by Dave MacMillan
I stumbled along the hall into the living room to the aroma of real coffee. And the high-pitched grinding sound of the Hoover. Billy Boy was bent over at the waist, his smalls-covered bum raised, as he worked the nozzle over an area reluctant to give up the months of caked-on dirt he didn't like. I veered towards the kitchen and its promise of coffee.
The vacuum's high pitched whine wound down as I poured the real stuff over two spoonfuls of sugar. "Hi, Phil," Billy Boy called from the other room.
I grumped and raised the cup of sanity, reason, and other good things to my lips. I sighed as I tasted real, 100% wherever-grown coffee.
"What're you doing today, Phil?" he asked almost at my ear. I jerked and spilled coffee down my chest. I jumped and shoved the cup away from me as I growled and turned to face him.
He took a step back, watching me. "I guess you're one of those guys that take two cups to wake up." He grinned. "At least, you don't snore."
"Closer to four," I mumbled. "Are you always so under-dressed?"
"Don't you like it? It's my nearly-ready-for-anything look." He grinned at me and his face took on a lewd cast. "What're your plans for the day, Phil?"
I suspected immediately that he had an ulterior motive for his question. "Not much that's interesting. Pull what I know together down at the office, make notes - that kind of thing."
He watched me.
"All the things I have to get ready for this trip south tomorrow," I added finally, filling the silence.
"I'm going with you, Phil."
I stared at him, my brows hiding in my hairline. "You're what?"
"I want you alive and well, Phil Goodall. That cast on that nose of yours tells me you're not always careful. I'm going with you."
I gulped too much coffee and it was too hot. My throat contracted and I was spewing brown liquid everywhere before I could shut down the reflex.
He gazed at me with a look I could only call disgust. "I've already cleaned the kitchen, Phil. I've scrubbed everything down-" He looked quickly around and grabbed a dishtowel off the lever of the fridge door. And started to wipe where I spit coffee.
"You can't," I growled.
"Why not? Somebody's got to be there to take responsibility for funeral arrangements the way you stick your nose where it doesn't belong."
This was not a discussion I felt equipped to handle this early in the morning. Without enough coffee coursing through my veins, I barely rated above thinking like a brick wall.
"I don't want you hurt."
"Who's going to hurt me? I'll just be the punk kid from Atlanta on the sidelines."
"May we have this discussion when I'm awake?" I groused.
"Anytime, honey-" He smiled perkily. "As long as you understand I'm going to be right there alongside you."
He pecked me on the cheek and was gone to the living room before I could come up with an answer to that. Moments later, the high-pitched, grinding whine of the vacuum precluded further discussion.
I operated on autopilot through the normal things a man puts himself through in the morning. I was still on autopilot when I headed the Beastie towards my office.
I wanted to pull my thoughts together. To see what connections my subconscious had come up with in the Blacksheare case. There was certainly enough going on. Even without interviewing the youth pastor and the high school coach. I promptly forgot the strange idea of having Billy Boy Sharpe in tow when I arrived in Soul the next day.
Billy Boy, joined now by Tim, had torched many of my developing conceptions of this case. Central Baptist in Soul wasn't funding just a lovenest for their preacher here in Atlanta. Jimmy had made the flat a fairly open party room before his death.
I had been lied to by Ronnie Varnadore. He and his cousin visited the dead boy regularly - for fun and games. And they had brought another boy along when they came.
Then, too, Ronnie had his cousin, the youth pastor, holding open house for a select number of Soul's teenaged population, along with the football coach and perhaps his boss, Larry Bishop. To hear both him and Tim tell it, the pot-bellied vicar also looked for cute young things in every city and hamlet his ministry took him to. This in addition to susceptible lads in Soul.
A portion of the male population of Soul didn't seem to know how to keep its zip up. It sounded sordid as hell - not at all what I suspected members of Central Baptist would want to hear about members of their community or their church collections. It did sound like a liberated, amoral teenager's idea of hedonistic fun.
I didn't see where any of it related to Jimmy Blacksheare's death.
Unless . . .
If Tim Spencer was head over heels in love with Jimmy, it could mean a possessive streak. Such a streak could have been warped out of all recognition by Jimmy's menagerie of sex partners.
Tim had been in Atlanta the night Jimmy died. He certainly knew where the lad lived. Finally, he had been exiled from the dead boy's flat and forced into leather slavery.
Could Tim have killed Jimmy?
It was circumstantial without one string of real evidence connecting him. Yet, police and prosecutors had been know to hang men with less. A Georgia jury would hear the word `homosexual' and close its mind - especially after the prosecutor established that Tim Spencer had been a rent boy.
In addition to the youth minister and the football coach, I was definitely going to see Ronnie Varnadore while I was in Soul. And Larry Bishop. I suspected I was going to spend the rest of the bloody week in the dying town.
By noon, I had re-acquainted myself with everything I knew, suspected, or thought about the growing list of people who had been in bed with Jimmy Blacksheare. I felt that I was ready for Soul. I drove back to the house in Ansley Park and Mr. Sharpe.
The pungent door of ammonia grabbed me the moment I opened the door to the kitchen. What in God's name had happened?
I had to find him. Save him. Gagging and coughing, I made my way inside. My eyes watered and I wondered how long I had before I lost consciousness. I couldn't believe anything could live in the toxic waste dump my flat had become. From cockroaches to amoebae. And Mr. Sharpe.
I realised that I could breathe halfway across the kitchen. A couple of quick gasps and I accepted that there wasn't enough ammonia to kill me after all. A few more steps and I remembered that I'd never got down and cleaned house like Billy Boy had been when I left that morning. I started to feel foolish as I reached the hall doorway.
He entered the hall from the bath as I entered it from the kitchen. I smiled.
He faced me and frowned. "I need maybe ten bucks, Phil."
I reached for my wallet. "What's up?"
"What the shit do English mothers teach their little boys about cleaning up?" he growled.
I looked around for anything that might have caused his attack. Nothing. "I'm not sure what you mean, love?" Where had the loveable street urchin of the past several days gone?
"This place is a pigsty-" His nostril wrinkled in disgust. "I'll take that back. No self-respecting pig back in Arkansas would live in this place before I got hold of it."
His hands went to his hips. "I'm going to have to wash every damned piece of clothing you've got."
"Every pair of pants, shirts, your socks - even your BVD's smell like you've worn them to work out in." He wrinkled his nose in disgust as he reached back into the hamper and brought out a pair of Y-fronts with two fingers and held them out towards me.
"I washed the pants in the drawer," I answered in a more subdued tone. He was right - except for the Y-fronts and socks.
I hated the time wasted at a launderette while clothes plunged and tumbled. I'd never got around to buying a washer and dryer because I'd known that I simply was not a homebody. And I'd never got around to hiring a weekly maid service that would clean both my house and wash my laundry.
Bloody hell! I still didn't have the knack of separating stay-fast colours from colours that bled. It wasn't a matter of personal hygiene; it was just a lot easier to wear things a second time.
Dirty undergarments, though, did find their way into the shower with me on a weekly basis. They were rubbed down with lye soap, beaten against the sides of the shower stall, scrubbed, and rinsed - everything a machine did, but cheaper.
They simply tended to stand up by themselves once they dried. Body lotion strategically applied, however, solved the problem of chaffing quite nicely.
He sighed. "Let me get some clothes on and you can drive me to the nearest laundry." He turned and marched into the bedroom.
No friendly greeting. No kiss. No hint of a willing libido if I were interested. Nothing. This was not the same laddy I had left that morning.
Embarrassed, I followed after him.
The bed was stripped. The mattress-cover was gone. The mattress had been turned. I suspected he had been a busy boy the past several hours.
Busy cleaning up after me. The realisation embarrassed me.
He was in a friendlier mood after I treated him to a Mexican restaurant at the intersection of Piedmont and Cheshire Bridge. He was returned to his old effervescent self by the time we unloaded every stitch of my now clean clothes.
"So, what's the first thing on our agenda once we're in this one-horse town tomorrow?" he asked as we spread clean sheets across the bed.
"I want to talk to the police chief-" I stared across the bed at him. "You're still determined to come with me?"
He stood up, legs slightly spread and hands on his hips; he gazed directly at me. "I'm going. You aren't ashamed of me, are you?"
I glanced at his spiked, peroxided hair and looked away. "You can't go," I said quietly.
"Homosexuality is illegal in this state."
"So, you stay on your side of the bed and I'll stay on mine."
"Phil, I'm going!"
"Jesus!" I groaned, realising I was getting nowhere fast.
"You aren't going to get yourself hurt if I can help it."
"You'll get me hurt as well as yourself," I growled.
He paled. "You're telling me I'm too queer to be seen with you!"
Oh, shit! My lad had definitely marshalled his arguments since the morning. He knew how to put me on the defensive. "Billy Boy-"
"You're going to see one super butch stud muffin while we're in this town, Phil. I'll even act like I'm interested in the girls around."
Butch? Billy Boy Sharpe? I had to admit he didn't slink and vamp. I hadn't seen him outside of gay situations.
"Love, you'll stand out-"
He stared at me, unmoving, barely breathing. "It's my hair, isn't it?" he asked finally. He nodded to himself. "I sort of thought that might be it this morning. You don't like it."
"It's just awfully different and this town is-"
"Don't tell me about small town America, Phil. I grew up in and near one. You're ashamed of me."
I stared at him in shock. "I'm not."
The touch of a smile passed over his lips. "Don't worry, the colour and the spikes will be gone tomorrow morning."
I woke to the aroma of coffee and bacon so close to my nose that I was salivating before I could open my eyes.
A tray sat on the night table, a steaming cup of coffee the magnet drawing me to it. I pushed myself up against the pillows and brought it to my lips. I smiled; I had died and was in heaven.
"Eat up, Phil," Billy Boy called from the doorway, "before it gets cold."
I focused on his voice. And nearly dropped the coffee cup.
He was fully dressed. In jeans and a simple white shirt. There were no wristlets or other accoutrements.
He looked incongruously younger. Even wholesome.
I saw his hair was a light brown - all of it. And it lay across the top of his head like any well-adjusted young man's.
Spikey was gone.
"Billy Boy?" I asked.
He laughed. "Come on, sleepyhead. Eat up and take your shower. We've got a long ride ahead of us."
I pulled the tray to me. The bacon and fried eggs I recognised, the gritty white mass with a pool of butter in the centre were grits. I'd avoided tasting them the past thirty years, and I wasn't sure I wanted to start eating them now.
"That's a real Southern breakfast, honey - eggs, bacon, and grits - and you're going to eat it all up just for me."
I knew I was moving closer to convicting Tim Spencer in my mind as we drove south to meet with Chief Nixon and explore the loose threads that trailed back to his small town. The case against the former rent boy was circumstantial, and it could well prove to be nothing but the lad unfortunately being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But, if that were the case, he had made a career of it.
Ronnie Varnadore hated him. I suspected, if I brought his name up to Chief Nixon, I would learn the whole blinking town hated him.
If I tossed what I knew on the desk of Detective Sylvester Ashburn, Tim Spencer would be in chains within the hour. He was a prostitute and, as such, already established as a criminal in the police mind. He had motive. He had an unsavoury past. And an opportunity could easily enough be manufactured for him. Bloody hell! He had opportunity.
Still, though, Tim Spencer had been living hand to mouth on the streets of Atlanta for more than two years. Billy Boy was saying the lad kept some of his scruples - even if doing so had kept him from the comforts rent boys believe their freedom entitles them to. He was also saying Tim was nearly pathological about impressing his fellow lads of the night as well as scoring them. I could only wonder how that kind of compulsive behaviour affected his renewed relationship with Jimmy Blacksheare.
Only, I didn't like seeing the lad in chains or being strapped into Georgia's electric chair, even if it was only my mental eye seeing it. While circumstances seemed to point to him being Jimmy's murderer, I didn't feel good about it. The case against him was too pat by half.
Besides, I had a special place in my heart for child-molesting preachers, especially those who ordered me beaten up.
I was on my way back to Soul to find out if I could herd either the piece of rubbish I found at Central Baptist Church or his assistant into that special place.
I knew myself. I wanted the head honcho, Larry Bishop, taking those thirteen steps leading up to the gallows. I wanted to see his God get him out of that one.
That was only the emotional side of me, however. Reality told me the man had much too much to lose by killing Jimmy. Thinking back to my interview with him, I grew convinced that Larry Bishop kept the side of his bread that had the butter on it in sight at all times. Every bloody moment he was awake - and probably when he was sleeping too.
That still left Jim Bob Varnadore, the youth pastor with a thing for barely pubescent lads. I was willing to wager the man kept his tendencies well under wraps. Otherwise, Larry Bishop would never have been able to keep him from full public exposure. Only, keeping something like that under tight control, all the while being around cute young lads just entering puberty and full of curiosity, would leave a gay paedophile continuously on the edge of breaking.
A twinkie Jimmy Blacksheare had relieved him of his anxieties, freeing his libido. Perhaps, Jimmy had given him his first moments of happiness after years of suppression by his religion. But Jimmy ran away from Soul, leaving him alone with his religion and suddenly unfulfillable needs.
Jim Bob Varnadore hadn't known where Jimmy was for a month. Then, somehow, he had. Now Jimmy was dead, returning in his coffin and planted in its sandy soil.
If Tim Spencer hadn't killed Jimmy Blacksheare, Jim Bob Varnadore was certainly in the position to be the prime suspect. He definitely placed well ahead of Larry Bishop in this running.
I had three reasonably good suspects. Two of them - Tim and Jim Bob - were prime candidates as far as I was concerned. I also had two other people with increasingly less probability - at least, less apparent motive and opportunity - of killing Jimmy Blacksheare in his flat and leaving his semi-nude body on the grounds of Petersen's Funeral Home early on Wednesday morning. And whoever did that had tucked his wallet in the elastic band of his smalls, so that he could be easily identified. The coach pulled at me because he was still an unknown. Ronnie because he had lied to me.
With a five and a half hour drive ahead of me, I had a lot of time to digest what I now knew and, I hoped, begin narrowing the field a bit.
At two o'clock last Wednesday morning, Jimmy Blacksheare had been shot at close range, the powder burns on his chest showing that. He died just inside the doorway of his bedroom. He had been nearly naked or, at least, bare-chested when the gun was pointed at him.
I figured he knew his killer rather intimately from those facts, most of which were in the coroner's report. People rarely were nude, or nearly so, when they stood inside their bedroom facing someone with a gun - unless intimacy was an established part of their relationship and the gun wasn't in evidence. Teenaged lads especially tended to be self-conscious about exposing their bodies to other people.
There were two men who admitted to having been intimate with him the past six months - Tim Spencer and Reverend Larry Bishop. If I really wanted to hang a preacher, I knew I had to find a way to place Jim Bob Varnadore firmly in that coterie of intimates Jimmy pulled about himself. Either that or bring Bishop in closer. Then, there were Ronnie Varnadore and another lad who supposedly made regular visits to Atlanta for fun and games. Given the size of the male contingent who made their way to Jimmy's bed, I couldn't help but wonder if Coach Johnson didn't know his way to Atlanta as well.
I was reasonably certain one of them had been out to kill Jimmy early on Wednesday morning. Hollow point bullets tear up a lot of anything they pass through. Police departments once used them to stop people at whom they shot, before civil rights organisations learnt that was the reason the constabularies were using them. At close range, even a .22 calibre hollow point did nasty damage and stopped a suspect so the policeman could catch him.
The calibre of the weapon and the bullets used made it better than an even bet that Jimmy's murder had been premeditated. It became overwhelming when the body was moved. Jimmy had had no chance the moment the killer was inside the flat with him.
Reverend Larry Bishop stayed Monday nights, arriving in Atlanta on Monday afternoons and leaving Tuesday afternoons. Tim had shared the flat the rest of the week - until a fortnight before Jimmy Blacksheare died.
The good preacher told me he left his lovenest Monday - which meant the same day of his arrival. I was bloody willing to wager he could produce a hundred witnesses who'd have him at some Central Baptist Church function last Tuesday night, late enough no one could imagine him driving to Atlanta. That left Tim Spencer and, maybe, Jim Bob Varnadore without an alibi. I wondered if his cousin Ronnie, the coach, or the other boy had been around and if they had alibis.
I felt a small degree of pity for Jimmy's entire coterie - including his killer. With the south Georgia lad infected with the HIV virus, the odds were good anyone he had unprotected sex with was equally infected.
Soul was as I left it several days earlier - a picture post card of small town America. Except for the heat shimmering in the air, the boarded up buildings, and the disintegrating car parks in front of those buildings. A small town America now nearly as dead as Jimmy Blacksheare.
I checked us into the one motel the town had. "You want to wait for me here?" I asked Billy Boy.
"Hell, no! Drop me off in this one-horse town and let me find out where the big boys hang out." He grinned. "Maybe I can find out something."
"Don't do anything that leads to trouble, love."
"No trouble for me, Phil." His grin became broader. "I may pick up some background for you - but I sure as hell don't plan on taking any trips with anybody. I know small towns and how they think."
Inside the police station, a jowly, sweaty face under a crew-cut looked up suspiciously and watched me approach his desk.
"Chief Nixon in?" I asked politely.
"He's here some place," jowly, sweaty face answered, his drawl thick and the south Georgia twang to it making it nearly unintelligible. "You that high-faluting private eye from Atlanta working on that faggot's murder?"
"Jimmy Blacksheare was barely more than a child," I corrected him but kept it nice.
Jowly, sweaty face leant back in his chair, the thing squealing in protest under his shifting weight. "Don't matter how old he was - the faggot was taking it up the ass."
I shrugged, accepting defeat at the hands of blind stupidity. Before jowly, sweaty face could think of any more gems of wisdom, Chief Nixon stepped from his office and came towards us. "Phil," he greeted me, offering his hand when he was close enough for me to shake it. "Come on in the office. I think I've got some information you'll want to hear."
I followed him.
"Sit down," he told me without looking back at me, continuing to walk around his desk to the coffee maker. "Coffee?"
He turned back to me with a cup. "The sugar and cream are over there-" He pointed with his elbow at a filing cabinet standing behind the door. "You'll have to put them in yourself if you want them-" I nodded. "I think I've got your killer pegged," he continued as he sat behind the desk.
"Yeah. You may not have heard of him, but a local boy who moved to Atlanta, name of Tim Spencer, seems to have had a thing going with Jimmy while they were both here. This Spencer kid moved to Atlanta after getting into a whole bunch of trouble." He grinned. "I've heard through the grapevine he was seeing Jimmy up there."
"You think he did it?"
"He was a real bastard when he still lived here in town. Jimmy probably crossed him and got blown away for it."
"I've run across his name," I allowed.
"Then you know about him."
"I know Tim Spencer doesn't seem to have a friend in this town, Chief-" I struggled against my growing inclination to see Tim Spencer with a noose about his neck. The evidence I had already seen, though circumstantial, pretty well put the spring in the trap door under his feet. Only, I still didn't want to believe it. I hoped my reluctance wasn't simply because I had come to see the lad as a good looking and nice guy caught up in a bloody mess.
"You know he and Jimmy both sort of started going strange maybe six - seven years ago."
I stared at him. "Yeah?"
"I don't know any of this for a fact-" He grunted and spat out: "Police chiefs don't run with the likes of the Spencers and Blacksheares." He reddened and fought against social embarrassment.
"The story goes that Mrs. Blacksheare had the hots for Tim's daddy, the local druggist before he died last year of cancer. It was supposed to be a pretty torrid thing - with all sorts of people looking the other way to not see it."
"And chatting it up the moment they were away from the principals?"
He nodded. "Story goes she took a real shine to Tim. Buttering him up and all. She left him with Jimmy some of the times she and Dr. Spencer took off for a night to parts unknown."
"You understand there wasn't supposed to be anything going on?"
"The way I heard it, she finally remembered her obligations to the boy - and her family's name. I suspect her daddy who was still living at the time put his foot down."
I waited a few moments to see if he'd continue with his story and finally asked: "What did you find out on the second stringer at Central Baptist?"
"He's on vacation until next week - a month-long one if you can believe that."
"And nobody knows where he is?"
Chief Nixon shook his head slowly. "I drove by his trailer yesterday and saw his car parked outside. I knocked on the door." He shrugged. "The Supreme Court's finally come to Georgia, Goodall - I couldn't bust in there without a warrant or something official."
This didn't sound right. If a chap out in the middle of nowhere goes on holiday, he needs to get about. That takes transportation. Yet, Jim Bob Varnadore had left his car at home. Given his reputation in Soul and what Ronnie said about his standing with the family, I was willing to wager he had no ride from his house to wherever he was going.
I told myself even a paedophile needed to get away from everybody and everything for a while. I reminded myself Jim Bob Varnadore was the local scout leader. He should therefore know how to take care of himself on a camping trip - one he may well have taken by himself. I tried to believe what I was telling myself.
I let Jim Bob drop. "What about Larry Bishop?" I asked.
"He was in a meeting with his deacons Tuesday night. Several people saw him there as late as half past nine." Chief Nixon didn't have to remind me the drive to mid-town Atlanta was at least five hours for a bat out of hell, longer for people like me. Larry Bishop could have made it - barely.
"He's suddenly become like that Sphinx in Egypt-"
I raised my brow in question.
"I don't know anything about his activities and whereabouts, Goodall. He manages to have just left anywhere I've gone to find him." He shrugged. "And I didn't have any reason to go over to the high school."
Chief Nixon clucked. "I'm sorry this trip down turned out to be a bust for you," he added apologetically.
I sighed, accepting the loss of eleven hours of driving time. "Do you think we might visit the good scout master's home, Chief? I might be able to see something through a window."
If I came to accept that Tim Spencer pulled the trigger and watched Jimmy Blacksheare die, I was going to make sure there wasn't anyone else I could think had done it.
The chief gazed at me suspiciously and then laughed. "You might even find the back door open if you push hard enough." His smile was a wide one as he continued: "I promise not to be watching when you try it, Goodall."
I grinned my acquiescence back to him and he pushed himself out of his chair and started around the desk. "Let's go."
Jim Bob Varnadore's caravan was a single-wide mobile home set close to the ground in a stand of pine trees several miles past the edge of town. As we parked in front of it, I wondered if the scout master had chosen this location because of its seclusion or if Larry Bishop or someone in the church wanted the man who was afraid of hooty owls living far enough away from the church and Soul that his private life stayed private.
An unwashed little Toyota that might have been some shade of red sat forlornly beside the house. Wind whispered through pine boughs above us. Years of unraked pine needles covered the sandy ground beneath us. It felt we were a million miles from nowhere and as forlorn as the Toyota.
"Let's try the back," Chief Nixon told me, pulling me away from my contemplation of desolation in south Georgia. I watched him open the door of my Thing from Volkswagen and slip to the ground, ready to intrude on Jim Bob Varnadore's privacy.
Embarrassed by my thoughts, I climbed out and dutifully followed him past the once red Toyota to the back of the house. "Looks almost as if it's deserted," he said, his voice strangely loud in the silence sighing about us.
We stopped at the edge of the porch and he looked at me. "I think I ought to maybe take a leak while you try that back door." He grinned. "It sure wouldn't do for the Chief of Police to break into a man's house."
"But if the door's already open-?"
His grin grew broader. "Hey! A cop's supposed to investigate anything that's suspicious, Goodall. An open door in a private residence sure would be suspicious. I might even think I'd stumbled onto the scene of a burglary."
I stepped onto the low porch while Charlie Nixon stared out at an unbroken wall of pine trees behind us. I didn't know if he urinated and didn't care.
The door pushed open slightly as I gripped the knob.
"It seems this door wasn't pulled close, Chief," I called back to him without turning my head, playing my role in our little game with the rules that had come to govern law enforcement in America.
I was inside the kitchen before the chief could reach the porch behind me. Jim Bob was a meticulous housekeeper from the looks of the room. The sink was empty, its stainless steel shiny. The grey linoleum on the floor had a sheen to it as well. Plates and glasses were carefully aligned in the cupboards.
The kitchen opened onto a living room that was as clean and straightened as the first room. Moving about, I smiled at the photos of an old couple who stared emotionlessly out at me. My smile disappeared when I realised the pictures of the man and woman were the only personal touches to the room. A generic bible graced a long, ugly coffee table that was Danish Modern from the fifties. The couch, too, was well into its fortieth year. A single, waist-high bookshelf held religious tracts, but even those lent no character to the man who lived here.
A thought struck me as I glanced about the room again. With most murders, there were one or two well-defined suspects after the investigation begins in earnest.
Here I had two good candidates - Tim and Jim Bob - and several others not too far from the stage to replace my first two. Larry Bishop was only a step behind the other two on the gallows' staircase. And young Ronnie. Even this Junior everyone remembered but didn't knopw. The thought had come with no blinding flash of light. No drum rolls. Nothing. My subconscious mind was finally beginning to kick in for me.
"We've got to go back through the kitchen to reach the bedroom and bathroom," Chief Nixon said from behind me.
I turned and followed him back into the kitchen and into a short hall. I opened the first door and found the bathroom. It was as organised and spotless as the other rooms had been. And as impersonal.
The next door was the linen closet and I nodded at the orderly alignment of sheets and towels there.
"This man really is an organisational freak, isn't he?" I mumbled, more to myself than to the chief.
"Looks as if his mammy trained him good," Charlie Nixon opined and sneezed. "You smell something?"
I wrinkled my nose and picked up a sweet door that underlay the air in the foyer. I didn't place it.
The door to the bedroom was closed. I pushed it open and was hit by a blast of cold air from the window air conditioning unit. And the full blast of the smell.
"Oh, shit!" Nixon groaned from behind me and pushed me aside to reach for the wall switch.
I knew what I was going to see and, wishing I could be looking anywhere else, was staring at the bed as the light came on.
The shotgun still lay along the corpse's chest, its muzzle caught in what was left of Jim Bob Varnadore's clamped jaws. There was still a face, gruesomely bloated as it was; but the rest of the head above and behind the ears was gone.
Unlike Jimmy Blacksheare, Jim Bob Varnadore had worn all his clothes to his death, including his socks and shoes.
"Goddamn!" Charlie Nixon growled. "The bastard's killed himself."
Tim Spencer had been given a last second pardon by the governor. There wasn't a chance in bloody hell the lad had come back to Soul to do in Jim Bob Varnadore.
I looked about the room hurriedly before either of us could touch anything. The desk against the wall closest to us was as ordered as the rest of the house was - the typewriter was covered and not one single sheet of paper lay on its surface. The trash can beside the desk was empty. There wasn't anything on the floor either.
The visual search was instinctual, taking over before my mind had a chance to catch up and figure out why I needed to do what I was doing. I was looking for a piece of paper, a suicide note. There wasn't one.
By all appearances, the murder had been solved. Jim Bob Varnadore, in a fit of anger, visited Jimmy in Atlanta and shot him with some of the nastiest bullets made by man in one of the biggest and vilest pistols made by man. He then returned to Soul and, in a fit of remorse, put a shotgun in his mouth, bit down on it, and pulled the trigger. End of case.
Only, it didn't feel right to me.
There was nothing I could put my finger on, that I could point to and say someone slipped up here and he was the bloody killer.
Everything had seemed to be piling up at Tim Spencer's doorstep when I left Atlanta that morning. His photograph at the murder scene. His having a possible smouldering anger at Jimmy for taking him in and then kicking him out. Another possible instance of his smouldering anger was his having to share Jimmy with the preacher and several friends from the old home place. His reputation for sexual abuse back home. Things had been looking a bit bleak for Tim Spencer when I left for Soul.
I arrived in south Georgia to find Tim Spencer's best choice for a replacement suspect had taken a shotgun and blown the back of his head off.
Jim Bob Varnadore was the man who fainted at the sight of blood. He was a cleanliness and a neatness freak. His trailer spoke of it in no uncertain terms. His suicide, if that was what it was, was a decided slip, however. As had been Jimmy's flat.
That was part of my problem. I couldn't say much about the blood and gore left behind when twelve gage pellets meet bone at close range. But someone had thoroughly ransacked Jimmy's flat, presumably looking for something incriminating. Yet, that someone left multiple hamburger and drink containers on the coffee table to enable anyone seeing them to assume Jimmy had guests the night he was killed.
That someone used some of the meanest bullets around to make sure that he killed Jimmy Blacksheare when he shot him. He moved a dead but still warm Jimmy from the scene of crime.
I just wasn't able to accept that the cleanliness freak who fainted at the sight of blood was likely to have done what was done with Jimmy Blacksheare's body. Nor was he likely to have blown his own head off.
Even if he had, he had incriminated Tim Spencer sufficiently in Jimmy's murder that he didn't need to drive back to Soul and commit suicide.
And even if he had done that, he would have left a note.
Tim Spencer was off the hook. There was less than a remote chance the lad would have killed Jimmy, moved his body, and driven to Soul to send the youth preacher on his journey to oblivion. If Tim Spencer had a pistol, hollow-nose bullets for it, and a car - all of which I doubted - the Blacksheare murder could be viewed as an extreme case of domestic violence, of love gone horribly wrong.
No perpetuator of any domestic violence I had seen or read about drove five and a half hours one way to kill someone only peripherally connected to him or the victim. If Tim Spencer had gone on a killing rampage that extended to Soul, he would have been gunning for Jim Bob Varnadore's boss at the church.
He wouldn't have changed weapons either. Murderers were creatures of habit on a par with alcoholics - they almost always kept the same modus operandi they started with. Jimmy Blacksheare was killed with a large calibre pistol; Jim Bob Varnadore had the wrong end of a 12-gage shotgun stuck in his mouth when someone pulled the trigger.
I was going against the grain even with that supposition. Charlie Nixon was only too glad to permit Jim Bob Varnadore the honour of being the one who pulled the shotgun's trigger. That was the way he wrote the police report - a suicide.
I couldn't blame the chief. The state charged the county for the use of one of its scene of crime units and the county of which Soul was the seat of government wasn't exactly overflowing with money trees. Tagging Jim Bob Varnadore with Jimmy Blacksheare's murder and then committing suicide answered all the questions a small town might ask.
The way I saw it, Chief Nixon was being a politician as well as a police officer. Bury one's dirty laundry at the same time one solved a crime - it'd make most people happy. It made a lot of sense when I remembered his was a political position and the Reverend Larry Bishop wielded a lot of political power. Murder made into suicide bought a political favour from the paedophile preacher.
I stepped into the room as Billy Boy came from the bath. He was rubbing his hair dry as he looked up to see me.
"Hi, Phil." He smiled. "That was one hot walk from town."
My face fell. "Bloody hell!" I had forgotten my lad when we found the dead youth minister. I tried the hangdog expression that I'd used as a child with my mum. "I'm sorry, love."
He grinned. "I needed the exercise, Phil." His face became a question mark. "I hung around the police station for a few - where did you and the chief disappear to?"
"We went out to the youth minister's place - the one Tim said came up to Atlanta to party with Jimmy?"
"He's dead. The back of his head was blown off."
"Jesus!" His eyes widened. "And they say small towns are safer than big cities."
"You think he offed Jimmy and came back here to kill himself?"
"Chief Nixon wants to think so. It'd wrap everything up for him and the preacher would owe him a couple of favours."
Billy Boy made a face. "Politics!" he hissed. "I think I saw your Ronnie Varnadore."
I looked expectantly at him. He milked the moment for all it was worth. "Out with it," I finally told him.
"This kid with long hair and looking like a girl walked into the pool hall next door to the police station-"
"It's the only thing in this town for guys my age to do-" He shook his head. "Soul sure is dead."
"I had to take a double look, Phil. That boy could've been a flat-chested girl."
I nodded. It certainly sounded like Ronnie Varnadore.
"Anyway, I was playing pool with some guys there - I think they were all on last year's football team. He walked in. They started making comments about him while he went up to the bar to get a soda. That went on for a few moments and I was beginning to feel really sorry for him.
"One of them - a real muscular dude - broke away and went over to talk to him. Another one - real slim, tall, cute boy - joined them a couple of minutes later. I asked the dude next to me - he looked like he could play linebacker on the Falcons - I asked him what was going on."
I was learning something about Billy Boy Sharpe I distinctly was uncomfortable with. He had a flair for melodrama. He was pausing at all the right points to make this sound like a well-rehearsed script.
"He said the kid had the tightest pussy in Soul."
"Did he call him by name?"
"Yeah." He glowered at me for interrupting him. "The guy was Ronnie Varnadore, Phil. The linebacker said most of the guys around got a piece off him when things got rough with their girlfriends."
My eyebrows hit my hair line. "They talk that openly around here?"
Billy Boy grinned. "We'd got to be pretty good buddies by that time. I was cool."
"The two guys came back over to us. They told us Ronnie didn't have time to help us out."
"He was leaving for Jacksonville-"
He shrugged. "I guess."
"I wonder why he's decided to leave now?"
"Nobody seemed to think it was unusual or anything. Somebody made a comment that Ronnie was going to be getting all the dick he could want there and everybody else laughed."
"Did you get the names of the two who talked to Ronnie?"
"The muscular one was called Junior. The slim one was Marshall something."
"Did you pick up anything else?"
He chuckled. "That youth preacher held open house for any of the boys in this town old enough to drive out to his trailer - for any boy whose main squeeze had left him with a case of blue balls."
Ronnie had let drop his cousin had boys over. He also had told me both the coach and Larry Bishop showed up at these parties at times. "Did you get the impression these parties were strictly for the local football team or could any boy go?"
He started at me, his brows furrowing. "That Ronnie sure wasn't team material, Phil. Maybe the team relieved itself on Jim Bob and Ronnie Varnadore." His lips formed a knowing smirk. "Those two and any other local who'd bend over."
As I drove out to the Blacksheares', I reviewed the reasons why I couldn't buy the quick fix Charlie Nixon wanted to offer Soul. All I had to do was decide what I was going to do about it.
Tim Spencer was out because I wasn't willing to accept him going to Soul to commit a murder unrelated to whatever feud with the Blacksheare lad I could put him into. Besides, if he did kill Jimmy, there was no reason for the preacher to die. The problem with dismissing Tim as my prime suspect was that I didn't have anyone else who stood up and grasped for the kudos with close to the same gusto.
I needed to forget I was nearly a week into the case and had lost my two best suspects.
What was it I had learnt long ago in that course at Hendon?
Make no assumptions until you have all the evidence before you and, then, stay with lines of thought that used all of the evidence.
Most of the evidence seemed to be in and two people were dead. One an obvious murder and the other a suspicious suicide. Jimmy Blacksheare most likely was the catalyst for Jim Bob Varnadore's death. And I was willing to bet ten years off my life things were happening the last days of the Blacksheare boy's life, even if he hadn't recognised them as important - things that could lead me to his killer if I could find them out.
Things at least as profound as Tim Spencer moving or being sent out of the Piedmont Park flat. If I could get a good grip on what happened in the last couple of weeks before he was murdered, I would be well on my way to finding a murderer.
Larry Bishop hadn't sensed anything wrong the last several times he visited the lovenest his church provided Jimmy Blacksheare. At least, he hadn't talked about something seeming to be wrong. Admittedly, the good reverend had the appearance of a man who didn't see something unless it was biting him on the nose. That left me Ronnie Varnadore who was available to have seen or heard someone or something that was different from the rest of the life he shared with Jimmy.
An assumption I had made before all the evidence was in was that the murderer was in Soul. I did so as a defence against the rush to judgement forming around Tim Spencer.
Now, however, that assumption was an imperative. Nobody in Atlanta was going to drive to Soul to rid the world of a preacher. Soul had itself a murderer, one who hadn't liked Jimmy Blacksheare's chosen lifestyle or his associates.
I was willing to wager Ronnie Varnadore would be a store of gossip about the derring-dos of Soul and the various generations who lived there.
I pulled up to the sprawling brick rambler and hoped both the Blacksheares were at home. I hoped they cared more about their son than keeping the local political machinery running smoothly.
Raymond Blacksheare opened the door for me. "Mr. Goodall, this is a surprise." He looked anything but surprised.
"Chief Nixon and I found Reverend Jim Bob Varnadore this afternoon."
He nodded. "I heard. Come on inside."
I followed him into the house. "I guess this pretty well solves what happened to Jimmy," he said over his shoulder.
"I don't think so, sir," I told him as we approached Eleanor Blacksheare waiting for us near the fireplace. "That's why I'm here."
"This nasty business with that horrid preacher doesn't end it?" she asked, gazing directly at me.
I told them my reasoning for not believing the preacher had killed their son and did not leave out my doubts about Jim Bob Varnadore's suicide.
"Why would Charlie Nixon declare the case closed if there's any real doubt?" Blacksheare asked quietly.
I had to admit Raymond Blacksheare had asked a perfectly logical question. I explained Soul's political realities as I understood them. The long and short of it was that a continuing murder investigation made some powerful men in the town nervous. Without naming names, I told him those men didn't want their laundry brought out in public. Chief Nixon was offering the politically correct way out for the people of Soul who had known Jimmy better than they should.
"Do you want the real murderer or the politically correct one?" I asked finally.
Eleanor Blacksheare nodded and frowned. "No matter what we do, it won't bring back our Jimmy-"
"No!" We both turned to Blacksheare. His anger was a heat both his wife and I could feel. "Jimmy was my son, no matter what he did while he was alive. I want the man who killed him. I want the man who snuffed out his life." Tears glistened in his eyes but his voice was firm. "I don't care who did it - even the President of the United States. You get that fucking bastard, Mr. Goodall. I want to pull the lever that cooks him."
Eleanor Blacksheare glanced from her husband to me. "Find the person who did it, Mr. Goodall."
I nodded and rose. I showed myself out while she went to her husband and knelt beside him.
The only men I saw with any real possibilities now were Larry Bishop and the coach.
I needed to talk to Coach Johnson soon. Larry Bishop too. And Ronnie Varnadore even sooner - tonight if possible. I needed to know everything the lad had left out in our first interview.
I crossed the back of the Blacksheare property and entered the thicket of pine I had watched young Ronnie enter on his way home the other day.
I crossed a small stream and quickly broke through the natural barrier between the two properties. Fifty feet before me stood a small caravan in need of paint. The boys had certainly lived close together, even if the worlds they lived in were separated by money and class.
I stepped onto a wooden porch at the back of the house and knocked at the door. And watched the darkened interior for signs of life.
A woman who had seen better days appeared and came to the door to peer out at me.
"Is Ronnie in, Mrs. Varnadore?"
Anger flashed across her face before she could conceal it. "Why're you looking for him, mister?" she asked in a twang much thicker than Raymond Blacksheare's.
"I'm a private investigator, ma'am. From Atlanta. I'm investigating the murder of Jimmy Blacksheare-"
"Ronnie met me last Saturday and gave me some useful information. I'd like to interview him again, if you don't mind."
"Mind?" She laughed. "Mister, whatever I mind that boy's likely to do. That Blacksheare boy got to my Ronnie and turned him into something evil."
"But he lives here with you?"
"He watches the place for me when I'm over caring for my sister. That and he does most of the chores."
"Is he here now?"
"Naw. He decided he wanted to visit some of our people."
I nodded. Billy Boy had heard he was going south to Jacksonville, Florida. His mother was telling me he had gone north up Georgia's coast to Savannah on the Carolina border. "When did he leave, ma'am?"
"Ronnie caught the nine o'clock bus."
I nodded again. "Thank you for your help," I told the woman and began to re-trace my steps to the Blacksheare property and the Beastie.
* * *
As I walked back towards the Blacksheares, I allowed my mind to nibble at the information about this case that I was shovelling into it.
Jim Bob Varnadore was watching every pubescent boy who came through his scout troop for signs of curiosity. I had his boss wanting curious, pubescent boys when he took his religion on road trips and Jimmy Blacksheare when he was in Soul. And I had a high school coach and Sunday School teacher to the same age group. A coach with the same taste for pubescent boys as the two preachers.
I also had Jimmy coupled with Ronnie Varnadore and a younger boy named Junior - all three of them linked with Jim Bob at least. And the Youth Minister at Central Baptist had been known to have young teenaged boys come to his caravan. It was a bloody good bet that Jimmy, Ronnie, and this Junior had been regulars to Jim Bob's parties. Like the unscrupulous sexhounds they were, Larry Bishop and Coach Johnson had also attended those parties.
It didn't take me long to connect the dots. I just couldn't understand why I hadn't seen the connections earlier. I didn't just have two living and one dead paedophile involved in my case. Bloody hell! I had an operational paedophile ring. They recruited boys and used them sexually until they'd graduated high school.
This paedophile ring wasn't something that I was going to be able merely to hand Chief Nixon and walk away from. I was increasingly suspicious that the men and boys in this ring were involved in Jimmy Blacksheare's murder.
From what Billy Boy had heard at the pool hall that catered to Soul's youth, much of the male teenaged population was aware of what was going on. They well could be what was going on. Ronnie Varnadore wasn't attacked as a "faggot" at the pool hall, he was approached more like the heterosexual town slut would have been. The difference in Soul was that of intimidation and availability.
The two preachers were paedophiles since Jimmy Blacksheare was eleven or twelve - maybe longer. And the coach - a man who apparently could not teach sports tactics and strategy - could afford a Jeep?
It didn't take me a leap of faith to guess that there were videos of what had been going on in Soul the last six or more years. And that those videos were being sold. I just didn't know where.
"We're going to talk now," I growled as I pushed open the door to Larry Bishop's office unannounced. His heavy-set secretary grabbed at my arm as I pushed past her. I twisted away from her.
The preacher studied me for a moment and blinked. He seemed about to collapse and resisted the tendency with everything he had. "It's all right, Marsha. I'll speak with Mr. Goodall."
There was dead silence while Marsha decided if she could leave me with a man as pure as Larry Bishop. I saw the struggle in her face and the way her eyes went from him to me and back again. She finally decided to take some more of his words as gospel and left us, pulling the door to as she waddled out of the study.
He looked at me. It wasn't a friendly look. "Now that you have your murderer, don't you think you could leave me alone?"
"We don't have a murderer yet."
He stared blankly at me. And blinked. "You don't?" The force and majesty of his god was leaving him like a rat from a sinking ship. "I thought that Chief Nixon-?"
I smiled mirthlessly. "The chief would like to declare your youth pastor Jimmy's murderer. It'd be the political thing to do - sweep everything under the rug. People like you would like it and you'd owe him a favour. It's not going to happen."
"Why in the name of Goodness not, Mr. Goodall?"
"Jim Bob Varnadore committed suicide like I fell and broke my nose last Saturday night." I leered knowingly at him. "We both know that you sent that mountain-sized gorilla to frighten me."
Larry Bishop blanched.
"You, Jim Bob, and this Coach Johnson had some sort of paedophile ring going in this town, preacher. I'm going to find the evidence to prove it, starting with the coach." I had taken a gamble with that accusation - what Yanks are apt to call a wild shot in the dark.
His motley-white pallor and bulging eyes told me I had scored a direct hit. I wondered if he was going to remember to breathe.
"You buggered boys in this town other than Jimmy Blacksheare. You and the other two had sex parties out at Varnadore's trailer. Those boys were young, preacher. This state has a Supreme Court-approved sodomy law, but you went beyond even that. You committed statutory rape with those boys."
"You're making some wild accusations, boy," he growled, his fear hiding behind the threat. It was only the pot-bellied little preacher threatening, though. The power and majesty of his god was missing.
"You try to sell that in these parts and you're a dead man."
"There are letters to the Georgia State Bureau of Investigation, the Atlanta papers, the television stations that reach this part of the state, and to the Blacksheares."
I smiled pleasantly. "You don't want me dead, preacher. The only thing worse than what the police and the media would do to you is what the Blacksheares would do." I grinned. "They're the only people in this part of the state who don't fear you at all, aren't they? Especially now that their son is dead?"
He stared at me. His lips and jaws worked together but there was no sound for the longest time. I figured he was working through his options and finding he had none. My bluff had worked. I now had the outline of an idea of how things worked. I had my line of attack against Coach Johnson when I met him.
"How much do you want?" Larry Bishop asked in a whisper.
"To keep these outlandish suspicions to yourself."
I gazed at him and let him stew in his own fear for a moment. "I want to know who killed Jimmy Blacksheare and Jim Bob Varnadore."
"I don't know that one, Mr. Goodall," he mumbled, looking down at his hands.
"Are you sure? You might not have been in Atlanta pulling the trigger on the gun that killed Jimmy, but I can't imagine you not having strong suspicions."
"I was here with the deacons when that boy died. I was in Moultrie the next day when Jim Bob died - there's a five hundred member congregation who can tell you I was there."
"How did you know when Jim Bob died?"
He looked down at his hands. "I needed to know. I called up Charlie Nixon and asked him."
"Why did I call the chief?"
"Why did you need to know?"
"I was too close to Jim Bob. Our ministry here-" He looked away, unwilling to meet my gaze. "Our parties out at his house," he mumbled almost too softly for me to hear.
"If you didn't kill these two men, who do you think did?"
He turned back to face me, his eyes full of suspicion. "I don't know that, Mr. Goodall. I sure do wish I did, though."
"Why is that?"
"Jimmy could have been killed by someone in Atlanta. It upset me, but it didn't worry me. That's what I thought until you came down here and started asking questions. Jim Bob, though, makes the murderer somebody in Soul. The two of them together makes it seem like it's somebody who knows about what was going on with the boys and us. That could mean I'm next on his list." He tried to chuckle but failed. "I don't want to die, Mr. Goodall."
"I've heard that you find yourself a boy whenever you preach a revival out of town."
Anger flared in his eyes but quickly died as he realised I knew too much about him for it to work on me. "Now and then," he mumbled.
"Jimmy's autopsy had him seropositive, preacher. Have you had a HIV-test recently?"
His eyes bulged again. "You mean-?"
"I mean there are you, the coach, and an unknown number of boys in this town could have the virus that causes AIDS."
"Get the test." I pushed out of the chair. "A doctor has to report positive reports to the federal government, the state health department doesn't."
"Where are you going now?"
"This Coach Johnson probably has some interesting things to tell me now that I know where he fit into all this." I turned and took a step towards the door.
A new thought crashed over me. I turned, my blood threatening to freeze. "You and the other two adults - you weren't videotaping these laddies having sex with you and among themselves were you?"
"Never! Whatever gave you that idea?"
"Some paedophiles tape their sex with children. I understand there's a very lucrative market for twelve and thirteen years olds doing it - with or without adults in on the action."
"I swear!" He stared at me fearfully, beads of perspiration breaking out across his forehead. "Sweet Jesus! I never thought about anything like that. I can't imagine the others doing it either, Mr. Goodall. We loved those boys."
"If you aren't involved in these murders, how much would you pay me to keep silent about your kiddie play?"
He shuddered. "Whatever you want."
"Even a million dollars?"
He tried to choke. "It'd take a while to pull together that kind of money, Mr. Goodall. I'd have to pay you off over the next year."
"I'll think about it." I turned and had the door open before I gagged.
I drove to the police station. I would have preferred meeting Coach Johnson myself, without the intimidation of a police presence. Unfortunately, I didn't know Soul, Georgia, well and Charlie Nixon did. I stepped inside to find the same buzz-cut, jowly know-nothing manning the desk who had been there my last visit. "Chief Nixon in?"
"Yeah," he answered civilly enough, half-rose from his chair, and bellowed for the police chief. I blinked at the lack of discipline and held my silence.
Nixon looked out of his office and, seeing me, smiled. He started across the room towards me.
"Have some time?" I asked as he approached me.
He studied me as he crossed the last couple of feet that separated us. "I guess I can make some," he offered, still watching me for any signals I might give.
I didn't give any, instead I stepped through the door into the sweltering heat of south Georgia and waited for him to join me.
"We need to pay Coach Johnson a visit."
"What in the world for? Everybody's happy with Jim Bob doing it."
"I've just left Bishop. They had a paedophile ring going in your town, Chief. The two preachers and the coach used their positions to catch pubescent boys in their web."
He stared at me, his jaw agape. "You're pulling my leg?" he managed, sounding as if he were strangling.
I shook my head.
"That's sick." He looked around us, his hands balling into fists.
I was glad I was on his side.
"Those goddamned motherfucking bastards! I'll kill them!"
"Let's take a ride. And, remember, you're a cop, Charlie Nixon. No matter what any of these people have done, you still represent the law." I started for the Beastie with him following behind me - fuming silently.
He fell into the seat beside me and slammed the door behind him as I turned the key in the ignition.
We drove in silence except for his clipped directions. That was okay with me; I was trying to find a place for Coach Johnson in all this. He was into young boys with the preachers, but was he involved in the two murders? I turned on a street that meandered through a well-kept trailer park and slowed down. "He lives somewhere along here."
I looked at an unshaded street lined with single- and double-wide caravans on both sides for several blocks.
"A bit low income for a teacher, isn't it?" I asked.
"Naw. This is middle-class in Soul. Shit! I live in something about as plain - just older. And made out of real wood," he mumbled under his breath. "Look for a green Jeep, one of those with a cloth-top that comes off."
We moved slowly down the two blocks of the street looking for Jeeps. The Beastie reached the turnabout in front of the fenced pasture without our finding one.
The police chief looked quickly down both sides of the street. "There. See that trailer with a car in front?"
"Stop there. I'll ask directions."
Moments later, I watched the man step up to a screen door and talk to somebody inside the house. He was quickly back in the Beastie beside me. "Ten doors down on the right."
I counted down ten houses and studied another nondescript single-sided caravan that may have once been beige. Now, mould gave a greenish tinge to the plastic siding. There was no car. "Looks a bit deserted, don't you think?"
"Maybe the Chrysler dealership over in Waycross has his car for some reason. Cars are always breaking down." He looked down the street, his face showing his disgust. "Anyway, he's got neighbours. Maybe they know something."
We stopped in front of the house and I followed Chief Nixon to the front door. He stepped onto the concrete stoop and I stayed on the ground half a foot lower.
"How sure are you about this information, Goodall?" he asked after he pounded on Coach Johnson's door two more times.
"I interviewed Larry Bishop this morning-"
Nixon turned to stare at me. "He admitted to being a part of something like that?"
"Among other things."
"Chief, you looking for Coach Johnson?" a woman called from the stoop of the trailer next door. Both of us turned to face her.
"Yes, ma'am. You know where he is?"
She shook her head. "You boys just missed him. He came over about half an hour ago and asked me to watch his place for a while."
"Something wrong?" the chief asked as he started towards her and I followed.
"Something about his mama over in Alabama, I believe it was."
"Where in Alabama?" I asked.
"Lord! I sure don't know that - wait! I think he said it was Dothan."
"And that was half an hour ago?" Chief Nixon asked as he veered and started towards the street and the Beastie.
"Yes, sir, Chief. No more than an hour. It was during my favourite story on TV."
"Thank you, ma'am." He turned to me and said under his breath: "Let's get the hell back to the station where I have radios and other things policemen need."
"Can we drive by Central Baptist on our way back?" I asked as I turned the car on.
"What the hell for?"
"Bishop was the only one who knew I was on my way over here except for you. I don't remember you running to a telephone after I told you where we were going."
He nodded. "Take a right at the end of this street. We'll come up by the church on our way to the station."
I wheeled into the church's car park. "He's not here," I grumbled, glancing about the vacant lot.
"Looks as if the church secretary's gone too." He grinned. "Nobody's here. What'd you do, tell that piece of shit you were going to see Johnson?"
I nodded glumly.
He grinned. "He'll lay low for a while then - `til you're gone back to Atlanta."
I turned to face him and frowned. "The APB you want to put out on this Coach Johnson probably won't get us anywhere, either."
It was his turn to nod glumly. "I've still got to make the effort. Just like you did."
"So, it's back to the station for you?"
"You know the people down here, Chief," I began, following a thought that had sprung on me. "This coach, could he have killed Jimmy and then Jim Bob?"
"Naw." He scratched his head. "I guess I don't know really. I never thought of him being into young boys, either."
I nodded glumly. "I want to look about in Jim Bob Varnadore's caravan again."
"What the hell for?" He frowned as he looked over at me. "I keep trying to bury this damned mess so it doesn't stink any more than it already does and you keep digging it up, like some damned old hound that's found itself a cairn pile."
"The two preachers and the coach - they were recruiting children for sex, right?"
He nodded. "That's what I hear you saying."
"A lot of those chaps make videos of the kids having sex. They sell them to other paedophiles in this country and abroad."
He stared at me, his colour leaving his face. His jaw worked silently. There was a slight bluish tinge to his colour moments later.
"You don't look well, Chief. Should I take you to hospital?"
"Those motherfucking bastards!" he growled loudly. A string of profanity followed.
I smiled. The police chief was breathing quite well again. I noticed his colour had returned. Actually, his face had become a bright red with all the blood flowing into it.
"I'll kill them," he finally mumbled in something that approximated a normal voice.
"No, you won't."
"Why the fuck not? I could do it in broad daylight and get away with it. No jury would convict me. Not around here. Goddamn! They'd come down from that jury box and lay flowers at my feet for getting rid of that kind of shit."
"But that's not the law. That's vigilantism."
He stared at me as we pulled in front of the police department. "You know, Phil Goodall, I could learn to hate you real easy. It's hard to think of what's right when you've got something that smells to high heaven right at your feet."
He glanced out the windscreen. "Give me three minutes. I've got to get somebody who'll find somebody at the Board of Education to give us the license number to Johnson's car and then call it into the State Patrol."
"Before I forget, keep an ear open for where the Varnadore boy might be," I told him as he opened the door.
"Yeah. Billy Boy heard he was going to Jacksonville to visit relatives. His mum told me he left for Savannah. I'd like to clarify some things with him."
"Will do. Now, you wait for me. I'll be right back."
* * *
Inside the small caravan where Jim Bob Varnadore once introduced young boys to group activities, I walked into the living room and began to inspect the walls.
"What're you looking for?" Chief Nixon demanded from behind me.
"Holes in the walls - the size of a camcorder's lens. Repaired patches in the dry wall where they might be placed. Anything that would catch some very young boys doing things their mums wouldn't like."
He started on the wall beside the door. "Phil!" he called almost immediately. I looked back at him over my shoulder. He was next to the light switch beside the door.
"There's a quarter inch hole here right at eye level."
"How does the surrounding wall look?" I asked, not yet willing to give up the place I had reached on my wall.
"You can tell somebody did a repair job on it if you get close enough."
I nodded and started across the room towards him. All we needed was one makeshift cavity large enough for a camcorder. Charlie Nixon would have his whole department out here going over every square centimetre of the place if we had just one for proof.
"Got a pocket knife?" he asked.
I fished in my trousers pocket and found the Swiss army knife that had been with me since I left Great Britain. He grabbed it from my hand and began digging into the dry wall to open the slightly elevated area around the hole.
Masking tape secured a piece of dry wall to the wall. He cut through it and pulled the piece away. I stared at the lens of a camcorder placed in the cavity someone had created in the wall.
"The goddamned bastards!" he hissed as he dropped the piece of patching.
"Have your people go over these walls and the ceiling, Chief-" I paused and remembered the patrolman at the desk at the police department. "I also think you need to be here in person when they go through here."
"If they find so much as one tape and anybody sees it, some of the children in this town will be in a compromised situation."
He frowned but nodded his agreement. He snorted then. "Now we know why the coach took off like a scalded ape. I'd have had his ass in a sling for years for this-"
"Maybe you'll find him-"
"That man will disappear real good, Phil. He doesn't have the clout to come slinking back into town after you leave. Not like that slimy Larry Bishop, he ain't" He frowned. "And he ain't coming back for the new school year, either. I'll talk to Mrs. Blacksheare about him. His contract won't be renewed. He's history."
"Who're two lads named Marshall and Junior?" I asked as I slipped under the police tape and stood up.
"Who?" he asked over his shoulder as he moved on to the Beastie.
"They're two older teenagers who know Ronnie Varnadore."
"Probably Marshall Clark. He was our football team's quarterback last year. He's also the only boy I know in this town named Marshall."
"What happened to him?"
"There's got to be a dozen kids with that moniker in this town, Goodall. Shit! Even my oldest kid's called that by everybody who knows him."
"And he plays football too?"
"Sure does. If the team had anybody to play defence and a real coach, Junior and Marshall would have taken us to the State championships."
I was stuck between a rock and a hard place early on Thursday morning. Beside me, Billy Boy slept the sleep of the just - or, at least, the sated. I hadn't slept much and I finally gave up trying to get to never-never land when I saw dawn streaking the sky beyond our window. I slipped out of the motel bed, careful not to wake the lad.
As dawn became day, I sat in a plastic-covered chair and stared out the window at the heat already beginning to shimmer beyond the motel's window.
I kept remembering that the Blacksheare boy was HIV positive. I remembered he wasn't wearing protection at least the last time he had sex. That led me to imagine Tim Spencer, Ronnie Varnadore, the two preachers at Central Baptist, Coach Johnson, Junior somebody, and everybody else who had sex with Jimmy being infected too.
I wondered how many times Tim and Billy Boy or, even, Jimmy and Billy Boy found themselves together and the mood conducive? My lad said he used condoms every time, but it was a bit difficult not to suspect occasional lapses.
Billy Boy Sharpe had hustled his arse in Atlanta for two years. He was right up there with Sir John Gielgud as the world's best actor if he really didn't think his bottom needed something in it to make him happy. If there were ever a prime candidate for HIV infection, my ex-platinum Spikey was it. No matter how normal and sane he looked now.
I accepted that I really did like Billy Boy Sharpe; he had grown on me faster and more completely than I would have thought possible. But was I ready to watch him become sick and die?
I tried to force away the images of nasty purple lesions, of him losing weight. Of him going days with diarrhoea. His body becoming increasingly haggard.
They weren't willing to disappear. Instead, they were joined by images of a pneumonia-ravaged lad struggling to tell me he loved me around a ventilator tube down his throat.
I told myself he was considerably more than just a lad who liked his sex. He was intelligent - a high school graduate who had taken classes at university. I reminded myself that he had not once been remiss in insisting on protection those times we found ourselves in a sexual situation. I reminded myself that his test results would be back soon.
None of the explanations I came up with for his escape from the disease banished the images in my mind of the man dying piece by piece.
I finally admitted to myself I was more than just fond of him. I was in love with him. That didn't banish the disaster looming on our horizon all together; but it did let me know I would try and find the strength to be with him if the disease did sweep over us and destroy him.
"I don't think I want to know what you're thinking, Phil," Billy Boy said.
Startled by his sudden arrival at the door to my private hell, I looked up to find him standing beside me. He had a concerned look in his eyes as he searched my face for an answer to his unspoken question.
"You're right, you don't," I answered, trying to keep my tone light and failing.
"I'm ready to settle down, Phil; and I want to do it with you," he said, his voice quiet but pleading. "If you're having second thoughts, I don't have much to pack up."
"Would you really leave me?" I asked, focusing on his eyes and letting them hold me.
"If you want me to. That's the meaning of love for me - you've got to be ready to let the other person go."
"And if I don't want you to go?"
"I'll stay as long as you want me to." A light of recognition flared behind his eyes. "I know what this is all about!"
His hands gripped my wrist as he squatted before me. "Honey, I'm always bloody careful," he told me calmly in the most American accent I could imagine. We both laughed at his use of the British vulgarity. He kissed me before standing up.
"Billy Boy, I-"
"Don't, Phil! You've got every right to be worried - I accept that. That's why I went to the Gay Centre to be tested. We'll know in another ten days. And we'll continue to use rubbers every time until I've got a clean bill of health."
He paused, thinking through his next words. "If you ever use that thing with anybody else after we know I'm safe, you use a rubber. Don't tell me about it, just protect me from it."
"What about if you-?"
"I've already fallen for you. But, okay, we both pack a spare raincoat - just in case."
He sat primly beside me. "I need a kiss, Phil - but keep your hands to yourself until one of us buys some more of those damned things."
The telephone rang beside me as I took his hand, fully intending to pull him to me. To kiss. To hold even.
"Mr. Goodall?" a young, well-modulated male voice asked. I didn't place it immediately, even though it was familiar. Despite its control, it was a voice full of fear and close to hysteria.
I was intrigued. "This is he."
"This is Ronnie Varnadore, Mr. Goodall - we met over at the Blacksheares the other day."
"I remember you."
"I - we've got to talk."
"What about, Ronnie?"
"I didn't tell you everything I know, Mr. Goodall."
"I've already surmised that."
"I'm scared. It was one thing for Jimmy to get killed - that was in Atlanta. But, now, Cousin Jim Bob's dead too. I've got to be next."
I could hear the strain in the lad's voice. "I don't want to die, Mr. Goodall."
"Who killed Jim Bob?"
"I'm the only one left who can put it all together for you," he said, skirting my question in pursuit of his own agenda. "You've got to get me out of here - protect me."
"I'm not telling anybody anything 'til I'm safe." His voice turned conniving.
"I'm only ten minutes away, Ronnie. Who are you afraid of?"
"I can't run. If I just sit here, I'm going to die like Jimmy and Jim Bob did."
The boy's fear returned and it was bloody obvious he wasn't going to tell me anything over the telephone. "Where are you now?" I asked in resignation.
"I'm at home."
"Are you safe there?"
"I - probably not."
"How about the Blacksheares, Ronnie? Would you be safe there?"
There was a short pause. "I could get over there. Through the woods - nobody'd see me. But I don't want them to see me, either."
"Okay. Go there. Stand just inside the woods. I'm leaving now. Stay there."
"I'll wait in the woods 'til I see your car. You better hurry, though, or I'm dead meat."
"Oh, shit!" the boy gasped, pure fear soaking his voice. "You?"
Our connection went dead as the telephone was hung up at his end. "Ronnie?" I called stupidly into the receiver.
I hung up the phone and turned to Billy Boy. "That was Ronnie Varnadore," I told him. "There's about to be another murder - if it hasn't already happened." I glanced about the room trying to banish the shock enveloping me. "Jesus!" I felt suddenly and completely helpless.
"I'm going with you, Phil," Billy Boy called as he headed for the suitcases.
"There isn't any time for that," I growled.
"Call that cop buddy of yours and get dressed."
Call Chief Nixon. Right. At least, Ronnie had a chance of staying alive the next ten minutes if Charlie Nixon was protecting him.
The chief wasn't in. The officer at the desk told me Charlie Nixon had taken the morning off to shop with his family. I glanced at the travel alarm and saw it was barely nine o'clock. I told the officer who I was and I suspected Ronnie Varnadore needed protection - like yesterday. He promised to get right on it.
Billy Boy was pulling on his shoes as I returned the phone to its cradle. "Get dressed, Phil."
"Fill me in on this mess," my lad said over the rush of air whooshing into the Beastie's opened top and sides as I drove towards the Blacksheares.
I took my eyes off the road for a moment to stare at him in surprise.
"Watch the road," he growled. "I want to be around a while to love you and keep you straight."
"I doubt I'll ever be that," I mumbled as I turned my attention back to the double lanes of macadam.
"Not if I have anything to do with it," he shot back loud enough for me to hear him. "Now, open up. I want to know every sordid detail about this sweet little angel's love life before somebody offed him."
I quickly laid out the case for him and he asked some questions that didn't cause any light bulbs to go off in my head.
He sat back against the door and chewed his lip and I kept the Beastie to sixty as we stayed on the narrow two-lane carriageway passing through peanut farms that were as large as an English shire.
"What do you think?" I asked brightly, intending to rub his lack of vision in during what was left of our drive.
"You've had two choices all along - this polyester peacock of a preacher or the cop," he offered, refusing to concede he was out of his depth. "My bet's on the cop."
"Chief Nixon?" I growled in surprise. "You can't be serious."
"Who's left then, Phil? You started out with Tim, two preachers, and the cop. You added a football coach. The moment people started dying in Soul, that let Tim off the hook. That boy wouldn't come back here come hell or high water. You also lost your best bet among the preachers a couple of days ago - with his head blown off. And the coach took out to parts unknown as soon as he heard you were talking about twinkies."
What he was saying was true. I didn't believe Jim Bob Varnadore killed himself either. "Why would the man lie on his bed and let Charlie Nixon put a shotgun in his mouth?" I asked. "I'd have been fighting like the damned Royal Marines."
"What does a billy club do, Phil? That preacher didn't have to be awake when his brains got splattered on the wall behind that bed."
"A truncheon?" He nodded. "Those things went out when street kids started carrying uzis."
"Anything hard across the back of the head then."
"It would have left blood and even a bruise-"
"So what if you were going to blow the whole back of his head off?"
He had me there. The fact was Jim Bob could have had multiple contusions and I didn't know what else when that shotgun went off in his mouth. The body had laid there for several days, maybe more, before we found it. A shotgun blast would leave precious little of the brain and even the skull to make much sense of. And the window air conditioning unit running at full blast would have thrown off the body's ways of telling a trained forensic examiner how long it was dead.
Charlie Nixon was suddenly looking as if he had several difficult questions to answer.
I found myself wondering why the chief had never had the state scene of crime unit do its thing with the youth preacher's body. Good politics hell! If he had a gun collection - and he was a grunt in 'Nam - maybe he brought home a U.S. Army-issue Colt. He'd know about hollow-point bullets too.
That was the real question here. There was little question that Charlie Nixon had opportunity in both cases. It wouldn't be difficult for a police chief to pretend to take a subordinate officer's shift even as he drove to Atlanta and killed Jimmy. But where was the motive?
And while I drove the fifteen miles out to the Blacksheares so that we could trot through the woods to Ronnie Varnadore's house, what was he doing to the lad who had some answers for me but was scared to death?
Only, what would Charlie Nixon's motive be?
Billy Boy was elated to have stumped me as I turned into the Blacksheares' drive. The grin on his face said it all.
I had remained silent as I worked my way through my feelings for the small town constable trying to keep his town relatively clean while creatures like the preachers and coach destroyed its children. By the time I was willing to accept the police chief as a potential killer if I could find a motive, Billy Boy was as agitated as a well-trained hound ready to forget its manners.
"Say it is Chief Nixon," I offered turning to him as I released my seat belt. "What possible motive did the man have?"
He sighed as loudly as the well-trained dog finding a tree with no time to spare.
"Jimmy was porking his kid," Billy Boy told me triumphantly.
"This Ronnie guy was coming up to Atlanta weekly to party, wasn't he?"
"And he was always bringing some kid with him, wasn't he?"
Again, I nodded.
"What's that boy's name, Phil?"
"Junior something. Tim didn't know him, remember?"
"Sure. He was several years younger than Tim. Boys in their mid- and late-teens don't associate much with kids even a couple of years younger than them. Remember Tim said the boy was around fourteen or fifteen when he left this town?"
I nodded but he could see I was dubious. "You don't think much of my logic, do you?"
"The only name Tim had for the boy was Junior. That doesn't make his last name Nixon."
"Phil!" The exasperation in Billy Boy's voice was scathing. "I'll give you angel-faced Jimmy was a slut down here. But a five hour drive just to get a sure piece? It ain't too likely.
"The chief's kid was getting some of this Jimmy Blacksheare down here - I'll bet he was just as much a tight end as the Varnadore kid or Jimmy was. He was caught up by the coach or one of the preachers. He couldn't put out down here for anybody else - people would know, and his daddy would kill him. So, he goes to Atlanta with this Ronnie to party like the big boys do."
"A lot of men name their sons after themselves," I told him stepping out of the car. "Why does this Junior have to be Chief Nixon's namesake?"
"The chief said his kid was football all the way, Phil. The boy I met at the pool hall was a jock and he was with a kid named Marshall. The boy liked dick but couldn't let it be known in this one-horse town. Jimmy was the only guy Junior let get behind him. And he had taken off, fed up to the gills with the shit the townspeople dropped on him. Almost transgendered Ronnie knows where Jimmy is and goes to see him often. Junior decides he wants dick up his ass enough to ride with Ronnie." He grinned. "I'll even bet Junior and Ronnie only took their trips when the chief pulled night shift."
"From what Tim said, Ronnie and this Junior were regular visitors to Jimmy's flat in Atlanta. If you're right, why did Nixon suddenly start shooting people?"
He vaulted over the Beastie's side and joined me at the beginning of the walk. "Think, Phil. It's as plain as the nose on your face. The dead preacher and Ronnie are related. They've both dick crazy - Jimmy's dick. They talk- and he talks. Or Nixon thought he might."
I glanced over at him, unable to imagine any man telling anybody he's messing around with chicken, but especially a preacher. Talk about jail bait, and Georgia does tend to become a bit up-tight about under-aged laddies bending over with grown-ups behind them.
"Phil, most of us gay boys are gossips. The more nelly we are, the more we want the shit on everybody. This Jim Bob was as nelly as his cousin is. Jim Bob wasn't about to keep his mouth shut."
"Who would he talk to?"
"Phil! You've got three kids we know are queerer than three-dollar bills - Jimmy, Ronnie, and Junior. The one adult they all know and get along with on the queer level is the dead preacher. He's Auntie Jim Bob. No football player's going to let his coach know he bends over, unless he's bending over for him. Do you really think they and the head preacher were the only six people in Soul who were in on this?"
He shook his head as we started towards the door. "There were other kids in this town getting relief before and after Jimmy left - I learnt that at that pool hall, remember? They had Jimmy and this Ronnie - and Auntie Jim Bob too. They got their dicks sucked and humped boyass. Junior didn't have any problem with those guys knowing he was like them - taking the easy ass he could get. He just didn't want them knowing he liked a boy behind him too. Jimmy Blacksheare was his one outlet for that."
"Jimmy had the two preachers, Tim, Ronnie, the coach-"
"Jimmy did. He also had the whole football team too, remember? Jimmy played head games, Phil. Most gay boys in a town like this one would never dare play his games. There were other teenagers in their set - that's for sure. You also had three grown-ups watching for curious little boys to add to the group. Some place off the beaten track like this bungalow you said Jim Bob had - that was a great place to get together now and then for some heavy duty fun.
"Somebody putting out who wasn't supposed to, that kind of shit would spread like wildfire. It'd spread out to others on the periphery of the heavy-duty queens Jimmy, Ronnie, and Jim Bob were. To the football players who went out there - guys who told themselves they popped another guy's ass only because they were horny and their girl wasn't giving them any. Shit! This whole town would know about Junior getting plugged."
It made a warped kind of sense. I had to give Billy Boy that. Chief Nixon going around killing off the men who actually saw his kid doing it, starting with the manipulative bastard who first got to the town's young lads. A crazy sort of sense because I couldn't see Ronnie or anybody else still hanging around and keeping quiet the moment murder came to Soul.
It made even more sense if, somehow, the chief had found out Jimmy was HIV-infected. I suspected I'd go berserk myself if I thought somebody had infected my son if I had one.
Only, neither Billy Boy's theory nor my addition to it explained why the chief hadn't gone after Tim Spencer in the beginning. I'd have cleaned up Atlanta and any information leaks there before starting to clean house in Soul.
TO BE CONTINUED...