“Mr. Dillon, isn’t it?” The man I’d come to see was sitting in a darkened alcove just a few yards down from the nurse’s station. He was good-looking in the way that only young people are able to pull off. He wore a pair of tan slacks and a silk shirt. All of his clothing was expensive and custom tailored. His clothing would have been immaculate except for the blood stains smeared across the right knee of his trousers… and the way his left shirt hung off his arm in tattered shreds. Suddenly, I felt better about my ten year old suit.
The young man raised his head at my question. That’s when I saw how shaken he really was. I’d fought in the Gulf War— the original one— for Daddy Bush. This kid had the same look I’d seen on some of the prisoners we’d rescued from Saddam. It was a harrowed expression. No doubt about it. He’d walked through Hell. Now, I needed to get him to tell me about the experience.
“Alex?” His voice was full of fear. “Is that you?” I think he would have ran if I hadn’t been standing in the only doorway. Instead, he reached into a pocket, grabbed something, fumbled it, and finally managed to pull out a pair of white glasses. He raised them to his face. Anyway, he stared at me from behind those glasses for a moment and then put them away again. It was such an odd thing to do.
I realized that he probably couldn’t see me very well. The fluorescent lights behind me had hidden my features in shadow. I took a sip of my coffee and stepped into the room.
“Are you a doctor?” the man asked. He was still nervous, but apparently, he’d realized I wasn’t this Alex character. “Of course you’re a doctor.” He half-jumped, half-fell out of his chair. “Who else would come find me in a waiting room at…” He looked at his watch. “At 3:18 in the morning? Can you tell me about Kavita? Is she okay? Is she still in surgery?”
His fear seemed to have diminished. It had been replaced by an eagerness and hope. He hoped for news. Ideally good news, but he’d reached the point where any update would be welcome.
I’d been there myself. Anyone who does this job long enough ends up spending a fair amount of time in places like these. Updates and information become a form of currency. My experience had taught me that sometimes doctors can be stingy when it comes to sharing the coin of the realm.
I closed my eyes for just a moment and then slowly shook my head. “No, Mr. Dillon. I’m not a doctor. My name is Barnes.” I held up a badge. “Detective Danny Barnes.”
As soon as he’d heard that I was a detective, he got that look in his eye. It was a look inspired by a hundred crime dramas. More recently networks devoted to true crime shows had taught entire generations to shut up when law enforcement came around.
It was the look that just screamed, ‘Lawyer!’ He wasn’t going to say a word until he had an advocate sitting next to him. His choice made, the young man eased himself back into his vinyl chair.
I walked further into the room and took a seat across from him in a chair of my own. This must have been the children’s side of the room. The chair felt like it had been made for a nine year old. Somehow, I managed to wedge my bulk into place and continued the interview.
“Mr. Dillon?” I waited for him to look up. He didn’t have to talk, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t listen. “I was hoping I could ask you a few questions.”
He didn’t reply.
I gave him a few moments. Silence. That’s normally the thing that breaks people. It makes them uncomfortable. I don’t know what it is, but there’s this almost sense of duty to talk. It gnaws at people when they feel like they aren’t living up to their obligations. This is especially true if the person is someone who hasn’t been in a lot of police interviews. This guy was like that. I could tell he’d never spoken to a detective.
When I started to get that vibe from him that the silence was getting under his skin, I continued, “Mr. Dillon…” I paused. “Eh, do you mind if I call you Tommy?” Easy question to get him talking.
“Would that be all right?” I flashed him a hint of a smile. See, Tommy, you’ve got all the power, I thought. I’m even asking your permission to call you by your first name.
“You can call me Tommy. I suppose that would be fine, Mr. Barnes,” Tommy said.
“Please,” I interrupted. “Call me Danny. Or Detective. Even call me Barnes if you want. Save that Mister stuff for someone else.” I’m just a regular Joe like you, buddy.
“I… I just don’t know that I should be talking to a police officer. Not right now.” His voice trailed off.
“I get it, kid.” I slapped a hand to one of his knees. I hoped that the difference in our ages would make this seem like a fatherly gesture. “You’re worried that I’m here to jam you up in some way. It’s not like that. I’m just a guy doing his job. Today, my job is to figure out what happened. That’s the only thing I’m doing.” I pulled a small note pad from my pocket. I wanted to be able to document anything he said that might have value. More than that though, I wanted to create the impression that I was expecting him to start talking.
“I’m not sure how I could help…”
“Well,” I took a sip of my coffee. Hospital coffee is the worst. “It’s like this, Tommy” I consulted my note pad. “I’ve got three dead people who were breathing yesterday. Another person is in a coma and another one, eh… that’d be your friend, Kavita, is in surgery. Then, there’s one more…” I flipped through some pages until I found the information. “Here it is. There’s a Meghan Leigh. She’s missing. No one has heard from her since yesterday.”
I sat my coffee on an end table next to the chair that was torturing my lower back. “And, then we’ve got you.” I let the sentence hang in the air like an indictment. I wanted to make him uncomfortable and a nervous. “You have a few scrapes and a couple of scratches. Your clothes are torn up.” I made a show of looking him up and down. “But all in all, you seem to be doing all right. In fact, you’re the only person I’ve found still vertical enough to help me understand what happened at the Sonoma Regency Center earlier today.”
I heard the vinyl creak under him as Tommy shifted how he sat in the chair. The way he kept fidgeting made him look guilty. Maybe my initial read of him had been wrong? Maybe there was more to him than the innocent victim routine.
“Am I under arrest?” Tommy asked.
“No.” I guffawed the word as if I was shocked he’d even suggest the idea. “We’re just talking here.” Whether or not he’d be under arrest before I sat down for breakfast was a good question, but right now he was only a witness. Just some poor guy who’d stumbled into the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I’d like to help you, detective. Really, I would, but I can’t.”
“Why’s that, Tommy?” I leaned forward in my chair and worried that the whole thing was going to collapse under me. “You were there. You saw these things happen. From where I sit, it looks like you’re the only person who can help me.”
“It’s not that,” he began. “It’s just that… well, it’s too strange. The story is weird. You wouldn’t believe me even if I took time to tell it.”
“Why don’t you let me decide what I will or will not believe? How about that?”
“I’m sorry,” Tommy said. Then, he went back to looking at the floor again.
“Tommy, I’m not going to lie to you. The brass is really leaning on me to get this solved. Three murders, a coma patient, a missing person, and your friend Kavita in surgery.” I stood up and walked to the window. From this floor, I had a view of much of the valley. A sleepy world hesitant to face a new day. “This is Marin, Tommy. This stuff doesn’t happen in Marin. Maybe San Francisco or Oakland. East San Jose, sure; but not Marin. This is supposed to be the quiet little community where people go to get away from the city. Murder doesn’t happen here.”
“It’s just that it’s all so crazy. I lived through it and I barely believe it. Besides, it would take too long to tell.”
“I’ve got time, Tommy” I smiled again. Genuinely this time because that was the moment when I knew I had him. “When I checked at the nurse’s station, they told me they expect Kavita’s surgery will last at least another six hours. So, you see, we’ve got plenty of time.”
That got his attention. And, I could tell by the way he glared at me that he understood what I was doing. That was fine. He had information that I wanted. I knew a few things he wanted. Nothing better than a nice trade.
“None of the nurses would tell me anything because I’m not a family member. Did they say how she’s doing?”
“She’s as stable as can be expected given the type of injuries she sustained. A lot hinges on this surgery though. The stuff they are doing right now will determine if she lives or dies. It’s an important procedure.” I tried to look nonchalant as I said, “I’d be happy to pass along any updates I get in exchange for what help you can give me with this case.”
I saw the exact moment he decided to cooperate. He didn’t want to, but I was the only way he’d find out about his friends condition and I would only share that information if there was a quid pro quo. I smiled and thought, Gotcha.
“All right, Detective,” Tommy said. “You win. I’ll tell you my story. Before I do though, I need to ask you one question.”
“Shoot,” I replied.
“Do you like video games?”