“Do you remember Slap Watkins?”
“The guy who was spouting off in the bar.”
“Can you be more specific? What bar? When?”
“The night you came to town.”
“That was three years ago.”
“Yeah, but you should remember.” Chris Hoyle sat forward in an attempt to goose his friend’s powers of recall. “The loudmouth who caused the fight? Face that would stop a clock. Big ears.”
“Oh, that guy. Right. With the . . .” Beck held his hands at the sides of his head to indicate large ears.
“That’s how he got the nickname Slap,” Chris said.
Beck raised an eyebrow.
“Whenever the wind blew, his ears—”
“Slapped against his head,” Beck finished.
“Like shutters in a gale.” Grinning, Chris tilted his beer bottle in a silent toast.
The window blinds in the den of the Hoyles’
home were drawn to block out the shimmering heat of a late-afternoon sun. The closed blinds also made the room agreeably dim for better TV viewing. A Braves game was being televised. Top of the ninth and Atlanta needed a miracle. But despite the unfavorable score, there were worse ways to spend a stifling Sunday afternoon than inside a semidark, air-conditioned den, sipping cold brews.
Chris Hoyle and Beck Merchant had idled away many hours in this room. It was the perfect male playroom, with its fifty-inch TV screen and surround-sound speakers. It had a fully stocked bar with a built-in ice maker, a refrigerator filled with soft drinks and beer, a billiards table, a dartboard, and a round game table with six leather chairs as soft and cushy as the bosom of the cover girl on this month’s issue of Maxim. The room was paneled with stained walnut and furnished with substantial pieces that wore well and required little maintenance. It smelled of tobacco smoke and reeked of testosterone.
Beck uncapped another bottle of beer. “So what about this Slap?”
“I didn’t know he was gone. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen him since that night, and then I was looking at him through swelling eyes.”
Chris smiled at the memory. “As barroom brawls go, that was a fairly good one. You caught several of Slap’s well-placed punches. He was always handy with his fists. He had to be because he shot off his mouth all the time.”
“Probably defending against cruel cracks about his ears.”
“No doubt. Anyway, that smart mouth of his kept him on everybody’s fighting side. Soon after our altercation with him, he got into a feud with his sister’s ex-husband. Over a lawn mower, I think it was. Things came to a head one night at a crawfish boil, and Slap went after his ex-brother-in-law with a knife.”
“Flesh wound. But it was right across the guy’s belly and drew enough blood to warrant an assault with a deadly weapon charge and probably should have been attempted murder. Slap’s own sister testified against him. He’s been in Angola for the past three years, now out on parole.”
Chris frowned. “Not really. Slap’s got it in for us. At least that’s what he said that night three years ago when he was being hauled away in a squad car. He thought it unfair that he was being arrested and we weren’t. Screamed invectives and threats that made my blood run cold.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“That may have been when you were in the men’s room nursing your wounds. Anyhow,” Chris continued, “Slap is an unstable and untrustworthy ne’er-do-well, a trailer trash Bubba whose only talent is holding grudges, and in that, he excels. We humiliated him that night, and even drunk as he was, I doubt he’s forgiven and forgotten. Keep an eye out for him.”
“I consider myself warned.” Beck glanced over
his shoulder in the general direction of the kitchen. “Am I invited to dinner?”
Beck settled even more comfortably into the sofa on which he was sprawled. “Good. Whatever’s baking in there is making my mouth water.”
“Coconut cream pie. Nobody can make a better pie than Selma.”
“You’ll get no argument from me, Chris.”
Chris’s father, Huff Hoyle, strode in, fanning his ruddy face with his straw hat. “Get me one of those longnecks. I’m so damn thirsty, I couldn’t work up a spit if my dick was on fire.”
He hung his hat on a coat tree, then plopped down heavily in his recliner, swiping his sleeve across his forehead. “Damn, it’s a scorcher today.” With a sigh, he sank into the cool leather cushions of the chair. “Thanks, Son.” He took the chilled bottle of beer Chris had opened for him and pointed it toward the TV. “Who’s winning this ball game?”
“Not the Braves. In fact it’s over.” Beck muted the sound as the commentators began their postmortem of the game. “We don’t need to hear why they lost. The score says it all.”
Huff grunted in agreement. “Their season was over the minute they let those high-paid, non-English-speaking, prima donna players start telling the owners how to run the show. Big mistake. Could have told them that.” He took a long swig of the beer, nearly draining the bottle.
“Have you been playing golf all afternoon?” Chris asked.
“Too hot,” Huff said as he lit a cigarette. “We played three holes, then said screw this and went back to the clubhouse to play gin rummy.”
“How much did you fleece them of today?”
The question wasn’t whether Huff had won or lost. He always won.
“Couple of hundred.”
“Nice going,” Chris said.
“Ain’t worth playing if you don’t win.” He winked at his son, then at Beck. He finished his beer in a gulp. “Either of you heard from Danny today?”
“He’ll show up here in a while,” Chris said. “That is if he can work us in between Sunday morning worship and Sunday night vespers.”
Huff scowled. “Don’t get me in a bad mood by talking about that. I don’t want to spoil my dinner.”
The gospel according to Huff was that preaching, praying, and hymn singing were for women and men who might just as well be women. He equated organized religion to organized crime, except that churches had impunity and tax advantages, and he had about as much intolerance for Holy Joes as he did for homosexuals and laborers with union cards.
Chris tactfully steered the conversation away from his younger brother and his recent preoccupation with spiritual matters. “I was just telling Beck that Slap Watkins is out on parole.”
“White trash,” Huff muttered as he toed off his shoes. “That whole bunch, starting with Slap’s granddaddy, who was the lowest reprobate ever to
draw breath. They found him dead in a ditch with a broken whiskey bottle jammed in his throat. He must have crossed somebody one time too many. There’s bound to have been some inbreeding in that family. Down to the last one of them they’re ugly as sin and dumber than stumps.”
Beck laughed. “Maybe. But I owe Slap a debt of gratitude. If it hadn’t been for him, I wouldn’t be here sharing Sunday dinner.”
Huff looked across at him with as much affection as he showed his own sons. “No, Beck, you were meant to become one of us, by hook or by crook. Finding you made that whole Gene Iverson mess worthwhile. You were the only good thing to come out of it.”
“That and a hung jury,” Chris said. “Let’s not forget those twelve. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be here sharing Sunday dinner. Instead I could be sharing a cell with the likes of Slap Watkins.”
Chris often made light of having been put on trial for the murder of Gene Iverson. His joking dismissal of the incident never failed to make Beck uncomfortable, as it did now. He changed the subject. “I hate to bring up a business matter when it isn’t even a workday.”
“In my book, every day’s a workday,” Huff said.
Chris groaned. “Not in my book, it’s not. Is it bad news, Beck?”
“Then can’t it wait till after supper?”
“Sure, if you’d rather.”
“Nope,” Huff said. “You know my rule about
bad news. I want to hear it sooner rather than later. I sure as hell don’t want to wait through dinner. So, what’s up, Beck? Don’t tell me that we’ve been slapped with another fine by the EPA over those cooling ponds—”
“No, it’s not that. Not directly.”
“Hold on. I’m going to pour a drink first,” Chris said to Huff. “You like to hear bad news early, I like to hear it with a glass of bourbon in my hand. Want one?”
“Lots of ice, no water.”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
Chris moved to the bar and reached for a decanter and two glasses. Then, leaning closer to the window, he peered through the slats of the blinds and twirled the wand to open them wider. “What have we got here?”
“What is it?” Huff asked.
“Sheriff’s car just pulled up.”
“Well, what do you think he wants? It’s payday.”
Chris, still looking through the blinds, said, “I don’t think so, Huff. He’s got somebody with him.”
“I don’t know. Never saw him before.”
Chris finished pouring the drinks and brought one of them to his father, but the three said nothing more as they listened to Selma making her way from the kitchen at the back of the house to the front door to answer the bell. The housekeeper greeted the callers, but the exchange was too softly spoken for individual words to be understood.
Footfalls approached the den. Selma appeared ahead of the guests.
“Mr. Hoyle, Sheriff Harper is here to see you.”
Huff motioned for her to usher him in.
Sheriff Red Harper had been elected to the office thirty years before, his campaign substantially boosted and his win guaranteed by Huff’s pocketbook. He had remained in office by the same means.
His hair, which had been fiery in his youth, had dulled, as though it had rusted on his head. He stood well over six feet tall but was so thin that the thick leather gun belt with the accoutrements of his job attached looked like an inner tube hanging on a fence post.
He looked wilted, and not only because of the heat index outside. His face was long and gaunt, as though three decades of corruption had weighted it down with guilt. His woebegone demeanor was that of a man who had sold his soul to the devil far too cheaply. Never jolly, he seemed particularly downcast as he shuffled into the room and removed his hat.
By contrast, the younger officer with him, a stranger to them, seemed to have been dipped in a vat of starch along with his uniform. He was so closely shaven, his cheeks were rosy with razor burn. He looked as tense and alert as a sprinter in the blocks waiting for the starting gun.
Red Harper acknowledged Beck with a slight nod. Then the sheriff looked toward Chris, who was standing beside Huff’s chair. Finally his bleak eyes moved to Huff, who had remained seated in his recliner.
“Huff.” Instead of looking directly at Huff, he focused on the brim of his hat, which he was feeding through his fingers.
It wasn’t Huff’s habit to stand up for anyone. That was a show of respect reserved for Huff Hoyle alone, and everybody in the parish knew it. But, impatient with the suspense, he pushed down the footrest of his recliner and came to his feet.
“What’s going on? Who’s this?” He gave the sheriff’s spit-and-polish companion a once-over.
Red cleared his throat. He lowered his hat to his side and nervously tapped it against his thigh. He waited a long time before looking Huff in the eye. All of which signaled to Beck that the sheriff’s errand was much more consequential than picking up this month’s graft.
“It’s about Danny . . .” he began.