Don’t go anywhere, the deputy had said, but as Baldwin dressed he decided that the deputy meant in the general sense of “don’t leave town.” A city-limits sort of proscription, which suited Baldwin fine, since he badly needed some food on his stomach. He walked down to the dive where he’d eaten the night before, took the same stool in front of the same barkeep, and ordered a Lone Star and a roast beef sandwich, as he’d done the night before. Twin Wells, A Friendly Place. Sure, where gun-waving psychics served up chocolate gravy and officers of the law fondled their fellow man’s nipple.

“Weren’t you in last night?” asked the barkeep.

“That’s right.”

“Left with Joe Newby?”

Baldwin sighed. “’Fraid so.”

The skinny barkeep eyed Baldwin a moment longer, then laughed to himself. “You don’t know, do you?” he asked. Baldwin took a swallow of beer and resigned himself to the worst. “Alex Johnson got shot in his house a couple hours ago, shot dead. They’re thinking Sally’s dead too, out in the woods somewhere. They just took Joe Newby up to the jail for it.” The barkeep coughed. “Word is they’re looking to bring another man in.”

Baldwin ate fast. He’d gotten the sandwich halfway down when two deputies entered the bar, the smaller, slighter one well-known to Baldwin by now—the nightstick poker, the nipple grabber—backed up by a hulking colleague with a low brow line. “Thought I told you to stay put!” Deputy Nipple cried in an ominously genial voice. Baldwin shrugged and pointed to his plate.

“I guess I got hungry.”

“And I guess you just got done!” the deputy chortled. They hustled Baldwin into the caged backseat of a patrol car and drove him over to the county sheriff’s compound, several low-slung buildings in the strip-mall style that were, hours after news of the murder had broken, buzzing with TV crews from San Angelo and Midland, at least four kinds of cops, official-looking civilians, and local crime groupies. Belly was sitting on a bench in the first suite of offices; Newby’s boy was snugged up close to her, with the SpongeBob doll clutched tight to his chest. Belly gave Baldwin a look, but neither of them spoke. Then there were more offices and more cops, then a small, windowless room somewhere deep in the building, bare except for a table and a couple of metal chairs. Deputy Hulk backed Baldwin into one of the chairs, and at a nod from Nipple he rattled Baldwin’s jaw with a couple of sharp jabs. “Just so you know,” said Deputy Nipple, leaning into Baldwin’s face, “you belong to me now. Your ass is mine.”

They didn’t hit him again, but the next four hours were grim enough, the way Nipple and a couple of the senior deputies grilled him to exhaustion. Where’d you go with Newby? Where’d y’all get the crank? And where’d you two sick perverts dump Sally Johnson’s body? When he asked to see a lawyer, they just laughed at him. Deputy Nipple was always there, standing too close, laughing too loud, but the times they left him alone, those were the worst, the dead stretches of fifteen or twenty minutes when he’d sit under the humming fluorescent light wondering if a man could simply vanish off the earth. If there was ever a place such a thing could happen, this was it, and he doubted anyone would come looking for him. Would Katherine even remember where he’d said he was? Not that she’d have much reason to seek him out—money, maybe, and there was little enough of that. Then he thought of his son, the small boy already so hardened to life that he could dismiss his father with two stoic words, That’s all. Not even any anger in the boy’s voice, that’s how scant a mark Baldwin had made. So if you got out of here, he asked himself, would you go about your life any different? Had you learned anything? Were you smarter, wiser? Could you go back to your people and make it right?

You could try, he thought. You could be a man and try; become a man in the trying. Then the door opened and the cops filed in, and for the first time that night the sheriff himself was sitting across from Baldwin. He was trim, clean-cut, youthful—early thirties, Baldwin guessed. He looked more like a big-city businessman than anybody’s notion of a Texas sheriff.

“Davey,” the sheriff said quietly, “go get Mr. Baldwin a cup of coffee.”

Deputy Nipple left to fetch the coffee. Hulk and one of the senior deputies remained, standing a few feet behind the sheriff, who regarded Baldwin with absolutely empty eyes.

“You charging me with anything?” Baldwin asked.

“We’ll see,” the sheriff answered, taking his time. “Right now your only alibi is a mentally challenged boy who also happens to be the son of a prime suspect, so I’d say that option is definitely on the table.”

Deputy Nipple returned with the coffee. Everyone watched Baldwin take a couple of sips, his first nourishment since he’d arrived all those hours ago. The sheriff ran him through the drill again, Baldwin’s version of yesterday evening’s events recited backward, forward, inside out. Then he sat back in his chair and eyed Baldwin a while.

“Tell me this,” he said finally. “You wouldn’t happen to know anything about some jewelry, now would you? Our information is some emeralds went missing from the house.”

Baldwin would never understand why he answered as he did. Perhaps it was as simple as the fact that he didn’t like cops. Or that he was royally pissed at the treatment he’d gotten from these particular cops. Or was it just that he’d finally gotten a bellyful of Twin Wells?

“Nope,” said Baldwin, summoning up his blankest look. “I wouldn’t know anything about any emeralds at all.”

Next month:

Chapter Eight, by Jill Patterson, in which Baldwin visits Newby’s discount store and makes a startling discovery.