more about karen
Karen as a character evolved slowly, almost fitfully, even as the murder mystery sprung boldly to life. I had watched several women in law enforcement (and, frankly, out of it) fall victim to the worst kinds of abuse. “You’re ugly, stupid, useless…” The long, slow, painful fall is difficult to watch. She would find the strength to leave, somehow.
who is karen
I hesitate to write that Karen was an afterthought. I wrote Amy Painter first, a sort of conglomeration of all the strong women I’d met in and out of police work. When the story line of Out of Ideas emerged after a trip to Wisconsin, I needed a main character.
How do you describe a friend to others? Probably in the most positive manner. Awesome, engaging, bright. Downsides? Not for general publication. We all have our friends’ backs.
But, writing Karen meant dealing with the struggles, the pains, the things she kept to herself. A very good friend gave me the title for a short – “One Critical Mistake.” It seemed to me Karen had done just that, made one critical mistake. I thought that would be a way to describe a non-sequitur most people miss. That is, police women are not immune from making mistakes of the heart. Neither are they forbidden to discover the restorative aspects of relationships with good people.
Writers say things through their characters. I wanted to say that people deserve to be treated with respect. Self-esteem is perishable, especially when a close someone questions a person’s worth. No one owns someone else, even when they have pledged their lives to each other. That pledge is conditional, primarily upon the way the other holds the heart entrusted to them.
A good police officer sees the world painfully clearly. They do not often give their hearts away carelessly, either personally or professionally. They follow the facts dispassionately, faithfully, without regard to how much they want things to turn out a certain way.
Karen is tough, but vulnerable. She is smart, but sometimes makes poor decisions. She is hesitant, careful…and all in.
I loved writing this character.
If your attention was focused on a smoking hole, one containing the remains of a wrecked airplane and its equally wrecked pilot - would you notice the next chapter of your life walking up behind you?
Karen O’Neil is a California girl, legally separated from the abusive husband who ripped her from a sun-drenched, stimulating life as a San Diego cop to isolation in rural Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Talented, attractive and intense, she is cut off from everything she wants. Her rock-bottom self esteem lunges at a mysterious airplane crash as though it is a life line, a chance to escape the doldrums of dismal failure in every aspect of her life.
National Transportation Safety Board investigator Adam Phlatt has his own issues. His career is going nowhere - a destination toward which his love life has already lurched. He somehow entangles himself with his new friend Karen’s complex personality; she is professionally tough and demanding, but personally vulnerable, especially around him. The accident investigation is a no brainer, a simple case of too much airplane and too little pilot. The easy inquiry over, he plans his return to Chicago and the safety of his own loneliness.
Karen refuses to let go of the case, or of Adam. When she discovers that the pilot’s identity is in play, it’s a whole new ball game. Carried along from one perplexing clue to the next, they tumble headlong onto a ring of Florida smugglers intent on protecting their operation with violence, if necessary. Karen and Adam face a confrontation that they cannot win, even as hope triumphs over experience and they fall in love. Their first intimate encounter as lovers is interrupted by the disappearance of a friend under sinister circumstances. The friend’s rescue leads to Karen’s kidnapping and Adam must regain what he once was, a man passionate enough to save the woman he loves.
The One Before
The handsome man looking at Deputy Karen O’Neil smiled broadly, and chuckled in a way that sent a chill through her. With deep brown eyes, rich milk chocolate skin and two hundred twenty solid pounds on a six-foot frame, he was a hunk in any language. There had been a time in her life, not so long ago, that she would have said something suggestive to him. He would have responded in kind, and at some point after work they’d have found themselves naked, entwined – totally immersed in giving, and receiving pleasure.
But, she had married the next man in her life, not him.
“Marty,” she said to him from inside her police car. “Stop. It’s not funny.”
“Let me get this straight, amigo,” Martin replied from inside of his police car, deep voice and Cuban accent tickling her funny bone even as he made sport of her. “It’s a soft, lovely, seventies February here in San Diego and your husband’s going to drag you to Wisconsin? To do what? Ice fish? Who fishes for ice, anyway?”
“He says he wants some privacy. He thinks I’m too distracted here.”
“What’s wrong with Cabo San Lucas, then? Rent a place and sit in the sun. When your hair is all bleached out… There’s no blonde as pretty as your hair when it’s been in the sunshine.”
“He doesn’t speak Spanish. He says it makes him feel subservient when I have to translate for him.”
“That isn’t your fault. I tried to teach him. He doesn’t really want to learn.”
“I think Spanish, um… It’s what you and I speak to each other. He gets jealous.”
“No way a man can erase his wife’s past. He should thank his lucky stars that it’s him you married.”
“He loves me. I know he does. If it’s Wisconsin he wants, then I’ll do my best to make it a fun trip for him. It’s what I signed up for.”
“My ass. He treats you--”
“Please don’t. I know what you think of him. You don’t have to make an issue of it. Come on, let’s talk about something else. I don’t want to be mad at you again.”
“I don’t like him.”
“Please? The last time we did this I couldn’t face you for weeks. Let’s change the subject.”
“He doesn’t treat you like you deserve.”
“Marty…” The secret she’d kept from him for almost two months wouldn’t make him happy. He would be angry, and she would get defensive and Marty’s friendship meant too much to her. “This trip isn’t entirely about privacy. There’s an opening for a control tower supervisor at the airport in Madison. He’s competing. We’re going there to check it out.”
“You might move?”
“From here? You might leave California?”
“I’ll follow my husband. That’s my role.”
“You can visit. I hear it’s—“
“No. No. You can’t leave. I’m getting used to having you just as a beat partner.”
“We’ll always be friends.”
“As though your jerk husband will ever let us really be friends.”
“I’m finished talking.” She sat up straight, all six foot one of her. Direct eye contact ensured that he was listening, not just hearing. “If you can’t be supportive, then at least shut up about it. I don’t need you to scold me because I fell in love with someone else.”
“He treats you like dirt.”
“He loves me. I love him. It’s as simple as that. I gotta go, Martin.”
“I ain’t done.”
“Yeah you are. Totally. You’re my friend, but sometimes I hate you. You just can’t ever be happy for me. It’s always gotta be about you and what you want.”
She drove away, before the angry tears betrayed her.
An hour later, Karen’s mobile computer in her police car chirped that she had received a call, this time to back up another officer. A domestic – a woman complaining that her husband had hit her, thrown a picture at her and had been drinking. Dispatch was sending her to cover Marty. Wonderful. Like she ever wanted to see him again. Like she ever wanted to talk to him again. When she arrived at the house, he was waiting by his car.
“I apologize,” Marty said.
“If this was the first time, I’d accept,” she replied. “It’s been almost four years since we broke up, but you still think I’ll come back to you.”
“That’s not it. If you’d married a nice guy, I could handle it. At least, I’d have lost you to...una persona que es muy amable.”
“He is kind, in his own way. If you can’t accept that, then I want you to stay away from me.”
“Let’s get this over with, huh? We can say our good-byes later.”
Karen stood in the cramped, dingy living room that smelled of stale cigarettes, spilled beer and hopelessness. It was furnished in a late twentieth century hand-me-down style, every stick of it worn, faded, mismatched reminders of other people’s generosity. The domestic violence victim sat, with closed and distrustful body language, on the edge of a lonely kitchen chair stuck arbitrarily in a corner. When Marty asked her a question she said “huh?” so he would have to repeat it. It was as though she needed time to assume a properly respectful tone before delivering the next evasive answer.
“I’ll just take a quick look around,” she said. “Just to make sure her husband didn’t come back.”
“Always anal about safety,” Marty replied as he sat on a thread-bare green sofa to write some notes. “That’s why I love you.”
“No, it isn’t, either.”
“Suit yourself. When you’re done, go ahead and split. I’ll write this report.”
She turned toward the kitchen. To her right, a noise came from a hallway leading toward the bedrooms. It was the same sound her door knob had made at the Pi Phi sorority house, when she was trying to quietly sneak her boyfriend out after curfew.
“Ma’am, how do you spell your last name?” Marty asked, his attention focused on the woman across the room.
The footfalls and the raised baseball bat arrived in her conscious mind at the same moment the intruder entered the room. He didn’t appear at a dead run – he probably wasn’t sure where anyone was. He was responding to the voices. He was attacking their voices. He held the bat high; it looked like he was up at the plate.
Her right hand slowly extended, to block his path and keep him from Marty, who was still oblivious to the man’s presence. Her mouth opened to call out. At the same time she reached for her Glock, sitting securely in its holster. Why wasn’t she moving faster?
The man was short – way shorter than her. But he was stocky, with unkempt blond hair and a little mustache. His big, brown eyes were wide with emotion, focused on the back of Marty’s head. That was his target. He was going to hit Marty with the bat he was holding. The guy accelerated, his wild expression locked on her friend.
She reached with her right hand, but the attacker swung under it. The pistol was still moving, though at the moment it was pointed at her left foot. To pull the trigger now would be to shoot herself. How would that headline look? “San Diego police woman shoots own foot; attacker hits partner’s head out of park.”
The moment drew out as her mind raced. It was a perfect baseball swing, label up so the bat wouldn’t shatter. Louisville slugger – wood. Old school, not like the aluminum bat she’d had in high school softball. She followed the label until impact, the shattering instant when the barrel hit—
Her leg. A dark blue pant leg hung in the air, her boot on the end of it. The dull thud was accompanied by a snapping sound, like dry twigs during fire season. Awful, overwhelming pain intruded – sharp and hot and advancing in waves.
The angry little man drew back the bat, his malevolent, searing eyes focused on her. She grasped at her attacker’s arm. But, she missed.
One of her legs wasn’t working quite right. She reached again, grasped the man’s collar and tumbled backward.
The semi-auto pistol in her left hand popped. The hollow-point bullets were like those little Shriner cars at a parade, following one another from the end of her Glock. First one, then another, then a third and fourth. Each disappeared through little holes in her assailant’s dirty t-shirt. It was classic close-combat shooting, her gun cradled by her side, free arm holding the attacker away.
“Ooohhh,” the man said. He wasn’t yelling, or screaming. He was just…making a comment. Oh.
“Soro,” Marty screamed. “Dios mío, Soro.”
She fell onto her back, the man on top of her. The bat tumbled beside them, landing softly on the grimy, stained carpet. His eyes were wild, angry…huge with rage and contempt and the frenzy of trying to kill her. No, they were puzzled. They were confused by the feeling of being shot, apprehensive about the bullets now inside of him. And, he was saddened, horribly disappointed. He was troubled.
Then, she was looking into marbles. There was alcohol on his last breath.
He was dead.
Not just now. Not just tomorrow. Forever. Whoever he was, wherever he was going, whatever he had meant to the woman huddled in the corner screaming a name, he’d just been shot to death by a San Diego police officer on a soft evening in February.
And just as quickly, he wasn’t on top of her anymore, thrown to the side like a bundle of yesterday’s newspapers. In his place was Marty’s horrified face, struggling to remain outwardly calm.
“Soro, como ce va? ¿Bien? ¿Bien? ¿Es usted lastimó?”
“Yes, I’m hurt,” she replied. “My leg’s broken. Look, it’s crooked.” An adrenal rush hammered at her ears and narrowed her vision. The dryness in her mouth made talking tedious, almost painful. She wanted to throw up, but lacked the strength.
“Mierda,” Marty exclaimed. He pulled his mike up to his face. “Officer down, shots fired.”
His words blared harshly in her earpiece. Officer down – that was the worst thing a cop could ever hear. A police officer – a brother or sister of the blue – they were hurt. It was time to get up, time to get to her car and go help. Help the officer who was down. Chaos reigned on the radio, until a supervisor told everyone to shut up.
“Where the hell are you going?” Marty asked.
“Officer down,” she said, rising up on her elbows.
“And she’s gonna stay down until the paramedics arrive.”
The woman nearby screamed over the body of her husband. But, it was as though in a dream—
“Soro, hey,” Marty said. “Don’t pass out on me.”
“He was going to hit you. He made me do it, Marty. Why did he make me do it?” The adrenal rush of mortal combat left her. Replacing it was anger, regret…
“I don’t know. You just lay there. Help’s on the way.”
“It hurts. Oh my God, Marty. Oh my God, my leg hurts.”
“I got you,” Marty said, holding her hand and blinking back tears on his terrified face. “I got you.”
The nurse put a tray on the little table in front of Karen. Past it, the bright red polish she’d put on her toe nails a few days before blazed in harsh relief against the white bandage. The incision was almost eight inches long, stapled together and covered with a dressing. The entire leg was extended by a splint, which pulled at her foot and held the bones in place. She’d wear that until a cast replaced it.
“Hungry?” the nurse asked. “I think it’s meat loaf. It smells like it, sort of. If the food was too good, you’d want to stay.”
“Thanks,” she said, as the woman moved the tray-table closer, smiled and left her alone.
Her first days in the UC San Diego Medical Center were a blur of pre and post op, doctor visits and brief interludes with police department brass, all vanishing without a clear memory. Her husband’s face and the soft kisses he’d given her forehead were just about all there was. He’d smiled lovingly and told her how much it meant to him that she’d…saved him. Saved his life.
No. That had been Marty. Marty had kissed her, told her he loved her, thanked her for his life. Not Tim. It was Marty.
“Como ca va?” Marty asked from the doorway. He pointed contemptuously at the tray. “Es eso qué llaman cena?”
“Yes, they call this dinner,” she replied. “Only, I’m not sure what it’s made of.”
“Well, toss that shit out. I brought you real food.” Marty took the tray and moved it aside. In its place, he set a Tupperware bowl, peeling the lid off carefully. He handed her a folded tin foil packet that contained something soft and warm.
“Sopa de Marisco,” Marty said. “And a quesadilla. Nothing too spicy. I made it last night.”
“You’re my hero,” she said as she tried to sit up a little taller in bed.
The aroma of the seafood soup filled her nostrils. It didn’t smell like it had when he’d first made it for her, so long ago. The typical, strong Cuban spices were muted, almost absent. It was perfect for a woman three days removed from major surgery on a compound leg fracture. She dipped in a spoon, and tasted the magic.
“It’s awesome, just like always.”
“It’s the least I could do.”
“Marty, have you seen… Has Tim been here?”
“Sure, he comes in every day. Stops by usually when you’re sleeping and gives you a kiss.”
“No, really. I swear.”
“I know what your lips feel like, Martin Saenz. You’ve been the one kissing me when I’m half asleep. You don’t want me to feel alone.”
“No, I swear.”
“Have you seen the doc?”
“This morning. It’s still too early to tell if the operation was a success. I could still lose my leg.” Another spoonful, another burst of cilantro and avocado and thoughtfulness.
“I know you will.” Marty stared at her for a moment, and then turned away, looking out the window at the hospital parking lot several stories below. “I’m a guy, Soro. I don’t know how to say what needs to be said.”
“About what?” The quesadilla was warm and gooey, the cheese running out of the fresh, supple tortilla where she bit into it. Devoured it, actually.
“I’m alive because you saved me. You’re lying here, all busted up. Maybe gonna lose… It should be me there.”
“I’d never let anything happen to you.”
“Even after the shit I gave you about Tim?”
“Dude, come here.”
When he came close, she grabbed the back of his head and pulled. Her lips met his, in what he obviously expected to be a friend peck, the kind old lovers give each other after they have moved on and given their lives – their hearts – to another. But she held onto him, absorbing the warmth and the passion that their relationship still contained. Playful memories of their year together made her heart flutter. She was in a sterile marriage to a possessive man, but even Tim couldn’t suffocate some of the happiest memories of her life. When she tickled Marty’s tongue with hers, it recalled beach nights and tequila sunrises and the incomparable longing that love sometimes holds.
“What was that supposed to be?” Martin asked, his face as red as the polish on her wiggling toes. “I thought you hated me.”
“You’re still my best friend. Maybe that kiss was something to remember me by when I’m living in Wisconsin?”
“That guy might have killed me.”
“You have a warrior soul - un alma del guerrero. I’ll love you forever.”
“Even though I married someone else?
“If you’re gonna still kiss me like that, I don’t care who else you marry.”
His eyes were so soft, so rich, so full of mirth and magic, life and love. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, listening to her man snore, she considered the ups and downs of luck. A woman’s heart can be pleasantly unruly.
“Am I interrupting anything? I hope.”
Past Marty, in the doorway, her husband stood staring. The look on his face wasn’t anger or impatience. It wasn’t disappointment that another man still meant so much to her. He wasn’t glad to see her sitting up, alert and alive.
It was as if someone had borrowed his favorite lawn mower, and he had arrived to reclaim it.
“There’s nothing to interrupt, Tim,” Marty said. “I was just leaving. Soro, is there anything you need from work?”
“No, she’s not,” Tim snapped. “I won’t allow a parade of you people to keep her from healing. She needs both legs.”
The two men glared at each other. Guy talk, with no words necessary, flowed between them. A tiny smile formed on Marty’s lips, the lips that had felt so warm and inviting just a few moments before.
“Of course,” Marty said.
She met Marty’s eyes and held them. In that moment, her whole life came into sharp focus. She had let go of the man who brought her joy, and passion, and mariscos, and held on instead to something that masqueraded as love. If she lost her leg, which one of these men would still care about her? Which one would still want her?
Marty’s eyes softened in understanding, and kindness. He was a fearsome warrior whose exterior was chiseled mahogany, with a heart as gentle as an evening sea breeze. He started toward the door, and then stopped for a moment, his parting look an amused question mark.
“Para el desayuno… Is it okay if I stop by with breakfast, maybe a little coffee?” Marty asked.
“Drop it off at the nurses’ station,” Tim said. “Don’t bother her.”
“Sure,” Marty replied. And then, he was gone.
“What did he say?” Tim snapped, and laid a kiss as cold as a doctor’s stethoscope on her forehead. “Speaking Spanish in front of me is like whispering. It’s impolite.”
“That’s why he switched to English mid-sentence, dear.” She reached for the man she had promised to love, the man she had married, and to whom she had pledged fidelity for the rest of her life. “Desayuno means breakfast. That’s all.”
“Well, I gotta go pack,” Tim said as he dropped her hand and turned to leave. “My flight to Madison leaves in the morning.”
She was in a hospital bed, with an uncertain future, because she’d saved Marty. But, in the little ways he made her feel cherished, he’d saved her - one smile, one kind word, one thoughtful gesture at a time. Someday, alone in wintry Wisconsin and miles away from the bright California sun, the little bit of Marty she held in her heart might be the only thing that kept her warm.