Firewall

Sheriff Ernie Fishbone surveyed the skeletal remains of the burnt-out pre-fab residence at 321 Pantaloon Street. His long-time friend and fire marshal, Ted Branaghan, slouched by his side chewing gum like his gnathic health depended on it.

“Straight arson, bud. Gas on the front porch; naked flame; poomph.” Ted shifted his weight from one boot to the other and readjusted his calloused hands low on his hips.

“Inside?” asked Ernie.

“Nothin’ unusual.”

Ernie sighed. Arson was the act of cowards. He recalled a case in his junior days when a young boy was killed at the hands of a teenage pyromaniac, and Ernie was so deeply affected that he was ordered to attend counseling sessions for three months. He was relieved the family at 321 Pantaloon was not at home at the time of the attack.

“. . . at the game then? Ernie? You okay, bud?” Ted’s gruff voice shook Ernie back to the present.

“Right, thanks, Ted. Yeah, I’ll see you at the game, wouldn’t miss it.” The two friends shook hands and Ted marched back to his Chevy with the same determined style he used to chew gum.

Ernie surveyed the quiet street from his spot on the sidewalk, cracked and warped with neglect. Number 319 appeared lifeless; no open doors or windows, and no car in the driveway. He turned his attention to 323 and saw an old lady hovering in what was pretending to be a garden to the right of the front steps. The woman threw a furtive glance in Ernie’s direction and continued to poke and prod with a rusty garden fork at non-existent vegetation in lumpy earth.

Ernie smiled wryly under his hat. “Morning ma’am,” he called as he strolled over to the woman. She slowly raised herself to her full five feet two inches, one bird-like hand on her back and the other pushing round-lensed glasses up her nose as she turned to appraise him.

“Good morning, Sherriff,” she replied, her voice surprisingly strong.

“Did you see the fire last night, ma’am?”

“Yes. I called the fire department, young man. Your records will show a call from a Mrs. Mead—that would be me—at about 11PM,” she said.

Ernie inwardly chuckled at being called a young man. He made a mental note to tell his wife of thirty-one years and his twenty-six-year-old daughter. “Did you notice anything unusual in the street before the fire? A strange car? A person you’d never seen before? That sort of thing?”

“Yes, I did. I saw a very nice car drive past here two days ago. It was black and very clean and shiny—not like any of the junk heaps you see around these parts.”

“Big car, like an SUV?”

“No no, nothing like that,” said the woman with a dismissive flutter of her bony fingers. “It was more like a sports car but not quite as sleek as those flashy ones you see on TV. I’m sorry, I really didn’t see it until it was a fair way up the street, so I didn’t get a good look.”

“Okay. And what about your neighbors who lost their house? Do you know them very well?” Ernie lifted his hat to mop his brow.

“The Combos?” The woman fell silent and glanced at the burnt-out house as if it might provide her with inspiration on how to answer.

“Marnie works a lot so I seldom see her nowadays, but she’s quite a lovely woman. I’m not sure what she sees in that husband of hers though.”

“You don’t get on with Mr. Combo?”

“Oh, it’s just that he treats his family so badly. That poor boy of his got an ear full the other day just because he’s taken a shine to a girl of mixed blood. Disgraceful!”

Ernie scratched behind his ear and regarded a dirty speck on the toe of his boot. “Is that it, Mrs. Mead?”

“And then there’s — I shouldn’t really say, but — well, I noticed Mick letting a woman into their house one night recently.  I knew Marnie and the boys were away for the weekend and . . .” An awkward laugh escaped Mrs. Mead’s rumpled mouth as she focused on smoothing non-existent wrinkles from her polyester pants.

“Do you think he’s having an affair?” asked Ernie.

The woman stood up straight and inhaled pride. “Well, yes, actually I do,” she said. “There, I’ve said it now, and only because I hope the information will help you with your investigation, Sheriff. Do you understand?”

“Of course, ma’am, and believe me, you’ve been of considerable help.” Ernie tipped his hat and took his leave before he could further explore Mrs. Mead’s capacity for gossip. He slipped into his truck with a smile.

***

Ernie flung off his hat as he stepped into his air-conditioned office and wondered if the summers were getting hotter or if age was bearing down on him. He decided to blame it on climate change, and he eased himself into his desk chair.

Deputy Doug Philpott skipped into Ernie’s office, the lad’s brown puppy-eyes aglow. “I’m getting married,” he said, smiling so hard he could barely contain the teeth in his mouth. Ernie was not surprised. Doug gushed about his high-school sweetheart, Kimmy, constantly.

“Well, that’s fantastic,” said Ernie rising and slapping his deputy on the back. He allowed a moment of celebration before filling Doug in on the details relating to 321 Pantaloon Street. “You ask more neighbors about the car seen by Mrs. Mead; I’ll interview the victims.”

***

Ernie climbed out of his truck and put on his hat, his hair still damp with sweat from the morning’s outing.

Mick Combo stood on his sister-in-law’s front porch and watched him. The wiry man with a face like an eagle flicked a cigarette stub onto the grass and leaned against a supporting beam that seemed reluctant to support.

“My name’s Sheriff Ernie Fishbone. I’m investigating the fire deliberately lit at your house last night, Mr. Combo,” said Ernie. His tone was casual, but he regarded Combo with intense scrutiny. He noted the position of the man’s body and hands, and registered the mild reaction that flashed in Combo’s muddy eyes.

After a moments silence, Ernie said, “You don’t seem too surprised, Mr. Combo.”

“It’s a rough neighborhood. Kids get bored and stuff, ya know?”

“Unfortunately, yes, I do know,” said Ernie. “Nevertheless, I need to ask you a few questions just in case the bored kids were off-duty last night. Can we go inside?”

The two men moved inside the distinctly feminine house and sat in floral armchairs adorned with mismatched cushions.

“Shoot,” said Combo. He slouched back in his chair, one leg resting by the ankle on the opposite knee and his big, soft hands intertwined at the back of his head.

“Can you think of anyone who may wish harm to you or your family?” Ernie watched Combo’s dark eyes flicker around the room, and he waited for the lie that was about to come.

“Mmm, nope—can’t think of anyone.”

Ernie waited, but Combo continued to avoid eye contact.

“You and your wife were very lucky to be out last night. Where exactly were you both?”

Combo leaned forward and glared at Ernie. “What the hell are you trying to say, Sheriff?”

Ernie was surprised by the extreme reaction from a man who appeared so laid back. “Calm down, Mr. Combo. I’m just trying to find out what happened – that’s my job.”

Combo seemed to weigh the statement in his mind before replying, and he settled back into the chair. “I was playing poker with a couple of the lads, and Marnie took the boys to watch that new James Bond flick. They got home first, saw the house up in flames, firies and neighbors everywhere, and they called my cell.”

“And what time was that?”

“She got home ‘bout eleven thirty, I guess.”

“That’s pretty late for a school night isn’t it? Your boys are how old?”

Combo’s eyes narrowed and Ernie sensed the man was close to exploding a second time. With visible effort to control himself, Combo answered, “Matt’s twelve, Kevin’s fourteen and yeah, I guess it’s a bit late for them, but they’ve been pretty helpful lately with Marnie working long hours and stuff, so we thought we’d treat them. You know, give ‘em a bit of a break.”

“Break from . . .?”

“Well, you know. Times have been a bit tough lately. I was laid off about a month ago and haven’t been able to get anything that pays anywhere near what my last job did. Can you believe that? I’m in I.T. and can’t get a proper job,” said Combo falling back into relaxed mode.

“Must be hard in a small town like this one.”

“Yeah, especially when I specialize in hardware maintenance—limits the internet options, eh? I’ve suggested moving to the city, but Marnie’s family’s nearby and her job’s going good.” Combo study his runners as if they were a new breed of insect.

“New shoes?” said Ernie half as a statement and half as a question. “They’re Equalons aren’t they?”

Combo assented with a barely audible, two-note hum in his throat.

“They’re not exactly cheap. Treating yourself as well?” asked Ernie.

“Running clears my head. It’s important to have good shoes,” said Combo. “What exactly do my shoes have to do with some idiot trying to burn my damn house down?” The fire in his eyes flashed again like a cobra ready to strike.

“Agree completely,” said Ernie as he stood to leave. “Could you tell Mrs. Combo that I’d like to speak with her over the next couple of days? Here’s my card.” Ernie curled his lips in a forced smile.

“Yeah, sure, I’ll let her know.” Combo held the front door open.

“And, oh,” said Ernie over his shoulder, “should you think of anyone who may have been even remotely involved in this, whether to scare you, or ah, try to kill you—” Ernie paused for effect. “—you be sure to let me know, won’t you. Any time?”

“Yeah, I’ll do that, Sheriff. Thanks for dropping by,” replied Combo, seemingly unperturbed by the insinuation that his life may have been in danger.

***

Ernie sipped his double espresso as he watched the tall, thin woman in a dark business skirt and lilac blouse stride into the café. She spotted the sheriff immediately, introduced herself with professional precision, and slid into the opposite chair.

Marnie Combo touched the small, diamond stud in her ear and spoke quickly. “Mick told me it was arson. My God, who would do such a thing?”

“Perhaps you could help answer that question?”

Marnie’s straight, dark hair framed the striking face and big eyes. “I—er—wouldn’t have a clue.”

“Are you and your husband having financial difficulties, Mrs. Combo?”

“Mick borrowed some money. He expected to have a job by now, of course, so our payments are a little behind. He’s a bit embarrassed by our predicament. . . .” Marnie contemplated the glass of water that she nursed between manicured hands.

“Are the two of you under pressure to pay your debts?”

“I don’t think so. With the extra hours I’m working, they’ll get their money soon enough. I’m sure Mick has arranged something with them. It’s fine.” Marnie shot an unexpected smile across the table.

“Could you give me details of the lenders, please? I’d like to check them out,” said Ernie.

“Of course.” Marnie extracted stationery from her handbag and scribbled names and numbers on a slip of paper like she was relating her own familiar details.

“How are your two boys handling things, by the way?” Ernie was genuinely concerned.

“It’s a hard time for them, I know. I think Kevin’s got girl problems at school.” Marnie smiled sadly. “I so wish I could be there for them.” She handed the note to Ernie. “Now I really must run, Sheriff. Thank you for looking into this. Arson is such a terrible crime, don’t you think?” She was on her feet and heading for the door before Ernie could respond. He sighed and ordered another espresso.

***

Deputy Philpott, clearly intoxicated with his blessed life, bounced into Ernie’s office. “Nothing on the car, boss. Checked out the insurance angle too and nothing jumped out as suspicious except at how low their coverage was. Might be trailersville for the poor souls if they don’t knock off a rich relative sometime soon. ”

Ernie looked at him disapprovingly, drawing a sheepish apology.

“Hmm, there’s something not quite right here. The Combos were pretty blasé about the whole thing when I interviewed them. I can’t help but think they’re trying to hide something.”

“Could the loan-sharks be on their tail? Wouldn’t be the first time a dodgy lender has tried to burn a house down as a threat.” Ernie looked at the inexperienced deputy with raised eyebrows. “Hey, I watch the news, I know it happens,” said Doug with a wounded expression.

“Here’re the details of the lending company. Check them out.” Ernie handed Doug the paper show-casing Marnie Combos elegant handwriting.

“So what about the affair thing? Angry mistress, angry husband, perhaps?” asked Doug.

Ernie was impressed by the lad’s maturity and nodded thoughtfully.

“Perhaps Combo couldn’t get it up the other night and the woman got cheesed off?” added Doug.

Ernie threw him another look of exasperation.

“Could happen, couldn’t it?” pleaded the deputy.

Ernie grudgingly admitted, “Yes, there is no wrath like a woman scorned, as they say.” As much as he would have liked to trust Deputy Philpott’s professional discretion, Ernie decided to follow-up on this precarious lead himself.

“Let’s go and have a friendly chat with the Combo boys, Dougie. You can compare dirty jokes or whatever it is you youngsters do nowadays.” Ernie knew that he shouldn’t encourage the lad, but the goofy grin he received in response was worth it.

***

“So how are you boys coping?” Ernie noticed at least three more mismatched cushions in the flowery living room since his visit with Mick Combo the day before.

“Okay,” replied Kevin Combo, a serious looking teenager with his father’s sharp features and mother’s soft eyes. “Aunt Tracy’s pretty cool.”

“Matt? Your parents mentioned that times have been tough. The fire must have been a huge blow.” Ernie leaned forward and placed his forearms on his knees.

The younger boy kept his head down. “It’s all Dad’s fault,” he said in a savage whisper.

“Shuddup,” said his older brother turning sharply to face him.

“What’s his fault, son? The fire?” said Ernie.

“Nothing, nothing’s his fault. Leave us alone,” said Kevin as he tried awkwardly to shield his brother.

“Deputy Philpott, perhaps you could show Kevin how the police radio works?” said Ernie over his shoulder, and then to the teenager, “You don’t need to say anything, son. Go with the deputy.”

The lanky boy remained sullen, and then sprang to his feet and turned to his brother. “If you say anything about her, you’re gonna cop it, ya little twerp.” He stormed out the door without waiting for the deputy.

Ernie turned calmly back to the youngest Combo. “Matthew, tell me, what’s your dad’s fault?”

Matt Combo didn’t look up from whatever he was staring at on the floor. “I heard them fighting the night before. Mom called him a cheating bastard, and said she was going to leave.” The boy looked up with a look that tore at Ernie’s heart. “I don’t want her to go.”

“Do you remember what started the fight?”

“It was pretty late; they thought we were asleep, but I wasn’t. I heard the phone ring and Mom talking and then she started yelling at Dad and throwing things. I think she might have hurt him,” he said with a hint of a smile.

“Did your mom or dad mention any names during their fight?”

“I don’t think so. I don’t remember.” Matt dropped his eyes; he’d said all he wanted to say.

“Okay,” said Ernie. “Thanks for telling me.” He leaned over and squeezed the boy’s shoulder before standing to leave.

***

Doug sat on the corner of Ernie’s desk. “I asked around a bit about those loan-sharks. Fairly reliable rumors have it that they’re up to their necks in it. As crooked as a three-legged snake apparently, but very good at covering their tracks. When I went to talk to the company myself, a nice young lady showed me the Combo’s agreement—the official one, I’m assuming.” He added air quotes to the word ‘official’.

“Do you think Mick Combo knew they were shady when he signed with them?” asked Ernie.

“My sources say that it’s highly likely because the company’s less than legit terms and conditions are the reason why their clients go to them in the first place.”

“Okay, so it looks like Mick Combo has gotten himself into a financial hole unbeknown to his wife—”

“Oh no, she knew,” interrupted the deputy. “Both signatures are on the contract, but the receptionist, pretty blond thing, mentioned it was Marnie Combo that negotiated the contract—described her as a tough cookie with the style of Princess Kate.”

Ernie recalled the practiced smile, the smart suit, and the water glass in her hands. “That’s a good description.” He slumped back in his chair with his arms crossed on his belly and chin thrust sternly forward. “So why on earth would she volunteer half the information and lie about the other half?”

“Perhaps she believes the company’s responsible for the fire, hoping we’d uncover their illegality, shut them down, and the Combos could get away with not paying their debt by pleading they didn’t know the company was a fake?” said Doug with a self-congratulatory grin.

It made sense, and Ernie nodded at the deputy’s savvy. “Or perhaps she’s hiding something herself and is adopting diversionary tactics? See what you can find out about Marnie Combo. Our interview was so brief, I didn’t even get the chance to ask her what she did for work. I’m going to pay another visit to Mr. Combo.”

***

Mick Combo’s greasy, black hair shone in the morning sun as he leaned shirtless over the open bonnet of a red Mustang that had seen better days. Ernie noticed how well-defined the younger man’s muscles were and felt a nostalgic pang for his own youthful physique of years ago. Ernie wiped his brow with his handkerchief and greeted Combo with professional politeness.

“Mr. Combo, it seems you weren’t entirely honest with me yesterday. Shall we have another go at finding out who burned your house down, so we can get you and your family some insurance money?”

Combo stood upright with arms akimbo and faced the Sheriff with a nonchalant slant to his head.

“Tell me about Quick Cash Lenders? Have they threatened you or your family for late payments?”

“There are no late payments, Sheriff. I took care of it.”

“How?”

“I borrowed money from someone else. Someone who wasn’t gonna kill me if I didn’t pay up.”

“Someone like your mistress?” Ernie held his breath.

Combo shifted his weight, and Ernie could see a fiery uncertainty flare in the man’s eyes before he replied. “Yeah, so what?”

“So, she has cash to spare then, this girlfriend of yours?”

“What the hell has this got to do with anything, Sheriff?”

“Your boy told me that he overheard you and Marnie arguing the night before the fire.”     Mick Combo puffed out his chest and stepped closer to Ernie. The sheriff could smell the younger man’s sweat as they locked eyes. “C’mon son, your private life is your business; crime is mine. Have you got a jealous husband after you?”

Combo dropped his eyes and stepped back. “Lisa’s hubbie found out about us and called the house, angry as. Marnie answered. And yeah, well, it sounds like you know the rest thanks to that blabbing son of mine. How do you like that?” Combo waved his arms like he was gathering wool. “You work your ass of for ‘em, and they repay you by dating darkies and ratting on you. If I could be single again—”

“What kind of car does Lisa or her husband drive?” asked Ernie.

“What?” Combo blinked and transferred his weight to the opposite foot.

“A premium car was seen in the street the day before the fire.”

“The rich prick drives a black Merc E63,” said Combo. “He’s loaded. That’s why Lisa and I figured he wouldn’t miss the cash I used to pay off the lenders.”

“What’s his name?” asked Ernie. Combo shifted nervously. “Mr. Combo, if this man is trying to harm you or your family, I need to stop him. Don’t you think?”

***

Carl Spencer’s office was brown. What little furniture it had was of dark wood, and the artwork was geometric and neutral. A masculine office. The rotund man with the round face ushered Ernie to a conference table at one end of his office as he barked to an invisible receptionist to hold his calls. He smoothed his tie as he sat.

“I can see you are a busy man, Mr. Spencer, so I’ll be brief,” said Ernie. “Where were you on Tuesday night of this week?”

“I was in Seattle meeting with an important client. I can give you contact names and numbers if you like. Also, I’m sure some of the hotel staff remember me—I tip well.” His mouth smiled, but his eyes were blank.

“Do you drive a black Mercedes, Mr. Spencer?”

“I do. Why do you ask?”

“It was observed near the scene of a crime in Pantaloon Street in the south side of town,” he bluffed. “Are you familiar with the area?”

Spencer leaned back in the chair and laced his fingers together on the table. “I know of the house that burnt down the other night, Sheriff Fishbone, and yes, I was in the area a couple of days prior to the incident—for personal reasons. But if a crime was committed, I wasn’t involved. I am a successful financial advisor with a good name and a good life. Why in heaven’s name would I risk that by involving myself in criminal activity?”

“What was the purpose of your visit to the neighborhood?”

“I went to speak with Mick Combo,” replied Spencer, “about a personal matter, but he wasn’t at home, so I left. I called his house later that evening and spoke with his wife and that was the end of it. Early the next morning, I left for Seattle, spent the day as I’ve mentioned, slept badly at the Seattle Hilton and returned home Wednesday morning.” Spencer glanced at the Braitling curled round his left wrist. “Is there anything else, Sheriff?”

Ernie accepted Carl Spencer’s business card and handshake as he was courteously ushered from the room. On his way back to his vehicle, he called the security manager at the Seattle Hilton—a friend of his wife’s—and was informed that the gentleman in question had indeed been a guest of the hotel on the night in question.

***

Ernie gulped down the concoction from the coffee machine hoping that the fluid would by-pass his taste buds. It didn’t, and he cringed.

Deputy Philpott pranced into the office and collapsed into the visitor’s chair in front of the desk. “Morning boss, so where are we up to with this arson thing?”

Ernie frowned at the scribbles and bubbles and lines and words he’d dumped onto the page in front of him. His pencil danced in his fingers as if punctuating his thoughts. “I just don’t know, Doug. The angry lender has been paid; the angry husband has an alibi; the Combo’s had nothing to gain from an insurance perspective. Where does that leave us? Did you come up with anything on Marnie Combo?”

“She works for a home wares wholesaler called Beckett and Maud. Their warehouse is on Division Road over there on the east side of town. She’s the account’s manager.”

“Okay.” Ernie glared as his scribblegram, the wrinkles on his forehead dipping in concentration. “I don’t know what it is, but there’s something not quite right about that woman. A quick chat with her supervisor might be in order.”

“You want me to come with you?”

“No, I shouldn’t be long. But perhaps you could check out Mick Combo’s alibi. You know, ask his poker mates a few questions? Just in case Mick got annoyed about his wife threatening to leave. He’s a fiery one.” Ernie swooped up his hat and strode out of the building. Thankfully, it was overcast, just the way he liked it.

***

Ernie took the skeletal hand in his and shook gently for fear of snapping off Harvey Maud’s arm. The mouse of a man introduced himself as the General Manager of Beckett and Maud and ushered Ernie into an office furnished only with a desk and computer. Ernie stood awkwardly, the small man before him.

“How can I help you, Sheriff?” asked Maud, his mouth wrinkled and sour.

“I’d like to ask you about one of your employees. What exactly does Marnie Combo do for you here?”

Harvey Maud tightened his mouth even more. “She’s the accounts manager. Why do you ask?”

Ernie wasn’t sure. “She’s been putting in extra hours lately, hasn’t she?”

Maud was silent and looked at the sheriff through ratty eyes. “What has she told you?”

Ernie’s mind snapped at the prompt. “Marnie mentioned a few things of interest. I wanted to hear what you had to say, Mr. Maud.”

Harvey Maud was not to be bluffed so easily. He looked down at his spindly fingers as if wondering how they got so thin. “Mrs. Combo is a greedy woman, Sheriff. I suggest you take what she has to tell you with a grain of salt. Now, unless you have more to enquire about than a bitter employee’s stories of make-believe, I’d like to get back to work.”

“I’ll be in touch, Mr. Maud,” said Ernie as he shook the delicate hand and found his own way out.

***

Philpott was waiting in Ernie’s office. “Mick Combo was with his mates just as he said, boss. Only left the table to piss and left when he got the phone call from his wife. How did you go at the furniture store?”

Ernie took a swig of his second cup of coffee-machine poison and shook his head. He related his strange interview of Harvey Maud and slumped back in his chair. “There’s something going on.”

“Could it be that she’s blackmailing them for something?” asked Philpott.

“From Maud’s reaction, I’d say that’s entirely possible.”

“And you think the company would have her house burnt down because of it?”

“Well, it sounds like they can’t or won’t sack her, even though Maud clearly disapproves of her. Get in touch with the State Commerce Department, will you? And Internal Revenue. See what you can find out about our friends at Beckett and Maud.”

“Sure thing, boss, but it’ll have to wait till morning.” Doug checked his watch to confirm it was past working hours. “Might call it a night, if that’s okay?” He scooped up his hat and skipped through the door before turning to regard Ernie.

“Go on, you iggot?” Ernie laughed as he watched his deputy bounce down the hall like a puppy, and then he looked back to the scrawl on his desk and added another series of scribbles to his diagram. When the clue he hoped would jump up and slap him in the face didn’t, he sighed and stood to leave.

***

The next morning, Deputy Philpot was seated in Ernie’s office, and looked up cheerfully when Ernie claimed his place behind the desk. He checked the wall clock and was disappointed to see he had spent over three hours at the weekly council meeting discussing the usual inconsequential matters.

“Guess what I found out this morning?” said Philpott clearing his throat. “Beckett and Maud is under investigation by the IRS for tax evasion. Have been for a number of years, and they know it, apparently, but they’re experts at getting through audits. So how involved do you think the account’s manager would be?”

Ernie thoughtfully added a new bubble to his diagram and scrawled an arrow to the name Marnie Combo. “Best we talk to her to find out.”

***

“How nice to see you again, Sheriff. Any luck with our case?” Marnie Combo offered a hand adorned with a gold bracelet and sapphire ring to the deputy, and allowed herself to be directed to the visitor’s chair in front of Ernie’s desk. She crossed one maroon pants leg over the other and draped an arm along the armrest.

“Tell me about your work, Mrs. Combo,” said Ernie.

“I’m the accounts manager for Beckett and Maud located on Division Avenue,” she said without hesitation. “Is that relevant to the fire?”

“Do you know your employer is under investigation for tax evasion?”

“No, I am not aware of that. As the accounts manager, I’m surprised to hear it, in fact.”

“What sort of accounts do you manage?”

Marnie Combo unfolded her legs and positioned her hands on her knees. “Really, Sheriff, is this line of questioning necessary? My family could have died and you’re asking me what accounts I manage? Shouldn’t you and your little helper be out catching whoever burned down our house?”

Ernie sighed and watched Marnie stand and slide the strap of her handbag over her shoulder. “Mrs. Combo, if you feel that your employer is in any way connected to the arson attack, please speak to us about it. We can help you.”

“Sheriff, I think the whole idea is absurd. I have worked at Beckett and Maud for twelve years. Harvey has been like a father to me. Any attention they may have attracted from the IRS is a mystery to me. Now, if you will excuse me, I must be getting back to work.” Marnie touched her hair, nodded curtly to Deputy Philpott as she strode past him, and disappeared through the reception area.

Doug sank into the visitor’s chair. “Well, that went well.”

“Yep,” replied Ernie as he checked his watch. “It’s almost five, why don’t you get on home to your sweetheart?”

“I won’t argue with that suggestion.” Doug sprang to his feet, all darkness from his first meeting with Marnie Combo forgotten. “Hey, why don’t you and Theresa come over for dinner tomorrow night? Kimmy would love to brag about her plans for the wedding. Notice I said ‘her’ plans?” He skipped down the hall giggling, and then called over his shoulder. “My Saturday off tomorrow remember, so call me and let me know.”

Ernie vaguely registered the message; he was busy adding more scribbles to his web of mystery.

***

Kimmy’s giggly face met the older couple at the door. She ushered them into the kitchen and launched into an account of cake designs and possible venues. Her fiancé seasoned meat in the background, looking up whimsically at selected intervals. Ernie smiled lazily and let the young woman rattle on with enviable enthusiasm. Spirits remained high when they finally sat down to barbecued pork, sweet corn, and baby potatoes.

“So have you lovebirds started thinking about babies yet?” asked Theresa. Ernie shook his head at his wife’s undisguised forwardness and stuffed a potato into his mouth.

“Can’t wait,” replied Doug glancing at his wife-to-be with a sunny smile.

Kimmy wasn’t so chirpy. “Maybe in a couple of years when we’ve saved up a bit.”

Ernie looked at his wife with hidden understanding and reached for his wine glass.

“To be honest, parenthood scares the hell out of me,” said Kimmy. “What if I end up completely screwing up someone’s life because I’m a terrible mother? You see it on the news all the time. Teenage crime, drug addiction, prostitution? You guys must see enough of it. Doesn’t it worry you?”

Ernie had seen his fair share of teenage misfortune, and it did worry him. “I don’t think you’ve got anything to worry about, Kimmy. If you can keep this baby under control,” he said flicking his head in the direction of his deputy, “I think you’ll be fine with a smaller version.”

Kimmy giggled and patted her fiancé on the arm with feigned sympathy.

Ernie stared off into the distance as he reflected on the juvenile pyromaniac who had shaken him early in his career.

“You know, boss,” said Doug. “Maybe this arson we’ve been working on is nothing more than kids, after all. We’ve been so caught up in the exploits of the Combos that we haven’t really considered the obvious suspects. Kids are always doing stupid stuff like burning things down.” Doug shot an apologetic glance at Kimmy. “Our kids never would, of course.”

Ernie sat up with a start as if the young man’s words had unlocked something deep within his brain. His deputy was right; kids did do stupid things like that. The solemn face of Kevin Combo flashed through his head. Girl troubles, his mother had said; they repay you by dating darkies, said his father; if you say anything about her, ya gonna cop it. And that old woman, Mrs. Mead: what had she said about Combo ranting about his son seeing a colored girl? Something told Ernie that he needed to speak with the sulky teenager.

Ernie and Doug were elected to clean up after the meal, and the two huddled in the small kitchen rinsing plates and stacking the dishwasher. The deputy nodded in silence as Ernie related his latest theory. “What if Kevin lit the fire because he was angry at his dad’s attitude towards his girlfriend?”

“But he was at the movie theatre,” replied the deputy. Ernie cursed at the oversight. “But she might have done it.”

Ernie froze and looked at the deputy as if seeing him as an equal for the first time.

“As you said, boss,” said Doug, “there’s no wrath like a woman scorned.”

Yes, he had said that, hadn’t he?

***

Mick Combo was waiting by the front stairs of the police station when Ernie arrived at 6.30AM. “She’s taken off,” he said holding out an envelope.

Ernie held the envelope in his fingers as he opened the front door, and led the other man to his office. He motioned Combo to the visitor’s chair, withdrew a single page of handwritten text from the envelope, and read silently.

The letter was from Marnie Combo, explaining how she had saved a small fortune and would be out of the country by the time her husband read the note.

“The thing I don’t understand,” said Combo, “is that her pay went into our joint account, and it’s all still there.”

Ernie glanced down at the scribblegram on his desk. The bubble with ‘Beckett and Maud’ in it seemed to jump from the page. He would ask Deputy Philpott to notify the IRS as soon as he got in. “I’m sorry about your wife, Mr. Combo. And I’m sorry to tell you that she may have been involved in criminal activity being investigated by the IRS.” Ernie noted the lack of surprise in the other man’s eyes.

“Well that explains a lot of things,” said Combo.

“Such as?”

“The expensive clothes; the jewelry. I just thought the extra hours at the office were paying off. How could I be so stupid?” He placed his hands on his knees and dropped his head. “What am I going to tell the boys?”

Ernie’s stomach twisted. “Mr. Combo, I need to speak with Kevin again about what happened the night of the fire?”

Combo’s head shot up. “But he was at the movies. What do you need to talk to him about?”

“We’re not sure, but we’d like to ask him about his girlfriend.”

“You mean the black girl?” Combo gritted his teeth, the storm rising in his eyes. “Do you think she lit the fire? I warned Kevin about her kind.”

Ernie bit back a rebuff to the man’s prejudice. “I don’t think we should jump to conclusions just yet, Mr. Combo. Do you know the young lady’s name?”

Combo shook his head fiercely.

“Please bring Kevin into the station as soon as you can.”

***

Combo arrived back at the station an hour later, his son slouched behind him like a shadow. Ernie had moved a second visitor’s chair into the office, and the father with his cut-out son sat down, both with arms sprawled over the arm-rest and knees apart.

“Tell me about your friend, Kevin.”

Kevin glanced sideways at his father and remained silent.

“What’s her name?”

When he was met with silence, Ernie wondered if he was wasting his time. Perhaps if he hadn’t been the victim of an impulsive teenage arson years before, he may have dropped the idea. Determinedly, he repeated his question.

After another minute of silence, Kevin seemed to gain courage from his father’s coolness and mumbled, “Chantelle.”

“Pretty name,” said Ernie, his mind clicking puzzle pieces into place. “You got pretty upset when your brother told me about your dad’s involvement with another woman.”

Kevin frowned. “What?”

“You said, ‘You better not say anything about her.’ Do you remember?”

The boy’s face mirrored confusion, enforcing Ernie’s suspicions.

“Your brother told us about the phone call he overheard.”

“Yeah, well, he shouldn’t have. It wasn’t her fault.”

“You mean your mother’s?”

“What are you talking about?”

“What phone call are you talking about, son?”

Kevin slumped in the chair, confused. “I don’t know,” he stammered.

“I thought you were protecting your mother, but you were talking about Chantelle, weren’t you?”

Kevin picked at a fingernail, defeated. “So what?”

“Did Matt overhear a phone call between you and Chantelle? A phone call about something you were scared he’d tell me about?”

The boy focused on picking his thumbnail.

“I think we need to get young Chantelle in here, don’t you think?”

“I’d say,” said Mick Combo, prompting a spiky look from Ernie.

“It wasn’t her fault,” repeated Kevin, his voice a whisper this time.

“What wasn’t her fault, Kevin? The fire?” said Ernie.

“She told her brother about how Dad kicked her out of the house and swore at her.”

Mick Combo was uttering profanities under his breath. Ernie wished he wasn’t in the room, regardless of the law. “Did Chantelle’s brother light the fire?” asked the sheriff.

Kevin looked up and seemed to shrink as he spoke. “Chantelle rang me the night before, saying that her brother was threatening to burn down our house. We ranted about what a bastard Dad is—was—but I didn’t take her seriously. When I hung up the phone, Mattie was behind me, staring at me. I thought he knew.”

“He was only worried about your mother, son.”

Mick Combo was squeezing his hands together in an effort to control himself.

“So where is Mom, anyway?” said Kevin turning to his father. “Did she go to work extra-early this morning?”

Ernie watched the agony on Mick Combo’s face as the man withdrew the letter from his pocket.

 

E. M. Eastick was born and raised in northern Australia and worked as an environmental professional in the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the Middle East before moving to Colorado as a writer of no-fixed genre. Her creative efforts appear in the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Mad Scientist Journal, and a number of anthologies.

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