Welcome to Taylortown, the sign read. The sign also informed me that Taylortown was the home of eight thousand screaming eagle fans. I expected it was the name of the county's high school mascot. I was pretty sure the high school I had attended had been closed, probably for several years. Most small city schools had been merged with the county's by that time.

I hadn't seen the downtown for twenty years, almost to the day. My family had been forced to leave Taylortown when my dad lost his job at the cotton mill. He along with a couple of hundred other mill workers went on to larger cities looking for work. We found ourselves in Charlotte. I shook my head to clear away that train of thought. I didn't want to live in the past. I wanted to look at my future.

As I drove through the downtown, I couldn't help but notice the number of empty buildings. There were just about as many vacant lots as empty buildings. It took a stretch on my part, but I could remember what had once sat on those vacant lots. Well, I could remember some of them anyway.

I passed the corner lot where once stood an A&P grocery store, then the space once occupied by a small movie theater. It was sad to realize that the small town of my youth had gotten even smaller. I had known about the size of the town for months but it didn't really sink in until I drove through the downtown.

On the drive in from the highway, I had noticed a couple of small mini strip malls, even those didn't appear to be completely full. The mayor had informed me that the lawn mower plant had stopped the slide toward oblivion. She also informed me of her hopes to encourage new industry into the town or at the very least the county. According to her, the town was tired of being a bedroom community for Raleigh.

I found the city hall without too much trouble. I couldn't remember ever having been in the building. At sixteen when we left, I wouldn't have had any reason to visit city hall. "Now I have reason, so here I am," I said to myself. Fortunately for me, there were two parking spaces, side by side in front of the one story building.

I left my pickup and rent-a-trailer out front while I ran inside. The building lacked any resemblance to anything I would have thought to be a city hall. It looked more like a finance company office. The front had one of those aluminum storefront things. It would have been more at home in a finance company office. I walked inside through the almost full length glass door.

"Hello," I said to the well past middle-aged woman behind the desk. "My name is Lester Early."

"Mr. Early, we have been expecting you. I guess I should call you chief Early," she suggested.

"I don't really know what you should call me just yet. Is the mayor in?" I asked.

"No honey, the mayor is down at her store. You want to go there?" the blue haired lady asked.

"I need to tell her that I am here," I replied.

"Well go down the street to the second light, then turn right. She owns the only hardware store in town, you can't miss it."

"Tell me, could you recommend a place where I could find an apartment?" I asked. "Something not too expensive or large."

"Aren't you going to stay in the apartment over the police station?" she asked showing her surprise.

"I didn't know there was an apartment over the station," I admitted.

"Ain't nobody used it in ten years. The last chief was married and had a couple of kids, wasn't big enough for him. I expect Molly just didn't think to mention it to you. It has always just sorta gone with the job. You know something in lieu of pay," she smiled as though she knew how little I was being paid. After a moment's though I realized that she probably kept the town's books, so of course she knew. Hell she probably even knew why I had taken the job sight unseen, so to speak.

I had called Charlotte home for twenty years, but I was glad to be leaving it for a smaller town. Life there had gotten too damned complicated for me. I was lost in the recent past when I finally realized the woman was speaking to me. "I'm sorry what did you say."

"I said you didn't ask, but my name is Laura. I'm the town clerk and general flunky. If you want to know anything about the town just ask me."

"Okay, should I report to the mayor or go look at the apartment?" I asked it with a large grin.

"If'n I was you," she said looking out at my caravan. "I would take my truck and trailer to the police station parking lot. Then I would walk across the street to talk to the mayor. I expect you knew that the police station is across from the mayor's hardware store?"

"No, I didn't know that, but it will make it easy for her to keep an eye on me," I admitted.

"I see that you have met our mayor. So how come I never met you?" she asked.

"The mayor came to see me in Charlotte. I haven't been in Taylortown for twenty years."

"I heard that, so has the place changed?" she asked with a strange look on her face.

"It certainly has. My dad left when the mill closed. We left before half the town died. From the number of vacant lots, several businesses seem to have closed."

"Some closed, some moved out to the new mall, some have even come back. Not the same ones but new ones in old buildings. So, when you going to start work,"

"Monday, I came early so that I could spend the weekend apartment hunting. If I can live over the station, I am going to spend the time sleeping instead." I replied honestly.

I followed Laura's directions to the hardware store. I found the police station not directly across the street, but rather thirty or so feet past the hardware store. Just like the town hall, it didn't resemble a police station in the least. It was hard to say exactly what a small town police station is supposed to look like. I had never really been inside one before or outside one either for that matter.

I pulled into the large parking lot beside the police station. Obviously the vacant lot had been converted to a parking lot. The concrete of the parking lot had once been the floor of some kind of a commercial building. The parking lot looked out of place in the middle of the neighborhood of two story buildings, most of which were empty. It seemed that the buildings, one block off main, had faired even worse than the main street buildings.

What the police station did look like was the two story remains of a fifty-year-old five and dime. It looked that way because that had been the building's original use. It had served as a temporary police station for the last fifteen or more years or so I was told later. The early five and dimes were evidently long, thin, dark buildings. The police station was every bit of that and then some.

Just in passing I checked the front door. It was locked. I moved on up the street to the hardware store. When I opened the door to the building. I noted that it was only slightly newer than the police station. Upon stepping inside I was greeted by a young woman no older than twenty.

"Could I help you sir?" she asked flashing me a set of perfect teeth. The teeth were a good match to her almost perfect looks. I couldn't for the life of me figure out what such a beautiful young woman was doing working in a hardware store.

"I'm Lester Early, and I'm looking for the mayor," I informed her after taking a moment to recover from her startling beauty.

Without a word to me, the young beauty turned to the rear of the store. She shouted most unladylike. "Momma, there is a man here to see you." She managed another of those dazzling smiles while we waited for her mother, the mayor, to arrive.

I watched Molly Wilson walk from the rear of the darkened store. I tried to find a resemblance between mother and daughter. No matter how hard I tried I couldn't find even the smallest shared feature.

"Well chief, I see you found your way," she commented.

"I did that madam mayor. I stopped at the town hall first. The woman there told me that there was an apartment over the jail. Is that right?"

"Sure, didn't I tell you about the apartment?" she asked.

"If you did, it didn't register with me," I replied allowing her a graceful way out.

"It isn't much, but you are welcome to use it as long as you like. So, do you want me to show you around your new office?" she asked it, obviously hoping I would decline the offer.

She needn't have worried. Making small talk with her was something I could do without."No thanks, I am just going to move my few things up to the apartment, then collapse into bed. I can look around on my own. I will meet the men as they check on, and off duty. I can introduce myself, I don't expect they will hold much with ceremony. I do need a key though, since the office seems to be locked." She caught the question in my voice.

"It is always locked when the chief isn't inside. All the other officers are supposed to be out on patrol. As to the key, Laura should have given you one. You can pick yours up from her."

"To tell you the truth Mayor, I have a trailer full of junk in the parking lot over there. If you have a key, I would sure appreciate the loan of it for a few minutes. Once I get the junk unloaded, I will return it."

"Very well," she replied shortly. "See that you return it promptly." Her tone was one used by the lady of the manner. The tone she would use when speaking to a servant. I probably should have been upset instead I took the key from her outstretched hand. It was a good thing that I didn't have to like my boss. Hell, I had never liked one before, so her being a jerk didn't bother me at all. I simply nodded as I walked out the door, then down the street to the station.

I had seen both sides and the front of the building. I could see no indications of an apartment on the upper floor. The windows appeared to be of frosted glass. I had seen windows like that in bathrooms of some older houses, also in some older office buildings inside their storerooms. That at least did make some sense. The upstairs had probably been the storage area for the five and dime. It was probably converted to an apartment much later.

I walked around to the rear of the building to find a metal fire escape type stairway hanging on the brick wall of the building. Since the stairs had a pretty good coat of rust, it was obviously not the entrance of choice. Besides which the rusty stairs hanging on the outside wall would make taking groceries into the apartment pretty inconvenient in the rain or snow. Since I was at the rear of the building, I tried the downstairs rear door. I found that one of the three keys, which, 'Molly the mayor' have given me, unlocked the door.

Even with the sunlight trying to penetrate the interior gloom, it was as dark as a grave inside. I moved my hand along both walls hoping for a light switch. I could find nothing. I moved inside, then tried waiting for my eyes to adjust to the gloom. When it never happened, I closed the door behind me as I stepped outside. I walked to the front of the building where I unlocked the door. I found a great deal more light in the front. The additional light was thanks to the two large plate glass windows. The windows were pretty much out of place in a police station.

I found the light switch exactly where it should have been. The flourescent light fixtures hung down from the ceiling on long pipes. They at least supplied enough light to do paperwork without going totally blind.

In the very front of the long room, I found a counter. Directly behind the counter were two desks, one of which I assumed was mine. Behind the desk was a waist high rail separating the office area from what could only be the holding area. My guess was based on the ten-foot chain link wire cage attached to the wall and floor. Across from the cage were a couple of wooden church pew type benches, one behind the other. I had no idea that there would be so much business as to require the large waiting area. I would need to ask someone about those benches since I doubted they were ever full of waiting citizens.

Behind the cage, a banking type partition was to be found. I walked to the partitioned off area to find that a kind of room had been created by placing three of the partition against the wall. Since those type partitions do not go to the ceilings, the room was certainly not a private office. Inside the small cubicle was a desk and three chairs. I recognized it as an interrogation room by the furnishing. I almost laughed out loud at the lack of privacy. It would never do to slap a prisoner around in that room. Especially not if his lawyer was outside seated on a church pew. The whole arrangement was funny as hell to me for some perverse reason.

I found a door in the rear wall. Instead of the door leading outside, it lead into a kind of storeroom. The windowless storeroom was the same one I had entered from the outside door only moments before. It was dark but I managed to find the light switch on the wrong side of the wall. The only switch was on the inside wall of the police station. Once inside the storeroom, I found the stairs to the apartment on the outside wall. On the other wall was as bookcase filled with shelves full of cardboard file boxes. In the very corner, under the stairs, sat an old iron safe. I made myself a mental note to ask the first person I saw about it.

I climbed the wooden stairs up to the second floor. At the top of the stairs I found a locked door, the third key on the Mayor's ring fit it. I entered into the kitchen of the apartment.

One of the first things I noticed was the heavy layer of dust everywhere. I checked the electricity and found it on. I opened a faucet in the kitchen. The water ran rusty in the sink, but it ran.

The kitchen had no walls between it and the living room area. The living room area was sparsely furnished. I noted, with a great deal of satisfaction, that under the clear plastic painter's drop clothes was a sofa and chair. The printed fabric on the sofa wasn't to my liking, but not having to buy a sofa appealed to me greatly.

Behind the living room was a wall of cheap paneling. Behind that wall was yet another room. It like all the other rooms was much too wide for its slight depth. Dividing the long thin storage room into three rooms made for some misshaped rooms. The last room was obviously a bedroom since there was a sort of bed against one of the outside walls. Fortunately someone had thought to cover the bed with a used painter's drop cloth as well.

Another cheap panel partition wall in the kitchen hid the tiny bathroom. The water ran rusty in both the bathroom sink and shower stall. The apartment was far from luxurious but it was free. All in all, I expected that I could be happy in it.

I sat for several minutes on the dusty metal kitchen chair trying to decide where and how to begin the cleaning. I finally gave up. I decided instead to pick up my own keys. I returned to the parking lot only to drop the trailer. With my few possessions sitting in the police station parking lot, I walked across the street to the hardware store.

The mayor's beautiful daughter met me at the door. "So you're the new police chief. You should have told me, I would have been nicer to you."

"Now why would you have done that?" I asked.

"You never know when you are going to need a cop friend," she said with a flash of her perfect teeth.

"You just have to behave yourself to have a cop friend," I said it handing her the three keys. "For your Mom."

"Sometimes you make better friends, if you don't behave yourself," she said with yet another smile. It was far to mature a smile for the young woman.

"Tell your mother that I returned her keys as promised," I said ignoring her last remark. If she had been ten years older or anyone else's daughter, I might have traded witty remarks with her.

I drove my dusty old pickup truck back to the town hall. I caught Laura before she left for the day. Without much conversation, Laura gave me a set of keys to the station and the apartment.

"Laura before you leave for the day, how about filling me in on the restaurants in town."

"The yuppie joints are at the mall, but that's half way to Garnet. The home style place is one block off main. Just turn left at the first light. The fast food joints are all on the road you came in on. There are probably a couple I am forgetting, but you should find enough to eat until you get with some of the other officers. They can fill you in on every restaurant in the county," she informed me. I could tell she was in a hurry to leave, so I dropped it.

I tried a restaurant called Sadie's diner. I should say, I would have tried it had it been open. The sign in the window informed me that the restaurant closed at three in the afternoon. Since I couldn't stand yuppie places, I drove back up the road toward the highway. I found a burger joint just outside town.

After my less than wonderful meal, I returned to the station. I decided, even though I tried not to, that I needed to clean the place before I brought my boxes in. I found a broom, mop and bucket in the storage room of the station below.

For the next hour I swept and sneezed. When I finally had enough of the dirt moved around so that I could mop without making mud pies, I began. I finished the cleaning just before midnight. I was in the parking lot making my fifth trip to the trailer when I heard the voice behind me demand, "Stay right where you are."

"Now why would I do that?" I asked as I turned toward the voice.

"Because I'm a cop and I have a gun pointed at you," the voice answered.

"Son, you have a problem, because I am the new chief, and you have done just about every thing wrong,"

"How do I know you are the chief?" he asked.

"Do you know the name of the new chief?" I asked.

"Yeah Early," he said much less confidently.

"Then let me get to my wallet, you can check my driver's license." I reached slowly into my pants pocket to remove my wallet. I passed the wallet over my shoulder to the cop. I waited about half a minute to hear what I expected.

"Oh crap, I sure am sorry chief. I couldn't tell if you were taking those boxes in or out of the station."

"If you had waited a couple of minutes, you could have seen. Which one of my officers are you?"

"Eddie Boyd," he replied sheepishly

"Well Eddie, if you are off let's go inside for a cup of coffee. I assume there is a coffee maker in the station."

"Sorry no coffee maker," he replied. "But I can run out to Mac's for a couple of cups."

"Mac's?" I asked.

"McDonalds," he replied.

First I handed him a five-dollar bill, then said, "I take mine black." While he was gone, I made the final trip up the stairs. I was waiting in the station when he returned. I sat with my feet up on one of the desks by the counter.

When he delivered the coffee, I said, \ldblquote Thank you.\rdblquote After a few seconds, to open the cup, I said, "Now Eddie, fill me in on the rest of my happy campers." I didn't mean it to be sarcastic but he seemed hurt. "Come on Eddie lighten up, I was only kidding." It took him a couple of minutes but he did seem to relax a bit.

"Well Tommy Poteat is the day man. He's been a cop here about twenty years. He is a nice enough guy for an old man."

Boyd looked about fifteen but I knew he was twenty-two. Poteat was forty five, even older than me. I knew all that from the mayor's briefing.

"Then there is Mike. Mike is the fill in guy. He works two day shifts, then two evening shifts. He also takes the after midnight call at double comptime."

I nodded since I was familiar with double comptime. If Mike went out after midnight on a call, he was credited with twice the amount of time he actually spent on the call. If the comptime exceeded forty hours, the others would take turns covering the calls. They would be paid overtime for all over forty hours. It was a system some small departments used to get the evening hours covered without hiring an extra man. As long as the after midnight calls didn't run anyone over forty hours too often, it worked out just fine.

I noticed that Mike had gotten quiet. "Why are you so quiet?" I asked.

"You said, I did about everything wrong. What did I do?"

"You were acting badge heavy. What you want to do it to interrogate a suspicious person, without him knowing that he has been interrogated. For instance, you walk up quiet and wait until you have some idea what he is doing. In my case you should have wait to see whether I was taking crap in, or out of the station. If you don't think you can do that without him running, then you wait until he has his hands full. That way you don't have to draw your pistol until you are sure you need it. Pulling a pistol on the Mayor's brother is a good way to lose your job. Some people take real offense at cops who show their guns too often.

"So you're telling me, I should have walked up all nice and friendly?" he asked.

"Exactly, if you thought you needed the pistol, then pull it but hide it behind your leg. If your man throws down his box to go for a gun, you have a real good head start without him knowing it."

"That makes sense, I guess."

"So how are the other officers. Are they any good at their jobs?"

"Oh yeah, Mike and Tommy are both good men."

"So how do you communicate? I haven't seen a radio in the station."

"We use a cell phone in the car. The calls are switched from the station to the cars at night. During office hours the chief answered the calls, then called us in the patrol car. The county sheriff's and state trouper's numbers are posted in the cars. Just in case we need the backup."

"So what are most of your calls?" I asked.

"Larceny, break in, and domestics mostly," he replied.

"So how do you get in touch with the chief after hours. I mean if you get the calls how did the chief know what you are up to."

"Just like the rest of us, he carried a cell phone with him all the time. We called him, if we had something we couldn't figure out. If didn't happen all that often."

"So, I guess you switch the calls to the on call man's phone?" I asked.

"Yeah," he replied.

"So can you use the cell for personal calls?" I asked knowing the answer.

"Hell no, if one of us gets caught with a personal call on the cell, we might as well begin looking for a job. The mayor has Laura audit the bills every month. Every call had better be on a report or we catch hell." Eddie was resentful about the paperwork. I would have been the same.

I looked up to the charger then asked, "I guess that phone in the charger would be mine?"

"I expect so, Mike probably has his at home. I know mine is in the car and Tommy's surely is to. If you want I can check. I know the phone number for it."

"Don't bother. Unless there is an emergency, I am not going to start work until Monday. In the meantime, if there is an emergency just send someone for me." I grinned at him. I wanted him to know that I wasn't going to be a hard ass.

Eddie tossed his cup in the trash. "Well, I guess I should be heading on home," he said.

"Okay, I'll see you tomorrow?" I asked.

"Nope, Mike takes over tomorrow. I have Saturday and Sunday off this week. Tommy has it off next week."

"So when does Mike get a weekend off?" I asked.

"Mike is off every third weekend. It is about as often as the big city boys get off," he informed me as he headed out the door.

I'm a sound sleeper so I didn't hear Tommy check on at seven a.m. I awoke around nine. I probably wouldn't have slept so long, had I not been up late several nights in a row. The going away parties in Charlotte had taken a toll on me.

When I awoke, I showered and dressed by nine thirty. Since I hadn't washed all the dishes or bothered to buy food, I decided to head out to a restaurant. I found Sadie's open so I went inside. Sadie's was as dark and dreary as most of the other buildings in town. The windows were actually covered in a noticeable layer of grease.

"Breakfast or Lunch?" the older woman asked.

"Breakfast I think," I said with a smile.

"Okay, then you want this here menu," she said it handing me a soiled menu.

On the menu there were no color pictures or fancy words, just descriptions of the breakfast plates. I ordered potatoes, eggs and link sausages.

When she came to bring me the check, she asked, "You visiting or are you one of those lawnmower people?"

"Neither, I'm the new police chief," I replied with a solemn look.

"Oh," she said non committal.

"Yep, you'll probably be seeing a lot of me." I said the last as I stood to leave.

Once in the pickup I decided to take a tour of my new town. I had driven into town from the highway. The highway was actually a bypass around town, Highway one had once been the main street of my new hometown. That all ended when the bypass was built over twenty years previously. Main Street, both north and south, ended at different entrances to the highway. The Highway just made a lazy loop around town. That looping hadn't helped the terminally ill town any either.

Sadie's restaurant was located on Church Street which was itself a state highway. If I had followed highway eighty south from Sadie's, it would have eventually reached the South Carolina border where it became a different highway with a South Carolina number. If I took it north, it would have gone to the Virginia line and done the same thing. Church street and highway eighty, ran east and west through town though the highway actually ran north and south. If you think you are confused, imagine how the occasional traveler who got lost inside town would feel when he asked directions.

I took highway eighty east or south depending on how you looked at it, either way I way headed back to, and then under highway one. Along the way I noted a couple of new trailer parks. I also passed a few fairly new houses not to mention a whole bunch of corn and tobacco fields.

When I arrived at the highway one interchange, I merged with the south bound traffic. I arrived at the south main street extension exit then I headed back into town. The only things between the highway and the town of any significance were a few gas station, an old-fashioned motel, and the Mamie Taylor Academy for Young Ladies. It was a private girls boarding school, the one which had originally spawned the town.

The school had never been inside the town until the annexation which brought the lawnmower plant on the north side, and the academy on the south side into the limits of Taylortown. The town annexed all the land from the highway on the north to the highway on the south. It also picked up all the land on the east out to the highway and on the west it went out exactly two and a half miles to Bear Creek. The town had more than doubled its size in size in land at least. That was according to the mayor\rquote s little oral history.

Since I had no idea how large it had been two months before, I had to take her at her word. Remembering the Mayor brought her beautiful daughter to mind. I wondered how old the young woman might be. As with any other woman in that age group, she could have been eighteen or twenty-five. I shook my head to dislodge the mayor\rquote s daughter from it. Any thoughts of her could just cause me trouble. Woman trouble was one thing I intended to stay the hell away from.

I was almost in the downtown when I noticed the Food Lion store. I pulled into the parking lot so quickly that I felt the pickup's weight shift dangerously. I sure hoped no one saw me drive so carelessly. It would never do to hear about it from a suspect in a DWI case. I parked reasonably close to the door to avoid a lengthy walk with grocery bags.

When I returned to the truck, it was with a grocery buggy overfilled with bags. I had everything from steaks, to paper towels. I realized how bad a mistake the plastic bags were when I arrived home. Groceries were spread all over the bed of my truck. They were in the company of a large wad of almost empty plastic bags. From the fact that I had enough bags to re-pack the spilled groceries, it appeared that none had blown onto the roadway. It took me three trips to get all the groceries up to the apartment.

The knock on my door came around noon. I struggled up from the sofa whose floral print had no doubt caused the nightmare. I opened the door to a man in his late forties or early fifties. His hair was salt and pepper, but he looked more fit than Eddie. "You must be Tommy," I guessed.

"Yes sir," he replied.

"So come on in, I made a pitcher of tea this morning. It's probably drinkable. I bought some ice at the grocery store so it is cold." I said it turning my back on him.

"Thanks chief, but you need to call the Mayor," he said it flatly.

"Did she say it was urgent?" I asked.

"Not really," he replied again with no emotion.

"Then come on in and have the tea. I expect she just wants to make sure I found the apartment all right." I doubted that she gave a damn whether or not I slept in the doorway, but I didn't want the men to know my opinion of our boss.

Tommy and I talked for about fifteen minute before he informed me that he had to get back on patrol. Since he hadn't gotten a call during his visit, I knew he was nervous around me. I expected that if the roles were reversed, I would have been the same.

After he had gone, I walked down to the use the station phone. I dialed the mayor's number from the list posted on the desk blotter.

"Hello," the husky voice of the mayor's daughter replied to the ringing phone. Her voice made it a question.

"This is Chief Early is the mayor in?" I asked.

"Hold on Chief, I'll get her for you," the voice said.

"Chief Early, I see you aren't answering the phone?" The mayor\rquote s voice made it a question.

"I'm not on duty until Monday, and there is no phone in my apartment." I admitted.

"I called the cell phone. You are supposed to take it with you everywhere. Of course since you don't start officially until Monday, I shouldn't have expected you to have it with you."

"So what can I do for you?" I asked it not commenting on her last statement.

"Well I am having a little cookout at my house tonight. If the notice isn't too short, I would like to have you attend."

"No problem, I don't exactly have people beating my door down for dates." After I said that I wished I hadn't.

"Good, then be at my house at seven thirty." She continued on giving me directions to her house. I spent the afternoon searching through boxes so that I would have clothes to wear to the mayor's cookout.

I didn't expect that suits were required, but I also expected that jeans would be frowned upon. I compromised with a pair of grey slacks and a military cut navy blue shirt. I don't know what I had expected, but I certainly didn't expect what I found at the mayor's house. She could have used an off duty cop to direct the traffic. That is an exaggeration, but there actually were about a dozen cars parked in her drive and on the street in front of her house.

I would have rung the bell had I not been following another couple who led me around the side of the house. The stepping stones led to the rear yard of the house. I found myself inside a crowd of at least twenty people. I noted the brick grill set far away in a far corner of the yard. I also noted the white-haired black woman tending the steaks.

I turned to the hand tapping me on the shoulder. "Well hello again," I said to the Mayor's daughter.

"I didn't expect to see you here," she said happily.

"Your Mom invited me at the last minute. So who are all these people?" I asked.

"Everybody who is anybody around here. She that man over there," she said pointing to a dark mysterious looking gentleman.

"Yeah," I commented.

"He is the manager of the lawnmower plant. And that really clean looking older guy there by the picnic tables."

"The one in the sports jacket?" I asked.

"Yep, he is the headmaster at the Academy."

"My, my so who else is here?"

"What, are you star struck? See that big guy coming around the corner?" she asked pointing to the new arrival.

"Sure, who is he?"

"That chief, is the county sheriff. Sheriff Theodore Wills," she said.

"Remind me to go introduce myself later," I said with a smile, Before she could answer I noted that everyone had a drink in his or her hand. I looked around to find the bar setup near the rear door of the house. I had never seen so many bottles of liquor at a private party.

"Don't worry, when mom gets here she will introduce you to all of them. She is going to make damned sure everyone meets you," the young woman said with a wicked smile.

"Now why would she be doing that?" I asked.

"You're her big find. Someone with your background willing to come to this little burg is a big deal. You are the one, who she hopes will help move this town out of the past."

"Hey, I'm just a cop. I can't do anything to make this place grow."

"Not that kind of past, she wants the image of the town to be progressive. She thinks you fit her new image just fine, thank you very much."

"I don't understand, but like I said I'm just a cop."

"Megan, why don't you go talk to Eddie Fraley? He looks lonely over there by the fence," the mayor said as she approached us.

"Mother, I have already told you, I am not going to help you get elected to the state senate." The mayor\rquote s daughter, walked away in a totally different direction.

"Children can be so trying," the mayor said.

"Sorry, I wouldn't know about that," I replied.

I noted that the mayor looked a lot younger when dressed in jeans. She also appeared to slightly flushed. I took my first unhurried look at her. In spite of her Lady of the Manner airs she was a striking woman in her own right. Her hair was dark but not exactly brunette, it had a little red mixed in. She was a larger woman than her daughter. Her hips were only slightly too large for her frame. Otherwise her body was well proportioned and maintained for a woman of nearly fifty.

"I see you haven't been here long enough to find the drinks. Come with me and we will remedy that."

"I don't drink alcohol," I replied.

"That's okay, we have coke and iced tea."

"Mayor, I think maybe I better leave. If these people are going to be drinking, I don't want to watch them get into cars. I would have to call the cops."

She looked curiously at me for a moment, then the look turned to anger. She spoke almost in a whisper. "Are you telling me that you would arrest these people for driving drunk after my cookout?"

"That's exactly what I am telling you. The law applies to everyone equally or it isn't worth a damn. So before I have to do anything like that, I think I will be going."

"Damn you Early, you are not going to embarrass me like this," she said.

"It shouldn't embarrass you. Just tell everyone I had something come up. I'm sure you can figure out something to tell them."

"Do you want me to fire you?" she asked angrily.

"If you did, then I could stay and enjoy your party, otherwise I have to be going now." I tried to pass it off with a smile, but it didn't seem to work.

As I walked to my car, I imagined how the Charlotte\rquote s chief of detectives would laugh when I showed up Monday morning begging for my old job back. I probably wouldn't have even thought about going back there, if he hadn't offered to save it for me.

I turned my truck around, then headed back past the Mayor's house. I saw Megan standing in the road waving her arms. I saw her in plenty of time to stop.

"Chief, please don't be mad at momma, she's been drinking all afternoon. This thing has made her a nervous wreck."

"She didn't look nervous," I snapped. I was surprised at my own anger.

"Just promise me that you won't do anything rash until she has a chance to talk to you tomorrow," the young woman begged.

"She had better make it early in the morning. It's too late to do anything tonight anyway." I replied. "Now if you would kindly move your butt out of the road."

She was wearing a big smile when she moved to the curb. I drove home by way of the Food Lion. I debated with myself for several minutes before I bought a six-pack of fancy beer. I even tossed in a bag of nuts before I left the store.

I drank the whole six-pack before falling asleep. When sleep overcame me, I wasn\rquote t really feeling the beer, or much of anything else. I slept soundly not even waking in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.

The next morning I had a world class hangover. Hangovers like that one was the reason that I drank so seldom. I felt so poorly that I couldn't even consider cooking my own breakfast or lunch. I did manage a shower before I left the apartment headed for breakfast.

I had the door to my pick up open and about to enter when the small green ford pulled into the parking lot. I would have already been inside the truck and gone, had I not been staring at the U haul. I was trying to decide whether to begin loading it that morning, or to wait until Monday.

I noticed with slight annoyance that the driver of the small green ford was Megan, the Mayor's daughter. I stood perfectly still while she pulled into the space beside me.

"You aren't leaving town are you?" she asked.

"Not yet, I'm heading for breakfast," I replied.

"Then get in and I'll take you to breakfast," she suggested. When I didn't immediately make a move toward her car, she continued. "We really do need to talk. If you are afraid to ride with me, then I'll ride with you." Her smile was both genuine and disarming.

"Us being seen together, isn't a good idea," I replied shortly.

"Then get in and I will take you to Garnet for breakfast. We can't get a real breakfast here anyway. Sadie's doesn't open on Sunday, everything else is fast food crap."

I finally walked around her car without ever agreeing to breakfast. The car was a bitch to get into, probably because I had ridden in large cop cars or my truck for years. I almost never got inside a modern econobox.

"We need to get last night out of the way before we can begin the small talk," Megan suggested.

"Not much to get out of the way. I expect your mom to fire me any minute." I replied.

"Don't worry, she wouldn't do it on Sunday, even if she really wanted to. What is going to happen Les, you don't mind if I call you Les when we are alone do you?"

For an answer I simply shook my head. "Good, What is really going to happen is Mom is going to wait until tomorrow, then stop by to say she is sorry and hopes it won't affect your working relationship. She will say something like, 'I really shouldn't have had that second glass of wine on an empty stomach.' Then she will say I'm happy to learn that I hired a man of principle, yet one who is smart enough to know when to look the other way."

"I didn't look the other way, that was the problem," I replied.

"Well you did leave so that you didn't have to arrest anyone. That is what she is going to mean."

"I guess I better straighten her out. I don't want her to think that I am going to do less than my job."

"Les, she doesn't give a damn what you do as long as you don't rattle the wrong cage. In the mean time hang around, you might outlast her."

"How often does she do that?" I asked.

"What? have a drink before dinner." Megan asked. "Or try to throw her weight around?"

"No get drunk and act stupid," I suggested saying exactly what I meant.

"Almost every day for the drunk part, but she only acts stupid once in a while. Everyone around town just ignores her if it's after five. She doesn't usually start drinking until then."

"So aren't you a little young to be picking up after her?" I asked.

"I must not be, I have been doing it since daddy stopped," she replied.

"How long has that been?"

"Over five years now," she replied.

"So how old are you?"

"Twenty, next month."

"You have been taking care of your mother since you were fourteen?" I asked. "Aren't you ready to leave and get a life of your own?"

"It hasn't been all that bad," she said with a grin. "I've had a lot of freedom."

"How about college?" I asked.

"What about college? I never wanted to go anyway, besides the store is mine as soon as Mom retires. There is enough money in the hardware business to support me."

"Sure, but don't you want to go places, and do things?" I asked.

"I'll do that, but not just yet," she replied.

Neither of us spoke until we reached the restaurant. The restaurant proved to be one of those chrome and glass monstrosities. It would have been a diner, if it had that much class, instead it was just a simple grease pit. I ordered the largest breakfast on the menu, drinking does that to me.

Megan and I made small talk while we worked our way through the food. Megan was one of those women who can eat full meals without it winding up on her hips. It might not remain the case over the years, but it evidently was on that morning. She ordered a breakfast only slightly smaller than my own.

The conversation over breakfast stayed away from her mother and my job. We did discuss the lack of available men and entertainment in Taylortown though.

"About the only thing you can do in Taylortown, is leave. That is unless you have a partner, then there are several things I can suggest," she said with that wicked smile again.

I ignored her. I managed but it definitely was getting harder to do.

In the parking lot of the station, when she dropped me, she asked. "You aren't going to leave are you?"

"Not unless your mother fires me, or talks to me like that again," I replied.

"She isn't about to fire you, and I'll make sure she doesn't talk to you like that again."

"Can you really do that?" I asked.

"Some, but you have to understand she is likely to get drunk and talk down to you at any time. Just consider the source and ignore her."

"Now what difference could it possibly make to you?" I asked.

"For one thing I don't want momma to get into trouble for running you off, for another I like you. I want you to hang around until I can get you into bed."

Before I could answer, she left the parking lot in a cloud of dust and gravel. It was a good thing because I wouldn't have known what to say anyway. The phone was chirping as I passed through the station. I knew that the phone in the patrol car would be chirping as well, so I ignored it.

I tried to watch TV but there was nothing showing on a Sunday afternoon. When summer turned into fall there would at least be football games on the tube. I gave up on the sappy movie which was running on one of the networks. I made a mental note to call the cable company the next day. I knew that even in a small town the county's cable would be available.

Even with Megan's assurances, I didn't trash the boxes in which my few possessions had made the trip from Charlotte to Taylortown. I slept restlessly that night. I expected the Mayor to show up the first thing next morning to end my reign as police chief. I knew my short stint in Taylortown wouldn't be on my resume. I figured I could forget the job just about as fast as the mayor could forget me.

I awoke at six on Monday morning with my mind going over the possible events coming. Since there was no chance that I could return to sleep, I drove to Sadie's for breakfast. The food was swimming in grease, just the way I like it. After adding another new layer of plaque to my arteries, I returned to the station. I found Mike the fill in man waiting for me. Since he was in uniform, I assumed that he was filling in for Tommy that day.

"So chief, how's it going this morning," Mike asked with a grin. I wondered if he knew about the mayor's plans for me.

"Fine, so are you the day man?" I asked.

"Today and tomorrow," he replied with a nod of his head.

"When is the oil due for changing in the patrol cars?" I asked.

"I have no idea," he replied.

"Then go out and find the stickers. Write down the current milage and the milage on the oil change sticker." I ordered it handing him a piece of paper from the computer printer.

"Right chief," he said as he headed out the back door. He didn't act like he appreciated the job first thing in the morning. While he was gone, I booted up the computer, then created a form for the patrol officers. Might as well begin getting them used to paperwork, I thought.

I also searched the computer and the desk drawers for information. I had no earthly idea where any of the supplies were purchased. I expected that at the very least an inventory was in order. It would have been nice if I had some idea where things were stored. There didn't seem to be any surplus supplies anywhere in the building, not even a spare ballpoint pen.

I had just about finished my search of the building when Mike returned. "So Mike, how is the oil change situation?"

"It looks like the Ford is okay for another thousand miles or so, but the Buick is already over by five hundred." He didn't look real happy to be telling me about it.

"So where do you take them for the oil changes?" I asked.

"Down to Bill's Amoco," he replied.

"Well, run it on down there. If you get a call while you are there, I'll handle it."

If Mike finished that chore before the Mayor came by, I would have to find him another, I thought. I needn't have worried the mayor showed up not twenty minutes after Mike left for the service station.

"Chief," she said after she poured herself a cup of my coffee. "I just want to let you know that I am sorry about Saturday night. I really shouldn't have had that wine on an empty stomach. I hope you will forgive me."

"Nothing to forgive, we needed to have that talk someday anyway. It was probably for the best that we got it over with up as soon as we did." I said it with a great deal of relief.

When she replied, it was only after some thought. "I want you to know that I appreciate your sense of equal justice." She paused to await an answer from me. She waited in vain. "At least we understand each other. I guess I'll get back to work," she finally said.

She was almost out the door when I said, "Mayor, I am going to have a lot of questions for a while. Whom should I ask?"

"Call Laura, she knows everything about everything. She also knows where all the bodies are buried." the mayor had a very large smile on her face when she added that last part.

"One more thing Mayor where are the applications for the new patrolman?" I asked.

"I have them at the store. I'll send Megan over with them, are you going to open interviews for the new position so soon?"

"Just as soon as I can. The work schedule you have here is a nightmare. We don't have enough patrolmen to cover the town. If one of them gets sick or hurt, we are going to have to beg the Sheriff for help. We need at least one more man, five would be better," I said.

"One we can handle, five is out of the question," she replied.

"That's what I thought. We still need them, even if you won't let me have them." The last I mumbled under my breath as she walked out the door.

While I waited for Megan to bring the applications, I tried to work out a better coverage plan for the town. Without the forth patrolman it would be useless. For the foreseeable future it looked as though we were stuck with the abortion they called shift coverage in Taylortown.

I knew that I would be handling the phones and all the follow-up investigations for the town. It had always been done by the chief even though the ones before had no detective experience. It didn't matter, they were supposed to be the smartest man on the force. I expected that I would begin finding out exactly how smart that was as I read through the open case files. I planned to begin that just as soon as I found them.

Before I began taking the office apart to search for the files, Megan showed up with the half dozen applications. I thanked her while sidestepping a luncheon invitation from her. I sure as hell didn't need to be running around with a kid. It could only lead to trouble. Still, she was beautiful. I thought that last part as I watched her twitch her tail as she crossed the street. I would have bet money that she knew I was watching. It would have been a pretty safe bet that any man would have.

When I finally began reviewing the application, I found that of the half dozen only one had any cop experience. That part interested me most, an experienced cop would already have the rookie school completed. That one thing would save me about six weeks minimum and the town a ton of money. A further reading of the application revealed that the applicant was over forty years old and actually had sixteen years experience with the Greensboro Police Dept.

"Why in the world would anyone with that much experience be willing to take a huge cut in pay to come work in a tiny little town." I asked that question first to myself, then to the applicant on the phone ten minutes later.

"Look chief, I know it sounds nuts at first, but you have to see it from my point of view. I have a daughter who is fourteen years old. When I come home from work, I don't have any idea what color her hair will be. I don't mean that she has gone blonde, I am talking purple or pink. I have to get her away from her punk friends. Not only that, I have to get her into a town where she can't find any more of them. Add that to the fact that you have a first rate girl\rquote s school in your little town, and you should have an idea why I am interested," Janet Lewis admitted.

"Can you afford the cut in pay?" I asked.

"As much as you could," she said not sounding like a smart ass at all.

"How about your husband, what is he going to do here?" I asked.

"I'm divorced, almost all his child support will go to the school. I can make it on the twenty grand you pay. Just barely, but I can make it."

"Okay, then you come down for the interview just as soon as you can. When you get here, be sure you tell me that you plan to retire from the Taylortown P.D." I said with the smile obvious in my voice.

"Oh, I do intend to retire from there," her smile was equally obvious.

"So, when can I expect you?" I asked.

"Tomorrow if that's okay?"

"Make it around ten in the morning if you can," I suggested.

"Ten it is then," she replied.

It took me about half an hour to get over how good my luck seemed to be. Unless officer Lewis had a second head, I was going to hire her. Even if she had two heads, I might hire her anyway. There could be worse things than a second head. At least when people accused her of being two faced, it would be for real.

After I stopped chuckling at my own joke, I began celebrating at my lucky find. When I finished, I called Laura. I asked her a half dozen questions culminating with, "Where are the open case files?"

"Chief, I don't know if there are any open files, if there are they would most likely be in the vault under the steps to your place."

"So, how would I get inside the vault?" I asked. Laura gave me the combination to the safe just before she got another call. I walked to the vault then worked the three dials. The safe hadn't needed the combination lock, the door would have been too hard for most people to open anyway. Inside the safe I found four pistols and three manila folders. The pistols were a mishmash of weaponry. Two were .38 caliber wheel guns, one of which had a four inch barrel it was manufactured by Smith and Wesson, the other a Colt with a two inch barrel. A third pistol was a nine-millimeter automatic Saturday night special. The final pistol was a jungle green Colt .45. It was no doubt from the Viet Nam war era.

I took the three folders without even checking out the drawers of the safe. They presumably held other valuable items. "Probably evidence," I thought.

I returned to my desk to open the files. The first one I opened was a two year old murder case. I closed it without reading any farther. A two year old homicide would be almost impossible to solve, besides the Sheriff's office had taken over the investigation. In my brief scan of the file I had noted that it contained copies of the Sheriff's follow up reports.

The second file concerned an armed rubbery at the convenience store near highway one. The clerk had seen the perp jump into a car, then drive up the entrance ramp to the highway. Odds were better than a hundred to one that no one would ever find the perp. I expected that he was headed somewhere along the highway before he stopped to make a quick withdrawal at the hop-in store. Too bad he hadn't used their ATM.

The third file documented the work done by the last chief and the Sheriff's department on a grand theft auto six months before. That one I thought I might could do something with, so I read it in great detail.

I read right through lunch and well into the afternoon. I was interrupted exactly two times by phone calls. One was from a woman who had been the victim of a lawnmower theft. The second was from a man who claimed to have found a lawnmower in a ditch behind his house. It looked as though everything was going to work out just fine.

I stopped at three to have a late lunch. I arrived at Saddie's just as the owner, a fat man named Ed, was locking the door for the afternoon. If Ed made any money from the restaurant, I couldn't figure out how. He was closed or closing every time I tried to have a meal there.

I drove toward the highway. I knew that the fast food joints would be open. I went through the drive-thru for a bag of burgers and fries. I ate alone in the police station while I continued to read through the file.

The car had been stolen from the parking lot of a service station near the highway. The theft had to have occurred between midnight and five in the morning. Those were the only hours that the station was closed. The car had been left with the station for an oil change. The owner had been delayed so the car was left in the parking lot over night. When the woman arrived the next morning the car was gone.

Several thoughts ran through my mind. I called the owner of the car. After I explained my interest, she answered my one important question. "Miss Louise, did the station give you back your car keys? The report didn't say," I explained.

"I'm surprised it wasn't in the report. Whoever took my car broke into the station to get the keys from the peg board," she informed me. Miss Louise informed me that she had not recovered her car, but the insurance company had paid off on it.

"One last thing ma'am, where did you purchase your car?"

"Wake Chrysler Plymouth, why?" she asked.

"I just thought I should check to see if it was a popular model. One that professional car thieves might target." I thanked her then hung up. The officers who did the original investigation could have looked at the burglary two entirely different ways. They might have thought that the car theft was simply an after thought or they might have figured the break in was mainly to get the keys to one of the cars.

. I was still mulling it over when Eddie came into the station. Eddie picked up the keys to the second patrol car and his memo concerning the first of the changes I planned. He also asked if I had anything for him before he went on patrol. I didn't have anything for him at that moment, so I sent him off to work.

When Mike came in to check out, I asked him if he had worked the day Miss Louise's car had been stolen. He admitted that he had taken the report.

"Was anything other than her car keys taken from the station?" I asked.

"Not really, they didn't even find the safe in the floor," he replied.

"Did they try to open the cash register?" I asked.

"No, actually the sheriff's detective thought that was kind of strange," Mike admitted.

"Okay. Was there some kid, or kids who turned up missing at the same time?"

"Don't think so," he replied.

"One last question, did anyone find a car abandoned on the highway that night?" I asked.

"Lord Chief, I have no idea," he replied.

"Okay, then that's all I have for you. Mike, thanks," I said.

I was lucky enough to have the Sheriff's investigator return my call in less than half an hour. He couldn't remember whether he had checked on abandoned cars along the highway or not. That meant that he hadn't.

"Well deputy, is there anyway to go back and check now?" I asked.

"I don't see how," he admitted.

"How about the company who does the county's towing. The car I'm trying to find would have been left on the road until it was towed away."

"In that case you could check with Billy down at the Amoco. He does our tow work." the deputy suggested.

"I'll do that thanks," I said.

I explained to Billy that I had a little job for him. He was pleased until he found out it had nothing to do with him making more city or county money.

"I could check for you but it is going to take a lot of work. Unless it's real important, I would rather not waste my time." He said it in a surly voice.

"I don't know Billy, how important is the county's towing contract. I expect the Sheriff wouldn't be too happy to find that you didn't want to cooperate with the local police," I said that as calm as humanly possible.

"Are you threatening me?" he snapped.

"You can bet your ass I am," I replied.

"In that case give me a minute," he said backing down. He had been expecting me to say something else.

Five minutes later he returned to the phone. I pulled one car that month, but it was before the fifteenth." he said.

"Okay thanks," I replied hanging up before he could complain about the wasted time.

Not much information there, I thought. I pretty much dismissed all the usual theories. If some kid had taken the car, it would have shown up either in town or nearby, That is unless the kid had taken it on the lam for some reason. Since Mike didn't know of anyone missing it seemed doubtful that it was kids. The fact that there wasn't a broken down car on the highway pretty much ruled out a theft by a bad guy passing through. I was left with two more possibilities. One, some professional car thief was brought to town to heist a car. If so he had chosen Miss Louise's Chrysler. It was pretty far fetched but not impossible. The second possibility was about as far fetched but it happened once in a while. I had heard of it happening once in the mountains somewhere.

I called the dealership. I spoke with the service manager, then the salesman who had sold the Chrysler to Miss Louise. The conversations were interesting but certainly not conclusive of anything.

I called it a night without doing anything further. I became sorry about the new changes I had put into effect around three in the morning. The call for a cop had gone first to Mike's home, then as instructed he had called me. The memo had advised him that until we could hire additional patrolmen, I would fill in on dangerous calls no matter when they occurred.

It seemed that the owner of a women's boutique had driven past her store. She drove past her store often on her way home from a social engagement. She thought she saw a light moving inside the building so she drove around to the rear. There she found a strange car and the rear door open. She pulled out of the parking lot as quietly as possible, then called Mike on her cell phone.

Mike immediately called me even before he dressed. I dressed quickly since the owner was sitting around the corner from her store. She was watching the entrance to the parking lot. That had been her idea, I certainly didn't want a citizen trying to stop a break in. I especially didn't want to explain a woman being killed, or worse yet her doing my job.

I should have picked up a pistol from the vault, but it didn't even occur to me. I did stop in the station long enough to pick up my steel flashlight. Since it was only two blocks, I quickly walked toward the boutique. I arrived on the scene before Mike. I was forced to pass a car with a rather attractive woman sitting behind the wheel. I probably scared hell out of her when I spoke.

"Has your man come out yet?" I asked.

"Who the hell are you?" She asked pointing a tiny automatic pistol at me.

"Take it easy with that thing. I am the new chief of police," I replied.

"Well don't just stand here go in after the burglar before he damages anything," she snapped at me.

"Lady, just hold on, Mike will be here any second. When he comes, we will both go in after your burglar."

"Why don't you go on in yourself?" she asked.

"Because your man may be armed. If he is, then I want someone there to kill him. That is after he kills me." I tried to smile at her. Besides which he will just run out the front when he hears me come in the back."

"Oh," was all she could say.

Mike pulled up just as she finished. "Mike," I said. "You go in the rear, if the owner will give me her key, I will go in through the front. Be careful that you don't shoot me. Let me go first, he should take off toward you when he hears me rattle the door." Mike was smart enough to simply nod.

I had no idea what I would do if the burglar tried to run over me, especially if he were armed with more than a flashlight.

As I expected when he heard me opening the front door, he took off for the rear one. Mike was waiting for him at the door. Mike grabbed the young man who was in his late teens. "Are you alone?" Mike asked.

"Yeah," the kid replied.

"I got him Chief," Mike shouted back into the building.

A couple of seconds later I was standing beside Mike. "You know this kid?" I asked.

"Sure, he is Jesse Logan\rquote s boy, Willie."

I nodded. "Okay kid, empty your pockets onto the hood of the car and be careful. I would hate to see Mike put a hole in your ass by accident."

The only thing of interest in his pocket was a small .22 revolver. I nodded for Mike to take it. "Mike, get your evidence bags, and place that into one of them." Mike looked at me as though I were nuts. "You do have bags in your car, don't you?"

"No we call the sheriff when we got evidence to secure. The sheriff's lab guy comes out."

"Then go inside and get a bag from the check out counter." I said disgustedly to Mike. I was mad at myself, since I hadn't checked out the contents of the patrol cars.

I turned my attention to the kid. "Kid before we take you to jail, tell me what you did inside there. We are going to find out anyway, so don't bother to lie."

The kid's voice trembled as he spoke. "I broke open the strong box, then the cash register."

"Crap kid, how much money did you get from the register?" I asked.

"None, it was empty," he admitted.

"How did you break into it?"

"With a tire iron," he replied hanging his head.

"Mike, get the owner to take a look around. Don't let her touch anything until the Sheriff's lab guy get's here. When she has taken a look around and you know exactly what the damages are, you take the kid to the county lock up. I'll wait for the lab guy. And Mike, print this kid twice, then bring me the second card."

Mike hurried off to get the owner while I waited with the kid. "You know kid even with all the stupid things you did tonight, you were smart enough not to try to use that pistol. If you had, your life would have really turned to crap." The kid didn't even try to answer.

A couple of minutes later Mike returned. "Let me get Willie out of here," he said quickly.

"Why?" I asked.

"Sandy will be here any minute and she is a real pissed. I don't have time to explain but you are going to hear it first hand. I just don't want her to kill the kid."

"Okay, Mike on the way to Garnet read the kid his Miranda warning. Don't even bother to question him tonight. I'll talk to him tomorrow."

"You don't want me to call the Sheriff's detectives?" Mike asked.

"Not any more," I replied. Mike simply nodded.

"Where is that stupid son of a bitch?" the attractive redhead asked.

"You mean Willie?" I asked.

"Yeah, the ass who ruined my thousand dollar cash register," Sandy demanded.

"He's gone but you know that you share some of the blame?" I asked.

"How so?" she snapped.

"Why in the world would you close an empty register. Almost everyone else leaves the drawer open when there is no money in it," I suggested.

"I'll know better next time, but that won't help me now, will it?"

"I guess not. Do you reckon the kid's parents have the money to reimburse you?"

"I don't know," she said thinking hard about it.

"Just in case call the DA tomorrow and make sure that reimbursement is part of any plea bargain. With a little luck someone will want to keep the kid out of prison bad enough to pay you for the register."

"Thanks chief, that is a good idea," she said more calmly.

I saw her looking at me while we waited for the crime lab van to arrive. The van deposited the short, glasses wearing, light in the ass deputy in the parking lot. \ldblquote So what you got?\rdblquote he asked tentatively. It was obvious that he didn't know me and was a little unsure of himself.

"I'm the new police chief here. I would really appreciate it if you were to make pictures and take prints of everything around. By the way what's your name?" I asked.

"Deputy Hanover," he said simply.

"Okay Deputy Hanover, would you please use the grey powder rather than the lamp black. This is the owner and I'm sure she would appreciate it." It was my way of telling him that the owner was okay and didn't need to be punished. Punishment would have been the use of the black powder. The lampblack is lightweight and manages to get itself into everything. Most of her stock would have been ruined if he spread that crap around.

"Anything special you want me to look at?" he asked with a conspirator's smile. He knew that I had been around the block a time or two from the powder remark.

"He went in this door, then opened a cash box and the register, if you can pull prints from those areas, it would be a great help to me. Also there is a tire iron inside, I sure would like to find a print or two on it."

"You want to send it to the FBI lab to match to the register and box?" he asked to impress Sandy more than anything else.

"No this isn't exactly the crime of the century," I smiled at him. "Would you drop it all by the station tomorrow?" I asked.

"Either that or you can send someone for it," he replied.

"Either one is fine," I admitted having forgotten that he didn't work for me. He had gently reminded me. Deputy Hanover turned into the building, I turned toward the parking lot and began to walk.

"Chief? Where are you going?" Sandy asked.

"Home and then to bed," I replied.

"Could I give you a ride?" she asked.

"It's only a couple of blocks," I replied.

"To tell you the truth chief, I am far too excited to sleep. I was hoping I could convince you to buy me a cup of coffee," she suggested.

I almost said no. If coffee led to anything more, I could wind up in a jam. I, sure as hell didn't need a girlfriend and I didn't think Sandy wanted a one night stand. Even if she did, it wouldn't look good if anyone found out.

I went through all of that and more in a split second. The decision to take Sandy to coffee was only made after I worked through the final argument. If the mayor or town council wanted me gone, they would find or manufacture a reason so why should I deny myself the companionship or whatever else Sandy was offering.

"Okay, but we are going to have to get someone out to fix that door," I replied.

"Hell, just have the deputy prop it closed with the trash can. I doubt that there will be anyone else around, but if there is the insurance company can just pay for their damage to.

Coffee turned out to be just that, coffee in the Waffle House restaurant just outside Garnet. I got my first really good look at Sandy inside the restaurant. Sandy Lawrence was tall for a woman, probably five nine or ten. I would never have guessed her age from our conversation in the car. In the bright light of the breakfast house, I guessed her age to be closer to forty than thirty. With her brown eyes I suspected that the hair color came from a beauty salon. Her only fault, and it was minor, was a slight over bite. All in all she was a very attractive woman. I considered myself lucky that she wasn't as young as I had thought upon our first meeting. I hell didn't need a love sick kid tagging after me. Not that I expected our coffee to be anything more than a way for her to reassure herself that the danger had passed. Women had a way of wanting a man around as long as they felt even slightly threatened.

Sandy proved to be a pretty fair conversationalist, if not too terribly bright. She didn't get the store because she was brilliant. She got it because she married, then divorced well. Her husband had made her a parting gift of the boutique. "He had a great deal of prompting from my lawyer," she informed me.

"That sounds absolutely reasonable to me. But tell me how can you make any money in a town as small as Taylortown?" I asked.

"Are you kidding? The towns folks have to buy their clothes somewhere," she remarked.

"I would have expected them to drive into Garnet to the Wal-mart," I remarked.

"That's true enough for the older folks like us, but the kids and the young women want something better. At least enough of the locals, and the lawn mower plant employees do. Besides I get a hell of a lot of Alimony. I really don't give a damn how the store does."

I knew at that moment that I had nothing to worry about from Sandy. She didn't want to marry, or do anything else permanent with me. Her alimony was my lifeline as well as hers.

Sandy dropped me at the station with a promise to see me again when she didn't have to work the next day. She explained that she wouldn't be getting much sleep after she returned home. She also stated that with a little luck, her customers wouldn't notice that she had the look of a woman who had been laid only hours before the store opened.

I figured that her statement had more to do with her date. Than anything that had happened since. I also felt her date before she discovered the burglar, than more to do with her leaving me hanging than what her customers might think. In other words 'never twice in the same night.' "I'll be expecting to hear from you," I said with a smile as I walked away from her short goodnight kiss.

My clock radio awoke me the next morning at nine. It took me a few minutes to remember where I was and why I had set the clock. Ordinarily I might not have. I did manage to shower, dress and down two cups of coffee before Janet Lewis arrived. Janet Lewis turned out to be an attractive woman slightly under forty. She wore her thick brown hair in one of those short sports cuts. Her brown hair slipped down over her brown eyes, which were set above her slightly too long nose. When she opened her smallish mouth, she revealed perfectly shaped though cigarette stained teeth. She was an average height but extremely thin. I immediately had my doubts about her. Her lack of bulk worried me some. It took me a couple of minutes to realize that surviving in a town as tough as Greensboro required something. Maybe she had used her brains to replace the forty pounds she would have needed to handle drunks effectively. Then again, she might have avoided the rough and tumble patrol division.

"Chief Early, I am sure glad to meet you," she said as she extended her hand.

"If you are Janet Lewis, then I am happy to meet you too," I replied with a smile.

"That's me, so when do I start?" she asked.

"How long were you in the patrol division?\rdblquote I asked it without answering her question.

"Five years before I transferred to the juvys," she informed me.

"You spent eleven years as a kiddie cop?" I asked.

"No, I did another five years as a traffic cop," she admitted.

"So what did you like best?" I asked.

'Traffic," she replied without any hesitation.

"Now why in the world would you like traffic?" I asked.

"Traffic isn't as dull as patrol, and not as noisy as working with a bunch of kids," she replied smiling at me again.

I spoke with her for a long time before I decided to hire her. I explained everything to her carefully before I committed either of us to a deal. Finally I asked, "So now you know it all, are you still interested?"

"Chief I explained on the phone why I wanted the job, nothing you have said seems much different from the Greensboro PD. So when can I start?" she asked.

"Any time you want," I suggested.

"Well you know how it is with the cops, I can blow out anytime I want. Nobody want me skating over a two week notice. In traffic we don't exactly have open cases to inform other cops about. I can probably be here by Monday."

"Why don't you go down to the city hall and talk to Laura about a place to live. She might know of something for rent or sale which ever you want," I suggested.

"I saw lots of empty houses on the way into town, I'm sure there will be something," she informed me.

"Okay, then I'll see you for the day shift on Monday. I want you to spend a few days riding with someone, then you can go out and keep the streets safe for the straight Johns," I said it with a grin.

"Fair enough," she replied as she turned for the door.

I spent several hours worried about her physical size. In the end I decided that if she got her butt kicked, it would be her own fault. She knew what the job entailed when she applied for it. Just as soon as I absolved myself of her situation, I went back to work on Miss Louise's stolen car.

I was actually too tired to do more than review the file and my notes, after a couple of hours I gave up and went to lunch. Sadie's was full but I managed to find a table. I ordered and almost got started when I was joined by Sandy Lawrence.

"I meant to call to invite you to lunch one day next week," she said pulling up a chair. "This will have to do."

She didn't even wait for an invitation, she just plopped her pretty butt into the chair. "So did you call the magistrate about the restitution?" I asked.

"I most certainly did. He agreed to add it into any plea bargain. Thank you again for suggesting it," she said with a warm smile.

"Should I wait for you?" I asked pointing toward my fish brick.

"Don't bother, I am just going to have a salad. Have to watch my figure you know," she giggled like a girl, a forty year old girl.

"I don't know why you are pretty thin already," I remarked.

"Is that criticism?" she asked. "Besides it's called chic.\rdblquote

"If you say so, to me you look like you could use a good meal," I suggested.

"Is that an offer? If it is, I accept as long as the meal isn't here." There was no satisfactory answer to that, so I didn't even try. "You're supposed to say yes and ask when is good for me," she continued.

"Okay, so when is good for you?" I asked.

"I'll have to think about that. I'll call you later in the week," she promised.

I nodded while I continued to eat. I noticed Megan enter the diner. She took one look at me and Sandy, then made a face at me. A second later she broke into a smile. I watched her make her way to a table at the end of the dining room.

I finished my meal quickly then left the restaurant immediately. I left Sandy moving her salad around with a fork. I left so quickly I didn't even have an after dinner cigarette. I just ran like hell. Why I have no idea, unless it was male's instinctive thing..

When I returned to the station, I couldn't keep my eyes open. Around three I gave up. I had a bad case of foot drag as I climbed the stairs for a nap. It felt like I had been asleep only a few minutes when someone banged on my door. The banging wouldn't stop so I shouted "Hold on a minute." I slipped into a pair of slacks then stumbled to the door.

I opened the door to Mike. "Damn Mike, what the hell are you doing here?"

"Jesse Logan, Willie's dad cornered me on the way into work today. He sprung Willie last night."

"So?" I asked.

"He wants to set up a meet with you," Mike explained.

"Why?" I asked.

"I think he wants to get his kid out of the mess he's in."

"Hell Mike, did you tell him the kid wouldn't do any time? He's a first offender, all he has to do is to pay for the damages. It wouldn't hurt if he behaved himself in court. Other than that, he is scott free. He might do a little probation but nothing else."

"I tried to tell him that but he wants to hear it from you," Mike replied.

"Okay, I'll call him after I've had a couple of hours sleep," I tried get away with the lame promise.

"Chief, he's down in the station now."

"Crap," I said disgustedly. "Hold on while I get a shirt."

When I joined the three of them in the station, I asked Mike to start a fresh pot of coffee while the two Mr. Logans and I got to know each other. Jesse Logan was a mechanic for a truck repair garage outside of town. Willie had graduated high school and begun work in the Lawn Mower plant. He worked on the dock loading the completed lawnmowers onto trucks. Willie actually had little to say. I did notice a couple of bruises on his face, but I didn't mention them. I figured he got them in jail the night before.

Mike finally brought the coffee. "So Mr. Logan, exactly what is it that I can do for you? Mike said he explained the probable course of events for Willie."

"Look Chief, I watch TV I know how pleas work. Willie here has something to trade for your help in working out a plea," he replied.

"So what does Willie expect to buy for his information?" I asked. "Only the DA can make a deal."

"I know that, but the DA will go along with what you say," the father demanded.

"Within reason, I expect he would," I suggested.

"I don't want Willie to have no felony record," he replied.

"Hold on there, you aren't suggesting we just forget the whole thing are you? Because if you are, we are wasting each other's time."

"Willie will plead guilty to something other than a felony," the older man suggested.

"How about criminal trespass?" I suggested.

"If it's not a felony, we will go for that," Jesse Logan agreed.

"There are two conditions for me to make that recommendation. One, he has to pay for the damage to Miss Williams' store, and he will have to have something worth the trade."

"Is your word any good?" Logan asked.

"Probably better than Willie's," I suggested.

The senior Mr. Logan thought a few minutes then turned to Willie, "Tell him son."

Willie didn't look as though he wanted to talk. Finally he began. "I work out at the lawn mower plant. Last summer I worked on the loading dock."

After a long pause, I finally asked, "So?"

"Well chief, there is something mighty wrong out there." He waited for me to ask again. I didn't. I simply waited him out. It might have gone on like that all day if his father hadn't slapped him up side the head.

"Get on with it son," he demanded.

Willie continued, "Everyday, when we left at five, all the boxes were stacked in the shipping room waiting for the trucks. The trucks came in every morning to pick up the mowers from the day before." He paused again.

"Get on with it," his father demanded.

"One day I ran into the edge of a cardboard box with a fork lift. I was scared they would fire me, so I hid the box behind some of the others. The next day when I went to load it on the truck, the box wasn't dented no more."

It took me a minute to understand. In a town as small as Taylortown, it was the closest thing to a mystery that Willie could think of. "So what, somebody came in after hours and moved the boxes around. Either that or you forgot where you hid it," I suggested.

"No way chief, the plant is locked up tight at night. Nobody works after five, it is a hard fast rule out there. They hate to pay overtime. As for forgetting where I hid the box, the lawn mower plant is the only decent job in town, I wouldn't forget a problem like that. No sir, that box just disappeared."

"It ain't much Willie, but I am going to try to get you probation. You still owe me one though. Cause this just ain't enough"

After they had gone Mike asked, "What do you make of that?"

"Nothing, Willie is a little light in his load. I expect, he just plain forgot where the box was hidden." I said it, but the small town sized mystery floated around in the back of my head.

Time moved rather quickly for the next few days. I stayed busy trying to get things organized to bring the Taylortown PD into the new age, which was the reason for my employment. The mayor wanted a modern police presence in town. Not only did she want a department which acted professional and modern, she wanted her cops to look modern.

Gone were the wool and polyester uniforms. Well not quite gone but on the way out. Just as soon as the new custom-made shirts arrived, the uniform was going to be changed.

The new shirts were cotton knit golf type shirts. The badge as well as the town's logo was embroidered over the breast pocket. The new uniform slacks were simply tan cotton twill pants. Ones that could easily be purchased at the K mart, which was what the mayor had in mind, I'm sure.

The shirts had arrived by UPS on Friday. I ordered our three officers to begin wearing them on Monday morning. When he arrived for work on Monday morning, I was surprised to find that Tommy looked pretty good in his shirt. I frankly had expected everyone to look fat and sloppy in the knit.

"Damn Tommy, you look pretty sharp," I said as he entered the door bringing a bag filled with last nights donuts.

"I don't know chief, it feels funny to be walking around with less than fifty pounds of uniform on my body. I feel almost naked."

"I suppose so," I agreed.

"What am I going to do with the old tin shield?" He asked as he held his badge for me to see.

I opened the drawer to my desk. From it I removed a piece of leather with belt holes. "Pen it to this, then wear it on your belt near your pistol. We don't want anyone to get the idea that you aren't still a cop." I said it with the understanding that the embroidered badge might not convince many people.

"God that feels better." Tommy said once he had the badge attached to his belt.

"We are going to have a new officer starting today." I saw his curious look. "I didn't say anything before, just in case it didn't work out."

"So who is the new man?" he asked.

I couldn't have timed it any better had I tried. "I am the new man," Janet Lewis said as she entered the front door. She walked right up to Tommy, then extended her hand to him.

Tommy looked almost shocked as he shook her tiny hand. Seeing the two of them together made me wonder again about hiring so small a woman. I simply shrugged at Tommy's questioning look. "Tommy, this is Janet. She is going to be riding with you for a couple of days. See if you can find her a map of the streets, such as they are."

"Sure Chief," he answered. "I need to get the tire fixed on the ford, you want us to wait for it or just leave the thing?"

Why don't you take it on down and wait? Janet has some paperwork to fill out. You can pick her up when you have it ready." I replied.

Tommy left with the ford while Janet filled in her tax forms and insurance policy information. When the paper work was completed, Janet spent a few minutes telling me about her daughter. I really didn't have any interest at all. I listened carefully and tried to file the information into my permanent memory. All the management courses stressed the importance of remembering the details of your employee\rquote s lives. I thought it was a load of crap, but I intended to do everything in my power to be a good chief of police.

Thank God Tommy came to my rescue before I went to sleep. I knew that her kid's problems were the most important thing in her life, but they bored me to tears. I was grateful to find myself alone. I spent a couple of minutes reviewing my proposed work schedule. I would have spent several more minutes had the duty phone not rang. The call I receive had not been routed from 911, instead it came directly from the Taylor Academy for Young Women.

"Chief, my name is Edgar Willis," The voice of an older man stated. "I wonder if you could come out to the Academy. It seems one of our girls has had a bit of trouble."

He didn't sound very excited, but I had a feeling it was some kind of reserve thing. He seemed somehow agitated, though I couldn't really put a finger on it. "Sir, what is your position at the school?" I asked it since I wanted to know that he had the authority to call. One of the underling teachers might not have the authority to call in the cops.

"I am the headmaster," he replied haughtily.

"Very well, I'll be out just as soon as possible," I replied. Before I did anything else, I called Tommy. I arranged for him to meet me at the academy. I wanted Janet with me when I interviewed the victim.

As we walked into the building Janet said, "How in the world did you get along without me? I mean this is my first day after all."

"Get along hell, I was going to ask why you brought this big city crap with you."

When we entered what had to be the main building, we found the administration office on our right. I asked for the headmaster immediately.

The woman, who might have been as old as the building, led us into a rear office. Once inside the door I said, "Mr. Willis, I'm Chief Early."

"I know who you are. We almost met at the Mayor's cookout."

I couldn't think of an answer so I nodded. "I brought Officer Lewis along." I noted his questioning look. It is always better if a woman speaks with a rape victim. If not that, then at least it is good to have a woman in the room."

"Do you want me to send for Lois?" he asked.

"You didn't leave her alone did you?"

"Of course not, she is with Miss. Amos one of the teachers," he admitted.

"Good, she shouldn't be alone. Rape victims have been known to commit suicide," Janet informed the headmaster.

"I didn't think you offered summer school?" Janet asked.

"We don't really, but some of the students have no where to go. We do kind of a summer babysitting thing." He said it with a sheepish grin, as he dialed a number. He said a couple of words into the phone after a few seconds wait.

A couple of minutes later what must have been the teacher came in accompanied by the victim. I knew I was getting old, when I realized that the two of them looked almost the same age.

"Lois, I am Chief Lester and this is officer Lewis," I informed her.

She nodded. I couldn't tell much from her demeanor, but it didn't seem just right. I looked at Janet. I was pretty sure even then that she had caught the same vibes from the girl.

"Mr. Willis, could you and Mrs. Amos leave us alone for a few minutes. Janet and I need to speak with Lois alone."

Both of them looked worried but relieved to be leaving the room. I waited until they had gone. "First of all Lois I need to ask a few questions. Now don't take anything I say personally. We simply need the information to help us catch the creeps who raped you." I studied her while I spoke. She was acting upset, which was the point. I felt that she was acting.

"Now Lois, tell us how it happened," Janet said as she interrupted me.

"I was taking a walk last night around eight. I was down near the student center when someone grabbed me from behind. He forced me into a car. There were three of them. While one held me down, another raped me. When he finished, they traded." I noted with some concern that she was dry eyed, though she looked down at the floor.

"You say this happened around eight?" She nodded. "So what time did they bring you home?"

"I got back here around nine this morning," she replied nervously.

"So where were you kept between the rape and this morning?" I asked.

"They just drove around all night. Every so often one of them would rape me." I noted that she still wasn't crying.

"What kind of car was it?"

"An old Camero," she replied.

I pressed her for a description of the car and the three men. She was pretty vague about the men but described the car as old blue and dented.

"Did they say anything that might help us identify them? You know like call each other by name?" Lois just shook her head.

"Janet, why don't you drive Lois to the hospital. Have them do a complete exam. Make absolutely sure they prepare a rape kit."

"Sure thing chief, are you going to wait here for us?"

"No, I'm going to ask a few more questions around here then I will call Tommy for a ride back to the station. We can talk when you finish at the hospital."

Janet nodded. "Come on Lois, there is plenty to do before we finish. While we are driving to the hospital, maybe you can come up with a better description of the men." They were almost out of the room when Janet asked. "Where is the hospital anyway?"

"I know," Lois said brightly before she caught herself.

"Good, then you show her the way," I suggested.

After the two of them had gone, I began questioning the staff. I found Mr. Willis less than helpful. I wasn't sure whether it was purposeful or from his ignorance of the students. Mrs. Amos was much more helpful. That is once I got her away from Willis.

"Lois is one of our troubled girls. We take a few of them every year. You know we are trying to help them straighten out their lives. I'm afraid we haven't been entirely successful with Lois."

"Is it possible that Lois made this up?" I asked.

"I don't know. I do know that she was out all night. I just don't know for sure what she was doing. I mean it could be like she said. I would hate to accuse her of making it up, if she really was raped."

"Officer Lewis is pretty sharp, maybe she will come up with something," I suggested. I said it and I hoped I was right. I actually knew very little about Lewis. Her last boss had given her a great reference but that didn't mean much. Bosses often did that just to get rid of a looser.

Tommy came a few minutes after my call. I changed my mind. I had him drive me to the hospital rather than to the office. The hospital was in Garnet, so I got my first look at the changes there. Garnet had always been the big sister to Taylortown. Even though it had stagnated around the edges, it remained larger. The hospital was housed in a building at leave fifty years old. Outside it looked more like a mental hospital than a modern medical facility. Inside it just looked tired. The stainless steel equipment carts looked terribly out of place parked along the drab institutional green plaster walls.

I found Janet standing outside the emergency room doors. "So how's our victim?" I asked not letting my suspicions show.

"Lois is dressing at the moment. She really isn't a victim though. She rolled over just as soon as I explained that the doctor could tell whether it was rape or fun. I also explained about filing a false police report."

"In other words you scared hell out of her," I suggested.

"Something like that, anyway she caved in. What really happened is that she was walking off a tantrum when the three wetbacks drove by. They made a few remarks in Spanish. Lois gave them that old come hither stare. They did and the rest is history," Janet informed me.

"Good work, I don't suppose she told you where they spent the night?"

"Actually she did. She took them to a basement room. It seems that the girls go there to smoke. It was probably a janitor\rquote s lounge or something."

"Tommy is parking the car right now. When he comes in, I'll have him drive me back to the station. You take the kid to the school. Have her show you the room. If it looks worthwhile have the Sheriff's crime lab work it."

"Right Chief," Janet replied.

"What?" I asked sensing she had something else to say.

"Lois said the boys didn't speak any English at all," she said thoughtfully.

"So?" I asked.

"So what were they doing driving a car? They couldn't get a license unless they could speak a little English. I asked her if they seemed well to do. You know like maybe visitors from another country. She told me they seemed like poor kids."

"Okay, I'll check to see if the car was reported stolen. I'll also check to see if we have any wetbacks in the area." I replied.

"Would you wait until I can be there? I need to know who to call for information," she suggested.

"Sure, you shouldn't be too much longer," I said it as I nodded toward Lois while she walked through the emergency room door.

"Okay, then I'll see you at the station." Janet said it loud enough for Lois to hear.

I headed out the door. I met Tommy on the steps. "Come on Tommy, we are going to the station after all."

"Okay chief, but we need to make a stop along the way. Somebody broke into the pool hall last night. Damn things are really hopping around here."

"I hope this isn't a sign of things to come," I replied with a tired smile.

"Are you kidding, we needed a little excitement around here." Tommy had been a small cop too long. Most people on a large police force hated the activity, that is unless they were rookies. Somehow rookies got into almost all the trouble. Hell, they went looking for it.

The pool hall was a small two-story building which set just outside the downtown. When we entered the building, I noted that it was pretty well lit. Tommy assured me that the building was normally darker than any dungeon. How he knew the light level of a dungeon, I didn't ask.

"Norm, what the hell happened?" Tommy asked.

"Somebody sprung the back door," Norm replied from behind the bar. Norm was a heavy set guy. Just twenty pounds from being fat. He appeared to be solid but not especially muscular. I guessed his age at forty or so.

"So. what did they get?" Tommy asked.

"Beer and cigarettes, You the new chief?" he asked looking up at me.

"Yeah, So how much beer and how many cigarettes?" I asked.

"Couple of cases of Bud, and all the cigarettes. I figure it was kids."

"Why is that?" I asked.

"There was a hell of a lot of beer they didn't take," he said simply.

"You figure they got all they wanted for one night?" I asked.

"Beer yeah, cigarettes are worth more than beer these days. They can probably sell the cigarettes to some other kids."

"Norm is there any sense bringing the crime lab over. I mean, have you cleaned up?" Tommy asked.

"Of course I cleaned up. You ain't going to do nothing. Hell this is about the fifth time I been broke into in this last year. Hell Tommy, you don't ever do anything." Norm said it angrily.

"Norm, what time do you close?" I asked.

"We stop selling beer at two, I let the guys finish their game. I got out of here this morning around four. I stayed to clean up before I went home."

I nodded, then left the room while Tommy finished up his report. I was standing behind the building when Tommy came looking for me.

"So chief, what you thinking?" he asked.

"We might be headed for a real crime spree," I said grinning at him. "Just kidding Tommy." I had to add the last because he just looked too damned happy.

"You're thinking the wetbacks did this?" he asked.

"Tommy, are there any migrant workers in the county?"

"None that I know of. There isn't all that much farming in the county anymore. You might ask the Sheriff, but I swear I don't know of any.

"Well let's get back to the office and do just that."

"No chief, there wasn't no car thefts reported this morning, and I don't know of any Spanish speaking families in the area. Our migrant workers won't be getting here for a couple of months."

"So you do have migrant workers in the county?" I asked.

"Ten or twenty come in every year for the harvest. That won't be here for a couple of months."

"Any chance a few came in early?" I asked.

"Not a chance, they work as a crew. They pick in the Midwest first, then come here before moving on to Florida. Besides, I would have heard if any or them were here. They come by to register before they begin work. Even if they didn't, someone would have seen them and called. Why all the questions anyway?"

"Oh we got a call about a couple of Spanish kids, but I think the complainant was mistaken," I replied.

"Whoever it was must have been," he said.

"Well thanks for the information," I replied.

"Right," he said as he hung up on me.

"Chief, I don't think Lois was lying about the kids being Spanish speaking," Janet suggested.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Why would she? I mean, I broke her down about everything else. What she copped to was the worst. No, she would have told the straight of it."

"Maybe not, she might be lying to keep them out of trouble. They may have plans to meet again."

"Maybe, but I knew when she was lying about the rape. I didn't get the same feeling about the boys," Janet informed me.

Since there is no way to shake a woman's intuition, I kept quiet. I accepted the keys to the patrol car, as she turned to the door. She and Tommy were headed out to finish the day\rquote s patrol. I kicked it around in my head for a while, then gave up on it. I knew I would return to it several times each day for next few days at least.

Rather than sit around the office trying not to think about the fake rape, I drove to Miss Louise's small frame house. I knew what had happened to her car, I just didn't know exactly who had done it.

It had been a hard lesson to learn, but I had learned. The lesson was to get all the information possible before making any accusations. As usual I was glad that I did. Miss Louise turned out to be a good Baptist woman of near fifty. Her house was filled with religious pictures and icons. Not only did she talk the talk, she genuinely seemed to believe what she said. It was hard for me to think of her as a suspect.

The answer came when her brother arrived for lunch. Miss Louise informed me that her brother came every day. Her brother owned a small landscape business. She informed me of all that while she fixed his lunch. I noted that her brother James was extremely nervous.

James ate quickly, then walked hurriedly out the back door. I walked out the front in time to see him drive away. I followed after him until we were outside the neighborhood. I turned on the light for a traffic stop.

"What you want chief?" He asked it while sweating profusely.

"James, get out of the truck. We need to have a little talk."

"I ain't done nothin'," he suggested.

"Sure you have James. I know you did it and I know why. James there was a better way," I informed him.

I was afraid he might no get it but I was wrong. He stood erect as if to resist then slumped as he said, "No there weren't, I tried talkin' to those people. They wouldn't give Sissy her money back. They kept tellin' me that she knowed what she was doin' when she bought that car. Chief she saved her money for five years to buy a new car. That damned car weren't no good atall. Sissy had it worked on at the dealers a dozen time, but it just weren't no good. I told her to take it to our mechanic. He called and told me he couldn't do nothing with it. Sissy don't know nothin' about this." He was rushing to get it all out.

"Don't tell me anything else. If that car ever shows up, we are going to finish this talk." I said honestly.

It took him a few seconds to figure out what I had said. "Don't you worry none Chief, I hear that car had a good Christian burial, even though it didn't deserve it.\rdblquote The man finally said with a smile.

"One more thing James, don't ever do anything like this again. If you do anything at all, I am going to throw this into the mix. You do understand?"

"I understand," he replied. He stood watching me while I returned to the patrol car. I drove away leaving him standing by his old pick up truck. I hated to let him off, but then again everybody has had at least one lemon in their life.

I drove directly to Sadie's Diner. Lunch for me was a lot less appealing than the one James had eaten. I was into my foot long hot dog, when Megan came into the restaurant. She noticed me even though I made no attempt to get her attention.

"Well hello chief, we haven't seen much of you lately. I suppose you are too busy to visit these days." I could tell there was an edge to her voice.

"As a matter of fact things are getting right busy," I replied.

"I'll just bet they are," she said turning away. She had the look of a jealous woman about her.

I was forced to remind myself again that she was just a child. Even so she was awfully pretty. Too bad she was so young or maybe it was too bad that I was so old.

Sandy came to my mind as I drove to the station. I hadn't spoken to her in a couple of days. I gave her a call when I got inside the station. In the quick call I arranged to have dinner with her the next evening. I spent the remainder of the early afternoon trying to figure out where the Spanish speaking kids could have come from.

"Eddie do you know any Spanish speaking families around here," I asked my second shift cop when he arrived for work.

"Not a one, why?" he asked.

I explained about the phony rape. After a few more comments, we sat quietly until time for him to begin his patrol. Since Tommy and Janet hadn't returned he took the second patrol car out. He had been gone only a few minutes when Janet and Tommy arrived.

"So chief, you figure out who we are looking for?" Tommy asked.

"In which case? You two had a busy morning," I replied.

"I was talking about the pool hall. There was no rape, so there is no case there," he suggested.

"Sure there was," Janet said sharply. "That girl was under the age of consent."

"Only if she was a virgin," I replied. "Between the age of fourteen and sixteen, it's only a crime the first time."

"Not true chief, sixteen is the age of consent."

"You couldn't get a prosecutor to change anyone unless the man was over thirty. Then you might get a charge, but I doubt it even then. Unless she said no, it isn't going to be a crime."

"Well it should be," she replied.

"Come on Janet, according to her, they were just kids. I don't think they should be doing it, but it ain't against the law."

"Like I said, it should be." Janet said it as she walked purposefully from the office.

"What the hell got into her," Tommy asked.

"Her daughter is about the same age as Lois," I didn't tell him that her daughter had been in trouble back in Greensboro.

"Well I guess I'll be headed home. You going to do anything about the pool hall break in?"

"Not tonight, why you got any ideas?" I asked.

"Not a one, I expect something else will get broke into. That's how it goes, I expect it is kind a like drugs stealin' is habit forming like that."

"Could be Tommy, it does look like when we catch someone, they have been into a dozen places," I agreed.

"Sometimes more than that," he replied with a grin.

"You don't think Willie was into this one, do you?" I asked.

"No way chief, I called his daddy first thing. Willie ain't left home since his old man bailed him out. His old man said, he didn't want to risk his deal with you."

"I guess it don't hurt nothing for him to think he has a deal." I said it feeling a little bad about the almost lie. Even though I hadn't actually promised him a deal, it did stink just a little bit.

I tried to ease my mind by telling myself that the information I traded for was useless. I had given him nothing and he gave me nothing. It was a fair trade I expected.

After Tommy left me alone at the station I gave some thought to calling Sandy. I also gave some thought to going out to dinner alone. In the end I did neither, instead I got a call from the Mayor.

"Chief, you and I need to have a little talk, how about you come to dinner tonight," the Mayor suggested.

"Sure why not, what time?" I asked.

"Megan will be gone after six. How about seven thirty," she suggested.

"Seven thirty is fine." My interest in the dinner dropped considerably when the Mayor informed that Megan would be gone. I hoped it was because I didn't want to be alone with the mayor, rather than any desire to see Megan.

I killed the time until seven working on reports. I read then rewrote both Janet and Tommy's reports. I put them in their new message boxes. Might as well try to get their paperwork straightened out from the get go.

When seven o'clock arrived, I headed for the Mayor's house. I had no idea what to expect. Megan had told me that she began drinking immediately after work. I could only hope she had worked late. I really didn't feel up to battling a drunk. Especially one I had reason to believe was a mean drunk.

"Chief," the mayor said greeting me at the door. "Come on in. Dinner will be ready in a few minutes. I hope you like pork chops?"

"I like them just fine," I replied trying to gauge her mood. She seemed to be just fine.

"Good, would you like a drink. I know you don't drink and drive, but surely a glass of wine wouldn't be too much."

"Sorry Mayor but I can't. I am on still on duty," I replied.

"My God, did I force you to work twenty-four hours a day?" she asked smiling.

"No ma'am but right now we don't have enough people to cover dangerous calls. I just told all the others to call me if they needed help."

"You don't have to do that do you?" she asked.

"I don't want to get one of them hurt because we don't have enough officers."

A change seemed to come over her as she snapped, "Is that supposed to be my fault. One additional officer is the best I can do. Actually that is money that should have gone into more utility workers. At least a utility worker creates more money for the city. A cop is an outflow with no return."

I began getting angry. "I'll have that to tell my cops the next time they take a gun away from a drunk."

"You do that. Truth is that it costs the city nothing if the drunk kills half a dozen other drunks."

"Or a cop?" I asked.

"No that does cost us. We would have to send flowers to the funeral," she replied shortly.

"I sure am glad to know how much you appreciate those who put their lives on the line for you," I snapped.

"I appreciate their courage but that doesn't change the bottom line. Cops just aren't as valuable as firemen or utility workers, at least not to the bottom line."

"That's interesting. Let me ask you something?"

"Go ahead," the Mayor said.

"Do you realize what you just said?" I asked.

"How did it sound?" she asked in return.

"It sounds like you are a cop hater. Like you are absolutely unconcerned about your police department."

"Not at all, I am very concerned in having an adequate police department. Without one we can't attract new businesses, but adequate is as far as I am willing to go. This is a quiet little town, we have always gotten along with a small police force. Crime just isn't a big thing here," she informed me.

"There is more crime here than you know about," I replied.

"How do you figure that?" she asked.

"It is a proven fact that crime statistics are based on reported crime, not the actual amounts of crime."

"It's the same thing," she stated but not quite as sure of herself.

"The hell it is. When you have a just adequate police department, people don't bother to report all the crime. They know that the cops aren't going to arrest anyone so they don't bother to report everything."

"And how do you know that our crimes are under reported?" she asked.

"Because Mayor, I read the crime breakdowns. The first group to stop reporting crimes are the minority community, whoever they might be. You see they are the ones who trust the cops the least. In your case the amount of crime reported in the minority community is about half of that in the white community."

"That's a racist thing to say. It's like you expect them to have more crime because they are inferior. That by the way is a typical cop attitude."

"Bullshit, it is because nowhere else in the whole world is their crime rate that much lower than the white rate. And before you say you have a smaller minority population, let me tell you that I factored population into it. They don't call the cops unless someone goes to the hospital. As for crimes against property, why should they bother. They don't usually have homeowners insurance and the cops aren't going to find the thief anyway. That's the attitude on the east side of town anyway."

"That maybe true, but we still can't afford any more cops. I gave you one, that's all you get. As far as you filling in on calls at night, if you wanted to hire a cop who couldn't take care of herself, that is your problem."

"Mayor, I am going home before I say something I am going to regret. I would like you to do me a favor though," I said.

"And what would that be," she snapped.

"Please don't invite me to any more meals at your house. If you do, one of us is likely to be in real trouble," I said seriously.

"Are you threatening me?" she asked.

"I just gave you a friendly warning."

"I'm not sure I can allow you to continue working here with an attitude like that," she said.

"I think you are probably right," I replied as I tossed my badge at her feet.

I was instantly sorry about throwing the badge at her. I wished I had shoved it up her smart ass. I walked quickly to the car. I decided to wait until morning before I called Charlotte to beg for my old job. The only reason I didn't get drunk was because I didn't want to drive away the next day with a hangover.

When two hours later I could no longer sit still, I called Sandy. She agreed to meet me after work at the all night restaurant in Garnet. I left immediately after the call. I took the cell phone even though I no longer worked for the department. Working or not, I didn't intend to leave a cop in trouble.

When Sandy arrived, I explained that I might be leaving town. I didn't go into any details since I wasn't sure exactly how it might shake out.

"You don't like it here?" she asked. "You know you haven't really given the town or me a chance."

"It certainly has nothing to do with you," I replied.

"Maybe, but I'll bet I can change your mind."

"Mine probably isn't the mind that needs changing," I replied.

"What does that mean? Oh I get it, you and our drunken Mayor have had words?"

I made no move to either confirm or deny her guess. "Dammit that bitch isn't going to run you off. I swear I will call my uncle."

"Your Uncle?" I asked.

"Sure, he is on the town council. He can raise enough hell to have you reinstated."

"You don't have to do that. Actually, I kind of quit," I admitted.

"You shouldn't have done that. That bitch will use it against you. She has done that kind of thing before. Everybody gets exasperated dealing with her. The council has had to gloss over her crap plenty of times."

"Why do they do it?" I asked.

"Hell, they have to do it. The townsfolk keep voting her into office. I have no idea why she gets all the votes. I guess maybe it's because she is as tight with their money as she is with her own."

"How about her drive to get new businesses in town? Surely she can't do that by being a tightwad?" I asked.

"She isn't trying to convince you that she is actively seeking new business. She isn't doing jack. My uncle and a few of the others got the lawnmower plant here. They are working on a couple of other things too. Mayor Molly sure as hell wasn't any help. If the meetings took place after five, the council didn't even tell her about them."

"Well, she called to invite me to dinner. I had to go."

"Hell, I wouldn't worry. She will either forget it, or send Megan to apologize. If you can stomach us, just take your badge back when Megan brings it over. Hell, if you aren't careful, Megan will try to bribe you."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"You know exactly what I mean. She may look like the virginal little princess but she sure as hell ain't."

"I'm not even going to ask you how you know that," I replied.

"I might tell you one day without you having to ask. I would do it tonight, but I want you to stay." She spent a long time looking into her coffee before she spoke again. "How about coming home with me. We both could use a little time-out."

"Sandy, that's not why I called you," I said quietly.

"I know that. If I thought it was, I wouldn't have offered." She looked into her cup a second then said, "The hell I wouldn't."

"In that case, lead the way." I replied with a grin.

Fortunately there were no important calls that night. I arrived at the station around eight the next morning. I found Janet and Tommy waiting for me.

"What the hell are you two doing here? Don't you think you should be out on patrol?"

"We got a message for you from Mike," Tommy said. "Megan, the Mayor's daughter was looking for you. She told Mike to tell you not to do anything before she talked to you."

"Mike said she was really upset that you weren't in your apartment. Mike seemed to think it was something personal," Janet said grinning.

"Believe me it wasn't personal," I replied.

"That's what Mike said. Megan left this for you," Tommy said handing me a small box. I didn't open it in front of the others. I knew it was my badge.

"Okay, you two go to work. I know you want all the dirt, but you aren't going to get it here. Go out and investigate something," I suggested.

"Ain't nothin' happened this morning'" Tommy said.

"What kind of cop are you?" I asked. Mike looked hurt until I added. "If nothin' has happened, go get a donut. Janet, teach this guy about cops," I demanded.

After they had gone, I called the Mayor's hardware store. "Wilson's" Megan said into the phone.

"Megan, this is the chief," I informed her.

"Did you get your badge?" she asked.

"Yes honey, but I don't think I can take it back. This is twice in a little over a month. I do not intend to go through this again." I explained.

"I know chief but like I told you before, just stay away from her after five," Megan suggested.

"Like hell, there are going to be times I need to talk to her. I am not going to walk a tight rope, nor am I going to let her talk about me or my people like dirt. Either she calls me this morning so that we can talk, or I am out of here."

"Chief, she won't do it," Megan said exasperated.

"Then I am out of here," I replied.

"Okay, I'll talk to her, but I'm not promising anything."

"If I don't hear from her by noon, then I am going to be gone by three." I said it hoping to force both mother and daughter's hand. I was certainly not a do gooder, but I was determined to face the Mayor down for my own good, if not for hers.

I looked up at noon to find the Mayor standing in front of my desk. I honestly hadn't heard her walk in. "Mayor," I said.

"Megan said you wanted to talk to me. In the future I would prefer you spoke to me if you have something to say."

"Dammit Mayor, do you even remember last night?" I asked.

"Of course I do, you lost your temper. Speaking of that, the next time you throw your badge at me, calling later to apologize won't do you any good."

"What the hell are you talking about?" I asked.

"Megan explained that you called after midnight to apologize. I gave in this time, but it will be the last."

"Listen carefully, I did not call last night or the night of your cookout either. Megan has been picking up after you again. Actually I should have known it, after all drunks live in a world of their own."

"How dare you call me a drunk," she shouted.

"How dare you minimize the value of a cop. If you want, I will leave today, but I warn you that if I stay I am going to fight you. I will do whatever it takes to protect the lives of my men and women. If it is necessary to get enough funding, I will go to the town council. Now is your last chance to get rid of me easily." I stopped talking to await her reply.

"You know I can't fire you. As for the other, if I tried to enforce your resignation of last night, it would be my word against yours."

"Listen closely, I will say it again. I am not going to let you off the hook that easily. If you want me gone, just say so, but do it now."

"Okay, I want you to stay." She paused a moment then went on. "Besides if you leave in a huff, Megan will never forgive me. She thinks we need you."

"Now, I have one more thing to say. This is absolutely none of my business. I'm sure you aren't going to listen, but I would hate myself if I didn't say something. You really need to stop the drinking."

"You are right it is none of your business," she shouted angrily.

"I admit that, but you still need to do it. It isn't fair that your daughter has to pick up after you. I think you are stronger than that, but you do exactly what you think is right."

"I will thank you to stay the hell out of my life," she said in tears.

"No problem, that was my one and only attempt to save your daughter. As for you, you are a grown woman. If you can live with what you are doing to her then I guess I can." The mayor didn't answer, she just turned to flee.

"Son of a bitch, life in a small town is complicated," I said aloud but to no one.

The next three days went by with me staying as busy and as far away from the Mayor as possible. I must have succeeded pretty well since we didn't even bump into each other even accidentally.

At the end of those three days I reassigned the shifts. All the shifts began to rotate. For the first rotation, I was forced to take a different shift every couple of days. Since each officer was to have different days off, I was forced to fill in to avoid any overtime that first month. I could just imagine what Molly, the miserly mayor, would say about that.

I stayed pretty busy for the ten days it took to get everyone on schedule. I did find time to visit Sandy. She and I were becoming great friends. I'm sure the town gossips were finding other ways to describe us.

About three weeks after the larceny of love at the academy, Janet came into the station. She walked up to stand in front of my desk. "What kind of town am I living in?" she asked.

"Hell, I don't know. You have been here almost as long as me," I replied.

"Okay, what kind of town is it where the citizens don't bother to call the cops during a disturbance?"

"Probably a town where the former cops didn't bother to answer those calls. Or more likely, one where the cops took a report and filed it in the trash. So who are you talking about specifically?"

"I've been doing a little follow up on that larceny of love at the academy. I worked it when I wasn't doing anything else. I spoke to the dorm monitor out there. It seems as though a car full of boys drove into the dorm parking lot a couple of nights ago. They were drunk according to the old woman."

"I hope you told her the next time there is a disturbance she better call us," I demanded. I didn't want the boys to decide to break into the dorm. We, sure as hell didn't need a 'Richard Speck' kind of thing.

"I did, but the old lady didn't seem too worried. She ran the boys of by charging the car with a shotgun." Janet laughed as she told the story.

"I don't suppose she got the license number?" I asked.

"No but the description is the same as the last time," Janet informed me.

"I suppose that the horny youngsters came back hoping to find their slutty little friend," I suggested.

"Maybe, but she is long gone. The school dumped her ass," Janet stated.

"Good for them," I replied. "It doesn't sound as if the boys know that. Maybe they will come back again. We could sure use that license number."

"Then you will do something?" Janet asked.

"Sure, make sure the school has no trespassing signs in their parking lot," I demanded.

"You mean to tell me you are going to charge them with trespass?"

"Janet that is all they are guilty of," I said.

\ldblquote Well if I catch them, I am going to shoot them all," she said storming out of the office. It was a typical mother's comment.

"Up to you," I replied to her back.

After she had gone, on a whim I called the pool hall. I was informed by the owner that he had indeed had a break in. He hadn't bothered to report it since we couldn't catch a cold.

I informed him that his insurance company wouldn't pay off without a police report. They usually required that it be done at the time of the break in. I suggested that if it happened again, he might want to call us immediately. From the owner I got a list of things missing. Just as before it was beer and cigarettes. One thing was taken, that hadn't been before, the culprits had taken a bunch of candy bars and jerky. I wasn't surprised since the items had kid appeal. I had pretty much determined that the kids from the academy parking lot had broken into the pool hall both times.

Obviously they had broken into the pool hall got drunk on the beer, then went looking for some company. Nothing unusual about that, except that I bought my booze, I had done the same thing hundreds of times. Like the boys, I had struck out most of those times.

I expected they would be back again. I hated to do it but I called the Mayor. I explained to her what I wanted. She demanded that I allow her time to consider my request.

"You consider all you want, but I am going to by God have what I need to do this job. I can make one hell of a case with the Town Council for what I need to."

"Damn you Chief Early, I will not be blackmailed," she said.

"That isn't blackmail. It is simply a statement of fact," I replied.

A couple of hours later she called. "After considering your request I have decided to deny it. The town council meets in a month, you can make your request at that time."

"Up to you," I replied.

The moment she hung up I called a dealer I knew in Charlotte. He agreed to make up what I needed, then ship it me express. He also agreed to bill the town for the materials.

Three days later the little red box arrived. I personally transported it to the pool hall. After I explained to the owner how to hook it up, he agreed to set the trap every night after closing. With a little luck, I might catch me some Spanish mice in my little trap.

The biggest thing to happen in Taylortown during the next month was the arrival of the bill for my little trap. The bill was only three hundred bucks, which was remarkable inexpensive. It would have cost twice that much if the maker had charged for his labor.

Even though it was a bargain, the Mayor had a fit. She threatened to fire me for spending money without her permission.

"Don't you remember Mayor, I called you around ten two weeks ago to inform you of my need. You told me to go ahead and to have it billed to the town."

"Like hell, I told you not to do it. You went on and did it anyway," she shouted into the phone.

"Now who the hell do you think the town council will believe?" I asked.

"Next time I am going to tape the conversation," she shouted into the phone.

"Up to you," I suggested.

"You really are a prick," she stated as she slammed the phone down.

Time passed with nothing more serious than a minor dog bite to occupy my time. Taylortown just wasn't large enough to have any major crime problems. Janet came to me again just as the new school term began. Her daughter was headed for the Academy. Janet had even gotten a discount because of her interest in campus security.

"Chief, is there any problem if I swing by to check out the Academy while I am on duty?" she asked.

"I would expect you to do that," I suggested.

"It's a little more than just driving through the parking lot once in a while. The school had worked out a deal with me. If I shake their locks around midnight, and I walk the grounds a couple of times after dark my kid can go there free."

"Will you have to walk their grounds to shake the door," I suggested.

"Twice a night chief," she said it looking a little sheepish.

"Is there a certain time?" I asked.

"Once before midnight and once after," Janet explained.

"That's going to be tough when you are on days," I suggested.

"Chief, her tuition would be six thousand dollars. I just can't afford to come up with that. Her Dad's child support would just cover it, but they want it all up front. I only have to make one of those checks while on duty." Janet looked really desperate.

"How does your kid feel about going to Taylor Academy?" I asked.

"She doesn't want to go, that uniform thing and all. She wants clown red hair and torn jeans." Janet sounded exasperated.

"Well, let's just keep this quiet, but you officially have my permission to make a thorough check of the grounds at Taylor Girls Academy," I stated officially.

"Thanks Chief, I owe you," she said.

"If you only knew," I replied thinking of how the Mayor would react when she found out. It might be the excuse she needed to cut me loose. Well to hell with it. Janet wasn't doing anything outside her oath to protect the citizens of Taylortown. Those kids were citizens as long as they resided inside the city limits.

A couple of days later I went into Sadie's for lunch. I looked around the dining room before I chose a table. If I had seen anyone I knew, I probably would have gotten the food to go. Especially, if the someone had been Sandy. She and I had been fighting about my lack of interest in a committed relationship. She was probably right, it wasn't like I had women running in and out of my place. Sandy was the only woman I had dated since moving back to Taylortown. No matter, I just couldn't bring myself to talk about a serious relationship with anyone. Besides when I first began dating Sandy it had been because she had more to lose by a permanent arrangement than I did. After all she was being supported by an ex-husband. She seemed willing to give that up for a husband. I just couldn't see it.

Since there was no one in the place that I recognized I took a seat. The seat happened to be in the very rear. I sat looking at the menu, which was always sitting on a table. I was about to decide on a hamburger when the voices came from the kitchen. I must have been twenty-five feet from the kitchen door but I heard them anyway.

"I don't give a damn what you say Ed, I did not tell you that I wanted the Jets. I'll just be damned if I am going to pay you. You go to hell," the voice said. The voice took a break to listen to something from the other half of the conversation, then said, "Don't give me that crap, I just don't give a damn. I am not going to pay you." There was a few more seconds of silence then, "You do what you want, but I ain't going to pay."

I looked around to see that most of the customers weren't even paying attention. It took a moment for me to get it. Ed Jenkins the owner of Sadie's was a bookie. It explained why the restaurant was closed so often. Hell, Ed made his money on the bets of the townspeople.

"Damn, now what am I going to do about Ed?" I asked myself. Every town needed its small vices but I sure as hell couldn't ignore a crime. The problem was solved for me when I heard a shot from the kitchen.

I jumped from the table pulling the heavy .45 from my hip holster. I pushed through the swinging doors into the kitchen before any of the other customers reacted at all. I went through the door low. I swung the automatic to the young man standing over the seated Ed.

"Drop the pistol and raise your hands," I demanded. Instead of following orders, the kid turned toward me with the pistol. I could have shot him. Hell, I almost did.

"Don't do it man," I shouted before he squared away at me.

"Don't shoot," Ed shouted from the floor.

"Then he better drop that gun." At that time we were facing each other. Each of us had a gun pointed at the other. I don't know about the younger man, but I had applied about half the pressure needed to send him to hell. I had a feeling he might have done the same.

"Come on Bobby, drop the pistol. You recognize whom you are pointing a gun at?" Ed said from the floor. "That's the chief of police. He is about to kill you." It must have suddenly dawned on the young man that he hadn't killed Ed, also that he was about to either kill me or get himself killed. Either way he slowly lowered the pistol. He then placed it on a stainless steel table.

"Put your hand up," I said with a shaky voice. When he did, I quickly put the cuffs on him. "Are you all right Ed?"

"Sure, Bobby Joe is a lousy shot," Ed said.

"He obviously didn't want to hit you. From this range it doesn't matter how bad a shot he is. Hell, a blind man could have shot you."

"I know Bobby Joe ain't a bad guy," Ed said.

"Well it don't matter I got to take him in for the attempt," I said pushing Bobby Joe toward the rear door.

"Now hold on there Chief. Old Bobby Joe was just showing me that pistol, when it went off."

"Is that going to be your story?" I asked.

"It sure is," Ed replied.

"Is that right Bobby Joe?" I asked hopefully.

Bobby Joe looked quickly at Ed, then back at me. "No chief I was trying to kill the worthless prick." He actually turned to grin at Ed.

"Well Ed, that is a confession. I expect, when he gets to court he will be telling the judge exactly why he tried to pop you. If I were you, I would begin looking for a restaurant buyer. It's going to be hard to run this place from central prison." I suggested.

"Not only that Ed, I am going to be in central waiting for your ass," Bobby Joe said with a wicked smile.

"Now Bobby, we can work this out. We don't need the police to settle this," Ed suggested.

"Hell no, I'm going to tell everything I know about you. Like I said, I'll be waiting for you in prison." I noticed Bobby had that crazy smile again. He must have really been pissed at Ed.

I loaded Bobby Joe into my car, then drove him to the station. He gave me a statement which I video recorded. I called Mike who was on the day shift that particular day. He transported Bobby Joe to the county jail. After he was gone, I began typing the statement. The video would be the official record but the typed copy would go into the paper file.

Bobby Joe had given me the name of another unhappy customer or at least his wife was unhappy according to Bobby Joe.

With Bobby Joe cooling his heels in the Garnet Courthouse, I drove out to see Lori Lou Beacon. I found the house to be more of a shack than anything else. It had about half the glass panes not cracked. The porch sagged badly and the color was weathered wood. Not some fancy designer color either, just pure old unpainted wood. The woman who came to the door was about fifty pounds over weight but they weren't chocolate bon bon pounds, they were cheap meats, filled with fat kinds of pounds. Baloney and eggs for breakfast pounds were the ones hanging on Lori Lou. That and maybe some left over pounds from each of the four kids hanging onto her skirt.

"Who are you?" she asked as I stood outside her door.

"I'm Police Chief Early ma'am," I replied.

"What happened to Chief Lawrence?" she asked.

"Beats me, he was gone when I came." I waited a minute to see what else she might say. When she said nothing, I continued. "So Mrs. Beacon I would like to ask you a couple of questions."

"What kind of questions, that no good husband of mine ain't in jail is he. Cause if he is you can just keep him. I would do as well on welfare as living with him."

"No ma'am he ain't in jail. The reason I came about might be the same as why you would say a thing like that about him."

"Chief, I said that because he is always drinking up his paycheck. Me and the kids are lucky to get enough to buy food."

"I'm sorry about that. I was told your husband was bad to gamble, betting on the ball games and the like."

"Yeah, he does some of that," she replied.

"Do you happen to know who books his bets?" I asked. She just looked at me with a blank stare. "Who he bets with?"

"Oh yeah, he bets with Ed down at the diner. Been betting with him for years."

"Have you ever seen him give money to Ed?" I asked.

"Yeah, but I ain't never seen Ed give none back," she replied with a grin which showed her yellow teeth.

"Where is your husband at the moment?" I asked.

"Down to the pool hall with his no good brother," she informed me angrily. "If you are going down there, tell him to get his butt home. That is unless you are going to lock him up."

"I'm not plannin' to do that," I admitted as I turned toward the patrol car.

"Too bad," she said to my back.

The pool hall was just as I expected, dark and smokey, even at three in the afternoon. I walked directly to the small bar area. Norm took one look at me, then stopped his conversation with a customer.

"Hi Chief, what can I get for you?" he asked.

"Nothing at all Norm, I came to talk to Willie Beacon," I replied.

"I don't know chief, Willie's a little busy right now." Norm grinned as he pointed to the end of the bar. The man at the end of the bar was wrapped up with a woman so thin she could have been a cartoon drawing of a skinny woman.

I walked to the end of the bar, then said, "Willie, I'm Chief Early. You and me need to talk a little."

"I got nothin' to say to you chief," he replied.

"Okay, then get up you are under arrest," I informed him.

"The hell I will. I ain't done nothing," he replied.

"Sure you have Willie. Since I'm sure you don't want your friends to know what a bad boy you have been, why don't you just come with me peaceful like."

"And if I don't?" he asked.

"It's a long way to the hospital all the way in Garnet," I said as dangerously as I could.

"Well, you be the one gonna' make that trip," he replied.

"Up to you," I said stepping closer.

Willie was at a definite disadvantage. He had to somehow get off that bar stool. Not even a ballet dancer could do it with any grace. When Willie started to stand, I realized how big he was. He must have been five inches and thirty pounds of muscle bigger than me. I, on the other hand, had a couple of advantages. I was already standing and hadn\rquote t been drinking since noon. I also had a piece of leather with a two once chunk of lead in the end. The sap wouldn't do my reputation any harm, but it would do a number on Willie's skull.

I gave him one more warning, "Willie, sit back down and put your hands behind you."

"Fuck you Chief," he said.

I hit him for several reasons. One, I wanted to do it. Two, I had to make an example of Willie. When you are alone on patrol most of the time, the bad guys have to know that you can and will hurt them if they screw around with you. I mean, there was just no Calvary to call if I got into trouble. Third and probably most important, I was scared out of my mind. I waited until the last possible second. Willie actually drew back to him me but I hit him first and just as hard as I could swing the sap. I caught him on the side of the skull. I swear his muscles must have locked, because he fell as straight as any tree cut by a chain saw.

"Damn, you killed him Chief," one of the other patrons said.

I was already on my knees checking because I feared that very thing. "No, he's still alive. Why don't one of you call him an ambulance."

I slowly dialed the number for the patrol car. The shift had changed so I got Tommy. "Tommy, come on down to the pool hall. I need you to interview a few witnesses." Tommy tried to ask questions but I cut him off. "I'll explain when you get here."

By the time Tommy arrived Willie was moving around. I had obtained a bar towel from Norm. Willie held the towel against his head while he awaited the Ambulance. Willie claimed he didn't need the Ambulance, but I intended to cover myself in case he died later.

"Tommy, take everyone over to the other side of the pool hall. Get their statements." When everyone had gone, I asked Willie, "You got any insurance?"

"Yeah," he answered questioningly.

"Okay, I'm going to let you decide. The city will pay your hospital bill, if I put you under arrest. They might bill your insurance company anyway, I don't really know. What I do know, is that even if you aren't hurt bad you are going to be in jail a few days if I arrest you."

"You keep saying if?" Willie asked.

"Frankly Willie, it can go either way. I came to ask you some questions. If you will answer them now, I am willing to call this an accident. If the doctor lets you go home, then you can be back at work tomorrow."

"I surely do need that job. Okay chief, what you want to know?"

"I know you have been placing bets with Ed at the diner. What I need for you to do is to sign a statement saying that. If you do, I won't arrest you, but I will arrest Ed."

"Why do you want to do that?" he asked.

"Willie, it's my job." I could tell he didn't understand. "Besides the son of a bitch closes early every day." That he did understand. Willie nodded his head in agreement.

I followed the ambulance to the hospital, leaving Tommy to finish the interviews. After a couple of stitches and a warning or two, the emergency room doctor released Willie. I drove him by the station to get his statement on video. I also charged him with assault on a police officer, then called the DA to have it dropped. Willie and I were both satisfied when I dropped him at the pool hall where his car awaited him.

Sadie's was closed the next day. Ed knew I was going to arrest him, so he took off for places unknown. For my part, I went to the magistrate to get a warrant for his arrest. Since Ed had a business in town, I kept the warrant. He might live in the county, but he would be coming into town to open the restaurant. At least that's how I figured it.

I checked for several days, only to find the restaurant closed. Nobody knew what had happened to Ed. The Sheriff informed me that Ed's house was also empty. It looked pretty much like Ed had taken it on the lamb.

The town did know that their favorite restaurant was closed. They also knew who to blame. Not only was the Mayor pissed at me, so was half the town. I was proving to be a very unpopular chief of police. My lack of popularity would make it easier for the Mayor to fire me at any time. At that point I didn't expect I had a lot of support with the town council. I even heard rumors that some of the members had, on occasion, placed wagers with good ole Ed.

Exactly a week later, Bobby Joe's lawyer demanded a preliminary hearing. It was part of the speedy trial crap. He got the hearing. Without Ed to testify, he got the charges dropped. The judge informed him that they could be reinstated when Ed finally showed. Since Ed didn't want to face the gambling charges, Bobby Joe might just get a pass on the attempted murder charge.

I was batting zero on the whole incident. Not only that I had made a couple of dozen enemies in the process. It looked as though the next time the Mayor found a half assed reason, I was history.

The day after Thanksgiving the utility crews were putting up the Christmas lights. I expected that they were the same ones from my youth. The ragged old lights kind of set the theme for Christmas that year. It was kind of a cut rate Christmas celebration. There were no parades and very few local promotions. The closest Christmas cheer seemed to be at the Mall half way to Garnet. Nonetheless we all struggled on toward Christmas.

Early one morning about two weeks before Christmas I got a call at the station. The caller asked for me personally. Eddie, who had taken the call, turned it over to me with a grin. His grin was one of those wise assed things.

"Hello," I said into the phone expecting the worst. What I got was neither good not bad just a total surprise.

"Chief Early, this is Beverly Amos, we met a few months ago at the Academy."

"Oh yes of course," I replied hardly remembering her at all.

"I was wondering if we could meet for lunch. I assure you it is important."

"Sure, I don't see any reason we can't do that. When did you have in mind?" I asked.

"Today would be nice, I'm afraid I might lose my courage if I put it off too long," she said mysteriously.

"Then lunch it is, should I pick you up at the school?" I asked hoping she would refuse.

"No," she said too quickly. "I would rather we meet at the restaurant."

"Fine, where would you suggest. I'm afraid I don't get around too much," I admitted.

"I don't either but I do go to the mall for lunch once in a while. How about the Pizza Hut there at say noon. I know you probably don't remember me so I'll be the one in the red blouse."

"Good, I'll be the one in the cheap cop suit," I replied. She laughed just as I expected her to do.

The morning passed quickly due to Janet 's investigation of a larceny from a parked car. It happened outside Sandy's boutique. A secretary from the lawn mower plant had gone in to buy her mother a belt or something. While she was inside a kid had broken into her car. The kid disappeared with her morning\rquote s Christmas shopping. She was more angry about the broken window and the lost shopping time than the missing items. I couldn't blame her the window was going to cost her insurance company way too much. It would also take far too long to repair.

I didn't actually go to the scene since Sandy and I were fighting like cats and dogs at the time. Actually it was more like two cats. She would curse me on the phone, then fall into bed when I arrived at her house to continue the argument. It was actually quite confusing. The weekend before the larceny she had demanded that I never darken her door again. I was trying to follow her orders. I really did want to break it off with her. Sandy had become far too complicated for a simple cop.

When I arrived at the Pizza Hut, I recognized Miss Amos but it was with great difficulty, I just didn't remember her looking that good. I walked to her table then asked, "Miss Amos?" I did it more to be absolutely sure than anything else. She really did look different in the silk like blouse. It was unbuttoned much farther than a prim school teacher should have worn her blouse. The smooth material accentuated her average sized breasts. I couldn't see her hips but I remembered her as being a thin woman. Not much of a shape at all as I remembered her. It took a moment for the surprise to wear off. I realized for the first time that it was Saturday. Miss Amos would never have dressed so sexy on a school day.

"Yes but please call me Beverly or better still Bev," she said with a very warm smile.

"Well Beverly, what do they have here worth eating?" I asked as I sat down across from her.

"I always have the salad," she informed me.

"Is that how you stay thin?" I asked.

"Well not so thin," she replied with a smile.

Damn, I thought, the woman is flirting with me. I couldn't for the life of me figure out why. It didn't really matter either. I wasn't involved with anyone, so if she wanted to flirt why not.

"So, was there anything in particular you wanted to talk to me about or are we just having a pleasant lunch between friends?" I asked.

"Unfortunately it isn't just a simple lunch between friends." The way she said it, I was somehow sure she did regret that it was more. "You are Janet Lewis' boss and I hope friend?"

"That depends on what you mean by friend. If you mean I have a good business relationship with her, then I hope we do. If you mean that I see her other than work, then I'm afraid not."

"Oh, then I don't know whether you can help or not," she replied looking serious.

"Is there a problem with her daughter?" I asked.

"Why would you ask that?"

"Because it is the only thing, I can imagine that you might think I could help you with," I replied.

"Well your guess is correct," she replied sadly.

"Yeah, well cops make pretty good guessers. Especially where trouble is concerned. So what is Sammie up to now?"

"At least you know her name. You were making it sound as though you knew nothing of Officer Lewis's personal life."

"I have seen the kid with her mother a couple of times, but I don't think I ever said more than a couple of words to her. So like I said, what has she done?"

"That's hard to say. She hasn't done anything too bad, at least she hasn't been caught at anything too awfully bad." She waited for me to ask her to explain. When I didn't, she went on, "The problem is that she is miserable. Since she is miserable, she is making everyone else miserable too. She is one serious offense from expulsion."

"Is she really that bad?" I asked.

"Not really, she just wants to get expelled. She wants to get out of school completely. If not that, then at least out of Taylor Academy."

"So just toss her ass out and be done with it," I suggested.

"We would ordinarily, but everyone has become very fond of Janet. The truth is that we all like Sammie just as much. If she would just meet us halfway, we would like to help her. Sammie just doesn't want to be there."

"Is she bright or what?" I asked.

"She is brilliant at times, at other times she acts like an idiot. We are all at the end of our rope."

"So what exactly do you want me to do?" I asked.

"I would take it as a personal favor if you would talk to Janet. Try to make her understand that Sammie would be happier and probably do better in public school. Sammie might be wild and rebellious but she isn't really bad. Unfortunately she may do something bad to get herself dismissed from Taylor. Before that happens, her mother should transfer her to the county school."

I am no genius, but I wasn't born yesterday either. "So what has the kid done," I asked.

\ldblquote What do you mean?"

"I mean what has the kid done that you want to kick her out. She has done something, something that you can't pen on her." Beverly continued to look blank so I added, "You know she did it, but you can't prove it. So what was it?" I asked.

"Somebody released the Biology department's white mice."

I really shouldn't have laughed but I couldn't help it. The thought of those mice running around the stuffy old school just hit me as funny. My laughter was loud and genuine. It also must have been infectious because Miss Amos joined me after a couple of minutes.

"We really shouldn't laugh. I expected a half dozen heart attacks judging from the reactions from some of the older staff members when they came across the little darlings."

"She didn't just release them did she?" I asked pressing on.

"No she placed them in strategic locations to be found by teachers she didn't like. Truthfully they were for the most part, teachers I don't care for either. I suppose that's why I would like to warn her mother."

"Nice try Bev, but it won't fly. You are here on orders from the headmaster. He wants her gone, but is afraid to toss her. What has he got to fear from Janet?" I asked it, even though I didn't really want to know.

"That is totally ridiculous," Beverly Amos informed me.

"Well, let me tell you this my dear," I said it in a condescending manner. "Unless you come up with a better reason than you have given me so far, I do not intend to involve myself in one of my officer's private life."

"How about she is going to be hurt if we expel her daughter," Beverly said quietly.

"She will not be less hurt if I suggest she remove her daughter, one step ahead of you do it." I replied. "Come on Bev, level with me. Why is the headmaster sending you out to front for him?"

"He is doing it because I am the teacher closest to Sammie. I am the only one out there under a hundred years old."

"That only explains why he chose you, it doesn't explain why he doesn't just put her butt on the street," I demanded.

"It may have something to do with the fact that he and Janet are having an affair. One he would rather his wife didn't know about," she replied.

"So, he's hoping that you can convince me to convince Janet without bringing him into it. You are a woman, or at least I presume you are, you should know that she will figure it out. It really won't be difficult at all. Janet is smart enough to know that I have no interest in her daughter. When out of the blue, I suggest she would be happier in public school, she is going to know that I have been talking to someone from out there."

"I hadn't thought of that," she admitted. "What can we do?"

"The only way she wouldn't be suspicions were if Sammie's problems came up naturally in a conversation with someone from the school." I replied.

"How on earth would that happen?" she asked seriously.

"Well it might happen if you and I were to have dinner together a couple of times. If it got around that we were seeing each other, I could say you just mentioned Sammie's unhappiness in passing. I suppose our going out would be far too much for the headmaster to ask of you."

"He would certainly owe me big time, if I were to go out with a small town cop just to save his ass." Her choice of words surprised me.

"To really be convincing you probably should spend at least one night at my apartment. I mean we have to make it look real," I admitted with a wicked grin.

"Now chief, let's not drive too hard a bargain here. I mean that smacks of blackmail."

"Oh no, blackmail is illegal. I would never break the law," I informed her in mock anger.

We finished lunch trying to find some common grounds for discussion. We finished lunch without finding anything. We did agree, that we both liked pizza. It wasn't much, but in my particular mood it was more than enough. I wasn't at all sure why it was enough for her, but it must have been.

I held off talking to Janet until all the cops knew that I was seeing Beverly. She dressed rather provocatively when she wasn't at school. After that first date, she would bring clothes to my place to change. She never wore her school clothes out. On our dates the prim Miss Amos became the sexy Beverly.

It took three dates on three different Saturday nights before she spent a night with me. Beverly was an interesting lover even though she had more hangups than a telemarketer. Without getting too detailed, sex with Beverly was rather boring, if you get my drift. I was afraid that she might have taken seriously our little dodge about sleeping with me just so that Janet might believe she had just 'mentioned' Sammie in passing. For whatever reason I seemed to be the only one who enjoyed the sex. In spite of her protest I could tell that she wasn't a very good actress. If I had been bright in the least, I would have ignored it. Since stupidity seemed to haunt me like Christmas past, I made a scene. Alas Beverly didn't take criticism well. I'm afraid the result was goodby Beverly. She left my apartment at two a.m. in a terrible huff. I never did figure out which part of the handcuff idea turned her off, just kidding.

The end came after three different attempts to satisfactorily consummate our relationship. The sex might have been only so, so, but it accomplished its main goal. At least the one we had agreed to. Everyone knew we were sleeping together. Therefore when I mentioned Sammie's situation at the school, it seemed casual.

"So are you planning to enroll Sammie at the academy for the second term?" I asked Janet.

"Of course I am," Janet said.

"Not a good idea," I replied.

'Why is that?"

"Sammie hates it out there and she is the first kid the teachers ever hated back."

"Oh, then I guess I should send her to public school?" Janet asked.

"I expect so. If you don't, they are going to expel her," I replied.

"I wouldn't want that to happen." She stopped to think a minute, then said. "I am also tired of checking their stupid doors, not to mention sleeping with the pompous ass of a headmaster. I'll tell you one thing, she better get good grades for last semester, he sure as hell doesn't."

"It must have something to do with being around so many rich kids," I suggested. "So is everything cool?"

"You bet, I sure hope sleeping with that school teacher wasn't too much trouble?" she asked. Janet was no dummy.

"Nope, she weren't no trouble 'atall'," I replied.

"I'll tell Sammie that she is sprung. That is, if she keeps her nose clean until January."

"Up to you," I said as Janet stood to return to patrol.

After Christmas, thing got boring in Taylortown. Nothing much happened other than a few Christmas related crimes. Things just settled into a routine of 'nothing to report' reports. As happens in the cop business, we were lulled to sleep just to have our butts kicked.

Mike was off duty when he walked into a holdup at one of the convenience stores near the highway. The bandit wasn't local so he didn't recognize Mike, so he held a pistol on him, just the same as the store clerk. The bandit turned his attention back to the clerk. The oriental clerk was at the time working to empty the contents of the register into a plastic bag. While the bandit's attention was on the clerk, Mike drew his off duty pistol. He shot the bandit, who pulled the trigger on his 9mm as a dying reflex. The round lodged in the clerk's chest.

At that same time a very over weight lady screamed, then collapsed. Mike didn't know who to help first, so he just sat down and began to cry. At that very same moment the driver of the getaway car took off with screaming tires. He was in such a panic that he drove his beat up old Camero right into the front right side of the town's Buick patrol car. The car was driven by Janet, who was fuming over her daughter's latest adventure involving scissors and her hair.

Janet's first thought was, "Oh my god, I hope I didn't kill that stupid prick." She shook herself then opened the car door. The get away man was trying to untangle his Camero from the heavier Buick. By the time Janet realized that something was wrong, the Camero was free. The driver began trying to pull way. Unfortunately for him the bumper had been jammed against his front tire. The tire blew out within twenty feet, throwing him into a telephone pole.

Janet walked to the car, still unaware that anything more than a 'leaving the scene' was going down. When she reached the car, the door opened and out tumbled a young Latino man about twenty years old. He was unremarkable except for the large revolver he pointed in Janet's direction.

Janet went for her pistol in spite of the fact that the bad guy had the drop on her. She cleared the holster before the getaway driver shot her twice in the chest. After Janet fell, the driver ran to her patrol car. He tried to drive it away, but found its right front wheel torn from the car. He sat in the car cursing for a few minutes then jumped from the car to run into a strip of woods between the old highway and the new bypass.

He tried to cross the busy bypass, where he was immediately struck and killed by a passing motorist. The motorist jammed on her brakes. When she began to skid, her car struck the one beside her in the faster left lane. Both car began slowing down, which caused the traffic, which was following too closely behind, to strike them both. There ensued a ten-car pile up. The getaway driver was in several pieces under the twisted metal, otherwise no one was seriously injured.

The first call was to the Highway Patrol about the accident. That call was followed immediately by a call which was switched to the empty patrol car. When there was no answer from the patrol car, it was switched to me. The call was about the shooting inside the convenience store. The customer who made the call didn't mention the cop laying on the edge of the parking lot of the carwash next door. She hadn't seen Janet limp body when she made the call.

Her exact words were lost on me, but they went something like, "Help me, there are dead people and blood all over the place. Please help me."

"Where are you?" I asked as calmly as possible.

"At the Drop In Store," she informed me before her sobbing got the best of her.

I was in the ford before I tried to raise Janet. When she didn't answer, I got angry. I figured she was out at the Academy having a lunch with her kid or something. In the heat of the moment, I had forgotten that her kid no longer attended Mamie Taylor Academy. I was so mad that I almost didn't recognize the crippled patrol car at the entrance to the convenience store. A closer look down the road revealed the torn Camero, then the pile of rags laying on the edge of the road.

I quickly called for an ambulance, then the sheriff's deputies. I could tell just by looking that there was a hell of a mess. I didn't know where to start. I left poor Janet as I ran into the store. I hoped to find everything normal so that I could go to Janet. Instead I found blood and bodies everywhere, just like the caller had said. The caller was of coarse gone.

Mike was sitting on the floor crying like a baby. I shouted and kicked him but he never even noticed. I gave up on Mike. I lifted his pistol from the floor. Then I checked the second man with a gun. A great deal of his head was missing. Looking at him, I could understand Mike's horror. I also removed his pistol from the floor. Why I have no idea, except maybe from habit.

I moved behind the counter to the clerk. The clerk was dead, but I checked for a pulse anyway. By the time I moved to the fat woman I was covered in blood from two different people. I found that she was not bleeding, however her breathing was shallow and rapid. I shook her for a second, she seemed to stir momentarily, then she just passed out again. It didn't look as though I could help anyone in the store, so I ran to Janet. I felt for a pulse in her throat. When my hand touched her throat, she jerked awake.

"Chief, what the hell happened?" she asked.

"That is for you to tell me. Mike is inside that store back there with two dead men and a woman I can't get awake. What the hell is going on?" I asked.

"Beats me, some nut pulled from the parking lot into the patrol car. Before I could get to him, he tried to drive off. His tire exploded, then he hit that pole. As I went to see if he was okay, the prick shot me. I guess I passed out."

"Are you okay?" I asked concerned.

"Sure, the vest I brought from Greensboro saved my ass," she informed me.

"Can you stand or do you need to go to the hospital?" I asked.

"I can stand, but I'm going to be pretty shaky," she replied.

"If you can help me get this mess straight good, if not then at least try to keep the traffic moving. There are going to be plenty of cars coming and going."

"I can do whatever you need," she said seriously.

"Good, go stand in the parking lot. Don't let anyone block the ambulance's access to the building. I am going to need at least three." As I spoke the far off sound of the Emergency vehicles could be heard.

I helped Janet to her feet, then left her to make her own way to the parking lot. I rushed back to the convenience store. I again tried to rouse Mike. He remained lost in his own grief. There didn't seem to be anything I could do in the seconds before the Ambulance arrived.

As I expected, they took the woman first. I heard the paramedics mention heart attack a couple of times as they spoke via cell phone to the hospital. The second ambulance arrived while they were working on the woman. The second one took Mike since the clerk and the robber couldn't be helped.

The crime scene was a mess by the time the Sheriff's lab man arrived. The floor, which had been covered in pools of blood when I arrived, was covered with bloody footprints. The lab technician could do little more than photograph the bodies.

Before he began, he asked, "Chief did you know there was a huge pile up out on the highway?"

"No what happened?" I asked.

"I got no idea, but there are highway patrol and ambulances all over the place up there. The county must be running short on ambulances by now. Hell we had two here and two up there." He stopped to take a moment to think. "I'll bet the traffic is tied up all the way to Garnet."

"Is my officer still in the parking lot?" I asked.

"She was when I arrived," he replied.

I walked outside to find Janet, leaning against a Sheriff's car. She looked a little shaky. "You okay?" I asked.

"A little rocky but I'll be Okay. How is Mike?" she asked.

"I don't know. He has gone to the hospital. The paramedic said he was in some kind of shock."

\ldblquote What happened in there?\rdblquote she asked.

"I have absolutely no idea. It looks as though Mike shot the bad guy. I just don't know if it was before or after the bad guy shot the clerk. I hope to hell Mike didn't shoot the clerk as well as the bad guy."

"You don't think?" she began.

"No, I was just kidding."

"So who was the guy who shot me and what happened to him?"

"I don't know about that either. I alerted the Sheriff, but I just don't know. His men are pretty much tied up with that accident out on the highway."

"Chief," a deputy shouted from a car parked a few feet away. "What was the second man wearing?"

"A black and red plaid jacket or shirt," Janet answered. "Why?"

The deputy held up his hand while he spoke into the radio. When he finished, he walked to where Janet and I stood. "It looks as though your man got himself run over. Him getting hit caused the wreck out on the highway." The deputy was smiling while he delivered what I guess he thought was good news.

"I guess that does it," Janet commented. I just gave her a blank look. "It looks as though Mike's version will be the only one."

"If he is ever able to give it to us," I suggested.

"You don't really think he is going to be that bad, do you?" she asked.

"No, but you never can tell," I admitted. I left her standing in the parking lot while I returned to the store. As I was about to enter, I saw the phone number on the door. The number was accompanied by the instruction to call in case of emergency. I stopped while I dialed the number on my cell phone.

I made it inside the store before a woman answered. "Yes?" she asked in a very American voice.

"Yes Ma\rquote am, this is Chief Early. I am calling about the Drop In Store are you the owner?"

"No Harold, my husband is. Hold on I'll get him for you," she promised.

"Hello, this is Harold Morris," a man's voice informed me.

"This is Chief Early, there has been a bit of trouble at the Drop In Store. I believe you are the owner?" I asked.

'That's right, is Chen all right?"

"If Chen was the clerk, then I'm sorry to inform you that he was killed in an apparent hold up attempt."

"Oh no," the man said. He sounded genuinely upset.

"I need for you to come down here to secure the store."

"Sure give me a few minutes," he suggested.

"I won't be here, but an officer will. I have a cop in the hospital."

"Of course," the Mr. Morris agreed.

"Deputy?" I called to the deputy who was older even than me. "I have the owner coming down, can you wait for him? I really need to get to the hospital to see about my officer."

"Let me call the dispatcher to make sure," he suggested.

I waited while he made the call. After a few words he turned to me. "Sure Chief, I can stay until the owner arrives."

"Good, I am going to take the officer outside to the hospital for a quick check up," I suggested.

"Why is that chief?" he asked.

"She got shot twice. Even with the vest, I want to have her checked out."

"I didn't know she got shot. Damn she must be one tough broad," he said shaking his head.

"She is," I agreed.

I took a look at my watch and found that I had been on the scene over an hour and a half. I walked to the spot where Janet was still leaning on a sheriff's car. "Come on Officer Lewis we need to go to the hospital."

Janet followed me to the Ford without a word. Once we had cleared the parking lot she said almost in a whisper, "I should call my daughter."

"Do you have your cell phone?" I asked.

"Huh, oh yeah," she said as she removed it from her belt. I watched as she dialed the number.

"Honey," she said into the small plastic box. "There has been a problem tonight. I am fine. I wanted you to know that I'm okay. I wanted you to know that before you hear about it from somebody else." She listened for a couple of minutes then said. "I'll be home in a little while."

I looked over after a couple of minutes of silence. I saw her staring out the window. "Is everything all right?" I asked.

"I guess. Raising a kid without a father is a bitch," she confided.

"Do you want me to go over and kick the little ingrate\rquote s butt?" I asked.

Janet actually laughed. "You know that might be a good idea. Somebody sure as hell needs to do it."

"Why don't you?" I asked.

"Because she doesn't have a dad. I guess I feel guilty enough about that. Beating hell out her might feel good at the time, but I would feel guilty the next day."

"Did you kill him or something?" I asked with a grin in my voice. "I mean her dad."

"No, but I did run him off," she admitted.

"Would the kid have been better off with him around?" I asked seriously.

"No, he was a prick, but she doesn't know that," Janet answered as we pulled into the hospital parking lot.

"Well, I'm glad it isn't my problem," I replied.

"Thanks," she said with a sarcastic smile.

Inside the four story regional hospital, I found the emergency room receptionist less than helpful. "So where is the cop I sent you?" I asked.

"First of all Chief, you didn't send him. Only a doctor can send us a patient."

"Well sweetie," I said as my voice rose. "Since there wasn't a Doctor at the scene of the double homicide, I sent you my cop and I want to know what the hell happened to him."

"Lower your voice or I will call security," she demanded.

"Lady, I am the Chief of Police and this is one of my officers. What the hell make you think we are going to listen to some damned rent-a-cop. Now either you tell me what the hell is going on with my officer, or I am going back there myself." I knew at the time that I was adding all my other frustrations to my frustration with her. Even so, the knowledge didn't stop me.

"I don't care who you are, I can\rquote t give you any information about patients, only a doctor can do that." She stated it not giving an inch.

"Bitch," I whispered as I strode angrily to the door to the treatment rooms. Evidently the receptionist had a switch of some kind because the door wouldn't open for me. It did open for the nurse who walked through it.

She took a good look at me before she asked, "Are you the one raising all the hell out here?"

"I am," I snapped at her.

"So, just who the hell are you?" she asked.

"I am the Taylortown Chief of Police. You have one of my officers back there. I sent him from the scene of a double homicide. I want to know how he is. I also want to know how the woman I sent is doing, and finally I have another officer outside, I want her to get checked out. She was shot twice." I said it all before I wound down.

Look, I can get someone started on the officer you have with you, but I am going on break. If you want, you can come with me and I will tell you all I know."

"That sounds reasonable." I suggested as the pent up pressure blew away.

"You stay right here while I take your officer back," she demanded.

I leaned against the plaster wall while I waited for her to return. About five minutes later she returned from the treatment room. "There is a coffee shop down the hall, why don't we go there?"

I nodded my agreement as I followed along behind her. Since my anger was blunted, I occupied my mind during the walk with her appearance. It looked as though at least some nurses no longer wore white uniforms. The emergency room nurse wore a green scrub suit. Her hair was a funky blonde color and very short. I couldn't be sure but it looked as though it been filled with spikes the night before. The only reason I knew about such things was my time with the Charlotte PD. There certainly were no Punks in Taylortown. The nurse was young enough to have been a slightly old head banger. I would have guessed her age at twenty-five or so.

A scrub suit isn't a lot of help in determining a woman's build. I could tell that she was only slightly over five feet tall, and that she didn't have any hips to speak of. Other than that, her body would forever remain a mystery, I thought.

We reached the coffee shop before I could do any more guessing about her. The coffee shop turned out to be a room filled with machines. The only other human in the place was another nurse.

"Lucy, you guys have been busy tonight," the second nurse commented.

"We certainly have and this is the man responsible, or so he says," my nurse replied.

"I'm not really responsible you know," I observed.

"I distinctly heard you yelling that you sent us those people." At least there was a smile in her eyes, if not in her voice.

"So, how is my officer?" I asked. She had broken the ice for me.

"He hasn't spoken yet, but we think it is a physical thing. If it is shock, he should be fine in a few hours. If on the other hand it is some kind of psychological thing, he may need more help than we can give him here."

"Oh, but you do think it is something you can take care of here?" I asked.

"We hope so, but we won't know for a few more hours. He may come around and he may not," she replied.

As almost a second thought I asked, "So how about the woman?"

"She had a heart attack. She is in the Coronary Care Unit."

"So, is she going to make it?" I asked.

"I think so, though I don't want you to tell anyone I said that. I'm not supposed to make guesses."

"I know only a sawbones can tell me anything," I replied shortly.

"Now just what the hell makes you think I am not a doctor?" she asked.

"Oh hell, you aren't the doctor, are you?" I asked it with a sick embarrassed smile.

"Doctor Lucy Amos," she said extending her hand to me.

I took it with a nod. I honestly didn't know if I owed her an apology or not. "I'm sorry about the sawbones crack. Honestly I thought you are too young and attractive to be a doctor."

"No problem, I get that all the time," she said wearily.

That was the moment one of the spikes in her hair chose to stand up. Doctor Amos hadn't used enough goo that morning. I couldn't help the smile with led uncontrollably to a snicker.

"Just what the hell is so funny?" she asked angrily.

I suppose she thought I was laughing at her doctor status. "Your hair is beginning to take on a will of it's own," I replied.

She quickly opened her purse to remove a mirror. She also removed a hairbrush. She unceremoniously forced the stray clump of hair back against her head. When she was sure it was down, she turned to me. "If you have any wise assed comments, keep them to yourself," she demanded.

"Sounds reasonable," I remarked.

"Good, then let's talk about you," she suggested.

I was shocked. I hadn't expected her to have anything but business on her mind. "Why in the world would you want to bore yourself with me?" I asked.

"Who knows? Just humor me, I didn't have to talk to you at all," she reminded me. "Consider it payment."

"Sure you did, if was either over coffee or a gun," I replied light heartedly.

"You know," she said seriously. "There may be a grain of truth in that."

"Not really, I would have calmed down eventually."

"I'm not so sure about that. There is something dangerous about you," she suggested.

I laughed. "Not at all. I just get a little upset at times. I have been known to take my frustrations out on innocent people."

"I thought cops didn't believe that anyone was innocent. Just caught and uncaught," she replied.

"Sometimes cops are a little cynical," I admitted.

"So are you married?" she asked bluntly.

"Not at the moment, how about you?" I asked it to hide my surprise.

"I haven't had time, yet."

"How long have you been a real doctor?" I asked. Before she could answer I continued, "I mean you look like a kid."

"I guess that would be a compliment in a different situation. I am over thirty, and I have been a \b real\b0 doctor three years."

"I didn't mean that the way it came out," I replied.

"Don't let the hair fool you, I am a damned good doctor," she replied shortly.

"I'm sure you are." I don't know if I meant it or not, but I knew enough to back out of the topic gracefully. "So where are you from originally? With that accent you can't be from around here."

"New York City," she answered defiantly.

"A carpetbagger," I replied with a smile. The smile was large enough to inform her that I was only kidding.

"That's right, I came down to take advantage of you bumpkins," she replied.

"Well if I have to get screwed, I prefer that a beautiful woman do it," I suggested.

"Don't get your hopes up," she said with a light smile.

"In that case, I guess I should go back and wait for my people," I suggested.

"The woman, you might get, but the man is going to be with us a day at least."

"Can I see him?" I asked.

"I guess, but his wife is with him right now. I don't expect a second visitor would matter. He is out cold anyway." As a second thought she added, "If he wakes up, don't ask him anything about the shooting."

"Fair enough," I replied.

I found Mike in a treatment room, which was really no room at all. It was a cubicle with a bed surrounded by curtains. Mike's wife sat beside him, the scene almost made me cry.

"Mrs. Mathews, I am so sorry about Mike," I said it as she stood for a hug. I held the older woman while she cried.

"The doctor tells me there is a good chance that Mike will be fine," she said. "He was crying like a baby." d\tx720\tx3870\tx4320\tx5040\tx5760\tx6480\tx7200\tx7920\tx8640

"I know, he'll be fine. I'm sure of that," I said hopefully.

"I told Mike that this might happen, he always said cops go a career without ever using their guns. I told him he might have to kill someone, but he wouldn't listen. Chief, Mike couldn't even shoot a vicious dog. I don't know how he thought he could shoot a human."

"Mrs. Mathews, when Mike had to do it, he did just fine," I replied lamely.

"Chief, Mike knows that because of him two people died. That's why he can't stop crying. Mike is like that, he is just too tender hearted. I begged him not to take the job, but he wouldn't listen."

"Regardless of why he took the job, he did fine."

"I just hope I don't lose him because of it," she replied.

I sat down across the bed from her. I sat with the two of them for several minutes. "Mrs. Mathews, I have to leave now. I have another officer here. I have to take her back to Taylortown. Would you like for me to come back and sit with you?" I prayed she would say no.

"That would be nice Chief, but my sister is on the way. If Mike wakes, I will tell him you were here."

"I would appreciate that," I replied as I stood to leave. In the lobby, I found Janet waiting.

"Chief, how is Mike?" she asked.

"I don't know. Nobody is going to know anything until he wakes up. It looks like they knocked him out for a while. I expect they will be putting him in a room soon."

"I sure hope he is going to be okay. We had an officer in Greensboro who never did come back to work after a shooting. He decided to build furniture instead."

"If the furniture was any good, he probably made the right choice. This kind of crap isn't for everyone," I explained. Not much else was said until we arrived outside her house.

"You want to come in?" she asked.

"No thanks, I need to get in touch with Eddie and Tommy. I have to work out some kind of coverage plan. I expect I will just cover Mike's shift until we figure out something."

"If there is anything I can do, just let me know," Janet volunteered.

"Thanks, in the meantime if you hear from either of the others, tell them to call me."

I drove by the convenience store as I worked my way back to the office. The parking lot was still blocked off with crime scene tape. even though their were no cops. The store was dark, convincing me that the owner had decided to close. I would have liked to have thought it was a sign of respect for the dead clerk, but expected it was due to his inability to find a clerk willing to clean up the blood.

At the station I checked the duty roster. Mike was scheduled for the eleven to seven shift. I decided to take his calls, otherwise to leave the shift empty for a few days. I made the calls to the other two officers as soon as possible. I wanted everyone on the same page.

A half hour or so after I finished all the calls, the bell on the front door of the police station rang. I chose to ignore it. Five minutes later the bell on my inside apartment door sounded off. That one I couldn't ignore, at least not for long. When I opened the door, I found the Mayor and her daughter standing on my landing.

"To what do I owe the honor?" I asked trying to be pleasant.

"Don't be a smart ass Early," the Mayor suggested.

"There you go again Mayor, you have completely misread my remarks."

"Why the hell can't you two bury the hatchet. This really isn't about either one of you," Megan suggested.

"As far as I am concerned, there is no reason to bury anything," I stated simply.

"Bull, you two are driving me crazy. Mom swears every day that she is going to fire you. God only knows what you say about her." Megan said in an exasperated voice.

"Look this is not the time to bring that crap up," I said.

"I agree, this is a time to decide what we are going to do about this mess," the mayor said.

"What the hell are you talking about?" I asked.

"The Town may have some liability in all this."

"We are going to have to wait until the investigation is finished. Hell, I haven't even had time to get anything done. I am going to start interviewing people tomorrow. That is, if there is anyone who is in any condition to talk to me." d\tx720\tx1440\tx2160\tx2880\tx3600\tx4320\tx5040\tx5760\tx6480\tx7200\tx7920\tx8640

"When I couldn't reach you, I called the Sheriff. He explained that the witnesses are all out of it at the moment. I took the liberty of calling the SBI."

"You did what?" I shouted.

"I called the SBI to investigate. I don't want anyone saying we whitewashed this thing," she snapped.

"Mayor that was about the dumbest thing you could have done. That is a decision for me to make not you."

"Well, I don't see it that way. I want a complete investigation. One in which I can put my faith."

"Are you telling me that you don't think I am smart enough, or is it that I am not honest enough to do an impartial investigation?"

"I didn't say either. What I said was that I called the SBI to do an investigation in which there can be no questions."

"Was that your idea or the Sheriff's?"

"If was my decision, no matter who said what," she admitted.

"Tell me this, were you sober when you made that wonderful decision?" I knew it would hurt and I wanted it to do just that.

"I can not have you questioning my decision," she shouted.

"Then stop making cop decision without asking me," I shouted back at her.

"Chief, I am going to have to ask for your resignation," she said.

"I will not resign. I will also not allow you to fire me without a fight. So if you want to push this, let's go to the town council together." I replied angrily.

"I am not going to allow you to blackmail me. I know I am right this time." she shouted.

"Fine, then you fire me and we will fight this out," I replied.

"You are fired. Let's go Megan. I told you he wouldn't listen to reason."

"Mom, you really don't want to do this," Megan said calmly.

"You are my daughter, I am not yours. Don't you ever presume to tell me what I want." With those words the Mayor stormed out my door. Megan turned to follow her down the stairs and into the police station below.

Megan stopped on the top step, turned then said, "Chief I am sorry. She called the SBI before I could stop her."

"Not to worry, this has been brewing for months. I guess it's time we had it out." I suggested.

"She has been talking to the town council for six months. I think she can convince them to go along with her," Megan said.

"That's fine, but I'm not leaving until I say my piece. It may not make any difference, but I am going to say it anyway."

A few minutes after she had gone, I made another decision. I decided to find out, what the hell had happened at the convenience store before I did anything. I decided that I should get all the information I could before the Mayor told everyone who would listen that I had been fired.

The first call I made was to the Highway Patrol office. After identifying myself I asked for the officer who had investigated the accident on the bypass. I had to wait for Trouper Evans to call me.

"Hello," I said into the phone.

"Is this Chief Early?" the voice asked skeptically.

"Yes, you must be Trouper Evans. I want to thank you for calling me at home." I stuck the last in to explain why I hadn't answered the phone 'Taylortown Police Department.'

"No problem Chief, what can I do for you?" he asked.

"You must know by now that your pedestrian was the driver of the getaway car in a robbery attempt in my town?" I made it a question.

"Sure, I have heard that. If you want to know anything about the victim in my accident, I can't help you."

"Why? has somebody told you not to cooperate," I asked.

"No nothing like that. The man had no ID. Not only that, there wasn't much of a face left either. We may get something off his prints but it will be a week or two."

"When you say he had no ID, do you mean his pockets were empty?"

"No, he had a few coins in his pocket. He even had a wallet of sorts, it was just empty."

"Now why the hell would a simple stickup man remove the ID from his wallet?" I asked aloud.

"Got me chief. I just put him in a bag," he said rather too lightly. "Did your man have any ID?"

"I haven't checked on him yet. I expect I should get on down to the morgue. The shooter should be checked in by now. Look, I appreciate your calling. By the way was there anything else unusual about the pedestrian?"

"Not a thing that I could see," he replied. "Except that he had really bad teeth. I ain't never seen teeth so rotten."

"Really?" I asked.

"Yeah, does that mean anything?" he asked.

"Not to me," I replied.

After the call I decided to drive back to the hospital in Garnet. I hadn't driven my old truck much lately so I was pleasantly surprised when it started on the first turn of the key. The drive to the Hospital in Garnet took about twenty minutes ordinarily, that day it took me forty-five. I'm afraid I was terribly distracted. At times I found myself doing twenty miles and hour.

I parked in one of the spaces outside the emergency room, which was reserved for emergency vehicles. As I walked through the emergency room, I passed by Doctor Lucy. She was engaged in conversation with a youngish couple. I smiled as I passed but nothing more.

I walked to the corridor which led into the hospital. Half way down it, I found the elevators. Once inside I pushed the basement button. The morgue was almost directly across from the elevator. I tried to open the door, but found it locked. I don't know what they expected to happen that would require a locked door, maybe they expected a terrorist attack or a vampire\rquote s visit. Possibly they expected a group of vampire terrorist to invade. Either way it caused me to ring the bell.

The door was opened by the pathologist's assistant. The young man was about fifty pounds overweight. I was amazed. I couldn't see how anyone working in a morgue could ever eat, let alone eat enough to gain weight.

"I'm Chief Early. I came to pick up the effects of the suspect in the convenience store robbery in Taylortown."

The young man didn't answer, instead he turned to walk away. I assumed I was to follow so I did. He went into a cubicle constructed of banking partitions. I followed him inside where he removed a manila envelope from the drawer.

I opened the envelope then dumped the contents on the table. I opened the worn wallet then removed the driver's license issued to Tai Chen. "This is the wrong one," I informed the bored young man.

He still didn't answer as he removed a much thinner envelope. I dumped the contents on the table. Inside were a few coins and a wallet. Inside the wallet were a couple of phone numbers but nothing more.

"You done the autopsy on him yet?" I asked as I copied the numbers into my notebook.

"Won't do it until tomorrow," he replied.

I nodded as I walked away. When I returned to the elevator, I decided that I should at least visit Mike. I also remembered that I didn't know in which room he might be found. I returned to the emergency room to ask the receptionist.

"Do you know which room the cop from Taylortown is in?" I asked.

"Just a minute, I'll look," she suggested as she turned back to her computer screen.

"What are you doing back here?" a voice behind me asked.

I turned to look into the dark eyes of Doctor Lucy Amos. I was shocked by her appearance yet again. It wouldn't have been a shock had I not known that she was a doctor. "I'm just here to visit my officer again. That is as soon as I find him," I replied.

"He is in room 215 chief," the receptionist said.

"Well Doctor Amos, it was nice to have seen you again." I said that with as warm a smile as I could muster with all my problems.

"Come on, I'll walk down the hall with you," she suggested.

"Okay," I replied only because I had no idea what else to say.

When we were inside the corridor leading back to the elevators, she said, "This is your absolute last chance to ask me out."

I have to admit that I was totally surprised. "You are kidding?" I asked. She shook her head. "Why the hell would you want to go out with me?"

"Why not, you are attractive enough in that country bumpkin kind of way."

"Gee what a compliment," I said with a large grin. "Still you are much too young and pretty for me."

"Good, then you will appreciate me more. Come on Chief at least give me a test drive."

"How about next weekend?" I asked.

"It's Friday, how about tonight?" she replied.

"What the hell, what time do you get off?" I asked.

"Midnight, just be waiting for me outside on the walk at exactly midnight. If I'm not there in ten minutes, come inside," she demanded.

"Fair enough," I replied stepping into the elevator.

"See you later," she said turning back toward the emergency room.

The elevator deposited me on the second floor. With the help of two different nurses I found 215. I looked through the door before entering. Inside I saw his wife and another woman who bore a strong resemblance to her.

"Chief," Mike's wife greeted me. "Mike, the chief is here again."

Mike opened his eyes. "Thanks for coming Chief," he said tearing up again.

"No problem, you sure look a lot better than you did a couple of hours ago." I said.

"I feel some better," he replied. "Honey, why don't you and Lucy take a break. Me and the Chief got some business."

The two women stood to leave. His wife gave me a harsh look. Without words she convinced me to take it easy on her husband.

After they had gone neither of us spoke for a moment or so. I finally broke the silence. "Mike are you up to telling me what happened?" I asked.

"I need to tell somebody," he replied quietly. "I went into the store to buy a quart of milk for the wife. While I was deciding between skim and 2%, the woman came in for a six pack. I headed for the register just before the kid came through the door. He got to the register first. He picked up a couple of packs of cigarettes from the counter. When the clerk went to ring them up, he pulls a pistol."

"I swear chief, I was so shocked I almost dropped my milk. The kid, he don't say a word. I don't think Mrs. Beal even knew what was going on. Anyway the kid don't say a word, I guess he didn't think the chink would understand. He just tapped the register with that pistol. The chink understood that.

Since he had his attention on the register, I pulled my .38. I tell him to drop the pistol. He looks up at me but keeps the pistol on the clerk. He turned back to the clerk waving that gun around. At that point I heard two shots, the kid's head exploded."

Mike broke into gasping tears at that point. I waited while he fought his way back. "The clerk fell behind the counter only after a large red spot appeared on his chest. I was already in rough shape when the Beal woman screamed, then hit the floor. I'm ashamed to say I went right after her."

"Mike, you have nothing to be ashamed of. You did one hell of a fine job. As far as breaking down, hell, you had the right. Statistically the odds of what happened to you are about the same as a Scud missile falling on the Mayor's house. In other words you acted heroically. I mean being able to ice the bad guy before he killed you or Mrs. Beal took quick thought and damned good reflexes." I could only hope Mike caught on.

"I don't know Chief, but is nice of you to say so," he replied.

"After he shot that clerk, you did the only thing you could do," I replied.

"I guess," he said still teary eyed.

Something began circling in my mind. "Mike, did he understand, when you told him to drop the pistol?" I asked.

"To tell you the truth Chief I don't know. I have been playing it back in my mind over and over. He looked more confused that dangerous. If he hadn't shot that clerk, I might have held off a while longer."

At least Mike was getting with the program. "Well don't worry, it will all work out fine."

Just as I finished that statement Mike's wife showed up at the door. She was smart not to leave us alone too long.

"What happened to Mrs. Beal?" Mike asked.

"She had a heart attack. I expect she is doing okay. If you make it to the hospital alive, you have a pretty good chance." I suggested.

"I hope so. She was just a bystander."

"So where you Mike. Well, I have a couple of things I need to do. By the way, the SBI may come talk to you. Just tell them what you told me and everything should be just fine."

"What the hell are they doing nosing into this?" he asked not especially angry at the prospect.

"Got me, the Mayor decided she wanted them involved."

After I left the hospital, I drove to the storage lot where the Camero and our Buick had been towed. The Camero sat behind a wire fence. Even at nine p.m. a tow truck driver was in the office. He opened the fence for me. I looked inside the car only to find a few candy wrappers and a few beer cans. The beer cans reminded me of the pool hall break in. Not that they were necessarily from the pool hall, they just put me in mind of it. I decided that I needed to have a little talk with Norman.

I wrote the license number of the car in my notebook before I left the tow yard. On the drive into town I stopped in the parking lot of a McDonalds. I sat in a parking space away from the customers while I made a call to the Sheriff's office. I had the dispatcher run the license plate for me. It took her about two minutes to give me a name. She was also kind enough to give me the man's phone number.

I reached the man within minutes. He explained that his car had been stolen several months before from the parking lot while he worked. He also told me that he worked at the lawnmower plant. It wasn't much of a surprise since most of the people around town worked there.

I almost drove to the pool hall, but I decided to wait until the Doctor was with me. Since she was a party animal, she might like a real small town pool hall. At least that is what I thought as I smiled to myself.

In Taylortown on a Friday night the kids all cruise. They drive endlessly from the highway strip on one end of town to the strip on the other. The trip takes them right down the main street. Once in a while we get a complaint about the kids but not usually. I would have done something but I could remember being young. As long as they picked up their trash I left them pretty much alone. At least I had until that night.

Just to kill the time more than anything else, I drove to the parking lot of a closed, auto parts store. In that parking lot the kids from all over the area congregated. I drove into the lot to find about a dozen cars. I parked my old truck so that it blocked three of them in. I figured I had at least a couple of them as a captive audience.

I began by asking a teenaged girl first. "Hi there, I'm Chief Early." I still had the badge. The Mayor really should have asked for it back. "I wonder have you seen a couple of foreign kids driving a beat up old Camero?"

"I don't now about the kids, but there are a couple of beat up Cameros running around here." she replied with a disarming smile.

"These two probably don't speak any English at all," I suggested.

"No, I don't think I've seen anybody like that. Tell you what though, why don't you ask Anna?"

"Why Anna?" I asked not having the slightest idea who she might be.

"Are you kidding? Anna knows everybody. You know like in the Bible."

"So, where do I find this Anna?" I asked.

"Just look for a new Mustang, one of those like the highway patrol drives."

"You mean the ones with the big engines?" I asked.

"Yeah like that, her Mustang is bright red. You can't miss Anna, she has jet black hair. She is also ten of twenty pounds overweight. If you see her, you'll know it."

I thanked her then spent two hours looking for Anna. I didn't ding on her before eleven so I drove back to the hospital. I waited in my truck until exactly midnight, when I began to walk along the concrete walk outside the Emergence Room door. I walked back and forth for about five minutes before the door opened. Through it walked Lucy still dressed in her green scrub suit.

"Do you want me to run you by your house to change?" I asked.

"Why, are we going somewhere fancy?" she asked.

"Not really, I just thought you might like to get out of the green suit," I suggested.

"Like I said, not unless we are going somewhere fancy. If I wear this, the hospital does my laundry. I'm not real good at that domestic crap."

"We aren't going anywhere fancy I assure you." We had been walking toward the parking lot during the conversation.

When we arrived beside my old truck, she said, "You really don't expect me to ride in that do you?"

"Are you afraid you will get your scrub suit dirty?" I asked with a smile.

"That's not it. I just have to be back to work tomorrow at three. If I take off with you in that heap, I will be lucky to make it back by next Christmas." She was at least smiling while she said it. "Come on I'll drive."

I had to admit her little red BMW convertible was a damned sight classier than my old truck. I sat quietly while she used a large mirror attached to the sun visor. With the aid of its reflection she used a whole jar of goo. She first spiked her hair, then applied what can only be called clown makeup. When she finished, her face was very close to white, except for very red cheeks, not to mention her very thick black eye makeup. She looked a lot like Janet's daughter must have dreamed of looking.

I gave her driving direction which took us to the pool hall in Taylortown. I was a little surprised to find that the pool hall had a band on the weekends. That particular night it was Sammie Lost and her Lost Boys.

"What kind of band are they?" Lucy asked.

"Hell Doc, I didn't even know there was a band," I admitted.

"If we didn't come for the band, what was the entertainment going to be?"

"No entertainment, I just have to ask the owner a couple of questions," I replied.

"Like on TV?" she asked.

"Absolutely not," I replied seriously.

We were sitting at the bar with a glass filled with draft beer when I asked the bartender, "Where is Norm tonight?"

"Back in his office, you want me to get him for you?" the scarey looking girl asked.

"No thanks, I know where it is," I admitted.

"He don't let nobody back there," she offered.

I showed her my badge. "Oh he will see me."

I turned to Lori but she couldn't hear me. I finally shouted into her ear. "I have to talk to Norm now. You be careful while I am gone. I don't know about these kids."

"Hey, these are my people," she said just before she returned to bouncing up and down on the bar stool.

I found Norm sitting in the office where I had visited after the second break in. "Norm how's it going?" I asked.

"Fine, what brings you here?" Norm wasn't much on light conversation.

"I came by to see why you haven't been using the motion alarm I brought you."

"I've been using it," he said defensively.

"Norm, that thing goes off when a mouse farts. It was set to call me when it alarmed, and I haven't heard a thing from it. For some reason you haven't been using it and now you lie about it. That makes me real curious," I said.

"Okay, I haven't been using it, but I don't have to explain to you," he said.

"Norm, your insurance company isn't going to like you not cooperating with me."

"Why should they care, I didn't file a claim, and there ain't going to be no more claims."

"Oh why is that?" I asked.

"I ain't got nothing else to say."

With those words he turned his back to me. I had been removed from my own investigation, then fired by a drunken Mayor. Norm turning his back on me was the last straw. I lost it completely.

I swung Norm's can around. "Now you listen to me you piece of crap. You are going to answer my questions or I am going to kick the shit out of you."

Norm made a bad mistake. He showed his anger, then tried to stand. He was badly off balance when I knocked hell out of him. He fell backward tripping over his chair as he went down. Just for good measure I kicked him hard in the ribs, a great whooshing sound passed Norm's lips as the air rushed out of his lungs.

Since he was trying to get up anyway, I helped him to his feet. I also penned him against the wall with my left hand wrapped around his throat. With my right hand I removed my snub nosed .38. I shoved it under Norm's chin.

"Now you listen to me fat boy, I want to know why you aren't worried about any more break-ins. Who have you been talking to?"

"Man you broke my ribs," he whined.

I couldn't believe that he was whining with the .38 under his chin. He didn't seem in the least concerned. "Norm, you have ten seconds to begin talking. If you don't, I am going to shoot you then toss my throw down gun on the floor."

"You won't shoot me with her watching," he said confidently.

I glanced quickly to the door to see Lucy standing in it. "You want me to close the door Les honey?" she asked.

"Sure baby, close the door on your way out." I turned back to Norm. "What were you saying about a witness?"

"Okay," he said with a nervous expression on his face. "Old man Horner came by a couple of days after you left that alarm. He told me not to worry that he would pay for any losses and damages I had. He also told me not to call the insurance or you. I was supposed to call him first whenever I had a break in."

"Why?" I asked.

"I don't know and I don't care. The man paid me for my trouble."

"Okay, who is Horner?" I asked.

"You don't know much do you?" he asked getting control of himself.

I closed off his air for a few seconds. I wanted to make absolutely sure he knew who was in charge. "I may not know much asshole, but you are the one at death's door. Now who the hell is Horner?"

"Horner is the General Manger at the Lawnmower plant," Norm answered quietly.

"Did he tell you why he was doing it?" I asked.

"No, he didn't and I didn't ask."

"Okay Norm, I am going out that door, then straight out the front door. I am going to turn back about halfway out. If you are anywhere to be seen, I am going to shoot you. You do understand?"

"Yeah," he croaked.

I expected to spend a few moments searching for Lucy but she was standing guard outside the door. "Come on, we have to get the hell out of here," I said pulling her toward the door.

As we crossed the parking lost quickly, she asked, "Should I get us the hell out of her quick?"

"You bet," I answered grinning down at her.

She laid rubber all over the parking lot. The BMW stayed glued to the pavement even with the wheels spinning. She kept the car remarkably straight as she tore from the pool hall parking lot.

"God this is fun," she said as we roared down the road.

"You can slow down now," I replied.

"Hell, do I have to?" she asked.

"Yes," I admitted.

"So where to now?" she asked.

"If you want, you can take me back to my truck. I have to sit around watching a building for a few hours."

"If we can take a six pack, I want to go along," she suggested.

"Why not," I replied.

Twenty minutes later found us parked beside a dumpster just outside the fence of the Lawnmower plant. I hadn't realized how far off the road the plant was. I also didn't know for sure what I was doing at the plant. I had spotted only one car in the parking lot. There might not be anyone in the plant. The car could have been broken down for all I knew.

Lucy and I spent an hour drinking beer and talking about our pasts. It was interesting for me, but I expected that it was boring as hell for the kid doctor. We were on the last two beers when it happened. At first it was no more than a roaring sound, then it turned into an eighteen wheeler headed toward the plant. I realized immediately that there were two more following it.

When the trucks arrived at the gate, the lead driver blew his horn. The gate opened mysteriously. The three trucks drove through, then around to the rear of the plant. I watched until they were all three out of sight.

"Well, it's time to leave," I admitted.

"Why, aren't we going to sneak in?" she asked.

"Nope, the beer is all gone, it's time to go home. Don't use your lights, there may be somebody watching. It was probably a good thing that we came in without them," I added it as an after thought.

"Don't you want to know what's going on?" she asked shortly.

"I know what's going on." I admitted

"Well tell me," she demanded.

"They are loading lawnmowers," I replied with a knowing smile.

"In that case, I am not going to sleep with you," she snapped shortly.

"Good for you, I knew you had more class than the hairdo suggested," I replied.

"You are an insufferable prick," she said rather warmly. She suddenly seemed to find it all amusing.

"I know it goes with the job," I admitted. That conversation took us all the way out to the access road. If we had turned right we would have gone into downtown Taylortown. We turned left to the bypass.

A few minutes later we were pulling off the bypass into the outskirts of Garnet. I didn't know much about Garnet, but I knew that she was headed away from the hospital.

"So where are you taking me?" I asked innocently.

"To my place of course," she admitted with a smile.

"I thought that was out of the question?"

"If you think it is for sex, then you are right it is out of the question. You and I just need to have a little talk," she informed me.

"Talk about what?"

"You are going to have to wait until we get to my place for that. I want to be relaxing on the sofa with a beer when I break it to you."

I waited until the drive ended in the parking lot of a very modern apartment building. I followed her from the parked car into a six story building of concrete and glass. On the fourth flood we exited the high speed elevator. The sign on the door informed me that I was about to enter apartment 4D.

The apartment surprised me by its size. It was absolutely tiny in its dimensions. About the only difference between her apartment and mine was that hers had inside walls. It also was much newer and brighter. During the daytime the light would have come from the wall of glass at one end of the living room. At night it came from powerful track lights everywhere.

"Have a seat while I get us a beer," she demanded.

"Aren't you going to slip into something more comfortable?" I asked with a huge grin.

"I'm perfectly comfortable," she said from the galley kitchen. When she returned, she handed me a beer. I took a look at the label on the reusable glass bottle. The beer was a brand of which I had never heard. I noticed that it was brewed at a micro brewery in Greensboro.

"I always wanted to try one of these designer beers," I admitted as I tipped it back. "So what is it you wanted to talk about?"

"Get comfortable this is going to take a little explaining." she said as she moved to sit on the glass topped coffee table in front of the small but comfortable sofa. I relaxed on the sofa, at least as much as I dared. She looked serious enough so that I wanted to keep my wits about me. When I was comfortable, I nodded for her to continue.

"Okay," she said as she took a deep breath. "I work for a group of doctors whose office is in Texas. They contract to provide emergency services doctors to smaller hospitals. Do you follow me so far?"

"Of course I do. I am not a total idiot even if I am a cop," I snapped at her.

"Okay, I have been here six months of a two year contract. I have found a couple of clubs I like but I can't go out with any of the men there."

"Why not?" I asked.

"First of all they are much too young. I may be living out my lost childhood but that doesn't include mothering some 'head case'. Anyway," she added shortly. "I can't date the kids from the clubs but I do need a man once in a while."

She saw me grin, then hurried on. "I get invitations from my co-workers. You know dinner parties, that kind of thing. Since I can't stand the wimpy residents, and the doctors are all looking for maids, I either don't go or go alone. What I need is someone to escort me to those things." She paused waiting for me to speak.

"So you want me to be your escort to a bunch of parties too dull for anyone else. Is that it?" I asked.

"That's pretty much it," she admitted.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because I can talk to you and you are someone the people around here will accept. You know, you are kind of socially relevant."

"That's not what I meant. Why the hell would I agree to such a one sided relationship?" I asked.

"You like me don't you?" she asked.

"You're okay I guess. I don't know you all that well. Especially not well enough to sit though some dull assed dinner party. If that is the best you have to offer, then the answer is no." I was actually enjoying her discomfort.

"I had hoped we might not have to define everything. You know, I had kind of expected the other to just happen."

"In that case let's go see what kind of deal I am about to make," I suggested with my wicked smile.

"Not so fast," she said leaning over to extract a small plastic box from a drawer in the end table. She opened the box to reveal a long rubber tube and a syringe.

"If you are some kind of junkie then the deal is off," I wasn't kidding at all.

Lucy laughed heartily. "Nothing like that, I just need a little blood from you."

"Why?" I asked suspecting the truth.

"Sweetie, there is some dirty little things out there. Things that ajax won't clean. I have access to all kinds of medical marvels and I intend to use them."

"You can have the blood but I'm not sure about any of this. I mean the deal isn't improving much from my point of view. Not only do you want me to go to dull parties, but you want me to get involved in a relationship with no romance."

"After I check your blood, there will be plenty of romance," she informed me.

"All I have is your word for that," I pointed out.

"True, but you can walk out anytime you find the romance lacking," she admitted. "I mean I'm not demanding a contract."

"I guess I need some time to think about this," I replied.

"You've got a couple of days while the blood test is run. You think it over for a while." She paused a few seconds then went on. "I'm beat and I have to work tomorrow. How about you sleeping on my sofa tonight? I'll drive you back in the morning."

"Sure," I said reluctantly. I didn't want to sleep on the sofa, but I also didn't want to argue with her. She obviously had her mind made up.

I was surprised when she awoke me the next morning at exactly 11a.m. She sat on the coffee table again. At that time she held a cup of coffee in each hand while she spoke gently to me. "Chief, it's time for you to wake up. You know I feel kind of funny calling you chief, but I don't even know your name."

I realized for the first time how bizarre the conversation had been the night before. We knew nothing about each other but she was proposing a relationship built on her needs.

"Early," I said. "My name is Lester Early."

"Well Les, you know my name so I guess we are finally even. Come on get dressed, I have things to do before work," she explained.

By noon I was in my own apartment. I found enough crap in my refrigerator for a fairly good, but very late breakfast. I was munching on burnt toast when the phone rang.

"Where the hell have you been?" Sandy's voice ask.

"Out, where the hell have you been for the last two months?" I asked in return. I hadn't realized that her absence had bothered me until I heard my tone.

"You know damned well where I've been. We agreed at the start that we could date other people. So Winthorpe took a little more of my time than I thought. I told you I would only date men who had more money than my ex. Well Winnie does," she replied just as shortly. It seemed that her nerves, as well as mine, were shot.

"I'm sorry, I knew the score. I guess I am feeling a little defensive this morning," I replied.

"It's okay. I know the way you feel. I used to get that feeling every time somebody took advantage of me. I should never have gotten involved with you. Even though we both knew it was temporary, it had to hurt the one who got left behind." She paused waiting for me to say something, when I didn't she changed the subject. "My Uncle the councilman called last night. It seems the Mayor called him and all the others. She fed him a cock and bull story but in the end she admitted that she had called the SBI and fired you."

"That's what happened all right. So how did your uncle take it?" I asked.

"It looks as though she will get away with it," Sandy replied.

"Even if I appeal it to them?"

"Yeah, she says you were belligerent and abusive to her. According to her she can't have that if she is to remain as mayor."

"So why don't they just let her go?" I asked.

"Because love, she is damned good at running the town without any real money. I'm sorry Les but it looks like I can't help you this time."

"Not to worry, I can handle this just fine. As a matter of fact I need to get to it."

"Don't do anything foolish," Sandy said.

"Not me," I replied with a great laugh. It might have sounded a little like the laugh you hear at the insane hospitals.

"Just be careful," she took a moment then changed the subject again. "If you stay around call me sometime."

"Sure, but right now I got to save my job." I replied hanging up the phone.

I had just about finished with the dishes when the phone rang again. "Chief it's me, Janet."

"So how are you feeling today?" I asked.

"A little sore but not bad considering the alternative," she had a smile in her voice. It dropped away with the next words. "The Mayor called me and all the other cops last night. I tried to call you but I got no answer."

"I was out celebrating," I replied.

"You really decide to leave over this?"

"Not my choice, but I think the mayor and I can work it out. So what did she tell you to do in the meantime?"

"We are to work our shifts as usual. If we have any questions, we are supposed to call the sheriff's duty officer. I think it stinks."

"Well, their duty officer should know what's going on," I admitted.

"Yeah, well I don't like it. I expect the Mayor will fire us all. It seems to me that she is about to turn the town over to the Sheriff."

"Don't worry it will never happen. This will all blow over by Monday."

"What the hell are you going to do?" Janet asked.

"I'm going to call the mayor to reason with her," I admitted.

"Begging her for your job won't help. Chief, she is seriously pissed at you."

"I'm not going to beg, I am going to reason with her. Let me go so that I can get to it."

"Good luck," Janet added before breaking the connection.

I dialed the Mayor's hardware store. "Ace hardware," Megan's voice answered.

"Hi Megan, is your mom around?"

"Sure Chief, but she doesn't want to talk to you," she replied.

"Why don't you give her this message? If she isn't at the station in five minutes, I am going to call the FBI and the INS. I expect she will want to talk to me then." I hung up the phone without saying goodbye.

I made it down to the station before Mayor Wilson arrived. I even had the coffee started when she came into the room. I moved to sit at the desk.

"What the hell are you talking about?" she asked angrily.

"Sit your ass down," I demanded. "If you didn't know what I was talking about, you wouldn't be here."

"I have no idea what you are saying."

"Good then go on back to your hardware store while I make the calls. This town should last about a week without the lawnmower plant."

"So you do know?" she asked with a much gentler voice.

"You're damned right I know. What I don't know is how you are mixed up in it."

"Jack Horner came to me. He laid the whole thing out for me. I had to agree to it all before he would build his plant in Taylortown. Chief Early, the town was dead and about to be buried when he came. I don't think I did anything wrong. All I agreed to do was not snoop around out there. I don't really know what goes on."

"I can tell you if you like," I suggested.

"I really don't want to know," she informed me. After a moment's thought she continued, "So I suppose you want your job back?"

"Actually that and more. I expect to go on the payroll of the plant as well. I was thinking a thousand a month."

"Jack will never pay that," she informed me.

"You just tell him what I said. If he has a problem with it, we can talk it over. One more thing Molly." I could see her anger rise when I called her by her given name. "I want you to call off that SBI investigation right now. If you don't, they are likely to find out the same things I did."

"You would tell them?" she asked.

"Probably won't have to tell them anything. They aren't as stupid as you seem to think all cops are," I replied.

"Very well but blackmail isn't what I would expect from you," she snapped as she stood.

"Well let's hope that it is your last surprise about me."

After she had gone, I removed the tape from my recorder. I put the cassette into an envelope, then drove it to the post office.

I arrived home fifteen minutes later. I half expected Horner to be waiting for me, instead I found only an empty station and apartment. I called the hospital to check on Mike and Mrs.Beal. Mike had been released that morning, Mrs. Beal had been scheduled for a heart bypass on Monday. It appeared that she would be fine. According to her doctor the heart attack had been waiting to happen. If it hadn't been the robbery attempt, it would have been bending over to retrieve a pan from the cabinet. Mrs.' Beal was just in the store when it happened. It looked as though the town would have no liability in her heart attack.

I called Mike's home. I spoke with his wife since Mike was sleeping. "Mike sleeps a lot right now," she informed me. "I expect it is the medicine."

"Well don't wake him, but do tell him I called."

"Sure Chief, but I have to tell you, Mike may not be coming back to work. Especially if I have anything to do with it."

"I would really miss him. We all would, but I do understand. Maybe I should drop by to discuss it with you folks?"

"That won't be necessary, we will talk it over and get back with you," she informed me pleasantly.

Two hours later he came. When I opened the outside door, I saw a man only a couple of years older than me. He was dresses casually in clothes that costs more than most people pay for suits.

"From that pistol in your hand, I would guess that you are Horner," I said opening the door wide.

"You act as if you are expecting me," he commented as he entered.

"Of course I was."

"You don't seem surprised by the pistol," he was smiling as he spoke.

"I'm not. A fifty-cent bullet looks better on the bottom line than twelve grand a year. You are, after all, a man who appreciates the bottom line."

"So true," he replied. "You seem to be a lot brighter than I was led to believe."

"Was the mayor sober when she told you I was stupid?" I asked.

"It was after five, what do you think?"

"Fair enough, I suppose I should return the compliment. Since you didn't shoot me on sight, you must be smart enough to figure I built a deadman."

"What the hell is a deadman?" he asked.

"My death triggers a sequence of events designed to put your ass in Levenworth," I replied with a broad smile.

"A note to your lawyer, I suppose?"

"Cops don't have lawyers. I mailed a cassette of my talk with your partner to a family member, who will place it in my safety deposit box. As you must surely know, the IRS will be standing by when it is opened after my death. The envelope in which the tape rests has directions."

"I should have known you weren't as stupid as the mayor said. Of course she doesn't know very much. The question really is how much do you know."

"How about we make a deal, I'll tell you what I know and you fill in the rest?" I made it a question.

"Why would I do that?" he asked.

"What difference does it make, I know enough to get you many years in prison."

"Chief, men like me don't go to prison. At worst we go to Maxwell Air Force Base."

"Even that has to be pretty miserable. Besides if you shoot me, it's murder, and for that you do go to central prison in Raleigh," I suggested.

"Okay, we talk then I decide what to do with you," he replied.

"Please let me start."

'That was the plan," he admitted.

"The Lawnmower plant runs a second shift of illegal aliens. Where you stash them I haven't a clue. Where did you get them anyway?"

"They aren't aliens, they are slaves," he informed me as he sat on my sofa motioning me to a chair with the pistol.

"Come on there are no more slaves."

"How naive you are. In a certain South American country there are hundreds, if not thousands of slaves. People who have said the wrong thing in the wrong place about their government. With so many, the government is spending millions feeding and guarding the 'politicos'. Somebody down there came up with the idea of selling them. The only catch was that the 'politicos' had to be taken out of the country never to return."

After a pause to light a cigar he continued, "Several years ago I happened to meet a man who purchased such items. He offered me the slaves at a very reasonable price. Actually I purchased one slave for one thousand dollars. Hell the upkeep isn't very much either. I bought an old church camp a few miles from town. I had the two cabins closed in a little, added a coal stove. It doesn't take much to improve the lot of a prisoner from down there. We keep a pot of beans and rice cooking all the time."

He paused to take another long pull at the Cigar. "I get a new batch every three or four years. I turn the old ones over to a Catholic organization in New York City. I have no idea what happens to them up there, and frankly I don't give a damn."

"The last new batch must have fooled you. There was at least one real Criminal in it. At least he knew how to steal a car."

"Poor Carlos, yes he knew how to steal a car. If he had spoken at least a little English, he would have been gone sooner and none of this would have happened. When he and his friends broke free the first time, they found that little honey pot from the school. After that there was no holding them. I never did find out where they hid the car.

The first I knew of it was when they started smoking cigarettes out there. I didn't even know for sure which ones were guilty. I did know by the second break in at the pool hall that it was my people. I had found enough butts around the camp to convince me. I had heard about the break in at the pool hall so I went to Norm."

"I know all about that," I replied.

"So you do. When the Mayor called me today, I didn't even know what she was talking about. I found out about the car from her. Even she didn't know much. You seem to be the one with all the answers."

"One thing for sure, if she doesn't call off the SBI, they are going to know. At least I presume they can figure it out."

"How did you do it?"

"I heard a rumor that something wasn't right at the plant. Since I couldn't find any Spanish speaking residents who might have partied with the academy girl, I thought they must have come off the highway. I would have dismissed it completely, if there hadn't been those two break ins at the pool hall. The first one was definitely related to the party at the academy so the second on must have also been by the same three kids who spoke no English.

I gave Norm the burglar alarm which was supposed to dial my phone. It never did. I actually forgot all about it until the robbery attempt.

Mike told me that the kid didn't seem to understand when told to drop the gun. He continued to threaten the cashier. The kid didn't understand and even worse he didn't think Mike would shoot. Something to do with thinking American cops were soft. Mike surprised him, and he shot the clerk.

Neither he nor his friend had any ID. Even an 'illegal' has something with his name. They want Mom notified in case they get killed. Then the highway patrolman told me the kid on the bypass had bad teeth, I mean really bad teeth. Even then it took me until I talked to Norm before I put it all together. Norm was the key. After that I simply went out to the plant. I saw the trucks come at two a.m. to pick up the day shift's lawnmowers. No doubt a different trucking company came during the day shift to pick up the night shift's mowers."

"Did you put all that in the envelope with the tape?" he asked.

"You know it," I replied with a self confident smile.

He took a moment sigh deeply. "Okay you got your money but what happens if you have a traffic accident."

"Since we are going to make a better deal, it won't matter. But before we do that, why did you do it in the first place?"

"You mean buy the slaves?" he asked.

"That and set up the two shifts?"

"When the country passed Nafta, over the objections of the Labor Unions, nobody expected the number of middle income production jobs that took off for Mexico. You can see it in this little town even. The textile and small production companies just took off for the cheap labor. The government finally caught on when the union began threatening to go over to nuts like Perot. A new tax incentive was passed. I get a huge tax break by locating my plant here. The feds give me a break, then the state give me one, hell even the county got into it. The plant was going to be profitable without the slaves, but it was a gold mine with them."

He ground out the cigar before he asked, "So what is this new deal?"

"You are going to get rid of the slaves, then hire real people for the second shift. When you do that, you will no longer be in violation of any law, so I will dump the tape."

"You are kidding?" he asked.

"Not in the least, you save the price of paying me off, plus you get to be a hero for increasing the size of your payroll."

"I actually have been considering getting out of the slavery business. You aren't going to come back later with new demands are you?"

"Nope, you get the Mayor to drop the SBI investigation and to leave me the hell alone. You do that and I will forget everything. Hell, I am even going to help you cover it all up. If I don't kill this investigation, somebody is going to find out about your second shift."

"Why are you doing this Chief?" he asked with a cautious look on his face.

"I would like to say it is to save the town. If you go to jail, the plant closes and the town dies. If not that, I would like to say it is to cover for my officer who made a small mistake, but it could be to save my job. I actually don't know which it is." I stopped to look at him a second then said, "Whatever the reason, you better take advantage of the offer right now or I am withdrawing it."

"Oh I'll take it. I didn't look forward to being a killer anyway." he replied.

"Good because you would never have gotten away with it. You want a cup of coffee?" I asked.

"No thanks, I have things to do this morning."

"Oh by the way, when you dump those slaves, dump Ed too."

"What makes you think I have Ed?" he asked.

"It's the only thing that makes any sense. Ed closed the restaurant at three so that he could drive the slaves to work at the plant. Why the hell he was a bookie is beyond me."

"Hell Ed wasn't a bookie. He took bets from a couple of guys around town but he covered them himself. He drove my bus and generally kept the slaves in line. He was kind of a foreman, but he is awfully greedy. He still thinks the gambling thing will all blow over."

"Tell him to forget it. You are the one who should be worried. If I bust him, he may roll over on you. He could probably get a pretty good deal from the DA."

"I hadn't thought of that." After a moment's thought he said, "Needless to say, Ed is history."

"Send him away, don't kill him. You would never get away with it."

"Sure," he said as he walked to the door. "Well Les, it's been real."

"Too damned real." I replied as he walked from the room.

Not five minutes after he left, the phone rang. "Les, it's me Megan. I thought that since we were all on the same team, I would come help you celebrate."

I thought quickly before I answered. It was going to be tough reconciling hiding a crime, it wouldn't help any to have Megan on my conscience. Then again why shouldn't I do to her, what her mother tried to do to me. In the end I found that I was the better person. "Honey, there is no team. The ballpark is about to close." I hung up the phone before I was forced to explain, or had a chance to change my mind. I was afraid that I would weaken since it had always been my philosophy, that when faced with a moral Dilemma, give in quick and save the sleepless nights for a really good reason.

the end.\fs20