Gotta Go

Saving readers from the 2k word count. Less. More often.

“Shit.”

Betty’d been on the money. Bash’s aging crew cab 4×4 Ford Ranger was gone. He parked himself on a rear pink paddle of the Barbie Jeep, tapped a number into his phone. Twenty minutes later, a county vehicle service truck pulled up with four oversized, Armorall-ed pull-offs from an impounded Wrangler that had probably never been off pavement.

“I’m holdin’ you to that three days for these, Reed,” the service truck driver, unrolling a dirty blue air hose. “I need the Wrangler these come off back together for next week’s auction.” He pressed the trigger on the impact wrench. It whined like a jet starter. “Grab the jack. You can drop the beer off after work.”

***

The old Victorian-esque two-story belonging to Altus Murphy’s ninety-four-year-old mother Esther, location and age data supplied by Betty, stood on a small rise a quarter mile off the road. No fence at the road or the house. Two old oaks that looked like they were trying to die to the west. Behind the house, a forty-foot ham radio tower loomed like the skeleton of a steeple. All the place needed was a Bates Motel sign or a crew of screaming teenagers and a maniac with a chain saw. Bash, sitting by the drainage ditch, felt the same chill he’d gotten in Bodega Bay the time he’d stood outside The Birds schoolhouse.

He had to check it out, though. Altus Murphy wasn’t answering his phone or returning calls from any of the three burner phones employed by the Red River Monster Hunters. On the assumption Altus had gone MIA to avoid being charged as complicit in bringing about the death of his partner Jimmy Pierce and wasn’t to be found, Bash left his cruiser in the lot and used the run out into the county as a test drive for real tires on the Barbie Jeep. Okay, but it could use an alignment.

He dropped the pink gearshift into second, rumbled crossed the cattle guard, up a dusty drive that kicked up occasional remnants of gravel and parked by a rotting decorative wooden horse hitching rail. Weeds and succulents vied for control of a patch roughly five feet deep and fifteen feet long between the rail and the porch, the steps up to that porch in the middle, between his patch and one similar on the other side. He creaked up the plank steps, let his eyes adjust to the deep shade. The old woman dressed in a gray housedress, white shawl, bright white socks and white canvas slip-ons stood parked to the right side of the door, her body bent ninety degrees at the waist and caged by a three-sided walker replete with tennis ball caps on the legs.

“Mrs. Murphy?”

 “Been expectin’ you,” said in a voice reminiscent of a pirate’s parrot. “Lookin’ for Altus like ever one else, I figger.” She clomped the walker. “Cain’t tell you what a disappointment that boy’s been. No sir, ain’t no words for it…” She stuck a bony finger toward the Jeep. “That what the county does with my tax money? Buy pink and white Jeeps to keep the long-haired queers they hire to drive ‘em happy?”

“No ma’am. It belongs to a friend. I’m—”

“Another fucking disappointment, that’s what you are. There was a time, young man,” she thumped her walker for emphasis, “all the colors we needed from the goddam rainbow was red, white, and blue.” She coughed a deep chest phlegmy wheeze, turned the walker, clump clumped toward the front door. “Damn shame your momma hadda be disappointed, too. Indian sheriff, more hair than a woman and a ‘friend’ with a pink jeep… Godamighty… what’s next…”

“Look, before you go inside, is Altus around?”

“You see his car?” from inside.

“No ma’am. I—”

“You wouldn’t, though, would you?” She cackle laughed from further inside. “Because it’s out back!” That was even funnier. From further in, “They’re out yonder, havin’ a party in his radio shack.” That was funnier still, the cackles bouncing around the inside of the old house. “Shack sets out back, clear a the house a ways. You go on ‘round,” he could hear her clumping toward the back. “I’ll be along.”

***

Sheriff Harden whistled softly, closed the passenger door on the BMW, found himself in the freshly raked gravel lot of a gleaming, tree shrouded colonial style home converted to steak house sitting on a forested hill. Over his right shoulder the view sloped off several hundred feet down a natural clearing through the forest to a tree-lined creek. A little snow and it was a Christmas card. “No idea what you’re sellin’ Merton,” Harden stretched his neck, straightened his collar. “But when I look around, I know it’s gonna be unpleasant when you try to shove it up my backside.”

“Dominick,” Merton locked the car with the fob. “When was the last time I offered you a risky deal?”

“Lemme see. Bash Reed comes to mind. Before that Monica Perez.”

“Monica hasn’t stabbed any inmates lately. And Reed’s turned out okay.”

“Better than okay. He didn’t like his own people screwin’ his own people, that’s all. Shitty to get your career blackballed for bein’ a stand-up guy.”

“Since you’re the stand-up guy that’s fixin’ that for him, you won’t object to me tellin’ you about another politically incompetent little lost lamb impaired by intelligence, conscience, and impatience.”

Merton held the door. The hostess ignored Harden’s uniform and badge, icy eyed his gun. “Sir, we don’t allow open or concealed carry here,” leaving icicles in the air. “There’s a sign outside.”

“Then we shouldn’t expect any trouble.” Merton pulled his wallet badge, exposing his shoulder holster. “The guns go where we go. Two, please.”

She huffed off in front of them, stopped at a table in the middle of the room. Merton tapped it to get her attention, pointed to a window. She picked up the menus, huffed some more.

“Check your guns and lousy first call seating,” Harden quickly inspected the pearls and diamond bracelet late lunch with extra alcohol crowd. “Coupled with a high maintenance perfume fog. No wonder cops don’t eat here.”

“Only old cops on a mission,” Merton said. “Don’t look at the prices. The marijuana lobby’s buyin’.”

***

Bash rounded the corner of the house. Ten yards away in a square patch of weed infested gravel sat a shiny new black Nissan SUV and an older white Buick sedan. While he was trying to place the Buick, his phone buzzed. The number, like the car, familiar. “Deputy Reed.”

“Deputy? Oh thank Gawwwd… Shit, oh shit, oh shit…”

“Mrs. Pierce? Karla?”

“My car, Aiden… Ohhhh… Shit, oh shit, oh shit…”

“Take a deep breath, tell me what’s—”

“Aiden’s gone. So’s my car. I just walked down to the shop to wax Miz Cotter’s eyebrows and—”

“Little white Buick with a Go Sooners tag holder?”

“Yes! Do you know where—”

BAM.

“What was that? It sounded like a gunshot…”

“That it did. I know where your car is, and most likely your son. Gotta go.”

Hot. Fuckin’. Damn.

“Okay,” Aiden guzzled half his second Mountain Dew. “It started when old man Murphy run into me over to the big Exxon there on 59 an asked would I like to make some easy cash. I laughed, y’know, like what the fuck, old Murph wants me to mow his yard for two bucks like when I was a kid. But he gets up in my ear all kinda creepy an says so quiet I can hardly hear him, ‘No, I’ll pay you three thousand dollars to wear a costume for no more’n half a hour an help me scare the shit outta some people.’ I told him he’d lost it, but then I knew he was in on whatever Dad was doin’ in the old lawnmower shop that was buyin’ the big ass TVs an the satellite dish that gets like twelve-hunnerd channels, so maybe old Murph, he does have three thousand dollars. He says email him how to deposit money in my account an I say no prob. But no lie man, I ain’t got a clue how that shit works. So I go to the house an tricked Ivy into showin’ me how to set it up by gettin’ her to show me how to send her some money, tellin’ her it was for her helpin’ out an when Dad forgets to pay her ‘cause he forgets to pay everbody, even Mom.”

“What happened after you scared the shit outta your Dad and Virgil Green?”

“That’s where it gets crazy an a little fuzzy. I’m tellin’ ya, I was high as fuck off bein’ in that suit, man, and Murph, he’s freakin’, sayin’ ‘take it off, take it off, they’re gonna kill you’ so I peel outta the suit—”

“You were high? You didn’t use the respirator?”

“The oxygen tank? No, man… I thought it was some old guy thing, oxygen an all. Like the commercials on TV?”

“Jesus, Aiden,” Bash took a few beats to clear his head. “So… Tell me what you can remember after Altus Murphy decided Virgil and your dad went off to get a gun so they could come back and shoot you. Do your best an I’ll take into account you were high from sniffin’ dry cleanin’ fluid.”

“Cool,” he cupped his hands over his face, rubbed his forehead with his fingertips for a long minute, “‘Cause man, I mean…”

“High as fuck. I got it, Aiden. Murphy?”

“Murph? Oh, right… Well, he says that shit about gettin’ shot an all, an he fuckin’ lights off outta there like he’s got a Roman candle up his butt, leavin’ me holdin’ this stinky ass fuckin’ monster thing costume. If Dad and Greenie are comin’ back, y’know, I don’t want ‘em to find me holdin’ it so I just start shovin’ all the shit Murph brought in a trash bag, tie it off an drop it in the river where I know it’s three feet deep at least. But it’s just sittin’ there, y’know, the top flappin’ an all.” He finished the Dew, looked around for a place to trash it, gave up. “That’s when I dropped the spare on it an hauled ass.”

“Why’d you throw your phone out?”

“I was thinkin’ some deep shit was gonna fly, an the itch was comin’ on an I’m trippin’, knowin’, you know, I ain’t right an it’s gettin’ worse. So, I call Deeter, man, an tell him the tit bar trip was prob’ly shittered ‘cause a whatever was goin’ wrong with me, an to meet me at the trailer an we’d jam somethin’ out. He was all like dude, we’re supposed to be in fuckin’ Louisiana an how was I gonna go home an explain the itchy trippin’ thing to Ivy, him not knowin’ she’d done called fifty times already wantin’ to know the TV shit an I’d fucked that all up not answerin’… an I just dint want nobody tryin’ to call me anymore till I could figure out what the fuck, you know? So… Well, hell… There’s times when somethin’s gotta give…” His turn to catch an eye lock. “ ‘Cause the shit storm, it’s droppin’ so heavy you just cain’t deal no more.”

***

“Betty,” from Bash, standing in the hall behind reception. “Where the hell is everybody?”

“Deputy Reed, I would be remiss in my Christian duty if I didn’t tell you we needn’t inject references to Satan’s home in workplace conversation.”

“On Sunday you can tell your pastor you reprimanded a heathen savage for bein’ cavalier about the devil and proceeded to cast out his demons, but right now, could you please tell me where the hell everybody went?”

“The Sheriff and the grey-haired slick that smelled too good went off in the slick’s fancy black car without so much as a by your leave. Agent Cotton said she was goin’ out to hot-wire your little pickup and if you needed to go anywhere you could drive her Jeep,” she lifted the Barbie Jeep key out of her desk drawer. “Seein’ as how you seem to like it so much.”

“She didn’t really say that.”

“You’d best check the parkin’ lot before you go to callin’ fib on me, Deputy. She also said she wouldn’t be back today on account a she needed some air, away from men, before her meetin’ with a passel a young women this evenin’ about a dirty old man at the Wal-Mart. I told her Wal-Mart’s got no corner on dirty old men, but she was already out the door. If you’re needin’ somethin’ done,” She hunched her shoulders, head down, snort laughed. “I’m your Huckleberry.”

“Where the—”

“Our pastor said he’d heard that in a movie, about a fella who stepped up to help a friend abolish evil, and we should it make our Christian motto. If it’s good what needs doin’, the soldiers of Jesus are the world’s Huckleberrys.”

“Okay, Hucky. Call Karla Pierce for us. Tell her to come get her son.”

***

Bash led Karla Pierce to Aiden’s holding cell, explaining on the way it wasn’t as grim as it seemed, in fact it was five-star accommodation compared to the county lockup. She caught his arm on the way to punching in the lock code, pulled him back down the hall. She stopped, stared at him, her face tight, unreadable.

“When Betty called and told me he’d been in jail and had a rough time, I got the feelin’ he was havin’ some kinda other trouble along with whatever landed him in here. Is there anything I need to know, about how he is, or what he’s done…”

“He had a rough four or five days and just this mornin’ came out of a shocky allergic reaction and an accidental toxic chemical high.”

Accidental toxic chemical high?”

“Yes ma’am. The only thing he seems to have done on purpose was try to pick up some extra money and not let go of a bad cover story. He woke up this mornin’ clear enough to realize his father was dead, and we figured him good for it.”

“Christ on a crutch, that child… So he does know Jimmy’s passed?”

“Yes ma’am.”

Is he good for it?”

“No, ma’am, or he wouldn’t be goin’ home. And I’m only lettin’ him go with you because you’re his mother. The last thing he needs right now is to be alone in that empty trailer.”

“Ivy’s gone?”

“Yes ma’am.” Bash worked them back toward the cell.

“Good. At least there’s one kid in this county’s found some sense.”

“Could be. Sign this.” Bash handed Karla a clipboard he’d lifted off a hook by the cell door. “Aiden can wear the jumpsuit home. Betty’s got his ruined clothes in a sealed bag up front. I’ll tell you like I told him. Don’t touch, ‘em, don’t sniff ‘em, drop ‘em in a burn barrel and get some distance from it. Betty’s got his meds and personal items up there, too.”

“Meds? He has some kinda permanent damage?”

“Just antihistamines to get him over the reaction and anti-anxiety to knock him down some from the steroids. Another day or two he’ll be his old self again. He mighta lost a few brain cells to the dry-cleanin’ fluid, but he’s young.”

“He takes after his father, Deputy,” pulling on his sleeve. “By sayin’ that,” she tapped her temple, “I mean he ain’t got all that many cells upstairs that he can afford to lose any. And,” quizzical, “by you sayin’ he didn’t kill Jimmy, that means somebody did, though, right?”

“All I can tell you is yes, ma’am,” he punched in the unlock code. “Right now, it’s definitely lookin’ like homicide.”

“Hot. Fuckin’. Damn.” She shuffled her feet in a quick tap dance, ended with an arms out Broadway flourish. “Sorry,” sheepish. “I reckon it’s bad enough when you’re happy your ex is dead. And more likely worse when them gettin’ murdered makes your day. But in my world, Deputy? Homicide spells double indemnity.”

The Steely, Square Jawed Comic Book Adventurer

“Sheriff,” Brandy carefully wiped her napkin around her lipstick, “Did you just wanna be seen with the two best lookin’ ladies in the county, or did you have somethin’ else in mind?”

“Brandy, we’ve been knowin’ each other a long time and you always could turn the noise of a junk yard dog barkin’ into soundin’ like scratchy lingerie an Avon candles.” He dropped his napkin in his plate and elbowed them both to the side. “Ordinarily I would ask you and Ivy the same questions at different times, but like Ivy said, I don’t have all day. And with the two of you I’d have to separate the performance from the facts. Not that y’all would lie on purpose about this, but I know a girl might ease off talkin’ trash about her Daddy. And for damn sure an ex-wife might lean a little harder on the trash if no one’s there to call her down. This way I get some honest reactions and I can see you choke when either of you might go to lyin’. What I want, ladies, is straight answers, quick. You start checkin’ in with each other an—”

“Dominick Harden we are not that sort of people.” Brandy threw her napkin in her plate and stacked it on the Sheriff’s. “I might be colorful. I might even embellish the truth a little or tell a particular version of events so’s a lady stays a lady, but you tell me,” she pointed a fork at him, “have you ever known me to lie to anyone?”

“Aside from me?”

“You’re the law, Dom. Nobody tells you the freakin’ truth when they’re in handcuffs in the back seat a yore goddam car!”

“Momma?” Ivy lowered her voice, put a strong squeeze on Brandy’s thigh. “There’re other people here tryin’ to eat.”

“Well, the man just called me a—”

“Momma?” The squeeze intensified. “There’re people in here call you a lot worse when you’re not listenin’, so chill. Okay?”

“Mmph.” Brandy folded her arms, her crossed leg swinging like a metronome on meth.

“Good. Now, did either a y’all know Virgil to have a temper?”

“NO.” Brandy, glowering.

“I never saw him mad, Sheriff. Honest. We had this dog, ‘member?” She checked in with her mom.

“Captain. What a mess he was.”

“He was sweet, Momma. One time Daddy was cookin’ a steak out on the grill, I must’ve been maybe four ‘cause that’s when I start rememberin’. Anyway, Captain, he stole the steak while Daddy was standin’ there.”

“How’d your Daddy take that?”

“He laughed. Most people I tell that to, they say they’d a killed that dog, but Daddy said if Captain was smart enough to steal the steak off a hot grill right from under his nose and not get burned then he was one smart dog, and Daddy was proud to own him. An Momma,” Ivy side eyed Brandy, added a sneaky smile. “Well, she’s still not much at cookin’ but back then she’d make some seriously bad dinners an Daddy, he never once said anything. He’d slip some burnt whatever under the table to Captain, makin’ it look like he was eatin’ but then after dinner he’d go eat some baloney he kept stashed out in that old fridge full a beer in the garage.”

“First I’ve heard of the baloney.” Brandy gave Ivy a quarter turn, eyebrows as knitted as Botox would allow. “And for the record, he never said nothin’ where you could hear it.” She shifted to the Sheriff. “But he never beat me or nothin’, like you hear about some men doin’ over a can a burnt beans for God’s sake. Oh, he’d drop little hints, like maybe I should check the oven every coupla hours after I loaded it or buy a timer or maybe not camp out on the phone when things was already cookin’ on the stove. But that was it. No hollerin’ or swingin’.”

“You know he said all that way back then, Momma, and he even put a smoke detector in the kitchen,” Ivy swatted her with her napkin. “It never did take.”

“Ivy! I’m your mother, for Christ’s sake. Show a little­­—”

“Now, Brandy,” Harden broke in. “Before y’all get sidetracked, seems I recall a time or two you wound up at county emergency ‘cause a Virgil.”

“That was my own fault. The man went crazy when he got startled or scared. One time, before Ivy was born, I jumped outta the closet in a witch costume and the man flipped plumb out. Chased me all around, beatin’ on me with a wood handled plunger. And the time the squirrel jumped in the kitchen window when we was livin’ out there on County 29? He liked to broke everything in the kitchen till he killed the little thing by slammin’ the fridge against the baseboard. Took the back wall off the damn house with that one.”

“I was too young or missed some of that, but more recent I know he was worryin’ about how we were catfishin’ all these people, pretending to be Bigfoot an all, and how it had to be settin’ up bad karma with the real Bigfoot.”

“Virgil believes in Bigfoot?”

“Jesus, Dom,” Brandy checked her sunglasses to make sure they hadn’t pulled her top down too far. “The man was superstitious as all hell. Witches, ghosts, Bigfoot, giant alligators, vampires, black cats, ladders, other people’s mirrors, spider webs. Tell the man a joke about a snake in the toilet and for a coupla weeks you’d find him out behind a bush with a roll a toilet paper. Ivy’ll tell you we never had a jack-o-lantern. A freakin’ candle in a damn pumpkin like to scared the man half to death. If ever a man harbored ridiculous fears, it’s Virgil Green.”

Ivy nodded.

“Don’t you go actin’ superior, missy,” Brandy, using the bottom of the shiny tube to fix her lipstick. “You’re your daddy’s own daughter. Thinkin’ one a these days some crazy woman’s gonna come an shoot me over a pecker with wanderlust.”

“Don’t know about gettin’ shot, Brandy,” Harden handed the tip tray and cash to the waitress, mouthed ‘keep it’. “But she’s got a point. The way things are goin’ in this world? One a these days you’re liable to catch somethin’ when you’re out trollin’ an regret bringin’ it home.”

***

“Wait here a minute.” Bash stood. “You want anything? Coffee? Coke? Water?”

Aiden rubbed his neck, thought. “Mountain Dew?”

Bash made his way to the interview recording room, checked the computer and available recording time, figured six and half days was plenty. He asked Betty if she’d seen Candi, got a no. He sent Candi a text saying Aiden was ready to spill. No answer. He walked past the empty clone of his office that Candi had been using, saw she was in a contentious conversation with a man the sheriff’s age. From his gray hair, shiny shaved cheeks to his shiny gray suit and shiny gray shoes, he gave off a steely vibe. Like a square jawed comic book adventurer. Bash grinned at that, Candi vs. The Cartoon. He carried on down the hall, punched the unlock code into the Coke machine, opened it and pulled a Mountain Dew.

***

“Antihistamine hangover, huh?” Bash set the Dew on the table. “This oughta help.” He swung his chair around to sit in it backwards, checked in with Aiden, found him weeping, not making a sound. He got up, retrieved a box of tissues from a built-in shelf, set it down within easy reach for the kid who grabbed one, honked.

“My Dad’s dead, man…” he dropped his forehead on the table, heaved a sob. “An it’s my fuckin’ fault…”

“What’d you hit him with, Aiden?”

“Hit him? I dint hit him with nothin’…”

“Then it’s not your fault.”

“I dint know, man… An then Deeder, he says he heard goin’ in to work there’s a body on the Canadian an I knew it hadda be Dad or Greenie.”

“Why’d you think that?”

“Cause a what I seen…”

“Which was?”

“All I seen was after I put on the costume,” he blew his nose again, “I seen Dad… an Greenie. They was scramblin’ cross them little dunes like they’d sat on a wasp’s nest… Crab walkin’, runnin’, fallin’… all fours an back up…”

“Which direction were they headed?”

“Southeast. Downstream, anyway… Murph, Mr. Murphy, he said they’d prolly been drinkin’ an they most likely was headin’ for where their beer was at… An to get a gun an… Awwww shit, man… Now I know it’s Dad all I can figure is them two was all fucked up an tryin’ to get the damn gun out an Dad got shot…”

“You hear a gunshot?”

“No, but like them two, me an Murph was freakin’ hard, so maybe we was outta earshot or missed it… Fuck, man…”

“Aiden, your Dad didn’t die of a gunshot wound. I got that gun outta your Dad’s truck when we stopped Virgil Green, goin’ on a week ago. Virgil didn’t even know it was there. It was clean and unfired. Truth is, we don’t know how your dad died.”

“Maybe I give him a,” honk, “heart attack or a stroke, or some other shit happens to old guys…”

“Nope. Look, I know it’s tough to lose your dad. Tougher when you missed it by a couple a days bein’ out of it, but I have to ask you to back up to why you were at the river in the first place. Start there. Maybe you can help us both figure out what happened.”

***

Harden stopped at the generally empty except for temporary storage office, hands on either side of the doorjamb. “Betty told me I had high falutin’, suit wearin’ company. What the hell is Captain Merton of OSBI, former crime fighter and now political insider doin’ in my house?”

“Thinkin’ I might run something by you and Agent Cotton.”

“Run it by me first. She’s got work to do.”

The First Lie You Tell Me

 “Ivy,” Harden checked in with his rearview mirror, “can you call your mother for me, have her meet us someplace for an early lunch?”

“Since all I ate this morning at that B&B was some kinda birdseed muffin and a piece a cantaloupe can I say where?”

“It’s the county’s dime, knock yourself out.”

“I call Corky’s.” She flipped her hair back, phone already on its way to her ear. “Hey Momma? You eaten yet? Well, the Sheriff and I want you to meet us at Corky’s… I don’t care. Kick him out… Why? He damn sure ain’t about to cook for ya an we got a Denver omelet with your name on it just waitin’. An Momma? Yeah… Just put on a hat. We cain’t wait till supper for you to go whole hog with gettin’ yourself fixed…”

***

“How’d you get the big monitor?” Candi dropped into another guest chair, this time in Bash’s office.

“They were about to pay retail for one, or retail plus from whoever has the county contract. I told the lady over in disbursement I was goin’ to Dallas anyway and I’d get what I wanted while I was there and bring her back a receipt. The shitty part was I beat the bid with twice the monitor, and she wouldn’t give me the difference.”

“You can bet it hit the books at full pop.” She took in the small, institutional beige zero-personality room. “No pictures?”

“Huh?” His head came up over the monitor. “Oh… No. None a that. Hadn’t had time.”

“No?”

“Okay,” his head sank down behind the monitor. “I haven’t made time. Look, about this morning—”

“I came in to apologize. That was pretty rough of me, and I didn’t—”

“Mean to tell the truth? Women’s truth is always welcome, even when it’s unexpected. I have two sisters, you know, but it’s been a while and I’m just outta practice gettin’ hit upside the head with female perspective. Around here it’s mostly been the Lone Ranger and Tonto crime busters show. You’re the difference maker.”

“Thank you. I think. You have Betty, and she’s underutilized.”

“Yeah?”

“She’s perfect as the ‘reasonable person’ assumption for warrants.”

“Yeah?”

“She spotted the first one right off. That got me three more bank warrants. I think I’ve uncovered a nest of embezzlers. Maybe some extortionists.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah? Are you listening to me or am I in the way here?”

“Embezzlers and extortionists. Conspiracy or nobody’s lookin’?”

“Nice save. Both.”

“With nobody’s lookin’, you put the evidence in front of ‘em and they start cryin’. Conspiracies are dangerous. Watch your back and who you keep in the loop.”

“You have experience with this kind of activity?”

“Little political fiefdoms bein’ their own oversight equals free money. Why do you think I got fired by my own people?” He checked the clock. “Shit. Who’s doin’ Aiden today, you or me?”

***

“Sheriff. Ivy… Good Lord,” Brandy, wrists on hips, standing at the edge of the table. “Whose youngest daughter are you?”

Ivy rolled her eyes. “I have real clothes, Momma.”

“I know that, Darlin’,” Brandy pulled her sunglasses and sequined ball cap, tossed her hair. “But you never wear them.” The cap went back on, the sunglasses hung in the V of her eggplant satin top. She reached out, finger and thumb on Ivy’s sleeve. “And ironed, too. You do this for them useless Pierce men… Sorry, God Rest Jimmy’s soul, that useless Pierce boy?”

“No, Momma, he’s in jail. I did it for myself.” She patted the chair next to her. “Sit. The Sheriff doesn’t have all day.”

“Well now honey, I understand Dominick’s a busy man, but I need to know just who or what’s got into you,” she winked at the Sheriff, “and does he have any friends with money?”

“Momma, I’m stayin’ at the Rose for a while. They have the best washer and dryer I ever saw, fabric softener that smells like Chanel and their own steam presser.”

“What on Earth are you doin’ at someplace as oo-la-la as the Rose?”

“Candi. Ms. Cotton? She said, well, a lot of things really, but mostly that I needed to get outta that nasty trailer an sort my shit ‘cause redneck chick and mousy nerd are my excuses. See, to her, bein’ good at somethin’s not showin’ off or, or forgettin’ your place, but embracin’ your potential.”

“Now that sounds just like a TV preacher I knew. Had the devil’s libido, a Platinum Amex, private plane, traveled all the time. He was a real—”

“Yeah well, that stupid preacher mighta had a twenty-four-seven hard on and a credit card and a plane but he didn’t have a silver medal from the Olympics. So, you can learn to like me for what I wanna be, ‘cause I’m not goin’ back to whoever anybody thought I was. I’m even goin’ to college. ‘Cause I’m not ever gonna turn my, my vagina into a purse for some man’s money.”

Harden waited a few until he thought the moment had gained enough weight. “Now we got that outta the way,” he said, cutting through the icy fog. “What say we order?”

***

“Where’s the uh… Psycho bitch?” Aiden, dressed in a fresh county jumpsuit, stood behind his chair, craning his neck, checking every inch of the room.

“She’s in another room lookin’ for a way to put you in jail for murder till your wrinkles have wrinkles and the bad boys in general population have given your butthole so much grief you can shit a grapefruit whole. Personally? I think you’re just a lyin’ dumbass too stupid to see that coverin’ whatever you’re coverin’ is diggin’ you a deeper hole. Sit.” Bash waited for Aiden’s slow-motion drop. When he landed, he was still. His eyes weren’t quite right.

“You sleep okay?”

“I… yeah.”

“Feels weird not to be scratchin’, huh?”

“I… yeah. You’re the one took me, ain’tcha? I don’t…” He studied his jumpsuit. “Where’re my clothes?”

“You can have ‘em back, if or when you get out. I’d suggest burnin’ em. You were lucky. If any of those welts had busted open, wherever what’s inside drains out sets your skin on fire in even more places. Had poison oak one time. Let it get away from me, went into shock. Like you were.”

“That hadda suck… Did suck. I… Thanks. Y’know… For gettin’ me right.”

“I drove. It was Agent Cotton’s idea.”

“Psycho bitch? Man… For real?”

“For real. Why do I get the impression you were so fucked up with allergies and chemistry that you don’t remember half what’s been goin’ on since you trashed your car at the river?”

“My car? Aw shit… wow… You know where it’s at?”

“Yep.” Bash, with no forthcoming comment from his jailbird offered “Coffee? Donut?”

“No… No. I had eggs. An a biscuit.” His eyes perked up. “You know, that pack a honey butter was dope.”

They sat for a while. Nothing but the whisper of the air conditioner. Aiden, fingers interlaced on the table in front of him. Bash kicked back, ankle on his knees, mimicking Aiden’s interlace only with hands resting on his belt buckle.

Aiden, finally, “Do I need a lawyer?”

“We can arrange for one if you want. You need me to read you your rights again now that you know where you are?”

“Nuh-uh. I just, you said murder, y’know, an that started me to wakin’ up, an now…I dunno. I guess I’m askin’ do you think I need one?”

“Agent Cotton wants you for murder and general asshole-ness. I already told you, I think you’re bein’ an idiot. Like you didn’t do anything all that wrong, but some shit went down where you were at, and you think lyin’ hard enough an long enough will work some kinda magic that’ll make everyone believe you were somewhere else. Shit only works for politicians and movie stars an you’re neither.” Bash uncrossed his legs, leaned up, hands on the table in a mirror of Aiden’s.

“I’ll make a deal with you, Aiden. Tell me the truth. The gospel fucking truth, and you can go home. Keep up the bullshit about Louisiana and all that, and I’ll let the psycho bitch lock you up an throw away the key.” He tilted his head slightly, made eye contact. “We know most of the truth, man. So, before you start talkin’, think about bein’ on a narrow, rickety-ass bridge with no handrails strung over a thousand-foot canyon. At the bottom of that canyon is shittin’ grapefruit land, and the first lie you tell me is a step sideways.”

Lookin’ For a Seamstress

Long Read Alert 2,200+. I’d apologize but I’m too lazy to cut and paste on the damn phone.

“I’m off to spell Monica Perez from babysittin’ the Pierce place while she collects Ivy from the B&B for me.” Sheriff Harden adjusted his hat. “That’s some Jeep Candi’s got there, huh?”

Bash exchanged glances with Candi. “The Chief already knows.” She unlocked her arms, handed Bash the keys. “We went over it last night.”

“She did steal it, though, right?”

“Yessir, Deputy, that she did. While I’m off on the wild Ivy goose chase, I need y’all to give the forensics your best shot, one last time. Try to find what we’re missin’.”

Bash held up the keys.

“Not sure what you’re askin’, Bash, but if you need to parade off to the Sonic or somewhere for a bad breakfast in Barbie’s Jeep, lookin’ for all the world like a gay Apache lawman, go ahead on.” He checked his watch. “Check back in by nine.” He unlocked his cruiser, turned back. “That’s nine in the A M, Deputy. This A M.”

***

Bash pulled the door shut, adjusted the pink and white suspension seat, settled himself. “Doors, custom seats, air conditioner. Everything you could want, even when it’s topless.”

“Electric windows.”

“No shit?”

“The custom shop guys said nothing was too good for Barbie.”

“You watched them build this?”

“Yes, and no. We went down there a few times. They were expecting us to be car shop calendar cheesecake, and we showed up in sweats and knotted T’s, dirty hair… Standard sweaty jock chick attire. After a couple of visits from seven sweaty girls who’d been working out in the sun for three hours, they blew us off. Jenny went down there a few times by herself, ‘cause she’d been picked to be the poster Barbie, which was perfect because you couldn’t find a better, realer blonde with push-up bra boobs than her without going to Finland. They had to let her in, no matter what she looked like when she got there.”

“Y’all coulda cut those guys a break, gone in all thongs, six packs and sports bras. Rocked their world.”

“No thanks. Jock girls usually make lousy cheesecake chicks. Like, what’s the point, you know? We’re here to play volleyball. Besides, we don’t get a lot of poser practice since nobody collects female volleyball trading cards.”

“Why’s that?”

Duh? Because there aren’t any? Besides, best practice for the bimbo expectation is to gross out the panty sniffers on the front end and they’ll leave you alone. Where are we going?”

“I thought I’d take us to get somethin’ to eat, but you just changed my mind.”

***

A solo tripod-mounted diffuser in the middle of the floor lit the Quonset hut in such a way that walls and corners disappeared, resulting in an effect of vastness without boundaries. Sheriff Harden set his hat on a random aluminum TV tray in the middle of the glow next to the folding chair where reserve deputy Perez had watched dog training videos on her phone while babysitting, for lack of a better name, Murphy, Green and Pierce video productions. The quiet enhanced the effect of the universe lit by a single bulb.

He resisted the urge to walk back and thumb a few light switches, instead using the light from his phone to locate another folding chair that he placed facing the existing chair in the soft glow ring. On her return Monica Perez would stand by the door as an observer, a body cam trained on the interview. Ivy would occupy one chair, he’d use the other. Quiet, simple, uncomfortable. The best combination for hopefully limiting the female Greens’ propensity to take a simple conversation rambling way off in the weeds. Harden hoped by the time he got around to Virgil Green there’d be no reason for conversation, because Virgil, unlike his wife and daughter, had all the communication skills of a tackling dummy.

***

Candi pulled a seldom used guest chair from against the wall, dragged it around Betty’s reception compound till it was next to Betty’s perch. She vanished into the offices, returned with three manila file folders, and eased into the chair. She crossed her legs at the knee, leaned in.

Betty continued to pretend she was looking for something on her computer instead of playing solitaire, finally saying, “To what do I owe this honor?”

“I need your help.”

“That’ll be the day-ay-ay, when I… Holy cow,” Betty, eyes now wide. “You’re serious?”

“The Sheriff’s out, Bash and I are both—”

“Idiots?” Betty laughed. “Not really, but y’all have your moments. Okay,” she swiveled her oversized chair around. “Whatcha got for me, Agent Cotton?”

“Take a look at these and tell me what you think.”

Betty tapped her toes to the beat of a tune only she could hear while she read the banking records spread across her desk. She’d drop a yellow polished nail index finger from one hand on a line, finger from the other hand on another. She kept at it until she noticed the aroma of fresh coffee steaming from a mug next to her monitor.

“Okay, don’t go gettin’ the big head or nothin’, but you do make a, a… Decent cup of coffee.”

“It’s not a secret. I’ll show you some morning.”

“It won’t require me to buy thirty-dollar-a-bag coffee, will it?”

“This is the coffee you bring in.”

“That’s impossible.” She took a sip. “Well, maybe not.” She made a face. “It’s still got a little a that whatever it is. Tastes like pepper and rust… But you did manage to get rid a most of it.”

“There are some things even magic can’t get rid of. You might think of hitting the guys up for a coffee fund, though, and move from the Dollar Store to the grocery store. What did you find?”

***

Ivy turned on desk lamps and indirect lighting around the control area of the studio, apologizing as she went for the lack of a proper, isolated control room while excusing it based on lack of need since they weren’t capturing live audio. “But I wasn’t really out here much except the one time for the super zoom Jib test”

“Super zoom… Jib? You gotta do this in plain English, Ivy.”

“Okay. Well, see, Mr. Murphy, he wanted to buy all kindsa expensive camera equipment and Daddy and Jimmy got into it with him because they said it would corrupt what they were doin’.”

“Corrupt?”

“Jimmy said they couldn’t just all of a sudden go from head worn cameras and the stationary camera shots to flyin’ camera angles and fancy zooms ‘cause that’s what all the other hunters out there do. Like Jimmy said, those people say they gotta keep up with the audience expectation of how stuff should look, not the home movie quality they start with, when what they’re really gettin’ caught up in is ego and competition. Like all the swamp turkeys out there get to thinkin’ they’re the next Tarantino and need a separate camera operator an boom jockeys. And that’s crap, really, because Hitchcock and a lot of the old guys defined camera angles, they just didn’t have computers to do it for them. Like take this automated baby crane—”

“Let’s not. Why don’t you get back to tellin’ me how they got you kidnapped by Bigfoot?”

“Okay, that was the zoom test. Daddy, he always played the monster, so I wasn’t scared a him droppin’ me or gropin’ me ‘cause if it was like Creepus Maximus Murphy, no way was I doin’ it. I did the makeup from a Halloween picture, you know, just too much mascara, squirted myself with a water mister, ratted my hair out like Momma does sometimes and Daddy, well, he was more over here,” she pulled Harden to where the floor turned green, “and he walked in place like this.” She mimed a decent monster walk. “Before we started, I set the camera movement on this baby crane to pull straight back and the super zoom camera to pull out and that was it. The camera did all the work. Jimmy watched a monitor with a hood on it back over there and told Daddy when to start walkin’ for real, like when the shot was wide and pullin’ serious distance. Murphy captured the video going in the computer in real time. Daddy and me, we were a transparent layer—”

“Hold on a sec. You were a what?”

She chewed her bottom lip for a sec, thinking. “Okay, this,” she held up her left hand, “is a video of the woods. And this,” she laid her right hand on top of her left, “is me bein’ kidnapped. The computer marries ‘em to look like Daddy’s draggin’ me off into the woods.” She cocked her head a little. “See?”

“I think so. Maybe you can show me sometime. But Ivy, my big problem with all that is Bigfoot, or the costume anyway, is at least seven feet tall, and your Daddy’s only—”

“Oh, that’s easy.” She disappeared into a shadowy corner, returned with a plastic storage tub. “Daddy wore these,” she held up a pair of drywall stilts. “He has things like this everywhere from all his different jobs. He told me they had to glue insoles to the bottom because they made so much noise.” She replaced them in the bucket, held up a pair of hand-claw grabbers with a soccer shin-guard riveted to it. She strapped the shin guard to her forearm and her hand was now over a foot further away from her elbow. “Daddy said it all worked ‘cause nobody but the hardcore debunkers are looking at knees or elbows. Everyone else is freakin’ cause Bigfoot is over behind a tree or maybe sees Daddy and Jimmy and they take off runnin’.” She dropped the arm in the tub. “Anyhow, that’s how Daddy got to be a seven-foot-tall knuckle dragger.”

“I think I understand the concept behind most a this, Ivy, but how the hell did they go huntin’ this monster live?”

“They didn’t.”

“But the website…”

“Oh that. Well, I was just kidnapped the once, and like I said, Mr. Murphy, after I showed him the software, he handled it all. What they’d do is one night Daddy’d go out as the monster, and Jimmy would shoot him with his hat cam, and what woulda been Daddy’s hat cam out on a pole about five feet away, so they could change perspective, like Daddy was there as himself and not the monster. Then they’d go in the studio and be playin’ the video of Daddy bein’ the monster while puttin’ Daddy and Jimmy whisperin’ to each other on top while Murphy played these CDs of nature sounds through speakers. There’re bird noises in those videos from birds probably don’t even exist in North America.”

The Sheriff scratched his temple, thumb and fingered his jaw. “One more thing and we can go. What happened to the costume?”

“Oh God. That’s when I learned, like Momma says, how dumb men in groups can be. What happened was, Daddy’ll kill me for tellin’ and Momma would too if it got out, but Jimmy said Daddy drank a whole six pack of that nasty, watery beer and he was thrashin’ around in the scrub oak over there across the river and got to where he had to pee somethin’ fierce. But he got all tangled up in some branches and the stilts got hooked on some roots and he couldn’t do nothin’ with those plastic hands to get, well, you know, exposed, and he peed all over the costume and himself. So bad Jimmy made him ride in the bed of the truck gettin’ home that night. Bein’ as there’s not a commonsense genius in the whole pack, they decided they couldn’t take the costume to the dry cleaners, ‘cause it would give them away. And since there’s no way to wash it in the washin’ machine, they bought a five-gallon bucket of dry-cleaning fluid and dumped it in a big ol’ plastic trash can they bought from the Home Depot and stirred it around with a broom handle till they thought it was clean and hung it up back behind the studio to air dry. The trash can’s still around, I think. You wanna see it?”

***

“Can you tell me what I’m lookin’ at here, Agent Cotton?”

“What you’re looking at, Betty, is bribery, or fraud, or extortion. Maybe all three.”

“How ‘bout you stop dancin’ and just tell me why I’m lookin’ at all this money comin’ in, gettin’ split up into where half is bein’ mostly banked and the other half is all this sex fiddle-faddle gettin’ bought?”

“When fines are paid to the court, they’re being diverted and split off into two discretionary accounts. The one on the far right is Judge Bynum’s.”

“What does that old coot need with a four hundred-and-twenty-two-dollar, custom made pink leather bustier or a weekend at the Wet Beaver Retreat or—” her hand flew up, fingers covering her mouth. “Oh. My. God. He doesn’t.”

“You don’t think the Judge is aware of what’s going on?”

“Aware? Bynum? He’s so out of it if you told him he needed to unbutton his butt to poop, he’d reach back there and when he couldn’t find it, he’d start lookin’ for a seamstress to sew a new one on.”

‘Cause That’s Where the Story’s At

Bash’s ears came to a point at the light knock on his apartment door. So light if the TV wasn’t muted, or he’d been asleep, he would never have heard it. 11:14 PM. What the hell? He hadn’t ordered food. Hadn’t been in this jurisdiction long enough to piss off any bangers. Hadn’t told many of his neighbors he was a sheriff’s deputy. Maybe he was hearing things. Or somebody baked, unsure if they had the right apartment. Regardless, yellow Sponge Bob sleep boxers wouldn’t do. He pulled on a loose black Radiohead T-shirt, stepped into a knee-length pair of shiny maroon basketball shorts, racked the slide on his Browning, held it behind his back on the way to the door.

“Yeah?”

“It’s Candi, Bash. Agent—”

“Cotton?” He poked his head out, checked both directions. Candi. Alone. Ponytail, loose black Amy Winehouse T, same knee length basketball shorts only silver. Pink, gray and turquoise cross-trainers, an open laptop in her upturned palm. An out-of-place waitress from Key West.

“What you said about our moccasins coming from the same place?” She clocked his outfit. “Must be true about our off hours tailor. Are you going to invite me in, or are you—”

“No… I mean yeah… c’mon.” He backed up, she stepped inside, stopped just inside the door. He closed it, flipped the Browning’s safety on, and set it on an end table by the couch.

She followed, taking baby steps, engrossed in the laptop. She looked up when she bumped into the end table. Her head tilted at the TV. “What’s that?”

“Cuban baseball. I still know some of those guys.”

“What’s that say about them?”

“High tolerance for bullshit? Passion? Forgot to get a degree on scholarship? The computer says you aren’t here to talk baseball or watch TV.”

“Actually…” she kept her eye on the laptop, “but not Cuban baseball.”

“I wasn’t really watching—”

“Good.” She moved in front of the couch. “Then it’s okay to cast this to your TV?”

“Go for it. You can sit, the hard chair line won’t work here.”

She surveyed the leather couch, the clean coffee table, the big corduroy Lazy Boy chair, the carpet, the pass through into the kitchen. “Do you have a housekeeper?”

“My mother taught me to vacuum. I can iron and run a dishwasher when required.”

“Damn.” She shook her head, eased down on the couch. “And Sheriff Harden thought he’d seen a unicorn.”

“What?”

“Never mind. Look what I found.” She pointed the remote at the TV, and baseball turned into six equal squares on the screen, each showing an eerie night vision view of woods, clearings, a riverbank. She tapped the keyboard, and six different screens replaced the originals.

“I recognize the top right.” Bash raised an index finger. “That’s where Altus Murphy sent us to clean up after a small redneck rave. The Thursday we think Jimmy Pierce died. Where’d you get this?”

“We know a co-sponsored private and government grant paid for the cameras. Several of his cameras are on public land, so they had to be available somewhere. I had to dig for it but finally found them on a tree hugger website, supposedly funded by a tire company aiming to save the natural world.”

“Don’t tell me you’re a corporate posturing cynic.”

“Only when I’m breathing. If it weren’t for a cloud over the moon occasionally,” pointing at the TV, “you’d think the night views were stills. Had enough?” She didn’t give him time to answer. “Okay, now…” Another click, and one of the previously nothing but nature asleep on a peaceful night shots filled the screen with Bigfoot strolling in front of the tree line until it exited the frame.

“Fuck. Me.” He turned toward her. “Sorry, but…”

“S’okay. When I backtracked the name on the credit union account through three layers of LLC and DBA lists? Bingo.” Another key tap and a dark, almost cartoonish graphic of Bigfoot, under Red River Monster Hunters in a 1950s B horror movie font filled the frame.

“That’s not the Red River.”

“That’s not Bigfoot, either, but it doesn’t seem to matter.” A click and a list of episodes flew in on the left side of the screen along with a ‘click here to join’ banner.

“You paid fifty bucks to join?”

“A hundred. Don’t worry, I’ll get it back.”

“Why…”

“For a hundred, you get daily updates. For a grand you get to go online, live, with the Sasquatch hunters.”

“A grand? That’s fuckin’ crazy.”

“Not everyone agrees. ‘Join our family of over twenty-three-hundred members and watch history being made’.”

“That’s—”

“Two hundred and thirty grand and change. And it’s only the tip of the iceberg. The credit union account has seen a total deposit of over half a million dollars.” Another tap and she’d entered a list of program packages at the fifty-and one-hundred-dollar level. “They make it easy to drop fifty and get hooked. There are thousands of people out there buying three episodes at a time. Or a T-shirt, or thirty, handled by a print-on-demand third party.”

“Fifty for three episodes? Who…”

“On the forum, it looks like everyone from hunters, fraternities, sororities and retirement villages to lady’s book clubs and survival Barbies and Kens buy them for theme parties.”

“For some reason I can’t see my mother drinking wine and watching hokey Bigfoot videos projected on a sheet outside the Del Webb Retirement Community Center.”

“For some reason I can’t believe our parents grew up watching The Creature from the Black Lagoon at the drive in, but it’s precedent, right?”

“Maybe they weren’t watching?”

“Mine probably were, because they knew God was. Now, pay attention.” She scrolled through episode thumbnails. “The more serious fans who pay the hundred, like me, get to pick their episodes based on previews, including a ‘free’ seventh episode you can trade in once a month for a new one, for fifteen dollars. The key word there being previews. Which is how I found this.” A tap and the screen filled with a shot of Bigfoot from the back, headed for the tree line with a screaming, squirming, exaggerated runny mascara, messy-haired Ivy Green over its shoulder.

***

“You two got me down here at 7:00 AM to show me this?”

“I had to kick her out at midnight-thirty, Chief. She’ll play the speculate game until she’s the last one standing.”

“So I’ve heard, But look,” Sheriff Harden sipped his Exxon coffee, “Ivy’s already confessed to being in the studio, so what does this prove, if anything? That there are more gullible people out there than we realize?”

“Not necessarily gullible, Chief.” Candi switched to the Red River Monster Blog. “The Monster’s entire pitch is based on the poor quality of their product. Their claim to authenticity isn’t about the Monster, but that they don’t have all the Hollywood assets that most reality shows have. No field camera crews, no mobile lighting techs, no techno babble hardware that captures the electronic essence given off by Bigfoot or alligators or aliens or ghosts or anything else that’s being hunted out there. These guys are masters of the everyman-meets-the-improbable trope.”

“And who better to portray those wide-eyed dumb asses than two men who are, by all accounts, career dumb asses. I get it, Candi. But it’s not fraud, it’s not murder. It might be peripheral, or of interest to the IRS, but I don’t see how it affects Jimmy Pierce dead unless we can find a motive. When you went through the records, did you see anyone in this deal gettin’ screwed financially?”

“No. I don’t know how they arrived at the outlay, but at irregular intervals the credit union account dispersed equal amounts to Murphy’s, Green’s and Pierce’s personal accounts.”

“The expensive truck? The renovation of Jimmy’s, actually Karla’s lawnmower repair shop? Brandy’s red Mercedes? The trailer full a eighty-inch televisions?”

“What they needed to make a home for the monster productions came from the credit union account. The purpose of the SUV must have been to use it as a company car. The personal expenses they paid for individually.”

“As a f’rinstance, how much money does Virgil Green have in the bank?”

“Forty-Seven thousand dollars. All he’s purchased is a used Mercedes and a couple of grand going to individual accounts.”

“Do we know who?”

“No.”

“Find out. What was Jimmy worth when he died?”

“Twenty-nine thousand. He blew money all over the place, but no activity since he died.”

“Altus?”

“Forty-three thousand. He bought a custom fish tank and a three-thousand-dollar high frequency ham radio amplifier and paid some contractors to work on his mother’s house.”

“Where he still lives. So, three goofy rednecks with Altus Murphy’s Army radio operator knowhow and some help from Ivy Green come up with a scam that should embarrass us all for missing it, but again, what does it prove?”

“That we need more information. Because somehow the Red River Monster is at the bottom of this.” Candi switched screens to a series of thumbnails of stills she’d captured of the Monster. “This is the costume we found. The bullet nose head modification, the—”

“Candi, that costume was made for someone seven fuckin’ feet tall. No one involved in this is seven feet tall. Aiden must have looked like a kid in his dad’s pajamas.”

“I realize that, Chief, but we found it in proximity to a murder scene.”

“Again, there’s no evidence anyone wearing the costume laid a, a… hand, or paw, or whatever on Jimmy Pierce. He got hit in the forehead with a mystery weapon that defies the standard definition of weapon and has yet to be discovered. This is old ground. But… Tell y’all what I’m gonna do. I’ll go to the old lawnmower repair shop with Ivy and get the lowdown from her about all this streaming monster business that has both a y’all Bigfoot blind to what we really need to know.”

“But—”

“‘But’ is the chunk of hog you throw in a smoker. Either or both y’all go out there, you’ll come back spoutin’ a buncha useless techno mumbo jumbo. I’ll go get the kindergarten version ‘cause that’s where the story’s at.”

***

“Interesting that you, of all people,” Bash ran his fingers across the unmistakable pink head and ponytail silhouette, “would have an Honest to God Barbie Jeep,”

The Honest to God Barbie Jeep.”

“You know, we could have used this at the river. No way you could bury it with these tires.”

“The custom shop that built it set it up with the paddle balloons for the beach. That’s where I met her. It…”

“And you wouldn’t drive it?”

“The tires may be pink, but they will beat you to death on pavement. And it’s part of… Anyway, I told the county prosecutor the other day that every time I come home, I end up burying a ghost. I guess this thing coming out of the garage is another one.”

“There has to be more to it. I’m game.”

“It’s a long story.”

“They all have a short version.”

“I’ll believe that when you can give me the short version of Native American history.”

“We got screwed. We’re getting even. Your turn.”

“Damn. Okay,” she looked down for a few ticks, toed the parking lot, checked back in with him. “I stole it.”

“Perfect. And totally believable.”

“Don’t you have a million clever things to say,” arms still crossed, legs crossed at the ankles, “or ask?”

“Only one. Where’re the keys?”

Principle

Candi tossed her blazer on a chair in the break room, stretched her back. “Where’s the Sheriff?”

“Note on the board says he went to Home Depot in search of one Deeder G, the accomplice formally known as Donald Guillory.”

“He thinks the accomplice will roll?”

“My money’s on the Chief sayin’ somethin’ along the line of ‘accessory to murder’ and ‘bro’ Deeder takin’ a panic dump all over Aiden’s stonewall.”

“We don’t know for sure if Aiden or anyone else murdered Jimmy Pierce. Forensics didn’t find anything connecting Jimmy to that suit except his DNA inside it.”

“No, but it sounds scary as hell to a twenty-one-year-old kid. Which makes me wonder why none of Jimmy Pierce’s family – not his ex, his kids, his buddies – nobody has asked how he died, when can they get the body back, what mortuary to send it to, nothin’. Even Aiden’s more concerned with keeping his lie intact than helpin’ us figure out what happened to his old man.”

“I’m convinced now that at least Ivy’s not a liar. She confessed to her prints being in that studio or whatever they had out there when we don’t even have those prints back. Not to mention we don’t have her prints on file anywhere. She folded from a guilty conscious about telling us a lie.”

“The world needs an honest kid. What about her and the B&B? How did you square that with the budget?”

“I own it. That big old house belonged to my maternal grandmother and came to me when she died. I put all of my paltry volleyball endorsement money and a chunk of my parents’ life insurance into fixing it up, hoping to make a buck or at least pay the taxes. An accountant told me to sell it to my non-profit if I didn’t need the income. I’d turned my education into ‘investigator’ by then. It made sense, so adios Nana’s house living in my bank account.”

“So, when you say you own it, you’re at least one step removed?”

“You’re asking can I expense staying there to the State and the NP can write off charitable activity like Ivy? Yes.”

“Slick. I sent the latest from forensics to the printer. Ready?”

***

Unlike Harden’s trip to Walmart to speak with Lisha Patrick, it only took three minutes from the manager’s overhead page clicking off for ‘Don’ Guillory to make it from the garden center to the employee break room. He turned the corner, saw his manager sitting at a table with a dad age guy in a County Mountie uniform, a stiff white cowboy hat in the middle of the table.

“Ahhh, Donnie,” the manager stood, gathered up a binder, clipboard and two bulky leather clad phones. “Just the man Sheriff Harden’s lookin’ for.”

***

“I have Lucia’s build-your-own fajitas for four.” Harden set two large ‘Thank You’ plastic bags on the conference room table. “One of us gets to eat twice. What have you two got?”

“Lace.” Bash pointed to spaces between photos and documents laid out on the table.

“Candi,” Harden unloaded tubs from the bags, “take everything from Aiden so far, put it in a bullshit folder, and put up what we know and I’ll try to fill in the blanks.”

“We know where he was until he tossed his phone. We also know from his DNA inside that he wore a modified Wookie costume that was also loaded with Virgil Green’s DNA, urine and dry-cleaning fluid. We have Aiden’s DNA on his phone and the respirator and both phones from the bag. His prints were on the trash bag and the Honda spare. His phone was the last one used by fourteen minutes beyond either of the burners, which backs up what Bash already suggested about Aiden being the bagman and the last man out.”

“Other prints on anything?”

“Too smudged to be any use.” She pulled a chair out with her foot. “Bash?”

“He bent the frame on the Honda getting out. It would have been dead on the spot if it had an automatic transmission. It was leaking oil, and he used a pair of ruts through the brush and limped into the trees where it quit not far behind the squat trailer. His prints were all over the car and the box of trash bags left in the spare well. I didn’t find his missin’ Marlin over-under rifle, neither did forensics. Prints on the trash time-lined against purchases say he ‘probably’ stayed in that trailer until Monday. Why is anybody’s guess.”

“Aiden’s ‘bro’ had that rifle in his car. Along with a bag of stinky clothes Aiden had on at the river. The two of ‘em are of a size so Deeder must’ve been waitin’ on gettin’ his clothes back before he handed Aiden’s over. And a burner Aiden had given him for communication that night that he gave back so Aiden could phone in his antihistamine and dinner orders.” He pulled a chair out as well. “We have beef, chicken and shrimp. Ladies first.”

“I’ll eat any of it,” she fished in her purse, found a couple of dollar bills, “but I need something to drink, so you two—”

“Steer clear of that crooked vending machine. Bash, there’s adult and carbonated blanks in my truck. I was just outta hands. If Candi wants to make a case for preferential gender treatment, then she’ll have to find something wrong with ‘free’ or ‘guest’.” He held up both hands like he was blessing the fajitas. “Guests first?”

“Lady was fine.” She popped the lid on a styrofoam container. “Say bye to the shrimp.”

***

“So the why of it, as Donnie, or Deeder told me, their original plan was he’d meet Aiden at the trailer at two AM on account of his car bein’ the more likely to get ‘em to Dallas than the Honda.” Harden leaned over a paper plate, wiped fajita juice that was about to get away off his chin. “They’d take off from there, come back on Monday an Aiden’d pick up his car, drive home with some tale of gator huntin’ he’d gotten from watchin’ a show on cable and nobody’d be the wiser. Not Ivy or his dad or anybody.”

“Gone to Louisiana on a ‘pair a bros’ road trip for five days, then ‘Lucy, I’m home’, no questions asked? Jesus. Who gets away with that shit?”

“Come on Bash,” Candi set a sweaty Seven-Up can on the table. “It was a standard bro-and-go whorehouse run under a ‘gone fishin’ veneer except it went to hell. I have to give him more points than I’d like for trying to make his original thinner-than-air cover story hold water this long.”

“And,” Harden said, “I have to take points away for the kid thinkin’ a pair a twenty-one-year-old yokels could make twenty-five hundred bucks fund a four day safari through topless bars in Dallas, plus a motel.”

“That must be the figure Aiden laid out for the party trip.” Candi, furrowed brows, scanned a page with her fingernail. “Here’s a three grand transfer from the Credit Union in Ardmore to Aiden’s local account. On the Wednesday before the Wookie party at the river.”

“Who made the transfer?”

“No unique logins. Could have been Murphy, Green or Pierce.” Candy searched another sheet. “The warrant inventory didn’t find any computers in the Pierce residence, only the studio.”

“Doubtful Vigil Green’s got one, either,” Harden mused. “He’s still usin’ a flip phone he forgets to charge. Seems strange that Ivy, if she really is a whiz kid, wouldn’t have her own computer, or have all that streamin’ stuff on her phone so she wouldn’t care if the TVs worked or not.”

“That’s if you assume the content accounts on those devices are legitimate, Chief.” Bash swallowed, pointed a rolled tortilla for emphasis. “There’s a box out there made by a video card company that runs hundreds of global content apps. One person sells that box with a masked address and fifty hacked apps, offers to open requests for others for a price and charges a low subscription fee that’s paid monthly to an offshore bank. The buyer has more content than you can watch for twenty bucks a month.”

“I almost don’t wanna know how you know that.”

“People on the rez are creative.”

“Rez hell,” Candi closed the folder. “My insurance agent told me about it.”

“Well…” Bash killed his black lager, bagged the can, his paper plate, and fajita trash. “Time to go see Altus Murphy. From what I’ve heard, aside from Ivy Green, he’s the only one involved in this mess who has an electronic clue.”

“Wait till mornin’ an take another courtesy of ‘bro’ Deeder item with you.” Harden handed him a bagged burner phone. “We now have all three that Altus bought. Tell him we know it was used it in a conspiracy to commit murder plot and we already know who belongs to all the numbers that were dialed from it.”

***

“You don’t mind dropping me at my parents’ house, Chief?”

“Chief. Now he’s got you doin’ it. Been your place nearly ten years, Candi. Since your folks passed. And I’m gonna wait here till I’m satisfied you’re safe whether you like it or not.” He shifted his cruiser to park. “Still don’t see why you asked me and not Bash, though, you two bein’ more of an age.”

“When I open this garage door you’ll understand.” Candi unlocked two padlocks, raised the door, and the overhead light clicked on.

“Oh… shit… It’s gotta be a Unicorn or a flashback. You know,” nostalgic, “I still have my daughter’s plastic version in my shed. Waitin’ on grandkids.”

“That’s why I’d rather he saw it in the parking lot. I can live that down. Him finding out I owned this, much less that I was hiding it out here, embarrassed to drive it…”

“I remember seein’ the pictures. My daughter had one on her wall. I thought it was a fake.”

“You and the rest of the world. Except for the five lawsuits I had to defend to keep it.”

“Why’d you do that,” Harden ran his hand over the glossy spare, “if you’re embarrassed to drive it?”

“Principle.” Candi raised the hood, unhooked the trickle charger. “Barbie wouldn’t run around in the sand in a bandaid and a thong, for free. Why should I?”

That’s Her. And That’s You.

“Are you gonna talk, or just stand there?” Aiden rubbed the back of his upper arms slowly. His face semi-tight, his body leaning toward the table. The rub went to his forearms.

“The problem is, Aiden.” Candi flipped the yellow pages of a legal pad. “I don’t know where to start.” She set the pad down next to a paper grocery bag and a manilla folder, all on the table in one of the Sheriff Department’s windowless interview rooms.

“What’s to understand? It ain’t like my life is some kinda rocket science that needs figurin’.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. And why I’m as lost as a blind golfer’s balls.”

“Maybe if you sat down…”

“Sitting in hard chairs makes my back hurt.” She stepped back from the table, folded one arm, tilted her head, scratched her temple. “You see, Aiden, I’ve read and re-read the story you told the Sheriff, and the one Ivy related to both Deputy Reed and the Sheriff, and I put that up against what I know… And I think you must have found some kind of science that allowed you to exist in two dimensions on the same planet.”

“What the hell are you talkin’ about? I went to Louisiana, lost some expensive shit, got a swamp rash. What’s so fuckin’ hard for all y’all to figure from that?”

“For starters,” Candi removed an evidence bag from the grocery bag, set it on the table. “There’s this.” She nudged the bag with her fingernails. “Familiar?”

“It’s a phone. So?”

“It’s your phone, Aiden.”

“Can’t be. My phone’s in the—”

“Swamp. How could I forget? The same swamp where you spent five days incommunicado. Who is Donald Guillory?”

“Huh? Donald? You mean Deeder G?”

“If that’s what you call Donald, then yes. He’s the one you went to Louisiana with?”

“Yeah. Look,” he scratched one shoulder, then the other, “Deeder’s a bro, you don’t need to go hasslin’ him about any a this.”

“Deeder’s the one who has the alligator hunting relatives with a fan boat,” she checked the legal pad. “Around Port Barre, you said?”

“South a there, yeah.”

“How far south?”

“I dunno. Maybe twenty minutes?”

“That’s fascinating. While you were there, did you try the new McDonald’s in Port Barre?”

“Now you’re tryin’ to trick me. Port Barre’s too small for a McDonald’s.”

“I’m sure the Golden Arches marketing execs will note that. Back to your phone—”

“Cain’t be my phone. I done told you a hunnert times already.”

“Aiden, the sad thing about physical evidence with a unique serial number is that, unlike people, it can’t lie. That’s your phone, no doubt about it. And even though you can’t hear it talk, it told me, through this,” she set his call record in front of him, “that you never left the area. Never even got close to Louisiana. In fact,” she pulled several color prints from the folder, spread them out in front of him, “you holed up in a squat trailer from shortly after the time of your last call to your ‘bro’ Deeder, until you showed up on Monday with a heartbreak tale of drowned gear and a mystery rash. In that last call, you must have told him where to meet you. I’d bet you even set it up in advance because you hadn’t killed your vehicle yet and didn’t know how badly you were going to need him until after you’d tossed your phone.” She smacked the table, open palm. “Look at the photos, Aiden. Not at me, not at your feet, not at the back of your hands.” BAM, another table smack. “Look at that fucking mess, Aiden. Look at it and tell me what you’d say if I told you we’d lifted yours and Deeder’s prints off the empty Benadryl and Caladryl boxes and all that junk food trash?”

“We go there to hang an party sometimes. An weed gives Deeder the snots.” The rubbing had morphed to vigorous on his thighs. “So fuckin’ write me up for litterin’.”

“How about these pictures of your ‘bro’ Deeder,” she fanned out more prints, “using your debit card at Walgreens, McDonalds, Sonic quite a few times… You’re partial to chili dogs, right?” She fingernailed a trash photo. “And you like having your own Fritos to clean up the slop in the tray.” She leaned across the table into his space. “You’ve been lying to everyone, Aiden. Particularly Ivy, which is sad because she seems to be the only person who really gave a rat’s ass if you came back.”

“She was just pissed ‘cause she cain’t run the TVs. I told you where I went,” he backed away, looked up to make eye contact “an you can’t make nothin’ up to prove nothin’ but litterin’. An ain’t nobody ever went to fuckin’ jail for lyin’ to their girlfriend. So y’know what you can do?” He backed up a little more, gave her the finger.

Candi’s hand shot out, engulfed the finger. His head and shoulders rolled over the back of his chair, mouth open in a silent scream.

“That may be true,” she hissed. “But before we’re through, you will stop lying to me.” She released his hand, turned to the top center camera. “He’s driving me crazy with the scratching. Take him to County ER before he rubs all his skin off. Tell them he’s having an allergic reaction to dry cleaning fluid and to shoot him full of whatever it takes to make it stop. Bring him back here to sleep it off.”

***

“You heard her, Bash. Before you get off the computer, is there any way we can lose the part after he gives her the finger?”

“What part after he gave her the finger?”

***

“Green. Ivy.” Candi closed the folder in her hand.

“Ha ha.”

“Cotton. Candi.” She held out her hand.

“Not funny.”

“I didn’t think so either.” She flipped her lanyard ID so Ivy could read it. “I got over it.”

“Yeah?” Ivy eyed the ID, then the hand, and took it with a tangible air of suspicion.

“Yeah. Some parents, you know? They fuck us up from day one by being stupid trying to be cute. I learned it wasn’t just me when I got out in the real world and met a Holly Peña.”

“You’re shittin’.”

“Nope. Flash Leight. Sue Ridge, Richard Large, Dick Bates, Philip McCann, Robyn Banks, Carrie Ann Seaman. If you don’t believe me, there are websites dedicated to kids whose parents got high or thought they were being cute and stuck it to us.”

“That’s crazy fucked up they ­­– Hey…” she finally looked up from her chair at six feet one plus heels of tailored blue suit over a white silk shell topped with a frosted French twist. “You’re her. The volleyball girl who made it outta this stinkhole… Uh, uh…” she bit her lower lip before her eyes lit up. “I got it. You’re the ‘Don’t Let Your Parents Fuck You Up’ lady!”

“I try not to say it exactly like that in the brochures, but that’s me.”

“Whoa.” Ivy unfolded from an almost fetal position in her chair to feet on the floor and arms on the table. “I guess I’m not here to talk about my name, though, huh?”

“We can talk about anything you like before we get down to business.”

“Well, you prob’ly know my fingerprints were, are in their, uh, studio thing, over there… So, I guess I sorta lied about what I done.”

“Okay, Ivy. Rule number one. Drop the hick chick routine.”

“Huh?”

“I know better.” She put a flash drive on the table. “I talked with Lisha Patrick this morning. Valedictorian? Ring a bell?”

“That bitch…”

“I’d be careful if I were you. Friends are hard to find. It appears Ms. Patrick thought so highly of your AP computer applications graphics project she saved it before you erased it. In fact, with your grades and test scores, if you’d bothered to be a scholastic citizen at all, you’d have given her a run for her money as valedictorian. That flash drive and a better attitude will get you into any number of universities that specialize in what you’re good at.”

“Money?” She rubbed her thumb and fingers together. “Hello?”

“You’re scholarship material if you’ll drop the hillbilly routine.”

“Easy for you to say. You’re tall and pretty and can play volleyball. Nobody needs another mousy nerd.”

“You’re average height. Be even prettier if you bought a hairbrush and you’re smart as a whip. And you went lowest common denominator to belong? I get it, because there were years I’d have sold my soul to be a mousy nerd or even a shorter me. Five-four, five-five at the most, with some meat on my bones. Screw volleyball and all the Amazon stick with tits jokes. What I wanted was a boyfriend to slow dance with who was taller than me instead of having his head buried in my chest all night like a third boob… But we survive that junk because fortunately life is longer than our parents’ legacy or high school.”

“Yeah? Well, maybe you had parents who could fill out forms and help a little.”

“My parents were so toxic it killed them before I was twenty-three. I was lucky enough to have a coach who kept me sane.” She opened the folder again. “It says your parents are the reason you went to live with Aiden and Mr. Pierce?”

“Kinda… I, well… yeah. Like, I was scared. I’d always lived with Momma, mostly, and when I’d go stay at Daddy’s, he’s sweet and everything, but he’d just go wanderin’ off somewhere and leave the house wide open. No locks, nothin’. When I finally got too scared to stay at Mom’s anymore, Daddy’d done something stupid with dynamite and got hisself—gotten thrown in jail. I told Aiden how I was feelin’, and he said since Karla, that’s his mom, had kicked him out ‘cause she had too many slackers on her payroll already that he’d gone over and moved in with his dad. And they needed a housekeeper so they could keep their shit straightened out. The truth is, they’re both slobs like I’ve never seen. So, I talked to Jimmy, Mr. Pierce, and I told him he should have his own TV show, you know, like livin’ the slob life? He said funny I should say that about a TV show and then he said he understood how livin’ with Brandy, that’s my mom, would prob’ly scare the pants off the Pope if she didn’t pull ‘em down first and he’d pay me fifty dollars a week just to keep his and Aiden’s socks and underwear out of each other’s drawers. Like they used their dressers for anything but car and boob magazines and dirty dishes, anyway.”

“What was it about your mother that scared you?”

“You’re gonna think I’m crazy, and maybe I do watch too many true crime shows, but it’s like only a matter of time before some horny man’s pissed off wife comes over or hires somebody to come shoot her, maybe him too if he’s there and I’d be the leave no witnesses dead girl in a back bedroom.”

“I don’t want to hurt your feelings by saying this, Ivy, but moving into that trailer with those men was the first step toward you becoming your mother.”

“I know that, but… but…” She started with a sniffle that went to a head on her knees sob.

Candi put her hands on Ivy’s shoulders, turned to the camera. “Can we have a family liaison from county take her out to that trailer, help her pack a suitcase or backpack or whatever she’s got and take her to the B&B? I’ll clear it on that end. She needs to eat right and get some rest. We’ll start fresh tomorrow.”

***

“Feelin’ better?” Bash covered Aiden’s head and swept him into the back of the Tahoe.

“Dunno… Man… Whudday gimme? Whirma goan?”

“Epinephrine, a steroid shot, prescription strength antihistamines and something stout to make you relax so they can all go to work. Where you’re goin’ is back to jail, so you’ll be ready for Agent Cotton first thing in the mornin’.”

“Duh psycho fuhhin’ amzon bitch?”

“That’s her.”

“Hoe-lee fuh meee swee babby Jeeziz…”

“And that’s you.”

God Bless You

“Betty? Betty, are you still there?”

Yes, Agent Cotton,” with icicles. “I think I’m having a heart attack. Not that anyone cares, or would, even if anyone knew how much I hate these infernal machines… I know how to use mine, isn’t that enough? You’d think so, huh? But noooo, Betty. Deputy Reed has a ‘live feed’ for the Sheriff. Live feed is something fishermen, or zookeepers, or crazy people who own snakes do, not what I do… much less record it.”

“You can swear if it’ll help. It always makes me feel better.”

“Candi, I’ve worked with Betty for fifteen years and I think I’ve heard her swear once,” Harden said.

“Okay, Agent Cotton,” Betty shook some short curls out of her eyes, “we now have a crooked picture of trees, and I can hear Bash yammerin’ away somewhere out there, but this,” Betty slammed the mouse into the pad, “is worse’n cat hair in a King Ranch casserole. Grab the goddamn handles, ya little piece a crap.”

“Betty? Relax, deep breath, okay? You don’t need the handles, just click the box on the top right. When Deputy Reed’s video fills the screen, look down at the bottom, click the microphone icon and the camera icon. Is there a red light over the camera icon?”

“Yes… Are we in? Did we do it?”

You did it, Betty.” Clapping and a whistle from Candi’s end of the line. “Do you need anything from Walmart while I’m here?”

“Soap to wash out my mouth.”

“I didn’t hear anything. Did you, Sheriff?”

“Not me. You did get our videos from Wally’s security?”

“Yes sir. I’m just having a talk with Ms. Patrick and a few of the girls who work here. Did you need anything?”

“You, back here, with the videos. Pronto.”

“It won’t be long. We’re wrapping it uh—”

“Pistachios!”

“Betty? Was that a sneeze? Are you okay?”

“Listen to her. Like she’s worried. Pih-STASH-ee-ohs, Agent Cotton. The nuts.” She hung her head, both hands palms down on Harden’s desk. “Please…”

“Right. Nuts. Shells or shelled?”

“Shells.” She backed away from Harden’s desk, fanned her face with both hands. “I need to work off some steam.”

***

“Bash? It’s me, Sheriff Har—”

“I can see you, Chief. Betty all right?”

“She had to talk an take direction over the phone from her personal scourge and cuss the computer, left outta my office lookin’ like Tammy Faye Bakker after runnin’ some sprints… She’ll live. Where the hell are you?”

“You know the rusty tank farm where we cleaned up the baby bonfire party at Altus Murphy’s request? Turns out that’s six-hundred feet from the river, as the crow flies, and half a mile upstream from where we found the costume. Keep goin’ downstream and you hit that long run of low-water sand that looked good to the costume crowd, the Cub Scouts and the cheap beer and catfish cooler people.”

“That’s where you are?”

“No, I’m half-a-mile south of there. The road I took outta the tank farm with you? It’s caliche, and stood out on the GPS but when I zoomed in this whole area is a spiderweb of rut tracks, old tank and sludge pond access… Down the east side of that sludge pond we trolled—”

“You trolled.”

“Yeah, well, I followed a rut track from the river not three hundred feet from the costume dump site. That took me through the trees almost straight to the east side of that slag pond. Now that you’ve had the scenic view, here’s the green and gold Honda. No spare. From here on, tell me what you need to see. All I have is the forensics-in-a-tackle-box kit from the Tahoe, so go easy on fingerprints and evidence bags.”

“If the car’s all you’ve got, shoot it, get it towed.”

“Sounds good. But it’s not all. You wanna see the trailer?”

***

“The foreign girls have it the worst,” Lisha said. The other female employees who’d answered Lisha’s text to meet in electronics nodded. One, with a heavy Slavic accent, said the shift manager in question had made her miserable since she’d gotten pregnant because he couldn’t hit on her anymore, and several other girls in her situation had quit rather than take his shit. Run off pregnant, without a job or insurance.

“You’ve given me all I need to get started. Lisha has my card. Pick a time in the next couple of days when we can all meet. All,” Candi studied each of their faces in turn, “means anyone you’ve heard complain, whether or not they still work here. I have a safe place we can meet where no one will bother us. Just let me know when.”

“Miss you no unnerstan,” from a waifish Asian girl who was close to tears. “We scare a him.”

“I’m not. And you won’t be, either. The sooner we get together the better, ladies. Ms. Patrick?” She held up a flash drive. “Good work.”

***

Candi, loaded down with plastic shopping bags, waited to get buzzed in the front of the Sheriff’s office. The door clicked, she caught it with her elbow, pulled and cleared the entry. She lugged four stuffed plastic bags that she set on Betty’s chest high on most people reception desk. Behind it, Betty continued to make mumbling noises, shook her wired mouse, typed, shook the mouse, typed…

Candi reached in one of the bags, retrieved a ten-inch-tall bag of pistachio nuts, set it on the desk.

“Pistachio’s.”

“God bless you.” Betty whipped a Kleenex from its box, held it up.

“You’ve been waiting over an hour for that one, haven’t you?”

“It seems like a lot longer. Oh my God. Are there cupcakes in that bag?”

***

Agent Cotton’s phone sat in a cradle on the conference room desk streaming a video call from the medical examiner to a projector that flooded one wall with three scans of Jimmy Pierce’s skull. The ME used an old-fashioned conductor’s stick pointer to tap points on the scans while she explained Jimmy’s coup and contrecoup brain injuries.

“So,” Harden tapped the eraser end of a pencil on the table, “can you tell us what he got hit with?”

“Unfortunately, no. But,” the screen changed to a facial close-up of Jimmy’s head, “you can see the bruising here,” the pointer circled all of Jimmy’s forehead. “The blow was hard enough to slam his brain to the other side of his head without breaking the skin. To be honest I only see injuries like this in rollover wrecks or sports injuries. Deputy Reed probably remembers the boxer from Anadarko a few years ago?”

“He took a hard punch to the side of his head, made it to the dressing room and keeled over?”

“That’s the scenario you’re looking at here. The boxer and your victim both got slammed with something hard enough to cause brain hemorrhage and soft enough not to leave anything but a bruise behind.”

“Could a fist have done that to our vic?”

“Sorry, Sheriff. You’re looking at an injury that covers at least ten inches, wrapped across the forehead, and from the middle of his nose into his hairline. If it’s any help I think he might have been bending down. Not deep, possibly ten degrees from upright. But again, that’s guesstimate.”

“Did he eat anything, drink anything that could have led to where we are?”

“Not that I’ve found. His tox was clean except for indications of light marijuana use and alcohol as a food group. I will say in general terms that Bologna loaf on white bread, Slim Jims and Keystone Light don’t constitute a healthy diet.”

“We didn’t find any Slim Jims.”

I did. If anyone knew how hard it was to digest those things—”

“Thank you, Doctor. How close is the time of death?”

“The best I can do is what’s in the report. Thursday. Before noon, based on the amount of heat exacerbated decomp. If you pinned me down, I’d say closer to midnight to before the sun came up. He’d had a good four days plus to cook. Being under the skiff helped roast him, but it’s also why we had enough to work with to get as much as we have. Bugs are one thing, Sheriff. We’d be dealing with gristle and bones if the birds and four-legged scavengers had gotten ahold of him.”

“Could he have pulled that boat on top of himself, knowin’ he was in bad shape?”

“I suppose he could have been lucid enough, but for all I know he could have danced the Charleston with Taylor Swift to that boat before he collapsed, and she covered him in a fit of empathetic altruism. I know what caused him to die, guys. How that came to be is y’all’s job.”

***

“Shit.” Harden looked around the table. “No closer than spittin’ distance on time of death. Mystery murder weapon. No drugs, no poison. Y’all got anything?”

“The Cub Scouts found the Slim Jim wrappers.”

“That’s real case bustin’ info right there, Agent Cotton. Bash?”

“The velvet hammer had to be convenient and light enough to carry away or easily disposed of. Over ten inches by six or eight with enough heft to kill somebody doesn’t walk away by itself.”

“Exactly,” Candi, thumbing through evidence pictures. “We aren’t looking for a weapon in the conventional sense… We need an uncommon weapon of convenience…”

“Unless I’m mistaken Deputy Reed just said that very thing. It’s good we’re on the same page, but what I’m hearin’ from both a y’all is we have this big ol’ pile of evidentiary information that we can’t make heads or tails of an it still ain’t tellin’ us jack shit. Am I right?” He waited a few long moments. “That’s what I was afraid of.” He shuffled his paperwork into a pile, grabbed it and stood. “Candi, you’re up with Aiden Pierce. Bash, you’re with me.”

I Can Wait

“Stop!”

Sheriff Harden jumped.

“Keep your hands where I can see them and step away from the coffee machine.” Candi smiled when he turned around. “It’s not workplace gender stereotyping if I’m going to drink it.”

“You’re early,” Harden backed away from the coffeepot, left arm out in a be-my-guest gesture.

“So are you.”

“I had a talk with Brandy Green before things got rollin’ today.”

“She’s the ex of the deceased’s brother from another mother?”

“That’s her.”

“Anything valuable?”

“People like her, you have to let all the extra talk settle out, but she had a few things. Whether they amount to anything but a couple of kids lyin’ is up in the air. You got a little sun yesterday.”

“I forgot my nose icing. Evidence gathering isn’t something I usually do outdoors all day in a T-shirt, or less. This week I’ve managed two days in a row. She thumped the side of the coffee basket with her finger, slid it into the machine, carefully eyed the water level in the pot before pouring it in the reservoir. She gave the top of the machine a ‘good boy’ pat and flipped it on.

“I sent forensics the evidence logs and reports you emailed me. So they’d know a little more about what they were gettin’ into….” Harden couldn’t decide to go with you okay, how was it, or what happened yesterday when Candi said,

“Deputy Reed’s report reads like it was all me,” she bent, eyed the coffee drip. “That everything we found was because it was where I originally suggested it would be. I didn’t want to contradict him on paper, but you should know the evidence we found was three quarters of a mile upstream from my original target area and in his drone grid.”

“Why, do you suppose, he’d do somethin’ like that? Is there anything I should know about yesterday besides y’all findin’ a handful a phones and a smelly Wookie costume before knockin’ off at 3:30?”

“Yesterday,” she inspected the cup before loading it, “I screwed up. Big and often. My attitude embarrassed me at least three times. I buried the Jeep in the middle of the river, took part in several groundless but ultimately productive hunches. I got filthy, got sand in places fully dressed that used to only happen in a beach volleyball thong, laughed like a first-class idiot at bad jokes, cried when no one was looking, played Snot on a Ritz, ate half a stale cardboard sandwich from a truck stop and drank two beers. While on duty.” She handed Harden the freshly poured cup. “I don’t remember the last time I had as much fun, and never as a cop.”

“Fun? How was that… Snot on a what?”

“That’s what I said.” She poured herself a cup. “I saw your text about warrants and subpoenas. Any reason I should know about for splitting out the financials?”

“Small town. Three men that historically don’t have a pot to piss in are suddenly spending thousands and we need to see how that money comes and goes and did it factor into Jimmy Pierce turnin’ up dead. That request will leak before you’re out of the courthouse. The splits that go to your level are Peeping Tom subpoenas.”

“You think there’s corruption in the Courthouse?”

“I know there’s corruption in the Courthouse. It might only be nickel and dime milking, but I’d like to know who before tippin’ ‘em all off.”

***

“Nice of you to join us today, Deputy Reed.” The Sheriff dropped his reading glasses on a short stack of paper in the middle of his desk, sat back, rubbed his eyes.

“I drove Candi’s Crown Vic loaner in yesterday afternoon. Sounds like a loose hammer in the right front end so I dropped it at the County service center. They can deal with OSBI. Caught a ride in with a pothole crew.”

“Agent Cotton drove your sister’s Jeep in from the field and you drove her OSBI shitmobile?”

“She had a project.”

“Mmm… Well sir, in this report of yours you mention the bag of unusual ‘evidence’ was weighed down in the river by a Honda donut spare. As it happens I had a talk with Brandy Green this mornin’ an after siftin’ through a fifty-pound bag of talk I learned that accordin’ to her, Jimmy Pierce’s estate is missin’ a 2004 gold with one green fender Honda Civic Hatchback.”

“Wonder if it’s missin’ the spare?”

“Spoken like a true investigative genius. I need you to work on locatin’ that car for us till around eleven and then swing by an pick up Aiden Pierce and Ivy Green. They need to sit in an uncomfortable chair and feel an unfriendly door close behind them.”

“What about Virgil Green and Altus Murphy? Those two are part an parcel of whatever’s goin’ on.”

“Virgil’s spent his life playin’ just as dumb as he is. He’ll sit in an interview room like a wart on the chair for two days, shake his head an say ‘Ah dunno, wudn’t there’. Altus will fall out of the chair after about 90 seconds and start floppin’ around like a fish on the dock hollerin’ how he’s got some bullshit mental problem or other an needs fresh air an a ride to the emergency room. I’ll bring them in when we know what’s goin’ on with the money.”

“What if Aiden and Ivy really don’t know anything?”

“They know what’s goin’ on, or have an idea, an we gotta put some focus on this bucket a random shit for evidence we’ve collected. Evidence, I might add, of who the fuck knows what, if anything, and we’re about to have considerable more of it. Until we know if any of it’s even illegal, much less connected to death by design or misadventure, we’re just on a damn scavenger hunt.”

More evidence?”

“Hell, Bash, I have Betty down at the Staples with Lisha Patrick copyin’ her Walmart notebook and I’ve subpoenaed their transaction videos. Candi’ll be pullin’ bank and phone records by the time you get back. Both of you’ll need to get up to speed on the forensics while Aiden an Ivy stew for a while. Your dance card’s full for a couple of days. No more fartin’ around at the river all day. By the way,” he tapped the paper stack, “in your report… Piss an lighter fluid?”

“Candi and I agreed that stale urine, and lighter fluid was how we’d write it up.”

“It still reads like piss an lighter fluid.”

“Did you ask Can— ”

“All she said that matters is her nose got sunburned because you’re an unrelenting and unrepentant slavedrivin’ asshole.”

“Asshole?”

“She said jerk, but we all know that’s lady for asshole. Now get outta here and go find our missin’ Honda.”

***

Bash rolled the Tahoe to a stop between the riverbank and the mess of fading tire tracks. He closed his eyes, tried to imagine who’d been there… How, did it play out? He’d been stupid yesterday in failing to document the land side of the recovery scene, more intent on not contaminating the evidence and isolating it with the tarp than looking for how it might have gotten in the water. He walked the perimeter where the tarp had been, but anything disturbed could be from anytime from last week to yesterday. Shit.

He squatted, spun slowly on his heels. One set of tire tracks… stopped in a fade, not far from the bank. The trash bag car, probably the spare tire car. They’d shed the costume, left it by the river, gone for the car. Came back, fed the costume and everything else into the bag. It was heavy, they weren’t going to throw it far… Were in too big a hurry to drag it out in the river… They dropped it and the weight went to the bottom, the big airy part with the costume kept the bag visible. Instead of rolling the air out of the bag or leaving it open to soak everything and gain weight or any other do-over they grabbed the spare, dropped it and flattened the bag… They were in a hurry, maybe a panic, weren’t thinking but reacting … The tire drop forced excess air out, kept river water out… Whoever they were, and whatever happened had surprised the shit out of them. But… did it have anything to do with Jimmy Pierce?

He rose, shaded his eyes, isolated what he’d decided were slightly offset tire tracks away from the scene. Whoever dropped the spare was most likely the last out. Maybe that was whoever tossed the phone, thinking anyone who found it would keep it, or it would stay lost. Why would they bag the other two phones, keep one, aside from it being a hell of a lot more expensive than the burners… Kept it long enough to make a call and then tossed it? He climbed in the Tahoe, the door open, and idled down the escape route to the washout where he studied the scrape scar in the sandstone. The car he was looking for had to be in bad shape. Back inside the Tahoe, he dropped a marker on his GPS location, zoomed out and stared at the screen.

***

“Good morning, Kelly. How’s that baby?”

“Um, Candi?” Shit. Candi freakin’ Cotton, in the courthouse, outta thin air… “Er, Agent… Uh, I didn’t see… Hear?” Kelly swept all of her DIY lash extension kit except for the magnifying mirror into her desk drawer. “It’s so nice… I mean, I didn’t know you were in town.” She glanced at the mirror that shot her stare back at ten times magnification. “The baby… Right! She’s…fine? Isn’t she?”

“Not my baby, Kelly. Is Connor in?”

“Connor? Uh… Oh, him. I…” She turned in her chair. “Well, he was. But…” she scanned her desk, the McDonald’s bag was gone, thank God, only the mirror. “He mighta brought… be eating, breakfast? Or…”

“Never mind, Kelly. I see him.”

The County Attorney had just slathered two strawberry jam packets on half a Mickey D’s biscuit, chose to ignore the noise in the outer office. He had his lips wrapped around half the biscuit when he looked up. His eyes went golfball, he ripped the napkin from his shirt collar, chomped and choked on the half biscuit, the remaining piece fell in his lap. He shot up out of his chair, reached in his top left desk drawer for his tied tie…

“Goomphawmin… Awndie… shooopht!” He frowned, brushed the stuck quarter biscuit off his crotch leaving strawberry trails in its wake. He held out his right hand covered in sticky goo while tilting his head in an attempt to drop the tie loop over it, caught the gooey hand extension, pulled it back.

“Good morning to you, too. Nice to see you haven’t changed, Yates. Still eating an egg and bacon biscuit on the bottom half, turning the top into a diabetic coma.”

He wiped his hand, flipped up his collar, gave up and dropped in his chair.

“Go ahead Yates. Get yourself together. I can wait.” She picked up a half empty plastic bottle of chocolate milk, raised her eyebrows. “Your wife doesn’t feed you in the morning?”

“Don’t,” he yanked the knot up on his tie, “have,” flipped his collar down, “one.”

“As a trained investigator that should have been obvious.” She reached across his desk, straightened his tie. “I thought you and what’s her name, the library assis—”

“Annie. Anne. Rosalas.” He held out both hands, wider, closer, like he was imagining someone’s width, gave up, dropped them to the desk.

“I thought you two were a sure-fire thing.”

“She, we… got, had to get… Divorced. After college, we didn’t see… eye to eye. On some things. More than some, things, actually. Like everything…” He wiped his mouth with a clean corner of his handwipe napkin, dropped it in his McDonald’s bag, situated himself in his chair. “Now. What can I do for you, Candi?”

“I heard being married to you turned her gay. And it’s Candi, now? Not the unjolly green amazon? Stick with zits for tits? If she had an ass she could sit down? Oh, she is sitting down?”

“That’s not true. About her, or you. I never meant—”

“Water under the bridge, Yates. Every time I come back home, I run into my past and have to bury some more ghosts.” She set the folder on his desk, right side up for him, opened it. “Subpoenas duces tecum. Document subpoenas in case you’re rusty. Do you have a stamp,” she pulled a pen out of a ‘Friend of the Forester’ polished cedar pen holder on his desk, “or do you need this?”