I slid my pink-rimmed sunglasses up to rest on my head, pushing a loose auburn curl back into place. My Southern drawl was as thick as molasses, but it carried a bite that could rival the local moonshine. “Honey, I’m like sweet tea,” I’d say with a wink. “Southern brewed and not for the faint of heart.” Those who knew me knew that was the gospel truth.
I found myself in the dimly lit confines of a dusty second-hand store, staring at a rickety curio cabinet filled to the brim with Precious Moments figurines. The air was a mix of mothballs and long-forgotten memories, but my mind was on business, not nostalgia.
There he stood, Mr. Shifty, as I’d silently dubbed him, at the store’s counter. His eyes flitted around nervously underneath his cowboy hat as he attempted to make a purchase. Every twitch, every shifty scan of the room, was like a neon sign flashing “Guilty” in my mind.
Trying to keep my cool, I skimmed the Precious Moments collection. Then, to my surprise, one particular figurine seemed to call out to me. “Lord have mercy! Mama’s been harping about this one,” I whispered. I couldn’t help myself; I pulled out my bedazzled smartphone and snapped a quick pic, sending it off to Mama with a cheeky, “Ring any bells?”
But as luck would have it, the guy at the counter must’ve felt my gaze. He whipped around, and I, in sheer panic, ducked out of sight.
My sequined purse!
Its strap snagged the edge of the cabinet. Everything seemed to move in slow motion as the cabinet teetered and toppled, spilling its porcelain occupants with a cacophony of shatters.
Mr. Suspicion took this golden opportunity to make a run for it.
But he didn’t know who he was dealing with.
With my heels clicking in protest, I dashed after him, shouting, “You ain’t getting away that easy, cowboy!”
That day, the citizens witnessed a fiery Southern belle, bent on justice, chasing down a man who had picked the wrong woman to mess with.
I reckon I should explain how I got all tangled up with the man from the second-hand store. It all boiled down to my insatiable curiosity, which, between you and me, had a knack for landing me on the questionable side of the law.
The Cheapside Diner was a perfect reflection of its name: cheap. It served up greasy spoon classics that, if you weren’t careful, could lead you straight to an early grave, heart-attack-on-a-plate style. Plus, they couldn’t keep employees to save their lives. Just the sort of place I was hunting for when my old Chevy rumbled into Slate Creek Hollow about a year back.
Now, from the chitchat I’ve overheard, flip-flopping between barstool wisdom and gossip over grits, I gathered Slate Creek Hollow was born out of the coal rush that swept through Appalachia in the late nineteenth century.
Researching wasn’t really my style. I preferred firsthand accounts from the locals. Piecing together their tales, I learned about a statue in the center of the town square, depicting Jeremiah Pike, the pioneer who founded the town. In one hand, he clutched a chunk of coal, and in the other, he once held a lantern.
“Once” being the operative word, ’cause that lantern vanished ages ago. Townies blamed it on the young’uns up to no good, but nobody knew for sure.
As for the town itself, it wore its years like an old, weathered coat. Surrounded by dense groves of pine and spruce and cut through by the meandering Slate Creek Hollow, the place had seen better days. The cobblestones of the town square were uneven and cracked. The clock tower, gifted by miners from the 1920s, had grown silent, no longer chiming the hours. Time, it seemed, had taken a toll on Slate Creek Hollow.
The Hollow Bar was more rust than rustic, but it had a certain charm, with its bluegrass tunes and apple pie moonshine—which, between us, I was pretty sure wasn’t exactly aboveboard. The Pike Memorial Library, with its moss-covered walls, whispered of the town’s glory days and perhaps of secrets yet unearthed. Granny Mabel’s Bakery, however, remained a beacon. Despite the town’s hard times, Granny Mabel still spun tales of yesteryears and served the best cinnamon rolls this side of the Mississippi.
Lastly, there was the Slate Creek Inn. The floors creaked, possibly complaining about the decades they’d endured, and its windows offered views of the fog-kissed Appalachians.
It’d be easy to think of Slate Creek Hollow as the setting for some feel-good Hallmark movie, but in reality, it bore the scars of a community grappling with hardships, holding on to memories of prosperity long gone. It was far from idyllic, but it was real, and for now, it was home.
Honestly, giving a town tour of Slate Creek Hollow was the furthest thing from my mind when I woke up this morning.
While slinging hash at the Cheapside for my morning shift, I caught snippets of conversation from the regulars.
Mostly harmless gossip about whose hen stopped laying or who’d won at bingo last night or even who got picked up for selling the latest street drug.
But this morning? The chatter was different.
There he was, sitting at the counter, looking shifty.
Now, I’ve had my fair share of run-ins with the questionable side of humanity, so I can spot a fish out of water from a mile away, and this fella was practically floundering. He was trying too hard to look nonchalant, nursing his coffee and glancing around like he was waiting for a sign.
So there I was, refilling his mug, trying to catch snippets of his hushed phone conversation, and piecing together the puzzle. I mean, sure, he could’ve just been another weary traveler. But in Slate Creek Hollow, where every day feels like a rerun of the last, Mr. Shifty-Eyes was shaping up to be the most exciting thing to happen in a long while.
While I was refilling Mr. Shifty-Eyes’s mug, I caught wind of something that froze me midpour. Two regulars were whispering about him, thinking I was out of earshot.
“Did you hear? He’s got that puppy ring going on,” said one, eyes darting over to the man.
“Out of that rusty van of his?” replied the other, disgust evident in her tone.
I’d been mixed up in some shady dealings in my day, but never, ever involving animals. The very idea twisted my insides.
This man was trafficking puppies?
I watched him, my mind racing. Every little thing he did, from the way he nervously sipped his coffee to how he avoided direct eye contact, now seemed sinister.
When he tossed some cash on the counter and made his way out, I acted on impulse. Whipping off my apron, I threw it to Earlene, one of the other waitresses.
“Cover for me, will ya? Got some personal business to attend to,” I said, not waiting for a response.
I darted out, praying that my hunch was wrong but ready to confront whatever lay ahead. That old rusty van wasn’t going to drive away without me knowing exactly what, or who, was inside.
That’s how I got to the second-hand store.
Pulling up discreetly a few cars behind that rust-bucket van, I reached over to the passenger seat, grabbing my pink-rimmed sunglasses. They were flashy and a bit over-the-top, but they did the trick in shielding my identity, or at least, that was the hope.
I slid them on, taking a moment to check my reflection in the rearview.
He exited his van and entered the store, leaving me with a decision to make.
To follow or not to follow?
Taking a deep breath, I slipped out of my car, attempting the most nonchalant walk of my life.
Before going in, I needed to see for myself.
Were there really puppies in that van?
Slipping out of my car, I tiptoed to the side of his van, trying to silence the clatter of my heels against the pavement.
Seriously, why had I worn these today?
Oh, right. Better tips and upcoming rent.
I took a swift, careful peek through the tinted window. No sign of any puppies. But what caught my attention were the empty cages stacked up haphazardly in the back. Enough to hold a small army of pups.
My gut churned.
This was looking more and more like the whispers I’d heard.
As I made my way to the entrance and pushed open the door to the store, the faint scent of mothballs and memories lingered. Old items with pasts unknown were displayed everywhere. I spotted him near the back. Our eyes met for a split second, and an electrifying tension filled the room.
Before I could move, he bolted, knocking a couple of trinkets off a shelf in his haste. Heart pounding, adrenaline coursing through my veins, I knew one thing for certain: the chase was on.
And just like that, in a sleepy town where the most action I got was the occasional bar fight at the Hollow Bar, I was sprinting after a potential puppy trafficker.
The sound of the clerk yelling for me to pay for all the broken Precious Moments figurines reached my ears. “Those aren’t just trinkets, missy! Those are people’s cherished memories!” he hollered.
But saving pups was more pressing than porcelain.
As I rounded the first corner, the sound of his footsteps echoing ahead, I couldn’t help but think: Slate Creek Hollow was about to get a whole lot more interesting.