Redemption – A Short Story
Ben Hawkins blames his father for a psychologically abusive childhood and for triggering his mother’s suicide. The two men have been estranged for years. But when Ben is falsely accused of murder, he has no other option than to turn to his father, a retired homicide detective, for help.
As Ben languishes in jail, the noose growing tighter, his father desperately searches for the real killer. The evidence continues to mount against Ben until the case takes an unexpected turn.
The complete short story is available below.
Redemption – A Short Story
I stepped into the upscale men’s clothing store and the owner jumped in front of me, barring my entrance. He was a small man, balding, effeminate. He fluttered his arms like a duck.
“You’re not welcome in here.”
My hands clenched into fists, as I fought my desire to punch his teeth clear back into his throat. “I came to tell you that I did not steal that Rolex. The cops cleared me.”
“No. The police just couldn’t prove what we both know. You did take that watch.”
The heat seared through my brain. I knew my face was as red as fire. This man with his perfect bow tie, his pasty white complexion, his smug expression. He couldn’t fathom that someone like me — a road construction worker who sweats in ninety degree heat earning an honest living — could be honorable, ethical, even educated. I felt like shoving my college degree in front of his self-satisfied mug, forcing him to acknowledge me as a human being, as an equal.
Instead I turned around silently — all the words I longed to yell at him jammed up in my brain. I yanked the door handle and the door slammed into the wall with a thundering crack. I stepped outside, picked up a trash can, and hurled it against the building. Expressions of shock and horror registered on the faces of the people walking by.
“White trash,” someone muttered, and he wasn’t referring to the garbage strewn on the sidewalk. As quickly as my anger had consumed me, it was gone, replaced by embarrassment. I put my head down and trudged over to my Ford pick-up. My lunch break was almost over and I hadn’t had a bite to eat.
* * *
There was a pounding in my brain. Bam — bam — bam! Was it a dream? I couldn’t tell. My eyes slammed shut and I tried to drift back to sleep. Bam — bam — bam! This time there was no mistaking it. It wasn’t a dream. Someone was beating his fist against my door. I pulled myself out of a deep fog of sleep and into the cold, harsh morning light.
I’d worked a double shift yesterday — seven to three, three to eleven. I drove home, ate a sandwich, and stumbled into bed — thankful for the weekend. I expected to sleep until noon. Clearly that wasn’t going to happen. The idiot hammering at my door wasn’t going away.
I jerked the covers off and chilly air enveloped my body, goose bumps covered my skin — a rude awakening.
Bam — bam — bam!
“I’m coming,” I shouted. I threw on a pair of jeans and an old sweatshirt, the Ohio State logo so faded that it looked like ‘H O ATE’. I shuffled to the door and yanked it open.
“What the hell?” My words choked off as I stood face-to-face with two cops, both with their hands gripping their revolvers — waiting for me to give them an excuse to haul the guns out of their holsters.
I took a step back. What did they want this time? Was it another stolen watch — maybe a tie this time? I stood in silence and waited to hear the latest accusation.
“Ben Hawkins. You’re under arrest for the murder of Jonathon Cahill.”
Jonathon Cahill? I thought. Who the hell is Jonathon Cahill? And then it hit me. The shopkeeper. The little twit who’d accused me of stealing.
I could feel the sweat pop out of every pore of my body. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. This couldn’t be happening.
The cops bulldozed their way into my living room and shoved me against a wall. They wrenched my arms behind my body; the cold hard steel of the handcuffs cut into my skin. The click, click of the locks engaged and then my mind went blank, my knees buckled, and I slid to the floor like a discarded towel.
* * *
The two detectives glared at me across the interrogation room table. If this was supposed to be good cop, bad cop, I wondered where the good cop was. Their contempt for me was as real as the hard-backed chair I sat in.
“I’m Detective Hughes and this is my partner, Detective Randall. We’d like to know where you were Wednesday morning between midnight and three a.m.”
That was an easy one. “In bed, asleep.”
“Can anyone verify that?”
Not so easy. “No.”
The cops glanced at each other and smiled as if they’d won the lottery.
I shook my head. “That doesn’t prove anything.”
“Except that you don’t have an alibi for the victim’s time-of-death,” Hughes said. His sentence hung in the air for a long stretch of time. “So what did you do that night before you went to bed?”
I thought back to Tuesday night into Wednesday morning. I’d worked a double shift, same as yesterday. “I worked until eleven. I went home, had something to eat. That’s it. I was tired and I went to bed.”
Even if I’d known I would need an alibi, who would I have called? No one. I had no girlfriend, no close buddies. I was a loner. Occasionally I’d stop for a beer after work with a couple of the guys, but most days, I went home, watched TV or read a book, and went to bed. Even my weekends, I spent alone. I’d just moved into a fixer-upper and my free time was spent on renovation projects.
A grenade toss interrupted my train of thought. “So how do you explain the neighbor who identified your truck parked in the murder victim’s driveway at midnight, right around the time Cahill was killed?”
As soon as the detective said the words, it came back to me. I had been at Cahill’s house that morning, but I couldn’t believe someone saw me. I was only there for a few minutes. I didn’t even get out of my car. I planned to. I wanted to confront that asshole, but then I changed my mind. I decided it wasn’t worth it, so I turned around and went home.
Now the pieces all came together. Cahill had filed a police report against me when he thought I’d stolen that Rolex. I knew people witnessed my outburst at his store when I went to tell him I was innocent. And then Cahill’s neighbor spotted me at his house that night. Putting it all together, even I thought I sounded guilty. The cops probably figured they had an open-and-shut case. Nothing I could say would convince them otherwise.
“I want a lawyer.”
“Figures,” Randall said, turning to his partner. “The guilty ones always lawyer up.”
“And my phone call. Aren’t I supposed to get a phone call?”
“After we book you,” Hughes said. “You can call in the cavalry, but it won’t help. You’re going away for a long time.”
“A real long time,” Randall echoed.
I watched in silence as the detectives left the room; their words hung in the air.
A few minutes later, a guard showed up and took me to the jail’s processing area. The situation was so surreal, I felt as if I were a balloon hovering over my body. Like I was watching a scene from a movie. Fingerprints, mug shot, strip search, a bright orange jump suit. I stumbled through the process pretending it wasn’t real, like it was happening to someone else.
Finally, the ordeal ended and I stood alone in a holding cell. I gripped the bars, as though I could push the door open and free myself from this nightmare. Being abandoned was worse than what I’d just gone through. I was on my own with my thoughts. Nothing to distract me from imagining my future: a trial, a guilty verdict, life in prison. This couldn’t be happening. I’m innocent, I wanted to scream.
I don’t know how long I stood there, but my legs began to ache. I turned and spotted a concrete bench at the back of the cell. I staggered to it and collapsed in a heap, curled up in a ball as though my bones were rubber. I lay there, feeling helpless, until I realized no Superman was going to fly in to rescue me. I had to come up with a plan, some way to save myself.
I forced myself into a sitting position, my elbows propped on my thighs, my head in my hands. I racked my brain, trying to come up with a strategy. I had the money to pay for a lawyer, but I didn’t know any criminal attorneys. I tried to think of someone to call, someone who could do some research and find a good lawyer. But my mind was blank. I had no brothers or sisters, no close friends. My mother was dead and I hadn’t talked to my dad for ten years.
My dad: it slowly dawned on me that he might be my best shot. He was a retired cop. He knew the system, knew who the best lawyers were. He’d spent hours testifying in courtrooms, battling defense attorneys. If I needed to put my life into a good lawyer’s hands, my father would know the best person for the job.
But could I make that phone call? Could I ask my dad to help me?
I thought back to the last time I’d seen him — at my mother’s funeral. I’d graduated from college a week before she ended her life by hanging herself in our garage. I’m sure she planned for my dad to find her, and if he’d come straight home from work, he would have. Instead, he stopped at a bar for drinks with his buddies. By the time my father made it home, I’d already cut the rope, watched my mother’s lifeless body drop to the ground with a thud, fallen to my knees and cradled her in my arms. A neighbor, walking his dog, saw us and called the police. I was still holding my mother when the cops came.
A suicide note, addressed to me, lay propped against my dad’s toolbox. The words she wrote are branded on my brain.
I love you, Ben. Always remember that. Loving you is what kept me going all these years. But now you’re grown-up and ready to go off on your own. I can’t stay here without you, alone with your father. And I can’t leave him. We both know he’d kill me if I tried. So this is my only way out. The only way I can get away from him forever — on my terms. Be good, Ben. Be the man your father couldn’t be.
I thought back to the hell my dad had put us both through — the drinking, the emotional abuse. I remembered one time when I broke a softball trophy he’d won playing on his precinct’s team. I can still see how his face turned red with rage, the veins in his neck popped out, his hands curled into fists. The spit flew from his mouth as he called me a useless idiot and told me he wished I’d never been born. Although he didn’t strike me then or any other time, the threat always loomed. I spent my childhood in a constant state of fear. That was the reason I didn’t have anyone to call for help. Thanks to my dad, I distrusted the world, afraid to open myself up to anyone in it.
Although my father didn’t physically end my mother’s life, I held him responsible for her death. He killed her day-by-day, moment-by-moment. His contempt turned her into a depressed, fearful shadow, cowering each time she heard him come home from work. On the day of my mother’s funeral, as they lowered her coffin into the ground, I’d turned to my dad and told him I never wanted to see him again. And now ten years had passed without a word between us — not even a phone call or a letter.
Could I open that door? Could I let my father back into my life? As much as I hated the idea, I had no other options.
* * *
When I first saw my dad again, it was like seeing a ghost. Growing up, he’d been a big, burly, red-faced guy who strutted into a room as if he owned it. The man who shuffled into the visitor’s area was pale and gaunt; his clothes hung loosely on him like an undersized store mannequin.
May father walked to the table where I sat, and he stood for a moment. I saw the indecision in his eyes — whether to embrace me or to shake my hand. I didn’t want a hug or a handshake. I stayed in my chair and gestured to the one opposite me. I might need my dad’s help, but I wasn’t going to make this easy on him. This wasn’t a heartfelt reunion between two people thrilled to see each other after a long separation. As I gazed into my father’s steely blue eyes, I felt like a mouse waiting for a cobra to strike.
He lowered himself into the chair and spoke the first words of our ten-year drought. “It’s good to see you, son, even under these circumstances.”
“I didn’t know who else to call.”
“Then I’m glad you called me. I want to help you.”
Listening to my dad’s offer, I felt compelled to convince him of my innocence. “I didn’t kill this guy.”
“I know you didn’t. I believe you.” He leaned forward in his chair. “I want you to tell me everything that happened leading up to your arrest. Don’t leave anything out. The more I know, the better chance I have to help you.”
I nodded, ready to talk, ready to tell my side of the story to someone who might actually believe me. “I guess it all started because I needed a new pair of pants. One of the guys I work with invited us all over to his place for a barbecue. I wanted to get a new pair of khakis, maybe a shirt to go with it. I’d seen this fancy men’s clothing store downtown. I’d never been inside, but they had nice stuff in their windows. So I stopped in one day after work. Turns out this man who they think I killed — Jonathan Cahill — owned the store.”
“So what happened?” my father asked.
“As soon as I walked in, he gave me this attitude. Like I didn’t belong there. Like I wasn’t good enough to set foot in his precious store. I’d come straight from my construction job, so I was still in my work clothes. I’m sure I was pretty sweaty, too.” I shook my head, remembering. “He followed me around the whole time. I could tell he was afraid I was going to steal something. I should have just walked out, but I was there and they had what I was looking for.” I paused, thinking that if only I’d left, I wouldn’t be in this jam.
“Go on,” my dad said.
“I took a few pairs of pants into the fitting room and while I was trying them on, I heard some more people come into the store. The owner left me alone and went to help them. I tried on the pants, but I didn’t like any of them that much.” I shrugged. “And the more I thought about how the guy had treated me, the more pissed off I got. So I just left.”
“Did the owner see you leave?”
“No, but I saw him. He was busy with the other customers at the back of the store. He was smiling and treating them like royalty. When I saw that, I knew he wasn’t rude to everyone. Only to people who he didn’t think were worthy of being his customers.”
I saw my father wince. He knew I had other plans after I graduated college, but after my mom’s suicide, I’d lost my motivation. I took the easy way out — a job that paid the bills and didn’t require me to interact with people.
“So how did shopping for pants lead to a murder charge?” my dad asked.
“It wasn’t murder at first; it was theft. An expensive watch went missing the day I was in the store and the owner was convinced I stole it. He must have noticed my company logo on the shirt I was wearing, because the police showed up at my workplace to question me.”
I remembered how humiliated I felt having the cops grill me in front of my boss and my co-workers. “I got pretty angry. I mean, first the owner treats me like dirt and then he accuses me of stealing.”
“Did the police charge you?”
“No. The owner didn’t see me leave with the Rolex. The cops didn’t have any evidence. I’m sure they were hoping I’d confess, but obviously, I didn’t since I hadn’t done anything wrong.”
“I’m surprised the police even followed up on it. Usually they don’t bother with retail thefts.”
“I bet Cahill was a big contributor to their police fund. Something like that. Or maybe he just had connections.”
My father nodded. “You could be right. It wouldn’t be the first time a big-time donor got preferential treatment. So if the police didn’t charge you with theft, then…”
I could see he was confused. “I should have just left it alone, but I didn’t. I decided to go back to the shop and talk to the owner. Tell him face-to-face that I didn’t take the watch.”
“What did he say?”
“He didn’t believe me. He was convinced I took it. And why? Because I didn’t look like I could afford to buy clothes at his fancy store. Not me, not a blue-collar worker.” I pounded my fist on the table. “I get so sick of being treated like a second-class citizen.”
“Did you get angry at the owner? Threaten him in some way?”
“Not in words, but I was pretty hot. I stormed out, slammed the door, and threw a trash can at the side of the building. There were people walking by who saw me. Maybe one of them contacted the police after they heard about the murder and gave them my description.”
“And then the police connected the dots,” my dad said. “They knew you were angry with the owner over the theft accusation and they figured it escalated from there. But that’s a pretty weak case. I’m surprised they convinced a DA to charge you.”
“There’s more.” I didn’t want to tell him the rest. I felt like an idiot for what I’d done, but I couldn’t hold back. He’d find out anyway. “The day I went to see him at the shop was Tuesday during my lunch break. When I got off work at eleven, I looked up his address and drove to his house. I know it was stupid, but I was still mad. I was going to have it out with him.”
My father grimaced. “So there’s a witness placing you at the victim’s house the night he was murdered, right?”
“Someone saw my truck in his driveway. Just like I didn’t fit in at the store, my beat-up truck didn’t fit in the neighborhood. The witness must have written down the license plate number.”
My dad leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms, as though he wanted to create distance between us. I didn’t blame him. He finally hears from his son after all these years and then I dump this crap right into his lap. I shouldn’t have called him. I should have figured out another way. I was about to let him off the hook when he spoke.
“It doesn’t look good, but I’ve seen stronger cases fall apart. I’ll call in some favors with the guys I still know on the force. I’ll try to get a look at the murder book and see if I can find some other leads to track down.”
I was shocked. I’d hoped he could find me a criminal attorney, maybe give me some advice. I hadn’t expected him to offer to investigate the crime. To really go to bat for me. For the first time since I was thrown in jail, I felt a glimmer of hope. My voice cracked when I spoke. “Thanks, Dad. I didn’t know if you’d be willing to help me — you know, after everything that’s happened.”
He took a deep breath. “I know I was a rotten father and I’m not here to make excuses. The past is behind us and there’s nothing I can do to change it. But from here on out, I’ll do everything in my power to help you. I swear on your mother’s grave, I’ll figure out a way to get you out of this mess.”
* * *
The next few days dragged like a traffic jam on a California freeway. I passed the time in my cell reading and thinking; the only interruption came at mealtimes. I didn’t mind reading, but the thinking part wasn’t so good. I worried that my dad wouldn’t be able to find any good leads. More than that, I worried that he would give up on me, just as he had after my mom died.
I kept going back to all the bad decisions I’d made. If only I’d walked out as soon as the shop owner gave me attitude. If only I hadn’t gone back to the store to confront him. If only I hadn’t driven to his house. The “if only’s” were driving me crazy.
My dad found a criminal attorney to take my case, but meeting with him didn’t make me feel any better. Even though he didn’t ask, I told him I was innocent. I could tell from his reaction that he didn’t believe me. I guessed that in his line of work, he got lied to more times than not.
When I got word that my dad was back to see me, I was torn between hope and dread. I walked into the jail visiting area and one look at his face pushed me to the dread side.
“The evidence against you is pretty strong, mostly due to credible eye-witnesses. There are two people who saw you leave the store and throw the trash can against the building. Both are educated, employed, with no criminal records and no tie to you or the murder victim.”
“That figures,” I said. “In other words, they’re honest, upstanding citizens who will testify that I was an out-of-control, raging lunatic.”
My father’s face was grim. “I’m afraid so. The other witness is a neighbor walking his dog who can place your truck at the scene of the crime. Your truck stood out to him because it was pretty beat up and he’d never seen it in the neighborhood before. It also struck him as odd that it was parked in the victim’s driveway close to midnight, which in his mind ruled out your being there to work on the house or something like that. The witness told the police that he thought about calling them to check it out, but decided he was overreacting, so instead he wrote down the license plate number.”
“I was only parked on that driveway for five minutes or so. There’s no way I could have committed a murder in that amount of time.”
“Unfortunately, the witness lives four houses down from the victim on the same side of the street. So once he passed your truck, he couldn’t see when you left. As far as anyone knows, you could have been there for hours.”
I could already feel the noose tightening around my neck. “Did the cops even bother to look for other witnesses, anyone who might have seen me come and go?”
“They did, and so did I. I canvassed the entire block and no one else saw you. All the jury will know is that your truck was parked in the victim’s driveway during the window of time that the medical examiner will testify the murder took place.”
My father pulled on his ear lobe, a gesture I remembered he used to make when he was in “cop mode” discussing a case. “Is there anyone you saw on the way home? Did you stop for something to eat or to get gas — anything like that? Even if you caught someone’s eye at a stoplight, I might be able to track him down to confirm your story.”
I didn’t even have to think about it before answering. Over the last few days, I’d already played through my drive home over and over in my mind and I knew there was no one who could give me an alibi. “I don’t think so, unless one of my neighbors saw me come home.”
My dad shook his head. “No. I thought of that as well. I already checked with them and no one saw you that night.”
“Then I’m pretty well screwed, right?”
My father reached across the table, and his hand gripped my forearm — the first contact we’d made in a decade. His touch made me feel as if I was a kid again, desperate for his approval.
“I’m not giving up,” he said, “even though the detectives assigned to the case have. They’re convinced you’re the killer, so they’ve stopped looking for other suspects. I know you’re innocent, so I’m going to keep looking. I’m going to comb through the victim’s life. We know the real killer is out there; I just have to find him.”
“What if the murder was random? Or a burglary? The killer could be anyone.”
My dad sat back in his chair. “We got lucky there. Nothing was taken from the victim’s home, so that rules out burglary. In fact, the police found a few hundred dollars of cash in his pocket and an expensive watch on his wrist.”
“So the killer could have been someone Cahill knew?”
“Yes, the murder is what we detectives classify as personal. In other words, the killer looked like he had a grudge against the victim.”
“How did you determine that?”
“The killer used a knife from the victim’s kitchen and stabbed him in the chest nine times. That indicates a crime of passion.”
My father’s eyes searched the visiting room and he leaned in closer, his voice a whisper. “There was something else. The killer shoved a bar of soap down the victim’s throat. Irish Spring — probably because Cahill was Irish. That’s not random. The killer was making a statement. Most likely insinuating the victim was a liar.”
“But that could be tied to me, too, right? I could have been making a point that the owner falsely accused me.”
“That’s how the detectives on the case are going to spin it. But we know they’re wrong. We know there’s someone else out there who had a grudge against the victim. So I need to dig into the victim’s life and find the real killer.”
“Maybe we’ll get lucky and the real killer will confess.”
“I wouldn’t count on it. The only ones who confess are nut jobs who didn’t do it, but who get off on the publicity. That’s why the police are keeping the incident with the soap under wraps to make sure no one comes along to claim credit for a murder he didn’t commit.”
My stomach was in knots. “All the evidence points to me.”
“Then I’ve got to find someone else it points to,” my dad said. “I swear to you, son, I will find a way to prove you’re innocent.”
* * *
Over the next couple of months, my dad visited me every two or three days. He filled me in on his progress — or more accurately, the lack thereof — tracking down leads. As time passed, I could see him getting more discouraged with every dead-end.
Then one day, he walked into the visiting room with a huge grin on his face. “They’re releasing you!”
I jumped from my seat. “What? What are you talking about?”
My father grabbed my shoulders, and his touch seared though my body like a jolt of electricity. “It’s true. There was another homicide committed two nights ago; the scene was exactly the same as in the Cahill murder. The killer used the victim’s kitchen knife with multiple stab wounds to the chest and a bar of Irish Spring shoved in the victim’s mouth. The soap is what clinched it — it had to be the same killer.”
I sank into my chair, disbelief flooding my senses. Could my nightmare be over?
My dad sat next to me. “The detectives thought about trying to hold you for Cahill’s murder, but the DA squawked. He knew your attorney would have a field day linking the two murders — with one committed while you were behind bars.”
“So, they’re really going to let me out of here?” I asked.
“You’ll be released in a few hours.” My father reached for my hand. “What would you like to do on your first evening of freedom? How about dinner at my place?”
I couldn’t refuse his offer, not after all he’d done for me. I didn’t know if I could ever forgive him for the way he’d treated me when I was a kid or for his role in my mother’s suicide, but I had to try. I accepted his invitation. Maybe this would be a turning point in our lives.
That evening, my dad cooked spaghetti for dinner — my favorite meal as a kid. After we ate, I helped clean up the dishes like in the old days. As I scraped the plates into the kitchen trash can, a flash of green caught my eye. An empty box of Irish Spring.
A chill went through my body. My head spun around, searching the kitchen counter. There was a bottle of liquid Dial next to the sink.
“I have to use the can,” I said, racing for the bathroom.
When I opened the door, I spotted another liquid Dial on the counter. I yanked back the shower curtain and found a bright orange bar of soap. Dial — just like when I was a kid. We always used that brand, never Irish Spring.
My legs felt like lead as I made my way back to the kitchen. I went to the trash can and lifted out the empty Irish Spring box. “What is this, Dad?”
I watched the color drain from my father’s face. “What do you mean, what is it? It’s an empty box of soap.”
“Not just any soap — Irish Spring. Just like what you told me the killer used.”
“So, what? Sometimes I use it too.”
“Since when? I lived here for twenty years. We always bought Dial. We never used anything else.”
He opened his mouth, but I held up my hand to stop whatever lie he was going to come up with. “I checked the bathroom. There’s just Dial in there — like always.”
My dad sank against the counter, his shoulders sagging. “Son, there was no other way. I couldn’t find Cahill’s real killer. The only way I could get you free was to create another homicide scene that looked like Cahill’s.”
The bile rose in my throat. “You killed an innocent person. How could you do that?”
“Son, I know what I did to you and your mother. I’ll never forgive myself for the way I treated you.” His cold blue eyes met mine. “I had to find some way to redeem myself.”
# # #
Copyright 2012 Linda Johnson
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Redemption is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.