By: L.M. Pruitt


Midnight in Cotton Creek was very, very different from midnight in Savannah. No neon lights, no all-night diners, no drunks staggering over the sidewalk and in to traffic. All we had were rivers and mountains and an old abandoned railroad where the popular kids liked to hangout after football games.

I drove through the main part of town, noting the few changes in the landscape. The pharmacy/soda shop was still standing, although the striped canopy covering the sidewalk looked worse for the wear. Further down the street, the old two screen movie theatre looked as if it had expanded to at least six screens if the list of offerings on the marquee was any indication. Granted, they were all six months old and none of them had a rating over PG-13 but I suppose the mayor and the town council were still patting themselves on the back about their progressiveness.

For the most part though, everything was exactly the way I’d left it fifteen years earlier.

I had no doubt the same could be said for the self-righteous, holier-than-thou, backbiting, gossipy nature of the residents.

It took me a few minutes and a handful of wrong turns but I finally found the Sheriff’s Office. I studied the outside of the building, wondering when they’d decided to switch from puke green to bland beige. The plants were new, too—when I was growing up, there had been a handful of scraggly flowers, always seeming to be on their last leg. Now, there were hydrangeas and Virginia sweetspire and bluebeard, bursting in bright, vivid color against the non-descript building.

It almost made you forget you were in front of a jail.

I grabbed my purse and slid out of the car, locking the door out of habit. Property crime in Cotton Creek was non-existent or at least it had been when I was younger. I doubt it had changed while I was gone, especially if Pete Underwood was sheriff. He might have looked like a doped up basset hound but he’d always had a firm hand on the reins of law enforcement.

Pushing open the non-descript glass door, I came face to face with one of the top ten people I’d been hoping to avoid.

Dana Jones.

Her hair was as blonde as ever, although the two inches of roots made me wonder if she’d misinterpreted the idea of lived in hair or if she simply wasn’t keeping up with on her maintenance. Her face was a little rounder, the puffiness of her cheeks contrasting with the bags under her eyes, which were still as big and blue as a Barbie doll’s. Those eyes went just a little wide when her gaze landed on me and for a split second I flashed back to prom.

And then she opened her mouth and I was reminded the present was far, far more fucked up than the past.

“Well, if it isn’t Jeannie Jackson!” Her voice dripped with sugar, the sort of faux sweetness which set your teeth on edge and made your head ache. “You know, I was certain Loretta was lying when she said you would come—I mean, you haven’t been here in, what, fifteen years?—but here you are and let me be the first to say, you look just wonderful.”

“Yes, I know.” The acknowledgment without any pretense of modesty or attempt to brush off the compliment threw her off balance, exactly as I’d intended. Stepping around the counter, I pointed down the hall. “Sheriff’s office still in the back?” Without waiting for her to answer, I strode past the handful of desks which were thankfully empty, making my way toward where I hoped the sheriff was eating a late dinner. I gave a cursory knock on the door before pushing it open and stepping inside. “Sheriff Pete.”

“Jeannie.” Pete Underwood looked exactly the same as the last time I saw him, the day after I graduated high school, loaded up my car, and tore hell for leather out of town. He’d given me a warning instead of a ticket and told me to spend the money wisely. He leaned back in his chair and sighed. “Sorry state of affairs all the way around.”

“That’s certainly one way to look at it.” I sat down in one of the two visitor chairs, holding back a sigh of my own as I stretched out my legs. I’d been driving for the better part of the last two days and I was starting to feel it. “Tammy gave me the short version. Mind giving me the long one?”

“I can do that or I can take you to your sister and she can give it to you.” Pete shrugged. “It’s up to you.”

“Let me hear it from you first and then I’ll get the rest from Loretta.”

“Well, from what your sister and your niece tell me, Loretta and Harold were fighting about money—he wanted more and they don’t have it.”

Not shocking in the slightest. I hadn’t met my sister’s latest—and late—husband but I’d picked up enough from the hints she’d dropped in our phone calls to know Harold wanted to live a champagne lifestyle on a boxed wine income. Loretta worked two jobs and Tammy did some baby-sitting in her spare time but Harold claimed a bad back kept him from seeking employment. Funnily enough, it didn’t keep him from drinking at the bar or hunting with his friends.