A Slippery Fish

"What do you think, Officer? Does that seem right to you?" And that was it. Investigator Mariel Rutherford let the blank end of the audio tape play for a few seconds, filling the room with low static. She extended a slightly-wrinkled finger to press the "eject" button on the cassette player.

Ksssshk-thup.

For a moment, both Ms. Rutherford and the local sheriff Mark Sterling who sat next to her remained silent. Sterling picked idly with slightly pudgy fingers at the egg-crate soundproofing lining the walls.

"I want you to understand how serious a matter this is, Officer Sterling." Ms. Rutherford delicately removed the tape from the player and put it back into the case.

Sterling raised an eyebrow, and his round face turned pink. "You think I don't take this serious? Ms. Rutherford, I know you travel around more than a bit, and you probably don't often come to small towns like ours…too…" His voice petered out as he noticed that she was looking intently at a clipboard, her thin face a scowl of concentration. "What's that?"

Ms. Rutherford ignored his question and slowly thumbed through the pages held on the board. For a good while, the room was quiet except for the sound of pages flipping and the increasingly agitated tapping of Sterling's foot.

With a sudden, sharp movement, Ms. Rutherford flipped her clipboard up, causing all the pages to flop back to their resting position. She quickly pushed her thick-rimmed glasses up to the bridge of her nose and gave the policeman a sharp look. "Officer Sterling, have you ever handled a homicide case before?"

"Umm…yes, ma'am. It's been awhile, though."

"How long?"

"Three years, I believe." Sterling paused. "No wait, it must've been-"

"I'm not convinced that you understand the full implications of a case like this."

Sterling looked startled. For a few seconds, he glanced around the room. "Small town like this, murders don't happen too often. So when some local celebrity like Arlington gets killed front of God and everybody…well, I'd expect a panic. Whole town's like to boil over less we cool things down some, put people at ease."

Ms. Rutherford picked up the glass of water on the desk in front of her and took a sip before setting it down gently. "I'm a very busy woman, Officer. Please don't waste my time."

"Have you ever had a job like mine?" Sterling replied. "My job is to keep the peace. That includes being friendly with the locals, keeping them happy."

"That's not my job."

"Happy folk don't riot!"

"And I don't give a damn!" Ms. Rutherford seemed surprised at her own vehemence. She took a slow sip of water and a deep breath before continuing, a paper-thin smile on her lips. "Officer Sterling, you are in serious danger of testing my patience."

Sterling chuckled. "My apologies."

"I know you care about your jurisdiction. In any other case, I would commend you for your loyalty."

"Thank you, ma'am."

"I wasn't finished. I was going to remind you, at least before you interrupted me, that this is a federal case. I assume you're aware of this, but I feel compelled to remind you that in federal cases, we treat the crime with a certain degree of seriousness." Ms. Rutherford's smile vanished in an instant. "Judging by the audio samples you've shown me, you've been treating everybody we bring in like a houseguest."
"I try to be cordial, ma'am."

"And that brings us to the core issue, doesn't it?"

Sterling sat for a moment in confused silence. "What do you mean?"

"Let's take a look at the transcript of your interview." The investigator pushed her glasses up her nose again. "Mr. Springfield said as one point that his method of description was, quote, 'just my way of setting the stage, you know, making things a bit dramatic'. Tell me, Officer, does this strike you as odd?"

"Not at all. I've known Harold for going on ten years now. He wasn't an actor by trade, but you could always tell he still held a passion for the theatrical."

"And how's that?" Ms. Rutherford's question was sharp, forceful.

Sterling looked slightly upward, as if lost in thought. "Just…something in the way he talked, that's all." He drummed his fingers on the table.

"I see. And did you-" She cocked her head and winced. "Stop the finger-drumming. Just…stop it. Please, right now."

Sterling stopped drumming immediately and put his large hand on her bony shoulder. "You all right, ma'am?"

"Yes, yes, I'll…I'll be fine, thank you." Ms. Rutherford sweat off her forehead, closed her eyes, and took a deep breath.

"Are you sure? I can get you a glass of-"

"No, I'm fine, really. It's just, the drumming bugs me, that's all. Thank you…thanks." She looked up again, pushing graying hair out of her eyes, and gently removed his hand from her shoulder. "Frankly, I think Mr. Springfield was manipulating you."

"Now hold on a minute, ma'am, that is a very serious…umm, pardon, but could you explain your reasoning? Cause I find that a bit difficult to believe. Er, no offense."

"Perfectly understandable. After all, he is a friend of yours…which, unfortunately is one of the main causes for my concern. Here, look at the transcript." She pushed her chair to the right to that both of them could read the pages on the clipboard. "Right here, early on, he takes control of the interview. It's quick and easy; I'm not surprised that you didn't notice."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence."

"I'm sorry, that came out wrong. What I mean is, Mr. Springfield seems very skilled at controlling a conversation to his own ends. That doesn't reflect poorly on you; pretty much anybody without a good amount of training could have fallen for it."

"Hmm…" Sterling examined the transcript more closely. "I'm not sure…I know him, and that's just how he talks. Theatrical, I mean."

"And that is precisely why I'm not sure you're willing to put aside your personal relationships while on the job."

"What?"

"You make the judgment based on his previous behavior that his current behavior is normal. Look, right here, in the transcript. He points out his own quirks and flaws in order to cast whatever lies or misdirections he might make as simple errors or mannerisms. He knows that you're even more likely to buy it because you know that's how he normally acts!"

"Ms. Rutherford, do you see everyone as a suspect?"

She chuckled. "I'm an investigator. It's my job."

"Well, it's not mine." Sterling shifted back into his chair. "I'm a local sheriff, remember, and my job is to keep the peace. I can't afford to lose the confidence of folks, and if I saw them all as suspects…well, they wouldn't have much reason to trust me then, would they? And in a time like this…"

"You need to keep the peace, I know. Hmm…you bring up an interesting point, Sterling." She stood up roughly and moved near the door, looking over her shoulder to talk to him. "Still, don't let people play you like that. Be careful."

"Same to you. Take care, now." Ms. Rutherford had begun to walk out the door when Sterling spoke again. "Oh, by the way…would you like to do some interviews later in the investigation?"
"I might just. Goodbye."