Read an Excerpt
The Interrogation of Gabriel James
By Charlie Price
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2010 Charlie Price
All rights reserved.
I stood at the back of a small crowd in a bleak cemetery north of the Yellowstone River, the second funeral I had attended this week. A pastor waited at the head of the grave for someone to offer any last remarks. No one did. The deceased's father stood closest to the coffin, hands cuffed in front of him, long gray hair moving when wind gusted. A deputy sheriff stood beside him, and, farther back, the cuffed man's daughter stood with my mother, both of them in solemn black dresses that didn't look like they would ever be worn for anything but a funeral. There was no music. If there had been any eulogy, I had missed it. I knew other people in the crowd, some from our school, some from the Community Center.
Though last week's warm chinook had cleared snow from the surrounding hills, the ground underfoot was cold and solid, the dust bound by ice. In the distance, clouds drifted southeast toward Hardin and Crow Agency. Other than blasts of wind and people's shoes creaking, it was quiet. Too far from the interstate to hear traffic. Too near the dead of winter for most bird songs. The pastor, a liberal theology teacher from a local college, cleared his throat. "Well," he said, "I guess that's all." It sounded like an apology. Everybody began walking back toward the cars except the father and the deputy.
I stopped to watch, wondering whether the man would throw dirt on the coffin. The deputy took a step back but the father didn't move. He was looking straight out past the grave, out toward the Prior Mountains where a falcon circled above empty rangeland.
Yesterday I had been standing in a different cemetery out the direction he was looking, where they buried another young man. That young man had killed the person being buried today. I knew there was a lot more to the story than that. I knew enough to wish that time could collapse like an old telescope, that some events once seen in greater detail would disappear from the horizon, gone for good. Gone forever.
The next day, Monday, I walked ahead of a deputy sheriff named Childress and a representative from the Billings Police Department into an uncarpeted room in the County Annex.
"We could have done some of this at your house," Childress said. "You're not under arrest."
I waited but she didn't say "yet."
"I'm not exactly ... I don't want to talk about this at home," I said. The concrete floor smelled stale, the room was too small and too warm. It made my concussion throb.
There were a couple of chairs on one side of the table. I took the single on the other side and noticed my reflection in the wall mirror to my right. I hadn't slept much last night and my face was dull and colorless like a specimen in bio lab. I wasn't sure if I was headed for jail, wasn't sure how much of this was my fault, but I'd come up with a plan. Just answer their questions. Don't lie, but don't elaborate. Don't let your guard down or give them anything to use against you. It was a familiar strategy, pretty much the way I'd operated with adults since Dad left.
Childress sat. The Billings police guy stood, leaning against the wall by the door.
"We're recording this," Childress said.
It wasn't a question but I nodded.
She turned on the machine and went through the intro. Introduced the BPD guy as Kosich.
He looked familiar but I couldn't place him. Career Day, maybe.
When Childress finished, she recited the Miranda thing. "Just in case," she said.
I had to say yes, I understood.
"Do you want a lawyer present?" she asked.
"Should I have a lawyer?" I had been hoping this wouldn't be quite so major.
"Do you need one?" she asked.
She didn't ask in a challenging way, didn't put anything into her inflection, but I knew this was an important question. They'd said they just wanted to hear my story. Right. But if I asked for a lawyer wouldn't I seem guilty of something right away? It would be an escalation. But what if I said something stupid and incriminated myself? I had no idea what they could pin on me if they wanted to. I couldn't decide.
"If you want one, it's your right. We'll stop and do this a different way."
I didn't like the sound of that. "I can get one later if I want. Right?"
"Then no, this is okay. For now."
"Why don't you start at the beginning?" she said. She folded her hands on the table between us.
"I'm not sure what the beginning is," I said. It was true. I never caught up with what was happening.
"What do you know about the fire?"
"Not much. I saw it, Anita saw it from the highway when we were driving back the day before school started."
"I don't want to drag her into this."
"You already have."
The deputy waited.
"She's a junior like me. We go to the same school. At the time she was my girlfriend."
"Driving back. From where?"
"It doesn't matter. What do you guys say? Not relevant."
Childress gave Kosich a long look. Took a deep breath. Waited.
"We'd been camping."
"Just the two of you."
I didn't say anything.
"Going to be juniors," she said.
I listened for her disapproval. She spoke so flatly I couldn't tell what she was thinking.
"Your folks know?" she asked.
"They knew we were away for the weekend. Road trip." I wasn't sure whether to say the rest. Guess it wasn't a secret anymore. "They didn't know we were with each other."
Kosich scratched his jaw with his thumb. Other than that, the room was still.
"How did the Ray girl feel about that?" Childress asked.
"I didn't know her then."
"Go on," she said.
"So Anita saw the fire, thought maybe it was a fuel tank at the airport. We got closer and saw it was all along the base of the Rims. I dropped her off —"
"Dropped her ..."
"At a friend's house to pick up her car."
"And the fire was already started."
"I didn't start the fire."
"And your friend ..." She paused to pull a small spiral pad out of her shirt pocket and thumb through the first pages until she found what she wanted. "Willoughby ..."
"Wib. He didn't start the fire either. He fought it. Got the burns trying to save a blue spruce at the side of his property."
"Up Cactus Drive at the base of the Rims, the far east side of the fire. He told them that at the hospital."
"He save it?" This from Kosich.
I couldn't tell if he cared or if his question was some incomprehensible strategy of interrogation.
"Then what?" Childress asked, easing back in her chair, settling in.
"Home," I said. "I figured young kids caused the fire. By accident. Too stupid to burn the big yucca plants and old trees, black the rocks on purpose."
"Didn't you and your friends start a fire near Willoughby's house a couple of years ago?"
How did she know about that? "That was some other kids. We never found out who." My forehead was dripping. I could feel it. I thought she could see it. Great. I've been here one minute and I'm already sweating like a TV crook.
Childress could have been a barrel racer. She was compact, with strong hands that were clean but rough. Her face was similarly weathered, dotted with a few freckles high on her cheeks, and her washed-out blue eyes held me and made me uncomfortable.
"And that night, what did you do?"
"I started school the next morning. Saw my friends. Got my classes. Went to cross-country practice in the afternoon."
"Danny Two Bull?"
"That's where I met him."
"And Homer Ray?"
"I didn't know him then."CHAPTER 2
At school Monday there'd been constant speculation as to what caused the fire. Cross-country practice started that afternoon and we were still talking about who might have done it when Coach Scofeld walked in with a new kid, new teammate, Danny Two Bull. Because I followed sports statewide, I had heard the name before. With Billings being surrounded by several Indian reservations, none of us should have been surprised by the surname. A couple of the guys laughed at it and had their faces melted shut by Coach Scofeld's glare. Silence followed.
"Danny, have you met any of your teammates before now?" Coach asked.
Danny shook his head no.
"Anybody know Danny?" Coach asked, turning to the team.
Crane raised his hand half-mast. He was our team captain, our fastest runner, and a regular sports encyclopedia. He, Wib, and another guy named Victor were longtime friends of mine.
"Read about him," Crane said.
"And?" Coach asked.
"And ... I think he won Class B State half-mile, mile, 5,000, and 10,000 last spring for Lodge Grass or some school south of here."
"All right, Crane," Coach said. "Remember the times?"
Everybody could sense Danny's embarrassment and kept their eyes on Crane.
Crane shook his head.
He was lying! He always knew everybody's times. This Two Bull must be pretty good.
Coach looked around now from runner to runner. "His times would have won our Double A section in most events," Coach told us. "We could take State for the first time ever in cross-country. In track we have a chance to rule the roost, topple Missoula off their high horse. Could maybe even go one-two or one-two-three in the mile and two-mile. We don't drop the baton, we could make off with the distance relays, too." Coach was silent for a minute letting that possibility sink in.
"Anyway," he said, bringing us back to the present, "I want you to welcome Danny and be there if he needs some orientation this first couple of weeks."
I had done the two-mile on the Billings J.V. track team and now I was running varsity cross-country this fall. At five ten, one-forty, it was my chance to letter in sports. I had never decided whether I really cared about running. Never decided how good a runner I wanted to be or could be. Last spring I usually ran in the middle of the pack. I didn't dog it, but I didn't train particularly hard, didn't take it very seriously. In other words, I didn't puke before, during, or after races. I ran well enough to fit in.
If I thought about my future, I saw myself as an average guy. And beneath that? Okay, I didn't want to go beneath that, but, beneath that, a guy who wished his mom and dad were still married. Beneath that, a guy who hated his dad but wished his dad was still alive. Beneath that? Maybe a guy who knows sooner or later the bottom will fall out of everything he cares about, so don't get too attached to anything or anyone. Keep some distance, don't get hurt. Jog along, enjoy what you can, forget about the rest.
"Where'd you go?" Childress was leaning forward, squinting at me.
"Just now? Spaced out, I guess."
"So, Two Bull?" She leaned back again.
There was a permanent crease in her dark gold hair where her cowboy hat usually rested. She had put the Stetson on the table beside her — so she wouldn't forget it when she got up, I imagined. I thought Mom probably knew this deputy, probably worked with her at the Center from time to time. Sheriff deputies or BPD routinely brought people who were acting strange in public to the Center. See if the shelter staff could calm them down and get them back on track. If not, the officers drove the freaked-out to the emergency room for medication.
"Two Bull was pretty quiet. Definitely as good as his clippings. Our first meet, practice meet, was with Laurel that Friday," I said, answering her question.
"I don't know. Whenever it was. The end of the first week of school."
Laurel was too small to be in our division, but they always had a couple of strong runners and it was a good way to prepare for the regular season. Twelve miles west on I-90, they were familiar with Billings and didn't need to memorize the street names to keep from getting lost on the run. Coach Scofeld had chosen a course that began with an uphill to the Rims, zigzagged on the way back, and finished with a clearly marked circular pattern through Pioneer Park. Coaches and volunteers monitored the runners to ensure fair play.
Laurel's captain was a short, skinny boy named Moody who used to pitch for my Little League team before his family moved. He was fast, well coordinated, and, even though I knew he smoked cigarettes, he never seemed to get tired. He was good competition and might have a chance against Crane's long legs. Nobody said anything about Two Bull. I don't think anybody knew what to expect, since he'd run behind Crane during our practices.
I was toward the back third of the pack so I lost sight of the leaders once the zigzag started. Coach said Crane, Moody, and Two Bull got back to the park at practically the same time, but then the Indian lit an afterburner and sprinted through the rest of the course. Somebody said he let up at the end but still finished first by about ten seconds. Moody complained that "the red kid" must have cheated, but monitors including guys from Laurel had him marked at every checkpoint.
"So Two Bull won his first race," I told Childress. "Afterwards he didn't hang around to be congratulated. That didn't make him any friends. But I think he was staying with Donna Plenty Water and her family. And at school he hung with other Indian kids. Except for cross, I never really saw him, didn't talk to him at all. Then."
"How were you involved with the pets?" she asked.
"The missing pets? I wasn't. I didn't know what was going on."
But that wasn't entirely true.
Sometime the first week when school and cross started, Mom had brought it up during dinner.
"You know," she said, "last weekend while you were gone, there was an article in the Gazette about pets on the west side of town."
"What about them?" I'd asked.
"Paper said that several families around here between Rimrock Road and the Rims lost their pets recently. Apparently one owner noticed how many signs had been tacked to telephone poles and been put up on the board in Svenson's Market during the last month. When he called some of the people, they had basically the same story. Their dog or cat went missing from their backyard overnight. None of the animals have been found. I thought that was very strange at the time and now, with Sunday's fire in the same area, it makes me wonder."
"How so?" I thought Mom had become more and more of a worrier since Dad left. And I thought she saw too much hardship in her job, too many poor people with too many problems. It was getting her down.
"Oh, maybe it's just some pet ring operating here briefly, snatching animals and moving them to Helena or someplace for resale, like they do with the bicycles," she said, frowning. "I don't know if the poor creatures were pedigreed or anything. But missing pets and arson is sometimes a constellation of events that means someone pretty disturbed is on the loose."
"Do they know for sure the Rims was arson?" I asked. "Well, anyway, you caught me," I said, laughing. "I'm pretty disturbed and I'm pretty loose so I give up ... except I didn't do it. So, maybe it's just a coincidence. Think what a mess it would be snatching pets. You'd have to feed them, keep them from barking and fighting. Nobody would want to do that for the little money you'd make, and pedigreed dogs might be traceable."
Though Mom nodded, she didn't look relieved. "You're probably right," she said, "but still, let me know if you hear anything around school."
Two days later, the day before our first cross-country meet, Wibby's dog, Sheena, went missing. That morning in school Wib's eyes were red and he couldn't talk about it without leaking tears.
"When I went out to feed her, she wasn't there," he'd said, rubbing at the moisture with his sleeve. "We didn't hear anything last night. There wasn't sign of a fight or anything, and she's never run off before. I think somebody took her."
Wibby lived above Rimrock Road like the others mentioned in the article.
He joined us when Crane and I drove around and looked for her during lunch. And that evening after cross we picked him up and did the same thing, going slow with the windows down and calling her name all over the northwest side of town. Nothing. None of us ever saw Wibby's dog again.
Excerpted from The Interrogation of Gabriel James by Charlie Price. Copyright © 2010 Charlie Price. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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