Darleen Fuller Talbot listened to the sounds of the Truesdale barbecue drifting through her bedroom window. She thought it was a damn shame that uppity Susie Truesdale hadn't even invited her own next-door neighbor to the party.
Darleen would've liked a party to take her mind off her troubles.
Of course Susie didn't socialize with Darleen. She preferred the Longstreets, or the Shayses, or the nose-in-the-air Cunninghams from across the street. And didn't she know for certain that high-and-mighty John Cunningham had cheated on his prissy wife with Josie Longstreet?"
It seemed to Darleen that Susie had forgotten she'd had to get married and had waited tables at the Chat 'N Chew while her belly was bulging. Maybe her husband had come from rich, but he hadn't ended up that way. Everybody knew Burke's daddy had killed himself because all he had left was a pile of debts.
The Truesdales were no better than she was, and neither were the Longstreets. Maybe her daddy made his way working at a cotton gin instead of owning one, but he wasn't a drunk. And he wasn't dead.
Darleen thought it was downright unfriendly that Susie would give a party right out in the backyard where the smell of grilling meat and spicy sauce could make someone feel lonely. Why, even her own brother was down there-not that Bobby Lee ever gave his sister's feelings any thought.
The hell with him, the tight-assed Truesdales, and everybody else. She didn't want to go to any damn party anyhow. Even if Junior was working four to midnight down at the gas station. How could she laugh and lick barbecue sauce off her fingers when her very best friend in all the world was going to be set in the ground come Tuesday?
She sighed, and Billy T., who was sucking for all his worth on her rosy breasts, took that to mean she was finally going to start putting some effort into it.
He shifted so he could stick his tongue in her ear. "Come on, baby, you get on top."
"Okay." That perked her interest. Junior not only liked it only in bed these days, but he liked it only in one position.
When they were finished, Billy T. lay puffing contentedly on a Marlboro. Darleen stared at the ceiling, listening to the music from the Truesdales'.
"Billy T.," she said, her mouth moving into a pout. "Don't you figure it's rude to give a party and not ask your next-door neighbors?"
"Shit, Darleen, will you stop worrying about them people?"
"It just ain't right." Piqued by his lack of sympathy, Darleen rose to fetch her rose-scented talcum powder. If she was going to pick up Scooter from her ma's in an hour, it was the quickest way to soak up the scent of sweat and sex. "I mean she thinks she's better'n me. Her snotty Marvella, too. Just 'cause they're friends with the Longstreets." She tugged on her T-shirt and shorts, forgoing underwear as a concession to the heat. Her breasts, high and full and round, bulged against the cotton, distorting the faded picture of Elvis. "That Tucker's down there right now, cozying up to the Waverly woman. Why, Edda Lou ain't even buried yet."
"Tucker's a shithead. Always was."
"Well, Edda Lou loved him to distraction. He brought her perfume." She sent a hopeful look toward Billy T., but he was too busy blowing smoke rings. Darleen turned back to frown out the window. "I just hate them. Hate them all. Why, if Burke Truesdale wasn't Tucker's best friend, that boy would be locked up, same as Austin Hatinger."
"Hell." Billy T. rubbed his damp belly and wondered if they could get in one more poke. "Tucker's a shithead, but he ain't no killer. Everybody knows it was a black that done it. Them blacks the one's who like to carve up white women."
"He broke her heart just the same. It just seems he ought to pay somehow." She looked back at Billy T., one tear slipping out of one eye. "I sure wish someone would get back at him for making her so unhappy before she died." As the laughter rose up from the next yard, infuriating her, Darleen blinked her wet lashes. "Why, I guess I'd do just about anything for somebody who had the guts to pay him back."
Billy T. crushed out his cigarette in the little ashtray that had a picture of the Washington Monument on it. "Well now, honey, if you were to come on over here and show me how much you want it, it might be I could do something to even things out."
"Oh, honey." Darleen tugged Elvis away from her breasts as she rose to kneel between Billy T.'s legs. "You're so good to me."
While Darleen was busy bringing a smile to Billy T.'s face, ribs were sizzling on the grill in the yard next door. Burke presided over them, wearing a big apron that sported a cartoon chef and the caption kiss the cook or else! He tipped back a Budweiser with one hand and sauced the ribs with the other. Susie hauled bowls and platters from the kitchen to the picnic table, shooting off orders to her children to grab the potato salad, fetch more ice, to stop sneaking the deviled eggs.
Caroline had to admire the orchestration. One would swing into the kitchen, another would swing out. Although two of the boys-Tommy and Parker, she remembered-would occasionally pause for a few elbow pokes and jostling, the choreography went smoothly. The younger boy, Sam-named after Uncle Sam, as he'd be nine on the Fourth of July-was engrossed in showing his baseball card selection to Tucker.
Tucker was sprawled on the grass, and despite the heat, held Sam in his lap as they perused the album. "I'll trade you my eighty-six Rickey Henderson for that Cal Ripkin."
"Nuh-uh." Sam's mop of sandy hair flopped in his eyes as he shook his head. "This's Cal's rookie year."
"But you've gone and bent the corner, son, and my Henderson's in prime condition. Might even throw in my brand-new Wade Boggs."
"Shoot, that's nothin'." Sam turned his head, and Caroline caught the gleam in his dark eyes. "I want the sixty-three Pete Rose."
"That's robbery, boy. I'm going to have your daddy throw you in jail for even suggesting it. Burke, this boy's a born criminal. Better send him off to reform school now and save yourself the heartache."
"He knows a scam when he hears one," Burke said mildly.
"He's still pissed that I got his Mickey Mantle back in sixty-eight," Tucker murmured to Sam. "The man doesn't understand creative trading. Now, about that Cal Ripkin."
"I'll take twenty-five dollars for it."
"Shit. That does it." He caught Sam in a headlock and hissed in his ear. "You see that guy sitting there working on boring Miss Waverly to death?"
"The one in the suit?"
"Yes, sir, the one in the suit. He's an FBI agent, and asking twenty-five dollars for Cal Ripkin's rookie year is a federal offense."
"Nuh-uh," Sam said, grinning.
"It sure as God is. And your daddy'd be the first to tell you ignorance of the law is no excuse. I'm going to have to turn you in."
Sam studied Matthew Burns, then shrugged. "He looks like a pansy."
Tucker hooted with laughter. "Where do you learn these things?" He decided to try another tack and see if he could torture the card from Sam. He flipped the boy over, hung him upside down, then began to tickle him.
As Caroline watched them wrestle, she lost track of Burns's conversation. Something about the Symphony Ball at the Kennedy Center. She let him drone on, managing an occasional smile or murmur of agreement. She was much more interested in watching the other guests.
A scattering of people were huddled under the shade of an oak. It was the only tree in the yard and a perfect place for a gathering of lawn chairs and lazy conversation. The skinny, swarthy-looking pathologist was making some of the ladies giggle. Caroline wondered how a man could perform an autopsy one day and tell jokes the next.
Josie was posed in a tire swing, flirting with him-and with every other man within reach. Dwayne Longstreet and Doc Shays were sitting on the back porch, rocking and sipping beers. Marvella Truesdale and Bobby Lee Fuller were sending each other long, intimate looks, and the beauty-shop owner, Crystal something, was gossiping with Birdie Shays.
She could see little patches of yard running on either side of the Truesdales'. The clothes strung on lines to bake dry in the yellow sun. There were kitchen gardens in nearly every one, with tomatoes heavy on vines, snap beans, collards, waiting for the pot.
She could smell the beer, the spicy meat, the hot flowers baking in the late afternoon sun. Tommy punched a new cassette in his portable radio and blues drifted out, heavy on the bass, bittersweet, and slow and easy as heartbreak. Caroline didn't recognize Bonnie Raitt, but she recognized excellence.
She wanted to hear it. She wanted to hear Sam squeal and giggle as Tucker wrestled him. She wanted to hear Crystal and Birdie gossip about someone who'd died twenty years earlier in a car wreck.
She wanted to dance to that music, to watch the way Burke kissed his wife through the fragrant smoke of the grill-kissed her as if they were still teenagers sneaking love in shadows. And she wanted to feel what Marvella was feeling when Bobby Lee took her hand and pulled her through the kitchen door.
She wanted to be a part of it, not someone sitting on the sidelines discussing Rachmaninoff.
"Excuse me, Matthew." She offered him a quick smile as she swung her legs over the wooden bench. "I want to see if Susie needs any help."
While Sam bounced on his back, Tucker admired the way Caroline's neat white shorts showed off her legs. He sighed when she bent down to pick up a Frisbee. Then he yanked Sam over his back, gave him a quick pink belly, and rose.
"I think I'll get myself a beer."
Caroline paused by the grill. "Smells great," she said to Burke.
"Five more minuets," he promised, and Susie laughed.
"That's what he always says. What can I get you, Caroline?"
"Nothing, I'm fine. I thought you could use some help."
"Honey, that's what I've got four kids for. I just want you to sit down and relax."
"Really, I..." She sent a cautious look over her shoulder. Burns was still sitting at the table, his tie ruthlessly knotted as he sipped the chardonnay Caroline had brought as a contribution.
"Oh." Susie had followed her glance. "I guess there are times a woman needs to keep herself occupied. Why don't you run in and fetch the bread-and-butter pickles? There's a fresh jar in the cabinet, left of the refrigerator."
Grateful, Caroline headed off to comply. On the porch Doc Shays tipped his hat. Dwayne gave her the sweet, absent smile of a man already half drunk.
Caroline stepped inside and pulled up short. Bobby Lee and Marvella were locked in a heated embrace in front of the refrigerator. When the screen door slammed, they jumped apart. Marvella flushed and hitched her blouse back into place. Bobby Lee offered a smile that was caught somewhere between prideful and sheepish.
"I'm terribly sorry," Caroline began, uncertain who was the most flustered. "I just came in to get something for Susie." There was enough heat in the kitchen to fry bacon. "I can come back." She nearly backed into the door when Tucker pulled it open.
"Caro, you can't leave these two in here alone." He winked at Bobby Lee. "Kitchens are dangerous places. Y'all get outside where your mamas can keep an eye on you."
"I'm eighteen," Marvella said with a gleam in her eye. "We're both grown-up."
Tucker grinned and pinched her chin. "That's my point, sweetie pie."
"Besides," Marvella went on, "we're getting married."
"Marvella!" The tips of Bobby Lee's ears turned bright red. "I haven't even talked to your daddy yet."
She tossed her head. "We know what we want, don't we?"
"Well, yeah." He swallowed under Tucker's quiet stare. "Sure. But it's only right I talk to him before we say anything."
She hooked an arm through his. "Then you'd better start talking." She pulled him through the back door.
Tucker stared after them. "Jesus." Shaken, he dragged a hand through his hair. "She used to drool on my shoulder, now she's talking about getting married."
"From the look in her eyes, I'd say it was more than talk."
"How the hell'd she get to be eighteen?" Tucker wondered. "I was just eighteen myself a minute ago."
With a light laugh Caroline patted his arm. "Don't worry, Tucker, I have a feeling she'll be giving you another baby to drool on your shoulder in a year or two.'
"Holy God." Even the thought had him sputtering.
"That'd make me something like a grandfather, wouldn't it? I'm thirty goddamn three. I'm too young to be a grandfather."
"I'd think it would be more of an honorary title."
"Doesn't matter." He looked at the beer in his hand. "I'm not going to think about it."
"I'm sure that's wise." She turned to open the cupboard. "What are bread-and-butter pickles?"
"Hmm?" He turned back to her, and his thoughts about life and aging flitted away. Lord, she did have fine legs, and the sweetest little butt. "Top shelf," he said. "Stretch on up there." He watched the way her shorts rode high on her thighs when she rose to her toes and reached. "That's the way."
Caroline's fingers brushed the jar before she realized what was going on. Dropping back on her heels, she glanced over her shoulder. "You're a sick man, Tucker."
"I do feel a fever coming on." Still grinning, he strolled over. "Here, let me help you with that." His body pressed lightly against hers as he reached for the jar. "You smell good, Caro. Like something a man would be happy to wake up to in the morning."
The instant jolt of reaction forced her to take a slow breath. "Like coffee and bacon?"
He chuckled and pleased himself by nuzzling her neck. "Like soft, lazy sex."
Too much was happening inside her. Too much, too fast. Tingles and pressures and muscles going lax. She hadn't felt anything like it since... Luis.
Her muscles tensed again. "You're crowding me, Tucker."
"I'm trying." He plucked the jar out, set it on the counter. Putting his hands on her hips, he turned her toward him. "You ever come across something, like a piece of music, that kept playing through your mind-even when you didn't think you were that fond of it?"
His hands slid up, his thumbs just brushing the sides of her breasts. The blood began to swim in her head. "I suppose I have."
"That's the trouble I'm having with you, Caroline.
You just keep playing through my head. You could almost say I'm fixated."
His eyes were level with hers, and so close she saw that there was a faint and fascinating outline of green around his pupils. "Maybe you should think of a different tune."
He leaned closer, and when she stiffened, contented himself with a light, quick nip on her bottom lip. "I've always had the damnedest time doing what I should." He lifted a hand to rub his knuckles over her cheek. She had a way of looking at him, Tucker realized, a straight, unwavering gaze that made him feel defensive, protective, and weak-kneed all at once. "Did he hurt you or just disappoint you?"
"I don't know what you mean."
"You're skittish, Caro. I figure there's a reason."
The liquid warmth that had been spreading through her hardened into iron will. "Skittish is a word better applied to horses. What I am is uninterested. And the reason for that might be that I don't find you appealing."
"Now, that's a lie," he said mildly. "The uninterested part. If we didn't have company right outside the door, I'd show you how I know it's a lie. But I'm a patient man, Caro, and I never blame a woman who likes to be persuaded."
Hot temper streaked to her throat, all but scalding her tongue. "Oh, I'm sure you've persuaded more than your share of women. Like Edda Lou."
Amusement fled from his eyes, to be replaced by anger, then by something else. Something akin to grief. Even as he stepped back she laid a hand on his arm. "Tucker, I'm sorry. That was despicable."
He lifted his beer to swill some of the bitterness out of his throat. "It was close enough to truth."
She shook her head. "You pushed the wrong button, but that's no excuse for saying something like that to you. I am sorry."
"Forget it." He set aside the empty beer, and as much of the hurt as he could manage. They heard Burke shout, and though Tucker's lips curved, she saw that the smile didn't reach his eyes. "Looks like we're finally going to eat. Go on, take that jar out. I'll be along."
"All right." She paused at the door, wishing there was something she could say. But another apology was useless.
When the door swung behind her, Tucker laid his forehead against the refrigerator. He didn't know what he was feeling, didn't have words for it. He hated that. His feelings had always come so easily, even the bad ones. But this morass of emotion that churned inside him at odd times was new, unpleasant, and more than a little frightening.
He'd even dreamed of Edda Lou, and she'd come to him with her body torn and bloated with death. Moss and dank water had dripped from her hair, and her skin had oozed black blood as she pointed a skeletal finger at him.
She had not had to speak for him to know what she meant. His fault. She was dead and it was his fault.
Christ almighty, what was he going to do?
"Tucker? Honey?" Josie slipped into the kitchen to curl an arm around him. "You feeling bad?"
As bad as it gets, he thought, but let out a sigh. "Headache, that's all." He smiled as he turned to her. "Too much beer on an empty stomach."
She stroked his hair. "I've got aspirin in my purse. Extra-strength something or other."
"I'd rather have food."
"Let's go get you a plate." She kept her arm around him as she walked to the door and onto the porch. "Dwayne's already mostly drunk, and I don't want to have to haul both of you home. Especially since I've got a date tonight."
"Who's the winner?"
"That FBI doctor. He's just cute enough to eat." She chuckled and sent Teddy Rubenstein a wave. "I thought I'd try him out for Crystal. She's been sending a lot of looks his way."
"You're a true friend, Josie."
"I know it." She took a deep breath. "Let's get some of those ribs."
Beyond the old slave quarters with their heat-baked stone, beyond the cotton fields smelling of fertilizer and pesticides, was the dark, horseshoe-shaped pond that Sweetwater was named for.
The water wasn't so sweet now, as the poisons used to kill weevils and other crop pests seeped into the ground, generation after generation, and thence into the lake.
But if it wasn't fit to drink, if most would think twice or more about eating any fish caught there, it was still a nice sight under a crescent moon.
Reeds danced languorously in the current and frogs talked and plopped. Cypress knees poked through the surface like old dark bones. The night was clear enough that you could see the gentle ripples on the surface made by mosquitoes and the creatures that snacked on them.
Dwayne had shifted from the beer he'd drunk at Burke's barbecue to his favorite, Wild Turkey. The bottle was only a quarter empty, but he was feeling miserably drunk. He'd have preferred to sit in the house and drink until he passed out, but Delia would have laid into him. And he was sick to death of women picking at him.
The letter from Sissy had him eagerly fueling his anger with whiskey. She was going to marry her shoe salesman. He didn't care about that, he told himself. He didn't give a flying fuck if she married some asshole who put his hands all over other people's feet. Christ knew he didn't want her-never had, if it came to that. But he'd be damned if she'd dangle his kids in front of him to try and soak him for more money.
Expensive private schools, expensive clothes. He'd come through, hadn't he, even when Sissy and her slick-haired lawyer had made it next to impossible for him to so much as see either of the boys. "Limited supervised visitations" they called it. Just because he liked to have a drink now and then.
Scowling at the dark water, Dwayne guzzled more whiskey. They'd made him out to be some kind of monster, and he'd never laid a hand on those kids. Sissy either, if it came to that Though he'd been sorely tempted a time or two, just to show her her place.
But he wasn't a violent man, Dwayne reminded himself. Not like his own daddy had been. He could hold his liquor just fine, and had proven it since he was fifteen. And Sissy Koons had known just what she was getting when she'd spread her legs for him. Had he blamed her for getting pregnant? No sir. He'd married her, bought her a nice house and all the pretty clothes she wanted.
Given her more than she'd deserved, Dwayne told himself now, remembering the letter. If she thought he was going to let that guitar-playing shoe hawker adopt his blood children, she had another think coming. He'd see her in hell first. And he'd be damned if he'd buckle under to that veiled threat that she'd take him back to court if he didn't increase his monthly child support payments.
It wasn't the money. He didn't give a damn about money. Tucker took care of all that. It was the principle. More money, she'd said in her wheedling way, or your sons'll be wearing another man's name.
His children, he thought again, his symbol of his own immortality. And he had a fondness for them, of course. They were his blood, after all, his link to the future, his shackles to the past. That was why he sent them presents and candy bars. But it was a whole lot different if you had to deal with them face-to-face.
He could still remember how Little Dwayne-who'd been no more than three-had wailed and cried when he walked in on his daddy during a mean drunk. Dwayne had been getting a lot of satisfaction out of smashing Sissy's company glasses against the wall.
Then Sissy had run in, scooping up Little Dwayne as if his father had been tossing him against the wall instead of the gold-rimmed tumblers. And the baby had started to bawl.
Dwayne had just stood there, wanting nothing more than to bash all their heads together.
You want something to cry for? By God, I'll give you something to cry for.
That's what his daddy would have said, and the lot of them would have trembled in their boots.
He thought maybe he had said it, too. Maybe he'd screamed it. But Sissy hadn't trembled, she just screamed back at him, her face all red, her eyes full of fury and disgust.
He almost slapped her. Dwayne remembered he came within a hair of knocking her sideways. He even lifted his arm and saw his father's hand on the end of it.
Instead, he stumbled out and drove off to wreck another car.
Sissy had the door bolted when Burke hauled him home the next day. And that had been a powerful humiliation. Not being able to get into his own house, and having his wife shout out through the window that she was going down to Greenville to see a lawyer.
Innocence had been ripe with talks for weeks about how Sissy kicked Dwayne out of the house and tossed his clothes through the upstairs window. He had to drink himself into oblivion for days to be able to take it with a shrug.
Women just messed up the natural order of things. Now here was Sissy, popping back to do it again.
What made it worse, what made it bitter, was that Sissy was going to do something with her life. She'd shed Sweetwater as easily as a snake sheds skin, and was moving on. While he-he was bound and mired in generations of Longstreet obligations. The expectations a father passed on to his son. A woman didn't have that to tie her down.
No, a woman could do just as she damn well pleased. It was easy to hate them for that.
Dwayne tipped back the bottle and brooded. He watched the dark water, and as he sometimes did, imagined himself just walking into it, going under, taking a big, deadly drink, and sinking to the bottom with his lungs full of lake.
His eyes still on the surface, he drank, drowning himself in whiskey instead.
At a table at McGreedy's Tavern, Josie was just heating up. Next to the beauty parlor, the tavern was her favorite spot in town. She loved its dark, whiskey-soaked walls, its sticky floors, its rocky tables. She loved it every bit as much as she loved the equally boozy but much more elegant parties she often attended in Atlanta and Charlotte and Memphis.
It never failed to cheer her up to walk into that smoke- and liquor-tainted air, listen to the country sounds on the juke, to the voices raised in anger or amusement, the snap of pool balls from the room in the back.
She'd brought Teddy here to down a few beers at her favorite table-under the head of the scarred old buck McGreedy had bagged back when people were pinning 'I like Ike' buttons to their lapels.
She slapped Teddy on the back, hooted with laughter at an outrageous joke he'd told her, then reached for her cigarette.
"You're a pistol, Teddy. You sure you haven't got a wife hiding somewhere?"
"Two exes." Teddy grinned through Josie's haze of smoke. He hadn't had so much fun since he'd rigged a cadaver with fishing wire so he could make the arms and legs move in time with "Twist and Shout."
"Now, that's a coincidence. I've got two of my own. First one was a lawyer." Smiling, she drew the word out into two elongated syllables. "A fine, upstanding young man from a fine, upstanding Charleston family. Just the kind of husband my mama wanted me to hook on to. Nearly bored me to death before the year was out."
"Oh, honey." She tilted her head back so the cool beer slid straight down. "I tried to shake him out of it. I gave a party, a fancy dress ball for New Year's? I came as Lady Godiva." Cocking a brow, she ran her hand through her wild black hair. "I wore a blond wig." Her eyes glittered as she rested her chin on her hands. "Just the wig. Old Franklin-that was his name-Franklin just couldn't get himself in a partying mood."
Teddy could easily imagine her in nothing more than a fall of blond hair, and figured he'd have partied just fine. "No sense of humor," he commented.
"You said it. So naturally, when I decided to go husband-hunting again, I looked for a different kind. I met a rough, tough cowboy type on a dude ranch up in Oklahoma. We had some high old times." She sighed, reminiscing. "Then I found out he was cheating on me. That wasn't so bad, but it turned out he was cheating with cowboys instead of cowgirls."
"Ouch," Teddy said, wincing in sympathy. "And I thought it was rough just having my wives tell me I had a disgusting job." He gave Josie a wink. "Women don't usually find my work suitable for conversation."
"I think it's fascinating." She signaled for another round, shifting so that she could rub her bare foot over his calf. "You have to be smart, don't you? Running all those tests, finding out who killed someone just by cutting up, you know. A corpse." Her eyes glowed as she leaned closer. "I just don't see how it works, Teddy. I mean, how can you tell about a killer from a dead body?"
"Well." He slurped up some beer. "It's pretty technical, but in easy terms, you just put all the puzzle pieces together. Cause of death, time and place. Fibers, maybe blood that doesn't belong to the victim. Skin scrapings, hair samples."
"Sounds creepy." Josie gave a delicate shudder. "Are you finding out stuff about Edda Lou?"
"We've got the time, the place, and the method." Unlike some of his colleagues, he wasn't bored by shop talk. "Once I conclude my tests, I'm going to correlate my findings with the county coroner's on the other two women." Sympathetic, Teddy patted her hand. "I guess you knew all of them."
"I sure did. Went to school with Francie and Arnette. Arnette and I even double-dated some-in our wild, misspent youth." She grinned into her beer. "And I guess I knew Edda Lou all her life. Not that we were good friends. But it's scary, thinking about her dying."
She cupped her chin on her hands. There was a gypsy look about her, that long, curling black hair, the golden eyes and golden skin. She'd exploited the image that day by adding wide hoops to her ears and baring her shoulders in a red elastic-necked blouse. Teddy's mouth watered just looking at her.
"I guess you can't tell if she suffered much," Josie said softly.
"I can tell you most of the wounds were inflicted after death." He gave her hand a comforting squeeze. "Don't you think about it."
"I can't help it." Her eyes flicked down to her fresh drink, then back to his. "To tell the truth-I can tell you the truth, can't I, Teddy?"
"Death just fascinates me." She gave a quick, embarrassed laugh, then leaned closer. He caught a seductive drift of her perfume, felt the brush of her breast against his arm. "I guess I can tell you, because it's your business. When people get killed, and it's in the papers and on the TV, I just lap it up."
He chuckled. "Everybody does. They just don't say so."
"You're right." She scooted her chair closer to his so that her dark sweep of hair brushed his cheek. "You know when they have that stuff on like A Current Affair or Unsolved Mysteries! Those shows about, like, psychos and hatchet killers? I just think it's so interesting. I mean, how come they do all that stuff to people, and why they're so hard to catch. I guess we're all a little nervous about having somebody like that roaming around town, but it's exciting, too. You know?"
Teddy lifted his beer in salute. "That's what sells supermarket tabloids."
"Inquiring minds, right?" She chuckled and tapped her bottle against his. "I've got a real inquiring mind. You know, Teddy... I've never seen a dead body. I mean, before it's all prettied up and in a casket in church."
He saw the question in her eyes and frowned. "Now, Josie, you don't need to see that."
Her bare foot continued to caress his calf. "I guess it sounds kind of morbid and awful, but, I think it might be kind of... educational."
Teddy knew it was a mistake, but it was hard to resist Josie Longstreet when her mind was set. The fact that they were both half drunk and giggly didn't help. After three wavering tries, he stuck the key he'd been given into the lock in Palmer's rear door.
"This the delivery entrance?" Josie said, covering her mouth to hold in the shaky chuckle.
Teddy reached back into childhood. "Palmer's Funeral Parlor. You kill 'em, we chill 'em"
Josie laughed so hard she had to cross her legs. Together, they stumbled through the doorway. "Gosh, it's dark."
"Let me get the light."
"No." Her heart was thudding. To show him, she took his hand and pressed it to her breast. "That would spoil the mood."
Teddy leaned her back against the door and enjoyed a long, sloppy kiss. Pressing himself against her, he worked his hands under her blouse. Her breasts spilled over the flimsy half cups that supported them and filled his palms. Her nipples were long, and hard as stone.
"Jesus." His breath was coming in pants. "You've got terrific muscle tone." He replaced his hands with his mouth and started to struggle with her shorts.
"Hold on, honey. I swear, you're as horny as a two-peckered goat." She laughed and nudged him away. "Let me find a flashlight." Thrusting her hand in her purse, she rooted until she came up with a pen-sized flash. She ran it over the walls, making shadows shake. She felt giddy with fear and excitement, as if she'd been watching the horror flick showing at the Sky View. "Which way?"
To humor her, Teddy danced his fingers up her arm until she shivered. "Walk this way," he invited her, and set off in a shambling gait that made her giggle again.
"You're such a card, Teddy." But she kept close to his back. "Smells like dead roses, and... Lord knows."
"That's the ghostly scent of departed souls, my dear." No use telling her it was embalming fluid, formaldehyde, and Mr. Clean. He moved to another door, and using her light, found the next key.
She swallowed, nodded.
Teddy pushed open the door, wishing the Palmers were less fastidious. A nice moaning creak would have been perfect. Josie took a deep breath and hit the lights.
"Shit." She rubbed damp palms on her thighs. "It looks sort of like a dentist's office. What do you use those hoses for?"
He smiled, wiggled his eyebrows. "Do you really want to know?"
She moistened her lips. "Maybe not. Is that..." She gestured toward the form under the white sheet. "Is that her?"
"The one and only."
Josie felt her insides tremble. "I want to see."
"Okay. But it's look and don't touch." Teddy walked over and eased down the sheet.
Josie's mind spun once, twice, then settled. "Jesus," she whispered. "Jesus. She's gray."
"Haven't had time to fix her makeup."
Pressing a hand to her stomach, Josie took another step. "Her throat..."
"Cause of death." He rubbed a palm on Josie's apple-firm bottom. "The knife had a six-, maybe seven-inch blade. Now look here." He eased one of Edda Lou's arms from under the sheet. "See the way this area of the wrist is discolored? The flaking skin? She was tied with a common clothesline."
"She also bit her nails." He tut-tutted and covered the hand again. "This contusion at the base of the skull"-he turned the head-"it shows that she was struck before death. Certainly hard enough to render her unconscious, during which time we would conclude she was bound and gagged. There were fiber traces in her mouth and on her tongue that indicate the use of a red cotton cloth."
"You can tell all that?" Josie found herself hanging on every word.
"All that and more."
"Was she, you know, raped?"
"I'm running tests on that. If we're lucky enough to find a trace of sperm, we can run a DNA."
"Uh-huh." She'd heard the term somewhere. "Whoever did it killed her and the baby."
"The lady died alone," Teddy corrected her. "Hormone levels were flat low."
"No buns in her oven."
"Oh, yeah?" Josie looked down at the gray, lifeless face, and her mouth pursed in thought. "I told him she was lying."
She shook off the thought. This was no time to bring up Tucker's name. Instead, she looked away from Edda Lou and around the room.
The thing was, once you got settled inside, it was fascinating. All those bottles and tubes and slim, shiny instruments. She strolled over to pick up a scalpel, and in testing the blade, sliced the pad of her thumb. "Shit."
"Baby, you shouldn't touch those things." All solicitude, Teddy whipped out a handkerchief and dabbed at the thin line of blood. Over his head, Josie stared at the face on the embalming table. Beer made her head woozy.
"I didn't know it was so sharp."
"Sharp enough to slice little pieces off you." He clucked and dabbed until she smiled. He really was the cutest thing.
"It'll stop quicker if you suck on it." She brought her wounded thumb to his mouth, eased it between his lips. While his tongue laved the wound, she let her eyes close. There was a powerful intimacy, knowing he was tasting her blood. When her eyes opened again, they were heavy with lust.
"I've got something for you, Teddy." As he drew her thumb deep into his mouth, she reached over the tray of keen-edged instruments, her hand wavering, then finding the purse she'd dropped there. While his hand slid up her thigh, hers dug into the bag. It convulsed into a fist as his fingers slid under the hem of her shorts, nipped under the elastic of her panties, and found her.
"Here you go." With a little sigh she pulled out a condom. Her eyes were gold and hot as she yanked down his zipper. "Why don't I put this on for you?"
Teddy shuddered as his pants fell to his ankles. "Be my guest."
When Josie shot down the drive to Sweetwater about two a.m., feeling used up and sated from sex, Billy T. Bonny was crouching behind the front fender of the red Porsche. He swore as the headlights sliced the dark a few inches from his head. Ten more minutes and he'd have been finished and gone.
His heartbeat roared as Josie hit the brakes. Gravel spat out and bounced on the toes of his work boots. His grease-smeared fingers tightened around the handle of his wrench.
As she climbed out of her car, he held himself in a tight ball and watched her feet. They were bare, carmine-tipped, and she wore a thin gold chain around her ankle. He felt a quick rush of sexual interest. Her scent was on the air, darkly sweet, mixed with the deeper tones of recent sex.
She was humming Patsy Cline's "Crazy." She dropped her purse, scattering lipsticks, loose change, a small department store's worth of cosmetics, two mirrors, a handful of foil-wrapped condoms, a bottle of aspirin, a neat little pearl-handled derringer, and three boxes of Tic Tacs. Billy T. bit back an oath as she bent to retrieve her belongings.
From the underbelly of the Porsche, Billy watched the long line of her legs fold up as she crouched, saw her hand scramble around, dumping the contents back into the bag along with a fair share of gravel.
"Hell with it," she muttered. Yawning hugely, she got to her feet and started toward the house.
Billy T. waited a full thirty seconds after the door shut before he went back to work.