I was surprised when the police detective called me on that Thursday afternoon, and I got the impression he wasn’t expecting me to answer. I had no idea who he was when I first picked up the phone, though.
“Oh, Mr. Reed, you’re home.”
“Um, yes.” Confused, I wondered who was calling me at my parents’ house in the middle of the day when I hadn’t lived there for more than a year; and who was calling me “Mr. Reed”. “This is Carl Reed,” I confirmed, in case it was someone who thought he was speaking to my father.
“This is Detective Walker, Mr. Reed. I’m investigating the Car-Mart robbery…” Oh. Now I understood, the robbery I had witnessed three weeks before. I’d given my statement to a policeman over the phone once already, just after the crime occurred. Never hearing anything further about it, I’d forgotten.
“I’d like to talk to you some more about what you saw that night,” he continued. His voice was a little high and squeaky. He didn’t sound like a detective.
Immediately, my mind started racing. First, I wondered why I hadn’t written down everything I could remember in the days following the night-time robbery, as I’d considered doing several times. Surely, my memories wouldn’t be nearly as sharp several weeks later. Then my mind shifted to the fact that there really wasn’t a whole lot to remember in the first place, and a nervousness came over me, the same feeling I’d felt when the police officer had phoned me the night of the robbery to get my initial statement.
“I wonder,” he continued, “if you could come in and talk to me tomorrow. You don’t work in the afternoons?” he asked.
“We’re on summer hours, so I get off at 1:30 in the afternoon,” I explained to him, feeling almost defensive about the fact that I was off to enjoy the summer while most people were working.
“Must be nice,” he said, sounding like he was trying to be conversational without any real heart in it. “So, could you come to the station and speak to me, say…at 3:00?” I agreed, and after making sure I knew where to go, the detective and I said goodbye and hung up. I stood looking at the phone, my lips pursed in thought.
My nervousness at the time stemmed from what had—and what hadn’t—happened that Thursday evening three weeks before. It had been on my way home from my job at a wholesale plant nursery, that I had stopped at the gas station in my parents’ neighborhood. It was the same gas station I’d walked to as a child to buy soft drinks or play the lone video game which stood in the tiny foyer just inside the door. In the past seven years, I’d also stopped there around once a week to fill up my car (or my parents’ car, which is what I’d driven for the first four years), so I knew the place well. I also knew all the regular clerks, several of whom had worked there for four or five years.
That week, I was working the late-shift at the nursery, which meant I worked 1:00 to 8:00 pm, coming on shift just as all the other workers left for the day, and giving all the plants their evening waterings. I’m not sure why I’d decided to stop by my parents’ house that night on my way to the apartment I’d recently moved into, but it wasn’t an unusual thing for me to do. As I approached the turn-off to my parents’ subdivision, I decided to stop off at Car-Mart and get a Dr. Pepper. It sounded good, and I knew there were only Diet Cokes in my parents’ fridge.
There was nothing out of the ordinary as my car ascending the gradual incline of Highway 56 and the Car-Mart came into sight. Still, for no good reason, a figure in the window caught my eye. He was standing with his back to the window—and to the rest of the store—looking into the bathroom. Knowing the layout of the store, I knew that he was just around a corner from the main body of the store, facing the two bathrooms. There was something odd about the way he was standing there, and I noticed that there were no cars in the parking lot, as I slowed and turned on my right turn signal.
It was July, about 8:35pm, so there was still plenty of sunlight. I parked the car at an angle to the store so that I could see the counter through the doorway at the front of the store as well as the window on the side—I’d lost sight of it for a moment while turning into the lot, and the man was no longer there, not that I could see. It was then that a little voice spoke in my head, a voice I’d heard thousands of times before in my life.
He’s a robber, and he’s got the clerk in the bathroom with a gun at his head. It was an absurd thought, pure paranoia. You might think, given what turned out to be the facts of the situation, that it was a wonderful case of intuition, but I can assure you, it was simple paranoia…or fear-centered obsessive-compulsiveness at best.
As a child, I’d been scared of vans, sure that every one I saw contained a kidnapper waiting to snatch an unsuspecting child (this was in the days before minivans, so these were the REAL vans that criminals always drove in movies and after-school specials). It was a completely normal reaction for me, upon seeing a van coming up the street while I was walking home from school, to turn and start walking to the door of the nearest house, pretending like I lived there. A few times I even ran and hid in bushes. When I got older, I checked and rechecked the locks on doors, even getting up in the middle of the night and tip-toeing past my parents’ bedroom to jiggle the front door and make sure it didn’t just look locked. I knew all this wasn’t normal, but I’d learned to live with and accept it, and there were many times when I was able to simply ignore the fearful impulses.
But this time I stopped and waited. Through the door, I could see that the clerk wasn’t behind the counter, so maybe it’d been him I’d seen in the window, checking on the bathrooms or something. There were no cars in the lot, I noticed. Don’t go in there. The clerk’s not behind the counter because the robber killed him in the bathroom. “Alright,” I decided, breathing through my mouth. “This is ridiculous. I’m going in.” Stepping out of the car—I’d already opened the door and had been sitting there with one leg out of the car just watching the building—I stood up and closed the door.
As I took a couple steps toward the store, I looked up and saw that the clerk had appeared behind the counter. I recognized his white shirt with the small red spot that I knew was the Car-Mart logo above the left breast. It wasn’t Jeff, I noticed, because this guy had blond hair and Jeff had darker hair. Jeff was another kid from the neighborhood, a couple years younger than me, who’d started working at the store a month before. I’d spoken to him the few times I’d been in when he was working.
I stopped in my tracks. Blond hair. Drive away…just drive away! The figure in the window on the other side of the building had been dark-haired. Get OUT of here! Someone else was in the store. “He doesn’t look distressed,” I thought, looking at the clerk again and trying to think rationally.
Then I heard a deep voice call out gruffly, the sound carrying through the open front door: “Come on!”
Before I was even aware I’d made a decision, I was back in the car, starting it up. “Holy shit,” I thought to myself, throwing the automatic lever next to the steering wheel into reverse and glancing in the rear-view mirror. “It really IS a robbery!” As I backed up in the parking lot, I looked to the door again. The clerk was still behind the counter, looking my way. “Oh Jesus…oh Jesus,” I was breathing hard, as I turned the wheel, put the car into drive and started forward, still watching the door. I thought I saw a dark-haired head begin to peak around the corner of the doorway, but then I was turning down the street that led into the subdivision and driving toward my parents’ house.
It was a two minute drive, and by the time I was halfway there, I’d already calmed down and gotten rational again. It was probably just a guy who’d been in the store with his kid, yelling at the kid to hurry up. The fact that there hadn’t been a car in the parking lot didn’t mean anything, since people from the neighborhood walked to the store all the time. Yes, surely I’d overreacted once again. As I pulled up and parked in front of my parents’ house, I was sure it’d all been my paranoia, and I was hoping no one had seen me pull in to the Car-Mart, balk two steps from my car, and then flee in terror.
After I came inside and slung my backpack against the wall beside the empty coat rack, I walked into the hallway of my parent’s house. They were in the living room, my mother on the couch sewing and my father in his recliner reading a novel.
“Hi mom. Hi dad.” I walked into the kitchen as my father said hello from behind his book.
“There’s some leftover taco-stuff in the fridge,” my mother called, as I stopped at the kitchen counter with my hand on the refrigerator handle. The phone was right there, and I looked at it, wondering if I should call 911. No…there was no way there was actually a robbery going on at Car-Mart. There couldn’t be. I took a step toward the living room.
The idea of telling my parents, “I think there might be a robbery going on up at the gas station,” was playing in my mind, and I stopped again, turning back to the phone. Wait a minute. If I thought there was even a possibility that there might be a robbery taking place, I had a duty to call. Making up my mind, I stepped to the phone and dialed 911, sure I was about to make an idiot of myself.
“911, what is your emergency?” the operator’s voice sounded nasal and distant.
“Yes…um. I’m not sure…I mean…” Just spit it out, already! “I think the Car-Mart off of Highway 56 might be getting robbed right now.”
“Yes sir, we’ve just had a call,” she answered without emotion. “Tell me what you can see, sir,” she added, and the way she stressed the word “you”, I understood someone else had reported the same thing, and she wanted my version. Immediately my mood changed. I went from feeling sheepish and foolish for my stupidity to trying to remember everything I’d seen. Adrenaline also began coursing through my body retroactively, as I realized how close I’d been to a real robbery after all.
So that was it. Just as I’d told the 911 operator and the police officer who called me back later that night, I really didn’t SEE anything. It was just a feeling, an irrational fear, really…only this time, it turned out to be rather rational. A dark-haired man standing inside the window, not doing anything, the clerk not at the counter and then again at the counter; that was all I saw. I figured it would be a pretty quick interview with Detective Walker, but I didn’t think much about it that day.
The following day, as I drove home from work, I began to think again about the appointment that was now a couple hours away. Would Detective Walker think I was strange, wonder why I’d been so paranoid over what seemed like nothing? Or would the fact that my overactive imagination happened to be right this time save me too many questions about that? As for the case, I really couldn’t help him with that: a dark-haired man with his back to the window…a dark shirt, either navy blue, dark green, or black…normal build. As I pulled into the parking lot at my apartment building, I tried to remember if there was anything else I’d told the officer over the phone that night.
After changing out of my sweat-soaked work clothes, showering, and eating a quick lunch of microwave-grilled cheese sandwiches, I watched some television to waste an hour. Then I checked myself in the mirror, patted my unruly hair here and there, made sure there were no toothpaste stains on the corners of my mouth, and went out to my car. As I drove the few miles to the police station downtown, I recalled the day after the robbery.
Because I’d worked the previous weekend, I had that Friday off, so I slept in and then drove to my parents’ house to pick up some things; I was still in the process of moving all my stuff—books and some decorations, mostly—from my parents’ to my new apartment. Suddenly, there I was at the parking lot of the Car-Mart, and I turned in without really thinking about it.
“Oh man,” I said, upon walking into the store and seeing Jeff standing behind the counter. He looked up and raised his eyebrows at me. He was wearing the same white shirt with the red logo on the left breast, and I saw that his hair had been bleached since I’d spoken to him last. “That WAS you last night, wasn’t it?” I said, disbelief in my tone.
He nodded, the look on his face a mix of emotions that was unreadable. “Was that you in the car?” he asked me.
“Yeah,” I answered, walking up to the counter. I nodded toward his hair and said, “I saw you in here, but I didn’t think it was you, because last time I saw you, you had dark hair.” He shrugged sheepishly and gave a half smile. He glanced at the end of the counter, where a lanky, middle-aged man stood leaning against the glass. I’d seen him before, hanging out in the store, talking to the clerks, but I didn’t know his name.
“Shit,” he said, drawing out the word as he chewed on a piece of beef jerky. “I wish I’d been here. I’d a pulled out my 45 caliber and blown the fucker away, you know.” I ignored the macho stupidity, and Jeff didn’t looked like he’d heard the comment already that morning.
“So, what happened,” I asked tentatively, and before he could answer, I blurted out the second question as soon as it popped into my head. “They made you come back in today?”
Jeff nodded, but the 45-caliber man spoke before the clerk could. “Yeah. You believe that shit? You’d think if you’re working when the place gets held up, you least get a day off.” He looked at me for confirmation, and I nodded. “Shit,” he muttered again.
Detective Walker was a short, chubby man with large, round-framed glasses, his appearance matching his telephone voice. After getting me from the waiting area, he led me back into the office area and stepped into one with his name on the door. “I’m just going to grab my notes,” he told me, reemerging from the door a moment later with a yellow legal pad in his hand. “My office is pretty cramped…and, well, a mess,” he explained in a tone that seemed apologetic. He repositioned his glasses with his free hand, and then pointed to another door and led me toward it: “let’s talk in here.”
After offering me something to drink—I refused, not wanting to be a bother—we sat down at a small, rectangular table that was pushed against one wall of the small, bare room. The furniture and floor were a lot like my old high school cafeteria, but I wasn’t paying attention at that point. I was anxious to start talking and see what the detective wanted to know. Was he going to think I was a paranoid freak or be thankful for my observation skills? I didn’t have to wait long.
“Thanks for coming down to talk to me,” he said without looking at me, pulling a pen from his shirt pocket and clicking it open. He had already thanked me a few minutes earlier when we’d first met.
“No problem,” I said. God, my voice sounded small and scared. “Calm down,” I told myself.
“I just want to go over what you heard and saw on the night of…” here he paused and flipped a page over on his legal pad, “…July 13th. That was a Thursday, right?”
“Yes,” I answered, nodding.
“So, just start from the beginning. Where were you coming from, and why did you stop at the gas station.” He looked at me and squinted his eyes slightly behind the thick lenses, one hand on the legal pad and the other holding the pen, poised to write.
I went through what had happened, as well as I could remember it. He listened without commenting or writing anything down at first. Then, when I mentioned seeing the man in the window, Detective Walker interrupted me.
“Can you describe the person you saw?” he asked matter-of-factly. All I could say was that he had dark hair and was “regular build”…not fat and not skinny. As I mentioned weight, I shifted uncomfortably, wondering if the detective was self-conscious about his.
“You don’t know what he was wearing,” he added, his tone making it more of a statement than a question. I thought he sounded disappointed and couldn’t help feeling a little guilty.
“No. A dark shirt…blue, black, brown. That’s all I can say for sure.” He was looking at the paper and wrote a few scribbles with quick, jerky motions of the pen. Then he stopped, and the pen balanced on his fingers. Then he looked back at me and started tapping the pen softly on the paper. I looked down at the table, not wanting to meet his eyes; my hands were clasped together on the table, and I was picking at a callous with one thumb.
“Why did you notice him?” he asked simply, the note of confusion in his voice making it clear he didn’t understand why a man standing inside the window of a convenience store. Or, at least, that was the way I took it.
“That IS the question, isn’t it,” I thought to myself solemnly. “I don’t know…I just happened to see him. It struck me as odd that he was standing there, looking into the bathroom. It was like someone else was in the bathroom.” Should I tell him I had imagined the man was holding a gun and preparing to kill someone he’d pushed into the bathroom? No…I decided not to.
“Have you been in the bathroom there before?” he asked me.
I had to think for a minute. “I don’t think I have been since they remodeled the place. That was probably six or seven years ago”. As I answered, I realized he was no longer focused on my unexplainable interest in the man in the window; I felt relieved.
“Do you know what else is back there?” he asked. He was rattling off questions quickly now, seemingly without noticing my answers. This one confused me.
“You mean by the bathroom?” I asked to clarify. He nodded, and I thought again. “I think there’s just the bathroom. I really don’t know.” He nodded his head once more and looked back at his paper. I moved my hands to my lap, reaching down with one of them to adjust a sock. I was sitting with my legs crossed, so one foot was up off the ground.
“Okay, go on,” he said, prompting me to continue my account. “So…you saw the guy in the window…”
The next time he interrupted me I was expecting it. “Why did you hesitate to go in?” he asked, the skeptical note returning to his voice.
“I really can’t explain it,” I told him, noticing that my voice sounded plaintive and wishing it didn’t. “Something just didn’t feel right.”
“Because of the man in the window,” he added, again more a statement than a question.
“Right.” I changed position in the chair, uncrossing my legs and recrossing them the other way. “And, because I could see the counter…the cash register and tell that the clerk wasn’t there.” I left out the fact that I’d had a sudden premonition that the clerk was in the bathroom, dead.
“You didn’t see the clerk?” he repeated.
“So, he wasn’t behind the counter?”
“Okay, so, can you show me on this little diagram where you were at this point,” he asked, turning to a different page in his legal pad, where a crude sketch of the gas station and its parking lot had been sketched in pen. He offered me the pen, and I drew a quick rectangle to show where I’d parked.
“You know that’s a handicapped spot, don’t you?” he said, looking at the diagram.
“Oh. Yeah, that’s right. Then I parked here, next to it,” I said, feeling like an idiot.
“You didn’t park in the handicapped spot?” he asked, and I thought his tone was accusing now.
“No,” I said decisively, wondering if it sounded too defensive.
“I’m not going to bust you if you did,” he added, smiling, and I realized he was making a joke. “It’s important we know where you were exactly.” I nodded my understanding, and he asked again, “Did you park in the handicapped spot?”
“No,” I said, this time definitely sounding defensive. “I never park in the handicapped spot,” I explained honestly. “I just forgot about it,” I added, tapping the diagram with my knuckle.
“Yeah. I guess I set you up by not putting it in the diagram,” he said, smiling again. I felt like he was trying to be friendly, but the effect was kind of sleazy, like a politician trying to win me over. Maybe it was just nerves, though. “So…did you go in the store?” He flipped back to the page where he’d been taking notes earlier.
This time, he let me continue my story, uninterrupted, until I got to the part where I phoned in the robbery to 911. I paused, wondering if I should go on; the detective was looking at the few notes he had scribbled onto his paper. Finally, he looked up and saw me watching him and said, almost absent-mindedly, “You did the right thing.”
Then, there was at least a minute of silence, which felt more like an hour, during which the chubby detective looked at his notes, looked at me, looked at his notes, adjusted his glasses, glanced at me, and looked at his notes again. I tried hard not to fidget too obviously. I was pretty sure now that he was trying to make me nervous; it was working. Then, to my dismayed surprise, Detective Walker asked me to go over the story one more time.
“What?” I said, before I could catch myself. “Damn it,” I thought to myself. That “what” sounded so petulant.
“Can you just walk me through it one more time?” he asked politely, giving me a small smile.
So I went through the whole story again. This time, he didn’t stop me, and I realized he was listening for inconsistencies. “What is this?” I thought to myself, annoyed. I started to notice how often I was saying “um…” between words, and I suddenly had no confidence in what I was saying. Was that how I said it the first time? Wait…is that what happened next?
“Calm down,” I told myself. “You didn’t do anything wrong here. Just calm down.”
“Are you okay?” he asked me, sounding concerned.
“Yeah. I’m just trying to remember anything else I can.”
“Well, I think you did fine,” he told me, and I detected a note of condescension; but I was so frazzled at this point, I could have read hostility into a loving smile from Mother Teresa.
He asked me how well I knew Jeff, the young man who’d been the clerk that night, and I told him the truth. We’d talked a few times, and we’d played kickball together as much younger children, when the neighborhood kids got together in the evenings. He didn’t seem to think anything particular about my answer.
There was another uncomfortable silence, and the detective finally adjusted his glasses one final time, placed his pen down on the desk, and turned in his chair to face me directly. He looked at the ground, let out a long sigh, and then brought his eyes up to meet mine. I tried to hold his gaze, but my nerve only lasted a few seconds, and then I looked at my hand, which was nervously playing with the laces of one show.
“Here’s the problem, Carl,” he said, pausing afterward. “Jeff is a little punk.” I didn’t know how to take this sudden opinion, and I wondered, as the detective paused again, if he expected me to agree or disagree or offer my own opinion. “He’s a punk, and he’s got a big mouth.” I met his eyes again, and he saw the confusion.
“Jeff is out of town right now, did you know that?”
“No,” I answered, still confused by this line of conversation.
“Yeah. Seems that he took a little vacation shortly after the robbery.” Another pause. “Before he left, though, he ran his mouth off to one of his girlfriends,” the detective continued, adjusting his glasses and licking his lips. I thought I knew where this was going now, and I was interested.
“You see, we got a call from this little girlfriend of his, and she told us that Jeff has been bragging to her and some others that he and his buddy pulled off a classic scam on the gas station where he worked. An inside job.” I nodded with comprehension now, and Detective Walker nodded slightly back, raising his eyebrows. “Yeah,” he said. “One of the oldest tricks in the book.”
“I see,” I thought to myself, “so Jeff did it.”
“So,” he continued, “I don’t believe any of this shit about some big guy sticking a pearl-handled .45 in his face and asking for the money.” My attention was only briefly distracted by the new—and seemingly important enough to the case to be kept confidential—information the detective had just thrown at me for no apparent reason. “I think it was Jeff and a friend of his.”
And that was when my paranoia cropped up again. I don’t like the way this is going…why did he look at you like that when he said “a friend”? But I knew I was being silly.
The detective continued: “The only problem is, Jeff didn’t tell the girls who his partner was, and they don’t have a guess.”
Here it comes…he’s going to accuse me! “Wait…calm down,” I told myself, trying to keep my face a clam mask.
“So, I know Jeff and some other person pulled off an inside job.”
He thinks it was me! Jesus, he thinks it was me!
“The only problem is, I don’t know who that other person is.”
Here it comes… At that point, I was beginning to think the little voice of paranoia in my head was right, and I sat as still as I could, trying not to fidget. I felt sweat beading up on my back.
“Now you’re telling me this story that matches Jeff’s story pretty closely…”
And that was it. I knew it. It wasn’t just paranoia…this guy thought—was insinuating—that I had been in on the robbery. He’d called me in to interrogate me, not to listen to what I’d seen! It was so obvious now.
“I’m not really sure what to think here, Carl,” the detective was still looking at me, and I forced myself to meet his eyes. He still hadn’t accused me, so I knew I couldn’t blurt out “it wasn’t ME”, because then I’d just look guilty. But my mind was screaming it all the same.
It wasn’t ME! It wasn’t ME!
So, there was another agonizing moment of silence, and I waited, at this point wanting Detective Walker to come out and accuse me of the crime, just so I could stop waiting and deny it.
“Nobody was hurt in the robbery, and money can be paid back,” the detective said, tapping his finger on the table and looking at the wall.
Oh, come one. Stop insinuating and just say it already!
He looked back at me, and very suddenly now asked simply, “were you involved in this robbery, Carl?”
“No!” I said with absolute conviction; but my voice didn’t sound emphatic enough. In fact, I was quite sure I sounded like a guilty person making a denial. I didn’t sound shocked enough at the idea, and it was the damn detective’s fault for making his accusation so obvious so early. Shit. I should have just denied it when I first knew what he was getting at. No…that would have made me sound more guilty.
“If you were involved, and you’re honest with me, you don’t have to go to jail.” Walker was looking at me again, speaking calmly and softly. “If you tell me what happened, I’ll talk to the PA, and you won’t serve time. Nobody was hurt…it’s not too late.”
“No…” I didn’t know what else to say. My whole body felt like it was burning with fever now.
“But if you lie to me,” he continued, not paying any attention to my pleading denial, “I’m friends with the PA, and I’ll make sure you go down for this.” The tough edge he tried to put on his voice didn’t fit his pudgy, nerdy appearance, but I was scared enough already.
“Holy shit,” I thought to myself. “This is just like NYPD Blue. He’s leaning on me!” I couldn’t believe it. At the same time, bizarrely, a small, analytical part of my brain was thinking, "'PA'? I thought it was 'DA'...that's what they always say on TV. I guess 'PA' stands for Prosecuting Attorney."
“Come on,” he said, trying to sound friendly again, like a confidant. “Just tell me the truth.”
“I…I am telling you the truth,” I said, trying to keep my voice steady. “I had nothing to do with this robbery…or whatever it was.”
“You just drove up, saw a guy in the window, and drove off,” he quipped, making the two-second recap of my account sound incredibly unbelievable.
“Yes!” He sat there silently, looking at me, and I met his eyes without flinching this time. My back and ass were covered in sweat now, and I could hear my heart pounding in my ears, but I knew I had to keep eye contact. “Yes,” I said again, a little quieter this time.
“I need a drink,” Detective Walker said suddenly, clasping his knees with his hands. I didn’t understand him at first. He groaned and stood up, adjusting those damn glasses again. “You sure you don’t want something? A coke or something?”
“Huh…um…no,” I said, completely flabbergasted. “Wait,” I called as he started out the door. “Yeah…I’ll take a Diet Coke,” I said, and he nodded and went out.
I looked around the room in disbelief, after he’d gone, and I suddenly noticed everything for the first time. I was in a bare room with a table and a couple chairs. An old, stained, ceramic ashtray was on the table, pushed up against the wall; there was a clock on one wall, and a large mirror on another. Feeling stupid I hadn’t recognized it as an interrogation room from the start, I nodded in comprehension as I looked at the mirror. Someone else was on the other side, watching me. Maybe Detective Walker was back there now, conferring with them on how to question me further…how to “drag it out of me”.
Fighting a sudden impulse to nod or smile into the mirror to acknowledge their presence, I looked back down at the desk. The detective’s legal pad lay there, and I instinctively tried to read what was written there. But I immediately remembered the mirror and my unseen audience, and I looked away deliberately. Self-conscious of every move now, I looked at my watch and exhaled.
“Sorry that took so long,” Detective Walker said, as he came back into the room with two cans of Diet Coke. “The machine wasn’t cooperating,” he added, smiling faintly.
“Oh, cut the crap,” I thought to myself disgustedly. “You were in there watching me, and I know it.” Outwardly, I made some short sound to acknowledge he’d spoken to me and raised my eyebrows.
As I opened my soft drink and took a sip, the detective shifted in his seat to reach into his pants pocket and pulled a crumpled pack of cigarettes out. He tapped out a cigarette, and motioned the packet toward me, raising his eyebrows.
“No thanks,” I said curtly, as he pulled a lighter out of his breast pocket. I took another sip while he lit the cigarette. Strangely, considering my situation and nervousness, I found myself wondering about the legality of his actions. There was a city ordinance that forbade smoking inside public buildings, and I was pretty sure it covered the police station, too.
He took a drag on his cigarette, inhaled deeply, and blew out a spout of smoke, directing it out of the corner of his mouth away from me. Only then did he look at me and—as if he’d forgotten to ask—say “you don’t mind, do you?”
I instinctively started to say no, the passive answer he obviously wanted. But, for some reason, I found my backbone and, shrugging, answered, “actually, I do.”
He looked at me, and I saw a flash of anger in his eyes; then, for a fraction of a second, I noticed them flick toward the mirror before settling on the cigarette in his hand. Immediately, his eyes regained a calm look, and he shrugged, taking another puff on the cigarette and blowing it away from me. “Okay,” he said, as he stubbed it out in the ashtray. “My wife would thank you,” he added, trying to make a joke again.
“Jesus,” I thought to myself, angrily. “The asshole’s trying to play mind games with me now. I’m surprised he didn’t bring in a partner to play ‘good cop-bad cop’”. I sipped at the soda again.
After a pause, during which the detective opened and drank from his own Diet Coke, he started in with more questions without preamble. “Why don’t you go through what you saw at the gas station again.” He didn’t seem to notice my look of disbelief, and continued, “And think very carefully about what you saw or didn’t see.”
As I took a deep breath and thought about how to handle this harassment, he added, “I should tell you that we’ve recovered the surveillance video from the station’s security camera.” I saw that the portly detective couldn’t help but look a little smug as he mentioned this fact pointedly.
My mind was a complete jumble of conflicting emotions and thoughts at this point, and I tried to gather everything together into some manageable information. If they had the videotape, then everything was fine, because it would show that I had nothing to do with anything. But then, why was the policeman still hassling me? His last request, to retell my account of the evening for a third time, was an obvious attempt to rattle me, and some of my fear and nervousness was quickly turning to anger.
“That’s right,” Detective Walker said, nodding slowly, “…we have the video tape.” His manner and tone were downright triumphant now, and I was confused further.
What is going on here? “Good,” I said curtly, exasperated. Did he still want me to go through my account again, or was I supposed to have some further reaction to the videotape. The tape would show that I never even entered the store…unless it filmed the parking lot—which I doubted, having never noticed a camera outside the store—then I wouldn’t even appear in the footage at all.
Maybe that’s the problem. You’re not on the video, so they think you were involved and hid from the camera. No…that didn’t make sense. My paranoia was getting carried away again.
“So…” the detective was looking at me expectantly.
“What?” I asked, no idea what he wanted now.
“Anything you want to tell me?”
“You mean, you want me to go through the whole thing again?” I asked, incredulous.
“If you think you need to,” he said pointedly, raising his eyebrows. His tone reminded me of a psychologist now, and I wanted to punch the fat bastard.
“Well…you said a minute ago you wanted me to…” My mind was spinning, and I was further angered, because I was sure that’s what he wanted. He was trying to rattle me and doing a good job. Damn it, I hadn’t done anything wrong!
“I’m sensing a bit of an attitude from you,” he said, his voice still pleasant…smug.
I gave a look of utter disbelief and shrugged, the look on my face saying exactly what I was thinking: “well, no shit!” The whole thing was absurd and yet, it was the most terrifying experience of my life. This guy had threatened me with jail, for Christ’s sake!
“Calm down,” he said softly. “I’m just asking you some questions. Just tell me the truth, and you’ve got nothing to worry about.”
I barely managed to keep from screaming, so that my voice came out as a loud, pleading whine: “I am telling you the truth!”
“Okay. Okay,” he said, holding up his palms to placate me.
“If you’ve got the video, or whatever, then you know I’m telling the truth.” I pulled at the shirt in my armpits; it was wet and sticky.
“Why do you say, ‘IF we have the video’” he asked, taking his amateur shrink tone once again. I just looked at him, and he returned my look, raising his eyebrows for an answer.
“You said…” I started, flabbergasted again. “You…if you have the tape, then what’s the problem? I never even went in the damn store.”
“Well…the problem is,” he began slowly, “…the thief, or Jeff, or someone broke the tape when they took it out of the recorder.” He seemed to watch me for some reaction, but my mind stayed a blank mask as I processed this new information.
“So…” I started to think out loud, then kept it in my head. He was just playing games with me. That whole “we have the video tape” line was just to try to scare me into confessing. The fact was, I quickly discerned, they didn’t know shit, and he was harassing me, grasping at straws.
At that point, I had a truly horrifying thought, one that scared me more than anything to that point in the interrogation. What really had happened at the gas station didn’t matter any more. If I said, “yeah…it was me. Jeff and I did it,” that would be the end of the investigation. I remembered a criticism I’d heard about the police many times in the past: “they don’t care if they catch the actual criminal, they just care that the case is closed”. I was living that very phenomenon right now. Even though the idea of confessing to something I hadn’t done wasn’t even an option in my mind, the idea that just by saying a few words I could end up in jail for nothing was terrifying.
“When Jeff comes back from vacation, we’re going to have a long chat with him, tell him we know his story was bullshit. We’ll ask him who his partner was.” The detective paused, looking me in the eyes, awaiting a response.
I was imagining the situation: Walker would tell Jeff “we know you faked the whole thing. This Carl guy’s story matches yours, but we know it’s all bullshit. If you tell us the truth, tell us that he was your partner, then you don’t have to go to jail.”
“What is Jeff going to tell us?” the detective asked me.
“I don’t know!” I answered frantically, honestly having no idea what Jeff would say. If they gave him the option of going to jail or incriminating an innocent person, I could only imagine what he might do…what might happen to me.
“What do you mean, you don’t know?” Walker’s own tone raised a little, as if he was getting frustrated. Or maybe he was just raising the pressure on me with an argumentative edge, “leaning on” me, as the police said on TV.
“I mean…” I started to answer, stopping short. I mean, if you set me up, you fat asshole, give him the option of fingering me for something I didn’t do just to save his own ass…who knows what he’ll do?
His tone was softer when the detective spoke again. “If you’re telling me the truth, then you’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“But, I don’t know what Jeff is going to say,” I tried to explain.
“Just tell me the truth.” He was back to his pleasant, psychologist routine.
“I AM telling the truth,” I all but yelled, and I saw the surprise on his face. “Look,” I said after only a moment’s pause, my voice slightly calmer, “I went to get a…” I caught myself just before I said “fucking” and quickly continued, “…damn soda from the gas station on my way to my parents’ house. I saw the guy in the window and sensed something wasn’t right.” I was looking directly into the detective’s eyes now, but I wasn’t really seeing him, wasn’t paying attention to his reaction. I just laid it all out…again. “I can’t tell you why…but I sensed something wasn’t right. Maybe I’m psychic…maybe I’m just a paranoid wus and this time it happened to pay off.”
Walker let out a short snort-chuckle, but I kept going: “The fact is, I got freaked before I got to the door, got back in my car and drove out of there.” With anger, humiliation, fear, and confusion swirling around in my head, I added something I’d been thinking for a while but purposefully hadn’t said. “I thought I was doing the right thing by calling 911…” I didn’t finish the statement, but Walker understood my implication: see if I ever do THAT again.
“Calm down, Carl,” he said, a friendly counselor again. “Don’t get upset…don’t lose faith in the system. I’m just trying to track down the truth.”
You asshole. This is bullshit and you know it. I came in here in good faith to give my statement, and you ambushed me like some criminal. I remained silent.
“You did the right thing calling the police. I thank you for it.” He looked at me for several long seconds again in silence. I looked up from the table and met his eyes again. “Look,” he began again, “if you’re telling me the truth—“
God damn it! Why was he still saying “IF”? How many times was I supposed to say I’d had nothing to do with the robbery or whatever it was?
“—then you’ve got nothing to worry about. We’re going to get Jeff when he comes back to town. He’s a little punk, but I doubt he’s stupid enough to want to go to jail. He’ll tell us who his partner was and probably get off with probation…no one was hurt after all, and the money can be returned.”
I wasn’t really listening to him at this point, still fuming at the idea that I’d been duped into an interrogation…at the way he’d tried to bully me…at the fact that I’d let it bother me so much.
“If there is a trial, they’ll probably need you to testify as to what you saw, just to set the scene,” he added. I looked up at him, and I’m sure my face showed confusion.
So, I go from a suspect to a key witness just like that? I didn’t say anything, and another long silence hung in the air. I looked around the room and tried not to sigh too loudly as I let out a deep breath.
“Is there anything else you want to tell me?” Detective Walker finally asked me.
I looked back at him and forced myself to stay calm. Yeah. You’re an asshole, you fat bastard. If all detectives are like you, it’s a wonder any crimes get solved in this city. “No,” I said flatly.
“Is there anything you want to ask me?” he said, his voice trying to sound soothing again…a confidant or advisor.
A number of things ran quickly through my head: You don’t even have the videotape, do you? Who’s behind the mirror there? What would happen if I said I WAS in on the whole thing? Do you enjoy harassing innocent people? “No.”
Two months later, I testified in court. It was nothing like television, no excitement or drama. I sat in the witness seat for about twenty minutes and told what I’d seen and done. No one challenged me or questioned my curious reaction to simply seeing a figure in the window. I looked at the jury only a few times, enough to see that it was an all-woman group. They were completely harmless-looking—looked like a garden or sewing club to me—but for some reason they unnerved me. So I kept my eyes on the attorneys or the poster board displaying a crude map of the gas station parking lot.
Other than when I was testifying, I was kept out of the courtroom, so I didn’t hear any of the rest of the case, have no idea to this day what was said. A week or two after the trial, Detective Walker called me and told me that Jeff had been convicted. They’d finally tracked down his friend, who’d confessed to everything…staging the whole robbery with Jeff, smashing the video tape, walking away with the money while Jeff called the police and made up the story about a gun.
“The stupid kid wouldn’t fess up,” he continued, meaning Jeff. “The PA had no choice but to press charges against him. It’s a shame, really.”
I stood there holding the phone, a jumble of thoughts swirling in my head. When I’d first heard his voice again, a feeling of disgust and resentment had soured my stomach. But hearing what the detective said about the case, I found myself thinking about Jeff. Apparently, it’d been just his word against this other guy’s, one confession and one denial.
“You still there?” Walker’s voice brought me back to reality, and I mumbled a response.
“Listen, Carl. The real reason I called is…” I thought he was going to apologize, but he pulled up short of it. “I hope I didn’t upset you too much when I questioned you here at the station a few months back.” After a brief pause, during which I stayed silent, he continued. “I was just doing my job, and…well, I hope I wasn’t too hard on you.” I still didn’t respond. Either he was hoping I would, or he hadn’t rehearsed what he wanted to say, because he kept stopping and hesitating.
“Well, I just wanted to tell you that you did the right thing, dialing 911 like you did. I hope this experience hasn’t…changed your desire…your willingness to do that in the future…should the need ever arise.” The bastard just couldn’t bring himself to say “sorry”, could he.
Finally, just wanting the conversation to end, I gave him the absolution he seemed to be looking—but not asking—for. “Don’t worry. I understand.”
“Good. Fine. Well, listen…good luck to you, and…well, I hope I never see you again, if you know what I mean.”
“Yeah,” I said, unimpressed and annoyed.
“That was supposed to be a little joke,” Wallace’s nasally voice chattered from the phone.
“Yeah,” I said again, unable to muster even a fake chuckle. “I get it. I hope I never see you again either.” I hung up knowing that there’d been no joking in my tone whatsoever.
Now, six years later, I don’t have any hard feelings for Detective Wallace. I can see, with the benefit of time, that he was just doing his job. He had to play his little games to make sure I wasn’t lying, because the police didn’t know me from any other Joe off the street. I can also look back on my own fear and anger now with some amusement. Basically, I rarely think about the incident at all.
But I remember that small epiphany I had in the interrogation office—the realization of how easy it would be to confess to something I hadn’t done—from time to time. What if I’d been uneducated or stupid, really believed the detective’s words: “if you tell me you did it, you won’t go to jail…if you deny it, I’ll bury you.” Or, even worse, what if I’d already had a record? What if I’d been black or Hispanic?
I remembered all that last year, sitting at work, hearing some coworkers discussing some case in the news, talking about a defendant who was trying to rescind his confession, saying it was coerced.
“That’s just a load of crap,” one coworker said. “He’s just trying to back out now that he’s in there facing jail time.”
“Yeah,” another armchair jurist agrees. “Why would you confess to something if you hadn’t done it? A load of crap is right.”
I kept quiet, knowing that any effort to explain what I’d been through would be lost on them, that I’d just expose myself as a “bleeding-heart liberal” whining about the treatment of minorities.
And now, watching the news, I’m reminded of it again. Some poor man in Texas was just freed from prison after serving forty years for a crime he didn’t commit. The Sheriff at the time forced him to confess to the crime—the man was black, had a record, and was unfortunate enough to be living in Texas in the 1950s with those two strikes against him—by crushing his fingers with a paperweight.
As the 75-year-old man is ushered through a throng of reporters by some young policemen, I watch from the comfort of my living room couch. The journalists ask the obligatory and vapid question: how does it feel? And the newly-free man shrugs and tries to speak, but he can’t find any words. Another reporter shoves a microphone into his face and asks a better question.
“Why did you ever confess to something you didn’t do?”
Again, unable to speak, the shriveled, old man holds up one hand, and the camera zooms in on his gnarled, deformed fingers, visibly broken and dislocated to this day.
As I change the channel to find some mindless sit-com, I think again about Detective Walker and realize how lucky I was.