Baldwin hated guys who swung around phallic symbols to feel manly. At least he’d be at the police station soon. He felt safer there, knowing that someone behind the mirrored window listened and watched. It was better than hiding behind this tinted glass with nothing but cold, empty streets outside.

They got to a four-way stop, where the sheriff put the car in neutral and idled. Finally, a police car with Nipple and Hulk stopped across the street. The sheriff did a funky hand signal, and the deputies nodded. Then they drove away.

“Where’re they going?” Baldwin asked. He didn’t like Nipple and Hulk, but he found himself wanting them around.

Instead of answering, the sheriff shifted into drive. They passed the diner and the Lone Star Motel. Baldwin looked longingly after his most recent place to crash. He wouldn’t mind a nap or maybe another beer and roast beef sandwich. Right now, even those rock-hard pastries sounded good. He remembered a break room with vending machines at the police station. They were almost there now—nearly at the parking lot—but instead of turning in, the sheriff drove on by.

“Hey,” Baldwin said. “You missed your stop.”

“This situation’s personal,” the sheriff said. “And sometimes personal situations need another kind of law.”

B westerns flashed through Baldwin’s mind—vigilante justice, executions in the middle of nowhere, getting buried up to the neck while the vultures waited for the sun to roast your face. He’d heard they ate the eyes first.

“I can’t be gone long,” Baldwin said. “I’ve got to meet someone.”

“You mean Carla? Don’t think she’ll be showing up.”

Baldwin realized Nipple and Hulk were headed toward the Monkey Barrel. They meant to pick up Carla. He could feel it. The sheriff passed the city limits sign, and Baldwin watched Twin Wells disappear. Going into the desert with a man who carried a gun and thought you’d messed with his sister was not a good idea.

“I don’t know where your sister is,” Baldwin cried, “and I didn’t kill Alex!”

“Well, you’re off the hook on that one,” the sheriff said. “Ballistics came back on the gun. Newby’s .357 was a match, and since he had motive, opportunity, and a whole mess of fingerprints on the weapon, he’s being charged with the murder as we speak. Plus, your alibi checked out.”

“It did?” Baldwin felt pleasantly surprised.

“Newby’s son said you were in the trailer when the Bowflex infomercial came on, which was right about the time Alex got killed. That boy can’t tell time or have a normal conversation, but he can repeat everything he’s seen on TV. He’s a freak of nature, I’m telling you.”

Baldwin sighed with relief. The sheriff must have heard, because he glanced up at the rearview. Just over thirty, Baldwin thought, and already the cold-hearted eyes of someone who’d spent decades with scumbags.

“The kid’s too dumb to lie,” the sheriff said. “But I could still discredit him if you don’t help me find what I’m looking for.”

“You mean your sister?” Baldwin asked.

“Sure, my sister. But there’s the matter of the missing stone too.”

Suddenly Baldwin remembered . . . Newby’s boy, the infomercial, Carla, and the stone. He was at the trailer that night, but the imagery was all mixed up—a young man and woman sweated as they worked out on the Bowflex machine, while Carla hitched up her skirt to “work out” with Baldwin. Then the phone rang and Carla scrambled off the couch to answer. She said, “Where’s Sally now?” and “You fool!” and “Did you get the stone?” Or maybe it was “Did you get stoned?” He couldn’t be sure. Next thing he recalled was Carla lightly slapping him, telling him to wake up, saying, “If anybody asks, I was here. Here all night, okay?”

“Sure, whatever you say, Corrine.”

“It’s Carla!”

“Yeah, right. Connie, Carla, it’s all the same thing.”

Baldwin couldn’t say where Sally was, but he did remember the stone. He’d lied before, but maybe telling the truth would set him free. Isn’t that what they said at church?

“I saw the emerald, okay? I admit it.”

“Really?” The sheriff seemed amused.

“It’s at Belly’s house. Newby was showing it off. Then he took me to Belly’s, kidnapped me. They wanted me to do something, but I escaped before I could find out what it was.”

A Dairy Queen whizzed by and then the sign for Odessa. He and the sheriff were on the highway now, the light drizzle starting to freeze along the shoulder of the road. Soon it’d be freezing on the highway too.

“We let Belly go,” the sheriff said. “And we followed her. She went straight to the emerald. Thing is, Newby’s stone was a fake. I checked it out myself.” The sheriff nodded toward the lanyard with the jeweler’s loupe.

Baldwin wondered, since when did authenticating gems become part of the small-town-sheriff repertoire?

“Then I can’t help you,” Baldwin said. “I’ve told you everything I know.”

“I don’t want information, son. I want the contents of your safety-deposit box.”

“But I don’t have a safety-deposit box.”

“Sure you do.”

The sheriff handed Baldwin a stack of papers, the ones with Baldwin’s signature. One was for the traveler’s checks he’d gotten a few days before, the other was an application for some apartment, and the third was for a safety-deposit box in Odessa. Then he saw a Texas driver’s license with his ID number, name, birth date, height, and eye color. Everything looked correct—except for the photo of Alexander Johnson III.

“What the . . .?”

“Didn’t anybody ever tell you to read the small print before you sign?”

Baldwin remembered that day at the bank, how Alex wanted to photocopy his license. The policies and forms seemed weird at the time, but not weird enough to make him think twice before signing.

“Okay,” he said. “So apparently I have a safety-deposit box. I don’t know what’s in it. I don’t need to know. You’re the sheriff. Just drop me off and get a search warrant or something.”

The sheriff shook his head. “No can do. This is the Meidan-i-Noor emerald, son, the ‘Field of Light.’ We’re not talking about something you can buy at Sears. We’re not even talking about something you can auction at Christie’s.”

“You mean black-market stuff?”

“And Alex had a buyer,” the sheriff went on. “But then my sis opened her big mouth and got Newby involved.”

So that’s what the sheriff meant by personal, Baldwin realized. The sister’s disappearance was one part, but the bigger part was getting his hands on this stone and cashing it in for an early retirement.

“And after I give you the stuff in the box?” Baldwin asked. “You’ll let me go?”

The sheriff cleared his throat. “We’ll talk about it.”

Baldwin knew better. This guy didn’t play fair. I’ll never see Katherine and my boy again, he thought, remembering the B westerns, the vultures, and his eyes as hors d’oeuvres.

Next month

Chapter Eleven, by Stephen Graham Jones, in which shots are fired.