“No, wait,” Lance said. “Hold on.”
“Wha - why? I want to confess. I did it.”
“I know you did. That’s apparent. But why are you so ready to knot your own noose?”
“I - I don’t understand.”
“I show up, spend a minute looking around, I tell you I think you did it, and you crumple and confess.”
“Well, you caught me.”
“I didn’t do anything of the sort. I just said I thought you did it. Cops do it all the time. You lean on a guy and see who folds. You set a record today.”
“Is - is that good? Will it go better for me?”
“Maybe. Probably not, though. You’ve already pissed away your bargaining chip. I’ll tell the judge you didn’t put up a fight. If he cares. If I show up for your sentencing. Which I probably won’t. I got 365 cases a year. Hard to keep track.”
The man sat down. His eyes were dull; his skin white and shiny. “I didn’t think you’d put up a argument,” he said tonelessly. “A man confesses, it ought to mean something.”
“Less than you think.” Lance peered at the body. Nice watch. He wondered which of the boys down in evidence would be wearing it by the weekend. The small stuff usually vanished in transit if the perp confessed.
“But I want to hear it anyway. Sounds like a heat-of-the-moment thing. Second-degree beefs don’t get the rope or the jolt. I might not make your trial. But I’ll send a letter to your parole hearing.”
“Fine.” The man stared at the floor. “Like I said, we quarreled over the profits. The arrangement we had said we split it 50-50, since we were both in for the same amount. He was taking money off in petty cash, charging personal items to the company - nothing too big, but it hurt the daily cash flow, and he wasn’t keeping track of it. Which meant he didn’t figure to take it off his part of the profits. Well, I was watching him tie up that bale, there - it’s a shipment of circulars, that’s what we distribute - when the rope broke, and he fell back. Hit his head on the pipe, like I said. But as I’m sure you noticed, he’s not in the position he’s be in if he hit his head on the pipe.” The man paused, looked up at Lance. “Please don’t tell me that’s why you suspected me.”
“I won’t,” said Lance. He thought: I’m lucky on this one. Damn lucky.
“Well, he hit his head, then he stood up. He was somewhat disoriented. He swore - he used the more horrible language, even in front of customers; he seemed to think it made him ‘one of the boys,’ I presume. I’d just - had - enough. I pushed him back. He cracked his head on the pipe. I didn’t mean to kill him. But I’m glad he’s dead.”
“Stay here,” Lance said. He walked over to Doc, who was smoking a cigarette by the window, looking at his notes.
“You got two blows, Doc?” Lance said.
Doc looked surprised. “Yeah. Got a massive blow to the occipital lobe - that’s the one that killed him. Blood and hair on the radiator confirms that. Minor bump on the top from hitting that pipe when he fell.”
Lance went over to the dead body. He knelt, examined the rope. It wasn’t frayed. It had been cut, strand by strand.
“So,” he said to the suspect. “The rope just broke.”
The suspect nodded. “Just broke.”
Lance looked down at the dusty floor around the bale. Dozens of circles. Small tiny circles, as if -
At that moment, Lance knew. He saw it. The suspect was screwing the dead man’s wife. Either she pushed him over with his help, or he pushed him over with her help - those little circles no doubt came from her spike heels. Or she knew one of them was going to be tying bales, and she knew where and how they did it, and she cut the rope and didn’t care who fell into the radiator, or the dead man had cut the rope to pin something on someone -
Everyone’s guilty of something. And when they confess, sometimes you take them at their word. Might not be right. Might not be exact. In the end, though, it’s as much justice as you’re going to get.
“You’re under arrest,” Lance said. The man looked surprised.
“So - so the blow to the head from the pipe killed him? Not the radiator?”
“That’s right. Plus, the cyanide.” The man looked completely confused. “But maybe she can fill us in on that.”
The man tensed - looked towards the door, looked towards the window - then all life left him, and he put out his hands for the cuff.
“So you know,” he said.
“We know everything,” Lance grinned. "Even when we know nothing at all."