Raymond Forbes scratched his nose in thought. “Is it barb wire or barbed wire?”
“What is that?” Detective Dillon crossed his arms over his gut. “What type of question is that?”
“It pertains to the story I’m telling.”
“We don’t want to hear a story, Forbes. We want to hear the truth.”
“The story is the truth, officer.”
“Shit, Dillon,” Detective Butler said. “Let Mr. Forbes speak, would you?”
Dillon shrugged and leaned against the sticky concrete wall of the interrogation room. He sized Forbes up from under his bushy brows. The kid looked to be about 25 and 100 pounds. A rat’s nest for hair with thick sideburns and a thick line of black dirt under each nail. Jittery. Eyes dancing all over the room.
Butler was seated at the small table across from Forbes. On the table between them was the hammer, sealed inside a plastic evidence bag. Butler toyed with an unlit cigarette and motioned for Forbes to continue.
“Like I was saying, detectives, Troutman led me down this wooded trail. We skirted along the creek for a while and eventually we come to this fence. All lined on top with barbed wire or whatever it’s called. Bits of plastic and litter and shit all caught in it from over the years. Beyond the fence, there’s this old brick building. Like a warehouse or a factory. Big, yeah? And it’s seen better days, you know? Looks like an artifact. Windows all busted out. Roof caved in. The local wildlife had staked claim to its insides.”
“What kind of wildlife?” Dillon said.
“What’s that matter?”
“Details count. Help people remember other things.”
Forbes paused a moment, then said, “Birds, mostly. Though a family a deer ran off when we walked up.”
“So you climbed over the fence then?” Butler said.
“No, Troutman knew where there was a section a the fence we could slip through. Someone had cut it away. Troutman, he’d been there before.”
Butler nodded. “So you and Troutman went into the old building. Then what happened?”
“He led me into the building, is a more accurate way of putting it.”
“He hold your hand too, shit stain?” Dillon said.
Forbes ignored him. “He led me in through a receiving bay, around the back ‘a the building. It smelled like earth inside. And something else like ‘a, like ‘a sulfur. We walked through this big empty room, then into a smaller one. Maybe it used to be an office, I don’t know. And that’s where Troutman had the guy in the chair.”
Butler put the unlit cigarette in the corner of his mouth and let it dangle. “What’s this Troutman look like?”
“Built like a…like a chimney.”
Dillon and Butler exchanged looks of amusement. The cigarette bounced as Butler said, “Did smoke comes out of his head?”
“Santa Claus climb out of his ass?” Dillon offered.
“No, Christ, I just mean he’s tall and solid, like a chimney. Is it hot in here?”
“No, it’s not.” Butler leaned forward and rolled up the sleeves on his white button down shirt. Checked his watch. The kid Forbes had come into the station 20 minutes ago like the devil was nipping at his heels. Said he’d witnessed a murder down in north Montgomery County. Said this fella Troutman did it. Killed a guy with a hammer then told him to get rid of the tool. Toss it in the creek. Instead Forbes had brought it to the station, looking for protection from Troutman, the human chimney. “Go on, Mr. Forbes. Tell us about the guy in the chair.”
“He was tied to it, facing the wall. He had a blindfold on too. Looked filthy. Like he’d been there a few days or a week or something.”
“What was he doing?” Dillon said.
“Doing? He wasn’t doing anything. His head was kind of leaning to the side, like he was unconscious. Then his shoulders start bobbing up and down. Guy was crying. Real weak like though.”
“What’d this guy look like?” Dillon said.
“I don’t really…kind of small. If you saw him from across the room, you might think he’s a teenager or something. Hair was all wild and wet. With sweat, I guess.” As Forbes talked, Dillon circled the table. Arms still crossed, eyes examining Forbes. “I didn’t really get a look at his face though. I swear. He was facing the wall. We were behind him and Troutman, shit, Troutman just takes the hammer and…” Forbes smashed a fist down into an open palm.
“What’s that mean?” Butler said, mimicking the gesture.
“Exactly what it looks like.”
“I want to hear you say it.”
Forbes turned in his chair to look at Dillon, who was still circling the table. “He-”
“Troutman, he cracked the guy with the hammer. You know, with the business end.”
Dillon halted behind Forbes and looked down at the back of his head. He scowled and said, “Where’d he hit him?”
Forbes twisted in his chair to look at Dillon. “Right in the skull. Cracked it like a melon.”
“We guessed that, shithead. Where in the skull?”
“In the back. Dead center back a the head.”
The detectives were silent. They both looked at Forbes, eagerly. Expecting something.
“What?!” Forbes said.
Butler sighed and rose from his chair and nodded for Dillon to follow him into the hallway. The door locked behind them.
Dillon said, “This kid a fucking brainiac or what?”
“Poor bastard ain’t got much of a brain left, I’ll tell you that,” Butler said.
“I can see that.”
“Suppose we should tell him?”
“Just flat out tell him? Where’s the fun in that?”
“I’m getting impatient, is what it is. Who’s supervising us tonight?”
“Dammit, Gregory’s a hard ass. We better deliver quick.”
“Let’s at least drop a few more hints on the sap.”
“On account I can’t smoke anymore, it makes me impatient. I feel sorry for him. He is a sap, isn’t he?”
“Purebred, double barreled sap. A few more hints, c’mon. It’s more fun that way. We’re making great time too. There’s wiggle room to string the kid along. C’mon.”
Butler looked into the flinty eyes of his partner. “You really derive pleasure out of dangling the proverbial carrot, don’t you?”
Dillon shrugged. “Fucking might as well, right? We got nothing else to do. For pretty much eternity, we got nothing else going on. Let’s you and me, dearest partner, get our kicks.”
The detectives strolled back in the interrogation room. Forbes was picking at a dark stain on the table’s surface. Butler took his seat across from Forbes. Dillon went back to playing wall jockey, arms crossed.
Butler slouched in his chair. “Moving on, what did Troutman do after he killed this guy?”
Forbes kept picking at the stain. “What is this?”
“This stain.” He sniffed his finger. “Smells weird.”
“Brimstone. Tell me, Mr. Forbes, what your man Troutman did after he played sledge-o-matic with the guy’s head.”
“He gave me the hammer and told me to chuck it in the creek.”
“And instead you came here.”
“Yeah. This Troutman, he’s a lethal prick, you know? He’s got me in his sights next, bet on that. That’s why I…you guys have to protect me, you know? I’ll testify against Troutman, whatever you need. But you have to get me in witness protection or something. Some kind of guarantee. I can’t go- ”
“How did you feel afterwards?” Dillon said.
“Huh?” Forbes said.
“The innocent puppy dog look on this kid’s mug. You believe it, Butler? I asked you how you felt. You know, after your man Trout caved the bastard’s head in.”
“Hey now, I’m innocent! I owed Troutman some money is all. For…you know… debts.”
“So Troutman was your bookie, is what you’re telling us.” Butler said.
“Well, yes. But lately, my credit ain’t so good.”
“Which is why you think he’s out to scalp you next?” Dillon said.
“That’s fine,” Butler said. “You can give us your sob story later. I would like to hear it, Mr. Forbes, honest. But, first I want you to answer my partner’s question.”
“What question?” Forbes said.
“He asked you how you felt after Troutman killed the guy.”
“Well, shit, not great!”
“No, no. Be more specific.”
“I guess I…I almost threw up.”
“There you go. What else?”
“The nausea was really intense. Like a goddamn tsunami of sick. Then I guess I felt warm. Like it started in my head, then the warmth just washed down me. Down to my feet. And it felt like I was…this sounds so fucking dumb.”
“Keep going,” Butler said sincerely. “It helps if you keep talking about it.”
Forbes licked his cracked lips and looked at Butler’s somber face, his black eyes set in pale skin. “I don’t know. It felt like I was floating. Warm and floating and light-headed, but more than that.”
“Out of body?” Butler urged.
“Yeah, yeah out of body.”
“That’s good, Mr. Forbes. Real good. Now, do me a favor and think back to the guy in the chair some more. About what he looked like.”
“I told you, I didn’t see-”
“Try again, okay? Roll with it. The details, let them come back to you.”
The metal folding chair whined as Forbes leaned back.
“C’mon kid…” Dillon whispered, fists tight.
Frowning, Forbes concentrated back on the man in the chair. He closed his eyes and put himself back in the small room. The earth and sulfur smell. The knot in his stomach, agonizingly tight. There was a moment, before the hammer came down, when he saw the man’s profile. His small chin and long, narrow beak.
“Something the matter, kid?” Butler said.
Forbes’ eyes opened and the room spun. “Huh?”
“With your nose. Something the matter?”
Forbes didn’t realize he’d been scratching his nose. His dad used to call a “beak.”
“I feel sick again,” Forbes said. He put both hands on the table, by the hammer.
Butler snapped his fingers and Dillon fished in his back pocket and pulled out a pair of purple surgical gloves and handed them to Butler. He peeled them down over his hands and removed the hammer from the plastic bag. Forbes glanced at the hammer and he put his head down, queasy.
Butler held the hammer out towards Forbes. “Listen to me. I want you to take a real good look at this hammer.”
“A hard look,” Dillon added. “The hardest.”
“I can’t,” Forbes said, hand pressed against his forehead. “Please.”
“See all this here?” Butler pointed at the head of the hammer. “All these bits of skull? The hair, the blood. What’s that telling you?”
“I’m not looking.”
Dillon stomped up to the table and snatched the hammer from his partner. He pinched a cluster of brown hair matted thick with blood off the hammer’s face and shoved it towards Forbes. “Fucking look at it!”
Forbes glanced at the bloody knot. His heart skipped a beat, then tumbled down into his stomach, as the warm wave of awareness washed over him. And that’s when the back of his head opened up.
“Oh Christ!” he said, crying. He clasped his hands over the hole in his skull. Blood spilled between his fingers.
“Easy, now. Easy.” Butler got up and stepped around the table to Forbes. He put both hands on his shoulders, careful not to get blood on his black Oxfords. “Just let it happen, Mr. Forbes.”
“Don’t fight it, kid.” Dillon said, still leaning indifferently against the wall.
The color had drained from Forbes. He face was translucent. Dillon could see the trail of veins beneath his cheeks from across the room.
“That was me in the chair, wasn’t it?” Forbes said. “Oh fuck, oh Christ.”
“We don’t know why it happens this way,” Butler said. “Some people, they don’t remember. But you have to, kid. To move on. You have to.”
Forbes tried to stand up, but his legs wouldn’t cooperate. Butler eased him out of the chair and onto the floor, on his back.
“You okay, Mr. Forbes?” he said. “You comfortable?”
Dillon chuckled. Butler ignored him.
“I owed him…owed him money,” Forbes said, shivering. “Killed me because of money?”
“I’m afraid so,” Butler said. “Tied you to a chair, everything you saw, it was happening to you.”
“I don’t understand. How’d I get here?”
Butler crouched down next to him. “I meet guys like you every day, Mr. Forbes, and to be honest, I don’t get it either. As for how you got here, you did it on your own volition.”
“Stubborn bastard,” Dillon said.
“But it’s your time now, Mr. Forbes.” Butler leaned closer. He saw the glaze coming over Forbes’ eyes. “See that light? You’re going to want to go towards it.”
“W-why…” Forbes stuttered. “The light, why’s it red?”
“Go on now.”
Forbes exhaled one last time and he was gone. Butler gave his partner a thumbs up. Dillon opened the door and called out into the hall, “Processing all set in room 120! Put us on the board!”
A small, winged demon floated down the hall with a clipboard in its hands. It stopped at room 120, checked its watch, and jotted down the time.
“You hear me, Gregory?” Dillon said, trying to peek at what the demon was writing. “Put us on the board. That’s 35 minutes. Five under par. Put us on that fucking board!”
Gregory finished writing and floated past Dillon, into the room. His forked tongue tasting the air.
Butler said hello and Gregory said, “Fine work. Off to the next one. Processing Room 77. A gentleman named Troutman.”
“What goes around comes around, huh?” Butler said.
“You have a problem with who you process, Mr. Butler? You take it up with management. Now off you go.”
Butler bit through the filter of his unlit cigarette and slouched out of the room. Dillon turned to Gregory and said, “Oh hey, Gregory, I mentioned it to Shannon down in HR, but my key card isn’t working for the gym. Could you maybe ask her about that for me? If I don’t hit the gym every morning, I am not myself.”
Gregory looked down at Dillon’s significant gut and laughed and waved him off.
Patrick Cooper is a writer living in Trappe, PA. His work has appeared in numerous online outlets, including Spinetingler, Shotgun Honey, Out of the Gutter, Flash Fiction Magazine, Ghost Parachute, and others. He’s also been in a few print anthologies.