TALES FROM THE BLUE LINE 9

0000Heavy raindrops beat the roof of the unmarked squad car I was riding in like a tom-tom. I didn’t like it. No one did. We detectives would see each other on the street or at various precincts, and stop to whine about it. As one could figure, those nights were slow for cops; everyone stayed inside. Of course, that didn’t happen on every chilly, rainy springtime night. Some of those nights were notoriously busy.

One of those nights was a nightmare for every human being who was forced to be at a particular crime scene in one of thousands of neighborhood blocks in the city.

A dispatch came over the main police radio – the high ban, they called it – where all squads assigned to a given area could hear the call; some chatter about family trouble at an address somewhere, and then the continued droning of the conversing officers. My partner and I were miles away, and paid it no mind.

A short while later a Detective Lieutenant spoke on the second radio we carried – the portable handie-talkie, it was called – from the headquarters desk to a detective squad that patrolled the area of the ‘family trouble’ call. He spoke in a clipped, serious tone, wanting to know how long it would take the detectives to arrive at the scene.

My partner and I perked up, looked at the radio where it sat on the dashboard, and then looked at each other. The lieutenant who was speaking was a top guy, a supervisor they’d look for to handle the serious, important cases. The radio quickly went quiet. The high ban radio that dispatched uniform squads to its calls was also quiet. The tom-tom rainfall pounded the roof of the car, as though it were a drummer at a Dave Clark Five rock concert.

Something was wrong – very wrong – at the family trouble address. However, things were always going wrong in this city. We didn’t get the assignment, so we got on with our lives.

And then we did get the assignment. It was not in our assigned district; a clue that something major had happened. The shift commander had taken the lieutenant’s place at the office desk, a sign that the lieutenant was on his way to supervise the crime scene. But aside from the drumming of the rain, it was quiet.

I always sensed a grim crime scene under those conditions.

We drove to the “family trouble” scene and parked a half block away. Both marked and unmarked squads had been sent before us; a couple of them were parked askew in the street. Also askew to the curb was an old, dirty and seriously dented up white van. It had no side windows. A barrier of the classic yellow police tape ringed the van, protecting it from the unauthorized. A lone uniformed officer, wearing his full compliment of rain gear, stood next to it. He stood at semi-attention…quiet…serious…reflective looking. It added to the ominous atmosphere.

My partner and I approached the van. It was empty, but the dome light was on. I nodded at the officer as we walked past and he rolled his eyes. My partner and I exchanged glances. We were “in for it.”

The house we’d been sent to was completely lit up. Shades were pulled up. I could see the thick raindrops falling straight down through the glare. I could hear them steadily drumming on the rooftops of the nearby houses. Aside from that it was eerily quiet. The screaming and yelling that usually accompanies family fighting was not to be heard.

We entered the home through the side door. The house was packed with people, both citizens and officers. The lieutenant saw us and worked his way through the group to where we were. He began explaining our assignment:

A despised grandfather – smashed to the gills and beyond by booze – had shown up to, ah, visit. Everyone who lived there hated him…more specific- they didn’t want to see or be with him in any way. An extremely common family scenario in the neighborhood we were in. Everyone had dutifully cleared out of his way while one of them went to get him food.

The lieutenant stopped and said that the police photographer had just gone out to the van. “Riley, you go with him. There’s a copper out there who can guide you guys through.”

I left, unprepared for what I was going to experience – how could I have been? I rounded the back corner of the house and approached the street in front. A uniformed officer assigned to the Traffic Division was taking photographs- standard MPD procedure.

“What’s up?” I asked when I arrived at the van.

The traffic officer let his camera hang by the strap around his neck and looked at me- a forced, strange look… one that was intended to notify me that what was “up” was “not good.”

“Take a look in the van,” he said pointing to the small windows on the vehicle doors.

I knew there’d be a bad scene; a body; some kind of unimaginable mess.

I was right.

The body of a dead girl – eight years old I would later learn – lay on her back. The girl had been wearing a light colored dress, which was lifted up…covering her face and exposing her nude bottom half.

Blood…a thick smear where the legs joined the torso, and a dark, gaping channel in the center.

I became aware of my head twisting slightly from side to side. It had started on its own…involuntarily shaking. My lips parted, my jaw dropped. All the clichés describing a person who is, not just in shock or stupefied, not simply horrified, but frozen in a way that would leave you forever changed.

“Some grandpas ‘love’ their grandchildren more than others, I guess,” the officer taking photos said sarcastically.

I realized he’d been watching me for who-knew-how-long.

I looked at him and saw the same expression on his face that I knew was still on mine. The bullshit joke had come from the lips, but the energy, the upbeat twinkle normally registering in the eyes of the joke maker was not there.

His gaze grew quizzical. “You know what happened, don’t you?”

I was embarrassed. I was a detective, one of the officers in charge of the scene, but things had been happening so fast, and in such a staccato motion, the detail of how this child had come to her end had not been explicitly stated to me.

The officer’s shoulders sagged, his eyelids dropped. He was going to have to tell me the details of a murder.

“Grandpa came over drunk out of his mind. A fight broke out. He said he wanted to play with his granddaughter. He grabbed her by the arm and took her to the van here.” He pointed at the vehicle. “Her mother wasn’t here, and the two young boys in the living room were afraid to follow.”

“’Grandpa did this?” I said.

“Yeah. The kids checked on the van about a half hour later. He was lying on top of her. Passed out. She wasn’t moving.”

One of the boys had called 9-1-1, and the first responding officers dragged the old dude off of her.

The rest of the routine part of the investigation moved along: Grandpa was taken to jail; the paramedics arrived and declared the child dead; the medical examiner was en route; more police officers arrived; interviews were begun…

It was obvious that the girl had been raped and then strangled or suffocated by the drunken weight of a man who should have been protecting her…not…this.

After a long pause I looked at the officer and said, “A head’s up would have been nice.”

“We’re all in shock,” he snapped defensively.
And he was right. When you’re unexpectedly thrown into a wicked, deranged scene that should never, ever be allowed to even exist, you get kind of loopy.

The police photographer and I were both kind of loopy.

I mechanically brought out my memorandum book and began writing notes. The sound of people screeching emanated from the back of the house. A moment later the lieutenant called and waved to me to join him on the front sidewalk.

“I gotta go call the boss,” he said while I approached. “The girl’s mother just came home, with her sister. She doesn’t know the whole story. You think they were screaming before. Just wait…”

He stopped speaking. I was ready to keep listening, but the silence stretched out. After a moment he said, “Everyone else is busy. You gotta do the notification.”

He looked down and away and walked toward his squad car.

I went into the back of the house and was ushered into the kitchen. Only the stove light was on. The girl’s mother was sitting at the kitchen table, sobbing. Everyone else walked out as I entered, brushing past me.

I was about to enact the most despised ritual there is for a cop.

I looked at the woman, whose head was rapidly turning from side to side. Why is everyone leaving? One could almost hear her think.

Her eyes rested on me for the answer.

“Is my baby going to be okay?” she asked, her voice emitting a heart-wrenching tremolo.

From somewhere deep within I ginned up the answer, but it stuck in my throat like cotton…the image of the poor child forever emblazoned in my mind. I managed to swallow and move it along…

ROb2This is the 9th in an ongoing series from Rob.

He spent thirty-two years as a Milwaukee police officer: seven years doing undercover narcotics investigations and twenty-two years as a major crimes detective. Writing and reading have been lifelong passions, and he began by writing short stories more than thirty years ago.

Rob is published by Orange Hat Press

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