Friday, June 8, 2012

Ante Mortem by Ellie Anderson

Chapter Six


“Mom, where are my socks?”

Yes, nearly every day of the week started this way.  When he called, she was annoyed.  And when he didn’t call, she’d worry…she’d text him over and over until he would finally text back, highly annoyed with her.  At least she knew he hadn’t been abducted on the daily mile-long walk he had to take to get to the city bus that would take him to school on the other side of town.  In her world, everyone was a pedophile or a killer until they had proven themselves and she was kooky about her son and his safety.

Della hung up the phone and headed towards Steve’s office.  He wouldn’t be here yet, even though he left her house early so that he could shower at his own place.  He always got to the office after she did, but this morning she wanted to make sure the Baby Bea report was there for him when he got there.  She dropped it on the desk and let her mind wander to her plans for the evening.  Tonight for sure, she would get her visit to the porch because Steve didn’t often come over two nights in a row.

She let her hand trail softly across his desk as she walked out.  One of the attorneys was standing in the entrance to her cubicle, ready to give instructions for the most current fire that needed to be put out. 

“Um, yeah…I need this Notice of Expert Witness to go out right away.  The deadline’s today.” 

“Good morning to you, too, Tim.”  He was notorious around the office for leaving things until the last minute. 

“Um, yeah…sorry.  Good morning, Dell.”

A second prosecutor walked in behind Tim.  This time is was Carol.  Tim was still talking when Carol started to talk slowly, her face buried in a file.  “I need you to call this witness and get him to fill out an 1102 form for the Cassidy prelim this morning.  I’ve got to leave for court by nine and I need it by then.”

Their voices overlapped; they both continued to talk.  Tim’s hands were flying around and he was explaining that one of the public defenders had lied in front of the judge and screwed him over.

Kyle showed up next.  “I can’t find the file for the Mitchfield prelim.  I swear it was on my desk the other day.  Do you have it?  I can’t imagine what happened to it.”  His eyes were ping pong balls and he was panicked.

“Whoa!  Whoa!  Whoa!” Della announced.  Their three voices were a symphony of dissonance that was like nails down a chalk board.  They didn’t hear her.

“Whoa, you guys!”  she said in an elevated voice.  “Back the truck up!  Beep.  Beep. Beep!”

Carol’s eyes raised up from the file, hesitated on Della’s eyes and dropped back down while Tim and Kyle continued talking and then returned to the file.   She continued her muttering.

“What is going on?  There’s three of you talking all at once!”

The three stopped abruptly, their mouths slightly open.  Things had been rough around the office for everyone the last year.  The last D.A. ran a regime of corruption and terror that had left everyone shell-shocked. Things were better with the new elected D.A., but everyone was still overly tense.

“I am not a human sponge.   I can’t take in everything you all say at once.  Tim, I’ll have a draft on your desk for you when you come back from court.  Carol, there’s no way that we can throw together an 1102 by nine o’clock.  Kyle, check with Marni.  She pulls together all the files for your prelims.”  Kyle was new and hadn’t quite adjusted to the routine.

Carol shot her a raised eyebrow and a dip of the head.  Della dismissed the disapproval… again.  Carol didn’t like being told no; she rolled her eyes, blinked and turned to leave. The other two followed suit and Della sat at her desk, dropped her head in her hands and exhaled heavily.   She tried to remind herself that she wasn’t the only one who was stressed out around here.

She closed her eyes and let her daydreams reflect on the earliest hours of the day.  When she woke, she wasn’t rested.  Her dreams had been filled with images of a woman and child walking through her room.  It played over and over and woke her up several times, only to return as soon as she dozed off again.  As the woman passed and met eyes with her, she imagined that the woman had mouthed a message, “Help me.”  Della had a feeling of dread as she recalled the image.  Did it really happen?  Was it a dream?  It was all a fog and she couldn’t decide if it had really happened.  More than that, the thought of the dark figure pierced her chest and terrified her.

“Della, there’s two detectives here for you,” the speaker on her phone announced, bringing her abruptly back to the moment. It was eight o’clock and she passed Steve’s office on the way to meet them.  He still wasn’t here, but she was anxious to get to work on the case because she knew the office’s Public Information Officer would be getting hounded by the press, and then he’d be hounding Steve and Steve would be hounding her.

“Hi, guys.”

They began talking as she gestured for them to follow her.  When they reached her cubicle, they took the two small client chairs that sat opposite her desk. 

“Detective Ashram… Todd, right?”

“Yeah,” he replied nervously. 

Franks pulled a file out of the messenger bag he held on his lap.  “Where do you wanna start?”

“Well, Steve will be here soon and the report’s on his desk but I’d like to go ahead and start learning the case so I can start cataloguing the discovery materials.   I’ve read your initial report, but just start at the beginning.”  Della and Franks had been friends for a long time.  They got to know each other years before when she was helping on a child homicide for the very first time.  Franks was one of the few that knew about Steve and that was only because he’d run into them at an Octoberfest event that they specifically picked because it was out-of-town, making it unlikely that they’d run into anyone they knew.  Franks had kept her secret and she was grateful to him.

“We were called to The Children’s Hospital about 12:30 AM by a Doc Walker, who was reporting that they’d received a small child, deceased, whose condition appeared to be inconsistent with the story the parents were giving. The child was dead when the parents brought her in.  Rigor had set in and mom and dad were saying that mom went to work about four that afternoon, the dad stayed home, checked on the kid at 11:30, she was fine, then when mom came home from work at midnight, she found her non-responsive and brought her to the hospital.  We went to the residence.   It’s a third floor apartment, pretty warm inside, despite the time.  The place was a mess. TV was running an Xbox game, beer bottles strewn around.  And the baby’s room was the worst.  Dirty diapers wadded up on the floor, clothes on the floor… just gross. No sheets on the crib but there was a little flannel blanket on the mattress. Crime lab ran serology on the blanket and confirmed saliva, but that’s to be expected, although I the think corner of the blanket was in the baby’s mouth.   It was still damp when we got there.”

Della leaned forward and put her elbows on the desk.

“Dad’s not working.  He stayed home with the kid and he says he put the baby down about seven with a bottle.  Mom says when she came home, dad was on the couch asleep and she went in the nursery and found the baby unresponsive.”

Della was puzzled.  “Why didn’t they call 911?

Ashram finally joined in.  “Said they just panicked.”

“Well, that’s just stupid.”

“Ya think?”  Franks started to laugh and smacked Ashram in the chest with the back of his hand.  “Let’s hear from you, college boy.”  He waggled his finger at Ashram and continued, “This kid’s brilliant, ‘cept he wasted a college degree and three years of law school to become a cop.  What do ya’ say to that, Dell?”

She chuckled… the socially acceptable three-syllable laugh.  She wished that she had something witty to say.  Her B.A. in English wasn’t exactly the major of geniuses.  It was for the kids who couldn’t figure out what to major in.  “What’s your theory?”

“Well…”  Ashram was hesitant.  Probably afraid that Franks would tease him again.  “I’m thinking that mom took off to work, dad got busy playing video games, drinkin’ beer.  He forgets to feed the baby.  Baby gets cranky, she’s crying, dad gets annoyed and stuffs the corner of the blanket in the baby’s mouth.  Maybe he doesn’t realize she’s dead, he goes back to the couch and passes out.  Mom comes home, finds the baby.  They panic. She doesn’t want him going to jail, they’ll lose his unemployment money.  They spend some time coming up with a story and decide not to call for help, but to drive the baby across town instead ‘cuz it gives them more time to get their stories straight.”

Franks stood up.  “We gotta go.  Here’s the DVDs of the interviews with mom and dad.  We’ve got some other interviews scheduled this morning.  We’ll bring ‘em over as soon as we’re done.”

“Thanks guys.”

Ashram rose and followed Franks.   Della put her head in her hands again and exhaled deeply.  She wondered if her cubey neighbor next door ever got tired of hearing her do that.  It was a bad habit and she made a note to try to quit doing it.

“Hey!  I want to hear all the gory details!”  Glynna poked her head in and smiled.  Della couldn’t help but grin as “G” plopped herself down on Ashram’s chair.

“I’m tired.  Don’t think I can re-hash it right now.”

Glynna puckered up her mouth (she was fond of describing herself as having sultry red lips) and pouted. “At lunch, then?”

“I’ll be lunching in my car today….or should I say I’ll be napping in my car.”

“Jane’s not gonna be happy.  Or the other girls.  Everyone wants to hear about the new homicide and they’ve already started e-mailing about where we’re going to lunch today.  Haven’t you checked your e-mails yet?”

Della and the girls love to go out for lunch together.  They’d all been close friends and had been through a lot together.  Babies, divorces, lost loves, parents dying, children who had almost died, new houses, weddings, divorces and grandbabies… there was nothing that they didn’t talk about.  No subject was taboo and it was Della’s favorite way to pass the time.

“We’re going to The Footman,” Glynna teased her.

“You are a wicked, wicked vixen, little missy.” She shook her finger at G.  ”OK, I’ll go.”


The hostess seated them at an eight-top table.  There were only seven of them today, so Della ended up on the end with nobody sitting across from her.  She always hated being the one left hanging on the end, but figured it was probably best since she had been so distracted today.

“Did you guys hear about that rape out in South Towne City?”  Claire asked.

“I’ll have the veal cutlet with the white sauce, not the cheesy sauce.  And I’ll have the dinner salad with French dressing.  On the side. And no carrots.  I don’t like the carrots.”  Jane smiled at the waitress.

“Don’t forget to tell her to make sure that all your fries are facing north,” one of the girls teased and they all started laughing.  They knew each other’s habits well after years of eating lunch together and it wasn’t unusual to see them reaching across the table to take food off each other’s plates without asking.

“They said the guy was wearing a ski mask and he tore her up pretty good,” Claire continued.

Janica popped in with, “Yeah, I screened that case.  It’s going to be assigned to Bill Scott.  It took them a month to find the guy and then it was only because he started bragging to somebody about raping some girl up Dairy Creek Canyon.  The girl couldn’t ID him or even give a description because he had her down on her knees almost the whole time.  He shoved her head down on him so hard that it cracked one of her cervical vertebrae.  The only detail she could give the cops was that his penis bent to one side. They got a blood sample and the DNA’s supposed to be back any day.”

“Maybe they could just do a penis lineup!”  It was Tonya joining in this time and they all laughed so loud that the other tables turned to look at them.  A couple of old ladies asked to be moved to the other side of the restaurant when the waitress came to serve Della and the other ladies.  Everybody dove in while Della just kind of pushed her food around; quite the opposite of how their routine usually worked.

Sara was next to Della.  She nudged her and asked if she was OK.

“Yeah, I’m just preoccupied.”

The girls continued their banter and their eating while Della’s mind kept thinking of Bea.  She poked at her chicken pot pie and thought about how the crust looked similar to the color of the inside of Bea’s scalp in the autopsy photos.  She thought about Baby Bea and wondered what she would’ve been like when she grew up.  What kind of dreams were snuffed out by her killer?  Some people just shouldn’t have kids.  She’d always wanted a girl.  They were more fun to shop for than boys and when they grow up, they stay closer to their moms than boys do.  CJ would distance himself more and more as the years passed.  It was inevitable.  People expect moms and their sons to become distant.  Only the mother/daughter, father/daughter and father/son relationships are celebrated in this day and age.  If a mother and son are close, the boy gets teased for being a mama’s boy and everyone looks at the mom like an overbearing freak.  Della let herself imagine that maybe someday she’d have a granddaughter.  As her mind wandered further from the group, she saw CJ handing her his daughter to hold and as she reached out and cradled the baby’s head with her hand, she worried that she would not be gentle enough with the baby.  It had been a long time since she’d held one and she didn’t want to bruise the back of the baby’s delicate little head with her tense fingertips, so she slipped a blanket between the head and her hand.  She imagined how horrified CJ and his wife would be if there were a semi-circle of marks on the baby’s head from her fingertips.  Oh, my God!  She’d seen that image somewhere before!  The pictures of the inside of Baby Bea’s scalp had the same semi-circle of bruises she was imagining, mirrored.  That bastard had held  Baby Bea’s head down with his fingertips until she suffocated. 

The adrenaline started to course through her system and her mind returned to the group.  They were talking about a penis lineup again and Janica was mimicking her husband, “Don’t call it a penis!  It’s a dick!”

A younger couple two tables away actually laughed and Della turned her chair towards the other girls to reconnect with the conversation.

“You guys ready to go?”

“Yeah, let’s pay and go,” someone piped in.  “I’ve gotta get back to my desk.  My attorneys have afternoon prelims and I’d better be there to see them off.”

Della got in the car for the ride back to the office and she couldn’t wait to talk to Steve about the bruising.  Her mind wandered as she stared out the window of the passenger seat.  This time she saw CJ handing her Baby Bea and when she took her in her arms, it seemed natural and she wished with all her might that she’d have a granddaughter someday.


Sabrina E. Ogden said...

Great story today, Ellie, although, I've never seen so many attorneys in an office that early in the morning.

I love the lunch scene... and Della's desire to have a granddaughter hits close to my heart.

The dialogue is fantastic, and the cases that you write about ring true.

Jacqueline said...

I am so excited!! I love reading a story and totally being able to relate to the characters in the book. Ellie you have a phenomenal way of making people feel a part of your character’s lives. I can‘t wait to find out if Della is correct about dad suffocating Baby Bea… and love Janica!! “Don’t’ call it a penis! It’s a dick!!” ROFLOL!! All I can keep saying is keep them coming and the longer the better! No pun intended… lol!