To the quirky and colorful residents of Maggody, Arkansas, population 755, "going online" is something one does at the DMV. So when the high school's new computer lab gains access to the Internet, the town is plunged into virtual chaos. Students are caught sneaking peeks at pornographic Web sites, and compromising photos of prominent Maggody citizens are being flashed across the display monitors. But when the body of a promiscuous young woman is found in an abandoned shack, a web of suspicion ensnares the community. Now, as cyber crime strikes Maggody, police chief Arly Hanks has to use all her low-tech resourcefulness to pull the plug on a murderer.
About the Author
Joan Hess is the author of the critically acclaimed Maggody mysteries, including the Pocket Books paperbacks Muletrain to Maggody, Maggody and the Moonbeams, Misery Loves Maggody, and firstname.lastname@example.org, nominated for the prestigious Nero Wolfe Award. She has received numerous awards, including the American Mystery Award, the Agatha Award, the Drood Review Readers' Award, and the
Macavity Award. A former president of the American Crime Writers League, she is currently president of the Arkansas Mystery Writers Alliance, as well as a member of Sisters in Crime. Joan Hess lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Read an Excerpt
We were not rockin' and rollin' in Maggody, or even reelin' just a bit. There was so little action, to be frank, that I was reduced to wandering down a dim hallway in the high school, trying to remember where the cafeteria was, so that I, Arly Hanks, chief of police of a staunchly stagnant community, currently unarmed but the possessor of a handgun, four bullets, and a really scary radar gun, could snooze through a school-board meeting.
If I'd had cable, I wouldn't have been there. And, well, maybe if I hadn't heard rumors that the meeting might turn lively. The rumors came from a most reliable source, aka my mother, who keeps a firm finger on the pulse of Maggody, Arkansas (population circa 755, not taking into account pets, farm animals, or the infrequent transient trolls living under the bridge north of town). Ruby Bee Hanks, proprietor of the bar and grill of the same name, as well as the Flamingo Motel out behind it, does not spend her days hunkered on the roof of the building, binoculars poised, but she might as well. What she doesn't learn while dishing up chicken-fried steaks and pitchers of beer is gleaned by her best friend, Estelle Oppers, who operates Estelle's Hair Fantasies in the front room of her house out on County 102. Between the two of them, they hear it all. And I mean all.
In contrast, I don't hear diddly-squat in my two-room police department, except for the infrequent complaint about a stolen dog or vandalized lawn ornaments. Every now and then I get a request from the sheriff to handle a car wreck on a county road. Not having much else to do, I usually comply, although I'd been known to clutch my throat and feign laryngitis. Sheriff Harve Dorfer, a good ol' boy with the silhouette of a Sumo wrestler and the instincts of a polecat, rarely falls for it.
I hadn't expected much more stimulation than that when I'd crawled back home after a nasty divorce in the equally dim halls of justice in Manhattan. All I wanted, I told my mother when I knocked on her door at midnight, was time to restore my spirits. Maggody had seemed the perfect haven, in that nothing had ever happened of note in my twenty-odd years of growing up here. Oh, Hiram's barn had burned, and a cheerleader was spotted dashing for the woods with smoldering panties in hand. The ownership of the Pot O' Gold Mobile Home Park had changed hands more than once, and the Dairee Dee-Lishus was currently run by a surly Hispanic whose tamales were noticeably better than his social skills. A New Age hardware store had come and gone, as had a veritable parade of wackos including porn moviemakers, tabloid reporters, feminist rabble-rousers, and militants. The Esso station had finally collapsed into an untidy pile of charred beams. Mayor Jim Bob Buchanon, who was still running the town as though he fancied himself to be Caesar Ozarkus, had put in a convenience store known by locals as the Quik Screw. Now it was gone, replaced by a good-sized store called Jim Bob's SuperSaver Buy 4 Less.
Not that we did.
But there I was, discomfited by a sense that I should be (but most certainly wasn't) dressed in a navy blue skirt and white blouse complete with a Peter Pan collar. What I was doing was eyeing the obscenities scratched on the lockers while I tried to remember the location of the cafeteria. I'd come in the right door, but had taken a wrong turn. The story of my life, perhaps. I strained to hear voices other than the ghostly echoes of Mr. Woolsey stressing the significance of cosines, which he'd pronounced "cousins," and Lottie Estes explaining the role of potholders in a well-organized kitchen. The band room was down here, I thought, and the shop. The cafeteria was at the end of a different corridor.
Seconds before panic sank in, I saw a light and headed toward it. Latecomers were not streaming into the cafeteria like lemmings, but quite a few citizens were doing their civic duty. I nodded at Larry Joe and Joyce Lambertino, who, for the first time in years, had no children clinging to their legs. Elsie McMay toted a knitting bag only slightly smaller than a subcompact car. Kevin and Dahlia Buchanon struggled with a double-stroller and two sleepy cherubs. Why they were there was bewildering, in that Buchanons in general have a poor track record in educational endeavors (and think a Ph.D. is a brand of motor-oil additive). Kevin has been spotted puzzling over a soda can with a poptop.
Members of the Buchanon clan, scattered across Stump County like chickweed, are renown for beetlish brows, yellow eyes, and thick-lipped sneers. They do not patronize the Brains "R" Us outlet at the mall.
One of the wilier members of the clan was seated at a table on a podium. Jim Bob Buchanon had his hand over the microphone as he hissed at his wife beside him. At one end of the table, Peteet Buchanon appeared to be in the midst of a near-death, or perhaps near-life, experience. At the other end, Roy Stiver gazed at the ceiling, either composing poetry or doing his level best to transport himself elsewhere. Roy's the closest I have to a kindred soul in Maggody, although the company he keeps (Jim Bob and Larry Joe, for example) is suspect. I rent what we both laughingly refer to as an efficiency apartment above his antiques ("New & Used") store. There have been nights we've sat in the dark and drowned our sorrows in bourbon and silence. And there was the night he started reciting Kipling, but we swore never to discuss it. Some episodes in one's life are best left on the ethereal plane.
So be it, Gunga Din.
Ruby Bee and Estelle had saved a chair for me in the front row. I smiled and nodded at various folks, most of whom eyed me with some suspicion, since my involvement with the community stopped with handing out warnings for moving violations and shaking my finger at miscreants for such crimes as forgetting to pay at the self-service pumps. In my defense, I am always polite to co-launderers at the Suds of Fun Launderette, even offering to make change, and downright deferential in matters of prime produce at the supermarket. However, the consensus in Maggody is although I have every right to be there, I shouldn't. It has crossed my mind.
I slipped in between Ruby Bee and Estelle. "Did I miss anything?" I whispered.
"You missed the first ten minutes of complaining about the cafeteria budget," Ruby Bee said with a sigh. "Jim Bob thinks serving moldy bread is like giving the students a free dose of penicillin, which he said most of 'em could use, considering the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases. Peteet said those students with objections could just scrape off the mold. Mrs. Jim Bob reeled off some Bible verse about bread being the staff of life, although she did stop short of describing it as manna from heaven."
"Sorry I missed it," I said.
Estelle drove her elbow into my rib cage. "I'd like to hope you'll support Lottie Estes. She's worked so hard for this that I don't want to think what she'll do if it doesn't get approved. We have to make it clear we're behind her one hundred and ten percent."
I managed a weak nod as I sank back to determine if I had any cracked or, more likely, splintered, ribs. Estelle and I see eye to eye at perhaps five feet ten, and neither of us carries any excess weight. On the other hand, she has the advantage with her blazing red beehive of hair and heavy-handed makeup, giving her a few extra pounds, courtesy of Mary Kay. Ruby Bee appears more ingenuous, despite her unnaturally blond hair and conspicuous pink eyeshadow, but should it deteriorate into mud wrasslin', I'd take bets either way.
After a certain amount of dithering about locker searches, teacher retirement pensions, and handicapped parking spaces at the football stadium, Hiz Moron the Mayor Jim Bob introduced Lottie Estes. He did so with a curled lip and a squint, both traits of the clan. Unlike most Buchanons, Jim Bob can outwit a possum. A rabid possum, anyway and I'd prefer the company of the latter.
"Lottie here," he began grandly, "has some foolish ideas about bringing computers to Maggody. Now she insists on dragging out the meeting with her proposal, even though most of us would rather be on our way home to put on our pajamas and watch television. Mrs. Jim Bob has let me know that there's a slice of lemon meringue pie just waiting for me, and I guess everybody here knows who makes the best lemon meringue pie in Stump County."
Ruby Bee rumbled, but held her peace. Mrs. Jim Bob (aka Barbara Ann Buchanon Buchanon) produced a frigid smile, in that she and everyone else knew what Jim Bob would rather be doing at the moment. Lace nighties rather than flannel pajamas may have been in more than one individual's thoughts, and no one was including Mrs. Jim Bob in the scene.
"Lottie," he went on, "has, without so much as consulting the very school board that pays her salary and retirement benefits, applied for and received a grant in the sum of fifty thousand dollars to put in a computer lab at the high school. Sounds good, don't it? Free money to buy all kinds of equipment and give our kids a chance to get their butts kicked into the new millennium."
Mrs. Jim Bob stood up and snatched the microphone out of his hand. "I feel sure Mayor Buchanon could have phrased that better. Nobody in Maggody wants our youth to be at a disadvantage when they go out to find gainful employment, marry, and start families. We want them to have a solid education based on decency and a healthy fear of eternal damnation should they stray into wickedness."
She sat down and crossed her arms, daring anyone to contradict her.
"Amen!" boomed a voice from the back of the room. None of us bothered to turn around, since we'd all recognized the resonating timbre of Brother Verber, guardian of the flock at the Voice of the Almighty Lord Assembly Hall. Despite its name, Mrs. Jim Bob pretty much ran the show.
It was time for Lottie to seize the floor, if not the moment. She rose, flapping her hands as if she might stir up enough agitation to send all of us swirling into each other like autumn leaves. "This is ridiculous!" she said. "We have the grant. The money is available. Why would we not want to accept it? Our youth need to become computer literate. Where does wickedness come into this?"
Mrs. Jim Bob cocked her head like a greedy robin. "I have been told that pornography is easily available on the Internet."
Before Estelle could prompt me with her elbow, I stood up. "I've been told pornography is easily available period. Should I shut down the post office?"
"We don't have a post office, missy," Mrs. Jim Bob said, then realized she'd been baited and shot me a beady glare before resuming the pulpit. "But I do think we have to share a concern that our youth might find themselves staring at pictures of naked people. We cannot allow such a thing."
Lottie flapped harder. "We have the funds to hire a teacher to oversee the program, and I've found the perfect candidate. He has assured me that he'll be able to block access to pornography. Our students will be reading government studies and downloading images from museums."
Mrs. Jim Bob turned up her nose as if she'd caught a whiff of sour milk. "There are graven images to be found in many a museum, Lottie. There are portrayals of bare-breasted women engaged in licentious behavior, condoned by the secular humanists but potentially destructive to the innocent children stumbling across them."
"Hey," I said, "buy me another box of bullets and I can shoot all the curates."
"We are not discussing health care," Mrs. Jim Bob countered coldly. "Unless we can feel confident that our teenagers will not "
"May I speak?" said a young man who was obviously going to do so with or without her blessing. "My name is Justin Bailey. I have a degree in computer sciences from Farber College, and I'm currently doing research in preparation to begin a graduate degree. Miss Estes has tentatively offered me a position as lab supervisor and systems administrator. In that capacity, I can assure you that filtering software will ensure no one can access "
"Speak English!" Jim Bob snarled.
We all turned around to stare at the alien from cyberspace. He had thin brown hair that allowed a mild glimmer on his scalp, and eyeballs that seemed a tad too conspicuous behind wire-rimmed glasses. His short-sleeved white polyester shirt and clip-on bow tie did not make a compelling fashion statement. Had I encountered him on a Manhattan sidewalk, my instinct would have been to cross the street. Then again, his fingernails were clean and the corners of his mouth free of saliva.
Rare traits in Maggody.
"Inappropriate web sites will be blocked," he said. "Some students will attempt to circumvent my restrictions, but I'll monitor their activities and cut them off within a day. Those who persevere will be kicked out of the lab."
"He has excellent credentials," gushed Lottie. "I see no reason why our youth should go out into the world without the best possible "
Jim Bob banged his fist on the table. "It's a matter of money! You may have this goddamn-fool grant, but we have to provide the facilities and the utilities and all kinds of expensive things. We can't afford a crossing guard at the intersection by the Pot O' Gold. The football team's playing in last year's uniforms. The table saw in the shop is duller than a widow's ax. Now why should we use this windfall so's our students get to stare at buck-naked ladies when we could be buying a real nice van to transport the basketball team to out-of-town games?"
Justin grimaced. "You could use the money for cases of canned corn in the cafeteria, for that matter. The Internet is here and now, however, and those who don't have a clue are going to be sucking up exhaust fumes as the rest of the world drives by."
"It's clear nobody is stopping around here," Ruby Bee contributed. She may have expected some show of support, but the silence was on the profound side. "Lottie's right. We can't be sending out our youngsters without what they need to succeed. I don't see why utility bills should be more important than being able to compete in college. You ask Arly here how she fared when she "
"I fared," I said hastily. "I agree that this computer lab is a good idea. As alarming as the concept may be, it's reality. We can't ignore it."
Lottie beamed at me. "What's more, we can all venture onto this mysterious Internet. Justin will teach classes during the school day, and then share his expertise with adults in the evening. All of us can learn to" she giggled in what struck me as a vaguely unbalanced way "surf the net. Our little community can have its very own web site, where we can share the particular delights of Maggody. Merchants like Jim Bob and Ruby Bee can advertise their specials. Estelle can let everyone know when she's having a sale on cosmetics and perms. Brother Verber can put up photos of activities at the Voice of the Almighty Lord Assembly Hall and cite Bible verses for daily meditations. Tourists will come swarming in to appreciate our uniqueness."
"Or to stare at Raz," someone muttered from the back of the room. "Him and that sow make a better sideshow than anything in a museum, buck-naked or not."
"Hush your mouth, Idalupino," said Mrs. Jim Bob. "Just how much would these adult classes cost, Lottie?"
"Not a penny, since I included Justin's overtime in the budget. The students will put together this web site as a class project."
"I say we ought to do it," said Estelle, no doubt imagining dozens of cars parked in front of her house and credit cards in every hand. She caught my smirk and snorted. "For the sake of the youngsters, that is. All the rest of it is nothing more than gravy on the biscuit, though there ain't one thing wrong with putting Maggody on the map. Let's have a vote."
Jim Bob sucked on his lip for a moment. "The decision is up to the school board. We'll discuss it among ourselves. This meeting's adjourned."
"I don't see why we can't discuss it here and now," said Roy. "The only time we're supposed to have private sessions is when it's a personnel matter and somebody's feelings might get hurt, like Garbanzo Buchanon's when we heard he was prying open lockers to steal peanut-butter sandwiches out of lunch boxes while he was supposed to be sweeping "
"I said the meeting's adjourned, Roy. That means it's over. The rest of you might as well leave, 'cause nothing more's gonna happen tonight."
Some of the citizens may not have understood the word "adjourned," but everybody got the message and began to shuffle. Ruby Bee, Estelle, and I had reached the door when Lottie rushed over to us.
"I want to thank you all for your support," she said. "I don't know why Jim Bob's in such a snit over the idea. I had to submit a budget as part of the proposal, and I don't think the bureaucrats at the agency would take it kindly if the money went for a van for the basketball team."
"How'd you ever put together this budget?" asked Estelle. "I wouldn't have the foggiest idea where to start."
Lottie smiled modestly. "My cousin Lulu Ferncliff, who's a librarian over in Paragould, took a computer class at Farber College last summer. Justin was the teacher, and he told them how they could apply for grants for their schools. She passed the information on to me, and I tracked him down. He didn't charge so much as a dime to help me wade through the paperwork. He even showed me what all there is on the Internet and how the students can use it to enrich their homework. Why, we can all be gazing at the ceiling of the Vatican. It's going to be wonderful!"
My eyebrows wanted to rise to the ceiling of the cafeteria, but I managed to keep them under control. "Is Justin going to live here in Maggody?"
The topic of discussion moved into our circle. "It'll be interesting," he said, twinkling at me in an effort that fell flatter than any of Brother Verber's homilies. "I've leased a trailer at the Pot O' Gold. My wife is hoping to make some kind of contact in the community. Her degree's in sociology."
"She's going to analyze the denizens of the trailer park?" I said. "I'm afraid she'll find a rather sorry group of people. Most of them are scraping by, saving their money, and hoping to move along. There's not much drama in the Pot O' Gold."
Estelle clutched my arm. "You bet your booties there is! You heard about that fellow that calls himself Lazarus? Just last week he rented the double-wide across from Eula Lemoy. She said hello to him in a right friendly fashion and he just stared back at her like she had a hunk of spinach caught in her teeth. He drives a big ol' motorcycle and "
"An odd name," I said, "but none of our business, or Eula's, for that matter."
"What's more," Estelle went on in a voice well suited to a death scene in a Wagnerian opera, "I encountered him in the supermarket only yesterday. His hair hangs to his shoulders, and might as well be slicked down with lard. I was real surprised not to see a swarm of flies around him. He reminded me of one of those fellows you see on those shows about escaped criminals. As sure as I'm standing here, he's up to no good."
I took a breath. "So I should go out and shoot him because you don't like his hair? If that was my criterion, the population of Maggody would plummet."
"Do you and your wife have any children?" Ruby Bee asked Justin, her eyes glittering with interest.
"Not yet," he said. "We've agreed to wait until I finish grad school. I can't see myself writing a dissertation with a screaming baby in the next room. Chapel understands."
She moved in like a famished mosquito. "Her name is Chapel? I disremember ever hearing that name before. Where are her people from?"
I grabbed her elbow and began to drag her out the door. "Your stint as Lois Lane is over, so give this man a break. Should Lottie's proposal be approved, you'll have plenty of time to get the details."
Lottie's eyes welled with tears. "I'll feel like such a dithery old fool if Jim Bob turns it down. The elementary school has a portable classroom that we can use. It needs a good cleaning and some cubicles and chairs, but it'll work out just fine. Mr. Darker, the principal, says we can put it out behind the gym. That way, in the evenings we can park thirty feet away and not have to go traipsing through the school while the floors are being waxed."
"And just where was Mr. Darker tonight?" asked Estelle. "It seems to me he should have been here to add his support."
"He has a touch of stomach flu."
Ruby Bee yanked off my hand. "Or more likely a yellow streak up his backside. Is he scared of Jim Bob?"
"There's no call to go into that." Lottie's lips began to tremble. "It may be that Jim Bob was in his office this afternoon, but Mr. Darker's been having difficulty with his bowels all week. Every time he went into the faculty restroom, the teachers deserted the lounge like fleas on a drowning dog. On Tuesday, Miz Pitman dawdled. She was still feeling so faint after seventh period that I was obliged to supervise pom-pom practice."
I glanced at Justin, who was blinking nervously. "Don't worry about local politics," I said to him. "In a town this size, issues take on a certain intensity. You should have been here when Ruby Bee switched from popcorn to pretzels for happy hour. I arrested three good ol' boys, and she threw twice that many out on their butts. Now, if you'll excuse us, we all need to be on our way. That includes you, Estelle."
Lottie was trying to explain realities to Justin as I managed to herd Ruby Bee and Estelle out into the hall. I was about to ask about the easiest route out of the building when Daniel and Leona Holliflecker cut us off.
They were a bland couple in their mid-fifties, definitely not the sort to drink a few beers on a Friday afternoon or come dancing on a Saturday night. He had some kind of middle-management job at the poultry-processing plant in Starley City; she was a minor force in the Missionary Society at the Assembly Hall and a tireless champion of conservative dogma, such as school prayer and creation science. Our paths rarely crossed, which was okay with me.
"Ruby Bee, Estelle," Leona said, ignoring yours truly, "I want you to meet my niece. She's staying with us for the time being." She pushed forward a gaunt girl with oversized, panicky eyes and black hair that hung past the middle of her back. "This is Gwynnie Patchwood, my brother's eldest. She's hoping to find a part-time job. Gwynnie, say hello to Miz Hanks and Miz Oppers."
Gwynnie gave us a brittle smile. "Pleased to meet you. I sure am happy to be here in Maggody. If you ever need somebody to do some cleaning or run errands, I don't have anything else to do. Whatever you want to pay me is all right."
"I believe, Gwynnie," said Daniel, "that the law dictates minimum wage. Please do not act as if you're being forced into servitude simply because Leona and I expect you to contribute to the household expenses."
"Shouldn't you be in school?" asked Estelle.
"You don't look a day over fifteen," added Ruby Bee. "Daniel here was on the school board a few years back. I'd like to think he understands the importance of education."
Leona stepped in front of Gwynnie. "She's seventeen, not fifteen. She had to drop out of school, so we agreed to take her in until things get settled. If you find it in your hearts to offer her an hour or two of work every now and then, she'll be grateful. She is not, however, looking for charity." She looked at Daniel. "I'd like to get on home. No matter what you and Gwynnie say, Jessie Traylor is not my idea of a reliable person."
"I agree with you, Ruby Bee," said Daniel, "but it's too complicated to explain. Gwynnie's working on her GED. I'm hoping these evening computer classes will motivate her to take classes at the community college in Starley City."
Ruby Bee smiled at the girl. "I'll sure keep you in mind, honey. I've been thinking about cleaning out the pantry. It's a big job."
Gwynnie nodded, then trudged off between Daniel and Leona, her shoulders hunched as though a guillotine was awaiting her at the end of the hallway.
"Kinda sickly, ain't she?" said Estelle as we followed at a polite distance. "What she needs is a dusting of blusher and a delicate touch of mascara. She'd look like one of those cover girls on Seventeen magazine. Big eyes, wide mouth. Maybe I'll just call her to help me reorganize my cosmetics shelf, then offer to fix her up. It's real sad to think of her spending all her days and nights at the Hollifleckers' place."
Ruby Bee shook her head. "I've seen her a time or two with some of the girls, but I'll bet she hasn't been going to the dances and parties."
Both of them looked at me.
"Wait just a minute," I said, holding up my hands. "I am not going to get Cinderella a date to the prom. This may be hard to swallow, but I am not dearly beloved by the local teenagers. My car is egged on a monthly basis. Last week some clown put a very dead squirrel under the hood and I came damn near throwing up when I turned on the engine. Either of you is free to assume the role of her social secretary; heaven knows you've had enough practice on me."
On that high-minded note, I went out into the crisp, cool spring night and drove to Farberville in hopes of an adequately entertaining movie, a box of oily popcorn, a watery soda, and an evening's respite from the two busiest bodies in Maggody.
Copyright © 2000 by Joan Hess