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Dead Sleep 44
“I need to get the ball,” he said by way of excusing himself.
He trotted toward the spot where the ball had fallen when the whistle blew. Parents from the opposing team nodded to him as they headed for their cars, and a warm sense of camaraderie filled him. This emerald island of chalked rectangles was where it was happening today in Natchez, a town of twenty thousand souls, steeped in history but a little at a loss about its future. In Waters’s youth, the neighborhoods surrounding these fields had housed blue-collar mill workers; now they were almost exclusively black. Twenty years ago, that would have made this area off-limits, but today there were black kids on his soccer team, a mark of change so profound that only people who had lived through those times really understood its significance. Before he knew why, Waters panned his eyes around the field, sensing an emptiness like that he felt when he sighted a cardinal landing outside his office window and, looking closer at the smear of scarlet, saw only the empty space left after the quick beat of wings. He was looking for the dark-haired woman, but she was gone.
He picked up the ball and jogged back to his group, which stood waiting for concluding remarks before splitting up and heading for their various neighborhoods.
“Everybody played a great game,” he told them, his eyes on the kids as their parents cheered. “There’s only one more to go. I think we’re going to win it, but win or lose, I’m taking everybody to McDonald’s after for a Happy Meal and ice cream.”
“Yaaaaaaay!” screamed ten throats in unison.
“Now go home and get that homework done!”
The parents laughed and shepherded their kids toward the SUVs, pickups, and cars parked along the sideline.
Annelise walked forward. “You blew it at the end, Daddy.”
“You don’t have that much homework.”
“No, but the third graders have a lot.”
Waters squeezed her shoulders and stood, then took the Igloo from his wife and softly said, “Did we have homework in second grade?”
Lily leaned in close. “We didn’t have homework until sixth grade.”
“Yeah? Well, we did all right.”
He took Annelise’s hand and led her toward his muddy Land Cruiser. A newly divorced mother named Janie somebody fell in beside Lily and started to talk. Waters nodded but said nothing as Janie began a familiar litany of complaints about her ex. Annelise ran ahead, toward another family whose car was parked beside the Land Cruiser. Alone with his thoughts for the first time in hours, Waters took a deep breath of cool air and sa vored the betweenness of the season. Someone was grilling meat across the road, and the scent made him salivate.
Turning toward the cooking smell, he saw the dark-haired woman walking toward him. She was twenty feet away and to his right, moving with fluid grace, her eyes fixed upon his face. He felt oddly on the spot until he realized she was headed back to the now-empty soccer field. He was about to ask her if she’d lost her keys when she tilted her head back and gave him a smile that nearly stopped him in his tracks.
Waters felt a wave of heat rush from his face to his toes. The smile withheld nothing: her lips spread wide, revealing perfect white teeth; her nostrils flared with feline excitement; and her eyes flashed fire. He wanted to keep looking, to stop and speak to her, but he knew better. It’s often said that looking is okay, but no wife really believes that. He nodded politely, then looked straight ahead and kept moving until he passed her. Yet his mind could not recover as quickly as his body. When Lily leaned toward Janie to say something, he glanced back over his shoulder.
The dark-haired woman was doing the same. Her smile was less broad now, but her eyes still teased him, and just before Waters looked away, her lips came together and formed a single word—unvocalized, but one he could not mistake for any other.
“Soon,” she said without sound.
And John Waters’s heart stopped.
He was a mile from the soccer field before he really started to regain his composure. Annelise was telling a story about a scuffle between two boys at recess, and mercifully, Lily seemed engrossed.
“Hey, we won,” she said, touching her husband’s elbow. “What’s the matter?”
Waters’s mind spun in neutral, searching for a reasonable explanation for his trancelike state. “It’s the EPA investigation.”
Lily’s face tightened, and her curiosity died, as Waters had known it would. An independent petroleum geologist, Waters owned half of a company with more than thirty producing oil wells, but he now lived with a sword hanging over his head. Seventeen years of success had been thrown into jeopardy by a single well that might have leaked salt water into a Louisiana rice farmer’s fields. For two months, the EPA had been trying to determine the source of the leak. This unpleasant situation had been made potentially devastating by Waters’s business partner’s failure to keep their liability insurance up-to-date, and since the company was jointly owned, Waters would suffer equally if the EPA deemed the leak their fault. He could be wiped out.
“Don’t think about it,” Lily pleaded.
For once, Waters wasn’t. He wanted to speak of comforting trivialities, but none came to him. His composure had been shattered by a smile and a soundless word. At length, in the most casual voice he could muster, he said, “Who was that woman who looked at me when we were leaving?”
“I thought you were looking at her,” Lily said, proving yet again that nothing got by her.
“Come on, babe . . . she just looked familiar.”
“Eve Sumner.” A definite chill in the voice. “She’s a real estate agent.”
Now he remembered. Cole Smith, his partner, had mentioned Eve Sumner before. In a sexual context, he thought, but most of what Cole mentioned had a sexual context or a sexual subtext.
“I think Cole’s mentioned her.”
“I’ll bet he has. Evie really gets around, from what I understand.”
Waters looked over at his wife, wondering at the change in her. A few years ago, she never made this sort of comment. Or maybe she had—maybe it was her tone that had changed. It held a bitterness that went along with the now-perpetual severity in her face. Four years ago, the smiling girlish looks that had lasted to thirty-five vanished almost overnight, and the bright eyes had dulled to an almost sullen opacity. He knew the date by heart, though he didn’t like to think about the reason.
“How old is she?” he asked.
“How old did she look to you?”
Potential minefield. “Um . . . forty-two?”
Lily snorted. “More like thirty-two. She probably wants to sell our house out from under us. She does that all the time.”
“Our house isn’t for sale.”
“People like Eve Sumner think everything has a price.”
“She sounds like Cole.”
“I’m sure they have a lot in common.” Lily cut her eyes at him in a way that as much as said, I’m sure Cole has slept with her. Which was a problem for Waters, since his business partner was—nominally at least—a happily married father of three. But this was a problem he was accustomed to dealing with. Cole Smith had been cheating on his wife since the honeymoon ended, but he’d never let it interfere with his marriage. Cole’s chronic philandering was more of a problem for Waters, who not infrequently found himself in the position of having to cover for a friend and partner whose actions he deplored. On another day he might have given a token grunt of skepticism in response to Lily’s assumption, but his patience with his partner had worn thin of late.
He swung the Land Cruiser around a dawdling log truck on Highway 61 and tried to clear his mind. There was a low-grade buzz deep in his brain, a hum of preoccupation set off by Eve Sumner’s smile but which had nothing to do with Eve Sumner. The smile on her face had risen straight from Waters’s past; the word she’d silently spoken echoed in a dark chamber of his heart. Soon . . .
“Damn,” he said under his breath.
“What is it?” asked Lily.
He made a show of looking at his watch. “The Jackson Point well. Cole called and said it may come in about three in the morning. I’m probably going to have to log it tonight.” Logging a well was the task of the geologist, who read complex measurements transmitted by an instrument lowered to the bottom of a newly drilled well in order to determine whether there was oil present. “There’s some stuff I need to do at the office before I go out to the rig.”
Lily sighed. “Why don’t you swing by now and pick up your maps and briefcase? You can make your phone calls from home.”
Waters knew she had made this suggestion without much hope. Whenever he logged wells, he had a ritual of spending time alone. Most geologists did, and he was thankful for that today.
“I won’t be more than an hour,” he said, a twinge of guilt going through him. “I’ll drop you guys off and be home as quick as I can.”
“Daddy!” objected Annelise. “You have to help with my homework.”
Waters laughed. His daughter needed no help with homework; she just liked him sitting close by in the hour before bedtime. “I’ll be back before you know it.”
“I know what that means.”
“I promise,” he insisted.
Annelise brightened. Her father kept his promises.
Greg Iles, Dead Sleep
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