Mercy, or Murder?
“Oh, aye, she were a drinker, that one.” The old man leaned back in his chair with a chuckle. He placed his hands on his corpulent belly and drummed a little tattoo, his eyes crinkling up a little in remembrance.
He was in his early seventies, short and round. His hair, what there was left of it, was a mix of blond and gray. His eyes were red-rimmed with crying, and puffy with too little sleep. His nose bore the evidence of a lifetime of drinking alcohol, with spider veins that created a pattern that looked rather like the state of Texas, if you squinted your eyes.
The interview room was small and cold. Detective Samuel “Shady” Parker sat in a chair across from Charlie Fields, the accused. Shady was comfortable in his suit jacket and tie, though Mr. Fields seemed a little chilly, even though he was wearing a flannel shirt beneath his denim overalls.
The room was painted Dusky Gray, a fact Parker knew because his wife, Lottie, had helped pick out the color. It was a neutral shade, impersonal and unadorned, the walls broken only by one door, and the large two-way window.
Parker knew his trainee, Jimmy, was on the other side of the two-way, watching, learning, taking notes. He was a nice lad, Jimmy was. Maybe a little too nice for this line of work, Shady thought.
He returned his attention to Mr. Fields, who had fallen silent.
“And had she been drinking last night, Mr. Fields?” Shady Parker asked.
“Oh, aye. Couldn’t get the pills down her no other way.”
Mr. Fields seemed to turn his attention inward, silent again. He reached up to scratch his ear, then returned to drumming on his stomach.
Parker leaned forward across the table that separated them. “So, tell me about your wife, Mr. Fields.”
Charlie’s eyes lit up and mellowed. “Oh, me and Beulah knowed each other since grade school,” he answered. “She weren’t never perty, but then, neither was I. Mebee that’s what drew us to each other. We was both homely as a mud fence, and knowed it. Still, I usta tell her she was perty, even though we both knowed it was a lie. But she liked to hear it, so I liked to say it.”
“How long have you been married, Mr Fields?”
“Don’t call me that. I ain’t never been Mister Fields to nobody. Folks just call me Charlie.”
“Okay, Charlie,” Parker agreed. “How long have you been married?”
“Well, me and Beulah got married when she were but thirteen. That’s the way things were did back then. I were sixteen meself. I’m seventy-two now, so…” he stopped to count on his fingers. “Let me see, twenty-six, thirty-six, forty-six, fifty-six, sixty-six, that’s fifty years and add…” he counted again, “…so we was married fifty-six years. Ain’t that right? I ain’t never been too good at numbers.”
Shady smiled. “Yes, that sounds about right. That’s a long time to be married.”
“Well, back then, when we said Until death do us part, we meant it. Not like the younguns today, who may say it, but they don’t mean it. As soon as some little bump in the road comes along, they git divorced. Me and Beulah, we dint believe in divorce, even when times were hard.”
“And had the times gotten hard, Charlie?”
The old man didn’t answer for a minute, then said, “I ‘member the first time I saw her. She were sittin’ by herself in the corner of the classroom during recess. She din’t like to go out durin’ recess ’cause the other girls usta make fun of her. Her one leg was a little shorter than the other, so she warn’t no good at runnin’. And she were poor. Even more poorer than me, and that’s sayin’ somethin’.”
A large tear escaped from Charlie’s eye. It ran down his cheek and Shady watched in fascination as it reached the edge of Charlie’s face and dropped off onto his flannel shirt. Charlie reached into his pocket and drew out a red handkerchief. He blew his nose into it, then wiped his eyes with the edge.
“She had the bluest eyes,” Charlie said. “They was her best feature. Her eyes were like the blue you see in the sky, right after it rains. She loved the sky, loved watchin’ the clouds, and seein’ perty pitchers there, and seein’ the birds fly across it, all free. She did love the sky.”
“It sounds like you loved her very much,” the detective said softly.
“I did that,” the old man replied sadly. “I did that.”
“So, if you loved her so much, why did you kill her?”
Charlie sat up straight in his chair, eyes blazing. “Because she dint want to live no more, that’s why!”
“And why is that, Charlie? Why didn’t Beulah want to live?”
Mr. Fields leaned forward, as if being closer to the detective would make his words more truthful. “’cause she was sufferin! Ever day, she suffered. Ever day. Ever day.” More tears gathered in the old man’s eyes and fell, unchecked, some splashing onto the table.
“What did she have, Charlie?”
“I don’t know zactly. Somethin’ to do with her liver. At first she just lost weight and she were tired all the time. Her skin turned yellow and then her belly just swole up. And she hurt. She hurt ever minute of ever day. She got all confused, and sometimes she dint even seem to know who I was.”
“That must have been hard,” Shady said.
“You ever love anybody?” Charlie asked. “Somebody you’d give up yer life fer? Somebody you’d rather take their pain than let them suffer through it?”
Shady shivered as he thought of his wife and step-daughter. “Yes, Charlie,” he answered. “I have and I do.”
Charlie leaned back in his chair. “Then you’ll understand why I had to do it. She were sufferin’ and I couldn’t let her suffer no more.”
“What did you do, Charlie?”
“Well, the doctors couldn’t do nuthin’ fer her. They give her drugs that jest made her tired and loopy all the time, but she were still hurtin’. And finally, I couldn’t stand to see her like that no more.”
The old man paused, and Detective Parker waited a few moments before asking again, “What did you do?”
Charlie’s eyes were full of misery as he looked full into Shady’s face. “She dint want to live no more. She told me so. She’d cry and hang on to me and beg me to make it stop.” He covered his eyes with his work-callused hands. “So I did.”
“How did you do it?”
“I started keeping back some of her pills, just savin’ ’em, you know?”
“All of ’em!” Charlie said in a rush, eager now to get this over with. “Her pain pills and her heart pills and ever other pill the doctor gave her. I jest kept some by until I thought mebee I had enough.”
“Then last night, I went in and she were crying somethin’ awful. Clutching at her stomach, her face all scrunched up in pain. She begged me to make it stop, so brought out all the pills I’d saved and give ’em to her.”
“All at once?”
“No. I’d give her a few with the beer, and she’d take as many as she could, then fall asleep for a while. When she woke up, I’d give her more, with more beer. I don’t ‘member how many times. But after a while, she dint wake up no more.”
The interview room was quiet. Shady wrote something in his notepad.
“Thank you, Charlie,” he said. “The officer will take you to your cell now.”
Charlie smiled a little. “She looked right peaceful. Afterwards, you know? Right peaceful. I’ll be glad when I can go be with her.”
A uniformed officer came to escort Charlie Fields to his cell. Shady left the interview room and met with Jimmy in the observation room.
“So,” Detective Parker said, “What did you think?”
Jimmy looked shaken. “That was so sad,” he said.
“Yeah, I suppose it was,” Shady said. “It’s still murder.”
Parker picked up the phone and arranged for a suicide watch to be put on Charlie Fields.
“I guess so,” Jimmy answered. “But maybe it was mercy too, you think?”
Shady shrugged. “Maybe. That’s not up to me. Or to you,” he said pointedly. “That’s up to the courts.”
“What will happen to him?”
“Hard to say. He’s old, and not in very good health himself. If he does go to jail, he probably won’t last long.”
“Do you think he’d actually kill himself?”
Shady shrugged again. “No clue,” he answered. “You can never tell about these things.”
Later that evening, Shady was home with his wife, Lottie, and his step-daughter, Keno. It was an ordinary night. Dinner, dishes, a little television. Keno put a card table up in the den.
“Hey, Dad,” she said. “How about a puzzle?”
“Sure,” Shady said.
The phone rang. Lottie picked it up, then held the receiver out. “It’s Jimmy,” she said.
Shady took the phone. “Yes?”
“The old man, Charlie Fields.”
“What? I thought I put him on suicide watch.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Jimmy explained. “He didn’t kill himself. He just … died.”
“What do you mean, he just died?”
“I had brought him his dinner and we were talking a little bit, and then he just put his hand on his chest and keeled over.”
“Christ.” Shady closed his eyes. “Did he say anything?”
“That’s the weird part,” Jimmy said. “He kind of looked toward the corner of the cell and said, ‘Oh, there you are,’ and then he fell over.”
Shady Parker shivered. “Well, call the coroner and make your report. I’ll talk to you in the morning.”
“Do you think … I mean, do you think maybe he just didn’t want to be separated from his wife?”
“Jimmy, just make your report and leave the philosophical stuff to the experts, okay? I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Shady hung up the phone. When he turned around, Keno was standing in front of the puzzle closet. “What kind of puzzle do you want, Dad?” she asked.
“Something with sky,” he answered. “Lots and lots of sky.”