Since the day she set her old man Arlan's barn on fire, I haven't been able to get Hazel out of my mind. I can still see her red rimmed eyes and smoky black curls as she lay there in the smoldering grass, as tiny and helpless as a wren. I know I should have cuffed her and brought her in, but I didn't have the heart for it back then. Everybody had known she torched the barn, but nobody would have blamed her if she had: it's not as if nobody knows about the things her old man does to her, and the way he keeps her locked up in the fruit cellar and feeds her Kibble & Bits like she's just another one of his mangy mongrel strays. What kind of human being would treat such a pretty little creature that way? He takes better care of his miserable maggot-infested coon hounds than he does Hazel. Too bad the low life, scum-sucking pig wasn't in the barn when it burned down. Nobody's would have missed him if he had been.

Sometimes I swear, I feel like going out there and popping a cap in the old man's back, and then telling everybody that he'd come at me with a pitch fork and that I'd had no choice but to defend myself, but I never do. Not that anybody would doubt my story. And someday, if things don't change out there pretty damned quick, I just might do it. I swear I've just about had it with that gutless rodent.

Hazel's only sixteen-years-old but looks as if she's already lived beyond her years, forced to forage down there in that cellar like that, washing her old man's underwear by hand in one of those old ringer washers and collecting eggs and making dolls out of cotton and buttons to sell in town so her old man can turn right around and blow it all on rye whiskey and those diseased mutts of his.

I wouldn't blame Hazel if she'd put a .45 slug between his eyes and claim the gun went off when she was cleaning it. I told her once that if she ever did shoot the bastard, I'd back her play, but I guess she never had the nerve to actually do it. Sometimes I think she'd planned to be in the barn that day she'd torched it. But right before the roof caved in on her, Arlan must have figured that he couldn't afford to watch his meal ticket go up in smoke, so he dragged her on out of there before she fried. I can't think of any other good reason why he would have saved her.

We don't have any child services or social agencies this far out in the sticks, and, as Sheriff, it's up to me to set things right when some domestic situation goes haywire or somebody gets busted up in a family fight. But Hazel's old man hasn't really done her any physical harm, and there's no marks on her body that I can see, and she does go to school just often enough to keep me from picking her up for truancy. Arlan may be stupid but he's slick. And I've got nothing else to do but wait for him to slip up. And sooner or later, he will.

It seems to me that I've been sheriff down here in Hurley my whole my life, but I've really only had the job for five years. It's just one thing after another in this inbred, one horse shit hole. We used to catch crappies and mud cat in Mill Creek, and eat watermelon, and catch frogs, and skinny dip in the farmers' cattle tanks when we were kids. Hurley wasn't such a bad place to live back then: that is, up until the day that red neck cracker dip shit Arlan Jenkins, and his coon hunting pack of rabid flea bags moved in.

Arlan had leased the old, run down Baker farm out on Rural Route One just north of Fairfield, and it wasn't long before things went to shit after those skinny assed hounds of his started baying at the moon, keeping the whole countryside awake nights. One by one those yappitty dogs started to mysteriously disappear, but Arlan never once reported any of them missing. He'd just collect the insurance, breed replacements, and go on about his business; nobody really knew for sure exactly what business that was, but they all knew he wasn't up to anything good.

I'm having breakfast on the porch when I look up from my paper and see Hazel walking up my gravel driveway towards the house. It seems to me that the weather's awfully cool to be wearing what little she's wearing, but I don't say anything.

When she finally straggles up the steps, she curls up on my swing like a puppy that's been whipped good. I offer her a cup of coffee, but she says she can't stay that long. As young and cute as she is, she looks more like twenty-five to me: stooped over and old around the eyes. She just comes right out and tells me that she's thinking about leaving town and would I mind turning my back if she did. I get a nagging suspicion she knows better than to be here asking me that, and feel like it's my duty to say, "Hazel, you know I'm a cop, and I think it's best if you just stay put until you graduate high school next fall. You'll be eighteen by then and you can go anywhere you want, and I won't have to go fetch you."

She looks up at me with the solemn eyes I've ever see; "Never mind," she says, "I ain't gonna be around that long."

And then she heads back the same way she came in her lime green summer dress, with her tail between her legs, leaving me there to wonder, what else could I have said? But if she skips town, then I gotta go bring her back, and who knows what her old man will do to her if he finds out about it? And for Hazel's sake, I don't want to find out. School's almost over, and I'd rather keep an eye on her and leave things the way they are for awhile and then hope to catch Arlan laying one hand on that girl. If he does, I'll slice it off with a rusty razor. And he knows damned well I will.

Turns out Arlan reported that little chat Hazel and I had on my porch to the Chief of Police Mack Devlin, my boss, and then filed some kind of bogus charges against me for lewd acts with a child. Mack had been in the remedial reading class in school and barely graduated, and it's still a mystery to me how anybody like him ever got into law enforcement in the first place, not to mention becoming head of the entire Hurley Police Department. When we were kids, Mack would go fishing for bass with a .357 Magnum out on White Oak Lake, and sometimes he'd toss cherry bombs in there and haul in the bewildered catfish when they float up stunned to the surface. He's got this hang dogged look when he pulls up my drive and lumbers like a drunk elephant, talking at me out of the side of his mouth; "Well, Carl, ole buddy. Arlan Jenkins came to see me this morning and I think it's time you and me had us a chat about this twisted state of affairs you've got yourself into. My constituents would have my balls in a vice if they knew I was here, but I owe you a favor for old times sake and want you to know that the report Arlan filed alleges that you've been molesting his little girl Hazel. I really hate to be the one to tell you this Carl, but the whacked out little floozy corroborated Arlan's story. I don't buy it, of course, but I gotta go through the motions if you know what I mean?"

Mack whips out his reading glasses and goes on; "The little girl said you lured her up onto your porch, put your hand under her dress, unzipped your fly, and put the wood to her. We've got her sworn statement. What the hell were you thinking anyway?"

I've taken about all the bullshit I care to for one day and don't answer. I know what's coming next. I've seen the kind of con Arlan's pulling and need to hear what he wants in order to make this whole thing disappear. They always want something. Cons like Arlan and cops as intellectually-challenged as Mack Devlin can always be bought, and, like they say, follow the money.

Mack rattles predictably on, "Of course we could just buy the bastard off and be done with it. Might be the best route to go in a dicey sex case like this."

I saw that cockeyed bullshit coming from a mile away and Mack knows it. He never did have much of a backbone, and rumor has it he's been cutting corners on investigations and then whitewashing his reports for cash. He also knows me well enough to realize that there's no way I'm paying Arlan shit.

Mack reads my mind and starts back pedaling, reciting his well rehearsed lines like a third rate soap opera star; "Or, of course, you could always resign. If you do, ole Arlan will drop the charges and you can skate. I think it might be best to let him get by with it this time, Carl. I really do. I hate to see you played for a patsy, but with you not being married and all, and loving the young ladies like you do, it's a slippery slope when a kid Hazel's age backs the scam. It's a sorry shit deal but it's one I'd suggest you take. When this blows over, they'll take you on as a deputy over in Randolph County and you can just walk away clean. And maybe later, when the shit storm settles, you can come back to Hurley and I'll give you your old job back. What do you say, huh?"

Mack knows he's shooting blanks at a moving target but you have to admire his mendacity. "I should have shot that son-of-a-bitch Arlan in the head and dragged his sorry ass into that burning barn and left him there when I had the chance," is all I have to say.

"Stand in line," Mack says, "stand in line."

It's late and it's hot and I can't sleep, which is making me madder and madder by the minute: and analyzing my predicament to death isn't helping. There's no frigging way I'm resigning, so I decide to fight the charges in court. I know it's a long shot, but if I let Arlan play me like a mark, where will it stop? Makes me wonder who else he's got his hooks into, and who'll be next. And what makes me think he'll keep his word anyway? I have a feeling that, as we speak, there's money changing hands out there somewhere, but it's hard to tell who's hands are dirty. Everybody around here seems to be wearing protective gloves these days.

It's two in the morning and I'm still tossing and turning, sticking to my sheets, when I think I hear footsteps clattering across the linoleum floor in the kitchen. I dive for my piece and drop to the floor. There's just enough moonlight filtering through the curtains for me to see Hazel, standing there in the bedroom doorway, crying her eyes out. When I cradle the hammer on my .44, she starts to whimper like a frightened little ghost and then whispers down low, "I'm sorry, Carl. I'm really sorry. I didn't want to say what I did about you jumping me on your porch and all. But my old man told me that if I didn't back him up, he'd skin me alive, cut out my liver, and feed it to his mutts."

The poor girl won't stop crying but I know better than to go over to her. How the hell would that look after everything that happened, or should I say, didn't happen, on my front porch with her the other day? I have another one of those premonitions that she doesn't really want to be here, and it's about breaking my heart to hear her bawling like she is in spite of all the crap she's gotten me into.

When a floor board creaks in the kitchen behind her, Hazel suddenly drops to her knees and cranks up the waterworks to a whole other level. I finally can't take it anymore and reach down and put my arms around her just long enough to calm her down a bit before I go check out the noise. But when I get my arm around her, she drops her dress, presses her half naked body against me, snakes her bony fingers down my pants, and starts fumbling around for my johnson. When I pull away, a flash bulb explodes and for a second I go blind. When I recover and switch on the light, Hazel's gone. Not a trace of her anywhere. Just the sound of a dog howling and the broken muffler on Arlan's Dodge pick-up as he rumbles off down the lane. I'd know that sound anywhere, even in my sleep.

Two days later, my lily-livered boss Mack Devlin, rolls up the lane, tosses a package of photographs across my kitchen table at me, and snorts, "Jesus Christ, Carl, do you have any idea what these Goddamned pictures mean? I'll tell you what they mean. That evil fuck Arlan owns your butt and your career is over, that's what they mean. It's done. You could have played ball, ten large in a duffel bag, a case of Jack Daniel's, and we'd all be free and clear, but no, you gotta play the freakin' knight in shining armor on your white stallion riding off to rescue the tarted up damsel in distress. Just like when we were kids and you dragged that spastic cock tease toothpick Wanda Flemming, who you had the hots for, out of Mill Creek before she drowned. It didn't even occur to you that I'd pushed that scrawny, stuck up bitch in there because she was going to report me for copping a feel. Well, Hazel Jenkins ain't no damsel in distress Carl, so don't go falling for that black-hearted little gutter snipe. We know you like playing the hero with the young girls, but she's a pro whore hustler and Arlan's been pimping her out for a "C" note a pop. I got that from reliable sources. She's trouble, Pard. Nothing but trouble."

When he runs out of breath, Mack throws the full criminal complaint on the table and says, "Read this. It's all in there. The little chippie's fourteen, not sixteen, and Arlan's been busted at least half a dozen times pulling cons with her just like the one they pulled on you. It would make a carnie blush knowing the way he uses that little half-pint slut. But the resignation deal stands. I've got no proof that he set you up and the girl's sticking to her story. Arlan pulled his stretch for the last con he pulled and I got nothing else to hold him on. The kid says you snatched her, dragged her to your place, and slammed the salami to her, just like you did that time on your porch. He's got you dead to rights. There are freaking pictures of you two glued together in your bedroom this time, Carl. Fucking nude photographs! You maybe want to listen to me this time? You never could keep that schlong in your pants and you're in some deep shit here. I don't care how sexy and cuddly the painted-up little hussy is, she's underage and you are in a world of hurt."

I know I'm screwed but I can't resist trying to figure Arlan's play before I admit it. Why is he going to all this work to set me up, and why does he want me gone so badly? It doesn’t make sense; they'll just replace me. And he can't pull that same stunt twice, not that I was smart enough to see it coming.

It's early the next morning when my phone rings. It's Mack and he wants to see me "Yesterday!" When I get to his office he shuts the door and starts whispering like he thinks the room's bugged; "I've known you for a long time, Carl. You've always been a straight shooter, and I've seen you waltz your way out of some dead serious jams. God knows you hauled my sorry butt out of a few when we were kids, but it looks like Arlan's busted your cherry this time. The indictments are coming down tomorrow and they're really going to nail you to the cross with those damned naked pictures of Hazel and you; and there's not a freakin' thing I can do about it."

I think I'm having a coronary but Mack still won't shut up. "You're the best cop I've ever had on the force, Carl, but I gotta ask you for your gun and your badge. You could have made this all go away if you'd wanted to, but I know you, and you never did like to pee where you eat. But as long as that greasy pile of hog shit Arlan's out there pulling your chain, he's got you by the short hairs, and I think it's best if you disappear for awhile. Maybe go to Florida. Do some fishing while I straighten things our around here for you."

I don't know what the hell it takes to knock any sense into somebody as stubborn as me, but I can't for the life of me bring myself to quit. I just can't do it. Something about this whole deal stinks and I want to get to the bottom of it before I pack it in. When I tell Mack I'm not resigning and not paying anybody a goddamned nickel, he hobbles off towards his squad car with his head down like I'd just kicked him in the nuts.

The next day, before I get a chance to start digging for some answers, Mack calls to tell me that he's got no choice but to put me on administrative leave without pay pending an inquiry, and that he had no choice but to appoint an old milk toast deputy sheriff buddy of his from over in Randolph County, Russ Ames, to replace me, which is kind of odd if you think about it, considering the fact that Russ Ames had just been indicted on fraud charges last year but was cleared after some state Senator cousin of his lied him out from under a cloud of suspicion and got him reinstated.

It burns my butt that I can't figure out why that douche bag Arlan has been spending so much time and trouble trying to get me kicked out of office, and I want to know who else he's sucked into his psychotic little game. I know damned well that the Neanderthal juice junkie hasn't been coming up with all those lurid blackmail schemes and penny ante scams all by himself. If anybody ever needs a stud who can breed roaches for you, Arlan's your man, but there's no way he can keep all the plates he's been juggling in the air for long. He's not as smart as he thinks he is. Somebody's got to be covering for him at the department, which gets me wondering just why Mack and Russ aren’t busting up the illegal cock fights he has out there on his farm on Friday nights anymore, and why they seem to be ignoring the fact that he's raising and selling coon dogs without a license, and why nobody's doing squat about the back rent Arlan owes on the farm, not to mention the fact that Hazel has suddenly stopped going to school. And that's only the crap I KNOW about.

First thing this morning I find my first solid tip in a note somebody who can barely write had slipped under my door last night. The note says "Arlan's up in Mt. Pleasant today buying breeders so you better go on out to his place and have a look around. And check the attic."

Fuck getting a warrant. I wanta know.

After I get out to Arlan's place and jimmy the lock on the attic door, I about drop my flashlight when I get to digging through a trunk that's right where the note said it would be, hidden under a mountain of cameras, kiddy porn magazines, and canisters of snuff films. But I about have a serious damned coronary when I open a big vanilla envelope in there and find two or so dozen photos of Mack Devlin and Russ Ames boffing Hazel. The photos don't do her justice. Her makeup's smudged and her shady eyes are glazed over like she's been doped or something. It looks like she's got no idea what's going on. Mack and Russ both look trapped and are giving the camera that stunned, deer-in-the-headlights look. It's all finally starting to add up.

Arlan must have set Mack up, and once he discovered that I wasn't going to play along, he blackmailed Mack into firing me and hiring Russ: and now Arlan's blackmailing both of them into staying the hell out of his rackets. Mack's not the smartest rock in the box, but he's always been street smart, and he and ole Russ must have made some kind of counter deal with that prick Arlan to get a cut off his action if they keep their pie holes shut and his secrets safe. It doesn't really mean shit to me what their game is, because as far as I'm concerned, they're all going down. But until they do, I'd best keep my back covered, because I'm the only one that won't play ball, and it's obvious by now that all three of those reprobates want me out of the picture. I still don't know how much of a say Hazel has in any of this, but I'm betting zero.

Once my dismissal goes official, I put my house up for sale and rent a no-tell motel room not far from Hurley until I can find a new job and a house I can afford. Arlan and his new pals may have flushed my reputation and career down the crapper, but I still gotta eat, and I've got deep roots here. It's my home.

There's a nasty, late summer storm raging outside and I can't sleep, per usual. I'm down to my last Lucky and I'm thinking maybe I'll take a drive into town for a fresh pack of fags and hash over what I'm going to do about this mountain of shit I'm in. It's pitch dark outside, but in the flickering light of the short circuiting neon motel sign, I can just make out Hazel, standing in the driving rain by the pool, crying hard and gasping for breath. Her makeup looks like somebody smeared charcoal under her eyes and smashed a red Crayola in her face. Her dress is all scrunched up around her ankles and both of her breasts are exposed. Screw this. I don't care if she's on fucking fire, I ain't going over there.

"Help me," she moans, the sound of it raspy and hollow like the strangled cry of a wounded deer with an arrow lodged deep in its throat. The pain in her voice cuts through me and rips up any common sense I have left. I race over and grab her right before she falls down in a bloody heap onto the rain drenched gravel. This time there's no flashbulbs going off in my face and I don't see Alan Funt from "Candid Camera" lurking around anywhere. Hazel's hurt bad and she can't seem to breathe. I give her mouth to mouth and she sputters back to life, but before I can get a blanket around her she passes out again, so I pick her up the way she is and head for my squad car. She's light as a bird and it feels like she might float off somewhere if I don't hold on to her.

The hospital in Hurley is only ten minutes away and I'm flying. When Hazel comes to, she looks around like she thinks she's dead, and in a garbled Barbie Doll voice she asks me, "Is this heaven?"

I'm tempted to say, "No, it's Iowa," but I doubt she's ever even seen that Field of Dreams movie and wouldn't think it's funny if she had. She's trying to talk but I can hardly hear her with the rain slamming hard against the windshield. I can barely make out what she's saying, and have to lean in close to hear her; "I wouldn't go along anymore, and Arlan's not happy about it. He's going to kill both of us..."

Then she passes out again. There's a deep, spidery gash across her bare stomach and a bullet hole the size of Vermont in her shoulder. There's also a bubbling crimson knife wound slashed across the side of her neck. I've got every piece of cloth I can find stuffed in the wounds, holding back the bloody flood, but she's running out of time fast. I must be doing ninety on the rain slick asphalt but I speed up anyway. Just as I slow down enough to navigate the last turn into the hospital parking lot, I see Arlan, standing dead center in the middle of the road in the rain, pointing a cocked, twelve gauge, double barrel shotgun at my face, grinning like a yellow-fanged hyena, waving me over. I hit the gas. Me and Hazel make it, but Arlan doesn't.