Carnal Innocence (Page 29)

"Just how many of these lunatics you figure'll drop from heat stroke before two o'clock?" Cousin Lulu posed the question from the comfort of her personalized director's chair. A red, white, and blue umbrella was hooked to the back and tilted to a jaunty angle, while a thermos of mint juleps snuggled between her feet.

"We never have more than five or six faint on us," Delia said placidly from the web chair beside her. She didn't think she could outdo Lulu's pants, but she'd stuck a miniature American flag in her bushy hair in an attempt. "Most of them are young."

As a marching band strutted by blaring Sousa, Lulu played along on a plastic zither. She enjoyed the wall of sound, the glint of brass in bright sun, but she couldn't help but think that a couple of swooning piccolo players would add some zip.

"That tuba blower there, the husky one with the pimples? He looks a bit glassy-eyed to me. Ten bucks says he drops in the next block."

Delia's natural competitive instinct had her studying the boy. He was sweating freely, and she imagined his natty uniform was going to smell like wet goat before the day was up. But he looked hardy enough. "You're on."

"I dearly love a parade." Lulu tucked her zither behind her ear like a pencil so she could pour another drink. "Next to weddings, funerals, and poker games, I can't think of anything more entertaining."

Delia snorted and cooled her face with a palm-sized battery-operated fan. "You can have yourself a funeral tomorrow if you want. We've been having us a regular plague of funerals lately." Sighing, Delia helped herself to some of the contents of Lulu's thermos. "I reckon this is the first time in fifteen years that Happy hasn't marched on by with the Ladies Garden Club."

"Why ain't she marching?"

"Her daughter's going in the ground tomorrow."

Lulu watched the pom-pom division of Jefferson Davis High shake by to the tune of "It's a Grand Old Flag."

"A good, whopping funeral'll set her to rights," Lulu predicted. "What're you making for after the burying?"

"My coconut ambrosia." Delia shaded her eyes and grinned. "Why, look there, Cousin Lulu. Look at Carl Johnson's baby twirl that baton. She's a regular whirling dervish."

"She's a pistol, all right." Lulu enjoyed a cackle and another sip of julep. "You know, Delia, life's like one of them batons. You can spin it around your fingers if you've got the talent for it. You can toss it right up in the air and snatch it back if you're quick. Or you can let it fly and conk somebody on the head." She smiled and plucked the zither from behind her ear. "I do dearly love a parade."

From behind Lulu, Caroline thought over the analogy and shook her head. It made a spooky kind of sense. She wasn't sure if she'd ever conked anyone on the head with the baton of life, but she'd certainly dropped it a few times. Right now she was doing her best to make it spin.

"That there's the Cotton Princess and her court," Cy told Caroline. "The whole high school votes on her every year. She was supposed to ride in back of Mr. Tucker's car, but since it got banged up, they rented that convertible from Avis in Greenville."

"She's lovely." Caroline smiled at the girl in her puffy-sleeved white dress and sweat-sheened face.

"She's Kerry Sue Hardesty." Watching her made Cy think of Kerry's younger sister, LeeAnne. She of the soft, fascinating breasts. As the car cruised by, Cy scanned the crowd, hoping for a glimpse. He didn't spot LeeAnne, but he did spot Jim, and waved desperately.

"Why don't you go over and see your friend, Cy? You can meet us at the car when the parade's finished."

He yearned, but shook his head and stood firm. Mr. Tucker was counting on him to stay close to Miss Caroline. They'd had a real man-to-man talk about it. "No, ma'am. I'm fine right here. There's Miss Josie and that FBI doctor. He's got one of those lapel flowers that squirts water in your face. He sure is a caution."

"He certainly is." Caroline was scanning the crowd herself. "I wonder what's keeping Tucker."

"Nothing." From behind, Tucker slipped his arms around her waist. "You didn't think I'd miss watching a parade with a pretty woman, did you?"

Content, she leaned back against him. "No."

"You want me to fetch you and Miss Caroline cold drinks, Mr. Tucker? I got pocket money."

"That's all right, Cy. I think Cousin Lulu's got what the doctor ordered in that jug down there."

Cy jumped forward to take the cup Lulu poured and pass it back. "That FBI man's watching from in front of the sheriffs office."

"So I see." Tucker sipped, savored, and handed the cup to Caroline.

Caroline took her first taste of mint julep and let it slide sweet down her throat. "He doesn't look as though he thinks much of the parade."

"Looks more like he smells dead skunk," Cy commented.

"He just doesn't understand." Tucker kept one arm around Caroline's waist, set his other hand on Cy's shoulder. "Here comes Jed Larsson and his boys."

When the fife and drum corps led by Larsson marched by playing "Dixie," the crowd roared. Those seated rose to their feet and cheered.

Caroline smiled and laid her head on Tucker's shoulder. She understood.

The Fourth of July meant fried chicken, potato salad, and smoking barbecues. It was a day for flag waving and pie eating and drinking cold beer in the shade. There were those gathered close in mourning, and the law continued its grinding quest, but on this bright summer day, Innocence tossed a cloak of red, white, and blue over murder and celebrated.

After the parade there were contests along Market Street and over in the town square. Pie eating, target shooting, foot racing, egg tossing, and-always a favorite-watermelon-seed spitting.

In silent amazement Caroline gawked at the junior division pie-eating contest, where seven- to fourteen-year-olds buried their faces in blueberry, slurping and swallowing to the cheers of the crowd. Pie after pie was consumed, and more glistening tins shoved under purple-stained faces. Encouragement and gastronomic advice were shouted out as one by one the young entrants fell by the wayside. Groaning.

"Look at Cy." Caroline pressed a hand to her own stomach in sympathy. "He must have eaten a dozen by now."

"Nine and a half," Tucker corrected her. "But he's leading. Come on, boy, don't chew. Just let it slide on down."

"I don't see how he can breathe," she murmured as Cy buried his face in number ten. "He's going to be sick."

" 'Course he is. That's the way, Cy! Don't hold back now. He's got himself a nice rhythm," Tucker said to Caroline. "He doesn't just smash his face into it and hope for the best, he works in a nice steady circle from the outside in."

She didn't know how Tucker could tell. All she saw was a boy buried to the neck in blueberries while the crowd cheered and stomped. She told herself it was a silly game, messy and certainly undignified. But she was rocking back and forth from toes to heels, pulled in to the simple excitement.

"Come on, Cy! Swallow it whole. Leave them in the dust. Look! He's going for twelve. Oh, Jesus, he's got it sewed up now. Just-" She glanced up at Tucker and found him grinning at her. "What?"

"I'm crazy about you." He kissed her hard and long as Cy, a little green beneath the purple splotches, was declared champion. "Plum crazy."

"Good." She brushed her fingers over his cheeks and into his hair. "That's good. Now maybe I should help the winner scrub blueberry juice off his face."

"Let him get his own girl," Tucker decided, and pulled her along to the next event.

They'd cleared the parking lot of the Lutheran Church for the target shoot. McGreedy's had supplied the beer bottles, and Hunters' Friend the ammo. The elimination rounds went quickly with frustrated hopefuls unloading their weapons and taking a place on the sidelines.

Tucker was pleased to see Dwayne preparing for the second round. It had taken a lot of fast, hard talk to convince his brother to participate in the day's events. He didn't want any gossip until it was impossible to avoid it. And he wanted Dwayne to continue acting normally. In Tucker's mind, normal equaled innocent.

"Both Dwayne and Josie are entered," Caroline commented.

"We were all taught to shoot early. Old Beau insisted on it."

"What about you? You're not after the grand prize of a smoked ham and a blue ribbon?"

He shrugged. "I never cared much for guns. There goes Susie." He waited until she'd blasted away three bottles with three shots. "Lordy, she's a cool hand. Good thing she married a lawman. With that aim she could've taken up a life of crime."

"Cousin Lulu." Concerned, Caroline put a hand on Tucker's arm. Lulu swaggered up with a pair of Colts snug in a leather holster riding low on her bony hips. "Do you really think she should-" She broke off as the old lady drew and fired. The three bottles seemed to explode as one. "Oh, my."

"She can handle anything from a.22 to an AK-47." He watched, entertained, as Lulu twirled a Colt around her finger in three fast circles, then shot it back home. "But if she asks you to stand with an apple on your head, I'd decline. She's not as young as she once was."

It ended with Lulu edging out Susie and a very annoyed Will Shiver. The crowd began to gather back on the street for foot races.

"Sweetwater's doing well for itself." Caroline accepted the cold bottle of Coke Tucker passed her. "Aren't you going to run?"

"Run?" Tucker lighted a cigarette and flipped away the match. "Darlin', why would I want to get all tired and sweaty just to get from one point to another?"

"Of course." She smiled to herself. "I don't know what got into me." Sighing, she settled back against his chest while the first runners took their marks. "So, you don't enter any event?"

"Well now, there is one I usually go for."

She turned her head to look back at him. "Which?"

"Wait and see."

Greased pigs? Caroline had thought she'd gotten into the spirit of things, but when she stood behind the temporary paddock in the town square listening to the porcine squeals, she realized she hadn't come close.

Tucker had bowed off from eating pies, he didn't choose to shoot, and he yawned at the thought of racing. But he was standing in the paddock, stripped to the waist, waiting for the signal to go catch a lard-coated pig.

Baffled, Caroline rested an elbow on Cy's shoulder. "How are you feeling?"

"Oh, just fine now," he assured her. "I chucked most of it up, and the rest is settling all right." He fingered the blue ribbon pinned proudly to his T-shirt. "Mr. Tucker's going to win."

"Is that right?"

"Always does. He can move real quick when he's a mind to." He let out a whoop with the rest of the crowd. "Here they go!"

The shouts and laughter from the onlookers were as wild as the squeaks from the pigs and the curses from the men pursuing them. As an extra incentive, the ground had been watered and churned to mud. Men slipped and sloshed in it, belly-flopped and back-flipped. Pigs squirted out of questing hands.

"Oh, why don't I have a camera?" Caroline let out a crow of laughter when Tucker skidded on his backside. He twisted when a pig raced across his knees, but came up empty.

"That FBI doctor's good!" Cy shouted, cheering when Teddy tackled a pig and nearly held on. "Might've had it if Bobby Lee hadn't tripped over him. Mr. Tucker's going for the big one. Come on, Mr. Tucker! Haul 'em up!"

"An interesting contest," Burns said as he stopped beside them. "I suppose dignity is sacrificed for the thrill of the hunt."

Caroline nearly shot him an impatient look, but she didn't want to miss anything. "You're keeping your dignity, I see."

"I'm afraid I don't see the point in wallowing in mud and chasing pigs."

"You wouldn't. It's called fun."

"Oh, I agree. In fact, I've never been more entertained." He smiled down at Tucker, who was currently sprawled facefirst in the dirt. "Longstreet looks quite natural, don't you think?"

"I'll tell you what I think," she began, but Cy grabbed her arm.

"Look! He's got him! He's got him, Miss Caroline."

And there was Tucker, slicked with mud and grease, holding a squirming pig over his head. When he grinned up at Caroline, she wished she'd had a dozen roses to throw.

No spangle-suited matador had ever looked more charming.

" 'To the victor go the spoils,' " Burns noted. "Tell me, does he get to keep the pig?"

Caroline tucked her tongue in her cheek. "Until the butchering and pot luck supper next winter. Excuse me. I want to go congratulate the winner."

"One moment." He blocked her way. "Are you still staying at Sweetwater?"

"For the time being."

"You might want to reconsider. It isn't wise sleeping under the same roof with a murderer."

"What are you talking about?"

Burns glanced over to where Dwayne and Tucker were washing down mud with a beer. "Perhaps you should ask your host. I can tell you that I'll be making an arrest tomorrow, and the Longstreets won't have much to cheer about. Enjoy the rest of the festivities."

Saying nothing, Caroline latched on to Cy and pushed by him.

"What did he mean, Miss Caroline?"

"I don't know, but I'm going to find out." By the time she'd worked her way through the crowd, Tucker was gone. "Where did he go?"

"He probably went down to McGreedy's to hose off with the others. Most everybody'll be packing up to go down to Sweetwater for picnics before the fireworks. They'll be opening the carnival, too."

Frustrated, Caroline stopped. She couldn't talk to him surrounded by a bunch of wet, back-slapping men. She needed him alone. Rising on her toes, she scanned heads and faces. "There's Delia. Why don't you catch up with her, ride back to Sweetwater? I'll wait for Tucker."

"No'm. Mr. Tucker said I was to stay with you when he wasn't around."

"That's not necessary, Cy. I don't..." A look at the boy's set jaw and she swallowed a sigh. "All right, then. We'll park ourselves somewhere and wait."

Sitting on the stoop in front of Larsson's, they watched the exodus from town.

"You shouldn't let that FBI man worry you, Miss Caroline."

"He doesn't. I'm just concerned."

Cy tugged his ribbon around so he could read it again. "He's like Vernon."

Surprised, Caroline turned to study Cy. "Agent Burns is like your brother?"

"I don't mean he goes around starting fights or hitting women. But he thinks he's smarter and better than everyone else. Figures his way's the only way. And he likes having his foot on your throat."

Caroline rested her chin on her hand and considered. Burns would detest the comparison, but it was eerily apt. With Vernon it was Scripture-his interpretation. With Burns it was the law-his interpretation. In either case it was the using of something right and just for personal power.

"They're the ones who lose in the end." She thought of her mother as well, a great wielder of power, a master of carving out her own will. "Because no one who doesn't have to stays with them. That's sad. It's better if people care about you even if you aren't always smarter, even if you aren't always sure you're right." She stood. Tucker was strolling down the street, his shirt flung over his shoulder, his hair dripping, his jeans soaking wet. "Looks like we're going home."

She crossed the street to slip her arms around him. Laughing, he tried to nudge her back. "Honey, I'm not as clean as I might be."

"Doesn't matter." She turned her head to murmur in his ear. "I need to talk to you. Alone."

He would have liked to have interpreted the demand as romantic, but he heard the tension, felt the nerves in the line of her body.

"All right. Soon as we can." He kept one arm around her as they began to walk. "Let's get a move on, Cy. I heard Delia's cooked up a regular feast. Probably baked a few pies, too."

Cy grinned good-naturedly. "I ain't looking at another pie till next Fourth of July."

"Got to keep in practice, boy." Tucker flipped a finger down the boy's blue ribbon. "You know why I'm so good at latching on to those slippery critters?" He swung Caroline off her feet. " 'Cause I'm always grabbing some wriggly female."

Caroline relaxed enough to smile. "Are you comparing me with a sow?"

"Why, no, indeed, darlin'. I'm just saying if a man puts his mind to it, he can keep what he wants from slipping out of his hold."

Back at Sweetwater, there were blankets spread on the grass, and the calliope was piping its siren song from over in Eustis Field. Near the pond where death had so recently floated, music twanged out from a fiddle, a banjo, and a guitar.

Here and there exhausted children napped, many of them sprawled where they'd dropped. An impromptu Softball game was under way, and now and then the crack of the bat set up a cheer. Old men sat in folding chairs to root and gossip and wish for strong, young legs that could pump toward home. Young people drifted toward the carnival, where the rides were half price until six.

"Is it like this every year?" Caroline asked. She was close enough to the music to appreciate, far enough from the carnival not to dwell on how tawdry it looked in the daylight.

"Just about." Tucker lay on his back, debating if he had room for one more drumstick. "What do you usually do on the Fourth?"

"It depends. If I'm out of the country, the day goes by like any other. When I'm in the States, we usually tie the concert to a fireworks display." The fiddler took up "Little Brown Jug," and Caroline began playing it in her head. "Tucker, I have to ask you about something Matthew said to me earlier."

The agent's name had Tucker deciding against another drumstick. "I should have figured he'd find a way to ruin things."

"He said he was going to make an arrest tomorrow."

She closed her hand over his. "Tucker, are you in trouble?"

He shut his eyes briefly, then rolled, folding his legs under him to sit. "It's Dwayne, Caro."

"Dwayne?" Stunned, she shook her head. "He's going to arrest Dwayne?"

"I don't know that he can," Tucker said slowly. "The lawyer thinks Burns is blustering, that maybe he was trying to get Dwayne to say something he shouldn't. All he's got is speculation. No physical evidence."

"What kind of speculation?"

"He can put Dwayne in the same area as the killings, without any alibis so far. And he's using Dwayne's trouble with Sissy as a kind of motive."

"Divorce as a motive for killing other women?" Caroline arched her brows. "That gives about half the adult male population of the country a motive."

"Seems pretty thin, doesn't it?"

"Then why do you look so worried?"

"Because Burns may be a first-class asshole, but he's not stupid. He knows Dwayne drinks, he knows how he was embarrassed by Sissy. And he knows Dwayne had an acquaintance with the victims. The one up in Nashville's the kicker."

"Nashville?" Letting out a long breath, she nodded. "Tell me."

He'd hoped to keep it all from her for at least one day. But once he began, the words streamed out. Under them, she could sense the anger and a very real fear.

"What did your lawyer advise?"

"That we just go on as usual. Wait and see. Of course, if Dwayne could come up with an alibi for one of the nights, that would cool things off." He popped open a beer, frowned into it. "I got a call in to the governor. He's a little hard to reach today, but I expect he'll call me back tomorrow."

She tried a smile, hoping to coax one from Tucker. "He's a cousin, I suppose?"

"The governor?" He did smile, fleetingly. "No. But his wife is. Odds are Burns is going to need a lot more to put the cuffs on Dwayne."

"I can talk to my father if you like. He's corporate, but he knows some excellent criminal attorneys."

Tucker tilted back the beer. "Let's hope I don't have to take you up on it. The worst of it is, Caro, Dwayne's so scared he's doubting himself."

"What do you mean?"

"He's worried that maybe when he was drunk, when he wasn't thinking straight, he might have-"

Her heartbeat skipped. "My God, Tucker, you don't think-"

"No, I don't," he said with a barely restrained fury. "Jesus, Caroline, Dwayne's harmless as a puppy. He may flap around and scuffle when he's drunk, but he hurts only himself. And think," he added, because he had been, and he'd been thinking hard. "The way those women were killed. It was vicious, yeah. And sort of primal and wild, but it was also planned. Thought out clean and clever. A man's not clever with a head full of whiskey. He gets sloppy and stupid."

"You don't have to convince me, Tucker," she said quietly. But she wondered if he was trying to convince himself.

"He's my brother." For Tucker, that said it all. He could see Dwayne now, sitting with old Mr. O'Hara. Tucker figured the jug they were passing was of O'Hara's own brew. And it wasn't lemonade. "He'll be drunk as a skunk before nightfall. I haven't got the heart to cut him off."

"Sooner or later you'll have to, won't you?" She put a hand on his cheek. "Otherwise, you'll just be cutting him out. I've been thinking about what you said about families. Not just about taking a stand, but about making things right. I'm going to call my mother."

"I guess what you're telling me is, if my advice is good enough for you, it ought to be good enough for me."

She smiled. "Something like that."

With a nod, he looked back toward Dwayne. "There's a place up in Memphis. It has a good reputation for helping people shake themselves loose of the bottle.

I think if I work it right, I could talk him into giving it a try."

"Darling," she said, easing into a delta drawl, "with your talent you could talk a starving man out of his last crust of bread."

"That so?"

"That's so."

He leaned over to touch his lips to hers. "That being the case, maybe I could talk you into doing something for me. Something I've had a hankering for."

Caroline thought of the cool, empty house behind them, of the big canopied bed. "I imagine you could persuade me." More than willing, she melted into the kiss. "What did you have in mind?"

"Well, you see, I've had this craving." He turned his head to nip at her ear.

"I'm delighted to hear it."

"I don't want to offend you."

She chuckled against his throat. "Please do."

"I thought you might be a little shy, doing it out here in front of all these people."

"I can-what?" With a half laugh, she pulled away. "Do what in front of all these people?"

"Why, play a few tunes, darlin'." His lips curved. "What did you think I was talking about?" As his smile spread wickedly, he lifted a brow. "Why, Caroline, I'm going to start thinking you have a one-track mind."

"Yours certainly takes some interesting curves." Blowing out a breath, she combed fingers through her hair. "You want me to play?"

"Probably nearly as much as you'd like to be playing."

She started to speak, then stopped and shook her head. "You're right. I would like to."

Tucker gave her a quick kiss. "I'll go fetch your fiddle."