newspaper, Robby. You may not be interested in us, but we're sure as hell interested in you; you're the hometown boy made good. I know all about you being an important college professor who's some kind of doctor, and I know all about you being a private detective. I want to hire you. I didn't have much money right now, but- '

'To do what?'

'To find out the truth!'

'As far as I can see, you're the only person who doesn't believe we already know the truth. Let me tell you something straight, Coop; I loved my nephew very much, but he was nuttier than one of Jesse Braxton's fruitcakes. Sometimes that goes with the territory when you're a very bright kid. Maybe he would have grown out of it, maybe not; we'll never know. My sister accepts the fact that Tommy and most of his friends were a little crazy. Why can't you?'

'Because Rod was no fag!'

'Oh,' I said quietly. 'Coop, you know how muddled a dwarf can get, so let's see if I have a line on where you're coming from. You'd like me to root around, keep the dust and my family unsettled, and probably end up looking like the village idiot you always thought I was, on the off chance I might be able to prove that someone in your family wasn't a homosexual. Have I got it?'

'Robby, I- '

'I thought so,' I said, starting to walk away.

'Robby, please! Wait a second!'

Wheeling around, I placed my stiffened index and middle fingers squarely over the center of Coop Lugmor's solar plexus, pressed slightly. 'Stay!' I snapped, and he did.


We finished the lunch my mother had insisted on making. My parents, Garth, Janet, and I sat in silence at the table, staring into our empty coffee cups. Sparkling motes of dust floated in beams of golden sunlight, and the muffled laughter of a horde of young nieces and nephews could be heard outside in the yard. John Dernhelm, Janet's husband, emerged from the kitchen, wiped his eyes, then went out the door. Two burly uncles sat in a corner of the adjacent living room, talking in low voices, discussing weather and corn prices. Their wives sat at opposite ends of a worn sofa, crocheting.

My father disappeared for a few moments, then returned with a jug of corn liquor, surprising me, since I had never seen him or my mother drink so much as a glass of wine. He poured small glasses half full for everyone. My second surprise came when I drank the potion and came to an instant, complete understanding of why such stuff is called white lightning. My father offered me a second helping, and I covered my glass with a hand that already felt numb.

'To everything there is a season,' my mother said softly, daintily touching a linen napkin to her thin, trembling lips.

'Amen,' my father added in a voice that rumbled out of his chest like distant thunder but was also, always, gentle.

'To everything there is a season,' Janet repeated in a small voice. 'This, too, shall pass.'

It meant that a kind of unofficial mourning period had passed, following Tommy into the ground. Now we could speak of other things. Farmers don't have a lot of time for things like grief or self-pity; there are always animals to be cared for, crops to be tended. Fences to be mended.

'I would like to say something,' my mother said in a voice so low it could barely be heard. She paused, pushed back a stray, gossamer strand of silver hair with a frail, liver-spotted hand. She turned, looked at me with her faded, violet eyes, and a smile wreathed her face. She reached across Garth and took my hand in hers. 'It's so good to have Garth and Robby with us. I'm sorry it has to be such a sad occasion that brings you here, Robby, but it's wonderful to have you home after so many, many years.'

'I'm sorry, Mom,' I mumbled at the tablecloth.

'Your mother wasn't looking for an apology, son,' my father said. 'All of us understand. Nobody's ever written more letters than you, and you've brought us to New York many times. She's just saying that we love you, and we're very proud of you.'

Garth, sensing that I was close to tears, came to my rescue. 'Poor Mongo's just a social cripple,' he said, somberly shaking his head and winking at Janet.

'Stop that, Garth!' my mother said, whacking my brother on a broad shoulder. 'And what is this 'Mongo' business? Robby is Robby. You, of all people, shouldn't talk like that about your brother. You love him more than anybody, if that's possible.'

That embarrassed everyone but my mother, and for a few moments we lapsed back into awkward silence. It was Janet who finally spoke. Her voice was low, quavering.

'Robby? What did Coop Lugmor want?'

Garth and I exchanged glances. I looked down at the table, shrugged. 'Nothing. He was just drunk and feeling sorry for himself.'

Janet sat trembling for a few seconds, then stifled a sob as she abruptly rose and rushed into a small sewing room. I went after her, closed the door. I sat down beside her on the small sofa, took her hands away from her face and kissed them. Gradually she stopped sobbing.

'Thank you for coming, Robby.'

'Please don't thank me, Janet.'

'I know how it hurts you. You haven't been here in seventeen years.'

'It hasn't been as bad as I thought it would be.' 'Still.'

'Tommy was very special to me. You know that.'

Janet nodded. Tears welled again in her eyes, but she didn't sob. 'And you were certainly special to him.' She pressed my hand to her wet cheek. Long, fine hair the texture and color of corn silk fell across my wrist. 'We've never been close, Robby, have we?'

'I feel close to you now.'

'It was my fault. I was a snot-nosed kid, and as lousy a sister as Garth was good a brother. You embarrassed me, Robby.'

'That's all right-I embarrassed me, too.' She glanced at me quickly, her face clenched in hurt. Janet wasn't used to my brand of humor. I smiled, added: 'What's past is past, Janet.'

She leaned forward and kissed me on the lips. 'What I just said has been sticking in my throat for a long, long time, Robby. I wanted to get it behind me, and I just did. I love you.'

'And I love you.'

She kissed me again, then quickly looked away-but not before I had glimpsed something dark, perhaps a question, moving in her eyes. I cleared my throat, said softly: 'Lugmor was bellyaching about the way Jake Bolesh handled the investigation. He doesn't think Jake did a very good job, and he doesn't agree with the findings.' I paused, touched Janet's wrist. 'What do you think?'

It seemed to me that Janet considered her answer very carefully. 'I haven't had much time to think about anything but the fact that my son is dead,' she said after some time.

'Of course,' I sighed, sorry I had brought up the subject.

'Besides,' she said with a shudder. 'What's to think about? Why shouldn't Jake do a good job? They've said such terrible things about Tommy and Rodney. Why would Jake lie about something like that?'

'You'd have to answer that,' I said carefully. 'I don't live here. Can you think of any reason for Jake to lie?'

'Not really.'

'Not really?'

'No. It's just that everything happened so fast. Tommy disappears for a week, and the next thing you know they find both him and Rodney Lugmor shot to death near the creek on Coop Lugmor's farm. Then they printed that… stuff… in the newspaper, and Jake was giving press

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