(a.k.a. The Lost Episode)

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: January 18th - February 15th, 2023

For those keeping count, this is the sixteenth story about Wynne Donohue and Mandy Jalinski. The reason for The Lost Episode subtitle is that it takes place before Episode 15 (The Hellbeast of Rattler Gulch) - all stories are available at the website of the Royal Academy of Bards.

Thank you very much for your help, Phineas Redux! :D

As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D


Description: While a prankster has Sheriff Mandy Jalinski and her squad of deputies running ragged all over Goldsboro to keep up with a torrent of prank emergency calls, 'The Last Original Cowpoke' Wynne Donohue prepares for a day in court to protest the charge of reckless driving brought against her by the increasingly cranky Beatrice Reilly. Will the gals be able to overcome their problems and return to calmer waters, or will their frustrations get the better of them and cause even choppier seas?




Saturday, June 11th - two weeks after the big dirt stock-car event out at Thunder Park Raceway.

The triple-digit heatwave that had fallen over Goldsboro, Nevada, and the small trailer park some eight miles south of the town continued to besiege everyone. The wide-open spaces of the eternal desert meant the nights were still manageable, but the landscape would betray the people living in its vicinity later in the day when the merciless rays of the sun had baked the flat rocks since the crack of dawn - once the hands of time reached four or five in the afternoon, everyone would be reaching for the ice packs.

At half past six in the morning, the trailer park was still quiet and pleasantly cool. The trailers belonging to the various people living there were mostly dark save for the one owned by the Tooley family. After returning from her cleaning job down south in Cavanaugh Creek, the early-forty-something Estelle Tooley sat on her doorstep with a mug of coffee and a cigarette to get some caffeine and nicotine back into her system. Her ashen face proved that managing her young daughter and her unemployed husband as well as keeping two jobs to make ends meet took a severe toll on her.

The hunting enthusiast Diego Benitez had yet to rise after coming home late from an all-night trek through the desert; the four jackrabbits that had been treated and strung up in his shed proved his endeavor had been successful.

Brenda and Vaughn Travers were yet to get up as well. Their dark-bronze Ford SUV was in dire need of a hose-down after they had driven north to the county capital Barton City no less than three times the day before, but the dust would have to stay on until the Goldsboro Town Council had rescinded their strict water-preservation directive.

Everything was dark and quiet in the trailer belonging to Wynne 'The Last Original Cowpoke' Donohue and her wife-in-all-but-name Mandy Jalinski. Their beloved pets, the black German Shepherd Blackie and the Golden Retriever Goldie, shared a doggy-basket in the narrow corridor that connected the sleeping area with the trailer's small kitchenette. The two dogs were off to doggy dreamland, but Blackie had already begun to stir as the new day approached.

Inside the sleeping area, the queen-sized bed sported a single lump under the covers. Although only one sleep-tousled shock of hair poked out, the lump could only be made by a pair of spooning human beings. A sigh was heard; a moment later, a hand reached up to pull down the cover that had obscured the face of the early-fifty-something Wynne Donohue.

She stared at the ceiling without looking at anything in particular. Another sigh escaped her. The dark circles that surrounded her bright-blue - and somewhat bloodshot - eyes proved that sleep had grown into a rare commodity as of late. To underscore the fact, her face broke wide open in a yawn.

The reasons for the somber frame of mind of the usually so lively woman were numerous. Not only had her best bud Ernest 'Ernie' Bradberry moved out of the trailer park, the weighty matter of a fine for reckless driving loomed over her.

The fine had been issued by one of the Deputies of the MacLean County Sheriff's Department, Beatrice 'Quick Draw' Reilly, on the day of the races out at Thunder Park. Wynne insisted that it was a bogus charge while Beatrice insisted on following the law to the letter. Despite the heatwave, a severe cold front - that threatened to turn icy at the drop of a wrong comment - had developed between the two women as a result.

Wynne let out her third sigh in less than two minutes, but the frown that tainted her face turned into a wistful smile as the parts of the lump that were still under the covers began to stir. Soon, she pulled the cover back up to concentrate on far more important matters.


After an hour spent saying good morning in numerous inventive ways, Wynne and Mandy Jalinski swung their legs over their respective sides of the queen-sized bed in perfect tandem. Wynne slipped her oversized T-shirt back on while Mandy conducted an inch-by-inch search of the rug on the floor for her runaway undies.

A gentle Woof! and a short sequence of yaps that came from the narrow corridor beyond the sleeping area proved that Blackie and Goldie were ready for some breakfast.

"Yuh, yuh, mah darlin' dawggies!  I sure be hearin' ya so don't weah out them vocal cords o' yers!" Wynne said while she scratched her love-tousled hair. "Sheriff Mandy, y'all be goin' ta Goldsborah taday, aintcha?"

"That's right."

"Okeh, I done kinda remembah'ed ya wus. Y'all can showah first while I be fixin' that there breakfast for us an' them dawggies. Yuh?"

"Sounds like a plan, hon," Mandy said and got up from the bed without having found her undies. All bare and flushed, she strolled around the bed and placed a lengthy kiss on Wynne's lips. When she pulled back, she remained close to allow safe passage for the abundance of love bolts that flew back and forth between them - all that needed to be said was covered in a wink, a smile and a gentle caress.


Twenty minutes later, the person who stepped out of the tiny bathroom was no longer merely a mop-topped late-forty-something woman with greenish eyes and a cute smile, but a fully uniformed Sheriff Mandy Jalinski of the MacLean County Sheriff's Department who wore her regulatory dark-gray pants and black shirt with pride. The long-sleeved shirt was equipped with pale-gray pockets and shoulder straps to create a contrast to all the blackness; a patch featuring a bronze star had been sewn onto the front on the left side to make sure the world at large knew the sheriff had arrived.

Mandy's black boots were so shiny they could be used as mirrors, and the necktie had been tucked in between the shirt's third and fourth buttons like the uniform code demanded. Her utility belt featuring various holsters and pouches sat low on her hips as always - it carried her service firearm, three spare magazines, a can of pepper spray, a pair of metal handcuffs and a bundle of plastic cable ties that could be used for makeshift repairs or restraining multiple rioters in case matters ever got out of hand at the senior citizens' weekly bingo event. A further leather pouch on the left-hand side of the belt contained a set of picklocks, a multi-purpose utility knife and even a few Allen keys of varying diameters.

She went over to the kitchen table to pick up the coffee pot that seemed to call out to her like one of the Sirens of Greek folklore. After she had poured herself a fair amount of the dark-brown liquid and slapped some butter and strawberry jam onto three slices of toast, she glanced out of the window above the kitchen sink. Wynne and their dogs were outside, frolicking in the wide-open spaces.

The surrounding desert had yet to warm up, so Wynne wore her legendary Last Original Cowpoke outfit: decorated Western boots, faded blue-jeans, a denim jacket and her beloved low-crowned cowboy hat that she would never part with despite its battered, bruised and sweat-stained state. Though Wynne had forsaken the classic sheepskin gloves, a red bandana stuck out of her left rear pocket like Cowpoke fashion dictated.

Mandy smiled at the sight of her partner cheering on their two dogs that tore around in circles. The cobalt-blue skies proved the day would be another scorcher; it meant that everyone needed to get the most out of the early-morning pleasantness before it was annihilated by the waves of suffocating heat that would roll in from the merciless desert.

A loud crunch was produced when Mandy took a bite out of the jammy toast. Taking the mug and a plate carrying the slices of bread into the living area of the trailer, she made a beeline for their old but comfortable couch. Wynne had already been out at the mailbox to pick up the morning newspapers, so everything had been readied for her on the low table.


A handful of minutes went by before Wynne came back inside. The denim-clad gal took off her cowboy hat and wiped her brow on the sleeve of her jacket. "Whew!  It be durn hawt alreddy. Lawwww-rdie, this he' day sure is gonn' be anothah red-hawt affair, yessirree. Why, I be needin' a glass o' that there watah, an' that sure don't happen too offen."

Equipped with a tumbler, she had already moved over to the kitchen sink when she changed her mind and shuffled over to the refrigerator instead. Opening it, she admired the five six-packs of H.E. Fenwyck's finest beery products that were lined up on the shelves. Instead of going for a beer - eight A.M. was a little too soon for the golden liquid, even for Wynne Donohue - she opened the small, inner door to the freezer box and grabbed a tray of ice cubes that she had prepared before going to bed.

One cube went into her mouth at once while a second one rattled around in the tumbler before long. Cool tap water soon followed. Entering the living area, she winked at Mandy before she shuffled over to the windows overlooking the lawn and the rest of the central area between the trailers.

Young Renee Tooley, the daughter of Estelle and Frank, had already begun her daily round of mini-soccer. The energetic pre-teen was here, there and everywhere as she practiced her kicking and goal-keeping techniques. All her dolls had been lined up in orderly rows to act as spectators - the peanut gallery was attentive but surprisingly quiet. When Renee managed to get her ball to defeat the uneven lawn and bounce between the goal posts, she ran around the makeshift pitch celebrating like her soccer-playing heroines always did on TV.

Wynne suddenly realized Mandy had spoken to her. "Whazzat, darlin'?" she said as she turned away from the window and shuffled over to the couch.

"I said, Judge Etherington will arrive in Goldsboro today. I hope tomorrow's court session will put an end to the damn soap opera involving Artie Rains," Mandy said and wiped her jammy lips on a napkin.

"Yuh, 'bout that… why'dahell is that thing still bein' discussed?  I done reckoned it wus an open-an'-shut case?  I mean, half the dang town done saw 'im invade that there track an' all…"

"Yes, he even confessed to it. The drunken and disorderly charge against him is just as rock-solid. He can't worm his way out of the violent assault on A.J. Lane, either. Not that he's trying to. I'll give him that," Mandy said and leaned back on the couch. She brushed a few crumbs off her uniform shirt before she continued: "The delays have all been caused by his lawyer. That fellow is trying every trick in the book to make it all look like a terrible misunderstanding."

"Mmmm!  Slow Lane's busted lip an' nose sure wussen no misundahstandin'. That wus nuttin' but Artie Rains' evil core showin' through. So Judge Etherin'ton is in Goldsborah…"

Wynne's voice trailed off. A thoughtful look fell over her as she tried to work through all the possible permutations of speaking to the county judge about her own case. "Ya reckon I oughtta speak ta 'im 'bout that there bogus reckless drivin' fine?  I sure got a no-shun o' doin' so, but I know it might come back ta bite y'all on da buhhh-tt. I don't want thadda'happen, no Ma'am."

Mandy and Wynne locked eyes for a moment before the former put away the newspapers and got up from the couch. "I can't give you any advice regarding that, hon. I hope you understand. Siding with you would make working with Deputy Reilly a real grind… and siding with her would always be a nasty monster on our backs. I will not allow either to happen."

"Yuh. Yuh, I hear ya, Sheriff Mandy. Lawrdie, I need-a figger it out on mah own…"  Wynne chewed on her cheek for a short while before she slapped her palms onto her thighs and got up. "Anyhows, I'mma-gonn' work a li'l on mah ol' truck while y'all head ta town an' all. I sure be hopin' gettin' all them nuts an' bolts in place gonn' gimme some ideas or som'tin."

"Let's hope so," Mandy said and strode over to her partner. "I'll call you at lunch or so for a chat. Or will you drive to town later?"

"Aw… I'mma-prolly gonn' head ta Goldsborah at some point. Dunno when, tho'. Kinda depends an' all."

Winking, Mandy got up on tip-toes and placed a nice, little kiss on Wynne's lips. "I'll see you then."


Just shy of an hour later, the strenuous task of attaching various nuts and bolts onto the frame of Wynne's hobby restoration project, a 1979 Chevrolet K10 truck that she had bought to have something to work on whenever the mood struck her, had lost its magic following a series of mishaps: several slotted screws had cracked in two, she had skinned her knuckles and banged her elbow, and a speck of rust had grazed her left eye - even beyond those lowlights, she had experienced a further five or six minor disasters so typical of her rotten luck.

A mixed selection of classic Southern Rock, uptempo Country & Western and laid-back Bayou Blues blared from her smartphone that had been hooked up to a pair of external speakers. As always, the radio app was tuned to the Down-Home Ol' Country Shack that broadcast out of Lansingburg south of Cavanaugh Creek.

After the DJ had reminded their listeners that the show was called The Pedal To The Metal Hour presented by Donnie Ringo's Off-Road Tours, the next song was Brett 'Smokey' Sorenson's brand new interpretation of the old 1973 boogie-rock hit for the Texas-based Four Flat Tires called Ain't Got Time For Talkin', Babe. Smokey's gravelly pipes were ably assisted by Buddy Reno's warm honky-tonk piano and a couple of backing banjos that gave the old tune a brand new identity.

Whistling and humming along to the bouncy music, Wynne was flat on her back underneath her truck. At present, she was scraping forty years' worth of rust and road muck off the rear-end housing and the brake assemblies with a chisel. The next project on her list would be to replace the rusty brackets holding the rear spring packs in place, but that was for later.

Blackie and Goldie rested on a blanket that had been placed on the lawn next to the Chevrolet. A large, green parasol sporting the familiar H.E. Fenwyck logos protected them from the murderous sun. Their water bowl was full, they had a wide selection of crunchy, yummy doggy-snacks at their disposal, and they were together - in short, they had all they required to be happy.

Wynne had donned a pair of oversized goggles to keep the muck and flakes of rust out of her eyes after the near-miss; her hair was kept clean by her trusty red bandana while her hands were safe inside a pair of thick gloves. The brown, well-used coverall she had jumped into was already covered in a thousand stains so a few more wouldn't even register a '1' on a one-to-ten scale of Wynne Donohue Disasters.

Goldie perked up and let out a happy yap at the arrival of one of her favorite humans - Blackie couldn't be bothered to be quite that enthusiastic so she remained passive.

"Hiya, Wynne!" a cheery female voice said from somewhere beyond the edges of the truck.

Downstairs, Wynne stopped working to look at the bare feet in sandals and the mile-long legs the feet were attached to. Toned and tanned, the bare legs could only belong to one person living in the trailer park: Brenda Travers. "Why, howdy there, Brendah!  A fine mornin', ain't it?" Wynne said as she wheeled herself out from underneath the truck.

Once she was in the clear, she sat up on the rolling board and removed her goggles to take in the full spectacle of her neighbor. A floppy sun hat and an expensive pair of dark shades hid most of the spirited woman's face, but they could do nothing about her wide smile.

The golden-blonde - she had recently had her hair dyed brighter up at Holly Lorenzen's Homey Hair & Nails Salon in an attempt to combat the sun's rays - wore pale-blue cotton shorts and a pale-green spaghetti-strap tank top. Neither left much to the imagination.

"Yes, it sure is!" Brenda said with a grin. "I saw Mandy leave in full uniform… is she really working on a Saturday?  Vaughn and I had planned to invite you gals over for lunch today, but…"

"Yuh, Mandy done hadda go ta Goldsborah. Judge Etherin'ton's in town. Them fine folks be debatin' that there case agin'st nasty ol' Artie Rains taday. Or mebbe it wus tamorrah?  Haw, I ain't sure an' I don't really care nuttin', neithah. But anyhows."

The mention of the former Sheriff of Goldsboro prompted a sour look to flash across Brenda's face. "Oh… why don't they just throw him in jail and break the key?  He's such a creep."

"Haw, sure ain't no lie, no Ma'am," Wynne said and got up. She brushed herself off which made a flurry of brown and rusty-red specks fall onto the lawn. "Naw, Brendah, I'm 'fraid we's gonn' hafta take one o' them there fabled rainchecks on that there lunch there. Mebbe next weekend or som'tin?"

"Shoot, we're not home next weekend… that's why we wanted to do it today…"

"Aw. Durn. Okeh," Wynne said and stuck a finger up underneath the hem of her bandana to scratch her hair.

Before their conversation could go on, they were interrupted by the arrival of an old Ford truck that rattled over the last stretch of the gravel road leading to the trailer park. The vehicle moved erratically and went far too fast for the conditions; showers of gravel and plumes of dust cascaded off the wheels as it tore along.

"Whaddahell?!  Ain't that Frank Tool- watch yo ass, Brendah!" Moving with surprising speed, Wynne interrupted her own cry to pull her neighbor closer so she would be out of harms' way.

Down below, Blackie jumped up and let out several thunderous barks at the approaching vehicle. Goldie did the exact opposite and rolled herself into a golden furball - the scaredy-dog even buried her eyes in her paws.

"That sombitch bettah slam on them brakes or he gonn' hit-" Wynne cried, but she ran out of time before the event that she had tried to warn about took place.

The driver of the Ford noticed the soccer goal and the enclosure for the doll-spectators far too late - when the brakes were applied, the wheels locked up as the semi-bald tires slid across the lawn. The goal and most of the dolls ended up crushed under the front wheels before the truck came to a rocking, rattling halt only four feet from the wall of the trailer owned by the Tooleys.

A split second later, the screen door was flung open and Renee stormed outside. It only took a single look at the utter devastation for her to break out in a loud, inconsolable wail.

Another split second after that, Wynne yanked the driver's side door open and grabbed hold of Frank Tooley's flannel shirt. "Ya dirty, rotten sonovabitch!  Whaddahell y'all be thinkin'?!  Y'all come racin' in he' like y'all be tryin' ta qualifah for that there dang-blasted Daytohnah five-hundred!"

The stench of liquor and the blurry look on Frank's face told her all she needed to know. She scrunched up her face in disgust and pulled her neighbor out of the truck with little regard for his comfort. Slamming him against the side of the bed, she maintained a firm grip on his grungy clothes. "Lawrd knows Ah sure ain't no strangah ta gettin' buzzed, but that there drunk-drivin' is where Ah draw the line, Mistah!  Lookie at them there dollies!  That couldda been ya daughtah!  Don't that mean shit ta ya?"

Frank Tooley - whose chin and cheeks carried a five-day fuzz that formed an unholy alliance with his greasy hair and the rancid stench of sweat and booze that hung about him - tried to pull Wynne's strong hands off his flannel shirt. When that didn't do him any good, he attempted to push her away instead.

Wynne wasn't about to allow the hands that pressed against her chest to prevent her from taking a stance. To underscore her intentions, she took an even firmer grip on Frank's filthy clothes. "Ah guess it don't. Well, get this, pal… it sure as stink-on-shoot mean som'tin ta me. Ah be tellin' ya right he' an' now, Frank… Ah ain't gonn' stand idly bah an' watch ya screw up the lives o' yer wife an' daughtah no mo'. Bein' passive has been an' gone, yuh?  From now on, Ah-"

"Gettahell away from me, woman!" Frank roared in a slurred voice. By thumping Wynne on the chest, he finally managed to break the deadlock. He attempted to stagger away from the Ford but only made it two steps into his journey before he tripped over his own feet and landed face-first on the lawn. Once he was down there, it became obvious he couldn't get up on his own.

Clenching her lips to keep the pain in check and her anger from bubbling over, Wynne rubbed the swell of her left breast where Frank's surprise blow had struck her. As the pain receded, she glanced down at her work boots that seemed to call out for her to return the favor where it would hurt Frank Tooley the most.

"Are you all right?" Brenda said as she ran her hand up and down Wynne's arm.

"Yuh. Yuh, I be fine. Much obliged fer askin', Brendah," Wynne said before she put her hands on her hips. Although the impulse to introduce Frank's crown jewels to her steel-tipped work boot remained strong, she drew a few deep breaths to calm down. "Okeh, he' what we gonn' do, yuh?  First, I'mma-gonn' back up that there piece o' crap Foh-rd so li'l Renee can take a gandah at the sorry state o' her dollies. Mebbe some of 'em can be sal-vitched or som'tin. Then I'mma-gonn' give Estelle them car keys an' tell 'er ta lock 'em up where Frank can't find 'em. Then we… hell, I got a no-shun o' leavin' that there nasty-ass sombitch ta bake undah da sun, but we bettah haul his drunken bee-hind inta his bed so he can sleep it off."

"Vaughn and I can do that, Wynne. No problem," Brenda said and nodded somberly. "I have an idea… what if we banded together to give Renee an early birthday present?  A hundred dollars or something?  That way she could buy new dolls and a new goal."

Wynne looked down at the crushed toys. A long grunt escaped her as the true extent of the destruction dawned on her. "Haw, that there be good thinkin', Brendah. Yes, Ma'am, we sure gonn' be doin' that. A C-note from each offus, yuh?"

"Deal," Brenda said with a smile.

Nodding, Wynne put on her thick work gloves so she didn't have to touch anything inside the cab. "Okeh, les'get this he' show on da road," she said and climbed up behind the Ford's steering wheel - the sight of a half-full bottle of bourbon stuck crooked into one of the cup holders made her let out a disgusted snort. Sneering, she started the engine and selected reverse.


The desert town of Goldsboro was home to 449 souls at the last count - the number of undead ghouls, space aliens, interdimensional beings, vampiric bat-monsters and assorted other ferocious creatures that seemed to enjoy haunting the desert town on a regular basis was unknown.

What was known, however, was the fact that someone had once again abused the road sign that had been put up at the southern entrance to town. By proclaiming that Goldsboro was a spot Where Magical Things Happen!, it was meant to give tourists something to look forward to before they drove onto Main Street, but all it had succeeded in doing was to attract riflemen and shotgun enthusiasts from around the county who blasted the sign to smithereens once a week - sometimes twice a week if the mood struck them.

Mandy had pulled over to the curb after coming to a screeching halt next to the demolished sign. As the Dodge Durango from the MacLean County Sheriff's Department continued to idle behind her, she slammed her hands onto her hips and let out a growl at the sorry sight.

There wasn't anything she could do about the sign, so she spun around and strode back to the waiting SUV. Jumping behind the wheel, she drove the last few hundred yards before she parked it for good in front of the sheriff's office on Main Street.

She paused for a moment to take in the frenetic action found on Goldsboro's main artery. At present, a slow-moving farm tractor pulling a slurry tank trailer was the only vehicle close by, but a white delivery van had just entered town up at the northern entrance - two vehicles at once constituted rush hour in the sleepy town. The delivery van soon drove off Main and onto the forecourt of the Bang 'n Beatin' Body Shop which left the tractor all alone.

Snorting at Goldsboro's unrestrained hustle and bustle, she made a beeline for the glass door to the office. Life decided to throw her a curveball when the wildly fluctuating temperatures from night to day caused the front door to stick.

She nudged, pushed, shoved and thumped on the recalcitrant woodwork before her temper made her let out a growl and take a step back. Aiming at a spot just below the handle, she let her boot do the talking - the almighty whack made it fly open with a rattling bang.

Stepping inside the sheriff's office, she sent a dark, withering glare at the door that seemed unfazed by the whole thing. She took a deep breath and let it out through her nose to calm down after the unexpected demonstration of brute force.

The rest of the office was in no better shape: the dark-brown linoleum on the floor was cracked, the felt tiles in the ceiling drooped, one of the strip lights had been disconnected because it had literally gone on the blink, the maps of Goldsboro and MacLean County pinned onto the wall behind the sheriff's desk were decades out of date, and the inner accessway to the holding cells next door was rusted shut. To top it all off, the Bakelite telephone on the watch desk had been part of the furniture since Dwight D. Eisenhower had lived in the White House.

The watch desk itself was just inside and to the right of the front door. At present, it was manned by Deputy Sheriff Barry Simms whose lemon-tart expression proved he had no interest whatsoever in working on a Saturday morning.

Barry's habit of smoking sixty to seventy home-rolled cigarettes seven days a week meant that his uniform - and the rest of him - would resemble an ash factory at 11 AM at the latest. The uniform of the late-twenty-something deputy was mostly clean and pristine at present, but the cigarette he had in his mouth had already dropped a few flakes of ash onto his pants - there would be plenty more to come.

The constant overdose of nicotine stemming from his heavy habit had given his complexion and eyes an unhealthy shade of sickly-yellow. Although his brownish hair was wet-combed at present, it would soon react to the new nicotine, tar and all the other toxic ingredients and end up in a wild haystack that no amount of hair lotion could tame.

As always, the lit cigarette in his mouth sent out a foul-smelling column of smoke that threatened to permanently dislodge the ceiling's felt tiles - the reason for the unfortunate odor was the fact he bought waste tobacco wholesale from the factories to save a few dollars.

"Good morning, Deputy Simms," Mandy said as she took off her Mountie hat and strode over to her desk. The hat was soon hanging on the wall behind the swivel-chair. Once that had been accomplished, she made a beeline for the coffee machine.

"Morning, Sheriff," Barry said in a petulant mumble. He barely looked at his superior before he returned to the crossword puzzle he had been trying to fill out for the past thirty minutes.

"Where's Deputy Reilly?"

"On the can, Sheriff," Barry said and rolled his eyes. "She's in a foul mood today. It's gotta be her time of the month or something."

Snorting at the comment, Mandy had just poured herself a mugful of coffee when the old telephone rang over on the watch desk. She let out a grunt as she strode into the middle of the floor to wait for the update.

Before Barry could be bothered to park his latest cigarette in the over-filled ashtray and pick up the receiver, the telephone grabbed the opportunity to ring for a second time. Sighing, he eventually reached for the old horn. "You've called the MacLean County Sheriff's Department. This is the Goldsboro office. How may we help you?" he said in a voice that couldn't be more disinterested if he tried.

A moment later, he perked up and grabbed a pencil so he could update the incident sheet. "A tanker truck has overturned at mile marker two-four-three?  Is it leaking?  All right, all right… settle down, I can hardly keep up… how is the driver?  Calm down, I heard you the first time," he said as he scribbled down all the information given to him. "We'll deal with it. Thank you, Sir," he continued before he put the receiver onto the Bakelite telephone.

"So?" Mandy said before she took a long swig of the coffee.

Barry finished updating the incident sheet before he grabbed his cigarette and puffed on it with great vigor to overcome the missing minute. "A grain tanker has gone off the road out on the State Route at mile marker two-four-three. That's north of Goldsboro, Sheriff."

"You don't say," Mandy mumbled under her breath.

Barry didn't notice the jibe and continued without pause: "It doesn't appear to be leaking fuel or any of its cargo. The caller was on the brink of hysteria so I couldn't get an update on the driver's condition."

"Very well," Mandy said and strode over to the map of MacLean County. She let out a puzzled grunt when she moved her finger along the map to find the truck's final resting place - it proved to be just south of the abandoned gas station that the Tobin family had turned into Goldsboro's brand new tourist attraction, the Bug Bonanza. "Deputy Simms, did you see it come past here?"

"No, Ma'am."

"It must have. There aren't any connecting roads between here and two-four-three."

"I can't say if it did or not, Ma'am. So many semis drive past here they just turn into a blur."

Mandy shot her deputy and his crossword puzzle an annoyed glare. Before she could add a few choice words to the dark lightning bolts, the door to the bathroom opened to reveal Junior Deputy Sheriff Beatrice Reilly.

The latest law enforcement officer to join the Goldsboro team was dressed impeccably as always. Her boots were shiny and her uniform was spotless; the necktie was arrow-straight, the knife-edge creases on the pantlegs and shirtsleeves were so defined they could be used to cut glass, and every clothing item appeared to have been tailored directly onto her fit frame.

Her appearance followed the uniform code to the letter and even went beyond it on several key aspects, like the fact that she always carried her nightstick on her utility belt as well as a can of mace in addition to the regulatory pepper spray. "Good morning, Sheriff Jalinski. Was that the phone just now?" she said as she finished wiping her fingers on a paper towel.

A second burst of shrill ringing from the old telephone proved Beatrice had in fact been correct. Barry picked up the receiver at once and got ready to update the incident sheet. "You've called the- yes, Sir, we're already aware of the incident… yes, Sir. Yes, Sir. Thank you very much for calling, Sir."

Once Barry had updated the report sheet, he gave the sheriff a thumbs-up. "Same wreck, Ma'am."

Mandy nodded as she put down the mug. "All right, that confirms it. Deputy Reilly, a tanker truck has been involved in an accident at mile marker two-four-three. Get up there at once. According to the witnesses on site, there are no leakages at present, but it might change after the cargo has shifted. The condition of the driver is unknown. If medical attention is required, administer first aid. Then call it in so we can get in touch with the paramedics up in Barton City."

"Yes, Ma'am!" Beatrice said and hurried over to the smaller of the three desks where she had been doing some paperwork before her bathroom break. Picking up her pristine Mountie hat and the portable radio, she soon made a beeline for the glass door - the sticking door had the last laugh, but the eager deputy soon yanked it open and ran out to one of the three Durangos that were line-astern at the curb.

Mandy watched Beatrice turn on the emergency lights and take off in a plume of desert dust. "Deputy Simms," she said as she turned back to the watch desk, "call Mr. Garfield and inform him of the details."

Barry's lemon-tart face gained another few shades of annoyance as he reached for the telephone to call the perpetually foul-minded - and foul-mouthed - tow-truck driver.


A short fifteen minutes later, the portable radio on the watch desk crackled to  life. 'Mobile Unit Three to base. Mobile Unit Three to base. Barry, I need to speak to the sheriff P-D-Q. Over.'

Before Barry Simms could key the mic and add a barb to comment on Beatrice's impatience, Mandy took the radio off the desk and pressed the key. "This is Sheriff Jalinski. Go ahead, Deputy. Over."

'Sheriff, the reports were phony-'


'They were prank calls. I'm at two-four-three near the Bug Bonanza. There's a semi-truck here, all right, but it's a regular reefer unit and not a grain tanker. And it hasn't overturned but is simply parked roadside. The driver told me he stopped here for a coffee break because he wanted to check out the bug exhibition, over.'

Mandy keyed the mic again but kept silent when she realized she only had profanity to add to the conversation.

'Sheriff, did you copy what I said?  Over.'

"Yes, Deputy. Every word," Mandy said and stomped over to the windows overlooking Main Street as if she expected the prank caller to stand right outside laughing at them. A brief pause ensued before she keyed the mic once more: "Deputy, are you sure you're at the right location?  Over."

'Ten-roger on that, Sheriff. I'm at mile marker two-four-three. I'm looking at the sign as we speak. The GPS confirms it. Over.'

"Very well. In your opinion, would it be possible for someone to drive past the actual situation and come to the wrong conclusion?  Over."

'I honestly can't see how… I mean, a refrigerated trailer and a grain tanker look nothing alike, Sheriff. And not even Mr. Magoo would be so near-sighted that he'd think it had turned over. Uh, over.'

Mandy let out a long sigh before she keyed the mic again. "All right. Come back to base. We need to analyze what just happened. Over."

'Yes, Ma'am. Returning to base. Mobile Unit Three out.'

Mandy put the portable radio onto its charger before she slammed her arms across her chest and planted her boots on the cracked linoleum. The thunderous scowl on her face meant that even Barry understood that quips should be avoided for the time being.

"Deputy," she said after another brief delay, "I need every detail about the two calls. From the top."

"Uh… yes, Ma'am," Barry said, fumbling incessantly with his cigarette, the pencil and the incident sheet before he found the entry he needed. "Both callers were male. The first sounded mature, maybe in his late forties or early fifties. The other was younger. Both calls sounded like they were made outside. There weren't any background traffic noises during either call, but… there isn't that much traffic out there in the first place. The first caller was bordering on hysteria while the other was out of breath. And neither stated his name."

"Could it have been the same individual?"

Barry rubbed his chin for a short while; then the urge to draw even more nicotine into his system grew too large. With well-rehearsed gestures, he pulled out a cigarette, lit it and took a huge puff all in a single motion. Once the glowing tip was sending out more of the foul-smelling smoke, he shook his head. "I'm one-hundred percent certain they were two different people, Sheriff. The voices did in fact sound a little familiar, but… I was probably just imagining things."

"Mmmm. Just another happy moment in the history of Goldsboro. All right," Mandy said and strode back to her desk. After sitting down, she leaned back on her swivel-chair and reached for the mug of coffee that she had abandoned when the prank calls had been made. "Make a note of it in the daily log. And call Tucker Garfield. Tell him we don't need him after all."

"Uh… yes, Ma'am," Barry said in a mumble as he reached for the old-fashioned receiver.


At much the same time, six-and-a-half miles south of Goldsboro and closing fast, a mat-black Chevrolet Silverado Trail Boss Midnight Edition roared northbound on the State Route. The Down-Home Ol' Country Shack radio station did its part to brighten everyone's day by playing Harvey Daggett's 1970s-vintage truck-driving song Mean, Ol' Highway on the advanced infotainment system.

The mood among the inhabitants of the imposing truck that Wynne had added a few personal touches to - a golden bow tie on the grille, pale-gray Intimidator-style stripes along the sides as well as tall, white letters along the sides of the bed proclaiming it to be Wynne's Truck! - was upbeat despite the ambient temperatures that had already begun their inevitable climb toward the unbearable end of the scale.

Wynne and Brenda Travers sat up front while Blackie and Goldie shared the smaller back seat. Blackie was miffed by the fact that she couldn't poke her head out of the window to experience the full brunt of the headwind like she usually did, but the humming air-conditioning unit meant the windows had to remain closed. Since it was a risk-free ride to town, Goldie throned on the seat instead of curling herself into a golden furball down in the footwell; the prospects of getting her favorite brand of spiced jerky upon reaching their destination meant she carried a happy and contented look on her doggy face.

Brenda had hopped into an oversized, breezy sun dress to protect her bare thighs and shoulders, and Wynne had swapped the filthy coverall for her regular Cowpoke outfit save for the lined denim jacket that she had left in her closet - the ambient temperature was already well on its way up toward the red line. A long-sleeved sports jersey that carried the colors and likeness of the #36 Skittles Pontiac from the 1998 NASCAR Winston Cup season offered proof of her life-long allegiance to all brands of General Motors.

"I honestly don't know what you should do, Wynne," Brenda said and leaned over to put a supportive hand on Wynne's jeans. "I definitely understand your anger at being fined like that, but… I don't know. I've never met Judge Etherington, but isn't he one of those old-fashioned sticklers for law and order?  If he is, he'll probably side with Beatrice."

"Yuh. Whutevah I end up doin', I prolly get screwed. Or Sheriff Mandy get screwed. An' then we both get screwed!  Dang-blasted that Quick Draw Bea… whaddindahell did she hafta issue that dumb-ass fine fer… there wussen nuttin' dangah-russ 'bout that there situa-shun. Nuttin'!  Hell, I wussen even goin' fast or nuttin'. All I did wus ta drive mebbe two hundred yards or som'tin with one set o' wheels on the blacktop an' one out in that there loose stuff there. Why'dahell she done called that reckless drivin' is beyond me. Wussen nuttin' reckless 'bout it."

In the back, Goldie began to look worried at the direction the conversation was headed; Blackie let out a supportive Woof! to show whose side she was on.

"Aw, I sure be thankin' y'all, Blackie," Wynne said with a grin that soon faded. At least the Down-Home Ol' Country Shack did its best to restore her mood by playing another golden oldie truck-driving song, Lightnin' Joe Craig's Gotta Get Home To My Good, Li'l Mama.


Once Wynne had reversed into the alley next to her favorite haunt in all of MacLean County, Moira's Bar & Grill, she turned off the engine and released the central locking system so the rear doors could open. Reaching behind her, she pulled the lever to allow the dogs to run freely - they responded by letting out plenty of happy yaps before hopping down onto the ground.

"You know…" Brenda said and broke out in a brief shiver, "it's been a couple of months since we were attacked by that awful bat creature, but… whenever we park here, my soul makes sure to remind me of what happened."

"Yuh… that nasty crittah wussen a barrel o' laughs, that sure ain't no lie. But we done nailed its ass but good in the end, didden we?  Yuh. That ain't gonn' come back an' haunt us, no Ma'am. C'mon, Brendah, lemme buy y'all a lite beah ta take yer mind offa that there-"

"Hold that thought, Wynne… I need to go over to the Yarn Spinners first," Brenda said with a smile that grew from wistful to genuine while she spoke. "I'll join you in ten minutes or so. Okay?"

"Haw, sure thing, there, Brendah. I'mma-gonn' play a round o' pool in da mean time. An' mebbe have a beah or som'tin. Mebbe even two. Or three. Dependin'."

Wynne fell silent for a moment while she pondered her options. "Aw hell, I'mma-gonn' get me three o' them there Double-Zerahs. Yessir. Three's such a nihhhh-ce, round numbah!"


It only took two seconds after Wynne had opened the front door to everyone's favorite eatery before Blackie and Goldie zipped over to their doggy-cave underneath the pool table. Wynne took it a little slower as she moseyed on over to the cue rack to find one of the good rentals so she didn't have to suffer playing with a rod that was frayed, crooked or warped.

Moira's Bar & Grill only saw a smattering of customers at that time of the day. Unattended, the video poker and electronic keno machines had time to run through their demonstration modes that had all their colorful lights flashing on-and-off in pre-designed patterns.

A wet patch on the carpet - and the distinct smell of beer that rose from it - proved that someone had had an accident with an open container at some point during the morning hours. Wynne knew it would have made Moira MacKay blow her lid big time as the fiery owner was very protective of her carpets and the rest of the furniture; the cost of removing the stain would undoubtedly have been added to the unfortunate customer's bill or tab.

Checking out the few customers, Wynne didn't think that anyone looked as if they had been chewed out by Moira, so the person in question had most likely been thrown out following the accident. A single barfly - who nursed a glass of draft - sat on one of the tall bar stools in front of the shiny counter. Seven further guests occupied a table each while eating various hot meals for lunch. Moira's regular short-order cook, A.J. 'Slow' Lane, toiled away at the industrial stoves preparing a batch of fries for one of the customers.

The tables were all draped in tablecloths checkered in red and white. Each table carried a small reed basket that provided all the basic items like napkins, toothpicks, salt and pepper shakers, bottles of ketchup and mustard, and vials of hot sauces ranging from medium to One Squirt Only - Two Will Kill You.

Wynne nodded a Howdy to the town fop Wyatt Elliott. As always, the owner of the biggest hardware store in the region wore a fancy, bright-white Western suit that gave him an air of being someone important. That the suit and the ten-gallon Stetson that went with it looked badly out of place among all the denim, flannel and trucker caps on display everywhere around him had never bothered him for a second.

Wyatt's executive office on the first floor of the hardware store would be used as Judge Cornelius Etherington's court room for a good part of Saturday and all of Sunday - it meant Wyatt had plenty of time to read the newspaper and eat a T-bone steak with baked potatoes in Ranchero sauce. A wide bib made sure no stains would find their way onto the white suit.

The other patrons were all grizzled manual laborers from the cattle ranches who had flocked to Moira's during their lunch break, so Wynne didn't know any of them. With nobody to say Howdy to beyond Wyatt, she broke out in a shrug and shuffled over to the pool table where the dogs were already resting down in their doggy-cave.

Although the last player had lined up the balls in the center of the table, Wynne's experienced eye could see they were out of alignment. The triangular frame was soon used to nudge the stray balls into their proper position.

With the table set and ready, she concentrated on the most important aspect of their entire trip to town: the cans of H.E. Fenwyck's finest that waited for her inside the refrigerators.


It took Brenda Travers a short fifteen minutes to return to the bar and grill. The moment she spotted Wynne - who attempted a trick shot that required leaning halfway across the green felt to get the correct angle - she made a beeline over to the pool table. She kept back until Wynne had taken the shot so she wouldn't disturb, but the moment the cue struck the ball, she stepped forward with a smile.

"Howdy ag'in, pardnah," Wynne said as she chalked the tip of the cue. She nodded at a small bag carried by her neighbor. "Did y'all buy som'tin coo' an' excitin' ovah at them Yarn Spinnahs?"

"I sure did!  Four balls of high-grade yarn, a quality set of scissors and a pair of knitting needles," Brenda said and held out the bag so Wynne could see for herself.

Wynne let out a grunt at the sight. Needing a pick-me-up, she reached for the next can of H.E. Fenwyck Double-Zero non-alcoholic beer that she cracked open with a Psshhhhht!  "Why, dat is cert'inly fassi-natin'. Don't be takin' this the wrong way or nuttin', but y'all nevah struck me as one o' them there knittin' folks, Brendah?  Y'all 've always been mo' physical an' stuff. Like that there John Jetson thing."

"My jiu-jitsu?"

"Yuh. Like I done said."

"Uh, yeah…" Brenda said and tried to conceal a cheeky grin - it didn't really work. "Well, I haven't been a knitting person, but I found a channel on Youtube that has a ton of great how-to videos. I think I'll give it a shot as a meditative project. Who knows where it might lead."

"Yuh… yuh. Well, anyhows, I deffa-nete-ly wish y'all the best o' knittin' luck. Lawrdie knows we ain't got too much o' that runnin' 'round he' in Goldsborah. No, Ma'am," Wynne said before she leaned forward to take another shot.

The noisy arrival of a new guest upset Wynne's aim and focus, so she abstained from thrusting ahead out of fear of shredding the green felt. Narrowing her eyes, she looked over her shoulder to learn the identity of the person who had dared to interrupt her game. When it turned out to be the rotund and asthmatic Senior Councilwoman Mary-Lou Skinner and her teeny-tiny Chihuahua Foo-Foo, a long "Hmmm…" escaped Wynne as she gave them a long, pondering look.

"Have you ordered lunch yet, Wynne?" Brenda said as she sat down at the table closest to the playing area.

"Haw?  Uh… naw, I ain't. Tell ya what, there, Brendah… I reckon I'mma-gonn' tawk ta Mary-Lou 'bout that there fine an' all so why'dontcha get som'tin fer both offus?  I'm coo' with ev'rythin' 'cept one o' them salads. Food's on me when I done tawked ta the Councilwoman."

"Sounds like a plan!" Brenda said and got up from the table to take care of business up at the counter.

Down underneath the pool table, Blackie poked her head out and added her own two cents' worth to the conversation in the shape of a loud, but unthreatening bark.

"Aw-yuh, don't ferget some o' that there spe-shul jerky fer them dawggies, yuh?  Slow Lane alreddy knows wotcha need," Wynne said before she clicked the rental cue back into place in the rack.

"Will do!"

Wynne eyed her friendly neighbor walk up to the short-order cook to place the order; a small sigh escaped her as more pressing matters came to the forefront. Sighing once more, she went over to Mary-Lou Skinner to present the details of her moving violation for the umpteenth time in the hope she'd get a few golden suggestions on what to do in return.


The next hour and ten minutes went by with no dramas of any kind which had to be some kind of record in the checkered history of Goldsboro, Nevada.

Across the street from Moira MacKay's Bar & Grill, the watch desk in the sheriff's office had changed hands: The mid-thirty-something Senior Deputy Rodolfo Gonzalez had taken over from Barry Simms who had needed to visit the bathroom in a most urgent manner.

Rodolfo - a suave charmer whose gentlemanly persona and movie-star looks gave him a distinct coolness that the far plainer and coarser Barry could never achieve - had a look of grim determination etched onto his face as he tried to beat an eyebrow-hair into submission. Though he employed a small makeup mirror and a pair of tweezers, getting the hair to either toe the line or get plucked out of the way was tough going.

His steady girlfriend Dolores de la Vega, a livestock broker working for one of the largest cattle ranches in MacLean County, had often teased him with the fact that he spent as much time beautifying himself in front of the mirror as she did, but perfection had always come with a price.

A brief but ecstatic "Ha!" burst from him when he finally managed to pluck the hair that had caused him so much grief - just in time, too, as the old Bakelite telephone on the watch desk rang before he had been able to put away the remedies he had used.

Taking the receiver, he found a pencil and prepared himself to update the daily incident sheet. He had already been informed of the earlier prank calls when he had arrived for his shift, but his eyes quickly zoomed over the update that Barry had added to the original entry to remain vigilant. "You've reached the MacLean County Sheriff's Department, the Goldsboro office. How may we help you?"

'This is Cletus Browne,' a familiar voice said at the other end of the line. 'We have a couple of suspicious-looking men wandering around our used-car lots. They look like they are up to no good. They are in their mid-twenties and wear jeans and T-shirts. Would you mind sending someone up here to check them out?'

Rodolfo performed a masterful bout of high-speed scribbling to keep up with the information relayed to him by the sales manager in charge of the used cars and trucks up at Goldsboro's only auto repair shop, the Bang 'n Beatin' Body Shop. He finished updating the incident sheet by adding the time and doodling his signature as the officer receiving the call. "The incident has been noted, Mr. Browne. A deputy will be by in a very short while. Do not approach the men on your own… they might respond in a violent manner."

An odd delay that lasted for several seconds played out before Cletus' voice finally said: 'We won't. Thank you.'

"You're welcome, Mr. Browne," Rodolfo said and put the receiver back on the old Bakelite telephone. Before he could reach for the portable radio on the watch desk, the sticking glass door was thumped open to reveal the sheriff back from her regular foot patrol of Goldsboro's two streets.

"Sheriff," Rodolfo said and got up to underscore the potential urgency, "I just got off the phone with Cletus Browne. They have a couple of suspicious guys checking out the used car lots. They're both in their mid-twenties and wear jeans and T-shirts."

Mandy rubbed her shoulder that had once again come into use as the door-opener. "All right. I'll take it myself. Is Deputy Reilly back from speed trap duty?"

"No, Ma'am."

"Where's Deputy Simms?"

"On the can, Ma'am."



Mandy let out a dark chuckle; she eventually broke out in a shrug. "At least we know Barry isn't smoking in secret out there. I'll be on the radio if you need me."

"Yes, Sheriff," Rodolfo said with a grin before he sat down once more.


The short distance up to the auto repair shop at the northern end of Main Street was soon covered by the powerful Dodge Durango that Mandy chose for the job. After making a swift U-turn and coming to a dust-flying halt at the curb, she vacated the vehicle and strode toward the first of the three used car lots.

The Bang 'n Beatin' Body Shop had originally been an unaffiliated garage where the local farmers and ranchers could get their agricultural vehicles serviced, but more and more regular citizens had come to use the garage because of the expertise shown by the mechanics. After a couple of decades of limited growth, the local big-shot Otto Kulick, jr. had bought the company and had built a gas station, a brand new four-bay service building and several lots for used cars, trucks and farming equipment.

Kulick jr. eventually handed the entire business over to his son Otto Kulick III. The grandson of the original visionary entrepreneur whose Gas 'n Go! service stations were known nationwide had soon earned the derogatory nickname 'Otto The Third' for his unfortunate ways of acting like a pompous king on the rare occasions where he ventured out among the commoners.

The lots were always kept in pristine condition: all weed would be eradicated within minutes of poking through the gravel, and the loose surface itself would be raked on a weekly basis to give it a uniform and exclusive look. Lamp posts had been put up in a strict pattern to provide light for potential customers regardless of the time of day. Strings carrying hundreds of five-by-five inch paper flags reached from one pole to the next to add life and color to the proceedings - the constant breeze sweeping in from the wide-open desert ensured the flags never stood still.

Mandy strode along the outside of the used-car lots searching for the two men who had caused Cletus Browne to make the call. Though everything seemed quiet, she knew how easy it would be for shady individuals to hide behind the large vehicles offered for sale, so she performed a thorough sweep of all three sections. Her search yielded nothing save for a fresh puddle of oil on the narrow trail that ran adjacent to the lots.

Coming to a halt to ponder her options, she took off her Mountie hat to wipe her damp brow. The ambient temperatures had already gone past the stage that could be described as Pleasantly Warm; shimmers of heat rose from the hoods and roofs of all the cars and trucks for sale.

The harsh rays of the sun meant that her black, long-sleeved uniform shirt took up a second career as a square roaster. Though she was being cooked slowly, there was little she could do about it save for rolling up her sleeves to her elbows - as she did so, she let out a dark grunt at the sight of the numerous beads of sweat that had formed on her forearms.

Shaking her head in annoyance, she reached for the portable radio. "Mobile Unit One to base. Mobile Unit One to base. Deputy Gonzalez, are you there?  Over."

'Base ready to receive, Sheriff. Over,' Rodolfo's voice said at the other end of the crackling connection.

"There's nothing up here… well, except a fresh puddle of oil on the dirt road next to the lots. Maybe it came from a vehicle used by the men Mr. Browne called us about. I can't say. I'll go inside and make further inquiries. Perhaps their security cameras have caught the men. Over."

'Understood. I'll update the incident sheet. Over.'

"Very well. Sheriff Jalinski out," Mandy said and hooked the portable radio to her utility belt. She performed another fruitless sweep of the lots before she strode over to the air-conditioned building where the office was located.


Cletus Browne sat behind his desk tapping on a laptop when Mandy entered the office. The early-forty-something African-American who was in charge of buying and selling used cars for all of Kulick's shops wore a cobalt-blue business suit, a white shirt and a red necktie. A white handkerchief had been put in the suit jacket's top pocket to add even more class. His fashionable reading glasses had square lenses, and the golden frame was perched low on his nose while he used the computer.

Eyeing the important guest, he closed the laptop's lid and took off his glasses. "Hello, Sheriff. Nice to see you," he said as he leaned forward and extended his hand.

Mandy shook the offered hand at once. "Mr. Browne. I've conducted a sweep of the lots but found no trace of the suspicious-looking men you reported seeing. It would speed up the case if your cameras were able to get any pictures or video of them," she said and dug into a pocket to find her indispensable notepad.

Cletus cocked his head and cast a puzzled glance at the sheriff. After a brief moment of silence, he said: "I don't have a clue what you're talking about… suspicious-looking men?  Here?  And you're saying I called you?  I didn't call you, Sheriff."

Mandy stopped with a jerk; her face assumed a dark tone that could have stopped even a rampaging grizzly bear dead in its tracks. The tip of the pencil hovered above an empty page in the notepad, but she put both items away while showing remarkable restraint. "Excuse me for a moment, Mr. Browne," she said in a strangled voice - then she stormed out of the office.

The portable radio was whipped up from her utility belt the moment she set foot on the forecourt. "Mobile Unit One to base. Mobile Unit One to base. Urgent!"

'Base ready to receive, Sheriff. Over,' Rodolfo's disembodied voice said from the radio.

"This was another prank call, Deputy. Mr. Browne says he doesn't know anything about it. Over."

'What?!  That's not right, Sheriff. It was Cletus Browne's voice, I guarantee it. I'll swear on a stack of Bibles!  If it wasn't, it had to be the world's greatest impersonator!  Over!'

A dark chuckle escaped Mandy before she keyed the transmit button. "Not likely. Maybe someone's got their interdimensional wires crossed and it was a message from the great, undiscovered future. Wouldn't be the first time in Goldsboro. Over."

'No, it wouldn't… hmmm!'

The door to the office creaked open behind Mandy. She turned to offer the puzzled sales manager a small wave that told him she'd fill him in before long. "Well," she continued into the radio, "whatever the reason, we need to get to the bottom of it ASAP. I'll be back at the office in a few minutes. Get in touch with Deputy Reilly and tell her to cut the speed trap short. Sheriff Jalinski out."

Cletus had used the break to sweep a few flies and specs of dust off the hood of a RAM pickup truck, but he turned back to the sheriff once her conversation had ended. "I must admit I'm a little lost," he said with a grin.

"We've had a few prank calls this morning, Mr. Browne," Mandy said and put her hands on her hips. "My Senior Deputy is adamant that you called him not fifteen minutes ago. You had spotted two suspicious-looking men wearing jeans and T-shirts who loitered near the used car lots. Just for the record… have you seen anyone fitting that description today?"

"That would be a no, Sheriff. It's been a quiet day so far. It's the heat," Cletus said and pointed skyward. "Nobody wants to leave the comfort of their A-C units."

"Tell me about it," Mandy mumbled as she glanced down at the large stains of sweat that had discolored her uniform shirt. "Do you know what caused the fresh puddle of oil out on the dirt trail?"

"No, but I'm guessing it was the delivery van that was here earlier. The driver dropped off a few spare parts we had ordered."

"All right. I'm sorry for wasting your time, Mr. Browne," Mandy continued as she put out her hand once more.

The salesman grinned as he shook it. "No problem. Say, are you or Wynne looking for a new car or SUV?  We took possession of a late-model Lincoln sedan only yesterday as a trade-in. It has tan leather interior, a seven-speed automatic with a cruise-mode overdrive and-"

"Well… I'm afraid Wynne would roast me over an open fire if I ever bought a Ford Motor Company product…"

"Oh yeah, that's right. She's a General Motors-gal. I forgot," Cletus said with a grin. "Regarding the other thing… if I do see a couple of guys who fit that description, I'll send Mr. Swenson out to deal with them. Then we'll call you in case you want to come by and sweep up the pieces."

Mandy grunted at the thought of the rather large foreman Bengt 'Fat-Butt' Swenson being used as a welcoming committee. "Well, that ought to take care of business. Thank you, Mr. Browne," she said while she put her hand against the rim of her Mountie hat in a proper salute.



A persistent tugging on Wynne's pantleg made the Last Original Cowpoke look down at the culprit whose golden fur took up plenty of space on the bar and grill's carpet. "Yuh, I know y'all wan'ta bite o' this he' frankfurtah, Goldie, but it jus' ain't gonn' work," she said as she pointed at her plate that held a ten-inch-long fried sausage and a large helping of mashed potatoes drenched in hot sauce, " 'Cos this he' spicy saw-ce ain't good fer ya dawggie-tummy, dontchaknow. I be sure y'all agree that tummy-aches ain't no fun. An' y'all alreddy had yer jerky, anyhows."

A sad and depressed Yap… escaped Goldie before she moved down to lie flat on the floor - Blackie soon shuffled closer to offer her canine companion some comfort in the shape of a shoulder-rub.

Brenda Travers dug her fork into the sweet-corn-and-lettuce salad she had bought for herself before she looked at her friend. "I'm sorry for getting something the dogs can't eat, Wynne. I didn't think of that at all…"

"Aw, ain't no biggy," Wynne said with a small, dismissive wave. "Li'l ol' Goldie ain't really upset or nuttin'. She jus' be milkin' the moment, yuh?  Naw, this he' frankie an' mash is perdy dog-gone fine, Brendah. The comp'ny is great an' the beah sure ain't bad, neithah." To illustrate what she meant by the latter part of the statement, she reached for the opened can of H.E. Fenwyck Pale Lager she had placed next to the plate.

Something racing past at high speed out on Main Street caught Wynne's eye. The screeching U-turn performed by one of the official Durangos made her let out a grunt - the grunt grew in volume when Mandy jumped out, slammed the door shut and stomped over to the glass door to the sheriff's office like the vanguard of an Amazon strike force. "Haw!  Sheriff Mandy deffa-nete-ly don't be lookin' too happy 'bout som'tin… sure hope ain't nuttin' weird been goin' on. We done had plenty o' weird he' in Goldsborah alreddy," Wynne said before her mouth was too busy chewing on a large slice of the frankfurter to talk.

Brenda craned her neck to see what Wynne meant. When she could only catch a glimpse of the Durango with no human activity anywhere near it, she broke out in a shrug and returned to her salad and lime-flavored mineral water.


Wynne's curiosity regarding Mandy's behavior eventually got the best of her, so she and the dogs decided to grab a little fresh air. During such an aggressive heatwave, liquid nourishment was a necessity, so she made sure to stuff a can of beer into every pocket she had - she only made it fifty feet away from Moira's Bar & Grill before the urge to wet her whistle grew too strong.

A can of Double-Zero was soon produced from her rear pocket. The fact it had been wiggled around made her crack it open with far greater care than usual. Although the beer did try to make a run for it when the metal flap was opened, her fast lips and experienced tongue made sure nothing would go to waste.

Grinning, she and the dogs were about to cross Main Street when a huge recreational vehicle drove over to the curb in front of the Bed & Breakfast. "Haw… 's right… Moira did kinda men-shun som'tin 'bout someboddah comin' in taday. Yuh. Whaddaya say, girls?  Them folks there be the same folks ol' Moira done tawked 'bout?"

Woof! - Yap!

"Yuh, whut I done reckoned. Okeh, mebbe we oughtta give 'em a warm welcome ta Goldsborah," Wynne said and made a U-turn of her own to shuffle over to the huge RV.

The white-and-beige bus-sized vehicle took up so much space on Main Street it almost appeared the houses had been reduced to something better suited for dolls and action figures. A boxy air-conditioning unit installed on top of the RV's roof sent out a steady hum that proved the people inside didn't suffer from the heat like everyone else.

Wynne pushed her battered cowboy hat back from her brow as she went up to stand next to the large RV. The driver's compartment up front wasn't equipped with doors, but the sliding windows were large enough to use as escape routes in case of fire or other acute problems. A single door had been added to the side of the vehicle, and it soon opened with a pneumatic whoosh to reveal a woman in her late-twenties.

"Howdy an' welcome ta Goldsborah!" Wynne said and tipped her cowboy hat at the tourist. Down on the sidewalk, Goldie hid behind her owner's legs while Blackie stood proud and let out a welcoming bark of her own.

"Uh… howdy. And thank you," the young woman said while she cast a concerned glance at the dogs. "Uh… are your pets fierce?  We have a little one in here and I'd like to avoid any tears if we can."

"Weeeellll, Blackie he' be a li'l fierce, yuh, but only to'ard them baddies. An' Goldie he' is one helluva scaredy-dawg, lemme tell ya. She got spooked by her own shadah once. That oughtta say all ya need-a know 'bout 'er." Grinning, Wynne used the break in the conversation to take a long swig of the non-alcoholic beer.

"Okay…" the woman said before she cast another concerned glance in Blackie's direction. "I'm sorry, but I'd be a lot more comfortable if you kept her back a little."

"Haw, no problemo," Wynne said and patted her thigh to catch her dogs' attention. Once she had it, she pointed at a shaded stretch of the sidewalk a safe distance from the RV and the people inside it.

Blackie and Goldie shared a puzzled look before they shuffled off to spend some time away from the tall creatures - they weren't too displeased as the two-legged Humans had a tendency to act in peculiar ways.

"Thank you," the tourist said. "I'm Sue-Ellen Lockworth. My husband Louis and I have booked a room here for two nights. I hope it's a well-run establishment… to be honest, it's a little too expensive for our travel budget, but my husband is a huge NASCAR fan so the themed suites have a magnetic attraction on him."

"Haw!  Yuh, Ah know exactly wotcha husban' be feelin', there, Sue-Ellen!" Wynne said and broke out in a cheesy grin. "Whut numbah did y'all get, then?"

"Uh… number?"

"Yuh, the room numbah?"

"Oh… we're hoping to get number eighteen, but-"

"Eighteen sure be a good'un, awright!  Yes, Ma'am!  Black, bright-green an' silvah always done looked fa-bew-luss tagethah, sure ain't no lie," Wynne said with a grin as she recalled the paint scheme of the legendary #18 Interstate Batteries Chevrolet Lumina that won the 1993 running of the Daytona 500.

Sue-Ellen not only narrowed her eyes but cocked her head and furrowed her brow - the trio of reactions revealed she had no idea what in the world the tall woman had meant.

"Anyhows," Wynne said after taking a long swig. "Y'all need a hand haulin' that there lugg-itch o' yers or som'tin?"

"Well… do you work here?"

"Kinda. I own the dang place."

A blush of Biblical proportions exploded onto Sue-Ellen's cheeks. A moment later, the ruddiness had spread to every square inch of her face and upper chest. A squeaked "Oh…" escaped her as she spun around on her heel and made a swift exit back up into the RV.

"Lawwwwwwwwr-die!  Sure hope it wussen som'tin I done said!" Wynne mumbled and scratched her neck.

When nothing further happened with regards to the tourists or their RV, she pushed her cowboy hat forward once more and shuffled along the sidewalk to get to Blackie and Goldie. "Haw. Weird. Nevah mind. Mah bayu-ta-ful dawggies, y'all wanna go ovah an' see how Sheriff Mandy be doin'?"

Woof-wooooof-woof-woof! - Yap…

"Naw, it ain't dainge-russ, Goldie. Altho' she did kinda look like she wus gonn' explode if someboddah done grinned at her crooked. Aw, only one way ta find out whut that wus all 'bout. Y'all comin' or whut?"

Blackie jumped up as expected, but Goldie didn't. A few moments later, the German Shepherd used her muzzle to poke her companion in the side. A second poke was required before the Golden Retriever let out a doggy-sigh and shuffled away from the shady spot they had found.


Across the street, Wynne nearly flattened her nose against the sticking door - it required an almighty shove with her shoulder to coerce it into opening. Blackie and Goldie ran inside and soon made themselves comfortable on the blanket that had been laid out for them.

Wynne moved at a more sedate pace but walked into the sheriff's office nonetheless. She had barely made it three steps across the cracked linoleum before Beatrice 'Quick Draw' Reilly exited the bathroom down at the other end of the office. The two women both came to hard stops; dark glares soon flew back and forth like fast-moving lightning bolts.

It was like a scene out of Goldsboro's Wild West origins: the veteran gunslinger and the young pretender sized each other up across the floorboards of a Main Street establishment - with the main differences being that it was linoleum instead of untreated planks, and that it was the sheriff's office instead of the Gold Nugget Saloon, the Silver Spur Café, the Jade Dragon Gambling Parlor or Madam Ruby's somewhat dubious home for fallen angels and sullied doves.

A legitimate telephone call from headquarters up in Barton City had caused Rodolfo to go into the storage room at the back of the office to look through old files, so Barry Simms had temporarily returned to the watch desk. He snickered at the unfolding scene before he lit a new cigarette with the embers of the one he had just finished.

Although his stomach was still giving him plenty of grief with regards to excess gas, he stuck his paw into a bag of crunchy, salty roasted peanuts that he proceeded to munch on at great volume.

A silent battle of supremacy raged between the contenders for several long seconds until Beatrice flinched first. Cocking an eyebrow, she moved into the middle of the office and put her hands on her utility belt. "This isn't a good time for a social call, Miss Donohue. You need to come back when we're less busy."

"Haw, izzat a fact, de-per-ty?" Wynne said and moved over to the desk where Mandy usually sat. To demonstrate how little she cared about Beatrice's comments, she placed a buttock on the corner of the desk.

Barry's eyes zipped from one imposing woman to the next. Wynne had the height, the reach and the experience; Beatrice had plenty of youthful pep and agility as well as a night stick that she wasn't afraid to use - the confrontation had all the signs of turning juicy at the drop of a hat.

No hat had been dropped yet when Mandy returned from the crew room holding a stack of old files that Rodolfo had dug out for her. It only took her a second to get a crystal clear picture of the hostilities. Harrumphing, she strode over to her desk where she deposited the case files with a loud Thump!  "Deputy Reilly, I know for a fact you have plenty of things you need to do right now. None of them involve standing there passively."

"Yes, Sheriff," Beatrice said before she spun around and moved over to her own desk. Soon, she focused on going through a tall stack of communiqués from other offices of the MacLean County Sheriff's Department to see if any of them had reported receiving prank calls.

Like any veteran gunslinger would, Wynne took off her cowboy hat and stuffed it under her arm. Her scowl morphed into a neutral expression before it ended up being a broad smile when her eyes fell on the sheriff. "Me an' deah, ol' Brendah wus eatin' ovah at Moira's when y'all done returned jus' now. It looked like y'all wus kinda upset so me an' them dawggies decided ta pay ya a visit, there, Sheriff Mandy. Whazzup?"

Mandy had already picked up a pencil to transfer a few details from the old files to her notepad, but she put it down once more so she could have both hands free to rub her flushed, heat-affected face. "Someone's making fake calls. Pranks. We've been tricked twice today already. Well, three times, in fact, but two calls were on the same subject."


"We called HQ for tips on how to fight it, but they didn't give us anything but hot air and generalities," Mandy said, tapping on a page she had torn off her notepad. "I just hope nothing serious happens while this is going on. Dammit, it makes my blood boil!"

"Yuh… well, som'tin nearly done happened back hoah-me eahliah. Frank Tooley came blastin' onta the lawn like a dang-blasted moon rocket. He wus drunk off his ass an' crushed li'l Renee's goal an' dollies an' stuff. Renee wus inside at the time, thank the bearded gah in the skah, but she sure wussen too happy 'bout the fact her daddy done destroyed her playthings."

Mandy smacked her fist onto the desk top. "We've been far too lenient with Mr. Tooley, Wynne. That stops now."

"Yuh, that's whut I done tole him. I took them car keys an' tole Estelle she needed'a lock 'em up in a place where Frank ain't nevah gonn' find 'em. If that be enuff or not, I ain't too sure. That sombitch might have a spare set."

A somber silence fell between them before Wynne let out a dark grunt. "I jus' hope he ain't gonn' burn off his frustra-shuns on Estelle an' Renee. O' course, I done tole him that if he did, he gonn' be in a world o' hurt."

Before Mandy could say anything, Beatrice added her two cents' worth: "Taking the law into your own hands carries a severe penalty, Miss Donohue. We will never tolerate vigilantes. But I suppose that if something does happen to Mr. Tooley, we'll know where to start the investigation."

Blackie responded to the thinly veiled threat by growling; Goldie ducked down at once and covered her eyes with her paws.

"Izzat a fact, Quick Draw?" Wynne said in a frosty voice.

"Very much so."

"So, lemme see. What carries da most weight, de-per-ty?  An' I mean in a judicial sense… spousal abuse or da promise offa quick an' colah'ful ass-kickin'?"

Over at the watch desk, Barry could barely contain his snickers. At the exact same moment, Rodolfo returned from the crew room holding another armful of old case files. The Senior Deputy quickly eyed the stand-off and knew he needed to stay as far away from it as possible - thus, he took the long way around the office to get back to the watch desk where he dumped the stack of files.

Mandy ended the confrontation by standing up ramrod-straight and slamming her hands onto her hips. "Enough of this pointless bickering!  We have far more important things to do!  Deputy Reilly, have you found anything in the files that may provide hints or tips regarding the prank calls?"

"No, Ma'am," Beatrice said and glanced down at the paperwork.

"Then keep looking," Mandy said before she turned to her partner. The stern expression remained in place, but the cold edge of her voice softened a fraction: "Wynne, let's discuss this in private later. Once we get home, we can talk to Mr. Tooley about what happened. All right?  Please."

"Yuh, Sheriff Mandy. I be hearin' ya. An' I sure is hopin' it ain't nevah gonn' come ta tears an' busted noses… but ya nevah know. Booze brings out the devil in men, don't it?"

Beatrice drew a quick breath to fire off another scathing barb at Wynne's comment, but she caught herself in the nick of time before the broadside had a chance to escape her lips. Instead, she tore open one of the desk's drawers and retrieved a small bag of chocolate-chip cookies that would render her incapable of speaking for the next few minutes.

Wynne and Mandy shared a long look; Barry finally let out the snicker he had been holding back - unfortunately, it meant he passed wind as well.

"Oh, for cryin' out loud, Barry!" Rodolfo said and beat a hasty retreat from the watch desk in case the gaseous monster turned out to be related to the Slithering Killer.

The Bakelite telephone ringing brought an end to the unfortunate incident. While fanning the immediate area surrounding the chair, Barry picked up the receiver and readied his trusty pencil. "You've reached the- okay, okay- slow down- slow down, I can't underst- okay. An industrial accident at Morton Fredericksen's poultry farm… okay…"

While Barry scribbled at a furious pace, he locked eyes with the sheriff to show it was something she needed to be part of.

Responding at once, Mandy got up and picked up her own telephone.

Down on the floor, Blackie perked up at the prospects of finally being involved in some exciting action; Goldie simply rolled herself up into a golden furball.

The words 'industrial accident' were enough to make Wynne stand up straight and shoot a concerned look at Barry and the old telephone.

"A manual laborer in one of the breeding facilities has been injured… all right," Barry continued; he pinned the receiver between his chin and shoulder to hold the incident sheet in place while scribbling. "And your name is?  Sir, I need your name for the- Sir, calm down. I need your name- Adam Mann, noted. Yes, we'll alert the paramedics. A typical ETA is fifteen to twenty minutes. Yes, the heli is stationed in Barton- no. Your own medical personnel need to administer first aid- hello?  Hello?  He hung up, Sheriff."

Mandy already had her index finger hovering above her own smartphone to call the central dispatch in Barton City when her lips turned into a pair of narrow lines in her face. "No, we need to have it confirmed before we waste thousands of tax dollars on the helicopter," she said and found the direct number to Morton Fredericksen's office instead.

"Lawwwwr-die… don't tell me that might ha' been one o' them there pranks?" Wynne said while she looked at Mandy and Barry in quick succession.

Barry shook his head as he reached for his indispensable cigarette. "It didn't sound that way, Wynne… the fellow was definitely in a wild panic during the call." - All that talking made the tip of ash drop onto his pants, but he brushed it off with a simple flick that had come from years of experience.

"Senior Deputy Gonzalez," Mandy said, "pre-emptive action can't hurt. Take number two and head up there at once. It has the full medic kit in the back."

"Yes, Ma'am!" Rodolfo said before he grabbed his Mountie hat and hurried over to the door - the sticking frame needed some persuasion, but a strong yank cleared that particular hurdle. Soon, the large SUV left the curb in a cloud of desert dust.

Once that had been accomplished, Mandy focused on her telephone. "It's still ring- hello, Mr. Fredericksen?  This is Sheriff Mandy Jalinski with an urgent request. We've been informed there's been an industrial accident in one of your breeding facilities. Yes. Yes. The caller was an Adam Mann." - Mandy looked at Barry to confirm the name; he nodded. "Three minutes ago. All right. Yes, I'll stay on the line."

Lowering the telephone, she looked at her companions. "Mr. Fredericksen hasn't heard anything, but his office is separate from the breeding plants so this one might be real. He's scrambling to find out more."

A mere two minutes went by, but the mounting tension made them feel like twenty. A voice was finally heard through the telephone's small speaker. "Yes, I'm here," Mandy said and whipped the smartphone back to her ear. A moment later, she smacked her fist onto the desk top with such ferocity that several items fell over and even rolled off the desk. "A false alarm?  All right."

Wynne let out a muted "Holy shittt!"

Down on the floor, Blackie matched her owner's comment with a disappointed Woof-wooof before she settled back down onto the blanket - Goldie let out a sigh of relief and stretched out of the doggy-roll she had been curled up into.

"That's correct, Mr. Fredericksen," Mandy continued into the telephone, "the caller's name was Adam Mann. "I see… you don't have anyone by that name working for you?  All right. Yes, it seems we've been the victims of a vicious prank. Yes, it happens. One of my deputies will swing by in a short while. He'll ask a few questions. Maybe someone holds a grudge- yes, it's similar to a bomb threat. I know it's unlikely, but we never know, Mr. Fredericksen. No. All right. Goodbye."

"Anothah o' them there nasty pranks, huh?" Wynne said and scratched her neck.

Mandy only had time to reply with a nod. She took her portable radio off her belt and keyed the mic at once. "Base to Mobile Unit Two. Base to Mobile Unit Two. Senior Deputy, stand down. This was another prank. Over."

A sublimely annoyed utterance of 'Son of a-' came through the connection accompanied by the sound of the Durango's engine roaring along the State Route to get to the industrial complex a short distance north of Goldsboro. 'Do you want me to return to base, over?'

"That's a negatory. I want you to get up there and put your ear to the ground. There's always plenty of yakking going on among the laborers. Someone might know or suspect something… or know someone who's heard something about someone else. You know the drill. Over."

'Yes, Sheriff. Mobile Unit Two out.'

The mood in the sheriff's office was already charged with the news they had been pranked once more, but it only grew when another telephone started ringing. "Haw!  Whazzat now?" Wynne exclaimed before she realized the merry ringtone and the buzzing sensation came from her pants pocket. "Aw, dat be mah phoah-ne… okeh, y'all can back 'er on down now, ya heah?  I'mma-jus' gonn' dig inta mah pocket he' ta… haw!  The li'l sombitch done stopped ringin'!"

While Barry snickered at Wynne's typical response, Beatrice wore an expression that proved she would much rather throw the Last Original Cowpoke in the slammer for crimes against the American language than listen to another second of her drawled speech patterns.

The missed telephone call wasn't urgent so Wynne pushed off calling back for later. Instead, she made herself comfortable on the corner of the desk once more. With nothing better to do, she took to observing her companions: down on the floor, Blackie and Goldie had their tongues out in a regular doggy-pant. Barry lit a new cigarette with the dying embers of the old one. A scowling Beatrice did all she could to avoid eye-contact with anyone. Mandy sat down at her desk to resume browsing the old case files and communiqués from HQ.

"Haw, Sheriff Mandy, I done had an ideah… ain't sure if it gonn' work or not, but I deffa-nete-ly done had an ideah. How 'bout recordin' them telephoah-ne mess-itches y'all receive?  Like in them ol' spy mooh-vies an' stuff?  Woudden that be a help for y'all?"

Before Mandy could answer, Beatrice let out a contemptuous snort. "And how would you suggest we did that, Miss Donohue?  Are you even aware what kind of crappy, old landline telephone we have here?" the deputy said in a voice that couldn't be more patronizing if she tried. "Let me show you… it's that black thing there," she said and pointed at the Bakelite monstrosity on the watch desk.

Enough was enough, so Blackie jumped up and let out an angry bark that made the felt tiles in the ceiling rattle - the Groan-Growl-Grunt! that escaped Wynne's throat wasn't far off when it came to volume.

Barry snickered even harder; Goldie whimpered. Wynne drew a deep breath to fire off a forty-cannon broadside of her own, but it never materialized as Mandy smacked her fist onto the desk top once more and let out a barked: "Deputy Reilly!  May I suggest you treat Miss Donohue with a little more respect?  We're meant to work for the citizens of Goldsboro, not against them. Do I make myself clear?"

"Very clear, Sheriff," Beatrice said before she returned to the paperwork in front of her.

Wynne and Mandy exchanged a long look; the Cowpoke eventually got up from the corner of the desk but kept quiet. A moment later, the proverbial light bulb went off above her head, and she couldn't stop a wide, victorious smirk from spreading over her features. "To round off this he' li'l duel, yuh, I gotta suggestion 'bout how y'all might record 'em conversa-shuns. All y'all got them smarty-phoah-nes, yuh?  So next time when da real phoah-ne rings, y'all take yer smarty-phoah-nes an' run that li'l voice recordah app-thingy, yuh?  An' then hold that there smarty-phoah-ne up ta that there receivah, yuh?  Still ain't convinced it gonn' work?  Well, De-per-ty Quick Draw, lemme intra-dooce ya ta exhibit A he'… yuh, this he' voice recordin' be som'tin I done spoke when I wus workin' on ol' Joe-Bob's Caddy. Okeh, he' we go."

After a little swiping and tapping, Wynne's voice could be heard plain as day speaking from the telephone: the recording was a list of things that she and Bengt 'Fat-Butt' Swenson needed to put on their work sheets for the restoration of Joe-Bob Millard's 1976 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible. At one point, Bengt's voice - in his trademark, inch-thick Swedish accent - added a few more items to the lengthy list.

Wynne stopped the soundbite and flashed Beatrice a wide grin. "Satisfahhhh'd?  Yup, dat right there is gonn' be mah suggestion, De-per-ty."

Beatrice's cheeks gained a crimson shade that didn't become her; Barry snickered so much he broke out in a rattling coughing fit that sent ash everywhere down his uniform and onto the watch desk. At one point, the lit cigarette flew out of his mouth and ended up on the linoleum, but he picked it up before it could burn yet another hole in the cracked material.

"An' with that, deah friends, I be off fer anothah beah," Wynne said and moved over to the glass door. "C'mon, mah li'l dawggies. Hey, Sheriff Mandy, I'mma-gonn' be in touch, yuh?"

Mandy couldn't help but chuckle at the surprising development. "All right. We'll talk later."

"Sure will," Wynne said and gave the sticking door enough of a yank to make it surrender at the first attempt.

Goldie zipped out at great speed to escape the threatening negative vibes inside the sheriff's office. Blackie stopped in the doorway to let out a Woof! at Beatrice that sounded as if she said 'Ha!' - then she turned her furry behind to the deputy and followed her owner and her canine companion out of the office.


An hour later, Rodolfo Gonzalez stood at the watch desk transferring a great deal of sweat from his neck to a handkerchief that was already soaked. Not only were his shirtsleeves rolled up past his elbows, his necktie had been loosened and the shirt's top three buttons were undone. "We really ought to have number two's busted A-C unit fixed, Sheriff…" he croaked before he leaned his head back to pour down an entire mugful of water in one go.

"Maybe there'll be room on next year's budget. I wouldn't hold my breath, though," Mandy said from her spot behind the tall piles of old case files she had been through - the abundance of files only left ten square inches of free space for all the other items she needed.

"Well, in any case," Rodolfo said before he swapped the empty mug for his trusty notepad, "nobody at the poultry farm knew anything, had heard anything or had seen anything… in short, it was a bust. None among the administrative staff or the manual laborers knew anyone by the name of Adam Mann."

Mandy nodded and let out an "All right. So even the name was phony. Figures. Adam Mann… pah."

"Well, apparently so," Rodolfo said with a shrug. "I did pick up a few rumors regarding an employee who had been hired only last month. A Mr. Paco Chavez, originally of Ciudad Angélico, Mexico, but lately a US citizen. When I spoke to Mr. Chavez, he insisted he had nothing to do with the calls. I had no reason to suspect he was lying. It's my guess the rumors were wholly unfounded and simply based on petty spite and prejudice."


"Yes. I reported the incident to Mr. Fredericksen and his foreman. They said they would deal with it and I believe them. They run a tight ship out there," Rodolfo said and closed his notepad. "And that's pretty much it, Sheriff."

Mandy grabbed a pencil and used it to tap a fast beat on the blotting pad. The drum solo lasted for nearly ten seconds before she threw the pencil into the holder in frustration. "So we still have nothing to go on. Dammit!  I've called HQ and requested an urgent list of all incoming telephone numbers, but the tech supervisor on weekend duty told me it would take two working days at least to extrapolate the data and send it here. That means we can have it on Wednesday at the earliest."

Sitting up straight, she rubbed her damp brow several times. "How the hell is it even technically possible for someone to prank us using different voices?  Either it's a bunch of friends all out to yank our chain, or it's some kind of… I don't know… computerized trickery. Whatever it is, it's getting on my last nerve."

"Yeah… it's like we've reached the end of a cul-de-sac only to discover the reverse gear is busted…" Rodolfo said and broke out in a shrug.

Mandy had to chuckle at the comparison that was one that Wynne could have made. There was little they could do but roll with the punches if or when they came, so she got up and made a beeline for the coffee machine to get herself some rocket fuel.

Over at the watch desk, Barry craned his neck to look out onto Main Street. "Uh, Sheriff… you may want to take a raincheck on the coffee. Judge Etherington is here."

A long groan escaped Mandy's throat as she took in the sight of the dark-gray Lexus SUV that had squeezed in between two of the Dodge Durango SUVs. She had already grabbed her favorite mug but put it down again to straighten her uniform - Rodolfo soon followed suit. Barry tried his best to sweep some of the ash off the watch desk and onto the floor, but not only did his bobbing cigarette create more ash while he worked, most of what he swept off the desk came to a rest all over his uniform pants.

To make sure the sticking door wouldn't pose a problem for the elderly, highly distinguished gentleman who soon climbed from the back seat of the large Lexus - he obviously had a chauffeur at his disposal - Mandy strode over to the wooden frame to give it a pre-emptive yank.

She sent a dark glare at the scuff marks on the woodwork that showed exactly where the problem originated. "Say… I wonder if we could plane that section down some?" she said and rubbed her chin.

Redoing his necktie, Rodolfo came over to stand next to the open door. He broke out in a shrug after glancing at the frame for a few seconds. "Perhaps we could. But then there'd be a big gap come wintertime when the wood contracts."

"Mmmm!  Good point," Mandy said before the judge's presence required her full attention. Although it wasn't required by the code of conduct, she offered the gentleman a brief salute before she put out her hand.

MacLean County Judge Cornelius Etherington was in his late sixties and thus on the verge of falling prey to the upper age limit for active judges. Rotund though far from being fat or even chubby, his soft shape, well-groomed full beard and friendly eyes offered the impression he was the grandfatherly type - or even a big teddybear - when he was in fact a hard but ultimately fair arbiter.

His voluminous hair had turned gray prematurely so he'd had a distinguished air about him for close to twenty years already. A pair of square spectacles sat high on his nose; a set of very dark hangers that were used as sunglasses had been attached to the frame. He wore a steel-gray business suit over a white shirt and a black necktie. The shirt was buttoned up to the collar behind the tie's knot, and the cold breeze he brought with him proved his Lexus had been air-conditioned.

The Sheriff's Department's lack of such creature comforts struck the elderly judge the moment
he stepped foot in the warm and dusty office on Main Street. "Ohhhh!" he croaked as the heat made swift work of the cold breeze. Within another few moments, he loosened his necktie and undid the top two buttons of his shirt - the gestures made Rodolfo chuckle under his breath and reach up to loosen his own necktie.

Even Mandy smiled, but her face was soon back at a neutral expression. "Good afternoon, Your Honor. I'm Sheriff Mandy Jalinski, and this is Senior Deputy Rodolfo Gonzalez, Deputy Barry Simms and Junior Deputy Beatrice Reilly. Welcome to Goldsboro."

Though Cornelius Etherington's complexion had been on the pale side upon his arrival, a distinct tidal wave of heat-induced crimson soon flooded his features as he shook hands with the sheriff and her staff. "Why, thank you, Sheriff. Good Lord Almighty… is it always this warm in here?  This is unbearable…" he said in a well-rounded voice that matched his distinguished exterior.

"I'm afraid the A-C compressor broke down last year, Your Honor," Mandy said as she stepped back to her desk to ready her swivel-chair if the judge needed to sit down.

"And your budget won't allow for a replacement?" the gentleman said; loosening the necktie wasn't enough to counter the heatwave's frontal assault on his well-being, so he took his suit jacket off and undid another three buttons in his shirt - it gave everyone a good look at his undershirt, but what would ordinarily be a fashion faux pas had to take a back seat to the harsh realities of life.

"It doesn't even allow for a service technician to come and take a look at it," Mandy said with a shrug.

The judge broke out in a grimace after he had taken an extended glance at the cramped, dusty and overly hot office. "Sheriff, would you happen to know if Mrs. Peabody's boarding house has air-conditioned rooms?"

"I'm afraid I can't say, Your Honor."

Over at the watch desk, Barry thrust his hand in the air like a schoolboy. Nobody paid any attention to him or his potential message, so he stood up straight and cleared his throat. When the judge and Mandy turned to look at him, he drew a deep breath and said: "They don't."  Then he sat down again.

Etherington stared wide-eyed at the perennially untidy, ash-covered uniform of the Deputy Sheriff but chose not to make any comments. "Ah. That's unfortunate," was all that came from him.

Mandy stepped forward to butt in: "Your Honor, if I may offer a suggestion… the Bed and Breakfast just across the street does have air-conditioned rooms. I know that for a fact because I carried out the quarterly fire inspection last week."

"Ah!  Dear old Moira MacKay has branched out, has she?  Excellent!  Yes… that'll do nicely. Do you suppose it'll be possible to rent a room for a night or two at such short notice?"

"I'm sure it will, Your Honor," Mandy said and held out her arm. "Why don't we go over there at once and find out?"

The judge nodded and moved back to the door. "That's the best suggestion I've heard all day. I'm in desperate need of an iced tea. Ah, Deputies… I'll see you all later this afternoon for a few preliminary meetings. I gather we have plenty to discuss."

Barry, Rodolfo and Beatrice all smiled at the county judge as he and Mandy left the office. The tension lifted as they did so, and Barry and Rodolfo had time to shoot each other a quick glance. "Dear old Moira?" Barry said with a snicker.

"Yeah," Rodolfo said on his way over to the coffee machine. "There's maybe a handful of people worldwide who could get away with calling her that… I guess old man Etherington is one of 'em."

Beatrice briefly eyed her colleagues before she let out a huff and sat down to continue wading through the paperwork. "Would you mind keeping your unprofessional observations to yourselves?  Thank you."

Rodolfo opened his mouth to inform the junior deputy she had completely misunderstood the comment, but Barry did it more effectively by passing gas.

A moment later, Rodolfo grabbed his Mountie hat and strode over to the glass door. "I'll be out on foot patrol. Use my telephone if you need me," he said over his shoulder.


Across the street, Wynne leaned over the pool table and thrust the cue ahead. The well-chalked tip made a Cronk! sound as it hit the ball and sent it on its merry way around the table.

Brenda, who sat at a table next to the pool table, clapped and cheered at the successful shot - it made Wynne break out in a cheesy grin and make a small bow to her admirer.

Four cans of Double-Zeros - three empty and one half-full - had been lined up on each of the four boundaries so Wynne would never be too far from her refreshments as she toured the table. When the next ball she played went into the correct pocket, she took the final can and emptied that as well.

The beer nearly went down the wrong pipe as she spotted Mandy and the county judge walking into Moira's Bar & Grill. The elderly man with the shock of white hair was a familiar figure from several of the local TV stations: his weekend call-in show where he provided free advice on a multitude of topics related to law and order always created impressive viewing figures.

"Okeh, Wynne Donnah-hew… this be it, girl. Tawk ta da man… or not tawk ta da man… tawk ta da man… or not tawk ta da man…" she mumbled under her breath. She remained at the pool table holding the cue in one hand and the empty can of beer in the other while she stared at the distinguished gentleman.

Brenda glanced over her shoulder to see what had caught Wynne's attention in such an unusual manner. She furrowed her brow as she turned back to look at her friend.

Down below the pool table, Blackie stuck her head out from the doggy-cave to investigate why her owner had suddenly stopped moving. The black German Shepherd couldn't see the judge and the sheriff from her low vantage point, so she let out a puzzled Woof? before she withdrew from the scene - there were more interesting things to do inside the cozy cave.

Wynne's feet seemed to make the decision for her as they stepped forward - but she came to an abrupt halt when she realized that literally holding a beer wouldn't create a good first impression. Once she had put it on the boundary next to the others, her courage had deserted her and she was back to square one with regards to the decision.

After rubbing her face several times, she came to the conclusion that she needed another beer to strengthen her resolve before the important conversation. Instead of going up to the counter where Mandy and the judge had ended up, she turned around and shuffled over to the refrigerators where she found another can of Double-Zero.

She had barely cracked it open with the familiar Pssshhhht! and taken a lengthy swig when Mandy said "Wynne?" somewhere behind her.

"Whazzat, darlin'?" Wynne said and turned around holding a can of beer and wearing a white suds-mustache - she came to a hard stop and threw her eyes wide open when she realized the county judge had joined Mandy at the refrigerators and that he had caught her chugging down a beer after all. "Uh… buh… howdy, there, Judge Etherin'ton… sure is nice ta see y'all. Lemme tell ya, I always watch that there teevee show o' yers on Channel… som'tin-or-othah. Yuh… ain't dat som'tin?"

The judge could barely keep a straight face at the sight of the white foam mustache on the tanned woman's upper lip, but he managed to do so and put out his hand for the traditional greeting. "Indeed it is, Miss Donohue. How do you do. I need a room for two nights in your Bed And Breakfast, and Miss MacKay told us that's your area of expertise."

"Why, it sure is, Yer Honah. Yuh," Wynne said; as she spoke, she caught a glimpse of Mandy touching her own upper lip to offer a non-verbal pointer at the suds - the white stuff was soon wiped off on a napkin made for the purpose. A muted groan of embarrassment escaped her before she continued: "So… if y'all don't mind me askin', Yer Honah, but 'r ya mo' of a Blue Oval fan or do ya follow the Bow Tie?"

The look on Cornelius Etherington's face proved he had no idea what Wynne meant by that; he turned to Mandy for an explanation.

"The rooms are themed, Your Honor. Miss Donohue's an avid Nascar enthusiast so she has decorated the rooms according to her favorite paint schemes from the past. Some are dedicated to Ford and some to General Motors."

"Oh, I see… how fascinating," Cornelius said as he turned back to face Wynne. "Well, as long as the air-conditioning works, any room will do nicely, thank you."

A grin spread over Wynne's face - she nearly took another swig of the beer, but stopped herself before the sudsy-lip incident was repeated. "Okeh!  No problemo, Yer Honah. We got jus' the room for y'all… numbah eighty-eight, yessirree. Ya see, that there racin' numbah wus used on Foh-rds an' Chevrolets in da past, yuh?  Why, we got that there Gatorade cah-r ol' D.W. drove… an' the Quality Care T-bird… an' o' course all them Hendrick cah-rs that Li'l E done raced. Yessir, numbah eighty-eight is a neat, neutral numbah fer them who ain't so int'rested in them things as I am. Yuh."

The judge nodded a couple of times before he turned to Mandy for a translation.

"Room eighty-eight is available, Your Honor," Mandy said with a smile.

Wynne scrunched up her face and let out an inaudible: "Yuh, eighty-eight… like Ah done tole y'all…"

Cornelius smiled back at the sheriff before he turned to Wynne to offer her a similar gesture. "Excellent. I badly need an iced tea now, but then I'd like to see the room, please. Will that be all right?"

"Why, sure, Yer Honor. Yessirree. I, uh… uh… uh…" Wynne's primary inner voice told her to ask the judge for a private council regarding the moving violation now he was there, but another, louder, voice demanded that she forgot all about it because it was neither the right time nor place to ask. In the end, she screwed a smile on her face and said: "I be right he' playin' that there pool, so y'all can jus' come ovah whenevah y'all be reddy for movin' in an' all."

"Ah… good. Good!  Thank you," the judge said before he and Mandy moved back up to the counter to place their orders.

Wynne scratched her neck a couple of times before she broke out in a shrug and returned to the game in progress. Her mind had wandered too far to resume at once, so she took a step back to chalk the cue and ponder her options.

Down below the pool table, Blackie stuck her dark head out to see what was going on. A brief Woof? that meant 'Who was that talking?' went unanswered, so she scooted back inside the doggy-cave to resume sharing a stick of jerky with her canine companion.

At much the same time, Brenda looked at the retreating judge and then at Wynne. "I thought you wanted to talk to him, Wynne?"

"Yuh, but… naw. It wussen the right time. Mebbe latah. Can I bah y'all som'tin ta drink or som'tin?"

"No, thank you. I'm good. Maybe later," Brenda said with a wink that made Wynne let out a semi-embarrassed chuckle.


The tension-curve leveled out as the hours changed from A.M. to P.M. At two in the afternoon, the merciless rays of the sun baking the streets of Goldsboro made sure few living souls dared to venture outside. A truck or farm vehicle drove by on highly irregular occasions, but everything else resembled a ghost town during the off-season.

Mandy stood by the windows overlooking Main Street eating a donut with pink frosting and nursing a mug of steaming-hot coffee - even the brutal nature of the heatwave couldn't match the grumpiness that would follow if Mandy didn't get her serving of afternoon rocket fuel.

A.J. 'Slow' Lane had been by with the regular afternoon tray loaded with sugary pastries of all kinds; it had lasted all of five minutes. Apart from the empty tray, all that remained of the free treats were the roughly two-hundred crumbs that littered the watch desk and Barry Simms' uniform.

Barry continued to sit at the watch desk surrounded by a pile of ash, a sudoku magazine, one of the Sally Swackhamer, P.I. pulp detective novels that everyone in the sheriff's office had taken a liking to, the aforementioned two-hundred crumbs and finally the official incident sheet.

At present, he played a silent connect-the-dots game on his telephone. The game did in fact have plenty of overly cutesy and cartoonish sound effects, but Rodolfo and Beatrice had threatened him with swift and harsh retribution if he didn't mute the sound on the double.

When the cigarette he had been smoking came to its last, he lit a new one with the dying embers of the old one as he always did. The butt was soon put on top of the cone of ash where it joined thirty or so of its brethren.

While Beatrice had withdrawn to the bathroom, Rodolfo continued to go through the filing cabinets in the crew room at the back of the office - despite looking at dozens of reports of prank calls filed over the past decade, they had found nothing that could offer even the slightest hint with regards to finding a suspect.

Mandy sighed and took a swig of her coffee. The first activity in a long while came a short minute later. On the opposite side of Main Street, Wynne, Brenda Travers and the dogs exited Moira's Bar & Grill. The quartet went into the alley adjacent to the building to get to Wynne's Silverado. The powerful vehicle soon drove out onto the street and headed for home.

The exhaust note lingered for a moment before it was swept away by the constant breeze that rolled in from the desert. Mandy sighed, took another sip of the coffee and munched on the last bite of the donut.

A shrill ringing from the Bakelite telephone on the watch desk brought the afternoon's peace and quiet to a crashing end.

The loud noise startled Barry to such a degree that he let out an "Oh, Gawd!" and jerked upright in the chair; in turn, that made his knee bump into the underside of the desk which distributed the cone of ash on top of the ashtray all over its surroundings. Worse, he lost his grip on his smartphone which fell onto the cracked linoleum with a loud Ka-lonkkk!

"Barry, Barry, Barry…" Mandy mumbled as she put down the coffee and strode over to the watch desk to pick it up now that Barry had other things on his mind. She remembered Wynne's suggestion of recording the incoming calls and soon readied her personal telephone. Once the app was running, she picked up the watch telephone's receiver.

Holding her own smartphone close enough to make sure the sound recorder could pick up the conversation proved tricky, but she managed it with a minimum of fumbling. "This is the MacLean County- Hello, Mr. Iverson. I see. A drunk causing problems… all right. He refuses to pay?  Yes- no, Mr. Iverson, I'd prefer you hand him over to us instead of taking care of business on your own as you put it."

Taking a step back to look at Barry, she realized at once he was still too busy brushing ash and crumbs off the desk - and rescuing his smartphone - to update the incident sheet. Gesturing at him didn't do much so she concentrated on the call for the time being. "Mr. Iverson, I have a request for you. You may find it strange, but I'd like you to come out onto the sidewalk with the customer in question. Yes. Yes, I know it's hotter than hell out there. I'll explain later. Thank you, Mr. Iverson."

Mandy turned off the voice recorder app and tried to replay it at once to hear if anything had come out of it. The voices were perhaps a little too faint, but it wasn't bad for a first attempt.

"Ouch… my knee… my cig… my phone…" Barry mumbled as he rubbed the former, stuck the second back between his lips and brushed off the latter.

"How about 'Ouch, my career,' Deputy Simms?" Mandy said in a sourish tone. "That was Derrike Iverson. One of his customers won't pay. Fill out the incident sheet. At once. Thank you."

Barry opened his mouth to complain that he couldn't update anything while his knee hurt, but the dark scowl on the sheriff's face meant he piped down in a hurry and went to work.

Mandy strode over to the glass door, yanked it open and stepped out onto the sidewalk. Just shy of two-hundred yards further up Main Street, Derrike Iverson and an unidentified barfly waited like they had been told. Mandy waved at them before she poked her head back inside to let Barry know she would be away for a short while.

At the same time, Beatrice Reilly exited the bathroom. She cast a single glance at the horrendous mess on the watch desk and let out a derisive snort. When she noticed the sheriff standing in the open door, she upped her pace and strode over there. "I heard the telephone… was it another prank call, Ma'am?" she said as she glanced north on Main Street.

"Not this time, Deputy," Mandy said and pointed at Derrike Iverson and the barfly. No shade could be found anywhere on Main Street as the hour of the day meant that both sidewalks were fully exposed to the sun's murderous rays - it created the perfect opportunity to send the junior deputy into the fray. "The person held by Mr. Iverson refuses to pay. Make sure the bill is taken care of. If the fellow's a vagrant, detain him and put him in a holding cell until he's sober. All right?"

"Very well, Ma'am," Beatrice said before she went back inside to get her Mountie hat. A resounding Ahhh-choooooo! that burst out of Barry Simms the moment she went past the watch desk blew a cloud of ash in her direction, but her expert desert survival skills meant she was able to sidestep it without too much hassle.

Instead of saying Gesundheit or any of the other stock phrases, her only response was to roll her eyes repeatedly at her unfortunate colleague as she strode past the watch desk.



By the time Saturday evening fell over Goldsboro, the ambient temperature had conceded the eternal, and unequal, battle with Father Time. Although the scorching sun remained in the sky, it was a good deal closer to the horizon than it had been. Thus, shadows had formed on the western side of Main Street that allowed a semblance of regular life to resume. The mild breeze that entered the small town from the wide-open expanses beyond the city limits sent traces of dust and sand everywhere, but at least it gave the stale, superheated air a kick up the proverbial backside.

A low, persistent rumble approaching from the south proved to be a two-truck convoy consisting of Wynne's mat-black Silverado and Diego Benitez' old, dented Ford F150 workhorse. The eight-mile trip from the trailer park had given both vehicles a coating of desert dust; it could hardly be seen on the rusty Ford save for the patches that covered the windshield where the wipers couldn't reach, but Wynne's pride and joy was now mostly dirt-brown rather than mat-black.

While the Silverado reversed into the alley next to the bar and grill, Diego drove over to the curb to park on the wrong side of Main Street. Stepping out, the late-forty-something Mexican-American donned his cowboy hat and made sure his blue-jeans and flannel shirt weren't too dusty. Once his clothes had been tended to, he reached into his breast pocket for a small comb that - in a good working relationship with the truck's side mirror - took care of removing a few grains of desert dust from his sideburns and impressive mustache.

The old truck had been equipped with several features that proved Diego was an avid hunter: two thirty-aught-six rifles and a double-barreled hunting shotgun were attached to a rack on the rear window, and two cooler boxes had been installed on the bed to keep the game, not to mention the beer, cool and fresh during the trip back to the trailer.

Blackie and Goldie soon tore around the corner of the alley yapping, woofing and barking. The dogs ran around in dizzying circles while playing Chase The Baddie, or at least the canine equivalent of the old game.

Wynne soon arrived at a far more sedate pace. Back in her Last Original Cowpoke outfit now the ambient temperature allowed it, she wore decorated cowboy boots, faded blue-jeans and a black sweatshirt celebrating the 2018 Daytona 500 victory of the RCR #3 Chevrolet Camaro. The red bandanna stuck out of her rear pocket as cowpoke fashion dictated it should, but she carried her denim jacket over her shoulder rather than wearing it. Her beloved, sweat-stained cowboy hat had been pulled down low across her brow to battle the final advances of the sun - and because it made her look cool and sexy.

She was soon joined by Diego who had finished de-dusting and straightening out his mustache and sideburns.

"Haw, look at them ca-razy dawggies," she said and let out a guffaw at the way Blackie and Goldie continued to race around on the sidewalk. "Imagine if we two-legged folks done had that kind of energy… Lawrdie. There wussen nuttin' we coudden do, wus there?  Aw, anyhows. I be yearnin' fer a burgah an' fries som'tin fierce tanight. Whut y'all be havin', friend?"

"Haven't decided yet," Diego said and shuffled over to the entrance to Moira's Bar & Grill. "Street's pretty full right now… Slow Lane might be overworked already," he continued as he pointed at the line of cars and trucks that were parked at the curb.

"Ya reckon?" Wynne said and turned around to look at the vehicles. "True dat… I didden figger it would be, but, yuh… well, it be Satuhrdy, so… aw, how bad can it be?"

Diego let out a grunt as he opened the door for his female companions.

As the quartet stepped inside everyone's favorite eatery, Wynne soon answered her own question: "Lawwwwwwwwwwwr-die!  Whaddindahell's goin' on in he'?"

Ninety percent of the tables in the bar and grill were occupied by customers who were either eating or waiting for their orders to be processed. A majority of them were familiar faces from around town, but there were one or two new people who had braved the crowd to get something to eat - Sue-Ellen and Louis Lockworth, the young couple who had arrived earlier in the day in the huge RV, were among them.

Down below, Goldie let out a whimper at the physical embodiment of one of her worst canine nightmares: the unlikely prospects of navigating the forest of legs without getting stepped on. Blackie gave her golden companion a nudge that meant she would protect her come hell, high water, spooks, critters, space aliens or indeed humans who didn't pay any attention to where they put their boots.

Wynne let out a long whistle as she pushed her cowboy hat back from her brow. "They be havin' a bingah night or som'tin an' didden tell me 'bout it?  Whaddahell all them folks doin' he'?"

"What we're plannin' on doin', I s'pose," Diego said and closed the door behind them. "Shoot, look at Slow Lane…"

Wynne glanced up toward the industrial stoves where Anthony Joseph 'Slow' Lane tried to keep an entire hardware store of cooking pots, frying pans, French-fry baskets and heating panels going at the same time - as always, the lovable young fellow was a step behind the various processes which meant that alarms beeped and lights flashed all over the place to warn him that something was about to be burned to a cinder. A column of black smoke that rose from a frying pan off to his right proved he had forgotten something in his haste to service another order.

"Yuh… I be lookin', awright. An' I reckon I might need-a don mah ol' apron once mo' ta help 'im out. Wussen whut I done had in mind, but, yuh… bettah that than no burgahs an' fries."

"Well, the only free table that I can see is over by the johns," Diego said and pointed at the table in question.

"Yuh, noboddah wanna sit there tho' it don't stink or nuttin'. Anyhows, y'all bettah grab it befo' it be gone!  I'mma-gonn' take care o' them beahs first an' then I'mma-gonn' go up there an' give ol' Slow Lane a hand or som'tin. So… burgahs an' fries fer y'all, too, or…?"

"Yeah, okay… works for me, Wynne," Diego said and made a beeline for the table before someone else could claim it as their own. Once he got there, he put a hand next to his mouth to shout: "Make it an extra-large box of fries!"

"Yuh-yuh, I be hearin' ya… I sure be hearin' ya, Diegoh!" Wynne said and offered her friend a thumbs-up.


After raiding the refrigerators and getting two six-packs of H.E. Fenwyck Double-Zeros for their meal, Wynne shuffled through the crowd to get up to the counter and the stoves. On her way there, she uttered a long line of "Howdy," "How y'all doin'?" and "Whazzup?" to all the folks she met.

Wynne's regular playing partners in the Goldsboro Pool Association, the twenty-somethings Roscoe Finch and Geoffrey Wilburr, jr., were hard at work at the pool table trying to impress their Saturday-night dates. Judging by the bored look on the heavily made-up young women who sat close to the players, neither the location nor the type of entertainment seemed to be a hit.

The newest resident of Goldsboro, the artist Nancy Nguyen who had only lived in town for two weeks, enjoyed a vegetarian omelet and a Summer Dreamz Pineapple Perfection soft drink. When Nancy spotted Wynne, a concerned expression fell over her face as she glanced down at the floor to see if the scary dogs followed the tall woman as they always did; the concern turned to relief when there was no sight of them.

The next table saw the elderly couple Mildred Herzberg and Albert Rossman on yet another of their frequent dinner dates. Barry Simms' blue-haired, cheroot-smoking aunt and her romantic interest were too busy slurping chicken soup from deep bowls to say hello to Wynne. Since both wore their Sunday finest for the date, they had stuffed cloth napkins down their collars to catch the inevitable spillages.

Chuckling at the humorous sight, Wynne resumed wading through the mass of people in the bar and grill. The next table she reached on her endless journey toward the counter saw Wyatt Elliot eating alone. The fop read a newspaper as always while he thrust a plastic fork into what appeared to be a ready-made pasta-and-shrimp salad from the refrigerators. A glass of chilled white wine had been placed next to the salad. "Howdy fer a second time taday, Wyatt," Wynne said and tipped her hat at the fellow in the white Western suit. "Why, aintcha eatin' with Mary-Lou Skinnah on this he' nice evenin'?"

Wyatt looked up to offer Wynne a smile and a shrug before he folded up the newspaper and put it on the table. "No, I'm afraid I'm all alone tonight, Wynne. Mary-Lou had to cancel. She and Foo-Foo are over at Doctor Gibbs'. The poor, little critter showed signs of suffering from heatstroke."

"Ouch. Yuh, we gotta take care o' them dawggies o' ou'ahs, that sure ain't no lie. They need a-buncha mo' watah than whut we reckon they do," Wynne said and plonked her cowboy hat back onto her dark locks. "Okeh, tawk ta ya latah, Wyatt. Gotta get me some grub befo' ol' Slow Lane done throws it all on da floah. Yuh?  Bah-bah."


With Wynne's expert help, A.J. 'Slow' Lane was in fact able to cook four beef patties without ruining any of them. The French fries were well on their way in one of the wire baskets, and eight buns were lined up on the industrial stove under the whining range hoods.

The only critical situation arose when Wynne's attention was focused on the shelf that held all the spices and seasoning sauces. She had already made up her mind to drench her first burger in triple-chili hot sauce, but she couldn't decide whether to use a sauce based on sour cream or cheese for the second one.

While she pondered the major question, a certain stink suddenly trickled into her nostrils. She snapped back to the present at once and whipped her head around to see where the familiar stench of scorched meat came from - much to her relief, the curse hadn't struck anything she was responsible for.

The gas burner occupied by the hard-working frying pan that A.J. Lane always used to fry frankfurters had been turned up to its maximum setting - nine - rather than the six it was supposed to be set at.

Howling, Wynne took a long step sideways to rescue the meaty sausages. One of them had gone past the point of salvation, but the three others could be saved by being turned over multiple times using a pair of heavy-duty sausage tongs.

She looked around to scold her co-worker but found him curiously absent. "A.J.?  A.J.?!  Whe'dahell y'all at?!" she barked at the top of her lungs. When the fellow finally came out of the corridor that led to the storage room, he carried two huge buckets of pre-peeled potatoes. "Lawwwwr-die, son!  Dontcha be goin' on a cross-country hike when y'all be cookin' them dang-blasted saus-itches!  I hadda chuck one offem in da trash, fer cryin' out loud!"

"Sorry… we were out of pota-"

"Hawt fryin' pan first, then col' pahtatahs, son!"

"Yes, Ma'am…"

"Now keep yer eye on them saus-itches while I be mindin' them burgahs an' fries me an' Diegoh gonn' have. Yuh?  Okeh?"  When A.J. nodded, Wynne began collecting the bottles of seasoning sauce and various other things that she would need. She kept a firm eye on the young man's progress for the first few moments to make sure he didn't suffer a relapse, but soon had plenty to do with her own food.


Wynne hadn't lost her touch when it came to flipping burgers - the four prime examples that she and Diego had gobbled up in no time flat proved that fact with flying colors. The extra-large helping of fries had been exemplary as well, and all in all, she was well-pleased with her efforts.

Blackie and Goldie had relocated to the table where they had received a doggy treat or two during the meal; at present, they rested under the table by Wynne's feet to be as far away from the many humans in the room as possible.

Diego wiped the last of the greasy residue off his lips with a napkin; then he drained the rest of a can of H.E. Fenwyck Pale Lager. "So," he said as he ran the napkin over his mustache as well to make sure all beery suds had been removed from it, "you wanna join me spendin' a few bucks on the video poker?"

"Naw. That ain't mah thing, Diegoh. I ain't nevah won nuttin' on them machines," Wynne said and took yet another Double-Zero from the remaining stash. "I reckon they don't lack ol' Wynne Donnah-hew. Whenevah I be neah, them cards only produce duds. An' whenevah someboddah else done plays, them cards come up with them big numbahs each an' ev'ry time. Story o' mah life, ain't it?  But anyhows, have fuh-n, yuh?"

"Oh, I will… trust me," Diego said with a grin before he got up from the chair and shuffled over to the video poker machine to try his luck.

Wynne returned the grin before she cracked open the can of Double-Zero and chugged it down at a record pace. The golden liquid nearly went down the wrong pipe when the main entrance opened to reveal Judge Etherington and Beatrice Reilly.

The deputy sheriff led the elderly gentleman over to a table before she went up to the counter to place an order. After pointing at the judge several times to make A.J. 'Slow' Lane understand that the fellow was a Very Important Person who needed to be treated accordingly - i.e. no screw-ups of any kind - she left the eatery without as much as a casual glance in Wynne's direction.

Wynne's brow gained an entire field of furrows as she stared at the judge. The voices inside her were once more locked in a fierce wrestling match on whether or not to approach him with the grievance she'd had since getting the fine.

Struck with a bad case of indecision, she pulled her cowboy hat down low so it covered her eyes. Her lips moved as she weighed the pros and cons, but no sound ever escaped her. She spent so much energy on her inner debate that she didn't even touch the beer she had already opened - and that happened once a year at the most.

A rare moment of insight and clarity finally brought about a decision. Pushing her hat off her eyes, she nodded and turned around on the chair mindful of not stepping on the dogs. "Girls, dontcha be movin' nowheah. I jus' gotta tawk ta someboddah, yuh?  Lawrdie, I sure be hopin' I be doin' the right thing, but… shoot. I really ain't gotta clue whaddahell I be doin'. I might be makin' a big, ol' foo' o' mahself. Wish me luck, yuh?"

Woof! - Yap!

"Much obliged!" Wynne said with a grin - but her smile soon faded as she moved away from the table to get to the judge.

A celebratory trill was suddenly played in the corner of the Bar & Grill where the electronic entertainment had been placed. A loud cheer soon followed as Diego Benitez thrust his arms in the air to underscore the fact he had just won $40 on the video poker machine.

Wynne smiled at her friend's success, but that particular smile lasted even shorter than the previous one had. Reaching the table where the important gentleman sat, she pulled off her hat and wrung it between her strong fingers. "Aw, Yer Honah… uh…"

"Yes, Miss Donohue?"

"Uh… I wus wonderin' if y'all could mebbe… uh… if y'all hadda li'l time ta lissen ta… uh… som'tin I done had on mah mind fer a li'l while an' all. Yuh. Som'tin important in that there field o' law an' all."

The look on Cornelius Etherington's face offered a strong hint that he didn't enjoy being disturbed while eating - even if A.J. Lane hadn't been down with his food yet. The gap in the conversation had time to turn awkward before the judge leaned forward and folded his napkin in a clear sign of impatience. "Miss Donohue, this will be the first honest meal I've had all day. I understand that your business must be important or you wouldn't have come forth, but would it be possible for you to wait until after I've eaten?"

"Haw, yessir!  Yessir, that sure would be possible, Yer Honah!"

While Wynne spoke, A.J. brought down a tray that held a half-bottle of quality red wine, a proper glass for such a beverage, a serving of tenderloin in cream gravy and a sidedish of broiled potatoes, sweet peas and asparagus.

He tried very hard to act like a real waiter by placing the various items in the correct order in front of the judge, but it nearly came unstuck when he burned his thumb on the main plate. As he howled and pulled back his scorched member at lightning speed, the steaming-hot cream gravy was on the verge of being dumped into the judge's lap.

Wynne's hand shot out and pulled the plate back before any spillages could occur. After the exquisite-looking dish had been moved back to a safe distance from the edge of the table and thus the judge's pants, she sent A.J. 'Slow' Lane one of Those Looks that were reserved for the really bad incidents and near-misses.

"Ohhh… thank you, Miss Donohue!" Cornelius Etherington said as he clutched the napkin - it seemed to act as a comforter though it wouldn't have done much good had the great gravy wave come crashing down. Once A.J. had shuffled back up to the counter, Cornelius pulled his chair closer to the table to make himself comfortable. "Tell you what. If you could come to my room in… say… an hour or so, I promise to be attentive. I'll make some instant coffee-"

"Naw, Yer Honah, I'mma-gonn' bring the good stuff from down he'. Yuh, that be much bettah than instant. Yessir."

"We have a deal, Miss Donohue," Cornelius said as he took the cutlery. He shot the denim-clad woman a pointed look to tell her he would like to eat in solitude.

Grinning in relief at the fair amount of success she had achieved so far, Wynne put on her hat, then tipped it before she shuffled back to her own table where Blackie, Goldie and the rest of her beer waited for her. The latter wouldn't last long, but it didn't matter as there was plenty where it had come from.


Wynne spent the next hour drinking the rest of the two six-packs of Double-Zeros, watching Diego lose his meager winnings and all his petty change on the video poker and keno machines, punishing Roscoe Finch and Geoffrey Wilburr, jr. at the pool table, treating Blackie and Goldie to some jerky-snacks, and finally spending a full five minutes on a bathroom break to get rid of all the Double-Zeros.

When the hands of time crept closer to her audience with the county judge, she went behind the counter and made a potful of coffee using the highest grade beans the house had to offer. The thermos was soon put on a tray where it was joined by a pile of napkins, a sugar bowl, a jar of coffee creamer, a pair of tea spoons and a dessert plate that featured a collection of exquisite butter cookies and petite chocolates.

The path through the Bar & Grill was still mostly blocked by patrons, so she and the dogs used the fire exit that led to the back garden at the far end of the connecting corridor. Turning to their right at once, they strolled along the newly paved path until they reached the rear entrance of the Bed & Breakfast.

The door proved tricky to open while carrying the tray, but Wynne mastered the challenge - using her elbow and rear-end - and was soon on her way up the stairs to get to room Eighty-Eight.

Blackie and Goldie followed their owner up the steps while letting out a Woofing commentary on where they might be going, and not least why. Goldie suggested their owner was perhaps going to meet a special someone in a secret romantic rendezvous, but Blackie shot down that notion at once with a strong Woof that means 'No way!'


Room Eighty-Eight was soon reached. Though Wynne's index finger was already inching closer to the doorbell, her courage deserted her at the last - and worst - moment. Groaning, she put the tray down on the carpet and rubbed her face several times.

Down on the floor, Blackie and Goldie shot each other a puzzled look. Goldie let out a Yap-yap-yap? that meant 'Now what?' - Blackie replied with a drawn-out Wooooof that meant 'I have no idea. Let's see what happens.'

"Haw, Wynne Donnah-hew, ya big chicken-fink!" Wynne mumbled to herself. "Will ya jus' get this dang-blasted thing ovah with?  It ain't nevah gonn' get no bettah if ya crap ya shorts jus' fearin' whadda Judge gonn' say… an' ya sure ain't gonn' get no bettah oppah-too-nitty than this he' deal. Okeh… okeh… okeh, Ah got dis. Hell-yuh, Ah got dis… no, Ah don't. Awwwww-shoot!"

Blackie soon let out a stronger Woof! that meant 'Will you make up your mind, woman?  Quit stalling!' Goldie soon added a softer Yap-yap-yap that meant 'And we left some of that delicious jerky behind just to come with you…'

Another Woof! from Blackie closed the deal by telling her owner that they'd guard the door for her so she didn't have to worry about any ghouls, ghosts, goblins or assorted other critters disturbing her.

Wynne eyed her dogs for a moment before she broke out in a shrug and pressed the doorbell. A few seconds went by that she spent picking up the tray. When the door opened, she screwed a smile on her face to greet the county judge. "Howdy there, Judge Etherin'ton… I done brought that there coffee we done tawked about. An' a cuppel-a treats for that there sweet tooth, yessir!"

After returning from his dinner, Cornelius Etherington had changed into a pale-brown, knitted cardigan, a flannel shirt, corduroy pants in a shade of brown that matched the cardigan, and finally a pair of slippers that - in combination with his beard and reading glasses - underscored his grandfatherly appearance.

He offered the denim-clad woman a smile as he stepped aside to allow unhindered passage into the room. "Hello, Miss Donohue. Come in. Oh, those chocolates certainly look nice…"

"An' I sure hope they taste nice, too, Yer Honah, 'cos they wus mighty expensive, lemme tell ya. They be foreign… yuh, they wus imported all the way from Noo Yawk City," Wynne said and moved into room Eighty-Eight.

That particular room had been a challenge to design for Wynne and the freelance interior decorator she had hired to provide professional support. Though she had wanted to stick to the theme of decorating the rooms after the color schemes of their respective NASCAR Cup car numbers, she'd had to cheat a little when it came to room Eighty-Eight.

The colors of the three cars she'd had in mind as templates clashed so severely - dark-green and white for the Gatorade Chevrolet, red and blue for the Quality Care Ford, and white, red, gold and blue for the National Guard Chevrolet - that a compromise had been required. Thus, she and the painters had literally toned down the colors to stop it from becoming a psychedelic trip.

To offset the muted colors, she had upped the number of period photos and racing mementos on the walls. The centerpiece was a framed collage displaying three autographed photos that showed the drivers and vehicles she had had in mind for the room: Darrell Waltrip and his 1978 Gatorade DiGard Chevrolet Monte Carlo, Dale Jarrett and his 1996 Quality Care Yates Ford Thunderbird and finally Dale Earnhardt, jr. and his 2014 National Guard Hendrick Chevrolet SS.

Like all the rooms save for the Honeymoon Suite and the Intimidator Suite - the latter was number Three, of course - Eighty-Eight was equipped with two single beds that could be connected in ten seconds flat if the need arose. A round, multi-purpose table stood at the opposite end of the room surrounded by three wooden chairs of a simple yet comfortable design. A small kitchenette with a single hotplate, an upright toaster and an electrical kettle took up space on the far wall next to the door to the small but fully equipped bathroom.

Judge Etherington had put half a library's worth of hefty tomes on the round table, and more books poked out of a pair of square travel bags on the floor. Some of the tomes on the table were open and some were closed; dozens of Sticky-Notes in garish colors were inserted at various spots.

The air-conditioning system hummed merrily like the judge had requested though the outside temperatures had gone down to bearable levels. The room was on the chilly side all in all, but Wynne wasn't about to complain as her skin grew increasingly flushed as Zero Hour approached.

She walked over to the kitchenette and put down the tray. The items were soon distributed and the coffee poured into the two mugs. "Y'all wan'some creamah in yer coah-ffee, Yer Honah?"

"Beg pardon?"

"Coah-ffee creamah?" Wynne repeated, holding up the plastic jar.

"Oh. Yes. One tea-spoon's worth, please," Cornelius said and moved over to the round table. He created room for the coffee and the treats by closing several of the hefty law books and putting them back into the travel bags.

Wynne soon put down the mugs and the plates. She eyed the judge warily before she pulled out a chair and sat down. Remembering she still wore her cowboy hat, she whipped it off and put it on her knee. When it fell to the floor at once, she let out a mumbled curse and put it in her lap.

Although her lips moved, no sounds came out. She cleared her throat. Then she cleared her throat again. Then she rubbed her brow. Then she cleared her throat for a third time. An "It be like this…" finally escaped her, but it stopped at that. She put her hands on her thighs. Then she rubbed her brow again.

By now, the judge's face had turned into a rather large question mark. He took one of the chocolates and a sip of the hot coffee to bridge the odd pause that had developed.

Wynne nodded a couple of times. Then she shook her head. Then she let out another "Yuh, it be like this, Yer Honah…"

The second bite at the cherry proved to be more successful as further words soon followed the first one: "Aw… it be like this, yuh?  I got fined fer one o' them there traffic viola-shuns or movin' viola-shuns or whichevah them things be called in your spe-shul lang-witch. Yuh?  Fer reckless drivin' an' all. An' the de-per-ty who done writ up the darn thing wus Beatrice Reilly, yuh?  Well, it ain't sittin' well with me. Naw, 'cos I be perdy dang sure I didden drive reckless or nuttin'. I wussen even goin' as fast as the speed limit out yondah on that there State Route, yuh?  But the de-per-ty done writ me up anyhows 'cos I had two wheels out inta that there dirt on da verge o' da blacktop. It wussen dainge-russ an' it cert'inly wussen no reckless drivin' or nuttin'. An' now I be he' tawkin' ta y'all 'bout it, Yer Honah. Ain't there som'tin that can be done or som'tin?  It ain't the amount o' da fine, it be da principle, yuh?"

Cornelius Etherington furrowed his brow as he digested the lengthy soliloquy. Though he had nodded at appropriate spots along the way to show that he kept up, he needed a long moment to parse the chunk of information presented to him. He had time for another piece of chocolate and a long swig of coffee before the final pieces of the puzzle seemed to fall into place.

"Thank you, Miss Donohue," he said after a while. "Well. That seems to be a fairly straightforward complaint. I sense there's more to it than that. I need to know all the details to give you any useful advice. You seemed too disinclined to go on for such a simple matter."

"Lawrdie, I ain't sure whut disinclah-ned means or nuttin', but da real sticky situa-shun is that mah… uh… well, I s'pose I really oughtta call 'er mah wife 'cos we be married in all but name, but… anyhows, mah wife is Sheriff Mandy. Beatrice's boss. Yuh?  An' that there is one helluva conflict o' interest, yuh?  Okeh, so if I file an oh-ffi-shual complaint agin'st the de-per-ty, Sheriff Mandy ain't got no op-shun but ta treat it like a complaint from anyboddah, yuh?  An' that comes between us. But if I mebbe file the complaint directly ta them headquartah folks up in Barton City or someboddah, it gonn' look to them like Sheriff Mandy ain't doin' no good job down he' in Goldsborah 'cos they ain't aware o' them connec-shuns between us. Yuh?  An' then that gonn' come between us!  An' I be tellin' ya right now, Yer Honah, I ain't gonn' allow nuttin' ta come between ma an' Mandy, full dang stop. But I sure ain't agreein' with that there reckless drivin' fine neithah!  Lawrdie, I ain't gotta clue whaddahell ta do…"

The judge's eyes had grown wider and wider as Wynne's proverbial floodgates had released the torrent of words. Parsing it required plenty of thought, chocolate delights and coffee - in that order.

"Mmmm!  Now that is a rather large dilemma, I agree," he said after a while. "Why, it's almost a conundrum. A positive will cause a negative for a closely related matter… but a positive for the related matter will inevitably cause a negative for the original matter. A middle ground seems out of reach. Quite fascinating… yes, indeed."

Wynne's eyes narrowed briefly as she thought about whether or not to ask if a conundrum was some kind of musical instrument used in the world of Conan The Barbarian - not to mention what in the world it had to do with the rest of her case - but she chose to keep quiet and let the county judge do his thing.

"Mmmm," Cornelius continued as he leaned back on the chair and reached for his mug. He observed his guest closely for what seemed an eternity before another "Mmmm…" followed. Falling silent, he took yet another piece of chocolate and a long swig of the coffee while it was hot.

Nearly a minute of nothing but silent observation went by before he said: "Miss Donohue, this requires a great deal of thinking on my part. It's undoubtedly a difficult situation, but I feel there may be light at the end of the tunnel."

"Haw!  Why, that there be good news, Yer Honah!  Yessirree!"

"In any case, I'll need to wade through a few thousand pages' worth of text to prepare for tomorrow. Thank you very much for providing the coffee and the treats. You were right. It was certainly a great deal better than the jar of instant coffee I brought with me here."

"Aw, ya sure is welcome an' all, Yer Honah. Why, I knew-" Wynne said - then she realized she had been so nervous about the whole thing that she had completely forgotten to pour herself a mug of the extra-good coffee. A grunt escaped her when she clapped eyes on the empty mug that she wouldn't have time to fill.

"On that note," the judge continued and got up, "I bid you a good evening, Miss Donohue." He put out his hand to signal the end of the audience.

"Much obliged fer now, Yer Honah. Much obliged. Lessee if som'tin pos'tive ain't gonn' happen aftah all," Wynne said and pumped the gentleman's arm up and down like she was trying to draw water from an old well.


Outside in the hallway, she knelt next to Blackie and Goldie and pulled both of them into a doggy-hug that prompted plenty of face-licking, fur-rubbing and happy yapping.

"Haw, girls, things might be lookin' up fer ol' Wynne Donnah-hew for a change. Yuh. Aw, I bettah not speak too soon or nuttin' 'cos I done been shot down befo', but… yuh. I need-a heah mah sweet, li'l Mandy's voice in mah eah. I betcha she gonn' be happy too," Wynne said as she whipped out her telephone and found Mandy's number in the registry.



At the same time up at the northern entrance to Goldsboro, one of the Dodge Durangos from the MacLean County Sheriff's Department was parked next to the city limits sign. Each vehicle that approached from the north was subjected to a thorough check with the speed gun; the drivers who broke the local limit would be flagged down and issued a fine appropriate to the offense.

Not that anyone had been speeding. In fact, nothing had happened for so long that the assignment had turned into a frustrating chore for Mandy who had taken it upon herself to carry out the important task.

The lack of activity was nothing short of pitiful for a Saturday evening. Despite the number of cars and trucks parked further south on Main Street at Moira's Bar & Grill, it seemed that neither Derrike Iverson's notorious dive nor the movie theater were able to attract much of a crowd up in the northern part of Goldsboro.

The regular gatherings of anti-government types at Derrike's place had taken a severe knock after their self-appointed leader and spokesman, disgraced former Sheriff Artie Rains, had been arrested for drunken disorderly, trespassing on private property and violent assault - not even the staunchest conspiracy theorist could deny it since Rains had made a fool of himself in front of the entire packed grandstand out at Thunder Park Raceway at the EverFresh 250 dirt-track stock car event earlier in the month.

The movie theater offered family-friendly entertainment in the age-old Girl And Her Horse-genre at eight o'clock in the shape of Chastaine, The Wonder Horse, but that was far too late for most families. An R-rated horror movie called Slash & Burns II: The Great Zombie Slaughter would be shown at eleven-thirty, but it was still far too early for that particular crowd to come to Goldsboro. In short, nothing happened.

Yawning, Mandy leaned against the Durango's left fender while she waited for the next truck, SUV or car to enter town. The last one to go past had come seventeen minutes earlier, and that had been Cathy Pearson - the owner of the Tack & Saddle leathergoods store - who was on her way home from a three-day conference up in Collinstown on how to uphold sustainability and animal ethics in the international leather trade.

The telephone ringing brought a welcome relief from the dullness. A grin spread over Mandy's face when the caller-ID said Wynne.  "Hi, honey!  Thank you for saving me from falling asleep."

'Aw, don't men-shun it. Lawrdie, wotcha doin', anyhows?'

"Speed trap duty."

'Catch anyboddah?'

"No. I did see a frantic blip on the monitor at one point, but that was a low-flying Huey from Bradley Air Force Base heading north-north east. It made a few maneuvers out in the desert so they were probably on some kind of training mission."

'Borin'-borin'. Naw, I jus' called ta tell y'all that I been tawkin' ta Judge Etherin'ton 'bout mah spe-shul problem, yuh?  He done tole me he wus gonn' look inta it!  Ain't that som'tin, darlin'?'

Wynne's enthusiastic tone made Mandy push herself off the Durango's fender and leave the speed gun to its own devices. Strolling around the large vehicle, she kicked at the occasional pebble while concentrating on the conversation. "Well, yes, but please don't get too-"

'Yuh-yuh, I know that it mebbe ain't gonn' lead ta nuttin', but I sure feel bettah 'bout it, yes Ma'am. The ol' Judge is a veteran of these he' things. He prolly done seen it a hundred times if not mo'. I be sure he gonn' gimme some valuable advice an' all.'

Mandy came to a halt and cast a thousand-mile gaze into the endless desert where the only movement came from the flickering heat haze that rose from the scorched rocks. Wynne continued to speak into her ear until the voice trailed off; a long pause ensued which was unusual between the two women.

'Y'all ain't sayin' much, Sheriff Mandy… ya reckon that mebbe I shoudden ha' gone an' see the Judge?'

Sighing, Mandy spotted a plume of desert dust in the far distance; she moved back to the speed gun and made sure it pointed in the proper direction to pick up the potential speeder. "Oh, I can't say, Wynne. It's just… I'm just worried it might cause a rift in the sheriff's office. We're running on a skeleton crew already. My gut tells me that if Judge Etherington sides with you and rescinds the fine, Deputy Reilly will blow up and leave."

'Well, good riddance… I ain't gonn' cry no salty teahs ovah her leavin'. I kinda felt she wus okeh when she done got he', but now?  Nosirree. She be tryin' too dang-blasted hard. But anyhows, like I done tole the Judge, it ain't the fine, it's da principle. Yuh?  I wussen doin' nuttin' dainge-russ. Quick Draw jus' slapped that cita-shun on me fer no good reason whatsoevah… well, other than showin' she ain't gonn' back down from no confronta-shun.'

"All right, but-"  Before Mandy could go on, the portable radio squawked to life on her belt.

'Base to Mobile Unit One. Base to Mobile Unit One. Sheriff, are you on this channel, over?' Beatrice Reilly said.

A cry of 'Lawwwwwwr-die!  Y'all jus' got a call, there, Sheriff!  Ah done heard it ovah this he' telephoah-ne!  Haw, this sure is excitin' an' all!' was soon heard through the telephone.

Mandy rolled her eyes - the old saying 'speak of the devil' seemed to be as strong as ever. After putting her own telephone on the Durango's hood, she pulled the radio off her belt at once. "Mobile Unit One ready to receive. I hear you five by five, Deputy. Over," she said and released the transmit key.

'We've received a disturbance call from Doctor Byron Gibbs. The Doctor was frantic and hard to understand, but he has a difficult patient in his practice. A young man wearing a hoodie. A drug-addict type. You're the closest, Sheriff. Deputy Simms is on his way south to set up a second speed trap at Haddersfield Pass, and Senior Deputy Gonzalez is of course monitoring the holding cells. Over.'

"Have you returned the Doctor's call for verification, Deputy?  Over"

'Yes, I did. Or rather, I tried to. It went unanswered.'

"All right. We can't risk it. I'm on it, Deputy," Mandy said, grabbed her own telephone and ran around to the driver's side door. "ETA one minute thirty seconds. Sheriff Jalinski out."

The radio was soon back on Mandy's belt; the driver's side door was flung open and she jumped behind the wheel. Her telephone was quickly clicked into place in the holder on the dashboard before she twisted the ignition key to let the powerful engine spring to life - then she reached for the switches that controlled the sirens and the emergency lights. "Wynne, are you still on the line?" she said as she moved the gear selection into drive.

'Why, that's a big ten-foah, Sheriff!'

"I need to go, but I'll be down at your end of Main Street in nothing flat!"

'Yuh!  Yuh, I can heah ya alreddy!  Go kick some bandit buhhhhh-tt, Sheriff Mandy!' Wynne said before she closed the connection.

Mandy spun the steering wheel around and planted her boot on the gas pedal - a moment later, she blasted down Main Street at a speed that would have given her a hefty fine and a suspended license had she been a civilian.


The large Durango came to a screeching, rocking and rolling halt in front of Doctor Gibbs' practice not fifty seconds later. Dense plumes of desert dust that had been kicked up by the coarse off-road tires followed the SUV all the way there, and in fact rolled over it like a red blanket once it had come to a full stop.

Blasting from the vehicle, Mandy unbuttoned the flap holding her service firearm in the holster while she tore across the sidewalk and ran along a short path that led to the low building housing the veterinary hospital.

Her peripheral vision picked up a quartet of highly familiar figures jogging along the sidewalk from Moira's Bar & Grill; then she opened the glass door and ventured inside.

The neat and clean lobby beyond the glass doors was quiet save for a humming hot-drinks vending machine. Painted chiefly in white and pale-gray, the lobby carried faint scents of cleaning solutions, medicine and the animals treated there.

A round reception desk off to the left was unmanned; a large cardboard sign had been placed on top of it advising people that Doctor Gibbs was in. An arrow pointed toward one of three white doors that led away from the lobby - the doors were labeled Utility Room, Private and Waiting Room respectively.

There had been no signs of forced entry on or near the outer glass door, and a single glance at the similarly equipped rear entrance proved that it was intact as well. Spinning to her right, Mandy moved over to the door labeled Waiting Room.  She put her ear to it to get a feel for the situation on the other side, but the frame was too thick for any sounds to carry through it.

Taking several deep breaths to prepare for a violent confrontation with a potentially armed and certainly unpredictable opponent, she drew her firearm before she worked the door handle with her left hand. The split second the door opened, she barged inside and covered the scene in the regulatory firing stance.

Naught-point-four seconds later, she bared her teeth in a feral sneer as the darkest, grimmest expression she had ever worn swept over her face. Instead of squaring off against an erratic drug-riddled aggressor, she faced a scene of near-perfect everyday serenity in the waiting room:

Councilwoman Mary-Lou Skinner sat on a plastic chair holding her Chihuahua Foo-Foo in her lap. J.D. Burdette, the store manager at Sam McCabe's Gun Shop, knelt next to his two-months-old mastiff puppy while teasing it with a colorful ball. Trent Lowe from the Chicky Kingz takeout parlor held a bird cage occupied by a budgie, and a local mother and daughter whose names Mandy couldn't recall off the top of her head were there to have their ill pet hamster looked at by the veterinarian.

Another naught-point-four seconds later, the rude arrival made Mary-Lou and Trent Lowe let out startled cries; Foo-Foo and the young mastiff puppy began yapping like crazy while jumping up and down or running around in circles. The young girl with the hamster shrieked at fever pitch at a volume that made the strip lights in the ceiling blink. J.D. Burdette spun around so fast he ended up on his rear-end, and Doctor Gibbs burst out of the surgery at the back of the waiting room.

The best veterinarian in all of MacLean County wore a white lab coat, an apron, pale-blue surgical gloves, a facemask in a matching shade of blue and finally an elastic headband carrying a lamp that was still turned on. A pair of special magnifying lenses were perched on his nose which made his dark-brown eyes look as large as pizza plates.

"What in the world is going on out here?!" he cried in a voice muffled by the facemask. The mid-sixty-something veterinarian whipped his head around to make as much sense of the madness as he could, but a shrill alarm that went off in the room he had run out of made him spin around and run back.

Mandy let out a long, pained sigh that turned into a groan. After holstering the firearm, she put her hands in the air to quell the torrent of angry words that threatened to strip the paint off the walls surrounding her.

"Who the frick gives you the right to scare us decent folks like this?!" J.D. Burdette roared in his typical gruff manner. As always, the store manager of the town's gun shop wore army boots and camouflage clothing. His mullet was graced by an olive-green US Army-style field cap that carried a Stars & Stripes patch and the inscription Honor Our Proud Nation! His abundance of facial hair fluttered in the hot air that escaped from his mouth as he spoke on:
"Well?  What the hell's the meaning of this crap?"

"Sheriff," Mary-Lou Skinner said, "for once I agree with Mr. Burdette. I think an urgent and thorough explanation is in order." It seemed the fright had made Mary-Lou's asthma worse as she needed to draw a wheezing breath for every third word. It grew so bad she reached into a purse to get a can of asthma spray that she urgently took a large dose of.

Before Mandy could explain or apologize for the interruption, Wynne, Blackie and Goldie added to the pandemonium by barging into the veterinarian hospital and then the waiting room.

While Goldie flew over to hide behind a plastic chair as several scary memories of the surgery came back to her, Blackie jumped into an offensive stance and let out a series of thunderous barks that only let up when she realized nothing was happening around her.

Puzzled, the German Shepherd glanced over to Goldie whose only reply was a doggy-shrug. Across the room, the tiny Foo-Foo and the even tinier mastiff puppy got back on all four paws after having been blown over by the strength of Blackie's barking.

Wynne simply let out an: "Lawwwwwwwwwwwwwwwr-die!  Whaddahell goin' on in he'? Which o' them there folks be the baddie, Sheriff Mandy?  Haw!  It sure ain't ol' Trent, izzit?  Naw, can't be… not with that there itty-bitty budgie-bird-thing there!"

"Wynne… not now. Please," Mandy said under her breath.

"Haw, sure… no problemo, there, Sheriff Mandy," Wynne said and stuck her hands into her jacket pocket to find a Double-Zero. The can was soon opened with a Pssshhhht!

Mandy rubbed her brow several times before she turned to the citizens and put her arms in the air again. "Ladies and Gentlemen, I and the MacLean County Sheriff's Department wish to apologize profoundly for the upsetting fashion in which the room was entered on my part-"

"Are ya reading off a cue card, Sheriff?" J.D. growled.

Mandy cast him a dark glare before she continued: "This unfortunate incident was the result of deliberate misinformation given to the sheriff's office-"

"Misinformation, my ass!" J.D. continued at a far louder volume. "You just wanted to see how much you could harass us decent folks before we-"

Wynne took a long step forward and pointed the beer can at the man who insisted on interrupting. "Why'dahell dontcha stick a sock innit while da Sheriff be tawkin', Jay-Dee?"

"You first, Dono-fool!"

That slur was more than enough for Blackie to jump back into the fray. She ran out from her resting spot and let out several more of her patented thunderous barks aimed at Burdette.

"O-yeah?" Wynne growled as she slammed her hands onto her hips. "If y'all want a glorious ass-kickin', jus' keep yappin', pal!"

The mastiff puppy wasn't about to let its master be insulted like that, so it returned fire with a sequence of squeaky, high-pitched yaps that made the other canines in the waiting room - even Foo-Foo - let out what sounded like doggy snickers.

Mandy sighed again. Instead of explaining further, she put a hand on Wynne's elbow and led her out of the waiting room. Blackie and Goldie soon followed.


Out on the sidewalk, Blackie continued to prowl around for anyone or anything to sink her eye-teeth into; Goldie shook her golden head as she watched her companion stomp around. The Golden Retriever could only take so much posturing, so she let out a long series of yaps that meant 'Is this really necessary?  Can't we all just get along?  You know that shredding someone will only get us punished… and that means no treats for who knows how long!  Maybe you don't care about that, but I do!'

Blackie eventually came to a rest of sorts - she stopped pacing but kept alert just in case any humans wearing camouflage needed to be taught a lesson.

Diego rejoined the small group after a brief return to a nearby alley to offload some of the beer he'd had for supper. He scratched his neck at the odd sight of everybody standing outside. "Hey Wynne, what's all this?" he said after giving up figuring it out on his own.

Wynne let another Pssshhht! do the talking instead of exercising her vocal cords at first. The chilled beer was just what the doctor had ordered, and the golden liquid was soon out of the can and into her stomach. "So, he' the deal be, yuh?" she said as she wiped a suds-mustache off her upper lip. "When da Sheriff done enterah'd that there animal hospital there, ain't nuttin' bad wus happenin' nowheah, yuh?  Well, she had alreddy drawn her firearm so she done waved it around a li'l… like ya would, right?  But some o' them folks who wus alreddy there sure didden considah it parti-cue-lar-ly friendly or nuttin'."

"So they bitched and moaned about it," Diego said with a grin.

"A-yup. Mebbe a li'l mo' than that, yessirree. Yuh. Okeh… Sheriff Mandy?" she said as she turned back to her partner whose face still hadn't regained its natural hue after the high-tension incident. "Aintcha gonn' tell me whut done caused all o' that there brooh-haw-haw?"

"We had another prank call," Mandy said and put her hands on her hips - the grim, dark expression was still etched onto her face. "That was the message you heard when we spoke over the phone. Someone posing as Doctor Gibbs called the watch desk and said there was an aggressor in there. Only there wasn't."


Mandy let out a muted "Goddammit!" and smacked her fist into her open palm. "The other pranks wasted our time but were harmless. But this one… someone could have been hurt!  Just imagine if I'd fired even a warning shot at Mary-Lou or J.D. Burdette!  My career would have been down the Goddamned drain!"

"Lawrdie… but'cha wudden ha', tho'… wouldya?"

"I could have… hell, I was about to!  J.D. and his damn camouflaged gear… I only saw him from the back. He could have been the aggressor!"

"Holy shittt… yuh, when y'all say it like that, I sure see it. Dang-blasted that there nasty-ass prankstah… he sure as stink-on-shoot bettah not pull any o' them pranks on me, nosirree. Mandy, d'y'all want me ta tawk ta Mary-Lou or…?"

"No, I need to do that myself. And I need to do it now."  Several long moments went by before a wistful smile spread over Mandy's face. "Thank you for volunteering. I love you."

"Haw!  Why, that there feelin' be mutual 'cos I deffa-nete-ly luv ya too, there, Sheriff Mandy…"

A comment of "D'awwwww!" from the peanut gallery - in the shape of Diego Benitez - was thoroughly ignored. Wynne and Mandy smiled at each other for another short moment before reality caught up with them.

Once more, their small dose of happiness was interrupted when Byron Gibbs stepped out onto the sidewalk. His face bore an expression of equal measures annoyance and confusion that only grew deeper when he noticed the motley group of people and dogs outside.

"Sheriff Jalinski, I demand an explanation… just what was that all about?" the veterinarian said. He still wore the white lab coat, but the rest of the medical garments he had used in the surgery had been removed. "Mrs. Skinner almost had a heart attack and Mr. Lowe's budgie defecated all over its cage!  Mr. Lowe certainly wasn't pleased… and neither am I!"

"Doctor Gibbs," Mandy said and stepped over to the elderly fellow who just happened to be the best veterinarian in all of MacLean County, "the sheriff's department received an emergency call notifying us of an aggressor in your practice. A young man in a hoodie. Apparently a typical drug addict. We responded like all procedures dictate by moving in swiftly and decisively."

"There never was any such aggressor!  I mean, really… this is unheard of!  I don't doubt you when you say you followed your procedures, but then your procedures are wrong!  Sheriff, I must inform you that I aim to lodge a formal complaint with the Goldsboro Town Council over this… this.. greatly upsetting incident. I cannot let it go unchallenged."

"That is your right, Sir."

Byron Gibbs let out an annoyed huff. He had already turned around to walk back to the practice when another question came to him: "Who called you, Sheriff?  I think you ought to use your procedures on that particular individual instead of my poor patients!"

"Well, Doctor Gibbs, it just so happens that you did. You called us," Mandy said and broke out in a wide shrug.

Gibbs stared wide-eyed at Mandy for several long seconds before he spun around and walked back to the veterinarian hospital - he shook his head over and over again all the way there.

Diego Benitez let out a puzzled grunt; he poked Wynne in the side. "I didn't get that part. Doc Gibbs called, except he didn't?  Is he going senile or what?"

"Naw, he ain't… it be one o' them there prank calls, Diegoh. Yuh, some prankstah 'round town or somewhe' be drivin' the Sheriff an' them de-per-ties off the dang-blasted wall makin' calls that turn out ta be nuttin' but shitty."

"Oh… okay."

"Yuh. I sure woudden bah-lieve it neithah if y'all done tole me I had called someboddah when I knew I hadden. Holy shittt, this is anothah o' them there big, ol' Conan-drums, ain't it?  Yessirree," Wynne said and reached up to scratch her neck.

Mandy and Diego briefly furrowed their brows as they tried to make heads or tails of Wynne's words; Mandy gave up first and settled for letting out a long sigh.

Two seconds later, the radio on her belt squawked to life with a: 'Base to Mobile Unit One!  Base to Mobile Unit One!  Urgent!'

The radio call from Beatrice Reilly made Blackie jump up and look excited; it also made Goldie curl herself up into a golden ball and look worried.

"Mobile Unit One receiving. Now what, Deputy?  Over," Mandy said and released the transmit key.

'I just got off the phone with Councilwoman Skinner… a man wearing a hoodie is rummaging through her garden shed!  Over!'

Wynne and Mandy stared at each other in wide-eyed disbelief. A wordless plea that shot from the sheriff to the Last Original Cowpoke saw the latter hurry back into the veterinarian hospital to check out the whereabouts of one Mary-Lou Skinner.

"Stand by, base," Mandy said into the radio before she hooked it onto her belt.

'Base standing by, Sheriff.'

Two seconds later, Wynne ran back out and put her hand up to her mouth to act as an amplifier. "Mary-Lou is still he' with li'l Fooh-Fooh!  Ain't no way she can be down dere when she be up he'!  Yuh?"

"No. Not even in Goldsboro," Mandy said in a growl.

Diego let out a startled "What the hell's going on here?  This is spooky!" that made Goldie nod several times at her owners' neighbor and good friend.

Wynne returned to the small group wearing an expression that said she didn't know whether to be intrigued or concerned about the pranks. Once she got back, she only had a wide shrug to offer the sheriff.

Spinning around without uttering another word, Mandy strode across Main Street and stomped along the sidewalk to get back to the sheriff's office - Blackie followed her wearing a wide doggy-grin, but Goldie remained on the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street with her tail folded well down and her head buried in her paws.

Diego and Wynne both chuckled at the cute sight; the latter crouched down to dish out a little dog-loving in the shape of a good fur-rub. "Why, I do bah-lieve we be havin' one o' them there bizzaroh Goldsborah deals ag'in, yuh? Lawrdie. Ain't they evah gonn' stop, Diegoh?"


"Nah, ya prolly right. Mebbe we oughtta go ovah ta them folks an' see how them profe-shunnals deal with the Conan-drum?"

"Naw, I don't feel a need to do that, Wynne," Diego said and let out another chuckle. "Tell ya what… it's been a fun Saturday evenin' so far, but I think I'll be on my way home now. I'm all out of change for the video poker and I need to skin and salt the jackrabbits I caught last night, so… see ya tomorrow."

"See ya, Diegoh. Sweet dreams an' all," Wynne said and offered her friend a thumbs-up.

Another round of fur-rubbing followed before Wynne stood up straight and pointed at the sheriff's office across the street. "C'mon, Goldie… time fer anothah adventure."

The Golden Retriever was reluctant to get up, but there wasn't much fun in lying all alone either - especially not when the entire town had once again been touched by a bad case of The Weirds. Letting out a sad, little Yap… she ran after her owner's denim-clad legs.


By the time Wynne reached the sheriff's office, the sticking glass door had already suffered the wrath of the irate Mandy - the sheriff had simply given the reluctant door an almighty kick that had taken care of business to such an extent that a few fragments of the wooden frame had been chipped off.

Chuckling, Wynne stepped inside with Goldie in tow. The Golden Retriever ran over to the blanket by the window to be able to observe the goings-on while staying well clear of any scary stuff. Blackie soon joined her there for a little physical support.

Wynne's chuckles only lasted as long as it took her to notice Beatrice Reilly's grouchy expression. There was a time to moan and argue and a time to keep quiet and let the professionals do their thing; Wynne understood the present situation was a perfect example of the latter. Moving over to the sheriff's desk, she planted a buttock on the corner and crossed her arms over her chest.

Two seconds later, Mandy strode out of the bathroom after having splashed cool water in her face. She wiped herself off with a paper towel that was soon crumpled up and thrown into the nearest trash can with a great deal of force. "All right, Deputy Reilly. Here's what's gone down. The call from Mary-Lou Skinner was yet another prank. She isn't at home but over at Doctor Gibbs' practice… and yes, that was also a prank call. This cannot be allowed to continue!  Sooner or later, someone will have a real emergency that we can't get to because we're chasing a Goddamned phantom elsewhere!"

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Did you record the conversation like Miss Donohue suggested earlier?"

Beatrice had time to narrow her eyes and shoot Wynne a dark glare before she snapped back to responding to her superior's question. "I did, Ma'am. I've already listened to it, but-"

"Play it again."

"Yes, Ma'am," Beatrice said and took her smartphone that she had left on the watch deck. The specific recording was soon found and replayed at maximum volume - a few seconds later, Beatrice's voice could be heard through the telephone's small speaker:

'Good evening. You've reached the MacLean County Sheriff's Department, the Goldsboro office. How may we help you?'

'This is Mary-Lou Skinner!  I need your help!  Urgently!' the Councilwoman said as the other part of the conversation - it prompted Wynne to jump off the corner of the desk and let out a resounding:

"Lawwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwr-die!  That be Mary-Lou, awright!  Howindahell izzat possible?  She wussen hoah-me!"

Beatrice and Mandy both waved at the loud Wynne to get her to pipe down so they could hear the rest of the message: 'There's a man wearing a hoodie outside in my garden!  He's searching through my garden shed right now!  Come quick!  Please!'

The conversation came to a close before Beatrice had had time to add anything beyond her initial greeting. The recording itself stopped a moment later.

Beatrice shrugged; Mandy rubbed her brow. Wynne moved back to the corner of the desk and used her cowboy hat to fan her face in the hope it might get her gray matter to come up with an explanation that wouldn't defy logic or the universe as they knew it. The fanning seemed to do the trick, because it wasn't long before she said: "Why, ol' Mary-Lou wussen wheezin'. She always be wheezin'… 'spe-shually if she wus watchin' some fella out in her garden goin' thru' her shed an' all."

"That's a very good observation, Wynne," Mandy said.

Beatrice snorted and sent another dark glare at Wynne. "Well, maybe she didn't have time to wheeze. Or she didn't need to."

"That's not how asthma works, Deputy Reilly. Stress makes it worse," Mandy said and shook her head. "Besides, we know it's a fake. Play the recording again."

Blackie let out a triumphant bark directed at Beatrice Reilly - it meant, 'Score one for my owners!'

As the recorded conversation was replayed, everyone huddled around the smartphone to perhaps pick up details that had eluded them on the first pass. After they had listened to two further replays, Beatrice said: "Is there a metallic whine in the background?  Or a metallic undertone to the voice itself?"

"Mah hearin' ain't good enuff anymo' ta pick up li'l things like that, so… I ain't sayin' it ain't there, but I ain't hearin' it, De-per-ty Quick Draw," Wynne said with a shrug.

Mandy rubbed her brow several times as she replayed the specifics of the conversation in her mind. "I think you might be right, Deputy. Could it be some kind of synthesized voice?"

"If it is, it must be one hell of a synthesizer," Beatrice said and put her hands on her hips. "The caller has tricked us six times now… first the two calls that reported the overturned tanker truck, then the one from Mr. Browne, then the industrial accident at Morton Fredericksen's… and now Doctor Gibbs and Mrs. Skinner. Completely different voices that were all one-hundred percent lifelike."

"Yeah," Mandy said as she rubbed her brow. "Wynne, do you have a suggestion?"

" 'Fraid I don't. Not unless it be someboddah screwin' with'da time an' space-thing like in that there science fic-shun mooh-vie we done watched the othah week. But somehow, I ain't sure that be our trubbel. Naw."

A somber silence spread among the three women. They all stared at the old Bakelite telephone on the watch desk as if they were expecting it to ring once more with a prank call from the President, the Pope or their next door neighbor.

Wynne lost interest first and reached for another can of Double-Zero. As she opened it with a Pssshhht! a thought came to her - it had to take a back seat to a slew of gulps, but once her mouth could be used to speak, she said: "Haw, one o' them there suggestions jus' popped inta mah mind. If we really be dealin' with some kind o' computah shit he', mebbe we oughtta call in the friendly spe-shua-list from back hoah-me, yuh?  I bet ol' Brendah woudden mind givin' us a hand with this he' weird deal. Yuh?"

Beatrice shook her head at once. "No. And there isn't an 'us,' either. This is a law enforcement matter, Miss Donohue. We can't have civilians interfering with our investigations. In fact, I believe it's time for you to-"

"Not so fast, Deputy," Mandy said. "Mrs. Travers is an IT expert. It's obvious we can't get any further without professional assistance."

"But HQ up in Barton City-"

"On a Saturday evening?  I've already spoken to them once today, remember?  If we're lucky, they'll have time for us come Wednesday, Thursday or God knows when," Mandy continued in a stern voice; she turned to her partner. "Wynne, please give Mrs. Travers a call. Ask if she has time to come to town at once. We can't reimburse her financially, but-"

"Aw, betcha that won't mattah nuttin' ta ol' Brendah, Sheriff Mandy," Wynne said and jumped off the corner of the desk again. To salute the sheriff, she brought up the can of beer and put it to her brow. "I'mma-gonn' do that right this minnit, yes Ma'am!"

Beatrice Reilly sent a dark glare after Wynne as the Cowpoke left the sheriff's office, but it bounced clean off the acres of denim and thus never posed a threat to her well-being.


Outside, Wynne dug up her own telephone and soon had Brenda's number ready to go. It rang once, twice, three times before it was picked up - while she waited, there was plenty of time to empty the beer and stuff the empty can back into her pocket.

'Hi, Wynne… what's up?'

"Howdy, there, Brendah… how would y'all feel like bein' part of an oh-ffi-shual po-leese investiga-shun?  Yessirree, Sheriff Mandy be havin' a li'l technical trubbel he' an' want me ta ask y'all if ya be inclined ta participate in solvin' a crime?  It be involvin' computahs an' telephoah-nes an' whutnot up he' in li'l ol' Goldsborah."

'Oh!  That sounds exciting!  Ah… when?'

"At once, ack-chew-ly… if y'all ain't got nuttin' bettah ta do tanight, o' course. D'ya start that there knittin' project alreddy?"

'No, Vaughn and I were making love, but that can wait.'

Wynne came to a jerking halt in the middle of a step - she still had one boot up in the air. "Uh-buh, whut?!  Haw… uh… yuh… okeh… uh…"

'I can be in Goldsboro in half an hour!  Is that all right?'

"Uh… sure, there, Brendah, uh… yuh… ya sure y'all don't wanna, uh… ya know… get things, uh… done first or som'tin?"

'No, it takes a while,' Brenda said with a hearty snicker. 'I just need a shower and then I'll be on my way.'

"Uh… yuh. Okeh. Yuh. Well… yuh. Okeh. Much obliged, Brendah. Tawk ta ya latah," Wynne said and hurriedly closed the connection. She remained silent for a moment or two before she let out a muted "Lawwwwwwwwr-die, if that ain't dedica-shun, I don't know whaddahell iz," and turned around to shuffle back to the sheriff's office with an update.



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