BY IVY WATERS
Copyright is held by the author.
Grey concrete walls stretch out in front of Joe. It’s cold inside here — always is, in prisons — and Joe pulls his black hoodie (previously turned inside out, searched, and cleared by prison staff) closer around him. He’s reported from war zones and hurricane shelters and plague hospitals, but prisons still unsettle him the most. There’s a sense of despair that settles into the walls and the floor, mixing with the scent of urine and bleach to form an atmosphere entirely antithetical to humanity. He grips his notebook firmly as he reaches the end of the corridor, and nods at the guard. The guard opens the door.
Joe should know by now that the face of evil is banal, but this man perfectly illustrates Arendt’s thesis, and Joe can’t help but be struck by how average he looks. How like Joe he looks, in fact; six-foot-nothing, hair somewhere between blonde and brown, eyes somewhere between brown and green, face just symmetrical enough not to be jarring but not symmetrical enough to be good-looking. Joe has used those same looks to blend into hundreds of crowds in dozens of countries, and get hundreds of people to project onto him, has used the reality of “white man” being taught to the world as a blank canvas to help him get to the truth. This man has used it too, but for very different purposes.
He stays silent until Joe is seated, with his notebook and pen on the table in front of him, but out of the other man’s reach. Then, before Joe can begin the conversation himself, the other man folds his hands together on the table in front of him, an illusion of gentility only marred by the handcuffs pulled tight against his wrists, and leans forward.
“I know that you have some idea in your mind of the story you will walk out of here with,” he says, vowels perfectly modulated. “It is not true. Everything I did, I did to provide for my children.”
Joe nods. “I’ve spoken to Mark and Noel already,” he points out. “They universally condemn your actions.”
He leans back again and gives a crooked grin. “Ah, well. The sins of the father are wasted on the sons. They refuse to even come see me, would you believe it?”
Joe artificially straightens his notebook, even though he knows better than to make such a telling gesture of unsettlement, and restarts the conversation. “I’m Joe Tribek, an independent reporter currently under contract with the Times. I’ll be proceeding as if you are on record, so if at any point you would like to revoke that, please clearly state that you are going off record.”
“If we’re doing introductions, then. I’m Matthew Mekhail, father, prisoner, and entrepreneur.”
Joe uncaps his pen and deliberately does not smile at the flexible use of ‘entrepreneur’, and registers Mekhail’s mild look of disappointment. He likes to impress. Harder, in some ways, to interview people who like to impress.
“Tell me about your sons,” he says, hoping it is just enough of an unexpected place to begin that it will throw him off balance and bring out something closer to the truth, but Mekhail appears entirely unruffled.
“Mark and Noel, the terrible twins,” he says fondly. “They’re not my biological children, you know? Of course you know. They’re my sisters’, but she died giving birth to them, and their father had run off to join the military as soon as she told him about them. I was her only family, so they came to me. And it was hard at first, of course — I’d just lost my sister, my only family. But I thank God every day for those two, they kept me alive and awake. I loved them so much. I love them so much. I used to read them to sleep with Lewis Carrol, The Hunting of The Snark, you know? It was the only bedtime story they’d accept.” His expression softens as he talks about them, loses some of its carefully constructed artificiality.
“What happened to your parents?”
“Ah, they died when I was barely 18, my sister 15. So, you see, I really did spend my entire young adulthood caring for others. First her, then her sons.”
“How did you feel about that?”
Mekhail shoots a surprisingly charming grin at him, the lines of his face smoothing back into the deliberate placement they had had when Joe first entered. “Did the bitterness drive me to murder, you mean?”
It wasn’t what he meant, exactly, but that was rather the point of open-ended questions, to see what the interviewee made of them.
“It didn’t,” Mekhail continues. “I’ll admit, there were times when I got frustrated, but in the end I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Like I said, I love them. And I probably never would have made anything of myself if I hadn’t spent those years working and looking after the boys. We were poor growing up, you know that?” He tells it not as some great secret, but rather as if it’s a faintly surprising afterthought. “Not deadly, out-on-the-streets poor, but we came close a few times, and I was always aware, even as a child, that we struggled. I was determined that Mark and Noel would never know that. So I worked in whatever jobs I could get, all hard labour – I got lucky, fixed a car for a guy whose sister-in-law ran a garage, and she happened to see it at right around the time that she needed a new worker.”
Joe nods, and notes down how his accent has loosened and his language deformalized as he talks about his teenage years. “And that was Sue Green?” he asks.
“Yes. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about her trial?” he asks, appearing genuinely concerned.
“I’m afraid it’s closed to press.”
“Mmm. In any case, eventually she made me co-owner, after I’d been working there a few years, and she wanted more time off, as her husband was rather sick. The boys were just turned ten then, so the extra money was nice – it’s that age where they’re all obsessed with having the latest games and the nicest sneakers, you know?”
“I’ve heard,” he agrees.
“Ah, no children of your own. Or young children?”
Joe tilts his head in acknowledgement. “None.”
“I am afraid you will never truly be able to understand my motivations, in that case.”
Joe watches him in silence for a moment, Mekhail steadily returning his gaze, then he closes his notebook and places it back onto the table, pen on top. “This is off record, but I’d like to know. You know, I assume, that I’m only doing this story because you requested the interview. It’s not that unusual for those convicted of murder to request interviews, especially when there’s multiple murder charges. But it is strange to be requested by name. Why did you ask for me to write the story?”
Mekhail tilts his head in an eerie mirror of Joe’s earlier movement, and replies, “I saw an interview you conducted recently, on the television – before my arrest, obviously. You impressed me.”
Joe shrugs internally, and reaches back for his notebook. It’s more or less the answer he expected, after all. “Okay, then. Back on record – let’s get to the meat of it. You recently pled guilty to a string of murder charges, committed over the course of years, after having confessed to many that were not contained in the original charges. You said I won’t understand your motivations. I’m willing to try, if you want to tell me about it.”
“The confessions and plea, or the murders?” Mekhail asks with a lopsided grin.
“Well, the sentence for the additional murders was in truth no more than what I would already have had. A life sentence cannot be extended, and this way the families got some closure. I pled guilty in the interest of honesty. I think it’s important to model values for your children. I’ve never believed in that ‘do as I say, not as I do’ cliché. It seems disingenuous.”
“Uh-huh. And the murders?”
Mekhail smiled wryly at him. “Very well, I grasp your sarcasm. But that was for Mark and Noel too, even if you will not believe me. It started when Mr. Packer came for the garage.”
His first victim, Donald Packer, Joe notes down.
“He was attempting to get us shut down on safety violations – not because we were actually in violation, Sue would never have allowed that. No, he had recently set up a car dealership on the other side of town, and he had an agreement with the rival garage — an agreement which was about to be dissolved, because the garage was about to be shut down from lack of business. We were better, you see, and faster, and everyone knew it. So he came for us. And, well — I loved reading the classics, as a child, you know?”
Joe blinks, but follows the veer in topic.
“Inside and out, I knew all of them, from library copies and battered old paperbacks on the verge of falling apart. I know the lines of tragedies, how those stories run. I am determined that my life will not be one.” He pauses for a moment, and breaks Joe’s gaze, looking jerkily down to his hands on the table. “In any case.” He looks back up, restoring his former casual, confident demeanour, and gives a ghoulish grin. “I sent Mr. Packer packing, by way of a tire iron. Sue was a – what is the legal term again? An accessory after the fact, for that one. No others, though, and nothing more. I have told her lawyers this, repeatedly. I can only hope they do not punish her for my actions.”
Joe nods. It’s true — Mekhail’s efforts to alleviate Sue Green’s sentence is one of the things that convinced him to take the story. “And the others?”
“Mr. Packer’s colleague somehow figured out that I was the one responsible for his disappearance. He called himself Mr. Packer’s ‘friend’, at the time, but given that his first instinct was not to seek justice for Mr. Packer, but to blackmail me into similarly dispatching a rival of his, I hesitate to assign him the label of friend.” He shrugs. “I did not particularly want to do it, you understand – I had nothing against this man. But the boys were too young to be left alone, as they would have been had I gone to prison then, and I could not allow them to be hurt again. But I have always had a talent for, ah, flipping the script, you might say, and I managed to elicit a modest fee from Mr. Packer’s colleague for my troubles.”
His speech has become almost singsong, as he repeats the story he has no doubt relayed to lawyers time and time again.
“That money all went to Sue, to help pay her husband’s medical fees – I realize now that that was a mistake, as it seems to implicate her in this crime, but she was entirely ignorant of its source.”
“She never asked?” Joe questions.
“She’s not the kind to look a gift horse in the mouth. She was sorely in need of it by that point.” He raises his eyebrows at Joe with a quirked smile. “In any case, the world of car salesmen and mechanics is surprisingly cutthroat. It wasn’t too long before someone came to me, someone who’d been talking to Mr. Packer’s colleague. They do say word of mouth is the best way to promote a business. The money from the garage was enough to keep us all living, and reasonably comfortable, but it would never have been enough to send Mark and Noel to college. From then on, the money all went into a college fund for the boys, and that’s what it was spent on when they came of age. College fees, and dorm rent, and textbooks. I suppose I got careless then, because they no longer needed me, and the money had all been spent – I knew, you see, that if I was arrested while the money was still sitting in the bank, it would be confiscated. But they can hardly confiscate my boys’ educations.”
Joe finishes writing his notes and taps the pen nib twice on the paper – an old habit he’s never been able to shake. “That was all that you spent the money on? It was quite a string of charges, I imagine you must have amassed a large amount by the end.”
Mekhail taps his fingers vigorously on the table, short nails sending a rapid clicking echoing around the cell. “No, I did put some into an offshore Cayman Islands account. For Plan B.”
Joe frowns at him. “Did you want that off-record?”
“No.” He tilts his head and rolls his shoulders. “That money’s gone now as well.”
“What was Plan—” Joe is interrupted by the door opening, and he twists around in his seat to see the guard. “What’s up? We’re almost—”
The last thing he sees is the guard’s baton swinging at his head.
“Thank you, Bill,” Matthew Mekhail, father, entrepreneur, and soon-to-be ex-prisoner tells the guard smoothly, splaying his hands wide for him to unlock his handcuffs. “Now, if you’d just turn your back while I get changed here.”
Bill does as requested, blank-faced, and Matthew slips into the reporter’s pants and jacket, pulling the black hood up over his head. Bill follows him out of the room, locking the door behind him. “I hope your daughter’s surgery goes well,” Matthew tells him, and he nods, avoiding Matthew’s gaze.
Matthew nods back, then turns and walks down the corridor. He’ll see Mark and Noel soon, just as soon as he gets out of these grey concrete walls.