Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Case of the Dead Trailblazer


Isaac Bledsoe burst through the rear exit door of the University Museum on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. The door led to a courtyard surrounded by a tall, black wrought iron fence, one studded with Gothic designs from the last century. Filling the courtyard were the brightest of Philadelphia's Negro youth, nearly two hundred fresh souls identically dressed in powder blue blazers and tan slacks or skirts. The killer of Natalie Rusden walked among them.

Isaac, similarly dressed as the other children although he was not bright or fresh, determinedly scanned the courtyard, looking for Dr. Maurice Wellman, the founder of the Trailblazers, a club for the most promising Negro seventh and eight graders in the city. He soon reached Dr. Wellman, arms folded in front of him in the universal posture of vigilance, a stern Shepard watching his flock.

Isaac quickly described what had happened.

While on the stairs he had heard a scream and he ran toward the noise. After searching the fourth floor he found the body of Trailblazer Natalie Rusden in a storeroom near the exhibit on the American West. Natalie had a knife in her chest. Isaac listened for a heartbeat and felt for a pulse but the girl's body was still and quiet. While saying a silent prayer for the girl's immortal soul he heard the sound of someone running. Whoever it was took off down the stairs. Isaac had given chase and the chase ended in this courtyard.

Dr. Wellman looked past Isaac Bledsoe to his Trailblazers. In briefest moment he imagined the courtyard barren, his dream of creating a powerful core of science and math leaders in Philadelphia's black community evaporated. Dr. Wellman quickly nodded to what Isaac had told him. "I’ll call the police. Don't let anyone leave this courtyard," he said calmly. He hustled across the space and, using his key to unlock the rear door of the museum, quickly disappeared inside.

Isaac found his older, substantially more beefy brother Henry. He gave Henry the quickest version of the story possible and told him to guard the only exit, a set of double gates leading onto Thirty-third Street. According to Henry, no child had walked past him. All obediently, if raucously, awaited the rented buses to take them back to Trailblazer headquarters on North Broad.

Isaac, a child himself, commenced his walk around the courtyard, looking for a killer walking amongst children.

After the first murder of a Trailblazer, two weeks ago at the Lake Island pools, Isaac's brother had been asked to get involved. The detective assigned the case, a good egg named Marty O'Brien, had the bright idea that the killer of Wanda Perch was another Trailblazer or someone connected to the program. Lake Island had been closed to the public on the day of the murder and only the children and a few of the staff were present. With the concurrence of Dr. Wellman, detective O'Brien asked Henry to assist with the investigation. Henry, although just seventeen, was a well-known community do-gooder in the slum called Abbotsford, someone who had graduated from delivering groceries and shoveling snow, to the quasi-detective work of finding lost children or recovering stolen goods.
O'Brien's recruiting target wasn't Henry, who was too old to infiltrate the Trailblazers, but his neer-do-well brother Isaac, at thirteen the perfect age. Problem was Isaac was anything but a do-gooder, with a reputation as a criminal in the making.

To O'Brien's surprise, Henry had convinced his brother to participate and his reluctant spy was now hot on the trail of the killer.

Isaac took a deep breath and stopped walking. Well practiced in helping out with his big brother's investigations, he asked himself a question.

"What do I know?"

He rolled the question around in his mind. He went through it again. Second girl killed in two weeks. He came upon Natalie's body. The girl was dead but the killer was close. Probably watched him or heard him approach. The killer hid, then he ran away.

He? Is it a he? Since it's girls they kill, he must be a he, right? Girls don't kill girls, do they?

Isaac decided that he was looking for a boy, eliminating one third of the children that shared this courtyard.

The killer ran away. What kind of a noise did he make? Was it a sharp noise like that made by dress shoes running or a slap of loafers or the squeak of sneakers? Isaac scanned the feet of the children. The boys wore all types of footwear with loafers being dominant. Dr. Wellman did not allow sneakers.

Isaac decided that the noise was more of a heavy slap, indicating a big foot, wearing loafers or some other type of comfortable shoe.

He thought about the chase down the stairs. Isaac was a small boy but quick. He prided himself in his ability to run fast; usually he was running hard, away from the law or toward trouble. The boy outran him easily. The rear door of the building wasn't even moving when Isaac reached it. Isaac remembered the noise the boy made on the stairs, a noise different in rhythm from his own, suggesting that the boy was taking two steps to each one trod by Isaac. The boy was either very athletic or very tall.

"What do I know?" he asked himself again. I know the victim. Natalie was a cute and smart whippet with a mouth full of bad words when out of an adult's earshot; the girl was pure street, all flash and attitude. She was no one's victim and probably fought back hard. Her killer may be injured, scratched maybe.

"What do I want?" Henry had taught him to ask this question although Isaac couldn't understand why he would need to ask this in most circumstances. The answer this time was easy. He wanted to catch the killer before he took another beautiful black child from this earth.

Isaac began walking again, looking for a boy, tall and in shape, wearing loafers or some other comfortable, soft or wide soled shoe. The boys that most fit this description he asked to gather near the exit in front of Henry. As he completed his circuit of the courtyard, he had gathered half a dozen boys. He knew them all by name as he had spent time with all of them over the past two weeks. These were real children, not the hardened youth of Abbottsford. Their main crime was being young boys - liable to the flaws of any early teen. Growing up and surviving day to day in Abbottsford, Isaac was often in the company of killers. He didn't sense that there was a killer in his midst at the present. Despite that, Isaac pressed on.

He quickly got to the point. "I asked you all here because I think one of you just killed Natalie Rusden." Isaac carefully watched the reactions.

Only Jimmy Wilkins and Harold Smith maintained eye contact, trying to cut Isaac with their eyes. Frank Truehart buried his head in his hands. Willie Cromarty looked down at the concrete while the other two, Horace Jessup and Percy Childs, looked away from Isaac, toward the other children, seemingly wishing they too were still playing innocently.

Isaac crossed Jimmy and Harold off his list. Guilty people don't like to make eye contact.

"I need to see your hands," Isaac said.

"What for?" Jimmy asked.

Isaac stepped to the boy. Jimmy was a head taller but he unconsciously took a step back as Isaac confronted him.

"Natalie wouldn't have just let someone hurt her. She would have fought back. Now show me your hands."

Jimmy presented his hands, palms up and the other boys followed his lead.

Sirens now cut the air. Isaac heard the muted screech of tires as the cop cars stopped in front of the building.

There were no marks on the hands of the boys. "Turn your hands over and pull up your sleeves," Henry ordered.

The boys did as commanded. There, on the back of Percy Childs' hand, were three long scratches.

Isaac grabbed the boy's hand. "How did you get them scratches, Percy?"

Percy's eyes spun wildly from Isaac's face to the other children and back.

"He killed Natalie. Percy killed her!" shouted Willie.

"I…I," stammered Percy.

"Killer!" cried Frank, his voice drawing the attention of some of the other children.

"Let him speak," Isaac said. "Tell us Percy," he said coolly.

"You gotta believe me, I would never hurt Natalie."

"Horace is his best friend," Willie said. "Why don't y'all ask him?"

All eyes fell upon Horace. Horace eyes took in the pathetic, pleading face of his friend then studied the concrete.

"You were sweet on her, you told me so," Horace whispered.

Tears filled Percy's eyes. Water dribbled off his lips as he spoke. "Natalie is…was a pretty girl. Half the boys here were sweet on her. I tried to talk to her but she said her heart belonged to someone else," he said.

"He still ain't explained those scratches," Jimmy said.

"I tried to steal something in there, okay. There was an Indian necklace behind some thick glass. The glass had a small slot cut into it, near the bottom. I thought I could get my hand through it and grab the necklace. I tried to get my hand in there but the glass wasn't wide enough and it was nicked up. I scratched my hand pulling it out."

"Why steal a necklace, Percy?" Isaac asked.

The boy ducked his head. "I thought Natalie would like me if I gave her a present," he said.

Dr. Wellman, Detective O'Brien and a handful of uniform police burst through the museum's rear door. Wellman pointed toward the rear gate and the group quick walked in that direction. Seeing this, Percy's eyes widened and he swam past Henry's outstretched arms and flew onto Thirty-third Street.

Henry had reached the edge of the sidewalk when he felt a hand grab his collar. Isaac tugged his brother back as they heard the sickening screech of tires. A large car slammed into Percy, flipping the boy onto its substantial hood and back to the asphalt.

The police, Dr. Wellman, Detective O'Brien, Isaac and Henry rushed to the prone boy.

"He just came out of nowhere," the driver said as he exited his Buick. "I swear to God," he added for the benefit of the uniforms.

Two of the cops crouched down beside Percy. "Knocked cold. Looks like a broken leg, maybe a broken arm," one said. "We need to get him to the hospital. I'll bring my car around." The man rushed off.

"I'll carry him," Dr. Wellman said. He took off his jack and placed it over the young boy. He lifted Percy from the asphalt. As the noted scientist crouched down, Isaac admired the soft soles of his walking shoes. Isaac's eyes traveled up Wellman's lean frame and quickly noticed the blood on the cuff of the man's right sleeve.

"Dr. Wellman, where did you get that blood?" Isaac pointed to the small spot of blood.

"I must have got it lifting young Mr. Childs," Wellman answered. The cop car appeared and Wellman began to carry Percy to the vehicle.

"One second, Dr. Wellman," Detective O'Brien said. "Terrence, take the boy to the hospital."
Another officer took Percy and soon the cop car was speeding with flashing lights toward the hospital.

"Dr. Wellman, I'll have to ask you to pull back your shirt sleeves."

"This is ridiculous, detective."

"Humor us," O'Brien said. Wellman shot a hard look toward Isaac Bledsoe. "Now, please Dr. Wellman."

Surrounded by the children he had hoped to save, Dr. Maurice Wellman undid the buttons on his sleeve. Natalie had fought back - both his arms were raked with long scratches.

"Dr. Wellman, you'll have to come with us," O'Brien said calmly. He eyed the surrounding children. "I'll wait to cuff you until we are out of sight of the kids."

"She said she loved me, detective," Wellman said. "Turns out she was lying. She didn't love me, after all."

Two officers roughly grabbed Wellman by the arms, yanking him away from the crowd.

"The less you say Professor, the better," Isaac heard O'Brien say as they placed Wellman in a squad car. Soon the buses came to collect the children and Isaac and Henry stood alone in the courtyard.

"What do you think happened Henry?" Isaac asked.

"I think Natalie and maybe the other girl had a crush on Dr. Wellman." He shrugged, uncomfortable with what he was about to say to his baby brother. "I think Wellman wanted something from them that they were not ready to give."

Isaac nodded, partially understanding.

"What's to become of the Trailblazers?" Isaac asked.

"Like you and me, little brother, they gonna have to make it on their own."

Isaac nodded and took one more look around the courtyard, eyes scanning for the lost promise of the Trailblazers. He shook his head and quickly fell in step with his brother, who had already begun walking for the bus that would take them home.

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