Why do so many monsters go by three names? John Wayne Gacy. Gary Leon Ridgway. Mark David Chapman. John Wilkes Booth. Lee Harvey Oswald.
Samuel Richard King.
I studied him through the one foot by one foot plexiglass window set into the steel door that separated the free from the captive. Out here, I could change my mind, I could turn and leave, anytime I wanted. King didn’t have that luxury. He’d never see the outside world again.
He was barely twenty-two years old, a small, nondescript man. His blonde hair was a little shaggy, but not exceptionally long. His complexion was just a little darkened from working outdoors, his hands callused but not very strong looking, as if the outdoor work was something new to him. According to my research, it was. He’d been working for a landscaping company a mere three weeks before it happened.
The only outward characteristic that hinted at what really lurked beneath were his eyes, dark and flat, like a two-dimensional drawing in an old comic book. They revealed nothing and perhaps revealed everything. Maybe only nothingness was there.
“I’m ready,” I said, more to myself than to the guard that stood poised to let me into the interrogation room. I was there to interview King and even I wasn’t sure why. I wasn’t a true crime writer. I wrote paperback spy thrillers, the kind of book people bought at grocery stores and airports. I had spun some story about doing a feature article for a major magazine to the Gattlenburg District Attorney and he had believed me, partly because we had gone to High School together and partly because I was the most famous person to come out of Gattlenburg, which really tells you all you need to know about Gattlenburg, Maryland.
But no magazine had commissioned an article on Samuel Richard King. I was standing there of my own accord, desperate to speak to the man who had killed fourteen students and two teachers, with no real idea of what I hoped to learn.
The guard opened the door and I limped into the barren room, my bad knee jolting with every step. The cane that I normally relied on had been held at the front gate by a bored looking man with a clip board, presumably to prevent a prisoner from grabbing it and beating me to death. I pulled a notepad and pen from my jacket pocket as I sat down across from King.
“You’re Daniel Hardwick?” he asked.
“My father has all your books. Had, I guess. I read one of them. Wasn’t bad.”
He shrugged. “Had a clown in it. And some guys with a bomb in a suitcase.”
“The Vernan Gambit.”
He didn’t sound evil. There was a hard edge to his voice, but it was more petulant teenager than monster. Samuel Richard King had a clean record, not even a speeding ticket, until two weeks ago, when he walked into the local high school, a school we had both attended, and started shooting people.
“You going to write a book about me?” he asked.
“You don’t think your story is interesting enough for an article?”
He laughed. “Shit, I think I’m interesting enough for the movies. That’s not what I meant. Why am I interesting to you? There’s what, a school shooting every couple of weeks in this country? Do you write articles on all of them?”
“No. Just the ones in my home town.”
King laughed at that. “Like you’re some hometown boy. You left here right after you got out of school, didn’t you? What was that, thirty years ago?”
“A little more than that.”
“How many times you been back?”
I stared at him for a moment, thinking about how to answer. I wasn’t comfortable with the way the interview was going, but I still opted for honesty. “Once. For my father’s funeral.”
“How’d that go?”
“Not so well. My brother and I have… issues.”
“So you ain’t been here in years and all of a sudden you’re interested in what goes down in your home town? Smells like bullshit to me, man.”
“Maybe I feel like I owe it something after all these years. Maybe I have some regrets.”
“Why did you leave?”
“There was nothing else for me here. Gattlenburg is hardly a major center for publishing, especially back when there wasn’t all this online stuff. Now you can write from anywhere and just email it off. Didn’t used to work that way. Hell, I even wrote on a manual typewriter.”
“Right. So, that’s the rehearsed answer you’ve been giving everyone for thirty years. What’s the real reason?”
I thought about it for the first time in a long time. He was right, of course, the answer I had given was well practiced and oft repeated. I didn’t like thinking about it, about my past. After all those years, I still hadn’t made my peace with life.
“My father,” I said. “I left to get away from my father.”
“Not really. Indifferent and judgmental, I guess.”
“Yeah. He didn’t put a lot of time or thought into what I did, he didn’t pay much attention to me at all, but on the rare occasion he did, all I got was sarcasm and belittlement. He was a blue collar guy, through and through, a construction foreman. He thought a man should do a man’s job. So, two sons and he got a writer and a high school teacher.”
“Your brother’s a teacher?”
I let the silence hang in the room. There was an elephant there now, and neither one of us wanted to look at it too closely.
When the silence got to be too much, he asked, “Just what do you think would have been different if you’d stayed in Gattlenburg?”
“I think I would have ended up at the school, also. Probably teaching English, or maybe Drama.”
King thought about that for a moment and I could see the wheels turning behind those cold eyes, trying to find my angle. “Did you talk to your brother about that?” he asked.
“No. We hadn’t talked in years. Since the funeral.”
“Those issues you mentioned?”
“And that’s one of the things you regret?”
I nodded. “Do you have any regrets?” I asked him. “Sixteen people are dead. How does that make you feel?”
“And yet here you sit.”
“S’not so bad. Three squares and a cot, guaranteed, for the rest of my life.”
I shook my head. It wasn’t what I had expected to hear. I was prepared for anger or perversion, perhaps even enjoyment. All of those are common emotional responses in serial and spree killers, all of them I could wrap my head around in some way. But King seemed indifferent.
Like my father.
“What is it you expect to happen here?” he asked. “What do you want out of this?”
“Forgiveness, I think.”
“From me? I don’t even know you. And I’m hardly the man to be handin’ out absolution, not after what I’ve done. What is it you think you’re responsible for? Not sticking around and gracin’ our class with your presence? You think things would have turned out different if you were there?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then what is it you want forgiveness for? Walking away from your brother? I’m the man who killed him, how can I forgive you?”
“You didn’t kill my brother, Samuel. He died of pancreatic cancer last night. He was in hospice care when you went on your spree. You did shoot his replacement, but he was one of the survivors.”
“Then what is this? What do you want?”
“To understand why I had to leave. To understand why you had to kill those people.”
“I couldn’t leave. You got out, man. I couldn’t. I don’t have any talent, I was never going to be a writer, or an actor, or a singer. This was the only way.”
“The only way for what?”
“To get famous. That’s what getting out is all about, right? Fame and fortune?”
“Like Gattlenburg’s native son, the big shot writer man. Like you.”
“Samuel, I made forty-two thousand dollars last year. Before taxes. I live in a rented townhouse in suburban New Jersey. No one asks for my autograph, I don’t do book tours. I’m just a working writer. It’s just another job.”
He stared at me and I could see it on his face. He didn’t believe me. He thought I was lying to him and he was trying to figure out why.
I stood up and turned from him. The weight of time and events bore down on me and it felt difficult to move. King wasn’t what I expected him to be. He wasn’t beaten down by the town and by the system. The school wasn’t his oppressor. If he was the victim of anything it was reality television and the cult of celebrity.
Gattlenburg has always felt like a tragedy to me, and in some way that I’ll never fully understand, it felt like a tragedy of my own making. Perhaps in my avoidance of my brother and of the town, they became the same thing to me. I wasn’t there for either of them in their time of need. And while one had nothing to do with the other, in my mind they were also the same.
I looked back at King, expecting him to say something, but he remained silent as I left the cold, concrete room. Silent and disappointed.