The Head of the Snake
by Jack Johnson
part 1 of 2
I suppose I thought I would die in bed with a passel of grandkids and family crying and clutching to the covers. Some truly sad. Some divvying up the family fortune. It never occurred to me that my demise would be in a waterless aquarium, the star recipient of the latest chemical advance in civilized death.
As I sat on my bunk in this small, yellow-walled room, watching the smoke from my precious allotted cigarette curl towards the lone bulb in the ceiling, I sighed in resignation that no one will know I was... what? A modern day Christ? Even I had to snicker at that.
I turned my head to the guard.
“Michael, there’s a reporter from another crime magazine outside.” He was referring to the world beyond the red steel door that protected society from me. “The warden’s granted a three-hour interview, if you want to talk. It’s up to you.”
Charlie was a gentle bear of a man. Black. Twenty-two years in the prison system rising to the boring job of monitoring the last hours of convicted killers, like myself. I’d bet he was a good father and husband because he was just a nice person. Sincere. His uniform didn’t have a wrinkle in it and wouldn’t when his shift ended. He was patient for my decision.
“Why not, Charlie. Maybe it will help your shift go faster.”
He smiled. “You know I don’t listen when you get a visitor.”
“I’ll bet you don’t, Charlie. But you have my permission on this one. Send the guy in.”
He turned towards the red door, still looking at me, he tapped the glass and motioned “Come in” with two fingers. “Not a guy, Michael. A gal reporter.” He stepped back as they opened the door and a redheaded woman, tastefully dressed in a cream colored suit, cream silk blouse and matching business heels marched in. The click of her heels on the cement floor was a welcome change to my soundless existence.
I smiled. She was attractive, about five-four, pretty smile, above-average curves. I mentally thanked the warden. She moved closer to the bars and extended her hand. “Mr. Vicar. I’m J.D. Flynn from True Crime Magazine. Thank you for granting me an interview.”
I stood, took the two steps to the bars and shook her hand. It was moist; probably nerves. “Call me, Mike. Nice to meet you, J.D. How’d you get stuck with this assignment?”
She sat down on the visitor’s chair a pace back from the bars. “Actually, I requested it. You haven’t told anyone your side of the story, not even in court. Everyone else has given up trying.”
“What makes you think I will now?” I leaned my forearms on the cross bars. The metal was cold against my flesh.
“I’m here. You let me in. Will you tell your story to me?” She took a small recorder out of her purse/briefcase and turned it on.
I looked at the wall above her head and thought for a minute, then smiled.
Society wanted some sort of closure on this one. Maybe it was time to give them some version they could handle. “Sure, J.D., I’ll give you something to put in your magazine.”
She got right to business, crossed her legs, leaned forward and braced the arm with the recorder on her knee. “Mike, you killed fourteen people, an entire family. A very wealthy and important family. You were a decorated police lieutenant. Why?”
* * *
As I returned to the huddle, all the guys were patting my ass and back. “Great run, Mike.”
Bill Theobold, the quarterback for Colonel Webb High School varsity, was kneeling in the center of our huddle. I caught the wink he gave me. “Do you think you can break through the 41 slot? They won’t be expecting you to carry the ball again.”
Everyone looked at me; I shrugged. “Yeah, sure, 41 will work. That stupid line backer will crap when I run over him.”
“Okay, 41 slot left on two. Break.”
Bill trotted to the line, I stepped three paces behind him at fullback. I was six-one, two hundred and ten pounds and quick. I heard the count “Hut one, hut two.” The ball snapped into Bill’s hands, he backpedaled, turned and stuffed the ball into my arms as I charged past him. The tackle took his man right and the end plowed his man left. I charged through the hole. The middle line-backer was a second too slow. I blasted past him heading left. There was only one roving end that could stop me, and he was coming fast, head-on. I spun right and he went out of bounds and I made the touchdown. We won the game.
Bill and I celebrated that night with hamburgers, cokes, and cheerleaders. Bill was dark-haired and fine-featured. Good looks that conveyed his intelligence beyond the football build. We had been friends and a team since kindergarten. He was from a wealthy family and I was from across the tracks.
When we were little kids, the tracks weren’t far from where I lived, but as we got older, the tracks moved farther away from my house. He didn’t care. I know his father rode his ass into the ground for running with me but we were blood-brothers, friends for life. All through school, everyone knew if you messed with Bill, you had to deal with me. By ninth grade, no one screwed with either of us. He had the car and the money and he shared them with me up until he went to Stanford and I went to Marine Corps boot camp.
Right after graduation, my mother died. Bill got his father to loan me the money to bury her. She never told me who my father was, but Bill was with me in the tough moments afterwards. I loved the man very much.
* * *
“It needed to be done, and I was the only one available.”
“Come on, Mike. Three of the victims were under ten. You don’t strike me as a child killer. Why the entire Winthrope family?”
“The entire family was evil. Anyone left alive could perpetuate the evil.”
“You’re saying that children, ages three, five and eight, were part of an evil conspiracy?”
I turned from the bars. The memory made me cringe. I remembered my sobbing when they screamed. I took a few heavy breaths and turned back to face her. I knew she would not understand the truth. “Yes, absolutely.”
She looked at me with an odd expression, as if she believed me but didn’t know why. “Okay, what evil was Langford Winthrope and his family going to lay on society?”
“The evil was already done. Had been for longer than you would believe. I only stopped it from continuing forever.”
“The evil was already done? What evil, Mike? Winthrope was a philanthropist. He supported charitable causes with money and support, his family hosted fundraisers in all the right places. When he or his family showed up, great sums were given to whatever they supported. What evil did you put an end to?”
* * *
It took two years but I finally paid back Bill’s father. Bill and I stayed in touch through infrequent letters as he progressed to graduation and I wound up at Camp Pendleton in the Third Marine Division. We were able to get together a few times in Palo Alto and enjoyed the reunions. I was winding down on my four-year enlistment and Bill was nearing graduation when our relationship began to change. It was over a beer when Bill broke the news.
“I’m going to Harvard Law School.”
Bill’s father could afford it, but it didn’t sound like Dad was going to pay for it. “What’s wrong with Stanford Law School?”
“Better connections at Harvard.”
“When did you decide to do this? I thought you were going to go home and give your father’s company the benefit of your business education.”
“Dad’s not happy about it, but he can always use a good lawyer and I intend to be a good lawyer.”
“Bill, you’ve been good at whatever you wanted to do. Christ, man, you’re graduating from Stanford with honors. I’m proud of you, I’m sure your Dad is.”
He smiled. “Mike, you’re my best friend. Things have changed in my life, for the better. If I do this right, I’ll be set for life and not dependent on my father for anything.”
“I know that’s important to you, making it on your own. I’m on your side, Bill, always will be. I know this will work for you.”
“Hey, enough about me. What about you? You’re getting out of the Corps soon, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. I start the Los Angeles Police Academy four days after I’m discharged. I’m going to be a cop. Maybe I’ll be a hero someday.”
* * *
“J.D., there is nothing I can say that will tarnish the public image of the Winthrope family and certainly no evidence I could put forth to prove what I know. That’s why I’m here and not in a ticker tape parade in New York City. Let’s just say I ended something that’s terrible in mankind’s history and that will not be in mankind’s future.”
“Let’s make sure I’ve got this straight. You believe you saved mankind from some horrible thing in the future. We don’t know what this future thing is, but in your mind it was evil; a cataclysm for mankind?”
“Yes and no. Was there a future Armageddon? Yes, there was. But more than that, I ended the perpetuation of evil. The past cannot be changed, but the future holds the promise of change if not interfered with. We will — or at least you will — see if I’m right. If things change, if evil deeds dwindle, then I’ll have succeeded.”
She frowned ever so slightly. I wasn’t giving her what she wanted, but she was a professional. She moved on, “When did you begin investigating the Winthropes for these transgressions you murdered them for?”
* * *
Our correspondence became less and less but I was busy. I’m sure Bill was too. Bill graduated from Harvard Law second in his class, right after I made Detective Sergeant Third Grade. I was beginning my second year at UCLA, night classes in Law Enforcement. I had vacation time, so I attended Bill’s graduation in Boston.
His father was proud of him and said he was proud of me. He apologized for his feelings toward me during our school years. He said he was wrong in thinking I was a bad influence on Bill. He confided that he was confused about Bill’s decision about Harvard Law School and had no idea where the money came from during the last three years. He presumed Bill had some very good scholarships. It was a question I had not asked.
Bill and I found some time alone together, but it was different, which was understandable. We were men now, not teenagers, and the seven or eight years spent in our own endeavors had cooled the closeness we once had.
Bill had a great offer with a prestigious New York law firm and was engaged to a beautiful woman. Her family was wealthy and had been influential for many generations. Once he established himself with the firm, they would have a gala wedding. I would be his best man. I went back to Los Angeles believing he was still my best friend and only the best would happen in both our lives.
* * *
“I started looking at the Winthropes a few years ago.”
Flynn flipped open a steno notebook. “That was about the time your friend Bill Theobold was found murdered?”
The lady had done her homework; I was impressed. No one else had come close to connecting the two incidents. “Yeah. Right around that time.”
“Was your investigation of the Winthropes connected to Theobold’s death?”
“You might say that.”
“Why, Mike? What was the connection?”
“He was indirectly responsible for Bill’s death, among others.” So many others.
“But you were not allowed to investigate the case because of your relationship with the victim.”
“I investigated it on my own time.”
She read from her notes. “Didn’t that get you in trouble with your superiors? In your trial they paraded every one of your bosses on the witness stand and they all said you conducted an illegal investigation and you were reprimanded a number of times for continuing it. You were on suspension when you committed the murders.”
“Looks like you have it all.”
“No, I don’t. What did you find that made you so relentless?”
* * *
I had just come off a weekend shift of typical Los Angeles homicide cases and was dog tired. I lay in bed in my Santa Monica condo. My roommates, two American Airlines stewardesses, were in Chicago or Atlanta, I couldn’t keep track. It was four a.m. Monday when the phone rang.
“This is Mike.”
“Mike, it’s Bill. Bill Theobold.”
I sat up and lit a cigarette. “Yes, Bill. What’s the matter?”
“Sorry to call you at such an ungodly hour, but it’s seven here and I’ll be in L.A. about one o’clock your time. I need to see you.”
“Hey Bill, not a problem. Where are you staying? I’ll meet you there.”
“The Ramada at LAX. Come at two.”
“I’ll be there. Do you want to tell me what this is about?”
“I’ll tell you when I see you. And thanks for being a friend.”
“Bill, you know....” The dial tone told me he had hung up.
I finished my smoke and slept fitfully until twelve. A quick shower and change into day-off clothes put me on the 405 by 12:45. Traffic was light and I was at the Ramada by 1:45. I called on the house phone, Bill answered. “Mike, I’m in room 819. Come up now.”
I walked to the elevators. I adjusted my shoulder rig — I don’t leave home without it — and pressed the eight button. When I found his room, I rapped on the door and could feel the scrutiny of the door’s eye. It opened. Bill pulled me in and closed it quickly.
“And hello to you, welcome to L.A.”
His smile was strained. “Hi Mike. Thanks for coming.”
I gave him a bear hug. It was out of place for this new Bill whom I didn’t know. “You knew I would, or you wouldn’t have called. So what’s the problem, or do you call all your friends at four in the morning?”
“Have you had lunch yet?”
“I haven’t had breakfast yet. Bill, talk to me. What’s up?”
He rushed to the phone. “Hello, room service? Send me up two breakfasts: eggs, bacon, pancakes, fruit, the works. 819. Thank you.”
He was like a water bug skittering across a pond. “Bill. Stop it. Sit down and tell me what has you acting like a fruitcake.”
He looked at me with a wide-eyed expression, the old deer-in-the-headlight look. I walked over and grabbed his shoulders, backed him to the couch and sat him down. “Now. Talk.”
He shook his head and looked at the floor between his legs. “I thought I was so sharp, so cool.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I lit a cigarette, Bill motioned for one so I shook one out and lit it for him. He blew out the big drag he took. “When I was in my senior year at Stanford, some people came to me and asked if I’d be interested in hitting the jackpot.”
“Hitting the jackpot?”
Copyright © 2001 by Jack Johnson