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The Klein Moment

Jimmy Cortez walked out of the third precinct a free man on a Tuesday morning. By Friday night, he’d been reduced to a sack of shredded meat laid out on the linoleum floor of a Treasure Heights crack den.

Ask the coroner the cause of death and you’ll get a laundry list of pain: blunt force trauma, multiple puncture wounds, massive blood loss, etc. The reports—all a matter of public record these days—will tell you that the department interviewed a number of likely characters and came up empty. Look up “cold case” in the dictionary, you might just get a picture of the Cortez file. And cold is how it’s going to stay. Because it can’t be solved.

Read between the lines and you might get the idea that the department won’t press the issue too hard, that overworked and underpaid cops don’t really give two shits what happens to a scumbag like Jimmy Cortez, that the entire force just thought someone had done the world a favor. Mostly you’d be right. No decent person will mourn the passing of Jimmy Cortez. Not after what went down with Adele Villegas and her family.

Quinones and I caught the case—if you can even call it that— when little ten year-old Adele showed up at the Mercy General emergency room. Normally that kind of sick shit doesn’t come our way. We were detailed to anti-gang operations almost exclusively. Buy busts, taking crack house doors, kicking ass and taking names on the street, that’s our brand. Child rape wasn’t something we dealt with, thank God for small mercies. But when the Villegas girl said the words “Jimmy Cortez,” the uniform taking her statement was smart enough to put in a call to Captain Wilson, who pulled Quinones and I off a surveillance detail. Wilson knew what a hard-on we had for Cortez. And Captain or not, Wilson was still all cop. He’d come up in Anti-Crime back in the day when the south side was a free-fire zone, and after that, he’d worked three years as head of the tactical unit doing real Wild West shit. Wilson knew the score. Which is also why I’m not sitting in a cell right now.

But that’s something else entirely.

The uniform at the hospital—a red-faced mountain named O’Neil—caught a lot of shit for interviewing the little girl with no legal guardian present, but let me tell you, if it wasn’t for him, Jimmy Cortez wouldn’t have even spent the twenty-one hours in lockup that he did. Adele’s parents wouldn’t have let her say shit. Fact is, they wouldn’t have even brought her to the hospital in the first place. It was the older sister—Araceli Villegas, age seventeen—who had brought the little girl in while the parents were both at work.

When Quinones and I walked into the exam room, both the sisters were crying, but they were shedding different kinds of tears. Adele was crying big tears of childish, innocent fear, heavy sobs that made her shoulders hike with each exhalation. Araceli was crying tight little tears of adult rage. She wiped them away with angry flicks of her fingers.

“They are so stupid,” Araceli told us. “They wouldn’t let me bring her to the hospital after it happened because they’re illegal. So afraid they’ll get deported back that they won’t even take her to the doctor.”

She was talking about her parents—Eduardo and Maria Villegas—who had two hours earlier gone to their late shift jobs.

Quinones snorted. “We don’t deport people for being victims.”

Araceli’s expression told me that she thought otherwise. And who could blame her? We were closing in on an election year, after all, and the news was full of spit-shined candidates promising to be tough on illegal immigration. Like that was some magic bullet for wiping out crime. One of our own state senators was flirting with tossing his hat in the national ring and had promised to clean up his own backyard first. Fucking politics.

“Are you going to arrest him?” Araceli crossed her arms over her chest and moved protectively between us and her sister.

I told her that we would need a statement and a positive ID. Then we’d see about arresting the man who’d raped and beaten Adele.

Details of the ordeal that little girl went through are not a matter of public record, and I don’t intend to make them one now. She wasn’t even old enough to fully comprehend what had happened to her, and that made it all the more shitty, knowing that in the coming years she’d figure it out, all that had been taken from her. Adele did her best to explain it to us, and she picked Cortez’s picture out of a three-shot photo lineup that we conducted right there in the exam room. Like I said, nothing about it would stand up in court. But working anti-gang had made us broad-minded when it came to taking shortcuts.

That poor little girl cried the whole time, wrapped in a little hospital gown, still wearing her shoes. Those little, what do you call them, Mary Janes.

Looking at those little shoes just about made my heart bust open like an overfilled balloon. She was small for her age and had these big, dark, round eyes that were almost comically innocent, and she’d painted her little fingernails with glitter polish. But it was those old-fashioned shoes dangling off the edge of the exam table that nearly did me in.

“I just wanted him to stop,” Adele whispered. “I thought my dog would come protect me, make him stop hurting me…”

“Your pet dog?” I asked.

Adele nodded. “My daddy gave me Gordito to protect me while he was at work. But the man, he killed also my dog…” She sobbed like a hiccup. “I keep calling Gordito, but he won’t come.”

She stopped there, studying one of her little glitter-painted thumbnails. I looked at Quinones, who gave me a nod so slight it was hardly there.

“The man who hurt you killed your dog?” I prompted Adele as gently as possible.

“He hit Gordito in the head with something…”

“It’s okay honey,” I said, as if anything would ever be okay again. I felt stupid, useless.

“And then he cut Gordito open…”

Quinones looked like he wanted to crawl out of his skin while he listened. Not that I held up much better. Like I said, I’m glad we don’t catch these kind of cases.

“But your parents wouldn’t bring her to the doctor?” I asked Araceli, my stomach clenching.

She turned to Quinones and rattled off a string of Spanish. Her tears started to run faster as she spoke, her voice getting louder and high pitched. Quinones answered her in a soothing tone. He was speaking slower, and I could tell he was asking her to calm down.

“Her Dad is afraid that if he talks to the police they’ll all be deported,” he said, turning to me.

“Yeah, I got that much.” I don’t se habla that much, but you’d have to be one dumb motherfucker not to pick up some of the language in my line of work.

“But it’s not just because he’s illegal,” Quniones explained. “He also works the kennels for some dog fights. Remember Curtis Jackson, over in southwest?”

I nodded. Jackson was a CI for narcotics and got to skate on all manner of shit. He was a small volume dealer who got off on snitching out his enemies. Mind-boggling that he hadn’t gotten his dumb ass killed.

“Jesus Christ, dog fighting? What, is Jackson looking to diversify or something?” I had to grit my teeth. “Okay, whatever. This Gordito one of Jackson’s dogs?”

Quinones nodded. He shot some more Spanish back at the older sister.

“She loves those dogs,” Araceli explained, switching back to English for the benefit of my white ass. “All the time she goes with my Dad to look at them. They’re killers, you know? Real mean. Like…vicious. But not with Adele. Dad says whenever she goes along to the kennels, the dogs they just lay there all calm.”

I gave her a look.

“What, you don’t believe me? I’ve seen it myself,” Araceli protested. “No one could make Gordito behave at first. He attacked everyone, the trainers, other dogs, anyone. They were going to kill him until Adele came around. She just looked at him. After that, he wouldn’t fight no matter what.”

She turned away from me and blasted more Spanish at Quinones, who made calming gestures with his hands.

“What?” I asked.

Quinones shrugged. “It’s a superstition thing. She’s saying the girl has some way of communicating with the animals.”

“No, it’s not some stupid superstition.” Araceli shook her head. “I’ve seen it. They won’t even let her in the same room with the dogs when they’re fighting ‘cause all they’ll do is lay down like they’re waiting to get their bellies scratched.” She shot Quinones a look, daring him to contradict her.

Quinones kept her talking while I slipped out into the hall. I got Earl Satterly on the phone. He was running the Narcotics Task Force, and I figured he could get us some face time with Curtis Jackson.

Satterly sounded tired, but said he could hook it up. “Can I at least ask what you want with Jackson? I thought you were working the Latin gang thing. Jackson has to sound out the words when reads the Taco Bell menu. Trust me, whatever it is, he ain’t your guy.”

“Jackson might have witnessed something that can get us a line on Jimmy Cortez,” I said.

“Sure, whatever. But I’ll tell you this right now, Jackson won’t see the inside of a courtroom until our investigation wraps. For such a mouthy little punk, he’s hooked up with some big players. Last thing I need is for my witnesses to start turning up in the morgue.”

I told Satterly we’d be off the record.

He seemed satisfied with that. “I’ll have him meet you at the pancake place over off Evergreen in an hour. Fucker is a fiend for breakfast food. That work for you?”

“You’re the man, Earl.”

You hear stories. Guys who are first on the scene and see something so terrible they can’t take it. They act out, do something irreversible, cross a line that there’s no coming back from.

In our house, we call it a “Klein Moment.”

Story that goes round our department is about a guy name Klein who popped two tweakers when he saw how they’d been raising their kid the same as the dogs they kept, letting the child crawl around and eat off the floor, sleep on a little mat in the kitchen. Klein sees these two pieces of shit, laying there on the couch, watching their two year old kid hike his leg and piss on a potted plant. And Klein, he loses it. Pulls his piece and empties it into them. Reloads and empties it again. Kid sees the whole thing and doesn’t even flinch. Then Klein tries to pick the kid up and damn near gets his finger bitten off for the trouble.

Klein calls it in then goes out to his car. He uses the spare piece in the glove box to blow his brains out. But before he does the deed, he scrawls out a note on a scrap of paper and pins it to his chest.

Two lines, that’s what he wrote. I have failed the innocent. I am haunted.

Like I said, you hear stories.

I can’t say what Quinones was thinking as we drove over to the pancake place, but all I could think of was Detective Klein.

Jackson wouldn’t talk until we’d bought him a short stack and a side of bacon. Under normal circumstances, I’d have backhanded him across the face, but I’d promised Satterly to play nice.

“Big Earl said you want to talk about Jimmy Cortez,” Jackson said as he poured half a gallon of syrup over his pancakes. “All I know is motherfucker stay over on Wolfe Street most days, but he also got a woman or two up in the projects. The man do like the fights, though. He comes around, he ain’t dropping less than five bills per fight.”

I fought down the urge to knock Jackson into next week. “We don’t need to know about Cortez. We want to know about Eduardo and Maria Villegas.”

“The fuck they done? You ain’t looking to deport my best kennel keepers, are you?” He looked at me and Quinones, and we gave him the cop stare. Jackson sighed. “Well, shit. Yeah, they’re illegal, but so what? They work hard and don’t bother no one. More than I can say for most motherfuckers.”

“They ever bring their daughter around when they were working at your place?”

“That Araceli, she’s a piece.” He got back to shoveling the pancakes in.

I crumpled a paper napkin in my fist. “What about the younger daughter?”

“They used to bring her around, but I had to put a stop to it. Bad for business.”

I asked him what he meant.

“Dogs wouldn’t fight if she was around. One of them, even after she left, he wouldn’t bite if you grabbed his balls and squeezed. I let the girl take him home as a pet, but I told her parents she couldn’t be back in them kennels after that. Should have taken the cost of the dog out the parents’ pay, but I’m a nice guy.”

I looked at Quinones. He shrugged.

“You ever see Jimmy Cortez hanging around the younger daughter?” I asked.

“You telling me he got short eyes?” Jackson made a face, staring down a forkful of flapjacks. “See, I knew Cortez wasn’t right. Way he dresses. Goes around with them manicured nails and those pointy fucking shoes. I just figured dude for a faggot. But yeah, he was there that night when the little girl stopped the dogs from fighting. Made a big deal over her, like he thought it was cute how the dogs liked her so much. I didn’t think…you know…”

Quinones cleared his throat. “We’ll need that address on Wolfe Street.”

The department hadn’t been able to pop Cortez on anything more than possession of an unlicensed firearm, which he pled down to a fine and some community service. As far as drug-dealing sacks of shit went, he was cautious. He switched houses quickly and quietly enough to slip our surveillance, and as far as we could tell, no drugs or dealers went near any place he was staying. But we had no idea what kind of home defense Cortez had inside that house, so we hunkered down, parked in the lot of the all-night grocery across the way, and waited.

“You know that girl will never testify,” Quinones said. “And forget physical evidence. Forty- eight hours since the rape happened. I’d bet my paycheck that the mother’s bathed the girl a dozen times at least since then.”

Not for the first time that week I wondered just what the fuck was wrong with people. This job, the shit we see.

“What about the dogs? You have to admit, it’s damn weird,” I said.

“Man, quit looking for some Twilight Zone angle to this thing. You’re as bad as my abuela. Next thing, you’ll be telling me Adele is some bruja,” Quniones said.

“A what?”

“A witch, man. You really need to learn the language.”

Cortez came across the street around 3 AM and went into the grocery store. We scooped him up on the way out, his hands clutching bags of junk food and soda.

“What the fuck?” he whined when Quinones relieved him of the groceries and pushed him against the car.

“Shut up.” Quinones fastened Cortez’s wrists with a zip tie and shoved him into the backseat.

“Yo, this is bullshit.” Cortez kicked the back of the passenger seat as I climbed into the car.

I turned around slowly, gave him my best hard ass stare, and told him if he did if he didn’t quit kicking, I’d beat the shit out of him. He responded with another kick, this time spitting out a string of Spanish curses.

A promise is a promise. I turned around, got up on my knees so I could get some leverage, and gave Cortez a good smack in the nose.

“Kick the seat again, shit bird,” I dared him.

Cortez repeated his opinion that this arrest was a bunch of bullshit. But he did it in a calmer voice and with blood running from his nose to his chin.

As we drove, Cortez made further observations. In his considered legal opinion, Cortez believed that our arrest was based on false pretenses and would never hold up. He assured us that he’d be back on the street in less than twenty-four hours. And he had the nerve to suggest that Quinones and I could be brought up on charges ourselves.

“It was that little puta, right?” Cortez snickered. “She told you I did something to her? Let me tell you, she wanted it. Little puta wearing those tight clothes. Sitting outside the fight club like she was just waiting for the right man to come along.”

I’d like to say that before Cortez made that last remark that Quinones and I would have run him in and processed him, bullshit arrest or not. That we were going to do the right thing. And who knows, maybe we would have.

But what we did, Quinones and I, was haul Cortez into a vacant lot off 18th Street and take turns beating the shit out of him with a tire iron. We didn’t discuss it. There was no secret cop signal that we exchanged. Quinones just turned into that weedy, overgrown lot and popped the trunk. Cortez was screaming before we even got started. He should have saved his breath. Neighborhood like that, no one was going to get involved. Sure as shit no one was calling the police.

I’ve seen a guy killed from a single shot to the head from a tire iron. Big piece of metal like that can crack a skull like an egg. Had Cortez not passed out, we might have gotten there. But by the time his lights winked out, I was done. Quinones didn’t seem to have much gas left in the tank either.

We called it in. Said that we’d observed a physical altercation between three black males and one Hispanic male. Said that the three black males fled on foot, leaving behind the Hispanic male in somewhat wounded condition. And I’m not proud to admit that we slipped a vial of cocaine into Cortez’s pocket while we waited for the bus to pick him up. What the hell, it was enough to hold him while we tried to track down Adele’s parents, convince them to make a statement.

The best laid plans of mice and men. You ever heard that one?

When I wake up at night, shaking so hard that my teeth rattle, I tell myself that it all happened so fast that there was nothing we could have done.

Best I can figure, this is how it went down:

That uniform at the hospital, O’Brien, he calls to tell us that Child Protective Services showed up and removed the girls around the time Cortez is being stitched up in Emergency. Somewhere between the hospital and the shelter, the CPS car hauling the Villegas girls gets jacked, the officer shot once in the chest, once in the head. The girls were gone, the CPS officer a DOA.

Immediately afterward, an unknown number of men—the crime scene techs say between four and six shooters—entered Bad Boyz Kennels—owned by ex-pro bowl linebacker Otis Fowler and one Curtis Jackson—and opened fire on the animals and the two workers caring for them. The two workers were Eduardo and Maria Villegas. The parents. Also among the dead was Curtis Jackson. He’d been handcuffed before getting popped at such close range that his hair had caught fire.

All this in the space of a couple hours. We’d known Cortez had connections, but nothing like this. Whoever snatched those girls and turned the kennel into a slaughterhouse must have gone to work as soon as we scooped Cortez up. Either it was Cortez’s buddies doing it for him or someone further up the food chain was covering Cortez’s tracks. Either way, total clusterfuck. Every bit of it our fault.

When Detective Klein went down, the department closed ranks and made sure that his name stayed clean in the press and for his family. Officially, Klein was popped in the line of duty, which you ask me, isn’t too far off. Quinones and I also benefited from some of that team spirit. Rah rah, go Big Blue.

The captain tore us a new asshole, but he went to bat for us during the Internal Affairs investigation. They must have known the score, how we tuned Cortez up and planted the coke, but they had dick in the way of proof. O’Brien may have been wet behind the ears, but he knew better than to say that the girl had put us onto Cortez. The IAD assholes went on about how it was some coincidence, Quinones and I picking up Cortez right after we left the hospital. We kept our mouths shut and let them think whatever they fuck wanted.

“They know, but they aren’t going to do shit about it,” the captain told us after the Internal Affairs officers and our union reps left. “Even those assholes aren’t going to lose too much sleep over Jimmy Cortez catching a beating. You both have some vacation time. I suggest you take it.”

“What about the girls?” I asked.

“Adele and Araceli Villegas are missing persons. I think it’s pretty safe to say they’re presumed dead, but that’s not the official line. There was blood in the car matched the younger girl’s type. Not much, but enough to suggest…”

“Goddamn it,” I said.

Quinones just grunted.

“And Cortez?” I asked.

The captain shook his head. “He’ll walk. We can keep him overnight, question him once his pain meds wear off if his lawyer allows it. I wouldn’t hold my breath. The dope charge won’t stick, but I’m sure you didn’t think it would in the first place.”

I leaned forward with my elbows on my knees. I covered my face with my hands.

I knew what Detective Klein was thinking when he jotted his goodbye note and ate a bullet. I knew what it meant to fail the innocent.

I was one week into my forced vacation, working my way through a bottle of Maker’s Mark and contemplating the silence of my empty apartment when my new buddy O’Brien gave me a phone call. Said he thought I should be kept in the loop. Apparently Quinones had sent in a letter of resignation a couple days ago and no one had seen him since.

“Can’t say I’m shocked,” I said.

“Really? Thought you guys were tight…” O’Brien let the statement hang.

“Yeah, we were.” Back before our actions led directly to the death of that little girl. Back when I could go to sleep nights without seeing her sitting on that exam table telling me how a man killed her dog and then hurt her. Back before our Klein moment.

O’Brien went on. He told me Jimmy Cortez slipped his surveillance late last night. Left his house through the back door probably, and then jumped into an associate’s car one block over.

“That’s what they suppose anyway,” O’Brien said. “He’s paranoid already, but after everything that went down, he wants to get the fuck out of Dodge, right?” This O’Brien, whether or not he ever makes detective, he’s got the delivery down. “So Cortez gets itchy and bolts. One of his girlfriends keeps a place over in one of the Treasure Heights towers, so I guess he heads over there to shack up with her while he puts together his exit strategy.”

“Yeah?” I prompted him.

Then O’Brien finished the story. I listened, feeling my stomach go cold as he laid out the details. Once he’d finished, he wanted to know what I thought. What could I say?

“You ever hear of David Klein?” I asked O’Brien. “He was a detective worked the one-five back in the early nineties.”

“A little before my time,” O’Brien said. “Why?”

“Ask around at the station house about him. It’s a story you should hear.”

O’Brien was quiet for a beat or two. “Hey, you doing okay these days?”

“Sure, I guess. Why?”

When I hung up, I felt the urge to look over my shoulder.

This is the story O’Brien told me:

Two marked units responded to a disturbance call at Treasure Heights. Since the residents of the towers aren’t exactly amenable to police presence, the officers rightly assumed that it was something terrible and radioed for backup. Given department budget cuts, there wasn’t much backup to be had. O’Brien and his partner are the only available officers.

When the quartet of uniforms made it to the fourth floor, the scene they found made two of them promptly vomit into the trash chute down the hall. O’Brien fought down the urge and secured the scene. Inside the apartment was the body of one Jimmy Cortez. But to say “body” gives the wrong impression. It implies something whole. And Jimmy Cortez was far from whole.

According to O’Brien, Cortez was spread out all over the living room, pieces of him scattered here and there. His head, attached by a thin rope of muscle to his hollowed out torso, wore an expression that O’Brien described as “pure terror, like something scared the shit out of him.”

But here’s the thing. When the crime scene guys started going over the apartment for evidence, they found the usual human hair and clothing fibers. Two pieces of evidence, however, stood out. Although Cicely Martinez, the girl Jimmy Cortez shacked up with when he was in the towers, owned no pets, an abundance of canine hair was found at the scene. It was even among the stomach contents listed in the autopsy report for Cortez. Apparently, the medical examiner extracted a fistful of the stuff. And the other thing: although Ms. Martinez had no children, a child’s shoe was found clutched in one of Cortez’s dismembered hands. One of those little Mary Janes.

On the job, you hear stories. Work long enough, you have a few of your own.

I wonder how my story will end.

It won’t be long now. All I have to do is sit here and wait, because each night when I put my head down to sleep, I can hear it in the distance, the barking and howling of dogs.

Recommend0 Simily SnapsPublished in Horror, Mystery/Thriller