By Dave Creek
Oh, please God, Helen Morrell thought as she heard the siren of the Kentucky State Trooper's cruiser begin to wail behind them on Interstate 65, don’t let Joey do anything stupid. She glanced at the speedometer: 84 in a 70 mph zone. Right now the worst that can happen is a speeding ticket.
She glanced at her husband, whose hands gripped the steering wheel with a quiet fury and whose features revealed a grim determination. "Pull over," she told him.
The siren seemed to grow more insistent as the cruiser drew closer. A glance back, and Helen got a good look at the trooper's face and she knew every second Joey didn't pull over, the more likely this whole encounter was to turn out bad; more likely that the trooper would get out of the cruiser with his holster unclipped, with his hand on his Glock, more likely to cast a curious eye at them and the interior of their car.
And Joey still wasn't pulling over. "Joey, don't tell me — you're not holding, are you?"
As if that broke a spell, Joey began to pull over to the emergency lane. "Of course not, darlin'," he said. "That trip isn't till later."
"You better be telling the truth."
The car's right-hand wheels made a crunching sound against gravel at the edge of the emergency lane as their car came to a stop. They were in a rural area; corn fields seemed to stretch to the horizon on either side of the interstate. The siren made a final descending whoop and the cruiser stopped a couple of car lengths behind them.
"Keep your hands on the wheel until he asks for your license, Joey."
"I'll put my hands where I want, honey. This ain't no Gestapo state yet." But Helen noticed Joey's hands didn't budge from the wheel.
Nor did the trooper budge from his cruiser. "What's he doing?" Helen wondered.
Joey said, "Checking our license. They always do that. Don't worry. It's not like the car's stolen or anything."
"He'll know your record, Joey."
"He'll know I've been clean for eleven years. Quit your worrying."
Finally the cruiser's door opened and the trooper got out. After a quick glance at oncoming traffic behind him, he didn't take his eyes off Joey and Helen's car. And sure enough, Helen thought, there's that hand right on his pistol.
Thankfully, it wasn't until the officer leaned over and tapped on the driver's side window that Joey hit the control to lower it. "Good morning, officer," he said in a voice Helen found altogether too cloying. "What seems to be the problem?"
From her vantage point in the passenger seat, Helen could only see the lower half of the officer's face; it seemed clean-shaven and square-jawed enough for a recruiting poster. In contrast, she realized Joey must look like a bum. His t-shirt sported gravy stains — the only time Joey put on a shirt with a collar was to work the room at their diner — and his graying hair was disheveled. The officer asked, "Do you know how fast you were going, sir?"
"I guess faster than I thought, officer. Just in a hurry to get home from the grocery."
Helen focused on that hand resting on the Glock, enough that most of the exchange between the trooper and her husband went unheard. Then the trooper pulled out a pad, wrote on it, and made Joey sign for the ticket. As he handed it back to the officer, Joey said, "You've given me such professional service, I'd like a business card, officer."
Oh, no, Joey, just let the man leave.
Even seeing only the lower half of the trooper's face, Helen could tell the request perturbed him. Helen thought, If Joey's going to pull something, this is the moment, when the trooper takes his hand off the Glock to pull out a card.
The trooper's right hand continued to rest lightly on his weapon, however, as he pulled a card out of his shirt pocket with his left hand. Joey flashed a smarmy smile. "Thanks, Officer — " He looked down at the card. "Ralph Weston!" Helen knew this trick, too. She snatched the card from Joey's hand before he could tear up the card in the trooper's face. She slid it into a front pocket of her jeans.
The trooper went back to his cruiser. Joey put his window back up, checked his mirror, and pulled slowly out onto I-65 again. "God damn that trooper!" he said. That ticket will be over two hundred dollars with court costs!"
"You shouldn't speed."
"Another precinct heard from."
"Are you going to speed on your way to tonight's drug deal?"
"It's just dope. You know the diner hardly makes enough to get by."
"You're seeing that Stu Tippett, aren't you? How's he even afford what you're selling?"
"You smoked enough of it in your day. At least I'm not dealing meth."
Helen turned her gaze away from her husband and toward the rolling corn fields that rushed past at a comfortable 67 mph. "You're right, Joey. You're a saint because you're not dealing meth."
* * *
As Joey pulled into their garage, Helen still studiously avoided his gaze, and tried not to listen to his continuing rants about cops and how they were all out to get him.
She got out of the car and strode to its rear as she waited for Joey to pop the trunk. Her lips pressed together as she watched him fumbling with his seat belt and taking his damn time getting the keys from the ignition. She wanted to pound on the trunk to get him to hurry, but knew that would only make things worse.
Finally, he thumbed the button on the remote and the trunk lid gave a dull thunk and opened just a couple of inches. Helen lifted the lid and started snatching up plastic grocery bags laden with meat, fresh veggies, trash bags, toilet paper — all the practical needs of their house, which was attached to the rear of their diner.
Actually, his diner. Joey's Diner was more than a name, it was a legal fact — he'd never allowed Helen to sign on as a co-owner, saying he didn't want to put that kind of responsibility on her. More like he wants to keep me in my place, she thought as she headed to the back door of their house.
Helen and Joey didn't speak as they went through the familiar routine of putting away the food and household goods. Helen found herself listening to the muffled sounds of sizzling burgers, clunking pans, and raised voices from the diner's kitchen, just beyond their living room.
Even on days she wasn't working, those sounds were a constant presence, a constant irritant. It pays our bills, Helen conceded to herself. That and selling dope. But not enough to get us a house separate from the diner.
As she placed a final head of lettuce into the refrigerator's crisper, Helen kept her voice as even as she could as she asked, "So what time is your other…appointment?"
Joey went to her and grasped her arm with a surprising tenderness. "Don't worry, baby. I've got a big payoff just ahead, a sure thing, and things will be different."
"You'll just waste it on that big game system and HD TV you want."
"That's postponed," Joey said, heading into the living room and plopping down on the couch. "I've got better things to spend the money on."
Helen settled into a chair across from him. "Like what? The sprinkler system in the diner?" Joey had collected nine thousand dollars of insurance money during the winter to repair some frozen pipes in the diner. Instead, Joey had fixed the damage himself, no doubt poorly, and reneged on his promise to her to use the money to fix their broken sprinkler system.
"That's a waste of money. I make everyone be really careful in there. No one's gonna let a fire get out of control."
A sharp, sustained sound of metal clashing against metal punctuated Joey's words and made Helen wince. "You were saying?"
"They drop stuff, Helen! It's not the same as a fire. That sprinkler money is going to better things."
"It was nine thousand dollars — where's it going?"
"Just don't worry yourself. We'll be fine." Joey rose from the couch and opened the door to the short hallway that led to the diner's kitchen. As the opposite door closed, he could hear Joey's booming voice adding to the cacophony within.
* * *
Helen fell into bed early, still clothed, admitting she just wanted this day to be over. Joey's gotten better, Helen thought. But he still wasn't good enough. Sometimes she wondered why she'd stayed with him through a string of arrests for drug deals and petty thefts starting fifteen years earlier.
She was tired of dealing with him, tired of his empty promises, of him skirting the edge of legality. He even cheats some of his dope clients, she thought, either "shorting" them on product or convincing them it was such good "shit" that it was worth paying a premium. Good thing there ain't a one of them very smart, she thought.
At least he ain't hit me in years. I reminded him that if he ever hit me again, he still had to sleep sometime. Then his balls would be mine.
I think he found some respect for me then, she thought, and drifted off to sleep...
* * *
…And awakened abruptly with Joey shaking her shoulders. Helen tried to push him off her, but he was telling her, "Get up! We've got to get out of here!"
That's when Helen smelled the smoke. "Oh, no, not —"
"Yes, the restaurant's on fire. Com'on!"
"We've got to grab some things — "
Joey tugged on her arm. "No, we don't — come on!"
As they rushed out the rear of their home, Helen saw a crimson glow washing over Joey's back. She turned, and her heart dropped at the sight of the flames dancing into dark skies. The wind shifted the smoke around toward them and Helen covered her mouth as she coughed. Sirens screamed from several blocks away, growing louder.
Joey opened his arms toward her. She stepped into them and they embraced. He said quietly, his mouth against her ear, "I could never stand to lose you, baby. Never."
* * *
The first faint glow signaling dawn faded into Helen's awareness as she stood watching the firefighters put out hot spots in the rubble of Joey's Diner. The fire had gotten such a head start on the small volunteer department that they'd only managed to contain the fire, not keep it from destroying the building. A few wooden beams stuck up from the wreckage, their silhouette against the red skies to the east looking like the ribs of a skeleton.
Joey had fetched a blanket for her somewhere and in the morning chill she shrugged her shoulders to pull it tighter around herself. At least they saved the house, she thought as she watched county sheriff's officers putting up the yellow crime scene tape around the site.
All the neighbors who had gathered around to gawk at their misfortune were gone now, no doubt sleeping soundly in their nice safe beds. Hardly a one had actually come up to her to profess sympathy or ask what they could do for her.
She started as a hand clamped down on her shoulder. Joey. "Sorry if I scared ya, babe. I talked to Stu Tippett. He'll put us up for a few days, until we can get back in the house."
"What's left of it."
"The living room's got some smoke damage. That's about it."
"But the diner's gone."
"We'll rebuild. Better than ever."
"How will we pay for it?"
"You let me worry about that."
Right, Helen thought. As if I won't be worrying enough for both of us. "How long until we can come back?"
"The arson investigation could take a day or so, they said."
"Arson? What makes them think — "
"Don't worry, honey. That's standard. Besides, the county's got one arson investigator, name of Glenn Raines, and I hear he doesn't know a match from a milkshake."
"He lives just down the street, doesn't he? I hope he's not one of your customers."
"Only a couple of times at the restaurant, dearie. He'll call it an accident within a day, and be done with it."
"With your record, you'll have to be under suspicion."
"How many times do I hafta tell ya, darlin'? My clean record of eleven years." He took her hand and looked her in the eyes, exhibiting an affection she hadn't seen in too long a time.
* * *
Helen found that Stu Tippett wasn't the low-life she'd expected, though his home was sparsely furnished and, if messy, at least not dirty.
A tall, slender, bearded man in his mid-thirties, Stu was an EMT with the county. As he showed Helen and Joey the spare bedroom where they could stay, he wouldn't look Helen in the eye at first. Helen was unpacking a small suitcase when Joey went into the hall bathroom to wash up. It was only then that Stu told her, in a small voice, "I hope you don't think bad of me because I use your husband's…services."
Helen paused in her unpacking. "That's…not for me to say."
"I'm divorced. Work a high-stress job. It relaxes me."
Helen found herself smiling. "I have no reason to be holier-than-thou. I appreciate you taking us in."
"Joey was telling me about the arson investigation. It really is routine."
"And Glenn Raines is an idiot. It's too bad. If he was smarter, he could advance up the ranks and make more money. He wants to send his son to trade school. But he can't afford it."
"That's too bad. I can't believe someone that incompetent even gets to keep the job he has."
"He knows people. There's a lot of corruption in this county. So they don't fire him, even though he could find a trail of gasoline leading to an empty gas can and rule the fire accidental."
"So when it really is accidental…"
"If it is, you shouldn't have a problem."
As Stu excused himself and left, Helen couldn't help thinking, I said "when." He said "if." What does Stu know that I don't? Could he have set the fire?
* * *
Joey shook Helen awake, and she immediately flashed back to the night of the fire. She sat up in panic, then realized she was in Stu's spare bedroom. Joey told her, "It's OK. Glenn Raines is here."
Helen rubbed her face to wipe away the final vestiges of sleep. "The…arson guy?"
"I think he's got good news. He came right here to see us even though he usually works nights."
"Lemme get some decent clothes on and we'll go see."
As Helen dressed, she noticed the time — ten in the morning. Stu would already have gone to work. Sure enough, when she went out to the living room, only Joey and Raines were there, sitting in a couple of Stu's ragged chairs across from one another.
Raines was a round-faced man in his mid-thirties, prematurely balding. His handshake as he rose to greet her was perfunctory. "I have good news for you, Mrs. Morrell. I've ruled the fire in your diner an accident."
Helen cast her previous worries aside and embraced Joey. "Oh, that's great! But what caused it?"
Raines spread his hands and tilted his head as if to say it didn't matter. "Probably something electrical. But definitely not an arson."
Joey told Helen, "Which is great news for us — we can collect on our insurance — three million dollars!"
Helen almost gasped, and pressed her lips together before they could form the phrase "big payoff." Instead, she asked Raines, "When can we go back into the house?"
"Any time. It's not exactly by the book to let you back in — the part of the diner backed up against the living room isn't that stable. But as long as you stay out of the front part of the house, you should be fine."
"I don't care how unstable any of it is. I just want to be back in our house."
Joey said, "Then let's go, baby!"
* * *
Helen and Joey packed their stuff, left Stu a note thanking them for taking them in, and piled into their car and headed home. They hadn't been back there since the morning of the fire, and Helen's heart ached as she and Joey pulled up to the charred and collapsed remnants of the diner. The crime scene tape was gone, but Joey had paid to have a chain link fence raised around the remnants of the diner. "Can't have just anybody walking around in there," he said.
As Helen got out of the car, she recalled all the hard work that had gone into building a customer base from scratch — the long hours, the wrangling for good deals with food vendors and delivery services, Joey in back hectoring his young and inexperienced workers, her carrying heavy trays of food out to customers alternately grateful and demanding.
As she stood there, Joey put an arm around her shoulders. "It'll be all right soon, babe."
"If this insurance deal comes through…"
"When, babe. It's a sure thing."
"Yeah. We'll make a bigger place — state-of-the-art kitchen, nicer seats for the customers, everything we always wanted. And a separate house, so we can live without hearing pans dropping and people yelling."
"Helen, when that deal comes through, we can sit and rock on our new front porch and tell everyone who passes by to go straight to hell."
Helen grinned. "That's a heck of a goal in life."
"It's the only one, baby. I know I haven't always been the best husband. I'm here to make it up to you." Joey slipped his arm from her shoulders and walked toward the back of the structure, the mostly undamaged part that was still, for now, their home.
Everything's going to change, Helen thought. The question is, how, and — is it something we deserve?
* * *
The next morning, Joey took the car downtown, saying it was to talk to a lawyer about their insurance settlement, to see if the process could be sped up. This was the first Helen had heard of this unnamed lawyer, and she suspected he was actually meeting up with a drug customer. Any money he comes back with, he'll say it's an "advance" on our settlement. But I know better.
And I think Stu had something to do with this. Which means I need to talk to Glenn Raines, and see if he knows more than he's letting on.
Raines lived just down the street from her and Joey, and Helen remembered he usually worked nights. But a resurgent fear made Helen hesitate at the front door of Raines' unassuming home; if you'd asked her why she came here, she would've attributed it to a whim, perhaps, or wanting to make sure that Joey really had changed, that they would be able to enjoy their upcoming insurance settlement with a clear conscience.
In for a little, in for a lot, she thought, and rang the doorbell. She waited a long moment, and was undecided whether to ring the bell again or try to knock really loud when she heard movement just beyond the front door. An instant later it opened, tentatively, and a teenager looking to be about seventeen or eighteen, presumably Bobby Raines, stood before Helen. He didn't say anything.
Helen pushed on. "Hi. Is your dad home?"
"He's at work."
"Oh. I thought he worked nights."
"Usually. But someone got sick."
"Well…heck. Maybe I'll try back later."
"OK," the teen said, and, perhaps remembering a procedure he'd skipped, asked Helen, "Who should I say called?"
"Helen Morrell. I'm — "
"You're Mr. Morrell's wife!"
"Yes, I — "
"Do you wanna com'on in? Can I give you a glass of tea or something?"
"No, really, I — "
"Hey, I just wanted to thank you and Mr. Morrell."
Helen had to pause a moment before asking, "Thank us?"
"For the money so I can go to trade school. He's supposed to give us the next installment soon." Then Bobby slapped his hand across his mouth. "Oops! That was supposed to be a secret, wasn't it?"
Helen fought through rising fury to keep her voice even and calm as she told Bobby, "Don't worry about it. That'll be our secret."
* * *
Helen managed to hold things together until she walked home, then went into the bedroom and pounded out her frustrations against a mound of pillows as tears flowed freely down her cheeks. Installments, she thought. It wasn't Stu who was involved at all, it was Glenn. And he didn't set the fire — he covered it up. The nine thousand dollars went to him. And no doubt he's getting part of our three million.
Which means Joey set fire to our own diner. Risked losing our home, as well. And he managed to get me out of the house, but what if he'd miscalculated?
Exhausted, Helen let herself drop face-down onto the bed. After a few moments, tears dried up, she rose from the bed and started searching the laundry basket for the jeans she'd worn the day she and Joey had been pulled over for speeding.
* * *
Helen was amazed at the quick response to her phone call. By the time Joey returned, crime scene tape was being put up again, not by sheriff's deputies, but by state troopers. Joey skidded the car to a stop and got out, slamming the door and heading straight for Helen. "What the hell is going on here?" he demanded, and started to reach for Helen's arm.
A uniformed arm came between them. The trooper asked Joey, "Remember me, Mr. Morrell?"
Joey sputtered and took a step back. "Wait a minute — you're — "
"Officer Ralph Weston. I gave you my card."
"I paid that ticket. What the hell does — "
"This isn't about the ticket, sir. This is about the diner. I obtained a court order allowing us to look into allegations of improprieties involving this property — and an insurance claim."
Helen watched as Joey managed to set aside his anger and appear to become reasonable. "Really, Officer Weston, this has already been investigated."
"We're talking to Glenn Raines about the nature of his investigation. It appears he's cooperating."
"But he didn't find anything!"
"Our own arson investigators should be here within a day or two. We'll see if they find something he…overlooked." Helen felt a pang of regret for Bobby Raines, who would lose his dad for however many years Glenn was sentenced to prison. She consoled herself with Officer Weston's assurances that the teen would get to keep the money Joey provided for his education, since it hadn't come from an illegal source.
Joey turned toward Helen. "If I go to jail, you're going, too! We were in this diner together, you know."
"Actually, Joey, I wasn't. Everything's in your name, remember? Any payoff went to you alone."
"What are you going to do? We had a sure thing, here."
Helen looked Joey in the eye. "I guess I'll have to get a job, won't I? Shouldn't be hard, with all my experience in the diner business. And my clean record."
Officer Weston said, "Time to move along now, Mr. Morrell. We'd like to take you to the post to answer some questions." Weston gave Helen a two-fingered salute to the brim of his hat and took Joey by the arm.
As Officer Weston marched Joey toward his cruiser, he stopped and turned to Helen again. "Oh, Mrs. Weston, as you can imagine, we'll need to you come in at some point and make a detailed statement."
Helen nodded to Weston, then looked at Joey with a wistfulness for what might have been if he'd been a different man.
"Sure thing," she said.
Dave Creek’s previously published work has been science fiction; including the short story collection, A GLIMPSE OF SPLENDOR and a novel, SOME DISTANT SHORE. Another collection, THE HUMAN EQUATIONS, was just released. He has sold 20 stories to ANALOG SCIENCE FICTION, but the author is also enamored of crime fiction.
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