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Tumbleweeds, p.34
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       Tumbleweeds, p.34

           Leila Meacham

  Cracking the bones she’d use for making gelatin, Betty cocked an eye in the direction of the upstairs bedroom. Sick or not, Trey Don Hall better think twice if he’d come here to cause trouble for Father John. Neither she nor Lou would stand for it.

  CATHY STOOD at the front window of her house watching for John’s Silverado. She unlocked the nervous clench of her hands and eased them down her smock. What was John coming to tell her that he couldn’t say over the phone? Why hadn’t he given her some inkling of Trey’s plans? It wasn’t like John to keep her in suspense, any more than it was typical of her to bombard him with questions when his tone had made clear he must speak to her in person. At least, though, she wished she’d asked if Trey would be coming with him. Just in case, disgusted with herself, she’d tidied her hair and refreshed her lipstick.

  The Silverado swung into her driveway, and she saw only John in the cab. Her half second’s disappointment was swept away at the sight of him getting out, still with a wide receiver’s lithe grace, his black, short-sleeved clerical shirt and Roman collar inexplicably adding to his sexual attraction—the allure of the unattainable, she supposed. How could she still carry a smidgen of feeling for Trey Don Hall when she grew more in love with John Caldwell every year?

  When she opened the door, a sudden wave of déjà vu struck her. She had lived this exact, imperishable moment before. It was the afternoon she’d opened the door to find a dejected Trey Don Hall on her doorstep, his face wearing John’s expression now, a look begging her to forgive him and to take him into her arms. It was the afternoon Will was conceived. A longing so powerful, it tasted like gunpowder, drove through her body, but she caught herself before she made the mistake she’d made then. “Hello, Father John,” she said with her usual composure. “I know it’s early, but you look like you could use a shot of whiskey.”

  “I believe I could,” he said.

  After she’d mixed the drinks, she sat next to him on the couch. It seemed the place to be. John stared down at his glass. “I recall drinking whiskey with you at this time of day once before,” he said.

  “We did?”

  “Uh-huh. Once upon a time when our hearts were young and sad.”

  “Ah, yes,” she said. “Trey had dumped me. I vaguely remember getting loop-legged drunk and falling asleep on your bed.”

  “Twenty-two years ago this month, as a matter of fact.”

  She had other reasons to recall that June of twenty-two years ago. “The things we remember after so much time,” she said.

  John sipped his drink. “Trey tells me that Will is not his child, Cathy. That’s one of the confessions he’s come home to make.”

  Her head spun from the fury that filled it. “The conscienceless bastard! You mean he still denies he’s Will’s father?”

  “You remember that bout Trey had with the mumps at sixteen?” John asked.

  Something ominous—confounding—was taking shape in her mind. “Yes…,” she said. “I remember. He was… very sick.”

  “The mumps left him sterile. Trey could never father a child.”

  She set her drink down sharply, mindless of the water mark it would leave on the fine burled wood of her coffee table. “That’s impossible, John. He’s lying. Will has to be Trey’s child. I’d never been with anyone else.”

  Calmly John picked up two coasters from an end table and slipped them under their drinks, then took her hands. “Yes, you had, Cathy. You had been with me.”

  Chapter Fifty-Two

  In the forensics lab of the Department of Public Safety in Amarillo, before the eyes of Deke and Charles Martin, Sheriff Randy Wallace broke the seal and poured out the contents of the requested evidence box. “I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me what this burr under your saddle is all about, Deke?” Randy said.

  “Not yet, Randy.” Deke picked up the dismembered foreleg and joined it to the mounted bobcat he’d brought in. A perfect fit. “Aha!” he said, unsurprised. He then separated out two small plastic bags of unidentified fingerprints from those marked as Donny’s, taken before the body was removed, Lou Harbison’s and others. One bag, marked X, contained two cards bearing the same fingerprints found on the magazines and cord. The other sack, marked Y, contained one unidentified set of prints taken off the ligature but missing from the pornographic material.

  Deke handed the bags to Charles. “Let’s see if the prints in these match any on this trophy.” With latex-gloved fingers, he lifted a brass football from the paper sack. Charles and Randy peered at the inscription commemorating Trey Don (TD) Hall as the Texas Sports Writers’ most valuable high school player of the 1985 football season. Randy whistled. “Holy Toledo! Are you kidding?”

  “I’m afraid not,” Deke said. He had taken the trophy from a glass case with the hope that Mabel Church’s dusting rag had never touched it.

  “Well, let’s go see,” Charles said, and led the men into a room of computers, X-ray machines, and other analysis equipment. After conducting the procedure of transferring the prints from the trophy, he ran them through a screening device to compare them to the ones on the three cards. Within seconds, the system beeped: MATCH. “Looks like your guess is right, at least regarding X’s prints,” Charles said. “There’s no doubt that the person who handled the magazines and cord handled this trophy.”

  “Hot dog!” Deke yelped.

  “But also,” Charles said, pointing to the card bearing only the cord’s fingerprints, “Y’s fingerprints are on the trophy.”

  “What?” Deke cried.

  “See for yourself.” He stepped aside to let Deke and Randy study the images projected on the computer screen. The ridge characteristics of Y’s fingerprints matched those taken from the trophy.

  “Good lord!” Deke exclaimed. So Trey had an accomplice—probably a classmate! He hadn’t gone out to the Harbison place alone!

  “Come on, Deke, what’s this all about?” Randy begged.

  “Sorry, Randy. I can’t afford to tell you until I’m sure of a few more details.”

  Charles, too, looked mystified. “Twenty-two years is a long time,” he said. “If TD Hall was involved in something that happened back then, he’d have been… what? Seventeen at the time?”

  “That’s right,” Deke said.

  “Well, for goodness’ sakes, Deke!” Randy exclaimed. “Short of murder, what could Hall have possibly done at seventeen that would have you call me to Amarillo on a Friday afternoon when I’d planned to meet the boys for a beer?”

  Deke’s face set in its noncommunicative mold as he returned the items of evidence to the box, and the other men exchanged shocked glances.

  “My God,” Randy said.

  Back in his car, Deke formulated a plan of action, which now must include the assumption that Trey had not acted alone in the death of Donny Harbison. Deke was surprised he hadn’t thought of two boys being involved, one to hold the animal, the other to mark him. And it wasn’t the kind of prank a high school boy would pull off alone. He’d want a buddy to share the risk and danger, somebody who could bear witness to his daring when he bragged about it later.

  So now, Deke had to find out who that somebody was so that he could track him down and obtain his prints. Randy had agreed to give him the weekend to work his hunches before he became involved. The accomplice was probably on the 1985 football team, a fellow player Trey could lead by the nose, which was the whole squad except for John Caldwell. Trey could never have talked John into participating in a stunt to hurt an animal. Deke would interview Ron Turner and get the names of players willing to do anything for their star quarterback. Most of the ’85 team had long left Kersey, but he’d get the addresses from the roster Melissa had compiled for her twentieth high school reunion.

  He glanced at the clock on the dashboard. Nearly three o’clock. At top speed, he could be back in Kersey in a little over an hour and catch Ron while he was still sober.

  DEKE DREW UP BEFORE the Turners’ redbrick house with its handsome Corinthi
an columns in record time and was saddened to see the changes in the place. At one time, the large, two-storied residence had sat like an architectural gem on manicured grounds and was the showplace of Kersey. Ron’s wife had come with money when they married, inherited more afterwards, and it was her resources that allowed Ron to live in a house far above what he could have afforded on a coach’s salary. Today, from the looks of the neglected lawn and flower beds, the untrimmed hedges and cracked drive, the place was going to ruin.

  What a shame, Deke thought. Ron Turner had been one of the best high school head coaches in the business, but his life had crumbled when his daughter had died just shy of her nineteenth birthday of a ruptured appendix. He’d hung in the coaching business for another five years or so, doing what he could with mediocre teams, but then his wife had died and he gave up. The last Deke heard of him, he was drinking heavily and living like a derelict in the house where he once reigned as king.

  Deke found Ron’s telephone number in a Kersey directory he kept in his car and called ahead to make sure he was home. “Sure, come on, but don’t expect the butler,” Ron had chuckled, and answered the door almost the second Deke rang the bell. He saw little resemblance to the robust football coach his state championship team had once hoisted to their shoulders.

  “Well, well, Sheriff Tyson, I can’t imagine why you’re here, but it’s mighty good to see you.”

  “You, too,” Deke said.

  “Oh, now.” Ron flung up a hand. “I look like a blown out retread, and you know it. Come on out to the kitchen. I’ve got us a couple of beers chilling.”

  Deke followed the shambling figure past dark, drapery-drawn rooms to a cluttered kitchen connected to a breakfast nook and a cozy sitting area dominated by a handsome fireplace. The smell was peculiar to a man living alone who forgets to take out the garbage. “Sit down, sit down!” Ron invited, brushing newspapers off a kitchen chair. “What brings you to see me?”

  “Trey Don Hall,” Deke said.

  Ron slowly straightened. For an instant, his watery, alcohol-reddened eyes were as icy as chipped crystal. “Trey?”

  “I have a few questions I’d like to ask you regarding him the week of the district championship game in ’85, Coach.”

  “Why? That’s ancient history, Sheriff.”

  “Indulge me. I bet you remember every minute of that week.”

  “You wouldn’t be wrong there.” Ron shuffled to the refrigerator and extracted two bottles of beer. “But I can’t imagine why you’d be interested after all these years.”

  “I’m afraid I can’t tell you, and I’d appreciate your keeping this visit and our discussion under your hat.”

  “Don’t worry,” Ron said. “I don’t talk to anybody anymore. You were sheriff then. Is TD in some kind of trouble related to that time?”

  Deke took the beer. “He could be. That’s what I hope you can help me decide. Your information might help clear up an injustice that would ease the pain of some good people who’ve suffered a long time.”

  “They must be parents,” Ron said, taking a swig of the beer. “Usually, the good people who suffer a long time are parents. What do you want to know?”

  Deke set down the beer bottle and opened a notepad. “Think back to the week of November 4, 1985. That was a Monday. Now, during any of the days before Thursday, can you remember anything being awry with Trey Don?”

  “I sure can,” Ron said. “He and John Caldwell were sick on Monday. Came to practice that afternoon sick as dogs.”

  “What?” Deke gaped at Ron. “John Caldwell, too?”

  “Both of ’em. Scared the liver out of me, I can tell you.”

  “What was wrong with them?”

  “Something they ate for lunch. Seniors could go off campus then during their lunch break, and Monday was the only day I let my boys out with the rest of the pack. The other days they had to brown-bag it, and we met in the gym for a bull session during lunch. I always regretted that I didn’t keep them confined the entire week. Trey and John picked up a stomach virus eating hamburgers at that greasy hangout Cathy Benson bought.”

  “You’re sure it was a stomach virus?”

  Ron shrugged. “That’s what they thought it was.”

  Busily writing, Deke asked, “Practice began right after school?”

  “Not a minute later.”

  “And Trey and John showed up on time?”

  “No, that was the problem. They were late. Nobody knew where they were. Some of the boys said they’d cut their last class. Turned out they were in the home economics room lying down. It was set up with a bed for the girls to practice putting on sheets. Can you imagine that being taught today?”

  Deke felt as if somebody had thrown ice water down his back. John Caldwell? Father John Caldwell, pastor of St. Matthew’s Parish and director of Harbison House?

  “Was anybody else on the team sick?” he asked.

  Ron shook his head. “No, thank God.”

  “Did anybody else eat at Bennie’s Burgers that day?”

  “Deke, how the hell could I possibly remember after twenty-three years? Come on. Tell me what this is all about.”

  “You recall the name of the home economics teacher?”

  “Thelma something-or-other. Old maid. Moved to Florida when she retired.”

  Deke wrote down the first name on his notepad. Melissa would remember the rest of it. Maybe the woman’s address was included on the twentieth-reunion roster. He’d track her down to confirm the boys’ crumpling in her room that afternoon.

  “Do you recall how long after practice began that the boys showed up?”

  “A good hour, I’d say. We were well into practice when they came out onto the field, pale as silver dollars. I sent them home early.”

  Deke drew a sharp breath. He’d bet his last dollar that Trey Hall and John Caldwell were nowhere near that home economics room. They left school before their last class and planned to be back for football practice. They hadn’t counted on a murder or accident to delay them, throw them off schedule, mess with their digestive systems. But one problem gummed up his whole theory. The time frame didn’t work. It would have taken Trey and John no more than an hour to go and come from the Harbison place. Even allowing a half hour for the scuffle, to arrange the body in the barn and rake the ground, plus a few minutes to throw up in the weeds, the boys would have been long gone before Donny got home from band practice and prepared a snack. They’d also had time to change into their practice uniforms.

  “Hate to challenge your recollection, Ron,” Deke said, “but can you give me the name of anyone else on the coaching staff back then who can confirm your memory?”

  “Bobby Tucker, head coach now,” Ron said. “He was the line coach then, a rookie. Ask him if you don’t believe me.”

  “I’m sorry, but I will.”

  Ron got up. “This beer sucks. I’m going to fix myself something stronger. How about you?”

  “Beer’s fine,” Deke said, hearing Ron’s empty bottle clink against others in a paper sack on the floor. “Did you ever check out their stories with the home economics teacher?”

  Pouring himself a glass of Jack Daniel’s from among other high-priced labels ranged on the counter, Ron said, “I saw no need to. Those boys weren’t in the habit of cutting classes. They took their studies seriously, especially John. And you only had to look at ’em to believe they were genuinely sick.”

  Of course they were, Deke thought, but not from anything they’d eaten. He had to find a glitch in the time sequence to prove it. He rose to go, catching sight of a picture of Ron’s wife and daughter over the fireplace mantle. “Thanks for your help, Ron.”

  “Wish you’d tell me what’s going on,” the coach said. “With Trey it could be anything.”

  “Did you like him?”

  “Yes, I did. I tried to be a father to him. I saw some saving graces in him beyond his ability to play football, but the boy could betray you on the turn of a dime. Look what he did
to his aunt and Cathy Benson and John Caldwell.”

  Deke nodded. “Yeah,” he agreed, seeing the bitter close of Ron’s mouth, the glint of long-banked anger in his eye. Best if he not mention Trey staying at Harbison House. In a drunken stupor Ron might call him up and chew him out, and Deke didn’t want him spilling the beans that former sheriff Tyson had been by asking questions. He said his good-byes and let himself out, leaving Ron to get stoned before the cold fireplace under the gaze of his wife and daughter.

  Chapter Fifty-Three

  Cathy did not utter a word as John finished relating how John Will Benson had been conceived. He had not let go of her hands. “Stay with me, Cathy,” he said, and she understood he thought he recognized signs of her old malady. “I know what a shock this is.” He released one of her hands and she felt suddenly set adrift, but he meant only to pick up her glass. It was not her old nemesis threatening. Disbelief had paralyzed her beyond speech. “Drink this,” he said, putting the glass to her lips, and she tossed down its entire contents, the liquid raw and prickling in her throat. She set aside the glass and took back his hand, dry and warm like a perfectly fitting glove, the fingers strong and familiarly shaped—like her son’s.

  “You and I… But I don’t remember…,” she said. “How could I not have remembered something like that?”

  “You were definitely loop-legged drunk, and you fell instantly into a deep sleep,” he said, failing at a grin. “I mean—like out cold.”

  “Even so, how could I never have suspected—”

  “Why would you? You were with Trey the next day. If I’d been more… knowledgeable, I might have recognized the root of his behavior. I’d have recalled his bout with the mumps and suspected his problem. The indications were there, clear as neon signs shouting that something that had given meaning to his life had been destroyed, something irreplaceable.”

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