“I assume you’ve got something you consider solid,” she continued, “or you wouldn’t have—”
somethings,” he interjected. “One of them being an eyewitness.”
“To the murder itself?”
“To the getaway.” He shrugged. “Close enough.”
“Not close enough for me! Not even
close enough for my little brother to be cooling his heels in your flea-infested jail.”
Tom sighed. “Like I said before: You’re not exactly unbiased . . . and my cells don’t have fleas, unless the prisoners bring ’em in themselves.”
In the interest of cooperative investigating, Savannah decided to let that one slide.
She glanced around the room, noting the signs of forensic processing. “I see you dusted for prints,” she said, pointing to a fine layer of black residue on the tabletops, some of the wall trim, and the windowsills.
Savannah waited a few seconds. “You want to elaborate?”
She sighed. “Tom, we’re not going to get very far if you give me nothing but monosyllabic answers.”
“Look, you twisted my arm outta joint to get me to bring you here. I did; you’re here. I never said I was going to show you my cards.”
“You know what that tells me?” Her eyes narrowed as she looked him up and down. “If you’ve got to hold your cards that close, you’re not too sure of your hand, big boy.”
He winced, just slightly, but enough for her to know that her dart had found its mark.
“Did you lift any prints or not?” she asked again.
“Yeah. Several of them,” he replied. “Two nice clear ones . . . your brother’s. And a pretty good one that looks like Kenny Whitley’s.”
Savannah felt as if her heart was in a plane that had just hit an air pocket. “Where were they?”
He nodded toward the window. “Over there, on the bottom sill. They were pointing toward the room, like they would be if somebody was climbing into the house through the window.”
“The window was open when you all got here?”
He hesitated and glanced away. “No. Actually, it was closed. Why?”
“Just wondering. Were there any identifiable prints on the top of the window . . . where you’d put your hands if you were closing it?”
“Yes. They look like the judge’s.”
Walking around the taped shape on the carpet, she went over to the window and looked outside. On tiptoe, she could see the ground below, a flower bed planted with azaleas. The ground around the bushes was bare and muddy from previous rains. A few stakes and more yellow tape marked off the area.
“What did you find out there?” she asked.
“A milk crate. And tennis-shoe prints. Two different sets.”
“Did you make plaster casts?”
She was almost afraid to ask, “Any matches?”
“Don’t know yet, but one set looks like the shoes we took off Macon when we brought him in. The size is about the same and so’s the tread. We’re having a lab in Atlanta look at everything, just to make sure.”
For a moment, the hard, guarded look slid off his face, and she saw a dim light of sympathy in his eyes. “We really aren’t trying to railroad anybody, Savannah,” he said, “let alone your little brother.”
“I never thought you were,” she replied. “I know you better than that, Tom. Mahoney on the other hand, I never did like him very much.”
“Ah, Mahoney’s all right.”
“Yeah? Well, I heard my mom tell a friend of hers that he paid her five dollars to vote for him, back in the late seventies.”
Tom shrugged. “Don’t make me no nevermind how he got the office. Mahoney does a good job. This is the first murder we’ve had here in ages. Mack Goodwin’s a good prosecutor, too. If we do bring him a good case, he makes sure it goes to court and the guy gets put away. We don’t handle our criminals with kid gloves the way y’all do in California . . . bunch o’ pansy liberals.”
Savannah thought of Dirk and laughed. “Don’t go judging us so harshly, Deputy Tom. We’ve got our share of dyed-in-the-wool rednecks in the West, too, you know.”
Savannah left the window and strolled around the room, her eyes scanning every surface. On the wall behind the piano hung a large, gilt-edged frame. The protective front glass had been shattered; shards of glass lay on the carpet below it. Inside, she saw half a dozen small metal objects displayed on a maroon-velvet lining. Upon closer inspection she realized they were military awards, medals from the War Between the States. Confederate, of course.
From blanks in the display, she could tell that some were missing.
“Is this what my brother and Kenny Jr. were supposed to be after?” she asked.
“Mahoney thinks so. Those things are worth a fortune if you sell ’em to the right people.”
She sent him a doubtful sideways look. “Do you figure either Macon or Kenny have the connections to fence something like those medals? Or even the sense to realize they’re worth anything?”
“Seems they did, huh?”
“Have you found the medals?”
“Not yet. But, like you said, it was just last night. So we’re doing pretty good so far.”
As she left the frame and continued around the room, she passed a glass-enclosed gun case. Inside, an impressive array of antique and modern guns were displayed against more maroon velvet, everything from pearl-handled dueling pistols to a high-powered hunting rifle.
“Why do you figure a couple of young guys would go after those medals when they could have broken into this gun cabinet instead?” she asked. “Those Whitley boys always had a yen for firepower.”
“Yeah, I know. And so did your brother.” Tom pointed to a small circle on the floor near the window that had been marked with yellow chalk. “That’s where we found it.”
“The .22 Ruger that your little brother bought from the local Sports Mart last July first. I checked the records there myself this morning.”
He paused and took a deep breath. “Of course, we’ve sent the gun and the bullet from inside the judge’s head off to Atlanta. Despite its meandering around inside that hard skull of his, it was still in pretty decent shape.”
Feeling her poker face sliding off into the vicinity of her chest, Savannah turned away from him and pretended to study the guns with renewed interest. She gulped, swallowing nothing but air; her mouth was completely dry of spit.
“We won’t know for sure till they get done with their tests,” he added, stating the obvious that she had no desire to hear. “But we figure that your brother’s Ruger . . . the one layin’ over there by the window . . . with his fingerprints on the sill . . . was the murder weapon.”
s soon as Savannah stepped out of the truck, she smelled the heavenly aroma of fried chicken coming from Gran’s house, and the savory scent nearly brought tears to her eyes. Again.
She suddenly realized that since she had set foot on Georgia soil, less than eight hours ago, she had cried at least five times, but hadn’t eaten once.
Quickening her step, she headed for the back door . . . the fastest way to the kitchen and the source of that amazing smell.
Where most people might have had a backyard, maybe a lawn rimmed with flower beds, a picnic table, a swing set . . . Gran had her garden. It was a far more practical use for a patch of land than perfectly manicured grass.
You couldn’t feed a starving hoard long on lawn clippings. And, a survivor of the Great Depression, Granny Reid was practical, if anything.
Part of the reason why Savannah’s mouth was watering lay in the fact that, along with the fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and cream gravy, there would be a platter of ripe beefsteak tomatoes, fresh corn on the cob, and maybe some cucumber slices soaking in a bowl of brine and vinegar with slices of onion and a sprig of dill. All grown in neat, well-tended rows behind the little shotgun house.
And tomorrow morning’s breakfast would feature the world’s best eggs, freshly plucked from the nests in the henhouse on the other side of the two-acre property.
To make sure everyone got off to a carbohydrate-energy packed day, there would also be a bread basket filled with hot-from-the-oven buttermilk biscuits and a pint of homemade peach preserves on the table. And if the sugar jolt wasn’t enough to get your blood flowing, the hot coffee spiked with chicory would do the trick.
Having once been a confirmed “morning person,” Savannah could actually remember the childhood joy of waking up to the promise of such a country feast. And she could mark the moment she had become an avowed night owl: the day she had moved to California, away from Georgia and her grandmother’s breakfasts.
As she hopped up onto the back porch, she nearly tripped over the ancient bloodhound who lay stretched out beside the washing machine, his belly resting against the cool metal.
She noted the differences the years had made: the washer was now an automatic, not the old-fashioned wringer that Gran had sworn by, and Colonel Beauregard’s muzzle had grown white with age. Also, he had grown, if possible, even less energetic than he had been eight years before.
“Beau Bear,” she said, bending down to stroke the long silky ears, “been chasing any coons or squirrels lately?”
His lazy grunt made her laugh. He didn’t even bother to open both eyes, but peered up at her from beneath one drooping lid.
“All you ever chased was your dinner bowl,” she said, tickling the floppy jowls and bristly whiskers. “You’re as worthless as those cats I feed and house back in California, and not half as good-looking.”
Her appetite tweaked by the sounds of conversation and the rattle of cutlery against pottery, Savannah left the old hound to his daylong nap and entered the screen door. Again, she had the impression that half the county must be crammed into a tiny room, but as in the sheriff’s office, a quick scan of the occupants identified them all as her kinsmen . . . and kinswomen . . . and kinskids.
“Pull up a chair, Savannah,” Gran said as she carried a bowl full of green beans from the stove to the table. “Marietta, set your sister a plate, and Vidalia, mind your young’uns before they tear up house and home.”
With the beans in one hand, Gran used the other to swoop one of Vidalia’s twins off the counter, where he teetered on one foot, trying to reach a cookie jar in the cupboard.
“Dang it, Jack,” Butch said, leaving the table and grabbing his son by the collar, “If I have to talk to you one more time, I’m gonna slap you buck-necked and hide your clothes.”
“I don’t like standing at the counter to eat,” Jack’s twin, Jillian, complained, poking at the mound of mashed potatoes before her. “How come we have to stand up when we eat at Gran’s house?”
Sitting at the far end of the table, Waycross shoved half a cornbread muffin into his mouth. “ ’Cause there’s not enough room at the table,” he told her. “Don’t bellyache. Standin’ up makes you grow taller. How do you think I got this big?”
“Why can’t we eat in the living room and watch TV, like we do at home?” Jillian continued. “We’re missing my favorite show.”
“ ’Cause we’re not heathens. . . .” Gran patted her on the back as she passed her and tucked a wayward curl behind her ear. “Eatin’ off our laps in front of the idiot box like a gang o’ Philistines.”
“How come the grown-ups get to sit down?” Jack whined.
“Because they worked hard all day,” Gran replied. “And some of us haven’t had a chance to sit down yet. When you get grown up and put in a hard day’s work, you’ll get to sit down at the table instead of standing there at the counter. Do you need more lemonade? Is that iced tea sweet enough for you?”
Savannah glanced over at Marietta and Vidalia, wondering if either of them would offer their seat to their grandmother, or maybe, in a fit of generosity, even volunteer to help her serve.
Then Savannah sighed, realizing that nothing had changed.
As before, it was Alma who jumped to her feet. “Here, Gran, you sit down now and eat your supper before everything gets cold. I’ll refill the gravy boat.” She nudged Waycross as she hurried past him and said, “Get one of them fold-up patio chairs off the back porch for Savannah, and y’all schooch over to make some room for her. I swear, you’ve got the manners of wolves, the bunch o’ ya.”
After a minute or so of rearranging furniture on worn linoleum and shuffling mismatched china around the Formica-topped table, Savannah found herself seated beside her grandmother, a rapidly filling plate in front of her.
“Did anybody bother to say grace before y’all dived in here?” Gran asked.
The table’s occupants looked at each other sheepishly, then bowed their heads.
“Lord, have mercy on this motley crew,” Gran said, as she folded her hands and closed her eyes. “And we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for each and every one of them. They are, indeed, precious in thy sight. Thank you for bringing Savannah home to us, safe and sound, and we ask you to restore Macon to us, just as quick as you can. Be with him in his hour of darkness and incarceration and bless this food. Amen.”
For one blissful moment, there was silence. The only sounds Savannah could hear were Beauregard snoring on the back porch and the ticking of the cat clock on the wall.
When Savannah was ten years old, she had saved her nickels and dimes for months to buy that clock for Gran on Mother’s Day. It had big green “diamond” eyes that shifted back and forth as its tail swung to and fro.
At ten, she had considered the “cat clock,” as they called it, the height of glamor, class, and sophistication. And thirty years later, she still loved it, because the clock was Gran’s. And anything even remotely connected to her grandmother was sacred to Savannah.
She reached over and patted the soft, work-worn hand and gave Gran a smile that was readily returned.
Then, the three-second silence broke.
“You pray too-o-o-o long, Gran,” Jillian said. “I almost went to sleep in my food.”
Jack chimed in, “Daddy, if
go to sleep in
food, do I still have to eat it?”
Butch growled, a chicken wing sticking out of the side of his mouth. “Eat it or wear it.”
there’s no place like home.
And that just might be a good thing.
Savannah and Alma stood at the kitchen sink, Savannah washing, Alma drying. At the table, Marietta and Vidalia were sitting, still nursing tall glasses of iced tea, discussing wedding details ad nauseum. Butch and Waycross had taken the kids—Vidalia’s four and Marietta’s two—into the empty lot next door to play a game of softball. Even Beauregard had stirred from his long summer’s nap to join the fun. He darted among the children and tall grass as enthusiastically as if he were hunting grizzlies.
Glancing over her shoulder at her two sisters, Savannah thought of how Gran had once, kindly, described them. “Not exactly work-brickle, if you know what I mean.”
But Gran was sitting in the living room in her gold leatherette recliner, reading her Bible by the light of an avocado-green pole lamp, circa 1968. As long as Savannah could remember, her grandmother had retired to that recliner after dinner to read her daily Psalm. Those few minutes were the only ones she had faithfully taken for herself every day. And the troops had been told, years ago, that she was only to be disturbed under two circumstances: the tourniquet wouldn’t stop the bleeding, or the fire extinguisher wouldn’t put out the blaze.
“Gran looked tired tonight,” Savannah said to Alma as she passed a platter under the stream of rinse water and then handed it across to her. “I’m worried about her.”
“Yeah, this thing with Macon is really takin’ a toll on her,” Alma replied, drying it with a dish towel with a chain of daisies and the word “Thursday” embroidered along the border. Another object that was sacred to Savannah; Gran had done the needlework. “She just can’t stand it when one of us is in trouble. Once she gets over being mad at us for whatever we done, she starts feeling bad, thinking she did something wrong when she raised us.”
Savannah glanced over her shoulder at Vidalia and Marietta.
“I’m just worried sick about this divorce thing of Lester’s,” Marietta was saying. “If his wife won’t sign the papers before the wedding day, I just don’t know what I’m gonna do! That dad-gummed Lucille is just holdin’ things up to be spiteful, you know. She don’t want him, but she don’t want me to have him. We never did get along, not even back in high school. She was jealous when I was chosen homecoming princess instead of her, and she never got over it. Now she’s just . . .”
“And then Atlanta beat her little sister in the Miss McGill pageant. She didn’t like that either.”
“Oh, I don’t even want to hear about Atlanta,” Marietta said, waving a hand in front of her face as though shooing away flies. “My own sister won’t even come to my wedding. It’s not like Nashville is that far away.”
“But she’s got a lot going on there with her big singin’ career. She actually got a job doing backup for somebody who used to play with somebody famous,” Vidalia said, an ugly smirk on her face that looked a lot like jealousy to Savannah.
“Yeah, now that she’s a hotshot country singer, she doesn’t have time to come home and help her sister arrange a nice wedding. I tell you, I’m just plumb wore out with it all.”
Savannah turned back to her dishes and ignored the rest. She had to; it was either tune her out or beat Marietta soundly about the head and ears with a frying pan.
“You know,” Savannah said, elbowing Alma, “there are two kinds of people in this world . . .”
She nodded toward the two at the table. “There are those who are willing to work . . . and those who are perfectly willing to let them.”
Alma snickered, then shrugged. “I don’t care, if it gives me a chance to be with you. I miss you really bad, Van.”
“I miss you, too, honey bunny. You should come to visit me sometime in California, stay for a few weeks and see the sights.”
“I’d love to, but I need to be here, you know, for Gran.”
“I know. Maybe you both can come out together. We’ll take her to Disneyland and she can raise hell with Mickey.”
Alma chuckled, then lowered her voice. “Yeah, but somebody around here would have to learn how to cook and clean, or we’d come back to a starved bunch and a filthy house.”
“I was wondering,” Savannah whispered, “if they’re here all the time. I mean, I thought Vi and Butch lived over the garage and Marietta had a place in back of her hair salon.”
“They do. They just hang out here for food and babysitting.”
As Savannah applied steel wool and elbow grease to the crusted skillet, she made a silent vow to give her sisters a stern talking-to.
Granny Reid might have more than her share of life wisdom and old-fashioned horse sense, but, like most truly kind and loving people, Gran had a blind spot when it came to those closest to her heart. And that weakness left her vulnerable to being taken advantage of.
Such behavior wasn’t to be tolerated, and Savannah was prepared to do anything, short of shedding massive amounts of familial blood, to put an end to it.
The screen door opened and slammed closed. Savannah turned to see yet another of her sisters, Cordele. Dressed in a white shirt, buttoned tightly under her chin, a shapeless navy skirt, and black loafers, Cordele looked twenty-seven, going on seventy-seven. Her dark curls were slicked back with copious amounts of gel and held snugly with a black barrette—her only adornment.