BY KATHI NIDD
A novel excerpt. Copyright is held by the author.
THE ROOM smelled like unwashed armpits and the wall was an ugly shade of a colour that had no name. Joe pulled his sweatshirt around his slim body, keeping his arms tightly wound and his body hunched. The two policemen said nothing. The pudgy one sat in a metal chair directly opposite Joe, fidgeting with his collar and running his chubby hands through his greasy hair every few minutes. The thin one had a craggy face with etched lines, one especially deep running down the left side of his face from just below his eye to where it met his mouth. This one had scrunched his eyes a few times and observed Joe, a slight warmth to the hint of a smile on his thin lips.
The minister had eventually opened the church doors, dressed in jeans and a thick black sweater, with some sort of journal in hand. He’d opened his arms, literally, to Joe, who’d fallen through the doors in tears. When Joe couldn’t get the words out, the minister had stepped outside, seen Lauren and almost collapsed himself. He’d then taken charge, leading Joe back inside the church to sit on a rickety armchair in a small office while he called the police and Joe’s parents. The latter did not answer. In minutes they heard the wail of a siren and the kind minister took Joe under his arm and led him back outside.
The quiet churchyard was quickly transformed into a carnival of noise and chaos. Whining police cars — at least four, maybe more — had arrived almost at once, causing passersby to gasp and gather while Joe sat at the minister’s protective side on the church steps. Frenzy played out in slow motion as police and other people buzzed about in confusion. Then with fine choreography, some measured and touched Lauren and the dumpster with blue-gloved hands and put evidence in thick Ziploc bags with large pink writing. Eventually, other cars pulled up, including the news van out of which several people flowed, including a woman in a purple suit, microphone in hand. Finally, the pudgy detective and his scrawny partner had arrived. Joe watched as they assessed Lauren, as though she was a spectacle to be discussed and examined. Then some uniformed officers nodded towards Joe and the two detectives came towards him.
It was the minister who’d pointed out that it would be better to talk to them with Joe’s parents present and the two detectives had agreed, asking Joe if he’d consent to come to the police station and chat with them there. He agreed, but not before he’d told them his name, overheard by a purple-suited newswoman.
As he walked towards the police car, the minister promised to keep trying Joe’s parents and ask them to meet him there. Joe smiled as the minister put his hand on his shoulder one last time. He preferred this. His mother shouldn’t see Lauren like that.
Now they waited. And with each passing minute, the imprint of Lauren’s face on Joe’s mind grew darker and more menacing. He tried to close and reopen his eyes, attempting to recall her face the night before, with her flowing blonde hair and huge smile. But his efforts failed. All he could see was the blood, the hair on the wooden beam, and the memory that the last time he’d looked at her face, only one of her bright blue eyes had returned the stare.
Suddenly the heavy door thrust open and Joe was startled by the high-pitched squeal of his mother.
“Oh my darling!” She bee-lined for the chair beside Joe, pulling him close to her bosom. A whiff of Elizabeth Arden filled his nose and for a moment, he closed his eyes and imagined that she was in her long silk nightie, shaking him awake from a childhood nightmare at his bedside. “This is so terrible. Oh so terrible.” She turned to the skinny detective. “We need to get him home.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, stretching out his hand. “Sir.” He turned to Joe’s father, offering an overly-strong handshake to both of them. “I’m Detective Flannery, Stuart Flannery, and this is my partner Merv Small.”
Joe listened to the light banter between them, finding a brief moment of irony amid the depth of sorrow, that the large, pudgy man was named Small. They’d introduced themselves at the church but those words had evaporated. He felt himself wanting to sob again as his father stood back across the room, surveying, as he often did, as though life was something to observe but not feel.
Then the rapid-fire questions began. What was Joe doing there? Where were he and Lauren going? When was the last time he’d seen her, spoken with her? Joe answered slowly and quietly, hearing his mother’s loud inhalations each time Small punctuated a question. After what seemed like hours, but was probably only fifteen minutes, Joe’s mother lifted her hands to her face and gasped.
“Why is this necessary?” Her voice trembled. “We need to get him home. Look at him, he’s covered in blood!”
“Let them do their job, Dorothy,” Joe’s father spoke for the first time. He’d remained standing in the corner despite being offered a chair. He cleared his throat. “Stop coddling him.”
“I’m not coddling him.” She strained for clarity. “My God, think of what’s happened.” She waited until her husband nodded, and then turned to Flannery. “Why so many questions? My Joe just went to go meet his girlfriend and then found her like, like that! Someone beat that beautiful girl with a piece of wood? Hit her over the head with it? The way you explained it, I can’t even imagine how awful this was for him to find.” Her voice caught on the word imagine, the rest of the sentence trailing off. She cleared her throat. “And Lauren! It’s not like he just found some stranger—this is Lauren. Such a beautiful girl! They were just in the basement last weekend listening to records.” She began to cry.
Joe began to speak up and correct her that they were CDs, then caught himself, wondering why any detail in the world would ever matter again.
“Ma’am,” Flannery leaned forward and looked in her eyes. “We just need Joe’s statement clear and certain is all. We aren’t trying to be hard on him.” Joe raised his eyes from his bloody pant legs at Flannery who gave Joe a reassuring nod. “It won’t be much longer. Let’s take a break, get the boy a Coke, then we’ll need to do some fingerprints.”
“Fingerprints?” Dorothy squealed. “What on earth?”
“Just routine ma’am. We have to know which ones are Joe’s so we can rule them out.”
Dorothy buried her head in her hands. “Oh Arthur!” she murmured, glancing up towards her husband, who stood like a statue.
“Everything by the book.” Joe’s father finally spoke. “Dorothy, this is Avery’s daughter we are talking ’bout. It’s going to be high profile.”
Dorothy shook her head and put her arm around Joe. “Who cares?” she whispered. “It’s our Joe! We need to be worried about our Joe!”
Flannery led Joe out of the room and past a rusty Coke machine, which Joe declined. Following fingerprinting, they returned to the dingy room from which Small was now absent. Flannery insisted that Joe have a drink of water and they all sat a while in silence. Finally, Small reappeared and called Flannery over to whisper something inaudible.
The two detectives then sat back down across from Joe and Small proceeded: “Joe, can you explain why your fingerprints match those on the two-by-four that killed her?”
Joe looked up from where he’d been running his finger along the water glass. “I already told you.” He sounded like a whining child, exasperated. “I picked it up before I saw her. I was wondering what was on it.”
“You’re right. You’re right,” Flannery tried to calm him. “It’s just that the problem is, they are the only fingerprints on it. Can you explain that?”