Scarred for Life

Orange rescue or coast guard patrol boat

“Another jumper?” the skipper asked as he answered his phone with an expression of both dread and resignation.

“Sweet Jesus, I hate this part of the job,” my boss, Capt. Milo Bender, said as he slid his phone back into the waterproof pocket of his slicker. He stared out at the bay bridge two miles out, glowing with the light of dawn and sparkling dots of red and blue, just as the unmarked police car, its dashboard gumball machine lights flashing, skidded to a stop on the shoreline end of the dock.

“Prepare to cast off,” the skipper shouted and we sprung to our stations to begin setting off out there, beneath the bridge on another search and rescue mission that we all knew was a search and recovery job. No tortured soul ever survived the leap from the bay bridge to the river a hundred feet or more below.

The two men in rumpled suits sprinted down the dock and hopped aboard just as I started raising the gangway. One looked at me as if I’d done it just to piss him off, rather than just following orders in the manner and time I’d been trained to. The other just looked winded and sad.

“Where’s Bender?” the pissed one asked.

“Skipper’s in the bridge, sir. Could you please show me some ID?” I said. Again, this was protocol and reflected our crew’s constant training.

He pulled back his jacket, exposing his Detective’s gold shield attached to his belt, but I had the feeling what he really wanted me to see was the Glock 19 concealed in a holster beneath his left arm.

“This good enough for ya, swabbie?” he said as he tried to brush past me to the bridge ladder.

“Actually, no, sir. I’m required to see a photo ID,” I replied. I could see him heating up faster than our boiler, but he yanked his wallet from his pocket and flipped it open, shaving it toward my face to show me he was Detective First Class Donald Swarovski.

“Thank you, Detective. Captain Bender will see you up in the bridge,” I said, though he was already past me at “Thank.”

The sad-looking one, a Latino like me, dutifully pulled out his ID, informing me he was Senior Detective Alan Abreu.

“Excuse my partner, buddy. He’s in a hurry to make Captain by end of shift. Each and every day,” Detective Abreu said. He staggered slightly as the boat jerked away from the dock with a roar of the turbines and a shriek of our horns. I caught him by the shoulder and he said, “Gracias, amigo,” and slowly climbed the ladder to the bridge.

In about a minute, the Skipper called down on the PA, “Frankie, to the bridge and take the helm.”

I scooted up the ladder and entered the bridge just as Swarovski began briefing the Skipper.

“Hold on, Detective. My first mate’s taking over piloting the boat out to the bridge. You have the helm, Frankie,” he said, stepping away from the wheel as I grasped control.

“Aye, Skipper,” I said and directed my attention to river traffic and directional buoys, as well as our radar/sonar screens. But in the background of the humming turbines and radio chatter I could hear the detectives and the skipper.

“Yeah, Special Services gal tried talking him in, but this son of a bitch was pretty determined. We’d been investigating a suspicious death and murder, an arsonist and his partner, and our jumper’s name, Johnnie Lawrence, popped up. We were about to interview him when he bolted, heading straight for the bridge,” Swarovski said.

“We called it in and uniforms had the east side of the bridge blocked so he was boxed in with us in his tail,” Detective Abreu said. “He was out of the vehicle and climbing the bridge before we could get to him. And I mean climbing. Shucked his jacket and shirt and just kept going up.”

“Yeah, ran up those cables like a monkey with its tail on fire,” Swarovski said. “Ironic, huh, partner?”

“What do you mean?” The Skipper asked.

“Well, when the Special Services officer arrived and started her rap, just to calm him down and maybe reel him in, Lawrence started raving about the burns our victim gave him, scarring him into some kind of monster people couldn’t bear to even look at,” Detective Abreu said.

“Our investigation had turned up that one of our victims, one Dontae Ellis, full-time mechanic and part-time arsonist for hire, had been, shall we say, the intimate cellmate of our subject upstate. If you catch my drift,” Swarovski said with a small chuckle.

“Best we can figure, from our investigation to date is that Lawrence wanted to get back together with Ellis once he was sprung on parole a year and a half ago. But Ellis had, shall we say, moved on, to a new personal and professional partner, having been paroled four months before Lawrence,” Swarovski continued.

“So our jumper killed his ex-lover. Okay, but what about the scars?” The Skipper said.

“We’d heard Lawrence began stalking Ellis, showing up at the garage where he worked, outside his apartment, following him wherever he went, trying to get him to reconcile, if you will. But Lawrence rebuffed him at every turn. He even showed up, we were told, at one of Lawrence’s torch jobs for a crew on the North End. That’s where it all went bad for all concerned,” Abreu said.

“Hold on a sec, Detective. Where’d you say he jumped from?”

“Just above the middle left pylon, this side.”

“Got that, Frankie? Check the current for the past hour or so,” the Skipper said.

“Aye, Skipper,” I answered.

“So anyways,” Swarovski said, “Lawrence confronted Ellis and his new partner as they were exiting their target warehouse, maybe even inside. At least that’s where we found the bodies. Initial detectives on the scene figured it was just a botched arson until the ME found the bullet holes in Lawrence’s charred remains. Ballistics pulled up a weapon used in a robbery ten years ago, for which Lawrence was popped and did eight.”

“We figure Lawrence got caught inside and was burned. At least that was some of the rambling story he gave our negotiator from up on the bridge cables,” Abreu said.

One of our lookouts then shouted into his radio, “Something on the water off starboard beam, Frankie.”

The Skipper and detectives raced down the ladder to the bow, where our spotter and another crewman stood ready with the hook. Sure enough, a body floated near the surface about thirty meters ahead on our right. I reversed engines and swung the boat around, puttering her close enough and cutting the turbines for the guys to scoop the poor bastard out.

“Is this your ‘subject,” Detectives?” the Skipper asked as Swarovski pulled a wallet from the floater’s pants.

“That’s what it says here on his license and parole department card,” I heard the impatient detective say.

“So where are all the scars you said he was ranting about?” the Skipper said, as dull morning light now fell on the deck.

“I have no fucking idea,” Swarovski said, rolling the body over and back again and finding nothing but some prison tats. “What the hell was this nut taking about? Hideous shit and no one could bear looking at him?”

“Wait a second,” Abreu said. “See that?” He pointed to a scar on Lawrence’s chest. “That’s a heart, right? And what’s inside it? Hmmm, definitely a J and L and that scar looks like someone tried sanding away a goddamn tat. Um…oh shit, of course. That’s definitely a faint D and maybe an E there.”

“That’s the scar that drove this nut to all this?” Swarovski said, sounding more passed than he was at me.

“You have no soul, partner. That’s only the scar on the outside. It’s the one he feels Ellis gave him on the inside that popped his cork.”

“Sweet Jesus,” the Skipper said as he lowered a tarp over the scarred remains of Johnnie Lawrence and shouted up to me, “Take us home, Frankie.”

“Aye, aye, Skipper,” I snapped in reply, firing up the turbines, bringing us about and chugging us back to port as the bay bridge reopened to traffic and the morning rush erased the specter of Johnnie Lawrence a hell of a lot cleaner than he did Dontae Ellis.

A really quick response to the prompt for a story of the results of a wounding promoted for Day 6 of Story-a-Day May. Again, too long or too short for its own good, but a workable first draft, nonetheless. I promise not to erase it. Too many bad things can happen.

Advertisements

Sunrise, Sunset

Night view looking north up North Swan St. in Arbor Hill Feb, 1967, in Albany, N.Y. (Times Union archive)

Night view looking north up North Swan St. in Arbor Hill Feb, 1967, in Albany, N.Y. (Times Union archive)

Silhouetted by the yellow light of a single table lamp, its shade tipped and scorched, I didn’t recognize Mimi at first. In fact, I thought she was just another of the thousand or so domestics I’d interviewed in their quiet or hysterical moments after men had beaten the hell out of them.

When I sat across from her in what passed for her living room, dining room, and bedroom, I still wasn’t sure this was the girl who had been my daughter’s classmate from grade school and into high school. It had been nine years since I had last spoken to her. About the last time I had seen my daughter.

“Mr. Dinovo,” she said, a glimmer of hope flashing in her eyes at the sight of a once-familiar face. Just as quickly that look was snuffed by a sullen darkness, eyes downcast in an attitude of shame or secrecy. I’d seen that too many times over the past 25 years, as well. The difference with those girls was they hadn’t been to my daughter’s sleep-overs sixteen or seventeen times.

“Hi, Mimi. You doing okay?”

“Yessir.”

She now had assumed the tone of the accused, the tone I’d heard so often from the time I was a rookie right up to these days of leading murder investigations. No defiance, just vague false sincerity. Two words welded into one, implicit with the message: “Please leave me, please go away, please, I don’t want no trouble anymore.”

“OK, honey, have you been seen by the EMT, the fireman?”

“Yessir.”

“And you’ve been talked to by the officer; she explained your rights?”

“Yessir”

She turned away from me, the light now illuminating more of her face and my memories of recognition.

Mimi was a girl of exotic beauty in this dark and barren place. Even now, her skin was smooth and brown as a caramel apple, a face some men might dream to make art about. There were a few things beside the passage of time that kept her from the perfection of her teens. The first was the plain fact that she was a whore, a prostitute in a city where many could be declared such, but she, unfortunately, was one by definition.

Second, was that scar at the corner of her left eye that ran down and around her cheek, curving back toward where it came from. The track of a tear she decided to uncry, maybe. I had a feeling she’d cried her share.

“Lieutenant, do you want me to finish this interview?” The female uniform wasn’t used to detective lieutenants sitting with just another beat-up black girl in the Arbor Hill slums.

“That’s okay, officer, I can handle this.” I probably was a little sterner with the young woman than I should have been, but this wasn’t something I wanted somebody else to handle. This was something I was doing for my kid.

“Why don’t you tell me what happened tonight, Mimi?”

“Nothing, I just had a accident.”

“No you didn’t. Did your boyfriend Maurice hurt you, tear this place up?”

“No. I…I got high and I must have flipped out. I tripped on the lamp cord and fell.”

“High, huh? I smell a lot of smells around here, but none of them are weed.”

In addition to the usual aromas in apartment buildings like this one–that odor of boiled cabbage, urine, vestiges of The Joint, and I don’t mean marijuana–there was the tell-tale stench of a combination of burnt plastic and sugar. I didn’t need to see the crack pipe.

Mimi became my daughter Dawn’s friend in third grade. Her mother got her into the Catholic school Dawn attended after Mimi’s father was shot and killed in a convenience store holdup. Her mom did the best she could to support Mimi and her younger brother, Ervin, but they ended up moving to a neighborhood where the department used to send the rookies. Nobody else wanted to work there except the cowboys hoping to make a score in totals of arrests for themselves. That’s where I saw Mrs. Jenkins hanging on a street corner one night with other girls. I saw her a handful of times more and I figured out what was going on. After that, I told Dawn it might be a nice thing to invite Mimi for some sleepovers every once in a while.

“Where’s your family, hon? Can your mom look after you, anyone else?” I asked.

“My mom died four years ago. You know about Ervin.”

Mimi’s younger brother had been swept up in gangs at a young age. He was convicted of assault on a police officer and a couple of other beefs. Last year he was sent upstate to a facility deep in the Adirondacks. These were two good little kids who got sucked into a sociological whirlpool from which they could not escape. I was one of the caretakers that guarded a wall containing that eddy.

“I try to visit him, but I got no money and it’s a long trip by bus,” Mimi said.

“Is there anyone else who could put you up tonight?”

“I can take of myself.”

“Yeah, I see that.”

“County took my baby, you know.”

“I didn’t know you had a baby.”

“Little Maurice, yeah.”

She put her face in her hands and started to cry. As always, I was clueless about what to do in a case like this. I motioned the female officer over. I pulled out of the circle of yellow light and thought about how Dawn was taken from me.

As my career was moving along, I started drinking more than I should. I mean, you finish the second or third shift in this jungle around 11:00 o’clock and you can’t go right home. The day’s work stays with you awhile, keys you up. The feel and the smell of it stays with you. Eventually, I believed I couldn’t wash it off, so I washed it down.

I’d get home as the sun was coming up and I’d go to bed, hardly ever seeing Dawn until I woke up and she was coming home from school. And then I’d have to head to work with barely a peck on the cheek for her. Maybe not even that for her mother, Gail.

By the time Dawn was 13, I was a detective and her mother told me she’d had enough of being the lonely police widow, only without the benefit of my death. Gail was fed up with me being drunk and abusive whenever I was home. Arguments would start and a couple of times I even hit her. Sometimes right in front of Dawn. When she called the cops on me, I showed the officers my shield and all was forgiven, at least as far as the official record.

Gail knew she was in a no-win situation. To her, I was as much a criminal as the ones I was chasing and arresting. You spend enough time in the jungle, you can become an animal, too, if you allow it. Her choice was an easy one.

She bailed and took Dawn with her. I was so messed up, hurt, and angry, it was easy for her to get sole custody. It took me four years after that to get straight. It was either dry out or lose my job, which turned out seemed more important to me than a family. It was after that I began to try to make things right.

“Lieutenant, Ms. Jenkins wants to talk to you,” the young uniform said.

“What’s up, Mimi?”

“Mr. Dinovo, I’m tired. Can’t you all go and let me sleep?”

“Not until you tell me what happened, Mimi. I gotta make a report.”

I didn’t tell her to whom. I was tired, too. I was working day shift now and not used to being up all night anymore. I was a little more than three weeks from retirement, the start of a new life. I’d already scored a job as chief of security in a little college in South Carolina. I was determined to leave the jungle behind.

“Just tell me it was Maurice and we’ll call it a night.”

“No, you don’t know what he’s like. And I still love him. I just was bad, that’s all.”

“Look, Mimi, yeah, you’ve been bad, but you don’t deserve to be beat up like this.”

“Who asked you to come here, anyway? Was it that bitch daughter of yours?”

“Hey, knock that shit off. What if it was Dawn?”

Over the past few months, I had reconnected with Dawn. I still was trying to take care of all my twelve steps and the making amends part was the toughest. I don’t think Gail will ever forgive me, though I keep trying. I couldn’t find Dawn, though, and Gail wasn’t in any mood to help. Then, three months ago, Dawn called me. We’d exchanged emails and some phone conversations since then and I was hopeful of a continuing thaw, even though she said she couldn’t see me.

“She’s the reason you’re here? Shit, she’s the reason I’m here,” Mimi said.

“What the he’ll are you talking about?”

“Dawn got me hooked up with Maurice.”

I jumped up and pulled her around so she faced me.

“What do you mean?”

“Was Dawn got me with Maurice after he was done with her.”

“Done with her?”

“Was her boyfriend. It was while she ran away from her mom a few years ago.”

My heart sunk. How the hell could a police lieutenant, someone who reads every report every day, not know a teenage girl had run away? Where the hell was Gail? Why didn’t she tell me?

“Girl angry at everybody, just had enough and started hanging in this neighborhood. Had to get away from her mother. She’s a big drunk, you know.”

No, I didn’t know. Dawn hadn’t given me any idea of this.

“Anyway, bitch took a shine to my cousin’s boyfriend and stole him. She said she loved him and he loved her. He just used her, though, the crackhead bitch.”

“What are you saying?”

“She’d do anything to keep him happy, and for some free rock. She even turned some tricks for it. But, he…”

“That’s it, Mimi, cut this shit lying.”

“Ain’t lying. She nothing but a crack whore; no better than.…”

“Lying …”

“No. She got greedy, though. Started business for herself. Maurice found out and smacked her good. Serves her right. Bitch couldn’t even kill herself right. Found her beat up on the floor of my apartment one day, laying next to a puddle of puke, crying. Got a cab and sent her home to mommy, haven’t heard from her since.”

Gail never called me. Her hatred was too big, I guess.

My hatred had just been recharged, though. I knew what I had to do.

“Okay, Mimi, enough. I tried to help my daughter. Yeah, she called me. I don’t even know where from. Look, tomorrow an officer’s going to stop by here. You’d better be here, too. The officer is going to give you a bus ticket to Plattsburgh. She’ll give you an envelope with money in it. You’re going to take that bus and visit Ervin. I don’t want to see you around here for at least a month. I’m going to call the State Police troop captain up there and he’s going to make sure you’re set up for a while.”

“I ain’t leaving. I got to see Maurice or he’ll…”

“Oh, you’re going alright. And don’t you worry about Maurice. He won’t be following you. He’s going to be staying here.”

“You ain’t gonna hurt him, are you? Like I said, all this was my fault.”

“I don’t care whose fault any of this is. I’m just trying to tie up some loose ends before I retire. You were a good girl. Your mother tried her best for you, more than I ever did for Dawn. I owe it to both of them to set things straight,” I said.

“You don’t owe them nothing. Why don’t you just go away and leave everybody alone, just like you did before?”

I turned to the uniform.

“Officer, I want you to stay with Ms. Jenkins until your shift is over. I’ll see that you’re relieved. Make sure she cleans up this place and packs some things for a trip. She’s leaving town for a few days tomorrow.”

“I ain’t going. When Maurice hears about this ain’t nobody gonna be happy.”

“Enough! Maurice won’t care. Officer, take over.”

I stepped quickly out of the apartment. Outside, the air was cold and the eastern sky glowed pink above the tenements.

Red sky at morning, sailor take warning, I thought. Yeah, take warning.

By noon, I made sure that Mimi was headed north and the State Police would meet her at the bus station. I called in every chit I had up there to have her driven by a Trooper in a cruiser to the correctional facility. The Trooper would drive her back to the city later. When she got back, a city cop would see she got a place to stay and was kept busy for the next four weeks. I figured in Plattsburgh, she might just pick up her life where she left off. With luck, it would be some brighter part of her life before Maurice.

All day I coasted the neighborhood. Searching. I found him that night walking alone a couple of blocks from Mimi’s. Looked like he’d been searching, too. Too bad I found what I was looking for before he did.

I called Dawn that night to tell her I was leaving for South Carolina in a few days, burning some of my remaining vacation time rather than sticking around until my last day. I asked if I could see her before I left. She wasn’t sure if that was a good idea. Maybe she was right. Some things are hard to change.

It sounded like Dawn had changed, though. She asked me about Mimi and I told her she was going to be okay. That she was visiting her brother for awhile.

“What about Maurice, Daddy?”

“Looks like he’s gone, too, hon,” I said.

The other day, I got a call in my new condo from an old detective buddy in Albany. He said that Maurice Bidwell’s body was found by some vagrants under a pile of bricks next to a burned out vacant tenement.

“No shit. Any suspects?”

“Kinda,” he said. “He was shot in the head. Ballistics said it was a 22-caliber that had been used in a couple of robberies you investigated. Did you have any leads on who was the doer in those stick-ups? Anything?”

“You know? I always thought it was Maurice who was good for those. Couldn’t prove anything. Guess I was wrong.”

“Okay, thanks, Tony. Hey, how’s that soft new job going for you down there? We had our first snow here last night.”

I laughed.

“Well, Billy, tomorrow my daughter and granddaughter are coming down for a few weeks. Never even seen the little one before. And the weather? Let me just say I’m sitting here on my deck drinking a beer, watching the sun set. Red sky tonight. You connect the dots.”

This is one of my Albany stories. I write about Albany a lot, whether I identify it as such or not because it’s as much a part of me as my hand or heart. As part of my Story a Day challenge, I was tasked to write a story in which the setting is key. In Albany, historically there were two major underprivileged areas, The South End and Arbor Hill. Of the two, I know the latter more. I grew up next to it, delivered newspapers in the West Hill, on the edge of Arbor Hill. Things have improved there, but back in the late 60s and the 70s, it was very rough.