This horror-comedy mash-up is to be categorized as an Uber. All characters are created by me, though some of them may remind you of someone.
The story contains some profanity. Readers who are easily offended by bad language may wish to read something other than this story.
All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.
NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR:
Written: July 6th - 16th, 2020.
Wynne Donohue and Mandy Jalinski were introduced in the short story Silent Invasion in the anthology Book Of Chills, Volume 2. They returned in Forever We Must Travel, They Came From The Desert and Goblins Galore that were written for the 2017, 2019 and 2020 Royal Academy of Bards Halloween Specials respectively. They also appeared in Monkey Business and the Independence Day special Home Of The Plum Unlucky - all stories are available at the Academy's website.
- Thank you for your help, Phineas Redux :D
As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D
Description: When a weather anomaly causes widespread disappearances among the residents of Goldsboro, Nevada and the small trailer park eight miles south, Wynne Donohue, her sweetheart Mandy Jalinski and their two dogs Blackie and Goldie are once again thrown head-first into the deep end of the Trouble Pool. Battling an unknown and unpredictable foe, they must try to negate the anomaly or risk losing some of their friends forever…
THUNDER & FRIGHTENING
It all started at a quarter past two in the morning of January thirteenth. The myriad of twinkling stars that littered the night-time sky over the Nevadan desert grew hazy, then obscured as a dense, pitch-black cloud crept over the horizon and rolled in from the east. Eerie flashes illuminated the cloud from within as it drifted across barren stretches of desert.
The flashes grew stronger until they could no longer be contained by the cloud. Breaking through in many places at once, unusual lightning bolts zig-zagged across the sky and down onto the desert floor where they left long, black scorch-marks on the sand and rocks. When a certain spot was reached a few miles north-north-west of the small town of Goldsboro, a cluster of regular-sized lightning bolts gathered into a dense shaft of energy that pounded a single spot in the desert with great force. As the bolts suddenly withdrew to the cloud, they left a pulsating outline of something familiar, yet unusual behind.
The dark cloud moved across open land until it seemed to stop its progress halfway between the town and the small trailer park eight miles further south. After a short delay, the cloud split straight down the middle and became two equally large halves. One half drifted back toward Goldsboro itself while the other slowly made its way south to the handful of mobile homes that had been put up seemingly at random just off one of the State Routes criss-crossing the vast desert.
Home to six families, the trailers were dark and quiet save for a faint, green light that came from the night lamp in Renee Tooley's bedroom - Frank and Estelle's young but highly energetic daughter - and a dim bulb that shone down onto the step below the front door where the elderly gentleman Zoltan Petrusco lived. The next mobile homes were owned and inhabited by Diego Benitez, Goldsboro's best jack-of-all-trades Ernest 'Ernie' Bradberry, the new couple Vaughn and Brenda Travers who had just moved in at the turn of the month, and last but certainly not least, The Last Original Cowpoke Wynne Donohue and her sweetheart Deputy Sheriff Mandy Jalinski.
Wynne's trailer had in fact been the first one there so she had a perfect view of the endless, monochrome desert world beyond her windows. Countless mornings had been spent sitting on the back porch gazing toward the east to see the sky turn purple as the sun would peek above the horizon. That the porch was so crooked that every piece of furniture on it needed a one-inch block of wood attached to two of the legs was less relevant - Wynne had made the porch with her bare hands and was immensely proud over the result.
Despite the magnificent view, the desert had not always been kind to the two women and their dogs. Not only had invading aliens from outer space blown up Wynne's old truck once upon a time, zombie cannibals had threatened them, fluorescent-green goblins had wreaked plenty of havoc all around the trailer park, and a forty foot tall, vaguely humanoid beast who had a propensity for roaming the wilderness without much in the way of clothing had paid them a visit they - and Ernie Bradberry - wouldn't forget in a hurry.
The red LED digits on Mandy's alarm clock had just clicked over to 2:26 AM when the dark cloud above had reached its destination. The sky above the trailer seemed to crack wide open as a scarlet lightning bolt escaped the pitch-black cloud and roared toward the ground. As it impacted on the desert floor a mere hundred yards from the nearest trailer, a deafening thunderclap rolled across the wide-open space.
"Hooooooooo-ly shitttttt!" Wynne Donohue cried at the top of her lungs as the sudden blast tore her from her sleep. The early-forty-something Cowpoke was nearly thrown from the queen-sized bed she shared with Mandy Jalinski, but she managed to grab onto the mattress before she would have disappeared over the edge and down onto the Native American rug on the floor.
The loud exclamation - more so than the clap of thunder - caused Mandy to groan and stir; several yaps and barks from their two dogs soon joined the disharmonic concert from beyond the closed bedroom door. The deputy sheriff had to rub her face numerous times to make the unpleasant rubbery sensation go away. She had been sleeping for barely forty minutes after yet another late-late shift at the watch desk in the sheriff's office in Goldsboro. It took her several long seconds to figure out she wasn't aboard a ship that had struck an iceberg but simply at home in bed.
While that process went on across the queen-sized bed, Wynne sat up in a clear daze. She looked around with two ice-blue eyes that may have been wide open but that weren't seeing much of anything to begin with. Her shoulder-length dark hair had been reduced to an unruly haystack but that was the least of her concerns. When a second, more distant, thunderclap rolled across the desert, she swung her legs over the side of the bed, stuck her feet into a pair of slippers, re-arranged her oversized sleeping T-shirt and shuffled off to discover what on Earth was going on.
The fearless German Shepherd Blackie and the scaredy-cat Golden Retriever Goldie were still up in arms about the unexpected nocturnal disturbance. They tore around their shared doggy-basket in the narrow corridor between the small kitchenette and the sleeping end of the trailer; predictably, Blackie found it to be oh-so exciting and let all and sundry know through a series of happy Woof-woofs while Goldie whimpered like the world was coming to an end.
"Aw, dontcha worry 'bout that there li'l thundahstorm, Goldie," Wynne said as she crouched down and put out her arms to allow the Golden Retriever a safe port in the unsettling weather. "Somebodda jus' playin' with that there really big flashlight an' bangin' them there big-ass kettledrums an' all. Ain't nuttin' mo' to it than that… well, 'part from the fact we ain't had no thundahstorm in Jan-ooh-ary fer as long as I can 'member."
The next flash of lightning soon illuminated the small trailer park. As always, it was followed by lengthy rolling thunder. Wynne stopped rubbing Goldie's fur when she realized the strong flash had been deep-red rather than the normal hue of pale-blue. Her jaw slowly fell down as a second flash shone through the drawn curtains. "Whaddindahell…?" she croaked as she rose and shuffled over to the nearest window to pull the home-sewn curtains apart.
She had barely done so before she watched a scarlet lightning bolt zig-zagging across the heavens. It seemed to change direction twice before it struck the desert floor a mere three-hundred yards or so from the back porch of her trailer. The new clap of thunder was so strong it made the pots, pans, plates and tumblers rattle inside their cupboards. "Well, I'll be a nasty ol' sombitch," she croaked as she rubbed her eyes. "De-per-ty Mandy… De-per-ty Mandy, y'all gotta come see this… quick! We got some weird shit goin' on he' all of a sudden… some really weird shit, I'm tellin' ya!"
"Not again…" Mandy said in a tone of voice that was somewhere between deep resignation and barely contained annoyance. A moment later, she came out into the kitchenette to join her partner. She needed to look down so she wouldn't step on any paws or tails belonging to the whimpering Goldie or the woof'ing Blackie; as she did so, yet another bright flash of scarlet illuminated the interior of the trailer. Not only did it send Blackie into overdrive, it made Mandy let out a surprised "What in the hell?"
"Yuh! Yuh! I done said that, too!" Wynne said with a snicker. Holding the curtain aside with one hand, she used the other to point out into the desert. "Red lightnin' bolts! I ain't nevah seen nuttin' like it befo'. I mean, that jus' ain't natural… who evah heard o' red lightnin' bolts? An' it ain't rainin' or nuttin', neithah. Dry thundah? I mean… that ain't too unusual in them hot months ovah the summah, but in Jan-ooh-ary? That's jus' a li'l wacky."
"Yes it is," Mandy said pensively. She remained at Wynne's side for a moment or two before she went into the living area to glance out of the windows overlooking the grassy central area between the six mobile homes. Everything seemed as dark and quiet as always in that direction so she was soon back in the kitchenette. "It's only on this side," she said and shook her head.
"Huh. Wacky an' gettin' wackier… story o' our lives, ain't it?" Wynne said and scratched her neck. She watched the eerie light show for a moment longer before she broke out in a shrug and a grimace. "Y'know, De-per-ty… historically speakin', this he' be, ohhhh, 'bout the time where some o' them there ghouls or crittahs-"
"Or monstahs or creepy-crawlies or nekkid garillahs or-"
"Or puke-green goblins or them there-"
"Wynne! Don't. Say. It. Okay?"
"Aw, sure thing, there, De-per-ty Mandy," Wynne said with a grin. "I wussen gonn' stand in front o' the mirrah an' summon the Candahman or one o' the scary fella's cuzzins fer a li'l monstah getta-gethah or nuttin'. I wus jus' pointin' out that this he' is 'bout the time when som'tin weird gonn' happen. An' I mean even weirdah than red lightnin' bolts which be plenty weird enuff alreddy."
Almost despite herself, Mandy chuckled at the undeniable truth of Wynne's words - a scarlet thunderstorm seemed to be the perfect starting point for some kind of supernatural, otherworldly misadventure to strike them and their friends. "Yeah. I think I'll suit up. Chances are this'll get worse before it gets better."
"Haw, that there be good thinkin', De-per-ty Mandy. An' while y'all be busy donnin' yer duds, I'mma-gonn' make some o' that there legendary thundah-coffee jus' like gramma Flora Sue Donohue always did whenevah them lightnin' bolts wus zig-zaggin' across them skies back in the day. Yessirree… c'mon, there, Goldie… y'all can help me, cantcha?"
While Wynne and Goldie tended to the traditional ill-weather serving by finding the ground coffee and the good mugs, Mandy's instincts and sense of duty took over. Striding back to the bedroom, she shed her sleeping clothes and reached for the various parts of her uniform.
Although the Goldsboro Town Council had finally granted Sheriff Rains an increased budget so newer and smarter uniforms could be bought, they were on back order and had yet to be delivered - thus, Mandy slipped her arms into her traditional pale-brown long-sleeved shirt that featured the metal name tag and all the correct sewn-on patches identifying her as a deputy of the MacLean County Sheriff's Department. She quickly attached the clip-on necktie and stuffed the lower end in between the third and fourth buttons before she hopped into the dark-brown pants and tightened the belt.
After sticking her socked feet into her black boots, she checked her service sidearm, the can of pepper spray, the night stick, the spare clips of ammunition and the metal handcuffs that were all part of her utility belt. Then she grabbed her Mountie hat and her winter jacket and strode out of the bedroom with her game face all set in stone.
"Lawwwwwwwr-die!" was Wynne's all-too predictable response - even at half past two in the morning in the middle of an unnatural thunderstorm. "Aw, I ain't nevah evah gonn' get tired o' seein' that there awesome sight, nosirree… even if that there hideous Polly-ester done hurt mah eyes! But Lawrdie, the woman inside… jus' slap them cuffs on me now, De-per-ty Mandy… I'm yers ta keep!" she said as she held out her hands with the wrists next to each other.
"That's always good to hear. I'll just check the perimeter. I won't be long."
"Sure thing, there, De-per-ty. But y'all better watch yerself, ya hear? Who knows what kinda crittahs ya might find out yondah," Wynne said as she put her hands on Mandy's shoulders to show her concern. She counted to two on the inside before she threw out the zinger she had been building up to: "Why, ol' Ernie might show up wearin' nuttin' but his briefs or som'tin! Lawrdie!"
"If that happens, I'll slap a fine for excessive hairiness on him. Blackie!" Mandy said and patted her thigh to make the eager German Shepherd pay attention to her - the black dog piped down at once and assumed a business-like expression that mirrored that of her owner's. "Let's go," Mandy continued as she opened the two doors that separated the trailer from the creepy storm outside. Blackie responded by letting out a decisive bark and tearing out of the front door.
Wynne watched the two figures move into the darkness before she turned back to tend to the blubbering coffee machine. "Awww-yuh, that's mah sweet, li'l De-per-ty Mandy, awright! Ain't she som'tin? Man, she gonn' figger out that there mystery in no time flat an' still have time fer some o' that there thundah-coffee. Oooh, an' mebbe a li'l shot o' brandy, too… whaddayasay, Goldie? Mebbe I oughtta find that there good bottle, huh? Yessir!"
A further bright flash of red and the resulting clap of thunder interrupted her and made her hang onto the edge of the kitchenette's counter while the trailer and everything in it shook and shimmied. When it had receded, she noticed that she was all alone in the trailer. "Goldie? Goldie, where'd'ya go, girl? Goldie?"
Whimpers and howls that seemed to originate from somewhere under the queen-sized bed offered a solid clue as to Goldie's whereabouts. Wynne just chuckled and continued to prepare their late-night meal by finding a pair of pre-fab Twinkies and the good bottle of brandy in the appropriate kitchen cabinets.
Ten hours and a few minutes later, the inclement night had turned into a fine, but overcast, day. Mandy and Blackie stepped into the open area between the mobile homes to wait for the ride that would take the deputy to work. Blackie initially sat next to her owner's freshly polished boots, but the cold ground was too uncomfortable for her doggy rear so she got up and moved around instead.
They both observed how a wintery-dressed Renee Tooley acted out the night's thunderstorm by running around holding a teddy bear that just happened to be red. The young child used the soft toy to symbolize the lightning bolts while the thunderclaps were taken care of with frequent yells of "Boooooom!"
The youngest member of the Tooley family had a great time as the ever-playful Goldie joined her on her wild tours of the open area; the two made a solid team and were lost to the world. Renee's mother Estelle sat on the doorstep of their trailer nursing a mug of coffee and a slice of toast. The gray, dead-tired look on her face told a story of wishing to be lost to the world - she had only just come back from Cavanaugh Creek where she worked in an office building as an early-morning cleaning lady.
Mandy and the tired woman exchanged a brief, nodded greeting before the experienced deputy sheriff went back to observing the goings-on in the small trailer park - it was second nature to her. At present, their friendly neighbor Ernie Bradberry shuffled around his trailer doing this, that and several other things. He waved his baseball cap at her when he came around the corner holding a small spade and a bucket of beer. Mandy waved back. She had in fact spoken to him on her recon mission around the premises during the night, but the jack-of-all-trades had only cracked open one of the windows instead of exposing his hairy hide to her.
The trailers and everything else in the vicinity seemed unaffected by the night's strange events. The unnatural thunderstorm had fizzled out after a short hour though the cloud had continued to hover above the trailer park for an unusual amount of time before it had dissolved. None of the lightning bolts had done any damage as they had all struck the ground somewhere out in the desert. Even using Wynne's advanced night-scope binoculars, Mandy had been unable to spot any spontaneous wildfires despite the strange lack of precipitation, and for that she was thankful.
An approaching rumble made her snap back to the present. To avoid endangering the young Renee and her golden-furred companion while they were playing, Mandy reached down to give Blackie a thorough goodbye-rub before she strode off to intercept her colleague. As the white-and-gold Dodge Durango from the MacLean County Sheriff's Department came into view, she put up her hand to signal 'stop' like she would do at a traffic control post.
Opening the passenger-side front door, she smiled inwardly at the sight of a grinning Rodolfo Gonzalez sitting at the wheel. The youthful deputy with the friendly disposition and the trademark slicked-back hair had often been a solid ally in the tiring battles she had fought against their sheriff Arthur 'Artie' Rains; Rodolfo was one of the good guys. "Good day to you, Deputy Gonzalez," she said as she clicked the seat belt in place.
"And a good day to you, Deputy Jalinski," Rodolfo said as he turned the large SUV around and began the short trip back to the two-lane blacktop. "How about that thunderstorm last night! Have you ever seen anything like it? I sure haven't."
"No. I guess it reached all the way north to Goldsboro?"
"And then some," Rodolfo continued as they turned onto the State Route and drove north. "It hovered over the desert before it moved south. Then it came back for a second pass. Man, those red lightning bolts… creepy as hell. No rain, though. Did you get any rain out here?"
The Durango was soon eating up the miles between the trailer park and the southern outskirts of Goldsboro. Mandy kept an eye on the terrain they went past as it would have been directly in the path of the dry thunderstorm. Nothing seemed untoward, and she was unable to see any scorching or similar burn marks that would have been made by the lightning bolts.
"By the way, we have a little crew problem today," Rodolfo continued after several miles of silence. "Deputy Kincaid called in sick this morning. He said he had the flu or something. That's BS because I happened to see him on my evening patrol last night. He was knocking down shots and playing poker at Iverson's after his shift had ended."
"You don't say?" Mandy said and reached into her pocket to find her telephone. Thomas 'Tom Thumb' Kincaid's number was soon found. Before she pressed the bar to establish a connection, a sour expression fell over her face. The workshy Kincaid had been a pain in her neck ever since he had transferred down from the archives at the Sheriff's Department headquarters in Barton City eight months previously. Not only did he always take Sheriff Rains' side in the constant squabbling, he was far too chummy with the malicious and bad-tempered law man - she could only compare him to an annoying little brat who knew he could shoot his mouth off all he wanted because his big daddy would always protect him.
The hoarse, thick croak that came through the connection was proof enough for her that Rodolfo had been right about Kincaid's excessive drinking the night before. "This is Deputy Jalinski. Why aren't you at work today?"
'I'm down for the count. Oh, I'm coughing and feeling-'
Mandy's face was set in stone as she maintained a stern glare through the windshield. "A hangover is not a valid excuse. I don't care how much you drink when you're off-duty, but I will not accept that it influences your work. Apart from that, do I need to remind you that you're running out of sick days, Kincaid? Get out of bed, get dressed and get down to the office!"
'You're not my damn boss, Manly!' 'Tom Thumb' growled in a voice that still carried a croak but was much stronger on the whole than during his pitiful act.
A dark shadow flashed across Mandy's face; the shadow ended in a sour scowl. She had come to loathe that particular slur that had, predictably, come from Artie Rains. That Thomas Kincaid loved to use it was even more predictable. "What I am is the senior deputy. And I'm telling you to get to work. Now!" she said and smacked her index finger down onto the appropriate icon to close the connection before her supposed brother-in-arms could reply.
Rodolfo knew better than to add any quips so he kept quiet for the rest of the short trip - a smirk did play on his face the entire way there at Thomas Kincaid's expense, however.
After the Durango had come to a halt in front of the building housing the sheriff's office and the adjacent jail, Mandy stepped out and strode across the sidewalk to get to the door. Before she entered the office, she turned around to cast an observant eye on Goldsboro's Main Street and the people there.
Nothing seemed worse for wear after the thunderstorm - no windows had been broken and no roofing tiles had flown onto the street. Moira MacKay was supervising the professional cleaning of her Bar & Grill's neon sign; the fiery owner of the establishment didn't appear to be too pleased with the results as she let out a constant stream of complaints.
A truck rumbled past that carried two bales of hay and an old-fashioned eight-gallon milk can up in the rear. Mandy nodded a Howdy to the driver before she and Rodolfo stepped inside the office. She had barely set foot on the cracked linoleum floor before she wished she hadn't: her olfactory sense was assaulted by the horrible stench that rose from the watch desk - or rather, from the cloud of pale-gray smoke emanating from the cigarette that dangled in the corner of the mouth of the deputy sheriff sitting at the desk.
While Rodolfo made a big production number of pinching his nostrils and sprinting down to the crew room at the back to avoid being poisoned, Mandy closed the front door with surprising gentleness before she turned to her colleague Barry Simms.
The young deputy's facial color was pale, sickly and generally on the wrong side of unhealthy, but it had been thus for as long as he had been part of the Goldsboro squad of deputies. The sixty home-rolled cigarettes he smoked seven days a week had put their mark on his being by staining his teeth, turning his fingers amber and giving him a permanent case of yellowish eyes. That he couldn't afford proper cigarettes but had to buy waste tobacco wholesale directly from the factories to feed his insatiable habit only made his physical condition - and the foul stench - worse.
"Barry," Mandy said as she took off her Mountie hat and hung it on a nail on the wall, "don't you think you ought to cut back a little? Perhaps drop one cigarette an hour or something?"
"But I enjoy it so much, Dep-" Barry Simms said before a hacking, rattling coughing fit meant he couldn't go on speaking.
Mandy shook her head as she moved over to the small table below the gun cabinet. The table carried their coffee machine that Barry had filled up only recently. After she had poured herself a mugful of fresh coffee, she cast a glance at the disgusting ashtray on the watch desk - Barry's heavy habit had created a two-inch pile of butts, ash and spent matches.
The ancient Bakelite telephone on the watch desk rang before Barry's rattling coughing fit had receded, so Mandy strode over there to pick it up. She shook her head once more as she witnessed her colleague's attempts to quell the fit by igniting a new cigarette with the final embers of the old one.
"Good afternoon, this is the Goldsboro Sheriff's Office. Deputy Jalinski speaking. How may we help you?" she said while she put down her mug to have her other hand free. She pulled a pencil and an open notepad closer; a stern glare was sent in Barry's direction when she had to knock a pile of ash off the paper before she could use it.
'Good day, Deputy. This is Morton Fredericksen,' Goldsboro's only poultry breeder said into Mandy's ear. Despite having never visited the old country, Mort's speaking was still heavily influenced by his late father's Swedish tones that came through as the typical East Scandinavian sing-song dialect.
"Hello, Mr. Fredericksen. Do you have a problem?"
'Yes and no. There is nothing wrong other than I found an abandoned police car in the desert… I went out to check my fences after the bad thunderstorm last night, and there it was. I have no idea how it got there… it was not there last week, but it is definitely there now.'
Mandy let out a grunt as she jotted down the information. "I see. Is it from the Sheriff's Department or perhaps a highway patrol car from the State Police?"
'Oh, I… I can't tell, Deputy. Sorry. But it is an old car… maybe from the seventies. I'm not really into cars so I don't know for sure.'
Mandy furrowed her brow at the surprising news. She tapped the pencil against the notepad a couple of times before she wrote it down. "All right. Where is it, exactly?"
'Oh, not too far from the turkey enclosure. Maybe another eight hundred yards beyond that. You can get to the car by using the old wagon trail away from the barns. Do you know where that trail is, Deputy?'
"I do, yes. All right. Thank you, Mr. Fredericksen. We'll take a look."
'Yes, really good. Thank you! Farewell!'
"Bye, Mr. Fredericksen," Mandy said and hung up. She had already opened her mouth to call for Rodolfo when the sight of Barry lighting yet another cigarette made her shake her head all over again and hurry away from the watch desk.
The trip to the Fredericksen farm a few miles north-north-west of Goldsboro took just shy of fifteen minutes in one of the Durangos; the main poultry production plant was soon found and driven past on their way to the turkey enclosure and the old wagon trail. Rodolfo had to groan at the thought of all the hard work he, the Fredericksens and their workers had needed to perform when the electric fences had gone offline during the recent power outage - he had spent hours chasing and rounding up escaping chickens.
"Well, there's the enclosure," Mandy said from the passenger seat as they drove past what had to be five-hundred gobbling junior turkeys that were being groomed for the next Thanksgiving Day. She had activated her smartphone's GPS tracking app to keep abreast of where they were and where they needed to be.
"And there's the start of the wagon trail," Rodolfo said as he brought the Durango down to a slower speed. Even so, he and the senior deputy were given a good shaking by the deep ruts that were visible all along the trail that ran for countless miles into the wilderness.
A few minutes later, the two deputies came to a halt fifty yards from a lump of metal that had been a pristine car once upon a time. Now, the desert had reclaimed it by adding a few unique design features like a tall cactus that grew inside the vehicle's trunk.
The windows were mostly whole but had all turned opaque from the years spent under the merciless sun. The tires had surrendered to the rot, and the steel wheels and most of the bodywork had turned rust-brown on the surface, but it was still recognizable as a former police vehicle in the typical white-and-gold colors of the Sheriff's Department.
A single rotating light stood in the center of the roof - as had been the norm up until the mid-1980s - and it was still possible to see an outline of a golden star that had been painted onto the driver's side door.
"What in the world?" Rodolfo said as he turned off the Durango's engine. He and Mandy continued to stare through the windshield before the senior deputy decided to cut to the chase:
"We can't find out sitting here. Come on," she said as she opened the door and hopped down onto the desert floor. After striding over to the abandoned vehicle, she leaned down to brush as much dirt and specks of rust off the painted star to try to learn as many details as she could. The words MacLean County Sheriff's Department came into view as block letters that had been written in a neat circle around the star. "Well, it's definitely one of ours… or used to be," she said as she dusted off her hands.
"According to the logo-thing, it's a Plymouth Fury," Rodolfo said from his spot down at the tail-end of the vehicle. He used his boot to nudge the car's old emblem that had fallen off. The sight of something black and eight-legged crawling away from the piece of metal and in under the car made him jump back in a hurry.
Mandy rubbed her chin as she walked around the old hulk. "Mort Fredericksen said the car wasn't here last week… but that can't be right. Look at that cactus in the trunk. It's five foot tall! That doesn't just sprout up over night."
"Maybe he meant last year?"
"Maybe," Mandy said and tried to manipulate the door handle on the driver's side. The old mechanism moved but didn't open the door. When she gave it a stronger yank, it came off in her hand. She made another tour of the dusty, decrepit vehicle to look for ruts in the sand made by wheels, but the desert floor held no tracks of any kind. "No, there's something fishy here. Nobody would keep such an old piece of junk around for forty years or so and then dump it. Not to mention they wouldn't do it here. If anything, they would take it much further into the desert. I'll bet there are hundreds of old hulks out there that we don't know about."
Rodolfo nodded as he moved away from the trunk to look at the familiar graphic design on the side of the door. "That's probably true. Huh. There must be some paperwork on it somewhere in the archives… I mean, some poor sap had to file a report, right? Not to mention getting his ass chewed out by his sheriff. I wonder who that was back then in the late seventies… huh."
The question made Mandy dig into her pocket for her smartphone. "I don't know, but I'll bet Councilwoman Skinner does. While I call her, get in touch with Otto Kulick's body shop. Get them to send out the wrecker… no, better make it a flatbed if they have one available. I doubt it'll stay in one piece behind the wrecker truck."
"Will do, Deputy," Rodolfo said and took the portable radio off his utility belt.
While Rodolfo spoke to the auto repair shop in Goldsboro, Mandy found the correct number and waited for the connection to be established. She had almost given up when she heard Mary-Lou Skinner's familiar voice; the asthmatic lady wheezed quite severely like she had needed to move fast to get to the telephone in time.
'This is the- the Skinner resi- residence… hello, who is… this?'
"This is Deputy Mandy Jalinski, Mrs. Skinner. I have a few questions that you may be able to answer," Mandy said as she leaned against the Durango's fender. Her eyes never left the old police vehicle like the mere sight could offer the clues needed.
'Oh? Go… go ahead, Deputy.'
"Do you recall hearing anything about a police cruiser reported missing back in the late nineteen-seventies?"
'The late seventies! Goodness me, no!' Mary-Lou said and let out a short laugh.
"All right. If we were trying to find a specific report written at some point in the late seventies, perhaps early eighties, where would you suggest we looked?"
'Gosh, at that time… oh… let me see… the late Benjamin Keating would have been the sheriff. He bowed out in eighty-four or so, but cancer didn't allow him to enjoy a lengthy retirement. Hmmm. Would this report concern a major crime?'
Mandy furrowed her brow at the news that the sheriff of the time had passed away - it closed a door to finding out the truth about the strange vehicle. "I can't say, Mrs. Skinner. Chances are it didn't."
'Well, in that case, I'm afraid it would have been sent to the incinerating plant up in Barton City after the statute of limitations ran out. It's thirty years at present, but it was only fifteen years back then. Which means the report would have been shredded or incinerated in the early to mid nineties.'
"I see," Mandy said and scrunched up her face in disappointment. "Thank you very much, Mrs. Skinner. I appreciate-"
'Wait a minute! It just occurred to me the Goldsboro Town Museum might have some information for you… not the actual report, obviously, but I know for a fact we've kept the complete duty sheets, crew rosters and watch plans from, gosh, the late eighteen-hundreds until today. Every single sheriff and deputy sheriff working in MacLean County is listed there. If you look at those indices, I'm sure you'll find several relevant names you could contact!'
The welcome news made a broad smile spread over Mandy's face. "I'll do that, Mrs. Skinner. Thank you very much for the tip."
'Oh, you're very welcome, Deputy Jalinski. Goodbye,' Mary-Lou said before she hung up.
Putting her telephone into her pocket, Mandy strode over to the Fury to join forces with Rodolfo. "We need to stop at the museum once we get back to town. They may have the info we need. Any luck with Kulick?"
"Yes. They'll send out a flatbed. ETA twelve to fifteen minutes or so," Rodolfo said while he hooked his portable radio to his belt. "And, uh… not to be a bonehead or anything… but what's in the museum that could help us?"
"Crew rosters listing every deputy ever working here. Once we've narrowed it down to the correct time period, we'll get Barry to make a few calls to get their current addresses. If we're lucky, we might get to talk to the last deputy who used this car."
"Huh," Rodolfo said and turned back to study the sorry-looking wreck.
"Oh, and Mrs. Skinner told me the sheriff was Benjamin Keating," Mandy continued as she put her hands akimbo. "He retired in eighty-four and passed away a few years after that. Way before our time."
"Keating? Well, I remember a family of that name living in Goldsboro, but they moved away about… hmmm… twenty years ago, I guess. They owned the tobacco shop. It might have been the same family."
Several minutes went by in silence before a cloud of dust in the distance offered a clue that the flatbed truck sent out from Otto Kulick's Bang-n-Beatin' Body Shop was on its way. "There's ol' Tucker Garfield now," Rodolfo said and moved to the rear of the Durango to find a pair of heavy-duty work gloves.
Mandy had zero inclination to help the permanently surly Garfield move the Plymouth so she remained exactly where she was - studying the old patrol car to garner all the information about the strange case that she possibly could.
The next several hours were spent carrying out all the regular jobs and tasks that occurred on a daily basis in any branch of law enforcement: filling out paperwork in triplicate, going on uneventful foot patrols, trying to decipher horrible handwriting in old, messy case files, listening to odd complaints from upset citizens, eating plenty of unhealthy snacks and drinking gallons of hot coffee - and in Barry Simms' case, smoke another seventeen or so cigarettes.
A major reason for the peace and quiet was that Sheriff Artie Rains had yet to return to the office. Since eleven thirty, he had conducted an in-depth health and safety inspection of Derrike Iverson's bar a bit further up Main Street. Mandy certainly didn't miss him - in his absence, the deputies were actually able to get some real, honest police work done.
Rodolfo had gone out on patrol and the heavily smoking Barry continued to sit at the watch desk to take calls in between coughing fits. Thomas 'Tom Thumb' Kincaid had in fact shown up for work after all. Red-eyed, unshaven, unkempt and wearing an untidy uniform that didn't follow the Department's strict dress code, he sent frequent Evil Eyes at Mandy while he puttered around pretending to work so he wouldn't get another earful from his senior deputy.
Mandy sat at the smaller of the two desks leafing through photocopies of the old crew rosters that she and Rodolfo had found up at the Goldsboro Town Museum. Now and then, she jotted down a name she wanted to contact. One retired deputy in particular would be a good starting point: Darnell Scott. Mandy vaguely remembered him from a get-together for old deputies that had taken place not long after she had started working for the MacLean County Sheriff's Department. He had been attached to the Goldsboro office from 1974 to 1983 so chances were he might remember the details of the unusual case of the missing Plymouth Fury.
Her sixth sense told her that Thomas Kincaid was sending yet another Evil Eye in her direction, but she shrugged it off and concentrated on the crew rosters. She had already dug out her smartphone to call Darnell Scott when the ancient Bakelite telephone on the watch desk began ringing.
Barry was unable to pick it up as he was caught in the middle of an impressive hacking fit. Shaking his head and waving a hand in the air, it was clear he hoped to get one of his colleagues to answer the call. Mandy's sense of duty meant she was the one, so she got up and strode over to the other desk at once. "Good aft-"
'Deputy!' an agitated voice yelled at the other end of the line. 'You gotta come quick! Uh, uh, to Iverson's! The sheriff's been knocked down!'
"He's what?" Mandy said, furrowing her brow in surprise. Before she could go on, she could hear Artie Rains in the background yelling in his characteristic booming voice: 'Officer needs assistance!' followed by a lengthy, and highly inventive, stream of cuss words.
Mandy quickly slammed the receiver down onto the old telephone and jumped into the center of the office. "Sheriff Rains is in a fight up at Iverson's. Let's go!"
The initial response from her fellow deputies were two blank stares, but Barry and Thomas soon sprung into action and ran out of the office on the heels of the senior deputy. Thomas Kincaid's hangover meant he couldn't get his legs to move particularly fast; Barry could hardly breathe if he ran faster than a slow jog, but at least he tried - in fact, he had left the watch desk in such a hurry he had forgotten to take some of his home-rolled cigarettes with him.
Mandy soon barged through the frayed door leading to Iverson's Bar with her service firearm at the ready. The rundown establishment reeked of stale beer, old sweat, low-grade corn liquor and all the other typically unpleasant elements found in the local environment. The open urinals out back still topped it all, but it was a closely fought contest.
"Everybody up against the wall! Now!" she barked as her experienced eyes quickly surveyed the scene. Soft Country & Western played from a jukebox in the corner while one of the video poker machines sent out an annoying electronic trill indicating it was running a demonstration game. A large group of patrons were huddled around a figure lying on the floor near the counter; the figure was dressed in pale-brown fatigues and bore a striking resemblance to Artie Rains.
As everyone among the barflies scrambled to follow the barked command, Rodolfo came running into the bar. Panting hard from sprinting down half the length of Main Street, he hooked the portable radio onto his belt and looked around. "Damn…" he croaked as he took in the sight of the sheriff on the floor.
While the three younger deputies took care of crowd control, Mandy hurried over to her fallen colleague to check up on him. Artie Rains was even more red-faced than usual and he clenched his jaw hard like he was in great pain. He had fallen onto his left side with his right leg still tangled up in the tall bar stool he had been sitting on.
Several shards of glass that seemed to have come from a large beer mug were scattered around him, but he had no visible cuts, bruises or abrasions. Although most of the beer in question had sloshed all over his uniform, some of it had formed a puddle that was slowly being soaked up by the sawdust on the floor. A distinct aroma of tobacco, hard liquor and beer surrounded the veteran law man.
The only person present who didn't seem overly concerned about the unusual state of affairs was Derrike Iverson - the mid-fifty-something owner of the establishment. The balding, heavy-set former prizefighter stood behind the counter wiping down a tumbler like he was used to seeing law enforcement officers lying on the floor.
"Sheriff Rains," Mandy said, "what happened? Who knocked you down?"
Artie Rains' clenched jaw only allowed him to groan, so Mandy looked up at the bar keep instead. "Mr. Iverson?"
Derrike shrugged before he breathed on the tumbler he had been working on. The hot breath revealed a dull spot that he gave a quick polish with a tea towel. "Nobody knocked him down. Artie just fell off the bar stool. I think he mighta twisted his knee or something."
Mandy stared at the bar keep for a moment or two before her eyes drifted over to the broken bar stool and then down at her fallen sheriff. Her jaw began to grind as she holstered her firearm. The sequence of events became crystal clear to her. After spending the entire lunch break - and then some - at Iverson's, the sheriff had been boozed up to the point where he couldn't even get off the bar stool without making a fool of himself. A deep sigh escaped her. "Sheriff… your knee?"
"Yesssssss," Artie Rains groaned through clenched teeth. He needed to take several deep breaths before he could string enough words together to form a sentence: "I'm gonna hunt down that sonovabitch who designed that bar stool… Goddamned death trap. Get it off me… and get me the hell up from here, Manly! I need to take a piss and I'll be Goddamned if I hafta do it in my Goddamned uniform pants!"
Now that the sheriff actually spoke, it became obvious how slurred his voice was. His inebriation and his hefty bulk presented an almost insurmountable problem as it would take a heavy-duty crane to get the large fellow up from the floor. Such a machine wasn't present, however, so an urgent Plan B was clearly required.
While the sheriff kept moaning, groaning, grunting and growling as a result of his twisted knee and his precarious position down among the sawdust, the dust bunnies and piles of peanuts and long-forgotten pretzel-crumbs, Mandy went through several different scenarios, suggestions and possible solutions in her mind. One after the other was discarded until she arrived at the most basic one - unfortunately, it would also be the most cumbersome.
Although the brainstorming session had been successful, she could not stop a sigh from escaping her as she turned to her colleagues. "Deputies, get over here. We need to work together to get the sheriff back on his feet. Rodolfo, you need to get his foot out of the bar stool. Then we can get him up. Barry, you have his left arm. Thomas-"
"I have a headache-"
"Too damn bad!" Mandy barked; for a second, she sounded like she had been possessed by the ghost of Artie Rains although the large fellow was still alive though not exactly kicking. "Take his right leg. Now!"
The red-eyed 'Tom Thumb' looked as if he was about to tell the senior deputy a few truths about where she could put the sheriff's leg, but he relented and shuffled over to his fallen comrade instead. Crouching down, he grabbed hold of the sheriff's right pantleg without putting much effort into it.
Mandy sighed again as she took Artie Rains' right arm. "Rodolfo, are you set?" When she got a nod in return, she tightened her muscles and let out a "And heave-ho! Heave-ho!"
Most of the patrons and barflies present at Iverson's let out streams of snickers and chuckles at the odd sight of four deputies trying to drag the beached whale away from the ruined bar stool. Rodolfo struggled to get the Sheriff's boot untangled from the fractured frame, but he eventually managed. Barry pulled for all he was worth - which wasn't all that much - and Thomas Kincaid was too hung-over to lift a finger for anyone, not even his favorite sheriff. In short, Mandy had to do most of the work pulling Artie Rains upright.
The entire act was reminiscent of four tribal hunter-gatherers trying to lift a uniformed hippopotamus up onto a fireplace so they could cook it. Little by little, inch by inch, heave-ho by heave-ho, Artie Rains got back to his feet - or foot, since his left knee was so sore he couldn't put any of his considerable weight on it. When he was finally able to bump his heavy backside onto one of the other bar stools, he let out a mighty sigh of relief.
The victory was a short-lived one as the next thing out of his mouth was: "Goddamn, I need to take a piss… and it needs to be right this Goddamned minute!"
'Quick! Somebody get Artie a bucket to piss in!' a witty barfly shouted from somewhere at the back; Derrike Iverson countered that at once with a booming: "There's a lady present, you dumb hick!"
'Oooooh! Where? Where?' the barfly shouted; his drinking buddies all let out roars of lewd laughter at the humor.
Rodolfo, Barry and Mandy shared a long, dark look before the two men ducked under the sheriff's arms to pull him up once more. Working together, the two deputies guided their sheriff around the cinderblock wall that separated the urinals from the main bar room.
Mandy kept well back during the process. None of it was a laughing matter, but she did in fact get a solid parting shot in: "Deputy Kincaid," she said with a straight face, "once your fellow deputies have escorted the sheriff into the men's room, it's your duty to make sure he doesn't fall while he takes care of the important business."
Thomas Kincaid's face grew red, then white, then red all over again. He shot his senior deputy such an Evil Eye it was a miracle she didn't keel over right there. Before he could come up with a reply, the sheriff's urgent need demanded his full attention, and he shuffled behind the cinderblock wall to carry out his solemn duty.
While Operation Splish-Splash took place out back, Barry Simms moved from table to table ransacking the ashtrays for cigarette butts that he could smoke. His face had grown pale and his hands had gained a slight tremble from the hard work and the involuntary break from his beloved nicotine, and it was obvious he would be next in line to get an ungentle introduction to the sawdust on the floor unless he found something to puff on. When no suitable butts could be found anywhere, he strode over to a smoking patron and simply commandeered the cheroot the fellow had between his lips.
After breathing a sigh of relief - that made a pale-gray cloud of smoke escape his mouth and nostrils - Barry took several deep puffs on the cheroot that was of a much higher quality than the waste tobacco he used in his own home-rolled cigarettes.
Mandy could only shake her head at the sight. "Deputy Simms, there's no need for you to be here. Go back to the watch desk and monitor the incoming calls."
"Will do, Deputy Jalinski," Barry said with a strong bout of gratefulness shining through in his voice. In two seconds flat, he had left Iverson's Bar to get back to his cigarettes.
The groaning Artie Rains and the badly blushing Thomas Kincaid soon came back from the restroom. The latter was completely obscured by the large fellow in front, but he had his hands hooked under the sheriff's armpits to provide the necessary support. A couple of dark stains on Rains' uniform pants proved the operation hadn't been entirely successful. To make matters worse, his fly was still open and a snippet of his underwear stuck out.
When 'Tom Thumb' noticed Mandy's critical eye on him, he scrunched up his face into a sour mask: "He's too drunk to zip his fly and there's no friggin' way I'm gonna put my hands there to do it! No friggin' way!"
"All right," Mandy said and pushed herself away from the bar counter she had been leaning against. Putting her hands on her hips, she took in the embarrassing state of her superior. She surprised herself by actually feeling sorry for the large man although he had done nothing but harp on her and Wynne Donohue for as long as she had known him. "Sheriff, do you need an ambula-"
"Like hell I do! All I need is a bottle of Old Number Seven and my wife's hands on me!" Artie Rains said in a voice that hadn't lost any of its bourbon-laced slurring after the bathroom break.
Mandy scratched her cheek while she tried to come up with an appropriate response to that particular request - while she did so, the various patrons and barflies around her let out plenty of lewd chuckles.
A glance at the inebriated sheriff and the badly hung-over 'Tom Thumb' made the jigsaw pieces fall into place for her: not only would her idea mean she was free of Artie Rains' negative influence, she wouldn't have to be exposed to Thomas Kincaid's surliness and juvenile behavior for several hours. It was a win-win situation for all involved. "Very well. Deputy Kincaid, take the sheriff's Intrepid and drive him home. Make sure he's safe and then come back here."
The perennially workshy Thomas Kincaid was about to let out a pitiful nasal whine when he realized it would get him far away from the dragon lady in charge. "C'mon, Sheriff," he said and took the first, clumsy step toward the front door of Iverson's Bar.
"Not so fast, Kincaid!" Artie growled as he looked over at Derrike Iverson. "How about that bottle?"
Grinning, the owner of the establishment put down the tea towel he had been using and reached under the counter. "Comin' right up, Sheriff. I'll put it on your tab," he said as he produced the familiar, square-shouldered bottle of sour mash bourbon.
After the embarrassing and frustrating circus act involving the sheriff up at Iverson's Bar, Mandy Jalinski needed to work off her frustrations. The best way to do that - and to rekindle her enthusiasm for the important job they were all supposed to be doing for the good of the community - had always been to go on an old-fashioned foot patrol, so that's exactly what she did.
Strolling north on the sunny, eastern side of Goldsboro's Main Street, she said Hellos to a few upstanding citizens and Howdys to a couple of denim-clad cowpokes from the large cattle ranches down south. She traded pleasantries with some of the town's elderly, tickled a few babies in strollers and sent a dark glare in the direction of a young fellow who had mistaken Main Street for a drag strip.
At least the moderate winter weather held up. Though partially overcast, there was little wind and the temperature was higher than it typically was at that time of the year. Mandy wasn't about to complain about any of those details as she had often been in the opposite situation. Though they never saw any snow in Goldsboro, the fierce wind that often fell over the town from the surrounding desert in winter time could be icy enough to create mild frostbite on exposed skin. She had patrolled in the driving rain, during triple-degree heatwaves and in late-summer sandstorms created by gale-force winds - and yet, she loved it as it was the best way to remain close to the citizens they were there to protect and serve.
She had just said hello to the manager of the Spartan Wings sports goods store when a strange, red flash illuminated the entire world surrounding her. Though everything was lit up for several seconds, no sound was produced. "What the…" she said, but the phenomenon that had snuck up on her from behind had already swept past her before she could complete the sentence.
Several trucks came to screeching stops out on the street, and she took advantage of that by running out between two vehicles. Putting her hand on her service firearm, she caught a glimpse of the eerie sheen of light that raced further north on Main Street at high speed.
The light moved so fast it reached the northern city limits sign in nothing flat. It seemed to dissolve after it had passed by that spot, but Mandy couldn't tell whether or not it actually did since there was nothing out there but the non-descript desert she could compare it with.
"A shockwave… just like a shockwave from an explosion…" she said and looked up at the sky to see if any columns of smoke had been formed. When all she could see were pale-gray clouds and a stray bird or two, she scrunched up her face and turned around.
She came to a hard stop and broke out in a wide-eyed stare. There she was, faced with nothing but an empty street. It wasn't too uncommon to see Main Street deserted on its way through the quiet Goldsboro, but two seconds earlier, a Dodge pickup truck had been less than ten feet behind her.
Yelling and screaming from the movie theater not too far from the sports goods store made her snap out of her severely puzzled state. Spinning around, she witnessed a large group of people come running out of the theater's lobby in a clear state of panic. Such unrestrained behavior could only be explained by a major incident like a fire breaking out, so Mandy took off in a sprint to get to the scene.
The chaos soon grew to near-hysteria when the moviegoers all shouted about people vanishing from the seats right in front of, or next to, them. Mandy ran from one to the other trying to get a straight answer, but everyone was so incoherent she was literally unable to see the big picture.
'Deputy Jalinski! Deputy Jal- Mandy! Mandy! Do you read me? Are you on this frequency, over?!' Barry Simms' frantic voice said from the portable radio on Mandy's utility belt.
Coming to a stop, she snatched the radio and keyed the mic. "I'm here, Barry. Go ahead!"
'The telephone's ringing off the hook! Everybody's saying the same thing! People are disappearing into thin air! They're there and then they're not! I don't know what to do… what do you want me to do?!'
The noise pollution coming from the hysterical moviegoers was so loud that Mandy needed to put the radio up to her left ear while she crammed half an index finger into her right one to be able to hear her colleague's report. When even that proved to be insufficient, she hurried away from the crowd simply to have room to think. "I don't know want to do, Barry… it's the same deal up here at the movie theater. There must be some explanation… did you see the red flash? Over."
'Yes! Yes, it flew past- no, through the office! It flew through the office at an insane speed!'
"That's what I saw, too… over." Mandy released the transmit key to deliver the next message aimed at the spectators who continued to freak out: "Goddammit! Will you people calm the hell down?! This is important and I can't hear a damn thing!"
The surprising volume worked as a good number of the yelling moviegoers piped down in a hurry. "Thank you!" Mandy continued before she keyed the mic again. "Barry, just write down the names and addresses of the people calling you. We'll go through them chronologically. Once we have a spare moment, we need to call the watch commander at the Air Force Base to hear if they've had similar problems. Over."
"Deputy Simms, this is not a good time to have a coughing fit!"
Mandy scrunched up her face in a mask of equal parts concern and annoyance. Whatever that red flash of light had been, it had left plenty of chaos, carnage and confusion in its wake even if it hadn't caused any physical damage to people or property. "Deputy Simms?" she tried one more time, but the results were the same: nothing. "Radio check, radio check. Over," she said after keying the mic again.
'This is Deputy Gonzalez. I read you five-by-five, over,' Rodolfo said from somewhere else in town.
Mandy let out a growl. Even if Barry Simms didn't answer, it might not mean he had disappeared as well - he might simply be too busy coughing or taking the calls and writing down the information like she had told him. Still, she needed to know for sure. "Rodolfo, where are you?"
'In the alley by the impound yard moving toward Lafferty's liquor store on the corner of Main. Tucker Garfield has just offloaded the Plymouth we found. Did you see that weird red light, over?'
"Yes, but we don't have time for that now. I need you to hurry back to the office and check up on Deputy Simms. He might be in trouble. Over and out."
'On my way there now. Gonzalez out,' Rodolfo said before another burst of static filled the airwaves.
Sighing, Mandy hooked the radio onto her belt before she ran over to the hysterical moviegoers and thrust her hands in the air to make them stop their incessant yakking. "Listen up! Listen up, please! Do any of you require medical attention?"
When all she got back was a plethora of shaking heads, she continued: "All right. How many people did you see disappear?"
The moviegoers looked at each other for a few seconds before several of them answered the simple question by shouting all at once at the deputy: "At least ten!" - "Closer to fifteen!" - "Don't listen to 'em! It musta been fifty or more!" - "Fifty? The hell it was! Fifteen!" - "No, it wasn't that many… ten, tops!" - "That's bull 'cos half the aisles were empty when we ran out!" - "They were never full to begin with, you moron!" - "Who' you callin' a moron, ya dipstick?" - "Ya wanna come over here and say that to my face?!"
Mandy's eyes rolled skyward as the tidal wave of conflicting reports threatened to drown her in all their pitifulness. "All right… all- all right… Pipe down! Unless you've lost contact with close family members, disperse and go about your business. You can go wherever you wish as long as it isn't here!"
A few grumbles were heard but most seemed to understand. After a few moments of indecision, the group broke up and shuffled off in many different directions. Some went back inside to catch the rest of the matinee movie, some went to their trucks to go home, and some went further down Main Street to visit Moira's high-quality Bar & Grill or Derrike Iverson's seedier establishment.
"The MacLean County Sheriff's Department thanks you for your cooperation," Mandy said before she rolled her eyes all over again. Once she was mostly alone - save for a couple of moviegoers who didn't know what they wanted to do - she wiped a few beads of sweat off her brow and began to move back to the office in her customary stride.
'Deputy Gonzalez to Deputy Jalinski. Mandy, are you still here? Please acknowledge, over,' Rodolfo's voice said from the radio.
Sensing that the drama wasn't over by a long shot, Mandy took a deep breath before she snatched the radio off her belt and pressed the transmit key. "I'm here. Go ahead."
'Well, that's good 'cos Barry isn't. Over.'
"Isn't what, Rodolfo?"
'Here! The office is empty, over.'
Mandy let go of the key to spew out an emphatic "Son of a bitch!" that scared a pair of pigeons into taking off in a huff. She needed to count to ten on the inside before she could establish contact once more. "Have you checked the crew room and the stalls in the restroom? Even if the stress got to him, he has to be somewhere. Over."
'I already checked. He isn't there either, over.'
"Did he leave any kind of note, over?"
'That's a negatory… well, except a half-smoked cigarette in the ashtray. I don't think I've ever seen that before…'
Mandy clapped a hand over her eyes and let out a deep groan. It became painfully clear to her that she or Wynne - or both - had upset some kind of divine entity who felt it necessary to return the favor with plenty of interest. "No… all right, I'm on my way. You're on phone duty now. Don't… uh… don't go anywhere until I get there. Deputy Jalinski out."
'Huh! I'll try!'
Once the radio was back on her belt, Mandy took off in a fast jog to get back to the office before anything else could go wrong or anyone else could disappear. She had only made it halfway there when she nearly bumped into Mary-Lou Skinner - the hefty Councilwoman seemed dazed.
Though Mandy was in an almighty hurry, her strong sense of duty kicked in and she came to a screeching halt in front of the important citizen. The overweight woman - who wore a three-quarter-length coat over a flowery dress that didn't seem nearly warm enough for the mid-January conditions - was pale as a sheet and clearly frazzled. "Mrs. Skinner, are you all right?" Mandy said in the most patient voice she could muster.
"And Foo-Foo is who, exact- oh…" Mandy said, only now noticing the empty leash Mary-Lou Skinner clutched in her meaty hands. "Your dog… your dog ran away?"
"She didn't run away! She disappeared on our afternoon walk… like, poof! And Wyatt Elliott is gone, too! He was right there and we were talking and- and- then he wasn't there anymore! Like… like… poof…"
While the asthmatic Mary-Lou wheezed hard to keep an even breath going during the fright, Mandy rubbed her face numerous times. Although she had become far too knowledgeable about all sorts of supernatural events after moving to Goldsboro, she had never experienced anything like their current predicament. She was about to open her mouth to say so when she and Mary-Lou Skinner were joined by the fellow who had been working on Moira MacKay's neon sign.
"Hey, Deputy… didya happen to see Miss MacKay anywhere?" the mid-forty-something man said as he ran across Main Street to get to Mandy. He was dressed in a blue boilersuit with a matching cap, and he lifted the latter piece of his outfit to scratch his thinning hair. " 'Cos I got a question I need to ask her about the small crack I found in the ampersand, but now I can't find her… and nobody's seen her since that creepy flash."
Mandy was once again interrupted when she noticed Roscoe Finch, the young pool player, stepping out onto the sidewalk at Moira's Bar & Grill a bit further down Main Street. The puzzled youngling held a pool cue in one hand and a can of soda in the other while he called for his friend Geoffrey Wilburr, jr. to come back to the game they had been playing.
If that wasn't bad enough already, the former pro-wrestler Joe-Bob Millard lumbered past Roscoe intending to drive home after eating a late lunch that had evolved into an early supper. The three-hundred-pound brute who had wrestled under the moniker The Manbeast Of Yucky Flats held the key fob for his Dodge truck between his chubby fingers when he discovered that his pride and joy was no longer where he had left it - a second later, he let out a feral roar that would have made the Lion King envious.
Mandy hurriedly turned back to the worker in the blue boilersuit. "I'm sorry, Mister. I don't know where Moira is. Mrs. Skinner," she continued as she tipped her Mountie hat at the councilwoman, "I really need to hurry back to the office. I promise I'll file a missing person report on Wyatt."
"My Foo-Foo is more important! Oh, the poor little thing gets so easily upset-"
"I'll… uh…" Mandy said, stalling while she tried to think of something to say. Ultimately, she just pulled a white lie. "I'll write one for your dog as well. Good day."
True to her word, she ran the rest of the distance back to the sheriff's office in the vain hope she would reach it before further disasters could strike. She almost made it: she was forced to make a small detour at the last moment to take care of an agitated woman who ran out onto the sidewalk wearing what could be interpreted as a white wedding dress.
The boyfriend of the woman in question had vanished without a trace, and the lady was worried that he had done so because she had come on a little too strong, dress-wise, on only their second date. Mandy had to pat the flustered lady's hand while explaining that, yes, there was a pretty good chance of that - then she was finally allowed to return to the sheriff's office.
Barging inside, Mandy locked eyes with a red-faced Rodolfo who tried to keep up with the manically ringing telephone. He was too busy to talk to her, so she had time to let her eyes wander over the watch desk and the ash, cigarette butts and spent matches that had spilled over the edges of the ashtray - they offered the only proof that Barry Simms had ever been there.
What seemed to be half a notepad's worth of hastily scribbled pages had been distributed all over the desk, and Rodolfo produced several more during the brief moment Mandy spent there. Picking up one of them, she realized they contained the names and addresses of those who had called in to report a disappearance.
A quick count proved there were already more than twenty such notes on the watch desk, and more followed with each call. Shaking her head, she removed her Mountie hat to wipe her brow on her jacket's sleeve. "Dammit, how are we ever going to get on top of this?" she said in a mumble before she plonked the hat back onto her fair locks.
She might as well tend to personal business since the world was already crumbling all around them, so she strode into the crew room at the back of the office and sat down at the round table that was often used for poker or other card games. Finding her smartphone, she scrolled down the register until she found Home.
She wasn't worried to begin with, but her skin turned hot and began to crawl when Wynne didn't pick up the call. She didn't want to leave a message on the voice mail, so she terminated the call before it could switch over. Leaning back in the chair, she scrunched up her face into a mask of worry.
Angry voices from the front office made her let out a deep sigh and get back on her feet. Stepping out of the crew room, she screwed a smile on her face to create the illusion that she knew perfectly well what she was doing and that the latest disaster to hit Goldsboro was a mere bump in the road compared to the earlier dramas and incidents.
Ten minutes earlier back at the trailer park.
Decorated cowboy boots and the lower end of a pair of faded blue-jeans stuck out from underneath the rusty, dented and generally sorry-looking 1991-vintage Chevrolet K10 truck that was parked in the grassy area between the mobile homes. A long series of clangs produced by a hammer striking metal sounded very much like the thunderclaps the night before. After seven strikes and a short delay, somebody uttered a sigh and a muted "Sombitch…" from down below.
Blackie was right next to the goings-on and kept a running commentary by woof'ing in several different keys depending on her owner's rate of success. Her tongue and tail both wagged as she tried to guess which tools were used from the sounds they produced. The clever canine had already identified a flat-nosed hammer, a ratchet wrench and a spatula - used to scrape off general muck and surface rust - but there had been a squeaking sound produced as well that she had a hard time matching to any known tool.
The sound of a beer can being opened was intimately familiar to anyone living in the small trailer park, and Blackie didn't even need to see the can in question to know it was an H.E. Fenwyck 1910 Special Brew - her sensitive nose told her that at once.
Downstairs, Wynne emptied the red can of beer in a series of deep gulps. She had promised Mandy to only drink a single can of regular brew each day, and this was it. She had barely emptied it before she rolled the chilled can across her flushed forehead in an attempt to quell the frustration created by her old truck.
The pair of pliers she had used as the very last remedy to get the troublesome vehicle fixed had been put on her chest, but she shoved them into a pocket before she inched out from underneath the truck's undercarriage on the workshop rolling board she had borrowed from Diego Benitez' toolshed. Once she had her legs free, it was clear to everyone watching that The Last Original Cowpoke had arrived.
In addition to the cowboy boots and the faded blue-jeans, Wynne wore a wool-lined denim jacket that covered a black, long-sleeved sweatshirt sporting the Chevrolet bowtie logo in red. She wore sturdy canvas work gloves rather than her expensive sheepskin gloves, but her beloved and utterly indispensable cowboy hat was still sitting pretty atop her dark locks like it was supposed to.
That it was battered, wrinkled, dented and sweat-stained didn't matter to her. It had grown into an extension of her being, and it really only left her head for any length of time when she showered, slept or spent quality time with Mandy.
She sat up on the rolling board and let out a deep sigh. "Lawrdie, Blackie… Ah ain't sure Ah'mma-gonn' be able ta get the darn thing fixed this time. It done crapped out on us but good. That there dang-blasted startah motah jus' ain't crankin' ovah… an' there's a fist-sized hole in the dang exhaust… an' them rear shocks be leakin'… not ta men-shun the rear end housin' is almost outta grease… an' that there carburetor is runnin' rough… an' the air condi-shun ain't condi-shun-nin' nuttin'… aw, gosh-darn'it!"
"Yuh, ain't that the truth, girl. Ya durn right. But ya always is, ya clever dawggie," Wynne said and reached over to rub Blackie's fur. "If mah truck wus a hoss, the humane thing ta do would be ta take it out back an' put it down! Aw, if only them there in-shoo-rance folks wussen so dang nosy an' all, Ah woulda had Ernie tow it inta the desert an' set the durn thing on fiah. Naw. Ah coudden do that, anyhows… not with mah sweet, li'l de-per-ty around. Shoot. Looks like there's gonn' be a whooooooole lotta walkin' in our fu-shure, dontchaknow."
Blackie let out a brief, but emphatic, bark that spelled out quite clearly she wasn't particularly looking forward to doing that.
A strange flash of red light suddenly zoomed across the open area before it continued south at incredible speed. It had a vague resemblance to the scarlet lightning of the previous night, and it left Wynne all agape - even Blackie piped down for a moment before she returned to her woof'ing.
Wynne rubbed her eyes several time to make sure she wasn't suffering from any kind of beer-induced blurry-vision, but her eyesight was just as clear as always. She looked around in puzzlement while a foot-tall, neon-green question mark hovered above her head. "Hoah-brothah… didya see that weird kinda flash thing, there, Blackie?"
"Yuh, I reckoned ya might… huh. Well… no… ain't nuttin' wrong he' that I can see or nuttin'," she continued, glancing around the open space between the mobile homes. Once that had been accomplished, she looked up to study the sky above her. Though it was overcast, it was certainly not weather likely to create another thunderstorm.
While she continued her short observation of the premises, Diego Benitez came out of his trailer carrying his trusty thirty-aught-six rifle that he used for target practice. They nodded a quick Howdy at each other before he went out of sight to get onto the firing range he had set up on the far side.
Whatever the strange flash had been, it was no longer present so Wynne promptly forgot all about it. "Naw. Ain't got no clue whaddahell that wus, Blackie. Prolly some evil bizzness out ta screw me ovah like always. Lawrdie. An' some folks call me parra-noid. Them folks ain't nevah lived mah life, lemme tell ya!"
Sighing, she adjusted her cowboy hat before she clambered to her booted feet. She stood with her hands ensconced on her hips for a short minute while she tried to get enough thoughts linked up to get an idea of what to do next. When nothing came to her, she grabbed the rolling board and shuffled off toward Diego's shed to put it back where she had found it.
Just under ten minutes later, she leaned against the counter in her trailer's kitchenette cracking open a can of Double Zero - the non-alcoholic beer acted as a little consolation prize for being unable to fix her truck. Blackie had returned as well and took a small afternoon nap in the doggy-basket in the corridor; Goldie paid the Tooleys another house call to play with young Renee.
Remembering that her smartphone badly needed to be recharged, Wynne dug it out of her pocket and put it on the kitchen counter. The display was blank because she had turned it off to save the final five percent of battery power. Before she could look for the charger, there was activity at the door.
'Hey, Wynne… ya ol' rascal! Ya ready to watch a little rasslin'?' Ernie said from somewhere beyond the screen door.
Chuckling, Wynne drained the can of easy beer before she shuffled over to look outside. "I sure am, Ernie, ya ol' sombitch. We's got ourselves a li'l problem, tho'. The durn truck's gone ta the great, big open road in the skah so I coudden get no beers. I only got two… count 'em one-two… six-packs o' them there Double Zeros left," she said as she swung the screen door open to usher her friend inside.
"Ya know, I think we'll be fine," Ernie said sporting a grin that reached from California to Utah. As he spoke, he pulled open a small plastic bag to show Wynne that he had brought two further six-packs of H.E. Fenwyck's finest.
"Aw-righty, friend! Y'all jus' step in he' with all them awesome beers an' all!" Wynne said before she took a step aside to make room for the increasingly rotund Ernest 'Ernie' Bradberry.
Ernie's trademark mullet, sideburns and walrus mustache were in fine fettle, as was his beer gut that seemed to have crept another half-inch over the edge of his belt lately. He wore work boots, black jeans, a hunting vest over a striped flannel shirt and finally the black Built Ford Tough baseball cap that was as important to him as the cowboy hat was to Wynne.
The friendly fellow stepped up on the doorstep that was almost as crooked as the back porch. As the inner door closed behind them, the light shone through several cracks wide enough to drive a 1976 Lincoln Mark VI through without needing to fold in the side mirrors.
"Yuh, that sure do be lookin' good, there, friend," Wynne continued as she looked at the beer. "What else y'all got in that there bag? Any snacks or som'tin?"
"Oh-yeah. Nobody can live on beer alone," Ernie said as he dug into the plastic bag and retrieved two packs of beef jerky - one spicy and one regular. "And believe me when I say I've tried!"
"Yuh, me too, friend. Me too. Yuh. Okie-dokie, get yerself comfy on the couch an' all. I'll slap tagethah some sour cream dip fer them there slabs o' jerky. Only gonn' be 'bout three minutes or so. Yuh?"
"Works for me, Wynne. I'll get the tape cued up in the meantime," Ernie said as he knocked off his boots and moved into the living area of the trailer on socked feet.
"Wotcha got fer us on this he' fih-ne day?"
'Wrestlemania twenty-eight!' Ernie said loudly from the living are.
"Lawrdie, that be perdy good rasslin' right there… yessir!" Still grinning, Wynne reached for the refrigerator door to find the ingredients needed for the dip. She suddenly realized she needed to bid a fond farewell to the four beers she'd had while she tried to fix the Chevrolet. The fridge door was soon traded for the one leading to the bathroom.
After taking care of business, she moved back over to the kitchen cabinets to find a pair of small bowls she could use for the sour cream dip. A typically high-strung wrestling announcer performed his regular spiel from inside the living room which meant Ernie had the tape cued and ready to go.
Operating like a pro, she found a small tub of sour cream from the refrigerator and a pack of Tex-Mex spices from one of the cabinets. An appropriate amount of the ground spices were soon mixed into the sour cream and distributed equally into the two bowls using a spoon. "Ain't gonn' be long now, Ernie! Jus' hold them hosses until I get there, yuh?" she said as she picked up the bowls.
"Huh… Ernie? Ya be guzzlin' them beers so hard ya can't speak, friend?" Wynne said and moved into the doorway overlooking the living area. The reason for the lack of a reply soon became evident. The old wrestling extravaganza played for an empty room. The couch was empty as was the easy chair and the rest of the living area.
Wynne just stood there and stared. "Buh… Ernie? No Ernie. Whaddahell… he didden even say see ya or nuttin'! Blackie? Blackie, where ya at, girl? Blackie? Ernie? Lawwwwr-die, this he' deal is gettin' mi'ty pee-cue-li-ar all of a sudden!"
Unsure of what she should do, she moved into the living area still holding the two bowls of sour cream dip she had prepared. The plastic bag Ernie had brought with him was lying empty on the couch; the two packs of jerky and the two six-packs of beer were all ready to go on the coffee table. Wynne continued to stare at the odd scene while the old wrestling tape kept on playing on the VCR - it was one of the tapes that Ernie had received from his video-swapping-pal over in Tennessee.
There wasn't any reason to add to the expensive electricity bill when nobody was there to watch, so Wynne put down the bowls of sour cream dip to press the buttons on the two remotes that stopped the VCR and turned off the TV.
"Huh. He musta forgotten som'tin ovah in his trailah… an' Blackie prolly went with'im," she mumbled as she went back to the refrigerator to deposit the two bowls of dip so they wouldn't go bad.
Five minutes later, the situation wasn't just peculiar, it was downright unsettling. Goldie had returned for a little afternoon doggy snack and a good dose of cool water after playing with Renee Tooley, and the Golden Retriever seemed just as puzzled as to the whereabouts of Blackie as her owner.
"Dad-gummit, nearly six minutes now… I mean, whaddindahell? This he' weird deal ain't like Ernie at all. I wondah if it wus som'tin I said…?" Wynne mumbled while she poured a good helping of dry feed into Goldie's dinner bowl. After pouring some water into a second bowl, she stood up straight and scratched her hair. "But we didden even say nuttin'! All we said wus howdy an'… an'… nuttin'. I mean… whaddahell? Mebbe he got a belly ache an' needed ta take a dump or som'tin. But why didden he say so? Aw! 'Cos I wus on the can! Lawrdie, why didden I think o' that befo'? I'll bet ol' Ernie be ovah in his trailah. Goldie, ya comin' along ta investigate?"
A strong yapping that meant 'No way, no how, no ma'am!' was Goldie's only response before she went back to enjoying her afternoon snacks.
"Naw, I didden reckon ya wus… I jus' wanted ta check an' all so ya didden feel I wus abandonin' ya or som'tin," Wynne said with a grin. After dusting off her hands, she grabbed her denim jacket and left her trailer to search for her missing companions.
"Ernie?" she said after she had crossed over the grassy area and opened the screen door to her friend's trailer. She knocked for a second time just to be safe. "Ernie, ya ol' sombitch? Ya in he'? Man, ya takin' a ten-pound dump or som'tin? Like that there giganto garillah-turd las' month? Lawrdie, I swear y'all can still smell that there stinky shit when the wind's right an' all. Ernie? Ernie? I don't bah-lieve it… he ain't he', neithah! Oh, whaddahell's goin' on he'?"
Diego Benitez had been shooting his rifle throughout Wynne's brief search, but the firing came to a sudden halt while she waited at Ernie's place. When the silence that followed grew ominous, she stepped away from the screen door to look at Diego's trailer - she expected to see her neighbor come around the corner after his practice session, but nothing happened.
"Lawwwwr-die," she croaked as she pulled down her cowboy hat to cover her eyes. "Ah sure hope the nice fella didden have no accident or nuttin' with that there rifle o' his… good shit almi'ty, Ah still get the shivahs when Ah think back ta all that blood the las'time Diego done had a shootin' accident… aw, Ah bettah check. Dang, Ah wish Blackie wus he'!"
Peeking around the far corner of Diego's trailer, she held her breath just in case she was about to see something that would take a lot of beers to forget. The breath was released as a sigh of relief when she noticed that the shooting booth Diego had built, the firing range itself and the target mound at the far end of it were devoid of life - or a body for that matter.
Spent brass casings piled up on the rocky ground at the booth, but that was the only sign that he had been there at all. "Well… ain't that weird? He always done clean up his mess. Aw, he prolly saw a jackrabbit or som'tin out in that there desert… or mebbe a coyote. An' mebbe Blackie joined 'im huntin' it or some such," she mumbled, scratching her neck.
None the wiser, Wynne shuffled back to Ernie's trailer to continue her original search. She had barely made her way back to it when a familiar woof-woof made her spin around on her hard heel and storm over to Zoltan Petrusco's trailer instead. Hopping up on the front porch, she stuck her face up to the windows to peek inside.
The elderly gentleman sat on the edge of his favorite easy chair while a playful Blackie zipped around his slippered feet. The black dog seemed to be in the middle of an impressive balancing trick of some kind to earn herself a doggy treat or two.
"Lawwwwr-die… I sure be thankin' ye!" Wynne mumbled before she stepped into the mobile home to spend a few minutes with Zoltan and Blackie.
Back at their own trailer, a relieved Wynne and a happy Blackie moved into the kitchenette. The bowl of doggy treats she had made for Goldie was still half-full, and that was most unlike the Golden Retriever who usually dug in like there was no tomorrow. Wynne didn't think anything of it as she added a little dry feed from the cardboard box and poured a little more water into the second bowl.
While Blackie went to work feeding herself, Wynne moved into the living area to kick back now that Ernie had apparently found a better deal elsewhere - she never made it further than the doorway where she came to a hard stop. Her eyes grew wider and wider as she took in the sight of the four empty cans of Double Zero that littered the coffee table. Three of the four sticks of beef jerky had been devoured as had a pack of microwave popcorn that she'd had in one of the kitchen cabinets. Perhaps most startling was the fact that the TV and VCR had turned themselves on again and were once more showing the old wrestling tape.
"Aw… cree- cree- creepy! Whaddindahell is goin' on he'? Ah'm stuck in the dag-nabbin' Twilight Zone!" she croaked as she performed the freaky dance known as Goosebumps All Over.
A flash of concern suddenly entered her mind as she stared at the creepy scene: "Goldie… Goldie? Goldie?! Where ya at, girl?!"
No woof'ing, no yapping, no whimpering - nothing.
"Awwwwww-hell! Blackie! Blackie, find Goldie!" Wynne cried as she spun around and tore back to the kitchenette.
Understanding the urgency in her owner's voice, the black dog jumped back from the food to sniff the air. She let out two thunderous barks before she ran into the bedroom and poked her muzzle under the bed - that was Goldie's go-to spot for whenever she would become spooked.
A moment later, Blackie ran back out with a puzzled expression on her doggy face. Her black shoulders seemed to shrug, but she didn't let it stop her and ran out of the trailer to search for her dear canine companion.
Wynne stayed hot on Blackie's paws as they stormed through the grassy area searching for Goldie. They looked high and low for the scaredy-cat Golden Retriever: in Diego's toolshed, around the firing range, under and inside all the vehicles parked there, behind the Travers' trailer where there were several stacks of building material that Goldie could have used to hide in, and they even peeked into the deep hole that Ernie had dug in his back yard for beer-cooling purposes.
The last stop on their breathless tour came at the Tooley trailer where Goldie had spent a good deal of the day playing with young Renee. Wynne and Blackie ran around it several times just in case Goldie thought it was all just a fun game of tag, but the golden dog was nowhere to be found.
Wynne eventually came to a stop, bent over and put her hands on her knees to catch her breath. Once everything was back under control, she hurried over to Estelle Tooley's door and knocked several times. Only then did she notice a small note tied to the door handle. It read: 'Frankie! The milk had gone bad so Renee and I have driven to town to get more. We won't be long. Estelle.'
Blackie let out a couple of quick woofs, but Wynne shook her head. "Yuh, I hear ya, Blackie. Y'all be wondahrin' if them Tooleys took Goldie with 'em to town, but naw. They be good folks, they woulda asked first. An' I didden even notice they went or nuttin'… dang'it," she said before all her frustrations came to a head:
"Goldie? Goldie?! Awwww-sombitch! If somebodda done hurt mah sweet li'l dawggie, Ah'mma-gonn' make that there fella wish he wus nevah born! Ya hear?! Ah'mma-gonn' hurt ya but goooood, ya dirty rotten sonova-skunk!" she roared as she slapped her beloved hat against her thigh.
Blackie assumed an offensive stance that saw her ears lie down flat against her head while she bared her impressive set of pointy teeth - the pearly whites seemed ready to take chunks out of anything ranging from a jackrabbit to an elephant if need be. The fearless black dog growled out her frustrations as she whipped her head around to pick up strange scents or sounds, but it didn't take her long to understand that her efforts were no more successful than her owner's threats and profanity.
After a short minute in high-alert, Blackie relaxed her stance and went over to nudge her black fur against Wynne's jeans instead.
"Yuh… yuh, girl," Wynne croaked as she gave her remaining dog a good rubbing. "Ain't nobodda left but us. Goldie gone. Ernie gone. Diego gone. An' Ah ain't seen Frank Tooley around any o' these he' parts, neithah. Lawrdie… this he' deal is the worst I done seen yet, an' that's sayin' somethin', lemme tell ya!"
Blackie let out a dejected Woof-woof to let it be known that she agreed.
Wynne and Blackie soon shuffled back to their trailer after their frantic search had turned out fruitless. An opened can of Double Zero was quickly put on the kitchen counter while Wynne stared at the blank display on her smartphone. Though she tried turning it on again, the little icon showing the battery level blinked red indicating that it had been run completely dry. "Ya know som'tin, there, Blackie… Ah ain't too sure Ah be likin' this he' gizmo. Nosirree."
"Ya durn tootin', girl," Wynne said and took the can of beer. Several deep swigs followed before she wiped off the foam mustache with the back of her hand. "Yuh. Runnin' outta powah is one thing, but runnin' outta powah even when the durn thing wus turned off ta save that there durn powah! Ah mean, that's jus' evil incarnate," she said and let the telephone slide across the kitchen counter until it came to a sudden stop at the wall. "An' jus' when I needed ta call mah sweet, li'l De-per-ty Mandy, too! Sombitch! If that ain't nasty, Ah ain't sure what nasty is. An' anothah sombitch! Ah need the chargah… where's the chargah… the chargah? Lawwwwr-die, Ah ain't got no clue where Ah put that there dang-blasted chargah!"
Blackie could at least help her owner with that little problem. Woof'ing, she ran past Wynne's jeans-clad legs and into the living area. Not ten seconds later, she came back with the charger between her teeth while dragging the cord behind her.
"Haw! That's mah girl!" Wynne said and crouched down to give Blackie a good rubbing. "Now lessee how long this he' durn thing needs for a full rechargin'. It bettah not be too long 's all Ah'm sayin'!"
"Yuh. Yuh, yer right an' all. I shoudden'ha let it run out, but, ya know… it jus' happened. Like everythin' else jus' happens out he' in the dad-gummit Twilight Zone," Wynne said as she plugged the charger into the nearest wall socket and then connected the smartphone.
"Yessir, the display done come on! Awrighty, then, I do bah-lieve it's high time ta call mah sweet, li'l-" Wynne continued, but she had barely touched the screen before it went blank again; the red icon blinked indicating it still didn't have enough battery power to operate the actual telephone.
Wynne blinked a couple of times; Blackie sensed something coming and let out a prolonged Wooooof…
"Oh, dog-gone that there dang-blasted piece o' stinkin' cow flop! Lawwwwr-die, back in the day, yuh? Back in the day, we done had them there old-fashunned phones hangin' on them walls, yuh? Mine wus right ovah yondah. If ya look up, Blackie, y'all can still see the outline on that there wall. An' ya jus' took off that there dang-blasted horn an' dialed that there numbah fer the fella or gal or somebodda or anybodda ya wanted ta talk to, yuh?" - Wynne pretended to take the receiver off the wall-mounted telephone and then to dial a number - "Mebbe them folks wussen home, that be fih-ne too, 'cos then ya jus' tried ag'in a li'l latah on, yuh? Now, all these he' dag-nabbin buncha stinkin' electrons ain't doin' nuttin' but messin' with mah head an' Ah hate that darn thing! Yuh, Ah really do!"
Blackie just woof'ed and nodded and woof'ed some more at all the appropriate places in the soliloquy.
"Lazy-assed sombitch," Wynne growled as she watched the small percentage meter on the telephone move from 1% to 2% Power.
When the telephone showed 5% Power, Wynne's impatient fingers touched the display to call Mandy, but all she succeeded in doing was to make it blank again. Down on the floor, Blackie let out a woof that sounded suspiciously like an Uh-oh…
The first can of Double Zero was emptied in a single swig before it was crushed between Wynne's strong fingers. Her face resembled the scarlet thunderstorm from the night before as she threw the crushed can into the bag marked For Recycling and stomped over to the refrigerator to get the next one at once.
Opening the door, she cast an annoyed glare at the two bowls of sour cream dip that she had made for what was supposed to have been a fun afternoon spent with her friend in front of the TV watching an old wrestling event; the afternoon had turned out to be anything but fun.
Grunting, she reached for the final six-pack of the silvery cans to get another Double Zero - but then she came to an abrupt stop. Another six-pack had appeared next to the silvery Double Zeros and the last of the wiener casserole she had saved for supper. "Whaddindahell…? Where'd them there beers come from?" she mumbled as she pulled out the new pack to give it a closer look.
The cans were black and contained H.E. Fenwyck's Midnight Velvet Stout. The dark beer was one of Ernie's favorites, but why such a six-pack would show up in her refrigerator, she had no idea. "Blackie… girl… Ah do bah-lieve this he' situa-shun jus' got weirdah… 'member when mah long-lost friend Ernie done showed up he' earlier… he had a buncha beers with'im. Two packs o' Double Zeros, yuh?"
"Yuh… so whaddahell are these he' stouts doin' he', then, now? Ah ain't nevah bought no cans o' stout fer mahself. Lawrdie, Ah only evah bought one six-pack o' them stouts, full stop, an' that wus fer Ernie's birthday las'year…"
Shaking her head, she put the Midnight Velvet stouts back into the refrigerator before she grabbed a Double Zero and sidestepped to check up on her telephone's progress. The percentage meter had only reached 7% Power, so she didn't dare touch the display yet.
Instead, she put the beer on the kitchen counter and crouched down to pull Blackie into a loving hug. "An' our best dawggie-pal Goldie is still missin', gosh-darn'it. Lawrdie, Ah sure do hope she be fih-ne wherevah she be… she ain't nevah run away like this befo'."
"Yuh, that's right. She prolly didden run away. She done disappeared like ol' Ernie. An' Diego, too. An' mebbe Frank Tooley fer all we know. Lawrdie. Ah can't get inta mah thick noggin wheredahell all them folks go when they be vamoosin' like that, Blackie… Ah wus hopin' y'all could tell me, ya clevah dawggie…"
"Nuh, that wus prolly a li'l much ta ask o' y'all, I know. Whatevah this he' deal is, it's even creepier than them there zombies the othah year. An' they wus plenty creepy alreddy!" Wynne said and cracked open the next can of Double Zero - because of her agitated state, she emptied it in oh-point-nothing flat.
After letting out a not-so discreet belch, she opened the small door below the sink to throw the beer can into the plastic bag labeled For Recycling. Before the latest can could join the fifty or so others that were already in the bag, she stared wide-eyed at the other plastic bag that held their regular kitchen waste. It was empty though it had been more than half full earlier in the day. "Aw… aw… aw… Blackie, Ah'm tellin' ya, this he' deal is gettin' mi'ty, mi'ty bizzarroh…"
The words got stuck in her throat when a male voice started talking from the living area of her trailer: 'ESPN, the worldwide leader in motorsports, welcomes you to the Carolinas and the North Wilkesboro Speedway for today's running of the First Union Four-Hundred. This is the seventh race of this year's Winston Cup, and we have a great day in store-'
Wynne's eyes grew wider and wider until they had reached a size rarely seen outside of comic books; at the same time, her nape hairs stood on edge to the point where they nearly pushed her cowboy hat forward. Staggering away from the two waste bags on stiff legs, she inched backward until she could peek around the corner of the living room.
The TV had turned itself on again. Not only that, but the VCR had as well - and the tape playing wasn't the wrestling show she had left in it, but clearly an old taping of a NASCAR Winston Cup race from the early 1990s. "What… in… the… hell's… goin'… on… he'…" she said in a hoarse croak as she moved fully into the living area. Blackie followed close behind with her teeth bared and her ears flat against her head all over again.
"Ernie…?" Wynne croaked. "Ernie, ya ol' sombitch… this ain't funny no mo'. Ernie? Ya be hidin' undah the couch or som'tin? Peek-a-boo, y'all can come out now-"
When the tape in the VCR suddenly began to fast-forward itself past a block of commercials, Wynne jumped up on tip-toes and grabbed hold of her hat that had threatened to fly off. Two seconds of that was all she could take before she spun around, jumped clean over Blackie, stormed through the kitchenette and finally out into the open.
Blackie let out a disappointed Woof! when it became obvious she wouldn't be allowed to chase any ghosts, but she eventually decided to follow her owner to wherever she was going.
The short answer to that question was out to the old Chevrolet truck. Wynne had already jumped behind the wheel and turned the ignition key before she remembered the action wouldn't do her any good. As predicted, the truck's starter motor only responded with a sorry-sounding clonk-whirr-clonk-whirr-clonk that led to exactly nothing.
Wynne just sat there and stared, stared and stared - then she stuck her head out of the open window to roar out a resounding "Awwwwwww-sombitch!"
Once that had been accomplished, she jumped down from the truck and tore over to Ernie's trailer. She knew exactly where her friend kept the fob for his Ford F350 Super Duty, and she grabbed it off a key board on his kitchen wall.
Blackie intercepted her halfway over to Ernie's truck; the black dog let out a puzzled Woof-Wooooof-Woof-Woof-Woof? at the odd sequence of events, but Wynne had already unlocked the Ford and had climbed up behind the wheel.
"C'mon, Blackie! Git ovah he' on the double! Ah done had jus' 'bout all Ah can take, thankyeverymuch! We be goin' an' we be goin' fast!" she cried while she held the driver's side door open.
Blackie didn't need a written invitation, so she jumped up and squeezed past her owner on her way to introducing her doggy rear to the Ford's plush seats.
The large truck was soon started, and Wynne reversed away from the open area between the mobile homes in a cloud of desert dust. Once she reached the last stretch of the connecting road before the two-lane State Route, she maneuvered the large vehicle around so it was pointed in the right direction. To make amends for driving a Ford, she zipped her denim jacket all the way up so the red Chevrolet bowtie logo on her sweatshirt was out of sight - then she stepped on the gas and roared toward Goldsboro as fast as she dared to drive.
Two-hundred yards down the road, she smacked her hand onto her thigh. "Aw, sombitch! Ah fergot that there dang-blasted telephone in the dang-blasted chargah! Lawwwwwr-die, this ain't mah day! But ain't no way Ah'mma-gonn' head back fer it now, nosirree! Not when the trailah is hawn-ted an' half the dang world's gone missin' an' the dang teevee an' that there vee-cee-arr start playin' on their own an'- an'- an'- them beers pop up in mah fridge… an' whatevah-the-hell wus goin' on with that there trash can, an'- Lawrdie…"
Blackie offered a Woof-Woof! as consolation. The clever dog was still concerned about Goldie - more so than the things her owner had mentioned - but she was sure that the Golden Retriever would be able to remain safe and on top of things until some kind of connection could be established to wherever everyone ended up.
The powerful truck ate up the miles between the trailer park and Goldsboro in record time, and it wasn't long before Wynne was able to stand on the brake pedal and come to a rest outside the sheriff's office on Main Street. Two of the squad's three white-and-gold Dodge Durangos were parked at the curb indicating that most of the deputies were still there - that's what Wynne hoped, at least.
Jumping from the tall Ford, she let Blackie out as well before she fumbled with the buttons on the key fob that controlled the central locking and anti-theft systems. Her own, near-ancient Chevrolet truck didn't have any of those advanced features so it took her a while to figure out where to press and where not to. After three failed attempts, she eventually got the thing locked which made Blackie let out a cheerful bark in support.
Wynne turned around and strode across the sidewalk like a woman on a mission. Not three steps into her journey, she yelped and jumped up onto the tips of her cowboy boots. Upon landing, she clapped a hand onto her rear-end that someone had just fondled. "Ah beg yer pardon?! Who that there be fool enuff ta grab mah buhtt?!" she said in a fierce growl.
The dark glare she sent in every direction soon revealed she had the sidewalk entirely to herself. Blackie let out a concerned Woof? to show she had no clue what her owner was doing.
"Whaddahell is this?" Wynne croaked as she whipped her head around to take in the sight of the empty sidewalk. "Lawwwr-die, it wussen jus' out at our trailah, Blackie… that durn thing be happenin' in he', too! Mercy Sakes, gettin' mah buhtt poked by a ghost or somebodda… this he' deal is too durn freaky!"
She took a step closer to the sheriff's office without paying attention to where she was going. The very next second, she found herself bumping into something that wasn't even there. Not only did she have to flail her arms to stay aloft, her beloved cowboy hat blew clean off and rolled end-over-end down the empty sidewalk. "Mah hat! Mah… mah hat! An' the dog-gone sidewalk be em'ty! Ain't nobodda he' fer miles an' miles… Ah'm tellin' ya, this ain't funny no mo'! This sure ain't funny no mo', Blackie! An' it wussen funny ta begin with! Lawrdie!"
The black German Shepherd didn't have time to answer since she was already on her way back with her owner's greasy cowboy hat between her teeth. When she delivered it, she was treated to a strong fur-rubbing that left her woof'ing merrily.
Wynne held her breath and uttered a quick prayer that nothing else would go wrong during the final ten feet of her short trip. Putting her hand on the door handle, she let out a sigh of relief and hurried inside. The first person she encountered was Rodolfo who sat at the watch desk; he had a haggard look on his face as he waded through a tall stack of notes. The friendly deputy's necktie had been pulled crooked, and his slicked-back hair had become tousled which was so unusual it rated a double-take. Wynne had already opened her mouth to ask about Mandy when the senior deputy she was there to see entered the office from the crew room.
"Lawwwwwwwwwwwwwr-die!" Wynne cried at the top of her lungs as she jumped ahead - Blackie voiced her gratitude at seeing her other owner by letting out several loud barks that threatened to loosen the ceiling's drooping felt tiles even further.
No sooner had Wynne reached Mandy before she had wrapped her denim-clad arms around the compact, athletic woman to give her the hug of the century. The hug was soon turned into a kiss that seemed to last even longer than a mere hundred years. "Mah sweet, li'l De-per-ty Mandy! Lawrdie, am Ah happy ta see ya! Ohhhhh, the entiah world's gone nuts. Nuts, Ah'm tellin' ya! Out in the trailah park, mah friend Ernie suddenly went missin' an' then Diego went missin' an' then Blackie went missin' but Ah found her ovah at old man Petrusco's but when we got back ta the trailah, Goldie wus missin' an' we searched high an' low an' everywhere in between fer her but she wussen nowhere ta be found an' we wus gettin' mi'ty worried 'bout her, or Ah wus, anyhows, an' Ah still am an' Ah reckon Blackie is as well, an'- an'- an'- then the dog-gone teevee started playin' an old Nascahr race by itself an' there wus beers in our refri-gy-rator that Ah sure as stink-on-shoot didden put there an' the trash can em'tied itself… an' then Ah'd had enough, yuh? Ah'd had enough an' me an' Blackie done borrah'ed Ernie's Fohrd an' raced up he'! Mercy Sakes, an' then somebodda poked me in da buhtt but there wussen nobodda around, an' then Ah smacked inta somebodda but ain't nobodda wus there, neithah! Whaddindahell's goin' on he', De-per-ty Mandy?!"
By the time Wynne's lengthy outburst came to an end, Rodolfo's jaw had slipped down to his bellybutton and his eyes had nearly fallen out of his head. It was only the ringing of the old Bakelite telephone on the watch desk that made him snap out of it and return to the world around him. It took Mandy a little while longer to recover from her partner's hugely long report, but when she had digested it, all she said was: "Goldie's missing?" before she crouched down to give Blackie's healthy fur a good scratch-n-rub.
"Yuh! Yuh, gosh-darn'it! Me an' Blackie done searched the entiah trailah park… Goldie wussen nowhere ta be found. Neithah wus Ernie fer that mattah. Or Diego. An' I be thinkin' that Frank Tooley might'ha vamoosed as well."
Mandy let out a long sigh and reached up to smooth down her hair that she had wanted to pull out on several different occasions during the stressful time. "It's the same in here. People and pets are disappearing left and right. Hell, even trucks! I don't have any scientific proof, but there was a red flash-"
"That there durn red light! Yuh!" Wynne said, nodding so hard she needed to hold onto her hat all over again. "Yuh, Ah done saw that too! Jus' when Ah wus tryin' ta fix mah truck me an' Blackie wus blinded by that there creepy light."
Mandy nodded somberly. "I was on patrol when it happened. Barry Simms vanished not long after."
"Snakes Alive! Not Mista Sixty Cigs?" Wynne said as she glanced at the watch desk where Rodolfo was in the process of filling out and then tearing off another of the notes. "Whaddahell he gonn' do without them cig'rettes o' his wherevah them folks end up? Lawrdie…"
"And the sheriff-"
"Artie Rains be missin' too?!" Wynne cried and promptly whipped her head back around to look at the senior deputy. A split second later, she pulled off her hat and waved it high in the air. "Yeeeeee-haaaaw! Why, Ah'll be a sonovagun! That be cause fer plentah o' celebra-shun right there! Lawwwwr-die, roll in the barrels an' light them there ceegars an' fiahcrackahs 'cos that there be the dag-nabbin' best piece o' news Ah done heard fer years an' years! Mercy Sakes, it might even be the best news since them nice folks at General Motahs done announced the new Camar'ah!"
Mandy shook her head while she waited to a word in edgewise - when Wynne finally needed to take a break to catch her breath, Mandy jumped in. "No, wait… he hasn't disappeared. He fell off a bar stool up at Iverson's and twisted his knee. Deputy Kincaid drove him home earlier today."
"Oh… well, gosh-darn'it. An' there Ah wus, so happy an' all. Story o' mah life," Wynne said in a voice that sounded like someone had just stolen her last can of beer. The hat was soon mashed down onto her locks. "He drunk?"
"As a skunk."
"Yuh, ain't that typical," Wynne mumbled. Then it dawned on her what the sheriff's absence meant: "Huh! Aw, De-per-ty Mandy, unless I be completely numb in that there noggin o' mine, I do bah-lieve that done mean yer now like an actin' sheriff or som'tin? Like las'summer when deah, ol' Artie done puked his guts out at the Fourth o' Jooo-lai parade an' all?"
"It does, yes," Mandy said with the tiniest of proud smiles gracing her lips; it didn't last long. "I only wish it could have come at a better time. This mess is like stumbling along in dense fog. Nothing makes any sense. There's no logic behind it… no pattern. Nothing. It seems so random. Gender doesn't matter, age doesn't matter… some just vanish into thin air while others remain. An entire row of people disappeared up at the movie theater, but the other rows weren't affected at all. At home sleeping or out walking the street made no difference…"
"Yuh, that be jus' like back home. Ernie went bah-bah while he wus sittin' on that there couch o' ours, but Diego wus out back in the open an' everythin'. He wus shootin' his thirty-aught-six… haw… the rifle was missin' too, now ya men-shun it… too weird. The brass wus still there, howevah. Ain't sure what happened ta Frank Tooley… I jus' saw a piece o' papah that Estelle had wrote. An' Goldie… Lawrdie, when Goldie upped an' left, she didden even finish her doggy snacks in that there bowl an' that sure ain't like her… good shit almi'ty, Mandy, this is a weird, weird deal, ain't it?"
"Very much so."
Wynne nodded while she scratched her cheek. She glanced around the office like it could provide the clues they needed. The interior looked like it always had: the filing cabinets were old and worn, the brown linoleum floor was cracked, the roofing tiles were drooping, both desks were filled beyond capacity, the posters and maps hanging on the walls were out of date, and the coffee machine blubbered away on the small table below the closed gun cabinet. "Well… one thing's fer dang sure. Y'all can say wotcha want 'bout us country folk, but life sure ain't dull he' in Goldsborah…" she said and broke out in a shrug.
Over at the watch desk, the old Bakelite telephone continued to ring off the hook. Rodolfo had already used up two entire notepads jotting down the information relayed to him by the panicking callers, and it seemed he might need two more before the drama was over. The latest call seemed different, at least judging by the way his face contorted into a grimace as he listened to the person at the other end of the line. "Deputy Jalinski," he said while he held up the receiver. "It's the sheriff. He wants an update."
The pitiful groan that filled the office came from Wynne, but the dark look on Mandy's face proved she wasn't far behind when it came to letting out such noises. Sighing, the senior deputy strode over to the watch desk and took the receiver from Rodolfo's hand.
"This is Deputy Jalinski. The situation is-"
'I know exactly what the situation is! It's out of your Goddamned control, Manly!' Artie Rains roared in his customary booming voice. The aches from his twisted knee seemed to have added a new layer of venom to his speech, and the words he spewed out were still tainted by an inebriated slur - no doubt aided by the bottle of Old Number Seven that Derrike Iverson had given him. 'I've had several concerned citizens callin' me personally askin' what the hell is goin' on and what the Sheriff's Department is doin' to fight it!'
"We've had plenty of those calls, too, Sheriff. I can assure you we're doing all we-"
'Don't wanna hear it! The next time you call, you better have a Goddamned battle plan ready for implementation at a moment's notice, ya hear?'
"You called me, Sheriff, not-"
'That's irrelevant! The people of this town demand resolute action, Manly. Goddammit, I can't believe I let you talk me into leaving the scene in such a time of crisis! I'm stuck out here with my thumb up my ass while you fumble and bumble your way through the Goddamned mess! This is exactly why the good citizens of Goldsboro continue to vote for me. They know I'll be the calming factor… the steady hand on the wheel. Goddammit!'
"I'd be grateful for any suggestions you may have as to how-"
'Do you think I'm one of those Goddamned Vegas magicians who can pull a Goddamned rabbit outta my ass? No, no, no, Manly. You have the job, you have the responsibility of gettin' it done. You hear me?'
"Loud and clear, Sheriff."
'Good! I'll call later!'
As the connection was terminated with an appropriately resounding Slam! on the sheriff's part, Mandy calmly put the receiver onto the Bakelite telephone on the watch desk. She remained there for a moment staring out onto Main Street to allow her blood pressure to come back down.
Blackie growled at all the negativity in the air and Rodolfo looked suitably embarrassed about the conversation - the sheriff's voice had been so loud that every last word had escaped the receiver.
Wynne scrunched up her face as she shuffled over to wrap her arms around her partner from behind. The athletic body was stiff as an ironing board to begin with, but the touch made her soften up. "Lawrdie," Wynne mumbled. "Goldie goes an' Artie Rains stays. Huh. Mebbe that there red flash o' light done noticed what kinda nasty-ass crittah he wus an' wanted nuttin' ta do with'im… mebbe it didden wanna touch him with a ten foot pole or som'tin…"
Rodolfo let out a dark chuckle just as the telephone rang again. "It had to have been something like that, Wynne," he said before he readied his pencil and picked up the receiver. "Good afternoon, this is the Goldsboro Sheriff's Office. Deputy Gonzalez speaking… how may we help you?"
Over by the window, Wynne continued to hug Mandy from behind until the senior deputy let out a sigh and turned around. "Moira's gone too-"
"But we need something to drink… and maybe a couple of her great sandwiches to keep us going through this mess. My gut tells me it's going to be a long, long night."
"Yuh… ain't no doubt 'bout that, nosirree…"
"Would you mind zipping over to Moira's to get it? You know where everything is," Mandy said and stood up on tip-toes to deliver a small peck on Wynne's lips. "Oh, and don't forget to update the stock and credit sheets with the things you take. You know how Moira is about keeping the books and the inventory lists up to date."
"Mercy Sakes, don't I evah…" Wynne croaked; it was inevitable that she had a colorful flashback to her own time spent at the stove and all the pots and pans. What few knew was that there was just as much behind-the-scenes work to keep the popular Bar & Grill going as the patrons could see at the counter - after closing hours, she had spent ages updating all the statistics Moira kept on this, that and everything else under the sun. "Aw-yuh, consider it done, there, De-per-ty… naw, lemme say actin' Sheriff Mandy! Yuh, that deffa-net-ly gotta-lotta nice'ah ring ta it. Hold them ponies, fella… I jus' gotta say it ag'in. Sheriff Mandy. Yuh!"
After patting her thigh and pointing at the ground to tell Blackie to stay at the office - the black dog wasn't too pleased with having to rest her furry behind on the cracked linoleum - Wynne tipped her hat at Rodolfo and Mandy before she hurried over to Moira's to get the much-needed supplies.
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