I’m not exactly a fan of prison movies, but I’ve seen my share. When I visited Dale Morgan at Northern Ohio Correctional, I saw that those movies were pretty accurate. Just like in the movies, I sat on one side of a glass wall, he sat on the other, and we talked to each other on telephones.
Or more accurately, I talked on the phone, and he sat there pretty much not saying much of anything. Then again, he was too busy looking me over and salivating.
“You do remember Warden Lamar, don’t you?” When I entered the room, I was told not to touch the glass, but I looked over my shoulder to make sure the guard who stood near the door wasn’t watching and took my chances. I tapped on the glass to get Morgan’s attention. “You were at Central State when he was in charge.”
“He was a good man.” It was the most I’d gotten out of him since the gruff, “What’ya want?” he’d shot my way when he walked in.
I breathed a sigh of relief. I wasn’t allowed to bring my purse into the visitors’ room (and the guards who’d taken it from me and put it in a locker better be handling it with kid gloves since it was a Juicy Couture), but I’d tucked the silver dollar from Lamar’s grave in the pocket of my khakis. I pulled it out so Morgan could see it. “You buried this at the warden’s grave.”
Dale Morgan was an I-don’t-know-how-old chunky, short man with eyes as dull as the gray linoleum at our feet. He had hair that was thin and too long, a tiger tattoo on his left arm, and the kind of desperate, hungry look I imagined most of the men in prison wore like a second skin, as if he were starving for anything even remotely related to the outside world. It was the only reason he’d agreed to see me in the first place, and I knew it. I was shameless enough not to care.
He squinted to get a better look at the silver dollar. “How would you know that about me burying that coin at Lamar’s grave?” he asked me. “I did that ten years ago or more. Between being at Central State and coming here. And what difference does it make, anyhow?”
“It makes a difference to you.” I didn’t know this for a fact, but if nothing else, I was getting good at throwing a line. “You could have taken him a bunch of flowers. You didn’t. You buried this coin because you were part of the warden’s coin group at Central State. And it’s a Morgan silver dollar, after all. That was your way of letting him know who left it there for him. The coin was significant to you, and it is to him, too. Or at least”-I added this before he could ask any questions-“it would be significant to him if he were alive to know about it. I think you did it to thank him for trying to help you turn your life around.”
Morgan’s smile was as lean and as sleek as the rest of him wasn’t. “Doesn’t look like it stuck, does it?”
I couldn’t argue with him there, and agreeing seemed tacky. Instead, I stuck with the plan I’d made in the hour-and-a-half drive from Cleveland. “You can still show him how much you appreciate all he tried to do for you,” I said. “You might still be able to help Warden Lamar.”
Morgan darted a look around the room. It was a Thursday, and there weren’t many visitors around. The closest prisoner to him was three chairs away, and that man was so engrossed with talking to a woman with bad hair, a way-too-tight miniskirt, and a blouse with a plunging neckline, he wasn’t paying any attention to our conversation. Morgan lowered his voice, anyway.
For the first time since I walked into the prison, I felt some of the tension inside me uncurl.
I scooted forward in my chair. “I don’t think Warden Lamar killed Vera Blaine,” I said. “And maybe you don’t think so, either. Is that why you buried that coin at his grave? Did you feel you owed him something? If you’d spoken up sooner-”
His look was as fierce as the tiger on his arm. “You trying to pin something on me?”
“No. Not at all.” I tried for a smile, but let’s face it, it’s hard to smile in a place that frisks you when you walk in. “I don’t think you did it. In fact, I’m sure you didn’t. If you did, you never would have left that coin for Lamar. But…”
This was the moment I’d gone to the prison for, and now that it had come, I felt butterflies flutter through my stomach. I reminded myself that all Morgan could do was get mad at me for what I was about to say. In comparison with someone trying to kill me and someone murdering Sammi, it was small potatoes.
“I was hoping that maybe you would know something about the murder,” I told him. “Like maybe who did it.”
Except for his gaze, which darted left and right, he went as still as a statue. “Who told you?”
“Then it’s true? You do know about what happened?”
“Didn’t say it was true. I asked who told you.”
“Nobody.” It was the truth, and somehow, I think he appreciated me admitting it. Or maybe I was just hoping. “But I know you respected the warden, and you’d want to see justice done. I might be able to prove he was innocent. If I could, it would give his widow peace, and it would put a murderer where he belongs. If you know anything-”
I saw him signal for the guard who would take him back to his cell, and yeah, I panicked. I was too close to the truth. Maybe. I’d never know if Morgan wasn’t willing to talk.
“You can’t just walk away,” I blurted out.
He laughed. “You’re right. I can’t walk away. Not from this place. But I’ll tell you what, it sure gets lonely in here. I hardly ever get any visitors, you know what I mean?”
I did. I gulped and nodded. “You want me to come back.”
“Tomorrow.” Morgan stood. “And you could dress a little nicer, you know?” He glanced at the woman who sat nearby. “Like that lady over there,” he said, and he hung up the phone.
Maybe it was just as well, because I was just about to tell him to stick it.
Then again, like I said, I was shameless, and too close to the truth to walk away now.
I wondered if there was a Frederick’s of Hollywood nearby.