2

There were two houses where the dirt road joined the highway. Catherine could have stopped at either and found help.

She never thought of it. In a fog of shock she had fixed her destination, and she would not stop until she reached it. She drove south on the highway without seeing anything but the concrete in front of her.

To reach the sheriff’s office, she had to turn off the highway into the town. When she saw the familiar brick building sitting squarely in front of the old jail, Catherine felt dizzy with relief.

The lights inside the little building were on. Through the glass door Catherine could see the dispatcher, Mary Jane Cory, seated at her desk behind the counter.

It took an immense effort of will to unclamp her hands from the wheel, open the car door, swing her legs out, and force the rest of her body to follow them.

‘Good morning, Catherine! I’ll be with you in a minute,’ Mrs Cory said briskly, and thudded out a few more words on her ancient typewriter.

In what later seemed to Catherine insanity, she kept silent and waited obediently. She leaned on the counter, her hands gripping the far edge of it to keep upright.

That silence alerted some warning signal in Mary Jane Cory. She gave Catherine a second glance and then was on her feet her hands covering Catherine’s.

‘What’s the matter?’ the older woman asked sharply.

‘The sheriff . . . I want to see the sheriff,’ Catherine said painfully. Her jaws ached from long clenching.

‘Are you going to faint, Catherine?’ Mrs Cory asked, still in that sharp watchful voice.

Catherine didn’t answer.

Mrs Cory switched her grip from Catherine’s hands to her upper arms and called without turning her head, ‘James Galton! Come here quick!’

There was a stir in the office that had ‘Sheriff’ on the door. The roar of the air conditioning covered the sound of Galton’s quiet steps, but a khaki-covered elbow appeared in Catherine’s range of view, propped on the counter beside her.

‘You got troubles, Catherine?’ rumbled a carefully relaxed voice. Catherine saw Mrs Cory’s platinum head give a shake in answer to some silent query of Galton’s.

Now that the time had come to deliver her message, Catherine found herself curiously embarrassed, as if she were about to commit a deliberate faux pas.

She turned her head stiffly to look up at Galton.

‘There’s a dead woman in an old tenant house. On the place.’

‘You sure she’s dead?’

Catherine’s face was blank as she stared at him. ‘Oh, yes,’ she said.

‘A black woman?’

‘No,’ she said, and felt the ripple of surprise. Lowfield white women did not get themselves dumped in tenant shacks.

‘Do you know who it is?’

‘No. No.’ Her voice sounded odd to her own ears. ‘She’s covered in blood.’

Galton’s face changed as she stared at him. He didn’t look like the relaxed and genial Jimmy Galton who had been her father’s friend.

He looked like the sheriff.

* * * *

Catherine had assumed she could go home after informing the sheriff of her discovery.

She had, she soon realized, been thinking like a child.

Galton issued a few commands to Mrs Cory, who got busy on the radio and telephone. He gently but quite firmly led Catherine into his office, guided her to the chair in front of his desk, and then eased himself into his own battered chair.

‘You want to go to the doctor for a tranquilizer?’

But the doctor was her father. He was dead.

No, she thought, horrified. No. She shook her head to clear her thoughts. This kind of confusion hadn’t happened to her in a long time; she had thought it was over with.

‘Want something to drink?’

‘No,’ she whispered.

He indicated his pack of cigarettes.

Catherine forced herself to reach for one and light it, while Galton eyed her intently.

He’s trying to see if I can do it by myself, Catherine thought suddenly. Her back stiffened.

‘Now, I’m going to ask you a few questions. You just take your time answering,’ he said.

Catherine nodded briefly.

He was being kind in a stern way, but Catherine realized that the day would be longer than she had ever imagined when she arose early that morning to go target shooting.

Galton jogged her with a couple of questions. Once she got going, she gave a clear account of her morning.

There was nothing much to tell.

When she finished, Galton rose without a word, patting her absently as he passed into the outer room.

Catherine heard a shuffling of feet in the main office, a murmur of voices. Mrs Cory had called in the deputies.

Catherine looked down at her hands clenched in her lap. Her heavy dark hair swung forward, shielding her face, giving her a tiny corner of privacy against the open door.

The look of her twined fingers, the smell of the sheriff’s office, and the scrape of official boots had ripped the cover from a well of memory. For a few moments she was not in Lowfield but in a similar police station in a similar tiny town, in Arkansas. She was not wearing blue jeans but the dress she had worn to work that day. Her parents had been dead for four hours instead of six months.

With a terrible effort, she wrenched herself back into her proper place.

I will not give way, she told herself ferociously. I will get through this and I will not give way.

She listened to Sheriff Galton’s voice rumbling in the main office. He was telling Mary Jane Cory to call enough men for a coroner’s jury.

* * * *

She rode back to the shack in the sheriff’s car. The car was bright green with gold lettering and a star on the side. She could see people glancing in as the sheriff drove past, then looking again as they identified Galton’s passenger as Catherine Linton.

Though she had cut herself off from the mainstream of life in Lowfield, Catherine was fully aware that the talk would already be beginning. A month ago, it would not have occurred to her to care.

‘Catherine,’ Galton said.

She looked at him.

‘Who rents your place?’

‘Martin Barnes,’ she said promptly.

She slid easily back into her silence. It had been her natural element for months; and even before that, she had not been what anyone would call talkative. Her roommate in college had called her ‘Sphinx.’ It had become her accepted name on the small private campus.

She wished there was someone around to call her that now.

Martin Barnes. That was food for thought. Catherine supposed the person most familiar with that piece of land must be the most suspected. The shack was visible, but not obvious, from the highway. You wouldn’t, Catherine decided, just glimpse it and say, ‘Perfect place for this body I have on my hands.’ But Mr Barnes can’t have anything to do with this, she thought. He’s – older than my father; he’s a good man. Besides – she must have been raped. Why else would anyone drag a lady out to the country and bash her on the head?

But the woman’s dress hadn’t been disarranged. Catherine could see it clearly, pulled down around the woman’s knees. A print shirtwaist dress, an everyday dress, short-sleeved for the summer. The kind of dress any older woman in Lowfield would wear to go to the grocery. Not a dress any woman would wear to die in.

Robbery, then? Catherine wondered. Had there been a purse at the woman’s side? She couldn’t recall one – and she could still see the body clearly. She shuddered, and her small square hands gripped her folded arms.

‘Let me tell you the procedure, Catherine,’ Sheriff Galton said abruptly, and she knew he had noticed the shudder.

She summoned up a courteous show of interest.

‘First we secure the scene.’

The thought of anyone ‘securing’ the ramshackle tenant house made her want to laugh, but she pressed her lips together and locked in the urge. Everyone thinks you’re crazy anyway: don’t confirm it, she warned herself. She inclined her head to show that she was listening.

‘Percy here will take some pictures,’ Galton proceeded with a matter-of-fact air.

Percy was the black deputy lodged in the back seat with a lot of camera paraphernalia. He was a solemn-faced young man, and as Catherine turned to look at him by way of acknowledging his entrance into the conversation, she felt an unexpected stir of recognition. Before she could place it, Galton rumbled on.

‘Mary Jane’s called the coroner, and he’ll convene a coroner’s jury at the scene. They’ll hear your testimony and they’ll give their finding.’

Then I can go home, Catherine thought hopefully.

‘Then you come back to the station, make a formal statement, sign it.’

Damn.

‘Then you can go home. I may have to ask you a few more questions later, but I think that’ll be it. Until we catch the perpetrator. Then there’ll be the trial.’

Trial opened up new vistas of trouble. It sounded pretty cocky on James Galton’s part, too.

Catherine glanced at Galton’s stern lined face, and suddenly she decided it would be a mistake to underestimate Sheriff James Galton.

* * * *

The sheriff’s car and the deputies’ car following it turned off the highway onto the dirt road Catherine indicated. The sun was higher, the glare brighter than during Catherine’s early morning venture. She had no sunglasses and had to lower the visor to shield her eyes. She was too short for it to help much.

‘This your grandfather’s place?’ Galton asked.

‘All of it.’

‘All rented out to Martin?’

‘Yes. For years. Daddy rented to him too.’

Catherine lit a cigarette from the battered pack in her pocket and smoked it slowly.

The shack at the crossroads came into view.

The weathered wood shone in the sun. It looked so quiet and empty that for a brief moment Catherine doubted what she had seen. Then she began shaking again, and dug her nails into her arms to keep from crying.

I’m not going in there. Surely they won’t ask me to go in there, she thought.

‘This the place?’ Galton asked.

She nodded.

They pulled to a halt under the same oak that had sheltered Catherine’s car. The sheriff and the deputy got out immediately. Catherine put out her cigarette with elaborate care. The black deputy opened her door.

She left the sheriff’s car and began to walk down the road.

The sweat that had dried in the sheriff’s cold office had formed a layer on her skin. Now she sweated again. She felt filthy and old.

She ignored Galton, the black deputy, and the other deputies from the second car. The dark emptiness of the doorway grew with every step she took. She imagined she could hear the drone of the flies already.

It was not just her imagination that she could pick up the smell when she reached the stump. She stopped in her tracks. The rising temperature and the passage of even this short amount of time had done their work.

She would not go farther.

‘In there,’ she said briefly.

The sheriff had picked up the scent for himself. Catherine watched his mouth set grimly. She got some satisfaction from that, though she was ashamed of it.

The other deputies had caught up. In a knot, the brown uniforms approached the cabin slowly.

She could see the full force of the smell hit them. A wavering of heads, a look of disgust.

‘Jesus!’ one of them muttered.

The sheriff was eyeing the rickety porch with calculation. Catherine weighed about 115 pounds; the sheriff close to 185.

With a kind of detached interest, Catherine wondered how he would manage.

Galton scanned his deputies from the neck down, and picked Ralph Carson, who had gone to high school with Catherine, as the lightest of the group.

After some muttered consultation, Carson edged up on the porch, gingerly picked his way across, and reached the door frame without the porch collapsing. He looked in. When he turned to extend an arm to the sheriff, his face was set in harsh lines of control, and his tan looked muddy.

Galton gripped Carson’s arm, and the deputy gave a heave inward. After Galton, the black deputy was hoisted into the shack. The others began to search the barren area around the house.

I guess I thought it would be gone by the time we got here, Catherine thought with a mixture of relief and dismay. Her tension drained away suddenly, leaving her sick and exhausted. She sat down on the stump, her back turned to the open doorway, which was now occasionally lit with the quick glare of flash bulbs.

A white and orange ambulance was bumping its way down the road. A deputy flagged it in behind the official cars, and two white-coated attendants and Dr Jerry Selforth, Lowfield’s new doctor, jumped out. After exchanging a few words with the deputy, Selforth detached himself from the little group and came toward Catherine.

‘Good morning, Jerry,’ Catherine said with polite incongruity. He’s excited by this, she thought.

‘Hey, Catherine, you all right?’ He massaged her shoulder. He couldn’t talk to a woman without prodding, rubbing, gripping. Men he slapped on the back.

She was too tired to pull away, but her eyebrows rose in a frigid arch. Jerry’s hand dropped away.

‘I’m sorry you had to find her like that,’ he said more soberly.

Catherine shrugged. ‘Well . . .’ the young doctor murmured after a beat of silence.

Catherine whipped herself into more courtesy.

‘Your first?’ she inquired, tilting her head toward the shack.

‘My first that’s been dead longer than two hours,’ he admitted. ‘Since med school. There’s a pathologist in Morene that’ll come help me.’

‘They were better preserved in med school,’ he added thoughtfully, as a short-lived breeze wafted east.

‘Dr Selforth!’ bellowed Galton from the interior of the cabin.

Jerry flashed Catherine a broad grin and trotted cheerfully away.

He certainly fit right into his slot in Lowfield, Catherine thought wryly. She had heard the ladies loved him, and after a residence of five months, he was first-naming everyone in town.

Catherine had not liked Jerry Selforth, who had taken over her father’s practice almost lock, stock, and barrel, since the time he had laughed at her father’s old-fashioned office in back of the Linton home. To her further irritation, Jerry Selforth had been much smitten with her black hair and white skin, and he had lengthened the business of purchasing Dr Linton’s office equipment considerably, apparently in the hope of arousing a similar enthusiasm in Catherine.

Because of the dates she had refused, she always felt she had an obligation to be kind to him, though it was an uphill effort. Something about Jerry Selforth’s smile said outright that his bed was a palace of delights that Catherine would be lucky to share.

Catherine had her doubts about that.

Time limped by, and the stump grew uncomfortable. Rivulets of sweat trickled down her face. Her skin prickled ominously, a prelude to sunburn. She wondered what she was doing there. She was clearly redundant.

She had felt the same way when other people, to spare her, had made all the arrangements about her parents’ bodies. The sheriff in Parkinson, Arkansas, had been shorter, heavyset. He had been kind, too. She had accepted a tranquilizer that day. After it entered her blood stream, she had been able to call her boss at her first job, to tell him she wouldn’t be coming back.

A flurry of dust announced new arrivals. Catherine was glad to have something new to look at, to break her painful train of thought. Three more cars pulled up behind the ambulance. The lead car was a white Lincoln Continental that was certainly going to need a wash after this morning was over.

As the driver emerged, Catherine recognized him. It was her neighbor, Carl Perkins. He and his wife lived in an incredible pseudoantebellum structure across the street from the west side of Catherine’s own house. Its construction had had the whole town agape for months.

Catherine suddenly felt like laughing as she recalled Tom Mascalco’s first comment on that house. Whenever he drove by, Tom said, he expected a chorus of darkies to appear on the veranda and hum ‘Tara’s Theme.’

Catherine’s flash of humor faded when she remembered that Carl Perkins was, in addition to his many other irons in the town fire, the county coroner. The men piling out of the other cars must comprise the coroner’s jury, she realized. She knew them all: local businessmen, planters. There was one black – Cleophus Hames, who ran one of the two Negro funeral parlors.

I wish I was invisible, she thought miserably.

She became very still and looked down the short length of her legs at her tennis shoes.

Of course, if I don’t look at them, they can’t see me, she jeered at herself, when she realized what she was doing.

But it worked for a while. The men stood in an uneasy bunch several feet from the shack, not talking much, just glancing at the doorway with varying degrees of apprehension.

It worked until Sheriff Galton drew all eyes to her by jumping from the cabin doorway and striding directly to Catherine’s stump.

She had surreptitiously raised the hem of her T-shirt to wipe some of the sweat from her face, so she didn’t observe the set of his shoulders until it was too late to be alerted. She had a bare second to realize something was wrong.

‘Why did you say you didn’t know her?’ he asked brusquely when he was within hearing distance.

‘What?’ she said stupidly.

She couldn’t understand what he meant. The heat and the long wait had drained her. Her brain stirred sluggishly under the sting of his voice.

Galton stood in front of her now, no longer familiar and sympathetic but somehow menacing.

He said angrily, ‘You’ve known that woman all your life.’

* * * *

She stared up at him until the sun dazzled her eyes unbearably and she had to raise an arm to shield them.

The cold stirring deep inside her was fear, fear that activated a store of self-defense she had never been called upon to use.

‘I never saw her face. I told you that,’ she said. Her pale gray eyes held his with fierce intensity. ‘The side of her head nearest me was covered with blood.’ Her voice was sharp, definite. For the first time in her life she was speaking to an older person, a lifelong acquaintance, in a tone that was within a stone’s throw of rudeness.

She saw in his face that he had not missed it.

‘You better think again, Catherine,’ he retorted. ‘That’s Leona Gaites, who was your father’s nurse for thirty-odd years.’