Twin Wells

Chapter Twelve: The box.

December 2008By Comments

Illustration by Mark Summers

Clay Baldwin had seen dead people before, but never had he seen one come back to life, much less two. Sitting in the sheriff’s cruiser in front of the Odessa bank, staring at a pistol in the hand of supposedly dead Sally Johnson, he wondered if he was still immersed in a drunken nightmare.

She said, “We’re going into that bank cheerful as two newlyweds and see what’s in that safety box of yours.” The threat in her turkey-tracked eyes did not suggest a happy honeymoon. She put the pistol in her purse but left the top open so she could reach it in a second. “You’ve got the key. I know Carla slipped it to you.” Her hand was inside the purse as they walked into the bank. Toward the rear, he saw a vault with a huge round door and a lock that would befit Fort Knox. An unsmiling attendant had Baldwin sign a card and show his driver’s license. Taking the key, he led Baldwin and Sally to a bank of small steel doors, each with a double lock. Baldwin’s key fitted one, the attendant’s key the other. The attendant left the pair alone. Baldwin slid the box out and set it on a small table.

He said, “You open it. You seem to know more about this than I do.”

Hands trembling, Sally lifted the hinged lid.

The box was as empty as Al Capone’s vault.

Sally froze in disappointment. Baldwin took advantage of the moment to grab her purse. Before she could react, he’d shoved the pistol into his pocket. He also removed a set of car keys, which he hoped were from the sheriff’s cruiser.

For a moment he considered his next move. He was miles from Twin Wells, with plenty of reasons not to go back. He could probably walk into a production company office here in Odessa and get a job as a roustabout in the Permian oil fields. On the other hand, his car was back there. And though the people he had been suspected of murdering had both turned up alive, the long arm of the law might still reach out and grab him on general principle.

He took Sally outside and held the cruiser’s rear door open. “Get in,” he said. “This time I’ll do the driving.” When she hesitated, he gave her a rude shove. “I’ve been accused of murder, but I’ve never been accused of bein’ a gentleman.”

He was glad the sheriff’s cruiser had started out with a full tank of gasoline. He didn’t have much money left in his pocket. He watched Sally’s sullen fortysomething face through the rearview mirror. He was aware that though she was married to banker Johnson, she had maintained an affair with Joe Newby and God knew how many others. He might have considered her pretty had he not looked at her over the muzzle of that pistol. Newby had not seen her from that aspect.

Or maybe he had. Maybe she had killed him. That damned emerald seemed to have twisted the minds of everybody involved with it.

In Twin Wells he drove up to the sheriff’s office. “Stay here,” he told Sally. She could do nothing else, since the rear doors were locked. Inside the station, he found Nipple and Hulk. They stared blankly at him. Between them, they had half the intelligence of a rambouillet sheep. He said, “I’ve got somebody outside that I want you all to see.”

They followed him out and stared through the window at Sally. Looking disappointed, Nipple finally said, “We was all set to send you to the chair for killin’ her.”

Baldwin said, “Where’s the sheriff? I want him to see her too. He’s already seen her husband.”

Hulk said, “That might not come too easy. Sheriff’s dead. Him and Alex Johnson shot one another. Least, that’s the best we could figure when we found them layin’ out yonder alongside the road.”

Baldwin watched the two free Sally from the cruiser. He suspected she’d had a hand in shooting her husband. She’d shown no curiosity about the gunfire at the roadside. But only forensics could prove her complicity, and these deputies wouldn’t know forensics from artificial insemination. Hulk asked, “Do you know anything we ought to charge her with?”

Baldwin wanted only to wash his hands of the whole fiasco. “I don’t know of a damned thing,” he said. “Did Joe Newby ever turn up?”

Nipple said, “Oh, sure. We got him locked up in jail. Found him wanderin’ the streets dead drunk, mumblin’ a lot of nonsense about killin’ Alex Johnson. Looks like the sheriff beat him to it.”

“Looks like. Can I see Joe?”

“You can take him home. They got your car fixed finally.”

Newby was badly hungover. He stumbled out of his cell on a crying jag, clinging to Baldwin and begging, “I got to see about that poor little orphan boy of mine. No tellin’ what my goofy sister has done with him.”

They found Baldwin’s car parked behind the garage. The mechanic extended a greasy hand and said, “It runs like a top.” Baldwin doubted that very much, but he was glad to get it back. It was his ticket out of town. The old car was running rough, but it was running. He stopped at Belly’s place and helped Newby into the house. The boy stood in the middle of the living room, hugging his SpongeBob. Belly came padding out from the kitchen in a green kimono emblazed with fire-breathing dragons. She wore enough lipstick to paint a barn. “Where the hell you been, Joe? Don’t you know this boy is hungry? Been tryin’ to feed him my chocolate gravy, but he throws it up.”

Newby hugged his son furiously. When he released him, the boy showed him a slit in the toy’s square belly. “SpongeBob got a tummy ache,” he said.

“Carla done that,” Belly said, scratching her scalp. She had dyed her hair red. “I couldn’t tell what the hell she was blabberin’ about.”

Newby slumped into an overstuffed chair. “That fake emerald,” he said. “I hid it in the doll. She’s got a surprise comin’ when she tries to sell it.”

“You had the real one?” Baldwin asked.

“I cashed it in a long time ago. Had a paste one made to stall off Alex Johnson.”

“What did Johnson have to do with it?”

“It came to him in the first place. Some deal with a couple Eye-talians. Alex knew I had connections, so he wanted me to sell it for him. I sold it all right, but for me, not him. I kept holdin’ him off, tellin’ him the rock was too hot to sell.”

“The stone’s been gone all along. So the killin’s have been for nothin’?”

“Not all of them. With Alex dead, Sally Johnson is free to marry me.”

Baldwin didn’t know whether to cuss a blue streak or bust his knuckles on Newby’s whiskery chin. Good thing it was up to someone else to bring him to justice. Or perhaps the inhabitants of Twin Wells did not deserve justice. Some things had to be left to heaven. “Congratulations,” Baldwin said. “You deserve each other.”

Newby offered him a drink to celebrate, but Baldwin had drunk too much with him already. He said, “I got to see a man about a job.” The old car sputtered and started up. On his way out of town, Baldwin passed a sign that said, “You Are Leaving Twin Wells, a Friendly Place. Come Back Soon.” He thought, “Not if I can help it.”

Then he saw the most beautiful sight he had beheld in days: Twin Wells in his rearview mirror.


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