After 25 years as a fugitive, triple murder suspect Ben Whitekiller returns to his small eastern Oklahoma hometown in the company of an enigmatic young woman. Why has he come back? Why are those who sought him so disturbed at his return? What secrets will rookie patrolman Dan Hook find out about Ben and himself?
The instant Ace reached for his service revolver with his right hand, he extended his ice cream to me with his left hand. Taking his cone was not only a natural reaction, but almost certainly the right thing to do. Although it kind of bothered me that I ended up holding an ice cream in either hand and looking stupid.
I guess I was transfixed by my training officer stopping and reaching for his weapon right there in front of the courthouse for no apparent reason. He needed two hands free to assume the proper position: his butt down, his feet shoulder width apart, his knees bent and both his hands on the piece. It was like watching a drill at the firing range. He did it so smoothly that I was certain he was going to fire. I clenched my teeth and pulled my chin down toward my chest in preparation for the report before I ever turned to see where he was aiming. And, as I looked, he shouted out a name. It was loud-but not as loud as a shot.
I really don’t know what sort of bogeyman I was expecting, but it wasn’t the little man I saw standing on the sidewalk. He had just gotten out of the passenger’s side of a ratty old green station wagon, the door still standing open. Automatically I looked at his hands, both in plain sight and empty, one at his side and the other on top of the car door. Then the next strange thing happened: as the little man recognized that it was Officer Ace Adams holding the gun on him, his face lit up with a big smile. He spoke to him in the unmistakable soft, clipped voice of an Indian.
“Hello, Ace. Good to see you.”
Ace apparently perceived this to be some sort of trick. “You’re under arrest! Hands up! Put ’em behind your head! No sudden moves!”
I looked at the fellow’s face closely to see how he was going to react. If I didn’t know that a police officer was holding a .357 on him from a dozen feet away, I would’ve sworn the Indian guy was fighting back a smirk. He did sort of raise his hands in a half-hearted way, but it seemed to me that he wasn’t taking this too seriously.
“You heard me. Hands behind your head,” Ace said tersely.
“He’s not armed.” It was a girl’s voice. A tallish, lean, redheaded young woman was walking around the front of the station wagon. “Except of course for the two he’s holding up.”
For an instant Ace pointed his weapon in the girl’s direction, and then quickly back toward the man. He didn’t seem to know which of the two he should be covering. And, with an ice cream cone in either hand, I guess I wasn’t much help. For her part, the girl wasn’t even looking at him as she came around to the passenger’s side. I was watching her hands too. She was holding a pack of cigarettes in one and a butane lighter in the other. When she saw me looking, she smiled.
“You put your hands up too!” Ace barked, flashing the .357 toward her again-and then immediately back to the Indian.
“Why?” she asked. “I’m not surrendering.”
“That’s right, Ace,” the man said slowly. “I came to turn myself in.”
The girl slid her thin behind onto the fender of the car. “I don’t think I’m wanted for anything.”
Ace shook his head quickly. “You’re under arrest too.”
If the man was fairly unperturbed by Officer Adams holding his weapon on them, the girl was completely unconcerned. “Under arrest for what?”
It took him a minute to figure out why he was arresting her. “Aiding and abetting.”
She lit the cigarette stuck in the corner of her mouth. “Aiding a surrender?”
“I told you not to move!” Ace exclaimed to the guy, although I had been watching and I thought he was perfectly still. “Lock your fingers behind your neck.”
The Indian shook his head. “Can’t, Ace. Bad shoulders. This is about it.”
Ace was really struggling about what to do. He looked from the man to the girl. Then he glanced at me. From his expression, I felt immediately that I was failing him.
“I need back up.”
The girl-I say “girl,” she was probably twenty-six or seven, older than me-giggled. She pointed at me. “Well he’s got your back, Officer. Not to mention your ice cream.”
I hate to admit I was staring at the girl while Ace was still figuring what he should do. The breeze was blowing her long, red bangs into her eyes and she was smiling at me as she brushed them away. I had just about concluded that these two had no criminal intent at that moment. My trainer’s reaction to the man, however, was an indication that he was wanted for some serious crime-and that Ace and this guy had history.
“All right. Turn around and put your hands on the car. Spread your feet,” Ace ordered.
“Well which is it going to be, Ace?” the man asked. “Don’t move? Or turn around?”
The girl leaned toward me and said conspiratorially, “You know you’re melting?”
She was right. The ice cream was running over my thumbs.
“Hook,” Ace said without looking at me, “go up and get the chief and some back up. Tell him I just arrested Ben Whitekiller. And an accomplice.”
Pretending to reach for her cigarette, the girl covered her mouth and snickered into her hand. When Ace spoke to me, the Indian glanced in my direction for the first time.
“And they’re resisting arrest.”
“Hurry before he shoots us, okay?” the girl said.
“They give you two bullets now, Ace?” the Indian asked softly.
Even as they were mocking Officer Adams, I had turned away and was dashing up the cement courthouse steps two at a time. Honestly I wasn’t at all worried that these two had any evil intent or were going to try anything. I was more worried that Ace, left alone with them and nervous, was going to get trigger-happy. But how could I tell the two suspects whom my trainer had just arrested to stay calm so they wouldn’t get shot by an anxious cop? And I sure couldn’t tell Ace to relax.
Toby McClinton, the police chief, had an office on the first floor of the courthouse at the end of the squad room. I dashed through the front door with an ice cream in either hand and ran past the dispatch sergeant’s desk at a near sprint. Since there was no place of importance I could be running to except the chief’s office, Sgt. Wilson raised his hand and yelled out to stop me, “Hey!”
And leaning over the dispatch desk was my least favorite officer, Patrolman Max Collier, just above me at the bottom of the Okweekgo Police Department pecking order. “Butthead!” he called. “He’s got the mayor in there.”
I guess-when you burst into the police chief’s office breathlessly, holding two ice cream cones, despite having been warned twice not to go in, and with the mayor, Marty Meyer, sitting across from him with an earnest look on his face-you’d better have a pretty good reason. I was hoping I did.
“Son,” Chief McClinton said, “you’re dripping ice cream on my floor.”
I would’ve spoken first if I hadn’t been catching my breath. It’s true though, when you run with a melting cone, it just melts faster.
“I’m sorry sir. Officer Adams ordered me to tell you that he has just arrested Ben Whitekiller.”
Both men started as if shocked.
“Right outside, sir.” I motioned toward the window with my right cone. “He’s holding him at bay with his service revolver.”
They got up immediately and went to the window. I was right behind them, gazing over their shoulders, trying not to get so close that I touched them with the ice cream. Looking out the window, the first thing I noticed was that the girl, still sitting on the hood, was giggling. The Indian’s calm eyes were fixed on Ace.
“I’ll be damned,” the mayor said. “What’s he doing here?”
“Surrendering,” I said quickly. “Whitekiller said he had come to turn himself in.”
“Doesn’t seem to have taken any of the fun out of it for Ace,” the chief said thoughtfully. “Ben’s aged, hasn’t he? Who’s the girl?”
“Don’t know, Chief,” I said quickly. “Some drugged out chick, seems like. She was driving that green station wagon they came up in.”
“Why would he come back after all these years?” the mayor asked.
McClinton shook his head. “We’d better get down there before Ace gets all worked up and shoots ’em.”
They both turned toward me abruptly. I had to jump back.
The chief pointed at me. “Throw those damn things away.”
“Yes, sir,” I said. “Officer Adams asked for some back up, Chief.” I stepped toward his trashcan.
“Don’t dump them in my office!” he exclaimed. “Go throw them out in the men’s room and wash your hands, son.”
“And we don’t need back up. Come on, Marty.”
I followed them out of the office and detoured to the restroom as they turned to go outside. Max followed me into the men’s room.
“Hey. What’s going on?”
I dropped the troublesome cones into the plastic lined trashcan and quickly turned on the faucet. “Ace is outside holding his .357 on some little Indian guy. Ben Whitekiller.”
Max whistled. “Ben Whitekiller! No shit.”
“Who is he?”
“Fugitive from a triple homicide.” He leaned his behind against the counter beside me. “Must’ve been twenty years ago. He killed his wife and two officers and disappeared.”
I turned off the water and was ripping out paper towels. “Why would he come back?”
“Beats me, dipwad. Most people thought he was dead.”
“Yeah. The rumor was that state troopers caught him and killed him and buried him in the Canadian River bottom. So, is Ace going to get credit for this collar?”
I frowned. “You get credit for arresting somebody who’s turning himself in?”
Just as I was reaching for the door, Max bumped me out of the way with his hip and walked out first. “You do if it’s Ben Whitekiller.”
We hurried down the steps together. The drama was still playing itself out: Ace had his weapon pointed at the Indian. The girl, lit cigarette between her fingers and her hands resting on the fender, was still sitting on the station wagon with her legs crossed. A crowd was beginning to gather on the Okweekgo courthouse square, keeping a respectful distance-mostly because Ace had his piece drawn, I thought-and murmuring as more of them realized who the prisoner was. Ace had apparently been giving his blow-by-blow account of the arrest, and the resistance with which he’d had to deal. Finally McClinton raised his hand and cut off the monologue.
“Toby,” the Indian replied. “So you made police chief, eh? Put on a few pounds, too.”
“Speak for yourself. Although I must say that chasing bootleggers did keep me in shape better than sitting behind a desk.” He glanced as Ace. “You have mirandized him, haven’t you?”
“Uh, no, Chief. It was all I could do-“
“Jesus Christ, Ace! None of this is admissible. Read him his rights.” He turned to me. “Officer Hook. You wash your hands?”
“Pat the suspect down for weapons and contraband.”
“You are under arrest,” Ace began in a monotone. “Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”
I was running my hands down the Indian’s pant legs by then. He wasn’t paying any attention to me, or Ace. It dawned on me, to be honest, that none of us were listening to Ace as he droned on.
“What about you, young lady?” the chief said.
The redheaded girl looked up at him.
“You have any weapons or contraband on you?”
“Do you understand these rights as I have expressed them to you?”
“He’s clean, chief,” I said, standing up.
McClinton turned to Ace. “Officer Adams, you’ve done an exemplary job of managing this arrest without incident. Since Officer Hook is going to handcuff the suspect, I think it best for you to holster your weapon.”
We did as we were told. As Ace put away his revolver, a sense of relief spread through the whole little crowd on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse.
“Sorry, I didn’t catch your name,” the chief said to the girl.
She beamed. “Deena. Deena Taylor.”
He nodded. “Well, Miss Taylor, we’re going to need to go into the courthouse now. We are drawing a crowd and it will be more and more disruptive for us to remain out here. We need you to come in with us and help sort some things out.” He smiled at her paternally. “The courthouse has to be secure. We don’t have a female officer present to search you. So I just want you to tell me again that you don’t have anything like knives or firearms or drugs.”
“No!” she replied, with a hint of indignation. She glared at me. “What’d you say about me?”
“Is this your vehicle, ma’am?”
“Sir?” Max responded.
“Would you take this station wagon around back to the police lot? Miss Taylor?”
“Yes?” Her voice was teasingly slow.
“We’re going to search your vehicle. Do we have your permission or do we have to get a search warrant?”
She looked at the Indian. “Is it all right with you, Ben?”
He seemed even smaller and more innocuous with his hands cuffed in front of him.
“I have nothing to hide.”
“That’s new,” Ace muttered.
“Officer Collier, please search the vehicle. Video and bag anything of value to the investigation you find.”
“Yes sir.” Max stepped off the curb and the girl slipped off the fender onto the sidewalk.
McClinton scratched his head. “Let’s see. Where are we going here?”
The station wagon chugged to life, a small blue-gray puff of smoke burping from the tailpipe. Sluggishly it backed away from the curb and creaked as it began to roll forward.
“Is that going to make it around back?” the mayor asked.
Ace shook his head. “Well, if the murders don’t stick, we got him on an air quality violation.”
As the station wagon pulled away, I saw the Colorado license plate.
“Why don’t you take Miss Taylor to interview room A.”
“Officer Adams?” He put his hand on Ace’s shoulder. “Why don’t you bring Ben to my office. Help him on the steps since he can’t use his hands.”
The mayor stepped back as our entourage began to move up the stairs laboriously. “Toby,” he said quietly. “I’m going back to the shop. Let me know how this goes.”
Then suddenly the girl, who was walking just to my right, straightened and spoke up loudly: “There is one thing.”
We all stopped, looking at her.
“Ben wants a lawyer. Before he says anything.”
There was a visible sagging, like a sort of deflation, with Ace and me. Chief McClinton looked at her curiously and then a grin spread across his face.
“Right, Ben?” she asked.
“Yeah. Toby, I’d like a lawyer.”
“Sounds like you all have a plan,” the chief replied. He stepped over to me and spoke softly. “Now, son, don’t let her smoke in that interrogation room.”
“Just find out what you can and then let her cool it in there. Just ask her to wait nicely. You come on back to my office with what you get.”
He put his hand on my shoulder. He was looking down, as if he were working something out in his mind.
“Do me one more favor.”
He glanced over his shoulder to be certain no one else could hear.
“Lt. Vessey is off duty today. I want you to call him before you interview the girl and tell him what’s happened.”
“What has happened, Chief?”
“Ben Whitekiller turned himself in.”
“And I want you to tell him that I want him to come see me before he goes to see the prisoner. Understood?”
I nodded. “I will, Chief.”
We went through the glass double doors of the courthouse much more slowly this time than the last time I charged through them. Ace and Chief McClinton turned right, one on either side of Ben Whitekiller, and went into the squad room. I touched the girl on her elbow and motioned that she and I were going straight ahead. Glancing after the others, I saw the silent faces of three or four officers in the squad room staring at the handcuffed prisoner. I was beginning to think I was the only person in Okweekgo, Oklahoma, who didn’t know this man.
And who was this girl that no one seemed to know? You don’t have to be a police officer long to realize that very few people-even completely innocent people-are as relaxed as she was walking beside me down the hall, her cigarettes and lighter in her right hand. She wasn’t just pretending to be calm either, and apparently she wasn’t on drugs.
She was only two or three inches shorter than me. Thin but very well proportioned. She was wearing a lilac knit shirt, short-sleeved, and darker purple slacks made out of denim. Nice fit. And she smelled of nicotine and another scent-sweet and light. Maybe some kind of lotion. Her hair, just a couple shades to the red side of carrot orange, was thick and short.
“We’re right here, ma’am.”
I opened the door, marked only with the letter “A,” to the last room on the left side of the long hall. I pulled out a chair for her. It occurred to me suddenly how bare and Spartan the room was: four chairs facing each other on either side of a six-foot table with a microphone and switch box in the center of it. Apart from the two-way mirror, there was nothing on the walls-no windows, no pictures, no clock. It was not much bigger than one of the jail cells in the basement, and even more isolated.
“Ma’am, I’m going to get a note pad and I’ll be back,” I said. I felt as if I needed to reassure her. “I’ll only be two or three minutes at most. Uh-and, ma’am. You know you’re not allowed to smoke in the building.”
She gave me a look as if I were the stupidest cop on the planet.
“What about drugs?” she said. “Can I do drugs?”
Damn she was perceptive. She had guessed what I said to the chief. And she didn’t forget things either. Now I was on the spot.
“As long as you don’t light them up, ma’am,” I said. “And please dispose of your needles safely.”
She laughed out loud, a very easy and attractive laugh. “I’ll be right here, Officer Hook.”
It occurred to me as I was going to my desk that I was scurrying, almost like a little boy cleaning up his room so he can go to a movie with his friends. It was the first time in my three weeks on the force I’d really felt like a policeman.
I picked up the phone and dialed in Lt. Robert Vessey’s number. Nobody in the police department-not even Lt. Vessey-knew that I had memorized his number. No one realized that I knew he was behind me landing my job with the Okweekgo police. And he didn’t know I was aware that he and my mom had been close back when she was very young-before she got “hooked” up with my dad, Dan Hook, and moved from Okweekgo to Muskogee.
His phone rang three times before he answered. His voice sounded the way you sound when you’re asleep, or half awake, and are trying to pretend you haven’t been sleeping. After all, it was nearly 1:30 in the afternoon.
“Lieutenant, this is Dan Hook over in the squad room.”
His voice brightened. “Yeah, Dan.”
“Sir, Chief McClinton asked me to call you and pass along some information.”
“Sir, just a few minutes ago Ben Whitekiller turned himself in here at the station.”
Vessey was quiet for so long that I spoke again. “Lieutenant?”
There were another few seconds of silence. “He just gave himself up? He came in alone?”
Later, as I looked back on it, I should’ve gone to school on that question. I should’ve paid closer attention to what he had asked.
“Yes, sir. Pretty much. Officer Adams and I were walking back from lunch and he pulled up in front of the courthouse. Some sketchy girl was driving him.” When he didn’t say anything, I continued. “Ace pulled his weapon, sir. For a minute I thought he was going to shoot him.”
“. . . Yeah. Well, Dan, it wouldn’t have surprised me. A lot of us wanted to shoot Ben Whitekiller.”
I was really interested in wanting to know why the chief had wanted me to call Lt. Vessey. Obviously Vessey had somehow been involved in the original investigation. But I was also the “new boy” and at that moment I recognized that, if it ever became my business, the lieutenant or the chief would explain everything to me.
“One other thing, Lieutenant. Chief McClinton said he wants you to come and see him before you speak to the prisoner.”
Vessey laughed. “Even if I promise to leave my piece at home?”
“Well, I’ve got to get off now, sir. I have to interrogate the driver.”
“See you later, Dan.”
I hung up the receiver. The file drawer made a hollow sound as I pulled it open. There were no files in it to fill up the little void. Grabbing a folder with the interrogation format on the outside and my never-used yellow legal pad, I walked out of the squad room. And then I realized that I was feeling less anxious.
The girl smiled at me as I opened the door. I was relieved to see that she had not lit up a cigarette.
“Thank you for waiting.” I set the folder and pad on the table.
“Wow,” she said. There seemed always to be an element of mockery in her voice. “You get to interrogate me all by yourself?”
“Well it’s not really an interrogation, ma’am. I’m just gathering some information to help us understand the situation.”
“Am I under arrest?”
“Uh.” I couldn’t help but grin. At least I was looking down at the folder. “I don’t think you were really under arrest, ma’am. I believe Officer Adams was trying to control the situation while evaluating the level of danger it presented.”
She giggled. “Why do you cops always talk like that?”
“Like what, ma’am?”
“You know. Police talk. So formal. You use stilted language that nobody really uses, like an old Dragnet rerun.”
I shrugged. “I think we try to be precise. We want to avoid miscommunication. We don’t want to understate or overstate any situation, ma’am.”
“See, like that,” she said. “Why do you keep calling me ‘ma’am?’ I’m not that much older than you. I’m twenty-eight. How old are you?”
“We use terms of respect regardless of the age of the person we’re interviewing.”
“How old are you?” She asked as if I had answered, but she had not understood my response.
“Uh, I didn’t say, ma’am.”
A sly, coy smile spread across her face. “You’re embarrassed because you’re so young.”
“No, ma’am. I’m twenty-four. May I ask you some questions now?”
“If you’ll call me ‘Deena’ instead of ‘ma’am.'” She pointed at the wall behind me. “Is that one of those cool mirrors where people can see us talking but we can’t see them?”
“So is somebody watching us now?”
She arched her eyebrows. “How can you be so sure?”
I shrugged. “That’s the tech room. That’s where we make video and audio recordings of suspects and material witnesses who are being interviewed. Since you’re not a suspect and you were scarcely born when the crimes in question occurred, there’s no point in taping this interview.”
“Well sometimes do policemen just go in there for fun to watch? Or maybe to check up on you? You know, since you’re so young?”
“No, ma’am,” I said. I reached to the center of the table and flipped on the microphone. “Is anyone in the tech room?” I asked loudly.
Within a second or two there was a bit of static and then a baritone voice came over the speaker: “No.”
The girl erupted with laughter.
I turned off the microphone. “That was Officer Collier,” I said, wondering if my face was turning red. “Excuse me for a moment, miss.”
Trying not to act as angry as I felt, I got up and stepped out of the room and yanked open the door between interview rooms A and B. Collier was wearing a shitty grin.
“What the hell are you doing? I thought you were supposed to be searching the station wagon?”
“Cool your cubes, Columbo,” he said. “I’m waiting for the forensic unit to get back from a break-in. They have the video camera.”
“So you just decided to watch over my shoulder and humiliate me?”
He smirked. “I’m just checking out the chick. You sure you can handle all that by yourself?”
“Just do me a favor,” I said, trying not to sound too belligerent toward a guy four inches taller and fifty pounds heavier. “Stay off the speaker and try not to make a liar out of me again.”
“Jesus, Danny. You’re so fuckin’ touchy. You can give her my number if she asks for it.”
Going out the door, I muttered, “She’s already got your number.”
The girl watched me with unconcealed amusement as I scooted my chair back up to the table.
“Officer Collier had to go into the tech room for the video equipment needed for searching your vehicle, ma’am. That was his attempt at humor. He is no longer observing us.”
“Was that the really big guy who came back down the steps with you while ago?”
“Uh, yes. Officer Collier played offensive guard for the Southeastern Oklahoma football team down in Durant.”
“He’s certainly big enough.”
“Yes, ma’am. He wanted to be a coach but the brain damage ruled that out.”
Her easy laugh broke forth again.
“I do have a few questions to ask you, ma-“
“Deena. It’s Deena. Okay?”
“Well. We’re not supposed to be so informal. How about ‘Miss Taylor?'”
She sighed. “Okay.”
“Your name is Deena Taylor?”
“And your address?”
“42 Carpenter Avenue, apartment B, Durango, Colorado.”
“And how do you know Ben Whitekiller?”
“We’re just friends.”
“And you’ve been acquainted for how long?”
She drew a breath, thinking. “Eighteen months, I guess.”
“You met in Durango?”
Impatience flashed across her face. “No, we met in Paris. I flew over to France so I could meet an American Indian.”
I squinted down at the pad, trying not to smile, and scribbled, “Met in Durango.”
“So you drove him from Durango to Okweekgo?” I asked.
“Yes. About two weeks ago he said he had made up his mind to come here. There were some legal matters he decided to clear up.”
Legal matters? It was strange to hear a triple homicide referred to so euphemistically.
“Did he say what they were?”
“His wife got killed a long time ago.” She rested her chin her palm, her elbow propped on the table. “The police thought he did it.”
“Did he say whether or not he did do it?”
“Not to me.” She shook her head. She wasn’t exactly smiling. It was hard to tell what she was thinking.
I dropped my pen on the pad. “Well, off the record, do you think he did?”
“Off the record or on the record, Officer Hook, I don’t think he knows.”
I stared at her, filled with several kinds of curiosity.
“So after he told you about his wife,” I continued, “he asked you to drive him from Durango to Okweekgo?”
“Yep.” She toyed with the butane lighter lying before her. “I had to give two week’s notice. And he was okay with waiting for me. Ben doesn’t have a driver’s license.”
“You quit your job to drive him here so he could turn himself in?” I suppose there was some incredulity in my voice.
I opened my hands as if to catch something. “I take it you’re not a career person, Miss Taylor?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, what kind of job did you quit, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I was the morning manager of a dry cleaner.”
I could feel myself smile. “Actually that’s a pretty good job just to walk away from.”
She shrugged. “It was all right. Might still be there for me, depending on how long it takes us to get back.”
“Get back? So are you indicating your intent to stay until there’s a final disposition of Mr. Whitekiller’s case?”
“. . . I’m not exactly sure what you just asked me,” she said, “but I intend to stay until Ben clears this up.”
“Ma’am . . .” Suddenly she seemed very naïve to me and I felt a little sorry for her. “In all likelihood, Mr. Whitekiller is going to be facing three murder chargers. Now, since he turned himself in and the crimes are twenty-years-old, that may remove the death penalty from the picture. Maybe. But even if it does, in the best case scenario, if he were to go to trial, that would last months or years.”
She was studying my face. “So are you saying you don’t want my kind in Oak-week-go?”
Despite myself, I was smiling again. And looking down. And shaking my head. What a strange chick.
“Miss Taylor, the second ‘K’ is silent. It’s ‘Oak-We-Go.’ And we would be delighted for you to stay here in the exciting cultural heart of eastern Oklahoma.” I picked my pen back up and scribbled something else. “I may have some more questions for you directly.”
I tore off the top page of the tablet and put it in the folder. I was trying to look as official and professional as I could-even though there hadn’t been much to the interview and she had given me very little to contribute to the investigation.
As I stood up I said, “I’m sorry I don’t have a better place for you to stay. I need to check with Chief McClinton now about what will be happening with Mr. Whitekiller. If you don’t mind waiting for a few minutes, I’ll come back and tell you where he’s going to go and if and when you can see him again.”
“Okay.” She seemed remarkably patient.
“Can I get you anything? Something to drink?”
“Naw. It’ll just make me have to pee.”
She smiled at my reaction. She enjoyed getting a reaction from me, I decided.
As I headed back down the hall to the squad room, I was going over what I had learned from the girl, trying to put it together coherently so it would at least sound as if I had gotten something of value from her. Only my thoughts were interrupted by the next strange thing that happened. The elevator by the front door opened and a lawyer stepped out.
I was guessing he was a lawyer-no salesman does cold calls in the courthouse-because he had an old-fashioned plastic briefcase and he was wearing what was technically a suit. I was pretty sure my uniform, summer weight and short-sleeved at that, had cost more than the dismal polyester outfit he was wearing. He was a young guy-maybe only a year or two older than me-but his hair was almost gone on top. And his eyeglasses were slanted across his face from above his left eyebrow to below his right eyebrow.
What threw me about him, besides the obvious fact that he was a total dweeb, was that the elevator had come up from the basement rather than down from upstairs. The second floor of the courthouse held all the city and county offices: the tax accessor, county attorney, clerk of court, and so forth. The third floor housed the courtrooms and judges chambers. The basement was the county jail, which at that particular moment had a census of zero. Nobody was locked up downstairs. Yet I had seen the light above the elevator show a dull red “B” just before it opened. Not only that, but you had to have a special elevator key before the elevator would let you travel down to the cellblock. What had he been doing down there?
He spied me and called out just as I put my hand on the squad room door. “Hey, buddy.”
“Where is this Whitekiller guy they just arrested?”
“Yes, sir. And you are?”
He seemed a little indignant that I didn’t recognize him.
“Oscar Smith. I’m the public defender. I’m his lawyer.”
“Oh yes, Mr. Smith.” I opened the door. “I believe Mr. Whitekiller is in the chief’s office.”
His face jerked and his eyes opened wide. “What?”
I made it a point to walk in front of him, and very casually, as we headed back to the chief’s office. I could feel him behind me, shifting from one side to the other, trying to see what was going on. The blinds to the office were open and McClinton and the prisoner were sitting across from each other, having an amazingly relaxed conversation. Had it not been for my handcuffs on his wrists, Whitekiller might have been the chief’s fishing buddy, swapping yarns.
“That’s not admissible,” the lawyer was saying, strain in his voice. “I don’t care what he says, it’s not admissible.”
I didn’t bother to say anything in response. I figured Chief McClinton knew enough about the law to know what he was doing. A part of me expected him to get up and slap the snot out of this lawyer guy on general principles, or at least because of his looks.
Tapping on the glass, I opened his door. “Chief. The public defender is here.”
He pushed past me into the room. “None of this discussion is admissible,” he was saying. “He asked for an attorney and you’ve violated his rights by talking to him before I arrived.”
Chief McClinton was totally unconcerned. “He isn’t talking to me. I’m talking to him. The guy’s been gone twenty-five years. He’s just been asking about what’s happened to different folks here in Okweekgo.”
The attorney’s expression was wary. “Is that right?” he asked his client.
“Are you my lawyer?” Whitekiller asked.
Smith answered as if Whitekiller were sincerely asking him a question. To me it seemed more as if the prisoner were making a subtle, mocking joke that his defender hadn’t understood, which made it even funnier in a sad way.
“Chief.” The attorney had turned his attention to McClinton. “I really have no knowledge of this case. My client can’t speak about it and I can’t speak about it until I know what he’s charged with, what evidence there is against him, and until he and I have had a chance to speak privately.”
“I had an idea you were going to say that, Oscar.” The chief was always unruffled, but under these circumstances the calmness of his demeanor stood in sharp contrast to the lawyers intensity and anxiety. “The county attorney will be arraigning your client tomorrow. By then Judge Watkins will be back from Hot Springs.”
Whitekiller spoke up. “Josh still bets the ponies?”
The chief shook his head. “Ben, we now have tracks all over this state. But if it isn’t a thoroughbred, Josh don’t think it’s a horse. He just don’t care for quarter horses.”
“What will my client be charged with?” Smith’s voice was insistent.
“Well,” McClinton said, “my guess is three counts of capital murder.”
The lawyer made that jerking motion where his eyes opened wide. His voice was more subdued as he said, “I need to speak to my client alone.”
“Sure.” The chief got up. “Why don’t you just sit in here and talk? We’ll be right outside when you’re through.”
I followed him out and he closed the door gently. He motioned toward my desk, a dozen feet from his office. I sat down and, pulling up a chair, he sat beside me. Inside the chief’s office, the lawyer sat beside his client, making sure that both of them had their backs to us.
“What’d you find out from the girl?”
“For at least the last eighteen months, Whitekiller’s been in Durango, Colorado.”
“Yeah. I saw the license plate.”
“For whatever reason-she says they’re just friends-he asked her a couple weeks ago to drive him back to Okweekgo. She quit a job to do it.”
I nodded. “She’s pleasant and courteous, but she won’t give up much. There was one thing she said. She said he told her that the police thought he had killed his wife. I asked if he’d admitted guilt or given her any reason to think he was responsible for her death. She said she thought he didn’t know if he had done it or not.”
I could tell he was thinking it over.
“Hmm. That wouldn’t surprise me-either that he would use that as a defense or that he really was in a blackout.”
“A blackout? He killed ’em in the dark?”
He smiled. “Ben is famous for being a drunk. A blackout is when you’re so drunk that you have no memory afterwards of what you’ve done.”
“Seriously? Is it really possible to do something like that and not know what you’ve done?”
“Well, Dan,” he said slowly, “six or seven years ago, a truck driver was headed south on Highway 69 over by Chouteau. He fell asleep. He wasn’t drunk. He just hadn’t slept in thirty-six hours. He woke up in the ditch on the wrong side of the highway. He didn’t know until the rescue team got him out of the truck that he had driven through a minivan with five people in it. Killed three of ’em. So I guess the answer to your question is ‘yes.'”
Ace Adams was pulling up a chair, sitting on the other side of my desk.
“Here’s my report.”
“Thanks, Ace,” the chief said, reaching for the folder.
I realized then what McClinton had done. He sent Adams to write the report of his arrest of Ben Whitekiller to get him out of the way for fifteen minutes.
“So Ben is stuck with Wonderboy, eh?” Ace said. “By the time Oscar does his best, they’ll probably execute that poor old Injun four times.”
“Where did the county find this public defender guy?” I asked.
“He’s out of some law school up in Wisconsin or Michigan,” the chief said. “It was a perfect marriage. No one else would take the job here and no place anywhere else would offer him a job.”
Ace glanced over at our boss. “I heard he failed the Oklahoma bar exam the first two times he took it.”
The chief nodded. “Cost me fifty bucks when he passed it on the third try.”
“Who’d you bet with?” asked Ace.
“Dang. Can’t believe the mayor would put good money on that guy.”
“Well, why not? He’d already been working here for almost a year.”
I was stunned. “How did he manage that?”
“Quietly. The big problem wasn’t with us. It was that he couldn’t legally take on private clients.”
“Why would he take on private clients if he was working for the county?”
McClinton shrugged. “There’s no law against that. We pay him about thirty grand a year for half-time work. After that, he’s free to chase ambulances all he wants.”
“Thirty grand a year, and he wasn’t even a member of the bar?”
“That’s about what a good paralegal makes,” the chief said. “And that’s all he could be for us for a while.”
None of us said anything. Then I said, “I think this Whitekiller guy is in some major trouble. Even with a competent lawyer.”
“Hmm,” McClinton said. “Speaking of trouble, we’re going to have our hands full as well.”
Ace looked at him. “What do you mean?”
“This is a legendary crime around here. Anybody over thirty remembers the statewide manhunt for Ben. He’s wanted for killing two officers and his wife. We turned this area upside down for six solid months looking for the guy. Pretty soon people started saying that we got him, but killed him to avoid the trial and the pain it would cause the victims’ families. Ben became almost mythic. He was the Indian version of Jimmy Hoffa. Then one afternoon, he turns up at the Okweekgo courthouse and-” he glanced at Ace “-gets himself arrested. The press will be all over this.
“We’re going to have a departmental meeting at five this evening here in the squad room,” he continued. “We’ve got to establish some guidelines for dealing with reporters. Ace.” He turned to Adams. “You’re going to be the man of the hour, the officer who arrested a triple murder suspect. You have to know what you’re going to say.
“There’s another change we have to make.” He was looking in my direction now. “We have to add another layer of security in the jail. We’ll move the jailer up to the first floor to deal with anyone who wants admission to the cellblock. Then we’re going to assign officers on a rotating basis to stay downstairs and baby sit our prize prisoner.”
Even though I was nothing but a rookie, all this sure sounded over the top to me.
“You expect him to try to kill somebody else?”
“No, Dan. It’s Ben I’m concerned about.”
“You think a gang is going to try to lynch him?” Ace asked.
“Not so much his physical safety, Ace. Look, we’re going to be scrutinized on this from now until his case is resolved. That will be months at least, even if he pleads out. If we have one dumb lapse in security or screw with his rights in any way, Josh Watkins will change the venue and send him to Tulsa or some other place. We’ll never hear the end of it. A screw up like that cost my predecessor his job.” His voice grew stern. “That’s not happening to me.”
“Right, Chief.” Ace sounded as if he were in an old war movie.
“Dan,” the chief said, “how much training time do you have left with Officer Adams?”
“We’re exactly halfway through.”
“Well we’re putting that on hold for the time being. You two will alternate on duty downstairs. When we move Ben to a cell, Ace, you’ll have him until 6 each evening. Dan, I’m sorry, son, but you have the second shift: 6 to 2 a.m. I’ll have different duty officers in for the third shift. And Dan?”
“We’re going to have a clearance code. No telling what some people will say to get in and talk to Ben. So if you have a question about who gets in-even in the middle of the night, and even if it’s someone on the department or from the courthouse-you call me.”
“Can I join this party?”
The three of us turned to the right simultaneously. I recognized the tall, tired-looking man in the blue business suit with his tie loosened. Ken Clark was the county attorney. When I was making the rounds and meeting people during my first week on the job, I was led into his office. He had been wearing the same or a very similar suit, with his tie open just as it was, and the same worn out look on his face.
“Hi, Ken,” the chief said.
“Well I heard it,” the prosecutor said, “but I had to come over and see it for myself.” He studied the silent forms of the two men talking in the chief’s office. “That’s him all right. Ben doesn’t look much like a vicious killer, does he?”
“He’s sober,” Ace muttered.
“Sorry it took me so long to get down here,” Clark said. “I was busy trying to evict old man Schrader from Mrs. Thoranson’s farm.”
“You mean that squatter?” Ace asked.
Clark shook his head. “Turns out Judge North thinks he’s a nester.”
“That sucks,” the chief said.
“Yeah. I had to spend an extra ten minutes convincing Mrs. Thoranson that the property is still hers and she can still get him off, only she has to go through civil court. And it’s going to end up costing her money.”
“Vince Thoranson would’ve shot the bastard,” Ace said.
“Yep,” said the chief. “Schrader knew that. Which is why he waited until after Vince died to move into his hunting shed.”
I didn’t know any of the people they were talking about. The interesting thing to me was that they kept watching Oscar Smith and Ben Whitekiller the whole time they were talking. And then, as if on cue, the defense attorney stood up and turned to face us. His eyes got big again when he saw we were all watching them, but he motioned for the chief to come in.
“Let’s all go,” McClinton said. “The more ears, the better.”
Ace chuckled. “You really think Oscar’s going to outsmart you?”
“I just don’t want to miss anything, Ace.”
We followed the chief into his office. Ace and I hung back by the door. Oscar Smith was standing beside his client and the chief and county attorney walked around behind the desk.
Whitekiller’s face broke into a big smile again. “Hello, Ken. So you’re the top man now, huh?”
“I’m the only man, Ben,” he replied. “The county’s never had but one prosecutor. How are you doing?”
He held up his shackled wrists. “Looks like I’m under arrest.”
Smith spoke up, his voice probably a bit more shrill than he intended, “I’ll be speaking for my client. What time is the arraignment tomorrow?”
“10 a.m. sharp,” Clark said.
“No it isn’t.” The chief was shaking his head. “Kenny, you know Josh Watkins is still on vacation and he isn’t going to want to come in early, even if this is the only thing on his docket. This is Thursday and he wasn’t planning on coming back ’til Monday. If you’re smart and schedule it for after lunch, he’ll treat both of you right.”
Clark sighed, his hands in his pockets. “All right. Make it one o’clock.”
“And the charges?” Smith asked.
He shrugged. “Three counts capital murder. One count flight to avoid prosecution.”
“C’mon. The statute of limitations should apply to his flight. That was twenty-five years ago.”
“It was yesterday, counselor,” Clark said firmly. “It was every day for the last twenty-five years he didn’t turn himself in.”
“Hmm. Okay. We want him released on personal recognizance.”
The prosecutor laughed. “Right.”
“He’s here voluntarily,” the defender said emphatically. “No one was actively trying to apprehend him. He has not been on a crime spree. You sure can’t argue that he’s a flight risk.”
Clark had the expression of someone who was tired of explaining the obvious. “Listen, Oscar. I understand you don’t know this, but your client here is a celebrity outlaw. When he murdered these people-“
“Alleged!” Smith interjected. “Allegedly murdered.”
“Fine. When these killings occurred, every lawman in the state was gunning for him. Plus there are two or three extended families still in this area who would beat him to death if they caught him walking down the street.” He paused to let his words take effect. “Now I’m asking for remand tomorrow and, if you have any concern about your client, you’ll agree to it for his safety.”
Smith was studying the face of his adversary, trying to understand whether or not he was being played.
“There’s another thing you have to consider, Oscar,” the chief said.
“By tomorrow morning, every TV station and newspaper within driving distance is going to descend on Okweekgo. Ken is right when he says that this is a notorious case. Do you want to turn on the news at night and see Ben Whitekiller talking to the media? Or would it look any better if they’re sticking microphones in his face and asking him if he’s a murderer and he don’t answer?”
The public defender glanced down at his client.
Whitekiller shrugged. “I expected to be in jail.”
“All right. No bail. But what about security? If he’s really at risk-“
“We’ve already taken steps to double the officers on duty in the jail around the clock,” the chief said. “Starting tonight.”
The firmness returned to Smith’s voice. “Now about the evidence. You’re right. I know nothing about this case. I need complete access to all evidence files. And I need it before the arraignment.”
From where I was standing, I could see a flicker-some sort of recognition-move across McClinton’s face. Like an inspiration, I also realized what he had just realized: Ben Whitekiller really did not know what had happened, whether or not he had killed three people. Smith needed to look at the evidence in order to see if a “not guilty” plea was possible.
“I got you covered, Oscar,” the chief said. “I was guessing that neither of you law boys is all that familiar with the case. So I had Sgt. Wilson make a double set of the copies of the entire file. Pictures, diagrams, interviews, forensics. The whole nine yards.”
Interviews. It hadn’t occurred on me that there might have been witnesses. Suddenly I thought of Lt. Vessey. Maybe this was why the chief had asked me to give him the heads up. Had he been a witness?
McClinton pushed the intercom button on his phone and typed in an extension. “Bring ’em in, Willy.”
Whitekiller reached over and tapped his attorney on the knee. Smith looked down at him and then his eyes did the jerking open thing again.
“There’s one other thing,” he said. “Mr. Whitekiller wants to make sure his visitors have privileges to come and see him every evening.”
“What?” the chief said. “What visitors?”
“They’re just my people.”
“You mean like family?” McClinton asked. “Ben, I didn’t think you had any folks around here except your son. And he wasn’t but two when you left. You want Johnny to come see you?”
“No. These are . . . these are the medicine people. I never been locked up for any length of time,” he said slowly. “They will help me not to go stir crazy.”
Ace leaned toward me and whispered softly, “He better get used to being locked up.”
“How many of these ‘medicine people’ are we talking about, Ben?”
“Umm.” He thought about it. “Six or eight maybe.”
“Six or eight people visiting every night!”
“You can’t say ‘no,'” Smith said.
“What do you mean I can’t say ‘no’? This is my jail, son.”
The defender turned his focus to the prosecutor. “There’s legal precedent. First of all, there are no prescribed limits on visitors at this jail. Second, when Mrs. Hartley was locked up for two weeks for contempt in March, you let her entire bridge club come and play cards with her three afternoons a week.”
Ben glanced up at the chief. “Gladys Hartley was in jail?”
“Yeah,” he said. “She was testifying in a probate case before Judge North and refused to answer a question. It was a battle of wills between those two old harpies. Well Judge North locked her up until she was ready to talk. She held out until she heard that her grandkids were coming to see her.” He shook his head. “Anyone who comes to visit you has to go through the metal detector. They have to be searched. They can’t bring in bags or purses of any kind. And they can only stay for an hour at a time.”
Whitekiller nodded. “That’s fine with me, Toby.”
“And we can’t do it tonight. We’re not set up for it yet.”
There was a tap on the chief’s door. Sgt. Wilson came in holding two matching manila folders, each a couple inches thick.
“Thanks, Willie,” the chief said, reaching for them. “And thank god for digital technology.”
“Chief,” the sergeant said.
“Channel 9 just pulled up on the courthouse square. A broadcasting van.”
“Jesus. Already? Thanks, Willie.”
McClinton handed a folder to each of the attorneys. Smith immediately opened the briefcase and jammed his inside. Clark casually slid his beneath his left arm.
“All right, gentlemen,” the chief said. “We’ll have Mr. Whitekiller in Judge Watkins’ courtroom at 1 p.m. tomorrow.”
Ace opened the door and I pressed myself against the glass wall of the office.
“Is there anything else you need?” Smith asked.
Whitekiller shook his head.
“Ace,” McClinton said. “Would you take the prisoner down and lock him up? Those are Dan’s cuffs, so make sure you get ’em back to him.” He pointed his index finger at me and I waited for everyone to file out. “Dan, you need to find your redhead and advise her that she should go out the back way and do her best to avoid the press. We don’t want her giving them more information than she gave us.”
I felt my own eyes open wide. “Yes, sir.”
I made my way back to interview room A. It was empty.
I shook my head. “Damn! This has to be Max Collier’s doing.”
Lazarus Barnhill is a native of Oklahoma who has lived all over the south. He holds three degrees, including a Doctorate in Spiritual Development. He has been obsessed with writing since he was a boy. A father of three and grandfather of three, he resides in North Carolina with his wife of 34 years and an irritating cat, Jessie, who is for sale cheap.
Lazarus Barnhill at Second Wind Publishing, LLC: http://secondwindpublishing.com/LazarusBarnhill.html