Read The Poet Online

Authors: Michael Connelly

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Journalists, #Detective and Mystery Stories, #Serial Murders, #Serial murders - Fiction, #Police murders, #Journalists - Fiction, #Police murders - Fiction, #McEvoy; Jack (Fictitious character), #Colordo, #Walling; Rachel (Fictitious character)

The Poet

The Poet (1995)

By: Michael Connelly

The apparent suicide of his policeman brother sets Denver crime reporter Jack McEvoy on edge. Surprise at the circumstances of his brother’s death prompts Jack to look into a whole series of police suicides and puts him on the trail of a cop killer whose victims are selected all too carefully. Not only that, but they all leave suicide notes drawn from the poems of writer Edgar Allan Poe in their wake. More frightening still the killer appears to know that Jack is getting nearer and nearer. An investigation that looks like being the story of a lifetime, might also be Jack’s ticket to a lonely end.

1

Death is my beat. I make my living from it. I forge my professional reputation on it. I treat it with the passion and precision of an undertaker-somber and sympathetic about it when I’m with the bereaved, a skilled craftsman with it when I’m alone. I’ve always thought the secret of dealing with death was to keep it at arm’s length. That’s the rule. Don’t let it breathe in your face.

But my rule didn’t protect me. When the two detectives came for me and told me about Sean, a cold numbness quickly enveloped me. It was like I was on the other side of the aquarium window. I moved as if underwater-back and forth, back and forth-and looked out at the rest of the world through the glass. From the backseat of their car I could see my eyes in the rearview mirror, flashing each time we passed beneath a streetlight. I recognized the thousand-yard stare I had seen in the eyes of fresh widows I had interviewed over the years.

I knew only one of the two detectives. Harold Wexler. I had met him a few months earlier when I stopped into the Pints Of for a drink with Sean. They worked CAPs together on the Denver PD. I remember Sean called him Wex. Cops always use nicknames for each other. Wexler’s is Wex, Sean’s, Mac. It’s some kind of tribal bonding thing. Some of the names aren’t complimentary but the cops don’t complain. I know one down in Colorado Springs named Scoto whom most other cops call Scroto. Some even go all the way and call him Scrotum, but my guess is that you have to be a close friend to get away with that.

Wexler was built like a small bull, powerful but squat. A voice slowly cured over the years by cigarette smoke and whiskey. A hatchet face that always seemed red the times I saw him. I remember he drank Jim Beam over ice. I’m always interested in what cops drink. It tells a lot about them. When they’re taking it straight like that, I always think that maybe they’ve seen too many things too many times that most people never see even once. Sean was drinking Lite beer that night, but he was young. Even though he was the supe of the CAPs unit, he was at least ten years younger than Wexler. Maybe in ten years he would have been taking his medicine cold and straight like Wexler. But now I’ll never know.

I spent most of the drive out from Denver thinking about that night at the Pints Of. Not that anything important had happened. It was just drinks with my brother at the cop bar. And it was the last good time between us, before Theresa Lofton came up. That memory put me back in the aquarium.

But during the moments that reality was able to punch through the glass and into my heart, I was seized by a feeling of failure and grief. It was the first real tearing of the soul I had experienced in my thirty-four years. That included the death of my sister. I was too young then to properly grieve for Sarah or even to understand the pain of a life unfulfilled. I grieved now because I had not even known Sean was so close to the edge. He was Lite beer while all the other cops I knew were whiskey on the rocks.

Of course, I also recognized how self-pitying this kind of grief was. The truth was that for a long time we hadn’t listened much to each other. We had taken different paths. And each time I acknowledged this truth the cycle of my grief would begin again.

My brother once told me the theory of the limit. He said every homicide cop had a limit but the limit was unknown until it was reached. He was talking about dead bodies. Sean believed that there were just so many that a cop could look at. It was a different number for every person. Some hit it early. Some put in twenty in homicide and never got close. But there was a number. And when it came up, that was it. You transferred to records, you turned in your badge, you did something. Because you just couldn’t look at another one. And if you did, if you exceeded your limit, well, then you were in trouble. You might end up sucking down a bullet. That’s what Sean said.

I realized that the other one, Ray St. Louis, had said something to me.

He turned around in his seat to look back at me. He was much larger than Wexler. Even in the dim light of the car I could make out the rough texture of his pockmarked face. I didn’t know him but I’d heard him referred to by other cops and I knew they called him Big Dog. I had thought that he and Wexler made the perfect Mutt and Jeff team when I first saw them waiting for me in the lobby at the Rocky. It was like they had stepped out of a late-night movie. Long, dark overcoats, hats. The whole scene should have been in black and white.

“You hear me, Jack. We’ll break it to her. That’s our job, but we’d just like you to be there to sort of help us out, maybe stay with her if it gets rough. You know, if she needs to be with somebody. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Good, Jack.”

We were going to Sean’s house. Not the apartment he split with four other cops in Denver so in accordance with city regs he was a Denver resident. His house in Boulder where his wife, Riley, would answer our knock. I knew nobody was going to be breaking anything to her. She’d know what the news was the moment she opened the door and saw the three of us standing there without Sean. Any cop’s wife would know. They spend their lives dreading and preparing for that day. Every time there’s a knock on the door they expect it to be death’s messengers standing there when they open it. This time it would be.

“You know, she’s going to know,” I told them.

“Probably,” Wexler said. “They always do.”

I realized they were counting on Riley knowing the score as soon as she opened the door. It would make their job easier.

I dropped my chin to my chest and brought my fingers up beneath my glasses to pinch the bridge of my nose. I realized I had become a character in one of my own stories-exhibiting the details of grief and loss I worked so hard to get so I could make a thirty-inch newspaper story seem meaningful. Now I was one of the details in this story.

A sense of shame descended on me as I thought of all the calls I had made to a widow or parent of a dead child. Or brother of a suicide. Yes, I had even made those. I don’t think there was any kind of death that I hadn’t written about, that hadn’t brought me around as the intruder into somebody’s pain.

How do you feel? Trusty words for a reporter. Always the first question. If not so direct, then carefully camouflaged in words meant to impart sympathy and understanding-feelings I didn’t actually have. I carried a reminder of this callousness. A thin white scar running along my left cheek just above the line of my beard. It was from the diamond engagement ring of a woman whose fiance had been killed in an avalanche near Breckenridge. I asked her the old standby and she responded with a backhand across my face. At the time I was new to the job and thought I had been wronged. Now I wear the scar like a badge.

“You better pull over,” I said. “I’m going to be sick.”

Wexler jerked the car into the freeway’s breakdown lane. We skidded a little on the black ice but then he got control. Before the car had completely stopped I tried desperately to open the door but the handle wouldn’t work. It was a detective car, I realized, and the passengers who most often rode in the back were suspects and prisoners. The back doors had security locks controlled from the front.

“The door,” I managed to strangle out.

The car finally jerked to a stop as Wexler disengaged the security lock. I opened the door, leaned out and vomited into the dirty slush. Three great heaves from the gut. For a half a minute I didn’t move, waiting for more, but that was it. I was empty. I thought about the backseat of the car. For prisoners and suspects. And I guessed that I was both now. Suspect as a brother. A prisoner of my own pride. The sentence, of course, would now be life.

Those thoughts quickly slipped away with the relief the physical exorcism brought. I gingerly stepped out of the car and walked to the edge of the asphalt where the light from the passing cars reflected in moving rainbows on the petroleum-exhaust glaze on the February snow. It looked as if we had stopped alongside a grazing meadow but I didn’t know where. I hadn’t been paying attention to how far along to Boulder we were. I took off my gloves and glasses and put them in the pockets of my coat. Then I reached down and dug beneath the spoiled surface to where the snow was white and pure. I took up two handfuls of the cold, clean powder and pressed it to my face, rubbing my skin until it stung.

“You okay?” St. Louis asked.

He had come up behind me with his stupid question. It was up there with How do you feel? I ignored it.

“Let’s go,” I said.

We got back in and Wexler wordlessly pulled the car back onto the freeway. I saw a sign for the Broomfield exit and knew we were about halfway there. Growing up in Boulder, I had made the thirty-mile run between there and Denver a thousand times but the stretch seemed like alien territory to me now.

For the first time I thought of my parents and how they would deal with this. Stoicly, I decided. They handled everything that way. They never discussed it. They moved on. They’d done it with Sarah. Now they’d do it with Sean.

“Why’d he do it?” I asked after a few minutes.

Wexler and St. Louis said nothing.

“I’m his brother. We’re twins, for Christ’s sake.”

“You’re also a reporter,” St. Louis said. “We picked you up because we want Riley to be with family if she needs it. You’re the only-“

“My brother fucking killed himself!”

I said it too loud. It had a quality of hysteria to it that I knew never worked with cops. You start yelling and they have a way of shutting down, going cold. I continued in a subdued voice.

“I think I am entitled to know what happened and why. I’m not writing a fucking story. Jesus, you guys are …”

I shook my head and didn’t finish. If I tried I thought I would lose it again. I gazed out the window and could see the lights of Boulder coming up. So many more than when I was a kid.

“We don’t know why,” Wexler finally said after a half minute. “Okay? All I can say is that it happens. Sometimes cops get tired of all the shit that comes down the pipe. Mac might’ve gotten tired, that’s all. Who knows? But they’re working on it. And when they know, I’ll know. And I’ll tell you. That’s a promise.”

“Who’s working on it?”

“The park service turned it over to our department. SIU is handling it.”

“What do you mean Special Investigations? They don’t handle cop suicides.”

“Normally, they don’t. We do. CAPs. But this time it’s just that they’re not going to let us investigate our own. Conflict of interest, you know.”

CAPs, I thought. Crimes Against Persons. Homicide, assault, rape, suicide. I wondered who would be listed in the reports as the person against whom this crime had been committed. Riley? Me? My parents? My brother?

“It was because of Theresa Lofton, wasn’t it?” I asked, though it wasn’t really a question. I didn’t feel I needed their confirmation or denial. I was just saying out loud what I believed to be the obvious.

“We don’t know, Jack,” St. Louis said. “Let’s leave it at that for now.”

The death of Theresa Lofton was the kind of murder that gave people pause. Not just in Denver, but everywhere. It made anybody who heard or read about it stop for at least a moment to consider the violent images it conjured in the mind, the twist it caused in the gut.

Most homicides are little murders. That’s what we call them in the newspaper business. Their effect on others is limited, their grasp on the imagination is short-lived. They get a few paragraphs on the inside pages. Buried in the paper the way the victims are buried in the ground.

But when an attractive college student is found in two pieces in a theretofore peaceful place like Washington Park, there usually isn’t enough space in the paper for all the inches of copy it will generate. Theresa Lofton’s was no little murder. It was a magnet that pulled at reporters from across the country. Theresa Lofton was the girl in two pieces. That was the catchy thing about this one. And so they descended on Denver from places like New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, television, tabloid and newspaper reporters alike. For a week, they stayed at hotels with good room service, roamed the city and the University of Denver campus, asked meaningless questions and got meaningless answers. Some staked out the day care center where Lofton had worked part-time or went up to Butte, where she had come from. Wherever they went they learned the same thing, that Theresa Lofton fit that most exclusive media image of all, the All-American Girl.

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