We Save the Good Dishes for Company

 “Cotton,” she leaned her ear into the phone in her hand.

“It’s Bash. We need to talk.”

She turned away from the two men, lowered her voice. “Not a good time.”

“Call me back. I don’t care how late.”

“Can’t. It’s…” She glanced over her shoulder. “Look, I’m at the baby Hilton. With the Chief, and Captain Merton.”

“Then it’s figured already and none a my business.”

“Nothing is fig… Hello? Hey…” She lowered the phone, disconcerted.

“That would’ve been Bash,” Harden, with a wry smile. “Call him back, Candi.” He checked in with Merton. “Let’s get this shootin’ match over with.”

***

“Come in, Deputy Reed,” Captain Merton, from a corner of the chair-less Hilton Garden Inn’s ‘Business Center.’ “If Agent Cotton will scoot down the wall and make some room.”

“If you’re wondering about seating arrangements,” Harden, to Bash. “Merton decided years ago that chairs made meetings longer than they needed to be.”

Bash acknowledged with a nod, parked on the wall with Candi, opposite the chiefs.

“We’ve been here a while, Deputy.” Merton, straight, no attitude. “Agent Cotton is aware of my proposal. You’re here to tell us what you think about it.”

“My experience with foregone conclusions,” Bash’s eyes swept their faces, “is further discussion is a waste of air.”

“Accurate,” Merton acknowledged, “but tell us anyway.”

“Sure, why not take your shot?” Candi rotated to her right side against the wall. “My character flaws on parade discussion is trending.”

“That’s the only thing I could do without, right there,” Bash, eye to eye. “The adversarial bullshit. If you were a man, I’d grab the front of your shirt and—”

“And I’d tie you into a pretzel.”

“Think I can’t keep up?”

What? Are you calling me out?”

“Pick your dojo or pick your nose. Standin’ still it’s just a pose.”

“Is that right?” Her eyes narrowed. “Okay, badass. What would you say after you grabbed my shirt, huh? Ask me where I learned to drive? Why I stole a pink fucking Jeep?”

“Why you never let your hair down?” Expansive grin. “No,” he leaned into her space. “I’d ask how the hell you ever won a silver medal in volleyball bein’ a one woman show.”

I didn’t. We were a team. We worked together like a machine. We—”

“I knew ‘we’ had to be in your vocabulary somewhere.”

That…” she started to heat up, “was a cheap shot, you… fuck head.” She rolled to her back against the wall again, arms folded, eyes to the ceiling. “Any other sucker punches I need to hear?”

“Would you be more comfortable talkin’ about bein’ part of something if we put up a net, threw a little sand on the floor?”

Candi’s eyes came off the ceiling and back to his face. “That’s. Two.”

“Three and I’m out? I’ve played that game. I might feel more comfortable with the sand—”

“We played on a court, smart ass. The sand came—”

“Later? With a Jeep worth stealin’?”

“Fuck you, you smug bastard. You don’t know shit about—”

“What’d I tell you, Merton?” Sheriff Harden came off the wall, brushed the hat in his hand. “They’ll figure this better an faster’n we ever could. Mornin’ oughta be soon enough for you to get an answer, an I could use another drink.”

***

Bash stepped through a door that was more stained glass than wood, found himself surrounded by a jungle of perfectly placed plants and furniture arranged on a remarkably level and indirectly lit pavestone courtyard behind the Rose B&B. “Nice patio.”

“Thank you. I told the expert I wanted it to be like the patio I’d always wanted at my house but could never maintain by myself.”

“A millionaire’s patio without waiting to be a millionaire to enjoy it.” He stared into the unobtrusive ringed with greenery bubbling stacked cubes water feature. “At least you didn’t go for the naked guy peeing.”

“I prefer understandable modern to classical. And it’s usually a naked guy, or girl, with water running out of an urn on their shoulder, not—”

“In Cuba and Mexico, the fountain guys are peeing. I took pictures.”

“You’ll have to show me. Sometime in the distant future.” She made a minimal hostess wave around the patio. “Please. Make yourself comfortable. She picked two lightly sweating glasses of white wine from a crisp tablecloth covered wicker end table, gave him one and settled by pulling her feet up beside her on a glider. She held the stem of the wineglass with one hand, absently turned it with the other. “The Chief said you ‘blew some mighty pretty smoke signals’ up his butt about me.”

“I just told him like it is.” Bash, from a cushioned Adirondack chair. “All I said—”

“If you tell me you’ll ruin it. I don’t want to know how flowery or full of shit you were. It’s enough to know you were kind and trying to have my back.” She squirmed into being more comfortable. “Do you have anything to listen to?”

“Let’s see…” he set his glass on the patio next to his chair. “What are you in the mood for? Meditative Plains Indian pan flute in a canyon? Lite jazz? Grunge? Whiny chicks with mandolins?”

She made a face.

“I’m glad you agree because I don’t have any of that.” He stopped fingering his phone, unsure of his social footing, wondering if this was a test. “What’s wrong with yours?”

“I’ve heard mine.” She leaned her head back, closed her eyes. “The connection is Rose Garden.”

He pushed the volume up to where the music became part of the air and no more. Ten minutes that could have been ten days went by on the insular patio while sleepy Spanish guitar backed with lightweight percussion and an occasional lonesome horn or marimba sneaked out from under the furniture.

She raised her head, found her glass. “What is this?”

“They call it café music. Open air sidewalk cafés are where I heard it. Not the weekend Mariachi at Los Locos.”

“That’s good. Or I’d rent a booth and never leave Los Locos.” She studied her glass. “I decided to take their offer.”

“If it’s the café music, you can get that off the internet, you don’t need me.”

“Yes, I do, but not for the music. You and the Chief both.”

He let that hang like fog. Finally, “Snot on a Ritz?”

She snorked her wine. “I decided,” finger wiping her lips, “before we left that closet at Merton’s hotel. I’d saved my long pity party vent, you know, with all the ‘What’s fucking wrong with me?’ What fucking choice do I have?’ drama for when you finally got to the hotel. Shoot myself in the foot, make a huge mess out of it and be everything they already think of me. Then you showed up, took me right out of it and the Sheriff took them out of it.”

“Old Apache wisdom,” he picked up his wine glass, drained it. “Friends don’t let friends drive angry.”

“Friends aren’t easy to come by. At least not for me, anyway. Can you send me that playlist?”

“Sure.” He took that as a cue, rose from the chair, set his empty glass on the wicker table it came from. “What are friends for?”

“I’m not done.”

“Yeah?” He backed up so he could see her.

“I leave my hair up so the bad guys don’t have anything to grab. I stole the Jeep because I got screwed and was way pissed off at a whole slew of people who’d been blowing smoke up my—”

“If you’re worried about that happening here, forget it.” He squeezed the top of her shoulder on the way by. “We save our smoke and the good dishes for company, not each other. And none of us drive anything worth stealin’.”

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Company for Dinner

Flat on her back in the dust and weeds, Esther Murphy moaned, “Ammulanz… I nee a Ammulanz… Ammulaaaannnnnz…”

“Shut up, Mother,” Altus, turning the Mauser’s grip forward for the handoff to Bash. “Shut. The fuck. Up.”

He stepped around the Deputy, out the door of the shed, scooped his mother up and over a narrow shoulder, grabbed the walker with his free hand and dragged it to the back porch steps where he unceremoniously dumped his mother, set the walker in front of her and pushed it against the bottom step with his foot. “No ambulance. No muscled up EMT techs. Where’s your oxygen?” She folded her arms, bent over and rocked, muttering occasionally recognizable profanity into her knees.

“I apologize for Mother,” to Bash. “And for your father,” to Aiden.

“Why don’t you and Aiden have a seat over there with your mother for a minute while I disarm this party and figure some things out.” He dropped the magazine and popped the chambered shell from the Mauser, set it in a convenient rusty wheelbarrow. He dropped the clip from Aiden’s pearl-gripped baby automatic and discovered both clip and chamber were empty and set it with the Mauser. Esther Murphy’s wild west revolver he half-cocked, rotated the cylinder to find two spent shells and four empty chambers. He looked up to see Altus had wrapped the Mauser in an oily rag, had another rag waiting for the big Colt.

“I’ll have to take these in for ballistic fingerprints. You can have them—”

“Fine, fine,” Altus, nitty, wrapping and tucking the rag. “They’re so old, you see. Great grandfather’s… There’s a box in the house. Worth a fortune, some of them.”

“You ain’t sellin’ nothin’ you worthless—” Mother broke out in a coughing fit that sounded like pieces of her lungs were coming loose, hocked out an oyster sized wad of phlegm. “You been stealin’ from me since you was born, you an that good for nothin’—”

“Mrs. Murphy, you’re on the edge of goin’ to jail as it is. It’d be wise of you to take your son’s advice and keep your mouth shut.” He turned back to Altus. “You think it’s safe to have a box full of guns in the same house with her?”

“She’s a delusional, disillusioned old bat who’s been cussing me and shooting at me for thirty-five years. The frequency has fallen off some since her mid-eighties. Cussed and shot at father, too, before he died.”

“No intervention of any kind?” Calmly incredulous. “You just let her shoot at you whenever she wants?”

“Hadn’t hit me yet, never hit dad. She’ll tell you, because you’re wearing a uniform, that she shot my father for being the biggest disappointment in her life until I came along and then buried him under the big disappointment oak out front. After paying too much to rent a backhoe and expensive DNA tests, your boss will tell you, the bones in the casket over at Rose Hill are Father’s, and there’s not shit under that oak tree but roots and red dirt.” Altus took his seat on the stairs with Bash’s other two gunplay perps, rubbed his gun-oily hands on his loose carpenter jeans.

“Right,” Bash kicked back against the rear of Karla Pierce’s Buick, crossed his boots at the ankles. “Somebody start. Keep it simple and short.”

***

“Three guns, no prisoners?” Harden signed and passed back the property intake clipboard. “Anything I need to know?”

“The Mauser has a breathe-on-it hair trigger, and the hammer on the Colt comes back so easy a baby could cock it. They’re both worth a small fortune. Particularly the Colt.”

“I meant—”

“Yeah, I know. What happened was Aiden came apart tryin’ to get his head around his dad bein’ gone, went to Altus with a gun to leverage a story out of him. Altus keeps the Mauser in his ham radio shed to pop rats and discourage trespassers. Esther Murphy comes in and out of reality and put somethin’ together in her head about Altus havin’ two visitors, one a cop in a pink Jeep, that made it another good day to shoot at her son.”

“Another?”

“Habitual. Altus says every so often she gets a wild hair, starts cussin’ him and let’s go a couple rounds in his direction. Never has hit him.”

“Jesus. And your executive decision, after five wild rounds between nutcases, was to cut ‘em all loose?”

“Aiden’s gun was empty. Maybe he knew, maybe not. If it had been loaded, and Altus was a better shot than his mother, it would have been messy. But it wasn’t. All Aiden wanted was to know why.”

“Are we gonna get to that?”

“Simple. Altus wanted to put some polish on the monster hunters. Jimmy and Virgil figured they’re the stars and it should stay status quo and voted down any improvement in the way they produced the shows. Altus thought they were gettin’ a little big for their britches, found out they were goin’ catfish noodlin’ and decided to give ‘em a dose of Bigfoot they weren’t expectin’. He said he never expected Virgil to go…”

“Go on an say it ‘fore it kills you.”

“He never expected Virgil to go ape shit over seein’ the costume on someone else or fail to recognize it. From there, it zips right up with Aiden’s story.”

“Also with something Ivy said. Except Altus went home to get shot at by his mother an Aiden sat it out with a rash an ate junk food in a party squat, an Virgil Green drove home in Jimmy’s truck claimin’ he hadn’t seen him. When Aiden and Altus say they saw the both of ‘em, together.” Harden leaned back in his chair, interlaced his hands behind his head. “I have a five-dollar bill that says Aiden didn’t give a shit about what Ivy thought or that they’re even an item. I think he didn’t want to show up early an sick and disappoint his old man by not bein’ off doin’ man shit like alligator chasin’ or titty bar hoppin’. Either a those woulda bought him some back slappin’ cred if they’d panned out. I can even hear Jimmy sayin’ ‘Ya little fucker, I ‘bout pissed myself over you needin’ money to go see some titties’ and laughin’ it off. Instead, Aiden comes home when he’s supposed to and his dad’s dead.”

“Altus said the same thing. Jimmy was always callin’ all of ‘em fuckers. Dumb, goofy, boring… He expected Jimmy to call him the next day with a ‘Hey, was that you down to the river, ya dumb fucker?’.”

“But he didn’t call, an nobody who expected Jimmy to be Mr. Jolly over a practical joke figured him for missin’. If it hadn’t been for some curious Cub Scouts, Jimmy might still be an MIA got-drunk-and-fell-in-the-river fisherman statistic. Tomorrow mornin’, we sit in the room together and listen to everybody’s interviews, look at the evidence again and see if it’s worth pullin’ Virgil Green in and pluggin’ him in to a wall socket to get him to talk, or walk away. ‘Cause at this point if he doesn’t roll over and confess, we’re back to a dead man and a bucket a air.”

“Does Cotton know?”

“About tomorrow, yeah. But there’re a few things Cotton doesn’t know. Not just yet.” His eyes hit the clock. “What’re you doin’ about company for dinner this evenin’? I ate enough lunch for two people, but I could use a drink.”

“Meanin’ you’ll nurse a Jack with ice and talk, most likely about Cotton, and watch me eat?”

“You get any smarter,” Harden picked up his hat, “I’ll have to start payin’ you.”

Runnin’ Real Low on Patience

“You know if you sign off on this, Dom, we both win.”

“God knows I love a win-win scenario. Take this steak and baked potato…” Harden used his knife to push back the steamed vegetable medley that was encroaching on his steak, shot Merton a look. “If they’d just leave the peripheral shit that don’t matter in the kitchen.”

“See, there’s the wise ass thing that never goes away. Tthat’s why you’re so good at gettin’ their attention. Competent and irreverent, that’s why they buy in.” Merton dunked his forkful of snapper in a ceramic thimble of melted butter. “I knew Reed would work for you, and Monica Perez before him, because,” he washed the fish down with iced tea, “you flex, but don’t fall over bendin’ either way tryin’ to save face or kiss ass. Your own or anyone else’s. If there’s anyone out there can whittle down the chip on Cotton’s shoulder without losin’ her, it’s you.”

“You don’t want to lose her, but you want her out from under your feet?”

“She has leadership potential in spades,” Merton pushed his tea glass to the edge of the table, “but where she is, in the middle of crime solving by committee? Jesus… I get blind copied on more friggin’ emails…” He nodded at the kid who reloaded his tea, adopted a whiny tone. “Cotton got in my shit. Cotton went around me. Cotton went over my head. Cotton didn’t wait for forensics. Cotton didn’t say mother may I. Cotton called a meeting when she knew my kid was sick…”

“All true, no doubt.”

“All of it, to the gazillionth power. Every. Day. She wants to get shit done, gets impatient waitin’ for information she thinks should already be up on the board and more impatient with the people responsible for it not bein’ there. She sees them sittin’ around, drinkin’ diet Coke and shootin’ the shit, pisses her off and she rattles everyone’s cage. And that’s good, actually. But it’s to the point with her that whatever division she’s in, they spend more time bustin’ on her and tryin’ to get her outta their shorts than doin’ their damn jobs. If I promote her, which is what I should do, there’ll be open rebellion.”

“Particularly ammong the older, politically savvy retired-in-place crowd who can bring years of favor-bought contacts worth of pressure to bear.”

“Exactly. Look, I’ll lay it out simple. We handle the central metro, and the state’s southeast quad out of the central office. The other three quads have local offices. Seems like I’m always sending people down here on some crime bustin’ mission and they’re not in tune, don’t know the players so it takes too long to get them up to speed, get the jurisdictions to cooperate. I’ll send Cotton in ‘cause I need shit to happen quick and everybody’s back gets stiff because she’s a pushy hard ass and an outsider. But…” he took a long look out the window, “if I put her as boots on the ground, down here, as the first State call in the area… And since she’s comin’ out of your office I’ll get better response time, intel and cooperation. She’s a local fixture, not this tall, Tasmanian She-Devil import. And for that, you, old friend, get an extra full-time cop around if you need one. It’s win-win because neither one of us wants to appropriate extra budget dollars or make a lot of noise to get what needs doin’ done. Not to mention you, as Cotton’s local oversight, will cut me a lot of slack with the other jurisdictions.”

“What you’re thinkin’ is,” Harden pulled his hands back, let the tea kid take his plate, “they’ll figure if ol’ Harden’s gettin’ results with hard-nosed reject cops, ’cause somehow we’re just one big happy, family there just might be somethin’ they’re missin’? They call me, I grease ‘em for you while Cotton’s in route?”

“Bingo.”

I don’t have a problem. What’s she gonna have to say, though?”

“Well, see… I’m sure she’ll see it as a career buster instead of a career maker, because I’ll be taking her out of the in-house game. A game that, at the moment, she can’t see she doesn’t need to win, or even play. That’s where I was was kinda hopin’ you’d step up and explain to her the benefits of how a lone wolf can be a team player without losin’ face.”

“Much more a you doin’ me favors and I’ll need to find a bigger grease gun.” He shot a glance at the dessert cart. “Bash is by himself, no tellin’ what he’s gettin’ up to…”

“He’s trained to do a job, Dom. Besides, what the hell can he get into on a sunny afternoon in bumfuck that he can’t handle?”

“Since you put it that way,” Harden used a look to flag the tea kid who ambled over. “A slice a that chocolate cream pie, please. And a coffee refill.”

***

Bash eased around the door of the shack for his first encounter with Altus Murphy. A thin, shoulder-less man, round wire-rim glasses, a stringy comb-over on a shiny dome, rosacea red cheeks, standing by a seven-foot-tall olive drab army salvage electronics rack full of gear. The pistol in Altus’ hand an antique semi-automatic Mauser. Just inside the doorway to his left, Aiden, his back to Bash, held out a tiny, shiny Saturday night special, most likely his mother’s. The way he was holding it, if he pulled the trigger, he’d blow the end of his finger off.

“Put the guns down. Now.” Bash kept his Browning at forty-five degrees down. “Now!

“It’s his fault,” Tears streamed from Aiden’s red eyes. “He made me kill dad.”

“Goddammit, Aiden, you didn’t kill your dad. I’m here to find out if Altus meant for it to happen. Drop. Your weapons. NOW!”

Altus flinched at Bash’s barked command.

BAM, he put a round in the floor at Aiden’s feet.

Bash thought of Aiden overreacting and losing his finger until he heard the clomp, clomp of the walker stop behind him.

“If you don’t kill him, sonny,” Murphy’s mother screeched, “I will. A bigger disappointment has no woman ever knowed,” she crowed, “‘cept for them as knowed his father.”

Bash turned, looked over his left shoulder, and Altus Murphy’s bent mother had both bony hands around the grip of another antique firearm. This one a huge, wild west revolver.

“Get outta my way, whoever you are,” she cawed. “I’m done a waitin’.” Aiden turned, opening up a lane into the shack.

BOOM.

Something in the rack beside Altus shorted out, spewed a fountain of sparks. Altus flinched again.

BAM. Another Mauser round into the floor kicking up dust at Bash’s feet.

From Aiden, “Aw shit, she’s goin’ down…”

Bash turned away from Altus, followed Aiden’s gaze just in time to see the old lady, knocked off balance by the big revolver’s recoil, stumble back two baby steps and fall on her back.

BOOM.

A neon sign from a closed RadioShack stuck on the wall of the shed exploded.

ENOUGH!” Bash grabbed the revolver by the barrel with his left hand, tossed it aside, ripped the shiny baby automatic out of Aiden’s hand, swung his Browning to bear on Altus Murphy’s chest. “Give me the goddam gun, Altus. I’m runnin’ real low on patience.”

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?”