Red Brick Road
Chapter One: Good Cop, Crazy Cop
Jeff Cardelli sat in the interrogation room, picking dirt from under his fingernails.
Across the table sat an agent named Cho, silently rifling through a manila folder.
They'd been sitting like this for almost twenty minutes.
With a sigh, Jeff dropped his hands and looked over at the large, dark-tinted mirror on the wall. His reflection looked back, pale-faced. There were heavy, purple-black rings under his eyes, and his red hair was a mess – untrimmed and unkempt, sticking out at all angles like straw from a scarecrow. He didn't think he looked guilty, just tired and frustrated.
Jeff wondered how many people were on the other side of that freshly-Windexed glass, watching him right now. He wondered if they thought he looked guilty…
Abruptly, Agent Cho flipped the folder shut and looked up, his face and eyes utterly blank. "It says here you served in the military. Three tours in Iraq?"
Cho peered back inside the file. "'Night Patrol on the streets of Baghdad,'" he read. "That must've been a difficult assignment."
Jeff's jaw tightened. "I've seen some things."
"I'm sure you have. And with everything you went through, I'm sure you became very skilled at defending yourself. As a matter of survival."
"That's right," said Jeff, looking straight into that impassive face. Almost daring the agent to make an accusation.
Agent Cho didn't blink. "Do you currently own a gun, Mr. Cardelli?"
Jeff's teeth made a grinding noise. "Yes, sir, I do."
"Which I keep solely for my own protection," Jeff stated icily.
"But it is a thirty-eight?" Cho pressed.
"Mr. Cardelli, we're told that—"
The door suddenly burst open.
A blonde man swept inside, smiling brightly. He grabbed an empty chair, slid it over to the table, and sat down next to Jeff.
Right next to Jeff.
Jeff felt the invisible "personal space" bubble around him violently pop as this new man peered curiously at him, barely two inches from Jeff's face.
It was some kind of tactic, just like the waiting game. Jeff forced himself not to react.
He looked back at Agent Cho, who went on as though no interruption had occurred.
"We're told that you and Paul Jorsten had an argument two days prior to his death. Can you tell us about that?"
Jeff opened his mouth to answer, but the blonde man spoke up first: "Could I hold your hand?"
The words Jeff had been about to say traffic-jammed inside his throat. He did something like a miniature double-take. "Um…What?"
"Just for a minute," the blonde guy assured, smiling, and then snatched up Jeff's arm before Jeff even had a chance to object.
Now they were holding hands. Right on top of the table. More than that, the blonde man's other hand was encircling Jeff's wrist, like a bracelet.
Jeff had to beat down the powerful urge to rip his arm free.
He'd been in trouble a few times before. Good Cop, Bad Cop, he could deal with. But Good Cop, Insane Cop?
Jeff gritted his teeth.
Anything to get through this, he told himself. Just get through it.
Jeff turned back to Agent Cho. The Asian man was watching with dark, disaffected eyes, waiting to resume the interrogation.
"Can you tell us about your argument with Mr. Jorsten?" Cho repeated.
"We had a disagreement."
"Fair enough. What did you disagree about?"
Jeff shifted in his chair. Even with his eyes fixed on Agent Cho, Jeff could still feel the blonde man's intrusive, bizarrely cheerful presence.
"Penny's schedule," Jeff told Cho gruffly. "I was supposed to take her for the next two weekends, but I had to cancel." He shrugged, one-shouldered. "Guess my wife's new husband didn't like it."
"You share custody of your daughter with your ex-wife, Laura?" Cho asked, glancing inside the folder again.
"Why did you have to cancel your visits with Penny?"
Jeff shifted again. The chair creaked. "Work," he grunted, staring at a spot just over Cho's right shoulder. "I needed to put in some extra hours. Been getting behind lately – I've got cars piling up…"
"Hmmm," said the blonde man thoughtfully. "And what's the real reason?"
Jeff's mouth twisted. He swung his head around to glare at the blonde guy, feeling like a rattlesnake that'd just been stepped on: Part surprise. Part pain. All venom.
Something hot and ugly writhed inside Jeff's gut.
This was private.
These people had no right.
And it had nothing to do with Paul, anyway…
Jeff took a deep breath, preparing to tell the blonde guy exactly where to stick both of those clingy hands, when the back of Jeff's brain (probably the smarter part) hissed at him, once again:
Just get through it.
The instinct to lash out deflated, but Jeff held onto the fierce look a moment longer, letting murder burn in his eyes, hoping to elicit a twitch from Blondie, who looked like an even bigger wimp than Paul had been.
The blonde man just blinked. Pleasant, curious, expectant.
Jeff mentally uttered a curse word. He looked down at the tabletop, defeated.
When he spoke, his voice didn't sound nearly as belligerent as he wanted it to. It was small and faltering, and didn't even really sound like his voice at all.
"I didn't want to scare her."
Agent Cho and the hand-holding freak remained silent, waiting for Jeff to elaborate.
Which, after a rough swallow, he did.
"Lately, I've been…I've just been having trouble. Nightmares. Flashbacks. Whatever you want to call them…"
"You're having flashbacks to Iraq?" Cho asked.
Jeff nodded at the table. "I…wake up screaming. Sweating…Sometimes I break things…" He looked up at Cho, some of the fierceness returning. "Penny doesn't need to see that."
Blondie spoke up. "But you never told this to Paul, or your ex-wife. They just assumed you were blowing off your daughter for work."
Jeff shrugged carefully. Up and down. "Something like that."
"Jorsten accused you of being a bad father," Agent Cho stated flatly. "That would make anyone angry."
Jeff barely restrained an eye roll. He knew exactly where this train was headed. Any idiot would.
"If you acted out, in a moment of anger, it would be perfectly understandable," the agent concluded, watching Jeff closely.
"Can you account for your whereabouts last Thursday night, between ten and eleven?"
"I was with a friend. His horse had gotten loose; I was helping him look for it."
Cho pulled out a notepad and pen with practiced ease. "I'm going to need your friend's name and contact information…"
Jeff rattled the details off in a dull voice. Cho quickly scratched them onto the pad. Blondie just sat there, watching with those bright, fascinated eyes.
Jeff sighed. "Are we done now?"
"No," said Cho. "Did you stay with your friend the entire time you were searching for the horse, or did you split up?"
Jeff huffed another sigh, this time in frustration with himself. Although, really, how could he possibly have known that Paul was going to go and get himself murdered that night?
"We split up," Jeff grumbled reluctantly. "Best way to cover the most ground."
Cho scribbled something else in the notepad. "And how long were you—"
"Did you kill Paul Jorsten?" the blonde man interrupted, out of the clear blue.
Jeff turned to look at him. "No."
Blondie tilted his head. Studying, considering.
Jeff felt a sudden need to strengthen his own position. "No," he repeated firmly, matching that probing blue stare.
"Ever fantasize about it?" Blondie asked, a little smile quirking his mouth.
Jeff couldn't help the distaste that washed over his features, like a cold Budweiser, right to the face. "No. Why the hell would I do that?"
The blonde man shrugged good-naturedly. "Oh, come on. Why wouldn't you? You had a nice family – loving wife, beautiful daughter. Sure, the divorce put a crimp in things, but there was still a chance for reconciliation. There was still hope. And then along comes this little twerp Paul, who takes it all away. Who wouldn't want to wring his neck a little, just on principle?" Blondie gave Jeff's arm a playful nudge, still holding onto it with both hands.
"I never fantasized about hurting Paul. Ever." Jeff's voice was steely cold, with something molten flowing underneath.
The blonde guy cocked his head again. "Why?" he pressed. "It's only fantasy, after all. Everybody does it."
"Because, I just…wouldn't. Look-" Jeff began to tap his free hand on the table, enumerating his points "—I didn't kill Paul. I didn't want to kill Paul. I didn't fantasize about killing Paul, and I never would've wished this on him, okay?"
"Why?" Blondie persisted. His face was serious now.
Jeff sighed. "Look, maybe the guy was a twerp. Maybe I did resent him marrying Laura. And yeah, maybe I wasn't crazy about Penny calling him 'Daddy' all the time, either…" Jeff looked straight into the blonde man's eyes, earnest and unwavering. "But Paul was a good husband to Laura, and a good father to Penny, and you don't take that away from people. You just…don't."
Blondie nodded. His eyes were distant for a moment. Then he cleared his throat and patted Jeff's hand, releasing it at long last. "Thank you, Jeff. I think that's all we need." The blonde man started to stand up – "Oh, one more thing: did you ever find the horse?"
Jeff's brow furrowed at the abrupt topic-jump. "Uh…yeah. We caught up to him around two in the morning."
"He was at Graceada Park?" Blondie asked. "Or somewhere in that vicinity?"
Jeff stared. "How the hell did you know that?"
The blonde man grinned. "Lucky guess." He turned to Agent Cho, who'd been watching the exchange with quiet thoughtfulness. "Uh, he's innocent. You can let him go."
Jeff looked back and forth between the two men, scarcely daring to hope. "Seriously? I can go?"
For the first time, Cho looked something other than blank and neutral. Uncertainty flitted across his smooth features. "Uh…"
The agent was spared having to answer because a dark-haired woman burst into the interrogation room, looking like she might be having a murder fantasy of her own.
Jeff recognized her as one of the agents who'd brought him in for questioning. Gibson, or something like that?
He flinched a little when she pointed at him. "Sir, stay right there." Then she turned on Cho and Blondie. "You two, outside." She held the door open for them.
Cho walked out, looking grim and resigned. The blonde guy practically bounced after him, and the lady agent brought up the rear.
Jeff could hear her start to speak, right before she pulled the door shut:
"Jane, how many times have I told you—"
Then the latch clicked, the highly-annoyed female voice became muffled, and Jeff was left sitting alone, blinking at his own bewildered reflection and wondering if any of these people were even real cops at all.