Sober and shaken, Dwayne dragged himself out of the water. On his hands and knees he crouched on the grass, fighting his rebellious stomach.

"Christ, Tuck. Jesus bleeding Christ. What're we going to do?"

Tucker didn't answer. He lay on his back, staring up at heat-hazed stars. It took enough effort just to concentrate on breathing when he was so cold, so bitterly cold. "In the pond," Dwayne said, his throat clicking as he swallowed. "Somebody dropped her in our pond. We were in there with her. Jesus, we were swimming with her."

"She's past being bothered by it." He wanted to toss an arm over his eyes. Maybe that would help block out the image of that hand sticking out of the dark water, its fingers curled. As if it had been reaching for him. As if it would grab hold and pull him under. It had been worse because he'd felt obliged to be certain. To be certain it was Darleen Talbot, and to assure himself that she was beyond help. So he'd gritted his teeth and had taken that stiff, dead wrist, tugging against the weight that held the body down. And the head had bobbed up. He'd seen-oh, God, he'd seen what the knife had begun and what the fish were already ending.

The human form was so frail, he thought now. So vulnerable. So easily whittled away into something hideous.

"We can't just leave her in there, Tuck." But Dwayne shuddered at the prospect of going back into the water and touching what had once been Darleen Talbot. "It's not decent."

"I think we have to." Tucker thought regretfully of the bottle he'd tossed away. A few swallows of sour mash would do him some good just now. "At least until Burke gets here. You go in and call him, Dwayne. One of us ought to stay here. Call Burke, and tell him what we found. Tell him Agent Burns better come along." Tucker sat up to drag off his wet shirt. "And bring me out some dry smokes, will you? I wouldn't say no to a beer either," he began, then swore when he caught sight of Caroline walking toward them. Tucker scrambled up, intercepting her after three long strides.

"Glad to see me?" Caroline laughed and gave him a quick, hard hug. "You two decide to take a swim? Delia sent me down to-"

"Go on back up with Dwayne." Tucker wanted her as far away from death and misery as possible. "Go on up and wait for me."

"I'll wait for you." Drawing back, she saw by his face that there was trouble. Cautious, she looked from Tucker to his brother. Dwayne's lip had opened up again, and the blood was dark against his pale face. "Have you been fighting? Dwayne, you've got a split lip."

He ducked his head. Delia'd give him hell about it. "I'll call Burke."

"Burke?" Caroline grabbed Tucker's arm when he tried to nudge her along. "Why do you need Burke?" Her heart did a slow roll in her chest. "Tucker?"

She'd know soon enough, and it might as well come from him. "We found her, Caroline. In the pond."

"Oh, God." Instinctively, she looked toward the water, but Tucker shifted to block her vision.

"Dwayne's going up to call Burke. You go with him."

"I'll stay with you." She shook her head before he could protest. "I'll stay, Tucker."

When Tucker merely shrugged, Dwayne took off in a half run. A whippoorwill began to call, sweet and insistent, for a mate.

"Are you sure?" Even as she asked, Caroline knew the question was foolish.

"Yeah." He blew out a long breath. "I'm sure."

"God, poor Happy." She had to ask the rest, but it took a moment to force the words from her throat. "Was it like the others?" Caroline took his hand, holding tight until his gaze shifted to hers. "I want to know."

"It was like the others." Firmly, he turned her away from the lake. With his arm around her waist they listened to the night bird's song and watched the lights of Sweetwater glow against the dark.

The official process worked with callous efficiency. Men crowded around the pond, their faces washed white by the harsh spotlights hooked to Burke's truck. Pictures were taken to record the scene.

"All right." Burns nodded toward the water. "Let's pull her out."

For a moment no one spoke. Burke pressed his lips together and unhooked his gun belt.

"I'll do it." Surprising himself, Tucker stepped forward. "I'm already wet."

Burke set his gun belt aside. "It's not your job, Tuck."

"It's my land." Turning, he took Caroline by the shoulders. "Go inside."

"We'll go in together when it's finished." She kissed his cheek. "You're a good man, Tucker."

He didn't know about that, but as he slipped into the water, he was certain he was a stupid one. Burke was right, it wasn't his job. He didn't get paid to deal with this kind of horror.

He eased his way through the cool, dark water toward the hand, white as bone, fingers curved beckoningly.

Why did he feel it was his responsibility to drag a dead woman out of the water? She'd been nothing to him in life, shouldn't she be less than nothing to him now?

Because the pond was Sweetwater, he realized. And he was a Longstreet.

For the second time, he curled his fingers around the lifeless wrist. As the head rose, he watched her hair float and spread toward the surface. His stomach lurched. He tasted acid in the back of his throat and ruthlessly forced it down. Using his feet to tread, Tucker hooked an arm around the torso.

There was silence on the bank, the kind so deep you could hear your own heartbeat. A graveyard silence, he thought while he struggled against the weight that was trying to drag him and his burden down.

His grip slipped, and when he shifted and tightened it, her head lolled back on his shoulder. Tucker stiffened, but it wasn't revulsion that filled him. It was pity.

Tucker looked toward the bank. White faces stared back at him. He saw Dwayne, with an arm around Josie. Their eyes looked huge in the flood of light. Burke and Carl already hunkered down, ready to reach out and take the burden Tucker was dragging over. Caroline, her face wet, stood with her hand resting on Cy's shoulder. Burns stood back, observing, as though it were a moderately interesting play.

"Something's tied to her legs," Tucker called out. "I need a knife."

"That's evidence, Longstreet." Burns stepped forward. "I want it intact."

"You son of a bitch." Tucker managed to haul her another foot. "Why don't you come on in and get your fucking evidence yourself?"

"I'll help you, Mr. Tucker." Before anyone could stop him, Cy was running over and slipping into the water.

"Christ, boy, get back from here."

"I can help." Slick as an otter, Cy paddled over. "I'm strong enough." His face blanched when he swam close, but he reached down to take part of the weight. "We can do it."

"Keep your eye on the bank," Tucker told him. "And try not to think."

Cy scissored his feet. "I'm thinking about what an asshole that FBI man is."

"Even better."

It was a short and grisly swim. When they reached the bank, both Carl and Burke hooked hands under Darleen's arms.

"Look the other way," Tucker ordered Cy. "There's no shame in it." He would have done so himself, but the angle was wrong. So he saw what had been done to the body. As it was dragged effortfully out and onto the grass, he saw everything. "Go on over with Caroline now, Cy. No." He caught the boy's head before Cy could turn it. "Don't look this way. Go over with Caroline. You did good."


Tucker hauled himself out. He sat there a moment, his feet dangling in the water. "Dwayne, give me a smoke."

It was Josie who brought him a cigarette, already lighted. "After that, I figure you deserve a whole one." She laid her cheek against his. "I'm sorry it had to be you, Tuck."

"So'm I." He took a greedy drag. "Burke, don't you have a blanket to put over her? This isn't right."

"If you civilians would go into the house," Burns began, "this area will remain off limits until the investigation is completed."

"Goddammit, we knew her," Tucker said wearily. "You didn't. Least you can do for her is cover her."

"Go on, Tuck." Burke reached down to help Tucker to his feet. "There are things we gotta do. It's best if you went on while we get to it. We'll be as quick as we can."

"I saw what was done to her, Burke," Tucker said in a raw voice. "You can't be quick enough."

"You will stay available," Burns put in. "You and your brother. I'll need to question you shortly."

Saying nothing, Tucker turned away to walk with Caroline and Cy back to the house.

Caroline wasn't much of a cook, but she heated up some soup to go with the roast beef Delia had sliced. Soup, it seemed to her, was one of those nerve-soothing foods. By the way Cy plowed through his, she decided it worked.

Dwayne scraped his bowl clean, then seemed embarrassed by his appetite. "That was mighty tasty, Caroline. I appreciate you putting a meal together."

"Delia did most of it before she left for the Fullers'."

"We do appreciate it," Josie put in. "Though I don't know how Dwayne can eat with that fat lip. Run into a door, honey?"

"Tucker and I had a tussle." He reached for his iced tea. He didn't feel much like getting drunk tonight after all.

"Tucker hit you?" Smiling a little, Josie rested her chin on her hand. "That man's been using his fists more these past few weeks than he has his whole life. Now, what could y'all be fighting about? Don't tell me you've taken a shine to Caroline here?"

Josie winked at Caroline to include her in the joke.

"Nothing like that." Uncomfortable, Dwayne shifted in his chair. "We just had a disagreement, that's all. That's how it happened. We started wrestling and ended up in the pond. Guess we stirred up the water quite a bit between that and racing to the far bank and back. Then Tucker... he practically bumped right into her."

"Don't think about it." Josie rose to put her arms around his neck. "It was just bad luck. Bad luck all around."

"That's a mighty cold way of putting it," Tucker said as he stepped into the kitchen.

Josie kept her cheek against Dwayne's hair. "It's the truth. Sometimes the truth's cold. If you hadn't been wrestling around in the pond, you wouldn't have found her. She'd still be dead, but she might've stayed down. Then the two of you wouldn't be looking so peaked."

Tucker dropped into a chair. He knew his temper was on edge, but Josie's carelessness pushed a dangerous button. "We won't look 'peaked' for long. Darleen's going to be dead forever."

"That's just my point. Finding her like that only made things hard on you."

"Christ, Josie, you've got the sensitivity of a codfish."

She straightened at that, eyes hot, cheeks pale. "I've got plenty of sensitivity when it comes to my family. Maybe I don't give two hoots about what happened to that little slut-"

"Josie." Wincing, Dwayne reached for her hand, but she shook him off.

"That's just what she was, and her being dead doesn't change it. I'm sorry for Happy and the rest, but I'm just sick about how you and Dwayne came to be involved. If you think that makes me cold, Tucker Longstreet, that's fine. I'll just save my sensitivity for someone who appreciates it."

She slammed out, leaving the smoke of her temper lingering in the air.

"Maybe I'll go after her." Dwayne rose awkwardly. "Smooth her feathers."

"Tell her I'm sorry, if you think it'll help." Resigned, Tucker rubbed his hands over his face. "No use slicing at her for being what she is."

"Mr. Tucker, you want a beer?"

Tucker lowered his hands and gave Cy a wan smile. "About as much as I want to breathe right now. But I think I'd do better with coffee."

"I'll get it." Caroline opened a cupboard for a cup. "We're all on edge, Tucker. She's just worried about you."

"I know. Did Delia go over to the Fullers'?"

"Yes, she and Birdie were going to stay the night with Happy. Help take care of the baby. Cousin Lulu's upstairs watching a movie."

She didn't add that the lady had commented that murders were much more interesting on TV than in real life, and had settled back with a bowl of popcorn and a bottle of Dixie beer.

"Why don't you go on up with her, Cy?" Tucker suggested. "She likes company."

"Can I take the pup with me?" He hauled Useless out from the dog's spot beneath the table.

"Sure." Caroline smiled. "Don't let Cousin Lulu give him too much beer."

"No, ma'am. 'Night, Mr. Tucker."

" 'Night, Cy." He touched the boy's arm. "Thanks for helping out."

"I'd do anything for you, Mr. Tucker." The words came out in a rush. Then Cy colored deep and hurried from the room.

"Devotion like that's a precious gift." Caroline ladled out soup. "You'll be careful with him, won't you?"

"I'm going to try." Tucker rubbed a hand over his rough chin. He hadn't shaved, though he'd showered twice. "I guess I wish he wouldn't look at me like I was Hercules, Plato, and Clark Kent all rolled into one."

Caroline set the bowl in front of him, brushed a hand through his hair. "It's tough being a hero."

"It's tougher trying to be one when you haven't got the makings."

"Oh, I think you'll surprise yourself." Smiling, she sat beside him. "I made you soup."

"So I see." He took her hand. "You sure are handy to have around, Caroline."

"I've been pretty busy surprising myself lately. I'm glad you didn't know me before, Tucker."

"Before doesn't mean diddly."

"This from a man who'll-at the drop of a hat-tell me stories about people who've been dead for a hundred years."

"That's different." He started to eat, more to please her than because he was hungry. After the first few spoonfuls, he discovered he was ravenous. "What happened before matters because it shapes things. But who you were a year ago isn't as important as who you are now."

"I like the way you think. Tucker?"


"Do you want me to stay tonight?"

His gaze came back to hers, fastened there with a wealth of feeling and need. "I want you to stay."

With a nod, she rose. "Let me fix you a sandwich."

Teddy was back. Josie knew he was expected since she'd spent the evening in Burns's bed and the FBI agent had told her so. The idea of having a pathologist and a special agent to juggle had eased her hurt and anger at Tucker's words.

She'd decided she wouldn't speak to her brother for a day or two-at least until he'd apologized in person rather than sending Dwayne scrambling after her as proxy.

She was still brooding over it the following afternoon. While the rest of Innocence was reeling in shock over the latest murder, Josie sat at the counter of the Chat 'N Chew, freshening her lipstick in her new purse mirror. Teddy had promised to join her for lunch as soon as he'd finished his preliminary examination of the body.

"Earleen." Pouting, Josie tilted the mirror back to fluff at her hair. "Do you think I'm a cold-hearted woman?"

"Cold-hearted?" Earleen leaned on the counter and flexed her aching feet. "Kinda hard to be hot-blooded and cold-hearted all at once."

Pleased, Josie smiled. "That's true. Being honest about things and not pretending otherwise doesn't make you cold. Why, it makes you true to yourself, don't you think?"

"That's a fact."

Using the mirror, Josie scanned the diner without turning around. Several of the booths were occupied. Beneath the crooning of Reba Mclntire from the juke, the conversation was all about Darleen.

"You know, half the people in here didn't have a minute's use for Darleen while she was alive." Josie snapped the mirror closed. "Now that she's dead, they can't say enough."

"That's human nature," Earleen declared. "It's like one of them artists whose paintings ain't worth shit while he's alive to paint 'em, then once he kills himself or gets hit by a truck, people fall all over themselves to pay a fortune for them. Human nature."

Josie appreciated the analogy. "So Darleen's worth more dead than she was alive."

While she might have agreed, Earleen was superstitious enough not to speak ill of the dead. "It's Junior I'm sorry for. And that dear little boy." With a sigh, Earleen reached back to take an order off the shelf. "And Happy and Singleton, too. The living's who suffers."

While Earleen walked off to serve a customer, Josie murmured in agreement. She dug through her purse for her atomizer of perfume, then squirted scent liberally on her wrists and throat.

When Carl walked in, the conversation died, then picked up again in murmurs. Josie patted the stool beside her.

"Come on over here and sit. You look worn out."

"Thank you, Josie, but I can't. Just come by to get some food to take back to the office."

"What can I get for you, Carl?" Earleen popped back behind the counter, hoping to exchange food for news.

"I need a half dozen hamburgers. Maybe a quart of your potato salad and some cole slaw. Make it a gallon of iced tea."

"How're you going to want them burgers?"

"Make them all medium, Earleen, and load 'em."

Josie picked up her Diet Coke. "Y'all must be busy as one-armed paperhangers down at the office if you can't even break for lunch."

"We are that, Josie." He was so tired himself he could have slept standing up. Belatedly, he remembered to take off his hat. "County sheriff and a couple of his boys're down. Agent Burns has had that fax machine clicking all morning. It's hot enough in that office to smoke a ham."

"With all of you working so hard, you must have some clues."

"We got a thing or two." He glanced over as Earleen turned expectantly from the grill. "Now, I can't tell you what we got, official like. But y'all know Darleen was killed like the others. We gotta figure it was the same person using the same weapon."

"It ain't right," Earleen said. "We got some psychopathic killer running loose, and not a woman in the county can feel safe."

"No, it ain't right. But we're going to stop him. You can take that to the bank."

"Matthew says serial killers're different." Josie sucked on the straw. "He says they can look and act just like regular people. It makes them hard to catch."

"We'll catch this one." He leaned closer. "I figure I should tell you, Josie, since you'll be finding out soon anyway. Looks like Darleen was killed right there, right by the pond."

"Sweet Jesus." Earleen was torn between excitement and terror. "You mean to say he did it over to Sweetwater?"

"We got reason to think so. I don't mean to scare you, Josie, but you want to be mighty careful."

She took a cigarette from the pack on the counter and her fingers shook lightly. "I will be, Carl. You can take that to the bank."

Slowly, she blew out a stream of smoke. And she intended to find out exactly what they knew the minute she could get Teddy alone.

There were reporters camped out in her yard. Caroline had stopped answering the phone. Invariably, it was another inquisitive newsman or -woman on the other end. To distract herself, she took out the scrapbook she'd found in her grandmother's trunk.

Caroline could see most of her own life on those pages. Her parents' wedding announcement clipped from the Philadelphia and Greenville papers. The studied, professional photographs taken at the wedding where her mother had worn an heirloom bridal gown-from the Waverly side. The card announcing the birth of Caroline Louisa Waverly. She'd been named for her paternal grandmother.

A few photographs, again professionally done, of the proud parents with their little bundle of joy. Then, of Caroline alone, one studio portrait for each year of her life.

No snapshots, she noted, no out-of-focus or candid shots, except for the few her grandparents had taken themselves on her brief visit all those years ago.

Newspaper clippings marking her musical career, showing her at six and twelve and twenty, and the years between and after.

It was one of the few things her grandparents had had of her, Caroline thought as she set the book back inside the trunk. Now it was one of the few things she had of her grandparents.

"I'm so sorry," she murmured, and drew deeply of the scent of lavender and cedar that wafted from the trunk. "I wish I'd known you better."

She reached in and took out a cardboard box. Inside, wrapped in tissue, was a tiny christening gown trimmed with white ribbons and yellowing lace.

Perhaps her grandmother or grandfather had worn it, Caroline thought as she ran her fingers over the soft white lawn. Surely her mother had.

"You saved it for me." Touched, she brushed her cheek over it. "I couldn't wear it when my turn came, but you saved it for me."

Carefully, she wrapped it back into its bed of tissue. One day, she vowed, her child would wear it.

Useless raced out of the room to stand at the top of the steps, then raced back again as someone hammered on the door. Caroline set the box back in the trunk, then took out a pair of bronzed baby shoes. She smiled over them.

"Don't bother, Useless. It's just one of the idiot reporters."

"Caroline! Dammit, open up before I have to kill one of these jackasses."

"Tucker." Jumping up, she ran downstairs with the dog at her heels. "Sorry." As she unlocked the door, she could see the reporters crowding behind him, thrusting out their mikes, snapping pictures and shouting questions.

She dragged Tucker in by the arm, then planted herself in the doorway.

"Get off my porch."

"Ms. Waverly, how does it feel to find yourself living a real life murder mystery?"

"Ms. Waverly, is it true you came to Mississippi to mend a broken heart?"

"Did you really collapse in-"

"Is it true you killed-"

"Were you acquainted with-"

"Get off my porch!" she bellowed. "And get off my land while you're at it. You're trespassing, the lot of you, and we have laws down here. And if one of you so much as sets a toe over my boundary line without invitation, I'll shoot if off." She slammed the door, threw the bolt, and started to turn when Tucker scooped her up in a quick circle.

"Honey, you sounded just like my mama did when she got her dander up." He kissed her before setting her on her feet. "You're losing the Yankee in your speech, too. Pretty soon you'll be saying 'y'all' and 'fix'n to' just like a native."

She laughed, but shook her head. "I will not." She touched a hand to his cheek. He hadn't shaved, but most of the fatigue had drained out of his eyes. "You look better than you did this morning."

"That's not saying much, seeing as I looked like death warmed over this morning. Felt like it, too."

"You didn't sleep."

"I caught an hour in the hammock this afternoon.

Felt like old times." He drew her close again, but this time when he kissed her it was slow and easy. "So does that. I sure wish you'd lowered your standards of respectability and shared my bed last night. I still wouldn't have slept, but I'd've felt better about being awake."

"It didn't seem right, with the house full of your family, and-"

"And the police poking 'round the pond half the night," he finished. Turning away, he walked into the parlor and glanced out of the window. "Do something for me, Caro."

"I'll try."

"Go up and pack what you need, and come back to Sweetwater with me."

"Tucker, I told you-"

"You stayed last night."

"You needed me to."

"I still need you." When she said nothing, he spur around. "This isn't the time for poetry and romance And I'm not asking because I want you in bed with me I'd stay here with you if that was all."

"Stay anyway."

"I can't. Don't ask me to choose between you and my family, Caroline, because I can't."

"I don't know what you mean."

"If I go home without you, I'll be eaten up with worry over you. If I stay, it'll be the same for Josie and Delia and the rest." He pulled her back to him, held her close. Then, restless, he yanked away to pace the room. "He's still out there somewhere, Caroline. And he was at Sweetwater."

"I understand that, Tucker. I know he left the body there."

"He killed her there." Eyes filled with turmoil, he turned back. "He killed her there, in sight of my house, by the trees where I fished with Cy only days ago. A tree my mother planted. Burke told me enough, maybe too much. I'm going to tell you. I don't want to, but I'm going to so you understand that I've got to go back there, and I'm not going without you."

He took a long, measuring breath. "He staked her out on the ground under the tree. They found the holes where he'd staked her hands and feet. And the blood the rain didn't wash away. I saw what he did to her. I'm not likely to forget what she looked like when I helped pull her out of the water. I'm not likely to forget it was done where my mother planted a willow tree, where I used to play with my brother and sister, across the water from where I kissed you the first time. I'm not likely to forget any of that. He's not going to touch anything else that's important to me. Now I'm asking you to get what you need and come with me."

She stepped forward to take the hands he'd balled into fists. "I don't need much." Copyright 2016 - 2024