Chapter 1 |CHAPTER 1|
— May 2017 —
Mateo Vega lay on his narrow, metal-framed cot with his hands behind his head and stared up at the blank ceiling. He knew every hairline crack and blemish in the dingy paint. He knew which of the three hundred–plus CMUs, the concrete masonry units, that made up the three solid walls of his eight-by-ten cage had faint remnants of graffiti scratched indelibly into their rough surfaces by hopeless souls marking time. He’d been in this cell for eight of the past sixteen years, but tomorrow, finally, he’d be out.
“So tomorrow’s the big day, then?” Pop said from his cot on the far side of the cell. Pop’s given name was Henry Mansfield Johnson, but no one called him that. He was a wiry black man, a gay one as well, who had murdered his former partner and the partner’s new lover sometime back in the eighties. Pop was the first to admit that his double homicide had been a cold-blooded crime, with plenty of premeditation thrown into the bargain. Somewhere along the way during his lengthy incarceration, he’d had his come-to-Jesus moment. Based on what he’d read in a now well-thumbed Bible, his sins were forgiven and his soul was saved. That was fine as far as the spiritual world was concerned. In the real world, however, nothing had changed, and Pop was determined to serve out his two life sentences with as much humility and grace as he could muster.
Mateo and Pop had been cellmates for five years now and friends for most of that, primarily because they both were outsiders. They kept their noses clean and steered clear of trouble. Neither of them was a lifetime criminal with a long, diverse rap sheet that started with juvenile offenses and escalated from there. They were in prison for similar crimes—the murder of a previous lover. There was one major difference between them, however: Pop accepted full responsibility for what he had done. Mateo did not. At his public defender’s urging, he had entered a guilty plea to second-degree murder, but ever since he’d steadfastly maintained his innocence.
His final parole hearing, his tenth, had taken place six weeks earlier. They’d approved his request, but it had taken from then until now for the Department of Corrections to finally get its act together and issue his discharge papers. Evidently it took that long to cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s.
“According to what I’ve been told,” Mateo responded finally, “I’m supposed to be on my way by eleven tomorrow morning.”
That was how their leisurely conversations went. With nothing but time between them, the reply to a question might come five to ten minutes after it had been asked.
“What’s the first thing you’re gonna do?”
“Find a taco truck,” Mateo answered, “preferably one where they make their tacos with shredded beef as opposed to mystery meat.”
Food in the Monroe Correctional Facility was, generally speaking, bad news, but what was purported to be Mexican food scraped the very bottom of the barrel.
Pop laughed. “If it was me, I’d head straight for the Central District and hook me up with some of Ezell’s Famous Chicken—if they’s still in business, that is,” he added. Another long pause followed. “Then what?” Pop asked.
For someone like Pop, doing life without parole, the idea of getting out of prison was an impossible dream, and hearing about someone else’s upcoming release was like listening to a fairy tale. Knowing that was the case, Mateo was glad to humor him.
“Find a place to live.”
“How you gonna pay for it?”
Mateo shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll be a day laborer for now. I bet there are still groups of guys hanging out by Home Depot and Lowe’s looking for work.”
“I hear they’s almost unionized these days,” Pop told him. “Some guy organizes it all, and then he takes a cut of what everyone makes.”
“Figures,” Mateo muttered under his breath.
“Knowin’ you,” Pop said encouragingly, “I think you’ll be jus’ fine.”
“What I’m really going to do,” Mateo added determinedly after another long pause, “is find the son of a bitch who really killed Emily Tarrant.”
“You bet,” Pop agreed with a grin, “you and O.J. How do you think that’s gonna turn out for you?”
Mateo didn’t answer. The conversation ended then, and another long silence fell between them, as much silence as there ever was in the perpetual din of the cellblock. And in that silence, Mateo lay there thinking.
No matter how many years crept by, Mateo remembered the conversation with his public defender almost verbatim. It had occurred in an interview room deep in the bowels of Seattle’s King County Jail. All the interview rooms looked exactly alike, as did all the corridors leading to and from Mateo’s cell. During the interview his hands had been attached to the table with a pair of cuffs. His suit-clad public defender’s hands had been free to wave in the air when he wasn’t prying dirt from under seemingly pristine nails.
“It’s a good deal,” Arthur Harris had assured him. “Emily Tarrant died of manual strangulation. She was sexually assaulted before her body was thrown into a blackberry bush just up the bluff from the beach. The state is willing to let you plead guilty to second-degree murder. With a sentence of sixteen years to life, you’ll most likely be out in eight. By then you’ll only be in your early thirties. You’ll still have your whole life ahead of you.”
At the time Arthur Harris must have been somewhere in his sixties, and no doubt those words came easily to him. For Mateo, age twenty-two, eight years in prison could just as well have been forever.
“How can I plead guilty to something I didn’t do?” Mateo had objected.
“They have your DNA,” Arthur replied.
“They have somebody else’s DNA, too,” Mateo countered. “Emily and I went to a beach in Edmonds. She was drinking and flirting with everybody in sight. Later on I caught her down by the water making out with one of the guys she’d been hanging with. I punched the guy in the nose, and then I dragged her kicking and screaming back through the party to my car. I thought we were headed home, but when I stopped at the first stop sign, she jumped out and took off running. That’s where she was the last time I saw her, hotfooting it down the road. I said the hell with her, drove home, and got into bed. In other words, the last time I saw her, she was still alive. I got home, I went to sleep by myself. The next day, when she didn’t come home, I reported her missing.”
“Which amounts to your having no alibi, since you claim you lost your phone at the party,” the lawyer suggested.
“I did lose my phone at the party,” Mateo insisted. “It must have fallen out in the sand, or maybe someone stole it. But what about the lie-detector test I took? I passed it fair and square, didn’t I?”
Harris remained unmoved. “Lie-detector results aren’t admissible in court. DNA is, and with that conveniently misplaced phone, the cops can’t trace your movements. Being home by yourself means you have zero alibi. And there was bruising on your hands.”
“Of course there was,” Mateo agreed. “Like I already told you, I punched a guy in the nose.”
“Be that as it may,” Arthur intoned, “in my opinion, if you go to trial on a charge of first-degree homicide, you’re really rolling the dice. With sexual assault thrown into the mix, there’s a good chance you could end up getting life without parole.”
“Like I said, Emily and I had consensual sex before the party, but when I left, she was mad as hell and still very much alive.”
“Physical evidence suggests that what happened to Emily Tarrant was not consensual,” Harris countered, “but it’s your call. The plea deal is on the table—take it or leave it. If we go to court, though, I think there’s a good chance you’ll end up with a whole lot more than sixteen years.”
If Mateo had asked, his folks probably would have helped, but he was used to being on his own. He had made his way through school on scholarships and by working nights at Pizza Hut. During his junior and senior years, he’d had to resort to student loans. He was pretty sure the interest on those was going to keep on growing even if he ended up going to prison. Not wanting to add in a mountain of legal fees, he’d settled for a public defender. Unfortunately, he realized much later, you get what you pay for.
In the stark silence of the interview room, Mateo did the math. Serving eight years of a sixteen-year sentence would be better than risking a life sentence by going to court. After all, Mateo’s paternal grandfather had been ninety-three when he died. Even so, Mateo still wouldn’t go for it. When he came before the judge to enter his plea, he looked the man in the eye and pronounced the words “Not guilty.”
For the next ten months, Mateo languished in a cell in the King County Jail awaiting trial. The longer he waited, the more hopeless things seemed. Would a jury ever overlook the DNA evidence and return a verdict of not guilty? More and more, the answer to that seemed to be, “Not likely.” Finally, two weeks before his scheduled trial date, Mateo cratered and called Harris at his office.
“I’ll take the deal,” Mateo told him.
Two weeks later, in a King County courtroom, Mateo Vega had stood up and pled guilty to second-degree murder in the death of Emily Tarrant. The sexual-assault charge had somehow disappeared from the mix. He was sentenced to sixteen years to life, with a year credited for time served in the King County Jail while awaiting trial. After that he was shipped off to the Monroe Correctional Facility, where, one by one, the years inched past. By the time his first parole hearing came along in 2009, he had a new public defender—a woman this time, Alisha Goodson.
“All you have to do is accept responsibility and say you’re sorry,” she explained to him. “Your record here is squeaky clean. If you express remorse, they’ll let you out first time at bat.”
Mateo took some of her advice but not all of it. “I’m sorry Emily Tarrant is dead,” he told the parole board when it came his turn to speak, “but I didn’t do it.”
Emily’s mother, Abigail, was right there in the hearing room, watching and listening to every word. She stiffened visibly when Mateo spoke. When it was her turn, she told the board she was still devastated and that her life had been forever changed by the death of her daughter at such a tender age. Mateo had caught Emily cheating on him only that one time at the party, although he had no doubt there’d been plenty of others he didn’t know about. But according to Mrs. Tarrant, her beloved Emily was as pure as the driven snow. And that’s when Mateo’s dream of being paroled after eight years went out the window.
The same thing happened year after year, and year after year, as Mateo refused to accept responsibility and parole was denied—one hearing after another. Finally, in year sixteen, for Mateo’s final parole-board hearing, Mrs. Tarrant didn’t show up. Although no one mentioned it, Mateo guessed that she must have passed away between hearings. That was when they finally agreed to let him go—without even bothering to ask the responsibility question.
A little over a month later, Mateo awakened early on the morning he was due to be a free man. Still in handcuffs, he was escorted to the property division, where an attendant gifted him with an ill-fitting set of cast-off clothing. Had the clothing he’d surrendered years earlier still existed, it wouldn’t have fit the thirty-eight-year-old man he was now. Next a clerk returned his property—his 1994 class ring from Yakima High School and a faded wallet that contained sixty-three bucks in cash, along with an out-of-date driver’s license, an expired Visa card, a no-longer-valid proof of insurance, and a scrap of paper listing the phone numbers for several of his family members. After that he was given a check that contained the outstanding amount from his commissary account and what remained of his accrued wages—an average of five bucks a day—earned from working first in the laundry and later in the library. Most of the inmates sent all their earnings directly to their commissary account, but Mateo had banked close to half of his, and the check amounted to almost sixteen hundred dollars.
At that point he expected to be escorted straight to the sally port. Instead, much to his surprise, he was taken to the warden’s office.
Mateo had been there once before. Years earlier he’d happened to be in the prison library when the computer system crashed. The librarian, Mrs. Ancell, was mid-meltdown and on the phone to some long-distance tech support when Mateo asked if he could help. He had just graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in computer science and had started working his first job with a company called Video Games International when he ended up in prison.
Mrs. Ancell, totally unable to understand a word of what the remotely located tech guy was saying, had handed the phone over to Mateo. The technician’s mangled English-language skills had made it challenging for Mateo to understand him as well, but he grasped enough that he’d been able to create a workaround and reboot the system. Out of gratitude Mrs. Ancell had sung his praises to the warden and lobbied for him to be given a certificate of appreciation, which had been handed over in person by the warden himself. Up until then Mateo had worked mostly in the prison’s laundry facility or handled mess-hall duties. From then on he was assigned to work in the library. Yes, prison might have been the wrong place to be, and a prison library was probably even wronger—if there was such a word. But in that moment, it was both the right place and the right time, because over the years working in the library had proved to be a huge benefit.
From that moment on, Mrs. Ancell had taken a personal interest in Mateo. She located textbooks and articles that had enabled him to advance his studies in computer science. His disciplined self-improvement program might not have earned any additional degrees, but it had allowed him to accumulate a good deal of practical knowledge and to keep up to date with what was going on in the fast-moving tech world. Then, in those final weeks leading up to his release, Mrs. Ancell had allowed him to go online in search of possible rooms to rent. He found one south of Seattle in Renton, where, with the remainder of the money in his prison account plus his accumulated wages, he’d have enough to cover the first and last month’s rent. Anything extra, along with the sixty-three bucks found in his wallet, meant he’d be able to buy some food prior to receiving his first paycheck.
Seated in the bare-bones waiting room outside the warden’s private office, Mateo began to fret and wonder as the time ticked closer to the prison van’s scheduled departure. What was the holdup? Had some kind of glitch developed that would mean he wasn’t being released after all? Finally the door opened, and Warden Pierce beckoned him inside.
“Come in,” he said with a welcoming smile and an outstretched hand. “I understand you’re leaving us today.”
A handshake was way more than Mateo had expected.
“I believe so,” he said.
Warden Pierce motioned him into a chair. “I’m sure Mrs. Ancell is going to miss you,” he said. “From what I hear, you’ve been a great help to her.”
“She’s a good lady,” Mateo replied. Saying more than that seemed unwise.
“I asked you to drop by because I have something for you,” Warden Pierce said. He opened a desk drawer, removed an envelope, and reached across the desk to hand it to Mateo. Looking down at the envelope, Mateo recognized his mother’s stilted handwriting, but the letter wasn’t addressed to him. It was addressed to Warden Pierce and bore a postmark that was only a week old. The words “PERSONAL AND CONFIDENTIAL” were prominently displayed just beneath the stamp.
“It’s open,” the warden said with a smile. “You’re welcome to look inside.”
So Mateo did. He found a piece of lined paper that had most likely been torn out of a grandchild’s spiral notebook. The words written there were brief and to the point.
Mateo Vega is my son. Since I no longer live in my own home, I’m unable to offer him a place to stay upon his release. Would you please pass this along to him so he’ll have some funds available to find a place to live and food to eat?
Mateo unfolded what he recognized to be a postal money order and was astonished to see that it was written to him in the amount of one thousand dollars. He studied it for a long moment and had to swallow the lump in his throat before he could speak again.
“My mother isn’t rich,” he said gruffly. “How could she afford to send this to me, and why would she?”
“I suppose the answer to both questions would be that she loves you very much,” Warden Pierce suggested.
Mateo looked up at the man. Inmates generally regarded Pierce as a thin-skinned hard-ass, someone worthy of fear and loathing. Yet as the two men sat there together, with Warden Pierce gazing kindly at Mateo across an expanse of wooden desk, Mateo came to the blinding conclusion that there was an essential kindness to the warden that no one had ever noticed or mentioned.
Pierce glanced down at the top of several pieces of paper in a file folder that lay open on his desk. “It says here that you want to be dropped off in Seattle, but wouldn’t you be better off back home in Yakima? The cost of living there would be far less, and maybe you could start out by staying with one of your relatives.”
In a family of eight kids, Mateo had been the baby, born when both of his parents, Joaquin and Olivia, were in their forties. While the older kids had been growing up, the family had lived in straitened circumstances, and there had been no question about the older kids being able to go on to college. His sisters had all married straight out of high school, and after graduating from Yakima High, Mateo’s three brothers had gone to work in the orchards like their father. By the time Mateo came along, his father had been promoted several times over, eventually landing as the foreman of an orchard operation where he’d once been a mere laborer, a situation that offered him employer-provided housing. In addition, Mateo’s mother had gotten a job working in the high school cafeteria. With his parents having a much-improved income situation and far fewer mouths to feed, Mateo’s childhood circumstances were far different from those of his brothers and sisters.
Joaquin, determined that Mateo do something besides follow in the footsteps of his older siblings, had encouraged him to focus on his studies. As a result Mateo had earned top grades and ended up with a sizable academic scholarship to the University of Washington.
Naturally his brothers and sisters had resented everything about this and weren’t shy about letting Mateo know exactly how they felt. They ragged on him about being lazy and thinking he was too good to work in the orchards the way everybody else had. They called him a crybaby and a spoiled brat, among other things, and when he went off to Seattle to enroll in the U Dub, they’d been united in saying so long and don’t come back anytime soon.
During the years Mateo had been locked up, his mother had developed diabetes and could no longer work. Then, when his father was killed on the job by a freak lightning strike, not only did Olivia lose her husband and her primary means of support, she no longer had a place to call home. She now lived with her oldest granddaughter, helping look after five of her great-grandchildren in order to earn her keep.
At the time of Joaquin’s death, Mateo had applied for and been granted a temporary release to attend his father’s funeral. Of course, he would have had to go to the service in handcuffs accompanied by a guard, but he’d been looking forward to attending. Then, the day before the funeral, a letter arrived from his oldest brother, Eddie, saying that his presence at the funeral would be a disruption, adding that it would be best for all concerned if Mateo simply stayed away.
So when Warden Pierce suggested that perhaps Mateo would be better off going home to Yakima, a whole turmoil of thoughts and emotions raced through Mateo’s mind and heart. “No,” he said at last. “I can’t go back home to Yakima. It just wouldn’t work.”
“All right, then,” Warden Pierce said. “Suit yourself.” He stood up. “On your way, Mateo. Take care of yourself. With any kind of luck, I hope I won’t see you back here ever again.”
“Yes, sir,” Mateo replied. “I hope so, too.”
In the prison yard, Mateo was loaded into a van and driven to Seattle as part of a van network known as “the Chain” that shuttled prisoners back and forth between jails, courthouses, and prisons inside the state of Washington. The van dropped him off on the sidewalk outside the sally port’s entrance to the King County Jail. He found a taco truck, Jorge’s Tacos, parked on Yesler next to City Hall Park, and gorged himself on three tacos and a luscious homemade tamale. Then he set out for Renton on foot.
It was May. The air was cool and clean. After being locked up for so long, he enjoyed walking. His future landlord wouldn’t be off work until after five, and there was no sense in arriving early. As Mateo headed south from downtown, he was shocked to see the homeless encampments along the way—the derelict but clearly occupied campers parked here and there along the street, the tents erected under overpasses, and panhandlers begging at almost every street corner. Seattle hadn’t looked like this before, or if it had, Mateo didn’t remember it.
At one point he spied a check-cashing store. Once inside, he turned his mother’s money order and the check the property clerk had issued him into actual cash. As the clerk counted out the bills into his waiting hand, Mateo couldn’t help but wonder how his mother had come by that much money. He was pretty sure it was something his brothers and sisters knew nothing about.
He put enough money to cover his first and last months’ rent in his wallet. Then, outside the store, he located a bench and sat down long enough to stow the rest under the insole of his ill-fitting shoes.
It was close to six, and his feet were killing him by the time he finally arrived at the address he’d been given—a ramshackle house at the end of Northwest Sixth Street. The place was a wreck, with a collection of half-dismantled cars parked in the driveway and a sagging porch propped up on one corner by a strategically placed stack of concrete blocks. The other houses on that same stretch were well maintained with manicured, fenced-in yards. This one was clearly a teardown awaiting a change in the real-estate market, when investing in new construction in the neighborhood would once more be profitable.
Mateo was seated on the front porch examining the oozing blisters on his heels when Randy Wasson, his soon-to-be landlord, arrived at five forty-five, driving up in a rattletrap Ford pickup that might have seen better days, but unlike the rusted hulks clogging the driveway, it still ran. Mateo would learn later that the man worked as a mechanic at a nearby Jiffy Lube. Unfortunately, Randy’s interest in automobile mechanics didn’t extend to his own fleet of derelict vehicles.
“You must be Mateo,” Randy said, sauntering up the cracked and weedy front walkway.
Mateo slipped his ill-fitting shoes back on and winced as he stood up to greet the man. Randy looked back toward the street. “No car?” he asked.
Mateo had owned his own car a long time ago, but once he went to jail, his dad had taken it home to Yakima, where it had been passed down to one of his many nephews—who, according to his mother, had wrecked it in short order.
“Nope,” he answered. “I’m on foot.”
“So how’d you get here? Bus? Uber?” Randy asked.
“I walked,” Mateo replied.
“From downtown Seattle?”
“So no furniture, then?” Randy asked.
“Not so far.”
“All right,” Randy told him. “There’s a bed in each of the bedrooms, but not much else. I can spare you some sheets, a pillow, and a couple of blankets. I live in the basement. There are three bedrooms upstairs. The next roomer is due to show up tomorrow, so you get first choice. The three of you share the kitchen, living room, and bathroom. Everybody takes care of his own food and cleans up his own mess. Does that work for you?”
“Sounds fair,” Mateo agreed.
“Not much luggage, I see,” Randy ventured.
Mateo had been up front with Randy, letting him know that he was being let out of prison on parole. There was no point in lying about it and having it turn into a big screwup later.
“Nope,” Mateo said. “What you see is what you get.”
“You’re in luck,” Randy said. “There’s a St. Vincent de Paul store right here in the neighborhood, through those trees and just over an eight-foot sound-barrier fence.” He nodded toward a grove of second-growth trees that separated the weedy backyard at the end of the cul-de-sac from the commercial businesses on Rainier Avenue South. “You can probably pick up some duds there on the cheap and maybe some furniture, too. If you find something, I’ll be glad to haul it home in my truck. Come on. Let me show you around.”
Given his choice of either an east-facing room or a west-facing room, Mateo settled for east. It was still cool in May, but he was pretty sure the house didn’t have air-conditioning and probably not much insulation either. With summer coming on, he’d be better off dealing with morning sun than afternoon heat.
The next day Mateo took Randy’s advice and made his way to the massive thrift store that was almost next door. His older brothers and sisters had been forced to wear secondhand clothing while they were growing up—that was something else they had against him—but this was Mateo’s first venture inside one of those establishments. And he was surprised by what he found there. In the furniture section, he located a small dresser and an easy chair, along with a nightstand and lamp, all for a total outlay of eighty-eight dollars. He paid for those and had them set aside to be picked up later with Randy’s truck. In housewares he gathered up a couple of pots and pans, some plates and bowls, some silverware, and two glasses. In the clothing department, he found three pairs of pants, several shirts, and two pairs of shoes—including a pair of almost new work boots—that actually fit him. The total for all that was just over a hundred bucks.
Pleased with his purchases and clothing in hand, he was on his way out of the store when he spotted a HELP WANTED sign in the front window. It turned out they were looking for someone to work the loading dock, accepting donations. Mateo didn’t think twice about filling out an application. A job that was within easy walking distance was far preferable to dragging his ass all over town looking for casual-laborer work at the nearest Home Depot. Two days later he was hired.
Three days out of the slammer, Mateo Vega had a place to live and a job. Yes, it wasn’t the kind of job he’d dreamed of back when he was going for his degree in computer science, but Mateo wasn’t proud, and he wasn’t picky either. Working on a loading dock was a hell of a lot better than having no job at all. Once he had a bus pass and could find a nearby public library, he’d get on one of the library computers and start sending out résumés. There had to be better jobs out there somewhere, and he planned to find one. Once he did, he’d devote himself to doing exactly what he’d told Pop he intended to do—find the guy responsible for killing Emily Tarrant.