She took a deep breath, then checked her tape recorder again and did another mic check. Everything was still in working order. And just in case it wasn’t, she still had her notebook. Though the guards had insisted she use a felt tipped pin instead of anything that could be used as a weapon. That made her even more nervous. What the hell was she doing here?
The job advertisement was something she would have passed by, had she not still be flying a little high from her little adventure under the pier. She’d almost called him up when she realized she’d forgotten to give him back his handcuffs. They’d been sitting on her desk when she’d fired off the resume.
Diana Valerio, intrepid girl reporter. Ace reporter. Oh god, there were footsteps coming down the hall. She set the pen back down and pasted a friendly smile on her face. Somehow, she managed to keep it on as the guards set about securing the prisoner to the other chair. Unlike hers, it had been bolted to the floor. The man they were shackling to it looked every inch the stereotype of a scary black man. He was well over six feet in height, with pounds of prison muscle packed onto this frame. A scar ran down the left side of his face, from hairline to jaw, and she was surprised to see he still had the eye. She could see tattoos visible on his neck as well as on his clean-shaven head, and from the looks of things his nose had been broken several times.
His hands were secured behind his back with heavy duty manacles, and his ankles were also fastened to the chair. The guards didn’t stop there. They also put leather straps on his legs and chest to keep him firmly fastened in place. She found herself hoping he didn’t get an itchy nose. Then she found herself hoping the restraints weren’t actually necessary.
As soon as the guards left the room, she took a deep breath. “Mr. Viteri, thank you for agreeing to my request for an interview.”
“Ma’am.” He inclined his head in her direction. He shrugged. “Guy in the cell next to me owes me ten cigarettes.” His voice was surprisingly soft and pleasant, with a bit of a drawl.
“Um…” She tilted her head. “May I ask why?”
“Told him I was going to be talking to a woman named Diana today. He bet me you’d be more Amanda Waller than Wonder Woman.”
“I hope he pays up.” She smiled. “Is that why you agreed to an interview?” Her new boss hadn’t expected her to get the interview. The man before her had turned away dozens already. Given the man’s predilections, she was fairly confident her looks weren’t why he’d agreed to meet with her.
“Forty requests this month. But yours started with a please and ended with a thank you.” He shrugged again. “I am a southern boy, ma’am. Good manners go a long way.”
“I will keep that in mind.” She nodded.
“You also pointed out that you hadn’t read the books already written about my case. Just the trial notes. Said you wanted to get my side of the story without risking their influencing your views.” He smiled. “That’s the part that got you the interview, ma’am. Reporters should have an open mind.”
“Thank you, Mr. Viteri.” She took a deep breath. “Would you like to start?”
“I’ve got some time.” He winked at her.
“Alright then…” This time the smile was genuinely friendly. She’d been worried he was going to be hostile or confrontational. This might go well. “Shall we start in high school?”
“Rather not.” He shook his head. “High school set the scene, but it isn’t really where things got started.”
“Your lawyer cited bullying…”
“Ma’am, I think the fact that I’m in here kinda suggests he wasn’t a great lawyer.”
“Fair point. So, set the scene for me.” The tape recorder was running, but she picked up the pen anyway.
“I was bullied in high school. Skinny, broke, nerdy, black, and gay.” He nodded. “Pretty much the absolute lowest you could get in Bailey. I skipped a few grades on account of the nerdy, or things might have been different.” He glanced down at himself. “I was kind of a late bloomer.”
“Thing is, that’s a common story. You can walk down the street and run into a dozen people with the same one. High school had good parts and…” He looked up at her. “It bother you if I cuss?”
“I want your words, Mr. Viteri.”
“High school had good parts and shit parts, and on the whole, it didn’t bother me too much. But like I said, it sets the scene. I got bullied particularly hard by a bunch at the top. You know the names.”
She looked down at her notes. “Timothy Bradford, Elliot Mercer, Arlo Velin…” She looked back up at him. “Paden and Tobias Grady.” She didn’t miss the slight flicker across his eyes at the last name.
“High school is the time in your life when you’re still figuring out who and what you are. Where you start making your first real decisions. But it doesn’t define you. That part comes a little bit later. So, uh…” He chuckled a little.
“Mr Viteri?” She raised an eyebrow.
“Sorry, it’s just…” He took a deep breath. “You asked where my story starts and uh…” He shrugged, making the shackles rattle a little. “Hope you’ll forgive me for not being able to resist, but uh…” He smiled. “It really did begin on a dark and stormy night…”
Cort looked down at the ledger. “I can’t make the math work. Not unless we want to be homeless and not eat again until June.”
Zeke sighed. “Okay, so we’ll hold off on most of it for now, but without the prototype we aren’t going to ever get any of it.”
“That’s still five hundred bucks.” Cort leaned back. “Fuck, if Marco wasn’t still letting us drink free for fixing the freezer, we’d be starving already. I love the man but I’m getting a little tired of nothing but terrible bar wings for dinner.”
“Gotta be something we can pawn or…” Dyson looked up, then chuckled. “Somebody just walked into the wrong bar.”
He turned to see a very white boy in a suit had just walked in out of the rain. The man was soaked from head to foot. That was almost a comfort, meant the odds of the guy coming in to cause trouble were slim. The man immediately went to the bar and asked if he could use the phone. Zeke started shaking his head when Cort sat up. “Don’t we know him?”
“I…” Zeke blinked, then nodded. “Yeah, that’s Tobias Grady.” He looked back at them. “Quarterback looks like a drowned rat.” He smirked a little when the guy gave the phone a frustrated look before handing it back to the bartender. Tobias rubbed the back of his neck and started looking around. He must have caught Zeke looking at him, because frowned a little before his eyes widened in their direction.
Then, somewhat to Zeke’s surprise, the guy walked over. “I swear I know you from somewhere.” He tilted his head as he looked at Zeke.
“Bailey High.” Zeke nodded.
“Oh. Oh yeah, you’re…” Tobias started to nod, then shifted a bit awkwardly. “Zeke, right?”
“Zeke the geek.” Zeke shrugged.
“I, uh…” Tobias sighed. “Shit.”
“What are you doing here?” Zeke leaned back, trying not to feel just a little hostile. This bar was one of the few places he felt comfortable, and this guy’s presence was kind of messing with that a little. Though at least Tobias had always kept the bullying verbal. Taunting him by calling him a faggot when he wasn’t expressing surprise that Zeke wasn’t wearing a dress. But he’d never shoved him face first into a toilet.
“Waiting for a call back, I guess.” Tobias glanced down at the papers still spread on the table, and Zeke fought the urge to gather them up. “This your work?”
“Yeah.” He nodded.
“What’s it to you?” Cort glared at him.
“That’s uh…” Tobias stepped a little closer as he looked down. “Wow…” He looked over at Zeke. “You’ve got this working?”
“Small model.” Zeke nodded. “Working on getting the funds to build the full-scale prototype.”
Tobias moved a couple of the papers to look at the sketches. “How much do you need?”
Why did the guy even care? Zeke rolled his eyes. “Five hundred bucks or so. Got most of the tools already, just need the raw…” He trailed off as Tobias took out his wallet and counted out five bills. He stared as the man offered them to him. “The hell?”
“I remember the day you levitated the principal’s car.” Tobias shrugged. “This is…” He looked down at the sketch again. “Something.” When Zeke didn’t take the bills, Tobias sighed, then tossed them onto the table. Five hundred bucks, sitting there on top of his sketches. “Look, call it payback for four years of lunch money. I could use a little good karma right now.”
“Right.” Zeke collected the bills, and put them into his wallet. “What are you doing here, man?”
“Flat tire.” Tobias rubbed his forehead. “Pulled over, got stuck in the mud. Tried to get out, car slid, ended up in the ditch. Cell phone fell out of my pocket when I was climbing out of the ditch. Hit a rock and broke. I started walking. Got half a mile when the storm started.”
“Karma…” Zeke started snickering. “Is a fucking bitch.”
“Yeah.” Tobias nodded. “Tell me about it.”
“But uh…” Zeke stood. “Turning around for you a bit.” When Tobias raised an eyebrow, Zeke smiled. “Happens I drive a tow truck.”
“Seriously?” Zeke shook his head at the guy next to him. “Why the hell didn’t you just leave?”
“I don’t know.” Tobias leaned back in the seat. “Figured I drove all the way I’d at least have dinner. And who knows, maybe she’d have a great personality or something.”
“Did she?” He tried not to laugh.
“No.” Tobias shook his head. “No, she did not.”
“Thought you married…” He couldn’t come up with the name. “Whats-her-face. Bimbo cheerleader number 3?”
“Kaylyn.” Tobias nodded. “I did.”
“Well, after I walked in on her and the gardener…” Tobias sighed, then shook his head at Zeke. “Yeah, go ahead, laugh it up. You know she actually tried convincing me that it was supposed to be a surprise threesome?”
“Was the gardener female?” Zeke raised an eyebrow.
“Nope.” Tobias grinned. “But hey, bright side, my business hadn’t picked up yet at that point, so I don’t have to pay alimony.” He looked over at Zeke. “She calls every now and then to say she misses me.”
“I bet you’re just heartbroken over that.” Zeke turned on the road Tobias had indicated. “And to think, earlier today I was feeling sorry for myself.”
“How is it you’re not working for NASA, making rockets or something?” Tobias shifted a little to face him. “Making the big bucks with super defense contracts?”
“I, uh…” He sighed. “Some buddies and I got pulled over and uh…” Zeke exhaled. “The cop called the four joints in my pocket ‘intent to distribute’ and tacked on ‘resisting arrest’ and ‘assaulting an officer’ when I pointed out he didn’t have the right to search me in the first place.”
“That’s fucked up.” Tobias shook his head, then indicated the house.
Zeke couldn’t help but admire it a little. Apparently not everything in Tobias’s life sucked these days. And from the look of things, he didn’t have to feel any guilt about taking five hundred bucks from the guy. “You know, it was actually good talking to you.”
“You too.” Tobias hesitated, then pulled a business card out of his wallet. “My company does distribution. You get your prototype working and need to start getting it places, give us a call.” He shrugged. “Or just give me a call if you want to hang out again.”
He took the card, the pulled one of his own business cards out of the visor. “Yeah. You too.” He waited for Tobias to take it, then opened his door. “Alright, let’s get your car down.”
“Tobias Grady bankrolled your first prototype?” Diana glanced at her notes. The case files hadn’t mentioned that.
“Cash deal, no receipts.” He leaned his head back. “I wasn’t even the first he’d taken a chance on. Enough of them paid off for him that he kept doing it. Well, hell, you read the testimonies. You know the kind of things people said about him.”
“The word mentor was used a lot.” She nodded. “As was inspiration.”
“Yeah. That was him.” Zeke Viteri looked away for a moment. “Anyway, I never expected to hear from him again, but he called me a couple days later. Said he was going to an expo and that it might be a good networking opportunity for me. I went. With him introducing me around, telling folks I was brilliant, I was able to shake some hands. Get my foot in a couple doors. That, uh, that opportunity changed my life. I started realizing that halfway through the event. He was like magic.”
“People overlooked your record.” She smiled.
“Yeah.” He nodded. “So, a couple days later, we got tickets to a baseball game. Had an extra. I figured what the hell, and invited him along. We went for beer after, and uh…” He laughed a little. “You won’t find this in the case notes, but that man was quite possibly the absolute worst pool player of all time.”
“That bad?” She noted that down. An additional humanizing aspect to these men.
“Turned out he’d been born left handed, and they’d made him switch. Most tasks he could do just fine, but something that required the hand-eye coordination of pool wasn’t one of them.” He trailed off.
“And then you went to work for him?” She looked up. He didn’t respond right away. “Mr. Viteri.”
“I didn’t work for him.” He shook his head. “We were partners.” He exhaled. “But that part came a little later, after I’d got a few patents. And realized I was shit at marketing.”
“Tell me about it.” She turned to a clean page in her notebook, and looked back up at him. Already the interview wasn’t going as she’d expected. From the court notes, she expected Viteri to speak bitterly, maybe even to rant a little. But the way he was talking about Tobias Grady was sort of hard to reconcile with the knowledge that the man sitting across from her had killed him.