“What have you done, Barbara?”
“Nice to see you, too,” I said. “No Hello, no Has it been two years already?”
“I won’t hear a word of that, Barbara. I have nothing to say until you tell me. Why are you in prison?”
I swept my eyes around, seeking an escape from the conversation. The room was divided in two, and I could only see the rest through the glass window at my booth, past the angry-looking man with the receding hairline and crow’s feet around his eyes. I sighed. Two uniformed guards stood behind me, and I could end the interview with a word to them. But I knew I was going to press on anyway.
I said, “Look. First off, this isn’t prison. It’s detention, police lockup, whatever you want to call it. I’m not guilty.”
The old man said, “Not guilty yet, you mean?”
“Second off, I was arrested for supposedly shooting a cop during a robbery. Er, burglary.”
“Did you do it? Did you kill him?”
“I can’t believe you have to ask that,” I said.
“No! I didn’t shoot a cop. I’d never shoot a cop. And whoever they think I’m involved with—” I shot one of the guards a look, “whatever grudge they may think I have with the detective, I didn’t shoot him and I didn’t kill him.”
The man gave a sigh of unmistakable relief and slumped in his chair. He looked exhausted, and knowing him it was probably from work, but a little part of me hoped he was worried for my sake.
“I believe you,” the man said, and he wiped his brow with a hand that looked bonier than I remembered. “What sort of grudge could you have?”
I laid my chin in my hand. “Detective Glass pulled me over last week for speeding. Then he arrested me for suspected gang activity. Kept pushing to interrogate me when the other blue boys were ready to cut me loose. I wasn’t fond of him.”
“Suspected gang activity,” the man said, annunciating each syllable. His trembling hand pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, but he stopped as if just realizing I was there and stuffed the pack away again.
“They suspect my boss of some stuff, too. They think I’m in a gang with him.” I shrugged. Let the old man see I wasn’t afraid. A vein throbbed in his neck; he wasn’t buying it.
The man said, “And you were arrested during a gang raid of a cocaine lab. That’s what the officers told me. Is this what you’ve been doing since your discharge?”
I leaned closer to the glass, for all the good it did. “Dad, listen. I’ve made some friends. Shady friends, I’ll admit that. But I didn’t kill the detective, and I wasn’t involved in the robbery.” Meeting Dad’s eyes was harder than usual, but I did it.
Dad glanced up at the guards, then said, “Is that what you’ll tell them on the witness stand? Your official story?”
“Then I suspect I’ll have to accept that.” Dad’s hand twitched toward his pocket again, but the cancer sticks stayed where they were. He hadn’t smoked around me since I was a little girl.
I slumped back in my chair. If Dad looked tired, hell, I wondered what I looked like to him. I said, “It’s tough, you know? I’ve been here for days. They treat me like—” Like a murderer. “Like I’m guilty.”
“I know,” Dad said, closing his eyes. “I know, Suzie. I’m sorry for—for being this way. You know I am, right?”
Something swelled in my throat. I hadn’t heard that nickname in so long. Now I felt like garbage. “I, ah, should have called more often. Sorry, Dad.”
“You know I love you.”
“I know.” I did. We just hated to admit it. I sat up a bit and took a deep breath. “So… how’s Mom?”
“Tell me again what you were up to on Thursday the thirteenth,” the interrogator said.
“I figured we covered that well enough,” I said. We had, maybe three or four times already. The details were still straight in my mind where my lawyer, Darryl Dunson, had put them. Mr. Dunson sat next to me, casting his unblinking stare on the officer across the table like a spotlight.
The detective said, “I’d like to hear it again, if you don’t mind.”
I gestured to the camera behind him, and the cuff on my wrist clinked. “You wanna hear it so badly, check the tapes. Pick your favorite take.”
“It’s pretty chilly in here,” I said. Sure enough, I was the only one not wearing a coat, and I suspected the cold was meant to stress me out. I could feel the chill from my tits to my toes, and I figured that meant it was working. “Think you could turn it up a bit?”
The detective said, “Ms. Lenton, when we’re finished with our discussion today, you can go back to your nice warm cell and await your nice warm trial.” The detective glared at me from beneath his oily brow and scraggly eyebrows. I tried to make him look silly in my head, but really he looked like he could break my neck with a finger. “Until then, we have plenty of questions for you. I figured you’d be used to it by now. After all, this is the second time you’ve been brought in on suspicion of gang activity, right?”
I was tired of rehashing the same shit. The little things were getting to me, the cold attitudes and lack of sunlight. I was liking cops less and less with each passing hour. But lawyer or no, I was trapped with them. I said, “Fine. I went out to the convenience store that night, around one in the morning.”
“The store on Princeton Avenue?” the detective said.
“No, on Dayton.” He was trying to trip me up. Princeton was nearer to my apartment—it more sense for me to be there. “The store on Princeton doesn’t carry Shiner Bock Premium. The one on Dayton does.”
The detective said, “That’s a long walk out of the way.”
“I needed the air. I figured I’d enjoy myself.”
“Awfully dangerous trip to make at night, too.”
“That’s why I brought my gun,” I said. An excuse for the trip, and for having the gun on me.
I said, “Well, the store on Dayton was out, too, so I gave up and headed home.” I hadn’t been carrying beer with me at the compound, after all. “On my way back, I passed the old Fresh Cuts Lawn Care center.”
The detective’s eyebrow arched. I hadn’t mentioned the name during our last “interview”. I glanced at Mr. Dunson, who nodded to me, and I said, “One of the officers told me. Daniel Forest, I think was his name.”
“Sure you can’t make it a little warmer in here?” I said.
The interrogator sat up and gripped the edge of the table, hands poised like claws on a gargoyle statue. “Ms. Lenton, I can make it much colder in here, and from here on, if you refuse to cooperate and keep delaying this interview.”
“Detective,” Dunson said, “I insist you not speak to my client in such a brusque manner. Ms. Lenton has answered each of your questions so far.”
“So she has,” the interrogator said, slouching back in his seat. His eyes flicked down to a folder on the table stuffed with photographs and such, still waiting to be opened. He said, “Will you continue, please, Ms. Lenton? We only want to know the truth.”
Sorry, pal. The truth is classified. I said, “I passed the abandoned lawn care place and that’s when I heard gunshots. There were screams coming from inside, too, and from the street I could see lights jumping around past the fence.” I’d been told to be careful with my words here; it would be too easy to say something I shouldn’t know. “So I freaked out and ran. Then a police siren went off and I freaked out even more.”
The detective said, “And yet you ran toward the compound; is this correct?”
“I went around it, sure.”
“Why is that?”
Now I had to explain why I’d been caught on the opposite side of the compound, far away from Dayton Street. I’d already done so twice before. I tossed my hands up and said, “Look, people were yelling and screaming. Guns were firing. I figured the thieves or whatever would panic, and the cops would panic, and I’ll admit I did a little panicking, too. I hadn’t heard gunfire since the navy. I wanted out of the light, where someone might try to take a shot at me. I had no idea where the guys inside were running; I just wanted some cover and an escape route. I tried to make it to the other street, the cross street, before a bullet found me.”
“Uh-huh,” the interrogator said, and showed the same disbelieving face I’d seen during the last few interviews, always on a different person. This was the thinnest part of my story. I had an even flimsier explanation waiting for when they asked why I had gloves on me, but not on me, outside in the rain. I prayed to God they hadn’t found any new evidence that put me inside that fence.
I said, “At some point I was running in the dark down an alleyway, scared I was being chased. Then someone tackled me.” I mimed the action over the table, crashing one hand into the other. “A police officer starts hitting me, but I’m too afraid to draw my gun, too afraid to hurt a uniform. They drag me past a dead guy on the way to the car—” I looked the interrogator right in the eyes. “And now I’m accused of killing him, on the worst fucking night of my life. All because I wanted to go out and buy beer. There. You happy?”
“Quite. Thank you, Ms. Lenton,” the interrogator said, but he didn’t look happy. He opened the file and slid a photo my way. Genuine horror spilled across my face. Detective Glass, dead, eyes like his name, with a gushing neck wound.
I said, “Christ. Why the f—why am I seeing this again?”
“You recognize this man, certainly.”
“Yeah. Detective Glass. I didn’t recognize him that night, though.”
“You didn’t?” the interrogator said.
I said, “I was trying to look away. I was trying to figure out what the fuck was going on.” Even if I had seen Detective Glass during the chaos, I wouldn’t have shot him, probably.
The interrogator said, “You’re sure you didn’t recognize him as you saw the police car at the compound?”
“I’m sure,” I said. I sighed with relief as the detective pulled the photo away. Maybe I’d overplayed the horror a bit. Then he pushed a new picture in front of me, a family photo.
The interrogator said, “Are you aware that Officer Lyle Glass had two kids at home?”
Something cold hit my spine. Something else twisted inside me, cutting along the way. I said, “No. No, I didn’t know that.” Fuck, Glass had kids? That poor bastard. Goddammit, Glass, you just wanted to catch bad guys.
The interrogator said, “The girl Amy is sixteen. His son Brennan is just getting into junior high. Is something the matter, Ms. Lenton?”
“Huh? Uh.” If I vomited, would they bring it up in front of the grand jury? I said, “Why are you telling me this?”
“Why indeed?” Mr. Dunson said. “Detective, is there a reason you intend to put my client under undue duress?”
I heard nothing of what the two said next. I stared at the photo of the Glass family, girl and boy smiling with Mom and Dad’s arms draped over their shoulders. Maybe Glass was a shit father; maybe he treated them like garbage. Maybe he adored them. I’d never really find out now.
My head jerked up, but it felt heavy. I felt my nails digging into my palm.
The detective said, “Ms. Lenton, I think it’s time for a break. I’ll be back in ten, and you can consult with Mr. Dunson in the meantime.” I nodded, and the detective got up. Someone came into the interrogation room with glasses of water for both of us. I guzzled mine without feeling it go down. Goddammit, David. Goddamn the cops. Goddamn that whole shitty burglary, and let’s not forget, goddamn me.
Dick said, “Bobby blames you. You know that? He says it’s your fault you’re in this mess.”
I was mad. Damn mad. And for once, sitting across from Dick as we spoke, I wasn’t mad at him. I said, “There are all kinds of things wrong with that, you know. For one, Bobby’s a bumbling idiot.” We both had to watch our words; the guards were hovering nearby, and they might be recording our conversation.
Dick said, “Yeah, well, I can see that. I can put together what happened, and Bobby’s not telling the whole story.” If Dick had figured that out, why was he still giving me such a cold look? “But Barbara, this—this is a shitstorm. This is a big fuckup no matter whose fault it is.”
I sighed and stared at a smudge in the glass that separated Dick from me. I hadn’t expected good news. I was still disappointed.
Dick said, “Dunson treating you well?”
“He’s pulling his weight.” I’d be fucked without him.
“Good. This is a good enough trial by fire for a new employee.”
I said, “What happened to that kid? I saw her screaming up a storm as they cuffed her.” I’d heard nothing of Skylar. If I was stressed out, how would someone so young be holding up?
Dick snorted. “The kid slipped her bonds and got away.”
“What? Really?” I said.
“No arrest for her, no. But now the police know what she looks like. They’ll pass the news around. They’re hungry, Barbara, and now they got their teeth into you.”
I’d probably never see Skylar again. She was probably pissed that she got arrested working for us. I wondered just how much of her brief capture was my fault.
When I said nothing, Dick looked up and met my eyes, and I realized he was mad, too. I think he was mad at me. Something twisted in my belly, and my thoughts sank under a wave of exhaustion. I realized I could only take so much of this. “Dick,” I said, clenching my fists in my lap, “I’ll be okay. I’ve gone over my story with them, and it sounds like they don’t have much to go on. Glass was shot with David’s gun, which the police found in David’s hand. My gun wasn’t even fired that night. They’ll have to bullshit just to suggest that I shot him.”
Dick’s nostrils flared. He said, “And yet, they have you within shouting distance of a failed heist and a dead cop. A shitstorm, Barb. Don’t try to sugarcoat it.”
Why did he have to say that? Why’d he have to be such a downer? The thought of ratting Dick out hadn’t occurred to me, but if he was mad at me, I figured he’d considered the possibility. Did Dick suspect me of snitching? That was just one more goddamn thing to worry about, wasn’t it?
“The notebook,” I said, and Dick flinched. This wasn’t something I should be bringing up in front of the guards, but I had nothing else. “I mentioned it to Dunson on the phone?”
Dick’s eyes narrowed, and he gave me the same horrible look he’d given Silvers on that awful night. Dick leaned close to me, and I instinctively moved up to the glass. He said, “We didn’ find no fuckin notebook, Lenton. Looked for hours. It wasn’t where you said it was. It wasn’t anywhere.”
I slumped back into my seat. I was afraid that if I tried to speak, I’d throw up instead.
When I said nothing, Dick sighed and brushed a hand across his bangs. “I’ve been thinking, Lenton. We’ve had a good run, up til now. But this suspicion, this…” Dick gestured to me, the prison uniform, the guards. “This mess. I dunno. I’ll think on it. Let you know soon.”
Oh god, I was going to cry. Dick got up, turned away, and stepped toward the door. “Wait!” I said, and Dick paused without looking at me.
“What?” he said.
“Will you come visit me? Again?” I said. I realized I’d sprung up from the chair, and I seated myself back down again. “I’m not… I’m not doing very well in here.”
Dick was silent for far, far too long. Then he sighed. “Alright. I will. I’ll see you before the trial, I promise.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Good luck, Barb.”
“See you, Boss.”
He glanced my way and put on a little smile. Then he was out the door, and I was left trapped behind a glass pane. The guards came to take me back to my cell, and I let them.
It occurred to me that I didn’t know the guard’s names. I’d learned I was bad at being alone in here. Especially in here. Now I was scared to find out just what else I was bad at.
“I thought we’d talk about your service record today, Ms. Lenton.”
I should have said something, should have protested. Already the detective was thumbing through a new folder in front of him, this faceless police asshole who I was locked in with. “Navy, nautical deployment in classified locations. You see any combat, Ms. Lenton?”
“No,” I said.
“Deployed… let’s see… two thousand eleven to thirteen,” the detective said. I wanted to spit at him. I knew where he was going. I knew. But I was still reeling from seeing the file brought out in the first place. What the fuck was I supposed to say?
While I just opened and closed my mouth, Mr. Dunson said, “In what way does my client’s service record pertain to the case at hand?”
The interrogator said, “If the case goes to trial, I feel an examination of Ms. Lenton’s character will come to order. I won’t ask her to divulge anything classified.”
“Hm,” Dunson said.
We weren’t at trial. It wasn’t like I could raise an objection. The interrogator gave us both a knowing glance then read one of the papers inside. “Says here you received a General Discharge with no notable commendations. Why not an Honorable Discharge?”
I said, “You know goddamn well why.”
“What was that?”
I didn’t answer. He kept reading. “There’s some disciplinary action in here, too. Oh my. Mr. Dunson, have you read this?”
Dunson said, “I have, yet I fail to see how it pertains.”
The interrogator said, “You received Nonjudicial Punishment for—what is this—repeatedly damaging military property with fire?”
My chair was shaking. I needed a moment to observe that it wasn’t the chair trembling, but the idiot sitting in it. “I recall,” the interrogator said, “a number of incidents connected to the Blackbird gang involving confirmed arson. I wonder if a jury might find a correlation there. But going back to the record…”
I had already killed people. I had killed those unarmed office workers. I wondered how much more damned I’d be if I strangled the detective in front of me. There was only the table in the way, after all, along with the handcuffs and all of the men with guns.
“There’s a psychiatrist’s report in here, too,” the interrogator said. I got up.
“Where did you get that?”
“Please sit down, Ms. Lenton.”
Already I could feel the cuffs digging into my wrists, holding my hands away from his throat. “Why do you have that? What business is it of yours!?”
“Ms. Lenton, I’m not finished with this file. If you’ll kindly take a seat—”
“Fuck this! Fuck this!!” I said. I shifted my wrists and gave my right hand enough slack to reach out. The interrogator recoiled, but I planted my palm on the papers and flung them off the table. Other officers were already grabbing my shoulders, holding me back. My chair had fallen; someone picked it up, and the cops shoved me back into it. Even Dunson was wide-eyed, silently pleading with me to keep calm.
The interrogator said, “I’m not finished with you, Ms. Lenton. I’ve got plenty of questions about the dirt in this file.”
I said, “You can take your questions and shove them so far up your ass they’ll have to send someone in after them.” Could I flip the table? No, it was bolted down and I was chained to it. At least the guards kept their hands off me now. Maybe they were afraid I’d bite.
My hated interrogator took the papers from another cop and arranged them in a neat stack, back in the file and on the table. He kept them far out of my reach this time. “We’ll wait. When you’ve calmed down, we’ll continue.”
“The fuck we will,” I said.
“I’ve got all day.”
“I’m not saying another goddamn thing to you.”
The interrogator sat and stared. I sat and stared. Dunson twiddled his fingers and crossed and uncrossed his legs. Time passed. And I didn’t say another goddamn thing.
Eventually the extra cops filed out. Dunson began to fidget, then to try and reason with us, but I ignored him. The room got colder. A lot colder. Eventually I was sure an hour had passed. I didn’t say another goddamn thing.
Mr. Dunson wanted to leave. I let him. I could tell the interrogator wanted to leave, too. Eventually, the bastard left the papers where they were and stepped out of the room without looking at me. I was left alone. And I was happy for it.
No. I wasn’t happy. I was the least happy I’d ever been. I hated what I’d been back in the Navy; every time I gave in, every time I got caught, it was like having your parents catch you with heroin. You didn’t even want the stuff anymore, but you couldn’t give it up. It was too tight, too exhilarating, too much of an edge.
Eventually the door opened. I was huddled up in my chair, glaring at the file and shivering, when a coat fell upon my shoulders. My fingers groped blindly at the warm fabric. Suede, high quality, and familiar. And there was Detective Anthony Vargas, wearing a gentle look on his face.
“Hey Tony,” I said. I’d worn myself hoarse from shouting earlier.
“Hey,” Tony said. He pulled back the detective’s chair and sat across from me. “I’m sorry we had to meet this way.”
I said, “You know how it is. We keep bumping into each other no matter what the situation.” Why was he here, seeing me in tears? I felt guilty enough as it was.
Tony said, “I—” I met his eyes and he scowled at me. “I misjudged you, Barbara. I was foolish. I ought to apologize, but I don’t think you deserve it.”
I let my head droop. After I’d teased him to uncover my crimes last time, there was no hiding my guilt around him. Stupid me. I said, “Yeah. I don’t deserve it. Were you friends with Detective Glass, Tony?”
“No,” Tony said. “I figured you could see that.”
“Thought so,” I said. Holding Tony’s gaze was hard, so I gave up on it. “I didn’t kill him.”
I expected Tony to take the coat away any minute now. He had to know I was a criminal, even if he had no proof. Maybe he’d come to say bye. Maybe he cared more than I thought.
“Tony,” I said, “thank you. You’ve stuck up for me so far. It’s been good to know you.”
Tony looked at me, and the look in his eyes reminded me of Dick, of that strange, abrupt longing Dick had shown before he kissed my forehead in the hospital. Then Tony swallowed and turned away. “Goodbye Ms. Lenton. I hope your trial goes well.”
Tony got up, leaving me under his suede coat. I laid my cheek on the lapel and just breathed. There was a faint scent of spices or peppers, and beneath that a wispy taste of tobacco. Tony’s feet scraped the floor, and the knob clicked as he opened it. Then he stepped outside and was gone, leaving the door to shut between us.
I said, “What do you mean they’re cutting me loose?”
“Not enough evidence for an indictment,” Mr. Dunson said. “Nothing solid on any of the charges—trespassing, breaking and entering, or murder. You’re going home, Ms. Lenton.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Whatever you did, Dunson, thank you. I—I know I wasn’t much help.”
“It’s okay,” Dunson said, and he beckoned me out of my cell, through a hallway full of detectives who averted their eyes or glared at me.
Maybe my quick thinking had come through, and I’d really hidden my involvement well enough. Maybe the detectives were wary of sending me to trial because of my service record, or because I was a woman. Maybe logic won over their desire to nail me. Didn’t matter. At that point, I felt like I might as well have shot Detective Glass. Killed him. Shot him through the neck and left him bleeding into a puddle, so his wife became a widow and his children fatherless.
Eventually I was standing with Dunson on the sidewalk outside, waiting for my ride. A shiny black sports car drove up to us. Dick was there in the backseat, beckoning me inside. Mr. Dunson gave me a pat on the shoulder and lumbered off to his own car.
I climbed into the sports car and buckled up. Dick said, “Hey. Glad to have you back with us, Barb. Wanna go home?”
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“No. No, not really.”
Dick might have looked or sounded concerned; I paid him no attention. The car lurched forward, and I watched my cell and all of the officers and questions disappear behind me. I stared through the windows without seeing. When we arrived at my apartment, Dick got out and opened the door for me. He even walked me upstairs. His eyes were on me the entire time.
Dick said, “I’ll call you a bit later on. We’ll talk.”
I let myself in. The apartment was exactly as it had been. Fumbles strolled up to me at once, looking well-fed and pleased to see me. He seemed to take it personally when I staggered past him.
I collapsed into bed, clutching my chest and shutting my eyes against the world. I thought about fire. Fire. It was so powerful, so potent in its ability to erase problems. Don’t face a problem, burn it. So powerful, and yet it hadn’t done a goddamn thing for me my entire life.
Dad, Dick, Glass, Tony, my past. My bad memories. I couldn’t burn any of them. I wanted to. I wanted to be able to. But I couldn’t.
Maybe a fire on my stove. Or out in that junkyard just a few miles away. Or maybe, just maybe, in my bed. I clutched my knees and closed my eyes. The thing I really wanted to burn was me.