COMRADES BY JOHN WIREBACH
The first three chapters have been rewritten. I’ve begun with chapter four because it has been extensively revised, hopefully for the better. You need to know very little by way of a syllabus to understand the story:
An unidentified older woman is pulled from the Delaware Canal in Bristol on Tuesday. At first it is believed that she’d drowned, but an autopsy on Wednesday reveals she’d been shot.
Harry Cooper is assigned the case by Bucks County DA Isaac Garb. He has a new partner named Ray Pallis (his name for now anyway. I don’t think he is the Ray Pallis we’ve all come to know and love in Paris.)
Harry is forced to cooperate with Bristol Police Chief Tony Abate
We open with Harry and Ray driving down Robert Morris Street in Bristol going to an address the dead woman carried in her coat.
Robert Morris Street was only two blocks long, a narrow street lined with identical duplex houses built so close together neighbors could exchange clothes through the windows. I maneuvered along the one lane left by parked cars and finally found a space to park in front of a barrier preventing drivers from going into a creek. We walked back to the address the woman had carried, a white duplex with concrete steps leading up to a porch surrounded by a black wrought iron fence. Like most of the houses on the street, it needed a coat of paint.
I knocked on the right-hand door. A tired voice called out he was coming.
When the door opened, I did a double take, surprised to see a man I knew. He was wearing well-worn Sears work clothes instead of a suit and tie, and now he had a nasty scar on his left cheek, but he was the same young man I remembered from college.
“Joe Lovett?” I asked, holding up my badge.
“Sure, I’m Joe Lovett,” he said, barely glancing at the badge, “What can I do for you?” he asked, sounding bored, as if he was used to cops knocking at his door.
As close as we’d been in the summer of 1936, he and Alice, me and Amanda, I was little disappointed he didn’t seem to know me right away. Maybe he thought all cops looked alike. Still, I had a job to do, so I reached for the woman’s photograph, preparing to hold it up.
“Do you know this woman?”
That drew a reaction. “Did something happen to Alice?” he asked, startled, alarmed, snatching the photograph from my hands.
“I don’t think so.” Alice Long was our age, mid-twenties, much younger than the murdered woman. However, the woman could be his mother or Alice’s mother.
His mouth tightened and his eyes blinked when he looked at the woman: He knew her. He examined the photo for a moment longer before handing it back, shaking his head in denial with a relieved smile.
“That’s not Alice. I don’t know who she is. You had me scared there for a minute. Alice took the train to New York today to visit a sick friend. I was afraid something might have happened to her.”
I wondered if I’d seen wrong or if he was lying, but now he was looking closely at me. I could almost hear the click of a shutter and the whir of film advancing as he examined every ridge, mole and wrinkle on my face. I could almost see him search his memory for my name.
“Say, don’t I know you?”
“Harry Cooper,” I said to help him out, “we were at Penn State together.”
“Of course, Harry Cooper,” he said, coming alive now, reaching out to shake my hand and offering a big friendly smile. “It’s good to see you again. You were Amanda Wellborne’s friend. I haven’t seen you since…” he hesitated.
“Since the night you left to fight in the Spanish Civil War,” I finished for him.
“Sure,” he repeated, drawing out the word, losing the smile and perhaps unconsciously touching the scar, as if I’d evoked a bad memory.
“This is my partner, Ray Pallis.”
Barely acknowledging Ray, Joe opened the door wide. “Come on in, Harry. It’s cold out here, we’re letting the heat out. Sorry I didn’t recognize you right away. It’s been a long time. Amanda told Alice you’d become a cop.”
Talking all the while, he led us along a long hallway. There were stairs on the left and on the right successive doors opening to a homey looking living room with yesterday’s paper still lying on a couch, a dining room with unpacked boxes of books and papers on the floor, and leading straight into the kitchen where I smelled coffee brewing. Joe pointed to the table.
“Sit down,” he said. “Let me finish washing up. Help yourself to some coffee. Cups are right there,” he added, pointing at a rack of mugs, the kind you find in diners. “I’ll be right back.”
Ray looked at the percolator then at me. “Go ahead,” I said.
Radiators clanked as the heat kicked on. I examined the kitchen while Ray poured a mug of coffee. Alice must be a good housekeeper. The kitchen was clean and neat, smelling faintly of cleanser, tonight’s supper dishes set out on the table ready to use, a vase with flowers set on the table, not even a dish left in the drainer. Over the sink, a window looked out on a small snow covered yard and an empty clothesline.
I stood by the window looking out at the sky and for a moment my memory took me back seven years to Penn State listening to Joe and his Communist comrades holding court in their dorm rooms, condemning the spread of fascism and praising the Soviet Union where there was no Depression and workers ran the government.
Joe spent only one year at Penn State, a pleasant-looking young man whose hair always needed cutting and shirts and pants that always needed ironing, dressed in suits and ties that were just something to wear, and displayed a vast disdain for normal college life. A freshman who didn’t act like he was only 18, Joe came from Hazleton, a town in the coal regions of Pennsylvania. His father was a lawyer for the newly formed CIO labor union. Joe seemed to follow in his father’s foorsteps, training to be a shop steward. Although his entire cadre at Penn State totaled maybe half a dozen comrades and an equal number of fellow travelers, Joe was undeterred by failure. Open and friendly, always upbeat, always recruiting, he was willing to spend all night listening to a student’s gripes and opinions with the hopes of slipping in the Communist point of view.
Much later, after Joe had left for Spain, I understood Joe and his comrades were obeying the orders of the Communist Party to form a Popular Front and unite with all progressive peoples to bring the United States into the struggle against fascism. The comrades preached support of Roosevelt and the New Deal, labor unions, called for rearmament, condemned appeasement of Hitler and Mussolini. They claimed Communism is just Twentieth Century Americanism.
But that came much later. In 1935, my freshman year, I knew little about Communism, and to tell the truth I didn’t particularly care to. I played football at Penn State, enjoying the parties and the girls and the perks of being on the team. My folks owned a grocery store in the middle of farm country so we’d never lacked for food and I always had a few dollars to spend. The Depression was just something we read about. Of course we felt sorry for neighbors who lost jobs and homes or customers who couldn’t pay their bills, but there was nothing we could do about it. The economy would bounce back; it always had in America. Prosperity was just around the corner. My folks were rabid Republicans and hated Roosevelt and his New Deal, which they believed would lead to socialism and destroy our Free Enterprise system.
If nothing else, talking about Joe and his comrades provoked interesting discussions around the dinner table when I went home to visit my folks.
Amanda Wellborne changed my life.
I met her in the spring of 1936. She roomed with Alice Long, Joe’s girlfriend, who was as committed as Joe to the Communist movement. More importantly, Amanda led me into classes with other bright students and the best professors where I discovered I enjoyed reading and discussing literature and philosophy. Instead of thinking in black and white, I learned to explore shades of gray. Probably the most important thing I learned was to ask questions—you learn the truth by asking questions. Perhaps the single most important lesson I learned was that I hadn’t come to Penn State to play football, I played football so I could attend Penn State.
Of course it wasn’t all politics and schoolwork. I recalled the four of us attending concerts and dances, and particularly a wonderful three-day camping trip to empty Long Beach Island on the New Jersey Shore, sitting up all night telling each other our life stories and making love to Amanda for the first time under the stars.
In October of 1936, Joe announced he was joining the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to defend the legitimate Spanish Government against Franco’s fascist rebels in Spain. We had a going away party for him.
For the next few years, Alice kept Amanda and me up to date on Joe, reading to us from his letters. More than half the Lincoln Brigade died during their futile struggle in Spain but he survived, despite the rebel bullet that creased his cheek and left a scar on his face, came back to New York and went to work writing for the Daily Worker. When we graduated in 1939, Alice moved to New York to marry him and we heard little more of them. It didn’t matter. By 1939 Amanda and I had other more important things to discuss than Joe Lovett…
Ray was tapping a pencil against his cup. I looked at him and he stopped.
“Sorry. You looked far away, Harry. You must not have heard me.”
I was far away, I thought. A bad mistake. I sat down again. “What’d you want?”
“I wanted to know how well you knew this guy.”
“Later,” I said, hearing Joe’s footsteps on the stairs. “Get out your notebook. Take notes on what we say. Pay attention.”
In just a moment or two Joe bounced into the kitchen looking fresh and wearing a clean white shirt and brown slacks, neatly cut curly hair wet and pushed back. He went right for the coffeepot, pouring himself a mug. The telephone rang, a short ring, a pause followed by two long rings. He listened then ignored it, blowing on his steaming coffee.
“You sure you don’t want some coffee, Harry?”
“No, I’m good.” The phone continued to ring.
“You going to answer that?” Ray asked.
“It’s not ours,” he explained. “Our ring is one long, two short…Damn, it’s been a long time, Harry. The summer of Thirty-six. That’s so long ago it seems like something I read in a book.” Joe took a sip of his coffee then turned to Ray and sounded like he was dictating a biography. “Harry and I were both freshman together at Penn State. We lived in the same dorm. Our girlfriends roomed together. I married my girlfriend. I don’t know what happened to Harry and Amanda…” He turned back to me, a question in his eyes. “What did happen with you and Amanda, Harry? I thought you two were joined at the hip.”
He paused and waited, leaning against the counter, apparently anxious to hear about Amanda and me. Ray was also waiting, pencil hovering above his pad.
“That’s a long story, Joe,” I said, a bit annoyed. “Right now, we’re here on business. Take another look at this woman. Are you sure you don’t know her?”
This time he barely looked at the photograph. He flicked his fingers across the photo before handing it back. “I have no idea who she is. I can see she’s dead. Who is she?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out. She was murdered.”
“Murdered?” Shocked, he seemed paralyzed, cocking his head and staring at me.
“Yes. We’re trying to identify her.”
“I didn’t read about any murder in the paper. Did it just happen?”
“It probably happened Monday night. We found her body Tuesday morning. At first we thought she drowned.”
“I read about that—the woman drowning. Now you tell me she’s been murdered. Wow!” He shook his head, amazed. “But what does it have to do with me?”
“She had your address in her coat pocket.” I handed him the wrinkled paper the woman carried and watched him closely. His face was a mask as he handed it back.
“I can’t think of any reason why she’d have our address. None at all. Sorry Harry.”
“She may be from New York. Aren’t you from New York?”
“Sure,” he said, making light of it. “So are six million other people. I don’t know them all.”
“Could she be someone Alice knows?”
“I don’t think so. I know all of Alice’s friends and this woman isn’t one of them…Maybe she was just trying to sell us something.”
“That could be.”
The address could also be a mistake. But I doubted it. I’d learned never to believe in coincidences when it came to murder. More than Joe’s word was necessary to convince me. However, I had absolutely no evidence to suggest Joe had anything to do with her murder except for the woman having his address. I studied him, leaning against the stove, sipping coffee, the portrait of a concerned citizen, someone who only wanted to help. Then I remembered I hadn’t told him how she’d been murdered and he hadn’t asked, which seemed odd.
“Do you own a gun, Joe?”
He didn’t seem troubled by my question. He was either an innocent man or a very good actor used to being questioned. In fact, he seemed amused.
“A gun? No. I haven’t even fired a gun since I left Spain. Why’d you ask?” A light seemed to go on in his eyes, and he shoved himself off the stove, suddenly alert. “Wait a minute now. She must have been shot and you’re here because you think I murdered her?” There was anger and outrage in his voice. He put down his coffee so hard I thought the mug might break.
His face looked like someone who’d just swallowed sour milk. “Of course not, Harry; I don’t even know who she is.”
“Then why did she have your address in her pocket?”
“I don’t know,” he insisted, raising his voice. He closed his eyes and when he opened them again the anger was gone and he spoke in a normal tone, looking right in my eyes. “Harry. I didn’t kill that woman. I don’t even know her. And that’s the truth. If you think I did, you’re just wrong…This is crazy, Harry. You know me. I’m not a murderer.”
“Where were you Monday night?”
“Right here. With Alice. We had no visitors. I’m on the early shift so we listened to the war news at nine and went to bed. You can ask Alice.” His voice was steady and strong. He kept his eyes focused on mine.
It wasn’t much of an alibi, but the part of me that remembered better times wanted to believe him, especially with only the evidence of a scribbled address to convict him. I decided to back off a little. The rapid hiring of new workers at Bristol’s defense plants had overcrowded the town; it wouldn’t be unusual finding a couple renting a room to make extra money or even for two families to share the same house.
“Is anyone else living here?”
“No. Just Alice and I.”
“Can you think of anyone else she might have been looking for at this address?”
He considered my question for a moment, hanging his head, deep in thought. Once more his face brightened. “Of course,” he said almost to himself. He sat down with us, shoving dishes aside and putting his elbows on the table. “You know, Harry, It just occurred to me what’s going on here. We’ve only been living here for a couple of weeks. That woman was probably looking for the fellow who lived here before us. We’re renting this place from him. He could be the person she was looking for.”
It could be true. I’d chased down several men so desperate for work they’d left homes or apartments they’d lived in for years on the spur of the moment without telling anyone to take a job. I’d only caught up to them weeks and sometimes months later.
“What’s his name?” I watched Ray to be sure he got the name down.
“Hall. Ted Hall.”
“Where can we find him?”
Joe offered an apologetic smile, sat back and spread his hands. “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? Where do you send the rent money?”
“To a real estate office in town. They collect the rent and forward any mail to him.” Joe delivered another apologetic smile. “I wish I could help you, Harry, but Ted said he’d got some secret government job he couldn’t talk about. He couldn’t even give us a forwarding address to send his mail to him.”
“Can I see his mail?”
“Sure. Just a second.” He jumped up and went in the dining room, apparently eager to help.
“You get all of that, Ray?”
“He says he doesn’t know the woman…Doesn’t own a gun…Alice is his wife… Ted Hall owns the house.” He tapped the notebook with each fact then stopped, looking up at me. “Who’s this Amanda he was talking about? I put a question mark behind her name.”
“Just keep your mind on business,” I said as Joe returned, handing me three envelopes.
“You’re good, Harry, I haven’t been interrogated like that since I came back from Spain and the FBI hauled me in,” he said, relieved, as if we were finished. “They hounded me for a whole day. They called me a premature anti-fascist like fighting fascism was a crime…”
I was just asking questions, I wanted to say; if we interrogated you, you’d know it. I wanted to tell him about poor Dave Jarret, who was interrogated for three days by Abate before I cleared him. But I contented myself sifting through the letters.
One came from the engineering department at Princeton University. Typed and mass mailed. Probably a plea for a donation. The other two were letters from men with New Jersey return addresses. Joe was tapping the table with a finger.
“I’ll give these letters to the agent. Let me have his name. Maybe he has an address for this guy Hall.”
“Sure.” He practically leapt up, scurried into the dining room again, and came back handing me a business card before sitting down again.
I glanced at the name. “We’ll check it out. I may have to talk to you again, Joe…”
“Don’t leave town?” He interrupted with a smile and raised eyebrows. Seeing the sour look on my face he apologized. “Sorry, Harry. Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere.”
“That reminds me, Joe, what’re you doing here in Bristol?”
“I’m working at Fleetwings. The aircraft factory up the street. Building B-17s for the war effort.” He nodded toward the plant. The smoke from its stacks rising over the houses was visible through the window.
“You’re working in a factory? The last I heard you were writing for the Daily Worker? What happened to that?” I wondered if the Communists had sent him to the plant to organize workers.
Joe seemed surprised. “Didn’t Amanda tell you? I left the Party in Thirty-nine when Stalin let us down.”
In 1939, Amanda and I had more important things to discuss than Joe Lovett’s politics, I almost said, but I didn’t. Recalling Joe’s fervor at Penn State, and the all-night talks we’d had during our camping trips, I was surprised and interested in why. The Communist Party was more than a political choice for Joe; it was his life, part of his family. Both his father and mother had joined the Party in the twenties; they’d met at a demonstration to free Sacco and Vanzetti. His father helped form the CIO. Joe’d been a member of the Young Communist League. Alice had been his first recruit.
He stared down at the table. “It’s a long story, Harry,” he said, looking up and smiling at me.
Touché, I thought. But Joe was not just kidding me; he seemed to go a long away from the table. The rhetoric was gone and now he spoke in a more subdued tone, as if it still hurt.
“When Stalin and Hitler signed their pact, I wrote a column saying everyone had lied to us—Chamberlain, Roosevelt, and now Stalin. If I had written a week before that Stalin would make a deal with Hitler, my readers would have laughed at me. When Molotov said that fascism is just a matter of taste, I wrote, he made us understand we can’t rely on anyone to fight for us, we can only rely on our strength as a class to fight fascism.” The silverware bounced as he slapped the table, smiling sadly at his folly. “Of course, the leadership rejected my column. The line had changed. Now we were to preach peace with Hitler. They suggested I should undergo an evening of self-criticism. Even my father told me to attend and obey the change in the Party line. Put your trust in the Party and Stalin, he told me. Stalin knows what he’s doing. It’s a matter of discipline. Without discipline there can be no Party, he said…” Joe shook his head at his father’s misplaced loyalty. “Workers don’t make deals with Fascists, I told him. My father denounced me as a traitor. We don’t speak to each other anymore…”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Joe,” I said to say something. I couldn’t imagine my parents calling me a traitor even if I admitted having voted for Roosevelt in 1940.
“…It was a very bad time for Alice and I. Men and women we’d worked with and trusted for years called us traitors and renegades. It felt as if someone had slammed a door shut and we were on one side and the comrades were on the other…” He slapped the table with both hands again, shrugging. What can you do? Rhetoric returned to his voice. “We knew what would happen. We picked ourselves up and moved on. We soon found we weren’t alone. We joined with a few men and women whose sensibilities were still alive enough to be shocked by Stalin’s betrayal and organized a new socialist party in 1940. A one hundred percent American socialist party that doesn’t follow the whims of the Soviet Union or the errors of Trotsky. We’re making solid advances, Harry. We’re finding trade union militants and young progressives in the colleges to carry our message. We’ve already gained footholds in the basic industries…”
Looking at our faces—Ray had stopped taking notes and I was trying to be polite and listen—he realized he was making a speech and for a moment he looked sheepish.
“Sorry, Harry. I know you have work to do solving this woman’s murder. I should let you get to it.” He started to get up then sat down again, reaching out a hand to stop me when I stood up. “Say, you know, we haven’t seen each other for so long, and so much has changed, we have a lot to talk about. Why don’t we get together and have dinner? You and me and Alice.”
He grinned at the surprise on my face. For a man I’d just accused of murder he seemed remarkably undisturbed and eager to meet with me. He seemed completely unfazed by my accusations. I wondered if he really was innocent and simply wanted to talk over old times or if he figured on using dinner to learn more about our investigation.
“What do you say, Harry?” He scribbled his phone number and pushed it across the table to me. Why not, I thought. A dinner might be more productive than another official visit.
“I’d like that, Joe,” I said, standing up. “I’ll check my schedule and give you a call.”
He followed me down the hallway. “We’re busy this weekend. We’re going to New York. Party business,” he explained, rolling his eyes at the imposition. “But any night next week is okay. Bring a date if you want. I promise not to talk politics all night.” At the door he waved goodbye to Ray, grabbed my arm and lowered his voice. “And I promise not to ask about Amanda if you don’t want to talk about her. Though I would like to hear your side of the story—the way Amanda tells it, you screwed up.”
I felt defensive. What had she said? “You and Alice still see Amanda?”
“She and Alice keep in touch. She lives in Philly. She’s married, you know.”
“I know.” I said with a straight face.
“I’ll tell Alice you were here. She’ll love to see you again.” Shrugging again, he held the door for me. “Sorry I can’t help you with your murder. I hope you find out what’s going on.”
“We will,” I said.
Maybe Joe was as innocent as he claimed to be. Except for the woman having his address, I had no evidence to suspect him. And to judge from his performance he was innocent. Yet a few little things bothered me. The look on his face when he examined the woman’s photo. He knew her. He’d never asked how she was murdered, as if he knew. The way it just occurred to him the woman had come to visit Ted Hall as an alternative reason. None of the little things proved anything, however, each could be explained away, but put together they gave me the feeling that the woman had come to Joe’s deliberately and if he didn’t kill her, he had something to do with her murder.
With any luck, we’d find some hard evidence before our dinner. Then I could arrest Joe. If I didn’t find the evidence, we could simply enjoy our dinner. We might play the ‘Whatever happened to so and so?’ game I played whenever I got together with people I knew from college or talk about old times and Amanda. I wasn’t sure which way would be more difficult for me.
Whatever happened to Amanda? It was a question I’d asked myself too often in the last few years and I could not give myself a satisfactory answer.
Joe was right; it was a long story. It lasted almost five years. After Joe left for Spain, Alice lost herself in Party work, moving out of the dorms, and we saw her less and less. Amanda and I became one of half a dozen couples who did everything together. When we graduated in 1939, Amanda took a secretarial job with a lawyer friend of her father. She only planned to work until I got settled in a job and we could marry. A bright young woman, in classes she’d been able to hold her own with the men, but she didn’t want to become one of those women who competed with men for jobs beyond teaching and secretarial work; she didn’t want to be a career woman and end up as an old maid. She wanted a home and children.
She had our lives all planned out: She’d found her husband, we had a circle of friends, and once I found a job we’d be fine. It sounded to me like she’d locked down our lives for the next thirty years when I wasn’t sure what I’d do in the next thirty minutes. Amanda had helped me expand my horizons and now she was trying to narrow them, or so I felt at the time. I knew I loved her and she loved me, but I wasn’t ready to marry; I’m not even sure why I wasn’t ready. I knew what I didn’t want but I didn’t know what I wanted. Today, I’m not sure I even understand what I was thinking in those days before the war.
Almost all the other couples in our circle married right after school, renting apartments and raising kids by the time the war came in 1941. By then I was working for the DA and I told her I wanted to get settled and secure in my new job. Although Amanda grew tired of having to make excuses for our not marrying, to her credit, she listened to me and was willing to believe I just needed more time.
For one reason or another we saw our old college friends less and less and soon we were running with a new circle of singles, living the night life in Philadelphia. Too often, I had nothing in common with them. I was meeting cops and criminals while Amanda was meeting new companions through her work. They liked Amanda and Amanda liked them. She spent more and more of her time alone with our new friends while I was busy learning the ropes at the DA’s office, working odd hours, missing important dates. I kept putting Amanda off with one excuse after another until one day she met another man who wanted to marry her.
I was lost when she married. I knew I’d made a bad mistake. The war took some of our friends off to service, others took defense jobs and moved away to places too distant to visit, or simply married wives or husbands I didn’t like for one reason or another. I was stuck in Bucks County, losing myself in work and meeting women who didn’t matter much to me. I went to the movies a lot. Whenever I ran into any of our college friends, they wondered why I’d been so stupid and I had no good answer for them. I wasn’t sure I understood it myself…
Next to me Ray was studying his notes so seriously I wondered if he thought I was going to give him a test. When I stopped at Radcliffe Street, Ray looked up from his notebook. Across the street the Delaware River was running high on its banks from all the heavy rain we’d had in November and December, carrying stray limbs and bushes and debris from upstate in the current, but Ray wasn’t interested in the river.
“Who’s Amanda, Harry?” He asked again.
“You wrote her name down?”
“You said to take notes. I put a question mark behind her name.”
“She was my college girlfriend. I almost married her. She roomed with Joe Lovett’s wife in college. That’s how I met Joe.”
“I wrote down that much,” he said. “Does she have something to do with this?”
I certainly didn’t want to talk about Amanda with Ray Pallis in the middle of a murder investigation or at any time. He’d married his wife right out of high school. He had two kids before he was twenty-one. He was content with his world that revolved around his first real home, his wife, and kids.
“Like I told Joe, it is a long story, Ray,” I said, trying to keep my voice level. “Amanda wanted to get married and start a family. I didn’t. But she has nothing to do with this case. Okay? Is that enough for you?” I’m sure Ray heard the irritation I was trying to hold back; a six-year-old kid would have heard it.
“Sure, Harry, sure, Sorry.” Ray said quickly, paging through his notes. “Another thing I’m not so clear about is what he said about Stalin and Molotov and some Pact. He acted like you’d know what he was talking about.”
I relaxed, delivering a history lesson. “The Russians signed an alliance with Germany in Nineteen-Thirty-Nine. That’s how the war started….”
“I thought the Russians are on our side.”
“They are. Now. Hitler broke the alliance when the Germans invaded Russia,” I said as we pulled into the parking lot of a real estate agency. “If you want, I’ll tell you more about it later. Let’s pay attention to our job right now.”
The real estate agent greeted us with a smile as false as my Grandfather’s teeth. His lips formed an O when I showed him my badge. Once the agent learned we were not in his office to buy a house, he was the epitome of cooperation, quickly sifting through his files to find Ted Hall’s address. Unfortunately, the address was less than useful to us:
Post Office Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
“That’s all you have?”
“Sorry. Ted’s mail goes to this address and it doesn’t come back. So I assume it’s accurate.”
I gave him the letters, added the woman’s photo and a note asking if Ted Hall knew this woman. I put the Courthouse’s return address on the note and stuck it in an envelope.
“Put all of this in the mail for Ted Hall today.”
“Do you happen to know this woman?”
“No. She hasn’t done any business with us. Is she the same woman who fell in the canal on Tuesday? I saw that in yesterday’s paper.”
“She didn’t fall in the canal. She was murdered.”
His eyebrows went up. “Murdered. In Bristol? Oh my. That’s very bad.”
I suspected he was more concerned about the murder’s effect on selling real estate than on the woman. I left him a copy of the photo to show it around although I doubted he would.
We found Abate sitting in his car on the Washington Street Bridge, watching his patrolmen search the towpath while talking to the driver of an ice truck. When we drove up, he waved the driver along. The crew was working about thirty yards further along the canal towpath. Two men were hunched over and moving in slow motion, clearing the remaining snow and pausing to examine the dirt and turn over leaves, while a third man examined any objects they found and made marks on a chart. Maybe only halfway between us and the work crew, almost all the snow had been cleared from the towpath and bushes beside it making a brown circle dotted with yellow markers. Another line of yellow markers ran from the circle as far as the work crew.
The chief grunted as he got out, holding an evidence bag containing a shoe.
“Balzic found her shoe in the bushes down there.” He nodded toward the circle of yellow markers. He blinked at the low sun’s glare.
It was just a woman’s shoe, heavy and low-heeled, designed to be worn by older women, but it was our first piece of evidence. I turned it over several times.
“That’s proof she was on the path.”
The chief scoffed, “Big deal. We know she was on the towpath. Where were you all day?”
I signed the evidence bag to maintain the chain of custody for the shoe then gave it to Ray to put with the rest of her clothes. While Ray was putting it in our car, the chief led me down on the towpath and I related my interview with Joe Lovett for him.
The chief stopped and kneaded his chin. “Joe Lovett. The name doesn’t ring any bells.”
“He just moved in. He works at Fleetwings.”
“Where’d he come from?”
“And the woman’s clothes were bought in New York,” the chief said, nodding. No doubt he arrived at the same conclusion as I had, but he saw a different angle. “How old is he?”
“I don’t think they’re having an affair, Chief. He’s my age. Much too young for her.”
“His mother? His mother-in-law?”
“He says he doesn’t know her.”
“It’s still too much of a coincidence.”
“I think so too. A lot of little things bothered me. I’m sure he recognized the woman when I showed him her photo, but he hid it real quick. He never asked how she was killed—”
The chief raised his voice. “Roberts, stop those people from tossing cigarettes.”
I turned in time to see a fourth cop yelling at some spectators who were leaning out the windows of the Mills smoking and tossing the butts into the cleared circle. Through the open windows I could see long lines of looms and women tending the machines. What a terrible boring job it must be to sit at a loom for eight hours, I thought.
The chief didn’t miss a beat.
“Like he knew how she was killed?” The chief raised his eyebrows.
“Yeah. Then he came up with another person she might have been here to see instead of him, a guy named Ted Hall. We checked him out. He moved out west. His address is a post office box. I sent Hall a photo.” I shrugged. “I’m having dinner with Lovett and his wife next week. I’m hoping I’ll learn a lot more.”
A foreman hustled along the windows calling the women back to work. He slammed the windows shut. He stopped at the last window, wiping his hands on a rag and talking to Ray, probably pumping him for information.
The chief was ready with another question. “This guy was a Commie?”
“He was when I knew him in college. He says he quit the Party in Nineteen-Thirty-Nine.”
A shrewd look came over the chief’s face. “Were you some kind of Commie, too? In college?” he asked, as if it explained a lot of things he’d always suspected.
I wanted to laugh. “Hell no, Tony. I played football in college.”
“So how come you know this guy so well he invites you to dinner?” He stood with his hands on his hips, glaring at me.
“My girlfriend roomed with his girlfriend, Tony,” I said patiently. “We spent one summer with he and his girl, seven years ago. Hell, he didn’t even recognize me at first when we knocked on his door.”
“I don’t know if I like that. You knowing him. Going to dinner with him.” He glanced at his cops, who were pretending not to listen to us. “You know you shouldn’t be working this case.”
“Bullshit, Tony. Like you don’t know half the people you arrest?”
He couldn’t argue with that fact. “All right. Do you think he’s guilty?”
Yes or no? I was still up in the air about Joe Lovett. I shrugged. “I’m leaning that way. Maybe he didn’t do it himself, but I think he knows something about her murder.”
“Maybe I ought to take a run at him.”
“Go ahead. But you do and you’ll scare him away.” I could imagine that session; if Joe thought I was interrogating him, let him spend a few hours with Tony Abate. “Right now, we have the advantage; he thinks we don’t know anything. We need to find more evidence before we can move on him.”
“When you having dinner with him?”
“Next week. He and his wife are going away this weekend.”
“Where they going?’
“I don’t know if I like that. Letting him leave town. What if he doesn’t come back?”
“Then we know for sure he’s guilty.” I meant it as a joke but Abate didn’t find it funny.
“Are you serious?”
“It’s a joke, Tony, a joke. What else can we do? We can’t arrest him?”
“I know what I’d do.”
So do I, I thought. Abate would haul Joe into the station and try to beat a confession out of him. Before I could say that wasn’t going to happen, I saw Ray running down on the towpath to catch up to us, his overcoat flapping like wings and feet churning up the snow, when suddenly he slipped on something and went flat on his face, rolling over and over in a splash of black and white and sliding over the bank. At the last moment he jabbed a big hand into the mud and caught himself before he went onto the ice and into the water.
“Son of a bitch,” he yelled, pawing himself up the slope hand over hand.
Once it was clear he wasn’t seriously hurt, I couldn’t avoid a smile as he sat up in the dirt, cursing and holding the flap of a ripped knee on his wool pants.
“You all right, Ray?” I ran back and helped him get to his feet again. I watched him try to brush away the dirt and mud from his leg. His hand came away with blood on it.
“You cut yourself?”
“I ruined my new suit. Helen’s going to kill me. Forty bucks down the drain.”
I pulled up the ripped pants and checked his leg. He seemed more upset at ruining his suit than at the bloody patch I found. Several inches long and wide, it looked as if someone had started to build a road below his knee.
“There’s a first aid kit in my trunk. You better go back and bandage up that cut.”
“Just do it.”
Ignoring Ray, The chief seemed ready to pick up where he left off.
“All right, but I’m gonna put a man on him, and see where he goes in New York.” His look said he dared me to say no.
I tried not to groan but my face probably gave me away. “Don’t do that, Tony. Once he gets to the city, he’ll spot your man in a minute.”
I knew I couldn’t stop the chief from doing something crazy when I wasn’t around, so I came up with something that might keep him occupied. “I have a better idea. You must know guys who work with him at Fleetwings. Talk to them and see what they know about him. Let’s put together some background on the guy before we make another run at him. If you get some good information from his co-workers, you can question him next time.”
By the time I finished, I realized it wasn’t that bad of an idea; we might actually learn something. The chief was nodding. Put this way, the idea seemed to please him.
“This guy Lovett, you said he was a Red, right?”
“I told you. He quit the Party.”
“So he says. He may be lying. Commies always lie. Philly cops got a Red Squad that keeps files on Commies. I got a buddy down there. I’ll give him a call, too. See what’s what.”
One more silly idea. I was willing to bet money the chief would also check the Red Squad for my name. But I wasn’t going to argue, it wasn’t worth it. “Good idea. Do that…It’s getting dark. Let’s see what else your guys turned up besides her shoe.”
I started to walk toward the working cops. After a moment the chief followed, waving the cop from his futile task of clearing the onlookers away toward us.
“Roberts here went door to door along Prospect Street, talked to guys in the mill and the ice plant across the bridge. Nobody heard or saw anything.”
“Two shots fired and nobody heard a thing,” I said.
“A driver at the ice plant heard a splash, but he figured it was kids throwing stones.” Roberts said. He shrugged. “It gets kind of quiet around here after dark.”
“All right, Roberts, get back on patrol,” the chief ordered
The man with the chart was next.
“This is Sergeant Balzic,” the chief said, introducing me to an intense looking dark young man with glasses wearing a long tan bolster over his uniform. The long coat and clipboard made him appear more like a scientist or a doctor than a cop. “He’s in forensics. Show him what you found Balzic.”
The chief smiled at Balzic with no pleasure in the smile.
“Take a break, guys,” Balzic yelled to his crew before walking us back toward Washington Street. “First thing is, we got lucky on finding the time frame for the killing. It snowed and everything we found having to do with her murder was under the snow. That means?...” He paused and looked at Abate and I waiting for one of us to answer.
“She was killed before it snowed,” I said when Abate didn’t.
“Exactly,” Balzic said, starting to walk again. “And the snow started about seven-thirty. Now Doctor Greco told us she’d barely started to digest her food. Most people eat around five or six or so. That makes a narrow window of maybe two or three hours, say between five and eight at the latest when she was killed ”
“Too bad we couldn’t get that in the paper today, we might turn up a witness.”
“Fat chance of that,” Abate said. “It was too cold. Nobody was even on the streets that night except us.”
Balzic stopped and raised his hand then pointed at the circle where the bushes had been disturbed and the yellow plastic triangles stood out against the dirt and mud.
“Here’s where the shooting happened.”
The snow had been carefully removed in about a fifteen foot circle. He’d been thorough. Stepping carefully through the markers he knelt over one covering a brown stain on the ground.
“Once again we have good reasons to thank the snow. The snow preserved the bloodstains from rats and mice. Unfortunately too much of it soaked into the ground to get a usable sample.” He shrugged and frowned. “Anyway, look at the broken and bent bushes around here. This is probably where she fell when the first shot hit her.”
The chief was standing with his arms crossed as if he was bored. Maybe he’d been through this before with Balzic.
More yellow triangles marked a trail on the ground, breaking bushes and leaving more bloodstains. Balzic stopped by each one to make sure I saw it. “She crawled a few feet, trying to get away. We found her shoe here. There’re a lot of footprints and the ground is all dug up where they stood over her and put the final bullet in her head. I think maybe they hesitated.” There were white remains of plaster of paris around several of the footprints. “I took imprints of the boots. Find me your suspect’s shoes, I might be able to match them up.”
It was the best news I’d heard all day. Now I had real evidence—something not based on speculations and maybes. I wondered what kind of boots Joe Lovett wore.
“Lots of guys wear the same kind of shoes,” the chief said, shaking his head.
Balzic shrugged, as if he’d heard this kind of argument too often. “Sure, a lot of men wear the same kind of boots so that’s not really conclusive proof you could use in court. But there’re also footprints that do match her shoes, though. They’re deeper, like she was running.” He led us along the towpath toward Jefferson Street where a few more triangles marked the woman’s flight. “We didn’t have time to go far but I suspect the prints go all the way to Jefferson Street. I think she was going to cross the bridge up there when the killers surprised her. She didn’t want to go into that dark lot across the canal so she saw the night lights in the Mills and thought she could get help there.”
“Joe Lovett lives a couple of blocks from the Jefferson Bridge,” I said, thinking out loud.
“That’s the guy you and the Chief were talking about just now. The guys claims he doesn’t know her, but she had his address? That’s too big a coincidence. Ask me, I think you got yourself a good suspect.”
The chief’s look said no one was asking Balzic.
“All we need now is some more proof.” I said. I saw the large number of Xs and Os marked on his chart. “What else did you find?”
Balzic shrugged. “There wasn’t much to find as far as we got along the path. It was kinda cold for anyone to be hanging out on the path even before it snowed.” He held up his chart of the path marked with Xs and Os, pointing to each found object. “Some food wrappers, a rubber or two, Somebody’s handkerchief, no blood on it though, a dead bird… We found a nickel, too,” he added, laughing and pulling the coin from his pocket.
“No shell casings?”
“No such luck. Ask me, the killers used a revolver.”
The chief sneered. “When you’re having dinner with this guy, you can ask him where he was between five and eight on Monday night. Maybe he’ll tell you since you’re his buddy. While you’re at it, maybe he’ll let you check his boots.”
Lighting a new cigar, he wandered away toward the two cops who’d been waiting, huddling to keep warm. “All right, let’s wrap it up. You can come back tomorrow if you want, Balzic.” It was clear from his tone he felt it had been a waste of time.
Balzic hung his head as if he’d let down the team. “I guess we’re done for the day.”
“Good job, Balzic,” I said to make him feel better.
“And call me Harry.” We shook hands.
“You know, it was an awful cold night on Monday,” Balzic said. “Dressed like she was, she didn’t look like a woman who’d be out walking for fun. I asked myself why she’d be walking on the canal path. I saw her clothes. They’re all from New York stores. She’s from New York. Ask me, I’d say she was going to catch a train.” He pointed across the canal at the station.
“I think you’re right, Mario, and my suspect is from New York. That’s too many coincidences… I wish I could let you search his house. Who knows what we’d find. Good work here. I think we’ll head for the station next. To get a train to New York, she’d have to catch a local to Trenton first.”
“Ten minutes past the hour until midnight,” Balzic said.
“Good job, Mario,” I said again and shook his hand. “I’d like to buy you a beer sometime. Mario.” At last I’d found someone worth consulting in Bristol. I hated to leave him behind.
He glanced at the chief; he looked a bit nervous. “Sure. Glad to. Give me a call.”
The chief had a sour look on his face; I wondered why.
“All right, Balzic,” the chief called out. “You’re done here. Now what?” he said to me.
Although I had few hopes of finding any information, we drove over to the railroad station. A few dozen men and women were reading papers or napping, waiting for either the five-ten local to Trenton or the five-thirty-five local to Philly. The room smelled like cigarettes and dirty clothes. I sent Ray to show the woman’s photo around while the chief and I questioned the ticket agent. The room shook a bit as another express train rumbled overhead.
We got a joke from the agent. “I hardly look at people. I just shove the tickets out. I might recognize her hands,” he added with a smile.
Abate banged the counter hard enough to rattle the screen. He shoved the photo back. “This is serious. Look again. She wouldn’t be a regular customer.”
“She would have come in on a train from Trenton,” I added. “She might have asked you for directions to Robert Morris street.”
He looked at me as if I was odd. “A lot of people ask me directions to get to Fleetwings. No one ever asks how to get to Robert Morris street.”
To satisfy Tony, the agent looked at the photo closely. “She looks like my wife’s mother. But she’s not. Sorry Chief. We got almost two thousand people coming through here every weekday. I’ll post the photo. That’s the best I can do.”
It was dark as we stood outside the station while irritated workers flowed around our car like it was a rock in the river. A three-quarter moon was rising over the Grundy Mills tower lighting a few thin clouds running across the dark sky. I could think of nothing more to do. I’d questioned Joe Lovett, the only lead; we’d found the crime scene. The woman’s photo was in the paper and almost everyone in Bristol would see it while they ate supper. I wished we could have asked for anyone walking along the canal between five and eight on Monday to call us.
“What do you want to do, now?” the chief asked, hands on hips, studying the faces of people passing by. All commuters, no one stopped to say hello to him. He looked hungry and frustrated.
Ray was leaning against the trunk still checking his ripped pants to see if they might be salvageable.
“For now, all we can do is wait and hope someone sees her photo and recognizes her tomorrow. I’m going to send the photo and a report to New York tonight. See if they have a missing persons report on her… By the way, Your Sergeant Balzic sounds like he’s on the ball. A good man.”
“He’s not my man.” The chief said in an odd voice then seemed to realize what he’d said. “Yeah, he’s good at what he does,” he admitted.
Once again I wondered what went on between them, but it wasn’t any of my business.
“Anyway, maybe you can send some of your men into the bars and start asking questions of guys who work with Lovett. That was a good idea. We might get something we can use.”
“Shit.” Frowning, the chief tossed his cigar away, as if he’d come to a decision. “You think he’s our guy, I think he’s our guy, hell, even Balzic thinks we’ve got the right guy. Bloodstains and footprints for Christ’s sake. That’s stuff for the lawyers. We’re just horsing around, playing with ourselves, all these maybes and guesses. You know, what we ought to do with this Lovett guy is bring him in and sweat him with what we know. Let me interrogate him. I’ll get some answers or know why. I know how to handle his kind.” He waited, as if he actually thought I might say yes.
What followed was probably as much my fault as it was the chief’s. I’d listened to enough dumb ideas for one day; I’d made nice with the chief all day. I was as frustrated and discouraged as he was and I took out my anger on him.
“Sure chief. Do that. Take him in and sweat him. Just like you did with Dave Jarret. You’re just lucky Jarret didn’t sue your dumb ass for that stunt.”
“You son of a bitch.” The chief’s face went bright red; his bristly hair seemed to stand straight up like a cat. He started to take off his raincoat. Once again, part of me hoped the chief would take a swing; the rational part of me knew I should defuse the situation.
I held my hands up and open, disgusted with myself for acting out my frustration. I realized we were drawing a crowd. I don’t know if they knew we were cops or not, all they saw was two men arguing. A wiser voice yelled to call the police.
“Sorry Tony. I shouldn’t have said that. I was wrong.”
He shrugged his raincoat back on. A little smile appeared; maybe he thought I was afraid of him. I heard a few disappointed murmurs from the onlookers. I should have let it rest, but I had to make a point.
“But I’m running this investigation, you’re not, and if you don’t like the way I’m running it, you can take a hike.”
He took a step toward me; I didn’t move. He started to stick a big finger in my chest, saw the look in my eye, and stopped, satisfied to growl, “I want you to know I don’t like you.”
Surprise surprise, I thought, trying not to laugh.
“All day I’ve had to listen to you saying nice things and asking my advice, like you care what I think. But you’re not fooling me. I know you’d rather work with some college boy like Balzic. But you can’t. I’m still the chief here and don’t you forget it.”
The obscenity brought an excited buzz and some shouts of encouragement from the crowd gathering around us. Then what appeared to be a black wall stepped between us: Ray Pallis, spreading his arms to put hands on both of our chests, pushing us back and holding us apart.
“Come on, guys, we’re all on the same side here,” he said. “Cut it out.”
The chief wasn’t finished. “You think you’re one smart son of a bitch. Another college boy. A prima donna.” He spit toward the onlookers and a couple of guys jumped back. “That’s what I think of you. And if you ever mention that case again, cop or not, I’m going to clean your clock. You got that?”
“Loud and clear,” the rational part of me said. “Are you about finished?”
“Come on Harry, Let it go,” Ray said, pulling me back.
“I’m finished. For now.”
“Tony, believe me, I’m just trying to work with you, not against you. A woman was murdered in your town. If you can’t work with me, I’ll work it without you.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Like to catch the killers on your own and embarrass me again…Well, it’s not going to happen. It’s my town and I’m gonna clear this up.” He stopped talking and looked around, as if suddenly aware of the crowd we’d attracted. “What the hell all you people staring at. Go home. Get out of here.” He took several menacing steps.
With a mixture of murmurs and laughter, the crowd began to disperse toward the station door, helped along by the loudspeaker announcing the five-ten Trenton local. Abate watched and waited until we were alone.
“Now look, Cooper,” he said quietly. “I’m gonna string along with you and let you run the show, but I’ve got my eye on you and don’t forget it. I’m watching you. You fuck up and let this guy get away and you’re gonna be in the shit this time.”
He got in his car, slammed the door and skidded away, scattering pedestrians.
“I see what you mean,” Ray said.
“Don’t say another word.” I said.
It seemed like a fine way to end a day in Bristol