September 7, 2015

The Fruits of His Red Pen

Author's note:  Thanks to my twitter friend @boddenbooks prodding me that I should be writing, this got a makeover yesterday.  Thunderhead helped me with the editing, and I'm happier with how it flows.  For you history/unsolved crimes fans, here's the updated DB Cooper story I've been working on.

December 14th, 1971, two figures are seated around a metal table in a small, neglected Seattle police precinct.  The second coming of John Dillinger had recently taken a $200,000 swan dive out of a 727. Law enforcement is doing everything they could to find the culprit and any accomplices.   
The windowless room, lit by a single buzzing fluorescent light, contained three men. The youngest has the look of a marine corps dropout, his blond hair cropped, his shirt pressed. He wears a permanent scowl that was more a scar than a mouth.  His shoulders share, and pacing like a pit fighter waiting for the bell.  His partner, Douglas Graham, sat facing the third man.

The scene occupies the last room at the end of a short hall.  The single, high window lets weak light trickled in where the accordion wings from the window AC have cracked in the sun.
Two mismatched folding chairs face each other across the table.   A faded splatter of coffee is the only decoration on the wall.  
The officers focus their attention on the third man.  Shabby in appearance and average in height he is dressed in expensive clothes.  He wears them poorly so as they appear cheap.  The backs of his shoes are scuffed.  His hands are delicate, but the cuticles show signs of being chewed.  He is clean shaven, and smells a bit like soap and discount aftershave.  His eyes are watery, and their lower lids pucker  like a basset hound.  Their droop gives him the appearance of looking bored with everything.  
Attempting to present himself as mouse with the self opinion of a tiger by feigning a prim demeanor, he speaks.  
"No, I don't know the man.  How many times do I have to tell you that?  The only thing we had in common was breathing the same air at 50,000 feet.  And can I get that Coke?  I asked for it over an hour ago."
Bathed in yellow flourescent, light, the first officer to speak leans forward.  The buttons on his short sleeved shirt strained over his middle age spread.  "Of course Bill.  Can I call you Bill?”  Without waiting for an answer, Graham relayed his irritation to his partner.  Lifting his open hand in his direction behind the suspect, he said,  “Clay, can you check on where his soda might be?" before slamming it down palm first on the formica.  As he pushed back from the table the chair legs grated on the concrete floor, setting William's teeth on edge.  
Clay, like a precision clock, strode wordlessly out of the interrogation room.  William adjusted his glasses, swatted at the smoke in the air, and grimaced.
"It's William.  But I'd prefer mister Mitchell.  And can you please put that out?"  gesturing towards the detective's lit cigarette resting in the ashtray.  "Disgusting habit."
The temperature in the room noticeably dropped a few degrees as the balding detective extinguished his goodwill along with his smoke.  The subtle draft from the door closing behind Swinton’s return pushes the smoke back in the suspect's face.  
"Can I get you a fucking pillow to sit on Bill?   It must be tired from all the talking its done. We asked you a question.  What's your involvement with Cooper?"
Clearly frustrated and losing his composure further, William took a long breath before speaking.  Leaning back into his folding chair and leaving his shoulders slouched, he  gave his best attempt at explanation.  "We are virtual strangers.  It's the holiday season, and I noticed he was drinking bourbon and water.  It was early in the day, so I joked with him about needing to get started early in order to brave family gatherings.  I assumed he was flying home to see them."
Before pulling the chair on the far wall over to sit, Swinton hastily slid a can of soda across the table.  It was warm, and covered in dust.  The lip of the can is rough with spatters of an unknown substance that smelled of industrial pine.  As he sank into his seat, a sneer crept across his face, exposing enough of his teeth to the overhead light to appear sinister.
Without a pause, Douglas continued,"You're forgetting something.  The note?  The one he wrote with your pen, on your hotel stationery."
Caught in a spotlight of his own making, mister Mitchell shifted uncomfortably, crossing his legs in subconscious fear.  He held out his hands, palms up, pinkies extended.  "The amenities were less than advertised.  I chose to take the complimentary stationery in compensation when I checked out.  And the man, this Dan Cooper.  I don't know why you keep calling him D. B.”  
Resting his left arm on the table, he thrust his right hand forward in a judgemental action, he continued.  “His ticket clearly had Dan stamped on it.  I saw it when it fluttered out of his wallet.”  Withdrawing his hand, he looked towards the dimly lit doorway and away from his inquisitors in an effort to appear non-plussed.  “Anyway, he asked if I had pen and paper.  How was I to know what he would do with it?"
From below the table, the chair creaked as Swinton leaned back to study Mitchell's face.  He took a moment, eyes steady, before he spoke, fingertips pressed together over the shirt that struggled to contain his midsection.  "You didn't think that was strange?  You know, him asking you when he had a briefcase with him?"
His attention brought back to the table, Mister Mitchell’s head swiveled back to center.  "Why would I think it was strange?  At the time, I didn't see it. I only glimpsed it later when he moved it to the floor between his feet.  He’d put it on the seat next to him.  He wasn't hiding it, but the way he leaned forward when he asked to borrow my pen blocked my view.  That's besides the point though.”  Looking around at the room in disgust, he continued, “You don't generally end up in some dingy interrogation room just for lending a man a pen.  I'm telling you, it wasn't suspicious.  It was like giving someone a tissue.".
Graham, curling his fingers over the metal arms of his chair, rose up to his full seated height, leaned forward menacingly and asked: "Other passengers said they saw you talking to him during the flight.  They said you exchanged 'knowing looks' or raised your eyebrows at each other.”  With an eye meant to wither, he looked William up and down.  “That sounds like two guys who’ve got history."  
Clearly not expecting this angle of questioning, a gin blossoms crept across William’s face.  "Must you take every shameful moment of the last 24 hours of my life and parade them around like a circus bear?”  Pulling the lapels of his jacket tighter around him, he went on, “I saw him him pass the stewardess a note.  She smiled at him, put the note in her purse, and went back to reading her magazine.  When she sat next to him later, I took that to mean that the lascivious rumors about stewardesses had some degree of truth to them.”  Turning away to face the door to his right again, he muttered, “I thought he might have, shall we say, intentions with her."
Detective Graham grimaced at the implications that his suspect was living vicariously through the exploits of others.  The idea of the man in an ill-fitting tweed suit and questionable comb-over exchanging a nod and a wink about bedding anyone made his stomach rumba with the remains of his lunch.  
In a languid tone reserved for discount lawyers, Graham asked, “Suppose we buy what you’re selling.  Why Cooper?  Thirty five other people on that plane and you pick the one guy that’s gonna cause trouble to buddy up with.”
Smoke from the extinguished cigarette slithered towards the institutional overhead lamp, coiling around it as a mother snake protects her brood.  In the space of two blinks, Clay coughed.  Concealed in shadow, the abrupt reminder of his presence startled the feckless William, such that an emasculated yelp escaped his lips.  Adjusting the strands of hair that fell across his forehead with an unsteady hand, he turned a festering look towards the former marine.  “Why must you do your best to recreate a Gulag for me?  I’m hardly a susp. . .”
With a viper’s agility that his paunch belied, Graham stood, knocking the metal chair backwards with a clatter, his roar filling the room.  “You son of a bitch!  You’re the only one on that plane who even acknowledged Cooper prior to the ‘mechanical difficulties’ that kept you in the air for three times longer than necessary.  Every rookie cop out there  knows to look into that.”  Leaning in with predatory intentions, Graham’s temple pulsed with each furious heartbeat.  The muscles in his arms and shoulders flexing as he walked his palms across the metal table, his questions peppered his prey like birdshot.  “Why Cooper?  Why that flight?  You have no family in Seattle.  You haven’t travelled anywhere for the holidays in the last 7 years.  Why this year?  Why did you choose an unremarkable man as your mark?  We don’t think it was an accident.  After enough of them, coincidences stop being coincidences.”  His knuckles whitened as he pressed his fingers into the table.  
Having visibly lost his cool, sweat staining the underarms of his shirt, William attempted to escape the detective’s advance across the table.  Pushing his chair backwards he discovered Clay had taken his cue and put himself within a foot behind the squirming suspect.  
Through a keening usually reserved for banshees on the hunt and  heard only by the family dog, the words escaped his lips. “It was Boeing!  Thousands of people leaving the city every day.  I’ve seen the billboard and have an appointment with Youngren to discuss some opportunities in person!  Some just walked away from their homes!  All that money just laying around in abandoned real estate.  I was headed to a property auction this weekend and was going to meet up with Youngren and his partner there!”
An acrid stench of sweat and panic began to fill the space, creeping like mildew in a middle school locker room.
As the telltale odor of fear reached his nose, Detective Graham massaged his temple with his left hand.  An indent where a wedding ring had been and since removed in the recent past flashed into view between the swirls of smoke.  Realizing they may have caught a mere scavenger intending to feed on his city’s economic carrion, he pondered how far they’d been set back in their investigation.  He made a mental note to pull his suspect’s financials.  He’d need to follow the money.  
Pinching the bridge of his nose, and without looking up, he roused a phlegmy cough from his lungs.  Glancing right, and tipping his chin up and back towards the door, he dispatched his partner Clay to check county records for any auctions scheduled for the next few days.
Leaning forward and planting his left elbow into the muscle of his left thigh as he turned to face his suspect, he inquired, “Then why did we find you at baggage claim alone?”
Righting the lenses of his glasses to be level on his nose, and in a snide tone, William replied, “Surely as a detective you already know I have no friends or family here.  Strangers rarely arrive to fanfare or car service.”  Arching his eyebrows higher in haughty disgust, he righted the overturned can of soda.  “I didn’t anticipate trouble finding lodging, what with the locals leaving in droves and all.  I was on my way to the cab stand to find a skycap and inquire about a hotel when you detained me.”
The sense that they’d caught dolphin in a tuna net was growing in Graham’s gut.  Everything in the room pointed to the most promising lead they’d had thus far being a red herring.  With several more passengers to interview clogging up the conference rooms it was looking like they’d have to cut this one loose.  That didn’t mean they had to admit that they were wrong to suspect him, or make him feel like he had dodged a bullet.
Pulling himself to standing, chair moaning with relief, Graham lumbered up behind Mitchell.  With a fleshy slap, he grabbed the chair back and yanked it away from the table.  Mitchell’s feet left the floor as he was caught off guard.  Before he could compose himself, Graham crouched down and spoke, meeting his suspect’s dilatory eyes with an unblinking stare.
“Don’t you just have all the answers?  You’d better hope they’re the right ones.    You’re not under arrest.  Not yet.  But, I’ll be watching you.  I’ve got all the time in the world.”  With those words, the thumb on his left hand caressed the indent on his ring finger.  An uncomfortable series of beats hung in the air, neither man breaking the pregnant silence.  Finally, Graham stood and kicked the back of Mitchell’s chair.  
“Stop wasting my time.  Get out of here.”  With a start and a flurry of sweat stained cloth, Mitchell scuttled for the door.  Not stopping short enough, his shoulder collided with the wall.  In obvious discomfort, he reached for the knob and hurriedly let himself out.  His footsteps rang out as he made his escape.  The door slowly closing behind him clicked shut as he disappeared around the corner at the end of the hall.

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