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Craig McDonald

Sheriff Andy Goes To Hell


Poor fella sure enough is dead.

The lanky, jug-eared sheriff gently nudges the body with the toe of his boot.

He’s blocked northbound traffic with his ’67 Ford Galaxie. The squad car is angled across the slurry sealed two-lane. The cherry light is spinning but it’s a North Carolina August afternoon and the cruiser’s siren is hardly visible in the sun.

The sheriff keyed the victim out of a holding cell late in the morning after letting him sleep off another binge. There are now tire tracks across the back of that shabby white jacket and across the trousers above the knees. Poor old fella died just ten feet on the right side of the corporation line … few feet south and the mess would have fallen outside the sheriff’s jurisdiction.

He radioed for help five minutes ago. His deputy made the scene like that. Now he hears sirens starting up from the firehouse on the far side of town. The sheriff checks his Timex: seven minutes to muster the volunteer crew. Good thing it’s no house fire. And they’re of no use now: one of the volunteers is a veterinarian, but the town’s token drunk is dead as can be.

The deputy has pulled together five possible eyewitnesses to the hit-and-run.

The slope-shouldered, rail-thin deputy stands shaking his head, taking notes, his back to the body. Deputy’s always been squeamish. Not to say that these two come across many bodies on the job. A typical day is spent rounding up the same drunk and disorderly usual suspect (now dead). They issue the occasional traffic ticket, usually to out-of-towners who grouse and mutter things about "kangaroo courts."

Nope, this is … different.

Person who ran down this poor soul was headed into town. Not much to drive to on the other side of the village … so signs point to the reckless driver maybe being a local.

Boy howdy.

The sheriff tugs on his big right ear. He wishes it to be an outsider, though his instincts are against it. Bad thing like this could change a town forever.

The sheriff can’t stand it anymore. He opens the trunk of his Ford cruiser. He finds the blanket and shakes it out, spreads it over the body. He lights a few flares and spreads them around.

Good timing getting the body under wraps: here comes a kid on a bike. He smiles and walks quickly toward the boy, before the youngster can get a look at anything that might haunt him forever. The boy has tousled red hair and freckles. His sheriff daddy left his mark on the boy — those danged ears.

"Paw," the boy calls.

"Hey there." The cane pole vibrates under the latch fastened to the boy’s Schwinn’s rear fender. "Catch any?"

"No, Paw." The boy frowns and scrunches up his freckled nose. "What happened?"

"Bad accident," the sheriff says. "Help’s on the way." Can’t have the boy realizing he’s seeing a dead body under that blanket. He and his son and his son’s teacher (the sheriff’s girlfriend) have shared many picnics on that wool blanket. Well, not anymore … not on that blanket, anyhow. "You head on home now, hear? Your aunt’ll have dinner ready soon."

The boy nods reluctantly. His father says, "And hey, I’ve warned you about riding on this side of the road … you should stay on the sidewalk on this other side … our side. I don’t like you crossing Main Street downtown."

The boy rolls his eyes. "I’ll cross now then, where you can see me do it, Paw."

"Nope," the sheriff says, smiling but stern. "Crosswalks, remember? We use crosswalks. Can’t have my boy seen jaywalking … or jaybiking. Voters might say it’s favoritism." Gotta keep the boy within the lines, so to speak. "Nope, cross up there at Main and Jackson this one time. Look both ways and be careful. Now get on with you."

The boy nods and bikes off, taking frequent looks back over his shoulder.

The sheriff smiles and waves. He turns to his deputy. "Hey B. What’ve we got from these fine folks?"

The deputy — his cousin — says, "Nothin’. Turnin’ loose most, I ’spect. Old Florence Budge over there, though — from over in Raleigh, you know? — she was first on the scene. Mrs. Budge said she saw a black car ahead of her. Thinks they may have been the ones who did the deed."

"They?" The sheriff scowls. "There was more than one in the car? And still they drove off?" His face grows red. Can there really be such people in the world? This one is starting to look thorny. Rare is the case he can’t wrap up in under thirty minutes, most weeks.

"That was my word, ‘they’," the deputy says, looking at his feet. "Didn’t get so far as to find whether there was more than one."

The sheriff ambles across the road, the tar sticking to the soles of his half boots. Florence Budge is a town character back in Raleigh. Stingy as can be. She’s said to walk Raleigh, picking up sticks to burn in her fireplace come winter. She still has a rain barrel and an outhouse. Now she stands by the side of the road, sweat stains showing through her blue floral-print dress. White shoes … white faux pearl necklace with "pearls" the size of mandarin oranges. Cat’s-eye sunglasses. Her naturally white hair runs through various tints in the course of a year — lavender now, for summer.

"Sheriff," she says. She’s leaning on the battered front end of her ’58 Fairlane. The doors are dinged; the front end dimpled with dents. The tail of Florence Budge’s Ford is flattened from backing into various of the county’s dumpsters, phone poles and other Fords (all the cars in the region, for some reason, seem to be Fords … yet the only dealership in easy driving distance sells Chevrolets … another unsolved mystery).

She’s 71, weighs 200 pounds and is not much over five feet. Probably can barely see over the steering wheel and the plastic Jesus and Mary statues glued to the dashboard.

Hard life she’s endured — gone through a string of husbands and outlived all three of her children. All dead tragically …unexpectedly.

"Howdy, Mrs. Budge," the sheriff says. "Terrible seein’ somethin’ like that."

"Surely is sheriff. Surely is."

"Old B. over there tells me you maybe saw the car what did it? What kind of car was it?"

"A black one."

The sheriff smiles. "I mean, a Plymouth? A Chevrolet? Maybe a Ford?"

"I don’t know cars, Sheriff." Florence Budge adjusts her cat’s-eye sunglasses. "Gracious, they all look alike now." She waves at a passing car, then frowns and asks, "Lord, was that a colored?"

The sheriff can just see his boy on the horizon, biking back towards town. Mrs. Budge is watching him too. She must have a pretty good set of eyes because she inquires, "That your boy there, Sheriff?"

"Yes’m." The sheriff says, "Old B. tells me you couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman driving that car that did this wicked business."

"Nope … couldn’t see a thing."

"Too far away to see a license plate, too, I s’pose."

"That’s right."

"Mighty hot day, Mrs. Budge. Probably had the windows down." He glances over his shoulder at Florence Budge’s open windows — sees she’s got a nasty crack across the windshield. Medicine bottles are strewn across the passenger seat. "Probably had his windows open, like you do. Don’t s’pose that driver maybe had an arm out the window, Mrs. Budge? Maybe you could see a hairy arm … a blouse sleeve, or a suit jacket sleeve? Like to think it was a stranger, maybe a salesman, who laid low poor Mr. Campbell."

"Campbell? That his name?" Florence Budge licks her lips. "Poor man. So you know him?"

"See him about four times a week. Usually around payday. Old Mr. Campbell, he liked to bend his elbow. A lot."

"Not much of a loss then," Mrs. Budge says.

The sheriff scowls. "Now, Mrs. Budge, that’s not very Christianly of you."

"My father was an alcoholic, Sheriff. And a smoker. He got drunk one night, fell asleep smoking, and burned up right there in his vinyl lounge chair. Liked to burn down the whole house with him. Mother got home just in time to call the fire department."

The sheriff shivers. "Why, that’s terrible, Mrs. Budge." He pauses. "Well, okay then."

"That’s it?"

"Yes’m." He points at her windshield. "Get that fixed soon. Winter cold’ll make that crack bigger."

"You don’t want me to come to the station, Sheriff?" Florence Budge fingers her faux pearls. "Maybe look at some photos?"

"Been watchin’ too much TV, Mrs. Budge. We don’t have pictures. Don’t think we’ve ever photographed anyone we’ve arrested. Thanks for your time."

Florence Budge, seething, swings open the door of her big old battered car. There are terrible sounds of grinding metal as she starts it up.

The deputy, his hat sitting crooked on his head, shrugs and sniffs. "Strange old bird, ain’t she?"

The sheriff nods. "Yup. They done broke that mold." He begins to hum an old gospel tune: Let the Lower Lights Be Burning. Florence Budge heads into town, instead of back toward Raleigh.

The deputy scowls. "Now, why do you think the old girl’s headin’ into our town?"

"She was headed this way in the first place, B. Must just be goin’ on to finish up her chores." The sheriff smiles and slaps his deputy on the back. "I swear, you are a suspicious sort. Probably sort for bones in animal crackers."

The deputy’s chicken neck reddens. He toys with the single bullet he carries in his pocket. "Telling you, there’s something not right about her. That windshield crack looks new. And some of those scratches on the chrome of her bumper? No rust. So they’re new, too, I think."

"B., you’re a regular Sherlock Holmes," the sheriff says. "She’s just clumsy, like Magoo."

Static from the cruiser’s radio. The sheriff leans in, grabs the mic and clicks. "Over." It’s the sheriff’s Raleigh counterpart. He hears, "Hit and runs … three dead … barber saw … Florence Budge."

The sheriff’s struggling with the door of his cruiser. Black thoughts gather, like none he’s had before.

They’re lightened, just a little, by a single comforting thought: his boy has had ample time to get home.

* * *

The red-headed boy is struggling to balance his bike, one hand on the handlebar, the other gripping the double-dip cone he’s stopped for at Crawford’s Drugstore on the way home.

The boy doesn’t see the big old car squatting fifty yards back … the old, determined hands gripping the steering wheel.

Florence Budge knows this little North Carolina town too well. In two blocks, boy’ll reach McNear’s Shears and the crosswalk. She’ll be ready … itching to put her foot to the firewall.

She winces and squirms from the pain in her back and belly. Precious time left: The doctor says the cancer has spread. That’s forced her hand … messed with her modus operandi and driven her to rare recklessness.

She’s always been so careful in the past … the arsenic … the flypaper. Stabs at modest arson.

Now time is so short. So today is her "spree" … just like those famous kids out in Nebraska she’d been reading about in the Reader’s Digest. Go out and take as many souls with her as time and opportunity grant her.

They’re rolling now: the boy on his bike and the old woman in her big black battering ram.

Just a few yards more.

Then she’ll see if the jug-eared sheriff will hear her out — accept her bearing witness — when it’s his own boy broke and bleeding out there on the simmering streets of the town he’s sworn to protect and to serve.

Craig McDonald’s short fiction has appeared in literary magazines and the anthologies Dublin Noir and Best New Noir. His previous Blip Magazine Archive story, "The Last Interview" was selected to appear in The Deadly Bride and 19 of the Year's Finest Crime and Mystery Stories, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Ed Gorman. Art in the Blood, a collection of interviews with 20 major crime authors, is available from PointBlank Press.

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