Carnal Innocence (Page 8)

Thunder grumbled over in the east. A breeze, the first she'd felt since crossing the Mississippi border, stirred the leaves in the maple where not thirty minutes before, a man had stood with a loaded rifle.

It didn't seem reasonable, or even possible, but Caroline found herself sitting on the porch steps drinking chardonnay out of a water glass, with what was left of the bottle wedged between her hip and Tucker's.

Her life, she decided as she took another long swallow, had certainly taken some interesting twists and turns.

"This is good stuff," Tucker swirled the wine. He was beginning to feel mellow again-a state he preferred.

"It's a particular favorite of mine."

"Mine, too, now." He turned his head and smiled at her. "Nice breeze."

"Very nice."

"We've been needing rain."

"Yes, I suppose."

He leaned back on his elbows, lifting his face to the cool. "The way the wind's coming, it shouldn't blow the wet into your parlor."

Almost absently, she turned to look at her shattered windows. "Well, there's good news. We wouldn't want it to soak the couch. After all, it has only one bullet hole."

He gave her a friendly pat on the back. "You're a good sport, Caro. I expect some women would've gone bawling or screaming or fainting, but you held up fine."

"Right." Since her glass was nearly empty, she refilled it. "Tucker, may I ask you a regional sort of question?"

He held his glass out, enjoying the music of fine wine striking fine wine when she poured. "Right now, sweetie, you can ask me damn near anything."

"I was curious. Are murders and shootouts common in this part of the state, or is this just a phase?"

"Well now." He contemplated the wine in his glass before drinking. "Speaking for Innocence, and since my "family's been here since before the war-that's the War Between the States."


"I feel confident in holding an opinion on it. I have to say we're new to the kind of murder you're thinking of. Now, Whiteford Talbot blew a good-sized hole in Cal Beauford back when I was a kid. But Whiteford caught old Cal shimmying down the drainpipe outside his bedroom window. And Whiteford's wife-that was Ruby Talbot-was buck-ass naked in bed at the time."

"An entirely different matter," Caroline concluded.

"There you go. And not more than five years back, the Bonny boys and the Shivers peppered each other with buckshot. But that was only over a pig. And seeing as they're cousins and crazy, too, nobody paid much attention."

"I see."

By Jesus, Tucker thought, he liked her, liked her in a companionable sort of way that ran a friendly parallel alongside physical attraction.

"But mostly, Innocence is pretty peaceable."

She frowned over the rim of her glass. "Do you put that on?"

"Which is that?"

"That slightly addled, good-ol'-boy routine."

He grinned and drank. "Only if it seems appropriate."

She sighed and looked away. Overhead the sky was darkening, and the occasional rumbles of thunder were closer, as were the quick, sharp flashes of lightning. But it felt good, too good, just to sit.

"Are you worried? When the sheriff took that man away, he kept swearing he was going to kill you."

"No use getting in a lather over it." But the concern in her voice stirred the juices. Smoothly, he slid an arm around her shoulders. "Don't you worry, sweetheart. I wouldn't want you to fret over me."

She turned her head. Again, her face was inches from his. "It's a bit morbid, isn't it? Using a near-death experience as a seduction."

"Ouch." He was good-natured enough to laugh, experienced enough to keep his arm where it was. "Are you always so suspicious of a man?"

"Of a certain kind of man." She lifted a hand and unwrapped his arm from her shoulders.

"That's cold, Caro, after all we've shared." On a sigh of regret he touched his glass to hers. "Don't suppose you'd invite me to supper?"

Her lips twitched. "I don't suppose I would."

"Maybe you'd play me another tune."

She didn't smile now, only shook her head. "I'm taking a break from playing for anyone."

"Now, that's a shame. Tell you what, I'll play for you."

Her brows lifted in surprise. "You play the violin?"

"Hell no. But I play the radio." He stood, and realized abruptly the wine had gone straight to his head. It wasn't a feeling he objected to. Strolling to his car, he pushed through his cassettes. After choosing one, he turned the key to auxiliary and popped it in.

"Fats Domino," he said with proper respect as "Blueberry Hill" slid out. He walked back, holding out a hand. "Come on." Before Caroline could refuse, he was pulling her to her feet and into his arms. "I just can't hear this song and not want to dance with a pretty woman."

She could have protested or broken away. But it was harmless. And after the last twenty-four hours, she needed a little harmless diversion. So she settled against him, enjoying the fluid way he moved from walk to lawn, laughing a little when he eased her back into a dip, appreciating the way the wine spun inside her head.

"Feel good?" he murmured.

"Hmmm. You're smooth, Tucker, maybe too smooth. But it's a lot better than being shot at."

"I was thinking the same thing." He nuzzled his cheek against her hair. It was soft as silk against his skin. Since he'd always had a weakness for texture, he didn't try to prevent himself from feeling the contrast of her butter-smooth cheek against his, or the way her blouse shifted under his guiding hand. How long and slim her thighs were as they brushed and bumped against his.

The sexual pull didn't surprise him. It was as natural as breathing. What did surprise him was the overwhelming desire to toss her over his shoulder and carry her inside, upstairs. He'd always preferred to take it slow and easy with the ladies, savoring the chase, holding on to control. Dancing with her as the air took on that hushed and pearly light before a storm had him jumpy.

Tucker passed it off as due to his being more than half drunk.

"It's raining," Caroline whispered. Her eyes were closed and her body swayed with his.

"Um-hmm." He could smell the rain on her hair, on her skin. And it was driving him crazy.

She smiled, enjoying the way the slow, fat drops soaked through her clothes. There'd been no rifle fire in her life before, she mused. But there'd been no dancing in the rain either. "It's cool. Wonderfully cool."

The way he was starting to feel, he was surprised the rain didn't sizzle as it plopped against his skin. He found his teeth were at her ear, and her quick, surprised shudder when he closed them gently over the lobe sliced straight through him.

Her eyes shot open, glazed for a moment as he nipped his way along her jawline. Something hot and delicious stirred in her gut before she managed to cut it off. An instant before his mouth took hers, she slapped a hand on his chest and leaned back.

"What do you think you're doing?"

He blinked. "Kissing you?"


He stared at her for a moment, at the rain streaming down her hair, at her eyes which betrayed as much passion as determination. There was an urge to ignore the protesting hand and take what he wanted. The fact that he couldn't had him sighing out an oath.

"Caroline, you're a hard woman."

The alarm bells in her head slowed. Her lips curved a little. He wasn't going to push. "So they say."

"I could hang around awhile, persuade you to change your mind."

"I don't think so."

His eyes laughed. He made one slow pass down her back before releasing her. "Now, that's a challenge, but I figure you had a difficult day, so I'll save it."

"I appreciate that."

"You damn well should." He took her hand, skimmed his thumb over her knuckles. And damn him, she felt the shiver clean down to her toes. "You're going to think about me, Caroline, when you snuggle into your bed tonight."

"What I'm going to think about is getting those windows repaired."

His gaze moved beyond her to the jagged glass stabbing viciously from the worn wooden frame. "I owe you for that," he said. And there was a grimness in his eyes that reminded her how they'd come to be holding hands in the rain.

"I think it's Austin Hatinger who owes me," she said lightly, "but that won't get my windows fixed."

"I'll take care of it." He looked back at her. "You sure are pretty when you're wet. If I stay around much longer, I'm going to try to kiss you again."

"Then you'd better go." She started to tug her hand away, then glanced at his car. Laughter bubbled out. "Tucker, did you know your top's down?"

"Shit." He turned and stared. Rain was bouncing off his white leather upholstery. "That's the trouble with women. They distract you." Before she pulled her hand free, he brought it to his lips for a long kiss that ended with the barest scrape of teeth. "I'll be back, Caroline."

She smiled, stepped back. "Then bring some window glass and a hammer."

He slid into his car without bothering to lift the top. Tucker gunned the engine, blew her a kiss, and started down the lane. In the rearview mirror he watched her, standing in the rain, her hair like wet wheat, her clothes clinging to her curves. Fats belted out "Ain't That a Shame." Tucker could only agree.

Caroline waited until he'd driven out of sight before she walked back to the steps, sat, and downed the rain-diluted wine. Susie had been right, she thought. Tucker Longstreet was no more a killer than she was. And he did indeed have a way about him. She rubbed the hand he'd kissed over her cheek and let out a long, shaky breath.

It was a good thing she wasn't interested. Eyes closed, Caroline lifted her face to the rain. A very good thing.

When she awakened the next morning, it was in a foul mood. She'd slept poorly. And dammit, she had thought of him. Between that and the sound of the rain pattering against the tin roof, she'd tossed and turned the better part of the night. She'd nearly given up and downed one of the sleeping pills left over from Dr. Palamo's last prescription.

But she'd resisted, wanting to prove something to herself. As a result, she opened bleary eyes to steamy sunlight. On top of it, her head was pounding from the wine.

As she swallowed aspirin and stepped under the shower, she knew exactly where to place the blame. If it hadn't been for Tucker, she wouldn't have indulged in too much wine. If it hadn't been for Tucker, she wouldn't have laid awake half the night, taunted by an unwanted sexual ache. And if it hadn't been for Tucker, she wouldn't have holes in her house that had to be dealt with before flies, mosquitoes, and God knew what else decided to come in and live with her.

So much for peace and tranquility, she thought as she stepped out of the shower to dry off. So much for a quiet period of healing. Since she'd had the misfortune to bump into Tucker, her life had been in upheaval. Dead women, crazy men with rifles. Muttering to herself, Caroline pulled on her robe. Why the hell hadn't she gone to the South of France and baked herself whole on a nice crowded beach?

Because she'd wanted to come home, she thought with a sigh. Despite the fact that she'd spent only a few precious days of her childhood in this house, it was as close to home as she had.

Nothing and no one was going to spoil it for her. Caroline marched downstairs, one hand nursing her drumming head. She was going to have her quiet time. She was going to sit on the porch and watch the sunset, tend flowers, listen to music. She was going to be just as peaceful and solitary as she chose. Starting right this minute.

Chin set, she shoved open the front door. And let out a strangled scream.

A black man with a scarred cheek and shoulders like a Brahma bull stood by a broken window. Caroline caught the glint of metal in his hand. Her thoughts tumbled over each other. To dash inside and try for the phone. To streak to her car and hope the keys were inside it. To simply stand and scream.

"Miz Waverly, ma'am?"

After a frantic search, she found her voice. "I've called the sheriff."

"Yes'm, Tuck told me you had yourself some trouble out here."

"I... excuse me?"

"Hatinger blew out your windows. Sheriff's got him down in jail. I oughta be able to take care of things right quick."

"Take care?"

She saw his hand move and sucked in air to scream. Let it out again when she saw that the metal in his hand was a tape measure. While she fought to lower her pulse rate, he stretched the tape across the empty space where glass had been.

"You're going to fix the windows."

"Yes'm. Tuck gave me a call last night. Said he'd let you know I'd be by in the morning so's I could measure them up and reglaze." His nut-brown eyes flickered, then filled with quiet amusement. "Guess he didn't let you know."

"No." As relief and annoyance flooded through, Caroline pressed a hand to her speeding heart. "No, he didn't mention it."

"Tuck's not what you call dependable."

"I've come to understand that."

With a nod he jotted figures on a pad. "Guess I gave you a turn."

"That's all right." She managed a smile. "I think I'm getting used to it." Settling, she ran fingers through her damp hair. "You didn't mention your name."

"I'm Toby March." He tugged on the brim of his battered fielder's cap in a kind of salute. "I do handyman kind of work."

"It's, nice to meet you, Mr. March."

After a moment's hesitation, he took the offered hand. "Just call me Toby, ma'am. Everybody does."

"Well, Toby, I appreciate you getting to this so quickly."

"I'm grateful for the work. If you was to get me a broom, I might could clear up this broken glass for you."

"All right. Would you like some coffee?"

"No need to trouble."

"It's no trouble. I was just about to make a pot."

"I'd sure be obliged, then. Black with three sugars, if you don't mind."

"I'll bring it out in a minute." The phone began to ring. "Excuse me."

Pressing a hand to her forehead, Caroline hurried down the hall and snatched up the receiver. "Yes?"

"Well, honey, you sure do lead an exciting life."

"Susie." Caroline leaned back against the banister. "Whoever said small towns were uneventful?"

"Nobody who lived in one. Burke said you weren't hurt any. I'd have come down to see for myself, but the boys had a sleepover. Even keeping an eye on them, the place looks like we had a war."

"I'm fine, really." Except for a hangover, shattered nerves, and an unwelcome dose of sexual frustration. "Just a little frazzled."

"Who could blame you, honey? Tell you what. We're having a barbecue tomorrow. You come out here and sit in the shade, eat till you can't walk, and forget all about your troubles."

"That sounds wonderful."

"Five o'clock. You drive into town, go all the way to the end of Market, and turn left on Magnolia. We're the third house on the right. The yellow one with white shutters. You have any trouble finding it, just follow the smell of charring ribs."

"I'll be there. Thanks, Susie."

Caroline hung up and started back to the kitchen. She put the coffee on, popped some bread in the toaster, and took out some of the wild raspberry jam. The sun was sizzling on the wet grass outside, and the wild, hot smell was as appealing as the scent of coffee. She watched a woodpecker settle against the side of a tree to root for breakfast.

From the front porch came Toby's voice, a rich, creamy baritone. It was lifted in a body-swaying gospel tune about finding peace.

Caroline found that her headache had vanished, her eyes were clear.

All in all, it was good to be home.

Not so far away, someone lay tangled in sweaty sheets and moaned in sleep. Dreams, like dark, twisted rivers, flowed. Dreams of sex, of blood, of power. The dreams were not always remembered in the daylight. Sometimes they flitted in those waking moments, razor-winged butterflies slicing through the mind and leaving shallow wounds that stung.

Women, there were always women. Those brutal, smirking bitches. The need for them-the smooth skin, the soft scent, the hot flavors-was hateful. It could be overcome for long stretches. For days, weeks, even months, there could be a gentleness, a warmth, even a respect. And then, then one of them would do something. Something that required punishment.

The pain would begin, the hunger would grow. And nothing would quench it but blood. But even through the pain, even through the hunger, there was guile. There was a wild satisfaction in knowing that no matter how they looked, how they struggled, no one would find proof.

Madness was alive in Innocence, but it cloaked itself well. As the summer wore on it would fester inside its unwilling host. And smile.

Dr. Theodore Rubenstein-Teddy to his friends-polished off his second cherry danish. He washed the pastry down with lukewarm Pepsi straight from the bottle. He'd never developed a taste for coffee.

Teddy had just skimmed past his fortieth birthday and had begun to comb Grecian Formula 44 through his thick brown hair. He wasn't balding-praise be-but he didn't care for the professorial look the threads of gray gave him.

Teddy considered himself a fun-loving kind of guy. He knew that with his small dark eyes, slightly receding chin, and sallow complexion, he wasn't heart-stirring handsome. He used humor to attract the ladies.

Personality, he liked to tell himself, caught as much pussy as a perfect profile.

Humming to himself, he scrubbed his hands in the sink in Palmer's embalming room, the sink just below the trick picture of Jesus. To amuse himself, Teddy swayed from side to side. When he shifted left, Jesus wore a red robe, a kindly expression, and held an elegant hand up to the valentine-shaped heart prominent on his chest. Shift right, and the face shivered for an instant, then moved to sadness and pain. Understandable, as there was now a crown of thorns perched atop the chestnut hair, thin rivulets of blood marring the intellectual forehead.

Teddy wondered which image Palmer preferred before he reached for his Rock-Hard Cavity Fluid. While he experimented, trying to find that precise point where he could stand and have the two images merge into one, he dried his hands. Behind him, Edda Lou Hatinger lay naked on the porcelain embalming table-the old-fashioned kind, with the run-off grooves along the sides. Her skin was ghastly under the merciless fluorescent lights.

Such things didn't put old Teddy off his danishes. He'd chosen pathology because he'd been expected to go to medical school. He was the fourth generation of Rubensteins with Doctor in front of his name. But long before he'd completed his first year of internship, he'd discovered in himself a nearly obsessive abhorrence of sick people.

Dead was different.

It had never bothered him to work on a cadaver. Hospital rounds with the wheezing, moaning patients had put him off. But the first time he'd been called upon to watch a dissection, he knew he'd found his vocation.

The dead didn't complain, they didn't need to be saved, and they sure as hell weren't going to sue for malpractice.

Instead, they were like a puzzle. You took them apart, figured out what went wrong, and filed your report.

Teddy was good at puzzles, and he knew he was a hell of a lot better with the dead than with the living. Both of his ex-wives would have been more than happy to point out his lack of sensitivity, his selfishness, and his ghoulish, offputting sense of humor. Though Teddy happened to think he was a pretty funny guy.

Putting a joy buzzer in a cadaver's hand was a surefire way to liven up a dull autopsy.

Burns wouldn't think so, but then, Teddy enjoyed irritating Burns. He smiled to himself as he snapped on surgical gloves. He'd been working on a trick for weeks, waiting for the opportunity to pull it on someone like straight-and-narrow Matt Burns. All he'd needed was a suitably mangled victim.

Teddy blew Edda Lou a kiss in thanks as he turned on his tape recorder.

"What we have here," he began, using a thick southern accent, "is a female, Caucasian, mid-twenties. Identified as Edda Lou Hatinger. Got her height as five foot five, weight one twenty-six. And boys and girls, she's built like your old-fashioned brick shithouse."

That, Teddy thought gleefully, would burn Burns.

"Our guest today suffered from multiple stab wounds. Pardon me, Edda Lou," he said as he made his count. "Twenty-two punctures. Concentrated on the areas of breasts, torso, and genitalia. A sharp, smooth-bladed instrument was used to sever her jugular, trachea, and larynx in a horizontal stroke. From the angle and depth, I'd say left to right, indicating a right-handed assailant. In layman's terms, ladies and gentlemen, her throat was slit from ear to ear, probably by a knife with a..." He whistled as he measured. "Six- to seven-inch blade. Anybody out there see Crocodile Dundee?" He tried on a heavy Aussie accent. "Now, that's a knife! On examination of other traumas, this throat wound was probable cause of death. It would do the job, believe me. I'm a doctor."

He whistled "Theme from A Summer Place" as he continued his exam. "A blow to the base of the skull by a heavy, rough-textured instrument." Delicately, he tweezered out fragments. "Bagging fragments that appear to be wood or tree bark for forensic. I think we'll agree that victim was clubbed with a tree branch. Blow issued prior to death. If you detectives out there conclude that the blow rendered the victim unconscious, you win a free trip for two to Barbados and a complete set of Samsonite luggage."

He glanced up as the door opened. Burns nodded at him. Teddy smiled. "Let the record show that Special Agent Matthew Burns has arrived to watch the master at work. How's it hanging, Burnsie?"

"Your progress?"

"Oh, Edda Lou and I are getting to know each other. Thought we'd go dancing later."

Inside Burns's clenched jaw his teeth ground together. "As always, Rubenstein, your humor is revolting and pathetic."

"Edda Lou appreciates it, don't you, dear?" He patted her hand. "Bruises and broken skin at wrists and ankles." Using his tools, he located and removed tiny white fibers, bagged them while he continued to detail, cheerfully, his findings.

Burns suffered through another fifteen minutes. "Was she sexually assaulted?"

"Pretty hard to tell," Teddy said through pursed lips. "I'm going to take tissue samples." Burns averted his eyes as Teddy did so. "I put her in the water for twelve to fifteen hours. A rough guess before I run the tests puts time of death between eleven and three on the night of June sixteenth."

"I want those results asap."

Teddy continued taking his scrapings. "God, I love it when you talk in acronyms."

Burns ignored him. "I want to know everything there is to know about her. What she ate, when she ate it. If she was drugged or had used alcohol. If she had sexual relations. She was supposed to be pregnant. I want to know how many weeks."

"I'll take a look." Teddy turned, ostensibly to exchange instruments. "You might want to check out her left molar. I found it very interesting."

"Her teeth?"

"That's right. I've never seen anything like it."

Intrigued, Burns leaned over. He opened Edda Lou's mouth, narrowed his eyes.

"Kiss me, you fool," she demanded. Burns yelped and stumbled back.

"Jesus. Jesus Christ."

As laughter doubled him over, Teddy had to sit down or fall down. He'd spent months studying ventriloquism for just such a moment. The wild-eyed panic on Burn's face had made it all worthwhile.

"You've got some style, Burnsie. Even dead women fall for you."

Fighting for control, Burns clenched his fists at his sides. If he took a swipe at Rubenstein, he'd have no choice but to put himself on report. "You're fucking crazy."

Teddy only pointed at Burns's white face, pointed at Edda Lou's gray one, and whooped.

There wasn't any use threatening, Burns knew. Any official complaint he made would be duly noted, then ignored. Rubenstein was the best. A known lunatic, but the best.

"I want the results of your tests by the end of the day, Rubenstein. You may find it all highly amusing, but I have a psychopath to stop."

Unable to speak, Teddy just nodded and held his aching ribs.

When Burns swung out the door, Teddy wiped his teary eyes and slid off the stool. "Edda Lou, honey," he said in a voice still breathless with mirth. "I can't thank you enough for your cooperation. Believe me, you're going down in the annals of history for this one. The boys back in D.C. are going to love it."

Whistling, he picked up his scalpel and went back to work.