by Michael Kingswood
Woodsmoke filled the air despite the stiff breeze blowing in from the east. It seemed to rise from everywhere, and never mind the determined efforts of the fire department personnel, who had labored for hours to contain the fire.
Where once this had been a non-denominational neighborhood chapel—white and pure exterior finish, stained glass windows showing bible scenes going down both long walls, an unadorned steeple pointing toward heaven—now it was a ruin, blackened timbers leaning against each other at odd angles as though trying to prop each other up and stop a total collapse.
Too late for that.
The last team of firefighters in their fireproof coveralls and breathing masks was going through the rubble with axes and pry bars. What framing hadn’t fallen in the blaze itself they were prying apart, to separate fuel and prevent any re-flash.
Before long, there wouldn’t even be a charred memory remaining of the peaceful beauty of the place.
Pete stuffed his hands into the pockets of his slacks and stood at the T of the concrete walkway that connected the entranceway leading to the chapel’s front door to the sidewalk running down this once quiet, suburban street, and watched the firemen go about the last of their business.
He resolutely did not look behind himself.
He didn’t need to; he knew the scene there perfectly. The wedding party, sitting dejectedly on the curb across the street from the chapel. The bride’s dress blackened and charred, her eyes puffy red from crying—as much from grief as from the stinging smoke. The others were just as mussed, but she seemed the symbol that represented the crowd.
Eyes staring not at the scene, and the ruined chapel, but at him.
Their accusations tore into his back like lances hurled by Olympic track and field champions, unerring and true.
And completely deserved.
Patrolmen would be mingling with them, taking their statements. Other blue-uniformed personnel were hard at work elsewhere around the scene as well; erecting a cordon, engaging in crowd control, escorting the immediate neighbors from their houses until they were certain the immediate danger was past.
The red, blue, and white flashing lights on the top of the patrol cruisers at each end of the block seemed brighter now, but it was just that the afternoon was beginning to fade into evening, the sky above slowly taking on the red-orange of sunset.
And Pete just watched, his mind replaying the event over and over, searching for something—anything—he could have done differently, to avoid –
The crunching of gravel beneath shoe soles on the street behind him advertised another person’s close approach, interrupting Pete’s thoughts.
A second later, a man in his mid 50s, stick-thin and four or five inches taller than Pete, stepped into the right side of Pete’s peripheral vision. He had on a cheap grey suit—even cheaper than Pete’s if that was possible—with a solid royal blue tie, and he had his mostly-grey hair tied back in a ponytail at the nape of his neck. His bushy mustache mostly hid his upper lip, but it couldn’t conceal the displeased scowl he wore.
Inwardly, Pete groaned. “Lieutenant,” he said, without looking at him.
Lieutenant Sikes looked sidelong at his lead detective and scowled. Pete looked like hell. He had black smudges all over his suit, hands, and face. His sleeve was torn halfway up to the elbow, and it looked like his right shoe had a hole in it as well.
But worse was the expression on his face. His eyes were reddened from the smoke, but wide, his jaw slack, like someone who can’t believe what he’s looking at.
Sikes cleared his throat. “Got a call from the hospital. It’s not good. Charlie – ”
Pete interrupted him. “I know.” His voice was toneless, dead.
Sikes let it drop, nodding. From what the doc had said, there really had not been much of a chance. When Charlie was rushed from the scene earlier, he had significant burns over 60 or 70 percent of his body, and probably massive smoke inhalation as well.
Pete had seen him; helped smother the flames on his partner’s body. Of course he had known how little chance he had to survive.
The Lieutenant looked away from Pete and back toward the remains of the chapel. Such a waste. In every sense. Sudden anger flooded through him. Intellectually, he knew it was just a defense mechanism, to ward off the sorrow over Charlie’s passing, but still –
“G-ddamnit, Pete. What the hell happened?”
Beside him, Pete shrugged. “Garza broke contain. Ended up here. You know the rest.”
Sikes ground his teeth to avoid really lashing out at the man. He knew Pete wasn’t the real source of his anger, and it wouldn’t do any good to take it out on him. All the same, that was a bull&%*t answer and they both knew it.
“You’re sure Garza didn’t make it out?” was all Sikes said in reply.
Pete nodded, and the Lieutenant grunted, then nodded approvingly.
He wasn’t fooling anyone. Pete knew he bore the blame for this debacle, and the fact that the perp went up in his own fire didn’t make up for anything. Didn’t make up for Charlie…
Charlie’s screams rang in Pete’s ears, blotting out everything else from the scene. Pete almost broke to think of his friend of so many years.
But he realized the Lieutenant had said something else, and he forced himself back to present.
Sikes said, “Going to be some high-level attention on this.” He gestured toward the still smoldering chapel, then around at the neighborhood, which while not filled with McMansions per say had still been a well-heeled place that never had a hint of trouble touch it.
Probably some decent political contributions came from this place. Pete didn’t bother holding back his groan this time.
Sikes nodded agreement. “Not sure who’s going to be heading up the investigation yet, but I’ll let you know when I do.”
Peter took the words in, but didn’t really process them. He just nodded.
The Lieutenant laid his hand on Pete’s shoulder and gave it a little squeeze. “Not much more you can do here, Pete, and you’ll want to be fresh when the investigation starts. Go home. Get a few days’ rest.”
His tone didn’t hold malice or accusation, but Pete knew it was there all the same. He’d seen this coming; just hoped it wouldn’t come so soon.
Sighing, he brushed back his suit coat and took hold of his holstered sidearm. It took a second of working back and forth to ease the clip holding it to his belt, then he took the whole unit and held it out to Sikes.
The Lieutenant turned to look at him fully, his eyes widening slightly. He raised his hands, palms out, in a peacemaking gesture. “Not what I meant at all, Pete. You’re still on the job. I just – ”
Pete shook his head and pressed the weapon into Sikes’ open left hand. Then with his free hand, he fished his badge wallet out and pushed it into Sikes’ right.
“That’s bull&%*t and we both know it,” he said. He looked Sikes in the eye and pressed the items toward him, harder. The Lieutenant resisted, both the look and taking the items.
“I’m done,” Pete said, then he let go of the piece and the badge and turned away.
Sikes had to move quickly to avoid letting them both fall to the ground. He looked down to make sure the gun in particular was safe. By the time he raised his eyes again, Pete had vanished into the crowd of onlookers on the other side of the street.
“Dammit,” Sikes said.
* * * * *
In all the years Pete had been coming to her bar, Melissa had never seen him tie one on the way he had tonight.
She couldn’t blame him. She’d seen the story in the news, and immediately recognized Charlie’s face when it popped up on the screen. She had spent many a fun night serving beers to the two of them, and sometimes also their buddies in their division, and she’d thought well of Charlie.
But Pete was the real regular. This was going to crush him.
It was almost crushing her.
She’d had to have one of her servers take over for a few minutes when she saw the news, so she could go back into her office to cry it out of her system.
But now it was getting on toward closing time, and Pete was going nowhere. He sat at his usual place at the corner of the bar opposite the entrance, nursing a Michelob that had long since gone warm from when he first ordered it, two hours ago.
He’d made up for beer swilling with shots. But she’d cut him off of those an hour ago, and so he just sat, staring into his drink and occasionally making to lift it to his lips but never quite getting it there.
He was wasted.
But that was not the real thing dragging him low.
The last of her other customers left through the front door and Sheila, one of the two servers she had on staff on Wednesdays, locked it behind the guy. She was young—college aged though she wasn’t in school—and perky, just like Melissa always tried to hire in the wait staff. And she had on the required The Cock And Bull t-shirt, with her logo of both animals arm wrestling for a pint of beer on the breast.
Melissa caught her eyes as she left the door, and Sheila gestured questioningly toward Pete. Melissa waved her off.
This was her job. And not just because it was her place.
Pete was special.
He was tracing his fingertip along the rim of his glass as she walked toward him, and for a moment he looked like a lost kid.
He’d always had a baby face. She’d been shocked to see he was almost thirty the first time she’d carded him, way back… She didn’t want to think about how many years back that was.
She’d been married then, or she might have made a play for him; cute and cocky as he was. But that was before Carl had turned into a cast iron jerk and an abusive drunk, and she still had her scruples.
And then, once she was free again Pete had shacked up with Helen, so that was that.
Except he and Helen had gone pear-shaped about eight months ago, and it was turning into one hell of a fire-and-brimstone style divorce. She didn’t want to be the rebound.
But more, she didn’t want to get in the middle of that crazy drama.
So as she eased her way toward him, she reminded herself sternly that, no matter how she might fall seamlessly into the grey blue of his eyes, or the way his slightly off-kilter smile always made little butterflies take flight through her belly, she was strictly acting as a friend tonight. One who knew and understood his pain.
It helped that she felt it too, though she knew nowhere nearly as profoundly as he did.
“Pete?” she said as she reached him. “It’s closing time, hon.”
Peter heard her voice, but it was like a whisper against a whirlwind. He looked at the beer but didn’t see it. Traced his finger along the glass but didn’t feel it.
He only heard Charlie’s screams. Only saw the skin pull away from his arms as Pete tried to drag him further from the inferno that had tried to claim them both.
Pete stopped running his finger on the glass, and turned his hand so he could look at his palm.
The unburnt, unbroken flesh of his hand. Not even a scratch on it despite what had happened earlier.
How could there not even be a scratch on it?
He looked away, casting about on the grey-black polished granite of the bartop. Hadn’t he seen a knife somewhere….there!
Pete picked it up in his other hand, and drove the point of it down toward that palm, with its undeservedly unbroken skin.
It was going to hurt, but he didn’t care. He wanted it to. Needed it to, if only to eclipse that other pain in his chest.
He gritted his teeth in anticipation.
And was denied.
Something forced his hand aside and he lost grip on the knife. It skittered across the bar, uselessly. Pete felt a snarl of rage boiling up within him.
Then pressure on both sides of his head forced him to look away, and he saw the yellow-brown eyes that he remembered in his dreams. The eyes that had kept him coming back to this bar, despite its bad food and at best average ambience.
Even in his drunken state—and he knew well and good he was drunk, just not drunk enough—he would know those eyes.
“Hey, M’lissa,” he slurred. He tried a smile, but failed as suddenly the barrier he had been building all night fell beneath the empathy he saw in those lovely eyes.
He began to bawl, though his pride shouted at him to stop.
He howled and wailed, and wept, and at some point he passed out.
But throughout, he felt the warmth of her arms around his shoulders, and he clung to that feeling as the dreams took him.
* * * * *
When he woke up, Pete at first thought he was dead, and in Hell.
But after a moment he decided no, God could never be so cruel as to consign someone to feeling this way for all eternity. So he must be alive.
But really f*&%ing hung over.
His head felt about ten sizes too small to encase the throbbing that threatened to burst his skull; for a little while he found himself identifying with Zeus at Athena’s birth.
Then he sat up, and the entire contents of his stomach wanted to come up onto his pajamas.
He blinked, confusion forcing the nausea away, but not the headache or the shakes. Pajamas?
He never wore pajamas.
What the hell?
He looked around. This wasn’t his bedroom.
This wasn’t even his house.
The paint job was all wrong; all soft almost-pink tones and warmth, whereas he stuck with the drab white that the landlord had painted between the previous tenant and him.
It was a nice room, though, he had to admit. The bed was small; just a twin, though a four-poster. But the sheets were slick cotton, probably at least 200 grain from the feel of them. Egyptian?
The other furniture was well-made and appeared to be real wood, not particle board. There was a potted plant in the corner that was almost as tall as the ceiling—8 foot—and was blooming with some sort of red-pink flowers. It gave off a pleasant musky odor, but if anything else had convinced him he was not at home it was that.
No plant could survive more than a week in his company.
Grunting, he swung his legs off the beg, and they sunk into a thick white throw-rug that covered the darkly-polished hardwood floor. It was like stepping onto a cloud, it was so soft.
Where the hell was he?
He managed to hobble over to the door, only partially successful in ignoring the pounding in his head, and opened it, then stepped through.
Beyond was a great room, though it was perhaps a little small for that name. But it had the white couch and matched stuffed chairs around a glass coffee table in front of a TV that all living rooms require, and off to the left a walnut-stained dining table set for six. And directly ahead a kitchen setup with white granite counters, grey shelving, and stainless steel appliances and sink.
And leaning behind the counter, reading a newspaper with one elbow resting on the counter and her fist supporting her chin, dressed in a set of flower-pattern pajamas that somehow were sexier than any lingerie Helen had ever deigned to wear for him—and not very often at that—was Melissa.
Auburn-haired, yellow-brown eyed Melissa, with her fit, slender body and small, perky boobs.
He’d dreamed about her for years, but he’d only thought he’d dreamed of her last night.
Had they – ?
He glanced down at the pajamas he was wearing. No, clearly not.
He cleared his throat. “Good morning?”
Melissa looked up when he spoke, surprise making her drop the newspaper onto her countertop. She had been reading the detailed story of what had happened to Pete and his partner yesterday. Or as detailed as the Police Department would allow any news article to be. And she had not heard him come in, engrossed as she was.
She straightened, and saw the bags under his eyes bloodstained eyes, the greenish cast to his skin. Inwardly, she winced in sympathy for the hangover he must be feeling.
But he did fill out Carl’s old pajamas very well; he had kept in good shape over the years, unlike many cops. She found herself growing warm looking at him, but had to force that feeling down. This was not the time, and she had no right.
Well, she did, now that he and Helen were split. But she didn’t want to get involved in that situation.
“You were hitting the whiskey hard last night,” she said, to distract herself from that train of thought as much as to inquire from him. “How are you feeling? Need some coffee?” She gestured toward the end of her countertop, beneath the overhanging cabinets, where a coffee maker sat warming a two-thirds full pitcher.
Pete glanced away from her toward the coffee and smiled slightly. Considering his probable condition, it was an ear-to-ear grin. He nodded. “Thanks.”
As he headed toward the life-giving fluid, he said, “How did I get here?”
Melissa felt herself flushing, despite having done nothing untoward. She looked back down at the newspaper as he reached for the coffee pitcher. “You were in no condition to drive. And I don’t know where you live. So…” She left the rest unsaid.
Pete had to hand it to her; she brewed a mean cup of coffee.
He considered sugar and creamer, but decided this was no morning to lessen the shock, so he took it black, and was pleasantly surprised by the deep, rich flavor. He immediately felt more alert, though his head still throbbed.
Turning away from the pot, he saw her looking back down at the newspaper. Her cheeks were red, like she was embarrassed. That intrigued him.
“You could have gotten me an Uber.”
She looked back up at him, and her lips compressed slightly. “And who would have gotten you into your house?”
He nodded, conceding the point. He took another swallow of the coffee and stepped over to where she was standing alongside her island counter. Setting the coffee cup down on the granite, he plucked at his pajama top with his left hand and jiggled it, meaningfully. He raised an eyebrow, and only after doing it did he realize it was the same thing he did when he was trying to non-verbally press a suspect into talking.
He felt a flush of shame at that.
Pete’s accusing eyebrow made Melissa flush all the more. But she found she could not look away from him. Those grey-blue eyes were locked on hers, probing, and she felt drawn in by them. Lower down, she ached for him to do a different sort of probing.
She stiffened and turned away, forcing her thoughts back in order while she chided herself for being so foolish.
Melissa opened the refrigerator door to mask her slip. “I asked Jim, my next door neighbor, to take care of that.” She pulled open the crisp and fresh drawer and withdrew half of a cantaloupe.
Pete wasn’t sure what he saw in her eyes before she turned away, but he was unprepared for that bit of news. Jim? Who the hell was Jim? Was he – ?
Melissa turned back toward him and held up a gallon-sized ziplock back that held half of a cantaloupe. “Want some?” she asked.
Pete nodded. “Sure.” He paused for a second while she set the melon down on the countertop, then said, “Who is Jim? Your neighbor?”
She turned eyes that twinkled teasingly at him. “He’s straight. You don’t have to worry.”
That…was not what he meant at all.
Melissa was relieved that her remark had set him back on his heels. And then she felt ashamed for feeling that. But damn it all…
She focused on the cantaloupe. Pulling the cutting board out from the shelf where she kept it. Selecting the right knife and testing its edge.
And all the while aware of Pete’s eyes on her, and unable to stop the warmth that flowed through her at that knowledge.
Finally, in desperation, she said the worst thing possible. “The Times did a story on you and Charlie.”
And she immediately wished she had not.
Melissa’s words hit Pete like a bullet, and immediately he recalled everything from the previous day. He turned away from her, pressing his palms down on the countertop.
The newspaper was laid out there where she had dropped it. The headline was plainly visible: HERO COP KILLED IN FIRE.
Then, below it, in smaller letters that nevertheless burned into his soul: PARTNER ACCUSED OF NEGLIGENCE.
He grabbed up the paper and hauled it up in front of his face. Headlines were almost always bullsh*t. Click-bait, to use the modern term. They can’t have meant –
But there it was.
“Sources in the Police Department have indicated that procedures for securing suspected perpetrators may have been violated. Though the sources did not specifically name him, Detective Peter O’Donnell, the victim’s partner, has been strongly implicated as contributing to Detective Argento’s death through his improper actions.”
“Mother &$%@ER!” Pete said, and slammed the paper back down onto the counter.
Melissa jumped at the sound of Pete’s outburst, and dropped the knife she was holding. A second later, she yelped as pain flared from her foot. She looked down and saw the knife stuck point-first into her hardwood floor. Its cutting edge had sliced through the side of her big toe as it landed.
“Son of a b*&%@!” she cried, and had to force herself to not pull her foot away, and make it worse.
Instead, she bent over to pick up the knife first.
Pete was about ready to scream at the ceiling when Melissa cried out in pain.
All thoughts of his predicament fled as concern for her flooded him, and he rounded on her. In time to see her rise, her cutting knife in her hand and its edge red.
He looked down, and saw the big toe of her left foot had a gash on the side, and blood was flowing out onto her finely-polished floor.
“Oh geez,” he said, and straightened, reaching for a paper towel.
Her hand landed on his as they both grabbed it at the same time.
Pete’s eyes turned onto hers and Melissa felt the pain in her toe retreat beneath the electricity of his touch, and again she felt pulled into his eyes. His beautiful blue-grey eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Pete said, hoarsely, and Melissa realized their bodies were very close together, his chest almost pressed up against her breasts.
“Not your fault,” she said, in a nonchalant tone, but Pete barely registered.
All he could see was her eyes, filling his vision. All he could hear was the suddenly strong pounding of his heart. All he could feel was the sudden heat on his cheeks from where her breath impacted his skin.
As though guided by some outside force, he leaned in toward her.
She felt him come in, and every portion of her being willed him to. To kiss her. To take her.
Except for her mind.
This was not right. Not now, while he was so broken.
His lips were about to touch her, and she turned away.
Pete felt like he stumbled forward a step, when she suddenly wasn’t there, even though the only part of him that had moved was his head. All the same, he had to catch himself to stop from falling over.
And then she was gone, moving away from him toward a door he hadn’t see earlier, on the opposite side of the room.
“I’ve got some band-aids in the bathroom,” she said over her shoulder, without looking at him.
Then the door closed behind her, and he was left all alone. With a bloody knife and a raging hard-on.
* * * * *
Charlie’s funeral was three days later, and Pete felt like an outcast throughout the entire proceeding.
He wore his dress blues, like everyone did. He stood in formation with the rest of his division. He watched as the Mayor presented Hillary with the folded flag and recited his scripted and oft-spoken words of condolence. He saluted as the riflemen fired their shots.
And through it all, no one said a word to him.
Not even Hillary, except for a fleeting, “Thank you,” when he said how sorry he was.
At least she returned the hug. But even that seemed hesitant, distant.
It was like they had cast him adrift already, before he had even been tried, let alone convicted.
Melissa watched from near the rear of the crowd at the funeral’s edge. She would not have missed it, no matter the circumstances. She had known Charlie for a long time, and even though he wasn’t close enough to truly be a friend, he was like Pete’s brother. And Pete…
Pete was special.
She’d done a lot of thinking over the last few days. Since she fled from him in near-panic in her kitchen.
She’d sat on the toilet seat in her bathroom for many long minutes more than it had taken to properly bandage her toe. Just sat, thoughts churning, as she listened to his movement out in her living room.
He had not groused or shouted. He had not made much noise at all. But after a few minutes she heard her front door close, and only then had she dared put her head out and look around.
He had not just wiped up the blood at the base of her counter, he had cleaned the entire trail she had left to the bathroom.
And now, three days later, after three days of cursing herself for a fool for not giving him the comfort, the closeness, he had so clearly needed, she watched him go through the motions of duty and regulation, his pain obvious to anyone who would bother to look at him.
She felt that pain as though it was her own, and as the ceremony broke apart and he walked, alone, away from the gathered people, she moved to follow him.
The voice, so familiar he recognized it without any effort, brought Pete up short. He stopped and turned around.
Melissa stood there, in a long black dress that might have worked well as an evening gown except that clearly she was in mourning. Her eyes were red and he mascara had run a bit.
He was surprised for a second, then cursed himself for the feeling. She and Charlie had been friends. Of course she would mourn his passage.
“Hi,” he said. He sounded awkward even to his own ears, and lame when he left it at that. But he really had no idea what else to say to her.
Melissa looked into his eyes and saw the same pain she had seen before at her bar and then again in her kitchen. And she cursed herself again for leaving him alone these last days. Surely Helen hadn’t offered him any comfort, not since she’d revealed herself as the harpy Melissa had always feared she was.
She looked down at the grass before Pete’s mirror-shined shoes. “I’m sorry.”
Pete said, “I’m sorry,” at the same time as he heard her say it, and he blinked.
What did she have to be sorry for? He was the one who had taken her kind act and turned it into something awkward.
She looked back up as he spoke and her eyebrows rose in surprise. Again as their eyes met, he found himself at a loss for words for a moment, so he was almost grateful when he heard a very familiar throat clearing to the left, and he turned to see Lieutenant Sikes standing there.
The new arrival saved Melissa from a moment of uncertainty, when everything she had planned to say flew away completely before the earnest expression on Pete’s face and the deep feeling in his eyes.
She looked to the side and saw Bill Sikes standing there, and felt grateful relief at the reprieve.
Sikes looked between Pete and the bartender from The Cock And Bull—and what was her name? She was a looker, whatever it was—and thought perhaps he would have been better to wait until after they’d conducted their business. But then he considered maybe their business would take the rest of the day, and all night, so he decided to get down to his.
Tearing his eyes away from the hottie, he looked at Pete and tried to put on a reassuring smile.
“Hey, Pete,” he said.
“Hey Lieutenant,” Pete replied, wondering how much more trouble he was in. Sikes’ express was severe, almost stern. He hadn’t even seen Sikes look like that when he was in the middle of chewing someone a new ass.
Sikes cleared his throat. “I’ve had you on medical leave the last few days,” he said, and Pete blinked in surprise.
“No one will question it,” the Lieutenant continued. He reached out with his left hand, and Pete saw a brown folded leather packet in his hand. “But you need to take this back.”
Pete knew what it was, but still his hand trembled when he reached out to take it. He flipped it open, and he felt his breath leaving his lungs in a sigh of relief.
It was his badge wallet.
Only then did he realize it was relief he felt, and he froze in surprise. He had felt so certain the other day that he was done, but now he felt like the badge Lieutenant Sikes had given him back was the greatest gift in the world.
He looked back at Sikes. “Thanks.”
Sikes nodded curtly. “Just don’t let me hear any more of this ‘I’m done’ bull***t. Don’t matter what the news says. You’re a good cop, one of the best I’ve known. And I’m here for you.” He glanced aside, toward Melissa. Then he added, “We all are.”
Sikes was relieved when Pete’s handshake was the same strong, confident grasp he had always used. He turned away, pausing only to give the bartender a look that he hoped she understood before he walked away.
Pete watched his Lieutenant go, and felt a warmth inside that he hadn’t experienced in days.
He hadn’t been cast out from among his brothers. They had his back after all.
He found he was smiling slightly when he looked back at Melissa.
The sight of his smile was too much. Melissa cast aside the words she had been planning to say. Instead, she grabbed him by the shoulders, pulled him forward, and kissed him.
They stood there together for a long time. When they finally parted, they each had to gasp for breath.
Then they hurried back to her place.
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s stories were published and are available here: