Harold Blackwell stood up from his chair as far as he could - which wasn’t very far, though, because the chain connecting the manacle around his left wrist to the manacle around the table leg was only about six inches in length. Still, his right arm was free to do whatever he wanted, and with it he snapped off a solid salute to the other man in the room, Chris Keneally, who shut the door, returned the salute, and sat across the table from the arrestee.
“Which branch?” Chris asked.
“US Army, sir. Third Infantry Division.”
“Out of Fort Stewart,” replied Chris. “Just down the road.”
“Good group of men.”
“The finest, sir.”
“Are you on leave, soldier?”
Chris nodded. He’d looked at the file. He knew what Harold Blackwell was leaving out.
“How long have you been out of this man’s army, Harold?”
“Eighteen months, sir.”
“Almost two years.”
“Do you miss it?”
“Oh, yes, sir.”
“What do you miss most about it?”
Harold thought for a moment, then responded, “My friends, sir.”
“Your brothers in arms.”
“Don’t you have any friends here in Atlanta?”
“It’s not the same, sir.”
“No,” said Chris. “I’d imagine it’s not.”
“Don’t you miss it, sir?”
“The White House, sir. Don’t you miss it?”
“Harold, I’ve only been out of office for less than two weeks.”
“Yes, sir. But don’t you miss it?”
“Yeah. I do.”
“You originally from here, Harold?”
“No, sir. Born and raised in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Good town. Bad part. Same as you was raised.”
Chris wondered which biography of his Harold had read. Some were more accurate than others, although Harold’s description of Cabbagetown, a once-ramshackle neighborhood in South Atlanta. wasn’t far off. Thirty percent of his classmates from elementary school were either in lock-up or dead. If the right people hadn’t taken him under their wing at a young age, he just as well could have ended up another of those statistics. Instead, he became president of the United States.
“Did you get in much trouble in Hattiesburg?”
“No more than most.”
“What did your parents do for a living?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. I was raised by my aunt and uncle, except they weren’t really my aunt and uncle, you know? Not by blood or nothing. They only had one kid of their own, and he drowned during one of the floods. I told them they didn’t have to worry about that with me. I’m a good swimmer.”
“How well did you do in school?”
Harold shrugged. “It wasn’t for me. I liked puzzles, things I could take apart and put back together. I took apart our TV once. My uncle was so pissed.”
“Did you put it back together?”
“I tried. Maybe I would’ve succeeded too, but he called some expert to come do it instead. I remember – I got grounded because of that for two months. Stuck in my room - you know what I did?” Harold leaned in conspiratorially. “I took apart my lamp.”
“You were creative.”
“I took it apart, I put it back together, I took it apart, I put it back together – I don’t know how many times. Taking it apart, I figured out how it worked, so putting it back together made sense.”
“You solved the puzzle.”
“That’s what I’m talking about! I solved the puzzle! You bet.”
Then his joy faded, like a dying star.
“But you ain’t here to talk about no lamps.”
“No, Harold,” replied Chris in a sympathetic whisper. “I’m not.”
The ex-soldier glanced away.
“Harold, why don’t you tell me about last night?”
“Last night was Tuesday night.”
“You know what I’m asking.”
“I know what you think I did last night, and it’s a lie. It’s a lie they’re telling you and it ain’t fair!” He slammed his right fist against the table.
Chris stared at that fist. It was easy to imagine a wrench held in it. But then suddenly Harold was lying on the cold hard floor with Special Agent Buchanan on top of him and the steely tip of Special Agent Buchanan’s Glock 9mm on top of his forehead.
To his credit, Harold didn’t lose his cool; to his credit, Chris did.
“Buchanan, stand down. I said stand down!”
He holstered his sidearm and glared at the two cops loitering in the now-opening doorway. “I want both wrists and ankles chained or this ends now.”
Chris stood up beside his bodyguard. “Is that really necessary?”
“With all due respect, Mr. President, that’s not your call to make.”
Nevertheless, Chris insisted on staying in the room while the men showed up with lengths of chain from God-knows-where and forced Harold back into his chair and proceeded to snake the clanging chains around his ankles, thighs, arms, and chest as if he were Houdini being readied for a daring escape instead of a middle-aged black man from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. One of the cops had the audacity to tug on the chains to test their give.
“He’s secure,” she told Special Agent Buchanan.
From the look in Buchanan’s eyes, Chris could tell the man was considering testing the chains himself, but decided against it, perhaps to assuage the ex-president’s visible irritation, and soon the room had emptied of everyone but the man with the questions and the man with the answers.
Chris took his seat.
“Harold, this isn’t how I wanted things to go down.”
Harold remained silent, his gaze downcast.
“Are you comfortable?”
At that, Harold looked up. His eyes, shiny, offered all the response Chris needed.
“Yeah. OK. Well, if it’s all right with you, Harold, why don’t we try to get back to our discussion. Is that all right with you, Harold?”
Harold didn’t reply.
“If it’s not, you can say so. You know that, right? If you want me to leave—“
“No, sir.” His voice cracked with emotion. “I want to get this finished.”
“Fair enough. Let’s talk about Eric Lang.”
“You knew him, didn’t you?”
“How did you meet him?”
“Oh, I never met him, sir. Not ever, and especially not last night.”
“But you said you knew him.”
“Yes, sir. I did. And he knew me.”
“How did he know you?”
“He fired me from my job.”
Chris nodded. “Yes. He did.” He could feel the eyes of the executive ADA, the homicide captain, everyone who was watching this go down on the monitor. They were all counting on him. Eric Lang’s family was counting on him.
And, knowing this, he felt at peace.
“And you worked at Casabian Communications for how long, Harold, before he fired you?”
“That’s a long time.”
“You worked as a maintenance engineer – is that right?”
“Repairing air conditioners, lighting fixtures, plumping..?”
“Yes, sir. Pretty much. Whatever needs fixing.”
“It sounds like it was right up your alley.”
“And you were good at it.”
“And after thirteen years, you must’ve thought you’d have this job for the rest of your life.”
“And then one day, without warning, someone who you hadn’t even ever met, someone who didn’t know you from Adam, fired you.”
“Were you even given a reason?”
“They said I stole.”
“Human Resources. They took me into their office and told me that I stole Mr. Lang’s paperweight. They said I must’ve done it when I was fixing his air vent.”
Chris blinked. “Did you say ‘paperweight?’”
“You were fired because you stole a paperweight?”
“No, sir. I didn’t steal it. That’s what I’m telling you.”
“Was this paperweight made out of gold?”
“I don’t know, sir. I don’t even remember seeing it, to be honest. I was just paying attention to his air vent. The frame was rattling so I had to tighten the screws.”
“I see. Would you excuse me a moment, Harold?”
“Of course, sir. I ain’t going nowhere.”
Chris stepped out into the adjourning room, where the man’s public defender stood alongside Detective Pittman, Pittman’s partner Howe, and Keisha Gilmore.
“A paperweight?” He looked at each of them individually. “Are you kidding me?”
And then things went from bad to worse, because at that moment, the district attorney himself, Chris’s son Brian, stormed into the room and appeared about ready to toss someone out the nearest window.
“Him?” exclaimed Brian, pointing at his father but speaking to his executive ADA. “Are you kidding me?”
Ah, like father, like son.
Were the situation less dire, Chris might have, in that moment, burst into hysterical laughter and maybe even hugged his boy, but not far from them, on the other side of a wall, in fact, sat a man in chains, and so Chris swerved past all of that and simply asked, “Is there a problem?”
“Is there a problem?! You being here is the problem. I was coming back from my press conference and I noticed my phone was missing. OK, these things happen, I figured I must’ve left it somewhere in here. Then I get off the elevator and I see your bodyguards stationed all around the place like they think someone’s going to try to take a go at you in the middle of a police station! But that’s not the problem, Dad, and in fact, it’s not even really your fault, because you didn’t know to come down here until someone called you up, and how would that someone call you up unless they got your number and how would that someone have gotten your number unless they got it from me?”
Chris stepped up to his first-born, looked him in the eye, and said quietly, “Brian, if you want to make a scene…there’s a theatre down the block.”
“Oh, my beautiful boy…” He wrapped an arm around his son and escorted him to a more isolated corner of the homicide unit. “You think after all this time I don’t know when someone’s trying to play me? I was aware thirty seconds into the phone call what her agenda was. But you’re not pissed off because your executive ADA is an opportunist, are you? Sure, she might get some of the credit for closing this case, but that’s not what’s got you really riled up, is it? What you can’t stand is that I might get some of the credit.”
Brian stared at him in seething silence, but didn’t tell him he was wrong.
“Look, I’m not here to steal anyone’s thunder. And what happened yesterday in your office… I was out of line. But you have to believe that my being here right now has nothing to do with trying to circumvent your authority. I swear to you. So you know what you have to do now, don’t you? You have to make a choice. You have to either choose to send me home in which case I’ll promptly get in my car and drive off – well, Buchanan will drive, but you know what I mean – or you can choose to let me stay. If I stay, I can’t guarantee I’ll get a confession out of him, but if I go, I am almost promise you that no one else is going to make him crack, especially not now that he’s all chained up like – and forgive me, but the image just won’t leave my mind – a runaway slave. So which is it going to be?”
But before he could answer, the captain of the homicide unit, Marco Gomez, showed up with an unmistakably dour expression on his mustachioed face. “Mr. District Attorney, we got another body.”
Brian wheeled around to face the man. “Same m.o.?”
“Hrm? Oh! No, no. This isn’t related to the Eric Lang case. But it’s got all the markings of bad news. Body found over by the Goat Farm.” The Goat Farm was a dilapidated cotton gin on the west side of town which had become a sort of vast brick enclave for both artists and random animals. “Two bullets to the back of the head.”
“You got an ID yet?”
“Yeah, victim’s name is…hold on, let me check…” Gomez took out his pocket-sized notepad and flipped through it. “Christ, my memory’s getting worse and worse each day. My wife says I need to eat more fish but the way she cooks it, I’m better off not remembering – wait, here it is. Victim’s name is Moses Sorenson.”
Chris watched his son’s face turn ashen.
“Wait, wait, wait, now I know what that name rings a bell,” said Gomez. “If it’s the same guy, man, what a piece of work. Most paranoid PI I’ve ever met. Refused to shake hands because he thought I’d lift his fingerprints or something. Anyway, I got Farelli and Kincaid on it, and given the location and the manner and all that jazz, I figured you’d want the heads up.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Brian replied. “Keep me posted.”
The man with the mustache strolled away.
Chris offered his son a commiserating squeeze on his shoulder but didn’t say a word. After all this was over, the two of them would have to pick up a fine bottle of scotch, plop themselves down at the kitchen table, turn off all phones, hide all car keys, and talk into the night. Brian had a huge weight he needed to get off his chest - this much was clear – and what kind of father would Chris be if he just stood by and watched that weight crush the boy’s spirit? In many ways, oddly enough, Brian, the most successful of his children, also always was the most fragile. Why was that? What had he and Loretta done wrong?
“Dad,” the boy said, rubbing at the bridge of his nose, “why don’t you go back in the room and finish what you started?”
“Are you sure?”
“Christ, Dad, don’t make me beg, all right? Not today.”
Chris nodded, patted Brian twice on the back, and returned to the business at hand. Outside the room, Harold’s public defender was attempting to convince Keisha into offering a weak-ass plea of manslaughter one.
“Before I go back in there,” said Chris, “can someone explain to me why he was fired for just stealing a paperweight?”
“It wasn’t just a paperweight, Mr. President. It was a fossilized dragon’s egg.”
“Komodo dragon egg,” Keisha clarified, though he had a feeling her initial vagueness had been intentional. “It was apparently a gift from the vice president of Indonesia. Lang was Casabian’s senior liaison to Central and Southeast Asia.”
Chris nodded. He tried to remember what gifts the Indonesian government had given him, but drew a blank. Friday, of course, would know. Hmm. He considered phoning her – not to ask about the gifts but to update her on the situation – but then decided against it and reentered Harold’s room.
“Sorry I took so long,” Chris told him.
Harold rattled a shrug.
“I’ll be honest. I was a little confused about the paperweight. It just didn’t seem right someone getting kicked out on the street over something like that. But then again, I guess sometimes it’s about what the object means to the individual. That’s why you label your tools, isn’t it? You paint them each with your initials.”
“And if someone were to take what’s rightfully yours, you’d get upset, wouldn’t you, whether it’s your tools or your job or whatever. And the worst part is, this isn’t the first time it’s happened to you, is it, Harold?”
Harold tensed up. “No, sir.”
“It’s why you had to leave the Army, isn’t it?” Chris thought back to that page from the man’s file. “It’s why they forced you out.”
“Warrant officer named Sheppard stole my wallet.”
“And you reported it to your CO?”
“And what happened, Harold?”
“Sheppard said the wallet was his. He said the money was his. And Lieutenant Lewis believed him!”
“But you didn’t think that was fair.”
“It wasn’t fair!”
“Sheppard needed to be punished.”
“Damn right he did!”
“So what did you do?”
“It’s OK, Harold. Anyone in your situation would have been livid. I know I would’ve been. You didn’t let Sheppard get away with it, did you? Don’t tell me you let him get away with it!”
“No, sir. I crept up to him when he was asleep and I took my wallet out and I forced his mouth open and I waited until his eyes were open so he could see who it was and I shoved that wallet down his motherfucking throat.”
Chris met the man’s gaze and offered priestly reassurance.
“He didn’t die or nothing,” Harold added. “But he did have to have surgery.”
“And so you were discharged from the Army, just for trying to mete out some justice.”
“And then you picked yourself off the ground and you got yourself a good job at Casabian and you worked hard then and this happens. Almost the exact same thing.”
“And it’s not fair, is it, Harold?”
“I didn’t steal no paperweight!”
“But it doesn’t matter whether you did or not, because once again, the world’s turned against you and why? What did you ever do to the world?”
“And yet the world keeps smacking you down again and again and again and you know what the only thing a man can do in a situation like that – I bet you learned it when you were a kid in Mississippi – someone smacks you down and you smack him back! You teach him a lesson!”
“That son of a bitch is never going to mess with you again!”
“You don’t want to kill him –you’re not a killer – but you got to hit him hard or he’ll never learn! Am I right?!”
Harold didn’t respond.
“I said – am I right?”
Again silence. Then, slowly, Harold folded into himself. If it weren’t for the chains, he might have lifted his knees to his chin and hugged them close to his chest and cowered right there on the chair. He was a man in fast retreat from this inhospitable world, but before he switched off completely, he did manage to whisper a brief, defiant, “No.”
And then stuff happens.