Denver Lawyers' Arts & Literature Contest: Fiction Winner Andy Engeman, "Ricochet"
The prisoner was leaning back from the table, an arm draped over the adjacent chair, with four investigators from the Police Department in various poses of incredulity around him. No longer smug, the prisoner did not notice the Sheriff walking by outside, as he brayed and basked in the attention he had created.
"Amazing," Whitaker thought as he continued down the hallway in the Headquarters Building.
The way the little things lead to the big things.
The window frame. Sheriff Whitaker was the first one to spot it, shortly after he had arrived at the house and before anyone knew what was going on. While the General was still warm, while the patrolmen and detectives and medical team swarmed around, Whitaker found the ripped groove in the middle lattice of one of the back windows, as telling as if someone had drawn a line with a ball-point. The shot had come from outside, he had told the arguing detectives, and by an infinitesimal calculation, fate had deflected it through the screen, the wooden frame and the glass, into the head of the General—causing a surprising amount of damage.
Whitaker turned a corner in the police hallway, his Tony Lama’s echoing off the closed office doors, and remembered how he went out back that April night and stood and looked at the strange house. The two rear windows were lit like a birthday cake, and inside was a flurry of activity. Low overcast clouds grayed the night and smelled of rain. He stood there thinking of an Italian springtime years earlier when he vectored German snipers by sound and muzzle flash. And so he did again: vector as best he could reckon from the groove in the wood frame, which put him in the corner of the back yard, leaning against the General’s station wagon, staring back at the house.
"This is where I would have been," Whitaker thought, the backyard looking like a shooting gallery with clear windows and a privacy fence on either side.
At the end of the police hallway, Whitaker pushed opened the steel security door with a click, and dipped his hat in a quick greeting to a stream of officers and officials swimming in the opposite direction back toward the prisoner he had just left. Word must be getting out.
So many ways this could have turned out differently. For example, that night, the fact that he had simply turned around and started walking away from the house, across the alley, on the gut reaction that the killer also had run this way. His dusty Tony Lama’s crossed the field behind the house, walked across the edge of the church parking lot and up over the railroad bed, where he gazed out at the dark field beyond. The fact that he felt something—that this was an area of interest. He insisted the detectives search back there the next day, even though by then there was a witness claiming two cars had fled the house immediately following the shooting. The fact that the detectives found a buried tarp wrapping a rifle. The little things.
Whitaker had to wait for the elevator on the third floor lobby. His first real sense of the gravity of what was happening was the noise emanating from the elevator shafts. He leaned against the cinderblock wall on his extended arm while his other hand rested on his hip; then it reached up to his face. He was tired.
How hard everyone worked. The slug that couldn’t be found. Not in the General’s head. Not in the room. A month later the housecleaner found it buried in the beige plaster of an adjacent wall. Another unexpected ricochet. Another little thing.
The slug matched the rifle: an old Italian military type which he had not seen since the war. And then the big break: the hard working kids in the research department finding a recent mail order from Klein’s Sporting Goods in Chicago to an "A. Hidell" with a local P.O. Box. Box 2915 yielded to the detectives Communist newspapers on Cuba and a cartoon of President Kennedy lighting an exploding cigar which said: "Bay of Pigs."
The elevator doors opened and a hustling, pushing crowd emerged. His friend Captain Fritz tried to shout something to him but was carried in the opposite direction. Whitaker moved into the empty elevator and pressed the first floor, relieved to be heading home. The last two days exhausting and confusing.
The woman at the apartment on West Neely Street spoke only Russian, but when Whitaker and his team returned with the search warrant she had a friend with her to translate. No, she did not know anything about the murder of General Edwin Walker. No, she did not know "Aiek Hidell." Her husband was not home—out on an interview. But when one of the detectives emerged from the back study with photos and maps of the General’s house, a snapshot of a man posing in the backyard with the rifle on his hip and a pistol in his belt, and a 10-point note with instructions what she, his wife Marina, was to do in case he was arrested, she sat down, running her hands through her jet black hair.
Through her interpreter, she began to explain what she had seen on the night of April 10, when suddenly in the final improbable act of this long investigation, her husband walked into the yard. Quickly the detectives surrounded the diminutive man.
"Are you Alek James Hidell?" Sheriff Whitaker asked.
A smirk in response.
"Are you Lee Harvey Oswald?"
Hands in front pockets, head tilted: "You decide."
As the detectives began to cuff him, his indignant behavior became more arrogant: "I am not resisting arrest!"
Neighbors’ eyes peered out as Whitaker led the group to the patrol cars.
"I protest this police brutality!" he screamed over his shoulder.
The same elevator doors opened for the Sheriff exiting, just as they did when Oswald the prisoner was brought in for his interrogation yesterday afternoon. From his smug, calm behavior, constantly claiming he was a "patsy," some of the staff thought they had the wrong guy. Yet, under Whitaker’s unrelenting questions, laying out the massive picture the little pieces had created, reminding the prisoner of the simultaneous examination of his wife, the slight man finally broke.
"Gentlemen," he said quietly after staring at the floor for a long time, "I am a Hunter of Fascists."
But then looking up, his shrill voice rising, he surprisingly proclaimed: "And I just got one of the worst. And if you’da let me be, I woulda got Kennedy this fall!"
Then came the bragging details, the ignorant philosophy and strident dogmatism. Whitaker wanted to put his shaking hands around the little man’s neck. He walked out of the room as the circus began.
The swinging double doors of the Dallas Police Headquarters Building were jostled by a multitude of cops, press, bystanders. Whitaker pushed through them all, feeling the hot summer dusk.
He crossed Main Street thinking that if that bullet had ricocheted up instead of down...
Missed the General...
They never would have got this guy...
And a President would have likely been killed here in Dallas.
"Hell," Whitaker said out loud in a low grumble, "I didn’t even vote for him." He pulled out his keys. "But not to my President. Not in my town."
He stopped to admire his new white Lincoln Continental, parked along the curb where he left it last night. The setting sun caught the left side of his face, as a smile twitched his mustache for the first time that day. He turned on the car and the radio. His teenage daughter must have been listening last because it was on KLIF. That folk group she loved swelled up and out from the dashboard:
"...the answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind... the answer is blowin’ in the wind..."
Whitaker put the car in gear and pulled away, reluctant to change the song, wondering what this crazy new decade had in store for them all.