~BBW, ~~WG, Intrigue, Magic - The forgotten first case of the midwest's most famous hard-boiled, hard-drinking, and soft-bellied occult detectiveand her appetite Author's note: There's just something about the highway towns in Indiana. The Case of the Perilous Potluck from the Ashling Files by Marlow Chapter 1 Rain trickled down the windows of the all-night diner. Outside, a pair of headlights turned onto the old highway and swept away into the night. The diner’s lone customer craned her neck, frowning at the storm. Turning back to her coffee mug, she shifted in her seat and tugged at her belt with a wincing grunt. Her gun holster was digging into the roll of pudge around her midsection. “Everything alright, deputy?” asked the old woman behind the counter. “All good,” the young police officer replied, forcing a smile. “Just getting used to the uniform again. I think I, uh, put on a few pounds while I was on leave.” “Wouldn’t be a vacation if you couldn’t indulge a little, dear.” “Injury leave, not vacation. I spent most of it in a cast.” The server sucked her teeth. “Oh, that’s right. And now they’ve got you on the graveyard shift again your first week back you make somebody angry?” The deputy sipped at her coffee. “Nah, I’m just the youngest and newest.” “Well, I for one don’t mind some company here in the witching hour.” The old woman folded her arms across her apron. “You want some doughnuts for the road? Best in the state.” Roxie looked down at the bakery case and took a deep breath. “I really shouldn’t. They do look amazing maybe next time.” She tore her eyes away and tried to ignore how her mouth watered. “Definitely need a caffeine refill, though.” The drizzle had grown to a full-on shower by the time the deputy shuffled out of the diner. She tugged on her wide-brimmed hat with a sigh and played a little more with her uniform top. The grey-brown fabric refused to cooperate with the muffin-top she’d developed. To be fair, it was dealing with more than the few pounds she’d added on leave. Half a year sitting idle in a patrol car had not been kind to her once athletic figure. Half an hour later, she was sitting idle in her patrol car once again, staring through the rain at a roadside billboard. It showed the skyline of a big city, full of light and activity. A couple of tourists were superimposed over one side, laughing and enjoying the magic of cosmopolitan nightlife. Behind the billboard there was nothing but farmland and highway. Roxie adjusted her mirrors and rapped her fingers on the steering wheel, pushing herself back from it and blowing out a long breath. She came back to the billboard every night, and every night the city on the billboard seemed further away. She sipped at her coffee and scolded herself for even considering the doughnuts. The tourists on the billboard continued laughing at her. Across the county, a parcel of bar patrons laughed at their bartender’s joke. They slapped their knees and tipped their trucker hats to him. Most of the remaining customers had gathered around him at the bar; it seemed they’d rather be there than anywhere near the strange woman who sat at the corner table. She was a petite woman and hauntingly gorgeous, but she had a grim countenance and her lithe little body was scantily wrapped in forbidding black leather. Heavy eyeshadow, black lipstick, and black fingernails hadn’t made her any more inviting in a bar full of good-old boys and all but the waitress had steered clear. A menacing snake tattoo guarded her left hip, watching them. It was clear, too, that she wasn’t there to make friends. She’d only ordered club soda and had spent the past hour ignoring it, instead digging through the bulky tote bag she carried. The patrons eventually elected to ignore her, until just after midnight she took a call on her cell phone, nodded solemnly, and hurried out the door. They watched her go, paying particular attention to her tight butt in that short leather skirt. They only made out a little of her phone conversation: “Renaeville?” she asked. “The same symbol? I’m on my way.” She disappeared into the driver’s seat of an old cargo van and trundled away. The bar patrons stared, frowned, and turned back to their beers. Roxie’s radio crackled. Dispatch was calling. She set her coffee down and picked up the receiver. “Deputy Page here; go ahead.” “Heya, Roxie,” the voice buzzed. “Got a call from a trucker stopped over in Renaeville. Possible robbery at Bill’s Fuel Stop.” Roxie grimaced. “That the travel plaza just over the bridge?” “That’s the one. Don’t have much else to give you, though. Trucker mentioned some graffiti at the scene but hasn’t seen anyone. We tried to call up the owner, but no luck yet.” “Got it. On my way.” “Roger. And be careful out there. Rain’s only gonna get worse.” “Great.” “At least you get something interesting on your first week back, huh?” Roxie squinted through the rain. “I suppose. But why Renaeville? Place creeps me out.” The orange glow of the half-lit billboard faded away behind her. The highway curved through the woods and down into the darkness of the valley. Normally Roxie could look out and see the hills of Kentucky across the river, but through the midnight rain she could barely see the road before her. Renaeville was tucked away at the edge of the county, as though other area towns didn’t want to be associated with it. It nestled up against a thickly forested hill, bounded on one side by the Ohio River and by a tributary stream on the other. The town center was accessible only by an old bridge that connected up to the highway. Its only real offerings were a pair of truck stops, a roadside motel, a quaint shop-lined ‘main street,’ and a food-mart that seemed far too large to serve what had to be a tiny population. The residents, from what Roxie had seen in previous visits, mostly lived scattered along the creek or up the slope of the hill, their homes hidden in the trees. The highway was empty the whole way there, uncomfortably dark until she reached the trio of streetlights that marked Renaeville’s exit. Roxie eased onto the offramp and around the loop toward the bridge. The patrol car lurched as it rumbled across and she grunted as her plush midsection bounced against the seatbelt. “That is it,” she decided. “Roxie, you are not allowed to get any bigger.” She shook her head and glanced out the window, over the side of the bridge. “Wow. Speaking of swollen ” The creek was much higher than she remembered, churning above its usual banks and beginning to lap up against the bottom of the bridge. “Didn’t realize we’d had that much rain. Better, uh, make this quick.” The bridge let her out at a cross-street. Off to the left side waited the travel plaza, a lone semi-truck in its parking lot. Roxie flicked on her flashing lights and coasted toward the front door. She stared at the shop from inside her car for a minute, wringing her hands. Eventually she pulled on her hat, wrapped a poncho over her shoulders, and stepped out into the rain. “Hey,” came a gruff voice behind her. She turned, hand feeling under the poncho for her weapon. The man froze mid-step. He was a tall, broad figure with a barrel for a chest and a keg for a stomach. He wore a denim vest over a flannel shirt, a pointy black beard, and a nervous smile. “Hi, there. I’m Dag...the, uh, the guy who called.” Roxie deflated. “Yeah, hi. Right.” She reached out to shake his hand and cringed as he crushed hers. “Deputy Page. But just call me Roxie. So er, walk me through it, Dag.” He nodded and stepped under the shop’s awning. “Well, hm, I rolled in about forty minutes ago or so. Sign at the exit said they were open all nighthard to find down here. I get here and all the lights are on, but when I go inside to give ‘em my number ” He scratched his beard. “Nobody’s there, of course, and then I see the, um, the mess.” Roxie nodded, looking away. Seeing his huge gut made hers tighten. “Nobody else in the lot when you got here?” “Mm, nope,” he said, furrowing his brow. “All empty. That’s my truck, there.” He jerked a thumb at the semi. A mural along the trailer read ‘Amluth Frozen Foods’ in an attempt at classy Italian lettering. “Okay. Let’s have a look inside, then.” She pulled open the shop door and shuffled inside. It hadn’t been the most modern of travel plazas, its décor a dingy yellow and its signs mostly faded, but it had been well-stocked. Four separate aisles stretched toward a row of refrigerators at the back. Much of what had been on the shelves, however, could now be found on the floor: each aisle was cluttered with opened packages, ripped wrappers, and popped lids. The floor before the refrigerators was littered with empty bottles, speckled with shards of shattered glass, and sticky with a mixture of spilled beverages. Roxie checked down each aisle, toured the similarly ransacked stockroom, and kicked open the doors of both restrooms. Nobody was home. Footprints in the various powders and liquids suggested more than one person, but they were overlapped with one another and at bizarre angles to any actual walking paths. Making her way toward the counter, she slipped on a pile of candy wrappers. Dag’s large hands caught her before she hit the floor and hefted her back onto her feet. “Thanks, sorry,” she coughed, straightening her uniform. Her muffin-top was trying to peek out the side. The trucker nodded. “Figure I gotta help out somehow.” “You called it in.” Stepping more carefully, she slunk around behind the counter. She flipped through a notebook next to the register, frowned, and then punched open the register itself. The drawer shot out into her stomach. “I’d say you’ve already hrmm.” Dag raised an eyebrow. “What is it?” She adjusted her hat, staring at the register drawer. “It’s full of money.” “What?” “Yeah. And it’s not like our burglars couldn’t figure out how to open it I hit one button.” She glared around the shop. “You know it looks like they left all the actual valuables. The electronics are all there, the tools are all there, the medicine’s all there, and the money’s all here.” “So they only took food?” “Seems that way. And I’d say they took as much as they could.” Dag folded his thick arms. “Must have been hungry.” A rumble in Roxie’s stomach agreed. Shushing it, she bent down to look under the counter. An alarm switch hung below the register. It hadn’t been triggered. “I wonder if they’ve got a camera.” She looked up and froze, staring at the ceiling. “Ah. Well, that’s new.” “Yeah, I mentioned that to the dispatcher,” the trucker grunted, following her gaze. “I don’t know much about paint, but that looks pretty fresh to me.” The ceiling was decorated from wall to wall with a giant seven-pointed star, painted in bright, glistening orange. Between each point of the heptagram was an elaborate sigil, each a different arrangement of circles and interwoven strands, seemingly at different stages of entanglement. At the center of the star a jeweled knife had been stabbed into the ceiling tile. Lightning flashed outside. Roxie glanced out the shop window. Silhouetted under the streetlamps, a hooded figure stared back at her. “I should’ve stayed on leave,” she murmured.