He’d fallen right into it. Like he’d dropped a hundred feet into a deep, dark hole.
“Whatsa matter, kid?”
“Nuthin, that’s all.”
“Sir! You mean SIR, you miserable little shit!”
The slap was hard, and worse than that, it was humiliating. He was only nineteen, but he looked thirty. He had pimples. He couldn’t see too good because one day in a fight with the local thugs he’d lost an eye. And he had a lot of bruises on his body from previous “interviews” with the cops.
Joe didn’t think much of what the cops called it. It weren’t no interview and it weren’t no interrogation. He called it, “a room where they used me like a fuckin’ punchin’ bag. See what I’m sayin’?”
This time was a little different. They had him on murder, but he didn’t do it, and he knew they wouldn’t believe him. Why would anyone believe him? He was a sickly kid, with acne that looked like so many mini-volcanoes on his face. He had previous “yellows,” a record in three states. But he’d never killed. He’d robbed some people, a couple of old ladies, a boy scout, and a helpless truck driver, once, who’d been in an accident and was lying unconscious by the side of the road. But nuthin’ real serious.
“Look at me!” the cop barked.
Joe turned his head away and the copper swung it back, twisting his chin, forcing his head to swivel upward in his calloused hand.
“I ain’t gonna look at you!” the boy screamed.
Sheriff McDougall removed the pressure from the perp’s face, placing his hand on top of the prisoner’s head. Then he pulled hard. Joe screamed, but this time in anguish.
“Scream all ya like, as loud as ya like – nobody’s gonna hear ya.”
McDougall brought down his arm onto the table that was between them, relinquishing his hold on the kid, whose eyes had teared up, and they were as red as ripe tomatoes.
McDougall felt superior. He took a little walk around the interrogation room, which smelled of people who had been here, and who didn’t often shower. He paced, with his arms behind him, keeping an eye on his catch, enjoying the power. Circling the small room, with a demeanor of placid detachment, was a favorite act of his; it never failed to make suspects nervous.
“So,” he said, when he’d stopped beside Joe, “you got anything to say now, or do I have to use my truncheon? Hm?”
He leaned in very close to Joe’s face, practically nose to nose, and peered at him. He might have been leaning in to observe fish in an aquarium, with amused curiosity, but his stare was poisonous. In the past, he had squeezed confessions out of unwilling suspects with nothing more sinister than a look. In the prisons, the inmates had coined a phrase, calling him Svengali, for the guy who hypnotized people by just looking into their eyes.
McDougall was wise to that. It didn’t matter if they wanted to label him, as long as they were afraid of him. And they were. Calling him Svengali was a sure sign that they respected him.
Still, he had his billy club if his other methods didn’t work.
“Joe,” he said, as he sat down at the table opposite him. He let it hang. He leaned over to the side where a pot of coffee was brewing on a burner, retrieved a mug, which had a brown ring around the inside about an inch down from the lip, and poured the coffee.
“You want some?” he asked, not looking at him.
Joe didn’t say anything. He was trying to bury his head in his arms. He wanted all this to go away, but he didn’t know how to make it go away.
“Tell you what,” he went on, blowing on the puff of steam from his mug. He said nothing for a moment, sipping the drink a little at a time.
“You tell me the truth and I’ll let you have some coffee,” he said, finally.
“I don’t want no coffee,” the kid said.
“You’re gonna drink coffee.”
“‘Cause you’re gonna tell the truth.”
Joe cast his bloodshot eyes upward, at the cop, in dazed confusion. “What’re you talkin’ ’bout?”
“The ol’ lady sez she saw you attack him, and beat him to the ground.”
The slap that got him this time was from the other side, his left cheek. It burned like he’d just been scalded. The blow brought him up short. He had had enough. Shackled, with his arms behind him, he couldn’t do much. He strained against the bonds, anger and fear blending into one overriding emotion: he would never relent.
“Huh?” McDougall was peering into his eyes.
Black. Black as the night that was enveloping the day, and bringing with it the certainty of death. Black as he’d never seen black before, black as the black of space, blackness that promised nothing but pain.
“I didn’t do it!” the boy cried out. The tears were running down his face.
The sheriff sat down again, sipping his coffee as if nothing was more ordinary than sipping coffee while interrogating a suspect. Casually, he untied him, leaving the bracelets on.
The sheriff sat down again, sipping his coffee as if nothing was more ordinary than sipping coffee while interrogating a suspect.
After a silence listening to the kid’s sniffling, McDougall leaned forward, and hunched down to Joe’s level, because his head was lowered again.
“Tell you what,” he said, in a new tone, not threatening. “If you hand me a suspect, I’ll let you go.”
Joe couldn’t understand. What was McDougall talking about? His ears rang from the slaps he’d taken. He didn’t take it in.
“You know who might have done it, Joe?”
Joe raised his head. His frown, his quizzical expression told the sheriff that he was as confused as a chicken in a roundup.
Exasperated, Joe shook his head. McDougall didn’t say anything.
“What do I know? I don’t know nuthin!”
“Come on, spill it, Joe.” His voice was encouraging; he sounded like a coach.
“I don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, sheriff.”
“You don’t, huh?”
His voice wasn’t friendly now; a coldness surrounded it, like a layer of frost on the still-warm sea of grass in early Fall.
“You name somebody, I’ll take it up from there.”
Joe stared at him, his eyes wide.
“You sure look funny, Joe. Don’t ya get it? I’m lettin’ you go. Just give me a name.”
“Anyone? What’d you mean?”
“You got friends?”
“Doncha hang around with that black kid on Six Street?”
“But you know him, doncha?”
“What’s the nigger’s name?”
Joe stared right back into McDougall’s red face.
His nose was the nose of a drunk. Little teeny veins, like rivulets, were a permanent landmark on his promontory. His nostrils flared apart like that of a horse.
“You gonna tell me his name?”
“I don’t know his name, sheriff, and I wouldn’t tell ya anyway, because he ain’t done nuthin!”
“Just like you, huh?”
McDougall paced in a circle around the table, then stopped and sat down again.
“What’s his name, Joe? You tell me, I let you go. Get it?”
“No, I don’t get it. Why?”
Sheriff McDougall leaned forward in a confidential manner, about to divulge something secret; he was smiling. Joe smelled his breath: stale with alcohol.
“Okay, you wanna know, I’ll tell you.” He leaned in closer still. “They don’t want a white guy, see?”
“No white guy’s gonna get arrested this week. We gotta even out the numbers. We got too many whites in the prison as it is now. We need a nigga to fill the quota.”
Joe looked back at him at what he’d just heard.
“Yeah, that’s right.” The sheriff’s face was ablaze with cunning. “Now, you jes tell me a little story in mah ear, son, and you can have a cup of coffee.”
When Joe still stared back at him, unblinkingly confused, McDougall repeated his request for his friend’s name.
“I tol’ you, I don’t know his name, sir,” he remembered to add.
The sheriff’s demeanor changed. “Ah’m no longer in good humor, son.” He pulled the revolver out of its holster and placed it flat on the table. “See that?”
Joe wasn’t blind. He could see, all right. He figured he was a goner. The sheriff was nuts, crazy!
“There’s only one bullet in there,” he went on, his lips curling into something between a grin and a grimace.
Joe had heard of this game, and he didn’t like it. Russian roulette?
“Here,” the cop said, pushing the gun across to Joe. “You play first.”
Joe was paralyzed. “You don’ mean that?”
“Go ahead,” he urged, pointing to the revolver with his index finger. “Maybe you’ll get lucky.”
As Joe hesitated, McCloud took hold of the gun in a sudden move, cocked it and placed the barrel against his own temple. He pulled the trigger. There was a click.
Joe was mesmerized. He was speechless with anger and fear.
“You’re crazy, sir! You’re crazy!”
McCloud sat back, spun the cylinder to reset it, then handed it to Joe. “What’d ya think your changes are, son? What’re the odds?”
Joe eyed the gun. If he could get his hands on it…
Obligingly, McDougall, for some reason Joe couldn’t understand, unlocked the manacles, and in a moment he was free. His wrists burned, and the rope had left red scars.
“I guess you think you’re gonna grab that gun and shoot me, huh?” McDougall said. “But see, there’s only one bullet in it. How’re you gonna know, son?”
Joe was able to see the cylinder chamber from where he was. He had spotted the single bullet, which was in there – it was the next one to be fired when the gun was cocked. He avoided the sheriff’s eyes, hoping he hadn’t seen his keen gaze.
McDougall seemed oblivious. “If you tell me now, I’ll let you go, son. All you hafta do is identify him to me, and I’ll do the rest.”
Joe reached for the gun cautiously, not wanting to telegraph his intentions. But he needn’t have worried; McDougall didn’t bat an eye, as Joe leveled the gun at his head.
“You’re doin’ that wrong, son. You’re supposed to place it against your temple.”
“I could kill you, sheriff, all I got to do is pull this trigger. There’s a bullet in there, can’t you tell?”
Without looking, he said, “Yeah, I c’n see it. But you ain’t gonna shoot me ’cause you don’t wanna die.”
“Do you wanna die?”
“Ah don’t care. Maybe ya din’ know, but I’m dying of cancer, see? I only got a few weeks to live, so if you shoot me you will be arrested and tried and you will get the chair.”
Joe’s hand was shaking a little, but he refused to give up the gun, and he didn’t place it against his temple because he didn’t want to die; McDougall was right about that.
“You’re stuck now, kid. What’s the name of that nigga…”
Joe shoved the .38 forward in a sudden surge of anger. “You call ‘im that agin and I will shoot you!”
There was a pause as McDougall, feeling his oats, leaned back in the creaky wooden chair, looking smug.
“Don’t you care if you die?” Joe asked.
“No. That’s the beauty of it, kid. I don’t. You can’t win. All the cards are in my favor.”
Joe’s gun hand was going limp, the Colt gradually pulled by gravity as his resistance faded.
“Gimme the gun,” McDougall said, reaching out for it. “We’ll have done with this, if you tell me the name of that…friend o’ yours I seen you hang out with.”
“What’d you want his name fer?
“I gotta know who to arrest, kid. Gotta know where he lives. I seen you with ‘im, but I don’t know nuthin’ else.”
Joe’s arm stiffened, as his resolve did, but he was still shaking. “You really want me to shoot you, sheriff?”
“Do yourself a favor and talk. What’s the other kid’s name? Where do he live? Gimme an address.”
Joe still held gun cocked in his hand, but again he was beginning to weaken, and as the gun hand slowly floated, as if on a cushion of air, toward the floor, he felt something in him cringe. He couldn’t do it. How could he kill a man? He wasn’t a killer; he couldn’t do it, and he brought the hammer back down gently.
He let the gun rattle out of his hand. McDougall picked it up lazily, glanced at the barrel; he was smiling.
“You coulda shot me,” he said.
He threw away his cigar butt, and now he pointed the .38 against his own temple, and fired.
McDougall fell backwards off his chair, which had been teetering on its hind legs. He crashed, his dead hitting the concrete floor. His eyes were open, and blood was pumping out of the side of his head.
Joe fell back into his seat, exhausted and terrified. First, he couldn’t believe what had just happened. It wasn’t real. The quickness of the event had thrown him off his balance.
What now? He was caught. He couldn’t escape. Blood was everywhere; in a moment, deputies would be storming in through the door agape at what they saw.
But he heard nothing. No commotion outside, not a sound. He was frozen to the spot. The only thing he could hear was the faint gurgling of blood pooling on the floor beside the sheriff’s head.
To Be Continued