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The phone rang. It was 2:30 A.M.
Normally I am a light sleeper, but that night I was down among the dead. I had just finished a thirteen-hour shift, my fourth day running of heavy overtime, and I hadn't been sleeping well until tonight. A guy named Jackie Newton was haunting my dreams. He was my enemy and I thought that someday I would probably have to kill him. When the bell went off, I was dreaming about Jackie Newton and our final showdown. For some reason -- logic is never the strong point of a dream like that -- Jackie and I were in the hallway at East High School. The bell brought the kids out for the change of classes; Jackie started shooting and the kids began to drop, and that bell kept ringing as if it couldn't stop.
In the bed beside me, Carol stirred.
"Oh, Cliff," she groaned. "Would somebody please get that goddamn telephone?"
I groped for the night table, felt the phone, and knocked the damn thing to the floor. From some distant galaxy I could hear the midget voice of Neal Hennessey, saying, "Cliff?...Cliff?...Hey, Clifford!" I reached along the black floor and found the phone, but it was still many seconds later before Hennessey took on his bearlike image in my mind.
"Looks like we got another one," Hennessey said without preamble.
I struggled to sit up, trying to get used to the idea that Jackie Newton hadn't shot me after all.
"Hey, Cliffie...you alive yet?"
"Yeah, Neal, sure. First time I been sound asleep in a week."
He didn't apologize; he just waited.
"Where you at?" I said.
"Alley off Fifteenth, just up from the Denver Post. This one looks an awful lot like the others."
"Give me about half an hour."
"We'll be here."
I sat for another minute, then I got up and went into the bathroom. I turned on the light and looked in the mirror and got the first terrifying look at myself in the cold hard light of the new day. You're getting old, Janeway, I thought. Old Andrew Wyeth could make a masterpiece out of a face like that. Call it Clifford Liberty Janeway at thirty-six, with no blemish eliminated and no character line unexplored.
I splashed cold water on my face: it had a great deal less character after that. To finally answer Hennessey, yes, I was almost alive again. The vision of Jackie Newton rose up before me and my hand went automatically to the white splash of scar tissue just under my right shoulder. A bank robber had shot me there five years ago. I knew Jackie Newton would give a lot to put in another one, about three inches to the left and an inch or so down.
Man with an old bullet wound, by Wyeth: an atypical work, definitely not your garden-variety Helga picture.
When I came out of the bathroom Carol was up. She had boiled water and had a cup of instant coffee steaming on my nightstand.
"What now?" she said.
As I struggled into my clothes, I told her it looked like another derelict murder. She sighed loudly and sat on the bed.
She was lovely even in a semistupor. She had long auburn hair and could probably double for Helga in a pinch. No one but Wyeth would know.
"Would you like me to come with you?"
I gave a little laugh, blowing the steam from my coffee.
"Call it moral support," she said. "Just for the ride down and back. Nobody needs to see me. I could stay in the car."
"Somebody would see you, all right, and then the tongues would start. It'd be all over the department by tomorrow."
"You know something? I don't even care."
"I care. What we do in our own time is nobody's business."
I went to the closet and opened it. Our clothes hung there side by side -- the blue uniform Carol had worn on yesterday's shift; my dark sport coat; our guns, which had become as much a part of the wardrobe as pants, shirts, ties, badges. I never went anywhere without mine, not even to the corner store. I had had a long career for a guy thirty-six: I'd made my share of enemies, and Jackie Newton was only the latest.
I put the gun on under my coat. I didn't wear a tie, wasn't about to at that time of night. I was off duty and I'd just been roused from a sound sleep; I wasn't running for city council, and I hated neckties.
"I know you've been saying that for a long time now, that stuff about privacy," Carol said dreamily. "But I think the real reason is, if people know about me, I make you vulnerable."
I didn't want to get into it. It was just too early for a philosophical discourse. There was something in what Carol said, but something in what I said too. I've never liked office gossip, and I didn't want people talking about her and me.
But Carol had been looking at it from another angle lately. We had been seeing each other, in the polite vernacular, for a year now, and she was starting to want something more permanent. Maybe bringing our arrangement into the public eye would show me how little there was to worry about. People did it all the time. For most of them the world didn't come to an end. Occasionally something good came out of it.
So she thought.
"I'm going back to bed," she said. "Wake me when you come in. Maybe I'll have a nice surprise for you."
She lay back and closed her eyes. Her hair made a spectacular sunburst on the pillow. I sat for a while longer, sipping my coffee. There wasn't any hurry: a crime lab can take three hours at the scene. I'd leave in five minutes and still be well within the half hour I'd promised Hennessey. The trouble is, when I have dead time -- even five minutes unfilled in the middle of the night -- I begin to think. I think about Carol and me and all the days to come. I think about the job and all the burned-out gone-forever days behind us. I think about quitting and I wonder what I'd do. I think about being tied to someone and anchoring those ties with children.
Carol would not be a bad one to do that with. She's pretty and bright, and maybe this is what love is. She's good company: her interests broaden almost every day. She reads three books to my one, and I read a lot. We talk far into the night. She still doesn't understand the first edition game: Hemingway, she says, reads just as well in a two-bit paperback as he does in a $500 first printing. I can still hear myself lecturing her the first time she said that. Only a fool would read a first edition. Simply having such a book makes life in general and Hemingway in particular go better when you do break out the reading copies. I listened to myself and thought, This woman must think I'm a government-inspected horse's ass. Then I showed her my Faulkners, one with a signature, and I saw her shiver with an almost sexual pleasure as she touched the paper where he'd signed it. Faulkner was her most recent god, and I had managed to put together a small but respectable collection of his first editions. You've got to read this stuff, she said to me when she was a month deep in his work. How can you collect the man without ever reading what he's written? In fact, I had read him, years ago: I never could get the viewpoints straight in The Sound and the Fury, but I had sense enough at sixteen to know that the problem wasn't with Faulkner but with me. I was trying to work up the courage to tackle him again: if I began to collect him, I reasoned, I'd have to read him sooner or later. Carol shook her head. Look at it this way, I said, the Faulkners have appreciated about twenty percent in the three years I've owned them. That she understood.
My apartment looked like an adjunct of the Denver Public Library. There were wall-to-wall books in every room. Carol had never asked the Big Dumb Question that people always ask when they come into a place like this: Jeez, d'ya read all these? She browsed, fascinated. The books have a loose logic to their shelving: mysteries in the bedroom; novels out here; art books, notably by the Wyeths, on the far wall. There's no discrimination -- they are all first editions -- and when people try to go highbrow on me, I love reminding them that my as-new copy of Raymond Chandler's Lady in the Lake is worth a cool $1,000 today, more than a bale of books by most of the critically acclaimed and already forgotten so-called masters of the art-and-beauty school. There's nothing wrong with writing detective stories if you do it well enough.
I've been collecting books for a long time. Once I killed two men in the same day, and this room had an almost immediate healing effect.
I've missed my calling, I thought. But now was probably years too late to be thinking about it.
Time to go.
Her eyes were still closed, but she was not quite asleep.
"I'm leaving now," I said.
"You going out to see Jackie Newton?"
"If this is what it looks like, you better believe it."
"Have Neal watch your flank. And both of you be careful."
I went over and kissed her on the temple. Two minutes later I was in my car, gliding through the cool Denver night.
Copyright © 1992 by John Dunning