Sam looked calm when Detective James Fritz entered the interview room at the Tulare County Sherriff’s office. That’s good, thought the detective. He worried about Sam, seeing the things he saw this morning. Fritz had run into Sam a few times at community events for special education students. Sam seemed smart, but simple. Quiet. Antisocial, but friendly enough. Good with the younger kids. His mom seemed nice, too. It was a shame that the kid had to witness that grisly scene today, a damn shame. The poor girl was cut from pelvis to sternum, it was just a mess. Fritz wondered if Sam’s gentle mind would be able to handle seeing something so gruesome, but Sam sat at the table absolutely serene. Maybe he didn’t understand it yet. Maybe he was in shock.
Detective Fritz sat at the other end of the shiny stainless steel table with his back to the door as usual, habitually putting himself between the suspect and the door though Sam was just a witness, and pulled a tape recorder out of his jacket pocket. Others in the department laughed at him for still using an honest-to-god tape recorder, but Fritz couldn’t let it go. Efficient, it was, and you never had to worry about some computer glitch deleting your files. Tape was forever. Next, he pulled out his legal pad, and clicked open his pen.
“Hi Sam,” Fritz said with a smile. “Thanks for taking some time to talk with me today.”
Sam smiled shyly. “It’s not a problem, officer.” His voice was steady. That’s good, thought Fritz, he’s handling it well.
“Before we get started,” Fritz explained, “I want you to understand a few things. You’re not in trouble, ok son? You’re not under arrest. You’re not being charged with anything. If you’re uncomfortable, you’re free to go at any time. This is purely voluntary. I’m just going to ask you a few questions about what you saw today. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Sam said.
“Ok, good. I’m going to record this conversation and take some notes. Is that alright?”
Fritz pushed the button on his tape recorder with the faded red dot. The soft click of its depression gave him comfort. In all the chaos of the world, all the violence, the sound signaled a moment of control, of objectivity.
“This is Detective James Fritz with the Tulare County Sherriff’s Office. It is the twenty-first day of February, 2013.” He looked to Sam and said, “Would you state your name and address for the record?”
“My name is Sam Marshall. I’m twenty-three. I live at…” Sam paused in thought. “Um, 21348 Pierce Drive. In Three Rivers.”
“That’s great Sam,” Fritz said encouragingly. “Let’s start at the beginning, and whenever you need a break, you just let me know, alright?”
Fritz expected Sam to balk, or to close up, but the kid was as calm as ever. Was that a glint in his eye, even? Was he excited? Perhaps he liked the attention, Fritz thought.
“I went for a walk, like I do every morning. It was sort of rainy, so I almost didn’t go out, but it started clearing up just before snack time, so I got to go out. Mom says it’s good for me. Helps clear my head, she says.”
“Where did you walk?
Sam’s eyes flickered to the door, and Fritz saw a brief change on the boy’s face that he couldn’t put his finger on… Frankly, it was a relief. It was eerie, how unaffected Sam seemed, and Fritz felt much better knowing that Sam was at least feeling nervous.
“To the cemetery. But it was so loud there. So loud. I’ve never heard it so loud before.”
“What do you mean?” Fritz asked.
“All those people. Usually I hear just a couple of them, you know? The ones that are angry, they don’t know they’re free. But yesterday it was so loud I had to leave. It scared me. So I walked back toward home.”
Oh right, remembered Fritz, there was a notorious meth house near the cemetery. Sam must have heard them fighting on his walk. No wonder the kid got scared, they could be a violent bunch.
“Yes, that crowd can be pretty scary,” he told Sam.
Sam looked at Fritz in confusion. “You hear them too?”
“Well, sure, when I’m called there for disturbances. None of them have a very good track record with the law. They’re quite dangerous.”
Sam smiled. “No,” he said. “Not them. The people in the cemetery. The free people.”
Fritz closed his eyes in disappointment. Their only witness was crazy. Fantastic.
“Do you have a history of mental illness, Sam?”
“Mom put me in the special hospital one time, yeah, but I’m not ill. The Mutters are real.”
Great, Fritz thought, he’s got voices muttering to him. This will go over well with the District Attorney.
“Ok, Sam, let’s continue. What happened next?” Sam seemed so eager to help; Fritz figured he might as well continue the interview. He didn’t tell the boy that his testimony would do little to help the prosecution… Then again, they didn’t have any other witnesses, let alone a suspect yet, so Sam might be the best they could do after all.
Sam glanced at the back wall again. “You think I’m crazy,” he said quietly.
“Well…” Fritz considered his words carefully. “Witness testimony is typically unreliable anyway. The things we think we know, things we know we know, sometimes aren’t real at all. Have you ever seen one of those videos, where they ask you to watch a quick basketball game and count how many points the red team scores? And meanwhile, you were paying so much attention to the red team dribbling back and forth, you never even noticed the guy in the gorilla suit walking across the court. Everybody misses that damn gorilla, when it should have been obvious. So, if you’re already seeing things no one else sees, you’re special, and sometimes it’s hard to convince others that what you see is real if no one else sees or hears it.”
Sam smiled at the wall again before looking down at his hands. Fritz felt bad for him, he must be embarrassed.
“Oh, ok,” Sam said.
“But, you’re the only witness we have, Sam. You’re pretty important. If we hadn’t found you hiding in the cemetery, we would be stuck without a lick of help. So let’s just pick up where we left off.”
“Alright,” Sam said. He was far more animated now, nothing like the serene boy that sat across from Fritz at the beginning of the interview. The kid had probably never felt so important in his life. “So, the Mutters…”
“Let’s skip the voices in your head, son. Let’s get to the part where you came up upon the victim on your walk. What did you see? Did you know the victim? Did you see anyone else?”
Sam smiled wide and said, “Oh yes, I knew the victim. She lived down the street from me. She was pretty. Usually the Mutters tell me when someone has to be set free way before it happens, but they didn’t say anything about her yet. I’d been watching her for a long time. I liked her hair, the way it looked like corn silk, how it smelled like sweat and coconut. This morning, she had just finished at the gym, but she’d washed her hair the night before so you could smell both, you could smell the sweat and the coconut shampoo underneath. She was beautiful, but the Mutters didn’t tell me till just before…”
Fritz shifted uncomfortably. The boy knew this would happen? Did he know the suspect, too? And god damn, he’s a creepy little son of a bitch following that poor girl around. Probably doesn’t have the best social skills, Fritz figured.
“Let’s just stick to the incident, Sam,” Fritz said, getting the boy back on track. The detective didn’t like how excited Sam got talking about the victim.
Sam looked a bit deflated, shiftily looking at the back wall again behind the detective. “I wish she didn’t have to die,” Sam whispered. “But the Mutters always know.”
“Did you see the attacker, Sam? Do you know what he looked like?”
Sam looked thoughtful, and glanced at the wall again before catching Fritz off guard with a strange question: “Have you ever cut a rubber band ball in half?”
Fritz groaned inwardly. This was useless. “No, Sam, I haven’t.”
“All those rubber bands inside, they sort of just slither out, like they’d been waiting to get out the whole time,” Sam paused, smiling wider. “That’s how souls are, you know. You can see them. We think we’re so smart, we know souls aren’t real. We need physical proof for everything, and we didn’t think there was any proof for souls. But we always had the proof. Even cats have souls. And it’s my job to set them free, so we can all see them.”
This rang an awful bell for Fritz. The department had been receiving a ton of calls lately of eviscerated animals, he’d never thought to connect it to the victim today until now. But did that mean Sam…? “What do you mean, Sam?” he asked.
“We have to set them free, James.”
“Oh god, Sam. What happened?”
“The Mutters said she had to be set free, so I set her free. But I kept some of her hair. Still smells like coconut and sweat.” Sam shifted his sleeve, and Fritz almost thought he saw a glint of something shiny but was far too distracted by this revelation to pay any attention. He knew he should just get the confession and lock this sick kid up but he knew Sam, he knew the family, if only a little bit, and the boy obviously didn’t realize what he was doing to himself. “Jesus,” Fritz sighed. “Look, I shouldn’t even say this, but I think you need to call a lawyer, Sam.”
“I didn’t want to set her free,” Sam said, looking over Fritz’ head at the door.
Was he planning on running for it? Is that why he kept glancing at the door?
“The Mutters said she had to go. If you love something, set it free. Usually I don’t love them. I didn’t love old Mr. Springfield, he smelled like mothballs, but the Mutters had been telling me he had to be set free for a long time. I didn’t love the Greene’s little boy either, but at least he was fun. Never had so much fun freeing someone. I hate the cats, they always know, they always fight. They know the Mutters too, though, of course. The cats know.”
The cats, the old man in Fresno, the boy in Woodlake… how’d Sam get around like that? The cats must have been practice, no one even thought to connect the two other murders, different as they were… Was he perfecting his technique? Experimenting? Might as well get the confession and get the hell out of here, Fritz thought. He had rarely felt so on edge, after all he’d seen he thought nothing fazed him anymore, but this… “How do you set them free, Sam?” He asked.
“I told you!” Sam exploded, spit misting the stainless steel table where his hands had made ten perfect, long and slender foggy prints. “Like rubber band balls! You can do it with any old thing really, but it’s a lot easier with something sharp, a knife, a good pair of scissors. Just like my dad used to do when we’d go fishing. You just lay them on their sides and stick the tip in their –“
“Jesus!” Fritz felt nauseous.
“- and slit up their belly and their soul just spills out. Doctors, people, they’re so vulgar with the soul, call it guts, like it’s not the most precious thing, but the Mutters told me the truth. It’s the soul!”
Sam smiled again, showing all of his perfectly white teeth, and grinned over Fritz’s head at the door again. Shit, Fritz thought, he’s gonna run for it.
“So,” Fritz said, buying time, trying to get as much information as he could right now just in case the kid froze up later. “These muttering voices, they told you to kill the girl? To kill all these people?”
Sam giggled. “The Mutters aren’t just voices, James! They’re so much more than that! They’re angels! Sent here to set us free!”
“You can see them?”
“Oh, yes,” Sam said, “Tall, black angels. Their faces are so wise, so much wiser than ours. They have the face of the raven. Did you know ravens are the smartest birds in the world? I bet that’s why the Mutters chose to look like them. Just like they chose me, I am their representative, they chose me to set us free.”
“How do you know who they want you to set free?” Fritz had to keep him distracted, Sam was looking at the back wall constantly now, excitedly, it would be any second before he tried to jump up and run. Sam was scrawny, and Fritz was old, but he could stop him if he needed to.
“I watch them scan the stupid masses,” Sam said, “Pigs in the slaughterhouse, we don’t even know we’re imprisoned. The Mutters, they see someone who needs to be set free, they show me.”
“How, Sam?” Any time now, Fritz thought, watching Sam pull nervously at his sleeves. Was that something shiny again? A button, just a glint catching the light…? They came into the station the back way because Fritz wanted Sam to feel comfortable he didn’t want a pat-down to scare him and clam him up oh god what if had something was that a knife in his sleeve wait what’s he saying –
“…The Mutters, they perch like birds…” Sam was saying. “Someone needs to be set free, they perch behind them. Always behind them.”
“Do you see them all the time?” Fritz asked, fumbling with the snap of his hip holster.
“Do you see them now?”
“Oh yes,” Sam said, shifting his sleeve again.
“Where are they, Sam?” Fritz shivered in a cold sweat, Sam looked so damned excited and the holster was stuck…
Sam slowly stood, slipping a pair of scissors out of his sleeve. It was still red, oh god, it was still stained with the girl’s blood.
“… They’re behind you, James.”