God-fearing, law-abiding southern boy, the Helen chief wasn’t letting on.
He stood and started pacing again.
Sock, shoe. Sock, shoe.
Tick tick tick.
If the Helen chief of police wasn’t making phone calls, was he trying to build a case? By law, he only had forty-eight hours to hold a suspect before he had to charge him or let him go. The weekend was basically here. The courts would be closed for two days, maybe more if the storm turned bad. He should’ve been allowed a phone call, but in the last ten hours no one had been around to ask for that privilege. Today was almost a year that the cops who were accused of beating Rodney King had been acquitted of all crimes. If the Helen chief of police moved him to the county lockup, his life would be worth less than a pound of dog shit.
“Well, hello there, handsome.”
A tall, willowy black woman in a tailored police uniform entered the holding area. She held a tray with grits, a biscuit, some eggs, bacon, and, because there was still a God in heaven, a large cup of coffee.
“You must be the underwear murderer.”
He tried to smile the smile that usually won over women. “I never killed a pair of underwear in my life.”
She chuckled as she placed the tray on the ledge by his cell. Her eyes traced the outline of his boxers. “You an Auburn fan?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He crossed his arms over his chest. He knew a football fan when he saw one. “Played for two years.”
“Is that right?” She started going through the keys on her belt. “What position?”
“Halfback,” he said. “Like O.J., but without the athleticism or promising future.”
She chuckled again, which he took as a good sign. “I can see you running through an airport with a briefcase.”
She had found the key.
He watched the cell door swing open. The smell of sweet freedom put some warmth back into his body, even though she stood there with the tray in her hands, blocking the exit.
“You look like the kind of guy who would end up on the cover of SEC Monthly.”
“Actually, I was on the cover of SEC Monthly.”
“Roll Tide, asshole.”
She dropped the tray on the floor.
The coffee exploded, much like his ego.
The cell door clanged shut.
He resisted the urge to fall to his knees and slurp the coffee off the dirty concrete. Instead, he sat back down on the metal bed. The cold didn’t seep so much as drill into his bones. Whatever was happening to the weather outside wasn’t good. He could practically feel the temperature dropping by the second.
The woman sat down at the desk.
She opened a drawer, took out a nameplate, and slapped it onto the desktop.
Sergeant A. Fuller.
She reached around and turned on the computer, then the giant monitor. A loud whir temporarily overwhelmed the ticking of the clock as the computer booted up. He rubbed his hands together. He was freezing, but he was also sweating. He thought of all the things he could say to Sergeant A. Fuller. I’m a cop, too, bitch. Has your chief called the sheriff I told him to call? Why am I in a holding cell? With what crime am I being charged? I demand to speak to a lawyer.
Go fucking War Eagles.
He reached down and grabbed the biscuit off the tray. Hard as a brick. Cold as his left foot. He shoved some frozen eggs and congealing bacon inside.
The phone rang.
A. Fuller picked up the receiver.
“Yes.” Then another, “Yes.” Her gaze slid toward him as she gave a throaty, “Uh-huh.”
She stood up from her desk and picked up the phone base, stretching the cord across the room to the cell.
She held out the receiver a few inches from the bars.
Jeffrey pressed his palms to his knees and pushed himself up. He shoe-socked his way over to the front of the cell and reached out for the receiver. She pulled it just slightly out of his grasp before letting him take it.
He cleared his throat before saying, “This is Jeffrey Tolliver.”
Hoss said, “Hey, Slick.”
He could’ve wept. “Hello, sir.”
“You had enough time to contemplate your many transgressions?”
He gripped the phone as he listened to Hoss chuckle. Obviously, the Helen chief of police had called the Sylacauga sheriff and they’d worked out a ten-hour penalty in the box.
“You told them to keep me locked up?”
“Aw, now, don’t let your pride get in the way. I figger I did you a favor considering you was caught wet, hungover, and standing over a dead woman with a brick of coke and some illegal guns.”
“That woman had a name.”
“You remembering their names now?” Hoss paused, and he could practically see the old man frowning down the line. “Tell me, Slick. Ain’t you gettin’ a little old for this kind of behavior?”
“The thought had occurred to me earlier in the day.”
“Nothin’ wrong with settlin’ down.” Hoss sounded disappointed, which was far worse than him sounding angry. “ ‘Course, what’ll happen is, you’ll meet some knockout gal, much smarter than you—which ain’t hard—and you’ll fall head over heels until you get her pinned down, then your eye will start wandering again and you’ll fuck it all up.” Hoss stopped to cough, which is what forty years of smoking cigars made you do. “On the plus side, she’ll be a good excuse not to settle down with every other girl who comes after her. The one that got away. Your little redheaded girl, to put it into Charlie Brown parlance.”
He leaned his head back against the bars. “I get the lesson, Hoss. Are you gonna let me out of here or not?”
“Chief Eustace DuPree is the man’s name. Nice fella. Worked three murder cases in his thirty-two-year career, all of them domestics, which means he arrested the husband and that was that.”
“Will he take my help?”
“Last I heard the DEA was sending some boys down from Cleveland to give DuPree a hand, but you know nobody likes that kind of help.”
DEA meant federal. They wouldn’t want help any more than the locals. Still, he lowered his voice. “There’s a few things I can follow up on.”
“Just try not to get arrested again.”
He heard the phone click as Hoss hung up. For Sergeant A. Fuller’s sake, he said, “I appreciate your confidence in me, sir. Thank you.” He handed the phone back through the bars, but A. Fuller was already sitting at her desk.
She nodded to the phone base.
“Hang it up yourself, Slick. The door’s not locked.”
Jeffrey tentatively pushed at the cell door. It swung open. He shoe-socked to the desk and hung up the phone. “Did you find those two guys in the blue truck?”
“Did you find the black guy from the hotel?”
“You mean Homey D. Clown? Yeah, they got him locked up in the other jail.”
Jeffrey ignored the sarcasm and looked down at his shoes so she couldn’t see the hate in his eyes. “Does the chief want to talk to me?”
“I’d say that falls under the headline of ‘When Hell Freezes Over.’ ”
“I want to help.”
“I’m sure you do, Auburn, but we got it covered.” A. Fuller pulled a large brown paper evidence bag from a drawer. She took out his left shoe and offered it to Jeffrey. He put it on. She handed him a sock. He took off his right shoe and donned the sock. She handed him his jeans.
He grabbed them, slid off his shoes, slipped on the jeans, then shoved his feet back into his sneakers.
“No wallet?” he asked. “Pager? Keys? ChapStick?”
She dug around in the bag, a blank expression on her face. Just when he was about to give up, she tossed him his keys.
“You’re free to go, Mr. Tolliver.”
He should’ve let it slide, but he couldn’t. “Detective Tolliver. Good thing I didn’t bring my Sugar Bowl ring on this trip to your beautiful town.”
“You mean from back when you tied with Syracuse?” She snorted. “Weren’t we the only team that beat you that year?”
“I don’t remember seeing you on the bench, Sergeant.”
She rested her hand on the butt of her gun. “I can put your ass back in that cell and nobody’ll think to look for you till Monday.”
He let it go and walked into what turned out to be an empty squad room. Two desks, each with a phone and stacks of papers. He guessed the nice leather chair belonged to the chief, and the Kmart special lowered about an inch from the ground belonged to Paulson. The kid wouldn’t be able to stick his knees under the desk otherwise.
He gave the front door one push and it was immediately snatched out of his hand by a strong gust of wind. His T-shirt rattled against his chest. He squinted his eyes against the stinging wind. Of course the trek back to the hotel was straight into the wind tunnel. The gust came down off the mountains like a scythe. He jammed his hands into his jeans pockets, bent his knees, and forced himself forward.
His first stop was not at the Schussel Mountain Lodge but at the trash can on the sidewalk outside the building. He had seen the Mustang stop here for a second, and sure enough, Nora had taken the opportunity to dump his wallet. What a break it was still there. His cash and cards were gone, but Nora had left his driver’s license and his key card to his hotel room. Next, he headed downwind to his Mustang. He unlocked the trunk, holding his breath until he found his badge and spare gun in the wheel well. He stuck the badge in his back pocket. The gun went into the waist of his jeans.
He felt whole again.
The lobby desk inside the Schussel was unmanned. Instead of waiting for the elevator, he used the stairs. His room was on the second floor, which happened to overlook the alleyway between the Schussel and the Linderhof. Once inside he pushed open the window overlooking the alley, his teeth chattering before he even had a chance to look down. The Mustang was two stories below, abandoned but for the police tape warning people away.
He saw flecks of white floating in front of his eyes. He blinked, thinking his brain was so tired it was throwing up hallucinations, but no—he really was seeing snow. In March. In Georgia. It was falling steady like you saw in movies, thick white flakes that looked like they had no intention of stopping.
He closed the window and rifled through his suitcase until he found some clean, nonnovelty underwear. He slipped on a new T-shirt and a flannel button-down that he almost hadn’t packed because he was afraid the weather would be too warm. He stepped into the bathroom and brushed his teeth. Then washed his face, combed his hair, and looked at himself in the mirror.
His reflection in the mirror revealed a man who appeared even more hungover than he had this morning.
Hoss’s earlier admonishments rang in his ears, but there was nothing he could do about changing his entire life right now. He left his room and took the steps down two at a time. When he opened the door to the lobby he found the front desk occupied by a teenager sporting a Chia-like goatee and a V-neck T-shirt that showed the top of a tattoo that probably read Damn Skippy.
The kid was reading Catcher in the Rye, because it wasn’t disaffected enough to have a tattoo and a goatee. He looked up as Jeffrey approached. “You’re the underwear guy.”
He let the comment slide. “Where’s the woman who was working here this morning?”
“Corinna?” The kid laid down his book. “At the funeral home. Nora was her daughter.”
He scratched his chin. He’d forgotten to shave. “Did you know Nora?”
A derisive noise came out of the back of the kid’s nose. “Not like you did.”
He leaned over the desk.
Like a switch being hit, his hangover evaporated and his cop brain took over. The kid seemed to get that things were different now. He cowered away, quickly understanding that Jeffrey was ready to punch him in the throat if he didn’t start talking.
“Nora was two years ahead of me in school, but I knew her.”
He felt the color drain out of his face. The kid looked around fifteen. “How old was she?”
He allowed some air out of his lungs. “Did she do this a lot?”
“What do you mean?”
The kid scratched at his hairless chest peeking out of the V-neck. A vein throbbed in his pimpled forehead. His visible fear heightened Jeffrey’s aggression. He leaned farther across the counter and turned on the dead in his eyes.
“What I mean, you stupid piece of shit, is that they were working a scam. Corrina gets the signal from the bartender that he’s got a live one. She sends in Nora. Nora gets the mark drunk, takes him up to an empty room, and pours more liquor down his throat until he passes out. Then she robs him, steals his car, and he wakes up the next morning thinking his only option is to lie to cops about how his car got stolen and get the hell out of town before his wife finds out he cheated on her.”
“Don’t sound like you passed out.”
“Lucky for me,” Jeffrey said, uneasy with his role in the situation. “Do the local cops know what you’re running here?”
“No, sir.” He held up his hands. “And I got no part in it. I promise on a stack of bibles.”
He knew that was a lie, but didn’t care. He glanced around the lobby. “Where did those missionaries go? I didn’t see their bus in the parking lot.”
“Left this morning before the storm came in. They had a long way to go.”
At least he hadn’t said Cleveland.
Jeffrey let his eyes travel around the empty lobby. Crappy leather couch. Overstuffed chairs. Card table by the door. A sign read COFFEE BAR but the urn was upside down and there were no cups, the same as it had been this morning.
He asked the kid, “Did Chief DuPree interview you?”
“Yeah. I told him I ain’t seen nothing. I work the day shift. I was just pulling up when Corinna got the news about Nora.”
“You were pulling up in your truck?”
“I wish. Drove in my mama’s Camry this morning. My motorcycle’s in the shop, which is fine by me ’cause the whole witch is cold today. You know what I mean?”
“Do you know anybody who drives a blue Ford pickup? Late model?”
He kept scratching his chest, like his brain was in there and could feel the stimulation. “Coupl’a three boys I went to school with. My grandpappy. Pastor Davis. Mrs. Fields who owns the—”
“Where does Nora live?”
“With Corinna up the mountain. And her brother, Double. It’s a fur piece, right up near the falls.”
“Yep, just take Millar Road before you get to the falls. They’re the second trailer on the right, got an American flag outside—but, lookit, mister.” The kid lowered his voice as if inviting him into a confidence. “I wouldn’t mess with Double. He’s the kinda guy who’s always looking for trouble. Worse than his daddy, even, and his daddy’s doing hard time down in Valdosta for a triple murder.” He gave Jeffrey a knowing look. “That’s where ‘Double’ comes from, on account of compared to his daddy, he’s double trouble.”
He knew the sort, and he wasn’t scared. “Does Double drive an old blue Ford truck?”
“Black one. Brand-new.”
That sounded a little too nice for a kid named Double. “He deal drugs?”
The kid balked.
“I’m from Alabama, buddy. You can snort your fucking way to the state line and I won’t give a shit.”
The kid started nodding. “Yeah, he’s a dealer.”
“Big fish or a little fish?”
MatchUp by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on40 votes