Carnal Innocence (Page 5)

Most of the sickness had passed. Sour waves of nausea still rose in her stomach, but if she forced herself to breathe slowly, Caroline could manage to hold down a little tepid water. She sipped again, breathed deeply, and waited for Burke Truesdale to come back out of the trees.

He hadn't asked her to go in with him. She supposed he'd taken one look at her face and known she wouldn't have made it ten feet. Even now, as she sat on the top step of the porch, her hands almost steady again, she couldn't remember how she'd gotten from the pond back to the house.

She'd lost one of her shoes, she noted absently. One of those pretty navy and white flats she'd bought in Paris a few months before. With glazed eyes she stared down at her bare foot streaked with dirt and grass. Frowning with concentration, she toed the other shoe off. It seemed important somehow that she have both feet bare. After all, someone might think she was crazy, sitting there on the porch with one shoe on. And with a body floating in the pond.

When her stomach pitched, rolled, and threatened to expel even the tap water, she dropped her head between her knees. Oh, she hated to be sick, hated it with a passion only someone who had recently recovered from long illness could feel. The weakness of it, the shaky loss of control.

Clenching her fists, she used all her concentration to pull herself back from the edge. What right did she have to be sick and scared and dizzy? She was alive, wasn't she? Alive and whole and safe. Not like that poor woman.

But she kept her head down until her stomach settled, and the dull buzzing faded from her ears.

She lifted it again when she heard the sound of a car bumping down her lane. Caroline brought a weary hand up to her face as she watched the dusty station wagon squeeze through the overgrowth.

She'd have to cut those vines back, she thought. She could hear them brushing against the already scarred paint of the car. Must be some clippers in the shed. Best to do it in the morning, before the day heated up.

Dully, she watched the station wagon stop beside the sheriff's cruiser. A wiry man with a red tie knotted around a turkey neck climbed out. He wore a short-sleeved white shirt, and a white hat atop a full head of hair he'd dyed as densely black as coal and slicked into a modified pompadour. Pouches of loose flesh dipped below his jaw and his eyes, as if the skin had once been full of fat or fluid and had stretched under the weight.

His black slacks were hauled up with sassy red suspenders, and he wore the heavy, shiny black tie shoes Caroline associated with the military. But the cracked leather bag he carried announced his profession.

"You must be Miz Caroline." His high-pitched voice would have made her smile at any other time or place. He sounded eerily like a used-car salesman she'd seen on the old RCA console only the night before. "I'm Doc Shays," he told her as he propped one foot on the bottom step. "I tended to your grandfolks near to twenty-five years."

Caroline gave him a careful nod. "How do you do?"

"Fine and dandy." His sharp physician's eyes scanned her face and recognized shock. "Burke gave me a call. Said he was headed on down here." Shays took out a huge white handkerchief to mop his neck and face. Though he could move fast when he had to, his slow and easy pace was more than bedside manner. It was the way he preferred to do things. "Hell of a hot one, ain't it?"


"Why don't we go on inside, where it's cooler?"

"No, I think..." She looked helplessly back toward the shielding trees. "I should wait. He went in there to see... I was throwing stones in the water. I could see only her face."

He sat beside her, took her hand in his. Fingers still nimble after forty years of medicine monitored her pulse. "Whose face, darlin'?"

"I don't know." When he reached down to open his bag, she stiffened. Months of vigilant doctors with their slim, shiny needles had her system jittering. "I don't need anything. I don't want anything." She jolted to her feet, and though she tried, she couldn't keep her voice from shrilling. "I'm all right. You should try to help her. There must be something you could do to help her."

"One thing at a time, darlin'." To show good faith, he shut his bag again. "Why don't you sit on down here and tell me all about it? Nice and slow. Then we can figure out what's what."

She didn't sit, but she did gain enough control to take several long breaths. She didn't want to end up in the hospital again. Couldn't. "I'm sorry. I don't suppose I'm making much sense."

"Well, now, that don't worry me none. Most people I know spend about half their lives making sense and the other half exercising their jaw. You just tell me how it occurs to you."

"I think she must have drowned," Caroline said in a calm and careful voice. "In the pond. I could see only her face..." She trailed off, forcing back the image before it nudged her toward hysteria again. "I'm afraid she was dead."

Before Shays could question further, Deputy Carl Johnson came out of the trees and started across the sun-bleached lawn. His usually spotless uniform showed traces of dirt and streaks of wet. Still, he walked with military precision, a commanding figure, six foot six of taut muscle. His glossy skin was the color of chestnuts.

He was a man who enjoyed his authority and prized his control. Just now he was fighting to maintain his professional aura when what he wanted to do was find a secluded spot to lose his lunch.



It needed only that for the two men to exchange information. Muttering an oath, Shays mopped his face again.

"Miss Waverly, I'd be obliged to use your phone."

"Of course. Can you tell me what..." Again, her gaze was drawn toward the trees, her mind to what was beyond them. "Is she dead?"

Carl hesitated only a moment, pulling off his cap to reveal tight black curls cut as close and neat as a newly mowed lawn. "Yes, ma'am. The sheriff'll talk to you as soon as he can. Doc?"

With a weary nod, Shays rose.

"There's a phone right here in the hall," Caroline began as she started up the steps. "Deputy..."

"Johnson, ma'am. Carl Johnson."

"Deputy Johnson, did she drown?"

He shot Caroline a quick look as he held open the screen door for her. "No, ma'am. She didn't."

Burke was sitting on the log, turned away from the body. A Polaroid camera sat beside him. He needed a minute before he slipped back into his law-and-order suit. A minute for his head to clear, for his stomach to settle.

He'd seen death before-had known the look and the smell of it from boyhood, hunting with his father. First they'd gone out for the sheer pleasure of it. Then, when crops and investments had failed, they'd hunted to put meat on the table.

He'd seen the death of his own kind as well.

Starting with his father's suicide when the farm had been lost. And wasn't it that death that had led him to this one? Without the farm, with a wife and two young children to support, he'd signed on as town deputy, then as sheriff. The rich man's son who had detested the futility of his father's death, and the cruelty of the land that had caused it, had chosen to channel his talents, such as they were, toward law and order.

But even finding his father hanging in the barn, hearing the quiet creak of the rope rubbing over the thick beam, hadn't prepared him for what he'd found in McNair Pond.

He still had much too clear a picture of what it had been like to wrestle that body from the water, to drag it out onto the ground.

It was funny, he thought, drawing hard on a cigarette, he'd never liked Edda Lou. There had been a coarseness about her, a sly look in her eyes that had milked away any sympathy he might have felt for her being unfortunate enough to be kin to Austin Hatinger.

But just now he was remembering the way she'd looked one long-ago Christmas when he and Susie had come across her in town. She'd have been no more than ten, mousy hair stringing down her back, patched dress hiking up too far at the side hem and drooping at the front. And her nose pressed up to Larsson's window as she stared at a doll with a blue cape and rhinestone tiara.

She'd just been a little girl then, wishing there was a Santa. Already knowing there wasn't.

He turned his head when he heard the rustle of brush. "Doc." He blew out a stream of smoke on the word. "Christ."

Shays laid a heavy hand on his shoulder, squeezed once, then moved to the body. Death wasn't a stranger to him, and he had come to know that death wasn't only for the old, either. He could accept that the young were taken, through illness, through accident. But this mutilation, this wild destruction of a human being was beyond acceptance.

Gently, he picked up one of the limp hands and studied the raw wrist. The same telltale signs braceleted the ankles. It hurt him more somehow, this ring of broken skin and the hopelessness it represented, than the vicious slices on her torso.

"She was one of the first babies I delivered when I came back to Innocence." With a sigh he did what Burke had not been able to do. He reached down and shut Edda Lou's eyes. "It's hard for parents to bury their children. By Jesus, it's hard for doctors, too."

"He messed her up pretty good," Burke managed to say. "Just like the others."

He picked up the camera. They would need more pictures, and God knew he had to do something before the coroner came. He swallowed a hard knot of anger.

"She was tied to that tree there. There's blood dried on it. You can see from the scrapes on her back where she rubbed against it. Used clothesline. Pieces of it are still there." He lowered the camera again, and his eyes were bright with fury. "What the hell was she doing here? Her car's back in town."

"Can't tell you that, Burke. Can't tell you a hell of a lot. She was hit on the back of the head." Shays's hands were as soothing as they would have been had his patient been alive to feel them. "Maybe he hauled her out here. Maybe she came on her own and riled him up."

Struggling to hold on to his nerves, Burke nodded. He knew, just as everyone in town knew, who it was Edda Lou had riled up.

Caroline paced the porch. If she could have worked up the courage, she'd have marched into the bayou and demanded information. She wasn't sure how much longer she could stand this waiting. But she knew she'd never make it past the first stand of trees, not when she knew what was beyond them.

She saw the dark sedan creep down the drive, followed by a white van. Coroner, she thought. When the men got out of the van with a stretcher and a thick black bag, she turned away. That bag, that long black bag not so different in shape and size from the kind people used to haul off things they no longer wanted, that bag reminded her much too forcibly that it wasn't a person in the pond, it wasn't a woman, it was only a body that wouldn't suffer from the indignity of being taken away in a big piece of plastic.

It was the living who suffered, and Caroline wondered who the woman had left behind to grieve and mourn and question.

Her heart ached to make music, to make music so passionate it would drive away everything else. She could still do that, thank God she could still do that. Escape there when there was nowhere else to run.

Leaning against the post, she closed her eyes and played it in her head, filled her mind with melody so rich she didn't hear the next car jolt down the lane.

"Hey there." Josie slammed her car door, and finishing off the last of a cherry Popsicle, started toward the porch. "Hey," she said again, and offered a friendly, curious smile when Caroline raised her head. "Y'all got a commotion here." She licked the stick clean with a savoring tongue. "Saw all these cars turn in while I was heading home and thought I'd see what was doing."

Caroline gave her a blank look. It was odd, almost obscene, to see someone so vivid and pulsing with life when death was still hovering. "I beg your pardon?"

"No need for that, honey." Still smiling, Josie walked up the steps. "I'm just nosy, that's all. Can't stand for something to be going on and not know about it. Josie Longstreet." She held out a hand still a bit sticky from the melted ice.

"Caroline. Caroline Waverly." After she'd shaken hands, Caroline thought how innate manners were, how absurdly automatic.

"You got trouble here, Caroline?" Josie set the sticks on the porch rail. "I see Burke's car. Gorgeous, isn't he? Hasn't cheated on his wife, not even once in better than seventeen years. Never seen anyone take marriage so damn serious. But there you go. Doc Shays, too." She glanced back at the crowded lane. "Now, he's a character. That shoe-black hair all puffed up and slicked back like a fifties rock and roll singer? Sounds a little like Mickey Mouse, don't you think?"

Caroline nearly smiled. "Yes. I'm sorry, would you like to sit down?"

"Don't worry about me." Josie took a cigarette out of her purse. She lighted it with a gold butane. "You got all these visitors, but I don't see a soul."

"They're..." She looked toward the trees. She swallowed hard. "The sheriffs coming now."

Josie shifted position subtly, turning her body slightly, lifting her shoulders. The sassy smile she offered Burke faded when she saw his eyes. Still, her voice was bright. "Why, Burke, I'm jealous. You hardly ever come to pay calls on us at Sweetwater, and here you are."

"Official business, Josie."

"Well, well."

"Miss Waverly, I need to speak to you. Could we go inside?"

"Of course."

As he started by, Josie took his arm. The teasing had gone out of her face. "Burke?"

"I can't talk to you now." He knew he should tell her to leave, but he thought Caroline might want another female around when he'd finished with her. "Can you wait? Maybe stay with her awhile?"

The hand on his arm trembled. "How bad is it?"

"As bad as it gets. Why don't you go in the kitchen, fix us something cold? I'd be obliged if you'd stay in there until I call you."

Caroline settled him in the front parlor, on the striped divan. The little cuckoo clock that she had wound faithfully since her arrival tick-tocked cheerfully. She could smell the polish she'd used on the coffee table just that morning, and her own sweat.

"Miss Waverly, I'm awfully sorry to have to ask you questions now, when you must be upset. But it's best to get to all this quickly."

"I understand." How could she understand, she thought frantically. She'd never found a body before. "Do you know... do you know who she is?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"The deputy-Johnson?" Her hand was up at her throat, rubbing up and down as if she could stroke the words free. "He said she didn't drown."

"No, ma'am." Burke took a notebook and pencil from his pocket. "I'm sorry. I have to tell you she was murdered."

She only nodded. She wasn't shocked. A part of her had known it from the moment she had looked into the wide, sightless eyes. "What do you want me to do?"

"I want you to tell me anything you saw, anything you heard in the last forty-eight hours."

"But there's nothing, really. I've only just arrived, and I've been trying to-to settle, to put things in order."

"I understand that." He tipped his hat back on his head, used his forearm to dab at sweat on his brow. "Maybe you could think back. You didn't maybe hear a car pull into your lane at night, or anything that didn't sound quite right to you?"

"No... that is, I'm used to city noises, so nothing really sounds right to me." She dragged an unsteady hand through her hair. It was going to be all right, she told herself, now that they were down to the questions and answers, the mechanics of law and order.

"The quiet seems so loud, if you know what I mean. And the birds, and insects. The owls." She stopped, and what was left of her color drained away. "The other night, the first night I was here... oh, God."

"You just take your time, ma'am."

"I thought I heard a woman scream. I'd been asleep, and it woke me. Frightened me. Then I remembered where I was, and about the owls. Those screech owls." She closed her eyes on a flood of guilt. "I went back to sleep. It could have been her, calling for help. I just went back to sleep."

"Or it could have been an owl. Even if it was her, Miss Waverly, you couldn't have helped. Could you tell me what time it woke you up?"

"No, I'm sorry. I have no idea. I didn't look."

"Do you walk back there much?"

"I have a couple of times. My grandfather took me fishing back there once when I visited."

"I've gotten some good cats back there myself," he said conversationally. "Do you smoke?"

"No." Manners rising again, she glanced around for an ashtray. "Please, go ahead."

He pulled one out, but he was thinking about the single cigarette butt he'd found near the log. Edda Lou didn't smoke either. "You haven't noticed anyone poking around here? No one's come by to see you?"

"As I said, I haven't been here long. I did run into someone the first day. He said my grandmother let him come down to watch the water."

Burke kept his face impassive, but his heart began to sink. "Do you know who that was?"

"His name was Longstreet. Tucker Longstreet."

Tucker was back in the hammock holding a cold beer against his swollen eye and sulking. His body no longer felt like it had been trampled by horses. It felt like it had been dragged a few miles first. He was regretting, bitterly, his decision to face Austin. Far better to have slunk off to Greenville or even Vicksburg for a few days. What the hell had made him think that pride and honesty were worth a fist in the eye? Worse yet was the fact that Edda Lou was probably off somewhere smirking at all the trouble she'd caused. The more he thought about it, the surer he was that Austin had battered him for no good reason. Edda Lou wasn't about to have an abortion. Not that Tucker figured she'd turn from one on moral or maternal grounds. But if she wasn't pregnant, she wouldn't have any hold on him.

A hold, he thought miserably, that would last the rest of his life.

Nothing took hold of you like family, he thought. And his blood would mix with Edda Lou's in the baby she was carrying. All the good and bad there was between them would stir around, leaving it up to God or fate or maybe just timing to determine which traits endured.

He took a long swallow of beer, then rested the bottle against his eye again. It wasn't any use thinking about something that wasn't going to happen for months yet. He was better off worrying about the almighty present.

He hurt, and if he didn't feel so damn stupid about the whole mess, he'd have called Doc Shays.

To lull himself, he let his thoughts drift to more pleasant matters.

Caroline Waverly. She was as pretty as one of those tall, glossy ice-cream parfaits. The kind that cooled you off and made you greedy for more. He grinned to himself as he remembered the snooty look she'd given him in Larsson's that afternoon.

That queen-to-peasant look. Christ, it made him want to just scoop her right up.

Not that he had any plans to. He was swearing off women awhile. Not only did his body hurt, but he figured his luck was a bit shaky. Still, it was pleasant to think about it. He liked the way her voice sounded, all soft and smoky, so different from her cool, hands-off look.

He wondered just what he'd have to do to convince her to let him get his hands on. Tucker fell asleep with a smile on his face.


He muttered and tried to shrug off the hand shaking his shoulder. The sudden movement brought pain back with a bang. He swore, opened his eyes.

"Jesus, can't a man get any peace around here?" He blinked up at Burke. The shadows were lengthening, and his first thought was Delia hadn't called him in for supper. His second, as he swung around to sit, was that his stomach was so sore, it was just as well. "Remember when the Bonny brothers and their crazy cousin jumped us down at Spook Hollow?"

Burke kept his hands jammed in his pockets. "Yeah."

"We were younger then." Tucker flexed his swollen knuckles. "I don't recollect it hurt so damn much taking a licking then. Why don't you go in, get us a couple beers?"

"I'm on duty, Tucker. I gotta talk to you."

"Talk better with a beer." But when he looked up and focused on Burke's face, his quick grin faded. "What is it?"

"It's bad. Real bad."

And he knew, as if it had already been said. "It's Edda Lou, isn't it?" Before Burke could answer, Tucker was up and pacing, his hands dragging through his hair. "Oh, Jesus. Jesus Christ."


"Give me a minute. Goddammit." Sick, furious, he pounded a fist against the tree. "You're sure?"

"Yeah. It was like Arnette, and Francie."

"Holy God." He leaned his brow against the rough bark and struggled to keep the image out of his mind. He hadn't loved her, had gotten to the point where he didn't even like her, but he had touched her, tasted her, been inside her. He felt a well of grief rise up that was staggering, not only for her, but for the child he hadn't even wanted.

"You ought to come on and sit down."

"No." He turned from the tree. His face had changed. It had taken on that hard, dangerous look so few were allowed to see. "Where did you find her?"

"McNair Pond, just a couple hours ago."

"That's less than a mile from here." He thought first of his sister, of Delia, of protection. Then he thought of Caroline. "She-Caroline-she shouldn't be alone there."

"Josie's with her now, and Carl." Burke rubbed a hand over his face. "Josie bullied her into drinking some of Miss Edith's apple brandy. She's-Caroline-she's the one who found the body."

"Fuck." He sat on the hammock again, put his head in his hands. "What the hell are we going to do, Burke? What the hell's going on here?"

"I gotta ask you some questions, Tuck, but before I do I want to tell you I went to see Austin. I had to tell him." He pulled out a cigarette. "You watch your back, son."

Tucker took the cigarette. "He can't believe I'd hurt Edda Lou. For chrissake." He lit a match, then stared as it burned down toward his fingers. "You don't believe..." He dropped the match and sprang to his feet. "Goddammit, Burke, you know me."

Burke wished he'd taken the beer-or anything else to wash this nasty taste from his mouth. Tucker was his friend, the closest thing he had to a brother. And his most likely suspect. "Knowing you's got nothing to do with it."

Tucker felt a punch of panic worse than any fist to the gut. "The hell with that."

"It's my job, Tucker. I got a duty." Sick at heart, he took out his notebook. "You and Edda Lou had a public argument only a couple days ago. She's been missing nearly ever since."

Tucker struck another match. This time he lighted the cigarette and drew and expelled smoke. "You going to read me my rights, put the cuffs on me? What?"

Burke's hand fisted at his side. "Goddammit, Tucker, I just spent two hours looking at what someone did to that girl. This ain't the time to push me."

Tucker held out a hand, palm up, but there was too much sarcasm in the gesture for it to be taken as one of peace. "Go on, Burke, do your frigging job."

"I want to know if you saw Edda, or talked to her, after you left the diner."

"Didn't I come in your office this afternoon and tell you I hadn't?"

"Where'd you go after you left the diner?"

"I went to-" He broke off, paling. "Christ, I went to McNair Pond." He started to bring the cigarette to his lips, then stopped. His tawny eyes glittered in the lowering light. "But you already knew that, didn't you?"

"Yeah. But it helps you telling me yourself."

"Fuck you."

Burke grabbed him by the shirtfront. "Listen to me. I don't like what I've got to do. But this is nothing nothing compared to what the FBI'll do once they get here.

We've got three women dead, sliced up like catfish. Edda Lou threatened you in public, and she's found dead not two days later. I've got a witness who puts you at the scene a day, maybe hours, before the murder."

The first lick of fear joined the tension in Tucker's stomach. "You know I've been over to McNair Pond hundreds of times. So've you." He shoved Burke's hands away. "And being pissed at Edda Lou doesn't make me a killer. What about Arnette, Francie?"

Burke's jaw set. "You dated them, all three of them."

It wasn't temper now, but simple shock. "Jesus, Burke." He had to sit again, and do so slowly, feeling his way. "You can't believe that. You can't."

"What I believe doesn't have a damn to do with the questions I have to ask. I have to know where you were night before last."

"Why, he was losing his shirt to me, playing gin rummy." Josie strolled over to them. Her cheeks were pale, but there was a hard gleam in her eye. "You interrogating my brother, Burke? Why, I'm surprised at you." She walked between them to lay a hand on Tucker's shoulder.

"I've got a job to do, Josie."

"Then you ought to be doing it. Why aren't you out looking for someone who hates women rather than someone who has such a powerful affection for them like Tuck here?"

Tucker put a hand over hers. "I thought you were staying with Caroline."

"Susie and Marvella came down to be with her." She shrugged. "It gets to be too many women in one place, and she's holding up just fine now anyway. You might want to run on home, Burke, make sure those boys of yours aren't tearing up the house."

He ignored the suggestion and the anger in Josie's eyes. "You and Tucker played cards."

"That's not a crime or a sin in this county, is it?" She took Tucker's cigarette from between his fingers and drew on it. "We sat up till two, maybe two-thirty. Tucker got a little bit drunk and I won thirty-eight dollars."

A wave of relief thickened Burke voice. "That's good. I'm sorry I had to ask, but when the federal boys get in, you'll have to talk to them, too. Thought it'd be easier from me the first time."

"It wasn't." Tucker got to his feet again. "What are they going to do with her?"

"Took her down to Palmer's Funeral Parlor. Hold her there, overnight anyway, till the FBI gets here." He stuffed the notebook back in his pocket, shuffled his feet. "Steer clear of Austin, long as you can."

With a sour grin Tucker rubbed an absent hand on his bruised ribs. "You don't have to worry about that."

Awkward, miserable, Burke stared off at a trio of rhododendrons. "I'll be going, then. It might look better if you came on in tomorrow, talked to the feds right off."

"Right." Tucker let out a long breath as Burke walked away. "Hey." When Burke turned around, he offered a half smile. "I still got that beer, if you want."

The tension seeped out of Burke's shoulders. "I appreciate it, but I best go see to my kids. Thanks."

"I'm a sick person, Tucker," Josie said with a sigh. "I'm as pissed off at that man as I can be, and I'd still like to get in his pants."

With a half laugh Tucker laid his cheek on her head. "That's just reflex, honey. The Longstreet reflex." With an arm draped around her waist, he began to lead her toward the house. "Jose, not that I'm in any position to question your veracity, but we haven't played gin in weeks."

"That so?" She tucked her tongue in her cheek. "Well now, the days just seem to blur together, don't they?" She pulled back to study him. "Seems better that way. Simpler."

"Maybe." Cautious, he took her face in his hands. He had a way of looking into a person when he had to-and he needed to see into Josie now. "You don't think I killed her."

"Sweetie pie, I've lived with you most of my life, and I know you just about choke with guilt if you have to squash a beetle. You've got too much heart, even when your temper's up." She kissed both his cheeks. "I know you didn't kill anybody. And if it makes it all go away quicker, what's the harm in saying we were at cards that night? We were at cards some night or other anyway."

He hesitated. It didn't seem quite right. Then he shrugged. Right or wrong, it was easier than the truth, which was that he'd fallen asleep while reading Keats.

What the hell would the boys down at the Chat 'N Chew say if they found out he read poetry on purpose?

And who'd believe him?