Fiction by Bobby Mathews
Corley Brown was a murderer, three times over, but I’ll be damned if he looked like one. He was sitting in Interrogation One, a little cube of a room painted pale green. I’ve seen a lot of suspects sit in that room as I peered through the one-way glass, but I never saw a guy like him.
Brown wasn’t fidgeting. He wasn’t feigning sleep. He wasn’t doing any of the million little tells a murderer’s body uses to betray him. His hands rested on the tabletop, the steel handcuffs glinting in the low light of a flickering bulb. His wide shoulders were square, and his hair was thin and dry and brown, long over the top to cover a spot of male pattern baldness. His eyes were clear and bright, and he was smiling.
It’s the smile I can’t forget.
It wasn’t a smirk. It wasn’t a grin. Corley Brown had the smile of a happy man, and I couldn’t understand it. Happy men don’t kill their wives. They don’t come home from their job at the insurance office and use a camping hatchet on their children. They don’t leave the bodies in the living room and go upstairs to their bedrooms to nap while their neighbors call the police.
But that’s exactly what Corley Brown had done.
I took the case file into the room with me, pages of notes, forensic details of how the Brown family had been chopped up and left where they lay. The cops who found the bodies—veterans both, guys with more than a decade on the job—had to run the other direction and throw up. All while he slept on, unaware that the police had arrived on the scene.
Brown didn’t stand up when I entered the room. He couldn’t. The small table where he sat featured a large O ring bolted into the center. The chain of the handcuffs ran through it.
“You ready to talk about it?” I asked as I tossed the file down onto the table. I didn’t bother with his rights. The uniforms at the scene had done that, gotten the arrest and Miranda warning on video. I dragged the chair opposite Brown away from the table and turned it around to straddle it so I could fold my arms against the back.
“What do you want me to say?” His eyes never wavered from my face. “You know what happened just as well as I do.”
I opened the file and looked at it, not really doing anything, just letting my eyes skim the pictures of the three victims. Even after five years of carrying the gold detective’s shield, there were some things I couldn’t look at—not if I wanted to stay sane. There was Rannie, Corley’s wife, and Bradley, who would have been ten in a couple of weeks, and Abigail, who was four. None of them would get any older.
“I know what happened,” I said. “What I want to know is why.”
Brown shrugged his shoulders and yawned. I could see molars in bad need of a dentist.
“I don’t really give a damn what you want,” he said. “Why don’t matter, does it? Why just fucks everything up for you. I did it. I’ll cop to it. Now let’s quit fucking around. Put me back in my cell and let me get some sleep.”
I shook my head.
“It doesn’t work that way. I ask the questions. You answer them.”
Corley stared at me, gave another little shrug.
“Whatever, man,” he said.
“Why did you kill your wife?”
“Are you married?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Then you ought to understand.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help myself. I’ve been married for thirteen years. Some of those years were good, and some were bad. Sometimes I wanted to hug Lacey, and sometimes I wanted to strangle her. So I guess I knew exactly what he meant.
“Was there something specific that set you off today?”
When Corley said no, I believed him. Whatever happened in that gray little bungalow on Third Avenue, it had been building for a long time. I kept my eyes on his, watched how steady they were. It was unsettling. He looked at peace, the sonofabitch.
“Tell me what it was about,” I said.
He laughed. “You are like a dog after a goddamn bone,” he said.
I tapped the gold shield hanging from the lapel of my JC Penney suit. “It’s my business.”
Corley Brown’s eyes skimmed the room. He wasn’t uneasy. He was just looking at his surroundings. Interrogation One isn’t much of a room. If you’ve ever seen a cop show on TV, you’ve seen a room just like it.
“I never thought I’d end up here,” he said. “I thought I could wait it out, you know?”
I didn’t say anything, and after a long moment, Corley Brown sighed. He looked me up and down for a moment.
“You got kids? Accourse you do. You got the look. Solid citizen all around, right? I could probably tell your life story. Army, right? Used the GI Bill to go to college. Got out after twenty, caught onto the cops right away.”
Almost. I’d been in the Navy. Took the exam for the fire department and the cops. Cops came through first. I didn’t tell Brown any of that, though. I didn’t have to. He was just warming up.
“I sell insurance. Tough game, you know? Tougher than you’d think. Tough as hell in this economy. Auto, home, whole life. Lotta stress. You gotta make sales to keep the money coming in. Pressure all the time.”
Since silence was my best interrogation technique, I kept at it. I cocked my head to show I was listening.
“Rannie just—it was a lot of things. We got the country club membership, last year’s Lexus. Mortgage isn’t upside down, but it’s close. Always fighting about money. Kids need clothes. And of course, you can’t go down to Target and buy ‘em what they need. They gotta be in style. You know what that’s like?”
He didn’t wait for me to answer, just kept on going. “Yeah, you do. Tennis rackets for the club. But we can’t just go down to Wal-Mart and pick up a twenty-dollar stick. We needed the best shit for the kids. Got rackets? Great. Gotta have lessons. It bears down on a man.
“This time it was landscaping. We just had the yard done three years ago, but now she wanted a—what the hell did she call it?—a goddamn water feature.”
Now I did interrupt. “A what?”
“A fucking fountain. She wanted to put up a fountain in the front yard, re-do the driveway into a circle. You know how much money that shit costs?”
I didn’t know. But I thought about it for a minute.
“You killed your wife over a fountain?”
Brown looked puzzled, puffed his lips out and blew a lock of his dry brown hair away from his forehead.
“No,” he said. “I killed her because she tried to stop me from killing the kids.”
I picked up the file folder, slid back from the table.
“Let’s take a break,” I said. I could feel sweat on my face, trickling down from my hairline. “I’ll be right back.”
The two steps to the door were the longest I’ve ever taken. When I reached for the doorknob, it felt like my arm was stretching and swaying like an old rope bridge. I managed to get the door closed behind me before I sucked in a huge breath. The air tasted stale, like I was drowning out in the open. I could feel my Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. The bathroom was two doors down from Interrogation One, across the hall. I barged in, heard the pneumatic door wheeze shut behind me.
I got the water going, hearing the cold liquid splash against the sink. In the mirror, my face was almost as white as the porcelain basin. I choked back bile. I’ve been a cop for a while. I’ve seen some bad things. But this was the worst. Little kids chopped up in pieces like a gruesome jigsaw puzzle. Their mother dead because she tried to save them.
I shook my head, tried to clear it. Ran my hands under the cold water and splashed some on my face. I was running my wet fingers through my hair, trying to smooth it down, when the Captain Church came into the bathroom. I leaned over the sink for a minute, not sure if my lunch was about to come up. When it didn’t, I straightened.
Church looked over my shoulder at my reflection in the mirror. I couldn’t quite meet his eyes.
“You have to finish this,” he said.
“You caught the squeal. Now do your job.”
He was looking at me, not blinking. The lines in his face were deep, as if they’d been etched there a long time ago, before the beginning of the world. There was no sympathy in his gaze. I knew he was right. It was my job to finish, to dot the i’s and cross the t’s of Corley Brown’s confession. I dried my hands on a paper towel, mopped my brow. I took a deep breath and turned away from the sink.
Church put out his hand, and I reached across the thousand-mile gap between us to take it. He slapped me on the back and pulled me close, where he whispered in my ear.
“It’s the worst goddamn thing I ever heard. You’ve got to finish it, though. You know that, don’t you?”
I did know it. It’s part of what makes a cop who he is. You gotta be able to take the shit that comes with the job. It’s part of being a stand-up guy, part of that thin blue line that protects society from itself. If your brother officers sense weakness in you, that they can’t count on you when the shit goes down, it could spell curtains for your career. If they can’t trust you—or even think they can’t—then you’re out. Persona non grata.
Church pumped my hand again, hard, and we gave each other a firm little nod. He bent and handed me the brown manila evidence folder that lay on the floor where I’d dropped it. I felt like the quarterback being asked to go back in and win the game with two minutes left and no timeouts remaining. There was sweat on my neck and face, and my bladder was full to bursting.
I ignored everything else and crossed the hall back to Interrogation One. Opened the door. Brown looked sympathetic, the asshole.
“Everything OK?” He asked. His tone was neutral, slightly concerned. No mocking sarcasm. I couldn’t figure out what the hell was wrong with him.
“Fine,” I said. “Right as rain.”
I took my seat again. I was trying to pick up where we’d left off, but I couldn’t seem to find the thread of our conversation. I shuffled his file around a little and cleared my throat.
“Your wife was trying to stop you from killing your children,” I said.
He nodded, his green eyes bright with earnestness.
“Of course,” he said, “she was a good mother. You know how mama bears are, don’t want you to mess with their cubs. I guess it’s genetic.” Brown paused for a moment and stared through the window to the world outside. That window was two panes thick with chicken wire sandwiched in the middle. He wasn’t going anywhere, and he knew it. I still don’t know what he was looking for.
“What had the kids done?” I asked.
Brown didn’t answer me. He’d wound down like an old watch. He finally rattled his cuffs and said, “Can you take these off?”
I shook my head.
“Not right now. We still have some things to discuss.”
Brown yawned again, big enough to make me cover my own mouth.
“I’m so tired,” he said. “Tired like this, it gets down in your bones like cancer, and no matter how much sleep you get, I guess it’s never enough.”
I grunted like someone punched me in the gut. But I didn’t have anything to say, so I just listened to him.
“Bradley was a talker, like me. Talk, talk, talk all the time. He couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Got in trouble for it at school and at church. And when Abigail came along, I just—some folks weren’t ever meant to be parents, you know what I mean?”
I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. I didn’t trust my voice.
“Anyway, I put up with it as long as I could. I guess today was the day that everything snapped. I took that hatchet and, well, I did what I did. I got to Bradley, and then Rannie tried to stop me. I hit her one good time. I didn’t want to kill her, but, well, she got in the way.”
I could see it all in my mind’s eye—Corley Brown getting home from work, tired like usual. Inside the house, shrugging off his coat and tie, maybe rolling his sleeves up. All he wanted was rest, but then the twin tornadoes of his two kids blow in and make him even more exhausted. All that talk and all of that noise, the constant commotion. Maybe it didn’t drive him crazy, but it drove him somewhere close and let him walk the rest of the way there.
“So that’s it?” I asked. “You were just tired of being a parent? You kill your whole family because you’re, what, too lazy to take care of them?”
Brown’s eyes blazed at me, and I could see spittle in the corners of his mouth.
“Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve had a decent night’s sleep? Kid cries in the middle of the night and somebody has to go to ‘em, wipe their nose, get ‘em water, right? Well, the other parent doesn’t just lay in bed and sleep, man. Every time one of ‘em woke up, I was either right there with ‘em or layin’ in the bed and listening while Rannie was up. All I wanted was a good night’s sleep.”
And then he was done. I waited for several minutes to see what else Brown might say, but there was nothing.
“Are you sorry you did it?” I asked. I didn’t need to know for the confession. I was genuinely curious.
When Corley Brown smiled at me, I believed he was the happiest man in the world. Certainly he was the happiest man I’ve ever seen.
“That nap,” he said. “Before your beat cops got there? That was the best I’ve slept in ten years. I don’t regret a damned thing.”
There was more, but none of it mattered. I had his confession—easiest one of my career—and I was gonna do everything in my power to make sure Brown spent the rest of his life locked up somewhere. The captain congratulated me when I finished my report. I didn’t even have the energy to say thanks, just tipped him a mock salute and headed for the garage.
The unmarked unit is a perk of the job, a late-model Crown Vic with buggywhip antennas and no hubcaps. It looks exactly like what it is—a cop car. But the seats are leather and comfortably low-sprung. I made the twenty-minute commute in silence, just like I do every day. I thumbed the button on the garage door opener attached to my visor and pulled in still thinking about Corley Brown and his hatchet. Every blow freeing him from obligation, every chop a strike against the chains of responsibility that held him moored to the real world, this stark reality.
Finally, I hit the garage opener again and listened as the big garage door rattled closed. I shut the car off and got out, wandered over to my little workbench. I keep my tools in a big steel cart that stands about four feet high. The second drawer down holds a variety of wrenches and hammers. I took out the framing hammer, a big old one that my dad gave me when we worked construction together back when I was in high school. The steel head weighed about thirty-two ounces, all by itself. The summers when I used it, the muscles in my forearms had looked like steel cables.
I held the hammer in my hand and swung it a couple of times, just to remember how it felt. I could still see Corley Brown and his family in the back of my mind. The door to the house opened up behind me, and my wife, Lacey, stuck her head into the garage.
“Hey,” she said. “When are you coming in? I could use some help with the kids.”
“Right now,” I said.
Then I put the hammer back in the drawer and shut it away.
Thank you for reading! A version of this story appears on Smashwords, and you can download it HERE. I appreciate the time you took to choose my work to read, and I hope you’ll check out some of my other work. —Bobby