a page out of your father's book, Vernon? Slapping down what's smaller than you?"

"He's my kin."

"That'll always be a mystery to me." Tucker threw out an arm when Cy started to move around him. "You just hold on, son. I'm not going to tell you twice." He could feel the air tremble between him and Cy. Not with fear; fear had a different rhythm. This was energy. The boy would have gotten a few good shots in, Tucker mused. Before Vernon broke him to pieces. "You're not laying another hand on him, Vernon."

"And who's going to stop me?"

The thought of having his face battered again made Tucker sigh. The last bruises had barely faded. "I reckon I am."

"And me." Sweaty and far from steady, Dwayne stepped beside his brother.

One by one, men moved out of the crowd and ranged themselves beside the Longstreets. Cy had been wrong-there were more than a few who would have come forward, and they did now. Black and white, forming a silent wall that spoke eloquently of justice.

Vernon flexed frustrated fists. "He can't hide all the time."

"He isn't hiding now," Tucker said. "I think he's proved that. He may be half your size, Vernon, but he's twice the man you are. And he's under my protection. Your mother signed a paper that makes it so. You'd best leave it alone."

"Whatever you paid her to sign him away, he's still my blood. You got too much of my blood on your hands."

Tucker stepped forward, lowering his voice so only Vernon could hear. "He's nothing to you. We both know it. Kinship's just an excuse you use to hurt and call it family business. There's nobody standing with you on this, Vernon. Nobody. Going after him's only going to make it hard for you around here. Your family's had enough grief."

"And you brought it on us." He leaned his face close to Tucker's. "This ain't over."

"I don't expect it is. But it's done for the night." Turning, Tucker walked through the line to where Caroline was dealing calmly with Cy's bloody nose. "I sure do love a carnival," he said. The squeeze he gave Cy's shoulder transmitted both approval and reassurance.

"I was going to fight him, Mr. Tucker."

"You did what you had to do."

Furious, Caroline balled bloody tissues in her hand. "Men. You always think the way to handle any problem is with your fists."

"And women like to talk them away." He winked at Cy, then pulled Caroline close for a quick kiss. "Now, personally, I prefer loving my way out of a problem. But it takes all kinds."

"Don't it just?" Josie strolled up, snapping her purse shut. She carried her pretty little pearl-handled derringer inside among her other necessities. Right now she was almost disappointed that she hadn't had cause to use it. She kept her back to Tucker, whom she'd yet to forgive. 'Cy, honey, you're going to be the talk of the annual Innocence Fourth of July Carnival." She kissed his cheek and made him blush. "You bleeding anywhere, Jim?"

"No, ma'am. I landed on my butt, is all." He was busy brushing himself off with hands that shook from excitement. "Me and Cy, we coulda took him."

"I'll just bet you could." Josie squeezed Jim's bicep and rolled her eyes appreciatively. "We got us a couple of strapping young boys here, Caroline. I wonder if I could impose on you two to accompany me to the lemonade stand? It seems my gentleman escort has deserted me for another woman." She nodded toward the Scrambler, where Teddy and Cousin Lulu where taking another round. "Men are such fickle creatures."

Jim puffed out his chest. "We'll go with you, Miss Josie. Won't we, Cy?"

"Is it all right, Mr. Tucker?"

"It's just fine." He passed a hand over Cy's hair, left it lie there a moment. "It is just fine, Cy."

Cy took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I know it. I didn't run. I'm not running from him or anybody anymore."

Tucker let his hand slide off Cy's shoulder. He thought it was a pity that youth and its simplicity were so soon and permanently lost. "Running away and walking are two different things. Keeping clear of Vernon won't change what you did for yourself tonight. But it might keep your mama from any more grief. You think about that."

"I guess I will."

"Go on with Josie." He watched them walk away with some regret, and something colder, that was suspicion.

"I guess I'm going home," Dwayne said, narrowing his eyes against the spinning lights.

"You sober enough to find the house?" Tucker asked him.

"I haven't had much-and tossed up what I did." Dwayne offered a weak smile. "I never did have the head for those whirly rides."

"Or the stomach," Tucker agreed. "You get sick every blessed year."

"I don't like to mess with tradition. Delia and Cousin Lulu came with me, but I don't think they're ready to leave just yet."

"Caro and I'll get them home."

"That's fine, then. 'Night, Caroline." He sauntered off alone, moving beyond the lights and music and into the shadows. Tucker nearly called him back. It didn't seem right that his brother should look so lonely. Then Dwayne was gone, and the moment passed.

"Well..." Caroline tossed the bloody tissues into a trash basket. "You certainly show a woman an interesting evening."

"I do what I can." Hearing the strain in her voice, he slipped an arm around her. "You're upset?"

"Upset?" she countered. "You could say so. It upsets me to see that boy have to fight his own brother. He's lost two members of his family and is estranged from the rest of them just because he's different. It's hard to see him have to face those kinds of demands and pressures, those choices, when he's only half grown."

Tucker drew her around to face him. "Who are we talking about, Caro? You or Cy?"

"It has nothing to do with me."

"Maybe you're shifting things around. Looking at him and seeing yourself at his age, facing something you couldn't fight with your fists."

"I didn't fight at all."

"You took your stand later, and in a different way. That doesn't make it any harder when what you're standing against is family." He led her back a little, where they could stand and watch the lights and the colors and the knots of people. "You want to make it up with your mother."

"There's nothing-"

"You want to make it up," he said again with a quiet assurance in his voice that stopped her from arguing. "I know what I'm saying. I never settled things with my father. I never let him know what I thought or felt or wanted. I don't know if he'd have given a damn. And that's just it. I don't know because I never worked up the gumption to say it all to his face."

"She knows how I feel."

"So you start from there. On your terms. I don't like to see you sad, Caroline. And I know what kind of pull family brings."

"I'll think about it." She tilted her head back to study him. He was looking beyond the midway, into the lights. There was something in his eyes that had her moving closer. "What are you thinking about?"

"Family," he murmured. "And what runs through the blood." Deliberately, he smiled, but that glint in his eye remained. "Let's go check out that Ferris wheel."

Tucker pulled her back into the crowd and the noise. But he was thinking. If Austin had been capable of murder, perhaps Austin's son was equally capable.

The sins of the father, he mused. It was a quotation that would have suited Austin down to the ground. Perhaps Vernon carried that same violent and twisted gene.

As the Ferris wheel began its slow backward arch, Tucker draped an arm around Caroline's shoulders.

He was sure of one thing. Among the laughter and lights of the carnival, a murderer hunted.