It was a beautiful morning, if your definition of morning included the predawn hours. Deputy Wynn’s did. Especially when worries about keeping his job interrupted his sleep. On such mornings, he liked to sneak out of the bedroom without disturbing his wife, put on his uniform, crawl behind the wheel of the Benteen County Sheriff ’s Department black and white, and go cruising for speeders.
Two main blacktops ran all the way through the county, one east/west, one north/south. This being central Kansas, both went straight as arrows, or nearly. Neither one went anyplace particularly important, but Wynn preferred the east/west road. It was one of the first significant paved routes south of Interstate 70.
Truckers occasionally liked to slip down here and make up time where they were less likely to encounter the highway patrol. And drug runners, he thought, not that he’d ever discovered any. Still, a deputy could dream.
Sheriff English didn’t like him doing this. No one seemed to trust him to do anything on his own. That’s why he only gave warnings to the vehicles he stopped. That way, there wasn’t any paperwork to show he was out here. And no one could tell by checking the mileage on the black and white’s odometer because it had stopped working just short of 300,000 miles.
Wynn had a favorite place to set up his speed trap. It was an old rest stop, complete with picnic tables and a single-stall toilet, just three miles east of the county line. He favored it because kids liked to park there and make out. Warning them against immoral behavior was lots of fun. More than once he’d copped a peek at fine young ladies in the altogether.
Much to his disappointment, the spot was vacant this morning. He pulled in behind the evergreens that masked the place from the road and killed the lights, but not the engine. The V-8 grumbled patiently as he rolled down his window so he’d hear a big rig coming.
A full moon peered though the windshield, and a light breeze— hardly cool even at this hour—touched his arm. It must be nearly sixty. Dawn would surely bring one of those perfect days of Indian summer. That or something dramatic, like a sudden blizzard. It was November, after all, and Kansas.
The road lay before him, straight and flat and full of promise, like a wish waiting to be filled. Wynn’s wish was for some of those drug runners. He’d like nothing better than to bust someone hauling a load with a street value in the millions. That would get him a little respect and some job security, maybe even if today’s election didn’t work out. And people might stop calling him Wynn-Some. Wynn-Some, Lose-Some, folks said behind his back. They seemed to think, given the opportunity, Deputy Wynn would most likely lose.
Something flashed past his windshield. Wynn thought it was a black station wagon, one of those evil-looking new Dodge Magnums that bore more resemblance to a customized hearse than to the latest in alternative SUVs, but it was gone so fast that he couldn’t be sure.
“Whoee!” Wynn let out a whoop. This could be it. He punched the accelerator, turned on his headlights, and activated his light bar. His lights illuminated first one ditch and then the other before he managed to correct his steering and the four-hundred-and-fifty-four cubic inch essence of Detroit heavy metal stopped fishtailing its back wheels.
The station wagon’s taillights were already barely visible in the distance. The black and white might be old and inefficient by modern standards, but it had been built when gas consumption was an afterthought and muscle cars were the rage. Law enforcement needed to compete, and the Chevy still could. The Magnum, if that’s what it was, could probably outmaneuver Wynn’s patrol car, but there weren’t many things on the road that could outrun it.
Wynn’s chase went on for nearly ten minutes, covering a lot of the county since the deputy was doing well over 100 mph. But so was the station wagon. Wynn was gaining, but never enough to get a good look at the vehicle he pursued, especially when it turned its lights off. The chase went through three hamlets, each with a stop sign that both cars ignored. Fortunately, the side- walks had been rolled up in all of them. The only traffic Wynn encountered was a pair of semis, one going in each direction. They wisely pulled over to make way.
Wynn was beginning to doubt he’d catch up before they got to Buffalo Springs. The last thing he wanted to do was go blasting through Benteen’s county seat in high-speed pursuit. Even at this time of the morning, there might be a car on Main Street. If he was responsible for an accident there, Sheriff English might have his badge.
Maybe I can trick them, he thought. He turned off all his lights. They might think he’d given up, slow down some so he could get right behind them.
English would have more than his badge if he found out about this part, but if Wynn brought in a drug mule and hundreds of kilos of heroin or cocaine or even marijuana, he’d be the kind of law enforcement hero no one ever replaced. And there had to be something important in that vehicle for it to be running from him with its lights out like this.
He could still see all right. Or almost all right. Well enough for him to know they were coming up on the four-way stop at Jacobs’ Corner—an experiment in middle-of-nowhere truck stops that had been out of business for more years than Wynn had been a deputy. In fact, the moon was so bright he could practically see colors.
It took Wynn a couple of seconds to understand he was seeing colors—flashing red lights. Two seconds, in which he covered nearly two hundred feet. He didn’t realize what he was seeing at first. The lights were coming up the intersecting road from the south. He only caught a glimpse through the row of trees lining that road before he realized he was practically on top of the station wagon, too. He slammed brakes, grabbed for his headlights.
The red lights weren’t flashing anymore, but something big and yellow was lumbering out onto the highway ahead of him. Ahead of the black station wagon, as well, which was a Magnum. With no time to stop, the Magnum accelerated instead, tried to get by, lost control, and started cart-wheeling through the ditch across the road from the old truck stop.
Wynn howled in victory as he realized he would catch his suspects. But his howl turned into a scream when a body flew from the tumbling Dodge. And the big yellow vehicle began flashing red lights again as it pulled to a stop, dead-square in the middle of the intersection. Wynn couldn’t halt the patrol car before he got there. For some reason, he slapped on the light bar, as if the driver would see it and get out of his way when he realized it was a law enforcement vehicle that was about to t-bone him.
In the last seconds, Wynn saw red-and-blue-and-white horror-stricken faces flash into view along the line of windows in the Buffalo Springs school bus. They were turning toward him, mouths open to echo his primal cry.
# # #
The church went quiet when Sheriff English entered. It was the Buffalo Springs Church of Christ Risen these days, though it seemed to change names about as often as central Kansas changed weather. Well, no, you couldn’t paint a new name on the sign that fast.
The interior was just a big open space, more like the floor of a gym than a site for hallelujahs. Pews were too comfortable, according to Pastor Goodfellow. Folding chairs were good enough. Then the church could rent out that space for meetings, such as the Tuesday morning pancake breakfast of the Buffalo Springs Chamber of Commerce the sheriff had walked into.
The sheriff was used to rooms going quiet when he came in these days. People never seemed to know what to say to him. Especially not with the election today.
“Sheriff. We weren’t expecting you after this morning’s disaster.”
The voice was amplified and the sheriff looked up and found his opponent for office standing behind a microphone and a podium very much like the one he’d been about to pass. Damn! He’d forgotten all about the election morning debate he’d promised to participate in.
“Lieutenant Greer.” The sheriff acknowledged his challenger. Lieutenant Greer was quite likely going to be the next sheriff of Benteen County. He was tall, handsome, rugged, and looked every bit the part. And he was a war hero. He’d brought home a bronze star after his last stint in Iraq. Sheriff English wouldn’t mind losing so much, but he didn’t trust Greer to enforce the law.
Greer continued. “I had intended my first question for you to be why you haven’t hung a copy of the Ten Commandments in your office at the courthouse, but since your deputy just committed vehicular homicide, perhaps killing some of this community’s precious youth, I think it’s more appropriate to enquire why Deputy Wynn was conducting a high-speed predawn pursuit with his lights off.”
It was a good question. One the sheriff was still trying to understand. Wynn hadn’t been able to tell him and, from what the emergency techs said, might not live long enough to get the chance.
Wynn-Some, Lose-Some had lost it big time this morning, but did Greer have to affix blame before anyone really knew what had happened out there? Wynn might have had some legitimate excuse. It was remotely possible.
The sheriff sighed. He’d come to speak to Pastor Goodfellow. The only survivor from the Magnum had mentioned the pastor’s name. The sheriff was already near the empty podium. He didn’t have time for a debate with Greer, but a couple of minutes wouldn’t make much difference. He stepped behind his own microphone.
“Good morning,” he told the crowd. “I’m afraid I owe the lieutenant and all of you an apology. As I’m sure you know, Deputy Wynn was involved in an accident at Jacobs’ Corner today. There is, indeed, one dead. No one from the school bus, though some of those kids were seriously injured. I can’t tell you any more just now, or take time to debate the many important issues you’re being asked to decide today. Let me just remind you to vote, if you haven’t already, and to please keep your minds open until we know what actually happened.”
“Wynn-Some slaughtered an innocent motorist,” Greer said. “He rammed a school bus filled with this community’s children. We already know what happened. An incompetent deputy, who only had a badge because he was the son of the previous chairman of the board of supervisors, has disgraced this county. And that badge, Sheriff English, was issued by you.”
The sheriff didn’t like Lieutenant Greer. Greer was a born- again, holier-than-thou fundamentalist, quick to blame and point out shortcomings.
There were lots of born-again Christians in Benteen County. The sheriff got along fine with most of them. Every last one might be certain the sheriff could set his life right and save his soul if only he’d accept their beliefs, but when they suggested it, they did so more gently. Greer showed no patience for those who didn’t see the world exactly as he did. And no patience with laws that didn’t correspond to his belief system. That was the part that troubled English the most, that and the fact he couldn’t just walk over and punch the blow-hard square on the nose.
“It was Deputy Wynn who organized that welcome-home parade for you, Lieutenant. Maybe that was when you should have pointed out your objections to his service to this county.”
Greer’s face turned beet red. He looked like he’d be willing to meet the sheriff half-way for the nose thing.
“Gentlemen, please!” Pastor Goodfellow stood behind his stack of pancakes and spread his hands. “Surely I don’t have to remind you how to behave in the Lord’s house.”
Greer stepped back behind his microphone. “If your deputy’s behavior isn’t fair game for questions, Sheriff, then maybe we should consider yours. Isn’t it true that both your daughters have had abortions?”
That was when the sheriff decided one to the nose wouldn’t be enough.
# # #
“This is a joke, right?”
“I’m sorry?” Mad Dog had just handed the highway patrolman his driver’s license and was trying to convince Hailey, the wolf-hybrid on the seat beside him, that this wasn’t the best time to growl. He had no idea what the officer might be talking about. He was still a little spacey after his three-day fast, and his stomach wasn’t happy with the super-size burger with which he’d broken it.
“You’re Mr. Dog?”
“Oh, that.” He’d been born Harvey Edward Maddox, but his father ran off, leaving him no particular reason to feel attachment to the name. In high school, he’d been quite an athlete. The fans had started calling him Mad Dog and the nickname stuck. “No. No joke. I had it legally changed a few years ago.”
Hailey was baring her teeth. She didn’t like the trooper’s attitude.
“You’re sure it’s not your companion’s name?” Apparently the patrolman didn’t like hers, either. And that wasn’t going to improve Mad Dog’s odds of getting out of this with a warning instead of a ticket.
“She’s not dangerous,” Mad Dog said. “I don’t know why, but she’s been grumpy ever since we got back into Kansas.”
“Both of you remain in the vehicle,” the trooper said. He turned and went back to his cruiser. Mad Dog watched him enter information on his computer while Hailey continued complaining in Mad Dog’s ear.
Mad Dog had been speeding a little. Eighty, maybe ninety. The Mini Cooper cruised so effortlessly on the wide-open stretches of asphalt that crisscrossed central Kansas. His foot hadn’t been as heavy as he wanted, though.
He’d come down off that mountain in the middle of the night with a feeling he desperately needed to get home. He’d spent days purifying himself. He’d fasted. He’d done everything the old Cheyenne medicine man had told him he should to prepare himself for a vision. Instead, he’d gotten a premonition. He was still trying to figure out that dire portent, and not paying much attention to his speedometer until he saw the sudden blaze of flashing lights in his mirror.
Not for the first time, Mad Dog regretted leaving home without his cell phone. He really wanted to check in with his brother, or someone in Buffalo Springs. Find out whether there was any legitimate cause for the sense of dread he felt. He’d left the cell behind on purpose, though. If you were on a spiritual quest, staying connected to the outside world seemed inappropriate. But then an awful sense of impending doom overwhelmed him as he sat on the Cheyenne sacred mountain and watched the remnants of a Black Hills’ sunset fade and a sky full of stars come out of hiding.
Mad Dog hadn’t been able to load himself and Hailey in the Cooper and blast straight home. Not after three days without food. Having the vision you’ve been seeking while you were behind the wheel of a speeding Mini could be disastrous. So he’d stopped at the first food outlet he came to. He’d called the Benteen County Sheriff ’s office from there. All he got was the recorded message. He still wasn’t used to that. Before the county’s financial crisis, his brother had tried to keep someone there to answer the phone at all times. Now, there was only a message giving the sheriff’s personal cell number with instructions to call only in case of a legitimate emergency. Mad Dog knew his brother would answer if he called, but the sheriff hadn’t been sleeping well as it was. The last thing he needed was to be awakened by a call from a brother whose concern was based on nothing more than a gut feeling fueled by three days without food.
“You’re Englishman’s Mad Dog.”Thepatrolmanwasbackat Mad Dog’s window and this time Hailey hadn’t announced his return.
“Uh, yeah. Englishman, he’s my brother.” Their mother had married again. Or maybe just found someone to father her second child—that’s what most of the community thought. The rumor was that Sheriff English got his name because of the nationality of his daddy, since their mother hadn’t taken time to ask his name. Mad Dog couldn’t argue with that. Their mother had been something of a flower child, well before people like her began congregating in Haight-Ashbury. Then, when everyone began calling Harvey Edward Mad Dog instead of Maddox, it hadn’t taken long for his little brother to get stuck being Englishman. The difference was Englishman hadn’t liked the handle people hung on him.
“Sheriff English is something of a legend in central Kansas. And so is his brother.” Mad Dog wasn’t sure he liked the way the officer phrased that last part. The man handed Mad Dog back his license and registration. “Keep your speed down, Mr. Dog. And tell your brother good luck with today’s election. From what I hear he’s going to need it.”
# # #
Doc Jones, the Benteen County coroner, wasn’t in his office at the back of Klausen’s Funeral Parlor. The sheriff could hear the whine of an electric motor from farther down the immaculate white corridor. He didn’t like thinking about what that meant the coroner was doing, and he didn’t like going where the sound required, but he needed to see Doc.
It was as bad as he’d expected. Doc was bent over a cadaver with a gaping hole in its chest. The body had no face because its scalp had been peeled forward while Doc used a small circular saw to cut through the top of the skull. The smell of burning bone might have been enough to make the sheriff gag, but he wasn’t capable of smelling much at the moment.
English stood in the door until Doc’s shaggy eyebrows rose as his hang-dog face straightened into Doc’s version of a welcoming smile.
“What happened to you?”
“I think the medical term is, ‘bloody nose,’ but you’re the doctor. I figured I should let you make the diagnosis.”
Doc put the saw down and came around the stainless steel table. “Lot of blood on that handkerchief,” he said, “which seems to be covering a nose. Offhand, I’d say you got it right.” He stopped to remove the surgical gloves he was wearing and replace them with a fresh pair. “Let me see.”
The sheriff uncovered and Doc reached up and wiggled the sheriff’s nose from side to side.
“Ouch! That hurt like hell.”
“It’s not broken,” Doc said. “But you best cover back up until I get something to pack it with and find you some ice. Otherwise, you’re gonna drip all over your shirt. What happened?”
The sheriff reapplied his handkerchief. “You’ve been coroner too long, Doc, if that’s the best bedside manner you can manage.”
“I have been coroner too long,” Doc said. “I’ve been telling myself that all morning, ever since I started doing an autopsy on this dead teen.” He nodded toward a chair near the door. “Sit over there and tilt your head back, then tell me who popped you in the nose.”
The sheriff took the chair. “I’m not really here about my nose,” he said. “I hadn’t heard from you and I thought I’d better see what you can tell me about this kid.”
“All right. But first, the nose. The dead will wait, and you’re not gonna be the most efficient law enforcement officer if you’re running around holding a bloody rag to your face. Who punched you?”
“Our next sheriff, but it’s more like I tried to hit him and he blocked me and I kind of ran into his elbow.”
That interrupted Doc’s normal cool efficiency. “You what? You tried to slug your worthy opponent? That’s not like you, Englishman. What happened?”
“He got a little insulting.”
“Our local war hero is often insulting. But I haven’t heard of you making a habit of trying to punch him out. You been taking those antidepressants I prescribed for you?”
The sheriff hadn’t even filled the prescription. “This time, it wasn’t me he insulted,” the sheriff said. “It was my daughters.”
“Oh,” Doc said, getting that sad look again. “You mean…?” “He accused them of having abortions,” the sheriff said, “and
I kind of lost it.” The tough part was that one of the girls had gotten an abortion. And most folks in Benteen County, except a silent majority of women, had turned solidly pro-life. Not that the sheriff wasn’t. He just thought the question was more complicated than the pro-life, pro-choice arguments made it. And, frankly, he hadn’t thought the decision was up to him. Doc obviously didn’t buy the pro-life arguments. He’d performed that abortion, and many others.
“Too bad it’s not Lieutenant Greer’s nose I’m treating,” Doc said. “If it wasn’t already broken, I might have corrected that myself.”