Frank Stewart was in the midst of what was unquestionably the worst day of his entire life. He had thought he'd had some bad ones before during the course of his thirty-one years on Earth. There was the time he'd found out his wife (now ex-wife) had been cheating on him with her dentist for more than a year. There was the time he'd had the kidney stone and had spent eighteen hours in screaming agony waiting for it to pass. There was the day—only four months ago now—he'd been arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. None of those could hold a candle to this day, a day that had led to him sitting in this little room in the police station downtown; a little room with no windows, no carpeting, no art on the wall; a little room that smelled like stale alcohol and fresh fear; a little room where he could not open the door if he wanted to, could not leave until they told him he could.
He wasn't sure how long he had been in this room now. They had brought him in about an hour after the incident between his friend Manny and the man in the minivan. That had been about four o'clock in the afternoon but they had taken his watch from him—along with his wallet, keys, and cell phone—before putting him in here. Every twenty minutes or so a uniformed police officer would stick his head in and ask if he was doing okay. They had given him a bottle of water and a package of snack crackers but they would not listen to him when he tried to explain that he didn't belong in here, that he had had nothing to do with what had happened in that parking lot. They did not want to hear it.
"Wait until the detectives get here," they kept repeating. "You can tell them all about it then."
"When will that be?" he asked every time.
"Soon," he was always told.
This had happened at least six times now, maybe more. All he could do was sit and wait and wonder and worry. Was it dark now? Did his girlfriend even know where he was at? How much trouble was he in anyway? Would he be sleeping at home tonight or in a jail cell?
"Jesus God, Manny," he mumbled angrily at one point. "What the hell did you get me into this time?"
Just as he was about to start pounding on the door, demanding to be either let out or charged with something, the door opened again. This time it was not a uniformed officer who had opened it. It was a tall man wearing a white dress shirt, a red and blue striped tie and a pair of navy blue dress slacks. His head was completely bald and clean shaven. His face showed perhaps forty years of age but was otherwise expressionless. A badge, a pair of handcuffs and a semi-automatic pistol were plainly visible on his waist. He carried a large manila file folder in his left hand. He looked like what he was—a detective, a man used to interrogating suspected criminals.
Frank almost moaned in fear at the very sight of him. Why the hell didn't Manny just leave that guy alone? Why?
The man closed the door behind him and looked Frank up and down for a moment, his eyes giving no clue as to what was going on behind them. Finally, his expression softened a bit. His mouth formed something that could almost qualify as a smile. He took a step forward and set the file folder down on the small table. "Mr. Stewart?" he asked politely.
"Yes," Frank said slowly, nodding his head. "That's me."
"Frank Stewart?" the detective said, apparently for clarification.
"Yes, sir," Frank agreed. "Frank William Stewart."
The detective nodded. "Rick Jorgan," he said, introducing himself. "I'm the lead investigator on this little incident here." He held out his hand for a shake.
Surprised, caught off guard, Frank nonetheless held out his right hand out of instinct. They shook. The detective's grip was firm, controlling. It was a grip that seemed to convey the message that he could twist Frank's arm around and break his wrist if he wanted to.
"How are you doing?" Jorgan asked. "It looks like you got banged up a bit when the guys took you into custody."
"Uh ... yeah, a little," Frank replied. He was considerably worse for wear than he'd been prior to the 'little incident' in question. After the confrontation between Manny and the man in the minivan had gone so terribly, horribly wrong, the cops had shown up very quickly and they had not been in a playful mood. Frank had first found himself on the wrong end of a whole lot of pointed pistols, rifles, and shotguns. He had then been thrown rather roughly to the ground where one cop's boot had gone to the back of his neck, pinning his head down, another cop's boot had gone to his ass, pinning his body down, while two more cops had wrenched his arms behind his back to clench down a set of handcuffs. As a result, he now had a large abrasion on the right side of his face, holes in both knees of his baseball pants, parking lot gravel imbedded in both kneecaps, sore wrists, and every time he moved his right arm, something in his shoulder sent a sharp twinge of pain slamming into his neck.
"Sorry about that," Jorgan said, his words sounding sincere. "They're mostly younger cops in that part of town—guys and girls only a few years out of the academy. When they see something like ... well, you know what happened ... they tend to get a little amped up. You understand how it is?"
"Yeah ... I suppose," Frank said carefully.
"They didn't rough you up too bad? No one actually hit you or anything, did they?"
"No, no one hit me," he said, although they had seemed awfully upset with him, even considering what Manny had done ... or had tried to do anyway.
"Good, good," the detective said. He pulled out the chair on the other side of the table and sat down. "So, anyway, how about we talk about what happened out there? You ready to give me a statement?"
Frank hesitated. "Uh ... well ... should I maybe talk to a lawyer first?"
Jorgan looked at him, his eyes probing. "That would be your right, Mr. Stewart, if you think you need to talk to a lawyer. My understanding of the matter at hand, however, is that you were not actually involved in the altercation that took place between the gentleman in the minivan and your friend. Is that correct?"
"Right," Frank agreed, nodding rapidly. "I didn't have nothin' to do with it. Nothin' at all. In fact, I told Manny to leave the guy alone, that it wasn't worth it."
"Well if that's the case, then why would you need a lawyer? If you had nothing to do with it, you would be considered a witness, not a suspect."
"Yes ... but still..."
"Let me put this another way," the detective said. "Did you notice the sign on the door when the officers brought you into the main office out there?"
"The sign?" Frank asked. He had been too busy trying to come to grips with everything to have noticed any signs, too busy trying to process how he had gone from a nice, pleasant post-softball game beer buzz to being dragged into the police station in handcuffs.
"The sign," the detective said. "It read 'Homicide Division'. I am a homicide detective. Do you know what that means?"
Frank could feel the color draining from his face. "Homicide?" he squeaked. "You mean ... you mean... ?"
"That's right," the detective said. "He's dead."
"Dead? But ... but the paramedics took him to the hospital! I saw them do it! He was talking to them when they put him in the ambulance!"
"He's not talking anymore," the detective told him bluntly. "According to the paramedics, they lost his heartbeat on the way to the hospital. The doctors worked on him for half an hour or so but he was pronounced dead before they could even get him to surgery."
"My God," Frank said, shocked to the core. "I can't believe it. He's dead?"
"Dead," the detective repeated. "So I'm sure you can appreciate we're dealing with something a little more serious than a simple assault, right?"
"Jesus," Frank breathed. Sure, there had been a lot of blood on the ground and it had seemed like he was having a little trouble breathing and he had been screaming like a little girl who had seen a rat, but dead?
"This is a homicide investigation, Mr. Stewart, and you were standing less than fifteen feet away when everything went down. At this point, I have no information that leads me to believe that you were involved in the fracas that led to this homicide. That makes you—as I said—a witness. You can refuse to talk to me without a lawyer present if you want. That is your right under the constitution. If you do that, however, it's going to make me start wondering if my initial impression of your non-involvement was a correct impression. I might start to wonder if maybe you had a little more to do with this than meets the eye."
"I didn't have nothin' to do with it," Frank reiterated. "I swear!"
"If that's the truth then you have nothing to worry about," the detective said. "You tell me what happened today and you'll be home in a few hours. If you want to consult with a lawyer, however ... well, it's Friday evening now, coming up on six o'clock. That means we won't be able to get you that lawyer until Monday morning. That means we might have to hold you in a jail cell charged with accessory to murder until then."
"Accessory to murder?" Frank said, his eyes wide. "How can you charge me as an accessory to what happened? It was Manny that ... that..."
"You were present with Manny when the confrontation with the man in the minivan occurred," the detective explained. "Someone is now dead because of that confrontation. It doesn't matter who the intended victim was or who actually did the killing. That death would not have happened if the confrontation had not happened. Now you can either explain what happened and convince me you're a witness instead of a suspect, or you can stew a few days in a jail cell and then explain it to a lawyer. Which is it going to be?"
The detective was bluffing, of course. There was no way he could justify charging Frank with anything related to the homicide under the circumstances. It also wasn't exactly kosher to threaten a suspect with a weekend in jail for asking for a lawyer. Any first year law student would be able to get such a confession thrown out on the grounds of coercion. But Detective Jorgan wasn't trying to put Frank in jail. He already knew, from statements by the many witnesses to the confrontation, exactly what had happened when the man in the minivan and Emmanuel "Manny" Bradford stepped out onto the surface of that parking lot that afternoon. He knew Frank had played no part in the violence that had erupted, that he had, in fact, tried quite desperately to get his friend Manny to back down. What Jorgan wanted to know, what he needed to know was what had led to the confrontation in the first place. This interview was his only hope of getting the truth because Manny was surely not going to give him any information. So if the empty threat of spending the weekend in jail charged with accessory to murder was enough to override his loyalty to his friend and get that truth flowing from his lips ... well ... so be it.
"I ain't going to jail for Manny's sorry ass," Frank said.
"So you'll talk?" Jorgan asked.
"I'll talk," Frank replied. "Let's get it over with."
They went through a few preliminaries first. Frank was advised of his rights. He signed a piece of paper acknowledging those rights. He was asked if he agreed to waive those rights and talk without an attorney present. He agreed and then signed a paper acknowledging his agreement. He was then advised that the interview was being recorded in both audio and video. He signed a form acknowledging that as well.
"Okay then," Jorgan said, leaning back in his chair, his eyes looking directly at Frank's face. "Why don't we start with the easy part? How long have you known Manny?"
"Since high school," Frank said. "We both went to Casa Calle High, class of ninety-eight. We were both on the baseball team."
"So you've been friends fourteen or fifteen years?"
"Off and on," Frank agreed. "Like I said, we played ball together in high school. After we graduated, Manny got picked up with a single-A team. He played about three years with the Redding Rascals. He never got moved up any further and eventually they canned him when he tested positive for steroids."
The detective nodded. He already had this information before him but it was nice to know that Frank was telling the truth. "So when he came back to town after getting kicked out of single A ball, you renewed your friendship with him?"
"Well ... like I said, yes and no. Manny was a cool guy to hang out with in some ways ... the women really dig him, you know? But his temper ... man, it got old after a while so I'd stop hanging out with him for a year or so just to stay out of trouble and then ... well ... he'd call me up or we'd run into each other and I'd forget about all the bad stuff and just remember the good stuff and ... you know ... we'd start hanging out again until the next time I got fed up with all the trouble he causes."
"I see," Jorgan said. "And so today you were in the on again part of the cycle?"
"Yeah," Frank said miserably. "He called me up about three months ago and asked me if I wanted to join this city softball league with him. I'd just gotten divorced and I didn't have much to do with my free time and all and I remembered how the women would always flock around him so ... you know ... I said yes."
Jorgan nodded, making a few notes. "So you played softball together. Is that what you were doing before the incident today?"
"Yeah. We had a game today. We lost. I think that's part of why Manny was in such a bad mood. He hated to lose."
"I see," Jorgan said, scratching a few more notes. "You mentioned Manny's temper. A bit on the short side?"
Frank nodded, his eyes looking at the surface of the table. "That's a good way to put it," he admitted.
The detective opened his manila envelope and pulled out a sheet of paper. Manny's picture—an old booking photo obviously—was on the top. "This is what our computer has on Manny," he said. "Three arrests for domestic violence against his current wife and two against former girlfriends. Two arrests for aggravated assault against people other than a domestic partner. Eleven official contacts with various law enforcement agencies in the area that did not lead to arrest but that were all prompted by either physical or verbal confrontation with someone. Twice he was ordered by the court to attend anger management classes as a condition of probation. One of his non-arrest contacts occurred when our patrol officers were called to the anger management class he was ordered to attend because he threatened the instructor by saying he was going to rip his head off his body and then defecate down the resulting hole."
"Yeah," Frank said. "That's Manny all right. He'd fly off the handle in nothing flat. If some dude looked at him wrong, said the wrong thing, crossed him in any way and Manny was in the wrong kind of mood ... Manny'd be all over him in a second. That's what happened today, man. Manny was in a bad mood because we lost the softball game and that dude in the minivan crossed his path at the wrong time." He looked up at the detective. "It was the juice that made him like that, you know. Roid rage. That's what they call it."
"So Manny continued to use anabolic steroids after he left minor league baseball?" the detective asked.
"He never admitted to it, but you saw what he looked like. What do you think?"
"He did seem to have more than his share of muscle mass," Jorgan said.
"He wasn't always that big," Frank said. "Back when we played high school ball he was the same size as me, maybe a little smaller. He also wasn't so short-tempered back then either. It's when he got picked up by the Rascals that he started juicing. He came home from that first season with them and he was all bulked up. That's also the first time I ever saw him get pissed off at someone for no real reason. We were in this bar downtown and this dude—wasn't even talking to us, was just close enough so we could hear him—said something about how he thought the Giants sucked. Well, the Giants were always Manny's favorite team and Manny got all pissed off and started yelling at the guy. He called him out and the next thing I know they're out in the parking lot and Manny's beating the crap out of him."
Jorgan scratched a considerable amount of notes after hearing this. He then asked for a few more anecdotes about Manny losing his temper. Frank had no problem providing them. He told Jorgan about the time Manny had thrown a sunglasses display at a convenience store clerk because his ATM card was rejected by the clerk's machine. He told him about the time Manny had kicked his wife square in the ass in the middle of a Denny's restaurant because she told him he'd forgotten to zip his fly. He told him about the time Manny had grabbed Steve Hornwright by the throat and pinned him against the wall of the Duck and Chicken bar and grille for—ironically enough—suggesting that maybe Manny should learn to control his temper a little better. The detective asked many clarification questions and made careful notes through it all.
"So it seems," Jorgan asked when the tales were done, "that drinking alcohol would make Manny's anger management problems worse?"
"Yeah," Frank agreed. "Not that he wasn't quick tempered sober, but with a few drinks in him ... well, he could fly off the handle in nothing flat for anything and everything ... or even nothing."
"I see," Jorgan said. "And was he drinking alcohol today?"
"Yes," Frank said. "He probably had six beers at the softball game, maybe even eight. He really shouldn't have been driving at all. I really shouldn't have been in the truck with him but I had that DUI a couple of months ago and my license is suspended. I didn't have no other way to get to the game, man. You understand?"
"I understand," Jorgan said. He put his pen down on his notebook and picked up his water bottle. He took a large drink and then looked back at Frank. "I think we got the preliminaries down. Manny was a probable steroid user, he was short tempered, especially when drinking, and he was drinking today. Right?"
"Let's start talking about what happened out there now, shall we?"
Frank nodded slowly. "Okay."
The detective picked up his pen again. "That was Manny's truck you were in, correct?"
"Yeah. His F-250."
Jorgan nodded. He had seen the truck in question at the crime scene. Raised about a foot and with tires that looked like they could fit on a Boeing 737, it was exactly the sort of truck he would expect someone like Manny to drive. "Manny was behind the wheel?"
"Yes. Like I said, my license is suspended."
"And he was intoxicated?"
"And he was in a mood you typically associate with short temper and irrational outbursts?"
Frank sighed miserably. "Yeah," he said.
"Okay," Jorgan said. "Now tell me about the man in the minivan."
Frank took a drink of his own water. It did little to cure the dryness in his mouth. "What do you want to know about him?"
"Everything," Jorgan said. "Start from the beginning. When did you first come across him?"
"When we were on Statewood Avenue," Frank said.
"Where at on Statewood?" Statewood was a major artery that led out of the northern part of the city and into the northwestern suburbs. It was a road that was more than fifteen miles long.
"Dawn Avenue," Frank replied. "We were stopped at the red light there. Manny had just gotten done ranting about losing the softball game when the minivan pulled up in the lane next to us."
"Heading in the same direction?"
"Right. We were on the inside lane and the minivan was on the outside. The minivan dude was just a little in front of us, just enough for Manny to get a good look at him."
"And what was the minivan driver doing?"
"Nothing," Frank said. "He was sitting there behind the wheel of that thing just minding his own business."
"And Manny took offense to this?"
"Not at first," Frank said. "He just started making fun of the guy."
"Making fun of him?"
"Yeah. Manny said only a thoroughly pussy-whipped wimp would drive a minivan. He said the guy was probably some accountant or grocery store manager on his way to pick up tampons for his wife."
Jorgan nodded thoughtfully. "Interesting theory."
"The minivan guy did look about as square as a guy could look," Frank said. "He was all clean-shaven with his hair trimmed short. He had on a preppie white collared shirt and he had this big-ass gold wedding ring on his finger. And he was driving a minivan! Everyone makes fun of guys who drive minivans, don't they?"
"I suppose you might have a point there," Jorgan said. "So what happened next?"
"The light turned green and we both drove off, heading down Statewood. Manny kept going on and on about guys who dress like preppies and drive minivans. He was saying stuff like he could kick the guy's ass with one hand tied behind his back. Then he said he guaranteed he could kick the ass of any man in the continental United States who had ever driven a minivan."
The detective whistled. "That's a pretty bold claim."
"That's what I said," Frank said. "Just joking, you know? But that kinda started to set Manny off."
"Really. I should've known better than to say something like that to him—I mean I know how he is—but ... you know ... I'd had a few drinks too and ... and I didn't realize how serious he was about it."
"What did he do?"
"He started to get pissed off. He started yelling at me. He was saying stuff like: 'You think I can't? You think there's some pussy-whipped motherfucker out there driving a minivan that can take me? Is that what you think? Is that what you think?' And I'm all like, 'naw, Manny, it's cool. I'm sure you could kick any guy in a minivan's ass.'"
"Really?" Jorgan said.
"I wasn't encouraging him or nothin'! I swear! I never thought he'd actually pick a fight with the guy! I was just trying to chill him out. I thought saying that would make him happy."
"I understand," the detective said soothingly. "I don't think the district attorney will take that as words of deliberate encouragement."
"No?" Frank said, shuddering at the very mention of the district attorney.
"No," Jorgan assured him. "Now please continue. What happened next?"
Frank opened his water bottle and drank down the last few swallows. He pushed the empty cracker wrapper from one side of the table to the other. "We came up to another red light. It was the same situation as before. The minivan was on the outside lane, we were on the inside. The minivan driver wasn't paying any attention to us. He's just sitting there, looking straight ahead. Manny is like staring at the guy, this pissed-off expression on his face. Then he says, 'look at him. You ever see a more pathetic excuse for a man?' And before I can even say anything back, Manny honks his horn a couple of times until the guy looks over at us. Then, once he's got the guy's attention, he kinda stands up in his seat and sticks his head out the window and yells over, 'Hey, dude! Nice minivan you got there!'"
"And what did the man in the minivan do?" Jorgan asked.
"He just kinda gave this little nod and shrugged, like he's saying 'Yeah, I know' or something like that. Then Manny yells, 'Is it comfortable to drive without your balls on?'"
"What did the man do then?"
"He just chuckled a little, gave another nod and then looked forward again. I was hoping it was over but Manny wasn't ready to let it go yet. So he honks the horn a few more times and yells 'Does it really hurt when you put those tampons in, or are you such a big pussy that you don't feel it?'"
"Quite a comedian, this Manny," Jorgan said.
"Yeah," Frank said glumly. "He ain't laughing much now though, is he?"
"No, I don't suppose he is. How did the man in the minivan react to these statements?"
"He just rolled his eyes and went back to looking forward again. Manny kept on yelling at him but he wouldn't look at him anymore. This made Manny even madder. He kept honking the horn and yelling more stuff at him—nasty stuff, stuff about how he wanted the guy's wife's number so he could have her come over and show her what a real man could do. He told the guy he could watch if he wanted to so he could see what a satisfied woman looked like. Through it all, the minivan guy just keeps sitting there, like nothing's going on, like he wasn't even hearing him."
"And then the light turned green," Frank said. "Manny yelled one last thing at him, something about how he'd see him at the dance recital, and then he started to sit back down in his seat. And then the minivan guy starts to pull away, but just as he does, he puts his hand against the glass of the window and ... you know ... gave Manny the finger."
"He flipped him off?"
"Yeah," Frank said. "He flipped him off. He didn't look at Manny as he did it, didn't really do it with any emotion. As far as flipping someone off goes, it was about as half-assed as I've ever seen; kind of like a token flip-off, you know?"
"A token flip-off?"
"Right," Frank said. "Like he was doing it just because it was expected of him. But it didn't matter to Manny that it was half-assed. He saw that guy flip him the bird and he freaked out. He snapped, man! He starts yelling, 'Did you see what that motherfucker did? Did you see it?' and I'm like, 'Yeah, Manny, I saw it. It ain't nothing, ' and Manny's all, 'The hell it ain't nothing! No motherfucker flips me off! Especially not no motherfucker in a minivan.' And by this time the guy in the minivan has driven off and is heading down Statewood again and Manny says, 'I'm gonna get his ass' and takes off after him."
"He started to drive after him?" Jorgan asked.
"Yeah," Frank said. "He stepped on it. That big diesel engine don't accelerate like a race car or nothing, but it does get up and go. It wasn't more than five or six seconds before Manny caught up with the guy."
"And what did he do when he caught up?"