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Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streetsby David Simon
Tuesday, January 19
Pulling one hand from the warmth of a pocket, Jay Landsman squats down to grab the dead man's chin, pushing the head to one side until the wound becomes visible as a small, ovate hole, oozing red and white.
"Here's your problem," he said. "He's got a slow leak."
"A leak?" says Pellegrini, picking up on it.
"A slow one."
"You can fix those."
"Sure you can," Landsman agrees. "They got these home repair kits now . . ."
"Like with tires."
"Just like with tires," Landsman says. "Comes with a patch and everything else you need. Now a bigger wound, like from a thirty-eight, you're gonna have to get a new head. This one you could fix."
Landsman looks up, his face the very picture of earnest concern.
Sweet Jesus, thinks Tom Pellegrini, nothing like working murders with a mental case. One in the morning, heart of the ghetto, half a dozen uniforms watching their breath freeze over another dead man--what better time and place for some vintage Landsman, delivered in perfect deadpan until even the shift commander is laughing hard in the blue strobe of the emergency lights. Not that a Western District midnight shift is the world's toughest audience; you don't ride a radio car for any length of time in Sector 1 or 2 without cultivating a diseased sense of humor.
"Anyone know this guy?" asks Landsman. "Anyone get to talk to him?"
"Fuck no," says a uniform. "He was ten-seven when we got here."
Ten-seven. The police communication code for "out of service" artlessly applied to a human life. Beautiful. Pellegrini smiles, content in the knowledge that nothing in this world can come between a cop and his attitude.
"Anyone go through his pockets?" asks Landsman.
"Where the fuck are his pockets?"
"He's wearing pants underneath the sweatsuit."
Pellegrini watches Landsman straddle the body, one foot on either side of the dead man's waist, and begin tugging violently at the sweatpants. The awkward effort jerks the body a few inches across the sidewalk, leaving a thin film of matted blood and brain matter where the head wound scrapes the pavement. Landsman forces a meaty hand inside a front pocket.
"Watch for needles," says a uniform.
"Hey," says Landsman. "Anyone in this crowd gets AIDS, no one's gonna believe it came from a fucking needle."
The sergeant pulls his hand from the dead man's right front pocket, causing perhaps a dollar in change to fall to the sidewalk.
"No wallet in front. I'm gonna wait and let the ME roll him. Somebody's called the ME, right?"
"Should be on the way," says a second uniform, taking notes for the top sheet of an incident report. "How many times is he hit?"
Landsman points to the head wound, then lifts a shoulder blade to reveal a ragged hole in the upper back of the dead man's leather jacket.
"Once in the head, once in the back." Landsman pauses, and Pellegrini watches him go deadpan once again. "It could be more."
The uniform puts pen to paper.
"There is a possibility," says Landsman, doing his best to look professorial, "a good possibility, he was shot twice through the same bullethole."
"No shit," says the uniform, believing.
A mental case. They give him a gun, a badge and sergeant's stripes, and deal him out into the streets of Baltimore, a city with more than its share of violence, filth and despair. Then they surround him with a chorus of blue-jacketed straight men and let him play the role of the lone, wayward joker that somehow slipped into the deck. Jay Landsman, of the sidelong smile and pockmarked face, who tells the mothers of wanted men that all the commotion is nothing to be upset about, just a routine murder warrant. Landsman, who leaves empty liquor bottles in the other sergeants' desks and never fails to turn out the men's room light when a ranking officer is indisposed. Landsman, who rides a headquarters elevator with the police commissioner and leaves complaining that some sonofabitch stole his wallet. Jay Landsman, who as a Southwestern patrolman parked his radio car at Edmondson and Hilton, then used a Quaker Oatmeal box covered in aluminum foil as a radar gun.
"I'm just giving you a warning this time," he would tell grateful motorists. "Remember, only you can prevent forest fires."
And now, but for the fact that Landsman can no longer keep a straight face, there might well be an incident report tracked to Central Records in the departmental mail, complaint number 88-7A37548, indicating that said victim appeared to be shot once in the head and twice in the back through the same bullethole.
"No, hey, I'm joking," he says finally. "We won't know anything for sure until the autopsy tomorrow."
He looks at Pellegrini.
"Hey, Phyllis, I'm gonna let the ME roll him."
Pellegrini manages a half-smile. He's been Phyllis to his squad sergeant ever since that long afternoon at Rikers Island in New York, when a jail matron refused to honor a writ and release a female prisoner into the custody of two male detectives from Baltimore; the regulations required a policewoman for the escort. After a sufficient amount of debate, Landsman grabbed Tom Pellegrini, a thick-framed Italian born to Allegheny coal miner stock, and pushed him forward.
"Meet Phyllis Pellegrini," Landsman said, signing for the prisoner. "She's my partner."
"How do you do?" Pellegrini said with no hesitation.
"You're not a woman," said the matron.
"But I used to be."
With the blue strobe glancing off his pale face, Tom Pellegrini moves a step closer to take stock of what half an hour earlier had been a twenty-six-year-old street dealer. The dead man is sprawled on his back, legs in the gutter, arms partly extended, head facing north near the side door of a corner rowhouse. Dark brown eyes are fixed under half-lids in that expression of vague recognition so common to the newly and suddenly departed. It is not a look of horror, consternation, or even distress. More often than not, the last visage of a murdered man resembles that of a flustered schoolchild to whom the logic of a simple equation has just been revealed.
"If you're okay here," says Pellegrini, "I'm gonna go across the street."
"Well . . ."
Landsman moves closer and Pellegrini lowers his voice, as if the spoken suggestion that there may be a witness to this murder would be an embarrassing display of optimism.
"There's a woman who went into a house across the street. Someone told one of the first officers she was outside when the shooting started."
"She saw it?"
"Well, supposedly she told people it was three black males in dark clothes. They ran north after the shots."
It isn't much, and Pellegrini can read his sergeant's mind: three yos wearing black, a description that narrows the list to about half the fucking city. Landsman nods vaguely and Pellegrini begins making his way across Gold Street, stepping carefully around the patches of ice that cover much of the intersection. It is early morning now, half past two, and the temperature is well below freezing. A bracing wind catches the detective in the center of the street, cutting through his overcoat. On the other side of Etting, the locals have gathered to mark the event, younger men and teenagers signifying, scoping the unexpected entertainment, each one straining to catch a glimpse of the dead man's face across the street. Jokes are exchanged and stories whispered, but even the youngest knows to avert his eyes and fall silent at a first question from a uniform. There is no good reason to do otherwise, because in a half hour the dead man will be laid out on a table for one at the ME's chop shop on Penn Street, the Western men will be stirring coffee at the Monroe Street 7-Eleven and the dealers will be selling blue-topped caps again at this godforsaken crossroads of Gold and Etting. Nothing said now is going to change any of that.
The crowd watches Pellegrini cross the street, eyefucking him in a way that only the west side corner boys can as he walks to a painted stone stoop and hits a wood door with a rapid, three-beat motion. Waiting for a response, the detective watches a battered Buick roll west on Gold, idling slowly toward and then past him. Brake lights flash for a moment as the car approaches the blue strobes on the other side of the street. Pellegrini turns to watch the Buick roll a few blocks farther west to the Brunt Street corners, where a small coterie of runners and touts have resumed work, selling heroin and cocaine a respectful distance from the murder scene. The Buick shows its taillights again, and a lone figure slips from one corner and leans into the driver's window. Business is business, and the Gold Street market waits for no man, certainly not the dead dealer across the street.
Pellegrini knocks again and steps close to the door, listening for movement inside. From upstairs comes a muffled sound. The detective exhales slowly and raps again, bringing a young girl to a second-floor window in the next rowhouse.
"Hey there," Pellegrini says, "police department."
"Do you know if Katherine Thompson lives next door?"
"Yeah, she do."
"Is she home now?"
Heavy pounding on the door is answered at last by a light from upstairs, where a frame window is suddenly and violently wrenched upward. A heavyset, middle-aged woman--fully dressed, the detective notes--pushes head and shoulders across the sill and stares down at Pellegrini.
"Who the hell is knocking on my door this late?"
Jesus Christ, Pellegrini thinks, what else would a white man in a trenchcoat be doing on Gold Street after midnight? He pulls the shield and holds it toward the window.
"Could I talk to you for a moment?"
"No, you can't," she says, expelling the words in a singsong, slow enough and loud enough to reach the crowd across the street. "I got nothing to say to you. People be trying to sleep and you knocking on my door this late."
"You were asleep?"
"I ain't got to say what I was."
"I need to talk with you about the shooting."
"Well, I ain't got a damn thing to say to you."
"Someone died . . ."
"I know it."
"We're investigating it."
Tom Pellegrini suppresses an almost overwhelming desire to see this woman dragged into a police wagon and bounced over every pothole between here and headquarters. Instead, he looks hard at the woman's face and speaks his last words in a laconic tone that betrays only weariness.
"I can come back with a grand jury summons."
"Then come on back with your damn summons. You come here this time a night telling me I got to talk to you when I don't want to."
Pellegrini steps back from the front stoop and looks at the blue glow from the emergency lights. The morgue wagon, a Dodge van with blacked-out windows, has pulled to the curb, but every kid on every corner is now gazing across the street, watching this woman make it perfectly clear to a police detective that under no circumstances is she a living witness to a drug murder.
"It's your neighborhood."
"Yeah, it is," she says, slamming the window.
Pellegrini shakes his head gently, then walks back across the street, arriving in time to watch the crew of the morgue wagon roll the body. From a jacket pocket comes a wristwatch and keys. From a rear pants pocket comes an identification card. Newsome, Rudolph Michael, male, black, date of birth 3/5/61, address 2900 Allendale.
Landsman pulls the white rubber gloves from his hands, drops them in the gutter and looks at his detective.
"Anything?" he asks.
"No," says Pellegrini.
Landsman shrugs. "I'm glad it's you that got this one."
Pellegrini's chiseled face creases into a small, brief smile, accepting his sergeant's declaration of faith for the consolation prize it is. With less than two years in homicide, Tom Pellegrini is generally regarded to be the hardest worker in Sergeant Jay Landsman's squad of five detectives. And that matters now, because both men know that Baltimore's thirteenth homicide of 1988, handed to them on the second leg of a midnight shift at the corner of Gold and Etting, is an exceptionally weak sister: a drug killing with no known witnesses, no specific motive and no suspects. Perhaps the only person in Baltimore who might have managed some real interest in the case is at this moment being shoveled onto a body litter. Rudy Newsome's brother will make the identification later that morning outside a freezer door across from the autopsy room, but after that the boy's family will offer little else. The morning newspaper will print not a line about the killing. The neighborhood, or whatever is left around Gold and Etting that resembles a neighborhood, will move on. West Baltimore, home of the misdemeanor homicide.
All of which is not to say that any man in Landsman's squad wouldn't give Rudy Newsome's murder a shake or two. A police department is fueled by its own stats, and a homicide clearance--any clearance--will always earn a detective some court time and a few attaboys. But Pellegrini is playing the game for more than that: He's a detective still in the process of proving things to himself, hungry for more experience and fresh to the daily grind. Landsman has watched him build cases on murders about which nothing should have been learned. The Green case from the Lafayette Court projects. Or that shooting outside Odell's up on North Avenue, the one where Pellegrini walked up and down a bombed-out alley, kicking trash until he found a spent .38 slug that put the case down. To Landsman, the amazing thing is that Tom Pellegrini, a ten-year veteran of the force, came to homicide straight from the City Hall security detail only weeks after the mayor became the odds-on favorite for governor in a Democratic primary landslide. It was a political appointment, plain and simple, handed down from the deputy commissioner for services as if the governor himself had poured the oil on Pellegrini's head. Everyone in homicide assumed that the new man would need about three months to prove himself an absolute hump.
"Well," says Pellegrini, squeezing behind the wheel of an unmarked Chevy Cavalier, "so far so good."
Landsman laughs. "This one will go down, Tom."
Pellegrini shoots back a look that Landsman ignores. The Cavalier slips past block after block of rowhouse ghetto, rolling down Druid Hill Avenue until it crosses Martin Luther King Boulevard and the Western District gives way to the early morning emptiness of downtown. The chill is keeping them in; even the drunks are gone from the Howard Street benches. Pellegrini slows before running every light until he catches the red signal at Lexington and Calvert, a few blocks from headquarters, where a lone whore, unmistakably a transvestite, gestures furtively at the car from the doorway of a corner office. Landsman laughs. Pellegrini wonders how any prostitute in this city could fail to understand the significance of a Chevy Cavalier with a six-inch antenna on its ass.
"Look at this pretty motherfucker," says Landsman. "Let's pull over and fuck with him."
The car eases through the intersection and pulls to the curb. Landsman rolls down the passenger window. The whore's face is hard, a man's face.
The whore looks away in cold rage.
"Hey, mister," yells Landsman.
"I ain't no mister," the whore says, walking back to the corner.
"Sir, would you have the time?"
"Go fuck yourself."
Landsman laughs malevolently. One of these days, Pellegrini knows, his sergeant will say something bizarre to someone who matters and half the squad will be writing reports for a week.
"I think you hurt his feelings."
"Well," says Landsman, still laughing, "I didn't mean to."
A few minutes later, the two men are backed into a parking space on the second tier of the headquarters garage. On the bottom of the same page recording the particulars of Rudy Newsome's death, Pellegrini writes the number of the parking space and the mileage on the odometer, then circles the two figures. Murders come and go in this town, but God forbid you should forget to write the correct mileage on your activity sheet or, worse yet, forget to note the parking space so that the next man out spends fifteen minutes walking up and down the headquarters garage, trying to figure out which Cavalier matches the ignition key in his hand.
Pellegrini follows Landsman across the garage and through a metal bulkhead door to the second-floor hallway. Landsman punches the elevator button.
"I wonder what Fahlteich got from Gatehouse Drive."
"Was that a murder?" asks Pellegrini.
"Yeah. It sounded like it on the radio."
The elevator slowly ascends, opening on another, similar corridor with waxed linoleum and hospital blue walls, and Pellegrini follows his sergeant down the long hall. From inside the aquarium--the soundproof room of metal and plate glass where witnesses sit before being interviewed--comes the sound of young girls laughing softly.
Hail Mary. Here be witnesses from Fahlteich's shooting at the city's other end--living, breathing witnesses brought forth by the gods from the scene of the new year's fourteenth homicide. What the hell, thinks Pellegrini, at least somebody in the squad had a little luck tonight.
The voices in the aquarium slip away as the two men move down the hall. Just before turning the corner into the squadroom, Pellegrini looks into the darkened aquarium's side door and glimpses the orange glow of a cigarette and the outline of the woman seated closest to the door. He sees a hard face, the deep brown features fixed like granite, the eyes offering only seasoned contempt. Helluva body, too: nice chest, good legs, yellow miniskirt. Someone probably would have said something by now if she wasn't all attitude.
Mistaking this casual assessment for genuine opportunity, the girl saunters from the aquarium to the edge of the office, then knocks lightly on the metal frame.
"Can I make a call?"
"Who do you want to talk to?"
"No, not now. After you're interviewed."
"What about my ride?"
"One of the uniformed officers will take you home."
"I've been here an hour," she says, crossing her legs in the doorway. The woman has the face of a teamster, but she's giving this her best shot. Pellegrini is unimpressed. He can see Landsman smiling at him wickedly from the other side of the office.
"We'll get to you as fast as we can."
Abandoning any thought of seduction, the woman walks back to join her girlfriend on the fishbowl's green vinyl couch, crosses her legs again and lights another cigarette.
The woman is here because she had the misfortune to be inside a garden apartment in the Purnell Village complex on Gatehouse Drive, where a Jamaican drug dealer named Carrington Brown played host to another Jake by the name of Roy Johnson. There was some preliminary talk, a few accusations delivered in a lilting West Indian accent, and then a considerable amount of gunfire.
Copyright © 1991, 2006 by David Simon
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