The unlikely pair collided in front of the Hilton Hospitality Shuttle parked at Hector International Airport. “Coordination is not my strength,” he shouted into the wind. “I’m more of a people person.” He clutched at his Stetson as the blizzard raged. She flashed a weak smile, still troubled by her last phone call. “You’re not from around here,” she shouted back, her red wool coat flapping in the wind. “You should embrace the cold!” The blizzard’s intensity mounted with snow falling an inch an hour. Their flights were the last to land before the Fargo airport closed. “I’ll work on that when we’re inside.” He helped her into the hotel van and slid in behind her, relieved to fill the last two available seats. “I’m Tex Tillison. We don’t have weather like this in Austin.” “Belinda Winslow.” She shook his hand. “Is your name really Tex?” He grinned. “An accountant named ‘Tex’ can charge more than one named ‘Milton’.” “I understand.” The van eased into the sparse traffic crawling onto the snow-covered North Dakota highway. “My name isn’t Belinda, but nobody wants a trophy wife named Alice.” The driver, a balding man in a black North Face parka, shouted back, “Is everyone buckled up? Crews can’t keep up, and the roadway is slick.” He merged onto the southbound ramp, relieved that the Highway Patrol hadn’t closed Interstate 29. Belinda caught Milton staring. Her simple black dress showcased her athletic legs. Her auburn hair flashed traces of gray. “You approve?” “Sorry. It’s rude, but I get paid to appraise people,” he explained. “Plus, I’m exhausted, and my filters are down. There’s no easy way to get from Austin to Fargo.” “I can beat that, Milton. Twenty-six hours ago, I was in Brisbane, 85 degrees on the Gold Coast.” Belinda watched as the snow pelted the van and the traffic inched down the highway. “I missed the snow.” A double-bottomed truck passed them, its wake buffeting the van. The driver struggled to retain control. When the vehicle fishtailed, he over-corrected. The van spun, its rear end slamming into the snow piled along the left lane. It faced the direction they had come. The only sound was the engine idling. “Is everyone all right?” They were. The driver shifted to the lowest gear and slowly applied the gas. The passengers heard the wheels spinning. He put the van in reverse, then in first, then reverse, trying to rock out of the snowdrift. “I’ll have to call base. No idea how long it will take for someone to rescue us.” Milton leaned toward the driver. “How far is the hotel?” “Two miles. No way anyone could walk it.” “But if we can get the van back on the roadway,” Milton asked, “could you get us there?” “I think so.” Milton turned to the other passengers. “It’s dangerous sitting here. With the poor visibility, we could be struck by another vehicle or a snowplow. Let’s give a push.” Three men unbuckled their seat belts, as did Belinda. “Where are you going?” “Don’t pull any macho bullshit on me, Tex. Even if I can’t push, I can make the van a hundred-and-ten pounds lighter.” Ignoring the stares of the other women, Belinda stepped out, removed her coat, and threw it back into the van. “What are you doing?” “I love that coat and don’t have a replacement with me. On the other hand, I have other dresses.” Milton didn’t argue. The men at the rear of the van began to push. He and Belinda grabbed the door handles and struggled for a foothold. “I’m a North Dakota girl. Cold can’t touch me. Besides, the faster we push this mother out of the snowbank the sooner you can buy me a drink.” She called to the men pushing in the back. “I’ll count to three. Push, then release, push and release. Rock it out.” The man in the orange Illini sweatshirt flashed her a thumbs up as a semi drove past, splattering them with slushy snow. “God, I love winter!” Once they got into a rhythm with the van rocking, the driver managed to pull away from the drift. He cautiously moved against the traffic flow until he found a gap and made a U-turn. Belinda and the men piled back into the van, and they began the slow trip to the hotel. When Milton draped Belinda’s coat around her, she drew him closer. They parted only when they arrived at the hotel. She checked in first. “Give me a half hour to freshen up.” Forty-five minutes later they were seated in the hotel bar, awaiting an order of hot wings, and drinking drafts of August Schell Snowstorm Ale. Belinda had changed into a white silk blouse and straight black skirt. She’d washed away her makeup but applied fresh lipstick. “What brings you to Fargo?” he asked. “I grew up around here.” When that answer didn’t satisfy him, she added, “I went to the University of North Dakota.” “Go Thundering Herd!” “I arrived on campus, fresh from the prairie, suddenly surrounded by all these lovely young men. I got distracted,” Belinda confessed. She was jet lagged from the 16-hour flight from Brisbane to LA, followed by the connecting flights from LA to Minneapolis, and then Minneapolis to Fargo. “I hosted a talk show on campus radio called Love and Accounting,” he confessed. “I gave dating advice and accounting tips.” “Men aren’t my problem.” Milton leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “Accounting it is.” When the waitress brought their plate of Honey BBQ wings, Milton asked for a dinner menu. “We’re only offering appetizers because of the snowstorm,” she replied. “We’re short-staffed.” “Then bring us a pitcher of beer,” he suggested, “and onion rings.” “Soft pretzels, too, with the stone ground mustard.” The waitress went to the bar and entered the order. They heard her tell the bartender, “I need to check out, or I’ll never get home.” “You won’t be the only one stuck here,” the bartender argued, pouring the pitcher of beer. “I should have today and tomorrow off….” The bartender let the foam settle, and then topped it off. “You’re on the schedule. That’s all I know.” “Well I’m not supposed be…. I’m sure I told Mr. Crawley I needed the days off.” Belinda shook her head as she listened. “I feel sorry for the girl.” “You shouldn’t,” Milton stated flatly. “She’s lying.” “How do you know?” “Too many qualifiers.” “That doesn’t mean she’s....” “Earlier, she didn’t use qualifiers. When she brought up the schedule, she did. Changes in patterns signal lies. Plus, her face is flushed. That means her blood pressure is elevated. The cluster of behaviors gives her away.” “What kind of accountant are you?” “I’m a fraud examiner. I specialize in interview and interrogation. That’s the workshop I’m doing tomorrow.” “Well aren’t you a dirty bird? Who are you training, Tex?” “Fargo and Morehead police officers aspiring to be detectives, sheriff’s deputies from a five-county area, and the usual assortment of corporate security people.” Milton set down his glass. “Not the kind of folks ever likely to question you.” The waitress appeared with their pitcher and hurried off. Milton reached for the last wing. “Belinda, what brings you to Fargo?” “You already asked me that.” “Yes, and I’ll ask it again, so you might as well tell me this time.” She poured herself another pint. “My husband and I have a place…. It used to be my father’s. I needed to get away.” “And why would you need to get away?” Before she could answer, the bartender dropped off the onion rings and the soft pretzels. Milton motioned to the half-dozen soldiers who’d entered and tossed their duffle bags on the floor. “What’s up?” “They stayed here last night and went to the airport at 11:00 for a 1:00 o’clock flight. The flight got cancelled,” the bartender said. “It took them two hours to make the ten-minute return trip from the airport. When they got back here, there were no rooms left. They’re bunking on the floor in Conference Room A.” “Put a couple pitchers for them on my tab.” “Coming right up.” Milton turned back to Belinda and waited. “My husband is a wealth manager,” she finally confessed. “Women crawl all over him.” Belinda picked up a pretzel and sighed. “Their husbands ignore the indiscretions because Bill makes unbelievable returns.” She saw a twitch around Milton’s eyes and stopped. “What?” “I didn’t say anything.” Milton dipped a hot onion ring into the curry sauce. “You didn’t have to.” She bit into the pretzel and chewed. Milton gestured with the hand holding the onion ring. “What gave me away?” “Your eyes. The pupils got bigger.” She wrinkled her brow as she considered his expression. “Something registered on your radar.” “Exactly.” They continued to eat their way through the food. “Think about what you said.” “He has women crawling all over him.” “No. The other thing.” Belinda lowered her voice. She knew what he meant. “Unbelievable returns.” “Exactly. Like Bernie Madoff.” “My husband isn’t Bernie Madoff.” “Do you mean he hasn’t stolen as much?” Milton snorted, "Or that he isn’t going to get caught?” “Oh, he’s going to get caught….” “Maybe he already has been? And you along with him.” Belinda raised her voice and feigned indignation. “If you’re suggesting I have anything to do with….” “Why are you still here?” Milton pushed aside the plate of onion rings. “Innocent people leave. Guilty people stay because they want to find out what I know.” The soldiers settled into a large table on the opposite side of the bar. “Your body language is protective. It’s the stance of liars. And you’re touching your nose.” “How do you know I don’t have a cold?” “You didn’t touch it before the topic changed to your husband. A good interviewer establishes a baseline to judge the subject’s behavior.” “Is that who you are now? My interrogator?” Belinda reached for her purse and stood up. “Actually, I’m a lousy date.” “You certainly are. I don’t need this bullshit conversation.” He touched her arm. “Before you leave, tell me one thing....” “What?” “What brings you to Fargo?” She considered her options and sat back down. “I’m meeting with one of my husband’s investors.” “Do you know a lot about your husband’s business?” “I don’t. But I know the investor.” “Someone you met prior to meeting your husband?” “A former boss.” Milton waited for her to break eye contact, but she didn’t. “This investor wouldn’t by any chance be cashing out…?” “I’m supposed to remind him that he’s made above average returns every year.” He blinked. “Seems to me that’s all you need to know.” “That’s what my husband told me.” “…except, you are not that stupid.” Belinda’s anger flared again. “What’s that supposed to mean? You keep making these cryptic comments.” They both reached for the last soft pretzel, a momentary standoff. “Let’s bet,” he suggested. “Winner gets the pretzel.” “What’s the wager?” “I’ll bet that I know why you came to Fargo.” She withdrew her hand from the plate. “If I answer correctly, I get the pretzel. If I’m wrong, it’s yours.” “Who’s the judge?” “You are. You’re the only one who knows why you’re here.” “Seems like a sucker bet to me.” She glanced at the table of soldiers. Two women in uniform had joined them. “So, if you want the pretzel, take the bet.” “All right. Tell me why I’m here.” “At your husband’s insistence you called this investor from Australia, invented a lie about needing to get away, mentioned when you’d be in town, and suggested a meeting. Encouraged by your invitation, he offered to pick you up at the airport.” That amused her. “And how would you know that?” “Because you didn’t reserve a rental car. And before you rushed to catch the hotel van, you got a phone call. I assume it was from your ride, cancelling. You were distracted and bumped into me.” Belinda tapped her index finger on her glass. “You came to Fargo to persuade an ex-lover not to make waves.” “How could you know that?” Her response, Milton noted, was not a denial. “Because you’re a North Dakota girl, but you didn’t dress for the storm. Despite the forecast, you wore a sheath with a plunging neckline that showed off your Gold Coast tan. The dress, hemmed well above your knees, accented your legs, but did little to protect you from the weather. You wore heels instead of boots, and a red wool coat instead of a parka. You dressed to seduce. Only seduction could persuade a skeptical investor to trust your husband. Even that might not work.” She pushed the plate over to him. “Why wouldn’t it work?” He picked up the pretzel. “Harry Markopolos was in the same business as Bernie Madoff. Harry’s boss wondered why he didn’t get the same returns Bernie got. Harry did the math.” Milton took a bite. “After 15 minutes on a calculator, Harry knew Bernie’s claims were mathematically impossible.” As he ate the pretzel, he noted the tone at the soldiers’ table shifting. “Is your ex-boss good at math?” “He has accountants.” “All it would take is one good one.” Milton wiped his hands on a napkin, stood, and told her, “I’ll only be a minute.” She watched him talk to the rowdy soldiers. When he finished, one of the females kissed him on the cheek, several men shook his hand, and almost everyone slapped him on the back. A corporal looked over to Belinda and signaled thumbs up. Milton returned to his seat. “If I read their body language correctly,” she said sarcastically, “you just sold me to them.” “Nope. I gave them my suite for the night. It will be more comfortable than the conference room floor. The suite has three double beds, two bathrooms, a foldout couch, and a fully stocked mini-bar.” “Why do you need a room like that?” “I don’t. It’s comped. Hilton Corporate appreciates my work. When I stay at their properties, they take care of me.” “And where will you sleep?” “I asked them to set my bags outside of 1108.” “My room.” She looked back at the soldiers. “That’s why they grinned like banshees and gave you high fives. They think you’re getting laid tonight.” “That,” he said simply, “remains to be seen.” He refilled his glass. “Your choices for companionship were the G.I.s, the bartender, or me. Now it’s between the bartender and me. Better odds.” “Am I that transparent?” “You’re not transparent at all. I’m only reading the situation and your mood.” He looked down. The onion rings were gone. “Do you have a lawyer?” “Do I need one for what you’re planning tonight?” “You’ll need one when your husband’s business implodes, and people start asking questions.” The bartender turned up the music, took off his black apron, and joined the soldiers. “I could recommend someone.” Belinda leaned in. “You said the people you’re training wouldn’t be the ones asking me questions. What did you mean by that?” “Your husband’s enemies, and they will be legion, will send a professional. Someone who specializes in Ponzi schemes.” “And what will he or she be like?” “It will be a male, better dressed than me, younger, though not necessarily buff or handsome. He’ll be sweet. You’ll like him.” “Interesting.” “He will engage you in conversation, much like I did, to set a baseline for your behavior and speech patterns. He’ll appear to be harmless, nonthreatening, and empathetic.” “But he won’t be?” Milton shook his head. “When does the interrogation start?” “These situations always start as an interview. Don’t confuse the two.” Belinda tried not to show her irritation. “The interview is to determine the likelihood of your guilt. Once convinced you’re guilty, the interrogation stage begins.” “And how will he know if I’m a guilty?” “He’ll note the way you walk into the room, what you wear, your facial expression, where you sit, how you sit, what you do with your hands, the length and quality of your eye contact, the number of times you blink.” Belinda stood. She picked up her purse and the pitcher of beer. “Maybe we should retire to our room?” When they arrived at 1108, Milton’s black leather duffel and his leather suit bag rested against the door. Belinda swiped the room card and opened the door. Milton picked up his luggage and entered. Noting the indentation on the bed closest to the door, he said, “I’ll take the bed by the window.” Her cell phone rang, and she checked the caller name. “I have to answer this.” She headed for the bathroom. “It’s the investor.” She closed the bathroom door. When she reappeared, her face was flushed with anger. “He wants to do lunch tomorrow. He said he’d come here; that we could order room service.” “How thoughtful….” “And after lunch there’s someone he wants me to meet, an associate who has some questions. I suspect he’s the man with the calculator.” “Did you decline his invitation?” “I did.” She joined Milton at the mini-bar. “I’m going to go out to see the ranch instead.” “Is the property in your name or your husband’s?” “It’s in mine, an inheritance from my father.” Milton pulled out two small bottles of Glenfiddich from the mini-bar. “I got a call, too. My training’s been pushed back a day. We could rent a car tomorrow afternoon once the roads clear.” “And what would we do in the morning?” “I’ll introduce you to someone I trained several years ago. He works at the FBI Fargo office.” “And why would I want to meet him?” “To offer information about your husband in exchange for a deal.” “What deal?” “No jail time. You keep the ranch.” “But I lose everything else?” “Probably. It’s what happened to Bernie Madoff’s wife.” Belinda considered her sparse options. “What would I do then?” “There might be an employment opportunity at my firm.” Belinda began unbuttoning her blouse. “Really?” Milton kicked off his shoes and pulled the shirttails from his pants. “Are you married?” She removed her blouse and tossed it over a chair. She unzipped her skirt. “A couple times. Not presently.” Milton removed his pants and put them on the bed. “Does it make a difference?” Her skirt fell to the floor. “It does.” She kicked it aside. “Then I’m glad I’m not.” He stripped off his undershirt. “I’ve got nothing to hide,” she said, removing her black lace bra. “Yes, I can see that,” he laughed. “But that’s a lie.” Milton stepped out of his red silk boxer shorts. “You’re a difficult man to fool, Tex.” She reached for the waistband of her half-slip but hesitated. “There’s a lot about me you don’t know.” “There are no innocent people in this room,” he said carefully. When he turned off the lights, the glow of the Fargo skyline illuminated the room. Still wearing her slip, she walked over to him. “Thank you,” she said softly. They stood for the longest time, drawing out the hours before dawn in each other’s arms, before giving in to their desires.
Beeper Peddle is a writer and healer living on the East Coast. She lives with her partner and their beloved soul puppy. Beeper writes about sorrows, lies, and deep loves. When you read her work, you will dip down into her heart and end up in all manner of body parts. Should you find yourself reflected in these words, it is merely coincidence; however, it does not surprise her you share the same heart. Find her at bethpeddle.com and @beeperpeddle on Twitter and Instagram
Paul Lewellan retired after fifty years of teaching in secondary schools and private colleges. Now he lives and gardens in Davenport, Iowa, with his wife Pamela, his Shi Tzu Mannie, and her ginger tabby Sunny. He has recently published fiction in Intangible Literary Magazine, Coastal Shelf, Rhodora Magazine, and Talon Review. When he isn’t writing, he stocks Little Free Libraries.