Emily prepared for the interview. A journalist meeting with a prisoner was never a relaxed experience, and rarely an enjoyable one. Not because of the question/answer sessions themselves, but due to the prohibitive restrictions placed on such meetings by prison authorities. In this case, Virginia prison authorities. Absurd time limitations, no unsupervised discussions in the same room. That kind of nonsense.
First, a journalistic request for a private interview, then when that was quashed by Warden Cliburn, contact with the prisoner’s attorney led to the journalist being placed on the prisoner’s visitor list. Rules dictated they would communicate on phones through a partition, the conversation monitored by prison spooks. But that didn’t matter. A bestselling book could come from this story. In the last years, lone gunmen opening fire on innocent people in malls, schools, and churches had become a monthly occurrence in America. Sometimes even weekly. Isolated incidents? Nobody believed that cable news commentators excuse anymore. So why? Perhaps Emily could find answers. Since this would be the first book to truly get inside the mind of a shooter, Emily felt privileged to be involved. Money, acclaim, prizes. All possible–if her series of interviews went well.
Emily’s co-workers Charlie and Bernie counseled her beforehand.
“These guys are serial liars,” Charlie said. “They tell you what they want you to hear, charm you, manipulate you. Do not be swayed. Some of them are very convincing.”
“Yeah. Remember what happened with Perry Smith and Truman Capote?” Bernie added. “You saw that movie, didn’t you?” Both Bernie and Charlie were veterans of these exact situations.
Luckily, Emily had a photographic memory, since no recording devices were permitted for the meeting, nor were laptops. Not even a pen and paper. Many modern prisons allowed open discussions at tables in a visitation lounge, supervised by guards. But not in this leftover 1950s era facility. Southern states seemed more determined to hold onto their past. The room smelled of cement and dust, of body odor barely masked by chemical cleaners with bleach. Emily caught a faraway whiff of cafeteria food: mashed potatoes, beef stew, oatmeal. Things that could be scooped out of large stainless steel pots with ladles. She pulled her chair close to the bullet-proof separation, then picked up the bulky phone from another century to speak with Dante Hodgson.
“May I call you Dante?”
“Yes, of course.” Dante had a neatly-trimmed beard, glasses, short dark hair, and a high forehead. Not the forehead of a manipulator or a maniac, but of a thinker, even like a writer.
Don’t be distracted by his appearance. Everyone’s mother claims they were a sweet child.
“For my initial question…” Emily started.
“You mean I can’t ask you questions?” Dante frowned.
“Since this is our first meeting, face to face,” Emily said, “I thought it best that I do the questioning.” Stay in control. “In subsequent interviews, I’m open to give and take, back and forth.”
“I guess I’m at your mercy,” Dante said, “but for this project to succeed, we’ll have to work together.”
“Granted.” Emily pressed her hair back from her face with a free hand. “Since we only have thirty minutes, let me get right down to it. You were college educated, Dante. What do you think causes these occurrences?”
“Gun massacres?” He gave her a quizzical look.
Why was this one so different than all the rest? Remain detached.
“Yes,” she said. “Some call it temporary insanity, others say it’s evil, you know, a person being possessed by malignant forces. Though psychologists would consider it a chemical or mental imbalance. Then there are the copy-cat theories, where the media’s relentless coverage sparks people into taking similar actions. What’s your opinion? What is the nature of evil?”
“You mean, do I think it’s chemical or hereditary or conditioning or… satanic?” Dante gazed at her through the partition, a gleam in his eyes, the slight curl of a smile forming. “I hoped you’d have theories on this matter. But since we’ll be collaborating on the eventual book, I guess I should lay my cards, my beliefs on the table.”
Emily heard clicking noises, the chatter of ghost voices inhabiting their phone-line, and imagined sweaty, overweight men sitting in a bunker-like room somewhere nearby monitoring the prisoner-to-visitor conversations. Stay focused. That’s what Charlie told her. Keep the upper hand.
“Your last name is Duvel,” Dante said. “Is that French?”
“Belgian,” she replied.
“Were you born there?”
Emily smiled with impatience. “Can we get back to my question?”
Dante looked away for a moment, his forehead strained in thought. “The media sometimes says that lone shooters are born evil,” he said, “like it’s in their blood. Or that it was inherited from their parents’ teachings, and genetically. Some go along with the idea that killers are possessed by spirits, whether it’s violent insanity, or evil forces perhaps spiritual in nature.” Dante paused. “I come from a religious background. The desire to go to heaven and the fear of eternal hell were very real for me growing up.”
“And where do you believe you’re going, Dante?”
“With my history?” He laughed. “I don’t think there’s much doubt.” His eyes turned hard. “But seriously, you’re the first woman…”
“To meet with you in prison?”
“It’s always been men before. Always.”
Emily shuddered. She felt Dante was manipulating both her and the interview with his guile. She hadn’t expected him to act normal, and worse, to look attractive. She caught a glimpse of her spectral reflection in the hard translucent surface separating them. No, don’t imagine yourself on Dante’s side of the partition. Do not identify with him. Emily squeezed her eyelids shut as she imagined Charlie and Bernie’s counsel. They were hard-asses; they would guide her through this. Emily opened her eyes.
Dante stared at her, his face taut and constricted, then he relaxed. “Sorry, we can work up to that angle later. Let me continue with my theory,” he said, and Emily nodded. “I don’t believe people are born evil, or possessed by Satan. Our actions—good or bad–are controlled by chemicals in our bodies, as well as synapses sending electrical signals that influence brain functions. The only rational way to look at it, to explain these incidents, is through the prism of science.”
“Is it? So you see it as chemistry over behavioral science.” Emily paused. “Do you believe you were rational then and are rational now?”
“Me?” He seemed surprised. “Yes, definitely.”
Lawyers didn’t want to hear that answer. Maybe that’s why recordings were forbidden in these interviews. Temporary insanity would be the only way to beat a death sentence in a gun massacre case. A sympathetic jury? Impossible. Emily squinted to see deeper through the fiberglass partition with its scuff marks and dull surface. What was it like on the other side? Could she survive a single day in that regimented order, in a world poised on the brink of violence?
“Many believe that the Salem Witch Trials were a result of ergot poisoning,” Dante said. “If so, the women weren’t evil witches, but the ergot changed the chemical makeup in their bodies. It caused them to act differently, do things they would never have done ordinarily.”
Gates clanged open and shut nearby, while distorted intercom voices made announcements in faraway areas of the prison. Emily studied Dante. She expected a fool, or a zealot filled with ideological fervor and a warped viewpoint. Not only was Dante intelligent, but he spoke dispassionately, like a science professor discussing experiments and data in a university classroom.
“Anyway, that’s why the idea that Hitler was the Devil, or that Charles Manson was possessed by demons seems laughable to me. Our brains and bodies are intricate and delicate systems. If one chemical lessens and another increases through dilation brought on by drugs, or by anxiety, or by adrenalin levels spiking when there’s a threat, then a stable personality can completely change in an instant. In other cases, the chemical balance alters incrementally. Until a paranoid person becomes anti-social, then progresses to believe that they are somehow threatened. At that stage, they may arm themselves in defense, before finally reaching a breaking point where they take action, go on the offense. Unfortunately, that leads to tragic consequences. As we’ve seen, over and over again.” Dante looked at Emily with an almost ancient sadness. “Does any of this ring true?”
“In my studies of other shooters?” Emily asked, but he didn’t reply. “Your theory has validity, Dante. But I’m wondering, is that the argument you wish to put forth? Is that your defense?”
“I thought we were collaborating on a book,” he said. “I don’t need a defense, and we’re not meeting today for you to defend me. That’s what lawyers are for.”
Yes, lawyers. Linguistic magicians who could turn murderers into disturbed people not responsible for their own actions. Emily said nothing. Dante was trying some transference trick on her. He clearly held a near genius IQ. She’d have to prepare more, be unrelenting in their subsequent meetings. Charlie and Bernie had been right. It was a chess game, and Emily wasn’t winning this match. She could imagine her associates chattering away and critiquing her first interview later on.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to snap at you.” Dante removed his glasses and wiped the lenses.
The media and mass murderers, wrapped up in an unholy matrimony of reckless desire and needless carnage. Was Emily an accessory to Dante’s crime, or was he an accessory to hers?
A buzzer sounded, then a prison guard moved through the visitation area with eight phone connections to signal the various guests and inmates that their time was up.
“I really hope you’ll let me ask questions next time,” Dante said, gazing over his shoulder. “For the sake of the book, and because you’re the first woman.” He frowned. “It’s always men. Young, isolated white men.” Then Dante looked happier. “That’s why this book, our book is going to be a best-seller. You broke the mold. People are curious.”
A male and a female guard escorted Emily out.
“I guess it’s back to my office with Charlie and Bernie,” she said to them. “Are they waiting to pick me up?”
“Sure, whatever,” the male guard replied.
“You’ll have the upper hand next time,” Charlie told Emily, appearing beyond the gate of the hallway. “You let him talk too much. Ignore his dazzling blue eyes; Dante’s not your friend. He’s using you.”
“You can’t let him fuck with your mind again,” Bernie whispered into Emily’s other ear. “Don’t you know that journalists and writers are the lowest of the low? They trick you by saying whatever they have to. They will lie, cheat, or steal to get their story the way they want it to be, not the way it really was.”
“Fiction is their preferred drug,” Charlie said, “and they only resort to facts when it suits their narrative.”
The guards led Emily downstairs into her solitary confinement cell, then locked it and left.
She had been placed there for her own safety. Shooters who massacred a bunch of random people disturbed the other inmates, and scaring potentially-violent prisoners rarely went well.
When Emily tucked into her thin cot, both associates continued to counsel her in breathy whispers. Emily nodded and told them yes, yes, yes, then pulled the itchy blanket around her until she became just an amorphous balled-up shape wedged into the corner of her cell. It didn’t matter. There would be another visit with Dante to correct things, to reveal his secrets, and another one after that too. A lifetime filled with possibilities.
Max Talley was born in New York City and currently lives in Southern California. His writing has appeared in The Rogue Voice Journal, Iconoclast, and Back Issue. He won a best fiction award at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference in 2006 and 2007. His novel, Yesterday We Forget Tomorrow, was published in 2014.