Carnal Innocence (Page 6)

Like fire through dry brush, news of Edda Lou Hatinger's murder had spread like dust from the bayous to the levees, from town square to farm, all the way from Market Street down to Hog Maw Road, where Happy Fuller discussed the event with her dear friend and bingo partner, Birdie Shays.

"Henry wouldn't talk about it," Birdie said as she cooled her face with a Church of Redemption paper fan. "Burke Truesdale called him on down to the McNair place 'bout two o'clock, and he didn't get back till five." The fierce-eyed Jesus painted on the fan blurred as she waved it. "He came home all pale and sweaty, told me Edda Lou Hatinger was dead and to cancel all the appointments this evening. Said she was murdered just like Arnette and Francie, and wouldn't say another word."

"Lord love us." Happy looked out over her trim backyard, satisfied with the backwash of Birdie's fan. "What's the world coming to? A woman's not safe walking the streets."

"I passed by the diner before I came out." Birdie gave a knowing nod. Her lacquered hair, which Earleen Renfrew colored every six weeks with Bombshell Beige, sat still and stiff as a helmet with its two rigid curls like question marks on either side of her forehead. "Heard that Burke's called for the FBI, and maybe the National Guard."

"Hmph." Happy made a sound between a snort and a grunt. She was fond of Birdie, mighty fond, but that didn't stop her from seeing faults. Birdie had a tendency to be gullible, which in Happy's opinion fell just behind laziness on the top ten list of sins. "We've got us a homicidal maniac, not a riot, Birdie. I don't think we're going to see soldiers marching down Market Street. Now, the FBI maybe, and I expect they'll call my boy in to talk since he found poor Arnette back in February."

Her handsome face set into thoughtful lines. She'd yet to forgive Bobby Lee fully for hooking school-and damn near flunking out again-but it was hard to resist the prestige of being the mama of the one who'd found the first body.

"Bobby Lee's carried that sadness with him ever since," Birdie put in. "Why, you can see it in his eyes. Just this morning when he filled up my tank down to Sonny's, I thought to myself, that Bobby Lee, he's never going to be the same."

"Had nightmares for weeks," Happy said with only the faintest trace of pride.

"Only natural. I know Henry's heart's about broke. And I'll tell you, Happy, it's worrisome. Why, it could've been my own sweet Carolanne-not that she'd be wandering around somewhere alone when she's got a husband and two children to tend to. But it makes you worry. And there's your own Darleen, and her being best friends with Edda. I tell you, I can barely stand to think on it."

"I expect I'll have to call Darleen, see how she's bearing up." Happy let out a sigh. It had been a great relief to her when Darleen had married Junior Talbot and settled down in town with her husband and brand new baby. But she knew Darleen's wild ways were flaring again. "We're going to have to get some of the ladies together, Birdie, and go pay our respects to Mavis Hatinger."

Birdie started to make an excuse, but the paper Jesus glared at her. "It's the Christian thing to do. Do you think Austin'll be there?"

"Don't you worry about Austin." Happy set her chin. "We'll have the power of motherhood on our side."

That night, doors were locked in Innocence, guns were loaded, and sleep came hard.

Come morning, Edda Lou was the first thought on many minds.

For Darleen Fuller Talbot, Happy's third child and first great disappointment, grief was mixed with lethargy. Throughout her teenage years, Darleen had trailed along behind Edda Lou, thrilled by the risks they took together. Hitching clear to Greenville, swiping cosmetics from the counter at Larsson's, hooking school with the Bonny boys to have sex down at Spook Hollow.

They'd worried together if their periods were late, talked frankly about their sexual encounters, and double-dated at the Sky View Drive-In Theater more times than she could count. Edda Lou had been her maid of honor when Darleen had married Junior, and Darleen was to have returned the favor when Edda Lou finally snagged Tucker Longstreet.

Now she was dead, and Darleen's eyes were puffy from weeping. She barely had the energy to settle little Scooter in his playpen, wave her husband out the front door, and shuffle into the kitchen to let her lover, Billy T. Bonny, in through the back.

"Oh, now, darlin'." Billy T., already sweaty in his athletic T-shirt and torn jeans, took the red-eyed Darleen into his tattooed arms. "You shouldn't go on like this, sugar plum. I just hate to see you cry."

"I can't believe she's gone." Darleen sniffed against his shoulder and comforted herself by squeezing his butt. "She was my dearest, closest friend, Billy T."

"I know." He moved his full, ready mouth down to hers, sliding his tongue in and around in sympathy. "She was a great girl, and we're all going to miss her."

"She was like my sister." Darleen drew back so he could slip his hands under her nylon nightie and find her breasts. "More a sister than Belle or Starita ever were."

"They're just jealous 'cause you're the prettiest." He pinched her hardened nipples while he backed her up against the counter.

"I'd rather it'd been one of them instead of Edda Lou." Tears sparkling in her eyes, she unzipped his jeans. "I don't care if they are my blood kin, I could always talk to Edda Lou, you know. Just talk about anything. Even us." She sighed as he pulled her nightie down far enough to nip at her breasts. "She was always happy for me. She was a little jealous when I married Junior and had Scooter, but that was only natural, don't you think?"


"I was going to be her maid of honor when she married Tucker Longstreet." She tugged his jockeys down. "I can't hardly stand to think about how she was killed."

"Don't think about it, honey." His breath was coming quick and hard. "Let Billy T. help you forget all about it." He brought his hands down to push her thighs apart. "Edda Lou would've wanted it that way."

"Yeah." She sighed and snuggled against his hand. With a shiver she shoved a bowl of Cherrios aside to brace herself on the counter. "She'll always have a place in my heart." When she wrapped her fingers around him, she opened her eyes, love shining. He was already wearing a condom. "You're just so good to me, honey." She guided him in and he began to grind. "So much more fun than Junior. Why, since we got married, we don't do it anywhere but in bed."

Highly flattered, Billy T. hitched up her hips, rapping her head against an open cupboard door. Since she was already coming, Darleen didn't notice.

Caroline was surprised she'd slept so well. Maybe it was her mind's way of escaping, or the security of having Susie Truesdale and her daughter tucked into the next bedroom. Or maybe it was just that she felt safe in her grandparents' bed. Whatever it was, she awakened to sunlight and the smell of coffee and bacon.

Her first reaction was embarrassment, that she should have slept while her guests fixed breakfast. That reaction struck her as so feeble after the horror of the day before, she was tempted to roll over and will herself back to sleep.

Instead, she took a long cool shower and dressed.

By the time she came downstairs, Susie and Marvella were already seated at the table, talking in hushed tones over coffee and scrambled eggs.

There was enough resemblance between mother and daughter to make Caroline want to smile. Two pretty women with mink-colored hair and big blue eyes, they whispered together like children in the back pew of a church service. They both had bow-shaped mouths like kewpie dolls, that curved into sympathetic smiles when they spotted her.

There was a closeness between them, a simple understanding and respect that Caroline had never enjoyed with her own mother. Seeing it, feeling it, she felt herself struck by a hard, unexpected wave of envy.

"We hoped you'd sleep awhile longer." Susie was already up pouring another cup of coffee.

"I feel like I slept a week. Thanks." She took the cup Susie offered. "It was so kind of you to stay, I-"

"That's what neighbors are for. Marvella, fix Caroline a plate."

"Oh, really, I-"

"You have to eat." Susie nudged her into a chair. "When you've had a shock like that, you need fuel."

"Mom makes great eggs," Marvella offered. She tried not to stare at Caroline as she served. She wanted to ask her where she'd gotten her hair cut-though Bobby Lee would just about shit bricks if she had her own shoulder-length curls whacked like that. "You always feel better if you eat. Last time I broke up with Bobby Lee, Mom and I had great big chocolate sundaes."

"It's hard to feel blue when you're full of chocolate." Susie smiled and served up a plate of toast. "I got some of your grandma's wild raspberry jam out of the cupboard. Hope you don't mind."

"No." Fascinated, Caroline picked up the hand-labeled jelly jar. "I didn't realize this was around."

"Oh, my, Miss Edith put by every year. Nobody had a hand like hers for jams and jellies. She won the blue ribbon at the fair the last six years running." Bending, Susie opened a bottom cupboard and gestured toward the lines of jars. "You've got a good year's supply here."

"I didn't know." All those pretty, colorful jars, so carefully labeled, so lovingly aligned. The sense of loss and shame closed her throat. "I wasn't able to see her often."

"She was so proud of you. Used to talk about her little Caro traveling all around the world, and how you played music for royalty and presidents and all. Showed around the postcards you sent her."

"There was one of Paris, France," Marvella put in. "With the Eiffel Tower off in the back. Miss Edith let me use it for a report."

"Marvella took two years of French." Susie sent her daughter a pleased look. She herself had had to quit school four months before graduation, when she'd begun to show. It never failed to delight her that her daughter already held a high school diploma. She glanced at her watch. "Honey, hadn't you better get on to work?"

"Oh, lordy." Marvella popped out of her seat. "Look at the time."

"Marvella works up in Rosedale as a legal secretary. They said she could come in late today, considering." She glanced over as Marvella freshened her lipstick in the reflection of the toaster. "You go on and take my car, honey. I'll call your daddy to come get me." Rising, she rested her hands on Marvella's shoulders. "You don't stop for anybody, even if you know them."

"I'm not stupid."

Susie pinched her chin. "No, but you're my only girl. I want you to call me if you're going to be later than five-thirty."

"I will."

"And you tell that Bobby Lee there's to be no more parking down on Dog Street Road. If the two of you have to get romantic, you'll do it down in the family room."

"Mom..."A slow flush worked its way up her throat to her cheeks.

"You tell him, or I will." She kissed Marvella's pouty lips. "Now, get."

"Yes'm." She smiled at Caroline. "Don't let her bully you, Miss Waverly. Once she starts, she never stops."

"Sassy." Susie chuckled after the front screen door slammed. "Hard to believe she's grown up on me."

"She's a lovely girl."

"Yes, she is that. Hardheaded and sure of what she wants, though. She's wanted Bobby Lee Fuller for the best part of two years, so I guess she'll get him all right." She gave a wistful smile before she picked up her cooling coffee. "Once I set my sights on Burke, he didn't have a prayer. She's the same. Only you worry, because they always seem so much younger than you were at the same age." She frowned at Caroline's plate. "You didn't eat much."

"I'm sorry." With effort, Caroline took another bite. "It all seems so strange-I didn't even know that girl, but it's dreadful just thinking about her." Resigned, she pushed her plate aside. "Susie, I didn't want to ask too many questions with Marvella here, but do I understand this right? This girl was the third murdered?"

"Since February," Susie said with a nod. "They were all three stabbed."


"Burke won't say much, but I know it's bad, really bad. Some kind of mutilation." She rose to clear the table. "As a mother-as a woman-it scares me. And I worry about Burke, too. He's taking this all on himself, like it was his fault somehow. God knows nobody around here was prepared for this kind of thing, but Burke thinks he should have been able to stop it."

The way, Susie remembered, he'd thought he should have been able to stop his father from putting a noose around his neck.

Caroline filled the sink with soapy water. "No suspects?"

"If so, he's not saying. With Arnette, it seemed like it had to've been a drifter. I mean, when you've got eight or nine hundred people in a town, you get so you know damn near everybody. It just didn't seem possible it could have been one of us. Then when Francie was killed the same way, people began to look around a little. And still, when it came right down to it, none of us wanted to believe it could have been a neighbor, or a friend. But now..."

"Now you have to look among your own."

"We do." She picked up a tea towel as Caroline began to wash the breakfast dishes. "Though I think it's more likely we've got some psycho living in the swamp, hiding in there."

Caroline looked out the window toward the trees. Trees that seemed so much closer to the house than before. "Well, that's a comfort."

"I don't mean to scare you, but if you're living out here alone, you need to be careful."

Caroline pressed her lips together. "I heard that Tucker Longstreet and Edda Lou had a fight. That she was pressuring him into marriage."

"Trying to, more like." Susie polished a plate clean, then laughed. "Lordy, you don't know Tucker, or else you wouldn't have that look on your face. The idea of him killing someone, well, it's just laughable. First place, it would take too much effort and emotion. Tucker tends to be lacking in both departments."

Caroline remembered the look on his face when she'd come across him by the pond. There'd been plenty of emotion then. The dangerous kind. "Still..."

"I guess Burke'll have to talk to him," Susie said. "And that'll be hard. They're as close as brothers. We all went to school together," she continued as she dried and stacked dishes. "Tucker and Dwayne-that's Tucker's brother-Burke and me. They were all planters' sons, though by that time the Truesdale place was already failing, so private school was out of the question for Burke. Dwayne went off to boarding school for awhile, him being the first son and all, but he couldn't keep out of trouble so the school shipped him on home. There'd been talk of sending Tucker off, too, but then old Beau was so pissed about Dwayne, he kept Tuck home." She smiled as she examined a glass for spots. "Tuck always said he owed Dwayne big for that one. I guess that's why he tries to look after him now. He's a good man. And if you'd known Tuck as long as I have, you'd know he could no more work up the gumption to kill a person than he could fly. Not that he doesn't have his faults, God knows, but to take a knife to a woman?" The idea made her laugh despite the horror of it. "Truth be known, he'd be too busy trying to get under her skirts to think about anything else."

Caroline's mouth went grim. "I know the type."

"Believe me, honey, you've never known anyone like Tuck. If I wasn't a happily married woman with four kids, I might have taken after him myself. He's got a way about him, Tuck does." She slanted Caroline a look. "Odds are he'll come sniffing your way before too long."

"Then he'll end up with a foot in his nose."

Susie let out a peal of laughter. "I hope I'm around to see it. Now then." She set the last plate aside. "You and me have work to do."


"I won't feel right leaving you here until I know you're protected." After drying her hands on the flowered tea towel, she walked over to pick up her purse. Out of the straw bag, she pulled a deadly-looking.38.

"Jesus Christ" was all Caroline could think of to say.

"This is a double-action Smith and Wesson. I like the feel of a revolver rather than an automatic."

"Is that-is it loaded?"

"Why, sure it is, honey." She blinked her big blue eyes. "Hell of a lot of good it would do me empty. I won the Fourth of July target shoot three years straight.

Burke can't decide whether to be proud or embarrassed that I can outshoot him."

"In your purse," Caroline said weakly. "You carry it in your purse."

"Since February I have. Have you ever fired a gun?"

"No." Instinctively, Caroline linked her hands behind her back. "No," she repeated.

"And you think you can't," Susie said briskly. "Well, let me tell you, honey, if someone was coming after you or yours, you'd fire quick enough. Now, I know your grand-daddy had a collection. Let's go pick one out."

Susie set her.38 on the kitchen table and started out.

"Susie." Baffled, Caroline hurried after her. "I can't pick out a gun the way I would a new dress."

"It's just as interesting." Susie strolled into the den, and tapping a finger against her lips, studied her choices. "We're going to start with a handgun, but I want you to practice loading that shotgun. It makes a statement."

"I bet."

Her eyes bright, she curled a hand around Caroline's arm. "Listen here, if someone comes along and bothers you, you step outside with this dove duster on your shoulder, point it mid-body, and you tell the sonofabitch you don't know diddly about shooting. If he doesn't hightail it fast, he deserves a load of buckshot."

With a half laugh Caroline sat on the arm of the easy chair. "You're serious about this."

"Down here we take care of ourselves. Now, this here's an old beauty." Susie opened the case and took out a handgun. "Colt forty-five, army issue. Bet he used this in the war." She broke open the gun with a finesse Caroline had to admire, and spun the empty chamber. "Clean as a whistle, too." After snapping the barrel back into place, she pointed it at the wall and pressed the trigger. "Good." Pulling open the drawer, she gave a satisfied cluck of her tongue as she saw the ammo. She tucked a box in her back pocket, then grinned at Caroline.

"Let's go kill some cans."

Special Agent Matthew Burns wasn't doing cartwheels at the prospect of working in a dusty little delta town. Burns was an urbanite born and bred, one who enjoyed an evening at the opera, a fine Chateauneuf, and a quiet afternoon strolling through the National Gallery.

He'd seen a good deal of ugliness in his ten years with the Bureau, and preferred to cleanse his emotional pallet with a taste of Mozart or Bach. He'd been looking forward to the end of the week, which would have included tickets to the ballet, a civilized dinner at Jean-Louis at the Watergate, and perhaps a tasteful and romantic interlude with his current companion.

Instead, he found himself driving into Innocence with his field kit and garment bag tucked into the trunk of a rental car that had a faulty air-conditioning pump.

Burns knew the case would create a media hullabaloo, and he certainly never doubted he was the appropriate man for the job. He specialized in serial killers. And with all due modesty, he'd be the first one to admit he was damn good.

Still, it irked him that his weekend had been ruined. It upset his sense of order that the Bureau's pathologist assigned to the case had been delayed by thunderstorms in Atlanta. He didn't trust some backwater coroner to perform a decent autopsy.

His irritation grew as he drove through town in the nearly airless car. It was just as he'd suspected-a few sweaty pedestrians, a couple of loose dogs, a huddle of dusty storefronts. There wasn't even a movie theater. He gave a little shudder at the faded hand-printed letters that spelled out chat 'n chew on the only restaurant in sight. Thank God he'd packed his own Krups coffee-maker.

A job was a job, he reminded himself as he pulled up in front of the sheriffs office. There were times one had to suffer in the pursuit of justice. Taking only his briefcase, and trying not to strangle in the heat, he meticulously locked his car.

When Jed Larsson's dog, Nuisance, wandered up to lift his leg on the front tire, Burns merely shook his head. He didn't doubt he'd find the manners of the two-legged residents equally crude.

"Nice car," Claude Bonny said from his perch in front of the rooming house. And spat.

Burns lifted one dark brow. "It serves."

"You selling something, son?"


Bonny exchanged looks with Charlie O'Hara and Pete Koons. O'Hara wheezed out a couple of breaths and squinted. "You'd be that FBI man from up north, then."

"Yes." Burns felt sweat slide down his back and prayed the town ran to an adequate dry cleaner.

"I used to watch that show with Efrem Zimbalist on it every week." Koons took a pull on his lemonade. "Damn good show, that one."

"Dragnet was better," Bonny stated. "Can't understand why they took it off the air. Don't make shows like that no more."

"If you'll excuse me," Burns said.

"Go on in, son." Bonny waved him on. "Sheriff's inside. Been there all morning. You catch that psycho that's killing our girls, and we'll string 'em up for you."

"Really, I don't-"

"Didn't that guy from Dragnet go on over to be a doctor on that M*A*S*H show?" O'Hara wondered. "Seems I recollect that."

"Jack Webb never played no doctor," Bonny said, taking it as a personal affront.

"No, t'other one. Little guy. My missus near to bust a gut watching that show."

"Good Lord," Burns said under his breath, and pushed open the door of the sheriffs office.

Burke was at his desk, the phone cupped between his chin and shoulder while he busily scrawled on a legal pad. "Yes, sir, the minute he gets here. I..." He looked up and identified Burns as quickly as he'd have separated a quail from a pheasant. "Hold on. You Special Agent Burns?"

"That's right." Following procedure, Burns pulled out his I.D. and flashed it.

"He just walked in," Burke said into the phone, then held it out. "It's your boss."

Burns set his briefcase aside and took the receiver. "Chief Hadley? Yes, sir, my e.t.a. was a bit off. There was a problem with the car in Greenville. Yes, sir. Dr. Rubenstein should be here by three. I'll be sure to do that. Just off the top, I'd say we'll need another phone, this appears to be a single line. And..." He placed a hand over the mouthpiece. "Do you have a fax machine?"

Burke ran his tongue around his teeth. "No, sir, I don't."

"And a fax machine," Burns continued into the receiver. "I'll call in as soon as I've done the preliminary and settled in. Yes, sir." He handed the phone back to Burke and checked the seat of the swivel chair before sitting. "Now then, you'd be Sheriff..."

"Truesdale, Burke Truesdale." The handshake was brief and formal. Burke caught a whiff of baby powder. "We've got a mess here, Agent Burns."

"So I'm informed. Three mutilations in four and a half months. No suspects."

"None." Burke barely caught himself before apologizing. "We figured a drifter, but with the last one... Then there's that one up in Nashville."

Burns steepled his hands. "You have files, I presume."

"Yeah." Burke started to rise.

"Not quite yet. You can fill me in orally as we go. I'll want to see the body."

"We have her down at the funeral parlor."

"Most appropriate," Burns said dryly. "We'll take a look, then go to the crime scene. You've secured it?"

Burke felt his temper heating. "Kinda hard to secure a swamp."

Burns let out a sigh as he rose. "I'll take your word for that."

In the backyard Caroline sucked in her breath, gritted her teeth, and pulled the trigger. The punch jumped up her arm and made her ears ring. She hit a can-though it wasn't the one she'd aimed at.

"Now you're getting somewhere," Susie told her. "But you got to keep your eyes all the way open." She demonstrated, plowing three cans off the log in rapid succession.

"Couldn't I just throw rocks at them?" Caroline yelled when Susie went to reset the cans.

"Did you play a symphony the first time you picked up your fiddle?"

Caroline sighed and rotated her shoulder. "Is this how you intimidate your kids into doing what you want?"

"Damn right." Susie came back to her side. "Now relax, take your time. How's the gun feel in your hand?"

"Actually, it feels..." She laughed a little and glanced down at it.

"Sexy, right?" She patted Caroline's back. "It's okay. You're among friends. Thing is, you got the power right here, and the control, and the responsibility. Same as having sex." She grinned. "That's not what I tell my kids. Go ahead now, you sight in on that first can on the left. Make a picture on it. Have an ex-husband?"

"No, thanks."

Susie hooted. "Old boyfriend? One who really pissed you off."

"Luis," Caroline hissed between her teeth.

"Whew, was he Spanish or something?"

"Or something." Her teeth were clenching. "He was a big, sleek Mexican rat." Caroline pulled the trigger. Her mouth fell open when the can jumped. "I hit it."

"Just needed incentive. Try the next."

"Couldn't you ladies take up needlepoint?" Burke called.

Susie lowered her revolver and smiled. "You're going to have more competition next Fourth of July, darlin'." She skimmed her gaze over Burns before rising on tiptoe to kiss her husband. "You look tired."

"I am tired." He squeezed her hand. "Agent Burns, this is my wife, Susie, and Caroline Waverly. Miss Waverly found the body yesterday."

"Caroline Waverly." Burns said the name reverently. "I can't believe it." Taking her free hand, he brought it to his lips while Susie rolled her eyes at Burke behind the FBI man's back. "I heard you play just a few months ago in New York. And last year at the Kennedy Center. I have several of your recordings."

For a moment Caroline only blinked at him. All that seemed so far away, she almost thought he'd mistaken her for someone else.

"Thank you."

"Oh, no, thank you." He was thinking the case might have benefits after all. "I can't tell you how many times you've saved my sanity just by letting me hear you play." His smooth cheeks were flushed with excitement, and his hand continued to grip hers. "This is, well, delightful, despite the circumstances. I must say, it's the last place I'd expect to find the princess of the concert halls."

A little ball of discomfort wedged in her stomach. "This was my grandmother's home, Agent Burns. I've been here for only a few days."

His pale blue eyes clouded with concern. "This must be terribly distressing for you. Be assured I'll do everything in my power to resolve the matter quickly."

Caroline made certain to avoid Susie's eyes and managed a small smile. "That's a comfort to me."

"Anything, anything I can do. Anything at all." He picked up the field kit he'd set at his feet. "I'll take a look at the scene now, Sheriff."

Burke gestured, and after glancing at Burns's shiny Italian loafers, winked at his wife.

"Kinda cute," Susie decided as they walked toward the trees. "If you go for the suit-and-tie type."

"Fortunately, I don't go for any type right now."

"Never know." Susie flapped the bodice of her blouse to stir some air. "Why don't I show you how to clean your gun, then we'll make something cold for the boys." She gave Caroline a curious look. "I didn't know you were really famous and all. I thought it was just Miss Edith bragging."

"Fame all depends on the ground you're standing on, doesn't it?"

"I guess it does." Susie turned toward the house. Because she'd developed a fondness for Caroline, and because it seemed to her Caroline needed a smile just then, Susie swung an arm over her shoulders. "Can you play 'Orange Blossom Special'?"

Caroline had her first real laugh in days. "I don't know why not."