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Sweet and Deadly aka Dead Dog, Page 2

Charlaine Harris

  “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.”


  “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. Cather
ine 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.”



  “What on earth…” she stammered. “Miss Gaites…what is she doing out here?”

  Even through her shock Catherine saw some relief touch Galton’s face. Her unalloyed amazement must have gone some way toward convincing him of her ignorance of the dead woman’s identity. Her innocence.

  My innocence? Her anger grew. It felt surprisingly good. She was so seldom overtly angry.

  “Well, come on,” Galton was saying in a more relaxed voice. “The coroner’s jury is here. You have to testify.”

  Catherine lost that portion of the day. While she automatically delivered her simple account to a ring of sober faces, she was remembering Miss Gaites.

  The incongruity of seeing starched, immaculate Leona Gaites in such a state!

  She must have given me a hundred suckers, Catherine thought, her childhood crowding around her.

  The suckers had been a bribe to convince Catherine that Leona liked her.

  It hadn’t worked. Leona hadn’t liked children at all.

  So Catherine had disliked Miss Gaites, had not even accorded her the courtesy of “Miss Leona.” She had disliked the way the starched uniform rattled when the tall woman walked, had disliked the hair that seemed set upon Miss Gaites’s head instead of growing there.

  Most of all, Catherine had disliked the pity she was obliged to feel for Miss Gaites, who had no family.

  Her father had always praised his nurse highly to his wife and daughter, insisting with overdone joviality that Leona kept his office together. The forced note in his insistence told Catherine that even her amiable father could not find it in him to wholeheartedly like Leona Gaites.

  Catherine remembered the tears sliding down Leona’s square handsome face at the double funeral.

  She shouldn’t have died like that, Catherine thought, as she watched the coroner’s jury being heaved across the porch and into the shack. A dog shouldn’t die like that. Then Catherine remembered the dog’s corpse she had passed that morning. The same person killed them both, she thought with surprising certainty. Driving too fast, to get away from what he did to Miss Gaites.

  The coroner’s jury viewed the body and came to the obvious conclusion. Murder, they found.

  Catherine cast a last look at the covered figure, now bundled onto a stretcher borne by the two sweat-soaked cursing attendants, on its way to Jerry Selforth’s eager knife.

  As she watched the load sliding into the back of the ambulance, she saw one of the attendants gag from the smell.

  Leona had always been so clean.

  Catherine began to walk down the baked dirt road toward the sheriff ’s car. The coroner, Carl Perkins, fell into step beside her.

  She looked at him with new eyes. Familiar people were no longer familiar. The anger and suspicion in Sheriff Galton’s face had shaken her out of taking for granted people she had known since childhood.

  “Terrible thing,” Perkins muttered. He was obviously upset. His big hands were shoved into the pockets of his working khakis.

  He must have been gardening when Mrs. Cory phoned him, Catherine thought dully. She watched Carl and Molly Perkins working in their yard every weekend, provided she herself had remembered to have her hedge trimmed.

  “Yes,” Catherine replied belatedly.

  “I’m sorry for you, that you had to find her.”

  There was real regret in his voice, and Catherine warmed to him. “If I hadn’t happened to shoot cans this morning-” she began, and stopped.

  Perkins wrinkled his forehead inquiringly.

  His eyebrows are too sparse to count, Catherine noticed. He’s really getting old.

  She spoke hastily to cover her stare. “She wouldn’t have been found for a long time, if no one had worked in those fields until-” “Until the smell was gone,” she meant to say, but couldn’t.

  “You’re right,” he said. He was angry: his voice sounded hoarse and strained. “Wonder if Galton can handle this? All he’s used to are Saturday night cuttings.”

  They had reached the sheriff ’s car, where Galton was directing two deputies to stay behind and continue to search.

  “Now, you come over and see us,” Perkins said earnestly. “You’ve been a stranger since your folks have been gone.”

  Yes, she thought. I’ve been a stranger.

  “Is all your father’s business tended to?” he asked into the blank wall of her silence.

  “Yes,” Catherine replied, shaking herself. She would have to say more, she realized after a second. “Jerry Selforth bought almost all Dad’s equipment. We were lucky to get another doctor in town so soon. Dr. Anderson’s so old that I know having Jerry take the practice is a relief to him.”

  “It was a surprise,” said Mr. Perkins. “Not too many young men want to come to Lowfield.”

  His bleak tone made Catherine raise her eyebrows. She didn’t like Jerry
Selforth much as a man, but the town had desperately needed him as a doctor. What had Jerry done to offend her neighbor?

  Just then the ambulance started up, and the people by the cars had to step between them to let it edge by.

  Catherine’s thoughts flew back to Leona Gaites, and she scarcely noticed Carl Perkin’s farewell nod as he went down the road to his Lincoln, in the wake of the ambulance.

  The narrow dirt road became busy with flying dust and confusion as the accumulated vehicles reversed to point back to the highway. The cars formed a train like a funeral procession behind the hearse of the orange and white ambulance.

  The black deputy was detailed to take Catherine’s statement.

  “Then head on over to Leona Gaites’s house,” Sheriff Galton added when he was halfway out the door. “Bring the camera.”

  The young black man nodded briskly and turned to Catherine, who was huddled in a corner hoping she was out of the way.

  “Miss Catherine, would you come over here, please?” he said, indicating a straight-backed chair by a scarred desk.

  Catherine could tell from the set of Mary Jane Cory’s back that she disapproved of this black policeman. The unnatural brightness of Mrs. Cory’s voice as she spoke to him contrasted sharply with the natural tone in which she spoke to a couple of blacks who entered the station as supplicants.

  Catherine was beyond caring who took down her statement; but she was less comfortable with blacks in her own town than she was with blacks anywhere else. Upon taking up her life in Lowfield after her parents’ death, she had found sadly that the old attitudes caught at her and strangled her attempts to be easy in an uneasy situation.

  The deputy’s name tag read “Eakins,” Catherine noticed for the first time. Now she could place the familiarity of the man’s face.

  “Your mother is Betty, isn’t she?” Catherine asked, as he rolled typing paper into the machine.

  “Yes, Ma’am,” he said reluctantly, and Catherine felt a pit-of-the-stomach dismay.

  Betty Eakins had been the Lintons’ maid for years, until she had grown too old and arthritic to work any more.