Malice in Maggody


An Arly Hanks Mystery



Joan Hess





For Sara Koenig, who underestimates her boundless wit and perspicacity



I would like to acknowledge the gracious assistance of the following law-enforcement officials, none of whom in any way appears in my book: Luther Hungate and his delightful wife Marsha, Ken Titsworth, J. B. Folsom, D. S. Hefner, Bud Dennis, Barry Gudgeon, Robert Gibson, and W. D. Colvard. Also, Louie Goforth, for his insights into human nature, and David McWethy, for his knowledge of the intricacies of the EPA and small-town rituals.






“It’s shit—pure and simple shit, no matter what they call it in those goddamn reports,” Jim Bob Buchanon said, slamming his fist down on the counter of the Kwik-Stoppe Shoppe hard enough to rustle the cellophane wrappers of the beef jerkies. “Just ’cause some fish-brained bureaucrat at the EPA office in Dallas calls it ‘suspended solids’ doesn’t mean it ain’t shit!”

“’Course it’s shit,” Larry Joe Lambertino said soothingly, “and they know it, too. But the EPA is supposed to know what they’re doing, and they swear it won’t affect the water quality in Boone Creek. According to them, the water from the new sewage treatment plant will be cleaner than what we’ve got now.”

“Bunch of fish-brained bureaucrats,” Jim Bob snarled. The box of beef jerkies again rustled in their plastic wrappers as his fist hit the Formica. “No, I take that back. I know a lot of fish smarter than those old boys in Dallas. The other day I caught sight of this old granddaddy catfish that must’ve weighed fifty pounds. He was in that pool down back of Raz’s dog pen, just twitching his whiskers and watching me watch him.”

“Did you try a wad of chicken liver?”

“Yeah, but that old fish didn’t even blink. I swear I could hear him thinking what a goddamn fool I was to even try. But I’ll be damned if I don’t get him one of these days.” Jim Bob paused to contemplate his chances with the venerable fish, then went to the refrigeration unit and pulled out a can of beer from the dark recesses. “Want one?”

Larry Joe shook his head. “Naw, I gotta get back to the high school. There’s some PT of A crap tonight, and I need to mop the halls so the juvenile delinquents’ parents can track mud all over ’em. Then I got to rush home and change clothes so that I can stand around the shop room telling them what fine potential Little Johnny has as a welder. I don’t tell them he’ll most likely work in a chop shop over in Platte County.”

Jim Bob ran his fingers through the short stubbles of hair on the top of his head, hissing “shit” under his breath as if an unseen puncture was allowing a steady escape of air. A flash of light outside caught his attention. His eyes narrowed as he gazed through the plate-glass door at the gas pumps, and his lips pursed thoughtfully. “Look, Larry Joe, there’s some damned state car out there. Wonder who it is?”

Obediently Larry Joe looked, as he always did when instructed to do so by anyone with more strength of character. It happened too often to keep track of. “Appears to be someone too stupid to figure out how to put gas in his car. You’d better send Kevin out to help him before he puts two or three gallons of unleaded down his trousers.”

“Kevin!” Jim Bob roared. “Get your ass out to the pump and help that customer!” Despite his volume, he continued to gaze with a pensive frown at the scene outside.

Kevin Buchanon stumbled out of the store room, his face flushed and his prominent adam’s apple bouncing in his throat like a red rubber ball. At the last second, he managed to avoid the artful pyramid of paper towels at the end of the narrow aisle. “Gee, Jim Bob, he’s at the self-service,” he protested in a pubescent squeak. “He’s supposed to do it hisself. If he were at the full-service, then I’d be supposed to put the gas in—”

“Get out there before I rip your ears off the side of your head,” Jim Bob said without anger. “God knows it wouldn’t be hard—they’re almost bigger than Dahlia’s jugs.”

Larry Joe waited until Kevin stumbled out the door, tripped on a black air hose, recovered, and approached the white sedan with the telltale circle on the door. “That boy is a walking disaster,” he said. “Him and Dahlia still playing doctor in the storeroom half their waking hours? I hope he don’t put a bun in her warmer.”

“The boy’s a day late and a dollar short, and he doesn’t have the sense to zip his fly in a tornado. Dahlia’s been trying to tutor him in the manly art of screwing, but I don’t know if she’s actually convinced him to stick it in her yet.”

Dahlia O’Neill, the girl under discussion, sauntered out of the storeroom, a half-eaten candy bar in one hand and a rolled magazine in the other. The dark blue tent draped over the three hundred pounds of flesh was dusty and wrinkled, but her face was as serene as that of any madonna who had recently submitted to immaculate conception. “How you doing, Mr. Lambertino?” she said in greeting as she went behind the counter.

“Go check the soda pop supply,” Jim Bob said.

“Checked it this morning.” She popped the late bit of chocolate into her mouth and daintily sucked her fingertips. Her bovine eyes remained on Larry Joe.

“Check it again. There’s lots of kids in on Friday afternoon,” Jim Bob said, turning back to the door. “Now that’s a car from the interagency motor pool. Sure ain’t the governor, sure ain’t the highway commissioner or no tax man from the state revenue office. Just who do you reckon it might be?”

Larry Joe shrugged, his bony shoulders hunched as though he were taking the shape of a long-range missile. He did not, however, look nearly as lethal. “I don’t know why you’re so all-fired interested in that car and that fellow. He looks real ordinary to me, Jim Bob. He’s probably some fool paper pusher from Little Rock.”

Before Jim Bob could offer his thoughts, Hobert (“call me ‘Ho’ ”) Middleton pulled up, his flashy black Cadillac shuddering as he slammed on the brakes inches short of the leaded, regular, full-service. It took a few seconds for him to extricate his plump body from behind the steering wheel, managing during the process to leave his lush gray hair unscathed. He tugged at the crotch of his plaid trousers as he entered the Kwik-Stoppe Shoppe.

“Hey, Ho,” Jim Bob said. “You look more worn out than Dahlia’s public access ramp. Want a beer?”

Hobert flapped a newspaper under Jim Bob’s nose. “Did you have a chance to look at the Starley City paper this morning?” he demanded in a melodious voice that rippled with indignation. “On the front page, just under the story about the Miss Starley City beauty pageant.”

“A story about the beauty pageant?” Larry Joe said, leaning over Jim Bob’s shoulder to look at the newspaper. “Joyce and I almost decided to go, but one of the boys upchucked on the middle of the living room carpet and she had to stay home so she could clean it up. It liked to never come out of the green shag. Is there a photo from the swimsuit competition?”

Jim Bob made a noise in his throat. “Listen to this, Larry Joe. It says that the EPA office in Dallas has finally agreed to Starley City’s application, and they’re going to let them sign the construction contract with that firm up in Kansas City. They’re sending a contract approval fellow up today to finalize the deal, and they’re hoping to break ground real quick.”


“You got it—or you’re going to, right soon.” Jim Bob paused to read in silence, his lips quivering over the longer words. “It talks about the public meetings and the petitions and protests we sent, but it says that the EPA office has evaluated the so-called community input and environmental impact reports and decided to approve the application anyways. In a year or so those chickenshits in Starley City will be dumping their suspended solids in Boone Creek. I’ll have over a hundred acres of frontage on a sewage ditch, and that old catfish will belly up before I can catch him.”

Hobert took back the newspaper and tucked it under his arm. His face, somewhat mottled at best, turned a deeper red. “That’s right on the button, Mr. Mayor. I got nearly that many acres myself, and I don’t like shit any better than you. Now, exactly what do you aim to do about it?”

“I put in another call to Senator Fiff, but he’s still on his fact-finding mission to Las Vegas. Be back Tuesday, according to some snippety secretary with the charm of a pig getting castrated. If he can’t stop this, I don’t think we have a grasshopper’s chance in a hen house. Next time this year we’ll be flycasting for turds.”

Kevin came back into the store, followed by a slender man in a three-piece suit. The man handed Kevin a ten-dollar bill, nodded to the three men watching him, and disappeared down one of the aisles. With a youthful thirst for knowledge, Kevin headed for the storeroom.

Jim Bob inclined his head in the man’s direction. “He’s got a car from the state pool, Ho. You know what I think?”

“You think he’s from the Dallas EPA office? One of those engineer fellows who’s been coming up here all year to take water samples?” Hobert Middleton was nobody’s fool. He reminded people all the time, if they thought otherwise.

“It says in the paper that Starley City is expecting someone today to approve the contract at some damn fool ceremony at the city hall. I think that’s him. State car, polyester suit, slick expression. Bet you a case of Bud that’s the man what’s going to deliver the shit to Boone Creek. We got to think of a way to stop him from okaying the construction contract until Fiff gets hisself back from Las Vegas and throws a monkey wrench in this mess.”

“You honestly think Fiff can do some good?” Hobert asked.

“I don’t know, but it’s our best goddamn shot. Once everything is signed and tied up in pretty pink ribbon, we can whine as loud as we want, but nobody’ll listen.” Jim Bob poked a finger into Larry Joe’s concave chest, which was conveniently at eye level. “Keep that government man here till I get back. I’m going to go fetch Roy Stiver so we can have a quorum for a special meeting of the town council.”

“A special meeting?” Hobert raised two bushy silver eyebrows. “I don’t have time to stand around, Jim Bob. I got a fellow bringing in a load of new models and I need to be there to make sure the merchandise ain’t dirty or damaged. I got a reputation for selling the cleanest cars in the county, you know—”

“Back in a minute.” Jim Bob hurried out the door and cut across the driveway toward a row of buildings.

The man thought to carry the desecration of Boone Creek in his briefcase found a path out of the aisles. Blinking in the fluorescent glare, he cleared his throat and said, “The young man who pumped my gas said I could heat a burrito in the microwave. Would either of you know exactly how to operate it?”

Larry Joe and Hobert nodded.


Raz Buchanon stomped into the police department, his watery, red-rimmed eyes snapping and his whiskey chin several inches ahead of his nose. An aroma of sourness swept in on his heels. “Perkins stole my dawg, Arly! He plumb took it right out of my pen, and I want to know what in blazes you plan to do about it!”

I put down the block of wood I was whittling into a semblance of a duck. “Now, Raz, you need to calm down. How do you know Perkins took your dog? Maybe the dog jumped the fence and went looking for a bitch in heat.”

“That dawg is a bitch—and that son of a bitch took her.” Raz glanced around for a can to spit in. He settled for a dusty corner and sent out a glistening amber stream.

I will admit I winced. Having been the chief of police for more than eight months, I should have grown accustomed to such things. Some things may take years. “Do you have any proof to back your accusation, Raz? I can’t just arrest Mr. Perkins and send him to the penitentiary on your say-so.”

“You can, too. Perkins is a low-down lying thief; everybody in the county knows it but you, Arly Hanks. He done it so that he can run the dawg during deer season and pretend it’s one of his from the last litter. I know for a fact he ain’t had a decent dawg in two years.” One cheek puffed out ominously, then receded. “Ain’t had a deer, neither,” he added with a cackle. He looped a misshapen thumb through the strap of his overalls and waited for me to join in the general merriment.

“I have to have proof.”

“The hell you do! Jest ask Jim Bob if Perkins ain’t a dawg thief. I’m guessing you’ll take the word of the mayor.”

Would you take the word of the mayor of Maggody, Arkansas, population seven hundred fifty-five?

“You can sign a complaint if you want to, Raz, and I’ll send Paulie out to Perkins’s place to investigate. But I can’t file charges unless the dog is discovered on his property.” I took out a form and pushed it across my desk.

Raz wiped his mouth on the back of his hand as he stared at the complaint form. “Iz that paper for dawg thieves?”

“That’s right,” I replied with a sober expression. “I have a different one for each species of stolen animal. This one is for dogs. If the animal were a cat, I’d use the green form.” It was, of course, nonsense, but Raz couldn’t read a word of it. I had to do something to amuse myself during the eight-hour shift.

“You jest send Paulie Buchanon out there to get my dawg,” Raz said, backing toward the door. “I don’t need some damn fool paper to say Perkins stole Betty.”

“Officer Buchanon will report the facts of the case at his first opportunity,” I said. “In the interim, stay away from the pen so that you won’t destroy any evidence. We may need to make plaster casts of the footprints and dog residual in order to convict Mr. Perkins of this heinous kidnapping charge.”

“I got to feed the other dawgs. How in thunderation am I supposed to do that if’n I stay away from the pen?”

I gave the dilemma serious thought. “The only solution, Raz, is throw the dog food from your back porch. Otherwise, Perkins will get away with the crime and you won’t be able to regain custody of Betty.”

Raz showed me two toothless gums. “Thankee, Arly.”

“My pleasure, Raz.” I picked up the block of wood, which had not transformed itself into anything remotely resembling a duck. Perhaps an elephant, or dog residual. The creative juices were clearly not bubbling, so I put my knife away and replaced the wood in a drawer. I then opened my purse, reapplied lipstick, breathed on my badge and polished it with my cuff, and went to see my mother.

Ruby Bee’s Bar and Grill is situated at the north end of Maggody, exactly one-half mile from the south end of Maggody, which gives you an idea of the entire scope of said town. Unlike more picturesque communities snuggled in the verdant valleys of the Ozark Mountains, Maggody despondently straggles along both sides of the state highway. After the half mile, it peters out with a few dilapidated billboards and a sign that welcomes Rotarians, Lions, Kiwanians, and Masons. Maggody possesses none of those, but it does strive for a friendly note.

The population has decreased steadily since the turn of the century. I know from personal experience that the dream of every Maggody teenager is to move away as quickly as possible and, with luck, never come home again. Some do; others never quite find the nerve to venture into the land of dragons and freeways. Yes, I did, and I ended up back where I started, at least for a time while I recuperated from an ugly divorce and a bad case of the ego-shakes. After all, my advertising-hotshot ex-husband did leave me for a model who specialized in foot commercials—dear Veronica something-or-other of the sculpted toes. I wished them happiness, herpes, and bunions in what used to be my Manhattan co-op, dining on my china and sipping champagne out of my crystal goblets. I walked out empty-handed but with my pride intact. No one uses much crystal in Maggody.

I’m the chief of police only because I was the one and only qualified person to apply after the last chief snuck out of town with Dahlia 0’Neill’s older sister. Paulie Buchanon applied, but the town council felt obliged to take me. Paulie hasn’t been to the police academy yet, while I’d done so and also had several years of experience with a private security firm. Nothing to do with police work, naturally, but I didn’t share that with the town council. Hell, I needed some entertainment while I sorted things out. It was a good thing I didn’t need much money.

If all the Buchanons are confusing you, good luck. Half the residents of Stump County are Buchanons. Inbreeding and incest have produced the beetlish brow, beady amber eyes, and thick lips. Nothing in the way of intelligence has been produced. Buchanons are known for a certain amount of animal cunning, but nothing that would outwit an above-average raccoon. The other half of the Maggody PD and my loyal deputy, Paulie Buchanon, is smarter than most of his relatives; he’s terribly sincere and determined to escape Maggody via the state police academy. Jim Bob’s no dummy, either, if holding the office of mayor for thirteen years is any indication. He pulled enough horse trades to put up the Kwik-Stoppe Shoppe (known to locals as the Kwik-Screw) and to build a big brick house on a hilltop overlooking Boone Creek. He may have made an error when he married Barbara Anne Buchanon, his second cousin from over in Emmet. Everybody calls her Mrs. Jim Bob, a local and inexplicable tradition that’s not worth dwelling on.

Ruby Bee’s, as I mentioned earlier, is on the north end of town just before the skeletal remains of Purtle’s Esso station. Once you pass that, there’s nothing worth looking at until you reach the Missouri line, unless you like staring at cows. Ruby Bee’s is a low concrete-block building painted a curious shade of pink and decorated with metal signs extolling the virtues of Pepsi-Cola, Royal Crown Cola, and something called Happy Daze Breads and Buns. There is a six-unit motel behind the bar, although no tourist has found the courage to actually stay there more than an hour. It’s called the Flamingo Motel; there’s still one solitary plastic flamingo posing under the sign that says V can y. Ruby Bee resides in Number One so she can keep an eye on the activities that take place after midnight. The locals refer to it as the Maggody Stork Club. Work on it.

I parked my patrol car in front and called the county sheriff’s dispatcher to let her know I’d be out of touch for lunch. She wasn’t especially interested—could be because I get a message from the dispatcher maybe once a month, and that for a vehicle accident. Due to the vigilance and alertness of the Maggody PD and the ennui of the residents, there is no crime. As I got out of the car, I decided after I ate I’d run a speed trap by the school zone sign until it was time to follow the school buses to the county line. Or maybe at the signal light. Such decisions.

Did I mention that the infamous Ruby Bee is, among other less enchanting things, my mother?

“Ariel, honey, what’s wrong?” she called as I stepped into the cool dimness of the bar. It’s a good-size place, with booths along one wall and a few tables scattered around a handkerchief dance floor. On Saturday nights it’s jammed with good ol’ boys at the bar and girls dancing with their eyes closed, mouthing the words of songs while they picture themselves on the Grand Ole Opry stage.

“Nothing’s wrong,” I said irritably. “I came in to eat lunch, not to collapse of malaria on the barroom floor.” I pulled myself together and managed a smile. “Sorry, but this place is starting to close in on me. I really thought I knew what I was doing when I moved back. The only thing Maggody and Manhattan have in common is a couple of letters of the alphabet, but I’d forgotten how quiet things are around here— along the lines of a mouse pissing on a cotton ball. Do I look all that bad?”

“You just look so pale, honey. Why don’t you wear a little more makeup?” This from the woman who wears alternating stripes of pink eyeshadow, black eyeliner and mascara, and scarlet lipstick. I probably did look pale through her eyes. Her blond hair (worth every penny of it) and girlishly white complexion gave her painted features a rather ghostly look, as though she hovered behind the bar. Her body was substantial but reasonably trim for a woman who refused to get out of bed on the day of her fiftieth birthday—five years ago.

“It’s mere malnutrition,” I promised, “and soon to be alleviated, if you feed me.” I told her about Raz and Perkins while she dished up a plate of pork chops, rice, gravy, and fried okra.

“Raz is just being ornery,” Ruby Bee informed me as she brought a glass of milk to the bar. “Perkins whupped him in checkers three nights running and won seventy-five cents.”

“Did he purloin poor Betty for revenge?”

“Probably, but Paulie ain’t going to find the bitch until deer season’s over.” My mother has her finger on the pulse of Maggody. Her sweet round face invites confidences, which she promptly repeats to anyone who’ll listen, including me. There’s not much else to do in Maggody. While we were discussing ways to rescue the victim, Ruby Bee’s dearest friend, Estelle Oppers, came in and joined us.

Estelle is as tall as I am (five-feet-ten in my socks) and as skinny (135, soaking wet and no socks). She is not pale, however, and no one has ever suggested she add more color to her violet eyelids or to her fire-engine red hair, arranged that day in sort of a Grecian column effect. She is the proprietor and sole operator of Estelle’s Hair Fantasies, located in the living room of her house. Every female in Maggody has at one time or another found herself in Estelle’s chair— except me. I prefer to maintain my dark hair in a sensible bun. Trimming is done with cuticle scissors and provides most of my excitement on weekends.

Twenty years ago Estelle played the piano and warbled in a motel lounge in Little Rock, our state’s major metropolis. With enough sherry pumped into her, she still reminisces about her promising career that was cut short by some obscure tragedy. According to her, when she got warmed up she could put every customer in tears with her rendition of “Moon River.” I don’t doubt it for an instant.

Estelle bellied up to the bar beside me and gave me a puzzled frown. “You look different, Arly. Did you finally do something to your hair?”

“I combed it, but that’s about all. Why all this concern about me out of the blue, ladies? I can swear on Grandpappy Hank’s Bible that not one tiny thing has happened to me—or anyone else I know—in a coon’s age.” I tried to return to my pork chop.

The two exchanged meaningful looks, then Ruby Bee took over. “Estelle and I was just thinking that, and I don’t mean to insult you, you’re looking a little peaked these days, honey. You work all day, then sit around that dreary apartment all night instead of getting out to have some fun. You could go to the dance over in Kingsley next Saturday and meet some young people like yourself.”

Estelle hobbled her head. “Sure you could, Arly. I’d be real pleased to do your hair for free. Maybe even frost it with a burnt gold rinse, then—”

“Thank you, but no thank you,” I interrupted. “I’m fond of my hair as is, and I have no desire to attend the bimonthly festivities at the Kingsley highschool gymnasium. I would be fifteen years older than ninety-nine percent of those in attendance, and sixty years younger than the remaining one percent.”

Ruby Bee began to pout. “You used to go every time.”

“I used to be in high school, and that was all there was to do. I am now thirty-four years old, divorced, and the chief of police. The kids are probably still sneaking out back to drink corn liquor out of mason jars and throw up on each other. It wouldn’t look good for me to attend. You don’t want me to lose my job, do you?”

“That would be just awful,” trilled a voice from behind us. Jaylee Withers ambled into the room, her generous hips moving to an inaudible rumba and her well-endowed chest bouncing along with the beat. Her blond hair had recently been exposed to Estelle’s artistic whimsy, for it was piled higher than a run-of-the-mill beehive; it literally soared a good twelve inches. I was surprised she wasn’t trailed by a homeless swarm.

“We were talking about the dance in Kingsley,” Ruby Bee announced, giving me a dark look. “I was telling Ariel here that she ought to get out and have herself a good time, but she thinks she’s too old and respectable to listen to me.”

Ruby Bee drives me crazy.

Jaylee nodded with all the wisdom of a twenty-two-year-old married woman currently employed as a barmaid. “She’s right, Arly. If you stay home, you’re gonna get all sour and dried out, like Raz’s oldest girl. Then no man will have you and you’ll spend the rest of your life in Maggody, dreaming about fancy cars and fur coats.”

“Raz’s oldest girl is sixty-seven years old if she’s a day,” I pointed out. “Furthermore, I’ve already had fancy cars and fur coats. I never could find a place to park, and my nose itched every time I opened the closet door.”

Jaylee was too busy winking at Ruby Bee and Estelle to be swayed by my logic. “You know, Arly, I’d be charmed to do something with your hair, free of charge. I need the practice for when I attend cosmetology school, hopefully as soon as next month, if I pass the GED this time. Estelle’s been teaching me and I could do a right nice French roll for you. You could come by my mobile home tomorrow and I could give you a permanent, then I could—”

“Sorry, I’m on a case,” I said. The pork chop was too cold to bother with, anyway. “An investigation into a kidnapping that could have profound influence on the deer season—although it’s strictly under wraps for the time being. I’d better get back to it.”

I left Ruby Bee’s, knowing full well that I hadn’t fooled any of them. I could almost hear them dissecting poor Arly’s situation—so tragic, you know. The way she drags around she ain’t ever going to catch another man. You’d think she’d have enough sense to forget that man in Noow Yark and settle down with someone who could give her a houseful of kids and an automatic dishwasher, a night at the picture show once a month and a lifetime subscription to Better Homes and Gardens.

I climbed into the police car, slammed the door, and snatched up the mike on the police band radio. “Chief of Police Hanks has returned to active duty. Ten-four, seven-eleven, and Bingo!”

Estelle and Jaylee drive me crazy, too.


Paulie Buchanon was sitting in his cruiser in the shade next to Roy Stiver’s Antiques and Collectibles: Buy, Trade or Sell. I pulled up next to him and rolled down my window. “What the hell are you doing, Officer Buchanon? Unless there’s been a change in the roster, you don’t come on duty until six o’clock tonight. Since I make up the roster, which hasn’t varied in eight months, I have some doubts.”

He did not deserve my testiness, which he knew as well as I. He gave me a wounded look and said, “I was just keeping an eye on the signal light, Chief. Jim Bob cussed me out for not writing more tickets last month and acted like he was going to fire me.”

“His Honor can’t do that without consulting me first,” I said, turning my glare on the Kwik-Screw across the street. “He’d have to call a special meeting of the town council, and they’d have to vote on it, anyway. Did you catch anybody running the light?”

Paulie held up a book. “No, actually I was studying the state police manual.”

“Did you hear from them?” I asked sympathetically, forgetting my feud with His Honor the Moron. “A result from the test?”

“No, but it’ll be any day. They’re processing my exams and interviews now, and said they’d let me know by the end of the month.” Paulie’s eyes glazed over as he considered his future as a state policeman, and even the skin on the top of his head seemed rosy under the sparse black hair. “Do you think I ought to get me a pair of those mirror sunglasses, Chief?”

“Wait to be accepted at the academy,” I advised him, determined not to giggle. Paulie’s terribly sincere, especially when the topic centers on the academy. “Why don’t you go study at the PD while I nab perpetrators at the signal light? I was thinking about it earlier, and it’ll help me burn off a little frustration.”

He grinned at me, having seen me drive away from Ruby Bee’s at a velocity above that permitted within the confines of Maggody. “Sure, Chief. Holler if you get bored and I’ll take over for you.”

After he left, I backed around to park in the shade. Another thrilling afternoon in Maggody, where nothing has happened since Hiram Buchanon’s barn burned down eleven years ago and a cheerleader got caught running out of it, smoldering pink panties in hand.





Paulie came in the next afternoon to report that Perkins refused to cooperate in the investigation. The dog had not been spotted among the children and chickens playing in the dirt in front of the ramshackle cabin. “I suppose I could go back with a warrant,” he concluded morosely, “but Perkins’ll probably dump a load of buckshot in my behind. I don’t think he’s got the dog, anyway.”

“Probably not,” I said. “We can decide about a warrant next Tuesday when the municipal judge shows up for court. I’m sure as hell not driving all the way into Starley City to get a search warrant for a dog, especially Raz’s bitch.”

I leaned back in the chair and studied the ceiling while Paulie bustled around the back room, fixing coffee and playing with the radar gun. He’d make a fine space explorer; I could hear him making little noises under his breath as he zapped aliens and cockroaches. I suspected I’d sort of miss him when he let for the state police academy, but I was praying hard he’d get accepted.

The police band radio sputtered to life. I fiddled the knobs and settled back for another exciting communique from the sheriff’s office, expecting to hear that some damn kids had smashed themselves up on the hairpin curves north of town.

I was wrong. When the radio quieted down, I stood up and brushed the dust off my khaki fanny, then hollered for Paulie. “I need to run over to Ruby Bee’s,” I informed him with a grim smile. “Carl walked off the prison farm sometime yesterday. We’re supposed to keep an eye out for him, but I think I’d better warn Jaylee right away.”

Carl Withers was once Maggody’s main claim to fame, when he won all-district honorable mention in football. The recruiters did not swarm to town to offer Cadillacs and scholarships, however, and he ended up working for Hobert Middleton in the body shop. He managed to impregnate Jaylee during her sophomore year of high school (he was twenty-six at the time) and did the honorable thing, although she lost the baby a couple of months after the wedding. Two years ago he’d tied one on, stolen a brand-new Eldorado off Hobert’s lot, side-swiped a Buchanon child on a motorscooter, and totaled the car just outside of town. The child ended up with two broken legs and a concussion. The judge was unamused and Carl got four years at Cummins State Prison Farm down by Pine Bluff. Among his other talents, Carl was bigger than a semi and meaner than a water moccasin. A real live sumbitch, as we say in Maggody.

When I found Jaylee, she was in a back booth, studying a cosmetology magazine for inspiration. She choked on her tongue when I told her Carl was loose. After a great deal of coughing and tearing, she got hold of herself and managed a shaky laugh. “He wouldn’t dare show his face around here, Arly. He’ll go to his brother’s house in Texarkana and then head south. He used to talk all the time about getting a job on one of those oil rig thingies in the Gulf of Mexico.”

“I hope so. I looked up the file on him before I came over here, Jaylee. He beat you up pretty bad the night he got arrested, didn’t he? Seven stitches in your lip and a fractured collarbone?”

Ruby Bee was listening from behind the bar. “That’s the unvarnished truth,” she inserted, having no reservations about butting in. “It wasn’t the first time neither. I saw you plenty of times with a split lip, Jaylee, or wearing sunglasses to hide a shiner. That Carl’s a skunk if I ever met one.”

Jaylee’s lower lip edged out, as if she were going to protest, but she thought better of it. “He can be rough,” she admitted. “That’s why I was hoping to be long gone before they let him out of jail. I figured he’d never be able to find me in Little Rock.”

I was nudged aside by my deputy. “Hey, Jaylee,” he said as he sat down across from her and reached for her hand. “You don’t have to worry about Carl showing up in town. The state police and the sheriff’s department are both watching for him, and if he makes it here, he’ll have to deal with me first.”

In that Paulie had snatched the words right out of my mouth, I retreated to the bar and ordered a glass of milk. Paulie sat with Jaylee for a long time, murmuring too softly for me to catch more than a tadpole’s tail of what he was saying. She finally relaxed and stopped trying to wiggle her hand free. Their heads moved closer, and I could see she was fanning him with her eyelashes.

“Sweet, ain’t it?” Ruby Bee cooed over my shoulder. She’s a sucker for soap operas and romance novels.

“Just like molasses. Maggody’s cutest couple, making plans to escape before the demented husband shows up with a twelve-gauge to blow them both to smithereens.”

“You think Carl’ll head this way?”

“Beats me. I don’t know him—the Withers family moved here after I graduated from high school and left for college. He must be a real prince, though.” I finished my milk and glanced over my shoulder. Jaylee was showing Paulie one of the more fanciful hairstyles in her magazine while she tugged at the curls dangling over her forehead.