Marlena was going to have to do something about the sheriff.
“You be nice to me, and I won’t pay Marshal a visit,” he’d said last night, his hot damp hand squeezing her thigh. “Won’t go poking around in the woods out back of his trailer, see what I can find.”
She had been taking a break between shows at Rudy’s, slumped in a back booth sipping a beer when Leroy Jones, sheriff of Rooker County, had plopped down beside her and delivered his ultimatum. She’d known what he meant by being “nice”, she hadn’t fallen off the turnip truck yesterday. The nerve! She might strip for a living, but that didn’t make her a whore.
Now, she was between a rock and a hard place. Either give the sheriff what he wanted, or see her brother, Marshall, get hauled in for growing marijuana—wasn’t like he cooked meth or nothing bad like that—leaving his wife and five kids to fend for themselves.
Yeah, she was going to have to do something, and that was the reason she was here now, crawling at a snail’s pace down Forked Tree Road, risking tearing the bottom out of her old Thunderbird, to pay a visit to Aunt Hassie.
‘Cause everybody knew that Aunt Hassie could fix most anything—for a price.
Marlena rounded a sharp curve, and Aunt Hassie’s house came into view, two stories of gray unpainted wood of indeterminate age that listed to one side like a drunken sailor on shore leave. Brush, briars, and brambles surrounded it, almost swallowing the bottom floor in a summer-green tangle. A narrow path cleaved the overgrowth from the road to the front door—
Which stood wide open.
Like she was expecting me…
But Marlena knew that was impossible since she hadn’t called ahead, couldn’t call ahead since Aunt Hassie didn’t have a phone, cell or otherwise.
She twisted off the key, stepped out, and eased shut the door.
She hesitated, fingers curled around the door handle, while all around the tick-tick-tick of the cooling engine played harmony to raucous tree frogs, crickets and cicadas. Was she doing the right thing? All her life, she’d heard rumors about Aunt Hassie, some good, some not-so-good, and some downright scary. Some even claimed she was a witch. Marlena didn’t know much about witches other than what her mama—God rest her soul—had told her, which all and all amounted to the fact that they weren’t to be trifled with. So if you owed one, you’d damn sure better pay up.
What would Aunt Hassie want in return for making the sheriff leave her and Marshal be?
Marlena recalled how her skin had crawled when the sheriff touched her, thought of having to spread her legs for him whenever he took the notion—she didn’t even consider just letting her brother go to prison—and felt nauseous. She wouldn’t…couldn’t…she’d die…
Squaring her shoulders, she took a deep breath, and marched through the gathering twilight toward the house.
Her unease had returned full force by the time she crossed the veranda and reached the doorway. “Hello…” She stepped across the threshold. “Anybody home?”
Deep shadows draped the interior. Other than vaguely furniture-shaped objects, Marlena couldn’t make out much of anything. “Hello…”
She took two hesitant steps forward. Her nose picked up the odor of cinnamon and her ears the faint sound of Roy Orbison crooning “Only The Lonely”, and both transported her back to her granny’s kitchen, helping (more hindering, truth be told) the old woman bake while they both sang along to the LPs spinning on the record player in the next room.
“What you need, missy?”
“Oh!” Marlena jumped and stumbled around, her feet tangling together, and would have fallen if not for the strong hand that grabbed her elbow. “I…uh…”
Aunt Hassie’s green eyes danced with amusement. “Cat got your tongue…” She cocked her head, smiled. “…Marlena?”
“How’d you know my name?” Far as Marlena knew, she’d never been properly introduced to Aunt Hassie, though in years past she’d seen her around town. Always from a distance, though.
“Why, child, I know everybody in Rooker County.” Her smile widened, revealing small, even teeth. “Just like they know me.”
Marlena caught a flash of movement down around Aunt Hassie’s long skirt. At first glance, she thought it was a dog, but when the creature fully emerged from behind the shimmery purple fabric, she saw it was a wolf. And a big-ass wolf at that, its shoulders skimming Aunt Hassie’s hip bone. Multiple scars parted the lush gray fur of its head and back.
She took a step back, an involuntary squeak finding its way past her lips.
Aunt Hassie said, “Don’t mind Cicero, he’s as gentle as a lamb—least ways, most of the time.” She stepped around Marlena. “Come on in the kitchen, and we’ll talk about what you’re needing.”
Cicero loped up the steep hillside, his foot pads soundless upon the dew-damp grass, and stationed himself close to the highway. Hidden by the thick brush that spilled onto the shoulder, he waited. He was patient, didn’t fidget or pace, just kept his golden eyes pinned on the blacktop as it snaked away to the south.
Occasionally, headlights washed over his still form, but he continued to keep watch.
About an hour later he heard the sound he’d been waiting for, the sound his keen ears had no trouble recognizing: Sheriff Leroy Jones’ patrol car.
Cicero bounded from his hiding place, running out onto the highway in front of the car. Tires squealed, the backend fishtailed, and as the huge gray wolf leapt easily out of its way, the car careened off the road.
The night came alive with the sounds of whipping snapping branches, the screeching of metal scraping rocks, and the high pitched screaming of the sheriff. Then with a solid thunk, the car hood collided with a big blackjack.
And silence returned to the night.
Cicero ambled down the hillside he had scaled earlier to the stalled vehicle, placed his front paws on top of the driver’s door, and peered in the open window.
Sheriff Leroy Jones lay slumped over the steering wheel, moaning. His seat belt had saved him from going through the windshield, but there was still a lot of blood. And Cicero could tell from the angles of the sheriff’s legs, and one protruding bone, that both were broken.
His part done, the wolf trotted off into the night.
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