He’d sharpened his knife just an hour before the killing. The police, prosecutor, and media would all later make great use of this fact. Premeditation, they said. Proof of intent, they said. Cold-blooded murder, they said.
All Parker Harrison had to say was that he of en sharpened his knife in the evening.
It wasn’t much of a defense.
Harrison, an unemployed groundskeeper at the time of his arrest for murder, took a guilty plea that gave him a term of life in prison but allowed the possibility of parole, the sort of sentence that seems absurd to normal people but apparently makes sense to lawyers.
The guilty plea prevented a trial, and that meant Harrison’s tenure as the media’s villain of the moment was short-lived. Some editors and TV anchors around the state no doubt grumbled when they saw he was going to disappear quietly behind bars, taking a good bloody story with him. On the day of his arrest, he’d offered something special. Something none of them had seen before.
The victim was a man named John Maxwell, who was the new boyfriend of Harrison’s former lover, Molly Nelson. The killing occurred in Nelson’s rental house in the hills south of Xenia, Ohio, a town made infamous for a devastating tornado that occurred the same year Harrison went to high school, destroying homes, schools, and churches while killing thirty-four people and leaving nearly ten thousand—including the Harrison family—homeless. It wasn’t the first storm of breathtaking malevolence to pass through the little town: The Shawnee had named the area "place of the devil winds" more than a century earlier. The winds certainly touched Harrison’s life, and a few decades later the locals would claim the devil clearly had, too. A Xenia native who was half Shawnee, Harrison had been separated from Nelson for more than a year before he returned to town and they re united for one night together. It was passionate and borderline violent, beginning in a shouting match and culminating in intercourse on the floor. Evidence technicians later agreed that the abrasions found on Harrison’s knees were rug burns from that night and had no relevance to the killing that took place two days later.
After the night of sex and shouting, Nelson told Harrison she was done with him, that it was time to move on. Time to move away. Get out of town, she said; find something else to occupy your attention.
Apparently she didn’t convince him. Harrison returned to her house two nights later, hoping, he would say, for more conversation. The police would insist he returned with murder on his mind and a recently sharpened knife in his truck. Harrison’s story, of an argument that the new boyfriend turned into a physical contest, was never proved or disproved because there was no trial. What went undisputed was the result of the night: Harrison punched Nelson once in the jaw as she went for the phone, interrupting her as she hit the last of those three digits needed to summon help, and then turned on Maxwell and killed him with the knife. Harrison disconnected the phone, but a police car had already been dispatched, and a single sheriff’s deputy entered the house through an open side door to find Nelson unconscious and Harrison sitting on the kitchen floor beside Maxwell’s body, his cupped hands cradling a pool of blood. He was attempting, he said, to put the blood back into the corpse. To return it to Maxwell, to restore him to life. He was, he said, probably in shock.
That detail, of the attempt to return the blood, added a new twist on a classic small-town horror story, and the crime received significant media coverage. Front-page articles in the papers, precious minutes on the TV news. The murder was well documented, but I don’t remember it. I was an infant when Harrison was arrested, and his name meant nothing to me until almost three decades later, when the letters started.
He wrote me for the first time in the winter, about two weeks after my partner, Joe Pritchard, left for Florida. I remember that because my first instinct was to laugh out loud, and I was disappointed that there was nobody around to share my amusement. It was a crazy letter from a crazy killer who was already back on the streets. That life sentence only held him for fifteen years. He’d been out for thirteen when he made contact with me, sent a letter explaining that he had a matter of "grave importance" to discuss, but wanted to tell me his personal history before we met. It was an issue of honesty, he wrote. He had recently learned the importance of total honesty, of accountability, and therefore he would not hide from his history. He proceeded to describe, in a formal, matter-of-fact fashion, the crime he’d committed and the time he’d served, then left a phone number and asked that I call him when I was ready to meet.
The letter went into the trash without ceremony, and no call was made. More than a month passed before the second one arrived. This time, Harrison was more insistent and even stranger. He wrote that he’d followed my career in the newspapers and believed that I had been chosen for his task. He knew this must sound strange, but I needed to believe him, needed to meet with him just one time. There was talk of me being not a detective but a storyteller. Harrison had a story, and he needed to know the ending. No one could tell the ending but me. Was I intrigued?
I was not.
This time I considered burning the letter, or tearing it to shreds, but then decided that was too much of a gesture. Instead, I tucked it back into its envelope and tossed it into the garbage. Four companions soon found their way to a similar demise in the months that followed. Harrison was growing more per sis tent, writing so of en that I at least took the time to look into his background to see what sort of psychopath I was dealing with. I considered contacting his parole officer but never did. His correspondence, while annoying, also seemed harmless.
He gave up on the letter campaign and decided to arrive in person on an unusually warm afternoon in the first week of May. I was in the office and engaged in critical business—browsing the ESPN Web site and pondering what lunch should be—when there was a single soft knock on the door. Walk-in business isn’t just infrequent at our agency; it’s nonexistent. There’s no sign on the building, and that’s by design. Joe had a theory about walk-in clients being the sort you wanted to avoid in this business, so we kept a low profile.
I pushed back from the desk, crossed the room, and opened the door to face a man who couldn’t have stood an inch above five-six. He had a thick build, the natural sort rather than a weight-room product, and his hair was cut very close to his skull. There was one scar on his face, a dark imprint high on his cheekbone, of setting a pair of coal-colored eyes that were fastened on my own.
"Mr. Perry." It wasn’t a question; he knew who I was.
"I’m Parker Harrison."
He saw the look that passed over my face in response.
"I’m sorry if the letters bothered you," he said. "I didn’t want to be a bother. But I also thought . . . you were a police officer, and I thought maybe the name would mean something to you. So I said, well, better to be up-front about things, right? Then, when you never called, I decided maybe that was a mistake. I was hoping you’d welcome me."
We stood there in silence for a moment, and then he made a nod at the interior of the room and said, "Are you going to let me in, or do we have to talk on our feet?"
"On our feet," I said. "It’s not going to take long to finish the conversation, Harrison. I don’t investigate thirty-year-old murders committed in front of a witness and then confessed to. Besides, you’re already out. You did some time and now you’re done. So what’s the goal? I don’t understand it, and I don’t want any part of it."
For a moment he just stared at me, looking perplexed. Then his face split into a smile, one with some warmth to it.
"Of course you think that’s what I want. Why wouldn’t you? I’m sorry about that, Lincoln. May I call you Lincoln? I apologize for your confusion, but the last thing on my mind is my own case. I mean, there isn’t a case. As you said, I confessed. That wasn’t a joke, something I did for kicks because I wanted to spend my life in prison. I killed that man, Lincoln, killed him and never denied it."
He must have seen some reaction in my eyes, some hint of the chill that had gone through my stomach, because he stopped talking and frowned.
"I say that like it’s nothing," he said, "but that’s not how I feel about it. Not at all. I regret it terribly, would give anything to see him have his life back. So if you hear me talk of it like it’s nothing, please understand that’s just a product of familiarity. When you spend every day living with the price of destruction—of someone else’s life and your own—it becomes awfully familiar."
He spoke very well, gracefully even. I said, "All right, it seems I misunderstood, but why tell me about your case in that first letter if it’s not your current concern?"
"I told you," he said. "I wanted to be honest."
I raised my eyebrows. "You know, Harrison, there are some things we all keep to ourselves. If I’d killed somebody with a knife, I’d probably put that one on the list."
"Are you going to let me in?" he said.
I hesitated for a moment, then sighed and swung the door open and walked back to my chair behind the desk. He sat across from me, on one of the stadium chairs. He gave it a curious look, as most people do.
"From the old stadium?"
"When I was a child I saw Jim Brown play there," he said.
"Lots of people did."
He frowned at that, bothered by my unfriendliness, and said, "I have six thousand dollars. A little more than that, but roughly six thousand. I meant to lead of with that, do this properly, with the retainer and all."
"I’m not really looking for work right now, Harrison. Pretty backed up, actually."
He looked at my desk then, perhaps noting the absence of paperwork, and I reached out and turned the computer monitor to hide the ESPN screen. Like I said, pretty backed up.
"I read about you in the papers," he said.
"Terrific. I wasn’t real happy about being in them."
"I felt the same way when I made the front page."
I cocked my head and stared at him. "Is that supposed to be amusing?"
"No, it’s supposed to be serious."
Neither of us said anything for a minute. I was studying him, that scar on his cheek and the steel in his eyes. He had a soft voice. Too soft for the eyes and the scar.
"When I read about you," he said, "I knew you were the right person for this. I knew it. You’ve shown compassion for people who have done wrong. You’ve done wrong yourself."
He seemed to want a response to that, but I didn’t offer one. After a pause, he spoke again.
"I knew that you wouldn’t treat me as worthless, as diseased, simply because one day I made a terrible mistake and somebody died."
A terrible mistake and somebody died. That was one way to phrase it. I pushed back from the desk and hooked one ankle over my knee, keeping my silence.
"You’re looking at me with distaste," he said.
"It bothers you very much. Being in this room with me, knowing that someone died at my hand."
"Being in the room doesn’t bother me. Knowing that you killed someone does. Are you surprised by that?"
"You’ve never killed anyone, I take it?"
My hesitation provided his answer, and I disliked the look of satisfaction that passed over his face. Yes, I’d killed, but it was a hell of a lot different than what Harrison had done. Wasn’t it? Of course it was. He’d murdered someone in a rage. I’d killed in self-defense—and never reported the death.
"Mr. Harrison, I’d like you to go on your way. I’m just not interested in continuing this conversation, or in doing any work for you. I’m sorry if that upsets you. There are plenty of PIs in this town, though. Go on and talk to another one of them, and do yourself a favor this time and keep the murder story quiet."
"You won’t work for me."
"Because I told you that I killed someone."
I was getting a dull headache behind my temples and wanted him out of my office. Instead of speaking, I just lifted my hand and pointed at the door. He looked at me for a long time and then got to his feet. He turned to the door, then looked back at me.
"Do you believe that prison can change someone?" he said.
"I’m sure that it does."
"I mean change them in the way that it is supposed to. Could it rehabilitate them?"
I didn’t answer.
"You either don’t believe that or you aren’t sure," he said. "Yet you were a police officer. You sent people to prison. Shouldn’t you have believed in that idea, then?"
"I believe that we don’t have any better ideas in place at the current time. Does that satisfy you?"
"The question is, does it satisfy you, Lincoln."
"If all you wanted was a discussion about the system, you could have had it with your parole officer."
"I didn’t want a discussion about the system. I wanted you to treat me like a functioning member of society. You’ve chosen not to do that."
I rubbed a hand over my eyes, thinking that I should have left for lunch ten minutes earlier.
"Prison didn’t rehabilitate me," he said, "but another place did. Some other people did."
He was still standing there, hadn’t moved for the door, and now I gave up. It apparently would be easier to hear him out than throw him out.
"The job," I said. "What is it? What do you want from me?"
He gestured down at the chair from which he’d just risen, and I sighed and nodded, and then he sat again.
"I got out thirteen years ago," he said. "Spent the first year working for the most amazing woman I ever met. She was someone who operated on a level above most of the world. Kind, compassionate, beautiful. She and her husband built a house in the woods that was as special a place as I’ve ever seen on this earth, just a gorgeous, haunting place. If you go to it, and I hope you will, you’ll understand what I mean. There’s an energy there, Lincoln, a spirit I know you’ll be able to feel. They came up with the idea for the home themselves, and it was incredible. Built underground on one side, so that when you came up the drive all you saw was this single arched door in the earth."
He lifted his hands and made an arch with them, revealing tattoos on the insides of both wrists.
"The door was this massive piece of oak surrounded by hand-laid stone, and it was all you could see. Just this door to nowhere. Then you could walk up over the door, stand on a hill, and even though the house was directly beneath you, you couldn’t tell. There were trees and plants growing all over the place, and no sign that a home was under your feet. At the top of the hill they built a well house out of stone, styled in a way that made you think it was two hundred years old. There was no well, of course, because the house was beneath. If you kept walking past that, you’d come to this sheer drop."
Again he lifted his hands, making a slashing motion this time. "That was the back wall. Two stories of glass, all these windows looking out on the creek and the pond and the woods. It was only from the back that you could see the house. From the front, it was just the door in the hillside. Alexandra wanted it to feel that way. She wanted it to be a place where you could escape from the world."
I had a strong sense that he was no longer seeing me, that I could stand up and do jumping jacks and he wouldn’t blink. He was back at this place, this house in the earth, and from watching his face I knew that he recalled every detail perfectly, that it was the setting of a vivid movie he played regularly in his head.
"I helped them grow vegetables, and I kept the grass cut and the trees trimmed and the creek flowing and the pond clean," he said. "In the fall I cleared the leaves; in the winter I cleared the snow. No power tools, not even a mower. I did it all by hand, and at first I thought they were crazy for requiring that, but I needed the job. Then I came to understand how important it was. How the sound of an engine would have destroyed what was there."
"Who were they?" I asked, and the interruption seemed as harsh to him as a slap in the face. He blinked at me a few times, then nodded.
"The owners were Alexandra and Joshua Cantrell, and while I was not close to Joshua, I became closer to Alexandra in a year than I would have thought possible. She was a very spiritual person, deeply in touch with the earth, and when she learned I had Shawnee ancestry, she wanted to hear all of the stories I’d heard, was just fascinated with the culture. I learned from her, and she learned from me, and for that one single year everything in my life seemed to have some harmony."
He paused, lifted his head, tilted it slightly, and looked me in the eye.
"They left that place, that beautiful home they’d built, without any warning, just drove away and left it all behind. I never saw them or heard from them again. That was twelve years ago."
Excerpted from The Silent Hour by Michael Koryta.
Copyright 2009 by Michael Koryta.
Published in August 2009 by St. Martin’s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.