Chapter 3: First Encounters

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The cops called out, entered of their own accord, and found me sitting on the edge of the living room sofa, wrists dangling over my knees, head between my legs, and a small pile of vomit on the carpet below me.

A few minutes later the place was buzzing with law enforcement. I didn’t recognize any of them. A fat detective with a red mustache escorted me from the couch to the front step, I assume they wanted to search the house without me there and he wanted to ask me questions in the privacy of my front yard. He pulled out his notepad, but before he could begin another detective pulled him aside. This one I recognized from the prison. They talked briefly, mostly grunts from my perspective, and then the fat one left.

The new detective, a middle-aged stocky officer, walked back to me. He was wearing a light blue jacket with a pistol butt poking out, just above his waist.

“Her eyes were open,” I muttered, before he said anything.

“That’s common,” he said. “It happens when it’s sudden, or if there’s a spasm that shocks you for a second before the heart stops, or the brain…”

I eyed him from his shoes to the top of his ugly, shiny head. He looked haggard. He hadn’t shaved his head in a while so patchy areas of stubble poked up from his otherwise smooth, dark scalp. “My name is Detective Tolliver,” he informed me as he approached. I already knew who he was. I’d seen him before. He was soft-spoken, walked purposely, and though his eyes were friendly and he chuckled from time to time, he never smiled.

What struck me first was how deliberate he was, like a surgeon prepping for a long procedure. His movements were precise and methodical, and his eyes scanned me unhurriedly, even before he’d begun to investigate. Like all good detectives, he’d rapidly cycle through impressions, adapting his outlook as the night progressed. I could tell he was someone who deserved his reputation. He was in complete control at all times, and he knew it.

It was 8:25 pm.

“Do you want a smoke?” he asked. I shook my head. “I think in a situation like this you get a pass. I gave it up years ago. Now I suck on throat lozenges and lollipops just to get by. It calms the nerves. But on a night like tonight I just want a cigarette.”

“No thanks,” I insisted.

He looked at me curiously. “I’ve seen you at the prison, haven’t I?”

I nodded. “Kurt Stevens.”

“I thought so.” He put a comforting hand on my shoulder. “Mind if I get up to speed on the situation, then I’ll catch up with you?”

I nodded and began to pick at the paint peeling off of the trim around the front door. For a minute I was oblivious to everyone, just a guy on his front porch thinking about painting the trim.

The scene was surprisingly quiet. The sirens were muted but still spinning their strobes into the night. Voices resonated in the distance as our neighbors, my neighbors, and the people in my house discussed the “situation.”

I could imagine the scene from their perspective—a few dozen uniformed police officers tramping around, a couple of plain clothes detective types, and me, there in the middle, despondently peeling strips of latex paint off of the wooden trim around my front door. Amidst it all, somehow the loudest noise was the squish of muddy grass beneath their feet. I’m not sure if trauma can heighten the senses, but in that moment I could barely hear Tolliver’s voice, drowned out by the squelching of two dozen black standard-issue shit kickers.

“I said there’s a grocery bag on the table,” Tolliver repeated. “Were you out, Mr. Stevens, this late?” He emphasized the word “out.” He seemed angry, accusatory. Even though I was a fellow law enforcement official, I was still the number one suspect the second I picked up the phone.

“I need to sleep,” I told him, looking around for a place to sit. “It’s been a long day, you know?” In the middle of our yard, next to an ancient-looking concrete angel-boy fountain, there was a small moon-shaped cement bench that Tonya made me buy during her Roman phase. I sat—felt the cold seep through my denim—and stared down at the three-foot ring of stagnant leafy water pooling beneath the angel boy.

“Were you out, Mr. Stevens, when it happened?”

“When what happened?” I said, really looking at his face for the first time. Tolliver looked beat, bags under the bags under his eyes. Maybe it was a result of the day’s events but probably it was a result of his entire life. I knew the feeling. “She didn’t kill herself.”

He nodded. I watched his eyes quickly move to my hands, my knuckles. He pulled out his phone, slid the front down and began typing. “Never could read my chicken scratch,” he said without smiling. He pecked away with an experienced pointer finger.

“After work,” I told him, “I stopped at the store for a couple of things.”

“Where do you work?”

I couldn’t believe he’d forgotten. We’d just discussed it a few minutes ago. “For the state.”

“Don’t we all?”

I just stared at him, I didn’t know whether I was supposed to laugh. Was I allowed to laugh?

“Department of Corrections,” I told him flatly, and he stepped back to look me over. I was five-ten, a hundred and eighty pounds, probably close to his build.

“That’s right, the Penitentiary.”

I nodded and watched a kid policeman and another older, fatter cop lift the garage door and vanish inside, their flashlight beams playing tag in the dark. Two additional cruisers pulled up to the curb as a couple of medics carried a stretcher into the house. The mob of neighbors and passersby slowly but surely crowded around the scene.

“You don’t look like a guard,” he said. “And I would have easily identified you if you were. Are you a paper pusher?” Now he was trying to get under my skin.

“Medical Administration,” I said.

Tolliver studied me, shook his head. “Nah, that’s not right. Stevens. Kurt Stevens. Shit. Shit.” He looked down like he was confused, but he didn’t have that aha timbre that you’d expect. For someone who acted like he knew everything it didn’t sound right for him to be so surprised. Then his eyes exploded as he snapped his fingers. “You’re the executioner!” He knew how to interrogate a suspect, how to keep what he knew to himself while trying to get what he wanted. He was playing me, trying to get me to bite, and I knew it.

“You were right the first time, I’m mostly a paper pusher,” I said. “Didn’t think I was famous.”

The detective bit his lip, turned to the house and again he seemed angry. He asked me if it was just Tonya and me, like he already knew. I told him our… my ten-year-old son was at his grandparents’ for the weekend.

“How’d you know about my job?” I asked him.

“Must’ve read it in the paper.” He turned back to me. “Do you know of anyone who might have a vendetta against you?”

I couldn’t help but laugh, the answer was so blatantly obvious. Yet again, his tone didn’t sound right. A guy like that doesn’t sound interested when he asks questions like that. He sounds bland and silent. He wants you to react first so he asks questions in quick, short sentences so you have to fill in the empty space.

“Of course,” I answered. “I get death threats every day.” I could feel a sob coming on from the back of my nose but I couldn’t let it out in front of so many people. In moments like those, when your body is so overwhelmed that it can barely function, emotions just come out of nowhere. I found myself covering the escaping emotion with an awkward, hacking laugh. I said. “I typically kill more people than get to kill me.”

He just blinked.

I continued, “I’ve been picketed and sent questionable packages. I have more security in this house than the C-level at LCI.” I laughed again. “That’s the London Correctional Institution. It’s where I work, in case you forgot.”

He blinked faster. I don’t know why, but I was suddenly feeling simultaneously nervous and excited, and the words just started pouring out of me.

“The Prisoner’s Rights Coalition, Human Dignity International, The State Auditors, they all have my number on speed dial. In fact, they drown my email. They egg my house. I’ve gotten shot at twice since taking this job.”

I looked back into the house. “They’ve gotten worse,” I said. “There’s a new group called ‘Citizens Unitedfor Life.’ They’re a fanatical organization and as much as the name implies that they want to save lives, I bet they’re willing to kill. I’ve gotten at least a hundred different hand written letters in the past two months, all in the same handwriting, all in the same nonsense prose.” I got up to walk inside. “They’re in my study…”

Tolliver stopped me. “We’ll find them.”

“They’re not on the books,” I said. “It might just be one crazy dude who decided it was my turn to die. The CFL, got it? If you want to start looking for answers, start by tracking those letters.”

He just nodded and tapped notes into his phone. Then he moved on. He asked me if I called my boy yet. No. Her family? No. Was scheduled to work tomorrow? Of course.

“Shift?” He asked.

“Just before noon to whenever I get back from the chamber at Lucasville,” I told him. “Long day…long day.”

“I’ll have someone call up there,” he said. “You can spend the day with your boy.” I didn’t catch his insinuation, but he was doing me a favor, delivering a last rite.

“No, I have to work.”

“What’s so urgent?”

I raised my eyebrows, and thought he got my meaning. “Michael’s better off there anyway, for now,” I told him.

“Mr. Stevens,” he began in a tired, frustrated tone.

I thought of the 911 operator and tried to mimic her sigh. “There’s something scheduled tomorrow,” I said. “Something I can’t miss. You know?”

“Oh…yeah? Tomorrow? How many does that make for you?”

“Too many.”

He spotted someone over my shoulder, disappeared, returned a minute later.

“So unless I’m in trouble…” I paused to give him an opening, but he didn’t take it. ”Am I in trouble?”

The detective shrugged. “You want me to call her parents?”

“Michael’s with them. I’ll call them all at the same time,” I said. “It has to be me.”

He didn’t seem to care. “You can collect a few things, but you can’t stay here.”

“This is my—”

“You can’t stay here, Mr. Stevens. You understand? You find out where you’re gonna stay, you tell us, and we’ll arrange things.”

“What?”

“There’s a Holiday Inn on Route—”

“I know where the fucking Holiday Inn is!”

“Mr. Stevens, I know this is difficult–”

“Do you?”

Tolliver looked off to a young freckle-faced man on the front steps wearing a similar light blue jacket. The young man shrugged. Tolliver breathed deep and turned to face me.

“Me letting you go right now…that’s a gift for your sorrow.” His dead stare shot straight through me. “The man on the porch will follow you around while you collect your things, and I’ll get the Holiday Inn on the horn. You say your boy’s not staying with you?”

When I didn’t respond, he shouted, “Stevens!”

I walked past Tolliver without answering, bumped shoulders with the freckle-faced man on the porch, and collected my overnights.

A gift to let me go? He’d as good as called me a murderer. No matter how much I was expecting it, I wasn’t prepared. I just didn’t realize how it would feel to be accused, just like I didn’t know how it would feel to hold Tonya in my arms for the last time.

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