The first thing I noticed as I was sitting in a squad car was that police cruisers don’t have seatbelts in the back. Me, I’m used to traveling through life without a seatbelt. I’m a no-retraints kinda girl. But today my wrists were in handcuffs so tight I felt like a Christmas turkey, and I planned on bringing up the issue with my arresting officer.
Trouble was, Detective Duffy was already plenty ticked off at me. Behind the wheel, he snapped his cell phone shut, turned around, and said through the screen, “Roxy, behave yourself. I gotta take a detour.”
“What? You gonna show me all the romantic sights of Pittsburgh before you book me?”
“Shut up,” he said. “Or I’ll drop you in the river.”
I’d met Bug Duffy years after he earned his nickname eating crickets on the playground of St. Raphael Elementary. He’d been a year ahead of me in high school, when we’d both done time wearing our respective Catholic school uniforms. Back then, he was vice president of his class, and I was a member of an unofficial club called Future Delinquents of America. Things hadn’t changed much.
He made a U-turn in front of a convenience store and cut down through the North Side—a maze of cobblestoned streets lined with boarded-up storefronts and magnificent old houses either crumbling to bits or under rehab by hopeful do-it-yourselfers. A pair of stone-faced teenagers melted back from the curb at the sight of the cop car. On the next block a young woman in a ponytail and expensive sneakers briskly jogged behind a high-tech baby carriage. Funny thing was, I knew the teenagers, not the mom.
In a few minutes, we were bumping along a deserted stretch of road that ran parallel to the Ohio River. It wasn’t exactly scenic there, and like most old Pittsburgh industrial sites, the ground probably hadn’t passed an EPA inspection even back in the day when bribes made a difference.
A river patrol boat bobbed offshore with its crew leaning on the rail to watch. A tug cruised past, engine low, pushing six empty barges, going downriver fast. On the shoreline, a couple of crime-scene guys stood hunched against the November wind, hands in their pockets, looking down at a sodden, rolled-up carpet that had clearly just floated up on the river.
A police photographer snapped pictures of it.
Bug shut off the patrol car’s engine, got out, and came around to the rear door. He pulled me out and unlocked the cuffs. He was just about my height, and I could have kicked him in the nuts and made a break for it, but he gave me a look and said, “What do you bet this is her?”
I saw what he meant and said, “Oh, shit.”
We walked across a stubbly field that had once been a steel mill, and he said hello to the crime-scene guys. I looked at the foot sticking out of one end of the carpet—a woman’s bare foot with a pink pedicure. I felt the wind bite through the layers of my sweatshirts, but the cold wasn’t the reason I suddenly had to clench my teeth to keep them from chattering.
Bug hunkered down over the carpet and used a pocketknife to cut the twine. Somebody had tied it with Boy Scout precision—little loops and knots every twelve inches or so. Like a rolled steak braciole, I thought. Bug handed the twine to one of the techs, who put it into a plastic bag. Then Bug unrolled the rug—a lot more gently than he’d handled me.
“This her?” Bug looked up at me when the gray, flattened face came into view.
“That’s Clarice,” I said, although I hardly recognized my own voice.
Clarice Crabtree had been shot a couple of times in the head—not the way you’d expect a distinguished museum curator to die. She probably never broke a sweat doing her work—but it was work that a lot of people seemed to think was valuable. In the last second of her life, I bet she’d been surprised to feel the barrel of a gun against her skull.
As I looked at Clarice, my own mother’s death swam up in my head. I tried to shove it down into the blackness where all bad memories belong. But it was the sight of Clarice’s ear—the one that was now missing a sedate gold earring, the mate of the one that remained clipped to her other lobe—that took me fast into a shadowy kitchen with blood on the floor next to a dead or dying woman whose earring—not gold, but a cheap one–had been torn from her by a glancing fist. I had hidden in another room while my parents shouted. While he beat her. As he killed her. A day later, while packing up some clothes and books for foster care, I’d found the missing earring embedded in a loaf of moldy bread on the kitchen counter.
I doubted Clarice Crabtree’s kids ate moldy bread.
Still kneeling, Bug said, “I don’t like that look on your face, Roxy.”
Too late, I wiped away all expression and turned away, shaking and sick.
Bug said something to the techs, then came over and put one hand on my shoulder. “Don’t even think about it.”
I pushed his hand away. “About what?”
“Doing something about this on your own.”
I said, “She has two kids.”
He sighed. “Oh, hell. Look, I know how you get about mothers and kids, but this is my case now, Rox. I don’t want to be tripping over you for weeks while I figure out who killed this lady.”
“I won’t get in your way.”
“Better not,” he said.
Copyright © 2011 by Nancy Martin