Innocence and Ignorance

by Steve Pomper




     "I've been doing this job for a long time, but this shit still gets to me." Joe shook his head. He grabbed the ambulance doors and slammed them shut. The rig sped away, red lights flashing and sirens blaring into the drizzly night.

     "I know-I know." Matt said.

     "How old is she? Twelve? Thirteen?" Joe guessed.

     "Yeah, just a little girl."

     "Meghan's that age," Joe said. He had two kids, Meghan fourteen and Jeffery eighteen. Where did the time go? Joe regretted that he hadn't spent the time with his kids that he should have since Beth died. Ten years they'd been married before the horrible collision had taken her from him. As much as he loved his kids, they were a reminder of his wife, a reminder of the good life he'd had, a reminder he could barely handle.

     "I hope the detectives get that bastard," Matt said.

     "I hope we get that bastard." Joe said, heading back to the cruiser.

     The partners ate up the remainder of their shift completing paperwork before they went off duty.

    Joe rumbled into his driveway and shut down his big Harley-Davidson. He leaned forward onto the handlebars and rested his head on folded arms. He'd seen a lot in his career, but child victims were still the hardest to process.

          The call came in at about midnight: A citizen reported a young Hispanic female sobbing and stumbling up the street in the rain, barefoot and naked from the waist down except for a large red hooded sweatshirt. The 911 operator asked the caller if he could get the girl to safety. The caller hung up.

     "There she is." Matt pointed to a young girl sitting on the curb, black curls spilling out of her damp red hood. Joe eased the patrol car in and stopped about ten feet away. The girl shielded her eyes from the patrol car's headlights.

     "Hey," Joe began as he got out of the cruiser and slowly approached the terrified girl. "You okay? What happened?"

     The girl shrunk from the cop and drew the hood of the over-sized sweatshirt around her face. After a long moment her squinting eyes appeared to focus, first on Joe then she shifted to Matt and then back to Joe.

     "What happened?" Joe repeated, gently placing his hand on her shoulder. The girl shuddered and recoiled. Joe retracted his hand. Many years on the job told him what had happened. Joe looked at his partner-Matt grimaced and raised his eyebrows; he also knew what had happened.

     Joe clicked his radio, "Sam 22, could you send fire to our location-possible sexual assault victim-female approximately 13 years of age-conscious and a little fuzzy, but otherwise alert."

     Joe squatted next to the girl. Matt retrieved a blanket from the trunk of their cruiser and wrapped it around her.

     "What's your name honey?" Joe asked.

     The girl looked up at him; her eyes were red and watery. She looked as if she was finally about to speak, but turned away. Then slowly she turned back toward the officers, but kept her head down. She rolled her eyes up toward them and finally locked onto Joe.

     "Maria," the terrified girl said, barely above a whisper.

     "Maria-how old are you?" Joe asked.


     "I'm Joe, this is Matt. We're here to help you. We have some paramedics coming to take a look at you-make sure you're okay." He could already hear the faint wail of a siren.

     The frightened girl remained silent.

     "Maria, we need to find out what happened."

     Still nothing.

     "Maria-we know that something happened," Joe said.

     The drizzle had slowed to a slight mist; a rubber-necker hissed past, his window rolled down, in an old black Ford Bronco. Matt gestured to the driver to keep his eyes on the road.

     Tears began streaming down Maria's brown cheeks. She pulled her legs in tightly together.

     "Look at me," Joe began, he placed his hand on her shoulder; this time she didn't recoil. "Maria? Look at me honey."

     Maria slowly turned and looked intently at the cop. She had said nothing, but buried within her dark eyes Joe saw violent trauma. Maria looked back down at the wet, sparkly concrete.

     "You can trust me Maria. Did someone hurt you?"

     Maria nodded.

     "Did someone touch you where they weren't supposed to?"

      Maria nodded again.

     "Do you know who it was who did it- touched you like that?"

     Maria shook her head.

     "The man who hurt you, what did he look like?"

     "The one guy-" Maria's damp body shuddered.

     "It's okay sweetie; go ahead."

     "He was a white boy, like twenty or something. He had brown hair and a moustache."

     "Do you remember his size? How big was he?"

     "He was pretty big, had a gut"

      "What was he wearing?"

     "Blue jeans I think and a dirty brown T-shirt is all I can remember."

     "Where did it happen?"

      "In a car."

      "What kind of car, what color was-" Maria suddenly sat up straight and pulled the hood from her head. She looked back at Joe, stared deep into his eyes for a moment, and said very clearly, "He raped me." Then she was eerily calm a moment before she clenched her teeth and with a raw force from deep within her she growled, "Those fuckers raped me."

     "THEY RAPED ME-THEY RAPED ME," she screamed.

    Lights flicked on throughout the neighborhood; silhouettes peeked from behind shades and through blinds.

    "Shhhhh, shhhhh." Joe hushed the little girl as he pulled her close. Maria rested her head against his armored vest. She cried unreservedly as the ambulance pulled up.

     "Maria? These guys are gonna help you sweetie. You can trust them, they're the best." Joe reassured her as he turned her care over to the paramedics.

     Matt had brought the paramedics up to speed. A supervising medic named Lucy Biggs took the lead. Maria did everything that Lucy told her to do, but her eyes didn't leave Joe until they laid her down on the gurney.

     Joe thought of his own Meghan. He thought of what he'd do to any animal who would dare do this to her. Actually, he couldn't promise himself that he wouldn't pound the scumbag to oblivion even for this little girl he'd only met moments ago. He gritted his teeth, the image of the animal's annihilation in his mind, his fingers collapsing around the criminal's throat.

     Matt got on the radio to cancel the Special Assault Unit detectives. "Sam 22, disregard SAU to our location. Victim's telling us that the crime occurred in an unknown vehicle at an unknown location. We have no crime scene here. Advise SAU to go directly to Lakeview ER."

     "I wish we knew what kind of car it was," Matt said. Joe's eyes flashed wide, he trotted back to the ambulance. Maria's sudden and explosive catharsis had interrupted his questioning.

     "I forgot one question?" Joe caught Lucy just before she shut the medic rig's doors.

     Lucy nodded.

     "Maria?" Joe peered inside.

     "Is that you Joe? Can you come with me?"

     "No honey, I need to catch the bad man who did this to you. You understand right?" She nodded her head without lifting it from the pillow.

    "Maria, what kind of car was it?"

    "Like a big Jeep-green."

    "You mean an SUV?"

    "Uh huh," she nodded, "They had the back seats down."

     They-Joe thought, remembering that she had said, they earlier.

      "What about the other guy? Did he hurt you too?"

     "Kind of."

     "What do you mean?"

     "Well, he was a black guy, really drunk, or high maybe. The other guy made him get on top of me, but he fell asleep. The white guy called him an asshole, pushed him off me, and then he-" Maria trailed off before having to repeat, to rethink, to relive, what had happened. Joe gave her a moment before asking another question.

     "The guy who fell asleep, what was he wearing?"

     "I can't remember-I'm sorry."

     "Don't be; you did perfect sweetie. What happened to your clothes?"

     "I don't know, in the car I think, unless they threw them away."

     "What were you wearing?"

     "Black jeans, white Pumas, uh, a blue button top."

     "And that sweatshirt you have on now, right?"

     "Nope, I grabbed this from the car when they pushed me out."

     Joe asked the paramedic to remove the sweatshirt and place it into a bag for him for evidence.

      "Maria, I gotta go now, but I'll come see you. Okay?"

     "Promise you'll come see me."

     "I just did." Joe smiled. Maria managed a little smile of her own.

     Joe got off his motorcycle. He rubbed his face trying to put the incident out of his mind before he went in to his own kids. Joe had promised himself after their mother died that he wouldn't bring his work home. He had also promised to spend more time with the kids; he hadn't kept that one either.

     Joe walked into the kitchen. Meghan was seated at the table doing homework.

    "Hi Dad," she greeted him not looking up. "We left some pizza for you in the microwave."

    "Thanks sweetie," Joe said as he reached down and hugged her with more enthusiasm than usual.

     "Where's your brother?"

     "Just got home a bit ago. Went to bed I think."

     Joe walked down the hall and stood outside Jeff's bedroom door. He heard only the faint sound of music and low snoring. He opened the door a crack. Stale incense and a slight odor of alcohol escaped.

     Joe knew that Jeff drank a beer now and again. He thought back to his own teenage years; what normal eighteen year old boy didn't? Still, it concerned Joe. He didn't want it to get worse, but he'd seen nothing out of the ordinary in Jeff's behavior. It didn't matter, he needed to spend more time with Jeff and that's what he'd do starting tomorrow morning.

     It was about 11:00 am when Joe blasted into the house, back from his five-mile run.

     "Hey Dad," Jeff yelled. He was watching TV in the family room.

     "Hey pal, what's up? Finally decided to join us in the world of the vertical I see."

     "Funny Dad. Nothin-goin' out."

     "Again? Don't you think that you could stay home once in a while?"

     "What for?"

     "I thought maybe you and me-maybe we could do something today. Movie? A hike?"

     "A hike? You want us to go for a hike? What's gotten into you?"

     "What? I can't want to spend time with my son?"

     "Look Dad, why should anything be different now. I've been home plenty of times, over the years-" Joe heard, 'since mom died,' although Jeff hadn't said it out loud. "and you're always at work."

      "Well, maybe I should change that."

     "Yeah, you've said that before. Look, you got your shit to do, I got mine."

     Joe couldn't argue the point. Jeff was right; he was always at work. Joe remembered back to when they'd been close when Jeff was a little boy. They did so much together: Hunting, fishing, camping. But after Beth died it all changed. Joe swore to himself that it wouldn't, but it did. He couldn't help himself, but the kids reminded him of Beth and the memories hurt too much. He buried himself at work-long shifts and too many off-duty gigs. He provided well for the kids, but not in the ways they needed most-especially Jeffery. Joe consoled himself in that at least Jeff had never been in any real trouble. Basically he was a good kid.

     "You're right. What can I say? Where you going?" Joe asked.

      "Don't know. Rich is gonna come get me after he gets his Explorer detailed," Jeffery said as he sprang up from the couch with a grunt, went to the hall closet, and began fingering through the coats and jackets.

    Joe didn't like Rich, ingratiating and smarmy, but he figured that you can't pick your 18 year old son's friends. And as long as they didn't get into trouble, what could he say?

     "What did you guys do last night?"

     "Nothing. You know, just hung out."

      "You weren't drinking beer were you?"

     Jeff paused. "Why you asking me that?"

     "Thought I smelled it coming from your room last night."

    "So, you spying on me now Dad?"

     "Wasn't like that Jeff; I was just checking on you."

     "I'm eighteen Dad; I don't need no checking on. Besides, what if I did have a beer or two? I'm eighteen, I could be fighting or dying for my country right now."

    "But you're not, are you?"

     "You gonna start with that again Dad?"

     "The military might not be such a bad thing for you, Jeff."

     Jeff sighed deeply. "It might not be a bad thing for you, Dad-get me out of the house right?"

     "Look Jeff I don't want to get into a fight now. I'm just not sure about Rich. There's something about that kid."

     "What? You don't like him 'cause he's white Dad." Jeff couldn't resist a smile.

     A smile fought its way onto Joe's face as well. "Okay, okay Jeff. I trust your judgment."

     "Thanks Dad. I don't believe that, but thanks for saying it anyway. Look, maybe we can start spending some time together, but just not today-okay?"

     Joe heard a car pull up. He pulled back the curtains. "I gotta admit; Rich really takes good care of that Explorer of his. It's so shiny it practically glows."

     "Yeah, like I said, he told me that he was gonna detail it today. Got it kind of dirty last night."

      "You guys take it four-wheeling or something."

     Jeff hesitated for a moment. He appeared to be distracted. "Uh, yeah-four-wheeling. I gotta get going Dad." Jeff ducked into the hall closet and began digging around.

    Joe put together a brunch consisting of a slab of cold pizza and a Gatorade. He went into the living room and slumped down into his chair. He set his meal down and began to channel surf. Channel's flipped by, but didn't register. Thoughts about what had happened to Maria returned and replaced his frustration with Jeff. He couldn't rinse the new thoughts of what that little girl had gone through from his mind. It was haunting him.

     Jeff's banging around in the closet pulled Joe back to the present.

    "What the hell are you doing Jeff? Sounds like you're fighting a Banshee in there."

    "Looking for my damn jacket; I can't find it anywhere," Jeff said.

    "Which one?" Joe asked.

    "My hooded sweatshirt-the red one."

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