Having read Nick his rights, the two gentlemen from the Airport Police said that they would be back soon to hear his story, then left. As the door opened Nick heard the sounds of the airport: the rumble of jets, the announcements on the PA system, the cry of a disappointed child, the footfalls of someone running. Then the door pulled shut and the small dingy room became amazingly quiet.
Alone with his thoughts, Nick now found himself reliving the ordeal of Barlow’s theatrical exit. Nick had never experienced anything like the power-assisted descent that the jet had made into Salt Lake City International. The seat belt lights had just come on and the first officer had been calmly telling the flight attendants and passengers to strap themselves into the nearest available seats when the plane pulled away from underneath him, like a roller coaster accelerating downwards, but harder. The aircraft was in no danger, the first officer had serenely continued; there was a passenger on board with a medical problem and they were making an unscheduled stop in Salt Lake City to let him off. Some ‘medical problem,’ Nick remembered thinking. He’s dead.
Oblivious to the screams all around him, Peter Barlow lay stretched out in the aisle with his mouth frozen in a grin and his eyes rolled back. It was a hideous discolored deathface, a Halloween mask. Yet somehow his tired suit and cheap tie made him look more pathetic than frightening. A drink cart had slipped its moorings and its brakes were not engaged; it rolled down the aisle and hit the dead man’s feet, tipped in the air, and deposited soft drinks, cups, coffee and ice on his plainly lifeless body before somehow righting itself as the plane leveled to land.
And now Nick sat alone in this sparsely appointed interrogation room four drab yellow walls, a black-and-white linoleum floor, a table, four old futuristic plastic chairs, a telephone and a wall clock that showed half past twelve—waiting to see whether he would be arrested for murder.
At first Nick hadn’t been nervous. The police had wanted to ask him some questions; that was only normal. They had advised him of his rights. Well, that was unnerving, but a dying man had accused Nick of murder, so of course the police had had to read him his rights. That in itself it was nothing to worry about. But why this long delay?
How long had they been gone? Ten minutes? An hour and ten minutes? Half past twelve: was that Pacific Time? Rocky Mountain? He couldn’t think.
Finally the door opened again and the two detectives came back in. The taller of the two a heavy-set, grey-haired man with a silver moustache—had introduced himself as Lieutenant Ivan Marki. The other man was younger and slimmer, with bright red cheeks; he was carrying a small tape recorder. He had said his name was Detective Sergeant Carelli. Both men were wearing sports coats and ties. They confirmed again that Nick didn’t wish to have a lawyer present, and began the interrogation.
“OK,” the younger man, Carelli, said. “What happened?”
Nick told them everything he could remember, minus the fact that he had met Barlow in Palo Alto, and that Barlow had remembered their encounter. He also neglected to tell the detectives that Barlow’s insane ranting bore a uncanny resemblance to a theory advanced earlier that evening by Monty Meekman. Nick had a feeling that mentioning these coincidences would vastly complicate things, so he left them out.
“OK,” Marki said, when Nick had finished. “Let’s back up.”
There was a hint of an accent. Hungarian?
“Sure,” Nick said.
“That was the first time you ever met this guy, on the airplane, when you sat next to him?”
“Yes,” he said, trying to sound positive.
“Then why did he think you were an expert in these ‘nanomachine’ things?”
“I don’t know where he got that idea.” Nick said. “I know what the word means, that’s about it.”
“What does it mean?”
“Atomic scale machinery. I work in the computer industry, and ‘nanotechnology’ is the latest buzzword, like ‘Internet’ or ‘cyberspace’ a couple of years ago.”
“How does it happen, then, that witnesses say you’re an expert? They heard you talking about it.”
Was this a curve ball? Were the cops toying with him?
“Who said I was an expert? Where?”
“In the terminal. You were introduced as an expert.”
Nick was perplexed. Who, besides Crazy Peter Barlow, would mistake Nick for an expert on atomic machinery? Then he remembered.
“Somebody must have overheard Monty when he said that. He was joking.”
“Who is Monty?” Marki said, deliberately, biting his words like a Hapsburg Poirot.
“Monty Meekman. He’s my ex-boss. I ran into him in the terminal.”
“He hired and fired me on the same day.”
Should Nick tell them that this hire-fire incident had happened less than twelve hours ago, that it involved ten million dollars and a contract abrogated by an earthquake? He didn’t think so.
“Fired you from where?” Marki said. “What does he do?”
“From Digital MicroSystems, where he is Genius without Portfolio, and Power Behind the Throne. Monty Meekman, as he will be glad to tell you, is a legendary figure in the history of the computer, a founding member and three-time chairman of SIG-CHI.”
“SIG-CHI, rhymes with pig stye. Special Interest Group for Computer-Human Interaction. It’s a world-wide professional organization,” he said, then added in his best Ed Grimly voice, “highly regarded, I must say.”
“Why did he fire you?”
“Because he’s a lying scheming asshole,” Nick said. “Is this relevant? I really want to be able to get out of here in time to catch that plane. Am I going to be able to leave?”
“Why did he tell people that you were an expert in these things?”
“It was a joke,” Nick said, with exasperation. “He said it to humiliate me. Years ago he promised me a job on a nanomachine project, but he didn’t keep his promise. Anyway he put me on something else and then he fired me. He’s totally fucked up my life. So of course he tells random strangers that I’m a genius. That’s the kind of person he is; he thinks it’s funny. What does this have to do with the guy who killed himself?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out.”
“There’s no connection between Barlow and Meekman. Monty Meekman screwed me. That’s life, I’ll get over it. Is it a felony in the state of Utah to dislike your ex-boss?”
“It’s a felony to kill people.”
The reality was starting to sink in.
“You think I murdered Barlow,” Nick said.
“You have been accused of that.”
Marki did not appear to be joking. This was turning out to be worse than Nick had anticipated. Should he stop now and ask for a lawyer? Not yet, he decided. For the time being he would count on logic and common sense to clear up this little misunderstanding.
“I didn’t even know Barlow,” he said. “Why would I kill him to get revenge on Monty?”
“People who feel resentful about losing their jobs often exact revenge in odd ways. And I have to say that you seem very, very resentful.”
Nick thought, You’d be resentful too if you’d been boxed into a corner by an ingenious madman who killed people with earthquakes.
But what Nick said was, “But I don’t work for the Post Office. Nor do I work for the CIA or the Mafia. I do not kill people.”
“Why are you so antsy, Nick?” Carelli chimed in.
“See if you can guess,” Nick sighed.
The detectives glanced at each other, and there was a bit of a pause before Carelli spoke again.
“We’ll be done with our questions in just another few minutes,” the younger detective said, “then you can go.”
“But we’re going to have to ask you not to leave the vicinity until the autopsy has been completed,” he added.
“What?” Nick said. “How long will that take?”
“It shouldn’t be longer than twenty-four hours.”
“Officers,” Nick said. “Surely you don’t believe I murdered him? You must have a dozen witnesses who can tell you what he said. It’s clear that he was crazy, isn’t it? And anyway, you’ve got my name and address. I’ll be happy to leave my fingerprints. I’m a very findable person.”
“Sorry,” Carelli said.
“God damn it,” Nick said. “You can’t keep me here.”
Carelli got out of his chair and leaned close to Nick. He was visibly angry.
“We can’t keep you?” he said in a loud voice. “We can’t keep you? Let me tell you what we can do, Mr. Aubrey. We’re the Airport Police, and this is our turf. But we can always cede jurisdiction to Salt Lake City Homicide. Then you’ll see what police can and cannot do to a person fingered for murder.”
At that moment the door opened and a uniformed officer handed a piece of paper, obviously a fax, to Detective Marki, who looked at it, then passed it to his partner. Finally Carelli nodded at the door.
“I’ll be back in a few,” Marki said, as he rose out of his seat.
Carelli reached under his jacket and removed a small gun, which he handed to the other detective. “Better hold this for me,” he said.
Oh no, Nick thought. Here comes ‘good cop-bad cop.’
Marki left, and Nick heard the sound of the door being locked from the outside as Carelli turned his chair back-to-front and straddled it.
“What do you know about Iraqi biological weapons, Nick?” he asked.
“Just what you hear on the news,” Nick said. “I haven’t followed it very much.”
“Your friend Hussein Kamel knows a lot about it. Only I thought he was dead.”
“Your employer, Nick. The guy who hired you to hit Barlow. Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law. He ran the Iraqi weapons program for Saddam, then defected to Jordan. Ring any bells?”
“I remember,” Nick said. “He went back to Iraq and got murdered by Saddam’s family.”
“Says who? Iraqi state television? Mr. Barlow seemed to think that Kamel was still alive, and that you were working for him. So now I’m thinking that maybe that whole defection-murder story was a scam.”
“Oh for Pete’s sake,” Nick said. “Barlow also said that I was in the CIA. So now I’m a double-agent, working for the CIA and the Iraqis? I must be damn good. Or here’s another possibility. Maybe the guy was just nuts, and maybe I was just unlucky enough to sit next to him.”
“You’re a smart-ass, aren’t you, Nick?” It almost seemed like Carelli wanted the answer to be Yes, I am. Stay calm Nick, he told himself, He’s trying to provoke you.
Nick took a moment to summon his most even-tempered voice and said, “I’m not trying to be a smart-ass, Sergeant. But put yourself in my place. I’m sitting there in my airplane seat, minding my own business, when the guy next to me decides to kill himself—”
“But it wasn’t your seat. Your seat was up front.”
Maybe relying on common sense and logic had been a mistake. This guy needed yelling at.
“Jesus Christ, I changed my seat,” Nick said, raising his voice. “People do it all the time. That makes me a murderer and a terrorist? You might get a little testy if you were in my shoes.”
“I see your point,” the detective said, again rising out of his chair and leaning over the table. “Now you put yourself in my shoes. See these ruddy cheeks?. . .”
Carelli pointed to his face with both hands. ‘Ruddy’ was a fine word to describe his cheeks, Nick thought. ‘Scarlet’ or ‘crimson’ or ‘screaming neon’ also would have been good.
“. . . I never had them for the first twenty-seven years of my life. Then my reserve unit got called up for Desert Storm, and now I got a constant aching back, a ruby-red face and a two-year old son with only two fingers on his left hand. I’m a walking, talking poster boy for Gulf War Syndrome. And before me sits a man accused of murdering a CIA agent on orders from the man in charge of Iraq’s biological weapons program. So what do you think about my shoes? Well, Nick? How about my fucking shoes?”
“Jesus,” Nick said. His indignation, which had been rising just a few seconds ago, had disappeared. “I didn’t kill the guy,” he said, quietly. “He killed himself.”
“We’ll see about that,” Carelli said.
The door opened and Marki came back in. He nodded at Carelli, then spoke to Nick.
“OK, Mr. Aubrey, we’re going to let you go,” Marki said. “Your story checks out. And it appears that Mr. Barlow has a long history of dramatic exits. Apparently this was just his last shot to get himself on the news.”
Then he thanked Nick for his cooperation and opened the door. Nick was taken aback, unsure whether Marki was joking.
“Can I ask you something?” Nick said. He remained seated in the Jetsons chair.
“Who was Barlow? Did he really work in Iraq?”
“CNN confirms that a man by his name and matching his description worked in Baghdad right until the eve of the war. Then he was let go.”
This wasn’t the answer Nick had wanted to hear.
“Mental health?” he asked.
“They wouldn’t put it in writing, but they hinted.”
Well, that was a plus, anyway.
“What about the CIA? Did you ask them if he had worked for them?”
“I asked,” Marki said. “They ain’t saying nothing.”
Nick stood, still unsure whether the interview was over.
“Am I really free to go?”
“I’m making a judgement call,” Marki said. “But if something comes up and I need you back here for questioning, you’re going to come back under your own power. Agreed?”
“Sure.” What else was he going to say?
“And if you don’t come back when I call you, you become prime suspect in murder one.”
“It wasn’t murder, Lieutenant,” Nick said. “It was suicide.”
It was obvious that Carelli didn’t want to let Nick leave.
“I’m taking a very personal interest in this case,” Carelli said, jabbing Nick in the chest with his finger. “And if I ever find out you lied to me, about anything, I’ll track you down myself.”
“I’m sorry about your son’s hand, Sergeant,” Nick said. “I’m sorry about your back. But Barlow’s death wasn’t murder. It was suicide.”
“You better pray I never catch you in a lie, Aubrey,” Carelli answered. “I’m taking a very personal interest in this case.”
Drenched in perspiration, Nick walked to the gate where the passengers of the interrupted Flight 44 to New York and Boston had been waiting. He arrived in time for the final boarding call. As he walked down the aisle of the now-less-crowded plane he was aware of hostile stares. Nick wondered what his greater offense was: murdering a man, or causing the red-eye to be almost three hours late. He took his originally-assigned seat just behind the bulkhead separating first class from the main cabin, and fastened his seat belt. A few minutes later he was looking down at the receding city lights as the plane headed up over the Wasatch mountains.
The police had asked him if he had ever met Barlow, and he said no. They had asked him if there was a connection between Barlow and Meekman, and he had said no. That made two false statements right there, and Nick was pretty sure he had told a few more. The red-faced cop had sworn to chase Nick down if he found out that he had lied. But what were the chances of that? The hell with it, Nick thought, no harm no foul. It had been a patch of rough ice, but he was through it. He put his seat back and closed his eyes. He tried to think of other things, but his brain wouldn’t let go of the incident in Gordon Biersch. Over and over he saw Maceo, the yuppies, the fine deep amber pints, Peter Barlow in his ratty suit, the man at the end of the bar turning his gaze away. . .
He sat bolt upright, his chest pounding. He knew who that man was, oddly familiar, turning away the instant Nick looked up. It had been seven years since Nick had seen him, and Nick had never seen him with a beard. That was what had thrown him: in Nick’s memory he was still a beardless youth. Besides, he was supposed to be in Switzerland, not in California. But Nick had no doubt now whom he had seen. It was a man Nick had betrayed and deeply wounded. It was his best childhood friend and only living relative. The man from whom he had stolen Bartlett: Paul Aubrey. Nick’s own baby brother.
He reclined back in the seat and closed his eyes, but sleep remained elusive.
You Can’t Stop Here, Buy the Book And Read The Rest!
©1999-2010 John Sundman.