It’ll Look Like Justice
Her son was in the backyard, bouncing a ball he’d made of rubber bands and strips of cloth off the side of the house. She listened to the solid thwack! against the old weathered clapboards and instead of being annoyed, Adele was comforted. Joe was a good boy, never gave her any trouble. He didn’t run wild like some of the kids in the neighborhood, he stayed close to home and played in the yard or in the street with his friends. She didn’t like to think that he was afraid to leave her alone with his father. But she knew that was why Joe stayed around, and though it shamed her, she couldn’t help but feel grateful.
Adele drew the back of her hand across her forehead. It was hot and airless, no day to be ironing, but she had to. It was the only way she could make a little money to put aside for herself and Joe. The boy was growing like a weed; he had to have new shoes for school. And the dungarees she’d got him at the beginning of the summer were already above his ankles. He was going to be a fine tall man, her Joe...not short and stocky like his father. Buck Milton had never made it above five foot seven---Adele was an inch taller than her husband, even in flats.
She was proud of her son and had the feeling he’d top six feet before he stopped growing. Joe took after her family...the Sullivans were all long-boned, a tall and sturdy bunch. She wished her folks back in New York could see him, but none of them ever had made the long trip across the country to visit. They weren’t that interested in Adele or her son, and never had been. Sometimes she thought that if only they had, or if Buck had never moved his young wife and son to west coast after the war, things would have been different. Buck wouldn’t have been so quick to bat her around with the five Sullivan brothers to contend with.
She finished ironing a pillowcase, folded it into the crisp thirds Mrs. Beech preferred, and added it to the pile on the table. That was it, the last piece for the day. She wrapped the stack of freshly laundered and ironed linens in brown paper and tied the package with string she’d saved from the butcher’s and baker’s shops. A quick glance at the clock told her she still had two hours before Buck finished his shift at the docks. Even if he came straight home, it would take him an hour to make the trip by bus from San Pedro to Compton Avenue. But he wouldn’t come right home, he never did. He’d stop at the bar near the bus stop and drink for hours. Spend money they didn’t have to buy rounds for the bums who wasted their afternoons in the Blue Note. And when he finally got to the second floor walk-up that was all they could afford, he’d be mean drunk. For the thousandth time, Adele wondered why she’d married Buck Milton. What had she seen in him all those years ago? For the life of her, she couldn’t say. All she knew was she didn’t see it in him now.
She set her iron to cool near the sink, then lifted the ironing board from the backs of the two chairs she used as trestles and put it away. She always took care to hide all traces of what she did during the day when Buck was at the docks. If he ever found out she made a little money on the side doing washing and ironing for her neighbors, he’d take every bit she earned away from her and expect more. But first, he’d beat her bloody for lying to him.
A quick glance around the shabby but spotless combination kitchen and sitting room assured her nothing was out of place. Adele went to the screen door and called for her son.
“Joe? Come up here now.”
He caught the rebounding ball one-handed and loped up the rickety stairs toward his mother. She marveled at his athletic grace, the sure and elastic movements of his body. Only thirteen years old and already so big, with a natural aptitude for sports. The coach down at the junior high said Joe had promise, could maybe break into professional baseball someday, given the right opportunity.
“He’s got talent, lots of talent. He can already swing a bat so hard he knocks the ball out of the park, but that won’t save him if he gets into trouble,” Coach Orris told her at last year’s Parent’s Day. “You have to make sure he keeps his nose clean, Mrs. Milton. Neighborhood like this, I know that’s hard to do, but nothing will ruin his chances faster than getting into trouble. If you watch out for him at home, I’ll keep my eye on him here at school and make sure he stays away from the bad ones.”
And Adele had agreed, grateful for his offer of help and the example of a good, steady man in her Joe’s life. God knew Buck didn’t pay much attention to his son. He was too busy looking at life through the bottom of a bottle.
She held the screen door open for Joe.
“Is the stuff ready to go?” he asked as he squeezed past her.
“In a minute. Wash your hands, son.” She moved to the table and printed the names and amount owed on the brown packages: Beech, $1. Fuller, 75 cents. “Make sure they give you the money today,” she told him as she set the pencil down. “Don’t let them put you off. We need it more than they do.”
Joe dried his hands and promised, “I won’t, Ma.”
Holding both packages of laundry stacked one on the other, he backed out of the door and ran down the steps. Adele watched him go, smiling. She couldn’t wait until he came back and saw his surprise. She bent to reach far back in the wooden dish cupboard, and removed the shopping bag from its hiding place behind her pots. Inside was a new pair of Red Ball Jets sneakers, two new shirts, and two new pairs of pants. Her Joe wouldn’t be going to his first day of school looking like the son of a drunk who spent all his money on booze for bums. Not if she could help it.
* * *
It was his second week in plainclothes, only ten days since he’d come out of uniform to work at 77th Street. Self-conscious in sport coat, white shirt, and tie, Bud White sat at the back of the day room and listened as Lieutenant Smith gave afternoon watch the daily lowdown. There was a lot going on. 77th Street was busy, but that was okay by Bud. He liked to keep moving, liked going out on patrol in an unmarked with his new partner Dick Stensland. Stens was a rough character, and maybe he wasn’t the kind of cop Bud wanted to be. But he had a lot of stories about the old days in the LAPD, and he liked to tell them as they cruised the neighborhood. Bud knew half of what his partner told him was bullshit, but that was okay. He was still learning a lot, picking up on stuff Stens didn’t realize. Maybe some of the other young cops wouldn’t be interested in hearing about the exploits of Dickie Stens and his pals in the old days, but Bud was.
He heard Lieutenant Smith’s final, “That’s all, gentlemen,” and stood up, following his partner. Bud reached into his pants pocket and withdrew a set of keys, bounced them once in his palm, and started out of the station to the unmarked Ford they used as a patrol car. He was just about to push through the door when the lieutenant called, “Might I have a word with you, Sergeant Stensland?” They both stopped and looked back, and then Stens waved Bud on, told him to go bring the car around. He turned back into the dayroom, couldn’t stop his stomach from clenching. Having ‘a word’ with the lieutenant made him nervous.
Dudley held a yellow flimsy in his hand that Stensland recognized as a message blank from dispatch. “A call just came in, Dick. There’s been a killing in an apartment on Compton.” His eyes dropped to the paper. “It looks to be a cut and dried case...he beat her and she let him have it over the head with an iron, no less.” He caught Stensland’s eyes in a probing stare. “We’ve been called to the same address on several occasions by neighbors...the stiff was a habitual wife-beater.” Dudley leaned closer, lowered his voice confidentially. “Now, I’ve heard that young Wendell has a virulent hatred for wife-beaters. My question for you, sergeant, is this: In your daily workings with the lad, have you found that to be true…or is it perhaps a rabid falsehood, put about by those who would like to see the lad fail as a policeman?”
Stensland looked at the floor. It was true. Bud did have a hard on for wife beaters. They’d had a couple of domestic assault calls since Dudley had partnered them up, and White had made it his business to take the offender outside for some private questioning. Both times, the man had come back dazed and bloody. When Stens crooked an eyebrow, White shrugged and explained flatly that the guy fell. Stens didn’t bite, but he didn’t say anything to his young partner, either. He didn’t give a fuck how bad White hurt the lowlife shitbirds, as long as his partner didn’t go too far and get his ass in a sling.
Dudley leaned his long spare frame against the door. “Well, sergeant? I’m waiting.”
“Yeah, he got it in for them,” Stensland admitted reluctantly.
Dudley nodded. “Personal intimidation is a fine quality in a policeman, one that I value above most. But a man who cannot control himself is a liability, not an asset.” Dudley fixed his cold eye on Stenland’s face. “Have you found that young Officer White has trouble controlling his temper to the point that he might miss something important while conducting an investigation?”
Stens wasn’t sure what the lieutenant wanted him to say. The word in the Department was Smith was putting together a muscle squad to work out of Central Division. Maybe he wanted White on the team. You couldn’t tell with Dud, he was a sly one.
Dick Stensland shrugged. “He don’t go crazy on them, Dud. He’s just trying to straighten them out.”
Smith pushed his body away from the doorframe and stood straight. “Then that’s grand, Dick. Perhaps it’s time to give White a tad more responsibility.” He handed Stensland the yellow dispatch sheet. “I want you to let him take lead on this one. Let him conduct the questioning and see what conclusions the lad comes up with. We’ll give him some leeway, see how he does. But keep a weather eye on him, nevertheless.”
Stensland nodded. “Sure, Dud.” He waited, didn’t dare to leave before he was dismissed.
Dudley smiled, but his eyes were cold. “On your way, Sergeant Stensland…there’s a dead man, and the fair widow, who is not as bereaved as she should be, is waiting to tell her tale. The address is 3477 Compton, second floor.” He put his hand on the brass knob of the door. “I’ll be waiting for your report, boyo.”
* * *
“Do you like them, Joe? If you don’t we can always take them back and get something else.” Adele watched her son’s face anxiously. He stood across from her at the kitchen table, his eyes focused down at the clothes and shoes. She thought he’d be happy, but his face seemed too quiet, almost sad.
He glanced up and silently, Joe nodded. He thought he might cry at the sight of the sneakers. He’d talked about those Red Ball Jets only once, said his friend Scotty had them. He tried not to show how much he wanted a pair for himself, but she must have heard something in his voice, seen something in his eyes. And so she had slaved over somebody else’s washing and ironing to make enough money to buy him the shoes. It broke his heart, and Joe looked at his mother with guilty eyes.
“You didn’t have to do this, Ma. Jeez, I wish you’da bought yourself something. It ain’t me doing all that washing and ironing.”
He thought about the money he occasionally made doing odd jobs around the neighborhood, nickel and dime stuff, never enough to do more than buy a Coca Cola or a catch a matinee at the Roxie. He wished now he’d saved those dimes and nickels instead of wasting them on junk like movies and candy. He coulda had enough to buy his Ma something nice by now.
“Here now...” Adele came around the table to kiss his cheek and ruffle his hair. “I see what’s going on in that head of yours, and you can just forget it. Don’t feel guilty, Joe. You’re my son, it’s my job to see that you have something decent to wear to school. That’s what mothers are for, okay?” She made google eyes at him, hoping for a smile.
He gave her the biggest one he could manage. He wouldn’t do anything to make her feel worse, Joe couldn’t stand to see his mother sad. She got enough grief from his father. He reached down, fingered the shirt with a black collar and sleeves and stripes on the chest. “This is nice, Ma.”
“Want to try it on for me, Joe? Try it all on...that way I’ll know if I have to exchange anything before school starts. Monday’s Labor Day, you know.”
He didn’t really want to, but she looked so excited. Like it was her opening a present instead of him. Joe picked up the shirts and pants, hooked the shoes by their laces. He threw her a smile over his shoulder and said, “Sure Ma. Be right back.”
He didn’t have a bedroom. Their apartment was so small he slept on a fold-down in the sitting room, making up his bed when it was time to go to sleep. Most times his father woke him up, coming in drunk long after midnight. He was always mad; Joe never understood why the old man boozed if it didn’t make him happy. And then the yelling would start, and Joe would hear the first slap. He’d hear it all, lying in bed with his fists clenched, wishing he could make it stop. Sometimes he’d cover his head with the pillow and think of the future, when he was a man and not a kid shaking in his bed. Coach Orris said he if he kept on the way he was, he could play pro baseball straight out of high school. Joe prayed it would work out that way. He prayed he’d be good enough. As soon as he made a team somewhere…anywhere…he’d take his mother and move so far away, Buck Milton would never be able to find them.
Eventually the old man would pass out or get tired of smacking Ma around. And the next morning, she’d have a shiner or a cut lip, and her eyes would be haunted and sorrowful. Things had been that way since he could remember, but lately, Joe had begun to feel like he couldn’t take it anymore. He couldn’t wait until after high school to make things right. He felt like he could never call himself a man if he stood by and let things go on like they were. But he didn’t know what he could do, unless he quit school now and started working full time. And who would hire a thirteen year old kid?
He changed in the tiny bathroom, bumping his knees and elbows on the sink as he shrugged off his dungarees and slid into the new chinos. He sat on the toilet lid to try on the sneakers, black canvas hi-tops with white laces and rubber toe guards. They were great, just like Scotty’s, and he admired them a minute, running his finger over the Red Ball logo, smelling the unfamiliar scent of new clothes.
Adele’s voice floated in from the kitchen. “Joe? Are you coming out?”
“In a minute, Ma.” He made a joke: “Keep your shirt on!” and smiled when she laughed.
Adele turned the radio on while she waited for her son. There was a low hum as the tubes warmed, and then Perry Como’s voice filled the room with Forever and Ever. She dialed it up loud. Adele loved Perry. She loved music, loved to sing along with all the top forty tunes, especially if it was Patti Page and The Tennessee Waltz. But she could only listen to the radio when Buck wasn’t home. He didn’t like the noise.
Joe heard her sweet contralto warbling over the radio. She sounded happy, and he was starting to get it…his mother took pleasure from giving him stuff. If he made a big deal out of his new clothes, she’d be even happier. He was starting to get a lot of things lately, things he hadn’t understood before. For instance, he knew he had to play along and pretend he didn’t know his old man was a rotten bastard. As long as he did, Adele could pretend, too. He didn’t like it, but the last thing Joe wanted to do was add to her troubles.
Shrugging into the striped shirt, he buttoned up and tucked it into his chinos with his eyes on the mirror. Pretty sharp threads, but he thought the shirt might look better un-tucked. He pulled it from his waistband and smoothed it down. Yeah, better. He looked good. Cool, like the high school guys. He started to go out and show Adele, but at the last minute turned to the mirror and ran a comb through his hair.
Shyly, he opened the door. His mother was waiting in the kitchen. She smiled as he stopped in the doorway. “Well, come on...let me see how nice you look.”
He shuffled into the room, gave her a lopsided grin. “The stuff is really great, Ma. Thanks.”
Adele made a rotating motion with her finger. “Let’s see the back. Oh, you look so nice, Joe!”
His cheeks were red with a bashful thirteen-year-old boy’s embarrassment, but he ducked his head and grinned, held his arms out from his sides and turned around while Adele clapped her hands in approval.
They were both startled by the banging screen door. It was too early for him to be home, but Joe looked up to see his father standing just inside the door. His eyes were on the new clothes, and Joe saw his expression turn ominous. The mood in the room darkened, Adele’s happiness fading away like a sunset.
Buck Milton’s bloodshot gaze slid to his wife. “What the hell’s he doing with new duds? Where did you get the money for that shit?”
Joe clenched his fists impotently as Adele got up from the table and took a half step back. Her fear was immediate and palpable, a living thing that weighted the air in the room until he could hardly take a breath.
“Now Buck...” Adele’s hands fluttered nervously at her throat. “The boy has to have decent clothes for school.”
Buck took a menacing step toward her. “That ain’t an answer. I asked you where you got the money…that stuff cost a pretty penny. You been stealing from my pockets, you bitch?”
“No!” Adele protested.
“Goddamn it…you thieving, lying, bitch.”
Joe’s stomach clenched. Not again...Jesus, the old man looked like he was gonna kill her. He couldn’t keep quiet this time, couldn’t let it go when it was happening right in front of him. He knew he’d pay for defending his mother, but he didn’t care, he could take whatever his father dished out. All he wanted was for him to leave Ma alone.
“She didn’t steal your money, and she ain’t a bitch,” he said furiously, glaring at his father. “But you’re a lousy bastard. Why do you gotta ruin everything for her?”
Buck’s head swiveled until his cold gaze landed on his son. “What did you just call me, boy?”
Joe’s chin came up defiantly. “I said you’re a lousy bastard. Let her alone, quit giving her grief, why don’t ya?”
“Son of a bitch.” It was said quietly and seemed all the more threatening because of that. As if he knew that hurting his wife would bother his son more than his own punishment, Buck moved fast, grabbed Adele by the arm, and backhanded her viciously across the face. “That’s for stealin’ from your husband,” he growled, then slapped her again. “And that’s for raising a no good kid who swears at his father.”
A trickle of blood appeared at Adele’s nostril and she dropped her head, ashamed that Joe had seen his father hit her. When he raised his hand for another blow, she turned away, whimpering, “Don’t Buck...not in front of the boy.”
“Shut up!” He cracked her again, caught her high on the cheek. Stars exploded behind her eyelids and she cried out. It was nothing Buck hadn’t done a hundred times before, but he’d never struck her in front of Joe before. She cut her eyes toward her son and her heart broke at what she saw in his face. She was still looking at him when Buck slapped her again.
Joe couldn’t take it anymore, couldn’t stand to see his mother hurt so bad. Galvanized by fury, he leapt at his father from behind but it did no good. Buck Milton was a short man, but he had heavy shoulders broadened by years of working the docks, and brawny forearms bulging with muscle. He shrugged those shoulders once and knocked Joe to the floor. And then he turned on him, his bloodshot eyes venomous. The boy lay frozen in fear, waiting for the beating he knew surely must come.
At least it won’t be Ma who gets it this time, he thought, staring up at his father with hatred.
Deliberately slow, Buck’s hands undid the buckle at his belt. Joe winced at the ominous hiss as he drew it through his belt loops and doubled it in his hands. And he waited, eyes closed, for the first bite of the strap. He heard the snap of taut leather and tensed.
He heard the whistling rush of the belt through air, the loud slap of leather on skin, but there was no explosion of pain. Instead, his mother screamed.
Joe’s eyes flew open. The old man had her backed into the corner against the stove. He raised the belt again and let go. Horrified, Joe saw the buckle slip loose from his fist and flail viciously against Adele’s face. It just missed her eye and a line of blood oozed where it cut her cheek. She screamed and covered her face with her hands.
Incensed, Buck bellowed, “Shut up, you dumb bitch! Shut the fuck up!”
Silently, Joe rose from the floor. His mother’s iron was on the draining rack near the sink. He didn’t think about what he was doing, not really. He only knew he had to stop Buck Milton before he killed his mother. She had turned away to hide her face and the old man’s belt cracked down across her shoulders. His mother screamed again, a scream that resonated terror as much as pain. Joe grabbed the iron and raised it over his head.
Coach Orris was right. The kid had a good swing.
* * *
During the ride to Compton Avenue, Stensland thought about Dudley Smith’s interest in Bud White. It didn’t surprise him, Dud always had a couple of cops on the string who were his guys, through and through. He liked them big and he liked them mean, and he liked it when they weren’t too worried about the rules. On the other hand, it was Dudley who’d given a leg up to a few smart guys and helped them get set in the bureau. One was a detective sergeant now, and one had even made lieutenant. So which way was he thinking for White, muscle or brains? Stens swiveled his head and looked at Bud for a long minute, considering. White didn’t come off as too smart, but he was quiet. And the quiet guys always fooled you.
Finally he glanced across at his partner and said, “This one oughta make you happy, huh White? The shitbird already croaked. So what’s your story, pal? What do you got against wife beaters?”
Bud’s lips twisted, and he tightened his hands on the steering wheel. “What’s it to you?”
Stensland shrugged negligently. “It ain’t nothing to me, I guess you’re entitled to hate who you want. Looks like it’s something to Dudley, though. He’s noticed.” Stens glanced out of the side window and muttered, “The SOB don’t miss a trick.”
Bud remained mute, just like Stensland expected. He wasn’t the type to spill his guts; Bud White knew how to keep his mouth shut. That was another thing Dudley liked.
Stens said gruffly, “Just so you know. You’re lead on this one, Dud’s orders. He’s got his eye on you, boyo. You handle this right and your career is made. Fuck it up, and you’ll be walking a beat south of Jefferson for the next twenty years.”
He waited, but Bud didn’t bother to answer as he signaled and swung left onto Compton Avenue. The Ford slowed as they scanned for a black and white.
“There it is.” Stensland thumbed toward the bluesuit who waved from curb. Bud pulled the unmarked into a space and parked. His face was set in expressionless lines, his eyes sober when they met his partner’s.
“Remember, this is one of his tests,” Stens said, checking the load in his .38. “Don’t screw up, pal. You ready?”
Bud nodded. He was as ready as he was going to be. They got out of the car and approached the waiting patrolman, and Bud recognized him. Les Malkovich, an old partner from his uniform days. They’d worked traffic together right after graduation from the Academy.
Malkovich grinned. “Took you guys long enough to get here, White. You stop for doughnuts?”
“Same old jokes, nothin’ changes.” Bud greeted his old partner with a handshake. “How ya doin’, Mal. What do we got?”
“You got a corpse. Lady upstairs cold-cocked her old man with an iron. Gotta give it to the housewives when it comes to unusual weapons, huh?” His face slid into serious lines as he continued, “He worked her over pretty good...her face is all marked up, nose bloody.” He shook his head. “It’s the same old story, pal…only this time she turned on him.”
“Yeah? Was she alone? Who’s with her now?”
“Santucci’s up there standing guard, but she don’t look like she’s got plans to run. Said her kid’s there, in the bedroom.”
Bud was already turning away. “Thanks. Take it easy, Mal,” he threw over his shoulder.
“I take it anyway I can get it, pal.”
Bud jogged up the stairs to a landing. Another patrolman stood just inside the door, and pushed it open for Bud and Stensland. Bud went in first, his eyes going over the place, his ears already sensitized to the eerie quiet that descends on a space when death is present. It was a shabby but clean combination kitchen-dining-sitting room, with a hallway off to the left. Beyond a curtained arch, a woman sat alone on a daybed, rocking back and forth.
“She say anything?” Bud said softly, eyeing the body on the floor. The man was on his back, his eyes open and staring at the ceiling. Blood pooled in a circle around his head. The iron lay beside him, its cord half under the body.
The patrolman shook his head. “She wouldn’t talk. She’s just been sitting there, crying.”
“Call the coroner yet?” Stensland asked.
Santucci nodded in the affirmative. “Yeah. We radioed right after the call to the station. Should be here pretty soon.”
“Okay. We’ll take it from here,” Bud said, and crossed the room to the lady on couch while Stens squatted down by the body, careful of the blood.
The screen door slammed as Santucci left. The woman started but didn’t raise her eyes. Looked like shock to Bud…she shivered and rocked back and forth, her arms crossed over her chest. Bud’s gaze traveled the room and picked out an old grey cardigan hanging over the back of a chair. He hooked it with a finger and as he bent to tuck it around her shoulders, he checked her injuries. Her face looked pretty bad. There was dried blood crusted near her nostrils, a long cut laid her cheek open. Her lips and both cheeks were swollen and bruised.
He said softly, “Ma’am?”
There was no answer. Bud pulled a chair over and placed it across from her. “Ma’am? I’m Officer White, LAPD. Are you okay? Can you talk to me?”
Her eyes slid to his. “Is he really dead?” she whispered.
Bud glanced at the body on the floor. “Yes ma’am.”
“I thought so, but I wasn’t sure.” She caught Bud’s gaze and a spark of defiance leapt in her eyes. “I hoped so.”
“You wanna tell me what happened, Mrs...?”
“And that’s your husband, ma’am?” At her nod Bud asked, “What’s his full name?”
She hung her head. “His first name is Wylie, but he never used it. He went by Buck. Buck Milton.”
Bud nodded and pulled a notebook and pencil from his inside pocket, thinking Wylie was as bad a handle as Wendell. He guessed guys with first names like those just about had to get themselves a nick if they wanted any peace in this world.
“You had an argument?”
She shook her head. “No, not really. It all happened so fast, there was no time for an argument. He came home drunk like always, already mad when he walked in the door. My son was trying on some new school clothes, and Buck went crazy. He slapped me around, accused me of stealing money out of his pockets. And then he took off his belt and hit me with it.”
Angry color flooded Bud’s cheeks. “He used a belt on you?” he said incredulously.
She nodded. “My boy tried to stop him and then Buck turned on Joe, and I...I was scared he’d hurt him. He knocked him down on the floor. The iron was there, cooling on the sink. I don’t know...it made me crazy to see him beating my boy. I didn’t mean to hit him so hard. I just grabbed it and...” She broke off, shook her head. “I just wanted to keep him from hurting my Joe.”
Bud stared at her. He knew this story. It was almost exactly like his own, but at least this time, the right body was on the floor. “Where’s your son now, ma’am?” he asked gently.
“He’s in the bedroom. I told him to wait back there, I didn’t want him to have to look at...” Her eyes drifted to her husband’s corpse.
Bud finished writing in his notebook and flipped it closed. He stood and reached to help her up. “How about you come with me and we’ll talk to him?” he said softly. Her hand was cold, shaking, and Bud gave it a comforting squeeze. She started down the short hallway to a closed door. Bud nodded to Stensland to stay with the body and followed her.
Inside the shabby bedroom, a boy was sitting on the edge of the sagging mattress, his hands clasped between his spread legs. Blood soaked the knees of his pants and he was staring vacantly at the stains. He looked up when they came in.
“Joe?” The woman went to him, sat down and put her arm around his shoulders. “This is a policeman, Joe. I’ve already told him what happened, but he wants to ask you some questions.” She reached with her free hand and grasped his. “Okay?”
Bud’s eyes flickered. There was something in the woman’s voice that tickled his policeman’s curiosity, a thrum of over-anxiety, the distinct vibration of fear. The boy stared at him, his face drained pale. He nodded, “Okay Ma.”
Bud’s eyes dropped to their clasped hands. Adele Milton’s knuckles were white, she was gripping the boy’s hand so tightly. He looked at her son.
“Your name’s Joe?” At his nod Bud asked, “How old are you, Joe?”
Jesus, almost like me...
“Tell me what happened, Joe,” Bud said softly. “Just like you remember.”
“My father came home early. He surprised us. I was tryin’ on some stuff and it made him mad that Ma bought me new clothes. He said she stole the money from him, but she didn’t,” Joe said defiantly. “She does laundry for extra money, only he didn’t know about it.”
Bud nodded. “Okay. So what happened then, after he got mad?”
“He slapped her a bunch a times. Made her cry, cut her lip. Then he took his belt off. He swung and the buckle slipped loose and cut her face. It almost hit her eye. And she was crying and telling him to stop, but he wouldn’t.”
Bud watched his face. There was anger there, righteous anger, and something else. Guilt. The kid dropped his eyes and Bud saw his mother squeeze his hand tighter.
Joe kept his eyes down. “He...uh...I yelled at him to stop hitting Ma and he came after me. Hit me like he did her.”
“He hit you where? How many times?” Bud kept writing in his notebook.
“Uh, in the face. A lot of times. He knocked me down, gave me a couple of licks with the belt. I rolled over so he wouldn’t hit my eyes and then he just kinda fell down on the floor. And I ...uh...I saw Ma holding the iron.”
“You saw your mother do it, Joe? You saw her hit him?”
The boy shook his head. “I didn’t see her do it,” he whispered. Beside him, his mother tightened her arm around his shoulder and pressed a handkerchief to her mouth.
“I’m sorry, Joe,” she whispered, and the boy turned to look at her.
His voice cracked, “Me too, Ma.” The woman sobbed and put both arms around him, hiding her face from Bud’s view. But Joe’s eyes were like a hunted animal’s, caught in Bud’s relentless gaze until his face crumpled and he broke into tears.
Bud glanced around the cramped room. There was a chair in the corner. He swung it into position in front of them, and sat down to wait until they quieted. When the woman raised her head he said softly, “You okay? Want some water or something?”
“No, I’m fine. Thank you.” Adele wiped at her eyes with her handkerchief.
“Looks like Joe could use some,” Bud said. “Why don’t you get him a glass, ma’am?”
“I don’t want anything,” Joe protested quickly. “I’m okay.”
Bud’s eyes stayed on the boy’s face. “Mrs. Milton? I need to talk to Joe alone. Go get him a glass of water and come back when I call you. All right?”
Adele hesitated, her eyes wide with fear. “I don’t want to leave him, Officer. He’s looks big, but he’s just a boy.”
‘So was I,’ Bud thought, ‘but I still tried to kill my old man...’
“I need to talk to him,” Bud said softly. “Just a couple of minutes. Go in the other room with Sergeant Stensland, ma’am.”
She didn’t move, and Bud insisted, “Go on. He’ll be okay with me.” He called over his shoulder, “Stens?” and when his partner appeared in the doorway, Bud said, “Take Mrs. Milton into the other room, will you?”
He waited until they were gone, then got up and closed the door. He remained standing, his eyes on Joe. The kid looked scared to death and clenched his hands into fists, then deliberately opened them and smoothed his palms against his thighs. Bud straddled the seat and rested his chin on his arms, sensing hink. His eyes were compassionate, and all he could think was that the kid had balls. He couldn’t help but compare their lives, the hopelessness similarity of the situation. It was the same story all over again, the life that was no life for a kid, the constant fear that someday his father would go too far and kill his mother. It was all the same, except for the body on the floor. But it would end the same way, with two lives destroyed. The kid hustled off to foster care or, if Bud’s suspicions were on target, juvenile detention until they transferred him to Quentin at eighteen.
What a fuckin’ waste...
Bud’s chin came up. “Joe? How about you tell me what really happened.”
The boy hung his head. “That is what happened, sir.”
Bud gaze was steady. “I don’t think so, Joe. I think your old man was beating your mother so bad, you stopped him the only way you could.”
Joe shook his head. “No.”
“C’mon, Joe. If the old man was half as tough on you as he was on your mother, you’d be wearing the proof now, like she is.” Bud reached out and lifted the boy’s chin with two fingers. “There ain’t a mark on you, kid....”
He leaned forward, intent on Joe’s eyes. “She said she hit him with the iron, but she’s lying, right? Your old man wasn’t after you, was he? He was beating the crap out of your mother. And you couldn’t stand it anymore, right?”
Joe jerked away and burst into tears. He covered his face with his hands and sobbed, deep, gut-wrenching sobs that tore at Bud’s heart. At last he said brokenly, “I tried to pull him off her, but he threw me down. I had to hit him. If you coulda seen him...he woulda killed her if I didn’t stop him. I didn’t want to kill anybody, I just wanted to stop him.”
Slowly, Bud rose from his chair. He stepped closer, laid a hand on Joe’s trembling shoulder. “Yeah. I know, kid. I know.”
“Nobody knows!” Joe cried out loud, his voice bearing the anguish of a hundred nights of torture. “Nobody knows how bad it was. How mean he was to her.”
He lifted his tear-filled eyes and Bud looked down on a face that had seen too much of evil and cruelty in a place that should have been a refuge of warmth and love. Pain showed in Joe’s eyes, the distortion his features.
“She was always scared…all the time,” Joe sobbed. “It was like she couldn’t do anything right, he was always yelling at her. But he never stopped with yelling. I coulda stood that. It was the hittin’. He was always beatin’ her up.”
Bud dropped to one knee and caught Joe by the shoulder. “Listen kid...I know. I know how it is.”
Joe swallowed hard, dared to meet Bud’s probing eyes. Doubt, and then revelation followed by fleeting hope washed over his face. “You mean you...?”
“Yeah, I mean me. I tried to save mine too, Joe. But I didn’t. He killed her.”
Joe’s eyes rounded.
“I know your mother wants to take the blame, Joe. Mine would have too. She told you what to say?”
Joe looked down again. “Yessir. She said I shouldn’t have to pay for his sins. She said her whole life would be a waste if I went to jail.”
Bud nodded. His mother would have felt the same way. He knew he’d been the only thing that kept her going, all those years ago. She’d sacrificed herself over and over to keep him safe, keep the old man off him. And she did it too, until that day he couldn’t take it anymore and got in his father’s way. And in the end, she’d paid the price for his interference.
He’d wondered all his life if the old man would have got mad enough to kill her if it wasn’t for Bud stepping in. His eyes grew distant as he remembered. It was still so clear, like a recurring nightmare, even after twenty years. His father raising the tire iron and bringing it down in an arc. His mother crumpling in slow motion, the back of her head crushed and bloody, the light already gone from her eyes. He remembered the sound it made, iron on bone. Shackled to the radiator, Bud screamed himself hoarse until the old man came over and slapped him silent. His body tensed with hatred, Bud wished he could find his father now. He’d kill him, plain and simple.
His eyes cleared and came to rest on the sobbing boy in front of him. And now this kid and his mother would pay because Buck Milton had been as much of a bastard as his own old man. Christ, life wasn’t fair. Bud rubbed his hand over his face, felt like he was sagging under the weight of responsibility.
He pushed off the floor, went to the door and opened it.
“What are you gonna do?” Joe whispered, his eyes huge.
“I’m gonna talk to your mother,” Bud said, wondering if he could take on life and even the score. He left Joe, closing the door softly behind him.
* * *
Adele Milton was perched on the edge of the daybed, but she stood when Bud came into the room. “Is Joe all right?” she whispered, watching Bud’s face for a sign of suspicion.
Gently, he laid a hand on her shoulder to indicate she should sit down again. “Yeah, he’s okay,” he said, his tone low, comforting. “You can go back to him in a minute.” He glanced at Stensland and mouthed, “Where the hell’s that meat wagon?”
Households with a breadwinner like Milton never had enough money to stretch to the amenities. Bud guessed they didn’t, but he asked Adele anyway. “You have a telephone, ma’am?”
She shook her head.
He moved to the door and pulled Stensland outside with him. “Better go call it in again,” Bud told his partner. “I want the stiff out of here, pronto.” He jerked his chin in Adele’s direction. “She don’t need to look at him anymore.”
Stensland’s eyebrow lifted. Obviously his partner’s sympathy wasn’t with the victim. Dudley’s warning to keep an eye on Bud rang in his head, but he nodded and went down to the unmarked. If Bud wanted a couple of minutes alone with the widow, that was his business. He jerked the door open, ignoring the knot of curious neighbors clustered on the sidewalk, got in the unmarked and thumbed the mike.
‘77th Street dispatch, this is 4A 31. You got an estimated time on the coroner’s arrival at Compton Avenue? We got a stiff here that’s about to go ripe on us...’
* * *
Adele Milton looked old, Bud thought, but she couldn’t be more than thirty-five or so. He stood just inside the door and watched her. She reminded him of his mother. In this job he saw plenty of women made old before their time. Fear, pain, humiliation, the constant threat to their kids---it all took its toll. He’d seen it over and over, but this time it hit too close to home. His chest thumped with pity, but he didn’t know if it was for Adele and Joe, or his mother and himself. He decided it was for all of them.
He glanced down at his notes. He hadn’t written many, he hadn’t needed to. He understood what had happened in the Milton house as clearly if he’d seen it in a movie. And he understood that a crime hadn’t been committed here, not by the woman on the daybed, or the kid in the bedroom who was waiting to hear that he would be sent away. As far as Bud White was concerned, the man on the floor was the criminal and he had gotten what he deserved. Justice. But he knew most people wouldn’t see it that way. Dudley Smith wouldn’t see it that way.
He rubbed a hand over the back of his neck, faced with a dilemma. He knew the word, though he’d never use it in conversation. Big words didn’t fit his style, but the guys down at the station would be surprised at how many of them Bud White knew. He’d picked up more at USC than a blown-out knee, even though the university booted him without a degree after his career-ending injury.
Circumstances beyond our control... That’s what the Dean said when they revoked his scholarship. And Bud, with no money and no family to ask for help, quietly left the university and set out to find something else to do with his life. He tried to enlist in the Marines but they said his knee made him ineligible for service. He worked at the Lockheed plant in Burbank for a while, and hated it. And then one day he picked up the Times and saw an ad for the LAPD. Short of manpower because of the war, they were recruiting policemen.
From the minute he started at the Academy, he knew he’d found his life’s work. What he was meant to be, what he was born to be…a cop. He’d been proud to carry a badge, even when he was only writing parking tickets on Sunset. He worked his way up from patrol to plainclothes, and now Dudley Smith, one of the most powerful men in the Department, was interested in him. Bud knew how the game was played. Get a man like Smith on your side, and your career was made. Piss him off and you were fucked. And Bud was getting close now, so close he could smell it. Opportunity was just around the corner.
His thoughts were turned inward, his vacant eyes fixed on Adele Milton. She stared back at him until that concentrated blue gaze became too much for her to take. Eyes on the floor, she tried not to cry. She tried not to breathe. She tried to become invisible. Silently, she prayed that the big policeman believed her story.
Bud’s eyes suddenly cleared and focused. He saw the woman before him, beaten bloody, cowering on a lumpy daybed, willing to go to prison or even the gas chamber to save her son’s life. For a minute, it seemed his mother’s face had been superimposed over Adele Milton’s, that she looked back at him with trusting eyes. The sensation of displacement was so strong, Bud even thought he smelled his mother’s sachet. And as he gazed at Adele Milton, he made up his mind. Fuck Dudley, and fuck the LAPD. He didn’t give a shit if he walked a beat or rode a desk for the rest of his life. She wasn’t going to jail, and neither was her kid.
“It ain’t gonna play like it stands,” he said suddenly, his voice clipped. “Any cop worth his salt will see it for a snow job. And that makes cops suspicious.”
Adele turned her head sharply. “What? What do you mean?”
“I mean your story. It’s an easy see-through.” He shook his head. “Listen, I’ll push it. Tell them you did it, say that it was justifiable homicide. Self-defense. The mother lion guarding her cub…all that stuff.” He stopped, took a breath. “But we need evidence. For the guys to buy it, I’m gonna have to hit the kid some.”
At her horrified gasp, he said calmly, “There ain’t a mark on him, ma’am. You want a cop to believe you went after your husband with a goddamn iron to save your son ‘cause he was beating the hell out of him? I’m telling you nobody down at the station is gonna swallow it. The guys know the score...they’ve seen a thousand cases like yours. And without corroboration, like bruises on the kid, they ain’t gonna buy your story. They’ll question Joe, and he’ll spill.”
Adele stood up so suddenly she swayed. Terrified at the thought of the big cop hitting her son she said shrilly, “No, Officer White! You’ve got it all wrong. I swear I did it. I killed him.”
Bud almost smiled at her. “Save it, ma’am. I already got the truth out of the kid. It wasn’t hard…took me all of about ten seconds.”
“Oh, no.” Her face drained white, she sat down hard on the daybed. “Oh, Joe,” she moaned.
“That’s why we need evidence…proof of battery against Joe. You can’t expect the kid to carry the story.”
Bud came close and hunkered beside her. “Listen, ma’am. I’ll tell you what I told your son. I know what it is, living with a man like...” he nodded at the body, “...him. I know it wasn’t a crime, what Joe did.” He pointed to his chest, said, “In here, I know. But the LAPD won’t see it that way. They’ll charge you with murder if the pieces don’t fit. Or they’ll charge Joe.” He touched her arm and stood. “Right now, the pieces don’t fit. So we make them. And we do it now, before my partner comes back up here. You get my drift?”
Silently, she studied his eyes. He seemed sincere, sympathetic. Adele wasn’t used to trusting men. She’d learned the hard way not to put faith in any man, but she couldn’t read anything in Officer White’s eyes but kindness.
The big policeman said he knew how it was, and he was offering her a way out, maybe the only way. She stared at his hands, so strong looking, and wished she could spare her son this, too. But she had to do what Officer White suggested. She had to trust him.
Without replying, she stood and led him back to the bedroom. To Joe.
* * *
A couple of backhands was all it took to bust the kid’s lip and black his eye. Joe took it without a whimper, almost as if he welcomed the punishment. His head rocked back from the force of Bud’s blows, but he didn’t make a sound. The only sign of his pain was the tears that glassed his eyes. Bud watched those eyes, heard Adele Milton’s sobs, and thought maybe the slaps he gave Joe hurt him worse than the kid or his mother.
When he was through he nodded at them both and told them to get the story straight while he and Stensland supervised the coroner’s crew. And he gave them the best advice possible: “Once you’re down at the station, keep it simple. Just answer questions, don’t volunteer anything.”
At the door, he paused. “They’re gonna try to trip you up, make you change your story. Just don’t let them…and ma’am? Cry a little if you can. Play it up, you get me?”
At Adele’s nod, he looked at Joe. The kid’s face was puffing up pretty good.
* * *
Stensland was waiting for him in the kitchen. Buck Milton’s corpse was gone.
“Well, partner? Do we make an arrest?”
Bud shook his head. “We don’t have to. She’s coming in on her own, her and the kid both.”
Stensland jammed his hands in his pockets and leaned one shoulder against the door. “Listen, Bud...” he began.
Bud’s glare was a warning. “What?”
Cautiously, Stens shrugged. “All I was gonna say is, don’t forget Dudley.”
“Nobody forgets Dudley,” Bud said curtly. He went to the sink and washed his hands, curving his body to hide the blood on his knuckles. “Go back and tell them it’s time to go, will ya?”
Stensland took his hands out of his pockets and heaved himself straight. “Sure, pal. Whatever you say.”
Bud said over his shoulder, “And Stens? No cuffs on her, huh?”
* * *
Bud had refused to let either of them to even use a Kleenex to wipe away the blood that stained their faces. His hand shot out and stopped Adele when she unconsciously lifted her handkerchief to wipe at her nose. “It’s evidence, let it alone,” he told her tersely. Their arrival at 77th Street caused a minor upheaval. The desk sergeant’s eyes widened and then narrowed at the sight of the lady and the kid, their faces swollen and bloodied.
“Looks pretty bad,” Stan Mikulski nodded toward the pair standing nervously to the side under Stensland’s watchful eye. “This the Compton Avenue thing?”
Bud nodded. “Yeah, that’s them. The son of a bitch had it coming. It’s self-defense all the way. Who’s the dick on call?”
“Charles and Hoffman,” said Mikulski. “We got them both here right now.”
Their eyes met briefly in a barely discernable nod before the desk sergeant called the detectives’ bullpen and said they were bringing Adele upstairs. Bud walked with her, a steadying hand on her elbow, then turned Adele Milton over to the detectives. Her son was sent to wait in the dayroom and treated like the kid he really was, instead of a youth who’d already experienced a man’s rage, and reacted with a man’s instinct. A couple of bluesuits brought Joe a doughnut and a Coca Cola. They told him it wouldn’t take long, his mom would be back in a jiffy. One handed him a Superman comic book and ruffled his hair.
Bud breathed a little easier when Hoffman took Adele Milton into the sweatbox. Word around the station was that Hoffman was a good cop, a fair cop. He had his twenty in and he wasn’t too worried about his arrest record. Since he was a family man with kids of his own, Bud figured Hoffman might have a little sympathy for a woman who regularly got the shit beat out of her. Stensland at his elbow, a silent Bud stood outside Room 3 and watched the questioning through the two-way.
Not that Hoffman was taking it easy on her, but Bud judged that Adele was doing okay. There were a couple of times he tensed, thinking she was about to slip and spill too much, but just like he told her, she only answered the questions. Her tears were real enough. She dabbed at her eyes every couple of minutes and he gave her credit, she didn’t play up the grieving widow. Hoffman would have seen through that. He heard him ask if she wanted to see a doctor for her bruised and swollen face, and Adele said, “No, I’ll be all right. But maybe he could check on my son...”
Mentioning Joe was a smart thing to do. ‘Yeah, honey,’ Bud thought, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. ‘You’re doin’ fine.’
* * *
Seated at the scarred table, Adele Milton waited to hear that she would be going to jail. She’d tried, but maybe she hadn’t answered the questions the way she should have. She didn’t care. As long as Joe was safe, as long as they didn’t find out. She could stand anything for herself, as long as they never knew about Joe.
She realized that there had been no questions for several minutes. Adele raised her tired eyes and asked Hoffman quietly, “What will happen to me?”
The detective leaned back and observed her bruised face. Her eyes were sorrowful, but calm, as if she’d accept her fate, no matter what it was going to be. She looked like a woman who was used to hardship. Pretty much like all the women he’d seen who ended up living as their husband’s victims. He glanced down at her hands, caught the dull gleam of her narrow wedding ring. ‘Love, honor, and cherish...yeah, right.’
It was obvious Buck Milton hadn’t cherished his wife or their son. Earl almost shook his head, and then caught himself just in time. He was a jaded old cop, had seen it a hundred…no, a thousand times before in his twenty-one years on the LAPD. And every time he questioned a victim of domestic battery, he wondered why these women took it. At least this one finally fought back. At least she wasn’t dead, and neither was her son.
He looked across the table at her and shrugged. “I’d say nothing’s going to happen to you ma’am. The investigating officers are calling it self-defense. I’m leaning that way too.” He tried a little joke...” It’s clear you’re no danger to society,” and was pleased when she managed a wan smile. He went on, “I’ll suggest an immediate release so you can go home with your son. Officer White will make his report to Lieutenant Smith and so will I, recommending that no charges are filed in the case.”
He put his pencil down on the blank pad of paper. He hadn’t written a thing. Earl Hoffman stood. “Maybe you’ll have to appear in court for a coroner’s hearing, but I’m guessing it won’t even go that far.” He said in a gentle voice, “Come on, Mrs. Milton. Let’s go get your boy.”
* * *
Bud and Stenland drove them home in the unmarked. Nobody talked, there was only the occasional murmur from the back seat as Joe occasionally asked his mother if she was all right, and she replied each time that she was. As they pulled up to the curb, two women in housedresses, their hair tied up in flowered scarves, came out of the Milton’s apartment with a pail and mops.
Bud half turned in his seat and looked back at Adele. “Neighbors?”
“I guess they cleaned up the mess for you. Nice of ‘em.”
“Yes, it was,” she agreed, staring up at the two women, her expression grateful.
Her face was drawn and pale, and he understood that only now was the reality of her situation becoming clear to Adele Milton. The immediate threat to Joe and herself was gone, but now there were other problems to deal with. Like keeping a roof over Joe’s head, food on the table, shoes on his feet. Buck hadn’t been much good, but he’d brought home a little money, enough to keep them going. That would stop now that he was dead. And as his killer, she couldn’t even expect insurance. That was another thing to worry about. She had to find the money to bury him somehow.
Bud coughed uncomfortably. “Listen…I’m gonna come around and check on you two,” he began. “Make sure everything’s okay. Is that all right with you?”
Adele shook her head, ‘yes’ but he doubted she’d understood him. Her face looked blank, kinda sick. It was okay, he’d give them a couple of days before he came around.
He nodded to Joe and said, “Take your mother upstairs, kid. See if she’ll lay down for a while. You got that card I gave you with the numbers?”
“Yessir. Come on, Ma.” The boy fumbled with the door release and scrambled, all long legs, to help his mother get out of the car.
Bud watched him lead her up the steps like an old woman. On the landing, she stopped to talk to the two ladies who’d cleaned up Buck Milton’s blood. Bud saw them put their arms around Adele and comfort her. He’d been worried the neighbors would shun a woman who claimed to kill her husband, but watching them now, he guessed women like these, hardworking, simple living housewives, were also realists. They knew the score.
He felt better. Adele Milton had friends, she had the kid. She’d be okay.
He checked the rearview, put the cruiser in gear, and pulled out into traffic. They drove a couple of blocks in silence, and then Stensland patted his protruding stomach. “How about we stop for a sandwich, partner? Gotta fill up old faithful, here. Been a couple of hours.”
“Yeah, sure. Sounds good.” Bud was hungry too. He wasn’t in the mood right after Compton Avenue, but now that the stink of blood was out of his nostrils, he could eat. He drove to a joint they both liked on Figueroa, a combination bar and restaurant that served man-sized sandwiches, and parked out front. Before he got out of the car he picked up the hand mike, thumbed the button.
“Dispatch, this is 4A31. Code 7 for dinner, twenty minutes.”
“Roger that, 4A31. Advise when you return.”
He chose the booth at the back in the corner. Bud always felt safer if he could see the whole place and had his back to the wall. When the waitress came he ordered a ham and swiss on rye, and coffee. Stensland asked for hot roast beef and a beer.
Bud was sipping fresh coffee, his thoughts on Adele and Joe, when Stensland interrupted him with a curt, “Something ain’t kosher with this Milton thing, Bud. I need to know before Dudley asks questions. I can’t cover up if I’m in the dark.”
Bud’s eyes slid to his, cool and challenging. “Who says we need to cover anything up?”
Stens leaned in confidentially and growled, “Listen, hotshot. I was a cop when you were still jackin’ off under the sheets at night. Don’t play games with me. I’m on your side.” His voice went still lower, carried a warning: “Maybe Dudley ain’t.”
Staring across the table, Bud considered. Tell Stens the truth or keep it locked down inside? What if he needed corroboration? He’d tried to set things up so that Stens didn’t know what went on in the back room of the Milton apartment, but like his partner said, he’d been a cop a long time. It was a pretty good bet Stensland already had it figured out. Bud shrugged, looked down at his hands curled around the coffee cup.
“It wasn’t the woman, it was the kid who killed the old man,” he said baldly. “She wanted to take the rap to protect him. I went along with it.”
Stens blew a breath through his teeth. “Jesus Christ, Bud!”
Bud looked up and caught his eye, a half smile teasing at the corner of his mouth. “Hey, you fuckin’ asked, pal.” The smile faded and he said, “It ain’t murder. If I thought it was murder, it would have been a different story. He’s just a kid, tryin’ to save his mother.”
“You sure Bud? Sure he wasn’t trying to save himself?”
Bud shook his head. “Kids like him, they’d take a thousand beatings before they’d crack. It was because of her.”
Stensland leaned back in his chair, his eyes narrowed on his partner. A suspicion was growing in his mind. It all fit, Bud’s hatred for wife beaters. He’d mentioned he was an orphan once too. “Kids like him, huh? How do you know so much about it?” he asked, suddenly sure how.
After a long pause, when Stens thought he wouldn’t spill, Bud finally raised his eyes from the coffee cup. “Because,” he shrugged, “twenty years ago, that was me. Only difference is, I didn’t kill my old man. I fuckin’ tried...but he won. He beat my mother to death with a tire iron, left me tied to the radiator. If it wasn’t for a truant officer, I’d have died there too, watching my mother rot.”
Stensland grimaced, looked away. “Jesus, Bud.”
“Yeah. Jesus. I don’t know where the fuck Jesus was that day.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “So now you know why I wasn’t about to let either of them go to jail. All that woman wants is to raise her kid. And all the kid wants is to see his mother live in peace. It ain’t too much to ask, and if Dudley Smith don’t like it, he can get fucked.”
Stensland nodded his agreement, but he had his doubts. Dudley never got fucked.
* * *
But as the days passed, Bud heard nothing from Dudley Smith, no reprimand for his handling of the Milton case, no mention of the case at all. Once or twice, as he sat at his desk and typed his reports with two fingers, he felt Dudley’s eyes on him, considering and sly. Bud waited for an offer from the lieutenant that didn’t come. He and Stensland did their job the same as they’d done it before they’d ever heard of the Miltons.
When the Milton case went to the DA’s office for review, he held his breath. Bud didn’t think so, but there was always a chance some do-gooder would insist on a trial. It was manslaughter, after all. But Ellis Loew threw the case out, said they’d never get a true bill, let alone a conviction.
That afternoon, Bud stopped by the Compton Avenue walk up to share the good news. He felt like he owed them, Adele and her son. He couldn’t let them go, not all the way. He did what the truant officer who’d found him and his mother had done, and got involved. Bud did a little checking into things to see if he could help. Made it a point to talk to Joe’s coach, a couple of his teachers. He heard what he expected to hear, that Joe was a good kid. Coach Orris still had high hopes for him, and even in the aftermath of his father’s killing, he told Bud that nobody at school gave Joe a hard time, not even the hard case delinquents.
It had all come out the way he hoped it would, and Bud figured that even if he never got out of 77th Street, it was worth it to know he’d saved them. He wondered if he could do more, if just showing up once in a while could help Adele and Joe out. Maybe he could keep an eye on the kid, be like a big brother or an uncle or something. Keep his hand in, take the kid to a ball game. Do whatever it took to get Joe Milton through school, find his way in life.
Two weeks after he’d first walked into the Milton’s apartment, he was there again, this time to pick up the kid to take him to a Dodger’s game. The door was closed and Bud had just raised his fist to knock when it opened. Adele Milton stood framed in the doorway, smiling at him, and Bud stared, astonished. She didn’t look like the same woman. She looked young, happy. Pretty.
“Come in, Officer White. Joe’s still cleaning up. He worked today...got a job cutting grass on Saturdays and he was a little late coming home,” Adele explained, and ushered Bud inside. She went to the icebox and opened the door. “How about a Coca Cola?”
“Sure. Thanks.” Bud took the green glass bottle and leaned against the porcelain sink, one ankle crossed over the other. He tried to really look at Adele without seeming to. The change in her amazed him. Two weeks ago she looked a haggard fifty years old. Today, she had a bloom on her skin and lightness in her step that made her seem like a kid.
“So how’s everything going?” Bud asked, though it was obvious. “Things working out?” He took a sip of his Coke.
She nodded, offered a little smile. “Things are definitely looking up. I’ve got a job sewing costumes for Paramount over in Hollywood. Nothing glamorous, but it puts food on the table and pays the rent.”
“Hollywood’s a little far for you on the bus, ain’t it?” Bud said, thinking of long hours and Adele riding the bus alone at night, Joe left unsupervised at home. Stuff like that could give him ulcers. “Why don’t you and Joe move up that way?” he suggested. “Save you time, bus fare.”
Adele shrugged delicately. “I don’t mind the long ride. Besides, I don’t want to take Joe away from his friends or his coach. He’s had enough to deal with, you know?” At his nod she said, “A long bus ride is nothing…we’ll manage fine, Joe and me.” She ducked her head, looked up at him shyly. “Things are going real good for us and I owe it all to you, Officer White. Don’t think I’m not grateful.”
If she had stopped then, he would have been a happier man. Bud was ready to tell her she didn’t owe him a thing, when she said the words that soured it all for him.
“Maybe someday I’ll find a way to say a proper thank you.”
He kept his eyes on the floor for long seconds, unwilling to look up and confirm that she meant those words they way they sounded. He’d become as bad as Joe, thinking she was a half step away from sainthood, and he didn’t want anything to change his mind. Adele Milton was all tied up with memories of his mother.
Silent, he swigged from the bottle and finished his Coke. His eyes on the cracked linoleum floor, Bud thought about what she was offering. From anyone else, it might be a tempting offer. She was a nice woman, no barfly, hard and used up like most of the women he ran across. And she was sure prettier than he’d thought.
But even the idea of screwing her made Bud feel cheap and dirty. Saving Adele and her son had been an act of salvation for him. A victory. He’d stopped history from repeating itself, kept a good kid out of jail and a grieving mother from losing her son. His universe had righted itself, and justice had been done. He didn’t want a price put on that. He didn’t want her to perform a service in return for something that was sacred to him.
He looked up at Adele at last, and realized she wouldn’t understand. Joe might. Maybe not now, but when he was older, Joe would understand.
His eyes were kind as he let her down easy. “No thanks necessary, ma’am,” Bud said.