This is the latest chapter of an ongoing serialized novel that I’m working on and posting up here in rough draft form. To read other chapters, CLICK HERE.
Nine forty-five saw us sitting in the Principal’s office with Mr. Robert Mitchell behind his desk and Ian Vernon slumped into a chair facing us. We were crammed into the little office like sardines, since the office was dominated by Mr. Mitchell’s huge oak desk. I swear, you could have just about landed a helicopter on the thing, and it made me wonder what in the world he was trying to compensate for.
Robbie Mitchell had been the biggest hell raiser in my Sunday School class for two years until his parents up and decided to switch to the ARP church and my life calmed down considerably. He never liked me much, since I didn’t let him run wild like some other folks did, and I made him recite bible verses every time he misbehaved. He had about memorized every word of Song of Solomon and Psalms before he changed churches. I reckoned if he’d stayed much longer, he probably would have gone to the seminary, and the world would have been deprived of a man with absolutely zero skill in education or administration, so naturally he went into exactly that field.
“Now Ian, you know that you can request your parents be here for this conversation,” Mr. Mitchell said, but Sheriff Dunleavy held up a hand.
“Actually, Ian, according to these records,” he held up a file that I knew contained nothing but blank sheets of paper, since I had watched him pull them out of the copy machine in the main office and stick them into the folder. “According to these records, you’re eighteen. That means you’re legally an adult, and no, you cannot ask your mommy and daddy to be here when we’re talking to you.” Willis made it a point to make “mommy and daddy” sound as ridiculous and babyish as possible, to keep the boy from asking for his parents.
“You can, however, ask for an attorney. Although, if you can’t pay for one, you’ll probably get a court-appointed lawyer from the ambulance chasers that hang out down by the emergency room,” Willis added.
I knew this was a lie, since there wasn’t an emergency room for fifty miles, and there were’t any court-appointed lawyers in Lockhart. If the boy needed an attorney, they’d have to come from Union, or probably Spartanburg. That would take several hours to round one up and get her over to the school.
“I ain’t done nothing, so I don’t need no lawyer,” Ian said, his tone sullen and his words slurred. He looked everywhere around the room except at me, and I wondered why that would be. I didn’t remember ever having any interaction with the boy, unless he maybe was with his father when he delivered my liquor once or twice. But his daddy delivered liquor to half to houses in town, so it’s not like anybody cared.
“Then you won’t mind if we ask you some questions?” Sheriff Dunleavy asked. He pulled out a small digital recorder and clicked it on.
“Nah, y’all go ahead. Ask whatever you want.” Ian stayed slumped in his chair, working very hard to maintain his disaffected appearance. It wasn’t working, at least not with me. His eyes kept sweeping the room, taking in every detail. He was paying very close attention to everything, he just wanted us to think he wasn’t. I didn’t know if that was the demeanor of a guilty person, or just a boy who doesn’t want the adults to know he’s scared.
“You understand that anything you say to the sheriff can land you in jail, don’t you, Ian?” Mr. Mitchell asked, and I shot him a look that would have burned a hole right through his chest if I had anything like that super-hot vision that Superman throws around.
“Yeah, yeah,” Ian said. “Like I said, I ain’t done nothing, so won’t be nothing.”
I wasn’t sure what that sentence mean, or even if it was really a sentence, but I ignored it and focused my attention on the boy’s feet. Sure enough, they were clad in a pair of heavy black combat boots with thick rubber soles. I couldn’t see enough of them to see if the treads looked anything like the boot print we found in my yard, but they were definitely a military style boot.
“Where were you last night?” Willis asked, setting the recorder on Mr. Mitchell’s desk.
“When did you get home?”
“Did you go anywhere between leaving school and home?”
I could tell the brusque answers were annoying Mr. Mitchell, and they were having a similar effect on me, but Willis seemed unfazed by them. I assumed that in his time working in the big city he’d found ways to get information from recalcitrant suspects.
“What if I said I don’t believe you?” He leaned forward, dominating the skinny boy with his uniformed presence. Ian looked younger now, with the sheriff looming over him. His black jeans, black boots, and black t-shirt just made him look pale and nervous, not tall and intimidating like he certainly wanted. His spiky bright blonde hair wavered a little as he shrank back from Willis’ sudden invasion of his personal space.
“I’d say I don’t give a shit what you believe, because it’s the truth,” Ian jerked forward in the chair, almost nose to nose with the glowering sheriff.
Willis leaned back, a little smile tweaking the corner of his mouth. He got a rise out of the boy, got a full sentence out of him, which was some sort of progress. I enjoyed watching him work. He was good at this, working the push and pull of the boy’s resistance.
“Have you ever been to Ms. Carter’s home?” He asked.
Ian’s eyes went wide, then his brow furrowed as he looked at me. “Her? Why would I go over to her house?”
“I don’t know, Ian. Why don’t you tell me why you went to her house?” Willis asked. I pushed down a smile as I saw what he was doing, getting the boy to admit to going to my house, then spinning that around to him being there last night.
“I didn’t, man. I told you,” Ian insisted. “Or if I did, I went there with my old man, to drop off some liquor.” He glared at Willis, all his hatred of authority restored in a blink. “Is that what this shit is about? You trying to use me to put the old man in jail? Shit, all you gotta do for that is ask. Yeah, he makes moonshine. Sells the shit out of it, too. Sells this old biddy a case whenever she calls, sells it to just about everybody in town. Except that asshole BAR NAME? Shorty, he says Pop’s liquor ain’t good enough for his little pissant joint. Man, you want to get that old bastard on bootlegging, I’ll tell you anything you want. You want to know about them half a dozen scraggly-ass weed plants he’s got growing in the tool shed, too?” Ian leaned back, all smug viciousness at having turned coat on his father.
“We’ll come back to all that,” Willis said. I could see him mentally putting a pin in this point of the conversation. I knew from drinking with him at Gene’s that he could care less about a little moonshining, but growing marijuana might be a whole different operation in his mind.
“I want to know why you were at Ms. Carter’s place last night, poking around in her house. Why were you there, Ian?” Willis asked, his voice and eyes hard as flint.
“I wasn’t, man! I done told you, I ain’t never been there but to drop off liquor with Pops. What would I want in her house anyway? It ain’t like she’s rich or nothing.” He got a crafty look on his face. “You ain’t, are you?”
I almost laughed out loud at the clumsy boy, but managed to hold it in. “No, Ian,” I replied. “I’m not rich. I have some antiques, but most of them are too big to move easily. You’d need a truck and help to get them out of the house. That’s what makes this all the more confusing. Why would you break into my home?” I knew why, of course, I just wanted to keep him off-balance, to show him as few of my cards as possible.
“I didn’t. I wouldn’t. I ain’t a thief. I ain’t no kind of crook. I ain’t no pervert, neither, no matter what them two dead bitches did to my phone. That’s what this is about, ain’t it? Y’all think since I hated them snotty bitches that I killed them. Well I didn’t. I didn’t break into nobody’s house and I didn’t kill nobody. I’m a good person! I just…I just don’t know how totally to people sometimes, and sometimes people want to make out like I’m shit because my family’s shit, and that pisses me off, ‘cause I ain’t nothing like them assholes, and then I get mad, and then they say that proves they was right all along, and…and…and…shit, I don’t know. I just know I didn’t break into nobody’s house and I didn’t kill nobody.”
He leaned back with his arms across his chest and a scowl on his face that only an aggrieved teenager can manage. I looked at Willis, but he didn’t return my glance. He was studying the boy, all his attention focused on Ian’s face, the set of his jaw, how he held his shoulders, whether his hands shook. He stared intently at the teen for several long moments, then leaned back abruptly, startling us both.
“Well, Ian, I reckon we can sort this all out real fast, if you’ll agree to it,” Willis said.
Ian cocked his head to one side, his distrust of Willis, all law enforcement, and everybody who could possibly be considered an adult evident in his face. “What you got in mind, Sheriff?”
“We took a photo and a mold of the boot print that the burglar at Ms. Carter’s house wore. It was fresh, so we were able to get a very detailed impression. I’d like to compare that with your boots. If it’s not a match, and those are the only boots you own, then you obviously didn’t break into Ms. Carter’s home.” I noticed that he very carefully did not mention Jenny and Shelly’s murders. It was one thing for him to throw away a burglary conviction, but if he mentioned anything about the boots in conjunction with the murders, and the shoes didn’t match, we could have ourselves a regular O.J. Trial down here.
“Well, shit, Sheriff, why didn’t you just ask?” Ian said, leaning back in his chair and propping both feet up onto the table in front of him. My mouth fell open as I stared at the bottom of the boy’s feet. He had apparently carved all the tread from the center section of his boots, then epoxied or glued somehow letters down the center of each foot. They looked like the brightly colored letter magnets that children play with, except on his right foot it spelled out “P-I-S-S” and on the left foot is read “O-F-F.”
This was not the boot print of the person who walked through my backyard the night before. The boot print we had was normal, nondescript, and almost pristine. Ian’s shoes were anything but. He was innocent, and he was our best lead.
“Are those the only boots you own, Ian?” Willis asked. I could read the disappointment in his every motion. His eyes were downcast, looking at his papers while the boy’s grin burned a hole in the top of his head.
“Nah, I got another pair,” Ian said with a smirk. Sheriff Dunleavy’s head snapped up, then his shoulders sagged at Ian’s next words. “I carved ‘Suck It’ on the bottom of them. Those are for the days when I’m feeling real bright and sunny. They don’t get much wear.”
Ian stood up and pushed his chair back under the table. “I guess I can go now, right? I’ve got lunch this period, and I’d really hate to miss it. It’s fish stick day, and I can’t wait to see what they’re calling fish this week.” He walked out of the office and slammed the door behind him.
Mr. Mitchell looked at Sheriff Dunleavy and I, his ears a little red from embarrassment. “Well, I suppose that didn’t go quite as planned,” he said, standing. He gestured to the door, and we walked out into the main office.
Mr. Mitchell walked us to the door of the main office, then said, in a voice pitched particularly for the student office monitors to hear, “I told you that Ian wasn’t your burglar, Sheriff. You need to focus on catching real criminals instead of coming here and harassing my students. If you come back, you’d better have a warrant!”
Willis looked at him sideways for a minute, then nodded and walked out into the morning sun. I followed, and held up my palm to Jenny as she drifted over. “Not now, honey, I need to go over to the Grill and get some pancakes with enough syrup to wash the taste of teenage jerk out of my mouth.”
“I’ll drive,” Willis said. “I’m gonna need a whole lot of bacon to mask the taste of the crow I’ll have to eat the next time I need anything from Mitchell.” A disappointed sheriff, an embarrassed psychic, and a dead cheerleader headed off to breakfast. If that sounds like the beginning of a terrible joke, then you are beginning to understand how I felt. Like the beginning of a joke.