Mud, Dread & Beers

by Norsebard



This 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.



Written: May 16th - 31st, 2021.

This is the eleventh and final story about Wynne Donohue and Mandy Jalinski - all ten previous stories are available at the website of the Royal Academy of Bards.

- Thank you very much for all 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: For the final time, we visit Goldsboro, NV to meet Wynne Donohue, Senior Deputy Mandy Jalinski, Ernie Bradberry and all the other folks in and around the desert town and the trailer park. Although there aren't any critters to conquer this time, Wynne and Mandy have plenty to do dodging a debt collector and going on the campaign trail for the upcoming sheriff's election, respectively. Will their legendary rotten luck strike again, or will the two gals fih-nally get the happy end they deserve?




The small desert town of Goldsboro, Nevada, was never more than a tiny, colored dot on most maps. Founded in 1881 by the eponymous family who were relocating from the eastern seaboard to California when their covered wagon broke an axle in the middle of nowhere, the town was later discovered to be placed at the exact center of a square laid out between Barton City to the north, Jarrod City to the west, Maynard Canyon to the east and Cavanaugh Creek to the south. Given its isolation and the harsh nature of the vast, foreboding desert that circled it on all sides, Goldsboro always seemed like an afterthought in the overall scheme of things.

Apart from the abandoned mines and the adjacent ghost town at Silver Creek a few miles to the south and Thunder Park Raceway a few miles to the north, Goldsboro's claim to fame has always been the barrage of calamities constantly striking the quiet community since its inception. Although it's something the current citizens would prefer to live without, most of them have come to terms with the fact that they, and the town, will be haunted by supernatural occurrences, otherworldly beings and unexplained phenomena on a regular basis.

For some inexplicable reason, the late-forty-something Wynne Donohue and her slightly younger main squeeze, Senior Deputy Sheriff Mandy Jalinski, have often found themselves in the middle of the action whether they wanted to be or not. The tough gals have battled aliens from outer space, ghosts, zombie cannibals, goblins, a humanoid creature and even dimension-shattering thunderstorms - not to mention their worst human nemesis, ousted Sheriff Arthur 'Artie' Rains, whose abrasive, confrontational style has knocked more than a few noses out of joint over the years.

The latest calamity to strike Goldsboro was an oversized lizard monster that caused widespread havoc as it tried to escape captivity. The US Air Force was transporting it straight through town - a guarantee for disaster - when an accident provided the perfect opportunity for it to flee. After enjoying a few hours of freedom, it was finally re-captured eight miles south of town close to the near-legendary trailer park that had already seen so much drama over the years it could fill an entire Encyclopedia Of Horrors.

Celebrations were in order once the beast had been captured, so the people living there had quickly organized a typically lavish midnight barbecue with plenty of hot food, cold beer and good-natured camaraderie. As has so often been the case, one beer led to the next which made the night fly by even faster than normal…



At five minutes past seven the morning after the eventful night, Wynne and Mandy were nearly thrown from their double bed by an otherworldly howl that was only a single notch below reaching a glass-shattering quality. The howl only grew in intensity from that point until it had achieved a level that threatened to tear the universe apart at the seams.

A thick, croaking "Awwwwww-hell!  Mo' monstahs!" soon came from Wynne's side of the bed. She grabbed her pillow and slammed it over her head, but even that couldn't keep out the terrifying, high-pitched cries and howls.

Moaning and groaning from the rude awakening, Wynne scrambled to her bare feet and fumbled over to the nearest window where she hurriedly swept one of the curtains aside. She whipped her head around to look left, then right, then left again to find the culprit. When she finally clapped eyes on the dastardly being behind the howling, a long groan escaped her.

It wasn't an invader from Mars, an atomic mutant, an oversized reptilian, a man-eating triffid or any of the regular ghosts, ghouls or goblins that had plagued Goldsboro and the trailer park over the years - no, it was a young girl who couldn't play mini-soccer with her dollies because the lawn resembled a World War I battlefield after the escaped lizard-beast had been over it.

Renee Tooley stood in the middle of the destruction with a ball under her arm, a Barbie doll in one hand and a miniature goal in the other. Her head was leaned back to allow the sobbing and unbridled wailing free access to the ether.

"Lawwwr-die… Ah do bah-lieve li'l Reneh there gonn' be an op'ra singah or som'tin one day…. Mercy Sakes, mah poah eahs… an' mah poah head," Wynne croaked as she rubbed her face. She tried to stick her fingers into her ears, but even that stop-gap gesture wasn't enough to block out the infernal howling.

"Let Goldie out to play with her…" Mandy said from somewhere under a pile of pillows and sheets.

"Whassat, De-per-ty?"

"I said," Mandy continued as she dug her way out of the various items that she had used to protect her dead-tired being, "let Goldie out… they love to play with each other."

"Haw!  Snakes Alive, that there be the bestest ideah Ah evah done heard at this he' ca-razeh tih-me o' the mornin', yes Ma'am!"

Even while Wynne spoke on, she shuffled into the narrow hallway beyond the door to the bedroom where Blackie and Goldie had already been stirred by the incessant howling. The German Shepherd Blackie acted sublimely annoyed at being disturbed like that, but the Golden Retriever Goldie acted worried - she could undoubtedly recognize Renee Tooley's voice.

"Haw, Goldie, mah wondahful dawggie, it be tih-me fer y'all ta be a good helpah an' make that there cute, li'l gal out yondah have some fuhn… so the rest of us can sleep fer jus' a li'l while longah, yuh?  C'mon, Ah promise there gonn' be a whooooole lotta deh-li-shus chow fer y'all when ya get back. Yuh?"

The promise of extra food was only icing on the proverbial cake because Goldie had already made up her mind to help Renee Tooley where she could. Yapping merrily, she went over to the inner door and scratched her claws against it. When that and the screen door were opened, she was gone in a flash.

Blackie continued to look annoyed at the whole thing, but when the howling was replaced by laughter within moments of the golden furball arriving, she nodded her black head and returned to the doggy-basket for a much-needed nap.

"Yuh, Blackie," Wynne said while she scratched herself all over through her sleeping T-shirt, "Ah done had the same no-shun, yes ma'am… see ya in a couple-a hou-ahs…"


Several hours later, everyone's mood had improved from the blessed silence that had spread after the school bus had been by to pick up young Renee Tooley. The day progressed as normal in the trailer park with the exception of the state of the lawn. Brenda Travers had taken a sick-day to tend to it, and the go-getter already worked hard with a spade to get the worst ruts leveled out so it could be turned into a soccer pitch once more.

Wynne's head was thumping too hard as a result of their nocturnal adventures for her to play with spades, shovels, rakes, trowels or any other kind of gardening tools - she settled for standing at the windows of her living room drinking a mug of strong coffee and eating a bagel that had been issued with a healthy spread of sweet strawberry jam.

She couldn't be bothered to dress up when she had nowhere to go, so she simply wore flip-flops, home-cut denim shorts, a tank top sporting a 1950s retro Chevrolet logo and finally an unbuttoned flannel shirt.

She let out several grunts and chuckles as she watched the fit Brenda toiling away with the grass and dirt. "Lawrdie, such energeh at this he' tih-me o' the morn'… man-oh-man, I didden even ha' that much energeh when I wus a teen'agah!  Mebbe there's som'tin ta be gained from that there John Jetson… or wus that som'tin else…?  Aw, nevah mind," she said out loud in between sips of coffee and bites of the bagel.

When Ernie Bradberry stepped out of his trailer and shuffled across the ruined lawn, Wynne quickly threw the rest of her breakfast into her mouth. Clapping her hands free of crumbs, she crouched down by the ancient VCR and popped in the tape they were going to watch.


Three minutes later, Ernie kicked off his heavy boots and threw himself onto the couch in the living area of Wynne's trailer. "Hiya, Wynne, ya ol' rascal. How's the head this morning?" His beer gut strained the Hooters Restaurants T-shirt he wore, and his hairy legs that poked out from underneath his loud Bermuda shorts proved he could use a personal sponsor that manufactured razors.

"Aw, it's there awright… Mercy Sakes, I ain't used ta that there tequila that ol' Diego brought along. Four shots an' I wus a droolin' mess," Wynne said with a grin as she took the remote and sat down next to her friend. "Good thing somebodda invented them beers 'cos I sure is a beer gal, yessir."

Ernie looked over his shoulder to make sure Mandy was still in the shower and thus couldn't hear him: "Speakin' of gals… damn, did you see those Daisy Dukes and that sports top Brenda's wearin' today?" he said in a hushed voice while he nudged Wynne in the side with an elbow.

"Why, Ernie Bradberrah!  Do that there darlin' Rev'rend Bernah-deene know y'all be peekin' at othah gals like that?"


"I didden figger she wus!"

"Peekin' and appreciatin' has never hurt anybody. And just for the record, I'm only peekin'… not pokin'. There's a big difference!"

"Yuh. Yuh, ain't gonn' argue wi'that, friend. An'… naw, I didden notice no Daiseh Dukes or nuttin'," Wynne said with a grin. Like Ernie had done only moments before, she looked over her shoulder to make sure she was safe. " 'Cos mah eyes didden make it that far up."

Exactly on cue, Ernie and Wynne both craned their necks to look out at Brenda and her tanned, toned, and above all bare timberlogs that reached from the ground and all the way up to heaven - or at least the home-cut jeans short-shorts.

"Yuh…" -- "Well…" they said as one. Grinning, Ernie shuffled down into the couch. "So… what are we watchin' today?"

"Haw, a real goodie 's what. The 'ninety-four Daytohna five-hundred!  An' he' goes that there play button," Wynne said and moved her thumb over to the appropriate button. Before it could make contact, her telephone started ringing. She reached into her pocket at once but found she had put it on the sideboard instead so it could be recharged - the furthest away from the couch and the coffee table it could possibly be while still being inside the trailer. "Aw… aw… Aw!  That there dang-blasted telephone!  It got a camerah!  Can't that there sombitch see I ain't got tih-me ta talk now, dag-nabbit?  Lawrdie," she said as she got up and shuffled over there.

When the caller-ID said Moira MacKay, she accepted the call. "Howdy Moira!  Y'all reached the one an' only- whoa, whoa, whoa… slow down, there, Misseh… y'all be speakin' a li'l too fast fer mah ears on this he' mornin'… yuh, I done heard 'bout that there acci- yuh. Yuh. Okeh?  Uh… sure… yuh. Okeh. Yuh. Aw, y'all got a deal, there, Moira. Yuh. See ya."

"What was that all about?" Ernie said and sat up straight.

"Moira done asked if we wus int'rested in makin' a couple-a bucks helpin' her clean up the mess made by that there crittah las'night… I deffa-nete-ly be int'rested. Whaddaya say, Ernie?"

"Well… why not?" Ernie said and got up. "We ain't missin' much, anyway… 'ninety-four was a Chevy victory."

"I beg yer pardon?!  Them be fightin' words in he', Mista!" Wynne said and jumped into a mock fist-fighting stance.

Unfortunately, her best efforts to appear mean and scary only made Ernie break out in a laugh before he shuffled back to his own place to change into his work clothes.


Mandy exited the shower at much the same time, so the smallish bedroom was soon filled to capacity by tuff gals donning their various work-related uniforms.

It didn't take long for Wynne to gather up the clothing items she needed to accomplish the task. After swapping the flannel shirt and the tank top for a supportive sports bra and a black, long-sleeved sweatshirt carrying a blue-and-silver General Motors logo printed in an abstract style, she jumped into a pair of heavy-duty jeans and stuck her feet into her work boots. Her denim jacket and her sturdy pair of gloves came last - the stylish sheepskin gloves were too precious to be used for hard work.

Despite Wynne's speed, Mandy got the job done first: the last two items on her agenda were to slide her service pistol into the holster on her utility belt and then put on her expensive Mountie hat. "I'll just let the girls out to play for a couple of minutes while you get ready… unless you want to take them with you?"

"Naw, not taday," Wynne said as she sat down on the bed to tie the bootlaces. "I reckon there gonn' be too much glass an' shit ev'rywheah in Goldsborah fer them paws o' theirs."

"You're right. My brain's turned to mush after getting home at ten to six… good thinking, hon," Mandy said and leaned down to get a final kiss. After the sweet contact, the dead-tired senior deputy and the far more energetic dogs left for the stretch of land behind the trailer.

Wynne's attention was grabbed by a black Lincoln SUV that suddenly appeared in the area between the trailers. The vehicle was dusty like it had driven quite a distance to get there, but beyond the sandy-gray coating along its flanks, it was easy to see it was a classy, expensive ride.

She let out a grunt at the sight of the driver as he stepped out and began to look around. In his mid-thirties, he wore black shoes and a black business suit over a white shirt and a black necktie. The clean-shaven, pale-blond fellow carried a leatherbound portfolio under his arm and a pair of near-black, gold-framed Aviator sunglasses on the bridge of his nose - the shades were soon removed so he could see better. After checking a gold wristwatch, his eyes locked onto Brenda Travers who continued to work on the ruined lawn. Opening the leatherbound portfolio, he walked over to her like he wanted a word.

"Whoindahell's that there fella all offa sudden?" Wynne mumbled and scratched her neck. Her scratching suddenly stopped from one scratch to the next. "Aw, he ain't one o' them there Virgin Towah mis-shun-nairies, is he?  Naw… not with'a gold watch an' all. Ugh, I smell a debt collectah or repo guy… did I ferget ta pay a bill or som'tin?  Naw, not ta mah knowledge or nuttin'… naw… he can't be he' fer anythin' I done or nuttin'. Or didden do. Mebbe I didden get it in that there dang-blasted mailbox o' mine, tho'… buh!  Whaddinda flamin' pits o' hell, he' be comin' this he' way!  D'awwwww-shittt!  Ain't no panickin'!  Ain't no panickin'… use yer noggin, Wynne… an' hurry!"


Five minutes later, Ernie stepped up into the kitchenette to look for his mysteriously missing friend. In the meantime, he had changed into his regular work clothes: safety boots, sturdy cargo pants that could take a lot of abuse, a flannel shirt over an olive-green T-shirt, and finally the hunting vest that featured a multitude of pockets. An H.E. Fenwyck Special Products ball cap sat crooked atop his mullet. "Hey, Wynne… we really need to get goin'. Wynne?  Wynne?  Moira hates it whenever someone's late, you know that… Wynne?" he said as he moved into the doorway to the living area.

'Ernie?  Thank that there bearded guy in the skah it's you, son!  Is that there debt collectah fella gone?' a female voice said from somewhere inside the bedroom.

"What debt collector?" Ernie said and stepped over the low threshold and into the bedroom. "Where the hell are you, Wynne?"

The answer to that question was revealed when a denim-clad woman crabbed out from underneath the double bed. Wynne had figured that since it was Goldie's favorite hiding place whenever the world grew too threatening to handle, it would suit her needs just fine - she had been right as her stay in the little cave had been enough when the bad guy had knocked on her door. "Right he', son," she said as she clambered to her knees and then fully upright.

"What in the hell are you doing down there?"

"Hidin' from that there debt collectah. Or repo guy. Or whatevah that fella wus."

Ernie scratched his neck like Wynne had done earlier. "Okay?  I ain't got a clue what you're talkin' about… but we're hideously late, Wynne. Moira hates waitin'-"

"Yuh, yuh, hold 'em hosses, pardner. I be right behindcha. I jus' need'a let mah sweet, li'l de-per-ty Mandy know we be on our way," Wynne said as she ran a finger around the rim of her battered cowboy hat to make sure it sat just right.

"Which truck should we use?  Mine, yours or the Niss-"

"Hooooooah-leh shittt!  I plum fergot 'bout that there Nissahn!  Lawrdie!" Wynne cried and slapped her forehead so hard her hat went out of shape all over again. "Haw, good thing I done delivah'ed all them chickens las'night, huh?  Snakes Alive, them fowls woudda been foul fer sure… get it?  Fowl… foul… yuh, huh?  Watch out, wohhhh-rld, Wynne's hit comedy gold, yessir!"

Wynne continued to snicker out loud at her own joke, and it didn't make it any less funny that Ernie stared at her like she had just sprouted a second head.

"Uh… yeah," Ernie eventually said just to break the awkwardness that hung heavy in the bedroom between Wynne's snickers. "Okay. No more late nights for you, young lady… let's take your Chev. There's a pretty bad ebb in my gas tank right now."

"Yessir!  Les'go!"


Driving along the State Route in the silver-metallic, single-cab Chevrolet Silverado that Mandy had leased at Otto Kulick's Bang 'n Beatin' Body Shop, Wynne suddenly noticed the black Lincoln driven by the supposed debt collector cruising along a few hundred yards behind them.

She kept an eye on the vehicle to see if it gained on them or not. When it began to creep closer as the eight miles to Goldsboro disappeared under the chrome wheels, she slammed her boot down onto the gas pedal to leave it in her dust.

"Whoa!" Ernie said and grabbed hold of the panic grip above the seat as the V8 roared and the speed climbed steadily. "Are ya tryin' to qualify for the Southern five-hundred or somethin', Wynne?  Why are we goin' eighty-five in a sixty-five zone?"

"We done picked up a tail back there."

"What are ya talkin' about?  A tail?" Shuffling around, Ernie craned his neck to look in the mirror on the door. He soon spotted the black SUV Wynne referred to.

"Yessir, we sure did. That there black vee-hickel back some ways. I know what them tails look like 'cos I done watched an episoh-de o' that there Eff-Bee-Eye Files teevee show on that there Intahnet the othah day an' them folks wus tailin' somebodda they thought wus-"

"Let's hope it ain't no FBI vehicle!  Or an unmarked Highway Patrol car for that matter!" Ernie said with an eye on the speedometer that continued to show quite a bit more than what the speed limit sign had asked for. " 'Cos if it is, you'll be in a heap of trouble…"

"It ain't. Betcha ten bucks it be that there debt collectah I wus talkin' 'bout in that there black Lincoln. Or repo guy or whatevah," Wynne said as she concentrated on keeping the truck on the two-lane blacktop.

One of the advertising slogans from the good, old days known as the 1970s suddenly popped into her head: "Four on tha flo', stroke 'n bo', put the hammah down an' hear her yell fer mo'!" she said as she pressed her boot even harder down on the gas pedal.

"Jeez, Wynne… you're scarin' me sometimes," Ernie said and shook his head; then he broke out in a heartfelt chuckle at Wynne's bottomless well of knowledge when it came to old oddities like that.

"That there slogan be from one o' them there Trans-Am commercials… the Supah Doo-teh, yessir!  An' it sure done the trick 'cos that there nasteh fella in that there nasteh Lincoln has gone bah-bah!"

Ernie pointed out of the Silverado's windshield. "And the Goldsboro city limits sign is tellin' ya howdy, Wynne… I suggest we slow down right about now or else we're gonna blow through town like a draftin' train at Talladega."

"Good thinkin', friend… I bettah be deployin' them brake parachutes," Wynne said and stood on the brake pedal to get the truck slowed down to the thirty miles per hour limit that existed inside the town limits. "Look, an' there's deah-ol' Moira alreddeh waitin' fer us!  Yessir, this gonn' be a good day aftah all," she continued as she drove over to the opposite side of Main Street.

Coming to a halt outside what was left of the storefront of Moira's famous Bar & Grill, the predictable outburst wasn't long in coming: "Lawwwwwwwwwwwwr-die!  Wouldya look at that there big-ass mess!  Good shit almi'ty, we gonn' be shovelin' glass fer the rest o' the dog-gone week!"


Wynne had only been partially right - although it had been a lot of work, it hadn't taken her and Ernie the entire week to get the mess in front of Moira's Bar & Grill and elsewhere in town cleaned up after all, only most of the day.

The thousands of shards of glass created by the bullet strikes and the powerful tail of the lizard-beast had filled forty-seven large buckets that had all needed to be moved and emptied by hand into a trash container. After the shards had been taken care of, seventeen rectangular sections of plywood had needed to be put up to cover the worst affected areas. The battery-powered nail gun had given up the ghost after the first six sections, so the rest had been secured by old-fashioned hand-operated hammers.

At a quarter past four in the afternoon, the weary workers had planted their rears on one of the park benches while drinking beer, wiping sweat from their brows, pulling out their sweat-soaked clothes and staring at nothing in particular in similar states of wide-eyed fatigue. The seventy dollars they had both earned felt pleasant in their pockets, however, as they would provide another few cases of their beloved H.E. Fenwycks.

"Man, that was…" Ernie started to say, but he never made it any further before he ran out of steam. The can of 1910 Special Brew he had in a brown paper bag - so he wouldn't break Goldsboro's tight laws on public drinking - had a stronger pull on him than finishing the sentence, so he concentrated on draining the rest of the beer in a series of deep gulps.

"Yuh. Ain't no lie," Wynne said before she chugged down a can of Double Zero in perfect synchronicity with her friend - because it didn't contain any alcohol, she could drink it openly. The quiet belches they let out sounded the same regardless of the legality of the beer.

Goldsboro lived up to its odd reputation of only waking up once the day was nearing its conclusion. The fatigued workers exchanged plenty of howdys, whassups and how-ya-doin's with their friends and acquaintances as people came to Moira's for an after-work round of pool, a bite to eat and perhaps a beer or two.

The farmers Geoffrey Wilburr Senior and Junior arrived on a John Deere tractor that was brought to a noisy halt right behind the Silverado. Junior had his pool cue with him, but Wynne needed several more beers to quell the aches in her arms, back and neck before she could even contemplate shooting a few frames. The appearance of the agricultural vehicle led to a friendly discussion between Ernie and Wynne about the good, old days when John Deere sponsored a Nascar Cup stock car - they couldn't quite agree on whether the famous green-and-yellow paint scheme worked better on the Roush Ford or the Rypier Pontiac, though.

They said howdy to the 330-pound Joe-Bob 'The Manbeast of Yucky Flats' Millard who lumbered past them en route to Derrike Iverson's dive further up Main Street. Moira had given Joe-Bob a two-day suspension for excessive farting in public so he needed to seek his favorite poison elsewhere. The entire town knew the former pro-wrestler had been on a diet for quite a while, so Wynne and Ernie congratulated him on his weight loss even if they couldn't tell any difference.

Plenty of gross hacking and coughing was a good indication that Barry Simms was about to walk past the park bench. It didn't take long before the chain-smoking deputy sheriff who had his bi-weekly evening off walked by with his right arm hooked inside that of his elderly, blue-haired Aunt Mildred. Although the two presented an odd couple to say the least, they did share a common passion: smoking. Barry was trailed by a cloud of foul-smelling cigarette smoke wherever he went, and Mildred puffed merrily on a cheroot. As soon as the couple had walked past the park bench, Wynne and Ernie had to wave their hats in front of their noses to get some fresh air up their nostrils - and that said a lot considering how sweat-soaked their own clothes were.

Trent Lowe, the co-owner of the Chicky Kingz franchise that Wynne drove for, was next in line to file past the weary workers. She was about to let him know that the Nissan was safe and sound back home at the trailer park, but he was speaking into his telephone as he walked past and was thus literally unable to connect with her. Shrugging, she returned to her beer instead.

More people arrived at Moira's: the friendly, elderly veterinarian Dr. Byron Gibbs who had helped deliver many a beloved pet around Goldsboro; Cletus Browne, the super-slick used-car salesman working for Otto Kulick the Third, and the young Roscoe Finch who was so late for his and Geoffrey Junior's pool night that he didn't even say hello to Ernie and Wynne - they let their hurt feelings be known through plenty of yelled comments.

Tucker Garfield, the perennially grouchy tow-truck driver whose overalls had started out as being orange but were now simply the color of waste oil, also dropped in. He champed on an unlit cigar as always, and his lemon-tart demeanor meant that everybody gave him a wide berth on the sidewalk and elsewhere.

The final people to arrive during the human rush hour were Wyatt Elliott and Mary-Lou Skinner - the former was clad in a pale-blue Western suit complete with a gray Stetson. The ensemble was supposed to look stylish, rugged and authentic but failed to score in two of the three categories. Mary-Lou kept her Chihuahua Foo-Foo on a short leash so the tiny, but grotesquely short-tempered dog didn't run away like it was prone to.

One of Goldsboro's most notorious barflies, the semi-shady and fully shabby Robert Neilson - who had just been released from the holding cell after Mandy had detained him the night before for a DUI - tried to sneak into the Bar & Grill using Wyatt and Mary-Lou as cover, but Moira kicked him out ten seconds later. Grunting, he adjusted his ill-fitting clothes and shuffled north on Main Street to celebrate his release up at Derrike Iverson's establishment instead.

"Man…" Ernie said in a laid-back, unhurried fashion. "Moira's gonna be pretty damn full tonight."

Wynne nodded in a similar laid-back, unhurried fashion. A white GMC truck had time to rumble past them before she added: "Yuh."

"That means we have the sidewalk to ourselves."

"Sure does."

"So how about we stayed out here, then?"

"Works fer me, friend," Wynne said and cracked open another can of Double Zero.


In the sheriff's office across the street from Wynne and Ernie's sanctuary park bench, things were somewhat more hectic for deputies Don Woodward, Rodolfo Gonzalez and Mandy Jalinski. With former sheriff Artie Rains gone for good and Barry being away for the remainder of the evening and night, it was high time for an all-points spring cleaning and a thorough clearing-out of the desk drawers, the filing cabinets and the lockers in the crew room at the back.

Mandy herself had introduced a mop to the linoleum floor for the first time in a handful of years. Although the washing didn't improve the looks of the cracked, poop-brown material, the fresh smell of the antibacterial, antiseptic and anti-just-about-everything-else liquid detergent she had mixed into the bucket of hot water was a blessing after Barry's horrendous air pollution.

Rodolfo balanced atop a stepladder to try to get the felt tiles in the ceiling back into place. It was a difficult task that wasn't made easier by the fact he needed to work with his arms and hands stretched out far above him because the only ladder they had at their disposal was too short.

Don had moved onto working at the filing cabinets after wading through the various leftovers found in the desk drawers. The metal drawers situated in the cabinets weren't much better when it came to bizarre artifacts as he had already found a can of Spam that was seventeen years past its sell-by date. That was odd enough in itself, but it paled into insignificance by the discoveries of three full bottles of malt beer from the 1980s, a pipe whose origins remained a mystery to all, a glass jar filled with a murky substance that Don reckoned could have been Moonshine once upon a time, a tin of Christmas cookies that had turned to dust, and finally a petrified stick of beef jerky that had collected so many dust bunnies he had initially thought it was a rabbit's foot lucky charm.

And then there were eighteen bottles of hard liquor that had been gathered up from all over the sheriff's office. A few were unopened, some were half-full and some had been empty for years. Artie Rains' personal favorite bourbon, Old Number Seven, accounted for exactly half of the liquor, but there were several bottles of vodka, tequila, scotch, rum and even gin among the collection.

The unopened bottles had been returned to Grant Lafferty since he had sold most of them to the former sheriff; the empty ones had been dumped into the appropriate glass-recycling dome container that had been placed up near the movie theater, but the eleven half-full bottles presented a problem for the two deputies and the acting sheriff. Pouring that much alcohol into the sewers would only create a fire hazard - not to mention supremely boozy rats - so that was out of the question. Drinking it was even more out of the question, and the glass-recycling plant didn't accept bottles with liquid in them because the alcohol would contaminate the molten glass. Thus, an alternative solution had been needed.

Mandy had finally slammed her fist onto the desktop and had commandeered a wheelbarrow from Wyatt Elliott's hardware store. The remaining bottles were put into it and driven around the back of the sheriff's office. There, the deputies had poured the contents into an old oil drum that had been used for various purposes over the years. A match had been struck and the alcohol had burned off in a roaring whoosh - like a giant Crepes Suzette only without the oooh'ing and ahhh'ing.

Once that had been accomplished, Don had moved onto the actual files that had been stored in the cabinets. The first stacks were only subjected to random spot checks, but when he had found ten irregularly filed or processed files among the first batch alone, he literally flipped the stack and started over from the top. A piece of paper next to him acted as a scorecard of sorts; he updated it several times for each case file he studied, and there were soon so many pencil markings on it that he needed a second page.

The case files ranged from recent to ancient history. Some of them were still active, some should have been sent to incineration decades ago, and some were simply filed in the wrong cabinet.

He soon arrived at a group of files created for a spate of Grand Theft Autos that had taken place some sixteen years earlier. There had been five such instances in total over the course of October and November, but no suspects had been questioned and no arrests had been made. The GTAs had stopped the same day that a young ne'erdowell from Rickenforth Springs had been sent to the holding cells for a DUI. The fact the young, long-haired man had received a severe beating was only mentioned in passing in the report, but a Polaroid candid attached to a page with a paper clip offered colorful proof. Much to Don's indignation, the GTAs - and the beating - had all been handled by Senior Deputy A. Rains seemingly without Sheriff Lionel Pershing ever being informed of the details.

Other case files were less dramatic but no less frustrating. It seemed that some among the citizens of Goldsboro and the surrounding territory were given preferential treatment while others could complain until they were blue in the face without any official business ever taking place. Permissions for street-related events were granted or declined seemingly at random, and Health and Safety Inspections were announced well in advance in exchange for material compensation.

Sighing, Don closed yet another folder from the dark days before he put it on top of the largest pile. The clock on the wall had been given a new battery and was now capable of showing the right time once more. He glanced up at it and let out another sigh that proved he needed a break.

After Mandy had finished washing the floor, she emptied the bucket into the rain gutter out on Main Street. The water had once been crystal clear but was now a shade somewhere between brown and amber - the brown came from the age-old dirt she had washed off the linoleum while the amber offered the tangible proof of how much nicotine Barry sent into the environment through his infernal home-rolled, low-grade cigarettes.

The mop and the bucket were soon wiped dry and put back into the broom cupboard where she had found them. "All right. Let's take five. Would either of you gentlemen like some coffee?" she said and held up the empty glass pot.

When two affirmative answers came back, she poured the appropriate amounts of ground beans and water into the machine and turned it on - the traditional smoke signals and merry burbling were soon being produced. It offered her an opportunity to sit down on the swivel-chair at the sheriff's desk and wipe her brow and neck on a handkerchief.

Rodolfo climbed down from the stepladder and massaged his aching shoulders. As he did so, he cast a casual glance across the street where Ernie and Wynne were still sharing the park bench doing very little. Chuckling, he moved over to the watch desk and sat down so he would be close to the telephone in case it rang.

While they waited for the coffee machine to deliver its dark-brown liquid into the pot, Don held up a thick folder that had been crammed into a cabinet drawer it didn't belong to. "Deputy Jalinski, there's something here you need to see."

The dead-tired look Mandy sent the temporary deputy were backed up by gray lines of fatigue that had appeared on her face after all the dramas of the past day and night. Although she turned the swivel-chair around, she didn't get up.

"This could be a problem," Don continued. "I've found eleven formal complaints in the shape of hand-written affidavits against former deputy Thomas Kincaid. They were lodged by local women who all accused him of sexual harassment and the like."

"That's already been covered fairly well, Don… that was the main reason for Kincaid's suspension from duty," Mandy said in the hope it would be enough to appease the deputy. When it soon became obvious it wouldn't, she let out a sigh. The matter was apparently so serious she needed to see it in person, so she got up and strode over to the smaller of the desks. "Did you find anything in particular?"

"Well, it appears Sheriff Rains contacted the eleven women later on. From reading between the lines of the notes he took… I'm guessing they were jotted down while he talked to them over the telephone… I'd say he gave each of them a very rough time. He leaned on them pretty hard to make them withdraw their complaints. Two of them did."

"Dammit," Mandy said as she took the thick folder from Don's hand. Opening it, she let her eyes run over the sheriff's notes that did in fact appear to have been written while speaking to the victims of the harassment. Various racial and sexual slurs had been added here and there; a few of the worst notes had been framed by fat boxes and further underscored to add emphasis on a particular angle or subject regarding the victim he had spoken to at the time. "We need to show this to Judge Etherington. And Councilwoman Skinner as well. Thanks, Don… I'll deal with it. Get some coffee."

"Yes, Ma'am!" Don said with a grin as he stepped away from the piles on the desk.

There weren't any free desk corners anywhere for Mandy to lean against - much less sit on - so she kept standing in the middle of the office while she leafed through the complaints and the former sheriff's subsequent notes. Her face turned darker by the moment as none of it was pleasant reading. Striding back to her own desk, she slammed the folder onto the desktop, found a sticky-note and a felt-tip pen and wrote 'urgent!' on it in capitals. Once the sticky-note had been transferred onto the thick folder, she reached for her smartphone intending to call Mary-Lou Skinner.

Before Mandy could do so, the ancient Bakelite telephone began ringing at the watch desk. She stopped what she was doing in case she was needed; her heart rate went up like it always did when they were about to learn something that could see them head out into a potentially dangerous assignment. Don had already made it halfway across Main Street to get a sandwich or two from Moira's, but he returned on the double when he heard the characteristic ringing.

Rodolfo picked it up at once and readied a notepad and a pencil. "Good afternoon, you've reached the MacLean County Sheriff's Department, the Goldsboro office. How may we help you?  Oh… hello, Mrs. Peabody-"

Don shrugged and soon went back to Moira's for the sandwiches. The dead-tired Mandy sighed, rolled her eyes and turned to the coffee machine instead. The dark-brown liquid had finished brewing, so she poured a healthy amount into one of her personal mugs and added just a dash of creamer to lighten the color and bitterness.

"Yes, Mrs. Peabody," Rodolfo continued into the old receiver, "I promise we'll treat this seriously. Yes. There'll be someone by in- pardon?  Yes, your reputation of running a respectable establishment is- pardon?  Yes, Mrs. Peabody. Yes, like I said, we'll send a- pardon?  Yes. Goodbye, Mrs. Pea- Yes. Yes, Mrs. Peabody. Goodbye, Mrs. Peabody."

Shaking his head, he tore off the piece of paper as soon as he had put down the receiver. "Just in case it didn't come across, that was Mrs. Peabody," he said with a tired grin.

Mandy let out an equally tired chuckle as her only response.

"She wanted to report an unknown person of the female kind whom she saw exiting one of the rooms occupied by a single boarder of the male kind. Later, the same woman was seen loitering around Mrs. Peabody's premises with a camera."

"And you said we'd be by to investigate," Mandy said and calmly took a sip of the coffee.

"Yes, Ma'am."

"See to it once Don gets back."

"Ah… yes, Ma'am."


It only took four minutes before Don Woodward stepped into the sheriff's office holding a small paper bag containing several wrapped sandwiches. Moira MacKay had taken it upon herself to act as a mother hen to the sheriff and the deputies, and A.J. 'Slow' Lane would make twelve or so sandwiches each day that were free of charge for the hard-working law enforcement officers.

After Don had put most of the sandwiches - save for a ham-and-cheese that he kept for himself - into the refrigerator in the crew room, he came back into the office, poured himself a mug of coffee and sat at the watch desk to get the most out of the short break.

Rodolfo could only cast longing gazes at the delicious-looking sandwich as he put on his Mountie hat and headed for the door. He had already made it onto the sidewalk when Mandy called out after him:

"Wait, Rodolfo… I'll join you," Mandy said and quickly took her own hat. Once she had caught up with the younger deputy, they strode off toward the boarding house. When noticing the puzzled look on Rodolfo's face, she let out a dark chuckle. "Mrs. Peabody was one of the few who didn't yell at me last night. I have an election to think of and I'll need every vote I can get."


It didn't take them long to reach the boarding house that was one of the oldest buildings in Goldsboro. Fully renovated after the severe damage it had suffered during the Goblin infestation, it looked better than it ever had. The front had been painted in a pale-gray shade that lessened the effects of the murdering sun that baked down on it for most of the day. To create a pleasant contrast, the twelve window frames - four on each of the three storeys - were held in an off-white.

The building had been pulled back ten feet from the sidewalk to provide room for two rectangular plant beds on either side of the main entrance. Ernie Bradberry had spent a full week on his hands and knees planting hardy, thorny bushes and shrubbery so nobody would get the notion of peeking in through the windows on the ground floor. Mrs. Peabody had initially wanted cacti to create a Western motif but soon discovered it would be far too expensive to get the right kind of soil for the surprisingly delicate plants.

Rodolfo let out a grunt as he and Mandy turned right and moved onto another of Ernie's handyman projects - the flagstones that led to the entrance. "I just realized something… I have no clue what Mrs. Peabody's first name is. I've never heard it!"

"Me neither, Rodolfo. And I even stayed here for several weeks when I first moved to town," Mandy said with a grin as she grabbed hold of the door and pulled it open.

They didn't have to search for Mrs. Peabody as she waited for them in the lobby. The severe, arch-conservative lady was a spinster of indeterminate age. Elfin-like in appearance, she barely made it to five-foot-even in socks, but her strong, strict and by-the-book personality made up for the relative lack of height and breadth. At present, she wore sensible shoes and a no-frills, pale-brown Frontierwoman's dress with a row of wooden buttons from the waist to its O-neck. A pair of square spectacles sat atop the bridge of her nose, and her gray hair had been pulled into a hard bun at the back of her head.

"I just saw her again!" she said in a sharp tone of voice even before the two deputies had made it fully into the lobby.

"The woman you mentioned?" Rodolfo said as he readied his notepad. When Mrs. Peabody didn't reply, he looked up and found himself pinned to the spot by an icy glare. "Ah… I'm guessing that's a yes," he mumbled.

"Mrs. Peabody," Mandy said, "why do you suspect this woman of illicit behavior?  I presume that's why you contacted us."

The owner of the boarding house let out a disdainful snort. "I do so for several reasons, Deputy. One, she had that air about her and her clothes were far too revealing. Two, I saw her leaving the room occupied by a visiting gentleman from Brandford Ridge. The gentleman only rented the room yesterday so he wouldn't have had time to establish friendly relations to anyone here in town. As a matter of fact, I don't think she's even from Goldsboro. Three, they kissed in the doorway and spoke endearments when she left. I wasn't close enough to see if money changed hands. Four, her overpowering perfume lingered in the hallway long after she had left. And five, she's far younger than he!  At least a decade… if not more."

Rodolfo focused hard on taking notes so he wouldn't reveal how annoyed he grew about the whole thing. Mandy nodded in all the appropriate places but found it difficult to compose a reply by the time Mrs. Peabody had finally finished running through her list. "Very well. You said you saw her taking pictures of your boarding house?" Mandy said to give the impression that she and Rodolfo would indeed treat it seriously.

"Well, yes. That was later. At least, I presume that's what she did," Mrs. Peabody said and adjusted her glasses that were as stern as her personality. "She certainly held up something that I would describe as a camera. I'm not into all that newfangled technology so I can't tell you what happened exactly."

"I see. What's the number of the room rented by the gentleman from Brandford Ridge?  He may have a good explanation," Mandy said and began to move over to the staircase at the far side of the lobby - she knew it well since her own room had been on the second floor.

"Two-oh-two. I considered him to be a very fine fellow until this happened. Yes indeed, a proper gentleman. His name is Mr. Andrews-"

"Mr. Todd Andrews?" Mandy said, cutting off Mrs. Peabody mid-stream. The shocked look she got in return proved it didn't happen often - and never twice from the same person.

"Why… yes. Are you already familiar with him?  Is there a warrant out for his arrest?  Is he an escaped criminal?"

"No, he's a fellow law enforcement officer. He's the Senior Deputy to Sheriff G.W. Tenney over in Brandford Ridge."

"Oh!  Really?  But he hasn't worn a uniform at any point during his stay…" Mrs. Peabody said while her face turned into a question mark. The expression soon morphed into a perfectly insulted exclamation point when she continued: "Good Lord, then he isn't a gentleman at all!  No law enforcement officer would ever become involved with a woman of such dubious-"

"Let's just talk to him, Mrs. Peabody," Mandy said, cutting off the elderly lady for the second time in as many minutes. The second offense rendered the owner of the boarding house too stunned to speak; all she could do was to hurry up the staircase after the two deputies.


Upstairs, Mandy and Rodolfo strode along the hallway until they reached the door to room 202. The news that it was Mandy's chief rival for the position of sheriff gave her a bad case of heartburn, and that was reflected on her face just like Mrs. Peabody's righteous state of virtuous indignation was reflected on hers.

Working on autopilot, Mandy unclicked the button on the strap that kept her service firearm in place. A grunt escaped her when she realized what she had done, so she closed the button again and simply knocked on the door.

A few seconds later, Todd Andrews opened it. He was clearly expecting someone else so the smile that already played on his lips turned into an 'O' - and then his face gained a dark tinge within moments. Like Mrs. Peabody had said, Andrews wore regular clothes rather than his uniform: dark-blue jeans and a neutral shirt where the top two buttons were undone. The sleeves were rolled up to his elbows revealing forearms that appeared strong with pronounced muscle tone almost like his favorite type of exercise was lifting weights.

"Mr. Andrews, I'm Senior Deputy Jalinski," Mandy said with all the professionalism she could muster. "This is my colleague Deputy Gonzalez. May we have a word in private, Sir?"

"Huh!  Of course. Come in," Todd said and moved aside for his fellow officers.

Rodolfo made sure to close the door in Mrs. Peabody's face, and she let out an impressive huff of pure outrage before she stomped back downstairs.

"I'm not sure what this is about, deputies. I'm hoping you'll clue me in," Todd continued as he sat down on one of the room's chairs.

Mandy noted that he was in his late thirties or very early forties, tall, buff and the owner of a smile that wouldn't have looked out of place on a Hollywood movie poster. His hair was sandy and his eyes pale-blue. His features were regular and there weren't any blemishes, scars or other imperfections to be found anywhere - he would be stiff competition in the election, she was certain of that.

"Mr. Andrews," she said, "Mrs. Peabody called to inform us that she had witnessed a young woman leaving this room earlier today under circumstances that break the house rules. The woman wore what Mrs. Peabody described as revealing clothing and she apparently wore too much perfume. The latter is irrelevant, but I'd be interested in hearing about the other points of contention. I'm sure I don't have to spell out what Mrs. Peabody believes has happened here."

The last traces of Todd's good mood vanished like the morning dew. His puzzled smile was replaced by a deep frown as he stared at the door while mouthing several juicy curses at the nosy landlady. "Wow, what a friggin' gold-plated welcome to Goldsboro… I'm sorry to pop your balloon, Deputies, but the woman in question just happens to be my wife."

Mandy and Rodolfo shared a long, pained look.

"Revealing clothing, my ass," Todd Andrews said and jerked up from the chair. "She wore regular jeans and a loose tunic that resembled a damn Hawaii shirt the last time I saw her!  Tell me, is Goldsboro a stronghold of those Virgin Tower people or something?  Talk about bible-thumping!"

"Ah, well-" Mandy said, but she was the one who was cut off for once.

"And do you know why my wife had used maybe a little too much perfume?  'Cos we hadn't seen each other for nearly a week so we had sex when she got here. Yep. Right in there," Todd continued, pointing at the doorway to the bedroom. "I haven't had time to make the bed so the sheets are still crumpled. Wanna check them?  You have my permission."

"That won't be necessary, Sir," Mandy said in a dark tone. Her lips had been reduced to gray lines in her face at not only the criminal waste of time but at the poor first impression they had made on their colleague - such an insulting introduction would only make Todd Andrews even more determined to beat the local yahoos in the upcoming election.

Todd let out a grunt and folded his arms over his chest. "I rented a room here because I wanted to see Goldsboro prior to my meeting with Councilwoman Skinner. That's tomorrow morning. I'm sure you know my background and my ambitions."

"We do, yes," Mandy said darkly. She was about to add that she would be running against him for the job she had performed for years already, but she held it back by clenching her jaw.

Before the conversation could fall even further off the rails, the door to the room was knocked on again. Todd flew over there in case it was Mrs. Peabody but it turned out to be his wife back from a little sightseeing of the sleepy desert town.

Mandy judged her to be in her late twenties or early thirties; she wore jeans and a loose, bright-red tunic that featured prints of humorously stylized pineapples and other tropical fruits. She carried a small purse in her right hand, a wedding ring sat on the appropriate finger on her left hand, and both wrists were graced by elegant bracelets. Her eyes were almond-shaped and sat symmetrically above a pert nose - they were just a shade darker blue compared to her husband's. Her dusty-blond hair was voluminous and freshly made like she had stopped at Holly Lorenzen's salon on her tour of the town. There was nothing suspect about her at all unlike Mrs. Peabody's claims, even if the whiff of perfume was in fact rather penetrating.

The woman had only made it a few steps into the room before she came to a dead stop and shook her head in surprise. "Todd, who's this?" she said in a fair voice as she hooked an arm inside her husband's.

"Some of the deputies working here. Perhaps my future colleagues," Todd said in a tone that was remarkably civil in spite of the recent developments.

"Oh!  Hi, I'm Kerrie Andrews. Nice to meet you!" Kerrie said and put out her hand. Once she had given Mandy and Rodolfo the customary greeting - the elegant bracelets jingled and jangled as she moved her arm - she went back to her husband's side. "Listen, I found this really neat bar and grill just a stone's throw down Main Street. They have a pool table and everything!  It looks really cozy… I think we should go over there for dinner tonight."

The smile returned to Todd's face as he listened to the enthusiasm in his wife's voice. "I'd like that. Did you happen to notice if they rent out rooms?"

"Uh… no?"

Mandy cleared her throat; she sensed the conversation was headed toward an unpleasant state. "I'm afraid they don't, Mr. Andrews. Mrs. Peabody's boarding house is one of only three places in Goldsboro that does. I can't say whether or not the other two have any vacancies."

Kerrie shook her head and looked at her husband. "What's wrong with this one?  Did you see a rat or something?"

"I'll tell you in a little while… okay?  Deputies, it was certainly interesting to meet you… and hear what you had to say," Todd said in a decisive tone to make sure that everyone understood the seance was over.

Mandy and Rodolfo shared another long look. Licking her lips, Mandy managed to smile at the married couple before she and her colleague left for the hallway. Once they stood on the other side of the closed door, she rubbed her brow furiously. She opened her mouth a couple of times but was unable to produce any words that weren't among the most profane - and it was all directed at the elderly lady that everyone in town called Mrs. Busybody.

"Oh, boy…" Rodolfo said; his natural pale-brown complexion had turned cherry-red in several places along his neck and cheeks. "I don't think we should file a report about this…"

"I agree. But you may want to write one on Mrs. Peabody's sudden and mysterious disappearance," Mandy growled as she set off down the hallway in a stride that was even harder than usual.

"Uh… okay," Rodolfo said before he hurried after his senior deputy.


Across the street outside the bar and grill that Kerrie Andrews had mentioned as being cozy and inviting, Wynne and Ernie continued to have a peaceful time on the park bench. Ernie downed another can of 1910 Special Brew, belched and scratched his dome-shaped beer gut; Wynne downed another can of Double Zero, belched and scratched her tummy that was a good deal flatter.

"Yuh, I sure do see yer point an' all, there, friend," Wynne said in a voice that was still placed firmly in the laid-back, unhurried category, "Cup racin' on the whole is okeh these he' days, I sure ain't be denyin' that. Atlanta, Darlin'ton, Bristol, Martinsville, 'Dega… love 'em. Always have, always will. But Lawrdie, them paint schemes them folks be usin' 'r jus' eyesoahrs. Naw, gimme a Millah Genuine Draft Pontiac or a Westuhrn Aw-to Chevrolet or a Skoal Bandit Oldsmo-beele… or a GM Goodwrench Monteh Carloh, yessir. Hell, or even one o' them there Rainbow Warriah cahrs tho' I sure wussen too fond of 'em at the tih-me."

"Well, yeah, I'll give you that," Ernie said in a voice that was a perfect, lazy mirror of his friends, "but there are nice color schemes now too. The FedEx Toyota ain't bad… or the-"

"Naw, but them Toyo-tuhrs…"

"Yeah-yeah, but how about the Wood Brothers Mustang or the Monster Energy Camaro, then?"

"Aw, yuh… that we can agree on, friend. Yessir!  Them Wood Brothas be the only Forhd folks I cheer on in this he' day an' age… an' that numbah one Camarah got them classic col'ahs I be prayin' ta see," Wynne said before she poured down her latest can of Double Zero.

A long beat went by that was only broken by a wide yawn on Wynne's part. "Yuh, this sure been nice an' all, but I bettah find mah way home. Gotta take mah Nissahn out fer a chicken run, dontchaknow."


"Yuh. Tih-me flies when ya be havin' fuhn, ya know."


Silence fell over the good buddies for a few minutes before Wynne noticed Mandy striding along on the opposite sidewalk. "Wouldya look at that there spectacle ovah yondah, Ernie… good shit almi'ty, mah sweet, li'l de-per-ty sure be stompin' along som'tin fierce, there. Look, she even got them fists o' her clenched an' all. Tomay-tah-red in that there perdy face o' hers, too… Lawrdie, I ain't seen her that spit-flyin' furious fer a long, long while."

"Perhaps you should go over and comfort her a little?" Ernie said between sips.

"Mercy Sakes, that there be good thinkin', friend!  Yessir!" Wynne said and got up from the bench. Before she could get across Main Street, Mandy had slammed shut the glass door to the sheriff's office with such force the entire building rattled and shook. "Or mebbe I oughttah wait fer a couple-a minutes or som'tin… Lawrdie," Wynne said as she sat down once more.

Chuckling, Ernie leaned his head back to drain his latest can of Special Brew. He felt an odd tremor running through the park bench at one point, but simply put it down to the leaky exhaust of the Dodge truck that rumbled past at the same time. When a shadow fell over him, he lowered his head to see what was going on - the man in the black suit and the black Aviators stood directly in front of him holding a leather portfolio under his arm.

"Ernest Bradberry?" the man said in a voice that wasn't as cold as his exterior hinted at. He didn't take off his sunglasses which negated the positive effect of his pleasant voice.

"That's me, all right. Call me Ernie. And you are?"

"Seymour Warrington. Have you seen this woman recently?" the man said and held up a color photo of Wynne that appeared to have been taken at her aunt Martha Faye's funeral.

Ernie narrowed his eyes; he peeked to his right where Wynne was supposed to be sitting. When the spot was vacant, he put two and two together and chalked up the odd tremor in the bench to Wynne escaping in a hurry when she had seen the black Lincoln getting closer. "Naw. Sorry," he said after a short delay. "What was your name again, Mister?  I had somethin' stuck in my ear."

The well-dressed man let out a frustrated grunt and slid the photo back into the portfolio. Taking a step back, he looked up and down the near-empty sidewalk in the off-chance Wynne Donohue would happen to walk past at that exact moment.

While all that was going on, Ernie's telephone rang down in his pocket. When the caller-ID said Wynne D, he chuckled and accepted the call. "Hey, buddy… we ain't talked for a while. How are things in Sin City?"

'Sin Citeh?  Why, Ernie Bradberrah… whaddindawohhh-rld 'r y'all talkin' 'bout-'

"Yeah, I know, I know. It's been kinda crowded here lately," Ernie said and grinned at the man in black. "Yeah. All sorts of people showin' up here in Goldsboro."

'Aw!  I see wotcha gettin' at there, friend!  Clevah!  Verrry clevah!  So that there nasteh fella is still hoggin' that there sidewalk, is he?'

"That's a big ten-four, good buddy."

'Sombitch, I gotta get home ta mah Nissahn!  An' I need'a gas it up an' wipe them windahs an' everythin' befo' I can go on mah run… how close is that there fella standin' ta mah Silveradah?  Can I sneak past him or som'tin?'

"No," Ernie said and leaned forward so he could give the silver-metallic Chevrolet a casual glance. "When ya make it to the turn, it's right there."


"Yeah. No way around it."

The man in the black suit eventually gave up and entered Moira's Bar & Grill instead. "Wynne!" Ernie whispered into the telephone. "He's goin' inside!  I don't know where the hell you went, but you better get a move on!  I think you're right… he's definitely fishy. He said his name was Warrington or somethin', but I have a feelin' it could be phoney. Wynne?"

Wynne didn't reply verbally - instead, she flew past her friend from her hiding place down the adjacent alley. She ran so fast little puffs of dust were kicked up by her boots, and that only happened once a year at the most. Jumping behind the wheel of her Silverado, she waved her hat out of the window before she made a hard U-turn and roared off toward home.

Chuckling, Ernie leaned back on the park bench and reached for his bag of beer. When the next one proved to be a Midnight Velvet Stout, he broke out in a delighted whoop and cracked it open at once.



Three days later.

The streets of Goldsboro formed the backdrop to yet another unusual sight: Wynne's silver-metallic Silverado, Ernie's custom-blue Ford F350 Crew Cab and Brenda Travers' dark-bronze Ford SUV all drove slowly up one side of Main and Second Street and down the other. Once they reached the city limits sign, they made U-turns and did it all over again, and the entire routine was repeated three times to make sure that everyone had seen them.

Large, home-painted sections of leftover plywood that said Elect Mandy Jalinski and Mandy For Sheriff! in red, white and blue had been placed on the beds of the two pickups while a pair of flags fluttered from long poles that poked out of the SUV's open rear windows. The flags said Time 4 Change! and Vote 4 Mandy J ! respectively - they were as home-made as the signs and had in fact been cut from some of Brenda's old and outdated T-shirts and summer dresses.

Wynne, Mandy, Blackie and Goldie were up front as expected with Ernie and Diego Benitez following the Silverado closely. Diego carried a cooler box on his lap that contained enough H.E. Fenwyck beer to keep everyone happy until the cows came home; Ernie cast pitiful glances at all the cans of Dark Lager and 1910 Special Brew that Diego chugged down - since the entire purpose of the operation was to give Mandy a fighting chance in the upcoming elections, he had to settle for Double Zeros the whole day so he wouldn't risk damaging the campaign by being caught over the limit.

Brenda and her young car-mate Renee Tooley had a great time as well bringing up the rear. The SUV's advanced entertainment system played a Sesame Kids' music CD that Renee sang along to with great gusto, and they were both enjoying strawberry milkshakes and the occasional piece of colorful candy.

Up front, Wynne had the time of her life as she listened to an old truck-driving song from the 1970s playing on the radio. Her elbow rested on the windowsill as they cruised Main Street so she could wave howdy to everyone she knew; her cowboy hat had been pulled down low and sexy, and the coolness was only matched by the twelve-inch grin she had plastered onto her face.

Blackie and Goldie sat between their two owners with Goldie closest to Wynne. The Golden Retriever was content with keeping her head in Wynne's lap, but she looked up now and then to keep track of where they were as they traversed the streets of Goldsboro. Blackie carried a wide, proud doggy-grin at all the attention they garnered, and she let out several happy woofs as they drove past some of the important places and landmarks along Main Street.

The only one in the election-campaign convoy who was miserable beyond belief was Mandy Jalinski. Decked out in full uniform so she would look her best when they would eventually stop at various stores for photo-ops and the like, the expression she carried on her face proved she'd rather be anywhere else at that exact moment in time - she would even volunteer to lead the security detail at the annual Virgin Tower mass revivalist meeting up north in Collinstown if it meant she could get out of the situation she found herself stuck in at present.

Wynne reached over to the radio to turn down the volume. "Y'all don't be lookin' too fih-ne taday, de-per-ty Mandy… y'all be havin' tummeh trubbels or som'tin?"

"Or something," Mandy mumbled.

"Aw, we be comin' up ta that there first stop o' the tour, dontchaknow. Yessir. Yuh, we sure is…" Wynne continued as she waved her hand out of the open window to catch Ernie's attention. When he replied by flashing his headlights, she pointed at the curb outside 'Friendly' Sam McCabe's gun shop.

As the two trucks and the SUV came to a halt, Mandy let out a deep sigh. "Well. If you're going to jump off a cliff, you might as well find the tallest one. Sam McCabe is one of Artie Rains' best friends, Wynne."

Goldie let out a whimper at the downcast tone of her other owner's voice; she wanted to cross over to give her a little doggy-boost, but Blackie was in the way and the German Shepherd wasn't about to relinquish her position.

"Yuh, that bein' a big, ol' fact right there. So, I wus thinkin'… if y'all can persuade Sam ta vote fer ya, I mean, ain't nobodda else gonn' give ya any problems latah on, yuh?  Catch mah drift?  An' ol' Sam bein' the leadah o' that there Goldsborah Huntin' Societeh sure ain't hurtin' none, eithah. Them shootin' buddies o' his might be willin' ta vote fer ya as well, yuh?"

"And the moon could be made of cream cheese."

"I dunno an' I prolleh ain't nevah gonn' find out, but it might be. Yuh?  G'wan, de-per-ty. Aw, lookie there," Wynne said and pointed out of the Chevrolet's windshield. "A woman pushin' a babeh strollah!  I'm guessin' there be a babeh y'all can kiss!  's gonn' be a great photo-op, dontchaknow!"

"Wynne?" Mandy said as she clicked the door open.

"Whassat, darlin'?"

"I think you should run for sheriff… you seem to know what to do," Mandy continued as she vacated the Chevrolet and stepped onto the sidewalk in front of Sam McCabe's gun shop. The lady pushing the baby stroller came to a stop to gawk which made Wynne wave at Mandy to get her to hurry over to her while the opportunity for a little public relation work was there.

Grinning, Wynne leaned back in the seat. "Runnin' fer sheriff… Lawrdie, I ain't too sure Goldsborah be reddeh fer a gal like me ta be in charge… on the othah hand, Sheriff Wynne Donohue sure got a nih-ce ring ta it, yessirree!  Whaddaya say, girls?  Ya reckon I oughtta run fer sheriff, too?"

Blackie let out a Woof, woof, woof… woof-woof! that meant 'As long as I get to be the First Dog of the Sheriff's Department, you can do whatever you feel like.'  Goldie just whimpered and shook her head.

Brenda Travers took care of the publicity by shooting plenty of video and photos for the print media and the website that she had created for the campaign. Mandy did in fact pose for a picture with the mother and her toddler, but she drew the line at kissing the baby like Wynne had suggested. After shaking the woman's hand and getting a semi-mumbled, somewhat vague promise of a possible vote in return, Mandy stepped inside Sam McCabe's gun shop to get started on her well-rehearsed election spiel.


The truck-driving song Wynne listened to on the radio didn't even have time to finish before Mandy came back out of the gun shop and sat down next to her and the dogs. Silent at first, the Senior Deputy soon let out a long, slow sigh. Blackie and Goldie had swapped positions, and Goldie used that to full effect by crawling into Mandy's lap at once to offer a comfort nudge.

"So… whadda ol' Sam hadda say?" Wynne said as the convoy left the curb and moved back onto Main Street for a little more election-campaign cruising.

"He said plenty."

"Aw, really?  I wus kinda undah the impres-shun that ol' Sam McCabe didden talk that much 'bout nuttin' to nobodda, but I guess them impres-shuns can be wrong. Yuh. How he take yer li'l speech that y'all done worked so hard on las'night an' all?"

An entire verse in the tune playing on the radio had time to be sung before Mandy shuffled around in the Silverado's comfortable seat and let out a mumbled "Who's next?" Goldie's fur was given an extra amount of clawing and petting to compensate for the negative affair.

"Next up is them Yarn Spinnahs, wooo-hooo!  Ain't this excitin'?"

Mandy's stony face proved that it wasn't.


The owner of the Yarn Spinners knitting shop was a little more sympathetic to Mandy's plans for the future than Sam McCabe had been, but the temporary high came to a quick end when they stopped at Derrike Iverson's bar, at the Spartan Wings Sports Goods store, at the movie theater and at Otto Kulick the Third's Bang 'n Beatin' Body Shop. Although some - but not all - had been polite enough to listen to the entire spiel, it was only the female proprietor of the Tack & Saddle leather goods shop who had promised Mandy she'd vote for her.

"Y'know what's really too dang bad, de-per-ty?" Wynne said as the convoy came to a halt outside Holly Lorenzen's Homey Hair & Nails Salon, "that we ain't got none o' them there awesome buttons or badges or nuttin' ta hand out. Ya know, them li'l gifts sure make them votahs siddup an' take notice o' ya. An' them cam-pain slogans be kinda funneh an' memorable on occa-shun, too…"

"They already know who I am so a button wouldn't make any difference, Wynne."

"Haw… yuh, y'all might be right 'bout that one, ack-chew-ly," Wynne said and scratched her chin. Blackie nodded thoughtfully as well; Goldie was far too busy being petted to have time to think.

"Okeh-doke, les'try som'tin new, then… how 'bout I be playin' yer sidekick or som'tin?  Or backup or moral sappahrt?  We gonn' be goin' inta that there hair an' nails salon now, anyhows… lookie there, them nih-ce an' im-pahr-tant ladies all be sittin' there in a row reddeh ta lissen ta ya."

Mandy let out another sigh as she glanced in through the hair salon's large windows. "All right, but this is the last one for now. The work won't go away just because I do."

"Y'all got yerself a deal, there, pardner!" Wynne said and exited the Silverado. The reluctant Mandy needed a moment to persuade herself she was doing the right thing before she went inside, so Wynne had time to stick her head back through the truck's open window. "Girls, y'all be stayin' right he', yuh?  I know it gonn' be awf'lly temptin' ta run 'round a li'l or som'tin, but this prolleh ain't gonn' take too long. Yuh?  Stay!"

Blackie nodded and let out a Woof! - Goldie had already rolled herself up into a golden ball of fur.

Grinning at her clever dogs, Wynne shuffled over to the glass door and held it open for the senior deputy; they soon stepped into the bright and inviting store.

In spite of its rural surroundings, Holly's hair salon was a classy, elegant establishment that featured plenty of chrome and glass. The floor was kept in a black-and-white checkerboard-design like barber shops of yore, and the two chairs that had been placed in front of large, well-lit mirrors were pneumatically operated and could offer a gentle back-massage for the ladies interested in such a treat. A third chair of the reclining type had been placed in front of a wash basin made of black, polished granite so the valued customers could have their hair washed.

Fresh flowers, delivered daily from the market gardens in Scottsdale where Holly's sister worked, had been placed in strategically important spots throughout the store so they could add some natural fragrances and freshness to the environment - the liberal use of hair lacquer and similar aerosols could get a little overwhelming at times.

The back of the salon saw a row of four hair dryers held in a 1950s-1960s retro design to invoke a sense of the good, old days before all the old values had been overthrown or simply ignored. All four barrel-shaped dryers had been lowered to cover the hair of well-dressed female customers of varying age who read magazines on gardening, fashion and good housekeeping or simply the latest gossip while they waited.

Wynne let out a chuckle as the four ladies all stared wide-eyed at her denim ensemble like she represented a caste so much lower than their own they could hardly fathom it. She took off her cowboy hat and held it to her chest - no self-respecting Cowpoke would ever wear a hat indoors except under very specific circumstances. "Howdy, y'all!  Anehbodda o' all y'all fih-ne lay-dees be kind enough ta tell me where that there nih-ce Miss Holleh Lorenzen be at this he' hou-ah o' the day?"

A bead curtain separated the main room from an office at the back, but it soon fluttered aside when Holly heard her name mentioned. Past her initial bloom and well into her second - i.e. in the gray zone between her forties and fifties - Holly Lorenzen practiced what she preached when it came to the importance of physical appearance: She would never dream of leaving home without spending forty-five minutes beautifying herself, and her Candy-Apple-red lips proved it - a paler shade of red had been applied as blush on her cheekbones while her eyelids had been given a brownish-grayish coating. Her impressive bouffant hairdo could only exist by spraying most of a can of lacquer onto it each morning.

Her black-and-red flowery top had short sleeves and a wide upper hem that resembled a feather boa. Further down, she wore bright-red Capris that she seemed to have been poured into. Each of her wrists was home to several metal bracelets that held various charms that jingled and jangled excessively whenever she moved her hands - and she did so often.

While Mandy looked as if she would prefer the ground to open up and swallow her whole, Wynne broke out in a wide grin and used her cowboy hat to point at the senior deputy. "Friends, lend me yer ears!  Ah'mma-gonn' intra-dooce all y'all ta Senior Deputeh Mandeh Jalinskeh," she said in a voice that had an even stronger accent than usual. "Yuh, yuh, Ah know she ain't new he' or nuttin', but y'all oughtta lissen ta them things she gonn' say in a li'l while. Ah sure be hopin' y'all gonn' vote fer her in this he' upcomin' elec-shun, yuh?  Ah swear, this he' li'l ol' town o' ours be reddeh fer some fresh brooms ta sweep away all them crumbs left behind bah the ol' man-itch-ment. An' who bettah ta do that than Mandeh Jalinskeh?  Yessirree, if that dy-noh-mite gal right there evah be wearin' that there sheriff star, she gonn' be the best thing that done happened fer Goldsborah fer years an' years."

Holly Lorenzen listened intently to Wynne's soliloquy. As soon as it had finished, she moved over to one of the retro hair dryers to tend to the lady sitting in it. "I don't know," she said after a short while. She cast a brief glance at Mandy's impeccable uniform and athletic, but short and undeniably female, figure. "Somehow, it just seems more natural having a man in charge. I've always felt safe when Lionel Pershing and Arthur Rains wore the Star. Their manliness inspired confidence. We knew we could depend on them. Isn't that right, ladies?"

The four customers who used the hair dryers all nodded and let out various affirmative sounds.

Holly nodded as well before she moved onto the next customer. "But… a female sheriff?  I don't know how I would feel about that. I'm all for equality in certain areas, don't get me wrong, but there are many things we can't do as well as the men. I'm sure you ladies agree with me?" - She turned to the four customers who repeated their nodding and various affirmative sounds.

By now, even Wynne had run out of things to say. She grunted a couple of times while she squinted over at Mandy whose facial color proved that she'd had enough - the hair and nail salon had been another waste of time. "Yuh, okeh…" Wynne eventually said to stall in the hope that Mandy would go ahead with her election pitch after all. When it didn't happen, the most awkward silence in the history of the world fell over the salon.

Not ten seconds later, Mandy spun around on her heel and strode out of the store. Wynne remained inside for another beat or two before she said her brief goodbyes and followed the senior deputy outside.

It soon became clear that Mandy had no intention of continuing the campaign trail: she stomped along the sidewalk clearly headed for the Sheriff's office without speaking a word to anyone.

Up in the Silverado, Blackie and Goldie shared a long doggy-look before they exchanged several woofs, barks and yaps - they were already drawing plans on how to improve the mood of their other owner once she had calmed down.

Wynne let out a dark harrumph as she turned back to glare at the hairdresser through the large storefront window. "I done seen me some foo's in mah tih-me, but I sure ain't nevah seen one like Holleh Lorenzen… Mercy Sakes, she ain't jus' a foo', she be one helluva foo'!"  Harrumphing again, she shuffled back to her friends who had been waiting patiently in their vehicles.

Brenda Travers and Renee Tooley had climbed up onto the bed of Ernie's truck where they sat on soft cushions and waved at people passing by - not that there were too many pedestrians on the near-deserted streets of Goldsboro. When Brenda noticed Wynne's gloomy face, she gave Renee a little tickle on the cheek before she jumped off the truck to intercept her neighbor. "What was that all about, Wynne?  Weren't we supposed to drive up to Grant Lafferty now?"

Diego was too busy draining yet another can of Dark Lager to join the conversation, but his dark-brown eyes never missed a beat - Ernie just sulked at the lack of proper beer in his gut.

"Haw, yuh… well, shit. The Grant-mastah ain't gonn' be taday, friends," Wynne said as she leaned her rear against the fender of Ernie's truck. "Nuh-uh. Lawrdie, that there Holleh be livin' in anothah decade from the rest o' us. Can ya bah-lieve she ack-chew-leh done tole Mandy ta her face that men make bettah sheriffs?!"

"She what?!" Brenda barked - it made Wynne break out in a nod.

"Yuh, I ain't be shittin' y'all, mah friends. Artie Rains bettah than mah sweet, li'l de-per-ty?  I beg yer pardon!  Whaddindahell's wrong with that there woman?  Snakes Alive…"

"Well," Diego said after wiping off a suds-mustache, "in Artie Rains' defense, I will say that not all he did was-"  When he realized that Brenda and Wynne were both glaring at him like he had just insulted their mothers, he quickly shook his head and let out a mumbled "Never mind…"

"So now what?" Ernie said as he leaned over toward the passenger-side window - while he did so, his hand accidentally slipped into the cooler box and found a can of 1910 Special Brew that he cracked open at once now it seemed their official tasks were over.

"I ain't too sure, Ernie," Wynne said and took off her cowboy hat so she could wipe her brow on her sleeve. "I ain't got too much tih-me left befo' I need'a go on mah first chickie run, so… I dunno. But anyhows, Mandy an' me done promised y'all a hot meal ovah at Moira's fer helpin' us an' all. So why dontcha good folks head down dere an' get yerself whatevah y'all be takin' a fanceh to?  Within reasonable limits, o' course… Moira jus' gonn' send us the bill fer whatevah y'all be eatin' an' drinkin'. Yuh?"

"Now that definitely works for me, Wynne," Ernie said with a grin as he turned the ignition key. Up on the truck's bed, young Renee Tooley let out a squeak as the entire Ford rumbled when the engine was kicked into life, but she was soon lifted down onto the sidewalk on Brenda's fit arms. "Are ya safe back there?" Ernie said as he craned his neck to see better through the window in the back of the cab. "Okay, catch ya later, Wynne… or maybe tomorrow. Bye!"

"Bah-bah, Ernie… Diego," Wynne said and stepped back from the truck. After the customized wonder had driven off, Brenda took Renee Tooley by the hand and led her back to the bronze Ford SUV where she was soon buckled up. Moving away from the door, Brenda and Wynne shared a look, a smile and ultimately a shrug before she walked around the front of the large vehicle and got behind the wheel.

When all their campaign volunteers had left, Wynne turned back to the hair salon to shoot Holly Lorenzen another dark glare. The hairdresser was too busy tending to her customers to notice, so Wynne shuffled around her Silverado to drive herself and the dogs over to the alley next to the Chicky Kingz fast food parlor.


One of Wynne's junior colleagues was soon preparing and loading several dozen boxes of fried chicken with all the regular trimmings into the rear of the Nissan. While that went on, Wynne and the dogs shuffled down to the sheriff's office to offer a little moral support like she had said she would.

With Artie Rains and all his archaic rules and regulations long gone, Blackie and Goldie weren't on leashes but ran freely while they kept up a woofing commentary on the poor state of the sidewalk and the impact it had on their sensitive paws. Wynne muttered a constant commentary of her own about the mind-numbing lack of sisterhood in their tiny desert town in the middle of nowhere.

As she reached the glass door to the sheriff's office, she opened it to allow her two girls inside, but neither dog seemed too interested in exposing their rears to the ancient and horribly cracked linoleum - Blackie told her owner so in a series of explanatory barks and woofs that seemed to do the trick as they were permitted to stay outside on their own after a little fur-rubbing.

"Howdy there, gang!  Lookie he' who done walked in," she said in a cheerful voice as she stepped inside. A chorus of "Hi, Wynne!" came back at her from Barry, Rodolfo and Don Woodward who were all engaged in various work. Mandy wasn't at her desk in the front office, but the familiar sound of someone using a typewriter came through loud and clear from the crew room at the back.

There was so much force behind the keystrokes it sounded closer to a machine gun firing rapid bursts than an electronic typewriter, and it caused Wynne to scratch her chin a couple of times while she pondered what to do. It didn't happen often that Mandy flipped her lid like that, but on the infrequent occasions where her pent-up frustrations came to a head and needed to be vented, it was safest for all bystanders to remain inside the fallout shelters until the worst of the shockwave had passed.

Barry sat at the watch desk chain-smoking as usual. It seemed it had been a quiet day so far as he amused himself by reading a superhero comic book. The desk that had been washed, cleaned and vacuumed so thoroughly when he'd had his day off once again resembled an ash factory. Because of the low-grade tobacco he used in his home-rolled cigarettes, they were prone to producing far more ash than those bought in stores, and all that waste material had to go somewhere. Thus, the front of his uniform, the entire top of the desk and the floor beneath the swivel-chair had turned pale-gray. The ashtray itself could no longer offer any relief as spent matches and cigarette butts filled it out completely.

The piles of case files on the smaller of the two desks had been reduced greatly through Don's tireless work wading through them all. He and Rodolfo were busy sorting a large stack of files that had been marked for incineration as they had all gone past the statute of limitations. The oldest of the group was from 1968 regarding a case of burning a draft card - apparently the young man accused of the felony wasn't too enthusiastic about fighting in a faraway country called Vietnam.

After the successful conclusion to Operation Filing Cabinet Clear-Out in the front office, Don and Rodolfo had begun to go through all the old closets, sideboards and crew lockers in the back room. The items discovered there had defied all description: in addition to another two dozen bottles of liquor, they had found just about everything under the sun including a near-ancient driver's license belonging to a person who had passed away decades after the DUI incident that had sent him into the holding cells. There also were two illegal home-made revolvers, a crate of Moonshine that had evaporated due to poor seals on the jars, and a cardboard box filled with adult magazines, CD-ROMs and DVDs that ranged from fairly innocent to anything but - that the cardboard box had been found lodged up against the back wall of former deputy sheriff Thomas 'Tom Thumb' Kincaid's locker came as no surprise to anyone.

Wynne checked the white digits on the clock on her smartphone; it wouldn't be long before she would have to go out on her first run. She was reluctant to leave the office without saying a proper good night to Mandy, but the rapid-fire typing continued at unabated pace and force from the crew room.

"Hey Wynne, can you tell us what-" Barry said, but he was cut off at once by a gross-sounding hacking and coughing fit that saw his face flush beet-root red. He had to thump a clenched fist against his chest four-five-six times for everything to clear up before he could even attempt to speak again.

Rodolfo took over in the meantime: "I think ol' Barry here is trying to ask what happened over at Holly's?  Let's say the senior deputy wasn't in the best of moods when she came back…"

"Yuh, ain't no wondah, really…" Wynne said and scratched her neck. "Aw, it wus jus' one o' them racin' deals, ya know?  It wus like bein' up the tailpipe o' the guy in front o' ya when he done blew a tiah, yuh?  It wus a wreck, awright. Catch mah drift?"

"Uh… not really…"

"Okeh… aw, there wussen nuttin' we could do 'bout nuttin' of it. We reckoned that Holleh… I mean, she bein' a woman an' all… woulda lissened ta what Mandy hadda say, but naw. She didden undahstand nuttin'. An' I mean nuttin' like in nuttin' with'a li'l mo' nuttin' on top. Sure ain't no lie. When she done spewed out some bullcrap 'bout feelin' real safe an' all while nasteh ol' Artie Rains wus sat in that there chair, Lawrdie, we done heard plenteh an' left."

The literal breathing space handed to Barry while Wynne and Rodolfo spoke had been filled out by igniting a new cigarette with the dying embers of the old one. Once he had lit up, he took a deep puff and leaned back on the chair. "Holly's kinda hot, though," he said thoughtfully.

"Barry," Rodolfo said in a fatherly voice, "she's more than twenty years older than you. She's close to fifty for Pete's sake!"

Wynne let out a snort as she took in the conversation between the younger deputies. She nodded to herself a couple of times while she debated whether or not to jump at the bait - ultimately, she said: "I ain't too far off fifteh. Y'all be tryin' ta tell me som'tin, there, Rodolfo?"

"Ah… ummm… no…"

"Certin'ly gladda hear it, yessir," Wynne said and scratched her ear.

Barry broke out in a wide, goofy smirk at his blushing colleague's expense. To make sure Rodolfo had seen the smirk, he turned toward him to flash his unhealthy-looking mug and his yellow teeth.

Rodolfo blinked a couple of times to get the horrific sight off his retinas; moving on swiftly, he let out a sly chuckle. "Rumor has it… and I stress that it's only a rumor, Wynne… but rumor has it that Holly and the sheriff, ah… you know."

"Hooooah-leh shittt… yuh, that sure would explain some o' them weird, weird comments o' hers. Yuh. Gosh-darned, we ain't be havin' much luck in this he' elec-shun cam-pain o' ours, nosirree. We wus hopin' that bah talkin' ta them there in-floo-en-shul folks of Goldsborah, we could get 'em talkin' ta their folks an' so on an' so forth down the lih-ne, yuh?  That's why we done talked ta McCabe an' Iverson an' Holleh an' them folks up at the Spartan Wings an' all, but… naw. Nobodda gave a bent nickel 'bout what mah sweet, li'l de-per-ty hadda say."

Right on cue, the machine gun typing stopped and Mandy strode out of the crew room holding four pieces of paper. When she caught sight of Wynne waiting by the coffee machine, she offered her a very brief smile that soon fell back into the scowl that had been there since the incident at the hair salon. One of the pieces of paper was folded up twice and put into her rear pocket; the remaining three were put into a folder that she handed to Don. "All done. File it under the active cases, please," she said in a voice that was halfway between angry and civil.

"Yes, Ma'am," Don said and moved over to the appropriate filing cabinet at once to get the job done while the senior deputy was there to verify it.

Wynne and Mandy shared a long look that conveyed they needed to speak privately about Something Very Important. The opportunity came a moment later when several things happened at the same time: first, the telephone on the watch desk rang. Barry picked it up and was in fact able to complete the conversation without breaking down into a rattling fit of any kind which had to be some kind of record - then Blackie and Goldie began woofing, yapping and barking on the sidewalk in front of the sheriff's office.

The latter incident turned out to be instigated by Wynne's junior colleague from Chicky Kingz who signaled her through the window - the teen didn't dare go past the fearsome-looking German Shepherd and the slightly less fearsome-looking Golden Retriever - that the Nissan was fully loaded and ready to go. As a response, Wynne waved her cowboy hat and gave him a big thumbs-up to let him know she had gotten the message.

Once Barry had finished the call and put down the receiver, he tore off the page from the notepad he had used to jot down the information. "That was Mrs. Peabody," he said in a rough voice that sounded like he was on the brink of another coughing fit; he lit up at once to quell the lack of nicotine in his system. As he spoke on, the characteristic foul-smelling smoke billowed from his mouth and rose toward the ceiling: "She reported seeing a prowler at the back of the boarding house. And I quote, a scary man in a black suit and wearing black sunglasses, unquote."

"Lawwwwwr-die… dat gotta be… gotta be… aw-shoot. If nuttin' else, that there nasteh fella sure ain't no quittah, nuh-uh," Wynne mumbled - the description having an uncanny resemblance to the fellow she believed to be a debt collector.

"I can't deal with her now," Mandy said and spun around to face Rodolfo. "You're up. Take everything she says with a pinch of salt, but stay alert. All right?"

"Yes, Ma'am," Rodolfo said and took his Mountie hat from the nail on the wall. After checking his sidearm, he opened the door, took a long step over the furry backs of Blackie and Goldie and strode up the sidewalk to deal with the latest crisis at the boarding house.

Wynne checked the clock on her smartphone again. "Yuh, lissen, I really need'a be goin'… so…"

"I'll escort you to the truck," Mandy said and reached for her own hat.

Given that Wynne was apparently still being targeted by the supposed debt collector, she would be unwise to decline a little close protection of Goldsboro's best law enforcement officer, so she broke out in an exaggerated nod and held out her hands. "Lawrdie, I sure ain't gonn' say naw ta that there offah!  Not with'a nasteh an' poten-shually dain-gerous prowlah on tha loose an' everythin'!  Nossirree!"


For once, Mandy allowed Wynne to dictate the pace of their walking so they could get the most out of the last few minutes they'd be spending together until Mandy got off from work once the clock had moved past midnight.

Their entwined hands were swung back and forth in an attempt to add a little sunshine to the miserable day. The dogs ran ahead and had a merry time playing tag and hide-and-seek around the various items on the sidewalk.

When they reached the small alley by the Chicky Kingz takeout parlor, Wynne nearly stumbled over her cowboy boots when she clapped eyes on a dusty, black Lincoln SUV parked fairly close to the Nissan and her own Silverado - she whipped her head around to look for the man in black but saw nothing or nobody.

Blackie and Goldie raced around the Nissan as the final part of their playing. Woofing wildly, it was clear the German Shepherd and the Golden Retriever enjoyed themselves greatly. There wasn't really room next to their owner for the fairly large dogs since the Nissan was only a single-cab truck, and a narrow one at that, but a little doggy-debate over a quality stick of jerky one evening had solved the problem: Blackie would use the passenger-side seat so she could see all the adventures that awaited them, and Goldie would roll herself up into a ball down in the footwell so she couldn't see all the horrors that awaited them.

Wynne's junior colleague had already prepared the vehicle by disconnecting the external power supply and activating the internal one. The long extension cord hanging limply from its socket and the constant humming from the heating box at the rear of the Nissan proved that everything was ready to hit the road. The addresses of the customers, the types of orders and the proper sequence in which they were to be delivered had already been entered into the Nissan's GPS-based computer system, so all Wynne had to do was to get behind the wheel and follow the instructions as they were presented to her.

All the drama of her first ten days working for Chicky Kingz had been forgotten and she had grown satisfied with her hours and her salary. The first period had been extreme because she had worked day and night to earn enough money to book a stay at a first-class sports resort as a Valentine's Day gift for Mandy. It had all fallen to pieces when the people behind the special offer had been exposed as crooks by a TV reporter - Wynne always shuddered when she thought of the terrible strain it had put on their relationship.

"Honey," Mandy said in a somber voice that made Wynne snap back to the present. The folded-up piece of typewritten paper was retrieved from the pocket it had been pushed into; Mandy didn't unfold it at once but held onto it like it was of great importance, "let's be realistic. I'm not going to win this election. The people of Goldsboro would rather vote for a Vegas mobster than a woman. Or maybe it's just me, I can't tell."

Wynne cast a disappointed glance at the bed of her Silverado. Up there, the large sections of leftover plywood still said Elect Mandy Jalinski and Mandy For Sheriff! in bright colors. "Lawrdie, darlin'-"

"Hear me out, please."


"In any case," Mandy said and finally unfolded the piece of paper, "I've written a letter to headquarters up in Barton City requesting a reassignment. A transfer to… well, another post within the MacLean County's Sheriff's Department if at all possible. If not, then one of the neighboring counties. If that isn't possible either, I'll resign."

"Lawwwwwwr-die… Ah mean… Ah mean… Lawwwwwr-die!"

"I know it's drastic-"

"Now that sure ain't no lie…"

Mandy let out a deep sigh. "No, but… I can't continue as senior deputy under Todd Andrews after being defeated by him. Actually, I won't. That would only create resentment and bitterness. It would be a slap in my face each and every day I went to work."

"Yuh, Ah hear ya…"

"I love the job too much for that. Besides, Rodolfo is more than ready to step up to the plate. He'll do well as Senior Deputy," Mandy said and refolded the letter once more. She looked at it for a few seconds before she put it back into the pocket where it had come from.

"But you ain't gonn' wave that there sahrrendah flag an' pull outta the whole, darn elec-shun race ahead o' tih-me, 'r ya?  'Cos that woudden make it any bettah, no Ma'am. Mercy Sakes, y'all be way too dang-blasted proud ta quit in such a fa-shun. Ain't no votes done been cast yet… Ah'm sayin' y'all still got a fightin' chance!  Naw, quittin' would jus' kill ya stone dead inside… an' hell, Ah woudden want that ta happen!"

Up at the corner of the alley, Wynne's boss Trent Lowe appeared to see why the truck hadn't gone onto its run yet - when he noticed Wynne doing nothing but standing around talking, he made a big show of pointing at his arm where everybody used to wear wristwatches in the days before smartphones.

"Yuh!  Yuh!  Ah'mma-gonn' be right dere, boss!" Wynne shouted before she turned back to Mandy. "Lawrdie, I sure don't wanna jeppah-dize this he' job so me an' them dawggies bettah get our bee-hinds out on that there road, yuh?  Jus' think a li'l 'bout what I done tole ya. Les'talk 'bout it when we be eatin' breakfast tamorrah, yuh?  Love ya… an' now I really need'a get goin'."

"Not before we've had a goodnight kiss," Mandy said before she pulled Wynne down toward her to deliver on the promise.


The first stop on Wynne's run came a mere fifteen minutes after she had left the alley in Goldsboro, but she hadn't reached her first drop-off point yet. Dusk had already fallen and darkness enshrouded the two-lane State Route to such an extent that she needed to use the Nissan's high-beams to see where she was going. Blackie woofed appreciatively at their nightly adventure while Goldie just whimpered.

The only traffic they had encountered since driving past the city limits sign at the north end of town had been two pickup trucks, an eighteen-wheeler and one of the silver, white and pale-gray intercity buses Wynne had used when she had traveled to Shallow Pond, Texas, for her aunt Martha Faye's funeral - not that she liked being reminded of the outrageous ghostly events that had taken place onboard the bus courtesy of the Butchered Backpacker and his motley crew of otherworldly associates.

Goldie's whimpers gradually grew louder down in the footwell, so Wynne leaned over to look at her beloved dog. "Whassamadda, Goldie?  Y'all be havin' dawggie trubbel or som'tin?  Or mebbe ya need'a take a squirt?"

An affirmative whimper seemed to confirm it was the latter, so Wynne let out a chuckle, activated the turning signal and drove onto the hard shoulder. She had barely moved around to open the passenger-side door before a golden hurricane stormed past her and ran into the desert. "Yuh… been there, done that," she said with a grin; Blackie nodded to prove that she too had used the really big toilet bowl more than once in her lifetime. "Ya don't wanna take the opportuniteh while we be he', girl?  Naw?  Suit yerself, but we prolleh ain't got much tih-me latah on ta… ta… aw, hell, I shoudden'ha spoke 'bout it. Now I gotta take a squirt!  Sombitch…"

Wynne tried to ignore the high water mark brought on by her consumption of H.E. Fenwyck finest products, but soon came to the conclusion that she might as well get it over with. Grunting, she reached into the Nissan's glove box to get the plastic bottle of water and the roll of toilet paper she always kept there for that exact purpose.


"Awright, see 'em lights out yondah, girls?" Wynne said a quarter of an hour later. They had returned to the chicken run after their brief off-track excursion and were now back on top form: Goldie had curled herself into a furball down in the footwell, Blackie sat with her tongue hanging out to show her excitement, and Wynne had been humming along to an old song playing on the radio.


"Yuh!  Them lights be that there awesome Thundah Park, yessirree!  Me an' mah sweet, li'l de-per-ty alreddeh bought a couple-a tickets fer that there ca-razeh mud-bog racin' event that's goin' down tamorrah aftahnoon!  I do bah-lieve they even gonn' have a wreckin' stunt show or som'tin as the half-time entahtainment… ain't that som'tin?  Them nutty stunt drivahs gonn' be doin' all sorts-a ca-razeh shit like them there corkscrew flips an' piledrivahs an' everythin'!  Can't wait. Aw, he' we go."

Driving off the State Route and onto the wide road that led to the county fairgrounds known as Thunder Park, Wynne marveled at the rows of colorful flags and large hoardings that not only advertised every imaginable product under the sun, but informed the public of upcoming events - it seemed the IMCA Modified & Dirt Stock Car tours would be returning to Thunder Park the last weekend in September for the All-American Jubilee 150 presented by Cazamore Quality Dog Food.

An enormous picture of a happy and content German Shepherd had been plastered all over the next hoarding that advertised a brand new product in Cazamore's line of pet food. Blackie only needed a single glance at the hoarding to let out a series of disdainful woofs that sounded suspiciously like she was saying 'Pah!  Tried that and hated it!'

"Woo-hooo, I sure as stink-on-shoot gonn' be markin' that there date in mah calendah!" Wynne said and let out a whoop. "Them dirt stockahs sure be fun ta watch 'round he'… I wondah if ol' Phyl gonn' make an appeah'nce this year."

Blackie had time to let out a puzzled Woof? before she remembered who 'Phyl' was - Goldie hadn't yet made the connection, so a few woofs and yaps were exchanged to bring the Golden Retriever up to speed on Wynne's race-car driving ex-girlfriend.

Wynne made sure to adhere to the fifteen miles per hour speed limit on the access road since she knew it would reflect poorly on Chicky Kingz as a company if she was caught speeding. Fat, black lines on the pale-gray blacktop proved that not everyone had been so considerate - a pile of glass and various plastic bric-a-brac on the side of the road at the halfway point told a tale of a little fender-bender.

The booth at the end of the access road was manned, and the security guard came out of it to shine a flashlight straight into Wynne's eyes when she came to a halt.

"Lawwwwwr-die, Donnie!  Cantcha aim that there searchlight o' yers at som'tin othah than mah face?  Jayzus, now I be seein' nuttin' but stars fer the next fih-ve minutes!" Wynne croaked as she rubbed her eyes.

Blackie had seen it coming and had ducked out of sight before the cone could strike her sensitive doggy-eyes. Her black, furry head popped back up to deliver a supportive Woof!

Donald 'Donnie' Cummins, the permanent chief of the four-man strong security team at Thunder Park, clicked off his flashlight and held it behind his back so they could avoid another blinding incident. He wore black boots, black pants and a dark-blue three-quarter length jacket that said CHIEF OF SECURITY on the back in reflective block letters so everyone knew he was someone important.

"Ooops!  Sorry about that, Wynne… you're here with a load of food for the teams?" Donnie said while he bobbed up and down on the balls of his feet like all his favorite TV-detectives did.

"Ayup. Y'all got yerself a big ten-four, there, good buddy."

"And you're still driving a Nissan?"

"Yuh, still drivin' a Nissahn, sorreh ta say. Naw, it ain't too bad, all things considah'd, but it sure ain't no General Motahs product, nosirree. It jus' don't got that there heart an' soul o' the Bow Tie or them GMCs or the othahs. Aw, ya know what'm talkin' 'bout."

"Actually, I don't, Wynne. I drive a Volkswagen Tiguan."

Wynne shot the Chief of Security a shocked glare while letting out a croaking "Lawwwwr-die…"

"But anyway," Donnie Cummins said on his way back to the booth and the mug of coffee he had left there, "you're free to enter the premises. Just remember to check out when you leave so we can update our records of who's been allowed in. Yeah?"

"Okeh, Donnie, I'mma-gonn' do that," Wynne said as she drove away from the booth. "Drivin' a Vee-Dub… I mean… whaddindahell's this he' ol' wohhh-rld comin' to?" she continued in a mumble.


The mud-bog racing event only utilized parts of the infield of the Thunder Park dirt oval, so Wynne had to cross over the dark-brown racing surface and drive a short distance down the pit lane to reach the gap in the inner wall that would take her back to the garage area itself.

Several teams had arrived early and had already set up their tents and service areas. Mechanics wearing team gear worked hard wheeling the highly specialized racing vehicles off low-rider trailers or - in rare cases - out of the back of a transport truck.

A couple of high-performance engines were being warmed up as Wynne drove into the garage area, and she hurriedly rolled down the driver's-side window to get an earful of the mechanical symphony and a noseful of hot oil, warm metal and all the other smells typically found in the pits. She wasn't a huge fan of mud-bog racing compared to her love of monster trucks and stock cars, but she certainly appreciated the efforts of the teams that were no less professional, only far smaller, than those getting all the national headlines and the big TV exposure.

"Okeh mah wondahful dawggies, lessee what this he' gee-pee-ess thingamajig done says," Wynne said after she had come to a halt in a dry spot not too far from the hut that housed Race Control. Blackie put her nose up to the GPS display at once to keep track of what was going on - Goldie couldn't care less.

"Yuh… yuh, okeh… Kelso Family Racin' done ordah'ed four boxes o' fried chicken an'… uh… Eagle Beak Racin'… huh, whadda weird name an' all… okeh, Eagle Peak Racin'. Yuh, sounds bettah… but still kinda weird."


"Yuh, ain't it?  Anyhows, them folks done ordah'ed three boxes o' chicken with'an addi-shun-al four boxes o' fries… Lawrdie, that there bein' a whole buncha fries… an' howdahell am I evah gonn' find them teams when I ain't be familiar with none of 'em…?"

Blackie suggested in a series of explanatory woofs that Wynne did a tour of the infield to locate the teams before she opened the heating box so the chickens wouldn't turn stale, but she had a hard time getting through to her owner.

Wynne hemmed and hawed, scratched her neck, rubbed her brow and hemmed and hawed a little more before she slapped her forehead when the easiest solution dawned on her. "Aw, whydahell didden I think o' that befo'?  Haw, all I gotta do is ta walk around these he' pits an' ask 'em nih-ce folks he' where I might find them teams I be lookin' for!  An' then come back he' fer them chickies!  Yessirree!"

On the passenger-side seat, Blackie nodded in a slow, deliberate fashion to illustrate that such an approach would be the right one.

"Ya clevah dawggies stay right he'… I be right back," Wynne said and got out of the Nissan to head off on her quest to find the Kelso Family and Eagle Peak racing teams.


Fifteen minutes later, she closed the self-sealing hatch after delivering seven boxes of chicken and four boxes of French fries. She had bought a program of the weekend's events on her way back, and she leafed through it while leaning against the Nissan's fender.

"Clap yer dawggie-eyes on this he' pic-chure, Blackie. Ain't them mud-bog racin' vee-hickels really weird-lookin'?" she said as she held up the program so the German Shepherd could look at the promotional photo.


"Yuh, I sure is agreein' withcha. They be weird-lookin'. Ain't nuttin' but balloon ti'ahs, a giganto engine an' a couple-a chrome smokestacks… weird. But I guess them drivahs be havin' an fih-ne, ol' tih-me racin' 'em or else they woudden be he'. Can't beat them dirt stockahs, tho'. Naw, gimme a Looh-mina or a Monteh Carloh or a Camarah any day- Haw!  Wouldya lookie there!"

Wynne came to a stop as she spotted a familiar name and logo splashed all over the next page. Listed as one of the sponsors of the twenty-nine car was none other than the H.E. Fenwyck Brewing Company through their Sunny Dreamz brand of soft drinks. The profile picture of the team's driver was simply a grayed-out placeholder with a brief statement of To be announced below it, but the rest looked good. Most of the team's associate sponsors were listed on their page, and Wynne was pleased to see that even though the team was a privateer effort, it appeared to be well-funded.

Grinning, she folded the magazine, stuck her head through the passenger-side window and put it into the glove box next to the roll of toilet paper. After she had walked around the front of the Nissan, she made herself comfortable in the driver's seat. "How 'bout that… I didden know them Fenwyck folks wus sponsorin' a mud-bog cahr," she said as she turned the ignition key. "Oooh, if we visit 'em in the pits, mebbe we gonn' be treated ta a couple-a free samples or som'tin?  Woudden that be neat?"

Blackie agreed with a loud Woof! although she had very little to gain from meeting representatives of a beer company - if she had her say, the mud-racer would be sponsored by a beef jerky manufacturer. Down in the footwell, Goldie let out a doggy-snort to prove she had already lost interest in the whole thing.

"Yessir!  I reckon I'mma-gonn' swing bah that there tent o' theirs. Anyhows, we's gonn' find out tamorrah. You wondahful dawggies reddeh ta move on?"

When the question was answered by a happy woof and a slightly more apprehensive yap from Blackie and Goldie respectively, Wynne moved the shifter into drive and headed for the access road that would lead her back to the exit.


An electronic ding! and a flashing icon on the GPS display were clues that Wynne needed to slow down or she'd drive straight past her next stop. Before long, a dark silhouette of a low building came into view on the left-hand side of the State Route. She kept the high-beams on as she slowed down and turned left into a gravelly lot that resembled a forecourt.

She didn't recognize it at first because of the inky darkness, but the cones of light from her high-beams provided enough clues that she suddenly remembered it was a former gas station that had been abandoned more than a decade earlier due to the drop in traffic on the State Route. Although the pumps had been dismantled, most of the infrastructure had remained like the concrete lanes, the sagging roof that covered the pump islands and the low building that had served as the grease pit and a general purpose garage.

The doors and windows of the low building were boarded up, so Wynne - with the help of the clever Blackie - figured she needed to look elsewhere for the person who had phoned in the order. A second house soon came into sight a short distance beyond the former garage. Lights were on in two of the windows so she carried on across the concrete forecourt to get to it.

After triple-checking the number on the front of the house against what it said on her computer display, Wynne turned off the high-beams and drove up to park in front of the second building. Goldie whimpered out loud so she didn't need to be told to stay in the truck, but Blackie was already on her way out even before they had come to a full stop.

"Naw!" Wynne said in a stern voice so the headstrong German Shepherd would understand. "Y'all need'a be sittin' right he', Blackie. Stay. Yuh?"


"Yuh, I know… this he' be yer favahrite part an' all, but it jus' ain't gonn' work, girl. Yuh?  Stay."

Blackie's doggy-shoulders sagged as she moved down to lie on the seat. She responded to the stern command with another prolonged woooooof that sounded like a disappointed sigh - her enthusiasm for riding along slumped when she realized she would be cheated out of the best part of the tour for her, namely sniffing in the delicious scents that escaped whenever the heating box at the back was opened.

Wynne stepped out of the Nissan and shuffled around to the pressurized hatch. After checking the address and the house number once again just to be on the safe side, she opened the heating box and was promptly bowled over by the strong scents of more than a dozen fried chickens with all the trimmings. Her stomach let out a growl of hunger although she had in fact had time to eat a carton of peach yogurt and chug down an apricot-flavored GoFasterLonger energy drink on her way there.

"Okeh," she said out loud to herself as she checked the order sheet. "Mista Clifford Tobin… one box o' fried chicken an' one box o' fries an' one bowl o' that there rabbit food othahwise known as a salad. Gotcha, gotcha… an' gotcha. Okeh-doke, this he' deal be workin' jus' fih-ne tanight, yessir," she continued as she found the appropriate boxes, closed the self-sealing hatch of the heating box and shuffled over to the front door.

A door bell was soon found and pressed. She only needed to wait a handful of seconds before a white-haired, wrinkly fellow in his mid-to-late eighties opened the door. "Howdy, there, Mista!  Wouldya happen ta be Mista Clifford Tobin?"

Clifford squinted at the tall woman in the doorway before he understood what it was about - when he caught a whiff of the fried chicken, he broke out in a wide, toothless grin. "Aw!  Ah ffffure ifff, Mifffy!  That'fff me awright. That ffure ffmellfff great. If Ah could only 'member where Ah put my teefff…"

"Haw… okeh… durn, ya lost yer teeth, Mista?" Wynne croaked - she couldn't help but stare at the man's toothless mouth.

"Yefff… an' Ah can't 'member when Ah laffft had 'em… Ah ffink it wafff when Ah dug the latrine…"

"When ya whut?!"

Someone spoke in a muffled voice from somewhere behind the door; it was soon opened fully to reveal a much younger woman. Her features suggested she might be a granddaughter of Clifford Tobin, and that theory was confirmed at once when she spoke: "Good evening, Miss… please don't pay any attention to what Gramps says. He's a little confused these days. And we know exactly where his dentures are."

"Haw!  Yuh, that sure is a load off mah mind. Ain't no fun diggin' through a latree-ne ta find them teeth, nossirree… done that mahself, altho' it wussen mah teeth but mah phone… an' it wussen a latree-ne but a seven-foot pile o' bull dung," Wynne said with a grin. "But anyhows, he' be that there fried chicken an' fries an' salad y'all done ordah'ed."

"Thank you. Here's your tip," the young woman and handed Wynne a ten-dollar bill.

"Haw!  I sure do thank ye, Missy!  That there greenback sure does hit a dry spot, lemme tell ya," Wynne said and quickly stuffed the bill into her pants pocket.

When the door had closed, Wynne shuffled back to the Nissan and got behind the wheel. "Lookie he', dawggies!  Ten dollahs!  Yessir, y'all can look forward ta that there spe-shul dawggie food y'all like so much… ain't that som'tin?"

Blackie seemed to have overcome her disappointment because she responded by letting out an enthusiastic Woof!  When the German Shepherd realized Goldie hadn't responded yet, she leaned over the edge of the seat to nudge her golden-furred companion with a paw like she was sharing the good news with her.

"Haw, this he' sure been one helluva good start ta this he' run, yessir," Wynne continued as she turned the ignition key. She leaned to her right to study the GPS display - just as she did so, a dusty, black Lincoln SUV drove past the cones of light created by her high-beams. "Whaddindahell… wussen… wussen that… that there nasteh debt collectah fella ag'in?  With them shades an' the gold watch an' that there big-ass leathah-foldah-thing undah his arm an' all that there suspis-shus stuff?"


"I don't bah-lieve it!  That sombitch gotta be part coondawg or som'tin!  Howindahell can he show up ev'rehwheah we go?!  Lawrdie, this he' feels jus' like the first o' them there Turr-minatah mooh-vies where that there killah robot or whatevah done chased down that there nih-ce actress… uhh… wotshername!"

'Linda Hamilton,' Blackie said in a series of woofs and short barks, but she found herself completely ignored by her owner.

Wynne craned her neck to follow the Lincoln's taillights. When they suddenly stopped out on the State Route, she yelped and yanked the gear shifter into reverse. Leaving the forecourt in a cloud of dust - and a series of worried and increasingly high-pitched whimpers from Goldie - she reversed around to the back of the low, boarded-up building to be out of sight of her tracker.

Goldie popped her head out of the footwell to let out a few barks and yaps that clearly questioned Wynne's odd behavior. Blackie did her best to explain the curious situation, but Goldie's annoyed doggy-expression proved she wasn't particularly pleased with any of what was transpiring.

"- Fifteh-one, fifteh-two, fifteh-three, fifteh-foah, fifteh-fih-ve… yuh, that be a minute give or take. If he still be out there, I'mma-gonn' put da hammah ta da floah an' getta hell outta he' back ta Goldsborah. Okeh?"

As a response, Blackie wiggled hard on the seat and let out plenty of excited Woof-woof-woofing - Goldie just whimpered a little more.

"An' he' we go," Wynne said and drove away from their hideout behind the low building. When the State Route proved to be dark and quiet in every direction, she let out a sigh of relief and carried on toward her third customer of the evening.



The following afternoon saw Wynne's long legs being put to good use as she went back and forth between the trailer and the Silverado no less than seven times. To have a fun day and evening out at Thunder Park for the mud-bog event, they needed a laundry list's worth of items: soft, square cushions to sit on as the concrete benches on the stands were too hard for anyone's rear. Throws to wrap around their legs in case the chilly desert air came in from a certain angle. Earplugs to dampen the effect of the screaming engines and the screaming track announcer. Two cooler boxes filled with beer, beer and more beer for Wynne, and a smaller cooler bag with a couple of cans of Diet soda for Mandy. A thermos of hot coffee in case the event ran long. A bag of dry feed and some water for Blackie and Goldie to keep them interested. A couple of empty carrier bags in case there were vendors selling posters, hats, model cars and/or T-shirts. A pair of binoculars so they could get close-up views of fascinating details without worrying about being splattered with mud, and finally freshly wiped memory cards for the telephones so they could record everything for posterity.

Wynne usually brought her radio scanner to the year's various dirt stock car races so she could listen in on the communication between the drivers and the crew chiefs, but there wasn't any point in doing so for this particular event since the mud-bog racers didn't even have radios.

The strain of walking thirty steps out to the Silverado and thirty steps back to the trailer - and doing so no less than seven times - was a heavy one for Wynne, so she needed to stop every so often to drain another can of H.E. Fenwyck Double Zero. Unfortunately, those stops necessitated another kind of stop that she needed to do twice over the course of the work.

Blackie and Goldie ran along their owner's decorated cowboy boots, yapping and woofing to their hearts' delight. They waited patiently whenever Wynne stopped to chug down a beer, but they were soon back underway with a little more merry yapping and enthusiastic woofing.

The lawn at the central area between the trailers had been patched up to the best of Brenda Travers' abilities, but it still carried deep scars after the lizard-beast's unwanted appearance. In spite of the lawn's uneven state, Renee Tooley had been able to resume playing soccer with her dollies which was a godsend for the rest of the residents who didn't necessarily enjoy being kicked awake at six-forty-five in the morning by the incessant wailing of the young girl.

Wynne had considered dressing up for the trip to Thunder Park by donning her good set of dark jeans and the nice button-down shirt, but she had decided to stay with the tried and tested formula: thus, to complement her cowboy boots, she wore faded blue-jeans and her good, old denim jacket that covered a long-sleeved, brightly-green hoodie sweatshirt sporting the Mountain Dew logo next to a stylized 88 held in red. Her sheepskin gloves had been stuffed into her rear pocket because the soft leather was too precious to use even for something as lightweight as the cushions, the thermos and the bag of dog food.

A telephone ringing somewhere made her stop and look around with a puzzled expression. "Huh," Wynne said as she continued walking back to the trailer, "that be weird… I done heard one o' them there phones ringin' plain as day, but ain't nobodda around or nuttin'… c'mon, Blackie!  Goldie!  Ain't gonn' be long befo' we hit that there road, girls!  An' then… watch out, Thundah Park!  Yuh?"

Woof! - Yap-yap-yap!

"Y'all bettah bah-lieve it," Wynne said as she bent over to claw Blackie and Goldie's backs.

Even the day appeared to be in a good mood as the sun beat down from a mostly cloudless sky. The dogs were definitely in a good mood as they worked themselves up for the fun outing, and Wynne's own mood couldn't have been better as an anticipatory excitement bubbled through her veins.

All the upbeat positives turned into a leaden negative the size of the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier by the time she stepped up onto her crooked porch and went into the kitchenette. "Lawrdie… I reckon I know whose phone I done heard ringin'…" she croaked as she looked at her partner who was wearing regular clothes rather than her uniform.

Mandy rubbed her eyes with one hand while the other continued to hold the inactive telephone. "That was Rodolfo," she eventually said and cast a gloomy look at Wynne. Moving away from the refrigerator she had been leaning against, she made her way down to the bedroom at the end of the trailer to change into her uniform.

She began to take off her street clothes while she spoke on: "He was just contacted by the security staff out at Thunder Park. They've detained a thief who's so aggressive they've requested urgent backup from the Sheriff's Department. But Rodolfo's alone in the office. Barry's home, sick. And Don isn't in town today… he drove home to Jarrod City last night for the weekend. Rodolfo even tried to call our old dispatcher Bessie Robinson to ask if she could come over at once to fill in, but she was right in the middle of a birthday party for a dear friend, so…"

"Awwww-sombitch!  If we didden ha' bad luck, we sure as stink-on-shoot woudden ha' any luck what-so-friggin'-evah!  Ah swear, Ah'mma-gonn' smack that there Donnie Cummins charactah up one side an' down the othah the next tih-me Ah see him fer messin' with ou-ah day!" Wynne croaked and threw her hands in the air. "Ah mean, Snakes Alive, cantcha… Ah mean… ain't it possible ta… Lawrdie, there gotta be som'tin… somebodda… "

"No. I'm it," Mandy said as she threw her arms into her uniform shirt and hurriedly closed the buttons. "I'm sorry, hon… I need to go. And I need the Silverado. Would you mind moving all the stuff down from the bed?  Please?"

The 'please' had been so heartfelt that Wynne didn't want to moan about any of it. Nodding, she hurried back outside and dragged all the items down onto the grass. Once the bed had been cleared out, she closed the tailgate and secured it through the two stainless steel pins that held it in place on each side.

By now, Blackie and Goldie had realized that a major downer had just occurred, so the two dogs sat next to each other on the grass by the piles Wynne had offloaded - they shared a knowing doggy-look and let out identical, sad woofs.

"I don't know when I'll be back, hon," Mandy said as she strode around the corner of the trailer; as she went, she tightened her utility belt and adjusted her Mountie hat to make it sit right, "so you better ask Mr. Bradberry if you and the girls can go with him. Is Reverend Russell coming?"

"Dunno. I don't reckon she's gonn'… Bernah-deene ain't the racin' kind. Neithah is Brendah for that mattah… she ain't goin', eithah…"

"Perhaps you could borrow their SUV?"

Wynne broke out in a wide shrug. "Naw. Vaughn done drove off on a li'l road trip while y'all wus showerin' jus' now…"

"All right. I'll be in touch… love ya, and I'm sorry," Mandy said and whooshed-open the driver's side door. She climbed behind the wheel double-quick and turned the ignition key.

Wynne acted fast for a change by sticking her head in through the open window and placing a brief smooch on Mandy's kisser before it was too late. When the senior deputy reversed away from the trailer and took off along the gravel road that led to the State Route, Wynne waved her cowboy hat high in the air. "Love ya right back…" she mumbled before she mashed the hat down onto her long, dark locks.

"Aw crap. Now ain't that jus' typical," she continued as she crouched down to treat Blackie and Goldie to a little fur-rubbing. "Dad-gummit, howindahell can we always be so plum unlucky. Huh?  Can ya tell me that, girls?  We wus gonn' have a quiet aftahnoon an' evenin' out yondah… well, as quiet as them there mud-bog vee-hickels would allow, anyhows… an' then that there sombitch piece o' dillweed done messed up all them neat, li'l plans o' ours!  Mercy Sakes, this he' shit stinks!"


"Naw, jus' a figger o' speech, there, Blackie. It wussen nuttin' personal or nuttin'… nuh-uh. That there fur o' yers is as squeakeh clean as it evah wus. Yuh. Anyhows. But okeh, if that there pile o' dung be the worst brown stuff that done happens taday, I'mma-gonn' count mah blessin's an' all. Lawrdie, I bettah find some wood ta knock on!"

The dogs shared a knowing look. Even after all the years they had spent together as an unusual family unit, they had yet to experience a Perfect Day whenever Wynne Donohue was involved - something would always pop up that would throw a wrench in the works at the worst possible moment. To help their owner fight off further negativity, they both jumped forward at the same time to return the rubbing favor.

Landing squarely on her back when she was bowled over by the two enthusiastic, large-scaled furballs, Wynne let out a huge laugh and really got down to some serious doggy-wrestling.


A few minutes later, Brenda Travers came out of the trailer she shared with her husband Vaughn. Carrying a tray that held a glass pot, a pair of mugs and a bag of a special blend of coffee that she had been introduced to when she had traveled through Europe the year before, she came to a stop and broke out in a grin at the sight of Wynne playing with the dogs. Unlike the short-shorts and the sports top she had worn the other day when she had worked on the lawn, she had put on sneakers, sandy slacks and a teal, broad-strapped tank top.

"Hoooah-leh shittt, I'mma-gonn' turn inta one o' them there dawggie-treats if this he' rasslin' gig goes on fer much longah!" Wynne cried from somewhere deeply embedded into Goldie's golden fur. "Gals!  Gals, yuh, I 'preciate the sappahrt an' all, but we bettah get reddeh ta leave fer that there racin' or else ol' Ernie gonn' drive off too, an' then we really be up shoot-creek with no paddle or nuttin'…"

When she was finally freed for long enough to come up for air, she straightened her clothes and found her cowboy hat that had been blown clean off by the doggy-assault - only then did she notice she had a spectator. "Howdy, Brendah!  Lawrdie, them dawggies 'r like sticks o' dy-noh-mite. Always reddeh ta be lit, an' when them fuses be burnin', they ain't gonn' stop befo' they go kaboom!"

"Oh, I know exactly what you mean. My parents had a Saint Bernard when I was a young teenager," Brenda said as she carried on toward Estelle Tooley's trailer.

"Yuh, them big-ol' fluffeh Bernies be fun dawggies, too, yes Ma'am," Wynne said as she got on her feet and dusted off everything that needed to be dusted off.

Brenda came to a stop once more like something just occurred to her. "I noticed Mandy leaving before… I thought you were going to drive out to the races together…?"

"Yuh, we wus, but one o' them there de-per-ties done called an' said they wus havin' a crisis out at that there Thundah Park an' all… some dillweed thief or somebodda. An' Mandy hadda rush out there like a bat outta hell. So now it jus' gonn' be me an' ol' Ernie."

"Oh!  You need to hurry, Wynne, 'cos he was already in his truck when I-"

"Aw!  Sombitch!" Wynne said and took off in a sprint that required clamping a hand down onto her cowboy hat so it wouldn't blow off all over again. "Much obliged, Brendah!" she cried over her shoulder; Brenda giggled and carried on toward Estelle Tooley's trailer for their quiet late-afternoon coffee break.


Wynne tore around the corner of Ernie's trailer in the hope of catching him before he could drive off, but all she saw was the colorful Ford F350's tailgate as it moved away from her. "Ernie!  Ernie?!  Hit them brakes, pardner!" she cried while she waved her arms in the air like a windmill.

Ernie soon came to a dust-flying stop in the middle of the dirt road. Even before his Ford had come to a full stop, he had rolled down the window and stuck his head out. "Wynne?  What the hell… I saw the Chevy leave ten minutes ago!  Don't tell me someone stole it?"

"Naw!  Naw, mah sweet, li'l de-per-ty wus called out fer some poleese bizzness," Wynne croaked as she ran up to the driver's side door; she had to lean her arms against the windowsill once she got there. "Lawwwwwr-die," she croaked between huffing, puffing and panting, "these he' boots sure ain't made fer runnin', nosirree… Ernie, son, me an' them dawggies need a ride!"

"You betcha, Wynne. You got anythin' ya need to take along?"

"Yuh… yuh… a whole buncha stuff ovah bah the trailah… Lawrdie, wouldya mind drivin' ovah there?  Ah'mma-gonn' puke if Ah gotta haul the whole pile ovah he'…"

"No pukin', please, I just had it washed," Ernie said with a wide grin. "Okay, hop in. We're running a little late… but I guess it gives me an opportunity to show you what a Ford can do on the open road."

"Yuh, yuh… keep up that kinda lip an' Ah really gonn' be pukin'," Wynne mumbled as she shuffled around the front of the custom truck and slid onto the plush seat.


Putting all Wynne and Mandy's creature comforts next to Ernie's own things - one pack of spiced beef jerky, one bag of salty potato chips and four cooler boxes filled with beer - didn't take long, so only a few minutes were lost. Goldie sat between Ernie and Wynne with her golden head resting in her owner's lap; Blackie played the Queen Of The Doggy World by sitting in state up on the bed so she could be seen by everyone they went past.

Ernie wore his regular ensemble of boots, heavy-duty cargo pants, a flannel shirt that was stretched dangerously over his beer gut, a hunting vest and finally his beloved, black Built Ford Tough baseball cap. He had trimmed his walrus mustache and his sideburns for the occasion, but the mullet remained as large as ever. He said less than usual as they drove along the State Route; instead, a sly grin was a constant companion.

"Wynne, I have somethin' real important to tell ya," he finally said after a few miles. The sly grin widened to prove that what he was about to say did in fact fit into a very special category.

"Yuh?  Lemme guess… the next truck y'all gonn' buy is a Chevrolet?"

"Nope. I went down on my knee and asked Bernadine the real big question," Ernie said and broke out in a chuckle that almost sounded a little embarrassed.

"Lawwwwwwwwwr-die!  What she say, friend?"

"Well, she didn't turn me down-"

Wynne promptly reached over to give her friend's shoulder a strong slap; the gesture made Goldie shoot them both a puzzled look. "Huh!  That there be an awesome startin' point, anyhows!"

"Yeah… it's obviously a pretty big thing… or change… or whatever ya wanna call it given her ties to the Church Of The Holy Crusader and all that… so she needed a moment to think about it."


"I mean, I can understand that 'cos I've already told her I'm not gonna enlist into any kind of religious organization or congregation… not if I can help it, anyway, but… you know… I love her. So…"

"Durn, Ernie, that there L-word sure be all that mattahs, yessir. The rest gonn' fall inta place fer sure. Wow… so 'r y'all gonn' be stayin' he' or will ya move ta Cavva-naw Creek or som'tin?"

"It's a little early to say. I'd prefer to stay here, but I think Bernadine would like to be closer to her district… or parish… or whatever it's called."

"Yuh… okeh," Wynne said and reached over to smack Ernie's shoulder again. A frown briefly fell over her face despite the romantic news. She didn't want to burst Ernie's happy bubble, but the knowledge she had gained after spending years dealing with religious types in her own family whispered in her ear that he might be headed for rough seas - and she didn't want to lose her best Nascar, wrestling and beer-guzzling buddy, either.

"Yeah… but that's for later," Ernie said and broke out in a grin. "Anyway, in the weekly email newsletter from H.E. Fenwyck, their brew-master announced they had developed a couple-a new beer recipes that would be released in a limited test run over the next few weeks. I applied to be a… uh, sampler, and…"

While the humans spoke on, Goldie let out a deep doggy-sigh at the all-too predictable nature of their conversation. She snuggled down in Wynne's lap and let the boring talk pass her by.


The mud-bog racers couldn't draw as big a crowd as when the IMCA Modifieds and dirt stock cars visited Thunder Park Raceway so the parking lots were only one-third full. The main grandstand still saw close to three hundred paying spectators, but there were large gaps between them and it hadn't even been necessary to open the bleachers on the back straight for the event. The track announcer didn't let the low turnout impair his enthusiasm - he roared out the driver introductions and all the other details at the loudness he always employed.

There wasn't any need for a 'start your engines' call unlike at the stock car events, so the organizers skipped that part and brought out a microphone stand that was placed on one of the dry patches of the infield. The invocation was delivered by an important fellow from the Virgin Tower religious group, His Most Esteemed Holiness, The Reverend something-or-other - Wynne didn't catch his name, and she certainly couldn't be bothered to find someone to ask.

Once that had been dealt with, His Holiness waved to the spectators before he was replaced at the microphone stand by a young lady who promptly belted out an accappella version of the Star-Spangled Banner. She had her volume turned up to '11' to begin with, and her voice was pushed another few notches upward when she had to overpower the flyover of an old cropduster propeller plane that pulled a Cazamore Quality Pet Food banner behind it. The timing was perfect which led to a large round of applause from the spectators; the singer bowed several times and made sure to wave to all the sections of the grandstand before she left the stage.

Down on the mud-bog pitch itself, the first cars were driven or towed over to the proper starting boxes for the preliminary runs. The high-performance engines soon sent tremors through the ground which created a wave of cheers from the people in the grandstand. Started by a christmas tree of lights like pavement drag racing, the mud racers were fast, furious and fearless as they blasted through the muddy bog. Despite the short distances involved, the most powerful vehicles reached close to a hundred miles per hour once they hit the cool-down stage at the far end.

Ernie, Wynne and the dogs sat halfway up the main grandstand with all their boxes and bundles of gear. Mandy eventually joined them after having needed to use the public restroom to splash some water in her face after the tough assignment - the senior deputy and track security team, led by Donnie Cummins, had worked their behinds off down in the detention center to control the aggressive thief.

Ten minutes of fruitless searching had gone by before Mandy had been able to find Wynne and the dogs, but that was forgotten the moment she sat down on the soft cushion. She let out a long groan as she rubbed Blackie's fur. "What a day," she said before she reached for the small cooler bag to get a Diet Coke. The soft drink was soon cracked open and poured down before she rolled the cool can across her forehead and her right cheekbone where a dark bruise had appeared.

Next to Mandy, Wynne mirrored her partner's action except she did it with a can of H.E. Fenwyck Pale Lager. The inevitable suds-mustache was exploited to the fullest when she turned to Ernie - who had moved a short distance away to give the ladies some privacy - and pointed proudly at her upper lip; he grinned at her and let out a hot breath of air that made his far more impressive walrus mustache flutter out like a maritime pennant.

"Yuh, this sure wus a crap start ta this he' deal, ain't no lie-" Wynne said before she interrupted herself to wave at some of her acquaintances from Goldsboro: the retired wrestler Joe-Bob Millard had raided one of the concession stands and was busy eating a foot-long frankfurter with a two-pound side dish of mashed potatoes - it appeared he had brought his own bottle of ketchup because he held nothing back as he poured the sticky red sauce all over the hot dish.

Geoffrey Wilburr, Jr. and Roscoe Finch were sitting two rows further up with their dates between them. The young women in question - who had been dolled-up to the Nth degree - seemed more interested in looking at their telephones than down at the muddy pitch where the next racers were lining up for their qualifying runs. Roscoe was busy looking through a pair of binoculars but found enough time to wave back at Wynne.

"Anyhows, we be tagethah now so it don't mattah nuttin'," Wynne continued as she looked back at Mandy's face. "But whaddindahell done happened ta y'all ta get that there nasteh broose on yer cheek?"

"The detainee flailed his arms all over the place. He just smacked me in the face… it wasn't intentional."

"Mebbe not, but Ah woudda still kicked his walnuts from he' ta the Arizonah state lih-ne had Ah been there ta see it," Wynne mumbled before she took a deep swig of the Pale Lager to drown the rest of the annoyance that bubbled up inside her. "Wotcha ack-chew-leh do ta that there sombitch piece o' dillweed?" When the first beer had been drained, she reached into the cooler box to get a can of 1910 Special Brew.

"Mr. Cummins and one of his fellow guards almost needed to sit on the thief in order to pacify him enough to get the cuffs on him."


"They only had those plastic strips that aren't any good… we had to use my metal set. I think he was so high he didn't know which planet he was on. In any case, we called for a paddy wagon from Barton City and that's where he's going now."

"Good riddance ta bad shit," Wynne said and let out a loud belch to prove what she thought of aggressive, high thieves who smacked perfectly innocent senior deputies in the face - intentionally or not.

Blackie let out an amused woof that sounded like she was chuckling at her owner's behavior - she moved back to Wynne's legs for a little nudge to show she was still there.

Down on the track, the qualifying attempt of car number nineteen ended in a mud bath when the driver got out of shape just past the starting line. Instead of taking his foot off the throttle, he tried to save it by steering into the slide. The evil mud took over at once and sent the vehicle sideways into the deepest puddle on the entire pitch. The spectators all let out a huge cheer as a wall of brown slush was kicked up by the large wheels skidding through it. What goes up must come down, and most of it did so on top of the car that was given a brown paintjob for no extra charge.

Wynne let out a long whoop with the rest of the spectators and took several pictures of the muddy mud-racer. After checking the quality of the photos, she focused on her beer so it wouldn't go to waste. While the break-down tractor tended to the beached racer, she glanced around at the other rows to get a few impressions of the people around her.

It seemed there weren't too many people there from Goldsboro, but she did spot her friend Cletus Browne, the used-car salesman from the Bang 'n Beatin' Body Shop, as well as Morton and Eve Fredericksen, the area's only poultry farmers. The tow-truck driver Tucker Garfield sat by himself a further row up. His permanent scowl and surly disposition made it impossible to gauge whether or not he enjoyed the show.

Wynne let out a "Haw!" when she clapped eyes on the young man who had taken her job flipping burgers at Moira's: Anthony Joseph 'Slow' Lane. He sat next to one of the town's notorious barflies who was rarely up to any good. True to form, it seemed the permanently buzzed Robert Neilson had a shady thing brewing as he was showing A.J. something on his telephone that had the young man's cheeks glowing red-hot.

Turning back to Mandy, Wynne leaned in so she could deliver a semi-whispered message: "Don't look now, De-per-ty Mandy, but I do bah-lieve that there no-good so-an'-so Mista Robaht Neilson is tryin' ta corrupt that there young fella Mista Slow Lane… behind us an' to the right, there…"

Mandy didn't even pretend not to look - she turned around at once to send a gloomy glare at the shady barfly and the impressionable youngster next to him. When Robert Neilson happened to look up at the exact same moment, he hurriedly put the telephone into his pocket and pretended that everything was sunny and smelling of roses. A.J. Lane was a little slower in reacting and objected loudly to the bad case of stripteasus interruptus, but Neilson alerted him to the presence of the long arm of the Sheriff's Department by pointing his thumb at the uniformed Mandy while looking in another direction entirely.

Another cheer went up from the spectators when it became evident that the break-down tractor needed a break-down tractor of its own - after hooking a tow bar to the stranded racer, the first tractor had become stuck up to its axles in mud and could do nothing but sit there and kick up plenty of brown slush.

Even Mandy had to chuckle at the sight as she drained her Diet Coke. The gesture reminded Wynne that it was high time for a Double Zero so she stuck her hand into the largest of their cooler boxes to find one of the cans. Before she could wrap her fingers around it, the track announcer informed the crowd there would be a forty-minute break in the proceedings because of the stuck tractor. To give everyone something to do, the infield section would be opened for fans and souvenir hunters.

"Lawrdie!  Y'all wanna go down there fer a li'l look-see?  I deffa-nete-leh gonn' trah mah luck at one o' them there tee-shirt vendors an' all… purr-haps they got one I can't live without ownin'. Y'know, a girl can always use anothah piece o' clothin'!  Yuh?" Wynne said while sporting a wide grin.

Mandy nodded and began to collect all their various things. Down at her feet, Blackie and Goldie perked up and moved around impatiently now it seemed that something exciting was finally about to happen. "Sounds like a good idea," Mandy said as she put the strap for the small cooler bag over her shoulder. "How about we got a burger or something?  My treat."

"Haw, I sure ain't gonn' say no ta that there offah, de-per-ty!  Yessir, it be im-pahr-tant that we customahs be sappahrtin' them there food conces-shun stands he' at the track or else they ain't gonn' be he' no mo'… an' that would suck som'tin fierce, pahrdon mah French," Wynne said as she grabbed hold of the carrier-straps for the two largest cooler boxes.


"Naw, son, I'mma-gonn' hafta disappoint'cha… I sure ain't got no ice cream ta sell ya!" Wynne said to a youngling who held up a few coins hoping to buy an ice cream cone from the tall lady in the denim outfit. When the boy began to sob and then cry for real, his mother led him away to find the real vendors.

Wynne turned around to stare after the little kid and his mother walking away. Shaking her head in puzzlement, she resumed walking through the infield. "I sure hate makin' them young ones cry an' all… but whyindawohhhh-rld do everybodda reckon I be an ice cream vendah?  That there young fella wus the third kid ta offah me his pocket money in the past fih-ve minutes!"

Blackie let out a series of medium-loud Woof-woof-woofs that explained exactly why, but, like most of the time, she had a hard getting through to her owner. Walking next to the German Shepherd, Goldie seemed to think it was all rather funny.

"Well…" Mandy said as she cast a sideways glance at the large cooler boxes that Wynne carried over her shoulders. The boxes were positioned in such a way around Wynne's hips that she did in fact look exactly like an old-fashioned ice cream vendor, only without the apron and the silly-looking hat that those people usually wore.

The quartet continued to walk toward the first of the T-shirt stands, but before they got there, the world seemed to come to a screeching halt all of a sudden. Blackie growled, Goldie whimpered, Mandy sighed and Wynne stared at the person who had appeared out of nowhere in front of them: Artie Rains.

It was odd for all concerned to see the former sheriff in street clothes, and it was rather obvious that it had been a while since he had needed to wear something other than his uniform. In addition to a horribly mismatched pairing of tan loafers and red socks, he wore pale-brown Polyester pants, a red-and-green-striped flannel shirt where the upper handful of buttons were undone or simply missing, a 1970s-style sports blazer in a washed-out blue, and finally an olive-green, floppy-brimmed bucket hat that looked ridiculous on his oversized head.

Wynne could already hear Rains bark his favorite, toe-curling slurs like Dumb-ahue, Dono-fool and Manly, but nobody spoke; everybody stared.

Artie Rains drank from a can of H.E. Fenwyck Extra Strong that he didn't even try to conceal even though the bylaw on drinking alcoholic beverages in public still carried his name on the dotted line. His eyes told a tale of having started early that day and not intending to stop before the following date was revealed on the calendar.

Before anyone could say or do something they would regret, Mandy took Blackie by the collar and led the growling German Shepherd away from the former chief. Goldie high-tailed it out of there at once, and Wynne wasn't slow in bringing up the rear.

"Snakes Alive," Wynne mumbled as they finally reached the T-shirt vendor, "that wus dog-gone embarrassin' on so maneh levels I ain't even sure how maneh maneh is… good shit almi'teh, de-per-ty, didya see that there look on that ugly mug o' his?  Lawwwwwr-die, he sure be itchin' ta pick a fight with some poah foo', dontchaknow. An' if that ain't happenin' perdy dang-blasted soon, he gonn' start one jus' fer the hell of it!"

Mandy's jaw was too clenched for her to speak at first, but she eventually loosened up enough to at least pretend that she went through a swivel-rack of motorsports-related T-shirts. It couldn't hold her interest so she turned her back to the booth and crossed her arms over her chest.

Wynne did go through what was on offer, but it was mostly of Nascar Cup teams and drivers from recent seasons so it didn't take her long to finish up - she was only on the lookout for retro T-shirts from the mid-1980s to the mid-2000s.

The next souvenir booth specialized in baseball caps and trucker hats. The pickings were better there, and Wynne ended up buying a 1988-vintage, bright-red Coors Melling #9 Ford T-Bird baseball cap as a wedding present for Ernie. Grinning, she looked into the small carrier bag she had been given by the vendor. "Aw-yup, that deah ol' sombitch Ernie gonn' flip his lid when he claps them eyes o' his on this he' cap… yessir," she said as she rearranged the cooler boxes to have room for the small plastic bag as well.

After moving around a little longer, it was high time for the fast food that Mandy had offered to treat the rest of her family to. It wasn't difficult to figure out which of the handful of concession stands that offered the best food and services - it was clearly the one with the longest line snaking up to the counter. They had barely moved up to the far end of the line before Mandy's telephone rang deep down in the pocket of her uniform pants.

A pained groan escaped her as she dug into her pocket for the intrusive - and infuriating - accessory. When the caller-ID said Rodolfo, she let out a sigh and accepted the call. "Go ahead, Deputy," she said in the authoritative voice that proved the Senior Deputy had arrived on the scene. "All right… has Bessie Robinson shown up yet?  Okay, Barry came in after all?  Very well. Don't you dare catch whatever bug he has, is that understood?  Call ahead to Barton City and have them put their Roadside Assistance Team on standby. It won't take me long to get there-"

Blackie, Goldie and Wynne all let out identical groans.

"-so leave now in vehicle three. That's right, number three, not number two. We transferred the equipment to number three last week, remember?  Very well. I'll see you there, Deputy."

After Mandy had terminated the call, she leaned her head back to stare at the heavens. "There's been a bad road accident out on the State Route. A delivery truck has turned over after the driver was forced to swerve to avoid a rowdy. I'm sorry, Wynne… but…"

"I ain't gonn' say I ain't disappointed or nuttin', but I ain't complainin' too much neithah, de-per-ty… 's wotcha do, an' I know how dang profes-shun-nal y'all is doin' it. Good thing I got a ride with ol' Ernie, tho'… sure don't feel like walkin' home from he'!  G'wan, give 'em hell, yuh?"

"Yeah," Mandy said and rubbed her brow. There was just time for one little thing before she had to leave: digging into one of her pockets, she found a ten-dollar bill that she slapped into Wynne's hand. "I promised you some junk food and I always keep my promises," she said with a tired grin.

"Lawrdie… that sure ain't no lie, no Ma'am!" Wynne said before she ducked down to steal the quickest of kisses. Satisfied with the smooch, she waved at her partner as she made her way through the crowd in her customary stride. "Lookie he', girls… there's enough greenback he' fer some fih-ne chow fer y'all an' one o' them there giganto hawt dawggies fer me, too!"

Woof?!  Woof-woof-woof-woof…

"Naw-naw-naw, ain't no need fer all y'all ta get yer tails all wadded up or nuttin'. Them there big'uns only be called hawt dawgs… ain't no dawggie in 'em, nosirree!" Wynne said with a grin. While Blackie accepted the explanation at once, Goldie continued to look skeptical for several minutes - her skepticism only turned to enthusiasm when they were close enough to the sizzling frying pans to smell the roasting sausages.



When all was said and done, all the T-shirt vendors had been visited, a good portion of the beers in the cooler boxes had been chugged down and the final mud-bog race had been won, Wynne put her fingers in her mouth and let out a piercing whistle at the winner as he received his trophy and a kiss from one of the sponsor's long-legged, bosomy female representatives - that the winning driver's fire-resistant suit was covered in mud from top to toe after the late afternoon's hard racing was an unfortunate side-effect.

The mud-racer sponsored by H.E. Fenwyck's Sunny Dreamz brand of soft drinks hadn't made it any further than the quarterfinal knockout rounds, but Wynne was still satisfied with the efforts of the team even if she still preferred the dirt stock cars over the mud-bog racers.

As the track announcer began his regular spiel to close off the day's activities by telling the spectators to leave in an orderly fashion and not drive too fast on the State Route, Wynne collected all her things and began looking around for Ernie who had kept to himself in a most curious fashion for most of the event.

Standing there with her impatient dogs at her feet and all her things stuffed under her arms, Wynne looked from one end of the dreary grandstand to the other. Plenty of happy people filed into the concrete tunnels to get back to their cars, but Ernie Bradberry didn't seem to be one of them. "Huh… now where'd that ol' Ernie go…" she said as she turned around to take another look at the other end of the grandstand just in case she had missed her rotund friend the first time of asking.

Blackie let out a series of despondent woofs that meant, 'I can't see him either… does this mean we have to walk home?' - Goldie just let out a long whimper and buried her doggy face in a paw.

"Ernie… whaddindahell, son?  Y'all can't leave me hangin' like a coah-coah-nut from a dang palm tree!  Ah mean… Jayzus!  Naw, this ain't gonn' happen… not if Ah got anythin' ta say 'bout it…" Growling, Wynne put down all her things to reach for her telephone - Ernie's number was soon found and selected. As it rang, she looked around once more in the hope of seeing Ernie walking around a corner waving at her.

'Hi, Wynne…' Ernie soon said at the other end of the connection.

"Ernie, ya ol' sombitch… wheredahell 'r ya?  Me an' them dawggies be waitin' he' fer ya fer neahleh fih-ve minutes now…"

'Yeah, I'm real sorry… I had to leave. Ber-'

"Whoa, whoa, whoa… back 'er up a li'l, friend… when y'all say ya hadda leave, ya mean… ya ain't out he' at Thundah Park no mo'?!"

Down at Wynne's feet, Blackie let out a groan - Goldie buried her doggy face in her other paw as well.

'I'm real sorry, Wynne. Bernadine called. She was upset… she said we needed to have a serious conversation… she had driven up to the trailer park from Cavanaugh Creek but I wasn't there… so I had to leave in a hurry. I don't wanna talk about it right now.'

Wynne had never heard Ernie sound quite that down - or even say that he didn't want to talk about it - so the signs all pointed at his big dream of marriage turning to dust. "Aw, brothah… owch," she said and shook her head slowly. "Yuh… okeh… but, Ernie… where y'all at, then?  Cantcha swing bah an' pick me up or som'tin?  Me an' them dawggies be stuck way the hell out he' an' this he' Thundah Park be closin' down perdy dag-nabbin' soon!"

'I'm home. I had to chug down a couple of Extra Strongs, Wynne… I don't think I can even find my truck tho' I parked it right outside…'

"Awwwww-crap. Yuh, y'all be soundin' a li'l slurry an' all now ya men-shun it… but how 'bout that there nih-ce lady Mizz Brendah, then?"

'Brenda and Vaughn drove to Goldsboro to catch a movie and eat dinner at Moira's.'

Wynne momentarily put down the telephone on the bench to rub her face, adjust her beloved cowboy hat, rub her face again, look toward the heavens for any kind of miracle and finally rub her face for a third time. Then she picked up the telephone and carried on: "Yuh. Welcome ta Wynne's wondahful wohhh-rld o' weirdly wackiness. Ain't nuttin' but fuhn, fuhn, fuhn all day long… an' fer the entiah family, too. Dang-blasted… howindahell 'r the dawggies an' me sapposed ta get home, Ernie?"

'I don't understand… isn't Mandy there?'

"Naw, she ain't. She hadda leave. Some delivahreh truck or whatevah done wrecked on that there State Route," Wynne mumbled in a despondent voice. Down at her feet, Blackie and Goldie had already begun to plot a cross-country course for home just in case.

'Oh!  Yeah, I went past that… it's one of Fenwyck Breweries' delivery trucks-'

"It's a whut?!  Awwwwwwwww-shittt!  Lawwwwwwwwr-die, whyindahell do these he' shitty things always happen he' in perdy, li'l Goldsborah!  Dad-gumm'it that dang-blasted sombitch… awright, that does it!  Now Ah'm mad!  Talk to ya latah, Ernie!"

'Uh… okay…'

Picking up all her things, Wynne spun around and stomped off toward the exit - she was determined to get home one way or the other even if she had to march all the way there. Ten steps into her trek, she came to a hard stop as she clapped eyes on none other than the man in black she had been running from for several days already. He and a security guard were talking; the supposed debt collector held up a photo but the guard just shrugged.

"Awww-hell… this he' deal be gettin' worse bah tha dang-blasted minute!  C'mon girls, this he' be a purr-fect tih-me ta skedaddle!" Wynne spun around once more and hurried over to the nearest exit. Though Blackie and Goldie let out puzzled woofs and yaps at the odd snag, they eventually followed their owner over to, and into, one of the concrete tunnels that would lead them away from the main grandstand.



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