other work and musings
Alone in a room full of laughing, talking, joyful people, Amy Painter sat in the wood-benched booth and glanced at the menu. Across the table, her husband Ken fussed over his Blackberry. He had the little pointer thing out, tapping at the letters on the keyboard. The grating beep each keystroke made drowned out the canned music in the background, however that was possible.
“What are you going to order?” she asked.
“Huh? I’m sorry, sweetheart,” Ken replied, never taking his eyes off of the device. Not that it would let him.
“It’s restaurant week, honey. They have a special menu.”
“That’s nice.” A variety of expressions roamed his handsome face, from dismay to irritation to that awful assertiveness he acquired about all things rocketry. For Dr. Kenneth Painter, Vice President of Propulsion at BoosterDyne Corporation, each of the e-mails he read was…
Mostly, it was life and death, at least for the company.
“Ken, are you listening?”
“Huh…sure, right. Um…chardonnay.”
Until his on-line conversation was finished, a disjointed jumble of blurted non-sequiturs was all he would offer her. He’d never learned to multi-task, not the way eleven years of police work had taught her to. If she didn’t love him—
“Oh, for the love of…” Ken mumbled. “It’s going to be a connector. Check the connectors.”
“I don’t see connectors on the menu.” If cattiness didn’t work, didn’t get his mind out of the little box he was playing with, only manipulation would be left.
“It’s 5280 week, Ken. Special menu. You know… Mile High City? We live in Denver? Remember, we moved from San Diego to Denver when we graduated and got married?”
“Just… Order for us, can you, sweetheart? I’m having to think for the guys running the test sequence.”
“Welcome to The Tidewater,” the waiter said, seeming to appear out of nowhere. Tall and slender, wearing a black shirt open at the collar and a clean white apron, he spoke softy, but with a smile in his voice. “Can I get you some drinks?”
“Can we have two glasses of chardonnay, please?” she asked. “House will be fine.”
“Perfect. Do you know what you want?”
“Um… It all looks so good…”
“I see you looking at the 5280 menu, but I just want to mention that this is Crab Tuesday, as well. Nine dollars per pound for Snow Crab, eleven for King.”
“Well, I thought I knew what I wanted. But, I love crab.”
“Take your time, I’ll get your drinks.”
“They have crab on special, honey,” she said, putting her chin nearly on the table, to catch his eye. Long tresses of jet-black hair lay in front of her. She bundled them up behind her head with a clip from her shoulder bag. What would her mom have said, for a proper Vietnamese woman to allow her locks to cascade onto an eating surface?
“That’s nice. You decide.”
“What is going on? Can’t they let go of your leash for five minutes?”
“It’s an engine bell gimbel test. For some reason, one of the actuators is acting up.”
“Aren’t a bunch of the crew PhDs? Like, they can’t totally figure it out on their own?”
“Apparently not.” Ken’s mocha-brown eyes reflected the glow of the screen, and shifted spastically to soak in the words. Once in a while, he closed them and made an ugg sound that was so…curt, so dismissive, so impatient.
“Okay, I’m going to order crab.”
He probably would have said the same thing if she’d told him she was ordering bowls of turpentine. The explanation he’d once offered – rockets weren’t more important than her, just more compelling – was the entire hurtful truth. If his team at the Cape was bugging him, the issue had to be significant. While he stared intently at the tiny computer screen and tried to solve a problem occurring two thousand miles away, she got to wish he did something less intense for a living.
Around them, the room hummed with soft music and café conversations. An attractive young woman at the bar was being pawed by an older guy with a hopeful, inviting grin. By her body language, the woman was unreceptive and wished he’d fall into a hole. Next to her, a yuppie couple giggled at each other, heads close. His business suit was still crisp at the end of the day, and she? Jeans, a really nice bright-white blouse and an argyle button-up vest. Heels, with pointy toes – ruby red. Nice look, like she had been able to get home before they went out. Or it was her day off. Cop? Nah, her back was to the door. Maybe a doctor.
“Ma’am, are you two ready to order?” the waiter asked. He stood with his hands behind his back, a muted look of amusement stirring in the corners of his mouth as his eyes shifted from her to Ken and back.
“Um… We’ll share a double order of the Carib calamari, and a pound each of snow crab.”
“Perfect.” He turned on his heel and walked away.
“Is that okay?” she asked, already knowing the answer.
“So far, so good,” Ken replied. “It was maybe a connecter issue. They’re running the test again.”
Well, that was something. Either he’d find out in five minutes that life as they knew it had ceased to be meaningful, or for three hours he would get a parade of e-mails from his friend Terry about the stupid machine. Either way—
“Here you go,” the waiter said, a huge serving dish in his hand. “I put it all on one plate.”
Four silver cups dotted the corners of the square, bone-white platter. Heaped in the middle was an assortment of circles, and what appeared to be skinny fingers, all batter-dipped and lightly-fried. She squeezed a couple of the lemon wedges over the pile.
Ken barely noticed.
“Honey?” she cooed.
“Uh huh.” She dipped one of the rings into the sauce and lofted it toward him. When she passed it in front of his eyes, it made his nose twitch. When he looked up she offered it to him.
“Oh, that’s awesome,” Ken said, taking it into his mouth. “Wow.” He set down the pointer and reached for his wine. Then, with a sideways glance at the tiny screen he took a piece of the squid and held it out for her.
“Do you remember the first time we had calamari?” she said.
“Yeah, that little bar in Mission Beach,” Ken replied, feeding the bit of food to her. His slender face sprung alive as she nibbled at his fingertip. He might have even been suppressing a smile. “San Diego. It was my last ten bucks and I think we split a beer and appetizer. You were a junior?”
“Senior, and you were in grad school. You’d driven down from Pasadena for the weekend, in that old, rickety Datsun. It had a sewing machine motor for an engine, didn’t it?”
“Right. Right. We went to that little place on the beach.”
The conversation about the little bar and their empty wallets and the lovemaking that almost couldn’t wait until they got to her apartment consumed the ten minutes the calamari lasted. Before long, a plate of snow crab was set in front of each of them.
“Oh, I love the smell of fresh crab,” Ken effused. “It brings me back to… It was Fisherman’s Wharf.”
“You’d done your first big launch, and we celebrated with a trip to San Francisco.”
“I was so stoked. It meant financial security for us. It meant that all of the hard work, the years in the classroom, and the lab, and the study weekends, the trips to the Cape… Being away from you. It was all worth it.”
“I think it took us two hours to finish our dinner.”
“I remember eating as sort of a process. I remember your eyes, your smile, your long, shiny hair. I remember thinking that I was married to the most beautiful, most captivating woman in the world. And I remember the smell of the sea.”
“And the garlic.”
“Oh, my God. The food was awesome.”
“And then… Nine months later, Ethan was born.”
“You asked me, over Dungeness crab, if we could start our family.”
“Out of happiness. Nothing said you believed in me like wanting children. Wanting me to be the father of your children.”
“There is something enchanting about sitting down and cracking crab together.”
“You’re still the most beautiful woman in the world. Every time I smell seafood, it reminds me of the times we’ve… I dunno, shared these kinds of moments together. I wish they could last forever.”
The blush came over her as quickly as a stoplight, without the yellow as a warning. Under the table, he gently held one of her knees between his.
“Remember the ad campaign on Food Network?” Ken asked as he turned off his Blackberry and slipped it into his pocket. His eyes were bright and rich, shining with marvel and wonder and the enthusiasm of fresh discovery. His face lit up, his smile manly confident but also boyishly bashful. “You know – come taste life? I think this is what they meant.”
Inside, her heart skipped a beat at the bond she felt with this bright, sensuous man. With plastic bib and messy fingers, he was once again carefree Ken Painter. It wasn’t really a wife being manipulative – ordering the crab. Ordering something that reminded them of the love that had been – and would always be – theirs. It was just her gift to him.
“I’ll bet this is totally what they meant,” she said, eyes locked onto his.
one hundred red bows
Several weeks ago, a friend attended the memorial service of Denver Police Officer Celena Hollis. The friend, a female police sergeant, remarked that it was unlike other law enforcement funerals she’d attended. “There were fifty pairs of shoes lined up, each with a red bow. She loved shoes.”
Celena was a single mom from Detroit, having worked as an officer there before coming to Denver. In addition to her full-time job, she took on a number of causes. An American soldier needed a bone marrow transplant, so she organized a benefit. The well-respected patrolwoman was president of the Black Officer’s Association. Celena volunteered time at “Especially Me,” an organization that mentors high school girls. Unique woman? Definitely…and not at all.
I am a police officer, lawyer and author of two published works, one a full-length novel (Out of Ideas, a romantic suspense). I write about what I know. I know cops, the situations in which they find themselves, and what the job does to them. My stories tell mostly of those who succumb to the siren song of service, adventure and courage that drew us there in the first place.
I write about women cops.
“You’re a guy,” I’m told. “What do you know about women? Isn’t a writer supposed to start with the things they know?” Yes. I’ve taken the time to listen to policewomen.
The experience of women in police work is an array of triumphs and travails. The truth – law enforcement continues to be a male-centric profession. Regardless of organizational gender-neutral pronouncements, the informal reward system among the cops still prizes guns, guts and glory…mostly in that order. A common perception among women is that the guys would prefer the company of like-minded men. To an extent they are right. For so many reasons, women thrive anyway.
Women react differently to work experiences than their brother officers. I write in an upcoming novel about a traffic accident that ejects the male driver onto a roof, resulting in his death (true!). The men stand around discussing velocities, trajectories and impact force. The women (my main character and her firefighter friend) discuss the possibility of a new widow home reading a romance novel, not knowing her lover was dead. A real life insight into policewomen? Over many years, in many situations I’ve watched it happen.
Of course, policewomen fall in love. They find Mr. Right, they find Mr. Wrong, they find Mr. Holy Crap! Some of their relationships work, some struggle and a few are train wrecks. Convincing editors, however, that a woman officer could remain in a battering relationship is an uphill battle, yet…. It makes the characters more than just human and vulnerable, it makes them realistic. A woman cop with an asshole for a husband? And she stays?
On the other hand, the love stories that work often seem Jekyll and Hyde-esque. A friend – a woman detective who is a former Marine Captain. Her husband is a patrol officer who is also a sniper on the SWAT team. Together, they told the story of him trying to entice her cat from a tree, using a sea bag (a duffle, more or less), a compound hunting bow and a tin of tuna. It was her precious cat. Her husband had to get it down.
Male officers who’d gathered around, listening to the tale, had the same response – it’s a cat. If a hunting dog was stuck somewhere that would be different. Cats are everywhere. Cats are interchangeable, disposable. Cats are a nuisance.
The detective was aghast. We were talking about her cat.
Her husband’s elaborate scheme was doomed from the start and failed miserably. I don’t recall how they finally got the cat, but the detectives take away was that her husband, the man in her life, had failed her.
Portraying strong woman in novels acknowledges the real heroes who carry pink handcuffs, complain when a fight results in a broken nail and hasten home to breastfeed their baby. Often, insights critical to character development present themselves in the most ordinary circumstances. A six foot one female officer reacted indignantly one morning to kidding about her height. “I can’t buy anything off the rack,” she complained. “Sometimes, I have to shop for clothes in the men’s department.” How is that not solid gold to a writer?
Why not take a strong yet sensitive woman, park her in a dying relationship and have her pursue a murderer? Out of Ideas does that and more. Sheriff’s deputy Karen O’Neil responds to a fatal airplane crash near Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Her almost ex-husband is a jerk, her job boring compared to her years as a San Diego cop and she’s desperately lonely. What could possibly go right, standing next to airplane wreckage in a cornfield, ankle deep in mud?
A strange place to find love? If you think so, you don’t know women cops.
Celena Hollis’s daughter spoke at the funeral my friend attended. She wondered who was going to check her homework and correct the spelling, now that mom was gone. Sometimes, I don’t feel worthy of the people about whom I write.
The mud bog
(deleted scene from The Heart of the Matter)
Becky sat in the passenger seat of Terry’s exotic, customized Jeep. The forty-minute drive had taken them to an out-of-the-way collection of woods and meadows called Cook and Brown Mud Pits. It was hardly the kind of place John would have dared bring her, for fear she might stage a revolt in front of his guy friends. That she’d never have publicly embarrassed him had made no difference, it seemed.
Terry wore beige shorts, blue muscle shirt showing off well-developed shoulders and impressive biceps. A modest, multi-colored sailing ship tattoo decorated his right upper arm, big sails straining against an imaginary blow.
Her attire ran a bit to the dressy side - designer linen-blend cargo capris and flower-pattern blouse. She’d chosen running shoes, which wouldn’t do them much good if she had to get out and push the Jeep knee deep in the gooey muck.
“What happens if we get stuck?” she asked. “I don’t know that I’m dressed for this.”
“I enlist help from among the guys,” Terry replied. “Mud bog culture being what it is, everyone pitches in when trouble occurs. Then, we make fun of the victim.”
“What’s the big attraction?” she asked. “It seems sort of an overly redneck hobby for you.”
“It is. The guys are fun, but the language is kind of rough. Do you offend easily?”
“I was a cop’s wife.”
“These guys squeeze the life out of the F word. You’ll see.” Terry chuckled, maybe a little self-consciously. “Wanna beer?”
“It’s ten in the morning. I really just got up from breakfast.”
“We’re already a couple behind.”
“You’re a horrible bundle of contradictions, Terry Gaston. Karen says you could cook wherever you wanted. San Francisco, New York, LA?”
“Been to all those places. Las Vegas, too. Denver. I’ve cooked with some awesome folks, guys you wouldn’t pick as chefs. Rough, biker-looking men with dew rags and tattoos and a fabulous way with food.”
“Then why a little place in Ft. Myers Beach?”
“Because I love it here.”
“Better than Naples?”
Would that mean, if things got complicated between them, ripping her kids from their home and moving them to the decidedly different FMB? Unknown schools, unknown friends… Unknown life.
“So, what happens now?” she asked.
“Are you asking a global question?” Terry responded.
“I mean with this whole mud bog thing.” Had Terry read her that accurately?
“We’ll drive around for a while, have a beer and maybe some lunch. I brought sandwiches. Then, I’ll take you home.”
They bounced up to a clutch of full-sized American-built trucks and 4X4s. Guys with dirt on their faces and drinks in their hands lit up at the sight of their Jeep easing into a parking spot.
“The cookie boy’s here,” a tall, rotund guy exclaimed. His baseball cap perched sideways on his head, strands of unkempt blond hair spilling out arbitrarily. He clutched a can of Steel Reserve beer, belly straining a t-shirt that read “Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms should be a convenience store, not a government agency.”
Much pointing and grunting erupted among the men. Someone thrust a cold Pabst Blue Ribbon through the window to her.
“Hello, darlin’,” sang the rail-thin guy handing her the beer, wad of chew bulging his cheek. “Come here often?”
The group began laughing. She turned toward Terry, uncertainty no doubt transmitted by her eyes.
Terry’s grin was as large as everyone else’s. He raised his eyebrows and nodded toward the fellow.
“First time at the pit,” she remarked to the lad, accepting the dripping-wet, icy can. “Guess I’m poppin’ my cherry today.”
The laughter-gate opened in earnest. Everyone within earshot slapped a thigh and wiped their eyes. Dirty smiles and merry expressions regarded her and Terry. The thin guy opened the door and held out his hand for her.
“Oh, do allow me, Princess,” the fellow said.
She accepted the gesture and permitted herself to be lifted gently out of the Jeep, her benefactor much stronger than his physique hinted. With a delightfully overstated flair, he kissed her hand.
“What’s your name, honey?” the chubby fellow with the sideways hat asked.
“Becky. What’s yours?”
“I’m Cliff. That skinny guy is Feester and the guy under the hood of his truck is Godfrey. It’s nice to meet you, Becky.”
“Be gentle with her,” Terry said as he hoisted a Coors Light in the air, draining a lot of it. A tiny bit dribble down his chin. “Give her a chance to get used to you.”
“What’s to get used to?” Cliff said. “We’re just normal folk, out for a day in the sun.”
“Me, too,” she observed. “This is Terry’s idea of a date.”
“You ain’t gonna hold us agin him, are ya?” Feester said. “It ain’t us tryin’ to make a good impression. We don’t get nuthin’ out of it.”
The guffaws and cackles resolved into conversations about their trucks, their pregnant girlfriends and the sad state of a world in which the life’s blood of their hobby approached three bucks a gallon, with no relief in sight. Finally, one of them proposed a trail drive and they all piled into their vehicles. Terry fell into line behind a mid-nineties, mostly gray primer Ford pickup lifted about five feet in the air.
“Their vocabulary is amazing,” she said as they followed along with the group. “I couldn’t help myself when Godfrey told the story of breaking his truck’s rear driveshaft. Fourteen of the nineteen words were some variation of fuck, and the other five were ‘front-wheel drive Toyota Corolla.’”
“It’s all inflection,” Terry replied. “It keeps things simple.”
“So, which side of you am I seeing?”
“I don’t think I have sides. It’s a beautiful day, I’m hanging around with a bunch of guys who would drive across Florida to tow me home, and I’m in the company of a particularly attractive, particularly charming woman. We got a cooler loaded with good food, cold beer and a full tank of gas. Life here is made up of ordinary people and simple pleasures.”
“It’s something you asked me last week. Ulterior motives and hidden agendas, I think it was.”
“You’re very pretty and my idea of good company. I’d love the chance to have an adult relationship with you. That’s my agenda.”
“I come with a truck bed full of baggage, and three kids.”
“Okay, so we’d have to find something else for us to do with them. The language around here is a little hard to explain to a four-year-old.”
“What else do you like to do?”
“Oh… Long walks on the beach, getting caught in the rain. Don’t care for pina coladas, though.”
“Uh huh. I asked for that.” A big grin overtook her face.
“Sports, boating, fishing. You know, the usual guy things.”
“Art and symphony?”
“I’d love to learn, but you’d have to start slow.”
Brake lights flashed on the truck in front of them. The procession ground to a halt, and several doors opened. Terry waited until Cliff came back to him.
“S’up, dude?” Terry inquired.
“Somethin’ smells dead up here,” Cliff replied. “Godfrey went ahead to check it out.”
“Why Godfrey?” she asked.
“He’s a volunteer firefighter,” Terry said. “He’s seen dead before.”
Something caught Cliff’s attention. He sort of ran, and sort of jogged up to the head of the truck line. Whatever he heard made him remove his cap and wipe a hand across his mouth. He returned to Terry’s window.
“It’s a body. A girl.”
“Shit,” Terry muttered. “Did somebody call the cops?”
“Yeah, Godfrey’s doing that now. Look, we’re gonna block the road and set up some kind of perimeter until they arrive. Honey, you can stay here if you want. It’s kinda gross.”
“Terry?” she asked, apprehensive but determined to go wherever he went.
“Your call, Beck. I’m sure it’s revolting.”
“I’ll stick with you.” She tried to sound calm, even with her heart pounding.
They got out of the Jeep and walked forward, to where a congregation of men stood silently over a clump of clothing and a shock of hair. The body lay in an advanced state of decomposition, but was apparently female; slightly-built with long blonde tresses. Deformed or missing facial features would not help identify her, natural consequences of outdoor disintegration and area scavengers
“Oh, man,” Feester said. “Man, this is fucking ugly. A lousy fucking way to treat a lady. Fuck.”
“Uh huh,” Terry replied. He flipped open his cell and dialed a number. “Hey, Cuz. We’re out at the pits and we came across a body. Uh huh. Uh huh. No, definitely deceased. Uh huh. A woman – girl, maybe. Uh huh. ‘Kay, hang on.”
“What?” Feester asked.
“It’s my cousin Karen. She’s a cop. She said if we’re totally sure the person is dead, to move out at least one hundred yards. Post people at the dirt roads and wait for the locals. Write down everyone’s names. I guess we’re all witnesses, now.”
“You heard the word, boys,” Godfrey said. He barked assignments and the others left, headed toward places he’d directed.
“Dude, someone has to go out to the road and show the cops how to get back here,” Terry suggested to Godfrey.
“We should do that,” she offered. “I might know some of them. Maybe that would help.”
“Good idea,” Terry replied, then redirected his attention to the phone. “Cuz, I’m going out to meet the cops. Anything else?”
Whatever Karen said to Terry made his eyes go wide. He slowly closed his phone and looked off into the distance.
“Terry?” she whispered, laying a hand on his shoulder.
“I think I know her.”