Regret

If you were accusing my son, I wouldn’t let him talk to you in a million years. — A Sex Crimes detective, on talking to the police.

 

Spencer stood as the judge asked the clerk to read the jury’s findings. Dressed in light blue, with a clean shave of innocence, Spencer fingered the seam of his dark dress pants. His oxford dress shirt stuck to his back, damp from the steady stream of sweat that had run down his spine all morning. None of the jury members looked at him. He stared at them. Almost begging for a quick glance to tell him it would be okay. His lawyer stood next to him. He, too, looked for a sign. Throughout the day of witness testimony and breaks, Spencer mumbled the same mantra under his breath: “This can’t be happening. This can’t be happening.” Nothing had changed in the ten months since I’d arrested him, since the day Nick called me about the case.

 

“Sorry for waking you, Detective. This is Candy from the Comm Center. I have 150-A, Deputy Nick Kessler on the line, asking to speak to Sex Crimes.” My head is on my pillow, the phone stuck to my ear. I hope I heard her wrong. 150-A means midnights in Zone 50, home to the Disney Internship Program. Kids on their own for the first time, on vacation from Mom and Dad.

“Can I put him through, or do you need a minute?”

I breathe deeply through my nose and sit up reluctantly. I take another breath and stare at the wall, struggling to wake up. My wife stirs, and I make my way to the kitchen in the dark.

“Detective?”

“I’m here. You can put him through.” The line disconnects momentarily, and I lean against the counter. The light from the microwave blinks 3:17 in the morning. Nick isn’t a brand new deputy calling to tell me what he’s got. He spent ten years in the Criminal Investigations Division. He finally got tired of the call-outs and the adverse effects that the constant triaging of cases had on his social life. For the last six months, he’s been back on the road, taking a vacation from CID. So, if Nick is calling, I am going to be up for a while. He doesn’t call for nothing.

“Go ahead, Detective—he’s on the line.”

“Good morning, Detective,” Nick says, as if he’s Ricardo Montalban on the welcoming dock of Fantasy Island—“Smiles, everyone! Smiles!”—except that he follows with “Living the dream, baby! Living the dream.” This is his line whenever the day begins with overtime.

“Just tell me if I need to come out, Nick, because if you’re just calling to let me know what you got, then I’m going to have to wait until noon, when you’re sleeping, to call you back.”

“Whoa. Don’t shoot the messenger,” he says, laughing. “My girl here was banging on dorm doors, crying for help, saying she was raped, and now her mom is on the phone from South Carolina screaming holy hell. Trust me. You’re coming out.”

“The mom is there?” I ask. The kitchen is brightening in the soft glow of numbers, clearing my sleep cobwebs. There is a commotion coming from the other end, somewhere behind Nick.

“No. She’s been on the phone with her parents. They’re threatening to sue Mickey Mouse. Hold on. Ma’am, please step—” Nick covers the phone and says something out of earshot. “Sorry, Vance. Your victim keeps calling me Andy Taylor. Earlier she was calling my partner Barney Fife.”

“Is she drunk?”

“If she’s not, she’s got a good act. Anyway, she’s not coming off the rape.”

“Stupid cracker bi—” someone says before he covers the phone again.

“Who was that?” I ask. “Nick?”

The phone stays muffled. “Please, ma’am—”

“Who is that?”

“Sorry,” Nick says into the phone.

“Who was that?” I ask again, but he ignores the question.

“We do have a scene. Liquor bottles, bed sheets, and a used tampon.”

“A used tampon?” I feel like I’m still dreaming. I stifle a yawn and my ears plug, dampening the voice coming through the phone.

“In the bathroom garbage, and she can’t remember how it got there. You want me to call forensics?”

“I’ll send forensics to you. Did someone just call you a cracker bitch?” I ask, knowing full well that Nick does not let things like this sway him. Whatever a person says or does to undermine their account of the alleged crime, this is still just a case number to Nick—nothing personal, just business—and nothing will stop him from working it into the ground. He just makes sure to put it all in his report. If they stick with a bad story, it’s still just another case number to him. He’s not the one putting people in jail, the lawyers are.

“Are you going to come here, or do you want to meet her at the SATC?”

“It sounds like she’d do better to be removed from the area,” I say, trudging toward the bathroom to get cleaned up. “I trust you can cover the scene, right?”

“You’re not sending your secondary?”

Normally, I would send another detective to cover the crime scene with CSI, but why muddy the waters with another person to testify? “If it was any other deputy, Nick, I would; but since you’re fully capable…”

“No, I got it,” he says. I can see his jovial red face in my head. “Living the dream, baby!”

“Yeah,” I say, flipping the receiver closed and reaching for my toothbrush.

 

Less than an hour later, I step into the interview room of the Sexual Assault Treatment Center and find Emily already seated in the overstuffed, blue-vinyl chair. She looks small in the spartan room, like a twelve-year-old: baby-doll shoes, matching blue denim jeans and jacket, her hair swept back. I sit across from her, set my digital recorder next to me, and introduce myself.

“Nice to meet you,” she says in a lilting southern accent, just above a whisper. There is no mention of Barney. No Andy. No “cracker” anything. Sitting here quietly, she’s as sober as a nun.

I smile at her, explaining that I will be recording our conversation so she won’t have to write down what happened. “I know this can be daunting, but I’m here to help, okay?”

Emily nods politely, but her body is tense and ramrod straight in her chair.

“Where are you from, Emily?” I ask, hoping to make her feel more at ease.

“South Carolina.”

“Well, that explains the accent,” I say, pressing the record button on the digital recorder. “This is Detective Vance Voyles, and I will be in the room with…” I motion to her. “Emily Evans.” I tell the recorder the case number, the time of day, and where we are. “Emily, do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?”

“I do.”

“Can you tell me why we are here this morning?”

“Because Spence raped me?” she says, her eyebrows raised in uncertainty.

I try to smile to calm her nerves. “I’m sorry, Emily, are you asking me or telling me?”

“What?”

“I asked you to tell me why we’re here, and you said you were raped. But you said it like a question. Like you’re not sure.”

“Well, to be honest, I’m not.”

“Okay.” This is not new. This should be easy to fix. I’ll be home sooner than I thought. “What do you think happened?”

“Well, I was sleeping…in my room…and my roommate woke me up, crying, saying Spence raped me.”

“You didn’t know?”

“It was my first time drinking.”

There is a knock on the door, and the deputy who drove Emily to the SATC pokes her head into the room. “I’m sorry, Detective. Can I speak to you for a second?”

Does it look like it? I think. But Emily is calm, and my getting pissy with another deputy isn’t good for our image, especially in this place of peace and tranquility. I turn off the recorder and excuse myself.

In the hallway, I notice the victim advocate standing by the bathroom door, ready to pounce and give Emily a hug, if necessary. The treatment center is just an old house, remodeled after the hospital across the street went up. Old walls painted bright white over heavy spackle. It’s supposed to be a safe environment in a troubling time. Posters of young girls just prior to victimization are taped haphazardly to the walls. Subliminal messages on boyfriends too good to be true, friends looking out for friends, and the perils of drinking too much. Propaganda and rhetoric about respect, abuse, and victim rights, expertly designed to get victims to press charges. It’s a government building with feelings.

“These are the statements we collected on the scene. One is from the roommate, and another is from her boyfriend.”

“Boyfriend? But I thought—” I say, tearing the pink carbon copies off. “Then who is the suspect?”

“Some guy she met at work,” she says.

“But the boyfriend was there, too?”

“No. He came after.”

I quickly read over the originals before handing them back. Everybody drinking. Too drunk to drive. Work guy sleeps it off in Emily’s room. Roommate kicks work guy out after hearing noises. Boyfriend comes to the rescue.

“Thanks.”

“You need anything else from me?” It’s close to her quitting time.

“No, but if you want to sit in on the interview, you can,” I say, smiling. I’ll take any opportunity to train patrol deputies in the way we do things. “We might even get to do a controlled phone call.”

 

When I enter the interview room at Central Operations two hours later, the sweet smell of malt has already filled the air. Upon my request, deputies made contact with Spencer at his dorm room. He answered the door on the third knock, his eyes glassy with sleep, and squinted at the deputies with a faint recognition. He didn’t struggle as they put his hands behind his back and locked the handcuffs. Spencer now sits in the corner, still cuffed and still wearing the red-striped shirt that Emily described in her sworn statement.

“Morning, Spencer. My name is Detective Voyles.” I set my case file on the chair opposite him. “Stand up for a second so I can get those cuffs off you.”

“Can you tell me why I’m here?” Spencer says as he stands, turning away from me.

I step to his side and pull his arm upward. “The guy who put these cuffs on you locked them all backwards.” I fumble with the key before unlocking him. “That’s better. Have a seat.” I move my file to the floor and sit down across from him. Reaching into my ID holder, I pull out a preprinted Miranda card. “Since you were put in handcuffs—something I didn’t want done, mind you—technically, you’re not free to leave.”

“Well, no kidding,” Spencer says, rubbing his wrists. “Are you going to tell me—”

I hold up my finger. “And since you are not free to leave, I have to read you your rights before we start talking about why you are here.”

“Fine, but I can save you the time. I’m going to want to speak to my lawyer.”

“Are you sure, Spencer? Because—”

“Why am I here?” he asks again.

“It’s about Emily.”

Spencer hangs his head and begins to shake it from side to side. He knew it as soon as he saw the police at his door. When I saw Emily in the SATC, she was cute. Halle Berry-esque. This guy is a mutt. Greasy hair. Flabby gut. Discount rack all the way. The only way she would have hooked up with him is if she’d been drunk. He needs to tell me this, tell me that she drank of her own accord. People do stupid things when they are drunk. Many a country song has been written about it.

“And I think that this is something you need to—should—talk to me about.”

Spencer doesn’t look up.

“But if you ask for a lawyer, then all I have is her word.” They tell us not to do this. He asked for a lawyer. Nothing he says from here on out will be used against him. But it can be used to help him. I have no hidden agenda. “I’m not trying to trick you, Spencer. I just don’t like having only one side of the story. I don’t trust—”

Spencer looks up. “I’m sorry, Detective—what did you say your name was?”

“Voyles. Detective Voyles.”

“Right. I’m sorry, Detective Voyles, but my father always told me not to talk to the police. No disrespect.”

“None taken. After all, I was just about to read that you do indeed have that right.” I stand up and grab the handcuffs again. “Can you turn around, please?”

“Wait. Why?”

“You want a lawyer, so there are no more questions, Spencer,” I say as I lock the cuffs back in place.

“So I’m still under arrest?”

I can hear the surprise in his voice. As if his mentioning an attorney was some get-out-of- jail-free card. It doesn’t work that way. This isn’t television.

“Yes, Spencer, for the sexual battery of Emily Evans.”

“So you’re taking me to jail now?”

“First, my desk. I have to write the charging affidavit. Then jail.”

 

Minutes later, Spencer is sitting on the couch next to my desk, talking again. “I’m sorry, Detective. I know you’re trying to write, but sexual battery? That’s rape, right?”

“Yes.” Part of me laughs at this small talk. When I came into the interview room, he was polite, but holier than thou. It wasn’t what he said; it was how he said it. My father always told me not to talk to the police. So busy not talking. So busy not listening.

“Emily says I raped her?”

“According to sworn, written statements, Emily isn’t the only one. Some girl walked in on you.”

“Melissa? She sent me a text after she kicked me out, but—”

“Listen, Spencer. I wanted to talk to you about this. I really did. But you asked for a lawyer. If you want to un-invoke your right to counsel, on tape, then we can discuss it.”

“And if I do that, you’ll un-arrest me?”

“No. Once you’re arrested, the clock starts ticking.”

“But I didn’t rape her.”

“I didn’t say you did. She said that. You said you wanted a lawyer. That combination didn’t give me much choice.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that before you arrested me?”

“I’m not allowed.” I’m starting to feel the morning, and my lack of sleep is pissing me off. “It’s called coercion, Spencer, and it would have violated your rights.”

“So you just arrest me on her word?”

You, and the hundred that came before you, I think. If I had a dime for every guy caught up in a he said, she said. Case number such and such: Two girls on vacation with their families get caught sneaking in late after having a ménage à trois with this cute little seventeen-year-old surfer they met. What happens in Florida stays in Florida; that is, until they find their dads waiting for them at the beach condo. Then it’s, he raped us. We didn’t want to do it. And now Dude Spicoli is up against two counts of sexual battery. That is all it takes to be a sexual predator. Two felony convictions. No more school. No good introductions to dads down the road. Nowhere to go but to the closet of your mother’s house to hang yourself after bailing out of jail. We don’t play in Florida. No sir.

“Her word, the statements, the phone call earlier this morning where you told her you guys had sex. All that.” When the deputy and I walked back into the room with Emily, we scripted out what she needed to say. We prepared her for his answers and dialed his number for her. We made it easy, that awkward morning-after call. Almost as easy as swallowing the morning-after pill she was handed after her rape kit was completed.

“We were drunk. We were in bed, and one thing led to another. There was no rape.”

I stare at Spencer in silence. He’d said all of this on the phone before I even met him. “Get him talking, Emily. He’ll apologize and admit the sex was a mistake.” It was all too easy. Spencer did what every fly stuck in a spider’s web does: he squirmed.

“What do you mean you don’t remember? Of course we had sex. I thought you were into it. Are you kidding me? How could you not know we were having sex? We made out. We were drinking. Maybe it was a mistake. I hope this doesn’t ruin our friendship.”

And it’s all recorded. Sometimes, I feel bad. Sometimes.

What I wouldn’t give for a magic megaphone, for the ability to scream into the ears of every young, horny guy on the planet. For this oh-so-valuable, sought-after friendship, sex must be the icing, not the cake.

If only he hadn’t asked for a lawyer, hadn’t laid that blanket of guilty conscience on himself when I asked him to talk about it. Had he given me his half of the he said, she said, I would have let him go home. Maybe I’d forget that he’d been in cuffs for a little while and apologize to the state attorney when the case packet arrived too late to pursue the matter. What’s the saying? It’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission? Detectives are people too. But he didn’t come at this right. Grown men shouldn’t ask for their daddies.

“Then why did you ask for a lawyer, Spencer?”

Spencer looks confused. He sits back in the couch.

“If this is all such an innocent mistake, what do you need the lawyer for?”

Spencer doesn’t answer. He just hangs his head and breathes deeply. I turn back around and start typing.

“So there’s nothing I can do to stop this from happening?” he says to my back.

I swivel around and look him in the eyes. “Not today. At least, not right now. But your lawyer can. You also have the right to a speedy trial. So don’t waive speedy. I’ll write what you have told me, and maybe you’ll get lucky and the state will dump it. Better yet, maybe Emily will change her mind. It happens all the time, Spencer. Eighty percent, usually.”

I don’t have to tell him this. But I heard the spitfire in Emily’s voice while I was talking to Nick on the phone. She was supposed to be drunk, but in the interview room, there was nothing. No slurring. No bloodshot eyes. No telltale smell of the sickly sweet alcohol seeping out of her pores. She was acting out a role, just like me. I am the police. She is the victim. My hands are tied.

I’m not supposed to feel this way. My job is to stand for the victim when she cannot stand for herself. She’s not supposed to make a vitriolic rage rise up in my throat. I am supposed to feel compassion for her and wrath against him. It’s what I was taught in the academy. It’s what I grew up watching on television. I want to rewind time and take them aside before they started to drink that night. I want to be Samuel Beckett from Quantum Leap. But however much I wish I could, I cannot travel back in time to put right what once went wrong. I can use this time, this moment, and I can give empty lectures. So far, there’s no law against that.

 

The next day, Emily’s boyfriend answers the phone as if he’s in a hurry. “Student Center, may I help you?”

“Yes, may I speak to Joshua Williams?”

“This is Josh.”

I introduce myself, tell him it’s about Emily.

“Um, can I call you back in about two minutes? I’d prefer to take this outside.” When my phone rings, the recorder is on and Josh sounds confused.

“Am I catching you at a bad time, Josh?”

“No sir. It’s just that I am surprised to hear from you. I mean, I wasn’t part of what happened.”

I lean into my desk, tracing my pen in circles as he talks. “According to Emily, she came banging on your door for help.”

“Yes sir, but—”

“She also told me that you’re her boyfriend.”

“Well, we hang out, but I don’t—” He pauses. “I’m surprised because I wasn’t there that night. In her room, I mean.”

“Yes, I understand that, but afterwards. After the incident, she came banging on your door.”

“No sir. That was before.”

“Before what?” I ask.

“Before she was raped. Sir.”

This is not what I want to hear.

“So she came knocking on your door before she was raped, saying she was raped?”

“She was drunk. Flirting, kinda…asking me to help her before something bad happened. Then that guy Spence came up and helped her back to her room. They were all drinking a lot, sir.”

“But you were there when we arrived.”

“Only because Melissa came and got me. She told me what had happened and that Emily needed my help.”

“Emily asked for you?”

“Well, I don’t know. She had fallen back asleep by the time I got there.”

And where was this information before I sat down with Emily? Did it come over the phone while I was sitting at home, too stuck in my sleep to hear it? Is this something I missed, or something that was left out?

 

“May I speak to Melissa, please?”

“Speaking.”

I stare at the numbers on the phone with my finger poised over the mute button. I lower my voice to its police tenor, the one with authority. “Hi, Melissa. My name is Detective Voyles. I work for the Sheriff’s Office, and I need to talk to you about Emily Evans.” There is a silent recognition streaming through the phone. I peek over at my computer screen at Melissa’s most recent driver’s license photo. The voice doesn’t sound right for the face. Too high. A bit whiny for the long, thick hair.

“Oh. Okay. Sure,” she says, her voice softer now. More grave.

“Is this a bad time? Because if you want to come in—”

“No. This is fine. Um…” Her hair scratches the receiver. “Yes. Hold on a second,” she says. There is shuffling in the background, and Melissa speaks to someone in a muffled tone. Over my cubicle, two other detectives laugh. I press the mute button and stand up.

“I’m taking a statement, guys.” The look on my face tells them to quiet down. As I sit down, I hear my words come whining back from one of them, mocking me. This is nothing new.

“Detective? Are you there?”

I unmute the phone. “Yes. Sorry. Is this a bad time?”

“No, no. I’m at work, but this is better.”

“That’s what I was thinking. I’m sorry I didn’t get to talk to you the night this happened. I was with Emily.”

“I figured—”

“And—well, I was able to read over a copy of your written statement that night, and I have some questions.”

“Did I forget to put something down?”

“No, Melissa. I just find it easier to write what happened when I hear it from the witnesses themselves. From the horse’s mouth, so to speak.” I look at her long face in the photo and smile.

“Sure, I guess. Well, like I wrote in my statement, Emily—”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Melissa. Before you start, do you promise to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but?”

“Sure. Yes. I mean, I do.”

“Perfect. You were saying?” I press the mute button so she can’t hear the commotion on the other side of the cubicle.

“Well, like I wrote in my statement, I walked into Emily’s room and saw she was passed out. And then I see Spence on top of her, raping her.”

Unmute. “Do you two share a room?” Mute.

“No. She moved back to South Carolina with her parents. When they showed up—” She pauses for a second. “Well, they kind of insisted.”

The joking from the other side subsides and I press the mute button again. I can hear my own breath back on the line. “No. I mean when this happened. Were you sharing a room with Emily?”

“No. Sir.”

“Then why did you go into her room?”

“To make sure she was okay. She was really drunk—”

“Was she screaming for help?” I pick up my pen again, trace and retrace circles.

“No, but I heard moaning. And Spence was supposed to be sleeping it off, and this was the first time she ever had anything to drink and I was kind of watching over her.”

“So you’ve said. But I’m curious—” I stab my pen in the beer stein mug I use for a pencil holder and flip through the file to find her statement. “Excuse me. I can’t seem to get your statement in front of me. It must have slipped out of the file or something. Didn’t you say something about Emily and Spencer kissing earlier?”

“On the couch, yes, but—”

“And you heard moaning coming from her room?” The statement is stuck to a stapled medical sheet. I pull it out to read as I talk.

“Yes, but—”

“Let me finish, Melissa, okay?”

“Yes sir.”

“Okay, I’ve got it now. It says that you see the two of them kissing on the couch. Later, you hear moaning coming from her bedroom. And because you think it’s a mistake, you decide to interrupt them?”

“Well—”

“You know he’s in jail now, right? I arrested him.”

“She was passed out.”

“You said you heard moaning, right?”

“Yes.”

“People who are passed out do not moan, Melissa.” I wait for a response and get none.

“I’ve also talked to Josh about this. It says here in your statement that they were dating?”

“Yes, that’s what she told me.”

“Would it surprise you to hear that Josh disagrees with that?”

White noise from the phone.

“He also told me that Emily told you that Spencer was fingering her earlier. Is that right, Melissa?”

“Yes.” The answer is almost a whisper now.

“Okay. So, you saw them making out?”

“Yes.”

“And she told you he was fingering her. Was this before or after you walked in on them in her room?”

“Before.”

“Was she unconscious when she told you this?”

“No.”

“And did she say she didn’t want this to happen?”

“No, but—”

“Kind of sounds like she was hooking up with Spencer, wouldn’t you say?”

“She was really drunk.”

“So, after you kicked Spencer out and went to her, did she say she had been raped?”

“No.”

“Did she ask you to go get Josh?”

“No. I thought—”

“Did you ever think that maybe she might be embarrassed?”

Melissa doesn’t answer.

“Put yourself in her shoes. You’re in the middle of a drunken hookup, and your roommate barges in, kicks the guy out, and calls another guy you’ve been dating off and on to come to the rescue.”

Melissa breathes into the other end of the phone.

“Kinda embarrassing, huh?”

“Yes,” she says, almost inaudibly.

“Spencer is in jail awaiting trial for sexual battery, Melissa. Rape,” I say, punching through the phone. Melissa doesn’t answer. “Does that seem fair to you, Melissa?”

“Well, not when you say it like that.”

 

A year after Spencer had his day in court, I receive a plain white envelope in my inbox. The return address has his name printed in block letters at the top. He must have gotten my name from the original charging affidavit. I doubt he would have remembered it from our interview introductions.

I slip the letter into my laptop bag and carry it to my new desk in Homicide. I try not to think about Sex Crimes anymore. When I pull the envelope out of my bag, the return address catches my eye. Scribbled under Spencer’s name, in what looks like an afterthought, is his prison inmate number.

I only saw Spencer once after his arrest, months later and in passing at the courthouse. I was there on another case. Surprisingly, I was never called to testify at his trial. When I called the state attorney, Scott, after the verdict, he told me that he’d wanted sworn testimony without any of my conflicted emotions. Nick never heard the full story, so he was the obvious choice.

“Your report told me how you felt, Detective,” he said on the phone.

“I didn’t write anything that wasn’t true.”

“But I know how you felt. You can’t hide that from a jury.”

“Five years, Scott,” I said. “Over a he said, she doesn’t remember?”

“She was a credible victim.”

“She told me she was a virgin and she wasn’t even sure—”

“And that’s why I didn’t call you to the stand,” he said. “If it makes you feel better,” he added before hanging up, “it wasn’t you who put him there, Detective. He had an attorney.”

Sure. He had the right to an attorney, and handcuffs were my answer to exercising that right. Emily’s statement gave me probable cause to arrest him. It was weak, but not so weak that my boss wouldn’t want answers if I let Spencer go on a hunch. If only he’d told me his side of the story. I could have used discretion. I could have explained Spencer’s logic to my boss, presented the reasonable doubt. I could have taken my time preparing the case, waiting days or weeks before forwarding it to the state attorney for prosecution. Any defense attorney worth his retainer would have the case thrown out on a technicality.

“Your Honor, the fact that my client was placed in handcuffs at his apartment, transported in the back of a squad car by uniformed patrol to an interrogation room across town, and read his Miranda Rights clearly shows that he was under arrest. I would argue that speedy trial began at that moment, regardless of his subsequent release.”

It wouldn’t be the first time something like that happened. Wouldn’t be the last, either. Chalk it up to detective error. I could have done that. But he had to go and ask for an attorney. The way I saw it, he might as well have stamped the word guilty on his forehead.

Legally speaking, when it comes to an allegation of a sex crime, all I need is the sworn testimony of one person to put a man in jail. Even newspapers need more than that to run a story.

And she wasn’t even sure. I figured he’d spend a night in jail and never hook up drunk again. I thought I was teaching him a lesson and still giving him a second chance; two birds, one stone.

But that’s just me rationalizing. I didn’t have to arrest him. Nothing is ever black and white. Haven’t I spent the majority of my detective life arguing the gray to one supervisor or another? I’m always preaching the spirit of the law and not the letter. So what happened this time? Is not arguing with a supervisor really worth five years of a man’s life?

It wasn’t you who put him there, Detective. He had an attorney.

With the tip of my letter opener, I let the razor cut a slit across the top of Spencer’s envelope. On small, tablet-sized notepad paper, he asks for a transcript of Melissa’s interview for his appeal. I staple my business card to the top of a signed copy and have it in the mail before lunch. I hope, for his sake, he’s got a new attorney.

__________________________________________

This nonfiction story was first published in True Crime: Real life stories of abduction, addiction, obsession, murder, grave-robbing, and more, edited by Lee Gutkind with InFact books in 2013. You can purchase it here if you want to read more.

Update: I retired from my detective position shortly after this story was published and moved out of state so my wife could be closer to her parents. I still work in law enforcement, but my detective days are behind me. In 2015, “Spencer” found me on Facebook and reached out to me regarding his new lawyer and his appeal. After serving four of his five years, “Spencer” got out on good behavior, but due to sex offender laws, he was stuck in Florida away from family and support systems back in his home state. He was also still embroiled in an appeal on the grounds that his lawyer hadn’t called me to the stand after reading my plain-spoken police report. When he found out about the book, it was entered as evidence during his appeal.

I’d like to say that truth and justice worked hand in hand to acquit “Spencer” from any wrong-doing. I’d like to say that the state attorney felt some remorse about the slanted version of events provided in his first case, and that they welcomed the opportunity to right what once went wrong. Mostly, I’d like to say that they didn’t treat me like a traitor, or try to discredit me when I took the stand in his defense this time. I’d like to say those things.

What I can say is that “Spencer” did spend four years in a state prison learning his lesson about trusting lawyers over the police. I can say that his new lawyer—and possibly my overdue court testimony—convinced a judge that mistakes were made, and the conviction was overturned on appeal stating ineffective counsel. I wish I could say he was back in his home state with his family, but a check to the sex offender registry in Florida shows him still living there, waiting on the state attorney to decide if they want to retry his case.  If that happens, he could be re-convicted. Only time will tell. Whatever the case, at least he’ll have a better lawyer this time.

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Happy Trails

Well, just got the email saying that my final story has been received and is under review over at NYCMidnight’s #flashfictionchallenge. Down to 40 writers with the following prompt; open genre, and animal sanctuary, and a bulletproof vest. I laughed when I saw the final object, given my history of wearing them. Gave it half a day of kicking around ideas and then a dark vision of my daughter crept into my mind.  Anyway, here is where it ended up. I hope you like it.

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Happy Trails

Stepping into the bullet-ridden stables, Val stops and lets out a whistle of birdsong. The chirps echo in the darkness, and red, white, and blue graffiti preaches propaganda. Is this the America you wanted? She walks the empty corridor and steps into the last stall on the right, moving quietly to the corner. She slips the rifle off of her shoulder and sets it gingerly against the wall next to a tattered blanket and backpack. In the opposite corner, a frail-looking, older man in mud-stained fatigues rests against a military rucksack, wheezing with every intake of breath.

“You couldn’t sneak up on a dead dog, you know that, Chooch?” Beck says without opening his eyes.

“We can always stop whistling,” she says, crossing to place the back of her hand on his forehead. “Best you stay quiet, Pop.”

“You’d like that,” he says, breaking into a fit of coughing.

Val pulls a canteen from her belt and hands it to him. “Drink some.”

He opens his eyes, sees the initials RD56 etched in the plastic, and shakes his head. “Where’s mine?”

“Ripped off your pack when you fell.”

“I fell?”

“Two miles back. Ranger carried you as far as he could before it got to be too much. I backtracked this morning when you were asleep, but I couldn’t find it.”

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Beck says, taking the canteen. “There are kill cells everywhere.”

“Lions, tigers, and bears. Oh my,” she says, raising her eyebrows.

Beck shakes his head, concealing a smile. He holds the canteen over his open mouth, careful not to touch it to his lips, and lets the water trickle out. “Where are we?”

“According to the half-burnt sign outside, appy Trails Animal Sanctu,” she says, pulling her dirty blonde hair into a ponytail. Beck tries to stand but she puts her hand on his shoulder. “Rest, Pop. It’s the best way to get better.”

“I’ll rest when I’m dead,” he croaks back.

Val reaches into her pack and pulls out a small orange bottle of pills and shakes two into her hand. “Take these.”

Beck pops them into his mouth, dry swallows, and starts coughing again, holding his fist to his mouth.

“The Government was here,” she says as his hacking subsides. “Spreading the gospel against Radical Dissention. They got propaganda posters stuck on everything from chicken coops to trees.”

“Chicken coops? That sounds foul,” he says smiling. She ignores him and rolls up her blanket. “People?”

“Thought I saw something in the woods, but it turned out to be nothing.”

“You sure?”

“There’s a grave behind the house.”

“There’s a house?”

“Burned down.”

“Figures,” Beck mumbles. “Listen, about this fever.”

“Stop,” Val says, with a lump in her throat.

“If you add my rations to yours, you’ll have a better chance—”

“You have a cold,” Val interrupts. “That’s it.”

“Hon,” Beck says softly.

“What?” Val yells, staring at him. Beck lowers his head, defeated. Val pulls the pistol from the holster on her belt and checks it.

“Still loaded?” Beck says, smiling. She ignores him, wipes the back of her hand on her cheek, and holsters the weapon. “Where’s Ranger?” He asks.

“Heading South with the rest. To St. Augustine. We’ll catch up.”

“You should have left me—”

“Ranger gave me a few extra cans of beans.” She reaches into her pack, and tosses them to him. “I’m going to get some wood for a fire.” She stands up and pats the dust from her pants. “Try to rest. I’ll be back.”

Beck watches her disappear down the corridor. He opens his fist and stares at the pills she gave him. He reaches around to a pocket of his rucksack and pulls out a plastic baggie. He drops the pills in, seals it, and stuffs it back in the pocket.

As she reaches for a last stick of kindling, Val registers a movement coming from the wood-line over by the empty kennels. She casually lays the wood on the ground and pretends to tie her shoes. Sunlight glints on glass from somewhere under the scrub brush. Binoculars? Rifle scope? She picks up the wood and heads for the stable, whistling as she draws near.

“We got a scout,” she says, dropping the bundle at Beck’s feet.

“How many?” Beck coughs.

“Just one.” Val grabs the rifle and checks the load. She reaches into her backpack, pulls out a bulletproof vest, and slips it over her shoulders.

“I’m going with you,” he says, reaching for his own vest.

Val shakes her head. “You’re not going anywhere.”

“You mind your elders, Chooch.”

In a flash, Val grabs her father’s vest, throws it over his shoulders, and pulls the Velcro straps to tighten it up. “I do mind,” she says. “I mind your cough. I mind your ragged breathing when you sleep. And I mind how you think it would be easier for me to survive this civil war without you.” Her voice tightens as she chokes back the pressure building in her throat. “I’m not going to let you get yourself shot to make it easier to leave.” Val pulls a sheathed knife from her pack and connects it to her vest. “I’m going to flank his position, and do what you’ve been teaching me to do ever since the world imploded. Okay?”

Beck stares at her face, sees the blue of her mother’s eyes, and his fear mixes with pride. “You can do this,” he says, wiping his cheek.

“I know,” she says standing. “You good?”

Beck pulls a heavy revolver from his belt. “I’m good,” he says.

“I’m better,” she responds, smiling and kissing him on the forehead. “Fever’s going down,” she says. “Good thing I been crushing those pills in your beans.”

Beck smiles sheepishly. “How did you know?”

“I’ve seen five-year-olds with better palming skills, Pop.” She grabs the rifle, ready to fight, and steps into the corridor. “Love you,” she says, “and remember, unless it whistles, shoot it.”

Forever Home

Well, here is the second round attempt for the NYCMidnight Flash Fiction competition. I scored first in my heat last time, and I was worried about getting Political Satire for the second round. I ended up with Fairy Tale in an orphanage with a pineapple. Not sure that was any better. I googled it, and Fairy Tales have elements of magic, good and evil, and happily ever afters. Here’s what that looks like in 1000 words, at least my version of it. If I can place somewhere in the top half this time, I think I should be good for the next round. Fingers crossed. This has been fun.


 

Forever Home

Sometimes, the only Happily-Ever-Afters you get are the ones you give away.

The slow spin of the buffer sliding across old linoleum sounded like rain on the windows. Cephas opened his eyes to see Bobby sitting on his bunk tying his shoes. A silver, pineapple pendant hung from the chain around his neck, glinting in a beam of morning light through the window. Bobby looked up, tucked the pendant and chain under his shirt, and gave Cephas a sad smile. In his third orphanage in as many years, Cephas only knew pain and suffering. Then he came here. Met Bobby. And it kept him from running. But Bobby aged out today. Everything was about to change.

“Ten-hut!” Jerry yelled from the doorway across the room. An old Marine from wars gone by, Jerry ran the orphanage like Paris Island. Welcome to the suck was the first thing he said when he met Cephas. They were ammonia and bleach. Bobby kicked the edge of Cephas’ bunk to get him moving.

“What’s he gonna do this time?” Cephas grumbled. “Ground me from getting adopted.”

“I told you, Ceph. You get up for the other kids,” Bobby whispered. “He don’t make it hard on you. He makes it hard on them.”

“Ladies,” Jerry said at the top of his lungs, “what have you got to say for yourselves?”

“Oorah, sir!” they yelled in unison.

“That’s what I like to hear. Now get this place in order. Who knows? Do it right, and one of you pound puppies might find your forever home today.” Jerry laughed and leveled a measured glare at Cephas, now sitting up in bed. Then he looked at Bobby. “You’re eighteen today, right Moreno?”

“Oorah, sir,” Bobby yelled.

“Moving on to bigger and better?”

“Oorah, sir.”

“Let’s make today count then, shall we?” he said. “Starting with your friend, Seef-ass, there.”

“Oorah, sir,” he said, kicking Cephas’ bunk again. “Get moving, boot,” he said with obligatory force.

“Oorah, Bobby,” Cephas said, sarcastically. Then he slipped on his boots and began straightening his bunk.

Bobby winked at him and started down the line of bunks, until he got to a scrawny, nervous kid named Gordon.

“Hey Gordo,” he said. “How goes it?”

“Good, I guess,” Gordon said, quickly adding, “sir.”

“Relax, Gordo,” Bobby said. “Which Saturday is this for you?”

“Seven zero, sir.”

“Seven zero?” he asked, incredulous. “You yankin’ my chain, Gordo?”

“No, sir.” he said, smiling. “Almost sixteen months.”

Bobby put a tender hand on his shoulder. “Well then, maybe it’s about time?”

“You think so, sir?”

“I do,” Bobby said, and moved on down the bunks.

 

Couples started arriving after lunch. Young, urban professionals. As always, the women searched for hidden cribs or toddler beds amid the rows of bunks. They were polite, but they quickened their pace when the bunks were all they saw. One Saturday, Cephas caught the tail end of a conversation from an open window as they made a beeline for their car.

“Why waste our time?” the husband yelled. “Our application clearly states newborn.”

“Yes, sir,” Jerry said, “but – ”

“We have three girls at home,” the husband said. “We don’t need some broken, teenage boy perping on our girls.”

“Perhaps next time,” Jerry said.

But there never was a next time.

Around three, as another disappointed couple was making their getaway, Bobby stepped into the bay. He smiled at them and the husband averted his eyes, but the mother hesitated. Bobby touched her hand and whispered something into her ear, as he had many times in the past. The woman smiled, and turned her head to see Gordon flying an action figure over his head. Gordon jumped a little when the woman tapped him on the shoulder.

“And what’s your name?” she said.

 

“You ever going to tell me?” Cephas asked Bobby, who was emptying his footlocker into his backpack.

“What?”

“You know what,” he said. “Those people were sprinting out of here, but you stopped them, and now Gordo’s gone.”

“Your point?”

“I seen you do it before, too.””

Bobby smiled and sat down on his bunk. “Hold out your hand.”

“What?”

Bobby reached around his neck and pulled off the silver chain. “Hold out your hand.”

Cephas did, and Bobby dropped the chain inside and clasped his hand around it, like a blood oath. “I been in this place eight years, right?”

Cephas nodded.

“Two years in, another boy aged out, like I am now.” Bobby nodded at their hands. “Gave me this.”

Cephas felt the clump of silver tingling in his palm.

“You put this on your neck,” Bobby said solemnly. “You ain’t never gonna get adopted.”

Cephas pulled his hand, but Bobby’s grip tightened.

“You also won’t never be treated wrong again,” Bobby said. “At least, not here,” he added. “And you’ll see thing you can’t explain.”

“What are you talking about?” Cephas asked.

“Making dreams come true, Cephas.” Bobby said, pointing to the boys in the room. “For them, and those who come after.”

“Why me?”

“Because I got this passed down to me, and when you age out, you’ll do the same.”

“How?”

“You pick a boy like you. Twelve or thirteen. Don’t need nobody to make them whole. A rock.” Bobby smiled, and let go of his hand. “You take care, Cephas,” he said, slinging his backpack on his shoulder.

Cephas sat stunned for a second. He looked at the pendant in his hand. Sparks showered all around it. Without thinking, he slipped it around his neck, and the room exploded in prisms of light, each boy taking on a different color of the spectrum. When he looked up, Bobby was gone.

“Moreno says you’re my new number one,” Jerry said from the doorway across the room. His head glowed a brilliant, amber light, and all the rough edges had fallen away.

“Excuse me?” Cephas said.

“You ready for some happily ever afters?” Jerry asked, with a smile on his face.

Cephas hesitated, but then said the first thing that came to his mind. “Oorah, sir.”