June 13, 3:30 pm
In the cafeteria of the Courthouse, Abigail Gunderson had finally controlled her tears. Carla could tell that the woman wasn’t a big weeper. She was one of those Mormon women who suffered silently. But even the strongest of women had their limits, and Abigail Gunderson was not the strongest of women. What had happened to her only son was enough to break the heart of any mother.
“I’m sure you must hear this from every mother whose son has ever been accused of a crime,” the woman said, dabbing her nose with her already soggy handkerchief. “But Detective, I’m not some mother trying to be tough, or believing in her child no matter how horrible the things he has done may be. I’m only speaking God’s truth when I tell you that Howard would never hurt a fly. He has to be innocent of this. He was such a good boy growing up, that my husband and I called him ‘Saint Howie.’ I don’t know how, but this all has to be some kind of mistake!”
“I wish it was, Mrs. Gunderson,” Carla said, hating the sound of her own voice. “But the facts in the case are irrefutable. There is so much evidence. We have the statements of the boys in the truck. They’ll testify he’s the one that made them drive to that house, and that they saw him jump out, walk across the lawn, and fire the shot into the house. We have the gun. The police were there within seconds, and Howard was sitting on the lawn, right next to it. His fingerprints were all over it, and there was gunpowder residue on his hand and shirt.”
“But this is not something Howard would ever do! If he did, then there has to be something we don’t know. Maybe somebody was blackmailing him. Maybe he didn’t know what he was doing. Or maybe he’s suffered some kind of psychotic break.”
“Do you believe that?”
“I don’t know what to believe. But Mr. Offret says he thinks he can get him off with some kind of insanity defense.” She put down the cup, and her hand went instinctively back to the handkerchief. “I don’t know what else we can do. Detective Grayson, I can’t lose my only son!”
Carla took the woman’s hand and slowly detached her grip from the soggy handkerchief. “Mrs. Gunderson, if I may ask, where is the boy’s father? As far as I can tell, he’s never been to visit his son in detention. I know when I interviewed him, he seemed very cold and angry. But I think Howard needs you both by his side.”
“Frank’s not going to come here.”
“Well, Detective…” the woman paused, struggling to find her words. “My husband is a good man. But he also cares very much about what people think. What people say. He’s afraid that somebody will photograph him either going into or coming out of the prison, and that it will end up in the newspaper.” She laughed a humorless laugh. “I know how pathetic that sounds, but he’s hardly left the house since all this began. He’s gone into a deep depression, and it’s only gotten worse, now that all of our friends have abandoned us. The Bishop is a good friend, and even he has even stopped coming by. It’s like we’re being ostracized from all of our friends, and even the Church. Frank is talking about moving us out of Salt Lake when this is all over.”
Abigail Gunderson detached her hands from Carla’s grip, picked up the handkerchief, turned away, and blew her nose into it.
Noiselessly and politely, Carla noticed. Just like a good Mormon housewife should.
“I guess at this point the best I’m hoping for is that they find Howard not guilty by reason of insanity, and he gets committed somewhere. Maybe we could get him transferred to a hospital out of state. Somewhere that nobody knows us. And then maybe we could both visit him from time to time.” She found a clean corner of the handkerchief and wiped her eyes with it. “I just know I’ll never get Frank to visit him here. Not while he’s in Salt Lake.”
Carla leaned back in her chair. It surprised her to hear that the woman still had hope in a judge and jury finding her son insane. “Mrs. Gunderson, I left a copy of the psychological evaluation that was done on your son with Mr. Offret. Did he show it to you?”
“Yes, he did.”
“Then you know the psychologist who looked into your son’s mental health determined that he was sane, and competent to stand trial. That’s going to carry a lot of weight with the judge, and the jury.”
The woman looked suddenly angry. “Competent? How can they use that word when they are talking about someone that shot a total stranger for no reason? Isn’t the fact that he did something so crazy in the first place show that he is anything but competent?”
“Well, that’s a technical term. A legal term. It just means he was aware of his actions and knew they were wrong. And that he knows right from wrong well enough now to stand trial.”
The woman leaned forward and looked directly into the detective’s eyes.
“Ms. Grayson, How can he be competent if he thinks he’s being possessed by a demon?”
Carla nearly dropped her coffee. She looked at the woman as if she was speaking in a foreign tongue, as she tried to wrap her mind around what she had just said.
“Excuse me? Howard told you that? He said he had been possessed?”
“Well, he didn’t use that word. But yes, he does.” There was a glimmer of triumph, or perhaps it was just hope, in the woman’s eyes.
“And you believe him? I mean, you believe that he believes that?”
“Of course he believes it,” the woman said, but her eyes dropped back to her cup of Sprite. It was a subtle movement, but it was all that Carla needed to know that the woman didn’t believe this story from Howard at all. Was it possible the boy had just hit on this as a last ditch effort to save himself? It seemed so out of character for the boy to try something that crass.
“When did he tell you this?”
“Just now. In the meeting today, while you were out in the hall. He told both me and Mr. Offret. It’s why he thinks that we have a chance to get Howie off with an insanity plea.”
Carla took a deep breath. “What did Howard say. I mean, exactly.”
“Only that. He said that he just started being able to hear the thing’s voice. He said it’s taken him over four times. The first time was when he killed Mr. Pratt. The second and third, he was alone in his cell. And the fourth was when he lost control in the hearing room. He even has a name for it. ‘Justin,’ I think he called it.”
“Isn’t that a pretty pedestrian name for a demon?” Carla asked. “Shouldn’t it be Asmodeus or something?”
“Don’t be crass, Detective,” the woman said, and her eyes bored into Carla, wet and full of desperation. “He looked terrified when he was telling us. He says he’s afraid it’s going to keep coming back for him. Keep making him do horrible things.
Carla was speechless now, just staring at the woman, who trembled as she continued.
“He says he knows when it’s there. He says the back of his hand starts to itch really badly. So badly that he has to scratch it, or it will drive him insane. That’s how he knows the demon is there. It all sounds crazy, I know! But isn’t that a good reason to think Howie belongs in a hospital, not in prison?”
Carla’s mind was racing. This really could change everything. And it might finally explain a case that had made no sense at all, right from the beginning. Was it possible that Howard had been insane this whole time and had just somehow hidden it really well from everybody?
“I’ll ask for a new psychiatric evaluation. I’m sure he never said anything like this to the doctor, or they wouldn’t have judged him to be competent.”
“I’m sure he didn’t,” the mother said. “He says that he only started hearing the demon the day before that incident at the hearing. And that he only saw it for the first time at the hearing itself. He said that when the demon came out of him, he saw it lying on the ground.”
“What did he say it looked like?”
The woman looked confused. “I guess I never thought to ask him. It all seemed so bizarre.”
“Yes, it does,” Carla said.
“But I’ll tell you this, Detective. I’m not saying I believe Howie about this demon business. But he sounded more certain, and less confused, than he has since this nightmare started. It was like someone suddenly flipped a switch. He’s not the quiet, hurt, broken little boy he was just a day or two ago. When you look in his eyes, you’ll see what I mean. He’s… changed. There is a fire there.”
“I think you’re telling me he believes all this.”
“I think so. He said that it’s a bit of a relief, because until a few days ago, he was afraid he was going crazy.”
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.
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