by James L. Ross
Art by Robyn Hyzy
In the narrow hall between the police department and the town offices, Roy Bigelow chafed his winter-raw hands.
“Well, Roy, are you going to go look for my husband?” Patsy Crile demanded. Her voice was high, and it blended with the wind’s shrilling just outside the door. Patsy prompted: “Elijah could be dead under a snowbank for all you care!”
She stomped a few feet farther into the police office, tracking snow, peeking at desks, hoping that somebody might be on duty besides Roy.
“Three hours Elijah’s been gone,” she said. Her chin came up, round like a pink boxing glove. Back where the cells were, somebody bellowed, but she paid no attention. The town had three full-time drunks, at least one of whom was always sleeping or making noise in a cell. Patsy’s husband Elijah wouldn’t be back there; he was a seasonal drinker, from mid-November until the last frost, which might be in April. Fifteen years ago, he had been a two-term mayor, which bought him some slack from Roy and the other cops.
Patsy wasn’t worried. She knew that Elijah was down at the Yard Arm, pacing himself. But going to fetch him would mean marching four blocks into snow driving straight into her eyes. Coming over to bother Roy meant walking a hundred feet across the road from the motel the Criles ran.
“Be embarrassing for you,” Patsy said, arching a penciled eyebrow, “if Elijah freezes to death because you’re too lazy to get your boots wet.”
“I’ll check on him,” Roy promised.
“Probably only so’s you can get yourself a drink,” she sniffed, and headed for the door.
Roy didn’t bother to see whether she made it over the mounded snow that separated the sidewalk from the road. He walked into the rear of the station, back to the cells, to look at his prisoner. The man wasn’t one of the village drunks. Even in a cell, this man scared Roy.
Tiny Toomey, big and bald, was mean even when someone bigger was around. One handcuff held him to a horizontal bar that ran beside the toilet, so he could relieve himself if he stretched. The other cuff held his left wrist to his ankle. That raised the question of how he was going to get his pants down. Roy thought about it and decided he didn’t care. He tested the cell door. It was locked.
“You’re a dead man,” the prisoner said.
Even money he’s right, Roy thought.
He went out into the hall and locked the heavy wooden door that connected the cell area to the police office. He put the keys in his pocket.
Roy tapped his home number, and Brenda answered on the first ring. She didn’t sound aggrieved, and she didn’t—just tonight—remind him that he was weak, impotent, and never made a big score. But she was jumpy. Roy wondered with a moment’s pleasure if she was worried about him. Then his wife told him, “Nellie hasn’t come in.” Nellie was her black Scottie, a child substitute that if need be, Brenda had hinted, could become a husband substitute.
“She likes the snow,” he reminded her. “You got the doors locked?”
“Yes, and the outside light’s on. I’m on the computer.” Brenda was good on the computer, especially spreadsheet apps. She knew where every dime he earned went.
She was also good at hacking. “I don’t think Toomey’s money is in a bank,” she said. “I can’t find it.”
Two hundred fifty thousand, in round numbers, was Brenda’s guess. She’d looked at the Boston deal, which was too complicated for Roy, guessed at the commission the locals would get. A town sells bonds, adds an interest-rate swap, the swap generates fees for the investment bankers, the bankers reward a couple of good local citizens. Mad money, Brenda called it, like extra bills folded in the back of your wallet. Money without a tax bill was the way Roy thought of it, like the occasional hundred he’d collected in Boston from bars that had a poker machine in back. No different, except bigger.
“If it isn’t in a bank,” Brenda said, “it’s squirreled away somewhere else. Maybe in cash. If you find me that, puddin’, I’ll love you forever.”
“Long as the money lasts.” She laughed like a kid instead of a fat, middle-aged woman and hung up.
That could be a while, Roy thought.
The coastal line bus came five minutes later, and by then Roy had his parka on over his down vest, had his thick wool scarf doubled over his Adam’s apple, had his quilted gloves on as he stepped outside into new snow that was already six or seven inches deep, high and fluffy on top of the frozen chest-high reefs along the curbs that had been there since November. More of it coming sideways, whipping against the windshield of the bus. As the bus door swung open, Roy looked in at the driver, who stared dead ahead, hypnotized by the whak-whak of the wipers. Then two passengers blocked his view coming down the steps, moving gingerly on ice imbedded in the rubber treads.
A woman he didn’t recognize was first off. She was round as a medicine ball, though that might have been layers of sweaters and coats. With not much more than her eyes and a wisp of hair visible beneath a knit hat, she stomped toward the residential neighborhoods across Haverhill Road.
Archie Windlass, the retired insurance guy, was slower coming down, cane probing ahead of him.
The driver started to close the door.
“Hold it,” Roy said. The door stopped halfway and stayed there. Roy pushed it aside, climbed two steps. “Turn on the lights,” he said.
As the driver switched on the ceiling lights, Roy looked down the narrow interior. Three faces had lifted, all near the front, expressions empty, hiding things—you could never tell what, but it would be nothing worth caring about tonight.
“I count three,” Roy said. “You got anyone else on board?”
“Tall guy, beard?”
Roy shifted his eyes to the back rows. The windows were iced. The heat didn’t reach back there. It would be like riding in a coffin. You wouldn’t be able to see anything except your breath.
“He got off a quarter mile back,” the driver said. “Told me he’d freeze if I made him walk back all that way.”
“You recognize him?”
“He’s not a regular. Said he lived back there.”
“Thanks,” Roy said. He got off the bus, putting his feet into the holes his boots had made along the roadside, as the driver closed the door. The bus crept away on a carpet of exhaust. A half block away, Archie Windlass was a shadow hobbling toward his rooming house.
Roy looked back the other way.
Quarter mile, the driver had said. That was where the guy had gotten off. It would take time to hike this far. And a stranger wouldn’t just come into town, knock on a door, and shoot a policeman. He would want to scope things out first, get into position.
Roy went back into the town building, called for Henry, the janitor, who was carrying rolls of toilet paper toward the selectmen’s office. Bundles of toilet paper about summed up Roy’s view of the six selectmen who ran the village. Needed help to . . . Henry couldn’t be more than twenty-five, but he had the shrunken face of a middle-aged man. Every night his routine was the same: clean the town offices till eleven, then come over to the police side of the building, spend an hour emptying wastebaskets and wiping desks, ignoring the bathroom until the chief got on his case. Roy didn’t want the young man here tonight. Clapping Henry on the shoulder, Roy said, “Snow’s coming bad, Henry. You go home to your mom while you still can.”
“Yes, sir, Sergeant.”
“You can shovel tomorrow.”
Henry nodded in short, small jabs. “Yes, sir.”
Henry got his jacket, and Roy let him out, watched him struggle across the road. Fifty feet and Roy couldn’t see him, couldn’t hear him. Roy listened anyway. No distant tires whirring. No neon buzzing. The town was shut down. The wind had let up a little, and Roy could hear the mutter of snow piling up.
He closed the door.
Now both sides of the town building were empty, except for him.
And the man in the cell. . . .
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"The Freezer" Copyright © 2013 James L. Ross with permission of the author. All rights reserved.
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