On Frailty’s Honor
by Gary Clifton
“McCoy, you asleep?”
“No, hell no, Sarge, just sitting here reading the bible, hoping you’d call.” McCoy heaved his legs over the side of the bed and focused on an illuminated wall clock. “Sarge, it’s damned near 3:00 a.m.”
“Yeah, yeah. Jot this down. Looks like they found the Russo kid. His body, I mean.” Sergeant Red Harper had been in the Dallas Police Department’s Homicide Division since before color TV, or so the rumor went. Big, tough, gruff, he was a legend among younger detectives.
McCoy sighed with veteran resignation. He’d enjoyed at least ten beers at Adair’s the evening before, which had ended only a couple of hours or so earlier. He steadied himself as the room spun left, then right. “Russo is a missing person’s case, Sarge. I only know what I heard in the john.”
Joshua Anthony Russo was a two-year old who had disappeared from his Gaston Avenue apartment complex three weeks earlier. McCoy lacked complete details, but knew the boy’s mother, Megan.
Megan Russo was the daughter of a retired Boston-area suburban cop, a topless dancer, and drug addict. She was the prime suspect in what everyone involved predicted would be a murder. Rumors, unfortunately, were often true. At least the news media, having their normal sensationalism feast, had already convicted her.
“It’s your case now. You too drunk to remember ‘body found’ translates to murder? And stop calling me Sarge.”
McCoy and Harper had been partners in Homicide for eight years prior to the big redhead making sergeant.
“Harper, there oughta be a law against homicides on Saturday morning. Where did they find the body?” The room spun again slightly.
“No murders on Saturday... I’ll take it up with the brass first thing Monday. Buried on the shore of White Rock Lake. Looks like the water table pushed the remains up out of the muck. Neighborhood guy picking up tin cans found the skull. Crime scene squints found a few more bits and pieces. Animals got there first, the four-legged kind.”
“Hunting cans at 3:00 a.m.?” McCoy quickly gained control of tension in his voice. A Dallas cop fifteen years, eight in Homicide, he considered himself beyond surprise.
“Naw, the guy called 911 at just past seven yesterday evening. Took the system this long to filter the info to us, the mopes.”
“So, I guess I — I mean me and Garcia — need to take a look at the crime scene, then check with the morgue.” McCoy snapped back to life, and cop procedure kicked in. “I’ll need to talk to this tin can guy. We can get the Missing Persons file easy enough.”
Harper read him the finder’s address and the exact location of the crime scene on the south end of White Rock Lake. “You gotta call Garcia, McCoy.”
“Okay. You coming out?”
“Maybe after daylight. Hellfire, McCoy, I’m now the boss,” his chuckle filtered through the cell. “The Crime Scene Search Unit has been out there all night. The Medical Examiner’s office says they’ll detail a pathologist to do the autopsy this morning, although getting them out on Saturday wasn’t easy.”
Saturday morning and Harper’s gruff be damned, McCoy smiled in the dark bedroom. He liked Harper and knew the abrupt tone was just a “Harperism.” Four years earlier, McCoy had been struggling with a murder suspect in east Dallas, the man on the cusp of choking McCoy to death. Harper had strolled into the room and blown the man’s head off. He’d handle anything Harper said with no complaint.
As he slid down the hallway searching for the bathroom, an adage an old timer had uttered years ago reverberated: “Rook, a man who don’t drink a dozen beers on an empty stomach has no idea how long the next day can be.”
He found a handful of aspirin, several antacid tabs, and a microwaved, luke-warm cup of instant coffee before he telephoned Garcia: twenty-nine, attractive, but not a traffic stopper. McCoy had experienced the normal macho resistance to taking on a female partner when she had made Detective six months earlier.
To his pleasant surprise, Garcia was book-smart, street-smart, perceptive, and able to give as good as she got in the overwhelming male majority of squad room banter. She could spell any word in English or Spanish. He quickly learned she lived with a “husband,” a sergeant in the Traffic Division and who just happened to be an attractive blonde female.
The sergeant answered the phone in the apartment they shared in suburban Garland, Texas. “I covet your wife, Sergeant Panski,” he quipped.
“McCoy, damn your hide, we were gonna go to the Marsalis Zoo today. You screw that up and I’ll burn down your house. You do realize it’s three o’clock in the morning... on Saturday?”
He ignored the rhetorical question. “Found the body of that Russo kid that’s been on the news the past three weeks. Me and your old lady caught the homicide part of the case.”
“Oh, man. In that case, here she is.”
McCoy read the White Rock location to Garcia and spent twenty minutes in the shower trying to clear what cobwebs gushing water could accomplish. He climbed out just about as sick as before. His ear-ringing headache sounded like a bad ball bearing in an old wheel, which was a fair description of his condition in general.
* * *
Years in the fast lane had made McCoy a cautious, introspective man. The thought or sight of a dead child was just as abhorrent now as the first he’d ever seen. But he would never let a soul know that.
McCoy drove his pickup truck directly to White Rock Lake, ramping up his mutilated-kid face on the way. He could check out a city car later.
Garcia had beaten him to the scene. She was chatting on a bicycle-track sidewalk with a uniformed patrol officer who was securing the scene to preserve whatever might be unexpectedly needed later.
The City of Dallas owned the oasis of green and the two hundred acres of only slightly polluted water, which was located in east Dallas, a short drive from downtown. Deserted at the early hour, the area would soon be clogged with joggers, weekend picnickers, and, as McCoy saw it, a half million bicycles. The first hint of gray in the east promised daylight shortly, and the muggy August heat was already difficult to breathe, particularly with a near-fatal hangover.
“You look like hell, McCoy.” Garcia smiled through a mouthful of gleaming ivory.
“Good morning to you, too.” As bad as he looked, the aspirin and a large cup of 7-11 caffeinated suddenly kicked in. Resurrection was in sight.
Garcia snapped a few shots with her cellphone camera while McCoy walked around the area, trying to get a feel for the situation. Crime Scene Search units had already cleared the area.
* * *
Garcia followed McCoy’s General Motors pickup to the Police Department Motor Pool, where they checked out a small Dodge with no hubcaps. In a half-hour of wrangling with the on-duty desk sergeant, early Saturday morning home phone calls to Missing Persons detectives, and searching rows of file cabinets, they located the thick Joshua Russo file.
McCoy felt his hangover losing force but still in place. He downed a plate of grease and cholesterol at a diner on Gaston Avenue while he and Garcia read the file.
Peter Russo, a native of Boston, had done thirty years as a traffic cop, following the careers of his father and grandfather, retiring in good standing the year before.
The Russos’ only child, Megan, had been described as anywhere from “precocious” to “incorrigible” by Massachusetts juvenile authorities. By sixteen, she had paddled her way well into troubled waters and had served two stints in juvenile facilities.
Her son, Joshua — the father was never identified — had been born just prior to her seventeenth birthday. Hospital officials had noted in the file that Megan was a full-blown heroin addict, although miraculously, Joshua had been born clean of addiction or other defects.
Peter, undoubtedly anxious to separate from the arm of Massachusetts law enforcement, had found a job as chief of security for a large industrial complex in south Dallas County. Megan, now eighteen, and Joshua, almost two, had moved to Dallas with Russo and his wife.
In two months, she was dancing on the bar, nude, at a joint called Stuffy’s in East Dallas, and living with Joshua in a low-rent apartment complex nearby. The file indicated she’d reported that a “lady from Ecuador” had babysat Joshua, although detectives never identified or found any such person after the child had disappeared while playing in front of her apartment at 9:00 pm, three weeks earlier.
Garcia looked up from her iced tea. “Bitch murdered her kid because he was a pain in the ass,” she declared. Her deep brown eyes snapped in anger. “Or leaving him outside in that neighborhood after dark should be grounds for an arrest for child neglect.”
Although tentative reports in the file indicated investigating officers agreed that Megan was culpable in Joshua’s disappearance, McCoy, the king of cynicism, wasn’t convinced. He’d seen murders in numbers. Twice divorced and the survivor of two shots fired, he, of all people, knew that every story had at least two sides. He did not bother to disagree with Garcia.
* * *
One sleepy-eyed pathologist and her assistant, neither pleased with the Saturday assignment, manned the morgue, stuffed behind the huge Parkland Hospital Complex strung several blocks along Harry Hines Boulevard.
“Not enough here to determine much, McCoy,” Dr. Ann O’Hara said over gold half-glasses. She gestured to the pitiful little heap of skull and bone remnants spread on a Teflon-coated, wheeled gurney. “No broken bones I can see. Not enough throat structure left to determine strangulation, or even if the kid was actually murdered. This tiny hole in his head could have been the fatal blow, but the skull is too deteriorated to state for certain. Probably, somebody stabbed the kid in the head with a sharp object.”
Garcia spoke up. “He didn’t bury himself, Doc.”
“No, that he was buried means somebody didn’t want him found. Cause of death? If this head wound didn’t do it, could have been suffocation from smothering in some way. We’ll run every test in the book to determine poison, disease or the like, but don’t expect much. This mess smells like murder, but proof is gonna be tricky.” She tapped the tiny hole in the skull again. “This is our best bet.”
McCoy silently agreed.
Megan Russo’s apartment was east of downtown on the general route to White Rock Lake. Sleazy, ten years overdue for a paint job, the debris-cluttered premises struck McCoy as a war zone.
Garcia verified from the file that a tumbled-down green Mustang parked in front was, in fact, Megan’s vehicle. Garcia chuckled when a dead-eyed man with shoulder-length hair tried to sell them a joint as they walked through the complex.
Megan’s listed address, a second-level walk-up, overlooked a long-defunct swimming pool partially filled with trash, dirt, and a rusty bicycle prominent atop the pile. Loud music from inside, plus the presence of the Mustang verified that Megan was at home, despite not answering repeated banging on the door.
McCoy, in view of the discovery that Megan’s son was dead, slipped the door lock with a credit card. The Fourth Amendment had to step aside for exigent circumstances.
Garcia shut down the radio blaring the ear-splitting music and followed McCoy into the bedroom of the two-room apartment. Megan stood nude and pathetically skinny at bedside, a tattoo Live and Let Die over a floral arrangement vivid on her stomach, augmented by a dozen other assorted tattoos scattered about her sallow skin.
“Megan Russo?” McCoy asked.
She nodded, her dark eyes failing the focus test. Two decrepit, nude men lay across the bed, both heavily tattooed and stoned into unconsciousness. He flashed a badge at Megan and kicked both men on the sole of a foot to determine they were alive. They were.
Megan had been advised of the discovery of Joshua’s body the evening before, while she was working at Stuffy’s. McCoy was not surprised that in lieu of remorse, Megan, who seemed incapable of speaking without a whine, volunteered repeatedly she had not killed Joshua, although neither McCoy nor Garcia had made any accusation.
Garcia called Records and found that both of the men conked out on the bed had outstanding arrest warrants. She called a squad car and sent both to the Sterrett Center, the technical name of the Dallas jail. McCoy left Megan his business card and left.
Megan spat a foul name at his back as he walked out.
In twenty minutes, Sergeant Red Harper called. “McCoy, that Russo chick’s father is calling the switchboard every two minutes, raising hell. Wants a face-to-face with you.”
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Gary Clifton