On a cold and bitter night in February, twelve weeks after giving birth, I returned to what I know best: death.
I follow death into black woods. I chase death across deserted meadows. I seek death in the faces of strangers.
Death is a son of a bitch and I study his plotted moves and sly maneuvers, the way he sneaks in and strikes when least expected. As a cop, I tell myself that I am the hunter and death is my prey.
But I'm starting to think that's a lie.
The truth is, it's death that's following me. It has followed me all my life.
Death stalks me like a Colorado summertime thunderstorm—after noon, it's always there, past the horizon, an hour still out of sight. I can't yet see the iron-shaded clouds building beyond the mountains or smell the wetness in the air, but it's coming nonetheless.
Death is coming, and there's nothing I can do to stop it.
I stepped into the central squad room of the Cedar Valley Police Department and then stood still a moment, taking in the familiar sights and smells. In contrast to the freezing, frenetic energy of the blizzard outside, the room was warm and calm.
Christmas had come and gone more than a month ago, yet tinsel and evergreen boughs were still draped high on the walls. I have been inside enough law enforcement centers around the state to know how common that is; holiday cleanup always seems to take a backseat to crime.
The room smelled as I remembered: fresh coffee, burnt microwave dinners, and paper, so much paper. There were folders and files stacked high on the desks. Post-it notes in every shade of the rainbow were tacked to the edges of computer monitors, on the handsets of the telephones at each desk, and across the bulletin board that ran the length of the back wall. Much of our day-to-day business had gone electronic, but old habits are hard to break.
Photographs of haunted, hunted men and women stared out from that same bulletin board. At one time, their stories may have been unique, but the moment their picture hit that board, they became one and the same: criminal, thug, wanted.
In front of me, a doll from the popular holiday game Elf on the Shelf hung from the ceiling in a noose fashioned from a dirty shoelace, her small arms twisted up to grip the sides of her head as though in shock at her fate. I gave her foot a gentle push and she swung in the air, her coy smirk unchanging even in death.
In the corner, the radio was tuned to an oldies station. Elvis Presley sang softly about a boy, born in a snowstorm, to a mother all too aware that his was to be a hard life, short-lived in the ghettos of Chicago. The song breaks my heart every time I hear it.
"Well, the world turns," a deep voice crooned along with the King. I turned to see Finn Nowlin, mostly a decent cop and generally a pain in the ass, strike a classic Elvis pose. He shimmied his hips and then swung his arm up and held the move.
I rolled my eyes and turned away before he could see me smile. I was home.
Grinning, I went to my desk, expecting a bare surface. Before I had gone on maternity leave in November, I'd cleaned house. Stained mugs and a few long-forgotten spoons went home with me to be deep cleaned. Files were returned to the records room, outstanding cases were handed over to my colleagues, and pens went into hibernation in my desk drawers.
To my surprise, though, a stack of file folders sat in a tidy pile waiting for me. A purple note on the top folder read "Ask Finn." They were coded for local, recent misdemeanors; they belonged in the records room, not on my desk.
The rest of the space was still clean, and I dropped my bag and pulled off my heavy parka.
"It's warm in here, isn't it?"
Finn shrugged. He rubbed his hands together. "Feels good to me. The thermostat was busted all week. They finally sent someone to fix it yesterday. We've been freezing our balls off."
I snorted. "Don't you first have to have them, before they can freeze off?"
Finn grinned. "You know you missed us, Gem. Your baby is pretty cute but you're not exactly June Cleaver. Tell me you haven't been getting antsy."
"Yeah, I missed you guys like I miss dysentery."