by Norsebard




This slice-of-life dramedy is to be categorized as an Uber. All characters are created by me, though some of them may remind you of someone.

The story contains some profanity. Readers who are easily offended by bad language may wish to read something other than this story.

All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.

The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.





Written: December 17th, 2020 to January 7th, 2021.

This is the eighth story featuring Wynne Donohue and Mandy Jalinski. They were introduced in the short story Silent Invasion in the anthology Book Of Chills, Volume 2 and 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 featured in the Independence Day special Home Of The Plum Unlucky as well as Monkey Business and Thunder & Frightening - all stories are available at the Academy's website.

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

- Thank you for your help, Phineas Redux! :D


Description: Ah, Valentine's Day!  The eternal fountain of hope, happiness and warm fuzzies for all incurable romantics everywhere… or som'tin. For Wynne Donohue, Bad Luck Magnet Extraordinaire, the lead-up to Valentine's Day is nuttin' but a fountain of frustration, heartache and dashed hopes. The important day is approaching fast - will Fate trip Wynne up at the final hurdle like always, or will she and her sweetheart Mandy Jalinski be granted a dose of good fortune for a change…?






For some people, life is a box of chocolates. For others, it's a boomerang. Even when they believe all their bad luck has finally been defeated, it all comes back to smack them over the head when they least expect it. The boomerang analogy could have been created with the early-forty-something Wynne Donohue in mind because she has always been, continues to be, and will most likely always be the prime example.

Her current predicament didn't involve aliens from outer space, spine-chilling ghosts, shuffling zombies, fluorescent-green goblins, forty-foot-tall humanoid creatures, fluid boundaries between the dimensions or even her personal nemesis Sheriff Arthur 'Artie' Rains - no, it was something far simpler yet far messier.

As she stepped out of her rust-bucket, a 1991-vintage Chevrolet K10 truck, and planted her decorated cowboy boots on the State Route blacktop, she already knew what she'd find up front. Though she had no formal education beyond the basics and what the world had given her for free, she had seen enough oil on enough windshields to know that when the chain of events had gone past an issue, a problem and a drama and had arrived at an unmitigated disaster, the end result would never be pretty.

The woman who liked to call herself The Last Original Cowpoke wore her regular outfit of cowboy boots, faded blue-jeans, a wool-lined denim jacket, sheepskin gloves, a red Skoal Bandit bandanna that sat loose around her neck, and finally a low-crowned cowboy hat that was greasy, battered and sweat-stained beyond belief.

Sighing, she reached under the leading edge of the engine cover to operate the home-crafted pin that held it in place - the spring mechanism installed by the factory had long since broken off. Though she already knew what she would find under there, she was still eager to see if anything could be salvaged.

The reams of pink transmission fluid that dripped down from every nook and cranny of the hood's inner cross-bracing weren't good signs. Neither were the tell-tale whiffs of hot oil and even hotter metal that greeted her as she reached for the separate dipstick on the side of the transmission housing.

Her hand stopped halfway there. Not because she was afraid of getting her fingers dirty, but because the dipstick she had been aiming for had vanished along with a large section of the housing itself.

Taking a step back, Wynne looked underneath the Chevrolet to search for the missing bits, but couldn't find anything save for a large puddle of oil on the asphalt. The large, vaguely pinkish cloud of smoke that slowly drifted across the desert some fifty yards behind the truck proved where it had all gone wrong. She presumed the other half of her transmission - including most of the inner workings - could be found there, but she was in no mood to explore.

She opened her mouth to cuss but found the well had run dry for once. Instead, she took off her beloved cowboy hat and held it to her chest. Somewhere in the ethereal distance, a heavenly trumpet played Amazing Grace to honor the truck that had finally driven onto the glorious highway in the sky.

That it had done so at a quarter past four in the afternoon on January 24th was just typical. It was Wynne's turn to host a little friendly get-together for the residents of the trailer park eight miles south of Goldsboro, Nevada, so she had been on her way to town to pick up a few boxes of microwave-ready takeout she had ordered at Moira's Bar & Grill.

Her place was packed and the get-together had been going great when she had left: Estelle and Frank Tooley had found a babysitter for their young daughter Renee so they had come over before everyone else to help set up the whole thing. Diego Benitez had brought a bottle of home-distilled tequila that threatened to blow the lid off anyone who sampled it; Zoltan Petrusco had brought his classic harmonica and had already entertained the others with a few sad tunes from the old country. Ernest 'Ernie' Bradberry was in charge of the beery beverages and the hot sauce as always, and the new folks, Brenda and Vaughn Travers, had showed up in their Sunday finest since it was their first time at one of the events.

And now Wynne found herself all alone in the middle of the dead-silent desert. It was just going to be a quick return trip to town so she hadn't even brought her beloved dogs, the black German Shepherd Blackie and the Golden Retriever Goldie - the furry critters were back home in the trailer being spoiled rotten by the neighbors who were eagerly awaiting Wynne's return so the get-together could get started for real.

The Chevrolet's odometer had been broken for the past three years so she had no way of knowing how far north she had gone, but a quick guesstimate said she had made it halfway to Goldsboro. She could either walk four miles north to get to town, or four miles south to get back home - neither prospect seemed all that inviting. Although she had her smartphone with her, the advanced gizmo was short on power so she would have to choose her calls carefully.

Letting out yet another deep sigh, Wynne took the telephone from her pocket and turned it on. It showed 11% Power which was a little too low for her tastes. The perpetual desert wind turned chilly so she had to make up her mind before she would turn into a denim-clad icicle; grunting, she rolled through the registry to find Mandy.

The correct button was soon tapped and the phone was brought to her ear. Twenty seconds later, Wynne let out a long groan and closed the connection. The call had gone directly to her partner's voice mail which meant Senior Deputy Sheriff Mandy Jalinski of the MacLean County's Sheriff's Department had turned off her telephone. She only did that when the dreaded Sheriff Artie Rains was nearby, so chances were she sat at the watch desk while he went through some paperwork at his own desk a mere eight feet from her.

The aborted conversation had cost two percentage points of power. It meant the next call had to count, or else. Rolling through the registry once more, she soon found Ernie.

'Hiya, Wynne, ya ol' rascal!' Ernest 'Ernie' Bradberry's voice soon said into Wynne's ear making her heave a sigh of relief. The cheery sounds and happy yapping that filtered through the telephone proved the get-together was still going great. 'Where the hell are ya?  Didya stop to eat it all yourself?'

"Howdy, ya ol' sombitch. Naw, I didden even make it ta Goldsborah or nuttin'," Wynne said and took off her cowboy hat to wipe her brow on her sleeve. "Lissen, the dang-blasted Chevy done crapped out on me… an' it's fer good this time. Lost the tranneh an' a whole buncha othah stuff too. I be stranded out he' in the middle o' dog-gone nowheah. Y'all need'a come out he' ta gimme a ride ta town or we's gonn' be eatin' beef jerky an' cup noodles fer our partay."

'Oh… crap…'

"Y'all can say that ag'in, friend…"

'Uh… after you left, I've had a couple of cans of the good stuff, Wynne… Fenwyck Extra Strong. I'm not in a condition to drive anywhere…'

"Awwwwwwwww-shit!  Ernie!" Wynne growled; whipping off her hat once more, she smacked it against her thigh before she plonked it back down onto her dark locks.

'I couldn't know!'

"Naw, I sapose ya coudden… I ain't holdin' it ag'inst ya, friend, 'cos them there Extra Strongs sure is good an' all, but it wus jus' rotten timin'."

'Yeah, but… hang on, Wynne. I'm gonna ask Frank Tooley… no, scratch that. He's found your bottle of hooch-'

"He whut?!  I done saved that fer the real spe-shul occa-shuns, fer crap's sake!"

'-ask the new guy. He's a soft drink kinda fella. Vaughn… hey, Vaughn?'

While Ernie spoke to the newest member of the group of trailer park residents - Vaughn and Brenda had moved in in early December - Wynne studied the desert surrounding her truck's final resting place. There wasn't much to look at so she was soon back pacing a rut in the blacktop next to her Chevrolet. A worried glance at the small pictogram on the telephone's display proved there was only seven percentage points worth of power remaining, so whichever outcome the conversation would have, it would need to be quick.


"Yuh, Ernie…"

'Vaughn and me are on our way. Where are you exact-'

When Ernie's voice was cut off right in the middle of the sentence, Wynne let out a grunt and looked at the telephone. The display had gone blank indicating that it too had gone the way of the Dodo bird - or at least that the battery had gone flat.

"But o' course. Uh-huh. Now if that ain't the story o' mah plum-rotten life right there, Ah ain't too sure what is. Lawrdie," she mumbled as she continued to look at the inactive display. After a few moments, she stuffed the telephone into her jacket pocket and began to shuffle around to stay warm.


Just shy of fifteen minutes later, Vaughn Travers' dark-bronze Ford SUV came to a halt behind the sorry-looking Chevrolet. The thirty-two-year-old stepped out of the vehicle and immediately scratched his neck at the sight of the river of transmission fluid that had stained the asphalt. The bearded Vaughn wore ankle boots, dark-gray pants, a white button-down shirt, a dark-gray necktie and a black ball cap that - most unusually - didn't have anything written on it. He had donned a winter down jacket to remain warm, and he zipped it all the way up now that he was out in the open.

Ernie Bradberry jumped down onto the blacktop on the other side of the SUV. The fact that he needed to put his hand on the fender for support proved that he had been right when he had said he couldn't drive anywhere. As always, Goldsboro's best jack-of-all-trades wore his trademark work boots and faded blue-jeans. Further up, a plaid flannel shirt was stretched dangerously across his beer gut that had perhaps grown a little too large lately. His regular dark-green hunting vest covered the shirt, and a black Built Ford Tough baseball cap tried to keep his mullet in place - the hairstyle was a perfect match to his walrus mustache and bushy sideburns.

"Hello again, Wynne," Vaughn said when he came close enough. He let out a grunt as he eyed the sorry remains of his neighbor's truck.

Wynne slammed the Chevrolet's driver's side door shut with her rear end - her hands were occupied by an armful of miscellaneous junk that she'd had in the cab and up on the dented, rusty bed. "Howdy there, Vaughn," she said in a downcast voice. "All them hours workin' on it… all them heartbreaks and moments o' hope… all fer nuttin'. The tranneh done said bah-bah jus' when I didden need it. Lawrdie, it didden say bah-bah, it said rattle-rattle-clunk-clunk-kaboom!  Y'all shoulda seen that there big-ass cloud o' pink smoke it spewed out when it done crapped all ovah me."

"So… what do you propose we do?  I have a tow rope in the back…"

"Naw, I 'preciate the no-shun, but ferget it," Wynne said and shook her head. "Ain't no sense in gettin' ya good duds there dirty or nuttin'. Brenda gonn' kill me if y'all come home covah'd in oil stains that she need'a clean off. Naw. We need'a go inta town ta pick up that there food I done ordered, an' then we's goin' home ta get loaded on H.E. Fenwyck's fih-nest. Or I am, anyhows. I don't know 'bout y'all. Ernie, ya way ahead o' me… Ernie?  Ernie?  Now where'd he go?"

'Busy takin' a leak, Wynne!' Ernie's disembodied voice said from somewhere on the far side of the SUV.

"Lawrdie, I do bah-lieve ol' Ernie be waterin' your wheel, there, Vaughn!" Wynne said and let out a loud laugh - their newest neighbor just assumed a slightly worried grimace at the smelly implications.


Forty minutes later, Wynne, Ernie and Vaughn Travers stepped up onto the porch to enter the trailer that Wynne shared with her sweetheart Mandy Jalinski. It had been the first one of the six that presently occupied the site so it had a perfect view of the endless desert; Wynne and Mandy had often spent glorious mornings on the home-crafted - and admittedly crooked - porch just taking in the magnificent palette of dawn.

The trio had barely entered the small kitchenette before two tornadoes came at them from the living room: within moments, a yapping frenzy ensued as the fearless Blackie and the scaredy-cat Goldie zipped around the legs of the returnees. "Howdy, mah wondahful dawggies!" Wynne said and immediately crouched down to administer a two-handed fur-rubbing that left the dogs even happier. "Yuh, yuh!  Ah got plenty o' Moira's spe-shul dawggie treats fer y'all!  Lawrdie, they wus smellin' so yummy Ah almost hadda taste 'em on our way back!"

"Jeez, Wynne," Ernie said with a chuckle. Carrying three huge Styrofoam boxes that contained the food for the humans among them, he needed to move his right leg in a wide, comical arch to take a long step away from the entrance. Though such a high-skill maneuver was a risky one to attempt after a few cans of Extra Strong, it was required to reduce the risk of stepping on any paws or tails - once upon a time, Blackie had given him a free demonstration of the strength of her jaws after he had accidentally mashed a paw with his boot.

After depositing the boxes on the kitchen counter, he made a beeline for the bathroom to let the next can of beer out.

While Ernie was busy doing that, Vaughn shuffled into the living area of the trailer to get everyone and everything ready for supper. Wynne finished playing with her dogs and grabbed a golden can of H.E. Fenwyck 1910 Special Brew from her refrigerator. Blackie and Goldie sensed that their owner needed a quiet moment to reflect, so they zipped back into the other room as well.

The first few swigs of the quality beer were accompanied by a somber silence, but a soul-deep sigh soon escaped Wynne. Leaning against the kitchen counter, she practiced her thousand-mile stare as she tried to get to grips with the latest calamities to strike her. Not only did she have a dead truck and no money to fix it or get a new one, Valentine's Day was right around the corner and she had yet to buy a present worthy of her sweetheart.

In the living area, Zoltan Petrusco began playing a haunting, melancholic tune that fit Wynne's dark mood perfectly. The crystal-clear sounds of the classic harmonica were beautiful, but they only made her let out an even deeper sigh. The flushing of their toilet was less beautiful but perhaps more appropriate since so much had gone down the proverbial drain when the transmission had let go.

Ernie soon came out of the small bathroom and made a big number of wiping his hands on the seat of his jeans to show Wynne that he had in fact washed them after finishing his business. Noticing Wynne's gloomy expression, he reached up to pat her shoulder like he was telling her that everything would be all right - eventually.

After Ernie had gone into the living area, Wynne momentarily leaned to the side to slide her fingers down into one of the rear pockets of her jeans. The piece of glossy paper she found there had been folded, unfolded and re-folded so often it had grown brittle, but she unfolded it once more to take a look at the text and the pictures. It was an advertisement for a sports resort just south of Las Vegas. The resort offered an array of professionally coached physical activities for those so inclined, and a large wellness section for those who preferred to be pampered. Wynne didn't exactly belong to either group, but she knew that Mandy would be over the moon at the prospects of exploring new, exciting sports - not to mention getting a break from Sheriff Rains.

As Wynne re-folded the advertisement and pushed it down her rear pocket, the small matter of the price sent an icy trickle down her back. The special offer expired at the end of February, and she needed to round up five hundred dollars before then.

The can of Special Brew was soon emptied and thrown into the recycling bag underneath the counter. She moved over to the kitchen cabinets opposite the counter and got up on tip-toes. Stretching out, her fingers could just reach an old coffee canister that she pulled down toward her - a sticky-note on the lid proved it was Wynne's War Chest.  Though she already knew the amount it held, she needed to check to be sure. Fifty-six dollars in crumpled-up ones, fives and a few tens was all she had.

For once, Wynne Donohue didn't utter a humorous quip that would cast a ray of hope upon the gloomy situation. After pushing the old coffee canister back onto the upper shelf, she sighed and turned around to prepare the microwave oven and the boxes of food Moira had made for them.



Three days later - January 27th - ten-thirty in the morning.

Wynne thumped the lid back onto the can of paint she had just finished using. The brush was soon dunked in a glass jar of turpentine as well so it wouldn't turn solid; then she took a step back to inspect her handiwork.

The cardboard sign she had been painting on sat crooked underneath her truck's wiper, so she nudged it a little to make it line up properly. It said: 'Chevrolet K10 For Sale - $500 - Cash Only! - Doesn't Run.'

She and Ernie had returned to the dead truck two days after the big get-together - the first day had vanished in a haze of beery headaches - to tow it back home. It had found a permanent resting place on the side of the State Route by the entrance to the trailer park; the square front and the cardboard note faced the blacktop so the passers-by could see it. Unfortunately, the number of people who used that particular stretch of road had dwindled after the Interstate had opened so the potential number of interested parties was limited.

Wynne had spent all morning cleaning the windows and polishing the bodywork to make it as presentable as it could be, but there was little she could do about the spots of rust and the countless dings, dents, scrapes, cracks and other types of blemishes it sported.

Shuffling footsteps made her look up; she grinned at the sight of Ernie approaching her with the ubiquitous can of beer in his hand. Once he was close enough, he reached into one of the pockets of the hunting vest to produce a silvery can of Double Zero non-alcoholic beer for Wynne - it made her grin even broader. "Howdy, Ernie. Lookie he' what I been doin' all mornin'," she said as she pointed at the truck and the cardboard sign. Once she had been given the Double Zero, she cracked it open and took a long swig.

"Neat… but don't you think five-hundred bucks is a little steep?"

"Mebbe. But I need the cash in mah pocket, friend."

"Yeah. I hear ya… and sympathize," Ernie said and took a swig of his own H.E. Fenwyck Dark Lager. "The handyman business ain't too hot right now, either. I've been unclogging drain pipes and scooping out gunk from gutters all week. Man, that's filthy work, but I need the greenbacks."

Wynne let out a dark chuckle as some of the odd jobs she'd had over the years flashed before her - and 'odd jobs' was to be taken literally. "Yuh. Lawrdie, 'member the time when I wus shoveling' cowflop out at that there cattle ranch?  Haw, mah sweet li'l De-per-ty Mandy didden wanna kiss me fer a week 'cos that there stink jus' clung ta mah hair an' everythin'. I hadda quit, obvis'ly. It didden pay diddly, anyhows."

"I remember."

"Yuh, I figgered ya would," Wynne said and let out another dark chuckle. She cast a sideways glance at her friend to see if he was thinking about the two-ton turd they had shoveled off his back porch after the humanoid beast had mistaken it for a public toilet - the deep frown between his bushy eyebrows proved that he was. Wynne chuckled again and took another swig of beer. "Or when I wus workin' fer Otto Kulick out yondah at that there Gas 'n Go gas sta-shun up in them there hills. Good flip almighty, them all-nightah shifts wus borin' as hell. Ain't nuttin' happened… until too much happened on that there Halloween a couple-a years ago. But nevah mind that now."

"How about when you practiced your broom swingin' down at Otto the Third's?"

"Aw, Lawrdie, that wus even mo' borin'. Yuh. An' I still ain't got no clue what I woudda got aftah I had done mah one-hundredth sweepin'. Mebbe I'd get mah ass kicked outta the door jus' like what ack-shu-lly happened."

"Well, if the Durango hadn't been wrecked-"

Wynne looked up in a hurry and shot Ernie a dark glare. "Dontcha start, friend!  Dontcha start is all I'm sayin'!"

"I ain't startin' nothin', Wynne," Ernie said and let out a chuckle. The time was right for more top-quality beer, so he quickly drained the Dark Lager and reached into the pocket of his hunting vest to find a new can. The first one he produced was a 1910 Special Brew, but it didn't seem to appeal to him at that moment in time so he put it back. A little rummaging produced a can of Midnight Velvet Stout which was far more to his liking.

"Good. Ya know, apart from flippin' burgahs down at Moira's… Lawrdie, that wus the dang-blasted bestest job I evah had, full stop… but apart from that, the week I pounded the pavement ovah yondah in Jarrod City an' North Greenville tryin' ta sell them there en-sicko-pedias wussen too bad all things considah'ed. Yuh, bein' a doah-to-doah sales person wus a perdy fih-ne job now I be thinkin' 'bout it. Sure wus. An' then mah bosses done fired mah butt aftah only a week 'cos they tole me mah accent wus too thick or some such drivel. I mean, can ya bah-lieve dat?  Ain't dat jus' the worst pile o' bull ya ever done wrapped ya ears around?"

Ernie didn't answer verbally, but he didn't have to as the chuckle he produced into the can of beer spoke louder than words could - he didn't even let up when Wynne shot him another dark glare.

Despite her friend's ribbing, Wynne chuckled as well before she emptied the Double Zero and handed it back to Ernie. She shook her head when he offered her the Pale Lager he had discarded before. "Naw… much obliged, Ernie, but I gotta keep a clear head on mah shouldahs jus' in case somebodda comes around ta check out that there ol' Chevy."

"All the more for me," Ernie said with a grin. He was about to take a long swig of the stout when he turned toward Wynne instead. "Hey, didn't ya work at the new movie theater, too?"

"Yuh. Fer a weekend… naw, from Satahday evenin' ta Sunday aftahnoon," Wynne said and rolled her eyes. "Dad-gummit, I really thought I had found that there golden goose when that there nih-ce Mistah Wotshisname asked me 'bout workin' there. I mean, workin' at the mooh-vie theatah?  It sure ain't gonn' get no bettah than that, nosirree!  An' then he done fired me fer spendin' too much time yappin' with them there customahs o' his. That wus evil, friend… jus' plain ol' evil. I knew each an' everyone o' them gals an' fellahs who done showed up fer the big evenin' premiere!  O' course I said howdy, whassup and lookin' fih-ne when I met 'em!  But mah evil boss said I wussen sellin' enuff o' that there popcohrn an' them candah bars an' soda pops 'cos I wus yappin' too dang much. I ain't been back there since, dog-gone it… not even fer the big Smokeh an' the Bandit triple showin' they had in Jan-oooh-ary. An' I wanted so dang much ta see them awe-sum movies on the big screen, dad-gummit!"

Ernie nodded in sincere sympathy with his friend's plight. Then he dug into his pocket to find a new can of Double-Zero that he offered her without speaking a word.

Wynne looked at it for a moment or two before she took it and cracked it open at once. Ten seconds later, there was hardly anything left in the can.

Striding footsteps along the gravel road that led to the trailer park itself heralded the arrival of Senior Deputy Sheriff Mandy Jalinski. Her compact, athletic frame did an excellent job of balancing out the dark-brown Polyester horror she wore: although the new black-and-gray uniforms had finally arrived, the factory producing them had somehow managed to foul up the particular requirements of female law enforcement officers - namely extra width around the hips and chest.

A scarecrow would have run away screaming had it been forced to wear the three sets that had been ordered for Mandy, so all her new clothing items had been sent back for a full do-over. All she had left to wear was her old uniform that consisted of dark-brown pants that featured a paler-brown stripe up the outside of the legs, a dark-brown shirt with paler-brown epaulets and pocket-flaps, a pale-brown necktie, a dark-brown winter jacket and finally a brown Mountie hat that she had paid for herself.

Sheriff Rains hadn't helped the situation any when he had discovered the new uniforms had been sewn in Bangladesh despite the company's office being in Kentucky. He had called all and sundry from the members of the Goldsboro Town Council to the senior-most officers at the Sheriff's Department headquarters in Barton City to complain and demand American-sewn uniforms, but it seemed none were to be had.

"Hello, Mr. Bradberry. Goodbye, Mr. Bradberry," Mandy said once she was close enough to her partner and their friend. The statement was delivered with a smile, but there was no mistaking the intent.

Nodding, Ernie drained the rest of his stout. "That's my cue. Talk to ya later, Wynne."

"See ya, ya ol' sombitch," Wynne said with a grin as she watched her friend shuffle away. Ernie's widening girth meant he had to wear his jeans lower or else the belt wouldn't reach, but that had an unfortunate side-effect in the shape of pronounced bagginess at the back that gave him a slightly comical appearance.

Chuckling, Wynne moved her eyes to take in the far more impressive sight of her sweetheart striding toward her. "So, De-per-ty Mandy… y'all look like ya be reddy fer some hev-vy doo-tee ac-shun. Ain't it a li'l early taday?"

"A little, yes. The Sheriff has called for a meeting before the first patrol. It's about the big concert."

"Awwww, yuck, yuck, yuckety-yuck… the Sheriff… jus' plain, ol' yuck," Wynne said and did a little shimmy to get the creeps off her. "I'm tellin' ya, one o' these he' days, that nasteh fellah Artie Rains gonn' land his fat bee-hind in som'tin he can't get outta… that jus' be the circle o' life, yes ma'am."

Once Mandy was close enough, she slid up next to her taller partner and grabbed her hand - a few tender squeezes were duly exchanged even though the shoulder of the State Route wasn't a particularly romantic spot. "Enough about the sheriff. What are you doing today, hon?"

"Aw, a li'l o' this, a li'l o' that an' a whoooole buncha nuttin' in between. Nuttin' spe-shul, anyhows. Mebbe watch some teevee with Ernie. Some Nascahr or rasslin' or som'tin else from his swappin' buddy ovah in Tennessee. Mebbe them there Monstah Trucks. Mebbe have a beer or two an' the three Ps… pork rinds, peanuts an' pretzels," Wynne said and broke out in a shrug.

"Perhaps you should consider getting yourself a hobby?" Mandy said; while she spoke, she eyed a familiar white-and-gold Dodge Durango from the MacLean County's Sheriff's Department racing south on the State Route toward their spot at the entrance to the trailer park - it would arrive within a half minute or so.

"Yuh, mebbe. Lawrdie, I alreddy tried watchin' one o' them there Town Council meetin's, 'member?  That there bailiff-fellah done threw me out fer snorin'!  But it wus borin' as all hell… how wus I saposed ta stay awake?  An' then I tried truck-spottin' up yondah on Main Street… it jus' wussen funny 'cos it wus always the same five dang trucks drivin' past!  An' then nasteh, ol' Artie Rains practically ran me outta town fer loiterin' an' drinkin' beer in public or whatevah-"

"Well, you were, hon. Drinking beer in public," Mandy said and gave Wynne's hand an extra squeeze.

"Yuh, but only them there Double Zeros!  They don't count!"

"I'm afraid the bylaws don't know the difference between hard and easy beers. A beer is a beer is a beer, and drinking alcoholic beverages in public is against the law. Even when it doesn't actually contain any alcohol."

Wynne let out a few grumbles until the proverbial light bulb went off over her head. "Haw!  Lawrdie, Ah jus' found theee purr-fect career choice fer me!  Y'all know what Ah'mma-gonn' do, there, De-per-ty?  Ah'mma-gonn' run fer mayor!  Or sheriff!  Or both!  Snakes Alive, Ah'm tellin' ya all them there bah-laws is gonn' go down the drain two seconds aftah Ah done slapped mah buhtt cheeks in that there fancy mayah-chair. Yessirree!"

"It's good to have a career plan, hon," Mandy said and quickly stood up on tip-toes to place a little kiss on Wynne's cheek. The smile she wore turned into a frown at once when the Dodge Durango came to a halt on the blacktop just behind them - it wasn't driven by one of her friends and allies at the sheriff's office, but by the abrasive Thomas 'Tom Thumb' Kincaid who never missed an opportunity to evade work, act chummy with the sheriff or to send thinly veiled barbs in Mandy's direction. At least the latter was a mutual pastime. "Best of luck with selling the truck. I need to go to work."

"Ah sure be thankin' ya, De-per-ty Mandy," Wynne said with a grin.

Striding over to the Durango, Mandy climbed into the passenger seat and clicked the belt in place. She only needed a short glance at Deputy Kincaid to know he was ogling Wynne's gently wiggling rear as she walked back to the trailer. "Where's Rodolfo?" she said in a surly tone of voice.

"He called in sick," Kincaid said as he performed a U-turn and began to drive back to Goldsboro. A nasty grin spread over his features. "Maybe his sexy senorita rubbed him too hard last night. I guess you and Dumb-ahue would know all about that, eh, Manly?"

When Mandy didn't rise to the bait like he had expected her to, he grunted and slammed his boot onto the throttle to cover the eight miles back to town in as little time as possible.


Thomas Kincaid soon parked by the curb in front of the sheriff's office in roaring Goldsboro. To prove just how roaring the town was - population 459 and growing - Geoffrey Wilburr, Sr. drove past atop his John Deere tractor that was almost as old as he was. The green machine took up more than a lane of Main Street as it pulled two trailers loaded with hay bales for the Wilburr spread further north. As the veteran farmer went past Mandy, he tipped his threadbare baseball cap at her.

She responded in style by tipping her Mountie hat and nodding a Howdy at the elderly fellow. Her colleague Thomas Kincaid couldn't be bothered and simply went inside the sheriff's office without worthying the elder Wilburr a second glance.

Mandy kept standing on the sidewalk for a moment longer to take in the sights. Everything seemed calm along the windswept street, but she had carried a uniform long enough to know that first looks were often deceptive. Of course, what had been valid in the larger cities or precincts she had worked in wasn't necessarily true in Goldsboro, and the second look confirmed that nothing at all happened anywhere.

Chuckling, she turned around and went into the sheriff's office. Barely inside, she had to pinch her nostrils to prevent the foul-smelling plume of cigarette smoke that billowed from the watch desk from injuring her brain.

As always, Deputy Sheriff Barry Simms' complexion was as ashen as the inch-high pile of cigarette flotsam and jetsam that littered the ashtray and the desk. He was in the middle of an impressive hacking fit that prevented him from doing anything but wave a hello at Mandy. His fingers, teeth and the whites in his eyes had turned a sickly amber as a direct result of the heavy habit, but he didn't seem to mind. Smoking sixty cigarettes a day was impossible on a deputy sheriff's wages, so he had started buying bales of waste tobacco wholesale directly from the factories to roll them himself - the smell alone proved the tobacco was of such low-grade quality the manufacturers would only be happy to get rid of it.

The rest of the sheriff's office was in no better condition: the linoleum floor was cracked, the ceiling tiles were drooping, one of the doors - the one leading to the holding cells next door - had rusted shut ages ago, several of the strip lights had literally gone on the blink, and the furniture including the Bakelite telephone on the watch desk hadn't been in fashion since Dwight D. Eisenhower had been in the White House. The door to the gun cabinet holding their Mossberg pump-action shotguns stood wide open, but the lethal weapons were held in place by an additional metal bar. At the back of the office, the smaller of the two desks had once again disappeared under huge piles of paperwork that had never made it back to the filing cabinets. Whenever Mandy tried to sort through the old case files to get the madness under control, she was told they were still active and thus needed to be out in the open.

Lewd laughter from the crew room beyond another door proved where Thomas Kincaid had gone, and it also offered a hint that Sheriff Arthur 'Artie' Rains had showed up early for work instead of going up to Derrike Iverson's Bar for one of his infamous extended Health & Safety Inspections.

Mandy sighed and took off her Mountie hat. She glanced over at Barry who seemed to have recovered from the latest hacking fit. An ash-covered notepad in front of him was empty which suggested it had been a quiet morning. "Barry, didn't Sheriff Rains say we were to have a plenum meeting first up today?"

"Yeah, I think he did," the young deputy said in a gravelly voice that confirmed he did indeed smoke sixty cigarettes a day.

"When is it going to take place?"

Barry Simms held up his hands and shook his head to show that he wasn't privy to that kind of information. When Mandy sighed again and assumed an annoyed expression, Barry took the opportunity to light his next cigarette with the final embers of the old one.

The question was answered a moment later when the door to the crew room was opened and Artie Rains and Thomas Kincaid stepped out into the main office. The sheriff wore one of the new black-and-gray uniforms, but the cool-looking garb hadn't done anything to reduce his abrasive attitude or behavior. Standing at six-foot-three in boots, his two-hundred-and-forty pound frame certainly carried plenty of presence; it was backed up admirably by his double chins, his weak jaw, the deep ruts on his cheeks and forehead, the reddish, bulbous nose and the beady, permanently angry eyes that glared out beneath a pair of bushy eyebrows. "All right," he said in his customary growl, "Deputy Gonzalez has called in sick today… which we all know is code for boning his senorita… so we're going to have to deal with everything ourselves. Later today, the first trucks will arrive with the gear for Saturday's big concert. The roadies will erect-"

The word made Thomas Kincaid let out a juvenile snicker that made even the sheriff shoot him a dark glare.

A moment or two went by before a scowling Rains continued: "They'll erect a concert stage on the field behind Mrs. Peabody's boarding house. The traffic's gonna be hell pretty soon, so we need to stay on top of it. That means all of us, Deputy Simms. I've asked Bessie to come over. She'll take care of any calls that may come in while we're busy up there."

Mandy nodded to herself - at least the retired Bessie Robinson would know what to do after working as the radio dispatcher for decades. "When will the band itself be here, Sheriff?" she said, holding her notepad ready to jot down the information she hoped would come.

"The Great American SongBirds will show up at some point on Saturday afternoon. They'll be staying at Mrs. Peabody's," the sheriff said; for once, his angry features softened at the mention of the famous, chart-topping female country-pop quartet whose musicians always performed in traditional cowboy wear. The softness lasted for all of two seconds. "You all know what that means, people. That means Goldsboro will be invaded by the kind of fans… or fanatics… who always follow the popular bands around. At least the fans of the Great American SongBirds aren't those freaks with flowers in their hair and peace symbols painted on their faces, no sir!  The fans of the band are wholesome folks. Devout Christians. Good Republicans!"

While Thomas Kincaid cheered and Barry Simms hacked and coughed, Mandy chewed on her cheek jotting down the information. Perhaps the moment wasn't right to inform the sheriff that although she was certainly wholesome and nominally a Christian, she most decidedly couldn't be counted among the last group. The point became moot when the sheriff continued:

"Deputy Jalinski, you and Deputy Simms are to conduct traffic in whichever end of town the trucks will arrive at. I'm guessing they may come in from the north, but we all know those truck drivers. They always cut corners wherever they can. Deputy Kincaid, you and I will patrol the opposite end of town. All right. Get to it!"

Mandy closed the notepad and shared a look with Barry Simms. It was better left unsaid that the southern end of Goldsboro - where the Sheriff and Thomas Kincaid were going to patrol - was the home of not only Derrike Iverson's bar, but Moira MacKay's Bar & Grill as well.

Still, if it meant their abrasive law enforcement colleagues would be out of their hair for a good stretch of the day, she wasn't about to complain. "Barry, we'll need fluorescent vests, the LED batons and the portable radios. And plenty of coffee in thermoses. I'll take care of the radios and the coffee while you dig through the old closets for the other things. I'll go ahead to get a feel for what we might need to do later on. Join me when you can."

"Will do, Deputy," Barry said before he lit a new cigarette with the last glow of the old one.


Later in the afternoon, Barry was dead on his feet - not to mention down to his last pack of home-rolled cigarettes, and that didn't happen often - and even Mandy battled acute fatigue brought on by the non-stop hassle they had been involved in. Worse, they had been working alone throughout the afternoon; the sheriff and Deputy Kincaid had kept to the southern end of town like they had said they would even when things got hairy.

Everything had turned into utter chaos within two minutes of the first eighteen-wheeler arriving. What the sheriff and the deputies hadn't been told - and what they had failed to predict - was that the stage was far too large to fit on one truck.

No less than nine hugely long semis arrived in a vast convoy which created the worst-ever traffic jam in the checkered history of Goldsboro. Each truck carried several pieces that would make up the grand puzzle: the scaffolding, the backdrop, the lighting, the floor, the sound equipment and all the other items needed to build the vast stage on the field behind Main Street. Mandy and Barry had run themselves ragged trying to keep up with the behemoths and to get them safely into and around the relatively small town.

Once the trucks had lined up in the correct order for offloading, several touring coaches that had been converted from old school buses and the like swarmed into Goldsboro. The chaos grew exponentially when scores of the typically rough and ready roadies disembarked to take care of business. Much of the hitherto quiet Main Street had turned into an anthill of sweaty, bearded, loudly cussing and certainly muscular fellows who dragged heavy tubing and all sorts of other equipment to the open field behind the boarding house.

Soon, Scuttlebutt had it that the band's musicians and backing singers would arrive in the early evening for the first rehearsals and to get acclimatized to yet another venue in small-town America, but by then, Mandy and Barry were way past caring.


Over the course of the late afternoon hours, large numbers of fans flocked to Goldsboro despite the fact the headlining band itself wouldn't arrive for another three days. Both sides of Main Street featured plenty of colorfully dressed folks of all ages who snapped thousands of photos and filmed hours of video of each other to capture the moment for posterity.

Scuttlebutt seemed to have been right as a luxurious touring coach did indeed drive past the northern city limits-sign at a quarter past six. Although it was merely the musicians and the backing singers instead of the real deal, the news was greeted by waves of cheering from the assembled fans, and even more photos were snapped as the bus cruised slowly down Main Street on its way to the boarding house.

Mandy and Barry literally brought up the rear by driving behind the touring coach in one of the Dodge Durangos - they had all the emergency lights flashing to be noticed. "Huh," Mandy said as she happened to look at the promotional banner on the rear of the large vehicle. "They've changed their name. When did that happen?"

Barry looked up and tried to focus - it took a while for his tired eyes to be able to see beyond the gray tip of his nose. "Don't know… it must have been recent. I guess they didn't feel the old name worked anymore. I wonder if the sheriff knows?" he mumbled between puffs. A long tip of ash fell off his cigarette and down into the footwell, but it was such a common occurrence he didn't even notice. He continued to study the banner where the words Great American had been deleted by copious use of black masking tape. The action had left the name of the band simply as The SongBirds.

Mandy let out a dark grunt. Turning her head, she and Barry shared a long look that said quite clearly that Artie Rains didn't know. It also said there would be plenty of brouhaha in everyone's immediate future as soon as the sheriff found out about it.


The welcoming committee couldn't have been grander as the touring coach came to a halt at Mrs. Peabody's boarding house. Not only had an almost-sober Sheriff Rains shown up in person, he had brought Councilwoman Mary-Lou Skinner and several others from the Town Council with him to greet the guests. Much to the shock of everyone close enough to see it, there was even a faint smile playing on Artie Rains' lips.

Mandy and Barry had lined up just behind the sheriff like a pair of wingmen. They exchanged another long look that was accompanied by a crooked, and highly puzzled, eyebrow that crept up Mandy's forehead. Barry settled for sucking on his yellow teeth for a moment before he took another deep puff of his latest cigarette.

The sheriff's smile lasted until the sliding door at the center of the coach moved aside with a pneumatic whistle. As the SongBirds' tour manager came down the short flight of stairs and stepped onto the sidewalk, an unhealthy shade of red flushed over the sheriff's face. His eyes narrowed and assumed their natural angry glare at the sight of a well-dressed Chinese-American man.

Mandy grunted, closed her eyes and sent a silent prayer to whomever was listening that they weren't about to be caught in a messy tornado of Biblical proportions. Barry could only hack and cough, but the way he shook his head proved he was thinking along similar lines.

"Wow!  What a great welcome!  Hello, I'm Sonny Chang. I'm the tour manager for the SongBirds. The original plan is still on target… they'll be here Saturday before noon," the thirty-something man said as he shook hands with some of the waiting members of the town council.

Dressed in black patent-leather shoes and a black Armani suit over a charcoal-colored turtleneck sweater, Sonny Chang looked so far out of place he might as well have arrived in a UFO. That parts of his thick, black hair were tied into a man-tail at the back only exacerbated the stark contrast to the local population.

Artie Rains looked to be on the brink of a coronary. Almost by instinct, his hand reached for the set of handcuffs he carried on his belt - it was plainly evident he was itching to arrest the manager for not only being half-foreign, but for breaking at least a hundred different unwritten laws for dressing like some kind of big-city cream puff. Then the sheriff caught a glimpse of the large promotional banner on the side of the touring coach.

When he realized the words Great American had been taped over, his jaw really went to work grinding his teeth. His hand moved from the handcuffs to his service pistol, but he managed to curb himself at the last moment. "What the hell's the meaning of that?" he growled as he pointed at the taped-over name.

Another quick look was exchanged between Barry and Mandy - if anything was to happen, it would do so within the next thirty seconds. Barry took an extra-deep puff on his cigarette while taking a sliding step backward to get out of the blast zone before it was too late.

"Oh, the name," Sonny Chang said as he followed the sheriff's pointing finger. "Well, the way the country's been going lately, the band didn't want to be known as-"

The sheriff bared his teeth in a sneer; his hand returned to the holster in a hurry, and the little strap holding the pistol in place was soon clicked open. "Oh yeah?  Well, let me tell you something, Mister Sonny Shanghai!  Our nation has never been greater!"

"I beg you p-"

"Now get your Goddamned gook ass back in that Goddamned bus and get the hell outta here, you Goddamned piece of showfolk commie shit!" Artie Rains barked loud enough for everyone to hear.

The members of the Goldsboro Town Council all drew simultaneous deep gasps, but only Mary-Lou Skinner stepped forward to defuse the situation that was clearly headed for an imminent meltdown. "Sheriff!  That's no way to talk to an important-"

"Important, my ass!  If this Goddamned hippie sonovabitch ain't outta here in five seconds, I'm gonna haul 'em all off to the slammer for contempt of the Goddamned Constitution of these here United States!  Buncha unpatriotic sons a' bitches!" the sheriff continued at the top of his lungs; as he roared out his frustrations, venomous spittle escaped his mouth in all directions.

Mandy groaned. She was about to clap a hand over her eyes but thought better of it at the last moment since it would look unprofessional. Barry just hacked a little more.

The vitriolic outburst had done nothing good for the state of Artie Rains' health as witnessed by the white spots that had appeared on his flushed cheeks and forehead. To breathe, he needed to yank his new necktie to the side and tear open the top button of his uniform shirt. His angry eyes moved back and forth several times between the stunned Sonny Chang and the shocked Mary-Lou Skinner; then his face turned even nastier. "The five seconds are up. And you're still here, Mister Shanghai. All right, turn around and put your hands against the bus. You're under arrest for-"

"Sheriff Rains!" Mary-Lou barked at a volume that nearly matched the one the sheriff had used earlier. "I'm ordering you to stop this idiocy and return to your office at once!"

"What the hell?  You can't boss me around like that, woman-"

"I'm paying your wages, so you better believe I can!  And I am!" Mary-Lou roared and took a step forward to move between Rains and Sonny Chang - her large frame worked in her favor for once by acting as an effective road block.

Everyone present held their breath while they waited for the sheriff's response. It was less fiery than expected when it came: instead of complaining, Artie Rains spun around on his heel and stomped off down Main Street. Fifty yards into his trek, he made a sharp left and entered Derrike Iverson's seedy establishment. The door was slammed behind him with a rattling bang.

Barry Simms suddenly broke out in a hacking fit that rivaled any he had ever had. It got so bad he had to drop the cigarette he was smoking so he could slam a fist against his chest repeatedly - as soon as the fit had receded enough for him to breathe regularly, he picked up the dropped butt once more and puffed on it like nothing had happened.

It left Mandy as the sole representative of the MacLean County's Sheriff's Department who remained in good health. She used her brief time in the spotlight by stepping forward and screwing a smile on her face to show that not all of the uniformed people in Goldsboro were of the same low class as the sheriff.

Sonny Chang straightened his Armani suit with a surly expression on his face. The silence was deafening until he rolled his shoulders and cleared his throat to get back on an even keel. "Well. That was just offensive on so many levels. Are you people stuck in a nineteen-fifties time warp here?"

"Not that we're aware of, Sir," Mandy said and let out a small sigh. "That's about the only thing that hasn't happened yet," she continued under her breath.

"I'm sorry?"

"Long story, Mr. Chang," Mandy continued as she put out her hand in an invitation for the traditional greeting. "I'm Senior Deputy Mandy Jalinski. Welcome to Goldsboro."

Sonny Chang spent a few seconds staring at the hand and the woman it belonged to like he was expecting the deputy to tackle him to the ground. When the intentions seemed sincere, he eventually shook the offered hand.

Mary-Lou put her hand on the tour manager's elbow. "Mr. Chang, unless you've decided to leave… and I can't blame you if you have… I think we should get the show on the road."

Sonny Chang looked as if he was considering his options; he ultimately nodded and could even manage a smile. "I think we'll stay. I never caught your name, Ma'am?"

"Mary-Lou Skinner. I'm the senior member of the Goldsboro Town Council. Come on, Mr. Chang, let me introduce you to our town," Mary-Lou said and waved the other members toward her.



Meanwhile, back at the trailer park.

Wynne's old Chevrolet still sat forlornly at the side of the State Route. Though the high level of activity in town meant that quite a few cars and trucks had driven past for a change, not a single interested party had pulled over to give the vehicle a closer look.

The only one who had in fact come to a stop was a souped-up Honda Accord, and that was only because the three juvenile delinquents in the back - that's what Wynne shouted after them once they took off in a cloud of dust - threw a half-empty carton of strawberry yogurt at it. Though the missile went wide of its intended target for the most part, the pinkish-red substance had splattered a good portion of the left-front fender.

Worse, it had given a happily playing Goldie an unwanted close encounter of the sticky kind. An irate Blackie came to her canine companion's rescue at once by charging the Honda and letting out a series of toothy, frothy, thunderous barks, but it didn't seem to impress the kids too much.

Half an hour's worth of furious doggie-scrubbing and twenty minutes of fender-polishing later, Wynne put the wet towels onto the clothes line behind the trailer while muttering a constant stream of grumbles about the state of the world in general and young people in particular.

The dark look upon her face proved that something positive needed to happen. She had a good selection of positivity in her refrigerator, so she nabbed a Dark Lager and shuffled back out to the truck to keep an eye on it though dusk had already fallen. Blackie came along as always, but Goldie needed a nap in her doggy-basket after the high drama.

Lowering the tailgate, Wynne patted her thigh and pointed up at the rusty, dented bed. Blackie's training and cleverness meant she understood the command and hopped up there at once - Wynne followed at a slightly slower pace. Once she was sitting with her back leaning against the cab, she cracked open the beer and took a long swig. "Lawrdie, girl… this he' been a perdy crap day so far fer all of us, ain't it?  Throwin' a dang-blasted yoah-gurt at mah Goldie!  Why, if mah sweet, li'l De-per-ty Mandy had been he', I reckon them fellahs woulda been eatin' that there dirt right 'bout now… an' y'all can take that ta the bank!"


"Yuh. Yuh, Ah agree, there, Blackie," Wynne said and reached over to give the black fur a good rubbing. "The nerve o' some folks. Them kids jus' grow worse fer each passin' year. I may ha' done a buncha weird stuff when I wus that age, but I sure as stink-on-shoot ain't nevah thrown no dang-blasted yoah-gurt at nobodda… an' I cert'inly nevah thrown nuttin' at any defenseless dawggies!  Nossiree!"

Ten minutes of quiet reflection and stargazing went by before Ernie Bradberry came shuffling out to the parked truck. The jack-of-all-trades wore his hunting vest as always, and he dug into one of the large pockets to produce a can of beer. "Hiya, Wynne. I almost didn't see ya in the gloom. Still no takers for the old thing?"


Nodding, Ernie leaned against the side panel and cracked open the can of 1910 Special Brew. After a long swig that left a suddy line in his walrus mustache, he tried to look at the vehicle with fresh eyes. It hadn't been a looker for years despite the fact the model range had won a design award back in the day. The visible rust, the dents and the various issues meant it wouldn't even be a diamond in the rough for anyone. "Have ya thought about sellin' it as parts?  Perhaps online?"

"Naw. I don't know jack about any o' that there stuff, friend."

"Well, neither do I, but I'm sure we could figure it out somehow. Or maybe the Grant-Master could help us. Lafferty's an Internet wizard."

"I ain't too sure 'bout figgerin' nuttin' out," Wynne said and took a long swig of her Dark Lager. " 'Cos whenevah I reckon I done the figgerin' needed ta get ahead, som'tin else pops up an' craps all ovah mah plans."

Ernie furrowed his brow while he studied his friend's uncharacteristically gloomy attitude. "There's gotta be a little more goin' on than just the thing with your truck and Goldie's yogurt bath…?"

Wynne shuffled around before answering which made Blackie let out a puzzled Woof?  "Yuh. Yuh, there is, friend. An' it's that there dang-blasted Valentine's Day. Lawrdie, I done found theee perfect gift fer mah sweet, li'l Mandy, but… I need'a rob a Vegas casinah ta afford it. An' then the truck crapped out on me."

"How much are we talking about?"

"Aw, nuttin' much. Jus' a buck shy o' five hundred dollahs."

Ernie let out a long whistle before his lips were needed to take another sip. Once they were back on the playing field, he said: "How about a loan?"


"We could-"

"Naw. Naw, naw, naw. I 'preciate the no-shun, but there ain't gonn' be no talk 'bout no loan, Ernie. Naw. An' that's final."

Ernie nodded solemnly before he took another swig of the beer - Wynne's pride and integrity was legendary so he didn't push the issue. "All right. What's the gift?  Or are ya afraid I'm goin' to blab it to Mandy?"

Chuckling, Wynne drained the beer and threw the empty can into the farthest corner of the truck's bed. "Ya know, friend, the thought had crossed mah mind!  Naw, it's a week-long stay at one o' them there fancy sports resort kinda hotels. It's ovah yondah Vegas-way."

"That's a cool gift, Wynne."

"Yuh. Yuh, I reckon so. But it ain't gonn' mattah none if I can't gathah up enuff o' them there nickels, dimes an' quartahs ta pay fer it. Haw, I done flapped mah gums enuff fer one aftahnoon," Wynne said and slapped her cowboy hat against her thigh. "Whaddayasay we went north ta Goldsborah an' got a li'l chow at Moira's or som'tin?  I sure ain't in the mood fer cup noodles or canned spaghetti or any o' that there stuff taday."

Blackie thought it was the most perfect idea since somebody invented beef jerky, and she let the world know by woof'ing several times.

"Can't argue with that woofin'," Ernie said with a grin. "I just gotta take a leak… those pesky beers are itchin' to be set free. Then I'll be ready."

Wynne had already clambered to her feet and had moved down to the truck's open tail gate when she paused to consider Ernie's comment. "Yuh… now that ya men-shun it," she mumbled as she began to shuffle around like the tide was high.


Twenty-five minutes later up north in Goldsboro, Ernie spun the steering wheel of his customized silver-and-metallic-blue Ford F350 Super Duty Crew Cab truck around and performed a U-turn on Main Street. Before long, he pulled over by the curb in front of Moira's Bar & Grill.

Though the eighteen-wheelers had all left after the tough roadies had offloaded the gear for the big concert, the town continued to buzz like rarely before. Wynne even spotted the souped-up Honda Accord that belonged to the delinquents who had thrown the strawberry yogurt. Blackie did so as well and immediately began to growl somewhere deep down her throat - Goldie was still too upset after the sticky shower to come to town with the others, so she had decided to stay at home to play with young Renee Tooley instead.

"Hmmm…" Wynne said as she and Blackie stepped down from the tall Ford and came to a halt on the sidewalk. She narrowed her eyes as she took in the sight of the sedan. "Hey, Ernie… y'all 'member that there mooh-vie where somebodda let out the air of somebodda else's tires as payback?"

"Think so. Why?"

" 'Cos I'm about ta let the air outta somebodda's tires as payback," Wynne said in a steely voice as she and her trusty canine companion strode along to get to the Honda before the owners would return.

Grinning at the impending mischief, Ernie followed his friend to act as a last-ditch backup in case trouble would ensue.


It didn't, and Wynne's mood had taken a marked turn for the better as she placed the four liberated valve stem covers on the armrest of one of the public benches. Ernie had suggested she threw them into the nearest trash can instead, but she had considered that a little too mean. She celebrated by whistling a merry tune on her way across the sidewalk to get to Moira's.

A Dodge truck with a loud exhaust driving past on Main Street made Wynne stop and stare. Blackie took the opportunity to rest her furry behind on the sidewalk, but it was clear by the puzzled Woof? she let out that she wasn't entirely sure what her owner was looking at.

"Ernie, y'all go ahead," Wynne said as she reached down to scratch Blackie's ears. "Befo' suppah, I reckon I'mma-gonn' go up to that there Bang an' Beatin' Boddah Shop ta check out their inventorah. I need'a talk to mah friend Cletus Browne 'bout som'tin, anyhows."

Ernie stopped as he put his hand on the front door. "Okay… no problem. Do ya want me to order ya anythin'?  I mean, apart from beer. You know how long it takes Slow Lane to cook the burgers."

Chuckling, Wynne broke out in an exaggerated nod. "Yuh, he ain't so hot. Nah, don't bothah 'cos I ain't too sure yet what I feel like eatin' tanight. Get some chow, I'll join ya in a li'l while. Blackie, you comin' or what?"

The black German Shepherd repeatedly looked from her owner to the door of Moira's Bar & Grill. Although there was always fun to be had at the tall woman's side, cozying up in the doggy-cave underneath the pool table with a stick of beef jerky and a bowl of water was certainly tempting. Ultimately, the cave and the jerky won out, and she let Wynne know by a short sequence of happy barks.


A gravelly parking lot next to the auto repair shop had been reconfigured to act as a sales court for used vehicles. Four tall poles carrying floodlights on top shone down upon the nine sedans and utility vehicles that had been buffed and spit-shined from the tips of the radio antennas to the lacquer that had been sprayed onto the tires to make them shine. Rows of brightly colored paper flags had been suspended between the light poles to add some life to the serious business of selling cars, and the little flags fluttered merrily in the perpetual breeze to create the desired effect.

Wynne walked straight past two Fords and several foreign makes including - of all things - a Saab 9-5 hatchback. The next vehicle in line was a late-model, silver-metallic, single-cab Chevrolet Silverado that was equipped with the optional full-length bed and so much chrome on the grille and the wheels that she was certain it would glow in the dark. The price tag stamped onto the windshield said $4998. Although she nearly drooled at the sight of the truck, the horrendous price forced her to move on down the line.

The final three trucks on the lot were better suited for her purposes by being regular, no-frills workhorses, but - although fairly cheap - they weren't that much of an improvement over the one she'd had: the paint bubbled up in spots on all three indicating that structural rust was only a heartbeat away, and the wheels and tires were improperly aligned or had simply been used for far too long. Whatever the cause, the effect was that at least one tire had turned bald on all three vehicles.

One, a white GMC, even had a cracked windshield that made Wynne scrunch up her face in disappointment. It was the cheapest at $998, but that seemed far too much given its sorry state.

"Why, if it isn't Wynne Donohue. Good evening, ma'am!  See anything you can't live without?" a male voice said from somewhere behind her.

Turning around, Wynne broke out in a grin as her successor at Otto Kulick's Bang-N-Beatin' Body Shop, Cletus Browne, strolled toward her.

The mid-forty-something, fair-skinned Creole had been hired to carry out the tedious task of sweeping the shop floor when Wynne had been fired - after the unfortunate incident with the police Durango - but he had soon been promoted to be in charge of the used vehicles. He had a definite knack for the job as he could talk a little-old lady into buying a hot rod to impress the other members of the church choir.

Prematurely thinning hair meant he shaved his head on a regular basis. To compensate for the bald summit, he had grown a thin mustache and a stylish goatee that had gained a few gray tones recently. He wore a charcoal-gray business suit, a white shirt and a red necktie; to battle the evening chill, he had donned a tweed flat cap and a blue down jacket that made a mess of his carefully color-coordinated ensemble.

"Howdy, there, ol' Cletus. Lookin' fih-ne as always," Wynne said and stuck out her hand for the traditional greeting. "Naw, I wus jus' checkin' out them sweet trucks there. Mah old Chevy done crapped out on me fer good so I need'a new one. But, friend, whaddahell's goin' on with that there Gee Emm Cee?  Lawrdie, if that ain't da worst pile o' bulldung I evah clapped eyes on-"

"I agree. Forget the GMC," Cletus said and put an arm around Wynne's shoulder. Turning her away from the sorry-looking truck, they strolled closer to the bow-tie chrome wonder at the center of the display. Once there, he flashed a broad grin that would have impressed a dentist. "How about the Silverado, then?  Horsepower up the yin-yang. Plenty of space. Plenty of flash. Plenty of chrome. Plenty of bang for your buck."

"Yuh, I sure do see that, Cletus, but it's them there bucks that be the problem. Like in I ain't got none," Wynne said and adjusted her cowboy hat as they came to a halt at the silver-metallic marvel.

"Oh, I'm sure we can work something out. The tag says five grand, but forget that, Wynne. Why, you're practically part of the family, so how about we said four grand instead?"


"I know exactly what you're going to say, Wynne," the salesman said as he gave Wynne a gentle nudge so she could get even closer to the silver-metallic truck. Opening the driver's side door, he nudged her again so she could look inside. "But how about this interior?  Classy and durable. Look at those seats. Aren't they just tailor-made for you?  Still not convinced?  Here, put your hands on the fender… feel that paint job. Smooth as a baby's butt."

"I woudden know ta be purr-fectly honest…"

"You can take my word for it," Cletus said with a wink. "But wait, there's more… the engine. The engine, Wynne. Once you hear that tuned-up four-oh-two bad boy firing up, the next word out of your mouth will be 'deal!'."

"Naw… naw, I don't reckon it will be, Cletus-"

Undeterred, Cletus dug into his business suit to find the correct set of keys. He grinned as he slid behind the steering wheel. A moment later, the large-displacement engine came to life with a throaty roar that soon turned into a hum. Whenever Cletus dabbed the gas pedal, the hum turned into a ferocious growl. "Eh?  Eh?  Don't say I didn't warn you!"

"Yuh, ya warned me, awright," Wynne said with a grin that soon faded. "But Cletus, y'all gotta lissen ta me, son… I ain't got four grand neither. An' when I tell ya what I ack-shu-lly got in mah wallet, y'all gonn' send me packin'."

"Oh, I wouldn't do that," Cletus Browne said as he turned off the engine and climbed back out of the tall Silverado. After closing the door, he leaned against it with an expectant look upon his face.

Wynne nodded a couple of times; then she sighed. "Fifty-six dollahs an' a bent nickel."

Several seconds went by in complete silence. The embarrassing moment was eventually broken by Cletus snorting and moving away from the large vehicle. "Hell, Wynne, you can't even gas it up for fifty-six bucks!" he said in his regular voice that had lost the chanting undertones he had used when he had tried to sell the Chevrolet.

"Yuh, tell me 'bout it… if ya'd only lemme finish talkin', I coudda tole ya I wus only lookin' fer a rent-a-ride or som'tin. Maybe one o' them there newfangled leasin' deals or some such-" - Cletus shook his head - "Naw?"

"No, Wynne… I'm sorry. Although we do rent out trucks on a day-by-day basis and offer short or long-term leasing contracts here at Kulick's, you'd need solid financial backing in place well before you could put your signature on the dotted line."

"Lawrdie, if I had solid fih-nan-shul backin', whaddahell would I need a leasin' contract for?  I'd jus' go out an' buy that there dang-blasted thing. Ah, nevah mind. But thanks fer the tour o' this here vee-hickel. It sure is a gorgeous truck dontchaknow. How come the original ownah done sole it to ya?"

"He didn't. He couldn't keep up with the loan so the bank foreclosed it. He had bought the truck in Barton City, but Mr. Kulick thought it would be an easier sale here."

"Yuh, huh?  That's what I been sayin' fer years an' years… jus' like them in-shoo-rance people, them folks in bankin' be a mean buncha skunks an' rattlesnakes," Wynne said before she suddenly reached out to slap Cletus across the gut. Because her friend had already jumped back out of sheer experience, she missed by an inch.

"Careful, Wynne… my first job out of school was being a trainee in a banking corporation…"

"Yuh!  Yuh, I done knew that alreddy, Cletus!" Wynne said with a cheeky grin. "Naw, I bettah mosey on back down ta Moira's. Ernie prolly reckon I stole a ride or som'tin. Nice talkin' ta ya, there, friend… see ya around, yuh?"

"You bet, Wynne," the salesman said and tipped his flat cap.


As Wynne strolled down the busy Main Street to get back to Moira's, she couldn't help but notice a line of teenagers and early twenty-somethings in front of one of the newer stores. The young people were talking loudly among themselves, but they didn't strike her as being in town for the concert. Once she got closer, she realized most of them were locals and that the store they were standing in front of was the new fast-food parlor Chicky Kingz.

The only reason the influential and fiery Moira MacKay - who had recently been voted into the Goldsboro Town Council - had allowed the franchise-based competitor to open their doors not fifty yards further up Main Street from her own Bar & Grill was that their business model was based solely on takeout.

In addition to that fact, the only item on the franchise chain's menu was chicken. Far from being a one-sided diet, they offered over sixty different variations through a combination of spices, sauces and accessories matching the seasons. The fresh fowls were bought directly from the local poultry farmer Morton Fredericksen, and that alone vouched for the quality of the products.

Chicky Kingz' white marquee and bright-red lettering added a nice splash of color to the drab Main Street. They were one of only a handful of stores that didn't have a neon sign above the storefront windows, but they didn't really need one as their corporate colors and logos were so striking on their own.

"Mercy Sakes," Wynne mumbled as she strolled past the group, "there ain't nobodda oldah than twentah-five!  Lawrdie, I can't even remembah that far back. Huh… mebbe them Chicky folks be havin' some kind o' openin' offah or som'tin. I bettah check it out…"

Her interest piqued, she made a sharp left and got in line behind the young people. Several of them eyed the interloper cautiously like her far greater age would give her an advantage in getting to the counter ahead of the others - when she grinned at them and tipped her cowboy hat, they turned their backs to her in a hurry.


It took longer than expected to get to the counter - or even inside the new store itself - because they only let in one customer at a time. Wynne found that to be highly puzzling in itself, but when it was finally her turn, it grew even more puzzling as she looked in vain for any kind of menu so she would have a clue what to order. When none could be found, she pushed her cowboy hat forward to have room to scratch her neck.

The interior of the takeout parlor was held deliberately simple: all surfaces were made of glass, aluminum or white tiles to make the cleaning process easier. To keep with the business plan, there were no tables, chairs or even tall bar stools where the customers could wait while their order was being prepared. A sealed door at the back of the room carried several bright-orange warning stickers that all said Mortal Danger!  Class G Industrial Freezer.

Three rotisseries off to the right had been turned on though only one carried a handful of chickens that were in the process of being fried. Four wall-mounted ovens behind the main counter were also empty at present. Two French-fry bowls identical to those Wynne had spent hours watching closely at Moira's Bar & Grill had yet to be filled with frying oil so the wire-baskets that were suspended above them weren't yet operational.

Despite the curious lack of action in the newly opened parlor, the fowls being roasted inside the rotisserie sent out a delightful aroma of fried chicken and top-quality seasoning spices. It made Wynne take a deep sniff and break out in a wide grin.

The employee behind the counter was a clean-shaven fellow in his early thirties who wore an all-white outfit complete with an apron and a ridiculous-looking paper hat. The apron carried the chain's logo which was a stylized cartoon of a chicken, and the paper hat was equipped with netting that held the man's slick, gelled hairdo out of the food.

His scrunched-up face proved he was frustrated about something. As Wynne approached him, he shot her a pre-emptive dark look just to be on the safe side in case the next hopeful would be a bust like the past thirty he had talked to had been.

Moving up to the glass counter, Wynne glanced over at the active rotisserie where the chickens had already turned golden. "Howdy there, pardner… haw, sure does smell good in he'… yessirree. How come ya ain't got no menus or nuttin'?  Ya wanna tell me how we' saposed ta know wotcha got when-"

"Look," the employee said with a clear undertone of impatience to his voice, "are you interested in this thing or not?  My ears have listened to far too much BS today already for idle chit-chat."

Wynne narrowed her eyes as she tried to figure out what the fellow meant. "In'trested?  Hell-yeah, I'm in'trested!  Whaddaya reckon I done walked in he' for?  Gawkin' atcha perdy face, son?  Lawrdie, I ain't-"

"Good. I need to see your driver's license," the employee said and put out his hand palm-up.

"Ya wanna see mah what?" Wynne said while she stared at the open palm like she expected it to be part of a sleight-of-hand trick; then her eyes moved up to the man's face. "Ta buy dang-blasted crispy wings or whatevah?!  Don'tchathink ya folks be takin' this he' fried-chickie-bizz a li'l too seriously or som'tin?"

"I also need to know if you have any convictions for DUI's."

Several seconds went by where Wynne could only stare at the man behind the counter. Then she took off her cowboy hat, stuck it between her knees and finally scratched her scalp using both hands. "Lawrdie, this he' is a purr-fect example o' anothah o' them there weird, weird deals Ah always find mahself in… up ta mah eyeballs in bizzarroh-sauce, that's me, awright…" she mumbled before she plonked her hat back onto her locks.

"Lady, do you want this job or not?" the employee said; crossing his arms over his chest, he managed to shoot Wynne an even darker and surlier look than the earlier one.

"Naw, I jus' want some dog-gone- wait… job?  Ya offerin' me a job?"

A dramatic sigh left the employee's lips. He threw his hands in the air and looked up toward the strip lights in the ceiling. "Yes, for crying out loud!"

"Doin' what?  Dunkin' fries an' roastin' chicky-dees?"

"No, driving our food delivery truck. Didn't you see our job offer?  It was all over Facebook and LinkedIn."

Wynne shrugged. "Lawrdie, I ain't linked in ta nuttin'…"

"I believe you," the white-clad employee mumbled.

Wynne's jaw slowly fell down toward her chest when it dawned on her what was happening; then she shook her head to get everything back in place. "Yuh!  Yuh!  Hell-yuh!  Yuh-yuh-yuh an' anothah yuh!  Y'all bettah bah-lieve Ah want this he' job!  Ah'm reddy ta start in two minutes, Mistah!  I jus' gotta… gotta… call mah… aw-hell, ferget them two minutes… Ah'm reddy now!  Yessirree!"

"That's nice, but I still need to see your driver's license," the employee said and put out his hand all over again. "And I need to know if you have any DUI's or other serious traffic violations."

Grinning, Wynne dug into her rear pocket to find her wallet - the driver's license had soon exchanged hands. "Naw. No DUIs or nuttin'. Nuttin' serious, anyhows. Mebbe a parkin' ticket some years ago or som'tin. Yuh, I reckon I got mahself a couple-a those. Half the dang-blasted popula-shun o' this he' town got a couple-a parkin' tickets, tho'."

"Is it that hard to find somewhere to park?"

"Naw!  An' there ain't nuttin' wrong with our eyesight readin' them signs or nuttin', neithah!  Nosirree. But we's got one helluva strict sheriff who done prefer ta write ten tickets instead o' five, if ya catch mah drift. Snakes Alive, if y'all be plannin' on stayin' he' in Goldsborah fer any length o' time, y'all gonn' run inta that there nasteh crittah Sheriff Rains fer sure. Lemme tell ya som'tin, Mistah… ya ain't nevah heard cussin' until ya been cussed at by the sheriff… yuh."

"My business associate and I have already had the pleasure," the man behind the counter said, rolling his eyes. The driver's license soon exchanged hands once more. "I've written down your information, Miss Donohue. It looks satisfactory. I'm Nelson McConnell, the co-franchise owner of this store. Welcome to Chicky Kingz… the Friendliest Takeout Parlor In Nevada. That's our slogan."

"An' a nice one it is, too, yessir!  Howdy there, Mistah McConnell," Wynne said with a grin as she slotted the plastic card back into her wallet.

While Wynne's new boss went outside to let the waiting teenagers know the position had been filled but that Chicky Kingz was still looking for younger employees to man the counter, Wynne dug into her other pocket to find her smartphone so she could share the big news. Mandy's number was soon found in the registry, but the call went directly to the voice mail service indicating that Senior Deputy Sheriff Mandy Jalinski was either too busy to have her phone turned on or that Sheriff Rains was nearby. Shrugging, Wynne stuffed the telephone back into her pocket.

A moment later, Nelson held the front door ajar and stuck his head inside. "Miss Donohue, the food truck is parked out back. Perhaps you want to familiarize yourself with it?"

"Haw, that there be good thinkin', Mistah McConnell. Lead on!" Wynne said and tipped her beloved cowboy hat. Moving out of the store, she ignored the glares the assembled youthful folks sent her before she turned down the gravelly alley that ran parallel to the building. She could already see the tail-end of a pickup truck that had a large, square box installed in place of the bed similar to the popular camper conversions. "Lawrdie, when I done woke up this morn', I sure as stink-on-shoot didden expect the day ta end with me gettin' a-"

Once the vehicle was fully within her field of view, she came to a screeching halt from one step to the next. Struck speechless, she needed to clamp down on her cowboy hat or else it would have taken off on its own at the sight. The truck appeared to be brand new, and although the stylized Chicky Kingz logo was splashed all over the side of the heating box, it wasn't too bad all things considered. What made her breath hitch and her toes curl themselves into perfect knots down in her boots was the fact that it was a…

"Nissahn… Lawwwwwwr-die," she said in a strangled croak.

"Let me show you how to operate the heating box," Nelson McConnell said, oblivious to his new employee's near-allergic reaction to the make of the vehicle. He moved around the back of the truck and pointed at a panel next to a square door.

Wynne gulped and hurried after her new boss so she wouldn't give him a bad impression of her right off the bat. "Yuh… yuh, I'm he', Mistah McConnell…"

"Okay. We're still getting up to speed in the store, but we'll be fully opened for business in time for the big concert. Once we are, the heating box obviously needs to be powered-up around the clock," Nelson continued while he tapped an index finger onto the panel to illustrate his point. "When you're on the road, this switch needs to be set to the Internal Power setting. Whenever you get back here, flip the switch to External Power and plug in that power cord over there. See it?"

"Yuh…" Wynne said and turned to look at a heavy-duty power cord that hung limply from a secured electrical installation.

"Good. It's connected to the store's power circuit. Oh, and don't forget to remove the power cord and flip the switch before you drive out again!"

"Naw… that woudden be good if I didden, that… will do, Mistah McConnell."

"Using the heating box itself ought to be intuitive so I won't go into detail regarding that."

Wynne was about to ask what 'intuitive' meant, but she decided to ask Mandy later instead. "Yuh… okeh," she said and broke out in a nod.

"Right," Nelson said and took a step back. "At the start of your shift, your colleague manning the counter will bring out the Styrofoam boxes containing the online orders… they have higher priority than those made off the street so they'll be processed first. You'll see the exact addresses and the easiest routes on the GPS display that's mounted on the dashboard. The GPS data is fully automated so you only need to drive where it tells you to go."

"Haw, that's fih-ne an' all, Mistah McConnell, but les'hope it ain't gonn' send me on some adven-chure through that there desert, then. This' only a two-wheel drive truck, ain't it?" Wynne said and bent over to look underneath the vehicle. "Yuh, sure is. Them wagon trails out there in the wide blue yondah ain't gonn' sahrrendah ta nuttin' but one o' them there four-by-fours."

"Oh… really?" Nelson said and furrowed his brow.

"Yuh. Well, on the bright side, there be plentah o' food on this he' lifeboat, huh?  Unless it done happened on the way back ta get the dog-gone thing restocked, o' course. Then ya'd be shafted like a prize turkey."

Nelson scratched his cheek. "Chicky Kingz is still a young company that's only been active in the bigger cities so far. They're branching out into the rural districts… in addition to my store, there's one opening in Collinstown next week-"

"Lawrdie, in Holy City?!  Them Virgin Towah folks gonn' have a collective heart attack when they see that!  That store bettah keep its doors closed on Sundays is all I'm sayin'… if they be open fer bizzness on the Lawrd's day, they gonn' be facin' plentah o' pitchforks an' stinky brimstone, I'm tellin' ya!"

"Oh… is it really that bad up there?"

"Naw, it's worse!  Son, I could tell ya stories 'bout them there Virgin Towah preachers an' mis-shun-airies that would have ya runnin' back ta Renah or wherevah ya be from… but I need this he' job, so I'mma-gonn' keep mah trap shut. Howevah, if I wus you, I'd call them nice Chicky Kingz folks workin' in Collinstown ta give 'em a heads-up or warnin' or whatevah y'all wanna call it."

"I probably should…"


"All right. Do you have any questions regarding the operation of the heating box or the GPS unit?"

"Naw," Wynne said and took a short step backward to take in the sight of the Nissan. It looked sort-of okay if she squinted, but it certainly wasn't what she had wished for given her life-long allegiance to the Bow Tie Brigade. "But I wus wonderin' if y'all didden have anothah truck or som'tin?  Mebbe a Chevrolet or som'tin?  Hell, even an Isuzu 'cos them nice folks be a General Motahs partnah comp'ny."

"No, this is it."

"Right. Yuh. Okeh. I jus' need'a adapt an' ovahcome, then… holy mackerel, ol' Ernie gonn' laugh his ass off when I tell 'im…" Wynne mumbled; she removed her hat to scratch her forehead - the battered headwear was soon back on her locks.

Nelson furrowed his brow again like he didn't quite understand the bigger picture of Wynne's reluctance. After a moment, he shrugged and held out his hand. "Let's go back to the store, Miss Donohue. We have some paperwork to fill out."


The hands of time had moved around to a quarter past nine in the evening before Sheriff Rains exited Derrike Iverson's seedy establishment. By then, he was long past walking in a straight line and he would never have been able to pass one of the sobriety tests he loved to put others through. Nearly a full bottle of Old Number Seven, half a crate of strong beer, several shots of spiced rum and a good dose of brandy sloshed back and forth in his gut for each staggering step he took. The short distance to the office seemed far longer than usual, but he squared his shoulders and attempted to stride along.

He may have been past walking straight, but he certainly hadn't forgotten what had happened during the altercation in the afternoon. The embarrassing defeat at the hands of Mary-Lou Skinner still smarted, and he held an even larger grudge than usual against all and sundry he met along his way - it didn't help that Main Street still saw plenty of SongBirds fans who were typically singing some of the well-known titles while strolling up and down the dead-boring street. Many of those young people received fierce putdowns as a result of their so-called love for traitors of the American heart and soul.

Now and then, he needed to put a supporting hand on the walls he went past since several of them seemed to want to fall down. For every third store he reached, he had to come to a full stop and stare at the window for a while - it worked well at 'Friendly' Sam McCabe's gun shop and even at the Tack & Saddle leather goods shop, but the Yarn Spinners and their selection of sewing and knitting equipment couldn't hold his interest.

As he staggered past the mouth of the next alley, he realized he needed to take a severe leak, so he went down it to conduct his business. The splishing-splashing that followed would have cost him a $100 fine for indecent exposure and urinating in public had one of his deputies been there to witness it.


In the sheriff's office, Mandy had assumed the watch at the top of the hour and thus sat at the desk just inside the door. Despite the high number of people drawn to the town for the big concert, she was pleased the crime rate hadn't gone up. The most grievous case had occurred at Holly's Homey Hair & Nails Salon where an out-of-towner had tried to pay for a haircut with a phoney bill - the person in question was presently cooling her flaps next door in Holding Cell One.

Mandy had talked Thomas Kincaid into taking the evening patrol so the abrasive deputy would be out of her hair; she used the resulting peace and quiet to vacuum the watch desk and get on top of some of the old and new case files and other paperwork. As she moved the vacuum cleaner's nozzle around the filthy desk, it picked up so much ash it nearly choked on it - she could sympathize with it because she would choke on the ash, the smoke, the stink and the other residual effects six days a week.

The cause of the choking, Barry Simms, had retired to the crew room at the back where he was busy rolling a fresh batch of cigarettes from a ten-pound bag of his preferred dirt-cheap waste tobacco. He continued to use store-bought cigarette paper though the high price pained him. He had tried using old newspapers once, but not only had the cigarette literally gone up in flames within seconds, it had badly singed his nose before he could spit it out.

Rodolfo Gonzalez had called the office to let his fellow deputies know he would need to spend at least one more day in bed before he could return; Mandy was severely annoyed by that since it meant she would have to spend even more time around the insufferable Deputy Kincaid.

She had just finished vacuuming the desk's filthy drawers when the door to the office was slammed open with such force it rebounded right back into the path of the person coming through. "Owch!  Goddammit, I'm gonna teach that mother-rotten sonovabitch a thing or two!" Artie Rains barked as he drew his service pistol.

The drunken sheriff aimed at the unarmed and defenseless glass door for a short while until he seemed to realize it would only be a waste of lead. Nodding and grinning over the easy victory, he holstered the pistol and shuffled inside.

Barry Simms came storming out of the crew room to see what the commotion had been about - he had moved so fast he didn't even have a cigarette in his mouth. He and Mandy shared a brief look before he went back to his daily task of rolling his indispensable cigarettes.

The Sheriff's complexion was on the wrong side of scarlet and his eyes were bleary and blood-shot. He didn't wear his Mountie hat or his winter jacket, and his uniform shirt had been pulled out of his pants and unbuttoned most of the way down to his belly button - he had even lost his brand new necktie somewhere. To compensate for the missing pieces of clothing, a jack of diamonds and a seven of clubs peeked out of his left chest pocket.

Mandy kept quiet and focused on rolling up the vacuum cleaner's power cable.

"Manly!" the sheriff slurred while leaning against the wall by the gun cabinet. When his knees began wobbling under his large frame, he shuffled over to one of the swivel-chairs to avoid getting a faceful of linoleum. He bumped down into it like a ton of cement, but although it let out a pitiful creak, it held up to the torture. "There's gonna be a demonstration on Saturday when the traitors show up. Yessir!  The newly formed League of Patriotic Citizens of Goldsboro is gonna demonstrate against Sonny Shanghai and his hippie cronies. Derrike's the chairman. Yessir!  I gave it the official seal of approval… hell, I gave it my blessing!"

Artie Rains' voice grew stronger as he spoke, and it was clear he was only just getting started on his speech. The poor swivel-chair had to suffer more torture when he shuffled his wide rear around on the seat. "Yessir, it's about time we true-blue 'Mericans hoisted Old Glory and fought back against the sickenin' tide of political correctness. Hell, when even the Great American SongBirds change their name, it's high time for action!  And action is what we'll have at the concert, yessir!  Derrike and the League of Patriots will show up in great numbers that'll tell the damn world we won't take it lying down-"

The unfortunate words had barely left the sheriff's mouth before the swivel-chair gave up the unequal struggle with the mountain of lard that sat on it - the central rod holding the seat in place snapped a bolt in two which sent the whole thing tilting to the side. In turn, that made Sheriff Artie Rains slide off the chair and slam shoulder-first into the cracked linoleum. "Owch… sonovabitch!  Goddamned piece of shit!" he growled as he fumbled and bumbled to get back up.

At the watch desk, Mandy clapped a hand over her eyes and let out a long groan - she remembered all too well what had happened the last time the sheriff had been introduced to the floor the hard way. Then, it had been up at Derrike Iverson's bar, and it had taken the combined strength of four deputies to get the large fellow right-side-up.

"Manly, Goddammit… don't just stand there!  C'mon over and help me up!"

"Yes, Sheriff," Mandy said and put down the power cable. Just as she did so, the door to the street opened once more.

Time seemed to come to a complete standstill as Wynne Donohue entered the sheriff's office with a look on her face that told a story of having something really, really, really exciting to share - then she caught an eyeful of Artie Rains on the floor. The Last Original Cowpoke furrowed her brow and looked over to the watch desk to lock eyes with Mandy.

It was clear by the conflicted look on Wynne's face that she didn't know whether to laugh at the sheriff or commiserate with her partner considering what the senior deputy was about to go through. In any case, Wynne knew better than to be anywhere near the sheriff when he was in one of his moods - or just plain, ol' drunk - so she tipped her cowboy hat, spun around and left in a hurry.

Sighing, Mandy went to work trying to right the beached whale all over again. It took a lot of elbow grease, plenty of mumbled cussing and even a rolling beer-and-bourbon fart by the sheriff to get him back on his hands and knees. From there, he could grab hold of the corner of the nearest desk and drag himself upright.

In the middle of all that activity, Barry Simms had come out of the crew room. He had spent exactly two seconds observing the human salvage operation before he spun around and went back to where he had come from.

Once Artie Rains was back on his feet, he staggered over to the four-legged chair at the watch desk and sat down with a heavy bump. Growling, he rummaged through all the desk's drawers to look for a bottle of booze. The growl only turned deeper when he was unable to find anything.

Instead, he picked up the receiver of the old Bakelite telephone on the watch desk and dialed the appropriate number to Grant Lafferty's Beer & Liquor Imports further south on Main Street.

Mandy could have mentioned that the sheriff was in the process of breaking at least half a dozen of the rules and regulations that had been set up for the MacLean County's Sheriff's Department - not to mention that those rules and regulations all carried the sheriff's name on the final page - but she chose not to. She could also have mentioned that instead of organizing even more alcohol that would undoubtedly leave him even more drunk and incapable of taking care of himself, he ought to call a cab that could take him home, but that was also left unsaid.


Ten minutes later, Grant's delivery boy had been by with a bottle of Highland Elixir Single Malt Scotch. The sheriff was already pouring himself his second drink when Thomas Kincaid returned to the office after his patrol.

Being exceptionally experienced with the sheriff's boozing, Kincaid didn't even blink an eyelid at the sight of Artie Rains sitting at the watch desk drinking whisky.

Although the chair-related accident had cleared Rains' mind for a while, his face soon fell back into the bleary-eyed state it had been in when he had first entered the office. He needed to look around several times until he found Mandy's familiar shape working at the smaller of the two desks. "Manly!  It's high time we taught those showfolk freaks a lesson. They might as well learn the hard way who owns this town. Yessir!  I want you to ransack that tour bus the Goddamned Chinaman arrived in… and the backstage area too. All those long-haired roadies and musicians… we all know what kinda life they live!  Whoring, boozing, smoking weed and snorting cocaine!  Find me some incriminating evidence so we can lock 'em up for the weekend and then kick 'em outta town… don't bother coming back before you have some. Take Simms and Kincaid with ya. Get to it!"

Mandy let out a barely audible sigh as she rose from the second desk. She sent the drunken sheriff a dark look that explained quite clearly that if he was that eager to dig up some filth, he ought to do it himself. Like before, she kept it all on the inside and settled for striding over to the wall to get her winter jacket and her Mountie hat. She considered bringing her nightstick for the dirty task but decided against it - there would be enough frayed tempers even without such a manifestation of police oppression.

Thomas 'Tom Thumb' Kincaid came out of the restroom at the back of the office at the same time. Having heard the sheriff's command, he assumed a surly expression and shot Mandy a glare that conveyed exactly what he had on his mind.

It all added up to a thumping headache for Mandy. She couldn't disobey the sheriff's direct order, she couldn't tell Kincaid to get lost and she couldn't even go easy on Sonny Chang, the roadies or the backing musicians. With Artie Rains' personal stool pigeon coming along for the assignment, she would need to follow the law to the letter or else he'd rat out on her.

Stomping over to the door to the crew room, she swung it open with more force than absolutely necessary. "Deputy Simms!" she barked to get Barry's attention. "Suit up!  We're going to war!"

The deputy sat at the round table in the hope of staying out of harms' way. He was smoking one of his ubiquitous home-rolled cigarettes while reading a newspaper, but he almost dropped both at the unusual tone in Mandy's voice. Though his eyes gained a spooked quality akin to a jackrabbit caught in a pair of fast-moving headlights, he was soon on his feet and heading for the hallstand where he had left his uniform jacket.



Three days later: January 30th - the day of the big event.

At half past eleven in the morning, Main Street was once again awash in all sorts of colorful garb as the countless fans of the SongBirds had shown up in force from the crack of dawn to get the best viewing spots.

A great deal of the female fans present wore the same kind of city-chic cowboy outfits that the singing group did in their music videos and their stage shows, so that meant there was plenty of white trail boots, short skirts and frilly Western shirts adorned with rhinestones and fake rubies. Most wore low-crowned Stetson-lookalikes that sat crooked just like the SongBirds wore them, but a few wore toboggans carrying various political statements to appear a little on the edge or even trailer-park-chic. The male fans were dressed more traditionally in rugged boots, trucker caps, flannel shirts, plenty of blue or black denim and the occasional camouflage vest.

The deputies added their own splashes of color to the proceedings - for Mandy and the returnee Rodolfo Gonzalez, the splash happened to be in various shades of brown as they continued to sport their old uniforms. Mandy's problems with the ill-fitting garments had yet to be solved, and Rodolfo had spilled chili ketchup all over his new set so he'd had to drag the old one back out of the deepest part of his wardrobe. Barry Simms, Thomas Kincaid and Sheriff Rains all wore the brand new black-and-gray outfits that were such an improvement over the old horrors they even made the sheriff appear semi-human.

The poor deputy sheriffs had worked flat-out all morning to block off Main Street. Two dozen barriers that would restrict any kind of vehicular activity not connected to the band had been put up by hand - it had been back-breaking work since the barriers had a base of concrete so they couldn't easily be pushed aside by even a speeding truck intent on causing havoc.

The sheriff had rented a forklift from Wyatt Elliott's hardware store to help with the heavy lifting, but the machine's stamina had proved lacking as it broke down irreparably after the first four barriers had been moved into position. Artie Rains wasn't particularly surprised by its impotence when he noticed the letters M-I-T-S-U-B-I-S-H-I stenciled onto the back of the machine.

Once they were finally done dragging the barriers around, Mandy flexed her fingers in the hope that some of the numbness would go away. The flexing helped enough to enable her to take off her Mountie hat so she could wipe her brow.

Rodolfo's old uniform shirt had huge sweat stains under his arms and all the way up and down his back; Barry's complexion had turned grayer than the flagstones on the sidewalk, and although he puffed hard on a cigarette, it looked as if he was about to faint. And finally, as expected, 'Tom Thumb' had barely broken a sweat after claiming to be allergic to concrete. When even the sheriff had chewed him out for leaving all the work to his colleagues, he had reluctantly donned a pair of gloves to help. Even so, the little he had done had been more of a hindrance than anything else.

Rodolfo took several deep swigs from a bottle of spring water that he had bought at Moira's. His medium-brown complexion was still on the pale side after his recent illness, but his slicked-back hair was as cool and classy as ever. "Damn," he croaked as he wiped his lips on the back of his hand. "I could have lived without doing this. Mandy, we were interrupted before… so what came out of the supposed drug bust over at the stage?"

Mandy let out a dark grunt and shook her head as she thought back to the embarrassing fiasco. "Nothing. Nothing whatsoever. All Mr. Chang's permits were in perfect order so that part was dead in the water from the outset. Also, the tour company has strict policies on the use of alcohol and recreational drugs. They're enforced with an iron fist so we could forget all about finding drunken or high roadies. Oh, but we did find one marihuana joint under the bass player's mattress. One." To illustrate her point, Mandy held up an index finger.

"Wow, talk about the bust of the century, huh?" Rodolfo said with a grin.

Nodding, Mandy glanced around to locate Artie Rains to make sure he wasn't within earshot. The large man leaned against the door to the sheriff's office across the street - undoubtedly so he could stagger inside to sit down whenever his latest hangover made its presence felt. "Yeah… Rains nearly exploded when we got back empty-handed. Then he fell asleep at the watch desk."


There was a lull in the proceedings so Barry Simms shuffled over to his fellow deputies. He lit a new cigarette with the last glow of the old one like he always did - it saved him a fortune in matches or lighter fluid. A column of foul-smelling smoke soon rose from the tip that forced him to blink several times to keep his eyes safe from the low-grade waste tobacco. "Man-oh-man, this was hard work. Anybody got some food they'd like to share?  I'll trade you a cig for a sandwich…"

"And that's a good offer… how?" Rodolfo said with a grin; he reached out to give Barry's shoulder a little slap.

Simms had already opened his mouth to bite back when a coughing fit rolled over him instead. Once it had receded, he took an extra-deep puff from his cigarette to cover for the missing twenty seconds. "Yeah, yeah. Whatever. It was nice of Mr. Chang to offer us complimentary tickets the other night, though. I still can't believe we weren't allowed to accept 'em… I mean… I don't get it."

"It's because of the risk of corruption, Barry," Mandy said while she tried - in vain - to fan the smoke away from her nostrils. "A complimentary ticket here, a free meal there… a new TV set or a new refrigerator. Your name will appear on someone's pay-off list. And when it does, someone will eventually call you and ask for a favor in return."

"I suppose, but…" Barry said before he suddenly clammed up and offered Mandy a squinting look. A deep puff followed before he said: "Why do I get the feeling that's personal experience talking?"

"It is and it isn't. And that marks the end of that particular subject, Barry."

Smoke slowly trickled up from the home-rolled cigarette while Barry studied Mandy's face that seemed far more closed off than normal. It soon became clear he wasn't about to get anything else out of her. "Okay. None of my business, anyway," he said before he took another deep puff.


A loud cheer from halfway up Main Street turned out to be a false alarm - instead of the arrival of the touring coach carrying the SongBirds, the cheer was for Goldsboro's long-time veterinarian, the white-haired Dr. Byron Gibbs, who had come to the assistance of a terrier pup that had become stuck under a park bench in all its eagerness to explore it.

The hard-working deputies of Goldsboro were only allowed a brief moment of peace before the next drama occurred: the glass door to Derrike Iverson's Bar was opened to reveal a motley crew of protesters and demonstrators. The self-appointed League Of Patriotic Citizens stepped onto the sidewalk carrying banners, American flags and home-made signs that were all adorned with various political statements and anti-SongBirds slogans.

Unlike the promised unstoppable wave of protest, the members of the Patriotic League could be counted on two hands - and there would even be a couple of fingers to spare. Eight men, six of which were bearded, burly and dressed in hunting or camouflage fatigues, began to chant to get a vibe going. Derrike Iverson himself was the seventh man, but he didn't seem too firm in his beliefs as he hadn't even taken off his beer-stained apron. The eighth and final Patriot was the retired pro-wrestler Joe-Bob Millard who wore regular clothes and who appeared to be three sheets to the wind already. The former Manbeast Of Yucky Flats turned left to stagger home when his comrades-in-arms turned right which left the protest demonstration somewhat amputated even before it had begun for real.

To counter the negative chanting, the massive amount of SongBirds fans present on Main Street began to sing one of the band's most popular hits. As a thousand or more voices all sang as one, the Patriotic League's fighting spirit soon fizzled out, and they returned to Derrike's bar to wet their dry throats instead - the fight of the righteous few had to be postponed to another day.

The embarrassing defeat didn't sit well with Artie Rains who stormed out onto the street and slammed his hands onto his extra-wide hips. He scowled so darkly at the assembled fans that a group of them stopped singing. His non-verbal assault only had limited success, however, as other fans soon took over where the intimidated had left off.


Across the street, Ernie Bradberry, Wynne Donohue, the German Shepherd Blackie and the Golden Retriever Goldie occupied an entire park bench by themselves.

Blackie soon jumped down onto the sidewalk while keeping a keen doggy-eye on everything that transpired in their part of town. Though she kept up a commentary of the goings-on by woof'ing and yapping infrequently, the sounds were all easy-going indicating that she hadn't seen anything that required her involvement. Goldie flaked out between Ernie and Wynne while resting her golden head in her owner's lap. Her wagging tail proved she was having a whale of a time nested between the two friendly humans who often reached down to rub her fur.

The Town Council had put up the benches at regular intervals along Main Street in the hope of creating a little life in the typically quiet Goldsboro, but although the wooden benches were of top-quality craftsmanship, it hadn't helped as they were mostly used by locals who were already there. Apart from the year's main events like Veteran's Day, the Fourth of July parade, the rare special event at the movie theater or whenever there would be dirt-racing out at Thunder Park, not a single tourist ever found their way to the small desert town.

A suspicious-looking plastic carrier bag that sent out familiar clings and clangs as it was moved around was on Ernie's left, and Wynne had a pair of half-full cardboard frames at her feet.

Now and then, she reached down to get a new can of Double Zero that she could drink openly because of their lack of alcohol. To know for sure - and to have something they could rub Artie Rains' nose in - Wynne and Ernie had called the Town Council to ask about the legal status of non-alcoholic beers specifically. They had been told that all beverages that did not contain alcohol were to be treated as soft drinks. In other words, it was perfectly fine for them to drink Double Zeros on the street in full view of everyone.

Ernie was presently less fortunate as he had to conceal his more potent beer in a plain brown wrapper - it had already been soaked through in places as a result of the inevitable spillages.

"Lawrdie, that protest march wus jus' pathetic. Nuttin' but limp spaghetti," Wynne said as she scratched her neck. "It seems ta me them there patriots done got their bee-hinds whipped by that there funneh thing called progress… huh?"

"Yup. I'll drink to that," Ernie said and promptly downed a large swig of his concealed beer.

"Now that's a wondahful idea, Ernie." The next few seconds were held in silence as a pair of beers were poured down a pair of gullets. Once the cans were empty, Wynne let out a resounding belch before she threw the empty container down into the cardboard frame. "Haw, 'scuse me an' all. Them Dubbel-Zerahs sure got one helluva mule-kick to 'em sometimes."

"Most of the times."

"True, dat. Lookie there, there's mah sweet, li'l De-per-ty Mandy!" Wynne said and waved her cowboy hat at Mandy who happened to look in her direction at the time. Goldie moved her head up and let out a few happy yaps as well. When the wave had been replied to in time-honored fashion, Wynne plonked her hat back onto her dark locks, and Goldie snuggled down to rest in her owner's denim-clad lap once more. "Lawrdie, I wus hopin' so hard she'd get that there fan-cee new yoo-niform o' theirs, but naw. She still gotta wear that there turd-brown polly-ester horrah show."

Ernie was too busy rummaging through his bag of liquid goodies to have time to see anything. When he found a can of Midnight Velvet Stout, he broke out in a grin - then he cracked it open, shoved it into the wrapper and took a long swig of the brown ale. "Yeah… what was up with that, anyway?"

"Somebodda seemed ta ferget she wus a wimmenfolk. Shoot, ya shoulda seen them there yoo-niform pants… good flip almighteh, she coudden even move 'em up above her hips much less close that there button. An' I ain't even gonn' men-shun them there new shirts o' hers. Lemme jus' say they wussen made fer nobodda but fellahs… if ya catch mah drift," Wynne said and held up her hands at chest-height to illustrate her point.

"Ah… okay. Say no more."

"I wussen gonna!"

Chuckling, Ernie took another long swig of the stout. The rich, brown ale left a fair-sized foam line in his walrus mustache, but it was nothing the back of his hand couldn't deal with. "Let's change the subject. When do you need to be over at Chicky Kingz for your first shift?"

"Aw, lessee," Wynne said and looked at her smartphone's display, "not fer anothah couple-a hours. Mista McConnell prolly busy gettin' them there ovens an' things up an' runnin' so they be reddy. But they ain't mah respon-sa-bility, nosirree. An' then I'll be tourin' the countryside in mah Nissahn… can ya bah-lieve dat?"

Ernie leaned over the resting Goldie to nudge an elbow in his friend's ribs. "Frankly, no. I really, really need a pic of you behind the wheel of a Nissan, Wynne…"

"Yuh, yuh… laff it up, son. Laff it up 's all Ah'm sayin'…"


Mandy, Rodolfo and Barry cursed the 'hurry up and wait' scenario they suddenly found themselves in - if they had known the band would be so late in arriving, they wouldn't have worked their behinds off putting up all the concrete-reinforced barriers. The three deputies had little to do but to kick their heels, call their girlfriends and smoke another three or four cigarettes.

Rodolfo took care of the girlfriend part as he had his personal smartphone glued to his ear. He spoke Spanish with his fiancée Dolores de la Vega who was away on business at a cattle auction in northern California, and the bawdy grin he had plastered onto his lips offered a hint that it was an adult conversation.

Barry was too busy puffing on his home-rolled cigarettes to have time to speak to anyone, but Mandy was about to get an earful - she groaned inwardly as she noticed Thomas Kincaid exiting the sheriff's office with an even sourer look upon his face than usual.

When the perennially workshy deputy spotted Mandy's familiar figure, he stomped over to her and grabbed hold of her shoulder to turn her around. The overly aggressive gesture caused several thunderous barks to float across the street from the park bench.

Grabbing her shoulder was apparently not enough because he stuck his face right into hers to deliver his point: "Manly, I'm sick and tired of you treating me like a shit you stepped in!  I don't know what kind of lies you've fed to Rains, but he just told me he's pulling me off the roster!  That fat asshole is suspending me for three weeks without pay!"

Mandy let out a grunt at the surprising news. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Wynne looking ready, willing and able to go ten rounds against the deputy everyone called 'Tom Thumb' because of his expertise in dealing cards. "I had nothing to do with that," she said coolly as she reached up to pry his hand off her.

"Like hell you didn't!  You've been a Goddamned thorn in my side ever since I got here… why?  Are you threatened by my masculinity?"

While Mandy tried to come up with a response to the surreal question, Barry Simms let out a series of coughs that sounded suspiciously like he was mocking his fellow deputy and his outrageous behavior. He hid it with a new and even deeper puff on his cigarette but the message had already come across.

By now, Wynne and Blackie were on their way over to the awkward scene. It was obvious by the way they strode along that Wynne had a mind to open up a can of good, old-fashioned whoop-ass on Thomas Kincaid, and that Blackie had developed a sudden urge to test her bark and bite.

The small spot in the middle of Main Street soon resembled an Old West standoff: it had heroic star-packers carrying guns, a denim-clad avenger accompanied by a fierce hound, a heavily smoking sidekick, a sneering villain clad in black-and-gray, and even cheerful spectators wearing Western garb. The only oddity to the familiar scene was that the sneering villain wore the same colors as two of the heroic star-packers.

Thomas Kincaid let out a disdainful snort at the sight of The Last Original Cowpoke and the growling dog striding toward him on an arrow-straight trajectory. "Of course Dono-fool comes to your rescue, Manly. You're so great together… she's got no brain and you've got no balls. A match made in heaven!"

"Kincaid," Rodolfo said in a low, dangerous tone, "why don't you shut your pie hole before you lose your teeth?  'Cos that's where you're headed-"

"You butt out of this, Gonzalez!  I'll let you know when I want any Mexican words of wisdom… and I'll shut up when Manly apologizes for being an asshole to me all the time I've worked here!"

Barry wanted to add his two cents' worth to the conversation as well, but before he could do more than open his mouth, he was overcome by a fit that had him hacking, coughing and spluttering. All he could do was watch Rodolfo reach out and grab hold of Thomas' necktie.

"It's because you're a rotten creep, you sonovabitch," Rodolfo growled directly into Thomas Kincaid's face. "I suggest you walk away right now. You hear me?  Right now. If you're still here in one minute, it's gonna get real ugly."

Deputy Kincaid reached up to pry Rodolfo's hand off his tie but found he was at a disadvantage when it came to their relative strength. "Get your greasy hand off me, Gonzalez… or I swear to God I'll smack you so hard you'll crawl back to Mexico!" he said in a voice that proved they were within a few heartbeats of getting physical.

"And your star would make it all right, wouldn't it?" Rodolfo growled through clenched teeth.

Wynne and Mandy shared a long look through the thick clouds of testosterone that billowed across Main Street. The look seemed to say that violence was rarely the answer to any conflict, especially not one involving an officer of the law. Wynne eventually broke out in a cool grin at Kincaid's expense - Blackie was less inclined to let it go so she kept up her growling for a while longer.

Thomas 'Tom Thumb' Kincaid's eyes shot fire at each and every one of the people around him. He wisely kept his mouth shut, but the clenched jaw and the scrunched-up lips proved it wasn't easy for him. "Go to hell, you sons-a-bitches," he eventually croaked before he tore his tie free of Rodolfo's grip. Then he spun around on his heel and walked away. Instead of going back to the sheriff's office, he went into Derrike Iverson's bar and slammed the glass door shut behind them.

The deputies had no time to reflect on the drama as a howl of excitement suddenly rose from the spectators. A large and highly luxurious touring coach had appeared at the far end of Main Street and was driving slowly down toward Mrs. Peabody's boarding house.

"All right!  Back to work," Mandy said and clapped her hands to get everyone's attention. "We're a man short now so we'll have to pull more than our own weight. Deputy Simms, you better stock up on your nicotine… you won't have time to smoke for a while."

"Oh, Gawd…" Barry croaked. After finishing his current cigarette with a huge puff that left it as nothing more than a stick of ash, he rummaged through all his pockets to find the pack of nicotine chewing gum he had bought for just such an eventuality. Though the packaging said only one piece of gum was needed, he popped three of the white squares into his mouth at once to be on the safe side. Soon, his facial muscles worked overtime to infuse his system with the surrogate substance.

Wynne chuckled at the sight; she only needed to crack open a can to get her kicks. The moment wasn't right for giving Mandy a good-luck kiss, so she settled for winking at the senior deputy sheriff. The wink was returned in kind before Goldsboro's remaining three officers took off in a fast jog to get to the boarding house ahead of the touring coach - Barry was soon lagging far behind his fitter colleagues.

A moment or two later, Ernie and Goldie joined Wynne in the middle of Main Street. The former took a long swig from a concealed can before he handed his friend a Double Zero. "Here ya go… damn, it's been a while since we've had such a showdown here in town, huh?  It reminded me of a wrestlin' stunt on teevee!"

"Thanks, Ernie," Wynne said and manipulated the small metal tab at once. "Yuh, that wus som'tin else. Huh, I sure do hope we done seen the last o' that there sombitch Kincaid. Lawrdie, he always makes me wanna puke whenevah I see 'im."

"Me too. He ain't right in the head," Ernie said and let out a dark chuckle.

Another cheer rose from the spectators as the touring coach came to a halt at the curb - two of the three deputies were already there to perform crowd control. The third showed up not long after though his facial color could best be described as being one step from the grave.

"Hey, Ernie… ya wanna meandah ovah there ta get a closah look at them SongBirds?" Wynne said as she wiped the inevitable foam mustache off her upper lip.

"Not really. Too many screamin' teenies for my taste."

"Yuh, ain't that the truth, friend… haw, them clevah dawggies he' don't like them unruly crowds, anyhows. Somebodda steppin' on yer paws or yer tail sure ain't no fun, nosirree."

Ernie furrowed his brow; while taking a long swig of his beer, he leaned to the side and looked down to see if Wynne had grown a tail or if her statement had only been oddly phrased - it proved to be the latter.

"Ernie Bradberrah, whaddindahell 'r ya doin', man?"

"Nothin'. Just checkin'."

"Checkin' what?"


"Yuh, huh?" Wynne said and let out a chuckle. The can of Double Zero was soon emptied and shoved into a pocket so it could join its brethren in the recycling bag later. "Anyhows, if ya int'rested, we's got time fer a couple-a rounds o' pool ovah at Moira's befo' I need'a go ta work."

"Ah yes. Drivin' your Nissan around the Nevadan countryside."

Wynne had already begun strolling over to Moira's Bar & Grill when she came to a halt and let out a groan. Down below, Blackie and Goldie came to a stop as well and shared a puzzled look at the unpredictable behavior of their owner. "Mercy Sakes," Wynne said and shot Ernie a look of pure exasperation, "when ya gonn' let that go, son?!"

Shaking his head, Ernie reached over to slap his friend's shoulder - then he let out a loud laugh. "As soon as I got a photo of ya holdin' the steerin' wheel… of a Nissan."

"Aw, Lawwwr-die… there ain't no gettin' away from it, is there?"



Within the Goldsboro town limits, only those suffering from hearing loss could miss the sound checks and final rehearsals that went on at the stage set up for the SongBirds. A dozen instruments, two dozen microphones and eight blocks of amplifiers were checked and rechecked to such an extent that more than twenty people had already called the sheriff's office to complain about the sound pollution - the kicking bass drum alone made cupboards rattle all over town. At least the backing singers were allowed to sing complete songs rather than repeat the same five notes ad nauseam like the horn section and the bass and rhythm guitars.

Rodolfo sat at the watch desk keeping track of the incoming calls when Mandy opened the door and moved her head inside. "We could use you up at Mrs. Peabody's, Deputy Gonzalez," she said with a smile.

"I know, but…" - Rodolfo pointed at the door to the restroom at the back of the office. Just as he did so, the sound of a flushing toilet was heard; soon, Sheriff Rains stepped out while still zipping his fly.

The large man was so preoccupied trying to get his large fingers wrapped around the tiny metal zipper that he didn't notice Mandy standing in the doorway. "Goddamn piece of crap," he mumbled as he strode forward while looking down at the reluctant zipper. "Ain't it typical that the new pants are equipped with this kind of horseshit?  I need a Goddamned microscope to find that rotten thing… who the hell can work this piece of-"

"Sheriff!" Mandy said and took a quick step aside.

Artie Rains finally stopped on a dime inches before he would have mown down his senior deputy. Looking up, he furrowed his brow as he took in Mandy's presence like he had no idea how she had appeared in the doorway. "Jalinski… why are you here?  There's no Goddamned way you're already finished at the stage."

"No, Sheriff… I came by to ask Deputy Gonzalez if he could assist us-"

"He can't. I need him here," the sheriff said without even looking at the deputy in question.

"Yes, Sheriff."

Artie Rains grunted and resumed trying to yank the zipper up to the upper stop. His gestures grew more and more unrestrained until it became obvious that he would tear the puller tab clean off if he didn't calm down - even he seemed to realize that fact and gave it a temporary rest that left him with his fly standing wide open. "Where's Deputy Kincaid?  He's supposed to be helping you," he said in a growl.

"The Deputy was last seen entering Derrike Iverson's establishment, Sheriff. That was a fair while ago now," Mandy said with all the professionalism she could muster. "He told me he was handed a three-week suspension… may I ask why?"

The sheriff resumed working on the zipper's puller tab instead of answering. After five more violent jerks, he finally managed to get the reluctant metal flap pulled up to the upper stop. Grunting in annoyance, he shuffled over to the watch desk where he rested a sizable buttock on the corner.

He sucked on his meaty lips for a moment before he decided to let the cat out of the bag: "In the morning mail, I found an official letter co-signed by Mayor Holliman, Judge Etherington and Senior Councilwoman Skinner. It appears they've each received a folder of eleven hand-written affidavits from female residents of Goldsboro. All eleven claimed to have been sexually harassed by Thomas Kincaid. I've rarely smelt a worse heap of bullcrap."

"I believe them."

Rains' lips parted into a sneer. "Well, of course you would. You're a woman. Or you resemble one, anyway. Ain't that so… Manly?"

The corner of the desk proved too uncomfortable to sit on for the sheriff's wide rear, so he got up and shuffled over to one of the chairs instead. He was within easy reach of the coffee machine, so he took the glass pot and poured a healthy amount of the dark-brown liquid into the cleanest mug he could find on the small table. "Anyway, the letter stated that if I didn't act, the Judge and the Town Council would alert the State Police. I called that Skinner woman at once to tell her she had no right to interfere in how my department is run, but she gave me her regular holier-than-thou crap speech. She forced my hand… so Kincaid had to go. I called it a suspension but he ain't coming back," he continued before he took a long swig of the coffee.

"I see," Mandy said in a chilly voice.

"I'm sure you do. Now get back to the stage. We'll call you on the radio in case there's any trouble you need to solve," the sheriff said before grabbing and opening a binder.

The gesture signaled the end of the conversation, so Mandy left the office once more to return to her post - she pressed on in her regular stride that seemed even more determined after Artie Rains' latest batch of abrasive words.


A minute later, the senior deputy sheriff passed by the alley next to the new Chicky Kingz takeout parlor. If she had spent a moment glancing up the alley, she would have spotted Ernie Bradberry holding up his telephone while standing in front of the store's white delivery truck. "Aaaaand… yep, gotcha!" he said before checking the quality of the image.

Sitting behind the wheel of the Nissan, Wynne let out a deep sigh as she stuck her head out of the open window to look at the beaming fellow outside. "Lawrdie, tell me that wus it… puh-lease!"

"That's it, Wynne. All done. Unless ya want me to shoot a little video as well?"

"Aw-hell no!"

"Okay," Ernie said and put his telephone away. "My lips are zipped from now on no matter what they force you to drive. Hey, maybe they'll buy you a Ford next?  Oh… sorry, I guess that one slipped through the gap in my teeth," he continued while displaying a wicked grin.

Blackie growled, Goldie whimpered and Wynne shot her buddy such a dark glare he should have ended up as another pile of rubble on the gravelly alley. When she spoke, she did so in a low, dangerous tone: "Ah'mma-gonn' pretend Ah didden hear that, friend. But Ah think that there fierce dawggie Blackie might'a heard y'all flappin' yer gums. Perhaps ya oughtta think twice the next time ya gonn' bend ovah ta tie yer shoelaces or som'tin…"

"Yeah, yeah," Ernie said with a grin as he waved dismissively at his friend. "Blackie's attitude only lasts until she gets to snuggle up on my plush seats on our way home. And Goldie loves me."

Wynne chuckled and started the Nissan. It had a six-cylinder engine instead of a proper vee-eight, so it didn't even sound right. Even so, she had to admit it was a far more comfortable ride than her old Chevrolet. "Yuh, well… see ya tomorrah, Ernie. Have a cool evenin', yuh?"

"You too- hold it!  Hit them brakes, pardner!" Ernie suddenly cried; he even jumped in front of the white delivery truck to make sure it came to a stop.

"Whaddahell, Ernie?!  Ya dyin' ta be a hood ornament or som'tin?!" Wynne roared out of the open window after she had slammed her boot down onto the brake pedal.

"The power cord!  You didn't disconnect the external power cord!"

"Awwwwww-crap!  Crap, crap, crap, crap… an' anothah crap fer good me-shure," Wynne said and scrambled from the truck. She stormed around to the heating box at the back to check for any damage to the panel or the connection - fortunately for her peace of mind, everything was still in good order. After checking everything twice to make sure nothing had been pulled crooked or even loose, she unplugged the external power cord and flipped the switch to make the heating box run on internal power.

"Snakes Alive, that woulda been a new world rekkerd in gettin' mah ass dumped from a job… even fer mah rotten standards," Wynne mumbled before she took off her cowboy hat to rub her brow. As she shuffled back to the open door, she shot her friend a smile of relief. "Lawwwwr-die, I sure do thank ye, Ernie. Dang, it's good ta know who mah buddies are… I owe ya a six-pack o' them there brown stouts y'all enjoy so much."

"That's what friends are for, Wynne. Forget it. Where's ya first stop?"

"Uh, lemme see…" Wynne said and leaned over to study the display on the GPS installed on the dashboard. "Uh, yuh… well… hmmm. Outside o' Goldsborah, anyhows. I ain't too sure this he' gee-pee-ess thingamabob be talkin' mah lang-witch. Oh yuh, he' we go… a suburb ta North Greenville, yessirree."

"All right. Well, keep on truckin', Wynne. See ya tomorrow."

"See ya, Ernie, ya ol' sombitch!  See ya, ya wondahful dawggies!" Wynne said and pressed the horn twice. When all the action produced was a pitiful beeeep rather than the airhorn-salute she had been hoping for, she let out a long groan and shook her head in despair.


After a fifty-mile, fourteen-stop round trip through the desolate Nevadan countryside that had involved eleven whole fried chickens, nine halved chickens, seven boxes of crispy BBQ wings, five boxes of chili drumsticks, three pounds of chicken mincemeat, two boxes of tender breast fillet in garlic sauce, and one utterly confused Wynne Donohue, the white delivery truck finally returned to Goldsboro's deserted Main Street.

Wynne's confusion had been brought on by the GPS that had often sent her the long, long, long way around to her next customer instead of going the direct route. She already had an intense disliking of a great deal of the modern electronic appliances, and the troublesome and illogical device only confirmed all her notions about the evil microchips being up to no good.

The final stop had been the most frustrating, and she was relieved it hadn't happened earlier in her run. She had needed to backtrack not once, not twice but three times to find a better route to a customer: the GPS had first told her to drive along a wagon trail where the ruts were far too deep for the truck's ground clearance. After recalculating, the device had told her to drive across a rickety wooden cattle bridge that couldn't hold up a jackrabbit much less a Nissan. After a second redo, it had told her to use a dried-up creek that saw so many man-sized boulders she would have needed a Sherman tank to clear them all.

Still, she had done her part well by delivering all the correct orders to the correct customers. The only food-related foul-up that had occurred during her first shift had taken place when a customer had changed his order so late that Wynne had already left Goldsboro. Hector Chavez had been peeved by the mix-up to say the least, but he and Wynne had known each other for years so he promised he wouldn't cause her any problems by complaining to the parlor's owners.

The wind-swept Main Street may have been devoid of life save for the odd truck that rumbled past, but it was anything but quiet. Wynne didn't even need to roll down the window to tell that the big concert was in full swing. The dark sky above the field behind Mrs. Peabody's boarding house was constantly lit up by flashes of multi-colored lights from the stage, and the amplifiers picked up the band's lead singers and rhythm musicians and distributed their output all over town.

The regular, highly weird phenomenon - completely incomprehensible for anyone but professors of tenth-level quantum mechanics - came through in full effect: while the singing grew increasingly distorted the further away the listener was, the drums and especially the bass guitar came through loud and clear no matter where the innocent bystanders tried to hide from the penetrating tones.

Wynne felt more like sleeping than hiding. To combat the drowsy state before she needed to return to the takeout parlor to prepare for her next run, she reached into her pocket to find her smartphone. Mandy's number was soon found and selected.

'Hi, Wynne!' Mandy soon said through the connection - the fact she had replied to the call meant the sheriff was nowhere near her.

"Howdy, darlin'!" Wynne said and pulled over to the curb so she wouldn't break any of the countless traffic laws on her first day. "I'm back in Goldsborah aftah my first chicken run, dontchaknow!  Mercy Sakes, that there gee-pee-ess… Lawrdie, I'm tellin' ya, that there thing gonn' drive me ca-razy befo' long. The darn crittah jus' sent me all ovah that there desert an' through the shittiest spots y'all can imagine!  Yuh!  I'm jus' pleased as punch I didden run inta that there nekkid gahrillah or anybodda… that woudda ruined mah day fer sure…"

'Maybe the map needs to be updated?'

"Mebbe it does, but I sure as stink-on-shoot ain't got no clue how ta do that," Wynne said as she looked at the colorful display. "But I deffa-nete-lah gonn' tell Mistah McConnell once I see 'im. Aw, but enuff 'bout that. Where ya at? An' how's the concert goin'?"

'The concert's going just fine. We haven't had any issues yet. And as to where I am…'

Two seconds later, a series of taps on the driver's side window made Wynne jump in the seat and look out in a hurry. When she saw a uniform and the familiar shape of a Mountie hat, the first thought that raced through her tired mind was that she had run into the sheriff after all - then she noticed the compact, athletic figure underneath the round hat which was as far from Rains' mountain of lard as humanly possible.

Letting out a relieved chuckle, Wynne rolled the window down and stuck her head outside. "Lawwwwwr-die, y'all dang near gave me a heart attack, there, darlin'!  Wotcha doin' out he' instead o' bein' ovah yondah where them SongBirds be playin'?"

"First things first," Mandy said and leaned down to place a Hello dear, how are you? kiss on Wynne's lips. Grinning, she pulled back. "Mr. Chang had additional security people brought in after the Patriots' protest. They take care of crowd control and everything else directly connected with the concert."

"Huh, how 'bout that. I sure ain't complainin' or nuttin' 'cos that gives me a li'l time ta taste them sweet lips o' yers. Yessir!" Wynne leaned her head a little further out of the window and puckered up her own lips pre-emptively.

"Was that a request for another kiss, Miss Donohue?"

Wynne couldn't reply verbally with her lips all puckered-up, but the winks she flashed proved that the senior deputy sheriff's assessment had been right. Another kiss was duly exchanged - it lasted longer than the first one and held a promise of even more once things had calmed down enough to allow for a little quality me-and-you time.

A husky chuckle escaped Wynne's throat as she leaned back in the Nissan's seat. Movement across the street made the chuckle turn into a croak - Artie Rains had just stepped out of the sheriff's office and seemed to be looking in her direction. "Aw, it be very nice talkin' to ya, there, de-per-ty Mandy, but I bettah skedaddle befo' that there nasteh fellah ovah yondah decides ta chew my ass out fer som'tin I ain't even done yet!  So… bah-bah, darlin'!  Catch ya latah, okeh?"

"All right, Wynne. Drive carefully, you hear?" Mandy said and took a step back from the delivery truck. Soon, her partner drove off down Main Street before the sheriff had time to take an interest in the matter.

Sighing, Mandy walked back across the empty street to continue her regular evening patrol. She nodded a brief Good evening to the sheriff but he only acknowledged her by grunting - a high-quality pool cue was dwarfed by his meaty hand offering solid proof he was on his way over to Moira MacKay's Bar & Grill to shoot a few frames.

Mandy didn't mind as it meant she would run the office the way she saw fit for the rest of her extended shift. Once she had observed the sheriff entering the Bar & Grill, she resumed her foot patrol along the deserted streets of Goldsboro.

Concluded in Part 2

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