On Frailties Honor

Qualified Entry: Fiction Category

By: Gary Clifton

Peter Russo, born of an old line, proper Boston-Italian family, became, like his father and his father before him, a Boston cop. Pete, a serious man, took the police business to heart and by the time he retired after 26 years, had been a high visibility, successful homicide detective. Early on, he’d had managed a year and a half of night classes at Boston University, a rather mediocre showing. But at BU, he met Barbara Hogan, whose family claimed ancient Irish roots in County Clare.

They were married a year after sharing a work study project, subject matter long forgotten. The devout Catholic couple was childless for many years and had about given up on every bearing fruit of their union. Then, in what Barbara called luck of the Irish multiplied by a miracle, she was pregnant. The daughter, born Megan Rose Russo, would hereinafter be known as “Meg.” Always an beautiful, adventurous, outgoing child, her parents quietly called her “a handful”.  In reality, Meg was on a one way journey, paddling her way well into trouble waters.

Pete’s world would change forever, when he received a call from an old Marine buddy advising him to send a resume to Allied-United Engineering. Pete halfheartedly followed the advice and in sixty days he was named the Vice President for Physical Security for the huge plant sprawling along the Trinity River a few miles South of downtown Dallas.

Meg was seventeen, twice expelled from school, with three juvenile arrests for narcotics and public brawling when she moved with her parents to the elegant home in north Dallas. Within four months, she dropped a nuclear bomb on her parents. She was pregnant. Hostile interrogation by mom and dad disclosed only that Meg had no idea who the father was – or so she said. And Meg was just becoming a player in the vibrant underside of Dallas pop culture.

The baby was born on a hot August night. Frightened by the pain and delivery room nonchalance, Meg threw a screaming, bellowing fit, requiring the obstetrical staff to sedate her. Despite the turmoil, little Caitlyn was born healthy and normal.

So Meg, who’d rather be nightclubbing, or snorting a line, or grabbing a quickie in the back seat of a stranger’s car, was sentenced to motherhood. She and Caitlyn lived in the Russo family home and to the surprise of her parents, Meg seemed to adapt rather well to the rigors of handling a newborn. By Caitlyn’s second birthday, Meg was waitressing at Doc’s, an upscale nightclub in Deep Ellum.

Deep Ellum, a series of renovated storefront beer-joints strung along Elm Street just east of downtown Dallas, was a hotbed of social activity. The bars were jammed nightly. The trendy enclave was the watering hole of plenty of folks who not only drank alcohol by the bucket, but also ingested large quantities of every illegal substance known to mankind.

The beginning of the end came when Meg found a small apartment in East Dallas just after her twentieth birthday. Daddy Pete cosigned the lease, paid the security deposit and the first months rent. He wasn’t sure whether he was losing a daughter to adulthood, or distancing himself from a very troubled sibling. A part time boyfriend – more often, boyfriends – shared time there with Meg.

Grandma Patricia served as surrogate mother more than half the time. Caitlyn had grown into an adorable, bubbly child. It was said she never met a stranger . Meg grew more like – well more like Meg. She was irascible, moody, and painfully hateful to her parents. Pete and Patricia worried between themselves of Meg and her situation. But she seemed to love the child more than anything.

II

The Cowboys and Redskins were filling Pete’s 65 inch plasma on a warm Autumn Sunday when Patricia dropped the first small indication of irregularity. Meg had not left Caitlyn with them in nearly three weeks. Pete shut down the T.V. and they hurried to east Dallas.

Caitlyn’s Mustang was parked in front, but she didn’t answer the door. Patricia leaned on the trunk of the Mustang – any support for the traumatized was welcome – and dialed Meg’s cellular. No answer. Patricia spoke to Pete about how the odor of rot was rampant in the neighborhood. He nodded. Somebody had dumped a dead animal in a nearby sewer, his cop’s mind told him.

They dropped by Doc’s. Meg had missed her last two shifts. Parental hearts began building tension at warp speed. Patricia taped a note on Meg’s door and left repeated voice mails “For God’s sake, call.” And call she did…after two more days of Pete and Patricia enduring deaths by the dozen.

Caitlyn had been taken by a baby sitter two weeks ago.  Her name was Maria, a Hispanic lady from the neighborhood. Meg did not have her address or telephone number. When the parents rushed to Meg, they was stricken when a greasy, tattooed, punk answered the door. When Meg dragged herself out of the bathroom, her three day drunken bender was as evident as a Santa costume. And, Lord help her parents, she had a tattoo of her own: the words Live and Let Die were emblazoned on her left forearm.

Pete dialed 911 and a marked squad car rolled up in minutes. The officer, trained not to overreact, had taken a hundred reports of missing kids, or moms, or brothers in the high crime area. He made the standard cop pledge to “have investigators look into it” and routinely sent his report up through channels.

When Crime Against Persons investigators called on Meg two days later, she was stoned. Detectives’ reports noted the presence of at least three “males appearing under the influence of some form of substance with multiple tattoos and hostile attitudes”. Meg described the sitter in great detail, adding she thought the woman was from Laredo “or someplace like that”. Officers heard her say the woman had watched Caitlyn off and on for two months and then contradicted herself when reminded she had only lived in the apartment five weeks. At first she said the Hispanic lady had babysat the child once or twice a week, then decided it was more often. Cops hear a lot of stories and this one didn’t quite square.

Detectives put out an all points bulletin, spent several days canvassing the neighborhood, and sent inquires to police in Laredo. Two detectives flew to Laredo and spent two days searching for the sitter – a tough assignment when they weren’t sure of the name of the person they were seeking.

III

Kobock had been an ATF agent nearly sixteen years. Reared on a dirt farm in Kansas, he caught on with the Missouri State Football program and to his own surprise, graduated. A rough an tumble character on his worst days, he’d been a thorn to management and the target of several IAD investigations. His wife had been murdered three years earlier by KKK thugs who meant to kill him. In the aftermath, he had shot and killed four Klansmen. Perhaps not management material, he remained a handy man to have around in a scrape.

Kobock had developed a mindset that all assignments came in the middle of the night -on a weekend. Detective Red Harper, Dallas Police Homicide broke the mold that warm Fall morning when he actually called McCoy on Tuesday at 7:19 A.M. as he sat plugging away at a report on his desk computer.  “Car firebombing in far south Dallas. Lieutenant says to call ATF down here,” he growled into the telephone.

“How many dead?”

“Nobody, for a change, but the firebomb fizzled and only slightly damaged the engine compartment. The trunk area of this Mustang smells like a well rotted corpse.”

“Animal, maybe?” Kobock leaned back in his chair.

“Kobock, just come have a whiff…and bring that luscious partner of yours. I know she wants to hit on me one day soon. Maybe today.”

Kobock jotted down the address and turned to Special Agent Caroline Ortega at the next desk. Kobock had been Ortega’s training officer when she’d finished the Academy three years earlier and they’d remained partners. She was far too pretty to be a cop and to the dismay of every cop she encountered, a very chaste, moral young lady – but she was street smart times ten.

They found the Mustang, a pistol shot distant from the Trinity River surrounded by the usual glut of emergency vehicles and uniformed cops and firefighters. Harper, big, husky, 45, and recognizable from one hundred paces by the red rim of hair circling a lot of bald head above. He was, as always, armed with an ugly, foot-long cigar clamped in a corner of his mouth. Ortega had speculated the cigars were an alien life form.

Harper stepped away from the others. “Fire Department got the call at 3:15 A.M. This is a screwy deal. Mustang hadda been driven here with a second car to haul off the fire-bomber…too isolated to walk away,” he gestured across the weed and junk covered field.  “Fire Department was notified by security guards at Allied-United,” he pointed to the huge plant looming in the near distance.

The Mustang had been firebombed from the front, the glass bottle tossed against the front windshield. Shards of glass littered the hood and ground around the front of the car. A common error by fire-bombers, the device had not penetrated the windshield and damage was limited to the outside of the car.

“Car is registered to Peter Russo,” Harper thumbed his notes. “Fancy address…out in north Dallas. No report of stolen,” he rolled his cigar. Harper assumed the fire was an insurance job. “But smell the trunk of this thing. Firefighters popped it open to make sure they had the fire knocked down.”

Kobock, like Harper was over-schooled in the smell of decaying human flesh. “Still maybe a dog,” Kobock studied the interior.

Harper called crime scene search officers and evidence techs to the scene. One of the search officers brought his cadaver dog, a friendly black female Labrador with a widely known reputation for discerning human death from any other smell of decaying tissue. She instantly “hit” on the trunk, standing on her back legs and doing her best in dog-talk to tell her handler they’d struck pay dirt.

Evidence techs pulled the carpet from the trunk and called for a wrecker to impound the car for further analysis. After several hours of searching the area, they found nothing of evidentiary value, except tire tracks in the soft, sandy dirt.  “Pickup truck tracks, Harper,” a  bespectacled evidence tech said. “Probably Goodrich tires on twenty inch wheels. We’ll take casts and run them through the data bases,” he knelt to photograph the impressions.

A young uniformed officer handed Harper a computer printout. “Patrol unit went by the address shown on the Mustang title. Nobody home,” the officer said. “But neighbors say Russo is a big wig at Allied-United,” he pointed to the cluster of buildings in the near distance.

While Harper stayed to supervise the evidence gathering, Kobock and Ortega visited Allied United. Kobock thought it strange Russo made them wait on a bench outside his office for over thirty minutes. When he did allow them into his nicely furnished office, Kobock, always the cynic, wasn’t surprised Russo was hostile. He immediately attempted to put then on the defensive by describing his successful police background. But Kobock had known lots of cops and was neither impressed nor intimidated.

“Yeah, I bought my daughter a Mustang when we first moved to Dallas a year and a half ago. She has her own place now…car must have been stolen.”

Kobock, again was not surprised when he detected a hint of evasion in Russo’s demeanor. “Stolen…when?” Kobock replied. “No theft report filed with DPD.”

They had not specified when the Mustang had been burned. “If it was stolen last night, she may not have missed it yet…uh, that is if it was just last night,” he instantly realized he just hinted the time of the firebombing – a odd bit of knowledge for a man who was not involved.

As Kobock and Ortega arrived back at the crime scene, Harper had received via telephone, details of the disappearance of little Caitlyn, reported by the Russo’s three days earlier. “He sure as hell didn’t say anything about a missing granddaughter a half hour ago,” Ortega gestured back toward Allied-United.

In Kobock’s Dodge, they worked through Dallas traffic to Meg’s east Dallas apartment. Harper, after several minutes of banging on the door, walked down to the manager’s office and by ample badge-waving, bullied the hefty lady out of a master key. In view of the missing baby and burned Mustang, a certain emergency did exist.

Meg sat nude and stoned, wearing only her tattoo, Live and Let Die, in a filthy bedroom, on the edge of a bed also occupied by two tattooed, motionless men.  Harper kicked both in the bottom of a foot to learn each was alive, but incapacitated by drugs and alcohol. The room smelled of sewage.

Meg repeated a drunken version of the missing Caitlyn story she’d given to detectives a few days earlier. All three officers listened with skepticism, particularly at her lack of remorse or concern for her daughter. She denied any knowledge of her Mustang being stolen. When asked about the horrible smell from the trunk, she sullied up, giving only vague answers to very pointed questions. They pulled out their swizzle sticks and extracted DNA samples from all three occupants.. Kobock, Ortega, and Harper left the cluttered apartment, convinced the smell in her car trunk was related to the disappearance of Caitlyn.

As they drove back downtown, Kobock’s cellular rang. It was an angry Peter Russo. He told Kobock he had used his daughter’s Mustang to go fishing a few days earlier and had forgotten to remove several fish he’d caught from the trunk. “You’re a Homicide guy Russo. You gotta know rotten fish, of all tissue, has an entirely different odor than decaying human flesh.” Russo hung up on him.

In a week, all the best efforts of the lab determined: 1) The tire prints taken from the firebombing were common and basically untraceable,  2) No DNA could be extracted from the trunk of Meg’s Mustang., and 3) In the absence of a better description by Meg, no trace of the Hispanic woman who allegedly absconded with Caitlyn was possible.

They considered the possibility of some of the male punks she associated with, but after rounding up and interrogating several – often pretty harshly – zero information resulted. Failure of the lab squints to draw any DNA from the Mustang trunk was catastrophic in cop speak. The Mustang-burner had been accompanied to the firebombing scene by an accomplice. Why chose the proximity to Pete Russo’s place of employment was conjecture.

So, in a curse common to the police, they were confronted with much they knew, but little they could prove. Harper arranged for the original investigation of Caitlyn’s disappearance to be re-assigned to him.  But poor little Caitlyn was gone and in the absence of evidence of a crime, action was stonewalled. With Kobock, Ortega, and Harper united in the belief Caitlyn had taken her last ride in the trunk of Meg’s Mustang, the case went cold in thirty days and all three went on to other investigations. Meg was neck deep in guilty knowledge of Caitlyn’s disappearance, plain and simple – or so it seemed.

IV

Benjamin “Benny” Wagstaff was born in east Dallas and had lived there in his mother’s apartment for his entire life – several apartments actually. They moved 27 times in Benny’s 34 years. Mama always said Benny’s daddy was an old boy who had lived in the same apartment complex years back. Mama was A hooker who was never too particular where she conducted business. That meant Benny had been exposed for years to mama plying her trade with one john or another, often on the living room sofa while Benny was supposed to sleeping in the next room – but sometimes he watched.

Benny grew into a big, soft, timid lout who spent much of his working life – that would be since about age 12 – mowing lawns, cleaning up trash, and doing odd jobs. As twisted as he could have been, according to the normal rules of psychology, Benny was a surprisingly hard working, good natured dude who appeared to have no hang-ups beyond being dumb as dirt.

He was, however, regarded as a little goofy. Brooks Griffin, also a product of a dysfunctional family was Benny’s only friend. But Brooks was goofy, too. At 45, he was single, and survived on food stamps and County assistance. Brooksie had a part time gig at a cafe on Gaston Avenue where he was smart enough to flip burgers, but incapable of counting change at the register.

In winter months, Benny was a fixture around east Dallas, a large garbage bag over his shoulder while he harvested metal cans. Some days, he ranged as far east as city owned White Rock Lake, a hundred acre oasis in the middle of city congestion. Folks picnicked in the numerous parks around the lake, or fished in a city owned waterway stocked with bass, or jammed the jogging track encircling the lake.

Five months had drifted by since the Mustang firebombing. Although the situation had not yet ignited the news media, anyone on the edge of Caitlyn’s disappearance figured Meg was good for it.

One chilly day, Benny was snagging cans with a gadget he’d made – a nail on the end of a stick. Poking into a brushy marsh at water’s edge, Benny came up with a human skull – a very small one. Benny left the remnant where he’d found it. He had no driver’s license, but he could and often did, borrow mama’s car. But this day he was on foot and walked the entire two miles back to mama’s. When he told her, they cranked her old Buick and revisited the scene. Mama convinced the skull was real, called the cops. After all, there might be a reward.

Harper, banging away on an old Smith Corona, overheard the duty sergeant tell the lieutenant of the found skull – a small one. Harper ran down Kobock and Ortega and proceeded to White Rock Lake. A full crime scene work-up exploded into life. Kobock, Ortega, Harper, the evidence squints – all  exchanged the anxious, knowing cop- glances that outsiders never see. Lab rats had their day of vital importance. News media ghouls gathered.

Predators, weather, natural decay, had combined to basically consume the small cadaver. Aside from the skull, only a few bones were recovered. Evidence techs gingerly removed a fibrous section of what appeared to be cloth from across the mouth of the skull. A single human hair, complete with the follicle was trapped inside the material which was found to be duct tape. The techs then struck – if not gold – certainly a nugget. DNA from the skull not only proved a familial relationship to Meg, but the single hair was Meg’s. The body was Caitlyn’s and Meg had some explaining to do.

When requested, Meg showed up at Homicide accompanied by an attorney and Peter Russo. The attorney advised her to answer no question, but Pete took up the slack. He repeated the dead fish in the trunk story. Meg’s apartment had been broken into – twice – in the week before Caitlyn went missing. Suddenly he recalled he’d actually seen the mysterious Hispanic woman who had sent detectives on a fruitless chase to Laredo. And finally he tossed in the notion that if Meg had contact with Caitlyn regularly, a single hair would not be unusual clinging to the child, well before the perpetrator bound up her mouth. Hell, he added, any Homicide cop should have enough sense to know that.

Kobock, Ortega, and Harper agreed after Russo, lawyer and daughter had cleared the office that Russo’s efforts were strictly defensive. Not one time had he made any comment to the effect of  “when you find the real killer”, or “how can I help.”

“It sure as hell looks like Meg killed the baby and Pete is now coming with his ‘A’ game to run interference,” Kobock observed.
So they bundled  up all info/evidence they had for the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office. They wrangled extra bodies from both ATF and Homicide and watched Meg for ten days. They learned she waitressed a few shifts at Doc’s, partied until breakfast almost nightly, and was often accompanied by two or three men when she did find her apartment at dawn. Odd behavior for a grieving mother, but limited proof of murder.

Kobock, Ortega, and Harper met with Assistant District Attorney Marcus Hessel, a hard nosed, studious prosecutor with a reputation of convicting murderers. “As I see the evidence, folks, we should indict Megan Russo for capital murder ASAP,” Hessel announced solemnly. “Lab techs and the cadaver dog can put the smell of dead human flesh in the Mustang car trunk, We can show the Mustang was undoubtedly burned to try to cover the smell, Megan’s hair was inside the cloth or tape over her mouth”

“What we can’t show is cause of death or that Meg killed her,” Kobock shuffled papers on Hessels’s desk. “Capital murder charges on a purely circumstantial case is a huge burden. Give her the needle, then find out she didn’t murder the kid…bad news.”

“Jury will convict her,” Hessel said. “We’ve convicted them on less. And let’s face it. She’ll opt for a plea to second degree murder and we’ll never go to trial.”

The following week, Meg was indicted for capital murder, charging premeditation – she murdered Caitlyn and carried the body in the trunk of her Mustang while she partied. She immediately refused to cop a plea.

V

The trial got underway six months later in the Crowley Courts Building on Industrial Boulevard. The news media picked up the story and for two weeks, reporters sentenced Meg to the needle – punishment by death. The proceedings had the tension of a lynch mob. Spectators would have strung up Meg from the flagpole of the courthouse. She’d gone two weeks without reporting the child missing, she gotten a tattoo while living the night high life, lab techs swore the trunk smell was a dead human, Benny Wagstaff told of his terror at finding the pitiful remains…Meg was in a bind.

Both Patricia and Peter took the stand and offered weak versions of why Meg was innocent, but their twin testimonies were not a perfect match. Peter, the tough ex-cop came off surly and resentful – Patricia sort of silly. Meg was convicted by the jury after two hours deliberation. Punishment by the jury was death by lethal injection. Megan was remanded to the Sterrett Center to await transfer to Texas Death Row in Huntsville.

Kobock, still skeptical of a death penalty on purely circumstantial evidence, including the assumption that Meg’s behavior equated to murder. He spent the next week ghosting Benny Wagstaff. He watched Benny mow lawns, rake leaves, and on weekends, work the park rows for aluminum cans. Benny never ventured as far from mama’s apartment as White Rock Lake. Then, after dark on a chilly Tuesday, Benny broke the mold. He walked east on Gaston Avenue where he met another man. Kobock studied the two talking on the sidewalk. The second person was Brooks Griffin, fry cook.

Benny and Brooks walked into one of the crowded residential neighborhoods that flank Gaston Avenue. Through binoculars, Kobock quickly realized they were peeping toms, certainly not the world’s most heinous offense, but none the less, against the law. After an hour of watching the watchers, he drove to the Dallas County Sheriff’s office and spent another hour milking the computer.

Brooks had been arrested four times for criminal trespassing, the catchall statute used against voyeurs – the civilized term for peeping tom. Benny had been picked up on suspicion of the same charge once, but the case was dismissed.

Records showed Brooks’ address two blocks from Benny. Kobock banged on his door at 12:20 A.M. Benny opened the door fearfully. Not many strangers should be admitted in the neighborhood at that hour.

“Saw you peeking in windows tonight, Brooks. You have just enough misdemeanor free passes that we can now charge you with a felony. About five years in the Texas Department of Corrections ought give you plenty of time to be some alpha con’s wife.”

Brooks melted like ice cream on a Dallas August sidewalk. He blubbered he been a peeper for many years, but insisted he’d never caused any harm. “Some of them ol’ gals want somebody to see ‘um nekked,” he contended tearfully.

“How often do you see Benny?” Kobock felt like a stern junior high principal.

“Uh, maybe two, three time a week. His mama don’t like me,” his reply was childlike.

“How often does Benny go all the way to White Rock Lake on foot, Brooks.”

“Donno nothin’ ’bout that.” Intuition told Kobock’s cop-mind to throw another punch.

Kobock pulled his handcuffs from his rear waist. “Brooks, don’t lie to me. You know that’s very bad.  Now what did Benny say about finding the skull?”

Brooks then tossed a bolt of lightning. “He said he seen it once before…but didn’t tell nobody.”

“He saw the skull by White Rock Lake before his mama called the police? How long before?”

“Dunno, mister. Maybe two months. It was still warm weather. He was plenty scart.”

“Brooks, I’m gonna put you on honor parole. You can’t tell a soul. Can’t tell anybody I was here or that we talked about Benny. Understand?”

“Yowsir,” Brooks nodded vigorously, eyes glazed in fear.

Kobock, mindful of the many times Harper had called him out of bed, smiled as Harper groggily answered. “Get dressed and meet me at Gaston and Fitzhugh, behind the pawn shop. I think we have a problem with the Megan Russo case.” He hung up and called Ortega with the same message.

Harper and Ortega rolled up within minutes of each other. Kobock repeated his conversation with Brooks. It was past 1:00 A.M. when mama opened her apartment door. They allowed Benny to slip on some clothes and interviewed him in Kobock’s Dodge.

“Benny, we’re federal agents. We know where you are and what you are doing at all times.  We’ve allowed you time to tell the whole truth about the skull at White Rock Lake. Now is the time to add what you forgot to tell us.” Kobock said.

“Oh hell,” Benny broke into tears. “Ain’t did shit…er nothin’…sorry miss. God you’re beautuful. You live around here?” Benny was apparently trolling for a peeping tom score.

Ortega saw the opening. Benny was flummoxed in the presence of a young woman. “We know that wasn’t your first time to see the skull,” her maternal tone was intended to shame him for not coming clean. But Benny, no intellectual giant, bought an entirely different meaning.

“You already knew ’bout little Caitlyn? God why didn’t you tell me before now?”

“We know about little Caitlyn,” Kobock said, wondering if such a lie counted against him in Hell. “We waited for you to do the right thing.”

“She was playing on the patio…so cute and adorable. She let me pick her up. I kissed her some, then she started to cry. I woulda never hurt her…such a frail little thing. I put some tape on her mouth…just to keep her quiet ’til I could get her back home. So soft. Mama allays told me little girls was dirty.” He dissolved into sobs. “But I knew right off, I loved her.”

“You took her to White Rock Lake. How’d you get her there? Carry her in your arms?” Ortega said gently.

“Mama’s car. She had a customer in the apartment.” He was nearly incoherent.

“You buried her…but when you went back, water pressure had pushed her out of the ground?” Ortega stayed on point.

They left Benny, now hysterical, in the Dodge while they conferred beside the car. “So much for human death odor compared to something else…like maybe fish for God’s sake,” Kobock said. “We need to hire some new noses. The stink in Meg’s car was not Caitlyn.”

“We need to carry him to the Sterrett Center and have them get Megan Russo into a single cell, pronto.”

They sat with Benny around an interview table in the Sterrett Center, the formal name of the Main Dallas County jail. Ortega read him his Miranda Rights which he said he understood. In a crude, childish scrawl, he then wrote the details of Caitlyn’s abduction and murder. Tearfully, he spoke in the fondest of terms, apologetic, regretful. Caitlyn’s death, clearly abetted by Megan’s negligence, was definitely the work of Benny Wagstaff. He had murdered the child in ignorance by a crime at the fringe of reality.

Just at the instant all three felt an uplift, the roof caved in. A uniformed deputy burst into the room, breathing heavily, extremely agitated. “Megan Russo…went to move her to a single cell…found her dead in her cell. Hanged herself with torn mattress strips.” The deputy tossed a suicide note on the table.

Written in a neat hand, the note was brief: “My God, I’m a slut. I should never have let Caitlyn out of my sight in that neighborhood. But I did not kill her.”

Although he had not seen the note, nor heard it’s unthinkable message, Benny resumed sobbing. Kobock, Harper, and Ortega sat stunned. “Well,” Kobock said at last. “The news media scored a kill after all…and we damned sure helped.”

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