Saturday, 20 August 2011

“Hazing” by Jim Winter

They found Aaron Deming floating face down in the Shawnee River. A tug boat pilot spotted him while guiding an ore freighter upriver to the Foundry District and the city's only remaining steel mill. That was how Jessica Branson found herself vomiting over the side of the police boat on a Sunday morning in October.

“Don't like boats?” asked Sarah Ryland, Branson's partner in Homicide.

Branson stood up from the railing and wiped her mouth with her sleeve. “I keep telling myself it's morning sickness.”

“Ugh,” said Ryland. “I think I'd rather it be sea sickness. You do know the boat’s not really rocking.”

“It's moving,” said Branson. “That's bad enough.”

Sure enough, the southern edge of downtown Monticello slid by, the ragged slums of Prussian Meadow drifting into view.

“Bad enough the scenery is the ass end of the city,” said Branson.

At the stern of the police boat, divers and paramedics hoisted the body on board to an awaiting body bag. Branson swallowed hard and forced herself to stand up straight. She and Ryland walked down to the stern.

The body belonged to a teenage boy, a high school senior or college freshman. The damage to his face and torso indicated he'd already been hit by river traffic. Branson wanted to believe he'd been hit by freighters and barges that couldn't see the body. She knew better. The few pleasure craft still on the river this late in the season likely ignored whatever they hit. The few pleasure craft still on the river often had drunks at the helm.

“How do we know who he is?” asked Branson.

Merker, the burly police boat pilot, held up a drenched wallet. “Driver's license. Nineteen years old, family from out in the suburbs.” He handed the wallet to Ryland, who went through the contents, those that remained intact. “See the ID card?”

Ryland pulled it out and held it up for Branson. “Thinking what I'm thinking, Jess?”

Branson took the card, a Monticello State University ID. “Fraternity pledge?”

“Which frat?”

****

Kappa Pi Kappa occupied a restored Victorian home on Jim Thorpe Way on the north end of the Monticello State campus. The plaque on the door declared the fraternity valued brotherhood, loyalty, and honor. The lawn, covered in red and brown leaves and showing scars from impromptu football games, indicated they didn't value neatness.

Branson had been a sorority sister at Monticello State. Neatness didn't kick in for her until spring of her senior year.

Branson and Ryland gathered the brothers in the fraternity's main hall. Two seniors took the lead. They left a pair of uniforms to keep the rest of the fraternity nice and intimidated. Ryland took a large halfback-sized boy named Porchenko into the kitchen. Branson stepped out back with a well-dressed Hispanic kid named Murano.

“Deming? Dead?” he said for the third time that day. “How?”

“Why don't you tell me the last time you saw Aaron Deming?” said Branson. “He was a pledge here, right?”

“Yeah, yeah. We already haz-” He looked away for a moment. “We initiated him already.”

“Hazing?”

“The school doesn't like us 'hazing' students, so we've had to tone it down a bit.”

Branson remembered her hazing. Some of the sisters thought she was too timid to join. So she had to strip completely naked and run five laps around the quad. It rained. She ran ten. No one ever called her timid again. “I've been there. My own hazing was a bit chilly. So what was Deming's... initiation?”

“We had him run for six blocks in Prussian Meadow in a Sponge Bob Square Pants costume.”

Branson laughed, a rarity during a homicide investigation. “Well, it beats risking expulsion, indecent exposure, and pneumonia. Where did he run?”

“He ran down Inland Avenue.”

“Yikes. Murano, do you know how many open homicides I have along that stretch of Inland? Most of them will never close.”

“I know, I know. But you've been there. You know what it's about. We wanted to see if he'd do it. And he did it. Besides, who's going to shoot Sponge Bob?”

“You'd be surprised. When did you see him last?”

“Friday night? We had a party.”

Time to put the fear of God into this kid, she thought. Or the fear of Cop. “Any drinking at that party, son?”

The color in Murano's face drained as he swallowed. “The dean is cracking down on underage drinking, Offic-”

“Detective Branson. 'Officer' is for uniformed police.”

“No, ma'am. No underage drinking.”

****

As they walked back to Ryland’s car, Branson asked, “So what did the linebacker tell you?”

“He said they recently hazed Deming,” said Ryland.

“He said ‘hazed?’ Murano was scared to use that term.”

Ryland shrugged and pulled her seatbelt around her. “Don’t know why. He said all the hazing involved was standing in front of one of the women’s dorms at midnight and singing The Brady Bunch theme over and over until someone ran him off.” When her eyes met Branson’s, she said,

“What?”

“Running through Prussian Meadow along Inland Avenue dressed as Sponge Bob Squarepants.”

“I see.”

Branson spotted a uniform coming toward them. She rolled down her window. “Put Mr. Murano and Mr. Porchenko in the back of a cruiser and bring them downtown for a chat.”

“Will do.” The uniform looked around before leaning into Branson’s window. “Thought you should know one of those boys is a hot potato.”

“Who’s that?”

“And does he say he’s important,” asked Ryland, “or do we have someone in there who needs kid gloves.”

“Kid gloves,” said the uniform. “One of the kids is Ray Kozinski.”

Branson turned to see that Ryland’s face go slack, her eyes wide. Branson felt exactly how she looked.

“Fuck,” she said.

****

They didn’t need to summon Ray Kozinski, nor did they need to talk to his lawyer. A uniform from Monticello’s Freeway Division brought him to Settler’s Commons without a word. Sgt. McBride put it in perspective for Ryland and Branson.

“According to the freeway grunt bringing him in,” said McBride, a fiery, redheaded man of about forty who looked strangely out of place without a kilt, “his sergeant got a call from the mayor’s chief of staff. We’re to question young Mr. Kozinski quietly and discreetly and make no mention of it over the radios.”

“Lest the police scanners never forget,” said Ryland, rolling her eyes.

“You’ll make sergeant before Landsman at this rate.” McBride’s gaze shifted to Branson.

“Kid’s scared. You’re a mother, Branson. You talk to him. You might be able to get something out of him.”

Branson looked at Ryland and shrugged. “Will you watch outside and be ready to play bad cop?”

Before Ryland could say anything, McBride said, “There will be no bad cop with Ray Kozinski. It’s not just your pretty little ass that’ll have the mayor’s size 10 planted up it. The shit will roll uphill through Homicide up to the Safety Director’s office. Then it’ll roll right back down the way it came.”

“But if he’s a suspect?”

“Then you stop and tell me. I’ll call the Prosecutor’s Office. Right now, he’s without a lawyer, and Mayor Kozinski doesn’t wipe his own ass without consulting his attorney first.”

Branson sighed, turned, and headed for the interrogation room where Kozinski waited.

****

He looked like a teenage version of the mayor, dark hair and big brown eyes. He flashed a grin at Branson as she walked into the room that mirrored his father’s campaign photos. The resemblance ended there, however, has Ray Kozinski lacked the beginnings of his father’s jowls, and his hair hung down in his face in stringy bangs.

“Hi,” he said half-rising. “Are you the secretary here?”

“I’m the lead detective on this case.” Branson sat down and folded her arms. “What do you have for me, Mr. Kozinski?”

“Ray,” he said. “My name is Ray.”

Ease up, Branson, she thought. He probably learned that charm from his dad. Not that she found the mayor charming. Wrong party. Plus the man sold used cars before entering politics. She folded her hands in front of her and leaned in a little bit. “Okay. What did you want to tell me, Ray?”

“I think Aaron was killed.”

“No kidding.” The sarcasm slipped out before she could stop it. “I assume you mean someone in the frat house.”

“Is this being recorded?”

Branson nodded, but said nothing further.

Ray’s eyes darted around the room. “Do you have to record it?”

“As you said, Aaron Deming was killed.” Branson leaned in a little closer. “This is a homicide investigation, Ray. We need to have a record of the conversation.”

Ray blew out his breath and hung his head. “Maybe I should talk to my dad.”

“Your dad really doesn’t have a say in the matter.” Like hell he doesn’t. “If you know something, you need to tell us.” She reached out and took his hand. “If you’re only a witness, you don’t need a lawyer.”


“Can I go? I want to talk to my dad.”

God, we’re screwed. Branson handed him a business card. “Call me if you change your mind.”

****

Ray Kozinski talked to his dad, who talked to the Safety Director, who talked to the Homicide captain, who talked to McBride. That meant McBride had to talk to Branson and Ryland.

“Boy wants an attorney present,” he said. “So let him call an attorney.”

Branson could feel her blood pressure rising. “But he's a witness, not a sus-”

“Jess, we aren't even allowed to say the word 'suspect' around him.” McBride threw his hands out. “Like it or not, this case is political.”

“At least the Herald-Star and Fox18 aren't all over it yet,” said Ryland. “Well, not Kozinski.”

McBride crowded in on Ryland, folding his arms and looking up at her face. “And when they do catch on... And they will catch on... the only thing that comes out of your mouths is...”

“'No comment,'” said Branson.

“Exactly.”

****

Branson and Ryland worked the case for several more days. The coroner confirmed Deming had been drinking heavily. Witnesses also hinted, but would not admit, the Kappa Pi Kappas also drank heavily the night he disappeared. Naturally, none of the Kappas admitted it, either. Branson might have written it off to an accident until the coroner dropped the biggest bomb.

“Someone bashed his skull pretty hard before dumping him in the Shawnee,” said Cratchett, the assistant ME handling the autopsy. “If he hadn't drowned, he probably wouldn't have lived long anyway.”

“How do you know he was beaten before he died?” asked Branson. “Couldn't he have struck something in the river?”

“Too much blood in the cranium. To have a subdural hematoma, you have to have a beating heart. If he was already dead, there'd be hardly anything to press on his brain.”

She pulled her cell phone. “McBride, it's Branson. I want those two assholes Porchenko and Murano picked up. Tell the patrol cars they can dispense with the niceities. I'll call Ryland.”

McBride waited a beat before responding. “What's going on?”

“Did you know that black boys still get a whuppin' in this city?”

“You obviously haven't worked Holland Bay or Prussian Meadow in awhile.”

“I'm talking about Kappa Pi Kappa, Sarge. Someone beat the Deming boy's brains in. I want to know why.”

****

“Do you know what a subdural hematoma is?” asked Ryland, leaning across the table into Tony Murano’s face.

Leaning against the wall with his arms folded, a six-foot-two ex-Marine named Wilcox glared at Murano. Wilcox worked plainclothes for the Harbortown Division, which shared a building with Homicide. He occasionally pulled “intimidating male” duty whenever Ryland and Branson had a suspect who acted a bit too tough.

“That’s a concussion,” said Murano.

“A concussion. Can you tell me how Aaron Deming ended up with a concussion when he was supposedly dead in the water?”

“I don’t know. He fell? He was drunk.”

“Better tell the lady what she wants to know,” said Wilcox. “She can get quite nasty when she’s bullshitted.”

Murano’s face turned red. Branson, watching through the one-way glass, had to bite her tongue to keep from laughing. She knew what was coming next.

“You think her going on the rag’s my problem?” Murano snapped.

Wilcox came off the wall with a smile that was anything but friendly. “Oh, no, punk. You don’t get to disrespect my friend’s menstrual cycle in my interrogation room. Stand up.”

“What?”

“I said stand the fuck up!”

Branson spun away from the window and bit down on her thumb to keep from laughing. When she regained her composure, she saw McBride strolling in from the squad room. “Any luck on Porchenko, Stu?”

“Put in Bay with his parents,” he said, then he put his hand up. “I know, I know. Put in Bay in October when the island’s pretty much shut down. The good news is the sheriff will send their chopper over as soon as the Put in Bay police can track him down.”

“Aren’t there only a dozen officers on the island in season?”

“Yeah, but you forget. There’s only a handful of people there now, the chief lives there year-round, and his number two lives over on Kelley’s Island. Your boy will be here by day’s end.”

Branson’s cell began playing “Smooth Criminal,” the Alien Ant Farm version. She grinned sheepishly at McBride.

“You heathen,” he said.

“Detective Branson,” she said.

“Detective? This is Ray Kozinski.”

Branson mouthed the name at McBride. His eyebrows shot up.

“Mr. Kozinski,” she said. “Are you and your attorney ready to talk to me about Aaron Deming?”

“No lawyer,” said Kozinski. “I’ll talk to you alone.”

She shook her head. “Are you sure? It’s been made very clear to us you wanted an attorney present.”

“I’m just a witness, right?”

“Yes.” But then everyone’s a suspect, aren’t they, Ray?

“Porchenko told me he did it. Told me, then said he was going to hide out on South Bass Island for the winter, hoping it’d be ruled an accident.”

South Bass, the island where Put in Bay village sat. Branson was half-tempted to tell McBride damn the local police and send one of Monticello’s harbor boats out. “Where are you? Can you come down to the station?”

“I’m at my folks’ place in Vodrey Heights. Do you know Pinewood Circle?”

Branson tried not to whistle. The mayor and his family lived in a nice part of town. “Give me your address.”

“I’ll text it to you. Just make sure no one knows you’re coming. Porchenko’s a psycho when he’s angry.”

“Would it surprise you to learn the coroner shares your opinion?”

“You mean you know…?”

“We suspect. You can help us know, Ray.”

****

Ryland wasn’t happy to be saddled with questioning Porchenko alone when they brought him in. She changed her request from the Sheriff’s Department chopper to commandeering a ferry out of Holland Island to Put in Bay. She planned to take one that circled back to Kelley’s Island, five miles north of the city in Lake Erie, just to prolong Porchenko’s humiliation.

Branson requisitioned a city Ford Focus and wound her way through downtown, across the Shawnee, and out I-73 to Castle Rock, an enclave of McMansions in Vodrey Heights. I-73 hid a myriad of urban evils in Holland Bay, the old port district gone to seed across from downtown, but did nothing to hide the coke-and-sulfur stench of Midtown, with its steel mill, foreign auto plants, and dull, soulless warehouses.

She got off 73 just past the Airport Split and began “climbing the slope,” as Monticellans called driving into the city’s eastern and western boroughs. Here, though, the slope was a gentle rise as 73 carried traffic upwards as it carried it away from Lake Erie. Branson navigated the various traffic barriers and roundabouts that dotted this part of Midtown and the Heights. Out here, the neighborhoods had all been former suburbs, some as recently as Branson’s childhood.

Castle Rock sat on a hill perched above the Shawnee River. It didn’t surprise Branson to find the mayor’s house in a neatly manicured cul-de-sac with a spectacular view of the Huron River flowing into the Shawnee. If she squinted, she could make out the white column of Put in Bay’s Perry Monument in the distance.

She rang the doorbell. Moments later, Ray Kozinski, looking freshly showered, opened the door. The smell of potpourri drifted out. Kozinski wore a button-down shirt he had open three buttons.

“Detective, you’re early. Come in.” He gave her a smile that reminded her of half a dozen bar encounters she regretted over the years, including one with her husband.

“Let’s make this quick,” she said. “If I like what you tell me, we’ll work it out with your father about making a statement.”

“Come on in.”

She followed him into the house’s great room. The nearly two-story picture window framed an even more spectacular view of the river. Even Midtown looked good from up here. Branson then noticed the lit fireplace and the bottle of wine on the coffee table.

“You realize the drinking age in Ohio is twenty-one,” she said.

Kozinski turned on his shining smile once more and said, “I doubt you’re going to arrest me for getting into my parents’ wine cabinet while they’re in Indiana doing the leaf tour.

“No, I suppose not.” She took out her notebook and gestured toward one of the leather sofas in the room. “Have a seat, and tell me everything you know about Tony Murano and Neil Porchenko.”

Kozinski sat down and poured two glasses of wine, offering Branson one. “Sure. But please, have a glass of wine with me. It’s shiraz.”

“I prefer Jaeger,” she said, “and I’m on duty.”

“Suit yourself.”

****

For half an hour, Ray Kozinski talked his way around the death of Aaron Deming. Murano said this. Porchenko said that. Kozinski saw Deming with Sandy Leher, Porchenko’s girlfriend. That caught Branson’s attention.

“Did Porchenko ever learn of this?” she asked.

Kozinski sipped his third glass of wine. “I might have told him. Deming was a pledge, after all. Stealing your frat brother’s girlfriend before you’re even accepted is a bad thing.”

Branson scribbled on her notepad. “How did Porchenko react.”

“He said, and I quote, ‘I’m gonna kill that fucking nigger.’ Just like that.” Kozinski seemed to glow now. He patted the sofa next to him. Come. Sit with me.”

“I’m comfortable where I am,” said Branson. “So where was Porchenko last Friday night?”

“Pretty much where he and Murano said they were. In Prussian Meadow, hazing Deming.” He finished his wine. “Come on, Jessica. Can I call you Jessica?”

Branson’s cheeks felt warm. “It’s Detective Branson, Mr. Kozinski.”

He smiled that sleazy smile she hated on men. “You know, it wouldn’t hurt you to loosen up a little.” He pointed at her left hand with the stem of his wine glass. “That ring mean anything to you?”

“It means I have a husband at home,” she said.

“He wouldn’t have to know. On the other hand, if all my father knew was you made me a very happy man…”

“Smooth Criminal” sounded on Branson’s hip. She grabbed the cell. “Branson. Go.”

“Jess, we got him,” said Ryland over the phone. “Put in Bay Police have him standing in cuffs on the dock next to the Boardwalk. Murano rolled on him.”

Branson watched Kozinski wander off into the other room.. “Mr. Kozinski here can confirm his story. As soon as he sobers up a bit.”

“With or without him, that dirtbag’s going down. Murano gave us a list of witnesses who heard him call Deming…”

“I know what he called him, Robyn. I’ll be back downtown with Kozinski in about forty-five minutes.”

As she hung up, she felt a pair of hands kneading her shoulders.

“How’s that feel?” said Kozinski. “Good?”

“Inappropriate,” said Branson. She pushed his hands off her shoulders, stood, and faced him. “You up for a ride downtown?”

Kozinski climbed over the back of the sofa where Branson had been sitting. Instinctively, Branson backed up and fell backward over the coffee table. Kozinski was on top of her immediately, pinning her to the floor.

“You know what my hazing was?” he said, whispering into her ear as he pawed her blouse, ripping buttons. “I had to stick it to this fat chick. A virgin, whether she wanted it or not.”

Branson tried to push him off, but Kozinski landed a right cross on her jaw. She saw stars as the back of her head hit the floor.

“She fought almost as hard as you.”

Branson pushed back again and got her left arm across her body before he could come down on her again. This time, he punched her in the nose. She felt it crack, followed by warm liquid trickling from it onto her face.

“I’m gonna enjoy this. And when my daddy finds out…”

She spit in his face. “You stupid fucker. First thing they’ll do is a rape kit on me.”

Kozinski slapped her as his other hand reached down to the fly of her jeans. “Daddy will just get me off, and you’ll be off the force, or…” He leaned in and licked her face. “You can surrender and make me a happy man. Wanna make sergeant?”

Her left hand, arm pinned across her stomach, closed on the Glock in her shoulder holster. She headbutted Kozinski, giving him a broken nose identical to hers. He howled in pain and lunged at her again. This time, his stomach collided with the Glock’s barrel.

He froze. “You wouldn’t.”

“Get off of me.”

“Or what?”

“Or I kill you. Get off, and I write this off to alcohol. Keep at it, and I’ll…”

He made a play for the gun.

She fired.

****

Branson did not testify at the trial of Neil Porchenko. The prosecutor decided she didn’t need the testimony of the woman who killed the mayor’s son. The mayor agreed, and proceeded to file a wrongful death suit against Branson, pending formal charges by the Monticello Police Department. For now, however, he would have to grieve sitting on his hands. Branson went on paid administrative leave and directly under the microscope of an Internal Affairs sergeant named Baker.

In another life, she could get to like Baker. The man had a rubbery face and a quick laugh that reminded her of someone’s grandfather. Not either of hers, though. Baker, however, put her through the wringer. She had to relive every excruciating second of the ordeal from the moment Ray Kozinski called to the second she shoved his corpse off of her. Did she plan to shoot? Was she sure she wasn’t taken in by his charms, only to panic realizing she was seducing a witness? Didn’t she receive the Safety Director’s warning that Ray Kozinski was to have an attorney present during all interviews? Had Branson ever fired a weapon in the line of duty before?

Baker repeated his questions over and over again, calling her in at odd hours of the day, sometimes while Gary and the kids were home. Anything to catch her off guard.

They found Porchenko guilty about two months after the trial started, in the spring following the murder. The judge didn’t wait to sentence him. She had no use for racist frat boys who fled the police. Thirty years in Mansfield. If he was a good boy, they might move him to medium security in five years, she told Porchenko. She would recommend against it.

Baker called her into his office the day of the verdict. He had his rubbery smile in place, which only served to unsettle Branson further. She had ulcers. She had diarrhea. She couldn’t sleep. And still Baker smiled at her as he tossed her a file folder.

“Not supposed to discuss this with you without an FOP lawyer present,” he said, “but I don’t think it matters at this point. It’s good news, coupled with bad.”

“Bad?”

“The good news, besides that worthless fuck Porchenko going to Mansfield, is the official position of the Monticello Police Department. Detective Jessica Branson, in the line of duty, shot and killed a sexual predator who attacked her during a witness interview.” He winked at her. “Congratulations, Branson. It’s a clean kill.”

Branson skimmed the report, then reread slowly. “So I’m cleared?”

“Cleared.”

“So what’s the bad news?”

“The bad news is we are screwed, Detective Branson.”

Her eyes widened. “We?”

“You and me both. You don’t kill a sitting mayor’s son or clear a woman of same and get away with it.” He frowned. “They’ll likely exile me to the Huron Division for this.” Huron was Monticello’s southern borough, a wasteland of strip malls, carpet stores, and cookie-cutter chain motels. “If you’re lucky, you’ll be joining me.”

“And if I’m not?”

“Have you considered moving to Cleveland, Detective? They hate our mayor there.”