The Lemrow Mystery (New York Mysteries)
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The Lemrow Mystery is about NYPD Detective Steve Kulchek who compromises a homicide case and is demoted to art provenance. Not only does Steve hate art, he knows nothing about it. His heart belongs to homicide. Steve is assigned to the Lemrow Museum to check out the provenance and security of Chinese statues that are the focus of the upcoming Chen exhibit.
Please enjoy this first chapter introduction to The Lemrow Mystery both in English and Spanish. Translated by Queta Fernandez.
The Lemrow Mystery
Mary Jo Robertiello
All rights reserved
eBook ISBN 978-0-9888850-0-4
10 p.m. Thursday, January 29
“Rita told me to keep the answers short and sweet.” Detective Steve Kulchek referred to the prosecutor, Rita McCarthy, and to their warm up session for the last day of the trial. He nodded at his iPhone as if he were talking across his desk to his partner, Dominique Leguizamo.
After clicking off, he flattened his aching back against his customary booth at BOLOS, rotating his right shoulder, then his left. Steve pushed back the dingy calico café curtains and stared out at the rain beating down in the alley. The cozy bar was housed in one of the last remaining one-story brick buildings on First Avenue. It squatted between a fifty-two story glass and steel high-rise and an under construction skyscraper.
Life was good. No, life was better. He licked his lips over their tight murder-felony case. Arson with three dead. He figured the building owners, owing lots of money, had arranged the fire. Taking down the perp, a twenty-four-year-old Mexican-American, was their first step.
They had a witness. Reluctant but a witness, an ex-con who had been working security at a nearby building on 86th Street and Third Avenue. He had taken photos of the perp pouring gasoline and then lighting it. Steve’s team figured that their witness was interested in blackmail, but they got to him and his cell phone first.
All wrapped up except for the lead detective’s testimony in court tomorrow. Steve was ready.
He left his phone on the table. Let Carmen call him. He was sick to death of their seesaw affair: one minute, fighting, the next minute, make up sex. He inhaled deeply, hating her. Why isn’t she here? What’s the point of a girlfriend if she can’t celebrate with you?
Steve gazed at his second home, soaking up its cracked fake leather stools at the zinc topped bar, year-round Christmas decorations slung on the mirror facing the patrons, neon signs advertising beers that were long gone into bankruptcy, deep wooden booths, dim lighting, a twinkling juke box. He raised his bourbon to the plaintive Sinatra rendition of Sinatra feeling sorry for himself.
It was the scene of celebrations: cases won, promotions, weddings, you name it. It was the scene of defeats: cases lost, demotions, divorces.
Steve signaled the bartender/owner/ex-cop for another Jack and inhaled the stale smell of booze and babes. From the wooden bar’s past life, his olfactory nerves picked up the scent of unfiltered Camels. He couldn’t retire. He had to make enough cash to buy them.
Steve ducked out the side door for a fix. He stood under the overhang, shivering and listening to Johnny Cash walking the line. He blew a smoke ring and considered giving up smoking. Go to a clinic? Be hypnotized? Wear funny things over his ears? Acupuncture? Steve shuddered at the thought of needles.
All for Carmen. Carmen the tall, proud, passionate, opinionated woman he adored. Fire, that’s what she was. So, giving up smoking and getting married. That’s what she wanted. Giving up smoking? Maybe. Getting married? Steve’s stomach did somersaults. Not for him. Once around the block had been enough. The one good result was his nineteen-year-old daughter.
What’s this? The slamming of a taxi door and then a good-looking woman running out of the rain toward BOLOS. For a second, he imagined it was his Carmen. In your dreams. He liked her legs and her short tight skirt. By the time he took a deep drag, ducked back into his BOLOS booth, and slipped a lozenge into his mouth, she was seated on a bar stool. Her curly chestnut hair glistened with raindrops. He studied her ass then signaled to the bartender to give her a drink on him.
In a stage whisper laced with a fruity tone, the bartender said as he placed Makers Mark straight up in front of her, “The gentleman in the third booth would like you to accept this with his compliments.”
She swiveled around to give him the once over.
No competition for Carmen but not bad. The legs were great. The face was heavy on the blush.
“Join me?” He knew his lopsided smile got them, at least initially. The red light in Steve’s brain was blinking on and off. He ignored it. He wanted to celebrate almost winning the case. Any excuse to get laid. He tucked his phone into his pocket.
“Why not?” She grinned and slid off the stool, grabbed her drink and her bag. She flung her Armani knock off into the booth and plopped down next to it. She gave him a fleeting smile as she rooted in her bag for a Kleenex. She didn’t wipe off her face or run the tissue over her hair. Instead, she stroked her purse, working the tissue down the fake leather.
“Armani?” Steve said.
“Very classy.” Steve’s tone and look included the woman. He didn’t mention that his three years in Robbery had honed his skills at identifying any up market knock offs from heels to bags to jewelry.
“You smoke?” She took a sip of her drink.
“Why?” Not another female minding his business for him.
“Maybe I can bum a cigarette.” He knew she smelled it. Who’s picking up who?
Kimberly smiled. She looked vaguely familiar. The gap between her two middle upper teeth reminded him of a model who had a minor acting career. “You’re a model? An actress, excuse me, an actor?”
She giggled. Her breasts rose invitingly above her low cut satin blouse.
“What do you do, Kimberly?” Steve signaled the bartender for two more.
“I’m resting.” She raised her glass and drained it.
The second round arrived. The bartender set the drinks on the table and gave them a thumbs up.
Steve and Kimberly laughed together, their eyes signaling what a jerk the guy was. Steve held up his Jack and clinked his glass with hers. They both drank deeply. In the background the room was warming up with some folk music.
Steve tilted his head toward the jukebox. “I hate that shit.”
She leaned across the table, her breasts resting on the surface like rising dough. “I’d love a cigarette.”
“We can stand outside. Not get too wet. Not get too cold.” Steve stopped. “I have a better idea.” He stopped again. He couldn’t suggest they go to his place. Carmen’s photos were scattered all over the place, not to mention some of her clothes, make up. Nah.
As soon as they were out the door, they lit up. Both blew the smoke any which way, not having to care about annoying other people.
Steve stood in front of her, shielding her from most of the rain. Kimberly inhaled, “God, this is good.” She smiled and, shivering, came close to him.
It was cozy, them against the non-smoking world being splattered by the raindrops hitting the alley and pinging onto their legs.
“What was your better idea?” she whispered.
“I thought we could go to my place, get to know one another better, but I just had it painted.”
“Painted?” She gave him a knowing grin.
“Honest.” He held up his hand as if he were taking an oath. “It stinks. I’m sleeping on my brother’s couch tonight.”
“No girlfriend? A good looking guy like you?”
“Not at the moment.” Steve reached down, cradled his right hand in her curly, scented hair and drew her close for a long kiss. “I’ve wanted to do that ever since I saw that sexy mouth.”
“My place hasn’t been painted in years.”
“At the moment.”
Steve used his special parking medallion to get as close as possible to Kimberly’s building, a high-rise on Second Avenue and 56th Street. As they ran through the rain, Steve played the gentleman and held his coat over her head. Up they went to the tenth floor, cuddling in the elevator. Once inside the studio, Kimberly clicked on the lights, then lowered them. Without asking, Steve went to the window overlooking Second Avenue, and lowered the blinds.
When he turned around, Kimberly was standing like a modeling agency’s idea of a little girl. Head to one side, hands behind her back and her pampered feet, pigeon toed. In record time she had stripped down to a black satin slip. He felt a twinge of disappointment. How he loved to undress women.
“Catching up,” Steve said as he unbuttoned his shirt and tossed it toward the night table, narrowly missing a cat-shaped clock whose mechanical eyes rolled back and forth.
“Watch out.” Kimberly’s sharp tone surprised him. “Sorry,” she whispered, coming close and running her right hand down his side. “Let me.” She pulled him by his belt to her bed. It registered in his fevered brain that her apartment was neat, even her bed was made but not for long. They sunk on to it. Part of the rush, he realized later, was the smell of clean sheets.
Steve woke up about four a.m. He looked across at Kimberly who opened one eye and rolled over away from him. He turned on his side, giving himself a three-minute snooze. Without warning, she wrapped her arms around him. “Hey, big guy…”
He turned over to face her. She planted a big kiss on his mouth.
He ducked. “Honey, I have morning mouth.”
Kimberly kissed him anyway.
Steve struggled between a quickie and Murder-Felony. Murder-Felony won. He threw the upper sheet toward the bottom of the bed and swung his legs over his side.
“Kim, I’m out of here.”
“Kimberly, I’m out of here.”
“Annoyed because I want you to remember my name? What’s the hurry?” Anger fringed the hurt tone. “I thought you liked me.”
“You’re great but I gotta go.” He reached for his underpants and trousers.
She moved up behind him and hugged him, covering his upper back with kisses and playful strokes with her nails. Then, she wrapped her legs around his waist.
What a pain in the ass, he thought but didn’t say. He pretended to play along by tickling the bottom of her feet.
She giggled. He pulled at one of her legs, then the other.
“Come on, baby.” He kept his voice soft.
He was surprised by her strength. “Come on, baby,” he said again. Then, he pulled her legs apart and stood up, yanking up his underpants and trousers.
He looked down at her. She glared up at him as she rubbed her legs.
“Come on, Kim – Kimberly – ”
She put her hand under her rumpled pillow, pulled out her black slip and pulled it on.
“I’ll call you,” he lied.
Still examining her legs, she looked up only to glare.
“Any bruises?” Steve buckled his belt.
“You’ll be sorry.”
He opened the door and took the elevator down to the lobby. Why did she turn like that? He shrugged his shoulders. By the time he was at ground level, he was concentrating on the big day ahead. Outside, the air was fresh, the rain had stopped and the birdsong surprised him on Second Avenue. Steve felt great. As he headed to his car, he figured he’d get home to Stuyvesant Town in time for a few hours sleep before showering, shaving and putting on his seldom worn business suit, just back from the cleaners. Then he’d head downtown to court.
At 9 a.m. Steve stood in the crowded hallway outside the 100 Centre Street courtroom. Assistant District Attorney Rita McCarthy and one of her aides flanked him. They were surrounded by Latinos. Not surprising, since three Ecuadorians had died in the fire and the defendant was a Mexican-American. In addition to the victims’ relatives and friends, Steve recognized reporters from Telemundo and Univision.
The defense lawyer, a guy Steve had seen around the courts but didn’t know, smiled at Rita and passed by. Why? Calm down, Steve said to himself, but his inner detective worried about that smile.
After the crowd was ushered into the dingy courtroom, Steve scanned the room for the newest addition to his team.
He saw King standing at the back of the room, a tall, good looking black guy with a shaved head. He had been brought on board during one of the department’s multicultural sweeps. This case was as important to him as it was to Steve.
Dominique Leguizamo, Steve’s partner, wasn’t there, but he knew she was checking her iPhone. This was her last case before moving up to Lieutenant.
Rosaria, his buddy, wasn’t there either, but she’d called him early this morning and given him an account of what a homeless person, Bettylisha Moishabisha, had said on the witness stand. Bettylisha claimed she’d seen a security guard photographing the perp, Jorge Sanchez, pouring some smelly stuff on the corner of the 203 East 86th Street building and then lighting it.
The evidence was in. The perp was responsible for the Ecuadorians’ deaths. Convict him and sooner or later he’d reduce his sentence by implicating the building’s owners.
Promptly at 9:30 a.m. Judge Michael Feingold entered the courtroom and stepped up to the bench. He was a no nonsense judge with a tired expression who was facing retirement in two weeks time. His black robes, shiny with age, hung lopsided on his stooped shoulders. Without expression, Judge Feingold’s beady eye swept over the well, the area in which the defendant, his lawyers, the prosecution lawyers, the court clerk, and the court stenographer were seated at adjacent tables. He then nodded at the court officer at the back of the courtroom before seating himself under the In God We Trust sign.
As soon as the court sat down and the judge thanked the jury for its attentiveness and punctuality. The defendant, Jorge Sanchez, gabbed into his lawyer’s ear. Like Detective King, Sanchez had a shaved head. Unlike King, he had a tattooed snake slithering out of his orange regulation uniform, ringing his neck and then slinking up the back of his head. Since it was a criminal trial, two security officers sat behind him.
As soon as Steve was sworn in, ADA McCarthy led him through his background:
John Jay College of Criminal Justice graduate, three years on Robbery, two years on the Anti-Crime Unit and for the last eight years Detective second grade.
The ADA addressed the jury, “Detective Kulchek was awarded a Medal for Valor and an MPD Medal.”
“Wear your medals,” McCarthy had ordered during their warm up session.
“And resemble a South American dictator? Never.”
Then McCarthy wanted Steve to wear his uniform, but the minute he reminded her that juries hate cops, she desisted.
The ADA didn’t waste time. “Detective Kulchek, please describe what you did on July 11 of last year.”
“Fire Marshall Ross called me at 5:10 a.m. at the 19th Precinct, 153 East 67th Street.”
“What, if anything, did Fire Marshall Ross say?”
“A building at 203 East 86th Street was on fire. Three burned bodies had been found in the basement.”
“What, if anything, did you do?”
“I left the precinct and arrived at the scene at 5:25 a.m.”
“Describe what you found at 203 East 86th Street.”
“The 19th Ladder Company had put out the fire, but I saw the burned bodies of three people in the cellar.” The ADA had told Steve to look at the jury when he said this. He singled out a man who looked Latino.
“Do you know how the cause of their death was determined?”
“Yes, the forensic and the coroner’s units determined the victims had died from smoke inhalation and burning.”
Although the jury had seen the photos of the fire and of the burned bodies, Steve paused, as instructed, to refresh the grisly memory.
“What was your first action at the scene?”
“I inspected the scene with Marshal Ross. He showed me a gallon can at the building’s northeast corner. A substance I identified as gasoline, had been thrown around the area. There was evidence of gasoline in the can.”
“What was your next action?”
“I had the scene photographed. My team found a witness who’d seen a person taking photos of the gasoline being poured out of the can.”
“Describe what, if anything, you did upon learning that…,” the ADA glanced at her notes and stated the homeless woman’s name carefully, fully aware of the jury’s desire to pounce on a snotty attitude, “Ms. Bettylisha Moishabisha had witnessed Mr. Iggy Martin, the security guard at the adjacent building, 205 East 86th Street, photographing the defendant as he poured gasoline…”
“Objection, your Honor,” said the defense lawyer.
“Sustained. Watch your step, Counselor,” Judge Feingold eyed the ADA.
“Yes, your Honor. Detective Kulchek, describe what, if anything, you did upon learning that Ms. Bettylisha Moishabisha had witnessed Mr. Iggy Martin photographing the defendant.”
The prosecution didn’t mention that Mr. Martin, their only witness, had done time. This would be hammered home by the defense.
“We interviewed Ms. Moishabisha.” Steve had plastered his standard issue altar boy look on his face before making eye contact with a heavy set black woman he knew was the jury’s spokesperson.
His subconscious kicked in with a replay of the reek of urine, cheap booze, her dog’s feces and the remains of give-away food that had been emptied from Bettylisha’s unspeakable Goodwill sleeping bag before his crew found the 86th Street All Night Bagels to Go receipt stamped with the time 4:55 a.m. placing Bettylisha near the burning building.
“For the record, your Honor, I would like to replay Ms. Moishabisha’s testimony.”
Being the head detective who was going to testify, Steve was not in the courtroom when Bettylisha took the stand. Steve recalled his buddy, Rosaria, describing in their early morning phone call how the witness, a homeless woman, bathed and dressed courtesy of the prosecution, had been articulate to the point of loquaciousness and had to be pried out of the witness box.
“Approach the bench,” Judge Feingold said to the two lawyers. “Ms. McCarthy, what’s the point?” he said.
“To refresh the jury’s memory. We have the witness, the security guard who shot the photos and the defendant.”
“What do you think, Counselor?” The Judge said to the defense lawyer.
“Waste of time.” This was a savvy answer. Judge Feingold was known for his speedy trials.
“Request, denied, Counselor McCarthy. Lunchtime approaches.”
“Yes, your Honor.” The ADA moved back to her table and leaned against it before addressing Steve. “Detective, you stated that you interviewed Ms. Bettylisha Moishabisha.”
The ADA paused to let the jury remember Bettylisha’s account of the defendant being photographed setting fire to 203 East 86th Street.
“What if anything, did you do then, Detective?”
“We interviewed Mr. Martin who corroborated he took photos on his cell phone. We confiscated his cell.”
“Objection, hearsay, your Honor,” the defense lawyer said.
“Granted,” Judge Feingold said.
“Yes, your Honor,” ADA McCarthy said. “We want to show the photos of the fire again.”
“Objection, your Honor. Repetitive. The jury has already seen those photos,” the defense lawyer said.
“What’s the point, Ms. McCarthy?” Judge Feingold said.
“To give the jury the opportunity to study the photos.”
“Yes, your Honor.” McCarthy had expected this. “May we approach the bench?”
The judge nodded, rose from his chair and stepped down from the bench on the far side of the jury. He was joined by the lawyers for the prosecution and the defense, the law clerk and, in the middle of the huddle, the court stenographer.
“Well, Counselor?” The judge eyed McCarthy and crossed his black bat-like arms.
“May the People show the photo of the gasoline being poured near the building?”
The judge beat the defense lawyer in objecting because the jury had already seen it.
“The jury saw a blurry photo,” McCarthy said. “It’s been made clearer. Not any alteration, simply made clearer.”
“Show me the original and the second version,” the judge said to the court stenographer. She and the law clerk shuffled through evidence envelopes like poker pros and handed one to the judge. He held the encased photos so the defense and prosecution could see them. After the judge studied them, he said, “Okay, but only this one photo.”
“I object, your Honor,” the defense said.
“Noted, Counselor,” the judge said and then climbed back to the bench.
After copies of the clearer version of the photo were distributed to the jury and to Steve, ADA McCarthy said, “Describe what’s in exhibit Number One A and B for the People, Detective Kulchek.”
“They’re the same photo of a man pouring a liquid near a corner of a building.”
“What’s printed on the bottom of the photo?”
“The date, the present year and the time: July 11, 2011, 5:02 a.m.”
“Can you identify the man?”
“Yes, it’s Jorge Sanchez.” Steve kept his tone neutral but noticed three of the four women on the jury were glowering at the defendant.
“How do you know it’s Mr. Jorge Sanchez?”
“He’s the one in the photo.” Out of the corner of his eye, Steve noticed three jury members nod. “He has a record.”
“The prosecution rests, your Honor. Thank you, Detective Kulchek.”
”The Defense will present after lunch.” Judge Michael Feingold looked at the defense team. He then addressed Steve and the jury. “We caution the witness that he’s still on the stand and not to discuss his testimony. Ladies and gentlemen, we will take a lunch break and resume at 1:30 sharp.” Bang went the gavel.
Still seated, Steve noticed the defense lawyer with the curious smile glance back at the courtroom’s entrance. The door opened and a young woman bustled to the rail that separated the well from the rest of the court and handed the lawyer a 9” x 12” envelope. The defense lawyer opened the envelope, slid out a few photos and let a grin escape before assuming a poker face and shoving the photos back. He rose from his desk and walked the three feet between his space and ADA McCarthy’s desk. “These just arrived. Sorry about the short notice.”
Rita McCarthy put down her leather briefcase and opened the manila envelope. She slid out the photos, caught sight of them and pushed them back into the envelope. “I’ll look at these in my room.”
From the witness box, Steve watched Rita and the other lawyer.
“Detective? Lunchtime, ” said a court officer.
“Forget about lunchtime, Detective. Follow me. Now,” Rita said in a crisp tone. The muscles in her left cheek were pumping.
Rita McCarthy closed the door of her assigned room and locked it.
“What the fuck is this, Steve?” She kept her voice low, but he noticed her right hand shook slightly as she reached into the manila envelope and pulled out three photos. She spread them on the scarred desktop.
Steve looked down at a photo of him sleeping like a baby, a naked baby. In the corner of the shot was a nightstand. On it was a cat-shaped clock. A shirt, his shirt, partially hid the dial. On the bottom of the photo was 12:30 a.m. 01/30/12.
Photo number two showed bruised legs.
Photo number three showed Steve’s buffed, muscular back and arms.
The ADA’s cell’s tone, a blues number, pierced the tense atmosphere. Steve glanced down at his business suit and wanted to rip it off.
Rita McCarthy listened. Her left cheek was twitching. “I’ll call you back in five minutes.”
“Where were you last night?” She eyed Steve.
“Obviously, you know. So?”
“So you were set up. She’s the perp’s girlfriend. She’s claiming you threatened to beat her up if she didn’t testify that her boyfriend set the fire.”
“Don’t play dense with me, Steve. Meaning she was forced to sleep with you.”
“You believe her?”
“Frankly, no, but the defense is going for a mistrial. The fact that you had anything whatsoever to do with one of their witnesses…”
“Who knew? I saw her in BOLOS and picked her up.” He thought that over. “We picked each other up.”
“She’s claiming you smacked her, bruised her.”
“This morning she wrapped her legs around me to keep me in the sack.” Steve was bright red. “I had to part her legs with force, but honest, Rita, I didn’t hurt her.”
“I’d like to kill you,” she muttered. “Do you know how this is going to sound in that courtroom?” She pointed toward the door.
“Who is she?” Steve said. Something rattled around in his brain. He recalled in the bar that he had thought she looked familiar. He’d assumed she was an actress he’d seen in a skin flick.
“What are you thinking?” The ADA said.
“I’d like to know who’s accusing me of beating her.”
Rita McCarthy reached into the manila envelope and pulled out a photo of a woman with long straight blond hair and a closed mouth smile. “Kelly Smith, makeup artist and runner up in the Hooters International Swimmers Pageant,” Rita read from a print out. “She has those bruises on her legs.”
“She’s the long-time girlfriend of Jorge Sanchez. The perp. In case you forgot,” said through clenched teeth.
“I was set up.”
“Tampering with a witness.”
“How did she know I was at BOLOS?” He said more to himself than to Rita McCarthy.
“Since you practically lived there, it’s a no brainer.”
An insider, he figured. Did Carmen betray him? He dismissed the shameful thought. Another one popped up. Oh shit, Carmen will find out.
Rita held up the photo. “Didn’t you recognize her? This shot was hanging with the other possible defense witnesses.” She was referring to the precinct’s bulletin board of recent cases.
Steve didn’t want to admit she’d looked familiar. “I didn’t know who she was. She said she was an actress.”
The ADA turned her back on him and spoke into her cell.
At 1:30 p.m. Judge Feingold entered the courtroom and seated himself. Previously, a court officer had delivered a message to the judge stating the lawyers wanted to speak to the judge without the jury being present.
“Counselors?” He looked at the prosecution and defense lawyers who approached the bench. With a solemn air the defense lawyer slid out the three photos and handed them to the judge. After Judge Feingold examined them, he shot a look at Steve who was seated at the prosecution’s table. “Now what?” he said, still looking at Steve.
“My witness claims Detective Steve Kulchek threatened to beat her if she didn’t testify that the defendant set fire to the 86th Street building,” the defense attorney said.
“Detective Kulchek assures me he did not threaten or hurt the defense’s witness.” The ADA’s voice was low. “He claims he was set up.”
“The photos say another story.” The defense lawyer pointed to the bruised legs photo.
“No proof, Counselor,” the judge said.
The defense lawyer shifted to the nude, sleeping Steve photo.
“He admits to having slept with the defense witness last night.” Ms. McCarthy’s ears were red with rage. “Consensual sex.”
“Not according to my witness,” the defense lawyer said.
“Spare me, he says, she says, Counselors,” the judge said. “We’re wasting time. Put him in the witness box or are we talking mistrial?”
ADA McCarthy took a deep breath. Mistrial meant officially the prosecution department could start again from scratch. On paper it was still possible to get a guilty verdict – in about a thousand years. Unofficially, mistrial meant the case was dead in the water. Not only did the perp walk having killed three people. So did the building’s owners. To make it worse, McCarthy realized the insurance company would have to pay out.
“Can I speak to Detective Kulchek?” she said to the judge. He nodded. The defense lawyer permitted himself a pitying smile.
The ADA walked to her table, leaned across it and said to Steve, “Jigs up. It’s a mistrial. Three people died, Detective.” She glared into his sad, embarrassed face. “What does this do – what do you do – for the prosecution of criminality in the state of New York?”