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The Woman in White Marble

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Main | The O’Reilly Case »
Sunday
Jan172016

Freeze

Place: An empty, former Delicatessen store, situated in a minor business hub on Third Avenue between East 103rd and E110 streets, East Harlem, New York, USA.

Time: 2.00 a.m.

“SWEET JESUS, LEFTIE! Cool it.”

 “You givin’ me orders, Groden? You still owe me big time – just like this bum…”

To emphasise his feelings, ‘Leftie’, slimly built, but deceptively strong, who had been busy with his fists, kicked the inert figure lying, bleeding, on the tiled floor.  Decidedly devious, but not of a violent nature, Groden winced, not liking the way the night, or rather early morning, was turning out. The

three of them had, after all, agreed to have a ‘civilised’ meeting, although he very much doubted that Leftie knew the meaning of the word.

“The pig’s in the freezer, like I promised,” said Groden.

“The pig’s just a start. What about the thousand bucks?” Leftie was obviously not in a bargaining mood.

“Times are difficult, Leftie.”

Yeah – for ALL of us, Groden!”

The body on the floor moved slightly and moaned, so Leftie made light work of hauling the  unfortunate   guy to his feet and smashing him hard with his right fist: the breaking of one or more teeth quite audible.  Groden winced again as the slightly built guy met the tiles, hitting the back of his head, from which a thin trail of blood oozed like a small, red stream.

“Stop it Leftie, you’ll kill him. Stop it!” Groden shouted as someone rattled the door handle, which was locked. Leftie put a finger to his lips while whoever was outside yelled:

“What’s goin’ on in there?” and rattled the door handle again.  Fortunately for Leftie, the lighting inside was dim and grime and posters covered up most of the door and window glass as the person tried to see what was going on.  With luck again on Leftie’s side, the curious passer-by thought it prudent not to investigate further and left. Groden bent over the still body on the floor, slapped the guy’s face and pulled him up by his tee shirt with no effect.

“Lennie? Can you hear me, Lennie? Get up!”  Paling, Groden looked up at Leftie.

“Christ, Leftie. Lennie’s just about breathing.”

“Shit!”

“You hard bastard. Is that all you can say?” Groden instantly knew that he was talking to someone with frozen feelings if he had any at all.

“Let’s put him in the freezer for now, in case that nosey bum returns. He’s nearly dead anyway.…”

“What? He’ll freeze to death.” Groden, not used to such violence, was shocked at the suggestion. .

Leftie shrugged:

He’s just a worthless bum.  No-one’s gonna miss him!”

Appalled at the gross idea, Groden nevertheless stood stock still while Leftie dragged the unfortunate – by now unconscious - Lennie into the freezer, aware that Leftie had too much on him.  Whatever the outcome, Groden somehow knew that he was in for the ride, however bumpy that might turn out to be.

 “You can help me get rid of his body tonight, Groden, so get thinkin’…You’ve no choice!” Leftie gave an evil chuckle, continuing:

“Cheer up, Groden -  it coulda been you.”

After handing over one pig carcass to Leftie, they left the store; Groden locking the door.

At 2.45 a would-be thief was in the process of breaking into the premises but left in haste when disturbed by a police car approaching.    

                                                            ********

8.45 a.m

IT IS A HOT, HUMID, July morning in New York.  The sky is a pleasing shade of blue: Madonna or

lapu lazuli, depending on your interpretation; and a session of rap singing competes with raucous voices raised to a dangerous level in an East Harlem side street.  Detective Maurice Shiff is on his way to pick up his ‘side-kick rookie’ Chuck Johnson.  Cutting the engine of his white Toyota Prius at the kerb outside Chuck’s apartment, he presses the car horn impatiently for several seconds.  It is a full two minutes before Chuck emerges, still tucking his shirt into his pants.

“Jesus, move it, Chuck.  We’re already late. Washington’ll be hopping…” The ‘Washington’ to which he was referring is Washington Carson, black Captain of the 25th Police Precinct in East Harlem.  The Monday morning ‘Crime round-up’ of homicides and other serious police matters took place at nine o’clock sharp.  Maurice taps his watch, gesticulating and miming in a typical Continental manner.  With his light olive-skinned looks and coal-black curly hair, he could be Italian or Spanish.  He is, in fact, a Russian Jew, his grand-parents having emigrated to America, firstly from the pograms in Russia and then Poland in the 1920s.  His father, Samuel, died aged 45, leaving his mother Bella – now 81, to cook and sew to bring up her two sons alone.  Maurice is a pleasing specimen of manhood at 43, whilst not quite reaching the heroic heights of Superman (whom he dreamt about in his teens). Despite being a ‘Cerebral guy,’ he also regularly works out at Mo’s Gym, and plays basketball at the East Harlem Center on 130 East 101st encouraging aimless teenagers who live near his mother – who proudly proclaims that:

“I’m the only Jewess left on my block!”

In the past, she was bemused to watch the almost mass exodus of the Jews and witness synagogues in the area metamorphasize into churches.   Now, mainly Puerto Ricans live in East Harlem. Back to the present action, Chuck opens Maurice’s car door, slides in beside him, still half awake and mumbles a greeting.  In complete physical contrast, blond as a Swede, spiky-haired Chuck, takes out a comb and tries taming his mop of hair.

“So well?”

Maurice’s expression softens as he starts the car and heads towards the home of the 25th Police Precinct.

“So well, what?” Chuck collapses, like a lanky string-less puppet, into his seat with a yawn.

“Man what a night…You shoulda seen her, man!”

Who?

“Lola.”

“Lola?” adding “Lap or pole dancer?”

Chuck ignored the question and said, sliding down further in his seat, grinning:

“Sow ye oats while ye may, is my motto…Just because you’re past it bud…

As my dear Mom used to say, why go out for burgers when you’ve prime steak at home!”

Maurice raised an eyebrow.

“Yeah, well you may have somethin’ there M.  Your Louise is a right looker!”

She’s also intelligent Chuck – though I doubt that comes high on your list of desirable attributes at present!”

Chuck guffawed and said that the conversation was getting boring as Maurice negotiated the thickening traffic. Maurice had met Louise Merchant, who was thirty-eight years old, when he nearly knocked her flying in a local delicatessen while purchasing a stick of salami sausage. They dated, ‘clicked’ and now lived in a small West Harlem apartment.  Louise is a secretary, mad about Maurice, and is keen to have a gold ring on her finger and a baby in that order.  Although he loves Louise, for reasons known only to himself, Maurice prefers things the way they are. Having parked, and once inside police headquarters, the detective and his rookie greeted fellow cops cops gathering for the captain’s briefing with high fives and a few mumbled “Hi’s.

Responding to an itchy nose, Maurice said:

“Wonder what the old guy’s got on the itinerary today, Chuck? Espionage, computer hacking, arson – who knows!”

Maybe your schnozzle should be consulted, whatever it is…” Chuck neatly moved out of Maurice’s reach with a grin.

The Captain softened his men up with a joke, as always, and then got down to the serious business of the day.  Although tough when called for, he had a very human side, which made him more approachable than their last captain who was attributed with having no known father.

“The weekend has yielded the usual batch of drunken miscreants, two muggings, one ‘near rape,’ whatever that amounted to… two burglaries and two ’violent marital disagreements’ – haven’t read  the report yet.   NO murders, guys! Nada.  Shiff and Johnson – check out a reported break in.”

Armed with the details, Maurice and Chuck headed for their car, and having downed their second coffee of the day, accompanied by a cream cheese bagel, proceeded to the shop a few miles east.  Conversation was sparse as Chuck was still recuperating from his wild night of over-indulgence.  Around 10.30 a.m. they arrived at the site of the break-in. Having parked up, the two men approached the building - a double-fronted empty store - and removed the sealing tape placed there by two of their two of their colleagues earlier on finding the door open.  They were met by a damp, earthy odour, redolent of closed, unused, empty premises, as they entered.

“Jemmied…” said Chuck, fingering the door-jamb, continuing:

“Wonder what they were looking for? The place is empty.”

“They? Well, he/she/they wouldn’t a known that for sure until that got in, would they?”

Maurice replied.  Chuck mumbled a “Spose,while taking stock of his surroundings.

Strange!” Maurice tapped his lips with a finger.

“What is?”

“That the juice is still on.  This place musta been empty for months…”

Maurice pressed a switch on the wall and the ensuing light made them both blink.

“Howdya know that, M?”

Listen!”

“A freezer!”

Yup, heard it humming as we came in.”

Both men stepped deeper into the large room, side-stepping a flier shoved under the door promoting THE GREAT DECEIVER who promised to ‘Wow you at parties…’ whatever that entailed. Three sets of dry, but previously muddy, footprints (there had been a brief summer down-pour just after midnight) didn’t go unnoticed - one set on the edge of the rumpled flier, the others on the tiled floor - all scuffed but recognisable.  There was also a cigar stub, which Maurice bagged.    

“Good idea if we check the freezer, eh Chuck?” Maurice stepped purposefully towards the back of the room where a large walk-in freezer dominated the space. Behind him, Chuck sucked his teeth as the cold hit him.  Both men shivered.  Exchanging pained expressions, they turned in opposite directions to explore the spacious interior, Chuck silently gesticulating his surprise on finding a pig carcass hanging on a hook.  There were what looked to be a pile of frozen rags in the corner Maurice approached, until examined more closely.

“JESUS!” Maurice, clearly shocked at what he’d discovered, called Chuck over.

“It’s Lennie the limp. Poor ganef…” he said, and despite feeling sure that the body, partly hidden by old clothes and an empty sack , was bereft of life, bent down and felt for a pulse.  There was none.  In fact the body was as cold as marble. Noting Lennie’s attire – a red tee shirt and blue denim shorts – Chuck said:

“Hardly the right dress for such Arctic conditions, eh M?” To which Maurice, still shocked, simply shook his head.

“Re the moniker, was Lennie Welsh, and did he suffer a disablement in one of two places?” Chuck asked, giving a nervous chuckle.

Oh, very droll!” Maurice gave a wry grin, continuing…

“This is a first, Chuck.  What are the odds on finding the body of someone you know? And no, he didn’t hail from Wales.  He originally came from Italy. His surname’s Corelli. He was  a small-time pimp at one time – rumoured to be equally small fry in the Mafia. He was involved in a mysterious car accident which left him with a badly damaged leg, hence the nick-name.  I hadn’t seen him for a few years.”  

Maurice stared down at the ashen, almost vulpine, face of Lennie with another shake of his head and phoned through to the Police Examiner’s office, reported their finding and requested that they pick up the cadaver ASAP.  Simultaneously shivering, the two men left the freezer, closing the door behind them, Maurice aware of the fluctuating air temperature affecting the examination of Lennie’s body during the post mortem.

Having waited until their colleagues arrived, Maurice and Chuck then drove to police headquarters where Maurice typed up the murder report, secure in the knowledge that Lennie hadn’t wandered into the freezer of his own volition. Apart from their later stop for iced tea, it then nearing 85 degrees, plus a couple of hot dogs, the pair spent the afternoon checking on Lennie’s former acquaintances.  They discovered that one:  Bruno Mancini, had been fished out of the East River six months previously with a bullet in the back of his head, and that Lionel Griffen, an embezzler, had died of cancer.  That just left a shady character called Leftie Rogers, sometimes called Roger the dodger, to check on.  After more phoning around, the men put in some leg work, calling in on one or two clubs and a pool hall.  As expected, the guys they questioned clammed up, and they were about to give up for the day, when a more chatty character, known to being ‘occasionally co-operative’ named Willie Walters, wandered in.

“Yeah, I know Lennie,” he said when questioned, adding:

 “Wadya wanna know?”

They refrained from telling him that Lennie was dead.

“Did he ever hang out with Leftie Rogers alias Roger the dodger?

Maurice unconsciously massaged the end of his nose, while Chuck yawned.

“Don’t know no Leftie guy. There’s a Wanda though.  She’s his latest Romanian squeeze.”

The two policemen exchanged bemused glances.

“He played pool last week with a thick-set guy and a thinner dude I’d never seen before.

 Didn’t quite catch their names, but one sounded like Doden or Drogen, Willie added.

 Sing Canary, sing… thought Maurice.

Thanking him, Maurice bought him a whisky shot before returning to the scene of the crime, with Chuck in tow. Back outside the former Deli, with the body removed and the door again sealed, Maurice studied a slightly torn notice affixed to the window that had rang an unanswered bell earlier, offering the shop on a long lease, and took note of the telephone number. Despite Maurice having recognised the victim on discovery of his body, further identification was thought necessary. With ‘loud-mouthed’ Willie’s assistance, Lennie’s girl friend Wanda was located and formally identified his body in the morgue, while sobbing copiously, declaring,

“He was no angel, but sure was kind to me.”

Maurice thought it a welcome human touch as he doubted that many would weep at Lennie’s passing.    However, regardless of Lennie’s questionable deeds and status, with his intense dislike of anyone willing or keen to take another’s person’s life, he was determined to track down his killer. When he finally received the Police Examiner’s Report, Maurice was not surprised at the findings.

As suspected:

“Lennie Corelli, the deceased’s, body contained a high percentage of alcohol and traces of cocaine. There were several contusions: four on the jaw-line, and one mid-way down on the back of the  skull.”   He further read: “The exact time of death could not be correctly ascertained due to the partial thawing of the body during its removal from the freezer in which it was found and the period it rested before and during the autopsy.  Conclusion: It is thought that the deceased was still alive when placed in the freezer, but died soon afterwards of hyperthermia.”

While waiting for the Coroner’s Report, Maurice had rung the number of the deli’s agent.  A young female with a broad Bronx accent answered.

“Groden & Walsh. How may I help you?” Within minutes, Maurice had an appointment to meet Mr. Groden the next day. As stiflingly hot as the day before, that particular Thursday saw Chuck waiting outside an unobtrusive, concrete-rendered building near North General hospital, while Maurice entered the reception area and was ushered into an impressive office.  Behind an oak desk, sat the formidable figure of Geoffrey Groden, a thickset, porcine-faced, forty-plus-year-old, smoking a large cigar.

After introducing himself as Kevin Klein, Maurice at first showed an interest in one or two empty shops he had noticed en route, and then studied Groden’s reaction as he asked about the now infamous (while not publicly so) deli.  Groden immediately took the cigar from his mouth, lowered his eyes and said, all too hastily:

“I’m very sorry but someone signed up for that store on Friday.”

A great shame,said Maurice, continuing,

 “With its position and size, it had great potential. I’ll think on about the others.”

Maurice left the office, thinking that there was something familiar about Geoffrey Groden.  Maybe he had seen him in a line up… crooks were adept at assuming aliases.

On leaving the building, Maurice put Chuck in the picture, keeping out of sight until he spotted a gleaming, beetle-black Cadillac emerging from the under-ground car park.

“Let’s tail him, Chuck. I wanna see where he goes, or maybe lives. 

Keeping a car in between theirs and Groden’s vehicle, they followed their suspect for several miles.

Patches of greenery gradually replaced the concrete jungle, and several larger, more ornate, houses appeared on the horizon: Groden soon pulling into the open-gated driveway of one such property. 

Maurice turned to Chuck:

 “Let’s get ourselves a search warrant, bud.”

 “The house?”

The office first.” Maurice turned the car around at the next intersection. At police headquarters, they were given a search warrant with reluctance and after much persuasive talk,and returned to Groden’s office, keeping out of the way until the staff had locked up for the day. Once inside, they ferreted around for evidence. Reading through various documents and papers, at first lead Maurice to think that perhaps he was barking up the wrong tree. Maybe his ‘gut reaction’ was simply the after affects of having eaten one of his mother’s heavy meals…Whoever heard of a Jewish woman who couldn’t make proper chicken soup!? Kosher his mother’s home was not.  He smiled as she flitted across his consciousness.  Having decided while he was still in the womb that he should be a lawyer, she was disappointed when he became a detective, calling him a Klutz!” adding “You could be killed!”  However, the fact that his younger brother -My son, Joseph the doctor!” – fulfilled a birth-wish, left her happy.

The pair continued searching the office, when Chuck spoke:-

“I thought you said that this Joe was thickset and overweight!”

“I did. Why?”

“Would a pair of dirty trainers be of interest?” Chuck held them up like a trophy from a corner cupboard.  To his surprise, Maurice planted a kiss in the middle of his forehead.

“Bingo!” he said as he bagged the sports’ shoes.  Riffling through a drawer of Groden’s

desk, Maurice found a key which unlocked a filing cabinet nearby, producing more incriminating evidence: the Deeds to three properties.  So, Groden owned the crime deli, plus the house and a farm, way out of town.

“A busy guy, our Mr Groden. A finger in many pies. Especially pork pies!” said Maurice.

They shared a snigger.  About to leave, armed with the sneakers for DNA sampling, Maurice came across a photograph of Groden in an envelope, with one arm around the shoulder of a prominent Mafia member he recognised.  Tapping the evidence, he said:

“Chuck, old buddie, the onion’s startin’ to peel!”

Back at headquarters, he surprised the captain with tangible evidence against Groden.  Time dragged as Groden’s DNA was corroborated.

“Eureka!” He said to Chuck on the ‘phone a few days later.

“However,” he added, “There’s still somethin’ botherin’ me.  Damned if I can figure out what it is!”

Give your brain a break, M.  Looks as if Groden is our man!”

One of them, anyway, Chuck.  The other one is just as important to nail.”

The arrest warrant was typed up on the following Monday.

The two men were in good humour as they entered Groden’s office.  He frowned on recognising Maurice and vehemently expressed his innocence, as expected.  The detective read him his rights, before formally arresting him.  Remonstrating, he requested a lawyer.

“I dunno no Lennie Corelli…It’s a frame-up!”

How many times had that been claimed over the years, Maurice thought. A few hours later, having appointed and seen his lawyer, Groden refused to talk, apart from refuting implication in the crime.

“The canary aint sung yet…” was Chuck’s take on the situation.

Once in court, when questioned by the Prosecution Lawyer, Groden again denied having any knowledge  of the victim and said:

“So what? I own the joint,.” when shown his cigar stub: (“An expensive Havana”) and reluctantly admitted owning the sports shoes which perfectly matched one set of footprints, saying “Why wooden’ my footprints be there?”

Groden continued to plead his innocence and only admitted to putting one pig – as found – in the freezer, explaining, in a waffling manner, that it was for a friend. With only circumstantial evidence against Groden, the case was adjourned, much to Maurice and Chuck’s frustration.  They had, however, not reckoned on the dedication of one particularly keen member of the forensic team: Eleanor Tamsin, who found one of Groden’s thumb prints on Lennie’s tee shirt after the adjournment.  The case was reopened.   

As soon as he arrived in court, Groden shocked everyone by blurting out:

“It was Leftie what done it! We’d shot a few games of pool – the three of us – an’ went back to my

place, the deli.”  

“But it was empty, was it not, Mr. Groden?” The prosecuting lawyer raised an eyebrow.

“Yeah, but I wanted to show leftie the pigs.”

The pigs?”

“Yeah, I own a farm and rear ‘em.  Leftie’s in the pork pie business.”

Convenient!  Not part payment for Mafia favours then?”

The defence lawyer sprung to his feet.

“I object your honour.  Mafia connections have not been proved.”

Sustained,” said the judge.

May I approach the bench your honour? I have a photograph which may be of interest. Evidence marked C.”

 The prosecution lawyer handed the judge the photograph.

  “Banged to rights, eh Chuck,” Maurice whispered.  Thereafter, Groden admitted that there was  “A fight…”

When questioned further, it was established that both Groden and Lennie owed Leftie substantial amounts of money for both drug and gambling debts.  The judge called it a day until Leftie could be traced and arrested. Unsurprisingly, Leftie had temporarily vanished, while Groden stewed in a  cell.

Two weeks later, on a tip off, one of the officers from the 23rd Police Precinct - who often worked in harness with the 25th - located the whereabouts of Leftie Rogers, rang Maurice and he was duly arrested and taken into custody. Rogers immediately denied the murder, blaming Groden, and for many long hours it was like a verbal court tennis match.  Eventually:

“OK, I admit to knockin’ Lennie out and puttin’ him in the freezer to cool off.”

At that juncture, there were gasps of disbelief and a snigger from members of the jury. Rogers continued,“…When I went to let him out, he was dead. Groden wooden help me get rid of his body. I panicked and left.”

“With the pig tucked under your arm, Mr Rogers?” Jury members laughed. He went on…

“I suggest that the deceased was still alive when you placed him in the freezer and that you knew he

he couldn’t last long under such conditions.”

At that point Groden decided to tell the truth of the matter.

The judge thereafter stated it to be: “A heinous crime! How you could have let the accused put the deceased - not knowing whether he was actually dead – into a freezer defies belief.  You are equally culpable.”

Rogers was sentenced to twelve years for manslaughter, Groden nine. Maurice and Chuck discussed the outcome over a beer.

“When Leftie said that he put Lennie into the freezer  to ‘cool off’ -  Jesus –  that mustave been the  most inane, lunatic statement of all time!” said Maurice, adding:

“There’s still somethin’ buggin’ me about Groden though…

He stroked the tip of his nose before striking the side of his head with the palm of one hand –

“Shmuck!  Basketball! That’s where I’d seen him tryin’ to get rid of some flab. Fancy me not  recognising him. Another beer?  We’re celebrating…Why the frown?”

I was wondering about the break in.”

A minor matter, Chuck. He/she/they were disturbed.  A murder’s just been solved.

 L’Chaim, buddie!”  

Copyright©2016 Joy Lennick

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