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The Box
About the Author: Paul D. Marks is the author of the Shamus Award-Winning mystery-thriller White Heat. His short story Ghosts of Bunker Hill was voted #1 in the 2016 Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine Readers Poll. Windward was selected for the Best American Mystery Stories of 2018, and won the 2018 Macavity Award for Best Short Story. His stories have also been published in Beat to a Pulp, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Hardboiled and more.

The room grows smaller with every word coming from the man across the table. His stale, garlic, cigarette and bourbon breath slam me in the face—what the hell did he have for lunch? Or was it dinner? I’ve lost track of time. It might be bright daylight outside or dead of night. No clocks in this room. Neither of us wears a watch. Time stands as still as the air in the confined, windowless space—a room they call the Box. And the air, thick as tar and smelling just as good, suffocates me. I try not to show my discomfort. Try not to let my scratchy throat betray me. It’s not easy, but I think I’m pulling it off.

Nothing to look at. Bland, non-descript brighter-than-white walls nearly blind me. No pictures, no view. Nothing to focus on but the burly man in the rolling chair a few feet away. His chair has wheels. Mine doesn’t. His chair sits higher than mine, so he can look down at me while I have to crane my neck to look at him. No doubt who’s the alpha dog here.

The man wheels closer. I try to push away, but I’m backed up against the wall. I want to get up. Afraid to. His face is inches from mine. His moist, sour breath chafes my cheek. He flicks a wooden match with his thumb. Fires up a cigarette, right underneath a “No Smoking” sign, the only wall decor.

“Get it off your chest, Brett,” he says.

“Nothing to get off my chest. I didn’t do it.” A bead of sweat drops from the tip of my nose. What am I doing here? How the hell did this happen? Just a knock on the door and here I am for the second time. The first time was right after. They brought me in, talked to me, but had to let me go. Now I’m back for an encore.

These days it seems everyone wants to be famous. Star in their own movie, even if it’s just the movie of their life. They don’t really care what they’re famous for, could be something good, something bad, something infamous. As long as their name and face is plastered all over the media. I never wanted to be famous. Had no desire to be a celebrity. I just wanted to go along and get along. Do my job, pay the bills. Eat out sometimes and maybe take a trip every now and then. Nothing special. So what was I doing here, starring in my own little horror movie?

“Am I under arrest?”

“Not yet,” the man says.

“Then I’m leaving.”

“Could’ve left any time. But guilty people, they like to hang around, probe.” He drops the half-smoked cigarette on the concrete floor, where it joins several others. Stubs it out with his scuffed detective oxfords.

“I know that. I’ve seen it on every cop show on TV. I’m not guilty. And I’m not going to hang around anymore.” I stand. The man doesn’t wheel back. I squeeze out between my chair and his knees. He holds his ground. I snake past him. Head to the door. He doesn’t stop me.

“You can leave any time, Brett, but you’ll just have to come back and talk to me again. Or you can hire a lawyer, but they’ll charge you an arm and a leg. Or you can just talk to me. If you’re innocent, you got nothing to worry about. How ’bout a Coke?”

I sit back down. Figure I might as well get it over with. He steps out, leaves me alone. No food. No water. Nothing to look at. Just four blank walls and a door. High up on one wall a video camera. I’m tempted to wave or mouth the words “Hi Mom,” or something more like what I’m feeling, something like flipping off whoever’s watching. It’s hotter than hell in here. My shirt is glued to my back. A cup of water. Water. I’d give my kingdom for a cup of water, if I had a kingdom to give.

The quiet lays heavy in the soundproof room. It’s like being in a sensory deprivation tank. My mind starts to wander, thinking about my mom. She would have hired me a good lawyer. Thinking about when my brother Lance and I were kids and she’d take us to the La Brea Tar Pits or the museums in Exposition Park. Or playing with our toy soldiers on our bedroom floor. And then he grew up to be a real soldier. I didn’t have the heart or the guts for it. Lance was the fighter in the family, the warrior. He was killed in Afghanistan. One of his buddies gave me his survival knife. He’d used it to save that buddy’s life. I didn’t miss the irony of Lance not surviving. Still the knife was one of my most treasured possessions, kept in a place of honor in my living room. I was more of a go-along-get-along kind of guy. Even now, I’m not looking for a fight with the cops or anyone else. I just want to go home, back to my life. Changing tack—wondering what my girlfriend Ashley will think or say about all this when she gets back from her trip. Thinking about work. Worrying why the cops have it out for me.

This story appears in our MAY 2019 Issue
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