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Sam Ballard had just accused his head waitress, Darla Mae Jenkins, of cheating at cards when she suddenly noticed the commotion in front of the Dixieland Café.
“Great balls of fire! Would’ja get a load of that!”
Sam swiveled around on the red vinyl counter stool and gave a low whistle at the sight of the white stretch limo sitting in the middle of Main Street. “Well, now. I wasn’t aware of any celebrities visiting Pinckney. Must be here for the Okra Festival,” he added. He’d barely gotten the words out of his mouth before he noticed smoke seeping out from beneath the hood. “Uh-oh, looks like trouble in Tinsel town. I’d better go see about it.”
“Hey, wait for me,” Darla said, following him out of the restaurant. A number of people had already gathered on the sidewalk, including Mott Henry, the town drunk. From the looks of it, he hadn’t shaved or bathed in days. He watched the excitement for a moment, then turned and moseyed down the sidewalk toward the liquor store, obviously more interested in buying his next bottle than the commotion in the street. The Petrie sisters, still spry in their eighties, stood at the edge of the crowd, each holding a brown sack from Odom’s Grocery. They craned their necks to see over a group of teenage boys. “Is anyone in there?” a man in the crowd called out. “You can’t see diddly with them tinted windows.”
“I can’t figure it,” Darla said. “Why would anybody put tinted windows in a danged limo? Shoot, if I was riding in one of those suckers, I’d want the whole world to see.”
Sam was amused by the town’s response to the limo. One would have thought a flying saucer had just landed on Main Street, and everybody was waiting for the hatch to open. It just proved the town needed more in the way of entertainment. Mechanic, Bic Fenwick, owner of Fenwick’s Towing and Garage, happened by at that moment in his tow truck. He parked on the side of the street, climbed from his truck, and hurried over. “What’s goin’ on?” he asked Sam.
Sam shook his head. “I just got here. Darla and I saw smoke coming from beneath the hood. I figured I should investigate.”
Bic knocked on the driver’s window. “Hey there, did you know you got smoke comin’ out from under your hood?”
Sam chuckled. “I’d say it was a given, Bic.”
“Well, you never know what people can see with them tinted windows,” Bic said. He pressed his face against the window and squinted. “You want me to take a gander at what’s under your hood?” he shouted, as if the tinted windows might interfere with the person’s hearing as well.
Sam figured whoever was in the limo was having a good laugh. The window whispered down some five or six inches. Sam found himself looking into a pair of incredibly pretty green eyes, so pretty, in fact that he tried to think of the exact color and decided they must be what people referred to as Kelly-green. Her face was equally pretty, framed by hair the color of ripened wheat. Some kind of net clung to the fat curls, and Sam thought he caught sight of a pink tiara. He leaned forward. “Excuse me, miss, but you can’t leave this thing sitting in the middle of the road. You’re blocking traffic.”
As if to prove his point, a man in a pickup truck blew his horn. Sam waved him around. Annie gave an enormous sigh. As if her day had not been bad enough. She had spent the last half hour trying to make it from the interstate to the town of Pinckney before the limo died because she could not bear the thought of walking eight to ten miles in her wedding gown. Not only that, she was furious with Snedley. How could a paid chauffeur not know the limo was on the verge of having major problems? She supposed she should cut him some slack because his prostate problem had probably garnered much of his attention.
“Did you hear me, miss?” Sam asked. “You’re going to have to move your vehicle. You’re blocking traffic,” he repeated.
Annie could not hide her annoyance. Did the man think her daft, for Pete’s sake? She knew she was blocking traffic, but there wasn’t a damn thing she could do about it. “Thanks for your input, Einstein,” she said loudly, “but it won’t budge so I don’t have much choice in the matter.”
Bic looked at Sam. “Einstein?” he repeated. “I don’t think she appreciated what you said.”
“Well, lucky for me I’m not trying to win a popularity contest,” Sam told Bic, even though he was peeved that the woman had resorted to name calling. “I need for it to be gone before my early bird customers arrive,” he added.
“How come you’re worried about people parking at the curb?” Bic asked. “You’ve got that big parking lot on the side and back of the restaurant?”
“Because a couple of my early bird customers are in wheelchairs, and some of the others just have a hard time getting around. It’s easier for their families to park in front of the restaurant and help them to the door.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Bic said. “Maybe I can figure out what’s causing all that smoke.” He addressed the woman inside of the car. “Miss, do you see a hood release in there?” he asked and told her where to look for it. He glanced at Sam and rolled his eyes. “’Least that’s where you’d find a hood release in most cars. No telling where they put ’em in these big suckers.”
“Probably next to the wet bar and Jacuzzi,” Sam said quietly. The woman in the car might have the prettiest green eyes he’d ever seen, but damned if he was going to get involved in a verbal tussle with her. Sam heard a metallic click, and Bic opened the hood. Smoke billowed out like a mushroom cloud.
“Jeez, Louise!” Bic said, backing away from the vehicle and snatching a cloth from his back pocket which he used to wipe his face.
“What’s going on here?” a voice said. Sam turned and found himself staring into Sheriff Harry Hester’s face. He was so bald that most folks called him Howie—for Howie Mandel—behind his back.
Bic answered. “This here limo is putting out more smoke than a bonfire. I’m trying to figure out what’s causing it.” Sam leaned close to the sheriff. “There is a lady inside. I may as well tell you, she’s a bit mouthy.”
“Oh, yeah?” Hester said. “We’ll see about that.” Sixty-year-old Marge Dix elbowed her way through the crowd. Most considered her a sourpuss. “Would you just look at that?” she said, her voice bristling with indignation. “Here we have starving people in this world, and we got folks driving cars the size of mobile homes. I hope whoever it is doesn’t plan on settling in Pinckney. I just can’t abide such vulgarity. Makes me ill, that’s what it does.”
Darla, who had been quiet up to that moment, pretended to give Marge a sympathetic look. “Then I wouldn’t look if I were you, Marge, honey,” Darla said. “If something made me that sick, I’d march right home, lock the doors, and pull the shades.”
Marge regarded Darla. “The Bible says we should store our treasures in heaven.”
“Some of us don’t want to wait that long for nice things,” the waitress replied.
Sheriff Hester stepped closer to the limo and tried to peer at the woman through the crack. “Miss, I need to see your driver’s license,” he said, “and I may as well tell you, a little kindness goes a long way in this town so you might want to be a bit more tolerant of our citizens.”
“You go, Howie,” Darla said.
Hester shot her a dark look. “Watch it, Darla Mae, or I’ll write you a ticket for having an eighteen-wheeler parked in your front yard last weekend.”
Annie gave another sigh. She should have taken a chance and gone back inside the church for her purse. She wished she could magically disappear; instead, it looked as though she was going to suffer her share of indignities. “I’m sorry Sheriff, but I do not have my license with me.” Annie waited, knowing he would derive a great deal of pleasure from that fact.
“Oh, really?” Sheriff Hester looked about the crowd. “Seems these rich folks don’t have to follow the same rules as the rest of us,” he said.
“That’s precisely what I’m talking about,” Marge Dix said to Darla. “Some people think they are better than us normal folks.” Marge looked at the sheriff. “Driving without a license carries a stiff fine, doesn’t it, Sheriff Hester?”
Sam frowned. He’d never cared for Marge Dix who was the town busybody.
“A fine?” Hester said. “Oh, yes. Not to mention possible jail time.” A smile twitched the corners of his lips. He was obviously enjoying himself. “She’d better show me a registration for that thing, or there’ll be a hanging in the courthouse square.” Several in the crowd chuckled.
Darla threw up her hands. “I don’t believe what I’m hearing.” She looked at Sam. “Do something!”
Sam pulled Hester aside. “I would tone it down if I were you,” he told Hester. “You don’t want to get hit with a lawsuit. If someone can afford to drive a car like this they probably have enough money to keep a lawyer on retainer.”
Annie was past being angry; she was furious. The man was no better than her father; out to make people feel small and stupid. “Then get your rope ready, Barney Fife,” she yelled as loud as she could, “because I don’t have the registration either.”
Darla laughed out loud. “You go, girl!” Several of the onlookers cheered.
The sheriff colored fiercely. He stepped closer to the limo and leaned forward to get a better look at Annie. “Sam was right; you do have a mouth on you,” he said, “but as an elected official, sworn to protect the citizens of this town, I do not appreciate you acting disrespectful to me.”
“Let’s get something straight, Sheriff,” Annie said. “First of all, I’m no threat to anyone. I don’t own a weapon and never have. You are free to search my vehicle. “Secondly, I have the utmost respect for law officials, but I will not tolerate being publicly ridiculed just so you can look like a big shot. Further, I don’t know that you aren’t some kind of nutcase who would actually hang me in the courthouse square, shoot me, or lock me up for the rest of my life so I consider that a threat. However, I do have rights so I’m allowed to call my attorney, and when he is finished with you, you’ll regret ever laying eyes on me.” Annie smiled. So what’s it going to be, Sheriff?”
“She’s good,” Darla whispered to Sam.
Sam shrugged. “Not bad,” he said.
In a flash, Sheriff Hester’s demeanor changed. “How’m I supposed to know this automobile belongs to you?”
“You could give her sodium pentothal,” Marge suggested.
Annie didn’t hesitate. “This vehicle belongs to my father. I borrowed it.”
“You borrowed it,” Hester said flatly. “Who is your father?”
Annie glanced at the woman beside him, Marge something-or-other, who was clearly the town gossip. “I would rather not say at this time.”
Hester seemed to understand. “Okay,” he said to the crowd. I want everybody to back away from the vehicle. Not you, Bic,” he added quickly. “You keep looking under the hood; see what you can find out.” Bic nodded and went back to what he was doing. “As for the rest of you, if you insist on hanging around you can stand on the sidewalk. You, too, Marge,” he added. He looked at Sam and Darla. “I would appreciate it if you two would stay put.”
“That’s not fair!” Marge said.
“They’re witnesses,” Hester said, sounding irritated with her, “not that I should have to defend my decision. Now move to the sidewalk or go home,” he added. Marge gave him a dirty look but did as she was told.
Sheriff Hester turned back to Annie. “I hope when you speak to your attorney you’ll tell him I did not drag you to the station for questioning, that I allowed you to sit in your daddy’s comfy limo with the window rolled down only a few inches, and that I assured you every word would be handled in the strictest of confidence. This is not how I normally conduct my, um, interviews.” He produced a small notebook and pen. “Now, then, where were we?”
“You asked me to give you my father’s name,” she said. “It is Winston Hartford. I am Katherine Anne Hartford, although I prefer to be called Annie since it is less formal.”
“And where are you from, Miss Hartford?” Hester asked. “Atlanta.” Sam let out a low whistle. Darla and Hester looked at him. “What? Hester asked. “Am I missing something?”
“Depends,” Sam said, not taking his eyes off Annie. “Your father wouldn’t happen to be in the iron and steel business?”
“Yes,” Annie said. “Very impressive,” Sam replied.
“Do you know her father?” Darla asked before Hester had a chance.
“I know of him,” Sam said. He looked at Hester. “Miss Hartford is heir to one of the biggest iron and steel companies in the southeast.”
Annie blushed. She always felt uncomfortable when people discussed the family finances.
Harry hooked his thumbs inside his belt. He seemed to ponder Sam’s words. “If that’s true, then I’m very impressed, but without a driver’s license or other form of ID, there’s no way to prove it.”
“You can’t disprove it,” Sam said.
“My father’s picture, as well as his business and other ventures are all over the Internet,” Annie said. “As is information about me.” She looked at Hester. “I would hope that would serve as an I.D. for now.”
“For now, what I’d really like is for you to step out of the car,” Hester said.
Annie paled at the thought. A number of people were still watching from the sidewalk, including the nosy blabbermouth, Marge. Annie would be the laughingstock of the town once they saw her in all her wedding garb. “I would rather not,” she said.
The sheriff looked surprised. “Is there a problem? Are you handicapped in some way? Do I need to send for a wheelchair?”
“No, nothing like that,” she said quickly. “It’s just—”
“I have been very patient with you, Miss,” he said. “Now, please remove yourself from the vehicle.”
Giving an enormous sigh, Annie hit the automatic door unlock and reached for the handle. The sheriff stepped back as she opened the door and tried to extricate herself from the front seat of the limousine. Her cheeks flamed a bright red as the crowd stared in disbelief.
The woman in the waitress uniform hurried over and tried to help her. Once Annie was out and standing among them, everybody stared. “Oh, my Lord,” Darla said. “I’ve never seen anything like that.”
Annie longed to crawl beneath a large rock and never come out. Sam stared as well at what looked to be hundreds of yards of white satin and lace that made up the most elaborate bridal gown he’d ever laid eyes on. She still wore her veil although it hung askew, and her tiara looked as though it was barely hanging on. Seeing her face in the light was almost humbling. Her facial bones were delicate and very feminine, her skin flawless and glowing. Her mouth was full and sexy as hell. He could not help but stare openly.