10,798
23.12.2018

On Sunday mornings most of Innocence gathered in one of its three churches. The Church of Redemption was for the Methodists, and made up a large part of the religious pie. It was a small gray box smack in the center of town. It had been built in 1926 on the site of the original First Methodist Church which had washed away-along with Reverend Scottsdale and the church secretary he'd been breaking several commandments with-in flood waters in '25.

On the south end of town was Innocence Bible Church, where the blacks went to worship. There was no law of God or man that segregated the churches. But tradition was often stronger than law.

Every blessed Sunday the sound of rich voices raised in song flowed through the open windows with a clarity the Methodists couldn't compete with. Across from Redemption and down a block was Trinity Lutheran. It was famous for its bake sales. Delia Duncan, being in charge of such matters, was given to bragging that Trinity had raised enough money selling brownies and custard pies to buy a stained glass window. That had inspired Happy Fuller to organize three catfish suppers for Redemption so that they could buy a bigger window.

Those down at the Bible were content with their clear glass and clear voices.

Sundays were a time for prayer, contemplation, and fierce competition in Innocence. From three pulpits the word of God rang out and sin was put in its place. In hard wooden pews old men and children nodded off in the heat, and women wielded their fans. Organs blared and babies wailed. Hard-earned money was dropped into the passing plates. Sweat rolled.

In all three holy places, preachers bowed their heads and reminded the congregation of Edda Lou Hatinger. Prayers were requested for Mavis Hatinger, her husband-in none of the churches was Austin referred to by name-and her remaining children.

In the back pew of Redemption, pale with grief and confusion, Mavis wept silent tears. Three of her five children were with her. Vernon, who'd inherited his father's sullen looks and mean temper, sat beside his wife, Loretta. She hushed their toddler as best she could with a well-used pacifier and practiced knee bounces. Her cotton dress stretched tight across her pregnant belly.

Ruthanne sat beside her, dry-eyed and silent. She was eighteen, and ten days out of Jefferson Davis High School. She was sorry her sister had died, though she hadn't loved Edda Lou. Sitting in the stifling church, all she could think of was how quickly she could make enough money to get out of Innocence.

Bored and wishing he were anywhere else was young Cy. His feet were cramped inside the hard black shoes that were already a size too small, and his neck was chafed from the starch his mother had sprayed into his collar. His family was an embarrassment to him, but at fourteen, he was stuck with them.

He hated the fact that the preacher was talking about them like they were to be pitied and prayed for. Too many of his peers were scattered through the congregation, and his face flamed every time one of them shot a look over a shoulder. It was a great relief to Cy when the service ended and they could stand up. As sachet-scented ladies made their way to his mother to express sympathy, he ducked out the back of the pew and hurried off to have a smoke behind Larsson's.

It all sucked as far as Cy could see. His sister was dead, his father and his brother were in jail. His mama didn't do much more than wring her hands and talk to the Legal Aid guy in Greenville. All Vernon could talk about was paying somebody back. Loretta agreed with every word; she'd learned to agree fast and avoid a fist in the eye. A real quick study, that Loretta.

Cy lighted one of the three Pall Malls he'd swiped from Vernon and tugged at his tie.

Ruthanne had more sense than the rest, Cy decided. But she was always busy counting her money-just like Silas Marner and his coins. Cy knew she hid her cache in a box of sanitary napkins-a place her father would never look. Because Cy had a sense of loyalty-and he'd be just as happy to see her go-he kept Ruthanne's secret to himself.

He'd already figured that the minute he had his high school diploma, he'd be lighting out himself. There would be no chance of college for him. As Cy had a keen and thirsty mind, that hurt more than a little. But he was also a pragmatic sort and accepted what was.

Though he'd yet to find real pleasure in smoking, he took another drag.

"Hey." Jim March sidled around the building. He was a tall boy, gangly, with skin the color of molasses. Like Cy, Jim was in his Sunday best. "Whatcha doing?"

In the way of old friends, he dropped down beside Cy.

"Just having a smoke. You?"

"Nothing." Comfortable with each other, they lapsed into silence. "Sure am glad school's out," Jim said at length.

"Yeah." Cy wasn't about to embarrass himself by admitting he liked school. "Got the whole summer." For Cy, it stretched out interminably.

"Going to get you a job?"

Cy moved his shoulders. "Ain't no work."

Jim carefully folded his bright red tie and put it in his pocket. "My daddy's doing some work for that Miz Waverly." Jim didn't consider it politic to mention that his father had replaced the windows Cy's father had blown out. "Going to paint her whole house. I'm helping."

"Guess you'll be a rich man."

"Shit." Jim grinned and began to draw patterns in the dirt. "Get me some pocket money though. Got two dollars right now."

"That's two more'n I got."

Lips pursed, Jim slanted a look at his friend. They weren't supposed to be friends, not according to Cy's old man. But they'd managed to remain so, on the sly. "I heard tell the Longstreets are hiring on for field work."

Cy hooted and passed the Pall Mall to Jim to finish off. "My daddy'd skin me alive if I went near Sweetwater."

"Guess so."

But his daddy was in jail, Cy remembered. If he could get work, he could start his own secret fund, just like Ruthanne. "You sure they're hiring?"

"What I heard. Miss Delia's down at the church bake sale. You could ask her." He smiled at Cy. "They've got lemon pies down there. Might get one for two dollars. Sure would be nice to take some lemon pie down to Gooseneck Creek and catch some cats."

"Sure would." Cy cast a look at his friend. His grin was slow and surprisingly lovely. "I really oughta help you eat it, or else you'll just pig it down and puke it up."

While the boys were negotiating for pie, and women were showing off their Sunday dresses, Tucker was spread over his bed, luxuriating in a half doze.

He loved Sundays. The house was quiet as a tomb, with Delia off to town and everyone else asleep or sprawled somewhere with the Sunday paper.

In his mother's day it had been different. Then the whole house had marched off to church-spit and polish-to take their place in the front pew. His mother would smell of lavender and be wearing her grandmother's pearls.

After service there would be a varied critique of the sermon, talk of weather and crops. New babies would be admired and clucked over. Grown children come back to visit would be shown off by proud parents, and the young would take the opportunity to sashay and flirt.

Afterward, they would sit down to Sunday dinner. Glazed ham, sweet potatoes, fresh biscuits, green beans swimming in pot liquor, and maybe some pecan pie. And flowers, there would always be flowers on the table. His mother had seen to that.

Out of respect for her, Tucker's father never touched a bottle on Sunday, not from sunup to sundown. As a result, those long afternoons took on a pleasant, dreamy quality in retrospect-an illusion perhaps, but a comforting one.

Part of Tucker missed those days. But there was something to be said for snoozing in a quiet house with the chatter of birds piping outside, the hum of the fan stirring air, and the happy notion that there was no place to go and nothing to do.

He heard a car engine and rolled over in bed. The movement revived a few aches. He grunted, waiting for the discomfort and the disturbance to pass.

The knock on the front door had Tucker opening one eye. Sunlight speared it, causing him to hiss through his teeth. He considered playing possum, waiting for Josie or Dwayne to handle things. But Josie's room was on the other side of the house, and Dwayne was probably just as comatose as he'd been last night when Tucker hauled him in from the lake.

"Shit. Go the hell away."

He had snuggled into the pillow and was willing himself back to sleep when the knocking stopped. Before he could congratulate himself, Burke's voice rose from beneath his window.

"Tucker, get your butt up. I gotta talk to you. Dammit, Tuck, it's important."

"Always goddamn important," Tucker muttered as he pushed himself out of bed. All of his aches and pains began to awaken. Naked and irritable, he pushed open the terrace doors.

"Jesus." Burke tossed his cigarette aside and took a long, slow scan of Tucker's body. It was a palette of black, blue, and sickly yellow. "He really worked you over, didn't he, son?"

"Did you come all the way out here and wake me up just to make that stunning observation?"

"You come on out and I'll tell you why I'm here. And put some clothes on before I haul you in for indecent exposure."

"Up yours, Sheriff." Tucker stumbled back into the bedroom, looked at his tangled sheets with some regret, then grabbed some cotton drawstring pants and his sunglasses. That was as close to dressed as he intended to get.

Since he wasn't feeling kindly toward Burke, he took a detour into the bathroom to empty his bladder and brush his teeth.

"Haven't even had a cup of goddamn coffee," he grumbled when he walked out onto the porch. Burke was sitting on one of the rockers. From the shine on his shoes and the crispness of his shirt, it was obvious he'd come straight from service.

"Sorry to get you up so early. Can't be more than a minute past noon."

"Give me a cigarette, you bastard."

Burke obliged, waited until Tucker had finished his little routine. "You really think making them shorter's going to help you quit?"

"Eventually." Tucker pulled in smoke, winced as it burned, then blew it out. He drew again, felt marginally better, and sat. "So Burke, what brings you calling?"

Burke frowned at the peonies Tucker had tried to salvage. "Talked to that Dr. Rubenstein a while ago. He was having breakfast at the Chat 'N Chew. Waved me inside."

"Hmmm." That had Tucker giving some thought to breakfast himself. Maybe he could sweet-talk Delia into fixing up some hotcakes.

"He wanted to fill me in on a couple things-mostly because he knows it'll yank Burns's chain. He's strictly by-the-book-Burns, I mean. Damn near taking over my office. Can't say I care for it."

"You've got my sympathy. Can I go back to bed now?"

"Tucker, it's about Edda Lou." Burke fiddled with his sheriff's badge. He knew it wasn't purely professional for him to pass any information along to Tucker, especially since the FBI still considered him a suspect. But some loyalties ran deeper than the law. "There wasn't a baby, Tuck."

"Huh?"

Burke sighed. "She wasn't pregnant. Came out during the autopsy. There was no baby. I thought you had a right to know."

A rushing sound filled Tucker's head as he stared down at the tip of the cigarette. When he spoke, his voice was slow and deliberate. "She wasn't pregnant."

"No."

"For certain?"

"Rubenstein knows what he's doing, and he says she wasn't."

With his eyes closed, Tucker sat back and rocked. He realized a large portion of his guilt and grief had been due to the child. But there wasn't a child, had never been a child, and grief easily transformed into rage.

"She lied to me."

"I'd have to say that's true."

"She stood there, in front of all those people, and lied about something like that."

Feeling useless, Burke rose. "I thought you should know. It didn't seem right for you to think… well, I thought you should know."

Thanks didn't seem quite appropriate, so Tucker only nodded, keeping his eyes closed until he heard the cruiser start, listened to it purr down the long, winding drive.

His hands clenched at his sides. There was a black, bubbling rage in him, geysering up from the pit of his stomach until he tasted the vileness of it in his throat. He recognized the signs, and at another time they might have frightened him.

He wanted to hurt something, smash it, pull it apart and grind it to dust.

His eyes were wild when he opened them. In a headlong rush he was racing into the house, up the steps. In his room he grabbed for his keys and gave himself the satisfaction of smashing a lamp. He snatched a shirt from the arm of a chair and shoved his arms through as he stalked out again.

"Tuck?" Heavy-eyed and wrapped in a red silk robe, Josie started down the hallway. "Tuck, I have something to tell you." The one violent glance he sent her before he flung himself down the stairs cleared the sleep from her brain. She streaked after him, calling, "Tuck! Wait!" She caught up with him as he was yanking open the door of his car. "Tucker, what's wrong?"

He shook her off, fighting to hold the animal inside him on a choke chain. "Stay away from me."

"Honey, I just want to help. We're family." She made a grab for the keys, then gasped when his hand clamped tightly around her wrist.

"Get the hell away."

A film of tears coated her eyes. "If you'll just let me talk to you. Tucker, Tucker, I went out with the doctor last night. The FBI doctor." She raised her voice to a shout as the Porsche gunned to life. "Edda Lou wasn't pregnant. There wasn't a baby, Tuck. It was a trap, just like I told you."

His head whipped around, his gaze speared into hers. "I know." He sent gravel flying as he tore up the drive.

Josie hissed and grabbed her calf where one of the stones struck. Furious, she snatched up a handful and flung them after the car.

"Jesus H. Christ. What's all this racket?"

Josie turned to see Dwayne on the porch. His hands were over his eyes. He squinted out from under them, swaying, wearing nothing but his Jockey shorts.

"It's nothing," Josie said on a sigh as she started back up the steps. There didn't seem to be anything she could do for Tucker, but she could tend to Dwayne. "Let's go get us some coffee, honey."

The wheel vibrated under Tucker's hand when he whipped it to make the turn toward town. He was too furious to give a damn when the rear end fishtailed and the tires sang.

She wasn't going to get away with it. That single thought ran circles in his head. She was damn well not going to get away with it. Teeth clenched, he punched the accelerator and jumped up to eighty.

Even with the curves and twists the road took, he could see for miles. The heat waves shimmied up from the patched road and turned distance into a watery mirage. He didn't know where he was going or what he was going to do, but it would be done now. Right now.

He closed a hand over the gearshift, preparing to downshift for the curve just before the McNair place. But when he tugged the wheel, the car stayed arrow straight. He had time to swear, to wrestle the wheel, and to tramp on what turned out to be nearly useless brakes.

With one of her grandmother's wide-brimmed hats shading her face, Caroline attacked the overgrowth beside her lane. Despite the heat and her aching arms, she was having the time of her life. The clippers were sharp as a razor, and their wooden handles were worn smooth by time and use. The short gardening gloves she wore protected her hands from blisters. She imagined her grandmother wearing them to perform this same homey chore.

She knew she could have waited and assigned the task to Toby. But she was enjoying it, the sun, the dusty heat, the verdant smell of green. She was enjoying the simple accomplishment of caring for her own. All around her was a chorus of birds, the hum of the afternoon, the heaviness of solitude. It was precisely what she wanted, and after taking a moment to rub her aching shoulder, she sheared off a vine as thick as her thumb.

She heard the roar of a car engine. Before she shaded her eyes and looked down toward the slice of road she could see at the end of her lane, she knew it was Tucker. The car was coming so fast, and she recognized the powerful purr of his engine.

One of these days, she thought as she put a hand on her hip, he was going to turn that car into a Tinker Toy and put himself in the hospital. And if he was heading her way, she would tell him so. Why the man was…

Her thoughts spun off as she heard the high squeal of rubber on pavement. She heard the shout, and though it contained more fury than fear, she was already running before she heard the crash of glass and rending of metal.

The clippers went flying out of her hands. Above the roaring of her heart all she could hear was the bouncy strains of the young Carl Perkins warning everybody off his blue suede shoes.

"Oh my God!" She saw the ruts torn into the grassy shoulder an instant before she spotted the Porsche sitting drunkenly against the post that had held her mailbox. Shattered glass winked like diamonds over the surface of the road. She saw Tucker slumped over the wheel, and screaming his name, ran to the car.

"Oh, God, my God. Tucker."

Terrified to move him, terrified to leave him, she touched gentle hands to his face. She squeaked out a fresh scream when he jerked his head back.

"Fuck."

She inhaled in three shaky gasps. "You idiot! I thought you were dead. You should be dead the way you drive. A grown man, tearing down the road like some hyped-up, irresponsible teenager. I don't see how you can-"

"Shut up, Caro." He put a hand to his pounding forehead and discovered he was bleeding. What else was new? When he fumbled for the door handle, she jerked it open herself.

"If you weren't hurt, I'd punch you." But she leaned over to help him to his feet.

"I'm in the mood to punch back." His vision grayed, infuriating him, and he leaned on the undamaged rear fender. "Turn the radio off, will you? Get the keys."

She was still muttering to herself when she ripped them out of the ignition. "You killed my mailbox. I suppose we should be thankful it wasn't another car."

"I'll make sure you have a new one tomorrow."

"It's so easy for you to replace things, isn't it?" Fear sharpened her voice as she put an arm around his waist and took his weight.

"Most things." His fucking head was going to fall off, he thought. That might not be so easy to replace. She was still ripping into him as she guided him down the lane toward the house. The sharp stab of gravel reminded him he'd neglected to stop for shoes. He felt a trickle of blood skim down his temple. "Back off, Caroline."

There was something in his voice-not the anger, but the misery-that made her subside. "Lean on me a little more," she murmured. "I'm stronger than I look."

"You look like something a good breeze would blow away." The house wavered in his vision, and he was afraid he might faint. He squinted, which hurt his bruised eye enough to clear the dizziness. "You've got this fragile look about you. Never appealed to me before."

"I'm sure I'm supposed to be flattered."

"But you're not fragile. You're a tough one, Caro, and you're pissed at me. Just hold off yelling for a little while."

"Why should I yell?" She could tell from the hollowness in his voice that he was close to passing out. Keep him angry, keep the adrenaline up, she told herself. If he went down, she wouldn't be able to get him up. "It certainly wouldn't make a difference to me if you wrecked your car and ended up a smear on the road. I'd prefer you do it somewhere other than next to my lane, though."

"Do what I can. Honey, I gotta sit down."

"Almost to the porch." She half dragged him another foot. "You can sit down there."

"Never liked bossy women."

"Then I'm safe." When she got him to the porch and he was still upright, she pulled him along inside.

"You said I could sit-"

"I lied."

He gave a weak, somehow grim laugh. "Women always do."

"Now you can." She eased him down on the couch with the bullet hole through the cushion. After heaving his legs up, she propped a pillow under his head. "I'm going to call Doc Shays, then I'll clean you up."

He made a grab for her hand, and missed, but the movement stopped her. "Don't call him. It's just a bump and I've got plenty more."

"You could be concussed."

"I could be a lot of things. All he'll do is give me a shot of something. I really hate needles, you know?"

Because she did know, and sympathized, she wavered. The bump didn't seem so bad, and he was certainly lucid. "I'll clean you up, then we'll see."

"Fine. How about a bucket of ice with a beer in it?"

"Ice yes, beer no. Just lie still."

"Woman never will get me a beer," Tucker said under his breath. "I'm lying here bleeding to death and all she does is bitch and nag."

"I heard that," Caroline called from the kitchen.

"They always do." On a sigh, Tucker let his eyes close. He didn't open them again until Caroline pressed a cold cloth to the cut on his forehead. "How come you're wearing that ugly hat?"

"It's not ugly." She felt a trickle of relief as she studied the wound and found it shallow.

"Honey, you may be wearing it, but I'm looking at it, and I'm telling you, it's ugly."

"Fine." Annoyed, she tossed it off, then took a bottle of iodine from the coffee table where she'd set her medical supplies.

Tucker sent the bottle a baleful glance. "Don't do that."

"Baby."

Smiling, he took her wrist. "I think you're real cute, too, sugar."

"That wasn't an endearment." She merely switched the bottle to her other hand and dabbed on the iodine. He yelped and swore. "Oh, get a grip, Tucker."

"Least you can do is blow on it."

She did. His hand snuck from her wrist to her thigh. Caroline gave the cut one last blow, then slapped his hand aside.

"Jesus. Have some respect for the injured."

"Just be still while I bandage this." She snipped some gauze and tape. "And if your hand starts wandering again, I'll give you a lump twice as big as this one."

"Yes, ma'am." Her hands were gentle, and except for the sledgehammer pounding his brain, he was feeling considerably better.

"Are you hurt anywhere else?"

Her hands felt soft and cool as raindrops. "Can't say. Why don't you check?"

She ignored the smirk in his voice and unbuttoned his shirt. "I certainly hope this teaches you… oh, God, Tucker."

His eyes jerked open. "What? What?"

"You're all black and blue."

He took a moment to be grateful she hadn't found a rib sticking out. "Those're old. Austin."

"Why, that's hideous." Horror stung her voice and turned her eyes green as emeralds. "He should be locked up."

He had to smile. "He is locked up, darlin'. Right and tight in the county jail. Carl transported him yesterday."

Caroline laid gentle fingers on his bruised ribs. "He really hurt you."

Pride nettled. "He didn't walk away smiling."

"Of course, that makes it all right." Caroline jerked her hands away and popped open a bottle of painkiller Dr. Palamo had prescribed for her stress headaches. "Men are all idiots."

Carefully, Tucker propped himself on his elbows. "I didn't start it. He came after me."

"Just shut up and take one of these."

"What am I taking?"

"Something that won't laugh at that headache I imagine you've got."

He took the pill, grateful, but also scanned the label of the bottle. If it did the job, he'd have to ask Doc Shays to get him some for the rest of his pains. Tucker swallowed it with a sip of the water she offered. "Can I have that beer if I'm able to stand up?"

"No."

He laid his head back against the cushion. "Just as well. Darlin', do me a favor and call Junior Talbot. He's going to have to come on down and tow my car."

"I'll take care of it." She rose, then shot him a warning look. "Don't go to sleep. You're not supposed to sleep if you have a concussion."

"Why not?"

Frustration added an edge to her voice. "I don't know why not, I'm not a doctor. It's just something you hear all the time."

"I won't go to sleep if you promise to come right back and hold my hand."

Caroline lifted a brow. "If you go to sleep, I'm calling Doc Shays and telling him to bring his longest needle."

"Christ, you're a mean one." But his lips curved as she walked out.

She gave him less than three minutes to consider drifting off before she returned with an ice pack. "Junior said he'd be out as soon as he could get away." When he only grunted, she laid the ice pack on his head, and the grunt turned into a long "ah" of gratitude. "I didn't know whether I should call your family."

"Not yet. Delia'll be in town awhile longer. I forgot she was running a bake sale today. Josie's not likely to go anywhere, especially if Dwayne wakes up with his usual Sunday head." Lord, he was tired. Not the pleasant, sleepy tired of a lazy afternoon, but tired clean to the bone. "Anyway, wrecking cars is kind of a hobby in my family."

She frowned at him. Since his color was coming back, she felt she had a right to demand an explanation. "Then the lot of you should take up croquet or needle-point. Where the hell were you going in such a hurry?"

"I don't know. Anywhere."

"Anywhere's a stupid place to go barefoot at a hundred miles an hour."

"More like eighty. You tend to exaggerate."

"You could have killed yourself."

"Since I felt like killing somebody else, it was a better bet." He opened his eyes, and though she could see the pain had misted away-Dr. Palamo's magic worked quickly-there was something else, something deeper and more poignant.

"Did something happen?"

"There wasn't a baby," he heard himself say.

"Excuse me?"

"She wasn't pregnant. She lied to me. She stood there, looked me right in the eye, and told me she had my baby inside her. And it was a lie."

It took Caroline a moment to realize he was talking about Edda Lou-the Edda Lou she had found floating in the pond. "I'm sorry." She folded her hands in her lap, unsure what to say or how to say it.

He didn't know why he was telling her, but once started, he couldn't stem the words. "These last few days… it's been eating at me. Thinking about her dying that way. She meant something to me once. Almost meant something to me. Thinking about that, and thinking that a part of me died with her was… but there wasn't any part of me in Edda Lou, except for a lie."

"Maybe she made a mistake. She might have thought she was pregnant."

He gave a short laugh. "I hadn't slept with her in nearly two months. A woman like Edda Lou keeps close track of that kind of female business. She knew." He closed his eyes briefly, and when they opened again, a trace of the wild rage glowed in them. "Why am I so mad that there wasn't a baby? She lied, so that means no baby died, and I don't have to hurt thinking about it anymore."

Caroline did hold his hand, even brought it up to her cheek for a moment in comfort. She hadn't realized he had feelings that traveled that deep and difficult a road. The part of her that softened for him would never be able to harden again.

"Sometimes we hurt more for what might have been than for what is."

He turned his palm so that their fingers linked. She had the loveliest and the saddest eyes he'd ever seen. "You sound like you know what I'm talking about."

She smiled, and didn't object when he kissed her knuckles. "I do." Always cautious, she drew her hand free before it lingered too long in his. "Why don't I go out and see if Junior's made it yet?"

He didn't want to break the contact yet, not quite yet. With an effort he pushed himself up. "Why don't we both go?" The room revolved once, slowly, then settled. "If you'll give me a hand."

She looked down at his outstretched hand. It was foolish, she supposed, to think he was asking for more than momentary support. Shaking off the feeling, she reached out and joined her hand with his.