I walked into the interrogating room and Donald was standing over a dead man, wiping a blood-drenched carver across his smock. Things didn’t look good.
He looked at me, and his eyes squinted against the light. I shut it off and flipped on the tungsten.
“I know what this looks like,” the preacher began glibly.
I scratched the back of my head from underneath my cap and fingered my holster. I’m a pretty laid-back guy, but when you’re a cop you can’t just let this sort of thing go, not even among friends. Donald could see I was troubled. I felt my mustache and stood up to my full five-foot-five height. “I think you’ve got some explainin’ to do here,” I said, and then added: “Buddy-O.” Well, that wiped the smile off his 66-year-old, smile-wrinkled face, which wasn’t really my intention, so I stopped smiling too, and tightened my grip. I hate it when you’re trying to be friendly and you wind up talking like Ernest Borgnine.
“Right.” He forced a chuckle and let out the biggest exhale I’ve seen in a career of watching a lot of big exhales—“giving up the ghost,” I think they call it, in Donald’s business. He grinned again, showing off his two straight rows of unusually small teeth. “Well, see, here’s how it all went down. Last time you were in here we were both alive, right?”
I nodded slowly.
“Yes. Well.” He cleared his throat and sat down. The carver clattered noisily on the table and a couple drops of healthy red blood fell. “I know this is going to sound ridiculous.”
“Keep going.” I sat down in the chair opposite Donald, closest to me.
“Well, all right.” He smoothed back his smooth, thinning hair with two smooth hands. Suddenly he laughed. “Why am I so nervous? We’ve been friends for how long now, Paul? More years than I care to count candles on a birthday cake. Can I trust you?”
“You know you can, father.”
“Call me Donald,” he said.
“Donald,” I said. “You know you can, Donald,” I added, for continuity’s sake.
Donald smiled and sighed. “I can trust you. Here’s what happened. You left, and this… man”—he gestured towards Frank on the floor, blood oozing slowly from the middle of his body—“he started getting… mean. Not just mean. He started yelling. Yelling at me. Cursing. Taking the Lord’s name in vain.” Donald looked up at me and he was no longer smiling. “He told me to sign this paper saying I’d stolen all that money, and that if I didn’t by the time he counted to five then I’d regret it.” The preacher buried his head in his hands. He had long since stopped smiling. It was hard for him to talk. “Then he pulled out this knife,” he went on, with difficulty.
“And you were just defending yourself.” I don’t like seeing a friend cry. I leaned my chair against the wall and pressed my palms against my eyes. “This isn’t good, Don. This is not good.”
Donald started. “But no, Paul. That’s not what happened at all. I—I didn’t stab this guy… this man. No, I’m not afraid to meet my maker, Paul. I’ve led a good, honorable life, unlike… some—No. When the time comes when I shall shuffle off this mortal coil—”
He was getting Shakespearean on me. “What happened, Don?”
“He fell on the knife, Paul! Don’t you see?” Donald was a good guy, but he could sometimes talk funny.
I sighed, and stood up. I walked to the corner. I didn’t want to look at him. Either of them. “Look, Don. I’ve been a cop for thirty-eight years. It doesn’t take a cop of thirty-eight years to know that three open wounds in the back of a guy on his stomach don’t get there just from gravity.” I stopped there, and shut my open mouth.
There was a long silence. I stood there, my head in the corner. Donald sat.
“You’re right, Paul. There’s something I didn’t want to tell you.”
“Well you’d better—”
“—I’m going to—”
He paused, and leaned back in his seat. “When your friend here was shoutin’-and-a-cussin’ and knifing at me, a young man came through the door.”
“That door is locked, Donald. I’ve got the only key in my pocket.” I turned towards him.
He looked up at me. “It wasn’t just any young man, Paul. It was an angel.”
We looked at each other.
“Donald,” I began. “Donald. We’ve known each other… More years—”
“I tell you it was an angel, Paul,” the preacher said, standing up. “He came through the door with the glory of God, dressed all in white, long blonde locks—he came not with peace but with a sword.” Donald can get a little carried away in his sermons from time to time, a little crazy. Some people like that, it’s not really my thing. He wasn’t crazy now. He was perfectly serious. Looking me in the eye, and serious.
“So you lied.”
“I didn’t lie, Paul! I said he fell on the knife and he fell on the knife! But it wasn’t that knife that stabbed him, Paul—it was the angel!”
“And that knife in your hand when I walked in—bloody?”
“The knife was under him and I knew it’d be red with that foul, thick life seeping out of him. I knew we were friends, Paul, but you’re not a stupid man. There’s only so much a man will believe when he’s not a stupid man. I took the knife from beneath him and was trying to get rid of the blood before you came, so you’d see I wasn’t lying that it wasn’t his knife killed him.”
“So you got rid of the evidence by wiping it on your robes, father.”
He paused, and sat back down. I did likewise. He spoke in a hush. Reverent. “You can’t stand six inches from a man being stabbed by an angel from on high and keep your robes clean, Paul.”
I stood up and paced the length of the room twice before stopping and turning to him. I put my hands in my pockets, then pulled them back out. Finally, I spoke. “You’re a man of God, father,” I sighed, and looked away. “Donald.” He watched me. “This is crazy, but I believe you. We’ve been friends… a long time. You’re my priest. I’ll go tell them I walked in on you guys and tell them Frank died in the struggle. Self-defense. It won’t be easy, but you should be fine, Donald.” He buried his head in his hands and started jiggling up and down without making no noise. “You should be fine.”
I opened the door and left the room. The preacher got up, moved behind the door, and when I came back five minutes later he stabbed me in the gut.