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Tuesday, May 08, 2012

A Song of the Past: Installment 2

(Previous installment.)

I
Opening Gambit
“—History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”
—James Joyce, Ulysses
Sunday, Oct. 19, 4:30 AM
Daddy waved at her from the door of the cottage. She knew she was safe with him nearby, whatever beasts might lurk in the greenery through which she crept. Slowly she inched toward the ancient tree at the center of the garden, where her friend from the big house, Colin, was waiting. Passing under the farthest extent of the great oak’s limbs, where the branches dipped so low that they almost returned to the earth from which they had arisen, she could just spy him, dappled in green and gold, sitting in the distant center, his back against the oak’s massive trunk. Despite the fact that she had resolved not to show her lack of resolve, her eyes shyly flitted away from directly meeting Colin’s bold gaze. They had held hands and kissed before, but at this meeting she had promised to let him touch her privates: the crossing of a previously inviolate border.


Deirdre halted, trembling, with the tips of the oak’s extremities shaking in time with her. What if she went ahead, and then they got caught? Or, perhaps even worse, what if she went ahead, and they didn’t get caught, and she found that she liked him touching her there? What if she wanted to be touched down there, again and again, time without end… her knees went weak, but then, at the periphery of her awareness, came the lapping sounds of the waters of the harbor as they tongued the sea-wrack. Through the leafy canopy over her head, she could just make out pastel bars of green-striped soap drifting across the cloud-mottled sky.
Green soap in the clouds? Something was terribly wrong, but her attempt to pinpoint the problem was broken off by the tolling of a church bell—Angelus Domini! She was late for catechism class. No, no, that couldn’t be right! She had left behind catechism lessons years ago… nevertheless, the tolling of the bell continued… each successive peal sounded from farther away, as if the bell was receding down the tunnel that now filled her visual field. She noticed that along the sides of the tunnel fantastic creatures tangled in an intricate dance: long necked dragons with monkey heads; lions with eagle wings; men with the heads of asses; snakes with a dozen arms; fish with hands; alien men hopping along on their single foot, sporting huge mouths where their stomachs should be. She knew that she had to reverse course and find a way to climb up out of that tunnel if she wished to relieve the headache being produced by that damned bell. But as she attempted that feat, she was thwarted again and again by a steady flow of Guinness Stout pouring smoothly and refreshingly down the tunnel.
Guinness Stout? She had had too much of it, just earlier, and that was what was keeping her in this pit. She willed herself awake, only to find that the bell stilled tolled for her: her mobile phone was ringing. She focused for a second on the alarm clock on her nightstand: the glowing blue digits read 4:32. It was early Sunday morning, and Deirdre had still been out at a quarter-to-two. She had gotten… what?... perhaps two hours of sleep, and the alcohol she had consumer still coursed through her system.
Before answering the maddeningly insistent caller who was torturing her via her cell phone, she clicked her tongue against the cottony roof of her mouth several times, hoping against reason that it would enable her to form comprehensible words. When she lifted the phone to her head, what she did manage to say was something like “Ggggunlph.”
“Deirdre, it’s Patrick—this is your wake up call.”
Deirdre astutely responded, “Huh?”
“Homicide, down at the end of Chapel Street. The Captain wants you on it. Probably a drug shooting.”
Deirdre mumbled, “Have to get a taxi.”
“Don’t worry. I sent a squad car to pick you up.”
Deirdre hung up the phone. She knew she had to act immediately or she’d slide right back into the primeval garden of her dream. She violently kicked her feet free of the bed covers and swung them down until they hit the cold, wood floor with an unpleasant smacking sound. Her cat, Ariel, who had been sleeping snuggled up against her belly, leapt off the bed with a brrr of annoyance and then petulantly slunk off into the living room. Deirdre leveraged the rest of her body up over her feet into an upright posture, and then stood wobbling amidst the waves of alcohol-induced surf for a minute, trying to establish a sufficiently stable spatial relationship with her surroundings to allow her to navigate through the choppy sea of stout hangover and into the bathroom.
Once her vision had adjusted to the shock of the fluorescent light over the bathroom mirror, she saw how puffy her eyes looked. Her skin, the color of light coffee, was blotched with red. Jesus, four-thirty was no time to be up on a Sunday morning. She splashed water on her face, pressed deodorant under her arms, and brushed her teeth. While she was pulling on a pair of trousers she had plucked from a heap of clothes by the dresser, she saw through her bedroom window a police car pull up to the curb below. She hurriedly grabbed a light jacket off of a hook in the closet, slipped on some docksiders, picked up the pack of cigarettes she had abandoned on the shelf of her courting mirror when she had stumbled in all too recently, and ran down the stairs.
The moment she stepped outside she realized she had chosen the wrong jacket. Although it was only the middle of October, the astringent wind stung her exposed skin like a mid-winter Arctic express. She didn’t remember it being this cold during her walk home from the bar, but, then again, she didn’t remember much else about that walk either. She paused on her porch to light a cigarette. Beyond the orange flame of the match, the stars glinted like steel in the gelid air, and across the street the ghostly stone of St. Aedan’s church shimmered in the silver moonlight.
She stumbled down the porch steps, roughly followed the path of the sidewalk to the curb, opened the passenger door of the police car, and slumped into the passenger seat. She blearily glanced across the car at her escort, then addressed him in a tone that might have been intended to convey either nonchalance, mild contempt, or simple weariness.
“Ah, Wilfred, it’s you. How nice of you to stop by.”
The driver of the car, John Wilfred, was a burly cop with a bushy mustache and gruff manners. He immediately made it plain that Deirdre didn’t amuse him in the least.
“Detective O’Reilly, you smell like a fucking brewery. And will you please put out that damned cigarette.”
Deirdre took a long drag, and then threw remainder of her fag out of the window. She turned her head to the left and deliberately blew a cloud of smoke towards Wilfred.
Her driver grimaced in disapproval and, despite the chill air, lowered his window to dispel the tobacco fumes. He shifted the police cruiser into drive and passed down Fountain Street and out onto Whalley Avenue. They encountered few cars on the road; the sidewalks were deserted except for an occasional hooker displaying her goods. The police radio broadcast a series of petty crime motifs as though providing background music for their journey: reports about an after-hours club with the music too loud, a speeding stop that had turned into a marijuana bust, a noisy domestic dispute requiring intervention. Deirdre found herself praying that Wilfred would drive more smoothly, as his sudden stops and overly energetic starts were goading her stomach into a state of increasing rebellion. She decided that if she engaged him in a discussion of the case at hand then he might lack the concentration necessary to be able to brake only feet before a stop sign and reach cruising speed within seconds after clearing it.
“Tell me then, Wilfred, just who found the body that we’re racing to have a look at?”
“A couple of Branford yuppies, lost trying to get home after tying one on at the Greenery.”
Strange, that—they had been in the same bar as Deirdre, and, given the timing, they had been there while she was. But, no doubt, just a weird coincidence, meaningless in terms of solving the crime.
“And what’s the story with them?”
“We brought ’em downtown, took their statements, gave ‘em some coffee, and sent ‘em off. By then they were OK to drive.”
“No chance they were involved?”
“I seriously doubt it.” Wilfred chuckled. “One of ‘em was puking onto the sidewalk he was so freaked out by finding the body. Even if those two had gone over the edge for a second and killed somebody, they’d never have had the guts to phone it in and play innocent.”
Deirdre nodded, then slumped back into her seat and a renewed bout of silence. As they passed down Elm Street the moon raced along behind the Gothic towers of Yale University. At Temple they turned right and headed over to Chapel. The town green, the central of the nine squares that had formed the original English settlement, was empty except for a couple of homeless men lying on a park bench. The Greenery, the scene of her recent debauchery, stood out with the hyper-clarity that objects always displayed during the morning after a bender. Random, shabby storefronts caught her eye: Architectural Antiques, Royal Vision Center, The Queen’s Fashion. The retail detritus left in the wake of the vanishing industrial base.
Columbus greeted her as they passed Wooster Square, holding in his hand what Deirdre imagined to be a bowling ball. Honoring a great Italian tradition. Elaborate graffiti covered the walls of the I-91 overpass by Franklin Street, some of it readable: “$LIPKNOT,” “RAW,” “We had a dim premenission.” Of how to spell ‘premonition’? Other graffiti was written in mysterious scripts beyond her ken.
After crossing a small bridge and passing a Southern Connecticut Gas building, Wilfred stopped the car in the middle of the road. This made three police cars now, each with their lights spinning. She wondered why cops felt compelled to exhibit the lights of their cars given the slightest excuse. Who did they think they were warning off—who was going to be driving to this god-forsaken place, at this hour of the morning, except for someone whose curiosity was piqued by the forensic aurora borealis? She surveyed the whir of pink and blue lights, the white flashes of the police photographer at work, the utilitarian page-link fence and the piles of gravel beyond it to the right, and to her left the hulking form of the United Illuminating power plant, squatting like a beast of pipe limbs and concrete torso, its myriad eyes rhythmically blinking on and off. Deirdre felt like she was on the set of a grunge-rock band’s video.
Calzone and Johnson, uniformed cops whom she knew casually, were meandering vaguely about the crime scene, scanning the ground with their flashlights. A scene-of-the-crime photographer was snapping photos. The medical examiner, a local doctor on call for jobs like this, was bending over the victim’s body. Deirdre felt her face flush as soon as she recognized the doctor.
As though compelled by an inner urge to dispel seductive delusions sooner rather than later, she immediately headed in his direction, and, once within earshot, called out, “Top of the food chain to ya, Dr. Stuart.”
He looked up from the corpse at his feet towards Deirdre with disapprobation. She wondered if she was she fated to leave an unpleasant taste lingering in the mouth of everyone she spoke to this morning.
“Excuse me, Detective O’Reilly, but jokes about the food chain really aren’t called for at the moment.”
Deirdre noticed that Stuart did look a little green around the gills. “My apologies. It’s a bad one, huh?”
“Look for yourself.” He stepped back from the body, allowing the light from a streetlamp to illuminate the gruesome face.
“Jesus, that’ll give him some trouble shaving.”
Stuart shook his head and turned his face away from her, confronting her with a view of his almost preternaturally red hair curling and twisting in the breeze. Deirdre had to laugh off the absurd temptation to run her fingers through those scarlet locks. She asked herself why she acted like such a buffoon around this guy; she had met him only twice previously, and had had no opportunity to suss out what sort of person he was, and so, she scolded herself, she was getting all flustered over the most superficial impressions of a fellow she barely knew.
She shook off the daydream and spoke to his back: “Found anything of note so far?”
He turned only partially to answer her, so that she seemed to be at the edge of a larger audience he was addressing. “The weapon was a thirty-eight. The victim was hit twice, both shots fired at close range—perhaps three or four feet. My first guess is that the shooting took place four or five hours ago, and that death was almost immediate.”
“Thank you.” She conducted a brief study of the wreaths of mist that rose with each of her exhalations before adding, “And please excuse the humor. It’s just my way of coping.”
He nodded his head slightly and gave her a tight smile. He appeared to be on the verge of saying something more, but then Officer Johnson’s hand intruded into the pas de deux, bearing a white handkerchief. Having thus captured Deirdre’s attention, he said, “Take a gander at this.”
Deirdre carefully slid the handkerchief off of his hand and into hers, so as not to disturb the trinket resting near the center of the cloth. She had trouble bringing the small item into focus, and rubbed her eyes in the hope of wiping away the film clouding her vision. After watching her efforts for a moment, Johnson handed a flashlight and then said, “Let me get you a coffee.”
She accepted his kind offer, and turned her attention back to his discovery. Its image resolved sufficiently that she could identify it as some form of jewelry, but she couldn’t name its particular species or guess its usual dwelling place on the human body. A short rod of gold was clearly a utilitarian accompaniment to the piece’s primary decorative feature, a disc, also of gold, embellished with an intricate, raised design. Executed by welding other substances onto the precious metal base, it pictured a stylized eye, with an hourglass for a pupil and a deep-blue cornea within which glittered eight jewels like stars in a midnight blue sky, perhaps diamonds set in lapis lazuli. At the center of the circle, in the middle of the narrow waist of the hourglass-pupil, sat the ninth and most brilliant of the stellar jewels. The image struck Deirdre as being the crest of some kingdom, noble family, or elitist private association, oddly familiar, and she searched her memory for the source of that sense of recognition. As she did so, she detected movement at the edge of her narrowed vision. Looking up she found that Johnson had returned, and that he was choreographing a paper cup filled with dark, steaming coffee as it executed a little waltz a couple of feet before her downward gaze.
She took the cup from his hand, thanked him, and then raised his mysterious find to nearly eye level, asking, “Do you have any idea what this doohickey is?”
“I believe it’s a tie tack, Detective. I guess you don’t go to formal dinners too often.” Johnson gave a little chuckle.
Deirdre ignored his amusement, tapped the artifact’s disk with her index finger, and asked him, “What about this design here?”
“Could be a school insignia, the emblem of a social club, a family crest—something like that.”
As she sipped on the blessedly hot coffee and felt the caffeine beginning to goad her body’s cells out of their stupor, she tumbled the tie tack around in the handkerchief, staring at it as if, perhaps, she simply had missed the side with the owner’s name on it. She noticed that the number 322 was inscribed along the edge of the disc—perhaps the piece number? Or did it have some other meaning?
Finally accepting that mere agitation would not force the object to divulge its secrets, she wrapped it securely in its swaddling clothes and handed the wad back to Johnson. “Well, get a photo of it, and send it to Farmington. Maybe the lab rats up there can get it to talk.”
Johnson nodded as he shook the ornament loose from its packaging, dropping it into a plastic bag.
Deirdre asked him, “Anything of interest on the corpse?”
“Not really. A handful of bags of crack in one of his pockets, but it would be more noteworthy if they weren’t there. The victim is a long-time acquaintance of the beat cops working the neighborhood around the Malcolm X project: Ben Moore, a small-time street dealer. Never pinched him for dealing and got it to stick, but he was convicted in a car-jacking, a couple of years ago. He got out on probation just a few months back.”
“Will this incident count as a parole violation?” Deirdre paused to allow Johnson time to show his appreciation of her wit. When it became clear that no praise was forthcoming, she shrugged and went on. “Any cash on the newly departed?”
“Nothing. That means that we’re dealing with a robbery, because normally you wouldn’t see my man heading to the bathroom without bringing a roll of twenties.”
Johnson was pointing down the path of least resistance, because if this was a commonplace instance of one player in the illegal drug trade offing another, then it would permit the police to put this case on a back burner next to all of the other, unlikely to be solved, crimes stemming from the outlaw status of the drug business. There would be no public outrage if the killer was never found, since, after all, it was only one gangster making sure that the cops need no longer be concerned with another one. Nevertheless, Deirdre found herself reluctant to accept that easy answer, as she suspected, without being quite able to say just why, that the scent leading down that trail might be some sort of decoy.
She stared up at the stars shining faintly through the haze of artificial light enveloping the scene for a moment, groping for words to express the uneasiness she felt with the pat and comfortable explanation as to what had gone down here only a few hours earlier. Then she looked back to Johnson, fixing her eyes on his, and asked, “But Moore could only have been robbed here if he first came here for some other reason, and what in the world could that reason have been?”
“Meeting a connection to score something, maybe. Could be the guy double crossed him.”
“A drug deal, here? It doesn’t seem that likely, now, does it?” She shot Johnson a dubious look. “Look at this feckin’ place.” She gestured with uplifted arms at their surroundings. “You’d stick out like a sore thumb. And there’s nowhere to run. You’re fenced in on all sides.” She shook her head then turned her gaze toward the ground.
Deirdre began to walk, in a desultory fashion, around the general vicinity of the body. She knew she wouldn’t be thinking clearly until she got another four or five hours of sleep, so she only sought to absorb whatever impressions the crime scene might stamp on her subconscious mind. But she was roused from her torpor at the sight of a deep indentation in the mud next to the curb. She got down on her knees and one elbow, and, holding the flashlight with her free arm, she studied the ground carefully. She got back up and stared at the area surrounding the footprint. Something about it... After a minute she called Johnson over.
“What do you make of that?”
“Men’s dress shoe?”
“Get a cast. It might mean something.”
Deirdre handed Johnson back his flashlight. She looked off into the distance, at the low hills rising to the east and the gray light beginning to seep into the sky from beyond them. The eastern stars were winking out. Had someone come here, wearing dress shoes and a tie tack, to kill a drug dealer?
“Detective, will you be needing me for anything else?”
Deirdre turned and looked at Stuart. His sea-green eyes stared into hers. Several answers crossed her mind. She decided they’d be even less successful than her jokes. She said, “No, no. I’m sorry. You can go home.”
She watched him walk to his Saab, which he had, in contrast to the police vehicles at the scene, parked in a normal fashion along the curb, half a block away. She did not look away until his car disappeared into the foggy half-light of the approaching dawn.

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