A Thin Veil of Innocence
by Christopher J. Ferguson
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Stieger produced a quarter. “Flip you for it?”
Marcus nodded, and the coin became airborne. The wager came out against Stieger and, with a sigh, he moved toward the door with Marcus quiet behind him. His gloved fist rapped against the door, and from within they could hear someone moving. A few moments passed before the door was opened by a smiling woman of short stature and brown hair. Her eyes darted between them questioningly.
“Excuse me,” Stieger said, producing his badge for her, “I’m Detective Stieger with the Rhode Island State Police, and this here is my partner. I hate to disturb you, but I was wondering if you might own a Siamese cat?”
The smile faded from the woman’s face, and she nodded, “Yes, Nemie, she belongs to my daughter Ashley. Nemie went missing yesterday.” She looked both concerned and baffled.
“Well,” Stieger said, with a cough into his fist, “I’m afraid to say we think that your cat is dead.”
“Oh no!” the woman said, putting her hand to her mouth in such a stereotypical manner that Stieger almost laughed. “My daughter will be crushed. Nemie is such a wonderful cat.” She seemed lost and distraught for a moment before eyeing the detectives suspiciously. “How did Nemie die? I mean, why is the State Police involved in the death of a cat?”
Stieger felt his muscles clench with embarrassment; he was not sure he had much of an explanation for that. “Well, eh, you see the cat was found on state property.” He pointed toward the cemetery to take her eyes off himself. “The cat was, well, em... you, see the cat was—”
“Slain,” Marcus finished for him, putting him out of his misery, “by a human.”
“That’s horrible!” the woman exclaimed, fortuitously oblivious to Stieger’s discomfort, “Who would do such a thing to a little girl’s cat?” She seemed stunned for a moment, then her eyes took on a dark and angry look. “Wait, I know who. It must be that Phillips boy. One of her classmates at the middle school. He attacked my daughter one day at school, hit her so hard that she needed stitches. It must have been that cruel child that did this thing. He’s not supposed to come near my daughter!”
“Wait a second,” Stieger said. “You’re saying this boy assaulted your daughter, and now you think that he killed her cat?” He was as much stunned as anything else that they actually had a lead on this case.
“Yes!” she exclaimed, her face now red with anger, “They used to be friends. He and his younger brother came over often to play with Ashley. The treehouse used to be their fort. But one day he just attacked her on the way to the bus. Attacked my poor daughter with no provocation. The school suspended him for one week but then let him back. He is not supposed to approach my daughter, though.”
The detectives were able to get little other useful information from the girl’s mother. They made their excuses and left her contemplating out loud whether she should pick up her daughter from school.
In the car a blast of artificial heat tried desperately to remove the chill from their bones and from their hearts. Marcus pulled away from the curb and, without needing to consult Stieger, began to drive toward North Cumberland Middle School.
“Richard Phillips,” Stieger murmured, the boy’s name strange on his lips. Instantly his mind created a fictitious image of the boy’s face. He imagined a slight, even handsome face with a shock of blond hair. The face held an angry expression, but Stieger was not sure that he could find it to be the picture of a disturbed child.
“Lucky break with the cat, don’tcha think?” Marcus said without great enthusiasm. Perhaps investigating the death of an animal should have been a welcome respite from the world of human misery into which they stepped daily. Yet there was a dark cloud over this case, something neither of them could put a finger on, yet which they could both feel. Something was missing here.
Stieger shrugged thoughtfully. “At least we have a trail to follow.” He ran his fingers through his hair and tugged gently at the roots in an attempt to relieve some of the pressure he was feeling on the inside of his skull. “I wonder why Richard Phillips hates this Ashley girl so much?”
The principal at the middle school was a small, well-dressed, older man who was big on educational humanism and small on the ability to see wrongdoing in others. Stieger sized him up immediately as the sort of kind-hearted soul who thought every act of violence could be explained by what was on television.
He could almost picture the principal giving lectures to his faculty about how violent kids were misunderstood victims of a society gone wrong. It was a tenderhearted view of the world, but it meant that the principal was not going to be especially helpful to them.
“I can’t imagine that Richie Phillips would actually do what you say he’s done!” the principal exclaimed indignantly soon after they had arrived at the school.
“Well,” Marcus explained patiently, “that is what we would like to determine, if we could possibly speak with him.”
The principal frowned. “Richie is a good student, well-liked by the faculty. He wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
“Uh-huh,” Marcus said noncommittally. “We have a report that he attacked a girl named Ashley Watcher in early December. We also understand that this attack resulted in a one-week suspension. Would that be an accurate rendition of what occurred?”
“Well, yes, but—”
“So,” Marcus continued without raising his voice, indeed with hardly any inflection at all, “Richard Phillips is a member of the ‘Be Kind to Flies’ Club, but he is known to attack girls?”
With a slack jaw the principal looked from Marcus to Stieger, who had not yet said a word. Moments passed.
Steiger cast his eyes about the school. It was a clean, efficient, well-run institution that reflected the pride and civic duty of both faculty and students. Trophies stood in a glass case by the front door. A red and white banner proclaimed welcome to all visitors.
At this moment, during class time, there was very little activity in the hallways. Violence here must have been nearly unheard-of. Schoolyard fistfights maybe, but not the type of violence that made headlines.
To the principal, Stieger said, “We’d just like to have a few words with the boy, clear some things up with him. This could all be one big misunderstanding, couldn’t it? But we won’t know that for sure unless we speak to the boy.”
The principal was still uncertain, but ground had been gained. “Very well,” he said at last, “I will pull him from class. But I am going to call his parents and have them down here before you begin your interrogation.” He wagged his finger at the two officers as if they were children.
“And you will interrogate him here, not at your police station. I won’t have you browbeating that child. And if the parents refuse to allow him to speak with you, then matters are out of my hands.” He gave them one last wave of his finger. “And you can be SURE that I am going to inform the parents of Richie’s rights in this matter.” Without waiting for an answer, he turned his back on them to make his calls.
Marcus coughed into his fist, “I guess we needn’t invite him to the Policeman’s Ball.”
“The principal seems to like this Phillips kid,” Stieger observed.
Marcus frowned. “Hey, last month some kid walked into his school in Ohio and blew away two classmates. All I’ve seen in the media since then is how this kid used to volunteer in youth group and loved kittens. Carl Rogers there,” he waved in the direction of the retreating principal, “didn’t exactly strike me as a critical judge of character.”
Stieger agreed, “Still, all is not right in Whoville.”
“Don’t drag Dr. Seuss into this.”
“Are you going to need me for the interrogation?” Stieger asked. He eyed the exit doorway, the glass panes that kept the winter at bay.
“Don’t tell me you’re going to sneak home for a rendezvous with your wife at a moment like this?”
“Nope,” said Steiger, without a hint of irony, “I’m gonna go take a look at a few things back near the scene. The gears are meshing in my head, and I feel like we’re on the wrong track.”
Marcus shrugged indulgently. “Who am I to come in the way of your quest for clues? I’ll call you if I need anything.”
Once Mrs. Phillips arrived at the school, Marcus read Richie his rights, informed him that he was not under arrest, and suggested that it was in his best interest to be truthful. The principal hovered over the entire proceeding like a bird of prey, quick to seize upon any irregularity in Marcus’ interrogation.
Richie sulked in his chair, shoulders stooped over, face like a boiling kettle of water. All eyes were on him, and it made him seethe. He was a handsome kid, preppy, not the sort who would strike Marcus as a troublemaker. His hair was blond and well kept, and he was dressed in the best clothes of the latest fashions.
The principal informed them both of their rights not to agree to the interview, but Mrs. Phillips insisted. She was in her thirties perhaps, still hanging onto the last vestiges of youth with long pretty hair and a youthful way of dressing. Her left hand was weighed down by a large diamond, and she caught Marcus as the sort of full-time mom who has part-time employment on the side simply for the social and intellectual outlet.
Marcus could tell from her interactions with her son that his attack on Ashley Watcher was still a family mystery. She wanted answers as much as he. With their permission, Marcus began tape-recording the interview. He had all individuals present state their full names.
“You said that Richie isn’t under arrest, no matter what he says here, is that right?” she asked, vacillating between the need to get the truth and the need to protect her son. “So long as he tells the truth.”
“That’s right,” Marcus said. “He still has the assault on Ashley Watcher hanging over him, but I think we can come to terms with the court, see to it he gets treatment rather than punishment. That is assuming that Richie is truthful. If he lies, things may be rougher for him.” He shifted his eyes from Mrs. Phillips to Richie meaningfully.
His mother eyed him with a mixture of concern and bewilderment. Marcus guessed that they had been close but that their relationship had become strained of late, over the incident with Ashley Watcher.
“Do you know why you’re here, Richie?” Marcus asked
The kid looked up at him, his eyes steaming. “It’s about Ashley again, right?”
Marcus nodded, at once feeling himself slip into the old routine of the interview. The kid, he knew, was wondering just how much the police knew about him, Ashley and the cat. He would try to dance around between not giving Marcus any information, while trying to learn how much Marcus knew. Both the principal and Mrs. Phillips had been told about the cat. No one, yet, had specifically mentioned the cat to Richie. “Yeah, it’s about Ashley.”
“I thought this was over,” Richie spat with irritation. “Why are you talking to me again? I’ve kept away from her just like I said I would.” His mannerisms made it clear that he thought he was the wronged party, that he had gotten a bad deal. He had certainly not accepted responsibility for attacking Ashley Watcher, no matter what he might have said to the principal or his mother. Marcus wondered why he was so angry at the Watcher girl.
“See, I just don’t think that’s true,” Marcus said to Richie. The boy looked up at him incredulously. That look of disbelief was so pure, it gave Marcus pause. Richie evidently did not know about the cat. “What I don’t understand is, what it is that you have against Ashley Watcher?”
Richie looked away, sullen. Marcus continued probing. “I mean you two were best buds for a while there, weren’t you?” No response: Richie looked off to the side in displeasure. “What is it that got you so mad at her that you’d attack her?” Nothing.
Marcus slammed his fist down on the table, getting the boy’s head to snap back and face him in alarm. “Dammit, Richie, this isn’t a therapy session. You don’t get to pick and choose which questions you wanna answer.”
“Hey now,” the principal protested weakly, more startled than the boy was. “There’s no need for those kinds of theatrics.”
“Richie,” Mrs. Phillips said, pleading, “why won’t you tell anyone about what happened?” She looked like she was about to cry, the age-old weapon mothers use on sons in moments of crisis. It was having an effect on him, too, his eyes darted at her in disgrace, hating that he was making his mother unhappy, and still not wanting to say anything.
The tug of war in his mind was clearly evident in his face, scrunched up and distressed as it was, the skin red. Tears were welling up in his eyes to match those of his mother, but he didn’t want to cry, he was fighting it. He pulled his arms so tightly against his chest that Marcus thought he was going to break his own ribs. The kid was in the balance, wondering, should he tell? Was it really the best thing?
This was the moment when Marcus had his chance. If he were careful, he could get the truth. If only the damn principal would keep his mouth shut. Fortunately, even he seemed riveted on what was going on.
“Listen, son,” Marcus said, his voice smooth as silk, like he was talking to one of his own kids, “I know it’s hard, but there comes a time when you have to tell the truth. It’s the most courageous thing a person can do, to own up to what’s going on and make things right.” He stopped to see Richie’s reaction. The boy was eyeing him, thinking, mulling it over. It was a good reaction.
Richie’s mother was as good a partner in this interrogation as Marcus could have hoped for. This was a welcome surprise; many parents would just man the barricades, no matter what horrible thing their child had done. Mrs. Phillips, as if on cue, put her hand on Richie’s head and smoothed his hair, lovingly, a gesture of acceptance. “Why won’t you tell us about what happened?” she asked softly.
He looked at her, face filled with distress and looking every bit the boy that he was. “I just tried to make things right!” he proclaimed, “Arnold made me promise not to tell anyone about what happened!”
“Huh?” Marcus said, confused.
Mrs. Phillips’ mouth hung agape, her expression as confused as his, though she was able to explain, “Arnold is our other son, Richie’s younger brother.”
Marcus didn’t get it and felt suddenly as if he was coming into a movie halfway through. “You mean to tell me that Arnold killed the cat?” he asked, blurting the question out unprofessionally in his surprise.
Richie turned to him with an expression of exasperation. What he said froze Marcus’ blood. “What cat?” the boy asked.
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Christopher J. Ferguson