Detective William Briggs gazed through the one-way glass, studying the man in the adjoining interrogation room as if he were a strange insect trapped inside a jar.
Standing next to Briggs was the county prosecutor. Her name was Kimball. “They never look the part, do they?” she said.
Briggs nodded curtly. He was in a sour mood. He had wanted to wait for the feds. They were to take the lead on this. The problem was, the suspect had insisted he wanted to talk now, and he would speak only to Briggs, who had no idea why. As far as he could tell, he didn’t know the man.
“I can send someone else in if you’re not up for it,” Kimball said, giving Briggs a critical side glance.
“Nope,” he responded. “I’m good.”
Also in the observation room were the sheriff and the technician who was in charge of the recording equipment. The sheriff cleared his throat impatiently. The technician took off his glasses, polished them carefully and put them back on.
Briggs had been a detective for nearly two decades and had questioned hundreds of people, including lots of bad actors. You got a feeling. Sometimes it was valid and sometimes not. With this one, nothing was coming through and it unsettled him. He shoved his reservations aside. He had a rule about overthinking things and he was breaking it. Heaving a resigned sigh, he texted his wife to let her know he’d be late and put his phone on silent.
“Just keep him talking,” Kimball advised as he headed out the door.
When Briggs entered the interrogation room, Edward Wayne Pearl looked up expectantly from the gray institutional table at which he was sitting. His hands rested atop the table, fingers interlaced. Handcuffs gripped his thick wrists. A silver chain passed through the cuffs and was affixed to a metal ring protruding from the middle of the table. The table itself was bolted to the floor. The room bore the bitter tang of stale sweat. Its only light was provided by a florescent fixture, which emitted a low, steady buzz. The light was positioned over the table and glared off the white short-sleeve dress shirt Pearl was wearing. The shirt had been pressed and you could see the thin, straight creases on the sleeves.
Briggs carried a manila folder containing the preliminary report they’d assembled in the several hours since Pearl had walked into the department and volunteered certain details that prompted the FBI to request he be held. So far they’d discovered nothing out of the ordinary about him. No prior record, no previous arrests. He was the top salesman at the local Chevy dealer. A model employee. It was entirely possible he was nothing more than one of these troubled individuals who feel compelled to falsely confess to sensational crimes.
Pearl lifted his hands to shake with Briggs, then remembered his situation and let them fall back to the tabletop, causing the chain to jingle. He directed a broad grin at the detective, who responded with a stiff smile. Briggs introduced himself and Pearl grinned again, creepily, as though aware of some perverse private joke.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” said Pearl.
Briggs looked past him at the glowing red light on the wall, indicating the recording equipment had been activated. “No,” he said, “I’m afraid I don’t.”
“Third grade,” Pearl offered. “I was the fat kid everybody picked on. Everybody except you. You were kind to me. I remember kindness. I’m like a dog that way.”
Briggs reflected for a few moments. Then it came back. Mrs. McCloud’s class. Pearl had been this chubby, bookish character, a little weird. “Pearl the Squirrel” they’d called him. A succession of scenes flashed in his mind: Pearl sitting by himself in the cafeteria; Pearl being shoved down at recess; Pearl getting pelted in the head with a snowball, sending his glasses flying. Although Briggs had never participated in any of this, he had no memory of being kind to him, either.
Pearl wasn’t chubby now. Briggs put him at about two-fifty and over six feet tall. Bulky but solid. One of those people who never exercised but who were tremendously strong. His hands were pink and seemed small compared to the rest of him. Given what he’d confessed to, you’d think there’d be something predatory about his demeanor, though there wasn’t. His face was fleshy and bland. His voice bore a delicate, almost feminine quality. He projected an air of harmlessness that Briggs suspected was sometimes mistaken for weakness. No doubt people tried to take advantage of him but that would be a mistake, if he was who he said he was.
Briggs informed Pearl that he remembered him from third grade but not after. Pearl explained that his family had frequently relocated because of his father’s work. They had moved away in the summer before he would have started fourth grade.
“I wasn’t treated any better at my new school,” he said. “Children can be so cruel. That’s a platitude, I know. Still, it doesn’t make it untrue.” He shifted his hands on the table and the chain jingled again. “That’s how things become platitudes, isn’t it?” he went on, “the fact that they’re true. People repeat these expressions in order to appear smarter or more insightful than they are. I’ve never considered myself particularly intelligent, though there are things I have a talent for,” he added with a prim smile. He belched and excused himself. Briggs detected a whiff of grape soda. Something a kid would fancy, only Pearl was thirty-eight, a bachelor. Probably a teetotaler, too, by the looks of him.
Briggs sensed eyes on him from the other side of the one-way, urging him to get on with it. “You said you wanted to make a statement.”
Pearl blinked and stared disappointedly at him. What did he think? That they were going to swap grade-school stories?
“May I call you Bill?” he asked. “You know, there’s a difference between may and can. May implies permission, can suggests ability. In this instance, I’m requesting your permission to address you by your first name.”
Briggs said he didn’t mind.
“So, Bill,” Pearl began, “are you familiar with Mark five-nine?”
“You’re talking about the Bible?”
“I am. Chapter five, verse nine. The New Testament.”
“I don’t know that one.”
“Not a religious man I take it.”
“I’ve always been fascinated by religion,” said Pearl. “When I was in the fifth grade, we lived in Iowa, where I attended Bible study on Wednesdays after school. We memorized verses. I was quite good at it. I won several prizes, number two pencils on which inspirational sayings were printed. I believe my mother found my religious inclinations distasteful.
“Anyway,” he proceeded, “Mark 5-9 tells the story of a man possessed by demons. Quite the troublemaker, as you can imagine. Jesus was summoned to see if he could do anything. In the King James Bible, he addresses the man thusly, ‘And he asked him, what is thy name? And the man answered, saying, my name is Legion, for we are many.’
“Jesus solved the problem by casting out the demons and transferring the little devils — if you’ll pardon my pun — into a herd of pigs, which flung itself off a cliff.”
Pearl sat back in his chair with a self-satisfied air. Briggs awaited an explanation for the scripture lesson, but Pearl remained quiet, as if he wanted him to ask, his way of exerting control over the interview. Briggs said nothing, though, and they both were silent as the red recording light faintly pulsed.
As the silence between them lengthened, Pearl lightly drummed the table with his fingertips. His eyes were magnified by the lenses of his glasses. He exhibited a catlike capacity for patience.
At last, he said, “I occasionally contemplate the public’s fascination with us. We’re studied as individuals, as though there was a secret to what makes us who we are and, if this could be discovered, we could be cured or prevented. Yet what if we’re not individuals but part of a single malevolent entity? I picture a tentacled creature in a dark cave, laying its plans. Receptives like me are merely instruments of its will. You can kill or capture us, but you cannot destroy the source. And for each tentacle that’s severed, another grows in its place. “For we are many,” he concluded with a theatrical flourish.
His lawyer would no doubt mount an insanity defense, Briggs mused.
As if Pearl saw what he was thinking, he added, “Mind you, I’m not saying I believe this literally.”
This is going nowhere, Briggs thought. Brusquely, he asked him why he’d moved back to the area a year ago.
Pearl didn’t appear put off by his pointedness. “Excuse me for boasting,” he said, “but I’m a good car salesman, quite the track record. I’ve worked all over the country. Wherever I choose, really. One of the aspects of my job I enjoy is the freedom it provides, that and the people I meet. It’s amazing how they open up, especially on the test drives. Nerves, I suppose. The things they tell me. I have a gift for deep listening and people sense it. The more earnestly and sympathetically I listen, the more they babble on, and I let them because I learn so much. I’m a very curious person, Bill. In fact, my curiosity gets the better of me from time to time.”
“How so?” Briggs pressed.
“Oh … it just does,” he answered mysteriously.
According to the preliminary report, they’d traced Pearl to four states, so far, including New Mexico, where the nickname was coined four years ago. OSK, the One Shoe Killer. This was because a single shoe belonging to each victim would be tossed out along the highway.
Briggs glanced again at the red recording light and, for a moment, felt he was being watched just as carefully as Pearl.
“You still haven’t told me why you came back,” said Briggs.
“Why, it’s simple, really. I wanted to see old friends.”
“I had a hankering — isn’t that such a lovely word? so rustic — I had a hankering to visit some of my former classmates from the third grade, meaning you, of course, but others.”
“You said you weren’t treated well when you went to school here. Why would you want to see people who were mean to you?”
Pearl shifted in his chair. His weight caused it to creak. The light glinted off his glasses, hiding his eyes and mirroring Briggs sitting across from him.
When Pearl spoke, his voice was hard. The amiability had vanished from his face, which bore the look of a man coming to a disappointing realization.
“I wonder if I made a mistake about you, Bill,” he said speculatively. “I’ve been trying to see the little boy who was kind to the fat kid in class but I’m afraid I’m unable. Have you lost the capacity for kindness? I certainly hope not, although it does happen. We start out as one thing and then the world works its dark spell on us and we end up quite differently.”
“Including you?” asked Briggs.
“No,” he answered with cold certainty. “I’m the same person I’ve always been.”
Briggs sensed he was close to a breakthrough. He began to ask another question, but Pearl cut him off.
The red light went dark. Moments later, Kimball opened the interview room door. She and others were waiting in the corridor. Briggs stood and the legs of his chair scraped loudly on the concrete floor. Pearl sat there lumpishly, seemingly unaware that Briggs was in the room. The detective picked up the manila folder and left.
In the corridor, the sheriff stood next to Kimball. Briggs tried to read his face. He wondered if he’d blown it. He suspected he had, somehow. Also in the hallway were two women and a man. All of them FBI. They’d arrived shortly after he entered the interrogation room and had heard everything. They were about to go in and take a crack at Pearl themselves. Briggs wished them luck.
It was dark and raining when he left the department. As he was driving home, he spied a shoe resting on its side on the berm. He laughed. One of the reasons the OSK case was so intriguing was because it wasn’t uncommon to see a solitary shoe lying along the road, although it was peculiar. You assumed it had been tossed out of a passing vehicle. Why, though? And why only one?
Briggs squirmed behind the wheel. His bladder. He should have used the bathroom before leaving. His discomfort prompted him to remember something else from the third grade.
One day Pearl had soiled himself as he sat at his desk during an arithmetic lesson. Humiliated and crying, he remained seated as a puddle of his own urine collected around him. Briggs recalled the laughing and the taunts, and how Mrs. McCloud had scolded Pearl. Briggs, who sat in the opposite aisle, had worried the spreading pool would reach his own desk. He hadn’t joined in the mockery, but it wasn’t because he was a nice kid. Pearl had just assumed he was. Had his mood been different that day, he probably would have laughed along with the others. It was only by chance he hadn’t.
As the memory of that day crystalized, he remembered the new girl who’d sat right in front of him. She was among the taunters. Rhonda Spicer was her name then. Now it was Briggs.
He came to a traffic light and stopped. Reaching into his jacket pocket, he dug out his phone and glanced at it. Rhonda hadn’t responded to his earlier text saying he would be late. Although he was nearly home, he called anyway and experienced a surge of panic with each unanswered ring. Eventually, she picked up. Everything was fine. She’d simply forgotten to answer his text. Sorry.
When he arrived, she was in the kitchen, pulling things out of the refrigerator to assemble a late dinner. He kissed her on the cheek. She asked about his day and he said he would tell her later. He went upstairs and sat on the edge of the bed and rubbed his face. He’d better get some rest. He had a feeling the next few days were likely to be very busy. A few minutes later Rhonda entered the room, holding a running shoe and wearing a puzzled expression.
“Hey,” she said, “I’m missing the other one. Have you seen it?”
Mick Leigh is a writer from the Midwest who has worked as a print journalist, copywriter and technical writer. His fiction often deals with nature, particularly its dark, mythical side. His work has been published in The Broadkill Review and New Reader.