/ Language: English / Genre:det_crime / Series: Jordan Poteet

Promises of Home

Jeff Abbott

Jeff Abbott

Promises of Home

Prologue:12 years ago

Forgive these wild and wandering cries,

Confusions of a wasted youth;

Forgive them, where they fail in truth,

And in thy wisdom make me wise.

-Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam

“What you fellows don’t understand,” Trey Slocum growled, a cigarette clenched between his teeth, “is that you got to stare death in the face to be a real man.” The rest of us soon-to-be seventh-graders weren’t quite so sure; outside, the wind howled fiercely, rattling the tree house and moaning with the promise of tragedy. I knelt on the rough wooden floorboards and risked being called a yellow-liver sissy by peeking out the small, open window.

“What’s wrong, Jordy, you got to see if the bad ol’ storm’s comin’?” Trey jeered, kicking my sneakers with his muddy cowboy boots. He was awful proud of those boots, always claiming they were hand-tooled leather from his uncle over in Giddings. I had a half a mind to tear one off his foot, throw it into the storm, and let him fetch it. “My daddy says hurricanes are real bad news. They ain’t no ladies,” Little Ed Dickensheets said, trying to keep a note of panic out of his voice. He’d been whining since birth. “Shut up, Dick-in-Mouth,” Clevey Shivers teased, and then, of course, Little Ed was all over Clevey, pummeling him with fists. Clevey outweighed Little Ed by about twenty pounds, so he just rolled on the tree-house floor as Little Ed tried to inflict damage, laughing in counterpoint to the lament of the wind. Little Ed exhausted himself soon enough and gave up, rolling off Clevey, honor served by his effort. Clevey yawned, his normally red face a little more florid. I believed Little Ed’s daddy, Big Ed, was a wise man. Clouds blackened the sky above the Colorado River and the wind shrieked through the tree branches like a vengeful banshee. They called the storm Althea on the TV news, and she was bearing down on Central Texas like a mother who, sick and tired of calling you home for supper, brandished a hickory switch in her hand. “She was a hurricane only when she hit the coast,” Trey said knowingly. “She done spent herself hitting Corpus Christi. They start dyin’ over land. She’s just a tropical storm now.” Trey always spoke in this way, as if the secrets of the universe had been revealed to him and to no one else. We didn’t much challenge him on it because he was too cool for words. “My mama’s gonna whip me good for staying out in this,” Junebug Moncrief fretted, scratching his brown bur of hair. I wouldn’t be worried about his mama if I were him; I always thought his daddy was a sight meaner. My own daddy wasn’t going to be too pleased about my afternoon, either. Trey pushed his black cowboy hat back and surveyed us sitting around him, scowling, his night-dark eyes ranging across each of us: me, Junebug, tanned Little Ed, red-haired Clevey, and blond and bespectacled Davis Foradory, who sat placidly playing solitaire, smoking a menthol cigarette, and ignoring the rest of us. “Y’all are just a bunch of little chickenshits,” Trey snorted. “Y’all were all gung-ho to sit out this hurricane in the tree house and swear to be blood brothers in the very face of death itself, and now y’all just want to run home and cry against your mamas aprons.” The tree creaked loudly as the wind surged, and Little Ed’s brown eyes widened, as though that crying-in-the-apron suggestion wasn’t a bad one at all. I patted him on the shoulder; Little Ed Dickensheets truly was the littlest of us, still eleven and scrawny for his age. We picked on him but didn’t let anyone else. Plus, with that surname of his, he needed our protection. Davis Foradory pushed up his glasses and cut his playing cards in the slow, measured manner in which he did all things. “They’re going to be looking for us, you numbnuts. We probably got another ten minutes left till one of y’all’s mamas calls my mamaw and she comes out here to see if this is where we’re at.” The tree house sat near the Colorado River, in the middle of the live oaks and loblolly pines that gave way to Foradory pastureland. Davis lived on the farm with his grandmother Foradory, who was a right sweet old lady, and his grandfather (who everyone knew had lost his mind and never went looking for it). The tree house groaned, the way I’d imagined a woman in heat did. I could feel the floor swaying against my butt, the nose-wrinkling smell of wet wood pervading the room. “You could find a turd in a bowl of ice cream, Four Door.” Trey shook his head at Davis’s pessimism and finished off his cigarette. “Hey, Jordy, give me another of those, will you?” I tossed him the pack after I took one for myself. Junebug, sitting next to me by the open window, looked surprised but didn’t comment. Trey smiled and tossed me the matches. “Look at young master Jordan, trying to become a man.” Trey laughed as I lit up and took a tentative puff. I’d only smoked a couple of times before; I wasn’t yet a hard-core smoker like Trey or Davis. I figured Daddy’d whip me good for venturing into this storm; I might as well indulge in the few vices available to me as a twelve-year-old. I coughed and Trey laughed again. Junebug, who did not approve of cigarettes, looked away from me. I saw Trey’s eyes watching me and Junebug, as though some contest for my lungs was being waged. It had seemed a good idea, riding out the storm together; I’d gotten worked up with excitement sitting around the house that still summer day, watching the grayish-white curls of Althea’s strange clouds inch across the sky, knowing that they were from some fierce faraway tempest that might touch or spare us. No telling. Although Mirabeau was a few hours inland, Daddy and Mama stayed by the TV and radio nearly all day. There was talk of evacuations of Corpus Christi and Galveston; talk of the hurricane in 1900 that had leveled Galveston and killed six thousand people; talk of earlier, deadly Texas ladies: Carta, Beulah, and Celia; and talk of flooding in the inland towns on the Texas rivers. Mirabeau sat in a gentle bend of the Colorado, and we’d all been watching the skies, waiting for the torrents that must come if Althea hit the coast at an unkind angle. Trey had stopped by while I sat on my front porch, idly tossing a softball in the air. With little preamble he proposed camping through the storm in the old Foradory tree house we used for smoking, cussing, and bragging. “Are you crazy? Sit out a hurricane in a tree house?” “Shoot, she’ll be all broke up by the time she gets here, if she ever shows up. Not much more than a rainstorm, I reckon. Get Junebug and Clevey and Davis. It’ll be cool. We can brag about it in school.” Boasting was Trey’s butter on the bread of life. “If it ain’t gonna be so bad, then we won’t have too much to brag about,” I pointed out. Although the suggestion did have an edgy appeal, I wasn’t about to jump into another one of Trey’s harebrained schemes. I’d gotten my britches warmed good for the last one: fashioning a swing rope on the bridge into town that spanned the Colorado. Trey deliberated, pushing back his cowboy hat. He dressed just like a grown man did; his daddy tended horses out at Hart Quadlander’s place and Trey felt it necessary to dress exactly like his father: Western shirt, faded jeans, and boots that were cared for like a rich woman’s skin. “If the storm ain’t shit, then we just hang out. But”-and the devil glinted in his dark Cherokee eyes-“if it is, then we can say we stared down death.” I let the softball rest in my hand. Trey would do any crazy stunt that popped into his brain; if reason was ink, he couldn’t dot an i. But he knew that I was the barometer of what would impress our peers; if I thought the notion was worthwhile, he’d pursue it with relentless vigor. But this idea sounded a little insane, like perching on the tracks of the approaching train and taking your own sweet time to get out of harm’s way. “I don’t know, Trey.” “Look, Jordy,” he said, in a caressing voice he’d later use on women with much success, “it’ll be the last great adventure of the summer. We’ll all be trapped in school soon enough, and man, that’ll be real death. Let’s do it. We haven’t had a storm like this come in ages. Next time one this big comes, we’ll be long in the tooth.” “Less we get killed today.” I tossed the softball back up into the air. He shrugged. “Okay, Jordy. The rest of us’ll sit up in the tree and watch you swim with the other losers when the floodwaters come.” I frowned at him, the ball bouncing in my hand. I still hadn’t figured out why Trey’d decided last year to be my friend. Since birth, I’d hung around with Junebug and Davis and Clevey and Little Ed. Trey was too cool for us regular kids, what with his calmly appraising eyes, loner’s swagger, and quick-fisted way of dealing with anyone who crossed him. But he’d taken to me and then to the others. I wasn’t sure Davis and Junebug were pleased about my newest friend, but Trey finally beguiled them. A natural air of danger surrounded Trey that other boys couldn’t resist. He made Mirabeau less boring, an achievement of no small value. My mother came out on the porch, drying damp hands on her slim jean-clad hips. As always, Trey was at his most gentlemanly with her, tipping his hat like she was a Houston debutante come to call. “Mornin’, Miz Poteet. I was just tellin’ Jordan here that we’re fixin’ to get us some blowin’ tonight.” My mother, with her blonde hair, high cheeks, and penetrating green eyes, was the prettiest of all my friends’ mamas. And the smartest and the funniest. I took great pride in her. She came up behind me, leaning against the back of the wicker chair. She liked Trey, but I didn’t think she was ever fooled by his wiles; he was trouble, pure and simple. “Good afternoon, Trey. I hope y’all’ve got your horses set to weather the storm.” “Yas’m, we do. Daddy and Mr. Quadlander are gonna take good care of them.” “And won’t you be helping them?” Mama asked, her voice wry. It was a practiced game between them-her giving him his chance for a honeyed explanation. Trey posed, the poster child for earnestness, with his cowboy hat held over his innocent heart and a dark cowlick standing at bent attention. “Ah, no, ma’am. See, I’m going to be out courtin’ Miss Althea so she don’t blow any of us away.” He was only a boy, but already he had the sparkling eye of a dedicated flirt. Mama laughed, a sweet musical tinkle that sounded more like a young girl’s than a mother’s. “I’ll certainly sleep better knowing that you’re protecting us all. Jordan, I’m going to make lunch now. Trey, would you like to stay and eat ham sandwiches with us?” “No, thank you, ma’am.” Trey smiled. It was hard to believe the number of cuss words he’d taught me when he put on his proper talk. “I got to go buy Miss Althea some candy and flowers.” Mama laughed, ruffled my hair (knowing full well it would mortify me in front of Trey), and said, “Come eat in a few minutes, Jordan. Trey, if your Miss Althea gives you grief and you and your daddy run short of water or food, y’all come see me, okay?” “Yes, ma’am.” Trey nodded with respect as Mama went back inside. He shook his head. “Jesus, Jordan, your mama sure is pretty.” I smiled that he thought Mama was pretty, but stopped when I saw the wistful look on Trey’s face. He didn’t even have a mama. (“Cancer took her” was the only explanation he ever offered.) “They said on the radio the storm’s hittin’ Corpus right now.” Trey continued his gentle cajole. “That means she’ll be here in a few hours. Look, that tree house has been there for twenty years. It’s as solid as a rock. We’ll meet there at four o’clock, okay?” I hated to disappoint him, but I still wasn’t keen on his plan. “This idea doesn’t sound too swift.” He shook his head. “Stare it in the face, Jordy. You don’t want to be the only chickenshit that doesn’t show up.” And with a smirk, he straightened his black cowboy hat and sauntered down the street. Of course I’d shown up. Boys do foolish things, and my friends and I were determined to be junior achievers in the idiot division. I’d told Mama I was going to wait out the storm at Junebug’s and he’d told his mama he was staying with me. Mama’d fretted, but let me go, trusting me not to be stupid. The others told similar lies, and that’s how I found myself crouching in a shuddering tree house, the illicit taste of smoke in my mouth, staring across the dimness at Trey, the burning ember of the cigarette dangling between his fingers. Rain blew in with increasing force. Davis carefully stashed away his cards, stretched out his long legs (he’d hit his growth spurt first), and fiddled with the transistor radio. “Hey, put on some music,” Trey demanded. “Some Buck Owens, maybe.” “I’m trying to find the station in Bavary, see what they say about the storm,” Davis said. “If their tower’s down, we’re gettin’ the hell out of this tree,” Junebug said, sounding like an old man. Davis played gently with the controls. Garbled static was all he could summon. The Bavary station seemed to have trouble deciding whether or not it’d stay on the air. “When do you think the eye’ll get here?” Little Ed asked quietly. “This is the eye, Little Ed,” Trey teased. “Once that other side of the storm hits, this tree house’ll probably land in Oz.” “Yeah, Little Ed, and you can be a Munchkin.” Clevey laughed. Little Ed frowned. “Yeah, and you can be one of those butt-ugly flying monkeys, Heavey.” Clevey didn’t care much for that particular nickname (bestowed when he’d gotten a real sudden case of stomach flu in second grade and blew his cookies all over Miss Lavinia Duchamp’s school desk while trying to get permission from the old battle-ax to run to the bathroom). He started pummeling Little Ed, but Junebug forced them apart. He was always our peacemaker, our healer of young wounded egos. “Y’all shut up,” Davis snapped. “KBAV’s back on.” Intermingled with the static (which was sounding more like wind to me, the longer I listened to it-or perhaps every noise now sounded like wind) were a few words we could make out: Heavy rains reported near Bavary and east Bonaparte County… do not travel unless absolutely… winds gusting to 55 mph with threat of tornadoes forming… a man reported missing in La Grange due to flash-flooding… “Hmmph.” Junebug frowned at Trey, “This wasn’t so clever of us to do this, now was it? We ought to get on home.” “You can go out in that if you want, Stinkbug,” Trey said. “I think it’s probably safest for us to stay right here.” He leaned against the trembling wall of the tree house and propped his boots up on the crates we used for a table. “No, what’s safest is for us all to hike back to my mama’s house and stay there.” Davis Foradory stood and stretched. “I think we’ve proved enough, Trey. Come on, let’s go on back to my mamaw’s. We can have chocolate milk and cookies.” “Chocolate milk and cookies,” Trey mocked in the overly nasal tone a lounging prince might use. “That just sounds divine, Four Door. I’m sure you and the other ladies will enjoy yourselves.” “Better than getting our asses blown over to Fayette County,” Davis shot back, He wasn’t easily gulled by Trey. He pulled open the rattly door. The torrent outside roared, wind and rain gusting in over us. Davis gingerly set a foot out on the ladder and paused. “Jesus, shut the door!” Clevey hollered. Davis turned back, his eyeglasses already coated with raindrops. “Do you hear that? Sounds like the train’s running.” Trains. No trains would be running as a hurricane’s totters tore across the Texas coastal plains. I peered out through the window, squinting into the darkness. Darkness squinted back at me. It was almost as though night had settled on Mirabeau as Althea passed over like some shadowy wraith, eclipsing sun and summer sky. I saw trees bending hard in the wind, and grass in the Foradorys’ pasturelands rippling like waves on the ocean. Then I saw it: a dark, jagged line moving toward the woods. Except this line was spinning, its point in the earth, its top arcing back and forth in a short pendulum swing. “Tornado!” I screamed. The other boys froze with shock. “Yeah, right, Jordan-” Trey began, but then he caught sight of my eyes. His face blanched like an old man’s. “I’m not kidding! Tornado coming! Get out! Get down the ladder!” I hollered. There was a mad scrabble as boys leaped for the rope ladder we had pulled up behind us, pushing it out into the darkness. It unfurled like a cracking whip. I yelled at Clevey. “Go down first and hold it steady for the others.” He nodded, fear in his freckled face. As he moved down each rung his weight brought the ladder back toward earth. I saw Clevey reach the bottom, practically sitting on the last rung to steady it. Gusts tore at his hair like a madwoman, and looking down at him, I saw him staring toward the funnel, eyes wide in shock. I turned to Little Ed, pushing him out next, followed by Davis. I gestured at Trey. “Go!” I hollered. “I’m sorry, Jordy,” he said in a whisper that somehow cut through the screams of the storm. He descended into the slashing wind and darkness. Junebug turned from the window, his eyes intense. “We gotta go now, Jordy, now! ” he ordered, shoving me down the ladder, climbing down practically on top of me. Clevey still crouched on the bottom rung; the others were gone, running God knows where. I fell to the ground, the storm shoving me with the force of nature’s worst bully. “Where are they?” Junebug shouted at Clevey. “House!” Clevey yelled back. “Four Door’s house!” Nearly a half mile away. I stumbled, Junebug’s hand gripping my wrist as he pulled me along. He was bigger than me and I didn’t resist. I could hear a roar, like a growl of God. I tried to cry out, but the gale tore my voice from my throat, sending it spinning far above into the dark, rot-colored clouds. Junebug and I ran across pastureland, toward the Old River Road that snakes along the shores of the Colorado. I risked a glance back and, through a sheet of rain, saw the frees churning in the circular wind. Our boyhood hideout and second home cartwheeled crazily apart like a match-stick house. “It’s heading this way,” I screamed into Junebug’s ear. “Run! Run!” We didn’t get much farther. Halfway through the pastureland we fell into a ditch, with water already swirling in it. I tumbled head over heels, Junebug sliding down more gracefully. I landed in muddy, grass-topped water. I froze in terror, thinking a flash flood would sweep us away, but the rain was collecting placidly and was only up to our ankles-for the moment. We were alone. “Lie down! Cover your head!” Junebug ordered me. “Where’s Clevey? And Trey and the others?” I hollered, but he shoved me down, forcing me to obey. I went face-first into the cold rainwater, sheltering my head with my thin arms. Junebug pressed down beside me and we waited, listening as the roaring twister approached. I thought of Daddy and Mama finding my body-and my sister asking if she could have my catcher’s glove. (She fancied herself a better ballplayer than me, which was ridiculous-she couldn’t hit to save her life.) I thought of our friends talking about how stupid we were in braving Althea’s wrath. And I thought of my whole life, left unlived. In heaven, would I forever be a boy, or would I get to grow up? A noise like God’s own tantrum roared in our ears. I shoved my face into water and mud and grass, trying to burrow into the ground. I didn’t know how much later it was when I felt Junebug’s weight ease up beside me. I first became conscious of the quiet. It was as penetrating as the noise had been. An eerie stillness settled on the land, and the sky, rather than being dark, shifted to a bilious green-a gigantic dead eye, staring sightlessly down at us. Junebug and I were coated in mud and twigs. We shook with dampness and shock, our clothes completely soaked. The tornado had passed near us, disintegrating in the storm’s competing winds or as it hit the trees that crowded in on the river. “Holy God,” I heard myself say in something that didn’t sound like a child’s voice. “It’s the eye. It’ll be calm for a little while, then it’ll be much worse.” Junebug started crawling out of the ditch. I followed him, my breath catching in my throat when I looked at the land. Trees lay shattered in a swath. A dirty smell hung in the air, even though we’d just been battered with rain. Where the tree house stood not even the tree remained-only a gaping maw where the old roots had vainly clutched. The land lay like a dead thing. “Clevey!” Junebug brayed at the top of his voice. “Davis! Trey! Where are y’all?” “Oh, God, don’t let ’em be dead,” I coughed. “We got to find them before the eye passes. Then we got to get to Mrs. Foradory’s. We can’t stay out here again.” Junebug ran toward the woods, calling for Little Ed and Clevey, his voice slicing through the ominous quiet. I followed him, avoiding even the trees that had survived, seeing too many branches barely hanging on their moorings. “Here!” I heard Trey’s voice call back hoarsely. “Over here, hurry! Hurry!” His voice broke; shock and fear had replaced coolness and swagger. Junebug and I didn’t see the others right off; they had fled into a dense copse of loblolly pines that the tornado spared. I finally saw them, in a small clearing: a stone-faced Trey, his arm around a sobbing Little Ed, Clevey shaking, Davis staring at the ground gape-mouthed. We ran up to them and Junebug saw her before I did, crying out, “Jesus Christ!” The six of us stood there, silent for once as a group, our eyes riveted on the body of a teenage black girl. I’d thought the sky looked like a dead staring orb, but that girl’s open eyes were the true thing. Blank. Empty. Without a hint of life, staring unflinchingly at the storm. Her skin was brown as rich earth and her face was the kind that just gets prettier with time. But she had no more time left. She was drenched, her yellow blouse molding to her soft, motionless breasts. I made my eyes look at her face again. I couldn’t see any blood on her, but there was a dent in the side of her long, dark hair, as though someone had dropped her, like a doll, from a great and unforgiving height. Her mouth was open and delicately small white teeth stood in perfect formation. A lank of her straightened hair lay across her throat. She was wearing a navy wind-breaker, torn open by the storm, old jeans, and muddied cowboy boots. She was beautiful. And we six boys stood, paralyzed, as the giant wheel of the hurricane moved its calm canopy of eye away from us to thunder down more destruction.

But where the path we walked began


To slant the fifth autumnal slope,

As we descended following Hope,

There sat the Shadow feared of man; Who broke our fair companionship,

And spread his mantle dark and cold,

And wrapped thee formless in the fold,

And dulled the murmur on thy lip, And bore thee where I could not see

Nor follow, though I walk in haste,

And think that somewhere in the waste

The Shadow sits and waits for me.

-Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam

“Why on Earth does Wanda Dickensheets think she looks remotely like Elvis?” Junebug asked me, sipping coffee and chewing on a cheese kolache.

“First time I ever saw a woman dressing like a man,” Sister offered, dropping another kolache on Junebug’s plate. She left me unpastried, putting her head near Junebug’s shoulder to get a better look at the latest goings-on in downtown Mirabeau.

Frowning, I watched the spectacle across the street. Ed Dickensheets steadied a sign against the blustery November breeze while his assistant fastened a garish placard to the awning of the old dress shop that the Dickensheets had bought.

Apparently Ed didn’t steady it quite right, as his wife, Wanda, brayed at him from the sidewalk to hold the placard straight. Wanda was dressed like Elvis Presley in his later years, resplendent in a white, high-collared, rhine-stoned jumpsuit. A black pompadour wig covered her head, and her ample breasts were somehow concealed from view. I could see Ed’s lips tighten as Wanda yelled in her finest fake Tupelo accent, her jet-black man’s wig bobbing along with her temper.

“I hope this doesn’t mean Little Ed’s going to start dressing like Priscilla,” I said.

“Oh, my God.” Sister peered out the Sit-a-Spell’s window from the cafe counter. “She’s actually waving a jelly doughnut at him. Quick, Jordy, get my camera. I’ll sell the picture to the National Enquirer. ”

I was too busy reading the sign Ed was hanging: WORLD-FAMOUS INSTITUTE OF ELVISOLOGY-where the king still lives. “As soon as the tabloids find out that Elvis is alive in Mirabeau,” I said, “all those inquiring minds are going to leave those Burger Kings in Chattanooga high and dry. We’ll have ourselves a tourist trap. Get out the radar gun, Junebug, and make the town some money.”

“What the hell has gotten into Ed?” Junebug asked, but I didn’t correct him. I still thought of Ed as Little Ed; he’d kept that nickname all through high school, up until his daddy, Big Ed, dropped dead of one chicken-fried steak too many. It’d been hard to keep from calling him Little Ed, since he still wasn’t a big man. I resolved to mend my ways. After all, now Ed was a respected seller of radio ad time for KBAV, in addition to being Mirabeau’s newest businessman.

“I don’t believe it’s as much Ed as Wanda and her mother, Ivalou,” I offered, fighting off the urge for a cigarette to go with my coffee. The stress of the past few weeks had pert near driven me back to the packs. “If Wanda is Elvis, then Ivalou is surely Colonel Parker. Those two conned Ed into that trip to Graceland, and since Wanda saw how much money folks spend on Elvis mementos, she’s been the queen of painted velvet. She thinks there’s enough people sharing her taste to keep a business running.”

“Where’s old Clevey when you need him?” Junebug laughed. “He’d have a field day poking fun at Ed for this one.”

Some things-like Clevey’s teasing Ed until a vein popped out on Ed’s forehead-never changed. Clevey’d been coming in daily to the cafe since it reopened last week, but he hadn’t made an appearance this morning- undoubtedly too busy trying to find more interesting news around town for his stories in The Mirabeau Mirror.

“It’s better he’s not here. He’d probably request a song from Wanda, and I don’t want to hear her warbling ‘Jail-house Rock,’” I said. Sister made a huffing noise and went to wipe her spotless counters.

Junebug shook his head and then glanced around the newly redone cafe. “All these new businesses. Mirabeau’s about to get metropolitan, don’t you think?”

Having left Boston to come home, I couldn’t exactly agree with his assessment of the new Mirabeau. Now, I love Mirabeau; it’s my hometown, and I had willingly moved back close to a year ago to help care for my mother, who’s ailing from Alzheimer’s. Agony was watching Mama’s daily slide down into dementia, but the idea of her in a nursing home was even more painful. I have a horror of those places; they’re the modern-day version of the iceberg, set adrift with the Eskimo elderly. I had no wish to see my mother in an antiseptic-reeking dormitory full of people waiting to die.

In any case, Junebug was plain wrong. The town hadn’t changed that much in the years I’d been up North enjoying my career as a textbook editor. The addition of two new businesses hardly signified an economic boom.

The Institute of Elvisology might cater to its special customer base a whole six weeks, I guessed; the newly bought and refurbished Sit-a-Spell Cafe held (I hoped and prayed) a far brighter prospect. As long as its two proprietresses could agree. Right now the future looked bleak.

Having abandoned their only two customers (Junebug and me), the two intrepid entrepreneurs debated with pinched smiles by the kolache counter, the fragrantly steaming fruit pastries sweeter than their words but no less heated.

“Candace, sweetie pie, we’ve covered this already. I am not preparing any ethnic dishes aside from Tex-Mex, spaghetti, or French fries,” Sister insisted nicely. She’d finally given up her glamorous job as the cook out at the End of the Road Truck Stop (also known locally as Hell with Twelve Booths). Sister was one of the best cooks in the county and she’d finally realized her culinary talent was wasted on folks too road-tired to use their taste buds. Sister looked right spiffy in her new turquoise T-shirt with Sit-a-Spell Cafe stenciled in white cursive across the front. We can nearly pass for twins, she and I, with our blond hair and green eyes. I of course have a calmer, more pleasant temperament.

“But my friends in Houston say Lithuanian food is in!” My girlfriend, Candace Tully, ran a tired hand through her heavy brown hair. “We need a gimmick, something different to grab customers. Food they can’t get elsewhere in Mirabeau. If we don’t lure ’em, no one’s going to-” She paused for advertising pathos and sang in a tremulous soprano, “Come in and sit a spell.”

This recital fired salvo number two. Sister took a deep breath. “I already told you, Candace, we are not doing that stupid radio ad. If Ed stops making a fool of himself in the street long enough to pitch that off-key jingle again, you just tell him I’m not exchanging a month of free lunches for ten seconds of airtime. He needs to give us a better deal. I’m sure he’s giving himself bargain rates for that fool Elvis store.” Sister crossed her arms. I knew that meant the conversation was over. Candace hadn’t quite learned yet.

“Ladies, ladies.” I stood, cajoling peacefully before Candace could launch a counteroffensive. They both looked up at me like I was aiming to lose myself a testicle. I ignored it; they both love me too much to actually hurt me. “Y’all can’t argue out here in front. Scare off any stray customers that wander in. Go in the back and wrestle in the flour.”

Sister glared. Candace tossed up hands and said, “The problem, Arlene, is that there’s still loyalty to Minerva. People feel funny coming in here knowing she’s gone.”

Minerva Halsey had been the sweet-natured owner of the Sit-a-Spell; according to rumor, Minerva had opened the cafe sometime during Reconstruction and never changed the grease. She’d died in her sleep two months ago, leaving the downtown Mirabeau property to a niece in Victoria who had no interest in running a cafe in a small Central Texas river town. Candace had offered to put up the money (she had it to burn, thanks to her long family history of aggressive capitalism) if Sister would cook the food. Tired of fending off truckers most days, Sister had accepted. Now all they had to learn was to work together. Considering each was as stubborn as a government mule, this was no small task.

“Fine, Arlene, we won’t offer European cuisine,” Candace demurred, the very soul of compromise. “We’ll copy every other single menu in Mirabeau and see how that sets us apart from the competition.”

Sister rolled her eyes and forced a tight smile. “This isn’t one of them city bistros, honey, with tables and umbrellas out front advertising water that makes you belch. I’m going to start cuttin’ chickens for today’s lunch special.” As Candace set about wiping off tables that hadn’t been dirtied by any customers, she muttered about the un-healthiness of fried foods.

I returned to my seat. Junebug frowned again, watching Ed and Wanda Dickensheets argue over their sign. At least Wanda wasn’t still waving that doughnut. “I just wonder if this institute is going to offer degrees in Elvis Studies,” he said.

“Elvisology,” I corrected automatically. I lowered my voice. “I hope this little partnership of Candace’s and Sister’s works out. What am I going to do if it doesn’t? I’ll be stuck right in the middle.”

Junebug shrugged. “It’ll be good for them both. Candace will have a real job for a change, instead of all that volunteering. It’s time she worked for herself. And Arlene, it’ll be nice for her not to slave away at Bubba Jasper’s truck stop.” He paused for a moment, then said gruffly, “I hated her working out there.”

I sipped at my coffee without comment. The burgeoning romance between Junebug and my sister had not been exactly unwelcome, just strange. When two people you’ve known practically your whole life-and who have only had the faintest of friendships because of you-suddenly decide to make a go of romance, it’s quite unnerving. I couldn’t complain that Junebug had come courting; I just would have never put my mouthy sister and my laid-back police-chief friend together. But considering the horrible history Sister has with men, I thought Junebug made the best possible choice. He was a good man.

Sister hadn’t dated much in the six years since her no-account husband ran off to play cowboy with a traveling rodeo, and I wanted her to find happiness. Mind you, I was not about to be consulted for my opinion. They could make goo-goo eyes all they wanted, then if they broke up, guess who’d get caught in the middle? (You only need one try.)

“Bubba’s not too happy about her leaving.” I took his untouched kolache and began munching.

“Yeah, I heard.” Junebug looked stern. “He always was tryin’ to spark Arlene.” He spoke her name with an annoying amount of reverence. I forced myself not to cross my eyes.

“Actually, I wondered how you felt about all this, Jordy.” Junebug stirred his coffee, not looking up at me.

“What do you mean?” Finally, my view on this nascent relationship was going to be asked for. I cleared my throat, preparing my brotherly blessing.

“Well, Jordy, this restaurant’s going to affect you and Candace. I mean, this gives Candace even deeper roots in Mirabeau, and it gives your sister her own business. Does that mean you’ll stay here longer?”

How rude. I’d been expecting a solicitation for advice, not a chance to expound on my own problems. I didn’t want to answer, because I didn’t want to contemplate my future in Mirabeau. I’d given up a promising career in publishing to come back, and while being head honcho at the Mirabeau Public Library was fun and often rewarding, it couldn’t quite compare with the exciting big-city life I’d lived. Now that Sister and I had full-time help to assist with Mama, Sister had abandoned night shifts and started her own business. Why couldn’t I go on back to my old life in Boston, secure in the knowledge that Mama was taken care of?

Two reasons. The first was Candace, with whom I’d fallen in love when she was working part-time at the library. And when I say I’m in love with Candace, it’s a bald statement of fact; she’s become a part of my thoughts and my breathing, the tempo of my heartbeat. It’s downright scary.

Reason number two was Bob Don Goertz. Loving Candace had been a surprise; the real thunderbolt, though, was finding out in the course of a murder investigation this past spring that Bob Don was my natural father (a fact no one had previously bothered to share with me). I had to deal with the shock of discovering my mother was flawed, with discovering the dead man I’d loved as my father wasn’t my daddy, and with dying to deal with a stranger who desperately wanted to be a father to me. And Bob Don’s not exactly a shrinking violet about what he wants; he has the largest car dealership in Bonaparte County. You don’t build an automotive fiefdom out of shyness.

I sighed. “I don’t know, Junebug. I don’t believe Candace will ever want to leave Mirabeau. She really loves it here.”

“Does that mean you might consider marrying her someday?” Junebug asked idly.

Oh, God, I thought. He’s going to propose we have a double ceremony.

Instead I coughed. “She and I don’t talk much about wedding rings. I used to think Candace was eager to settle down and get married, but she doesn’t seem to be in any rush.” Plus, I was in my early thirties and Candace was in her late twenties, so she was still exploring her options. At least, all the options that Mirabeau offered. There were about four total, and I know, ’cause I counted them one day when I was real bored.

Junebug’s walkie-talkie squawked. He answered it, then listened, his face growing grim. “Hell. Emergency out off Old River Road. Gotta go.” He stuck his Stetson over his brown crew cut and stood, scratching at his slight beer gut that was just beginning to form.

“What’s the problem?” I asked politely. Junebug wouldn’t ever admit it, but I’ve been more than helpful in unraveling some local crises. He’s not ungrateful, but I’m not exactly deputized.

“Goodbye, Jordy.” Junebug grimaced. “Thanks for the coffee, honey,” he called to Sister. He scooted out quick before I could offer to ride along. I sighed, went back to sipping my coffee, and tried not to think about those hard questions Junebug asked me. As a diversionary tactic from myself, I glanced out the cafe window.

Wanda Dickensheets postured beneath the Institute of Elvisology sign, crouching with fake heartbreak as though she’d just finished crooning “In the Ghetto.” Her camera-armed mother, Ivalou Purcell, snapped orders ami what I could only hope were not publicity photos. Ed stood, surveying the street, embarrassed at his wife’s shenanigans. Poor Ed.

I wondered, if I asked nicely, could Wanda be persuaded to trill a rendition of “Don’t Be Cruel” and get the hint.

I quit having to worry much about Candace and Sister, as my morning got unduly hectic at the library. The rest of my staff, Florence Pettus and Itasca Huebler, were both out sick with a bad flu that was making early rounds of Mirabeau. So I did the layout for the library newsletter, returned phone calls to people wanting to reserve books or tapes, and listened to a very eager salesman from Austin as he pitched unaffordable booktracking software to me. Determining I’d earned a moment of peace, I enjoyed a cup of coffee out by the periodical tables with the library’s most loyal patron, old Willie Renfro (coffee out on the floor is strictly forbidden, but he and I were the only ones around and we’re extra careful). I was then pleasantly surprised by a visit from my old friend Davis Foradory and his son Bradley.

Davis kept the nickname “Four Door” by becoming a solid kid and plowing through other schools’ defensive lines for the Mirabeau Bees. (Our school mascot comes from a less-than-stylish play on the name of the second president of the Republic of Texas, for whom our fair town is named: Mirabeau B. Lamar. It has cursed all Mirabeau High School graduates with horrible memories of wearing too much yellow and black during our formative teen years.) Davis had kept his owlish look, though, and now he worked as a lawyer and was also a part owner of KBAV, our county’s only radio station. Not that many men in Mirabeau wear coats and ties on a daily basis, but Davis always looked as sharp as a crease. By Mirabeau standards, you understand. He wouldn’t have kept a single client if he’d represented them in an Armani-too sophisticated to trust at that point. Today he wore a gray suit with a red striped tie. He stood at the counter with Bradley, who did not look too happy.

Bradley’s big for fourteen-he’d gotten his growth spurt early, a gentle blond boy with a smiling face. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Bradley unhappy; but when life is so very simple as it is for Bradley, I suppose it’s more difficult to be sad.

“Hello, Jordan.” Davis greeted me with his usual cool formality. He’s one of my oldest friends, but he never addresses me by my nickname.

“Hi, Davis. Hey there, Bradley.”

Bradley, for some reason shy, shuffled his feet and stared at the floor. “Hi, Jordy,” he finally said.

“Jordan, this is a little embarrassing. I found this under Bradley’s bed.” Davis reached behind Bradley’s back and produced a thin children’s book: Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. It’s a classic. Most boys Bradley’s age are hiding a different kind of wild-thing literature beneath their beds.

“Bradley neglected to return this book when we returned several others a few weeks back,” Davis said, using what sounded to me like his courtroom voice.

“I like it-cool pictures,” Bradley said by way of defense. Nervously, he dragged a hand across the back of his mouth and along a freckled cheek, leaving a wet smear. Bradley salivates more when he’s tense, I’ve noticed.

Admiring a book was a good defense with Judge Poteet. “That’s okay, Bradley. I love books, too. But other people might want to read it, too, and we only have one copy.” I kept my voice real kind. I have a reputation for being sharp-tongued (not sure how I earned that) but I’m genuinely fond of Bradley. I opened the book and peeked at the due date. Whoops, twenty weeks ago. This one’d slipped through the cracks. Bradley gave me a cautious, toothy smile. Davis looked pained. Breaking rules was not ever on his daily agenda.

“Say you’re sorry to Jordan, son, for hoarding the book,” he instructed.

“Sorry, Jordy,” Bradley whispered, staring at his feet. I take back what I said before; he could and did look sad.

“Bradley’s going to pay the fine out of his chores money,” Davis announced, Bradley hung his head in fur-flier shame.

I did a quick calculation. Usually we notify someone of an overdue book three times, then charge them the fine, the replacement cost of the book, and a five-buck extra processing fee. That’d come to over thirty dollars for this particular transgression. But we hadn’t notified the Foradorys; Itasca probably forgot to file the card right. I couldn’t entirely blame the problem on Bradley. He’d kept the book because he loved it, and we’d let him. The book was being returned in perfectly good shape. How many pleasures in life did this kid have?

“It’s a quarter, Bradley,” I said, using my patented authoritative voice.

Bradley began digging around in his pockets. Davis frowned; he pointed at a sign some idiot-in-charge (who shall go unnamed) had left hanging behind the counter.

“That says ten cents a day, Jordan.”

“That applies to adult literature,” I said smoothly. “We’re currently running an amnesty program on overdue picture books.” Note I was careful not to say children’s books in front of Bradley. I’m sure he must have some pride.

Davis wasn’t buying. “Now, Jordan-”

I wasn’t about to brook argument. “Mr. Foradory, I am the director of the Mirabeau Public Library and do believe I know our current overdue rates.” I said this with all the gravity it was worth. I was glad Candace wasn’t here to see me in my nobler moment; I’d never hear the end of it. Bradley carefully picked a quarter out of a palmful of change, held it up for my inspection, and when I nodded, he placed it in my open hand.

“Thank you, sir,” I said.

“I’m sorry, Jordy. I won’t do it again,” Bradley offered. I knew he was right; I’d just decided what to give Bradley for Christmas. With his own copy of Sendak, he wouldn’t be tempted by ours and he could spend hours with Max and his fanciful friends.

Davis still frowned. Okay, if he wanted to make up for Bradley’s minor crime, he could help me decide how to keep poor Ed from selling his soul to Elvis merchandisers.

Inspiration struck. We’d received three new books today: a best-selling, sex-dripping potboiler, the latest James Lee Burke, and a new children’s book. They still lay on the counter.

“Bradley. We just got in a new picture book. Want to be the first to look at it?”

His sky-blue eyes lit up and he laughed, a deep-chested cawing. If he hadn’t been deficient in certain areas, he might have been considered the handsomest boy in the junior high school. It really was a shame.

“Sure! A new book! Yeah!”

“Now, you can’t check it out yet, because I haven’t done all the paperwork or put in the date-due slip.” This went over his head and I hurried along. Best with Bradley just to give him instructions rather than options. “You sit over there and be real careful with it, since it’s new. I need to talk to your daddy for a minute.”

Bradley took the book and ambled to a chair mumbling to himself. Davis looked like he’d just been summoned to the principal’s office.

“You have a second, Davis?” I asked.

“I guess. I need to get Bradley home, though. Cayla doesn’t like it if he’s out long.” He followed me into my little office. I sat on the desk and gestured toward a chair.

“How’s he doing with home schooling?” I asked.

Davis shrugged. “As well as can be expected. Cayla has the patience of a saint with him, of course. I think it’s hard not being around other kids as much, but he’s probably learning more. Maybe we’ll have him in regular school again before too long. If Cayla’s comfortable with him being back around other kids.” Davis indulged himself in a long sigh. “I’ve found it’s best not to hope too highly for Bradley. That way he doesn’t get disappointed.”

I thought it was more that Davis didn’t get disappointed, but I forced my jaws shut. Davis misinterpreted the thinness of my mouth.

“I’m sorry about the book, Jordan.” Davis ran a hand through his thinning strawberry-blond hair. I hoped I wouldn’t lose mine as quickly as he seemed to be relinquishing his.

“Oh, don’t worry about it. Actually, I wondered if you’d talked to Ed about his Institute of Elvisology. You know that Wanda cavorts about town acting like the King during various stages of his career. She’s practically auditioning for a postage stamp.”

Davis permitted himself a quick smile. “I had lunch with Ed yesterday. Wanda’s pretty excited about their new venture. Her mother’s pushing Ed and Wanda to make a success of it.”

I sighed. “Ed’s heart isn’t in that store. I’m not sure he even likes Elvis. Poor Little Ed. I swear that woman and her mother are going to clean him out. Look, he’s got a good job with you at KBAV. I hope he’s not going to forsake that.”

“He says he won’t-Wanda and Ivalou are going to run the store. Ed’s just putting in all his money.”

I made a face. Okay, call me immature. “Doesn’t that sound crazy to you? Ed and Wanda aren’t exactly famous for business savvy.”

Davis nodded, back on the familiar ground of commerce and bankruptcy. “First the nursery she wanted to start, then the arts-and-crafts store, and now this. Not a single one ever pans out for them, I’m afraid.”

“The only good that could come out of this is if he went bankrupt, maybe Wanda would divorce him. That’d get both her and that vulture Ivalou out of his hair. I hate to see him throwing money away, Davis. Can’t you talk him out of this crap? You’re a lawyer. He’d listen to you.”

Davis preened a little at the compliment, like a peacock settling its plumage before a flock of hens. “I tried, but Wanda’s got him by the short and curly. I’m not sure what he sees in that woman.”

I shrugged. “Isn’t it awful, Davis? He hasn’t even started and we’re both already sure he’s going to fail again. I ought to have more faith in him.”

Davis shook his head and adjusted his wire-rim glasses. “It’s hard to have faith in Ed’s entrepreneurial sense when you know his history.”

I started to tell him about Junebug getting called away because of an emergency (this isn’t New York, and we don’t have that many emergencies on bright fall Friday mornings) when a tinkling bell announced the early arrival of my newest volunteer, Gretchen Goertz.

Technically, Gretchen is my stepmother, in that she is married to my biological father. However, since most of Mirabeau still regards the late Lloyd Poteet as my dad, Gretchen being my stepmother is not a relationship I’d advertise. Neither would she. We just dislike each other too much. She resents my presence in her husband’s life and any attention and time he pays me. I take exception to the attempts she’s made to blacken my character and run me out of town. It’s a love-hate relationship in that we love to hate each other.

Bob Don (despite his kindness to me, I still have trouble referring to him as “my father”) had come to me a couple of weeks back and suggested that Gretchen volunteer at the library. I’d sooner have invited Jack the Ripper to restock the crime shelf while Genghis Khan minded military history and Joseph Stalin handled psychopathology. But Bob Don pleaded with me.

“I just hate that you and Gretchen don’t get along,” he had said in his most coaxing salesman’s voice, twisting the gaudy diamond ring on his right hand, “and I think if y’all worked together you’d understand each other. She’s trying, Jordy, to accept that you’re in my life. She’s been squeezing in a therapy session over in Bavary between her Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and she says it’s helping her deal with her anger.”

“I think she’d like to deal with her anger by eviscerating me, Bob Don.”

“Please, Jordy. I have never asked you for anything, but I am asking you to give her a chance.”

I’d had to consider it, of course. Bob Don pays for my mother’s home health care, which keeps her out of a nursing home and prevents my pocketbook from being pirated. But aside from that-he is my father, and I felt I should endeavor to make the relationship work. I’d counted to ten and, forcing a smile, agreed on a preliminary basis. Anyway, I’d needed a new volunteer to replace Candace, who was resigning from the library to reopen the Sit-a-Spell. I’d just made sure I wore an athletic cup to work the first day Gretchen showed up. I figured she’d appear, grouse, and then I could dismiss her with a clear conscience.

It hadn’t quite worked out that way. Gretchen, to my surprise, proved a conscientious worker and a quick study. Her only failing thus far was her nearly fanatical adherence to every letter of the rules (which I interpreted as I damn well pleased) and an occasional criticism of me, always couched in the most diplomatic and helpful language.

The library’s not so big. With one glance Gretchen took in Old Man Renfro with an empty coffee cup at the periodicals, Bradley Foradory looking at a freshly cracked book, and me having a tete-a-tete with Davis instead of devising an improvement over the Library of Congress system. I could see her whole body frost in about one second.

She stuck her head in my doorway. “Need any help?” she asked. I wondered if she’d left the front door open; seemed a little chillier in here all of a sudden.

“No thanks, Gretchen,” I said.

Davis stood, saying he had to go, but manners made him pause and inquire about my mother. I answered his questions briefly and politely; I know folks don’t like to talk about Alzheimer’s. They act like it’s catching. The niceties completed, he retrieved his son.

“All right, Bradley. Dad’s wasted enough time here. Time to go home.”

And I saw it. For a moment nakedly sharp fear crossed Bradley Foradory’s face. He flinched as his father reached for him. The expression vanished in an instant, replaced by the amiable, empty look Bradley usually wore. He let his father guide him to the counter. Bradley gave me the picture book.

“Thanks, Jordy. That’s a pretty book.” Bradley’s manners are far better than most people’s. “Pretty book.”

Gretchen snatched the book from me as soon as Bradley handed it over. Like I said, his manners are better than most.

“Well, if you want to check it out, you come back by later and we’ll have it all ready,” I offered. He gave me one of his purely happy smiles. He seemed okay. But I felt uneasy as I watched Davis steer Bradley out of the library. Was that boy afraid of his father? A vague apprehension tugged at me as they left.

Gretchen permitted me five blissful seconds of silence before starting. “This book hasn’t been processed, Jordy. You’re not supposed to let anyone have it until it’s processed.” Gretchen would’ve made a great librarian in the Dark Ages, when they chained tomes to shelves to keep them from being stolen. God only knows what vengeance she would have exacted as Bradley’s late fee. Probably she would’ve lopped off his arm and mounted it, book still in hand, above the return desk as a dire warning to all others.

“Gretchen, I’m not in the mood for this. I thought you came in to help, not to lecture me.”

“Well, pardon me, Mr. Lose-the-Taxpayers’-Money,” she huffed. She clutched the book to her blue argyle sweater vest and glared with her steely-gray eyes. “These books don’t grow on trees, you know. That little retard could have wandered off with it or-worse-drooled all over it.”

I glared at her. “I don’t like that word, Gretchen, not one bit. Please don’t use it again in this library.”

She surprised me by looking ashamed. She ran her nail-polished fingers through her short permed gray hair. “I’m sorry. You’re right; Bradley can’t help the way he is. I don’t know the fancy words for his condition, so I call ’em like I see ’em.”

I was still amazed she wasn’t quarreling with me. I softened my tone. “You can say he has a disability without hurting his feelings.” She nodded as though it took an effort. I’d suspected Bob Don had pleaded with her plenty as well. I knew she loved my father, that she wanted to make her marriage work, and that she’d make peace with me for that end. She’d already sobered up-and stayed that way.

I gestured toward the new books. “Since you reminded me-correctly-that the books need processing, go ahead and do the paperwork.”

“Okay, I will,” she said, back to her usual stridency.

“Fine.” I pushed the restock cart toward the shelves. Suddenly, fraught with worries about Junebug wooing Sister, Candace making a go of the cafe, my friend Ed losing his shirt to his female Elvis, having an ill staff, feeling unease over Bradley, and dealing with my favorite volunteer, I had a hell of a headache. If Darwin ended up in the religious section today, I wouldn’t be surprised.

I’d hoped to escape the library for lunch right before noon, but to my eternal regret, I didn’t. Friday at noon is a terror so complete, so utter, and so deep that no adult should have to withstand it.

Friday is Story Day.

The kids start arriving about eleven-thirty. And once they’re inside, their volume controls never seem to get adjusted. Games of tag in the stacks are extremely popular, as are attempts to smuggle in crayons, either for vandalism or for a delicious prelunch snack. The periodical section, usually habituated by the elderly, clears out faster than an after-hours beer joint when the sirens approach. Whoever said old folks crave the company of children needs to come into this library on a Friday and see how spryly these eldsters get away from the little tykes.

Don’t get me wrong. I love children. Well-behaved children. In the “Look What’s New” bin I’m always displaying books on child discipline and the virtues of celibacy. But they just don’t seem to move. I might try personally recommending selected titles to folks who should reconsider adding to their brood in the future.

To my never-ending astonishment, Gretchen lives for Story Day. She wanders among the future embezzlers and spouse cheaters, sweetly cautioning them to “put that down” or “don’t put that in your mouth.” She insists on the little darlings calling her “Aunt Gretchen” and me (shudder) “Uncle Jordan.” It might be easier if a lot of the mothers stayed for Story Day (and several of the sainted ones do), but too many moms see it as the Friday babysitting service and duck out to shop or have lunch or meet some trucker out at the Highway 71 motel (also known as the Mirabeau Mattress) for a little midday epic of their own.

Either Gretchen reads stories to the assembly, or Miss Ludey Murchison does. Miss Ludey’s certifiably insane, in my opinion, but she likes children. And they love her. She’s around eighty and has a wonderful reading voice that is frequently broken by coughing or gasps for air. I’ve tried to break her of her occasional habit of chomping pears while she recites, but she says she needs her vitamins. Fortunately I know both Heimlich and CPR, so our bases are covered.

A huddle of pint-sized literati swarmed around my knees as I worked my way across the room. I’m convinced the large number of children in Mirabeau is a direct result of the town’s limited entertainment options. People really should read more.

“I did a doodie,” a diaper-clad individual of undetermined gender informed me. The speaker straddled my shoe while making this announcement.

I moved my foot back. “How nice.” I smiled encouragingly. “Go tell Aunt Gretchen. I’m sure she’ll be interested.”

The child tottered off, its balance suddenly at risk. Lord give me strength. I honestly didn’t expect the day could go further south. Until, that is, Trey Slocum wheeled himself into my library and I felt the cold hardness of hate enter my heart.


When I was a senior at rice university, I went to a friend’s Halloween party. His family was a large, rambunctious Louisiana clan and they’d gone all out, festooning the house with goblins and ghouls and sticky, fake cobwebs. They provided an open bar and a couple of fortune-tellers. My friend’s great-aunt was one of the holiday seers, a drunken old woman who in hindsight was pathetic but at the time seemed terribly amusing. We all must’ve been drunk not to pity her. She was laying out ta-rot cards between generous gulps of red wine, and as she tossed a card toward me it spun flat across the table, whirling a hanged man’s picture. I flicked at the card’s corner, snickering, and made it twirl back across the smooth cherrywood tabletop. The old lady’s hand had lashed out, catching my wrist in a death grip.

“Don’t you laugh at fortune, little boy, and don’t you make it spin,” she hissed at me, the smell of cheap grape heavy on her breath. “Fortune always spins back around in good time. There’s no need for you to jostle the wheel.”

I quieted at this unexpected pronouncement, and my date pulled me away from the table to dance to the latest Depeche Mode song. I’d never forgotten what that drunken lady had said to me, though.

God, did Fortune spin around.

Before Trey came in, I was helping two new patrons: an attractive but rough-looking woman in her midthirties, and an intense young man, around thirteen. Judging by her hearty, ruddy complexion and weathered hands, the woman apparently spent a lot of time outdoors. She had brown hair that would have been beautiful if she’d just left it alone; instead she’d teased and moussed the front of it so hard it resembled a rabbit’s frizzy tail. I’d noticed her eyes, too-chocolate-brown ones, clear and intelligent. There was something vaguely familiar about her, but when you live in a town where some of the same families have lived for generations, you aren’t surprised by nagging thoughts that you may have met someone before.

“You ain’t the librarian,” she politely said after telling me her son wanted to get a card. Her eyes appraised me frankly and she had a crooked, sexy smile. “You don’t got gray hair and a gingham dress.”

“Not today. I only wear the gingham on Wednesdays.” I pulled out a blank form for her and the boy to fill out. “I’m Jordan Poteet.”

“Well, hello. I’m Nola Kinnard, and this is my son, Scott,” the woman answered. Her son was around my nephew Mark’s age, a plain-looking, brown-haired boy with a shy demeanor, a pug nose, and clear hazel eyes. He mumbled a quiet hello and offered his hand after his mother gently elbowed him, giving me a curt handshake.

While Scott puzzled over the form Nola Kinnard chatted about how much she enjoyed being back in Mirabeau. I glanced away from her and that was when I saw Trey Slocum, in a wheelchair, easing himself through the front door.

My whole body iced, held cold for a minute, then began a quick thaw as shock and anger heated me. Shock that he was in a wheelchair and anger that he was even in town.

He didn’t see me at first; he was examining the posters I’d made to advertise the kids’ Christmas-break reading program. Nola Kinnard still prattled at her son; her voice sounded as far away as though she were on the other side of the river. Slowly, I turned to her and said, “I’m sorry. What?” My own voice, usually a little raspy, was hardly more than a croak.

“How many books can he check out? Scott’s had to go quite a spell without reading and he wants to catch up.”

“I like the Dune books.” Scott spoke up finally for himself. His voice stood on the edgy brink of change. “I only got through the first couple before we left Beaumont and I-”

I’m sure there was more, and if I’d been in my normal mind I would have gladly listened. Finding a teenager who enjoys reading is gold in my book. But my eyes left Scott and Nola and went back to Trey, whose gloved hands were poised above the wheels of his chair. He was staring at me, stock-still in his own shock.

Nola Kinnard glanced to where I was looking and said, “Oh, honey, I thought you were going to wait in the car.” She narrowed her eyes at me, appalled at my rude ogling at a crippled man. She didn’t have a clue.

“Honey?” I heard myself repeating her words, and my voice sounded as dulled as an old knife. “You know that man?”

She looked startled at my tone. “Well, sure. Do you know Trey?”

“Jordy, my God.” Trey pulled up his chair across the floor and stopped a few feet short of me. He looked much the same as the last time I saw him, six years ago: cham-bray shirt, glossy black hair under a cowboy hat, twilight-dark eyes, fancy boots, a mustache and beard. But the patch of chest underneath the open V of the shirt looked wasted, the legs in the boots seemed atrophied under the jeans, and the skin behind the beard shone sallow. He smiled thinly at me. “My God, what are you doing here, Jordy? I didn’t know you were back in town-”

I found my voice. “Hello, Trey.” I made myself look at his face and not the wheelchair.

“Well, how nice!” Nola perked up. “Are you old friends?”

“We were, once,” I answered before Trey could-I wanted the record straight. My hands gripped the edge of the counter. “Trey used to be my brother-in-law. I take it you’re with him?”

Nola looked confused. “Yes, I’m with Trey… your brother-in-law?”

“Jordy, maybe you and I should step outside and talk.” Trey’s voice was low.

I raised an eyebrow. Oh, God help me, I wanted to beat the crap out of this man. Even if it was in front of a woman and boy he’d taken as his own. I sensed a presence near my elbow: Gretchen. I heard the faint drone of Miss Ludey reading “Rumpelstiltskin” to the children. “And no one knows my name!” she said in a guttural voice tinged with evil. Then Gretchen broke through the stony tension.

“Jordy, is there a problem?” Gretehen’s interference I didn’t need right now.

“No, Gretchen, there’s not. Thank you, though, for asking.” I stepped around the counter and the Kinnards, glaring down at Trey. My hands closed around the handles of Trey’s wheelchair and I steered it toward the door. “Gretchen, would you please get Scott his card? And if you’d be kind enough to show him where the science-fiction books are-he’s a Frank Herbert fan.”

“Trey?” Nola’s voice trembled, not sounding nearly as confident as before.

“It’s all right, Nola. I’ll be back in a minute. I need to talk to Jordy in private.” I didn’t give him another chance to talk; I began pushing the chair rapidly toward the doors. For one awful moment I thought of shoving him through the glass, possibly one of the meanest fantasies I’d ever had, and I swallowed at the cruelty of it. Instead, of course, I opened the doors, left them propped open, and wheeled Trey outside. I shut the doors behind me. When I turned back, Trey had moved over to a stone bench in the shade of an ancient live oak.

The cooling wind that hinted at a coming blue norther chilled me as I crossed my arms and sat on the bench. The clouded sky was the color of old pewter. The scent of approaching rain and thunder rode the air, smelling like pennies stuck too long in a pocket. I didn’t speak, waiting for two elderly ladies to navigate their careworn way past us, smiling a greeting, and go into the library.

I turned to Trey. He stared into my face and lit a cigarette, shielding the flame from the November breeze. He didn’t look like his lungs could inhale half a puff.

“I don’t suppose you’d believe me if I told you it was good to see you, Plum,” he said softly.

“Don’t you call me that,” I snapped. My grandparents had nicknamed me Plum when I was young, and Sister still reverted to it when she was feeling particularly tender toward me. Trey’d used it on me when he’d married Sister, first to tease me, but then out of real affection. Or so I had thought. A sour taste was in my mouth and I wanted to spit.

“Sorry. I guess I’m more glad to see you than you are to see me.” He blew smoke out, away from me. I watched it dissipate.

“Why are you back, Trey? I thought you were never going to come back to Mirabeau.”

“God, Jordy, ain’t it obvious?” He gestured at his legs, at the cold chrome of the chair. “I got hurt. Bull messed me up good. I can’t ride no more. Can’t walk.”

I knew I should commiserate with him. I knew it, but I couldn’t. He’d done his share of hurting the Poteets and I wasn’t in a forgiving frame of mind.

“Are you moving back? With those two?” I pointed to the library. Through the glass I could see Nola Kinnard anxiously watching us. She saw me see her and she moved away. “Who are they supposed to be, Trey? Sister and Mark’s stunt doubles? Or just another passing fancy?”

“I know you’re mad at me. Why don’t you just punch me out and be done with it, Jordy?” Trey said through gritted teeth.

“I’m not going to hit you.” I didn’t eliminate shoving the chair into traffic, though. I rested my face in my hands, my fingers sore from clenching. I’d never felt such acrid, burning anger. I wanted to slap the cigarette out of his mouth. God, this couldn’t be happening. I looked up at him; he looked miserable. “I take it you have not seen your ex-wife and son?”

“We only struck town yesterday morning.”

“So Arlene doesn’t even know you’re here?” My voice rose.

“No, she don’t. I thought I’d call her later today-”

“Call her? You’ll do no such thing!” I grabbed the chair and stuck my face close to his. “You have made her suffer enough, Trey. You aren’t going to hurt her or Mark anymore.”

“I don’t want to hurt Arlene-”

“You don’t? How do you think she and Mark are going to feel when they see you gallivanting around town with your shiny new family? Did that ever occur to you?”

His hands clenched over my wrists. “What are you doing back in town, anyway? You get fired from your highfalutin job up North?”

“No!” I snapped back. “I came back here because my mother’s dying of Alzheimer’s.” His face crumpled; he’d always liked Mama. That didn’t earn any mercy from me. “Of course, you couldn’t know that since you haven’t bothered to stay in touch. Since you abandoned my sister, you asshole, she needed my help.” I took a long, calming breath. “There’s this thing called family, Trey. It matters. You make sacrifices because your family needs you. Because you love them. I know that’s a foreign concept to you, but-”

“I don’t need a lecture from you!” he yelled. “I don’t need you judging me! Look at me! Don’t you think I’ve paid enough for my mistakes?” His voice cracked.

I stepped back. “Is that your ploy? Is that what you’re planning to use on my sister and my nephew? Oh, let’s feel bad for Trey-he got hurt off playing cowboy. Well, I felt sorry for you long before you ever got stomped by a bull. You had the best woman and the best boy in the world, and you gave them up for a bunch of dumb animals. I hope it was worth it, you moron.”

“Are you done?” Trey asked, his voice cutting cold like the wind.

“Yes, I am.”

“Fine. I’m glad you’ve gotten your usual tantrum out of your system, Jordan.” He lowered his voice. “You don’t know the facts. I may have left Arlene, but I never abandoned her. I sent her money every month for Mark-”

“Don’t lie!” I shouted, but he ignored me.

“-and I left town for my own reasons, which, contrary to what you think, had nothing to do with Arlene and Mark.”

“I don’t care. Just keep your distance. Better yet, why don’t you leave town again?”

“Because Nola’s got family here. Her uncle’s Dwight Kinnard. He used to work with my daddy, and he’s offered to put us up for a while.”

“I can believe you were stupid enough to leave Arlene. I can’t believe you’re rotten enough to come back. Steer clear of my family, Trey.” I couldn’t resist twisting the knife. “You know, she did get over you. She’s dating Junebug now, and he’s our police chief. Maybe they’ll even get married. She’s got a real man this time.”

He looked away quickly, but not before I saw the pain in his eyes. He didn’t offer a reply, so I turned and went back into the library. I felt vaguely ill. Letting him have it hadn’t made me feel better.

Nola and Scott stood by the front counter, watching us. Scott held a stack of books, clutching them protectively to his chest. Gretchen hovered between the Kinnards and the checkout counter.

Nola grabbed my arm with a strong hand. “What did you say to him, you asshole? How can you be cruel to a man who’s suffered like he has?”

“Cruel, lady?” I pulled my arm free. “That man invented the word. But maybe he’ll treat you and your boy better than he did my sister and her child. I hope so.” Nola gave me a hard stare and shoved the door open. Scott, glaring at me, suddenly threw his stack of novels at me; they scattered at my feet.

“You can’t say anything bad about Trey!” Scott yelled. “He’s a good man, better than you are!” That boy believed in Trey; desperation tinged his words. The anger seeped out of me.

“I’d have given anything if he was better than me, son,” I said. “It would have saved folks I love a lot of grief.”

Nola pulled Scott out the door, ignoring his tossed books. I watched her bend over Trey, hugging him, while Scott grasped the handles of the chair and maneuvered it to a decrepit blue Ford Escort. They loaded Trey in, Nola lifting his legs for him and tucking them in the car. I turned away and stalked back to my office, ignoring the character voices that Miss Ludey provided for the children. There’d been a momentary pause in the narrative when Scott had screamed at me, but Miss Ludey was, if anything, a trooper.

“Jordy, are you okay? Do you need-” Gretchen tried.

“No. Just leave me alone.” I slammed my office door behind me and spent the next hour staring at my desk, “Candace is going to drive me to drink,” Sister announced. She had come home around four and flopped down on the couch, her Sit-a-Spell T-shirt begrimed with sweat. “I got to go back there in a minute and do up the dinner fixings. The short-order cook Candace hired from that greasy spoon in Bavary don’t know his butt from a hole in the ground.”

I’m sure she’d anticipated a few quiet minutes at home. She seemed surprised to see me, but Gretchen had offered to cover for me. I’d never left Gretchen in charge of the library before, and I might be lucky if she didn’t frame me for stealing the coffee money while I was gone, but I couldn’t worry about her. Not with this terrible errand on my mind.

God, this was going to be hard. I sat down next to her, slipped her sneakers and socks off, and began to give her one of my patented foot rubs. (The secret is rubbing deep between the toes.)

“Gee, what brotherly concern,” Sister teased. “Oh, that does feel good. You must want me to keep Candace busy while you tomcat around town.”

“Not hardly,” I said, leaning back against the couch. I’d already checked-Mark was upstairs, studying geography. No time like the present.

“What’s Mama doing?” Sister demanded.

“Taking a nap.”

“I hope she’s not up again all night. I don’t need her bayin’ at the moon on top of everything else.” Sister pushed her other foot into my lap. “Don’t rub just one, Jordy, I got to use both of them dogs all day.”

I kneaded the bottoms of Sister’s foot, examining her sole intently. “I got some news, upsetting news. But you got to know, and you got to decide how to tell Mark.” I stopped rubbing and looked at Sister. “Trey is back in town. He came into the library today.”

Dead silence. Sister pulled her foot from my ministering hands. Her face looked carved-not a muscle moved. She finally pursed her lips and swallowed. Her mouth crinkled like she’d downed a dollop of poison. “That’s not funny, Jordan.”

“It’s not meant to be, Arlene.”

With my invocation of her first name, she knew it was true. She bit her lip, as though clamping down on words she didn’t want escaping.

“He got hurt in the rodeo. He’s in a wheelchair now.”

“Dad-Dad is here? And in a wheelchair?”

I froze. Mark stood halfway down the stairs; he must’ve been on his way down for a snack. I glanced at Sister; she wasn’t looking at me. I’d figured she’d tell Mark, not me. But there was no backing out now.

Having just seen his father, I was newly shocked at the resemblance between Trey and Mark. Where Sister and I are fair, Mark’s got his father’s jet-black hair and dark complexion. There was much of Trey in his face: the set of bones that made him look cagey and clever, the insouciant walk Trey had at Mark’s age, the tough hands with stubby fingers. Today he was resplendent in his latest fashion statement: a faded R.E.M. T-shirt I’d bought in Boston, black jeans, and red Converse sneakers. (Mark had recently renounced cowboy-style clothing; Sister prayed this was a temporary phase.) At least today he wasn’t wearing a baseball cap backward, a trend that for some reason irritates me. He came down the rest of the stairs and stood before us. He stared at his mother, and she stared back at him. Finally she turned to me.

“What did he say?” Sister found her voice. She’d pulled her feet up under her, and her posture reminded me unpleasantly of a fetal position.

I tried to choose my next words carefully: “We didn’t talk for long. I was more interested in telling him off. I’d been waiting six long years to do that.”

Sister and Mark were silent, then Mark said, “You said he was hurt?”

“He got injured bull-riding. He doesn’t look good; he can’t walk, but I don’t know if his condition’s permanent. I assume he’s come home to recuperate.” I paused. Now for the worst part. “He has a woman and a boy with him. She’s got family here, but the boy mentioned they’d teen living in Beaumont. She looks like the type of woman who might work at the rodeo-sort of sturdy and weathered. Her name is Nola Kinnard. Her boy’s name is Scott. He’s about Mark’s age.”

Sister was unconcerned with Trey’s accessories. I saw the effort she made to keep her voice calm. “Well, what did you say to him? What did he say to you?”

“I spoke my mind. I told him to stay away from you and Mark-”

“Why? Why would you say that?” Mark demanded. The anger in his voice, in his stance, reminded me of Seott Kinnard defending Trey in the library. His hands curled into fists. “If I wanna see him, I will! That’s not your choice!”

“Mark! Go upstairs!” Sister said in a flat tone.

“No! Where’s he staying? How bad is he hurt? I want to know, Mom, I should know.” His voice softened. “Maybe he’s come home so he can see us. I want to see him.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea, sweetie pie. You should really let Mom handle this, okay? You go upstairs. I need to talk with Uncle Jordy alone.”

“This isn’t fair!” Mark shouted, He sought an alternative to dismissal. “Can I go over to Terry’s house?”

“No, you cannot. You are too upset. Please, Mark, just go upstairs and we’ll talk in a minute.” Sister’s voice did not brook further discussion. Mark made a frustrated grunt and ran up the stairs, stomping against them as hard as he could, and slamming his door for extra effect.

“Goddamn Trey,” Sister said softly. She covered her face and began to cry. “Why did he have to come back? Why couldn’t he just have stayed away, like a dead man does?” Her sobbing broke entirely free then, and she leaned hard against my shoulder, and I cradled her while she wept, my hand nestled in the thick blonde hair above her neck.

I don’t know how long she cried; finally she pulled herself up, said nothing more to me, and went upstairs to talk to her son.

I called Candace and told her Sister wasn’t going to return to help with dinner. There wasn’t much of an evening rush (probably because of the cafe’s failure to offer a global menu) and when I told Candace the latest family trauma, she forgot about the intricacies of restaurant management and fretted about Sister and Mark’s well-being. I assured her Sister would be okay. Sister has her faults, but she is a titanium magnolia, made of sterner stuff than most folks. Mark was a tough, smart kid-surely he’d be okay. But I still ached for them both.

“What about you, sugar? Are you all right?” Candace asked.

“I have never wanted to hurt someone the way I wanted to hurt Trey. I wanted to beat the son of a bitch to a pulp. I didn’t know I had that in me.”

I could see Candace raise an eyebrow. “Pummeling Trey wouldn’t have made you feel better. Just the opposite.”

“I just want him far away from Sister and Mark. He’s hurt them enough.”

“He’s hurt you, too, Jordy. Arlene told me once how close you and Trey used to be. She said y’all were like brothers.”

I closed my eyes. “That’s ridiculous. I don’t care about any stupid friendship I had with Trey. He betrayed our whole family.” I paused. “It’s a bad joke, isn’t it? Be Trey. Betray. God, I think I’m losing it. This is killing Sister.”

“Well, he better not show up around here. I’ll chop his balls off and serve ’em up in the chili.”

I managed to laugh. “That’s one idea.” She said if Sister and Mark felt up to it that the three of us should come by the cafe and eat dinner. I told her I’d let her know.

When I hung up, I kept my hand on the receiver. Should I call my old group of friends and let them know Trey was back in town? Maybe if they kept him busy he’d stay away from Sister and Mark. Clevey, Ed, and Davis might appreciate knowing that Trey was home. Maybe they’d pay him a visit and talk him out of remaining in town. Or quite possibly they could join me in a lynching. At least they should know he was back. And certainly Junebug would be interested in knowing that Sister’s ex had returned; if Sister ever needed Junebug, it’d be now.

The phone rang under my fingers. “Jordy. This is Junebug.” His voice sounded grim.

“Hey, Junebug. I have a question for you. Is tarring and feathering officially illegal or just frowned upon?”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

I told him quickly about Trey’s reappearance. “God almighty,” he finally said.

“So, if I want to run him out of town on the rails, what are my legal options? Tying him into a saddle and then giving the horse a whack to make him run a fair distance couldn’t get me in trouble, could it?”

“Jordy, stop it,” Junebug said. “I’m calling with some real bad news. Real bad. You better sit down. I couldn’t call earlier ’cause his mama was in Houston today and I couldn’t call you and the others till we notified next of kin.”

“What? Who?”

“You know that emergency I got called out to this morning on Old River Road? Well, it was Clevey Shivers. Someone shot him dead,”


Small towns have a ritual for death. People gather, as though drawn by a lingering spirit of the departed. The relative closest to the deceased finds his or herself drafted into the dual roles of mourner and host. For some reason, large amounts of food are required, although no one seems to have much of an appetite. I’ve noticed that the men congregate on the porches no matter the weather, while the women claim the homey territories of kitchen and living room. Children are banished to the upstairs or the yard, as if grieving didn’t become them. My memories of mourning carry the smell of fresh-fried chicken, the taste of a green-bean-and-mushroom-soup casserole, the odor of old-lady lavender water and talcum powder, and the rough feel of my grandmother’s porch swing as it creaked a slow and solemn dirge.

All of this activity is much, much easier if the death is expected.

Shortly after Junebug’s phone call, I found myself driving out to Mrs. Truda Shivers’s house, down by the river on Bavary Road. I hadn’t eaten dinner; I didn’t have much appetite. I felt terrible about leaving Mark and Sister behind, but they obviously did not want to go and I sensed they wanted time to themselves.

The air felt heavy, as though rain were just a breath away. Distant thunder sounded from the east, and I could see a dark line of clouds, swollen with grayness, on the horizon. We’d have a downpour before morning, I guessed.

Several cars were already parked in Truda’s crushedgravel driveway when I arrived Junebug’s police cruiser was not among them. He was busy starting the investigation into Clevey’s death.

I stopped the engine and took a deep breath, steeling myself. Clevey, one of my oldest friends, was dead. I waited for the sting of tears, but none came-and that made me feel more miserable. I shut my eyes and a torrent of memories came forward: Clevey and I wrestling in mud and getting spanked by our mothers because we were in our Sunday best; Clevey and I, as young boys, going through confirmation classes at little St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Bavary (the Shiveises were one of the few other Anglican families in Mirabeau); Clevey’s terrified face, staring into the storm’s darkness the night Hurricane Althea nearly killed us all; the pit my stomach fell into when, at fifteen, Clevey told me he was madly in love with Gina Fontenelle and I’d been French-kissing her the night before at a party he’d skipped.

But those were all distant memories. I’d had only sporadic contact with Clevey since I’d moved home. He’d been polite when we’d seen each other, but he’d acted nearly as if he had a bad cold he didn’t want to pass on. I’d seen him twice in the past week-once, stewed to the gills at the Bierhaus Brewpub in Bavary. I’d hardly spoken to him; he was drinking alone and didn’t seem overly pleased when Junebug and I’d joined him. I’d seen him again only yesterday morning when he’d stopped by the Sit-a-Spell to give Sister and Candace a thorough teasing about my eating too many free meals there. It had been the closest to the Clevey of old that I’d seen in years.

A bullet-probably from a. 38-had smashed directly through his right eye, destroying brain and thought and reason. I felt sick. And there was no gun lying near Clevey’s body. Murder. Clevey was a registered owner of a. 38, but the gun was missing from his house. Junebug told me it was likely the killer had used Clevey’s own weapon against him.

I forced myself out of the car. The promised norther had come, and I pulled my denim jacket closer around me. I steadied my grip on a peach cobbler Sister had baked earlier at the cafe and that Candace’d given me to take to Mrs. Shivers. I walked up to the front porch, where, despite the cooling evening temperature and the occasional gust of wind, the men had gathered, true to form.

I recognized several of Clevey’s cousins from La Grange. Our greetings were little more than nods from me to them, and thanks from them to me for coming. Little Ed Dickensheets sat on a porch swing, his eyes red from crying. Men don’t generally cry in front of one another here, and I thought Ed had decently gotten his tern’s shed in private. I went over and put my arm around his shoulder and he leaned into my denim jacket, embracing me hard for a moment, weeping silently. I shook my head; Clevey’d nearly teased him to an early grave, and here was Ed, solitarily shedding tears.

“Sorry,” Ed said, pulling away and blinking up at me. Ed’s five-five, so he’s always looking up at folks. I wondered how he kept from getting crushed by a big old gal like Wanda when they were in the sack. Oddest things you think about in the midst of death. “I’m gonna make you drop that cobbler.”

“Don’t you worry, Ed. How you holding up?”

“Fine. Wanda’s in there with Mrs. Shivers.” He nodded toward the weathered screen door, where I could hear the gentle murmur of women’s voices. I suppose Ed thought that I’d be as interested in Wanda’s current coordinates as he was.

“Well, I better get this cobbler in,” I said, heading for the door.

“Davis said he was coming. Junebug’s already been by-he had to get back to the station,” Ed said as I went in; I smiled to let him know I’d heard. I suddenly wanted to see all my friends very badly.

The Shivers house was old, pre-World War I, built of white-painted boards and native stone. The comforting smell of cinnamon pervaded the rooms, and in spite of myself I nearly smiled; I could remember long afternoons when school was out, watching TV here with Clevey, playing touch football on the cool green yard, staying up late when we were older and blustering about the women we’d have someday.

I found Clevey’s mother, Truda Shivers, sitting in the living room, surrounded by many women. She was always a polite, gracious lady and she was not going to be undone by death-even that of her son. I marveled at her composure, especially since she’d already buried her husband and her one other child, who’d died in infancy when Clevey and I were four. Clevey’d gotten his fiery-red hair and bulk from his mama, but gray heavily streaked her auburn perm. She rose to hug me with her thick arms.

“Oh, Jordan, sugar, I’m so glad you’re here. Seeing everyone who loved Clevey is making this easier for me to bear. And what a lovely cobbler.” Her manners weren’t going to be dented by tragedy.

“Miz Shivers. I’m so terribly, terribly sorry,” I whispered into her frizz of hair. I hugged her tight. She’d always been really considerate to me and I remembered her many kindnesses since Mama had gotten ill. She didn’t deserve this grief, and for the first time I felt a hot anger overcome my shock. I didn’t want this kindhearted woman to feel the horrible pain of losing her child.

She pulled back and touched my cheek. “He was always so fond of you. You made him laugh, you know.”

“He made us all laugh, Miz Shivers.” God, I didn’t know what to say. I’d spent most of my childhood around Clevey, but a wall had gone up between us when I’d gone off to Rice and he’d stayed in Mirabeau, working at the paper. A college degree not only opens doors; it closes them. But that had been Clevey’s choice, not mine. I didn’t spend the time with him I had as a child, but as grown men, we were too busy to sit, cuss, and smoke in tree houses.

Truda Shivers leaned against me and whispered, “Walk with me for a moment, Jordan.” She murmured a pardon to the other ladies; one woman took the cobbler pan from my hands, and I put my arm around Truda’s shoulders. She guided me to a wall of photographs, not terribly unlike the one my mother had created in our house: a gallery of her family’s lives. Various versions of Clevey smiled at me from the wall.

She pointed at a photo of several of us boys from our senior year in high school. The good old gang, arms looped over each others’ shoulders, posing in the back of Clevey’s battered pickup. I sat between Trey and Clevey, smiling broadly with my hometown brotherhood, someone else’s Stetson perched on my head. Trey had one hand affectionately on the top of the hat; Clevey held a beer in one hand and crossed his eyes for the camera. Davis, Junebug, and Ed stood behind us, brandishing beers and laughing. I remembered the picture; it was at a graduation party Davis hosted, when the drinking age was eighteen and we were all legal. The hat on my head was Trey’s and I recalled he’d joked I never cared to wear a cowboy hat and damned if we wouldn’t get a picture of me in one. He’d pulled off his hat and put it on me. We all looked full of joy, if not promise. My breath felt heavy in my lungs and I looked away.

“Clevey”-she sighed-“sure did love high school. I think it was the high point of his life.”

“Yes, ma’am.” I didn’t know what to say. Holding Mirabeau High as the pinnacle of one’s time on earth saddened me.

Truda saw my thought in my face. “It was, Jordan, it was. But that’s okay. My Clevey was never what you’d call a complicated boy.” She pointed at another photo: Clevey and I uncomfortable in suits, with the bishop standing imperially behind us, our hair combed smooth, his holy hands on our shoulders, guiding our little souls among the straight and narrow. A picture from our confirmation Eucharist. I remembered the bishop smelled of peppermint and his palms were not callused like my daddy’s. Truda’s hand tightened on mine.

“Those two pictures are the biggest helps to me right now,” she said, finally crying. “Knowing that he had true friends that loved him and that he’s gone home to God.” She took a ragged breath and her broad shoulders heaved.

“Why? Why would someone kill my boy?” She sobbed hard into my jacket, and I stood there, awkwardly, wishing to God I could just give her an answer that would help heal her heart. But there wasn’t one. Instead I just hugged her for a long while, feeling the surge of her grieving breaths subside as she wept herself out.

After several minutes, one of the other ladies-I thought she was Mrs. Shivers’s sister from La Grange-gently pried her off my shoulder and guided her into the kitchen. I was left in front of all those images of Clevey, with a few of his other relatives sitting and not looking at me. Wanda Dickensheets, divested of her Elvis accoutrements, sat whispering with her mother, Ivalou Purcell. They were both big-boned ladies, with egos and personalities to match. Wanda’s a few years older than Ed and it’s starting to show, with widening thick gray streaks in her hair. Ivalou has a pennanent pinch on her face, like she’s got gas and she’s riding in a crowded elevator. They quit whispering and favored me with what I considered wholly inappropriate toothy grins that portended conversation. I quickly excused myself and retreated back to the porch.

Davis had arrived, with Bradley in tow. Ed resumed his crying as I came back out on the porch and Davis gave him an awkward hug. Cayla Foradory, Davis’s wife, nodded curtly at me and went inside, balancing a casserole dish. She’s a quiet, rather unfriendly woman with fine blonde hair and a perpetual frown. What Davis sees in her I’ve never known.

“Hey, Jordy!” Bradley called, and waved, running toward the house in a ragged gait. “Is Mark here?”

“Bradley!” Davis snapped. “Lower your voice, please, sir. Remember what I said about minding your manners.” Bradley jerked like he was on a leash that’d just been yanked.

“Minding my manners,” Bradley repeated in a far softer tone. I went over to Bradley and gave him a hug. He hugged back. “Sorry, buddy, Mark stayed at home. But I bet he’d be glad to see you if you want to come by tomorrow.” Bradley and Mark, only two weeks apart in birth, had grown up together. Mark, despite his sauciness toward his mother and me, had always been gentle with Bradley. Maybe he found Bradley impossible to stay mad at for long.

Davis was accompanied by his cousin, who I was delighted to see. Eula Mae Quiff was not usually the first person you’d invite to a wake, but she was sure to liven it up. Eula Mae was our local celebrity, a prolific and successful romance writer, although she’d been agonizing over her latest torrid magnum opus. I hoped she wouldn’t start bitching about writer’s block; this wasn’t the place. Of course, Eula Mae considered the world her stage and Clevey’s death might just be a minor scene.

Eula Mae made her rounds, embracing each of us. She was about twelve years older than we were and viewed us like errant little siblings. She saved my hug for last; considering how much free advice she dispenses my way, I suppose she considers me a special case.

“Jordy. What a day you’ve had. First that no-good Trey Slocum back in town, and now poor Clevey dead.” She patted her mountain of reddish curls with a ring-heavy hand. Eula Mae should not be allowed near open bodies of water while wearing that much jewelry.

“How’d you hear about Trey being back?” I asked.

“That dreadful Gretchen creature called me. As though she and I were ever friends, especially after the hateful way she’s treated you. Anyhow”-she sniffed-“she said something about you needing your friends now, and she thought I’d like to know about what happened at the library with Trey.”

Gretchen? Concerned about me? The world was getting weirder by the hour.

“How are Mark and Arlene holding up? Have they seen him?” Eula Mae asked, taking a casserole dish from Davis, who was now having to comfort a once-again weepy Ed.

“No, they haven’t, and I told him to mind his distance.”

“Well, sweetie, I’m sure it’ll all work out. I really must get inside and see how poor Truda is. How’s she holding up?”

“As well as can be expected, considering her son’s been murdered. Actually, I think Truda is an amazingly strong-”

“Excuse me.” A distinguished-looking gentleman, tall and lanky with silvering brown hair, eased past the front door and came out onto the porch. I moved aside to let him pass and found myself slamming into Eula Mae’s casserole dish. Her jaw was about to dent the Saran Wrap cover of her broccoli-cheese-rice medley. I watched her watch the gentleman walk to an unoccupied corner of the porch, produce a pipe from the innards of his brown-and-tan houndstooth jacket, and fill it with tobacco.

“What marvelous hands,” Eula Mae breathed. “I wonder who that man is. I don’t believe I’ve seen him about.”

I cleared my throat. “Don’t you have to go get that food to Miz Shivers?”

Eula Mae recovered herself, although I found myself wondering if her plot logjam would be suddenly splintered by the appearance of a dashing new character in his early fifties. “Of course. C’mon, Davis, let’s go see Truda.” She went inside.

Ed watched them go, blinking red-rimmed eyes. He took a long breath, as if he’d been swimming a distance, and walked over to me. He glanced around the porch, making sure we weren’t overheard. “Hey, Jordy, we need to talk. But not in this crowd. You gonna stay awhile?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

Ed shook his head. “Damn sorry business this is.” He went inside.

I made my way over to the pipe smoker, studying him as I approached. He looked educated, wealthy, and not a lick like any of the Shiverses, who kept a nice consistent gene pool that led to auburn hair, smiling ruddiness, and heft. He wasn’t watching me; his blue eyes were locked on my group of old friends. He turned, slightly startled, as I offered my hand.

“Hello, I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Jordan Poteet, an old friend of Clevey’s.”

“Hello.” His voice was full-bodied and soothing. “I’m Steven Teague.”

I blinked. I didn’t know any Teagues in Mirabeau. “Are you visiting from out of town?” Never could say I wasn’t nosy. Perhaps he was a distant relative who lived in Austin or Houston.

He puffed on his briar. “No, I’m new to Mirabeau.”

“Were you a friend of Clevey’s?”

“Not exactly.” He didn’t seem inclined to talk. I didn’t press the issue and left him alone with his pipe.

I walked down the rest of the porch and one of Clevey’s numerous cousins stopped me. “Hey, you get anything out of that fellow?”

“No, he didn’t say a word aside from his name and that he’s new to town.”

“Well, according to Aunt Truda, he was Clevey’s psychotherapist.”

Psychotherapist? Why on earth was Clevey seeking counseling? “Oh, I see,” I managed to say aloud.

I excused myself and approached Steven Teague again. “Pardon me. I understand you were Clevey’s counselor?”

He smiled thinly. “Wormed it out of the family, did you, Mr. Poteet?”

“No, his cousin just told me. I didn’t realize that Clevey was in therapy.”

He didn’t want to discuss Clevey’s problems; his face shut like a slammed door. “I felt I should come pay my respects. I know that Clevey was very close to his mother.” He produced a card: steven teague, lmsw-acp, therapy and counseling services with a Mirabeau address.

Steven Teague saw me trying to decipher the code. “Don’t worry, I’m a licensed professional. I’ve got a master’s in social work, and I’m an advanced clinical practitioner.”

“Oh, yes, well, I see,” I fumbled. Still-Clevey in therapy? He’d seemed moody at times, but he didn’t carry himself as though he were burdened with problems.

“If, in the days to come, you find yourself troubled by this horrible incident, Jordan, and you need someone to talk to, I’m available.”

“Thanks,” I made myself say. Hearse chaser, I thought. But perhaps I was being uncharitable. I didn’t get much of a chance to ponder Steven Teague’s clinical ethics, Eula Mae materialized next to me, smiling up at Steven. Ed stood beside her.

“Poor Truda is refreshing herself in the ladies’ room,” she murmured in a whispery aside to me. “I’ll just have to pay my respects later. And you are?”

I introduced Steven to Eula Mae. I decided to leave him to her tender mercies-until I saw a truck pull up and park next to Eula Mae’s purple BMW.

I recognized Hart Quadlander as soon as he got out, and I shouldn’t have been surprised that Trey was with him. Hart owned a big horse farm on the eastern outskirts of Mirabeau, and Trey’s father had worked for him for years. The Quadlanders went back to some of the original German settlers in Bonaparte County and they’d managed their money well. If there was still a gentleman farmer left in Central Texas, Hart was it. He was a fiftyish, tall, powerfully built man with a deceptively quiet voice and intense gray eyes.

I thought Hart must’ve had the patience of five saints to put up with Trey and his daddy; they were a pair that was always heading for some kind of trouble or aggravation. Louis Slocum, Trey’s father, drank himself to death five years ago, still working on the Quadlander place; Trey had not returned for the funeral.

I watched as Hart eased Trey’s wheelchair out of the truck and then carried Trey and settled him in the chair. Trey steadied the chair on the gravel driveway and began to roll forward.

Of course, his arrival cleared the porch. Why not? An old, long-gone friend returned to the fold during the death of another. I watched, rooted to the spot, while Ed called Davis outside. They jogged over to Trey to say hello, wished him well, called him an old fart and scoundrel, and commiserated over Clevey. There’d been no loss of camaraderie there. Of course, Trey hadn’t nearly destroyed their families. I felt the gentle pressure of Eula Mae’s fingers on my arm.

“You sure are tense,” she said. “Don’t let Trey get to you.”

I shook off her arm. “I won’t, trust me. But look at them, acting like his return is the Second Coming.” Despite the sadness of the occasion, there was the sound of muted laughter from the group; once again, Trey was teasing Ed. Suddenly the porch seemed very lonely.

“They’re his friends. You were once, too,” Eula Mae said. I turned to her, noting that Steven Teague took interest in our conversation. His eyes, an odd indigo, watched me intently.

“Once. That’s the key word. We’re not friends anymore,” I said.

“Don’t make a scene, Jordy. Please.” Eula Mae pressed my hand.

“I won’t. I wouldn’t. I’m too upset about Clevey’s murder to let Trey get to me.”

“The gentleman in the wheelchair-is he Trey Slocum?” Steven asked.

“Yes. Do you know Trey?” I asked. Great, another partisan for the Slocum homecoming.

“The famous Trey,” I barely heard Steven Teague whisper to himself under his breath. Clevey had talked about Trey in his therapy? Why?

Steven Teague forced a smile to his patrician face; he’d read my face. “Oh, yes, generally old friends are mentioned during therapy. Clevey admired you in particular, Jordan. He said he wished he could be more like you.”

That stung. I’d not spent enough time with Clevey, and now I had no time with him at all. But he had hardly reached out to me. I didn’t answer Steven Teague.

The reunion moved up onto the porch, with Davis and Hart carrying Trey’s wheelchair up the steps. Trey saw me and he licked his lips, quickly looking up and smiling at Davis. Hart Quadlander spotted me and nimbly moved to forestall trouble.

Hart’s voice rumbled deeply, as though he’d caught gravel in it on the ride over. “Jordy. Eula Mae. Evenin’. How are y’all?”

Even though I am a native Texan, I have never understood the constant need here to ask people how they are, especially in the midst of sorrow. “I’m fine, Hart. One of my childhood friends was murdered today. Trey’s come home. How do you think I feel?”

“I’m awful sorry about Clevey, Jordy.” Hart tactfully ignored my sarcasm. “I didn’t know him very well, but I know y’all were friends from way back. Please, my sympathies.” He offered his hand.

Of course I softened. I was mad at Trey and I felt shock over Clevey and I’d taken it out on him. I shook Hart’s hand. “Sorry. It’s been a long day. I just am not up to-”

“Jordy.” Trey wheeled himself over. His face was ashen. “Jesus, I’m just sick about Clevey. I can’t believe he’s dead. Would you please wheel me in and go with me to see Mrs. Shivers?”

The silence on the porch was thick. I didn’t know what to say. After my confrontation with Trey this afternoon, the last thing I expected was the olive branch of friendship. I glanced away from Trey, from Hart, from my friends, and blinked, Clevey’s face flashing before me. Our friend was dead. So I took hold of the handles of his chair before I could think further and gently pushed him through the open doorway.

“Sure. Let’s go,” I heard someone with my voice say. I felt a soft pat on my shoulder and the bump of rings told me it was Eula Mae.

Mrs. Shivers, of course, was glad to see Trey but was shocked over his condition. She hugged his spare form a long time, almost cradling him in his chair. He described his accident-in more detail than he’d given me. It happened in Beaumont. The bull had thrown him, then trampled over him. He mentioned vertebrae I hadn’t heard of before and that surgery wasn’t going to be a help. There was no self-pity in his voice, and Mrs. Shivers responded to that, his troubles supplanting her own for the briefest of minutes. I lingered for ten or fifteen minutes until I felt the need for fresh air. I stumbled back out to the porch.

“Jordy, got a minute?” Hart Quadlander was by my side. I saw Eula Mae had once again cornered Steven Teague, who was placidly eating a piece of pecan pie. Davis and Ed squatted on the porch steps. Bradley softly crooned “Rock of Ages” to himself, swaying back and forth on the porch swing to his own beat.

“What, Hart?” I stepped off the other end of the porch, suddenly feeling exhausted. I was ready to go home.

“I know seeing Trey’s got to be hard on you. It’s damned hard on me, too.” Hart removed his hat and ran a hand through his brown-and-gray hair. “His father was my best friend, and that boy didn’t even come back for his own daddy’s funeral.”

“Now you know who you’re dealing with,” I said. “Trey’s no saint. He must be the most selfish person alive.”

“You think what you want about Trey. But he has come home, and I for one am glad. He feels sick over not having been here for his daddy-”

“Or his wife or child,” I quickly added.

“Okay. He hasn’t been here for anyone that cared about him. But he’s home now, and he’s hurting, Jordy. More than just being crippled. He’s hurting ’cause he knows he did wrong. He wants to make up for it.”

“Well and good, Hart, but don’t you think that he ought to be the one apologizing, not you?”

“I’m not apologizing for him. I’m just saying what I reckon’s brought him back. He faced death in that rodeo arena and it’s a damned scary sight. He’s come home to heal. I want you to help him, Jordy.”

“Home to heal. That’s rich. He left gaping wounds here-and now he wants to be admitted to some emotional trauma ward. Well, maybe he should talk to Steven Teague. Coddling Trey just isn’t high on my list of priorities.”

Hart pushed back his Stetson. “Look, all I’m asking is-”

“Oh, no. No,” I said as a car screeched to a halt in front of the house, nearly smashing Hart’s truck. I’d have recognized that red Hyundai anywhere. Sister had arrived, and I could tell when she got out of the car she was in a killing mood.


“Arlene, sugar, how are you?” Eula Mae tried to intercept Sister like a Patriot missile, but Sister was not to be easily downed. I saw her scan the porch, then beeline toward me and Hart Quadlander. I sensed Hart tense up and I can’t say I blamed him.

She barreled down on Hart, not even greeting him in this place of mourning. “Where is my ex-husband?” she demanded. I surmised she was past her shock over Trey’s return.

“Arlene, hello.” Hart really should have taken that foreign service test; he’s a natural diplomat. “I know you must feel awfully upset-”

“Shut up, Hart, and just tell me where Trey is,” Arlene snapped. “I don’t want to hear from you.”

Now, I’d be the first to note that Sister can be a tad sharp-tongued. I’ve been sliced, diced, and julienne-fried by her more than once. But rude; that’s never been her style. I stepped forward and took her shoulder. She slapped my hand away.

“Let me be, Jordan. I’m not about to be patronized by you.”

“I’m not about to patronize you,” I shot back. “Listen to me, Sister. This is not the time or place for you to confront Trey. People are grieving here, including me. Now, if you have any common sense left or respect for the dead, you’ll go on home. How on earth did you know Trey was here?”

“A little birdie named Ivalou called me. He’s in the house?” She’d ignored everything I’d said. “Fine. Either you get him out here or I’ll go in there and fetch him. Your choice.” She crossed her arms and I could practically see the roots shoot out of her feet. She wasn’t budging.

Hart remained silent, and I saw the group on the porch had become still. I leaned in close to Sister’s implacable face. “Sister, please don’t do this. Please don’t do this to Mrs. Shivers. For God’s sake, her boy’s been murdered. You’ll embarrass yourself and our whole family.”

Her mouth crinkled, but she wasn’t to be diverted. “I’m only interested in one former member of the family right now, Jordy. Go get him, please.”

I knew from her tone that there was no arguing with her. All I could try to do was minimize the damage. I glanced at Hart and headed up to the house.

Under other circumstances, Trey might consider me fetching him a rescue. He’d been cornered by Wanda Dickensheets and her mother, Ivalou Purcell. Ivalou’s not one of my favorite people. She always sweetens you up with honeyed words, but she’s so mean her folks fed her with a slingshot. I was not pleased she’d decided to phone Sister and stir up trouble. When I came in, Trey had a tired, indulgent smile on his face while Ivalou bragged about the fortune Ed and Wanda were going to see from their new Elvis emporium.

Ivalou leaned in over Trey and patted her helmet of tightly curled gray hair.

“I’m so glad you could come see poor Truda in her time of need. Of course it’s too bad you didn’t get to see Clevey before he passed away. Bad timing, I guess. Anyhow, I should go out and say hello to Hart. I haven’t seen him in several weeks.”

Probably because he saw you first, I thought, but didn’t say. Ivalou was one of the more piranhalike of the local widows, avidly seeking bachelor flesh to sink her teeth into. Trey glanced up at me, clearly recognizing that he was caught between a rock and a hard place.

“Ladies.” I nodded to Wanda and Ivalou. “If y’all will excuse us, I need to talk to Trey privately.”

Ivalou Purcell kept her pasted-on smile glued in place. Wanda took the hint and steered her mother into a conversation with Cayla Foradory. Ivalou followed her, but not before sharing with us: “Yes, I’m sure you two boys have a great deal to catch up on. Seen your family yet, Trey?” She didn’t wait for an answer; she wasn’t interested in one, anyway. I waited until Ivalou was out of striking range before I leaned down to Trey’s ear.

“Look, Trey, Arlene’s outside and she’s insisting on seeing you. If I don’t come back with you, she’s coming in here with both guns blazing, and I don’t want anything to upset poor Mrs. Shivers any further. So I’m sorry, but you’re going outside to talk with her.”

I could feel tension surge through his body. “Why- why’s she here now?”

“I don’t know. It’s your problem now, not mine.” I wasn’t about to get in between the irresistible force and the immovable object. I pivoted his chair on its back wheels and rolled him outside. His fingers, white with strain, gripped the armrests. Arlene wasn’t on the porch; she stood off a ways, on the grass. Hart Quadlander was talking to her, but she ignored him, her arms crossed against the cold. I saw Davis, an arm looped around Bradley; Eula Mae acting fretful; Steven Teague talking softly with Ed, who sat perched on the porch railing. Davis moved forward and helped me carry Trey and the chair down the porch stairs. I pushed Trey toward Sister, the wheels rolling softly across the winter-dry grass, the ebbing breeze chilling my arms.

I couldn’t look at Trey as I wheeled him to his ex-wife. Despite the anger I still felt for him, it smacked too much of serving the Christian to the lion. He was confronting the woman he’d abandoned, and there was no escape, and I wanted her to give him the tongue-lashing of a lifetime. But at the same time I felt sorry for Trey. And no, it’s not that men always stick together. He’d acted unforgivably. But there was something so terribly implacable in my sister’s face, even as the wreck of the man she’d loved was set before her. I prayed Candace never looked at me that way.

Sister uncrossed her arms and put her hands behind her as I stopped Trey’s chair. She wavered for a moment; seeing him was unnerving; I knew that from experience. This was not the Trey she’d loved and bedded and bore a child with and grew to hate. This was some other man to her, and I could see the confusion cross her face. She looked at me; I shook my head. She glanced at Hart, who suddenly found a need to go up on the porch. I didn’t want to leave them alone, although I knew I should.

Trey spoke first. “Hello, Arlene.” His voice was steady but not strong.

“Trey-” She got the one word out before her voice failed her. She drew a deep breath. “You look awful.”

“I know. You look great, though. Pretty as a picture.”

The compliment was ignored. “Why are you back, Trey, and why didn’t you let me know?”

“I wasn’t hiding from you, Arlene. I wanted to call, but I didn’t think you’d talk to me.” He maneuvered the chair so he could see both Sister and me. “I hear tell you’ve got this wonderful new diner. Maybe we can leave Clevey’s family and friends to grieve and go over there and talk.”

As much as it pained me, I agreed with Trey. He was trying to defuse the situation and keep Sister from humiliating herself-or him, for that matter. The inevitable tears and recriminations would be easier to mull over if they were displayed in private, like photographs of intimate memories.

“Look, Trey,” Sister said. “I just want to set the record straight. I don’t care that you’re back in town. I don’t care that you got hurt. All I care about is that you stay clear of my boy. You do that and we’ll be fine.” Great, I thought. Preemptive strike here at a house of mourning. Her shock must’ve fogged her judgment.

“I’m not staying away from my son, Arlene.”

“You don’t have any rights to him. You abandoned him. You gave up any claim on Mark and I intend to hold by that.” Her voice was more sure now, as though she’d slipped into her prepared speech.

“I didn’t abandon him. I sent you money every month for him-”

“There’s more to being a father than sperm and loose change.” Sister’s hands balled up into fists. “I’m sorry, but fatherhood isn’t like the rodeo. You don’t pass on riding the bull if he’s a little more ornery than usual. You have to get through the whole ride, Trey. You don’t have a boy, then leave him when he’s eight, then decide one day to come back.” She gestured at the chair. “Is that what this is? Hoping for Mark’s pity, now that you’re a cripple?”

“Sister, please!” I said.

Her glance at me had an edge to cut a throat.

“What are you afraid of, Arlene? That he’ll want to see me?” Trey smiled, but without an ounce of warmth. “I think that’s what you’re afraid of, baby doll. You’re worried he’s gonna forgive me and like me just fine. A boy wants a father, God knows that’s true.” Bitterness tinged his voice and he stared down at the ground for a long moment, then looked up. “I’ll bet you Mark wants to see me. That’s what this whole little scene is about, isn’t it? I still know you awful well, Arlene. That’s just like you.”

“You don’t know me. You don’t know a damned thing about me.” She pointed at his chair. “You’re not the same man you were when you left. Well, I’m not the same woman. I’m a whole lot tougher and smarter now, Trey. I’ve had to be. I’m not going to fall for any crap you give me about you wanting to be a father to Mark. If you cared about Mark, you wouldn’t have come home with a new family to rub in his face.”

“Nola and Scott have nothing to do with Mark,” Trey said tightly. “They’re fine people, and they’ve been good to me. But they’re not my family.”

“You’re so wrapped up in yourself you can’t even see how your actions hurt anyone else. That’s just like you, Trey.” Her voice mocked him, turning his words like a knife. “Go. Go somewhere else where you won’t be torturing your own child.”

“So, finally, you admit that Mark is mine. I have every right to see-” And that’s when Sister stepped in and belted Trey. Not a slap, but an honest-to-God punch. His head snapped back. I heard Hart say “Jesus!” and Bradley cry out in surprise.

Sister pulled Trey back into an upright position by his shirt. “You get this straight, you son of a bitch!” She was yelling now. “You come near us and I’ll get a restraining order on you double-quick! Mark is my baby- my child! You gave up any and all rights to him when you decided a bunch of stupid cowboys were more important than we were. And I hope when you die, God sends you straight to hell and lets a bull stomp on you for eternity!” She let him go and turned, stumbling, sobbing. I chased her and grabbed her arm.

“Sister, for God’s sake!” I glanced back at Trey. His lip bled, speckling his shirt. He stared at Sister with stunned dark eyes. He buried his face in his hands-I couldn’t tell if in pain or in shame.

“Let me go, Jordy.” Sister tried to pull away. “Let me go home to my boy.”

“I don’t think you ought to drive.”

“I’m fine to drive.” She shrugged off my arm. She watched as Davis, Ed, and Hart humed toward Trey. “I see he still has his friends. They’re bigger idiots than I was… to care about him.”

“Sister, please, listen to me. I know you hate him. I don’t blame you. But I don’t think threatening him is going to do you or Mark much-”

“Jordy, just shut up.” She examined her right hand; the knuckles were beginning to swell. “It hurts. I never hit anyone before. I thought it was supposed to hurt them, not you.” Her voice sounded ragged.

“Please, let’s go home. I’ll follow you in my car.” I steered her to her Hyundai and got her inside. Davis ran up to me.

“Jesus, is she okay?”

“Yeah, I think.” Hart and Eula Mae tended to Trey, who wasn’t looking our way. Ed shuffled his feet nearby, shrugging helplessly at me. I saw Bradley on the porch, Mrs. Shivers standing by him, gently holding his arm. Wanda and her mother, Ivalou, took the scene in greedily, carefully cataloguing each moment for later embellishments. Steven Teague stood apart from everyone else, watching with a clinically emotionless face. Cayla Foradory smirked at me for one strange moment, then went to Bradley’s side, ushering him into the house.

“See how Trey is-what his reaction to all this is,” I said to Davis, “and call me later.”


“Look, quit being a lawyer for a minute and be a friend. I don’t want him calling Junebug and filing assault charges against my sister.”

“Considering how Junebug’s sparking Arlene, I don’t think there’s much danger of that.” Davis smiled.

“Guess not. Look, I got to get her out of here.” Sister was already revving the Hyundai for all it was worth.

“Fine. I’ll call you.” Davis nodded. I got into my car. Sister wheeled out and I followed, peering once in my rear-view mirror to survey the hornet’s nest she’d stirred up.

Lightning flashed across the pitch-colored sky, its jagged edges cracking the vault of night. Time barely passed between flash and rumble; the storm was here, announcing its tumultuous debut. The rain began a slow but building patter on my windshield.

My heart skipped a beat when I got home and a police cruiser was parked outside. Sister screeched into the driveway and I followed in my Blazer. She got out and stormed into the house, not waiting for me.

“Damn it!” I yelled after her, following her in. The police were here, but it was Junebug, sitting on the couch with Mark, watching TV. Mark stood when Sister came in the house. And was nearly knocked to the couch as his mother, sobbing, seized him in a bear hug.

“Mom! Mom!” Mark complained, trying to breathe. She eased down, releasing him, covering his face with kisses.

“Good Lord, Arlene.” Junebug stood and took her bruised right hand in his. “What the hell have you been up to?”

I wanted to tell him, but I didn’t think Mark should know his mother had been beating up his father.

“Mom, what happened to your hand?” Mark asked, then light dawned. “Oh, shit, Mom, you didn’t go belt Daddy, did you?” What can I say-Sister didn’t raise no fool.

“Don’t say shit.” Sister sniffed through her tears. “It’s not nice.” She kissed Mark’s forehead once more and then leaned her head against Junebug’s chest, draping her arms over his shoulders and closing her eyes.

I could hardly miss the look of sheer bliss on his face from this endearment. Mark didn’t care. “You punched Daddy? He’s in a wheelchair, for God’s sake!”

“He’s lucky he’s not in traction. Now, Mark, go upstairs. I need to talk to Junebug and Uncle Jordy.”

“Go upstairs, go upstairs,” Mark mocked in a singsong voice. “Mom, you can’t always send me upstairs, I’m not a little kid anymore. We got to talk about Daddy.”

“Go on up, baby. I’ll be there in a minute,” Sister said. Mark’s eyes met mine; I shrugged. He went up, not looking pleased. I frowned. I’d never interfered with how Sister chose to raise Mark, but she was, in my opinion, still treating him like a toddler. He was fourteen, and while hardly grown up, couldn’t be dismissed from having his own opinion-especially as far as his father was concerned.

I sat down while Sister told Junebug what happened at the Shiverses’. He shook his head. “Gad, Arlene, I understand why you’d want to hit him, but I wish you’d just stay away from Trey. You both need to cool down.”

This was not the answer Sister wanted. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to punch him for me, Junebug Moncrief. What with you being the law and all.”

“I’m not a mercenary, Arlene. Look, let’s get your hand doctored and you ought to get some rest.” He leaned down and pecked a kiss on her lips, then on her bruised knuckles. “Crazy gal.”

They went upstairs and I lay on the couch, listening to the noises of running water and slight laughter from Sister at one point. I turned off the TV and lay on the couch, taking deep breaths and feeling the tremor of thunder vibrate the house.

Eventually Junebug came down alone, wiping his hands with a towel. “Your mother’s asleep, and Arlene’s talking with Mark.”

“God, what a day.” I closed my eyes. “I feel numb.”

“She belted old Trey, did she?” Junebug sounded faintly amused. “I knew Arlene was a spitfire when she got riled, but I didn’t think she’d coldcock him.”

“I’m sure you’re delighted that she’s not running back to him with open arms,” I said, my eyes still closed. “What is Mark supposed to do, pretend his dad’s not back in town? He’s already made it clear that he wants to see Trey.” I sat up on the couch. “You want some decaf? I’ll make a pot.”

“Sounds good. I want to talk to you about Clevey, too.”

“Poor Clevey. He’s a hell of a lot worse off than Sister or Trey.” Junebug followed me into the kitchen and asked about Mrs. Shivers while I made the coffee. I told him who-all had shown up to render their sympathy. “Ed said you’d been by Mrs. Shivers’s place earlier. I thought you’d stop back by there when you got off duty.”

“I came by here first. I thought Arlene might need me more than y’all did.” He seemed embarrassed and kept his eyes on the counter. “I already saw plenty of Mrs. Shivers today.”

I changed subjects. “Did you know Clevey was seeing a therapist? A fellow named Steven Teague?”

Junebug shook his head. “Well, that’s not exactly the kind of thing a man shares with his friends. Especially someone like Clevey.” He shrugged. “I’m sure that he thought we’d all tease him about it.”

I watched the coffee brew. “That’s unbelievably sad, though, isn’t it, Junebug? We were supposed to be his oldest friends. Why couldn’t he come to us with his troubles?”

“Get real, Jordy. If you had a serious problem, would you go discuss it with Davis or Ed or Clevey?” He laughed. “I don’t think I would.”

“Still seems wrong to me.”

“You know, it’s not like you went straight to all those fellows when you found out Bob Don was your daddy. Why didn’t you?”

I shrugged. The coffee finished dripping and I poured us each a cup. “I don’t know. Davis would have wanted me to sue Bob Don for back support, I suppose. Ed would have given Bob Don a discount on his radio ads for being a friend’s dad or pointed me toward an appropriate Elvis song. Clevey would have made some stupid crack about it. And Trey-” I stopped. “It’s funny. Maybe only Trey would have understood. But he wasn’t here.”

“You said this therapist’s name was Teague?”

“Yeah, Steven Teague.” I handed Junebug the card and he pocketed it.

“I’ll have to give Mr. Teague a call. Find out what kind of problems Clevey was seeing him for.”

“Your privacy goes out the window when you die, doesn’t it?” I said.

He nodded. “Let’s talk about Clevey’s murder for a minute.”

Clevey’s murder. The possessiveness of those words- someone’s murder -has always struck me as odd. As if the murder was something that could belong to the victim, the final dignity as someone else emptied out his life.

“You said he was shot.”

“Yeah. Close range, in the right eye, one bullet, we think a thirty-eight caliber.”

I shuddered. Suddenly an image of Clevey in second grade, turning his eyelid inside out to gross out the girls, appeared in my mind. Memory is both damnation and blessing.

“Who found him?”

“A neighbor. She reported she’d heard a sound like a shot early this morning-around six-but didn’t think it was anything more than some kid shooting off a gun down on the river. She noticed Clevey’s car was still there in the driveway and thought he’d overslept, which he was prone to do. She found the door open and Clevey in the living room.”

“So why would anyone want to kill Clevey? Was it a robbery?” I couldn’t imagine the usually genial Clevey Shivers with an enemy. But he’d been seeing a therapist; how happy could his life be? Something must have been amiss for him to seek help.

“His place was ransacked, but the TV, the stereo, even the money in his wallet was still there. I don’t think this was a burglary that got interrupted. I ain’t sure what the hell to think.” Junebug stared down in his coffee. I’d known him long enough to see that a weight lay on his mind.

“You’re even more tense than I’d expect. What is it?”

“Whoever searched the house didn’t hit the bathroom too hard. I found this hidden in the bathroom, taped behind the toilet tank.” He went over to his briefcase. “You can’t tell anyone about this, Jordy. I’m only showing this to you ’cause you got a quick mind and you can keep your mouth shut.” He handed me an envelope, sealed in a plastic bag.

“Well, I can’t very well look in it. What is it?”

“Pictures and newspaper articles about Rennie Clifton.” He paused to let the name sink in. “I assume you remember her, Jordan.”

You never forget the first time you see death. I shivered, despite the warmth of the coffee. “Yes, I remember her. The girl who died in Hurricane Althea when we were kids.” I poked at the evidence bag. “Why would Clevey have this?”

He sat down again and rubbed his face. His skin looked sunburned despite the cool weather. “It’s not unusual that he might collect information on a tragedy that he was involved in. Maybe was going to write a newspaper story about it, although I can’t imagine for what reason. But if he was, why would he hide it on the back of the toilet tank?”

“What specifically is in it?”

“Newspaper clippings from when Rennie Clifton died. Our pictures, that awful group one of us the paper took after we found her body. An interview with her mother. A copy of the death certificate-killed due to a blow to the skull, probably suffered from flying debris during the storm.”

I sipped at my coffee. “But that was twenty years ago. And she died from an accident.”

“Maybe she did. But Clevey sure as hell didn’t.”


Long, sleepless nights are not my favorites. Especially when spent alone. I’d called Candace at home after Junebug left; she’d closed up the cafe after a crawly-slow evening. I’d told her I didn’t feel I should leave Sister and Mark alone, and she agreed. I tried not to imagine how comforting her arms and lips and voice would be to me. I showered, pulled on a heavy robe against the cold, and slipped into bed.

Mark and Sister bickered into the night. Their voices floated through the wall, the thunder sometimes masking their words. Mark begged to see his father; Sister forbade him. I didn’t believe her approach was going to work; Mark sounded too determined. He might look like his daddy, but there was a lot of Poteet in him. I figured he was bound to get his way.

My domestic situation didn’t do a lot to keep my mind off Clevey. I kept thinking I should weep for him. But I couldn’t, not even in the dark privacy of my own room in the middle of the night. It was as though some veil had been drawn across my eyes and sadness wouldn’t seep through. His death still seemed unreal, although my friends and I had gone through the preliminary pantomimes of grief.

Rennie Clifton. I hadn’t thought of her in ages. That beautiful girl, unknown to me except in her death. I, of course, would never forget the horrible day my friends and I nearly died in the eerie rage of the tropical storm-or forget her eyes gaping at the greenish sky as Althea’s center passed over us. Clevey had run for Davis’s grandparents’ house to fetch help while the rest of us waited, staring mutely at the body. I remembered Davis had thrown up, the sour stench of his vomit reeking in the humid air.

For a brief while we were celebrities in Mirabeau. I never want to be a celebrity again. When people asked what it was like to find a corpse, Rennie’s empty eyes would come back to me, lifeless as pebbles. My parents were terribly upset with me for sitting out the storm in a tree house, but the girl’s death tempered their rage; they knew it could have been me lying among the shattered trees, staring blindly up at the fortress of clouds. I remember my father spanking me, then stopping and embracing me so tight I couldn’t breathe.

In one of the wee hours of Saturday morning, I fell asleep and, thankfully, Clevey and Rennie stayed out of my dreams.

I awoke to a sky-shuddering thunderstorm, my skin feeling chilled under the comforters. I absently reached for Candace. Hell! I hate waking up alone now. I like to start my mornings with at least a kiss. Dragging the sheets above my head and trying to surrender to sleep didn’t help.

I found Mark downstairs, eating a bowl of cereal and reading the Austin paper. He tested the lip of the spoon against his mouth and watched me as I fumbled for coffee.

“Where’s your mother?” I asked.

“She went to the cafe. Said she didn’t trust that breakfast cook Candace hired.”

“She’s not going to have much business today.” I peered out at the rain. People who think Texas is the arid plain portrayed in Westerns need to come to Mirabeau and see one of our drenching, thunder-booming storms. Water pooled in our backyard, the hanging plants Sister kept on the back porch swaying in the wind. It was a cold, penetrating rain. I wrapped my hands around a warm mug of coffee.

I usually didn’t go into the library on Saturdays, but with both Itasca and Florence being out sick, I mentioned to Mark I might go. After, of course, a stop at the cafe to enjoy a few minutes of Candace’s company.

“Itasca called. She’s feeling much better and she’s going to open up this morning,” Mark said, watching me.

“Well, maybe I’ll go in later.” I sat down with my coffee and began to read the sports section. The lead story was a preview of the next day’s Cowboys game. I remembered with a jolt that the last game I’d seen at Texas Stadium was with Clevey and Ed. Ed had gotten tickets through a friend (those seats are like gold bullion) and we’d made a road trip to Dallas. This had been right before I moved to Boston to work for Brooks-Jellicoe, Publishers, and I remembered Clevey saying “this’ll be your last chance to see real football.” I wondered how many other reminders of Clevey lurked in my everyday life, waiting for me to lower my guard.

“Do you think Mom really hurt Daddy when she hit him?” Mark asked. He adopted a nonchalant tone to the loaded question.

“Probably not,” I said, although I figured it was a safe bet that Trey had a split lip and a sore jaw this morning.

Mark munched his cereal, but not for long. I could see him squirming in his chair, screwing up his courage. “Uncle Jordy, you’d do anything for me, wouldn’t you?” His voice wasn’t much more than a hoarse whisper. It was the same tone I used to cajole my sister.

I looked up from the paper. “Within reason, Mark. Why?”

The floodgate opened. “I figured you would, and I don’t ever ask for anything-like, at least I don’t ask for much, but I need you to do something for me and I don’t know how to ask you, but-”

“Mark, what?”

He took a deep breath. “I want you to take me to see Daddy.”

I leaned back in the chair. “(Oh, that’s not a good idea, Mark. Your mother would hit the ceiling.”

“But it’s not fair! I should get to see him if I want to! I’m fourteen, don’t I have rights or something?”

“Look, it’s not a question of rights. It’s just that you need to let your mother calm down. She’s terribly upset right now and you visiting your father isn’t going to help her.”

“Never mind her. What about me?” Spoon clanked in bowl.

“That’s pretty selfish,” I said mildly.

“So? He’s my father. Mom doesn’t have to do diddly with him. Why does she have to decide for me?”

I leaned forward. “Mark, why do you want to see him? He left you, without warning, years ago. He hasn’t called, he hasn’t written. He hasn’t lifted a finger for you in all that time. So what’s the point?”

Mark stared down into his empty bowl. Thunder cracked like a giant’s bones over the house, and the kitchen table trembled. Lightning struck, and close. The hair on the back of my arms felt electrified.

Mark looked up at me, with eyes sadder than a fourteen-year-old should have. “I don’t know. I just want to see him. Isn’t that enough?” He paused. “What about when you found out Bob Don was your daddy? Didn’t you want to know him better?”

“Mark, that’s totally different.”

“Maybe so. You had grown up with a father. I haven’t.” His voice was soft and bitter.

“Then hop to it. You know he’s living at Dwight Kinnard’s-and old Dwight’s in the phone book. You could sneak over there. You just got to be prepared for the consequences.” I didn’t want to encourage him to disobey his mother, but I knew the idea had already entered Mark’s mind.

“But I don’t want to go by myself. What if he doesn’t want to see me?” He looked at me with his father’s dark eyes and thin-lipped frown. “Do you think he wants to see me?”

That was a question I’d sooner not answer. “If I take you to your daddy, your mother will skin my ass and make herself a wallet. And she’ll do the same to you.”

“She doesn’t have to know. If you go with me, she won’t get mad at either of us.” I didn’t quite follow that logic.

Mark explained, “She can’t stay angry. I’m her son and you’re her brother. She’d have to forgive us, right?”

“Pardon my skepticism. I saw last night just how tightly she holds a grudge.”

“Please, Uncle Jordy-you’ve known Daddy forever. Please go with me.”

I closed my eyes. I’d promised myself I wouldn’t get in the middle of this feud. Taking sides was increasingly hard. I couldn’t forgive Trey for what he’d done, but in the two times I’d seen him, I’d sensed-what? Remorse? Or something deeper that made me feel leaving his family hadn’t been a simple jaunt in the rodeo? Maybe his accident opened his eyes to what was important. And Sister, she had every right to be angry-but to forbid Mark to contact his father was as much a punishment of Mark as it was of Trey. If Mark wanted to speak to his father, how could I stand in his way? I would give anything to see my daddy, Lloyd, who had raised and shaped me. I couldn’t; he was long dead. Now Mark’s father had come back from his self-imposed exile. Was I going to be a bystander to Mark’s pain-or a good uncle?

I got up and walked over to the phone before I could get all clever and analytical. I found Dwight Kinnard’s phone number in the book and dialed.

Trey answered. “Hello?”

“Hello, Trey, this is Jordan.” I saw the longing gleam in Mark’s eyes. “How are you feeling today?”

A moment’s pause. “Fine. Your sister’s got a hell of a right cross. But I’ve been hurt worse.”

And you’ve hurt others worse. “Look, I don’t know why I’m doing this, but I’m going to put my balls on the line. Not for you, but for Mark. He would like to visit you.”

I heard a hard, long intake of hopeful breath on the other end. “He does? Arlene won’t approve of that.”

“Arlene doesn’t know, and she doesn’t have to find out until she’s calmed down. Do you want to see your son?” If you say no, you son of a bitch, don’t ever speak to me again. Mark hovered near me and I held my breath.

“Yes, God, yes, Jordy, thank you. Thank you.” The happiness in his voice was nearly physical.

“When would be a good time? I don’t think he’d feel comfortable around Nola and her son and her uncle.”

“How about now? They’re all gone. Scott’s shooting baskets at that covered court over by the junior high. Dwight and Nola are running errands. Arlene’d be at her cafe, right?” Trey’s voice boomed with excitement.

“Let me see if I can get a friend to sit with Mama. We can’t leave her alone, and I’m not taking her out in this weather. Give us a few minutes.”

“Thanks, Jordy, God bless you. I knew you were still my friend.”

I hung up without further comment. Mark watched me, expectation in his whole face.

“Go get your jacket, and I’ll call Clo.”

He dashed for the closet, but found time to give me a quick hug on the way.

I’d been lucky-depending on your viewpoint. Clo Butterfield, Mama’s home nurse, was willing to come over for a short spell. Considering that she’s well paid by Bob Don to help us with Mama and that she’s the best nurse in Bonaparte County, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Of course it left me no final exit, no avenue of escape.

Mark and I ran through the rain, jumping quickly into my car. Dwight Kinnard didn’t live terribly far away (there are no vast distances in Mirabeau), and as I drove I watched Mark out of the corner of my eye. He fidgeted, fixed his hair, straightened his clothes.

“Uncle Jordy, do you think I ought to take him a present-since he’s been sick and all?”

A present. For the father who’d abandoned him.

“No, Mark. Trey ought to get you a present for being such a great kid.”

“Like I’m so great,” Mark snorted.

Yes, you are. I gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze and he stared out at the raindrops sliding down the glass.

We pulled up Moller Street and stopped in front of the Kinnard place. Moller’s one of the older streets in town, the pavement cracked and pitted. Cars on blocks didn’t decorate the front yards, but the grass was either overgrown or sparse from inattention. Backyards tumbled down to the overgrowth that surrounds the eastern bend of the Colorado. Mark stayed close to me as we ran through the downpour to the front door.

I rapped gently. No answer. Again. The rain began a sharper patter on the roof and the thunder cried out against the wind.

“Trey? It’s Jordan. And Mark.” I knocked harder. Mark looked like he was going to wet his britches.

“Maybe it takes him longer to get around in his wheelchair,” Mark ventured. From our phone conversation, I expected Trey in the front yard, rain-drenched and waiting for us.

I tried the doorknob. The door eased open. “Trey?” I called, sticking my head into the Kinnard living room. It was unkempt, newspapers in an untidy heap by the door, a pizza box and crushed beer cans tottering on the coffee table, a Winnie the Pooh cartoon playing mutely on the ancient TV set, the couch made up for sleeping with rumpled sheets.

“Daddy?” Mark called, the word sounding unfamiliar in his throat. It wasn’t much more than a whisper.

I’m not sure what impelled me forward; the slightest sound of a groan, or maybe the faintest smell of blood or gunpowder. Some atavistic sense kicked in and I hurried across the living room, into the kitchen.

Trey had dragged himself across the floor, smearing a dark red trail on the dirty tiles. He was pulling himself toward the open back door, and his eyes, dimming of life, looked up at me. Blood streaked his face and his beard. Breath faintly gurgled in his throat.

Mark collapsed by his father. “Dad! Dad!”

“My God, Trey, who did this?” My legs gave way and I knelt by him. I saw three terrible red splashes on his back. The stench of gunfire hung thick in the air. A colored stain caught my eye on the

faded striped wallpaper of the hallway. Written in blood were the words: 2 DOWN.

“He’s shot, he’s shot!” Mark moaned. I stood and grabbed the phone. I barked the address to the 911 dispatcher, telling them we had a man shot and needed an ambulance immediately. The operator asked me to stay on the line. I knew that the emergency headquarters was roughly fifteen feet away from Junebug’s office and I wished that my friend were here.

Cradling the phone against my shoulder, I hunched down by Trey. He rolled on his back, his thin chest moving in ragged dance as he tried to draw air. I swallowed when I saw the wounds; maybe a lung, maybe the stomach. Oh, God, where was the ambulance?

Mark sobbed, clutching one of his father’s bloodied hands in his. “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,” he mewled, like a small child would, rocking back and forth on his heels. I leaned in close over Trey; his eyes sought mine, pulling away from Mark’s for a moment.

“Trey! Who shot you? Who?” I yelled into his face. “Can you hear me? Who shot you?”

His eyes, flecked with blood, tore away from mine and found Mark’s. One hand closed around his son’s; the other touched the tears on Mark’s cheek.

“Muh-muh,” he tried, the spittle and blood foaming on his lips.

“Who?” I cried again. Oh, God, this wasn’t happening. He wasn’t going to die in front of us. A distant siren grew closer.

“Mull-my boy,” Trey coughed raggedly, squeezing Mark’s hand.

“Yes, I’m here, Daddy, please, please hang on. Please.” Mark wept, trying to wipe the blood from his father’s cheek, chin, throat.

“Luh-love you, Mark,” Trey grunted. “Love you.” His head, raised to look into the face so much like his own, dropped to the cold kitchen floor.

And with those words, he died.


Mama sometimes said I didn’t have sense enough to come in from the rain. I was glad she didn’t see her grandson and me standing out in the easing mist that morning. I couldn’t leave Mark, not for one second, and I wasn’t about to ask him to go back into that house of death.

The paramedics had arrived, attempted their useless rituals, and pronounced Trey dead. We waited on the scraggly, unkempt front lawn. A fine veil of uncertain rain kissed our skins. Mark stared at his hands, his fingers daubed with his father’s blood. My daddy always kept a handkerchief in his pocket and I wished I’d picked up the habit. I tried wiping the blood off with the corner of my jacket, thinking: I must get Trey’s blood off him. I can’t leave his hands like this. Mark looked up at me from his gory palms, dark eyes welling with trembling tears.

“Why? Why?” he screamed. I hugged him hard to me and let him weep, feeling his heart pound through the thin fabric of his windbreaker. Trey told Mark he loved him instead of telling me who killed him. Did Trey even know who shot him?

I saw some of the Kinnards’ neighbors venturing out onto the lawns, drawn by the shrill siren of the ambulance and the police.

I don’t know how long I held Mark. Eventually his weeping subsided and he just took long, slow breaths. I didn’t know what to say; I didn’t know what to do. Where is the survival manual for this sort of horror? Sister, I thought. Mark needed Sister.

I heard the pang-pang of a bouncing basketball and looked up from Mark’s shoulder. Scott Kinnard stood there, holding a basketball and staring at us in the fine rain.

“What’s happened? Why are you here?” Scott asked me, glancing at the whirling lights atop the ambulance. “Where’s Trey?”

Mark pulled his face from my shoulder. The two boys looked blankly at each other. Scott whispered, “Are you Mark?” Mark just kept staring.

I tried. “Listen to me, Scott, you can’t go in there. Trey is-”

The basketball fell from Scott’s fingers, rolling on the rain-splattered pebble driveway. He blinked at me and ran for the house.

“Scott! Don’t!” I yelled, but he paid me no heed. He yanked open the screen door and barreled inside. I bit my lip; surely the police would escort him back out, and then I’d have two traumatized boys to deal with. I took a long, fortifying breath.

After a moment Junebug brought Scott outside. Where Mark had given a primal scream, Scott seemed choked into silence. He pressed his hands into his face, pushing his eyeglasses askew. Junebug gently guided him to the porch steps.

“That’s the boy he was living with, ain’t it?” Mark asked me in a dead voice.

“Yes. His name is Scott Kinnard.”

“He’s stupid looking,” Mark observed, watching the other boy begin to cry in short, staccato heaves. Junebug glanced over at me, a helpless look on his broad, unshaven face.

“I want to go home. Please, let’s go home,” Mark begged.

I didn’t like the tone of his voice-tentative, breathy, like a small child who’s just learned the words. I knelt by him and turned his face to mine. Blood decorated his cheek, like a swath of war paint, and I remembered Trey stroking his son’s face in those final awful moments.

Mark’s dark eyes were horribly vacant, retreating from death, looking inward for solace.

“Mark. Listen to me, son. We’ll go home, okay? But I think that, if you can, you should help me and tell Junebug everything we saw. So we can catch whoever-whoever did this to your daddy.”

Mark gaped at me as if I were speaking Finnish. I repeated myself and this time the words took hold.

“Okay, talk to the police,” he said, dragging the back of his hand across teary cheeks. “Just like on TV, right?”

“That’s right, Mark, just like on TV.” I squeezed his shoulder. “I’ll be there, and your mom’ll be there. Okay? It’ll be all right.” I was babbling, I knew I couldn’t possibly be comforting to him, but I didn’t know what else to say. Jordan Poteet, he of the vaunted quick wit and sharp tongue, and I was as dulled as a rusty old potato knife. His hand closed on mine and I felt, sickeningly, the wetness of blood pressing between our palms.

I could see a garden hose entwined by the side steps that led from the house to the driveway. I stood and started to ease him toward the house. We’d just rinse the redness from our hands. The first step, I thought. The first step.

He refused to budge. His grip tightened, and his rain-cool fingers dug into mine. “No! No!”

“Okay,” I said. “Wait here. I’m just going to get the garden hose. I’m not leaving your sight.”

He nodded miserably. I turned and jogged to the coiled hose, turning it on, splashing my bloodstained hands underneath the cool cascade of water and rain. I watched the traces of Trey wash off my skin, staining the gray stones of the driveway. I pulled a length of hose to take over to Mark. That’s when I saw it and my heart really stopped beating for the day.

A nail stood slightly askew on the rickety bottom step, not driven quite home by a sloppy carpenter. A shred of fabric, a long triangle of thin colored cotton in a muted brown-and-green batik print, was tangled on the crooked nail, dangling like a flag of the defeated. It was just like a print on a pair of pants I’d given Sister a month ago for her birthday. She said they were the most comfortable britches she’d ever owned. I remembered her walking around the living room in delight, modeling them for an amused me and an indifferent Mama.

Before my mind could calculate all the terrible implications, my hand shot out, pulled the scrap free, and shoved it into my pocket. I got up and glanced over at Junebug; he was still trying to comfort Scott. I brought the gurgling water hose over to Mark and made him rinse his hands.

“Dad, Dad,” he whispered.

There was nothing to dry him with and I just let him sop his hands against my jacket. I needed to get him out of here. I needed to get out of here myself. I took a long, steadying breath, trying to calm myself. I couldn’t crack now; Mark needed me.

I steered him toward my Blazer. “Let’s go sit in the car.

He followed me without a backward glance at the house. I got him into the passenger side and shut the door. When Junebug came up behind me, I nearly hollered. My hand, still damp, automatically went into my pocket, shoving the scrap of cloth as far down as possible. Junebug gestured at Mark, who didn’t seem to notice us on the other side of the window.

“Can you get him to the station? Can y’all talk to us now while the details are still fresh?”

“Yes.” I turned to face my friend.

Junebug’s mouth thinned. “Good. I know it’s hard, Jordy. I’m so, so sorry.”

I looked past his shoulder. Scott Kinnard lay in a fetal position, still crying, his Dallas Cowboys windbreaker looking too small on even his slight frame. My heart ached for him, but I could only handle one devastated boy at a time. Mark had to be my priority. Later I’d call and check on Scott. One of the Kinnards’ neighbors, a kind-faced old woman in a quilted nightdress who’d been watching the proceedings from her porch, hurried over to Scott, talking to him softly, rubbing his back.

“What about Scott? Can you find Nola?” I asked.

“I’ll get hold of his mama somehow. We’ll take care of him.” Junebug glanced back at the huddled boy, still sobbing on the wooden porch. “God, if this ain’t a real sow’s nest. Shit.”

“What in hell’s going on, Junebug?” My voice, usually strong, direct, and a shade raspy, quavered. I’d kept it under steely control with Mark, but Mark was in the car, where he couldn’t hear me. Anger and fear and sadness rose up in me, hard and uncompromising. “Someone shot him. Someone shot Clevey. Why don’t you know what’s going on here? Why is this happening?” I suddenly remembered the blood-smeared wallpaper. “‘Two down.’ What the hell did that mean?”

“Can you drive?” Junebug asked, ignoring my question. “Or do you need me to drive you to the station?”

“Can’t you take our statements at home?” I pleaded. I suddenly wanted the warm comfort of my house, a cup of coffee with a jolt of brandy in it, and my armchair. I wanted to talk to my sister, not just because her boy needed her, but because I wanted to ask her why material from her pants was stuck on a nail outside the house where her ex-husband died.

Of course she couldn’t commit murder, I told myself. She’s your sister, for God’s sake. But at the same time I gave myself that scant reassurance, I realized I did indeed presume she could have killed

Trey. Otherwise, I would have left that tatter on the nail. Wouldn’t I?

The selfish part of me wanted to hand Mark over to Sister so I could be alone with my grief. Grief! my mind cried out. I had to be kidding myself. Mourning over a man who I wanted out of town yesterday. A man I felt was worthless. A man who had cruelly abandoned my sister and my nephew. A man who’d once been my best friend.

I sagged against the car. Life plays you some odd hands, doesn’t it? I wasn’t going to grieve over someone as rotten as Trey Slocum. Not when Mark needed me to be strong.

“Jordan, are you listening to me?” Junebug’s voice was steel authority and I raised my head, submissive for once. “This is a murder investigation. I’d surely appreciate it if you and Mark would come down to the station. I’ll get Scott squared away, get my people started on this case, and we’ll leave in a few minutes. Please, get in the car and wait.”

I nodded. “Mark said he would talk to you, but I don’t know if he’s gonna be able to help-”

“He will. ’Cause I’m gonna find the son of a bitch who’s killing my friends.” He turned and stomped back toward Scott, who’d pulled himself up to a sitting position. I saw the boy fix me with an expression of utter misery, as if a specter of death had brushed his heart in taking its leave.

People should be where they’re supposed to be in times of great crisis. It’s only considerate.

Phoning Sister made my throat dry. I imagined the conversation: Hi, Sister, got some news for you. Your ex-husband is dead. Yes, shot to death, how did you know? Hope you don’t mind, but I ignored your wishes and took your son over to visit Trey. Mark got there just in time to see his father die. It’ll probably warp him for life. Oh, that’s okay, no need to thank me. Perhaps you’d care to tell me which pants you wore this morning? I made myself dial the phone, my finger trembling.

“Sit-a-Spell Cafe, what can I do you for?” The hoarse voice of Suzie Tumpfer, one of the waitresses, blasted in my ear.

I asked to speak to Sister.

“Arlene ain’t been in this morning, Jordy.”

My throat felt coated with coarseness. I coughed. “Is Candace there?”

“Naw, she’s run over to the restaurant supply store in Bavary. You wanna leave a message for either one?”

“There’s-” What could I say? “Would you have them phone the police station if they get back in the next hour or so?”

“You’re at the police station?” Suzie’s voice softened. “You okay?”

“Yes, I’m fine, and so is Mark. But they need to come down to the station, all right? Please don’t forget, Suzie.”

“Naw, I won’t.” I didn’t think she would, since she’d be broadcasting it to the rest of the Sit-a-Spell staff in short order. I hung up the phone and went into the men’s room.

I washed my hands and my face. I returned to Junebug’s office. Mark hadn’t asked for his mother; he faced Junebug like he was a plague to be suffered. I did not mention that Sister wasn’t at the Sit-a-Spell. My heart stumbled again at thoughts I couldn’t permit myself to have. You cannot think this of her. You cannot think this of her… but you are. Admit that you’re wondering where she is and why she’s not at work.

Children have an uncommon bravery that we adults don’t always appreciate. Mark, although still shocked and savaged by what he’d witnessed, managed to answer Junebug’s questions completely. I wondered if it was because, once the initial shock was over, Trey was still a stranger to him. Or perhaps maybe because Mark was such an extraordinary young man.

Watching him holding up his head, keeping his voice steady, I suddenly came aware, with a surprising tightness in my heart, of how much I loved this boy. Before I returned to Mirabeau, I probably loved Mark in an abstract way; he was my sister’s child, so of course I loved him. You’re supposed to. But when you share a house, share the terrible responsibility and knowledge of a loved one losing her mind, share the struggle of barely getting by without fraying each other’s nerves, those abstractions turn into solids.

Mark bowed his head when Junebug asked if he’d seen his father before today, and for the first time since we got to the station, tears brimmed in his night-dark eyes. I swore to myself right then, right there, that nothing else was going to ever harm this boy, not while I drew breath.

“No, I hadn’t seen my father. I knew he was in town, but my mom didn’t want me near him. I asked Uncle Jordy to take me over to see him, if he would. I mean, if Dad was willing to see me.”

“And was your father willing?”

“Yes. I didn’t talk to him, but Uncle Jordy did. He asked us over to that house he-he was staying in.”

Junebug glanced at me with cop’s eyes. “But you yourself, Mark, you didn’t speak to your dad.”

Mark shook his head. “I thought I would when we got there. Talking on the phone seemed kind of funny. We never did that before.”

The questioning went on in the same vein. Another police officer stuck his head in the door to say that they’d found Nola and her uncle, Dwight Kinnard.

“You want her? She’s mighty upset right now.”

“I’m sure she is. Show her into the interrogation room and I’ll be there presently.” The officer nodded and withdrew.

A moment later I could hear Nola’s voice coming down the hall, shrill and ragged: “I can tell you stupid bastards who you need to go after! His goddamned whore of an ex-wife! She’s crazy! You gotta-” And the noise died as a door was slammed. Mark’s face might have been made of marble. I felt an itch on my thigh, right where a ribbon of batik rested.

“Can we please go home? Mark needs some rest.”

Junebug nodded. “Listen, Mark, could you wait in the dispatcher’s office for a minute? I know you want to get home, son, but I need to talk a second with your uncle Jordan. Is that okay, buddy?”

Mark stood. “Yeah.” He moved slowly, like a puppet on guided strings. I could not believe that he was so calm, not after the violent surge of emotion he’d shown. It made me uneasy. What was normal for Mark under these circumstances? The door clicked shut behind him.

“Jordy, where the hell is Arlene?” Junebug didn’t waste time on preliminaries.

My tongue dabbed at my dry lips. All I had to say was what I knew for sure, and even that wasn’t appealing. “I don’t know. Suzie at the caff said she hadn’t been in.”

“Goddamn it, goddamn it,” Junebug fumed at the floor.

“What the hell am I gupposed to do, Jordy? Ignore that she’s conveniently disappeared while Trey’s shot dead?”

“Wait a second! You can’t think she did this!” Hypocrite. Don’t pretend the thought didn’t cross your mind.

“Look. I have to consider every suspect. Arlene’s his ex-wife and she’d publicly feuded with him. I can’t cross her off the list just because you and I know she couldn’t do it.”

I turned away from him. What kind of sorry brother was I, thinking even for a nanosecond that my sister could be a killer? Of course it was ridiculous. I took solace in that thought. The shock of seeing Trey dead had made me imagine the worst. Of course Sister was incapable of killing a man in cold blood. There had to be a reasonable explanation for both her absence and the cloth. Perhaps the cloth came from someone else’s pants, although I thought that unlikely. I’d ordered the trousers from a store in Boston I’d frequented during my publishing career and I didn’t think it likely another pair of trousers with that unusual fabric was haunting Mirabeau. Perhaps she’d gone over to see Trey again this morning-why? To apologize for hitting him? Possible but unlikely. To warn him off her son again? Probable. To kill him? I made myself turn back to Junebug. Not telling was lying, wasn’t it? I knew it was.

I kept my voice calm. “Someone wrote ‘two down’ in Trey’s blood. Clevey’s murdered the day before. Do the math, dummy. Don’t you think you ought to follow that angle instead of worrying about where my sister is?”

“Maybe. Maybe not.” Junebug sank into a chair. “Clevey and Trey hadn’t been in touch for years. What could they have in common? Why’d anyone want to kill them both?”

“We don’t know that they hadn’t been in touch,” I said slowly. “I don’t think Clevey would have told me if he’d been talking to Trey. I would not have taken that news well.”

“He had all those clippings on Rennie Clifton’s death,” Junebug said. “Clevey was there when we found her body.

So was Trey. Maybe he had been in touch with Trey, researching an article on Rennie.”

“And found something worth getting himself and Trey killed over? Where the hell does that leave you and me? And Ed and Davis? This is idiotic, Junebug. Rennie Clifton’s death was an accident. She got killed by flying debris.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

“Can’t you find three other words to overuse?” I snapped.

“Don’t get mad at me, Jordy,” Junebug said. “Okay, let’s say that those hidden notes Clevey had about Rennie Clifton had nothing to do with his death. Or maybe there’s no connection between Clevey’s murder and Trey’s murder. But someone still wrote that message. Maybe there’s been another murder we don’t even know about yet.”

“That’s crazy.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.” Junebug said, just to irritate me. “Take your nephew home, Jordy, and if I were you, I’d lock the doors. Call me if Arlene shows up. Or I’ll call you when we find her.”

It was a horrible end to a horrible conversation.


What do you do with evidence in a murder case-when you’ve decided turning it in to the police isn’t an option? And here I always considered myself a good citizen. By the time I got a silent Mark home, that scrap of batik was searing a hole in my drawers, and if those fibers had a voice, they were whispering in my ear: You should give this to the police. You know you should. Those mystery shows, where the town busybody doesn’t tell the police what he knows, you hate them. So why aren’t you telling?

And my answer was: Because she’s my sister.

I pulled the car into the driveway. The rain had ceased, leaving a wet, cool day in its wake. Clouds lingered overhead, gray with weight, promising more inclement weather. Mark had been silent all the way home.

“Mark”-my voice sounded raspier than usual-“I want you to know something. I love you. I love you very much, and if you want to talk to me about any of this, if you want to cry, if you want to get mad, whatever, I’m here for you.” I reached out and touched his shoulder. I’m not a huggy person by nature, but I felt his need for human contact.

Or so I imagined. Mark shrugged off my hand. “Thanks, but I don’t need any help. I’m fine. I got a history test on Monday to study for.”

“A test?”

“Yeah. American history.” He opened the car door. “Not my best subject, you know. Who cares about all those dates and stuff?” Unbelievably, he grinned at me. “I guess you care about it, since you used to edit those history textbooks. You don’t got any pointers for me, do you, Uncle Jordy?”

I managed to unstick my tongue from the roof of my mouth. “No, Mark, I don’t. Look, let’s not worry about your exam right now, I don’t think you’ll be going to school on Monday anyway.”

He swallowed. “Why wouldn’t I go?”


“Look, I was upset at first about Dad, it was pretty awful seeing him shot like that, but you know, I like hardly knew him. He didn’t even look the same, all thin and with that stupid beard and being in a wheelchair. It wasn’t like he cared enough about me to call me, or to be a part of my life.”

“But you begged me to take you to him-”

“I gotta study, Uncle Jordy.” He got out of the car and loped along to the house. I turned off the engine and sat quietly for a moment. Well, I’d decided Trey wasn’t worth mourning over; apparently so had Mark. But Trey was his father, and considering the avalanche of emotion Mark had shown, this sudden freeze didn’t bode well. It was as if the Do Not Disturb sign had been hung out on Mark’s face while his mind’s room was being tidied up.

I went inside. Mama’s nurse, Clo Butterfield, was reading a two-day-old newspaper to Mama, who rocked back and forth, humming tunelessly with a smile on her face. Clo folded the paper with a snap.

“Mark didn’t say how it went with his daddy.”

I went to the phone, not answering her, and dialed the cafe. Neither Sister nor Candace had returned. I asked Suzie to tell them to come straight to the house when they got back.

Mama was once again exploring the unnavigable frontier of her own mind, so I briefly told Clo what had happened. I omitted the bloody score painted on Trey’s wall and the remnant of Sister’s clothing I’d found at the scene.

Horror filled her dark face. “My God. That poor child. But he seems a lot calmer than I thought he’d be.”

“He was wailing like a banshee an hour ago. Now he’s acting like nothing’s happened. Mark’s always been a kid who showed what he felt.”

“Uncle Jordy?” Mark peered at me from upstairs, just glancing above the railing. “You’re right, I don’t feel much like studying. Can I ask Bradley over to watch TV?”

“Sure, Mark. But let me call the Foradorys.” He smiled vacantly and went back upstairs.

I turned back to Clo. “Well, that’s a good sign. At least he’s not doing schoolwork like it’s a normal day. Maybe seeing Bradley will help.”

“Quit deluding yourself, Jordy.” Clo coughed. “He was smiling like a game-show contestant who don’t know the answers. He shouldn’t be smiling. He should be crying. He’s not.”

“People grieve in different ways, Clo. He hadn’t seen his father in six years. Maybe this is normal.” I wasn’t doing a good job of convincing myself.

She touched my arm with the same gentleness she used on Mama. “It’s not just that his daddy died, Jordy. His daddy died in front of him. His dying words to Mark were ‘I love you.’ I think Mark’s just not wanting to deal with any of this. You got to get him some counseling.”

I remembered Steven Teague. He would know about grief counseling. I’d call my friends to tell them of Trey’s death first, then call Steven. “That’s an excellent idea, Clo. Thank you.”

She patted my arm again. “I tell you what. I’ll stay and help you, okay?”

I would have kissed her, but she would have hated that; so I didn’t. Clo was innately kind, but she kept nearly everyone at an arm’s length. Life hadn’t always been kind back to her. “What about the funeral arrangements?”

“I don’t know who’s supposed to be making those. Us? Nola Kinnard?”

“And where’s Arlene at?”

“She’s running errands or something for the cafe,” I said, perhaps a little too brightly. Clo watched me, her dark eyes surveying the twitchy territory of my face, and then she pushed the phone along the kitchen counter toward me.

“I think you better make them calls now, Jordy.”

I picked up the receiver and dialed Davis Foradory’s house.

When Davis answered his voice sounded broken, like a pane of glass starred and cracked by a blow. “Huh- hello?”


I heard the noise of flesh on flesh-a long, slow drag of his finger across his lip. “Yeah, Jordan, hey, how are you?”

For a moment I wondered if Davis had been drinking-he sounded dulled. I told him briefly what had happened, excluding again the blood-scribed words on the wall; I didn’t think that I should jump to any conclusions about what 2 DOWN meant.

He was silent a long while. “They say these things come in trees, Jordan.”

“Trees?” His words were slurring together and I couldn’t understand him.

“Threes. You know, death comes in threes.”

Davis didn’t have a future writing sympathy cards for Hallmark. “That’s not exactly a comforting idea right now, Davis. Are you okay? You sound sick.”

“I’m just stunned over what you’ve told me. God, first Clevey, now Trey. We got some serial killer running around here?”

“I don’t know. Listen, Mark’s not in the best shape. He’s playing the tough guy right now. He asked if Bradley could come over and watch TV, just hang out with him.”

“Well… I don’t know…” I heard movement and a brief recounting of Trey’s death from Davis. His wife, Cayla, came on the phone.

“Jordy? My God, this is horrible. I am so sorry. How are Arlene and Mark?” Distance colored her voice more than sympathy. Each word seemed forced from Cayla’s mouth, as though concern was an unpleasant exercise to be completed.

“Coping,” I answered. I wasn’t about to get into a discussion with Cayla Foradory, our local ice queen, about how my family felt over Trey’s death. “Cayla, would it be too much trouble to let Bradley come over? Mark could sure use his friends right now.”

Cayla hesitated. “Yes, I suppose that would be okay. I’ll bring y’all some food, too.”

I thought of saying no. But when you’ve had a death, telling Mirabeau people not to bring food is like trying to say no to breathing air. I thanked her instead.

“I can’t believe it. Two murders in two days. What’s happening to Mirabeau?”

“I don’t know, Cayla.” Her tone gave me the creeps.

“Jordy, one moment. Let me speak to Arlene.”

I pressed my lips hard together. What to say? “She can’t come to the phone right now, Cayla.”

The coolness in Cayla’s voice deepened. “Of course, I understand. Tell Mark we’ll be over shortly.”

“Thanks, Cayla.” I paused, then decided to ask her a question. “Is Davis okay?”

There was the slightest of pauses. “Davis is fine, Jordy. You’re sweet to ask about him. I think he’s still in shock over Clevey’s death and this latest tragedy is just hitting him very hard.”

“Of course. See you in a bit, Cayla.” I hung up the phone, not entirely convinced she was being frank with me. Davis Foradory didn’t sound like the self-assured lawyer I knew. I rubbed my temples; as if I didn’t have enough to worry about, I was ready to take on Davis’s imagined problems. I finished making my phone calls.

Grief and shock do not lend themselves to originality. Nearly everyone I called said the same empty words: Oh my God, I can’t believe it, or How terrible, or an occasional Well, I didn’t know he was back in town! I had my own set speech, telling them that I didn’t know quite yet what the funeral arrangements were going to be and that yes, Mark was bearing up okay (that I didn’t know about, but what else could I say?) and that, why, yes, I was fine.

People promised to stop by. I kept hoping Sister’d be back by then.

I checked on Mark. He was lying on his bed, light from the window casting a dim square on his shirt. He stared at his ceiling, listening to an R.E.M. song that advised him to try not to breathe. His cheeks were dry and his eyes, although reddened from his earlier outburst, weren’t damp.

“Mark? You okay?”

“Sure. Fine.”

“Bradley’s coming over shortly. That still okay with you?”

“Yeah. Mom home yet?”

“No, Mark, not yet. She’ll be here soon.”

“I just hope nothing happened to her, the way it did to Dad.”

Ice coated my throat. “Oh, Mark, I’m sure she’s fine. She’s-she’s just out running errands or something.”

“Okay.” He turned away from me. “Let me know when Bradley gets here.” He got up and pulled a box out from deep in the chaos of his closet. A dusty, battered, cracked box with chutes and ladders in faint print across the front. He smiled thinly at me.

“It’s a fun game. Want to play?”

“Maybe later, Mark.” The fourteen-year-old I knew would sooner have bamboo shoved under his fingernails than play a kindergartner’s game. I tried to convince myself he just wanted to do something simple that Bradley could enjoy. I couldn’t shake the dread that Mark was in serious retreat.

I left him alone and crept to Sister’s room, feeling like a thief. I closed the door behind me and opened her small closet. Pants and jeans hung in neat lines, draped over hangers; Sister’s never been a slob. I rummaged among the selection. The batik slacks weren’t in there. I quickly checked her dresser drawers, feeling like a pervert as I pawed through her undergarments and other apparel. No trace of the missing pants, Likely she still had them on. But they were of thin material, and this was a cool day. Why would she wear them in the November chill?

I went to my own room and put the scrap in a small blue stationery envelope, and after a moment’s hesitation, hid the envelope in a thick book on Texas history. I then stuck the book in the middle of the tower of books by my bedside-my ever-tottering to-read stack. I promised myself some time to contemplate before I mentioned that shred of cloth to Sister. Or to Junebug.

I went downstairs, still uneasy over Mark and Sister. People-mostly older women-had started arriving, bringing food and sympathy. Truda Shivers and Eula Mae Quiff had been among the first folks I’d called, and they’d resummoned the cavalry. Some of the callers still wore the looks of solicitude I’d seen at Truda’s house last night. It seemed unreal to have them here, lamenting a man who hadn’t set foot in this house for six years. But regardless of what had happened between him and Sister, he was still Mark’s father, and to these fine, bighearted women, this was still a house of mourning in need of support in the form of tender hugs, plum cakes, buttermilk pies, and broccoli-cheese-rice casseroles. There were seven ladies lingering, dithering over Mama (who didn’t seem too confused by the presence of these friends she used to know) and nodding remorsefully at Clo as she talked, “Oh, honey.” Dorcas Witherspoon came to me and hugged me. She’s one of Mama’s oldest and dearest pals. “I’m so sorry. How are Mark and Arlene? Are they upstairs?”

I don’t like lying. If I confessed Sister had gone missing, they’d panic. I could hardly announce that she was here; they’d demand to see her, and courtesy would require her to make an appearance, even if Trey’s death had left her prostrate with grief.

“Mark’s coping. And I think my sister’s going to be okay. It’s surely a shock to everyone.” That was neutral enough to toe the line between truth and fiction.

“Jordy.” Truda Shivers came forward and pressed my hands, having abandoned one house of loss for another. “I’m so sorry.”

“Truda, thank you for coming, but you shouldn’t have. I know how hard it is for you right now, what with Clevey and-”

And that’s when Sister chose to make her appearance. Hie front door flew open, the hinges squealing in violated dismay, and Sister, followed by a somber Junebug, stormed in. Her face wore the same mask of shock that Mark seemed to find so comfortable. Except for her blackened eye.

Her countenance shushed the gathered women to silence, not to mention the foreboding presence of our police chief. “Where’s my boy?” Sister demanded of me without preamble.

“He’s upstairs. What happened to your-”

“I’ll deal with you later, Jordan Michael Poteet. I understand that because of you, my child saw his father die. I hope you’re goddamned happy with yourself, you bastard.” She shoved past me and sprinted up the stairs two at a time.

Since etiquette didn’t require a response to her attack, I stood there with mouth open, staring at her. And staring at the batik pattern underneath the muddy smears on her trousers. I covered my face with my palms. It’s hard to know that even for one instant, your sister hates your guts.

I glanced over at Junebug, who nodded toward the back porch. The assemblage of mourners discovered several reasons to either leave or retire to the kitchen, where Clo had prepared coffee. I followed my old Mend out to the back porch, a miserable look on my face.

The rain had returned, playing an arpeggio of pitters on the roof. The wide, emptying branches of the live oaks swayed in the mounting coldness that promised a hard winter, and the leaves from the trees had begun their wet descent to the ground. The sky was leaden with clouds that looted like ashy bolls of cotton. I suppose if thunder had ominously rumbled, it would have only completed the scene.

“Where was she? Is she okay?” I asked Junebug.

“She’s fine. I found her down on Mears Creek, where it divides off the river. She was just sitting in her car.”

“Where the hell had she been?”

“She says she needed time alone.” His lips thinned.

“Who gave her that shiner?”

“She claims she stumbled against a tree while taking a walk, but I don’t believe her.”

“Oh, God. This isn’t happening.” I turned to him with pleading eyes. “Junebug, you have to get to the bottom of this. Two of-two people we’ve known forever get murdered and my sister goes missing and turns up with a battered face. You got to do something!”

“I am, Jordy. I’m taking myself off this case.”

“Why?” I felt like hollering my throat raw, but I kept my voice under steely control. “We need you, Junebug.”

“I can’t, Jordy, I got to turn it over to my deputy. I can’t investigate when Arlene’s… involved. It’s a conflict of interest.”

“Do you think she did this? You know she couldn’t have!” Hypocrite, my conscience piped up in my head. Why don’t you go get him that scrap? I’m waiting.

“Of course she didn’t do it,” Junebug said. He stared off into the rain, coming down harder, driving the remaining leaves down to sodden grass. “I don’t believe for an instant that she killed Trey.” He heaved a long sigh. “When I told her he was dead, it was as if all the life went out of her. I hadn’t expected that, not after what happened between them.” He turned back to me, his face miserable. “She still loves him, Jordy. I could see it in her face.”

“You’re dreaming. You didn’t see the cold hate in her eyes last night. You didn’t see how she hit him.” I nearly bit my tongue off; I’d spoken recklessly, too stunned by recent events for much coherency. Perhaps I could write down the list of reasons Sister had to kill Trey? It would surely make questioning her more convenient for all concerned.

“What’s the old saying? It’s a fine line between love and hate?” He put his hand on my shoulder. “Once it had set in, I wasn’t foolin’ her, she screamed like a wounded wildcat. She broke into tears and just kept saying no. Cut me to the bone.” He shook his head. “I don’t think Arlene loves me. I think, even after all these years, all her yellin all her warnings to Trey to stay away, that she loved him still. Arlene’s not the type to hate, you know.”

“She’s not happy with me right now, is she?” I asked, half to myself.

He doffed his Stetson, tossed it on the chair, and ran a callused hand through his damp brown hair. “Sorry about that. Of course she asked if you and Mark knew. I had to tell her about y’all finding him. She got a lot quieter then.”

“She’ll get over being upset at me,” I said. “I hope.” Junebug didn’t look too concerned about my placement on Sister’s Top 40 chart.

Thunder rumbled above me. He kept watching the curtain of rain.

I chose my words carefully. “Of course, the most compelling reason to know that my sister had nothing to do with Trey’s death is that ‘two down’ that was on the wall. Sister might have had reason to kill Trey, but she sure didn’t have reason to kill anyone else.” I watched Junebug’s broad back tense. “There’s no other explanation, Junebug. The same person got rid of both him and Clevey. So there’s no reason to suspect my sister.”

“I know tonight’s going to be rough for you, Jordy, but I’d like you and the other boys to come over to my house.”

“I assume by the other boys you mean Davis and Ed.”

He nodded. “Because of the papers about Rennie Clifton we found in Clevey’s house. The papers mention the six boys specifically. Now two are dead. The remaining four of us need to have a little chat.”

“But you said you were taking yourself off the case-”

“Off Trey’s case. I’m still investigating Clevey’s murder. Be there at eight o’clock. And tell Arlene I’ll call her later.” He spun on his heel and left, the murmur of feminine voices the only sound as he went back into the house.

I felt cold, as though Rennie Clifton’s long-dead hand had risen from the ground and closed around my ankle. Did 2 DOWN signal a finale to bloodshed? Or was it the first note in an even more gruesome coda?


I turned. Candace. I should have run into her arms. Instead I froze.

“Baby, for God’s sake!” She hurled herself at me, nearly crushing me in her embrace. And I’m a foot taller than she is. I held her, running my hands up the firmness of her back. Her lake-blue eyes, wide with shock, looked up into mine.

“I’m so sorry, Jordy, so sorry.” She hugged me again, whispering into my chest.

“What about?” I stroked her hair, but I didn’t feel the usual ache of tenderness when she was in my arms. It was almost as though I wasn’t truly me and she wasn’t truly her. The entire day had taken on a quality of unreality.

“I’m sorry because Trey is dead, dummy! What’s wrong with you?” She leaned back, staring at me as though I’d lost my mind.

I didn’t respond. Those clear blue eyes bored into me like a beacon cutting a swath across darkness. I suddenly felt ill at ease in her arms.

“How are Mark and Arlene?” she asked.

“Sister’s terribly upset. Mark freaked out completely. Now he’s acting like nothing happened.” I stepped back from her.

She regarded me with a critical gaze. “And how about you?”

“Fine,” I mumbled. “I mean, granted, it was horrible to see him the like that, but I’ll be just fine.”

One of her hands reached out for mine. She ran a fingertip along my unshaven jawline. “C’mon, babe. He was your best friend, at least when you were growing up.”

“Who told you that?”

She blinked. “Well, good Lord. Everyone says how close y’all were.”

“That was years ago! What does it matter?” I pulled my hand free and walked to the end of the porch. The little garden plot Mama used to plant every spring was barren and muddy. Dank elongations of water lay in the shallow hills between empty rows. I watched drops strike the surface, their tiny impacts spreading a circle of water until the next bead of rain fell.

“Why are you being so pissy to me, Jordan?” she asked my back.

“I’m sorry.” I turned to her, holding my palms out, fingers spread. “You don’t understand, Candace. There’s no point in me being upset. You said Trey was my friend. Well, the emphasis is on the past tense. He was an unforgivable asshole.”

She gave me her patented Doubting Candace look and crossed her slender arms. “I see. And since he was such an asshole, you’re not at all affected that he practically died at your feet?”

I shook my head in frustration. “I feel terrible that Mark saw that. I’ll never forgive myself for taking him over to that house. But at least-at least Trey told Mark that he loved him.” I stared out again at the rain. “I don’t know, Candace. Maybe Mark didn’t need to hear that. Maybe it would have been better if Trey had just died and he wasn’t anything more than a memory to Mark. Mark shouldn’t have seen that blood, that death. He’s just a kid. If I hadn’t-”

“That’s not your fault. So we should all only be concerned about Mark? You’re perfectly fine? Entirely unscathed by losing two old friends in two days?” Her tone was arch, one I recognized from when a fight was brewing between us.

“I will mourn Clevey,” I said, realizing I was gritting my teeth. “But what do you want from me? Should I scream? Tear my hair? Not over Trey Slocum. Not over that worthless son of a bitch. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to call Steven Teague. Mark is going to need counseling. Maybe my sister, too. I have to take care of them. And I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast, and I need some aspirin, and maybe a nap.” I was tired of the ceaseless rain, tired of the moist smell of wet dead leaves, tired of talking nonsense. I headed for the screen door, for the warm comforting smells of casseroles and the lowered voices found in homes that death touches. She didn’t stop me.


I’m not good at mourning. The rest of the afternoon went in a haze. Sister wouldn’t talk to me; I’d tried once, knocking on her door. The sobs on the other side made me feel I was knocking on her heart. “Later,” was all she would say.

Mark played a children’s game in my room with a hushed Bradley Foradory. I watched their pieces slide and rise in the fortunes of the gameboard. Mark was treating Chutes and Ladders like grand-master chess. He only answered in monosyllables when I talked to him. Bradley favored me with a confused smile. I mussed his hair, told him to take care of Mark (who didn’t want to acknowledge my presence), and left them alone.

I fended off unneeded-and unwarranted-concern from Eula Mae, Clo, Truda, Cayla, Davis, and a score of other well-intentioned neighbors. Even my nemesis Gretchen; you’d think after all our battles, she’d have known me well enough to leave me alone. Ed and Wanda Dickensheets appeared, fresh from a Saturday peddling memories of the King. Wanda didn’t bother to change out of her Elvis getup that was her working uniform, and for the first time I wasn’t inclined to laugh at her. Ed moved like a man on tranquilizers.

Of course, Mark and Sister were indisposed in their grief, so I took the proffered pity for Trey’s death. I accepted kisses on my cheeks, squeezes of my hand, murmured expressions of sympathy for our loss. I cast my face in sorrow and nodded quietly a great deal, acting as the family spokesman. And the cynics say there’s no ironies in life.

Candace stayed-but she stayed away from me. Every now and then she caught my eye and I saw the forgiving concern in her face. I always broke contact first. I felt bad I couldn’t react the way she thought I was supposed to, but she was presuming I sustained some kind of affection for Trey Slocum. I knew she meant well. I knew she loved me. I just wanted her to let me be for a while.

My father, Bob Don, was in Las Vegas at an automobile conference. I missed him. I thought he, at least, would understand; he wouldn’t expect me to shed tears over a man I loathed.

Finally, the bearers of food and succor departed, leaving me, Clo, Eula Mae, and Candace sitting at a table overflowing with pies, casseroles, and sandwich makings. I made myself eat, but nothing had taste, not even Eula Mae’s Mirabeau-famous plum-and-whiskey cake. Clo took trays to Sister and Mark; she came back and told me they were sitting together in Mama’s room, talking quietly. Mama did not appear to be participating in the conversation; she, according to Clo, kept asking when Hawaii Five-O, her favorite show, would be on.

“Was Mark crying?” I asked Clo. She shook her head.

“That’s not natural,” I muttered. Candace coughed, but I ignored her.

“I’ll be glad to stay tonight, Jordy,” Clo offered. I nodded as Candace spoke.

“Clo, you’ve already been here all day. You must be exhausted, and I know you’ve got your granddaughter to look after. Why don’t I stay, and you can spell me tomorrow when I have to go to the cafe?”

I smiled at her. I did want her here; I just wasn’t going to get dragged into an argument over whether or not I was dealing normally with Trey’s death.

“Thank you,” I said. “Candace, if you’re going to stay, why don’t you run home and get whatever you need for tonight?” I checked my watch. “Junebug is expecting me.”

“Junebug?” Eula Mae demanded. “Ed’s going there. And Cayla mentioned that Davis was, too.” Her eyes shone bright with curiosity, only vaguely muted by the pall that hung over my house. “Excuse me, ladies,” I said quietly.

“Boys, we have to talk,” Junebug said.

He poured me a whiskey-not my first of the evening- and resumed his place on the sofa. The four of us gathered around the squat coffee table in Junebug’s den, as uneasy a group of mourners as I’d ever seen. Davis downed Jack Daniel’s into his big, football player’s frame, looking morose; Junebug frowned, funereally solemn; and Ed Dickensheets walked restlessly, his shock and grief propelling him like a ceiling fan turned up a notch too high. He paced around the table, crossing and uncrossing his arms.

“Goddamn it, Ed, you’re making me dizzy. Sit down!” Davis insisted. He rolled whiskey in his mouth and for one moment I thought Davis was going to spew the booze at Ed on his next orbit.

“I can’t,” Ed retorted. “If I sit down I feel like I’m gonna throw up.”

“Let him be, he’s not bothering you,” Junebug said quietly. Davis shrugged and sipped some more of his whiskey.

I held a glass of bourbon and water in my hand, but I’d left it untasted. I felt bone weary.

Junebug stood, glass aloft. “Here’s to Clevey Shivers and Trey Slocum, boys. May they rest in peace and meet us in heaven.”

The others stood, and for one brief moment I thought of not joining in. But it was for Clevey, too, and I felt heartsick that I seemed to be forgetting about him. I saw his easy smile, his laugh, the noticeable gap between his front teeth that would have kept him looking boyish at forty. I stood and clinked my glass against my friends’, the ringing of crystal brief and discordant. We sipped at varying speeds: Davis quaffing his in a gulp, his eyes averted, Junebug sipping slowly, Ed and I barely tasting ours. Davis was a little drunk and wasn’t done toasting.

“Clevey, our friend and a fine reporter,” he said. “He’ll dig up all the secrets, even if it sends him to hell.”

“Damn old Clevey,” Ed said, his pug face puckering up in a frown. “I always thought he was gonna be the meanest old fart in the nursing home.”

“He would’ve been the ugliest,” Davis muttered.

“I feel bad for Trey,” Ed said suddenly. “He’d just gotten to see us all again.” Silence fell and we sat in its shadow.

No one spoke for several minutes. I gazed into the amber shallows of my glass for a while and then looked up. Junebug, like me, was hypnotized by the eddies of liquor around ice; Davis, slumped in his chair, examined the ceiling for points of interest; Ed stared at his feet.

This is how men grieve, I thought. We feel this terrible, heavy sadness, but we pretend it’s not there. We don’t look into each other’s face for fear we’ll see another man’s tears, or worse, he will see ours. We talk about the things that mattered least in the lost life, and when words fail us, we down our drinks and turn glazed eyes to the carpet. Our laments are silent. I sipped at my whiskey.

“You know what kind of guns killed ’em?” Davis asked, his tone distant and solemn.

Junebug looked up from his drink. “Both shot with thirty-eights, but we haven’t determined yet if it was the same gun. Trey had a thirty-eight registered to him, and it’s missing.” No one spoke.

“Did Trey say anything before he died, Jordan?” Davis wanted to know.

“Jordan can’t talk about that,” Junebug interjected.

I shrugged. “I don’t see what difference it could possibly make. He told Mark he loved him. He didn’t say anything else. He just looked at me. Then he died.” I put my glass to my mouth but didn’t sip.

“Damn it, Jordan, you were told not to say anything about the case!” Junebug slammed his glass down on the table.

I’m already hiding evidence. Surely that’s worse than running off at the mouth. I didn’t share my ruminations with the group. “Why are you having a fit? You took yourself off Trey’s case.”

“That true, Junebug?” Ed asked, the ice rattling in his glass.

“I’d really prefer not to discuss it, Ed,” Junebug said. “Especially with the media.”

Ed coughed. “Hey, I just sell airtime for the station. I don’t fill it with news reports. You’d have to talk to Mr. Boss Man Foradory here about getting on the airwaves.”

Davis shrugged. “Let it go, Ed. Let’s change the subject.” His voice sounded weary.

Anger kept Ed going. “Hell, no. Our friends are dead, and now you’re not investigatin’? What the hell is that?”

I leaned forward. “Ed. Junebug had to take himself off the investigation of Trey’s murder because my sister is a suspect.” There, I said it.

Ed raised his chin slightly, looking at me with his dark eyes. A half smile played along his face, and he eased back in his chair. “You’re kidding, right? Junebug surely can’t believe Arlene shot anyone.”

“Why not?” Davis ventured. “Sorry to say it, y’all, but Arlene looked like she was in a killing mood last night.”

“Mood and action are two different things, Davis,” I retorted. “The idea of my sister murdering anyone is ridiculous.”

“Regardless”-Junebug kept his voice measuredly calm-“I felt it best to turn over Trey’s case to Franklin Bedloe. He’ll be the lead officer.”

Ed shook his head. “I bet ol’ Arlene really appreciates that vote of confidence, Junebug. You won’t be getting any more free coffee down at the Sit-a-Spell.”

“You’re not funny,” Junebug said in a low gravelly voice. He glared at me for having ventured into topics he didn’t want to discuss.

“Don’t get mad at Ed for pointing out the obvious,” I snapped. “You said a minute ago we had to talk. So let’s talk.” I felt a warm flush of frustration redden my face. “Whether or not my sister is an automatic suspect in Trey’s death, you think that the same person’s responsible for shooting Trey and Clevey. Why don’t you share your reasoning with everyone?”

Junebug stood, went to the bar, and refilled his drink. “I don’t want what’s discussed here leaving this room. Is that understood? I’m speaking as an officer of the law, not as your friend. Y’all hear me?” Silent assent greeted this statement, and he sat down again. He then told the others about the peculiar evidence: the newspaper clippings about Rennie Clifton and the 2 DOWN written in blood on Trey’s wall.

My lifelong friends traded uneasy glances. Finally Ed said, “I don’t understand. If Clevey knew something about that girl’s death, why hadn’t he told? I mean, he was a newspaper reporter. He would have written about it.”

Davis wet his lips. “Maybe he didn’t have enough evidence. You can’t just write an article without having all the facts. Papers get sued for inaccurate reporting. Clevey might have discovered something about Rennie Clifton’s death but not had enough to go to press with.”

“But enough to get killed over,” I pointed out.

“What could Trey have known? What connection would he have?” Davis asked.

“Well, he was with all of us when that storm hit…” Ed murmured. “All of us…”

“Did y’all know Clevey was in therapy?” I asked suddenly. The looks on Davis and Ed’s faces said no.

“What for?” Davis asked, helping himself to another dollop of whiskey.

“I don’t know. Do y’all have any idea what his problem was?”

Ed scratched his chin. “Aside from his mean streak?”

Junebug frowned. “That’s not treatable, Ed.”

Davis swished whiskey in his mouth. “Clevey seemed perfectly healthy. But I don’t think he would have confided a personal problem to me.”

I abandoned that tack. “Okay, then, back to the newspaper. Let’s say Clevey was working on a story about Rennie Clifton and it got him killed. Why would anyone then kill Trey? He hadn’t been in town in years. As far as we know, he and Clevey hadn’t been in touch for years. What would Trey know that Clevey knew?”

“We don’t know for certain that Clevey and Trey hadn’t been in contact. Trey’d already been here a day before Clevey died, right?” Davis said slowly. “They could have met. Maybe the two of them did know something. Maybe that’s why Trey came back to town after all these years.”

“He came home to recuperate,” I said tonelessly.

“So he said.” Davis shrugged.

“We better hope that it’s something only the two of them knew,” Ed added. “Because what if… the killer thinks that the rest of us know it, too?”

“If any of you boys know something you ain’t telling,” Junebug said softly, “now would be a real good time to spill the beans.”

No one answered.

I sipped again at my whiskey, letting the smoky taste fill my mouth. “I got a question. Why would Clevey even start digging into the past?”

“He wrote that article last summer. The twenty-year anniversary of Hurricane Althea,” Ed said slowly. “Remember, it came out last August. Maybe in writing that, he found out something about Rennie Clifton’s death. And now he’s dead.”

No one spoke for a long moment.

“Maybe we should all get out of town,” Ed blurted. “I mean, if someone’s knocking off our circle of friends, I say we all take our money, get the hell out of Dodge, and go party in Vegas or something.”

Davis snorted. “I’m not about to be chased away on a whim, Ed, and leave my radio station, my law practice, and my family. Get real. You got a business to worry about, too.”

“I don’t think it’s worth dying over!” Ed squeaked.

Davis laughed. “I agree, Ed, I wouldn’t die over Wanda. And I don’t expect you’ll have your ridiculous Elvis emporium much longer. So if you want to vamoose like a scared rabbit, go ahead.”

“The Institute of Elvisology is not ridiculous! Celebrity collectibles are a growth industry!”

“Ed, shut up!” I snapped. I pressed fingers against my aching temples. I wasn’t in the mood to discuss the comparative economic gains of peddling Elvis trinkets. “Look, none of us knows anything that Clevey or Trey knew, right? We’d admit it, right?” Nods of assent went around the room. “So we’re not in any danger, right?”

“Unless the killer thinks we know,” Davis said. “Then it doesn’t matter what the truth is.” God, sometimes I don’t like lawyers.

Sister was curled in a fetal position on her bed when I got home. Her quiet “come in” was barely above a whisper. I sat on the corner of her bed, afraid to touch her, nearly afraid to speak.

“I just got back from Junebug’s,” I said. “He sure is worried about you.”

The clouds didn’t let much moonlight through her window, but there was enough where I could see fresh tears on her face. “Junebug. God, he thinks I did it. He thinks I killed Trey in cold blood.”

“Of course he doesn’t. He has to take himself off any case where he’s got a personal connection.”

“Crap! He’s got personal connections with half the town. He did it so he won’t be the one to arrest me when they finally issue the wairant. He doesn’t want to put the handcuffs on the woman he claims to love.”

“Where were you today, Sister?”

“I told you, I told him. I needed quiet time, so I went for a long drive, out on the roads between here and La Grange and Bavary. I went down to Mears Creek. You know that’s where Trey proposed to me, don’t you? That was… our place.”

“Who gave you the black eye, then?”

“I told you! I stumbled against a tree.” She shifted her face into the pillow, and I knew this phase of the conversation was over.

“I want Mark to see Steven Teague,” I started, but she didn’t let me finish.


“He’s a therapist. A counselor. I think Mark needs help dealing with what he saw.”

“Jordy, I know you have good intentions. But I’d made it clear I didn’t want Mark to be around his father. You had no business interfering.”

“I’m sorry.” I felt miserable. “I’m sorry he saw what he did. I know you’re pissed at me, but, at least, he got to know that his father loved him.”

Sister gave a shuddering sob. I couldn’t tell if it was anger or despair that racked her body.


“I’m sorry I hit him. I’m sorry he didn’t get to see Mark as Mark really is. Why? Why did he have to leave us?” she cried.

In the six years Trey had been gone, I’d never heard her ask that question. Of course I had no answer. Instead, I took her in my arms. She cried for a while, then pulled her face away from my shoulder.

“Stupid crybaby.” She sniffed, wiping her face with her robe’s sleeve. “I should know better.”

“His leaving never made sense to me.” I pushed an errant lock of hair out of her face.

“God. Now he’s gone, truly gone.” Sister stared at the moon-limned clouds in their dreary, dark parade southward. “A part of me always believed he’d come back. Isn’t that the most idiotic thing you ever heard?”

“No, it’s not.” Silence hung between us for a minute.



“Did Trey send you money-support-for Mark?” Trey’d alluded to that twice, once at the library, once at Truda Shivers’s, but both times I’d been convinced it was a lie to salve his ego.

Sister lowered her eyes. “Yes. Every month for the past six years. Sometimes he’d miss a month, but he’d always make it up. And always with a money order. The letters were postmarked from all over.”

I let my breath out. And I’d called Trey a liar. “Why didn’t you ever tell me?”

“I don’t know. I put most of it in an account at the bank. I want Mark to go to college. Sometimes I had to tap it, when times were hard, but most of it’s in that account.”

“So Trey wasn’t entirely a deadbeat dad?”

Sister’s tone grew cold. “He wasn’t here. Money doesn’t replace a father’s love. That’s what I don’t understand. Okay, our marriage wasn’t perfect. There were times that we fought. But leave Mark? How could he abandon his own flesh and blood?”

In that last phone conversation with Trey, I could hear the joy, the anticipation of seeing his son. “I don’t know. I only know that he loved Mark, even if he wasn’t here to show it.”

She threw herself on the pillows. “I don’t want to talk about him now! Go to bed, Jordan. We’ve both had horrible days.”

While she was in this state of honesty I wanted to ask about the batik scrap I’d found; but I couldn’t. Not without it sounding like an accusation I wasn’t ready to make. I got up and went back downstairs. Candace had gotten Mama down for the night and was sipping a ginger ale and watching the news from Austin.

“Thanks for staying over.” I went and kissed her on the mouth. She kissed back for a moment.

“You want me to sleep with you? Or in the guest room?” she asked softly. “I never stayed here since we’ve been dating.”

“It can’t make any nevermind to Mama, but, for Mark’s sake, it’d be best if you slept in the guest room.”

She didn’t take it as rejection. “All right, babe. You doing okay?”

I looked down into her cool blue eyes. I wanted to say no, I wasn’t doing okay. I was scared shitless by the two options that seemed to be looming before me; either my sister was a killer or my friends were being murdered for some hidden reason from boyhood days. Death has a long shadow, my grandfather used to say, and I never appreciated what he meant until now. I wanted to explain this to Candace, but instead I kissed her again and said I was going to bed.

It was only after I pulled myself between the cold, lonely sheets and lay back on my pillow that the most disturbing thought of the day came to me: what if Trey had been killed simply because he’d come home?


“Not like that,” Trey scolded me. “You always, always get on a horse from the left, not the right!” He yanked the reins out of my hand and patted the horse’s side.

“Well, excuuuse me,” I retorted. “I was on the left.”

“Not your left. The horse’s left.” Trey took me by the shoulder and led me around to the proper side.

“You didn’t say that,” I said indignantly.

Trey pushed back his black cowboy hat and shook his head in smiling resignation. He was fourteen, but he already looked sixteen, filling out and growing more quickly than I had. I still looked like a scrawny little kid next to him.

“I swear, Jordy, you are the most impatient person I’ve ever met. Now, let me tell you what to do, and wait until I’m done”-here he fixed me with a steely gaze-“so’s you don’t rush off and kill your fool self.”

I nodded. He went through the steps again: placing the reins over the horse’s neck and grasping them in his left hand, putting his left shoulder against the horse, facing its tail, and gauging his weight against the horse’s brown shoulder. Finally, he turned the stirrup from back to front before putting his foot in it (he stressed this step to me so I wouldn’t twist my leg wrong once I was up in the saddle). He demonstrated by swinging gracefully into Fafnir’s saddle, his whole body an exercise in control and power. The huge horse obeyed the boy without a tremor.

“See. Ain’t so hard. You’re gonna do fine,” Trey assured me, dismounting and giving Fafnir a pat.

I went for a second try. Fafnir regarded me with disdain; the smell of my fear was probably palpable to him. Trey’d said he’d teach me to ride if I helped him with history, and now I was thinking I’d gotten the raw end of the deal. The horse moved uneasily, as though unwilling to give me a chance at mastering him.

“Remember what I told you, okay? First take the reins over his neck and take hold of them real firm.”

I did.

“Now get your left shoulder against the horse and look down toward his tail.”

I did.

“Okay, now move back toward Fafnir’s shoulder.”

I did. That’s when the script went wrong and Fafnir suddenly moved and a sharp pain jabbed my butt. I hollered like a stuck pig and jumped forward, letting go the reins. I thought for sure the next thing I’d hear was Trey’s hysterical laughter at his horse biting me in the ass.

Instead Trey stood there, shaking his head and not laughing while I rubbed my jeans where Fafnir had nipped me. Fafnir regarded me without an ounce of pity and snorted, stepping away awkwardly.

“What’d I do wrong?” I muttered.

“Nothing. Faf’s being particular.” He took the gelding by the reins and walked him around the barn, murmuring to him and patting his shoulder. I watched, wondering what you said to an ornery horse.

When Trey led Fafnir back up to me, I fidgeted. “I don’t know, Trey. He doesn’t like me much.”

“He just ain’t used to you. He’s a good horse, and you’re gonna ride him today.” A faint smile touched his mouth. “Less you’re too sore to sit in the saddle now.”

“Shut up.” I took the reins again, faced the horse’s end, turned the stirrup, and swung up and into the saddle. Fafnir didn’t budge. I sat in silent amazement for a moment, forgetting what I was supposed to do next.

Trey smiled, and I let myself bask in the glow of his approval. “Now there, young master Jordan. Weren’t so hard, was it?”

“Once we got the ass-biting out of the way, no,” I observed.

“Yeah, I just hope ol’ Faf doesn’t the from that bite. He’s probably been poisoned if he broke your skin.”

“Very funny. If he does it again, I’m calling the glue factory.”

“He’s gonna be just fine. So’re you.” Trey rubbed Fafnir’s shoulder with real affection. I decided not to make any further glue-factory remarks.

Trey walked alongside me, showing me how to urge Fafnir into action. Once I was in the saddle, Fafnir proved willing enough and he didn’t give me much trouble. He was a good horse, like Trey promised.

I surveyed the springtime peacefulness of Hart Quarlander’s horse farm. The live oaks that dotted the banks of Grunewald Creek swayed with their laden branches in the brisk breeze, and the grass gleamed that peculiarly strong green that always follows heavy spring rains. The air smelled fresh and clear and ripe with horse. “The world looks a little different from up here.”

“Don’t it, though? How come you never mentioned wanting to ride before? I’d have taught you long ago.”

I coughed. “My daddy hates horses. He got thrown by one when he was little and broke his arm. He won’t let Sister or me near ’em.”

“But you’re riding today.”

“What Daddy don’t know won’t hurt me.” I laughed.

“Don’t you worry. If he finds out, I’ll tell him it was my idea.”

Daddy and Trey got on like a house afire. Trey’d sweet-talked me out of more than one escapade by conferring with Daddy. Mama remained somewhat suspicious of Trey, but mamas are like that.

“Too bad Arlene didn’t come today,” Trey said, taking in the overarching blue sky. “I guess she’s too snooty to take a riding lesson from a freshman.”

“She’s sweet on Billy Kiblett.” I shrugged. “She spends all her time with him.”

“Billy Kiblett can’t do jackshit ’cept throw a football.”

“Yeah, but in Mirabeau, that’s a highly prized skill. You know that.”

“Bastrop kicked our asses last year ’cause holy Billy Kiblett couldn’t connect with his receivers. What’s so special about him?”

“Hey, Trey. You act like you’re in love with her.” If he could tease me about getting my butt bit, I could retaliate with the suggestion of amorous intentions toward my sister. Who would wriggle more?

“Naw, I ain’t in love with Arlene. She’s a pain in the neck.” He looked off at the line of live oaks near the creek and straightened his hat. “When you’re a better rider, we’ll go for a ride along the creek. It’s real-” His voice broke off. I turned to where he looked.

A man staggered out from the trees in the creek, weaving and walking as though yanked every few moments by invisible strings. Hatless, he kept one chambrayed arm over his eyes against the springtime brightness. He shuffled along toward the main house, barely staying on his feet I saw a leaf tangled in the man’s dark hair and suspected that if I was closer, I’d smell cheap whiskey.

I didn’t say anything; I stared down at the saddle horn. Fafnir snorted.


“Never mind, Jordy.” There was ice in his voice. “Shit. And it ain’t even noon yet.”

I watched Trey’s daddy yank open the screen door to the Quadlander house and totter inside.

Sitting on the horse made me feel bold. “Why does Mr. Quadlander put up with it, Trey? Why do you?”

He might have punched any of his other friends for such bluntness, but instead he looked up into my eyes and then quickly averted them. “Hart’s a good man. And Daddy only gets drunk some of the time, it ain’t always.”

I remembered when Mama’s uncle Buell drank too much at Christmas a few years back and then was gone from town for a while. Sister and I’d finally found out he’d gone to a rehab place in Bryan, where he quickly dried out and found a new addiction to Jesus. Well, better that than whiskey. Sober and sanctimonious was preferable to drunk and disorderly.

“Trey, listen to me for a minute. There are places your daddy could go, help he could get-”

“Get off the horse, Jordy, I got to go tend to Daddy.” He stared at the house.


“Look. I know you mean well. I do. But this is my problem. It ain’t yours.” His bottom lip vanished into his mouth and his face couldn’t hide the anguish. “Please.”

I swung down from Fafnir. “I’m sorry. I just want to help you.”

“I don’t need your help, Jordy. Go back to your perfect father and let me tend to mine.” He took Faf’s reins from my hands. “Why-why don’t you just wait out here? I’ll get Faf situated and I’ll call your folks to come pick you up.”

“I could help you with your daddy,” I said softly. “I could brew him some coffee. I remember when Uncle Buell-”

“I don’t want your help!” he screamed at me, and Fafnir whinnied, eyes rolling in panic at the noise. The horse’s reaction brought Trey back. “Please. I can take care of my own problems. I don’t need anybody’s help. Just wait out here.”

“All right.” I turned toward the oaks and creek. I wondered how many bottles of whiskey Louis Slocum had emptied, sitting between the gnarled roots of the trees. Then I heard the gunshots.

I whirled around. The world shimmered with unreal light. The farm was gone. The grass was gone. Fafnir was gone. There was only Trey, a grown man, dying, lying with three wounds in his back, staring helplessly at me through a mask of blood.

I snapped awake in bed, the gasp of horror caught in my throat. Dim moonlight silvered my bedroom. Long, shuddering breaths emptied my chest. The November chill pressed against the window and I felt the uncomfortable dampness of sweat cooling the sheets. I pushed the bedclothes away and pulled on a robe. I sat by my window and stared out at the crescent moon, hanging like a cut nail above the fingers of the trees. The clouds had scudded away, to take rain and darkness south toward Victoria and Corpus Christi.

I put my face in my hands. The dream had been eerie in its exactness, more like a half-waking memory than some Jungian exercise in symbolism. Why on earth would I remember that incident now? It had teen the first real time I’d gone horseback riding, the first of many happy hours riding with Trey. It’d also been the first time Trey’d spoken openly of his father’s drinking. The drinking that had finally put Louis Slocum in his grave five years ago, nearly a year to the day that Trey walked out of all of our lives.

I thought over the dream again, smiling faintly at the memory of Fafnir’s bite and Trey’s gentle coaxing of the horse. What had happened to that boy? Why had he turned into such an irredeemable loser?

I glanced at the clock-nearly three a.m. I thought of creeping down the hall, waking Candace, telling her about my dream, but I didn’t think she’d understand. Besides, what was there to say?

Finally I crawled back into my bed, pulling the sheets around me. They made a thin cocoon against the night.

I slept late, and when I came down, I found Candace and Clo sitting and drinking coffee at the kitchen table. Mama sat in the living room, watching the morning news chatter with the sound turned low, the way she liked it.

I stood for a moment, watching her and feeling a ridiculous resentment. Here was our family: grieving, nearly paralyzed by the past two days, and she sailed through the rooms of our house with nary a thought for the rest of us, for our bereavement. Life went on for her in its never-ending cycle of forgetfulness, and for one brief moment I resented the hell out of her. Then I envied her. Then shame welled up in me and I went over and kissed her cheek. She smiled faintly at me, like a queen to a footman for a simple service performed well, and her gaze went back to the television.

“Good morning, Clo. Hi, sugar.” I leaned down and pecked Candace on the lips. “Sorry if I have morning breath.”

“You do, but that’s okay. Clo’s coffee is very strong and should wash away even Jordan Poteet industrial-strength fumes.” I permitted myself a smile as she teased me. “How you doing this morning? Did you sleep okay?”

“I’m fine,” I said. I wondered if that answer was starting to sound like a litany. “Are Sister and Mark still asleep?”

“No. Arlene decided to follow your advice. She called Steven Teague this morning, and he offered to make a special appointment for Mark. They’re at his office now.”

“That’s good.” I poured myself some coffee. Maybe today would be better than yesterday. It had to be.

Candace pursed her lips and glanced over at Clo, who was sitting as silently as a sphinx. “Actually, I talked to Mr. Teague after Arlene called him. He suggested to me that maybe the whole family should attend counseling.”

I froze. The last thing I wanted was to divulge my feelings about Clevey and Trey’s deaths to some sympathetic social worker with a bunch of consonants behind his name. But if it would help Mark… “I’ll consider it. It would probably be helpful for Mark and Sister.”

“Okay,” she said softly. I could feel her watchful gaze on my back. Then she shifted the subject. “I’m not opening the cafe today. It didn’t seem appropriate. Mirabeau can survive a day without Arlene’s chicken-fried steak.”

I began to sip coffee without further comment. Today was Sunday, and the library would be closed. My Dallas Cowboys would be playing; I could take refuge in the game. I glanced at Candace. She still favored me with that I’m-worried-about-you-and-don’t-you-pretend-you-don’t-know-it look, piercing me like a needle. If I stared unflinchingly at the screen for every second of all four quarters (including time-outs and beer commercials) it would drive her nuts and she’d leave me alone. Maybe Mark would have lost interest in playing games he’d shunned for nine years and want to watch the Cowboys with me. We’d cheer Troy, yell for Emmitt, call for Moose, and applaud Bill Bates. We’d pretend we had normal lives, for just a while.

Unfortunately the game wasn’t on till midafternoon. Clo and Candace watched me. I began to read the Austin American-Statesman sports section with extreme concentration.

It didn’t work.

“Truda Shivers called early this morning,” Candace said, ignoring that I was obviously reading an article of great importance. “She wanted to know what the funeral plans were for Trey. She suggested that since Trey and Clevey had so many of the same friends, that we might consider a double funeral. At St.-George’s-on-the-River.”

I set down my cup on the paper. I couldn’t hide. I shouldn’t hide. “What about Nola? She might have plans for his funeral.”

“We don’t even know how long he and Nola have been together,” Candace said. “I think that Mark has more of a right to plan his father’s funeral than Nola Kinnard does.”

The doorbell rang. I hurried to answer it. I found Hart Quadlander and Scott Kinnard together on my porch.

Scott looked much better than the last time I’d seen him, fetally huddled on the rain-soaked porch of the house Trey died in. He wore faded jeans, sneakers, and a threadbare plaid shirt that needed mending. A ragged knapsack hung over one bony shoulder. His brown hair was neatly combed, but redness rimmed his hazel eyes. He looked tired.

Hart stood behind him, ill at ease. He was nattily dressed in a dark jacket, jeans, and a stiff white button-down shirt, looking every inch the gentleman rancher. Hart I’d expected to see; he was a friend of Trey’s. Scott I hadn’t. Considering how his mother had been railing against Sister in the police station, I wouldn’t have thought she’d permit her son within ten feet of our house.

“Hi, Scott. How are you doing?” I felt a sharp pang of regret. I’d promised myself I’d check on Scott after I took care of Mark. I hadn’t. Nola’s ranting voice in the police station hadn’t made me feel like I could call up her kid and see how he was. But I shouldn’t have ignored Scott because his mother was a nutcase.

He shrugged. “I guess okay. I haven’t slept real well since Trey died.” He glanced up at Hart Quadlander. “I-I told Mom I wanted to go out and see the horse farm, but I really wanted Mr. Quadlander to bring me over here. Can I talk to you a minute?”

“Uh, sure,” I said, opening the door. “Hart, would you like some coffee? Or pie? We’re about knee-deep in pies and casseroles. Scott, can I get you something?”

“No.” Scott looked at the tables full of food. He blinked solemnly at me. “Y’all must have a lot of friends. Only one lady brought any food to our house, and it wasn’t very good. Tuna casserole.”

My heart felt like a stone. Even if Nola and her son were strangers in town, Mirabeau should have reached out. We hadn’t. “Well, would you like something to eat?”

He shook his head. “I’m not hungry, thank you.”

Hart’s eyes met mine. “Scott has something to give you, Jordy.”

“Maybe we could talk in private?” Scott asked.

I nodded and ushered him toward the back of the house. I meant to introduce him to Clo and Candace, but he walked straight past them with such singular purpose that I just followed him.

The air on the back porch felt cool and fresh, as though the long days of rain had scrubbed it clean. I treated myself to a deep, cleansing breath.

“This is a nice house,” he said. “I miss having a regular house. Mom and I tend not to stay in one place long.”

It struck me then that Scott seemed more like a shrunken adult than a growing boy. His eyes took in the details of our home with a mature detachment as opposed to youthful enthusiasm. Maybe all the zest was gone from Scott right now. I remembered how I’d seen him crying to break your heart and I’d done nothing. Would he have let me help him? I watched Scott, sensing he felt uncertain of how to begin now that we were alone.

“I take it y’all traveled around to the rodeos.” I gestured toward a white wicker chair and he sat nervously on the edge of the cushion.

“Yeah, sometimes. We got to see a lot of places, mostly Texas and Louisiana and Oklahoma. Sometimes Mississippi. Sometimes I go with her, sometimes not.”

“Where do you stay if you’re not traveling with her?”

“Wherever she dumps me.” His eyes didn’t hold bitterness about the statement. “Until Trey came along. He made mom take me with them.” He glanced around. “Your, uh, sister, she’s not here, is she?”

“No, she’s not. She and my nephew are out.”

“Well, okay. Mr. Quadlander said her car wasn’t in the driveway, so I thought maybe it’d be okay if you and I talked.” He fished in his knapsack. “I found these. Actually, Trey showed them to me a while back. I don’t have no use for them, so I figured y’all would want them back.”

He handed me a stack of photos. I started sorting through them, my mouth feeling dry. A wedding photo of Trey and Sister, both of their faces aglow with the expectation of a life to be lived together. Sister looked beautiful and happy. Pictures of Mark, at least ten of them, in various stages of childhood: crawling, toothless-grinned baby; waddling toddler; graceful boy smiling into the sunshine, shading his face with the flat of one hand, a baseball mitt on the other. An old photo of Sister, Trey, and Mark together, when Mark was barely a year old. The pictures were worn with handling.

The final two photos were surprises. A picture of Mama and Trey, from some vaguely remembered Fourth of July family celebration, Mama caught unawares by Trey and smiling broadly into the lens, Trey hugging her close. I recalled, suddenly, vividly, taking this picture myself. As I’d lowered the lens Trey had kissed Mama loudly on the cheek, saying, “You just got to share her with me, Plum, since I don’t got a mama of m’own.” He and Sister were newlyweds then and Trey was drunk with the joy of having a family that consisted of more than an inebriated father. I remembered the blush that had crept up Mama’s cheek at his words and the nearly solemn way she’d hugged him.

The final photo was of me. It was a picture made when I’d come home from Houston during college. I stared at the photo for a long minute. It showed me drinking a beer in the backyard, Daddy in the distance, coaxing flame from a grill. I looked heavier from a diet of college food and cold beer, and I looked irritated, as though I couldn’t be bothered having my picture taken. I remembered Trey’s words as he took the photo: “Smile like you’ve gotten smart at school, Plum.” My grin, solely for the camera, looked forced and blank. Trey and Sister were married by then, and I was going to prestigious Rice and never coming to live in Mirabeau again. My snotty attitude showed clearly on my face.

That was what he had to remember me by. I turned the photo over, OUR SCOLER PLUM was written in Trey’s close scrawl, in faded black ink. Never could spell cat to save his life.

I felt a tinge of nausea and stood.

“Thanks, Scott, thanks for bringing these by. It was thoughtful of you.”

“I don’t have no use for them,” he said quietly.

“Scott.” I waited till his eyes met mine. “I want you to tell me why Trey came home.”

He stared at the weathered boards of the porch.

“Scott, did you hear me?”

“He came home to get better. Okay? I don’t know anything else!” He got up, a flurry of activity.

“What do you mean, anything else? What else is there to know?”

“Look, Mr. Poteet, I brought you the pictures. Okay? I didn’t have to do that! I don’t want to be involved in whatever’s going on here.” He glanced at me over a shoulder and I could see he was close to tears. “I can’t do nothin’ to help Trey now. I wish I could, but I can’t. Mom and I are leaving soon. I just wanna forget we ever came to this stupid town.”

“Do you know something, Scott? Because if you do, you better tell the police right away.” Practice what you preach, I scolded myself again, thinking of the fabric safely tucked away upstairs.

“Yeah, right.” Scott huffed. “My mom says the police chief dates your sister. And my mom thinks your sister killed Trey.”

“I’m sure your mother must be very upset. I could tell she cared about Trey-”

“She loved him, okay? He was good to us, never hit her, never hit me. He acted nice.” He wiped burgeoning tears away with his sleeve.

I guided him to a chair and made him sit. I went back to the screen door. “Candace, could you do me a favor? Could you get a glass of milk and a piece of that pecan pie for Scott?” She hollered back her assent and I went and sat down again with Scott.

“I don’t want no pie.” He sniffed.

“It’ll do you good. Unless you’re diabetic. Eula Mae’s pies require an insulin chaser.”

He managed a vague smile.

“Where are y’all staying at, Scott?” I couldn’t imagine they were still staying at Nola’s uncle’s house, with its pervading air of death.

“Well, last night we stayed at this neighbor lady’s place. But she’s got a ton of cats and it makes Mom sneeze. So we’re moving this afternoon out to Mr. Quadlander’s farm. Soon as the police let him, Uncle Dwight’s moving back to the house. He said he don’t care ’bout no one getting shot, it’s his house. Mom and I’ll probably head back to Beaumont.” Scott glanced through the window at Hart Quadlander, deep in conversation with Clo. “Mom likes Mr. Quadlander. He’s a nice man.”

“Yes, he is. You know, Trey and I used to ride horses out at that farm when we were about your age. Trey taught me to ride.”

He looked at me grieving. “He was gonna teach me. When it got warmer. He never explained how he was gonna do that from a wheelchair, though.”

“I’m sure he would have found a way.”

Candace brought out a generous slice of pecan pie and a tall glass of milk and set it on the end table by Scott. I introduced them and Candace shook hands with Scott rather gravely. She sat down, giving me a cautious glance.

Scott ate his pie in steady bites without talking. I filled the silence with nervous chatter, explaining to Scott that Candace owned the Sit-a-Spell Cafe and telling Candace that Scott was staying at Hart’s farm.

“That’s good,” Scott said around a final mouthful of sugar, crust, and sticky, nutty filling. “My mom isn’t much for baking stuff like pie. ’Less it comes out of the freezer.”

“Nothing like homemade pie. We’ll give you some to take home, Scott.” Candace patted his leg.

Scott’s hazel eyes widened. “Oh, no, Mom doesn’t know I’m here. She’d kill me.”

“That was a nice gesture, bringing us those pictures.” I glanced at Candace. “I’m sure your mom won’t be mad at you.”

He ignored the napkin Candace had brought with the pie and dragged the back of his hand across his mouth. The crumbs on his plate seemed to hold undue fascination for him. I glanced again at Candace. She touched his shoulder gently. “Hon, is there anything else you want to tell us?”

Men have always responded to Candace. Beauty can drive men to distraction, but real kindness will snare them every time, especially if life hasn’t always been kind. Combine them like Candace does and the mixture is potent. There’s a quality in her voice, a commanding trust, that you can’t help but answer. Unless you’re just plain stubborn.

Scott wasn’t a mulish kid. He looked up at her like his heart was breaking. “My mom…”

“You don’t think your mom had anything to do with Trey’s murder?” I blurted, and Candace shot me a look that ricocheted from between my eyes. I shut my mouth. God, how could I have suggested that to a kid?

“Oh, no. Mom wouldn’t hurt anyone. And she loved Trey.”

I wanted to point out that love and hurt were not mutually exclusive states, but another pointed glance from Candace stilled my tongue.

“It’s just that… Mom’s real sure that your sister killed Trey. And if she thinks I’m suggesting different, she’d be pissed at me.”

“Scott, I’m sure your mama wants the killer brought to justice, regardless of who it is,” Candace said softly. “I’m sure she wouldn’t want Arlene to be charged if she was innocent.”

“I guess.” Scott didn’t sound very convinced. He seemed to be holding something barely in check, his eyes flickering between Candace and me, gauging us on a scale of trust.

I kept my mouth shut. Silence seemed to compel Scott to speak.

“It’s just that, what with that other fellow dying, and he came over to the house not long after we got to town-”

“Clevey? Clevey was at y’all’s house?” I interrupted. A sharp pinch on my knee (not from Scott) silenced me again.

“Let Scott tell his story, Jordan, please,” Candace said.

“We got in Thursday morning. Trey made a couple of phone calls. And this other guy, Clevey Shivers, comes over to the house. Red-haired, loud, funny. He smelled like beer, though. Even in the morning.

“He and Trey went into the bedroom to talk, and Mom and Uncle Dwight went to go run errands. I was watching TV, but Uncle Dwight’s got crappy reception. So I went back to my room to read comic books and I could hear them arguing.”

“Arguing?” I leaned closer.

I could see Scott steeling himself. “I heard Mr. Shivers-Clevey-telling Trey he was years late. Laughing at Trey, saying he’d”-Scott wrinkled his brow in memory-“missed the gravy train. Trey told him to shut up. Clevey laughed some more. Trey said they weren’t going to talk about what they’d seen. Trey told him what was past was past, he wasn’t interested no more. And Clevey said-Clevey said that Trey better keep out of his way. Said the gravy train might go slow on the bend and he could climb on.” He paused and rubbed his eyes. “Isn’t Gravy Train like a dog food?”

Candace and I exchanged looks above the boy’s head.

Once the story started, Scott didn’t seem to need further prompting. “I got scared. Clevey kind of said the last part real mean like. But Trey yelled back at him, saying that Clevey was nothin’ but a cheap con artist and a crook. Trey told him to get out and Clevey told him to think about it some more, once Trey got some more of them medical bills he’d be begging Clevey for help.” Scott licked his lips, his voice deepening in imitation. “Then Clevey said, ‘You do anything to fuck this up, Slocum, and you’ll be in worse shape than you are now. Revenge is sweet if you give it half a chance.’ Trey didn’t say anything and Clevey left. The house shook when he slammed the door.

“I just lay on my bed. I’d figured they thought I’d gone to the store with Mom and Uncle Dwight, so I didn’t even move. I heard Trey wheeling himself around in the bedroom, talking to himself. It sounds stupid, but I crawled out the window and made a lot of noise coming back in the house. I didn’t want him to know I’d heard.”

“Why?” Candace asked.

“I don’t know. I didn’t like the way that Clevey fellow talked to him, it was scary. One minute sounding mean, like he’d just as soon spit in your face, the next minute sounding like he was your best friend ever.

“If someone had told me Trey’d be murdered in a couple of days, I’d have said for sure that Clevey would have been the one to do it. But he couldn’t have. He was already dead himself.” Scott shook his head. “I don’t like this place. I don’t know why Trey wanted to come back here.”


“This is an unholy mess.” Hart Quadlander shook his head at me. Candace had taken Scott in, finally plying him with an offer of a more substantial lunch, and Hart had lit a cigarette. I saw his fingers tremble slightly, the smoke swirling around his hand.

“Trey’s death has you unsettled, doesn’t it?” I asked him.

“More than you’ll know,” Hart answered. I liked him; he was one of the last remaining icons of Southern gentility to be found in Mirabeau. He was tall, striking, dark, gray-streaked haired, gray-eyed, with a textured deep drawl that should have done public readings of the works of Padgett Powell or Larry McMurtry. Being the last of the Quadlanders counted for a lot in Mirabeau, and Hart wore his position like a mantle.

“It was hard on me,” Hart said, halfway to himself, “when Trey left town. I’d grown real fond of him over the years. And of course, it just killed his daddy. Louis had always had a drinking problem, but it just got worse when Trey left. I reckon we can be thankful Louis ain’t here to see what became of his boy.”

“Trey sent my sister money,” I said.

Hart digested this news, drawing on his cigarette and breathing out a plume of smoke. “I hate to say this, Jordy, but the town gossips have Arlene pegged as the prime suspect. None of us can ignore her belting Trey at Truda’s house. It’s not helping her that Junebug pulled himself off the case.”

“You don’t think that, do you?” My stomach sank. Hart Quadlander was highly respected in Mirabeau. His opinion could influence others.

“I don’t believe in assessing guilt before you got all the facts. Maybe someone else had a reason to kill Trey.” He stubbed out his cigarette in the ceramic ashtray we kept out on the porch for our smoking guests and looked at me. “Frankly, Jordy, I can’t think of a soul other than Arlene with a motive. He’d been out of town for a long while.”

“What about when he left town? Can you remember anything that happened then? Maybe he got killed ’cause he came home.” Over the years Hart and I had wondered about Trey’s reasons for leaving; but I had to ask.

He shook his head. “He was here one day, gone the next. He must have been planning to run out on Arlene and Mark and his father. After all, he took those pictures that Scott found.”

The pictures bothered me; they suggested a man who still cherished his family, not an abandonee. And something niggled at my mind regarding those pictures. “You sure you can’t think of anything?”

Hart shook his head and lit another cigarette. “Son, I’ve gone over that time again and again. Louis was still drinking a little too much, but he was trying to stay off the juice. ’Course, when Trey left he started boozing all over again. Drank himself to death over that boy.”

I still stung from the intimation against my sister. “So where were you when Trey died?”

Hart shrugged and didn’t seem offended by the bluntness of my question. “Saturday morning I was over in Fayette County, at the Running Creek Horse Farm. Looking at some ponies to buy. I didn’t hear about Trey’s murder till I got home that afternoon at three.”

“Did Trey tell you why he showed up in town again?”

“God, no.” Hart rubbed his chin, a half smile on his face. “And that just about shocked the bejesus out of me. I never expected to see that boy’s face again. He showed up at the horse farm with young Scott and that Nola gal. Asked to talk to me alone.” He shrugged, “I was awful glad to see him. I don’t know if I would have felt that way a few years back. I blamed him too much for pushing Louis back to the bottle.”

“Louis poured out his own death,” I snapped, perhaps a bit more bluntly than I should’ve. Louis Slocum had never been any good; he’d been a sorry father to Trey. Louis made his own choices in life. Not confronting his alcoholism was one of them. (Yes, I know it’s a disease. A treatable one.)

“That’s easy for you to say now, Jordan,” Hart said with heat in his voice. “You didn’t have to see your best friend drink himself into a grave.”

I didn’t answer. “Trey gave you no reason for why he’d left six years ago?”

Hart rubbed his forehead with his fingertips. “None. And he offered no apologies. He told me that he wanted to see Arlene and Mark again. That he was tired of being away from home. That the accident had-had changed his viewpoint on many things. On people that he’d cared about.”

“Too little too late,” I murmured to myself. Not only for those he’d left behind, but for himself.

“He was awful sickly looking,” Hart said. “I wondered if he’d been honest with me about how bad his injuries were. Maybe he came home to die.” And I saw the horror dawn on Hart’s face as he realized the double meaning of his words.

I shook my head. “Did he mention Clevey Shivers?”

Hart stared out at the rain for a moment, then stubbed out his cigarette. “No. He didn’t mention any of his old friends. I don’t think I told him you were back in town.”

I told Hart about the 2 DOWN scrawled in blood on Trey’s wall. “I hope no one intends to add to that score.”

The story obviously jolted Hart; his jaw worked as though he were chewing unfamiliar, bitter food. “I-I don’t understand. Who’d want them both dead?”

Candace appeared in the porch door. “Um, Jordy? Arlene and Mark are home now. You want to come in?” It was more of a demand than a request, and I suddenly remembered Scott Kinnard’s possibly disruptive presence in the house. I hurried in, followed by Hart.

Silence reigned in the kitchen. Sister and Mark stood near the refrigerator, ill at ease in their own home. I was surprised to see Steven Teague hovering behind Mark. Scott was halfway through a hearty plate of roast beef, broccoli-rice casserole, copper-penny carrots, and rolls. Mama sat next to him, quiet as a mouse. Candaee was in the middle, a forced smile on her face. Wanda, Eula Mae, and Bradley stood together on the other side of the kitchen. Mark and Scott stared at each other.

“Uh, hi, Sister, Mark.” I gestured toward our young guest. “This is Scott Kinnard. Trey was staying with Scott and his mother. Scott, this is my sister, Arlene, and her son, Mark.”

Scott had the wide eyes of a trapped rabbit. Sister pursed her lips and stepped forward, offering her hand.

“Hello, Scott. It’s nice to meet you.” Sister could be a spitting hellion at times, but Mama didn’t raise her to be rude to folks. I, however, was fair game.

“Jordan, may I speak privately to you?” she asked.

Explanations were in order. “Scott brought us some pictures, Sister. Pictures that Trey took with him before he left town. Scott thoughtfully returned them to us.”

Sister’s face softened slightly as she glanced back toward Scott. “Well, I’m sure that was very nice of him. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, ma’am.” Scott, emboldened by her kindness, looked to Mark again. “Hi, Mark. I’m glad to finally meet you. Your dad talked a lot about you.”

“Why would he do that?” Mark’s voice sounded wooden.

Scott coughed, fumbling for words. “I don’t-well, he always said he was real proud of you.”

“Proud of me? That’s a joke! How could he be proud of me? He wasn’t here for me! He didn’t even know me!” Mark stumbled back, stepping on Steven Teague’s immaculately loafered foot.

Scott looked helplessly at me, confusion on his face.

“Course he knew what you did. It was in his letters.” He blinked at our blank stares. “Trey used to get letters from Mirabeau from some lady named Anne. He didn’t tell me who she was. They stopped about two years ago.”

Scott glanced from Mark to me; but my gaze, along with everyone else’s in the room, went to my mother. She was tunelessly humming and drawing pictures with a fork on the canvas of her mashed potatoes. Suddenly aware that she was the focus of attention, she smiled brightly at us.

“If Mama wrote him, he must’ve written her. If he was moving around like Scott said, he would have to tell her where she could reach him.” Sister fumed as she paced up and down the back porch. “Mama never threw a thing away in her life. Ever. We’re gonna find those letters. We’re going to tear the house down if we have to.”

“I can easily see Mama destroying any letters Trey wrote her,” I interjected. “She might not have wanted you to see them.”

“How could she? How could she carry on a correspondence with the man that deserted me and my child?”

“Look, we don’t even know why he left town.”

“Of course we do! He was a coward, Jordy! He was tired of the responsibility of a wife and a child.”

“All of a sudden, without warning? Why would he do that?”

Sister’s eyes narrowed. “That woman. Nola Kinnard. Maybe he was seeing her on the sly. She used to spend her summers here as a kid, Hart says. She’s got family here. Maybe he met her when she was visiting them. They had an affair and he left me for her.”

“Then why would he write Mama? Why would she write him back?”

She shook her head. “Maybe Scott’s lying.”

“Why would he?”

“Well, he brought back those pictures. Why doesn’t he produce these so-called letters?”

“I asked him. He said he doesn’t know where they are. Maybe Trey didn’t keep them.”

“God!” Sister collapsed in a wicker chair, her hands balled into fists. “I don’t know anything anymore. Goddamn him.” She looked up at me, her face pale, the blackened eye like a smudge of ash that her tears couldn’t rinse away. “I can’t take this, Jordy. This is killing me. I always was strong. I had to be, for Mark. And then I had to be for Mama. I just don’t think I’m strong enough for this.”

I knelt by her and took her in my arms. She tucked her head under my neck. With her face still pressed against my shoulder, she performed a typical Sisterism and changed the subject from one unpleasant to her to one unpleasant to me. “I asked Steven Teague to come talk with you after his session with Mark. I think it would be useful for our whole family to have some counseling.”

“Well.” I didn’t know what to say. “I guess my first question for our family session is how’d you get that black eye, Sister.”

She jerked back from me. “I told you. I ran into a tree.”

“Sister.” I said it softly and I saw her lip tremble. “Don’t lie to me. If you’d hit a tree, the bark would have left abrasions or cuts. Now, who hit you?”

“No one.”

“Why on earth are you protecting him? Or her?” A thought dawned. “Was it Trey? Did he hit you, and you don’t want anyone to know because it might make you even more of a suspect?” I could see the scenario unfold: Sister and Trey arguing at his house, he grabs and belts her (he could still do that from his wheelchair), she runs, tearing her pants on that stray nail on the stairs.

“Trey didn’t hit me. No one hit me.”

“I don’t believe you, Arlene.”

“I don’t care what you believe, Jordan.” It was serious business if we’d stooped to Christian names. Her voice was as icy as a frosted pane of glass in the dead of winter. “Now, will you come to family counseling?”

“Maybe. Maybe not.” I turned away from her. She got up and went back inside. After a moment I followed her.

“What’s your prognosis on my nephew?” I asked Steven. We’d offered him some lunch and he and I’d taken it out on the porch to talk in privacy. I stuck a tender piece of pot roast in my mouth and watched Mark showing Scott his favorite pecan tree to climb. I couldn’t hear what the boys said to each other in their hushed tones. Maybe Scott was telling Mark what-all Mama had written about Mark in those six empty years.

“He’s a smart kid. But he’s been through hell,” Steven said, buttering a roll and balancing the plate on his lap. “Mark would like to pretend that his father never died in front of him. That it just didn’t happen.”

The meat was tasteless in my mouth. “Can you help him, Steven?”

He paused, chewing. He took a long sip of iced tea before answering. “Yes, with time. Your sister’s done a great job of raising him, but he has a lot of unresolved issues with his father’s leaving him.” He patted at his mouth with a napkin. “Your sister suggested that your whole family attend some of the sessions. I think it might be productive. I understand you were once very close to Trey-”

“I was. Once. We were no longer friends when he came back.” I put my plate aside; my appetite had deserted me.

“Yes, so Arlene said. My plan is to have several individual sessions with Mark; we need to get him a certain stage past the trauma of his father’s death before we tackle the other-”

He didn’t get to finish. Junebug came out onto the porch, exhausted and a little peeved.

“Hello, Jordy. Well, Mr. Teague, you certainly turn up in the most unusual places.” His voice sounded tired and he sat heavily in one of the porch chairs.

“Excuse me, Chief?”

“I finished reading the case file on Clevey you had to turn over,” Junebug said, “and I’ve got a number of questions to ask you. Do you mind coming down to the station with me?”

Steven pointed at his heaping plate. “May I have my lunch first, Chief?”

“Lunch. What a concept,” Junebug muttered, eyeing the meat, gravy, and vegetables.

I’m not so dense I don’t know a plea for an invite. “Junebug, we’ve got plenty. Why don’t you and Steven have a bite and y’all can talk here if you like? Go on and get a plate.” I stood. “I’ll leave y’all alone and I’ll make sure no one bothers you.”

“Thanks, Jordy. Would you mind fixing me a plate?” Junebug asked. “Your sister’s wearin’ war paint instead of makeup, as far as I’m concerned. She didn’t look too happy to see me.”

“Give her time. She’ll cool off.” I went back inside, where I found Eula Mae, Sister, and Candace all speaking in hushed tones in the kitchen. I silently took a plate from the cabinet and began ladling food onto it.

“Second helpings for you?” Sister asked archly.

“No, for your boyfriend. I invited him to lunch. He and Steven need to have a little privacy out on the porch to talk about Clevey’s case.”

“Some boyfriend he is, supposing I could’ve killed Trey.”

“He had to take himself off the case because he believes you’re innocent. Don’t you see that? He couldn’t be impartial in his investigation.”

Sister made a noise that indicated logical arguments were not welcome. I didn’t respond. Nabbing a glass of iced tea, I took Junebug his food. He thanked me and dove heartily in.

“Y’all help yourselves if you want more.” I left them alone on the porch.

Solitude sounded good to me. I avoided any further skirmishes with the female contingent and went up to my room. I lay down on my bed and tried to nap, but the image of Trey, collapsing, dying, staring into his son’s face with the final glimmer of life, kept me awake. And the air felt dense in my lungs, the room having been shut so tightly during all the recent rain.

I went to my bedroom window, which faced out onto the backyard. Scott and Mark had either gone ’round to the front or gone inside. I tugged the window open, hoping for a little fresh air.

“-and I resent this, Chief Moncrief.” Steven’s voice was tight with anger. ’I’ve given you my case file. You’ve read it. I really don’t want to be grilled about my therapy with Clevey.”

“I read it, but I don’t understand half of your mumbo jumbo. And you don’t have a choice, Mr. Teague. You’re not a psychiatrist. You’re not under the same legal obligation to confidentiality. Your lawyer’s already advised you to cooperate fully with me; I suggest you heed his advice.” Junebug’s voice, fainter than Steven’s, floated up to me past the back-porch roof. I saw a bluish puff of smoke from Steven’s pipe drift up from the porch steps.

Shut the window, I told myself, but I didn’t. Curiosity won out over good manners. So much for my Southern-gentleman merit badge. I leaned down slightly from the window.

Junebug muttered something I couldn’t catch. Another miniature cloud of pipe smoke wafted from the porch as Steven didn’t answer.

Junebug spoke again: “He was murdered. He was my friend. I’d like to think that if he’d had a problem, he would come to his friends. I know you want to find who killed him, Steven. Please don’t help this killer get away.”

There was a long, thoughtful silence, then Steven’s unaccented, polished voice: “I’ve never discussed a patient’s therapy before. Never.”

“You’ve never had a patient murdered, I assume.”

“No, I haven’t,” Steven answered. There was another pause and then he spoke, his voice sounding resigned and not a little bitter: “Have you ever read Steinbeck, Chief Moncrief? East of Eden, in particular?”

“No, but I saw the movie-with James Dean, right? About the perfect son and the bad son.”

“Clevey was both. He wanted to be good, someone liked and respected. He envied you, he envied Davis, his other friends that he saw as successful. But he enjoyed… being bad, for lack of a better term. He thought there was a certain glamour in breaking the rules. But he was driven to make up for bad actions by doing good. He was like a moral pendulum, swinging from anger and bitterness to piety and kindliness, back and forth. It made him a very unhappy man.”

I heard Junebug’s distinctive snort. “I don’t know who you’re talking about, but it certainly wasn’t Clevey.”

“Wasn’t it? Didn’t you ever see him be cruel to someone, then be desperate to make amends? Again, and again, and again?”

That phrasing put a different spin on it. Clevey, torturing Ed with truly mean-spirited teasing and the next moment being Ed’s best friend, apologizing and treating him to lunch. Raking Junebug over the coals in the newspaper for a flubbed case, then rallying support around him out of friendship. I’d noticed it always in him, but perhaps I’d dismissed it as a quirk of personality. I’d grown up with him. I thought I knew him.

Steven continued: “Chief, I tried to help Clevey see the value of moderation in his judgments. Realizing that if he made one good judgment, that didn’t give him permission to make a bad one. And if he made a bad choice, did something he regretted, he needed to let go of it and move on with his life. Clevey was eternally making amends because he was eternally doing something wrong.”

“Wrong? Like he was committing a crime?” Junebug demanded.

A pause ensued, and I could imagine Steven sucking at his pipe. “Of course not. At least he didn’t confess to me. Clevey was a manipulator-but he specialized in manipulating himself. He was his own worst victim. He made himself miserable.” He paused again. I glanced around, wondering if any of my neighbors would wonder why I was sticking my head out the window for so long. “I think he would have been much happier if he’d just tried to be a saint or a total son of a bitch. But not both.”

“Do you think you helped him?” Junebug said. I would’ve asked that myself-I didn’t like the thought of Clevey dying a tortured soul, always doing wrong and forever trying to make up for it. Assuming that Steven’s portrayal was correct. I knew of no reason for him to lie.

“I don’t know. Maybe if I had, he wouldn’t have died. He wouldn’t have hurt someone so much they killed him.”

“This swinging back and forth between good and evil,” Junebug said. “How did it manifest itself? What was he doing?”

“I don’t know.”

“I think you must know, Steven. How else did you arrive at this diagnosis?”

The wind whipped through the dripping trees. I heard the tap of Steven’s pipe against the rail of the porch. “I think,” he said slowly, “that this conversation is over. I still respect my client’s memory, even if you don’t. And I’m not going to answer any more questions without my lawyer present. Good day, Chief.” I heard the back door shut and Junebug cuss softly, then go inside. I pulled the window closed, the air smelling like waiting rain. And I went downstairs to tell Junebug about the argument between Clevey and Trey that Scott had overheard.

That afternoon, we completed Trey’s funeral arrangements. Mark and Sister agreed with Truda Shiva’s that a double funeral for Clevey and Trey would be appropriate. Hart said he would speak to Nola; he thought she would agree. Sister told Hart to tell Nola she could pick out the burial suit; we would select the coffin. Hart left with Scott. Sister excused herself and I could hear her up in Mama’s room, opening and slamming drawers. Looking for letters. I didn’t join in her search. I watched Mama’s serene face as she watched the beginnings of another rainstorm patter on the grassy yard and wondered how she could have truly exchanged letters with Trey. Why would she? And why wouldn’t she have told Sister?

A thought made my mouth go dry. What if she had told Sister? The only one who could say that Mama definitely hadn’t told Sister was Mama herself, and she was in no condition to remember. What if Sister had known all along where Trey was? What he was doing, where he was living? She said she didn’t know-but was she being entirely honest?

That didn’t make sense. What reason would she have for pretending now that she hadn’t known? I couldn’t think of one; but then, I couldn’t think of a reason for her to have that shiner.

Sister found nothing in her search. Candace ran home for a while, and Clo left to tend to her own family. Mark and I desultorily watched part of the Cowboys game. They stomped their opponents, taking away any distraction for us. Junebug, who’d gone back to the station after Steven bolted, called to tell me that they hadn’t made much progress on the case. He sounded tired. He didn’t ask to speak to Sister, but he asked me how she and Mark were doing.

“They’re fine, Junebug. And how are you?”

“I wish everyone would quit worrying so damn much about me. I’m perfectly all right, just tired. Hey, I found some old pictures last night in my daddy’s scrapbook,” Junebug said. His father (the same SOB who’d christened his son with an insectoid nickname) had fancied himself a photographer and endlessly annoyed you at any social gathering by sticking a lens down your gullet. “There’s a couple of real funny photos of you and Trey. Remember at Ed’s twenty-first birthday party, we all got tight and nearly decapitated each other swinging at that stupid pinata his mama got him?”

I remembered. I’d nailed Trey in the shoulder. Blindfolded with a soft cotton bandanna and with a six-pack in me, he was lucky I hadn’t brained him. He’d wrested the stick from me and swatted me hard on the ass. We’d gotten into a wrestling match that ended when Davis finally whacked the pinata and the damn thing dumped pounds of candy on us. Try to keep fighting when a bunch of squealing, pretty girls fall on you, grabbing sweets out of your hair and face.

“Oh, and one of you and Clevey and Trey when you went fishing with Daddy and me on Lake Bonaparte. You didn’t catch squat. You ought to see all the fish on Trey’s line. Man, that boy could fish. You never had the patience for it, Jordy.”

I didn’t want to remember. “I gotta go. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

I hung up. I saw Candace look up from a magazine. Mama snored softly in her chair, Mark had retired to his room; Sister had taken to bed, claiming a bad headache. All of us straying to our separate little compartments, except for Candace.

“Junebug.” I shrugged toward the phone. “He likes to jabber.”

“So he does.” Her voice was strangely low. “How you feeling?”

I kept from making a face. “Fine, I’m fine.” I smiled and stuck my hands in my jeans pockets. “But I’m tired. I think I’ll go to bed. You don’t have to stay over.”

“I know. But I’ll stay in the guest room, if you don’t mind. Arlene might need me.”

Arlene. She was staying for my sister, not for me. I blinked. I loved this woman. But I was conscious of how I’d been pushing her away, shutting her out from all the confusion I felt about Trey’s death. That wasn’t fair to her. I knew it. She wanted to help me, wanted me to need her now. But I couldn’t. I didn’t know why.

“I’m glad you’re here,” I said. It sounded empty, even to me.

“Sleep well, babe.”

I wished her a good night and went to my room. I lay facedown on the bed, breathing in the scent of clean sheets and the smell of rain that pervaded the old house.

Order, I decided. Just like at the library, I needed to get my thoughts in order. I fetched a legal pad off my desk and began writing. After a few minutes I’d scribbled down a list of questions-some horribly obvious-that I wanted answers to: QUESTIONS

1. Why did Trey leave Mirabeau in the first place? 2. Had Mama really been corresponding with Trey all these years? If so, why didn’t she tell us? If she kept Trey’s letters, where are they? 3. Who gave Sister the black eye? Why is she protecting that person? Or is it that she’s afraid of someone? 4. Why was Clevey hiding all that information on Rennie Clifton? Nothing there that isn’t public record. 5. What did Clevey and Trey argue about (that Scott overheard)? What did Clevey mean revenge is sweet? Who did Clevey-or Trey-need to revenge by himself on? What did Clevey mean by “gravy train”? 6. Are Davis and Ed hiding anything? Why did Davis sound so numbed when I talked to him? 7. What does 2 DOWN mean, painted in blood on Trey’s wall? 8. What motives would anyone have to kill either Trey or Clevey? Who had opportunity to commit the murders? 9. Why is Steven hesitant to talk about Clevey’s therapy? Is it just ethics-or something else? I read over my list, then added another: 10. Why did Trey really come home?

That seemed the key to me. He’d been away for six years; he’d sent money to his ex-wife; he’d possibly exchanged letters with my mother. This status quo had been maintained for a long, long while. Even with his injuries, he could have recuperated elsewhere. What suddenly urged him back to a town where he’d be shunned as a cowardly father?

I rubbed my eyes. My head throbbed, pained with memories and with doubts. I contemplated going downstairs to talk with Candace, but I preferred my own company for the moment. I didn’t know what to say to her. I doused the lights and fell into fitful sleep, vaguely hearing the distant roll of thunder as I drifted off.

“Sounds like rain’s coming.” Trey stared up at the star-dotted sky. He propped his booted feet on the cab door of his battered truck and folded his hands behind his head. I lay next to him, trying to count the stars through a blur of beer.

“Not this instant,” I said. “Too far off. We won’t get rain for a little while.” Glass clinked as he reached for another beer. He sat up and took a deep swig from the long-neck.

“You’ll get a lot of rain in Houston, Jordy. You’ll be walking to classes in knee-deep water. It floods there all the time.” His voice sounded as far away as the thunder did.

“Don’t tell Mama, she’ll buy me waders.” I sat up and opened another beer. The crickets chirped through the night air, sounding their brief trumpets before the approaching storm drowned them out. Whoever said nights in the country are quiet don’t know what they’re talking about. The air felt humid, as languid as a girl’s caress, and in the purplish darkness I could barely see Trey sitting next to me. I could see him tip the bottle to his lips, the moon reflecting off the curve where label ended and glass began.

“You ain’t gonna have no horses to ride in Houston,” he observed.

“No. I’ll have to come back here for that.”

“And you ain’t gonna get cooking as good as your mama’s. I bet that university kitchen don’t make good biscuits and cream gravy on Sunday mornings. Probably give you something nasty, like yogurt.”


“And Marcia Tatum ain’t gonna be around ’case you get a tad horny.”

I laughed. “No, Marcia won’t be in Houston. ’Course, she’s not too pleased I’m going away, period. I don’t think she’d be granting me her favors even if I stayed.”

“Shit,” Trey scoffed. “Your first weekend back she’ll be as hot for you as you are for her.” He stood and stretched, and walked to the back of the truck. His boot heels made an eerie clang against the metal.

“Face it, Jordan, you ain’t got many reasons to come back here. Houston’ll suit you real well. You’re smart. There’ll be a lot of new things to hold your attention. You won’t need Mirabeau again.”

“Don’t be stupid. Of course I still need Mirabeau. My family’s here. My friends are here.” I paused. “You’re here, man. You think I’m going to forget about you?”

“For the first time in your life, you’re going to be around a lot of people that are as smart as you are. Or even smarter. The people you meet at Rice are gonna make the rest of us look like dipsticks. Future doctors and lawyers and such.”

“That’s crap, Trey. Quit saying that you’re not smart.”

He laughed and sipped at his beer. “I don’t say I’m not smart. The teachers say I’m not smart.”

“The teachers here are stupid, then.”

“Brave words from the valedictorian. All I’m saying is, go. Go out there and make what you can of yourself. Don’t look back.”

“Don’t be an idiot,” I said uncertainly. I didn’t care for the way this conversation was going. The thunder sounded again, closer, wilder. “Of course I’m coming back home.”

“And do what? What are you going to do with your fancy degree here in Mirabeau, young Mr. Poteet? Be a lawyer in your crazy uncle Bid’s practice? You can’t stand him. Become mayor? You ain’t exactly a politician. Teach at the school? Won’t pay you diddly to clear them big student loans. Or maybe you’ll just end up serving Dr Pepper floats at the Sit-a-Spell.” His voice had grown harsh.

I stared up at him in the darkness. “Why are you doing this?”

“I don’t want you to think that Mirabeau is the whole world, like our numbnut friends do. I don’t want you to waste the chance you got.”

“I’ll come home if I want. I’ll live here if I want.” I stood and the wind surged, making me feel unsteady. Trey seemed an indistinct figure in the night. “Why are you being so shitty to me?” I hollered.

“Because you’re gonna do all the things in life I wish I could. Because you’re the brother I never had.”

Lightning split the sky and I saw the Trey standing before me was not the Trey of our careless eighteenth summer, drinking beer with me on the next-to-the-last night before I left for college. He was the Trey that had died, his face gaunt and drawn and bearded in the momentary white light.

“Then help me! Tell me who killed Clevey! Tell me who killed you!”

“Killed me?” he asked.

“Yes! You’re dead! Who killed you?” I screamed into the wind.

He collapsed against me and my hands felt the warmth of his life’s blood. His voice creaked like a coffin’s lid. “You are. You’re killing me, Jordy.”

A cry caught in my throat as I wrenched up in bed. I slapped the palm of my hand over my mouth and bit my fingers. Nightmare’s sweat adhered the sheets to my body and I kicked them away. They felt like shrouds.

I staggered to the window. Another storm swept over Mirabeau, headed for the Gulf, and the glass felt cool against my palms. What was happening to me? Why did I feel like this world was the dream and those memories with Trey were the reality? I shut my eyes and took a long, sobering breath.

I shrugged into my terrycloth robe and sat again on the bed, listening to the quiet of my house. Many nights Mama was restless in the wandering way Alzheimer’s patients sometimes are, but tonight she was still. I heard the remote ticking of the grandfather clock downstairs, like a colossal heart. Apparently I hadn’t called out; the house’s silence pushed oppressively on my ears.

I hungered for a comfort food. I didn’t want to stay in my bed; it was nothing but a trap full of memories. I remembered all the pies downstairs. My sweet tooth pulsed and I tiptoed down to the kitchen. I turned on all the lights; I didn’t like the dark anymore.

The pies looked tempting: pecan, peach, buttermilk, and apple, but I didn’t want a slice. Only two images from my dream could make me smile; Marcia Tatum and Dr Pepper floats. Marcia had been my senior-year girlfriend, a buxom, funny, sly-eyed brunette, and she’d served up the best Dr Pepper floats in the world at the old Sit-a-Spell Cafe. Trey had kidded me plenty that I’d had more Dr Pepper floats after school than any other boy in Mirabeau history. He’d follow me to the cafe and chatter at me and Marcia as she made my favorite fountain concoction while I watched her with vast-eyed devotion.

He loved to tease.

I pulled a gallon of Blue Bell vanilla ice cream from the freezer.

Give him an extra scoop now, Marcia, Trey would say, eyeing Marcia’s own scoops under her bright pink uniform.

I found an icy cold can of sugary, original Dr Pepper in the back of the fridge and popped the top.

Don’t you be skimpy with that Dr Pepper, Marcia. Jordy needs all the sweetness he can get. Don’t you, Jordy?

I pulled the ice-cream scooper out of a drawer and rinsed it with hot water. I found a thick, tall glass in the cabinet and set it on the counter.

Marcia, sugar, you ought to give Jordy a large float but charge him for a small one. Don’t you care none about this poor boy?

Dragging the scooper across the pristine plain of ice cream, I pared free a globe of white sweetness. I jiggled it above the glass and the scoop fell in, leaving a creamy smear along the side. Again, another scoop. A small one to top it. Then the Dr Pepper, the fizz of its pouring the only sound I heard as it frothed above the ice cream. The can felt like a deadweight in my hand.

Ah, that’s his favorite there, Miss Marcia. He likes those floats even better than he likes you or me.

“Jordan?” Candace, standing nearby, watched me.

“I’m making a Dr Pepper float,” I announced, and my voice broke. Candace looked sort of blurry.

“I can see that, honey.” Her voice was cottony soft. “You okay? You’ve spilled it everywhere.”

I glanced down at the kitchen counter; the soda can was empty and my glass sat in a puddle of bubbling brown.

I looked back up at Candace and I could see her heart breaking. “He’s dead.” I heard my voice. “He’s really, really dead. Trey is dead. God!” A sob escaped from me, like air long trapped underwater then bursting to the surface. I felt her arms close around me.

I didn’t want to cry. No, not in front of her. I didn’t want her to see me that way. I put my fingers over my face and they were wet and sticky with Dr Pepper.

“Why? Why?”

“I don’t know, baby. I don’t know why he died,” she murmured into my chest.

“Not him dying! Why did he leave us?” I buried my face against her disarrayed hair. “He left me. I was like his brother and he left me. He left Sister and Mark and Mama and Daddy and his own father, but why did he leave me?” I pulled in a badly needed breath. “We were as close as brothers. What could have happened that he couldn’t tell me? If he was going to run away from here, why didn’t he come to Boston? I would have helped him, no matter what the trouble was. Didn’t he know that? What did I do wrong? Why’d anyone want to kill him? Why? Why?”

I was conscious of her taking me to the sink, washing the soda from my hands and my face, toweling me dry. She led me back upstairs to my room and laid me on my bed. She held me in her arms and I talked, I babbled like a mute just given speech, telling her all the idiocies and kindnesses that Trey and I had done in our reckless, vanished youths, our time when we thought we were immortal. It didn’t make, I’m sure, for a cohesive monologue. But she laughed at all the funny stories, and she smiled sadly at our tragedies. She stroked my hair and kissed my face and gave me all the strength in her heart. I took it like the precious gift it was. I never loved her more in my life. I told her so and she kissed me gently.

I felt her fingers lightly brushing my hair. “You know what?” she whispered. “I think you loved him very much. I think he loved you, too. And it’s okay to say that, and it’s okay to be sad. It’s normal.”

“You sound like one of them therapists on TV,” I rasped, sticking my face in my pillow.

“I don’t care what I sound like. I’m just glad you’re grieving,” she said. I opened one eye at her.

She ran a finger inside the cup of my ear. “I’m serious. I was about sick of watching you pretend that Trey Slocum’s death hadn’t affected you in the least. It wasn’t natural, not to someone that cares as much as you do. I was about ready to kick your butt if you didn’t start acting like a human being.”

I watched the translucent blue vein in her wrist as it moved barely above my face. “I was mad at him for so long. I didn’t know how not to be mad at him.” I closed the one eye I’d opened. “Now I can’t tell him I’m sorry. He can’t tell me if he’s sorry for what he did.”

“I’m starting to wish I’d known Trey Slocum. He must’ve had some virtues thrown in with the vices.”

I wished she had, too. I felt exhausted, as though I’d run a marathon with a weight on my back. I pulled her to me, feeling a sudden, intoxicating need for her. Candace responded, her lips seeking mine, her fingers tangling in my hair. My hands framed her face like a precious treasure.

The phone rang, shattering the three a.m. silence. I jerked in surprise. Candace rolled over, grabbed the receiver, murmured a quick “Hello, Poteet residence,” and listened.

“Oh, my God. Oh, no.” Her face crumpled with shock as she handed me the phone. “It’s the police station. Junebug’s been shot.”


Ice water in your face is a sobering slap.

I’d had two friends die by violence-and I’d tried wrapping myself in denial like it was one of my grandmother’s quilts, a cocoon against the sharp pain of loss. I’d stumbled along, hardly like myself, numbed and slack-jawed, ruminating at a snail’s pace.

Now my eyes were wide and clear and fueled by hot anger. I wanted to catch whoever was destroying my friends and strike at them with viciousness. I felt restless and shivery as I paced the hospital hall.

The Monday-morning hours found Sister, Mark, and me sitting in a large, crowded waiting room at Mirabeau Memorial. Clo had volunteered to stay with Mama and Candace had gone to open the cafe. It was now eight in the morning and we hadn’t been told anything by Franklin Bedloe, the acting police chief, except that Junebug’d been shot twice, was out of surgery, and was still unconscious. Junebug’s mother, Barbara Moncrief, a big-boned woman with a heart to match, was in with her son. Well over a dozen of the Moncrief clan and their friends were crammed into the chairs, talking quietly, mindlessly turning pages of back issues of People while we waited. The rest of the Mirabeau police force seemed to be patrolling the hospital, their faces set in sorrow and anger, and I wanted to scream at them; Why aren’t you out catching the asshole that did this? But I didn’t.

I am always amazed by the strength of women. I don’t think I ever appreciated it until Mama got sick and her vitality ebbed away in cruel fashion. Sister has that same vigor. I watched her cast her face in iron as she waited for Barbara Moncrief to come back so she could go in and see her man. She held my hand, her fingers twitching occasionally as we sat. We didn’t talk. I’d tried to comfort her with reassuring words, but she turned monosyllabic on me, and I retreated. After a while she got up and paced fiercely, as though the excess energy in her would explode if not given release.

Davis and Ed had appeared after I’d called them, their voices still creaky with sleep. Both looked exhausted and pained. I felt the same way; as though I’d been pummeled in the stomach for the past three days. Except I felt ready to punch back. They sat in the far corner of the lounge. I couldn’t decide if they were avoiding me or they were trying to give us privacy. Davis was impeccable in his lawyer’s suit, as though nothing of consequence had happened and it would be another day pushing wills and real-estate closures around his desktop. Unshaven Ed looked rumpled in wrinkled khakis and a Patty Loveless tour T-shirt. He looked like a confused child tumbled out of bed. I felt nearly sick looking at Ed. Of us all, he reminded me most of those long-ago boys. Every now and then his eyes met mine, asking the unanswerable question as to why our friend lay struggling for life.

I tried to talk to Franklin Bedloe, the acting police chief, but he brushed me off to return to the crime scene. 2 DOWN had been the message at Trey’s murder scene. Had another profane scorecard been left as Junebug lay on the bloodied porch? I desperately wanted to know. But Franklin didn’t have time for me, and I didn’t try to detain him. He had a killer to catch, and I had a friend to stand watch over.

A heavy-eyed Peggy Godkin stumbled into the room, lugging a satchel. Peggy is the editor of The Mirabeau Mirror and possibly the only workaholic in town. She’s certainly the only achiever in the large Godkin clan that permeates every part of Bonaparte County. Most of the Godkins shuffle by on a day-to-day existence; Peggy got the recessive Puritan work-ethic gene, put herself through college, started as a cub reporter for the Mirror, and had moved up to editor in record time. She was now in her fifties, a handsome woman with dark hair marred by a thick, lacy-white streak that ran back from her forehead. Peggy nearly always played a witch at the high-school Halloween haunted house. It was definitely casting against type.

She saw us and waved. I gestured back feebly. Sister stopped wearing out the carpet and moved toward Peggy.

“Arlene, Jordan. I’m so sorry. How is he? Where’s Barbara?”

Sister shook her head. “He’s out of surgery. The bullet grazed his skull. Barbara’s with him now.”

Peggy gave Sister a fierce hug. Sister hugged back.

“What exactly happened?” Peggy asked.

I told her what little we knew; apparently Junebug had been working very late at his office, had come home, and while putting the key in his lock, was shot. Franklin Bedloe hypothesized-based on the trajectory of the wounds, he said, and I shuddered-that the gunman crouched waiting in the bushes on the far side of Junebug’s porch. One bullet creased his skull; the other one tore into his big frame, narrowly missing his heart. A neighbor, awakened by the shots, phoned the police. Franklin had called Barbara Moncrief and then our house.

Peggy shook her head. “My Lord. Two murders in as many days, and now an attempt on Junebug’s life. What the sweet hell is going on in town?”

I stood. “I don’t know. Peggy, let’s go down to the cafeteria and get some coffee. Sister, Mark, y’all want anything?”

They said no. Peggy gathered her purse close to her and walked along with me. When we got to the end of the hall, I glanced back; Mark’s face was buried in his hands and Sister was watching me intently.

The cafeteria was sparsely populated. I got two steaming cups of coffee and sat across the Formica table from where Peggy had parked herself.

She sipped at her brew. “I’m so sorry about Trey, Jordan. I didn’t know what to say to Arlene and Mark. My policy is stay silent till you’re sure what’s going to come out your mouth.”

“We’re all trying to deal with it.”

She closed her eyes, smoothing out the laughter lines around them. “And poor Clevey. I still can’t believe he’s dead. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to really talk to you at Truda’s house. I got cornered by his aunts.” She hesitated for a moment then plunged ahead: “I saw the argument between Trey and Arlene. I might’ve been tempted to whack him one myself. But I’m sorry Trey’s dead.”

I sipped at my coffee and considered how to proceed. “Peggy, I wanted to ask you about Clevey. I’ll be blunt. Be blunt back. Could he have been researching something for the paper that might’ve gotten him killed?”

Shock registered on her face. “My God, Jordan. What a suggestion!”

“What do you think?”

She saw my seriousness. “No. He was working on his usual assignments-the city council, the book-review section. And he was researching a feature on domestic violence.”

I thought of the hidden files on Rennie Clifton and her tragically short life. “No other special assignments?”

Peggy gave a tired sigh. “Clevey? Honey, it was all I could do to get him to finish his regular work. It sounds terrible to say now, and I’d never want his mama to know, but I wasn’t far off from firing Clevey.”

“May I ask what was wrong?”

“I don’t think I should say.”

“Peggy, I knew Clevey his whole life. I won’t repeat it. And what you say won’t hurt him now.”

Peggy stared down into her coffee. “His work had become substandard. He was missing deadlines more and more. We’re a small paper, Jordan, and everyone’s got to pull their weight. I don’t have the resources to keep a layabout on the payroll. Clevey was irresponsible.” She shook her head and ran her hand along the pale streak in her hair. “I didn’t understand his attitude. He was so enthusiastic about journalism for so long, and he was talented. Was. ”

“When did this downhill slide start?”

She shrugged. “Last summer. My patience was at an end.”

“I want to ask you some questions, but off the record,” I said.

Peggy leaned forward. “What a change. I’m usually the one conducting the interview. I’ll answer your questions if you’ll answer mine.”

“Deal. Did you ever hear Clevey mention a girl named Rennie Clifton?”

Her brow furrowed. “Sounds familiar, but I can’t place the name.”

“And you never heard him mention anything about Trey?”

“No, never. That for sure I would have remembered, after the awful way Trey left your family.”

I leaned back. “Damn.”

“Who’s Rennie Clifton?” Peggy asked.

It was no point in telling her to forget it; I’d rather have Peggy Godkin on my side than snooping on her own and plastering a story across the front page. I told her about the long-ago hurricane and the girl who died. Peggy propped her face in her hands.

“I remember that now. Hurricane Althea. Clevey wrote the twentieth-anniversary special report we did last August.”

“Weren’t you writing for the Mirror when Althea hit?”

“Yes.” She frowned. “Unfortunately that was the week I took a vacation and visited my college roommate in Dallas. Biggest story to hit Mirabeau in years and I missed it.”

“Did you ever hear anything unusual regarding the hurricane? Or Rennie Clifton’s death?”

She closed her eyes in concentration, her reporter’s mind flipping through the enormous Rolodex of facts that resided in her brain. “No, sorry. Nearly everyone was busy picking up the pieces, thanking God they were alive.”

“Rennie wasn’t,” I said. “Clevey had developed a new interest in the case. I thought maybe he was writing a story about her.”

She shook her head. “He wrote the retrospective on Hurricane Althea. And he wrote a brief piece on the Clifton girl.”

“I wonder why he got interested again in that case.”

Peggy shrugged. “Newsfolk love to write about themselves. Maybe he wanted to revisit the great trauma of his childhood.”

“Speaking of trauma, did you know that he was seeing a psychotherapist? A man named Steven Teague.”

“Lord, no, I didn’t know he was getting counseling.” She tapped her nail against her lip, a meditative gesture I’d seen her use while covering library board meetings. “Steven Teague. I know that name.”

I frowned. “He just moved here recently. Very urbane, polished-looking fellow. He said-” I stopped for a moment, feeling I was breaking a rule by discussing what I’d overheard. If it got back to Junebug or Steven, I’d be in serious trouble. But Clevey was dead and his murderer walked free. “Steven says that Clevey was troubled. That he’d done serious wrong and was trying to find ways to rectify it.”

“What kind of wrong?”

“He won’t elaborate. But he does say that Clevey was determined to do better for himself.”

“Clevey’s work didn’t reflect that,” Peggy said. “God’s gonna slap me for speaking ill of the dead.” She sighed. “Clevey must’ve been performing his good deeds elsewhere. You said this therapist is named Steven Teague?”


“Well, he probably took out an ad and that’s how I know his name. I wonder if he’d give me a group therapy rate for my family. Now for my questions, like you agreed. Are you sticking your nose into police business again?”

“Yes. And it’s my own business now. It has been since Trey died in front of me and Mark.”

Peggy leaned back. “You know, Jordan, some people criticize private citizens who take it on themselves to investigate crimes. I’m one of them. I only answered your questions because you’re an old friend of Clevey’s.”

“Most private citizens don’t have three friends shot in as many days.” I kept my voice low. “I don’t care if people in Mirabeau think I’m a magnet for trouble. I didn’t ask to find a body in the library last spring or nearly get blown up last summer. But I will no longer stand idly by while my friends are picked off like targets in a shooting gallery.”

“No, I don’t suppose you would. Maybe that’s why I like you, you sorry fool.” Peggy finished her coffee and patted my hand. “I better see if I can get one of Junebug’s doctors to talk to me, then head on over to the police station. And see if I can just say a hello to Barbara.” She gathered her satchel close to her. “Terrible business, isn’t it, Jordan?”

Peggy accompanied me back to the waiting room, which was only a little less crowded than before. Davis had left; Ed sat with Mark and with Steven Teague. Sister wasn’t anywhere to be seen.

“Hello, Jordan,” Steven Teague said in his refined tone. He was well groomed and dapper in gray corduroys and a charcoal tweed jacket. “Your sister’s in with Chief Moncrief, so I offered to stay with Mark.”

“I don’t need nobody staying with me,” Mark announced crossly. He looked exhausted and I wondered what kind of gruesome toll the past couple of days was exacting.

I introduced Peggy to Steven, hoping she wouldn’t start a grilling session of her own. She simply said she was glad to make his acquaintance and shook his hand.

Franklin Bedloe came out of the men’s room down the hall and, excusing herself, Peggy headed toward him.

I turned back to my nephew. “Mark, let me take you home. There’s no point in you waiting here. You’re dead on your feet. We’ll call you as soon as we know anything.”

“No, Uncle Jordy,” he said with firmness, not petulance. “I want to stay. If I’m tired, I’ll take a nap. I’m not leaving till we hear about Junebug.”

I sat, too weary to argue with him. Steven Teague, however, was another story.

“How’d you know we were down here, Steven?” I asked.

He smiled tightly. “Your sister called me. She was concerned about how your family would handle this latest difficulty. I offered to come down and see if I could be of assistance.” He glanced at Mark, whose lips were pressed together in tension. “Mark doesn’t want to chat right now, though.”

“I appreciate your concern for Mark.”

“Mark’s been through a horrible ordeal.” Steven ruffled his patient’s hair.

Mark stood suddenly. “I want a doughnut. Or a muffin. Uncle Jordy, will you come down to the cafeteria with me?”

I lumbered to my feet, my body crying out for sleep. Time alone with Mark sounded good. For some reason, the tailored sureness of Steven Teague irritated the hell out of me. Especially since he’d refused to answer all of Junebug’s questions-and now Junebug might be the killer’s latest victim.

Mark ambled along beside me, quietly, until we got to the cafeteria. I offered to buy him breakfast; he got a glass of orange juice and an enormous muffin, studded with blueberries. He kept glancing toward the cafeteria entrance as he ate.

I watched him munch down the muffin and drain the glass of orange juice. “You’re handling all this well, Mark.”

“Yeah?” he asked. “I guess. I’m worried about Mom.”

“What do you mean?”

“Did she love Dad or not?”

I’d expected a discussion about Junebug. Trey was still tender territory. “That’s a hard question.” I rubbed my chin. “It’s probably safe to say that she loved him-the him that she married-but she didn’t love what he did. She didn’t love the man that left her and left you.”

He was silent, and emboldened by exhaustion, I went on: “Your father was a very good man in many ways. He was my closest friend growing up. But he left you, and your mother, and the rest of us, without a word or a reason. That’s cowardly, Mark, and I never understood it because I didn’t think your father was a coward.”

He looked up at me with ink-dark eyes, bloodshot with fatigue. For the first time in a long while I looked at Mark’s face. He stood on the verge of manhood now, the peachy sheen of whiskers starting along the jawline, his Adam’s apple becoming more prominent in his thin throat, his voice vaulting through fee gymnastics of change, and the first light in his eyes that perhaps he knew a vast and frightening world lay waiting.

He tore off a chunk of muffin and rolled it into a doughy ball between his fingers. “I think I know who killed Dad,” he said.

I found my voice after a brief search. “Excuse me? Who?”

“Well, Scott told me he overheard something his mama and her uncle Dwight were saying. She’d been talking about how she hadn’t wanted to come back to live in Mirabeau.”

“Well, I would think not, what with all of Trey’s family here and-”

“Listen again, Uncle Jordy. She said come back to Mirabeau. She’d been here before.”

“Her uncle’s from here, Mark,” I explained patiently. “I’m sure she visited here before.”

“Yeah, she did,” Mark said. “She said that she didn’t want to be here because of Ed Dickensheets.”

“Ed? Good Lord, what does he have to do with it? And why didn’t you say something before?”

Mark shuffled his feet under the table, avoiding my stare. “Me and Scott don’t got no proof, and Ed’s a friend of yours and a friend of Mom’s. I don’t think he could kill anybody. But Scott sure thinks he did.”

I breathed deep. “Did Scott say what had gone on between his mom and Ed?”

Mark shook his head. “But I bet he was her boyfriend. She looks like she might have been pretty once.”

I tried to jog down memory lane. I’d thought Nola Kinnard’s face was familiar for the most fleeting of instants when she’d introduced herself in the library. “I sure don’t remember Ed dating a girl named Nola.”

“Maybe it was when you were at Rice. Did he go off to school?”

“He stayed here and took some courses over at Bavary Junior College,” I said slowly. “Then he went to St. Edward’s over in Austin, but he got thrown out. He partied too much and his grades bottomed out. So he came back and started working at KBAV.” I looked at Mark again, the earnestness in his face. This was clutching at shadows.

“Mark, this is ridiculous. I’ve known Ed Dickensheets my whole life and he wouldn’t ever kill a soul, much less your father. Besides, Ed wouldn’t have a motive.” Right, I told myself. Happily married to a bossy Elvis impersonator and her Colonel Parker mother. Wanda and Ivalou were a potent combination to set a man straying to an old girlfriend. Why hadn’t Ed mentioned to me that he knew Nola Kinnard?

Mark’s jaw set. “All’s I’m saying is what Scott said. He thinks Ed killed Dad.” He shook his dark head. “Scott hasn’t thought it out, though. I mean, if he thinks Ed killed Dad to be with Nola, it hasn’t occurred to him that Nola could have killed Dad to be with Ed.”

I did not get to see Junebug. The doctors didn’t want many visitors, and I wasn’t about to try to usurp Barbara Moncrief or my sister. I left a message for Sister that I was headed home and left.

I took Mark home, turned him over to Clo, and ordered him to bed for some badly needed sleep. Tomorrow was his father’s funeral, and he’d need his strength. I sorely ached for a nap myself, but I knew rest would be elusive.

Stopping by the Sit-a-Spell, I ate with Candace. The breakfast bachelor-and-widower crowd was sparse; she’d get much more business at lunch. Smudges darkened the skin beneath her pretty eyes. She didn’t mention my breakdown last night and I was grateful. She’d already eaten and she sipped coffee while I wolfed down a cheese omelette, hash browns, grits, and toast smeared with plum preserves.

I slurped coffee and made a face. “Good Lord. Flavored coffee? I don’t think Mirabeau’s quite ready for that.”

“It’s hazelnut and they’ll develop a taste for it.” I could see Candace was still on her diversify-the-cuisine crusade. If Sister didn’t get back to work at the cafe soon, it’d be the Sit-a-Spell Sushi Bar (or bait shop, depending on your opinion of raw fish as an entree).

“Candace, you are not going to get a fellow in a fishing cap to quaff down hazelnut coffee.”

“Oh, really? What’s that on your head, ace?”

I removed my Mirabeau Bees baseball cap with a smile. We were bantering like it was a normal morning. I tried to remind myself it was only seventy-two hours since I’d sat in this same booth, watching Wanda do her Elvis impersonation in the street while poor Ed hung their pitiable sign. It seemed a decade ago.

Candace surprised me with a kiss on my forehead and I updated her on Junebug’s condition. She frowned. “The shootings are all anyone in the cafe’s been talking about.”

“Speaking of gossip…” Quietly, I told her of Mark’s suspicions of Ed Dickensheets.

“Oh, that’s crazy,” she said. “Ed’s devoted to that wife of his. I don’t see what he sees in Wanda, but if he’s willing to keep that witch Ivalou as a mother-in-law, it must be love. And even if Ed killed Trey, why would he kill Clevey? Maybe we’re dealing with two killers.”

I shook my head. “That occurred to me, but then how do you explain what Scott overheard-the heated discussion between Clevey and Trey? There was something going on between those two, and now they’re both dead. You can’t dismiss what Scott heard and the message written in Trey’s blood.”

“So how do you explain Junebug’s shooting?”

“He’s been investigating Clevey’s death while Franklin Bedloe investigates Trey’s death. Maybe Junebug got too close-found some information the killer didn’t want him to have. The killer decided to eliminate him.”

Candace ran a hand through her thick mane of hair. “Now what?”

“Franklin’ll find out who the hell’s behind this and lock him up forever. Junebug’ll get better. We’ll bury Clevey and Trey and try to get on with our lives.” I poured milk in my too fancy coffee and watched the white cloudy swirl. “And then maybe you and I can take a nice, long trip far away from all this. I’m worn-out and I want to be alone with you.”

Her smile was tender and sly. “Get me alone and you will be worn-out, that’s a promise. Maybe the Bahamas?”

“Out of my wallet’s league. What about Galveston?”

“We’ll talk. I could foot a trip to the Bahamas.”

Candace had money aplenty from her family, but I didn’t want her doling out cash for us. Foolish male pride, I suppose, but no one ever accused me of lacking that particular virtue. “We’ll talk,” I said, smiling at her. Galveston wasn’t at all bad. I’d just convince her of that.

I got to the library and savored the quiet of a Monday morning. Since we’re open Saturdays, we’re closed Mondays. I like when it’s just the books and me. I headed for the back issues of The Mirabeau Mirror. We haven’t gone to microfilm yet (although I have repeatedly begged the city council for the money), and so the chronicle of life in Mirabeau still exists in paper form. I decided to start my search in August, two decades back.

The Mirror comes out once a week, but I remembered they’d done a special edition in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Althea. I started with that yellowing issue. Three dead in Corpus Christi, one dead in Victoria, two dead in Mirabeau, one dead in La Grange: all due to twisters or flash flooding, those merciless twin bridesmaids of hurricanes. Althea had cut a brutal swath up from the defenseless Gulf coast through the river lands between Houston and Austin.

There was a main article on the aftermath of the killer storm, then separate articles on each of the Mirabeau dead. The first casualty had been an elderly man on the outskirts of town, killed when his ramshackle trailer disintegrated in a smaller twister’s path. The second article was longer, possibly because the death was more tragic. Rennie Clifton was only sixteen.

A school picture of her smiled out from the newsprint, her hair straightened and dark, her smile wide and appealing, her eyes beautiful and compelling and intelligent I had never seen Rennie alive, so the picture was the only fragment of her days I could compare against the empty shell we’d found in the woods. The county coroner ruled she’d been killed by a blow to the head, probably from flying debris propelled at God’s own speed by the violent winds. The article outlined how she had been found in the woods near the Foradory farm. A somber picture of us six boys was below the text, since we’d found the body. We all look like we’ve had the stuffing scared out of us, except Trey, who always maintained a cool demeanor anywhere near a camera. Clevey ranked a quote on how frightened he’d been. “You see scary things out in a storm like that, but we never dreamed we’d find a body.”

I kept reading the story. Rennie had been a student at Mirabeau High, where she participated in 4-H and the student yearbook. Her teachers described her as quiet, intense about the subjects she was interested in, a girl with a future. She worked part-time at the Mirabeau Florist and was described as a good worker by her employer, Ivalou Purcell-

My eyes froze on the last two words. Ivalou Purcell, who I have mentioned I don’t care much for, was Ed’s mother-in-law. She’s bossy, nosy, man-hungry, and just generally unpleasant. I remembered the avid interest she’d shown during Sister’s fight with Trey at the Shivers house. I’d never had any idea that Rennie Clifton worked for Ivalou Purcell.

I scanned the rest of the article. Rennie was survived by her mother, Thomasina Clifton, who cleaned houses. Her father, Ernest Clifton, had been killed in Vietnam. The final sentence mentioned services at the Ebenezer Baptist Church on Aldrus Street.

Her funeral. A sharp memory made me wince. My mother had insisted that we go. I’d felt like an interloper, a blond-headed, green-eyed boy amidst all those dark faces. The church smelled of flowers and sweat. The fury of Althea had scraped the sky clean, and the day they buried Rennie was cloudless and clear. I remembered Mrs. Clifton as a large woman who bore her sorrow in silence. I remembered my mother making me hand a flower to Mrs. Clifton and her nearly crushing me in a kind embrace. Another woman, apparently one of Rennie’s grandmothers, had wailed lamentations like a woman possessed. I didn’t try to give her a flower.

I leaned back, rubbing my chin. How-and why-had that girl’s death come back to haunt us?

What if I was entirely off track? What if Rennie’s death had nothing to do with the carnage visited on our lives? I closed my eyes, casting back into my memories for someone who might have a terrible grudge against our group of friends. I sat in silence. Had we been unthinkingly cruel to some kid that harbored the deepest of grudges? Had we done some innocent act to nurture hatred in a hidden heart? No rogue or villain presented themselves for inspection. Our lives had been delightfully dull, free of ill-wishers. Best, I thought, to concentrate on the strongest possibility than to idly search for nonsensical explanations.

I began sorting through papers from the weeks previous and subsequent to Rennie’s death. Mirabeau was just as boring then as it is now. I perused articles on the city council’s eternal squabbles, the drowning of a skier on Lake Bonaparte, a picture of Hart Quadlander with a prize-winning horse, and the visit of a jowly congressman to give a speech.

I was reading a paper dated three weeks after Rennie’s death when I turned a page and a twenty-years-younger version of Steven Teague stared back at me, his lips splayed into the same half smile he’d given me and Eula Mae and Mark when we spoke to him. There was a short article underneath: FREE CLINIC CLOSES Dr. Edward Barent and Steven Teague announce the closing of the Mirabeau Free Clinic on Mayne Street, effective September 31. Dr. Barent, a general practitioner, said that federal cutbacks are forcing the clinic’s closure. The Mirabeau Free Clinic opened barely two months ago, funded primarily through private donations and government grants. Dr. Barent refused to comment on any further reason why the clinic could not remain in budget. Mr. Teague, a psychotherapist with a social-work background, was unavailable for comment.

The rest of the article went on about how rural areas suffered the most in federal cutbacks, but that since indigent services were already available at Mirabeau Memorial, residents should not expect much curtailment of free care, I didn’t care much about curtailment of free services at the moment. I was just remembering when I’d met Steven Teague at Clevey’s mom’s house and he’d said he’d just moved to Mirabeau. Not that he’d lived and worked here before, but new to town. Perhaps he hadn’t wanted to mention that he’d worked for a failed enterprise-or perhaps he had something to hide. He’d been living here when Rennie died. He’d come back and we had two murders.

I started folding the paper when I heard a loud tapping at the window and I nearly jumped out of my skin. (Having three friends shot since Friday morning will do that to you.) I was suddenly conscious of how very alone I was in the library.


If I’d been Mark, I’d have been scared to death. Ed Dickensheets stood at the library doors, haggard and tired. I paused on the other side of the glass. I was alone with someone my nephew alleged had a motive to kill Trey. I felt a little tremor of fear, then dismissed it. I’d known Ed my whole life. I’d be damned if I’d let myself be scared by a friend. A sudden thought occurred that maybe Ed had come straight from the hospital-with bad news. I forgot my fears, unlocked the door, and yanked it open.

“Junebug?” I asked.

“No change. Can I come in?”

I stepped aside and regarded Ed, who was not a regular library patron. “We’re closed, and if you ever gave me any business, you’d know that,” I said with a teasing tone. Another quaver of uncertainty had hit me as soon as I opened my mouth and I was determined to banish it with banter. I also felt sick relief that he wasn’t the bearer of bad tidings.

Ed forced a smile to his worn face. He’d always been the smallest of us and now he was bent with fatigue. I didn’t think it was just the exhausting effect of recent days. Ed lived a life I couldn’t endure; dealing with Wanda’s eccentricities and odd schemes; enduring a mother-in-law like Ivalou who could test the patience of several saints; trying to launch a business that had the life expectancy of ice on a warm summer day. And people say I have a tough home life. It’s nothing compared with Ed’s.

“I know the library’s closed, butthead, but you got a minute for a friend?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. “You want some coffee?” I considered locking the doors behind us, but decided against it. No reason to, really, I told myself. Ed nodded and I went to the little kitchen in the back and revved up the pot.

When I came back, he was ambling around the library like a tourist in a museum, pausing to examine the shelves, the posters, the magazines on the shelves on the periodical table. I froze. I hadn’t put up the paper I’d been perusing; it was still laid out on a table. Ed didn’t seem inclined to notice it much, though, as he took the plastic-encased latest issue of Sports Illustrated down and began idling through it.

“Don’t suppose you have Playboy? ” he asked while reading.

“Sorry, the city council just won’t approve every request I make.” I folded the paper, without hurry, and tucked it back in a desk. For some instinctual reason I didn’t want Ed to know I was casting an eye back twenty years. I headed to the back to check on the progress of the coffee.

When I returned with two steaming cups, Ed collapsed in one of the easy chairs in the magazine section, his legs splayed out. He was rubbing his forehead.

“I’m tired, Jordy.” He took the offered cup and sipped cautiously at it. “Not bad. We got the worst coffee in creation down at KBAV.”

“What’s up, Ed?”

“Geez, can’t a fellow come see an old buddy?” he answered rather sharply. “I seem to be running short on friends with each passing day.”

Hot anger flushed my face. “That’s not funny, Ed.”

“I don’t mean to be funny. I told you I wanted to talk at Clevey’s mama’s house, but your sister came and made that scene and I didn’t get my chance.”

He was right-he had mentioned he wanted a private chat. I’d forgotten in the avalanche of events the past two days had brought.

“I forgot. I’ve had a lot on my mind.”

“You ain’t the only one,” Ed said, slurping his coffee again. “It’s about Clevey.”

I eased down onto the ratty couch (the city council doesn’t believe in buying new couches until the old ones disintegrate). “What about Clevey?”

“This stays between you and me, okay? You always had more sense than the rest of us, and I need some advice. But I don’t want this blabbed all over town.”

“Okay, Ed.”

He took a fortifying breath. “I don’t wanna say this, but I think Clevey was a crook.”

“Excuse me?” The cup stopped halfway to my mouth.

Ed, despite his fatigue, got up and paced. “He was planning on buying into KBAV. As a partner. You know how much money that takes?”

I set my cup down, the steam still roiling past the rim. “How’d you know this?”

“He told me about a week ago. Said once he had a vote in station business, he’d see about making me general manager.” Ed shrugged. “I didn’t buy it at first-you know how he was one for fibbing and joking-but he insisted he was serious. When I asked him where he was gonna get the money, he said he’d had an uncle die out in Louisiana and leave him a ton of loot. But he didn’t want anyone to know. He was going to give some to local charities and use the rest to buy his partnership.”

I didn’t say anything immediately. Clevey had a windfall of money? Good and bad, Steven had said. Giving some of the money to charity and the rest for himself. I suddenly wondered who stood to inherit Clevey’s money now that he was gone. He probably hadn’t made a will. He had an ex-wife who lived in Little Rock now, but no children.

Ed continued: “But there never was an uncle in Louisiana. I asked-diplomatically, mind you-Clevey’s relatives when we were all at his mama’s house. That story of his was pure fiction. So where was he getting the money from?”

“Why are you telling me all this, Ed?”

He studied his coffee cup. “Look, I told Junebug all this when he started his investigation. It bugs me, that money coming out of nowhere, I thought you’d maybe know since you spent so much more time around him than I did.”

“I haven’t really,” I said, remorse tingeing my voice. I’d been weighed down with my own problems and I hadn’t made much time for Clevey in the past months. Had he wanted to turn to his old friends for help?

The hearsay of his last days presented a confusing collage: seeking help from Steven Teague, bitterly telling Trey that revenge would be sweet, claiming financial independence to Ed. I paused. Was there a connection between whatever revenge scheme he’d tried to get Trey involved in and this alleged windfall of money? But who on earth would Trey or Clevey want revenge on? His life was like a coin flipping in the air, the dual sides of head and tails flashing in the sunlight. His vicious demands to Trey, his announced charity donation to Ed. His lying about where this alleged money came from, his seeking help for his problems.

“I don’t know what to tell you, Ed. I thought I knew Clevey. I can’t claim that anymore.” I repeated what Scott Kinnard had told me about Clevey’s heated discussion with Trey. Ed shook his head, and I saw a flicker of fear in his eyes.

“And they both end up dead.” Ed shivered and massaged his temples. “That scares the piss out of me.”

“Scott claimed Trey was resisting whatever Clevey was proposing. Trey didn’t want to get involved.” I leaned down toward Ed. “What does that suggest to you? Who could he have been getting money from? How could Trey have been involved? Did Clevey ever mention anything about being in touch with Trey to you?”

“No, I-” Puzzlement made him frown. “Well, not that he was in touch with Trey. But he and I went to have beers a few weeks back and Trey’s name came up. I don’t remember how-some old story we were dusting off. Clevey said he’d been the last person in town to see Trey before he left. He laughed about it.”

“Laughed about it? What was so funny?”

Embarrassment colored his cheeks; I suspected he’d wandered onto ground he’d just as soon surrender. “I don’t know. I asked and he got tight-lipped. He just said Trey’d left and blown his chance to live easy the rest of his life.”

I felt cold in the fluorescent flicker of the library lights. “Why didn’t you mention this before?”

“It never came up. Jesus, he was drunk! And you know what Clevey was like-”

“Ed, no, I don’t. Neither do you. He was more of a stranger than any of us are ready to admit.”

“Look, I just told you what he’d told me. I thought you might be able to make sense of it. If you can’t, that’s fine, I’d just as soon not discuss Clevey and Trey anymore.” He picked up his scruffy denim jacket, prepared to leave.

I grabbed his arm. “Have you been by to see Nola Kinnard yet?”

He jerked as though I’d poked him in the ribs. “No.”

“I heard she was an old girlfriend of yours. That came as quite a surprise. You certainly hadn’t mentioned it.”

Ed slipped into salesman mode, unruffled by my blitzkreig. “So? I haven’t seen her in years. I didn’t even know she was back in town.”

I recalled what Mark had said regarding Nola: she didn’t want to be back in Mirabeau because of Ed Dickensheets. Why was Nola afraid of him? Or was that merely a cover? (Maybe she was afraid of Wanda-always a distinct possibility.) Too many questions. My head was starting to spin. I needed sleep.

“Okay, Ed.” I shrugged. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

He softened. “Nola and I were a hot item once, but that was years ago. I’ve wanted to go by and visit, pay my respects about Trey, but I-things didn’t end well between us. I didn’t know how to see her-how to say I was sorry for everything she went through. And I don’t think Wanda would take too kindly to me calling on ex-girlfriends.”

“Whatever, Ed.” I stood and stretched. “But we still don’t know where Clevey was planning on getting this money.”

“Well, Jordy”-he fidgeted again-“if he’s left the money to his mama, do you think we could talk to her? Maybe she’d be interested in investing in the station… or maybe in my Elvis shop.”

Now I saw why I was Ed’s new confidante. I’d always been closest to Mrs. Shivers; she and I had a rapport that went back decades. Ed wanted me in his corner to get his hands on Clevey’s alleged fortune.

“Oh, Ed, for God’s sake. Her boy’s just been murdered. This isn’t the time to hit up the poor woman about investments. Leave me out.”

“Okay, okay.” His smile was immediate and conciliatory. “But think about it, all right? Maybe you can suggest when a good time would be? I’m sure she’d listen to you, Jordy.”

An acrid distaste permeated my mouth. Suddenly I just wanted Ed out of the library, out of my sight. “Okay. Fine. I’ll talk to her with you.” I’d say anything now to get him to go.

He saw the dislike in my tone, the turning away of my face. His own countenance set in stone. “Fine. Talk to you later. Call me if you hear any news.” And he was gone.

I sank down in the chair, staring down at my feet, feeling dirty, as though Ed had spat on my shoes in leaving. He didn’t give a rat’s ass about Clevey. Or Trey. He was only worried about the money Clevey had claimed to have. I wondered if those were crocodile tears he shed at Clevey’s wake.

So much for friendship, choked by the root of all evil.

Some old white folks still call the far south side of the railroad tracks in Mirabeau “the colored part of town.” I don’t bother to correct them because they aren’t going to edit their language. And although the name may offend, for the most part the unofficial segregation still holds true. A few blacks have moved riverward into the more prosperous north side of town, but most descendants of slave and sharecropper that call Mirabeau home still live in the flat-lands. Trailer homes and small houses dot the landscape; some homes immaculately maintained, others choking in weedy neglect.

The cottage I pulled up to was tidy and neat, the small lawn freshly raked and a mound of damp leaves waiting to be bagged by the porch. A giant live oak towered above the eaves like a sentinel. A tire swing rotated slowly in the wind. A rusted flamingo, leaning precariously in a winter-sere flower bed, gawked at me.

I stared at the painted name on the mailbox: CLIFTON. I’d come here on a whim and now I was feeling like an intruder. These people had already suffered agony once; I had no desire to reopen the old wound of having lost a daughter. But this, I told myself, was where it all started. Rennie Clifton was the key, quite possibly, to why Clevey and Trey had died. And for the attack on Junebug.

I forced myself out of the car and up to the porch. I could hear the tinny rattle of television applause on the other side of the screen door. Someone was home, presumably. I knocked.

Silence for a moment, then a high-pitched, creaky voice beckoned: “Come in.”

The door was unlocked and I opened it gingerly. “Mrs. Clifton?”

The room was dark, small, and cluttered. The dim, late-morning sky wasn’t offering much additional illumination, but the glow of the TV lit the room in staticky, bone-colored light. I could see a worn blue sofa, draped with a colorful crocheted afghan; a scattering of newspaper across the carpeted floor; walls decorated with painted Bible scenes; and a large, dark woman, nestled in an easy chair. Not large-huge. Her girth wedged her into the cushions, her clothes stretched taut across a globe of a stomach. Her fingers, pudgy with fat, rustled idly in the emptied papers of a box of chocolates. Her eyes regarded me without the slightest bit of fear.

“Who you?” she asked, her voice a squeak. “I don’t want no magazine subscriptions…”

“I’m not a salesman, Mrs. Clifton. My name is Jordan Poteet. Do you remember me?” I flipped on the overhead light.

She squinted against the sudden brightness like a mole venturing out after a winter’s nap. In the ceiling light’s glare I could see she was well over two hundred pounds, her face a melon shape of tissue. Smears of chocolate outlined her lips. She blinked at me.

“Name’s familiar,” she said, her voice shifting in slow recognition.

“I haven’t seen you in many years-” I started, but she didn’t let me finish.

“Yes. I remember you. You were one of those boys that found my girl.”

“Yes, ma’am. I wondered if I could talk with you for a minute.”

She wasn’t looking at me, but at the boy I’d been. “Yes. You were the pretty blond one. Gave me a flower at Rennie’s funeral. And ain’t you grown up to be a handsome fellow?”

I felt a hot blush creep up my neck. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“Take a seat.” She gestured toward an afghan-shrouded rocking chair, saw the candy stains on her hands, and coughing, pulled a tissue from the crevice of her cleavage and wiped her hands and her mouth. “Pardon me, I was just having a little snack while watching my show.” She pointed to the TV. “You ever watch the Reverend Coleman?”

I glanced at the television and the strutting, high-haired evangelist that shone on the screen. A number at the bottom promised prayer in return for a donation. “No, I haven’t.”

“He’s a good man. I don’t send him any money, but I sure enjoy hearing him preach.” Her eyes, intelligently shrewd, were back on me. “What can I do you for, Mr. Poteet? You like something to drink?”

A drink sounded agreeable; my throat had dried like an autumn leaf. “Yes, please, ma’am. That’d be nice.”

“You don’t mind getting it yourself, do you? I got some Kool-Aid in the fridge. I don’t got no Cokes or tea ’cause my daughter ain’t doing my shopping till tomorrow. ’Less you want water to sip.”

“No, Kool-Aid sounds fine.” I stood.

“Cups are above the sink.” I stepped out of her den, around the corner to the kitchen. It was clean but cluttered, a stack of rinsed dishes in the sink, a fridge covered with vegetable-shaped magnets that pinned pictures of smiling grandchildren to the metal. I found two glasses and the pitcher of cherry Kool-Aid. I carried the glasses and pitcher back to the den and poured us each a drink.

“Thank you,” she said.

Sipping at the punch, I tried to keep from making a face. It tasted disgustingly sweet, as though it had more sugar than powdered mix in it. I forced myself to swallow.

“I-” I didn’t know where to begin. “I guess you’re surprised to see me.” I took a deep breath, as if I were diving for the cool bottom of Lake Bonaparte, and plunged in. Thomasina Clifton watched me, her head tilted to one side with curiosity.

“I wanted to discuss Rennie. Her death.”


“Have you heard about the two murders in town since Friday?”

Thomasina Clifton nodded. “Yeah, on the radio.”

“Those murdered men were also two of the boys who found your daughter’s body.”

Her eyes narrowed in the folds of flesh, but she remained silent.

“Clevey Shivers and Trey Slocum. Clevey was on the staff of The Mirabeau Mirror. I suspect he was writing a story on Rennie. After he was killed, the police found notes on Rennie’s case. Old newspaper clippings. He’d hidden them behind his toilet.”

“I don’t understand. Why?”

“I don’t know. Did Clevey Shivers ever come and talk to you about your daughter?”

She didn’t answer at first and I took another gulp of the dreadful Kool-Aid, wondering if it’d rot my teeth.

“He came by a couple of months ago. He was writing an anniversary piece on the hurricane. He asked me all about how much I missed Rennie.” She offered the box of chocolates to me; I declined. She popped one in her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. “Ain’t that the stupidest thing you ever heard? Asking a mother if she misses her child? That Clevey fellow just kept saying how sorry he was about her dying.”

“Did you ever think that maybe her death wasn’t an accident?” I asked. “I know the coroner said it was.”

“I know what that coroner man said,” she answered gruffly. She glanced at the pitcher. “Pour me some more, would you? My throat’s dry.”

I refilled her glass. She sipped. “Rennie was trouble then and she’s trouble now.”

That seemed a heartless way to refer to your dead child, but Mrs. Clifton’s voice was anything but callous. Mournful and bitter. I sat again.

“Do you know why on earth she would have been out in the middle of a hurricane?”

Thomasina Clifton didn’t answer me right away. When she did, her voice was lower in pitch, like she’d chalked her throat. “I don’t know. Finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? She was gone a lot of the time without explanation. I couldn’t control her easy.”

It wasn’t an answer; it was her own grief speaking. I stayed silent.

“Maybe she was gatherin’ flowers for that lady she worked for.” Mrs. Clifton shifted in her chair.

The premise was ridiculous, but it was an opening, and I went for it. “Ivalou Purcell? How did Rennie get along with her?”

“Not well. That Purcell woman was jealous of Rennie. Jealous of how young and pretty a girl she was.”

I thought of Ivalou’s sour face, the pinched way she looked at people. Envy seemed right up her alley.

“Could you be more specific?”

“You got to understand what kind of girl Rennie was,” Mrs. Clifton said, sipping from her sugared drink. “Headstrong. Did what she pleased and ever-body else be damned. Lord, she was a handful to me. Willful at times, if she didn’t get what she wanted.”

“And what did she want?”

“I shouldn’t-I shouldn’t talk about my child this way.” She stared up at a picture on the TV, an old, grainy color photo of herself with three young girls. “That’s Rennie in the middle. My other girls still live here in town. They’se married with they own kids now. I don’t want to talk about Rennie.”

I knelt by her and took her hand. “Mrs. Clifton. I don’t want to dredge up unpleasant memories for you. I’m sorry if I have. But two men have died, a third’s been shot, and I think it might have to do with your daughter’s death. Please, won’t you help me, before someone else gets hurt?”

Her ample fingers closed convulsively over mine. Her bottom lip trembled. “She was pregnant when she died,” Mrs. Clifton whispered. “I begged them to keep it out of the papers. I used to clean for old Dud Schiller, who was the editor then. He kept it out of the news. She was only six weeks along. My baby was pregnant.” She began to cry, short heaving sobs. I held her hand and rubbed her shoulder till she was still.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “It must’ve been a horrible shock.”

“That she was pregnant? Not so much as you think. She was always stringin’ some boy along.” Thomasina Clifton mopped at her tears. “That was part of the reason that Ivalou Purcell hated her so. She thought Rennie was after her daughter’s beau.”

“Wanda’s boyfriend?” It didn’t make sense until I remembered that Wanda was about four years older than Ed. That distinction hardly matters in your thirties, but when Ed and I were twelve, Wanda would have been Rennie’s age.

“Yeah. A football player that Wanda was sweet on named Glenn Wilson. He died a few years back in a car wreck. He was seeing Rennie, secret like. She thought I didn’t know, but I did.” She sniffed. “A white boy and a black girl couldn’t really have dated out in the open then, but I saw ’em kissin’ on the porch one night. God, it made me mad. I tried to tell her she had no business datin’ a white boy, but she didn’t pay me no heed. She always went for fellows she thought she couldn’t have.”

I remembered Glenn Wilson. He’d been a big, likable guy, easygoing, popular in town. He’d played football for Sam Houston State and married a college sweetheart. I even remembered hearing about when he and his wife had been killed three years ago, driving back to Houston after the Labor Day weekend. Everyone said what a terrible shame it was.

Had he gotten Rennie Clifton pregnant? Had Wanda or Ivalou found out? How would they? And why, still, was she out in the middle of that storm?

“Did you know Rennie was pregnant before she died?”

Mrs. Clifton shook her head. “No. She didn’t tell me. I guess she knew, though. Her period was always real regular.”

Maybe she’d seen a doctor. Maybe-I remembered the clinic. “Did she ever mention a fellow named Steven Teague?”

Mrs. Clifton furrowed her face in thought. “Not that I recall. Who’s he?”

“A psychotherapist who lived here around the time Rennie died.”

She shook her head. “Don’t recognize the name. Rennie was a handful, but she sure weren’t crazy.”

I knelt by her again. “Did you ever think that Rennie was murdered, Mrs. Clifton?”

She took several deep breaths. “I didn’t want to. I wanted to believe it was just God callin’ her home. When they told me she was with child, I thought that Glenn had killed her when he’d found out… but that didn’t seem right. He wasn’t the kind of boy to kill. That Wanda, though…” She left her sentence unfinished. “There wasn’t no evidence she’d been murdered. The coroner said it was an accident. I couldn’t argue. I didn’t.”

“Was there anyone else you suspected?” I asked.

“No. No one else wanted to hurt my girl. She didn’t have many friends, she kept to herself, she worked at Miz Purcell’s, and she helped me out some with my work.”

“She helped you with your housecleaning?”

“Yeah, she sometimes helped if I had a big house to clean.”

“Who were you working for when Rennie died?” She scratched her chins, and began rattling off names. Grayson, Kucerak, Hubbert, Montgomery-names that didn’t connect to the case. I didn’t bite my lip till she mentioned Hart Quadlander.

I parked the car in my driveway, noting automatically that Sister’s car was still gone and neither Candace’s nor Clo’s car was there. I only hoped that Mama hadn’t been left to her own devices.

I rubbed my eyes. I’d left Thomasina Clifton forlorn with her oversweet Kool-Aid and a load of terrible memories to mull over. I was a jerk, no doubt about it. The limp body of Rennie Clifton rose through the currents of my memory, as clearly as when I’d first seen her corpse, and I tried to force her out of my mind. Trey’s body replaced hers, and then Clevey’s face, smiling in a rictus of death. The gagging cherry taste of the Kool-Aid came back into my mouth and I swallowed hard. I needed food and sleep and some quiet to think.

I thought I’d get those restoratives right away. Until I opened the front door and saw my house had been ransacked.


“Your tie is crooked,” I said, straightening the dark knot at Mark’s throat.

“Does it matter?” He squirmed under my ministrations.

“Yes, it does matter. You want to look nice for your father’s funeral.”

“No one’ll care. He wouldn’t have.” Mark twisted away from me, knocking his tie further askew. I surrendered and watched him storm off. He’d passed from pretending that he hadn’t seen his father’s life leak away on that cold kitchen floor to anger toward Trey-and toward the world. And I, friend to his father, bore the brunt of most of Mark’s wrath.

The back door slapped against the frame as he bolted onto the porch. I settled on the couch. The house had returned to a semblance of order after I’d found it in disarray yesterday afternoon. At first I’d figured we’d been burglarized, but nothing was missing. Drawers were pulled out, papers scattered, books yanked from shelves, pictures wrenched off the wall. A hurried, frantic search had been made.

Mama, first in my thoughts, turned out to be enjoying a visit to Candace’s cafe with Clo. Mark had been out for a long walk with Scott Kinnard. (I found that highly interesting, but Mark volunteered no details. I didn’t pry. If those boys could be friends, share memories of the man they’d both wanted for a father, I wouldn’t interfere.) No one had been home, no one had been hurt. I’d called the police and reported the break-in (apparently accomplished by knocking out a pane of the backdoor window) and had started a desultory cleanup by the time Sister got home. A good night’s sleep had done wonders for my constitution.

Now I reclined on the couch, watching Mark stare out at the yard. Sister came downstairs, dressed in a black skirt, a white blouse, and a black jacket (she didn’t have a proper black dress, and I felt a pang that maybe I don’t provide enough for her), and putting in her earrings. Her eye remained discolored. She’d applied makeup to the bruise, but a purplish half circle still shone beneath the cream.

“Not much makeup is going to do for that shiner,” I observed.

She didn’t break stride as she went to the window to watch Mark. “I tried to hide it, but I’m stuck with it. I’ll wear dark glasses.”

“Who hit you, Sister?” I might as well try again.

“I told you, no one.” She glanced at me in irritation.

“I know you’re lying. And I know you were at Trey’s house the morning of the murder.” I stood. I wasn’t going to stand there and smile like a wimp at her prevarication.

Her jaw worked. “What on earth are you talking about?”

“I found a shred of fabric on a nail on the Kinnards’ back steps right after Trey died. It was from those batik print pants I gave you. You were wearing them that morning.”

Her shoulders gave a slow heave, as if creaking out from under a heavy burden.

Sister turned away from me to look out at Mark. “And what did you do with this scrap? Give it to Junebug? Is that why he took himself off the case?”

“No. I hid it.”

“Maybe that’s what our burglar was looking for.”

“I don’t think so. No one knows I have it.”

“And what are you going to do with it? When were you planning on giving it to the police?”

My throat felt dry. I thought when I confronted her with my shred of evidence that there would be protestations of innocence, pleadings, denials, possibly a full explanation-anything except this calm discussion. She was implacably set on her own unknown course, and nothing I said swayed her. “For God’s sake, tell me. Did you kill him?” With quivering hands she put on her sunglasses. “It’s nice to know your own brother thinks you’re capable of murdering someone.” She turned away and went outside on the porch, putting her arms around her boy. They held each other, lost in their own world of bereavement and betrayal. I stood and watched them until it was time to go.

Like nearly everyone, I don’t like funerals, although for some reason I find the Mirabeau cemetery peaceful and oddly reassuring. Perhaps I take comfort in knowing where my bones will lie.

Mirabeau’s new Episcopal church, St-George’s-on-the-River, had been finished just a few months ago to much fanfare. It was the first new church in town in fifteen years. (We local Anglicans, who’d been raised in churches in Bavary and La Grange, took great pleasure in its opening.) Although Clevey had strayed from the flock, Truda Shivers had remained a steadfast Episcopalian. Trey, although baptized, did not have a steady faith, according to Nola. Since he’d been married in the Episcopal church, a service at St. George’s seemed appropriate for him as well.

The church, not large to begin with, was packed. The celebrant, Father Greene, preceded the pallbearers wheeling the caskets into the church. The families of the dead men followed like hushed sheep. My arms around Mark and Sister, I walked down the aisle with them, faces leaping out at me from the crowd: Davis; his wife, Cayla; their son, Bradley, looking awkward and fidgety in a suit; Ed and Wanda (who had fortunately decided to bypass her Elvis regalia); Ivalou Purcell, frowning at us; Steven Teague, a look of professional sorrow on his face, standing with Eula Mae. One corner held my library contingent of Itasca, Florence, and even Gretchen, and I felt touched they were here. Candace’s parents sat in a row near the family reserve. Junebug’s clan was absent, still maintaining their ceaseless vigil at the hospital.

When we settled into our seats, the front left pews were full of Shiverses from near and far, while the right front pews held Sister, Mark, me, assorted relatives of ours, Candace, Hart Quadlander, and the Kinnards. I saw Nola shoot Sister a particularly venomous glance at one point, but Sister didn’t notice. Nola caught me looking and defiance crossed her face. She stared down into her lap, a lock of loose brown hair dangling over her forehead.

“I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord,” Father Greene began as we joined in, prayer books in hand, those not used to the service fumbling to the correct page. I mumbled along, trying to convince myself I was actually saying these words for Trey and Clevey. My throat felt molten-this was the beginning of goodbye.

“O God, whose mercies cannot be numbered. Accept our prayers on behalf of thy servants Clevey and Trey, and grant them an entrance into the land of light and joy, in the fellowship of thy saints-” Father Greene implored, and I thought: Trey will find the fellowship of saints quite dull. A cousin of Clevey’s rose and stepped to the pulpit to read the usual passages from Isaiah and Lamentations. “The Lord is good unto them that wait for him,” he said, and I thought of minutes stretched into hours, into days, into years that we had waited for Trey.

Mark sat between Sister and me, my arm around him, my hand on her shoulder. She held her purse stiffly, staring straight ahead, ignoring both prayer book and Bible, her sunglasses hiding her marred face. I couldn’t see if tears moistened her eyes. Mark’s neck felt rigid against my arm. I watched Truda Shivers; she sat between her sisters, her head held high. She would see her son off in dignity.

I risked a glance over my shoulder. Hart Quadlander had a comforting arm around Nola Kinnard, who was dabbing at her tears with a wad of tissue and making snuffling noises. Scott held her hand and his eyes met mine. Oddly, he smiled shyly, then looked down again at his mother’s lap. It suddenly struck me that they had known an entirely different Trey than I had; a man with a family he’d abandoned, a past he’d just as soon not acknowledge. I wondered if he was happy with them, or if he was ever lonesome for his own child when he played with Scott, or missed the soft press of his wife’s arms when he hugged Nola. They were probably decent enough folks, but I didn’t think they were worthy substitutes for Sister and Mark. I admit to personal bias.

Hart caught me looking and I turned back toward the pulpit. While psalms were read, I thought again about what Thomasina Clifton had told me: Hart Quadlander was one of her clients, and she remembered at least one time when Rennie had gone out to the Quadlander farm to help her clean. I wondered if he knew the girl, or remembered her. But then wouldn’t Trey have known her? He’d always maintained Rennie was a stranger to him.

We stood for the Gospel and were duly told that in our father’s house are many mansions. I didn’t pay much attention to the service, having gone through it by rote too many times. I felt guiltily glad Sister and the Shiverses had declined to have Communion at the service. Before I knew it, we were standing, ready to continue the service with the Committal at the grave sites. We stepped out into kind sunshine, a welcome break from the drizzly rains of the last several days.

Clevey’s burial came first. I hung back from the crowd, conscious of Davis and his family near me. I listened to the calming tones of Father Greene and tried not to think about the gap-toothed carrot-top I’d grown up with who would lie moldering in that casket. I started when the dirt hit the coffin. Slowly, people walked toward their cars, to head to the Quadlander farm. Louis Slocum, Trey’s father, was buried there and we’d arranged for Trey to be buried next to his father.

Louis Slocum had been interred near the creekside oaks where he’d gotten rip-roaring drunk so many nights. I sometimes wondered if he’d favored the quiet company of the leaves and the breeze and the trees more than of people, He had teen terribly neglectful of Trey, and I’d always thought him a low fellow because of it. Now Trey was coming home, and would share his father’s company forever. Death conducts every final reunion.

We stood again by a grave, the second ceremony seeming like an eerie echo of the first, as though Clevey’s burial had been a dress rehearsal and Trey’s was the true performance.

“Thou knowest, Lord,” Father Greene intoned for the second time that day, “the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer…” The secrets of our hearts. I glanced at Sister, with her terrible secret, her bruised face a badge of deception. Why wouldn’t she tell me the truth? Who could she be protecting? Candace’s hand closed around mine and I squeezed it.

The sun shone bright, the clouds having retreated to a bluish-gray smudge near the horizon, but the day was still chilly. I saw Mark shiver as Father Greene cast earth upon his father’s coffin. Mark did not look at his mother or at me. He stared down into his father’s grave like it was some distant mirror. Candace leaned against me and I wrapped my arm around her, feeling her comforting warmth.

This was the legitimate goodbye, I thought. The goodbye to Trey was never said before because he walked away from us. Was he watching us now, a slight smile on his face that his wife and his son were-

“Bitch,” a voice softly said, barely breaking the drone of Father Greene’s somnolent voice. I had almost thought I’d imagined it until the word repeated, harder, more forcefully. “You bitch, you killed him!”

At one corner of the grave Nola Kinnard stood, her hands clenched into fists, her upswept, overmoussed brown hair not moving in the breeze. Tears mottled her angry face. She was too close to the edge of the grave and a rain of pebbles and muddy clods rained down on the casket.

“Nola, for God’s sake!” Hart seized her arm and pulled her back from the open ground.

She wrenched free from him. “I can’t stand here while the bitch that murdered him stands there and watches him put in the ground! Look at her! Look at her face!”

Scott seized his mother’s arm and tried to hush her. “Mom, please, don’t! Don’t!”

“We all know you did it! You hit him! You told him to stay away from your precious brat! And when he didn’t want to, when he wanted to see his boy, you killed him! You killed him!” She broke into heaving sobs, cradling Scott’s head in her arm as he struggled against her.

Hart shot me a look of distress and tried to steer Nola and Scott away from the grave. She jerked away from him, releasing Scott, and launched herself at Ed Dickensheets, burying her face against his shoulder. Embarrassed, he held her awkwardly, trying to stroke her hairsprayed helmet of hair in comfort. Wanda gaped at Nola, not knowing what to do under these funereal circumstances. Ivalou was more inventive, yanking on Nola’s arm, calling her a mean-faced little hussy in a sharp whisper.

I turned to my sister. She stood statue still. I couldn’t see her eyes behind the midnight dark of her sunglasses. Mark pressed against her side, watching the spectacle of Nola with horror. Candace embraced Sister from behind, murmuring comfort.

I tried to speak, but I couldn’t. Those dark lenses were boring through me. What was I supposed to say? This morning I’d made the same suggestion, although not quite so aggressively as Nola.

Nola, perhaps realizing the focus of attention had shifted from her, broke away from the red-faced Ed, shoved her way past an outraged Ivalou, and stormed toward Sister. I interceded, hearing a dismayed Father Greene begging Nola to calm down, moving in front of her as she stepped over the corner of Trey’s grave.

“Listen here, you just stop this right now,” I demanded, and she slapped me once, smartly, across the face. I seized her hand and she slapped me with her other. I seized it as well, my cheeks red as Christmas cherries, and I shook Nola in fury.

“Stop it! Shut up!” I screamed in her face, and she wrenched away from me, trying to kick me in the shins. She would have toppled into the grave if I hadn’t had hold of her. Suddenly Davis was on one side of me, Hart on the other, pulling Nola away. She flayed me with a look of pure poison as I released her and Hart hurried her toward the house. She stumbled once but did not look back at us. Steven Teague followed at a respectful distance, probably ready to provide vast amounts of psychotherapy.

Shock silenced the crowd. Except for a sudden, screaming keen as Bradley Foradory sank to the ground.

“That,” Candace offered as I poured her a cup of coffee, “was a hell of a service.” She maneuvered me gently against the kitchen counter and planted a kiss on my cheek. “I don’t believe you’ve sustained any permanent damage. Of course a more thorough investigation will be called for later.”

I smiled at her teasing, her sweet way of coaxing me back toward everyday life. I needed days empty of tragedy and sorrow. I needed days with Candace, time with her, time with my family. I returned her kiss, tasting the spot between her eyes. “I’ll look forward to that, sweetheart.” I fetched a second cup down from the cabinet and filled it with fresh coffee. “Let me take this to Sister, see how she’s feeling.”

The living room was finally empty. The mourners had returned to both our house and the Shivers place for the traditional postfuneral gathering, to eat and drink and converse in hushed tones. Our house was undoubtedly the greater social attraction; no one had called Truda a murderer during the funeral. I’d forced myself to maintain a placid air as people crowded and jostled each other on our porches, in our living room.

Cayla and Davis Foradory had phoned their regrets in. “We just can’t make it, Jordy,” Cayla said in a forced tone. “Poor Bradley was just so upset by the funeral, it’s best he stay home. You do understand, don’t you?”

“Of course, Cayla. May I speak to Davis for a moment?”

She coughed. “Well, Davis is getting Bradley settled. How about I have him call you when things calm down?”

“Sure, Cayla.”

“Please give my best to Arlene and Mark. And Truda.”

“Of course.” I hung up the phone slowly, feeling the tinge of unease I always felt after talking to Cayla. Bradley Foradory might be retarded, but he was hardly high-strung. Generally he was a happy fellow, smiling and likable. Yet the funeral had thumped some horribly raw nerve to set him screaming and crying like that. What was wrong with Bradley?

Although Bradley’s outburst generated a certain amount of talk, it couldn’t hold a candle to Nola’s dramatics. I’d caught Ivalou Purcell murmuring to her daughter, “Well, Arlene showed more restraint with that Nola than she did with Trey. She didn’t hit her.” I’d forced myself not to stop and chew the old bitch out. There had been enough unpleasant scenes today.

Now Sister sat alone with Mama in the living room. Mama had not attended the funeral, but Clo had dressed her in a dark robe. Always one to get an early start on the holidays, Mama was humming the tune of “Away in a Manger,” which she’d plucked somehow from the quicksand of her memory. Sister didn’t appear to be noticing, still wearing her dark jacket and skirt, her sunglasses finally off, her hair a blonde tousle around her shoulders.

I sat down and handed the fee coffee. She accepted it wordlessly, took a sip, and said, “I have to get down to the hospital and see how Junebug’s doing.”

“Don’t you think you’ve done enough for today?” I said. “I’m sure Barbara or the doctors will call us if there’s a change. You need some rest.”

“There have been two men in my adult life I’ve loved, Jordy. I buried one today. And the other one may not make it out of the hospital. I don’t think I can sleep any.”

“You’ll make yourself sick, Sister.”

“Spare me the worried-brother act. You practically accused me of killing Trey this morning.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t believe you killed him, but I had to know for sure. You still didn’t answer my question.”

She rubbed her eye. “I didn’t kill him.”

“Then tell me. Were you over there that morning?”

Fatigue had won out against her defenses. “Yes, all right. I stopped by on my way to work. Even with it being a cold day, I wore those stupid pants ’cause it gets hot in the kitchen and they’re comfortable.”

“What happened?”

Her voice took a distant tone as she spoke, “He was there. Alone. He let me in, said he was even glad to see me as long as I wasn’t there to blacken his other eye.” She sipped at her coffee and closed her eyes.

“Oh, he looked bad, Jordy. You’d seen him. He was a shell of the man he’d been. He’d had so much energy, so much power in his body. That man in the chair had nothing.” She shivered. “I apologized for hitting him-and said I hoped he wasn’t gonna press charges. He laughed and I started to cry. He said I looked wonderful to him. He said… he’d missed me.”

I took a long breath while she paused. “And what effect did all this sweet talk have?”

She shook her head. “Part of me wanted to belt him again. Part of me wanted to tell him to never darken our door. Part of me wanted to hold him. Stupid, huh?”

“No.” I squeezed her shoulder.

“He asked to see Mark. I explained I thought that was a bad idea, that Mark needed more time to get used to the idea of his father back in his life before he saw Trey face-to-face. Trey said I was stalling. He begged, Jordy. He begged to see Mark and I kept saying no.”

“So when’d you get the black eye?”

Sister paid me no heed. “I finally asked him why he’d come home after all this time-why hadn’t he just stayed away? He wouldn’t look at me for a while, then he said that he’d finally stared death in the face and it had made him a man. I said that was crazy, and he said you’d understand.”

I eased back on the couch. Famous words from Trey from the tree house. It’d been his argument for our foolishness that long-ago day.

“So,” Sister continued, sniffing, “he said abandoning us was the most terrible mistake he’d ever made. He wanted to come home more times than he could count, but he was too ashamed. And he said he knew I wouldn’t take him back, and he was afraid Mark would reject him. It wasn’t till after that bull nearly killed him that he decided to come home.”

I didn’t say anything. I saw Candace standing at the kitchen door, tears in her eyes, her fingertips on her lips.

Sister looked up at the ceiling-or perhaps past it, toward God and heaven. “He said he still loved me, he’d never stopped loving me. And he wanted to be a father to Mark. I told him it was impossible, it could never be like it was before. He pleaded with me, and I ran out.” She started crying again.

“I don’t understand. When did you get the black eye?”

“Oh,” she said, wiping tears away. I handed her a tissue. She dabbed at her eyes. “I stumbled when I fell down the stairs. I hit my face.” Sister got up and retreated to the kitchen. She looked back at me. “Now you know everything, Jordy. Happy? If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get something to eat, take a shower, and go to the hospital.” She ducked past Candace, who regarded me with concern.

“She’ll be okay, Jordy. She just needs time.”

I didn’t say anything; I just sat back down. Trey had neglected to tell Sister the most important point of all: just why had he so regretfully left Mirabeau in the first place?


Franklin Bedloedrummed his pencil against his pad as I finished talking.

“Well, you’ve been busy,” he said. I couldn’t tell quite yet if he was angry or not.

I’d invited him to stop by, and when he arrived, basically I’d spilled my guts. What I’d found out from Ed, from Scott, from Steven Teague, from Thomasina Clifton, from Hart. The only item I omitted was that dogged bit of Sister’s pants. She’d told me what I believed was the truth about her seeing Trey and there was no need to tell Franklin about it. At least in my judgment. I could pinch a penny if I gave him a pound.

“Well, we had been talking to Mr. Teague about his treatment of Mr. Shivers,” Franklin began uncertainly, then stopped. I waited politely. Junebug had always told me Franklin was a bright fellow with a future. I hoped he was right, but I wondered if having been shoved into the role of acting chief had overwhelmed him.

“Look, I really wasn’t trying to snoop, Franklin. I know Junebug’s told you I have a propensity to stick my nose in. I can’t help it if information comes my way. That’s why I’m sharing it with you. You do with it what you think best.”

Franklin jotted a final note and shut his book. “Well, all this is real interesting, Jordy, but I’m not sure how it bears on the case. Especially the Rennie Clifton connection.”

“But that stuff you found in Clevey’s house-”

“We don’t have an explanation for it yet,” he said calmly. “And I’m in the business of evidence, not conjecture. You haven’t shown me one shred of evidence-only hearsay about both Clevey and Trey.”

I opened my mouth to speak and shut it promptly. He was right. I’d built a house of cards and he was the wind.

“Then I’m sorry if I’ve wasted your time, Franklin. I just feel so angry about what happened to Junebug, I thought-”

“Jordy, listen, I do understand. Everyone at the station’s determined we’re gonna catch this bastard. I appreciate the information you’ve given us. We’ll take it from here.”

He stood and we shook hands. When I showed him to the door, Hart Quadlander’s truck was pulling into the driveway. Franklin gave Hart a polite nod and drove off in his cruiser.

Trouble with the police?” Hart asked as I let him and Scott in the door. I helped them off with their coats and hung them on the pegs. Scott eyed Mark nervously as I ushered them into the living room.

“Mark, I’m sorry about my mom. She’s just really upset. But she still shouldn’t have said what she did.” Scott’s eyes held real apology. “I don’t know what else to say. I’m sorry she hit you, Jordy.”

“How’s she doing?” I made myself ask. I thought Nola Kinnard needed a good rest home, but I wasn’t about to suggest that in front of her son.

“She’s okay. Steven Teague talked to her for a while and he got Dr. Meyer to prescribe a tranquilizer for her.” Hart squeezed Mark’s shoulder. “It was unforgivable what she did at your father’s funeral, Mark. I am terribly, terribly sorry for the way Nola behaved. So is Scott; he wanted to come over and make amends. I hope you’ll understand that Nola is just very grief-stricken. I think she’s going to be ashamed of herself when she has a little time to consider her actions.”

Mark shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter to me what Nola does. She doesn’t bother me none.”

“My mom, she’s not a bad person at all.” Scott tried again, and I could see the pain in his eyes. He had to be horribly humiliated by Nola’s antics. “But you probably don’t believe that.”

Mark shrugged again. “My mom’s done goofy things when she’s upset. Uncle Jordy says women are like that.”

“I did not!” I bristled. I was glad Candace wasn’t around to hear that little divulgence.

“Anyhow, just so everything could be cool, I brought you this.” Scott pulled a Swiss army knife out of his pocket and held it out to Mark. “Like I said, I’m sorry about all the fuss with my mom. I hope you and I can still be friends.”

Mark blinked, taken aback by Scott’s generosity. Finally he reached out, took it, and started a detailed examination of the gift. “Wow, it’s a nice one. Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Thank you, Scott, that’s very kind,” I said.

“You want some pie?” Mark offered, slipping into the role of host and pocketing the knife. Scott nodded and the two boys headed off to the kitchen. I sat down heavily after Hart declined my offer of coffee.

“I’m beat,” I told Hart. “You’re still hosting the Kinnards?”

Hart shook his head. “I can’t say I care much for Nola. Scott’s a good kid, but that woman is a trial. She’s one of those ladies who doesn’t quite know how to manage without a man in her life. I’m afraid she must’ve leeched onto poor Trey. She’s already casting about for the next victim.”

“Are you a candidate?” I asked boldly.

He laughed softly, his voice rich-timbred. It was a good laugh, the kind my dad had used. “Hardly. I made that clear to her right quick. But she’s sure sniffing around old Ed Dickensheets. Stupid of her to be chasing after a married man.”

“He says he’s not interested,” I said.

“Would you be? Lord, that woman’s a sight.”

“That’s a shame. Scott seems rather lonely. I think he needs a family and friends. I was there when he found out about Trey. He took it like his heart had been ripped out.”

“I feel for the boy,” Hart said, “but I imagine you won’t have to concern yourself with him too much longer. I don’t think his mama will be staying in Mirabeau if she doesn’t land Ed or some other fool as her next conquest.”

“May I ask you something entirely off the subject of Nola?”

He nodded.

“Do you remember a girl named Rennie Clifton?”

I saw it in his face. Sudden shock at the name’s mention. “Good Lord, yes. That poor girl that died in the hurricane when you and Trey were little boys. Her mama used to clean house for me. What on earth has brought her name up, Jordy?”

I postponed answering his question. “Did you know her?”

He shook his head. “Not well. I remember meeting her a couple of times when she came to help her mama out. But I can’t say I knew her better than to say hello to. She didn’t always come with Thomasina. Why?”

“I just wondered if you remembered her. Her name came up when I was reminiscing with Davis today- talking about other tragedies our group of friends has faced.” I really surprise myself with my facility for fibbing sometimes. It’s good I have an honest heart. “We were trying to remember who her friends were in town.”

He shrugged. “Fraid I never knew the young lady well enough to answer that. Speaking of Davis, what spooked his boy today at the funeral?”

“I don’t know. That certainly wasn’t typical of Bradley. I’ve never seen him act that way.”

“Death makes us all act odd, Jordy. Bradley’s no exception. Maybe a boy with a delicate mind like his, he just found two funerals overwhelming.”

It sounded good, but I wasn’t convinced. There was more to Bradley Foradory’s dismayed scream than grief.

A call to Sister at the hospital revealed no improvement in Junebug’s condition. He was still breathing on his own, his heart pumping strongly-but he was still asleep and wasn’t waking up. I wondered what we’d do if he never roused. It was a thought I didn’t want to dwell on.

Candace had gone to tend to business at the Sit-a-Spell, and Mark was upstairs watching television. I fretted about him being alone, but he seemed fine and I decided to respect his privacy. I remembered after my daddy died I’d needed time alone, intervals without well-meaning folks hovering over me like flies swarming above honey. I could hear the drone of the little black-and-white TV in his room.

I felt restless, despite my exhaustion, and I opened a cold beer and paced around the living room. Someone had broken in and searched my house for something damned important to them. And I thought I knew what it was.

One event, as far as I could see, had triggered two murders and the attack on Junebug: Trey’s arrival home. Regardless of whatever side issues might be attached to this case, Trey’s homecoming seemed the hub that the entire case turned upon, the firecracker thrown into the crowd to stampede them into action. So the ransacking of the house had to be related to Trey’s return. The only link I could see was Scott’s shocking claim that Trey corresponded with Mama. The people present when Scott made that announcement were my family, Candace, Eula Mae Quiff, Wanda Dickensheets, Hart Quadlander, Steven Teague, and Bradley Foradory. The only reason I could think of for a burglary where nothing was taken was that someone was looking for Mama’s correspondence with Trey-perhaps because a letter of Trey’s might have very well mentioned why he left Mirabeau. And that secret, too long in shadow and threatening to be brought to light, might have been the reason for his and Clevey’s deaths.

So, I reasoned, our burglar had to be one of those present-or someone they’d told with a vested interest in rinding the letters. Bradley might have mentioned Scott’s news to his parents; Wanda could have told her mother, Ivalou, or her husband, Ed. I doubted that Hart would have told Nola that he’d brought Scott to our house, but perhaps Scott had finally told her about his burgeoning friendship with Mark. It didn’t do much to weed out the suspect list.

Suspect list, I thought in some disbelief. Because not only had I been prepared to believe that my sister had a hand in murder, I was now ready to accuse people I’d known my entire life. I set my beer down on the table. Ridiculous, I told myself, you’ve watched too much Murder, She Wrote.

But the house had been searched. That was undeniable.

I could pare the list down further, I thought, by bringing Rennie Clifton into the equation. Who could have had motive to kill her twenty years ago? I’d found that she’d worked occasionally for Hart Quadlander and regularly for Ivalou Purcell; she’d secretly wooed a boy Wanda Dickensheets claimed; and although I couldn’t discern a connection between her and Steven Teague, he’d left town shortly after her death. If her alleged white beau, Glenn, was still alive, I’d have wondered about him as well, but he’d already gone to his reward.

The phone ringing interrupted my mental ramblings. It was Candace, sounding overly polite and none too pleased.

“Get your butt over here right now, Jordan Poteet.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Never you mind. You and I are going to have a conversation.”

“Aren’t we doing that right now?”

“No. Get over here, please.”

“Look, I’m not leaving Mark and Mama here. Not after our house was broken into yesterday!” Whatever bee had gotten in her trousers was going to have to just buzz.

“Fine. We’ll be over in a bit, just as soon as I close up.” She slammed the phone down before I could answer.


It turned out we meant Candace and the estimable Miss Ludey Murchison, the noted reader during the library’s Story Day presentations for the poppets of Mirabeau. Miss Ludey appeared resplendent in mismatched galoshes (the rain had abated yesterday, as I’ve already mentioned), white athletic socks that peeked above her inclement weather footgear, a full denim skirt with a rodeo’s lasso embroidered across it, a blouse that could only be described as Pepto-Bismol pink, and a Houston Oilers baseball cap. She greeted me with her usual friendly smile (helped, no doubt, by her dentures). Candace had a smile for me, too-tight and annoyed.

I quickly made Miss Ludey comfortable in the living room with a glass of iced tea and a slice of buttermilk pie. (Miss Ludey had said she’d prefer pecan pie, but told us-in gratuitous detail-of the shoddy adhesive qualities of her denture sealant, and she didn’t want to risk gumming a nut.) I, on the other hand, was quickly made to squirm by Candace.

“Miss Ludey says,” Candace began, “that you’ve been snooping again.”

“Pardon?” I said faintly.

“You went to see Thomasina Clifton and grilled her about her daughter’s death.”

“I had a talk with her. I would hardly call it a grilling. We had Kool-Aid.”

“Damn it. Listen to me, Jordan. This is a case for the police to solve, not you! Stay out of it. Why do you insist on sticking your nose in where it has no business?”

“Wait a second! Two of my friends are dead. Another may never wake up. My nephew and my sister have been put through hell. Someone broke into my house. And it’s not my business?” I turned to the inoffensive Miss Ludey, who apparently had already heard all Candace’s complaints against me. “Why’s Candace bothering you, Miss Ludey?”

As Miss Ludey had her mouth full of buttermilk pie, Candace deigned to answer for her. “Miss Ludey stopped in for dinner.”

“I don’t cook much since the kitchen fire,” Miss Ludey offered through half-swallowed pie crust. I didn’t ask for an explanation of what incendiary event she referred to.

“And she and I had an interesting chat. Did you know that Thomasina Clifton used to clean for Miss Ludey? They’re still old friends. Mrs. Clifton told Miss Ludey all about your visit.”

“Well?” I demanded. “What’s your point?”

“Jordan!” Candace said. “You have an unfortunate habit of playing detective. You shouldn’t. You’ve managed to get yourself involved in two murder cases, and both times you narrowly escaped with your life. I want to keep you safe!” Her voice rose in pleading.

I truly hate to see Candace beg, but I smiled anyway. She was worried about me. It was sweet. But I was not going to be deterred by baseless fears.

“Look, I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself. And I’m not investigating. Franklin Bedloe’s doing that. I’m just asking questions.” I considered it prudent not to mention to Candace my perusal of old papers, my discussion with Ed over Clevey’s plan to buy into KBAV, or my hiding of the scrap of cloth Sister left at the crime scene. Those activities didn’t exactly fall under asking questions.

Candace regarded me with a raised eyebrow. “Please don’t insult my intelligence, Jordan. You fancy yourself a regular bloodhound. Well, I think it’s time for a leash. How would you feel about New Orleans?”


“I adore New Orleans,” Miss Ludey piped up. “I met a sailor there once who could-”

“That’s nice, Miss Ludey. You can tell us all about it in a second.” Candace patted her knee kindly to avoid any detailed discussions of Miss Ludey’s past nightlife. “I think you could do with a change of scenery, Jordy. My brother and his wife would love to have you for a visit. I’ve already talked to Peter, and he said their house is open to you.”

“Excuse me? I’m not about to leave Mirabeau while Junebug’s in the hospital.”

“Someone,” Candace said, her usually calm voice growing strident, “put bullets in Trey, Clevey, and Junebug. Presumably that same someone broke into your house. You’ll excuse me if I prefer my men bullet-free.”


“Begging’s never been my strong suit,” she said, her voice steadying. “But now I’m pleading. Please, get out of town for a while. Go to New Orleans. You and Peter can party on Bourbon Street and drink at Pat O’s and take in a Saints game. Have a wild time. Drink and leer at women. I promise I won’t mind. Just go. ”

“I am,” and I made sure I enunciated clearly and calmly, “ not leaving Mirabeau. My sister needs me. My nephew needs me. Junebug needs me. And while I appreciate your concern, I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”

“This is not Cowboys and Indians, Jordan. This is real life. You could be a target and I won’t just stand here and-”

“If you ask me,” Miss Ludey interjected, “it was that nutty niece of mine.”

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“Wanda. The crazy one.” Miss Ludey leaned forward, talking in a conspiratorial whisper. “She’s not quite right in the head. Haven’t you seen her gallivanting around town, dressed like Elvis Presley? It’s downright embarrassing.”

I didn’t think Miss Ludey should be casting fashion stones, but I declined comment. My mind was on the odd interconnections that sew this town together. Miss Ludey was kin to Wanda and Ivalou? I hadn’t known that.

“Wanda’s your niece?” Candace asked, her chastisement of me momentarily suspended.

“Great-niece. I mean that in a genealogical sense. She’s never been that wonderful of a relative.” Miss Ludey picked a fragment of pie crust out from between her teeth.

“Miss Ludey, did you know Rennie Clifton?” I asked. Candace shot me a look (I was, after all, daring to investigate right in front of her), but she remained quiet.

“Well, sure I did. I knew her mama, and I met Rennie when she was in school. I used to substitute-teach sometimes.” This was another unknown episode in Miss Ludey’s history, and I tried not to think of her shaping young minds, even on a transient basis. “She was a very pretty girl. She could have had her pick of any of the colored boys. But she was sweet on Glenn Wilson.”

“And Wanda was dating him?” I prompted.

“Oh, yes. Wanda wasn’t dressing like Elvis then, but she was still a peculiar girl. She told me that she and Glenn were bound to get married after they graduated from school and they’d go off and work at Disneyland. She wanted to be Snow White and greet people in the park.”

It was certainly a fascinating career path that Wanda had planned for herself, but it wasn’t what I was interested in. “And Wanda was aware of the attraction between Glenn and Rennie?”

“Oh, yes. I heard her and her mother talking about it once. Wanda said she wasn’t going to put up with a nigger taking her man away.” Miss Ludey sniffed. “I have always found Wanda to be rather offensive in her choice of language. I should have read to her more when she was little.”

“And how did Ivalou feel about all this? After all, she was Rennie’s boss. She could have fired her.”

“Oh, Wanda insisted on her mother firing Rennie. But Ivalou pointed out that if she kept Rennie busy at the flower shop, then Rennie wouldn’t have time to be out sparking with Glenn. And Ivalou told Wanda she needed to learn how to keep Glenn from straying.”

“Just how’d you know all this, Miss Ludey?” Candace asked, a trace of skepticism coloring her tone.

“I overheard them at Ivalou’s flower shop, not long before Rennie was killed. Wanda and Ivalou were arguing about it in Ivalou’s office on a day Rennie wasn’t working. I’d come in to order flowers. My mama’s birthday was coming up and I always put flowers on my mama’s grave for her birthday and for Christmas.”

“Your memory seems rather keen on the details,” Candace said, not unkindly.

“My dear,” Miss Ludey answered with a dose of asperity, “how many times do you hear two relatives discussing a black girl who is about to steal one’s man? It wasn’t a conversation I was likely to forget.” Candace was quiet, glancing at me.

“You said this was right before your mother’s birthday, Miss Ludey. How long before Hurricane Althea was that?”

“Barely a week.” Miss Ludey answered without hesitation. “I found it a trifle disconcerting that Wanda and Ivalou had that discussion about Rennie and then the poor child ended up dead.”

“You didn’t think one of them-” Candace began.

“When Ivalou said she wasn’t going to fire Rennie, Wanda stormed out of that office and shoved right past me without even saying hello. She had the fire of hell in her eyes. And when I walked into Ivalou’s office, she looked downright icy. I asked her what Wanda had her panties in a wad about, and Ivalou just said it was business she- meaning Ivalou-would have to take care of for Wanda. Ivalou didn’t know I’d heard as much as I had.”

“But Rennie Clifton died in a hurricane, Miss Ludey,” Candace said. I shook my head at her. Some people are still clinging to outmoded notions in Mirabeau.

“Maybe. Maybe not,” Miss Ludey said. “Our whole family had decided to wait out the hurricane together at my brother Ralph’s house, and Ivalou and Wanda both didn’t show up until after the storm was over. Ivalou got there about an hour after the storm had passed, and Wanda showed up about three hours later. Ralph was frantic about them both. But all I know is, Rennie Clifton was dead, and Glenn Wilson broke up with Wanda less than a week later. I sometimes wonder if that poor boy didn’t suspect.”

I bit my lip thoughtfully. Candace was not so trusting in Miss Ludey’s veracity.

“And why didn’t you say anything twenty years ago?” she demanded.

“Well, dear, one doesn’t like to think that one’s relatives could be murderers,” Miss Ludey said. I could well understand her attitude, having been caught in that same moral dilemma in recent days. “And everyone said that Rennie’s death was an accident. I didn’t have any proof. I still don’t.”

“Yet you’ve decided to speak up now?” Candace pressed. Note I didn’t intervene in her investigating.

“Well… I don’t want to sound selfish. Ivalou and Wanda are my closest living relatives, and they want to put me in a nursing home. Honestly! Me, and I’m as sharp as the day I was born. They just think I’m nuts ’cause I don’t care if my clothes match and I like to papier-mache my walls.” Miss Ludey snorted derisively at this lack of perception among her kinfolk. “I figure if those two got skeletons in the closet, now’s the time to air ’em out. I don’t think they could put me in a nursing home from prison, do you?”

I stuck my face in my hands. How much of this Ludeyesque tale to believe? She’d just frankly admitted to a strong motive to belittle Wanda and Ivalou and claimed detailed memories of conversations that were two decades old.

“So why don’t you tell this to the police?” Candace demanded.

Miss Ludey gave my beloved a disapproving look. “The police aren’t investigating Rennie Clifton’s death. Jordan is. Do try to keep up, dear.”

“Is there anything else you remember, Miss Ludey?” I asked, not looking toward Candace for fear I’d crack a smile.

She thought. “No, except that Wanda suggested that if Ivalou didn’t fire Rennie, maybe Ivalou could get Hart Quadlander to fire Rennie’s mother to teach ’em a lesson.”

“What sway did Ivalou think she had over Hart?”

“My dear. Ivalou has been chasing unsuccessfully after Hart Quadlander for years. Hart is kind to her but doesn’t encourage Ivalou in her pursuit of him.”

I shuddered. “Yuck. Neither would I.”

“You haven’t painted a very kind picture of Wanda, Miss Ludey.” Candace crossed her arms. “You must not care for her at all.”

Miss Ludey stiffened. “I didn’t choose to be related to Wanda. And I don’t mean to shock. But it’s not a lie to say I consider her and her mother most unlikable.”

The phone rang. I dove for it. A thunder of feet on the stairs told me Mark was coming down. He peered expectantly at me from the staircase.

I listened to my sister’s voice, holding my breath. I told her I’d be right over.

“It’s Junebug,” I told the others. “He’s awake.”


He lay in a tangle of wires and tubes. Machines bleeped at his bedside, monitoring vital functions. A massive bandage covered one side of his shaved head. I leaned close to his bristly face, peering down into his angry eyes.

“Shot me,” Junebug whispered at me. “Son of a bitch shot me.”

“Yes, I know.” I leaned closer. “Who?”

“Jordan, don’t tire him,” Barbara Moncrief ordered. “He doesn’t know who it was, and that’s what’s making him mad.”

I’d gotten to the hospital to learn Junebug had been conscious for nearly an hour, had started speaking coherently in short order, and after being repeatedly fussed over by doctors, had seen his officers, his mother, and my sister and had asked for me. (Sister was of the opinion that he wished to make sure I was not in trouble.)

I was surprised that the physicians, who tended to hover and speak in acronyms, allowed me to see him. But in a small town, being police chief counts for a great deal. Lord knows it wasn’t me wielding the frightening scepter of being town librarian that got me in among the IVs and glowing screens to see my friend.

“You,” I said, “have scared the living hell out of me. You’re going to be okay, aren’t you?”

He grunted at me. “Have to be-keep you out of trouble.”

“Don’t tire him, Jordy,” Barbara repeated. “He’s so weak.”

“Bullshit, Mama,” Junebug murmured, but he closed his eyes.

I felt a vast flood of relief. He would be okay now, surely. Barbara certainly seemed to be optimistic. I wanted to find a doctor and get a definitive report. Or find Sister, I thought. No doubt she had wrested an opinion from every medical practitioner in Bonaparte County.

“Arlene-” Junebug whispered.

“She’s just outside, dear,” Barbara assured him. “Dr. Meyer doesn’t want you having too many visitors at once. But I want you to tell her to go home and get some rest. She’s been by your side nonstop.” She smiled at me. “Arlene’s a good woman.”

“Told you so,” Junebug said, a faint smile on his face. “Mama, go get some coffee. I want to talk to Jordy alone for a minute.”

Barbara dithered at this request, but finally acceded. I leaned down close to him.

“You want me to bring you in some books on tape when you’re feeling better? Or shall I have Miss Ludey come in and read to you?”

He managed another smile. “Oh, that hurts. No. Want to talk to you.” The smile faded. “Trey and Clevey-the funeral-I’m sorry I missed it. Should have been there-”

“Gee, coma’s about the worst excuse I ever heard.” I tried joking. “Please, don’t worry about that, of all things!”

“Arlene. Needed-to be there for Arlene. I know now- she couldn’t have hurt Trey. She would never have hurt me. Tell her-”

I put my mouth near his ear and quietly told him what had happened between Sister and Trey. Maybe I shouldn’t have. Maybe I should have left it to her; but I wanted him to know he was right. And telling him about the scrap of fabric from her pants made me feel immensely better.

“You still got that fabric?” he asked.


“Throw it away. It’s just litter.” He closed his eyes again. “Listen, before my mother comes back-”


“Shot me-know who shot me. Don’t want to talk about it-in front of Mama. Told Franklin.”

I held my breath. “Who?”

He grimaced with the effort of speech; his voice sounded like a boy’s whisper. “Ed. I think it was Ed.”

I left the hospital in a state of shock. I’d walked out of Junebug’s room to find Barbara Moncrief and Sister lingering near the door, consumed with joy over his awakening and his chances for full recovery. I tried to extract a promise from Sister that she wouldn’t stay all night, that she’d come home and get some rest.

“He needs me,” Sister answered. “That’s all that matters. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t be here every minute if Candace was here,”

Since Candace seemed prepared to put me in the hospital if I continued my sleuthing, I hoped she’d camp out in the waiting room while I recovered. I kept my thoughts to myself, wished Barbara well, kissed Sister on her forehead, and headed home.

I didn’t go straight there, though. I swung by the Dickensheets house. It was now nearly ten at night, but the porch light was still on and a police cruiser sat in the driveway. Franklin Bedloe was following up on Junebug’s theory. I slowed but didn’t stop, and took the next turn to head home.

Ed shooting Junebug seemed highly improbable. But Junebug had heard a voice call to him as he opened his door, he’d paused, and the gunfire cut him down. The voice had sounded like Ed’s nasal whine, and he’d seen a short, shadowy form in the bushes. (I thought immediately that a killer was likely to squat in the bushes, looking shorter, but I kept my mouth shut.) He said he remembered nothing else until he came around in the hospital, his mama squeezing his hand till he thought the bones would grind together.

It seemed little to go on to me, but Junebug was a trained, experienced policeman. I couldn’t question his hypothesis much, especially in light of what Miss Ludey had told us. Frighteningly, a scenario unfolded before my eyes: Ivalou or Wanda having a direct hand in Rennie Clifton’s death, Clevey uncovering evidence to back the claim, and Ed taking action to silence Clevey. And then Trey must have somehow learned about it. But then why the attack on Junebug? He claimed he’d discovered no new information of value in his investigation.

Perhaps no information he realized was of value. But if the killer believed that Junebug was closing in on him- three down. I took a long hard look at myself in the mirror as I parked in my driveway. What if Candace was right? I could be setting myself up as the next target if I kept poking into shadowy holes. I felt a gentle smile come on my face as I thought of her concern. She was furious with me, I knew, but it was because she cared. Because, despite the difficulties involved in putting up with me on an ongoing basis, she loved me. I didn’t know if I kept up with my investigations whether she’d lose patience and affection for me. But if she didn’t know me, know that I wouldn’t abandon my friends or stand idly by while they were killed, she didn’t truly know me at all.

Candace’s Mercedes was still parked in front of my house. Despite her anger at me, she’d kindly offered to stay with Mama and Mark. I’d dropped Miss Ludey off on the way to the hospital. I had a feeling that Candace had been overdosed with Miss Ludey this evening and I was glad to take the lady home. She’d wished me well when I left her, promising to gargle with salt water to take care of her throat so she’d be set for the cycle of Hans Christian Andersen tales she planned to read as Christmas approached.

Candace was watching the local news out of Austin. Mark, exhausted, had retired early; Mama had taken her medication and, fortunately, was fast asleep.

“How is he?” she asked.

“I think he’s going to be okay. He’s coherent, and he seems strong.”

“Could he say anything about what happened?”

I debated telling her. I knew Candace wouldn’t repeat anything I said. Knowledge, to paraphrase a wise person, is about the most dangerous commodity around. I didn’t want her to be in peril. But she ought to know.

“Yeah, but obviously don’t repeat this. He thinks Ed shot him.”

Candace’s eyes widened. “Ed Dickensheets? Oh, that’s ridiculous. Ed’s a little goofball and wouldn’t hurt a fly.”

“Unless maybe his family was threatened. Kind of puts an interesting spin on what Miss Ludey told us.”

She opened her mouth and then closed it with a click of her teeth. An angry flash filled her eyes and she crossed her arms. I prepared myself for the lecture.

“About Miss Ludey. Don’t you think she manufactured that whole tale to get back at Ivalou and Wanda for dying to ship her off to the nursing home?”

I shrugged. “Maybe so. In fact, if it hadn’t been for what Junebug said about Ed, I don’t know if I’d have taken what Miss Ludey said very seriously. Not turning up at someone’s house during a storm is hardly evidence you committed a murder. And she could have manufactured the whole story about the heated discussion between Ivalou and Wanda that she claims to have overheard. I think, though, that I ought to tell Franklin Bedloe about it.”

Candace agreed, and I called and left a message for Franklin at the police station. He called me back fifteen minutes later, sounding tired and ragged. I relayed Miss Ludey’s story to him.

“My God, if that ain’t a corker.” Franklin sighed.

“So what’s the deal? Did you question Ed?”

“Yeah, and he claims he was with Wanda when Junebug was shot. As for the times when Clevey and Trey were killed-he claims he was alone at that Elvis store of his, taking stock in the back.” I could nearly see Franklin shrug. “I haven’t arrested him yet ’cause I don’t have sufficient cause. Junebug can’t say with certainty that it was Ed Dickensheets that shot him. Ed don’t even own a gun.”

“I think you and I both know if you want to get hold of a gun in this country, it’s not that hard. And both guns used to kill Clevey and Trey are missing.”

Franklin cleared his throat. “True enough. But I’m not convinced that the attack on Junebug’s connected to the other two murders.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Think about it, Jordan. Junebug’s arrested a lot of fellows in his life. Men that have beaten their wives, or gotten drunk, or vandalized property. It’d be easy to see one of ’em holding a grudge against him. I tend to think that’s where we’ll find our culprit-out of Junebug’s background in law enforcement.”

“Odd that some old enemy would rear his head now,” I commented. “Right after two friends of Junebug’s are killed.”

“Coincidence,” Franklin said. “Listen, Jordan, I’m in sore need of some coffee. Thanks for the information that Miss Murchison gave you. I’ll be sure and follow up on it.”

I thanked Franklin for his time and hung up. I felt dismissed and uneasy. I wasn’t quite so ready to accept Franklin’s theory about Junebug’s shooting; a vague tickle of apprehension nagged at me.

“What’d he say?” Candace wanted to know.

I smiled thinly. “He’s got it all under control, Candace. Don’t worry, I’m sure he’ll make an arrest soon and this’ll all be over. You can quit worrying about me.”

“Good.” She eased against me in a hug. I hugged back, thinking that Christmas would be approaching and perhaps tomorrow I should start my shopping early. After all, Mama always was a big Elvis fan.

The next morning I called the hospital; Junebug was continuing to improve. Sister had spent the night there but came home around six to collapse onto the couch. I sternly lectured her that she’d make herself sick if she didn’t get some rest, and then would be of no help to Junebug, but she was too busy softly snoring to pay me any heed. I carried her up to bed, put a quilt over her, and told Clo that I didn’t want her disturbed for any reason.

The dawn brought rain again, leaving Mirabeau dank, gray, and muggy. Clouds veiled the entire sky, not offering a glimmer of blue. The sun’s outline barely glowed through the haze, offering scant warmth. It was a day to crawl into bed with a good book or a ready lover and while away the hours.

After getting Sister settled, I drove a rather quiet Mark to his counseling appointment over at Steven Teague’s medical office. I felt uneasy about Mark seeing Steven, but I really had no reason to put the brakes on Mark’s therapy. Plus, I thought I could deal with Steven with one well-placed sentence to show him Jordan Poteet was no fool.

Mark surprised me as we drove. “Do you think I’m a shit, Uncle Jordy?”

“Good Lord,” I said as I turned into the small parking lot where Steven’s office was. He and a dentist had converted an older Victorian house into office space, with Steven occupying the first floor. “Why on earth do you say that?”

“I don’t seem to want to be around folks much. Bradley keeps calling, wanting to come over, and I just think he’d be awful tiresome to deal with.” Mark ran his finger along the condensation of the car window. “I’m tired. My stomach hurts, and I can’t sleep good. But Bradley, it’s like dealing with a baby sometimes. He doesn’t understand.”

“You don’t have to. Tell him you’re not up to company. If he doesn’t understand, Davis or Cayla will explain to him,”

Mark stared out the window. “Then there’s Scott. He’s always trying to be nice to me, but it’s like he’s trying to be too nice. It makes me feel weird. He’s always wanting to go off on long hikes in the woods, even in this crappy weather. And he keeps wanting to tell me about these terrible nightmares he has about Dad. I really don’t want to talk about Dad much with Scott.”

“Look.” I made him turn his face toward mine. “Scott’s a good kid. But he’s been through a lot, like you have. I think he tries to deal with it by hanging around people. You seem to want to be alone more. It’s just different ways of dealing with grief, Mark. Neither one is right or wrong.”

“My last session, I told Steven that I felt jealous of Scott. He got all that time with Dad that I didn’t. I ought to hate his guts, but I don’t.” He looked earnestly at me. “I sometimes think maybe Scott’s jealous of me. I don’t get it, when he had Dad in his life and I didn’t.”

“Oh, Mark.” I drummed fingers against the steering wheel, wondering how to respond. “It may be hard for you to see how lucky you are if you put it in those terms. Yes, Scott had time and more with your father. But Scott couldn’t ever be Trey’s son. And he doesn’t have the most stable life. He’s been moved all around and he’s got Nola for a mother. I know Hart says she’s just grieving, but I think she’s a little erratic, to say the least. You’ve got a family, and roots, and while your mother and I may be driven nuts sometimes, we’re not likely to create scenes at funerals.” I nearly amended that; Sister had created a doozy of a scene at Clevey’s wake. Oh, well, maybe Nola wasn’t so nuts after all.

“Scott’s nice to Bradley, too,” Mark mused. “One way to decide if I like a kid is how he treats Bradley. Some people aren’t so nice to Bradley, y’know.”

I thought of the particular viciousness children display to one who is different and I squeezed Mark’s shoulder. “Well, then, I’m glad to know Scott likes Bradley. Speaking of Bradley, you don’t know why he reacted the way he did at the funeral, do you?”

Mark shrugged. “I guess Nola upset him. He doesn’t like violence. Kind of makes him jumpy.”

“I agree with him. Listen, I have an errand to run, so I’m not going to sit in the waiting room while you have your session with Steven. That okay?”

“Yeah. But you’ll be there when I’m done, won’t you?”

“Absolutely. Let’s go in or we’ll be late. I want a word with Steven before you talk to him.”

The entry hall on the bottom floor served as a common area, but the waiting room for Steven’s patients was thoughtfully private; it was the former dining room of the old house. Oversized chairs and coffee tables covered with scattered back issues of national magazines and the Mirabeau and Bavary newspapers provided a sense of coziness. I told the receptionist that Mark Slocum was here for his appointment. She said that Steven was not yet in, but she expected him any moment. Mark slumped in a seat while I paced nervously.

“See. No crazy people here but us,” Mark said, his voice sounding scratchy.

“You’re not crazy at all,” I said forcefully. “After what you’ve been through, you’d be crazy not to see a therapist,”

“You haven’t,” he noted.

“Well, I am crazy. Haven’t you ever noticed?”


“I’ll be okay. Don’t worry about me.”

He was quiet for a moment, looking into my face for traces of insanity.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

He paused, embarrassment coloring his face. “Well-I don’t want to make you feel like a goob.”

“Tell me.”

“I heard you-the other night. When you were talking to Candace. About Dad.”

I didn’t answer for a moment. “Well, Mark, I was upset. You know that your father’s friendship meant a great deal to me.”

“Yeah.” He looked at me with eyes that were twins of Trey’s. I ruffled his hair affectionately and he ducked away from the attention, embarrassed at his stupidly sentimental uncle.

He picked up a tattered Sports Illustrated, shifted his gum to the other side of his mouth, and flipped the pages. The picture of a perfectly normal kid. Except he was a kid that might have a hurt so deep, so penetrating, that he’d never be whole again.

Impatiently, I paced the room. (This is a habit that Candace finds particularly grating. As if I do it to annoy her.) I wandered near the window and saw a harried Steven Teague parking his rain-spotted black Volvo. Finally. I didn’t want to keep Mark waiting.

Teague stepped out, testing the air with his hand to see if the drizzle demanded an umbrella. He decided not and slammed his car door.

Suddenly Nola Kinnard was there, pressing herself against him, speaking to him with undeniable insistence. She had hold of his coat, her head shaking, her eyes wild in her face.

He put her a step back, holding her shoulders, talking to her, shaking his head. She shook hers in answer, and the tight, painful frown on her face suggested she was near tears. I moved closer to the window, Mark ignoring me completely.

Steven shook his head again; this only agitated her further. Her hands clawed on his shoulder and she broke, her head hanging, rain or tears wetting her face.

I couldn’t see his face, only hers, but he leaned close to her, speaking-I could see the outline of his jaw moving. I hoped he was telling Nola not to make such a spectacle of herself.

Those apparently weren’t his words. She leaned in closely, quickly, and drew him into a kiss.

He either savored her lips against his for the first moments, or was so surprised that he couldn’t move. His face was away from mine. The kiss broke when he pushed her, gently but decisively, away. He said a few more words, then turned and headed toward the front door. Nola stood there in the windblown mist, staring after him. Her eyes were dark hollows in her weathered face, pensive and wanting. She was still standing there when I quickly resumed my seat.

Steven came in smiling broadly, attired in raincoat and tweed and looking every inch the polished counselor. He mopped at his lips with a handkerchief and I saw a smear of red. He ran a hand through his gray-shot hair. “Good morning, Mark. Why, hello, Jordan, it’s nice to see you as well.”

“I’m Mark’s ride today.” I smiled. “But I wonder if I might speak privately with you for a moment.”

“Certainly. Mark, why don’t you go on into my office and I’ll join you in a moment.”

“See you,” Mark said to me, and went into Steven’s office, shutting the door behind him.

“How’s Mark doing?” I asked.

Steven spread his fingers expansively. He was one of those people who talked as much with his hands as with his voice. “He hasn’t wept yet in therapy. He still has a lot of anger, a lot of denial to work through.”

“He doesn’t want to be around people much. He says so himself.”

“Mark’s doing his best to live up to what you and your family expect from him: strength, resilience, dealing with his own emotions.”

“He says he wants to be alone; being around other people, even boys his own age, seems to make him uncomfortable.”

“Mark’s feeling as though he’s different from everyone he knows. He’s been through a terrible experience that he feels others don’t share. I’m concerned about how this may isolate him. If he doesn’t express his grief, his shock, it can turn in on him. Painfully.”

I didn’t feel reassured by his prognosis. “What can I do to help him?”

“Make him understand it’s okay to have these feelings-the grief and the rage.” He straightened his eyeglasses. “I think Mark is very much like you in some ways, Jordan. Strong, determined to be independent. He doesn’t want to need anyone right now. Let him know that you’re there for him.”

“I will.” Yes, I could do that for Mark. Steven cleared his throat, obviously ready to go treat his patient. I thought about asking him why Nola was all over him like a cheap suit, but decided against it. Perhaps her campaign to win Ed was withering, and Steven was a backup. If not Nola as a topic-

“This house is very nice. I like it better than your old office in Mirabeau.”

Pallor crept across his face. “Excuse me?”

“You used to work at that Mirabeau Free Clinic, didn’t you? I remember it from when I was a boy. I was sure I’d seen you somewhere before.”

I saw the fight for control on his face; and then the mask of vague distance that I’m sure he wore with his patients fell into place. “You have an excellent memory, Jordan. I spent so little time in Mirabeau before, I didn’t expect that anyone would remember me.”

“Long memories in little towns, Steven.” I smiled. “It’s nice that you chose to come back.”

“Well, I was, er, sorry that the clinic didn’t work out. I, um, always thought I’d try to come back to Mirabeau to live. It’s a delightful town.” He seemed rather anxious to return to his office.

“I won’t keep you from your session with Mark. I’ll be back shortly to pick him up.”

“Excellent, yes, very good,” Steven sputtered, forcing a smile. He retreated into his office.

For a moment I worried about leaving Mark there. I chided myself for overprotectiveness. Steven Teague had lived in Mirabeau before, very briefly, and failed to mention it. That wasn’t a crime. When I’d mentioned it, he hadn’t denied it, just expressed surprise that I knew. He might just be a very private person about his past. There was, after all, nothing to tie him to Rennie Clifton or to Trey. Nola was probably an idle flirtation-and instigated by her. He’d been Clevey’s counselor, but that vague connection was his only one to the nightmare of recent days.

Nola had vanished from the parking lot when I stepped out into the rainy morning. I left, feeling better but not entirely at ease. Time to visit Elvis.


Theinstitute of Elvisology was open and ready for business when I parked in front of its garish neon sign that offered all that made the king special. Flocks of adorers, though, hadn’t materialized to beat the institute’s doors down.

I ventured inside, the door chiming the first strains of “Love Me Tender” instead of jingling bells. I didn’t see anyone gyrating forward to take my business, so I wandered for a moment, surveying the offered wares.

Elvis videos, from his earliest movies to later performances, ranged one wall. Albums-in vinyl, cassette, and CD formats-filled bins decorated with a montage of Elvis record covers. A bookshelf, filled with biographies of the King, stood against a wall that was decorated with tabloid headlines that suggested that Mr. Presley still walked among us. A beautifully framed family photo reproduction of Elvis, Priscilla, and the baby Lisa Marie hung centered over the cash register. Easels displayed an assortment of de rigueur black velvet paintings of Elvis in various settings (my favorite was Elvis as Mona Lisa), and a middle display area contained a variety of merchandise: Elvis key chains, Elvis cigarette lighters, Elvis bumper stickers, Elvis refrigerator magnets, Elvis clocks (one with his hips swaying on alternate seconds), Elvis calendars, and the all-important Elvis glassware.

Clothing racks held jackets, T-shirts, leggings, sweats, all adorned with the Presley icon. And on a far wall, a rack of metal shelves held the greatest oddities of all: a fingernail clipping floating in some jelled preservative, carefully catalogued locks of hair, an unchewed stick of gum mounted on a board like a captive butterfly and labeled with the date and the hotel room Elvis had allegedly left it behind in. Apparently this was Elvis DNA central-I’d have to alert the cloning researchers they could start here.

“Hello?” a voice trying to be deeper than it actually was bellowed from the back. I stepped away from the holy relics.

Wanda Dickensheets appeared from the back storeroom, apparently dressed like Elvis had in one of his early films: hip-hugging pants, silk shirt, cut jacket. Her hair was plastered close to her head and she was carrying her Elvis wig in one hand.

I presumed that I, too, would revisit old girlfriends if Candace started dressing like a man most of the time. If Wanda was worried about Nola, I could assure her that Nola seemed to have shifted her sights off Ed.

“Well, hello, Jordy,” she greeted me, her voice not particularly welcoming. “You don’t mind me not being entirely in costume here, do you? I peeked out and saw it was you. I know you ain’t exactly a big Elvis fan, so I didn’t think you’d care.”

I like Elvis Presley’s music as much as the next red-blooded American, but it was true I wasn’t a devotee of the magnitude of Wanda Dickensheets. Possibly Elvis himself wasn’t. “You look great, Wanda. Quite a setup you’ve got here.”

“Well, thanks. I’m right proud of it.” She gestured expansively. “I do like to think that Elvis himself would feel at home here.”

I didn’t know the likelihood of that-being in a store where your face grinned back at you from every item of merchandise would be disconcerting. “It’s very nice,” I said politely. “Is Ed around?”

Her face darkened. “No, Ed’ll be in later. He’s tired. He had a late night.”

I wondered if Ed’s late night was due to the Mirabeau police. I’d nearly hoped Ed would be absent. I wanted to talk to Wanda alone.

It was not to be. “Good morning, Jordan,” a frosty voice greeted me, also from the back. Ivalou Purcell came forward, her improbably tinted hair stacked high and her dark lips set in a frown. Her face was a carefully sculpted homage to makeup. A cloud of cheap, citrusy perfume wafted about her and I tried to keep from stepping back as she approached.

“How’s your mother doing?” Ivalou asked, obliquely to be polite. I always find the question well-meaning but bordering on tiresome. What answer do people expect? That she’s getting better? Ivalou’s reedy voice didn’t better my mood. I forced a mannered smile to my face.

“She’s fine, thank you,” I answered. I wondered how I might get Wanda alone to talk without her battle-ready mother.

“I’m glad to hear that, although I think that you should really spend more time taking care of the poor woman and less time gossiping with the mentally deranged,” Ivalou pronounced in a half sneer.

“Excuse me?”

Ivalou smirked. Not a pretty sight. “I had a fascinating conversation with Franklin Bedloe today. My aunt Ludey has been circulating the most ridiculous stories, and when I confronted her on it, she confessed. She said she’d told you her fabrications concerning my daughter and me and Rennie Clifton.”

So much for subtle inquiry. Miss Ludey’s failure to keep her mouth shut had eliminated any chance of gently worming information out of these two. I determined, however, not to go on the defensive. “Miss Ludey simply shared her opinions with me.”

“And you promptly shared them with Franklin Bedloe. I suppose you would; it might shift suspicion off that temperamental sister of yours.” Ivalou folded her twiggy arms, like a schoolteacher daring a misbehaving pupil to contradict her.

I wasn’t intimidated. “My sister isn’t a suspect in Junebug’s shooting. Ed is, unfortunately.”

“Maybe Arlene should be a suspect. On the police shows, they always look to the victim’s lover.” Ivalou sneered the word lover like it was a synonym for venereal-disease carrier.

If she wanted to play snotty, fine by me. “Maybe that’s why they should have looked hard at Glenn Wilson when Rennie Clifton died.”

It scored the hit I wanted, but I felt a pang of regret for the dismayed look on Wanda’s face. Ivalou glared fiercely at me and one of her long-nailed fingers jabbed at my face.

“Get out of here,” Ivalou snapped.

“Mother! I’ll thank you not to be barking orders out in my store.” Wanda, ridiculous in her attire, managed a quiet dignity as she faced her mother’s taunting glare. She turned back to me. “I don’t know what silly ideas you’re nursing, Jordan Poteet, but I can tell you that Glenn Wilson had nothing to do with that girl’s death. Her death was an accident.”

“Did you know she was pregnant when she died?” I asked.

Wanda actually reeled. She took three sudden steps back against the counter, as though my words had shoved her with physical force. She found her voice. “No, I didn’t. But it don’t matter. Glenn couldn’t have killed her. He-he was with me during that storm.”

Of course, Glenn wouldn’t be available to confirm that claim. I watched Ivalou, who had gone a shade of plum in her cheeks, her eyes narrowed to slits. “And where were you, Ivalou?”

“That’s none of your business, you asshole. Get out of my daughter’s store.”

“Fine. I’m just asking what Franklin Bedloe’s bound to ask. I heard that he’s reopening Rennie Clifton’s file as a murder case.” I hadn’t heard any such gossip, but the beauty of rumor is that you can invent it on the spot. “Since you were her employer, I’m sure he’ll be questioning you. But, of course, if you’ve got something to hide-”

“I was stuck at home, waiting for Wanda to come back from wherever she was. I didn’t know she was off gallivanting in the storm with Glenn.” She calmed herself with a long gift of breath. “Make you happy now, Jordy? Not that either of us have to answer to you.”

“You didn’t go to where your family was meeting, Ivalou? If you were so worried about Wanda, I’d think you’d make a beeline to the most likely place she’d be.”

“Fine, Mr. Smart-ass, I wasn’t at home the whole time.” She squared her shoulders. “I went out to the Quadlander farm. I was worried about Hart, wanted to be sure he was okay.”

“Yes, you’ve taken a lot of interest in Hart over the years,” I parried.

“But he wasn’t there. Just that disgusting Louis Slocum, getting drunk on cheap whiskey. Smelled like he’d bathed in it. When I asked him where Hart was, he just started crying and said he’d gone.”


“That old drunk didn’t know. He leered at me-Louis Slocum always was a leering thing, and I never could see why Hart kept that good-for-nothing about-so I turned around and went home.” Ivalou Purcell glared at me with utter loathing. “You think you’re smart, don’t you, Jordan? You’re not.” She shook her head, smiling meanly to emphasize her point. “You come in here, making snide accusations against my family. You have no call, speaking badly of decent people. Not when I know what you are.” She took a step forward, as though to herd me out of the store. “You’re nothing but Bob Don Goertz’s bastard.”

I froze. How did she know? It was known only to me and a few close friends. But then, keeping secrets is often hard in a little town. Not impossible, just hard.

I wasn’t going to insult Bob Don by ignoring the charge. I couldn’t ignore the hot flush in my neck and the disdain in her voice and face. “I don’t see what that has to do with Rennie or Ed.”

“Nothing but a common bastard,” Ivalou began, her voice a taunting singsong, ignoring Wanda’s shocked pleas that she stop. “My daughter at least grew up knowing her daddy was really her daddy. I didn’t sleep around on her father, and I maintained myself as a respectable widow.”

“Only because,” I retorted hotly, “Hart Quadlander wouldn’t give you the time of day, much less a poke. How many years have you chased him without results, Ivalou?” I pulled myself into my raincoat. “I’m sorry, Wanda. I’m sorry that you have to put up with this woman. Tell Ed I’ll talk to him soon.” Wanda acted like she hadn’t heard me, staring at her mother with a dazed expression. I don’t generally insult my elders, but I wasn’t about to let her slur me-or my parents.

I turned and started to walk out. “Bastard!” Ivalou Purcell screeched at my back. “Bastard, bastard, bastard!”

I consoled myself as I stormed out into the rain that there were much worse things to be called.

I was cussing at myself by the time I got my Blazer started. I’d totally mishandled Ivalou and Wanda, and now getting them to talk about Rennie Clifton would be impossible. I didn’t like that I’d let myself be a blunderbuss when subtlety might have worked. I prided myself on being a gentleman and I’d let a trashmouth like Ivalou Purcell egg me into being a jackass. I felt a sick pang that somehow the gossip chains of Mirabeau had told Ivalou my parental secret. Now that I was firmly etched on her shit list, I supposed she’d broadcast it all over town.

I had no plans to be ashamed-my birth was beyond my control. Bob Don was so inordinately proud of me that no amount of vicious rumormongering would cow him. I felt queasy relief that Mama was beyond caring what anyone said about her. However, I was likely to deal with any fool stupid enough to reproach my mother to me with a sharp tongue-or a sharp jab to the jaw (depending on mood and reproacher).

I found Mark sitting on the porch steps, huddled against the rain, when I got back to Steven Teague’s office. He looked like a cold, miserable puppy in the fine mist.

I walked up to him and he looked up at me with darkly haunted eyes. “I’m ready to go now, Uncle Jordy. Can we just go home?”

“What’s wrong? What happened?”

He clomped through a muddy puddle with total disregard. I caught up with him as he jumped in on the passenger side.

“What the hell has spooked you?” I demanded, pulling his door open again.

“You’re getting me wet,” he said. “I just want to go home, okay?”

I shut his door and went around to the driver’s side. I forced my sour mood out of my face and my voice. Mark was burdened enough right now, and Ivalou Purcell’s snide attack on me wasn’t going to color the way I dealt with him.

“How did your session go?” I asked, hoping he’d feel comfortable enough to talk about it. Lord only knew what I was going to do, though, if he wanted to have a real discussion about his therapy. I lived in mortal fear of sticking my foot in my mouth around him.

He gave a tortured sigh. “Okay. But I don’t have to keep going to see Steven for very long if I don’t want to, do I?”

“Mark, what you’ve been through-I think you have to give it some time, to see if you start feeling better. It’s like if you broke a leg and had to go through physical therapy. You wouldn’t quit that before it was done, because you wouldn’t be able to use your leg as well.” My metaphor sounded sorely strained, but I didn’t know what else to say. What was I suggesting, that he had a sprained heart and soul? “We can’t exactly pretend that you and I didn’t see your daddy die.”

“You’re not going to therapy,” Mark said. I hate it when a teenager’s right.

“No, I’m not. Not yet. Candace and your mother would no doubt maintain there’s not enough therapy in the world to make me normal.” I paused as I turned back onto our street. “Do you want me to go to your sessions with you?”

“Nooooo,” he said, his tone uncertain. He abruptly changed subjects. “Davis was at Steven’s, too. After you left.”

That was a surprise. But it was important, I considered, to make Mark feel that consulting Steven didn’t automatically qualify one for the Big Scarlet C. “Well, then, that’s good that Davis is getting help.”

“Bradley was with him.”

“Oh, how’s Bradley?” I asked.

Mark didn’t answer right away. I pulled into the driveway and switched off the engine. As I reached for the door handle Mark’s fingers touched my arm.

“I think his daddy beats him.”

I froze. “What?”

“I went to the bathroom after my session. I heard Davis come in the office. He was talking real loud at Steven. Saying that Steven had to help him, he couldn’t go on with how stuff was.”

Mark shifted in his seat, avoiding my astonished gaze. “Steven tried to calm him, but Davis sounded really upset. His voice was all squeaky like. I waited till I heard Steven’s door shut, and then I opened the bathroom door. Bradley was sitting in the waiting room. He’d been crying, his eyes were all bloodshot. He was making this freaky groany noise and he looked at me like he didn’t know me.

“Mark. You better not be joking. Why do you think Davis is beating him?” My throat felt scratchy with tightness.

“I saw… the marks on his arms. Like someone had grabbed him really, really hard and squeezed. Thin bruises. And his face was red, like he’d been slapped. I tried to get him to come outside with me, but he just started moaning sort of and didn’t want to leave the couch.”

“Did you ask him specifically if his daddy had hit him?”

“No, but I did ask him who’d done this. I told him I’d kick whoever’s butt it was for him, and he just started kind of whining and getting upset. He was having trouble not slobbering, and that always means he’s upset.” Mark ran a finger under his nose, looking miserable.

My God. Davis upset, seeking a counselor, with a bruised Bradley in tow. I tried to picture Davis beating his son and the image came easily; Davis losing patience with his son that could never realize his dreams, striking Bradley perhaps even before he knew it.

Bradley had let out a scream to chill blood at Trey’s burial. No, I amended, not at the burial, not at any given moment-but right after Nola Kinnard had double-slapped me. I felt a quiver in my stomach, wondering if Bradley’s cry was because he’d seen or felt slapping lately.

“What are we gonna do?” Mark asked, clearing his throat.

“I don’t know. We don’t know for sure that Davis is beating Bradley. I can’t imagine that Cayla would put up with it-unless he’s abusing her, too.” The rain pattered on the car roof while I gathered my thoughts. The air felt clammy and Mark’s suspicions made my stomach do clumsy somersaults. “I don’t know what we can do. Let’s say Davis is beating them. He’s asking for help by going to Steven.”

“But what if it don’t work?” Mark demanded. “We got to get them out of there, Uncle Jordy.”

“It’s not that simple, Mark.” I felt like a cornered lion tamer, sans chair and whip. I had enough of my own troubles to contend with, and selfishly, I didn’t want to tackle the problems of the Foradorys. “I don’t know what we can do without some proof. And if Davis tells Steven he’s beaten Bradley or Cayla, then Steven can contact the proper authorities.”

“But what if he don’t?” Mark pressed. “We can’t leave him there, just for his daddy to whomp on him! It’s not right.”

This couldn’t be happening, I thought. I’d cast my childhood friends into certain statues and now cracks crept up from their bases. Harmless, fun-loving Clevey as a vengeful, guilt-ridden manipulator who was never at peace. The unredeemable Trey as a man who’d perhaps been forced into a hellish choice. And now our rock of propriety, Davis, suggested as a man who couldn’t keep his fists off his own child. The thought of domestic violence happening with people I’d known for years was eerie and-

Domestic violence. Suddenly I saw Peggy Godkin’s face, bleary in the cafeteria light on the morning Junebug had been shot, telling me about Clevey’s reporting assignments on the paper: He was working on his usual assignments – the city council, the book-review section. And he was researching a feature on domestic violence.

And at Junebug’s, Davis hoisting a toast to our dead friend: Clevey, our friend and fine reporter. He’ll dig up all the secrets, even if it sends him to hell.

No, it couldn’t be. If Clevey, in researching his story, uncovered battery right in the home of one of Mirabeau’s most prominent lawyers, he’d do something to help Cayla and Bradley, right?

Ed’s voice whispered in my ear: Clevey was going to buy an interest in KBAV. Said he’d gotten the money from a Louisiana inheritance…

“Uncle Jordy?” Mark’s voice sounded distant, as though I was fathoms away under the sea, drowning while staring up at the far glimmer of the sun.

I found my voice. “We’ll call Cayla. See if everything is okay. You can call Bradley and see if he’s all right. But I don’t think we can do much else.”

“Why not?” Mark insisted.

Maybe because Davis’d kill us. Did he kill Clevey? My musings made my temper short. “Because you just can’t, Mark! Not without proof! You only have conjecture right now.”


“Conjecture. We don’t have any proof.”

“His arms were bruised.”

“That could have been an accident. Or another kid picking on him. I’ve known Davis my whole life and I’m not about to think he’s a batterer on the most circumstantial evidence.” I remembered when I’d called him about Clevey’s death-his voice was dulled, nearly stuporous. Why? Shock over what he’d done? Brains rattling due to firing a gun in an enclosed space? Seeing a boyhood friend’s lifeblood seep out?

Okay, if he’d killed Clevey, why had he killed Trey? Had Trey known about Davis? How? Clevey had told Trey that revenge was sweet. What revenge was there to get on Davis?

I lurched out of the car. I needed to talk to Candace, to Junebug, tell them this outrageous theory and let them dismiss it for me. I stumbled up the front steps. And saw Nola Kinnard sitting primly on our porch.


“Your maid won’t let me in,” Nola said by way of introduction. She stood, brushing dank bangs back from her forehead. She was dressed as I’d seen her at Steven Teague’s office: snug jeans, a blue, faded sweatshirt with a napping kitten on the front, a weathered, tan, down jacket splitting at the seams. Red rimmed her mascara-bare eyes.

“I don’t have a maid,” I said. Mark tensed beside me.

“The black lady, whatever she is. So I waited out here.”

“Get out of here!” Mark suddenly demanded. He stepped forward. “We don’t want you around.”

“I guess you don’t, honey.” Nola dug a pack of Marlboros out of her purse. “But I ain’t here to see you. I came to see your uncle.” She extracted a cigarette from the crumpled pack and delicately placed it in her mouth. “You gonna talk to me or tell me to hit the road?”

“He don’t want you here-” Mark sputtered, but I put a hand on his shoulder.

“Mark, go inside.”

He bristled at the order, but he didn’t argue with me. He stomped to the screen door and swung it open.

“Mark?” Nola called. I saw him pause, not looking at her.

“I understand you’ve been real kind to my boy, Scott.” She coughed, her throat raspy with smoke. “I appreciate that.”

Mark wavered on the doorstep, torn between the manners his family had instilled in him and (I suspected) a strong desire to tell Nola to kiss his ass.

“You’re welcome,” he muttered, and slammed the door.

She sat back on the rocking chair that had once been Mama’s favorite place to sit, gossip, and snap green beans. Nola seemed out of place and she knew it. Fumbling in her purse, she didn’t look at me.

“I don’t suppose apologizing to him would have done much good. He wouldn’t have listened.”

“You don’t know that.” I sat next to her.

“Sure I do. He looks like his daddy, don’t he? I figure he’s like him in mind. That man wasn’t one to listen to an I’m sorry.” She flicked her lighter, regarded me for a brief moment, then returned to contemplating her cigarette. “You want one?”

“No, thanks. I don’t smoke.”

“Used to, though, didn’t you? I saw the gleam in your eye when I lit up.” She drew on the cigarette and blew smoke out in a long and luxurious breath. “Tastes real good.”

I was suddenly, shockingly, aware of sexual tension between us. The coy posture she leaned back in, the assured way she looked at me (as though I were an apple for her to pluck), the cool consciousness she showed of her own body, and under the wet smell of rain and the pungent smoke, the vaguest pull of an animal scent. On the basest level, I wanted her and I was unnerved that I did. She saw the truth and smirked. I gritted my teeth and crossed my legs.

“What can I do for you, Nola? I take it you’re not here just because my porch is a scenic smoking spot.”

“I wanted to talk to you. Say I’m sorry for the way I’ve behaved. I was pretty horrible at Trey’s funeral. I had no call to say the things I did about your sister, and I’m sorry I hit you.” She drew on the cigarette.

“What should I say? Apology accepted?”

“Aren’t you a gentleman? You sure look the part.” She laughed, a sandy sound. “I’m not used to men that fix up as nice as you.”

I refused to play in this eat-and-mouse-in-heat game of hers. “Really? Steven Teague dresses real well and you seem kind of used to him.”

If I scored a hit, it didn’t show. She wore too much armor behind the veil of smoke. “What’d he tell you?”

“Nothing. I saw you with him in his office parking lot this morning.”

She laughed. “Pretty sad. He’s not a bad fellow, just doesn’t know how to treat a woman.”

“He didn’t seem interested in what you had to offer.”

Nola shrugged and contemplated the burning ember at the end of the cigarette. “Nope. He’s got too much on his mind for a little fun.”

What did Trey see in you? I thought, and had my answer nearly immediately: sex. She was the kind of woman who would be a quick firecracker in bed, not perhaps the one you’d befriend for life and tell your deepest secrets to, but one that a man’d never forget, even when toothless and bald and blind. The memory of passionate moments with her would be easily found on your mind’s shelves. But maybe that wasn’t entirely fair to her. She’d stayed with Trey after he’d been hurt, probably unable to be her lover.

Nola tilted her head back, regarding me. “I bug you, don’t I? You can’t quite put your finger on me.”

“Look, your apology’s accepted. Maybe you just should go. I don’t think my sister would appreciate you being here.”

“But you appreciate it. You’re sort of glad I came by.”

I didn’t like having my response to her rubbed in my face. “I don’t fancy being anyone’s third choice, now that Ed Dickensheets and Steven Teague have declined your charms.”

“Who said they have? Oh, I was curious to kiss Steven. That a crime?”

“You looked more like you were arguing with him. You looked like you were crying.”

Her eyes frosted. “He won’t do something for me. I sure wish he would. But that’s neither here nor there. Ed’s been very kind to me since I’ve come here.”

“Frankly, he didn’t look like he was that enamored of you at the funeral. And neither did Wanda or her mother.”

“Course he didn’t. I embarrassed the hell out of him. And I absolutely could not care about that man-woman he married or that bitch of a mother-in-law he’s got.” She stood and walked to the end of the porch, thumbing her spent butt into the bushes. “I don’t think your sister killed Trey anymore.”

The rain pattered on the porch roof, picking up in intensity. “Do you know who did?”

“No. But I think Hart knows.”

“Hart? Good Lord, if he knew, he’d tell.” I stood. “He practically helped raise Trey, he sure as hell wouldn’t shield his killer!” I forced my voice back down to an acceptable level. “Why do you think he knows?”

She didn’t answer me until she’d lit another cigarette and took a fortifying hit from it “When we got back to Mirabeau, Trey made us drive first to Hart’s farm, even before we went to my uncle’s house. He said he had to see Hart before he saw anyone else in town. Ain’t that weird, what with his own child here?” She shook her head. “I loved Trey, but he was an odd fellow.”

I saw the boy Trey cockily setting back his black cowboy hat and charming my skeptical mother with a smile. The friend staring up at the stars with me, picking out the ones to wish on to ensure he’d get a date with Arlene Poteet. The man, holding his newborn son with wonder and shock on his face.

“Odd fellow,” I murmured. “What did he and Hart have to say to each other?”

“Strangest thing,” Nola said. “We stopped the car short of Hart’s house, and Trey insisted on wheeling himself up to the porch. I honked the horn and Hart came out. He nearly died with shock when he saw Trey-you could just see it in his face. Trey just said to him, ‘Hi, Hart, I’ve come home. I’ve missed you. Can we go in and talk?’ Simple as that. Hart was practically in tears. He went down and, real shy like, shook Trey’s hand. They spoke to each other for a while. I couldn’t hear what they said, but I know Hart wanted us to stay there with him instead of my uncle. I’d have liked that, but Uncle Dwight was expectin’ us.”

“I don’t find anything odd about this, Nola. Hart’s always considered Trey family.”

“I ain’t done. We went into the house for iced tea and talked a bit. Then Trey said he wanted to see his daddy’s grave. Hart said sure, Louis’d been buried out by the creek. Trey told me just he and Hart’d go out there and they’d be back soon. So Scott and I turned on the TV. I went back into the kitchen and Trey and Hart hadn’t gone down yet. They were outside, on Hart’s back porch. Talking. I wasn’t trying to overhear ’em, but I couldn’t help it. Trey was upset. He said to Hart that if”-and she closed her eyes in concentration-“ ‘it hadn’t been for Daddy, I wouldn’t have had to leave. I don’t want to talk about it. I just want to forget it all. No one knows, do they?’ And Hart said, ‘Just Steven Teague.’” She opened her eyes and looked at me.

I was stunned into silence, waiting for her to speak again.

Nola shook her head. “It ain’t nothing Arlene or Mark did that drove him out of here. It was something to do with his daddy. I thought y’all ought to know.”

“Why didn’t you say anything to the police?”

“Because I was sure your sister had killed Trey.” She shrugged. “I’m sorry. I’m telling you this because I thought maybe you and Arlene should know he left town because of something his daddy did. Not anything y’all did. If you want, I’ll tell the police, if you think it matters.”

I sat back in my chair. “Thank you,” I managed to say.

The only noise for a minute was the splatter of rain.

“I don’t expect y’all to ever take to me.” Nola looked at me with complete candor. “But I’m gonna stay in town for a while, even if Ed won’t leave that stupid sow he married. This’d be a good town for Scott. And I thought if he and Mark are gonna stay friends, I ought to mend fences.”

“Wait a second. Not that it’s much my business, but why are you picking up with Ed and Steven when Trey’s barely cold in the ground? I thought you loved him.”

“I did. I do. I’ve cried and cried till I ain’t gonna cry anymore. But I don’t like being alone. I need to feel needed. Don’t you know that feeling?”

I didn’t answer. I didn’t understand how she could woo another man so quickly, unless grief propelled her, and Ed or Steven or any other fellow was just a temporary substitute for Trey, a comforting imitation. Suddenly I felt deeply sorry for her. But I didn’t offer my sympathy or condolences. She just would have misinterpreted it.

“You said you thought Hart knows who the killer is? I don’t understand.”

She stubbed out her cigarette on the porch, crushing it under her rain-spotted shoes. “Whatever reason Trey left- Hart knows what it is. Steven knows what it is. And I think that reason is why Trey was killed. And maybe Clevey, too.”

“Is that why you were kissing Steven?”

She smiled wanly. “No, Steven’s a nice man, but not nice enough. Scott’s been having awful nightmares since Trey died. He’s jumpy and nervous and I’m worried about him. I wanted Steven to counsel him, y’know, talk to him. But I don’t have the money for it. I hoped he’d give me credit. He won’t.”

“I’m sorry Scott’s having a hard time.”

“I am, too.”

“Scott came here. He told us that Trey and Clevey had argued, that Clevey wanted Trey to take part in some revenge scheme they’d make money out of.”

“Trey wouldn’t have done anything like that,” Nola protested. “You find out exactly why Trey left and we’ll know why he died.”

I watched her drive away. She’d been the last real companion of Trey’s life, as different from Sister as possible. Outwardly, at least. I believed they both shared a core of unsuspected strength that made them both survivors in a world that had been less than kind.

She’d given me plenty to consider. Some secret involving Louis Slocum, Mirabeau’s best horse trainer and drunk. Something that Steven, Hart, and Trey were all privy to. Had Clevey found out as well? He must’ve. He had to have known. And it got him killed.

Hart couldn’t have killed Trey. First, he cared too much about him. Second, he had an airtight alibi that Junebug had already confirmed-checking out horses on a farm miles away in Fayette County. But in our talk out on the back porch, Hart’d denied knowing why Trey had left six years ago. He’d lied. And just how the hell did Clevey fit into this? And the attack on Junebug?

I’ve never been a swift thinker. I stopped dead in my tracks, my hand reaching for the door. Steven Teague, if Nola’s story was true and she’d correctly interpreted the conversation she’d heard between Hart and Trey, knew the reason for Trey’s leaving. And here he was counseling Mark, giving me pithy advice on how to handle the trauma that’d nearly destroyed our family. While knowing all the while why Trey had forsaken us. And how the hell would Steven know-he wasn’t even living here six years ago! Someone had told him-perhaps Clevey, who he was counseling? God, that had to be it!

My face felt hot and a slow throb of headache started a surging pain in my temples. My mind felt dizzy, trying to trace the web of Trey’s life. I stepped inside and shut the door.

Clo sat with Mama in the living room, avidly watching a talk show with the sound turned real low. Mama doesn’t like noise much anymore. Clo glanced up at me.

“I wasn’t about to let that white trash in this house,” she proclaimed. “Be mad at me if you want.”

“I’m not mad at you. Where’s Mark?”

She jerked her head toward the kitchen. “Back porch, I think. How’d his therapy go? He feeling better?”

I didn’t answer her, heading out to the porch. It was empty, the rain the only sound, tapping like fingers on foil.

“He’s not there,” I called back to Clo, stepping into the kitchen.

“Well, he called Bradley Foradoiy and chatted with him a minute. Then he said he was going out on the porch and listen to the rain.”

Bradley. Oh, God, and Mark was so single-minded about discovering what was going on at the Foradorys’. I phoned Davis’s number. One ring. Two rings. Three rings. An answering click.

And then the screams.


I ignored the stop sign at the intersection of Heydl and Fifth where the Foradory house sat, screeching to a stop and spraying water. Mark’s bike lay sprawled in the yard, glistening wetly. I ran across the grass, vaulting his bike and leaping up the steps in two jumps. The front door was unlocked and I shoved it open, hollering for Mark. I heard a piercing cry from the back of the house.

I tore through the immaculate living room, ignoring the muddy trail I left in my wake. I burst through the kitchen, which opened up into a breakfast nook. And ran into a scene I hadn’t quite expected.

Mark, grimacing, was trying to drag a struggling Bradley back toward the porch door. Bradley kicked at the tiles, scuffing them with his cowboy boots, wailing and flailing his arms. The phone receiver, still off the hook, dangled above the floor and slowly revolved on its cord. Cayla Foradory, her eyes wild and her hair straggling in her face, held a metal broomstick in her hand, blood dotting one end of it. She was whacking the hell out of something on the floor. It was only after I’d taken four more steps in that I saw that she was beating the tar out of Davis, curled in a fetal ball on the kitchen floor.

“Uncle Jordy! Help us! She’s gonna kill him!” Mark screamed at me. I rushed toward Cayla and Davis. He didn’t appear to be moving.

I came up behind Cayla and grabbed the broomstick when she brought it back to have another go at her husband. I yanked it away and she spun toward me, her eyes filled with such blinding fury that I took a shocked step backward. She swung a fist at me and nearly connected with my jaw. Stunned with surprise, I seized her arms and shook her hard.

“Cayla! Stop it! It’s me, Jordy!” She struggled against me like she’d never seen me. I shook her again and she calmed, the berserker rage fading. She took a long, hard, shuddering breath and gasped, “Get out. Get out of here.”

“What did he do to you? Did he hit you? Hit Bradley?” I glanced at her son, but he seemed more upset than injured, crying and mewling in Mark’s arms.

“Hit her? Bullshit!” Mark screamed. “She hits him! She beats him! ”

Mark’s words oozed in. I glanced over at Davis; slowly, like a snake awakening to warmth, he uncoiled himself. I saw bruises on his forearms, his neck, and a vicious cut above the left eye. His tortoiseshell glasses lay broken by his elbow. He looked at me like a whipped dog, awaiting the next kick. This wasn’t my friend-this was someone else. Someone I didn’t know.

“Get out!” Cayla rediscovered her voice. “Get out of my house right… this… minute.”

I pushed her away from me and knelt by Davis’s side. He flinched away from my touch, burying his face in the crook of his arm.

“Get my boy out of here. Take Bradley and go,” he muttered into his arm, his voice barely audible. “Please. I don’t want him to see me this way.”

“She’s crazy, Uncle Jordy!” Mark hollered. Bradley wrestled free from him and crawled to his father’s side. I blinked up at Cayla; she didn’t look at any of us except for her son. She tried to take him by the arm, gently, but he squirmed away from her, holding his father’s hand. Bradley’s face was contorted with tears, his lips curling in anguish. Oh, God, what had this boy seen in this house?

“You stay away, Mom,” Bradley cried. “Stay away.”

Cayla straightened up and, without a word, turned and stumbled out of the kitchen.

“I saw it all,” Mark gasped, squatting by me. “She was whaling on him with that broomstick and also tried to hit him with a skillet. You want me to call the cops?”

“No! No police!” Davis seized my arm, pressing hard. “Promise me, no police.”

“Davis. You have to tell me what’s happened here.”

“I told you, Uncle Jordy-”

“Mark, please! Let Davis talk.”

Davis couldn’t look into my eyes. He ran fingers across his head and left a trickle of blood in the thinning blond hair. “Um, nothing really, it was just an argument-”

“For God’s sake, Davis, she was about to beat you unconscious. Now, what did you argue about? What did you do to her?”

“Nothing. I wouldn’t hurt her. Please, just take Bradley and go. Please.”

I took Bradley’s frown-locked face in my hands. “Bradley. Listen to me. What happened here?”

Bradley blinked back more tears. His breath came in ragged, aching gasps. His chin wobbled against my fingers, spittle smearing my hand. He wouldn’t look me in the eye. Finally he found his voice and whispered, “Ain’t supposed to tell. Mom said never tell. Never tell, never tell, never tell!”

“You can tell me, Bradley. You know you can.” I kept my voice low and soothing. If violence held sway in this house, God only knew what this poor kid had witnessed.

Bradley fixed his eyes on the floor, the unspeakable secret weighing hard on his heart. After a long minute he spoke, his fingers drawing nervous patterns on the tiles. “Mom. She gets mad. She hits Daddy. She hits him, and she hits him again.” He raised his face again, anguish painting his features. “I ain’t supposed to tell!” He collapsed against Mark, who looked at me with an accusing glare.

“Mark. Take Bradley back to our house,” I said.

“Won’t go! Daddy-” Bradley protested.

“Son. Do as Jordan says.” Davis still wouldn’t look at me. Slowly, Mark got Bradley to his feet and led him out of the kitchen. Bradley was bent with walking, his feet shuffling like a prisoner fettered at the ankles.

I felt thoroughly sick. “Davis. Look at me. How long has this been going on?”

He, like his son, stared at the floor. He rubbed at a spot of his own blood that had dripped from his nose to the tile. More blood leaked between his teeth. I seized his jaw and turned his face toward mine, hot with anger toward him.

“Davis, damn you, answer me! How long has she been battering you?”

He closed his eyes, shamefaced. “Since we found out Bradley was retarded. I guess about thirteen years.”

“ What? ”

“She can’t help it. You know what a temper she’s always had. She just gets upset when Bradley messes up and she, well, she can take it out on me,” His voice sounded soft, reasoning, the tone of long justification of terrible wrong.

“For God’s sake! Takes it out on you? She was going to beat you to a pulp, Davis!”

“Well, she couldn’t hit Bradley, could she?” Davis said.

I closed my eyes in nausea. “But Mark saw bruises on Bradley’s arm-”

“She got upset with me last night. Bradley tried to stop her and she hurt him. She hurt him for the first time.” He finally looked at me. His blue eyes were streaked with bloodshot sorrow. “I couldn’t believe she hurt him. So I figured, it can’t go on, I can’t let her hurt my boy. So I went to go see Steven Teague, I thought he’d know what to do, what I could do to make her better.”

“Oh, Davis, Jesus. You can’t fix what’s wrong with Cayla. She has to do that.”

“We got back and Bradley told her he’d seen Mark. Cayla wanted to know where’d we been. I told her I went to Teague’s office and she went crazy.” He made a horrible snuffling sound of sickness and sadness long buried.

“Davis. Why didn’t you leave her?”

“I can’t. I love her.”

“I don’t understand you at all.” My own voice sounded near the breaking point. “Why didn’t you defend yourself, fight back? Why’d you let her do this to you?” I was so mad, so frustrated, I wanted to shake him myself.

“Good God. You don’t hit girls, Jordan. I could never hit Cayla.” He shook his head. “I couldn’t let anyone know. Hell, you don’t think I see how you look at me right now? A man that lets a woman beat him. It’s wives that get beaten, not husbands. What kind of man do you think people would say I was?”

If this was his reasoning and logic, he was a far sorrier lawyer than I ever suspected. “I would have respected you for getting out of this hell, Davis.”

He buried his face in his hands. “I’m so ashamed. So ashamed. My boy-”

“Listen to me. We’ll get you and Bradley out of here. You can stay with us, as long as you need. We’ll see if we can get Cayla to go to counseling. No one has to know what’s happened.”

Davis Foradory turned away from me. “No. People will know. They’ll find out. Like Clevey and your sister.”

“Sister? She knows about this?” I managed to keep my jaw off the blood-specked tile, but it wasn’t easy.

“She came over-the morning Trey was shot. We had been having breakfast and Bradley spilled his milk all over the table, all over the paper. Cayla got upset with me about it. She was hitting me, telling me that Bradley’s clumsiness was my fault, I shouldn’t have put so much milk in his glass-and Arlene walked in. She tried to stop Cayla, and Cayla belted her. Gave her that shiner. I’m awful sorry about that. So’s Cayla.”

Oh, God have mercy. “Your wife hit my sister?”

“Yeah. Knocked her to the floor. Cayla got upset and ran upstairs, so I took care of Arlene. She was so surprised she could hardly say much.”

Although I could imagine Sister being shocked, I could hardly picture her at a loss for words. “She told me she’d fallen down some steps and blackened her eye.”

“I begged her not to tell. I said Cayla didn’t mean it, she just had been awful upset. She was hankering to go wallop Cayla, but I talked her out of it. For Bradley’s sake.”

“I don’t understand why my sister was here.”

Davis sniffed. “She wanted me to be her attorney. Get a restraining order against Trey, keep him from Mark.” He wiped his dripping nose with the back of his sleeve, the carefully cultured lawyer gone. “I told her if she didn’t tell about Cayla, I’d represent her for free.”

I sat back down on the floor. Free legal services for her silence. And she’d done it, knowing that a boy was in an abusive household. Suddenly I wasn’t real happy with my sister.

He saw it in my face, “Oh, she don’t know the whole story, Jordan. Don’t be mad at Arlene. Please, I made her promise. I told her it was the only time that Cayla hit me.”

“And Clevey? He knew, didn’t he? You said so.”

Davis nodded, misery clouding his face again. “He found out about a year ago. He saw a bruise on my arm when we were out at Lake Bonaparte fishing. He kept at me about it, and I finally told him. I confided in him. He kept his mouth shut for months, but then he wanted money!” Davis quivered with rage.

“How much money?”

“Oh, God, thousands,” Davis leaned against the wall, face contorting in pain. I’d been so floored by this series of revelations that I hadn’t even thought about getting him to a doctor. I made him sit, went to the sink, and dampened a washcloth. I handed it to him and slowly, he cleaned his face, blinking at his blood on the cloth.

“Clevey said if I didn’t pay, he’d feature us in a story he was writing about domestic violence.” Davis stared at me, eyes rolling. “I couldn’t let that happen, oh no. It’d ruin me. I’d have lost my law

practice. And if I lost that, I’d have to sell my partnership in KBAV.”

I held my breath. “Did you kill him, Davis? Did you?”

He gave a shuddering breath. “No. I didn’t. I wanted to; God, I even thought about it. But I was too scared. And he promised that the money would be just that once. I could get on with my life.”

As though you could, I thought. Davis couldn’t get on with life while Cayla beat him. He and his son would forever be caught in a loop of bitterness and twisted love, manifested with fists and clawing fingers. And Clevey would have taken his place at KBAV. The humiliation would have been utter.

“You believe me, don’t you, Jordan? I swear, I’m not a killer.”

No, I didn’t think Davis was. He hadn’t roused himself to flee the hell his house had become; he wouldn’t have shot Clevey Shivers in cold blood. I had to get him to take action now, though.

“Never mind Clevey now. We’re gonna get you and Bradley out of here.”

“No.” He shook his head violently. “I can’t leave my house. How do I explain it?”

“We’ll say you and Cayla are just having some problem. People don’t have to know the specifics.”

“Then why wouldn’t Bradley stay with his mom? Kids stay with moms. Folks’ll know, they’ll find out, and I’m ruined!” His voice rose in a whiny shriek.

“Listen to me!” God, yelling in his face was probably not the way a trained counselor would handle this, but I was winging it. “Your life is already ruined! You can’t live this way, you can’t pretend that this is normal. Get yourselves out of here-if not for your sake, for Bradley’s. His life matters more than any stupid, overblown reputation of yours.” I clutched at this straw of persuasion and kept pressing him.

“Davis, you said yourself she hurt him last night. That’s the start, don’t you see? What happens when she starts getting mad at Bradley? Are you going to stand by and watch him be beaten?”

“I-” He faltered, unable to speak.

“You took the first step. You went to get help from Steven Teague. You don’t have to do this alone, okay? I’m here to help you, and Mark and Sister and Junebug and Hart and Ed. Your friends will help you. Now, come with me. He dragged the back of his hand across his bruised and cut face, “But I’m supposed to be in court this afternoon-”

“Never mind court. I’m sure the judge will understand. In fact, we can call the courthouse from my house. Why don’t we go do that now?” The air in the Foradory house felt dense, oppressive. I wanted to leave badly.

He nodded, finally, and stood. He was in obvious pain. I wondered how many injuries he’d suffered-and silently healed-over the years. I helped him toward the front door.

“I need clothes-” he started, the first excuse not to leave. I didn’t brook it for an instant.

“We’ll get them later. Or you can borrow some of mine.” We walked, slowly, Davis leaning on me from the kitchen through the pristine living room. As we neared the entry hall I could see Cayla Foradory sitting frozen on the leather couch, her head bowed. She might have been a statue for her stillness. Davis did not look at her.

I walked him onto the porch and got him to sit in a brown wicker chair. Bradley and Mark were nowhere in sight. The rain had abated and the sun was doing its damnedest to peek through.

“I’ll just be one minute,” I said. Davis hardly seemed to hear me.

I stormed back into the house, pushing the door hard so it banged loudly against the wall. I wanted her to know I meant business. Cayla still hadn’t moved, and she didn’t look up at me.


No response.

“Cayla, look at me.”

Her head inclined slightly, but her eyes were obscured by strands of dark, lank hair. She sniffed, hard, gulping air.

“Bradley and Davis are at my house. Don’t come over. Don’t come near them. And if you ever come near my sister again, or bother anyone in my family, I’ll have your sorry ass slapped in jail so fast you won’t know what hit you.”

“Tell Davis,” she started, sobbing. “Tell him I’m so sorry, so very sorry, it won’t happen again, and-”

“No. I won’t tell him your garbage. You’re a liar, it’s been happening again and again and again. You want your son and your husband back? Get yourself some help, Cayla. If you’ll do that, we’ll all help you. But you got to get yourself some counseling.”

“I don’t need a goddamned shrink, I just need Davis and my boy-”

“Find some other punching bags,” I said. I know I sounded cruel, but I wasn’t particularly inclined to kindness toward her.

“Bradley needs me, he needs his mommy-” she cried.

I didn’t want to listen to her anymore. “I’ll be back in a while for their clothes. I might bring the police with me. You better behave yourself, Cayla.”

She didn’t answer, she just kept crying.

I left. And out on the porch, where Davis still sat subdued, I breathed in fresh air like it was a long-denied pleasure.

I got Davis home. Clo examined both of them and ordered Davis to see a doctor. He refused at first, till I placated him by getting Dr. Meyer (our family physician as well as the Foradorys’) to make a house call. One of the benefits of small-town life is that your doctors treat you like a person, not a number.

Davis had suffered grave bruises, a loosened tooth, and a broken finger, but nothing worse. Bradley was also examined and, except for the ring of bruises, pronounced fit. Davis declined to tell Dr. Meyer the source of his injuries, but I had no such compunctions. I did Davis the courtesy, however, of telling Dr. Meyer in private, “Good God. Call county social services. They deal with battered women all the time.”

“He’s ashamed. He thinks no one’s ever heard of a battered husband. He says people’ll treat him like a freak.”

Dr. Meyer huffed. He did not suffer fools. “That ain’t the worse thing in the world. Better that than being beaten.”

“He’s trying. After she slapped Bradley around, he did go to Steven Teague’s office for help.”

Dr. Meyer snorted. “That dandified city fool?” Dr. Meyer is of hardy Bavarian-colonist stock and has only a tidbit of patience for people whose families haven’t been in Bonaparte County since Texas was a republic. “Well, I suppose it was a step. Anyhow, I’ve given him a tranquilizer. He needs to sleep. I’ll come back by tomorrow, but you or Clo call me if you need me.” He zipped up his medical bag. “Goddamn. And they say you have to go to the big city for the interestin’ cases.”

I’d begun to feel yanked in nineteen different directions. On top of all else, I’d adopted Davis and Bradley and their hornets’ nest of difficulties, I took a deep breath and called Candace at the diner, explaining to her what’d happened.

“Good God almighty,” she said when I was done. “Cayla gave Arlene that eye? Hell, I think Arlene could clean up the floor with Cayla Foradory.”

“That’s one option,” I concurred.

“So where are you going to put them?” Candace asked.

“Bradley’ll bunk with Mark, and we’ll put Davis in the guest room. Unless Clo has to stay over if Mama’s having a tough time, then I’ll take the couch and Davis can have my room.”

“Your application for sainthood is hereby approved.”

“Or I could propose a not-so-saintly alternative sleeping arrangement.”

“My bed is always open. To you, at least.”

“How reassuring. Actually, I could use a kiss right now. And another kiss. And then maybe a-”

“Yes, darlin’, I get the picture. I’ll come over after work. How about I have one of the cooks here fix up a big fried chicken dinner, and I’ll bring it over. We won’t have to cook and the Foradorys won’t have to face going out.”

“Your application for sainthood is stamped. Thanks.”



“I’d never hit you.”

“Well, only once.”

We said our goodbyes and I hung up. Thank you, God, for giving me a Candace and not a Cayla.

Next I called Sister. She was in Junebug’s room and told me he was continuing to improve. He’d felt good enough to argue with a doctor today.

“He nearly had company in the hospital. I caught Cayla Foradory beating the tar out of Davis this afternoon.”

There was dead silence on the other end of the line. “My Lord.”

“Yes, Davis and Bradley will be staying with us for a while. She’d taken to hitting Bradley, too.”

“What?” Sister gasped. “But Davis said-”

“I know what he said. And you and I are going to have a little chat about when you choose to keep your mouth shut, Sister. And I don’t want a single word of complaint that they’re staying here.”

I could hear her give a long sigh. “You won’t. I’m glad he’s away from that crazy woman. Tell ’em to make themselves comfortable. And if that Cayla even looks crosseyed at me, I’m gonna punch her into next week.”

I said a terse goodbye and dialed Steven Teague’s office. His receptionist answered, perky and sharp.

“Mr. Teague, please.”

“I’m sorry, he’s gone for the day. May I take a message?”

“This is kind of an emergency, ma’am. I’m Jordan Poteet. It concerns one of his patients.”

“I can have him return your call,” she said primly.

“Fine. He can reach me at home. Tell him it involves Davis Foradory.”

She repeated the message and, wishing me a good afternoon, hung up. I went back to the Foradory house to collect clothes for Davis and Bradley. I took Davis’s keys. Thankfully, Cayla was nowhere about. I quickly packed a suitcase for each of them, threw in a worn-looking teddy bear for Bradley, and came home.

After putting their suitcases in their rooms, I took a nap. Late in the afternoon, I went back down to the kitchen to fix myself a pimento-cheese sandwich, to tide me over till Candace came home with dinner. Scott Kinnard had come over to visit and the boys were up in Mark’s room. Davis slept in druggy oblivion, and Clo sat chatting with Mama, who apparency thought Clo was a newly made Mend and was telling her about her two delightful children, Arlene and Jordan. Clo smiled wistfully at me.

“Anne and I are having a nice chat. You want to join us?”

“No, thanks. I think I’ll-”

“Hello,” Mama said brightly. “Have we met?”

I couldn’t stay. I didn’t want to be reminded of the trauma in my own family after seeing the Foradorys fall apart. I excused myself to the porch with my plate. I like a little solitude now and then, and with this house busting at the seams, I wasn’t likely to get much privacy in the next several days. I sat down to enjoy my lunch and allow myself some quiet time.

The sky, indecisive for the past few days, finally offered dryness. The sun was edging below the horizon and the air felt brisk and cool. The clouds had scudded toward Austin, pushing in from the Gulf and finally shoving past Mirabeau. I sat on the chair and thought about poor Davis. He’d been through hell. And Clevey had been one of the devils, poking him with a hot trident. I felt deeply disappointed in Clevey. Now I had the proof of what he’d been up to. Victimizing a childhood pal for his own selfish reasons. He’d shown himself to be a blackmailer, just like Scott had suggested.

I chewed. But what did Davis’s troubles have to do with Trey? Blackmail over Davis’s beatings couldn’t have been what Clevey was coaxing Trey to get involved in. Why share the profits? And was Davis the “gravy train” that Clevey alluded to? My mind went back to what Nola told me. Trey and Hart talking. Trey asking if anyone else knew their secret. Hart saying Steven knew.

Just how did Steven Teague fit into this town? He’d worked here once. He’d left suddenly. He’d returned twenty years later, not exactly encouraging people to prod their memories and remember his brief residence.

He’d lived here, and Rennie Clifton had died, carrying a lover’s baby. He’d come back, and Clevey Shivers and Trey Slocum died.

It was time to confront Hart. Assuming Nola was truthful, he’d known why Trey left and lied. He’d apparently let Steven in on the secret. If I stayed here, I’d be nothing but a nursemaid to Davis. He needed time alone, and I needed to take action, to find closure for the giant rip my life had become.

I finished my sandwich and went back into the living room. Mark was hanging up the phone. Scott Kinnard and Bradley sat at the table, sipping Cokes and munching chips. Bradley didn’t look at me.

“Don’t ruin your dinners,” I muttered automatically. The chomping of chips continued.

“Hey, Jordy,” Scott greeted me softly. “Mom said she came over and made up with you today.”

“She did, Scott, she did.” I could see some of Nola’s strength in his face. “I think I understand your mom a little better now.”

“We moved this afternoon.” He didn’t look at me. “Out of Hart’s place. We’re renting a little apartment over off Bluebonnet Street.”

I knew the apartments-they were small and unkempt. “Well, I hope that everything will work out.”

“Me, too, I’d like to stay here,” Scott said. “We’re gonna see about getting me enrolled in the school. I’ll be in Mark’s class.” He gave a satisfied smile.

Mark spoke up. “That was Hart on the phone. He said we might be able to go riding later, if we wanted to come out and visit him.”

I glanced at Bradley. “We’ll see, Mark. I don’t know if Bradley’s up to horse riding.” Bradley didn’t acknowledge my reference to him. He seemed mesmerized by the ice cubes in his glass, surrounded by fizzing soda.

“Thought it might get his mind off stuff,” Mark said, shrugging. Scott looked at Mark and nodded.

The boys suddenly made my throat catch. Bradley looking like a younger Davis, Mark the image of Trey, and while Scott didn’t look like any of my boyhood confederates, he had the aching for acceptance that reminded me of Ed. I wondered if they’d stay friends for years, if they’d watch each other grow and change and leave Mirabeau. I hoped if they kept the bonds of friendship strong that they would never have to be tested the way my friends and I had been tested these past dark days.

“So Hart’s at his house?” I said. “Good. I need to pay him a visit.” I bade the boys farewell and headed out toward the horse ranch. Dusk was here, and a chill breeze made the damp air smell dank as a dungeon. I barreled along the road toward the Quadlander farm, ready to talk truth with Hart and find out why Trey’d felt compelled to leave all those years ago.


If it hadn’t been for the flat tire, I would have just zoomed up to the Quadlander place. And things would have been different, perhaps. Truth would have hidden for a while longer, and I don’t like to think about what might’ve happened. It might have been worse than what did happen.

Trey once told me, long, long ago, that you had to stare death in the face to become a man. That autumn night, I stared too long.

The tire blew, a galumphing, popping sound, about a quarter mile from the gate that marked Hart Quadlander’s property. I pulled over to the side, cussing a blue streak (that’s allowed when Candace isn’t around). The tire had picked up a nail and, being old and somewhat bald, had given quick surrender. I popped open the back of my Blazer and pulled up the carpet, staring at the flat spare.

Nothing to do for it; I slammed the door and started the hike up to Hart’s horse farm. I opened the gate that blocked the road up to his property and closed it behind me, looping the wire back over the post to hold the gate in place. I was careful to secure it; I had to help Trey chase a horse down once that’d bolted past the gate and I wasn’t eager to repeat the experience.

Night had fallen by the time I walked the half mile up the hill to the old house. The home Trey’d lived in all those years didn’t face down the road directly; it stood at an oblique angle, turned slightly so that it faced the scenery of the creek, the dense growths of live oaks, pecan trees, and loblolly pines, and farther, the watery smudge of the Colorado River.

I noticed the sleek Volvo that was Steven Teague’s parked in the gravel drive. Why was he here? I’d tell Steven about the developments at the Foradorys, but I wasn’t done being suspicious of him.

A light shone brightly in Hart’s kitchen and I headed toward it. I saw Hart’s head move past in the lit window and then move back as he walked from his fridge. The window was closer than the door and I paused for a moment, trying to see if Steven was in there with him.

Oh, he was. In the fluorescent glow, I saw the two men standing together, laughing at some private joke, at ease.

And then Steven moved close and kissed Hart.

I felt nailed to the ground. The kiss lengthened, grew in heat, and Steven’s arms went around Hart’s neck, pulling him tighter in esurient need. I stood, not breathing, until their kiss broke. Hart ran a finger gently along Steven’s lips and moved to pick up a beer on his kitchen table. He said something, and I heard the distant tone of Steven’s laughter.

I turned and hurried away, embarrassed and shocked. I stumbled along toward the creek. Just go back and ring the bell, I told myself. Pretend like you saw nothing. But my feet didn’t obey, and I staggered down toward the sodden creek, the mud smearing on my boots. There was no dry spot to sit, so I squatted among the heavy, cablelike roots of a live oak and leaned against the rough bark.

Hart and Steven. Hart? Gay, and I’d never known? I’d known him since childhood, and he’d never told me? Hell, I suspected he’d never told anyone in Mirabeau. Had they seen me, stumbling into their private moment? No one burst from the house, so I assumed not.

I caught my breath and, in the beginning of moonlight, saw two distant markers among the trees. A pair of marble crosses, gleaming like silver. Louis Slocum’s grave. And next to it, Trey’s grave. Cold and moldering in their muddy tombs.

I closed my eyes. Hart was gay. Fine, okay, whatever.

Had Louis known, in those years he’d lived here in a drunken stupor? Had Trey ever known?

Nola’s voice, but Trey’s words, repeating to me what she’d heard Trey say to Hart: If it hadn’t been for Daddy, I wouldn’t have had to leave.

A glimmer of a scenario pulled at my thoughts. Hart had a terrible secret to keep. Ivalou Purcell, who had just redefined barking up the wrong tree, said Hart wasn’t around when she’d come here in that long-ago storm. What had she said? That drunken Louis was crying and saying Hart was gone.

Oh, God.

Where had Hart gone? Why would he be out in a hurricane? Why would Louis be upset over Hart being gone?

And the corollary question, the one that I stupidly should have known was the key: what the hell was Rennie Clifton doing in those woods during a storm? Why would she be out there?

Why would anyone be out in those woods?

Perhaps looking for a bunch of stupid boys sitting out nature’s fury in a rackety tree house. Knowing that their leader was your drunken friend’s son. That was one good reason. And if a cleaning girl who maybe learned your secret was out there, too-

Thomasina Clifton’s wry, scratchy voice came to my ear: She always liked having a man she couldn’t have…

And Nola, telling me about Trey and Hart’s conversation, where Trey had asked, Does anyone else know? and Hart answering, Only Steven Teague.

I felt ill. Voices sounded in my head, not giving me concrete evidence, but trying to pull together the tangled threads of now and then. I felt a tightening in my throat, as though the connecting strings of Rennie and Clevey and Trey and Hart and Steven were strangling me.

The door to Hart’s house opened, and in the sudden brightness, I saw Steven Teague step out. He and Hart talked briefly, then Steven stepped away and jaunted toward his Volvo. There was no parting kiss on the porch. Of course not-this was Mirabeau.

I leaned against the tree, shielding myself from the light. Steven’s car purred into life and he turned, the headlights sweeping the broad tree I’d hidden behind, and then tore off down the road. I stayed put, peering around the trunk only to see the hesitation of lights as Steven got out, un-looped the gate, drove through, halted again, and shut and secured the hasp. Then his Volvo turned and tore off toward town, its lights flickering as it passed through copses of trees.

Hart went back inside. Back inside his safe, warm home, while near this creek Trey lay dead. But Hart had a clear-cut alibi for Trey’s death. I shuddered in the evening chill.

I stood, anger and confusion coursing through me. I needed to head back to town, get Franklin Bedloe, tell my suspicions to Junebug. But I didn’t have a shred of proof. And I didn’t have transport home.

And I wanted to deal with Hart Quadlander on my own terms.

I hiked back up from the trees, only glancing once toward the cross that marked Trey’s body. I carefully cleaned my boots, scraping the mud off on a heavy, gnarled root that looked like a demon’s finger. I felt a huge, hot anger in me, but my movements were calm and measured.

Before I knew it, I was pressing the doorbell. It felt warm beneath my fingertips and I froze a smile into place.

Hart looked surprised to see me, but his face broke into a grin. “Hey, Jordy. How are you?”

I made myself sound hearty and slightly annoyed. “Well, Hart, fair to middling. But I’ve gotten a flat tire down near your gate. Could I borrow your phone?”

“Hey, sure, c’mon in,” he said, and opened the door wide.

“I hope I’m not interrupting your dinner,” I said.

“Nah, not quite yet. I was gonna throw a steak on the grill in a few minutes, though. I was just gonna have a drink and turn on the TV. You want a drink?”

I’d followed him into the nicely furnished, expansive den. Preternaturally my eyes absorbed each detail: hard wood floors, polished to shine. A stone fireplace, with a blaze roaring merrily away. A comfortable couch, its upholstery decorated with Indian totems, and a matching armchair, a James Michener novel facedown on the ottoman. A glass-front bureau, with rifles lined up in it like sticks. A secretary of glossy wood, an empty ice bucket, cans of soda, and a bottle of bourbon. And a bookcase, topped with photos of Hart’s parents shyly smiling, Louis standing soberly by a prize stallion, and Trey as a boy, cowboy hat jaunty on his head, grinning with mock innocence.

“Jordy? You want a drink?” Hart offered again.

I glanced at the secretary he’d converted to a dry bar. Nothing cold there-he’d have to go to the kitchen.

“I’d like a beer, please.”

“Sure. Coming right up.” He sauntered off to the kitchen, keeping up a running chatter about town and country that I ignored. The key in the bureau was old, but it rotated easily. You don’t live out in the country and make your firearms hard to grab. I yanked out the first rifle and cracked it open to check it was loaded. It was. Thank you, God.

I was about to have a shocking talk with someone who’d been guarding secrets for decades; I needed something more persuasive than my winsome smile.

When Hart came back into the den, laughing and talking about some idiotic story about Nola Kinnard going shopping, I had the rifle firmly and steadily aimed at his chest.

He jerked, as though I’d already shot him.

“Don’t move!” I ordered. He froze. The bottle of beer slipped nervelessly from his fingers and shattered on the wooden floor.

“Jordy. Good God. Look what you made me do! Is this a joke?” Hart’s eyes were wide with shock.

“No, it’s not.” I shook my head slowly. “Put your hands up and don’t make any sudden moves. Move away from the door. Sit over here on the couch.”


“I know how to use this, Hart. Remember-you taught me. My own daddy didn’t cotton to hunting, but Trey did, and you took us out. When Trey and I were fourteen, you taught me how to shoot.” My voice dripped with bitterness; it didn’t sound like me talking, but some stranger who’d stepped into my skin.

“Okay, okay.” He moved slowly toward the couch, keeping his hands still, and sat down. “Now, what’s got you so upset?”

“Just your recent activities, Hart. Oh, and some ancient pastimes, too. like killing poor Rennie Clifton.”

He took a long, steadying breath. “I don’t know what you mean.”

I aimed the gun at his crotch. He tensed. “Yeah, you do. You killed her. You killed Clevey. You killed Trey. You shot Junebug.”

“No. No.” Fright made his breathing hard.

“Don’t you lie to me, Hart. Don’t you go pretending all these years that you’re an upstanding Southern gentleman when you’re a goddamned liar and murderer.” I stared at him along the sight. “I didn’t just now get here, Trey. I saw you and Steven Teague exchanging endearments.”

He shivered, his dark eyes open pools of shock. “Listen, Jordy, I don’t know what you think you saw-”

I moved the rifle and fired. A vase five feet to his left shattered into powder, the bullet’s percussive scream deafening in the room. I’ll give Hart credit, though-he didn’t scream. His eyes were tightly shut, but he opened them slowly. I pumped the rifle.

Silence hung between us for long seconds.

“I don’t care about your sexual orientation, Hart. Truly I don’t. But I have a theory about what might have happened in this house twenty years ago. I’m going to share it with you. You’re going to listen.

“You were a happy family here. You and this man named Louis you hired, and his son, Trey. Three decent fellows. Except Louis had a bit of a drinking problem. He wasn’t a fellow to take much responsibility for his actions. And when a pretty girl caught his eye when she came here with her mother to do some work, he decided to have her.”

Hart didn’t move a muscle.

“So Louis and Rennie had a little affair. She got pregnant. You found out. That put a crimp in your plans, because you and Louis were already lovers.”


“Hear me out, Hart. Oh, you don’t have a choice about that, I forgot.” I smiled tightly. “It’s just a guess, but I’m trying to think why you might have reason to kill Rennie Clifton. Let’s say you and Louis were lovers. Your devotion to his memory has always been unusually strong. And he was a rough-and-tumble man who’d take pleasure in something and not feel much guilt over it. Or maybe he did-and that fueled his drinking. And it might explain why you’d keep a drunk like Louis on your payroll for so long. But Louis liked women, too. After all, he’d produced Trey. And so he took another lover, maybe in an effort to prove something to himself. He picked Rennie.

“She’d told her mama she’d gotten involved with a man she couldn’t have. Her mama thought that meant a white man, but it meant more than that. It meant a man who loved another man.” I shook my head. “How did you keep Trey from knowing? Did he?”

“No.” Hart spoke so softly I could barely hear. His eyes never wavered from mine. “No, Trey didn’t know. He didn’t know about me or Rennie or his daddy.”

“So. Rennie is pregnant with your lover’s child. Now you’ll have to help me out here, Hart. The hurricane comes, Louis is drunk, you get suspicious that Trey’s pulling a stunt somewhere in the storm. Maybe at his favorite tree-house hangout. So you go out to the woods and get Rennie to come along with you. And you kill her.”

“That’s not it,” he croaked. “Put the gun down, please, Jordan. We’ve known each other forever, please.”

The rifle didn’t budge. My arm should’ve felt tired, but it didn’t; I felt strangely, perversely, alive. His life was in my hands and I felt sickly drunk with power. I wanted this to be over. “Tell me, Hart.”

His voice broke, and he spoke slowly, the truth rising to the surface like a pustule. “Rennie found out about Louis and me. Louis told her when he was dead drunk. I didn’t know. She volunteered to go with me to look for Trey and you boys. When we got out to the woods, away from Louis, she told me she… knew what I was. And that if I didn’t drop Louis, she’d tell the town. I panicked. She was vicious, horrible. Said she’d make sure everyone in town’d know about me. They’d all hate me for what I was.” His face pained with the memory.

“Before I knew it, I’d picked up a heavy branch and I hit her with it. I just meant to scare her, let her know she couldn’t mess with me, I wasn’t even trying to hit her in the head, just scare her, I swear! She fell-so totally, so suddenly. I couldn’t believe I’d killed her. I just wanted her to shut up, to leave Louis and me alone. So I left her out in the storm. I hurried back to the farm. Louis had passed out from drink. He didn’t remember that Rennie and I headed out together.” Two thin tears ran down his face.

I eased my hold on the rifle. Now that he’d confessed, the tension’d leaked out of the room like air from an old balloon.

“And Clevey. Did he see you out in the storm?”

“No.” His voice was wooden. “But he told me he decided to investigate Rennie’s death. He was a strange man, doing rotten stuff one day, trying to make up for it with kindness the next. He wanted to make up for blackmailing-”

“I already know Clevey was a blackmailer, Hart.”

He started, but I said nothing further. No need to drag poor Davis’s name into this fascinating conversation.

Hart swallowed thickly. “So, for penance, he wanted to find out if Rennie had been murdered. He said he got suspicious when he was writing the anniversary piece on the hurricane and he found old notes on her file at the coroner’s that indicated she was pregnant when she died. And of course, there was never any reason given for her to be out in the woods during the storm.”

I felt ill. Clevey was not the person I thought he was.

But then, few people of my extended acquaintance seemed to be these days.

“So how did he make the connection between Rennie and you? Why would he share these suspicions with you, Hart?”

“I don’t know.” He didn’t look in my face.

This didn’t make sense. I tightened my grip on the rifle. “Clevey told Trey that revenge was sweet if he gave it half a chance. Clevey wanted Trey to participate in some blackmail scheme, I think. Trey didn’t. He told Clevey the past was past. You know anything about that?”

“Can I have a drink, please, Jordy?”

“No, you may not,” I answered politely. “You killed Clevey to keep him from blackmailing you, didn’t you, Hart?”

Anger colored Hart’s face. “Keep him from it? He’d already bled me dry over six years, Jordy, I couldn’t do anything else. Most of my money’s gone. All I’ve got left is the farm. The last time I gave him money, he bragged he was going to make what he’d done to me right by exposing whoever killed Rennie. He didn’t know yet it was me.”

I felt confused. He hadn’t suspected about Rennie’s death for six years…

“The past six years? That’s when Trey left. So whyever Trey left, Clevey knew about it, too?”

“Yes! Yes!” Hart yelled in frustration as the walls, long built around his secrets, continued their inexorable tumble.

“What happened, Hart?”

I remembered Ed’s comment in the library: Clevey said he was the last fellow to see Trey in Mirabeau.

Hart stared at me with weary eyes. Not hateful, not bitter. “You’ve gotten so smart. What do you reckon happened?”

I didn’t speak for a moment, and the only sound was the logs crackling in the fire. “You and Louis. He found out about you.”

“Worse.” Hart stared at the bright orange embers of wood burning into ash. “Trey and Clevey-they walked in on us.” He fell silent

“In bed?” I ventured.

“Do you want me to draw you a goddamned picture, Jordan? Louis and I had argued. We’d gotten drunk and made up. We were in the kitchen. Trey walked in, and I was in his father’s mouth. Clevey saw, too. Got the picture now?”

I took a long, bracing breath. “And that’s when he left us. Left my sister. Left his boy.”

Hart wiped the tears from his face with the back of his hand. “Yes. He turned around without a word and walked out. I didn’t see him again until he and Nola and Scott drove up to the house last week. He’d forgiven me. He didn’t want to hate anymore.”

What Trey’d told Sister rang true: he’d left on terrible impulse for the wrong reasons, and he’d been too scared to come home. Afraid we wouldn’t want him. Afraid to deal with his father. For a man like Trey, what he’d seen represented the ultimate in betrayal and pain.

“And Clevey knew all this? He never told?”

“That,” Hart said slowly, “would have cut into his profit margin. I had no money left to give him. And I had Trey’s forgiveness. Clevey said he’d take the farm. I said no. He said yes. So I shot him.”

“And your new lover was Clevey’s therapist. How convenient.”

“Clevey was busy trying to justify the rotten things he did. Booze and therapy seemed to be the easiest ways for him. He never told Steven he was a blackmailer, though. But I had. So Steven kept nudging him toward stopping the blackmail. It didn’t work.”

“Steven left here after Rennie died. How’d he fit in?”

“I knew him from Austin. I-I used to go to Austin sometimes and drink in the gay bars. I’d met him there. We’d fooled around, and he moved out here, but he couldn’t take the pressure of being closeted in a little town. I was trying to work out my relationship with Louis. So Steven left. I ran into him again several months ago and he decided to try Mirabeau again. He’s not involved in any of this, not directly. He doesn’t know that I killed Clevey or Rennie.”

I thought of Steven’s unwillingness to discuss Clevey’s case with Junebug. “I bet he suspects you killed Clevey.”

“Just leave him alone.”

“But Steven knew why Trey left?”

“How did you know that?”

“Nola has big ears. How nice that Steven has been counseling Mark over his father’s murder, when he knows more about Trey than Mark does.” I made myself quit gritting my teeth.

“Are we done? You can go ahead and shoot me now.”

“No. I want to know how you killed Trey.”

“I didn’t, I told you. I was over in Fayette County-”

“Yes, we’ve heard your alibi. How much did you pay off the horse dealer there to back up your story?”

“You shut up!” Hart yelled. “You’re not so smart, Jordan, no matter how bright you think you’ve gotten since you’ve aimed a gun at me. Listen to me: I didn’t kill Trey. Do you really think, having gotten rid of one blackmailer, I’d put myself in a vulnerable position of paying someone in Fayette County for an alibi? That would’ve just been an invitation to get more money extorted out of me.”

He had a point. I wasn’t sure I was buying it.

“Tell me how you did it, Hart. Why’d you keep score in Trey’s blood?”

“I didn’t, goddamn it, Jordan. I didn’t shoot Junebug and I didn’t kill Trey. Why would I? Why would I kill Trey? He’d forgiven me; Nola told you as much. He’d come home. He’d come to see me. He wanted nothing to do with Clevey’s schemes. He’d nearly died and he didn’t want to be away from the people who had loved him!”

Hart stood and I motioned him back down with the rifle.

“No!” he yelled in defiance. “Go ahead and shoot me. Do it for me. You don’t think that I’ve wanted to kill myself? For God’s sake, I didn’t enjoy killing Rennie Clifton! I didn’t even mean to! And killing Clevey was horrible-I used his own gun on him. He begged me not to, he said he was sorry, he cried for his mother, and I still forced myself to shoot him!

“I’m a Quadlander, for God’s sake! I killed a girl and paid money to a scumball because I didn’t want anyone to know that a Quadlander was gay! But I’ve made myself into something truly awful, a murderer, so just shoot me now. Shoot me now.” He sank back onto the couch, broken.

I lowered the rifle. He was right about Trey. His motive to kill him had vanished with Trey’s forgiveness.

“Look at me, Hart.”

He glanced up, seeing me and the rifle lowered. “You believe me.”

“Yes,” I managed.

“Thank you. I’m sorry about the girl. And I’m sorry about Clevey. I’m glad you know I wouldn’t have hurt Trey.”

I didn’t answer. Motive, opportunity-think. And a collage came to me, like the lightning that’d thundered over Mirabeau the past week, cracking through the veiling clouds. Fragments of repeated conversations. Photos passing through my hands. A cryptic message scrawled in blood that I had placed far too much reliance on. And Trey’s begged request to my sister before she fled his house. It pointed, horribly, to one person.

Realization hit me with the brute force of a punch. I nearly dropped the rifle. Hart looked at me like he thought I was having a heart attack. Oh, God, let me be wrong.


“Where’s your phone?”

He pointed. I dialed home. Two rings. Three. My heart stopped and started. Four. “Hello, Poteet residence.” Clo’s voice, moderately cheerful, a little breathless.

“Clo. Where’s Mark?”

“He and Bradley took off with Scott.”

I forced breath into my lungs. “Where’d they go?”

“Over to Scott’s, I believe.”

“Clo, listen, this is very important If they come back, make sure they stay put. The boys must stay where they’re at.”

“Okay, Jordy, sure.”

“Fine, I’ll be home shortly.”

I hung up and dialed information. Please, God, let Nola have a phone already. The operator had just come on when I heard a knock at Hart’s door, and a timid, “Hello? Hart sweetie? It’s Nola.”

I slammed the phone down. Hart and I looked at each other. I kept waiting for him to scream out a crazy man was holding him at gunpoint. He stayed quiet, watching me with old eyes.

Nola bounded into the den, smiling at Hart, not seeing me and the rifle at first.

“Hey there, sugar pie, you don’t mind a little company for a while…” Her voice faded as she saw me with the rifle hooked under my arm, the haggard Hart, the bulleted vase. “What the hell’s this?”

“Nola. Where are the boys?”

She pointed at my rifle. “You answer me first. What’s that for?”

“Never mind! Where are Mark and Scott? ”

She pointed over her shoulder. “They wanted to go down by the creek… down by the graves.”

I bolted past her, shoving her out of my way, and dashed into the dark night.


Cloying mud pulled at my boot heels as I ran from the house. “Mark! Mark! Get to the house!” I screamed, hoping he could still hear me.

The clouds scudded over the moon, darkening the night into pitch. The porch light from Hart’s house provided hardly enough illumination to see my own legs as I tore across the gravel road, down the creekside to where two generations of Slocum men lay in eternal slumber, one in murdered sleep. I couldn’t let it happen again.

Branches tore at my face as I ran through the woods down to the creek. I stumbled over a ropy mass of roots, and cussing, skidded into the mud, tumbling head over heels. The rifle flew out of my hands and slid into the darkness. Still yelling Mark’s name, I pulled myself to my feet, trying to spot the rifle. And a bullet exploded into the tree next to me, spraying bark and oak.

I went back down to my knees and scrabbled behind the tree. I could see vague outlines near the graves of Louis and Trey: two, maybe three boys. Who else was there?

“Uncle Jordy!” Mark hollered. “Stay back, stay back! Scott, you asshole, don’t shoot, it’s Uncle Jordy!”

“Scott, listen to me! Listen! You don’t have to do this, let’s talk.”

Scott’s voice, when it came back, was petulant. “I don’t want to talk. Don’t run at me in the dark, you scared me.”

“Sorry,” I called back. Of course I wasn’t, but while Scott Kinnard was blasting away at trees he wasn’t hitting human flesh. “Let’s talk, okay?” Tentatively, I stood and began to walk down toward their voices. Wondering if each step would be met with a bullet. I needed the rifle, but I couldn’t spend minutes searching for it. The night held quiet.

Scott let me within ten feet of him, and as moonlight dimly slid along us as a cloud parted I saw Mark standing over his grandfather’s grave, keeping a trembling Bradley an arm’s length behind him.

“Go away, Jordy.” Scott’s voice was toneless. Not scared-not crazed-and that was more chilling. He sensed his control and he had a child’s smugness. The. 38 in his hand was rock still.

I kept my voice steady and assured. “No, Scott. I won’t go away. If you’re going to kill Mark, you have to kill me, too. And your mom and Hart are up at the house. I don’t think you can make this look like an accident.”

“Kill me?” I heard Mark repeat softly. I couldn’t see his eyes, but the realization charged the air between us. “He wants to kill me?”

“Scott. Listen to me. This won’t work. I know you killed Trey.”

“ What? ” I heard Mark sputter.

“That’s a lie! I loved Trey!” Scott shrieked. He was pointing a gun at me; he’d killed a man, but he still sounded like a child. An angry, temperamental boy who’d lashed out with rage at a wish denied.

“You loved him too much,” I started, hearing Nola and Hart rushing toward us in the undergrowth, Nola calling her son’s name. “You loved him, but he wasn’t going to stay. He wanted to go back to my sister and Mark. And you couldn’t stand that. You couldn’t stand that he was going to be like your mom’s other boyfriends and leave you. So you shot him dead.”

Scott didn’t speak. Mark seemed frozen in horror. Nola, breathless, managed to grab at my arm.

“You’re lying, lying! Scott wouldn’t hurt anyone!”

“Then have him give you the gun,” I said calmly. “And we’ll go back up to the house and talk about it.”

Nola’s fingers tightened on my arm. The moon glimmered from behind a wall of cloud and I could see her weathered face staring at her son in abject shock.

“Scotty, honey, give Mom the gun.” She took a step forward.

“No. Stay back, Mom, please. Go back to the house.”


“No! Not after I did it for you, for us!” He waved wildly with the . 38 pistol that seemed too big for his hands.

“For us?” Nola repeated, cold shock edging her voice. “Scott, hush up right now! You don’t know what you’re saying!”

“Scott!” Hart’s voice, solid, commanding, the voice that had lectured Trey and me on shooting guns and riding properly. “Stop this foolishness, right now, son. Put that gun down.”

“You shut up!” Scott demanded. He turned entreating eyes back toward his mother. “I had to, Mom, I had to. He didn’t want us no more, he wanted Arlene and”-he moved the gun in a vicious swath toward Mark-“and he wanted you. You. I was the one that was supposed to be his son, not you!” Anger made his voice ragged.

“Baby, please,” Nola entreated. Scott ignored her.

I glanced at Mark, He still seemed transfixed by Scott, like the injured bird gazing steadily at the slithering cobra. He attempted to step back and stumbled into Bradley, who cowered behind him.

“Stay put!” Scott ordered him. “You stay right there.”

“Scott,” I said quietly. He swung the gun back toward me, quick and sure. If only one of us could get at him-I prayed we’d still be able to talk him down.

“You tell me. How did you know?” Scott demanded.

“Why? So you can shoot me, too? You’ll have to shoot us all, Scott, and I don’t think you want to do that. I don’t really think you want to hurt anyone anymore.”

“I will.” His voice broke with tension. “I have and I will. Why don’t you ask that stupid police chief of yours?”

I swallowed. “You were the only one who heard Clevey and Trey argue. You were the only one-besides Hart- that knew they shared any sort of dark secret in their lives before either of them died. And that Saturday morning, you came home early from the basketball court. So when you heard Trey pledge his undying love to my sister, and say he wanted her and Mark back, you decided to kill him. And you decided to make it look like he’d died because of some connection to Clevey. You heard the conversation between him and my sister, but they didn’t know you were in the house-at least my sister didn’t. And when she left, you got Trey’s gun and shot him in the back. Then you painted that 2 DOWN in blood to suggest that Trey’s murder was part of a pattern that started with Clevey’s death. Then you shot Junebug to keep the pattern going. No one would look twice at you that way, although a man you loved as your daddy was about to drop you and your mother.”

“No,” Nola moaned. “No, please, Scotty, no.”

“Mama! I couldn’t let him hurt you anymore.” Scott’s voice broke tearfully. “We were gonna be a family.”

“You decided you’d pretend to be friendly to our family, friendly in particular to Mark. Become his pal, spend time with him. You brought back those photos. You hinted that Trey’d corresponded with my mother, knowing full well that she’s sick now and couldn’t say she had or hadn’t written Trey. But there was no way in hell that she would have been writing Trey in secret. Not my mother. I should have seen through you then, but maybe I wanted to believe that Trey still cared about our family. You wanted us to trust you, like you. So maybe when you got your revenge on Mark, when you killed him or hurt him, it would look like an accident.”

Hart coughed and I glanced at him. “You broke into our house, Hart, looking for those letters. You couldn’t take a chance that Scott was lying. You had to see if there was any written evidence about what Trey had seen between you and his father.” Hart nodded mutely. I turned back and my heart stopped. Scott leveled the pistol directly at Mark’s head. Mark pushed a crying Bradley back and stared at Scott with hate.

“If Trey wants you so bad, you can just go to him now!” Scott shrieked, and I rushed forward, yelling at Scott. The cold eye of the . 38’s barrel swung at me and a strong arm shoved me to one side, diving for the gun.

Light exploded in the night. Nola screamed, Bradley screeched, birds burst from the trees in a spinning wheel of caws. I pulled my face from the mud, scrabbling madly toward Scott. He was on the ground, wrestling with Mark for the gun. Both had their hands on the weapon and I reached between them, yanking it away.

“You killed him! You killed my daddy!” Mark screamed into Scott’s sobbing face, pounding him with his fists. Adrenaline powered me hard and I jerked Mark away with one arm, getting myself between him and Scott. Nola collapsed to her son’s side, cradling his sobbing form in her arms.

“Oh, my baby, oh, my baby,” she cried. “Why did you have to do this?”

I swung around, holding Mark tight to me. Bradley knelt by Hart, lying flat on the ground. I hurried to him and saw the blood gurgling out of the horrible wound in his chest.

He looked at me, life ebbing in his eyes. I shoved Mark toward the house. “Call 911! Run, hurry!” Mark turned, wordless, and sprinted away.

“Hart! Hold on! Help is coming!” I begged him.

“No… Mark…”

“Mark’s okay. He’s okay, you saved him.”

“Mark… tell him sorry… his daddy… all these years… my fault…”

“No, it wasn’t.” I squeezed his hand tight. “It wasn’t your fault. Now you have to hold on, you have to-”

He pressed my fingers in answer. The darkness of the night became the darkness of his eyes. The breath ceased. I stayed kneeling in the mud by his side.

Nola held Scott tight, knowing he would soon be pulled from her arms. He did not try to run. But he stared at me with eyes of ice.


I sometimes hold it half a sin

To put in words the grief I feel;

For words, like Nature, half reveal

And half conceal the Soul within.

-Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam

The January wind blew cold as I stood on the porch, staring out across the pasture and down to the river. Hart’s family had really planned right all those years ago, turning the house just the right angle so that on a gloriously clear day you had a panorama of shapeless woods and squared meadows and a ribbon of river. I leaned against the cold wood of the porch. The wind, gusting, moved the dry grass in the fields and carried the lonesome cry of a migrating bird far in the sky. They were familiar sounds, and I could nearly imagine that the wind also sustained the whinnying of excited horses, the thunder of hooves, the laughter of a young Trey Slocum and Jordan Poteet as they rode across the pastures of Hart’s farm.

Mark’s farm, I corrected myself. The words sounded odd to me. I turned back to the door to see just what was taking the young squire so long.

Through the door I could see him talking quietly on the cordless phone. I tapped and he held up a finger, just a minute.

I turned back and watched the bare branches of the tree’s sway in the wind. That night six weeks ago seemed horribly close, the cutting wind feeling like death’s finger on my face. The ambulance and police cars roared up the road-I’d sent Bradley to open the gate for them. But for Hart, it was minutes too late. The bullet had been too cruel.

Scott had surrendered without struggle. He was in a nearby juvenile detention facility since he was only fourteen. Scott would be tried as a juvenile, since he was under fifteen and obviously a child who’d suffered terribly due to a lack of role models. I spat in the grass. He’d killed two men and nearly killed a third. Scott seemed hardly childlike to me. I’d gotten to where I could hardly stand to watch his grandstanding attorneys on the nightly news.

Other adjustments weren’t easy either. Thomasina Clifton finally learned the truth about Rennie’s death. I’d sat with her while Junebug and I relayed Hart’s confession. Her eyes slowly had filled with tears and I wondered if it was the first time in many years that she’d wept for her lost daughter. Her other children had closed around Thomasina like human armor, and I’d stayed away, leaving her to her rediscovered grief. Knowing that her daughter didn’t have to die, that Rennie’s toying with Louis and Hart’s life had gotten her murdered, was a fresh agony. It’s a hard thing to hear that about your child.

It was much worse telling Truda Shivers about her son. Davis, Ed, Junebug, and I had talked about it and we went over together to tell her what would come out at the inquest of Hart’s death. Junebug did most of the talking, and it was possibly the most horrible conversation I’d ever heard in my life as he detailed the moral and legal crimes of her son.

“You aren’t talking about my boy,” Truda had finally said, her voice a faint whisper. “My boy wouldn’t do such things.”

Her denial of Clevey’s rottenness was thickly impenetrable. After a while we gave up. She’s a woman I still care about, but I know better than to bang my head against a wall. In her mind, Truda’s constructed a heroic end for her boy as the dedicated reporter and none of us are allowed to edit it.

I felt bad for both those mothers, losing their children. We sometimes forget that everyone was once somebody’s little baby, cooing up at a smiling parent from the warmth of a crib.

One person not cooing at me, at least for a week, was Candace. She didn’t appreciate me runmng off to confront Hart or my face-off with Scott. After she chewed me out thoroughly, I got a long hug where she made sure I was okay. I’m forgiven for the moment-and we’re heading out on a Caribbean cruise to patch up any existing wounds in our relationship. Part of my penance is letting her pay the way.

Mark came out onto the porch, carrying one of the wreaths. “Sony, that was Bradley. He wants me to come over for dinner this week.”

“How’s he doing?” Davis and Bradley had finally moved back into their home. Cayla was deep in treatment for her anger over Bradley’s condition and her tendency to beat the stuffing out of her husband. Davis claimed he wanted to make the marriage work, but I thought the statement rang hollow. A few weeks not walking on tiptoes around his wife had been nirvana. He’d seen there was a life outside of abuse.

“Bradley’s fine,” Mark shrugged. “He says he’s supposed to go talk with Steven Teague this afternoon. He’s embarrassed, though. Some kid was teasing him about seeing a shrink.”

Male pride never ends. It had kept Hart a slave to blackmail and turned him killer; made Clevey an avaricious criminal who fumblingly attempted to make amends for his own self-esteem; driven Trey away from a family that loved him; kept Davis in bondage to a sick woman; and made Scott believe murder was a solution. I didn’t have much male pride left, but I’d vowed not to let it shape my life.

“I’m sure Steven will be able to make him feel better.” I pointed at the wreath. “I got the others here. Let’s go.”

Mark followed me off the porch and I saw that, as always, he had to turn and look back at the house, “I still can’t believe it. That this is mine.”

It had been the final shock after several days of catastrophes. Hart’s will was short and to the point: all his worldly possessions were left solely to Mark Slocum, grandson of his longtime friend Louis Slocum. Despite Hart’s claims that Clevey Shivers had bled him dry, Quadlander pockets still went deep. The land, the house, the horses, the equipment, stocks and bonds, and enough cash squirreled away in a Houston bank to make you choke. Mark was now, quite possibly, the wealthiest boy in Bonaparte County. Of course, my name was in Hart’s will as well. He named Sister and me cotrustees for Mark’s money, until Mark attained the age of twenty-one, when good sense would allegedly prevail.

The next seven years might be long ones, I considered.

“Well, it is yours, Mark, and it’s a responsibility. The horse farm’s not just a home, it’s a business. A business that’s expensive to run.”

“I know. But there’s money to run it, isn’t there? To hire people to run it for us. I-I don’t want to sell it. I’d feel funny about selling the land that Daddy and Hart and Pa-paw Slocum are buried on.”

“Okay.” We hadn’t talked so frankly about his inheritance since Mark learned he was an unexpected legatee. “We don’t have to sell it.”

“Then let’s talk about the house.” He stopped for a moment, getting a better grip on the wreath he carried, and brushed his dark hair out of his eyes. For a second he was the image of his daddy, walking these fields and woods twenty years back. I didn’t want him to sell the land, either.

“We could live out here,” Mark suggested slowly. I didn’t answer for several seconds.

“Mama’s house is ours, too, Mark. Sister and I grew up there. I don’t know how I’d feel about moving here.”

“Couldn’t we give it a try? Mamaw might like it out here. And it’s nice in the country. We could ride whenever we want to. And Hart’s house-I mean my house-is bigger than our house.”

As I’ve mentioned before, I hate when teenagers are right. And wouldn’t it be a special challenge to live in a house that a teenager owned?

We stopped our discussion; our walk had taken us to the three graves that lay in the woods, a healthy distance above the creek. Louis in the middle, Trey on one side, and Hart on the other. Today would have been Hart’s birthday, and Sister had quietly suggested getting his grave a nice wreath. (Women always remember such kindnesses; men generally don’t.) Mark had pointed out that a wreath just on Hart’s marker would look odd, so we got big wreaths for his daddy and papaw as well.

Mark carefully placed a wreath on Hart’s tombstone, securing it into the ground so the gusty winds wouldn’t topple it. He helped me put the laurels on the other two graves. The stone markers felt icy cold against our fingers.

We stood together for several silent moments. Only the wind spoke: a low, gentle lament. Finally Mark asked, “Why’d Hart do it, Uncle Jordy? Why’d he the to save me? Why’d he leave me everything?”

I put a hand on his shoulder. “Well, Hart cared about your granddaddy and your father, very much. And he cared about you, too. I think he felt bad for you that you didn’t have them around when you were growing up. And he didn’t have family to leave this to. So he left it to you.”

“But to die for me-”

I turned Mark to face me. “He wanted you to live very badly. That’s all that matters. I’ll… forever be grateful to him.” I turned my face into the cooling wind. Why did Hart live the way he did, in secretiveness and sadness? Why had he never given the town-or at least the people who cared about him-a chance to accept him as he was? I wondered how very, very different events might have been if Hart had thought his friends more generous-hearted. Or had we given him reason to fear our rejection, with unthinking jokes or comments or slurs?

Mark leaned down and gently touched the turned soil on the grave. It was a gesture of timid tenderness I’d seen him make on top of Mama’s head. “Happy birthday, Hart. Thank you for my life.” His voice broke and he stood, turning his face against my jacket. I watched the top of his dark head, then stared at Trey’s grave, my teeth clenching together.

We stood for a few more minutes, till the dropping temperatures ushered us toward the house. We walked back, my arm around Mark’s shoulders. The sun shone brightly as we went up the porch steps. Mark held the door for me as I went into his new house.

“Kind of funny,” Mark said, “never to have lived here.” He glanced back across the land and the big empty sky. “Because it feels like coming home.”