Read an Excerpt
"My daddy says this picture is worth a hundred thousand dollars!"
The snapshot was waved like a red flag in front of my face by the underage tartlet sitting next to me, who clutched a fried bologna sandwich in her other hand. The stench of greasy, seared meat filled the interior of my Ford SUV and I held my breath, trying to fight off the memory of having eaten one too many barbecued ribs last night. Oh no! Too late! She bit into the meat, causing a wave of nausea to roll from my stomach into my throat, I quickly lowered my window, despite the cold.
"But I'm gonna let you have it for just fifty thousand bucks." Wynona Hardy bargained like a seasoned pro.
I took the photo as I drove and glanced at fifty pairs of beady, camera-flashed red eyes that swam in a blackness as impenetrable as the Tennessee woods on a moonless night.
"Do you want to explain exactly what I'm looking at that's so valuable?"
"For chrissakes! They're coons, of course!" Wynona's full lips formed a well-practiced pout, her dark lashes fluttering like a professional "virgin" whose innocence had been questioned.
"Okay, so what makes this Quik Pik photo worth fifty thousand dollars?"
We passed a Piggly Wiggly Isupermarket held captive by a series of rough-and-tumble pawnshops on either side, all proudly advertising an arsenal of guns for sale. I turned onto a narrow street where dilapidated houses were the norm, their front yards littered with junked cars and flat tires. Either I'd stumbled onto the set of the oldJeff Foxworthy Show, or I was once again in redneck country.
"Daddy bought those coons for next to nothing from a holding station in Ohio." Wynona smiled slyly. "Is that a big enough clue for you?"
It wasslowlycoming together. A former trapper, Woody Hardy had turned to training and selling coon dogs to hunters after the bottom fell out of the fur trade. He must have decided to tip the scales in his favor during the most recent field trial, by dumping coons in the area where his dogs would be hunting. And to save a few bucks, he'd apparently purchased an illegal haul of rabid critters from a greedy employee at a quarantine station. Woody probably figured they were going to be destroyed anyway, so what did it matter how they met their Maker?
It was easy to imagine Woody releasing feverish coons the night before the trial. They wouldn't get very far as they stumbled along, bumping into obstacles in their path. By the time morning rolled around, any five-dollar, biscuit-eating mutt from off a front porch could have treed the coons in no time flat. The scam was as rank as the sandwich Wynona had just polished off.
She snatched the photo back, adding a grease stain to its surface. Then extracting a cube of bubble gum from her jeans, Wynona peeled off the worn wrapper and popped it into her mouth.
"I was gonna blackmail him, but the old bastard would probably just whack me. So you're it. Whadda ya say? Have we got a deal?"
As I hit a bump, the handcuffs dangling from the shift on my steering column caught the sun's beam, causing light to glimmer and dance on the dashboard. It proved too much for Wynona. Her fingers twitched, irresistibly drawn toward them.
"Hey! Leave those alone!" I warned, but I might as well have been Wile E. Coyote trying to fend off a speeding train. She swiped the cuffs as I swerved to stay on the road.
"Put those back!"
Wynona hooked the steel bracelets firmly around herwrists, and her manacled hands began to prance like two high-kicking Rockettes. "You know how many guys would pay good money to get hold of me like this? It's that 'women in prison' fantasy they get off on." She giggled.
I had the feeling she knew only too well what she was talking about. "What else have you got besides the snapshot?" I asked, with a sigh of resignation.
"What do you mean, what else? Isn't that enough?" She scowled.
Yeah enough to get me laughed right out of the Memphis district attorney's office. Still, I was itching to grab Woody on something. He was a good ol' boy who believed God's creatures had been placed on this earth for only two possible reasons to fill his belly or to bring in money to line his pockets. I'd been after him since my arrival in west Tennessee five months ago, and had yet to catch him red-handed.
"The photo alone won't do. Would you be willing to testify against him in court?"
She indignantly popped a bubble in my direction. Even her gum held the faint whiff of bologna.
"Whadda ya, crazy? Didn't you hear what I said? He'd off me without giving it a second thought!" Wynona tried to wriggle out of the handcuffs, only to discover that her wrists were stuck. "Hey! What's going on? I used to be able to get out of these things real easy!"
Wynona had spent the majority of her youth in and out of drug rehab, which was where she'd learned to become a female Houdini. It also explained the tee-shirt she now wore a lovely little number declaring, RehabIs for Quitters!
I pulled over, fished the key from my pocket, and unlocked the handcuffs. Wynona rubbed her wrists, as if embarrassed that her flight skills had become so rusty.
"So, am I getting the money or what?" she groused.
It looked like a visit to Woody Hardy was in order, and this seemed as good a time as any to drop in on him up at Reelfoot Lake. The day begged me to stay outside and play...