Dexter Turnbow was returning from the late shift at the Caswell Cup Company still dressed in his ink-stained coveralls, trudging through dirty snow to the garage apartment he rented on the outskirts of Old Freeport, a small inlet town along the Rhode Island coast. He didn’t notice the unmarked car until he rounded the corner and saw the large man sitting on his stoop.
“Supposed to be a hell of a blizzard,” Detective Pinter said as he craned to look up at the dark New England sky.
Inside was the kind of apartment that had been rented many times to men like Dexter Turnbow. A narrow hallway led through a small bedroom that doubled as a living room and into an even smaller kitchen, where Dex pulled down a large canister of Folger’s Decaffeinated from a cabinet without any doors above a gas stove. Pinter helped himself to the only chair.
The detective certainly hadn’t lost any weight, not as far as Dex could tell. In fact, he might’ve grown bigger. Like in the old days, Pinter was dressed all in brown—brown shoes, brown hat, baggy brown pants and tie. He reminded Dex of a giant Fudgesicle.
“All right,” Dex said, lighting a burner beneath the teapot, “why don’t you get to it.”
“OK,” Pinter said. “Last night. Torch and go. Long Tall Sally’s, jiggle joint off 17. Got your handprints all over it.”
“How ’bout fingerprints?” Dex said. “Because without those, you can get the fuck out of my kitchen.”
“Relax. I know you weren’t there.”
“Yeah? Then to what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Because I think you know who was.”
Dex scoffed. “Ain’t you heard, Pinter? I don’t run with that crowd anymore. I’m John Q. Law Abiding these days. I show up to work on time. I pay my taxes. When I piss, I lift the lid, and I don’t spill a drop.”
The kettle whistled.
“You gonna offer your guest some of that?”
Dex pulled down two mugs from the shelf above the sink and tipped the pot. “Hope you like it bitter.”
Pinter took a sip, smacking his lips. “Almost as good as the Gas ’n’ Go,” he said with a wink. “Let’s stop wasting both our time, eh?”
Dex extracted a pack of Lucky Strikes from his breast pocket and lighted one.
“Law enforcement’s changed since your glory days,” Pinter said. “We’ve gone hi-tech.”
“Nice to know where my tax dollars are going.”
“These days, we can take crimes and evidence, plug data into a fancy computer, and that computer has lots to say. See, each crook has his trademarks. They’re as unique as fingerprints. For instance, which hand they use to wipe their behind. Or whether they strike a matchbook from left to right.”
Dex took a slow drag.
“Take you for instance, Dex. You and your ex-partner, Ole Winesburg, you guys had a particular way of stealing things. This Sally hold-up—middle of the night, security system shorted with a pencil box, paper clip and chewing gum, Czech Semtex to blow the safe—fits your profile to a T. I’d be putting the cuffs on you right now—except for one thing.”
“Dexter Turnbow was working the late shift last night. Six months, no change in the routine since his release. You see what I’m getting at?”
“Cut the shit, Turnbow. Where’s Ole?”
“How should I know? You’re the cop.” Dex dropped his cigarette in the mug.
He made for the pullout in the next room, the large man following closely. Sitting on the edge of the sofa, Dex unlaced his boots.
Pinter picked a framed photograph off the dresser. The picture showed a young man with his arm around a shapely blonde in front of a lighthouse. “When was the last time you had any correspondence with that pretty ex-wife of yours?” the detective asked.
“Not since her lawyer served me the divorce papers through the bars.”
Pinter chuckled. “That one’s still gotta sting, eh, Dex?”
“Justine’s a helluva woman.” He pealed off his socks. Eight hours on his feet and his dogs were barking.
“Maybe if you’d cooperated with the police, Ole wouldn’t have gotten away, and we might’ve—”
“Might’ve what? Let me go? I’ve never known cops to do favors.”
“One thing’s for sure, if Ole’s in the can, he’s not sticking it up your wife.”
Dex tossed the cushions. “Thanks for the bedtime story.”
“This one’s not over yet,” the big cop said with a sneer, before breaking into a smile. “I guess that wouldn’t make sense, would it? I mean, if you knew where Ole was—y’know, Ole Winesburg, your good friend and ex-partner who vanished into the night to fuck your wife while you took the rap and rotted seven years in prison—you’d tell your pal Detective Pinter, right? Be crazy not to.”
Dexter Turnbow woke in the late afternoon. He switched on the portable and dialed in the weather report, which called for flurries in the early evening before turning heavy after midnight. Should be quite the storm.
Dex cracked his front door, the sky overrun with chubby burlap sacks. He checked the parked cars. When you live in a small town like Old Freeport you get to know every make, model, and color in your neighborhood. Unfamiliar cars stick out like sore thumbs. As do cars with giant antennas and fat men reading newspapers in the front seat in the late afternoon.
Back in the kitchen, Dex phoned Benny, the night foreman at Caswell. Unfortunately, Mama Turnbow had taken a turn for the worse, and it looked like he’d need the night off. Another quick call, pick a rendezvous, then bundle up, hat, gloves, scarf, and out to his old Toyota pick-up.
The biting northeastern wind stung exposed skin. The weather report was wrong; it was already starting to come down. But nothing would stop Dex now. He’d waited seven long years for this.
Stepping into the Hobo Grille, Dex spotted him instantly. Then again, there weren’t any other customers in the diner. Nobody was coming out in the middle of a Nor’easter, and certainly not to a diner so far off the beaten track.
He was a little heavier, like most men their age, losing a little up top too, but what struck Dex most was a face kinder than he’d remembered it, one less hostile, almost jolly-looking. Getting older is the cure-all for the angry young man.
“Hello, Ole,” Dex said, taking a seat across from him in the booth. He picked up an oversized yellow menu with pictures of cartoon choo-choo trains and smiling bums carrying bandanas tied to a stick.
“I see you found it OK,” Ole said.
“It’s certainly well secluded.”
“Fits my new, low profile image.” Ole gestured toward the menu. “You gotta try their sausage biscuits.”
Dex patted his belly. “Doc’s got me watching the cholesterol.” He lighted a cigarette.
The waitress came for their orders, chicken fried steak with all the fixings for Ole, a coffee for Dex.
Ole waited for the waitress to leave. “How’d you find me?”
“Wasn’t hard. We’re criminals. It’s what we do.”
The waitress brought the pot and filled Dex’s mug. Dex decided to treat himself to a little sugar tonight.
“How’s Justine?” Dex asked. “Or what’s that name she goes by these days? Cheryl? Have to tell you, Ole, she’s not a Cheryl. Then again, you sure as hell don’t look like a Wally.”
Outside, snow swirled in a gust and smacked against the long glass pane.
“I’ve changed,” Ole said.
“Seven years, we all change.”
Ole leaned in. “I’m not proud of a lot of stuff I done in my life—but I came here tonight to tell you one thing: Justine and me, it just happened. And it wasn’t until after you went down. I never put the moves on her when you two were together. I was your friend.”
Dex kept smoking.
Ole forced a laugh. “Look at us, couple regular Joes. It’s funny, you start playing the part of a regular guy, and after a while, you ain’t playing anymore. You getting busted was a wake-up call for me, Dex. No one knows me out in this town. I’m just Wally Jakes, dry cleaner. It might be a little boring, but you know what? It’s a helluva lot safer.”
The waitress brought over the chicken fried steak, heap of whipped potatoes, peas and buttermilk biscuits steaming on top and smothered in a thick gravy.
“You best hurry,” the waitress said, nodding toward the doors. “We’re about to close up.”
Ole began cutting and stuffing. He pointed his knife across the table. “What you did,” he said through a mouthful of mashed beef, “doing the time without ratting? Shows the kind of stand-up guy you are.”
“Prison ain’t so bad. In some ways, it’s good for you.”
“Good?” Ole said with a laugh. “Sure it is.”
“No, really. It teaches you patience, for one. You have a lot of time on the inside. A man can plan how to turn it around, how to take back what belongs to him.”
Ole’s face screwed up.
“Not following?” Dex leaned back. “OK. Let’s try this. What were you doing last night, between the hours of two and four a.m.?”
“Same thing everyone is doing. Sleeping.”
“Not everyone, Ole. I work the late shift. Fifteen co-workers saw me washing my cylinders and plates, stamping my cups. I didn’t even take a piss break.”
“Anyone vouch for you being asleep? I mean, besides Justine?”
“The neighbor’s cat. What the hell do you care?”
“John Pinter visited me this morning.”
“That fat fuck?” Ole grinned. “Hey, he still dress all in brown? Big piece of shit. What’d he want?”
“Somebody knocked over Long Tall Sally’s, you know, the titty bar off 17? A gig like we used to do. That’s what Pinter said. Vintage Dex and Ole job. Except I was at work.”
Ole tilted his head. “You’re kidding, right? I haven’t pulled a job since… The love of a good woman—sorry—but she’s set me straight. I don’t have to tell you how terrific Justine is.” Ole stuffed a forkful of meat into his ruddy puss. “Is that what you wanted to meet me about, tell me about this heist?”
“Looks bad for you, is all.”
“I’m not worried. I didn’t do it.”
“I know that. But think how it looks to the police. The same brand of explosive, identical short-circuiting and torching technique—and a sleeping man doesn’t miss his car, which leaves behind tracks. And then there’s the money.”
Dex jabbed a thumb sideways. “The money the police are retrieving from your trunk right now.”
Ole dropped his fork. In the snow-covered parking lot, two men used a tire iron to pry open the trunk of a blue Victoria.
Ole reached inside his jacket, but Dex beat him to the draw.
Within seconds, several lit-up police cars skidded into the diner’s lot.
“You should be flattered,” Dex said. “I never spent that much money on a broad. That last job of ours netted us a nice payday. It’s only fitting: you used your half to start a new life, I used mine to take that life away. The players I needed to pull this off didn’t come cheap.”
Ole covered his head in his hands. “Why not just rat me out seven years ago?”
“Because we were partners and, unlike you, that meant something to me. Besides, by the time I found about you and Justine, it was too late to make any deal. I kept tabs, though. Each passing day only meant the knife would twist deeper. I wanted you to love her—so that when she was taken from you—like she was taken from me—you’d know what it felt like to die inside. You’re right, Justine’s a helluva woman.”
Dex slid his gun into his coat as the diner doors yanked back into the cold black winter night. Detective John Pinter, dressed in his trademark brown, lumbered through first, flanked by several officers, hands on their hardware, boots sloshing on the wet tile floor.
The cops jogged ahead and lifted Ole, relieved him of his piece and cuffing him.
“Been a long time,” Pinter said.
“This is a set-up, Pinter! That money ain’t mine!”
“Get him out of here!”
The cops dragged Ole Winesburg away to the din of Miranda and protests.
Pinter took a seat and placed his hat on the table. “You drive three hours in the middle of a snowstorm to warn a guy, and that’s the thanks you get, eh?”
“Desperate men say desperate things—”
Before the last words were out of Dex’s mouth, Pinter had his gun pulled. “OK, slide it over.”
Dex slid his gun, which Pinter tucked safely away as he stood and motioned toward the diner’s doors. “Let’s take a walk.”
Out in the parking lot, the drifts were mounting. Pinter nudged Dex toward the snow-covered truck. Behind them, the diner’s lights switched off. “Open the door.”
The big cop searched the cab floor and behind the seat. Then he walked around the side, clearing the bed. “Where is it?”
“The money that was supposed to be in Ole’s trunk.”
Dex stared blankly.
“You want to do it like that? Fine. They caught one of your boys this afternoon fencing stolen jewelry at the pawn shop. He asked to speak to me. He told me everything. Right now, I’m the only one who knows—and the only one who can help you.”
“I’ve been angling to settle up with that bastard a long time. He steals your wife, you want to pin a rap on him and do my job for me? Great. But I can’t let you keep the money!”
“I don’t have the money.”
Pinter grabbed Dex’s arm. “Can’t you see, I’m trying to give you a break here?”
Dex jerked away. “It’s the truth! That money was put in Ole’s trunk last night.”
“That’s what your boy says, too. But if…”
They looked at each other.
“We ran the plates,” Pinter said. “Give me the keys and get in. It’s just up the way.”
The country roads were slick, and Pinter had to keep the Toyota under twenty to avoid fishtailing into the brambled ditches that lined the sides.
The house stood alone, no neighbors for half a mile, tucked back in the woods at the end of a long driveway in the shadows of tall pines. No lights were on.
Gun pulled, Pinter ran ahead and pushed the front door, which was ajar and fell open. The detective tripped the switch. Dex pushed past him.
Inside played like a Town and Country catalogue, carved wooden ducks and an assortment of earth-toned afghans. Three steps led to a foyer. On a short table, a vase and fruit bowl framed a colorful music box.
Dex made for the music box and held it up. “Honeymoon at the Cape.” He flipped the lid. Inside was an envelope, addressed to Dex in a familiar handwriting. The big man climbed over his shoulder.
I guess I should say thank you. You have no idea how boring it’s been these last few years, stuck in this Podunk town, the wife of a dry cleaner. (Why is it you boys all wait to go straight until after you meet me?) Did you forget about my insomnia? I was having a cigarette on the back porch when your friends returned the car. I peeked out the window and saw them put something in the trunk. I had my suspicions but couldn’t be sure until you called tonight. Lord knows, Ole’s too much of a lump these days to reel in a fish that size. Poor thing turned white as a ghost when he hung up the phone. Oh, Dex, you always did have to do things your own way, didn’t you, baby? If you’re looking to settle up with Ole, no doubt you’ve pulled out all the stops. I hope me taking this money doesn’t screw up your plans too bad. Please don’t be mad. I’ve spent half my life the wife of a criminal, and what did I get out of it? Tupperware and block parties. This is a nice severance package. OK, honey, I have to get a move on. The snow is coming down pretty good and soon the roads out of here will be closed. You take care of yourself and say hi to that nice Detective Pinter for me.
Forever and Always,
The men turned to face the outside cold. So much snow was falling, you couldn’t see five feet in front of you.
“Might as well find a bed,” Pinter said. “We’re not going anywhere tonight. I’ll radio in. If she got out ahead of the storm, she’s got a great head start.”
“Where’s that leave me?”
“Get some sleep, Dex.”
Dex sat down on the top stair and gazed into the night. “I can’t sleep. I work the late shift.”
“I did it all for her.”
“I know you did.”
Dex picked up the letter again and unfolded it. He pored over each word, slowly. He read for a long time until he began to laugh. He laughed so hard he couldn’t stop.
“What’s so funny?”
“I told you,” Dex said, “she’s a helluva woman.”
Joe Clifford is also the author of The Marquis de Sade and Me (Sliver of Stone, Issue One)
His work has appeared in Big Bridge, Bryant Literary Review, the Connecticut Review, Dark Sky, Fringe, Hobart, Opium, Thuglit, and Word Riot, among others. Most recently he served as editor of Gulf Stream magazine, and is currently the producer of Lip Service West, a reading series in Oakland, CA. His published stories can be found at www.joeclifford.com.