Days of Grace
posted March 1, 2005
After a quick detour at the Station, Grace and Sean drove to Lane's Diner in a western suburb to meet with Detective Panov. Cold winds flushed down from north and the city was draped in mist making the roads a bit icy. Some drivers paid attention and crept forward while others paid no attention whatsoever to the condition. Grace figured the State Police would have a lot to do along the highways this morning.
Lane's was an old fashioned diner with a long aluminum counter, booths and seats in red, heavy duty Zodiac, vinyl fabric. Coffee cakes and cherry pie on the counter, coffee pots and a cooler with sodas lay behind. A woman with brittle teased hair and red over-painted lips greeted them with a loud smack of the gum and a, “Morning, Hon!” Before Grace managed a response the woman had turned to the pass-through and hollered, “French toast, lot's of cinnamon!”
Panov was already seated in a booth in the furthest corner. Grace met his glance, but he made no sign of recognizing her. Instead he looked down, scooped up food and put it in his mouth.
Grace sat down and ordered eggs over easy, bacon, and hash browns; Sean a double stack of buttermilk pancakes with blueberries. The bowl of oatmeal in front of Panov teased Grace's conscience, reminding her of what kind of breakfast she should have had if following Fran's rules. She decided rules were made to be broken – at least in this case.
Despite Panov's professional appearance, Grace saw dark circles under reddened eyes. “Tough night?” she asked.
Panov smiled – the first smile Grace ever seen on him. “I tend to forget how much alcohol my fellow countrymen like.”
Grace chuckled, feeling him ease with them.
When Sean and Grace were served, Panov recapped the previous night's events at Club Caesar. He had arrived around 9 pm and counted twenty-two people in the bar. Most of them men, but, with the exception of waitresses and dancers, five women were there. Approximately half the crowd sat by the bar, the rest at small tables watching the women dance on the stage.
“It wasn't really striptease,” Panov said. “Close though. Erotic without total nudity.”
Sean asked if it was any good. Panov shrugged and told him he wasn't much for that kind of entertainment. “But those who watched seemed to enjoy it.”
Panov continued, telling them he sat down by the bar and ordered vodka neat. “It could help catch the bartender's attention,” he explained. “Americans tend to have ice in everything. Ruin a perfectly good drink.” He grinned and Grace realized he was quite attractive; he had a nice smile.
He then said he had sipped his drink, peeked a little at the show but mostly been in thought. A silent stranger, Grace thought. It was a smart move. Most people became curious about those who said nothing. What secrets could possibly be hidden behind the veil?
“About an hour later,” Panov continued, “the bartender came up to me and placed a new glass of vodka in front of me. On the house.” Panov took a sip of his coffee. “It was the third vodka for the evening and the beginning of these puffs under my eyes.”
The bartender then hovered around although constantly occupying himself with chores. He asked where Panov came from. What he did. Panov had given him Malevich's biography, the very one Grace and Sean had constructed.
Art. That was the bartender's name. Panov did not believe for a moment it was his real name, but Grace jotted it down anyway. One never knew what could pop up in the future.
Grace took a bite of bacon – it melted in her mouth; she then took some of the potatoes and egg. That, too, suited her perfectly.
Cleaning his bowl of oatmeal, Panov said after his third vodka, Chirkin entered the bar. By then Panov had complimented both the girls and the bar to Art, and revealed how lonely it could be living on the road.
Grace could not help but wonder how men functioned. The cool, hard-to-get façade yet behind there a lonely man longing for companionship -- a woman's warmth. Why did they go through that act? Grace thought of a show she had seen on TV once, a nature show about a Satin Bower bird. The male collected blue things -- anything blue -- and gathered it for the ladies to see. Strutting around their collections, the males were mighty proud. Grace remembered how she thought this was funny, all the work he did. On the other hand, the females did fall for it so -. Courting was an intriguing phenomenon.
When they finished their breakfast, Panov told Grace and Sean he had not been introduced to Chirkin the night before, but hoped his conversation with Art opened the door.
Before they stood up, Sean asked, “No indication prostitution is going on?”
Panov shook his head. “I did see some older guy leave with one of the dancers, though. He looked happy, her –.” He shook his head. “Not so much. But I can't tell whether she was a prostitute or not.”
“I have an address --,” Grace said and flipped open in her note book. She wrote the address and handed it to Panov. “Second floor. This is the apartment Mary Parker been to and it would be interesting to see if they still use it.”
Panov looked at the note before crumbling it up into a ball and dropped it into his now empty food bowl. He said he would keep the address in mind when the opportunity came.
They left the diner together, but walked off in different directions: Grace and Sean to the left, Panov to the right. No one said ‘good bye.'
“I hope he's not too eager to crack this,” Sean said as they drove back downtown.
Grace glanced at him. “What do you mean?”
“It takes finesse and patience to work undercover. I just hope he doesn't rush, trying to solve this.”
Her eyebrows arched, Grace wondered why Panov would do such a thing. “He's an experienced investigator, Sean.”
Sean looked out the passenger window. “I'm just pointing it out,” he mumbled.
Grace had no idea why he went on about Panov's capability, but it sounded like he did not trust him. Or maybe it was worse than that. “Are you jealous?” she asked, a smirk tickling the corner of her mouth.
Sean did not respond and Grace began to laugh. Grumpy, old man, she thought.
“Drop it, Jacobson!” Sean tried to sound mad, but in his voice Grace could sense his resignation.
He said, “Those young schmucks have to be held back.” Sean looked at Grace. “That's all I mean.”
“Young schmucks --.” Grace grinned and slowed down to pass by a car being loaded up on a tow truck. “I'm sure you're speaking from experience.”
Instead of driving back to Police Headquarters, Sean suggested they pay the Ursuline Sisters a visit. “I don't feel like sitting behind the desk,” he said.
Grace agreed. The Ursuline Sisters had come up in conversation with several people and Grace was getting quite curious about their role. She sensed a connection between Malachi, Chirkin and the Sisters.
Sean called dispatch and asked for directions: Pepper Pike, east of I-271. Grace made a quick decision to head out to I-90 and drive around the entire city. Following the computerized directions, it would take them the entire day to get there.
Surrounded by evergreen hedges, Grace and Sean walked up the path leading to the two-story, mansion-like brick building: the Ministry of the Ursuline Sisters of Cleveland.
Grace's research had revealed the Ursuline Sisters were a Catholic congregation of women who worked to change society through contemplation, justice, and compassion. In Grace's opinion, she wasn't entirely certain that was enough to change anything, but, nevertheless, the Sisters social engagement was honorable.
Benches stood along the path. Today they were wet and unwelcoming, but Grace could imagine the benches occupied when the first warm days of spring returned. Halfway to the building stood a sleek statue of a woman dressed in a cloak; she held a book clasped to her heart. Seemingly untouched by the cold day, the features of the statue expressed clemency. As Grace walked by, she read on the foundation: “St. Angela Merici.”
They stepped inside the building and the oak door slammed shut behind them. A virtually unending corridor greeted them; white walls on either side with closed doors on even intervals, a crucifix here and there. It was quiet but for the sound of their footsteps, Grace wondered if anyone really worked or lived inside the building.
Suddenly, a door opened ahead of them and a woman hurried out. Without seeing Grace and Sean, she paced away from them.
“Excuse me!” Grace hollered.
The woman shrieked and hastily pivoted. “Heavens -- you scared me.” She held her hand across her chest.
Dressed in burgundy pants, a white sweater and tennis shoes, the woman certainly did not look like a nun. Where is the habit, Grace wondered as they neared the woman. Aloud she said, “I'm sorry, but we are looking for -.” Grace faltered and realized she did not know who they were looking for.
Sean helped out. “We're looking for the Mother Superior.”
The woman had what Grace would call ‘a happy face.' While some people were doomed with the opposite ‘angry face', this woman had her wrinkles in the right friendly places around her eyes and mouth. Short hair and unexpectedly tanned for the season, this 70-something old woman seemed to be so full of life as though her best years still lay ahead of her.
“Mother Superior is at the end of the corridor.” The woman started walking. “I'll take you there, Detectives.”
Detectives? Grace shot the woman a glance and got one in return.
The happy face smiled. “It must be the way you talk and walk,” the woman said. “Law enforcement doesn't come here often, but when they do -.” She laughed. “You people are easy to recognize.”
Mother Superior was a tiny woman with short gray hair, thin lips and a serious expression. “I am Mother Alice,” she said as she firmly shook Grace's hand.
Grace introduced Sean then explained what their errand was in regards to the murder investigation of Father Malachi of St Matthew's Church. Mother Alice nodded curtly and offered them to sit down.
“Your congregation has been mentioned through out this investigation,” Grace began slowly. “And we'd like to discuss that with you.”
The Mother clasped her hands and asked what it was about. Grace told her it had come to their attention that Father Malachi on several occasions handed babies over to the Ursuline Sisters. “Newborns,” Grace clarified.
Without any emotions Mother Alice said, “Yes that is part of our mission -- to take care of those who are in need.”
“I understand,” Grace said, feeling Mother Alice wasn't exactly eager to talk or having them there asking questions. But Grace was not overly concerned. “Do you have any idea where the children came from?”
Mother Alice shook her head. “We prefer not to ask, Detective. It is important these unfortunate women do not feel afraid of letting go of their child. The children will be given a better chance in life. The women must know they will not be judged.” She paused and took a breath, then added, “We look at it from the perspective that no one would give up their child unless it was an exceptional situation.”
Grace understood the reasons for not asking, but at the same time concerned the Ursuline's were unaware of the real world. The pain on the streets. But Grace doubted they lived in a bubble, sheltered from the world; after all, their mission was to care for the people in need.
“But you do have some information?” Grace asked. “For the child's future, I mean.”
A bit reluctantly, Mother Alice admitted they had the woman's name, age and if she had any known genetic diseases. “But there are times when we don't even know that.”
“From what I've understood,” Grace said, “many of the women Malachi helped were prostitutes.” She saw the knuckles on Mother Alice's entwined fingers whitened and her face paled. “Were you aware of this?”
Ash-gray, Mother Alice repeated that they preferred not to ask.
“That was not the question?” Sean filled in.
Mother Alice's face tightened. “Why did Father Malachi have to die?”
After some hesitation, Grace made a decision. “We're not sure, but Father Malachi may have been indirectly involved in organized prostitution.” Mother Alice's flinched and Grace continued. “We don't think he was necessarily aware of this, but acquaintances of Father Malachi may have used him. Eventually could have lead to his death.”
“This is ridiculous,” Mother Alice burst. “Father Malachi was an honorable man and he would never sink to such a low level. He was a man of God.”
Grace looked down. Whatever, she thought while gathering her thoughts. Taking a deep breath, she looked up again. “There are indications he was pressured and in trouble; the more we know about him, the greater the chance is that we will catch his killer.”
Mother Alice's brows furrowed. “I don't know anything about that.”
Feeling the conversation was going to drag out, Grace pushed ahead by asking when Malachi visited the ministry the last time. Mother Alice paused for a moment then told them it was probably more than a year ago. He had brought a baby girl which they adopted away some weeks later. “It was a white child and it doesn't take long to find a family for them,” Mother Alice said, her tone slightly bitter.
“Do you have an exact date for when this was?”
“I would have to check our records,” Mother Alice explained.
Grace smiled. “We would appreciate that.” She got only a sour expression in return.
Mother Alice, her face free from make-up, her eyes penetrating yet somehow soothing. Grace didn't know what it was, but Mother Alice was so natural, free from the wants most people had in life. Did she ever regret her choice? Grace was curious. Did she ever look at a car, a man or woman with the thought “I shall have this”? Humans would do anything to get what they wanted, what they believed entitled to have. Sex was no exception. Did Mother Alice ever think in those terms? Grace wondered.
Grace pushed these thoughts aside. “Do you know Brother William?”
Mother Alice's face broke out in a smile. “The boy is a blessing to all of us.”
“I understand he grew up here,” Grace said, slightly amazed by the Mother Superior 's swift shift in attitude.
Mother Alice clasped her hands together and sighed. “It is rare we keep a child with us, but William was special.” She paused and looked out the window for a moment before she continued. “I wasn't Mother Superior back then and honestly don't know how it all happened, but I do believe the best thing for him was to stay.”
“Does anyone know how he ended up here?”
Little crinkles formed on Mother Alice's forehead. “I don't know. I could talk to some of the older Sisters.”
“That would be appreciated,” Grace responded and took a peek at her notes to see if she had forgotten anything. There was one thing.
“Just one more question. Mary Parker – do you know her?”
“I wouldn't say I know her, but we are acquainted. She volunteers here, helps out with the children.”
A tad bit surprised, Grace asked how often and was told Mary helped out at least once a week.
“Mostly with the homeless and their children,” Mother Alice said with a sudden tenderness in her voice. “Ms. Parker has a special hand with children.”
“Is this something she's been doing for long?”
Mother Alice glanced away. “I can't recall her not being around.”
Back in the car, Grace tried to convince Sean it wasn't strange Parker spent time with the children. “She probably likes kids.”
Sean frowned. “She's catholic, Grace. Guilt overflows.”
Guilt might be the reason, but the fact that Parker spent so much time at the same place where she had once left her own child was close to masochistic. Perhaps that was the same thing.
The next few days turned into a routine: Grace showed up to work, met with Panov, and headed back to work without feeling any closer to the goal. It was frustrating and disappointing. But it didn't matter how much Grace hoped and wished; the investigation would take the time required. Time, Grace thought and emptied her fourth mug of coffee. It was not even noon.
“Can't you get out and do something,” Sean suggested while typing.
Grace picked up a pencil and pulled out an old report. “I am doing something,” she mumbled and paged through the papers. The letters in front of her made no sense, but Grace did not care.
Sean exhaled and looked up. “Go out. Get some air. Run. Anything instead of just sitting there bugging me.”
“You go if I'm so annoying,” Grace spat. “It's not my problem.” She stared at the text then mumbled under her breath, “You're the one who's ordered to therapy.”
“Very clever,” Sean snarled and returned to his typing.
The day before should have been Sean's first appointment with the therapist, but not surprisingly he forgot about it. Chief Darby had yanked him into the office, yelled at him. The scene was quite embarrassing for Sean.
Grace sat back and started reading from the beginning. Her mind would track. She peeked at Sean from behind the papers; his hair mussed up – as usual, his face pink and his eyes puffy. Sean looked haggard and Grace could not help but feel a twinge of worry for him. In Grace's opinion, he was a wandering heart attack, charged to explode at any moment. He's the one who should calm down; Grace fussed and turned back to her report determined to follow it through.
Late in the afternoon, Grace's prayer for action was heard. The phone rang and someone unexpected spoke in the other end of the line; someone Grace had almost forgotten about.
“Hello, my name is David Callahan. I got a message from you. Is something wrong?”
His voice was so deep and calm it was almost hard to hear what he said. Grace sat straight up. “Mr. Callahan. No, nothing is wrong.” She searched for clean sheet of paper. “But we would like to ask you a couple of questions in regards to a woman named Ruth Vassel. Did you know her well?”
Mr. Callahan said nothing and Grace started to believe he had hung up. Eventually, he cleared his throat and said, “Yes, Ruth and I were good friends. What can I help you with?”
Grace could not help but wonder what David Callahan looked like. Did the memory of Ruth cause him to tear up or just feel sad? She said, “Ms. Vassel's name has showen up in a murder investigation we are working on, the murder of a Father Malachi Craigan.” Grace paused and waited for some kind of reaction, but none came. She continued, “Is there anything you can tell us about her?”
Grace heard the sound of a chair being pulled along a hard floor before Mr. Callahan responded. “For all the years I knew Ruth, she kept hoping Malachi would leave the church and come to her. The first time I met her she was sad, you know -- lifeless but over the years she seemed happier.” He chuckled and Grace imagined Ruth had left some happy memories. “But, you know, no matter how much happiness she found,” Mr. Callahan continued, his voice now bitter, “she never stopped thinking about that man.”
Grace nodded and wrote the word ‘bitter' on the paper. Had Callahan hoped for more than friendship from Ruth, but Malachi was in his way? She asked, “Why do you think that is?”
“I don't know,” Mr. Callahan mumbled, making it even more difficult to hear what he said.
“Are you sure?” Grace didn't have time for some old conflict. “Mr. Callahan, we really could use any information you have about this.”
The man took a deep breath and exhaled into the phone. Grace could almost feel his breath and temporarily removed the phone from her ear.
“They had a child together,” Mr. Callahan finally blurted.
Grace's mouth fell open and she looked at Sean. Obviously having heard her jaw hit the desk, Sean looked up. With eyebrows knitted together, he whispered, “What?”
Afraid she had misheard Grace pressed the phone into her head and asked Mr. Callahan to repeat what he just said. He told her again, and even this time the statement took her by surprise. Looking at Sean, she repeated, “Father Malachi and Ms. Vassel had a child together?”
While Sean scooted his chair backwards, placed his hand across his stomach, Mr. Callahan said, “Yes.” He paused then added, “I don't think Ruth ever got over it.”
“Got over what?” Grace asked, penciling down ‘this is crazy!' on the paper and held it up the Sean.
“Well, Malachi took the child away from Ruth and forbid her to see him.”
The pencil in Grace's hand fell to the desk. “Did she say why?”
Again, Mr. Callahan sighed. “Listen Detective, I only know Ruth's side of the story and that might not be the true one.”
“Everything is important, Mr. Callahan. Please.” Grace plied him with her most persuasive tone. She was not going to let the man think about the evils of gossip. He could be remorseful when they'd hung up.
“She didn't really want to talk about it. All I know,” Mr. Callahan began, “is that Ruth had a child with Malachi just before she turned 20. She wasn't ready to be a parent but he was 10 years older and did promise to take care of the boy.”
“It was a boy?” Grace broke in.
Mr. Callahan affirmed and told her Malachi had taken the boy and moved to the Cleveland area. “Ruth said Malachi had given up the boy for adoption. A really good family, she said.”
“Do you think she regretted giving up the child?”
“As I said, she didn't want to talk about it, but I think she had her moments. On the other hand, sometimes I wonder if she didn't mourn Malachi more.”
It was confusing. Why would Ruth leave her child with Malachi without a fight if she still wanted to know what happened to him? she asked Sean after her conversation with Mr. Callahan.
“Come on, Grace. Malachi was a Catholic priest. He couldn't have a kid and if he did he probably swept up very carefully behind himself.”
There was a hint of smugness draped across Sean's face. Grace wondered if he was surprised about what they just found out; Sean shook his head and told here there are thousands like Malachi out there.
“Secrets,” he said. “The church is good at that.”
Grace shook her head, knowing Sean was right. “Well -,” she sighed. “It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out where he took the kid.”
“The Ursuline Sisters --.”
Crossing her hands behind her head, Grace relaxed in her chair. “Where else?” She looked out through the window. The city lay draped under a think cover of clouds. Mist. Grace had heard there was a chance for some sun for the weekend and promised herself if that happened she would rake the leaves from the lawn. On the other hand, at the moment she wasn't sure if she could focus on such a simple domestic chore.
“I don't know what to do about this information,” she said and glanced at Sean. “We could drive out and harass Mother Alice, but I don't know for what.” She sighed. “It was a long time ago.”
Deep in thought, Grace nodded ‘good bye, see you' to Alvarez and Jameson. It was getting late and those with a weekend were dropping out. Grace realized she was one of them and should do the same.
“Let's think about it,” Sean suggested as if reading Grace's mind.
Grace nodded. “Yeah. I don't think we can afford a scene at the Convent,” she said and grinned.
“You're hilarious today,” Sean said, standing up. “But let's get out of here before anything else happens.”
Nothing else did happen – not until Saturday evening when Grace filled a bowl with steaming Thai chicken soup while laughing at a sick joke from Patty Steele.
Grace had lived through the week in denial of Patty and Theo's visit Saturday evening. Not until she woke up that morning and Fran prompted her to go to the West Side Market for food did reality sink in. But when they returned home, bags filled with all kinds of vegetables, chicken, olives, sausages, Grace got on a roll and looked forward to the evening. Fran was the master in the kitchen and Grace her devoted sidekick. While sipping a glass of wine or two, Grace chopped so widely that pieces of onion and garlic flew through the air. Any thoughts of work floated away and for the first time in a long time she felt relaxed.
“You feeling tipsy, Detective?” Patty laughed and swept Grace into an unexpected embrace as she and Theo arrived.
Grace unconsciously brushed her hand across her own cheek and felt the heat. “Most definitely not,” she giggled. Was that voice really hers? Grace thought.
The party had drinks and snacks, talked about anything but work – at least Grace and Patty did not. It turned out Theo was a doctor of pediatrics and since he was relatively new in the city, Fran ended up telling him about the Cleveland health care system from inside out. Meanwhile, Grace found out her guests were big into hiking and had spent weeks on trails in both the U.S. and abroad. In candle light warmth, with laughter and appetite Grace welcomed the guests to the table. But just as she let the first scoop of food fall into her bowl a tune started playing out in the hallway.
Grace looked down on her bowl, watched pieces of chicken and tomatoes swim in a sea of coconut milk. The tune played again and Grace's thoughts started to stabilize in the haze called normal life. “Excuse me,” she said soberly and stood up. As she walked out from the kitchen she felt Fran's gaze scratching her back.
“Jacobson,” she answered.
“What took you so long?” Sean muttered at the other end of the line.
Grace leaned back against the wall, sighed and looked out across the living room. “I'm having dinner.”
“Well, not anymore. Panov called. He's in a car on his way to the Westside.”
The voices from the kitchen faded out and Grace straightened up.
“He has a woman in the car, Jacobson.”
Grace felt her heart beat hard in her chest as she took a couple of fast strides across the room. “The woman can't be away for the entire night, so we need to meet them now.” Pacing back and forth she said, “Tell Panov to drive to Edgewater Park – all the way out to the pier.”
A chair scraped across the kitchen floor and Grace heard Fran's footsteps coming closer. “I'll be there in 20 minutes,” she said, seeing Fran round the corner. “Don't scare her, Sean.”
“Never,” he replied before the phone went dead.
Grace could not tell if Fran was upset or not. Her arms crossed above her chest, she stood in the middle of the room without saying anything. It can't be good, Grace thought nibbling her lower lip. Patty laughed in the kitchen and Grace felt a sudden pang of agony. She really wished to stay, but she could not. Actually, no matter how good of a time she was having, she still wouldn't.
“How long will you be gone?” Fran asked.
Grace shrugged. “This can be the big breakthrough, Francesca.”
Closing the distance between them, Fran pulled Grace into an embrace. “It has been a great day,” she whispered, kissing Grace's ear. “Just get home safe.”
Grace smiled. “I may get back before they leave.”
“Safe is more then enough,” Fran said while backing off.
After apologizing to Patty and Theo, Grace dashed out to the car and drove quickly to the park. Her hands were steaming hot and the road seemed to be narrower than she could remember it. “How much wine did I have,” she cussed and rolled the window half way down. While fishing up some gum from in between the seats, she inhaled the crisp air that flushed in through the window.
“Time to focus now, Grace.” She was not up for being caught while driving under the influence of alcohol.
Down by Edgewater Park , Grace found Sean's dark Oldsmobile parked next to a rusty Volkswagen. Panov stood leaning against the Oldsmobile while seemingly in a conversation with Sean.
Grace parked and stepped out. “Big night,” she said.
“Big night,” Panov repeated and threw a glace at his Volkswagen. “Her name is Elena. She is nineteen years old and has been in the States for about eight months.”
“How did she get here?”
“She said an uncle helped her, but I don't know how she ended up with Chirkin.” He shook his head. “I didn't want to ask too much before you got here.”
Grace nodded. Nineteen years old and greatly welcomed to the US of A. “What did you tell her?”
“Not much. She's terrified about being caught by the police, but even more terrified if Chirkin finds out she's talked to us.” He sighed. “What ever happens, it's going to be tough for her.”
Sensing Panov's compassion for the woman, Grace could not help but wonder if he had a personal interest in the case, something more than just frustration and anger for the rotten side of life. “Perhaps a new identity,” she said.
Panov smirked. “A new name won't stop her from having to look over her shoulder for years to come.” He paused for a moment then added, “But she will do fine. One day, she will.”
Grace looked out across the dark lake, the reflection of the moon playing on the rippling surface. It struck her that it was a gorgeous night, calmer than in many weeks. Ironic, she thought. She looked at Sean. “Well --.” She took a deep breathe and gained strength. “I better get to it.”
Elena sat in the backseat of Panov's car and Grace climbed in next to her.
“Hello,” she said. “I am Detective Jacobson.” Grace held out her hand.
Reluctantly, the young woman took it but never shook it. Her face was pale with heavy make-up around her eyes; her hair dyed an angry red.
“Elena -,” Grace continued. “Do you know why we are here?”
The woman's stared at the back of the seat in front of her, but made no sign of answering. Grace tried again. “What is your last name, Elena?”
Elena moved slightly in the seat then whispered, “Romanova.”
“Elena Romanova. That is a nice name.” Grace tried to ease the situation, but Elena absently looked straight ahead. Grace moved on. “You have been in the US for eight months?”
Grace pushed ahead. “Did you meet Chirkin right after you arrived or did you meet him after you'd been here for a while?”
Very subtly, Elena shook her head then mumbled, “Constantinov picked me up at Kennedy Airport in New York .”
“Constantinov?” Grace questioned while jotting down the name.
“He said my uncle was unable to meet me. I thought he take me there, but instead we drove the entire day till we got to Cleveland . He took me to an apartment.”
What Elena said made no sense; Constantinov, uncle --. Grace was confused but she didn't want to interrupt. “What happened then?”
“Constantiov told me to get some rest. Then -.” Elena paused. Her lower lip trembled and she took a deep breath. “Later other girls came to apartment. I heard men; they laugh. I heard bad words. Doors closed and mumbles. For first time I heard bedpost hitting wall; in other room moaning. It is sales pitch.”
“Sales pitch?” Grace felt so excited the alcohol started to rumble in her stomach.
“Chirkin say wants us,” she paused. “To get a reputation – have something the customers return for.”
Grace understood. Some liked screamers, some liked it quiet and some -. She didn't want to think about it.
“I understand this is hard for you, Elena, but it is very important you tell me as much as possible. I want to help all of you to get away from Chirkin and start all over again.” She saw tears trickle down Elena's cheek. “If you want to go back to Russia -- I will help you, if you want to stay -- I will help you. Protect you.”
Elena fiddled with the rim of her mini skirt, folded it and then unfolded. “I don't know.” She whispered. “I can't go back.”
“You don't have to decide now,” Grace said softly. “There will be time.” Barely, Elena nodded. Grace then asked her to tell her what happened after the first night in the apartment.
“I tried to sleep – want to sleep –I couldn't.” Elena turned to Grace and her eyes were swollen. “I thought men were boyfriends and wonder why I was there. I not understand – until next day. I was taken to Mr. Chirkin. He look at me –.” Elena closed her eyes for a second. “He look. Told me I now work for him. I ask why; he smile. Said he had deal with my uncle.”
Her uncle. Grace wondering what kind of uncle would dump his niece into prostitution. “What is your uncle's name, Elena?” Grace asked.
“Have you ever met him?”
Elena shook her head. “No. He do not live here.”
“Where does he live?”
“Detroit . He should pick me up here.”
Grace cast a glance out through the window. Why would the uncle want her to fly into New York ? Why not Chicago ? Or directly to Detroit ?
She looked back to Elena. “This uncle,” she said, “how long has he been in the US ?”
Of course not. Pjotr Bannikov – was he really her uncle? Grace wondered silently, or was he a smuggler of migrants? If Bannikov was a smuggler, Elena would most probably be an illegal immigrant, her papers forged and she would be deported. Grace scratched her forehead. No, this was worse than smuggling: trafficking.
Grace had never worked with trafficking before; hadn't even heard about it in the area. But she had read the State Departments report: every year 600,000 – 800,000 people 1] around the world were forced into slavery. The lack of compassion made Grace sick and looking at the young woman next to her, she inwardly wondered what the hell was wrong with people.
“Do you know how we can get hold of your uncle?” Grace asked.
“I have phone number.” Elena whispered, not looking at Grace. “In the apartment.”
Grace bit back a quick follow up question. She did want to know the truth, but she was afraid to scare Elena to silence. If the young woman knew she was in the country illegally she may shy back from giving the information Grace needed. On the other hand, Grace didn't want to have loose ends.
“Listen, Elena,” she began, “your situation is not unique. There are tens of thousand of women like you in the USA . Women who were promised a great job – a future – only to end up as slaves.” Grace spoke steadily and direct. “You can help more women from ending up in this situation, but you need to tell me everything.” She paused for a beat, observed how Elena frantically folded the hem of her skirt. “Even if you feel you have done something that wrong. I will help you. No matter what.”
No one said anything for a while. Despite her eagerness, Grace let Elena take the time she needed. The silence was interrupted by Grace's stomach rumbling loudly. Elena's eyebrows arched and Grace cussed at the reminder.
Finally, Elena spoke. “There was man back home,” she said. “We met in bar, I was waitress. He was different from the others: charming, smile and not big drinker.” Elena smiled for the first time. “He was gentle man.” The smile lasted for a few seconds of recollection but then, as quickly as it came, it disappeared. “His name was Sergei. He told me he moving to America and ask if I want to come with him. It was dream coming true.”
In a monotone voice Elena told Grace how Sergei planned for Elena to follow him to the States. As best as Grace could tell, he helped her with a tourist visa making Elena believe the easiest way for her to get residency was to arrive as a tourist but then, with the help of a relative, get permanent residency. Grace noted that was the first error: Elena would have had to apply from Russia .
“Sergei said he had contact who would act my uncle.”
Grace nodded. “Pjotr Bannikov?”
“Yes. Sergei said Pjotr help others get into country and without trouble.”
“What happened then,” Grace asked. “Did you and Sergei leave together?”
Elena shook her head. “No, he left couple of weeks before.” She paused and looked out through the window. “We emailed. He call once every week.” Elena turned to look at Grace. “He say he love me.” She frowned.
Yeah, sure he did, Grace thought bitterly, wishing she could meet the man. Just for a minute, by myself, in a dark alley. I'll show him what love is. Something evil grew inside Grace; she asked Elena to continue.
Elena shrugged. “Nothing else. I leave Moscow and arrive to New York . Constantinov met me.”
Grace nodded. The back seat of the car suddenly felt claustrophobic. Looking at Elena, Grace wondered how the young woman could look as calm as she did. How could someone be lured into slavery and still stay sane? No, that was not true – many of the girls on the street didn't stay sane. It was more than once Grace had been called out to the shores of Cuyahoga River, looked up at the bridge above and the crushed woman in the water below it. Not often, but often enough for Grace to have forgotten the faces. Women with no history, women with needle marks on legs and arms, women last seen wandering back and forth in front of Tower City ; no one knew who they were and no one ever missed them. I should have been more observant, Grace thought with a huge side of guilt.
Looking at Elena, Grace hoped she one day could thank her for the lives that had been saved due to her cooperation. Grace was going to make sure she wouldn't have to find the red head floating in the river.
“I would like to take you to a safe place now, Elena.”
Elena jerked. “Where?” Her voice hit a hysterical level. “I can't go anywhere!”
Grace put her hand on Elena's arm. “It will be okay. People from another department will take care of you and make sure you are safe.” She paused for a moment, steadily looking into Elena's eyes. “But you will have to testify against Chirkin.” Grace saw Elena begin to object and softly squeezed her arm before she let go. “I can't promise anything, Elena, but I will try to get you witness protection. You will be given a new name, money and a new start somewhere else in the country. Not even I will know where you are.”
Sitting back, Elena starred straight ahead. “Just like TV. It really happen?”
Tears started rolling down Elena's cheek and dropping to the silky material on her jacket. Elena was right; it was supposed to be a fantasy. Unfortunately, it did happen in reality. Far too often women – and men – had to flee for their lives, start all over again yet always fear every phone call, every unknown fellow citizen on the streets. Life would never be the same. Some argue it was better to know the abuse would happen every night, better to be prepared than fear what would happen if they relaxed. Grace wasn't certain, but how could she know?
Grace stepped out of the car and waved for Sean and Panov. “We have to act now. Tonight.”
Sean pursed his lips and looked out across the lake. “We need a lot of folks for that, Jacobson.”
“I know, but it is now or never. Elena will help us and we can't send her back to Chirkin.” She paused and looked at Sean then at Panov. “I promised Elena she will be safe.”
Panov sighed. “A hell of a night.”
Indeed, Grace reflected inwardly as she took up her cell phone from her pocket and flipped through the phone list. The letters “D.A.” showed up in the display and Grace hit “call”.
“It's going to be a long night,” she said before the D.A.'s office answered.
As usual, the DA fussed and cussed before finally agreeing to sign the arrest for Chirkin.
“Don't screw things up, Detective,” the man said in the other end of the line.
Grace frowned but said in her most lean voice, “You don't have to worry. This case will make you a hero.”
The man laughed. “Have someone pick up the paper in an hour.” He hung up.
Digging his hands deep into his coat pockets, Sean took a deep breath then exhaled. “I'll call dispatch and have the troops gathered.”
Grace nodded. “Make sure they call De Rossi.”
“And I'm sure the Feds would like a call, too,” Panov filled in.
Grace looked at him. He smirked and Grace felt her brows stitch together. He's right, she thought, and wrestled the thought of calling the FBI. No doubt, the case stretched beyond Cleveland PD, but time was rushing and the night was not that long. “Some other day. We don't have time for them right now.” She didn't want to risk losing the opportunity of hauling in Chirkin due to bureaucratic procedures. Not tonight.
Detective Claudia De Rossi didn't seem as enthusiastic about facing Chirkin as Grace has hoped she would.
“Couldn't you have waited till tomorrow,” she fussed as she came storming into homicide dressed in high heels and a black coat, a red scarf casually flung around her neck.
With her abandoned soup bowl and warm company in mind, Grace grinned. “How can you say that, Claudia?” She stood up. “This is so much more exciting than a date!”
Claudia shot her an icy glare. “You don't know how it is out there anymore.”
She was probably right -- Grace had no idea how the straight dating scene looked like and she had no intention of finding out. Instead she gave Claudia the quick version of Elena's journey to the States and how Panov had been offered her services by Chirkin. “There are more girls at the club and I bet they're not volunteering. I want Chirkin for the murder of Father Malachi and you will get him for prostitution and trafficking of humans.”
“Grace -,” Claudia said and sat down on Doge's chair. “Chirkin doesn't seem to be the one who brought the girls here.”
“But he keeps them locked up and forces them to work for him,” Grace argued. She could sense Claudia feared they started something her department wasn't ready for. Grace understood, but she wasn't going to let that stop her. She sank down in her chair, leaned her elbows on her knee's and said, “Elena will give you everything you need. It won't be a problem.”
Looking Grace straight into her eyes, Claudia began to drum her fingers against the desk. Seconds passed, then a minute. Grace didn't say anything but let Claudia process her thoughts.
Finally, Claudia stood up. “Don't you have any coffee in this damn place,” she growled and took off her coat.
Grace chuckled. Sean stood up and strolled over to the coffee pot. “It must have been a heck of a date,” Grace reflected looking at the black dress that gently hugged Claudia's lanky body.
Claudia closed the distance between them and hovered over Grace. “You bet it was! And you will call him and tell him it was entirely your fault he didn't get anymore than the an appetizer from me tonight.”
Quickly, Grace retreated in her chair. “Yes, Ma'am.”
Sean returned with a mug of steaming coffee and gave it to Claudia. “All right,” she said and took a mouthful. “Let's roll!”
While De Rossi gathered her troops, Grace made a call home to Fran, letting her know she wouldn't be home until late -- or early depending on how one looked at it.
Grace felt a headache begin to spread like a bad weed; she stretched her arms above her head and stretched her neck from one side to the other. She was tense. Nervous. There was no doubt Chirkin had armed guards and what they were ordered to do when the police stormed in -. Grace shuddered.
Sean walked into the office after having left for a while. In his hands he carried something black and heavy – an armored vest. Grace hated those things. It made her feel clumsy and sweaty and reminded her more than necessary about the dangers of her job.
“They're ready downstairs,” he said and gave Grace the vest. Sean was already wearing his which made him look puffier than ever.
Grace took a deep breath and stood up. “What kind of folks has De Rossi brought in?” she asked as she put on the vest.
“Eight SWAT with MP5 submachine guns, two detectives and a partridge in a pear tree.”
Despite the weak humor, Grace's headache exploded. She closed her eyes and kept them closed for a couple of seconds before slowly opening them again. “Hang on,” she said and quickly opened her desk drawer and rummaged to find the bottle of aspirin. Without any water, she swallowed two tablets and then turned to Sean.
“SWAT,” she mumbled. Sean nodded. Carefully, Grace shook her head. “Police work isn't what it used to be.”
Sean chuckled and started walking toward the exit. “Imagine how it was when I was a rookie.”
Grace followed behind him. “Whiskey-smugglers from Canada ? Speakeasies?” Grace continued. “Law and order was merely a goal.”
Still walking, Sean turned his head and looked at her over his shoulder. “Not so nervous anymore?”
Flocks of butterflies flew in Grace's stomach, but she could feel they were of the good sort; the kind that would pump adrenaline out to her system and make her alert. She shot Sean a wry smile. “Good nervous now,” she replied.