Mia Burke’s eyes go wide when I walk into the living room of my town house.
“God, what happened to you?” she asks.
“I got a little wet.”
She rises from her chair and drops The Sheltering Sky onto an ottoman. “You’re bleeding!”
She walks into the hall and motions for me to follow her to the bathroom. In the mirror over the sink, I see abrasions all over my neck and arms, and one long scrape on my left arm. The burn on my right forearm is red and throbbing.
“Shit,”she says softly. “Yuck.”
“Your back is worse than your front. It looks like you’ve got a bad cut under your shirt.”
“You’d better let me look.”
I feel a little awkward in the bathroom with Mia. Two days ago I wouldn’t have thought twice about it, but now…“Just pull it up and see if I need stitches.”
She laughs at my cautiousness, then slowly lifts my shirt, which is stuck to my back. “It’s a slash, really. It doesn’t look too deep, but it’s dirty. Are you about to get in the shower?”
“If I rub some soap into it, you can rinse it out in the shower. That should take care of it.”
She slips around me and turns on the hot water tap, then rubs soap into a blue washcloth until she has a thick lather. “Are you going to cry?” she asks, holding up the cloth and stepping behind me again.
“Let’s find out.”
The soap stings like sulfuric acid, but Mia has shamed me into silence.
“Are you crying?” she asks, scrubbing like a hospital nurse. I can feel her pulling apart the skin to clean inside the cut.
“Thinking about it. What’s Lifehouse?” I ask, remembering her T-shirt.
“A band, old man. You’d like them. I’ll make you a disk.” The humor disappears from her voice. “Did whatever you went to do work out all right?”
“Not as well as I hoped. But at least nobody got killed.”
“That’s good, right?”
At last she removes the burning cloth from my back. “I’m going to leave the soap in there. If you want it to stop hurting, go take your shower.”
“Thanks. I can handle it from here.”
She laughs, her eyes flickering with humor despite the day’s events. “Can you? Do you need me tomorrow?”
“After school, if you can make it.”
“Okay. See you then.”
She starts down the hall, but I call after her, “Have you heard anything else about Kate’s death?”
Mia walks back to the bathroom door. “Steve Sayers and his dad are down at the sheriff’s office right now, answering questions.”
“Steve was Kate’s boyfriend?”
“Figure of speech only.”
“Do you know where he was this afternoon?”
“He told John Ellis he drove down to his dad’s hunting camp near Woodville after school, to clean the place before turkey season.”
Woodville is a small logging town thirty miles south of Natchez. “Alone?”
“That’s what Steve told John. There may have been somebody down at the camp when Steve got there. I hope so, for Steve’s sake.”
“This time of year, I doubt it. So…Steve Sayers may not have an alibi.”
Mia bites her lower lip and looks down the hall toward the front door. She’s wearing small sapphire studs in her ears; I’ve never noticed them before. Suddenly she looks back at me, her dark eyes intense. “You don’t really think Steve could have killed Kate, do you?”
“I don’t know him. His parents either. What kind of boy is he?”
“He’s okay. Kind of red, I guess. He’s no brain surgeon. His dad’s a game warden. What can I say? He’s a jock of average intelligence.”
Mia shrugs. “He’s been in a couple of fights, but then most of the guys I know have. The jocks, anyway.”
“Has the sheriff’s department talked to anybody else that you know about?”
“No. The police talked to Mrs. Townsend not long ago. That’s what I heard, anyway. They asked for the names of Kate’s closest friends.”
“Do you know whose names she gave them?”
“No. The truth is, Kate didn’t have any close friends. Not for the past year or so. I mean, we all thought of her as a friend, but nobody was really in her business, you know? Half the time, no one even knew where she was.”
The police are going to find this fact very interesting. “Did you ever ask her where she was? Or try to figure out where she might be?”
“Not really. Steve did, of course. Like I told you, he always insisted she had some secret boyfriend, one she was ashamed for us to know about. But no one ever saw her with another guy.”
I’m tempted to ask Mia if she ever saw Kate alone with Drew; she and her classmates might have seen them together and not thought twice about it. But there’s no point in alerting her to the true nature of that relationship. “Was Kate tight with any of the black kids at St. Stephen’s?”
Mia looks curiously at me. “Why?”
I’m not going to tell her about the blackmail call or Drew’s assessment of the possible caller. “It might be important.”
“Don’t tell me they’re going to try to railroad a black guy for this.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Well, from what I’ve read, that used to happen all the time around here in the old days. You know how it was. That’s why you took that civil rights case, right?”
“Yes and no. The truth is, I’m worried about ’them‘ railroading a white guy for Kate’s murder. What about my question?”
“Well, we only have four black guys in our class. We’re a pretty small class, so everybody knows everybody. But Kate didn’t have any special thing with any of the black guys. You talking about sex?”
“Not necessarily. Any special relationship.”
“I’ll ask around, but tonight my answer is no.”
“Okay.” I pull the towel tight across the cut on my back. “Thanks for staying tonight. I’m going to hit the shower now.”
She smiles and gives me a little wave. “Bye.”
“Hey, did Caitlin call while I was gone?”
“No. No calls.” Her eyes probe mine for a hidden reaction to this news.
Her gaze lingers a moment longer, and then she walks down the hall to the front door. “Tell Annie I’ll see her tomorrow afternoon.”
“I will. Thanks again.”
The front door slams.