June 14, 7:00 am
“Is it really necessary to do this interview in the rain?” Carla Grayson grumbled, glaring up at the sky from under the black umbrella. The worst of the early morning thunderstorm had passed, but there was still a light drizzle that could break into another full-blown downpour any minute. “Can’t we just go inside?”
“Authenticity, Carla,” Morgan Jensen said with a laugh. “There’s something about being interviewed in the rain outside that makes it feel more genuine to the viewer. It’s a bit of reporter trade craft.”
Carla sighed, but she was in no mood to argue.
Her phone had lit up just over an hour ago, while she was in transit to the precinct house. It was her sergeant, and what he had told her had been shocking—that Howard Gunderson, with the help of one of his guards, had broken out of the Matheson Courthouse. And most horribly, Howard had beaten the other guard to death on the way out the door.
None of it made any sense. She knew Officer Delgado, as well as Gonzales, the guard who had been killed. She considered them both good colleagues, if not friends. Delgado was a career guard and had been working at the Courthouse since it opened it in 2001. He was a bit of a grumpy cuss, but she couldn’t believe he’d help a prisoner escape, let alone stand by and watch as the boy beat the other guard to death with his own nightstick.
But she’d since seen the remains of the murdered guard and watched the surveillance tape. What it showed was horrifying in its clarity.
The camera had picked up the pair in the corridor. Delgado had escorted the boy out of the cell, without handcuffs, and the boy had used the taser on Gonzales, and then dragged him out from behind the desk. As Delgado stood watching, even clapping and dancing in a strangely childish way, Howard Gunderson had beaten the other guard to death with Delgado’s nightstick. She’d never seen a murder recorded in such vivid, horrifying detail, and she almost had to vomit after watching it. She prayed that bit of tape would never see the light of day.
When they were done with Gonzales, Delgado had cuffed the boy and marched him straight out of the building, past the security checkpoint. One final security camera in the parking lot had caught them tasering a beat cop and stealing his car. Luckily, that cop was okay, suffering mostly from a blow to the head.
The whole thing made Carla’s head spin, and not because of the violence, but because it simply made no sense. Although she now had to accept that Howard Gunderson was indeed a killer, something about it just felt impossible and unreal. Her mind kept trying to find some way to believe that it wasn’t really Howard. That it was an impostor. That some kind of mistake had been made.
But the tape didn’t lie.
Some kind of demon, the boy had told his mother…
That was a crazy thought, and she brushed it aside. She wished she could just go home, rather than having to talk to the reporter. But her sergeant had told her it was her responsibility to talk to the press and warn the public that Gunderson was on the loose. The boy’s case, which she had been told in no uncertain terms was no longer hers to worry about, was squarely back on her plate.
“Camera set, Stan?” the reporter asked the cameraman, bringing up the hand-held microphone. “Okay, Carla, tell me when you’re ready.”
Morgan Jensen was an old friend. She and Carla had known each other in both a professional and a personal capacity for years. Carla wished she could tell the reporter everything she knew, but for now, the department felt they had to keep most of the details of what had happened that morning at the courthouse close to the vest.
“I’m ready. Just… be kind,” Carla said, with a smile that felt so artificial she wondered if even Morgan could feel it.
“Okay. Stan, you rolling? I’ll count down from five. Ready? And Five, four, three, two, one…” The reporter’s professional expression blossomed across her face, as if it was a mask that she slipped on for the occasion. Carla marveled at how she could put on that veneer so easily and quickly.
“I’m here with Carla Grayson,” Morgan said, “a detective with the Salt Lake City Police Department, and the officer who has been working on the Howard Gunderson case since his arrest for the murder of Richard Pratt. Detective Grayson, what can you tell us about what happened here today?”
“Well, I’m afraid I can’t give out all the details at this time. But we need to let the public know that Howard Gunderson, the accused murderer of Richard Pratt, is no longer in the custody of the Salt Lake PD. He escaped from his holding cell at the Matheson Courthouse this morning at approximately 3:30 am, and is currently still at large.”
“Can you give us any more details? How did he escape?”
“All we’re prepared to say is that he was given assistance in his escape. I assure you, he didn’t just walk out of the building on his own.”
“Who assisted him?”
“I can’t answer that question at this time.”
“But how is this even possible, Detective? Howard Gunderson is an accused murderer and has shown a propensity for additional violence. We reported just a few days ago about his outburst during his hearing here at the courthouse. How could a suspect so violent be allowed to escape?”
“I assure you, he was not ‘allowed’ to escape. We’ll be able to provide details on how he accomplished the break in the near future. But please understand that this is still very early in our investigation. All we are able to tell you for now is that Howard Gunderson is at large, and we are asking the help of the public in finding him.”
“What can the general public do?”
“If any of your viewers sight Gunderson, it is vital that they do not approach him, as we believe he is armed, and should be considered dangerous and unpredictable. When he left the Courthouse, he was dressed in his orange prison issue clothing, and he may be wearing a dark blue SLPD jacket, stolen from the Courthouse.”
“How would he steal a jacket?”
“We’re not prepared to give those details at this time.”
“Was anyone injured in the escape?”
“Again, we’re not prepared to give additional details. But it is vitally important that everyone in the downtown Salt Lake area watch for him.”
“Is he on foot?”
Carla had seen on the parking lot surveillance tape that Howard and Delgado had left in the stolen cruiser. She also knew that Howard had dropped the taser, and Delgado had taken the nightstick. But there was always a chance that the two had split up after leaving.
“We simply don’t know. He may have had additional assistance after leaving the courthouse. So it is possible he has left the area. However, we also believe that Gunderson is a deeply troubled man, and it’s quite possible that he will remain in Salt Lake. There are many places in the city for him to hide, if he decides to do so.”
“Who would have given him assistance, Detective? Do you think there are others involved in this escape?”
“I’m sorry to keep repeating myself, but once again, that isn’t something we’re prepared to discuss at this time.”
“Thank you, Detective Grayson. From the Matheson Courthouse in downtown Salt Lake City, this is Morgan Jensen, reporting.” The reporter stared into the lens of the camera for the required three seconds, until the cameraman raised his right hand. Then she said, “And, okay, we’re clear.”
She lowered the hand-held microphone and turned to Carla.
“Okay, what’s up, Carla. You know that most of that made absolutely no fucking sense.”
“It made sense. As far as it went.”
“Which wasn’t very far. You’re not telling me everything you know. Probably not even half of what you know. Why not?”
“Just a bit of tradecraft,” Carla said, with a smile. “Come on, you know how this works, Morgan. We can’t tell you everything. We need to keep some of this close to the vest. And right now, all I was able to tell you was enough to put the public on alert. But I appreciate your willingness to rush this onto the air. Hopefully somebody will see something. When will that report be up?”
“They’re cutting it together at the studio as we speak. They’ll slip in some file pictures of Gunderson, and we’ll have it on the air in the next few minutes.”
“Thanks. I appreciate it. Now I’d better get back inside.”
“Wait, just a minute, Carla. I have one more thing I need to ask you about, if you’ll indulge me. It will only take a minute.”
Something about the reporter’s tone made Carla freeze in her tracks. The rain was falling harder now, and Morgan pulled her back under her umbrella by the elbow.
“What is it?” the Detective asked, her eyes narrowing.
“This may be something you already know, but it’s something that we just uncovered yesterday. I’ve been doing some interviews with people that knew Richard Pratt…”
“You’ve been what? I didn’t think you were still following this case.”
“And I didn’t think you were either, Detective. I guess neither of us can let it go. There are just too many weird things about it.”
Carla sighed. “You can say that again.”
“Anyway, I interviewed some colleagues of Richard Pratt from the University. And one of them told me something interesting. He said that Professor Pratt had been devastated, many years ago, after a young student of his committed suicide. The man didn’t say it outright, but it was clear that he believed Richard and the boy were lovers at the time.”
“No, I didn’t know that,” Carla said, intrigued. And why didn’t I know that? she thought with annoyance.
“Anyway, it got me to thinking. From what I could glean, this guy he was seeing was probably about the same age as Howard Gunderson. Probably a few years younger, even. Is there any way that Richard and Howard Gunderson could have been… intimately involved? Any chance that the murder was really some kind of lover’s quarrel? You know, older man, possessive of some young boy?”
Carla sighed. “Well, we considered that, as you can imagine. But there is no indication that was the case. As far as we can tell, there is no connection between Howard Gunderson and Richard Pratt. It appears to be a totally random crime.”
“Like a gang thing?”
Carla rolled her eyes. Not this again. “Yes, possibly. Who knows? As you said, it’s all very strange.”
Jensen’s eyes narrowed, and she watched her cameraman quickly packing his equipment to keep it out of the rain.
“Tell me, Carla… And be honest. This is off the record, at least for now. Do you think that Howard Gunderson is dangerous? Is the public at risk right now?”
Carla gritted her teeth. How could she answer that question? “Well, yeah. We have to consider him dangerous. He’s accused of murder.”
“I’m not asking about policy. I’m asking about your gut.”
Carla paused for a beat too long before answering, and she was sure that Morgan knew her well enough to sense she wasn’t giving her the whole truth.
“Yes. I believe he’s dangerous. I’m just worried that he’s going to get shot before we can bring him in.”
“You sound like you care about him.”
Carla wasn’t sure why, but she decided to be honest with the reporter. “Well, if this is off the record. Then yeah. I do. There is something very vulnerable and sad about him. Like he’s as confused by what is happening to him as the rest of us are. There are times when he just seems like a lost and scared kid.”
When Morgan just kept looking at her, expecting more, Carla finally asked, “Are you going to report what you learned? About the boy from years ago?”
“No. It would be irresponsible to report something like that without some sort of corroboration, or proof that there is some kind of link. And so far, we haven’t been able to find any. But I plan to keep looking.”
“I know you will,” Carla said with a smile. “You’re the best at what you do.”
“Yeah? Well, sometimes I think what I do sucks,” the reporter said, with genuine disgust in her voice.
“Why?” Carla asked, seriously concerned about her friend’s sudden change of heart.
“Because something weird is happening in this city.” Morgan’s voice was suddenly low and conspiratorial, as if she was afraid of being overheard. “You have to be feeling it too. It’s not just that there has been so much violence these past few weeks. I’m a hard-nosed reporter, and I can cover pretty much anything this city throws at me. But there is something else going on, and it scares me. It’s the first time in my years as a reporter that I’ve actually been afraid to go out on assignment. It’s like something is out of balance right now, and like it could all spin out of control any second.”
Carla knew exactly what her friend was talking about. She’d felt it too. But she had been discounting it as just nerves, or being overworked. “I think we’re just both putting in too many hours, Morgan.”
She could feel the other woman’s eyes on her, as if they were trying to pierce through her defenses. And it made her squirm.
“Now I really have to go,” Carla said, with a forced smile. “I’ll stay in touch, especially if we need to put out any more bulletins.”
“I appreciate that. Thanks, Detective. And good luck.”
On her way back to the front doors of the courthouse, Carla looked out into the rain. What Morgan had said to her was rattling around in her brain, looking for a way out. Yes, something did indeed seem very out of balance in Salt Lake City.
Howard, where are you?
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.
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Copyright 2021, Wess Mongo Jolley. All rights reserved.