Carnal Innocence (Page 7)

Tucker propped his feet on Burke's desk and crossed his ankles. He didn't mind waiting-in fact, waiting was one of the things he did best. What was often interpreted as a bone-deep laziness, even by Tucker himself, was an innate and boundless patience and a clear, untroubled mind.

At the moment his mind wasn't as unfettered as he liked. And the truth was, he hadn't slept well the night before. A little catnap while he waited for Burke to come along seemed like a sensible way to pass the time.

It hadn't taken long for news of the FBI blowing into town to get down to Sweetwater. Tucker already knew that Special Agent Burns dressed like a mortician and drove a tan Mercury. Just as he knew that Burns was down at McNair Pond doing whatever FBI types did at murder scenes.

Murder. With a little grunt Tucker closed his eyes-the better to relax. Sitting there, listening to the creak of the ceiling fan and the whine of the useless window air conditioner, it didn't seem possible that Edda Lou Hatinger was stretched out on a slab a few blocks away at Palmer's Funeral Parlor.

He winced, trying to get beyond the discomfort, the plain creepiness of remembering how ready he'd been to go head to head with her. Worse, he'd been looking forward to the battle, to hearing her wail when she finally got it through her conniving brain that she wasn't going to be the new mistress of Sweetwater.

He wouldn't have to set her straight now. Or salvage some of his pride by hacking at hers.

Now, because he'd made the mistake of finding something sexy about the way she punched keys on the cash register at Larsson's, because he'd indulged himself by sharing her bed and nibbling on that soft skin, he was going to have to make up an alibi to keep himself from being a suspect in her murder.

He'd been accused of many things. Of laziness, which was no sin in Tucker's book. Of carelessness with money, which he readily admitted. Of adultery, which he took objection to. He'd never slept with a married woman-except for Sally Guilford a few years back, and she'd been legally separated. Even of cowardice, which Tucker preferred to think of as discretion.

But murder. Why, it would be laughable if it wasn't so scary. If his father had been alive, he'd have busted a gut laughing. He-the only man Tucker had truly feared-hadn't been able to bully or embarrass his son into shooting anything but thin air on any of their enforced hunting trips.

Of course, Edda Lou hadn't been shot. Not if she'd been killed like the others. Because it was all too easy to slide her face over his image of Francie's, to see what had been done to her smooth, white skin. He fumbled in his pocket for a cigarette.

He pinched off part of the tip-he was up to nearly a quarter of an inch now-and was just lighting it when Burke walked in with a sweaty, annoyed-looking man in a dark suit.

Spending the best part of the day with the FBI hadn't put Burke in the best of moods. He scowled at Tucker's feet as he tossed his hat toward the pole by the door.

"Make yourself at home, son."

"Doing my best." Tucker blew out a stream of smoke. His stomach was jumping, but he sent Burke a lazy smile. "You ought to get yourself some new magazines, Burke. A man needs more to entertain his mind than Field and Stream and Guns and Ammo."

"I'll see if we can find some issues of Gentleman's Quarterly and People."

"I'd be obliged." Tucker took another drag while he scanned Burke's companion. The dark suit had wilted in the heat, but the man didn't have the sense to loosen his tie. Though he couldn't have said why, that simple fact had Tucker taking an instant dislike to Burns. "I thought it'd be a good idea for me to come on in and talk to you boys."

Burke nodded, and wanting to take authority, walked behind his desk. "Tucker Longstreet, Special Agent Burns."

"Welcome to Innocence." Tucker didn't get up, but offered a hand. It pleased him that Burns's was soft, and a little clammy from the humidity. "What makes you special, Agent Burns?"

"It's my rank." Burns took a measure of Tucker's scuffed sneakers, his casually expensive cotton slacks, and cocky grin. The dislike was mutual. "What did you want to discuss, Mr. Longstreet?"

"Well now, we could start with the weather." Tucker ignored Burke's warning look. "Looks like we've got a storm rolling in. Might cool things off for a spell. Or we could talk baseball. Orioles're playing the Yankees tonight. Birds got themselves a tight pitching staff this year. Might just pull it off." Tucker sucked in smoke. "You a betting man, Special Agent?"

"I'm afraid I don't take an avid interest in sports."

"Well, that's okay." There was a yawn in Tucker's voice as he angled the chair back. "I don't take an avid interest in much of anything. Avid takes too much effort."

"Let's get to the point, Tuck." Since the look hadn't worked, Burke tried his quiet, cut-the-bullshit tone. "Tucker knew the victim, Edda Lou..."

"The word you're scratching for is intimately," Tucker provided. His stomach muscles clenched up on him again, so he shifted to crush out the cigarette.

Burns settled in the third chair. In his fussily efficient way, he took a mini recorder and a pad from his pocket. "You wanted to make a statement."

"Like 'The only thing we have to fear is fear itself'?" Tucker stretched his back. "Not particularly. Burke here thought you might want to ask me some questions. And being the cooperative sort, I'm here to answer them."

Unruffled, Burns switched on the recorder. "I'm informed that you and the deceased had a relationship."

"What we had was sex."

"Come on, Tuck."

He shot Burke a look. "That's as honest as it gets, son. Edda Lou and I went out a few times, had some laughs, and tangled some sheets." His eyes hardened, and he had to stop himself from reaching for another cigarette. "Couple weeks back I cut things off because she started talking marriage."

"You ended the affair amicably?" Burns asked.

"I wouldn't say that. I figure you already know about the scene in the diner a few days ago. It's safe to say Edda Lou was pissed."

"Your term, Mr. Longstreet. I have it here"-he tapped his pencil on his pad-"that she was angry and agitated."

"You put those two words together with Edda Lou, and what you get is pissed."

"She claimed you'd made her promises."

Lazily, Tucker lowered his legs. The chair squeaked as he rocked it. "That's the thing about me, Agent Burns, I don't make them, 'cause it's unlikely I'll keep them."

"And she announced publicly that she was pregnant."

"Yeah. She did that."

"After which, you left the... Chat 'N Chew, is it? You left abruptly." He smiled thinly. "Would it be safe to say, Mr. Longstreet, that you were... pissed?"

"Having her come down on me in the diner, tell me-for the first time, in front of maybe a dozen people-that she was pregnant, and threatening to make me pay for it? Yeah." He gave a slow, considering nod. "It'd be safe to say."

"And you had no intention of marrying her."

"Not a one."

"And being infuriated, embarrassed, and trapped, you had a motive for killing her."

Tucker ran his tongue over his teeth. "Not as long as I've got a checkbook." He leaned forward. Though his face was hard, his voice flowed easily, like honey over corn bread. "Let me give you a clear picture of this, friend. Edda Lou was greedy, she was ambitious, and she was smart. Now, maybe there was a part of her figured she could intimidate me into a double-ring ceremony, but she'd have settled happily enough for a check with enough zeroes on it."

He rose, then forced himself to take a breath and sit on the corner of the desk. "I liked her. Maybe not as much as I once did, but well enough. You don't sleep with a woman one week and slice her up the next."

"It's been done."

Something dark came alive in Tucker's eyes. "Not by me."

Burns shifted the recorder an inch to the right. "You were also acquainted with Arnette Gantrey and Frances Alice Logan."

"Me and most everybody else in Innocence."

"Did you also have relationships with them?"

"Dated them some. Didn't sleep with either." His lips curved a little in memory. "Though with Arnette, it wasn't for lack of trying."

"She rejected you?"

"Hell." In disgust, Tucker pulled out another cigarette. It seemed he'd picked a lousy time to try to quit smoking. "We were friends, and she didn't want to wrestle. Truth is, she'd always had her eye on my brother, Dwayne, but he never picked up the ball. Francie and I were just at the flirt-and-giggle stage." He tossed a bit of paper and tobacco aside. "She was a sweetheart." He shut his eyes. "I don't want to talk about Francie."


Fury bubbled up. "Look, I was with Burke when he found her. Maybe you're used to seeing that kind of thing, but I'm not. Especially when it's someone I had a fondness for."

"Interesting that you were fond of all three women," Burns said mildly. "And Mrs. Logan was found in Spook Hollow?" He gave a quick snort at the term. "That's just a couple of miles from your home. And Miss Hatinger was found in McNair Pond. Less than a mile from your home. You visited that spot the day you argued with Miss Hatinger."

"That's right. And plenty of other times."

"According to Miss Waverly, you seemed tense, upset, when she came across you."

"I thought we'd settled on pissed. Yeah, I was. That's why I stopped off there. It's a peaceful spot.

"And a secluded one. Can you tell me what you did with the rest of your evening, Mr. Longstreet?"

It wasn't going to be the truth. "I played gin with Josie, my sister," Tucker lied without a blink. "Being as I was distracted, she took me for about thirty or forty dollars, then we had a drink and went on up to bed."

"What time did you leave your sister?"

"I went up about two, two-thirty maybe."

"Agent Burns," Burke broke in, "I'd like to say that on the afternoon Edda Lou was found, Tuck came in to see me. He was worried because he hadn't heard from her, and she wasn't answering the phone."

Burns lifted a brow. "So noted, Sheriff. How did you come by your black eye, Mr. Longstreet?"

"Edda Lou's father gave it to me. That's how I came to realize she was missing. He rode up to the house, figuring I was hiding her. Then he got it into his head I'd talked her into going somewhere for an abortion."

"Did you discuss abortion with the deceased?"

"She was deceased before I had a chance to discuss anything with her." He pushed himself off the desk.

"That's all I've got to say. If you have any more questions, you ride on down to Sweetwater and ask. I'll see you around, Burke."

Burke waited until the door slammed. "Agent Burns, I've known Tucker all my life. I can tell you that no matter how het up he was about Edda Lou, he couldn't have killed her."

Burns merely switched off his recorder. "Isn't it fortunate that I have an objective eye? I believe it's time we checked at the funeral parlor, Sheriff. The pathologist is due."

Tucker'd just about had it. He'd done nothing but mind his own business, live his own life, and what did he have to show for it? Sore ribs, a swollen eye, and the novelty of being a murder suspect.

He shot out of Innocence and cranked the car up to eighty.

The way he figured it, it all had to do with women. If it hadn't been for the way Edda Lou had rubbed up against him every blessed time he'd walked into Larsson's, he wouldn't have started dating her. If Delia hadn't nagged him, he wouldn't have been in town for Edda Lou to harp on. If that Waverly woman hadn't wandered into the bayou, she wouldn't have seen him sitting by the pond. Looking "tense and upset."

Jesus H. Christ, he'd had a right to look that way.

He was sick about Edda Lou, gut-churning sick. No matter how sneaky she'd been, she didn't deserve to be dead. But dammit, he didn't see why he had to suffer for it. Having to sit there and take it while that stiff-necked Yankee bastard prodded him with questions and gave him those cop looks.

Worse than cop looks, he thought as he swung around a curve. It had been those superior, big-city honcho-to-addled-good-old-boy sneers that burned his ass.

Caroline Waverly had looked at him the same way. She'd probably done handsprings on her way to tell the FBI about coming across the dirty Reb plotting murder in the swamp.

A yard past the McNair lane, Tucker slammed on the brakes. His tires screamed on the pavement as he whipped into a U-turn. Maybe he'd just go have himself a talk with the duchess.

As he sent gravel spitting, he didn't notice the pick-up lumbering down the road. Austin's blackened eyes narrowed as he spotted the red flash disappearing into the brush. His lips spread in a smile as he pulled over to the side.

He turned off the ignition, pocketed the keys before reaching for the shoe black. Studying himself in the rearview mirror, he sliced black lines under his eyes, adjusted his camouflage hat. From the rack in the window he chose his weapon, opting for the Remington Woodsmaster, and checked the load. He was still smiling as he stepped out of the truck, wearing full camouflage, with keen-edged hunting knife tucked in his ammo belt.

He was going hunting. For the glory of the Lord.

Caroline didn't mind being alone. Though she'd enjoyed Susie's company, the woman's energy pitch had all but exhausted her. Nor did she believe that anyone was going to break into the house and kill her in her sleep. She was a stranger, after all, and no one knew her well enough to wish her harm. Now that the pistol was tucked away, she had no intention of touching it again.

To please herself, she picked up her violin. She'd barely had time to do more than tune it since arriving. Her hands passed over the smooth, polished wood, brushed over the strings. This wasn't practice, she thought as she rosined the bow. It wasn't performance. It was the urge she was often too pressured to remember, to make music for herself.

With her eyes closed, she laid the violin on her shoulder, her head and body shifting automatically into position, as a woman's does to welcome a lover.

She chose Chopin for the beauty, for the peace, and for the hint of a sadness she couldn't quite dispel. As always, the music filled all the voids.

She didn't think of death now, or of fear. She didn't think of Luis and betrayal, of the family she'd lost or done without. She didn't think of the music, but only felt it.

It sounded like tears. That's what Tucker thought as he walked from his car to the porch. Not hot, passionate tears, but slow ones, aching ones. The kind that bled out of the soul.

Though no one could hear them, his thoughts embarrassed him. It was just violin music, the longhaired kind that didn't even make you want to tap your toe. But it sounded so heartbreaking, drifting out of the open windows. He would have sworn he felt it, actually felt the notes shiver over his skin.

He knocked, but so softly he barely heard the rapping himself. Then he reached down, opened the screen, and stepped inside. He moved quietly, following those haunting notes into the front parlor.

She was standing in the center of the room, facing the windows so that he could see her profile, her head tilted slightly toward the instrument. Her eyes were closed, and the smile that curved her lips was as wistful and lovely as the music.

Though he couldn't have said how he knew it, that particular melding of notes came straight from her heart. Like a whispered question, they hung on the air.

He slipped his hands into his pockets, leaned a shoulder against the jamb, and let himself drift along with her. It was odd, and certainly foreign to him, that he could find a woman so restful, so quietly appealing, so deeply arousing, when it had nothing whatsoever to do with sex.

When she stopped, the music fading off into silence, he felt a disappointment so keen it was almost physical. If he'd been wise, he would have slipped out again while her eyes were still dreamy, and knocked. Instead, he went with instinct and clapped.

She jolted, her body snapping into tension, her eyes filling with fear, then sharpening with simple annoyance.

"What the hell are you doing in here?"

"I knocked." He gave her the same little shrug and grin he'd offered by the pond. "Guess you were too involved to hear me."

She lowered the violin but held the bow up, somewhat like a fencer with a blade. "Or it's possible I didn't want to be disturbed."

"Can't say I thought of it. I liked the music. I'm more into R and B myself, a little jazz, but that was something. No wonder you do it for a living."

She kept her eyes on his as she set the violin aside. "What a fascinating compliment."

"Just an honest observation. You reminded me of a knickknack my mama had. It was a pearl caught in a big chunk of amber. It was the prettiest thing, but sad, too. The pearl was all alone in there and could never get out. You looked like that when you were playing. Do you always play sad songs?"

"I play what I like." His bruises had blossomed over the last day. They gave his face a rakish, dangerous look, with just enough of the little boy to make a woman want to press something cool-her lips perhaps-on the swelling. "Do you have a reason for walking into my house uninvited, Mr. Longstreet?"

"You might as well make it Tucker. I'm going to call you Caroline. Or Caro." His teeth flashed. "That's what Miss Edith called you. I like it."

"That doesn't answer my question."

He eased away from the jamb. "We tend to drop by on neighbors around here, but as it happens, I did have a purpose. You going to ask me to sit down?"

She tilted her head. "No."

"Damn. The nastier you are, the more I like you. I'm perverse that way."

"And other ways?"

He chuckled and sat on the arm of the sofa. "We'll have to get to know each other better first. You might hear I'm easy, Caroline, but the thing is, I've got my standards."

"What a relief." She tapped the bow against her open palm. "As to your purpose?"

He cocked a foot on his knee, as thoroughly at home as a hound in a patch of green shade. "Lord, I like the way you talk. As fine and cool as a bowl of peach ice cream. I'm real partial to peach ice cream."

When her lips threatened to quirk, she turned them down in defense. "I'm not terribly interested in your partialities at the moment, nor am I in the mood to entertain company. I've had a difficult couple of days."

The easy humor vanished. "It was rough on you, finding Edda Lou that way."

"Rougher on her, I'd say."

He stood, reaching for a cigarette as he paced. "Being as you've been here a few days, you'll know everything that's been said."

Though she tried, she couldn't prevent a twinge of sympathy. It was never easy to have your private life, your private mistakes the topic of hot speculation. She knew. "If you're saying the gossip around here is as thick as the humidity, I won't argue."

"I can't stop you from thinking what you're inclined to think, but I want my say."

She lifted a brow. "I can't fathom why my thoughts would concern you."

"You jumped fast enough to give them to that shiny-shoed Yankee."

She waited. The way he was pacing up and down the room struck as more frustrated than violent. She relaxed enough to set down the bow. "If you're speaking of Agent Burns, I told him what I'd seen. You were by the pond."

His head whipped around. "Sure I was there, goddammit. Did I look like I was planning to murder somebody?"

"You looked angry," she tossed back. "I have no idea what you were planning."

He stopped, turned, and took a step toward her. "If you think I did that to Edda Lou, why the hell are you standing here talking to me instead of running for your life?"

She jerked up her chin. "I can take care of myself. Since I've already told the police everything I know-which is essentially nothing-you'd have no reason to hurt me."

He balled his hands at his sides. "Lady, you keep looking at me as if I were something you scraped off your shoe, and I might come up with a reason or two."

"Don't threaten me." Adrenaline began to pump through her, pushing her forward until she was nearly nose to nose with him. "I know your kind, Tucker. You just can't stand it that I'm not tripping over myself to get you to blink my way. It galls your male pride when a woman isn't interested. Then when one is, like this Edda Lou, you can't wait to shake her off. One way or another."

It was close enough to the truth to sting. "Honey, women come and women go. Doesn't mean a damn to me. I don't pine away for them, and I sure as hell don't kill them. And as far as tripping over yourself... Christ."

She managed one short scream as he grabbed her and tossed her to the floor. Then the breath was knocked out of her when he landed hard on top of her. She heard the explosion, and thought for a moment it was the crack of her head hitting the hardwood.

"What the hell do you think-"

"Stay down. Holy bleeding Jesus." His face was only inches from hers, and she saw something move into his eyes that might have been fear, or cunning.

"If you don't get off me this minute-" Whatever she planned to do next was forgotten as she heard the next shot and watched a hole explode in the cushion of the couch just above their heads. "My God." Her fingers dug into his arms. "Someone's shooting at us."

"You caught on, sugar."

"What are we going to do?"

"We could stay like this and hope he goes away. But he won't." On a sigh, he lowered his forehead to hers in a gesture that was curiously intimate. "Shit. He's crazy enough to kill you, too, and figure it was God's will."

"Who?" She pounded on his back. "Who is it?"

"Edda Lou's daddy." Tucker lifted his head a fraction. Under the circumstances, he didn't dwell on the fact that her mouth was ripe and full and naked. He noticed-but he didn't dwell on it.

"The woman who was killed? Her father is out there shooting at us?"

"At me, mostly. But he wouldn't worry much about hitting you along the way. I got a glimpse of him through the window while he was sighting between my eyes."

"That's crazy. A man can't go around shooting into someone's house."

"I'll be sure to mention that to him if I get the chance." There was only one thing to do, and he hated it. "You got a gun around here?"

"Yes. My grandfather's. In the den, across the hall."

"Here's what I want you to do. Stay down, keep quiet."

She nodded. "I can do that." As he eased down her body, she grabbed his shirt. "Are you going to shoot him?"

"Christ, I hope not." He shimmied back, using the couch as cover, then sucking in a breath when he was forced to crawl out into the open. When he reached the doorway, he figured he was far enough away to keep any strays from hitting Caroline. "Austin, you sonofabitch, there's a woman in here."

"My daughter was a woman." Another.44 slammed through the window, scattering glass. "I'm going to kill you, Longstreet. 'For this is the time of the Lord's vengeance.' I'm going to kill you. Then I'm going to slice you up into pieces, just like you done to Edda Lou."

Tucker pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes and concentrated. "You don't want to hurt the lady."

"Don't know if she's a lady. Might be another of your whores. The Lord's guiding my hand. This here's an eye for an eye. 'For the Lord thy God is a consuming fire. The wages of sin is death.' "

While Austin quoted scripture, Tucker belly-crawled across the hall. Once inside, he moved quickly. He grabbed a Remington and with sweaty hands loaded it, queasy at the knowledge that he might have to use it.

He moved to the window, eased out the screen, and crawled through.

The next shot had him babbling his own prayer as he hunched over and darted into the bush.

Austin had picked his spot. Not two yards from the front of the house, he leaned against a lone maple. Sweat streamed off his face and dampened the back of his camo shirt. He called on Jesus, peppering his prayers and threats with rifle fire. All of the front windows were smashed.

He could have rushed the house and ended it. But he wanted, needed, to know Tucker was suffering. For more than thirty years he'd been waiting for a way to pay back a Longstreet. Now he'd found it.

"I'm going to shoot your nuts off, Tucker. Gonna blow away that cock you're so proud of. That's the justice for a fornicator. You'll go to hell dickless. That's God's will. You hear me, you heathen sinner? You hear what I'm saying?"

With little regret Tucker shoved the rifle barrel into Austin's left ear. "I hear you, no need to shout." He hoped Austin didn't notice the gun was wavering in his shaking hands. "Put down the gun, Austin, or I'll have to put a bullet in your brain. Believe me, it'll be hard on me. You'll be dead, but I'll have to throw away this shirt. It's almost brand new."

"I'll kill you." Austin tried to turn his head, but Tucker poked hard with the rifle.

"Not today, you won't. Now, you toss that gun away, then you unbuckle that ammo belt. Slow and easy." When Austin hesitated, Tucker gave him another nudge. He got a ridiculous image of the barrel sliding right through Austin's head and poking out the other ear. "I know I'm not much of a shot, but even I can't miss when I've got the barrel in your ear."

He breathed a little easier when Austin tossed the gun aside. "Caroline," he shouted. "You give Burke a call now, tell him to get his ass down here on the double. Then bring me some rope." The moment the ammo belt hit the dirt, Tucker kicked it aside. "Now, what was that about my dick, Austin?"

Two minutes later Caroline streaked out of the house with a length of clothesline. "He's on his way. I just..." She trailed off and stared down at the man sprawled in the grass. His face was battered and grimy with sweat and black streaks. Camouflage wear covered his tanklike torso and steel-girder legs. Despite the fact that Tucker stood over him, pointing a gun at the nape of his neck, the younger man looked toothpick-thin and vulnerable.

"I brought the rope," she said, swallowing when her voice squeaked.

"Good. Honey, you want to scoot around behind him?"

Moistening her lips, she gave Austin a wide berth. "How did you... I mean, he's so big."

"Big mouth, too." He couldn't resist giving Austin a little nudge with his foot. "He was so busy screaming his fire and brimstone, he didn't hear the sinner coming up behind him. Can you shoot this thing?"

"Yes." She eyed the rifle. "Sort of."

"Sort of's good. Ain't it, Austin? She's liable to shoot something vital off you if you move too quick. Nothing more dangerous than a female with a loaded gun. Unless it's a Yankee female. Here now. You just keep pointing that right at his head while I tie him up." He balanced the gun in her hands. Their eyes met with twin expressions of giddy relief. For an instant they were the fastest of friends.

"That's the way, sugar. Just don't point it at me. Now, if he moves, you just press your finger. Then close your eyes, 'cause it'll blow his head off, and I wouldn't want you to see something that nasty."

He winked at her so that she understood the warning was for Austin's benefit. "Okay. But I'm a little shaky. I hope I don't press it without meaning to."

Tucker grinned as he hunkered down to tie Austin's hands. "Just do the best you can, Caro. Nobody can ask for better than that. Gonna hog-tie you, Austin. Seems to fit." He looped the cord and tugged, bowing Austin's beefy legs. "Don't seem right to me that you blew out all this lady's windows. Ruined her davenport, too. As I recall, Miss Edith was fond of that davenport."

He stepped back to take the gun from Caroline. "Darlin', would you mind fetching me a beer? I've worked up a thirst."

She had an insane urge to laugh. "I don't have any... beer, that is. I have some wine. Some chardonnay," she babbled.

"That'd go down nice, too."

"All right. I... sure." She started up the steps, then turned back to see Tucker taking out a cigarette. Putting a hand to her giddy head, she watched him pinch off the tip. "Why do you do that?"

"Hmm?" He squinted as he struck a match.

"Tear off the tip?"

"Oh." He drew in smoke with every indication of pleasure. "I'm fixin' to quit. Seems a sensible way to go about it. Figure after a couple weeks, I'll be down to a half a smoke at a time." He smiled at her, wildly attractive and pale as a sheet. "You put that chardonnay in a big glass for me now, okay?"

"Yeah." She let out a shaky breath as she heard the wail of a siren. Tucker was still close enough that she heard the same sigh of relief from him. "You bet." The screen door slammed behind her.