From the back seat of the station-wagon-style police car, I could see the driver periodically eyeballing me in his rearview mirror. The cop beside me stared straight ahead silently through dark sunglasses; the two men in front were no louder. As we pulled out of the airport complex and into the mid-afternoon sun, the driver turned on the radio. Pop music filled the car, at once both foreign and horrid in its familiarity, the Czech singer’s phrasing perched somewhat awkwardly atop the standard Top 40 formulae that sedates radio listeners the world over with its repetitious banality. We pulled onto the highway and sped into the passing lane, blowing past car after car with the disregard for speed limits that is the privilege of police everywhere. Aside from being very sober, very frightened, very confused as to why I had been arrested, and traveling in a grocery getter cop car through a foreign country (as the screeching Czech vocals in my ears painfully reminded me), this ride felt oddly familiar. The highway scenery had the homogenous look of roads surrounding airports the world over—utilitarian business hotels, a few depressing-looking houses, and large empty spaces broken up only by metal towers carrying power lines. I looked down at my cuffed wrists, sighed, then stared out the window, trying to calm my racing mind.
Within the span of approximately five minutes, I had gone from being on tour, where I was cheered enthusiastically by thousands of fans on an almost daily basis, to being arrested in an airport and told that I had killed another human being. I began thinking about the sailboat I had been on almost exactly twenty-four hours ago, cutting briskly through a fjord by the small Norwegian holiday town of Arendal. The organizers of the show we were playing had arranged us very special transport to the festival grounds on Tromøy, an island of staggering natural beauty that sat in the clean water of the fjord like an emerald on a beautiful Nordic woman’s heaving bosom. We would travel to Tromøy just as the Vikings had hundreds of years ago, in a wooden boat. The sailboat, a dignified and immaculately preserved craft built by hand in 1931, was captained by a young Norwegian music fan in exchange for free tickets to the festival, and his two-person crew included a young blond woman of classic Scandinavian beauty. I had sat on the polished wooden stern with our guitarist Mark, snapping pictures of the many picturesque islands in the clear water we navigated. Who gets to do this kind of stuff? I looked over to Mark and grinned, grateful and overwhelmed by the experience.
“Sometimes our lives are pretty damn amazing, aren’t they?” I said.
Mark, not exactly fond of touring and much preferring to stay at home with his family, guitars, and race cars in various states of repair, sat with his back against the ancient mast, looking perfectly content. How could he not?
“Yes, they are,” he replied with a wide grin of his own.
I shook my head, focusing myself and banishing daydreams of friends on sailboats, majestic fjords, and hot Norwegian women, because none of those things were doing me any good at this particular second. I was under arrest; in cuffs like the proverbial common criminal. I needed to remember that, and act accordingly at all times. The party was over. Now it was time to figure out what in the hell was happening to me.
As the driver of the police wagon suddenly swerved with a curse, switching lanes to go around a geriatric driver who was creeping along in the fast lane, the cop beside him who had been in such a hurry at the airport turned around in the front passenger seat and looked at me. “So, you do remembering anything at all about what happened?” he asked me over his shoulder in a sympathetic sounding voice, forming the words with difficulty.
“You know, I’m not really sure what’s happening right now, so before I say anything I think I would like to see a lawyer,” I replied.
“Nothings at all? No memory of two years ago happenings?” he said, as if he hadn’t heard me and were asking how the tour had been going.
“I’m not saying anything until I get a lawyer,” I said more firmly, “and I’ll be needing to speak to someone at the American embassy.”
He grunted his assent and fell silent again. As terrified as I was, a part of me began laughing hysterically inside. These men would have to rustle up someone who spoke much better English if they were going to try to play the standard cop mind games with me. With the exception of this man, who seemed to have about a second grader’s comprehension of my native language, I had only heard them speak briefly in Czech, which I had no hope of deciphering. This was all just normal background noise to me, as I am used to being surrounded by people speaking in foreign tongues for much of the year during a touring cycle. Without the intimidating spectacle of the machine gun toting masked men surrounding him, my fear of this man started to recede a bit, and I began to think of him as a kind of dolt. Not because of his lack of ability to speak my language well, which is certainly no measure of intelligence in a world with thousands of different languages in existence, but because he had been foolish enough to try to pry information out of me in a buddy-buddy voice when he had to know damn well his English language chops weren’t exactly stellar. While I’m no police psychologist, a ride to the police station seemed a bit early in the game to me to start the ham-handed good cop routine. The silent routine along with the wretched Czech pop tunes was far more effective at unnerving me. Weren’t they supposed to let me marinate in this fear and bewilderment, maybe sweat a little before they started trying to get me to slip up and say something that would indict myself?
The whole situation began to feel ludicrous to me. I had never even attempted to kill anyone, much less succeeded, in my entire life. This had to be a mistake. Sure, I had had encounters with people running on stage over the years, usually resulting in them being removed from the stage by security or our crew. The aggressive nature of my band’s music and our physically rowdy fan base had resulted in audience members sustaining injuries before—at each other’s hands though, in the audience area, never on stage, and for the most part unintentionally. The people who come to our shows generally don’t wish to hurt each other anymore than people playing a game of sandlot football do—they are just blowing off steam. Nobody wants to harm anyone. My band has stopped shows before when we knew someone had been hurt in the audience, or even if we had thought that the crowd was getting a little too crazy—we don’t wish to be the soundtrack to injury. I sat trying to recall the one show we had played in Prague—I remembered it had been a wild and exasperating one, with no security that I could recall and fans jumping on and off the stage all night. I remembered one drunken boy I had finally wrestled to the ground on stage and held down for a while, never stopping singing, until he got the point that I didn’t want him there. But I had never attacked him—I had been joking just the previous day with a crew member about how I hoped this show would be better than the last time we had been in Prague, because it had been a nightmare of drunken audience members repeatedly charging the stage, especially this one kid I had put on his back like a misbehaving puppy. To my knowledge, no one in lamb of god had assaulted an audience member that night or any other. If someone had been hurt and then died two years ago, even by accident, obviously we would have been made aware of it by now. Wouldn’t we?
Surely this would all be cleared up at the police station in relatively short order, perhaps with the help of someone from my embassy, and I would be on my way in a day or two. In the meantime, I was pretty sure I was going to spend my first night in a Czech jail. This didn’t particularly frighten me. Once you’ve tasted the hospitality of the 9th Street Hotel a few times (as Richmond City lockup is fondly known to some of us) spending a drunken night in a holding cell with scowling black drug dealers who act offended by your pale skin tone, a seemingly suicidal redneck who throws the word nigger around the cell like confetti at a New Year’s Eve party, and an angry, crack-crazed transvestite hooker who looks like Mr. Universe in dime store drag, other jails just seem bland in comparison. How bad could it be? I just hoped they would let me smoke in there, because the nicotine beast was starting to rear its ugly head pretty hard.
Buildings alongside the highway began to appear with greater frequency, and soon we were driving into the bewildering maze that is Prague. Prague is a city of internationally renowned beauty, but my attention was solely focused on myself and the three men in the car with me. Everything outside the vehicle went past in a blur, a technicolor smear of European city dwellers and tourists wandering their natural habitat of majestic buildings, souvenir shops, and sidewalk cafes. We pulled up to a large, grim, off-white building with communist-era architectural features, drove around back, into a dimly lit basement level car park, and stopped in front of a large plain metal door. This place definitely had a cell waiting for me inside.
The officers walked me to the door and rang a buzzer. It opened, and we walked into a dimly lit, plain hallway with a heavy barred door five feet away. A graying police officer with a large ring of keys stepped out of the gloom and unlocked the door, exchanging Czech greetings with the men who had arrested me as he let us into the building. We walked to the end of the hall, went up a flight of stairs, and stopped in front of a large cinderblock walled holding cell. One of the officers opened the barred door, and motioned me inside. I sat down on the metal bench running the length of the room. Previous occupants had scratched their names in the flaking yellow paint that covered the bench, the letters adorned with unfamiliar accent marks. Two officers left, shutting the cell door and leaving me with my English-speaking friend, who stood leaning against the opposite wall, staring at me like he was sorry to see me in such a sad predicament. There was an empty ashtray sitting on the bench beside me, looking prettier than any tourist trap in all of Europe.
“Excuse me, what’s your name?” I asked him.
“My name?” he replied, seemingly amused at the question. “Alex.”
“Well, Alex, can I have one of my cigarettes now?”
Alex sighed heavily, shook his head like he really shouldn’t be letting me smoke, reached in the plastic bag of my stuff and pulled out the crumpled box of Marlboros, looked inside it to make sure there was no contraband, and gave it to me. I picked one of the seven cigarettes out of the pack and asked him if I could have my lighter, too. This evoked another deep sigh, like I was some troublesome distant relative asking him for a large loan he couldn’t afford. He handed over my orange Bic. I lit the cigarette, took a deep drag, leaned back against the cinderblocks, and exhaled. The nicotine hit my bloodstream, danced its vicious and seductive ballet on my synapses, and much needed endorphins flooded my brain. Okay, I thought, now we can think. Alex pulled out an unfamiliar-looking pack of his own, Czech I assumed, and lit up, leaning back against the wall.
“You like to smoke?” he asked.
“Way too much. You smoke, too, I see.” He nodded. This conversation was getting deep. “Uhm, I need to call my embassy.”
“Someone has called them. We do this when foreigner is arrested. Protocol.”
“Thank you,” I replied, not sure whether to believe him. “When will I see someone from the embassy?”
Alex shrugged. “They will call.”
“Okay. What about a lawyer? I need to talk to a lawyer.”
“Yes, yes. You will have advocate,” he said as if this was a silly request. “We will help to find. It is required for us to help.”
For some reason I immediately believed he would help me find an advocate—someone I assumed, by his odd yet confident and rapid pronunciation, must be a lawyer. Alex leaned against the wall smoking, looking at me with bored eyes. He stepped toward me, stubbed out his half-smoked cigarette in the ashtray, and then turned to walk away, scratching his head like he was trying to recall something.
“So, that day . . . nothing do you remember? Nothing at all?”
I have very little legal advice for the reader, as I am a musician, not an attorney. But I will provide what meager knowledge I possess now as a public service announcement, just in case anyone has been living under a rock or is simply not smart enough to deduce these things for themselves. These are sound instructions, ones that have served me well over the checkered course of both my drinking and musical career, and I learned them early on simply by watching fairly one-dimensional police and court TV shows as a child. Television is for the most part a vast and vacuous flickering cathode/digital wasteland, designed to annihilate critical thought and sedate you into a drooling somnambulant state of consumerist zombiedom, but you may take these tidbits as gospel truth. Just trust me on this.
1. Never, ever, ever sign any sort of business contract without having a competent lawyer (who specializes in the sort of business the contract concerns) thoroughly review it first.
2. Never, ever, ever believe anything any police officer tells you if you are placed under arrest, other than the fact that you are, indeed, under arrest. This includes but is not limited to: Your friends have all already confessed, If you help us we will help you, We have several witnesses ready to testify against you, and especially This is going to go a lot smoother for you if you just go ahead and tell us what happened.
3. Never, ever, EVER provide answers to ANY questions an officer asks if you are placed under arrest (other than your name, rank, and serial number) until you have consulted with a lawyer first. Just politely state that you will need to speak with an attorney before you say anything, stay quiet, and wait until the cavalry arrives.
Once again, I followed the rules of the game and restated my need for a lawyer. Alex shot me a not unfriendly look that said You are really starting to be a royal pain in my ass, you know that, right, bro?, lit a smoke with yet another dramatic sigh, and disengaged from the situation and into his flip phone. His cigarette instantly set the nicotine monkey in my head to screeching and I burned another of my rapidly dwindling supply to shut him up. Five left. Damn.
After ten or so minutes the woman who had handed me the warrant for my arrest walked briskly into the cell with the other two detectives, looked at me, and said something in Czech to Alex. He approached me, fished around in his pocket and found a ring of keys, then began to unlock my handcuffs. The cuffs weren’t biting into my wrists and weren’t uncomfortable, but it was going to be nice to have them off.
Except that Alex couldn’t seem to figure out how to unlock them, bless his heart. As he fiddled with them for a minute or two, muttering under his breath, I began to wonder, Has this man ever cuffed anyone before? Is this his first day on the job or something? Is he even really a cop? The standard lock truly seemed to perplex him, and I honestly wanted to tell him to fetch me my wallet from the plastic bag across the room so I could get out my handcuff key and show him how to get these damn things off. (Like I said, I hadn’t been in trouble in a long time, but before I was thrown out of the Boy Scouts I learned to take their motto “Be prepared” pretty seriously.) Eventually the curly haired detective who had driven us to the police station walked over, took the key, and in a matter of seconds my wrists were free. Alex scowled at the cuffs like it was their fault (they did look a little old and scratched up—maybe they were training cuffs) and put them back in the holster on his belt. The blond woman looked at me and spoke.
“Do you understand why you are here?” she asked. Her English was clear and her blue eyes were level. I could feel the fear snaking into my body again, my autonomic nervous system triggering its stress response activity. My heart was racing and my palms began to sweat.
“Not really,” I said.
“There has been an investigation. Witnesses say you pushed this young man off of the podium. He hit his head. He is dead. Do you understand this?”
“I did not know that any sort of investigation happened, or that anyone thinks I am responsible for any sort of crime in this country or anywhere else. This is all news to me.”
Stay calm. Stay calm.
“I believe that,” she continued in a flat voice. “Tomorrow you will be interrogated. Your friends will come here in the morning to answers questions as well.” This woman wasn’t trying to intimidate me. She did not have to.
“Where are my friends? Are they under arrest, too?”
“No, they are not under arrest. They are at a hotel. In Prague.”
“So I am spending the night here, correct?”
“When will I be released?”
“What is your name?” I asked.
Like Alex, she looked slightly amused that I would bother to ask her this question.
“So, Lucie, am I being charged with murder?”
“No, you are not being charged with murder.”
“Do you know the word manslaughter?” I asked her.
“Yes. Yes, I do. It is something like this.”
“Okay,” I said quietly. There was not much else to talk about until I saw a lawyer. This was pretty bad. This was very bad.
Lucie stood over me looking down. She stared into my eyes for a second and then spoke softly.
“Would you like to know the penalty for this crime?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said. Time slowed down again as I stared right back in her eyes.
Stay calm. Stay calm. Stay calm.
“Five to ten years,” she said through a slight smile, then turned and walked out of the cell.
It was the first hint of emotion I had seen her display.
Excerpted from "Dark Days: A Memoir" by D. Randall Blythe. Reprinted courtesy of Da Capo Press.