By David Zeltserman
Paperback, 272 pages
List price: $14.95
This was going to be our last game of checkers. Usually we played in my cell; this last game, though, we were playing in Morris's office. Over the last seven years we had played tens of thousands of games. Every fourth or fifth game I'd win, the rest I'd let him beat me.
Morris Smith ran the county jail here in Bradley. He was a large round man in his early sixties, with soft rubbery features and small wisps of hair framing his mostly bald head. I liked Morris - at least as much as I liked anyone. He could have made my life difficult the past seven years; instead he treated me about as well as he could've.
I spent a few seconds studying the board and saw that I could force a checker advantage and a sure win, but I could also set myself up to be triple-jumped. I pretended to be deep in thought for a couple of minutes and then made the move to let him force the triple jump.
Morris sat silently, his small eyes darting over all the possible moves. I saw a momentary glint in his eyes when he recognized the combination leading to the triple jump, and watched with some amusement as he tried to suppress a smile. He pushed his checker in place with a large, thick hand that shook.
'I think you made a mistake there, young fellow,' he said, his voice coming out in a low croak.
I sat there for a long moment and then cursed to show that I realized how I had screwed up. Letting loose one last profanity, I made the move I was forced to make and watched as Morris pounced on the board, making his triple jump and picking up my checkers.
'That should be about it,' he said.
We played out the rest of the moves. I knew Morris took great satisfaction in removing the last checker from the board. When the game was over, he gave a slight smile and offered me his hand in a conciliatory shake.
'You gave me a good game,' he said, 'except for that one mistake.'
'What can I say? You've been kicking my ass for seven years now. I just got to admit I've met my match.'
Morris chuckled, obviously pleased with himself. He glanced at his watch. 'Your paperwork is all done. You're a free man. But if you'd like, I could order us some lunch and we could play one more game.'
'I'd like to, but it's been a long seven years. I've been craving a cheeseburger and a few beers for some time now.'
'I could have that brought here.'
'Well, yeah,' I said, hesitating, 'but you could get in trouble doing that, Morris. And, besides, it wouldn't taste the same in here. No offense.'
He nodded, some disappointment showing on his round face.
'Joe, I've grown to like you over the last few years. I didn't think I would after what you did to get yourself in here. Can I give you some friendly advice?'
'Why don't you start fresh someplace else? Maybe Florida? Myself, soon as I retire in three years, I'm moving to Sarasota. You can keep these lousy New England winters.'
'That's not bad advice, but one of the conditions of my parole is to stay in Bradley-'
'You could petition for a change of address.'
'Well, yeah, I guess I could, but my parents are getting up there in age, and I'd like to make up for lost time.'
He shrugged. 'I hope you at least think about it. I don't think Bradley's a good place for you anymore.'
'I appreciate the advice. But I don't have much choice in the matter. At least not right now.'
We stood up and shook hands. I turned away to pick up my duffel bag and Morris asked whether I wanted to call my parents for a ride. I told him I'd get a cab. I made a quick phone call, signed whatever paperwork I had to, and was led out of the building by Morris. A cab was waiting for me, but there was a man bent over, talking to the driver. The cab pulled away, and as the man stood up I recognized him instantly. I'd have to with the way his face was carved up and the thick piece of flesh that was missing from his nose. At one time, he had been a good-looking man, but that was before he had been stabbed thirteen times in the face.
Morris looked a bit uncomfortable. 'Well, uh,' he said, 'it was a pleasure having you as my guest, young fellow. If you ever want to stop by for a lesson on the theory of checkers, feel free.' Then, seriously, 'Try to stay out of trouble.'
He gave me a pat on the back and waved to the other man before disappearing back into the building. The other man stood grinning, but it didn't extend to his eyes. Looking at him was like staring at an open-mouthed rattlesnake.
I nodded to him. 'I don't want any trouble, Phil,' I said.
Phil Coakley just stood grinning with eyes that were hard glass. Phil was the district attorney in our county. I knew he'd been stabbed thirteen times in the face because that's how many times they told me I'd stabbed him. That was a good part of the reason I'd spent the last seven years in county jail.
'I'm sorry for what happened,' I said, keeping my distance.
Phil waved me over, his grin intact, but still nothing in his eyes. 'I don't want any trouble either, Joe,' he said. 'As far as I'm concerned you've paid your debt to society, and what's done is done. I just want to clear the air, make sure there are no hard feelings. Come on over here. Let's talk for a minute.'
I didn't like it, but I didn't feel as if I had any choice. When I moved closer to him, I could see the scarring along his face more plainly, and it was all I could do to keep from looking away. The damage was far worse up close. He looked almost as if someone had played tic-tac-toe on his face. As if he were some grotesque caricature from a Dick Tracy comic strip. Parts of his face were uneven with other parts, and that chunk of flesh missing from his nose, Jesus Christ. As tough as doing so was, I kept my eyes straight on him.
'I hope you don't mind, Joe,' he said, 'but I asked your taxi to come back so we could talk for a few minutes.'
'Sure, that's fine.'
'I've been waiting out here almost an hour. Your parole was supposed to be completed by noon.'
'You know how Morris is. He takes his time with things.'
Phil gave a slow nod. 'Look at you,' he said, 'Joe, I think jail agrees with you. Your beer gut's gone. Damn, you look better now than you've looked in years. But I guess you can't say the
same about me.'
'If there was any way I could go back and change what I did-'
'Yeah, I know, don't worry about it. What's done is done.' He paused for a moment, his grin hardening again. 'I often wondered how you were able to serve out your time in a county jail. Arson, attempted murder, maiming a district attorney, and you end up in a county jail. I've been trying for the last seven years to have you moved to a maximum security prison, but I guess you were born under a lucky star. Even drawing Craig Simpson as your parole officer.'
I didn't say anything. He gave a careless shrug, still grinning. 'But that's all in the past,' he said. 'You paid your debt, even though seven years doesn't quite seem long enough. What was
your original sentence? Twenty-four years?'
'Sixteen to twenty-four,' I said.
'Sixteen to twenty-four years.' Phil let out a short whistle. 'It seems to me like a hell of a short sentence for what you did. And you only had to serve out seven years of it in county jail, all the time being waited on hand and foot by old Morris Smith.'
'It hasn't been all that easy. My wife divorced me-'
'Yeah, I know. My wife divorced me, too.' He paused. 'I guess she had a difficult time looking me straight in the face.'
He had lost his grin. I just stared at him, stared at the mass of scar tissue that I was responsible for. After a while, I asked him what he wanted.
'I just wanted to clear the air,' he said. 'Make sure there are no hard feelings between the two of us. Also, I want to talk a little police business with you. After all, you were a police officer in this town for twelve years. You hear that Manny Vassey's dying of cancer?'
'I heard something about it.'
Phil forced his grin back and shook his head slightly. 'The man's only fifty-six and he's dying of stomach cancer. Manny always was a tough bird. Normally I wouldn't have a chance of cracking him, but, when a man's dying, sometimes he needs to unburden himself. You know, at one point I think every drug, gambling, and prostitution dollar that flowed through Vermont went into his hands. You remember Billy Ferguson? I think you investigated his murder.'
'I guess you would,' he said. 'It's not as if we have a lot of murders here, and I don't think we ever had one as brutal as that one. How many years ago was that?'
'I don't know. Maybe ten.'
Phil thought about it and shook his head. 'I think it was less than eight and a half years ago. Only a few months before you maimed me. I'll tell you, Joe, that was one hell of a brutal murder. I don't think I ever saw anyone beaten as badly as Ferguson was.' He waited for me to say something, but I just stood there and stared back at him. After a while he gave up and continued.
'Billy Ferguson was in way over his head with gambling debts,' he said. 'As far as I could tell, he owed Manny thirty thousand dollars. I suspect Manny sent one of his thugs over to collect and the situation got out of hand. Do you remember anything from your investigation?'
'That was a long time ago. But as I remember, we hit a brick wall. No fingerprints, no witnesses, nothing.'
'Well, I'm not giving up on it. I'm making it a point to visit Manny religiously.' Phil laughed, but his grin was long gone. 'I'm spending time each day reading him the Bible. I think he's beginning to see the light. With a little bit of luck I'll get a confession any day now and clear up Ferguson's murder along with a few other crimes that have always bugged me.'
I didn't bother saying anything. He was wasting his time, but he'd find that out for himself. Manny Vassey was joined at the hip with the Devil, and there wasn't a chance in hell he'd ever find God or confess to anything. My cab pulled back up to us. Before I could say a word, Phil grabbed my duffel bag from me and swung it into the cab's trunk. 'Be seeing you around, Joe,' he said as he walked off.
Excerpted from Small Crimes by David Zeltserman Copyright © 2008 by David Zeltserman. Excerpted by permission of Consortium Books. All rights reserved.