Sallow Bend excerpt

Something old and deadly has awoken.

When two teenagers go missing from the small, rural town of Sallow Bend, the residents come together to search for them. Little do they suspect that finding the wayward girls will be the start of their problems. An old evil is rising, and only one man seems to realize that everyone is in danger and this is not the first time it’s happened. With the carnival in town, people want to have a good time, but for many, this will be the worst time of their lives.

Published by Cemetery Dance Publications, ISBN: 978-1-58767-832-5
(c) Alan Baxter 2022

Sallow Bend – first three chapters.

(c) Alan Baxter 2022

To buy your copy, go here.


A sharp rapping woke Caleb Jackson from a doze. He glanced at the clock. Ten-fifteen am. He’d only napped a few minutes. Probably one of the kids had puked in the hall on the way to break or something. He sighed, hauled himself up from the sagging armchair.

He pulled the door open. Bright sunlight flooded in as Caleb opened his mouth to ask what needed cleaning or fixing this time, but the words froze in his throat. Two police officers stood there, squinting into his gloom. Two of the four full-time officers in Sallow Bend. Mary Fitzpatrick, the school principal, hovered between them, slightly behind. Her friendly, round face held a nervous smile, but then she was always anxious. Floral dress billowing, iron gray hair perpetually in an untidy bun, she was warm and stood up for Caleb whenever she could.

Caleb winced under the tight scrutiny of the three people, the focused information from their faces, micro-expressions as loud as shouting to his over-sensitive eye. He looked at the floor.

“Caleb Jackson?” the Sheriff asked.

Caleb frowned. The man knew exactly who he was, just as Caleb knew the Sheriff was Freddie Holtz. Six-foot-four-inches of muscular ex-bully, ex-school jock. Failed his exams, managed to pull himself straight and work his way up through the local Sheriff’s Department. Not a bad guy anymore, but maybe still angry inside. Everybody in town knew Freddie Holtz’s story and it was basically a good one, if you ignored the past and accepted the man had made good. Caleb and Holtz were of an age, guys just like Freddie had ridden Caleb mercilessly through school, though Caleb tried not to hold grudges against all their kind. He had been far away from Sallow Bend in his school years.

He stood a good six inches shorter and briefly squinted up at Holtz before looking away again. “Freddie..?”

Caleb hated the artifice of adult interactions. Kids were mean, but altogether more honest for that. He avoided adults and their social politics wherever he could, and was happier that way. He saw it all too clearly, could never play along like they seemed to do. He took a nervous breath. “Yes, Sheriff Holtz, I’m Caleb Jackson.”

“May we come in? Need to ask you a few questions.”

Mary Fitzpatrick leaned forward. “It’s okay, Caleb. Just routine, you know?”

Caleb stepped back, left the door open. The three of them bustled inside and blinked until their eyes adjusted to the low light.

“Need a stronger bulb in here.” Kurt Janssen, twenty-four, meanest of the three deputies under Sheriff Holtz. Tall, thin, arrogant. For all Caleb didn’t get along with adults, he genuinely disliked Janssen. Holtz may have outgrown most of his bullying nature and become a decent guy. It didn’t look like Janssen ever would.

“Bright enough for me. What do you need, Sheriff?”

Holtz looked around the small living space. Kitchenette in one corner, TV and tatty armchair opposite, small curtained-off area at the back with Caleb’s unmade bed half-revealed. Cupboards, shelves, books randomly scattered. The only other door led to a small toilet and shower stall. It was more than enough space for Caleb, tucked under the school’s assembly hall and rent-free as a perk for his double position as janitor and night security. He was happy. Possibly, he reflected, happier than most in town, but then he didn’t crave the company of others or the pursuit of a career. So he only needed room for one.

Holtz’s eyes found their way back to Caleb, so Caleb looked away. He saw a variety of things in Holtz’s face concern, determination, no little disdain. He saw that in most people’s faces. “Clare Finlay. Thirteen years old. Good kid, smart, friendly, from a happy family.”

Caleb nodded. “I know her. Student here.”

“And Suki Tokugawa, same age, bit of a troublemaker, bit headstrong. But still a good kid. Good family.”

“Yes, both here at school. They’re best friends.”

“You know a lot about the kids?”

Caleb shook his head, still looking at the ground. “Not a lot. I know who’s who, some of the, you know, dynamics. I know those two are inseparable. Why?”

“You seen them today?” Holtz’s voice was hard.

“Be nice to him,” Fitzpatrick said, her voice high and wavery as usual, only perhaps more so. “He’s not a suspect.”

“Yes he is!” Janssen said, with a derisive laugh. “One of the most likely, the freaking weirdo.”

“Enough!” Holtz’s voice snapped like a wooden ruler slapping a desk. “Keep your mouth shut, Kurt.” He looked back, caught Caleb’s eye. “Answer the question, please.”

Caleb saw warring emotions on the Sheriff’s face, saw him trying to suppress a kind of fear. All the social lying and etiquette that Caleb simply couldn’t understand playing out over and over with every sentence, every look. People pretended so many things while Caleb so often saw the opposite in the truth of their expressions and movements. He could never figure out how to balance those things. And his sensitivity to them, the simple overload of information, made any interaction exhausting. It was easier to remove himself from it all as much as possible. Now the scrutiny of these three was unbearable. “Suspect for what? What’s happened?”

“Have you seen Clare or Suki today?”

Nerves rippled through Caleb. “No, not today. I was cleaning early, fixed the light over the main entrance. When the kids started to arrive I came in here and organized my roster of jobs, then had a nap. So I didn’t see them arrive.”

“Last night?”

“What about it?”

“You see them leave school?”

Caleb drew a deep breath, thought hard. “Yesterday was Tuesday. I was painting the window frames around the back of the English department all yesterday afternoon, so I didn’t really see any of the kids leave. I wasn’t out the front. But I did see Clare and Suki in their English class last period.”

“Watching them through the windows were you?” Janssen asked, sneering. Where most wore disdain, Janssen’s face betrayed genuine disgust, the promise of violence barely contained.

“You wanna go wait in the car?” Holtz asking, rounding on the deputy.

Janssen grunted, deflated a little. He daggers at Caleb.

“I wasn’t watching them, no. But I saw them in there while I was painting. What’s going on?”

“Miss Ransom told you Caleb was outside her English class,” Fitzpatrick said. “She told you he was still there an hour after school when she finished marking. His story is the same.”

Caleb nodded. “I came back here about five thirty or so. Long after school let out.”

Holtz sighed. “Yep, it’s all tight.”

“What’s happening?” Caleb asked again.

“Clare and Suki never made it home last night,” Holtz said. “They haven’t been seen since their English class yesterday. A couple of the other kids are sure they left school together.”

“We can confirm it with security cameras,” Caleb said. “At least, we can see if they left the school via the front gate and which way they went. After that it’s up to you guys and the other cameras around town.”

Holtz nodded. “Not too many of them. Okay, let’s check yours first.”




Holtz leaned back from the monitors in the small room behind the school office. “So they left and headed north. They both live south of the school. Where were they going?”

He stared up at Caleb, but Caleb avoided his gaze. He knew his inattention made people uncomfortable, but if it was their discomfort or his own, he would choose to protect himself every time. He theorized people recognized, on some level, that he saw through them. But there really wasn’t much he could do about it except avoid them as much as possible. And they continued with their façades. “The carnival rolled into town yesterday,” he said.

Holtz still looked at him. “I know. What are you suggesting?”

“Nothing. Just maybe they went there. Teenagers are headstrong, they take risks. And going to watch the carnival set up after school isn’t even that much of a risk.”

Holtz nodded, almost to himself. “Thanks for your help.” He crammed his hat back on and strode from the room.

“We’re still watching you,” Janssen said.

Caleb forced himself to meet the man’s eye, despite the almost instant headache it triggered. “Back off.” Janssen flinched slightly and Caleb enjoyed that but had to look away from the flood of information from the young man’s rapid expressions, which slightly ruined the moment. The deputy followed his boss without another word.

“I’ll help with the search,” Caleb said towards Fitzpatrick. “What can I do?”

She put a slightly trembling hand on his arm. He flinched a little but managed to hide it. “The teachers and parents are organizing search parties. School has to continue for now, but talk to Tricia Brent. She’s one of the people getting everything moving. You can take the rest of the day off from your duties here if you want to go and help.”

Caleb knew she was trying to make him feel better. He didn’t mind, but also didn’t understand why she would bother. Two young girls missing overnight was a big deal. He would like to help, if nothing else than to prove to Holtz and Janssen they had nothing to be concerned about with Caleb himself. He nodded. “Tricia Brent? She lost her son.”

“Last year, yes. Toby. Went missing. Hasn’t been found.”


Fitzpatrick’s face crumpled in  grief and Caleb quickly averted his eyes once more. “I honestly can’t imagine what it’s like for them.”

“You think that’s why she’s eager to help here?”


Caleb took a deep breath. He’d already talked and interacted more in the past half hour than he usually did in a week, even a month. It was exhausting, the headache pulsing behind his eyes. And now he’d have to do even more.

Fitzpatrick took his inertia as concern for the girls. “I know you care deeply for the kids here. Go. See Tricia, and offer your help. I’ll write down her address.”

Caleb swallowed, nodded. He took the slip of paper and hurried away, thankful to be free of conversation for a little while at least.




Tricia Brent bit down on rising rage, tried to quench the fire of hatred that burned in her gut. Riley stood there, so drunk already he swayed slightly, his idiot face twisted in confusion.

“What do you mean, why does it have to be me?” she asked, voice low with the threat of explosion.

“Exactly that,” Riley slurred. “What business is it of yours?”

Tricia looked her husband up and down, his burly frame gathering fat around the middle. He wasn’t forty yet, but he was thickening, balding, increasingly bitter by the day. She was no teenage beauty any more herself, she knew that, but she kept better care of herself than he did. She was still fit even if she was a few pounds over where she’d like to be. And she didn’t drink, not like Riley. No one she knew drank like Riley. Like he had ever since Toby disappeared.

“Children are missing,” she said. “How can you not understand that?”

“I understand it. I just don’t know why you gotta get involved.”

“Because they’re fucking children, Riley! Because we lost our own son and you don’t want me to care about that anymore!”

He took a stagger-step towards her and she rapidly backed up, bracing for a strike. He’d hit her before then begged forgiveness in a brief moment of sobriety. His logger’s hands were rough and cracked, hard as the wood he felled. And his head was full of sawdust. He frightened her. “Those missing girls ain’t gonna lead you to Toby!” He raised a hand, grimaced, let it fall again.

“How do you know that? And besides, I know how their mothers feel. If nothing else, we have to come together, as community. To help each other.”

He sneered and turned away, snatched a bottle of Wild Turkey from the counter as he stumbled back towards his beaten old La-Z-Boy in front of the TV, drinking away his day off. “You do as you damn well please, woman. You always fuckin’ do.”

Tricia stood trembling, staring at the back of his pale head as he slumped into the seat and clicked the remote to show a football match. They’d been so in love, high school sweethearts infatuated with each other, both born and raised in Sallow Bend. They’d waited a long time to have kids, enjoying each other’s company, then finally Toby was born. And that had been wonderful too, for a dozen good years more until Toby disappeared and Riley fell into a bottle and never found his way out. She’d lost them both, she knew that. But while Toby seemed gone forever, Riley was a bad smell that would never air out. She’d switch their places in an instant.

Her eyes roamed over the familiarity of their home, muted autumn colors in the soft furnishings, some of her artworks on the walls, worn but good quality furniture, the white and pine kitchen. The lived-in untidiness of it all. She felt as though she were looking through a screen now, as though she had been partially removed from her nest. Riley lived in the family home and she gently slipped away from it, watching it fade like the closing shot of a movie. They weren’t well off, but they were far from poor. Riley made good money, though for how long given his current decline she couldn’t be sure. She did okay at the grocery store four days a week. Even without Toby, if they held together they should have been able to weather the loss, keep looking for him as a team, never give up, and have each other and their comfortable home in the meantime. But Riley was drinking all that away.

“Fuck you,” she muttered under her breath, swept her purse off the counter and left.

As she closed the front door, a man somewhere in his thirties, short dark hair over narrowed eyes, approached up the driveway. He glanced up and away often, seemingly unable to hold her gaze. He was familiar and he gave her the creeps, but she couldn’t explain either.

“Mrs. Brent?” he asked, in a tight voice. “Tricia Brent?”

And then it dawned on her. The school janitor. The weirdo. But most people seemed to agree he was harmless enough. “Yes, that’s me.”

“I came to help look for the girls. Mrs. Fitzpatrick said you were organizing something?”

“I’m just going over there now. We’re meeting at the Town Hall and we’ll start search parties. Your help is greatly appreciated. Mr. Jackson, right?”

“Call me Caleb.”

“All right then.” She ran a tongue over suddenly dry lips. “You walked here?”

“Don’t have a car.”

“You want a ride with me now?”

“Thank you.”

He still hadn’t met her eye, though he smiled regularly, almost as if he was reminding himself to do it. His hands were calloused and stained with creosote, but his face was soft and kind. A wave of sympathy passed through Tricia as she watched him. “Come on, then.” She blipped the car locks open on her scruffy red Ford and they climbed in.

It was only a few minutes’ drive to the Town Hall. Caleb could have walked there from school quicker than getting to her house. “Mrs. Fitzpatrick gave you my address?”

“She said you were organizing searches.”

“Well, I’m hoping to help. Community has to come together at times like these.”

From the corner of her eye she saw him nod. Silence settled uncomfortably and she felt the need to fill it.

“You know the two girls?”

“I know they’re best friends. I see them at school.”

“Of course.”

The streets slipped by and Tricia willed the journey to speed up.

“Any ideas about where they might be?”

Caleb looked over at her then, but looked away again before she could meet his eye. “Not really.”

She let out a nervous laugh. “I didn’t mean you should know anything about them or, you know, where they might be. Just wondered if you had any guesses, anything like that?” She was babbling. Wasn’t Caleb supposed to be the nervous one? Although he didn’t seem uneasy or anxious, just dislocated, more confused by their interaction than anything.

“Carnival, maybe.”

She hadn’t thought of that. The carnies had rolled into town the day before, started setting up on Old Man Wilson’s land on the outskirts of town. Same time every year, right before the summer holidays. Friday was the last day of the semester, the carnival opened tomorrow, Thursday. Then it would be long summer days for all the kids, complaining of boredom at the same time as they ran and rode bikes, played video games and had water fights, living the absolute time of their lives. She swallowed all those thoughts away as Toby rose in her mind, his sandy curls and big, brown eyes, laughing and playing, the most beautiful boy in the world. “The carnival, yeah.” She hitched a breath. “We should definitely ask there.”

It was too much. More missing kids, thinking of Toby, trying not to bark into sobs and collapse. Sometimes it was all too hard. She could see the temptation to fall into something numbing like Riley had done. Then there Riley was, a barely living warning against doing such a self-destructive thing. She had to keep going.

“Must be hard.”

She jumped, Caleb saying something unbidden a complete surprise. “Hard?”

“Missing children.”

She let out a laugh. “You reading my mind?”

“Just your face. You’re trying not to cry.”

Damn, the man was blunt and completely right. “What’s your story?” she asked, to deflect him. Put the discomfort back on him. She didn’t want to face her own.


“The way you are.” Two could be blunt. “Why?”

He shook his head, looking down at his hands clasped together in his lap. “I’m not autistic or anything, my parents had lots of tests done. I just see too much in people, struggle with the information overload. Over-sensitive to body language and micro-expressions, the doctors said, but they can’t explain why. Nothing they can do about it.”

She felt bad, realized she’d lashed out from grief. “I’m sorry.”


She frowned. “For embarrassing you.”

“I’m not embarrassed. No one ever asked before. It’s just the truth. I’ve never really coped well around people is all, it’s too tiring.”

They drove on in silence, Tricia too uncomfortable on every level to risk more conversation. Caleb seemed entirely unperturbed by it all, his mood unchanged since he’d appeared in her driveway. They arrived at the Town Hall, the streets outside packed with cars and pick-ups, people milling on the steps. The Mayor moved between them with  an expression of determined concern.

Once the meeting got under way it turned out there wasn’t much to talk about and Tricia didn’t get to organize anything. The mayor and Sheriff Freddie Holtz took charge, explained where the police were focusing their attention and asked everyone to look wherever they could. Concentrate on forgotten places, Sheriff Holtz said. Look in barns and sheds, check creeks and ponds in the corners of properties, talk to everyone in case someone hadn’t heard and might know something. Among the general hubbub of consternation, Sheriff Holtz yelled out, brought everything to a sudden and strained silence.

“I know everyone is concerned. I know you all want to help. So let’s stop gathering wool here and just get out there, okay?”

“What about them carnies?” a voice shouted from the back.

Holtz raised his palms out to calm the sudden rise in opinions. “Now, let’s not make any judgments or cause any extra strife.”

“Pretty funny they arrive and those girls go missing the same time!” another voice called out.

“Not funny at all, just a coincidence.” Holtz raised his hands again, and his voice. “But of course we’ll be talking to them. Deputy Janssen and I are going over there right after this. Deputies Baker and Taylor are out searching in a patrol car, but all calls to the station are being redirected to them, so make sure you report anything, however seemingly insignificant. Now go! Get out there and let’s find those children. I’m sure they’re just two young girls being adventurous, and they’ve no idea the panic they’ve caused.”

“Two young girls who’ve been gone all night!” a woman said.

Holtz nodded, mouth set in a flat line. “So let’s find them.”

People left the hall and the roar of engines rose and fell as vehicles went off in every direction.

“So I guess we pick a direction and go?” Tricia said. She wasn’t entirely comfortable to find herself suddenly buddied up with Caleb Jackson, but it seemed to have fallen that way. She figured he wasn’t ecstatic to be with her either. Then again, perhaps he wouldn’t be happy with anyone and she could do her best not to judge him. She should be kind, he was trying to help, after all.

I’ve never really coped well around people is all.

What a terrible thing to admit to. What a terrible way to live.

“The carnival?” Caleb asked.

“Sheriff Holtz said he was going there.”

“Yeah. But no one talks to the police. Not really. Do they?”

Tricia nodded slowly. “I guess you’re right. I know Ashley a little bit from previous years, maybe she’ll talk to me.”


“She runs the carnival. And I don’t expect she’s especially fond of the police.”

Caleb nodded once, then stood waiting.

“Okay then.” Tricia left the Town Hall, heading for her car.



Ashley Strong stood on the tailgate of her trailer, the carnival crew arrayed in a fan before her, all eyes upturned, expectant. The big Strong’s Traveling Carnival sign arced over the end of the midway far across the field, all the rides and stalls and sideshows spreading out from it, filling the space between the sign and the crew trailers. Everything was nearly ready, bright colors and carved plywood, snaking cables and inert generators, lights unlit, ovens cool, everything neat and tidy and waiting to be fired up.

That short time between the completion of setup and the official kicking off of festivities had always been a time of pleasure for Ashley. Here we are, she would think. Once again we’ve overcome the logistics and this is the peaceful moment, the calm before the storm. But that sense of accomplishment, that pleasure drawn from the power of management she wielded, was compromised this time. Not quite ready and now this complication.

“My daddy would give you some big rousing speech about this,” she said in a robust voice that carried over the still carnival. “He’d tell you how strong we all are, how much of a service we do, bringing pleasure town by town. You’ve heard all that old shit before.” A ripple of nervous laughter and chatter passed through her people. “And he was right!” she added. “He was right then and if I repeated his spiel, I’d be right now. I remember it word for word, we all do. Maybe I should give the speech, go through the motions, but we know things are not the same today. Two little girls are missing.”

Angry rumblings started in the crowd and Ashley raised her voice over them. “We know it’s nothing to do with us, but who are always the first suspects when anything bad happens and the carnival is in town? Of course it’s us. So let’s just accept that we’ve arrived into a shitstorm and everyone in this backwoods town is going to be looking at us with narrowed eyes. If we did anything else but help out we’d only look more guilty of a crime none of us committed. And this is our long stay pitch, we’re here for two weeks, not just a few days. So here’s what we do. We make ourselves available, we offer to delay tomorrow night’s grand opening, we help in the search, okay? I don’t know about you all, but I don’t want to think that we’re ignoring the fact two thirteen-year-old girls are missing. So let’s help and if they want us to open tomorrow night, we will.”

“And if they don’t?” John Barrow called out. His voice was powerful, belying his stature. But Ashley knew, little person or not, he had the heart and mind of a giant. Four and half feet of fiercely loyal friend under a mop of black hair, slowly turning to iron grey as he entered his fifties.

Ashley smiled. “Then we delay until Friday.”

“We always open on Thursday night. We’d lose an entire night’s takings, and all day Friday.”

“If that’s what it takes to soften the eyes of suspicion around us, then so be it.”

Annoyed grumblings started up again and Ashley raised her hands.

“Your father would have insisted on opening tomorrow night,” Barrow said loudly before she could speak.

Ashley pursed her lips. She knew what he was doing. Being the voice of her father, giving strength to the ghost she had competed against for nearly five years. One day they would forget about Joseph Strong and the carnival would truly belong to her, but in the meantime she had to continue to pay deference to the old man. For how long, she didn’t know. And John Barrow would always give her the opportunity to show respect to Joseph while maintaining control. Barrow gave her a subtle wink, and a nod. She’d be glad to see him back managing customers in his burlesque show and bar tent, the infuriating bastard. But she did love him.

“My father would indeed have insisted on opening tomorrow night,” she said. “He would have gone head to head with the police immediately, said we always open on Thursdays, and he would have fed off the energy of that conflict. My father was a powerful man, but he was headstrong and combative and made problems for himself day after day. You all know that to be true. I will offer to delay opening, but I will campaign for no delay. If we co-operate with the police, they will co-operate with us, I’m sure.”

Further rumblings. They were coming to respect her more every year, but it was an exhaustingly slow process.

“Now I’m sure the police and at least some concerned citizens will be here soon. Let’s help them. Organize yourselves into groups of two or three and start thinking about which direction you can go in search. If we’re already out looking when the police get here, we’ll immediately earn some favor. So go! Maybe concentrate on the woods and the river, as those are nearest to us.”

She stepped down off the trailer, officially ending the meeting. She was a tall woman, with a flood of shining auburn hair that made her impossible to miss in a crowd, but everyone knew that when she stepped down, the meeting was over. The ride hands and stall holders, mechanics, roustabouts and security guards, everyone milled around chatting, gathering into small groups, then slowly drifted away.

John Barrow approached as the crowd thinned, his face serious. Saul Fallon and Sarah Carter followed, Sarah in her diaphanous Madame O’Reilly fortune-teller garb, jingling with rings and bangles, her tumbling blonde hair under a silk scarf of reds and greens. Fallon’s tall frame, made only more impressive as he walked alongside Barrow, was stiff with annoyance, his dark blue mechanic’s overalls clean and pressed. But he was no mechanic, no roustabout. His ridiculous sideshow brought in a decent amount of coin, but never enough to justify the man’s perception of his own importance. He had dark eyes and dark hair, perpetually pale skin, his brow always drawn in a scowl. Ashley lifted her chin as the trio approached.

“You shouldn’t kowtow to the police before they even get here,” Fallon said.

John Barrow rolled his eyes, gave Ashley another wink that Fallon was too high above to see. “I agree with Ashley on this,” he said.

Fallon scoffed. “Of course you do. You were a toady to her father and now you’re a toady to her.”

“Fuck you, Saul, you barely knew her father and you certainly don’t know me.”

“Enough!” Ashley snapped. “I won’t have you all sniping at each other, not now. Not today. I’ve made my decision. If we delay opening, so be it. But I’m confident it won’t come to that.” She stared them down, wondering what it was they really wanted.

Saul Fallon and John Barrow exchanged a glance. Barrow raised his hand and Fallon reached out to bump knuckles with him. Ashley nodded once, pleased. She waited expectantly.

“It’s some of the families,” Sarah Carter said eventually.

“What about them?”

“There are a lot of kids among us, and the families want assurance their kids are safe.”

Ashley blew out an exasperated sigh. “What the fuck am I supposed to do about that? They’re as safe as they are anywhere else. Who knows what happened to those girls, they probably just ran off for a prank and they’ll be back any time wondering why they’re in trouble.”

“We know that,” Saul said. “But what are you going to tell the families to put them at ease?”

Ashley shook her head. “Nothing. I’m not buying into any fear or superstitious nonsense.”

“You know the stories,” Barrow said. “When the carnival comes to town and children go missing, it’s the fey folk among us that are to blame.”

“They’ll be no children left by Sunday,” Sarah said in her best Madame O’Reilly brogue.

Ashley laughed. “Kiss my ass, all of you. Let the families talk among themselves, but don’t feed the paranoia. I meant what I said, let’s just help the town look and see how this all pans out.”

She looked up over them and winced as two police officers came walking along the still midway. She nodded, the others turning to see. “Here we go,” she said quietly.

The man in front wore the Sheriff’s badge, well over six feet of burly muscular ex-jock by the look of him. He had a rugged handsomeness to him, but a no-nonsense look in his eyes. She remembered him from previous years, but had never had cause to interact. Until now. Beside him walked a tall, thin deputy, couldn’t be more than mid-twenties, an arrogant scowl twisting his mouth. Ashley, Barrow, Fallon, and Sarah walked to meet them halfway along the midway.

The Sheriff gestured back over his shoulder at the crew dispersing out of the carnival in every direction. “They told me you’re in charge,” he said to Saul Fallon. “Ashley Strong?”

Ashley laughed, shook her head. “I’m Ashley Strong.”

The Sheriff turned a surprised look to her. “Oh, sorry. They said the tall one and I thought…”

“You assumed a man. They did that on purpose. It’s fine, I get it all the time.” She reached out a hand. “Good to meet you, Sheriff.”

“Holtz,” he said, shaking her hand. His palm was warm and calloused. “This here is Deputy Janssen.” The young man gave a curt nod. “So you run this outfit?”

“I do. You’re here about the missing girls.” Cut to the chase, she had no time for small talk.

“That’s right. You know about that already?”

Ashley smiled. “You know carnie folk. Gossip is our life blood.” She pointed a finger randomly left and right. “That’s where they’re all going, teamed up to go and search. We want to help.”

“Mighty kind of you. I’m sorry to sound clichéd, but I have to ask. You know anything about the missing girls?”

“Nope, sorry. We know from town gossip that two thirteen year-old girls went missing after school yesterday and haven’t shown up yet. Understandable that everyone is concerned. So we’re happy to help with the search. You have anywhere you’d like us to concentrate?”

Holtz took off his hat, squinted around in the bright morning sun. The carnival stood on open fields on the north side of town, just over a mile from the small town center. The highway in and out ran up the west side of town then across between the last houses and the carnival, before turning north again on the east side of the dense forest. The Sallow River ran down that side of the forest, under the highway then past the east side of town, curving west then south again, the wide bend of water giving the town nestled there its name. Sun glittered off the river through some trees a couple of hundred yards from where they stood, the woods thickening the further north they looked.

Holtz sighed. “Honestly, they could be anywhere. We have a small town here, but a lot of country.”

“I suggested my people concentrate on the woods and the river,” Ashley said, gesturing vaguely north and east. “Seemed most likely given where we are. The locals will no doubt concentrate their searches in town and on properties.”

“Yep, and the surrounding farmland.”

“So anything else you’d like us to do? Like I said, we want to help.”

Holtz put his hat back on. “Nothing I can think of. You definitely haven’t seen two girls that match the description? They didn’t come around here to watch you guys set up, maybe? Any of your people see them?”

“No, sorry. We had a meeting this morning and that’s the first thing I asked, if any of my crew had seen any kids around. They all said no. If anyone sees anything, they’ll tell me and I’ll tell you, Sheriff.”

“Okay. Thank you.”

Ashley took a deep breath. “So we’re supposed to open tomorrow. We always open Thursday night. You want us to delay that?”

Holtz smiled. “That’s kind of you to offer, but I’m guessing it would cost you all a pretty sum.”

Ashley nodded. “We do run on a tight budget. We could do without losing an opening night’s coin if you think people would still come.”

Holtz barked a harsh laugh. “There are plenty of people in town who don’t care about two missing girls and will gladly come to ride the Ferris wheel and the bumper cars, and eat corn dogs and cotton candy. And you know how it is, people travel from miles around when you guys roll in. Besides, I hope we’ve found the girls before then anyway. You go right ahead.”

Ashley breathed an internal sigh of relief, caught Barrow and Fallon’s soft smiles. “Thank you, .”

“We’ll be on our way.” Holtz handed her a card. “Call me with anything you think is worthwhile, however vague.”

“Will do.”

Another patrol car pulled up a little way outside the arching sign and two deputies climbed out. A short, black woman and an older guy, a little overweight, his blond hair balding. They waved and stood waiting by the vehicle. Holtz shifted a little uncomfortably. “Now, listen, I mean no offense by this, but I’d like for my deputies to search through your stalls and rides and trailers. You can refuse and I’ll need warrants, but that would be mighty inconvenient for us all.”

Ashley opened her mouth, outrage showing on her face, but Holtz quickly carried on. “Not that I think the girls are, you know, held here or anything. Just in case they’re hiding out somewhere.”

Ashley drew a long breath to calm herself. “My people have already searched their places, Sheriff.”

He shrugged. “Even still. It’s procedure, I’m afraid.”

Ashley pursed her lips, thinking. There was nothing she could do about it, not really. And she could trust her people to not have anything incriminating, couldn’t she? She hoped so. “All right. But I want to be with them the whole time.”

“Wait a minute!” Fallon’s face was tight with rage. “You can’t do that. That’s against your own law.”

Holtz shook his head. “It’s not. I could get warrants.”

“You’ll have to get one if you want access to my place.”

Ashley sighed. “Saul, shut the fuck up. What do you have to hide?”

He turned his fury to her and she raised one eyebrow, refusing to be cowed by him.

“That’s not the point!” he said.

“So what is the point? You just want to be difficult?”

He glowered.

“We need to help any way we can, Saul. And we need to open on time.”

“Then I’m gonna be there too.”

“For your place, sure.” Ashley tried not to let her relief show too clearly. She had wondered if Fallon would really dig his heels in and was thankful he hadn’t. “Let’s get underway,” she said to Holtz.

“Absolutely, ma’am. I appreciate your help. The woman there is Deputy Baker, and the other one is Deputy Taylor. I’ll let them know you’re ready for them.” He tipped his hat and turned away.

Deputy Janssen gave them a sneer as the two police officers turned and headed back down the midway.

“Nasty little shit, that young one,” Barrow said, watching the deputy’s narrow back retreat.

Ashley nodded. “The sheriff seems like a decent guy, but that young one is full of piss and vinegar. Thinks he’s some kind of hot shit because he wears a badge. We’ll have to watch him; he’ll want to make trouble for us.”

Saul Fallon stared after them, his eyes narrowed in thought.

“You don’t start anything with him,” Ashley said, slapping Fallon’s arm.

“I won’t.” He walked away without looking at her and Ashley grit her teeth. Fallon was a good ally and he’d been around a while, but he could be a troublemaker too.

“I’ll try to watch them,” Barrow said, guessing her thoughts.


“Folks’ll be mad to hear the police were poking through their stuff.”

Ashley sighed. She was mad about it herself. Her crew had every right to be as well. “We’ll just assure them it’s routine and nothing happened. Because nothing will happen, right?” She glanced down at Barrow. “No one has anything tucked away the police shouldn’t find, do they?”

Barrow smiled. “I don’t expect so. But I’ll go and talk to the families still here, make sure people are aware.”

“Thanks, John.”

He left, leaving Ashley and Sarah Carter standing alone in the deserted carnival midway.

“You want to use your amazing powers of second sight and tell me where those girls are?” Ashley asked.

Sarah laughed, gave Ashley’s hand a squeeze. “It’ll be okay, one way or another.”

Ashley laughed too. “That your psychic opinion or your hope? It bothers me we’re here for two weeks. Anywhere else, we’d be gone in a few days. We can’t afford trouble on this pitch, we’re in the hole for a lot of money to Wilson for this land.”

Sarah nodded and headed to her sideshow trailer off the midway, a painted up gypsy wagon that was her home and work all rolled into one.

Ashley watched her go then stood alone, lips pursed. She just wanted a peaceful and happy carnival, folks enjoying themselves, as few fights and crimes as possible. It didn’t seem too much to ask, but there was always some drama or another. “Come on, girls,” she said quietly. “Stop being little shits and go home.” She walked to the main gate to meet the deputies.


Sallow Bend

(c) Alan Baxter 2022

To buy your copy, go here.