"Do you remember Slap Watkins?"
"The guy who was spouting off in the bar."
"Can you be more specific? What bar? When?"
"The night you came to town."
"That was three years ago."
"Yeah, but you should remember." Chris Hoyle sat forward in an
attempt to goose his friend's powers of recall. "The loudmouth who
caused the fight? Face that would stop a clock. Big ears."
"Oh, that guy. Right. With the..." Beck held his hands at the sides
of his head to indicate large ears.
"That's how he got the nickname Slap," Chris said.
Beck raised an eyebrow.
"Whenever the wind blew, his ears -- "
"Slapped against his head," Beck finished.
"Like shutters in a gale." Grinning, Chris tilted his beer bottle
in a silent toast.
The window blinds in the den of the Hoyles' home were drawn to
block out the shimmering heat of a late-afternoon sun. The closed
blinds also made the room agreeably dim for better TV viewing. A
Braves game was being televised. Top of the ninth and Atlanta
needed a miracle. But despite the unfavorable score, there were
worse ways to spend a stifling Sunday afternoon than inside a
semidark, air-conditioned den, sipping cold brews.
Chris Hoyle and Beck Merchant had idled away many hours in this
room. It was the perfect male playroom, with its fifty-inch TV
screen and surround-sound speakers. It had a fully stocked bar with
a built-in ice maker, a refrigerator filled with soft drinks and
beer, a billiards table, a dartboard, and a round game table with
six leather chairs as soft and cushy as the bosom of the cover girl
on this month's issue of Maxim. The room was paneled with
stained walnut and furnished with substantial pieces that wore well
and required little maintenance. It smelled of tobacco smoke and
reeked of testosterone.
Beck uncapped another bottle of beer. "So what about this
"I didn't know he was gone. In fact, I don't think I've seen him
since that night, and then I was looking at him through swelling
Chris smiled at the memory. "As barroom brawls go, that was a
fairly good one. You caught several of Slap's well-placed punches.
He was always handy with his fists. He had to be because he shot
off his mouth all the time."
"Probably defending against cruel cracks about his ears."
"No doubt. Anyway, that smart mouth of his kept him on everybody's
fighting side. Soon after our altercation with him, he got into a
feud with his sister's ex-husband. Over a lawn mower, I think it
was. Things came to a head one night at a crawfish boil, and Slap
went after his ex-brother-in-law with a knife."
"Flesh wound. But it was right across the guy's belly and drew
enough blood to warrant an assault with a deadly weapon charge and
probably should have been attempted murder. Slap's own sister
testified against him. He's been in Angola for the past three
years, now out on parole."
Chris frowned. "Not really. Slap's got it in for us. At least
that's what he said that night three years ago when he was being
hauled away in a squad car. He thought it unfair that he was being
arrested and we weren't. Screamed invectives and threats that made
my blood run cold."
"I don't remember that."
"That may have been when you were in the men's room nursing your
wounds. Anyhow," Chris continued, "Slap is an unstable and
untrustworthy ne'er-do-well, a trailer trash Bubba whose only
talent is holding grudges, and in that, he excels. We humiliated
him that night, and even drunk as he was, I doubt he's forgiven and
forgotten. Keep an eye out for him."
"I consider myself warned." Beck glanced over his shoulder in the
general direction of the kitchen. "Am I invited to dinner?"
Beck settled even more comfortably into the sofa on which he was
sprawled. "Good. Whatever's baking in there is making my mouth
"Coconut cream pie. Nobody can make a better pie than Selma."
"You'll get no argument from me, Chris."
Chris's father, Huff Hoyle, strode in, fanning his ruddy face with
his straw hat. "Get me one of those longnecks. I'm so damn thirsty,
I couldn't work up a spit if my dick was on fire."
He hung his hat on a coat tree, then plopped down heavily in his
recliner, swiping his sleeve across his forehead. "Damn, it's a
scorcher today." With a sigh, he sank into the cool leather
cushions of the chair. "Thanks, Son." He took the chilled bottle of
beer Chris had opened for him and pointed it toward the TV. "Who's
winning this ball game?"
"Not the Braves. In fact it's over." Beck muted the sound as the
commentators began their postmortem of the game. "We don't need to
hear why they lost. The score says it all."
Huff grunted in agreement. "Their season was over the minute they
let those high-paid, non-English-speaking, prima donna players
start telling the owners how to run the show. Big mistake. Could
have told them that." He took a long swig of the beer, nearly
draining the bottle.
"Have you been playing golf all afternoon?" Chris asked.
"Too hot," Huff said as he lit a cigarette. "We played three holes,
then said screw this and went back to the clubhouse to play gin
"How much did you fleece them of today?"
The question wasn't whether Huff had won or lost. He always
"Couple of hundred."
"Nice going," Chris said.
"Ain't worth playing if you don't win." He winked at his son, then
at Beck. He finished his beer in a gulp. "Either of you heard from
"He'll show up here in a while," Chris said. "That is if he can
work us in between Sunday morning worship and Sunday night
Huff scowled. "Don't get me in a bad mood by talking about
that. I don't want to spoil my dinner."
The gospel according to Huff was that preaching, praying, and hymn
singing were for women and men who might just as well be women. He
equated organized religion to organized crime, except that churches
had impunity and tax advantages, and he had about as much
intolerance for Holy Joes as he did for homosexuals and laborers
with union cards.
Chris tactfully steered the conversation away from his younger
brother and his recent preoccupation with spiritual matters. "I was
just telling Beck that Slap Watkins is out on parole."
"White trash," Huff muttered as he toed off his shoes. "That whole
bunch, starting with Slap's granddaddy, who was the lowest
reprobate ever to draw breath. They found him dead in a ditch with
a broken whiskey bottle jammed in his throat. He must have crossed
somebody one time too many. There's bound to have been some
inbreeding in that family. Down to the last one of them they're
ugly as sin and dumber than stumps."
Beck laughed. "Maybe. But I owe Slap a debt of gratitude. If it
hadn't been for him, I wouldn't be here sharing Sunday
Huff looked across at him with as much affection as he showed his
own sons. "No, Beck, you were meant to become one of us, by hook or
by crook. Finding you made that whole Gene Iverson mess worthwhile.
You were the only good thing to come out of it."
"That and a hung jury," Chris said. "Let's not forget those twelve.
If it weren't for them, I wouldn't be here sharing Sunday dinner.
Instead I could be sharing a cell with the likes of Slap
Chris often made light of having been put on trial for the murder
of Gene Iverson. His joking dismissal of the incident never failed
to make Beck uncomfortable, as it did now. He changed the subject.
"I hate to bring up a business matter when it isn't even a
"In my book, every day's a workday," Huff said.
Chris groaned. "Not in my book, it's not. Is it bad news,
"Then can't it wait till after supper?"
"Sure, if you'd rather."
"Nope," Huff said. "You know my rule about bad news. I want to hear
it sooner rather than later. I sure as hell don't want to wait
through dinner. So, what's up, Beck? Don't tell me that we've been
slapped with another fine by the EPA over those cooling ponds --
"No, it's not that. Not directly."
"Hold on. I'm going to pour a drink first," Chris said to Huff.
"You like to hear bad news early, I like to hear it with a glass of
bourbon in my hand. Want one?"
"Lots of ice, no water."
"I'm fine, thanks."
Chris moved to the bar and reached for a decanter and two glasses.
Then, leaning closer to the window, he peered through the slats of
the blinds and twirled the wand to open them wider. "What have we
"What is it?" Huff asked.
"Sheriff's car just pulled up."
"Well, what do you think he wants? It's payday."
Chris, still looking through the blinds, said, "I don't think so,
Huff. He's got somebody with him."
"I don't know. Never saw him before."
Chris finished pouring the drinks and brought one of them to his
father, but the three said nothing more as they listened to Selma
making her way from the kitchen at the back of the house to the
front door to answer the bell. The housekeeper greeted the callers,
but the exchange was too softly spoken for individual words to be
understood. Footfalls approached the den. Selma appeared ahead of
"Mr. Hoyle, Sheriff Harper is here to see you."
Huff motioned for her to usher him in.
Sheriff Red Harper had been elected to the office thirty years
before, his campaign substantially boosted and his win guaranteed
by Huff's pocketbook. He had remained in office by the same
His hair, which had been fiery in his youth, had dulled, as though
it had rusted on his head. He stood well over six feet tall but was
so thin that the thick leather gun belt with the accoutrements of
his job attached looked like an inner tube hanging on a fence
He looked wilted, and not only because of the heat index outside.
His face was long and gaunt, as though three decades of corruption
had weighted it down with guilt. His woebegone demeanor was that of
a man who had sold his soul to the devil far too cheaply. Never
jolly, he seemed particularly downcast as he shuffled into the room
and removed his hat.
By contrast, the younger officer with him, a stranger to them,
seemed to have been dipped in a vat of starch along with his
uniform. He was so closely shaven, his cheeks were rosy with razor
burn. He looked as tense and alert as a sprinter in the blocks
waiting for the starting gun.
Red Harper acknowledged Beck with a slight nod. Then the sheriff
looked toward Chris, who was standing beside Huff's chair. Finally
his bleak eyes moved to Huff, who had remained seated in his
"Huff." Instead of looking directly at Huff, he focused on the brim
of his hat, which he was feeding through his fingers.
It wasn't Huff's habit to stand up for anyone. That was a show of
respect reserved for Huff Hoyle alone, and everybody in the parish
knew it. But, impatient with the suspense, he pushed down the
footrest of his recliner and came to his feet.
"What's going on? Who's this?" He gave the sheriff's
spit-and-polish companion a once-over.
Red cleared his throat. He lowered his hat to his side and
nervously tapped it against his thigh. He waited a long time before
looking Huff in the eye. All of which signaled to Beck that the
sheriff's errand was much more consequential than picking up this
"It's about Danny..." he began.
Excerpted from WHITE HOT © Copyright © 2011 by Sandra
Brown Management Ltd. Reprinted with permission by Simon &
Schuster. All rights reserved.