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No good deed ever goes unpunished, and Brandon Wilkes, who'd sworn to serve and protect the good people of Brazelton County, Georgia, was living proof of that.
"You sure? Brandon, are you positively sure?"
Brandon clamped his jaw shut, trying not, in his effort to get to work on time, to lose his patience with Prentice O'Keefe. The man had the comprehension of an eight-year-old, and the comic-book-violence imagination to go with it.
"Prentice, I swear. No aliens are going to come down here and get you and take you back to their planet. It was just a movie. Okay? Just make-believe."
"But they could, couldn't they? I mean, they were big, Brandon and " Here Prentice's lower lip trembled. "Scary. Bad scary."
Prentice's older sister, Ella, pushed open the raggedy screen door. "Prentice, he's told you that there's no such thing as aliens! Now why can't you believe him? Man's got to get to work and he's come all this way out of town to tell you not to believe such garbage!"
"It's okay, Ella," Brandon said, suppressing an urge to look at his watch. His boss might not agree that reassuring Prentice justified Brandon's being late, but Brandon knew, for Ella's sake, it was important. "Coming by here was on my way to see my uncleand I've got time before I have to clock in at the sheriff's department. Besides, I don't want Prentice worrying about things. I know how he gets his mind fixed."
"Tell me about it. Those so-called friends of hisfilling his head with such nonsense and letting him watch crazy movies. He'll be going on about this for days." Ella threw up her hands, pulled open the screen door that barely hung on its hinges, and went inside. "I giveup."
Prentice poked out his bottom lip even more. "I ain't stupid. I know things. Y'all don't tell me things, but I can figure it out."
Brandon's impatience melted away. Prentice was his age, thirty, and Brandon had seen others tease him all through school. The least he could do was not belittle Prentice's fears.
"Here, I've got something in the car that will fix you right up, Prentice." Brandon jogged to the cruiser, yanked open the glove compartment and dug out a toy plastic star from a packet of dozens of identical plastic stars he kept for kids. Then he crossed the weedy front yard back to the O'Keefes' porch.
"Okay, Prentice, you know what this is, right?"
Prentice's eyes rounded. "Ooh, boy, Brandon! That's a badge! Like yours!" He reached out to touch it, then snatched his hand back.
"No, no, it's yours. But wait. We've got to make this official. Hold up your right hand." Brandon led Prentice through a halting oath of office, using a lot of invention when his memory failed him. "Okay, then. If any aliens come around in their flying saucers, you tell 'em you're a sure enough Brazelton County deputy, and they'd better leave you alone."
"Ha! I will, Brandon! Yes, sir! Hey, Ella! Brandon made me a deputy! And he says there is, too, aliens, and they won't mess with me"
Brandon shook his head as Prentice disappeared into the house.
He didn't linger, though. He was late for work already, and his planned trip by Uncle Jake's would have to be put offhe'd never dreamed Ella's request would take up so much time.
A woman stood in the middle of the highway.
Brandon groaned. This day was already shaping up to be a beaut. What was it? A full moon or something? He pulled the sheriff's cruiser to a stop, rolled down the window and poked his head out.
The woman didn't seem to notice. Not him. Not the fact that the bumper of his Crown Vic was less than three feet from her. Certainly not that she was standing at the base of a hill, on a curve, square in the middle of the double-yellow line.
This time she turned, her dark ringlets sliding back over shoulders bare except for the thin straps of her sundress. She was a little thing, no bigger than five-two, and that was with help from the high-heeled sandals she wore.
Brandon tore his gaze from her tanned legssurpris-ingly long for a gal as short as she wasand her toned arms and looked back up at the woman's face.
And then at her hand.
She held up one index finger, the classic sign for wait.
Then she turned her attention back to the hill in front of her.
Brandon scratched his head and considered the problem. The lady was pretty, sure, but what kind of woman dressed up in her Sunday best and stood in the middle of a highway? What was she up to?
And she was telling a sheriff's deputy to wait?
He pulled the cruiser over to the edge of the road and prepared to cue the radio on his shoulder. Better to let the dispatcher know he was dealing with a possible fruit-loop, as if he hadn't already had his fruit-loop quotient filled to the brim with Prentice's aliens.
But before he could speak into the shoulder pack, it crackled. He released the button and waited.
"Brandon, you in the car yet?"
"Yeah. I've got a"
"Listen, how close are you to county road one twenty-one?"
"I'm on it, matter of fact."
"Out close to your uncle's?"
"Near there. Wade, listen, I've got a woman"
"We're going to need you to provide an escort."
Just then he heard a rumble on the highwaythe rumble of an oncoming eighteen-wheeler.
"Wade, pedestrian in the road, gotta go!"
Brandon shoved open his door. Sure enough, he could hear the gears shifting as the truck gathered speed.
"Ma'am! There's a truck coming! You need to get off the road!"
She waved one hand in his direction, brushing him away. With her other hand, she lifted a small digital camera to her eye.
Blowing out a breath, Brandon crossed the hot tarry asphalt to her. "Ma'am, I've asked you nicely" He went behind her, to lift her up at the waist and remove her bodily from the path of the oncoming vehicle.
"Put me down! What on earth" The tanned legs windmilled on him, and one high-heeled shoe caught him square on the shin.
"Ow! Lady, are you crazy?"
"Put me down! I'm going to miss it!" She jerked from his grasp in a lightning-quick move that nearly threw him on the roadwaysome sort of tai chi or martial arts move. He recovered his balance and took a step backward.
The truck crested the hill, bearing down on them. Brandon looked up to see the cab of the truck dwarfed by a
He blinked. Yes. It was a house. Somebody was moving a house down the middle of the narrow county road. Could this day get any more surreal?
The woman took her time snapping photos of the truck, snailing along at maybe thirty miles an hour, if that, with its road-wide load.
Photos apparently done, she strolled to the road's shoulder to stand by Brandon's cruiser. He followed her. As he tried to frame an apology, his radio crackled again.
"I think I figured it out, Wade. The escort's for a house?"
"Yeah. Just make sure they don't tear any power lines down, okay?"
Brandon spotted a man sitting astride the roof of the house, a long plastic pole in his hands. He blinked again, but the man was still there.
It was weird to see a house on the back of a truck, cruising down a narrow highway. Sure, he'd seen plenty of double-wides delivered, but never an actual house.
And this was indeed a house. He examined it as it trundled past and the man on the roof used the pole to lift up a power line.
The house looked big because of the scale of the road, but Brandon could see that it was no more than a cottage. It had been yellow at one time; now it was in dire need of a new coat or three of paint. Looked like an arts and crafts type cottage, maybe built in the late thirties or forties. Not a window in the thing was intact, and the porch roof was held up by boards fastened to the side of the house.
He glanced from the house to the woman who now, he'd figured out too late, must belong with it.
"Uh sorry about that. I thought"
She turned to him, beaming. "That's my house! My very first house!"
"Well. Congratulations. But next time I'd advise not standing in the middle of the road to get a picture of it."
Brandon rubbed his cheek and considered. No way was he going to be able to get in front of the truck now, so his escort services would wind up being follow-me services.
"Where's it headed?" he asked her.
"My land. Oh, I'm sorry, I'm Penelope Langston." She extended a small hand bare of rings and fingernail polish.
Brandon accepted the handshake. "Deputy Brandon Wilkes. So you're"
And then it hit him. Her name.
"Did you say Langston?"
"Yes. Penelope Langston. That was very sweet, what you did for me a moment ago"
"As in Langston Holdings?"
He couldn't keep the edge out of his tone.
"Yes. That's my company."
A bitter taste coated the inside of Brandon's mouth, a wash of nausea flooding him. Langston Holdings. The mysterious holding company that had bid up his uncle's land when it went to auctionagainand Brandon had been unable to save his uncle's farm. Again.
Uncle Jake tried to keep a stiff upper lip about losing half the acreage he'd farmed all his life, but Brandon knew the way he'd lost it had been the real kicker. Richard Murphy, a big-time area farmer, had colluded with the county tax commissioner to dummy up tax debts.
That's what had happened to Uncle Jake and Brandon. Brandon had been a full partner in his uncle's small farming operation when the tax commissioner sent them a bill they couldn't prove they'd paid. The tax commissioner had handpicked farmers like Uncle Jake, who, in years past, before computers, had tended to pay tax bills in cash and in installments. A few of the farmers had been able to produce ancient, yellowed receipts. Uncle Jake and at least one other farmer hadn't been such good record keepers. And Murphy had offered to stave off a sheriff's sale by buying part of the farm at a rock-bottom price.
Thenand here Brandon couldn't conceal a satisfied grinMurphy himself had fallen on hard times. He was facing a federal indictment on charges a mile long on government crop insurance fraud. The corrupt farmer had seen his own land, including the acres he'd swindled out of Uncle Jake, sold by auction.
Brandon had tried to buy his uncle's property back, but a holding company out of Oregon had outbid him at the auction. Langston Holdings.
This was the enemy? This woman? She was what, late twenties? And she could go around snatching up tracts of prime farmland?
If Penelope Langston saw his reaction, she didn't act like it registered. Nope, she was as bubbly as a kid at her birthday party, ready to unwrap presents. A dimple jumped in her cheek as she grinned.
"So, where's your car?" he growled.
"Oh, back there." Penelope gestured with a thumb in the direction the house was moving. "I guess I didn't think things through, but I did want to get a picture of it. Wasn't it awesome, coming down that hill? Can you give me a lift? You are here to direct traffic, right?"
He didn't bother to suppress a snort. Traffic? Here? In South Georgia? The only traffic jams he knew of were when people had to slow down behind an old-timer like Uncle Jake or a creeping tractor.
"You're obviously not from around here. This road isn't traveled that much." He glanced from Penelope's animated face to the house and blew out a breath. "C'mon. I'll give you a ride."
He would have figured her for a chatterbox, but in the cruiser, she proved him wrong. Maybe it was because she was absorbed in her big day.
Brandon felt the tiniest bit churlish for thinking ill of her. So she'd beat him out of the land. It had been an auction fair and square. And at least she was putting a house on it. It wasn't as though she was turning it into a subdivision.
He turned off on a dirt road and negotiated the Crown Vic over the washboard surface.
"I thought " Penelope frowned.
"I'm taking a shortcut. This comes out near my uncle'syour land." The correction ate at him. He forced himself to be civil and polite. "What brings you here?"
"Well, the land, of course. I'd found the house, oh, ages ago, on the Internet, believe it or not. It came from North Georgia, and the owners were selling it cheap to anyone who would move it. But I needed a square of dirt to put it on."
Square of dirt? Thirty acres of the best cropland on this side of the county was more than a "square of dirt."
"And you're originally from ?"
"Portland, Oregon. You know, I can't get over how flat everything is here. No peaks. No mountains. No hills, even. But the pine trees look like home."
"Oregon, huh? What, you hear about the land on the Internet or something?" Brandon's curiosity got the better of him. He'd tried, without success, to dig up information on Langston Holdings and the people behind it.
Never in a million years would he have thought the people behind it would be just this slip of a woman.
"Oh, no. Family." She didn't offer more in the way of explanation, instead pointing. "Look! They're turning in! Wow! Oh, I want to get another picture!"
He turned back onto the paved road and parked on the shoulder. "Well, uh, where are they putting the house? They're not putting it there, are they? They're putting it farther back, right?"