June 5, 9:52 pm
“A little late for you, isn’t it, Detective?”
Carla Grayson looked up from her phone. She smiled at the security guard at the door to the prisoner wing of the Salt Lake County Detention Center.
“Well, you know how it is, Mike. Never enough hours in the day.”
“Here to see the kid again?”
The guard’s smile seemed just the slightest bit patronizing to Detective Grayson, but she had indeed been spending a lot of time visiting Howard Gunderson. It wasn’t surprising that the staff at the Detention Center had noticed, and she could only imagine what they said when they saw her coming.
There’s Grayson, she imagined them saying. No kid of her own and looking for another lost cause to fix…
“Yeah, one more time, I think,” she said, forcing a smile for the guard. “I came by earlier, but he was sleeping.”
“Well, that’s very kind of you, not to wake him up” the guard said, his sarcasm now in full flower. Carla just smiled and handed him her bag, badge and gun before passing through the metal detector. The guard scanned Carla’s ID and passed her a visitor’s credential. “Although it seems open and shut to me. Kid just wanted to pop somebody at random. Happens like that sometimes. Probably a gang initiation thing.”
Carla smiled, but found her patience was wearing thin with this guy. He knew nothing about the details of Howard Gunderson’s case, and she didn’t want to get into it with him. She was tempted to tell him he should just keep his opinions to himself, but she knew these late night guys had little to do but gossip amongst themselves like a bunch of old hens.
“Yeah, probably,” Carla said. The guard handed back her bag and badge. “But we’ll see.”
“Should I hold on to your piece?”
It was forbidden to carry a weapon into the detention center, but it was courteous for the guard to ask. She wondered what he’d say if she asked for it back.
“You bet. I don’t think I’ll be long. Like you said, it’s late.”
The guard waved her through and she headed deeper into the labyrinth of the detention center, while he went back to the glass cubicle, surely to crack jokes with his shift partner. Probably about what a lost cause Howard Gunderson was, and what a fool she was for spending so much time on him.
She wasn’t sure they were wrong.
Carla had been the first Detective on the scene after the murder of Richard Pratt. Even before speaking to the officers on site, she’d known that the boy with the lost eyes and the pale look was the one who had fired the gun that had killed the professor. But even on that first night there was something haunting about Gunderson. Something that she had been struggling to put her finger on ever since.
After passing through the second checkpoint, Carla picked up the security escort that would take her in to see the prisoner. And to her relief, it was a friendlier face.
Melvin Delgado had worked with her when they were both beat cops in West Valley City. He was a heavyset guy and could be a bit of an ass, but he also had been good friends with her late husband, and he’d been willing to do her a favor. She’d asked him to call if Gunderson woke up, no matter how late.
“Hey Mel. Thanks for the call. I got here as quick as I could. I appreciate the heads up.”
“I took some doing,” Mel said. “It’s way too late for visitors, normally. But I can bring the kid into one of the interrogation rooms. He seems alert enough.”
“That’s great. Maybe he’ll be thinking more clearly. I don’t think he slept much before today. He’s a pretty freaked out kid right now.”
Delgado glanced at her as he scanned them past the last security door with his ID card. “You seem to have gotten pretty close to this kid. I know you, Carla, and I suspect you’re making him one of your pet projects. What makes you think he’s worth it? He just seems like another punk kid that got in with the wrong crowd. Probably some kind of hazing or initiation or something is my guess.”
Carla groaned internally. “You should go get a beer with Mike up in Security. He made the same comment.”
Mel just huffed. “Mike’s a putz.”
“I agree. He’s a putz because he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, and this case is much more complicated and strange than either of you can imagine.” She caught his eye long enough to smile. “So don’t be a putz.”
“Okay, okay, I get it.” Mel made a zipping motion across his lips. “Mum’s the word. I’ll mind my business. You’re the lady detective.” He clearly enjoyed this banter with his old friend. “I miss hanging out with you, Carla. Ever since you left the streets, we never seen you out at the Beer Hive.”
Carla couldn’t help but laugh. “What are you talking about, Mel? I never hung out with you Neanderthals at the Hive. Not even while Eric was alive.”
“That’s not true! You used to come with the Cap, before he passed. I know we saw you there, lots of times!”
“Well, maybe once or twice…”
“The Cap” was the nickname of Carla’s husband Eric, who had also been a police officer. Far from being an actual Captain, he was a street cop in Salt Lake City at the same time she’d been on a similar beat in West Valley. Eric was thirty and she was twenty-seven when they met. He’d been on the beat for more than a decade, while she’d just gotten on two years before. Luckily, they weren’t under the same hierarchy, so when romance blossomed they could pursue it, and they were married less than a year after they met. They spent the better part of two decades together, but the stress of their jobs was always like a weight hanging over their heads. They both talked for years about getting off the street and becoming detectives, or even just taking desk jobs, but neither of them ever took the plunge. Something about that squad car was hard to let go.
Eric wasn’t killed in the line of duty, but she was convinced that the stress did him in. She watched his attitude change over the years from one of compassion to what almost appeared to be misanthropy. By the time the stomach cancer got him at the very young age of forty-seven, he seemed so discouraged and disillusioned by the state of the world that he didn’t fight it. She was convinced that he could have survived if it wasn’t for the depression.
After Eric was gone, she’d taken stock of her life and decided that at forty-four, she had a lot of good years left, and she didn’t want to spend all of them driving a beat. She’d signed up to take the detective exam. It was tough, but she powered through a grueling year of study and passed. Then instead of West Valley City, she took a post downtown, in Salt Lake City. It meant that she had, for the last three years, seen a lot of her husband’s old friends and colleagues, in and around the Salt Lake City force. Somehow, she found it comforting, although at times she had to remind them forcefully she was a detective now, and not a beat cop. Or Eric’s childless widow.
“You really should come by,” Delgado was still talking as they walked through the hallways of the Detention Center. “Lots of guys you’d remember hang out at the Hive. Especially on Friday nights.”
“Well, maybe I’ll do that, Mel. Thanks for the invite.”
“I’ll go get the kid. Put on your best ‘mom’ face.”
While Mel was away, Carla took the ever-growing case file she’d brought with her out of her valise. She’d been staring at these same incident reports and interview notes for so long these past few days, she was beginning to think this case would never make any sense.
She put her head in her hands.
“Mom,” indeed. She had become the go-to detective for the City whenever the perpetrator was a juvenile or young adult. Even though she and Chuck had never had kids, she found herself able to relate to young offenders in a way most of the detectives couldn’t. They often opened up to her, in just such a setting as this: A quiet room, with just the two of them, having a heart-to-heart talk. Usually, that meant getting them to unburden themselves and make a confession. Or rat on whoever was guilty. But from time to time, it meant providing a confused young person with a kind voice and a source of stability in what was a terrifying process.
In any case, it was her “mom face,” as Mel put it, that caused breakthroughs, in even the most troubling cases.
She would like to see a breakthrough like that with Howard Gunderson, but she wasn’t expecting it. She didn’t believe that Howard was lying to her. Her instincts said that he already trusted her, but he truly just didn’t remember much of what happened that night. And that fact left her feeling lost. Where could she go next with that? What the hell did she expect to get out of a fourth interview with Howard Gunderson that she hadn’t gotten out of interviews one, two and three? His story wasn’t likely to make any more sense now than it had any of those previous times. The only thing she could hope for was that in having him tell the story yet again, she’d catch some small item, some key that might make everything else fall into place. She’d saved a few tidbits of information to spring on him tonight, hoping it would either jar something loose, or if he was guilty, cause his game face to slip.
If she couldn’t figure something out soon, she’d just have to hand what she had off to prosecutors, and hope that the court was merciful to this kid.
She heard the security door buzz, and Mel came into the room with Howard Gunderson.
Somehow, the boy looked smaller today than he had yesterday. It wasn’t a question of weight. It was more just his bearing. Shoulders slumped, head down, and dark shadows under his eyes that could almost pass for bruises. His sandy brown hair needed a trim, or at the very least a comb. His hands were shackled, and a long chain led down to similar shackles on his ankles.
“Hello, Mr. Gunderson,” Carla smiled at the boy, as Mel snapped his handcuffs into the restraining loop on the desk. “I see you got some sleep. I’m glad. I think you needed it.”
Carla took a moment to assess Howard—something she always did, before launching into an interview.
Howard Gunderson was young, medium build. The file in front of her said he was five-foot-ten, a hundred and seventy pounds, but he looked like he was less than that today. His only distinguishing features would be his strangely thick eyebrows and a cleft chin which, despite several days without shaving, was still almost completely devoid of fuzz. She could imagine Howard coming across as a jock sometimes, and yet he was soft spoken and had a baby face on a body that seemed awkward, like he hadn’t fully grown into it. He was twenty, but sometimes seemed more like sixteen or seventeen developmentally, although that wasn’t for her to say. His hands and feet seemed too big for the rest of him, and he had an annoying habit of slumping his shoulders, as if his parents had never made him sit up straight in a chair. He was thinner than his face would lead you to believe, and his ears seem too big, and too low. When he was arrested, he had on a Utah Jazz baseball cap, which he kept askew. But now, he was in the standard issue orange shirt with PRISONER written across the back in black letters you could read from a block away.
“Thanks for taking the time to meet with me, Mr. Gunderson.”
The boy winced, audibly. “Please don’t call me that, Detective Grayson. Howard is fine.”
“Okay, Howard. And if you’d like, you can call me Carla. How’s that?”
Carla closed the file before her and looked into the boy’s eyes. They were a deep blue, like the waters of the Caribbean.
“Before we begin, I’d like to let you know again that you don’t need to talk to me today. I understand you have a court-appointed lawyer now,” she consulted her notes. “Vincent Offret, I believe. And you have every right to have him here when we chat. If you are willing to have this conversation, I will appreciate it, but you are not obligated. This conversation can only be at your own free will.”
Howard shrugged and slipped down deeper in his chair. His eyes went to the chain passing through the restraining loop on the desk. He toyed with it nervously.
“No, it’s fine. But I’m not going to say anything different from what I’ve already told you.” Without looking up, he added, “Why are you bothering? This is the fourth time you’ve talked to me in three days. Don’t you feel like you’re wasting your time?”
This was new. Before, Howard had been so overwhelmed that he had barely been able to stammer out his answers. Some rest and some time had served him well. Carla was hopeful.
“I know. But I’ve been doing this for a lot of years. I find it sometimes helps to have…” She had almost said “the perpetrator.” “…to have someone go over the facts again a few days after the incident. Time can help you remember things, or see them more clearly. All I really want to do is go over the facts one more time. Maybe you’ll think of something that can help.”
There was actually a bit of a smile on his face. “We can try…”
“Okay. Let’s start earlier in the evening of June 2nd. Sometime around 6:00 pm, your friends came by to pick you up. Before they arrived, you took your father’s gun from your parent’s room.”
“I don’t remember that.”
“Did you know where he kept it?”
“Yeah, Mom and I both knew. Dad’s a paranoid gun nut. He kept it in the drawer of his nightstand. But I don’t remember taking it.”
“Did he keep it loaded?”
“Yeah, always. I think he hoped one day to plug an intruder. Let’s say I never wanted to wake him up in the middle of the night.”
“Okay,” she sighed. This was already more than she’d gotten from Howard earlier. “So you don’t remember taking the gun. You were picked up by your friends Terry, Sean and Omar. Do you hang out with these guys a lot?”
“Quite a bit. We had planned to take a drive up into the Avenues and hang out in the cemetery.”
“And what did you plan to do there?”
Howard looked up, catching Carla’s eye. She did her best to keep her face impassive. “It’s alright, Howard. I just need to know the facts.”
“I told you. We had some weed. We were going to just hang out and smoke it. That’s all.”
“Okay. Do you remember them picking you up?”
“Where were you riding in the pickup truck?”
“I don’t remember. But I know they said that me and Omar were in the back.”
“Do you think they’re lying?”
“No, I’m sure they’re not. They’re good guys.”
“So you were riding in the back of the open pickup. Did you do that often?”
“Yeah, I know it’s illegal.” Howard sighed, looking down into his lap. “But so is smoking pot in the cemetery.” He paused. “And shooting some stranger in the head.”
Carla was taken aback. This was definitely a different side of Howard Gunderson. It wasn’t exactly despair she was sensing in him, but it was something close to it. She pressed on.
“Howard, did you kill Richard Pratt?”
“No.” He looked up. “Or yes. I don’t know. They said I did.”
“The cops. My friends. You.”
“I’ve never said that Howard.” She let the silence draw out for the better part of a minute. “Okay. Let’s back up. Do you remember the truck driving into the Avenues?”
“Who was driving?”
“It must have been Terry. It’s his truck. Was his truck. He never let anybody else drive it.”
“Do you remember leaning over the side of the truck to talk to Terry while you were stopped at a light on South Temple?”
“Do you remember telling him you wanted to drive up J Street?”
“He says you did.”
“And I’m sure he’s right. I’m just saying I don’t remember.”
“Okay. Let me read you what else Terry said.” She pulled out an interview record from the folder.
“‘When we got to the corner of 3rd street, just a few blocks up J, Howard started banging on the roof of the truck. He was yelling, “Stop the truck! Stop the truck!” So I pulled over in front of a little yellow house to try and figure out what was wrong. I thought maybe he was hurt or something. I leaned out the window to ask what the hell was going on and the next thing I knew he was walking across the lawn in front of the house where I’d stopped. I yelled at him to get back in the truck, but he just kept walking. It was like he didn’t hear me. That’s when I saw he had the pistol. I didn’t know what to say, but I heard Omar say, “He’s got a gun.” But we pretty much all just sat there, not knowing what to do. We were kind of dumbfounded, you know. It just didn’t seem like Howard. But then he… Then Howard… He just walked right up on the porch and looked in the window. Then he lifted the gun, and then bang, took one shot through the window.’”
Carla looked up from her reading. This was the first time she’d quoted the words of Howard’s friend to him verbatim like this, and it had the desired effect. Howard’s cleft chin had dropped. She saw moisture in his eyes.
“I…” He started and then swallowed. “I don’t remember any of that. Really, Detective Grayson, I don’t. I’m not saying my friends are lying, but the first thing I remembered they picked me up was finding myself on that lawn on J Street. I looked down the street and saw Terry’s truck wrapped around that telephone pole. I didn’t even hear it hit. I had no idea where I was, I swear. I felt sick, and I put my head in my hands and just tried to breathe. I didn’t have a gun in my hand, and I didn’t know what had happened, but I could hear somebody screaming. My friends were piling out of the truck, and I saw Omar lying on the sidewalk, cradling his arm. Then I heard the wailing coming from inside the house. At first I thought it was a wounded animal. That’s all I knew.”
Carla broke protocol and reached a hand out to take Howard’s. It was time to play the one card she hadn’t yet played with Howard Gunderson.
“Howard, did you know Richard Pratt?”
“No, I have never heard of that guy before this happened. You have to believe me.”
“Do you know Keith Woo?”
“Keith… No, I don’t think so. Who is Keith Woo?”
Carla ignored the question and kept driving at the boy. “Howard, did you know that Richard Pratt was a homosexual?”
This was it. She hadn’t told Howard this fact yet. How would he react? Howard started, and the surprise on his face was real. “No, I didn’t know.”
“Howard, were you having a sexual relationship with Richard Pratt?”
“God, no!” Howard pulled his hand away from her grip. She watched the color drain out of his face. “Is that what this is about? You think I was sleeping with the guy I shot?”
“Did you shoot him?”
“No! I mean, I don’t know! The guy you say I shot.”
Carla just stared at Howard for what must have been a good minute. She looked into his eyes, into the expression on his face. Was there any chance? Could Howard be the jilted lover of Richard Pratt? Or even Keith Woo? Was this a romantic triangle gone bad? Howard just looked at her, and his face displayed more shock and even greater fear than before. And as she looked into his face, she was certain that no, this was not the answer she was looking for. Whatever was going on, it would not be that easy.
Carla took Howard’s hand again and felt him immediately calm down. “It’s okay, Howard. No, I don’t think you’re a homosexual, and I don’t think you knew Richard Pratt. But I had to ask. In these circumstances, it seems like the obvious conclusion. So I really need to know. I’m going to ask one more time. Did you ever meet Richard Pratt?”
“Did you ever meet his lover, Keith Woo?”
“Keith Woo? No, never. I’ve never heard that name before. I promise.”
That “I promise” sounded like a little boy, and it almost melted Carla’s heart. At that moment, she was absolutely sure that Howard was telling her the truth. He really did not know what had happened that night, and further badgering of him wasn’t going to get her anywhere. But it was one thing for her to know it, and another thing for a jury to believe it.
There were tears running down Howard’s face now. “I wish I remembered, but I don’t! Really, Detective Grayson, I’m the kind of guy that might go joyriding with his friends or smoke a little weed, but I’m not the kind of guy that would ever kill anybody. Especially not some random gay guy in the Avenues!”
“Have you ever handled a gun?”
“A few times. Never a handgun. I took hunter’s safety courses in high school so I could go hunting with my Dad, but I haven’t touched a gun since then. I’ve been out of High School two years. And not once.”
“Could it have been one of the other boys? Are you covering for one of them? Or are they trying to pin something on you?”
“No, never. They’re not bad guys. None of us are bad guys, Detective.”
She didn’t push that line of questioning. All three of the boys’ stories matched up. Not perfectly (which would have been a giveaway that they had concocted a story) but well enough to be convincing. And none of them had any priors. Howard was right. They were all just good kids from a working class neighborhood in the suburbs.
Carla realized she had passed into a somewhat unprofessional level of connection with Howard Gunderson. Would she and Eric have had a boy like Howard, if being on the force and Eric’s depression hadn’t interfered? Eric had been a hard-nosed police officer, but he would have been a good, if stern, father.
She didn’t realize her mind was wandering until Howard spoke up and broke her reverie.
“Detective, can I ask you something?”
“I said that you could call me Carla, Howard.”
“Okay. Carla. Can I ask you something?”
“One of the things I remember, just before the cop picked me up from the lawn, was a woman running past me, and into the house. Then I heard her screaming. Who was that?”
“Her name is Michelle Kilani. She is the best friend of Keith Woo, Richard Pratt’s boyfriend.” What she didn’t tell Howard was that a good part of the notes in her folder had come from her extensive interviews with both Michelle Kilani and Keith Woo. And that both of them claimed to have never heard of Howard Gunderson.
“Do you know Michelle Kilani, Howard?”
“No, Carla, I don’t.” He stumbled over her name, clearly uncomfortable with speaking to an older person so informally. “I don’t know any of these people. I’m a twenty-year-old guy from the suburbs. I work part time and party with my friends when I have some extra money. I live at home with a gun nut father and a mother so mousy that she rarely leaves the house. How in the hell would I ever meet a gay couple from the Avenues? Or any of their friends?” He took a tissue from the box on the desk, which made his chain rasp against the loop. He had to lean forward to wipe his eyes.
“Detective Grayson, I’m trying to figure this out, just like you are. I wish I knew what happened that night. You know, figuring this shit out is probably more important to me than it is to you. It’s my life that has gone to hell. Three days ago, my biggest worry was keeping my mom off my back so I could party with my friends.”
Carla hadn’t thought of it from that perspective. Of course Howard wanted to know what was happening. She had no idea what it would be like to suddenly wake up on an unfamiliar street and be told that you just killed a total stranger. You’d wonder if anything was real at all. It’s surprising he was as calm as he was.
Suddenly, she felt guilty making him go through all this again.
She looked at her watch.
“It’s late. Just past 11:00. I’m going to let you get back. You should have had lights out an hour ago and you need to get some more sleep, if you can.”
“Why are you meeting me this late? Don’t you have a family to get home to?”
“That’s not anything for you to worry about, Howard.” She could have said it sternly, but she didn’t. “But if you think of anything else you want to tell me, just ask for a guard. They will know how to get in touch with me. And talk to your attorney, Mr. Offret.”
“Have your mom and dad been by to see you?”
“Yeah. Well, my mom, anyway. I didn’t expect Dad. And Mom… Well, she just cries. She’s always called me her ‘good boy.’ I don’t know what to tell her any more than I know what to tell you.”
Speaking of his mother had clearly touched another nerve for Howard, and his voice was cracking. He obviously cared about her very much. Carla handed him a bottle of water from the table, and he took several long swallows. When he had calmed a bit, he asked.
“What happens now?”
“Well, the next official step is what’s called a ‘First Appearance.’ You’ll go before a judge and have your charges read. And you’ll have an opportunity to enter a plea. When do you meet with Mr. Offret?”
“I’m sure he’ll explain everything to you then. Your First Appearance is scheduled for about three days from now. That’s designed to give you and Mr. Offret and your family a chance to decide how you want to plead. By then, I will have turned over what I know to the District Attorney.”
Carla was overwhelmed by the look of sadness and confusion in Howard’s eyes. She couldn’t help but think how far he was from the other young offenders she had dealt with over the years.
“Howard, I asked them to schedule a psychological evaluation. Did anyone tell you when that’s going to happen?”
“It already did. I talked to a psychologist this afternoon.”
“Oh.” She was surprised it had happened so quickly. “How do you think it went?”
“I have no idea. She asked a lot of questions that made no sense to me. And it went on for an hour. After she was done, all I could do was sleep.”
So that’s why he had been asleep when she had come by earlier this afternoon. She knew those evaluations could be grueling.
“I expect we’ll have that report back in a day or so. I’ll get a copy, and so will Mr. Offret.”
“I know what it’s going to say. It’s going to say I’m crazy. It’s going to say I’m guilty.” Howard sighed. He really was very close to despair.
“It won’t make any assessment as to guilt, Howard.”
She was just about to try to find some words of comfort, but then two things happened simultaneously that made her jump out of her seat. The first was a commotion in the corridor. She could hear a guard running down the hall, shouting something she couldn’t make out. At the same time, her phone buzzed with a text message. She picked up her phone and saw a missed call from her Sergeant. The text was from him as well. It was just a single line, in all capital letters, which was very unlike him:
VALLEY FAIR MALL STAT
Valley Fair Mall was in West Valley City. Her old stomping grounds when she was a beat cop.
With a quick word of apology, she dismissed herself from the interview and rapped on the door. Mel must have already had his hand on the door, because it flung open under her knuckles. He too had his cell phone out and was gesturing with it. “Carla, you need to check in at the station. It sounds like something big is going on down at Valley Fair Mall. At the theater there, according to a guy I know. No word of exactly what, but it sounds big. The scanner says a bunch of cops are responding.”
The guy Mel knew was likely one of her old colleagues on the West Valley force. Carla turned to Howard, who had craned his neck around to look at her. The look he gave her silently screamed, “Don’t leave me.”
“Howard, I’m sorry, but I have to go. I may not get another chance to talk to you, depending on what you and your lawyer decide. But I want you to know I wish you the best of luck.” She stepped outside the interrogation room, but paused to look back over her shoulder. “And for what it’s worth, I believe you.”
She didn’t give him a chance to respond. She left him with Mel, and hurried toward the security perimeter of the Detention Center, where she could pick up her weapon from the putz.
Five minutes later, Howard was back in his cell. It was now well after lights out, so he had to make his way back to the bunk by the dim glow from the corridor, feeling as hopeless as he had since all this started. The more he learned about all this, the less he understood. And the more helpless he felt his situation was becoming.
The dark felt like a ton of ocean water, weighing him down.
Why wouldn’t they just lock him up? Would they say he was gay? Would they make up some big story about him having an affair with this guy, and cast him as the jealous, jilted lover? Would his friends whisper among themselves that they had never known he was one of those people, and how could they not have been able to tell? Would that story be all that was left of him to remember as he disappeared into Point of the Mountain prison?
Despite the fact that he was alone now in his dark cell, Howard felt like he was being watched. He began to scratch at the back of his hand. And for some reason this caused him to panic, as if it is stirring deep memories, or suppressed, subconscious fears. He beat his hand against the wall, until a guard appeared, silhouetted in the corridor.
Howard stopped, sweat breaking out on his brow.
The feeling receded. But if, at that moment, anybody had looked into Howard’s blue eyes, they could be forgiven for wondering if he was Howard Gunderson at all…
The Last Handful of Clover is a supernatural thriller by Wess Mongo Jolley. Thanks for reading! If you are enjoying this story, please consider supporting the author on Patreon.
For more information (including maps of the story’s world and a contact form) visit the author’s website.
To read previous chapters of this book, go to the Table of Contents page.
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Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.