Screw You, and Hell No

Bash knelt in the sand fifty yards upstream from the Cub Scouts’ van, studying a large crisscross pattern of indentations. He scooped up a handful of sand, held it up, let it drift out slowly. He pulled his phone, fell to his knees, and took several closeups of the ground. He’d done the same thing at what had been Candi’s “crime scene” and behind the Jeep when she’d parked.

“I’m guessing Thursday… Wednesday and they’d be gone. Friday, ehhh…” he waggled his hand.

To Candi, he looked like an extra playing scout in a western movie. Only his clothes and hat were all wrong. He had the hair, but needed a breechcloth, headband and a wide, beaded bicep wrap. Except he was only an inch shorter than she was and fit, not a little skinny spray-tanned Italian Hollywood extra holding the reins of a saddle-less pinto pony. She was trying to think of a way to ask what the hell he was doing without it sounding like she was making fun of him.

“But,” Bash said, saving her and wiping his hand on his pants, “it would never stand up in court.”

“What wouldn’t?”

“Tracks. You know,” he made a panoramic gesture with his hands, turned his voice into breathy life coach pudding. “Footprints… In the sands… Of our crime…”

“Is this a genetic urge, or…”

“Could be. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid. C’mon.” He headed for the Jeep, stopped behind it. “See, the sand starts filling in right off the bat.”

“Is that a baseball analogy?”

“You want that story, too?”

“When there’s time.” She opened her hand toward the ground. “Go on.”

“It’s simple. The more time from impression, the less impression remains. At first, there’s a landslide into the trough. Then it slows to almost, but not quite a stop. There’s never much detail, only slow closure.”

“Subject to weather I presume?”

“Yep. A dry front blew through last Wednesday night. If you look around where there hasn’t been any recent traffic, the sand’s smooth or wind rippled.”

“Which is why you said ‘Thursday’. Let me get this straight. The tracks over there are what you saw on your extra drone time I knew nothing about, thank you very much, and why there’s now a long metal tube and God’s own fish finder for evidence hunting, both devices I’m taking on faith and why a huge Jeep with a conveniently attached canoe just happened to be in the parking lot this morning. Are you sure your sister’s in China?”

“Jesus, you actually do believe you’re the center of the universe.”

“I do not. But three incredibly convenient coincidences? Give me some credit.”

“Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

“Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action. And the last thing I need from you right now is ancient Indian wisdom.”

“It wasn’t. Unless Einstein was an Apache.”

Mine was Ian Fleming. And that right there proves my point.” Her voice took a theatrical turn. “Everybody knows Deputy Reed is smarter than she is. He’ll make up some magical dimension inverter toy for her to play with, placate her, let her look for evidence where we all know there isn’t any. Then he’ll find a fucking Jeep that dwarfs hers…” Her voice dropped back to hot normal. “It’s the same old ‘tell her lies and feed her candy’ good-ol’-boy bullshit to get me out of the office on some vapor chase while the boys’ club solves a slam dunk case without me. Then they can call ahead next time and tell Merton I’m a pain in the ass, don’t ever send me back.”

Bash hooked the winch to the Jeep’s front tow bar, let it out level with the ground. “You finished?” He bounced the tow bar to check the winch tension, walked to the Jeep and pulled out the six-foot metal detector.

“Are you really going to continue this farce?”

“Look,” he dropped the bar in the sand, got in her face until she backed up, had to sit on the front tire. “I don’t know how much research you did on me, or where you found out about my very short baseball career, or how you figured out I was the resident boy genius when I’m not, or how I learned to shit a monster Jeep on demand just to embarrass you, but you’re wayyyyy off base. You wanna know somethin’? Yeah, the Chief did say thanks for not bein’ an asshole about the Cub Scouts and to tell you I thought your map was righteous work because it was. The fuckin’ scouts collectin’ evidence? That was one of those ‘none of us knows everything’ observations. You had a body site and a secondary site, both almost totally devoid of physical evidence. You were never a Cub Scout, so you didn’t put it together. Your standin’ in the river routine was nothin’ but you not havin’ any other ideas, and instead of askin’ one of us Barney Fifes for input, you go on and stand knee deep in red runnin’ silt and wavin’ a pool skimmer so it looks like you’re workin’.”

He backed off, hand pointed at the Jeep. “I’ve been driving this off and on since June. Ask anybody. In fact, go ask the manager at Sonic. She’ll be happy to tell you it’s too damn tall for their awning, and it cost me four hundred bucks worth of trail lights to find that out. As far as your good-ol’-boy ‘get her ass outta the office’ bullshit, I figured the Sheriff had more important liaison work up his sleeve for you than sweatin’ out my guess work. Since you were a surprise, the fish finder was an on-the-way-out-the-door improvisation, so we’d have something to do when my cluster of tracks idea went south.”

“Well… Shit…” Candi pushed into her knees, slowly eased up from the tire, dusted her butt. “Where does my being stupid leave us?”

“Candi, I can think of a lot of words for you, but stupid’s not one of them.”

“About working with people, I am. I see what I think stinks and have to let everybody know. Sometimes it clears the air, but in most cases it’s exactly the shit I called out. Either way,” slight shoulder shrug, “you know? So…”

“Birds of a feather. Waiter, table for two, please.”

“Do you mean,” her eyes came back to life, “that we’re still on? Even after I shit talked your entire plan for the day?”

“You know what Custer said when somebody suggested he stop shit talkin’ Indians?” He waited, she shook her head. “So Sioux me. Get it? S-I-O—”

“Get out…” she smacked his arm with her safari hat. “That was beyond awful.”

“So soo—”

Don’t.” She held up her index finger. “Make the magic dimension inverter work. Then I’ll sign off on funny.”

***

Sheriff Harden parked as close as possible to Jimmy Pierce’s porch, killed the siren, left his cruiser’s light show on. Aiden Pierce, shirtless, was on the porch before the Sheriff got out of his car. A sullen, arms folded head down Ivy Green followed, parked herself on the opposite side of the door frame, away from Aiden.

“You kids might wanna take a seat in one a those chairs, there.”

“We’re fine standin’ for now… What’s goin’ on, Sheriff?” Aiden rubbed his arms even though the shady porch had to be ninety-five degrees. “You tryin’ to wake the dead?”

“Ain’t wakin’ your daddy. Trust me, we tried it yesterday. There any weapons in the house?”

“Dad had a pistol, but I ain’t seen it lately. I lost my rifle when I lost my phone an Ivy’s done turned all the knives into paperweights tryin’ to cut up some frozen barbecue your damn deputy bought her.”

“You weren’t here,” Ivy laser eyed him, “and I ain’t wastin’ good barbecue thawin and refreezin’ it a million times.”

“Sounds reasonable to me, ” Harden said, hands on hips. “Ivy, run inside an fetch up a shirt for Aiden, if you would, please.”

“I can get my own shirt.”

“I need you to stay out here with me, son. Ivy?”

“Yes, sir…” She rolled her eyes, rolled off the wall and through the door calling over her shoulder, “Clean, buttons or pullover?”

***

Candi idled the Jeep over two passes starting at the edge of the grid Bash had flown. Fifty yards in and back, twice, and they’d come up with a disintegrating picnic basket full of cheap metal eating utensils, a topless gimme coffee thermos from Delta Energy, three rusty coffee cans riddled with large caliber bullet holes and half a round grill grate.

“We know two things,” Candi said. “The magical dimension inverter works,”

“And we ain’t findin’ shit.” He lifted his hat, scratched his head, stared out the window. “You watched the drone footage. What are you thinkin’?”

“You’re the navigator. If you’re impatient for results, we can hit the spots you bookmarked on the video. If we’re still in the junk metal recycling business at that point, we can try the river.”

“Okay, then head straight down the middle of the track to the gulch. Stop when you get there.”

She stopped at the edge of a shallow, narrow gulch just deep and wide enough to be a serious road hazard for most vehicles. Bash jumped down, walked to the driver’s side.

“See that, on the other side?”

“Tell me what I’m looking at.”

“The scar on top of the ridge, straight across. Somebody bottomed out here. Hard.”

“I can’t do it either with the towbar out.”

“You can in reverse.”

***

Bash stood, hand on the rear quarter panel of the Jeep. “If you want to get rid of something and you’re driving, what do you do with it?”

“Throw it?” Candi, from her backside lean on the passenger door.

“Exactly. That’s where I’ve been wrong. We don’t need to be dragging the vehicle paths or the perimeter. We need to check the rollin’ throwing distance on either side of the tracks.”

 “So,” She leaned upright. “What’s the new plan?”

He emerged from behind the back door of the Jeep with a cold can of beer, handed it to her. “Go back to where the tracks start, head this way right down the middle and about mid-way lefty sidearm this out your window.”

“If this is the only one of these?” She held up the can. “Screw you, and hell no.”

You Oughta Be a Detective

Connor Aldrich Yates became one of the youngest District Attorneys ever elected to his post. Not just locally, but anywhere. Younger by three years at his election time than the thirty-one-year-old in Pennsylvania. He defaulted into the job when his elderly predecessor keeled over after receiving what the Medical Examiner described as “extremely vigorous” oral sex from “party or parties unknown”. Two colors of lipstick were identified on the dead man’s contused organ. After a voluntary but thorough search of every desk, closet and trashcan of the courthouse proper and briefcases, purses, personal and county automobiles of all personnel, no matches were found on the premises. Or on any other person employed on contract or legitimately visiting the courthouse on that fatal day. Yates’ former boss not only had the audacity to take his security camera offline, but to collapse two weeks before an election with no one on the ballot as an alternative. The former District Attorney had been DA for thirty-two years. No one who’d run against him in the past posted over seven percent of the total votes cast. As a result, he’d run unopposed for the last four election cycles.

Yates, being the solo assistant DA was the obvious and only person available to fill the vacancy. He stepped in and immediately began making campaign sounding noises about “cleaning up Our County.” The County Commissioner’s Court granted an exception to the statutory ‘last date for filing’ to run for county office, but with Yates in place and the Christian Ladies Auxiliary behind him, the two people running against him scrambling for name recognition didn’t have a prayer. Not from the CLA, anyway. However, only 437 people bothered to vote. Which should have sent the fledgling DA a message about the County’s interest in how its wheels of justice turned. A fact that didn’t deter Yates from attempting to pursue his “reform” agenda. He immediately discovered the status quo carried far more popularity weight than he did, and in three short years, he’d become the poster boy for a life of quiet political desperation. When he complained, quietly, the local and state party bosses told him his position was indeed tenuous and to “just sit tight” until the next election. An election where someone targeted early on for reform by Yates had already rented a billboard offering to run their dog against him. And now he had to return a call from one of his most vocal detractors.

“Harden,” the sheriff eased his cruiser off CR1621 onto the shoulder.

“Yates here, Sheriff,” trying to sound upbeat. “You called?”

“Damn straight, I called. Half an hour ago. Where the fuck you been?”

“Uh, Sheriff, that might not be the most constructive way—”

“I need three warrants, Yates. I’ll have Betty email the particulars. Round up the judge, get ‘em signed. In an hour, Yates. Evidence could be disappearin’ as we speak. Hear me?”

“Sheriff, there might be a slight hitch in your time demands. Our secretary is doing double duty, and my typing skills aren’t—”

“I have two words for that bullshit. Candi. Cotton.”

“You’d go over my head for…” Yates checked himself. Filthy, illiterate, petty criminal white trailer trash was something the Sheriff could say and most likely get away with, but Yates couldn’t. He loaded his voice with his remaining reserve of theatrical optimism for, “an unsubstantiated case of death by misadventure involving one of our, um, less contributory citizens?”

“If you mean the Jimmy Pierce case, fuck an a I’ll go over your head. You need to look good when it’s done, Yates, so get my warrants. If not, I’ll pull Agent Cotton off real work and put her on gettin’ ‘em. If that happens, not only will I get my warrants in a horse race fuckin’ hurry, the state boys’ll be wonderin’ right along with the rest of us exactly what kinda numb nuts leadership we got for law and order around here.”

“Sheriff, just give me… Sheriff? Shit.” Yates tossed his phone at its cradle, raised his voice. “Kelly? Put the nail file down and forget wandering off to the day care at lunch. We have three warrant requests coming in.”

We, Kemosabe?” His secretary’s voice echoed back from the outer office. “I think I feel my carpal tunnel kickin’ in.”

“I have a $25 Applebee’s gift card that says it’s heading straight into spontaneous remission.”

“Done. But I need to be holdin’ it in my poor, crippled little hand before it can work any kinda miracle on my CT.”

***

“Can you not take a picture until I look more like a Jeep girl than a stewardess?”

“You said it, I didn’t.” Bash dropped his phone in a pocket of his cargos. “And I think these days, technically, it’s ‘flight attendant.’”

“Do you really think ‘attendant’ is any less demeaning than ‘stewardess’?”

“No. Stewardess has some nostalgia factor. Like from a time when ‘flight attendants’ weren’t fat, and nobody wore fuzzy bunny ear slippers and sleep pants to the bank. Attendant is the dude in the men’s room at a too-expensive restaurant who sells squirts of watered-down cologne for three bucks and expects a tip. But, as an ‘indigenous person’ no one put me in charge of political correctness.”

“If you were?”

“That’s a long conversation we don’t need to have right now.”

“Agreed. Do you think I look like a stewardess?”

“Do these pants make my butt look big?”

“No,” she unlocked the driver’s door, “but your hat does.”

***

“OSBI Field operations, Captain Merton’s office.”

“Tell him it’s Harden.”

“Hold, please.” The line hummed, clicked, played two bars of forty-year-old Jacuzzi jazz, clicked again.

“What can I do for you, Dom.”

“I need you to roll on three warrants I have comin’ down.”

“I haven’t heard about any warrants. Where they from?”
“Yates.”

“Jeez, that pussy? What’d you do, put his nuts in a vice?”

“I wasn’t sure he had any, so I threatened him with you.”

“You mean threatened him with Agent Cotton. How’s that workin’ out for you, her and the Indian?”

“They took some gadget out to play in the sand on the pretense of looking for evidence. No blood so far.”

“Give ‘em time. Three warrants, you said? Prints, DNA? Or are you just fishin’”

“Fishin’ at this point, but a swab kit might come in handy. Two structures at one location and a pickup truck, whereabouts unknown.”

“Vehicle’s on you. I’ll roll a discovery team on the structures soon as you send me the address.”

“You’re a good man, Merton. Regardless of what the Governor says.”

“Careful, Dominick. I can leave Cotton down there when this is over.”

***

Candi drove Cat’s “God, this thing is torque-y” Jeep to her “ancestral home”. “If you ever need to come out here when I’m in town and you pass Nate’s” she pointed down the road to Nate’s Pit Stop, “you missed me.” Candi slowed at a rusty mailbox and turned onto a caliche drive that disappeared into trees whose branches touched the ground. She swung wide of the tree cluster, pulled in under their canopy from the side, stopped in front of a clean, wood slat rambling ranch-style house with rows of empty flowerpots stacked behind the porch railing. She climbed down, unlocked two electronic deadbolts and swung the door inward.

Bash followed her inside, found himself in a time warp. In the shades-of-sepia Berber carpeted living room, while he waited for her to change, he studied a collection of ceramic, stuffed, rubber, plastic, Christmas tree ornament and snow-globe-encased penguins, backed by penguin motif holiday plates, all arranged on a spotless vintage Montgomery Ward breakfront. Moving through a room-to-room opening, he discovered Candi owned the dining room. Pictures of a bucktoothed, long legged elementary school girl in need of a hairbrush all the way through braces, high school and college that culminated in the same girl, longer legs, buck teeth gone, still needing the hairbrush. There were no pictures of the Olympic team, or any other team pictures. He stood, staring out the back window at an empty fiberglass above-ground pool, when Candi reappeared wearing cargos similar to his and a camo t-shirt with a bright white OSBI badge silkscreened on the pocket. She had two safari hats in her hand that she dropped on the table.

“You’ve seen mine. About time you showed me some of yours,” she said, opening a 70s vintage dark bronze refrigerator with huge, chrome, stirrup shaped pull down door handles. “By telling me the truth about you and your sister’s Jeep.” She grabbed two cold glass bottles of Italian sparkling water, held one out for him.

He studied the bottle that looked more like expensive Vodka should be inside instead of carbonated water. “Do I need a corkscrew?”

“Clever, but unnecessary. They ship this stuff to my door. Free.”

“How does that work?”

“My only remaining endorsement. Of three that weren’t worth much in the first place. Someone must have died or gotten fired, or they haven’t bothered to audit their swag books in ten years.”

“To Olympic medals.” Bash held up his bottle at toast height. “The gift that keeps on giving.” He used the bottle to point toward the living room. “But no Olympic pics?”

“They’re on the walls at my non-profit’s office. There’s an Olympic joke in that, and a longer story about those pictures and my parents. May they rest in peace.”

“Pictures or parents?”

“Both.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

“Don’t be. The pictures are history.” She sipped some water, leaned against the counter, crossed her arms bottle in hand. “My parents were religious zealots…” another drink, “and bigots of the first order.”

“That’s a popular combo, and a better segue into Cat’s story than I could’ve found. I became the babysitter of her pride and joy back in June when she left for China. She’s gone for a year, maybe longer.” He unscrewed the cap on his water, drank half the bottle. “She’s an Apache teaching English to Chinese. Over here she was also a volleyball coach. That’s why you got the keys instead of attitude. I’d be on the receiving end of eternal grief if she found out I’d shut you down on drivin’ her baby.” He lifted the bottle again. “Know why she got the job out of hundreds of applicants?”

“She ticked enough of their boxes.” Candi palmed his bottle cap from the counter, tossed it along with hers into a wastebasket under the sink. “Indigenous. Female. Might be gay. More than likely a bachelors from a historically minority university and an advanced degree from a traditionally white Ivy League school.”

“You oughta be a detective.”

“Technically, it’s ‘Investigator’. Before you ask, neither is demeaning.”

“Good to know.” He dropped his bottle in the bin at the end of the kitchen counter marked ‘recycle’. “Let’s go play in the sand. That is,” he paused, “as soon as I can send Cat a picture of her baby with an Olympic volleyball Jeep girl cop and not a stewardess.”

It took her a second. “You didn’t… You fucking rat. You did!

That Poor Ol’ Sumbitch Jimmy Pierce

“She brought her own coffee.”

“That’s fine, Betty.” Sheriff Harden punched out of the phone intercom thinking at least Candi would brew her “sustainably and ethically sourced” coffee, whatever that meant, strong enough to float a horseshoe. Unlike Betty, who, if she wasn’t caught and stopped, would add two scoops of sawdust she’d bought at Dollar General to yesterday’s grounds. Harden’s line flashed again.

“How long is she going to be here?”

“Until we figure who, if anybody, killed Jimmy Pierce.”

“Karla did it for the money.”

“Accordin’ to my inbox and voice mail, lotsa folks seem to agree with you.”

“Good. Go arrest her and send that woman home.”

“I’ll see what I can do, Betty, but I doubt it’s gonna be that simple.” He punched out of intercom, stood, answered the knock on his door with “Nobody’s home.”

“Lights are on.” Candi shouldered the door open, set a steaming mug of coffee on his desk. “Where’s Deputy Reed?”

“Went to the airport.”

“For?”

“Beats me. Said he’d be in as soon as he got hold of whatever he’s gettin’. Looks like barbecue and two shots a Jack did you a world a good. What’s with your hair?”

“It’s called a French twist.”

“I wonder, they got armadillos over there in France?”

“Armadillos?”

“Yeah,” he shook a little with a silent chuckle, “‘cause that hairstyle a yours looks just like an armadillo’s backside.”

“Sheriff, I brought you coffee. In a ceramic mug. Don’t make me climb over this desk and kick your ass.”

“Ass kickin’?” Bash leaned a six foot long, five-inch square box against the sheriff’s desk. “If you’re sellin’ tickets, I’m in.”

“Don’t encourage her. What the hell is that?”

“Bumper mounted dual mode metal and object detector. Mornin’, Candi.” He tossed his hat on an empty chair. “You bring us some real coffee?”

“I hope you didn’t just ask me to get you coffee. Because if—”

“Did I ask for deliver—”

“Knock it off, you two. Bash, tell Agent Cotton ‘thank you’ for bein’ so considerate as to brew us up a batch of excellent coffee. You might work in how she brightens up the place before you go get yourself some. Come back and you can explain the box.”

“Okay.” He bowed. “Thank you. For whatever you did about coffee I haven’t tasted yet. I have nothing to say about your wardrobe or hair ‘cause sayin’ anything to a lady in the workplace about how she looks or asking her to fetch coffee is a good way to get sued, fired,” he shot the sheriff a look, “or your ass kicked. Am I right, Agent Cotton?”

“Candi. Deputy. For both y’all’s future reference, ass kicking is my default option for stopping junk behavior. I should add,” she said as Bash turned for the door, “that behavior definition includes sarcasm.”

***

Harden inspected the package leaning against his desk saying, “Box reminds me of that aggie joke.”

“About the garden hose?”

“That’s the one.” He moved his hand so Bash could run a knife down one of the box seams, returned it to the top of a nearly three-inch diameter metal tube while Bash peeled the box away. “So, exactly what is this, again?”

“It’s a bumper mounted standard metal detector, or a short-range radar.”

“Sounds like junk science,” Candi, arms crossed. “Like the myth of long-range metal detectors.”

“The man designed it says it eliminates the frequency fight of multiple metal detectors in proximity. Ground penetrating radar and frequency analyzers are nothing new, but this is for hobby use, not to geo map buried pipelines or utilities or any of that. Which is why it doesn’t cost fifty grand and we’re getting to use it for free.”

“And who is this designer?”

“Long story full of relatives who know some other relatives who know a professor teaches Petroleum Geology at Rice.” That seemed to ease the skepticism in the room. Or at least stopped the questions. The sheriff knew getting Bash off into a litany of relatives who knew other relatives would be like asking someone to recite the Tulsa phone book.

“I’m guessin’ you saw somethin’ in all that extra drone time you put in an aren’t satisfied with the Cub Scouts’ beer cans and Jimmy’s wallet.” Harden eyeballed the metal tube at arm’s length. “That it?”

“Mostly. Figured I’d hang it off the back of Cat’s Jeep, put the video up next to the GPS on the dash and drag the curiosity spots. Can’t hurt.”

“Well, it’s not like we’re doin’ anything ‘cept waitin’ on the ME’s report, prints and DNA to come back. See if we’ve got a reserve deputy available an y’all can go play in the sand.”

“Hello?” Candi, arms still folded.

“Hate to say anything about your clothes,” Bash did a quick top-to-bottom scan, “but now I see you’re not really dressed for—”

“These are not the only clothes I own.”

“I wasn’t sayin’…” Bash caught the Sheriff’s look, shifted into a neutral, palms up shrug. “Okay by me.”

“It’ll save me reserve budget. But…” The Sheriff raised an eyebrow at Candi, “I won’t be along to chaperone. You two swear not to kill each other or piss each other off beyond the point of repair, I’ll say yes. Can you do that for me?” He got two nods. “Not good enough.” He punched the intercom button again. “Betty? Got your Bible handy?”

***

“What the hell are you doing now?” Candi had watched Bash dig around the contents of metal shelving in a dimly lit storeroom for five of the longest minutes she could remember.

“Still lookin’… Awww right.” He backed out of the storeroom holding a dark blue, heavy duty ripstop backpack.

“All that for a backpack?”

“Ever been drift fishing?”

“Yes. We’re fishing now? I thought—”

“This is the Chief’s high-dollar fish finder. He bought it with County budget to find bodies in lakes, which happens just about never, but he fishes most weekends. GPS, memory, down and side view sonar, mapping…”

“Great. What do you plan on doing with it?”

“Drivin’ the drift while you check the river again.”

“We don’t have a skiff and I thought the river was,” she made finger quotes, “‘a big fuckin’ waste of time’.”

“It was. But we don’t know about the river away from the banks or out in any current pockets. We don’t have a skiff, but I’ve got a canoe. No Indian jokes.” He held the door to the employee parking lot for her.

“I know the names one,” she stepped through into the heat and sunlight, “but that’s it.”

“Good.”

“Yeah?”

“Yep. Means I don’t have to hear the million I’ve heard before as road trip time killers.”

“I wouldn’t do that to you.”

“Yeah, you would.”

“You’re right,” she adjusted her OSBI ball cap, grew a crooked smile. “I would.”

***

“Whoa…” Candi stopped when Bash did, directly behind a seriously lifted, red, late 90s Velveeta box Jeep Cherokee with thirty-five-inch tires. On top, an upside-down camo canoe was lashed to a deep, over size luggage rack loaded with a trolling motor and what looked like rolled up camping gear. She noted the Rosie the Riveter spare tire cover and large ‘Silly Boys – Jeeps Are For Girls’ sticker. “We’re riding in this?” She ran her hand down the edge of the hatch, waited. He didn’t say anything. She broke the silence with, “What’s the lift?”

“Four and a half.”

She let out a low whistle. “May I ask who ‘Cat’ is, if it’s not too personal?”

“It’s not. Cat’s Catori. My oldest sister. We can take one of the county’s four-by trucks if—”

“Fuck that,” she’d circled behind him to the driver’s side. “Think your sister’d mind if I drove?”

***

Sheriff Harden pulled past the pink and white barn, up the caliche and gravel drive, parked under a shady, hundred-year-old oak next to Karla Pierce’s house. He took his hat with him, out of habit, but held it against his chest while he waited for the front door to open. He was about to knock again when Karla, barefoot, wearing loose jeans, a white Mexican peasant blouse and a gaudy turquoise necklace, opened the door. She unlatched the screen, walked away saying, “Let yourself into the cool, Sheriff. You drinkin’ yet?”

“Little early for me, Karla. You go ahead on, though.”

“You don’t want me sober for questioning?” She disappeared into a closet at the edge of the front room wall.

“I just came by to have a talk, Karla. We don’t need everybody gettin’ lathered up, seein’ you goin’ in and out of the station.”

She came out of the closet with two fingers of dark golden liquid in a water glass. “You sure?” She held up the glass. “Glenfiddich 21.”

“A little rich for my blood and still too early.” He hung his hat on a coat stand, dropped into a brown leather and cowhide recliner. “You keep it on hand?”

“Just the one bottle this come from.” She swept her free hand down her back side and thigh like she was still wearing her smock, sat on the edge of a couch covered in a pastel casserole of throws and blankets. “Your ex-husband only dies once,” she said, setting her glass next to a cell phone on the coffee table. “I guess you need to know where I’ve been. Tell me when he kicked, and I’ll try to remember.”

“We don’t know for sure yet. When or how. Y’know, Karla,” he leaned forward in the recliner. “You been real patient all these years and I don’t figure you as near stupid enough to have anything to do with Jimmy’s turnin’ up dead. But you might know some things you don’t even know you know about how or why it happened.”

She took a big hit of the scotch, held it in both hands, elbows just behind her knees. “I don’t think I follow you.”

“Why don’t you start with what prompted you to buy a two hundred dollar bottle a scotch. Ahead a time.”

Karla sat for a minute. Harden could almost see the tapes in her head running in reverse.

“Well, first off, I guess it’d be Ivy Green, if you can believe it. Only one in that litter worth a flip. I called over to Jimmy’s not long back, Ivy answered, started right in tellin’ me about Jim an Aiden bein’ pissy, an how hinky an secretive they were actin’. How Jimmy was throwin’ money around like there was no tomorrow, which kinda pissed me off, you know, since I was callin’ about where the hell was his rent. ‘Cause I still own that ugly ass trailer and the ground it sits on. Then, it must’ve been Lisha Patrick. You know her? Cute little black girl, works at the Walmart there in Ada? Well, she come out to get her hair done an in the process a that she told me she seen Jimmy an Bozo an Altus Murphy, all hangin’ together like the Three Stooges in her Walmart. More’n a few times, she said, an always buyin’ buckets a special-order electronic shit.”

“Bozo bein’ Virgil Green?”

“Who else?”

“She say what kind of electronic shit?”

“Like I would know? She said they was comin’ in pretty regular, half lit and lettin’ on to her how they was involved in some kinda hush-hush nonsense together. ‘We’re talkin’ dollars big as beach towels, girl,’ an gigglin’ like schoolboys was what she said.” She slammed the last of her scotch. “After hearin’ that I said to myself, you know what? That trio a dumb fucks, their luck cain’t hold forever. And when Lisha was gone, somethin’ come over me sayin’ all these years of fuckery was comin’ to a head. So, I locked up an left out in a hurry for Du-rant, to buy that bottle.”

“Durant? Jesus, Karla. You might as well a driven on down to Neiman Marcus in Dallas, you’re gonna spend that kinda money.”

“I know casino booze is a big rip off, but I didn’t want nobody knows me to see me buyin’ it. ‘Cause they’d all say, ‘Well, looky there, Killer Karla’s out buyin’ celebration booze.’ Then they’d all start talkin’ their shit about how that poor ol’ sumbitch Jimmy Pierce… She’s got his ass as good as in the ground, he just don’t know it yet.”

Up to Speed

Candi released her service Smith & Wesson M&P 9, reached to set it in the Crown Vic’s trunk. Sheriff Harden intercepted her hand, took the pistol, popped the clip, racked the slide, caught the shell and offered the gun back, saying, “Never miss an opportunity to talk gun safety.”

“This is still a crime scene. I’m not—”

“The body’s gone, Candi. The rest of your crime scene’s been here nigh on to 300 million years. On the other hand,” he chin pointed to the box truck while ejecting shells from her gun’s clip, “for the last three hours or so that truck’s been a corral for four boys full a piss an vinegar with nothin’ to do. You walk in there all tall, boss and good lookin’ without a gun on your hip, it can go one of two ways. You can scare talk ‘em into show an tell an walk out wonderin’ what all they left out, or try to reason with ‘em and get nowhere. Or… Wear the gun. Don’t say much, invite ‘em to look over your shoulder and it’s guaranteed at least one of ‘em will ask about your sidearm.” He handed her the empty clip. “Show ‘em how to handle a deadly weapon, even when it’s empty. And a little see somethin’ say somethin’ reminder wouldn’t hurt.”

“What about the evidence they might have, and why I’m… Why we’re here?”

“After they watch whatever drone business you cook up with Bash, and they’ve seen your gun an they’re thinkin’ you’re the coolest, baddest, hottest cop babe there could ever be, tell them that you, the towering goddess of Oklahoma law enforcement, need their help with this case.”

“That seems like a lot of PR and sexism role play when we—”

“Jesus, Candi, screw sexism. You’re a cop who happens to look like you do, who needs evidence and boys are boys. It won’t kill you to be nice and explain what you’re doin’, ‘cause you’re gonna be doin’ it anyway. Explainin’ the gun is community service. Once they’re all gaw-gaw over Agent Cotton, have ‘em recite the scout law. When they’re done say ‘okay, who has the cell phone an who has the wallet?’ They’ll drop everything they’ve got in your lap.”

***

Agent Cotton climbed the aluminum steps, opened the door, held it while a stout, athletic black woman stepped out and down. The creases in the woman’s white uniform shirt and black pants looked like they could draw blood. In the sun, her boots shone like mirrors. At the bottom of the stairs she fanned her face.

“Aren’t you some hot, Deputy Reed?”

“Am for a fact, Miz Sydney.” Bash kept his eyes on the drone controller. “How are you doin’?”

“I’m a might hot under the collar, but I’ll do.”

“Follow the Sheriff. He’s off to crank up some air conditioning in the Tahoe.”

“You know I coulda stayed with Missy an them. I coulda stayed in the front end with my own AC, but Lordy Lord Lord… It’s my truck, Deputy.” She poked her index finger into her breastbone. “See, so now I had to be in there all this time, you know, since no one else official was around and the damn psychologist, she ain’t worth a shit with kids, boys anyhow, I don’t care how much college paper she has hangin’ on her wall. I won’t tolerate nobody messin’ with any shit in my truck, an Missy, Agent Cotton, she don’t brook no shit, neither. But between them boys and that shrink, even with the Lord Jesus watchin’ over me…”

“I hear ya. Agent Cotton showin’ up when she did was the answer to your prayers, lookin’ to be saved from murderin’ a handful a can’t-keep-their-hands-off-anything Cub Scouts.”

“Tell the truth, honey. How’d you know?”

“I was one.”

“Deptuty Reed,” she tugged his ear, “you’re livin’ proof the good Lord, if she’s of a mind, can save even the most devilish of her children.”

***

Bash followed Candi’s orders for a slow ground sweep at low altitude from the boat where Jimmy Pierce’s body was found to the scout’s van. Once he got a visual on the van, he set the course in the controller and had the drone run it again, Candi praising his quick adaptation to free flying in his earplugs while the drone did its own thing. When she had what she wanted, which was, a steady continuous shot of the riverbank to sixty feet inland, she told him to bring the drone home and cut him loose. He said, “Roger that” and pulled the earbuds, effectively killing communication with his handler. He hovered the drone three feet off the ground, told it to get its bearings before flying it low, skirting the scout’s van and a hundred yards further upstream, working narrow grids from the bank to fifty yards inland. He gained altitude, zoomed the camera out, drew a series of blocks on the screen and let the drone do it’s thing, again without human intervention, crisscrossing the areas he’d marked from three elevations. Bash didn’t know what he was looking for, but he had leftover battery and storage in a machine with impartial eyesight that could cover a lot more ground than he could, and not argue with him over ‘what about here or over there’ or sit down when its back ached or tell him there was nothing else to find.

***

The door of the Mobile Command Center blew open and four Cub Scouts bounded down the steps only to be met by Sheriff Harden, who arranged them into a pseudo lineup and presented each with a solid junk metal, pin-on Jr. Sheriff’s badge. Bash, from the rear bumper of the Crown Vic, offered to drive them to their van. Their leader declined, leaving the impression that the scouts needed to burn off “some” excess energy. Once they were out of sight, Mobile Command Officer Sydney returned from the Tahoe, her creases still sharp, only to be hugged at the top of the stairs, at length, by Agent Cotton. They talked for a few before the door closed and locked from inside. Candi stepped down, backed up to the sound of air being purged from pressurized levelers and the steps began a magic, hydraulically assisted folding dance that ended when they disappeared under the truck. It beeped, backed up, swung around and took off in a cloud of diesel and red dust.

***

 “Empty handed?” Bash stood from his lean on the Crown Vic.

“You backed up and packed up the drone? And stored it? Properly?”

“Nope. Left it in the river.”

“Are you always a smart ass?”

“Are you always a hard ass?”

“Now children,” Harden stretched backward. “It’s been a long day, my back’s talkin’ to me, my stomach’s talkin’ to me, and I’d like to know where the hell the evidence is myself. That is, if Agent Cotton wrangled any of it away from the Cub Scouts.”

“I have everything they collected. Bagged, tagged and inventoried.” She loosened the clutch on her laptop and clipboard away from her shoulder. “With photos. Everything had been handled so much it’ll be a miracle if we get any decent prints, but there might be liftable DNA from the beer cans.” She stood in place, looking slightly disoriented.

“A little stressed, there, Candi?” The sheriff smiled, gave her shoulder a light attaboy thump. “Didn’t kill ya though, did it?”

“What doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger.” She checked her watch. Four thirty-seven. “I should follow the evidence back to the lab…”

“V’ronika Sydney’s been haulin’ evidence damn near as long as you been breathin’. Besides, I’d like to see what’s on that clipboard you’re white knucklin’. Deputy Reed was in such a big damn hurry to be punctual and make a good impression this mornin’ he refused to stop for food on the way and none of us have eaten since breakfast. Now,” he took her laptop and the clipboard, “grab your go-bag outta that brown piece a shit and Bash’ll carry us all over to Stoney’s. We’ll eat some barbecue, have a look at what you got and drop you at the B&B in Ada after.”

“Sheriff,” Candi leaned into the space over the Tahoe’s console, “do you know if Stoney still keeps a bottle of Old Forester under the cash register? Used to be he’d put a shot in your lemonade for fifty cents. We’d ride our bikes over there on Sunday afternoons with our pockets full of quarters. By time to go home we thought we were the hottest shit bunch of fourteen-year-olds around.”

“He’s upped his game to Jack and it’s a buck and a half now.”

“Right now, I’d pay three times that and tip him ten bucks.” She looked out the window of the Tahoe as her state issued loaner disappeared in the dust. “What if my share-pool gets stolen?”

“Well, I’d consider it more community service.” Harden hooked his seat belt. “If stealin’ that ugly POS don’t break ‘em a stealin’ cars, I don’t know what will.”

***

Bash stayed in the driveway until the B&B door closed behind Candi.

“Told you she was smart,” Harden said.

“Kinda on the retentive side, you ask me.”

“I didn’t ask, but she’s no worse than you. She just looks better doin’ it.”

“I’m about to get a complex.”

“Okay, here’s your gold stars for the day. Thanks for not grindin’ her about the Cub Scouts. And for bein’ as nice as possible, for you, tellin’ her to stop apologizin’ for that printout.”

“I don’t know of many MCUs with color banner printers, that’s all. Have to say that map she stitched together outta letter size paper and Scotch tape was nice work.”

“Yeah, well, you could’ve told her that. She wasn’t really apologizin’ for the printout. That was her way of coverin’ bein’ embarrassed about showin’ us evidence she’d never have found without you gettin’ her outta the river.”

“I don’t need an apology.”

“Good. You might find a way of sayin’ that, too. Without comin’ right out and sayin’ it.”

“Is this one of those mentor moments I’ve heard about?”

“I had to tell her how to deal with the damn scouts. Only right I should tell you how to deal with her. Listen Bash, all bullshittin’ aside. She’s good. Hardheaded, but that’s okay. So am I, so are you. We need to learn how to get outta our own way here ‘cause I have a feeling it’s gonna take all three of us to figure this Jimmy Pierce thing. If that means bringin’ you and Agent Cotton up to speed on how the sun don’t shine outta either one a your asses, so be it.”

Here’s Your Incentive

 “Y’all get a visual on the DB?” Candi kept up the slow, vigilant dredge.

“I did.” Bash kept time with Candi’s drag, lift, and check.

“What do you think?”

“About what? The carcass,” Bash stopped, brought his pole upright, turned toward her, “or how we’re goin’ about this project here ass first?”

Candi stopped, frozen in her position, didn’t take her eyes off the water. The quiet lasted, gained weight.

“I can wait.” Bash tipped his hat up.

“Ass. First?” Acidic, and she still hadn’t moved. She slowly turned her head his way. “Who. The. Hell… I’m in charge of this scene. Until the DB’s gone and I’m satisfied we’ve scoured it as thoroughly as possible for evidence. If this is some female baggage thing, or you don’t like taking directions—”

“They warned me about you havin’ horns and fangs.”

“Horns? And fangs?”

“You have ears, too. They have to be good for more than a place to store the diamond studs.”

“They’re CZ. I’m not stupid enough…” She stood, pulled her pole upright to match his. “Okay, cowboy, what’s—”

“Indian.” His grin was infectious.

“Goddammit… Okay. I get it. Two ears, one mouth.” She bowed. “The floor is yours, Deputy Reed.”

“First, we could be steppin’ on whatever you’re tryin’ to find. We’re workin’ with the current. Anything small or light we pop is liable to jump the net or catch what current there is, and we’d never know because we can’t see shit in this sandy soup.”

“Your solution for that would be?”

“Turn around, drag against the current. If it’s one net shallow, we spread. If it’s deeper, we stack one up and behind the first one.”

“That’s an excellent idea. Your face says there’s a ‘But’?”

“Is that,” he leaned his pole toward a clump of Sawgrass, “where you found the coolers?”

“Yes. All I did was mark their positions, open, and inventory them.”

“Then that’s where they were parked. The river hasn’t been high enough in weeks to dump them there.”

“They’re tied together.”

“One to anchor if the other catches running water, or to keep them together if they both take off. They were carried to where they sit and then tied.”

“Okay. What does that tell you?”

“This is where they were.”

“We’ll come back to ‘they’. Why is the DB one hundred and eleven yards away, under a drift-fishing skiff?”

“Whatever happened, happened here. Somethin’ sent the vic and the killer downriver. Or the vic was injured here and made it to where the scouts found him. He either hid under the boat or the perp followed and covered him up.”

“Why?”

“No one, I don’t care how fit, or adrenaline hyped, is carryin’ a two-hundred-pound body a hundred yards over ground like this. And there’s no drag marks. Not that draggin’ it would’ve been all that much easier.”

“Are you finished?”

“Almost. If you ask me, this is a big fuckin’ waste of time.”

This?”

“Draggin’ so close to the bank. If there was a weapon, or anything incriminating or significant it would’ve gotten dropped, thrown, or carried off. Not bumped a couple a feet into the river.”

“Any more for me and my approach to evidence gathering?”

“Yeah. The question I have to ask is which way’d the scouts come from?”

“Upstream,” she pointed over a sharp rise in the western horizon. “The scout leader’s pedometer made it just over half a mile.”

“A Cub Scout pedometer, over sand? What happened, your laser break?”

“You and I are destined to have words. No, it didn’t break. I haven’t had personnel resources on hand to fully investigate yet.”

“And you’re wasting what you’ve got.” He waved off a horsefly. “You know what Cub Scouts do on their nature walks?”

“No, but I’m dying for you to enlighten me.”

“Trash and treasure. A trash bag for litter, a backpack for finders-keepers.” He pulled his skimmer out of the river, pointed it at the bank, moved it in a slow arc. “See any beer cans, cigarette butts, gut-bomb burrito or Hostess cupcake wrappers anywhere?”

She stuck her lower lip out to the side, pulled her eyebrows together.

“Of course you don’t,” Bash plopped his skimmer back in the river. “Because it’s been swept clean from that van to the body.”

“How did you get all the way to that standing in this river?”

“You didn’t say anything about empties in the ice chests. They must be somewhere. My guess is they’re where everything else is that should be here but isn’t.”

“Like evidence. You talk a good game.” Her skimmer pole fell to her shoulder, her hand disappeared, returned wrapped around a small yellow radio. “Let’s see if you’re right.” She raised the radio. “Cotton to command. The kiddie shrink show yet?” Squawk. “On my way.” She looked at Bash long and hard for a split second, sloshed out of the river, dropped her skimmer, pulled the sleeves off her wetsuit and zipped it. “Get the Sheriff off the metal detector, bring the gear, recon with me at the MCC.” She was thirty feet away when she turned, started a backward jog, called out, “You can fly a drone, right?” Not bothering to wait for an answer she turned back, broke into an easy, long stride jog. In a wetsuit. In sand.

***

“Find anything, Chief?”

“Can tabs, rusty fishin’ junk, thirty-seven cents and a backache.” He leaned left, right. “What are you doin’ outta your waders?”

“Talked her outta that pointless shit.” He unplugged the headset, shouldered the metal detector over his waders.

“How’d that go down?” Harden pulled the headset down to his neck, wadded up the wire and stuffed it in his pocket.

Bash recited his knee deep in the Canadian River conversation with Agent Candi Cotton, almost verbatim.

Harden balanced a skimmer on top of his waders, held it in place with the crook of his arm. “Sounds like what she wanted to know first off was how long you’d stand in the river playin’ pool boy with her before you got pissed and blew up or proved yourself a well-mannered yes-man. Both woulda been bad news, ‘cause then I’d a had to deal with her.” He stopped, stretched his back again. “Best thing to come out of the last hour is you’re not as dumb as you look, or we’d still be doin’ shit work ‘cause she missed the big one.”

“Missed?”

“She sure as hell missed the Cub Scouts. Bigger’n New England missed Brady. You don’t have time to get the big head, though, ‘cause next up is can you.”

“Can I what?”

“Fly a fuckin’ drone.”

***

By the time Harden and Bash made the hundred yards, Candi had changed into an official black OSBI cap and t-shirt, blousy khaki beach pants tucked into lace-up boots and a stripped-down Batman belt with cuffs and holster. She’d opened a hatch on the bottom of the box truck and was wrestling out a roughly two-foot square, one-foot-deep injection molded flight case.

“Need some help with that?” Bash offered.

“When I need help, I’ll ask, thank you.” She lugged the case with both hands to the rear of the remaining ugly brown state-issued Crown Vic, swept the case up, dropped it with a thunk on the trunk and flipped open the latches. The case lid swung open revealing a mid-size commercial drone and its controller in the bottom, rotors in the lid. Candi stepped away from the case, her right hand resting on the side.

“So?”

“Looks a lot like the one I ran for my cousin’s roofing business, back when I was, uh, between jobs.” Bash hesitated. “That’s been like four, five years.”

“Good. Like riding a bicycle. This one takes off and lands by itself, something I’m sure you’re aware of.” She lifted the controller out of the case. “This button here is ‘come home’. Your job is to keep it on course and follow any flight directions I request from inside the truck, where I’ll have the camera as well as the flight data on visual.”

“Not programmable?”

“It is, but I’m not.”

“You know, four, maybe five years isn’t yesterday…” he took off his sunglasses, slid them into a shirt pocket. “Look, Agent Cotton. What I’m sayin’ is, I really wouldn’t like it if I flew your expensive drone into the South Canadian.”

“It’s Candi, Deputy. And I wouldn’t like it, either. Here’s your incentive not to. Don’t fly it into the river,” she clipped the last rotor in place, looked up, smiled. “And I won’t kill you.”

You Know What I Like About You?

Sheriff Harden leaned through the breakroom doorway, called down the hall. “Betty?”

“What?”

“Print my Candi sheet for Bash, will ya please?”

“Already on your desk. With the GPS gobbledygook she rattled off.”

Bash finished his coffee, took both their cups to the trash. “What’s up with Betty?”

“Candi, that woman, can be a little… Lemme put it this way. For someone who’s used to filling a room just bein’ who she is, like Betty? Candi is at least five times that. With one percent of the body fat. I wouldn’t call Candi officious, but when she starts up her ‘you here, you there, do this, do that’ you jump or get run over. Betty’s figured she’s the house mother and Queen Bee around here for fifteen years. Candi shows up and the whole chain of command gets blown all to hell.”

***

Harden stopped at his cruiser, grabbed waders from the trunk.

“Waders?” Bash popped the hatch on the Tahoe.

“You got yours?”

“In the box, but—”

“You don’t sit on the sidelines with Candi. You know the woman?”

“Only by reputation.”

“Then you don’t know shit. Get in.”

Harden climbed in the passenger side of the Tahoe, buckled up, checked the two folded sheets in his hand, extended one. “Here ya go. I wrote this up for any new hires or uninitiated have to deal with her. HiPo, APA, County, BIA. Even the Feds. Unless they’re assholes. I let them find out the hard way.” He studied the paper he’d kept, tapped coordinates into the Nav system. “No need to be in any hurry, either.”

“Right.” Bash hit the AC to cool the Tahoe down from oven, unfolded the paper. It was formatted in criminal rap sheet.

Name: Cotton, Candi (Not short for anything. Ask her about it on your own time. See notes below)
Gender: F
DOB: 12.5.90
Ht: 6’1”
Wt:165
Hair: Lt Br
Eyes: Gr
Race: Cauc

Education: Stanford. Four years on scholarship, two more on a stipend. (College basketball All American. College volleyball All American. Olympic volleyball Silver Medalist. Black belt in some form or other of Brazilian martial arts.)
Graduate degree: Criminology and Criminal Justice.
Online graduate degree: Cybercrime, UT Austin.

Notes (use reverse side if necessary): Seems to have free rein at OSBI. Knows everybody who’s anybody at any agency you can think of. Nat’l Sec clearance. Could have written her own ticket anywhere but came home to Pontotoc County to “make a difference”. If you want to know what that means, ask about her non-profit and other ventures, including expensive speaking engagements and why she’s still pissed about no Wheaties box. When you have half a day and dinner money to spare.

“I take it you’re not a Candi fan?” Bash folded the sheet, hooked up.

“I’m not a floater fan. In fact, I hate workin’ drownings. My low back’s tellin’ me this one’s gonna be a circus.”

“Because of Candi?”

“Candi’s one a the nicest young women I’ve ever met. When she’s not workin’. But like I said, she can be imposing, and she’s got her ways. Like not sayin’ who or what she’s got for us to look at, even if it’ll end up bein’ our business. See, she’s got this theory that feedin’ partial information is prejudicial, ‘specially to ‘mumblers and bumblers’. Like we’re gonna come up with wild theories on the drive instead of stopping for barbecue and a gallon a lemonade before we step off into this heat.”

“Mumblers and bumblers?”

“Us. Boondocks cops. But only if we mumble and bumble. Woman loves some ‘now you’ve seen it whattaya think’ ping-pong. So, when she asks you what you think, don’t get all thinky an shit, tell her. Even if it’s bullshit. Shouldn’t be too hard for you,” he said. “Speakin’ your piece is why your Apache ass is now employed on the civilized side of I-35.”

***

Harden and Bash parked next to a white box truck with an air conditioner on top and aluminum foldout steps on the side leading up to a closed door, walked through brushy sand past two ugly, brown, unmarked state cars and an ambulance. Their first encounter with a human was an average man in every way except for his mutton chop sideburns that stood out like moss on a rock on his otherwise shaved head that had turned pink from the sun. White shirt sleeves rolled up past his elbows, tan Dockers shoved into knee high white rubber boots. Sweating profusely. He acknowledged them with a flat “Harden and company. ‘Bout fuckin’ time.”

“I’d like to say it’s nice to see you, too, Keeling, but my momma taught me not to lie. Where’s the boss?”

“One hundred and eleven yards upstream.”

“She still has batteries in that damn laser?”

“Whatta you think?”

“Where’s the floater?”

“Under, or was under the drift boat over there,” he stuck a thumb over his shoulder, “where the two Tyvek suits are standing. Bloated and stinky just like you like ‘em.”

“ID?”

“Candi’s found something up where she’s at, but—”

“Hasn’t clued the peons yet?”

“Two is your daily quota of stupid questions and that was the second.”

“Square enough. Who found the DB?”

“Cub Scouts. She’s got them stashed in the unmarked command truck.”

“Okay, Keeling, you can go back to that cushy office now that the real crime busters are here. And since you office boys are allergic to hats you might wanna put some aloe on that dome when you get there.”

“How do you put up with his shit?” Keeling unrolled a shirt sleeve, wiped his forehead.

“He’s an Apache. They don’t talk all that much.”

“I was asking him, fuckwad, not you”

“He may be fulla shit sometimes,” Bash cocked his head slightly, raised an eyebrow, reached out and touched the top of Keeling’s head. “But he’s right on about the aloe.”

“Fuck both y’all,” Keeling brushed Bash’s arm away. “You deal with her, I’m outta here.”

***

“Cub Scouts.” Harden turned to check the white box truck. “Jesus.”

“Tough break. Should we have a look at the vic?”

“You go ahead. I told you, I hate drownings.”

Bash stopped fifteen feet from the forensics techs, announced himself. They motioned him over, told him not to worry about shoe prints, the whole scene had been compromised by loose sand and four freaked out Cub Scouts and their leader. Bash moved in, got his phone out, took a portrait and a full length shot, said he’d wait on them for details, walked back to where he’d left the Sheriff.

“So?”

“Jimmy Pierce. He didn’t drown.”

“Woulda been a lot simpler if he had. You sure?”

“He hasn’t been in the water, at least not since he turned dead. Looks just like his picture. Long face, nose like a hanging lightbulb, ears like the halves of an omelet pan.” He held out his phone, the Sheriff waved it off.

“Sounds like Jimmy. Let’s walk.”

“You alright?”

“Yeah… Not the way I wanted this one to turn out’s all.”

They walked in silence, listening to the river come up and the idling diesels fade, shifting shoulders with the waders. Sheriff Harden stopped, adjusted his hat and sunglasses. “Don’t get me wrong, Bash. Jimmy wasn’t a likable man.” He crossed himself. “But I don’t wish anybody dead. Huh?” He dropped the waders, took his phone out, checked the text. “Betty. Ivy Green called in, says Aiden’s back. Claims to have lost his phone in the swamp.”

“How convenient.”

“Ain’t it just.”

***

Knee deep in the Canadian river Candi Cotton, wearing an American Flag exer-bra and a wetsuit unzipped to her hips, its arms tied around her waist, pulled a long, metallic blue pole through the copper-colored water. She looked up, held the pole upright, pulled her safari hat and parked both hand and hat on narrow hip. “Well thank God. The cavalry’s arrived.” She took a closer look at Bash. “Damn. That was insensitive. What I meant—”

“Indian past old ways.” Bash fist thumped his chest. “Would have tribal lawyer sue for much wampum, but Indian find big humor in Great White Mother Chief Woman’s discomfort.”

“Great. White. Mother Chief Woman?” She laughed so hard she bent over. She found her composure after a few, said, “You’re a big goddam relief, you know that? Whew-eeee… The people I usually draw to work with? Their asses are so tight they fart in dog whistle territory.” She held out her hand. “Candi Cotton.”

“Bash Reed.” He shook her hand, scanned their surroundings. “Come here often?”

“You two can break it up any time.”

“Every party has a pooper,” Candi tilted her head in the Sheriff’s direction.

“Ha ha. What’d you find up in here’s got your attention?”

“Two Igloo Dallas Cowboys blue and white coolers, tied together with yellow nylon rope.” She pointed into a patch of saw grass. “There’s eight hot, cheap beers and some ripe olive loaf sandwiches in one, if you’re of a mind.”

“Some other time, maybe. The other one?”

“Two large, overly dead catfish, stink bait, rubber gloves and a stringer.” She stuck the tip of her tongue out, thought. “There’s also an expensive new LED floating lantern, a BIC lighter in a silver and turquoise holder, an old-school hippie pot pipe made from lamp parts and a nearly empty canister of ‘Foxy Lady’ Indica.”

“Quite a haul. What’s with the pole?”

Candi lifted an oversize pool skimmer out of the water. “There’s another one to your left. If I could get Deputy Reed to grab that and climb into his waders and you were to fire up the metal detector and run, say, a thirty-by-ten-yard grid going west, from this location? We could be out of here before mosquito thirty.”

“Who’s talkin’ to the Cub Scouts?”

“There’s a kiddie psych on the way. Kids are off limits without one, you know that.”

“Their parents?”

“Troop or den or whatever’s from Arkansas.”

“Great. The leader?”

“He’s worse off than the kids. Thought he’d puke himself inside out before one of the EMTs got some Zofran down him.” She moved further out into the river to accommodate Bash. “You’re not getting out of working for this one, Sheriff. Grab your gizmo and get after it.”

The Sheriff picked up the metal detector, knocked sand out of the plastic headphones. “You know what it is I like about you, Candi?”

“No.”

“Me neither.”

Floater

Sheriff Harden scraped an orange plastic, spindly chrome legged stackable chair away from the table in the break room, left his hands on the back, leaned toward Bash. “Weekend as good as that breakfast burrito?”

“Hardly,” Bash wiped his mouth with a paper napkin, set the burrito down in its foil wrapper. “But if you’re curious, I am smarter than I was Friday afternoon.”

“I gotta put a quarter in your ear to find out how much smarter?”

“Don’t you need some coffee?”

“What would I do without you?” Harden released the chair, arched backward, rolled his shoulders, left the chair for the Mr. Coffee.

“Make it two?”

“Who was your waitress this time last year?” Harden returned, screeched the chair, sat, nudged a steamy styrofoam cup toward his deputy. “Been a week now since Jimmy Pierce vanished. Your weekend education shed any light on his whereabouts?”

“No.” Bash ate a third of the burrito in one bite.

“Brandy’s key was a waste of time, then?”

Bash waited till his bite was half chewed before talking through it. “The key’s only a piece of the puzzle.”

“You’ve had a vision of the grand puzzle?”

“Yep,” he gulped the burrito, chased it with coffee. “It looks like money.”

“How’d you get on to money with Jimmy Pierce involved?”

“Iyy Green. Not half as dumb as she plays. Oughta be in college somewhere.”

“You need role models or money or motivation. All things missin’ from the Green family gene pool. Money?”

“Ivy says Jimmy Pierce’s been throwing money around like he was printing it himself. Seventy-five, eighty-inch TVs, Go Pro cameras, high resolution GPS devices, drones, new phones.”

“Phones plural?”

“Said he has at least two.”

“Which one have we been callin’? Maybe it’s the wrong one?”

“I asked Ivy about that, an she hasn’t seen or heard a phone except her own since everybody left. But it might not be in the house. According to her, about a month ago Jimmy paid cash money to a couple of what she called lumberjack types to clean out, scrub down and paint the inside of his repair shop.”

“He plan on fixin’ a higher class a lawnmowers?”

“Sounded to me like he loaded it full of photographic equipment. At least what Ivy described sounded like light boxes and portable truss. She only got a peek once because Jimmy keeps it locked up tight. Three padlocks, plywood over the windows,” He wiped his mouth with a napkin again. “Jimmy and Aiden don’t get on, but after listening to her for a while, it seems like Aiden’s just pissed his old man won’t let him in on the money train. Aiden told her before he took off for Louisiana that he’s in line for the trailer and the televisions and the mystery shed if anything happens to Jimmy. Almost like he was expecting something.”

“You believe her about Aiden an Louisiana?”

“I believe that’s what she believes. Not so sure about Aiden. She’s still alone out there. Or was when I checked on her Sunday afternoon.”

“Heard you carried her over to Rob’s on Friday. You takin’ her to raise?”

“Just doin’ my job. We need one in that mess who’s not a hundred percent sold on any of ‘em. Barbecue and a twelve pack of Orange Crush is cheap for good will, and I turned in well-checks for both trips. Serving the community, and all that.” Bash rolled the napkin and foil into a ball, shot it basketball style into the trash can. “Nothin’ but air.” He re-situated in front of Harden. “On my next stop I learned Jimmy’s ex Karla’d rather he was dead.”

“Karla has eight hundred thousand reasons it’d be nice if he was dead.”

“She’s also not a big fan of either of the Greens.”

“That goes back to when Brandy got caught bare ass nekkid in that shed Jimmy just had painted, tryin’ every woman trick in the book to get Jimmy to put up Karla’s legacy mineral rights to back a hare-brained scheme Brandy and Virgil cooked up with Jimmy to make them the Duck Dynasty of Oklahoma. With a miracle fish attractant as the family hallmark. They had a logo and everything. Only problems bein’ it stunk all to hell an fish would sprout legs an take to land just to get away from it.” He tried his coffee, close to tepid. “Two divorces and fifteen years of bad blood later not a one a the four of ‘em could stir their messes with a telephone pole. I’m doin’ all the talkin’ here. What else you got?”

“I took our mystery key to the Toyota dealer in Ardmore.”

“Why’d you go way the hell over there? You coulda had the key read a couple blocks away.”

“Wanted to check on Ivy and Aiden’s alibi and wanted more information on the key than three-or-four steppin’ it through a locksmith, DMV and phone calls.”

“Worth the drive?”

“Ivy and Aiden were at Chili’s, like she said. Build in the drive and how much time they killed drinkin’ a couple a beers and eatin’ every appetizer on the menu they were gone most of the afternoon. As for the key, that’s more of the money puzzle. The blue haired kid who scanned it was happy to explain that if you know where to look in their system, Toyota knows where every car they ship ends up. Turns out this key,” he laid it on the table between them, “belongs to a brand new, all black, fully loaded 4Runner TRD, sold by a dealer in McKinney, Texas.”

“The one advertises up here, has the skinny, arms flappin’ blonde with ten-dollar titties does their commercials?”

“That’s the one. Truck was paid for, just like the Colt, by James Leroy Green. With a cashier’s check drawn on a credit union in Ardmore. Here’s where it goes off-road.”

“Clever, but too early on a Monday.”

“It’s registered to Altus Mabry.”

What?” Harden sloshed his coffee setting it down. “Jimmy Pierce bought our self-appointed Pontotoc County surveillance camera pain in the ass a maxed out 4Runner?”

“He did. On a hunch I did some checkin’, and turns out Altus has permits for a dozen of those wireless cameras all over state and private land. Some kind of government deal for,” he made finger quotes, “ ‘documenting eroding eco systems and changing wildlife behavior’. He actually gets paid for it, through a fund set up by half a dozen oil companies. So that on paper they appear ‘environmentally aware’.”

“You keep readin’ that lawyer-worded bullshit we’ll need to get you an enema for your brain. Tell me, there appear to be enough money in a dozen ‘eroding eco systems’ cameras to buy an expensive truck?”

“No.”

“So. Where the fuck does all that leave us? Y’know, Bash, I’m beginnin’ to feel like a game show host in a uniform here. All the meetings we have lately seem to end with a $64,000 question.”

“Close. The TRD left the lot at sixty-three nine.”

Shit!” Harden smacked the tabletop. “I can’t get nothin’ right around here late—”

 “Hate to break up the party, boys,” Betty filled the room in a cheery, loud green puebla dress with matching eyeshadow, sandals and toenails. “But that… that woman just called.”

The Sheriff turned in his chair, elbow over the back. “You’re gonna have to be a lot more specific, Betty. Right about now that woman could be almost anybody in this county can fog a mirror an owns a bra.”

“Candi.” Like she’d choked on it.

“Didn’t hurt that bad, did it?”

“Bad enough. Says she’s got a floater up on the Canadian. With your name on it.”

Like the Man Said…

Ivy took up her lean on the doorjamb before Deputy Bash got out of the Tahoe. He left his hat in the seat, stopped at the foot of the steps.

“You got a minute for me, Miss Green?”

“Nope. I’m standin’ here holdin’ this trailer up ‘cause I got so much other important shit to do.”

“You gave your mother a key?”

“You’re not much a one for chit-chat, I’ll give you that. What’d you say your name was, again?”

“I didn’t. It’s Reed. Baishan Reed.” He held out his leather ID holder. “If we’re about to be friends, call me Bash.”

“Everybody calls me Ivy, whether we’re friendly or not. Well, Mr. Deputy Bash, I did give momma a key.”

“You’d never seen it before, don’t know what it’s for?”

“A Toyota a some kind. Otherwise, nope.”

“You mighta gone on and washed it by accident. You know, like me? I throw clothes in the machine, wash things I shouldn’t…”

“If you’re tryin’ to ask was I bein’ nosey or lookin’ to cop some a their drunk an forgot about it pocket money, you bet I was. An I was curious. The way they been carryin’ on… And goin’ through their pockets…” She was tearing up, “an I thought, well, first I thought it was a mo-tel key…”

“But it wasn’t. And it was in Jimmy’s pocket. But still bein’ curious, you called your mother, knowin’ she’d call everybody in the county tryin’ to find out all the who and what of that key, and when she didn’t get anywhere, she brought it in to Sheriff Harden.”

“Who gave it to you ‘cause he and momma go waaaaay back and he figured it was just some more Brandy Green bullshit. Well, I don’t know nothin’ about it ‘cept where I found it.”

“I believe you.” He put a foot on the first step, hand on the rail.

“Yeah?” She cocked her head to the side. “Why?”

“If you knew where the car’s at that this key fits? You’d be drivin’ it.”

“Pretty proud of yourself for that one, huh?”

“I have my moments. Where’s Aiden, Ivy? Where’d they go?”

“Aiden’s in Loozeyana,” she picked at one thumb nail with the other. “He’s got this friend who’s got a cousin, or a uncle… somebody related… anyway he, the Loozeyana relative, he’s got one a them prop boats, you know, like Gator Hunters?” She stopped the thumbs, flexed her hands. “So… they’re all out, or ‘sposed to be anyway, in some swamp. Playin’ Swamp Nerds with Guns…” The tearing up was back. “He hasn’t called me or nothin’… For five whole days.”

“Your father told…” Bash coughed, checked giving away an opportunity for Ivy to lie. “So, Aiden’s not with his father?”

Hell no. Them two? They’re like two little bitches, pickin’ at each other all the time. Eat in different rooms, gotta look the other way when they cross through a room the same time.”

“That must make—”

“Livin’ here hell? It surely does.”

“Then why—”

“You’ve met my daddy. You meet my momma yet?”

“I have.”

“There ya go. Say, Mr. Deputy Bash… You want a Coke or somethin’?”

“Well—”

I do.” She reached back, pulled the door closed. “Whyn’t you run us over to Rob’s on 377? I’ll tell you all what I know about the hot mess that’s the Pierces, an somebody’s bound to see me get outta your Sheriff’s truck and start some shit talk that’ll at least make my phone ring.”

***

Bash parked the Tahoe fifty yards from the intersection of County Road 1627 and 3561, just off 1627 in front of a decent size pink-with-white-trim mother-in-law or tractor Tuff Shed, barn version. The five-foot by three-foot pink-script-on-bright-white sign hanging between white posts by the road said he’d made it to Karla’s – Kutz, Kurls & Kolor. Fifty yards off the road and under the shade of long-ago purpose planted old growth oaks he spotted a well-maintained vintage craft style house. In front, plastic Little Tyke kid toys were scattered across a patch of incongruously green fenced lawn and hanging flower baskets exploding with color adorned the porch. There might have been a porch swing, but from 50 yards coupled with the glare, he wasn’t sure. A single deep, belated dog bark came from the direction of the house.

“You seem to’ve caught the daydream bug, Deputy. Gonna stand there all day?”

Bash turned, startled, took in the average size middle-aged woman. Her mostly salt with a little pepper hair hung to the bottom of her neck, perfectly styled in that slightly windblown, just-lost-my-hairbrush look all the women on TV were favoring. The rest of her, save feet in bright safety green cross trainers, was shapeless except for a few lumps in appropriate places under a long, oversized white lab coat. Karla, in the same script as the sign, was embroidered in pink on the upper left.

He pulled his hat, held it loosely with both hands. “No, ma’am.”

“Call me Karla. You must be here about the key that old whore was callin’ everybody in the county about last night.”

“If by ‘that old whore’ you mean Brandy Green, yes ma’am… Karla.”

“You needn’t put on any extra polite for me where Brandy Green the Slut Queen is concerned. Leave your hat in the car there, come on in.” She checked her watch. “I can give you twenty minutes unless old lady Masters cancels or forgets. If she does either, you can buy me lunch.”

Bash followed her inside. On one side, a standard stylist’s chair, a three-panel mirrored room divider, another chair in front of a hair-wash sink and a multi-drawer clear plastic roll-around cart filled with the tools of the hair trade, trailing a long extension cord. Dryers and curling irons hung from three of the four sides. On the opposite side a massage table on a knock-off Oriental rug and another, larger sink in a vanity cabinet. Above the vanity, open shelves were crammed full of various sized bottles of unknown goo. On the front wall a tidier selection of bottled goo, crystals and other Earth Mother lifestyle paraphernalia, for sale. Quite a few small floating shelves sprouted from the walls, each supporting an unlit candle or an essential oil vaporizer or a tub of colorful scented crystals. Karla had the window air conditioner at the back of the place dialed in to meat locker.

“Sorry.” Karla shuffled to the back wall, killed the air conditioner, turned, offered a tight smile and “Hot flashes.” Bash didn’t see a license posted for any of the obvious activities, decided, like a lot of things far enough off the interstate, that unless it became an issue, it wasn’t any of his business.

“Lemme see the key,” Karla said, holding out a tanned hand with short, clear polished nails.

Bash removed it from his shirt pocket, handed it off.

“Never seen it before,” in a musing tone. “Ivy found this in Jimmy’s pocket?”

“What she said.”

“Never known Jimmy to set foot in a Japanese car.” She rolled the key with her thumb and two fingers. “You think she’s lyin? It runs in the family.”

“I tend to believe her. Teenage girl left to sit. If she knew—”

“I see where you’re goin’. Sad to say you’re right. Impulsive and self-centered.”

“Ivy?”

“Kids. In general. I had two impulsive girls ahead of Aiden. Now I have two unmarried daughters and four grandkids. Aiden and Ivy get impulsive and don’t figure out contraception? They can piss up a rope if they even think of coming here. I’m outta room, money and patience.”

He let that sit for a minute after getting busted earlier for his low conversational skills.

“I was told you’re still making payments on your ex-husband’s life insurance.”

“I am. It’s common knowledge that lazy, lyin’, cheatin’ no good son of a bitch is worth considerable more dead than he is alive.” Factual, without animosity. She turned to the window behind the stylist chair, waved her arm in a slow arc. “Half the damn county’s got bets goin’ on how an when I’ll croak him, an if I’ll get away with it. If it hadn’t been for all the hoopla last night over a key in Jimmy’s britches, I would’ve figured you were here to tell me he’d finally turned up dead an where was I when it happened. ‘Cause I know if he don’t kick in front of a dozen witnesses, I’ll be y’all’s first stop.”

“Right now, him bein’ dead could be the case. Look, ma’am…. Karla… He’s been gone for five days with no word.” He looked for any sign, any tell in her reaction and got nothing. “Ivy said she and Aiden went to Chili’s over in Ardmore on Monday, the day Aiden was leaving for Louisiana. They came back late afternoon, Jimmy and his truck were gone. Virgil Green turns up four days later driving Jimmy’s truck. Nobody’s heard from Jimmy, his phone goes straight to voicemail, and nobody seems to care where he’s gone or wants to report him missing. According to Brandy Green,” he lifted his chin slightly toward Karla’s hand, “you’re holding the key to the mystery.”

“In most of her time on this Earth, Brandy Green’s eaten more peckers than hot meals and it’s churned what little brain she mighta had to butter. This key don’t mean shit to me, Deputy, and as far as where Jimmy’s at? Like the man said. Frankly, my dear,” she offered him a quick, tight smile along with the key. “I don’t give a damn.”

Happier’n Pigs…

Sheriff Harden smacked the one-inch clear-front binder on top of the only file cabinet left in his office, unclipped his uniform tie, tossed it in a desk drawer he promptly slammed. “If that don’t beat a sore dick…” He kicked his chair from under the desk, dropped into it fuming.

The door opened halfway and a short, round, homegrown tomato of a woman with too much blue eye liner, red lipstick and a Ronald McDonald’s orange not found in nature hairdo filled the space. “Chief?”

What!

“Don’t bite my head off. Brandy Green’s out here. Says it’s important.”

“Tell her I’ve had enough of the goddam Greens in the last two days to last me a while.”

“That’s nice. I’ll tell her you said to come on back.” Tomato lady swished away in her colorful yellow embroidered puebla dress, the door closed.

“BETTY… shit.” He stood, waited and within thirty seconds the door opened, a deeply tanned bottle blond head poked around the edge.

“Dom?” Bottle Blonde’s earrings dangled, eyes sparkled, saying, all southern belle coy, “Can I come in a sec?”

“Yes. But I’m tellin’ ya, Brandy, before you sit down, whatever you have to say better be damn good.”

“Well, darlin’, we won’t know that till I tell ya, will we?”

“Alright… Sit.” She made a production of jangly bracelets, swinging necklaces, tight white jeans, hot pink sleeveless top, elbows, knees and tie-around-the-ankle cork wedgie sandals on the way to sitting. The room filled with a citrusy perfume. She flopped her hands around like someone who usually adds a stagey cigarette to their presentation but couldn’t. When she settled, he sat. “Whattaya got, Brandy?”

“Who pissed in your post toasties?”

“The justice system. Your ex. Sue Grainger. Judge Bynum. Pick one.”

“Honey, I cain’t help you with none a that. What I got for you is, well…” Her hand drifted out like this would be a good time to ash her invisible cigarette for dramatic effect. “I figure it’s a mystery.” She brought the extended hand around, reached in a small, gold sequined purse, held up a single key fob hanging from a beaded, Indian-ish souvenir key ring.

“God amighty, Brandy. That’s not a mystery. It’s a fuckin’ car key.”

“Calm down honey, I know what it is. It’s the why of it that’s a mystery. See, this key, well Ivy, she’s my youngest? She called me, told me how she’d been abandoned by those Pierce peckerheads, got bored and decided to do laundry, bless her heart, and she found this key in one a Jimmy’s pockets. Since the Pierces seem to have been abducted by aliens, eaten by Bigfoot, arrrested or become otherwise indisposed, and since we both watched that what-on-God’s-green-Earth carnival act in the courtroom this mornin’, and since there ain’t no new Toyota any of us knows about—”

“Brandy, you mind if someone else hears this?”

“Male, or female?”

“Male.”

“By all means, babe. Is he cute?”

Harden pushed a button on his desk phone. “Betty, find Bash and send him in here. Please. And, uh… is he cute, would you say?”

“If you like ‘em total Tonto, yeah, I suppose. Tell Brandy she’s too old for him.”

Brandy leaned across the desk, raised her voice, “No such thing, girl,” and winked at the sheriff.

The phone clicked. They sat in an awkwardly comfortable silence, the way people who’ve known each other a long time with a lightweight mixture of distrust, disapproval and respectful tolerance do until the door opened.

“Hey, you need me?” He caught Brandy out the corner of his eye. “Oh, sorry, didn’t know you had—”

“Deputy Reed, meet Brandy Green.” He waited for a sign of recognition. “As in Virgil Green’s ex?”

“Oh. Okay…”

“Brandy’s got a mystery for you, Deputy Reed. If you think you can handle it.”

She leaned sideways, turned her head, gave the deputy an appraising look and brushed his arm in a slow downward motion with her fingertips. “Darlin’, I think you could handle just about anything…”

“Brandy, goddammit…”

“Okay okay…  You don’t have to get ugly.” She pinched the key ring between the long, polished nails of her thumb and first finger, her other fingers fanned out like she was handing off caviar on in imported ten-dollar cracker, offered it to the deputy.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” To Brandy, then a look at his boss.

“I don’t know,” Harden said. “Hold it to your ear and let it tell you a story? Jesus, Bash. Figure the damn key for the lady.”

“Honey,” Brandy put up her famous horse tooth Farrah smile, “you figure that key, and it might just tell you what my idiot ex and Jimmy Pierce been up to lately that’s keepin’ them on top a the water. It has to be somethin’ good, ‘cause neither a them two’ve hit a lick for a couple a months. And you,” she dangled and jangled, pointing a finger at the sheriff, “you mark my words Dominick Harden. That scrawny ol’ lez and Judge shit-for-brains are in on it too, somehow.”

***

Sheriff Harden waited till he heard the door going to reception close, motioned for his deputy to take a seat. “Leave the door open,” he fanned his face with his hand. “Woman wears enough perfume to power an entire French whorehouse over a long weekend.”

Reed eyed the key in his palm, sat. “What happened in court?”

“I have no idea. You’ve been to those hearings… The PO makes a couple excuses about the perp’s circumstances and the effort they’ve made and the Judge nods, fines ‘em or locks ‘em up. If they can’t pay the fine, he sticks them back in jail so they’re out of everybody’s hair for a month or so. This mornin’…” He glanced around the office. “Shit. That’s what’s wrong with me.” He punched his phone. “Betty? We have any coffee?” The phone clicked, he waited, hands folded on his desk. The round, clown haired woman appeared in the doorway, this time with a styrofoam cup. She handed it to the deputy, who passed it to the sheriff. “Betty,” Harden said, “you’re an angel.”

“Don’t you forget it,” she said, swishing off in a psychedelic swirl of color.

The sheriff closed his eyes, let the steam from the coffee cup waft over his face. “Where was I?”

“Court.”

“Right. Bottom line is Sue Grainger said her piece, then, it was like they changed channels in the middle of the show. Instead of a speech on personal responsibility and some ‘this is how you got here in the first place’ sermon, the judge says, ‘That’ll be time served on the off-ince and fifty dollars.’ Grainger hands the bailiff the fifty and Virgil walks.”

“Sounds a little off. But I read Virgil’s file last night, Chief, and historically he’s way more stupid than dangerous. Maybe the judge—”

“You aren’t seein’ what wasn’t there that shoulda been. Those two, Grainger and the Judge, they usually know to a penny how much the perp can afford. If they have five hundred, that’s the fine. Or seven-fifty if they want them off the street until they can raise it. And the books over there are so squirrelly you couldn’t prove they’re pocketing it, or takin’ a reduction as cash under the table. But today? Today they’re all happier’n pigs in shit lettin’ Virgil Green go for fifty bucks and a ‘be a good boy’?”

Question of the Day

“You think he’ll run?”

“Nah.” The Sheriff blew on his sunglasses, rubbed them with a Kleenex. “Truck’s not worth a shit, and it’s not his. Evading arrest with an array of traffic violations tacked on would be way worse’n what he’s lookin’ at as a piss ant parole violator.”

“So, do we violate him for this?” Bash pulled the Python, set it on the console.

“Fuck me, Bash. Where’d you find this?”

“Sittin’ on the front seat of the truck.”

“Sheezus. If he’d a come outta the truck with that thing I mighta shit my pants.” The Sheriff popped the Python’s cylinder, ejected the shells. “No spent rounds.” He sniffed it. “Not clean but not recent and…” he tilted it away so it caught the light, “serial number is plain as day. Gun’s clean as a whistle. You think he knew it was there?”

“Hard to miss, even under the trash.”

“Never known Virgil to carry anything but a huntin’ rifle. For poachin’mostly. Hogs, deer…” His eyes crinkled for an instant. “And a course he keeps a sharp eye out for Bigfoot.” He set the pistol on the floor, put the bullets in his shirt pocket. “You step off when we get there, find Jimmy on the QT, and ask him what he knows about it. Hate to make things any worse for Virg than need be.”

***

The Tahoe rolled off the road, down a slight incline and stopped where it leveled out in a wide semi-circle of gravel in front of a turquoise and white double-wide sporting a covered veranda across the front. Virgil pulled off twenty yards to the right in front of a Quonset hut bearing a large, hand painted “MOTER REPARE HERE” sign, killed the engine and slid out of the truck. A girl in her teens, based on the shredded cutoffs and halter top, opened the front door of the double-wide and leaned on the jamb in that “supremely ain’t interested” way only a teenage female can.

“Honey,” Harden said, “is your daddy home?”

“Ain’t your honey, honey.” She raised her left arm, sighted down it, “An right there’s my daddy.”

“Wait a minute…” The sheriff unhooked his sunglasses, eyes bouncing between Virgil and the girl. “Ivy?”

“Maybe. What’s it to you, Mr. Po-leece-man?”

“Don’t give the Sheriff none a your shit, Ivy,” Virgil trundled up the four steps to the porch. “Your smart ass was born in the backseat of his damn cop car.” He left out the part about how he and her mother were both under arrest at the time. “Where’s Jimmy at?”

“Don’t know, don’t care. What’re you doin’ here is so important,” She stretched her neck up, looked past him, “you done brought your whole extended family?”

“Ivy—”

“Let it go, Virg,” Harden stepped up to the porch. “Ivy, we need to ask Mr. Pierce some questions. Any idea when he’ll be back?”

“He don’t consult with me, and neither,” her voice escalating, “does his chicken shit son. They go off willy nilly whenever and wherever they damn well please. They come home smellin’ like ass and wantin’ me to cook and run the washer machine for ‘em.”

“I’m sure that’s a pisser, Ivy, but when either one of them shows up next, you have ‘em call me first thing. I mean before they even think about startin’ to smell better or eat. We understand each other?”

“I ain’t never cooked for nobody but myself and don’t plan on changin’ that any time soon. But I’ll tell whichever one I see first the Chief County Mountie is huntin’ their asses an they better call. That’ll be right after I kick the shit out of ‘em for leavin’ me with no car, a empty bong and nothin’ but crapola antenna TV.”

***

Virgil sat cuffless in the back seat of the Tahoe while it backed away in a slow arc from the house. He waved, hoped she could see him through the tint. She shot the bird in their direction before she rolled off the jamb into the house. She’d seen him.

“How old is she now, Virg,” Harden looked over his shoulder. “Sixteen, Seventeen?”

“Eighteen. Goin’ on forty. She’s legal to smoke that weed you smelt. Even got her own card.”

“Weed’s not my problem anymore. Neither’s lyin’ about not havin’ any. What’s she doin’ at Jimmy’s?”

“She’s sorta, uh,” he stuck his chin out, his lips tightened, thinned, “Well, I guess,” he thumb and fore-fingered his plump, red turkey neck. “I guess you could say she’s, uh, kinda livin’ with Aiden.”

“Aiden still livin’ with his dad?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“You don’t like that arrangement much?”

“Nothin’ against Jimmy. I just, well, he don’t need to hear that little sack a shit a his an my baby girl doin’… What kids’ll do when they’re all… like that. Together an all, y’know?”

“I do know.”

“Your Lucy done alright.”

“Reb’s no prize, even if he could play football in high school. To be honest, Virg, I had to make the down payment on their place so they didn’t pull that ‘daddy can we live with you till we save up’ bullshit on me.”

“Yeah? I hadda run ‘em off ‘cause a that cow pulling its foot outta the mud noises at one in the mornin’.”

“Virgil,” the Sheriff narrowed his eyes, “I suggest you remember your right to remain silent.”

***

Across the butcher block Formica veneered table sat Ms. Susan Grainger, Virgil Greene’s Parole and Probation Agent. Tallish, slightly bug eyed, neck and legs like straws stuck in Mrs. Potato Head, she resembled a gray emu in her sensible and perfect for forty years ago gray pantsuit and a white blouse with a large, built-in droopy, loopy bow tie. She finished the look with over-the-ankle black Doc Martin Beatle boots. When she crossed her legs the top of her dark gray trouser socks showed. She gathered her notebooks and files, looked over her half-glasses at Sheriff Harden.

“Dominick,” she waggled a pencil at him, “are you sure you’re telling me everything?”

“Sue,” Sheriff Harden palmed his mouth, jaw, “what you see is what we got and how we got it. You can read Deputy Reed’s report when—”

“Didn’t you question him about where he’s been?”

“Yes, and I told you he said he’d got a wild hair to go noodlin’ since the Canadian’s runnin’ a little now, and that Jimmy loaned him the truck ‘cause he was gonna be off with Aiden. I sent a man out to check on Virgil’s truck and it was deader’n Elvis’s disco comeback.”

“Sheriff,” Ms. Grainger stood, clutched her materials to her chest. “Dead is dead. There is no dead-er. You people need to stop being colorful and deal in facts. This is a legal matter, after all.” She wrinkled her nose to raise her glasses an eighth of an inch. “Did he have any money on him?”

“Seventeen dollars, a shiny new credit union cash card and an Applebee’s gift card.”

“Mmm. There’s absolutely nothing more you can tell me about the capture and subsequent interrogation of Mr. Greene other than ‘routine and uneventful’ and ‘gone noodling’ a ‘few days ago’ that would shed any light on the last three weeks of his life?”

“No ma’am. Other than your warrant, nobody’s been lookin’ for him or complain’ about him so what he’s been up to is your business, not mine.” Sheriff Harden pushed his chair back, hoping to signal an end to the meeting. “We’ll have him in front of Judge Bynam for you tomorrow mornin’ at nine sharp.”

“You’d better.” She took the hint and two steps toward the door. “Get him cleaned up and in a clean jumpsuit that’s too big. Does he have any better shoes?”

“The Mexican tire sandals are what he had on.”

“Find him some shoes, Sheriff. We’re all that stand between this man and a heavy-handed miscarriage of justice.” She glowered over her glasses before turning for the door again.

“Yes ma’am.

“Don’t get smart, Sheriff. I’m a system lifer,” she banged the door open with a shoulder. “You’re elected.”

***

Sheriff Harden lifted the paper from the printer, initialed it without reading. “You leave out the Colt, the beer cans in the truck?”

“Yep. Visual ID and routine stop of a suspect with an active criminal warrant. The rest is all there.”

“What about Ivy and smokin’ pot she claimed not have?”

“Ivy’s old enough to live where she wants, do what she wants, lie and bitch about what she wants.”

“And talk shit to us and her daddy. You buyin’ Virgil’s noodling story?”

“The only fishing gear was a minnow bucket in the bed. No stringers, no cooler or nets anywhere. If he was noodling, he wasn’t very optimistic about his chances.” He dropped a manila folder on the table, dropped himself into a beige steel and orange vinyl industrial office chair across from the Sheriff. “As of two years ago, the Colt was legally purchased by, and registered to, James Leroy Pierce of 26 CR 1430, Pontotoc County. Damn thing’s worth more than the truck it was ridin’ in.”

“So, as divined by your Apache intuition, the question of the day is…?”

“Where the hell is Jimmy Pierce?”

“Yessir.” The Sheriff put his forearms on the table, leaned in. “And what the hell are Virgil Green, Ivy, and Sue Grainger not tellin’ us?”