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Why are the walls of every interrogation room in the city painted piss yellow? After twenty-five years of asking questions in these rooms, it is a truth I have yet to uncover. Was the color chosen as an appropriate accent by the interior design genius from House and Jail who also picked the interchangeable, yet dramatically scarred wooden table and rickety chairs to round out the ambiance? Had the walls originally been canary yellow, but had soured as the thousands of lies and half-answers told within the cramped confines splattered over them?
I didn’t know the truth, and it bothered me.
The bigger truth, however, was what Michael Thomas Horner was going to tell me, whether he wanted to or not – not about the color of the walls, but about the murder of Alexis Walker.
As he slumped in the chair next to me, the stench of fear coming off Horner was strong and ripe. He reeked. This was a good thing. He sat with his arms wrapped around himself, his skinny legs twisted so they crossed at the knees and again at the ankles. I think I hated him at that moment. No reason, just an accumulation of loathing I suddenly felt like divesting.
“Michael, my name is Detective Ferryman.” I extended my hand. Horner reluctantly unwound an arm and presented his own hand to me like a limp fish. I enveloped it, gave it a firm shake, and held on to it as he tried weakly to pull it away. His fingernails were long, jagged, and dirty, all sharp edges. “I appreciate you voluntarily coming to the station with the uniformed officers. You do understand you are not under arrest and are free to leave at any time?”
I was between Horner and the door to the interrogation room. The only way he was leaving was in handcuffs after I’d wrung a confession out of him. But he didn’t know that, and my statements would sound good when the audio tape of the interrogation was played back in court. Legally, it only mattered what Horner believed – and he’d just admitted he believed he was free to leave. It would be the first admission of many. His belief was also important, because if he believed he wasn’t under arrest, then I didn’t have to provide him with the Miranda admonition.
Miranda only applies when two specific factors come together: a suspect has to know he is under arrest, and a detective has to be asking him interrogatory questions about the crime for which the suspect was arrested. Any other situation, the suspect is fair game.
I released Horner’s hand and he placed his arm around his torso again, but not as tightly. I’d made a start on untying his body knots.
When I’d entered the interrogation room, I’d placed my chair on the same side of the table as Horner was sitting. I was close enough to Horner to reach out and touch him with a minimum of effort. I never sat on the opposite side of the table. It gave the suspect something to hide behind, an unnecessary physical barrier for me to overcome before I could start on emotional barriers.
Leaning against the hard slats of the chair back, I kept my body open, facing toward Horner.
“How old are you, Michael?”
“And how long have you worked at Barnes and Noble?”
I didn’t give a rat’s tail how old Horner was, or how long he’d worked at the bookstore. I already knew. I simply wanted to get him into the habit of answering my questions.
I didn’t do much investigating anymore. As a police detective, I had evolved to a position of asking questions, day after day, suspect after suspect, question after question until truth flowed like a river. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been up against a dam I couldn’t tear down. I didn’t always get a confession, but I got to the truth.
I worked all over the city, sometimes even the state, and once or twice the nation. If it was a hot case and a suspect had to be broken fast, the call went out for The Ferryman. Why me? Who knows? Who cares? I just had a knack – an ability to instinctively recognize when people aren’t telling the truth, or the truth as they perceive it.
When my son was ten, his teacher asked him what kind of work I did. My son said I was a human lie detector. The claim caused an uncomfortable parent/teacher conference – especially when I caught his teacher in a lie.
But I was tired of The Ferryman’s mantle. So tired of the sordidness. So tired of being a human lie detector – of always knowing the truth. I didn’t want to hear any more confessions. I wanted this done. I was tired of being the talisman who took suspects across their personal river Stixx and delivering them to their personal Hell.
I’d decided to break this kid and then not do this anymore. I done my time. Somebody else could be The Ferryman. He or she would be called something else, but they could do the job. I was almost done. Just this one to go. One last egg to crack.
Horner fidgeted in his chair. It wobbled on an uneven leg I had shortened myself. Everything that went on in an interrogation room, I planned and controlled.
Ten minutes had passed in innocuous chit chat. Horner’s legs were still crossed, but he had unfolded his arms and was running his nails along the edge of the table in front of him, sharpening the jagged edges. I sensed it was a comfortable habit. He was loosening up. Time to move slowly on.
“Who are your friends at the bookstore?” I asked
“Don’t have no friends. Who’d be friends with me?”
Good question. Horner might be twenty-two, but he was clearly socially inept. He wasn’t retarded, just a very dim bulb – a goofball, with a skinny, pimply, awkward body, and greasy hair falling into his eyes. He wore baggy jeans held up by a too-long belt, the buckle engraved with a marijuana leaf. He was one of life’s losers, and I knew he was guilty as hell.
”How about Alexis Walker?”
I was rewarded by seeing Horner’s pupils dilate slightly. Guilty, guilty, guilty.
“She’s nice. Talks to me sometimes.”
“Talk to you last night?”
“No.” The answer was immediate. Too immediate. He had anticipated the question, prepared his lie, letting it burst from his lips in an exploding mist of spittle.
I sat very still and quiet. Waiting. I spend a lot of time waiting.
Horner’s chair skittered back and forth as he fidgeted. “She said, ‘hi,’ when I took out the trash.”
“You take out the trash from the café area? I thought your job was to shelve books?”
“I take the trash out, too.”
“Do you only take out the trash when Alexis works the coffee counter?”
I sighed aloud. “Michael, we were doing so well, but now you’re lying to me. Don’t do that, Michael. It upsets me when you belittle yourself that way.” With somebody like Horner, you keep using their first name, personalizing the conversation, working on emotions of friendship they don’t know how to control or understand. “You’re not a liar are you, Michael?”
Alexis Walker’s father had reported her missing when she didn’t return home after her shift ended at 11pm the night before. She was eighteen. Her father was told he could make a missing persons report after twenty-four hours.
Two hours later, however, officers refereeing a dispute between two homeless men collecting aluminum cans had noticed her strangled body behind the bookstore dumpster. Her bra had been taken – a souvenir.
Homicide detectives quickly cleared the homeless men, and just as quickly established Horner, the store’s weirdo employee, as being seen skulking around Alexis’ car after closing.
The detectives were understandably upset when their captain told them to call me in. They could crack an egg like Horner as easily as I could, but their captain wanted the clearance on his record and didn’t want to take any chances. The Ferryman didn’t miss. Get The Ferryman.
Detectives door-knocked Horner’s house and got him to agree to come to the station voluntarily. The second he was out of sight in a patrol car, the detectives produced a warrant to search the residence where Horner lived with his father.
At the station, Horner had been placed in an interrogation room with the hidden audio tape running. Left alone, suspects have been known to talk aloud to themselves – “Don’t tell them you killed her. Don’t tell them.” It makes for an interesting jury reaction.
Rule of thumb: An innocent man placed alone in an interrogation room will remain alert, interested in what is going to happen next. A guilty man will put his head down on the table and go to sleep. Horner had immediately gone to sleep. Guilty, guilty, guilty.
Horner had no chance. He never faced a nightmare like me. I’d done literally thousands of interrogations, broken thousands of suspects.
It was time for a shift of focus. Horner had been picked up by the police once before. Getting him to talk about it could give me an angle when I brought the subject back to Alexis again.
I leaned forward casually and shuffled though some papers on the table. It was all for show. “Tell me about the time you were arrested.”
“It was stupid,” Horner said.
I picked up one of the papers and scrutinized it. “You think being arrested for burglary is stupid?”
“It was kicked down to trespass.”
So it had. “Tell me about it.”
“What do you want to know? They made me mad.”
“Who? The people you burglarized?”
“Yeah. They was always messing up the store.”
I looked at Horner. Waiting.
He glanced at me, read nothing on my face, uncrossed his legs at the ankles. I could feel the urge to justify himself bubbling up inside him.
“The guy was always coming in the bookstore, taking out books, reading them in the chairs and then not putting them back. It wasn’t just one or two books. It was ten, fifteen, twenty books, every day. I had to follow around behind him all the time putting the books back. He didn’t care.”
I saw from Horner’s rap sheet there had been two counts filed against him. “There was somebody else too.”
Horner nodded. “Yeah. A woman. She was always buying lattes and leaving the cups on the bookshelves. She left stains everywhere – didn’t care.”
“What did you do?”
I saw what could have passed for a slight smile touch Horner’s lips. “I went into his house and moved everything around. I didn’t take nothing, just moved everything so he had to find it and put it back, just like he did to me.”
“And the woman?”
“I stored up a week’s worth of empty coffee cups and put ‘em all over her house.”
I almost laughed, but didn’t – Horner was watching me.
“Bet you went through her underwear drawer while you were in the house – didn’t you, Michael?”
“No. I don’t do stuff like that.”
“Of course you do. I would have gone through her underwear drawer.”
Horner uncrossed his legs completely and turned to look at me. Bingo.
“You would have?”
“Sure.” With only two exceptions, there is nothing in the rules saying an interrogator can’t lie to a suspect. You can’t tell a suspect you’ll cut them a deal with the judge, and you can’t tell them how much better they feel when they get rid of the burden of their guilt by confessing. Any other lie is fair game.
The quickest way to get a suspect to confess is to present them with what they believe is a socially acceptable manner to explain their behavior. A woman was asking to be raped because of what she was wearing. Five-year-olds can be sexually precocious. An interrogator doesn’t believe the justifications, but if a suspect believes you will judge them less harshly because of a lame excuse, they will confess more readily.
If Horner thought I was an understanding kindred spirit, he’d spill his guts. I wouldn’t have gone through the woman’s underwear drawer, but I might have left dirty coffee cups all over her house.
“You told the truth when the officers arrested you?”
“That’s good, Michael, because I need you to tell me the truth.”
Horner turned his face away from me, but his body remained open.
“I need you to tell me the truth?”
“About what?” Horner asked eventually. He was stalling. He knew the answer. Guilt builds inside a guilty suspect like a geyser ready to explode. The more a suspect tries not to think about the truth, the more the truth forces its way to the forefront of his consciousness, and the harder it becomes not to talk about it.
I waited. Horner waited.
A minute passed before I said, “About Alexis,” as if there had been no pause.
“She was nice,” Horner said.
“Tell me about her.”
Horner’s face turned toward me again. “She came here from Houston. She worked in a Starbucks there. Her dad lives here with her step-mom. He promised her a job in his insurance firm, but it didn’t work out.”
He was tapering his story down, but I wanted to keep him talking. “Why didn’t it work out?”
Horner shrugged. “She said her dad moved offices. The new office came with a secretary that a bunch of the people shared. Her salary came out of the rent. He didn’t need Alexis anymore.”
Horner only nodded. I needed him verbal. “What did she do?” I asked.
Horner gave another shrug. “She came to work at the bookstore making coffee.”
A heck of a career – barista for hire.
“Was she mad at her dad?”
“What do you think?”
Oh, oh. Hostility.
“I think she had every right to be mad. And I think you took out her trash to try and make her feel better.” I paused. “Right?” Come on keep answering questions. We’re getting there.
“Yeah. She said she was going to fix her dad for screwing her over.”
“Bet you wanted to help her?”
“No. I’m not good at stuff like that.”
The truth of that statement rang through my body with perfect pitch.
I waited. I don’t know why, I just knew it was the right moment to wait.
A minute passed. Another minute passed.
A tear rolled down Horner’s cheek.
“You know Alexis is dead, don’t you, Michael?” My voice was quiet, soothing. I formed my questions now so they would only require a one word answer.
Horner provided that one glorious word for me.
“Yes,” he said.
“You killed her, didn’t you, Michael?”
Horner’s eyes widened – bad acting. “No. I found her when I took out the trash. I was scared. I didn’t know what to do. I just left her there.” The statement was untrue, but the tears were real.
I sat back in my chair. I didn’t go in for the histrionics. I rarely raise my voice. I never, never, hit a suspect. Remember, the tape is rolling. Verbal battering, physical assault, intimidation, they’re all sixth amendment violations. Not only will you lose a suspect’s confession in court, you’ll also lose your job, and these days, your freedom.
“Michael, God doesn’t like it when you lie. It upsets me when you lie. I’d rather you not tell me anything than lie to me. Do you understand?”
Tears were flowing faster now. “Yes.”
There was the soft bong of a bell outside the interrogation room. It was a signal to me. Horner didn’t even hear it. Nobody would interrupt an interrogation, but if they had important information for me they sounded the bell. I responded only if I felt it appropriate.
Michael was primed, but I needed just a trigger to push him over the edge. I’d risk the break to see what they had.
I stood. “You sit here and think about the truth, Michael. When I come back, we’ll talk about the truth. I know you want to tell me, don’t you?”
I opened the door and slid out. Nick Baxter, one of the homicide dicks on the case was waiting for me. He’d just returned from serving the search warrant at Horner’s house.
“Cracked him yet, Ferryman?” Baxter’s nose was clearly out of joint.
I chose to ignore the intonation. “What do you have?”
“We found the victim’s bra in his closet.” He thrust a stack of photos at me. “These were under the scrote’s bed. ”
I flipped through the stack. They were photos of Alexis, clearly taken without her knowing. There were some Horner had even managed to take in the bookstore’s woman’s restroom. And there were some taken through the window of Alexis’ residence bedroom.
Horner wasn’t anything special – just your standard neighborhood stalker who finally slipped off his track. He’d drawn the usual juvenile sexual crudities across the photos. I sighed. Guilty, guilty, guilty. I felt weighed down. More than ever, I wanted this done – wanted to walk away, never ask another question again. Can there be such a thing as too much truth?
I took the photos back into the interrogation room with me.
I moved over to stand next to Michael, my body achingly close to touching him.
He looked up at me. I could see the truth cut into every line of his features.
I let the photos dribble out of my hand onto the table. Each one fell like a guillotine blade chopping the head off a lie.
“Tell, me, the, truth, Michael.”
“You won’t believe me.”
“I will believe you, Michael. I know the truth already. I just want you to tell me. You killed Alexis, didn’t you?”
That was not the answer I wanted. That was not the truth.
“What happened, Michael? Did you try to kiss her? Did she catch you taking photos? Did she make you mad like those customers?”
“You took her bra, Michael. I know you did. It was in your closet. Don’t lie to me.”
“Yes, I took her bra, but she was already dead.”
“I know she was dead before you took the bra, Michael. You took it after you killed her. You needed something to remember her by, she was your friend.”
“She was nice to me.”
I sat down, reaching out to put my hand on Michael’s shoulder. We were in this together, he and I. This was always the hardest part. A suspect gave you a part of themselves when they gave you the truth. You owned them at that point. They belong to you, but their truth becomes your responsibility and you have to give them a part of yourself in order to fulfill that responsibility.
“Michael, don’t do this to yourself. Don’t disappoint me. I know you know the truth. I know the truth. Truth is even better if it’s shared.”
“She said she was going to get her father. She said she had files. He was taking people’s money but not paying their insurance stuff.”
I didn’t say anything. I just stroked the back of Michael’s neck.
“She was going to tell.”
“I know she was, Michael. She was going to tell about you.” With my other hand, I gently separated the photos Michael had taken through Alexis’ window. I moved them over in front of Michael. “She was going to tell about the photos wasn’t she Michael. I know you were ashamed. I would have been as well. It wasn’t nice was it, Michael?”
“No.” He was blubbering slightly. We were, oh, so very close. I could feel the truth building. A little more and we’d go over the edge together. I just needed the first admission, the first break in the dam.
“You killed her didn’t you, Michael?”
My hand was on his shoulder now. I rocked it softly back and forth, making his head begin to nod in the affirmative. The audio tape turned silently in another room, the hidden mike picking up every word, but not my soft movements of encouragement.
“Tell me the truth, Michael. It’s easy once it’s out. Don’t cut us with lies.”
I was leaning forward now, one hand on Michael’s thigh, one hand rubbing his back. “Tell me the truth, Michael,” I whispered. “You killed Alexis didn’t you?”
There was a pause as silent tears fell – then, “Yes.”
The truth. It was setting me free.
The interrogation room door opened. I looked up, angry. Baxter saw me comforting Michael. He smirked as if he’d caught two kids making love in the back of a car.
“Captain wants you.”
“Get out,” I said flatly.
“Now,” Baxter said, but he closed the door.
I rubbed Michael’s back again.
“It’s okay. Thank you for telling me the truth.”
“What will happen? Will I go to jail?”
“Yes.” I said. He had earned the truth.
“I don’t want to go to jail.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, and in some way I was.
I got to my feet. “I’ll be back,” I said, and left the room. I closed the door behind me, twisting the lock on the outside.
I walked down a short hallway and entered the main squad room. I saw Baxter and his partner standing by their desks. Captain Griffon was with them. He spotted me and signaled me over.
“Thanks for coming out, Ferryman – appreciate your efforts, but we’ve had a break in the case.”
“I know. You found the bra and the photos at Horner’s house.”
“No, not that,” Griffon said. “The victim’s step-mother just called in. Daddy committed suicide last night. Step-mom woke up and found him in his car in the garage with the engine still running – carbon monoxide poisoning.”
My heart began to thump around in my chest like a bat trying to escape a cage.
“Suicide?” I could barely choke out the word. Michael had said she was going to tell. It had been the truth, but . . .
“Yeah. He left a note confessing to getting furious with his daughter because she had some files of his showing he wasn’t paying his customer’s insurance premiums. They fought, he strangled her, didn’t know he was killing her until too late. Went home and did himself.”
I turned and ran – ran back to the interrogation room, fumbled to twist the lock, twisted the door handle, and tried to push the door open. It didn't move.
I put my shoulder to it and shoved. The heavy weight pressing back against my efforts put the strength of panic into me.
"Horner! Horner! Don't do this!" I knew at that moment yelling was fruitless.
Baxter put his shoulder on the door next to me, both of us pushing against the dead weight on the other side. The door gradually opened enough for me to slide through, tearing my shirt as I did so.
Horner was on the floor, his too-long belt attached to the door handle at one end, cutting deeply into his neck at the other. His face was a mottled purple.
Baxter forced his way through the door. I was just standing there.
"Move!" he said, pushing me roughly aside. He struggled to get Horner clear of the door, but the length of the belt, which had been just long enough for Horner to strangle himself, made moving the body awkward.
Baxter pulled out a pocket knife, using it's dull blade to saw desperately through the taut belt. The cheap leather finally parted, dropping Horner's head to the floor with a sickening plop. Baxter tore the ligature free from Horner's throat and began mouth-to-mouth.
I just stood, staring. I knew truth -- or once thought I did -- and now truth told me it was far too late.
Horner had told me the truth. His truth. But I had turned it into my truth.
Guilty, guilty, guilty.