Mischief in Maggody

 

An Arly Hanks Mystery

 

 

Joan Hess

 

 

 

logo

For my editor, Michael Denneny,

who returns my calls,

and my agent, Cherry Weiner,

who had more faith than I did.

 

 

I would like to acknowledge the invaluable assistance given to me by the following professionals, who generously shared their time and expertise (and did not raise their eyebrows at my questions); Washington County Sheriff Bud Dennis, Sebastian County Prosecutor Ron Fields, and Arkansas Game & Fish Commission officer Randy Johnson.

 

1

 

 

Carol Alice Plummer clutched her teddy bear to her post-pubescent chest. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she moaned, rocking back and forth on the edge of her bed. “It’s so damn awful, I may kill myself and save everyone the bother of watching me fade away into nothingness.”

Heather Riley put her hands on her hips and glared down at her best friend in the whole world. “Get real, Carol Alice, and stop talking like that. You know perfectly well, that you aren’t going to kill yourself. I don’t even like to hear you say it.”

“I might as well. I mean, there’s no point in life if Bo Swiggins and I can’t get married.”

“You can’t? I thought you two were almost engaged. You’ve been going together for more than a year now, and he took you out to dinner on your birthday and gave you a present and everything.” Heather bit down on her lip, wishing she hadn’t used the word “everything.” She wasn’t supposed to know that Carol Alice and Bo had engaged in “everything” in the backseat of his uncle’s ’73 Trans Am, but she knew. Everybody in Maggody knew that sort of thing within fifteen minutes of its happening. Which was the only reason she’d made Billy Dick McNamara keep his hands to hisself the night he’d taken her to the movie in Starley City, and Billy Dick was the best-looking boy at school even with the harelip.

Carol Alice politely overlooked the lack of tact. “Today after school I found out that we’re totally, hopelessly incompatible. There’s no way to get around it, even if I change my name—and my pa’d whip me silly if I even said I was thinking about it. But as for Bo and me, it’s our vibrations. We can never be harmonious.” Carol Alice squeezed her bear hard enough to make his little button eyes bulge. “We could get married, but we’d end up fighting and screaming every night, worse than my oldest sister and her husband what live in Hasty. I might as well tell Bo the truth and break up with him after the game this weekend. See, I already put his letter jacket in that sack to give back to him, along with that chain he gave me for my birthday and that sweet little stuffed dog he won me at the county fair less than a month ago.” She began to sniffle. “Then I’m going to commit suicide and kill myself.”

Heather sat down next to her. “I don’t guess there’s any way to get around vibrations,” she said solemnly. “After all, it’s cosmic fate—yours and Bo’s. And Lord knows you don’t want to end up like Terri Lee and that jerk she married. Their baby’s right cute, but I don’t know how she stands him hitting her and getting drunk and everything.”

“Bo’s such a gentleman; he’d never act like Terri Lee’s husband! It’s not poor Bo’s fault we’re so dadburned incompatible and doomed to discord. But there’s no closing our eyes to the fact that he’s going to be too materialistic for a cosmic mother like me, and we’ll grow to hate each other.”

“A cosmic mother? That sounds real mysterious. What does it mean?”

Carol Alice flopped back against the daisy-covered pillow sham and sighed. “Well, if I weren’t going to kill myself—which I am—I’d make a good nurse or housemother for sweet little mentally retarded children. But if I act all arrogant and ignore my Life Path, I’ll end up fat and slouchy…like Dahlia O’Neill. Can you imagine me in one of those tent dresses, stuffing Twinkies down my throat and belching like a sow in heat? That’s reason enough right there to kill myself!”

“Why don’t you talk to Mr. Wainright about it? Maybe he could tell you what you ought to do.” Giggling, Heather poked her best friend in the world. “Besides, it’d give you a reason to talk to him, and he’s such an incredible hunk.”

“There ain’t no point in it, that’s why. I’ve got more guidance than I can stand right now. It’s fate. There’s nothing anyone can do.”

“Oh, Carol Alice, I feel so sorry for you that I could just cry.”

Carol Alice handed a tissue to her best friend in the whole world. “How many aspirin tablets do you reckon it’ll take to kill myself?”

“Probably a whole bottle,” Heather said, blinking. “You ought to get those coated ones that won’t give you an upset stomach. I think I’ve got a coupon in my purse.”

 

Nothing, and I repeat, nothing ever happens in Maggody, Arkansas. The good citizens of Maggody, all 755 of them (counting household pets and a couple of dearly departeds out behind the Baptist church), would agree that the last event of any importance happened well over a year ago, and it wasn’t worth talking about within a matter of weeks. Before that, the spiciest topic of conversation involved the night Hiram Buchanon’s barn burned down and a cheerleader got caught dashing out in flagrante delicto, smoldering panties in hand. That was a good twelve years ago. Other than that, we’re talking five-legged calves, brawls at the pool hall, and shenanigans under the straw of the swine barn at the county fair.

Maggody isn’t a quaint, picturesque little village in the Ozark Mountains, and it wouldn’t qualify for a Norman Rockwell painting. The grand tour takes about three minutes, presuming you get caught by the one stoplight and have to sit and fume while a stray dog ambles across the highway. If you come in from the west, you’ll see a few signs welcoming Rotarians, Kiwanians, and Lions, but the only members of local chapters are out behind the Baptist church I mentioned a while back and not holding the sort of meetings most of us would prefer to attend. The bank branch is on the right and the Voice of the Almighty Lord Assembly Hall on the left, followed by a bunch of boarded-up stores with blind, dusty windows. The pool hall’s in there somewhere; you can see a smattering of broken beer bottles in the dust out front, and sometimes on Sunday mornings a drunk out there with them.

After a few clumps of crabgrass and some telephone poles decorated with faded posters, you’ll see Roy Stivers’ Antiques & Collectibles: Buy, Trade or Sell on the left. I live upstairs in what would politely be called an efficiency flat, were anybody inclined to bother to call it anything. I call it cheap. Catty-corner to my apartment is the Police Department, a small red-brick building with perky gingham cafe curtains across the window and two parking spaces out front with Reserved signs in front of them. Competition’s not real keen for the spaces. It has two rooms, known as the front room and the back room. It also has two doors, known as the front door and the back door. We are accurate in Maggody, if not especially inspired.

Across from the PD is the Suds of Fun Laundromat and the Kwik-Stoppe-Shoppe (or Kwik-Screw, as we locals call it), owned by our illustrious mayor, Jim Bob Buchanon. Hizzoner and I have a history of ill will, but neither of us gives a hoot. Especially during the summer months, when the town’s hotter than a sauna turned on full blast, which it had been three months ago when I escaped for a few months. Too hot to hoot, so to speak.

A little bit farther on the right you’ll see Ruby Bee’s Bar and Grill, a bizarre pink building with a tile roof and a couple of rusty metal signs tacked on the side that still promote Happy Daze Bread and Royal Crown Cola. I never cared for either, myself. In one corner of the parking lot is a sign for the Flamingo Motel, although you won’t see said motel since it’s out behind the Bar and Grill. Six units, usually rented by the hour. The locals call it the Stork Club, when they bother to call it anything at all. My mother, who happens to be the infamous Ruby Bee, lives in #1. She offered to let me have #2, but I felt obliged to decline her kind gesture. Listening to bedsprings squeal half the night would make me crazier than I already am. Living next door to my mother would qualify me for the butterfly farm, full scholarship.

But moving on, there’re a couple of houses on the left, a car dealership on the right, Purtle’s Esso Station, which pumped its last drop of gas the decade before I was born, and then not a blessed thing more until you wander north to the Missouri line. Well, cows and trees and potholes and mountains and litter, but nothing worth pulling over to take photographs of. Norman Rockwell wouldn’t have slowed down.

So there you have it—a guided tour of Maggody. And, I might add, conducted by the chief of police of same. And the first female to hold the post, due to the fact I was the only candidate for the job and Hizzoner does like Ruby Bee’s blueberry pie with ice cream. It’s not the most impressive job, but it’s safe, and safe was what I wanted. I’d managed to escape Maggody after high school, but I was back for the moment (the going-on-more-than-a-year-and-a-half sort of moment). In the overall scheme of the universe, Maggody is not some sort of cosmic magnet; I came back to lick my wounds after an unsettling divorce. I figured the wounds would scab over before too long, but in the meantime I needed a place that didn’t put too many demands on me. Maggody doesn’t put any demands on me, because, as I said earlier, nothing ever happens in Maggody.

 

“Thank the Lord you’re back!” Ruby Bee shrieked, coming around the bar to give me a hug. “You will not believe your ears when I tell you all the things that have been going on in Maggody since you left on that so-called vacation of yours in the middle of the summer. I swear, it’s been a three-ring circus around here!”

“Why was it a so-called vacation?” I asked mildly.

“Just sit yourself down and let me tell you what’s been happening,” Ruby Bee continued, ignoring my question with her typical aplomb. She is a master of the delicate art of hearing exactly what she wants to hear, and going stone-deaf when it suits her fancy. “But do you want something to eat first? You’re looking a mite scrawny these days.”

I sat down on a stool and propped my elbows on the bar. “I couldn’t possibly eat until I hear all the big news. Did someone run the red light in my so-called absence?”

“Oh, Arly, you are such a cutup,” Estelle Oppers said as she came out the kitchen door behind the bar.

Estelle and Ruby Bee have been friends since the days of the dinosaurs. Ruby Bee is short, stocky, and matronly-although I’d never use that word in her presence; I value my life, boring as it gets. She has blond hair, paid for by the lock, a magnolia-blossom complexion under several inches of powder, and enough eye makeup to do all the girls in the freshman class.

Estelle is tall, thin, and about as jumpy as a tree frog. She owns and operates Estelle’s Hair Fantasies in her living room, and had been doing some experimentation lately, if the red curls dangling in her eyes, over her ears, and down her neck weren’t an accident of nature. Mother Nature doesn’t have that much of a sense of humor. The pair are rather a Mutt and Jeff combination , although they seem to see themselves as the Hardy boys. It has caused a problem or two in the past. If I had a nickel for every time they’d sworn to turn in their junior G-man badges and stop interfering in police investigations, I’d live in Jim Bob’s hilltop manor and spend my idle moments harassing the chief of police.

Ruby Bee narrowed her eyes as she wiped her hands on her apron. “If you’re going to sit there and act snippety, young lady, you can forget about hearing my news. Maybe it’s just not important to someone who’s lived in New York City and gone to those plays where the actors get naked and climb all over the audience.”

I made the obligatory contrite noises, then said, “So what has been going on, anyway? And could I have a grilled cheese sandwich and a glass of milk while I listen?”

Ruby Bee crossed her arms and gazed at the ceiling. “I don’t believe I heard anyone say ‘please.’”

“Please may I have a sandwich and milk,” I said through clenched teeth. The woman drives me crazy. She was about to drive me to a diet, if not a full-fledged fast.

“I’ll fix the sandwich,” Estelle said. “You tell Arly all the news.”

Ruby Bee rewarded her with a smile that was meant to be a further editorial on certain people’s lack of manners. “Thank you kindly, Estelle. Well,” she began, settling back against the beer tap, “for one thing, Madam Celeste and her brother have rented that big old house out past Estelle’s. You know which one I’m talking about, don’t you? It used to belong to old Mrs. Wockermann before her husband died and the bank took it back and sent her to the county old folks’ home, where she sat on the porch and rocked herself to death. I can’t for the life of me remember what he died of, although Estelle said she heard it was some advanced stage of a nasty disease of the privates.”

“Who’d you say rented the house?” I said before I heard a more detailed description of the late Mr. Wockermann’s privates. Not on an empty stomach.

“Madam Celeste and her brother. She’s a psychic, and she is absolutely fantastic. No one in town can stop talking about how she can see into the future or tell you all your innermost secrets. Gladys Buchanon says that she lost her reading glasses, and Madam Celeste told her exactly where to look for them.” Ruby Bee’s voice dropped to her version of a dramatic whisper. “And there they were in the top drawer of the dresser under a red scarf. Gladys liked to have swallowed her dentures.”

“Oh,” I said, trying to look impressed. “And what else has Madam Celeste done?”

“She told Millicent McIlhaney that she was going to take a long journey and it would be a true test of character. About three days later, Millicent and her daughter had to go to her aunt Pearl’s funeral in Iowa. They took the station wagon, and the engine caught on fire on the other side of Kansas City. Millicent dashed right out in the middle of the interstate and flagged down a truck driver with a fire extinguisher, not even stopping to consider how she was likely to get herself run down. If that isn’t a test of character, I’d like to know what is.”

“Oh,” I said. I was aware I was repeating myself, but I didn’t trust myself not to say something that would cancel lunch.

“I went to visit her last week.”

“When did you start believing in that sort of nonsense?”

“You have no call to speak to me in that superior tone of voice, Ariel Hanks. What I do or don’t do is none of your concern. If I choose to spend my money trying to find what all’s going to happen in the future-”

“Money? You spent money on this fortune-telling stuff?” I couldn’t help it; I really couldn’t.

Estelle swept through the door, plate in hand. “Ruby Bee is a grown woman, and she can do whatever she pleases, Miss Big City Girl. Madam Celeste has been very perceptive about a lot of things, and of great assistance. Why, she comes over to the beauty shop and has appointments with my customers while I’m giving perms. She is very popular.”

I knew who wasn’t. “My apologies,” I said meekly, sucking in my cheeks while I stared forlornly at the plate in Estelle’s hand. “I’m sure this Madam Celeste is astoundingly perceptive and overflowing with more helpful hints than the sainted Heloise herself.”

“She certainly is,” Ruby Bee sniffed. “She told me that I was extremely sensitive, and that if I listened to my inner voice, I could hear things no one else could hear and learn all variety of cosmic secrets of the universe. She’s going to teach me how to attune myself this week.”

Estelle set down the plate in front of me. “And she told me I was going to meet someone who would make a profound impression on the rest of my life.” She pushed a coil back and shot me a pinched look. “A man, if you want to know, and with one of those foreign accents. She hasn’t been able to tell exactly when I’ll meet him, but she’s sure it’ll be in the near future. I made Ruby Bee go into Farberville with me last Saturday to shop. Madam Celeste says I have to wear aquamarine if I want to meet this fellow.”

“Where did this Madam Celeste come from?” I asked through a mouthful of delightfully gooey cheese.

“She and her brother moved here from Las Vegas, Nevada,” Estelle said. “She used to work on the stage in one of those big casinos, reading what was in people’s wallets and guessing their birthdays. She was a very big star out there, but she had to leave because it was too exhausting. Her brother’s name is Mason Dickerson.”

There was a sudden silence. The two exchanged looks that would have been pregnant had menopause not come and gone years ago. I chewed for a minute, then said, “Was he onstage, too?”

“No,” Ruby Bee said in a studiously nonchalant voice, “he’s Madam Celeste’s agent and manager. He takes care of her finances so that she can focus her psychic energy on more important things.”

“Such as Gladys Buchanon’s glasses? Come on, ladies, why are you acting as if you’d been zapped with psychokinetic kicks to the fanny? Is this Mason Dickerson some sort of crook?”

Ruby Bee raised her eyebrows. “I couldn’t say. Do you want to hear what else has been happening? There’s a new guidance counselor at the high school.”

“Really?” I murmured. “Is there any cherry pie?”

“No, there isn’t. He’s so handsome that he has all the girls in a dither,” Estelle added. “Lottie Estes, the home ec teacher, says every blessed girl in her small-appliances class has gone to his office to pick up college brochures-and she knows darn well not one of them is the least bit interested in college. Most of them aren’t even going to graduate.”

I tried to peer around Ruby Bee’s bulk at the glasscovered pie stands. “Perhaps he’ll inspire them. Is that a piece of lemon meringue?”

“Is that all you’ve got to say about it?” Ruby Bee demanded, moving squarely in front of the pie stand and sticking out her lower lip at me. “He’ll inspire them?”

I blinked at the woman who’d borne me. “What am I supposed to say? There are lots of teachers at the high school, and I’m sure some of them are worthy of girlish attentions and adolescent fantasies. Does that lemon meringue have someone else’s name on it?”

Ruby Bee was glaring as she slapped down the piece of pie in front of me. “Your problem is that you don’t try, Arly. You’re perfectly content to sit in that little brick building all day and your dingy, depressing apartment all night. You don’t make any effort to make yourself look attractive. You don’t go anywhere or do anything. You’re worse than that stagnant pond behind Raz Buchanon’s barn.” I refused to take offense, mostly because the pie was divine and I’d spotted another piece that might, with luck and tact, have my name on it. “You’re right on the button,” I said amiably. “But at this point in my life that’s exactly what I prefer to be-a stagnant pond. I need time to think.”

“And how much time do you reckon that’ll be? You’ve been back long enough to stop moping around like a motherless calf.” Ruby Bee spent several seconds drying her hands on her apron, while I polished off the pie. “That’s why I made you an appointment,” she said in a voice so low I almost missed it.

“With Estelle? No disrespect intended, but I really prefer my hair as it is. If I ever decide to try a different style, I’ll make my own appointment.” I said this very calmly.

“With Madam Celeste.”

“What?” I said this very excitedly.

“That’s right,” Estelle said. “Madam Celeste can give you all sorts of advice about what you ought to do with your life. Heaven knows you haven’t come up with any good ideas lately. If you want, she can also put you in touch with those who’ve already gone across.”

“Gone across what?” I asked, wishing almost immediately that I hadn’t. It was too late, of course, so I decided to blow the whole wad. “The street? The Continental Divide? The fine line between sanity and schizophrenia?”

Estelle put her hands on her hips. “To the unknown. Dead people. Ancestors and folks like that. Madam Celeste conducted a seance for Edwina Spitz and talked to Edwina’s grandfather person-to-person. Edwina’s grandfather said it was right pretty where he was, and then he forgave Edwina for putting him in a nursing home and never once coming to visit him. Edwina felt mighty relieved afterward.”

“Person-to-person and collect?” I said, giving up on a second piece of pie.

Now Ruby Bee put her hands on her hips. “Madam Celeste has expenses just like everybody else, young lady, but you don’t have to give her one thin dime. Your visit is a gift from me and Estelle.”

“Forget it,” I said as I stood up. “I’ll visit a psychic about the time I agree to have Sunday dinner with Raz Buchanon. Shall I presume I’m now current on all the significant events of the last six weeks?”

“Not exactly,” Ruby Bee said.

She lifted the top of the pie stand so I could get a view of the last slab of lemon meringue, knowing darn well I’d lose a goodly portion of my resolve. Eating is one of my major activities; I’m fortunate to escape without looking like a tub of lard (or Dahlia O’Neill, the local cause of anorexia among the high school girls, who have a reasonable and legitimate terror of ending up like her; although the story that her granny once entered her in the county fair is pure spite-she won that blue ribbon over the mantle for her tomato relish).

“Okay,” I said, sitting back down. “Tell me the rest of it.”

“You know the Emporium across the county road from the Assembly Hall?” Ruby Bee said as she handed over the payola. “Well, four long-haired crazy hippies bought it from old Merle Hardcock, who was a mite too senile to know what he was doing. In fact, he took the money and bought a big, noisy motorcycle, if you can imagine such a thing. Thinks he’s some kind of daredevil and talks all the time about trying to jump Boone Creek.”

I winced at the image that came to mind. “I’ll see if I can dissuade him. But tell me more about these hippies and the Emporium.”

Ruby Bee looked gratified by my attention. “They fixed it up and reopened it last week. They sell hardware, chicken feed, notions, and the regular stuff, but they also sell all sorts of strange-smelling herbs and crystals and little bottles of oil that are supposed to cure headaches and impotency. Right in the store they play weird music that doesn’t have any words or melody.” She took a deep breath. “What’s more, they live together at the end of Finger Road, in that dilapidated old house just past Earl Buchanon’s house. One of them told Earl it was a commune. He thought that meant they were communists and was all set to go over with his shotgun, but I told him to wait until you got back from your so-called vacation. Earl’s president of the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and real touchy about communists.”

(Allow me to digress from this fascinating narrative to explain the plethora of Buchanons. There are hundreds of them sprinkled across Stump County, worse than hogweed. Incest and inbreeding are their favorite hobbies, which has resulted in beetlish brows, yellow yellow eyes, and thick lips. They aren’t strong on intelligence; the most they can aspire to is animal cunning. An anthropologist from Farber College once tried to sort out the genealogy, although nobody ever figured out why anybody’d want to do that. Rumor has it she tried to kill herself at the county line, and ranted in the ambulance about third cousins twice removed and fathers who were also uncles and half-brothers. Her family hushed it up with some story about a diesel truck, but everybody in Maggody knew better.)

“I’ll see if I can dissuade Earl, too,” I said, thinking I never should have left town. “But with the Emporium open again, we won’t have to mortgage the homestead to buy nails at the Kwik-Screw, or drive all the way into Starley City for a monkey wrench.”

Ruby Bee looked as if she might snatch back the pie. “What about them living in sin and doing all sorts of bizarre things? Why, they sit in the backyard morning and evening-stark naked, I might add-and hold hands and chant all sorts of things nobody can make any sense of. They burn funny-smelling little sticks while they do it, too!”

I curled my arm around the plate, just in case. “How do you know? Have you been out there by invitation? Shall I guess your mantra?”

“I am offended by your saying that,” Ruby Bee snapped.

Estelle bobbled her head in support, looking like a hungry guinea hen over a ripe worm. “What they’re doing is probably against the law, and you ought to go out there and do something about it before they corrupt all the children in Maggody. Everybody knows they smoke marijuana and engage in group sex like a bunch of farm animals.”

“Farm animals don’t engage in group sex,” I pointed out as I popped the last bite of pie into my mouth. “As long as they do whatever it is they do in the privacy of the backyard, I don’t see any reason to stir up problems. They aren’t going to corrupt anybody with enough sense to mind his or her own business. For that matter, how does everybody know what they do in the backyard?”

“Kevin Buchanon says he can see their pagan rituals from the top of that old sweet gum tree in his backyard,” Estelle said. “His pa caught him and about a dozen other boys in the tree, and whipped Kevin so hard he still can’t bend over to tie his shoes. You’d of thought Kevin would have outgrown such foolishness by now.”

I started for the door. “Well, I’m not sure who’s likely to be corrupting whom. If nothing more exciting turns up, I’ll go by the Emporium this afternoon and see if there’s any debauchery going on under the notions display. But there are so many exciting things going on in Maggody, and I’m liable to get sidetracked by an armed robbery at the bank or homicide at the Laundromat.”

“You are not as clever as you think, young lady,” Ruby Bee called to my back.

“And you be at the beauty parlor Tuesday morning at ten o’clock sharp,” Estelle added. “I’ll take you over to Madam Celeste’s and make the introductions.” With my ice skates, since hell would have frozen over about the time I did that.

 

2

 

 

I drove to the PD, reasonably pleased with lunch and already testing excuses for not showing up at Estelle’s on Tuesday for my appointment with the psychic, of all fool things. The sheriff’s deputy, who’d been minding the store during my “so-called vacation” (I’d forgotten to find out the subtle nuance there), flapped a hand in greeting as I came through the door.

“Welcome back, Arly. Have a good leave?”

“I thought I did until a few minutes ago. I visited some friends on the East Coast, camped on the beach, drank cheap wine, gazed at sunsets, and did everything I could think of to forget this ugly place. Anything happen while I was gone? Did we have a rash of bank robberies, holdups, homicides, Russian spies, and international dope busts?”

“Yeah, I had to beat off the ABC, the CIA, the DEA, the EPA, the KGB, and so forth right down to the VFW. Some guy from network television interviewed me, and I received three purple hearts.” He gave me a chagrined look as he slapped his chest. “Lordy, I forgot to wear ’em today, just when I had hopes of impressing you.”

“I’m sure your wife’s impressed enough for the both of us,” I said, moving around the desk to my chair, a comfy old cane-bottomed thing that had held my fanny for more than eighteen months without a whimper. Or a splinter. “Anything else?”

“You’re going to love this, Arly.” He began to edge toward the door. “Jim Bob Buchanon came by couple of days ago and left a little present for you. It’s on the table in the back room.”

“A present for little old me? It’s not my birthday, and it’s nearly two months ’til Christmas. Did Hizzoner the Moron miss me so much that he felt compelled to leave a welcome-back present for his favorite public servant?” Despite my flippancy, I was a tad nervous. “Is there a sentimental, store-bought card along with it?”

The deputy had cleared the door sill and was eyeing his car. “No card, but he had a message for you that’ll make your day—ha, ha. He said the town council voted not to hire a deputy for the time being. Budget’s awful tight, he said two or three times, but he didn’t look all that sad.”

“And the present?”

“It’s one of those beeper things like doctors and county agents wear so their secretaries can track them down on the golf course. You’re on duty twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.”

“You’re joking. Please tell me that you’re joking.”

“’Fraid not, Arly. But there is some good news—you don’t have to clean the PD anymore. Jim Bob said he’d hired a janitor to come in at night and sweep.”

I propped my feet on my desk, tilted back in the chair, and closed my eyes. “Somehow, I have a funny feeling about this. I realize I should shoot off some firecrackers and break out in song, but there’s something that smells overly ripe about Jim Bob’s generosity.” I squinted at the deputy. “Since you won’t tell me you’re joking, tell me why I’m not singing.”

He had his car keys in his hand. “Well,” he said, easing out of range should anything come flying through the doorway, “your newest employee is Kevin Buchanon. See ya, Arly.”

The screen door banged closed, leaving me in solitude to gripe, growl, and curse Jim Bob Buchanon and the other equally treacherous members of the town council. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week seemed extreme, if not unconstitutional, and I didn’t fool myself for a minute that I was going to see a pay raise to go along with it. Oh, no, I got a beeper instead, so that I could never hide. Maggody was going to be a one-gun town. Whoopee.

And Kevin Buchanon, who by sheer coincidence was Jim Bob’s second or third cousin, was going to invade the PD on a daily basis, which meant I’d feel obliged to be civil to him. He wasn’t as objectionable as his more illustrious relative, but he was a pain in the butt. Jim Bob had achieved that level of animal cunning I mentioned, but Kevin couldn’t outwit a possum. Kevin couldn’t outwit a rock rolling down a hill. I’d have to show him which end of the broom to use. And I’d probably have to show him every day. Worst of all, I’d find myself listening to his personal problems, most of which would center around the love of his life, the apple of his eye, the dumpling in his pot pie, the pork in his pork ’n’ beans, a.k.a. Dahlia O’Neill. I was starting to regret that second piece of pie, because I was definitely feeling queasy.

With a shudder, I planted my feet on the floor and picked up the folder of reports the deputy had left on the desk. It wasn’t going to be easy to lose myself in them, but I sure was going to give it my best shot. Welcome back, sucker.

 

Robin Buchanon moved briskly through the thicket, unmindful of the thorns that tried to tear at her arms or poke through the soles of her heavily callused feet. None of that was any bother to her. She carried a hoe and a knife in one hand, a gunnysack in the other. Her eyes were on the ground, darting back and forth as she searched for the telltale crimson berries and five-leaf pattern of the ginseng plant, but she kept one ear cocked for sounds that were not a part of the forest. It took only one ear, since she was more than used to living in the woods and knew every bird and animal sound.

In fact, she liked coons and skunks and snakes and muskrats better than she did most folks, although she didn’t mind when once in a blue moon some city slicker from Maggody came to the cabin for a mason jar of hooch and a little romp. Everybody knew she gave as well as she took. She was, however, beginning to be reluctant these days, since she was getting damn tired of all those younguns underfoot. They was worser than field mice. The baby whined if she din’t suckle all the time, and the older ones et everything in the root cellar iffen she didn’t keep a switch handy. It’d be right nice to pack ’em off to their pappies and have a little peace and quiet—even if their pappies wouldn’t jump for joy. As she walked, she tried to think of somebody she could ask if she could make ’em do it anyways. Maybe that woman policeman in Maggody, she decided with a nod. Yeah, she looked right educated and there was most likely some kind of law.

The northern side of Cotter’s Ridge was a might cool this late in October, but it were time to ’seng hunt and she didn’t need a damn fool calendar to tell her so. Her worn flannel shirt and tattered jeans held up by a piece of rope didn’t help much, but she weren’t no city woman what squealed ever’ time the wind like to freeze her tits. Hell no.

She curled her lip, exposing a sparse collection of mossy teeth, as she scrabbled up a gully toward the patch. Her patch. It’d been her pappy’s afore, and his pappy’s afore that. There’d been a worrisome minute when it looked like grandpappy was gonna die right there in his bed without telling anyone where his patch was—grandpappy was about the most ornery sumbitch anybody ever met. But pappy got a bit rough with the old coot and choked it out of him afore he died. It were a good thing, too, because old grandpappy had died right afterward, and ’seng was scarcer than preachers in paradise.

A good ’seng patch was worth a fortune—at least a hunnert dollars every fall, when she sold the dried roots to that oily man what came to Maggody in a big black car. And she’d tended to her secret patch better than she’d tended to her brood of younguns, chickens, pigs, and goat. She always cut the roots real careful, so that there’d be some the next year, and scattered berries every spring. Why, she thought in her ponderously slow way, this patch was at least a hunnert years old by now. And ’seng huntin’ was a nice break from making hooch or whuppin’ younguns or even lettin’ the hound dog get all excited over her like she was a bitch in heat, which was about her favoritest thing.

She was still grinning as she topped the gully. The grin faded as she stared at the half acre that should have been thick with yeller-gold ginseng leaves. “What the goddamn hell…?” she said aloud.

A rage began to bubble deep in her gut. No yeller-gold leaves, no red berries. No ginseng plants—in her goddamn patch that she loved better than most anything in the goddamn world! A growl curled up along her gullet, growing and sparking and burning until it erupted in a cry of primeval fury. A flock of starlings flapped away with squawks of alarm. A squirrel fled across the branches. A polecat lifted his head to consider the wisdom of investigating, then slunk off in the opposite direction. Only a trio of buzzards in a dead tree on the top of the ridge took pleasure in the sound, which hinted of easy pickin’s in the future.

Robin stumbled forward, her fingers tightening on her tools of the trade. Some low-down, thievin’ sumbitch had been here, that much she could tell. She began to gnaw on her lower lip as she tried real hard to figure out just what the hell was a-goin’ on, anyway. Weren’t nobody in sight, and she was pretty sure ever’thing had been okay last spring. But why in tarnation would some damn fool dig up her ’seng patch out here on the far side of the ridge? Didn’t make a hog’s hair of sense. There was a loggin’ road not too far yonder, she remembered. Some sumbitch must have decided to do his farmin’ out in the middle of nowhere. But why in her beloved ’seng patch? Her tools fell to the ground as she wrapped her arms around herself and began to wail. It weren’t fair. That sumbitch should be tied up agin an oak tree and be learned what a godawful thing he’d done in destroying her patch. Grandpappy’s patch.

Below her simian brow, her eyes turned the shade of yeller gold that she should have found. She sure as hell could show him what a sinful thing he’d done, she told herself as she moved toward the tidy rows of plants. She’d just plumb tear up all his plants and throw ’em in the gully to rot. Rip up those plants the way she wished she could rip off his tongue and dick and feed ’em to the hogs. Mebbe have one of the younguns keep watch and run back to the cabin iffen anyone came back. Then she’d bring some barbed wire and—

A click about shoulder height caught her attention. As she turned, wondering what the fuck was a-goin’ on now, her face exploded.


 

“Of course I understand why you’re upset,” David Allen Wainright said for not the first time in the last half hour. He took a quick peep at his watch, then sighed and leaned back in the chair. “It’s admirable that you’re showing this deep and obviously genuine concern for your friend. It’s important that we share our feelings, especially during our high school years, when it’s common for us to be unsure of ourselves.”

Heather snuffled into the tightly wadded tissue in her hand. “I feel really awful, Mr. Wainright. I mean, like I shouldn’t be telling you any of this because I swore on Carol Alice’s Bible that she got when she was baptized last spring at the Voice of the Almighty Lord Assembly Hall that I wouldn’t tell a soul. She’s my best friend in the whole world.”

“Which is why you’ve shown such maturity by coming to talk to me,” David Allen said soothingly. It was almost two-thirty; surely she’d have to leave in a minute in order to catch her bus. Surely. “Sometimes we’re so confused by our emotions that we’re at a loss to know what to do or where to turn. That’s why I’m here.” On the other hand, he had no idea why she was here. No one actually believed someone would commit suicide on the basis of some idiotic psychic’s dour prediction.

“Then,” Heather said through a series of distastefully damp hiccups, “you’ll talk some sense into Carol Alice?”

He formed a temple with his fingers and gave her his most professional smile (Adolescence and Stress, Chapter Seven). “Well, we may worsen the situation if I confront your friend with the knowledge that I’m aware of her problem. She may be driven to take some sort of drastic action out of fear or embarrassment. We wouldn’t want that, would we?” No, we want the buses to be announced on the PA system. We want this drippy little thing to shriek out her gratitude and leave. He realized she was heading for another deluge, and hastily said, “But I do see how serious the problem is, Heather”—was that her name?—“and I won’t allow anything to happen to Carol Ann.”

“Carol Alice, Mr. Wainright. Thank you so much for letting me talk to you about this. It was so kind of you.” Heather picked up her books and purse, and with a hesitant smile stood up. “I feel much better knowing that you’ll do something about that awful woman and poor, brokenhearted Carol Alice.” She emphasized the last word, just in case he was still confused. Which wasn’t hard to understand, considering how many students there were at Maggody High School and him being new and all.