A hard-boiled detective story, with "a twist".
|Sunlight stretched, like fingers, through the wooden window blinds. Between the snips of pruning shears, I heard my neighbor, Mrs. McCullough, talking to a ball of fur and teeth she calls "Fifi"; apparently, one of the neighborhood children—“little savages" she called them—trampled through the petunia bed again.
I stepped into my new bedroom slippers and stumbled toward the kitchen. The slippers were a Christmas present from my niece, a thoughtful choice for someone all of eight years old. And anyway, I live alone; it makes no difference to me what I bum around the house in.
For the last six months, I slept, at most, three maybe four hours a night. Judges and prosecutors often say "such-and-such crime was particularly heinous", but trust me, "particularly heinous" didn't begin to cover what was done to 15-year-old Delilah Shaw. Now, thanks to his estranged wife Mary Ellen, at nine a.m. tomorrow morning Jason Bartelli was going to trial, for Delilah Shaw's murder.
Also thanks to Mary Ellen, I had to decide what, if anything, I could do about it; additionally indicted on multiple counts of rape, Jason Bartelli was innocent, I knew, of the murder charge at least.
I poured a cup of coffee, and turned the radio on; Mrs. McCullough was explaining why it must have been the Van Sant boy who destroyed her prized petunias, an issue Fifi wisely choose not to dispute.
I knew Jason Bartelli was innocent only because of a chance encounter with his wife eight months ago. I first saw Mary Ellen Bartelli in a photograph taken at the hospital; a pretty little thing with a sagging ponytail, and long, black bruises under her eyes.
It's an injury I've seen before. It's caused by a blow to the head violent enough to send the brain slamming forward in the skull, and eight months ago I was sure there wasn't anything this little five foot nothing of a girl could possibly have done, to deserve what was done to her.
As sure, as I am unsure, now.
In five years of working Domestic Assault, I saw women who'd been beaten, shot, stabbed; it isn't always what the abusers do that makes the burnout rate so high, but how often the abused return for more. It's an occupational hazard I wanted to avoid, and I thought I could do more good working in Sexual Assault—under "Reason(s) for Transfer Request" I wrote, "I want to nail these bastards".
Captain Mollett told me they liked that upstairs, and not long after my transfer was approved, Mary Ellen Bartelli turned up in the ER, with her face a palette of reds and yellows, and long, dark circles under her eyes, so dark they were almost black. Her husband, Jason, was a "person of interest" in a string of sexual assaults. The victims all described a slightly built man who seemed to appear out of nowhere, attacking them from behind and because after assaulting them the perpetrator was "gone, like lightning", as one girl stated, for awhile we thought Bartelli might have a partner. A witness remembered seeing someone parked in a station wagon near the site of the first attack, although nothing showed either Jason or Mary Ellen ever having owned a station wagon.
The coroner reported that, "because no semen is present..in my opinion Ms. Shaw was repeatedly and forcefully penetrated with a foreign object, smooth and most likely steel." No DNA in our rape victims; none, in Delilah Shaw. Bartelli had been picked out of a photo line-up, which frankly, isn't quite as compelling as it sounds. Memory is faulty, the mind plays tricks. And wearing a badge doesn't change human nature; truth still tends to be whatever is repeated often enough. The details of the attacks were similar enough that everyone, including me, generally assumed Jason Bartelli killed Delilah Shaw—an assumption Mrs. Bartelli would not bother to correct.
The powers that be thought Mary Ellen could be helpful to our investigation, and also thought she might be more at ease talking with another woman about such indelicate matters as her husband's sexual proclivities. But in addition to our supposed "sisterhood", the task of interviewing Mary Ellen Bartelli was also assigned to me, in part, because of my stated reason for the transfer request.
Proving one should indeed be careful what one wishes for. Or at least, entirely certain of one's reasons: when Mary Ellen walked into my life eight months ago I wanted to "nail" men like her husband Jason Bartelli.
Now I wanted to "nail" her. The only thing worse than looking at the coroner's photographs and seeing what was done to Delilah Shaw, was looking at them, knowing, whose handiwork it was. But truth aside, the chance anyone could be persuaded we had the wrong Bartelli was less than remote; to even try, I needed a damn good reason, and only now does it now seem apropos I spent the final hours searching for that reason padding room to room in Cookie Monster slippers.
they can see no reasons
'cause there are no reasons—
what reasons do you need ...
I don't like Mondays...
When I turned the radio on, I was expecting "Surfin' Bird", or something by the Troggs. I forgot, this is "Sunday Bloody Sunday" now, on KWAG. All 80's. All damn day.
I like "I Don't Like Mondays" though. And I remembered the story from when it was on the news.
Home from school that day, sixteen year-old Brenda Ann Spencer took a semi automatic .22 caliber rifle from the closet and aimed it out the window. She fired thirty rounds; with two men dead and nine children bleeding on a playground, they asked her why and Brenda Spencer said:
"I don't like Mondays." ...
Standing in my not-so-tidy kitchen, I watched the coffee sloshing on the countertop as I stirred it with the wrong end of a spoon; in the morning, Jason Bartelli was going to trial for a murder he didn't commit. A murder I couldn't prove he didn't commit. To even try would be career suicide. And probably worse.
In the real world, truth doesn't count for much sometimes.
The radio said it was going to rain tonight and through tomorrow. I could still hear Mrs. McCullough laying out the "crime scene" at the petunia bed, for Fifi.
They say you can't miss what you've never had, so maybe I was a little envious. But lately every time I heard my neighbor's voice I wondered how it was that just next door, everything was simple enough to explain to a puppy dog.
At work, whenever I heard the name "Bartelli" I eavesdropped on any conversation within earshot, I pored through every document I could find. I barely ate and barely slept; eight months went by, and still it all seemed futile. This was Homicide's case, anyway. I worked sex assaults, I was still new and the only woman there. By sticking my nose into Homicide's case, I could end up spending the rest of my career making coffee and reminding so-and-so about the call on line three.
If I even had a career. Besides, I knew the DA's office wasn't going to waste time, and money, bringing her to trial when they had him, and Jason had the best defense attorney around here, Stephen Ballard. I even thought of going to Balllard, myself, several times, and then thought better of it. The jaundiced eye through which that would be viewed by everyone here in the department was enough of a deterrent. I could just imagine the reception I was likely to receive from Stephen Ballard: Let me understand this, Detective. According to your little "theory"...
I could lose everything I worked so hard for, for what. To be a crusader, to make a point? To help a man I never even met ? Besides, I wasn't sure exactly what Jason Bartelli did...
But all of my “besides” and “even ifs” couldn't change the fact: I knew exactly what Jason Bartelli didn't do.
Delilah Shaw was green-eyed, and raven-haired; a pretty, pretty girl. Delilah's father had earrings custom made for her and the last time he saw his daughter he was certain, absolutely certain, she was wearing them.
Her body was discovered two weeks from the day she disappeared; her hair was butchered. Her face was swollen. Purpleblack.
There was no jewelry found, on or around, Delilah Shaw.
Calls flooded in day and night, the press was howling for blood, Homicide, and Sex Assault and everyone in the department were frantic; so frantic, on the day Mary Ellen came in for her interview, Captain Mollett passed me on his way into a meeting with Homicide, and with a hasty,"ER doctor's report of Mrs. Bartelli's injuries almost forgot to give it you", he accidentally gave me part of the file on the Shaw case.
Under the ER photo of Mary Ellen was the coroner's photograph with “both lower arms and hands show a clear pattern of defensive wounds" scribbled below it. But what was far more disturbing than picturing Delilah Shaw fending off her attacker was a form from something called Fidelity Trust, with a description of an unusual, custom made pair of earrings. A description, that explained why there was no jewelry found on Delilah Shaw.
By its nature, working sex crimes requires the men around me to regard every woman with a certain nonchalance, but Mary Ellen could turn the head of any man. Sitting at my desk that day, her face showed little of the beating she received; her lightly tanned skin nearly masked the scars on her arms and hands, the cops around me traded winks with one another. And when Mary Ellen giggled and tossed her blond hair back—the glint of her jeweled earrings struck me hard enough I’d swear it sent my brain slamming forward in my skull.
But she wasn't a suspect; Mary Ellen was there more as a courtesy to us than anything. At least, that's how it would be perceived. I couldn't keep her there over a pair of earrings, and in this atmosphere of winks and nudges, I couldn't afford not to be as smart as she was. Any accusation I leveled at her now would simply have the boomerang effect of making me look suspect.
The car; the station wagon a witness remembered from the first attack site.
I bit my lip in a "Gosh, gee, sorry" way, and told Mary Ellen there was something missing from her file; something I need to finish my paperwork I explained, and I asked if we could we re-schedule the interview for tomorrow. She looked a little wary, but with perfect grace she answered, "Of course, tomorrow's fine", and escorting her towards the door I asked, nonchalantly as I could, "Do you need a ride, or did you drive here today?"
“Oh you’re sweet, really, but I borrowed my sister’s car,” she said and pointed at the window; there, among the rows of marked police cars, was the station wagon that I did not want to see.
And with a promise to call me in the morning I knew she'd never keep, like lightning, Mary Ellen was gone.
Mary Ellen, with those barely visible scars on her arms, and hands; Delilah Shaw's arms, and hands also bore those marks, and going by the coroner's report, Mary Ellen sexually assaulted Delilah Shaw with the same length of steel she beat her with, and killed her with, and god only knows what else little five foot nothing Mary Ellen did to Delilah Shaw before she picked her bones; Mary Ellen, the battered wife who not only found the strength to leave but was ready and willing to help us put her beast of a husband away, who walked into my life as though she were crossing a ballroom floor and sat down at my desk—wearing a dead girl's jewels.
Mary Ellen , who I'm sure will be conspicuously absent from her husband's trial.
No DNA in our rape victims.
None, in Delilah Shaw.
I've sat across the table from both the batterer and the beaten: I've seen the impact of men's rage in shattered bones, and I've seen women who might as well have crawled back on their hands and knees for more. It's hard to look at what I have to see sometimes. But I can understand it, in a way.
Maybe not all of it. But men learn from their fathers, who learned from their fathers; we live in a world where women are taught to be passive and aggression is by and large encouraged, in men. What I saw was ugly, and brutal. But I could understand it. And now...now, I simply felt—betrayed.
Every Saturday night for the last five years, I spoke to women at a battered women's shelter; once a week for the last five years I stood in front of bruised and beaten women, and said that violence, and abuse were never—ever—justified.
It seemed so simple. I was so sure I was right.
Now I said those words and all I saw was Mary Ellen, with the long, dark circles under her eyes. An injury I assumed dealt by her husband's hand, and now I realize that photograph is either one of two things.
Either it's a record of what Jason Bartelli did. And knowing what I do about Mary Ellen, if that's the case, he may have been entirely justified.
Or, it's a record of what Delilah Shaw did. That she was strong, and fought hard for her life.
And if that's the case, it's possibly the closest thing to justice there will be.
I still go to the shelter. Eight o'clock, every Saturday night, I still stand and say abuse is never justified. Women with those same black circles under their eyes, still shake my hand, and thank me.
But it's not the same. I'm not the same. And now when those women shake my hand, I'll always wonder what the story really is.
And what the circumstances really are.
The man who kills with the bayonet comes closer than the man with a firearm. One is more indicative, of trust.
Mary Ellen Bartelli killed Delilah Shaw, she used her hands and a length of steel, to kill.
How close did she have to be ?
Why was Mary Ellen able to get close enough to beat a perfect stranger purpleblack?
Her victim would've trusted her, on sight; there was no reason for Delilah Shaw to fear, little, five foot nothing, Mary Ellen.
What reasons do you need.
It was no use trying to sleep. I couldn't get that song out of my head, and I couldn't get the thought that Delilah Shaw's earrings were probably at the bottom of a river bed out of my head, either.
I drank another cup of coffee I didn't really want.
I had nothing. I despise Mary Ellen Bartelli, but I would never underestimate her. I knew the only proof there was, was gone, and to fight this uphill-both-ways battle, to risk losing everything—not just my little "everything" but all the future chances to really do some good I might be throwing away to prove Jason Bartelli's innocence, a man I never even met—to do that, I needed a damn good reason.
It was raining.
The trial would start at nine.
Maybe I could find the reason there.
I was late, barely in before the bailiff closed the door. It rained all morning, steady, and turned the sky a shade of gray that makes whatever's bad seem worse. I stepped on people's toes and said "excuse me" until I found a seat; it was warm inside the courtroom and after so many sleepless nights I almost nodded off a couple of times. A real jury trial is nothing like you see it on TV or in a movie. It's tedious mostly and in spite of all the hullabaloo over Bartelli, this was no exception.
Thankfully it wasn't long before the judge called morning recess. Everyone stretched, and mumbled and started filing out slowly, and I was pretty sure the coffee machine was somewhere on this floor—
But a giggle I'd know anywhere erased all thoughts of coffee.
If, god forbid, I were Mary Ellen Bartelli, you wouldn't hear a peep much less a giggle out of me. It didn't make any sense. Here, is the last place she should be. I looked around; the room was crowded, but Stephen Ballard was still at the defense table.
Except, I couldn't get to the defense table; there were people everywhere, I was completely boxed in.
What else could I do.
I leaned across the rail and poked him with my badge.
"It's about Mrs. Bartelli", I whispered.
This is not the line of work for anyone who's easily intimidated, and Stephen Ballard is one of the reasons why that's so. I'm generally able to give as good as I get, for which I am especially glad, especially today, because Stephen Ballard also gives as good as he gets; the man whose help I need and whose attention I've just wielded a sharp object in open court to attract, has more than once left grown men weeping on the stand.
Today, although he spoke as if I were a slow-witted child, he was mercifully succinct: "Her name. Is not Bartelli, anymore. Detective."
It figured; still, I had underestimated her.
Ignoring the little dig at my detective skills, I pushed through a crowd of people whose toes I had already stepped on, and I saw her in the hallway just outside the courtroom. An image of my niece and her silly, thoughtful gift collided with the song still in my head.
There were no reasons, if this was not the reason here.
The witness for the prosecution was still five foot nothing, blond and manicured as ever. But now with her belly round and firm, the former Mrs. Bartelli had a special glow that wasn't there before; Mary Ellen stood talking with a small group of maternity-wear clad women, her polished sculpted nails flashing as she spoke.
I watched the hands that would rock a cradle soon, and saw nine children bleeding on a playground.
I heard nine children scream as rifle fire exploded in their backs.
By Monday afternoon, the rain was gone and sunlight stretched, like fingers, through the window blinds in Stephen Ballard's office.
Everything was simple enough to explain to a puppy dog.