By Brian Lawrence
When the doorbell rang, it seemed so much a part of Dennis Tipton's dream that he ignored it. But when incessant pounding replaced the pleasant chime, a pounding hard enough to shake the bed in which he was trying to sleep, he opened his eyes, rolled onto his side and squinted, blurry-eyed, at the clock radio.
The clock's luminescent digital panel mocked his sleepiness with its vigilance. It had been glowing the time when Dennis had crawled into bed two hours ago, and it was glowing the time now, and no doubt had continued glowing the time through his deep, well-deserved sleep.
The pounding repeated.
"I'm coming," he said, though there was no one there to hear him, a thought that suddenly struck him. Last night, and many nights before, his wife had been beside him in bed.
Not tonight. She was gone.
"And good riddance." He slipped from bed, retrieved a dark blue terry-cloth robe from the closet still filled with his wife's gaudy wardrobe, and walked into the dark hallway, not bothering to turn on any lights.
Another round of pounding resounded from downstairs.
Dennis tried to hurry, but already, deep muscle soreness had settled into his lower back and his shoulders. His hands ached. He had difficulty making a fist. He was going to pay for the night's activities over the next couple days.
More pounding, insistent, violent, rude. When the knocking stopped, he heard Queen barking in the back yard.
Good for her, he thought, as he padded down the stairs. With each step, he grimaced. His sore legs protested with sharp pains that shot up the outside of each thigh into his hips. He hadn't realized how out of shape he was.
One more round of pounding before he flicked on the porch light. He peeked through the peephole but saw no one, so he stretched his five-ten frame onto his tiptoes and looked through the half-moon window over the door. Parked in the street to the right of his driveway was a St. Louis County police cruiser, engine idling, yellow lights blinking, headlights glaring, casting long shadows of his bare tree onto the snow-covered lawn.
Queen barked again.
Nothing to do but answer the door. He unlatched the deadbolt and unlocked the doorknob, then opened the door and faced the cutest cop he'd ever seen.
She was petite. Correcting for the stoop he stood on, he guessed her about five-four. She had short black hair, fierce dark eyes, a thin mouth, and a dainty nose. A long black flashlight rested on her shoulder and pointed at him, but she was careful not to aim directly in his eyes. How considerate.
"Excuse me, sir, I'm really sorry to disturb you at this hour, but one of your neighbors called and complained, saying your dog has been barking all night."
All night? Not likely, as he'd been out with Queen up to about two, and she'd not been barking then. He wondered which neighbor. He swept his gaze across the neighborhood. None of the other two-story houses in his court had lights on. Probably one of the neighbors behind him.
"I'm sorry, officer. Must be an animal out there or something."
She nodded her cute little head. "Could you bring her in? I drove by and heard her barking and since I've been standing here, she's barked on and off."
As if on cue, Queen barked again.
The cop cocked her head and raised her thick eyebrows.
"She's probably barking at you, now." Dennis smiled. The cop did not.
"I'll bring her right in." He leaned out the door and caught a blast of frigid air in his face. "Officer Coleman." "S. Coleman," read her badge pinned to her heavy brown coat.
"It's a bit nippy, isn't it?" he asked, making and holding eye contact.
"Yes, sir. It's cold out tonight."
"Possibly a record for St. Louis, they said on the weather."
She looked down. "Did they? I didn't catch the news."
Queen barked again.
They locked gazes. "The dog, sir?"
"Absolutely, Officer Coleman. Would you like to come in for a cup of coffee?"
"Um, no, sir. But thank you for the offer. I'm on duty."
"Another time, maybe?" He smiled his most charming smile. The one that almost always worked.
"Well, I don't know."
"No, sir. I mean, that's not it, sir. The dog, please?"
He found her uneasiness attractive.
"I'm sorry, I'll bring Queen in right away."
"My dog. Her name is Queen of the Nile. She's an Airedale. I call her Queen for short. And believe me, her majesty plays the role well."
This time she smiled with him. Dimpled cheeks. Cute as a button.
"Good night, Officer Coleman."
"My name is Dennis Tipton. But then you probably already knew that, right?" He winked at her.
She only smiled, lowered her flashlight, looked down at her feet, and then walked away. Dennis quietly closed the door.
In the basement, he kicked his muddy boots out of the way and slid open the sliding glass door. Queen immediately came inside, her head low, her tail between her legs.
"Ha! You know you're in trouble, don't you? What are you barking at?"
She glanced back, didn't answer, then hurried to her rug. After circling four times, she plopped down with a groan, crossed her front legs, and rested her head on them.
Dennis glared at her for a few seconds, but decided further scolding was pointless. He glanced at the shovel, which leaned against the wall by the door. Mud caked the blade. He thought about taking it up to the garage, but decided morning was soon enough for that. Instead, he went upstairs and back to bed.
"What do you know about this guy, Suzanne?" Marcy James asked her best friend. "I mean a five minute encounter at four in the morning is hardly enough to base a relationship on."
"I know his wife and daughter left him," Suzanne Coleman answered. "I know he's Vice President of Domestic Sales at Monsanto. Has been there for fourteen years. He makes me laugh. He's got no record, is handsome as all get up. I mean anyone who can look as good as he did after being wakened at four in the morning-"
"Girlfriend, there are more important things than looks. Ain't he too old for you?"
"No, he's only forty-one."
"Girl, you're twenty-seven."
The two officers sat in the coffee room of the Lindbergh Avenue substation, trying to warm up during their break. Every night they worked the same shift, they met for break at the substation, a routine they'd established since graduating from the academy together.
"Then why don't we make it a double?" Marcy asked.
"Of course. Who else?"
William Washington was a St. Louis City police officer Marcy had been dating for several months. A civil enough man to Suzanne, but he had a militant mistrust of most white people, especially men, and especially non-law enforcement.
"I think I'll go it alone."
Marcy pursed her thick lips and raised her pencil-thin brows.
"I'll be fine," Suzanne insisted. "You've been listening to William too much."
Suzanne had her doubts when Dennis and she entered the Mangia Italiano, a restaurant on Grand Avenue in the city. It was a small place, longer than wide. None of the tables matched, nor did any of the chairs. All the furniture looked like rejects from out-of-business greasy spoon joints. On the wall was painted a mural of what looked like a street scene in Mexico, dense with people in bright costumes. Nothing about it looked Italian.
A waitress wearing jeans and a plain white T-shirt greeted them at the door and led them to an empty table along the right side. Suzanne glanced warily at the stuffed lizard mounted on the wall, wondering if it was part of the menu.
"I know this place doesn't look like much," Dennis said when they were seated, "but believe me, the food is fantastic."
He smiled and the warm feeling that spread through her body pushed all her doubts away.
She loved his leather bomber's jacket, which he wore over a bulky brown sweater. Tight blue-jeans and hiking boots completed his ensemble. His thick dark hair was combed straight back and held in place with just enough gel to give it a sheen, but not enough to make it look oily. When he gazed at her with his deep, dark eyes, she felt all tingly inside. And she loved his English Leather, a real classic.
Immediately, though, she chided herself for allowing him to have such an effect on her. She had to tread carefully. Last time she fell so heavily for a man, he turned out to be scum. But then he'd been a cop, one of several she'd dated, and the one who had finally weaned her completely of dating people she worked with. It was hard, though, finding a man who was not a cop and was not intimidated with her profession, or so obsessed with it as to make her uncomfortable.
She smiled at Dennis. He winked. Here was a man who was completely at ease with her, a man who, during their several marathon phone conversations, had not asked about every perp she'd ever collared, had not asked how many times she'd been in situations where being a woman made her job difficult, had not asked her to handcuff him to the bed and play cruel jailer.
"I recommend the Spaghetti Mangia," he said.
She sighed contentedly and nodded.
They ordered and chatted about the election, both agreeing they were sick of hearing about it. When dinner came, the talk turned to families, hers first. While dining on the delicious brick of baked spaghetti held together with at least five pounds of thick cream sauce and smothered with a tangy meat sauce, she told him about her four brothers, her parents, her grandparents, and her eight nieces and nephews. If he detected the hint of envy in her voice when discussing the children, he made no mention of it.
Score another point for Dennis.
The others she'd dated, especially the ones who were not cops, would have picked up on it immediately and spent the next hour trying to convince her she'd be better off behind the kitchen counter than behind a 9mm.
"What about your family?" she asked.
In a flat voice and with a deadpan expression, he said, "They're all dead."
"Dead? But you said your wife had left you and had taken your daughter with her."
This had been during their first phone chat. He'd called the St. Louis County Police main office the day they'd met and had somehow found out her first name. Not that it did any good, since her listing in the phone book was "S. Coleman". But that hadn't stopped him, he told her, for he then called every Coleman in the phone book with "S" as the first initial. She didn't hold it against him that he'd woken her up. She chalked it up to tit-for-tat.
"Well, yes," he now answered. "But I don't count them as family anymore."
His voice was so emotionless.
Stop it, Suzanne, just stop it. But she knew if she had been married and her husband had stolen her child, she'd be bitter and angry, not to mention frantic, and would have a hard time concealing her emotions.
"I meant my parents," he continued. "They're both dead." A bell rang. He glanced past her, toward the front door. His voice softened. "Dad died of lung cancer about eight years ago, smoked like a chimney. Mom died about a year later. Of loneliness, I think, though the doctors said it was a weak heart. But what do doctors know?"
He returned his gaze to her and smiled, though she thought it was a sad smile, a smile of loss. She decided he must be terribly angry at his wife but did not want to express it in front of her. The next question she was reluctant to ask, but her old doubts resurfaced. The last thing she wanted to be was a crutch for someone on the rebound.
Softly, her lower lip trembling, she forced out the question. "When did your wife leave?"
"The day before you came to my house."
"Oh." That's all she was, a crutch. She could have been any woman and he'd have pursued her. Any woman at all.
After several minutes of silence, Dennis touched her arm and again demonstrated his uncanny ability to read her mind. "Hey. Don't think that I would have chased after the first woman I saw because my wife left. The timing was just coincidence."
She tried a smile.
"Or maybe it wasn't coincidence," he said. "Maybe it was fate. Or, maybe it was my dog.
She succeeded in smiling, even laughed a little.
"But my wife left me years ago. The other night was just a formality."
"But your daughter? How old is she? That must be terrible to have her stolen from you."
"Stolen? Good riddance."
"You can't be serious?"
"Very serious. She's an eight-year old spitting image of her mother. That b-woman did a heck of a job training her. The way Ashley, that's my daughter, would look at me. Like I was lower than dirt. It's less painful now that she's gone. Those two deserve each other."
She heard his words, but detected no bitterness in his voice. There should have been, shouldn't there?
Stop it, Suzanne. So, he didn't love them anymore, that doesn't mean he can't love you.
"Was this your first marriage?"
"No. Second. My first wife left me after only 2 years. I don't seem to have much luck with women." But then he hurriedly added, "I mean didn't seem to have much luck. I feel that's all changed now."
The poor guy. She felt the sudden need to cuddle him, to assure him she'd never leave him like that.
"Are you a football fan?" he asked.
She smiled and said, "You bet," relieved he had changed the topic of conversation before she did or said something stupid or embarrassing.
"Well, look at you," Marcy said as Suzanne walked into the station. "You are positively glowing. So, tell me, how'd it go last night?"
"Sorry, I don't kiss and tell?"
"Girl, you haven't been kissed in so long that what happened last night is written all over your face. What I want to know is what took the guy so long. What was this, the fourth date?"
"Third. And he's a gentleman."
"Gentleman? There are such things?"
"There's at least one and I have him."
"So, talk to me. How was it? Spit it out, girl. Give me the dirt."
"Marcy! You're making me blush." Her cheeks burned, but her stomach fluttered at the memory of last night.
Reminded of how little sleep she'd had, she yawned.
"Up late, huh?" Marcy teased.
"Way to go, girl."
Suzanne's face exploded into a wide smile. No way she could have stopped it, and it felt so good.
Later, as night fled and early morning settled over St. Louis County, Suzanne cruised Telegraph road, not far from Dennis' place. A turn onto St. James, then a left into Cambridge Court and she'd be there. Tempting, but she resisted. She'd see him later in the evening.
So far, it had been an uneventful shift. A couple domestics, which always had the potential for violence, but had been resolved peacefully, one peeping Tom, who had turned out to be a neighborhood kid trying to attract the attention of his friend, and some loitering teens outside a 7-Eleven. Even the teenagers had dispersed without too much bad-mouthing. The world was right again and she was in love.
Her radio squawked, "Six-thirteen, what's your location?"
Suzanne picked up the handset, pushed the button on the side, and answered, "Telegraph and Baumgartner."
"Can you respond to a complaint of a barking dog? 7733 Cambridge Court."
Her heart fluttered. Dennis' place. Queen at it again. Maybe she'd get to see him this morning yet.
Five minutes later she pulled her cruiser into Dennis' driveway, killed the engine, and stepped out. Not nearly as cold as it had been the last time she'd made a pre-dawn visit. Warm enough to have melted all the snow, but still chilly enough that she shivered.
Queen was barking frantically in a tone several pitches higher than normal. Suzanne decided to check the back yard first, before waking Dennis. Maybe someone or something was back there.
She grabbed her flashlight and walked slowly along the side of the house. Queen sounded like she was down at the bottom of the steep hill that was Dennis' back yard.
When she reached the front corner of the wooden fence, she swept the flashlight beam over the back yard. There was Queen, in the bottom corner, on her hind legs, her front paws on the fence, barking at something or someone in the woods that bordered Dennis' property.
She moved the light beam outside the fence and caught her breath. Two eyes glinted back at her. She let her breath out when she realized it was another dog. A big dog, though. It was hard to tell what it was doing from that distance, so she moved along the fence line, slowly, not wanting to spook the dog, hoping it would take off in the other direction.
"Go on, get out of here." She waved the flashlight beam over the strange dog. "Queen, be quiet."
The massive Airedale ignored her and continued barking. The other dog hunkered down by a hole in the ground. It had something in its mouth and was pulling hard, trying to dislodge it. As Suzanne approached, the large, dark, short-haired beast, shook its head and whatever it had a hold of snapped loose. It backed away, growling and watched Suzanne. She continued her advance, waving her flashlight, trying to scare it away. Finally, the dog turned and loped into the woods, whatever it had torn from the ground dangling from its mouth.
Suzanne kept walking, curious to see what the dog had unearthed. Queen turned her attention to Suzanne. The dog began running up and down the fence line, now barking her normal, friendly bark.
Suzanne reached the hole. The air smelled of wet dirt and something rotten. She shined the light over the hole and gasped.
A stick snapped behind her.
A man held a shovel above his head, apparently ready to bash her brains in.
Her heart sank into her stomach. A wave of depression like she'd never experienced before washed over her, sapping all her strength, leaving a cold, sick feeling. Her arm holding the flashlight dropped to her side, leaving the man in shadow. Once again, she'd badly misjudged someone.
In the hole behind her laid the remains of a person, the image branded into her memory. A woman, judging from the long strands of hair she'd seen sticking out of the ground. The strange dog had torn away one of the upper arm bones. She knew who it was, and she also knew if she dug further, there would be another body, that of a small girl.
"Go ahead, Dennis. What are you waiting for?" She inched her right hand over her holster and unsnapped the strap.
"I don't have to, you know." His voice was quiet, almost sad. "It's pretty much up to you. What are you going to do?"
"What choice do I have?" she asked.
Dennis lowered the shovel.
She gripped the handle of her gun and lifted it out of the holster, but kept her hand down, resting against her thigh.
All the stories he'd told her about his wife. Had he been lying? He'd seemed so sincere. After that first date, he'd opened up to her. He truly hated his wife for the way she'd turned their daughter against him. His anger had spewed out as he'd discussed her constant infidelity, her public berating of him wherever they went, especially if any of his friends were present.
She shined the flashlight on his face. Tears crawled down each cheekbone. She lowered the flashlight, fighting back her own tears.
Her thoughts turned to herself. Ten years of failed relationships, heartbreaks, and loneliness paraded through her confused mind. Was it her? Maybe she'd never find the right man. Maybe her mother was right, being a cop was no job for a woman. But Dennis respected her job, respected her as a woman.
"Why?" she asked.
"I couldn't take it anymore, Suzanne. She wouldn't leave and I'll be darned if I was going to leave. This is my house." He swung his free hand in an arc. In a soft voice, he said, "If it means anything, I love you."
If it meant anything? He wasn't making this easy. It meant everything. It had only been a couple weeks, but they'd been the most wonderful two weeks she'd had since she could remember. But now, an icy wind tore through and demolished her house of cards. One she'd probably never be able to rebuild. She had been so sure of him, that he was the one.
"You don't understand," he said, "what she was like. I was nothing to her, an object, someone to pay the bills, someone to use and abuse as she wished."
But she did understand. She'd had many relationships the same way. But unlike him, she'd been able to walk away.
A tiny voice in her head told her that Dennis needed her. She could heal him and in the process he could heal her.
Shivering in the icy air, she turned and swept the flashlight beam over the makeshift grave. Not very smart, burying them outside his own house.
She started when she felt a hand on her shoulder.
"It doesn't have to end," he whispered.
She shuddered. Her breath came out in billowy puffs. The cold air dried her nasal passages. She gripped the gun handle tighter and flexed the muscles of her arm, lifted the gun an inch, two inches, three, but then she relaxed and let her arm hang.
She said softly, "Why don't you go get another shovel? We need to make the hole deeper."
For a long moment she listened to Queen's insistent whine and constant scratching on the fence. Then, Dennis dropped his hand from her shoulder and she felt him turn away.* When she'd heard him take two steps, she turned and shined the flashlight at his back, pointing the gun at him as well.
"Wait a minute," she said.
He stopped and turned around, shielding his eyes from the light. She fired three shots at his chest. For an instant, he remained standing and she feared she'd missed. But then he crumpled. The pitch of Queen's bark became frantic. Lights came on in the neighbor's house.
Suzanne dropped her arms and hung her head, willing tears to come, but none did.
* Alternative Ending - Which one do you like better?
Dennis released her shoulder. She listened in the dark, heard him take one step, then another. She gripped her gun tighter. A third step. She turned. Another step. She raised the flashlight and gun.
The first blow sounded like a church bell as the metal of the shovel hit the metal of her gun and knocked it out of her hand into the woods.
A single tear dropped from Suzanne's cheek.
The second blow rang thousands of church bells in her head, while white light exploded behind her eyes.
She never heard the third blow.
"Great," Dennis muttered. "I'm going to be real sore tomorrow." He stepped around Suzanne's immobile body and stabbed the shovel into the ground by the shallow grave. The beam from Suzanne's flashlight illuminated his dead wife's empty eye sockets. He curled his lip in disgust.
"Hush, you. This is your fault, you know that don't you?"
The dog whimpered, then quieted. All the world seemed to quiet with her. For the next hour, the only sound was of the solitary man burying his feelings.