Charlie Croker, astride his favorite Tennessee walking horse, pulled his shoulders back to make sure he was erect in the saddle and took a deep breath . . . Ahhhh, that was the ticket . . . He loved the way his mighty chest rose and fell beneath his khaki shirt and imagined that everyone in the hunting party noticed how powerfully built he was. Everybody; not just his seven guests but also his six black retainers and his young wife, who was on a horse behind him near the teams of La Mancha mules that pulled the buckboard and the kennel wagon. For good measure, he flexed and fanned out the biggest muscles of his back, the latissimi dorsi, in a Charlie Croker version of a peacock or a turkey preening. His wife, Serena, was only twenty-eight, whereas he had just turned sixty and was bald on top and had only a swath of curly gray hair on the sides and in back. He seldom passed up an opportunity to remind her of what a sturdy cord no, what a veritable cable kept him connected to the rude animal vitality of his youth.
By now they were already a good mile away from the Big House and deep into the plantation's seemingly endless fields of broom sedge. This late in February, this far south in Georgia, the sun was strong enough by 8 a.m. to make the ground mist lift like wisps of smoke and create a heavenly green glow in the pine forests and light up the sedge with a tawny gold. Charlie took another deep breath . . . Ahhhhhh . . . the husky aroma of the grass . . . the resinous air of the pines . . . the heavy, fleshy odor of all his animals, the horses, the mules, the dogs . . . Somehow nothing reminded him so instantly of how far he had come in his sixty years on this earth as the smell of the animals. Turpmtine Plantation! Twenty-nine thousand acres of prime southwest Georgia forest, fields, and swamp! And all of it, every square inch of it, every beast that moved on it, all fifty-nine horses, all twenty-two mules, all forty dogs, all thirty-six buildings that stood upon it, plus a mile-long asphalt landing strip, complete with jet-fuel pumps and a hangar all of it was his, Cap'm Charlie Croker's, to do with as he chose, which was: to shoot quail.
His spirits thus buoyed, he turned to his shooting partner, a stout brick-faced man named Inman Armholster, who was abreast of him on another of his walking horses, and said:
"Inman, I'm gonna—"
But Inman, with a typical Inman Armholster bluster, cut him off and insisted on resuming a pretty boring disquisition concerning the upcoming mayoral race in Atlanta: "Listen, Charlie, I know Jordan's got charm and party manners and he talks white and all that, but that doesn't" dud'n"mean he's any friend of . . ."
Charlie continued to look at him, but he tuned out. Soon he was aware only of the deep, rumbling timbre of Inman's voice, which had been smoke-cured the classic Southern way, by decades of Camel cigarettes, unfiltered. He was an odd-looking duck, Inman was. He was in his mid-fifties but still had a head of thick black hair, which began low on his forehead and was slicked back over his small round skull. Everything about Inman was round. He seemed to be made of a series of balls piled one atop the other. His buttery cheeks and jowls seemed to rest, without benefit of a neck, upon the two balls of fat that comprised his chest, which in turn rested upon a great swollen paunch. Even his arms and legs, which looked much too short, appeared to be made of spherical parts. The down-filled vest he wore over his hunting khakis only made him look that much rounder. Nevertheless, this ruddy pudge was chairman of Armaxco Chemical and about as influential a businessman as existed in Atlanta. He was this weekend's prize pigeon, as Charlie thought of it, at Turpmtine. Charlie desperately wanted Armaxco to lease space in what so far was the worst mistake of his career as a real estate developer, a soaring monster he had megalomaniacally named Croker Concourse.
"—gon' say Fleet's too young, too brash, too quick to play the race card. Am I right?"
Suddenly Charlie realized Inman was asking him a question. But other than the fact that it concerned Andre Fleet, the black "activist," Charlie didn't have a clue what it was about.
So he went, "Ummmmmmmmmmmm."
Inman apparently took this to be a negative comment, because he said, "Now, don't give me any a that stuff from the smear campaign. I know there's people going around calling him an out-and-out crook. But I'm telling you, if Fleet's a crook, then he's my kinda crook."
Charlie was beginning to dislike this conversation, on every level. For a start, you didn't go out on a beautiful Saturday morning like this on the next to last weekend of the quail season and talk politics, especially not Atlanta politics. Charlie liked to think he went out shooting quail at Turpmtine just the way the most famous master of Turpmtine, a Confederate Civil War hero named Austin Roberdeau Wheat, had done it a hundred years ago; and a hundred years ago nobody on a quail hunt at Turpmtine would have been out in the sedge talking about an Atlanta whose candidates for mayor were both black. But then Charlie was honest with himself. There was more. There was . . . Fleet. Charlie had had his own dealings with Andre Fleet, and not all that long ago, either, and he didn't feel like being reminded of them now or, for that matter, later.
So this time it was Charlie who broke in:
"Inman, I'm gonna tell you something I may regret later on, but I'm gonna tell you anyway, ahead a time."
After a couple of puzzled blinks Inman said, "All right . . . go ahead."
"This morning," said Charlie, "I'm only gonna shoot the bobs." Morning came out close to moanin', just as something had come out sump'm. When he was here at Turpmtine, he liked to shed Atlanta, even in his voice. He liked to feel earthy, Down Home, elemental; which is to say, he was no longer merely a real estate developer, he was . . . a man.
"Only gon' shoot the bobs, hunh," said Inman. "With that?"
He gestured toward Charlie's .410-gauge shotgun, which was in a leather scabbard strapped to his saddle. The spread of buckshot a .410 fired was smaller than any other shotgun's, and with quail the only way you could tell a bob from a hen was by a patch of white on the throat of a bird that wasn't much more than eight inches long to start with.
"Yep," said Charlie, grinning, "and remember, I told you ahead a time."
"Yeah? I'll tell you what," said Inman. "I'll betcha you can't. I'll betcha a hundred dollars."
"What kinda odds you gon' give me?"
"Odds? You're the one who brought it up! You're the one staking out the bragging rights! You know, there's an old saying, Charlie: `When the tailgate drops, the bullshit stops.'"
"All right," said Charlie, "a hundred dollars on the first covey, even Stephen." He leaned over and extended his hand, and the two of them shook on the bet.
Immediately he regretted it. Money on the line. A certain deep worry came bubbling up into his brain. PlannersBanc! Croker Concourse! Debt! A mountain of it! But real estate developers like him learned to live with debt, didn't they . . . It was a normal condition of your existence, wasn't it . . . You just naturally grew gills for breathing it, didn't you . . . So he took another deep breath to drive the spurt of panic back down again and flexed his big back muscles once more.
Charlie was proud of his entire physique, his massive neck, his broad shoulders, his prodigious forearms; but above all he was proud of his back. His employees here at Turpmtine called him Cap'm Charlie, after a Lake Seminole fishing-boat captain from a hundred years ago with the same name, Charlie Croker, a sort of Pecos Bill figure with curly blond hair who, according to local legend, had accomplished daring feats of strength. There was a song about him, which some of the old folks knew by heart. It went: "Charlie Croker was a man in full. He had a back like a Jersey bull. Didn't like okra, didn't like pears. He liked a gal that had no hairs. Charlie Croker! Charlie Croker! Charlie Croker!"
Whether or not there had actually existed such a figure, Charlie had never been able to find out. But he loved the idea, and he often said to himself what he was saying to himself at this moment: "Yes! I got a back like a Jersey bull!" In his day he had been a star on the Georgia Tech football team. Football had left him with a banged-up right knee, that had turned arthritic about three years ago. He didn't associate that with age, however. It was an honorable wound of war. One of the beauties of a Tennessee walking horse was that its gait spared you from having to post, to pump up and down at the knees when the horse trotted. He wasn't sure he could take posting on this chilly February morning.
The two shooters, Charlie and Inman, rode on in silence for a while, listening to the creaking of the wagons and the clip-clopping of the mules and the snorts of the horses of the outriders and waiting for some signal from Moseby.
You could hear the low voice of one of the buckboard drivers saying, "Buckboard One to base . . . Buckboard One to base . . ." There was a radio transmitter under the driver's seat. "Base" was the overseer's office, back near the Big House. Buckboard One . . . Charlie hoped Inman and Ellen and the Morrisseys and the Stannards got the drift of that and were reminded that he had sent out four shooting parties this morning, four sets of weekend guests, with four buckboards (Buckboards One, Two, Three, and Four), four kennel wagons, four dog trainers, four sets of outriders, four of everything . . . Turpmtine was that big and that lavishly run. There was a formula. To send out one shooting party, with one pair of shooters, half a day each week for the entire season, which ran only from Thanksgiving to the end of February, you had to have at least five hundred acres. Otherwise you would wipe out your quail coveys and have no birds to shoot the following year. To send out one party all day once a week, you had to have at least a thousand acres. Well, he had 29,000 acres. If he felt like it, he could send out four parties all day, every day, seven days a week, throughout the season. Quail! The aristocrat of American wild game! It was what the grouse and the pheasant were in England and Scotland and Europe only better! With the grouse and the pheasant you had your help literally beating the bushes and driving the birds toward you. With the quail you had to stay on the move. You had to have great dogs, great horses, and great shooters. Quail was king. Only the quail exploded upward into the sky and made your heart bang away so madly in your rib cage. And to think what he, Cap'm Charlie, had here! Second biggest plantation in the state of Georgia! He kept up 29,000 acres of fields, woods, and swamp, plus the Big House, the Jook House for the guests, the overseer's house, the stables, the big barn, the breeding barn, the Snake House, the kennels, the gardening shed, the plantation store, the same one that had been there ever since the end of the Civil War, likewise the twenty-five cabins for the help he kept all this going, staffed, and operating, not to mention the landing field and a hangar big enough to accommodate a Gulfstream Five he kept all this going, staffed, and operating year round . . . for the sole purpose of hunting quail for thirteen weeks. And it wasn't sufficient to be rich enough to do it. No, this was the South. You had to be man enough to deserve a quail plantation. You had to be able to deal with man and beast, in every form they came in, with your wits, your bare hands, and your gun.
He wished there was some way he could underline all this for Inman. Inman's father had built up a pharmaceuticals company back at a time when that was not even a well-known industry, and Inman had turned it into a chemicals conglomerate, Armaxco. Right now he wouldn't mind being in Inman's shoes. Armaxco was so big, so diverse, so well established, it was cycleproof. Inman could probably go to sleep for twenty years and Armaxco would just keep chugging away, minting money. Not that Inman would want to miss a minute of it. He loved all those board meetings too much, loved being up on the dais at all those banquets too much, loved all those tributes to Inman Armholster the great philanthropist, all those junkets to the north of Italy, the south of France, and God knew where else on Armaxco's Falcon 900, all those minions jumping every time he so much as crooked his little finger. With a corporate structure like Armaxco's beneath him, Inman could sit on that throne of his as long as he wanted or until he downed the last mouthful of lamb shanks and mint jelly God allowed him whereas he, Charlie, was a one-man band. That was what a real estate developer was, a one-man band! You had to sell the world on . . . yourself! Before they would lend you all that money, they had to believe in . . . you! They had to think you were some kind of omnipotent, flaw-free genius. Not my corporation but Me, Myself & I! His mistake was that he had started believing it himself, hadn't he . . . Why had he ever built a mixed-use development out in Cherokee County crowned with a forty-eight-story tower and named it after himself? Croker Concourse! No other Atlanta developer had ever dared display that much ego, whether he had it or not. And now the damned thing stood there, 60 percent empty and hemorrhaging money.
The deep worry was lit up like an inflammation. Couldn't let that happen . . . not on a perfect morning for shooting quail at Turpmtine.