Work In progress — a story based on the 1985 Philadelphia Police bombing of a cult’s fortress in which eleven died, including five children, and sixty-one row houses allowed to burn to the ground.
FIRE IN THE BELLY
By Lanny Larcinese
The forensic investigation unit of the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office had seen corpses eaten by rats and roaches before—usually people who died alone, in anonymity, maybe buried under three feet of a hoarder’s detritus or somebody’s grandma outliving everybody except a landlord discovering her body while attempting to collect rent.
This body was different. This was no middle-aged man keeling over in the brush from a heart attack while jogging, and hadn’t been dead all that long. His eyeballs were gone and he displayed bite marks from small, narrow teeth. The holes dug into the front of his body at first looked like hollow-point bullet wounds, but their uneven shape suggested some animal got to him. A quick call to Rat Control confirmed that yes, rats did inhabit the remote wooded area known as the Forbidden Drive beside the Wissahickon Creek. A lot of them.
When the body was turned over and traces of peanut butter found smeared on it, it was clear this was a murder, probably by knife. But gnawing vermin made knife wounds hard to identify, especially since peanut butter had been stuffed into them. It wouldn’t be the first time a murderer recruited wildlife to eat the evidence.
No identification was found near the nude corpse. The forensic team began surveying for missing person reports while awaiting the full autopsy.
It didn’t take long to identify the partially eaten V.I.P. cooling in the fridge.
Jamin Baker’s eyes popped open when the brittle static of loudspeakers silenced the chorus of sparrows in the leafy Parkside district adjacent to Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. The prospect of Lucinda War’s voice set Jamin’s nerves humming like a tuning fork.
The scratchy static was the 6:00 a.m. prelude to Lucinda’s morning rant — her shrill soprano enough to vibrate window glass — berating neighbors not to play into the hands of authorities by complaining about vermin multiplying throughout the neighborhood, etc. etc. The blaring racket would go on for hours, preaching various parts of Project War’s manifesto.
“As Jackie War teaches us,” she would say day after day after day, “all life is precious, and these little creatures have more of a right to be in this pathetic neighborhood than y’all.”
Eight loudspeakers were fastened to the corners of the decrepit, four-story Queen Ann in the middle of the block. Project War had taken the house over – first as squatters and later at auction – from a city hoping to buy peace from the bizarre and hostile group. Four more speakers were attached to nearby trees, including in front of Jamin’s apartment building. No way could he escape the annoyance.
Shortly after the amplified tirades began, he had used every ounce of his six foot six, two-seventy to bang on their door to restore order to the peaceful, middle-class, black neighborhood. As a natural leader, Benjamin Baker – “Jammin’ Jamin” to his friends, for his muted, soulful trumpet solos lilting from his open windows on sultry summer nights – had been block captain for three years prior to the intrusion of the militant group. The neighbors would expect him to handle the problem, and he could hardly wait.
Lucinda War had answered the door. A Nina Simone look-alike, she was tall and slim with satin, onyx-black skin and close-cropped hair. Her posture leaned forward like a reed in a delta pond, but her delicate look belied the virulent rhetoric spewed daily through the heated and hated loudspeakers of Project War.
She invited Jamin in and offered him a seat. He refused, said he’d only need a minute. Cockroaches openly scurrying over the sofa and walls signaled Jamin they were used to having their way. Two naked children, a boy and a girl about nine, alert faces framed by long dreadlocks, sucked on thumbs and peeked shyly around a half-opened pocket door.
“What can we do about those loudspeakers?” Jamin had asked Lucinda. “They’re making all us neighbors crazy.”
“Nuthin’. Nuthin’ can be done. It’s important to get Jackie War’s message out, and y’all motherfuckers better listen instead of fightin’ it.”
All Jamin could do was grit his teeth.
The whole town knew of Jackie War by now. He was flouting the law, trying to make Philadelphia into Detroit. But when it came to law and order, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Hank Marazzo made Detroit P.D. look like a Buddhist commune.
Project War had been handing out mimeographed pamphlets on street corners and blasting their message through loudspeakers for years. Its membership doubled after ’79, after a cop died in a shootout at their former headquarters in North Philly. The confrontation was over the service of a subpoena for L&I violations. A cop’s death over a lousy property matter threw more acid between the police and the black community – already eroded enough – and injected a kind of polio into a city administration able to talk but paralyzed by political stalemate.
Five War members had been convicted and were doing time. Now, in some twisted logic that Benjamin Baker couldn’t comprehend, Project War added neighbors to its declaration of war against the world, and stood ready to do whatever necessary to get the brothers freed.
Jamin sat on the edge of his bed and covered his ears. The usual hostile words over the loudspeaker bled into one, long, piercing screed. Not even his legendary will could blunt the racket from leaching into his head. In a fit of rage some months prior, he had ripped the speakers out of the tree beside his building, only to have two men from Project War threaten to hurt him bad if he did it again. Maybe Dawn, too.
“Only Jackie War decides when it’s quiet time,” they had said. Jamin could have broken both of them in half, but he had Dawn to worry about.
Frustration overwhelmed him every time he saw his young niece talking to the Project War people on their porch. He had warned her they were not to be befriended, but she protested in her fifteen year old way that they were nice, that none of them was ever mean to her. And she wasn’t afraid of no big bad wolf. They had even asked her to read to the children who occupied the compound. She agreed, as long as the children put on clothes. They were usually naked running through the neighborhood.
“I think they’re poor, Uncle Benjy,” she told Jamin. “All they ever eat are raw vegetables and onions.”
By twelve, Dawn had grown to a skinny five-foot ten, but by fifteen she was taller yet and almost fully built out. She looked more like a woman than she was, and Jamin’s promise to her father – his dead brother – to look after her pressed against his skull like a brain swollen with fever.
He lacked the instincts of a natural father, so it was work to scare away frisky high school boys. He even had to give one of her male teachers comeuppance when the teacher’s after-class tutoring ended with a hug and his hand on her bottom.
Jamin, a well-read bus driver and part-time security guard, undertook her tutoring himself. He had to. She was precious though painfully reticent, and her father was dead because of him. Maybe he should have told her he was her father.
When she found out from a cousin at ten years old that her father was killed in an accident that Jamin caused by driving drunk, she became more distant yet. At first, Jamin wrote it off as the work of pre-adolescence, but when actual adolescence arrived, her reserve became armor he couldn’t penetrate.
He slipped into his ratty slippers and brown terrycloth robe with the underarm torn away. He shuffled into his niece’s bedroom and gave her a gentle shake on the shoulder. She didn’t stir.
“Dawn, honey, wake up.”
Barely squinting, she opened an almond-shaped, hazel eye and aimed it toward her uncle.
“What time is it?” she said in a thick voice.
“Time to get up is what time it is. C’mon now girl, shake yourself awake. I’ll get us some coffee.”
He had vowed when she was a two-year old orphan that he would never shout for her to wake up. He would never jerk her awake. He would never reprimand her or nag her about anything upon awakening. Instead, he would wake her gently, then bring her a simple breakfast in bed, and when she was old enough to drink coffee, that, too. He wanted each of her days to begin gently, feeling she was cared for. It was the least he could do.
He went into the kitchen, tore open a package of Pop-Tarts, put them into the toaster, and reached for a package of Folgers while the coffeepot filled under the spigot. He carried her breakfast back into the bedroom, set the tray on her nightstand, and shook her awake again.
“C’mon now, you got to get ready for school.”
He sat at her bedside. He would stay there until she embraced the coffee mug in both hands and took her first sip.
Jamin was usually chatty driving her to West Philadelphia High, although was always unsure if she got benefit of his counsel during those early morning rides, or whether she was still in a sleep-deprived haze or within her own emotional igloo.
Nor could he tell if her, “Yes, Uncle Benjy,” or “No, Uncle Benjy,” or worse, “I dunno,” was in response to something he said, or butter to ease the chafing of adult wisdom grating against adolescent resentment.
“You still seeing that Bernard boy?” he asked as they got rolling.
“We’re friends. I have lots of friends.”
“Maybe you’re friendlier to some than to others,” he said.
“What does that mean? What are you trying to say?”
“Why don’t you bring him home, tell him not to be afraid?”
“Why should he be afraid?” she said.
“He should be afraid because he don’t treat you respectful, he deals with me.”
“I know how to take care of myself.”
“Maybe. Anyway, bring Bernard around. I’ll get us some Popeyes.”
She didn’t respond. It made Jamin crazy when she did that. Who knew what went through her head? Not long ago he didn’t want to hear about boys; but lately, he hated that she was finding excuses to visit those crazies next door.
The time to choose the less worse thing had arrived.