By: T. Peer
D. C. Damen entered his detective section beneath the proclamation, Our day begins when your day ends. Beyond a rather pragmatic occupational dictum the homicides, suicides, and accidents stuffed a macabre party pack with the hostility, futility, and stupidity the detective termed the meat inspection of his profession. And despite the vengeful motives, desperate circumstances, or distracting conditions that contributed to the mess, the route to ruin never justified the result.
Accidents were the worst. Where homicides and suicides furnish investigators a secure crime scene, accidents leave little more than a police report or a mangled body beyond an accurate cause of death. Having recognized that not all evidence was always evident, Damen assumed every car wreak, overdose, or workplace fatality hid a superbly executed murder in the guise of an accident. Accordingly, he rarely knew what he was looking for—till he found it.
In the winter of 1969, the Chicago Police Department retained two retired homicide detectives as mentors for prospective investigators. Lieutenants D. C. Damen and Charlie Whitehead, alias the Clinch Brothers, collectively put 78 years behind a badge and 706 convictions before a court. Although the pair maintained the optimal prospects came from the patrol ranks, potential candidates were eligible from every division within the Department.
Tanya Nicole Thomas, a k a TNT, applied from Community Services. A creditable aspirant, she made sergeant in four years, earned a law degree, and attained the Department’s highest lieutenant-selection score on record.
Damen found the woman in the officers’ ready room absorbed in the file of Tobi Clarkson. Having either corroborated or confuted Clarkson’s assertion that he accidentally shot his wife of 42 years, Lieutenant Thomas had composed a timeline scaled to the probable events of occurrence. These “dot plots” supposedly identified those key elements of a crime that even experienced investigators typically overlooked. As Damen, by his own admission, “typically” never missed anything, he did not follow the dots.
A tall but unimposing figure, Damen’s 68 years and two-pack-a-day habit bore testament that his age and profession caught up with him. The long hours and late nights cut some deep lines in his black hide. The bulging orbits of his roving eyes and skeletal protrusions of his sunken cheeks imparted a starving urgency to a never nourished expression. No relief, this latest case just gave that grim face a darker shade of the same imperative.
Husbands have accidentally shot wives loading firearms, cleaning firearms, and even teaching firearms. Shooting a wife during an attempted suicide, however, was pushing the possibility to the limits of plausibility. At the onset, this so-called “accident” already failed the detective’s common-sense test.
“Innocent by accident?” Damen asked his understudy as he removed a battered chair from under a matching table. When he sat down, both the detective and the seat creaked.
Lieutenant Thomas lifted her eyes from the responding officer’s incident report. She refocused and leaned into her words. “It’s a reach. If an accident, it’s too preposterous. If a murder made to look like an accident, it’s too presumptuous.”
Having removed his hat, Damen exposed a full top of silver bristle. From a coat pocket he next removed a stack of colored index cards. “Let’s pretend we’re defending this guy from twenty-five years at Club Fed. To that end, what is and what isn’t tenable?”
A petite woman of high, pronounced cheekbones, shimmering hazel eyes and a meltdown smile, Lieutenant Thomas did not fit Damen’s image of a street-hardened detective. Because she wasn’t. She more resembled one of those sculptured Tinkerbelles that flutter around some sales counter where a customer didn’t care what she was selling just to say sold.
“No witnesses,” she offered.
“Got it,” Damen concurred, waving a white index card identifying the same.
“Also, there is no motive, prior convictions, or evidence of any marital deception.”
Charlie Whitehead crept into the room, smiled, and slid onto a chair between Damen and Lieutenant Thomas. Charlie’s slight, cane-thin frame wore his years. A pair of distended cheekbones bridged a cleft of protruding jaw lending an emaciated affect to his drawn and hollow face. If his facial topography revealed he did not eat, the optical proof laid bare he had not slept. Both sunken orbs displayed a red sea of bloodshot overload. Above his eyes, two wings of white hair clinging his bald head resembled two snowbanks lining a plowed highway. In the middle of the blacktop, a dull glow reflected the afternoon sun. Given a chance he asked Damen, “You tell her about our routine?”
Damen grinned, then explained, “Lieutenant Whitehead is referring to our interrogation technique.” The detective put down his index cards and lit a cigarette. “Because a subject’s credibility removes all uncertainty, we want him unaware of where he is that he slips any cover of where he was.”
Damen continued. “Lieutenant Whitehead begins our questioning by first distracting a subject with chit-chat, banter with whatever I’m doing, or airing some personal gripe—of which he has plenty. Our subject then oblivious to his gestures and speech when relaxed and telling the truth, he unwittingly provides us a benchmark if he’s rattled and lying like hell.”
Damen held up a blank, pink index card. “Noting any irregularities on a pink card, we score the subject per our results. Making our determination from our observations, we then either absolve him of or charge him for the crime.”
Charlie nodded and added, “The straight stuff or a pair of cuffs.”
Damen snapped a finger at the pink card. “We want his guard down so if deceiving us, he deceives himself.”
Lieutenant Thomas wondered aloud, “Do you ever run out of pink cards?”
Damen acknowledged his partner with a wink. “Although we’d welcome the outcome, we usually run out of the `beyond a reasonable doubt’ long before a place to put it.”
“Following the fooling around, we subsequently drill down to the bedrock of our investigation, and if a subject is hiding something—as clear as Pinocchio’s nose—we find it.”
“Then you charge him?”
“We pretty it up some before running our findings by a state prosecutor and our district commander,” Damen predicted the next step; “save for getting a confession.”
Charlie pumped a thumb straight up. “A-men, bro.”
They found Tobi Clarkson checking his watch and pacing a corridor. Damen and Charlie expected as much. Playing the part, the two detectives always arrive ten minutes late. By design, the pair believed that an overdue arrival veiled an interview more as a last-minute formality than an intense interrogation.
The ten-by-ten-foot windowless conference room contained a vinyl-topped table, four chairs in the same sick pink, and a puke-green wall phone with a broken cradle. Atop the table were two overflowing ash trays and a pencil missing an eraser.
“Sorry, man. They told us downstairs, then upstairs, then down the hall,” Charlie purported with a laugh. He promptly followed the faked excuse with the introductions, handshakes, and directions to the restroom.
Damen closed the door, laid a one-inch-thick folder on the table, and next wrapped an arm around Clarkson. “Our sincere sympathies for the loss of your wife.”
The man said nothing and pulled out a chair. The detectives joined him.
Tobi Clarkson spilled over his side of the table. A hulking 400-pound behemoth, the mountain of a man exemplified an emblematic centerpiece for an all-you-can-eat timeshare. Even sitting down, he towered a foot over the detectives. Above the collar of his thick jacket a thicker canopy of white restless hair shot everywhere. The craggy lines of his wind-burnt face exposed that whatever he did for a living it was outside, all weather, and brutal.
Damen began with an explanation. “We want to apologize for dragging this out. Normally, we’re finished in a week. Our lab is a month behind. As a result, we’re a month late.” The detective opened the file. “Although you are not charged with a crime, you are always referred to in the material here as `the suspect’. Understandably, the wording is incriminating and I’m sorry. I don’t like it. I have no control over the language or the format, and nobody would listen to Dopey in the diamond mine even if I did.”
“In our lexicon, we just calling you the subject,” Charlie remarked.
“The purpose of this interview is to establish the facts,” Damen informed the subject. “Because you are not on trial and under oath, you do not have to answer every question.” The detective next established a fact. “Refusing to answer a question, however, does risk drawing the attention of the state’s attorney’s office.” He turned and faced the man. “Consequently, we recommend you answer all of our questions.”
Charlie lit a cigarette. “What do you do, man?”
Clarkson pulled an ash tray his way. In finding and getting a cigarette lit, he stared straight at the detective. “I work in the mills.”
Charlie began trembling to the appearance of a seizure. “Whoa! Whoa!”
Damen settled the concerns of Lieutenant Thomas and the subject when he interpreted Charlie’s spasmatic attack as a preexisting condition. “Lieutenant Whitehead’s father stoked a coke oven for forty years.”
Clarkson shook his head while garbling his words through a claw of scarred and calloused fingers. He translated, “No different than making nitroglycerin with a hand grenade. When pushing that coke, even the rats scatter.”
“My daddy always said that if a stove be poppin’ you best be hoppin’.”
Clarkson’s laugh shook the table, the three detectives, and the four walls. “They say when a coker dies, he goes straight to heaven—because he spent his hell on earth.”
“Nolo contendere,” Charlie pleaded with his hands up.
Damen took some notes, removed a drawing from the folder, and laid it before the subject. “Mister Clarkson, we have here a layout of your bedroom at the time of the accident. Do you agree with this rendition? Is it accurate?”
Before the subject took a breath, another question derailed him. Charlie, upon removing a vehicle registration from the folder, questioned, “You gotta’ Nineteen-Forty-Eight Pontiac Torpedo Eight?”
Clarkson’s focus withdrew from the drawing. “Huh?” he grunted, his thoughts shifted from the bedroom to the interruption. “What do you mean?”
“You still own this Forty-Eight Pontiac?”
Another tremor of laughter rocked the room. “I don’t own that car,” the subject confessed, his face consumed by a full-tooth grin; “that car owns me.” Having almost swallowed his cigarette, he inhaled and reloaded. “She’s my Mona Lisa in steel,” he cooed; “and with that silver-streak straight-eight, wide whites, and windshield visor she’s really a Streamliner Deluxe.”
“That fastback coupe?”
Clarkson wallowed in his chair boasting, “Yeah, that one.”
“Now that’s a big deal automobile,” Charlie raved, his arms waving and his fingers snapping. “Stomp on that engine and your neck be sore for a week.”
“Your bedroom?” Damen reminded the subject, a finger pointed to the drawing.
Clarkson, having returned to his bedroom, his head bobbed in tune to a melody he accompanied with a thumb. Damen watched the subject’s finger trace a dashed line the crime lab had inked from an adjoining bathroom to a queen bed. The detective lit a cigarette with the presumption he might finish the pack before the subject’s finger completed its journey—six times.
“You like open-casket funerals?” Charlie asked Damen.
“I don’t like any kind of funeral—open or closed.”
“I told my wife that when I die I wanna’ be cremated for an open-ern funeral. Now, how about that?”
“What if you’re mistaken for an ashtray?”
“What I care? I probably like a last smoke.”
“And what’s your wife supposed to do with your ashes?”
“Oh, I already told her to put `em in the trunk of her car. That way if she ever gets stuck in the snow, I can still help.”
Damen tilted an ear to hear what he thought he heard. “You what? You want her to throw you under her car?”
“I didn’t put it like that, but that’s what I meant.”
“Man, given a deal like that she may not wait till you dead.”
Clarkson fell back in his chair, flung his arms up, and questioned Lieutenant Thomas, “Who are these clowns?”
The woman smiled.
“Don’t fill that out,” Charlie alerted his partner, a hand pointed to a canary yellow form of heavy card stock. “That’s Records’ job, and if they ain’t doing it, why we doing it?”
Damen hesitated but kept writing. “You’re just taking a shortcut to nowhere. If this isn’t filled out here, how will Records know where to file the file there?”
Charlie jumped from his seat. “Then why we don’t go downstairs and file it for them, huh? They’d like that. Just how they like taking ten minutes telling us why they can’t do a five-minute something else.”
Forewarned, Lieutenant Thomas saw Charlie’s antics an act. In reality, the form under debate was an innocuous and obsolete Facilities Service Request. For Lieutenant Thomas, enjoying the show, Charlie’s dramatics brought Saturday morning television to a Tuesday afternoon. And the man did not quit.
“You know, my Daddy used Coca-Cola to loosen the bolts on his Fifty-Six Studebaker.”
Damen completed half the card to what Lieutenant Thomas recognized as the recorded profile of Clarkson telling the truth. When the detective dropped his pen and stretched his sore fingers, he countered, “A Fifty-Six Studebaker? I doubt that.”
“Why you say that?”
“Because I had a Fifty-Six Studebaker, and the bolts were already loose.”
Charlie grabbed the yellow card and squinted the print. “Lemme’ see what you got here?” When he finished reading what Damen wrote, he ragged, “All this gonna’ do is confuse `em more than they already are.” He subsequently added two lines of his own before he handed the card back.
The woman knew. The jokes were over. It was showtime.
Charlie fired first, another cigarette hitting his lips. “Where’d the gun come from?”
Clarkson, caught unaware, gawked Lieutenant Whitehead with a dazed look. A leg bounced while he mindlessly zipped and unzipped his jacket. He repeated the question twice before responding, “It belonged to a guy at work.”
“In the file here,” Damen referenced the Records Report, “the serial number on the Chicago Firearms Permit is registered to a Mister Bernard Elston.”
“Yeah, Bernie. We work together.”
“Did Mister Elston give you the revolver?”
“Yeah, kinda’, sorta’ something like that.”
“When did you receive it?”
The detective sighed, then asked, “When did Mister Elston give you the revolver?”
Clarkson shrugged his shoulders, ran his fingers through his hair, and sent his eyes roaming the room. “Hell, I dunno’, maybe a couple years ago,” he guessed as he studied the three expressions for a reaction to his response.
Damen repackaged the question. “So, how did you obtain the revolver from Mister Elston?”
After a distracting spell of whisker grating and spontaneous head scratching, Clarkson again shrugged. “You know, I really don’t remember.”
Damen, on a whisper, advised, “This is a significant detail a state prosecutor will birddog at trial. It implicates your coworker because he is the legal owner of a possible murder weapon. I’m sorry, for the record, we must know how you acquired this revolver.”
The subject’s crumpled expression and zip-tight lips betrayed him. Having rubbed his eyes as if the lights were suddenly too bright, he struggled through what appeared a painful admission. “Frankly, my buddy made good on a bet with the gun, if you gotta’ know.”
Damen mulled a thought before he scribbled a line on a pink card. “While the transfer of possession isn’t within the letter of Illinois law, provided the weapon isn’t stolen it isn’t an issue.” The detective cleared his throat before clarifying, “Technically though the revolver is still the property of Mister Elston.”
Clarkson brought his immense hands together with a resounding pop. “Fair enough.”
Under the table, Charlie knuckled the chair of Lieutenant Thomas, clickety-clicked his pen, and filled both sides of a pink card.
“Please excuse me for a moment,” Damen announced, rose from his chair, and walked over to the wall phone. Five minutes later, a uniformed police tech entered the room with a metal evidence box. Damen thanked the woman, unlocked the box, and removed a .38 caliber snub-nose revolver. He opened the cylinder, rotated the empty chambers, and cocked the hammer. He offered the revolver to Clarkson directing, “Please close the cylinder.”
Clarkson, cradling the gun in his huge hands, pointed the barrel up and to the head of Lieutenant Thomas. The woman reflexively slid from the line of fire.
Charlie focused on the subject’s stiff and uncertain movements. He observed a man who exhibited no more familiarity with a handgun than a pig’s foot.
The subject’s attempt at closing the cylinder went nowhere. The strain shown in his face followed the force of his left thumb until the revolver slipped from his grip, hit the table, and released the hammer. As a consequence, the cylinder snapped in place with a sharp, metallic click.
Damen explained that the pulled-back hammer prevented the cylinder’s initial release. The subject neither admitted he knew as much nor explained why he didn’t.
Charlie jumped on the incompetent performance. “They say when you make detective you go to plain clothes and snub nose. That said, your hand knows a snubbie better than your hand knows a handshake.”
“Do you recall the cartridge in the firing chamber the evening of the accident?” Damen asked the man.
A lower lip protruded ahead of the subject’s delayed response. “I guess I used whatever came with the gun.”
“A firearm rarely comes loaded, giving the shooter the option of choosing a round,” Damen enlightened him. “Our lab has since identified the round as a Thirty-Eight Special plus-P.”
“You ever fire this gun before?” Charlie aimed his question at a pink index card.
A pause preceded the subject’s reply, “Not really.”
“Please open the cylinder,” Damen directed, his attention to the enormous paws of the man.
Clarkson fought the revolver. He thumbed the cylinder first from the right then from the left before, and probably by accident, compressing the spring release. When the cylinder flung open, none of the gathered appeared more startled than him.
On a pink index card, Damen recorded clumsy and careless in lieu of “uninitiated”. He then read what he wrote, nodded an improvement, and underlined both words.
“Mister Clarkson, our lab determined that the impressions on the bullet removed from the victim’s parietal lobe matched the stria from the bore of this revolver.” He retrieved the lab report. “As such, we are certain this was the revolver used in your bedroom the night of the accident.” Damen gulped a quick breath. “Do you agree?”
“Mister Clarkson,” Damen began in a low voice while placing a hand on the right arm of the subject. “While we understand that a reenactment of the accident is uncomfortable for you, can you please position this revolver exactly as before your wife’s attempt to pull it from your grasp.”
Clarkson lifted the revolver. In his twitching right hand the weapon weighed 25 pounds. He swallowed as he brought the barrel within an inch of his right temple.
Damen raised a brow prior to questioning, “Mister Clarkson, are you certain that you have replicated your precise pose to the best of your recollection?”
Clarkson, a line of sweat above his upper lip, nodded.
“Shouldn’t you first close the cylinder and cock the hammer?”
The man wagged his head before he lowered the revolver, closed the cylinder, and pulled back the hammer. Having returned the barrel to his temple, he exposed the next discrepancy.
Damen didn’t miss the miss. “Shouldn’t you curl your index finger through the trigger guard?”
The subject wagged his head again, lowered the gun again, and squirmed the index finger of his right hand through the trigger guard. Along the way, Damen confirmed his suspicion of a tight fit. As Clarkson brought the revolver to his temple the third time, the hammer struck the firing chamber.
Damen requested, “Please try again.”
The subject’s fourth attempt produced an identical result. Finally, after five tries, he succeeded with the weapon to his temple with the cylinder closed, the hammer back, and the trigger under his finger.
Lieutenant Thomas discerned that despite the achievement the subject continued sweating—or possibly melting.
“Please continue holding the revolver in place,” Damen instructed him, “while I share a short section of the responding officer’s incident report from the night of the crime.”
Lieutenant Thomas visibly recoiled. Either by intent or by mistake Damen just elevated the accident to a crime.
Damen read from the file. “The suspect, seated at the end of the bed while his wife took a shower, aimed the pistol to his right temple. Upon his wife exiting the bathroom, she saw the suspect about to take his life. In trying to wrest the pistol from the suspect’s grip, she accidentally discharged the fatal round.” Damen laid the report before the subject. “The officer here refers to a pistol though technically I prefer calling it a revolver,” he corrected a minor detail. “Despite that, you signed it.”
“Is that correct, man?” Charlie probed. “Is that what happened?”
When Clarkson nodded, the revolver’s hammer released.
Damen stifled a reaction before he assured the subject, “That’s fine. Please continue holding the revolver, hammer down, to your right temple.”
Dame pushed back his chair. “Mister Clarkson, I shall now portray the victim leaving the adjoining bathroom of your bedroom.” The detective, out of his chair, walked up behind and to the left of the subject. He next leaned around the subject’s face to a point where he nearly lost his balance and gripped the revolver with his left hand.
Clarkson’s escalated breathing conveyed more alarm than confusion.
Damen defended his contortions. “My rather exaggerated position is necessary for a right-handed, short, and frantic person to pull this revolver from your right temple with her non-dominant left hand.”
“We phoned your wife’s sister,” Charlie informed Clarkson, “to confirm the victim was right-handed. The autopsy identified she was short, and we just presumed she was frantic.”
“You talked to her sister?” Clarkson growled, his voice raised and the bulk of his body up and off his chair. “She don’t know nuttin’.”
“She knew your wife was right-handed.”
“Was your wife right-handed?” Damen asked.
“Yeah, she is—was.”
“Our lab lifted only your wife’s left fingerprints. A bit unusual, you agree?”
The subject, snapping his watchband against his wrist, didn’t answer.
“Mister Clarkson?” Damen pressed.
“I can’t answer that.”
“I understand,” Damen concurred.
A broad toothy grin and balloon-pop hand-clap preceded the subject’s anticipated, “Fair enough.”
Damen returned to the folder. “During an investigation,” he described to Clarkson, “our homicide section performs background checks on victims. And, so-doing, found an unpurchased ophthalmic prescription prepared for your wife prior to the accident.”
The detectives waited for a response.
“Mister Clarkson,” Damen persisted, “were you aware of this prescription?”
Clarkson chewed a thumbnail while recalling, “Yeah, I guess I forgot to pick it up.”
“Is the medication very expensive?” Damen asked.
The man squirmed in his chair. “I dunno’. Not really. Yeah, I guess.”
“About eighty dollars?”
Damen again went to a whisper. “This is incriminating if knowing beforehand your wife wouldn’t need this medication.”
Between zip-quick and a hurry, Clarkson’s eyes hit high-beam. “What are you saying?”
“For now, I am saying that was my last question,” Damen quipped, head down and pen a blur over a pink card. “Charlie?”
Charlie pushed back his chair, stood up, and straightened his suit jacket. With a skip in his step, he sauntered over to the subject. “You know, I just love Thirty-Eight Special plus-P rounds. You know why that is, man? Because the powder mix behind those cannonballs leaves a residue that makes our job almost too easy. When you blast one of them caps off, all kinda’ crap blows all over the place. I mean bits of lead, nitrite, barium, antimony, copper, tin, charcoal, iron oxide go up to five feet away.” Charlie laughed. “A morgue guy once told me that when those bullets pop the combustion leaves behind everything but a tape measure.” The detective hovered over the subject. “So, Mister Clarkson, how many feet do you recall your wife was from this gun when it fired?”
The response was known before Clarkson even knew it. “I don’t have to answer that.”
Charlie smiled. “That’s cool. And it don’t matter none because the medical examiner found zero debris on the victim. Hence, right there, we have a distance of at least five feet.”
Charlie feigned the cast of an imaginary fly rod behind the subject. “Now, your wife’s left arm measured twenty-one inches to the fingertips, and even with her head and her spine bent back to the max that adds only twelve inches for just thirty-three inches.” Charlie plied his fishing pole for a strike. “So, with over two feet missing we talking a bit different scenario than your wife just grabbing this gun for an accidental ka-boom.” Charlie, feeling a bite, set the hook. “Consequently, was there just a remote possibility your wife never touched this gun at all?”
Charlie let him ponder the possibility, allowing more than enough time for an assumed yes-no answer.
“Hey! What’s going on here?” Clarkson snapped, a defensive tone riding his voice. “You trying to trick me to admitting doing something I didn’t do?”
Charlie eyed Damen, then Lieutenant Thomas. He caught his fish. “Now why you say ‘admitting’?”
The man didn’t look at anybody or anything. He just stared space. “It’s just a word.”
“Mister Clarkson,” Damen interjected, “detectives are wired for words. In my experience, personal pronouns and past participles in the account of a crime rank as crucial to a conviction as fingerprints and smoking guns. Suspects of abductions have incriminated themselves merely by the use of the past tense in referring to a missing victim.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant Damen,” Charlie acknowledged the timely defense. “Now Mister Clarkson, if the victim grabbed something other than this gun—say your leg or your foot, could this gun have accidentally fired?”
Clarkson’s head wagged while he weighed the possibility. “If it could, it didn’t.”
The silence that followed hit the floor, and on the way—could have broken a foot.
“Whoa. Hold up, man. What you saying don’t jibe. How you be so sure this gun only accidentally fires if a victim grabs it?” Charlie queried, a quizzical clutch of his chin behind the question. “Unless it never `accidentally’ fired at all.”
The subject, without a word, folded his arms.
Charlie picked up the revolver, pulled the hammer back, and wrapped the index finger of his right hand around the trigger. He shook his right hand for 15 seconds. The hammer did not fall. “So, let’s begin with how your wife’s left fingerprints were found on the barrel of this gun if it was at least five feet away.” His right index finger went up and scored this fact. “Then how her left arm grew two feet when she grabbed it.” A second finger joined the index finger. “And finally, how I vigorously shook this gun that did not release its hammer opposed to you unintentionally releasing it three times.” Charlie, with three fingers up, flipped his hand around and confirmed he hadn’t miscounted. “Man, I am holding three strikes against what you saying, and what’s obvious to everyone in this room—including you.” Charlie bent down and into the face of the subject. “Mister Clarkson, I hereby contend that you did not shoot your wife.” Charlie walked around to the other side of the man. “I further contend that had your wife grabbed this gun, your arm, your leg, your foot—you would have whacked your own ass dead.”
Before Charlie returned to his chair, Damen asked, “You spare any pink cards?”
Charlie sat down and surrendered the whole deck. “Keep it.”
“That’s not what happened,” Clarkson roared. “You’re forgetting I was there.”
Charlie, old-school cool, sat as unfazed as though he were never anywhere.
“Mister Clarkson,” Damen reminded the man, “although we were not there, we are now here to determine your culpability from your account of what occurred because you were there.”
“Assuming you `were’ there,” Charlie surmised with a roll of his eyes.
Both detectives turned in their chairs, looked at Charlie, and bit their lips.
“Lieutenant Thomas?” Damen addressed the woman. “Your observations, please.”
Minus the index cards, Lieutenant Thomas recorded a half-page of questions. “Thank you.”
The woman stood but stayed with her chair. “Mister Clarkson, I assume you were dealing with some severe financial or emotional issues that contributed to your attempted suicide. As a result, had you discussed your feelings with a doctor or a therapist?”
Clarkson pulled out his cigarettes, lit one of the two that tumbled to the table, and crushed the pack still half-full. “I was depressed. I didn’t talk to anybody about it. I thought I could deal with it.” He took a hurried drag and a faster breath. “At the time, I didn’t think it was serious.”
Charlie spun around in his chair—twice. “Now, I ain’t no doctor, but in a state of mind to blowing your brains out kinda’ buries that ol’ needle on the serious meter.”
Lieutenant Thomas did not smile her words. “Lieutenant—please!”
“Mister Clarkson,” the woman resumed, “had you been drinking at the time of the accident?”
The subject pulled his feet from under the table to under his chair. “Why?”
Lieutenant Thomas raised a prospect as she lowered her voice, “Well, taking a firearm to bed is a bit darker than taking a book to bed. Perhaps you needed some courage.”
He waved it away. “I knew what I was doing.”
“Very well,” she said, and checked off the question. “Had you and your wife quarreled before the accident?”
The subject turned toward the woman. “How the hell is that related to this?”
A calm and distinct voice began as she explained, “After seven years with the Department’s Outreach to the Streets, never once had I counseled a family member of a domestic dispute where a quarrel had not precipitated violence.”
The subject, raising his shoulders with his voice, followed his words behind a pointed finger. “There was no quarrel, no dispute, and no violence.”
“Your attempted suicide?”
“How is a suicide violent?”
Charlie had another seizure. “Man, I’d hope you were way-passed the bottom of the bottle before concluding suicides ain’t violent.”
“Thank . . . you . . . Lieutenant Whitehead,” the woman ground her words through clenched teeth.
“Mister Clarkson,” Damen clarified, “there was no evidence you quarreled with your wife prior to the accident. Lieutenant Thomas is merely seeking a motive for your alleged, failed suicide.”
The woman did not expect such a glaring insinuation from the detective. Nonetheless, she valued the backup. “Thank you, Lieutenant Damen.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant Damen,” Charlie echoed.
“Mister Clarkson, does your wife always shower in the evening?”
“Before her shift at the post office—yeah.”
“And washes her hair while showering?”
The subject shook his head. “I don’t know where you’re headed, but when my wife takes a shower, she always washes her hair.”
“So, your wife took a shower, washed her hair, dried her hair, dressed, and put on her makeup all during the time she was in the bathroom?”
The man pulled a long draw on his cigarette, searched the ceiling of the room, and muttered, “In addition to what you normally do in a bathroom.”
“Say, thirty minutes?”
“Yeah, a half-hour usually.”
“Mister Clarkson, besides the medical examiner’s report, per a neighbor’s cooperation with the police a Miss Ruth Grossman reported she heard what sounded like a gunshot about a minute into a six o’clock news program.”
His shoulders fell and his voice followed. “What does that nosey old Jew know?”
Lieutenant Thomas looked at Charlie and a recurring pattern. “Well, we know she heard what corresponded with what you told the responding officer and with the findings of a board-certified medical examiner. Do you agree?”
He shrugged. “Yeah, that’d be about right.”
Lieutenant Thomas puckered her lips before suggesting, “So, if you agree with the time on that date, would you likewise agree that the sun had already set?”
The man thought it over before throwing his hands up. “Yeah. I suppose.”
“So, Mister Clarkson,” she whispered, “how did the victim—your wife—leave your bathroom and see this revolver on the other side of your head, twenty feet away, in the dark?”
Clarkson nodded the question, snapped his watchband twice, and answered, “It’s not that hard, honey. The light was on.”
“The bedroom light,” Damen interrupted, “was probably off.” He referenced the file. “Per your signature having confirmed the responding officer’s incident report, you related that you were in the bedroom when your wife entered the bathroom. You further established that while still in the bedroom when your wife re-entered from the bathroom, she saw you about to take your life.” The detective faced the man with the facts. “If what you signed here was what occurred there, you sat alone on that bed harboring only your thoughts and a loaded revolver for a full thirty minutes.” Damen backed away but kept pushing. “Unless you needed a light to find the right side of your head, the darkest thirty minutes of your life probably began reasonably bright.”
“Mister Clarkson,” Lieutenant Thomas pressed, “was your bedroom light on or off?”
Clarkson straightened in his chair. “Okay,” he huffed; “I missed something. When she came out of the john, she turned the light on. So, I didn’t report it. What’s the big deal?”
The woman reached over and tapped the single light switch on the drawing at the entrance to the bedroom from an outside hall. “Having left the bathroom, your wife could have only switched the light on here, at this location, passed you and the revolver.” She hesitated before speculating, “Now, in the dark, there is the possibility, I suppose, she didn’t see you.”
Clarkson followed the woman’s finger to the switch. Lacking either an opposing or a convincing challenge, he could not dispute her conclusion. The resulting lull lasted long enough for a reply.
“Does she take a shower with a flashlight?” Charlie questioned.
“Was there enough indirect light from the bathroom that the victim could have seen you on the bed?” Damen proposed.
“Yeah, and bright enough to see a gun through your head, twenty feet away?” Charlie surmised a final possibility.
The detectives, mum and motionless, witnessed the subject shrink before them. Lieutenant Thomas pitied the man. Damen and Charlie were no pity.
“I-I need to go to the restroom.”
“Out the door, to the left, and down the hall to the right,” Damen directed him.
During the subject’s absence, Charlie made a call on the wall phone. On his return to his chair, he patted his partner’s shoulder. Upon taking his seat, he pounded the table and yelled, “Yeah, baby!”
Damen tossed his pink cards across the table. When Lieutenant Thomas caught them, he congratulated her, “Nice catch, sister.”
Charlie added, “You gotta’ believe that the more eyes be looking at something, the more somethings those eyes gonna’ see.”
Fifteen minutes later, three men emerged from the hall. Between two large patrolmen, the subject stood with his jacket zipped, his collar up, and his head down.
Damen pulled out the man’s chair. “Mister Clarkson, please have a seat.” When the subject complied, his chin fell to his chest.
“We are now leaving you alone for ten minutes. During this time, we want you to consider the consequence of your actions—your wife, your guilt, your fate.” When Damen rose from his chair, he extended his appreciation. “On behalf of Lieutenant Thomas and Lieutenant Whitehead, I thank you for your cooperation.”
Lieutenant Thomas left the room but not the crime. To what end, she wondered, was murder ever an option. An inner voice asked what drives a reasonable person to the unreasonable? She grasped our moral frailty, and the reality terrified her. And why Homicide? The days were long, the crimes cruel, and the price a life. In time, she trusted she’d eventually harden to the deception, the desperateness, and the destruction. Yet, she likewise knew she’d never resign herself to the mistakes people make.
# Having turned state’s evidence in exchange for leniency, Tobi Clarkson incriminated his coworker, Bernard Elston. Elston, to whom Clarkson contracted a murder for hire, received a life sentence. Clarkson’s sentence was thereby reduced to ten years. No matter, both men died behind bars.