by Terry John Malik
Chicago – New Year’s Eve
Yellow crime scene tape whipped and crackled in the raw winter wind. A sudden gust snapped free a length and sent it sailing like the lost tail of a child’s kite. I watched it disappear into pewter clouds that hovered over the city, threatening the last day of 2021 with the first heavy snow of winter. I blew warm moist air into my cupped hands and stomped my freezing feet. Neither did any good.
“So, what do you want from me, Noah? Here I am, freezing my ass off and staring into a damn hole in the ground.”
An overnight dusting of snow covered mounds of dirt removed from a makeshift grave where Maureen Murphy’s remains had been discovered. The Murphy girl had been missing for twelve years, a long-forgotten runaway. That changed when a contractor unearthed human bones while excavating frozen ground to lay cable in the backyard of a Chicago bungalow where the Murphy family once lived. A fractured skull revealed the truth. She’d been murdered.
My partner, Detective Noah Jackson, had dragged me out to the Gatewood neighborhood hoping that my head would fill with visions—visions of the moment the Murphy girl was killed. Nine years earlier I experienced the so-called visions for the first time. It was a cold day then too when I entered the crime scene at the Delta Phi Sigma sorority house at Rush Nursing School. Four student nurses had been raped and murdered. As I set foot in the sorority house’s third-floor room, scenes of the entire horrific night flashed before me like glimpses of a grainy movie—only the bright red of fresh blood stood out from the black and white images. I became an unwilling witness to their murders.
“You don’t see anything, Andy?”
“No! Now can we get the hell out of here?”
I didn’t wait for an answer. The temperature was dropping. Wind-blown ice crystals stung my face. I turned up the collar of my coat, thrust my hands deep into its pockets, and headed back toward the squad car.
“Wait, Andy! Will ya’ at least look at the photos . . .” Noah was a somber looking black man with a smooth, shaved head and a well-trimmed pencil-thin mustache. Standing four inches taller than six feet, he carried a generous girth and the innocence of inexperience.
“Photos? You have photos? Dammit Noah, you could have shown me those back at the station house. You know, the warm ‘cozy’ station house—hot coffee, day-old donuts.”
“Do you really think I want to handle a twelve-year-old case, Andy?”
I took a deep breath and exhaled a cloud of exasperation.
“Fine,” nodding toward the garage’s side door, “if you want me to look at your photos, can we at least get out of this weather?”
Twice I put my shoulder to the frozen-shut door. Twice it resisted. I stood back, gritted my teeth, and glared at the door like it was my obstinate mother-in-law who had refused to budge from our guest room last summer. This wouldn’t have been a problem twenty years ago when, as a teenager, I spent my mornings in the gym, adding bulk to my slender six-foot frame. I had a full head of ash-blonde hair then and a complexion that boasted my summers as a lifeguard at Oak Street beach. Now? Well, now this pale-faced cop with premature thinning gray hair forces himself to twice-a-week workouts trying to shed the inevitable beer gut.
A third time and the door swung open. A flash of unnaturally bright light filled the garage and, just as suddenly, images of the Murphy girl swirled before me like a brittle leaf caught in a brisk autumn wind. My breath came fast, my mind raced, and pins and needles ran up my spine as the scene of desperation took form.
Light hair . . . a fair complexion . . . pale gray eyes . . . her head on a slab of cracked concrete . . . the blood streams down the side of her face and mixes with tears . . .
“Here. It happened here, Noah. This is a warehouse of whispered secrets. One of them killed her.”
He’s yelling . . . demanding that she remain silent . . . she screams, “I won’t!”
I nodded toward the door. “Maureen was in the front yard where her mother had been planting the first flowers of spring. She overheard them argue. After her sobbing mother retreated to the house, he grabbed Maureen by the arm and marched her back here. His face is a blur to me. Just a blur.”
He hits her with a clinched fist . . . she falls back against the front fender of the family pick-up . . . she catches herself . . . a gush of tears . . . the tears are from . . .
“From what?” I asked aloud. A whisper from the rafters: Betrayal.
He grabs a jar full of a mishmash of rusty nails from the garage’s work bench . . . holds it just above her head . . . she screams . . .“You don’t scare me.”
I took several deep breaths. I couldn’t feel the cold. Rivulets of sweat streamed down my brow. I tugged off my parka and suit jacket and tossed them on the floor.
“Andy, what do you see? For Chrissake, what do you see?”
Fear is controlling him . . . losing all sense of time and place, he slams the jar against the side of her head . . . she reaches for the pick-up’s door handle . . . she crumples to the ground.
I felt lightheaded. Weak at the knees. I steadied myself and closed my eyes.
“Dammit Andy! Will you please tell me what’s happening!”
He drops the jar . . . nails and shards of glass skid across the floor like roaches scattering from a bright light.
“He didn’t mean to kill her but realized too late that he had no choice.”
The images fade. Whispered words seep from the rafters: The secret is safe. Another is born.
I found myself tucked away in a corner of the garage sitting against a rickety homemade workbench, grasping my legs drawn up in front of me and my head firmly planted on my knees. I rose and stumbled gathering my suit jacket and parka.
“What . . . what did your visions tell you?”
With a building ripple of rage, I shot back, “Locate her father. Find the son of a bitch, Noah.”
* * *
I got home before the snow started in earnest. I helped myself to a tall bourbon, hoping it would wash away the day—wash away lingering images from the Murphy garage. After pouring a second glass, I showered and hurriedly dressed for the damn New Year’s Eve Party at the Drake Hotel hosted every year by my wife’s law firm.
“Beth, black tie, really?”
Looking at my reflection in her dressing table mirror, she replied, “But you make such a cute penguin!”
A gush of tears—the tears are from betrayal.
I took another long pull of the bourbon.
“You need help with your bow tie?”
“Your bow tie, silly. You want me to tie it for you?”
“Oh, that. Only if you’re willing to strangle me with it.” I rattled the ice cubes in my half-finished drink. “Come to think of it, that might be the kind of excuse for my absence that might satisfy your partners, you know: ‘Andy? Oh, he won’t be coming this year. He died while getting dressed tonight.’”
If eyes could smirk, hers did.
“Another bourbon, Andy? Really?”
The reddest of blood streams down the side of the Murphy girl’s face and mixes with tears.
“It’s a bracer for having to talk to your pompous-ass partners. ‘Show me your gun! Show me your gun,’ they always demand.” I grabbed my crotch like a rock star and said, “Beth, I’d love to show ‘em my gun.”
The images of the Murphy girl fight through the booze.
Beth chuckled as she rose from her dressing table. She was as beautiful and sexy as the day I met her at Oak Street beach: tall, silky black hair against a tan face and blue-gray eyes. There’s always an aura of gentleness about her—until she steps into a courtroom.
“Better pour me one too,” she said and then kissed me—a friendly one, not one of passion, but she whispered in my ear, “When we get home.”
* * *
As we entered the Drake’s French Room, a server in a silk black bow tie and waistcoat greeted us with a tray of champagne glasses. The room sparkled in gold and white. As did the champagne. I swept two glasses off his tray, handing one to Beth as she scanned the room. “Oh, Christ,” she muttered, nodding toward a couple of associates surrounded by a bunch of old guys in their cummerbunds and already in their cups. She took a long swallow, handed me her glass, and gave me a peck on the check, saying, “You’re on your own, babe. I’ve got to rescue my associates—those jackasses eat their young!”
I took deep swallows of the champagne and pretended not to recognize anyone as I went looking for food. I turned up my nose at a table full of hors d’oeuvres—none to my liking. I prefer those little hot dogs wrapped in dough—with mustard, not ketchup. I mean for God’s sake this is Chicago. I waved down a waitress with a tray of glasses filled to the brim. The Murphy girl’s vacant eyes bore into me as she hands me a fresh glass of champagne. I blinked and she was gone.
A tap on my shoulder and a deep, gravelly voice: “Mr. Landis?”
I turned and stood toe-to-toe with a man several inches taller than me whose sun-wrinkled face, snow white hair, and serious blue eyes made him an unforgettable figure. Unforgettable to everyone but me.
“You’re Elizabeth’s husband?”
“Yeah, that’s me,” I said, wracking my brain to recall the old guy’s name.
“And, you’re a famous homicide detective?”
“No, sir. Just a cop.”
“Don’t be foolish, young man. Elizabeth would never have married ‘just a cop.’”
Yeah, but she did.
“I’m told you have some sort of psychic ability.”
“I’m sorry, Sir, but I can’t remember—”
“My name?” He let loose a deep laugh and took a long swallow from a tall glass, probably containing some over-priced single malt. Scotch, any scotch, always tasted like turpentine to me. Wouldn’t drink it even if someone else was buying.
“Don’t apologize. I’m quite an unremarkable fellow.”
I could picture his face on CNN, but his name still eluded me. If I was thinking of the right guy, he had advised two presidents, ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor, and had just been appointed Executive Director of UNICEF. All that, and I just couldn’t summon his goddam name from my liquored-up brain.
“Stanton. The name is Stanton. Douglass Fitzsimmons Stanton. So, is it true? Can you actually see the moment of a murder victim’s death? And there’s a whisper of a rumor that you have the gift of precognition.”
I politely sipped the champagne and responded, “Very nice party, Mr. Stanton. Thanks for including spouses.”
My turn at bullshit.
He squinted, wrinkled that tan brow of his, and looked me in the eye. “Mr. Landis take a walk with me. I need to sit, and there’s a cozy spot in the lobby’s lounge where you can keep this old buzzard company.”
We sat in a dimly lit corner, resting in tall-back chairs rich with the fragrance of new leather. We faced each other. A small glass table and an ocean of social standing separated us. He had ordered Armagnac for both of us. Never had it before, probably never will again.
“I beg your pardon.”
“That’s my name. Andy.”
“Very well, Andy. Just now, I imposed on Elizabeth to tell me about your work. You see, curiosity about your reputation got the better of me. She said you’re working a cold case about a girl who went missing some twelve years ago from the Gatewood neighborhood. I hope she didn’t break a confidence.”
She did, dammit.
“I’m not at liberty to talk about it.”
“Was her name Murphy? Maureen Murphy?”
“Did Beth tell you that?”
“No. I knew the girl.”
“She was my goddaughter. Her father, Johnnie Murphy, was the caretaker of my country estate in St. Charles. I raised quarter horses there, and he looked after them as if they were his own. Never having time for marriage and family myself, I looked upon Johnnie as if he were my son.”
My charged silence said more than any mouthful of words I could muster.
“So, when Johnnie asked me to be Maureen’s godfather, I could hardly have declined the honor.”
He took a long sip of his cognac. “You’ve found her remains, haven’t you?”
“By God!” Shaking his head, “After all these years.”
“Can you tell me something about her father, this Johnnie?”
“Why? Is he a suspect?”
“What can you tell me about him?”
“A good, simple family man. Hard worker. Conscientious to a fault.”
“You really don’t expect me to believe that, do you?”
A raised eyebrow. A stiffened back. A long pause. Stanton lifted his snifter to his lips and eyed me over the rim. “You’re a clever detective, aren’t you? I’m sorry. It was a necessary canard.”
“Canard? You mean a lie.”
“Yes, I suppose so. ‘Lie’ sounds so much harsher than ‘canard.’”
An Ivy League word game to satisfy his conscience.
“Even now I still want to protect Johnnie like any father would protect his son. It doesn’t matter any longer though, does it?”
“The truth: Johnnie was a drunk, a mean drunk. Instead of spending his nights at home with his wife and Maureen, he slept in my stables snuggled with a bottle of Jack Daniels.”
“Do you know where I can find him?”
“Roseland Cemetery. Cancer. Seven or eight years ago.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“I surmised that you would eventually discover the familial connection and later think less of me—you know, meeting me tonight, knowing of your investigation, and having said nothing of it.”
“What about Maureen’s mother?”
“Lost track of her. She had a brother in Akron. You might try there.”
Stanton made a conspicuous show of checking his watch. “We should return to the party.” With a mischievous sparkle in his eye, he patted his bulging tuxedo pocket. “I have to hand out the year-end bonus checks to the associates. It’s the only way I get the youngsters to join a bunch of old stiffs on New Year’s Eve.”
He finished off his cognac and rose. I took his cue. He gave me a warm smile and a reassuring nod. “A pleasure to have finally met you.”
He extended his hand for a belated handshake. I grasped it and immediately a tidal surge of black and white images washed over me: Maureen’s mother is on her knees, planting pansies . . . Stanton stands over her, shouting . . . hearing their exchange, Maureen freezes in place . . . Stanton grabs Maureen by the arm . . . drags her back to the garage . . . they argue . . . he holds a jar in his hand . . . she falls . . . a bright red stream of blood runs down the side of her face.
I pulled my hand away as if I had just touched a hot oven. Stanton started to leave, but stopped abruptly, and turned to face me. “Happy New Year, Mr. Landis.”
I returned to the party and plopped myself down on one of the love seats in an out-of-the-way spot. I untied my bow tie, letting it hang loose from under my starched collar, and jerked open the top button on my shirt. A knot in my stomach gradually built. Across the room, I spotted a server and motioned her over.
“Can you get me a real drink?”
“A bourbon. On the rocks. No, wait. Four Roses, straight up.”
She returned promptly with my drink. I must have looked like a pitiful soul—she made it a double. I sat on the edge of the couch hunched over and clutching my drink with both hands. I muttered to myself, “Jesus Christ!”
* * *
“Jesus Christ!” Beth shouted.
I waited until we were in the car to tell her about Stanton.
“My God! You want to bring him in for questioning?”
“I didn’t say that. You just did. I’d just pay him a friendly visit.”
“Andy, are you crazy?”
The afternoon’s ice storm and dropping temperatures were just the prelude to the blizzard-like conditions that stalled over the city. We sat in an uncomfortable silence as we inched along Lake Shore Drive headed to our brownstone in Lincoln Park; the silence broken only by the crunch of tires on packed snow and the thump of wipers. Beth’s mind must have been elsewhere as we approached the Fullerton Avenue ramp—she was in the wrong lane. At the last moment she cut in front of a slow-moving van and fishtailed on a patch of ice.
“Not now, dammit,” she said in a flare of anger. “I’m trying to get us home in one piece.”
An hour later, stripped down to my boxer shorts and a tee shirt, I sat on the edge of my side of our bed. I had already knocked back another bourbon. Beth, wearing only a short, powder blue satin robe, sat at her dressing table, removing her make-up.
“Now can we talk about it?”
Her eyes fixed on her reflection in the mirror, she replied coldly, “Let me understand this. You want to accuse Douglass Fitzsimmons Stanton of murdering his goddaughter?”
“Jeez, Beth. I’m not accusing him of anything. I told you. I just want to talk to him.”
She turned her chair to face me. “Really? Are you fucking kidding me?” Beth often reverted to the vocabulary of her teamster father. I thought it was sexy.
“Do you realize who Stanton is? The man is one of the most respected philanthropists in the country! Look, I’ve worked with him since I started at the firm. Even at seventy-six years old, he’s still one of the strongest political forces in the state. And you, Mr. Ninety-eight-thousand-dollars-a-year cop, consider him a murder suspect? Have you lost your fucking mind?”
Okay, that wasn’t sexy.
“You’re jumping to conclusions, Beth. And I might add, you’re being a bit over-protective of your senior partner. I wasn’t going to bring him in, and I’m not accusing him of murder or anything else.”
That seemed to calm her down a bit, but it didn’t prevent her trial lawyer instincts from kicking in. She rose and stood at the foot of the bed, her hands on her hips. “Isn’t it true that psychic visions are not admissible in court?”
“My visions, Beth! My visions.”
“I know this line of questioning, Counselor.”
“Just answer my questions. In all the years you’ve been on the force, how many times have your visions been triggered by physical contact with a person?”
“Neither one led to an arrest or even an indictment. Isn’t that right?”
“The last one was mishandled by an assistant state’s attorney who—”
“Answer the question.”
“All right. No.”
“And isn’t true that—”
“Hey, Counselor, I’m not a hostile witness.”
“You may not be a hostile witness, but you sound like a damn stupid one! How long has this Murphy girl been missing?”
“Did her parents file a missing person report?”
“According to Noah, her mother filed a report two weeks after Maureen disappeared. Her father told the in-take sergeant that his wife was over-reacting, explaining that Maureen was a rebellious teenager who had left home twice before only to return a few days later.”
“Did her parents try to find her, and did she ever call them?” Beth asked.
“That’s a compound question Counselor, but the answer to both is no.”
Her silk robe’s belt accidentally loosened, partially exposing her breasts. She noticed it but said nothing.
“And during the subsequent twelve years her parents never once pressured the police to have her missing persons case reopened?”
“According to Stanton, the father died seven years ago. He’s lost track of the mother.”
“So, twelve years ago Maureen Murphy disappears. Her parents—well, at least her father—are satisfied that she left home and show little interest in finding her. Do I have that right?”
“You’re repeating yourself.”
“Where are you going with this?”
“You’re missing the big picture, Andy.”
“Dammit Beth, there is no big picture. Just the murder of a young girl!”
With a flourish she closed her robe, grabbed its silk belt, and pulled it tight. Her demeanor turned from flirtatious to flinty.
“And a DNA analysis determined that the bones may be those of the Murphy girl?”
“That’s what the file says.”
“I could tear a DNA expert a new one on sampling alone. Now let’s get back to your visions. You claim those psychic visions revealed that she was killed by her father?”
“I don’t claim anything! It was her father.”
“Did you clearly see the killer’s face?”
“You know it’s always a blur as if whoever controls my visions is teasing me.”
She was winning, she always does.
“Then how do you know her father killed her?”
“The visions call to me and I answer.”
“Oh, a jury will love that explanation!”
“Listen Beth, isn’t it possible that Stanton isher biological father? She could have been the unintended offspring of an affair between Stanton and Maureen’s mother. Maureen found out and refused to play along with the charade.”
“Nonresponsive. Move to strike.”
“Aw, c’mon Beth! This is a helluva way to start the new year.”
“This is your doing, not mine.”
She sat down next to me on the bed and put a comforting hand on my thigh. She had changed tactics.
“Be realistic Andy, Stanton is a prominent public figure. If you start poking around, the press will get wind of it. And then what? He gets angry, uses his influence to retaliate, and ruins your career.”
“And yours, Beth?”
She jerked her hand away.
“Look Beth, I just can’t ignore what I saw.”
“All right, you saw a blurred image of a man murder the Murphy girl and you’re convinced it’s her father. Then you shake hands with Stanton and you leap to the conclusion that Stanton was her father. I told you, I know the man. I’m certain he was close to his goddaughter. Couldn’t it be, Andy, that he carried genuine grief about her disappearance for all these years and the news that her remains had been found forced his grief to the surface? Maybe what you saw was his grief in the only terms you could understand.”
“You mean I saw what I wanted to see when I shook his hand—that it was his grief that I touched, and I saw it through my eyes because I’m a cop and get paid to be suspicious?”
“Something like that.”
“So, what are you suggesting I do?”
Whistling wind from our bedroom’s fireplace drew her attention. She rose, sauntered to the fireplace, and jiggled the handle on the flue. Without looking back, she said flatly, “Nothing.”
She wheeled around and faced me. “Don’t go down that rabbit hole. Don’t ruin the man. Let it go, Andy!”
“Maureen Murphy was just a kid and—”
“It would be different if you had hard evidence, but all you have to go on are your visions. Look, Stanton’s charitable work has bettered the lives of thousands of kids, kids like Maureen. Think about the good he still has left in him. Don’t take that away.”
“I want justice for the Murphy girl.”
“If you pursue your investigation—even if it goes nowhere—word will get out and you’ll have ruined the man. Let it go!”
She moved to her side of the bed, tossed her robe on the floor, and slipped under the covers.
I turned off the light. “I don’t suppose we could—”
“Go to sleep, Andy.”
* * *
But I couldn’t sleep. I saw only Maureen’s dark, vacant eyes. It was five a.m. I threw my robe on, slid into my slippers, and plodded downstairs for my morning jolt of caffeine. City lights sneaked through a crack in the living room drapes rendering the room the gray of predawn hours.
Coffee in hand, I headed to the study, slid into my chair and flicked on my desktop. I Googled “Douglass Stanton.” I came across a month-old New York Times human interest story heralding Stanton’s record of philanthropic work on behalf of children.
I found his official Curriculum Vitae: University of Chicago undergrad. Yale J.D. Multiple Honorary Degrees. Director of this . . . Chairman of that . . . Managing Partner of . . . Trustee for . . .. Assistant Counsel to President George W. Bush and Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations under Obama.
I opened the drapes to the tall windows of the living room, turned a chair around to face the street, and parked my feet on the windowsill. The sky was brightening behind winter clouds. Glistening white drifts of snow against bright orange plastic mesh fences lined the shore of Lake Michigan. Lonely snow crystals tumbled down Fullerton Parkway.
After almost twenty years on the job, I had become street smart like most good cops, but I also trusted Beth’s judgment. I decided to brave the weather and take a walk along the Lake shore to clear my head.
It was less than a half-mile east to Diversey Harbor. I walked deserted snow-covered docks searching for the familiar. I found boat slip “47” where Beth moored her father’s boat during the summer. I paused, and staring at Lake Michigan, I entered a world of my own making:
Pillars of steam rise from the ice. They blend with the gray of low hanging winter clouds. No telling where the ice stops and the horizon begins. A figure emerges in the distance and approaches. Scores of small children follow. His lips move below serious blue eyes, but I can’t make out what he’s saying.
A tap on my shoulder and a gravelly voice: “Mr. Landis? Mr. Landis!”
I shout, “Who are you?” I turn but only a fading echo of my name answers.
His voice again: “You might think less of me . . .”
I pivot back toward the Lake where the children face me.
Beth’s voice bellows from a thick haze, the color of the blue-gray of her eyes. “Do nothing.”
“For God’s sake, let it go! Don’t go down that rabbit hole.”
“But Beth, my job is finding her murderer.”
“Your job is doing the right thing.”
A blast of frigid air bends my back. I lose my balance, fall, and roll off the dock onto a thick sheet of ice. I crawl on the ice like an infant and pull my face even with the dock where Maureen Murphy lies naked—her skin as gray as the sky. She lazily turns her head toward me and says, “He’s racing against his own mortality for one last grand gesture of generosity for children.”
* * *
Chicago – New Year’s Eve (redux)
Yellow crime scene tape whips and crackles in the raw winter wind. A sudden gust snaps free a length and sends it sailing like the lost tail of a child’s kite. I watch it disappear into pewter clouds that hover over city, threatening the last day of 2021 with the first heavy snow of winter.
“So, what do you want from me, Noah? Here I am, freezing my ass off and staring into a damn hole in the ground.”
“You don’t see anything, Andy?”
“No! Now can we get the hell out of here?”
Walking back to the squad car, I spot the side door of the Murphy garage and stop in front of it. I know that the murder of a long forgotten teenage girl waits for me beyond that door—if I choose to open it.
“Don’t go down that rabbit hole. Don’t ruin the man. Let it go, Andy.”
“He’s racing against his own mortality for one last grand gesture of generosity for children.”
“Your job is doing the right thing.”
I look to Noah. “There’s nothing here for me to see. You’re on your own.” I turn and walk away.
© 2022 Terry John Malik All rights reserved.