“Testing, one, two…” the detective spoke into the miniature microphone as soon as he had switched on the cheap tabletop recorder. “Preliminary interview being conducted on Sunday, thirteen August by Chief Inspector B.B. Wolf, Black Forest P.D.”
He made a quiet, frustrated sound in the back of his throat—not quite a whine—and gave himself a lazy scratch under the chin. He noticed that his nails could use a bit of a trim. He pushed the recorder closer to the middle of the scarred wooden table, steepled his fingers beneath his nose, and regarded the diminutive, sullen-eyed girl seated across from him with what he hoped was an expression of fixed determination. Despite the two phonebooks that had been placed in her chair to help her see above the edge of the table, Wolf towered above her, even seated.
“Subject being interviewed is one Gretel,” he continued. “Juvenile female, Caucasian…” he leaned forward to cover the microphone with one hairy-knuckled hand. “You sure you don’t wanna give us a last name, sweetheart?”
“Just Gretel,” she said, staring at the table.
“Subject has been previously advised of her rights,” he finished as he removed his hand from the mic. He stared at her across the table until she seemed to feel the weight of his gaze, shifted in her seat, swept her lank, blonde braids back behind her ears, and finally looked up. A look of defiance flashed across her features, or maybe it was fear, disappearing before it had fully arrived, leaving behind an expression that revealed nothing. For such a young girl, she was inscrutable.
“Okay, just Gretel, are you ready to give us your side of what’s going on here?”
“I’ve got nothing to say, Inspector,” she answered, enunciating his title like it left a nasty taste in her mouth. “Huff and puff all you want, flatfoot.”
“Now you listen to me, little lady,” Wolf growled. “You’re in a whole heap of trouble, here. We’ve got you for trespassing, destruction of property, grand larceny, and murder.” He began spreading papers from a manila folder in front of Gretel like a blackjack dealer laying out a hand of cards, all of them bearing boldface headings with terms like ‘chronic truancy,’ ‘vandalism,’ and ‘petty theft—apples.’ “With a rap sheet like this, you’re not lookin’ at reform school, like your little pal, Goldilocks…you’re gonna be tried as an adult. We’re talkin’ some serious time, here, maybe even the death penalty.”
“M-murder?” Gretel screeched, going suddenly pale. “She was a freaking witch! And a cannibal. She was trying to eat me and my brother!”
“And yet,” Wolf said calmly. “Somehow, the mean, old, cannibal witch ended up as a casserole in her own oven. That’s the part I’m havin’ such a hard time with.”
“But I…we just…” She looked over her shoulder at the clock on the smoke stained wall, letting her gaze linger momentarily on the sweep of the second hand. “I don’t think I should say anything else until I talk to a lawyer.”
“So that’s the way it’s gonna be?” Wolf sighed in exasperation. “Well, while we’re waiting, I might as well let you know what you’re up against.”
“Whatever,” Gretel muttered dejectedly. “It’s not like I’ve got someplace else to be.”
“First of all,” Detective Wolf started, getting up to stalk around the room. “We’ve got two confirmed runaways…stealing bread from their parents…in hard times, I might add, and traipsing off to God-knows-where for an afternoon of typical truant 'kicks.’”
“First of all,” Gretel interrupted, “we didn’t run away. My step-mom, the bitch, convinced my dad to dump us in the forest so more of his paycheck would go to feed her fat ass. Second, we only took the bread to leave a trail of crumbs, so we could find our way back.”
“And yet,” Wolf said, whirling on his heel to face her. “The CSU team found no bread crumbs on the path leading from the house. Not one.”
“The birds ate ‘em.” said Gretel meekly, looking down at the table again.
“Oh, sure, the birds,” said Wolf, looking down his nose at her. “Mind if I continue?”
Gretel looked at Wolf across the table, working one of her disheveled braids between the tips of her fingers. She started to put the end of it in her mouth, then appeared to think better of it and dropped her hand back into her lap and set her mouth in a petulant pout. She blew her yellow bangs out of her eyes and drew a heavy sigh.
“Did your CSU team also happen to find the cage out back that she was keeping us in?”
“Your point? Lotsa folks around here have pens for livestock on their property,” replied Wolf. “I don’t see how that helps your story in the least.”
“And do they all have ‘Dopey was here’ written on them? On the inside?”
“Did it now?” asked Wolf, suppressing a chuckle. “Frankly, cupcake, I’d be far more impressed if you could show me somethin’ that punk hasn’t tagged. Damn huffers. They’re worse than cockroaches.”
Gretel returned her gaze to the tabletop with another sigh.
“Next, we’ve got the house itself,” Wolf went on. “Once the DNA analysis comes back from the lab, I think we both know those bite marks on the windowsill are gonna have Gretel written all over ‘em. What kind of a trip were the two of you on, anyway? I mean, seriously, you were literally gnawing on someone’s house!”
“We were starving, I already told you!” cried Gretel, tears starting down her rosy cheeks. “It was made of gingerbread, and we were starving! You’re twisting this all around. I’m innocent!”
“Well, if you’re so innocent,” Wolf began, flattening his hands on the table and leaning close, his face mere inches from Gretel’s. “Then, perhaps you can tell me why it is that inside the house, not far from the alleged witch’s body, we found an empty, overturned jewelry box, and, less than a mile away, we also found you and your brother—crashed out under a tree after a massive sugar rush—both of you, pockets stuffed with jewelry.”
“Well,” replied Gretel, “It’s not like the old bag was gonna need the stuff anymore.”
“This isn’t a joke!” Wolf snapped, shaking a finger in Gretel’s face. “This is serious business! You, my little friend, need to wise up and do yourself a favor. Co-operate, like your brother. Make things easier for yourself.”
“What about my brother?” Gretel asked, her eyebrows knitting suspiciously.
“Oh, yes, little Hansel,” Wolf continued matter-of-factly. “Now there’s a smart kid. Knows when he’s in trouble, that one.”
“What did he say?” Gretel suddenly looked very worried.
“Pretty much the same as you,” said Wolf, starting to grin, “only with the extra little tidbit about you shoving the old lady into the oven, which, by the way, has your fingerprints all over it. And he’s willing to testify to that. Like I said, smart kid.”
“That’s not the way it was!” screamed Gretel. “Oh my God…Hansel…you people are twisting this all around!”
Gretel began to sob uncontrollably, burying her face in her arms on the scarred tabletop. Wolf smoothed down his whiskers as he regarded his handiwork, eventually deciding it was time for a different tactic.
“Look,” he said gently, reaching across the table to pat her pudgy, pink hand. “I’m not trying to be unreasonable. I know how it is. Abusive home life…never enough food in the house…wicked stepmother…it’s an old story around these parts. Who knows? Maybe you were dumped in the woods to starve. Maybe you just thought the old lady was trying to eat you…we all get confused, sometimes, Gretel. Maybe, just maybe, it was an accident. Maybe you were scared and didn’t realize the consequences of your actions. Maybe things just got out of control.”
“I don’t know,” Gretel sighed, inserting the end of one braid in her mouth, chewing nervously and beginning to rock back and forth in her seat. “I just don’t know.”
“But the fact remains, Gretel,” Wolf kept on in his soothing tone, “a person was killed. A crime was committed. It’s up to a jury now to decide who was right and who was wrong. And that’s where I can help you.”
“Y-you can?” sniffled the frightened girl, her upturned face streaked with tears.
“Why, sure I can!” said Wolf. “Don’t you understand, honey? A jury is going to be far more understanding of your story if they feel that you’ve been cooperative with the authorities. If I say you were truthful and helpful to the investigation—an investigation that turned up such horrible extenuating circumstances—then they’re bound to go much easier on you. I’ll get up on that witness stand and let that jury know that you and Hansel are basically good kids. Things just got out of control. On the other hand, if you lawyer up—with all of the evidence against you, and your record—that jury is gonna get behind closed doors and start battin’ around terms like 'hostile witness'. You don’t want that to happen, Gretel. Juries don’t like that. You wouldn’t stand a chance. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you, Gretel. Think about it.”
“What do I have to do?” Gretel asked, her voice softer and smaller than before.
“Just write it all down.” Wolf said, sliding a pen and yellow legal pad across the table. “Everything that happened, in your own words. Take your time, sweetheart.”
As Gretel awkwardly clutched the pen in her plump little hand and began to scribble, B.B. Wolf paced about the room, hands clasped behind his back, hoping his efforts to stifle his howl of triumph didn’t show on his face. Finally, he took his place at the table once more, coolly regarding his charge as she wrote. He checked his watch against the clock and settled in to wait.
When she was finished, Gretel pushed the pad back across the table and sat back, meeting the detective’s eyes, her own gaze now strangely serene.
“Now you’ll go to a holding cell,” answered Wolf, his chair scraping across the floor as he got up from the table. “Don’t worry; being a kid, you’ll have a room all to yourself. We’ve probably already missed the afternoon transport, so in the morning, you’ll be bussed over to the juvenile facility to await trial.”
“The Shoe?” asked Gretel. “Oh God!”
“Calm down,” said Wolf. “It’s not that bad. The Black Forest Juvenile Home is a fine facility. The old lady who runs the place definitely has her hands full, but she makes do pretty well, considering her limited resources. Goldilocks liked it so much she stayed on as a counselor.”
Gretel just sighed.
“Well,” said Wolf, gathering up the pad, pen, and recorder as he gestured toward the door. “Looks like it’s about that time. Shall we?”
Wolf kept his hand on Gretel’s shoulder as he guided her through the door and down the dimly lit hall, eventually steering her toward a pair of graffiti covered benches sitting opposite one another next to a set of double doors that had B.F.P.D SQUAD ROOM stenciled on their frosted glass upper halves. He waved Gretel to a bench and reached out for the tarnished doorknob.
“Wait here,” he said. “I’ll be right back. You two play nice, now.”
Gretel said nothing, just staring at Wolf’s back as he disappeared through the doors.
On the opposite bench sat Hansel, his pudgy legs dangling over the edge of the seat, his shiny buckled shoes a good foot from the dirty, cracked tiles of the floor. His rosy cheeks were streaked with the tracks of recently dried tears. He was noisily nursing a milkshake—chocolate—that was almost as big as he was while precariously trying to balance a plate of cookies on one dimpled knee. His fingertips were still stained with black fingerprint ink, a great deal of which was smeared on the sides of his cup and the front of his red-buttoned jumper. When he wasn’t thoroughly engaged with his treats, Hansel darted his eyes all around the hall, looking at everything he could find that wasn’t Gretel.
Gretel stared straight at Hansel, her red-rimmed eyes trying to bore a hole through his milkshake.
“I should’ve known,” she hissed, unable to hide her growing disgust.
Hansel looked up, eyes wide, the straw dropping from his lips.
“Gretel, I—I…” he started.
“Don’t,” said Gretel. “Just don’t. Not one word, Hansel. I should’ve known…you always were weak.”
“But, Gretel, I…” Hansel tried, his bottom lip starting to quiver and fresh tears starting from his eyes.
“I said not one word!” she screamed. “I can’t believe you! We’re going to the Shoe! My God! Just eat your cookies, brother.”
Hansel blubbered in earnest now, great, wracking sobs that shook his shoulders as he gazed at the puddle of tears that was rapidly forming in his plate of cookies. Gretel brushed her bangs out of her eyes and absentmindedly picked at the flaking paint on the armrest of the bench. She felt the indentations of writing beneath her fingers and looked down to see “DOPEY WAS HERE” scratched into the wood.
“Shit,” she sighed.
Detective Wolf came back through the doors, two uniformed officers in tow, and paused to glance between the two children.
“Everything all right in here?” he asked, receiving no answer. “Well, kids, time to say your goodbyes and get on to the lockup.”
Hansel didn’t move, but Gretel slid off the bench, squared her shoulders, and looked up at Wolf.
“I’m ready.” she said. “Let’s get this over with.”
“You take the boy,” directed Wolf, motioning with his head to one of the officers. “Gretel, honey, you come with us.”
In response, one officer walked over to Hansel, relieved him of his cup and plate, placed them on the bench, and helped the still sobbing boy to his feet. The other officer clamped a hand onto Gretel’s shoulder and Detective Wolf gently took her by her free hand. As a group, they moved down to the other end of the hall, back past the interview rooms, and finally arrived at another set of double doors, this time made of reinforced steel, DETEN-TION stenciled across their middle. The officer leading Hansel stepped up to the doors and unlocked them with one of the keys from the brass ring that hung at his belt.
Once inside, they found themselves in a small concrete foyer that had been painted a pale, institutional green. There was a glassed-in booth off to the left, containing a pair of rather bored looking uniformed guards, one of them engrossed in that day’s issue of the Black Forest Gazette. To the right yawned the entrance to a stairway leading down, a metal sign reading MEN bolted to the concrete just above the handrail. A long, dark hallway lined with cells stretched away straight ahead.
“Gonna need one in the women’s area.” Wolf spoke into the speaker in the center of the bulletproof glass. “A single.”
“Number sixteen,” replied the first guard without looking up from his paper, while the other one put down his coffee long enough to activate a series of switches.
“Well, I guess this is it,” said Wolf as a buzzer sounded, quickly followed by the ratcheting sound of a cell door opening down the hall. He arched his eyebrows at Gretel and gestured toward Hansel.
Gretel didn’t move.
“Let’s go,” she said.
As Hansel’s keeper started to steer him to the stairs, Hansel twisted out of his grip and rushed over to Gretel, pulling her into a hug and burying his sobbing face in her shoulder.
“Oh, Gretel, I’m so sorry,” he managed before she took him by the shoulders, held him at arm’s length, and looked directly into his eyes.
“Stop sniveling for a minute and listen to me,” she said, a little of the edge leaving her voice. “It’s going to be okay, Hansel. It’s just another cage. We’ll talk when we get to the Shoe. I’ve gotten us out of worse scrapes than this. When have I ever let you down?”
Hansel’s face brightened as he nodded through his tears. “I love you, Gretel,” he quavered.
“And for God’s sake—wipe your nose!” She turned back to wolf. “Okay.”
“Better get him downstairs,” Wolf said to the officer in charge of Hansel. “C’mon, Gretel.”
As the officer led the hysterical Hansel down the stairs, his partner took a rolled up cot-mattress and pillow from the guards in the booth and started down the hall, Gretel following close behind, her chin held defiantly in the air.
“The girl’s got gumption,” Wolf said to no one in particular, as he brought up the rear. “You gotta give her that.”
When they got to number sixteen, the uniformed officer took the bedding inside and arranged it on a steel bunk suspended by chains that had been bolted into the concrete wall. When he was finished, he ushered Gretel into the cell and stepped back out.
“Number sixteen—secure!” he called out as he started back up the hall.
“I’ll be along directly,” Wolf assured him with a pat, turning toward the cell.
“Take your time, boss.”
“The Shoe will be a lot more comfortable than this, Gretel, I promise.”
It looked to Wolf as if Gretel didn’t hear him, or the mechanical ratcheting, or even the clang of the cell door as it closed. She just stood with her back to him, staring at the back wall of the cell, her shoulders shaking—just a little. He couldn’t tell if she was crying or laughing. He brought his face as close to the bars as he could get, and then he saw what she was looking at. There it was, barely visible in the dim glare of the single bare bulb dangling from the ceiling: “DOPEY WAS HERE” scrawled in black across the wall above the hanging bunk.
“You know, Gretel,” he said to her back. “Everybody makes mistakes, and all of our lives have unexpected twists and turns, taking us places we never thought we’d go. Take me, for instance, being a cop was never part of the plan. It may sound crazy but I always wanted to be an actor…and I’m sure you probably thought your life would turn out a lot different than this.”
“Yeah,” she said, finally turning to face him. “Once upon a time.”