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Tumbleweeds, p.36
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       Tumbleweeds, p.36

           Leila Meacham
 

  Did he, at this late date, with everybody’s lives in place, the past almost forgotten, have the right to dig out and expose the truth at the expense of the destruction it would cause?

  It was not for him to pose such questions. He believed the truth was always better than a lie no matter who it hurt, what damage it caused. The truth did not destroy; it built. And he was first and foremost a cop. The pursuit of justice ran in his blood, pumped his heart, even if he no longer wore a badge. And he was also a father. He would want his son to rest in peace cleared of shame. His honor would be worth the cost of the truth. Father John would have to accept his fate.

  However, before he shared his allegations with the current sheriff sitting in the chair he once occupied, he’d better make damn sure of his evidence. Destroying the river to snare a couple of badgers would be a sorry trade. In town, he stopped by Bennie’s to speak to Cathy but was told she’d left early and would probably not be back. He got the impression from Bebe that a problem had come up at home. Deke had an idea of the name of the problem. Disappointed, he returned to his car and telephoned Paula on his cell, thankful that she wasn’t home and he could leave word on the answering machine that he was back in Kersey and would be spending the night at their daughter’s. He planned to attend six o’clock mass at St. Matthew’s. He had an idea where he could get a sample of Father John’s fingerprints.

  Chapter Fifty-Five

  Trey opened his eyes and blinked rapidly to orient himself. It had been a while since he’d awakened in a strange bedroom, and never one where his first view was of a crucifix on the wall. John’s room. Black despair washed over him. He remembered that John had gone to see Cathy and now she hated him with all the passion with which she’d once loved him. He swung his feet to the floor, risking the dizziness and nausea from sudden movement caused by his disease. It was five o’clock. He’d been asleep over three hours. Good. He didn’t have as long to wait before his confab with the Harbisons. In the bathroom he urged a trickle of urine, threw water over his face, and washed the rancid taste from his mouth. He avoided looking into the mirror, certain of what he would find. “Be sure your sins will find you out,” his aunt had warned him many times, and he knew he’d see every one etched in the haggard, sick face of his reflection.

  He went out into the hall to fetch his carry-on from the car, his medication-leached stomach reacting appreciatively to a savory smell wafting from the kitchen up the stairs. A small girl skipped past him, apparently answering a call to supper. He glanced into the dining room on his way to the front door and saw a group of youngsters around a long table. A teenage girl was distributing pot pies from a sideboard, one of the inmates, obviously.

  He’d parked the BMW in front of one of the hitching posts still in existence in front of the house. A white blossom from a tree at the gate had caught in his windshield wiper, and he carefully freed and examined it. A little miracle of nature right here in his hand, he thought, fluffy and sweet smelling, perfectly wrought, like Cathy. An unexpected peace stole over him. Why had he never noticed things like this when they might have made a difference?

  He slipped the blossom into the shirt pocket containing Deke’s check and obeyed an impulse to follow a brick path round to the back, an improvement since he was last here. Somebody had taken care with the mortar and design, a first-class job, probably a landscaper’s charity write-off. John was good at getting people to do the right thing. The barn where they’d strung up the son of this house still looked the same, though, and the quiet peace he’d captured a moment ago chilled like a sudden change in the weather. He set his luggage by the house and walked on past the barn and down another path that ran alongside a small orchard and huge vegetable garden soaking up the afternoon sun—all well tended—and came to a dead end at a layout of pens and outbuildings that housed animals and equipment. He heard sawing in one of the sheds.

  Lou Harbison looked up from his work over a sawhorse when he saw Trey in the doorway and turned off the power of an ancient Black & Decker timber buster. “Howdy,” he said, pushing up his safety goggles, straightening his back. “Anything I can do for you?”

  “No, I’m only looking around at all you’ve got going out here—the garden and orchard, the stock. You guys still keep chickens?”

  “There’s a coop the other side of the barn. You remember that?” Lou’s face turned pinkish—surprised pleasure, Trey interpreted, that after all his high-style living he’d remember a simple thing like his wife’s chickens. Lou Harbison seemed a gentler sort than his wife, less scarred, but there was the same kind of something missing in him as in Betty Harbison.

  “I sure do,” Trey said. “Best eggs I ever ate. My aunt used to make pancakes with them. They’d turn out yellow as corn.”

  “That’s because our chickens ate corn—no additives or hormones.”

  “Makes a difference—eggs not doctored with that added stuff.”

  “Sure enough.”

  Lou stood with the Black & Decker still in his hand, his expression politely wondering if Trey had more to say. He thought it time to move on. “Well,” he said, “you’ve got a good thing here, Mr. Harbison.”

  “We’ve got Father John to thank for that.”

  “Is that so?”

  “The place wouldn’t be much without him. Betty and me… we wouldn’t, either.”

  He spoke softly, with no hint of menace, but there was a mixed warning and plea behind his words. Don’t mess with John… please.

  Trey agreed with a nod and left the shed.

  Betty Harbison came out on the back stoop as he drew near the house, her eyes sharp and suspicious. She must have seen him through the kitchen window, the one her son had spotted them through that fateful day. “I see you’re up,” she said.

  Not for a long time, but thanks for the presumption, he was tempted to reply, but she didn’t seem in the mood for jokes. “I thought I’d take a stroll around the fine place you have here,” he said. “It’s such a great afternoon”—and the last I’ll ever see in the Panhandle. As usual when he thought such thoughts, terror broke through the calm surface of his acceptance of his coming death.

  Her stiff expression relaxed slightly. “We think so. Father said you threw up your lunch and I’m to get a cup of chicken broth into you. Come on inside, and I’ll see to it.” She held the screen door open for him, her determined stance and set mouth brooking no argument.

  Reluctantly he entered her lair, catching sight of Donny’s framed photograph beside a vase spilling with flowers from the trees next to the gate.

  “Could your stomach handle a chicken pot pie?” Betty asked. “You look like you could use something a little more substantial than broth. And there’s Jell-O, too, made with peaches from our orchard.”

  “Break my arm,” Trey said.

  That goosed a faint smile from her. “You’ll have to wait a few minutes until I get the kids off who are going to mass.”

  “Will happily do,” Trey said.

  Left alone, he strolled to the back screened door. It was from here that Donny had shot out after them like a charging bantam rooster. He had been a ballsy little bugger. All these years, Trey had not forgotten that.

  He saw Lou go by the house to get behind the wheel of an old van used for transporting the children of Harbison House. Outside in the hall and down the stairs came a scramble of footsteps and voices heading toward the front door. When Betty returned to the kitchen, he asked, “Did you ever get a new rolling pin?”

  Her brow line vaulted. “Why, yes. Long ago. Right after the one I had disappeared. How did you know it was missing?”

  “I guess I remembered my aunt saying something about it.” He flashed his disarming smile. “The mention of pie made me recall it.”

  He chose a seat with his back to the photograph and ate as much as his shrunken stomach would allow, sneaking a few bites to the dog that had taken an expectant position by his chair. There was still a lot of activity in the house, and Trey was gen
erally ignored while Betty oversaw after-supper duties and activities from her command post in the kitchen. She was in her element, ordering the children around in a motherly way, but he could see John’s influence in their manners and attitudes. “What would Father John say?” Betty remonstrated more than once when the dish drying got out of hand and a squabble broke out over which TV program to watch.

  He folded his napkin and picked up his plates to take them to the sink. It was warm and cozy on this floor. The time of confession was several hours away, and he’d just as soon be lying in an ICU unit rather than wait upstairs in John’s room for them to pass. “The pie and Jell-O were delicious, Mrs. Harbison. I’ve never eaten any better. Mind if I take a tour of the house?”

  “Go ahead.”

  Right outside the kitchen was a long hallway, its walls lined with pictures of John and the children of Harbison House caught in moments of fun and play, success and achievement. Betty, drying her hands on her apron, stole beside him as he studied them.

  “These are just a few taken over the years,” she explained. “You won’t find any of those glad-handed certificates like the kind the Rotary Club awards for exceptional community service or pictures of Father John posing with big shots displayed here. He’s received dozens over the years, but they’re stored in the attic.”

  “That’s John, all right,” Trey said with a wry chuckle. His study in California was a virtual ego den filled with commemorations of his success.

  “He’s a wonderful man. I don’t know what folks around here would do without him.” A warning glint had come into her eye, more pointed than her husband’s. “The children worship him, and he’s like a son to my husband and me. You remember that we lost a son….”

  “I remember,” Trey said.

  Her gaze was rock steady behind her spectacles. Damn! What did the Harbisons suspect he’d come to do—defrock Father John? Pinned to the wall by her stiletto stare, he drew an abrupt breath. Oh, Jesus… A horrifying possibility had just occurred to him. John’s voice echoed in the sick caverns of his brain. “Your part, yes. Mine still weighs heavily.”

  He must have lost color in his face. He thought he may have wobbled, for Betty gripped his arm. “What is it? Are you going to be sick again?”

  “I need to sit down,” he said, “—in there.” He pointed to the fairly quiet place of the living room.

  “Should I bring you some water?”

  Trey pressed his temples. “No, I just need a place to think.”

  She left him sitting in a stiff formal chair before the cold fireplace, and he heard her instruct her kitchen help to lower their voices. Trey felt that a bucket of ice-cold Gatorade had been thrown over him. Would John think that after his old buddy bared his soul to the Harbisons he’d be free to bare his? Once John no longer had to keep his silence, would he listen to that damn conscience of his and give up everything to square himself with God?

  Oh, my God. He might. That would be so like John.

  And… what if he inadvertently incriminated John when he related what had happened? His brain was no longer capable of quick thinking. His tongue was not as glib. What if he said we instead of I? What if that sharp Mrs. Harbison asked questions and he flubbed his answers, or—another possibility he hadn’t thought of—what if they decided to report him to the police? He’d assumed the Harbisons would want to keep the embarrassing details of their son’s death to themselves since they’d not made them public twenty-three years ago, but what if he was wrong? What if they wanted their pound of flesh for what he did? He had not planned to reveal that he was dying. His impetus for coming forward with the truth was not to be part of his confession. But… how could he be sure that, even if he told them of his terminal illness, Betty and Lou Harbison wouldn’t still want justice for Donny? What if they wanted him charged with manslaughter! There would be an investigation. John could be dragged in….

  Christ almighty! What had he been thinking?

  He got to his feet and left the room. He picked up his carry-on and started up the stairs.

  Betty heard him and came to the foot of the balustrade. “Are you all right now?” she called.

  “Never better, Mrs. Harbison!” he called down.

  Chapter Fifty-Six

  At Melissa’s, Deke declined supper and took over his son-in-law’s study to make his calls. He had fifteen minutes before he had to leave for mass and would finish his list tonight when he returned. By another stroke of good luck, Thelma Goodson, the name of the home economics teacher, was among those on his daughter’s reunion roster. He dialed her number in Florida but received no answer. Rather than leave a message, he’d try her again later. The next call was to Harbison House, hoping Lou had already left with the kids for mass. A mother was more likely to know the answers Deke was seeking, and he could trust Betty to say nothing to anyone at this point, even to Lou.

  He breathed easier when she answered but found her a little hesitant when he identified himself. She’d been that way with him since her boy’s body was discovered. He asked if they could speak privately, knowing he sounded mysterious.

  “One of the girls is in the kitchen with me,” she said. “Want me to get rid of her?”

  “No, that’s okay,” Deke said, “but I’d like you to keep this conversation between ourselves. Just you and me—okay?”

  “I owe you that,” Betty said, her tone terse. “I won’t say anything to Lou. What’s on your mind?”

  His first question produced the perplexity he’d expected. “Did Trey Hall know Donny?” Betty repeated. “Well, he knew him, sort of. Why do you ask?”

  “I wish I could tell you, Betty. What do you mean, ‘sort of’?”

  “They weren’t friends by any stretch of the imagination. They’d see each other when Trey used to pick up his aunt’s order.”

  Just as he’d guessed. That would explain how Trey had learned Donny looked after the school mascot. “What about John? Did they know each other?”

  “Only to speak once in a while at St. Matthew’s. Now you do have me curious, Sheriff.”

  “I can imagine. Now, prepare yourself for this next question, Betty. Would Trey have known you and Lou were going to be out of town the week Donny died?”

  Betty’s startled surprise was palpable in her silence. Finally, she spoke. “I suppose Trey could have learned from Mabel that we’d be gone. She would have been one of the customers I’d have called.”

  Deke let out a breath of satisfaction. Another piece of the puzzle had slipped into place.

  “It’s… peculiar, your asking about Trey Hall,” Betty said. “You may know he’s spending the night here. He shocked me a while ago by asking if I’d replaced my rolling pin. It was the one I couldn’t find when we got back that week.”

  Deke bolted upright in his chair. “Did you ever find it?”

  “No. I know I used it Monday morning to roll out biscuits. I left some for Donny. The next time I went for it, it wasn’t in the drawer.”

  A weapon! Donny must have gone for the rolling pin when he saw two strapping athletes from a rival school in his backyard and reckoned what they had in mind.

  “He told me that his aunt had mentioned I’d misplaced it,” Betty said, “but I can’t see how I’d have said anything about it to her.”

  Chills were chasing up and down his backbone, and Deke guessed they were Betty’s as well. “Is Trey still leaving in the morning?”

  “I understand from Father John those are his plans.”

  In the morning. That didn’t leave him much time. “I have to ask you once more to keep this conversation between ourselves until you hear from me again,” Deke said. “Promise?”

  “I promise,” Betty said, “but you’re scaring me, Sheriff.”

  “I know, Betty, but it can’t be helped. I appreciate your cooperation.”

  Deke hung up. The noose was tightening. The only problem was the conflict of the time element. He’d gone over and over the notes he’d jotted down from m
emory (the original ones were still in the evidence bag in Randy’s keeping) to check for the one point he’d missed but could find none to put Trey and John in Donny’s backyard after he came home from band practice. He’d find it, though. He closed his notebook. Time he left for mass.

  But just as he reached the door, an idea hit him that sent a tremor down his legs. God bless America! He was guilty of breaking the first rule of police work: Never assume anything. He returned to the desk and rummaged through drawers until he located a county phone directory. The name he’d forgotten but might recognize began with a P and fit the man Deke remembered from his earlier investigation. Maybe he still lived in Delton. Ah, yes, there it was—Martin Peebles, band director of Delton High School. Deke recalled him as a prissy young fellow, full of himself, patently resentful of giving him his valuable time during their interview. Deke’s luck held. Martin Peebles answered after an interminable six rings and wasted valuable minutes of Deke’s time making sure he was who he claimed to be before Deke got him to concentrate on the afternoon in question.

  “Ummm, November fourth… Yes, I remember that afternoon well.”

  “Do you recall if Donny Harbison attended marching practice after school? I know he was present in your last-period class that day because he wasn’t marked absent, but did he report to marching practice?”

  “A correction, Mr. Tyson,” the man said. “Donny wasn’t present in my last-period class.”

  Deke gripped the receiver. “What? He wasn’t marked absent. Are you sure?”

  “Of course I’m sure. The date of the birth of one’s son is not something one is likely to forget. My wife went into premature labor that afternoon and I left my last class under the direction of a student assistant, but I gave the seniors a pass and canceled marching practice.”

  “Why didn’t you give me this information when I asked for it?” Deke thundered.

  “Because you must not have asked me, Sheriff. I believe you wanted to know if Donny would have played hooky from band practice, and I assured you he would not have missed it for the world.”

 
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