Carnal Innocence (Page 30)

She was welcomed into the little band, but dubiously.

People settled back politely, very much, Caroline thought, as a class might when they were about to listen to a boring but respected lecturer.

It occurred to her that she'd grown accustomed to ovations when she took the stage. Obviously too accustomed, she thought now as her nerves began to jump. This little patch of grass beside Sweetwater Pond wasn't Carnegie Hall, but it was a stage of sorts. And her current audience was reserving judgment.

She felt ridiculous, absurdly out of place with her gleaming Stradivarius and Juilliard training. She was ready to babble an excuse and crawl away when she saw young Jim grinning at her.

"Well now, little lady." Old Mr. Koons ran his fingers down his banjo strings and made them twang. He couldn't see more than three feet in front of himself, but he could still pick with the best of them. "What's your pleasure?"

"How about 'Whiskey for Breakfast'?"

"That'll do her." He tapped his foot for time. 'We'll get her going, missy, and you just come on in when you've a mind to."

Caroline let the first few bars roll by. It was a good sound, full and cluttered. When the rhythm had caught, she tucked the violin on her shoulder, sucked in a deep breath, and cut loose.

And the feeling was good-full and cluttered. As fun was supposed to be. The hand clapping from the audience kept time sharply. There was plenty of hooting, and when someone picked up the lyrics, they were given a shout of approval.

"I do believe that fiddle of yours is smoking," Koons told her, then took a moment to spit out a chaw. "Let's keep her going."

"I know only a few," Caroline began, but Koons waved her protest aside.

"You'll pick her up. Let's try 'Rolling in My Sweet Baby's Arms.' "

She did pick it up. Her ear and instinct were keen enough. When the trio segued into the blues, then bounced back with a raucous rendition of "The Orange Blossom Special," she was right there with them.

She lost herself in the pleasure of it. Even so, she noted Burns watching her-and watching Dwayne. She saw Bobby Lee cuddle Marvella into a dance when they slowed things down with "The Tennessee Waltz." The music poured through her, but she noted that Tucker had his head together with Burke in what looked like a private and very serious discussion. And she saw Dwayne, sitting gloomily, a bottle at his feet and his eyes on the ground.

Things were happening, Caroline mused. Even as the sun was lowering, the carnival rides whirling, the shadows lengthening, things were happening. Beneath the whistles and the laughter, nerves were jangling as fast as Koons's banjo strings.

And she was just another player, after all. Just one more player in the odd, uneasy game. Fate had dropped her down into this messy stew of heat and murder and madness. She was surviving. More, she was doing. The summer was half over and she was whole. She was even beginning to believe she was healed.

If she left Innocence with only that, it would be enough. Her gaze shifted back to Tucker. It would be enough, she thought again with a slow smile. But it didn't hurt to hope for more.

"Well, kick me in the head and call me addled." With a wheezy laugh, Koons laid his banjo over his lap. "You sure can make that fiddle dance, little girl. You ain't no la-di-da neither."

"Why, thank you, Mr. Koons."

"It's time we went and had ourselves a beer." He got creakily to his feet. "You sure you're a Yankee?"

She smiled, taking it for the compliment it was meant as. "No, sir, I'm not. I'm not sure at all."

He slapped his knee at that, then hobbled off, shouting for his daughter to get him a beer.

"That sure was some pretty playing, Miss Caroline." Jim hurried over to get a peek at the violin before she closed it in the case.

"Then I'll have to thank my teacher."

He stared, then dropped his gaze to the ground. But even with his head down, Caroline could see his grin spread from ear to ear. "Shoot, I didn't do nothing."

"It's us want to thank you," Toby said, cupping an arm around his wife's shoulders. He held himself stiffly, favoring his bandaged side. "You stood up for us the other night. I know you were a comfort to Winnie."

"I'm ashamed I haven't thanked you properly, Caroline," Winnie added. "I might've gone crazy if I hadn't known you and Miss Delia were looking after my kids while Toby was being patched up at the hospital. I'm obliged to you."

"Don't be. I'm told that's what neighbors are for."

"Miss Caroline." Lucy tugged on Caroline's skirt. "My daddy's going to sing the National Anthem before the fireworks. Mr. Tucker asked him special."

"That's wonderful. I'll look forward to it."

"Come on now." Toby hitched his daughter onto his hip. "If I know Tuck, he's going to be looking for this lady here, and we'd better get ourselves situated for those fireworks. It's getting on toward dark."

"How much longer?" Lucy wanted to know.

"Oh, no more'n a half hour."

"But I've waited all day..."

Caroline chuckled over the universal complaint as Toby and Winnie toted Lucy away.

"She's such a baby," Jim said with a superior smirk.

Caroline sighed at the derision in his voice. She knew he'd defended his sister at the risk of his own life, but that was forgotten now. "You know what occurs to me, Jim?"

"No, ma'am."

"That I'm an only child." She laughed at his puzzled look, then picked up her case. "Go along with your family. If you see Tucker, tell him I'll be right back."

"I might could take that inside for you, Miss Caroline. It wouldn't be no trouble."

"That's all right. I have to make a quick phone call before it gets dark."

And wouldn't her mother be surprised? Caroline thought as she started across the green lawn, through the green shadows toward the white columns of the house. She would wish her mother a happy Independence Day. For both of them.

I'm free of you, Mother, and you can be free of me. Maybe, maybe if we face each other without all those thin, taut strings between us, we can find something.

Caroline turned around to take a last sweep of the fields of Sweetwater. Though it was barely dusk, the lights on the midway and on the rides were winking in the distance. They didn't look tawdry now, but hopeful. If she listened carefully, she could just hear the piping music and laughter as the Crack the Whip whirled its latest passengers.

Before long, night would fall, then the sky would explode with light, and the air would shake from the cracking booms. Turning back to Sweetwater, she quickened her pace. She didn't want to miss a moment of it.

Her mind was so full of what was to come, she paid little attention to the voices. It wasn't until she heard the fury in them that she stopped, wondering how she could avoid walking in on an argument.

When she saw Josie and Dwayne standing in the front drive beside Josie's car, Caroline automatically stepped back, thinking she could hurry around the side terrace. She hesitated just long enough to see the knife Dwayne held.

She froze where she was, beside the end column on the graceful front porch, watching, stunned, as brother and sister faced each other over the blade. Across the lawn, beyond the cotton field, revelers waited impatiently for full dark and celebration. Here, where the crickets were just beginning their chorus in the grass and a whippoorwill perched in a magnolia and called for a mate, the two were unaware of being observed.

"You just can't do it. You just can't," Josie said furiously. "You have to see that, Dwayne."

"I see the knife. Jesus, Josie." He turned it in his hand, staring at the dull glint as if hypnotized.

"Give it to me." She struggled to keep her voice calm and even. "Just give it to me, and I'll take care of everything."

"I can't. Name of God, Josie, you have to see that I can't. It's gone too far now. Sweet Jesus, Arnette... Francie. I can see them. I can see them, Josie. It's like some sort of awful dream. But it isn't a dream."

"Stop it." Leaning her face close to his, she closed her fingers around the wrist of his knife hand. "You stop it right now. What you're talking about doing is crazy, just crazy. I'm not going to allow it."

"I have to-"

"You have to listen to me. And that's goddamn all you have to do. Look at me, Dwayne. I want you to look at me." When his gaze locked on hers, she spoke quietly again. "We're family, Dwayne. That means we stick together."

His sweaty fingers loosened on the hasp of the knife. "I'd do anything for you, Josie. You know that. But this is-"

"That's good." Smiling a little, she eased the knife away. From her stance by the column, Caroline nearly groaned with relief. "Here's what you're going to do for me now. You're going to trust me to take care of things."

Shaking his head, Dwayne covered his face. "How can you?"

"Just leave it to me. You trust Josie, Dwayne. You go on back down to the field and watch those fireworks. Put this all right out of your mind. That's important. You just put it aside, and I'll take care of the knife."

He let his hands drop. Uncovered, his face was gray and stricken. "I'd never hurt you, Josie. You know I wouldn't. But I'm scared. If it happens again-"

"It won't." After dropping the knife into her voluminous purse she looked back at him. "It's not going to happen again." Gently, she laid her hands on his shoulders. "We're going to put it all behind us."

"I want to believe that. Maybe we should tell Tucker, and he-"

"No." Impatient, Josie gave him a quick shake. "I don't want him to know, and telling him isn't going to clean your conscience, Dwayne, so leave it be. Just leave it be," she repeated. "Go on back down, and I'll do what needs to be done."

He pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes, as if trying to block out the horror. "I can't think. I just can't think straight."

"Then don't think. Just do what I say. Go on. I'll be along soon as I can."

He took two steps away before turning, then stopped, his head down, his shoulders bowed. "Josie, why did it happen?"

She reached out, but her fingers stopped short of touching him. "We'll talk about it, Dwayne. Don't worry anymore."

He didn't see Caroline as he walked away, but she could see the devastation and torment on his face. The shadows swallowed him.

For another moment she stood still as a statue, her heart throbbing hard and slow in her throat, the scent of roses and fear swimming in her head.

Dwayne was responsible for the brutal deaths of five women. The brother of the man she loved was a murderer. A brother, Caroline knew, whom Tucker was deeply devoted to.

And she ached for them, ached for them all. For the pain that was already felt, and the pain yet to come. With all of her heart she wished she could turn and walk away, pretend she had never heard, never seen. Never knew.

But Josie was wrong. Tucker had to be told. No matter how deep and strong the family ties, this was not something to be handled by a loving sister. Tucker had to be told, and prepared for what must happen next. Josie needed to be there. They would all need to be there.

Quietly, Caroline moved to the porch and up, through the door and into the house. The silence was already oppressive as she climbed the stairs to the second floor. No matter how she tried, she couldn't find the right words. She stopped at Josie's doorway and looked in.

The chaos of the room was in marked opposition to the stillness of the woman who stood at the open french doors. The cheerful clash of scents and mixed colors was overpowered by the encroaching dark and the sense of gloom.

"Josie." Though Caroline spoke softly, she saw Josie stiffen before she turned. In the shadows, her face was pale as a ghost's.

"They'll be shooting off those fireworks in a minute, Caroline. You don't want to miss them."

"I'm sorry." When she realized she was still carrying her violin case, she set it aside and gestured helplessly with her hands. "Josie, I'm so sorry. I don't know if I can help, but I'll do what I can."

"What are you sorry about, Caroline?"

"I heard. You and Dwayne. Alter one shuddering breath, she stepped into the room. "I heard you. I saw him with the knife, Josie."

"Oh, God." On a moan of despair, Josie sunk into a chair to cover her face with her hands. "Oh, God, why?"

"I'm sorry." Caroline crossed the room to crouch at Josie's feet. "I can't even imagine how you must be feeling, but I do want to help."

"Just stay out of it." Voice edgy, Josie dropped her hands to her lap. Though her eyes were wet, the heat behind them would dry tears quickly. "If you want to help, stay out of it."

"You know I can't. Not just because of Tucker and the way I feel about him."

"That's just why you should stay out of it." Josie grabbed her hands, the slim, tense fingers wrapping like wires around Caroline's. "I know you care about him, you don't want him hurt. You've got to leave this to me."

"If I did, what then?"

"Then it'll be done with. It'll be forgotten."

"Josie, those women are dead. No matter how ill Dwayne is, that can't be ignored. It can't be forgotten."

"Bringing it all out, tearing the family apart, isn't going to make them any less dead."

"It's a matter of right, Josie. And of helping Dwayne."

"Help?" Her voice rose as she pushed herself out of the chair. "Going to prison won't help."

"His mind isn't right." Wearily, Caroline rose. It was growing too dark to see. She turned on Josie's bedside lamp and chased away some of the shadows with a rosy glow. "Loving him's a start, but he's going to need professional help. Not only to find out why, but to prevent him from doing it again."

"Maybe they deserved to die." As she paced, Josie rubbed hard at her pounding temples. "People do, and it isn't cold to say so. You didn't know any of them the way I did, so who are you to judge?"

"I'm not judging, but I don't think you believe anyone deserved to die that way. If something isn't done, someone else might die. You can't stop it, Josie."

"I think you're right about that." She passed her hand over her eyes. "I'd hoped, with Dwayne so miserable-but I guess I knew all along. It's blood," she murmured, lifting her head to stare at her own face in the mirror. "Like a wild dog, once you've tasted it, there's no going back. There's just no going back, Caro."

Caroline moved over to her so that their eyes met in the glass. "We'll find good doctors for him. I know one who'll help."

"Doctors." Josie tugged the chiffon scarf out of her hair and gave a short laugh. "What bullshit. Did you hate your mother? Love your father?"

"It's never that simple."

"Sometimes it is. Listen to that." Smiling a little, she closed her eyes. "That's Toby March singing. They must've hooked him up to a mike down at the carnival. That's a sound that carries nice on a hot summer night."

"Josie, we have to go tell Tucker. And we have to see that Dwayne turns himself in. I'm sorry. It's the only way."

"I know you're sorry." With a sigh, Josie reached into her bag. "I'm sorry, too. Sorrier than I can say." Turning, she aimed her derringer at Caroline. "It's you or the family, Caroline. You or the Longstreets. So there's really only one way after all."


"Do you see this gun?" she interrupted. "My daddy gave it to me for my sixteenth birthday. Sweet Sixteen, he called me. He was a great believer in taking care of your own. I did love him. I hated my father, but I did love my daddy."

Caroline moistened her lips. She wasn't afraid yet. Her brain was too scrambled with shock for fear to take hold. "Josie, put it down. You can't help Dwayne this way."

"It's not just Dwayne, it's all of us. All the fine, upstanding Longstreets."

"Miss Caroline?" Cy's voice echoed up the stairs and had both women jolting. "Miss Caroline, you in here?"

Caroline saw the panic shoot into Josie's eyes. "You tell him to go on. Tell him, Caro. See that he goes outside again. I don't want to hurt that boy."

"I'm up here, Cy," Caroline called out, her gaze fastened to the short, shiny gun barrel. "You go on out. I'll be along in a minute."

"Mr. Tucker said I should stay with you."

She could almost see him, hesitating at the foot of the steps, torn between manners and loyalties. "I said I'd be along," she repeated, the first true licks of fear sharpening her voice. "Now go on out."

"Yes, ma'am. The fireworks are going to start any minute."

"That's fine. You go watch."

She waited, hardly breathing until she heard the door shut.

"I wouldn't want to hurt that boy," Josie said again. "I've got a real fondness for him." Her lips twisted in a mockery of a smile. "A real family feeling."

"Josie..." Caroline struggled to keep her voice calm. "You know this isn't the way to solve things. And you know I don't want to hurt Dwayne."

"No, but you'll do what you have to do. Just like me." She slipped a hand into her purse again, and pulled out the knife. "This was my daddy's. He dearly loved to hunt. Dressed the kill himself. Daddy wasn't afraid to get a little blood and guts on his hands. No, sir. I used to go with him when he'd let me. I got quite a taste for hunting myself."

"Josie, please put the knife away."

"Now, Tucker," Josie went on, lips pursed as she turned the blade in the light. "He never cared much for killing things, so he mostly missed-on purpose." As if baffled by the waste, she shook her head. "Lordy, did Daddy wail into him for it. Dwayne, he didn't have any problem bringing down a deer or a rabbit, but when it came time to dress 'em, he'd go green. Squeamish. That's what Daddy used to say. 'Josie, you come on over here and show this boy how it's done.' " She laughed a little. "So I would. Blood never turned my stomach. It's got a smell to it. Kind of wild, kind of sweet."

With her skin going clammy, Caroline inched back. "Josie." The word came out in a cracked whisper as their eyes met again.

"When Daddy died, the knife came to me." She held it up so it glinted in the lamplight again. "The knife came to me."

Caroline stared at the glint of silver. Behind her the first fiery lights exploded in a black sky.