Top Shelf, Professional Strength, Sound Bite Bullshit

“Connor, didn’t your grandmother ever tell you ‘can’t never did nothin’?’”

“Could be, but cookies were probably involved if it was Gran.” He got lost in the memory for a second. “Her cookies were transcendent, so if she was talking, I wasn’t listening. What you don’t understand about this, Cotton, is—”

Agent Cotton.”

“Fuck your formalities, Candi. We’ve known each other since you were the tallest kid in school. You can kick my ass if you want. You can set me up with the Attorney General’s office if you want. You can even run me out of town if you want. Okay. I get it. But the reality is I don’t have what I need to pull off this kind of investigation in sixteen months. Especially if it goes huge.”

“I got this far with three subpoenas, a laptop and the Sheriff’s receptionist. In an afternoon. You have what’s-her-ass out there filing her nails and pumping breast milk for your love child. Put her to work. Or do you not want a job with the AG?”

“Hell yes, you know I do, but… God dammit,” elbows on the desk, interlaced fingers, thumbs to his temples in resignation. “What you’re not getting is I don’t have the juice with the locals.”

“That’s no excuse, Yates. You’re the fucking County Attorney. You make your own juice. If you’re lazy, or scared, or you’re in on this scam, tell me. Otherwise, what I understand is right now we have a plan to get you out of this burg with this,” she fingernailed the open file folder in front of him. “Or you can be another political casualty. Too big a wimp to step up for yourself. A side bar in history. The youngest County Attorney… Where is he now? A pharmacy tech by day and legal aid lawyer by night in Beaver Nuts, Idaho.”

“I’m not lazy. I am overlooked and ignored, and yeah, maybe I am a little scared. But I’m not crooked. You keep saying we. Who’s we? That extravagantly upholstered tool you’re shacked up with, or Merton, Senator Bachen…”

“Never mind ‘we.’ And Carson Locke, just for the record, is my partner in a real-estate investment. Period. We are not ‘shacked up.’”

“Carson Locke is a three-time political loser who’s somehow proven pretty, vapid and legacy money aren’t always a winning recipe for political success, and he lives at your address. Which last time I looked was a pricey, oversized one-bedroom condo and the perfect location for shaking hands over drinks with power brokers, and statehouse nooners. Judging by your current situations none of that has done much for either of your careers and from the pictures I’ve seen in the Law and Pol-Party rags, the two of you would be better off staying as far as you can get from participating in politics and game changing and rent yourselves out as fucking ice sculptures at black tie fundraisers. So don’t hammer me about Kelly out there and the kid.”

“Fair enough. That was inconsiderate of me.” She leaned forward, tugged at the hem of her mid-calf skirt. “You’ve seen the AG’s offer, Yates. You’ve heard mine on how you get from here to there. Your future isn’t built on can you do this, but will you do it?”

“Yes. With a couple of caveats. I need to be blessed with investigative subpoena powers, so I don’t look like some crazed, power mad prick reveling in rummaging around in people’s dirty laundry just for the hell of it. And I need some discretionary gag power… You know, if it’s not related, we shred it, say ‘thank you’ and move on. It doesn’t go public.”

“You need to look like you’re cleaning house, not out to fuck up anybody’s life. Understood. Understand this, though. People will get sucked into the investigation vortex by their own doing, which means you’ll need to put on your big boy panties and shut them down, regardless of who they think they are.”

“The state is behind me on this?”

 “Solid, silent, and unobtrusive. Your promise from the state is unadvertised support. Nobody at the state level is interested in sticking their nose up your ass or forcing you into following a political agenda while you get this done. In fact, they need you to come out sixteen months from now looking like a fresh-faced grass roots savior. Not a puppet.”

“My investigation, my way?”

“Your way. But if I were you, I’d follow the courthouse money. Offer the offenders the opportunity to leave quietly or go down in flames. Then draw up a preliminary system of transparency and accountability for all county services.”

“Easy for you… It’s likely everybody from the fat ladies livin’ on Diet Dr. Pepper down at the licensing bureau to construction inspectors are skimming.”

“Fix the courthouse first. Shake things up, give your moving forward recommendations to the County Board.”

“Seriously, Cotton? They’re all politicians.”

“With more powerful politicians looking over their shoulders. Powerful politicians who want you to clean up this mess and be somebody. Topple a few minor fiefdoms, the board passes some oversight with the AG breathing down their neck, sets up an oversight committee—”

“That committee whispers ‘audit’ to their cronies and they all start jumping out windows.”

“You’ll be long gone by the time the collaterally damaged need to find new jobs. Criminals are criminals, Connor. Robbery is—”

“Robbery. At the point of a gun or the point of a pen. I went to law school. But this,” with a headshake and long, cheeks-out lip-blown exhale. “This shit is not why I went to law school.” He closed one folder, opened another, looked up, his hair fell across his forehead. “I see we’re also letting a murderer off on man two with a sentence recommendation of what, a year at a funny farm where he’s supposed to get control of his behavior dealing with unreasonable fears? Two days a week work release from said funny farm after six months, followed by three years’ probation? Tell me again how that is going to help me?”

“It shows that as well as a corruption buster, you’re an astute, empathetic prosecutor, keenly aware of your constituents’ needs. Able to balance the community’s demand for swift and firm justice with an affirmative and proactive approach to the rehabilitation of its salvageable citizens.”

That is some top shelf, professional strength, sound bite bullshit. But I like it. This Bigfoot made me do it, though? With a catfish? Jesus, Candi, you’re killing me here. I’ll get laughed out of the Bar Association for letting that go.”

“Why?”

“Duh? There’s no such thing as fucking Bigfoot?”

“Are you prepared to prove that? Better yet, do you think there’s any way you could prove it?”

“No one can prove Bigfoot is real.”

“And no one can prove it isn’t. Except the other side can put up an avalanche of physical evidence, media hype and science.”

Junk science.”

“Again… Who’s to say? That sign up there says ‘In God We Trust.’”

“Okay, I see where you’re going. Who’s the judge…” He fanned through the folder’s paper. “Perriman? Of course she is. She’ll take kidnapped by aliens as an excuse for violating parole. Good God…” He closed the folder with a sigh of disgust, rubbed his eyes. “You know, Cotton? Some days, I wonder how our simple little world got so fucked up.”

“People. Do we have a deal? Or deals?”

“Yeah…” He rose into a stoop propped up by his left hand on his desk, offered his right. Candi gave it a firm squeeze and a single, emphatic pump.

“You won’t regret this, Connor. Good luck with your future.” She turned, walked through the office, patted Kelly’s shoulder on her way out, saying, “Yours, too.”

Yates waited till she was gone before he raised his voice and barked into the outer office.

“Kelly?”

“Do I need a pen for this? Last time she was here I—”
“No pen. Call your brother, tell him to get that truck of his I paid for, take it to your mother’s and load it with everything you own. You’re moving out of her house and into mine. Today.”

“The divorce ain’t final, Connor. What’s every—”

 “I just quit giving a shit what everybody thinks, Kelly. Your husband’s been missing for close to five years. Anyone thinks they need to comment on us can fuck off.”

“If you say so… Anything el—”

 “You’re fired. Call the agency, have them find me a legal secretary who kicks ass.”

“Can she be old an maybe ugly? ‘Cause I might get—”

“I don’t care if she has three heads and one of them’s an overgrown wart. ‘Kicks ass’ is the criteria.”

“Okay.” She punched some numbers into the phone, left a message, hung up. “Uh, Conner…? Like, um… What am I gonna do now?”

“Go get the kid, cancel his daycare, stay home with him, clip coupons and save us all the money you can. A year from now, we’ll be house hunting in the city.”

“We’ll be wha—?” The phone chirped. “Uh… That’ll be the agency callin’ back. You better grab it.” She shouldered her purse and baby bag, gave the office a cursory once over. “I don’t know what that tall woman done to you in there, but she’s welcome to come back an do it again, anytime she wants.”

The Mind You’re Wearing is Fine

Sunday morning buffet at the Rose B&B had mostly tailed out when Ivy chin-pointed over Candi’s shoulder and said, “Man.”

Candi’s only response was to slow her fork down for a split second and raise her eyebrows.

“Cop. Outta uniform.”

“Which one?”

“Bash.”

“Shit.” Candi ran her napkin across her mouth.

 After making a waiter’s twist between tables, pushed-back chairs and the few remaining guests, he took a quick survey of their table, set his hands on the top of an empty chair. “Y’all got a minute?”

“Last I heard,” Candi, not looking up, “you were on call.”

“It’s rainin’. The Chief canceled fishin’, called, said he’d keep the shop from fallin’ down if I had things to do.”

“And the first thing on your to-do list was drop by the Rose and join us for breakfast because word’s out we do a big buffet on Sunday morning?” She leaned to her right slightly and looked up. “You can forget that because I’m not feeding you.”

“There’s that golden ray of sunshine on a cloudy day.”

She looked up in time to see how the lines around his eyes removed the sarcasm. “Alright. Sit.”

“Yes ma’am. Mornin’ Ivy.” He got a nod. “What time’s your bath scheduled for, Cotton?” Ivy’s eyes widened, Candi smacked his wrist with a fork coupled with a hissed “None of your damn business.”

“Can’t say I didn’t try.” He snagged a biscuit from a napkin-lined varnished wicker basket, scooted his chair back.

Ivy’s eyes bounced between them. “Should I leave so y’all can—”

No.” Candi jabbed two fingers on the tablecloth in front of Bash’s vacated place. “You aren’t going anywhere, either.” She turned his coffee cup right side up, went back to her omelet. He pulled back in, loaded his cup from a white, glass-look thermal carafe that, based on the temperature of the coffee it expelled had been there a while.

“Ivy was telling me how she’d like to look at used cars.” Candi, side-eye.

“Sunday’s the day to look since you can’t buy one.”

“I was in the middle of explaining that, and how she might want to look where there’s better selection and competition. I was about to suggest we drive up to get my car and look around. Of course, we’d have to leave your truck. Unlocked,” cocked eyebrow, “keys on the seat.”

“Might break whoever of the car stealin’ habit.”

Might?” A derisive eye-roll and headshake. “What did you want, Reed, besides a free biscuit and coffee?”

“I came to offer some help with that ‘what am I gonna drive’ issue.”

“And what form would this ‘help’ you’re offering take?”

“Cartin’ you up in pimp mobile comfort to retrieve your personal vehicle.” He studied his tepid coffee. “Chalky biscuits, no butter, cold coffee, and the thought of enjoyin’ the current state of your charming personality for ninety minutes might have me changin’ my mind.”

“The mind you’re wearing is fine. We’re almost finished here.” She turned her phone over, checked the time. “Give us ten minutes and we’ll meet you at the car. I’ll drive.”

“That’s why I threw a pillow in the back seat.”

“Are you like sure,” Ivy cleared her throat,I, uh, won’t be, you know, in the way or nothin?”

“In the way or anything. No.” She checked Bash for objection.

“I’m good. An hour and a half of you two talkin’ chick shit with me off the one-on-one conversation hook?” He bowed slightly, tipped an invisible hat. “Best news since Little Big Horn.”

***

Ivy watched Bash over Candi’s shoulder until he was in the foyer where he said something that made the manager smile, kept watching while she stepped away and returned with a to-go cup of coffee, steam streaming from the hole in the top. “You don’t get it, huh?”

“Get what ‘huh’?”

“Guys.”

“I get ‘guys,’ Ivy. He’s another one.”

“You don’t believe that, ‘cause he’s not. An you know it. He took me to get too much barbecue and a couple big bottles a Coke last Sunday afternoon not ‘cause I tried flirtin’ him into it, ‘cause he seen through my pathetic trip for what it was an walked right on through it. He done… Did it, ‘cause he’d read my bluff no matter what my mouth was runnin’. He knew from the day before I was hungry an scared an broke an didn’t have nobody I could call. You know, he ain’t workin’ you to get laid, Ms. Cotton. He’s offering to kick start you joinin’ up down here an you’re draggin’ your feet.”

“Your grammar goes to hell when you’re serious. And what makes you, at the ripe old age of eighteen, think you’re an expert on men, anyway?”

“I feel like I’m repeatin’ myself, but you have met Momma? Goin’ on nineteen years a that soap opera I seen every kinda trippy man woman shit there ever was or ever could be. You stallin’ an playin’ ice queen ain’t makin’ it any easier on you or him or anybody else wants to help. You know what I see?”

“I can’t imagine.”

“You got baggage on both ends a this thing you’re in right now an cain’t see your way clear to dealin’ on either, so you’re makin’ busy noises an treadin’ water. That guy just walked out the door?” She glanced over Candi’s shoulder again. “That’s the best lifeline you have around here. You need to grab hold before he bails an leaves you dealin’ with it all by your lonesome. Which’ll suck big time for you ‘cause then you’ll be stuck with nobody ‘cept me an the Sheriff an all them ghosts you talk about.”

Candi hit a short, hard sigh and sat, palms on her thighs, frozen. She finally pulled her napkin up, stuffed it under the rim of her plate. “Is it that obvious?”

“No more’n a nose zit on prom night.” Ivy pushed her plate away, dropped her napkin on it. “I’m ready. You need to pee or anything?”

***

“You seen Cotton this morning?” Sheriff Harden eased into the industrial guest chair in front of Bash’s desk.

“Nope.”

“The way she was dressed… Only way I can explain it is aggressively managerial.”

“I don’t even need to see it to see it. She must’ve picked up some clothes yesterday or bought some new ones.”

“You talked to her yesterday?”

“I swung by the Rose after you took over on-call.”

“Now Bash, I didn’t say you had to go an apologize, or even be too nice. Just let her know, somehow, that you an the rest of us messin’ with her ain’t all, well, mean spirited or nothin’.”

“I didn’t say anything about the Chrysler or her Jeep or any of that. I offered to solve her vehicle problems by runnin’ her up to get her daily driver. Ended up ridin’ with her and Ivy. Ivy wantin’ to window shop used cars and the both of ‘em on a clothes mission.”

“Jesus. That’s a lotta close proximity, high-octane estrogen, with a side a extra attitude thrown in to deal with over a ninety-minute Sunday drive.”

“Not if you’re asleep in the back seat.”

And So Are You!

“I see everybody survived the potty break and we didn’t need to call a plumber,” Harden tilted the fishing cap replacement for his cowboy hat, stood behind the chair he’d occupied during Virgil Green’s polygraph. “First off, we can’t leave Virgil pinballin’ around a cell in here by himself on Sunday, and I’m not about to put him in the county lockup until I’m sure he can handle it. This bein’ Bash’s on-call weekend,” he shifted to look to his left. “Do you come in an babysit, waitin’ for the phone to ring? What if you get a call? Does Betty round us up a reserve to stay here all day? Do we tag Virg and put him up in the Travelodge? What about—”

“Sheriff?” Betty wagged her pen. “One problem at a time, please?”

“Alright. Disposition of Virgil. Bash?”

“I can come in if I need to. I might put him to work in the storage closet.”

“You might get the ACLU’s panties in a twist over that bein’ cruel and unusual punishment. Candi?”

“I have no problems with the Travelodge. Betty?”

“None a y’all are afraid a Virgil walkin’ across the parkin’ lot, stickin’ his thumb out,” demonstrated, “an bein’ in the wind?”

“I’m more worried about him doin’ something to himself, thinkin’ it’ll put everybody involved outta dealin’ with what he sees as the misery he’s caused.”

“I’m with the Sheriff. He was a mess when I brought him in.”

“I hate to remind everybody,” Bash, yawning, palms on his cheeks, “but he did kill a man.”

“With a damn catfish.” Candi offered a small, tired smile. “How dangerous can he be?”

“None, I guess,” Bash, leaning back in his chair. “Unless Bigfoot has his eye on the Travelodge.”

“Done.” Harden swept up the loose paper in front of him. “Virgil goes to the Travelodge. I’ll go fishin’, Betty’ll go to church, Bash’ll keep his phone on and Candi—”

“Will drink too much wine, take a long, hot bath and spend a whole day letting nothing be important.”

“Sunday’s settled, then… Betty can you—”

“Updating Virgil’s info and signing out a GPS ankle monitor as we speak.”

“We don’t pay you enough.”

“No, you don’t. It was okay for playin’ solitaire, but now I that I’ve unleashed my mad computer skills…”

“Yeah, yeah. Wait’ll we see if Cotton’s consistently worth a damn,” with a wink. “If she is, I’ll move some budget your way. Speaking of Agent Cotton,” he’d dropped his shoulders, hands in his pockets. “When do you plan on unleashing the Pontotoc war on graft? And if it blows up, what are we gonna do about a judge?”

“I have that,” Candi leaned to pull a folder from her bag.

“Just tell me, Candi. Spreadsheets make my head hurt.”

“Right,” the folder dropped back in the bag. “First thing Monday morning, I’ll give all the information I have, which is broad and not as specific as I’d like, to your beloved County Attorney-slash-prosecutor.”

Specifics of spreadsheet crime are that dickweed’s job. Don’t feel guilty. Prime his ass with what you’ve got and set it on fire. Next, and this is a bigger problem, how deep does the corruption go, and how much is it gonna to cost the county? ‘Cause if it’s bad, I might need to call in some favors to keep you from gettin’ shot in the back.”

“The fines were all judgement calls and always under the allowable max for the violation. That lets the county off the repercussion hook. The crimes are where that money went. Your other question, what will they find outside of our immediate dealings with the court?” Her hands came off the table, open and wide.

“You’re sayin’ it could be every chicken shit gas station with a post office an speed trap, or just the local courthouse barflies. What’s your gut tell you?”

“I ate too many breakfast tacos, and honestly? Betty and I didn’t see enough money going through the court’s books to say,” quote fingers, “‘widespread corruption.’”

“What about the judge?”

“He’s oblivious. The question is can he still do his job without his clerk feeding him legal answers and fines through the monitor on his bench?”

“Everybody knows,” Betty, scowling, repeatedly hitting one key on the laptop, “the man cain’t find his butt with both hands in his back pockets since before his wife died.”

“Don’t we have three other District Judges?”

“Sure, Bash, but who else is familiar with Virgil, will take Man Two and go light on sentencin’?”

Candi, with some trepidation, “Tina Perriman?”

“I’ll go Perriman. She’s as weird as they come, but she leaves it outside the courthouse. Let’s see if we can get Virgil and the prosecutor in front of her before your corruption news breaks. I don’t want her thinkin’ we set the dogs on her nightstand drawer.”

“You forget I have to live and work here now, so it won’t be my corruption investigation. Any fallout will belong to the prosecutor. Connor Yates can carry it because he’ll be leaving for the state house at the end of his term.”

“How d’you figure that?”

“Dropping the corruption investigation in Yates’ lap is contingent on him leaving to join the Attorney General’s office. The AG loves a bulldog, so Yates has sixteen months to clean house and become ‘Connor Yates – the people over politicians’ hero.”

“Which means he’ll be too busy to hassle my massage parlor. I knew you had to be good for somethin’ or Merton would’ve kept you underfoot.”

***

Bash walked out the back door into the parking lot, found Candi, hands on hips, scanning the area from fence to fence. “Where’s my Jeep?”

“County Service garage.”

“I thought you had it.”

“I did. I swapped the tires, drove it for a day. The alignment was so bad I could hardly keep it on the road. I got called names by an old woman just for drivin’ it, and then shot at. I’d had enough Geronimo Ken in the wrong Jeep and dropped it at the County garage. Besides, they needed the tires I’d borrowed for it back by Monday. Come Monday mornin’, though, they’ll have your new tires.”

My new tires?”

“Special order. They’ll mount ‘em and align that beast, set you to streetin’ smooth instead of gettin’ beat up by Baywatch Barbie’s Ass Buster. But… I have no problem with you keepin’ my truck till your Jeep’s done.”

“What are you driving?”

“The big, pewter Chrysler.”

“Yours?”

“Only on weekends I pimp.”

“Nice to know you have a hobby. But I don’t believe you own the wardrobe, so I say it’s an impound lot forfeit.”

“You’d be right. I picked it up when I dropped your Jeep.”

“Then you can keep your damn truck, cowboy. I’ll take the Chrysler.”

“Indian. And no, you won’t.”

Won’t hell,” frustration seeping out. “It’s a loaner for my Jeep, Bash. Not for your rust—”

“Forget won’t. Can’t. You gotta be on the County’s liability.”

“I know insurance law, and with the owner’s permission, I can drive anything.”

“That law applies to individuals, Justice Cotton. The County, as a government entity, has their own rules, and one of them is you gotta be in the risk pool to drive a county vehicle.”

“Bull. Shit.” Steaming, her voice coming up. “I drove the Tahoe half the day yesterday.”

“As an officer of the law, performing her duty. If it’s crime busting, you can commandeer a ride if you have to. But I don’t seem to recall goin’ home to take an expensive fragrance infused bath and lie around eating chef’s choice meals and designer chocolate for a day-and-a-half in an upscale B&B as raisons d’etre of law enforcement.”

“You are so,” fists to temples exasperated, “full of it. You know that?”

“Look, I said I don’t mind loanin’ you my truck. Since borrowin’ it without tellin’ me is how you got to standin’ here all car-less an pissed off.”

“Thanks,” she smacked the top of his Ranger. “For being so fucking considerate.”

“What are friends for? Soon as the County opens up Monday morning, bingo. But you won’t need it because the Barbie-mobile will be ready by the time you’re through sweepin’ out the courthouse.”

You get a sweet ride for my Jeep, and I get stuck with your rust bucket,” acute disbelief. “You know,” over her shoulder,” I just keep getting screwed on this deal and nobody even offers to buy me dinner.”

“Hey,” a theatrically smug, blameless shrug, “I don’t make the rules.”

“Well, they’re shit.” She climbed in, slammed the door. “And so are you.” She jammed the aging Ranger into reverse, backed out, ground the gears again, raised a one-finger salute and chugged out of the lot.

***

“What’s with Cotton?” Harden appeared on Bash’s right side.

“She’s drivin’ my truck.”

“She’s been drivin’ your truck. What caused her to flip you off?”

“The big Chrysler.”

“Godamighty… ” It took a few seconds for Harden’s weary sigh to die away.

“You see how it happened, right?”

“I wasn’t born yesterday. What kinda bullshit you spread on it?”

“Told her she had to be signed up with the county to drive vehicles requirin’ county liability.”

“That’s true. But I listed her Tuesday. You knew that.”

“Knew what?”

“Dammit, Bash.” The heavy wait ended when he wiped his forehead with a wrist. “How long you plan on bustin’ her chops?”

“Till she stops thinkin’ we’re just like everybody else.”

“Reckon she knows that already. You’re after her behavin’ like she knows, an that’s gonna take a while. Maybe an act a Congress. So be careful with that shit. She ends up thinkin’ we’re really bustin’ her for bein’ who she is, then we are like everybody else.”

Sunshine and Air

“Why ain’t I in the big jail?”

“Because,” Harden tossed his hat into an empty chair, leaned forward, put his hands on the back of another, “we can’t arraign you until Monday. Tuesday if come Monday mornin’ Agent Cotton cleans house over at the courthouse. An Betty tells me your daughter dropped you off a gym bag with some p-jays and extra underwear that you’ll be able to use stayin’ here as opposed to the big jail up in town.”

“I seen hangers outside the cell…”

“We’re not gonna tie you up with hanger wire. Hangers are there so your clothes don’t get wadded and bagged or messed up in case we put you in a motel or you want to wear ‘em to court instead of the jumpsuit.”

“That’s all mighty nice, but ain’t I in here for murderin’ Jimmy?”

Harden lifted his head, scratched under his jaw. “Don’t rightly know what you’re in here for, Virgil.” He stepped a leg over the chair, sat forward, elbows on his knees, eyes on Virgil. “You need to tell me a story. About all what happened up there at the river, and we’ll take it from there. First off, you need to hear your rights again? Want a lawyer?”

“No, Sheriff, I done it, an I ain’t gonna deny it. I dint mean to, I just plumb flipped out… He pushed me in the river laughin’, you know, like he laughs at them damn cartoons.”

“I need you to back up all the way to where it started, Virgil, an use everybody’s names. Start by tellin’ me how you come to end up in the river, an who it was pushed you.”

Virgil screwed up his lips, propped his head temple to knuckle, slowly growing into a thumb and fingers forehead squeeze.

“We was noodlin’… Guess that part’s pretty obvious. I’d just popped a third one on the head when we heard…” he stalled, dropped his chin to his chest.

“When you heard…”

“Bigfoot,” mumbled.

“Okay. You heard Bigfoot. And?”

“You sayin’ you believe me?”

“I’m sayin’ for now I believe you believe you. Go on.”

“Well, I heard it an hollered somethin’, you know, profane like an how pissed off he sounded.”

“How pissed off who sounded?”

“Bigfoot, a course,” eyes getting wider.

“What’d it sound like?”

“Like how I done it, only after Altus done somethin’ in the TV place to it to make it bigger, an… An that’s kinda what it sounded like, only even bigger an louder, echoin’ all over. Ain’t no TV’s down to the river, Dominick, to play Altus’s Bigfoot tricks. I knew Bigfoot’d heard me out there doin’ a piss poor imitation, an then,” his hands came up in werewolf pose. “RAWWWR. Really loud. I told ‘em a hunnert times—”

“Told who, Virgil?”

“Altus an Jimmy. I told ‘em, you know, how we was messin’ in somethin’ was gonna bite us right in the ass.” He stopped, collected himself, got a nod from the Sheriff.

“Then, after I’d cussed an said my piece about Bigfoot, I say to Jimmy how we gotta get the fuck outta there an he’s laughin’ an says somethin’ about how I’m a idiot, an how Bigfoot an me, we deserve each other, an then Jimmy ups an pushes me in the damn river. I come up spitting out muddy water an I hear Bigfoot again, only louder, by this time soundin’ like a jet flyin’ over, I’m freakin’ out tryin’ to get my feet outta the mud an climb out the river an he’s standin’ there–“

“He who? Jimmy or Bigfoot?”

“Jimmy. No shit an swear to God, Dominick, if I’da popped my head up an seen Bigfoot? I’da crapped myself and went straight to Jesus from right there in the river.”

“So Jimmy’s still laughin’?”

“Like a hyena. Like me gettin’ ate by Bigfoot is funnier’n to him than anything ever was. I mean I was seriously flippin’ out, you know, Bigfoot bein’ close an not knowin’ how fast can they move an all an I told Jimmy to shut the hell up an help me an he went to laughin’ harder. I crawled out an grabbed up a cat outta the cooler an swung it as hard as I could. Don’t know what I expected to happen, I just swung hopin’ he’d stop the laughin’.” He sat, shoulders slumped but moving, shaking off something invisible.

“I done thought on it a lot since, an I guess, it bein’ a fish an all, it kinda surprised me it didn’t explode or somethin’. But what it done was pop Jimmy’s head right back so’s he come up full tall. Then he kinda stumbled over his feet, leanin’ some to the left, an he spins around an lands on all fours. Well, he jumped right up still laughin’. You know Jimmy’s always sayin’ how in a bar fight he can take a lick, an like I was sayin’, it was only a damn catfish I hit him with. He’s still sayin’ how ol’ Bigfoot was havin’ me for supper an all an then he almost fell to one side, but he put his hand down, turned an lit out a runnin’… An everbody knows the onliest thing Jimmy ever could do was run like the wind. I figgered him for me eatin’ his dust an him jumpin’ in the truck an leavin’ me…”

“You didn’t take kindly to bein’ left behind for Bigfoot’s supper?”

“Hell no,” with pleading eyes. “Would you?”

“You didn’t set off to kill Jimmy that night, didja Virg?”

“No. I just—”

“Plumb flipped out. Didja hit him again?”

“Naw, just the once.”

“I’m goin’ with you wantin’ to shut him up but not permanent, an honestly thinkin’ he’d left you for Bigfoot.”

“Like I said, though, I done murdered my best friend. I confess, if that’s the word you need.”

“Murder is a tough call here. It’s what us law enforcement types call ‘extenuating circumstances.’”

“That’s sounds a awful lot like expensive lawyer talk, an I don’t want you fixing up no fancy trial or lawyerin’ for me or makin’ any mess Ivy’s gonna hafta clean up or pay for.”

“Got it. We’ll try to make it as smooth as possible for everybody. In the meantime, Monica Perez is workin’ the night shift. I’ll send her in here an you can tell her what you’d like to eat. Don’t play cards with her for money.” He stood, pushed the chair under the table, collected his hat, headed for the door. “I’ll get her to wheel the TV cart back, too. Can’t put it in the cell, but I’ll leave the remote.” He stopped, turned, one hand on the doorknob. “Would you be willin’ to take a polygraph?”

“Sure, but I’m tellin’ ya—”

“You done it. I know. There’re just a few things would sit a might easier with me if you’d take one.”

***

Candi, cross-legged on her bed, tapped her buzzing phone. “Cotton…” she checked the time and the caller ID. “Hey, Sheriff? Something up?”

“I know it’s late, but I been thinkin’, an that got me to wonderin’ if, in your new capacity as the State’s regional hotshot, you might could rustle us up a state polygraph operator on a Saturday.”

“Like tomorrow Saturday?”

“Yep. Short notice. State budget. It’s bound to piss off at least a handful a people up there.”

“Done. What time do you want her?”

***

Margaret V. Durber, Ph.D. didn’t look like her name. Too black to be natural 1950s TV Mom hair, bright red lipstick, red pantsuit, a black AC/DC t-shirt under the jacket, all piled on top of thick, rainbow-soled white high-top tennis shoes – “a gift from my granddaughter and a concession to Saturday.”

Candi, Bash, Harden and Betty occasionally stuck a hand in a bag of breakfast tacos while they watched Margaret on monitors as, in a dull monotone, she questioned Virgil in an interview room. She spoke, he answered, and she used a stylus to drop markers in the rows of graphic data streaming across her laptop screen. After half an hour she stopped, printed a ribbon of paper 6 inches wide and ten feet long from the lie detector interface. She regained a chirpy customer service tone, told Virgil to relax, and left the interview room to appear moments later in the conference room. She partially unrolled her printout over the long table, Betty thumbed her remote and the tabletop appeared on screen.

“I haven’t had a lot of time to study these,” Margaret, now matter of fact, “but the man is what he appears to be. No pretense, straight across the board. The only thing he got edgy about was his ex-wife during the baseline questions. Had he ever been married? What was his wife’s name? Just the mention of that issue sets him off.” She pulled the strip forward, tapped it with a red pen. “Both times. If you know the woman, would you consider this a normal reaction?”

Betty’s response was to offer her a taco.

“I see. If you can’t say something nice…” she tested the hottest sauce from the bag, opened her taco, drenched it, took a bite. “Mmmm… Nothing like habaneros to light you up in the morning. As far as what y’all were after,” talking around the taco, “he didn’t mean to kill the guy. Yes, he lost it, and we’ll get to why in a minute. Yes,” tapping the paper, “he hit his partner with a catfish. Who knew they were deadly, right? Not your man in there. Regardless of how many ways I asked him, it was the same. Yes, he hit the man with a catfish. No, he wasn’t trying to kill him. The other thing you wanted to know about Bigfoot, or Sasquatch or Yeti, or anything else I called it…” She tossed the taco foil in the bag, pulled a folded sheet of paper from her pocket. “I printed this from the Bigfoot archive. In the same state, not that far away. He’d have been about ten at the time.”

Harden stepped closer to the monitor to read the newspaper article from 1977 and the follow up from the ’90s. “Say’s here it was a hoax.”

“Uncovering the hoax never makes headlines, Sheriff.”

“What you’re sayin’ is Virgil believes in Bigfoot?”

“Technically,” she began rolling up the paper ribbon, “Bigfoot fared better in the rapid acceptance of fact aspect than religious figures.” She popped a rubber band that had been lurking on her wrist around the roll. “As far as your Mr. Green is concerned, Bigfoot’s as real as sunshine and air.”

Solid Precedent

Candi pulled away from The Rose, zigzagging south to west through the gentrified residential area while Ivy texted with her father. At the US377 intersection, Candi looked to her left, Ivy put her phone away, and both settled in as the big SUV pulled out on the highway and picked up speed.

“Ivy,” Candi reached out, tweaked the rearview, “is your father in possession of any firearms that you’re aware of?”

“He’s had a little thirty-two revolver since I can remember. Daddy never cared much for guns or huntin’.”

“Do you know where he keeps it?”

“I know where I’m keepin’ it.” She pulled her left foot up under her right leg, turned Candi’s way. “He scared me, you know, the way he was talkin’, and bein’ as down as he was, so I took it with me when I left out from his place the other afternoon.” She paused, waited for a question that didn’t come. “It’s in the top drawer of my dresser at The Rose.” She paused again. “Unloaded.”

“Should’ve known. Can’t grow up around here gun dumb.” A tight-lipped smile crossed Candi’s face. “I apologize for wearing my bitch out in public, but it’s been one of those weeks.”

“S’okay.”

 “Not really. It’s not attractive, or productive.”

“Sometimes you gotta put it on, though.” She pulled her foot out, hugged her knee. “So everybody knows where the line’s at an they gotta bring their trip back later or forget it. An sometimes, if they’re super dense, you even gotta be rude about it. You know, like ‘Look, I’m dealin’ with my own shit here, so y’all bitches need to fuck off.”

“Damn, girl,” Candi, laughing. “Never lose that.”

“You can talk about it, you know, if you want.”

“Most of it’s stupid work politics.”

“The Sheriff an them?”

“No, they’re okay. It’s the big bosses. Nothing for you to worry about.” She slowed, pulled into the turn lane and headed west on the narrow, marginally maintained asphalt ribbon of CR1570. “Mostly I’m pissed because when I look in the mirror, I see how I deal with apathy and inertia permeates every aspect of my life.” She glanced over, discovered Ivy listening. “Some days it feels like I’m the only one who gives a damn.”

“Yeah, I know. And if you say anything, they’re all like you’re actin’ all superior when you just want ‘em to carry their load an stop screwin’ around.”

“Yeah?”

“Workgroups. At school. In group projects nobody ever does anything they’re supposed to, and I end up doin’ it all. An when I bitch ‘em down for it, they get all butt hurt. That’s the real reason I could never be Valedictorian, even if I had better grades than Einstein. Lisha can do everybody else’s work and smile. Not me.”

“That’s what I run into at work, and I can’t smile about it, either. What’s worse for me is when I’m out in the real-world offering people ways to take care of themselves in their jobs or their personal situations and run into that ‘don’t ruffle any feathers, somebody else will do it’ attitude I get so frustrated I could scream. They always have more reasons than stars in the sky to leave what’s making them miserable alone, to let it ride. Show them a workable way to turn the problem around and ‘Oh hell no, Candi. We’d rather complain our way into martyrdom than fix it.’”

“You must’ve met with Lisha and those Walmart ladies last night. I could’ve told you that’d be a waste of time.”

“And why is that?”

“Too much of what goes on around here is about how things look, not how they are. Nobody cares who you are, or how you feel ‘cause they’re too worried how they’re lookin’ to everybody else. Bein’ okay to everybody, even if they can’t chew gum and walk but know how to put on eye makeup that gets a ton of fake friend likes or a pizza date with a jock is how they make themselves okay.”

“That’s funny, because my mother used to say that vanity and convenience were the devil’s way of eroding our will. That the entire world was happy to take more time with ‘puttin’ their face on’ than doing God’s will. Short skirts, flesh, and makeup were paving the road to an uncaring hell.”

“I know all about short skirts and makeup and convenience from my Momma. I love her to death but tryin’ to keep up with her always bein’ whatever she thinks she needs to be that’ll get her what she thinks she wants wears me out.” She shook her hair out, pulled up the other knee. “What sorta convenience was your mom talkin’ about, though? Like movies or microwaves or ridin’ lawnmowers…”

“Gift cards.” She checked the mirror, caught Ivy’s look. “Yep. The whole mentality of ‘Fuck it, I don’t have time to think about a gift for Uncle Seth ‘cause the ol’ drunk’ll just return it anyway, so here’s twenty bucks he can take straight to gettin’ shitfaced’ was the Devil’s doing. Not caring about each other, along with too much flesh and makeup, signaled the end of civilization.”

“Holy crap. Like you were supposed to get him an intervention for Christmas or somethin’?”

“Who knows? But you and Mom were right because that was the whole trouble with those women last night. Too busy not looking bad to care about fixing their problem.”

Your momma was right,” she sparkled for a beat. “‘Cause it is hell tryin’ to keep up with Momma’s next way to make her life convenient. And, um,” a flash of serious, “thanks for pullin’ my head out and gettin’ me out the middle of all that mess.”

“You were ready to do the pulling yourself. You just needed a push.”

“Yeah, but you were the first person who knew what it’s like to be me to say ‘cut the crap, Ivy, and be somebody’ and then helped me out. You knew, ‘cause you lived here and said ‘I’m goin’ to the Olympics an the hell with what y’all idiots think.’”

“I didn’t say that, exactly. I said something like ‘I’m going to college on a volleyball scholarship, I’m outta here.’ I think the finesse I’ve forgotten from back then is ‘keep moving and don’t let them see your middle finger on your way out the door.’”

“I need to learn that one. Anyway, I just wish there was somethin’ I could do for you.”

“Since neither of us can fix my job or pull those women’s heads out, the only thing I’d really like is to make life pure hell for that bully of a man they work for. You have anything for that?”

“Is he married?”

“Separated. There was some noise about him doing this same act in Saint Louis. Management rotated him here, she stayed behind.”

“So, like you’ve talked to his manager?”

“I spent some quality time on the phone throwing scary words like criminal sexual harassment and embezzlement by intimidation around. I made some upper-level contacts, but they need a formal complaint or blatant, provable misconduct to bust him. Or, as crazy as it sounds, he’ll be able to sue them for harassment.”

“You think he’d steal or do whatever and maybe forget the cameras were on for a woman who’d rather have sex and some perks than do work?”

“Hell, Ivy, if someone were to clock in and volunteer to sharpen his pencil if he made it worth their while? He’d be selling the store out of the trunk of his car at flea markets to keep her happy. Why?”

“Well, ‘cause one of the things happened the other day?” Ivy leaned closer, used a finger to pull her hair behind her ear, got a clear view of Candi. “Daddy made me Momma’s landlord. And since she can’t, um, screw me for the rent, she’s gonna be needin’ a job.”

***

Virgil Green answered his door in a white knit shirt splattered with blue, lasso twirling cowboys on brown rearing horses and topped with a collar that shamed Elvis in Vegas tucked into textured tan double-knit sans-a-belt bell bottoms and two-tone brown and white patent loafers. The trailer reeked like he’d broken a case of mixed drug store colognes, and his pink, fresh-shaved jowls radiated a palpable sense of relief at seeing Ivy and Candi step through his door.

“Daddy,” taking his arm, “this is Agent Cotton. The one I told you about? Before you say anything she has to read you your rights so you don’t mess this up for her or yourself. Okay?”

“Ain’t like I never heard ‘em, Princess,” he dropped his chin, “but I know she’s gotta, so go ahead on.” He waited, head down, through the recitation. “Yes’m I do understand,” perking up. “Now that’s over,” he brushed his hands together, offered his right. “Nice tuh meecha, Miz Agent Cotton.”

“You, too, Mr. Green. But,” both hands came up, palms out, “I’m afraid regulations prohibit me from… Oh, hell,” she dropped her hands. “Alright, I’ll shake hands with you as Ivy’s father. But only,” hitting him with listen up eyes, “if you understand I will break your arm if you try anything stupid.”

“Lady,” he smiled full on in spite of a few missing teeth, “I a’ready done been doin’ stupid for goin’ on fitty-three years. ‘Sides my Ivy, this right here’s the rightest thing I ever done.” He looked up, tilted his head slightly, narrowed his eyes. “Damn but you are a tall drink a water. Cotton, huh? That makes you Hill-yard Cotton’s girl. The one who lit off outta here all the way to Cally-fornya an the Olympics…” He glanced sideways at Ivy. “You done a’right for yourself Miss Cotton, an more right by helpin’ my Ivy. How y’all girls find the gumption is a mystery. No,” he wiped his forehead, “it’s a friggin’ miracles what it is. Forgive me, ma’am, but Hill-yard Cotton was the meanest, hardest man most folks here ‘bouts ever knowed.” Another glance at Ivy and he teared up. “I ain’t no prize, neither. An knowin’ you girls cain’t pick your families an still turn out angels cain’t be down to nothin’ but a miracle.” He ran a finger under his eyes, wiped it on his pants. “So, you can relax about me, ma’am. If’n I can ride to jail with a coupla angels, you can bet I’m goin’ easy.”

***

“What the hell is that smell?” Sheriff Harden took the keys Candi held out. “You get caught up in a barbershop explosion on your way in with Virgil?”

“Sorry, Chief. Bash is going to raise hell when he sees how I screwed up the seat and the mirrors on the Tahoe and Virgil stinkin’ it up.” She held her left hand under her nose to keep from laughing, “It and my right hand both have a big-time case of old school man-whore from a handshake and gliding his head putting him in the back seat.”

“I know, from firsthand experience, that a heavy dose of Vitalis and Aqua Velva is survivable.” His tone shifted to concern. “Everything go alright? No trouble? Virgil didn’t resist any kinda way or barricade himself inside that junk pile?”

“No problems. I picked up Ivy just in case I needed someone to talk him down, but it couldn’t have been easier. In fact, he called us both angels.”

“Angels?” His brows came together. “You an Ivy?”

“Yes sir.”

“The angels bit,” Harden tapped her report folder. “That’s in here?”

“Recorded and transcribed.”

 “Well, then,” he reached for his reading glasses. “Sounds like our Mr. Green’s done already set himself some solid precedent for an insanity plea.”

Dinner and a Decent Pair a Boots

“Candi Cotton.” A jovial voice squawked from the conference call speaker in the middle of the table. “What would you like for me to have finished for you yesterday?”

“We need to take another look at Jimmy Pierce.”

“Ahhhh. The man whose diet would’ve killed him if he hadn’t taken a mortal blow to the head by an object as yet unknown. Like they say, ‘Let’s do this’, ‘cause I need to get him out and to the next stop on his dust-to-dust tour or I’ll be stackin’ ‘em two deep in the meat locker before the weekend’s over.”

“You can’t be that popular, Doc.”

“That you, Dominick?” A snort chuckle. “Hell, you should know by now I’m so gall-dang popular people are dyin’ to get in here.”

“You’re about to need a new morgue joke, Doc. While you’re lookin’ for one, Deputy Reed’s got a question for you.”

“Shoot. Figuratively, of course.”

“Did you swab his forehead?”

“If by ‘his’ you mean the late James Pierce, yes. We take material and tissue samples from all over the body. What is it you’re hopin’ we found on his forehead?”

“Not sure. In the photos he’s got some crusty junk on his hairline. Is that sand, or…”

“I didn’t think much of that at first. Salt, sweat, sand, grooming products maybe… But I did take a sample just to be safe. We also swabbed the impact area to see if it would tell us anything useful, but it all turned out to be nothing but a by-product of fishin’. Like he’d wiped his forehead after handling a catch.”

“A catch like a Flathead cat?”

“You must be psychic, Deputy. Pylodictis olivaris to be precise.”

“So, the crust on the deceased’s forehead was dried Flathead catfish slime?”

“In layman’s terms. Why the interest?”

“Say somebody had an eighteen, twenty-pound Flathead in their hands, an swung it at a man’s head.”

“Sheezus. Like a catfish bat?” A few quiet beats. “Well, I’ll be damned…” Nothing over the phone for a long half minute but the sound of rustling paper.

“Doc?”

“I’m here. To answer your question an eighteen-to-twenty-pound Flathead is no different than any other blunt object. Except, like the boxing glove scenario, a Flathead is a velvet hammer. Heavy, tensile strength of skin similar to leather, all in a semi-malleable form. It won’t break the skin, but it would deliver a killer blow and leave a hell of a bruise behind. And slime.”

“So, Doc,” Harden leaned into the conference phone, shot raised eyebrows around the table. “You think we have a candidate for our murder weapon?”

“Yes. Tentatively. I need to plot the impact and mucosal deposits before I sign anything.”

“Sounds appetizing. How long you reckon that’ll take?”

“‘Bout as long as it’ll take Agent Cotton to round you up a warrant.”

***

The conference room, it’s subdued lighting, almost comfortable chairs, rich wood-like laminates and invisibly wired electronics all stood united in protest to it’s industrial sterility, was vaguely uncomfortable. The discomfort of silence weighted with unanswered questions, unfinished business. Bash leaned his elbow on the right arm of his chair, interlaced his fingers.

“Anybody know what happened to the chicken tamales that were in the fridge?”

“This morning I took the liberty of training Betty to run the conference room.” Candi in a hushed tone, elbowing her pad and pen away.

“This way,” Betty, beaming, “y’all can think an stay focused ‘stead a cussin’ the remotes. And I got this.” She came into the ring of light over the table, lifted her chin, turned her head slowly from left to right, showing off a nearly invisible headset and microphone. “It’s wireless. I can answer the phone from anywhere in the building.”

Harden, feigning interest, “Where’d that come from?”

“Been here all along,” Betty swiveled on her heels, pointed. “In a drawer with the remotes an spare cables an batteries an such. When y’all get outta here I can consolidate the remotes an—”

“Betty, I leave it all in your capable hands. For one, I’m glad to be shed of responsibility for anything in this room except the light—”

“Goin’ twice. Tamales? Anybody?”

I took them, okay?” Candi, ice in her voice. “Get over it.”

You ate two dozen tamales?”

“Are you deaf? I didn’t say I ate them, I said I took them. A guest at the Rose requested them for a fiesta themed birthday buffet, the food service company’s rapid delivery was exorbitant, grocery store tamales suck, Lucia’s had already sold through theirs that come from the same food service the Rose uses and the damn things have been in the freezer since I got here. If I’d known they were that fucking precious, I would have left a magic ring and a bag of gold in the refrigerator. I’ll replace them, alright?”

“Our Lady of Eternal Guilt doesn’t sell them every weekend.”

“Catholics sell the same goddam unbranded food service tamales everyone but the grocery stores sell. They’ll be on the Monday truck. Get over it.” Candi’s eyes flared, her phone buzzed. “That’s our warrant. Betty, can you—”

“Print it? You bet. ‘Cept I need your phone, ‘cause the Sheriff’s not copied on your email. Yet.”

Betty tapped the offered phone and a printer hummed to life in the shadows.

“We have a printer in here?”

“We have printers all over the place, Sheriff. We just never use ‘em.” Betty vanished into the dark, opened a cabinet door, returned folding the warrant.

“Give it to Deputy Reed,” Harden, rising from the chair. “Pick him up, Bash. Good work.”

“Uh…” Bash hand signaled to redirect Betty. “Candi needs to take this one.”

“What?” Harden, eyes wide, palms up. “You broke it, Bash. It’s your bust.”

“We aren’t keepin’ score. Besides…” He tapped his phone, slid it to the middle of the table.

“… and, well, I can’t get through to Ms. Cotton’s voice mail, it’s stuck or somethin’, and wants me to put in a number? That’s why I’m callin’ you about Daddy. He’s really miserable and not right with himself at all. So, even if you can’t figure out how he did it, you know, whatever it was happened to Mr. Pierce? You gotta go get him before he hurts himself over it. When you do go, can you like call me first? He needs to know it’s gonna be okay, somehow. He won’t run away or anything, I promise… Okay. Please, Deputy Reed? Can you get Ms. Cotton to call me…”

Bash pulled his phone back.

“Cotton?” Harden’s eyes narrowed. “You good with this? It’s way off into irregular, but empathetic policin’ seems to be a buzz word. If you’re uncomf—”

“I’m fine. If it’ll make you feel any better, I’ll wear a godamn vest.” She dropped the legal pad into a well-worn oiled leather courier bag, picked it up, shouldered it. “Who has the Tahoe keys?”

***

“I don’t like it, Bash. She’s gonna go get the girl before she goes out there.”

“I know.”

“That could get dangerous, they go pyscho or somethin’. You think we oughta shadow her?”

“She’s a professional, Chief.” Bash unfolded from his chair. “Besides, the kinda mood she’s in? If I was the biggest, meanest rattlesnake there ever was and happened to find myself between here and Virgil Green’s? I’d be lookin’ to get the hell outta Dodge before she decided it’d be a good idea to throttle me bare handed and turn me into dinner and a decent pair a boots.”

There’s Our Smokin’ Tamale!

Note: I made a deal with the cast. I let them get it out of their system since I was unavailable for most of a week. But I told them, no matter how off course they got, they had to hit the target. And screw the short chapters. It messes up how it’s supposed to read.

Bash reached for his mouse, found Candi leaning on the wall across from his desk. “I thought you were with Betty.”

“I was. How do you it?” She waved a hand around the room without looking. “No windows. No… ‘You’.” She came off the wall, knuckles down on the desk. “The truth this time.” Angry, combative. “Not the crap about not having time, or not taking time.”

“Straight up?” He bumped the keyboard forward, folded his arms on the desk. “I perform professional research and write reports in here. Period. In that respect this room’s as necessary to the function of this building in its own way as restrooms or a broom closet. I don’t come in here to ‘bond’ with it or choose to fill it with reminders of somewhere else or someone else I’d rather be.” He studied her for a moment. “If you get that, we can move on to what you really want to talk about.”

Something hard flickered in her eyes and dissolved into dejection with her slow-motion descent into the guest chair.

“I should have thought, you know, before I pulled ‘yes’ out of my ass… Because I thought…” She looked at the tops of her thighs, brought her gaze up. “I thought I had found a place where I belonged. Where I was okay. But now?” She rolled her head up to look at a point on the wall above his head. “What do I do now?” Her gaze came back to him with a small shrug. “I can’t live in my parent’s house, so where do I live? If my workspace is no more important than,” both hands came up, open, “than the restrooms or a, a broom closet, where do I go every day? Don’t bond, don’t belong, don’t get too involved, don’t, don’t, don’t…”

“We’re still not there.”

“What do you want from me?” Leaning forward. “Blood? My hand on the Bible? I told you—”

“What you told me was new housing and office arrangements are a pain in the ass. ‘Don’t’ is the frustration component.”

“What did you study in college, besides baseball and girls?”

“Sociology and linguistics. My post grad work has been taking something online most semesters for the last ten years, subject matter dependent on what I’m interested in at the time.” He tapped his temple. “Use it or lose it. What happened last night besides Merton redirecting your career?”

“Nobody gives a damn, that’s what. And before you say ‘I do’,” she seared the air between them with a look. “I don’t mean about me. I mean, I had fourteen women from eighteen to fifty-four in a room, all of them paying a personal price for crossing paths with the same man. Not. One.” Her eyes could have peeled paint. “Not a fucking one of them will help bring the shit storm to that man’s life he deserves. Can you believe that? The youngest is afraid being a whistle blower will follow her for her entire life. The oldest, what would her family and church friends say? Will we have to testify? Will it be public? Will it ruin his life? We don’t want to ruin his life. Jesus, ladies,” the heels of both hands to her head. “He’s ruining yours, so why the fuck not? You know what I got? Blank stares.”

“That was the last straw ‘don’t’?”

“Yes. ‘Don’t’ is epidemic in my life. Don’t get in the way, don’t be good, don’t push, don’t be a pain in the ass, don’t try to help—”

“‘Don’t belong, don’t bond, don’t get too involved’?”

“Look, goddammit,” oozing determination, “I don’t show up hoping I don’t lose by too much. I show up to win.” She banged her fist on his desk. “Now?” She threw herself backward in the chair. “It doesn’t even matter if I show up.”

“You want Devil’s Advocate, career counseling, dealing with rejection—”

“Never mind.” The chair thumped against the wall when she ejected herself. “Never. Fucking. Mind.”

“How about Ancient Apache wisdom for four-hundred?” The door he never closed slammed shut.

***

Bash’s rifling through the break room refrigerator advanced to the point of squatting to peer into the depths of the lower shelves. He raised up, turned, faced the Sheriff who had one hand on top of the fridge, the other on his hip.

“You seen Cotton or Betty?”

“I thought we had some chicken tamales.”

“I asked first,” Harden, closing the door. “Cotton and Betty?”

“No on Betty. Cotton stomped outta my office half an hour ago.”

“You two okay?”

“I’m not what she’s pissed off about if that’s what you’re askin’. Tamales?”

“Truth is,” rubbing his chin, “I got away from ‘em before they had the entire country in the toilet.”

“The tamales went off that bad?”

“No, Cotton an Betty.”

They went off that bad with the tamales?”

“Godamighty, Bash, forget the damn tamales. Metaphorically. The women got the entire country in the toilet metaphorically. The conversation they was havin’ got to where the country’s swirling the bowl ‘cause women can’t get organized enough to get outta their own way an figure out how to run the show. On hearin’ that, like any sensible man, I made myself scarce. Now,” his eyes darted to the wall clock, “it’s comin’ up on ‘let’s play catch the bad guy if it kills us’ time and so far we’re it.”

“They can’t be far. Betty anyway. Seems like she’s been answerin’ the phone.”

“Yeah, she is. But from where? She’s not pagin’ us, she comes through announced on the handset like she’s at the switchboard.”

“You can direct transfer and announce from any phone.”

“How do you know that an I don’t? I’m the damn Sheriff.”

“You ever read that laminated sheet in the plastic tray that pulls out the bottom of the phone?”

“Noooo,” with comic astonishment. “I thought that tray was to put drinks on, so ya don’t get water rings on the desk. Before you say anything, let me tell you a little somethin’ about those trays. A while back, we had us a used car dealer out there off 75 where the motor home place is now. Man was on a first name basis with every hooker in Dallas, an was always jumpier’n a cricket on a hot stove. Turns out he thought that little tray was for cocaine. An got a little lax about who he offered it to.”

“You bust him?”

“Tried. Went out there after the tip about the phone tray an found him deader’n a rock. Safe was open, bank account cleaned out an his wife, along with a late model Camry and a stack a license plates pulled offa trade-ins were all missin’.”

“Catch her?”

“Coroner said judgin’ by the body she had a three-day head start. Turned out she was an orphanage baby from Missouri, didn’t have any people or connections we could find. Phone records didn’t show any unusual communication. We put her out on the wire, but I don’t recall anybody botherin’ to look all that hard for her after that. But I am lookin’ that hard for two other women.” He turned back to the break room, lifted the phone, punched two buttons. “Betty? Cotton?” His voice, wrapped in feedback, boomed through the small building. He moved the handset away, held it in front of his face at arm’s length like a plastic kitten with sharp claws. “Where are y’all?” He hung up, the handset landing in its cradle clattered and died like a gunshot in an empty warehouse.

“Push the star button before you hang up,” Bash indicated with his pinkie finger. “It won’t make the Godzilla in the attic noise.”

 “Godzilla in the attic?” Harden, sardonic. “That’s on the little pull-out sheet, too, is it? I guess I oughta read—”

“Conference room,” Betty’s phone voice flowed like honey from overhead. “If y’all are waitin’ on us, you’re backin’ up.”

***

“Damn, kids…” Sheriff Harden pulled his part-time glasses with one hand, rubbed his eyes with the thumb and finger of his other. “How long we been at this?”

“Two hours and seventeen minutes,” Betty groaned. “Seems longer ‘cause that Aiden kid is a stump. I know, I know,” she lowered her head and held up a hand. “I’m no dee-tective but Lordy… I do know when nobody’s home.”

“She’s right,” Candi tossed her pen on a legal pad. “He hasn’t got much to say lying or telling the truth.”

“And what he does says lays right across Altus Murphy’s story.”

“And somewhere in all these clips,” Harden tilted his chair back, rubbed his eyes again, “Ivy backs up Altus’s motivation.”

“Betty,” Candi pointed to the projection wall, “can you bring up the relationship slide?” A few clicks and headshots of everyone involved popped up connected by colored lines. “If we can ever prove any of these people killed Jimmy Pierce, we have a hell of a criminal conspiracy case.”

“Against Murphy, maybe.” Harden pushed himself upright in the chair, pointed at the wall with a pencil “Aiden’s a witless, unintentional accessory. Now Karla? If we could prove communication between her an Murphy, there’s a conspiracy. Nobody else up there has a motive. If Virgil did do this, the motive is simple as pie, or deep an twisted as a cypress root. Regardless, I can’t see either of ’em.”

“It would be easier to see if we knew how. All we have is sauce, no tamale.” Bash, forearms on the edge of the table. “We find the smokin’ tamale, get Virgil in here, show him the smokin’ tamale, and he’ll put it on our plate of sauce for us.” He caught their looks, his eyebrows came together. “What?”

“I was about to ask if we needed to adjourn for lunch,” a smile flashed across the Sheriff’s face. “But it’s obvious if I don’t get this boy some tamales A S A P he ain’t gonna be worth a shit for nothin’ the rest a the day.”

***

“After an hour and a half of Ivy I have to say she’s not much better than the boy,” Betty, edging into fatigue. “But she’s a sight easier to listen to.”

“Notice though, the kid’s brain never shifts into neutral,” Harden, unconsciously tapping his pencil on the table. “Even when she’s tryin’ to manipulate Bash for barbeque with her Momma junior routine. An explainin’ what was goin’ on in that converted mower repair shop a Jimmy’s helped me get my head around what these boys were up to. But nothin’ she has to say—”

“There!” Bash lit up. “Back that up.” He listened. “No, further. There…”

“… I know he was worryin’ about how we were catfishin’ all these people…”

“Bash?” Candi and Harden, in unison, with furrowed brows.

“You’ll see. Betty, can you run the day one evidence slides from the river? Yeah… Keep goin’, keep goin’… There!” Bash popped his forehead with his palm. “There’s our smokin’ tamale. Candi, get the State ME on the phone. Chief?” He checked in with Harden. “We’ve been lookin’ right past the murder weapon all along.”

It’s Not Polite to Spit Your Food Out in Public

“Agent Cotton?” Betty looked up from her monitor. “You’re early.”

“So are you.” Candi flumped into the chair still parked where she’d left it yesterday. “I wanted to get here before you…”

“Great minds and all that?”

“Must be. In truth, you really helped me out yesterday.” Candi offered a bright yellow, red paisley covered gift bag with colorful pastel tissue paper poking out the top, the entire presentation a mini psychedelic volcano of color not unlike its recipient.

“For me?” Betty dug past the tissue paper, “Oh, my heavens!” She removed a nice size imprinted coffee mug. “Oh you…You shouldn’t have…” She held up the mug, read—I Know I’m a Woman – Cuz If I Was a Man–she turned it– I’d Get Paid What a Woman is Worth—“Now ain’t that the darn truth.” Beaming, she scooted her chair away, spun around, and hopped up. “I was just watchin’ a video on how to make up a pot a gore-may coffee. Y’know,” over her shoulder, “It’s the same as cookin’. Them people post recipes and measurements and not a one of ‘em ever measures nothin’. I won’t either, unless, a course, you’re one a them scientific coffee types.”

“I used to be,” Candi taking one stride for every four of Betty’s. “But I say do it how you feel it, and if it’s awful–”

“Feel a little different next time. That’s how I learned to cook, sweetie. Liked to killed my husband. I thought about it, takin’ even longer, you know, just to see,” she looked up, her face radiating mischievous cherub. “But he was startin’ to eat out too often an it got so we couldn’t afford for me to keep bein’ ‘stupid’.”

***

“Don’t go in there,” Harden, voice lowered and arm out, stopped Bash on the way to the break room. “Betty an Cotton,” he tilted his head toward the breakroom. “In there. Drinkin’ coffee an havin’ some girl talk.”

“No way.”

Shhhh. Gospel. Sounds like Candi’s meet-up with the sexual harassment ladies didn’t turn out like she wanted.”

“You’ve been eavesdroppin’?”

“I heard ‘I swear we’re our own worst enemies’ and ‘Sweetie, blah blah somethin’, we’d rule the dang world.’ I ain’t gettin’ within’ twenty feet a that coffee pot.”

“I’ll walk across the street,” Bash backed toward the door. “Your usual?”

“Make it a large. No tellin’ how long they’ll be.”

***

“Momma, you can’t keep comin’ here,” Ivy gave the Rose B&B dining room a surreptitious survey, “sittin’ half the mornin’ and eatin’ like you haven’t seen food in a week. I know what you’re doin’ an there’s no good reason for it. There are no sex starved men stayin’ here and Ms. Cotton is not your benefactor

“That’s a big word for somebody who’s moochin’ herself. Besides,” she winked at a man in an Airline uniform, “they’ll throw this out if somebody don’t eat it, an I’m as likely a somebody as somebody else.”

“Momma, they take the leftovers to the women’s shelter. There’re women out there skinnier’n you, who aren’t that way on purpose, and have kids to feed.”

“She’s feedin’ you ‘cause you’re hungry, an you’re my kid.”

“Swear to God, you could justify an atom bomb to clear that toilet’s always gettin’ stuck at the house. You aren’t homeless, or hungry, or beat up.”

“Since we were talkin’ family an all before you got uppity, you talked to your daddy lately?”

“Yesterday. I went out there… Momma,” Ivy bit her lower lip, thought for a few seconds. “He’s a real mess. I mean a worse-than-he-ever-was mess.”

“He’s the one done Jimmy in, then.” She used a poppyseed muffin to wipe the butter knife clean before she checked her lipstick in it. “Dominick Harden’s lost his mind, not arrestin’ the old fool.”

“Candi, Ms. Cotton, she says if they don’t figure how he did it, he could get away with killin’ Mr. Pierce.”

“What’s that got to do with you an the price a eggs?”

“‘Cause I think he could do somethin’ bad, to himself, if it goes unresolved much longer.”

“Un-resolved?” Brandy changed the cross of her legs, tilted her head back and shook it, her earrings jangling like miniature wind chimes. “What makes you think that, Miss Word-a-the-Day?”

“I told him I was goin’ to college, and he liked to jumped outta his skin. Got all excited and told me to go over to Ardmore and see a man who’d been helpin’ him out, with the money and everything from the Red River Monster Hunters—”

“I cain’t believe that my youngest could fall for that barnyard fulla shit. Don’t you go drivin’ anywhere over some malarkey Virgil—”

“I already went.”

“I’m sorry you had to drive all that way, darlin’, just to get your heart broke.”

“Well, it wasn’t a heartbreak ‘cause Daddy called the man before I left. First thing he did was Daddy said he might not be around much longer, so he gave me his share of the Red River Monster website, plus Jimmy’s share. Back when they first started they all signed papers, like a will I guess, about who got what if they died. He said two thirds of it was mine but only if I’d promise to go ahead and keep that creeper Mr. Murphy on. Then Daddy told the man to set me up a college fund with his part of whatever money was current and his part of the rollin’ income from the site. Again, you know, like he’s not needin’ it or expectin’ to be around. I was thinkin’ I’d like for him to see me graduate, so maybe I should talk him into just tellin’ Candi what he did.”

“Whatever he done or didn’t is between him and Saint Pete and none a your business. Besides, I’d bet every dime he coulda made offa that nonsense went into the ten-year-old Mercedes he tried to con me into the sack with. You ain’t goin’ to any kinda college I ever heard of on—”

“I’m not gonna tell you how much he gave me ‘cept to say I can go just about anywhere they’ll have me. And I won’t say what it was he said about you and the red car. But I will tell you the first thing he bought with the Monsters money and the last thing he gave me was your little house over there on Elm. And Daddy said to tell you, you been screwin’ Merle Spoffit for the rent goin’ on five months for nothin’.” Ivy reached across the table, with her napkin. “It’s not polite to spit your food out in public, Momma. ‘Specially when it was chef made and free.”

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’.”

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.”