One Per Coffin

The prison guard pushed me into the chair, cuffed my hands and feet to the table, checked his work twice and, closing the door behind him, left the room.

The room was brick and white paint, a metal table and two metal chairs. The table and chairs were bolted to the floor, so if an inmate got upset, he wouldn’t have anything within reach to beat his lawyer. I met my lawyer in here twice. After the second time he stopped coming, so I stopped coming. I never wanted to hit him with a chair, a table maybe.

The door opened and a man wearing a rumpled suit sat down across from me. He wore the suit like an afterthought—something put on to let the dog outside at night. Puffy sacks drooped his eyes and he smelled like cigarettes. He opened a manila folder with a fighter’s hand–meaty fingers and scarred knuckles. Though his face needed shaving and his teeth needed brushing, the eyes were intelligent.  His hair was damp, which meant either snow or rain. I wasn’t certain of the season or the month. Twelve years in a cell does that.

I held up the handcuffs.

“That’s funny,” he said.

I shrugged.

“My name is Detective Munroe. You can call me Detective Munroe. I’d like to start this interview by talking about Boris Egorov.”

When I said nothing, he asked, “Would you like to talk about Georgy Chorkina instead?”

I glanced at the stack of paper. The top sheet was old and yellow and the text looked stamped from a typewriter, not a form spit from a computer.

He said, “I will tell you what I know and then you tell me what you know. It’s simpler that way. It builds trust.” He rubbed his jaw and glanced at the sheet of paper. “Twelve years ago, you shot Boris Egorov twice in the chest with a .38 caliber revolver killing him. You ran, but we caught you like cops do. Now you’re in prison. Simple story. Not complicated. You’ve been here a long time.”

“What is this about?”

“We have new evidence showing you didn’t shoot Egorov. We now believe it was Georgy Chorkina who pulled the trigger.”

“I killed Egorov. If Georgy said he did it, he’s lying.”

“What happened to the revolver?”

“I don’t know. I ran. The police found me standing by the river with empty hands. I might have taken the gun, I might not. I was in shock.”

Munroe flipped the top sheet and read from the next. “We dredged the river but didn’t find the gun. That time of year the water was low so it should have been easy to find. Did you go there often?”

“The river? Yeah, if the weather was good I’d go on my lunch breaks and watch the boats.”

“You cooperated with the police. You helped them in every way you could.”

I shrugged. “I killed him. He was an asshole, but he didn’t deserve to die. Not like that, not over a drunken misunderstanding.”

“Why were you there that night?”

“Egorov needed parts to repair the cars. He bought them wholesale from manufacturers and part stores. I drove his delivery truck to get them or return them as needed. That day we were busy, and I didn’t finish my runs until late.”

“How long did you work for Egorov?”

“Three months.”

“And at no time did you see him involved in any kind of drug dealing?”

I sighed. The same question everyone asks eventually. He got to it quicker than most. “No, I didn’t know he dealt drugs. I delivered parts and that was it.”

“You never looked in the packages you delivered?”

“Every time I saw a delivery package I saw parts. I never once thought of drugs. Some Egorov put in paper, some in boxes. They weighed what I expected them to weigh, so I didn’t become suspicious. I’d go to the part store, drop off the package or pick it up, get a receipt and head back to the shop.”

Munroe flipped to the next page. “How do you know Georgy Chorkina?”

“He was one of Egorov’s mechanics. He was an asshole. They were all assholes. They drank and argued and sometimes beat each other up. It was a weird Russian thing I didn’t understand. I took the job because I wanted to work on cars. I tried to get them to teach me, but they ignored me because I was American.”

“We found the gun used to kill Egorov.”

“And?”

“We didn’t find it in the river. We found it in a storage unit Chorkina had rented for the last twelve years.”

“He’s in prison.”

“Ten years. Serving a life sentence for beating a man to death in a bar fight.”

“So what?”

“The gun has his prints all over it, not yours.”

“After twelve years I wouldn’t expect to find them. Maybe I dropped the gun at the scene. Maybe somebody grabbed it before the cops came and somewhere along the way Chorkina got ahold of it. Maybe he uses it to scare his kids on Halloween: The Gun That Killed Boris Egorov.

Munroe grunted. “Chorkina doesn’t have kids.”

I shrugged. “That was the only theory I had.”

“Chorkina admitted to killing Egorov. He gave us the gun and the ballistics matched.”

“He didn’t kill Egorov. I did.”

“He claims he found Egorov beating on you and tried to stop him. Egorov went at him with a crowbar so he pulled the gun and shot him twice in the chest.”

“Egorov abused everyone. One guy he beat so bad he broke his own hand and they both ended up in the hospital. Chorkina didn’t care about me or anybody else. He would have stood by and watched if Egorov used me as a punching bag. He sure as hell wouldn’t have pulled a gun on Egorov.”

“Makes more sense than the mess at your trial.”

“The DA didn’t like me.”

“She had a career case in Egorov. Convicting him would let her walk straight up to the Attorney General’s office. Only that didn’t happen. You put two holes in her Russian drug dealer. Two bullets killed a man and a career.” He scratched at his ear. “She got petty, took it out on you. Nobody believed you were gunning for Egorov’s job, but she wanted you prosecuted and you got prosecuted. Now you’re here enjoying the finest of penitentiary accommodations.”

“I get the upper bunk and apple pie.” I sat forward in the chair. Munroe smelled like a wet ashtray. “What does Chorkina get for claiming to kill Egorov? The Russians know I killed him. They send someone after me every couple of years as a reminder. Does Chorkina have family or somebody he’s supporting?”

In his late fifties, Chorkina had spent most of his adult life involved in one criminal activity or another. The only down time he had was during incarceration. He didn’t need money, not like somebody who has their freedom needs money. Maybe he had a family member who needed help. Tacking on another twenty years wouldn’t matter if somebody important got a sizable chunk of money. Maybe it was supposed to make up for past transgressions on his part.

“This isn’t about Chorkina,” Munroe said. “It’s about you. Chorkina gave himself up, so you go free. He gave us everything we need to prosecute him, which nullifies your conviction.”

“Not all the evidence points at Chorkina though. They used audio tapes at my trial. The recordings confirm the argument between me and Egorov. Cocaine found at the scene matched cocaine on my shirt where Egorov hit me. And they had my confession.”

“A confession we’re treating as suspect. Look at this from a different angle. Maybe Chorkina paid you to take the fall. The plan was for you to plead self-defense. Much easier for you than for him. No criminal record, new to the city, pregnant girlfriend. Why would a jury convict you? But it didn’t work that way and you went to prison. Maybe in his old age he’s feeling guilty, wants to atone for his sins.”

“Egorov could have ground my skull into the ground and Chorkina would have stood by watching. He wouldn’t feel guilt killing a bus full of nuns. And he sure as hell wouldn’t take credit for killing Egorov not if he didn’t do it. Not with Egorov’s brother out there.”

Munroe flipped through his paperwork and came up with a photo. Grainy and smudged, it showed the backs of three men walking through a warehouse.

“The one in the middle is Boris’s brother, Petr. He was released from prison last week. The Russians claim it’s due to overcrowding, but the truth is we stopped paying them to keep him incarcerated. The new administration policy is to give criminals a spare room in the White House, not keep them in prison.”

I sat back in the chair and exhaled. The metal links of the handcuffs clinked together and sounded loud in the small room. “I killed Egorov.”

Munroe laughed. “Hell, Brogan, I know you did. There’s no doubt in my mind. Egorov was drunk that night. He cut the coke wrong and blamed you for the bad weight. I believe you when you say you didn’t know about the drugs. I think you were naïve and so focused on your own problems you didn’t see what was going on around you. The entire situation was a farce. Egorov got himself killed because he couldn’t weigh a bag of cocaine and you got a life sentence because you couldn’t see he was a drug dealer.”

He jammed his finger onto the photo of Petr Egorov. “But this guy, he’s a different problem. He’s so interested in meeting you he’s willing to risk coming here so he can put a bullet in your head.” He turned the photo around so I could see it. “You’re going to help me catch him, because he’s your get of jail card.”

I looked at the photo of three men wearing heavy dark overcoats. The two on the left had broad shoulders and the one on the right had rounded shoulders. The photo made their hair dark, but the one with rounded shoulders looked like it might be graying. I couldn’t see their faces, nor could I tell their height. The photo clipped them at the waist. They faced heavy machinery, a backhoe maybe. The one on the left pointed a gloved hand off to the left of the frame. “What happens to my conviction?”

“It’ll be overturned. If you cooperate this District Attorney won’t retry the case. Once the paperwork is processed, the felony gets removed from your record. You’ll be nineteen all over again.”

“Only I’m thirty-one.”

“Well, you killed the guy. That should count for something. You could count yourself lucky that the brother of the man you killed is so motivated to meet you. Without his help, you’d still be in prison.”

“What about a gun?”

“You get within ten feet of a revolver, a semi-automatic, a rifle—hell, if I see a water gun—I’ll drag your ass back in here. I don’t care if you’re on your knees with Petr sticking a barrel down your throat, you don’t pick up a gun, you hear me? That route puts you right back in here.”

“Can I use my fists?”

He closed the folder and stood. “Petr Egorov is coming and I want him. You don’t do anything but sit around looking pretty.”

“I’m bait.”

“Yes, you are. See, how this works is the minute you’re dead, he goes back to work taking over the drug trade, which means bodies in the street. Me, I’d like to legalize every drug on the street, but that’s above my pay grade. What is within my pay grade is following him around until he kills somebody. Then I can put handcuffs on him. Not too tight because we don’t want to violate his civil rights, but tight enough he can’t get away. You’re going to make that happen. I’m going to dangle you out on a line, parade you around town in a pink jumpsuit if I must, and when he takes his shot at you I’m going to be there to put a bullet in his head. You should thank me, Brogan, not give me attitude.”

“You going to take these handcuffs off now?”