Judge Deborah Knott (Uncommon Clay, 2001, etc.) first meets Tallahassee Ames and her husband Arn, owners of the Ames Amusement Corporation (which operates a three-ride, five-game, two–food wagon-touring carnival), in her courtroom over a dispute that finds the Lincoln brothers guilty of property vandalism. The next time she spies Tally is on opening night of the Dobbs Annual Harvest Festival, as most of Colleton County, including Deborah and Deputy Sheriff Dwight Bryant, are celebrating by riding the Tilt-A-Whirl, pitching rings at Coke bottles, and scarfing down fried dough—until Deborah looks behind an unmanned booth and finds a corpse whose mouth is crammed with quarters: Tally’s pugnacious, ne’er-do-well son Braz. While consoling his distraught mother, Deborah wonders why her nephew Stevie and his pal Ernie skedaddled before they could be questioned by Dwight. Mourners and suspects, from flirtatious Polly the plate-pitch lady to scruffy Skee Matusik, operator of the lucky Ducky Pond, pop around to pay their respects. Deborah and Dwight confer on motives while engaging in a friendly romance. Then Polly becomes a second victim, and Deborah uncovers yet another mystery: Why she and Tally share the same bracelet charm, and why Tally resembles several members of Deborah’s family. The family farm will be ransacked, Tally’s true heritage exposed, the murders resolved—and Deborah will accept Dwight’s proposal—before the carnival pulls up stakes and moves on.
The Knott family tree sprouts another branch, this one steeped in carnie lore, lingo, and attitudes. Includes a four-page circus-terms glossary.