It was Tuesday, September 17. My birthday. I don’t usually like birthdays, but I was trying. My nose was pressed up against the big window in the kitchen and I was hoping to spot something out there to cheer me up. When the rain started coming down in sheets, I gave up and switched on the lights.
My name is James Joseph Donovan, but most people just call me Donovan. I’m six feet, two inches tall, weigh about 195 pounds—some of which is still cut into muscles—and have light brown hair and green eyes. Women have told me I’m not bad to look at, which is a polite way of describing the wear and tear on my weathered profile. My home and office are near the top of an old high-rise building between 101st and 102nd Streets on Amsterdam Avenue in New York City. I have a plain white business card that reads J. J. DONOVAN—CONSULTANT. I don’t have a cute logo.
I do have a partner, however. His name is Boris Mikail Koulomzin, and he lives in the apartment next door. This is a necessary convenience, since Boris rarely leaves the building during daylight hours. Because of the way our building tapers as it rises, there are only two apartments on the seventeenth floor, and we own them both. They were gifts to us from Harry Noble, the landlord. He was once a client, and the apartments were Harry’s way of showing his gratitude for our help.
Our consulting business offers services to people who think they’ve run out of options. In most cases, they have problems that the legal system has either created, made worse, or is incapable of addressing. We’re not licensed detectives, lawyers, paralegals, or anything like that. We’re just two private citizens attempting to help people who’ve been screwed by the system.
Lest you think that a modern-day Robin Hood and his faithful Slavic Little John have taken up residence in the Big Apple, I should point out that we generally expect and receive payment for our services. The amount and form of the payment depends on the circumstances, but I think it’s fair to say that we do pretty well for ourselves. I like to think we also do some good.
I was in the kitchen fixing lunch. A man needs fuel to sulk. The menu included a cold vinaigrette salad of artichoke hearts, feta cheese, and whole black olives; grilled chicken cutlets on a bed of Spanish rice; fresh bread from the local bakery; and several well-chilled bottles of Peter Michael Chardonnay. A pleasant little distraction to temper the aches and pains one begins to notice at the age of thirty-nine.
The telephone rang.
“Hey, Donovan,” a voice bellowed, “happy birthday! How’s my baby feeling today?”
It was my friend Janet Fein.
“Good, Janet. Good, but older,” I said with the resignation of an Irish martyr climbing the steps to the gallows.
“Cut the shit, Donovan!” she roared. “You’re nearly ten years younger than me and I’m fresh out of pity today. Besides, life doesn’t even start till you hit forty.”
My friends are all very understanding. I continued my work at the stove.
“What’s all that racket? I hear pots and pans banging.”
“Oh, nothing,” I said innocently.
“Wait a minute, you’re cooking, aren’t you?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “Set another place at the table, I’m on my way over.”
“You know, Janet, it’s customary to wait for an invitation,” I deadpanned.
I was speaking to a dial tone.
Janet Fein is a case worker for one of New York City’s Child Welfare Services. She’s forty-eight years old and lives alone; no husband, no children. The families she meets at the office keep her too busy. Day or night, she’s available to settle arguments, post bail, locate doctors, or just provide words of comfort. It’s a hard job, but she keeps at it because she cares.
I don’t mean to create the impression that Janet is the saintly all-suffering type. Mother Teresa she is not. Ms. Fein stands five foot, eleven inches in flat shoes and is a solid 175 pounds of kinetic energy, heralded by a booming, gravelly voice nurtured on Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue. She’s a walking encyclopedia where the rights of the family are concerned, and with twenty-three years of the system filed away, she can move mountains when the need arises. When the mountains refuse to budge, she sometimes calls on me. I have never refused her.
So I threw another cutlet into the pan and took out a second plate. I also wondered why Janet was free for lunch on a Tuesday afternoon. It was hard enough to drag her out on a Saturday night, and even then she brought a beeper. About ten minutes later the house phone rang.
“Yo, Donovan, happy bertday, gringo!”
This time it was Manny Santos, the building’s superintendent and my personal screening service.
“Listen up, bro, Ms. Janet, she’s on huh way up and she bringin’ you a nice leetle cake.”
Manny chuckled. He thinks he’s a comedian.
It takes a while for the elevator to groan its way up to my floor, and the grating sigh of relief when it finally stops is louder than any doorbell. I opened the front door and a soggy Janet Fein swept in, leaving little puddles in her wake. She was cradling a small package and dragging the suitcase she uses as a pocketbook.
“Nice weather—for a freakin’ duck!” she said, handing over a freshly baked cheesecake and planting a big red-lipstick kiss on my cheek. “Happy birthday and what’s for lunch?”
I’ve known Janet a long time, long enough to know this was not a social call. I also knew she’d take her time before getting to the point. There was no rush. I opened a bottle of wine and served lunch. We talked about her job and laughed a lot as she jumped from one crazy story to the next. I was even required to blow out some candles stuck in a piece of cheesecake while she sang me a chorus of the birthday song. If you can imagine a serenade from Ethel Merman, you’ve got the picture.
Finally, when the birthday party and small talk were out of the way, Janet was ready to get serious. I cleared the table and poured mugs of fresh-brewed coffee.
“J. J., I’m here because I need your help,” she began, her voice softer now. “I tried to handle this myself, but no one would listen to me. So now I’m knocking at your door.”
“Hey, you name it, kid,” I said, putting one of my big feet into my even bigger mouth.
“This isn’t a simple problem, dear. In fact, by the time I’m through you’ll probably think I’ve gone soft. Everybody else does.” She shook her head slowly. “The mother of one of my kids was killed last week. We don’t know who his father is, or was, and there’s no other family. That leaves me and the state. It’s not a good situation.”
She didn’t have to explain. New York City isn’t Never-Never Land. Orphans don’t rate a very high priority.
“The mother’s name was Ruby Brice,” Janet continued. “She was a twenty-five-year-old prostitute with a heroin addiction. Not exactly a debutante, right? Well, I won’t bore you with the details of Ruby’s short time on this earth. You can take it from me, she never had a chance. From birth to death, her life was a long series of crushing disappointments.”
She stopped for a moment to collect herself.
“Look, I’m not trying to drum up sympathy for Ruby Brice. God knows she doesn’t need it now. But it’s important that you understand where this is coming from.”
“You don’t have to justify yourself to me,” I said.
“I can’t help it, J. J., it’s becoming second nature. I spend too much time dealing with hard-nosed assholes who don’t understand and bureaucrats who just don’t care. Do you realize that there are fifty thousand people living on the streets of this city? Fifty thousand. And the average person looks at a homeless man like he’s a bag of garbage the sanitation truck forgot to pick up. That way of thinking trickles down to me and it’s a big problem. I’m trying to help the children. You’d think children would catch a break, right? I mean, after all, these kids aren’t responsible for the lives they’re leading, and they don’t have any control over their circumstances. Doesn’t seem to matter. They keep right on paying for the sins of their parents. Why do you think I had to come to you? No one else considers people like Ruby Brice and her son worth the trouble.”
There was another pause.
“I better just get this over with,” she said after a few moments. “When Ruby Brice was fifteen years old, she had a baby boy. His name is Clifford. Don’t ask me to explain it, because it’s something that comes from God or nature, but that boy changed her. He didn’t stop the abuse she put herself through, but he gave her a reason to care about the future. If she could have given him a chance for a decent life, it would have made up for a lot.
“J. J., this woman was different. She came to me for help. It usually doesn’t work that way. In most cases it takes me months to win the smallest confidences. Not with Ruby. She wanted to help Clifford and was willing to do whatever it took. That made her special to me.”
I could see now why this conversation was so difficult. Janet had believed they were going to make it. She’d allowed herself to look forward to their success.
“We began about two years ago. I got Ruby into an out-patient drug program and even managed to get her a small increase in child-support money. It may not sound like much, but it was a start. We met once or twice a month, and we made a lot of plans. I knew she was still working the street part-time, but I ignored it. What can I say? Miracles don’t happen overnight, baby.”
She set her jaw as if she expected me to judge or challenge her methods. When I didn’t say anything, she relaxed a little, lowering her guard.
“What I needed most was time,” she said sadly, “but I guess it just ran out. About two weeks before the murder, Ruby ditched a meeting and I began to worry that she’d gone back on the needle. I called a few times, but she wasn’t home. I even stopped by her apartment. We never did connect. By the time I tracked Ruby down she was just a piece of wax taking up space in the morgue.”
Janet’s eyes grew cold.
“Well, Ruby’s gone now and I’ve got a ten-year-old boy to worry about. His mother was right—he deserves a chance. I plan to see that he gets it.”
She paused again. I used the time to refill our mugs and to turn on some lights. The afternoon had come and gone and the room was full of shadows.
“Thanks, honey,” Janet sighed as she tasted the coffee, though I think she was mostly grateful for the change in the atmosphere. The light seemed to slice through the gloom. She took another sip and continued.
“The thing is, J. J., Ruby’s death was no accident. She didn’t overdose or disappear. The woman was butchered!”
It finally clicked. The story had been page-three news in New York’s picture papers. Janet dug into her bag and pulled out a thick manila folder. Inside, I found copies of the police report and the autopsy. There was also a stack of eight-by-ten color photos. As I leafed through them, my lunch began to turn in my stomach.
The body was found on Logan Street between Atlantic and Liberty Avenues in East New York, Brooklyn. The address belonged to a business that manufactures cardboard boxes. When the killer finished playing with her, he dropped Ruby Brice into a Dumpster in an empty lot behind the factory. I found a picture of the scene. It was taken from above, looking down into the Dumpster.
The dead woman was lying awkwardly on a twisted bed of cold gray steel parts, her wrists and ankles bound with strapping or baling wire. At first glance, the metal parts around her seemed to glow as if they were white-hot. But it was just reflected light from the flash bulb on the evidence camera. It had been raining and the body glistened, which helped explain why there wasn’t more blood. There should have been a lot of blood. Ruby’s body looked as if it had been run through a shredder, with strips of her flesh hanging loosely like rags. I put the photos down and turned to the autopsy report.
The coroner noted a total of thirty-eight lacerations on the corpse. None of those wounds had been life-threatening, but they’d all been painful. The killer had toyed with Ruby, playing a sadistic cat-and-mouse game as his excitement grew. I pictured him cutting and slicing his way toward a climax. The report noted physical evidence of both anal and vaginal penetration, yet they didn’t find any seminal fluid. The rain had probably washed that away too, or maybe the creep was firing blanks. In the end, he got off by placing a large butcher knife under Ruby’s chin and thrusting it straight up into her brain.
A note had been attached to Ruby’s left cheek with a large, stainless-steel safety pin. I found an enlarged photograph of the note. The neatly printed lettering read: YO SOY DE LA TIERRA DE LOS ALACRANES! I COME FROM THE LAND OF THE SCORPIONS!
I took a deep breath.
As I flipped through the papers, I came across a statement from a homeless man who called himself Doc. On the night of the murder, Doc was making the rounds with his shopping cart, looking for redeemable cans and bottles. He’d seen a shiny black car parked down the street on Flatlands Avenue, near the landfill site. The car had been rocking and bouncing on its springs like a cheap mattress, he said. There was a lot of noise too, which he figured was one of the girls putting on a show for her tip.
Unfortunately, Doc was a little too crazy to be much help in a courtroom. He’d gone on to describe himself as a wizard and proudly confided to the detective taking the report that he was four hundred and sixteen years old. The New York Post had used his picture, and there was a copy of it in the folder. I had to admit, if nothing else, the guy knew how to dress the part.
It didn’t matter who Doc thought he was. No one would be calling on him to testify. The police already had a suspect in custody and he didn’t own a car of any description. He was a twenty-two-year-old crack addict from the Dominican Republic who owned an extensive rap sheet and had a history of mental illness. His name was Oscar Mendosa.
On the morning of the murder, Mr. Mendosa was arrested by police officers on a routine patrol. They found him wandering naked in the chilling rain, not more than ten blocks from the site of the body. He had the victim’s blood-soaked stockings tied around his neck and was ranting incoherently in Spanish. The man was so hyped up that a backup team had been needed to subdue him. Mendosa was currently under observation at Kings County Hospital, where he was keeping the shrinks busy.
“This is an incredible story,” I said, looking up from the report.
“What it is is a load of bullshit!” Janet cried, startling me. “I knew this woman. Ruby was street-smart and tough. There’s no way she would have let a nut job like Mendosa anywhere near her. Besides, this guy was so whacked he couldn’t even sign his name at the arraignment. How did he manage to write a note and pin it to his victim if he couldn’t hold a pen? Better still, where do you think he got a pen and dry paper in the middle of the night? It was raining, and the guy was stark naked!”
She started rooting around in her purse again. Finally, she pulled out a crumpled piece of sheet music. It was a song called “The Ballad of Durango.” The words were in English and Spanish:
Yo soy de la tierra de los alacranes, yo soy de Durango, palabra de honor, en donde los hombres son hombres formales y son sus mujeres puro corazon … ; I come from the land of the scorpions, I’m from Durango, I give you my word of honor, where men are men and women have big hearts …
“Last I heard, Durango was in Mexico,” she added sarcastically. “Mendosa’s from the D.R.!”
I was going to mention that sometimes the facts don’t connect in ways that make sense, especially in crimes of madness or passion. But the look I got made me think twice about arguing with her.
“Where did you find this?” I asked, holding up the sheet music. “I mean, come on, The Land of Scorpions theme song isn’t exactly Top-Twenty material.”
“I surfed the Net,” she snapped. “Look, J. J., this isn’t a joke. Clifford Brice told me that Ruby saw something down at one of the factories, something she could cash in on. She was gonna get them some money. I don’t know what Ruby was up to, but she told him it would be enough so that they could move away.”
Janet paused one last time as the thought of a future for Ruby and her boy came and went. She finally sighed, clearing the slate.
“A couple of days before the murder, Ruby gave the kid a little plastic key ring with the astrological sign Scorpio stamped on it. She told him it would bring them luck.”
She dropped the evidence on the table in front of me, as if it resolved all doubt. I picked up the small glow-in-the-dark key ring and examined the crude picture of a scorpion stamped on its face. I had to admit there was something eerie about the recurring scorpion image. And she did have a good point about the Mendosa note. The copy I saw was carefully printed. It wasn’t written in the rain and I doubted it was written by someone agitated or excited. But that didn’t mean very much—he could have written it earlier, in a less manic state of mind. Besides, the cops are right more than they’re wrong. Mendosa sounded like a pretty good suspect to me.
“Okay, Donovan, so this is wild and far-fetched,” Janet said, reading my face. “But Clifford is convinced that Ruby stumbled into the middle of something big. I need to know the truth. Either way, it’ll give me a place to start rebuilding. Besides, I’m not asking you to turn into Sam Spade. What I want is enough evidence to convince the police to reopen the investigation. That’s not such a big deal.”
“Has Clifford spoken to the police?” I asked, trying to dodge the inevitable. “Has he told them his suspicions? I mean, this sort of thing is way outside our normal line of work.”
“You know as well as I do that the police want only one thing in a case like this, and that’s to close it,” she said emphatically. “Besides, kids from Clifford’s neighborhood don’t talk to cops, there’s no percentage in it. Hey, they dismissed my opinions out of hand. What chance would the kid have had?”
She was pretty worked up.
“Let me ask you this, Donovan, and this is the bottom line: If Ruby Brice was killed by somebody else, not Oscar Mendosa, should her killer get away with it because a nigger whore with a habit isn’t worth the time it takes to answer a few simple questions?”
She was aiming for my sense of fair play and had just scored a direct hit. I tried to avoid the question by pretending to study the wood grain in the dining table.
“Janet, what makes this particular child so special?” I asked finally. “God knows he’s not the only one of your kids getting a raw deal. Why the extra effort for him?”
“You’re gonna have to take my word on that, J. J.,” she said. “When you meet him, I think you’ll understand.”
We sat in silence for a while, listening to the wall clock ticking. The quiet was eventually broken by the sound of Janet’s beeper calling her to some new human tragedy. She went into my study to use the phone.
A few moments later she rushed back into the room. “Gotta go, hon.”
I didn’t bother asking about the latest emergency—she’d already given me enough to worry about. I walked her to the elevator and she gave me another big hug.
“Happy birthday, J. J., and thanks for lunch.”
Janet was smiling and looking up at me with those big, tired eyes, the edge long gone from her voice.
“About this other thing.” She paused. “Well, you’ll let me know, okay?”
The elevator doors hesitated, then groaned shut, and she was gone.
I went back into the kitchen and reached for the Chardonnay, feeling like all the energy had been drained out of me. The rain had stopped and I could see the night lights of the city, but the view didn’t bring me any inspiration. Raising my glass, I saluted my reflection in the window, then started cleaning up the dishes. But my thoughts kept drifting back to Ruby Brice and the boy she’d left behind. I had just decided to be mad at Janet Fein when the telephone started ringing.
“Hello, honey. Happy birthday!”
It was my mother.
Thirty-nine years old and the sound of her voice still brightened my day. I managed to say “hello” and “how are you” before she took over, bringing me up to date on the local news. From baptisms to funeral masses, she covered it all, moving seamlessly from grandchildren to car alarms without pausing for breath. Eventually, my father grew impatient and grabbed the phone, bringing me back to earth. I took a big gulp of wine.
“By the way, what’s the news from Kate?” he asked, forgetting to wish me a happy birthday.
There was a telegram open on the counter. I picked it up and read it again. It was from Tokyo.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY. DO NOT SULK. THIRTY-NINE IS NICE. WILL SEE YOU IN TWO WEEKS. HAVE SPECIAL PRESENT. MUCH LOVE. YOUR EX-WIFE. KATE.
“She’s just fine, Dad,” I said patiently, flicking the telegram across the counter with my index finger. “I saw her last week and she asked me to send you her love.”
“Did she?” He sounded pleased. “Well, you tell that girl your mother and I both love her and pray every day that you’ll come to your senses.”
“Look, Dad, let’s not get into that right now. I’ll tell her that you were asking for her, okay?”
“Fine, you do that,” he said, as if he’d just solved a major problem. “What’s that? Oh. Your mother wants to say something else.”
I took a deep breath and refilled my glass.
“J. J.,” she began, speaking softly, “I just wanted to tell you that I remember the day you were born as if it was yesterday. All these years later and it’s still one of the happiest days of my life.”
The warm feeling came back.
“Thanks, Mom,” I stammered.
My father volunteered an uncomfortable cough from the extension.
“Anna, our program is coming on the television, say good night to your son.”
Dad likes to take charge, especially if he thinks things might be heading for dangerous emotional territory. We all said good night.
After the phone call, I gave up on the dishes, poured myself a large brandy, and sauntered into the living room. With the patio doors open and a cool, damp September breeze refreshing my senses, I lit a pudgy robusto cigar and pulled my grandfather’s old leather club chair up to the window. I let the brandy melt me a little, then settled back to think about mothers and their sons.
BROKEN MACHINES. Copyright © 2000 by Michael I. Leahey. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.