Long Bright River



From the opening in the fence, Lafferty and I walk downhill into a little gulch. I’ve entered this way dozens or maybe hundreds of times in my years on the force. It’s part of our patrol, in theory, this overgrown area. We find someone or something every time we go in. When I was partnered with Truman, he was always the one to go in first. He was senior. Today, I go in first, ducking my head uselessly, as if this will somehow keep me drier. But the rain isn’t letting up. The splattering sound it makes on my hat is so loud that I can barely hear myself speak. My shoes slip in the mud.

Like many parts of Kensington, the Lehigh Viaduct—mainly called the Tracks now—is a stretch of land that’s lost its purpose. It was once busy with cargo trains that served an essential purpose in Kensington’s industrial heyday, but now it’s underused and overgrown. Weeds and leaves and branches cover needles and baggies scattered on the ground. Stands of small trees conceal activity. Lately there’s been talk, from the city and Conrail, of paving it over, but it hasn’t happened yet. I’m skeptical: I can’t imagine it being anything other than what it is, a hiding place for people in need of a fix, for the women who work the Ave and their customers. If it gets paved over, new enclaves will sprout up all over the neighborhood. I’ve seen it happen before.

A little rustle to our left: a man emerges from the weeds. He looks spectral and strange. He stands still, his hands down by his sides, small rivulets of water trickling down his face. In fact, it would be impossible to tell if he was crying.

—Sir, I say to him, have you seen anything around here that we should know about?

He says nothing. Stares some more. Licks his lips. He has the faraway, hungry look of someone in need of a fix. His eyes are an unnaturally light blue. Perhaps, I think, he’s meeting a friend here, or a dealer: someone who will help him out. At last he shakes his head, slowly.

—You’re not supposed to be down here, you know, I tell him.

There are certain officers who wouldn’t bother with this formality, deeming it futile. Weed whacking, some say: they sprout right back up, in other words. But I always do.

—Sorry, the man says, but he doesn’t look as if he’s about to leave anytime soon, and I don’t take the time to haggle with him.

We keep walking. Large puddles have formed on either side of us. The dispatcher indicated that the body was a hundred yards straight back from the entrance we used, slightly off to the right. Behind a log, she had said. The RP, she added, had left a newspaper on the log to help us find the body. This is what we’re looking for as we walk farther and farther from the fence.

It’s Lafferty who spots the log first, veers off the path—which isn’t a path, really, just the place on the Tracks where people have tended to walk the most over the years. I follow. I wonder, as always, whether I’ll know the woman: whether she’ll be someone I recognize from picking her up, or from driving past her, over and over, on the street. And then, before I can stop it, the familiar chant returns: Or Kacey. Or Kacey. Or Kacey.

Lafferty, ten steps ahead of me, peers over the log to inspect the far side. He says nothing: just keeps leaning over, his head cocked at an angle, taking it in.

When I arrive I do the same.

She’s not Kacey.

That’s my first thought: Thank God, I don’t know her. Her death was recent: that’s my second. She hasn’t been lying here long. There’s nothing soft about her, nothing slack. Instead she’s stiff, lying on her back, one arm contracted upward so that her hand has become a claw. Her face is contorted and sharp; her eyes are unpleasantly open. Usually, in overdoses, they’re closed—which always gives me some measure of comfort. At least, I think, they died in peace. But this woman looks astonished, unable to believe the fate that has befallen her. She’s lying on a bed of leaves. Except for her right arm, she’s straight as a tin soldier. She’s young. In her twenties. Her hair is—was—pulled back into a tight ponytail, but it’s been mussed. Strands of it have been pulled out of the elastic that holds it in place. She’s wearing a tank top and a denim skirt. It’s too cold to be dressed this way. The rain is falling directly on her body and face. This is bad, too, for the preservation of evidence. Instinctively, I want to cover her, to bundle her up in something warm. Where is her jacket? Maybe someone took it off her after she died. Unsurprisingly, a syringe and a makeshift tourniquet are on the ground next to her. Was she alone when she died? They usually aren’t, the women: usually they’re with boyfriends or clients who leave them when they die, afraid of being implicated, afraid of being caught up in some business that they want no part of.

We’re supposed to take vital signs upon arrival. Normally I wouldn’t, not in a case as obvious as this one, but Lafferty’s watching me, so I do things by the book. I steel myself, climb over the log, and reach toward her. I’m about to take her pulse when I hear footsteps and voices nearby. Damn, the voices are saying. Damn. Damn. The rain is falling even harder.

The medical unit has found us. They are two young men. They’re in no rush. They know already that they can’t save this one. She’s gone; she has been. They need no coroner to tell them this.

—Fresh one? calls one of them. I nod, slowly. I don’t like the way they—we—talk about the dead sometimes.

The two young men saunter toward the log, peer over it nonchalantly.

—Jeez, says one—Saab is his last name, there on his name tag—to the other, to Jackson.

—She’ll be light, at least, says Jackson, which feels like a hit to my stomach. Then collectively they climb over the log, skirt the body, kneel down beside her.

Jackson reaches out to place his fingers on her. He tries a few times, obligingly, to find something, then stands up. He checks his watch.

—As of 11:21, Jane Doe pronounced, he says.

—Record that, I say to Lafferty. One nice thing about having a partner again: someone else to fill in the activity log. Lafferty’s been keeping his inside his jacket to preserve it from the rain, and he takes it out now, hovering over it, trying to keep it dry.

—Hang on a second, I say.

Eddie Lafferty looks at me and then the body.

I bend down between Jackson and Saab, looking carefully at the victim’s face, the open eyes cloudy now, nearly opaque, the jaws clenched painfully.

There, just beneath her eyebrows and sprinkled over the tops of her cheekbones, is a splattering of little pink dots. From far away they just made her look flushed; up close, they are distinct, like small freckles, or the marks of a pen on a page.

Saab and Jackson bend down too.

—Oh yeah, says Saab.

—What, says Lafferty.

I raise my radio to my mouth.

—Possible homicide, I say.

—Why, says Lafferty.

Jackson and Saab ignore him. They’re still bent down, studying the body.

I lower the radio. Turn to Lafferty. His training, his training.

—Petechiae, I say, pointing to the dots.

—Which are, says Lafferty.

—Burst blood vessels. One sign of strangulation.

The Crime Scene Unit, Homicide, and Sergeant Ahearn arrive not long after that.





THEN





The first time I found my sister dead, she was sixteen. It was the summer of 2002. Forty-eight hours earlier, on a Friday afternoon, she’d left school with her friends, telling me she’d be back by evening.

She wasn’t.

By Saturday, I was frightened, telephoning Kacey’s friends, asking them if they knew where she was. But nobody did, or no one would tell me, at least. I was seventeen then, very shy, already cast in the role I’ve played my entire life: the responsible one. A little old lady, said my grandmother, Gee. Too serious for her own good. Kacey’s friends no doubt thought of me as parental in some way, an authority figure, a person from whom to withhold information. Over and over again, they apologized dully and denied knowing anything.

Kacey, in those days, was boisterous and loud. When she was home, which she had been with less and less frequency, life was better, the house warmer and happier. Her unusual laugh—a silent, open-mouthed trembling, followed by a series of sharp, high, vocal inhalations, doubling her over as if they caused her pain—echoed off the walls. Without it, her absence was noticeable, the silence in the house ominous and strange. Her sounds were gone, and so was her smell, some terrible perfume that she and her friends had begun using—probably to mask what they were smoking—called Patchouli Musk.

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