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Lillie Virgil stood high on a north Mississippi hill at daybreak listening to old Ruthie Holder talk about the man who'd run off with her grandson's Kawasaki four-wheeler and her brand-new twelve-gauge Browning. Ruthie said she'd just gotten home from the Piggly Wiggly with a week's worth of groceries when this skinny, bucktoothed varmint jumped out of the bushes and started in with a lot of crazy talk.
"What exactly did he say, Miss Holder?"
"He told me that the g.d. Mexican cartel was in my kitchen making chorizo and eggs and if I walked inside they'd have their way with me," she said. "I told him it was a lot of foolish talk, but he insisted on going in without me. Next thing I knew, he was running out with my Browning and headed to the shed."
Lillie reached down and lowered the volume on the police radio. She was tall, with an athlete's lean muscles and lots of crazy light brown hair she kept neat in a bun and under a ball cap. That day, she wore gold aviator glasses, a Glock 19 on her hip, and chewed gum, as she asked, "Have you ever seen this asshole before?"
"This man wasn't wearing a shirt or shoes, just a pair of ragged old Levi's," Ruthie Holder said. "He had a tattoo of Hank Williams Junior on his back. Do you think I'd ever consort with trash like that?"
"No, ma'am," Lillie said. Ruthie ran the Citizens Bank for years, served as president of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and still offered her harp-playing skills to local weddings and funerals. Lillie didn't think she even knew "All My Rowdy Friends" or "Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound."
"I sure love that gun," Ruthie said. "I won it in a raffle. And since my husband died, it gave me a lot of comfort."
"Understand that," Lillie said. "I feel the same way about the Winchester I had at Ole Miss. I won a lot of tournaments with her."
"Her?" Ruthie said. "Didn't know a gun could be a woman."
Lillie smiled and shrugged. Standing tall, feeling good after running five miles that morning, finishing it off with a hundred push-ups and a hundred sit-ups. If she was going to watch over Tibbehah County in the years to come, better be in shape. "Makes complete sense to me," she said. "What'd this man look like and which way did he head?"
"He was ugly."
"Yes, ma'am," Lillie said. "But can you be more specific, Mrs. Holder?"
"Skinny and rangy. Black hair, but shaved down," she said. "Wore an earring. And had thin little hairs sprouting on his chin. Like some kind of animal. What does all that matter? How many folks do you know riding four-wheelers without shirts and sporting a tattoo of Hank Junior?"
Lillie grinned at her. "In this county?" she asked. "About every other son of a bitch."
Lillie told her they'd find him, already knowing they were looking for an authentic piece of crap named David John Norwood. She'd arrested Norwood for aggravated assault and drug possession a few weeks after becoming acting sheriff, back when the newly elected sheriff Rusty Wise got himself killed. Norwood only got probation and was left to raise hell and stir shit across the county as he pleased.
Lillie climbed into her Jeep Cherokee with its big gold star on the door, grabbed the mic, and called in to Mary Alice at dispatch. "Can you get me D. J. Norwood's parole officer?" she said.
"Oh, Lord," Mary Alice said. "What's that boy done now?"
"Same old shit," Lillie said. "Lost his fucking mind. Also get me Jimmy Deets over at Wildlife. I think Norwood's headed way, way off road and into the Big Woods."
"Headed north," Lillie said. "I say he's going into the National Forest, looking for the Trace."
"Probably because he wants to be with the rest of the animals," she said. "Let Deets know he is armed, dangerous, and crazy as hell."
Lillie Virgil knocked her Cherokee in gear, following the muddy ATV tracks until they hit a dirt road into the hills. The back wheels of the Jeep spun out dirt and gravel before finding solid footing. She lowered the window and listened, chewing gum, rifle in the passenger seat at her side.
So you were a cheerleader?Ó Fannie Hathcock asked the young girl sitting in a chair in front of her.
"Don't 'Yes, ma'am' me or I won't ever give you a job," Fannie said. "Just how old do you think I am?"
"I don't know," the girl said. She shuffled in her seat and glanced away. "Hate to say."
"But old," Fannie said. "You think I'm over-the-hill? Too old to show my goodies to fat old truckers?"
"I didn't mean nothing by it," the girl said. "I just was trying to be respectful, is all. You dress real nice. Smell good. And you own your own place."
Fannie smoothed down the lace on her white Valentino skirt, black shirt open wide at the throat. She wore a bright ruby in the shape of a heart on a chain around her neck. "You like it better than the old place?"
"I never saw the old place," the girl said. "My dad used to go there. When he'd go on a drunk with his uncle and them. My mom said it was against God. But she's always saying things like that."
Fannie, a true and authentic redhead cap to cat, rested her butt-nice and tight, for a woman in her forties-on the edge of her desk. Her office door was open, and from where she looked over the girl's shoulder she could get a good bird's-eye view of the floor of Vienna's. Vienna's Place is what she'd rechristened the renovated space of a true Mississippi shithole called the Booby Trap. Vienna was Fannie's grandmother, the woman who taught her the Golden Rule-Men will do anything for pussy. Vienna sure had made her rich.
Fannie tapped at a Dunhill box and lifted a small brown cigarillo into her mouth and looked down at the girl. Bleached blonde hair, a dull, freckled face, and one piercing in her nose and one in the tongue. She also had a streak of black in the blonde. Girl said she was eighteen, but Fannie would need to see some ID. That's the last thing she needed-trouble with the law over damn Southern jailbait.
"You know some tricks?" Fannie said.
"I don't mean your twat, baby," she said. "I mean with all the cheerleading. Flips, tumbling. A damn naked handstand."
"I was a flyer."
"What the hell's a flyer?"
"I was on top," the girl said. "Bigger girls would lift me up and toss me into the air."
"Nobody will toss you around here," Fannie said. "We look out for our girls. Nobody gets hurt. I'm not Johnny Fucking Stagg."
"I hear the money is real good."
"It is," Fannie said, spewing smoke from the side of her mouth. "But the house gets forty percent. And you need to tip your bouncer and the DJ every damn night. You need to get straight with that right off."
The girl's freckled face dropped. She looked down at her stubby little fingers, with black nail polish, probably thinking that she could keep all that trucker cash as long as she showed off those perky young boobies and shook that smooth, shaved tail.
"OK," the girl said. "When can I start?"
"When can you show me some ID?"
The young girl opened up her purse. She had on a short pink T-shirt, cutoff jeans, and cheap brown boots inlaid with cactuses and cowboys. She showed her ID. Looked to be she was telling the truth.
"Ever get nekkid?" Fannie said.
The girl shrugged.
"All of it flashing and jiggling on a hot white stage," Fannie said. "With nasty old truckers and gray-headed perverts wanting to lick you like a damn ice cream cone."
"I can do it."
"Lap dance is forty bucks," Fannie said. "I never minded the grind. But I sure minded the smell."
"What if they mess with you?" the girl said, looking Fannie full on in the eye now. "What if they're wanting to touch you and all?"
"They can touch up top all they want, but never below," Fannie said. "One of them wants to start dialing home with his digits, you just make sure Lyle knows."
The girl looked confused. "Who's Lyle?"
"Runs a group of Bad News Bears around here called the Born Losers," she said. "They ride bikes and raise hell out of the motel across the street. The Golden Cherry. When they're not too drunk or stoned, they offer us some protection. That's the other rule-Don't mess with the bikers. They're hired help."
"God damn it."
Fannie smiled while the smoke scattered from the office and out into the big open space of Vienna's. Ceiling fans broke it apart. She'd taken down old Johnny's place to the studs and built it back up, with a new tin roof, heart pine floors, and a long old bar she'd had shipped piece by piece from Kansas City, Missouri. Fannie "Belle" Hathcock had just upped the class in this north Mississippi town by a hundred and fifty percent.
"Whatta you say, girl?" Fannie said.
"Let me know if you find better job opportunities in Jericho," Fannie said. "I heard they're hiring a fry cook down at the Sonic."
In his previous life as the go-to Hollywood stuntman, Quinn ColsonÕs dad, Jason, mustÕve landed on his head a few times. Ever since heÕd come back to Jericho, heÕd been filled with all kinds of crazy ideas, schemes, and various delusions. There was a kidsÕ go-cart track he wanted to open in the parking lot of the old Kentucky Fried Chicken, or bring a Hooters to the people of Tibbehah County-he knew some people in Memphis whoÕd back him-and, lately, heÕd been talking about turning QuinnÕs farm into a dude ranch.
Quinn didn't have time for any of it. He'd been going on little sleep since returning from Afghanistan seven days earlier, where he'd been training a local police force on behalf of the U.S. government. He was in his mid-thirties now, tall and lean, with a sharp-chiseled face, the high cheekbones from some Choctaw blood mixed in the ornery Scotch-Irish. Overseas, he'd let his hair grow out a bit, and now he sported a neat dark beard. He had on an old white tee and a pair of Levi's, as he watched the sun rise across his land, smoking a Liga Privada, with his cattle dog, Hondo, laying at his feet.
Jason rode up soon after, lashing his quarter horse to Quinn's truck's tailgate. "Hadn't you shaved yet?" Jason said.
"Barbershop's been closed since Mr. Jim died."
"Might oughtta keep it," Jason said. "Women sure do love outlaws."
"That what you were?" Quinn said. "Out in L.A.?"
Jason grinned. "If that's what they wanted," he said. "Then, sure. Beach bunnies could call me Jesse James. Come on and walk with me, I got something to talk about."
"We can talk right here on the porch."
"Be better if we get up, see some things, get the old imaginations working."
"Hell, Dad," Quinn said. "I know exactly what you're wanting to show me and the answer is no thank you. Can't you just let a man rest a bit? Sit back and fire up a stick with his dog he hasn't seen in a long while?"
"Plenty of time for Hondo," Jason said. "But opportunity? Opportunity doesn't come around that often. Can't you hear that sound?"
"That's just the cicadas," he said. "Screwing in the trees. They sure love all this heat."
Quinn stood up, stretched, and walked back into the old tin-roofed farmhouse that had stood on his family's land since 1895 and grabbed a pair of beaten cowboy boots. He slid them on, broken-in and comfortable, and returned, the screen door thwacking behind him. The house had a natural shotgun cooling effect between front door and back that helped as the summer wound down.
He reached for his cigar, burning on top of a coffee mug, and followed.
Jason was in his mid-sixties, wiry and fit, with a weathered face from years of drinking, fighting, and professionally racking up the odometer on his body. He kept a mustache and goatee, now snow-white like his longish hair. His T-shirt read stunts unlimited, an organization he'd helped found in the 1970s with a crazy man from Arkansas named Hal Needham. As Jason walked, Quinn noted the limp in his right leg was growing worse. The ball socket in his dad's hip and some of his femur had been telescoped when a landing platform busted on the set of The Fall Guy.
It was hard for Quinn to pass judgment on someone who punished his body. Quinn's ten years as a U.S. Army Ranger, most of it as a sergeant in some godforsaken country, had left him with a lot of mileage and scars. The years he'd spent as Tibbehah County sheriff had earned him a couple of gunshot wounds, which the people repaid by voting him out of office a year ago.
He followed his father through a ragged, twisting trail into some second-growth woods of pine, oak, and cedar, fringes of the land being eaten up by kudzu. It had rained the night before and the air smelled of damp earth and leaves, the canopy above him a bright green, lichen on the big trunks of oaks almost glowing. Water continued to drip on pine needles.
"I know you've just gotten home," Jason said, "but you need to think on the future. You need to think about what's going to be here after I'm gone and you're gone. Don't you want to leave something for Little Jason? Or if you and Anna Lee start having kids of your own?"
"Nothing's going to happen to this land," Quinn said. "And I don't think I'm having kids anytime soon."
Quinn didn't answer.
"I started late," Jason said. "Missed out on a lot of things."
"You missed out on a lot of things because you lived thousands of miles away."
"For a damn good reason."
Quinn just nodded, not sure if his dad had seen him or not, the older man intent on getting up the trail with that bad leg, cresting the hill over to the land that he wanted to discuss with Quinn. When the trail ended, so did the trees. And most living things. That rotten son of a bitch Johnny Stagg had strip-cleared one hundred acres of property that had once belonged to Quinn's uncle. When Uncle Hamp had fallen behind on some gambling debt, Stagg had swooped in, taken over the land, cut down every single tree, and bulldozed what was left. Johnny Stagg was like that. Conservation and the environment were four-letter words to his kind. And the reason every morning was a little brighter now with Stagg in federal prison.