The Abby Normal Case was my first true Red Ball — the kind of case where you can’t resist putting in overtime at the office and you can’t sit still in your chair. One raw-eyed night those weeks, Andsell stared at our photo spread.
“Seems like it should be simpler,” I said.
“It is. We take the pieces and we put them together.”
“Put them together into what?”
“That’s the problem.” Andsell grabbed a fresh toothpick to grind. “We don’t know what the final picture is.”
That was bullshit. The final picture was a 16-year-old white girl gone missing in Desire.
People get that picture in their heads and it lights on fire.
Everybody jams the pieces together whether they fit or not.
When I joined Narco in 2004, Lieutenant Stonewall gave me a camera case and a paycheck. The camera case was empty. The paycheck barely covered rent and water.
“Don’t I need a camera?”
“Yeah. That’s why we’re issuing you the case.”
“What happened to the camera that went with the case?”
“It got broke. We wait until next April to fund a new one.”
“So I buy my own camera to do my work?”
“You need one, yeah.”
“Then I don’t need this case. It’s for another camera.”
” It’s protocol. Make your camera fit.”
Stonewall told me to photo everything suspicious. Every possibility I suggested as suspicious — kids running, women whispering, men shaking hands — he answered “yes, shoot that.”
“So,” I said, “basically record everything as evidence.”
He shrugged. “You never know.”
You never really know with cases like Abby Normal. So many empty spaces; even solid facts slip.
Not even the name was right. The case file was marked “Dunne, Madison” because that was the missing girl’s name. Abby Normal was the name we Fifth District investigators’ name gave the prime suspect: Albert Baker, “AB” since back in his Black Panther days. “Abby Normal.”
Why Madison’s parents let her volunteer at Desire’s churches, I don’t know. Why she walked by Abby Normal’s yard, with its pinwheels and Saints pennants and posies, I don’t know.
I know why she rode the hobby horse Abby Normal had in his yard. All the neighborhood kids loved Albert’s horse, with its shining fantasy of wooden musculature and real braid reins.
He put a lot of care into that horse. Into his neighbor’s lawns. Into his National Geographic collection.
You believe Albert does it because he cares. That’s a nice picture.
Then a white girl goes missing, last seen by an old, single man’s lawn, and people see there’s another side to the puzzle pieces. One they have to solve, right now, so that they believe their little girls can be safe. One they can’t un-see.
Albert shared a house with his invalid mother and served her even when she hollered, right up to the end. He was always so good with children. He would watch them when no one else would.
You see what those things mean?
You can’t un-see what those things mean.
You keep looking and the evidence you need arrives. It might fit the case.
“That issue of National Geographic with the nude African girls is dog-eared,” Andsell makes a note as he surveys our take from the search of Abby Normal’s house. “And that Hustler shows girls tied up.”
“He had an expired empty bottle of anti-depressants,” I say.
“Stopped taking his meds.” Andsell nods. “Has a lot of knives, too.”
“All cleaned. Whole house was really clean.”
“Except of porn.”
The evidence was secret. The questions about it, we asked everyone on the street.
The questions are their own answers and those answers don’t wash away.
Even Katrina didn’t wash away the Abby Normal case.
Abby Normal came back. He rebuilt his house, this time without pinwheels. He found his hobby horse lodged in warehouse rubble and set it back on his lawn.
Even finding Madison Dunne didn’t wash it away.
She turned up as a Bronx pimp’s dope slave in 2006. Six months of therapy later, she told how some men, probably my good friends in The Aces, had grabbed her off the street and sold her up north. It had nothing to do with Albert.
The Abby Normal case always would, though.
A week after he repainted the hobby horse, it turned up smashed in the park by Carver Middle. He left it down. He replaces his broken windows every season.