June 13, 2:48 pm
Finding Howard Gunderson was not as easy as Richard expected.
The hallways and corridors of the Matheson Courthouse seemed labyrinthine, and even with their ability to just walk through walls and doors as they explored, it was still a challenge for Richard and Billy to find where the holding cells were located. Finally, Richard had the idea that they had to be close to the courtrooms themselves. So they navigated back to where Howard’s last hearing had been held, and then Richard led them out the back of the room into a familiar hallway, and then down a staircase. In the end, they discovered that the holding cells were in the basement, directly under the hearing rooms themselves.
They found Howard’s cell, but even though the boy’s name was written in grease pencil on a white placard, the cell itself was empty. Just down a side corridor they discovered a central guard station that looked more like a reception desk that you would see in a hospital. Behind the desk sat two men in uniform, and down the hall, one lonely figure sat on a plastic chair, making notes on a thick manila folder in her lap.
As they approached, Richard recognized the figure as Carla Grayson—the detective who had overseen his case, and had spoken to Michelle at the funeral. She was sitting alone outside of the last interrogation room on the left. The walls between the rooms and the corridor were glass, and the whole scene was brightly lit and surprisingly modern, although the fluorescent lighting was harsh and unforgiving. Carla sat with her back to the glass panel, as if she was purposefully not watching what was happening inside.
Richard and Billy eased up to the glass next to her, and looked into the tiny room.
Howard Gunderson sat at a table, wearing shackles on his wrists and ankles. Across from him was a middle-aged woman in a frumpy floral dress, who was squeezing a pink handkerchief so hard it looked like it would fall apart in her hands. Next to her was a young man in a suit.
“Howard’s mother, and his lawyer?” Richard speculated.
He was about to slip through the glass wall when Billy stopped him with a light touch to his elbow.
“We can listen from here,” he said, and put his hand to the glass.
“That works?” Richard asked.
“Well enough,” Billy said.
Richard placed his hand on the glass and found that what Billy said was true. Somehow, the vibrations of the voices on the glass made the conversation inside completely audible to the two ghosts, even though any living person in the hall would not have been able to hear a thing.
It was immediately clear that the meeting was not going well.
Howard sat with his back to the window, but his posture showed how disgusted he was. His arms were crossed and his head was down. His mother and the lawyer were trying to get him to talk, but he was obviously beyond cooperating with anyone.
“Honey, Mr. Offret is here to help us,” she said. “I know he’s been appointed by the court, but he still works for us. At least, that’s what he tells me.”
“That’s right, Mrs. Gunderson,” the lawyer said, looking intently at the boy. “Howard, I’ve been reviewing the facts of the case, and I have some ideas. But if you won’t talk to me, I won’t be able to give you the best representation I can.”
“Please, Howard!” his mother said, giving the handkerchief an especially hard twist. “This whole thing has shattered my nerves. Especially after what happened at the hearing. We just need to understand…” She paused, and when her son didn’t reply, she continued. “Mr. Offret says that he thinks it’s possible that you won’t go to jail, even after… even after what you did at the hearing.”
“Especially after,” the lawyer said.
“He thinks that maybe they’ll only send you to a hospital where you can get the treatment you need…”
Richard saw the boy’s back stiffen at that suggestion. “I’m not crazy!” He said, slapping his hand on the table. The sound of the clattering chains surprised the two people across from him more than the sudden gesture. They both recoiled visibly.
When the silence dragged on for a few seconds too long, Howard asked, more quietly, “Where’s Dad?”
Richard hadn’t thought of it, but yes, it was strange that the woman was there by herself. Where was the boy’s father? You would think that for something as serious as their son was facing, he would be there.
“He’s… not feeling well, honey.” Howard’s mother said, simply. And the look on the lawyer’s face made it clear he knew that was a lie.
“Look,” Howard said with a sigh. “Mr. Offret, I appreciate everything you’re doing. But I told them all along that I didn’t want a court-appointed lawyer. I know you mean well, but how many other cases are you dealing with right now?”
The man didn’t answer right away, but as Howard continued to stare him down, he simply said, “Several.”
“I’m not stupid, Mr. Offret. I know I’m on an assembly line. They’re going to convict me, and I haven’t heard you suggest any way to stop that from happening. Your job is just to make it as painless as possible for everybody involved, not to change what’s going to happen. The only thing I’ve heard from you is that the best you could do is make sure that I get sent to a mental hospital, rather than Point of the Mountain. We’ll I’m not crazy. I’m innocent. I didn’t do this.”
“Howie, we’re trying to get you a better lawyer,” His mother said, and then with a squeak, “No offense intended, Mr. Offret.”
“None taken, Mrs. Gunderson,” the man said, coldly.
“The problem is that we can’t afford most of the lawyers that we’ve talked to. Some of your friends have set up an on-line fund-raising thing. But I don’t know if that will even make a dent in what it’s going to cost.”
Richard and Billy could see the tears in the mother’s eyes, and hear the anguish in her voice. “The truth is, this is probably going to take everything we have. We’ll probably lose the house. And if what Mr. Offret says is true, there isn’t a lot of hope. Even with a really good lawyer, the facts are the facts, honey. Everyone says you shot that man.”
Howard put his head in his hands and refused to look at his mother. But she continued.
“Most of our friends have stopped visiting. Once the reporters came, they didn’t want to be seen, I guess. And now most of them have even stopped calling.” She reached out a hand and put it over Howard’s. As she gripped it, the chain clattered again against the table. “Don’t worry, hon. We’ll figure it out. But please, for now, just… talk to Mr. Offret.”
Richard didn’t blame Howard for his disgust with the court-appointed lawyer. The man was clearly disengaged, and the reference to “finding a better lawyer” had been more offensive to him than he had let on. Abruptly, he stood up and closed his briefcase a little too hard. Richard could hear the flaps lock with two sharp clicks.
“Let me know what you’d like to do, Mr. Gunderson,” the lawyer said, his voice stiff and formal. “I’ll expect to hear from you soon, one way or another. Mrs. Gunderson, if you find a ‘better’ lawyer, I’ll be more than happy to take Howard off my list of clients. Your son is right. I have plenty of other cases to handle at this point.”
He left without saying another word. He didn’t even nod to the detective in the hall on the way out.
Now only Howard and his mother were in the room, and the departure of the lawyer uncorked Mrs. Gunderson’s tears. She wept silently, trying to hold her son’s hand, but he was clearly both numb and distracted. He pulled away, and glanced around the room, his hands shaking and his foot bouncing on the floor rhythmically, making the chains jangle.
The poor boy is an emotional wreck, Richard thought. He felt that familiar tug on his heart that he felt whenever he saw a young man in distress. And it made him wince.
Turning sideways in his chair, Howard looked away from his mother. “I think you should go, mom. I want to go back to my cell. I need some sleep.”
“Okay, honey. I’ll be back tomorrow for the hearing.” She stood up and came around the table. She kissed her son on the top of his head and ruffled his hair with the hand that wasn’t holding the wet handkerchief. But she didn’t hug the boy, and he didn’t get up, or say goodbye to her. He just stared blankly into space. “Try not to worry,” she said.
Richard and Billy watched silently as she crossed to the door and exited, leaving Howard alone in the room.
When she saw the woman exit the interview room, Carla Grayson stood up and crossed to her, and Richard had to jump out of her way. She put her hand around the woman’s shoulders and turned to an officer at the reception desk down the hall.
“Sergeant, you can return Howard Gunderson to his cell now.”
Richard and Billy both stepped aside as Mrs. Gunderson and the detective headed for the exit. “Let me buy you a cup of coffee,” Richard heard Grayson say as the pair walked down the corridor. The detective had taken the mother’s arm and was supporting her as she shuffled forward numbly, still twisting the handkerchief.
An officer with “Delgado” on his name tag passed the two ghosts and opened the door to the hearing room. “This way, Gunderson. Back home now,” he said, quickly unlocking Howard’s wrist chains from the loop on the table..
Feeling like a voyeur, Richard could barely look at Howard as he exited the hearing room. Despite the strong words he had spoken just moments earlier, the boy suddenly looked terrified and exhausted. His eyes barely left his shoes as he shuffled out of the room, past Billy and Richard, and down the corridor toward his cell. Fortunately, it was only a short walk. Richard and Billy followed, like disembodied shadows.
The cell itself looked very much like an old-style jail, in stark contrast to the antiseptic and modern decor in the interrogation rooms and the guard station. It was a small, unadorned, concrete block room, with a stainless steel combination toilet and sink in one corner and a simple fold-down cot against the other. The entire north wall was made of bars, just as you might expect in some old western, although they were new and freshly painted gray. The only other difference was that the lock was electronic.
“Unlock number six, Pablo!” the officer yelled to the man at the reception desk.
“Number six open!” the other cried back, and there was a buzz as the door released. The officer ushered the boy inside, and the two ghosts followed, moving quickly to the back of the cell. The officer slammed the door and Richard heard the lock click into place automatically.
“Number six secure!” the officer called, checking the door.
Howard stood with his face to the bars, as if this was a routine he had already become used to, and his trembling seemed, if anything, to have gotten worse. Richard moved up to look directly into the boy’s tired face, but his eyes were down, and his expression was unreadable. Something about his trembling caused Richard to step back.
Reaching through the bars, the guard removed both the wrist and ankle shackles. He departed without a word, the chains jingling in his hand like chimes. Howard turned and collapsed onto the cot, his face to the wall, and his knees drawn up close to his chest. He looked like a lost little boy in his orange prison issues.
Richard and Billy crossed over to the boy and leaned down. Richard couldn’t tell if he was sleeping already, but he was certainly doing his best to shut out the rest of the world.
The pair stood in the silent cell until Richard finally turned to Billy and sighed.
“Okay. Now what the fuck do we do?” he asked.
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.
If you’re interested in listening to the book, rather than reading it, the audiobook is available at the Patreon link above, and also as a podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Anchor, and all other podcast platforms. Visit the podcast page for more details.
Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.