This is the scene that I was originally a part of in Michael Koryta's THE SILENT HOUR. I had a scene with Lincoln Perry; got to shake his hand even! However, I was a victim of edits and never made it to the final publication. THIS IS A SPOILER IF YOU HAVEN'T YET READ THE BOOK!! For those who have read the book, you'll notice how all the information from my scene - wasn't I important originally? - is dispersed throughout the version that did end up being published. So here are my 15 minutes of fame that were left on the cutting room floor...
The parole office was located in the Frank J. Lausche state office building on Superior, close to the river. The building’s architecture was unusual, a sprawling place of dark glass and hard angles. Jen Forbus had an office wedged into one of those angles, looking down on Superior. Between the clutter in the room and the haggard look on her face, she seemed like the sort of woman who actually got things done. One thing I’ve learned – when it comes to any form of government, the neater the desk and more relaxed the demeanor, the less useful the employee.
Past that weary, bordering-on-annoyed expression, Jen Forbus was an attractive woman, maybe fifty and almost as tall as me, with blond hair and penetrating blue eyes. She shook hands with us, made a point of looking at her watch to remind us that she was a busy woman and this was an unscheduled meeting, and then sat down behind her desk.
“Well, what’s the situation?” She leaned back in her chair, put the end of a pen between her teeth, and looked at us expectantly.
“We’ve been asked to find out what happened to Alexandra and Joshua Cantrell,” Ken said. “I understand you worked with them when you were with the reentry program.”
Jen Forbus lowered the pen from her mouth and set it on the desk, then said, “Wow. I wasn’t expecting that. Yes, I knew the Cantrells. Admired them very much. I’ve thought about them often over years, in fact. When they found his body last winter…” she shook her head. “Very sad.”
“Yes,” Ken said. “Also sad that Alexandra remains missing in action, and that Joshua’s death remains unsolved. That’s what we’re hoping to fix.”
She looked at her watch again, but this time it seemed legitimate.
“I don’t have much time right now, but I’ll answer as many of your questions as I can. If that’s not enough, we can set up a meeting this evening.”
“The first question would be how you ended up working with them.”
“They had a research grant to study the success of various community outreach programs. They helped build a program where inmates provided obedience training to shelter dogs, for example.”
“At the time all of this was going on,” I said, “did you know anything about her family? The, um, exploits of her father and brothers?”
The look she shot me was reproachful. “Of course I knew, and I knew because Alexandra told me. She was a very open person, honest and genuine. We talked about her family often. It wasn’t a subject of shame or secrets to her.”
“You didn’t find the prison work an unusual choice for someone with her background?”
“Unusual?” Jen Forbus arched one eyebrow. “I’d argue it was most natural.”
“Yes. Think about it – when you come from a family so steeped in crime, what options do you have? You’re either going to pick up the torch, as her brothers did, flee from the problem, or…”
She waited, but neither Ken nor I spoke.
“Or seek to help,” she said. “Her family’s activity was of course a defining element of her life. Alexandra chose the third option. She wanted to help.”
“We understand they hired some parolees,” I said. “Brought them out to Hinckley to live with them and to work on the property.”
“Ah, yes, the grand wilderness farm plan,” she said, smiling. “That was Alexandra’s idea, but she could never get the funding needed to do it on a large scale. So, she decided they’d start on a small scale and try to make a good impression. Alexandra contended that a great contributing factor to recidivism was a loss of touch with the natural world. That prolonged incarceration created this traumatic sense of isolation.”
“Absolutely. The problems of separation and isolation have been a focus area for years. Alexandra’s vision was for a new sort of prison, one that didn’t isolate the inmates from the natural world. As you can imagine, making that sort of change was going to be difficult. So she brought the same ideas over to the reentry side.”
“She wanted the parolees to, what, bond with nature?” Ken said, smiling.
“It might sound silly, or melodramatic, but there’s some credibility to the theory. Alexandra showed me some fascinating studies – one demonstrated that just a view of nature from a hospital window reduced reliance on pain medication, another showed inmates who participated in a gardening program had improved recidivism rates. But since she couldn’t get the support she wanted, she created the program of her desires on a very small scale. They purchased that property near Hinckley, built that astonishing home. There was a great deal of thought to the way the place was laid out, the reason it was underground on one side and exposed on the other, some reflection of the soul, I think. I can’t speak for that.”
“How were the parolees chosen?” Ken asked.
“Alexandra and Joshua would review their files, their case histories, and then extend the offer. The offenders were under no obligation to accept, but they always did. The pay was good, and I think Alexandra and Joshua had a good eye for who would work best with what they had in mind.”
“What sort of individual did they want?” I asked.
“They had a checklist.” She held up a hand, began lifting fingers as she ticked through the points. “Incarcerated for at least ten years, a violent offender, preferably murderer, but who wasn’t a career criminal.”
“Preferably a murderer,” Ken echoed, and shook his head.
She smiled. “Sounds like lunacy, doesn’t it? Imagine using those criteria to welcome someone into your home. But Alexandra was quite serious, and she wanted to prove her theories.” “What about Joshua?” Ken said, and she frowned.
“I had the sense that his enthusiasm had diminished greatly toward the end. On an academic level, he believed in the idea and was fascinated with it. On a personal level, I think he was nervous. I think he was scared.”
I thought again of Harrison’s parting comment: She was afraid. Now the same thing, only this time regarding Joshua. So had they both been afraid? And of what?
“It seems they had some success at the start,” I said.
“They had remarkable success, Mr. Perry. Remarkable.”
“Three successes,” I said. “And then there’s Bertoli.”
She nodded grimly. “His experience did not go so well, no.”
“What do you know about him?”
“Not very much,” she said, but her eyes seemed to intensify.
“A minute ago,” I said, “you held up your hand and checked off the criteria the Cantrells had for their prospective hires. The first three you mention, Ruzity, Farah, and Harrison, they all match the criteria. Salvatore Bertoli did not.”
A tight smile spread across her face. “You noticed?”
“Uh-huh. You have any idea why they made that departure?”
“I couldn’t say. But it was a departure, and as you’ve so astutely pointed out, it didn’t seem to go so well, did it?”
“No.” I was still getting the intense stare from her, and I felt as if there were an important question out there, and that she wanted me to ask it.
“Why did they give up their original standards?” I said.
“You just asked the same thing in different words. I couldn’t say why they did. I don’t know.”
“Was her brother a factor?” Ken said.
A long pause, and then she gave him a slight nod, as if he’d scored a point, and said, “Again, I really couldn’t say.”
It felt false, that repetition of I couldn’t say sounding like a bureaucrat’s quote. Well, what could she say?
“Was there anything different about the placement process with Bertoli?” Ken asked. Anything that stood out?”
The tension in her seemed to break, as if Ken had found the key to the lock.
“Two things stood out,” she said. “First, it was Joshua who made the selection. Ordinarily Alexandra led the way, but with Salvatore Bertoli it was Joshua.”
She paused, and I said, “And the second thing?”
“The second thing happened a year earlier.”
“When they were preparing to make their third hire,” she said, “who ultimately became Parker Harrison, I received a letter from an FBI agent urging me to recommend another inmate, one who would not be eligible for parole for several months. I told him I would not, and explained that my interests and the interests of the Cantrells lay in reentry and rehabilitation, not investigation.”
“His recommendation,” I said, “wasn’t by any chance Salvatore Bertoli?”
She smiled again. “I simply cannot disclose that. I’m sure you understand.”
“Of course,” I said, feeling like we’d been sifting through a pan of gravel and seen the first hint of gold.
“I’m late for a meeting, but I do hope I’ve been of some help,” she said, pushing back from her desk and getting to her feet. “I wish you both well. Alexandra was a beautiful human being, and I’ve wondered for so long…”
She was staring at the floor now but her eyes were far away. Eventually, she looked up and extended her hand, first to Ken, then to me.
“I wish you well,” she said again, voice soft.
“Thank you,” I said. “But we do have one last question. I understand you can’t disclose the name of the inmate. It’s confidential information. I don’t know, though, that the name of the FBI agent who wrote it would be.”
She stood before me with her hand in mine and looked into my eyes for a long time. Then she gave my hand one brief squeeze before releasing it.
“John Dunbar,” she said. “And good luck, gentlemen. Good luck.”