Photo by Tengyart


by Ytak Styk

George yanked the fire extinguisher off the wall. He swore as he madly pumped the plunger up and down to build pressure. By the time he got to the first of the two cells, Silas, the town drunk, had already smothered the flames with a blanket.

Silas yelled through the bars, “I told you they weren’t no DTs. The boy’s spewing flames!” The young carnie sat in the opposite corner of the cell, both hands covering his mouth. “I ain’t the one swiggin’ Sterno.” Silas threw down the blanket. “Put me in with the murderer. I’ll be safer there.”

From across the narrow hall, a voice yelled, “I ain’t no murderer! I tol’ you. I found him dead. He didn’t need those shoes no mo’.”

George sighed and set down the extinguisher. He unlocked the door. He was well aware that he should never open a cage without a second officer present, but with his only deputy suffering the flu, and Silas sobered up muchly by the fire, what the heck. All they could do was can his ass. That would be a blessing.

“Stay put,” he said to the kid. Hands clamped over his mouth and eyes wide, he nodded.

Silas wiped his drippy nose on his sleeve. “Damn, that burnt wool stinks.”

George put him in the second cell with the suspected murderer. Being it was close to three AM, Silas settled quickly. George put away the extinguisher. Stupid piece of crap. He needed one he could just point and spray.

The kid had moved from the floor to the second cot. He sat holding his stomach with one hand and his head the other. George fetched him a glass of water and an antacid. He put them on a tray and slid it through the slot at the bottom of the door. Creaking up on his feet like a man of ninety and not nineteen, the kid took the tablet and downed the water. He shuffled back to the cot. The kid’s mustache and goatee combined sported less hair than a woman’s plucked eyebrow.

“Tell me, boy, I searched you. Where the hell are you hiding the accelerant?”

As glum as a man on death row he said, “I don’t have any accelerant.”

“Come on! Your troupe bills a fire-eater. It’s on all the posters. I know how it’s done. We’re small town, not stupid.”

His face a mass of worry lines he said, “I’m not the fire-eater! Dieter the German is the fire-eater.” He grimaced and pounded his chest like a burp had gotten stuck. “Or at least he was until he tricked me.”

“Tricked you how?”

The kid’s face contorted. A six-foot flame shot out of the boy’s mouth and licked at the opposite wall before flashing out. It left a black mark.

George yelled, “Stop burping, boy!”

Silas said, “You prefer he fart?”

Ignoring Silas’ question, George asked, “Seriously, what did this Dieter guy get you to swallow?”

The kid shook his head, his brown hair pointing out every which way like a scared cat. “You won’t believe me if I tell you.” He examined his soot-covered hands. “I don’t even believe me.”

“Try me. It’s the middle of the night. I could be dreaming this. I did have the diner’s spaghetti special for supper.”

Silas asked, “And you ain’t the one shooting flames?”

“Shut up, old man,” said the suspected murderer, his accent evaporating faster than his old boy charm.

Silas did.

To the boy George said, “I can’t help you, if you don’t help me.”

The kid scraped the soot off one hand using the nails of the other. “Dieter tricked me into swallowing a ghost.”

George sighed. And the moon wasn’t even full yet. He reached into his pocket, pulled out the bottle of antacids and tossed them to the kid. “We’ll deal with this tomorrow.” He flipped off the lights.

The auto-locking door to the holding cells clicked behind George. He sat at his desk and wiggled the mouse to wake up the computer. He punched in the URL. The application due date for the job upstate was Tuesday. He had to escape this goofy-assed town. With Paula moved out, there was nothing left to hold him.

The kid plastered to the front passenger window, George made one slow tour around the empty fairgrounds in the police cruiser. The kid said, “Oh, my God! We were pitched here last night. I swear! We’re not scheduled to pull out ‘til tomorrow.”

Besides muddy ruts and piles of garbage drowning a few metal barrels, the carnival had left nothing behind. Not so much as an abandoned Chinese handcuff or plastic keychain of the Eiffel Tower.

The kid wailed. “What am I gonna do? I was supposed to get paid today!”

And he wasn’t the only one. Mr. Jacobs, a beach ball of a man, had already called the state police. An officer nodded slowly over a notepad as Mr. Jacobs’ short little arms flapped about like pigeons rousted by a rat terrier.

Mr. Jacobs turned and vented at George, “And the bastards even took two of my picnic tables! The good ones!”

George patted his arm, more out of self-protection than comfort. “They can’t really get away. They’re a carnival. They can’t hide.”

Reaching for his radio at his lapel, the state officer said, “I’ll call it in. Do you know where they’re headed?”

Mr. Jacobs had no idea, but before he could wind himself up again, George called for the kid to come over. His jacket between his hands, he hopped out of the vehicle and ran over like an exuberant puppy. He asked the state officer, “Do you know where they went?”

The officer scowled. George explained, “The officer here needs you to help him figure out where they might go.”

Mr. Jacobs puffed up like a prairie grouse. “Is this one of those carnies? One of those Gypsy thieves?”

“No sir!” The kid ducked his eyes. “Well, yes. But, no.”

George took Mr. Jacobs by the elbow and led him a few steps away. “He’s only been working for them for-—” He turned toward the kid who was busy describing the types and numbers of vehicles in the convoy to the trooper. “Since when you been workin’ for Klein and Butler?”

“Since Amarillo.”

George shook his head. “A short time. They skipped town without making payroll.”

Mr. Jacobs threw up his hands in frustration. “So even if you catch them, I won’t get paid?”

George shrugged. “We might get your tables back. That’s somethin’.”

The kid’s face screwed up. The boy gurgled and hocked a flaming loogie. Mr. Jacobs hustled over and stomped out the small fire. “Stop that! This is a non-smoking facility.” Keeping one eye on the kid, he asked George, “Is that boy an arsonist?”

“I’m not an arsonist!” he wailed.  “And this is no facility! It’s just a field you mow once a month.”

Mr. Jacobs pointed to the single wooden light pole. “It has electric!”

The trooper radioed in. Not five minutes later, he got his call back. The truck pulling the merry-go-round had blown a transmission, and the whole crew hadn’t made it halfway to the Forty. Mr. Jacobs climbed into his Cadillac, his gas worth two of his best picnic tables.

George handed one of his cards to the trooper. “I don’t have a last name, but if you run across a German by the name of Dieter, I need to speak to him.”

“In regards to?”

George motioned toward the kid who, as nonchalantly as possible, stamped out another flaming spitball. “This Dieter guy is the fire-eater. He tricked the kid into swallowing something or other. I need details.”

The trooper nodded. “I’d say.”

George yanked the battery from the smoke alarm. Its constant screeching was tap dancing on his last nerve. Doc Miller’s nurse thanked him. She’d been too short to reach. The doc, a thin man with a flattop haircut and Navy tattoo, led the kid into an examining room. He left the door open.

George pulled out his phone. He ordered a new fire extinguisher and called the state coroner about his other case. “What’s the deal on the dead body from the alley?”

The coroner said, “Your DB was definitely a meth head. Bad teeth, liver, kidneys, but what killed him was a pulmonary aneurysm. That’s where all the blood came from. He wasn’t murdered.”

“So my perp’s story holds up? He stole the sneakers postmortem?”

“Yep. But I had my admin look up those fancy shoes your perp left behind. They’re Fumoir ankle boots.” George didn’t know what that meant, so he googled them while the coroner continued. “The cause of death is obvious. Do you need me to crack his skull and do a chem panel or box him to go?”

“Box him,” said George. He whistled. The shoes cost $1200! Why would his perp trade them for some ratty sneakers off a dead guy?

The coroner said, “Given the drug abuse, I imagine he had run-ins with the police. I’ve uploaded his prints. Once I know who he is, I’ll give you a call.”

George hated having to inform the family. Maybe he’d luck out, and the dead junkie wouldn’t be local. In the DB’s pants pocket, he’d found a bus ticket from Chicago, but he doubted the junkie had come from there. His perp with the wandering accent had swapped more than just shoes. But why?

He thumbed in a quick email with a copy of the perp’s intake photo to a colleague in Chicago. As he hit send, the doc hustled the boy out to the parking lot where he coughed up another six-footer. Doc Miller wrote something on a piece of paper and handed it to George.

“What’s this? A prescription?” It was an address. “This is off Route 9. Why send us there?”

Pointing at the piece of paper, the doc said, “That’s Paula’s new address. She had to find someplace to go after you kicked her out.”

The heat rose up George’s neck. “I did not kick her out. She chose to leave.”

“Yeah. After you made her life miserable.”

George pointed at his badge. “She got arrested in my own living room for wire fraud!”

The boy’s ears perked up.

The doc put a finger in George’s chest. “She was never charged. The Feds were looking for the bosses, not the girls working the phones.”

Apparently, shooting fireballs didn’t seem so interesting anymore. The boy moved closer to listen in. George changed subjects. “You’re a medical man. Certainly, you can’t believe this ridiculous ghost story.”

Doc Miller stuck his hands in his jacket pockets. “Irrelevant. Even if I didn’t believe the part about the ghost, it’s my medical opinion that there’s no way a human body can store accelerant. It would’ve eaten through his gullet hours ago.”

George looked down at the paper and made a face.

“Paula’s the only one who can help that boy.” He headed for his door. “I’m sending my bill to your office.”

George stomped his way to the cruiser, the kid on his heels. “Are we going to see your ex?”

“Shut up. Get in the car.”

George called dispatch to tell them he was heading to the Quikie Stop Food Mart. The kid sulked until he noticed the road sign in front of the gas station: Route 9.

George handed the kid a ham sandwich and a small carton of milk.

“I asked for a Coke.”

“Like you need to belch more.” George slid the Slim Jim into his pocket and climbed back into the cruiser.

“Aren’t you going to have anything?”

George shook his head and pulled out onto Route 9. His stomach hurt too much. The kid fell upon the sandwich like a shrew on a June bug. “So what does your ex do? Is she a specialist?”

“Yeah, you could say that.” He made a right into a driveway next to a large sign that read, “Paula Psychic Extraordinaire – Tarot, Palmistry, and Other Occult Services – Reasonable Prices.”

He expected a snarky comment, but the kid nodded solemnly as if visiting Paula made more sense than visiting Doc Miller. George called in his location to dispatch. Instead of a professional acknowledgement he got, “Huhn. Will you be needin’ backup?”

On the front porch sat an old man. White tufts of hair stuck out from both the sides of his head and his ears. His eyes red-rimmed and watery, he examined George carefully. “You here to see my daughter?”

“Your great-granddaughter, sir. Is she at home?”

The screen door creaked. A young woman said, “Hey, George.”

Paula wore short shorts that accentuated her long legs. She had a flowered shirt tied up under her breasts. A hint of a belly button ring glinted at her waistband. It was all George could do to keep from reaching out and taking her hand in his. He imagined her long, perfectly shaped fingers cool in his fevered grip.

The old man harrumphed and spit, the snot thick, white, and bubbly. “You got a nice soldier, come here to call, and you wearin’ those shorts showin’ your ashy knees. And that hair! All nappy headed! What’ll your mama think?”

Paula had let her hair go natural in college where she and George had met. She had the dreadlocks pulled back in a blue band. Her eyes shone bright and clear. They held no anger. Yet.

George said, “Now, Mr. Washington, don’t say things like that. Your great-granddaughter is beautiful.”

Paula smiled, her teeth white and perfect. “Always the charmer.”

George produced the Slim Jim. “I brought you something, Mr. Washington.”

The old man reached greedily for the stick. Upon snatching it he said, “You go on now.”

George motioned the kid to come up the steps. As the boy entered the house he whispered, “That’s mean! The geezer’s only got one tooth!”

“It’ll keep him busy.”

Paula led them into the front parlor through a beaded entrance. Surrounded by four wooden chairs, the lone card table sat dead center with a blue velvet cloth spread on top. Blackout curtains covered the two windows.  A light green, circular fan buzzed. Paula went to one of the windows and turned on the AC unit. Only then was George aware of how much he was sweating. The vest was miserable any time of year but especially during the summer. They were only in early June.

He appreciated the AC, but that would mean he wouldn’t be able to smell Paula. Her chemistry, mixed with Downy fabric softener and Dove soap, invaded his dreams.

She moved to the far side of the table. He herded the kid into the chair by the windows, so George could sit opposite him with his back to the wall. He adjusted his gun belt and sat carefully to avoid hooking anything in the spindles of the chair.

“I’m sorry to bother you, Paula,” said George, “but we’re here because—”

“Jim swallowed a ghost.” She sat down. Her chair had armrests.

The kid gasped. “How did you know?”

George reached across and popped him one. “The doc called her, you moron!”

Paula’s jaw line protruded slightly her eyes no longer anger-free. “Yes, Doc Miller called, but he didn’t mention the ghost. All he said was that you were coming over with a boy who needed my help and not to shoot your ass when I saw you come up my driveway.”

She tapped the tarot card spread on the table. “I found out the details in my own way.”

Awestruck, the boy nodded.

George hated her tarot cards the most, with the creepy images and titles like the Devil and Death. The cards invited evil into a house. Well, if he believed in that sort of thing. He startled when his phone buzzed. It was the state police.

As if George weren’t still there, the kid asked Paula, “Why doesn’t he have a shoulder radio like most cops?”

“The county bond election failed.”

Again the kid nodded, as if Paula were a high priestess and her words sacred.

Quite loudly, Paula added, “The call is from the state police. They can’t find your fire-eater because he isn’t with the carnival. He took off with the money and went east. He’s blonde now without his signature Van Dyke beard.”

She leaned back, crossing both her arms and her legs. The state police hadn’t mentioned the blonde or beard part, but George had to admit to the rest. The kid’s jaw dropped.

George mumbled under his breath, “I hate it when you do that.”

“Do what? When I use my gift, or when I’m right?” She cocked her head and raised her eyebrow.

He sputtered, “That! That’s what I hate!” He pointed and pulled at his own eyebrow. “You did that eyebrow thing while I was explaining how it might be a little awkward for a police officer to have his fiancée arrested by the FBI!”

“Oh puh-leese! It was always more about who I am and not about the arrest. My gift scares you.”

“Your gift? You should be in New York surrounded by skinny gay men dressed in black, wearing pointy-toed shoes, gushing over the brilliance of your canvases!” George threw his arms wide and pointed at the empty walls. “I don’t see a single one of your paintings.” He swallowed hard and adjusted his belt. “Why’d you come back here? You should be in New York.”

Paula hung her head, her voice quiet. “You know why I came back.”

Like he’d been sucker-punched, George bent over his elbows on his thighs, his breath fast and shallow.

Paula refolded her arms across her chest. “New York’s expensive. I have student loans to repay.”

George straightened up, acid reflux licking at his esophagus. “Yeah, but a psychic hotline?”

“Maybe you’d have preferred a sex line? What else kind of jobs can you find out here that aren’t minimum wage? Besides, I never ripped anyone off. I told the callers the truth. I didn’t keep them on the line.” She pointed to the wall that backed the porch. “You know they’d have forced Pepaw into a home.”

He imagined Mr. Washington sitting on the other side worrying the Slim Jim like a toothless hound a bone.

Paula ran her fingertips over the card spread as if it were a lover’s body. “And this is my gift, too.”

The smart side of his brain told him to keep his mouth shut. The dumb part said aloud, “And if you’re so gifted, how come you didn’t see the Feds coming? Huh?”


“Paula, I’m sorry. I’m—”

“Get out.”

George wiped the sweat off his face. “I didn’t mean it.”

“Get out!”

Something rumbled, like a distant earthquake. The kid’s face flushed blood red. His eyes bulged. George launched himself against Paula and pushed her to the floor. He protected her face with his arms. Fire exploded from the boy, engulfing the room. As quickly as it had come, the flame snuffed itself out. Except for the velvet tablecloth and card spread, which continued to burn.

Jumping to his feet, he whipped the cloth off the table and crushed out the burning velvet. The cards flew everywhere like seventy-eight flaming arrows. He rushed around the room, a mad clogger, stomping the cards. The last one, half-burned, was the Lovers.

Paula ran to George and slapped at the back of his head. He pushed her away. “I’ll buy you a new deck!”

“No! Hair!” She aimed for his head again. “Your hair’s on fire!”

Taking both hands, George made one quick swipe and smothered the flames. Paula examined his palms. He’d done it fast enough and wasn’t blistered.

He asked her, “You okay?”

She had tears in her eyes. “Are you?”

The kid whimpered.

Oh God! He’d forgotten the kid.

But he was okay too. Only scared out of his wits. In a voice of a five-year old, his pupils dilated, he begged, “Please, please help me.”

“Yes, we’ll help you,” said George. He looked at Paula. “Exorcism?”

She snorted in disgust. “Do I look like a priest to you?” Repositioning her hair band she continued, “No, I need to know more about this ghost.” She nodded. “Yes, a séance. We need a séance.”

George checked his phone while Paula spread out another blue velvet cloth. She sold them online for nineteen ninety-nine. His connection in Chicago would get back to him. 

Paula said, “We need at least four people. One to represent each cardinal direction.”

Why not six? One for up and down too? Stupid arbitrary rules. George kept his mouth shut. The kid had gotten dangerous. Besides, six wouldn’t fit around the small table.

Through the screen door Paula shouted, “Hey Pepaw! Need a fourth. Come inside.”

“Naw. Too busy.”

“Please, Pepaw. We have to help this boy.”

“Nope. Tol’ you! Too busy for spooky stuff today.”

George bee-lined out the door. He said, “Sorry about this, Mr. Washington,” and snatched the soggy Slim Jim from his hand. The old man protested.

“You don’t do what your women folk tell you to do?” asked George. “How does that work for you?”

The old man scowled. “Not well.” He heaved himself up on his wobbly legs, and followed George into the house.

Paula directed him to the seat to her left. George thought it a bad idea considering how he’d get his eyebrows burnt off if the kid sneezed, but the smart part of George’s brain had regained control. He kept quiet.

“Try to relax,” said Paula to the boy. “Everyone, hold hands.”

In his right hand, George still clutched the Slim Jim so the old man grasped that instead. The boy’s hand felt clammy in his left. The AC blasted half-warm air, the fan buzzed, and the mid-afternoon sunlight streamed through the beaded doorway. His burnt hair stunk.

Something pulled at his right hand. Mr. Washington had leaned over and was gnawing on the Slim Jim. George opened his mouth to complain, but pressed his lips shut. Paula’s head had fallen forward. Her hands twitched. The boy stared unblinking. Every hair on George’s body tingled.

Her eyes wild, Paula’s voice boomed, “Bastards!” Her head flew back. “Thieves!” The accent sounded English, with a timbre too deep to be coming from such a young and slender woman. “Take the ring! Just take it!”

Her eyes rolled up into their sockets. Her legs stiffened. She writhed as if trying to protect her face. George smelled burning wood and heard beams cracking overhead.

“Fire!” Paula cowered as if to protect herself from a shower of embers. She screamed.

George jumped up, lifted her by her arms, and shook her. “Paula!”

Her eyes focused on him. The sounds of a collapsing building faded like a movie soundtrack. She pulled away. “Geez, George! Thanks for breaking the spell.”

“Damn it!” He hooked his thumbs in his belt. “I thought you were burning.” He cringed. What a dumb thing to say, but she half-smiled.

Would they have to start over? Maybe not. The kid continued to stare straight ahead oblivious to the chaos. Paula motioned for George to hush and sit. Mr. Washington continued to slobber over his Slim Jim, unimpressed with the goings-on.

George grew antsy. Was the kid stuck? Paula shot him the “stop fidgeting” look. The one she used on him in church.

The seconds ticked past. His phone vibrated: a text. Paula didn’t react. She sat engrossed by the kid. The text was from his buddy in Chicago. He had included a link. Bingo! George’s shoe-swapping perp did have a warrant for his arrest in Illinois. The bus ticket had been his.

The boy mewed like a cat about to hawk up a hairball. Paula scooted back her chair so George did too. The boy dry-heaved twice. His body convulsed. He vomited a ring. A gaudy, slime-covered signet ring. The sucker thumped so loudly when it hit the table it had to weigh half a pound.

“I’ll be damned,” said George. He reached for the ring.

Paula yelled, “No!”

He yanked his hand back like he’d been snake-bit. “What?”

“Touch the ring, and you’ll be cursed.”

The kid groaned and hid his face in his hands. “Why me? I didn’t set this guy’s house on fire and burn him alive.”

“No, but you stole his ring,” said Paula.

Through his fingers he mumbled, “Dieter tricked me into doing it.”

Mr. Washington pushed himself up from the table. “May I go now?” He’d shambled through the beads before Paula could answer.

She gathered up the four corners of the velvet cloth and passed the bundle to the kid. The kid’s eyes darted. George could hear the plan to ditch it in the river sizzlin’ in the kid’s brainpan.

Eyes flashing, Paula loomed over him. “You dump that ring and it will find its way back to you. And the curse’ll be a hundred times worse. Think about it. Dieter had to trick you into taking it. Otherwise, he’d have just dumped it himself. You have to return the ring to where it was stolen so the spirit can find peace.”

A fifteen-watt epiphany lit up the kid’s face followed by a pained grimace. “But that’s like in England across oceans and stuff!”

She spoke to the kid, but stared at George. “When you mess up, it’s your responsibility to make things right. Now get outta my house.”

With Deputy Johnson on patrol, George set up the kid on Johnson’s computer. The ring lay on a tray. The kid poked it with a pencil to get a different view. Google was failing them. The crest didn’t match anything on the net. They found something Swedish that was sort of like it, but the ghost had spoken with an English accent.

The kid said, “We’re gonna need Paula’s help.”

George scowled. “No. Keep searching. It’s not like you have anything better to do.” He flipped through the notes sent over by the coroner. No hits on the prints. The druggie had been so far gone. It was amazing he hadn’t had at least one run in with the police. The phone rang.

“I would like to speak to Officer Calvin Johnson.”

George recognized the voice. “He’s not here right now. What can I do for you, Paula?”

The kid waved wildly and pointed to the ring. He mouthed, “Ask her!”

George turned his back.

Paula said, “I have information on the teenager found dead in the alley.”

George took pleasure in correcting her. “Sorry, but the coroner puts his age at thirty.”

“Well, the coroner’s wrong. It’s the Pepperdine boy. The oldest. I don’t remember his name.”

“No way,” said George. “He’s sixteen, seventeen at most.”

“It’s him.” Her voice became soft. “When you tell his mama, be sure to emphasize that he died of natural causes, that he had a burst blood vessel. She doesn’t need to know about the drugs. He’s supposed to be living in Texas with his dad.”

George’s eyes narrowed. “Did you speak with the coroner?”

“No, I did not. That’s why I wanted to speak to Calvin. Just have him call me.”

To stop her from hanging up, George said, “Wait! I’m writing it down. Pepperdine?” 

After a pause, she asked, “Will you do that?”

“Do what?”

Exasperated she said, “Not tell his mom about the drugs. Duh. Can’t you listen to me just once?”

It didn’t seem possible, but in his gut, George knew she was right. “Yes. I can do that.”

He contacted the coroner, and by early afternoon, they had a positive ID. The boy had an extensive juvenile record. Now George had to go break the news to Mrs. Pepperdine.

The Pepperdine place was a rotting trailer at the end of a dirt road, but George didn’t have to go that far. Mrs. Pepperdine was out by the mailboxes smoking. She was waiting for her two youngest to arrive from school on the bus. George didn’t even get the door shut on the cruiser before she burst into tears. God. Are all women part witch?

George gave her the coroner’s number to make arrangements. Not having a car, she’d have to ask her neighbor for a ride. She wiped her eyes and straightened her shoulders as the bus trundled up the road toward them. “At least it was natural. There’s somethin’ in that.”

George didn’t pull out right away. He watched in the rearview mirror as Mrs. Pepperdine told her kids. The littlest wailed. He dialed Paula on his cell. Without saying hello he asked, “Have you always done this?” He waved his hand in a vague circle. “Been this way?”

“Yes. Even as a child.”

“Why didn’t you tell me you were for real? I mean really real.”

“Because I knew you wouldn’t be able to handle it.”

The AC was blasting in the cruiser, but George wiped the sweat off his upper lip. “The kid needs some help. We’ve searched but can’t find anything on the ring. I was wondering—”

“Are you asking for my help as someone with a BFA or as a psychic?

Damn it. She was going to make him say it. “As a psychic.”

“I’ll be there tomorrow morning at ten.”

Paula arrived exactly on time. She wore a yellow sundress. Her skin was flawless. They’d just dumped the ring out on a tray on George’s desk when two Federal marshals walked in. “We’re here to transfer the Chicago suspect.”

George glanced up at the clock. “You’re early.”

The taller one removed his aviators. “We don’t want to hit traffic. Is the paperwork finished?”

“Almost. Just need some signatures.” He fetched the thick file folder and ran through the procedure from checking their ID to verifying their warrant and transfer forms. While they signed on the dotted line, George shackled the prisoner using the marshals’ manacles and chains. The prisoner shuffled to George’s desk and sat in the visitor chair. George moved the tray to the side, and explained the procedure.

The man didn’t bother to read the forms and had no questions. He knew the drill. He signed the waiver and flipped the pen back at George. It went wide, hit the floor, and rolled under Johnson’s desk. George had to bend down to chase after it.

The man licked his lips. “What tipped you off?”

“Junkies don’t wear twelve hundred dollar boots.”

He winked at George and said, “You’re small town, not stupid.”

The marshals led him outside. As the door swung shut, the kid asked, “Where’s the ring?”

“Son of a—” George yelled at the kid to get the fire extinguisher. He rushed out the door, Paula right behind him.

At the back of a white van with Federal plates, the prisoner raised his arms as high as the chain would allow. The marshals frisked him. They didn’t find anything. George frowned.

The marshals loaded the prisoner, shut the door, and climbed in the front. The kid passed George the fire extinguisher.

Nodding toward the extinguisher Paula asked, “So he took it?”

“I didn’t see him, but it’s gone,” said George.

The kid asked, “Where do you think he hid it?”

“We need to get it back,” said Paula.

“No, we don’t. To paraphrase someone we all know, ‘When you mess up, it’s your responsibility to make things right. Now get outta my jail.’”

Paula folded her arms across her chest, but couldn’t keep the grin off her face.

George’s phone dinged. A notification flashed. His job application was due by five.

The back of the van lit up in a flash of orange. The marshals dashed around back and yanked open the door. The seat of the perp’s pants blazed. George tossed the marshal the extinguisher. Miming the action, he yelled, “Pump it! Pump it!”

He looked over at Paula, her eyes so bright, her long smooth fingers pressed to her lips. Maybe he could get used to Paula knowing stuff she shouldn’t. And if he failed, well, there’d be other jobs to apply for. He dismissed the notification.

The kid said, “At least now we know where he hid the ring.”



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