Long Bright River – Liz Moore

There’s a body on the Gurney Street tracks. Female, age unclear, probable overdose, says the dispatcher. Kacey, I think. This is a twitch, a reflex, something sharp and subconscious that lives inside me and sends the same message racing to the same base part of my brain every time a female is reported. Then the more rational part of me comes plodding along, lethargic, uninspired, a dutiful dull soldier here to remind me about odds and statistics: nine hundred overdose victims in Kensington last year. Not one of them Kacey. Furthermore, this sentry reproves me, you seem to have forgotten the importance of being a professional. Straighten your shoulders. Smile a little. Keep your face relaxed, your eyebrows unfurrowed, your chin untucked. Do your job. All day, I’ve been having Lafferty respond to calls for us for further practice. Now, I nod to him, and he clears his throat and wipes his mouth. Nervous. —2613, he says.

Our vehicle number. Correct. Dispatch continues. The RP is anonymous. The call came in from a payphone, one of several that still line Kensington Avenue and, as far as I know, the only one of those that still works. Lafferty looks at me. I look at him. I gesture to him. More. Ask for more.

—Got it, says Lafferty into his radio. Over. Incorrect. I raise mine to my mouth. I speak clearly. —Any further information on location? I say. — After I end the call, I give Lafferty a few pointers, reminding him not to be afraid to speak plainly to Dispatch—many rookie officers have the habit of speaking in a kind of stilted, masculine manner they have most likely picked up from films or television—and reminding him, too, to extract from Dispatch as many details as he can. But before I’ve finished speaking, Lafferty says, again, Got it. I look at him. Excellent, I say.

I’m glad. I’ve only known him an hour, but I’m getting a sense for him. He likes to talk—already I know more about him than he’ll ever know about me—and he’s a pretender. An aspirant. In other words, a phony. Someone so terrified of being called poor, or weak, or stupid, that he won’t even admit to what deficits he does have in those regards. I, on the other hand, am well aware that I’m poor. More so than ever now that Simon’s checks have stopped coming. Am I weak? Probably in some ways: stubborn, maybe, obstinate, mulish, reluctant to accept help even when it would serve me to. Physically afraid, too: not the first officer to throw herself in front of a bullet for a friend, not the first officer to throw herself into traffic in the pursuit of some vanishing perpetrator.

Poor: yes. Weak: yes. Stupid: no. I’m not stupid. I was late to roll call this morning. Again. I am ashamed to admit it was the third time in a month, and I despise being late. A good police officer is punctual if she is nothing else. When I walked into the common area—a drab, bright space, devoid of furniture, adorned only by peeling policy posters on the wall—Sergeant Ahearn was waiting for me, arms crossed. —Fitzpatrick, he said.

Welcome to the party. You’re with Lafferty today in 2613. —Who’s Lafferty, I said, before I thought better of it. I really didn’t intend to be funny. Szebowski, in the corner, laughed aloud once. Ahearn said, That’s Lafferty. Pointing. There he was, Eddie Lafferty, second day in the district. He was busying himself across the room, looking at his blank activity log. He glanced at me quickly and apprehensively.

Then he bent down, as if noticing something on his shoes, which were freshly polished, somehow glistening. He pursed his lips. Whistled lowly. At the time, I almost felt sorry for him. Then he got into the passenger’s seat. — Facts I have learned about Eddie Lafferty in the first hour of our acquaintance: He is forty-three, which makes him eleven years my senior. A late entrant into the PPD. He worked construction until last year, when he took the test. (My back, says Eddie Lafferty. It still bothers me sometimes.

Don’t tell anyone.) He’s just rolled off his field training. He has three ex-wives and three almost-grown children. He has a home in the Poconos. He lifts. (I’m a gym rat, says Eddie Lafferty.) He has GERD. Occasionally, he suffers from constipation. He grew up in South Philadelphia and now lives in Mayfair. He splits Eagles season tickets with six friends.

His most recent ex-wife was in her twenties. (Maybe that was the problem, says Lafferty, her being immature.) He golfs. He has two rescued pit mixes named Jimbo and Jennie. He played baseball in high school. One of his teammates then was, in fact, our platoon’s sergeant, Kevin Ahearn, and it was Sergeant Ahearn who suggested he consider police work. (Something about this makes sense to me.) Facts Eddie Lafferty has learned about me in the first hour of our acquaintance: I like pistachio ice cream. — All morning, during Eddie Lafferty’s very infrequent pauses, I have tried my best to interject only the basics of what he needs to know about the neighborhood. Kensington is one of the newer neighborhoods in what is, by American standards, the very old city of Philadelphia.

It was established in the 1730s by the Englishman Anthony Palmer, who acquired a small tract of nondescript land and named it after a regal neighborhood—one that was, at the time, the preferred residence of the British monarchy. (Perhaps Palmer, too, was a phony. Or, more kindly, an optimist.) The eastern edge of present-day Kensington is a mile from the Delaware River, but in its earliest days it bordered the river directly. Accordingly, its earliest industries were shipbuilding and fishing, but by the middle of the nineteenth century its long tenure as a manufacturing hub was beginning. At its peak it boasted producers of iron, steel, textiles, and— perhaps fittingly—pharmaceuticals. But when, a century later, the factories in this country died in great numbers, Kensington, too, began a slow and then a rapid economic decline. Many residents moved farther into or out of the city, seeking other work; others stayed, persuaded by allegiance or delusion that a change would come. Today, Kensington comprises in nearly equal parts the Irish-Americans who moved here in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and a newer population of families of Puerto Rican and other Latino descent—along with groups who represent successively smaller slivers of Kensington’s demographic pie: African-American, East Asian, Caribbean. Present-day Kensington is shot through by two main arteries: Front Street, which runs north up the eastern edge of the city, and Kensington Ave—usually just called the Ave, an alternately friendly or disdainful appellation, depending on who’s saying it—which begins at Front and veers northeast.

The Market-Frankford elevated train—or, more commonly, the El, since a city called Philly can’t let any of its infrastructure go unabbreviated—runs directly over both Front and Kensington, which means both roads spend the majority of the day in the shadows. Large steel beams support the train line, blue legs spaced thirty feet apart, which gives the whole apparatus the look of a giant and menacing caterpillar hovering over the neighborhood. Most of the transactions (narcotic, sexual) that happen in Kensington begin on one of these two roads and end on one of the many smaller streets that cross them, or more often in one of the abandoned houses or empty lots that populate the neighborhood’s side streets and alleys. The businesses that can be found along the main streets are nail salons, takeout places, mobile phone stores, convenience stores, dollar stores, appliance stores, pawnshops, soup kitchens, other charitable organizations, and bars. About a third of the storefronts are shuttered. And yet—like the condos that are sprouting, to our left now, from an empty lot that has lain fallow since a wrecking ball took out the factory it used to house—the neighborhood is rising. New bars and businesses are cropping up on the periphery, toward Fishtown, where I grew up. New young faces are populating those businesses: earnest, rich, naive, ripe for the picking. So the mayor is getting concerned with appearances. More troops, the mayor says.

More troops, more troops, more troops. — It’s raining hard today, and this forces me to drive more slowly than I normally would when responding to a call. I name the businesses we pass, name their proprietors. I describe recent crimes I think Lafferty should know about (each time, Lafferty whistles, shakes his head). I list allies. Outside our windows: the usual mix of people seeking a fix and people in the aftermath of one. Half of the people on the sidewalks are melting slowly toward the earth, their legs unable to support them. The Kensington lean, say people who make jokes about that kind of thing. I never do. Because of the weather, some of the women we pass have umbrellas.

They wear winter hats and puffy jackets, jeans, dirty sneakers. They range in age from teenagers to the elderly. The large majority are Caucasian, though addiction doesn’t discriminate, and all races and creeds can be found here. The women wear no makeup, or maybe a hard black ring of liner around their eyes. The women working the Ave don’t wear anything that shows they’re working, but everyone knows: it’s the look that does it, a long hard gaze at the driver of every passing car, every passing man. I know most of these women, and most of them know me. —There’s Jamie, I say to Lafferty as we pass her. There’s Amanda. There’s Rose. I consider it part of his training to know these women.

Down the block, at Kensington and Cambria, I see Paula Mulroney. She’s on crutches today, hovering miserably on one foot, getting rained on because she can’t balance an umbrella too. Her denim jacket has turned a dark upsetting blue. I wish she’d go inside. I glance around quickly, checking for Kacey. This is the corner on which she and Paula can usually be found. Occasionally they’ll get into a fight or have a falling-out, and one or the other of them will go stand someplace else for a while, but a week later I’ll see them there, reunited, their arms slung about one another cheerfully, Kacey with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, Paula with a water or a juice or a beer in a paper bag. Today, I don’t see Kacey anyplace. It occurs to me, in fact, that I have not seen her in quite some time. Paula spots our car as we drive toward her and she squints in our direction, seeing who’s inside.

I lift two fingers off the steering wheel: a wave. Paula looks at me, and then at Lafferty, and then turns her face slightly upward, toward the sky. —That’s Paula, I say to Lafferty. I think about saying more. I went to school with her, I could say. She’s a friend of the family. She’s my sister’s friend. But already, Lafferty has moved on to another subject: this time it is the heartburn that has plagued him for the better part of a year. I can think of no response. —Are you always this quiet? he says suddenly.

It’s the first question he’s asked me since determining my ice cream preferences. —Just tired, I say. —Have you had a lot of partners before me? says Lafferty, and then he laughs, as if he’s made a joke. —That sounded wrong, he says. Sorry. For just long enough, I say nothing. Then I say, Only one. —How long did you work together? —Ten years. —What happened to him? says Lafferty. —He hurt his knee last spring, I say.

He’s out on medical leave for a while. —How’d he hurt it? asks Lafferty. I don’t know that it’s any of his business. Nevertheless, I say, At work. If Truman wants everyone to know the full story, Truman can tell it. —Have any kids? Have a husband? he asks. I wish he’d go back to talking about himself. —One child, I say. No husband. —Oh yeah? How old? —Four years old.

Almost five. —Good age, says Lafferty. I miss when mine were that age. — When I pull up to the entry point to the tracks that Dispatch indicated—a man-made opening in a fence, something someone kicked out years ago that’s never been repaired —I see we’ve beaten the medical unit to the scene. I look at Lafferty, assessing him. Unexpectedly, I feel a twinge of sympathy for him, for what we are about to see. His field training was in the 23rd District, which is next to ours, but much lower in crime. Besides, he would mostly have been doing foot patrol, crowd control, that sort of thing. I’m not sure if he’s ever responded to this type of call before. There are only so many ways you can ask someone how many dead people they’ve seen in their life, so in the end I decide to keep things vague.

—Have you ever done this before? I ask him. He shakes his head. He says, Nope. —Well, here we go, I say, brightly. I’m not certain what else I can say. There is no way to prepare a person sufficiently. Thirteen years ago, when I first started, it happened a few times a year: we’d get a report that someone had fatally overdosed, had been deceased so long that medical intervention was unnecessary. More common were calls about overdoses in progress, and typically those individuals could be revived. These days, it happens frequently. This year alone the city is on track for 1,200, and the vast majority of those are in our district.

Most are relatively recent ODs. Others are bodies that have already started to decay. Sometimes they’re inexpertly hidden by friends or lovers who witnessed the death but don’t want to jump through the hoops of reporting it, don’t want to answer to anyone about how it happened. More often they’re just out in the open, having nodded off forever in a secluded place. Sometimes their family finds them first. Sometimes their children. Sometimes, we do: out on patrol we simply see them there, sprawled out or slumped over, and when we check their vital signs they have no pulse. They’re cold to the touch. Even in summer. — From the opening in the fence, Lafferty and I walk downhill into a little gulch.

I’ve entered this way dozens or maybe hundreds of times in my years on the force. It’s part of our patrol, in theory, this overgrown area. We find someone or something every time we go in. When I was partnered with Truman, he was always the one to go in first. He was senior. Today, I go in first, ducking my head uselessly, as if this will somehow keep me drier. But the rain isn’t letting up. The splattering sound it makes on my hat is so loud that I can barely hear myself speak. My shoes slip in the mud. Like many parts of Kensington, the Lehigh Viaduct—mainly called the Tracks now—is a stretch of land that’s lost its purpose.

It was once busy with cargo trains that served an essential purpose in Kensington’s industrial heyday, but now it’s underused and overgrown. Weeds and leaves and branches cover needles and baggies scattered on the ground. Stands of small trees conceal activity. Lately there’s been talk, from the city and Conrail, of paving it over, but it hasn’t happened yet. I’m skeptical: I can’t imagine it being anything other than what it is, a hiding place for people in need of a fix, for the women who work the Ave and their customers. If it gets paved over, new enclaves will sprout up all over the neighborhood. I’ve seen it happen before. A little rustle to our left: a man emerges from the weeds. He looks spectral and strange. He stands still, his hands down by his sides, small rivulets of water trickling down his face.

In fact, it would be impossible to tell if he was crying. —Sir, I say to him, have you seen anything around here that we should know about? He says nothing. Stares some more. Licks his lips. He has the faraway, hungry look of someone in need of a fix. His eyes are an unnaturally light blue. Perhaps, I think, he’s meeting a friend here, or a dealer: someone who will help him out. At last he shakes his head, slowly. —You’re not supposed to be down here, you know, I tell him. There are certain officers who wouldn’t bother with this formality, deeming it futile.

Weed whacking, some say: they sprout right back up, in other words. But I always do. —Sorry, the man says, but he doesn’t look as if he’s about to leave anytime soon, and I don’t take the time to haggle with him. We keep walking. Large puddles have formed on either side of us. The dispatcher indicated that the body was a hundred yards straight back from the entrance we used, slightly off to the right. Behind a log, she had said. The RP, she added, had left a newspaper on the log to help us find the body. This is what we’re looking for as we walk farther and farther from the fence. It’s Lafferty who spots the log first, veers off the path—which isn’t a path, really, just the place on the Tracks where people have tended to walk the most over the years.

I follow. I wonder, as always, whether I’ll know the woman: whether she’ll be someone I recognize from picking her up, or from driving past her, over and over, on the street. And then, before I can stop it, the familiar chant returns: Or Kacey. Or Kacey. Or Kacey. Lafferty, ten steps ahead of me, peers over the log to inspect the far side. He says nothing: just keeps leaning over, his head cocked at an angle, taking it in. When I arrive I do the same. She’s not Kacey. That’s my first thought: Thank God, I don’t know her.

Her death was recent: that’s my second. She hasn’t been lying here long. There’s nothing soft about her, nothing slack. Instead she’s stiff, lying on her back, one arm contracted upward so that her hand has become a claw. Her face is contorted and sharp; her eyes are unpleasantly open. Usually, in overdoses, they’re closed—which always gives me some measure of comfort. At least, I think, they died in peace. But this woman looks astonished, unable to believe the fate that has befallen her. She’s lying on a bed of leaves. Except for her right arm, she’s straight as a tin soldier.

She’s young. In her twenties. Her hair is—was—pulled back into a tight ponytail, but it’s been mussed. Strands of it have been pulled out of the elastic that holds it in place. She’s wearing a tank top and a denim skirt. It’s too cold to be dressed this way. The rain is falling directly on her body and face. This is bad, too, for the preservation of evidence. Instinctively, I want to cover her, to bundle her up in something warm. Where is her jacket? Maybe someone took it off her after she died.

Unsurprisingly, a syringe and a makeshift tourniquet are on the ground next to her. Was she alone when she died? They usually aren’t, the women: usually they’re with boyfriends or clients who leave them when they die, afraid of being implicated, afraid of being caught up in some business that they want no part of. We’re supposed to take vital signs upon arrival. Normally I wouldn’t, not in a case as obvious as this one, but Lafferty’s watching me, so I do things by the book. I steel myself, climb over the log, and reach toward her. I’m about to take her pulse when I hear footsteps and voices nearby. Damn, the voices are saying. Damn. Damn. The rain is falling even harder.

The medical unit has found us. They are two young men. They’re in no rush. They know already that they can’t save this one. She’s gone; she has been. They need no coroner to tell them this. —Fresh one? calls one of them. I nod, slowly. I don’t like the way they—we—talk about the dead sometimes. The two young men saunter toward the log, peer over it nonchalantly.

—Jeez, says one—Saab is his last name, there on his name tag—to the other, to Jackson. —She’ll be light, at least, says Jackson, which feels like a hit to my stomach. Then collectively they climb over the log, skirt the body, kneel down beside her. Jackson reaches out to place his fingers on her. He tries a few times, obligingly, to find something, then stands up. He checks his watch. —As of 11:21, Jane Doe pronounced, he says. —Record that, I say to Lafferty. One nice thing about having a partner again: someone else to fill in the activity log. Lafferty’s been keeping his inside his jacket to preserve it from the rain, and he takes it out now, hovering over it, trying to keep it dry.

—Hang on a second, I say. Eddie Lafferty looks at me and then the body. I bend down between Jackson and Saab, looking carefully at the victim’s face, the open eyes cloudy now, nearly opaque, the jaws clenched painfully. There, just beneath her eyebrows and sprinkled over the tops of her cheekbones, is a splattering of little pink dots. From far away they just made her look flushed; up close, they are distinct, like small freckles, or the marks of a pen on a page. Saab and Jackson bend down too. —Oh yeah, says Saab. —What, says Lafferty. I raise my radio to my mouth. —Possible homicide, I say.

—Why, says Lafferty. Jackson and Saab ignore him. They’re still bent down, studying the body. I lower the radio. Turn to Lafferty. His training, his training. —Petechiae, I say, pointing to the dots. —Which are, says Lafferty. —Burst blood vessels. One sign of strangulation.

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


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