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Tumbleweeds, p.33
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       Tumbleweeds, p.33

           Leila Meacham
 

  “Yeah, I know. Okay, give me the name on the evidence box again, and I’ll go look.”

  “You’re a good man,” Deke said.

  “Glad you think so. That opinion got me elected.”

  Every nerve in Deke quivered like a dog back in the hunt. From the get-go, he had not been convinced that Donny Harbison was alone the day he died or even that his death had occurred the way he was discovered. The later hair-raising discovery that Donny’s prints were not on any of the items collected from the scene substantiated Deke’s doubt. Another pair of hands had handled them. That proved to him that the person who spread the magazines had also tied the ligature, as either a perpetrator of Donny’s death or a participant in the experiment.

  In his discreet investigation later at Delton High School, Deke could find no likely suspect to support either theory. Donny had no known enemies, and neither he nor any of his friends seemed the type to experiment with kinky sex. The boy checked out to be as his parents described him, a well-liked, fairly sexually naïve kid who ran with others of the same ilk, band members like himself whose only passions were their trombones and a fetish for peanut butter.

  According to attendance reports, Donny was in school on Monday, the day his parents left for Amarillo. He was marked absent the next three days, with his body found late Thursday afternoon. From the degree of decomposition and the consensus that Donny wouldn’t for the world have missed marching practice after school because of the band’s intricate routine to show up Kersey’s band Friday night, Deke guessed the boy had died late on Monday.

  Deke had investigated the whereabouts of the few Delton High students listed as absent the days in question and found nobody out of pocket, and none of Donny’s friends admitted to visiting him after band practice.

  The missing shirt was another unresolved mystery. It never turned up. When Betty was able to go through her son’s things, Lou reported to Deke that she could not find the blue chambray shirt Donny had recently received for his birthday.

  Deke’s research into autoerotic asphyxia gave him further cause to question the death as an accident. He learned that in the practice of AA the ligature is usually tied in a complex manner to provide easy escape. Donny’s had been clumsily arranged. Also, practitioners usually wear padding around the neck for comfort and to prevent telltale bruises and abrasions. None was under the rough rubber cord.

  Of course it may have been the first time for the boy, Deke had told himself, and despite the instructions given in the magazine, Donny hadn’t known the finer points of such a practice.

  Deke’s taped and written interviews were in a box in the evidence room of the Kersey County Sheriff’s Department, along with copious notes, the cat’s limb, magazines, cord, and forensics reports. It was this sealed box that Randy Wallace had agreed to bring to the forensics lab to prevent contamination of the evidence, thereby ensuring it would be admissible in court. Still plagued by professional guilt that he had covered up what may have been a homicide, Deke had made sure to secure the box when he did not stand for reelection, writing: DO NOT REMOVE! in huge black letters on its face. Since the death was ruled an accident, the department considered the case closed. But not Deke. Hardly a day went by during his tenure in office and for a long time afterwards that he did not regret his decision to forgo an autopsy to determine the time and exact cause of death. Eventually, the guilt was rationalized away. What good would come of an autopsy anyway? It couldn’t reveal who may have strangled Donny and arranged his death to look like a sexual act gone wrong or—if he did die from autoerotic asphyxia—the name of his accomplice. There were no suspects and no motives. Everybody in Delton would have to be fingerprinted to find the match Deke was looking for. And in the meantime, the lurid details of Donny’s death would become known, the Catholic Church might revoke his Christian burial, and the Harbisons would be subjected to the shame Deke had agreed to cover up.

  And so he’d done nothing, said nothing, merely hoped against hope that someday, somewhere, something would turn up to provide a clue to what really went down at the Harbison place the day Donny died.

  And now, by God, Deke had found it. He could hardly believe the miracle. He was trembling, he was so excited, even if he was shocked that it implicated, of all people, Trey Don Hall, dubious pride of Kersey County, as different from Donny Harbison as pabulum from T-bone steak. Until today, Deke could never connect the cat’s paw with the other items found at the death scene. Even when he discovered the bobcat in Mabel’s attic and felt certain the foreleg in the evidence box would match its stump, he could make no association. But when Melissa commented that Bobcats and Rams did not mix, a light had flashed on. He remembered Donny’s other high school distinction that hadn’t seemed relevant at the time: The boy was keeper of the Delton football team’s mascot, a little ram called Ramsey. It was easy then to guess what had happened in the Harbisons’ backyard during the week of the Kersey-Delton football game to decide the district championship.

  “Why are we stopping here?” Paula asked when Deke pulled up to the curb in front of Mabel Church’s house.

  “Won’t be a minute,” he said. “I’ll keep the motor running.”

  He ran up to the porch, inserted the house key into the lock, and within minutes found what he was looking for. He lifted it with his handkerchief and carefully slipped it into a paper bag he found in the pantry, then hurried back to his car.

  “What in the world is going on, Deke?”

  He leaned over and kissed his wife’s cheek. “I’ll tell you when I’m sure, honey bun.”

  But he was sure. It had started in the fertile imagination of Trey Don Hall, star quarterback of the Kersey Bobcats. Trey got the idea of sawing off the foot of his uncle’s stuffed bobcat to claw the hide of the little ram as a statement to his opponents. Somehow Trey had known the Harbisons would be out of town, maybe through Mabel, who bought her eggs and produce from Betty. Deke would have to work out the time on Monday when Trey pulled off the deed, but it had to have been when Donny was home after band practice. The boy was eating a snack at the kitchen table when he saw Trey at the pen’s gate, the hoop already off. Donny ran out to investigate and a scuffle ensued. Trey got the better of the smaller, less fit boy and either tried or succeeded in his attempt to strangle Donny in a fit of the temper for which he was known.

  To hide the evidence of finger marks, Trey had staged the body to simulate death by AA, familiar to a kid of his precocious sexual sophistication. He spread the magazines, got rid of the shirt, and raked the ground to eliminate signs of struggle. In a hurry to leave, he’d overlooked putting the hoop back on the gate and either could not afford the time or could not find the cat’s limb concealed in the shadows under the picnic table.

  Deke could imagine no other scenario. What other reason would explain why that cat’s paw showed up in Donny Harbison’s backyard? Of course, everything hinged on the unidentified fingerprints on the two items of evidence matching the ones on the athletic trophy he’d taken from Trey’s old room. If they checked positive, Deke had sufficient cause to ask Randy to reopen the case. Deke knew that would open a big can of worms. As the investigating officer of the incident, he’d have a lot of explaining to do. An exhumation—if one was agreed to—would reopen wounds from which the Harbisons had never fully recovered. The couple would be scarred even further because of their guilt in covering up the facts of their son’s death, in the eyes of not only the authorities but also the Catholic Church. The contribution of their house to the diocese would be seen more as an act of atonement than a generous gesture to provide a home for unwanted children. And in the end, most likely a smart defense attorney would get Trey off.

  But none of that mattered now. Deke’s intent was to gather as much evidence of the truth as he could before deciding whether to go to Randy Wallace with his findings.

  His foot hard on the gas pedal, Deke’s jaw clamped tight as he remembered how Donny’s body was found, what the boy’s death had done t
o his parents. Since 1985, the Catholic Church had mitigated its stand regarding suicide, but the Harbisons’ Catholic convictions had never let them rest from the fear that their son was burning in hell because he died by his own hand from a twisted sexual act. Deke hoped for the chance to prove to them once and for all that their boy was innocent of causing his death and that he’d died trying to protect a harmless animal from a cruel high school prank.

  What a stupid, conscienceless act for someone of Trey Don Hall’s indisputable ability and intelligence to try to perpetrate the week of the big game—a game the Bobcats handily won by a margin of thirty-five points. By God, if that boy was guilty of causing Donny Harbison’s death, Deke would see him brought to justice if it was the last thing he ever did. There was no statute of limitations on murder or manslaughter, and in Texas a seventeen-year-old charged with such offenses was tried as an adult. Don’t go making too many plans for that new move, TD. Your new digs may be a jail cell.

  Chapter Fifty-One

  Trey Don Hall was taking a nap. John had insisted on it after Trey threw up his lunch. When John checked on him, Trey lay in a deep sleep, his eyelids tinged a faint blue, his pale, thin hands crossed over his chest in a position that looked like a dress rehearsal for the real thing to come. John adjusted the blinds against the noon sun and left the room quietly, his breath still shallow from the shock of Trey’s revelations.

  He returned to his study and sank into his desk chair, joy and fear fighting for dominance of his feelings—joy that the boy he’d loved like a son was really his flesh and blood and fear that tomorrow all he’d given his life to might be over. Trey was convinced the Harbisons would be so relieved to learn the truth of their son’s death, they’d bury their grief and live the rest of their days in the sunshine of their new knowledge.

  But John wasn’t so sure. Yes, the Harbisons might be satisfied with their newfound peace and content to let sleeping dogs lie, and, yes, they probably wouldn’t want the embarrassment associated with pressing criminal charges. They would also want to keep the secret of their cover-up from the Church to assure Donny’s burial in consecrated ground.

  But John knew Betty well, and she might not be so relieved that she would willingly bury her twenty-three-year-old grief without exacting retribution. Lou would be satisfied to let the matter go, but Betty might not be so forgiving. When John came to live with the Harbisons, he’d prayed for a release from his burden without hurting them or implicating Trey, but as the years had gone by, he’d rationalized that God had made a present of him to them. He’d been uncomfortable under their love and devotion, but he’d grown to understand their need to love him like the son they’d lost. Love was never misspent, no matter how unworthy the recipient.

  But to this day, Donny’s picture—a shrine—remained partially hidden among flowers on a back shelf in the kitchen, and John would catch Betty standing before it, head bowed in prayer continuing to ask God to have mercy on her son’s immortal soul. Many afternoons, she left to light a candle in the church. Those were the times John was tempted to throw himself on her mercy and confess all, but of course he never had.

  Her general dislike of Trey could flare to hatred, and she might want him exposed and punished for what he had done, the torment he’d put them through, and report him to the authorities.

  If that should happen, an investigation would unearth Father John Caldwell’s part in the crime.

  John got up from his desk, his unease roiling in his stomach, and went out onto his balcony. He had considered laying out to Trey the possible ramifications of his confession, but as a priest he could not. He would not deny Trey this last opportunity to redeem himself and cleanse his soul. A while ago, as he was drawing a blanket over him, Trey had grabbed his hands and begun to cry, the tears trickling into his gray sideburns and filling the sick lines around his eyes. “Please forgive me for what I did to you and Catherine Ann and the boy, John. I’ve suffered a penance, too. After I left for Miami, I was never able to make anything like you and Cathy happen again—nothing as good and sweet and sure. Nobody else came along to save me from myself.”

  John knew that to be true. “I understand,” he said.

  “I left my heart back here. That’s why no one was ever able to find it, not even me.”

  “I know, TD.”

  “And will you let Cathy know?”

  “I will.”

  “And will you tell her that I didn’t come to Aunt Mabel’s funeral because I didn’t want to embarrass her and Will. I’m not that much of an asshole.”

  “I’ll tell her, TD.”

  “You’re going to her now, aren’t you?”

  “Yes.”

  Trey’s hands slipped away. He crossed them over his chest and closed his eyes. A small sigh escaped his pale lips. John turned to go. “Tiger?”

  “Yes, Trey?”

  “I love you, man… you and Catherine Ann. I’ve loved you always, no matter how it seemed.”

  “I know,” John said, patting Trey’s crossed hands. “Go to sleep now. Rest.”

  “And do you forgive me?”

  “I do.”

  “You’re my man, John.”

  John looked out on the vista where he had so often found wisdom and peace. Would these be the last hours he would perform his duties as the Father John that all those who loved and believed in knew? He was not worried how his flock would take the surprise of Will’s parentage or how Will would receive the news. His son loved him, and he’d be thrilled to be rid of TD Hall for good. The uneasiness in the pit of his stomach he could shrug off if God had not warned him that another scandal was approaching far more staggering than that he was Will Benson’s father. From it there would be no recovery, not for him as pastor of St. Matthew’s Parish and as director of Harbison House.

  Well, so be it. He’d always known there would be a reckoning, but in the presence of God after his death. How naïve of God’s ways he’d been to think he could leave this life untainted with his sin undiscovered and his work completed without blemish. The shadows had gathered at last. He felt their presence like dogs circling for the kill. He made the sign of the cross. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, Thy will be done. He stored up a last look of the unbroken prairie and went inside to make several telephone calls. The first was to Cathy at the café.

  “We have to meet,” he said.

  “Oh, oh, I don’t like the sound of that.”

  “It’s best if we meet at your house.”

  “I’ll give you a half-hour head start and be there by the time you arrive.”

  The next call was to St. Matthew’s associate pastor alerting him that he might have to conduct the weekend masses. “You’re going out of town?” Father Philip asked on a note of surprise.

  “Something unexpected has turned up, Philip. You may be required to fill my shoes for a while.”

  “Impossible,” Father Philip said.

  The next was to the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Amarillo.

  “Yes,” the bishop said, “I can see you at three this afternoon. What’s this all about, John?”

  “I’ll tell you when I see you, Your Grace.”

  John looked into his bedroom to see that Trey was still sleeping peacefully, then went downstairs to the kitchen carrying the tray, embarrassed at the food uneaten. The rich smell of broth announced there would be chicken pot pies for supper. Betty stood at the counter removing the flesh from a pile of boiled carcasses, Felix at her feet vigilant for a fallout. From outside came the squeals of children splashing about in the watering tank.

  A sudden attack of emotion made John’s eyes water, and the tray tilted. Startled, Betty grabbed it from him. “Father, what’s wrong?”

  “Oh, a few things that should have been made right long ago, I’m afraid.”

  “It’s him, isn’t it?” She jerked her head toward the ceiling. “He’s gotten you upset. I could tell when I went up.”

  “Don’t blame him. He’s s
ick, Betty, and his visit is long overdue. I’ve left him sleeping. When he wakes up, will you see that he drinks a cup of that broth I smell? He couldn’t keep down his lunch, good as it was.”

  Rinsing the remaining soup from the bowls, Betty said, “I see you didn’t eat much, either, good as it was. Are you going out?” She’d noticed he’d changed back into his clerical shirt, but there had been no call for his services.

  “Yes,” he said, “and I won’t be home until late tonight.”

  Her worried eyes searched his face. “What’s the matter, Father?”

  “Betty—,” he began, but he let die unspoken the words he wished to express. They would mean nothing to her anyway if what he feared came to pass. He pushed the bridge of her glasses higher on her nose, moist from working over the simmering pots.

  “Yes, Father?”

  “I was only going to say that Trey will be leaving us in the morning. He has a plane to catch at noon.”

  BETTY REMAINED at the kitchen counter after John had gone. Now she was sure of it. Something was afoot, brought into this house by Trey Don Hall. She’d lay a wager that it wasn’t good, if she were a betting woman. It might have to do with his illness, but he had looked fine to her when she took up lunch, not much changed since he’d brought his insolent airs and handsome face to her front door, acting so put upon that his aunt had sent him to pick up her vegetables and eggs—as if he didn’t owe everything to the aunt who’d raised him and then, when he was rich and famous, discarded like wilted lettuce.

  Betty had been surprised, though, when he’d inquired after her and Lou. Trey was really asking how they were doing without Donny, but his sympathy didn’t make her like him any better. He’d acted so superior around Donny on the several occasions they met at the house.

  Her instincts were seldom wrong, and they were telling her now that something serious was bothering Father. Lou had sensed it, too. “Distant and distracted,” he’d described Father when he went to the garage to get his truck this morning. She thought worried and distraught more like it, the kind of look a farmer gets when he’s about to lose his land.

 
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