Just Another Day at Christmas
By Lori N. Kem
Christmas day was usually pretty quiet around the two-seven until at least one in the afternoon. It generally took awhile for people to get up, open the presents, take pictures of the kids, start dinner, throw back a few belts of holiday cheer and start picking fights with the relatives or the guy next door.
For the past few years, Detective Briscoe had pulled eight-hour shifts Christmas Eve and Christmas Day so his colleagues with children and families could be home at least part of those days. Not that he didn't have children -- he had two girls who used to make the holidays worth celebrating. But after the divorce it got harder and harder to see them; Gloria's parents had retired and moved upstate to a farm, with horses, and she started taking the girls up there to spend Christmas vacation. So he'd get a call and they'd tell him all about what they'd gotten and what they'd done and were going to do, and they'd thank him for the stuff he'd sent, and he'd thank them for the sweaters or ties or books or whatever, and they'd plan to have dinner together as soon as they got back to the city. That got harder, too, but at least that hadn't stopped yet.
Even when he was still on the sauce, he checked in for the holiday shift, and being what's called a high-functioning alcoholic, he had held his own. Sitting alone at home all day would be a perfect excuse to start drinking early and keep right on until he woke up somewhere on the other side of Christmas, sick and shaky and sad. Oh, he always had lots of invitations to join friends for dinner and cards and fireplace chats -- the whole family schtick. And sometimes, he'd take someone up on the invite after work and get himself some un-spiked eggnog and a turkey sandwich and play a few hands of poker or whatever the family card game was. And he always made it over to St. Victoria's -- his childhood buddy, Tim Scolari, was the priest there, and the nuns made mincemeat with real meat, and they always made a whole pie just for Lennie. Of course, Tim wouldn't let him have it unless he came to confession and stayed for mass at least once during the holidays. So he went to confession once a year and didn't mind sitting through the service, with the beautiful voices of the choirs and the little kids from the lower west side all scrubbed up in their best duds, their faces shining with innocence and anticipation; and the old women with their lace scarves and rheumy eyes filled with pious love and devotion. He'd been raised a Catholic, though he stopped going to church in any regular fashion when he was about fifteen. He still believed in God, but mostly because he'd seen what had to be the work of the Devil. Anyway, it was worth it for the pie.
Today, he'd had time to finish all his left over paperwork and file the teetering stack of files he'd pulled through the past few weeks. His partner for the last eight months, Mike Logan, was spending the day at his sister's, so he checked Mike's in-basket and pulled out anything he could dispatch for his partner, filed his even taller stack of files, and sat down with yesterday's crossword before the first call came in.
A patrol car had answered a nine-one-one call that a shot had been fired in an apartment building. They arrived to find a male Caucasian, dead; three females, and four children stood by in various states of shock and hysteria. By the time Detective Briscoe and Ann Gale, a Detective (third-grade) he'd snagged to accompany him to the scene, CSU had arrived. The medical examiner's techs estimated the man had been dead about two hours. The call had come in to emergency about an hour before.
Lennie surveyed the scene. The table was set with a mix of plates and saucers and glasses and bowls. There were mashed potatoes and candied yams and that green bean thing with the dried onions on top. In the middle of the table was a huge roast turkey, partially carved. All the plates had food on them, but no one had finished the meal.
The man on the floor had a hole in him approximately the size of said turkey. Behind where he had been sitting, blood and other visceral fluids covered the walls, the artificial tree, the gifts, freshly unwrapped this morning, and the genuine acrylic looks-just-like-real-crystal nativity scene.
Officer Frank Wendell told Lennie that the shooter was probably one Eugene Thorpe, brother-in-law of the deceased. The weapon was obviously a twelve-gauge shot gun. Both man and gun were gone.
"Nobody's really talking yet, but we got back up on the way to cover the neighborhood -- he's evidently on foot, but with about an hour's head start," Wendell went on. Lennie nodded and clapped the officer on the shoulder. AS he turned to leave, Lennie called after him, "Kevlar, Frank -- he's got a twelve-gauge." Frank Wendell nodded and left.
The most cognizant person in the room was, it turned out, the grandma -- Lela Bowden. It was she who'd called emergency. She was the mother to both the other women, Arlene and Arletta, twin sisters who looked nothing alike, except both had stringy long hair the color of that spicy mustard Lennie liked on his dogs at a ball game.. The four kids were divvied up somehow among the two younger women; how, Lennie never quite figured out.
The man on the floor was J.B.Singer -- Arletta's husband. The one with the gun was Eugene Thorpe, husband of Arlene. It seems that J.B. and Gene had been drinking pretty steadily since the kids got them up to see what Santa Claus had brought. Long about dinner time, Gene happened to mention that J.B. and Arletta and the kids oughta be pretty damned grateful to him and Arlene for letting them stay with 'em for "free-gratis" all these months, seein' as how J.B. couldn't seem to keep a job more'n a few weeks at a time, what with his temper an' all. Gene said he was getting tired of tryin' to get the construction boss of every one of his own jobs to hire his brother-in-law, and then making excuses for him when he screwed up.
All this was being told to Lennie by Lela Bowden, who had offered him coffee in the kitchen, away from the noise and "trouble." Ann Gale was trying to get statements from the women in the other room, both of whom were crying and talking at the same time. The four kids were crying, too, and Lennie felt a little guilty leaving her in there alone with all that, but he willingly followed the older woman through the swinging door declining the offer of coffee. He sat with Lela and listened as she recapped the last few hours of Christmas at the Thorpe residence.
"We could see trouble was brewin' so we hurried up and put dinner on the table. We got that twenty-five pound turkey that Arletta won in a drawing down to the store where she works," Lela said, sounding proud that her daughter had happened to pick a winner at least once in her life. "We called the boys to the table and they came, still bickering. J.B. didn't like Eugene throwing it up to him that he had steady work and J.B. never seemed to have much luck in that department."
"Yes, m'am," Lennie said, impatiently but not impolitely, "but Eugene is out there somewhere with that gun and you or your daughters, or all of you, let him get a head start before you called the police. You need to help us find him now. Now, before something else happens, you see?"
She looked at Lennie, unseeing and went on with her story.
"I guess J.B. was just plain p.o.'ed, pardon my French, and he started insultin' the food, and he says 'you wouldn't even have this here eff-ing -- you know that word I mean (Lennie nodded) -- turkey if it weren't for Arlene winnin' it,' like Eugene couldn't have bought it hisself, you know. He could've though. That boy works hard and there's always been plenty of food on the table and the kids dress warm and Arlene only works 'cause she likes being with people..."
Lennie swallowed a curse, "Yes, m'am. Where's Eugene now?"
"Oh, I'm sorry. I guess I sound like I'm takin' up for Gene, but you know, J.B. had his good side, too." She stood and took her coffee cup to the sink and ran water into it. The kitchen smelled great, and here and there were pots and pans and food that would never make it to the dinner table. She turned and leaned against the counter and crossed her thin arms across small, sagging breasts. "Anyway, J.B. keeps it up and Eugene yells, 'if you don't shut up I'm gonna knock your eff-ing head off' -- and J.B. says 'I'd like to see you try,' and Eugene goes into the bedroom and gets his gun and before anybody could do anything Eugene points it at J.B. and pulls the trigger..." she stopped and took a ragged breath.
Detective Briscoe stood up and patted Lela on the shoulder, and she looked up at him as though she just realized he was there. "Any idea where Eugene is now, Mrs. Bowden?"
"He went down the back stairs...there's a sorta side door to the outside down there," She wiped her eyes with a dish towel and looked at Lennie. "He might've headed to the construction site where he's been working...about four blocks east, on West 45th..."
She nodded, a light coming to her pale blue eyes, "Don't hurt him, if you can help it. He's not a bad man."
""Yes, m'am," Lennie said as he went through the swinging door.
Detective Briscoe went back into the living room and interrupted Detective Gale's valiant attempt at getting a straight story from either twin.
"Mr. Thorpe may be at a construction site on West 45th, about four blocks from here; go tell them out front. I'll finish up here."
Detective Gale nodded, excused herself and asked the twins not to go anywhere.
Arlene cried out, "Please don't kill my Eugene! Please! He's not a bad man, honest. He just didn't think."
"He shot my husband, Arlene" Arletta said, almost at a whisper. "My Nate's gotta grow up without a daddy. Shot him in cold blood, and on Christmas!" Her voice was louder and higher toward the end.
Gale patted Arlene's hand as she removed it from the death hold the woman had on her wrist. "We just want to take him in, Mrs. Thorpe. We don't want to hurt him."
By the time they reached the site, uniformed officers has pretty much determined that Thorpe was holed up in a small Quonset hut that housed the back hoe and end loader for the job. Besides the large overhead door for moving the equipment in and out, there was only one other door, to the right of the big one.
Lennie, Ann, and Officer Wendell went approached the hut, weapons in hand. The small side door was cracked open. Lennie stood on the right of the door and Gale on the left. Wendell covered them from behind Lennie. Gale eased the door open a little with her foot. It was pitch dark beyond, but the squeak of the door hinge evoked an answering sound from inside -- shoes scuffing on a gravel floor.
"Eugene?" Lennie called. "Eugene, come on out. Put down the shot gun and come out." They waited.
"Eugene?" he tried again. "This is already the day your kids are gonna remember that dad killed Uncle J.B.. Don't make it the day dad gets into a shoot out with the cops, too. Just put down the gun and come out."
A weak, pitiful voice came from inside the dark room, "I...I didn't mean it. I just got so fuckin' mad. I didn't mean to kill ol' J.B. -- he just wouldn't let it go!"
Gale spoke up, "We know, Gene; you had too much to drink and just lost your head. Now Arlene and the kids don't need to see you get shot trying to hold out in there, or trying to get away. And if you shoot one of us, that's big trouble, Gene, and you can't get us all. Please..." she waited a few seconds, her voice calm but sincere, "for Arlene...and Katie...and Suzanne...and little Josh."
Lennie caught her eye, approval and a little smirk on his face. She shrugged. Yeah, it was hokey, but it probably would work.
They heard the desperate man inside crying, and in a moment the twelve-gauge came skittering out through the opening of the door. Wendell reached down and pulled it to him.
"I'm comin' out; don't shoot me," Eugene Thorpe sniffed and opened the door. He was shorter than Lennie, with long dark hair and watery brown eyes. He was still sobbing, holding his hands over his head and wiping his nose on the sleeve of his upper arm. When he cleared the door jamb, Gale pulled his hands down and cuffed him. She read him his rights as they trudged through the site to the patrol cars on the street. Lennie followed and Wendell brought up the rear, carrying the gun.
They turned Thorpe over to the uniforms to take to central booking, thanked them all for their assistance, and went back to finish the interviews. The wives gave the same accounting of the events as Lennie had gotten from Lela, none of the children seemed to want to interject anything. They stood and stared and sniffed, a couple of them wiping away tears. Both Detectives ached at their pitiful faces and with the knowledge of what today would do to the rest of their lives. The detectives began their departure, explaining to Mrs. Thorpe that her husband wouldn't be arraigned until the next day, as there were no judges working on Christmas.
"Not even the Jew judges?" That was Arletta -- or was it Arlene?
"No, m'am. The court house is closed." Lennie and Ann both had to struggle then to keep from laughing until they got to the blue sedan and headed back to the station house.
"Whew," Lennie blew air out through his lips, and with a small chuckle, shook his head . "Maybe I'm not missing so much not having a big family Christmas."
"Jeez!" Ann Gale rested her head against the back of the seat. "Those poor kids. Every Christmas for the rest of their lives is going be ruined by the memories. Why don't people think? I mean, getting so drunk that you don't know what you're doing? I don't know if that's possible..."
"It is," Lennie said, looking sideways at the young cop next to him. "Believe me, it is. And, it's usually the ones who wait and get loaded on the weekends or holidays who blow up."
"You sound like you know about these things," she said, looking at the veteran cop driving through the uncharacteristically empty streets of New York City.
"Yeah...you could say that." Lennie cleared his throat, changing the subject. "You did real well back there. You got good instincts, good people skills. You planning on staying in homicide?"
"I dunno...do you ever get used to it? The death, I mean?" Ann asked, quietly staring out the window.
"Not if you're lucky. Little kids and old people -- those are the toughest for me. Innocent, helpless," Briscoe was frowning, as if remembering some of those touch times. "But, every time we bust the one who's responsible for those kids and old people, -- that makes it more than worth it."
She was quiet for awhile. Then, she asked Lennie if he had plans for the evening.
"I'm due at St. Victoria's for a mincemeat pie, made by the sisters, with real meat, mind you. All I have to do is sit through the mass and go to confession to get it -- but it's worth it, believe me!" He grinned, and Detective Gale thought he looked about ten years younger when he did. She smiled, too.
"I'm a Methodist," she volunteered. "We eat every chance we get. No one has more carry-ins than the Methodists" they both chuckled. "My family's all back in Ohio. They can't afford to fly out, and the weather is too bad for driving, so..."
"Oh, too bad," Lennie said, and meant it. The holidays alone pretty much stunk.
They arrived back at the two-seven and the place was beginning to smell like cinnamon and other good things to eat. The cops on the second shift had brought in pies, sliced turkey and rolls for sandwiches, a big bowl of punch made of apple cider and cinnamon sticks and orange slices. There was even a fruit cake that everybody made fun of, but which managed to disappear anyway.
Lennie helped himself to a sandwich and some punch; a year ago, he would've slipped in a slug of bourbon from a small flask in his inside jacket pocket, unobserved as usual, having become expert at such subterfuge. But he had recently gotten his one-year cake from AA and he wasn't gonna blow a year of the hardest work he'd ever done for one lousy holiday. He had another hour on his shift, and he crossed his fingers that he wouldn't have to go out on another call. He'd asked Detective Gale to write up the five on the Thorpe case. He hoped to just slide for the rest of the shift and then head to St. Vic's for the mincemeat and the rest of it, and then home for a chance to relax. A call did come through, though.
"Daddy?" Julia's voice reached down from upstate New York and wrapped itself around his heart. "It's us! Merry Christmas!" Katarina was on the extension and chimed in on this last wish.
Lennie laughed and returned the greeting, "How're my girls? Did you get my cards and stuff?"
"Oh, yes, Daddy! Thanks so much -- the sweater is beautiful and it fits perfectly! I never had cashmere before!" Julia was always ebullient and generous in her appreciation. And sincere -- he always felt he knew where he stood with his oldest girl. Kat was another story.
"Yeah, Daddy. Thanks for the tickets," Kat's voice was less effusive, but sounded sincere in thanking him for the tickets to the thoroughbred horse show at The Garden he'd managed to snag for her.
"And, hey, speaking of tickets, where in the world did you two get opening day box seats this late in the year?" The two excellent tickets to the Yankees' opener they'd sent him had floored him completely.
"Well," Kat said, "Julia met this girl at Columbia whose brother works for the Yankees and also happens to be single...and gorgeous..." there was giggling and shushing, and Lennie laughed along with the sweet tinkling sounds coming over the lines.
"Please! Spare your old dad the details! Just," he cleared the lump in his throat, put there more by the sound of their laughter than the gift itself, "well, thanks, girls."
The simultaneous "you're welcome, Daddy" brought another lump and another "ahem" from Lennie. "Don't forget -- Wednesday night, seven, at Prosetti's. Just the three of us, right?"
"Right, Daddy," Julia said. "Can't wait."
"Me either, Sweetheart," he said. "I can't wait either."
There was a small pause, and quick good-byes were said and the moment was gone, but the warmth and bright spot the call had brought to his day remained. Couple this with the fact that he'd called his mom last night at his uncle's in Florida, where he sent her every winter since his dad had died, to hear that she was fine and loved her son, had made his "family Christmas" pretty complete. His sister, Frannie, was a nun and off somewhere in Central America, and he'd gotten a card a few weeks ago, but there was no good way to contact her. So, he'd make do quite well with what he had and finish up the day with friends and music and mincemeat, and tomorrow he'd be one day closer to seeing the girls...he had a small smile on his face the rest of the shift, standing around "B-essing" with the other cops and waiting for five o'clock to roll around.
He looked up at Ann Gale, sitting at Logan's desk, working and eating a piece of fruitcake. Someone that young and smart -- and nice -- shouldn't spend the holiday alone, or working all day, he thought. At five, Lennie was putting on his coat and saying his so-longs and Merry Christmases, and made it a point to go to her to say good-bye.
Ann was a pretty brunette, about thirty, who'd transferred from the Cleveland PD a year ago and hadn't really made many friends since, concentrating all her time on finishing her college degree at NYU and making detective. She looked at her watch as she finished up the paperwork, and sighed -- five o'clock. She was thinking she might as well stay on and work another shift -- let one of the family men or women go back home -- when Lennie came by her desk.
He put a hand on her shoulder, "Quittin' time, Detective." He smiled at her, and she was charmed and smiled back. He was a nice guy, she thought, and the way he'd talked about kids and old people was really touching -- so was the look on his face when she'd sneaked a peek at him while he was talking to his daughters. She could learn a lot from him, too.
"I thought I'd stay on, maybe. I can't think of anything else I'd rather be doing...dammit!" she laughed. "Have a nice evening, Lennie; and thanks for the opportunity for a really, uh, different Christmas. Pretty depressing, but a real lesson. Those kids..."
They both paused a moment to think about the poor little ones who were as much victims of the shooting they'd investigated today as was the man with the hole in his chest.
"Well," Lennie patted her shoulder; "Merry Christmas."
"Merry Christmas," she echoed, standing and smiling at him a little wanly.
He headed for the stairs and at the last minute turned and looked back at her. "Hey, Ann," he called, and she looked up at him from across the room; "you like mincemeat?"
Ann Gale grinned and nodded vigorously. Lennie tipped his head for her to come along and she grabbed her coat and walked quickly across the floor. He stepped back for her to proceed him up the stairs and he started asking her about her family, how she'd ended up in New York from Cleveland, and she was happily answering his questions and laughing, and making him laugh as well.
It was still snowing lightly, and New York still looked friendly and frosty and Christmas-like. Lennie and Ann drove across Manhattan to St. Vic's and made it just in time for the evening mass. As the children's' choir started to sing, they looked at each other briefly, and then back at the bulletins they'd picked up off their seats and joined in with the singing: