Her Name Is Nicole, A Short Story
"How old?" Detective Carl Hardin thought he heard the woman from Child Protective Services correctly, but still...
"Six months," Jane Audry said. She pulled her black frame glasses down on her nose and looked at the report in her hands. "Well technically, six months and ten days."
The detective division was upstairs in the old white concrete building that housed the Lancaster, S. C. Police Department in the winter of 1976. A mug of cold coffee sat on the corner of his desk. "In The Ghetto" played softly from a small radio on a bookshelf crammed with police supply catalogs, law books and training manuals.
"And the father is whipping the child because it cries and he can't sleep?" Hardin jotted down the information on a yellow legal pad and reached for a cigarette in his shirt pocket. He remembered he had quit, but cases like this might cause him to take it up again.
Hardin often volunteered to work holidays since he was single and the other detectives liked to be off. They had families and it was Thanksgiving afternoon.
"IT is a little girl, Detective. Her name is Nicole" She flipped to the second page. "Nicole Wallace, born at Elliot White Springs Memorial Hospital on May 14, 1976."
"Wife made the complaint?" Hardin forgot and sipped the cold coffee, swallowed and tried not to make a face.
"She says he's whipping her with a leather belt," Jane's blue eyes flashed anger through her thick glasses. "I believe her."
"Under the new South Carolina law I can take the child into protective custody and turn it over to you, right."
"Nicole, Detective," she said. "Her name is Nicole."
"Where's Mrs. Wallace?"
"Downstairs in the lobby, waiting."
"Let me get some back up," Hardin said as he walked across the hall to the Squad Room. Captain Strickland was there but everyone else was tied up so he figured he'd have to make do.
"You know this woman probably just wants us to lock up the husband so she can spend the holiday with some boyfriend," Strickland said, placing the emphasis on boy. Diversity training hadn't been invented. Still, Hardin didn't like the attitude.
"Just ride along, keep quiet, and try not to get us shot," Hardin said. Strickland sighed and followed him back to meet Jane Audry. They headed down the stairs as a light cold mist began to fall and clouds covered the afternoon sun.
"Headquarters, Command Four and Bravo Twelve will be out at 105 Market Street Extension," Hardin said into his mike. "Punch me a card."
They sat in Hardin's supposedly unmarked unit, Strickland and Hardin in the front with the two women huddled together in the rear.
"Mrs. Wallace, you let us in and then the Captain and I will take it from there," Hardin said, looking into his mirror.
Mrs. Wallace just shook her head as tears flowed from pleading eyes down her dark chocolate skin. She held out a key in one trembling hand.
"Oh no you don't," Strickland said. "I'm not forcing my way into some guy's place while the little woman sits in the car. A man's home is his castle."
The castle in question was a four room unpainted wood shanty with plastic over about half of the windows and a rusty tin roof. White smoke billowed out of a chimney on the back of the house and mingled with the mist.
"I'll go get it, Captain," Hardin said dripping sarcasm. "You wait here with the ladies."
Hardin took the key and got out of the car. Jane Audry got out on her side, mouthed the words "Her name is Nicole", smiled and walked around to join him. Reluctantly, Strickland opened his door, got out, adjusted his duty belt but not his attitude and slammed the door.
"We'll go in first," Hardin said looking at Mrs. Audry. "I'll call to you when we're ready for you to collect ......... the kid."
Hardin made a little noise jiggling the door trying to get the lock free and then listened briefly at the threshold before stepping into the house. They found both Mr. Wallace and the baby asleep in a back room that was darkened by windows covered on the inside with dual purpose cardboard. It blocked light and provided insulation.
Neither man spoke as Hardin shined his Maglite around the room, keeping the beam off the face of the huge black man. In the room there was the bed and some sort of night stand next to it with an oil lamp on a dirty lace doily, a wallet, some change and a red can of Prince Albert. Clothes were piled in one corner almost waist high, a cheap framed picture of Jesus hung above the clothes next to the one of John F. Kennedy. The only other piece of furniture in the room was a six-foot tall chest that sat against the opposite wall.
The child lay in an opened top drawer which apparently served as a makeshift crib. The words "swaddling clothes" blossomed in Hardin's mind when he peeked at the little girl's face as she lay wrapped in the drawer. He swallowed and the baby opened her eyes and stared at him in apparent wonder. The baby smiled and so did Hardin.
The baby began to wiggle and flail her tiny arms in the air. Hardin noticed that the material in the drawer was mostly scraps of cloth which varied in size, color, and texture; but the blanket the baby was wrapped in was new and pink. She gurgled happily and kicked off the blanket.
Dark whelps crisscrossed the baby's light skin on both her legs. Volcanic anger rolled in on cold waves as Hardin shined his light on the child. He imagined the crying, the helpless child and hopeless mother.
Six steps brought him to the head of the bed. Wallace lay flat on his back with no pillow under his head. His eyes were shut and a thin line of drool ran all the way down one cheek, disappearing under his neck. Strickland, standing on the other side of the bed reached up to pull the string on a light that hung over the bed. The bare 100 watt bulb flooded the room with light, but Wallace slept on. Strickland poked the man with his flashlight.
A pair of brown eyes popped open. Wallace turned his head right to see Strickland, then left to lock onto Hardin.
"Carl Hardin, Lancaster PD," Hardin said. "Under the authority of the state of South Carolina we are here to take custody of your child while a child abuse investigation is conducted."
Wallace lay still, he said nothing but his eyes spoke volumes. Violence, anger, and resentment mixed with crazy evil. Hardin remembered seeing the same thing in a photograph once. “Charlie Manson eyes,” he thought.
"I'm going to call in the lady from child services now. She will take the baby out to my car where your wife is waiting. If you so much as move, no if you even think about moving while we are doing this," Hardin stopped speaking for effect then pointed his light at Strickland. "My partner here will beat you within one inch of your life."
Wallace turned his head back to stare straight ahead at the ceiling.
"You understand me?" Hardin asked.
Wallace nodded, once.
Wallace remained motionless while Mrs Audry came in, picked up the child along with the few baby things lying about, and walked back out to the car with Strickland. Wallace's Charlie Manson eyes followed Hardin as he backed out of the room.
Mrs. Audry had handed over the baby to Mrs. Wallace and was waiting on Hardin at the front of the car.
"Thanks," she said.
"The blanket was your doing," he said. It wasn't a question.
"How'd you know that?"
"I'm a trained observer, I know everything."
But he didn't.
Hardin sat alone on a blistering hot summer afternoon in a corner booth at Williams Drug on Main Street. He ordered a chicken salad sandwich to go with his sweet tea and looked over the morning paper left by the last customer. The story was buried in the York Observer section.
From The Charlotte Observer, August 16, 1977:
Herman M. Wallace was arrested yesterday for murder and assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature. Wallace's wife was hospitalized after bringing their mortally injured child to the local facility in Rock Hill. The family moved to York County from Lancaster several months ago after the child was taken into protective custody by officers of the Lancaster Police Department.
Contacted by phone, Mrs. Jane Audry of Child Protective Services would only state that a child abuse case was pending in the Lancaster County Family Court. Court records indicate that a Family Court Judge had seen fit to return the baby to the home after the family moved to Rock Hill.
Mrs. Wallace is expected to recover from her injuries. Bond will be set by a Circuit Court Judge next week.
Hardin looked up from the paper, folded it and lay it on the table.
"Her name is Nicole," He said softly. The fact that he spoke the words aloud didn't surprise him.
The break in his voice did.
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