First Friday fiction: Alibi or Lie?

For the next few months, I’ll be posting original, unpublished short stories on the first Friday of the month. Reproduction of any of these stories, or any part thereof, without permission of the author is prohibited.

Officer Kowalski sighed. With the back of his left hand, he rubbed his forehead, just above his eyebrows, “Bring him back to the desk,” he said. Kowalski would have preferred to have said, “Show him to my office,” but he had no office. All he had was a desk, surrounded by other desks, in the middle of a busy police station.

Kowalski would get an office with his next promotion. It would have glass walls rising from the floor to stop four feet below the ceiling, but at least it would be an office. Kowalski deserved that promotion. Everyone in the force knew it. His superiors had told him so several times. Barring a tragedy that he wouldn’t wish upon anyone in the force, Kowalski would have to wait at least three years for a position above him to become available. The City of Memphis had its share of turnover in the police ranks, but mostly turnover happened at the lower levels. Officers with Kowalski’s amount of skill and experience tend to stay at their jobs for as long as they can. No private job will offer them the same benefits, both material and emotional, that they find in big-city police work.

Casey led the witness to Kowalski’s desk. Pretending to study paperwork, Kowalski had a few seconds to measure the man. He was of average height, very well dressed, with pitch-black stylish hair. For a second Kowalski thought that the man was wearing make-up. Then he realized that the witness merely had sharply-defined features, including dark deep-set eyes and lips that, at first glance, seemed to have been painted. Kowalski caught the scent of cologne. He noticed the expensive watch on the left wrist, and he also observed that neither hand sported any rings.

Kowalski stood and shook the man’s hand. “Mr. Haven?” he asked. The man nodded. “May I call you Tom?” Another nod. “Please have a seat, Tom,” Kowalski said. Haven’s hands shook slightly. Kowalski knew that Haven was nervous, but that fact did not mean anything. Most citizens are unnerved by their first visit to a police station. He had come in on his own, though, not as a suspect. He said he had important evidence about a murder that had happened just a few hours earlier.

Kowalski was the investigator covering the case. He hoped that Haven’s statement was going to make the case easier to solve, but he doubted that would happen. In all his years of investigating crimes, Kowalski had secretly formed a rule based on Murphy’s Law—that bit of folklore which says that if anything can go wrong, it will go wrong. Kowalski’s Corollary says that every new piece of evidence makes an investigation harder to solve.

Still, Haven was a witness and not a suspect—not yet, anyhow. Kowalski smiled, hoping to put Haven at ease, and then he gently said, “What did you want to tell me, Tom?”

“I’m here about the murder of Brad Greene,” Haven said. “You’re the one who’s looking into that, aren’t you?” This time Kowalski nodded. “Well, Jess phoned me at work and said that you’re keeping her at the station as a suspect in the murder. I’m here to tell you that she couldn’t have done it. She was with me all of last night.”

Involuntarily, Kowalski raised his eyebrows in surprise. Brad Greene had died some time between midnight and six a.m. The coroner was likely to give a more precise time of death after further study. Greene had been murdered in his own home, on Poplar Street—not in the rough part of town, but further south, where things generally were quiet. Naturally, Brad’s wife was the first person the police had wanted to question. Two officers had gone to her office downtown and had driven her to the station. Kowalski had already questioned her that morning. She acted stunned by the news of her husband’s death. She had insisted that she had not been home at all last night, but then she had held back from saying where she had spent the night.

Her reluctance to answer that one important question was the principal reason Kowalski had decided to keep her detained for further questioning. He had not yet charged her with the murder of her husband, but the paperwork was already started on his desktop computer. Narrowing his eyes, Kowalski peered across the desk at Haven and asked, “What time did Ms. Greene phoned you at work?”

Haven looked at his watch. “I guess it was about twenty minutes ago,” he said. Kowalski grunted. Jessica Greene had indeed used the phone twenty minutes earlier, as was her right. He had assumed that she was calling an attorney, or perhaps letting her parents know where she was and asking them to find an attorney for her. Tom Haven was dressed like a lawyer, but Kowalski knew that no lawyer would walk into a police station and announce, “The suspect was with me at the time of the crime.” At least not when the suspect was a pretty young woman, the victim was her husband, and the crime had happened at night.

As Haven fidgeted nervously, Kowalski decided to press his advantage. “What were the two of you doing all night long?” he asked, a blank look held on his face. “If you don’t mind me asking,” he added, insinuating that Haven might have secrets he would rather keep hidden.

“We were talking,” he replied. “Actually, she did most of the talking. And a lot of crying too. I sat there and listened. She was telling me how Brad had locked her out of the house. And she was talking about the years they were married and the kind of life they had together. Eventually she wound down and started to fall asleep. I got her a pillow and a blanket and let her sleep on the couch. And I fell asleep in a chair, so I would be there if she needed anything during the night.”

“So you two…slept together,” Kowalski said, his fingers poised over the computer keyboard.”

“No, not at all,” Haven vehemently objected. “We were asleep in the same room, but there was nothing sexual about it. Don’t put down that we slept together, because that isn’t true.” Kowalski typed nothing, and Haven continued, “In the morning we woke up, Jess got a change of clothes from her car and took a shower, and we ate breakfast together. We drove our separate cars to work but arrived at the same time. She could not have been at her home any time since eight o’clock last night.”

Kowalski had never planned, of course, to record that Haven and Ms. Greene slept together. He just wanted to gauge Haven’s reaction to the expression. Already he could see that Haven was deeply fond of Ms. Greene. He wondered if Haven was fond enough to lie on her behalf. “Can you think of any witnesses who can back up what you say, that she spent the entire night at your house last night?” he asked.

“I don’t know. The neighbors might have seen her car in the driveway. We have a good crime watch in our neighborhood, so that’s something that might have been noticed.”

Kowalski mused about a good crime watch. The Greenes’ house was in a part of the city protected by a good crime watch. Their neighbors called the police that morning. They reported that the back door of the house was wide open and that the place was unusually quiet. The first officers to respond walked carefully into the house through the open door, their guns drawn. Brad Greene’s body lay in the kitchen, bleeding from multiple stab wounds. He had been attacked by someone wielding a large knife from his own kitchen. Clearly there had been a protracted struggle. Apparently no neighbors had heard the sounds of the overnight attack. After calling for back-up, including someone from the coroner’s office to take charge of the body after the search was completed, the officers searched the rest of the house. No other person was present. So far as they could tell, nothing had been stolen: expensive electronics, jewelry, even money were sitting out in plain sight.

While other officers continued to examine the evidence in the kitchen, Kowalski spoke with the neighbors that were still at home. He had always considered it a quiet neighborhood, older houses on small lots, not far from the University of Memphis. He learned that the Greenes had moved into the house about six months ago and had been busy nights and weekends fixing up the place. They both dressed nicely, and they seemed to have plenty of money to spend, but they had made no effort to get to know anyone from the neighborhood. Kowalski could find no one who had heard any strange sounds during the night. He could find no one who knew whether or not Brad Greene had any enemies or was involved in any kind of activity that might lead to a sudden violent attack.

“You say that she talked with you about her marriage. Was this the first time she ever confided such details to you?”

“Well, I guess it was the second time, but the first time was earlier yesterday. When I got to work yesterday morning, she was on the phone and she was crying. I tried not to pay attention, since her personal life is none of my business. No one else was at the office yet, but it wouldn’t be long before the place filled up, and then our clients would start arriving. When she hung up the phone and she was still crying, I walked over to her desk and asked if I could do anything to help. ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I guess I do need to talk to somebody.’

“Two of our coworkers got off the elevator just then, so Jess and I went into one of the meeting rooms and shut the door. That’s when she told me that she had gone home for lunch on Friday and caught Brad in their house with another woman. The three of them had a long argument—she called it a shouting match—until Jess left. She got in her car and drove to her parents’ house in Brownsville. She spent the weekend there. When she got home Sunday night, her clothes were on the porch. Loud music was playing inside the house. When she tried to get in, she found that the locks had been changed. She tried banging on the door. She tried calling him on her cell phone. She got no answer. Eventually, she went to a motel and spent the night there. Then she came to work in the morning, but she was still trying to get hold of Brad from work.”

Haven’s account matched in every detail what Ms. Greene had already said to Kowalski. She might have been telling the truth. She might have said all those things to Haven the day before. On the other hand, the two of them might have invented that story together any time in the past. If they were really clever, they could have arranged for every detail to check out as true—new locks in the doors of the house, and her car left in his driveway all night. Kowalski needed more information, and he needed to measure what kind of ties Haven might have to the accused.

“Before last night, had she ever visited your house before?”

“Once or twice before. I hosted a Christmas party for the whole office last year, and the summer before that, I had a cook-out. No, wait… She and Brad couldn’t make it to the cook-out. But she was there for the Christmas party.”

“Tell me, Tom: how long have you known Mrs. Greene?” Kowalski put a slight emphasis on the “Mrs.” just to see if Haven reacted, but he did not seem to have noticed the title.

“She joined the firm about two years ago, and we met on her first day on the job. So, about two years.”

“And what kind of work do the two of you do?”

“We’re investment counselors. We help people take care of their money.”

“And you must charge them a good amount for your advice,” Kowalski added, eying Haven’s nice clothing and remembering the outfit Ms. Greene was wearing. Kowalski wondered briefly what all the rich investment counselors had thought about one of their peers leaving the office escorted by two uniformed cops. Of course the officers had not told her that her husband was dead, not in front of her co-workers. That news had been given at the station. Glancing again at Haven’s nice suit, Kowalski pictured the downtown office, high in a glass and steel building, filled with counselors and clients all nicely dressed like Haven and like Ms. Greene.

“They seem to think that we’re worth it. No one takes advice about money from people who dress as if they don’t have much money.”

“Probably true. And once she started at the firm, and you got to know her, you got to like her pretty well?”

“We all got to like her. She’s a very likeable person. And she’s very professional. She does her job well, and she gets along well with people. Every one of the guys in the office likes visiting with her. If we can get her to smile, or to laugh—which isn’t hard to do, most days—it’s like a ray of sunshine in the office.”

“And she’s quite beautiful.” Kowalski was not being sarcastic; though she was a bit short and slender to suit his tastes, he had to admit that Jessica Greene was lovely. He had hesitated in his report, unsure which drop-box to select for her hair color: blonde or red. The computer didn’t allow him to choose a color in-between the two choices. Her eyes he had recorded as gray. He could well believe that on a better day they might sparkle charmingly.

“She is beautiful,” Haven agreed, “but what makes her even more attractive is that she doesn’t act like she knows that she’s beautiful. She’s a real person. There’s nothing phony about her. She’s genuinely kind to people. She doesn’t have to fake interest in anyone, because she really is interested.”

“How long have you been in love with her?”

Haven didn’t flinch at the challenge. “I don’t know. Maybe six months. Maybe a year. It all happened kind of gradually. I wasn’t really thinking about it when it happened.”

“Are you married, Tom?”

“No.”

“Divorced?”

“No, never married.”

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Are you even interested in ladies—apart from Mrs. Greene, of course? Or do your tastes run to men instead?” Haven shook his head, so Kowalski continued, “Little boys? Little girls? Farmyard animals?”

“No, none of that.” Kowalski had not managed to make Haven lose his temper, a fact which told Kowalski a great deal of what he wanted to know.

“Listen, I know nothing of this has anything to do with the murder last night, and you don’t have to answer any more of my questions. But if I’m going to take your word that Ms. Greene was with you all night long, and if that information is going to be given to a judge and a jury, the prosecutor is going to ask these kinds of questions too. In all your life, before you met Ms. Greene, haven’t you ever been in love?”

“I was in love. Once. It didn’t turn out well, and I’ve tried to stay away from it ever since.”

“I’d like you to tell me about it.”

Haven looked down at the floor for a few seconds. “Well, OK,” he said. His voice was even, almost monotone, as he shared his intimate account with Office Kowalski. “Jane and I knew each other as kids. We lived in a small town—Victoria, Mississippi. We went to the same schools for twelve years. Our mothers were friends, so we played together outside of school. We even went to the same church, so we saw each other pretty much every day. In eighth grade we started going steady, and in high school we were voted the ‘cutest couple.’

“Then she got a scholarship to Agnes Scott College, and I went to Mississippi State. We promised to be faithful, and we wrote a few letters back and forth, but mostly we waited for Christmas and for summers. The first couple of years were OK, but whenever I hinted that I intended to ask her to be my wife, she said she didn’t want to hear anything about it. The first big fight we had was the night before Christmas, our junior year. She told me that she was going to spend the summer in Georgia and not come home to Victoria. I begged her not to stay away, and I shouted at her and threatened her, and we ended up breaking up that Christmas.

“After that, I dated a couple other girls I knew at Mississippi State, but it wasn’t the same. It was almost like I was being with them only to get revenge on Jane. Mostly I hung out with the guys and concentrated on my studies.

“Jane was home again for Christmas, and we spent time together. It was almost like the last year hadn’t happened. The night before she went back to Georgia, I told her again that I wanted to marry her. She thought a little bit, and smiled, and said I would have to wait just a little longer. ‘Melanie is getting married next year,’ she said. Melanie is Jane’s younger sister. ‘Let’s wait until we’ve both graduated and wait until the wedding in June, and after that we can talk about us.’

“Well, I lived the winter and spring full of hope. Graduation happened—Jane and I graduated the same day, so we couldn’t be together—and then I made plans to drive to Alabama for Melanie’s wedding. Jane’s family lived in Alabama for a long time, for generations, so all the family weddings had to be at the same country church.

“I got up on a Saturday morning and drove for three hours into Alabama, and I found the church. It was a few minutes before noon. A lot of people were standing outside in the shade, including an elderly couple. I had only met them once before, but I had seen their pictures in Jane’s house plenty of times. I got out of the car and, more to make conversation than anything else, I walked over and asked them, “Is this where the Butler wedding is happening?”

“The old lady smiled and said, ‘Oh, yes, our oldest granddaughter, Jane Butler, is getting married this noon.’

“’You mean Melanie Butler, don’t you?’ I asked her, still smiling, sure that she was mistaken.

“She looked at her husband, a little bit confused, and I was still convinced that she had just mixed up the names of her granddaughters. But he didn’t look at all confused. ‘No, it’s Jane who’s getting married today,’ he said. ‘Melanie’s wedding isn’t until the fall.’

“Well, I didn’t know what to do. I realized that Jane hadn’t promised me anything. She only said that we’d talk after the wedding. I got back in my car and drove back to Victoria, Mississippi, and in the fall I went back to school and started working on my MBA. When I had that, I looked for a job, and I found one in Memphis. I’ve been working there five years, and for all that time, I didn’t worry myself about Jane or about any other woman.

Haven was still looking down at the floor. He didn’t see that Casey had come up behind him and was respectfully waiting to speak to Kowalski. “Then, two years ago, Jess joined the firm,” Haven continued. “Every day I noticed her—her walk, her smile, her laugh. I dreamed about her at night. But I couldn’t do anything, because she was already married.” Both his hands balled into fists as he repeated the last four words, pausing between them. “She was… already… married.”

Casey didn’t look as if he could wait much longer. Kowalski knew that Casey wouldn’t interrupt if he didn’t have something terribly important to say. “Excuse me a minute, Tom,” he said. He and Casey walked a few steps away from the desk. Haven did not look up at them. “What is it?” Kowalski asked.

“You can stop questioning him,” Casey said, gesturing at Haven. “We have got a confession.”

“Jessica Greene confessed to the murder?” Kowalski asked.

“No,” Casey answered. “It was a different woman. She just came in a few minutes ago, with her mother. She says that she was Greene’s girlfriend, that they had a big fight about midnight, and that it got out of hand. She says that he attacked her first. She has cuts and bruises that back up what she’s saying. Both women are pretty emotional.”

“I’ll talk with them in a minute,” Kowalski said. “Before I do, I need to finish up here.” He returned to his desk and sat down. “Well, Tom,” he said, “it looks as though I made you tell me more than I have any right to know. It appears that Ms. Greene is not an active suspect, and we’ll be able to let her go. She will have to stay in touch with us, of course, and probably testify at the trial. But in just a few minutes, we’ll be releasing her.

“Now, Tom, I usually don’t give advice,” he continued. “I’m not any good at it, and it’s not my job. For you, though, I’m going to make an exception. That young woman has been through hell several times over the last five days. She needs someone to look after her, someone who cares deeply about her, someone who is going to support her emotionally.” Haven looked at Officer Kowalski. His face was still expressionless, his eyes almost glazed. “Listen,” Kowalski said. “Don’t try to take things too fast. It’ll be a long time before she thinks of you as anything more than a friend. But don’t be too distant either. Be the friend that she needs. Be there for her now, and I wager that the two of you will be together for a good long time. Probably the rest of your lives.”

Tom Haven stood. He reached out to shake Officer Kowalski’s hand. Kowalski stood and accepted the gesture. They looked into each other’s eyes, their hands firmly gripped. Though he didn’t like to do it, Kowalski let go first. “You wait outside,” he said gruffly. “I’ll have the papers signed and send her out the door just as quick as I can.”

“I don’t know how to thank you,” Tom whispered.

“You take care of that girl,” Kowalski replied. “That’s all the thanks I need.”

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