My notebook is slick in my shaking hands as I open it, flipping to the back, dampening the blue-lined pages along the way. I tremulously uncap my favorite ballpoint pen. The expensive one Harry got me after I wrote my hundredth story. Tradition in the crime department at The Sentinel.
Get a grip, Jake. Get a grip. Get a grip. Get a grip. But I just can’t seem to recover from whatever the hell happened a minute ago. Seriously, what was that?
Probably just … nerves. Al psyched me out with his ominous warning. Or maybe I had a panic attack. I’m not big on small spaces. Yeah, that must be it — just a stupid panic attack. You’re such a pussy, Jake.
I exhale, counting down from five in my head. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…
“Okay, Solomon,” I say. “Let’s hear it.”
The kid smiles for a long minute. A weird smile, wide and red across his pale little cheeks. Could be cute, if it wasn’t so bizarre. Suddenly, I’m overcome with a flashback. A clown—a giant clown. Maybe 6’5″. I encountered him when I was young, around Solomon’s age. I was at a circus in my tiny hometown of Broken Bow, roughly 250 miles southeast of Oklahoma City. The painted red grin, twisted on his huge face. I remember he bent down to look at me when Mom was buying popcorn. “I have a surprise for you,” he whispered, his black eyes glittering, making me sick, making me so sick. “Come see me after the show, kid.”
Come see me after the show, kid.
I can feel the Thai I had for lunch coming up.
“I killed those people,” Solomon says, stopping the Tom Yum in its tracks but sending a lasting chill down my arms, torso and legs. I clench my jaw. God, what is my problem?
Solomon smiles again, noticing my discomfort. “What’s wrong, Jake?” He looks me directly in the eyes now. Those crystal blue irises. So unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Something about them makes me feel like I can’t look away. The noise starts up again. The buzzing, the perpetual buzzing…
I jerk my head down. This kid must be a hypnotist or something. A creepy, fucked up hypnotist.
“Nothing,” I say, examining my notebook, pretending to jot something down. You’re fine, Jake, you’re fine. “Go on.”
Silence now. Slowly — ever so slowly — I lift my gaze. The kid, like earlier, looks like he’s seeing something. Something that’s not there. His eyes are transfixed on the wall next to where I’m standing, and I can practically feel the heat of his stare on the cement.
“Yes, I killed those people,” he says, still engrossed. “They were very bad, bad people.”
“Why were they bad, Solomon?” I say as gently as I can, in my best prodding-reporter voice. Although I’m freaked out, some sense of professionalism remains. “What did they do to you?”
The kid slides to the ground now, his back against the far wall. He leans forward and scratches his fingernails on the paved floor. Creeeeeeaaaaak. Creeeeeeaaaaak. His nails leave white, chalky marks. Back and forth, Solomon scrapes and scrapes. I grit my teeth at the sound.
“They told me I’m their worst nightmare,” he says, with the simplicity of a kindergartener. “They told me they wished I were dead.”
I sit down on the ground across from him, cross-legged. It’s important to be level with those you’re interviewing, or you can seem intimidating and unfriendly. Not that it would matter with this psycho.
“Why did they wish you were dead?”
Solomon gazes at me now. I realize, with dawning horror, that I can no longer see the blue of his irises. This time, the buzzing in my ears is sharp, piercing, like a thousand sirens during a mass tragedy. Loud, so loud, my vision is shaking….
“Because they know I’m the devil, Jake.”
The sirens are screaming now, bursting my eardrums. I see a double of Solomon — two pale faces, two iris-less eyes, two bald heads and red mouths. I can’t think, I can’t breathe, I’m choking on the sounds…
Solomon laughs. And the sirens cease abruptly.
I’m heaving hard, gasping. My lungs feel like they can’t get enough air, but I’m trying, trying so hard. Breathe in. Breathe out. Easy now. Easy…
I’m not a spiritual man. Mom was a Catholic; Dad had no faith. I always took after Dad, choosing to believe science over what I thought was Bronze Age fiction, a fabrication designed to add cushion to death, wrongdoings, human evil. Just one big lie, because we can’t handle the truth.
But…what is the truth?
Solomon is the devil.
The statement rings clear in my head, like it was obvious all along, like Jake Halbur is actually the fool for not knowing from the start.
I push the thought aside. No matter what is happening in this cell, no matter what kind of evil dwells here, I must write Solomon’s narrative. Now more than ever. I’m scared shitless; my instincts are telling me to bail on this piece, to run back to my apartment and try to forget the entire interview, although I know it will be plaguing my dreams for years to come.
But I can’t. It’s my duty to tell this story.
“Go on, Solomon,” I say. “Talk to me more about that.”
Solomon giggles, and the sound mingles eerily with the screeching of his nails on the pavement. “There’s nothing to tell. You know it’s the truth.”
I write this down, word for word. I can’t miss a single thing he says. There’s so much at stake.
“Why don’t you explain to me how you killed the Davis family?”
Solomon finally stops scraping. Now he claps his hands gleefully.
“With a butter knife. First I did Margot, then I did Phillip, and I saved Jessie for last.”
His joyful tone makes me nauseous, and I feel the Thai food sloshing around in my stomach again. Margot was the wife, 41-years-old. A sales rep at a private marketing firm. Phillip, the husband, 45-years-old. An accountant for a local healthcare center. Jessie, the son, 15-years-old. Lacrosse star and honors student. Perfectly nice, white picket fence family. Loved by all who knew them. With a butter knife?
Harry didn’t tell me that. Neither did Al. I suddenly feel betrayed, and my cheeks flush. That would’ve been a damn good thing to know up front.
“How did you manage it?” I ask. “That had to be pretty difficult, what with your size…”
My voice trails off. Shit. What a stupid thing to say.
Solomon grows quiet, menacing. “You know that doesn’t matter, Jake.”
I don’t want to ask any more questions. I want to tell Harry off, maybe even transfer departments. I want to mourn the Davis family. But I keep pushing.
“Why doesn’t it matter?”
“Because I can do anything.”
I write it down, dumbfounded. I don’t, for the love of God, know what to believe anymore.
“How did you know the Davises?”
Solomon taps his chin, looks up at the ceiling. He’s toying with me now. This interview is just sick amusement for him.
“Jessie used to babysit me. But I didn’t like him very much.”
He begins humming, soft and dark. A frantic tune, a familiar one — I can’t quite seem to pinpoint it.
He hums louder now. Pauses only to answer my question.
“Because he didn’t like the games I played.”
With this, I realize I’ve had enough for one day. Hell, for one lifetime. In my three years interviewing criminals — murderers, rapists, arsonists, gang leaders — I’ve never felt this way before. A vile cold grips my bones; my head is swimming in blood-red fear.
I leave the cell, nodding briefly at Al, breezing past. I’m too shaken to plan a night at the bar right now, or talk about what happened. I walk down the long, gray corridor toward the exit sign, out into the light.
I cross the parking lot and start the engine in my blue Honda CR-Z hatchback. I bought it a couple months ago, brand, spanking new. It has just enough room for a messy journalist, but as a sporty hybrid, the CR-Z maintains the look of sleek modernism. My proudest possession, save for the ballpoint pen.
I pull out of the parking lot and onto the road, thinking about the story I’m going to write. What will everyone think? I’ve decided I’m going to paint a detailed picture, just as I experienced it in the cell today. Will they think it’s all bullshit? Will they believe me? One thing’s for sure—the fear I felt with that psycho was real. I stop at a four-way intersection, turn on the radio and fiddle with the stations. Then, and only then, do I remember the song Solomon was humming. “Barnum and Bailey’s Favorite” from the Broken Bow circus.