Now Mrs. Wainwright stamps in, all in a huff, a bluish tinge around her lips. Scent of cold trails in after her.
“That sumbitch filched my best fur.”
I’m still reeling from my own debacle, Laura, so I pick up the receiver and fake a phone call. Cletus runs interference.
“Need to report a theft, ma’am?”
“Don’t you ma’am me, Cletus Bridgewater. You and me were in the same class at school.”
He winces, rolling a report form into the typewriter. “Say somebody stole your coat?”
Shelly strikes a pose. “You don’t think I’d go around like this in twenty-degree weather? On purpose?”
We both steal a glance. She’s sporting tight Wranglers, a new pair of cowgirl boots, and a turtleneck sweater that hugs her curves. Her Chanel perfume stinks up the station, though I used to love the way it smelled on you, Laura. Shelly’s a beautiful gal, though half my age. You never liked the way I looked at her, nor any other member of the fairer sex.
“Surely, y’all don’t take me for an imbecile?”
Cletus’s eyes saucer. I maintain my phone-talking charade best I can. That old Patsy Cline song “Leavin’ on Your Mind” plays on the radio at low volume.
“Course not,” Cletus says. “No, ma’am.”
Shelly balls her fists and sets her jaw. “Call me that one more time and—”
“Mrs. Wainwright,” says I, striding toward the desk. “What can we do you for?”
On a normal day, Laura, the story Shelly tells us wouldn’t make a whole helluva lotta sense. She was crossing the Kalinkin Creek bridge and some highwayman come up out of nowhere and nabbed, of all things, her fur coat.
“What’d this feller look like?” Cletus asks.
“Pale as death,” she says. “And he had him a great big red beard.”
“Okay,” says I, “what else?” Thing is, Laura, I don’t need to ask.
“You’d call him slight, I guess. And he wadn’t very tall.”
“Cletus clatters away on the typewriter. “Bout how tall, ma’am—uh, Mrs. Wainwright?”
Shelly gives him an icy glare. “No taller’n you, Cletus Bridgewater. And you’re practically a midget.”
“And he took your coat just like that?” I say.
“Sure did,” Shelly says. “Billy give me that fur for Christmas last year. Spent a small fortune on it. He finds out, there’s gonna be hell to pay.”
Cletus scrolls up and reads from the report he’s writing: “This ‘short, slender highwayman with a bushy red beard’—he take anything else?”
Shelly makes a face. “I said slight, not slender. And bushy is your word.”
“Get it right, Deputy,” I say, but it’s all for show. Then I ask Shelly: “Jewelry, handbag, pocketbook?”
“Nope, not a thing. Hard to believe, too.” She twinkles her eyes at me, then shakes her auburn locks. “That SOB dudn’t know what he’s missing. Right, Sheriff?”
When Cletus wraps up his report, we take a ride out to the bridge. I ease the Tahoe onto the shoulder, and we get out to take a look around. Gravel crunches beneath our boots. The sky hangs low and gray. Our breath plumes in the cold. I slip-slide down the embankment on one side, while Cletus struggles to keep his footing on the other. Without saying a word, it’s clear we both expect to find some drifter huddled around a trash barrel fire. But there’s no hobo and no fire. Just busted shards of green glass and some tangled fishing line.
I stare at the creek. The water level’s down, and the cold’s turning it slushy at the edges. Least down here we’re out of that wind, frigid as any I’ve felt. You always hated the winter, Laura. No wonder you lit out for Phoenix.
“So what you reckon?” says I, hands in my pockets, shoulders hunched. My quilted sheriff’s jacket’s too light for this weather, but after what happened this morning, what’s the alternative?
Cletus studies me out of the corner of his eye. “Look at it this way, Sheriff. We got no witnesses, no suspects, and no sign of foul play.”
“You think Shelly’s lying?”
“With all due respect, Sheriff, I think Mrs. Wainwright’s lonely and bored out yonder on Billy Wainwright’s spread. I think the two of y’all got history. I think she’s got her an active imagination and would do near anything to get your attention.”
We stand there for a good long while, breathing the frozen air.
“Wild goose chase, huh?” I say. I know better, Laura, but I gotta play along.
Cletus squints at me, rubbing his chin with a gloved hand. “Fool’s errand, more like.”
I clamp my jaw and shiver. Then we trudge up to the road, climb into the Tahoe, and roll back to the station.
So I try to put the whole thing in my rearview, Laura. Even if I know better, Cletus has a point. I rue the day I ever got tangled up with Mrs. Shelly Wainwright. You might still be here. We could still be living as man and wife.
All the same, calls pour in the rest of the afternoon. Frank Durban got his duster nabbed, and Mary Choat had her favorite leather jacket stolen. How either thought that was adequate coverage for this weather is beyond me. Anyway, that coat mugger keeps himself busy the rest of the day, and we get half a dozen more reports. Everybody describes more or less the same perp I saw: little guy with red hair and beard, now sporting a lady’s full-length fur. Least we know where that come from. Still, this news doesn’t exactly lift the veil on the situation. I mean, there’s only so many coats a man can wear, right?
But then Janie Wilson, who runs Big Country Café, says something that throws us for a loop. “He was short, my height or smaller, but I wouldn’t call him slight.”
“How bout slender?” asks Cletus.
“Thin?” I suggest.
She shifts her weight and knots her arms across her chest. “Did y’all get ahold of a thesaurus or what?”
Cletus and I swap glances.
“Cuz this guy’s built like a fireplug.”
“Big red beard?” I say. “Shock of red hair?”
“He was a Rufus alright,” says Janie, “but you’re missing the point. This guy was stocky.”
“That description dudn’t square with what we’ve been hearing.”
“How many have there been?”
“Ten,” says Cletus, grinning. “And counting.”
I sidle over and refill my mug with coffee. “And everybody’s given us the same description as you.”
“Except the perp’s a beanpole,” Cletus says.
Janie tucks a strand of brown hair behind her ear. “Well, boys, what can I tell you?”
I take a sip from my mug. Snow flurries whirl in the howling wind. The Texas flag on the pole out front pops and cracks. This whole thing’s getting ridiculous.
“If this coat-mugger’s on the loose,” says Janie, “terrorizing our fair berg, how come y’all are holed up in here?”
I blow on my coffee. “It’s not exactly stakeout weather, Janie.”
She rolls her eyes. “Oh, grow a pair, Sheriff.”
“Don’t you be ugly to me, young lady. I’ve known you since you was just a little-bitty kid.”
“Well, Sheriff Do-Nothing, I’m all growed up now.” She sneers. “That was my favorite fringe jacket, and I aim to get it back.”
When we knock off for the day, I drag Cletus over to the saloon for a stiff one. RC’s is all but empty.
“This damn weather,” says RC, sloshing J&B into smudged glasses.
Willie Nelson warbles “Crazy” on the jukebox. Remember how we used to slow-dance to that one, Laura? The town drunk babbles to himself at the far end of the bar. In a corner booth, two old ranchers cuss and discuss over bourbon. I knock back my beverage, then signal RC to fill her up.
“Is it true somebody’s out yonder filching coats?”
I nod. “Fraid so.”
“Seen any carrot-tops lately?” asks Cletus.
“Do what?” says RC.
I chuckle. “The perp’s a redhead.”
RC shakes his head, then singsongs, “I’d rather be dead than red on the head like the—”
“Red beard, too.”
“Some kinda pirate?” RC asks.
I sigh. The town drunk mumbles about forgiveness. The wind makes the street signs shimmy and hum.
“We can’t rightly say what he is,” I say.
“Cept deranged,” Cletus says.
I nip at my whiskey. RC wipes the bar with a suspicious-looking towel. The ranchers in the back shake hands across the table, then stand and hobble to the door.
“Y’all be good,” RC says.
The ranchers wave over their shoulders.
I swallow the rest of my J&B, leaning into the music. “Fool me once, shame on you.”
“Damn straight,” says Cletus.
“Fool me twice—” But I can’t finish it off, Laura. Maybe it’s the booze and the buzz and Willie singing his heart out, I don’t know. You did what you had to do, and I had it coming. But that doesn’t make it any easier.
Couple drinks later, folks file in, windblown, dusted with snow, smelling of winter cold. They’re wearing barn jackets and dusters and sheepskin numbers like the one you give me, Laura. Few of the younger persuasion got them newfangled Gore-Tex jackets. Thirsty patrons belly up to the bar, crowd around the pool table, clog the booths. Near everybody tips their hat and says, “Sheriff.” Blue notes stream from the jukebox. Folks laugh, argue, wax poetic, then laugh some more. Just your average Thursday at RC’s.
Except maybe it ain’t. I’m about to call it a night when big Jethro Thoole swaggers over. He’s a ranch hand built like a Cowboys linebacker.
“Heard you got a situation,” says Jethro.
I wave away the implications. “All under control.”
“Some sumbitch hijacking coats?”
“Investigation’s pending,” Cletus says.
“You got him in custody?”
“Nossir,” says I, a little boozy. “Ain’t seen hide nor hair of him.” That’s a flat-out lie, Laura, but what good has the truth ever done me? When I come clean with you, you up and walked out.
The music swells. A glass breaks. Somebody squeals with laughter.
“Don’t worry so much, Jethro,” I say. “You’ll get a headache.”
My badge is the only reason he doesn’t knock me to the warped wooden floor.
Soon as Jethro lopes back to his buddies, seems like ever last one of the coat mugger’s victims pays me a visit—though truth be told, I lose count pretty quick. They sidle up and lay into me without any small talk. We got a dangerous criminal in our midst, and it looks to them like I might not be taking their suffering serious enough, getting loaded on a school night. What do I have to say for myself?
Soon Janie Wilson makes her presence known. Don’t ask me how long she’s been here or how she managed to slip away from her post during the dinner rush.
“It’s nine in the pm,” Cletus says.
“Hellfire,” I say. You know how time gets away from me, Laura.
“Look who’s resting on his laurels.” Janie fancies herself a thespian, always up to no good over at the repertory theatre. She’s also a dyed-in-the-wool loudmouth.
“Not here, Janie,” says I, slurring.
Cletus gives me a worried look.
“What’s the matter, Sheriff?” Janie says. “Don’t you think every citizen’s got the right to hear what the authorities are doing about criminal activity that’s plaguing this town?”
She’s just showboating, but it works. Somebody kills the jukebox. The whole place goes quiet.
“You was elected.”
“And you can be unelected.”
Hooting and jeering. I give Janie a sour look. She beams back at me, little gleam in her eye.
Now I swivel around on my stool to face her. “Y’all just take her easy,” says I, trying not to slur. “Deputy Bridgewater and me got this case well in hand.”
“Oh-hoh,” says Janie. “Is that so?”
“Three cheers for Sheriff Durite,” says Janie. “Tough on crime.”
I don’t care for her quoting my campaign slogan back at me, Laura, but I don’t have a chance to get ticked off. Janie’s got everybody worked up into a lather, booing and hissing at me. Half-pickled with J&B, I can’t muster any ready comebacks. You know I never was real quick-witted in the first place.
Soon folks start pitching stuff at me: peanut shells, beer nuts, pretzels. Things get out of hand pretty quick. RC doesn’t even ask them to cut it out, just trails a broom and dustpan around the place.
Janie leans in and says, “Believe that’s your cue, Sheriff.”
I hate to admit it, Laura, but she’s got a point. I slide off my stool and stride to the door, or try to. The whiskey’s got the better of me tonight, so I stagger thisaway and stumble thataway. Laughter rings in my ears.
RC meets me at the door, broom in hand. “Maybe Cletus oughta drive.”
Not a bad idea, only he hasn’t budged. Matter of fact, he’s got his back to me, chatting up the sprightly blonde on the stool next to him. It’s all a charade, Laura, but I catch his drift. I nod at RC and say, “Ay-dios.”
I aim the Tahoe toward home, but that’s not where I wind up. Gravel crunches beneath my boots as I slide out into the breeze. Though I’m numbed up pretty good from the booze, it’s still colder than the hair on a polar bear’s ass. I click on my Maglite, and that white beam pushes back a column of night. The brightness jounces as I work my way down the embankment. Except for the trickle of the slushy creek, all’s quiet.
The frigid air makes my lungs ache, so where the slope flattens out, I stop to catch my breath. I sense his presence before my light makes his acquaintance. He sits in the dirt with his legs tucked up underneath him, leaning back against the bridge’s undergirding. He’s draped in Shelly’s fur, and her Chanel stinks up the night. Parts of his face ain’t covered in fur look ghostly pale. Eyes closed, bearded chin tucked into his chest, he appears to be sleeping. Forget slight or slender. Janie was right: he’s a stocky SOB.
I beam my flash at him until he opens his eyes. He shields himself from the light with his hand and says:
“Is there problem?” His accent’s thick as the first time.
I shift the light onto the wall over his left shoulder. “What the hell, Goggle?”
He corrects my pronunciation.
“What’re you doing with the coats, Google?”
He corrects me again.
“I don’t give a good goddamn if your name’s Gargoyle. You chapped a lotta hides round here.”
The Rufus chuckles into his beard. “You come for arrest? Or vengeance maybe?”
I shift my weight, struggling to decode his message. “Hell’s wrong with you? Who steals coats, for godsakes?”
“What I can say?” Goggle shrugs. “Am cold.”
“Don’t give me that. Everybody in this fair county’s freezing their ass off on account of somebody we both know took their coats.”
Now he pops to his feet like it’s nothing. “Look, Cowboy, I show.”
Soon as he reaches to unbutton Shelly’s fur, I got my Glock aimed and cocked. How do I know what he’s got under there? Could be a gun or a bomb. Could be anything. But when he pulls open the mink, I get it. There’s a barn jacket, and when he unbuttons that, a duster. Under the duster, I think I spot my sheepskin. No wonder he’s so stocky.
“Is long story, Cowboy.”
“Okay, let’s go,” I say. “You can tell me at the station.” I step forward and reach for his arm, only I never hit paydirt. I blink and study my empty hand. Either I’m drunker than I realized, or this perp ain’t near as corporeal as I’d given him credit for.
Goggle doesn’t move, face a rictus in the white glare.
“Where’d you say you’re from?”
“Very cold place.”
“Mother Russia, huh?”
He shakes his head once. “Much colder, Cowboy.”
I chew on that for a minute, wondering if RC slipped something into my whiskey. None of this makes a licka sense.
“Go now,” says Goggle. “Am very tired.”
I aim my Glock again, though I’m not sure I’d hit anything if I pulled the trigger. “Not without my sheepskin. You got it on under there, couple-three layers deep.”
Goggle snickers. “Or else what? You maybe shoot?”
“That’s the idea,” says I. My jaw feels stiff with cold.
“Why is so important?”
“Do I need to remind you it’s colder than a penguin’s pecker?”
I wait. The creek trickles. In the distance a hound bays.
After a spell, he looks up at me. “Is cold, da. Why you not stay inside by fire?”
I spit into the icy creek water. My fingers feel stiff. My arms ache from aiming the Glock. “Call it a matter of principle.”
His eyes brighten, though he says nothing.
“I told you before,” says I. “That coat was a present.”
Goggle gives me an ugly grin. “From lady friend, yes?”
“Yes, goddamnit, from my lady—” It hits me as the words come out: “From my wife.” I don’t say ex, Laura. You never filed papers, so maybe it’s not just me who’s still got hope.
His grin blossoms. His teeth are stained and snaggled. “Lucky dog,” he says, holding my sheepskin coat in an outstretched hand.
“How did you—?”
But he shakes his head. “Take, Cowboy.”
I have to holster my pistol, but what good’s it doing me? Goggle helps me into my overcoat. As I button it up, there’s no warmth in it. I give him a sympathetic glance. “Appreciate it, bud.”
He has Shelly’s fur buttoned up to his chin, hands stuffed into the pockets. I click off the flashlight, and we stand there in the dark, listening to the night. All at once, I’m warm and sober.
“About them other coats,” says I.
“Nyet,” he says. “Do not press luck.”
“I can’t go back empty-handed, Goggle.” But I already know better, Laura. I’m just going through the motions.
He shakes his head. “You go on, Cowboy.”
I chuckle. “Okay, Goggle, catch you on down the trail.”
He grins again. “You never catch, Cowboy.”
I tip my hat. Then, without looking back, I climb up the embankment and lope over to the Tahoe. I fire it up and crank the heat, sitting there rubbing my hands for the couple minutes it takes for the truck to warm up. Slats clatter as I creep over the bridge. When I get to the other side, I click on my blinker, though no one else is out on the road to see it. Then I make the right turn, pointing my vehicle west. Toward Phoenix, Laura.
J.T. Townley has published in Harvard Review, The Kenyon Review, The Threepenny Review, and many other magazines and journals. His stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize (three times) and the Best of the Net Award. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia and an MPhil in English from the University of Oxford, and he teaches fiction writing at Pacific Northwest College of Art at Willamette University. To learn more, visit jttownley.com.
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