This short slice-of-life dramedy is to be categorized as an Uber. All characters are created by me, though some of them may remind you of someone.
The story contains some profanity. Readers who are easily offended by bad language may wish to read something other than this story.
All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.
NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR:
Written: June 11th - 20th, 2020.
Wynne Donohue and Mandy Jalinski were introduced in the short story Silent Invasion in the 2011 anthology Book Of Chills, Volume 2. They returned in Forever We Must Travel and They Came From The Desert that were written for the 2017 and 2019 Royal Academy of Bards Halloween Specials respectively - all stories are available at the Academy's website.
- Thank you very much for your help, Phineas Redux :D
As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D
Description: The quiet town of Goldsboro, Nevada always balloons over the Fourth of July weekend as the grand Independence Day parade attracts plenty of spectators from near and far. Deputy Sheriff Mandy Jalinski and the rest of the uniformed squad have plenty on their plates keeping the visiting families happy and content while making sure the ne'erdowells, rowdies and religious protesters from the Virgin Tower organization are kept in check. In the middle of all that, Wynne Donohue and her dogs just want to have a good time, but trouble finds Wynne no matter how hard she tries to stay away from it. To paraphrase the national anthem, it's the Land of the Free and the Home of the Plum Unlucky…
Hotter than hot and drier than dry - that's the only way to describe the second of July in and around the small town of Goldsboro, Nevada. Though the clock had barely reached ten thirty AM, a heat haze flickered mercilessly in the open area between the six mobile homes that formed the small trailer park eight miles south of the town.
A constant hum of air-conditioning units filled the air between the trailers, but since the residents couldn't function without it, they took the noise pollution in their stride. The hum was joined by a muted Country & Western tune playing from a radio somewhere as well as plenty of metallic creaks and rattles that originated at the diesel-powered generator over at Diego Benitez' trailer. The generator had been set up to prevent the local power lines from melting - that it reeked of diesel and often squirted out oil and other lubricants were other things the residents needed to live with.
Plenty of cold drinks and electrical fans had been pressed into action to battle the conditions, and the urgent need for loose-fitting clothes overruled the latest fashion trends. The latter issue in particular posed a problem for the Last Original Cowpoke Wynne Donohue. The image she wanted to convey was that of a traditional, unpolished, uncomplicated, salt-of-the-earth cowpoke with plenty of swagger and rural ruggedness. She was, at least to a certain extent - that she was scared witless of large animals like horses or cattle was another story entirely.
The thirty-nine-year-old Wynne's customary uniform consisted of neatly decorated cowboy boots, well-worn blue-jeans, a wool-lined denim jacket and sheepskin work gloves, but even she had foregone most of that in order to survive the 104-degree Fahrenheit ordeal. Thus, she wore hand-cut denim shorts that came to just above the knee as well as a white-and-black GM Goodwrench #29 tank top and an unbuttoned, pale-blue cotton shirt that protected her shoulders and arms from sunburn. She also had bare feet in purple flip-flops, and she had spent several hours the day before mowing the patches of sparse, yellowed lawn near the trailers to be able to spot snakes before they could strike.
One clothing item she would never part with was her low-crowned, battered, greasy cowboy hat - it had been with her through good and bad, heaven and hell, thick and thin and every other cliche she could think of. It wasn't made by one of the major manufacturers and it had certainly never been a rhinestone-studded, five-hundred-dollar fashion statement, but she had loved its shape since the first time she had seen it in the window of a store selling Western garb. Thus, the beloved accessory was mashed down on top of her dark locks as always.
The crooked back porch creaked under her flip-flops as she went back outside carrying a fully-loaded laundry basket. Now that fellow trailer park resident Diego Benitez had rigged up his diesel generator, Wynne's washing machine had been working non-stop since dawn to exploit the fact they had free power. The impressive array of rugged garments on the clothes line that ran from her trailer to the one where the Tooleys lived proved how busy she and the washing machine had been.
She put the final basket down on the ground and began to prepare her clothes pins. Once everything was within reach and ready to use, she pulled out seven pairs of jeans and attached them to the reinforced line. She was a no-nonsense-kinda gal when it came to jeans, so they were all Regular Cut or Comfort Fit in varying degrees of wear and shade. Acid-washed and stonewashed pairs were dominant in this particular batch so she wouldn't get any cross-colorization, but she did in fact own a pair of black jeans worn at funerals or other types of somber affairs, and even an elegant pair in a shade known as Regal Dark Blue that she kept in reserve for the really high-falootin' events.
Stepping back after completing the task, Wynne put her hands on her hips and studied her handiwork. She grinned and spun around to get her just rewards - a brief moment later, she came back out onto the crooked porch while cracking open a can of H.E. Fenwyck's Premium Classic. The amber-colored brew was sipped with great delight, and it left a foam-mustache behind like it always did.
'Hey Wynne, ya ol' rascal…?' a disembodied male voice said from somewhere around the corner of the mobile home.
"Yuh? Ernie, zat you?" Wynne said while taking another long sip of the amber brew.
'Yup. Ya dressed?'
Wynne looked down at herself - she could only chuckle at her neighbor's disarming politeness. "Fully," she said with a grin.
'Good… at least one of us is,' the forty-something Ernest 'Ernie' Bradberry said as he ducked away from the corner and lumbered into view holding a chilled can of beer. His trademark mullet, sideburns and walrus mustache were literally feeling the heat and just hung there limply. He had yet to find the perfect replacement baseball cap for the old favorite he had lost in the road accident at Halloween, so he wore an olive-green, sweat-stained jungle hat he had bought in the local Armed Forces surplus store as a stop-gap measure.
Mostly true to his word when it came to his state of undress, Ernie wore loud Bermuda shorts, white sports socks in a pair of down-at-heel sandals - that hadn't been in fashion since the Roman Empire had ruled the Known World - and finally a wifebeater undershirt. The latter piece of clothing had been white once upon a time, but had turned slightly brownish lately around the arm gaps and across the belly. The shirt wasn't up to the task of concealing his hairy torso and growing beer gut, but he didn't seem to mind.
"Howdy, Ernie, ya ol' sombitch. Yuh, I see wotcha mean, there, friend," Wynne said, needing to shield her eyes from the bright-white light that shone from Ernie's legs. Chuckling again, she took another swig of the Premium Classic.
"Yeah. Damn hot today already, huh? Just heard on the radio it's only gonna get hotter. You'd think I'd be used to it from my days in Savannah, but that's a different kinda heat."
"I sure be pleased I ain't in Jaw-gia right now, yessirree. I'm obvis'ly feelin' this he' heat, awright, but high humidity jus' kills me stone dead. Hate them there humid condi-shuns. Hate 'em!" Wynne said and drained the last drops out of her can of beer - she even leaned her head back to make sure she had scooped up all the droplets. "Eh, I kinda be thinkin' that this he' dry heat ain't too bad."
Ernie mirrored his friend by draining his can of beer. After letting out a proper belch that made his mustache flutter in the wind, he rolled the cool can across his sweaty forehead in the hope it would bring some relief from the heat. "Wotcha been drinkin'?" he said, pointing at Wynne's empty can.
"Premium Classic. Aw-yuh, now we be on that there subject, Ernie… if y'all mosey on inta this he' trailah, I got two transport crates o' them there nineteen-ten special brews ya like so much. Fer lettin' me use yer clothes line the othah day, dontchaknow."
"Now ya talkin', Wynne!" Ernie said with a grin as he shuffled over to the crooked porch. As he stepped up onto it, the woodwork responded like it always did - by creaking loudly. "Ain't you ever gonna fix that? It's so darn crooked a coyote can't even take a leak without standin' in a puddle of his own makin'."
Wynne followed Ernie onto the porch but soon moved past him to open the screen door. "It's meant ta be crooked, friend," she said as she ushered him inside the air-conditioned mobile home.
"Izzat a fact?" Ernie said as he stepped into the narrow corridor that ran between the sleeping quarters and the living room. Scratching the side of his nose, he offered his friend a cheeky wink as she moved past him to get to the refrigerator.
Wynne grinned as she opened the door to get the two cardboard crates of H.E. Fenwyck 1910 Special Brew that she had bought from her employer Moira MacKay - or to be more precise, that she had taken from her employer's storage room in exchange of a small note explaining that she'd pay later. "Aw, ya better bah-lieve it is. Crooked porches is the latest thing in trailah park fa-shun, dontchaknow. I sure wus ahead o' mah time when I did it… yuh," she said as she handed her neighbor the two brewery transport boxes that each contained twelve cans of beer.
From the living room, Wynne's two dogs - the fearless black German Shepherd Blackie and the scaredy-cat Golden Retriever Goldie - began to bark and yap when they heard their owner's voice, but it was just too hot to come out into the corridor to see what was going on even with the air-conditioning going at full tilt.
"Lookin' fine!" Ernie said with a grin as he cradled the priceless beer in his arms like a newborn babe.
"Ya sure ya can carry it all?" Wynne said as she grabbed another can of Classic Premium now she had the refrigerator open. The can was cracked open as she used her hip to close the door. "I mean, with that there busted shouldah blade o' yers? Lawrdie, I still ain't bah-lievin' how y'all wus able ta get that there in-shoo-rance comp'ny ta cough up that kinda greenery fer ya old truck an' ya arm an' all that."
"Aw, my shoulder's been fine for months. And I guess they had to surrender to my natural charm."
"I sure ain't got zip when it comes ta natural charm, then, 'cos I ain't nevah had no luck or nuttin' dealin' with them there in-shoo-rance folks. Buncha low-down, no-good, dirty-rotten bean-countin' skunks!"
The moment was too good for Ernie to ignore, so he contorted his mouth into a toothless grimace to mimic the classic Western sidekick Gabby Hayes. "Ya durn tootin'!" he said in a croaky voice that made them both chuckle.
"At least we got beer," Wynne said and leaned her head back to get the most out of the can while it was chilled.
Ernie grinned at that undeniable truth. "That we do. So… where's Deputy Mandy at? Ya don't keep her tied to the bedposts, do ya?" he said while sporting another, even wider grin.
Wynne's Premium Classic nearly went down the wrong pipe upon hearing the cheeky comment, and she needed to swallow fast in order to stop a small-scale disaster. Several amber droplets splashed out past her lips and ended up on her chin, but she took care of that with her thumb. "Why, Ernie Bradberry… ya ol' sombitch! I dang near choked on mah brew 'cos o' that there quip o' yers! Mah sweet, li'l De-per-ty hadda leave way earl' in the morn'. She's up in Goldsborah teachin' that there new recruit… or whatchamacall'im…"
"Yuh. Yuh, that's the one. Much obliged, Ernie. Yuh, she be up in Goldsborah showin' the new fella around. Ya know, how ta operate them there Durangahs an' where ta go an' where notta go an' all that there stuff. How ta steer clear o' that there nasty piece o' work Artie Rains."
Even thinking about the abrasive and permanently hostile Sheriff Rains made a sour burp bubble up from her stomach, so she gulped down the delightfully cold brew to take her mind off it. Then somebody knocked on the screen door. "Huh? Who that be knockin' on mah door?" she said and tried to peek around Ernie's rotund figure that took up quite a lot of space in the narrow corridor. "Ain't nobodda evah come a-knockin' so it's eithah the bailiff or a travelin' salesman… or somebodda."
It turned out to be neither. By the time Wynne and Ernie had switched places so the owner of the mobile home could address the knockee, a twenty-something man dressed in a lurid brown-and-purple coverall with a matching ball cap had stepped into view. He held a tiny bubble-envelope and an electronic reader in his hands. "Miss Winnie Donohue?" he said as he took in the impressive sight of the tall woman standing in the doorway.
"Uh… whut? Winnie? Naw, that ain't right, son. You be talkin' ta Wynne Donohue he'. Dubya-why-enn-enn-eee. Wynne. Donohue like in Dee-oh-enn… aw, an' a buncha lettahs."
"Oh… okay," the young man said as he double-checked the delivery address on the electronic device. He tapped, double-tapped and swiped a few times before he seemed satisfied.
"Who be doin' the askin', anyhows?"
"Jet Express Couriers. I have a special delivery for Miss Donohue. Please sign here," he said and held out the device that had a stylus attached to it on a spiral cord.
Wynne stared blankly at the gizmo for a few seconds until it dawned on her what she needed to do. After switching the fresh can of beer to her left hand, she took the stylus to doodle her signature on the small touch-screen - it looked awful and couldn't be recognized as hers at all, but it seemed to do the trick.
"Thank you, Miss Donohue," the courier said as he handed over the small bubble-envelope before leaving.
Wynne let the screen door slap shut before she shuffled back to the refrigerator. There, she put down the can of beer on the kitchen counter to have both hands free to slit open the envelope. What appeared to be a postcard fell out and promptly dropped onto the floor. "Now ain't that jus' dog-gone typical," she said as she bent over to retrieve it. "Huh. Ain't got no sender or nuttin'…"
"So… what does it say?" Ernie said, trying to peek around the slightly taller Wynne's shoulder to catch a glimpse of the mysterious postcard.
Wynne grunted as she read, re-read and then re-re-read the brief, hand-written message scrawled on the back of the card using a felt-tip pen. Flipping it over, she stared at the cover photo that depicted a supposedly idyllic morning scene taken at one of the state's many truck stops. "Life is like a Country song… we cried a li'l an' loved a lot," she read out loud.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Lawrdie, I ain't got no clue… ain't got no dang-blasted clue whatsoevah, Ernie," Wynne said and scratched her neck. She held up the postcard against the light coming from the screen door to see if it featured some kind of hidden message, but it didn't. Shrugging, she shuffled over to a notice board hanging on the opposite wall from the refrigerator, found a pin shaped like a Union 76 ball and stuck the postcard to the board.
Over the course of the afternoon, Wynne ate a nuked TV-dinner - the taste had nothing in common with the pictures of chicken and rice that graced the plastic wrapper - while sipping a Coke and watching the first half of the 1994 Winston Cup Season Review on video. Then she showered and changed into the washed-out, sleeveless Kodiak #25 sweatshirt and full-length jeans she needed to wear in her important position as the chief burger-flipper at Moira's Bar & Grill up north in Goldsboro.
Once, but only once, had she worn shorts and a flimsy T-shirt to work during the height of the heatwave. Not only had she been greeted by plenty of stares and even a few wolf calls by the patrons, she would never forget the unpleasant sensation of having sizzling grease pop onto her bare skin. Just thinking about it made her grimace and reach down to massage her left thigh that still sported a burn mark even twelve days later.
The simple job was the best she had ever had; it was also the job she had held the longest. She had always been someone who had drifted from one blue-collar position to the next. The need for change had occasionally come from boredom, but more often than not, it had stemmed from her legendary bad luck - something always happened that made her employers mad at her, and it was hardly ever her fault.
One particular job in the public sector up in Barton City had seen her treated like gnat-brained trailer park trash, but she refused to even think about that one. Though she perhaps didn't appear so at first glance, she was stubborn and fiercely proud of her integrity - a personality attribute that certain people had a hard time understanding and accepting - and she didn't take too kindly to being used as somebody's doormat, or treated like dirt, or labeled a fool or a loser by those who had only just met her. In short, she was the world's warmest person to her circle of close friends, but those who crossed her had better watch out.
"C'mon, girls! I hear them pots an' pans callin' mah name!" she said in a cheery voice as she patted her hip. She had worked hard to train her two dogs to follow various commands, and patting her hip meant they should form up at her side.
The two canines and their owner soon shuffled out to the 1991-vintage Chevrolet K10 truck that was parked next to the trailer. Flickering heat swirled up from the old truck's body panels which meant the dogs couldn't enjoy the drive in their customary spot up on the flat bed - the brutal heat would scorch their paws. Instead, Wynne opened the right-hand side door to allow Blackie and Goldie to jump onto the cab's bench seat. The windows had been rolled down the entire day, but the conditions were still on the wrong side of hot.
Getting behind the steering wheel, Wynne twisted the ignition key. The engine turned over but didn't fire. Two seconds later, she tried the key again without reward. In fact, her actions only produced a clonk-clonk-clonking sound that made her groan. Another five seconds after that, she tried the key again. Then she moved her beloved cowboy hat down to cover her face. "Lawwwwr-die," she said in a muted mumble.
Blackie let out a puzzled Woof? as she looked at her owner. The clever dog seemed to have a good grasp of the situation as she soon turned to Goldie to provide an update in a series of brief yaps, woofs and barks.
Before Wynne had gathered up enough mental capacity to build a battle plan, her telephone started ringing down in her pocket. Taking it, she let out a groan at the sight of the caller-ID: It was her temperamental employer Moira MacKay. "This he' be the one an' only Wynne Donohue speakin'. Uh… hi, boss. Whassup?"
'Wynne, we need to have a serious talk once you come in tonight. I found the note you left in the storage room, and let me tell you something straight up… that's not gonna fly.'
"Uh… yuh. I wus gonna pay, honest. I got the cash in mah pocket an' all-"
'We'll continue this conversation once you get here. Before too many customers can listen in on us. Do you understand me?'
"Yuh. Yuh, I understand fully, boss," Wynne said as she looked at herself in the rear-view mirror. The guilty look reflected there wasn't a pretty one, and she averted her eyes in a hurry. "But there's jus' a teeny-tiny li'l problem, boss. Mah ol' truck is kinda givin' me grief right now so I'm prolly gonn' be a li'l late or som'tin-"
'I'm not sure that would be a good career choice.'
"Uh… I sure do hear ya, there, boss, but that there dang-blasted startah motah sure don't, if ya catch mah drift!"
'See you at four-thirty, Wynne,' Moira MacKay said and terminated the connection.
Sighing, Wynne glanced at the white digits on the display of her smartphone - it read five past four which necessitated finding a miracle cure for the old truck double-quick. Fortunately, she had a tool box full of miracles up on the flat bed; a few whacks with a hammer would undoubtedly take care of the problem.
The third of July seemed poised to take over where the previous day had left off with regards to the high temperatures - not a cloud could be found anywhere in the early morning sky. A chilly, late-night breeze continued to swirl in from the arid desert, but it would soon turn hot once the rays of the sun would burn down onto the sand and bare rocks.
The chilly breeze called for long pants and a long-sleeved shirt, and that suited Wynne Donohue just fine. Despite the hands of time only reading a quarter past six in the morning, she sat on a lawn chair on her crooked back porch staring out into the desert. The vantage point had nothing to offer but a view of the monochrome landscape, but Wynne didn't mind as it matched her glum mood perfectly.
She had donned her favorite pair of well-worn blue-jeans and her wool-lined winter denim jacket in an attempt to find an ounce of homey comfort in what had become an awful situation. Her indispensable, and much beloved, greasy cowboy hat sat low on her brow so she could have the somber moment to herself.
Moira MacKay's doom-laden words uttered the night before kept playing in her mind: 'Wynne, you've drank more beers from my fridge than you've sold! We agreed you could take one or two… not ten or twenty! That's not gonna fly, you hear me? Either you shape up in a Goddamned hurry, or you're outta here in an even more Goddamned hurry! What'll it be?'
She had broken Moira's trust in her. That was the long and the short of it. Such an inexcusable course of action could not go unpunished, so Wynne had taken off the apron she had only just put on. After handing it back to her surprised boss, she and her dogs had walked out of the Bar & Grill with nary a sound save for a downcast "Ah'm sorry. Ah don't deserve this job."
Activity behind her made Wynne snap out of her gloomy thoughts. The other half of her heart and soul, the forty-year-old Mandy Jalinski, stepped out onto the porch carrying a tray laden with various goodies for breakfast. The tray was soon placed across Wynne's denim-clad lap so the beverages could be kept inside the tumblers and mugs on the crooked porch.
Mandy suffered from a pretty bad hair day overall and she had a distinctly bleary-eyed expression on her face after only getting three hours' worth of sleep, but comforting her partner in a time of crisis overruled even that basic need. She wrapped her housecoat a little tighter around her compact, athletic frame before she dragged the other lawn chair over to sit next to Wynne.
Being the senior Deputy Sheriff in MacLean County that encompassed Goldsboro and a large handful of smaller towns and settlements, she was permanently stuck on the evening and night shift in order for the Sheriff's Department to maintain a strong presence in town when the various bars closed. Thus she worked from four PM to three AM six days a week; she got off at midnight on Sundays.
The situation called for something more than a quick good-morning kiss, so Mandy gently pushed Wynne's cowboy hat up to have better access to her lips. The sweet exchange was warm and supportive and lasted for long enough to obtain the desired effect: to put the beginnings of a smile on Wynne's somber face.
"Love ya," Mandy whispered while she caressed her partner's cheek.
"Love ya right back, De-per-ty… Lawrdie, I only got mahself ta blame fer this dog-gone mess. Ain't nobodda else got nuttin' ta do with it. This wus all mah own doin'. Sometimes, I ain't too bright in the noggin. I done threw away that there job at Moira's. It wus all mah own dang-blasted fault."
"I won't argue with that, hon. Come, have some toast while its still crisp," Mandy said and took a slice of the aforementioned bread off the tray. After applying a good layer of butter and plenty of blackcurrant jam on it, she proceeded to crunch on it loudly while sipping from a tumbler of orange juice.
"Yuh… Yuh, I could eat. Gotta git som'tin in me ta erase that there dang-blasted bittah taste o' defeat in mah mouth," Wynne said and shuffled around while still balancing the tray on her thighs. After pouring some hot, black coffee into her favorite mug, she followed her partner's actions by making herself a slice of toast covered in strawberry jam.
Mandy needed a nap at noon so Wynne settled for nuking another TV-dinner for herself. The picture on the box promised spaghetti and meatballs, but she knew it was in fact closer to cardboard pulp. Still, lunch was lunch, so she shuffled into the living room carrying a tray with the plastic frame, a spoon and a can of H.E. Fenwyck Genuine Draft intending to catch up on the latest episode of the Wrestle Maniacs docu-soap on the Wrestling Channel.
The temperature had gone up, up and up since the chilly winds of the early morning, and Wynne had responded by shedding one layer of clothing after the other to keep cool. At present, she wore a thin, neutral T-shirt and had bare legs and feet below a pair of denim shorts.
She had only had time to pick up the remote when Ernie Bradberry announced his presence by knocking on the screen door. 'Wynne, ya ol' rascal… ya in here?'
"Yuh, Ernie… in the livin' room. Please keep ya voice down. Mandy's sleepin'," Wynne said over her shoulder.
"Okie-dokie," Ernie said as he tip-toed through the narrow corridor and into the living area of the mobile home. Once there, he sat down on the armrest of the three-seater couch that dominated the small section of the trailer.
Blackie and Goldie shared a doggy-basket near the TV; it was the closest to the air-conditioning unit they could get without actually being inside it. Recognizing Ernie at once, they couldn't be bothered to let out even the shortest of yaps or barks.
Unlike the day before, Ernie was dressed in his work clothes: a plaid flannel shirt, a hunting vest, heavy-duty blue-jeans and finally a pair of safety boots. His work gloves hung from his belt like a gunslinger of yore, and he even had a blue bandanna tied loosely around his neck. The only piece of clothing that had been repeated from the previous day was the ugly, olive-green jungle hat. "So… what's with the frown?" he said as he took off the hat to wipe his brow that was as flushed as the rest of his face. Drops of sweat laced his mustache and sideburns, but there was little he could do about it save for wiping them down frequently - he needed all those clothes for the work he had been hired to do.
"I done lost mah job las'night," Wynne mumbled without taking her eyes off the dish that was supposed to be spaghetti and meatballs.
"Aw-hell… so that's why Moira was workin' the stoves herself… damn, I shoulda known. She was in a foul mood all evenin'. Even fouler than usual!"
"Yuh. I guess."
"So nuttin'. I ain't got nuttin', Ernie." Wynne stopped eating the cardboard pulp to stare blankly at nothing at all. Sighing, she briefly returned to the nuked spaghetti but soon lost interest in the tasteless dish and pushed it away for good.
Ernie let out a grunt as he slapped his jungle hat against his thighs. "Tell ya what… you need a quality beer to get back to your old self. I got just the right thing for ya. A sweet malt beer. Works wonders on hangovers and-"
"Nuh-uh. I 'preciate the thought, friend, but them there beers wus what got me inta this he' dang-blasted mess in the first place. I gotta cut back a li'l. Naw, ack-chew-ly, I gotta cut back a lot."
"Oh… really?" Ernie said, eyeing Wynne's can of beer on the low coffee table in front of the couch.
"Yuh. Mandy done tole me this morn' mah consump-shun is gettin' outta hand. An' when mah sweet, li'l De-per-ty Mandy speaks them wise words, I lissen. Espe-shu-ally when she's right… which is perdy much all the dang time." Wynne closed off her part of the chat by draining the beer and pushing it across the table. When the light-weight can hit the abandoned TV-dinner, it tipped over as a symbolic gesture of the change that was about to come.
Ernie nodded and got up from the armrest. "Okay. I hear ya. But I got another proposition for ya. I just got off the horn with a representative for the Town Council. They've hired me as a last-minute replacement to do various odd jobs in town to get it spit-shined for tomorrow's parade. They had hired a so-called professional facility service provider that ended up shittin' all over them. I'll be addin' more trash cans and sweepin' the sidewalks and stuff like that."
"Yep. They're not exactly payin' me in gold dust, but there's a couple of bucks in it for ya if you're interested. I know ya, Wynne… you'll go stir-crazy if you sit here all day doin' nothin'."
"Lawrdie, ain't that the truth…"
"Yuh," Wynne said and broke out in a slow nod. "Yuh. Okay. But mah ol' truck done crapped out on me las'night. Twice. I hadda hit it with mah hammer he' an' in town jus' ta get the durn thing ta crank ovah."
"So you're sayin' you need a ride in my brand new, super-customized, awesomely painted Ford F three-fifty Super Duty?" Ernie said while sporting a grin that nearly reached from one end of Nevada to the other. "Weeelll, I thought that a dyed-in-the-wool General Motors gal like yourself would break out in hives if your butt had to sit in a Ford…"
Despite her gloomy state, Wynne had to lean her head back and let out a laugh. "Haw! That sure ain't no lie, friend! I'mma-gonn' need a mo-shun sickness bag jus' ta get outta the trailah park. An' with you behind the steerin' wheel… Lawwwwr-die!"
"Yeah, yeah," Ernie said wearing a mock scowl; it wasn't too long before it was replaced by a grin. "I'm leavin' in half an hour. Is that too soon for ya?"
"Naw, that be jus' fine, Ernie. Thanks a whole bunch. I 'preciate it," Wynne said and got up from the couch. As she scooped up the empty can and the cold TV-dinner, Mandy joined them in the doorway to the living area.
The Deputy Sheriff - who wore a sleeping T-shirt that was so large on her it nearly resembled an old-fashioned night gown - looked from her partner to their friendly neighbor. "Hello, Mr. Bradberry. Goodbye, Mr. Bradberry," she said in her customary no-nonsense police-business voice that never failed to get the point across.
"That's my cue, Wynne. See ya in a short while," Ernie said and began to leave - then he remembered an important detail: "Oh, and ya need to wear somethin' rugged. I know it's hotter than hell out there, but sweepin' the sidewalks is a dusty job."
Wynne nodded as she dumped the empty beer can into a small bag labeled For recycling. "Yuh, Ernie. I hear ya."
"Good. Have a nice day, Deputy," Ernie said while he mashed his hideous jungle hat down onto his locks that glistened of perspiration. After inching past the woman who may have been physically smaller but who had presence to spare, he left the trailer and shuffled back over to his own place.
"What did Mr. Bradberry want, hon?" Mandy said as she opened the refrigerator to get a plastic jug of cold milk. After unscrewing the cap and pouring some into a small tumbler, she leaned against the kitchen counter while she sipped the cold beverage.
"Aw, he done offered me a beer an' a job. I declined the beer an' accepted the job. He been hired by them folks in the Town Council ta do a li'l cleanin' up he' an' there in Goldsborah fer tomorra, an' he asked if I wus interested in comin' along. I wus. Obvi'sly." While she spoke, she used the spoon to scrape the remains of the unloved spaghetti and meatballs into the trash can below the kitchen sink.
Before Mandy could reply, Ernie came back to the screen door holding a small bubble-envelope identical to the one the fellow from Jet Express Couriers had dropped off the day before. "Wynne, here's another delivery for ya. I doodled my signature on the electronic gizmo… the courier guy didn't seem to care whose name he got," he said as he held out the envelope.
"Thanks, Ernie. See ya in a mo'," Wynne said and saluted her friend. Once she and Mandy were by themselves, she promptly tore off the end of the envelope to retrieve the card inside. "Whaddindahell's goin' on with them there postcards all of a sudden?" she said as she looked at it. A dark grunt escaped her when she happened to see it was addressed to Winnie Donohue just like the first one. "An' whydahell can't that mysterious somebodda spell Wynne right?! I mean… it really ain't that hard!"
Like the first one, the photo on the front was an idyllic scene from a truck stop out on the Interstate. She soon flipped it over to read the brief message that had been scrawled onto the back in the same felt-tip pen as the first card: "Roses are red, violets are blue… but they don't smell half as good as you," she mumbled.
Mandy furrowed her brow as she took the postcard to give it a second reading. "Well… it's not exactly Pulitzer Prize-worthy material, is it?" she said before she drained the glass of milk and rinsed it under the hot faucet.
"Naw. Dang, I wish I knew who sent 'em. Lawrdie, this is gettin' on mah last nerve. An' I ain't got too many good'uns left aftah that dang-blasted fiascah las'night, anyhows!" Wynne said in a surly tone. She was about to tear the postcard in half when she reconsidered and pinned it to the notice board next to the other one.
"And you don't have any clue who they could be from?" Mandy said as she studied both cards.
"Naw. They wig me out. I mean, it ain't like they be creepy or nuttin', but they sure do wig me out. I hate bein' singled out like this. It ain't funny worth a dang…"
Sighing, Wynne inched past Mandy to get to the bedroom - she needed to change into something less flimsy for her upcoming job. "But there ain't nuttin' I can do 'bout 'em now so I might as well stop thinkin' 'bout 'em. When ya gonn' be drivin' inta Goldsborah this aftahnoon?"
"Deputy Simms will pick me up at half past three."
"Barry? Not Rodolfo?"
"No. Deputy Gonzalez is attending a three-day course in precision shooting over in Jarrod City."
"Oh… all right. So it's Mista Sixty Cigs," Wynne said and let out a chuckle at her self-developed nickname for the heavy smoker Barry Simms. "Then ya gonn' need ta wash ya hair befo' bedtime or else all that dang cig'rette smoke is gonn' stink up the sheets an' everythin' else," she continued as she went into the bedroom to find some clothes fit for the task.
"How about you do it for me?" Mandy said with a cheeky grin playing on her lips.
Wynne moved back to the sliding door that led to the bedroom. Though she didn't speak, her wide grin and wiggling eyebrows said more than a whole seven-volume encyclopedia could.
An hour and a half later, the sun had reached its zenith and blasted down onto the defenseless sidewalks in Goldsboro like it wanted to beat them into submission. Flickering waves of heat rose from the flagstones and the two-lane street that ran through town; parts of the pavement had already cracked so it seemed the sun was winning that particular contest.
Nary a breeze could be felt along Main Street for a change, so Mother Nature had obviously ganged up with the fiery ball in the sky to create a one-two combination of misery for the residents.
As a result of the stagnant air and fuel vaporization due to the heat, a whiff of gasoline and hot oil surrounded the few vehicles parked in front of the stores on Main Street, and the street's dark asphalt and the roofing felt used on most of the flat-topped buildings reeked of tar which didn't add any comfort to the scene.
Main Street and the connecting Second Street were both mostly deserted save for the odd truck or two that rumbled past at infrequent intervals. The sole traffic signal above Goldsboro's sole intersection blinked yellow to show that it didn't really care what went on underneath it.
Not that anything did as neither man, beast nor fowl had the willpower needed to step outside into the triple-digit temperatures. Everyone preferred to stay inside the houses and stores where the tempers were chilled, the beverages cold and the air distinctly frosty.
The only things that moved over the entire length of Main Street were Ernie Bradberry and Wynne Donohue who toiled away outside of Iverson's Bar. Wynne wore boots, heavy-duty jeans, a long-sleeved denim shirt and a pair of sturdy work gloves. The denim shirt had started out as pale-blue and fresh, but it had turned dark-blue in the places where it clung to her upper body and the freshness was a thing of the distant past.
She had a scarlet bandanna wrapped around the lower part of her face to protect her nose and mouth from the massive clouds of dust that were kicked up everywhere she and Ernie went with their brooms, and her blue eyes were hidden behind a borrowed pair of black shades. Her beloved cowboy hat had gained a coating of dust and several new stains of sweat in the process, but they were difficult to make out from those that had been there to begin with.
"Sombitch…" she croaked as yet another billowing cloud of street-dust painted the black shades pale-brown. The unwanted coating necessitated a brief pause while she wiped the lenses with her gloves. "Lawrdie, Ernie… howdahell y'all can stand doin' this he' gosh-darned filthy work day-in day-out, I ain't got no dang-blasted clue…"
"I just think of the good stuff I can buy when I get paid 's all," Ernie said in a voice muffled by his blue bandanna. "Ya know… beer, pork rinds, beer, jerky, beer. Those kinda things."
"Yuh… jerky an' some crispy, salty pork rinds sure sound nice right 'bout now, but that there beer part ain't gonn' work fer me no mo'… dang'it. Mercy Sakes, I wish we could hose down that there sidewalk befo' we swept it. If that there dang-blasted dust wus wet, there'd be nuh- nuh- nuttin'… ta… ta… watch out, son, sneeze comin' fast!" Wynne said, interrupting herself - and moving the bandanna aside in a hurry - as the vast amount of street dust in the air caused her to hack, cough and sneeze all at once.
"We can't as long as the water restrictions are in place."
"Yuh. I know. But, sombitch, I still wish we could hose down that there dag-nabbin' sidewalk!" Sniffling from the aftereffects of the sneeze, Wynne reached into her jeans pocket to find a handkerchief. Once she had blown the trumpet and everything was back under control, she lowered her bandanna and grabbed her broom once more.
"Y'know, Wynne… that red bandanna and your hat make you look like the classic Skoal Bandit," Ernie said with a grin.
"Yuh? Aw, that sure ain't too bad, nosirree. Loved those commercials… an' the paint scheme on that there numbah thirty-three Oldsmobile them good ol' boys wus usin' fer a while."
"Didn't they use a Ford Thunderbird later on?"
"Lawrdie! Them be fightin' words right there, Ernie Bradberry! They sure as stink-on-shoot didden use no dang-blasted T-bird, Ah'm tellin' ya!" Wynne cried and made sure to send a wave of swirling dust at her friend for even suggesting such sacrilege.
Not two heartbeats later, a gruff, hostile, booming "Dono-fool!" echoed across the deserted Main Street.
Wynne let out a sigh that came from the bottom of her soul; she looked skyward to gain a little spiritual support, but none came - it never had whenever she had asked for some. "Yuh, Sheriff?" she said as she turned around to face the person who hated her guts for no particular reason.
The expression on Sheriff Arthur 'Artie' Rains' face was as grim and mean as it invariably was whenever he had to deal with his number one nemesis Wynne Donohue. The tall, overweight man's wobbly cheeks, double-chins and wrinkled forehead underneath his Mountie hat were beetroot red from the miserable heat and the fiery temper that perpetually coursed through his veins.
He had gained another few pounds lately which meant his horrible three-tone - brown, browner and sweat-soaked - Polyester uniform seemed to have shrunk across his girth and rear-end. The added pounds pushed him to the wrong side of 260 without his clothes and his utility belt, and the added bulk hadn't improved his looks or demeanor.
Instead of spending his off-duty hours at home to support his long-suffering wife and their second-youngest child who was teething, he had spent most of the night smoking cigars, knocking back shots of tequila, sipping bourbon on the rocks and playing poker at Iverson's like he so often did when he was in one of his infamous moods. He had even dished out a good ol' knuckle sandwich to a patron who had dared to question the logic of the law acting in such a fashion.
A nasty grin spread over his features as he took in the sight of the bandanna-wearing Wynne and her dust-dispersing tool. "Figures you'd be useless with a broom as well, Donohue. Is there anything at all you're good at? And I take it you're not familiar with the anti-mask law the Town Council has imposed over the Fourth of July weekend?" he said in a deceptively calm voice.
Wynne narrowed her eyes behind her dusty, black shades. She looked at Ernie who was just as covered-up as she was - Sheriff Rains never played fair, but that was nothing new. "First I done heard o' it, Sheriff. But we need them there bandannas ta-"
"Shut up, Donohue. I'll let you know when you can speak. Since Judge Burkhardt ain't in town, I'll let you off with a stern warning and a twenty-dollar fine. Each. In cash," the sheriff said and hooked his thumbs inside his belt loops. He grinned in eager anticipation of a little resistance from the two dusty street-sweepers.
Wynne sighed behind her scarlet bandanna. She didn't have twenty dollars in cash which meant that the day that had already started bad was headed in an even worse direction. She was about to voice her concerns about the unjust nature of the events when Ernie dug into his wallet and found enough cash to pay the two fines.
"Here ya go, Sheriff, Sir. Forty bucks. Twenty from each of us," he said as he smacked the bills into the sheriff's meaty palm with a little more force than necessary.
Grinning, Artie Rains counted the bills, folded them and stuffed them down his breast pocket. "Why, thank you, Mr. Bradberry. Have a nice day. Not you, Donohue. You can fall down and break your ass for all I care," he said and lumbered back down Main Street to get to the air-conditioned climate inside the building housing the Sheriff's Office.
Wynne tracked the mean-spirited man with a pair of Evil Eyes until he had gone inside. "Thanks, Ernie. I'll pay ya back. Every las' dime. It's gonn' be a li'l latah 'cos I ain't got them greenbacks right now, but ya know mah word's as good as gold," she mumbled as she clenched her fist around the broom to return to her chores.
When all Ernie did was to let out a deep groan, Wynne turned around to look at the reason: one of the white-and-gold Dodge Durangos from the Goldsboro Sheriff's Department soon came to a halt at the curb right in front of them. "Aw, Mercy Sakes… this ain't mah day… or week… or year… or decade," she mumbled as she pulled down her beloved hat to cover her eyes.
Her fears of a further run-in with the long, and increasingly unjust, arm of the law were swept away by the appearance of Deputy Sheriffs Jalinski and Simms. A deep sigh of relief escaped her as she took in the sight of her partner's athletic, square-built frame that even managed to overcome the brown Polyester horror she wore. "Lawwwwwr-die! Mah sweet, li'l De-per-ty Mandy… Ah sure am gladda see ya. Snakes Alive, Ah ain't been this gladda see a friendly face since… since… Ah ain't sure when!"
"What happened?" Mandy said though she already had a solid hunch about the nature of the events.
"Sheriff Rains happened," Ernie said in a surly tone, "and he just scored forty bucks from slappin' us with a bogus fine. I guess he was tryin' to recoup his poker losses, the rotten sonova-so and so!"
Wynne nodded hard. "Ah coudden ha' said it bettah mahself, Ernie. Or mebbe Ah woudden ha' been so poh-lite, Ah dunno! Ah swear, that man is half skunk or som'tin… half skunk, half rattlah an' all nasty."
Mandy and Barry Simms shared a knowing look. The younger of the two deputies was in the process of igniting yet another of his home-rolled cigarettes; as always, he did so with the dying embers of the old one. His skin had turned gray as a result of his heavy habit, but the pallid color was offset by his yellow teeth and amber fingers. He opened his mouth to add his two cents' worth to the conversation, but all that came out was a hacking, rattling cough that sounded like he already had one boot in the grave and was about to untie the laces on the other.
"Y'all be all right, there, De-per-ty Barry? 'Cos that there rattlin' cough sure does sound jus' a li'l unhealthy, if ya catch mah drift," Wynne said, wincing from the gross sounds produced by the deputy whom she considered to be one of the good people among the law men in Goldsboro.
Barry could only cough, not speak, so he had to settle for waving at Wynne.
"What are your plans for the rest of the afternoon, Mr. Bradberry?" Mandy eventually asked once she could get a word in around Barry's unpleasant-sounding coughing fit.
"We still need to sweep the rest of the damn sidewalks," Ernie said as he took off his hideous jungle hat to wipe his sweat-streaked forehead on his sleeve, "and then we're gonna put up about thirty extra public trash cans needed for the parade. Oh, and hoist the flags and various banners that are gonna be hangin' from the lamp posts and the stores."
Mandy nodded and looked down at the pavement that, despite all Ernie and Wynne's hard efforts, appeared just as dusty as she remembered it from the day before. "All right. Perhaps you should skip ahead to the trash cans now. Sounds like it would be best for all involved if you and the Sheriff weren't sharing the same space."
"We could definitely do that. Right, Wynne?"
"Dang right, friend," Wynne said and not only removed the black shades but pulled down her scarlet bandanna so she could finally breathe freely. "Puttin' up them there trash cans sounds perdy dog-gone excitin' right 'bout now. O' course, they gonn' be real sombitches ta empty aftah tomorra's parade an' all if this he' dang-blasted heatwave holds up… hey, wotch'y'all starin' at?"
When she noticed that everyone present seemed to stare and then grin at her, she broke out in a puzzled frown. Her puzzlement lasted until she ran a gloved finger across the upper part of her face - or rather, the parts that hadn't been covered by the bandanna or the black shades.
She quickly discovered she had turned into a two-tone being. The skin around her mouth and chin was as clean and pinkish as ever, but everything above a ruler-straight line across her face - save for a raccoon-style pattern around her eyes - had turned as brown as the Polyester uniforms worn by the deputies. "Awwwww, sh-" she said before she joined the others in a liberating chuckle.
Unusually for the quiet Goldsboro, life seemed to blossom in the two streets once the sun began its slow descent to the western horizon. The surprising influx of happy folks was obviously connected to the dropping temperatures that had already moved down from their unbearable highs during the day-time hours. At seven in the evening, it was ninety degrees Fahrenheit which was a marked improvement over the oppressive, triple-digit heat at lunch.
A luxury touring bus that had entered the town from the north drove up to the curb in front of Mrs. Peabody's famous boarding house. Soon, the recently-swept sidewalk overflowed with clean-cut young people wearing impeccable outfits: white shirts, black neckties and black business suits for the men, and sensible dresses or skirt suits for the women.
Wynne had just tightened the four bolts that held the thirty-fourth and thus penultimate trash can firmly in place in its foundation when she happened to look up at the group of well-dressed people across the street. "Lawrdie… now ain't that jus' typical. First the low-down Sheriff be pesterin' us fer no dang reason an' now we got them there dag-nabbin Virgin Towah folks breathin' down our necks," she whined as her mind processed the sight. "Ernie… Hey, Ernie? Breaker one-nine, ol' pal… what's ya twentah?"
"Right over here, Wynne… where's the fire?" Ernie said as he popped his head up from behind the final trash can that had been placed another sixty feet up Main Street - the plastic frame had become warped from sitting in the sun for too long so he'd had a hard time getting it to line up with the foundation.
"I wish it wus a fiah, but it ain't… it's som'tin much worse. Clap yer eyes on them there fih-ne folks ovah yondah," Wynne said and pointed her thumb at the young people across Main Street.
Like Wynne had done only moments earlier, Ernie let out a long groan at the sight of the large group of travelling evangelists from the well-known religious organization who had become notorious for their single-minded persistency - once they had cornered an innocent bystander, they insisted on relaying at least half of the Gospel as they read it regardless of the person's level of interest.
"Dammit! Head for the hills! We got a Virgin Tower invasion on our hands," Ernie said and promptly moved down his jungle hat like it would help him to remain out of view. "Shit… Wynne, you done yet?"
"Yuh. All done an'-"
"Hang on, friend, I'mma-comin' ta give ya a hand," Wynne said and hurried over to the final trash can to get the four bolts tight and secure.
Three minutes later, they ran over to the alley where Ernie had parked his silver-and-metallic-blue Ford F350 Super Duty, jumped in, shut the doors and let out identical sighs of relief - their escape had been completed with seconds to spare as a group of Virgin Tower evangelists marched past the exact spot where the two tireless workers had been only moments before.
"Lawrdie, that wus too close fer comfert! I mean, it ain't that I'm opposed ta them folks' spe-shul interpreta-shun o' that there Gospel or nuttin', I jus' ain't interested in lissenin' ta all that durn preachin' for ten-fifteen-twentah dang minutes!"
"You and me both, Wynne," Ernie said in a monotone as he observed several other Virgin Tower strike teams taking to the sidewalks of Goldsboro. "Maybe I shouldn't be tellin' you this, but I went to one of their mass meetin's once up in Collinstown."
"I ain't too proud of it, okay? The flyer said there would be free food," Ernie said as he scratched one of his sideburns like he was embarrassed to reveal those parts of his past. "Well, I got that… I also got an earful of preachin'. Four hours' worth, to be exact."
"Exactly. Only it wasn't my Lord, if ya know what I mean."
"I sure do, friend," Wynne said before she fell quiet to observe the well-dressed people. "Huh. They obvis'ly be he' for the parade tomorra. Aw-hell, that's gonn' be a bundle o' laughs fer sure. What's gonn' happen when them folks run intah nasty, ol' Artie Rains… waitaminute… or mebbe that sombitch done invited 'em he'? I woudden put it past 'im…"
"You have a point… oh man, look at that!" Ernie said while pointing out of the windshield.
Across the street, several older campaigners exited the touring bus carrying large signs that held bombastic messages that had been hand-painted in tall, blood-red block letters: Alcohol Is The Devil's Blood! - Forsake The Devil! Forsake Alcohol! - Only Sinners Enjoy Alcohol! and even Turn To The Light And Live Forever!
Soon, they formed picket lines that blocked the sidewalk in front of Iverson's Bar, Moira's Bar & Grill and even the local liquor store - that the latter was closed for the evening didn't seem to register with the picketers.
"Lawwwwwr-die…" Wynne said and shook her head repeatedly.
It took nearly thirty minutes for the first wave of the Virgin Tower invasion to peter out. As the members of the crusading evangelist teams returned to Mrs. Peabody's boarding house to have dinner and other refreshments, Wynne and Ernie exited the Ford once more to get back to their long list of tasks for the following day's parade.
Before Wynne put her work gloves back on, she licked her fingers clean of the sweet mustard that had squirted out of the ham-and-cheese sandwich she had just finished. "Haw, thanks a whole bunch fer buyin' us suppah, Ernie. Them sandwiches wus awesome."
"You're welcome. Yeah, Moira knows how to make a great sandwich. She puts just the right amount of…"
Ernie kept talking, but Wynne fell into a somber state of mind that meant she blocked everything else out. She glanced down Main Street at the Bar & Grill where she had worked until the night before. A knot of worry developed in her gut at the less-than-stellar prospects of finding steady employment anywhere in Goldsboro that would be as rewarding as flipping burgers and preparing French fries at Moira's stove.
She couldn't see herself sweeping city streets until she would be too old to get out of bed in the morning, but perhaps she deserved nothing better than such a back-breaking career. Whichever way she tried to twist and turn the facts, she only had herself to blame for losing the job at Moira's - and she knew it.
The sign-carrying picketers were still walking in circles in front of Moira MacKay's establishment, but it seemed they hadn't counted on the fiery temper of the proprietor who was in the middle of a spit-flying shouting match with the leader of the senior Virgin Tower campaigners. Mandy and the puffing Barry Simms had joined the fun to try to keep a lid on it, but Wynne wasn't about to go down there and say hello to her partner.
"Radio check, radio check… Wynne, are ya on this frequency?" Ernie said, nudging his elbow into the taller woman's side.
The nudge worked as Wynne moved out of the gloomy zone and re-entered the present. Turning around, she looked at her friend like she had forgotten all about him being there. "Huh? Yuh… sorry 'bout that, Ernie. I wus doin' some hev-vy thinkin'. Gotta be doin' a whole lotta hev-vy thinkin' from now on… it ain't easy, lemme tell ya."
"I know. Let's get these flags up before the evangelists come back. Here," Ernie said and handed Wynne a wadded-up bundle of paper flags and the sturdy line they were attached to. "We better split up. That way, we'll be done sooner."
"Yuh… or mebbe naw. I woudden draw any plans fer the evenin' jus' yet, there, friend," Wynne said as she stared wide-eyed at the horribly tangled mess in her hands.
A different set of visitors had begun to drive along Main Street on their way further north: the racing teams who were in town for the big Fourth of July International Motor Contest Association dirt-track event up at Thunder Park Raceway. Trucks and SUVs of all sizes pulled flatbed trailers that carried weird-and-wonderful Modifieds or more regular-appearing Dirt Stock Cars while minivans transported the teams' mechanics and their tools and spares.
The driver of one of the large supply trucks honked his airhorns when he saw Ernie's customized F350 parked at the mouth of the alley; Ernie responded by letting out a whoop and waving his hideous jungle hat at the fellow Blue Oval pilot.
Predictably, Wynne only had eyes for the General Motors vehicles that drove past - she had a wide grin permanently etched onto her face at the sight of the countless new and old Sierras, Silverados, Suburbans and K10s as she balanced near the top rung of a ladder. She wasn't too interested in the weird-looking Modified race cars, but the Dirt Stock Cars were just her thing so she ogled those as well. Once a lull in the traffic presented itself, she focused on attaching the long line of flags to the leading edge of the drugstore's porch roof.
She had just climbed down to move the tall ladder another thirty feet down Main Street to the Yarn Spinners knitting store when the driver of a long-bed Ram truck honked at her.
Honking didn't seem to be enough as the silver-gray behemoth soon pulled over to the curb on the wrong side of the street. The window was rolled down at once and the driver put his elbow on the sill. The Ram pulled a black-and-red Modified race car on a tandem-axled flatbed trailer, and although the racer rocked a little in its bindings at the sudden halt, there didn't appear to be anything wrong with any of the three vehicles.
"Well, how about that! We drive halfway across the country and who do I bump into but my old friend Rose!" the driver cried. In his late twenties, he wore a black T-shirt and a black baseball cap that both sported the same racing number as the Modified on the trailer, and he was the owner of a well-groomed mustache and a pair of pointy sideburns that adhered to the latest trends in facial hair for young, rural professionals. "Long time no see! How ya doin'? Are you living out here now? I sure hope you and Billie Jo are still an item!"
By now, a four-foot, neon-green question mark had appeared over Wynne's head. She removed her work boot from the ladder's lowest rung and went over to the Ram truck while trying to parse the many questions. The distance was too short for her to do that, so all she could produce when she reached the driver was a single-syllable, but highly descriptive "Huh?"
"It's me, Johnny Lee Norton… from Lincoln! Burton Cutter's auto repair shop. He sold it, by the way. Aw man, that's painful, Rose… I know it's been a while, but we worked together for a bunch of years and now you're looking at me like you've never seen me before!"
"Lissen, son… I ain't got no clue… no dang-blasted clue whatsoevah wotcha be talkin' 'bout," Wynne said and pushed her cowboy hat back from her forehead. "An' that ain't jus' a figger o' speech neithah… I really don't got nooooo friggin' clue. Nuttin'. An' I mean nuttin' like in nuttin' with a li'l sprinklin' o' nuttin's on top."
Johnny Lee furrowed his brow at the news; he studied Wynne's puzzled face for several seconds before he broke out in a shrug. "Well, who the hell are you if you're not my old friend Rose Kowalski?"
"I'm Wynne Donohue, thank ye very much! An' I always been Wynne Dono- wait… Rose? You done sent them there durn postcards, diddencha? Roses is red an' all that shit? Well, lemme tell ya som'tin, son, that wussen very nice o' ya."
Wynne came to a halt when she noticed that the neon-green question mark had wandered from its previous position above her head to a similar spot over Johnny Lee's. "Huh. Ya didden send them there postcards."
"Weird an' only gettin' weirdah. Ain't that the story o' mah dang-blasted life right there. Wynne Donohue in a stinkin' nutshell, Ah'm tellin' ya…" she mumbled as she rubbed her eyes hard in an attempt at getting back on track - then it struck her: "D'oh! Rose Kowalski… Burton Cutter… haw-yeah, now I got a no-shun o' what's goin' on he'! Son, ya musta worked with an older fella by the name o' Harold Young back at Burton's place, right?"
"That's right! Harold was there when I started… the last I heard, he's retired now…"
"Yuh, I bah-lieve he is. Well, son, there ya have it 'cos ol' Harold is none othah than mah second cuzzin twice removed. Yuh. Lawrdie, it all be comin' back ta me now. Hoah-brothah, mah head musta been up a heifer's bee-hind fer me ta forget mah cuzzin! Now, ol' Harold, yuh, he done sent me a photo o' that there nice gal Rose once upon a time 'cos I be thinkin' he wus tryin' ta hook us up or som'tin… woudden ha' worked, but that's a whoooole 'nother story that I ain't gonn' bore ya with. The long an' short of it wus that me an' Rose wus prolly a li'l too samey, if ya catch mah drift. I guess me an' Rose be lookin' kinda similar an' all, too, now ya men-shun it."
"Kinda similar?! You're like two drops of water!" Johnny Lee said and broke out in a relieved chuckle. "Well, I'll let you get back to work now. Sorry to have bothered you… uh, Wynne, right?"
"Yuh. Wynne Donohue."
Johnny Lee selected a gear to drive off but needed to wait for a gap in the traffic. When one didn't come, he looked back at Wynne and said: "I'm wrenching for one of the race teams… obviously. We're spending the night at the track, but we'll be back in town for the big parade tomorrow. Perhaps you could swing by and meet the guys? We'll have beers, burgers and all the trimmings. How about it?"
"Yuh… burgers… an' beers… or somethin'. Yuh," Wynne said and scratched her cheek.
"See ya tomorrow!" the young driver said as he drove his behemoth truck away from the curb and out into the flow of other race trucks and SUVs that were all headed for Thunder Park.
Wynne followed the silver-gray Ram for a moment or two before she shuffled back to the ladder. Before she could reach it, she happened to notice a strike team of the well-dressed Virgin Tower evangelists bearing down on her with determined looks on their faces. "Awwwww-hell… them flags jus' gotta wait some!" she croaked as she made a beeline for the relative safety of Ernie's Ford.
Ten minutes later over on the other side of Main Street, Mandy Jalinski shut the door to the sheriff's office and went over to the watch desk. Her Mountie hat was soon off and hanging on a nail on the wall next to her rain cape and her uniform jacket - neither of which had seen any use lately.
Artie Rains was having one of his infamous extended breaks up at his preferred watering hole Iverson's Bar. The large and angry man's official excuse was that he needed to recharge his batteries ahead of the hectic Fourth of July, but everyone knew he just couldn't be bothered to carry out actual police work for much longer than an hour or two at a time.
Barry Simms was still caught up in the picket-line mess over at Moira's, and Thomas 'Tom Thumb' Kincaid - who had recently been transferred south from the police headquarters in Barton City - had already gone home after his shift.
The newest name on Goldsboro's roster of deputy sheriffs, the rookie deputy-in-training Walter 'Wally' Thompson, jr., had yet to arrive since he had shorter working days than the others to have time to study for his upcoming exams.
In short, Mandy had the office to herself and loved every second of it. She let out a long sigh at the blessed silence that greeted her as her ears were still ringing from the noisy barrage spewed out by the temperamental Moira MacKay.
Sitting down on the rock-hard and highly uncomfortable chair at the watch desk, she needed to adjust her utility belt that held her service firearm, a can of pepper spray, a pair of metal handcuffs and three spare clips for her pistol. As always, she was forced to sit in an tiring ninety-degree angle which was the only position the chair would allow.
One of the drawers was soon opened in order to find a working ball point pen and the forms needed to fill out the appropriate paperwork following her brief assignment. Their only typewriter had literally thrown a rod the other day from old age and general rot, so all reports had to be done by hand and in triplicate.
She sighed again and glanced around the utilitarian office. The Bakelite telephone on the watch desk had not been updated in decades, and the second desk in the office was covered in poorly stacked and thus highly unstable piles of case files that were supposed to have been put back into the metal filing cabinets ages ago. The brown linoleum floor was cracked and horrible, the felt roof tiles drooped everywhere, and the maps of MacLean County and the surrounding territories that graced the walls were several years out of date.
For once she couldn't blame Sheriff Rains for the poor working conditions. The Town Council kept their budget so tight that everyone had to accept the challenges it created or get out of the law enforcement business altogether. At least their Dodge Durango fast response SUVs were fairly recent and thus modern. That one of the longest-serving members of the Town Council had a brother-in-law who owned a Chrysler dealership over in North Greenville was simply one of those one-in-a-million coincidences - or perhaps not.
A rattling, hacking cough out on the street heralded the imminent return of the chain-smoking Deputy Simms who was busy lighting a cigarette with the embers of the old one. Grunting, Mandy put the ball point pen to the report sheet to get on with her task.
A short while later on the other side of the semi-empty Main Street, Ernie inched back from the corner of the Yarn Spinners knitting store where he had used the lengthening shadows for scouting purposes. "Clear all around," he whispered over his shoulder.
"Them ohhhh-so-nice-lookin'-but-dang-persistent folks be gone?" Wynne whispered back. The Last Original Cowpoke didn't exactly live up to her rugged, fearless looks or image: she hid behind the Ford's wide tailgate to remain well out of sight in case her advance scout would be spotted and overrun by the very people they were trying to avoid.
"All gone," Ernie said and moved out onto the sidewalk to take the next wadded-up bundle of flags. He soon concentrated fully on getting the mess unraveled so they could finally call it a day and get their just rewards in the shape of cool liquid - preferably of the kind that held a nice, foamy head and an amber body.
Wynne tip-toed away from the rear of the Ford, but sudden and unexpected activity out on the sidewalk made her fly back into hiding at once. When it turned out to be a young mother pushing a baby carriage, Wynne rolled her eyes and gave herself a whack over the brow. "Gosh-darn'it, I be a worse dang scaredy-cat than mah dawggie Goldie! Bein' this jumpy ain't good fer mah self-esteem… naw, I gotta steel mah loins an' grow some backbone. Wynne Donohue, ya jus' hafta get out there an' do the right thing, girl! An' I will! I will! In a li'l while…"
The race-influenced traffic had eased up somewhat from earlier, but there were still transporters, trucks and large SUVs driving past at infrequent intervals. A few of those had installed tall, flexible poles on their fenders and beds that carried various sponsor flags, and the large pieces of cloth created slapping sounds as they fluttered hard in the headwind.
Ernie kept working by himself since Wynne remained in hiding, but when his ears picked up the familiar sound of a highly tuned race engine among the hard-working and thus lower-revving trucks, he stopped to glance up and down Main Street to spot the vehicle that he assumed would be racing past at full speed. "Whoa! Wouldya look at that…" he croaked when the car in question drove past the southern city limits sign and entered Goldsboro itself. "Hey, Wynne! Wynne! You gotta come see this!"
Back at the tail-end of the Ford F350, Wynne ducked out of sight in a hurry upon hearing the agitation in Ernie's voice. She let out a dark grunt when she realized that all that hiding had become a little too much of a good thing. Slapping her work gloves on her pant legs, she shuffled out onto the sidewalk. "Them oh-so-nice folks from the Towah be back or som'tin?" she said as she rounded the corner.
"Nope! Get over here quick, there's somethin' you just gotta see!"
Wynne came to an abrupt halt when she caught an eyeful of a 1988 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS in a black-and-silver design meant to mimic the legendary #3 GM Goodwrench colors. The souped-up car had the correct logos and white lettering on the hood and down the long quarter panels, and it even had a large racing number on the door in the same font and aggressive forward-leaning style that every NASCAR fan of the 1980s and 1990s knew so well - however, the number was 82 rather than 3. True to its stock-car roots, the driver's side had no door; the entire flank consisted of a single, smooth section of metal instead.
"Aw, what a neat cahr… jus' like… jus' like… the real deal," Wynne said dreamily - she even sniffled a little at the sight.
"I knew you'd like it!" Ernie said, momentarily suspending his life-long allegiance to the Blue Oval to wave his hat at the expertly presented replica automobile.
When the Monte Carlo got closer, Wynne's smile faded as she caught the first glimpse of the person behind the wheel. "Waitaminute… wait a dog-gone minute… that cahr… Ah… Ah know the drivah…" Wynne continued in a robotic monotone.
"Ha! You wish!"
"Naw… naw, Ernie," Wynne continued while she shook her head slowly like in a daze. "Ah do know that drivah…"
"Oh, come on… I wasn't born yesterday, Wynne."
"Nuh-uh… I ain't shittin' ya, friend. Ah know the drivah. Snakes Alive, Ah know who sent them there postcards. Yuh. Ain't no doubt now. Lawrdie. Ah nevah thought Ah'd… Ah'd… that we'd… shit." She shook her head, unable to go on.
Ernie looked back at his friend with a puzzled expression on his face. "Wynne, you need to drink a Coke or somethin'. I think you got heatstroke…"
Wynne just sighed as the Monte Carlo came to a hard stop out on Main Street. The driver and Wynne eyeballed each other for a moment or two across the lanes before the replica's steering wheel was spun left so the vehicle could pull over to the curb.
A few blips of the gas pedal made the 396 cubic-inch V8 engine roar like a dinosaur from the Earth's ancient past through the side-mounted exhaust - then the driver switched it off to allow a merciful silence to fall over the street.
Ernie's gaze traveled from Wynne, over to the neat car and back to the stunned Cowpoke a couple of times before it dawned on him there was something more there than met the eye. Grinning, he let the flags be for the time being to catch what would undoubtedly be an interesting spectacle.
Wynne sighed again. Then she put one boot ahead of the other to commence the short journey to the flashy vehicle. Reaching it, she leaned down to peek inside. She had been right. She knew the driver well. "Howdy, Phyl. Been a while," she said in a calm voice tinged with a certain amount of reluctance, embarrassment and perhaps even regret. Regardless of how the associated emotions could be described, the voice had been more civil than she had thought possible.
The other woman's hazel eyes, her well-defined lips, the faint sprinkling of freckles on either side of her nose and finally the metal chain around her neck that carried a pair of interlocked women's symbols all gave Wynne a sudden flashback to the past that had seemed as ancient as the dinosaur-like sound produced by the Monte Carlo's race-tuned engine.
"Yeah. It's been too long. Hi, Wynne," Phyllis 'Phyl' O'Connell eventually said before she let her eyes do a quick round-up of Wynne's inventory. "Damn, you look even finer than I remember! How is that possible?"
Wynne abstained from making a comment.
Phyl broke out in a wistful smile at the sight of the tall, rugged woman leaning down toward her. She was a short-haired, blonde gal in her late thirties whose wide shoulders and toned arms proved she still had what it took. She wore fingerless driving gloves, knee-length denim shorts and a white muscle shirt where the upper hem had been hand-cut into a V to guide a little more air down her front.
She took off a pair of silvery 1990s-retro sports shades and put them in a tray in the center console. A black-and-red Chevrolet bowtie baseball cap and a small gym bag occupied the passenger-side seat, and a cooler box had been installed in the unused footwell. "So," she continued with a grin, "did you get the cards I sent you?"
"Yuh. Both of 'em."
"Dammit, I sent three! Serves me right for using a courier service instead of the good, ol' US Mail, right?"
"Double-right, 'cos somebodda coudden spell worth a darn… both o' them there ahn-velopes done said mah name wus Winnie," Wynne said and rolled her eyes.
Phyl grinned at the news. "Oh, that wasn't me. I definitely know how to spell your name. Anyway. What I wrote is true, you know. We may have cried a little, but we certainly loved a lot back then. Didn't we?"
"Yuh. We did. An' we also argued some."
"True. But we always made up for it afterwards," Phyl said in a silky voice. Softening her eyes, she broke out in a lop-sided grin that even a visually challenged person could interpret as a thinly veiled come-on.
Wynne sighed again; her nape hairs told her Ernie was lapping up every second of the scene somewhere behind her - it was high time to get back to a safer topic. "Yuh. Anyhows. Ya here fer the racin'?"
Phyl chuckled and relaxed her efforts. "Yep. I'm driving a Lumina-shelled dirt stocker," she said as she ran her gloved hand across the steering wheel. "I'm entered in a couple of races. The Silver Spur Pro Stock one-fifty and the eighty-lap Mattie's Instant Headache Remedy knock-out event… you know, the format where the last car in the field is eliminated every third lap. Guarantees constant action 'cos nobody wants to be last."
"Yuh. I done seen me enough of 'em ta know."
Phyl sent Wynne another of her lop-sided grins. "Of course you have. Will you be up at Thunder Park tomorrow night? I could introduce you to my guys… maybe we could hang out a little in the infield. Or something."
"Yuh, I'mma-gonn' be there. But Phyl… lissen," Wynne said and tapped her knuckles on the Monte Carlo's low roofline. "It's gettin' mi'ty clear wotcha wus plannin' sendin' them there postcards an' flashin' that there sexeh grin o' yers, but it jus' ain't gonn' work this time. Ya got me? First of all, too much time's gone by, yuh? I'm oldah an' wisah now. An' two, I got me a real sweet thin' goin' he' with a wondahful gal an' I ain't gonn' do nuttin' ta mess that up. Nuttin'. An' y'all can take that ta the bank."
Phyl opened her mouth to reply, but soon closed it again without speaking. Instead, she offered Wynne another wistful smile before she flicked the switch that made the tuned engine spring to life. "See you tomorrow evening, Wynne," she eventually said as she grabbed first gear - then she slammed her boot down onto the gas pedal which made the fat rear tires light up.
Clouds of pale-gray tire smoke billowed out of the wheel wells before she released the brake and flew up Main Street like a shot from a cannon - the Monte Carlo left a pair of fifteen-foot black lines behind on the tarmac.
Across the street, the wild noise and reams of smoke made Mandy scramble away from the watch desk and run out onto the sidewalk. Shielding her eyes from the strong rays of the sun, she stared at the black car as it roared away from the curb; then she shot Wynne a puzzled glance.
Wynne sighed for the umpteenth time within the past ten minutes. She shrugged for Mandy's benefit before she turned around to get back to work. As she took the next bundle of flags, she noticed that the recently retired Bessie Robinson - who had worked half an eternity as the radio dispatcher at the sheriff's office - was whispering conspiratorially to Ernie.
"Howdy, there, Bessie," Wynne said in a downcast voice.
The late-sixty-something lady offered the sweat-stained, denim-clad woman a smile in return. "Hello, Miss Donohue," she said while adjusting her round, smoke-tinted sunglasses. She had filled out a little since her retirement but kept in shape by power-walking up and down Goldsboro's sidewalks at a brisk pace whenever the weather allowed it. At present, she wore a wide-brimmed straw sun hat and a breezy, flowery dress that featured a pleated lower hem.
"Wynne," Ernie said eagerly, "ain'tcha gonna tell us who in Sam Hill that gorgeous dame was?" The question was accompanied by a cheeky grin and a constant fidgeting with his hat, mustache, sideburns and mullet like he was exceedingly excited to hear the name of the 'dame' in the sports car.
"Aw, that wussen nobodda but mah ex, Phyl."
"Your ex… okay. Darn," Ernie said; all his fidgeting stopped from one moment to the next - after hearing the details, there wasn't any point to being excited.
Bessie looked from one to the other of her two companions. "Phil?" she echoed.
"Yuh. Phyl O'Connell. Lissen, Bessie… not ta be rude or nuttin', but I ain't got no itch ta be talkin' 'bout it, if ya catch mah drift," Wynne said and turned to unravel the next wadded-up mess of flags instead.
Bessie Robinson nodded several times before she bid the two workers a hasty farewell and hurried across the street to deliver the surprising gossip to anyone who had time to listen - her first stop would be her old workplace, the sheriff's office.
Seven minutes and one unexpected conversation later, Mandy stepped out onto the sidewalk. She mashed her Mountie down onto her short locks as she took in the sight of Wynne and Ernie both balancing near the top of a pair of ladders to get the last string of flags attached to the porch roof at the Yarn Spinners knitting store. They were both equipped with snap hooks and nail guns to ease the task, but it still looked somewhat perilous.
She scratched her cheek a couple of times while she pondered whether or not to go over there and ask about the odd news. Ultimately, she decided it would be best for all involved to get to the bottom of the mystery sooner rather than later, so she crossed Main Street and strolled over to the two tireless workers.
"Howdy down there, De-per-ty Mandy!" Wynne said in a cheerful voice from her position nineteen rungs up from the sidewalk. "Lawwwwr-die, I ain't been this far off the dang ground since that there time I hadda crawl up on the roof o' the trailah ta re-adjust the dang-blasted satellite dish… 'member that, Ernie? Aftah that sombitch dust storm that almost done ruined the transmis-shun of the GEICO five-hundred Cup race from 'Dega?"
"Oh, I remember, all right. And I also remember how you couldn't get down afterwards," Ernie said with a grin - he was a rung higher up than Wynne so he could speak to her face-to-face for a change. "To rescue you, Mandy had to crawl up there on a couple-a ladders me and Frank Tooley had tied together with ropes!"
"And I distinctly remember we talked about usin' the ropes as a lasso instead… Diego used to be a trick-ropin' artist-"
"Blah-blah-friggin'-blah, put a sock in it, will ya?" Wynne said and waved her hand at her friend. "Anyhows, what brings ya ovah he', De-per-ty?"
"Oh, Bessie Robinson. She had a little juicy gossip to dish out."
While Mandy spoke, Ernie gingerly threw a leather pouch containing a few nuts and bolts over to Wynne's side of the slanted porch roof they were balancing on either side of. A string of flags had been tied to the pouch, and its weight and mass meant it would be far easier for Wynne to catch compared to the flighty paper flags.
She deftly caught the pouch and pulled the connected string closer to her so she could attach it in the proper spot. "Bessie Robinson dishin' out gossip… Lawrdie. Imagine that," she said with a chuckle as she undid the knot and hooked the pouch onto the snap hook hanging from one of her belt loops - the pouch was no longer needed since it was the final string of flags of the thirty they had been tasked with putting up. "Well, there, De-per-ty Mandy… wus it som'tin I jus' can't live without knowin'?"
Before Mandy answered, Wynne used the noisy nail gun to fix the flags to the leading edge of the wooden frame of the Yarn Spinners' porch roof.
"No, I think you know it already. When were you going to tell me about your ex-husband Phillip?" Mandy said with her tongue stuck firmly in her cheek for once.
Upstairs, Ernie let out a sound of raw amusement that was a mix of a chortle, a snort and a grunt. Wynne simply froze in place. She wanted nothing more than to pull her beloved cowboy hat down to cover her eyes, but the nail gun was in the way and it was far too expensive to simply let go - besides, not being able to see where she was would be hazardous to her health considering her precarious position twelve feet off the ground. "Mah… ex… husban'… Phillip?"
Mandy nodded. "That's what Bessie said."
"Lawwwwr-die… anybodda know when ol' Bessie's next birthday is?" Wynne said in a semi-embarrassed croak. " 'Cos, Mercy Sakes, Ah'mma-gonn' buy her a hearin' aid. Mah ex-husban' Phillip… naw. Naw, Ah gotta… Ah gotta get down from he' or else Ah'mma-gonn' fall on mah ass an' that's gonn' hurt like a flamin' sombitch if Ah do it from way up he'…"
Wynne fumbled down the many rungs of the tall ladder until she had her safety boots firmly on the sidewalk once more. After putting down the nail gun and taking off her sturdy gloves, she had to rub her flushed face several times before she could face the music. "Numbah one, yuh, that wus one o' mah ex'es in that there sporty cahr… numbah two, naw, it wussen Phillip, but Phyllis. Phyllis O'Connell. An' numbah three, De-per-ty, it wus a dang-blasted eon ago! Ah'm talkin' twelve-thirteen years an' change!"
Mandy's left eyebrow crawled up her forehead in a clear display of not quite believing what she heard, but she was unable to hold the stern facade for long. Chuckling, she reached out to deliver a playful slap against Wynne's tummy that made Ernie let out an "Awwwwww!" from somewhere upstairs.
Soon, the two most important people in Wynne's life began to chuckle, and then laugh out loud. The laughter made Wynne let out a deep sigh of relief and roll her eyes toward the sky. "Lawrdie, Ah need a beer… an' when Ah say Ah need a beer, Ah mean Ah need it like Ah ain't nevah needed one befo'!" she croaked while she rubbed her flushed face.
The next day - Independence Day - ten AM.
The familiar sound of a hammer striking metal rolled around the open area between the mobile homes in the trailer park eight miles south of Goldsboro. The hammer blows soon stopped only to be replaced by a few turns of a ratchet wrench and a subsequent deep sigh from an unseen source.
Up in the cab of the recalcitrant Chevrolet truck, the German Shepherd Blackie offered her puzzled Golden Retriever companion Goldie an explanation through a series of brief yaps, barks and woofs. Goldie seemed to understand as she leaned her golden head out of the passenger-side window to look down at the pair of sneakers that stuck out from underneath the old vehicle.
Between the truck and the gravelly ground, Wynne rested her hat-less head on the workshop rolling board she had temporarily borrowed from Diego Benitez' tool shed. She stared up at the underside of the engine in general and at the starter motor in particular - it continued to be a pain in her neck.
Mumbling a long line of juicy cusswords, she inched back out on the rolling board, clambered to her feet and tried to twist the ignition key for the seventh time that morning. By a sheer miracle, the connection was made and the old truck's engine came to life.
She let it idle for thirty seconds before she shut the hood and slipped out of the old coat she had worn backwards - like a straitjacket - so her nice clothes would remain free of dust, gravel and the oil that dripped down from not only the engine but the transmission and the rear-end housing as well.
"Lawrdie…" she croaked as she fluffed out her white tank top and the pale-blue lightweight shirt that would protect her shoulders and arms from the merciless sun over the course of the day, "serves me right fer not wantin' ta ride with Ernie… or them Tooleys… or ol' man Petrusco… or Diego. But they all be drivin' them there Fohrd vee-hickels! Aw, that jus' woudden be right…"
Blackie let out a Woof? like she was wondering who her owner spoke to.
Not noticing, Wynne continued her one-sided, mumbled conversation while she shuffled around the truck inspecting all the old and recent spillages of oil and other types of liquid that seemed to leak from it here, there and everywhere: "They all asked oh-so-kindly but I hadda say 'noooooo, ain't no need fer that, deah neighbah, 'cos I done fixed that there dang-blasted truck las'night.' Well, dog-gone'it, it wus fixed! 'Cept it wussen… or it broke ag'in. Gosh-darn'it. Mebbe I oughtta signal them there space aliens or somebodda… anybodda… so they could come an' blow up this he' piece-a cow flop jus' like that othah truck they done blew up all them years ago…"
A quick wiggle made sure her denim shorts were in place as well before she grabbed her cowboy hat she had left suspended on the tip of the Chevrolet's radio antenna. "Ya dawggies need ta hang on fer a minute longah… I jus' gotta put this he' rollin' board back inta the shed where I took it. Yuh?"
A pair of woof-woofs proved the dogs agreed, even if they were concerned with their owner's mental state.
Climbing up into the cab, Wynne grabbed hold of the steering wheel and the gear shifter. "Blackie, Goldie… y'all still fih-ne ovah yondah? Jus' lemme know when y'all need some more watah or them there yummy dawggie treats y'all got in that there coolah box, yuh?"
When an affirmative Woof! and a friendly-sounding yap came back at her, she selected reverse and backed away from their trailer. The short distance over to the two-lane State Route was quickly dealt with, but she hadn't counted on needing to wait for a gap in traffic before she and her dogs could set off for Goldsboro.
The needed gap finally presented itself between an eight-seater minibus and a Ford pickup truck that was even larger than Ernie's F350. "Dang-blasted, we be ten minutes late alreddy an' we hardly even left that dag-nabbin' trailah park! We still need ta drive there an' find someplace ta park an'… Mercy Sakes, I sure do hope mah sweet, li'l De-per-ty Mandy ain't gonn' be too upset with me. I done tole her ta wait fer me, but I ain't nevah figgered it would take this dang long jus' ta get goin'!"
Blackie nodded like she understood every word of her owner's whining. Goldie didn't have time for anything apart from sitting with her head out of the window soaking up the headwind that was still warm but at least somewhat fresher.
"Awwwwwww-shit…" Wynne said as she pulled up to the tail-end of an endless line of cars, SUVs and trucks that all waited to drive past the city limits sign at the southern tip of Goldsboro. It seemed the deputy sheriffs had set up a traffic control post by the sign so they could perform driver's license, vehicle registration and insurance checks of all who headed into town for the big event. She was soon able to spot Mandy in the distance as well as Barry Simms and the fresh-faced deputy-in-training Walter Thompson, jr. - Barry was the easiest to spot because of the constant cloud of cigarette smoke that hovered above him near the center of the two-lane road.
The Chevrolet truck had barely come to a halt before the sun's rays pounding down on it made the reading on the small digital thermometer sticky-gummed to the dashboard go into the red. Although the ambient temperature was still manageable due to the early hour of the day, the lack of a functioning air-condition unit sent a few beads of sweat down the sides of Wynne's head. Worse, similar lines of sweat trickled down her front where they soon reached, and ran around, parts they had no right to be at.
Tapping her fingers on the steering wheel, she sighed when she thought of the simple but frustrating reason for the lack of air-conditioning: the entire reservoir of A/C coolant had leaked out of a cracked pipe, and there was no point in replenishing the fluid because she couldn't afford to replace or even fix the damaged pipe - which meant the fluid would just leak out all over again.
"Yuh, I know it's gettin' too dang-blasted hot in he', but it ain't all bad news, girls, nosirree," she said as she reached over to muss Blackie and Goldie's fur. "I be seein' mah sweet, li'l De-per-ty Mandy ovah yondah. An' bettah still, I ain't be seein' that there nasty skunk Artie Rains anywhere. Mebbe that sombitch started his Fourth o' Jooo-lai celebra-shuns early or som'tin. Les'hope he's gonn' stay away fer the whole dang day."
Blackie let out a strong Woof! that proved she agreed. Goldie just whimpered and used her muzzle to pop open the lid of the cooler box that had been put down in the footwell. Soon, the clever golden dog drank from the doggie tray inside the box. The bag with the treats was right next to it, so a few of those vanished as well.
After passing the inspection of her driver's license, vehicle registration and insurance papers with flying colors - although Barry Simms had tried his worst to choke her and her dogs half to death with his foul-smelling waste tobacco cigarettes - Wynne resumed driving into Goldsboro with Blackie and Goldie discussing the upcoming events between themselves in a series of happy yaps. She had hoped to apologize to Mandy for being late, but the deputies were too busy at the traffic control post to bother them with private matters.
There were vehicles everywhere: large, larger and grotesquely huge trucks and SUVs filled out every square inch of the alleys and private parking spaces around Goldsboro. Someone had brought a Chevrolet Aveo, and the stamp-sized city car looked as if it could fit up on the flatbed of one of its larger brethren and still have plenty of room to open the doors.
The massive congestion wasn't helped by the fact that the Town Council had implemented a temporary no-parking zone on both sides of Main Street between the southern and the northern city limits signs so the floats, parade vehicles and marching bands could pass through unhindered. The idea was sound, but the consequences went far beyond what the men and women on the council had expected.
Wynne, Blackie and Goldie were eventually forced to follow a series of Detour signs that had been put up every sixty feet or so. Promising a parking lot at the end of the proverbial rainbow, they took the trio down a narrow alley and all the way out to the back gardens of the last row of town houses on the western outskirts of Goldsboro.
"What a dang-blasted mess this is. Lawrdie! Look at all them trucks! Wheredahell all these he' nice folks be comin' from, anyhows?! Aw, we ain't nevah gonn' find a dag-nabbin place ta park, fer cryin' out loud," Wynne growled as she needed to turn sharp left, then sharp right, then an easier left and finally an easy right to enter the vast parking lot that had been set up halfway out of town. "Snakes Alive… an' jus' think o' when we's gonn' hafta find the dang truck ag'in when we be goin' home tanight!"
Goldie nodded and let out a brief yap of sympathy - perhaps she thought of her own four paws that would undoubtedly end up hot and tired after what promised to be a long day. Blackie was too busy guiding her owner into the proper aisle through a series of woof-woofs to think of anything else.
Wynne grinned when she found a gap just wide enough for a Chevrolet K10 between a similar, but much newer, truck and an old Jeep Waggoneer from the early 1970s. It took a little cajoling to get her old truck to line up properly, but she eventually slipped into the spot and turned off the engine.
Before she had time to climb down, a spotty teenager wearing sneakers, Bermuda shorts, a neutral T-shirt and an NFL cap came up to the open window carrying a small shoulder bag and holding what appeared to be a tear-off pad containing small, bright-blue notes of some kind. "Hiya. Welcome to Goldsboro," he said in a fair, pre-pubescent voice that didn't match his somewhat rotund frame.
"Howdy, pardner. Don't need no map, thanks. I know mah way 'round 'cos I been he' a million times befo'," Wynne said with a grin as she climbed down from the truck. She held the door open so her dogs could follow her down; Blackie did, but Goldie preferred to wait for her own door to be opened before she dared to jump down from the tall vehicle.
"It's not a map, Miss. That'll be five dollars," the teen continued.
Wynne narrowed her eyes in a hurry - Blackie began to growl at the news. "Beg' pardon? Wotcha want five dollahs for? Ah ain't done nuttin' wrong or nuttin'… have Ah? Ah mean, Ah only been he' a minute, dad-gummit!"
"It's a parking charge, Miss. Five dollars for a-"
"Five. Bucks. Fer. Parkin'?! What, y'all be thinkin' Ah'm that there oil tycoon J.R. Ewin' or somebodda? Or Wotshisname Rockahfellah? Well, Ah ain't, son!"
The teen gulped. Blackie growled. Wynne fell quiet but pinned the young fellow to the spot with an ice-blue glare. The teen gulped harder. Blackie growled louder. The teen's eyes began to flicker around seeking a quick escape.
Wynne eventually relented and dug into a pocket of her denim shorts for her wallet. Finding a five dollar bill, she gave it to the teenager who tore a parking permission off his pad and handed it to her.
"You need to put it on the dashboard so the parking attendants can verify… that… you… have… have a nice day, Miss," he said before he interrupted himself to hurry away from the increasingly icy, not to mention menacingly silent, Wynne Donohue before it would be too late.
"Lawrdie, this wussen the start I wanted fer this he' celebra-shun…" Wynne mumbled after a short while. "Five bucks fer parkin'. Buncha dang-blasted stoo-piddity if ya ask me. But I ain't gonn' let it get me down, nosirree."
Blackie sat down on the grassy field and looked up at her owner. A whimper from Goldie on the other side of the Chevrolet made Wynne shuffle over there to present a safe means to get out for the Golden Retriever.
"Down ya go, there, Goldie… that's mah girl!" Wynne said as the golden-furred canine jumped past her and down onto the grass. Once the doors had been locked, Wynne reached into the tool box on the truck's bed to find a pair of leashes for the dogs. "C'mon, girls, y'all need ta leash up. I'm sure y'all remember that there mean sombitch Sheriff Rains? Well, that nasty crittah is kinda insistin' on y'all be wearin' them there leashes, so… yuh."
Goldie accepted the leash being clicked onto her collar without drama, but Blackie was less happy on the whole. She let out several whines and growls while she shook her black head a couple of times to get used to the feel of having her freedom restricted. The clever dog knew it was a necessary evil if she and Goldie were to come along, so she took it in her stride - mostly.
Goldsboro's Main Street was awash in activity of the pleasantly unhurried and stressless kind even before the Independence Day parades had started. Many different age groups, ethnicities and colors of the rainbow were represented on the sidewalks as a heaving mass of people moved this way, that way and every other way.
Accidental knocks and bumping incidents were inevitable, and the cheery mood was occasionally broken by piercing wails or shouts when an ice cream cone hit the pavement rather than the palate, when ketchup from a hamburger or hot dog found a new home on someone else's shirt, or when the liquid contents of a cup or can insisted on sloshing over and ending up in the shoes of the person who had bought it.
Despite a few jabs and barbs thrown here and there when fans of opposing sports teams met on the sidewalks, the atmosphere was remarkably trouble-free and family-friendly. A large part was due to the tightening of the no-alcohol policy imposed on the owners of the various bars and vendors by the Goldsboro Town Council. Already strict to begin with, the policy had been expanded into acting as a temporary blanket ban against any sale of alcoholic coolers, mixers, wine, hard liquor and beer - save for non-alcoholic brands - until nine PM on the evening of the fifth of July. The ban was monitored by spot checks by the deputies of the Sheriff's Department, and since few wanted to get on Artie Rains' bad side, most played along.
Wynne noted with a certain degree of pride that nearly all of the Stars & Stripes flags that she and Ernie had worked so hard to attach to the various porch roofs and lamp posts across town continued to flutter nicely in the hot breeze. The flags made of cloth seemed to hold up better than those made of paper - a few of the latter type had blown off the strings and were swirling around on the sidewalks. In any case, the red, white and blue added plenty of color to the already festive event.
She and her happy dogs strolled along the sidewalk on the east side of Main Street to remain in the shadows of the buildings for as long as possible. As the trio passed by the jail house next to the sheriff's office itself, Wynne locked eyes with the newest full-time deputy in Goldsboro, Thomas 'Tom Thumb' Kincaid. The unsavory mid-twenty-something fellow with the pasty hue and the unpleasant eyes waited outside the offices with his hands stuck firmly down the pockets of his dark-brown Polyester uniform pants. Wynne had barely moved past him before he let out a wolf call at her that made her skin crawl.
A variety of music played from several sources without being intrusive or too loud, and countless fragrances rose from portable grills cooking sausages, steaks, hamburgers, barbecue drumsticks and all the other firm favorites. There was even a kebab vendor present, but he saw little business yet.
Several of the store owners had put up booths in front of their shops where they presented their wares to all the new people in town. The Tack & Saddle, the renowned leather goods store, seemed to have strong sales when it came to wallets and gloves despite the hot weather. As Wynne strolled past the alley next to the shop, she couldn't help but chuckle at the thought of Ernie being busted and subsequently given a large fine by Mandy as he was urinating against the shop's wall last Halloween.
A long groan escaped her when she looked ahead once more. She came to a hard stop in the middle of the sidewalk which forced other people to move around her on both sides: no more than thirty feet ahead of her, one of the well-dressed and fiercely persistent strike teams from the Virgin Tower religious organization was bearing down upon her.
Spinning around - the rapid maneuver nearly got Blackie and Goldie's leashes tangled up - she intended to backtrack until she could cross over Main Street, but what she saw at the door to the sheriff's office was even worse:
Unknowingly cutting off Wynne's only means of escape, the bulky Artie Rains stepped out onto the sidewalk holding a mug of coffee and a lit cigar while keeping an eye on the proceedings.
Groaning again, Wynne spun around once more only to find herself face to face with the leader of the Virgin Tower evangelists - it all made Game Over flash before her eyes in red letters.
The young, clean-cut fellow seemed as startled as Wynne to begin with, but he soon overcame his surprise and slipped into his typically slick persona. He broke out in a wide and only slightly fake smile while he held out a copy of their interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. It wasn't long before he began his well-rehearsed performance.
Fourteen minutes and seven utterances of "Lissen, Ah really gotta go now, son…" later, Wynne finally escaped the clutches of the strike team and resumed strolling along the eastern side of Main Street. Blackie and Goldie continued to yap and play merrily despite needing to wear the leashes.
The religious people had given her a quick-read pamphlet that offered her thirty tips and a few guidelines on how to live a life that would guarantee her progression to the Highest Level of Spiritual Existence. Even though it had been written by the Forty-Eighth Grand Master personally, she promptly dumped it into the nearest available trash can.
As she reached the spot on the sidewalk that was opposite Moira's Bar & Grill, she slowly came to a halt to cast a sorrowful glance at her old workplace. Blackie and Goldie took advantage of the break by finding a shady spot just shy of the outer reach of their leashes. The dogs looked at each other and let out brief yaps that were no less sorrowful than their owner's glance - they missed the fun and games that always took place at the bar, and especially around the pool table that was their home away from home.
Over at Moira's, it seemed the spirits were already high among a cast of friendly faces whom Wynne knew oh-so-well from her time managing the sizzling stoves, pots, pans and French fry baskets. She had been part of the initial planning of the outdoors event, but breaking Moira's trust in her had prevented her from being a part of the enjoyable execution of said plan. Worse, her pride now prevented her from going over there to simply say hello to her friends and acquaintances.
Moira MacKay had created a calm oasis in the middle of the busy sidewalk by renting four round tables that featured matching parasols. From there, she served iced tea, chilled sodas and freshly-pressed orange juice and lemonade while a portable gas-cooking stove took care of various traditional barbecue dishes for the Grand Independence Day BBQ Cook-Out. The round tables all carried red-and-white checkered tablecloths and were equipped with the traditional reed baskets holding napkins, bags of toothpicks, salt and pepper shakers and the pre-requisite bottles of ketchup, mustard and hot sauce.
At the first of the round tables, the hefty councilwoman Mary-Lou Skinner ate a hamburger with metal cutlery while her foppish close friend Wyatt Elliott used a plastic fork to nip at a salad of some kind - as always, he wore an outfit better suited for a full-scale presidential inauguration rather than a local Fourth of July parade.
If Wynne had been allowed to complete her part of Moira's plan, she would have been eating at the second of the round tables as it was reserved for the folks living in the trailer park south of Goldsboro. She would still have needed to work the stoves to cook their food, but the plan had been that the temp Moira had hired would take over the cooking duties once Wynne had joined her neighbors.
Ernie Bradberry wore a surprisingly elegant denim outfit complete with a bolo tie that Wynne could only remember seeing him wear once before. Though he smiled while he chatted, it was obvious from the way he kept licking his lips and scratching his cheek that he had a strong hankering for something a little more potent than what the silvery can of non-alcoholic beer in front of him could provide. Ernie spoke to the elderly Zoltan Petrusco who seemed a bit bowled over by all the brouhaha. The other cheerful people at the table were Diego Benitez - who had used an entire tube of gel to tame his famous full head of pitch-black hair - and the Tooleys, Frank and Estelle, who kept a close eye on their young daughter Renee so she wouldn't get in too much trouble too soon.
Several familiar regulars from Moira's were found sitting at the last two tables, including Geoffrey Wilburr Senior and Junior as well as Roscoe Finch, Junior's close friend from the Goldsboro Pool Association. The young fellows had a pair of blonde, bosomy dates with them, but the ladies in question seemed more interested in their telephones than being social.
The expert veterinarian Doctor Byron Gibbs was involved in a seemingly intense discussion with the chicken farmers Morton and Evie Fredericksen, and the retired professional wrestler Joe-Bob 'Manbeast Of Yucky Flats' Millard sat by himself like he always did - he was far too busy eating to have time to chat with the others: the gallon of Coke and the mountain of barbecued chicken, coleslaw and baked potatoes in front of him would see him occupied for at least half an hour.
A constant soundtrack of high-pitched yapping came from Mary-Lou Skinner's new dog that was tied to one of the legs of the chair the councilwoman sat in. Like its predecessor that had been an unfortunate victim of the zombie invasion at Halloween, it was a short-tempered Chihuahua that had gotten itself completely tangled up in its leash by tearing around the chair ceaselessly.
The sight of the tiny Chihuahua's non-stop temper tantrums made the far calmer Goldie let out a prolonged Woooooof that could be interpreted as 'Sheesh, what an incurable hothead.' Blackie let out a brief bark that proved she didn't really care either way.
A compact, athletic frame dressed in a hideous combo of dark and pale-brown Polyester came up to stand next to Wynne without the tall woman noticing. Blackie and Goldie did, however, and their happy woof'ing made Wynne snap out of her gloomy state. A wide smile spread over her face as she took in the exquisite sight of her partner in uniform. "Ooooh! Howdy there, De-per-ty Mandy!" she said with a grin.
"Hi. It's really sad to see you over here by yourself. I wish you and Moira could have found a middle ground, hon," Mandy said and leaned in to give the taller woman a slight nudge with her elbow - deputies kissing civilians while on patrol would set a dangerous precedent. The dogs soon circled her legs, and the yapping canines were given a good fur-rubbing.
"Yuh. So do I," Wynne said as she cast a final glance at the round tables across the street. Sighing, she turned her full attention to the deputy sheriff next to her. "Watah undah the bridge. It wussen meant ta be. Anyhows. Y'all been busy taday?"
"A little, but it's been okay so far," Mandy said while she let her experienced eyes trickle over the large amount of happy people everywhere around them.
"Good. Aw-yuh… I'm sorry fer gettin' he' late. That dang truck obvis'ly hadda act up when me an' them dawggies wus saposed ta go. An' then there wus traffic all ovah the dang-blasted place… bumpah ta bumpah, I'm tellin' ya! Aw, I guess y'alreddy familiar with that part seein' how ya wus out at that there traffic control an' all."
"You're here now so it doesn't matter. You need to watch out, though… the Virgin Tower people-"
Wynne shook her head and looked skyward. "Too late, there, De-per-ty! But I sure do 'preciate the warnin' an' all. It wus jus' a li'l too late!"
"All right. I'll try to be quicker in the future," Mandy said and nudged Wynne once more. Looking up, she noticed the somber look in her partner's blue eyes as they had drifted back to the cheerful cook-out across the street. "Wynne, if you think it would help, I wouldn't mind talking to Moira…"
Wynne let out a deep sigh. The offer was tempting, but she knew Moira MacKay too well to have even the faintest shimmer of hope that it would improve the situation. "Naw. Ain't gonn' do no good whatsoevah. She done made up her mind an' ain't nuttin' or nobodda gonn' change that. I done made up mah mind too, fer that matter. But thanks, anyhows."
"You're welcome… oh, I'm supposed to be on patrol so I guess I better be on my way," Mandy said and reached out to give Wynne's hand a gentle squeeze. "The parade's about to start. I promise I'll find you once the bands and floats start coming past. Okay?"
"You betcha, there, De-per-ty Mandy! Can't wait," Wynne said with a grin.
Down on the ground, Blackie and Goldie were treated to a little more ear-scratching and fur-rubbing before the deputy sheriff continued up Main Street headed for the northern end of Goldsboro.
Wynne kept a steady eye on Mandy's physique until the athletic woman was absorbed by the crowd. Chuckling, she eventually tugged at Blackie and Goldie's leashes to let the dogs know it was time to go somewhere else - and to find something else to ogle.
A rock-steady cadence of loud boom-boom-booms on a bass drum signaled the opening bars of one of John Philip Sousa's countless evergreens and thus the grand Independence Day parade itself. A cheer loud enough to drown out the bass drum and the rest of the first drum and bugle corps that had lined up on Main Street rose from the large assembly of party-goers.
Wynne let out a powerful "Yeeee-haaaaaaaw! Gawd bless 'merica!" and waved her cowboy hat high in the air as a detachment of baton-twirling, colorfully dressed ladies at the head of the column displayed plenty of high-kicking and other types of extravagant legwork. The next groups who marched past to a brassy soundtrack carried large flags that were thrown high into the air and - nearly - always caught upon their return.
She had set her smartphone to vibrate rather than ring, and the tickling sensation that rose from the pocket of her denim shorts proved someone was trying to get in touch with her. She grinned when the caller-ID said it was Mandy. "Howdy, there, De-per-ty Mandy! Whassup?"
'I'm really sorry, Wynne, but I can't join you at the parade… or at least not right now.'
"Awww… gosh-darn'it! Me an' them dawggies wus so lookin' forward ta havin' ya he' an' mebbe sharin' a soda pop an' some pork rinds or popcorn or som'tin…"
'I know, but I've been detained at the holding cells. We've just arrested a fool who used the hubbub to rob Iverson's Bar… or tried to. He didn't know that Derrike Iverson keeps a baseball bat under the counter.'
"Ooooh! Owch… yuh, that there Mista Ivahson sure knows how ta treat them there crooks… an' Lawrdie, he got one helluva mean swing, too! I done saw that once, ack-chew-ly, when there wus a bust-up in the bar an' ol' Ivahson done stepped in an'-"
A fumble was heard over the connection. Something boomed in the background swiftly followed by Mandy's voice that had turned into a whisper: 'Gotta go. Rains is here. Talk later.'
Wynne nodded though she knew Mandy wouldn't be able to see it. After closing the connection, she stuck the telephone back into the pocket of her shorts. "That dang-blasted Sheriff… always interruptin' when me an' mah sweet, li'l De-per-ty be talkin'," she mumbled to herself as she craned her neck to have a look-see. Her spot on the sidewalk offered her a glimpse of the jail house next to the sheriff's office, but there didn't seem to be anything unusual going on in front of it. Shrugging, she moved her attention back to the colorful show closer to her.
After the initial marching bands, bugle corps and high-kicking cheerleaders had gone by, several agricultural tractors rumbled past pulling magnificently decorated flatbed trailers highlighting various events that had happened in the past year or so. The first of those was the Miss Dairy Queen celebration - it was hard to say if the prize-winning heifer or the pageant-winning human Miss Milkmaid looked the most uncomfortable being that close to each other. The latter waved to the crowd, but her smile seemed strained and perhaps not entirely genuine.
The next flatbed trailer was home to a group of rodeo clowns. One of them was dressed up as a bull while the others displayed their impressive skills in evading the raging animal, and the silliness garnered plenty of laughs from the spectators.
Wynne found herself wondering if one of the flatbeds or floats would highlight the zombie cannibal invasion the past Halloween, but she reckoned all that guts and gore would make a pleasant show for the kiddies. Down at her feet, Blackie seemed to read her mind and shook her black head. Goldie was too busy soaking up the cheerful atmosphere around them to have time to read anyone's mind.
A few tractors rumbled past carrying signs from some of the parade's sponsors - Pistols, Revolvers, Rifles, Shotguns at 'Friendly' Sam McCabe's! 100% Customer Satisfaction Guaranteed! and Go For The Best! Go For Big Sizzler's Wieners 'n Frankfurters! - before another decorated flatbed trailer came past featuring a group of Old West re-enactors complete with trappers, cowboys and saloon girls. The people shot blanks in the air with their old Colt .45s and even older blunderbusses that, much to the delight of the spectators, created a lot of noise and clouds of smoke.
Several more marching bands filed past to constant shouts of appreciation from the crowd who had gathered five-deep all along Main Street to see the sights. Wynne had an edge over most of the others nearest her because of her height, but even she missed a few things here and there when she was momentarily shuffled back from the front line.
The sound of racing engines purring along made her push her way back to the head of the lines to get a full view of the vehicles. The first was a privately built tube-frame special with sheet metal resembling a pickup truck like those seen in NASCAR's Race Truck division. Its proportions weren't quite right, but it was a good effort and it drew a cheer from the spectators.
The other one turned out to be none other than Phyllis O'Connell in her crowd-pleasing GM Goodwrench-replica '88 Monte Carlo. The tough dame was behind the wheel of the street-legal car as expected while one of the members of her race team rode along in the passenger seat. The young man held a video camera out of the window to film the spectators they trickled past.
When Phyllis spotted Wynne at the side of the road, she stuck out her gloved hand to wave - then she blipped the throttle a couple of times which not only scared a few of the children on the sidewalks but made one of the nearby cheerleaders shriek and drop her baton.
Wynne waved back out of politeness, but only briefly.
Once the noisy racing cars had gone past, the schedule said there would be a five-minute staging break before the parade would resume. Deputies Simms, Kincaid and Thompson quickly tied red-white-and-blue demarcation tape across Main Street to give the spectators a chance to cross over to the other side if they so desired - many did, including Wynne who had spotted Ernie Bradberry speaking to surprise returnee Rodolfo Gonzalez. She, Blackie and Goldie were soon strolling down the sidewalk on the west side of Main Street to get closer to her friends.
"Howdy, fellas!" she cried to be heard over the hubbub.
"Hiya, Wynne," Ernie said - as always, he held a silvery can of beer in his hand.
Rodolfo just grinned and waved at the tall woman. Once the two dogs were close enough, he crouched down and pulled them into a double-hug. Liberated from the confines of the horrible Polyester uniform for once, Rodolfo's burgundy windbreaker, black T-shirt and dark-gray pants with fashionable creases made the handsome fellow look completely different. A thin, golden chain around his left wrist and a matching necklace that carried a crucifix formed a fetching contrast to the pale-brown tone of his skin. After plenty of loving had been dished out to the two dogs, he got back on his feet and put out his hand for the traditional greeting. "Hi, Wynne. What a fabulous event, huh?"
"Sure is, Rodolfo," Wynne said with a grin as she shook the deputy's hand. She was momentarily distracted by a rich fragrance of freshly-made barbecued chicken that teased her nostrils, but she soon remembered her manners and looked Rodolfo in the eye as she spoke: "Say, wussen ya saposed ta be ovah in that there Jarrod City fer some kind o' trainin' or some such? Marksmanship trainin' I bah-lieve it wus?"
"That's right, but we have the day off. Precision shooting. And the instructor is a real piece of work."
"Yuh-huh? So what else is new…" Wynne said with a grin. "Preci-shun shootin'… how 'bout that. I guess it ain't gonn' be long befo' y'all can shoot the ass off a brass monkey at three-hundred paces or some such…"
Rodolfo waved his hand dismissively and let out a "Pffff! That's nothing… I can do that now, Wynne!"
"Lawwwr-die! Remind me ta nevah put mah set o' brass monkeys on mah porch, then!"
Ernie just chuckled and took a long swig from his beer. Down on the sidewalk, Blackie and Goldie had also picked up the scent of the barbecued chicken that continued to swirl around, but their leashes meant they couldn't explore where it came from. For once, it was Goldie who growled - Blackie had enough experience and patience to know that good things always came to the people and dogs who could wait.
"Yeah," Rodolfo continued. "Anyway, Jarrod City is a real snoozer of a town. There's the training center, a small-scale shopping mall and a park with a dried-up fountain. I knew there would be all kinds of things going on back home, so… I went home."
"An' we sure be glad ta have ya, yessirree. Ain't that so, Ernie?"
"You betcha," Ernie said and drained the final drops from the can of beer. "Ya want one?" he continued when he noticed how hard Wynne stared at the beer.
Wynne eventually forced herself to look at her friend's face rather than at the can he held. "Yuh… but naw. Them star-packahs 'round he' are real sticklahs fer that there new-fangled no-drinkin' law o' theirs. They gonn' haul mah ass off ta them there holdin' cells fer sure if they bust me drinkin' beer."
"That's true… we do encourage people to uphold the law," Deputy Sheriff Gonzalez said sporting a wide grin.
"Yuh. An' honestly, Ernie," Wynne continued, "I ain't too sure why ya dare be drinkin' beer out in the open like this. Ya know how mean-spirited that durn Sheriff Rains is… he don't need no excuse even on his good days… an' he ain't nevah got no good days!"
"Oh, it's been fully approved. It's a non-alcoholic beer. Look, H.E. Fenwyck Double-Zero," Ernie said and pointed at the silvery can's logo.
Wynne's lips pulled back in a horrified grimace at the news. It got so bad that Rodolfo laughed out loud and Blackie let out a Woof? at the sight. "Lawwwwr-die! In that case… nuh-uh! I ain't gonn' be drinkin' none o' that there dishwatah, Ernie! What, ya tryin' ta poison me or som'tin? I thought we wus buds!" she croaked, clearly reeling at the mere thought of letting a non-alcoholic beer run past her choosy tastebuds.
"Believe it or not, Wynne," Rodolfo said. "It's actually pretty good. Honest!"
Wynne continued to grimace and shake her head at the mere suggestion that a beer without alcohol could be any good whatsoever. "Ah-haw… but naw. Uh-uh. No way. Nuh-uh…"
"Suit yourself," Ernie said with a grin. It seemed he needed to introduce his neighbor to the wider world of beer, and he was definitely looking forward to the challenge. "How about a tray of barbecue chicken drumsticks and a Coke instead? My treat."
"Now that's one o' them there offahs I can agree with, yessirree!" Wynne said, but her initial excitement faded for a moment along with the smile on her face as it dawned on her that the drumsticks had to come from Moira's cook-out. She chewed on her lips a couple of times before the smile returned accompanied by a nod.
A handful of minutes later, the deputy sheriffs had moved the demarcation tape back to the spectator enclosures to allow the grand parade to resume with all the pomp and circumstance that involved. The first group filing past was another college marching band who played a brassy rendition of The Stars & Stripes Forever.
Hot on their heels came several squads of young, middle-aged and senior war veterans who had all served the nation in the various wars fought in the past five decades or so. The squads marched along Main Street in reverse chronological order, and the unit commanders carried regimental flags to show which branch of the armed forces they belonged to.
A vintage, olive-green half-track from the National Guard Historical Register jingled along at the tail-end of the marching veterans. It was pulling a trailer that had been equipped with side panels and benches to allow those of the war veterans who couldn't march to still have a presence at the Independence Day parade. The Nestor among the men was a ninety-five-year-old who had been one of the Marines 'hopping' from one island to the next in the Pacific Theater. The merciless march of time meant he was the only one left of the many locals who had fought in World War II.
All the spectators clapped, whistled, cheered and saluted the veterans and their helpers as the marching squads and the half-track vehicle moved past the heaving mass of people. Plenty of American flags were waved to create a sea of red, white and blue to offset the modern camouflaged uniforms worn by the men and women at the head of the marching line.
Wynne only had one hand free so clapping was out of the question for her - instead, she let out several loud whistles and even louder whoops at the soldiers to let them know how much they were appreciated. Her other hand was holding a tray laden with four barbecue drumsticks that were as juicy as they were steaming-hot. She had made enough of them to see that the temporary cook Moira had hired as a stop-gap replacement knew what he was doing. The dish would ordinarily have been served with spicy gravy or some other type of seasoning sauce, but her drumsticks were all alone on the tray.
The reason for the absence of the tasty accessory was explained when Ernie held up a small, brown ceramic jug while sporting a cheeky grin. "I hope you're ready to be awed 'cos I've been fiddlin' a little with the recipe of my legendary hot sauce. The results are almost too good to be true, let me tell you. Oh, and this is the mild version 'cos I know that's the one you like best."
"My gut thanks ye, Ernie," Wynne said and broke out in a snicker that made Goldie and Blackie look up and shoot her puzzled looks. "Y'all bettah bah-lieve I'm reddy! Drown them chicky-sticks!" she continued as she held out the tray.
Grinning, her friendly neighbor poured a fair-sized glob of his home-made hot sauce all over the four drumsticks. Brownish in color save for the red flakes of dried chili that floated around just under the surface, the ketchup-based sauce contained several different kinds of ground peppers and spices as well as apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, honey, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, pure lemon juice, a touch of garlic and, of course, Ernie's special, super-secret vegetable ingredient that he would only disclose the nature of if he was given the keys to the H.E. Fenwyck Brewery Corporation distribution central.
"Awwww-yuh!" Wynne said as she grabbed the first drumstick and dunked it in the sea of sauce. She didn't bother with a napkin which left her fingers and chin coated in just as much sauce as the cardboard tray. The drumstick with the crispy skin and the juicy meat were chowed on with great relish, and the constant nodding and groaning were hints that she strongly approved of not only the quality of the dish but Ernie's efforts as well.
The parade carried on while Wynne ate and Ernie cracked open another can of non-alcoholic beer. Several floats drove past that featured pupils from the MacLean County Elementary School further south in Cavanaugh Creek; the children were dressed up in a curious mix of the Founding Fathers and little angels - the latter wore fluffy wings, halos and painted stars attached to short sticks that were waved around to the rhythm played by the nearest marching band.
Behind the little angels, a 1950s-vintage Peterbilt truck pulled a two-axled trailer where a few of the event's sponsors had placed large advertising boards. Among other things, Otto Kulick, jr.'s Bang-N-Beatin' Body Shop offered $25 discounts to all customers booking a spot for changing mufflers, shocks or brakes, but only if they did so before ten PM that same evening.
Wynne thought about giving the body shop a call. Her old truck could use all three - not to mention a new starter motor - but the sign didn't make it clear if she would get a $75 discount or just $25. Her drumsticks and Ernie's hot sauce ultimately stole her attention, and she forgot all about the limited offer.
Further race cars from the evening's big event up at Thunder Park Raceway were paraded on the back of two flatbeds pulled by the teams' support trucks - the cars were competing in the class known as Modifieds so they weren't street legal. Wynne waved her hat at the people presenting the colorful vehicles, one of whom was Johnny Lee Norton who had mistaken her for his former colleague's second cousin twice removed the day before.
"Do you need more sauce, Wynne?" Ernie said as he held up the little brown jug.
"Nuh-uh, I'm good," Wynne mumbled around a piece of chicken. She chewed hard for a few seconds before she could flash her friend from the trailer park a grateful grin that wouldn't involve having things stuck between her teeth. "Mercy Sakes, Ernie… this he' hawt sawce is some o' the really good stuff, yessirree! Lawwwr-die, I ain't shittin' ya when I say ya outdone yerself on this he' mixture!"
A loud, hostile roar of "Dumb-ahue!" suddenly cut through the air. The comment slapped Wynne across both cheeks and made her gain a sour expression like she had just stepped in something nasty. Goldie whimpered and Blackie growled from somewhere deep down her throat, but that was nothing new.
The pleasurable nature of the curbside event was ruined when the crowd split like the Red Sea to reveal Sheriff Rains. The large, perpetually angry man stepped up next to Ernie and Wynne dragging a mortified Mandy in his wake like a small dingy hooked onto a supertanker. Alarmingly, the Sheriff broke out in a smile at the sight of Ernie holding the brown jug. "Well, well, well. I finally caught you in the act, Donohue."
Wynne didn't really want to look at the sheriff so she cast a long glance at Mandy instead - the deputy's lips had been reduced to gray lines in her face from being forced into a situation she wanted no part of. Sighing, Wynne finally looked at her nemesis. "Whaddahell Ah do? Ah ain't done nuttin'!"
"Naw! Lookie he', Sheriff, Ah ain't sure wotcha be thinkin'-"
"Shut up!" Artie Rains barked in a voice loud enough to overpower even the latest marching band. "Contraband liquor. Breaking the no-alcohol policy. I suppose I could spell it out to you, but that wouldn't do you much good… would it, scatterbrain?"
"Contraband liquor? Breakin' the… the…" Wynne croaked while she displayed a wide-eyed stare at Mandy, Ernie and the sheriff. "Lookie he', that can there that mah friend is holdin' is one o' them there non-alcoholic beers! Ain't that so, Ernie?"
Ernie nodded and pointed at the label for the sheriff's benefit.
"An' Ah ain't even drinkin' none o'-" Wynne continued, but she was cut off when the sheriff roared:
"I ain't talking about the beer, you Goddamned moron!"
"Then… then y'all be sayin' Ah'm breakin' the law 'cos Ah'm eatin' chicken drumsticks?!"
"No, you vaporhead!"
More confused than ever, Wynne gave up and just shook her head. "Then Ah ain't got no dang-blasted clue wotcha be talkin' 'bout, Sheriff, Sir…" she said before she furrowed her brow and glanced around the entire scene to find anything that would match what the sheriff talked about. Ernie wasn't much of a help, and neither was Mandy whose grim looks proved she was on the brink of either a meltdown or an eruption.
Growling, Sheriff Rains decided to cut to the chase by snatching the little brown jug from Ernie's hand. "This! Your Goddamned moonshine!" he roared into Wynne's face. In a single, fluid motion, he whipped the cork out of the jug, leaned his head back and took a deep swig of the contents to offer incontestable proof that Wynne Donohue had finally fallen into his trap.
A trio of voices yelled "No!" in various keys, but it was too little and definitely too late.
One second on from chugging down the contents of the jug, Artie Rains' face - that had been flushed to begin with - turned near-crimson as the tidal wave of hot sauce flowed into his mouth and down his gullet. His eyes popped wide open and he began to gurgle like a drowning man would just before he went under for the final time.
Then he started wiggling around on the spot in a fashion the western world hadn't been exposed to since an intrepid soul had tried to mix castor oil and LSD in the late 1960s. A split second later, a fountain of tears, snot, spittle and hot sauce exploded from his eyes, nose and mouth.
The horrendous nature of the shower cleared a very large area of the sidewalk in no time flat as everyone close by sprinted away to avoid being coated in the unpleasant substances. Dogs barked their heads off, children wailed at the top of their lungs, mothers howled and fathers roared out their disgust at the gross public nuisance on such an important day. Pictures were taken and video was recorded of the event to keep it for posterity - not that any of the social media sites would allow such disgusting content.
In a remarkable stroke of good fortune, Wynne managed to hang onto not only her beloved cowboy hat and both leashes but the tray with her remaining drumsticks as well. As she raced for cover, she nearly got her legs tangled up in Blackie and Goldie who tried to break the land speed record for fleeing German Shepherds and Golden Retrievers, respectively. Fortunately for the health of everyone involved, the clever canines made sure their owner was able to stay on her feet by zigging and zagging at all the right moments.
Mandy and Ernie both went for the same spot behind one of the trash cans, but the deputy sheriff beat her neighbor into the safe zone by inches. Crouching down, she grabbed hold of her expensive Mountie hat so it wouldn't fly off and get stained by the mess.
Coming up second best left Ernie exposed, but he regrouped and dove into the nearest store which happened to be 'Friendly' Sam McCabe's gun shop. Ernie's hasty entry startled the burly owner who immediately pulled a handgun on the potential robber, but it was soon lowered when the nature of the event was explained to him through a bucketful of expletives.
Sheriff Rains continued to gurgle, croak and waddle around like he was on one of his infamous four-day benders. Eventually finding a trash can - the one Mandy used for cover - he bent over and vomited into it.
Faced with the second disgusting discharge in as many minutes, Mandy let out a cry of annoyance, jumped up and tore away from the poor trash can that was soon forced into a second career as a repository for Class-A hazardous waste.
The drum and bugle corps, marching bands and floats continued to file past out on Main Street while the stressful events unfolded on the sidewalk. Many of those up on the various floats had a good view of the goings-on involving the town's notorious senior law enforcement officer and his personal trash can, and they weren't slow in shying back from the horrible sight.
Mandy found herself caught in an impossible dilemma. On one hand, common decency and the command structure within the Sheriff's Department both said she had to help her superior through the crisis - but on the other, she didn't want to be anywhere near him while he went on and on and on.
"Holy shhhh-ittttt!" Wynne cried at much the same time. "How long can that there nasty, ol' rattlesnake go on pukin' like that?! I'm tellin' ya it ain't natural!" She suddenly narrowed her eyes and looked around like she fully expected to be surrounded by the Body Snatchers or at the very least a few of their converted pod people.
Her nice outfit had survived the entire ordeal without any stains as she and the dogs had run twenty feet away to be out of the fallout-zone, but that all changed when a small glob of Ernie's hot sauce dripped off her chin and landed right on her chest. "Aw, fer cryin' out loud… look at that there dog-gone mess! An' Ah jus' washed that dang shirt the othah day. Ain't that jus' dag-nabbin' typical!" she mumbled as she stared at the greasy spot on her hitherto pristine shirt.
Ernie had worked up enough courage to come back out of McCabe's gun shop, and he ran over to stand next to Wynne in the hope the tall woman would provide good cover if it came down to it. He shook his head as another volley met the inside of the plastic bag in the trash can. "And that was my mild sauce! Imagine if it had been my legendary six-pepper mix!" He and Wynne briefly locked eyes before the sounds accompanying Artie Rains' hurling became too much for Ernie to handle. Throwing his hands in the air, he stomped off back into the gun shop to be out of earshot.
Wynne and the dogs had heard enough as well and moved another ten paces back from the horrendous hurling. She mumbled a "Lawwwr-die," while she glanced up and down Main Street to see if anyone would volunteer to help the sheriff. Unsurprisingly given Artie Rains' personality and frequent offensiveness against all and sundry, nobody stepped forward.
The volleys finally petered out which enabled the large man to stand up and wipe his face on the sleeve of his brown uniform shirt. He hacked, croaked and coughed for a while longer though it seemed the worst had passed. Bending over to retrieve his Mountie hat that had blown off in the process caused a few dry heaves, but it didn't go further than that.
"C'mon, girls," Wynne said and tugged at Blackie and Goldie's leashes. The dogs were reluctant to return to the scene of the spewing at first, but they came along after another tug or two. "Yuh, I know, I know… we ain't done nuttin' but dislike that there mean S-O-B for a whole buncha years now, but this situa-shun calls fer a li'l humanity. An' mebbe, jus' mebbe, it's made 'im see the errah o' his ways or som'tin."
The words had barely left Wynne's mouth before the sheriff began to cough, choke and splutter at the mere sight of her. Croaking and swallowing hard, he could only speak in a raw, gravelly voice while pointing at Wynne: "Deputy Jalinski… keep that horse's ass there… away from me, or I'll… throw her in jail for… plotting… to overthrow… the President!"
"But Sheriff, Ah didden do nuttin'!" Wynne cried. "Ah ain't nevah done nuttin' an' Ah sure as stink-on-shoot ain't nevah gonn' do nuttin', neithah! Nuttin'!" Piping down in a hurry when it seemed Artie Rains was about to reach for his sidearm, she performed an abrupt about-face and hurried a good distance away to be out of the firing line.
"Sheriff, please…" Mandy tried, but she was shrugged off at once. Instead, she glanced over at her partner who used a white park bench as cover; her face had turned darker than an August thunderstorm. Down on the sidewalk, Blackie growled and even Goldie seemed annoyed with the sudden turn of events. Sighing, Mandy followed the sheriff's orders by striding over to Wynne and gently suggesting that she and the dogs should move even further away from Artie Rains.
"A beer… somebody gimme a beer, Goddammit! Now!" the sheriff continued in a raw voice but at his regular volume. When Ernie handed him a can of H.E. Fenwyck's Double-Zero non-alcoholic beer, he stared at it for two seconds before he threw it unopened into the messy trash can. "Not that crap! A real beer!"
His booming demands were soon met by someone else among the onlookers - a can of Grizzly Beer XTra Strong was shoved into his meaty palm. Cracking it open at once, he drained it in a series of deep gulps that each broke the no-alcohol law that carried his own name on the dotted line.
Mandy and Wynne shared a long look fifty feet up the sidewalk. A citizen's arrest of the sheriff for violating the temporary law would go down like a lead balloon, so Wynne settled for rolling her eyes and letting out a grunt. All the negativity was soon offset by a wink and a few kissies that were sent her partner's way.
After the gestures had been returned in style, Wynne strolled further up Main Street with her dogs playing around her. The next of the barbecued drumsticks was soon snatched, dunked in Ernie's hot sauce, bitten into and chewed upon with great relish.
For Mandy, Barry Simms, Thomas 'Tom Thumb' Kincaid and the deputy-in-training Walter Thompson, jr., the unfortunate public incident meant the rest of the afternoon entered a downward spiral it couldn't escape from. Their working conditions went from bad to worse to horrible until they took the final nosedive and crash-landed in nothing but doom and misery.
Sheriff Rains had never had a sunny disposition, but the gruesomely humiliating events involving the hot sauce and an innocent trash can had caused him to turn so savagely vicious that all he did was to sit at the table in the crew room and shout derogatory, acid-dripping comments about most things under the sun. He had banned his deputies from leaving the office even for accidents or other acute dramas, and his unhealthy fixation on Wynne Donohue had grown even worse than usual: over a five-minute period, he came up with no less than seven inventive ways to bump her off for being part of the fiasco.
The strong beer he had chugged down at the scene had been joined in his gut by more than half a bottle of bourbon. Unlike most people who had been through such a vomiting ordeal, he could eat, and he was stuffing a roast beef sandwich into his face like there was no tomorrow. There were more crumbs, sticky slices of pickles, roasted onions and horse-radish sauce down his necktie and the front of the formerly clean uniform shirt than in the sandwich itself, but none of his deputies felt a need to point out that fact.
Once the sandwich was gone, he threw the empty plastic container into the farthest corner of the crew room, grabbed a fresh pack of cigarettes and a deck of cards and began to play poker with himself - but even that didn't stop his ranting and raving.
In the front office, Barry did his best to choke everyone around him by having increased his already staggering intake of low-grade, home-rolled cigarettes to calm his nerves. The shifty-eyed Thomas Kincaid monitored the telephone at the watch desk looking as if he was plotting an assassination attempt against the main reason for the bad mood in the sheriff's office.
Mandy had heard all of the sheriff's comments before and simply grabbed her Mountie hat off the nail on the wall. The fact that all deputies were under what amounted to house arrest at the office went dead-against her sense of duty, and she strode over to the door to go back on patrol despite Rains' clearly stated orders to remain there.
Before she could leave to go back out, the fresh-faced rookie Walter Thompson came over to her and put a hand on her arm like he wanted a heart-to-heart. He had been trying to put the old case files from the overly cluttered desk into the proper drawers of the metal filing cabinet, but the verbal thunderstorm from the crew room had made him nervous and confused. "Deputy Jalinski," he said quietly, "may I have a word in private?"
"Of course, Wally. Come on, let's step outside. It's not private, but it's better than this stinking slurry tank," Mandy said and opened the door.
"But the sheriff said-"
Mandy turned back to the rookie and offered him an unwavering look. "The sheriff said a lot of things. It'll be hours before his head has cleared enough to know what's going on around him. Are you coming?"
Nodding, Walter took his own Mountie hat and followed the senior deputy out onto the sidewalk. Main Street remained as busy, noisy and colorful as it had been the entire day, but as the Fourth of July parade slowly drew to a close, the clientele changed from families to rowdier types who were looking for a little rough action rather than harmless entertainment.
It didn't seem there had been any major incidents during the deputies' forced absence from the streets, but a small pool of blood on the sidewalk not too far from the sheriff's office proved that a fight of some kind had taken place while they had been away. The two deputies looked around for a possible victim but found nothing untoward or suspicious.
Mandy and Walter walked a short distance north on Main Street before they came to a halt at the Tack & Saddle leather goods store. Mandy understood that Artie Rains' outrageous behavior had rattled her young colleague enough already, so she kept quiet to give him room to decide when the time was right for talking.
While she waited, she studied his slender frame with an experienced eye. Being short of stature was no longer a disqualifying feature among deputy sheriffs, but the men and women in uniform needed to have enough fire and vinegar within them to offset what they lacked in height or breadth.
Although the working life of a rural deputy was by no means as stressful or dangerous as that of an inner-city cop, the deputies still needed to possess that undefinable 'edge' or else the few criminals they did encounter would walk all over them - and Mandy wasn't sure Walter Thompson, jr. had that special quality. The brown uniform may have made him look the part on a physical level, but the soft-spoken young man with the greenish eyes, the reddish hair and the delicate features just seemed better suited to a career in a high-rise office building somewhere rather than patrolling Goldsboro and the surrounding territory.
"Deputy Jalinski," the young man said in a depressed tone, "I'm seriously questioning my future in law enforcement. Please tell me that most sheriffs aren't like Mr. Rains… short-tempered, abusive, offensive, foul-mouthed, bigoted, racist drunkards…"
"They aren't, Wally. Some are great people. Some are quite decent human beings. Some are worse than Sheriff Rains, believe it or not."
Walter sighed and shook his head. "If I pass the field courses… which I sincerely doubt I will… I'll never, ever apply for a position as junior deputy in Goldsboro or anywhere else in MacLean County. But-"
"Be honest now…" Mandy said quietly so the cheerful spectators passing by the two deputies wouldn't get an earful of something that wasn't their business, "why did you even go into law enforcement?"
The two deputies briefly locked eyes before Walter looked down at his black boots. "So you don't feel I'm cut out for the job?" he said quietly.
"I didn't say that. I don't know you well enough to come to that conclusion, but I'd like to learn more. Your motivations," Mandy said sporting a supportive smile.
Walter briefly smiled back before he fell quiet. A silent moment went by before he continued: "To tell you the truth, I know I don't have what it takes… but I'd be the first Thompson in four generations who didn't pursue such a career. My father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all police officers, deputy sheriffs or members of the military police. Our family tree can be traced back to before the Civil War, and back then, one of the Thompsons was a provost marshal at an army post near Washington, D.C.!"
"Mmmm. What's your dream career, then?"
The young rookie was so surprised by the support of the tough senior deputy - not to mention touched by the complete absence of the dreaded You just gotta man up, weakling! speech that he had heard so often - that his eyes briefly misted over. He pretended it was because he had caught a speck of dust, but he soon realized it didn't fool the experienced deputy. A faint smile borne of hope creased his lips. "Being an artist. Drawing with charcoal. I love it… and you know, I'm pretty damn good at it. I've already sold a few portraits I've made."
"That's definitely neat, Wally. I wish I had an artistic skill like that. I can't hold a pencil without breaking off the tip," Mandy said with a smile.
"May I ask you another question?"
The smile stayed on Mandy's face even as she caught a glimpse of one of the well-dressed teams from the Virgin Tower religious organization heading their way. The persistent evangelists didn't shy back from preaching to the deputies even after being informed it was unlawful to detain or otherwise delay a deputy sheriff for irrelevant business. "Sure," she said as she turned back to her newest colleague.
"Why did you enter law enforcement? There aren't too many female deputies here… or anywhere, for that matter."
"No, I feel quite lonesome at times," Mandy said with a grin that soon faded. "Well… I signed up because everyone I knew told me that girls couldn't hack it. I knew I could. So I applied for the Academy, outscored everyone in the training classes, beat everyone on the field courses and eventually got my star. I haven't regretted it for a second. But I will admit there were times when I wanted to throw it all away and go home."
"Yeah… I know that feeling well," Walter said and chewed on his lips.
"I can imagine. But if you're already thinking about handing in your resignation, I do have a suggestion you might consider first," Mandy said as she and the rookie deputy began to stroll back along the sidewalk to be closer to the sheriff's office. "Deputy Kincaid was recently transferred down from headquarters in Barton City. He worked in the archives which is a uniformed position. Wouldn't that be a good compromise? You'd still wear our colors so your family would be satisfied, but you'd be removed from the… heh… wild frontier, so to speak. I believe the working hours are far more regular so you'd have a lot of free time to pursue your artistic dreams, too."
The deputy-in-training began to rub his mouth. It was clear the suggestion ignited a spark of interest - and hope - within him. In his depressed state, he had never considered such a career path, but now that he knew about it, he would at the very least contact headquarters to learn about any open positions up there. "Oh… that sounds like a fantastic-"
Before Walter could go on, two things happened at once. The first was merely annoying; the second was potentially dangerous. First, the clean-cut leader of the well-dressed Virgin Tower evangelists reached the two deputies while holding out their Holy Scriptures like he was about to go off on their regular, lengthy spiel.
It never happened - the preacher was denied the opportunity to annoy the two deputies by a thunderous roar coming from a huge Ford diesel pickup truck that raced out of the mouth of an alley and onto Main Street. The driver of the vehicle showed a complete disregard for the presence of a large number of family spectators by simply blasting across the sidewalk and onto the street at unabated speed.
The mat-black behemoth was raised four feet off the ground on trick suspension and gigantic off-road tires. It had a bull bar up front, and the rear of the cab was equipped with a pair of shiny aluminum smokestacks that spewed black smoke. Several Confederate battle flags had been attached to the rear corners of the flatbed on flexible poles, and the colorful pieces of cloth fluttered hard in the headwind as the truck raced down Main Street.
Four rowdies stood on the truck's open bed whooping, cheering and shouting poor imitations of the old rebel yell while chugging down copious amounts of beer and liquor straight out of a bottle. As the truck thundered past the sheriff's office - where Mandy and Walter had just been intercepted by the Virgin Tower people - one of the rowdies ignited a home-made twine bomb that he threw down onto the sidewalk before the truck continued at full speed.
"Watch out!" Mandy roared as she grabbed hold of the leader of the evangelists and forcibly yanked him out of harms' way. The well-dressed, slick-haired preacher stupidly tried to resist and remain where he was, but as the firecracker detonated not three yards from their position, he was blown clean off his feet and onto the sidewalk. Everyone else in the vicinity was knocked down like bowling pins as the deafening explosion created plenty of cardboard shrapnel and foul-smelling smoke to shoot through the air.
Two minutes earlier - across the street.
Wynne found herself wishing she owned a pair of welder's goggles. If she did, she would have put them on to combat the dazzling radiance that shone out of the handsome fellow Rodolfo Gonzalez and his ten-tenths, drop-dead, knock-down gorgeous date Dolores de la Vega.
Dolores had recently moved to the area, and she and Rodolfo had met by chance in the drugstore. The twenty-eight-year-old with the voluminous black hair, the smokey eyes and the permanent smile on her face worked as a livestock trader on the Circle X cattle ranch south of Goldsboro. She had rented a few rooms in the ranch house, but the love bolts that zapped back and forth between the two young folks seemed to suggest it wouldn't be long before either of the two moved in with the other.
Though Wynne and Ernie were there as well, the young folks only had eyes for each other as they all shared a wooden park bench that had been put up outside one of the stores on Main Street. "Huh," Ernie said as he cracked open another can of non-alcoholic beer. He looked to his right at Wynne who could merely offer a grin in return. "I don't think Rodolfo heard a word of what I just told him…"
"Ya don't say, Ernie? Lawrdie, I ain't too sure Rodolfo be havin' enough blood 'round his brain ta even use them there ears o' his… if ya catch mah drift. Aw, puppy love. Ain't it som'tin?" Wynne said while she reached down onto the sidewalk to give Goldie a little scratch behind her furry ears. Wynne's latest can of Coke balanced on the armrest of the bench, but she took it on the rebound from the doggy-scratching to take a sip or two.
The Independence Day parade was on its last legs. The final drum and bugle corps had already gone by, and the marching band that was on the street at present had far fewer spectators than those who had gone before them. At the tail-end of the endless column, an agricultural tractor chugged along dragging a trailer that carried yet another sign from some of the sponsors as well as news of upcoming events in Goldsboro.
"Holy Smokes! Lookie there, Ernie," Wynne said and pointed the near-empty can of soda at the sign. "There's gonn' be a movie theatah openin' he' on Main Street! Lawrdie, we ain't had no theatah fer… fer… hell if I can remember. I love watchin' them movies on a big-ass screen… 'spe-shually if that there movie theatah they be playin' in got air-condi-shun an' all. Haw! A buncha years ago in a re-run theatah ovah near Reno, I done watched McLintock, one o' them there John Wayne movies, yuh? Anyhows, I hadda blast watchin' that on the big screen 'cos I only knew it from tee-vee. I deffa-net-ly gonn' be spendin' some o' mah nickels an' dimes on them there matinee mo-shun pic-chures, yessirree."
"Somehow, I don't think nickels and dimes will get you very-"
The thunderous roar from a huge Ford pickup truck blasting out on Main Street cut Ernie off and made him bolt upright from his flaked-out slouch. "What the hell? Look at that moron!"
"Jaysus Cah-rist, watch out fer them kiddies!" Wynne cried, thrusting out the can of Coke so fast the brown liquid sloshed out of the small opening.
A split second later, the twine bomb detonated on the sidewalk in front of the sheriff's office. As the group of people there flew in all directions, Wynne caught a glimpse of a familiar athletic figure being knocked clean off her feet by the shockwave of the banned firecracker.
Oh-point-six of a heartbeat after that, Wynne, Blackie and Goldie burst through the demarcation tape and sprinted across Main Street at full speed to come to Mandy's rescue. The two dogs beat their owner to the scene of the incident, and both went into an intensive licking-nudging-poking-rubbing session while also checking up on the other people on the sidewalk.
Wynne arrived soon after and fell down onto her bare knees at Mandy's side. It didn't take her long to establish that her partner was unharmed save for a pair of severely rolling eyes and a crushed Mountie hat - the latter was worse than the former. "Lawwwr-die! De-per-ty Mandy, y'all-right? Ya still in one piece? Everythin' still connected? Good shit almighty, whaddindahell wus that dang-blasted sombitch thinkin'?!"
"Ugh…" Mandy croaked, stuffing her index fingers into her ears to stop the incessant ringing. Her eyes calmed down enough for her to look around in a daze - most everything seemed fine except her expensive Mountie hat that she had landed on. A sour expression flashed across her face when she grabbed the hat and tried to thump the crown back into shape.
"Ah'ma-gonn' insist y'all ain't nevah gonn' do stunt work like that evah ag'in!" Wynne said, grabbing hold of Mandy's shoulders and pulling her into a kneeling hug.
"Ugh… I'll try… Goddammit, what a brainless sonovabitch…" Mandy croaked as she plonked her battered hat back onto her locks. "Wally? Wally, are you all right?"
Not too far up the sidewalk, the deputy-in-training got to his feet and dusted off his uniform pants. "My ears are ringing like a damn church bell. Other than that, I'm fine," Walter said before his attention was taken by the group of evangelists from the Virgin Tower organization. It was obvious from their reaction that the well-dressed people weren't accustomed to being fired upon, so most of the team wept or had broken out into bouts of hysteria.
Mandy noticed as well, but Walter Thompson had already sprung into action before she could act upon it. The young rookie helped the most stunned or rattled off the sidewalk and over to the nearest bench so they could sit down. An impressed grin spread over Mandy's face at the sight - it was obvious the young man had more to offer than even he thought.
"Wotcha grinnin' at, there, De-per-ty? This he' deal ain't no laughin' mattah from where Ah'm sittin'!" Wynne said - unfortunately, things were about to get even worse before Mandy could answer.
Further up Main Street, the loud bang of a second twine bomb was soon heard; the irresponsible rowdies in the truck threw a third one not five seconds after that. Somebody yelled 'Look out! The trash can is on fire!' before a fourth home-made firecracker was thrown apparently just for the hell of it.
The can's plastic frame and the garbage bag itself inside it melted almost at once which caused a column of pitch-black, foul-smelling smoke to rise from it. When the burst of heat produced by the growing flames reached some of the rows of American flags that Wynne and Ernie had spent so much time on, the paper blackened and shriveled up almost at once.
The door to the sheriff's office was suddenly flung open to reveal Artie Rains in all his semi-drunken glory. The large man hadn't grown any less angry in the intervening period since his own trash can incident, and the hubbub in front of the office only seemed to make it worse. "What the flamin' hell is going on out here?! Who threw those Goddamned bombs? Throwing Goddamned bombs at the Goddamned sheriff's office on the Goddamned Fourth Of July is nothin' but pure, old-fashioned communism!" he roared as he took in the scene.
He couldn't fail but notice a couple of familiar dogs and a certain tall, summer-clad woman in the midst of the deputies and the well-dressed people from the Virgin Tower organization. He briefly reeled at the sight before he jumped in Wynne's face and clenched his fists like he was about to punch her lights out. "Donohue? Donohue, I'm… I'm… you… I'm gonna…"
"Ah didden do nuttin', Sheriff! Nuttin'! Nuttin' whatsoevah!" Wynne cried, throwing her hands in the air.
"Did you throw that Goddamned-"
"O' course Ah didden! Why, Ah'm insulted that ya even be insinu-"
"Then who the hell did?!" Rains roared at an even louder volume.
"An' howdahell should Ah know, Sheriff?" Wynne continued in a voice that grew in whine and pitch until it was almost at a nails-on-chalkboard level. "It wus a buncha jerks in a big, black Fohrd pickup truck who done threw them there fiahcrackahs! Ah ain't nevah seen that truck befo'! They wus a buncha long-haired, bearded fellas-"
That piece of news made Artie Rains' eyes fly wide open; then they narrowed into ugly slits. The bourbon in his gut and the fire in his veins seemed to give him an extra boost of energy that he used to turn up the volume to unbearable levels: "Long-haired?! Bearded?!" he roared at the top of his lungs. He had yet to step back from Wynne, so she caught the full blast of his liquor-laced breath right in her face. "Buncha Goddamned hippies throwing bombs… what the hell's the world coming to?!"
Crinkling her nose - and crossing her eyes - Wynne had to take a deep, wheezing breath before she could go on: "Uh… Ah ain't sure, Sheriff. Ah been askin' mahself that question mah entiah life. Anyhows, them long-haired fellas wus up in the back o' that there truck an' they wus drinkin' an' yellin' an' raisin' hell an' carryin' on an' throwin' them there dang-blasted noisy, dain-gerous fiahcrackahs around like nobodda's bizness! An' that's the honest-ta-goodness truth, there, Sheriff Rains! Ah ain't shittin' ya or nuttin' 'cos Ah know y'all gonn' haul mah ass off inta the slammah if ya even thought Ah be shittin' ya! But Ah ain't! Ah ain't got no reason ta be shittin' ya 'cos Ah didden do nuttin', fer cryin' out loud!"
In Sheriff Rains' booze-affected state, Wynne's endless - not to mention highly whiny - stream of words was far too much to handle. Stepping back from the tall woman, he shook his head to clear some of the fog before he spun around to face his deputies instead. To add gravitas to his impending orders, he whipped his service firearm up from its holster and fired a round into the air.
The sudden crack made even the sound-minded people there jump, so it came as no surprise that it caused the rattled people from the Virgin Tower organization to let out further howls of terror. Rains didn't seem to notice or care.
"Deputies, listen hard!" he roared in his customary booming voice. "I want those Goddamned long-haired hippie freaks behind bars! I don't care if only one of them threw those bombs, I want all of them put away! Not in ten minutes! Not in five minutes! But now! And now means this Goddamned instant! Ya hear? So get your Mossbergs and hunt 'em down, those unpatriotic sons of bitches!"
Mandy, Walter, Barry and 'Tom Thumb' all shared exasperated glances that the semi-intoxicated Artie Rains didn't pick up on. It was clear to Mandy that she needed to take charge or matters would grow worse so fast there would be no coming back. After performing a quick salute to satisfy the sheriff, she went inside their office to unlock the gun cabinet.
"Lawrdie," Wynne mumbled three minutes later as she, Blackie and Goldie followed the small squad of heavily armed deputies into the unknown. Though she and the dogs walked several paces behind the phalanx, everybody they went past stared at her rather than at the law enforcement officers up ahead. "Ah ain't nevah figgered we'd be headin' off ta war on the gosh-darned Fourth o' Jooo-lai… Ah mean, that's jus' too dog-gone weird, ain't it, dawggies? Them scatterguhns an' fiahcrackahs an'… Ah mean, whaddahell! Jus' when ya thought ya done seen it all, the world pulls down its britches an' moons ya… Lawrdie…"
Wynne's telephone vibrating down in the pocket of her denim shorts made her shake her head and focus on the present. While Blackie let out an interested Woof-Woof? in the hope her owner would soon bring her up to speed, Wynne retrieved the phone - the caller-ID said it was Ernie. "Yuh, howdy, Ernie… man-oh-man, didya see me headin' off on a fightin' posse with them there de-per-ties?"
'No, Wynne,' a different male voice said at the other end of the connection, 'it's Rodolfo. I didn't have your number so I borrowed Ernie's phone. We've spotted the black truck driven by the perps. It's parked behind Iverson's, but it's empty so the suspects are probably inside. We've confiscated a bag containing seven further home-made twine bombs.'
Wynne almost got her sneakers tangled up in the dogs' leashes as she looked over her shoulder - the team had already gone by Iverson's Bar without noticing anything. The curtains in the windows fluttered at the exact same time she looked at them, perhaps indicating that she and the deputies were being kept under close observation by the rowdies. "Mercy Sakes! Huh… hang on, there, Rodolfo…" she said while fumbling with the phone and shifting the leashes over to her free hand so the tripping-incident wouldn't be repeated.
When it almost did regardless of her precautionary measures, she rolled her eyes and brought her dogs to a halt. Moving fast, she unclicked Blackie and Goldie's leashes from the collars so they could run freely. "G'wan, ya wondahful dawggies! Y'all be oh-ficial po-leese canines taday, anyhows, so y'all be protected from that there dang-blasted leash law them there polahtee-shuns set up fer no good reason whatsoevah… De-per-ty Mandy! De-per-ty Mandy!"
"What is it, Wynne?" Mandy said over her shoulder without breaking her stride.
Wynne put her long legs to good use and was soon at the head of the armored column. "Aw, ain't nuttin' but a li'l recon mis-shun by that there nice fella Rodolfo. He an' Ernie done spotted that there black Fohrd we be huntin'. An' mo' o' them there bombs, too. He', y'all bettah lissen fer yerself," she said and handed Mandy the smartphone.
"Rodolfo? It's Deputy Jalinski. Fill me in." - The senior deputy kept quiet while she listened to Rodolfo's report. Once it was over, she gave the smartphone back to Wynne and moved her Mossberg pump-action shotgun out of the regulatory grip used for non-threatening situations. "All right. Listen up, men. Deputy Gonzalez and a citizen have spotted our target back at Iverson's. Seven further twine bombs have been confiscated, but we cannot presume the suspects are unarmed. Simms and Kincaid, you take the back door. That's where the truck is parked. Thompson… were you able to get a look at the driver or the men in the back?"
"No, Deputy Jalinski. It all went too fast," Walter said and shook his head - then the young rookie gulped hard at the prospects of being involved in an operation where the opponents weren't other cadets wearing differently colored vests to mark them out as the antagonists, but real people who had already shown they weren't afraid of throwing home-made, and highly dangerous, firecrackers at the long arm of the law.
"Wynne," Mandy continued, "could you see the driver?"
Wynne tore her eyes away from some of the blackened, burned flags that littered the sidewalk to look over at her partner. "Naw… I'm sorry. Mah eyes wus glued on yer good self aftah that dag-nabbin' fiahcrackah went ka-bloomey. I didden see nuttin' or nobodda othah than them there long-haired fellas standin' up in the back. I kinda be thinkin' they all wore black T-shirts with some kind o' white symbol or logo or som'tin on 'em, though."
Mandy offered her partner a grateful smile before the mask of authority fell back into place. "All right. It's a start. I have the front door. Deputy Thompson, stay behind me for the time being."
"Yes, Deputy Jalinski," Walter Thompson, jr. said and gulped once more.
The fearless Blackie lowered her head, flattened her ears and straightened her tail to show that she was more than ready to back up her heavily armed owner regardless of the dangers on the other side of the poorly maintained door to the infamous dive. Goldie was far more apprehensive as usual: The Golden Retriever promptly hid behind Wynne's legs and pretended she wasn't even there.
Wynne took off her beloved cowboy hat to wipe her damp brow on the sleeve of her shirt. Eyeing the hardware carried by the deputies didn't improve her mental state. She chewed on her lips while pondering all the options and likely outcomes of such an operation. Though only a few seconds went by, she had time to see a lot of misery and despair flash past her mind's eye.
She had never been the world's fastest thinker, and the severity of the situation seemed to make it worse by coating the neural pathways up in her brain in molasses. There was an inkling of an idea somewhere behind her blue eyes and beneath her dark hair, but it had a hard time digging through to the surface. Then it struck her - the American flags that had been burned by one of the twine bombs setting the trash can alight.
Turning around in a hurry, she put a hand on Mandy's shoulder and said: "De-per-ty, can ya hold off doin' that there dain-gerous hero stuff fer two seconds longah? I got an ideah… I ain't sure if it's gonn' work or not, but I deffa-net-ly got an ideah."
"What kind of idea, Wynne?" Mandy said quietly.
"Derrike Ivahson is a whoooole buncha things, yuh? One o' them things is that he's a patriot through-an'-through. That's one o' them there irrefutable facts, yuh? I mean, he got that there ha-uge 'merican flag hangin' on the wall an' a buncha pic-chures o' John Wayne an' them there Generals an' Presidents an' what not-"
"Naw, naw, I'm gettin' ta the point in a moment, there, De-per-ty," Wynne said and held up her hands to signal Hang on, I'm almost done talking. "What if I went in there alone… or mebbe took Blackie with me fer protec-shun… an' jus' sorta talked ta the man 'bout nuttin' an' everythin', ya know, an' then sorta casually men-shunned how them there fellas in the black pickup truck who threw those dang fiahcrackahs ovah yondah done burned the Stars an' Stripes, yuh? Good shit almighty, I'm tellin' ya, Derrike is gonn' blow his lid clean off an' then some!"
"An' then I tell 'im them there fellas who done burned them flags wus sittin' right there drinkin' his beer or whatevah they be doin'… Lawrdie, he gonn' be throwin' 'em outta there, you know he is. An' then y'all can jump 'em when they be gettin' out he', yuh? Or out the back. Instead o' y'all goin' in with them there dain-gerous scatterguhns an' face 'em on their turf, or whatevah ya wann' call it-"
"That's a great idea," Mandy said with a grin - it made Wynne breathe a sigh of relief. "Take Blackie with you. They won't dare to do anything with that beast on the loose. But you have to promise me you'll get the hell out of there if matters turn sour."
"Aw, I promise! Lawrdie, I ain't gonn' be spendin' one second longah in there than I abso-loote-ly hafta, espe-shu-ally not if them there rowdies really be a buncha hellraisers. All I wish ta do is ta avoid any gunplay involvin' all y'all 'cos that would really ruin mah day… yuh?"
The delay made Blackie let out an annoyed Woof-woof! before the news of her imminent involvement made her get ready all over again - it also made Goldie whimper and head for cover behind a sandwich board that had been placed on the sidewalk.
"All right," Mandy said with a cautious grin - although worried, she knew how Wynne could use her country bumpkin appearance to fool most people into believing she was harmless and thus ease off on their aggressions.
"All righty, De-per-ty Mandy! Now watch me strut mah stuff!" Wynne said in a voice that was supposed to have carried a cocksure tone but that came out as a trembling squeak.
Closing the old door behind her, Wynne needed a moment for her eyes to adjust to the semi-darkness inside Iverson's Bar. In all the years she had lived near Goldsboro, it had never been brighter in there - it was almost like Derrike Iverson was afraid the customers would run away if they were able to see what the interior really looked like.
Since the time the world's first peasant originally learned how to make wine from grapes or beer from hops and barley, the world's bars, bodegas and general drinking establishments had been put into many different categories. 'Glitzy,' 'upscale,' 'working-class,' and 'hole-in-the-wall' were among them. Iverson's Bar was a category unto itself.
The mismatched furniture, the inch-thick layer of nicotine on the walls and ceiling as well as the old-fashioned sawdust on the floor - meant to soak up the inevitable spillages of beer, blood, urine and vomit - offered a few hints, but it was the poor air quality that provided the final proof: old sweat, cheap perfume, stale beer, sickly sweet liquor shots, low-grade corn liquor, even lower-grade tobacco, frequent whiffs of marihuana, and, worst of all, the penetrating odor from the open urinals out back that were only separated from the main room by a single-layer cinderblock wall.
It all made Iverson's Bar fall into the category known worldwide as a 'dive' - some disgruntled ex-patrons even called it a rat's paradise. No wonder it was Sheriff Artie Rains' favorite watering hole in Goldsboro, and in fact in all of MacLean County.
Like many other bars, Iverson's was split into three sections: a wooden counter at the center, five round tables and two private booths off to the right, and a few new-fangled video poker and old-fashioned slot machines on the left. The round tables were of the kind often seen in traditional Westerns meaning they were large enough to fit four people for all-night poker games while small enough to avoid impeding the typically drunk barflies who needed to go out back to the urinals.
None of that was news to Wynne and Blackie - they had both been in there often enough to know it wasn't the Ritz. Strolling over to the row of six bar stools at the counter, they each cast seemingly disinterested glances around the place to check out the other patrons.
Only one of the round tables was occupied, and that was by an elderly gentleman nursing a large beer while trying to play a hand of solitaire. His baseball cap was on crooked which seemed to suggest he had been there a while. An unshaven man wearing a Massey-Ferguson Tractors cap and an unwashed T-shirt sat in one of the private booths. He was accompanied by a lady who had been a little too adventurous when it came to applying her makeup. To offset the abundance of paint on her face, she wore a skirt and a top that were both far too short thus exposing her thighs and midriff. A few dollar bills exchanged hands after which they both left the booth headed for the back door.
Activity at the old-fashioned slot machine made Wynne cast a sideways glance over there while she waited for Derrike Iverson to appear at the counter. Four young guys dressed in black jeans and matching T-shirts seemed to find amusement in throwing quarters into the old machine and pulling the arm. They all had large beards and long hair, but not of the hippie or even hellraising kind - more like the latest fashion trends among supremacists and survivalists. That impression was backed up by the nationalist symbols on their black T-shirts.
"Hiya, Wynne. Blackie," the balding fifty-five-year-old Derrike Iverson said as he came around the corner at the cinderblock wall. He was a large man; stocky rather than tall and weighing in at 260 pounds. His present shape - basically a beer barrel on legs - bore little resemblance to his younger self who had been a light-heavyweight prizefighter. That his wins-to-losses ratio had been negative even in his most successful years was plainly evident in his misshapen ears, nose, eyebrows and cheekbones.
He wore a short-sleeved Polyester shirt that was mostly white with a few exceptions down the front, and a pair of dirt-gray slacks that may have entered this world as a different color. He had forgotten to zip his fly after taking a leak, but the small matter was soon dealt with as he moved behind the counter to serve his next customer.
Being the eldest of three Iverson brothers, he was the one who had made the most out of his life. His younger siblings were in the state penitentiary and six foot under, respectively - the jail bird for robbing a gas station, and the deceased for doing a pretty lousy job of driving the getaway car for his brother.
"Howdy there, pardner," Wynne said and stepped up to the bar. She put a sneaker up on the rail at the bottom to look the part. Her cowboy hat was soon taken off since no self-respecting Cowpoke, even of the rugged kind, would ever wear a hat indoors, nosirree. The beloved item was put on the counter next to a pile of napkins.
Blackie outdid her owner in the coolness-contest by stretching out and putting her front paws up on the edge of the counter. The German Shepherd's tongue came out at the sight of the bowl filled with strips of free beef jerky that the bar keep always kept up there.
"What's your poison today, Wynne?" Derrike said and threw Blackie a slice of jerky. The black dog responded by woof'ing a thank you and going to work on the dried meat.
Wynne reached over to scratch Blackie's head before she turned back to Derrike Iverson. "Aw, ya know… an orange juice or som'tin. I woulda loved a beer or some such, but them there polahtee-shuns an' their drinkin' ban-
"Isn't valid in here. I'm a free American. Not a slave to the politicians," Derrike said and thumped an index finger into his chest.
"Yuh. Okay. I kinda figgered that's the no-shun y'all be havin'," Wynne said with a broad grin spreading over her face. "Well, if that be so, one o' them there draft beers woudden kill me. Jus' a li'l tumblah taday, tho', 'cos I be drivin' mahself an' them there dawggies home in a li'l while."
"No chaser? I just opened a new bottle of sour mash."
"Not taday, thank ye."
"One wimpy brew comin' up," Derrike said with a grin as he reached up to a rack above the counter to take the smallest type of glass he had.
Wynne grinned back as she let her eyes sort-of drift over to the four men at the slot machine. As expected, they didn't seem to have much fun with it anymore since it had gobbled up all of their quarters without paying anything back.
Grunting, she let her eyes roam over the old Stars & Stripes flag that had been put up on the wall in the bar's most prominent location. Freedom Is Worth Dying For was inscribed underneath the flag in tall letters. The important piece of cloth was protected by a sheet of shatterproof Lexan that could withstand a direct hit from a full-sized glass of beer thrown at it at full speed; she knew that for a fact from witnessing it with her own eyes during an old-fashioned brawl several years earlier. As an innocent bystander, she had managed to escape with all her teeth intact which couldn't be said for many of the brawlers.
The flag had seen heavy action on a faraway battlefield in Vietnam where it had been battered and torn, but it had survived unlike some of the men defending it. It had been in the possession of the Iverson family ever since Derrike's father had smuggled it home from Saigon after his second tour ended in 1970.
Autographed promotional photos of John Wayne, Buster Crabbe, Roy Rogers, James Arness, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and both George Bushes were lined up below Old Glory. The current President was missing, but there was room for a couple more at the end of the line of picture frames.
After Derrike had put the small tumbler on the counter and had received the proper coinage in return, Wynne took a long sip of the draft beer before she started her improvised speech. "Lawrdie, didya hear them there fiahcrackahs befo'? Snakes Alive, I ain't too sure who done threw them dang-blasted things, but them sombitches wussen too parti-coo-lar about what they wus aimin' at, I'm tellin' ya."
The four young men all came to a halt and seemed to take a collective deep breath; they eyed Wynne, the black dog and Derrike who had okayed their presence even after they had bragged about how they had rattled the local law's cage by throwing one of their home-made twine bombs at two of the deputies.
Derrike took a dirty tumbler and dunked it into a bowl of lukewarm water behind the counter. He cast a sideways glance at the four men before he concentrated on cleaning the tumbler. "Yeah, they were hard to miss. I also heard something about the sheriff's office being the target," he said as he drained the tumbler of the dishwater and began to wipe it down.
"Yuh. Yuh, among othah things," Wynne said and took another long sip. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the four men had lined up in a tight formation not too far from her. "Lawrdie, I mean, who gives a smelly bullturd 'bout Artie Rains' windahs, yuh? Now I ain't opposed ta be havin' a li'l rowdy fun now an' then… I done plenty o' cah-razy shit in mah time, ain't no doubt 'bout that, but gosh-darn'it, I draw the line at throwin' a dang-blasted bomb at them flags settin' 'em alight. That wus too much fer the likes o' me."
"Flags? What flags?" Derrike said with a puzzled look on his face.
"Aw, ya know… them little paper flags that me an' Ernie put up yesterday… of Old Glory," Wynne said casually as she nodded toward the battered Stars & Stripes.
A loud crunch made the four guilty parties jump - the tumbler Derrike Iverson had wiped down had become three jagged pieces in his strong hands. The former prizefighter's face scrunched up into an angry mask as he looked at the black-clad, long-haired men. "You fellas burned the American flag?" he said in a voice that was as eerily calm as it was threatening.
The four men exchanged nervous glances before one of them tried to smooth down the ruffled feathers: "It- it was an accident, okay?"
"So you did burn our flag?"
"We- we- we- threw a twine bomb into a trash can, and- and- and it was an accident!"
"You're the Goddamned accident, son! And you're about to have another one!" Derrike bellowed as he reached below the counter to get the baseball bat that had already seen action once that afternoon.
Wynne quickly grabbed her small tumbler of beer to rescue it. Blackie was still chewing on the jerky down on the floor, and she looked up with a surprised look on her doggy face like she couldn't believe things were happening while she was eating. Since the long-awaited action had finally arrived, she let the jerky be and jumped into the middle of the floor. There, she let out two thunderous barks that caused dust to trickle down from the rafters.
The situation could have escalated into an altercation with Blackie and the hefty bar keep on one side, and the four men who all had an air of being ready, able and willing to fight about them on the other, but the long-haired quartet chose to vacate the premises in record time instead of fighting Iverson or risking getting their behinds chewed on by the fierce German Shepherd. They tried to go through the front door four-wide until they realized it would be better if they went through one at a time.
Even while the door was closing behind the young men, shouted commands could be heard from the deputies waiting outside. A metallic sound was heard loud and clear, and Wynne recognized it as someone - most likely Mandy - working the action on the Mossberg pump shotgun. There was just time to hear handcuffs being tightened around wrists before the surprisingly sound-proof door closed to shut out the outside world.
Blackie remained in a rough 'n ready fighting stance until it dawned on her it was all over before it had begun. She let out several puzzled Woof-woofs? while she looked around for just a little more action. With nothing offered to her, she returned to chewing on her free slice of jerky.
The sour expression on Derrike's face lasted for a while longer; then it faded away into a smile. "Never liked long-haired fellas, anyhow. Long hair on men just ain't natural," he said as he put away the baseball bat. Chuckling, he scooped up the remains of the crushed tumbler and threw them into a small trash can underneath the counter.
"Yuh," Wynne said as she ventured back to the counter with her beer. "Or how 'bout them there purple mohawks, ya know… Lawrdie."
"Well," Wynne continued as she drained the small glass of beer and put it on the counter. "That's gonn' be all she wrote fer taday. Me an' Blackie an' Goldie gonn' be hookin' up with mah friend Ernie B now ta ask if he got som'tin he wants me ta do he' in Goldsborah. Hope he don't. Then me an' them dawggies be headin' home to our trailah. Yessir. All in all, this he' Fourth o' Jooo-lai wus kinda neat, wussen it?"
"I didn't catch much of it, but I think it was, yeah," Derrike said and dunked Wynne's tumbler into the bowl of lukewarm water.
Before Blackie and Wynne could move away from the counter, the front door to Iverson's Bar was slammed wide open. Sheriff Rains only made it two steps into the bar before he let out a long groan that almost sounded like a wail when he clapped eyes on his eternal nemesis.
After rubbing his stubbled cheeks, the large law man staggered over to the nearest of the round tables where he pulled out a chair and sat down with a heavy thud. "A beer and a chaser!" he roared before he seemed to change his mind: "Aw, to hell with that! A pitcher of beer and a bottle of Old Number Seven!"
"Comin' right up, Sheriff," Derrike Iverson said and began to prepare the various items he needed. When he looked for Wynne and Blackie to say goodbye, he found them tip-toeing and tip-pawing over to the back door. Chuckling, he put the empty pitcher under the proper tap and pulled the handle.
A few hours later.
At six PM - the cross-over point between late afternoon and early evening - the grand Independence Day celebrations in Goldsboro had come to their natural conclusion. The literal leftovers from the parade were the tons and tons of litter the large crowd of happy spectators had produced over the course of the day: in addition to the typical greasy ketchup or sauce-stained wrappers for hamburgers, chicken wings, BBQ ribs and hot dogs, several forgotten hats, sunglasses, shoes, newspapers and picnic bags dotted the landscape.
Following the successful operation at Iverson's Bar, the four long-haired men had been arrested for vandalism and unpatriotic behavior and had been thrown into the holding cells. There, they had joined a husband-wife team of pickpockets, a con man trying to sell fake wristwatches, a scam artist who had tried to trick various store owners into parting with their hard-earned cash through the ancient switcheroo job using a one-hundred dollar bill, a man who was so drunk he claimed to be Arnold Schwarzenegger - even if his toothless mouth couldn't pronounce the tongue-twisting name - and the unfortunate, black-and-blue fellow who had tried to rob Derrike Iverson earlier in the day.
Barry Simms had been given the task of driving the huge Ford diesel pickup truck into the impound yard at the back of the building housing the sheriff's office. The first thing he did when he got behind the wheel was to select the wrong gear and slam the rear of the vehicle into a brick wall. Remarkably, the damage to the wall was worse than the dent in the truck, but Barry suffered a burnt lip in the impact when he nearly swallowed his lit cigarette.
The remaining twine bombs had been dealt with by dunking them into a barrel of water so the gunpowder inside them would get wet - even so, Barry was barred from attending the dunking by his fellow deputies out of worry that he might drop an ember or two from one of his countless cigarettes onto a section of the fuses that was still dry.
Walter Thompson, jr. had earned plenty of respect from Mandy by taking charge of rounding up the remaining Virgin Tower teams and getting them back to Mrs. Peabody's boarding house before further dramas could ensue. He had been treated to tea and butter cookies but had respectfully declined an invitation to one of their grand revivalist meetings that was going to be held in Collinstown the following weekend.
Many spectators had gone home after the parade had ended, but a good deal of them were on their way north on Main Street to get to Thunder Park Raceway a few miles north of Goldsboro. The dirt racers would soon be in action as the first of the evening's heat races would begin at eight - the seemingly mile-long column of vehicles resembled an anthill someone had poked with a stick.
Since most of the traffic was bumper-to-bumper, only the most impatient tried to pull off hazardous maneuvers to get ahead in the line, but even they gave up when they realized they wouldn't get very far.
Wynne, Blackie and Goldie watched the heavy traffic for a while until the heat necessitated moving on. After spending the entire day among a vast number of people, the near-empty sidewalks offered a strange sense of solitude as the trio strolled along Main Street to get to the sheriff's office.
It was risk-free to visit the deputies since Artie Rains had yet to leave Iverson's Bar - and by now, even an experienced drinker like him would most likely have to be dragged out - so Wynne stepped into the tiny precinct house with a grin on her lips. "Howdy, there, de-per-ties!" she said as she ushered the dogs inside as well.
Barry Simms occupied the uncomfortable chair at the watch desk trying to get a clear picture of the hundreds of missing-item reports that had been written during the day. He briefly glanced up with a harried look in his eyes. "Hello again, Miss Donohue," he mumbled before he returned to the task at hand.
Even apart from the small burn mark on his lip - that he had coated in Vaseline to stop the sting - his complexion was far worse than usual, and he had not one but two lit cigarettes in his mouth to get enough nicotine into his system to overcome the challenge. The logical result of that was that the cloud of foul-smelling smoke that followed him around everywhere he went had doubled in size. At present, it resembled the steam spewing out of the cooling towers at a nuclear power plant.
The friendly deputy-in-training Walter Thompson, jr. sat at the other desk finishing up a stack of paperwork. He had time to shoot Wynne a longer smile before he needed to focus on the handwritten reports - the broken typewriter had been put into the corner where it looked rather forlorn and useless.
Thomas 'Tom Thumb' Kincaid wasn't around, so Wynne presumed he was in the jail house next door monitoring the prisoners inside the holding cells - she wasn't too displeased with his absence since he was about as abrasive as Artie Rains in her opinion.
"It kinda be nice ta see them there tax dollahs in ac-shun, yuh?" she said as she shuffled over to lean against one of the metal filing cabinets. Blackie and Goldie both got comfortable on the brown linoleum though they would have preferred to rest their furry behinds on something with fewer cracks in it. "So… anybodda know where mah sweet, li'l De-per-ty Mandy be hidin'? 'Cos I got som'tin ta tell her."
Exactly on cue, Mandy Jalinski stepped into the sheriff's office and closed the door behind her. Though the senior deputy was as fit as an entire regiment of exercise enthusiasts, the scorching heat and the strain and stress of the non-stop activity since the early hours of the morning were plainly evident on her pale, drawn face. She took off her Mountie hat and went over to the gun cabinet mounted on the wall to store her Mossberg before she even noticed that Wynne and the dogs were there.
"Lawwwwr-die!" Wynne said as she pushed herself away from the filing cabinets. "Wotcha still be haulin' that there hev-vy scatterguhn around for? Them Dalton brothas be in Goldsborah ta rob that there bank or som'tin? An' Mercy Sakes, woman, y'all look like ya be reddy ta drop! I ain't sure I evah done seen me such a tired de-per-ty befo'… or mebbe I did an' I jus' can't remember. Huh."
Mandy nodded a couple of times at the undeniable truth of those statements. A brief smile that never reached her tired eyes spread over her pale features. "Let's go into the back," she said and pointed at the door to the crew room.
"Sounds like a plan 'cos I got som'tin ta tell ya," Wynne said and stepped into the small room used by the deputies when they were on break. The room reeked of sweat, Barry's awful tobacco and Sheriff Rains' bourbon which didn't make for a particularly nice concoction.
Wynne had hardly closed the door behind them before Mandy wrapped her strong arms around the tall woman and gave her a powerful hug. When the hug was over, a kiss that was no less powerful followed.
Sighing, Mandy leaned in and placed her head against Wynne's upper chest. "I'm wasted. I won't be able to join you out at the race track tonight. We won't be done here until long after midnight. I might even end up sleeping here."
"Aw, that's all right, De-per-ty Mandy," Wynne said quietly while she offered her partner another hug to try to offset the fatigue with a little sweet loving, " 'cos I wus gonn' tell ya I wussen goin' out to Thundah Park aftah all… I jus' don't feel like it aftah the hot day. Them racers 'll be back in a couple-a weeks, anyhows."
"Okay," Mandy said and broke out in a wide yawn. "Oh, much as I would like to hold you for a long, long while, I can't. With the sheriff down for the count… well, having crawled into the bottle, to be exact… I'm in charge."
"Snakes Alive! So… whut… ya bein' the sheriff now? Ain't that som'tin…"
"Not quite yet. It's what I'm aiming for, but I never figured it would drop in my lap… or on my head… like this. God, everything is so disorganized here, but I need to run a tight ship while Rains is indisposed or else he'll use it against me."
Wynne let out a deep, dark grumble as she gave Mandy another squeeze to add a little moral support to counter the continued stress. "He would, that mean ol' sombitch… no doubt 'bout it." Another kiss was in order - and duly provided.
"So I need to be the best damn acting sheriff anyone has ever seen," Mandy said and took a step back from her partner. She smoothed down her Polyester uniform and straightened her necktie to look the part.
A cheesy grin spread over Wynne's features as she took in the magnificent sight - even if Mandy did sport a dead-tired, even haggard look, she had the authoritarian stance and presence down pat. "Lawwwr-die, y'all can book me, cuff me an' tickle me silly any time ya like… Sheriff Mandy," she said and held out her wrists.
"Noted," Mandy said and stole a final kiss before she had to return to the harsh realities on the other side of the door.
The grassy field where Wynne had parked her truck was all but abandoned by the time she and the dogs got back to it. The heat of the day had finally caught up with her, and she needed to fan her face and neck with her cowboy hat to make it the final fifteen paces.
As expected, the temperature inside the truck's cab had gone off the scale - and that was to be taken literally because it had broken the small thermometer sticky-gummed onto the dashboard - so the first thing she did was to roll down both windows and flap the driver's side door sixteen times to get a little breeze going.
The sixteen times could easily have been thirty or forty, but she needed to stop when the bolts holding the door in place began to creak, squeak and groan in a most undesirable fashion. It took nearly five minutes after that before she and the dogs could climb up onto the bench seat and get ready to drive home.
Goldie pushed the top off the cooler box with her muzzle and drank greedily from the bowl of water that had grown lukewarm. As soon as the Golden Retriever had gotten her fair share, Blackie dove in and took care of the rest of the liquid nourishment.
Chuckling, Wynne put the key in the ignition and turned it. Nothing happened - not even the familiar clonk-clonk-clonk from the starter motor. "This ain't happenin'… ohhhh, Lawrdie, ain't no way this be happenin'…" she croaked as she twisted the key again. Nothing. "It is happenin'. Oh, gosh-darn'it, this ain't mah day," she continued as she buried her face in her beloved hat.
Blackie let out a prolonged Woooooof! like she offered a suggestion as to the cause of the problem, but her owner was too tired and hot to notice. When the black German Shepherd found herself ignored, she turned to her companion to explain the situation in a series of woofs, yaps, short barks and nods at the cooler box where the fan had stopped working.
Wynne sighed and stepped out of the old truck. After retrieving a pair of work gloves and a hammer from the scorching-hot tool box up on the flatbed, she popped open the hood and began to whack the starter motor back into shape. Nothing worked. All her efforts failed, and her temper grew shorter as a result. The fourth failed attempt made her break out in a slightly unhinged cackle and perform a literal hammer throw: the old tool went through a perfect parabolic arc before it vanished into a patch of yellowish grass at the far side of the field.
Then she discovered the real reason for the breakdown: she had forgotten to turn off the dogs' cooler box when she had parked the truck earlier in the day. To keep the water nice and cold, she had plugged the power cord into the cigarette lighter mounted on the dashboard. That was fine while they had driven to town, but the compressor in the cooler box had drained all the power from the truck's battery to fight the rising temperature inside the cab once the vehicle was stationary.
Wynne just stood there and stared, stared and stared a little more. She was rarely struck mute, but this was one of those occasions. Blackie and Goldie looked at each other and exchanged a few woofs - they had known something was amiss with the truck's electrical power ever since discovering the water had grown lukewarm.
They couldn't stay at the parking lot for the rest of eternity so something had to be done. After taking off the hot work gloves and slamming the lid of the tool box shut with a little more force than absolutely necessary, Wynne tried to compile a list of options but ran out of ideas before she had run out of fingers to count on.
One, she could go down to Mrs. Peabody's boarding house and try to rent a room for the night. That wasn't really an option because of a trio of issues: she had barely enough money left to rent a broom cupboard. The stern Mrs. Peabody would only allow dogs into the rooms for an extra fee regardless of how well they were house-trained, and, perhaps worst of all, the people from the Virgin Tower religious organization were still staying there. The latter in particular would be like asking for trouble.
Two, she could ask for permission to sleep on a bunk bed in the holding cells. Somehow, that seemed even less attractive than rubbing shoulders with the Virgin Tower people at Mrs. Peabody's.
Three, she could walk the eight miles home to the trailer park. It could be done during the chilly season - she had in fact done so once upon an eon ago when she had run out of gas in her old truck that had later been blown up by the space aliens - but it would be suicidal in the middle of a triple-digit heatwave.
Four, she could call Otto Kulick, jr.'s Bang-N-Beatin' Body Shop and ask them to send over a fully charged battery or a tow truck. Both would put a very large dent in her money supply, however, and if the truck driver demanded cash-on-delivery, she would be stuck all over again.
Five, she could call Ernie and hope he wasn't too juiced up to drive.
Nodding, Wynne decided to go for option number five as her friend from the trailer park would be perfectly satisfied with being paid in beer. She reached into the pocket of her denim shorts to grab her telephone. Ernie's number was soon found, and the call was taken at once.
'Hiya, Wynne. What's up?'
"Howdy, Ernie… Lawwwwr-die, I'm havin' some trubble with the dang-blasted truck an' me an' them dawggies need yer help," Wynne said as she shuffled around the Chevrolet to open the passenger-side door. Blackie and Goldie shot her puzzled glances in return, but she patted her thigh and pointed down underneath the vehicle where it would be shady and perhaps a little less hot. The dogs understood and hopped down.
'Truck trouble… again?'
"Yuh. Yuh, ag'in. Lissen, can ya drive?"
'Sure. I've only had Double-Zeros all day.'
"Aw, great. Would it be possible fer ya ta swing by an' jump me or som'tin?"
A strange, spluttering sound filtered through the connection. 'Uh… beg pardon, Wynne… ya want me to jump- oh… the truck… uh… right. Ha-ha. Ah, yeah. Man, my head just exploded… and I spewed beer all over the telephone…'
Wynne let out a snicker at her friend's inherent politeness and disarming innocence. "Yuh, Ernie, the truck! I done had a brain fade an' now the durn thing won't start. Dead battery. I'm ovah yondah at the grassy field just off that there alley by the-"
'I know where that is. I'll be there in a flash.'
"Thanks, Ernie. See ya in a mo," Wynne said; she continued to chuckle as she put her telephone back into her pocket.
It only took four minutes for Ernie's customized Ford F350 Super Duty to roll up next to Wynne's old, dilapidated Chevrolet. As he climbed from the cab, he eyed the battered piece of machinery that seemed to gain a new dent or patch of rust each time he came close to it. "Hey, Wynne?"
Ernie pushed an old Blue Oval baseball cap back from his forehead and broke out in a wide grin. "Have you driven a Ford… lately?" he said with his tongue stuck firmly in his cheek.
Wynne narrowed her eyes into dangerous-looking slits. For Ernie to use the old Ford Motor Company advertising slogan from the 1990s in her moment of desperate need took the cake, but she had her own slogan ready to combat it: "Naw! But lemme tell ya som'tin, there, Mista Ernie Bradberry… more champions trust Chevrolet. Ha!"
"And Ha! yourself," Ernie said and broke out in a loud laugh before he shuffled over to stand next to his friend - they had spent countless hours together watching old NASCAR Winston Cup broadcasts from the 1980s and 1990s on video so they knew all the old commercials by heart. "All right, let's jump it. Do you have your jumper cables ready?"
"Yuh, they be right he'," Wynne said and climbed up onto the flatbed to open the tool box once more. When she had pulled the lid into an upright position, she let out a deep sigh. "Naw, they ain't. They be back home 'cos the insulation rubbah-tape-wotchamacall'it wus cracked on one o' them an' I meant ta fix it… but I nevah got the chance. Aw, sombitch…"
"Well, I don't have any cables. I don't need 'em. The modern batteries almost never lose power like that," Ernie said and broke out in a shrug.
Wynne's eyes rolled skyward for a moment before she looked down into the tool box once more. Instead of jumper cables, she found an old tow rope that had a sturdy metal eye attached to it at either end. "Aw, lookie he'! Would ya mind towin' me an' them dawggies home instead?"
"No problem. Are you sure your old crate is up to the challenge of bein' towed by such a badass custom truck like my F-three-fifty?" Ernie said as he quickly moved back to his brand-new vehicle to evade any swings or barbs that might come his way.
"Ernie, Ah swear," Wynne said as she hopped down from the bed with the rope at the ready. "One o' these days, friend… one o' these days…"
The two-truck convoy set off up the alley at an easy ten miles per hour so the towing wouldn't put any strains on the rusty, old frame of Wynne's K10. There was no power-assisted steering without the electrical power, so she had to be almost on top of the large steering wheel when they made the turn onto Main Street.
Blackie obviously had the window seat so Goldie had been relegated to the footwell next to the cooler box. The Golden Retriever wasn't too displeased by the seating arrangements as it meant she had the bag of doggie treats within easy reach. Wynne had the telephone on the bench seat next to her so she could keep in constant contact with Ernie in case something happened.
As expected given Wynne Donohue's legendary rotten luck, that 'something' happened far sooner than she had feared it would - in fact, they had only gone thirty yards down Main Street when the tow rope snapped in half producing a loud poppp and a burst of ancient dust.
As Ernie's truck took off following its liberation from the load it pulled, Wynne needed to yank the wheel around while she stood on the un-assisted brake pedal. The old Chevrolet ended up bumping into the curb on the right-hand-side of Main Street at two miles per hour, so it could have been worse.
Once again, she just sat there and stared, stared and stared a little more. Ernie tried to raise her over the telephone, but she had temporarily lost the ability to speak. Blackie and Goldie's efforts to cheer up their mortified owner were wasted as Wynne just sat there passively clinging onto the steering wheel.
Ernie quickly pulled two U-turns to drive up behind the stranded Wynne. Climbing down, he let out a constant series of chuckles at his friend's plight. "Well, at least it wasn't the rusty towin' eye breakin' off, huh?" he said as he put his elbows on the Chevrolet's windowsill.
"Dunno. Don't give a rat's ass, neithah… Lawrdie, this ain't mah day," Wynne said and stepped out of the semi-deceased Chevrolet.
A small group of locals and visitors soon formed at the stranded truck that was parked against the curb in a weird angle. Someone among the people visiting Goldsboro for the Fourth of July parade misunderstood the situation and hurried over to the sheriff's office to get them to arrest what could only be a drunk driver who couldn't even keep her truck in a straight line while being towed.
Wynne had barely let the dogs down onto the sidewalk and into the shade before the heavily smoking Barry Simms came out of the office across the street; a moment later, he went back inside. Another moment after that, Mandy came out and strode over to the two trucks.
The senior deputy's complexion hadn't grown any less pale, but at least she wore what could be described as a half-smile as she spotted a very sober Wynne sitting down on the curb behind her truck. "All right, everybody. There's nothing to see here," she said to get the crowd to disperse. "The Sheriff's Department is on the case. You can go about your business now. Thank you."
She kept her game face on while she waited for the spectators to go back to what they had been doing before the incident. Chuckling, she allowed the smile to return as she went over to Ernie, Wynne and the two dogs. "Hello again, Miss Donohue," she said in a voice tinged with just the right amount of amusement.
"Howdy, there, De-per-ty Mandy…"
"What happened this time, hon?"
"Aw, nuttin' much. Only that Ah fergot that Ah had that there gosh-darned coolah box turned on. It ate the gosh-darned powah," Wynne said in a monotone. Taking off her beloved cowboy hat, she slapped it against her thigh a couple of times. "Ah had it runnin' so them dawggies could have a li'l cool watah ta drink… an' Ah fergot ta switch it off when we got he'. It wus prolly 'cos Ah wus still fumin' from talkin' to that there parkin' attendant fella who wanted five dang bucks fer parkin' in a public field! Comin' back, the battery wus dead an' mah jumpah cables be back home… an' then the dang-blasted tow rope snapped like dog-gone spaghettah. Ol' piece-a crap. In short, jus' yer average day in the life o' Wynne dag-nabbin' Donohue."
"Ah… yeah," Mandy said and scratched her cheek.
The sound of a highly tuned racing engine suddenly joined the mix of sounds on Main Street. Before long, a familiar GM Goodwrench-replica Monte Carlo SS moved across the lanes and came to a stop so the driver had a clear view of the goings-on in the gap between the Chevrolet and Ford trucks.
"Oooooh…!" Ernie said while staring at the replica vehicle and the woman behind the wheel. "We got a yella… yella on the speedway! There's a catfight in the pits," he continued before he broke out in a laugh. He looked from Wynne's ex to Wynne herself, back to the driver of the replica and finally over to Mandy to see how the senior deputy would deal with the unexpected development.
Wynne groaned and promptly buried her face in her hat to block out the world and all its evil coincidences.
Mandy let out a chuckle at her friend's and partner's behavior. To disappoint Ernie, she wasn't about to break out in a catfight though she did stand with her hands akimbo while she took in the scene.
"Hey, what's going on here?" Phyllis O'Connell said with her left arm reaching out of the black car's window to get some air. She wore retro sports shades and a muscle shirt like the day before; the new shirt was held in the familiar black, red and white colors of a well-known brewery. "Wynne, didya have an accident or something? Are you all right?"
"Yuh, I'm jus' fine. Thanks fer askin', Phyl. Naw, I didden have no accident or nuttin'. Jus' mah typical rotten luck 's all. Done snapped mah dang tow rope. Ain't got no powah, neithah."
Phyl nodded as she moved a bit up from her low-slung driving position. "Oh, I hate it when that happens. You need a ride or something? Or do you already have one?"
Ernie took full advantage of the opportunity to add a little mischief: "Wynne, that's a General Motors vehicle! And a pretty awesome one, too! Ain't that better than my Ford?" he said in a stage-whisper.
"Shaddup, Ernie. Ya ain't helpin', ya know that? I thought we wus buds!" Wynne whispered back before she shook her head at Phyl. "Thanks a whole bunch, there, Phyl… but naw, ya don't hafta do that. Besides, aintcha gonn' be out at that there Thundah Park racin' event jus' 'bout now, anyhows?"
"No, there's still time before I need to be there. They'll run three knock-out heats for the drivers who didn't qualify too well first. The Silver Spur One-Fifty is coming up after that… oh, did I mention that yours truly was fastest of the forty starters yesterday?" Phyl said with a grin.
Sighing, Wynne clambered to her feet and dusted off the seat of her denim shorts. She glanced at Ernie's Ford before her eyes slid over to the black replica. From there, they moved over to Mandy - there was something that needed to be done before she could make any kind of decision. "Phyl, there's somebodda I'd like ya ta meet. This he' wondahful woman is the lady o' mah heart. Mandy Jalinski. Acting Sheriff o' Goldsborah, dontchaknow. Mandy, say howdy ta Phyllis O'Connell."
"Hello, Miss O'Connell," Mandy said and put out her hand for the traditional greeting.
As her ex and her present were about to shake hands, Wynne couldn't help but chew on her bottom lip in a sudden fit of worry. Everyone present was an adult, but she knew all too well it wasn't a guarantee for avoiding drama. She studied the scene hoping for the best.
Blackie and Goldie - and Ernie too for that matter - seemed to pick up on her trepidation. While the dogs sat on the shaded sidewalk with their tongues wagging to combat the heat, Ernie stuck his thumbs into his belt loops and broke out in a grin that reached from ear to ear.
Phyl took off her fingerless driving gloves before she put her hand out of the window. "Hello, Sheriff Jalinski."
"Well, not quite. Just an acting one. And even that's unofficial," Mandy said while displaying a tired smile.
"Still. Can't be too many female sheriffs around, unofficial or otherwise," Phyl said before she turned to look at her ex. "And Wynne, it's all over the grapevine what you did in that bar over there. Girl! I would've soiled my shorts if I had to step into the unknown like that! And you did it voluntarily…"
Wynne shrugged. "Aw-yuh. It ain't like it wus dain-gerous or nuttin' compared ta othah kinds a bizness we been… uh… uh… nevah mind. Naw, I jus' did it. Wussen too scary. De-per-ty Mandy wus outside with a scatterguhn an' Blackie wus there next ta me ta back me up if them there long-haired fellas had turned unfriendly or som'tin. There wus really nuttin' to it."
"Wynne," Mandy said, "I think you should accept Phyl's offer to drive you home. Because that's where you'll go, right? Our home."
A warm smile spread over Wynne's features as she gazed into Mandy's eyes that remained as gorgeous as ever - even if they were dull and dead-tired. "Yuh, that's exactly where I be goin'. Our home. But shoot, them dawggies ain't gonn' fit in that there sporty cahr…"
"Aw," Ernie said while holding his hand up, "dontcha worry about that, Wynne. Your dogs are perfectly content with bein' driven home in a Ford. Not only does the air-conditionin' work, Goldie loves the upholstery," he continued as he shuffled around the customized truck to open the passenger-side door.
That comment caused much chuckling among the humans present. Blackie took the opportunity to nudge her golden companion and let out a brief Woof-woof - soon, they hopped up into the silver-and-metallic blue F350 and got comfortable on the seats that were in far better condition than those in Wynne's old truck.
"Yuh, Goldie be a li'l Missy Tendahbuhtt, that sure ain't no lie. Thanks a whole bunch, there, Ernie. If ya swing by tomorra aftahnoon or so, I'mma-gonn' have a li'l liquid refreshment fer ya… an' that sure ain't gonn' be none o' that there non-alcoholic dishwatah, neithah," Wynne said as she walked over to Phyl's GM Goodwrench-replica Monte Carlo.
"Will do. See ya, everybody," Ernie said before he climbed behind the wheel of his customized truck and drove off with Blackie and Goldie both looking back through the little window at the rear of the cab.
Wynne took off her cowboy hat to wave at her dogs before she continued on. On her way over to her ride, she came to a halt and leaned down to place a quick kiss on Mandy's lips. "An' y'all be sure it's all right, there, De-per-ty Mandy?" she whispered for her partner's ears only.
Mandy grinned and stood up on tip-toes to pay back the favor while nobody - or at least hardly anybody - watched them. "Fully, hon. Fully. G'wan. See you at dark o'clock or tomorrow. Can't say yet."
"Jus' call me any time if ya wanna talk or som'tin. Yuh?" Wynne said as she patted the pocket of her denim shorts.
Once a pair of cheerful salutes had been exchanged and Mandy was on her way back to the sheriff's office, Wynne shuffled around the front of the sporty car and reached for the door handle. "Whaddindahell?" she said when she realized the entire side of the vehicle was a single, smooth piece of metal. "Where'd'ya put that there handle, Phyl? Lawrdie, where'd'ya put that there dang-blasted door?!"
Phyl leaned over to the right to point at the opening for the window. "Y'all jus' gonn' hafta swing yer ol' timber logs through that there gap, Missy Wynne!" she said in a humorous impersonation of Wynne's trademark drawl.
"Well, I'll be good an' gosh-darned," Wynne said as she tried to remember how it was done. She had watched enough stock car drivers do it on TV over the years to understand the basics, but it was another matter to do it in real life - not to mention on the wrong side of the vehicle.
It took her a few fumbling tries to get her long limbs to line up, but she was eventually able to climb into the low-slung sports car and slip down into the bucket seat. Once her rear end was relatively happy in the form-fitting seat, she strapped herself into the four-point safety harness and made sure all the locks were secure; then she tightened the belts. "Ya know, all things considered… it wus ack-chew-ly kinda fun seein' ya ag'in an' all. Yuh. It wus. But, Phyl-"
"Hey… even a blind mole can see the love between you and that gorgeous sheriff lady over there. I'll admit it. I'd been hoping to reignite the spark we had. That's why I sent you those cheesy postcards… but we never had anything that could rival what you and Mandy share," Phyl said with her finger resting on the starter button.
A wistful smile played on Wynne's face as she took off her cowboy hat to wipe her damp brow on her shirtsleeve. "Yuh. Nuttin' more need be said 'cos that's 'bout the long an' the short o' it," she said as she mashed the hat back down onto her dark locks. "Now tell me… does this he' thing move, or is it nuttin' but o' them there posin' vee-hickels?"
"Fightin' words!" Phyl said and broke out in a self-confident laugh - then she flicked the switch that made the powerful engine come to life. The rumbling loudness cut off all possibilities of a conversation, but it wasn't intrusive until she had made a U-turn and had lined up southbound on Main Street.
The two women exchanged a quick glance before Phyl mashed the shifter into first gear and buried her foot on the gas pedal. Oh-point-nothing later, what had to be an entire herd of Tyrannosaurus Rexes let out a collective roar through the twin exhaust pipes as the Monte Carlo took off trailing black lines and reams of tire smoke - and oh-point-nothing after that, Wynne let out an impossibly loud and enthusiastic "Yeeeeeee-hawwwww! Gawd bless 'merica! An' General Motahs!"
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