by Dave MacMillan
There was a chance Ronnie had somehow made his way to the Blacksheares, in spite of his last words before our connection was broken. Billy Boy had successfully destroyed Chief Nixon's credibility with me for the moment. I wasn't interested in having Soul's chief constable help me find the lad. Billy Boy or I might end up dead and neither prospect appealed to me.
Jimmy's parents weren't expecting me or the young man standing beside me when Raymond Blacksheare opened the door to us.
There was only the slightest hesitation while he tried to decide how to handle me and the lad he had to assume was my lover and, then, if he had hired into the public display of homosexuality now appearing on his doorstep. He made his decision quickly, handling it well. "Do come in, gentlemen," he offered, holding the door open for us.
"Have you seen Ronnie this morning?" I asked as I entered the house.
Eleanor Blacksheare joined us from the patio. She smiled at me and reached out a hand expecting mine to meet it and shake it. "This is such a surprise, Mr. Goodall." She made a production of noticing Billy Boy as she dropped my hand. "And who is this handsome young man?"
My lad returned her smile as he intercepted her hand, even as his face flushed slightly at the compliment. He introduced himself and took over the social amenities while I helplessly wondered if Ronnie Varnadore was being murdered as we went through the niceties of Southern-style civilised behaviour.
I gave him all of a minute to show the Blacksheares how well his mother had brought him up. "I had a call from Ronnie Varnadore this morning," I told the two Blacksheares. "He was afraid someone was going to kill him."
"My word!" the senior Blacksheare said, telegraphing his surprise. "Who?"
"He wouldn't tell me. He wanted protection. We ended up agreeing to meet here."
"Why in the world?" he asked, imagining I now suspected murderers and murders intruding on the tranquillity of his property. Not even Jimmy had done that to his family.
"He said something of making his way over here through the woods."
"Of course," Eleanor Blacksheare said brightly, "the boys used the woods all the time to visit each other when they were younger."
"But we haven't seen him, Mr. Goodall," Raymond Blacksheare observed quietly, shooting down most of my hopes for Ronnie's continued good health.
I felt the queasiness in the pit of my stomach that I sometimes felt when the worst possible thing I could imagine looked more and more as if it were happening.
I started towards the patio, ignoring further social amenities. Blacksheare followed as I expected he would. Billy Boy made social excuses I didn't bother to listen to and caught up to us before we had reached the first tree.
I explained much of what I knew and suspected as we made our way through the thicket, omitting only the sexual liaisons between victims and suspects and his son.
"And you think the murderer is either Reverend Bishop or Chief Nixon?" he asked as the wall of trees began to thin once we were past the creek. I saw the mouldy caravan in the clearing ahead of us.
I nodded. "It's possible," I said, hedging my position somewhat.
"Why would either man kill Jimmy?"
"They were both-" I paused and tried to think of ways of explaining that delicately.
"They were both sleeping with him?" he supplied. I reddened.
"The preacher provided your son with his financial support in Atlanta," I explained quietly.
It was his turn to be embarrassed. "He had what he wanted," he managed a moment later. "Why kill my son? Why would the chief?"
"Jimmy was-" Billy Boy started but remembered the man with us was the dead lad's father. "He was doing the chief's son, Mr. Blacksheare."
The man nodded silently. Suddenly, he chuckled. "I thought of killing every one of the bastards who was getting a piece of Jimmy - only, I quickly realised there probably wouldn't be a man or boy left in this town after I was through. Jimmy wasn't about to stop until he could control every man in this town - and shove my nose and Mrs. Blacksheare's in it."
He stopped and gazed at me. "Charlie Nixon isn't like that, though."
"Why do you say that?" I asked, grasping at the straw of support he was providing. I liked Nixon.
"Charlie's gruff. He won't put up with anything he thinks is wrong. But he's honest and he's fair - fairer than me or most of the men in this town. If he's got a fault, that's got to be it. Besides, that man doesn't have a mean bone in his body."
"Finding out your kid's on the receiving end could send him over the cliff," Billy Boy told him.
"Not Charlie. I won't say he wouldn't think about it - only, if he did, it didn't even go as far as my thoughts did along those lines. Charlie believes in the law - a lot more than most people. He wouldn't take it into his own hands - even if his family's involved."
"What about this lad's parents?" I asked, indicating the trailer ahead of us.
"There's only his mama." Blacksheare smiled ruefully. "Ronnie was a change of life baby. His daddy died of a heart attack when he was a year old, and his mama's now nearly sixty. She can't keep up with him and hasn't tried for the past several years - since about the time he became a teenager."
"Would she be around this morning then, do you think?" I pursued the subject, remembering Ronnie's last few words before our connection was broken and hoping that the woman I met several days ago hadn't been endangered too.
"She probably stayed over at her sister's last night. The woman's got cancer and it's in its end stages from what I hear. Mrs. Varnadore's been taking care of her the past couple of months."
Halfway to the caravan, I was struck by the silence surrounding us. Birds chirped, insects droned, and a breeze I couldn't feel sighed in the upper branches of the pine trees behind us. But, for nine thirty on an already hot, late-August Thursday morning, the Varnadore property was far more silent than I expected.
The back door of the trailer was open and only the screen door kept the insects out. That bothered me for the several moments it took me to realise I saw no signs of an air conditioner. The windows facing us were all open to catch whatever breeze might blow by.
"The Varnadores weren't too flush with cash?" I asked as we reached the steps to the back porch.
"They're good people, even little Ronnie," Blacksheare answered. "But they're poorer than church mice - the whole family, including cousins. Mrs. Varnadore's taken in sewing to make ends meet since her husband died - it's been that and Ronnie's Social Security benefits for them."
The manufactured homes that I'd seen advertised on television in Atlanta had always seemed palatial and sparkling clean. They'd certainly given me the impression that they were at least the size of my small house. And, of course, they were always furnished with what looked to be nice furniture.
The Varnadores' caravan definitely had seen better days. The utilities room fed immediately into a kitchen that opened upon a small sitting room. A front door opened off the sitting room. Along the short hall, one bedroom faced the toilet/bath while the door to a second one stood at the end of the hallway.
We marched the length of the trailer, heading towards the bedrooms. I opened the door of the smaller room, guessing that it would be Ronnie's.
"This boy's one real queen in the making," Billy Boy remarked from behind me once I was in the room, taking in the doilies on the dresser and definitely frilly curtains. "How old did you say she was?" Only the golf shirt hung across a chair in front of a bookshelf suggested that it was a boy's room.
I turned back to him and Blacksheare standing just inside the room. "Eighteen, I think."
Blacksheare nodded his agreement with my guess.
I didn't see a phone in the room and surmised that Ronnie had called from the living room. Another glance over his room gave me the impression he hadn't managed to return to it after our conversation was disconnected.
I stepped around the other two and moved to the sitting room where I hoped to find the family telephone. If there was going to be any signs of a scuffle in this house, much less where the lad might be now, I was going to find it there.
The phone sat on a small table beside a large, comfortable chair upholstered in virgin nauga-hyde. The heavy plastic upholstery had broken in several places along the cushion's seams and was beginning to peel away. The chair was positioned in such a way that someone sitting in it would have to turn a bit more than ninety degrees to see the front door and forty-five to see down to the utility room.
The telephone was a strange triangular thing in an ungodly green. The wire from the telephone to its jack at the base of the wall lay on the floor, neatly disconnected from the phone.
Either Ronnie Varnadore was playing games at nine o'clock this morning or someone had surprised him while he was speaking with me. Someone who slipped the wire from its plastic jack in the base of the telephone. I didn't think even a lad Ronnie's age would come up with such games at such an ungodly hour of the morning; but I liked the image my second option brought me even less.
"What in hell was he doing with clothesline in the living room?" Billy Boy grunted and knelt before a piece of rope I hadn't seen.
"Don't touch it," I commanded and stepped to where he was kneeling.
The piece of rope was frayed at both ends and it didn't take much British ingenuity to surmise it had been cut by a dull knife - or, more accurately, sawed by such a knife. I got closer to the ancient linoleum floor where I could better see any other strands that might be there.
"What're you looking for, Phil?" Billy Boy asked in a whisper, staring down at me and unsure if he should call attention to my close inspection of the floor or not.
"Strands of that rope," I told him in a normal voice.
"That close to the floor? What are they - microscopic?"
"I forgot my contacts this morning in the rush to get on the road."
"Sweet Jesus! And you drove us here?" He was on his hands and knees immediately, but his face was a lot further from the floor than mine.
I had found another reason to hate growing old.
"Is this fuzzy stuff what you're looking for?" he asked a moment later.
I peered closely at the speck on the floor and nodded, deciding investigating the scene of a crime wasn't the easiest thing to do with your love interest in tow.
"Shouldn't I call Charlie?" Blacksheare asked, saving the day by keeping me from exploding at Billy Boy or otherwise showing my arse.
"He's taken the day off," I told him.
Blacksheare dialled anyway.
Whether Charlie Nixon was a multiple murderer or not, he was still the local constable. There were a score of men in his police department and, even if Billy Boy was right about him being a murderer, he certainly wasn't about to let them all in on his rampage to protect his son's name in this town. Besides, there was something about the man, something men learnt to pick up in other men as they grew older, that made me agree with Blacksheare about the police chief.
He'd be a politician in a heart beat, especially if doing so took the heat off him and his. He did that with Jim Bob Varnadore's death, immediately decreeing it a suicide. Sure, I faulted him for it; I was getting paid to find the killer and making a murder into a suicide didn't help me or the victim. But he was trying to protect himself, his son, and a good portion of his town's male population. Charlie Nixon was an honest man.
The chief could tear Soul apart looking for Ronnie. I couldn't. If the Varnadore boy was still alive, he needed what Charlie Nixon could do for him now. Or he'd not be breathing long.
"I caught him at home," Blacksheare announced. "He was just going out the door."
While we waited for the police to arrive, Billy Boy let his curiosity get the best of him. I didn't even know he'd left the room until he called from Ronnie's room. Blacksheare and I rushed to him, vying against each other to be the first to arrive. My lad was staring into the opened drawer of one of the night tables.
"Look at this, Phil," he called without looking up. I moved into the room, leaving Raymond Blacksheare standing in the doorway watching us.
I reached Billy Boy and looked into the drawer. And found multiple portraits of Andrew Jackson in green gazing up past my shoulder. "Bloody Jesus!" I groaned as I stared at the wad of twenty dollar bills.
"There's got to be a thousand dollars there," Billy Boy mumbled in awe.
I glanced back at Blacksheare then - in time to see him wrestling shock from his face. "I thought you said these people were poor?"
"They are, Mr. Goodall. If either one of the Varnadores had more than a twenty dollar bill at any one time, I'd be surprised."
"There's a lot more than that here in this drawer," I told him and fought down the urge to pick up the wad of banknotes to count them.
Chief Nixon sent one of his backup officers into the house and gave me a hurt look as he took the two steps of the front porch. "I heard that you called," he told me. It was a little after ten o'clock.
"Did your man at the station also tell you I was afraid for this young man's safety?"
Nixon went white and quickly glanced at Blacksheare standing in the living room looking as if he wished he knew what to do to be useful. "I was told you said something about the Varnadore faggot being in some trouble," he told me in a low voice.
"Ronnie called me just before nine this morning. He said he knew who was doing the killing but wasn't about to talk until I was here to protect him. It sounded as if someone surprised him during the call; then, before he could say anything more, the line went dead."
"Jesus!" he groaned. "Why couldn't it have been that pussy Jim Bob? Everybody was happy with that one."
Billy Boy was on the porch watching us. More succinctly, he was watching the police chief. I could see the curiosity in his face, as if he were some scientist with some strange bug under the microscope.
Well, laddy, I wanted to say to him, this is the man you think is doing all the murdering - how does he look?
Instead, I made sure Charlie Nixon thought he had all of my attention. I didn't want to draw anybody's attention to the lad I had just invited to share my life, especially with somebody who might know a lot more about murder than I thought he did.
"What now?" the police chief asked me.
"We need to find Ronnie Varnadore. Quickly."
"Good idea," he answered. "Any ideas where and with whom?"
I gazed at him for long moments. I wasn't exactly sure I knew how to tell a man with a pistol strapped to his hip that he was a suspect to a kidnapping and possible murder. And I didn't want to think about what might have happened to Ronnie Varnadore.
He met my gaze and slowly reddened. "Okay, Phil, I was with my wife and two youngest kids at home when you said Ronnie called you. We had just started to get cleaned up to go shopping at the mall in Waycross. Does that give me an alibi?"
I nodded. Embarrassed. But also relieved.
"Don't you have a son - a teenager?" my lad asked from behind Charlie Nixon.
"He plays football, doesn't he?"
Nixon glanced over his shoulder at a very young looking Billy Boy Sharpe. "He's our best running back. With a line in front of him, he could be the best in the state," he finished, turning back to face me.
I tried to ignore the smug, satisfied look that took over Billy Boy's face as he met my eyes. I hoped I succeeded because Nixon was facing me, pride in his son written all over his face; but anybody within a hundred yards could have picked up on the satisfied, cherubic face of my lad.
"Was he home last night?" Billy Boy asked.
Nixon blinked and turned to look at Billy Boy Sharpe more closely. "He spent the night with a friend."
"He does that a lot, doesn't he?"
"Junior's a teenager, almost seventeen," Chief Nixon answered, turning back to face me, his pride now mixed with curiosity in every line of his face. "You gotta loosen the reins a little on a boy that age so he can show you what he's got."
He glanced back at Billy Boy and, then, back to me. I could almost hear the whirring of his brain cells as connections began to click. "I think I need to give you a word to the wise, Goodall," he said, his voice lower. "I mean, I'm not going to get hot and bothered or anything. But you need to be pretty careful who you're seeing when they're as young as this boy is." His nod was towards Billy Boy.
"Chief-" My housemate said, stepping between us and facing the policeman, "I turned twenty-one last month and have an Arkansas driver's license to prove it. I'll give you my mother's name and number in Helena if you want to check me out."
Nixon reddened and I felt sorry for him. This seemed to be his day to be embarrassed. But I was proud of Billy Boy Sharpe too - he was a feisty lad.
"I'm sorry," Nixon told him. "I didn't mean anything by it."
"Don't worry, sir, I didn't take offence." Billy Boy chuckled. "I've got pretty used to people thinking I'm younger than I am - especially in bars."
"I can understand why," the chief told him, a smile threatening his lips as he made the mental adjustment to accept my lad as a man and, thus, as an equal.
"Let's get back to Ronnie," I told them before they started comparing notes and, as Southerners are wont, finding they were related to each other, albeit ten or more times removed.
Nixon nodded. "If you accept that I'm not involved, what do you suggest?"
"If not you, then it's the preacher," Billy Boy said, laying it on the line for us.
Nixon rubbed his chin for a moment. "I'm inclined to agree with you. He has more to lose than I do - in this town or anywhere else."
"Only-?" Billy Boy said.
Nixon chuckled and nodded his head. "You're from the South all right, young man. There's always a condition. Okay, here's the way it is: Larry Bishop is powerful in this town-"
"Why?" I asked, trying to imagine the bantam rooster I'd met being anything but an object of derision. And forgetting for the moment he could rile at least one yokel up enough that I had my nose broken.
"A lot of people think he speaks to and for God. More than one man's got on his bad side and had himself boycotted out of business because of it. All Larry Bishop has to do is say you aren't right with the Almighty and his people steer well-clear of you."
"Bloody hell!" I groaned, just beginning to realise how badly I had misread the preacher.
"How do you think he was able to keep Jim Bob on as youth minister for all these years?" Nixon asked, driving his point home. "Everybody with any sense knew what that man was about."
"You're saying we're not going to be able to look around the church?" I asked.
"Not there, not the pastorum, not even the grounds." Nixon thought for a moment. "Leastwise, I'm not. I've got to live in this town. There'd have to be a body for me to be able to take that preacher on and have half a chance of coming out on top."
"May Billy Boy and I snoop about?"
"Sure. You just aren't going to have any active back up." He grinned. "If I have to pull you in to keep you alive, I'll get you out of town in one piece."
"Thanks a whole bunch," Billy Boy groused but looked as if he believed the policeman. I did too.
It was past eleven when we connected with Blacksheare behind the Varnadore caravan and started back across the clearing towards the woods and his house. Chief Nixon and his men were doing police things inside. As we started across the clearing behind the trailer, Billy Boy noticed two PVC pipes stuck in the ground several yards apart. He nudged me as we began to pass them. "That's where the clothesline came from," he said and I stopped to look at the pipes.
He took another full step and was into a second one while I stopped and turned towards the pipes. Blacksheare was ahead of both of us as he had been when we first came through the clearing.
That's when the shot came.
Reflex had me dropping to the ground almost the same instance I heard it. Billy Boy groaned and I glanced to where he'd been.
He was holding his right shoulder and collapsing where he stood. About where my heart would have been if I hadn't stopped and turned to look at the two forlorn plastic pipes.
Blacksheare turned. He looked back at us blankly. "Get your bloody arse down!" I yelled at him and crawled as rapidly as a fifty year old man could to where Billy Boy now lay.
I heard voices yelling behind me and men running. In a remote part of my brain, the noise sounded more like a company of Gurkhas storming Malay rebels than four policemen. That awareness, however, was as remote as the one of a would-be killer somewhere in the woods ahead of us. My Billy Boy was down and, for all I knew, might even be dead.
"Let's see," I said as I reached him and lifted his hand from his shoulder. His oxford shirt was already red with blood and it was spreading fast. I started to unbutton it.
"It hurts - Jesus," he groaned as I grew tired of buttons and tore the fabric of the shirt from the wound.
"You're a tough street-kid," I told him, "this is a piece of cake for a lad like you."
"Asshole," he mumbled and tried to grin. "Why do you think I took up with an old fart like you?"
"You don't want to have to be tough any more?" I offered, trying to keep up our pretence.
From what I could see, he had taken a clean hit, between the clavicle and the beginning of the rib cage. I told myself there was only meat where the bullet hit him - muscles and tendons. I knew, however, there was an artery somewhere in there too, leading out to his arm.
There was a hell of a lot of blood and that scared me until I realised it wasn't pumping out of the wound. It took another long moment to accept that meant the bullet missed the artery. Billy Boy'd be sore for several weeks but he'd live. I tore a large swatch of cloth from his shirt and began trying to staunch the flow of blood.
He watched me as I destroyed his shirt and his eyes stayed on my face when I lifted his shoulder as gently as I could and padded the hole in his back. As I returned to what was left of the candy-apple striped oxford for a strip to hold the two presses against his wounds, he asked: "Am I going to make it, Phil?"
"I make a lousy medic, love," I told him, "but I think so."
"Jesus!" Charlie Nixon groaned as he reached us and saw Billy Boy's wound.
"It was worse than this a minute ago," Billy Boy managed.
"I've got the county EMT on its way," the chief told us. "And our doc's on duty at the hospital - he's good." He glanced at me. "He patched you up the other day."
"Everybody else okay?" I asked, tying the presses together.
"Yeah. Whoever it was must have got just the one shot off and hightailed it."
I looked up to meet his eyes. "No trail?"
"No nothing, Phil."
I felt every nasty emotion available to the human animal flood over me. "I want this one!"
"You'll get him," Nixon assured me. "But why did he shoot Billy Boy here?"
"The killer was aiming for me," I growled. "Billy Boy stepped into the line of fire at the same time I stopped and turned to look at something."
The doctor in Accident and Emergency didn't rattle bones or burn gods-awful concoctions to ward off evil spirits, though my prejudices against small-town medicine suggested he would. It took several minutes watching the man minister to Billy Boy before I accepted he would pass for a competent medical doctor - even if Soul were in the deepest American outback. The nurse helping him passed muster as well.
She actually told me my lad was going to live and that I could have him back in a couple of hours - by three o'clock at the latest. They wanted to put a pint or two of blood in him to replace what he lost. There was also something about heavy-duty antibiotics to cut down on the risk of infection. That was going to be intravenous as was the blood.
After a couple of hours, I could have him back - almost as good as new.
When I asked about expenses, the nurse patted me on the back and told me the Blacksheares had already called the hospital and promised payment. With that, very firmly but nicely, she pushed me out of the room and told me to take a hike.
I sat back against the seat once I was in the Beastie. Shock set in then, crashing over me like a tidal wave. I started to shake and couldn't stop. I was instantly freezing, though I sat in the heat of a south Georgia August. I desperately wanted a drink. Bloody hell!! I wanted to commune with the whole bottle.
Never, not once in more than fifty years of living, had someone tried to kill me. Except Jerry with his V-1 and V-2 rockets the first couple of years of my life - but that hadn't had personal overtones that this did.
Here, in deepest, darkest Georgia someone had. Except for me deciding to look at the pipes between which a clothesline had once stretched, they would have succeeded. Billy Boy Sharpe had quite unintentionally walked into the path of the speeding bullet meant for me and was hit. Thank God he was going to be all right.
"You okay?" Charlie Nixon asked from beside me.
It took me several minutes to get my heartbeat and breathing back onto a recognisable scale and approaching normality before I could face him and say: "Don't do that to a chap who's just escaped being murdered, unless you want him dead from a massive coronary."
Nixon laughed. "The doc says your boy's going to make it."
"Who shot him?"
"That's the big question, Goodall. I suspect you're close to the answer." He looked at the sprawling single-storey brick building that was the hospital. "It wasn't Coach Johnson, though."
"Yeah. The cops over in Dothan spotted his Jeep parked at his mama's-"
"So, he's in jail then?"
Charlie Nixon continued to study the hospital and I finally realised that he was avoiding looking at me. "I pulled the APB, Goodall. I'd have had to have at least one file with one kid's name in it to justify asking cops to arrest him for messing with boys. That kind of thing ain't safe to have around my office."
I shrugged. The police chief knew his problems. At least, Coach Johnson was no longer an active suspect in my murder case. But Larry Bishop was.
"And you need all the evidence in to go after Bishop yourself-?"
Nixon shrugged. "That's political reality and I've managed to come to terms with it." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Though I can't for the life of me understand why the man didn't stop with Jim Bob - it got dead and buried when they put that piece of shit in the ground a couple of days ago."
"Maybe you go a bit daft spending your life looking for new ways to scare people every week," I suggested and turned to the reality of a missing Ronnie Varnadore. "If you were the preacher where would you put that lad's body?" I asked.
"You think he's dead?"
"This man doesn't play with his victim as a cat would. He kills him-" I remembered the shot meant for me that Billy Boy'd taken. "Or tries to."
"He lives in the house next to the church, that's the pastorum. And they're having a homecoming dinner over on the church grounds this afternoon."
I looked up at him directly. "He hasn't had time to get rid of the body is what I hear you saying."
Charlie Nixon nodded slowly, a grin spreading across his face.
"He got to Ronnie at around nine this morning, Chief. That's pretty early."
"He had a meeting which started at nine thirty and it's a fifteen minute ride out to the Varnadore place - and fifteen minutes back to town. Besides, we didn't find blood or any other indications that he did away with him there."
"You ever pull a gun on somebody, tie him up, and get him into a car when he's not being helpful? It takes a while to do all that - and I hear he was at the church, smiling and greeting the people he was meeting with when the first one arrived."
I stared at the policeman. "Are you trying to tell me he's got the lad's body in his car?"
"There, the church, or the pastorum," he agreed. "That meeting didn't break up 'til right after eleven. The homecoming dinner started at noon. I don't think he'd have the opportunity to take Ronnie into either of the buildings - not with all those people milling around. Bishop's played cagey all along; he wouldn't blow it getting caught carrying a body in his arms for anybody to see."
"With him having all those church people around him, could he have got free to drive out here and shoot at me?"
"That was right after eleven; they'd have been just starting that dinner. I figure he was glad-handing all over the grounds."
"And nobody would notice him leaving - say, with the intent to drop the body off at its home?"
"Seeing us he decided it was time to get rid of one particular British subject who already knew about him and Jimmy?"
Again, Nixon nodded.
"Let's go to church, Chief."
"I'll drive the prowl car over there, maybe do some glad-handing myself, while you scare the preacher shitless."
"You'll be there, though?"
"You're not exactly going in alone, Phil; you'll have back up - of a sort."
Clouds were roiling in from the west and moving closer to Soul as I parked the Beastie between two Cadillacs in the treeless, macadamised car park behind Central Baptist Church at one forty-five. It was muggier than a steam bath and just as hot. Lightning snaked across the western sky. I counted more than three dozen other cars before I went in search of what might be left of the picnic the church was having for its faithful. Humid heat had made the macadam soft and I felt it pulling at the soles of my shoes with each step I took.
I wondered what Larry Bishop and his Baptists had against shade trees before I saw his polyester, neon-blue jacket in the midst of six or seven women. I let the thought go and started towards the jacket.
I came up behind the short, pot-bellied man with the full intent of surprising him. Fortunately, the woman who'd watched my approach was far too occupied in his comments on the state of sin in Soul to alert him to my arrival.
I waited until he paused in his monologue to catch his breath and said: "Nice to see you again, Mr. Bishop."
He turned his head, the wide smile on his lower face emphasising the beak that was his nose. His smile froze when he recognised me and, a moment later, began to fall away in pieces.
"Mr. Goodall!" he managed and breathed loudly. "Whatever brings you to our wonderful city again?"
"The same thing as the last time, Preacher. I'd like to speak with you if I may."
"I'm pretty busy right now." He glanced around at the cleared and mostly macadamised back lot of his church.
"It's quite important. There've been unpleasant developments."
His eyes became unfocused for a moment before he turned to the women now standing in a semi-circle at his side. "Ladies, please excuse me for a few minutes while I speak with Mr. Goodall here," he told them, forcing another smile to his face and showing them white, gleaming teeth.
He stepped away from them and I followed. "What do you want here, Goodall?" he demanded in a whisper, very much in the process of taking charge.
"I have it on the best authority the Atlanta P.D. is going to ask Chief Nixon to arrest you for the murder of Jimmy Blacksheare," I lied, baiting him.
"What?" His eyes bulged. "Jim Bob Varnadore killed him. Chief Nixon told me that himself. You can't prove otherwise."
"Chief Nixon was wrong. Your youth minister was murdered too." I glanced about the car park. "Which is your car, Reverend Bishop?"
"That one." He pointed without thinking to the white Cadillac I had parked beside.
"Where were you at nine this morning?" I asked quickly, unwilling to permit him time to regain control of himself.
He glared at me, his neck reddening with anger. "I don't think I need to tell you anything more."
"Ronnie Varnadore was abducted right at nine. I have to assume he's dead too." I started for his car, moving slowly so he could have his moment of shock and still catch up to me.
"What do you mean, Ronnie was abducted?" he gasped when he caught up.
"He called me this morning. While we were speaking, someone broke the connection. By the time I arrived at his house, he was gone."
I took the last three steps to his car. "Someone tried to kill me after I was here."
"You?" he gasped. "When was this?" he demanded a moment later.
"A little after eleven - where were you?"
"Right here. More than three hundred people can vouch for me."
He was trying to regain control; the war going on inside him was tangible and I was sure Larry Bishop was never surprised or shocked for long. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a black and white prowl car sitting in the car park and knew Nixon was somewhere nearby.
I opened the driver-side door of the white Cadillac and was pleased to see it was as loaded as I'd guessed it would be. I popped the boot release and grinned at the preacher standing on the other side of the door from me.
"If you killed Jimmy Blacksheare and Reverend Varnadore, my guess is that you were the one who went after Ronnie too," I told him with much more confidence than I felt. "Only, you didn't have time to set up a fake suicide this time or get rid of his body - not as busy as you were going to be today." I started to move along the car towards the boot, hoping that Ronnie Varnadore would be there.
I sensed rather than felt several men strolling towards us. I prayed one of them was Chief Nixon; but I prayed even more that I was right and Ronnie Varnadore was in the one place I could imagine him being - if Larry Bishop was the murderer.
The preacher was building up a real anger at all the perceived wrongs I had done him - properly placing him into child molestation and paedophilia along with daring to suggest that he might murder someone. Even touching his car without permission probably. I was surprised he hadn't thought of closing the boot from the door the same way that I had opened it.
I looked into the boot. I had been right. I suddenly wished I hadn't been.
A Ronnie Varnadore in just his Y-fronts lay there all right. His hands tied behind him and his feet under him. A clear plastic bag was over his head and tied about his neck. He stared sightlessly up at me, condemning me for not being there to prevent this final indignity.
I turned to the preacher beginning to round the back of the Cadillac. "You bloody, worthless murdering paedophile!" I yelled at him, loud enough for the town to hear me. "You and that other preacher preyed on the young boys in your church, fucking them while you filled their stupid parents with the fear of your god. Why in bloody hell did you have to start killing them too?"
Bishop had his mouth open and temper ready to blast me for opening his closet and showing his skeletons. He caught sight of the contents of the boot of his car before he could start, however. Horror oozed across his face as he began shaking his head.
"Dear God!" Nixon had reached the car.
Other people, all members of Central Baptist Church, began to join us, peeking in their preacher's car and becoming ill - at least, I heard retching sounds from several throats behind me. I continued to stare at Larry Bishop as he sank slowly to the macadam behind his Cadillac, his knees giving out under him.
"No!" he breathed and shut his eyes.
Chief Nixon came up beside me, reaching to the back-seam of his uniform trousers for his handcuffs. "Larry Bishop, I'm arresting you for the murder of Ronnie Varnadore-" He reached down and grabbed one of the preacher's hands, putting a handcuff on its wrist. Moving behind him, he pulled Bishop's other hand to the small of his back so he could couple it with the first. "You've got the right to remain silent-"
I stepped away from the car as the chief told the preacher what his rights were. I didn't want to see or hear anything that related to Larry Bishop any more. I didn't want to see the horror combined with condemnation carved forever into Ronnie Varnadore's face as he sucked plastic into his mouth with his last breath and suffocated.
I walked over to the Beastie as the chief finished stuffing the preacher into the back of his patrol car and shut the door on him. I motored from the church while he called the coroner and small groups of people came together to tell each other what they had all seen and now knew about their preacher.
The good doctor, nurse, and medical staff hadn't finished filling Billy Boy with everything they wanted to put into him when I arrived back at the hospital. I had to wait.
All I wanted to do was put Soul and its people as far behind me as I could.
As I sat in the sitting room, I blamed myself for Ronnie Varnadore's death. I should have guessed the murderer was removing any and all witnesses to his involvement with Jimmy Blacksheare. I should have fingered Larry Bishop before he could kill again. I should have gone after him and found enough to force Nixon to take him on.
As the minutes in the waiting room combined and became an hour, I added another litany to my faults in this case. I should have seen that I was a target and left Billy Boy in Atlanta where he was safe. I was beginning to imagine this hospital wasn't as competent as it had at first seemed and increasing numbers of complications were setting in and my lad was succumbing to any one of them.
I wanted him to come strolling through those hall-wide double doors as full of it as he always was, laughing at my fears. I wanted to be in Atlanta with him. I wanted a drink. Glenfiddich. A bottle of it and the oblivion it would bring. And I wished I had never taken on Jimmy Blacksheare's murder.
I stopped the litany at that point. If I hadn't taken on the case, I'd not have met Billy Boy Sharpe. That realisation brought me up short and I started thinking again.
I reminded myself that I had left the lad in the care of this hospital not much more than an hour and a half earlier. They had told me they'd be keeping Billy Boy for two or so hours when I left. Ergo, there wasn't anything wrong and my lad was alive and well, albeit a bit weak and sore.
I told myself emphatically that murderers had their own agendas and, until an investigator hooked into the agenda of the murderer he was after, there wasn't much anyone could do to stop him. It had taken Ronnie's abduction and murder as well as the shot Billy Boy took in the shoulder to show us Larry Bishop's agenda. Billy Boy was lucky; Ronnie Varnadore's luck had run out just as his cousin's had.
It sounded almost good, but I wasn't feeling all that good about the logic that tied itself around the preacher's neck. I wasn't sure why; it was just a gut-feeling I had.
"Thanks, Phil," Chief Nixon said as he sat in the chair beside me and put his hand on my arm. He had caught me by surprise, but I was beyond reacting to surprises this time. I continued to sit in my chair and didn't even give him a flinch.
"The way I've got it figured, he was trying to get rid of everybody around here who could link him to Jimmy-"
"What's going to happen to Bishop?" I asked woodenly.
"He's claiming innocence - that's to be expected. I'm going to have to quietly find some young men who went to Central Baptist as boys to prove sodomy with minors - statutory rape. That video we got out at Jim Bob's make that easy - if their parents will let them testify." He shrugged. "With witnesses to prove that, we'll be able to convict him for murder."
"All three of them?"
"We've only got him on one. There's not too many witnesses left to link him to the Blacksheare boy in Atlanta."
"There's Tim Spencer," I pointed out.
He shook his head slowly. "Tim Spencer would probably meet a bullet in the back of the head if he ever comes back to Soul, Phil. And I doubt there are twelve men and women in this county who would believe anything he says-"
I nodded. I didn't like what he was telling me, but I could understand his realities. "How about the youth minister? Can you tie him to that one?"
"With the witnesses I mentioned earlier. It'd still be circumstantial at best."
"So, the books won't be officially closed on either Jimmy or Jim Bob?"
"Why am I getting the feeling Larry Bishop was set up?"
He looked at me for long moments. "He wasn't. It's just that we can't prove his connection with those other two murders in a court of law. Not unless he confesses."
"I doubt it. He's already called the best defence lawyer in south Georgia - a man named Waymon Molloy. We'll have our hands full convicting him even with witnesses who link him directly to sodomising kids in the church."
The double doors opened and a matronly pink lady pushed the wheelchair containing Billy Boy out into the waiting room. His right side was heavily bandaged down to the bottom of his rib cage, his arm immobilised. There were dark bags under his eyes. He looked nowhere close to being full of it or even feisty. But he was alive. He even smiled weakly when he saw me.
The pink lady wouldn't let him out of the chair and, from the looks of him, I was just as happy she wouldn't. Chief Nixon and I escorted Billy Boy and the pink lady out to the Beastie and, as we crossed the macadam of yet another treeless south Georgia car park with reflected heat hot enough to fry eggs, I studied the lad who took the bullet meant for me. His head lolled to one side and his one good hand didn't seem to be gripping the side of the chair very well at all.
"They filled him up with pain-killers," the pink lady confided after she glanced back and saw my face and the concern etched across it. "He's going to be out of it for a day or two."
My god! Even the highest powered street drugs we had when I was his age were good only for six to twelve hours. How drugs had improved the past thirty years!
Lightning flashed overhead and a loud clap of thunder followed immediately.
Nixon helped me secure the top over the Beastie and, then, scoot the lad's bum far enough down the seat of the wheelchair that I could pick him up. The policeman patted my shoulder when I got my lad into the passenger's seat without dropping him.
"I'll call you in the next day or two and let you know what's going on," he told me.
I nodded and rounded the Beastie.
Opening the door and sliding into my seat, I smiled across at the police chief. "Thanks for everything," I told him.
Have I mentioned that Billy Boy Sharpe was a feisty lad? How about unpleasant? Impossible? How about demanding?
We had been back in Atlanta a week. I express-posted my bill to the Blacksheares; and, wonder of the electronic age, they wired the money directly into my bank account before noon the next day. They didn't even deduct for Billy Boy's encounter with the hospital's Accident and Emergency.
I nursed the lad for two days without a problem; he was groggy beyond belief or simply asleep. It was the next five days that had me doubting love and togetherness and anything else that would keep me in the same house with the man. I made trips to my local bottle shop to buy litres of Glenfiddich on multiple occasions.
He wouldn't stay in bed and rest like the doctor in Soul had ordered. Instead, he was making it to the loo on his own by the beginning of the third day. He wove drunkenly, but he walked on his own.
By the morning of the third, he was complaining that I couldn't make even instant coffee right. By mid-day, he was demanding that I allow him to take a shower, making lewd suggestions about how I could help him wash and otherwise get back to his usual self. I was damned sure, however, the doctor hadn't meant fun and games when he said Billy Boy could be washed with a sponge. I didn't think he meant for the bandages to get wet either.
"Phil?" Billy Boy called loudly from the bedroom. I quickly downed the drink I was sipping and trotted down the hall to learn what crazy scheme he had come up with this time.
"Do you really think the preacher did it?" he asked as I came to a stop in the doorway.
I groaned. I glanced at my watch just to confirm it was barely nine o'clock eight days after Billy Boy Sharpe was shot. "I don't know," I told him.
"But you said he was surprised as hell when he saw the body there in the boot of his car."
"I said that he acted surprised," I reminded him. "That piece of shit makes a living being an actor - in the pulpit and on both radio and local television."
"But if he didn't do it-?"
The phone chose that moment to ring, saving me from another bout of what Yanks call Monday morning quarterbacking.
"Saved by the bell," he announced and grinned broadly as he waved me back down the hall to the phone in the living room.
My caller introduced himself as Waymon Molloy and Larry Bishop's lawyer. The latter caught my attention but not favourably. He was going to be in Atlanta the next morning and would like to speak with me regarding my investigation into the murder of Jimmy Blacksheare. Mr. Molloy's voice told me the man who owned it could be harder than nails.
I agreed to a meeting at the Marriott Marquis at nine the next morning.
"Want to see if it's healed enough that I can get out of all this packaging?" Billy Boy Sharpe called out right on cue.
I reminded myself that among all the instructions the hospital sent home with him, there had been a note that the bandages could be removed after seven days - if the arm remained immobile. By the time I arrived in the bedroom with a pair of scissors in hand, I'd accepted that I need to the lad do his own thing, no matter how I felt about it.
As I snipped and cut, I told him of my conversation with Mr. Molloy.
"When do we meet him?" he asked immediately.
I stared at him. Brown stubble had established itself on his chin and from his sideburns to his jaw. If hair grew on his upper lip and cheeks, it was microscopic. A fortnight ago, when I first met him, the top of his head was solid platinum, but it now was close to the same brown covering his chin.
His right shoulder had a nasty looking scab centred between his neck and arm, highlighted by an even nastier combination of black, blue, and yellow bruised skin.
Blue eyes watched me studying him. "Phil-" He looked away. "I know I've been a poor patient and you've really been good-"
"That's an understatement," I admitted, giving vent to a small portion of the frustration that had grown in me.
"Phil, please. Let's don't get into an argument. Please. I don't know how to act when I'm sick. I sure don't know how to act when the man I want to do everything for is instead waiting on me. Shit! I haven't been sick since I had the mumps when I was eight."
"So, I want to be part of your life. Every part of it - not just your bed. That includes this murder case."
"I'm not so sure of that," I told him, my mind swarming with images of him on the ground in the clearing behind the Varnadore house, blood spreading across his shirt.
"Phil!" There was an edge to his voice. Warning me.
"You didn't see yourself shot, love. Or lying there bleeding half to death before the medics arrived. Or zonked out from pain killers for two bloody days."
He blinked. "You do love me!"
"I'm nearly there," I agreed. "But I suspect a couple of repeats of this past week would have us heading straight to divorce court."
He laughed. "I was pretty bad, wasn't I?"
I nodded. Emphatically.
"All I want is to try to take care of myself, honey." He looked down at his hands. "I've got pretty used to doing that."
"If we're going to have a relationship, love, you're going to have to accept that there's two of us now - not just you."
He nodded. "That goes for you too."
"You've got this case that won't stay solved. Nothing in it adds up right. You can't just hold it to your chest like lousy cards in a poker game and try to bluff your way to winning the pot."
"What doesn't add up right?" I wished I had never discussed it with him at all.
"Things started out pointing to Tim Spencer; only, he didn't do it. When it was obvious nobody was going for him, that first preacher got his head blown off. Only, there are some things about him dying that didn't quite ring true, so Ronnie was murdered and his body put in the other preacher's car boot. Now, this lawyer guy wants to talk to you about these Georgia boys getting snuffed."
"It doesn't add up right," I agreed. "But I remember you deciding Chief Nixon was the murderer too."
"Hey!" he yelped. "That was only my first time out in this detective business. I'll get better."
"No! No, you won't. I'm not going to have you out there next time being shot at or, worse, killed."
"Phil, I could say the same thing to you." He looked up at me and smiled endearingly. "If we put our heads together, maybe we can solve our murder cases before either one of us becomes the victim next time." He reached across his chest with his good hand and took mine, gripping it tight as his smile broadened. "Besides, this detective business is a lot more interesting than hustling."
"I thought you liked a lot of sex."
"I've got you for that - I don't need anybody else."
"I guess you might go with me to meet Mr. Molloy - but only if you show me that you can clean yourself up."
He was out of bed with a lot more energy than I would have shown after what he'd been through. It took him several minutes to get his smalls to his knees where he could step out of them with ease.
I sat on the edge of the bed and watched - and made no effort to help him. There was nothing arousing about watching him get naked except seeing the lad's determination to be in control of his own life - and that was something that made me so proud.
As he trotted to the bathroom, I was struck by an unwanted thought: if he was so bloody self-sufficient, why did he need me? I banished it as quickly as I could, but it still left a dark cloud hovering over me. Until he came upon me in the living room later and hugged me to him. Then, I forgot all about it.
* * *
The conversation with Molloy was nothing like I expected. We arrived at the suite in the Marriott Marquis to find coffee and buns waiting for us. I expected an acrimonious meeting, laced with recriminations. Instead, I was offered a job.
"I'm here at Reverend Bishop's request, gentlemen," Waymon Molloy, Esq., began after we'd observed the social amenities. Each of us had coffee and buns and were all seated in the American corporate version of an English country living room.
"How's that?" Billy Boy asked.
"He would like to hire your services, Mr. Goodall," the lawyer directed his answer to me.
"Wouldn't that be a conflict of interest?" I asked.
"You are already intimately involved in this case - any other investigator we hired would have to start from the beginning. Besides-" The man smiled wryly. "I suspect you were paid to find a murderer. I think being paid by two clients to find the same murderer wouldn't cause a conflict of interest."
"What happens if Bishop is the murderer?" Billy Boy wanted to know.
The lawyer smiled condescendingly. "Of course, you understand we're of the opinion that isn't the reality of the situation. Mr. Bishop suspects you don't really believe he murdered any of those people."
"The evidence is there," I countered.
"Only in the death of that unfortunate young man you found in Reverend Bishop's car. And that's circumstantial - much of it won't even be allowed in a court of law."
"Then he'll go free," Billy Boy yelped.
"Mr. Bishop wants his freedom on more than a mere technicality. He wants to be vindicated, Mr. Goodall."
"I can't see those people in Soul giving that man his job back now they know he's a paedophile," I observed.
Molloy laughed. "I think the good reverend has decided he needs to take a sabbatical, if not a complete severance, from the Southern Baptist Convention." The man grinned. "He might well accept ordination in that homosexual church you people have."
I shuddered. Snake oil salesmen would always find a home for themselves.
"I have a cheque for ten thousand dollars drawn on my escrow account and made out to you, Mr. Goodall - as a retainer."
"What happens if I can't prove someone else killed those people?" I asked, knowing I was biting at his bait. Ten thousand dollars was a lot of bait.
"All I need in a court of law is reasonable doubt, Mr. Goodall. But, to answer your question directly, a retainer is just that. It hires a professional's services by covering his initial expenses. Regardless of your findings, you merely need bill your expenses to my office to justify any or all of the advance."
He reached inside his jacket and brought out the cheque. "You will find that Reverend Bishop has become a wealthy man and that I'm an understanding accountant - I suspect we can accommodate most of your expenses to date."
"I've already billed the Blacksheares for that," I complained.
"So?" Molloy smiled slightly and spread his hands. "We wouldn't want you to price your daily rate out of the market, but we're willing to pay reasonable costs for enough suspicion or evidence, if it's available, to get Reverend Bishop acquitted by a jury of his peers."
You aren't suggesting that Phil manufacture evidence, are you?" my lad growled. Molloy looked pained.
As we motored up Courtland from the hotel and it became Piedmont, Billy Boy shook his head. "All you need now, honey, is for Tim Spencer and Chief Nixon to come along and hire you."
"What're you talking about?"
"Tim, the chief, and that preacher are the only three of your original suspects still alive."
"Tim didn't do it, and I can't believe you still suspect Charlie Nixon," I told him as we crossed North Avenue between The Abbey and The Mansion restaurants. For perhaps the millionth time, I reminded myself that I really wanted to eat at both. When we had time, I'd ask Billy Boy to call for reservations.
"No, I don't, Phil. But I also don't think the preacher did it."
"How about the coach that disappeared? He and Jim Bob were the brains behind their ring."
"He got away," Billy Boy answered. "If he has sane bone in his body, he hasn't stopped running yet." I shrugged; it sounded reasonable.
We passed Outwrite Bookstore and crossed Tenth Street. "I need a haircut," he said. "Think you could find a cheap salon and give me ten bucks out of all this money you're making off this case?"
I nodded as we stopped at the light at Fourteenth.
"Phil, who do you think really killed those guys, shot me, and framed Bishop?" he asked.
"I'm out of ideas," I admitted.
"It's got to be somebody who's been involved in this thing from the beginning. Somebody we've been overlooking."
"No shit, Sherlock," I told him, using the most apt Yank-ism I could imagine.
"Look at the victims," he continued, ignoring me. "They all knew Jimmy, they knew each other, and they were all in this paedophile ring you found down there."
"They were all from Soul too," I offered, allowing myself to become caught up in his attempt to resuscitate the case. Ten thousand dollars bought a lot of allowances.
He nodded, acknowledging my contribution. "Yeah, they knew each other, and Jimmy Blacksheare was porking each of them."
"You don't know that."
"Look at it. Can you imagine Ronnie Varnadore mounting a guy? From what you said about the boy, not in his wildest dreams." He shook his head slowly as we turned left into Ansley Park, across from the Botanical Gardens. "Or his cousin? From everything we've both heard, that bastard was a total bottom who got hot for twinky-dick. But he was in Soul with all the hellfire and brimstone they've got down there. He was scared to death of his shadow too. Put those three together and you've got him spreading his legs for whatever junior twink he could find to try it."
"A kid who's old enough to do it is a hell of a lot less likely to run to mommy and tell on you if he fucks you than he is if you've fucked him. It's a macho thing to fuck somebody, even someone like that preacher. In a place like Soul, it can't get much less macho than taking it up the ass."
I had to agree. In a place where going to church counted as a recreational activity right up there with beer swilling, sex, and driving hot rods, his scenario made sense. It took into account the paedophile ring that Chief Nixon and I had uncovered too. It carried something more tied to it as well. There was something there; I just couldn't see it yet. But it was coming closer to the surface.
"Jimmy Blacksheare was able to handle putting out there in that town because it was a control thing for him - that and he had money that made people look the other way. You might be between his legs and ploughing his ass, but he had you by your balls.
"Only, he knew he couldn't keep that going indefinitely. He ended up quitting the game and running. He couldn't live in Atlanta on his own, though. He needed money to keep him in a life he was used to - so, he brought in Bishop. For the money, Phil. Only for the money. He also decided Greek active was where the fun was."
We pulled into the driveway of my single-storey brick rambler. There was a connection between Jimmy's murder, the men who had known him, and the paedophile ring - I had almost seen it just as I pulled into the driveway. I forced the remaining image of a young boy running from the grown-up men from my mind as I opened the car door.
"He had his group of studmuffins come up from Soul regularly and pay him homage," Billy Boy went on. "He balled them good too - even Tim Spencer, I'll bet. When the youth minister found out where he was from Ronnie, Jimmy didn't blink twice when he added him to his herd of nellies."
He sat back in the Beastie's seat and, with hooded eyes, watched me thinking through what he'd said as I turned off the ignition.
"If I'm right," he said as he opened the door and climbed out of the Beastie, careful not to bump his arm, "Tim Spencer probably has an appointment with the murderer he doesn't know about yet."
"And who's the nominee this time?"
"Jesus!" I groaned. I didn't believe it for an instant. But I had to admit it did intrigue me.
The phone was ringing as I opened the kitchen door. Billy Boy pushed past me and picked it up before somebody at the other end could break the connection.
"Phil, it's for you," he called as I shut the door and started through the foyer. He covered the receiver as I came up to him. "It's Chief Nixon."
Surprise. Surprise. Perhaps, shock was a better word.
Charlie Nixon was the last person I expected to hear from for all the obvious reasons.
He didn't mince words when I greeted him. "Goodall, I don't have much money but I need your help."
"What's up?" I asked noncommittally.
"Junior ran away from home yesterday."
"Your son?" I knew that already.
He confirmed it.
I invited him to talk about it; and, finding he was already in Atlanta, I surrendered to the inevitable and gave him directions to the house.
"We're going to have company soon," I told my lad in the arm sling.
"Oh?" He arched a brow theatrically.
I sniggered at Billy Boy's theatrics. "His son ran away last night and the chief must assume he was making his way to Atlanta."
"It isn't funny, Phil."
"Sorry." I quickly became serious again when I remembered what Junior Nixon could have in mind. My face fell.
"You've got a kid who's probably a murderer coming back to the scene of the first crime - and where Tim Spencer lives. And us."
"You're right," I mumbled, sorry as hell as the thought continued to sink in.
"You also maybe have a HIV-infected chicken hitting a town where tens of thousands of gay men from all over the world are congregating for the world's biggest tailgate party this week-end."
"Bloody hell! The Hotlanta thing," I groaned.
"That kid can be as ugly as homemade sin and he'll still score from Jonesboro to Marietta because he's so young and fresh."
"No shit," I agreed quietly.
"Are you going to tell daddy the facts of Junior's life or am I?"
I didn't feel I had much of a choice. "I'll tell him," I offered, feeling sicker than I had felt when I saw blood spreading across this lad's shirt last week in Soul.
"Good." He smiled beatifically at me and held out his hand. "Give me the keys to the car, Daddy, and I'll go warn Tim."
I reached into my pocket instinctively. "Can you drive?" I asked a moment later as I paused, my finger in the key ring still in my pocket.
"It's a fair question, Billy Boy," I told him.
"Come on, Phil. Do you know one 21-year-old American boy of sound mind who can't drive?"
"It's a stick, love - and you only have the one hand."
"Bullshit! I can hold the wheel with my wounded hand while I shift gears. The cast doesn't cover my fingers."
I decided to let him drive against my better sense. I handed him the keys to the Beastie.
* * *
I opened the door to find Charlie Nixon in civilian clothes. In uniform, Chief Nixon was a policeman before he was anything else. In a golf shirt and slacks, he was a father doing whatever it took to find his little boy. Somehow, it seemed like it was going to be harder to tell him about Junior's secret life.
I led him into the living room. The silence between us only served to make things worse.
"Why do you think he ran away?" I asked. If I could keep him talking, I wouldn't have to talk myself - and put my foot in it.
"He told his mother he was staying over at a friend's. We didn't think anything of it until this morning at four o'clock-"
"Our eleven year old woke us up. He was all choked up but he told us Junior had taken off for Atlanta."
"Why didn't he tell you this at a reasonable hour?"
"Junior made him promise to keep his mouth shut; otherwise, he was going to shut it for him permanently-"
"Your son said that to his brother?" I groaned, remembering Billy Boy's presumptions about this lad and beginning to wonder if they could be true.
"You must not know much about kids and families-"
"I was an only child."
"Big brothers do that to little brothers. Anyway, I called the other boy's house and woke his parents up. Junior wasn't there. Their son's down in Florida interviewing for football scholarships."
"So, you jumped into your car and drove up here."
"I checked every place in Soul I knew to look first. I didn't get on the road until a little after seven."
"Why would he come to Atlanta, Chief?" I asked, hoping he had some ideas about his son's private life so my information wouldn't come as a complete shock.
"That surprised me. I don't have the foggiest notion who he might know up here." Tears glistened his eyes. "He's not even seventeen yet."
"Sit down on the sofa," I told him and headed for the kitchen. In my experience, men could always discuss undiscussables over a drink. I poured a double shot of single malt into one glass and another shot for me.
Returning to the living room, I handed him the fuller glass.
"I don't normally drink this early in the day," he said apologetically and started to put the glass on the end table closest to him.
"Drink it, Chief. We've got some unpleasant things to discuss."
He looked at me suspiciously but sipped the scotch. He made a face as I said: "It's the only thing I've got in the house. It's going to have to do." He nodded and studied me, his suspicion growing into a barrier between us.
"Does Junior know anything about guns?" I asked, sitting beside him and leaping into the maelstrom.
"Junior? He got an achievement badge from eagle scouts last year for being the best shot in south Georgia." He smiled as he permitted himself a moment of pride. "I started taking him to our police range when he was six. That boy knows how to shoot any rifle sold in America."
"Where did he get all these different kinds of guns?"
"I'm the Chief of Police, remember? We've got drugs in Soul and drug runners coming through on their way north from Florida. We've got a real arsenal at the police station." He stared at me then, his pride in Junior evaporating as his earlier suspicion returned in full force. "Why?"
"Chief, there isn't an easy way for me to tell you this, but your son was spending a lot of time here in Atlanta with Jimmy Blacksheare and the Varnadores. I suspect he was one of the boys the preachers and the coach incorporated into their paedophile ring."
He stared at me, his face blank. Silence grew between us. "Come on, Phil," he said finally, his voice strained. "It's a long five hour drive up here and Junior doesn't have a car. It was only three weeks ago I let him get his license."
I noticed he ignored my mention of his son's involvement in the ring. "He came up with Ronnie usually, but I expect that last month or so he might have come up with Jim Bob too," I told him.
"Who told you this?" he demanded, his anger threatening to erupt.
"Tim Spencer." I held up my hand to ward off his protestations. "I know the lad's reputation. It might even be deserved. But the better part of the six months Jimmy was living here, Tim lived with him. He took off when Bishop turned up, but he was sometimes around when Jimmy's friends from Soul visited."
"And Tim says my son was here?"
"He didn't know your son - or his relationship to you. He just knew him as Junior. I suspect Ronnie Varnadore would have confirmed the boy Tim met was your son."
Charlie Nixon nodded slowly, his pallor grown ashen, "Say he did - come up here to see Jimmy," he offered slowly. "He was in scouts with Jimmy. The way Jimmy Blacksheare was, Junior could have been porking him now and then."
"He didn't tell you he was caught up in Jim Bob's group of boys, did he? That he also ploughed the Varnadores on a regular basis there in Soul? Or that Jimmy and Tim were mounting him when he was up here?"
"No!" he cried. He stared at me and started to rise. "My kid ain't taking it up the ass from nobody! He's not some little - little-" He searched for an acceptable word he could use in front of me. "He's not like Ronnie."
"I'm sorry, Chief." I reached out and put my hand on his shoulder. "Tim's told me about the orgies Jimmy put on when your son and Ronnie visited. It seems that Junior didn't have a problem taking the passive position."
"Junior," he said in a whisper, looking away and falling back into the cushions.
Moments later, he squared his shoulders and met my gaze. He said: "That doesn't prove anything. Hell, if my kid wants to take it up the ass - if that's what makes him happy - I'll just learn to accept it."
"Chief, there's more-"
"Jimmy didn't like condoms. He didn't use them with his friends. Only Tim Spencer was allowed to use them because he rented himself out on occasion."
"What the fuck are you saying?" he demanded.
"The autopsy showed Jimmy Blacksheare was HIV-positive."
"He-" Charlie Nixon's face went white. "Then, Junior-"
"He may be infected."
"How? I would've known-"
"It takes years for the infection to reach the AIDS stage. The only way anybody would know was if he had a blood test done. An HIV test."
"The worst thing is that your son's here in town and there's tens of thousands of gay men here to party this weekend, the Hotlanta River Expo. And Tim Spencer is here."
"What's so special about him?" Nixon demanded.
"He's probably the only one still alive who's seen Junior getting his arse ploughed. Perhaps Bishop and this Coach Johnson who took off when I knew he was in with the preachers - they might have known. Bishop is in gaol and charged with murder. Johnson has disappeared."
Charlie Nixon drained the scotch and took a long time to decide not to choke to death. Finally, he stopped coughing and caught his breath, but his skin colour was still a mottled white. He studied me closely for several moments. Finally, he nodded once and frowned.
"Say - just say - you're right about all this. My kid sneaking off up here to let Jimmy and Tim - hell, everybody who was here - fuck him in the ass. And Jimmy giving him AIDS too. I can see where you're heading - only, none of this proves my kid killed anybody."
I took a deep breath. "If he isn't the murderer, then there's somebody else in Soul who is - but, the way things seem to be coming together, I wouldn't give your son odds on that happening." I wasn't quite as sure of that as I sounded, but I had to admit events seemed to be bearing Billy Boy's supposition out.
"Where did he get all those guns?"
"Have you gone through this arsenal at the station you told me about? The shotgun might have been there with the youth minister, especially with him being with the scouts and them having a shooting badge. But the gun that took out Jimmy and the rifle that almost took Billy Boy - he needed access to them."
Nixon grew paler, connecting his police arsenal to his son.
"Why would he do it?"
"Why does anybody kill somebody else?" I answered. "I'm buggered if I know."
The front door opened and quickly closed. A moment later, Billy Boy stepped into the living room.
He took one look at Chief Nixon and turned to me. "You've told him."
"Told me?" Nixon bellowed. "Everybody here in Atlanta is running around thinking my kid's a fucking killer," he continued, but the explosion of anger was already ebbing. "I want to know why you think he did it. I want you to convince me like you seem to be, like Phil is."
"You know Soul, don't you, Chief?" my lad asked him, his tone conversational. Nixon nodded, curious in spite of himself. "Imagine growing up with your daddy the biggest macho man there is - the top cop. Imagine all that macho stuff at school with the other boys and the double whammy you'd get from the cops and men in town."
Nixon groaned as he thought about what his son's life might have been.
"Now, you meet up with Jimmy in the sack - say, through the scout master. Getting your dick sucked and, then, getting to pork the preacher and, maybe, even Ronnie. That was finally getting to do what everyone was talking about. Every boy has an out, the old saw about a hard dick having no conscience. Your son was getting everything the older kids and most of the grown-ups he knew were talking about. Because it wasn't a girl he was getting it on with, he didn't have to worry about pregnancy either.
"Somewhere along the line, Jimmy talked him into going for the whole enchilada. Maybe he got him drunk or, maybe, it only took a joint to get Junior to turn his ass up. Your kid tried what few kids in Soul were willing to get caught dead doing."
Nixon was shaking his head and he looked as if he was going to be sick. "I can understand how he got caught up in it," he said, his voice dead-sounding. "But that doesn't mean Junior's gone on a killing spree."
"He started coming up here with one and then the other Varnadore after Jimmy left town. It was fun as hell thumbing his nose at Soul and all the boys who'd want a piece of his ass in private while shunning the hell out of him publicly if they knew. It felt good too. And, here, it didn't matter who was doing him, either. He could go on forever sneaking around on you and faking macho with the best of them at school.
"Only, Jimmy dropped a bomb on him. Jimmy told him he was HIV-positive. It didn't take much of a brain to realise that he was probably infected too. Suddenly, it wasn't just lying to you or the guys. He was going to die. And everybody was going to know why.
"He went off the deep end. He offed Jimmy. He might have even got one of the Varnadores to help him or he just drove up from Soul and made damned sure he didn't go over the speed limit or do anything suspicious-" Billy Boy smiled apologetically. "You pounded it into his head what cops look for to get them to pull somebody over when you were getting him ready for the driver's exam, didn't you?" He nodded. "So, Junior could've driven here easily."
Nixon stared unblinkingly at Billy Boy. "I helped him do it," he mumbled finally. "I kept telling him about the case; I even pointed Tim Spencer's past out to him."
"You told him the youth minister was under suspicion too, didn't you?" Billy Boy asked. The chief nodded, never taking his eyes off my lad. "After Phil didn't buy into the suicide, you told him it had to be Bishop? That you were the only logical alternative to the preacher?"
"He saw how worried I was. I didn't like covering up Jim Bob's death that way - even if it was going to buy peace in Soul. We talked - Jesus! This whole past month, I've been thinking we were getting close again, like we were when he was a little boy."
Billy Boy turned to look at me. "Junior knew everything you knew, Phil. Everything you told the chief here, and everything he guessed you might be thinking - one investigator second-guessing another investigator. He was always able to stay one step ahead of you. Jesus! None of them ever even had a chance."
"What am I going to do now?" Nixon groaned.
"We're going to find your son. If he's the killer, we'll catch him before he kills again. Right now, it's me and Billy Boy - are you in with us?"
He nodded unenthusiastically.
"Where's Tim now?" I asked my lad.
"I didn't find him at home, Phil. I don't know where he is."
"My kid's gone nuts?" Chief Nixon asked no one in particular, still having a bit of a problem catching up to where Billy Boy was on the subject. I was right there beside my better half.
It was almost afternoon on the Wednesday before the Hotlanta River Expo weekend and thousands of gay men were already in town to partake of the year's best party. Where did I find a seventeen year old who might have a hate on for gays who had seen him put out? I had to find him before I could even think about him being guilty.
For that matter, where did I find Tim Spencer? Wherever it was, I hoped I was there before they found each other.
And, while I was still asking myself asinine questions, what was I going to do with a forty-something daddy who had just found out Junior had some dark secrets he might be trying to take care of on his own? Or a twenty-one year old wounded lad I was glad was alive and wanted a few years to enjoy?
"Do you think Moone's in court?" I asked Billy Boy quietly.
"I'll try his office," he answered and picked up the Atlanta yellow pages. He found the lawyer's listing without half the fumbling I'd have encountered.
"He's in Fulton Superior this afternoon," he told me as soon as he finished with calling Earl Moone's office.
"Downtown?" I asked and he nodded. "Call the bailiff station at the court house and have them detain him until I can get there." I saw the uncertainty in my lad's face then. "Just tell whoever you get that there's been an emergency with Mr. Moone's nephew, Tim Spencer, and that Cousin Phil will explain it all to him if he sits there and waits for him."
"You aren't going anywhere without me," he said as he paged through the blue pages of the white pages book looking for the Fulton County Court offices.
We drove downtown, Billy Boy leaning against the Beastie's metal, un-upholstered door and watching Nixon and myself at the same time. Charlie Nixon sat in the back. I drove the Beastie down Piedmont and into the tail-gate party that was already beginning at the Park in anticipation of the Hotlanta River Expo.
Needless to say, we were nowhere near the Chattahoocee River where the daunting lads, full of spirit(s), would take to the water in rubber dinghies on Saturday. It was party time. Any excuse would do.
This was an Atlanta Charlie Nixon had never seen. Here, unabashed gayness was grabbing him by the throat and shouting in his face - in broad daylight.
"You going to be able to handle looking for Junior in all this?" I called to him over the wind.
"There aren't that many people, Phil," he called back gamely. "It looks pretty tame to me."
"Wait until tonight." I allowed myself to savour his discomfort despite the problems he faced - that we faced.
By six, Piedmont Avenue at the Park would be impassable - when Atlanta's gay men would have doffed their work suits and gone out to cruise the city's visitors. Rather, it would be wall-to-wall bodies daring autos to hit them. Unless I had died and been buried without my brain, such a gathering would draw a young lad on his own to it like a moth to a flame. Only, this was going to be a real bonfire, not just a flame.
"Chief, did Junior have any money when he left home?"
"He cleared out his savings account at the bank - maybe three hundred."
"He's got room and board for a week or two then," Billy Boy observed from beside me. "Did you bring a picture of him with you?"
Nixon pulled out his wallet, found the photograph he wanted, and handed it up to him.
"Is that recent?" I asked, keeping my curiosity under wraps. I would have time enough to see what Junior looked like when I had us at the courthouse.
"Last month," the police chief answered.
"He's the kid I met at the pool hall," Billy Boy said. "He talked to Ronnie - him and some kid named Marshall."
"Junior was the starting running back for the team last year," the chief told us.
I could hear the pride in Charlie Nixon's voice over the wind whipping through the Beastie as I passed the park, turned onto 14th Street to get away from the pedestrian traffic, and speeded up.
I put my lad and the chief out in front of the Fulton County Courthouse to find Earl Moone, Esq. I was going to find a parking lot that had a space this late in the day.
I caught up with them in front of a court room on the third floor. The case Earl Moone, Esq., was defending had yet to recess for the day.
"Let's see the photo of this lad of yours," I told Soul's police chief when I joined them. Charlie Nixon handed me the photo of his son as I mopped sweat from my face and wished it was winter.
Junior proved to be a big boy with the sullen, vacuous look of most American teenagers. Short-cropped golden hair, thick neck, and massive-looking shoulders - definitely meaty. Though he was reasonably good-looking, I saw nothing that gave the lad in the photo any character. Finding him among the tens of thousands of other young gay men descended or descending on Atlanta was going to be difficult at best.
"I'd like to keep this," I told Junior's father and put the photo in my shirt pocket. "It's almost four," I told both of them. "Moone should be out soon."
"They're trying a murder case in there," Nixon told me, indicating the closest court room with a nod of his head.
I glanced about the hall for a bailiff but, before I could voice my dissatisfaction at not finding one, the doors to the room opened as justice rested for the day in this part of Georgia.
I managed to make my way into the room against the tide of bodies trying to leave. A bailiff studied me suspiciously and I headed for him. "The defence table," I said when I neared him and watched as he pointed towards the front.
Moone was closing his attaché when I reached him. "Mr. Moone?"
He didn't turn. "Make an appointment with my office," he said.
"Tim's in trouble. I need to talk with you now."
He turned to face me and it only took him a moment to recognise me. "What kind of trouble, Mr. Goodall?"
I glanced about the emptying room. "Can we talk here?"
He shrugged and I guessed the days when a well-placed gentleman hid his proclivities deep in the closet were past us. "The murderer may be in Atlanta, and there's a good chance he's looking for Tim with unfriendly intentions in mind."
"What?" His brows shot up into his non-existent hair-line.
"We tried to reach Tim earlier. Do you know where he is?"
"He had a fitting appointment at two o'clock-" His face reddened with momentary embarrassment. "A costume for the River Expo this Saturday," he finished.
"We need to reach him."
"What's this about?" he demanded. "Why would this person be trying to kill Timmy?"
"He can place the lad at Jimmy Blacksheare's and, if he's the killer, he's killed everybody else who could do that. The rest is a long story and, right now, we need to get to your lad before anything happens to him." Billy Boy and Chief Nixon had reached us and stood beside me.
"Come on," Moone said, deciding that I wasn't insane. "It's going to be a bitch getting through traffic," he continued over his shoulder as he rounded the defence table and headed for a side door. "But Timmy likes to look at pretty things - maybe he'll kill time window shopping the shops of Ansley Mall." He saw the crowd at the lifts. "We'll take the stairs, they're faster."
Reaching the lobby, I decided Earl Moone might well be beefy and have a sagging bum, but he was in better shape than I was. "Where's your car?" he asked heading for the metal detectors inside the front doors. I told him in gasps but managed to stay up with him.
"Okay, meet me at the house," he said as he opened his attaché for the bailiff. He looked back at Billy Boy and Charlie bringing up the rear of our procession. "I'd appreciate it if you could spare one of them to fill me while I'm driving."
I nodded and put my keys and change in the box so I could pass through the metal detector. I turned to Billy Boy and asked him to ride with Moone.
"Who the hell was that?" Charlie Nixon demanded as we trotted past two blocks of massive government buildings and two more that held abandoned warehouses through heat that resembled my concept of a Venusian winter.
"The man to whom Tim Spencer has committed himself," I told him with the little extra breath I had as we turned into the alley where I'd left the Beastie.
I didn't take time to catch my breath or staunch any of the sweat gushing out over my body. I pulled out onto Pryor and managed to get to Piedmont before I caught up with traffic.
The feeling that Junior would go after Tim Spencer as soon as he could had been growing inside me all day - ever since I accepted the possibility that he was the killer. When Billy Boy came home without reaching Tim, the feeling had gone into overdrive.
I was, however, caught up in the evening rush hour on Piedmont Avenue with a man I now was uncomfortable with. I had allowed myself to suspect his son of murder. Sitting beside Charlie Nixon in traffic, doubts began to pop up. Doubts I didn't need. I tried to staunch their flow.
I told myself that going for Tim was the logical thing for the murderer to do, regardless of the murderer's identity. Only, if Billy Boy was right about Junior Nixon, he had been more logical than most murderers and definitely more than any teenager I had ever met - albeit in a demented way.
With Larry Bishop in gaol, Junior Nixon had come to Atlanta for the last murder he saw himself committing. That is if he was guilty. With Tim Spencer dead, nobody with a connection to Soul would be alive to place him on the receiving end of a sexual situation. Presumably, in his mind, he could return to the straight world of jocks, locker room jokes, and even the coppers he'd grown up with. He could return to being the good little jock Charlie Nixon had raised him to be.
So, why had the boy run away? It didn't make sense.
He killed Jimmy Blacksheare because he believed the other boy infected him with the HIV virus. Perhaps, he was able to convince himself one death sentence deserved another - and more immediate - death sentence. Or, once he became a little insane, he even convinced himself he'd rid himself of the virus by ridding the world of Jimmy. There were multiple motives there; any one of which could convict him. That part I didn't know or even dare surmise. I'd leave it to the psychiatrists who'd have Junior Nixon for years after we'd caught up with him.
Of course, the basis of my supposition of Junior's guilt pre-supposed that Jimmy had known his status and chose to share it.
Once Jimmy Blacksheare was dead, Junior was faced with the realisation that there were three more people who knew he liked gay sex - two of them lads from Soul who liked to gossip. He went after the two available to him in Soul first. He killed them using information he got from his father, information that aided him in keeping suspicion from himself while framing Larry Bishop.
But Bishop, Varnadore, and Coach Johnson were the adults who'd run a paedophile ring - one that had caught Junior up in it. So, why hadn't he gone for the coach?
Bishop was in gaol, charged with Ronnie Varnadore's murder and Soul was secure for Junior. Only Tim Spencer in Atlanta knew what he liked in bed; everyone else who'd known were dead. All he had to do was come to town and kill him. He hadn't foreseen a lad named Billy Boy Sharpe being young enough or savvy enough of small town American ways to spot him through the camouflage with which he managed to cover himself. And he didn't figure on me being there to stop him from killing Tim Spencer.
He had the River Expo to cover his trail in Atlanta. He could go back to Soul untouched by scandal or he could find himself one or more daddies every bit as loaded as Jimmy had.
The one fly in all this theorising was that I couldn't really convince myself a barely seventeen year lad could play murder as well as this one supposedly had. I had had a tourniquet on my doubts, however.
Only, even with that tourniquet, I had no idea how I was going to stop Junior Nixon from reaching Tim Spencer. If he was trying to do so. I did know we needed to find Junior, though.
"We need a plan," I told his father.
"I thought you were working with one already."
"Bloody hell!" I grunted. "I've been flying on pure instinct since you called this afternoon."
"Protecting this Spencer boy is the best way of going about it. We aren't going to find Junior easily - so we protect the guy he's here for and let him come to us."
I smiled tightly. "I'm glad I was making sense even when I didn't know I was. But how do we catch him?"
"Alive." He stared at me from his side of the car. "I want my son alive."
"I already knew that."
"Why do you think Junior even knows how to reach the Spencer boy?"
"He was visiting Jimmy with regularity the six months he lived in Atlanta, even as things started becoming uncomfortable between Tim and Jimmy. He could've asked Tim or found his new address when he was tearing that flat apart looking for anything that would incriminate him."
"That's a lot of assumption on your part." The chief was gazing at me, his lips twisted into a slight smile.
"What's that supposed to mean?" I demanded as I made it through the light at North Street. "I guess you could say I'm playing devil's advocate here, but the whole case you're making against Junior seems to be based on nothing but one assumption after another."
I didn't like him playing devil's advocate. It made me remember all my misgivings. We'd reached North Avenue, on either side of us were The Abbey and The Mansion restaurants. A block ahead was the intersection with Ponce de Leon. I suddenly wasn't ready to meet Earl Moone and plot the capture of Junior Nixon. I needed to think through my reasoning again - Billy Boy's reasoning.
"Unfortunately," I said, "everybody who could give direct evidence is dead - except Tim Spencer and that paedophile coach of yours. Tim'll be just as dead as they are if we don't get to him in time."
"Suppose - just suppose - that there's somebody else," Nixon said and I knew I was trapped. The closest bar I knew was The Resurrected Bird next to my office. The place would be dead at this hour, and we'd be able to talk there without raising our voices. I turned onto Ponce de Leon as soon as I'd made it to the intersection.
"Who?" I asked. "Bishop was keeping Jimmy. When he wasn't around, Tim was - or the two Varnadores and your son. And this coach of yours managed to disappear into thin air before the Varnadore boy was murdered. Who else was there?"
I groaned as I noticed the Beastie's thermostat moving dangerously close to the red zone.
"Say somebody really was nuts. I mean, Jimmy sent this person completely over the edge. Not just him getting infected, but him leaving home and setting up house and being
"Chief, who's this hypothetical completely queer-?"
"It has to be somebody from Soul, someone close to what the Blacksheare boy was doing - the only one I can think of who's alive and free is that coach. And he went on the lam before the Varnadore boy died - nobody's seen him in more than a week. It's like he fell into some hole and was swallowed up."
We crossed through the intersection with Memorial and Monroe. I was four buildings from the Poncey and five from the Bird. The bar offered the two of us relief from the heat of the street and its car park offered the Beastie's cooling system a chance to cool down. Inspiration was shooting through me with the same clarity Christian fundamentalists claimed for rapture.
If Charlie was right, I had an idea who had killed everybody. I needed time to think it through, though. The Beastie, too, would be grateful for the opportunity to cool down. I pulled into The Bird just as the thermostat nudged into the danger zone.
"Okay," I said, turning off the ignition and facing the police chief, "you want to convince me that Junior didn't go around killing those people. Let's talk it through."
"I'm right here."
"I need to get out of this heat, preferably have a drink; and The Bird has happy hour."
"The Resurrected Bird - right behind us," I told him pointing towards the back of the Beastie.
"They have a bar inside. It's cool. And the boys of the night won't be here this early. Let's go - I can't think when my brain's frying."