Here’s more of my favorite short stories:
Dr. Jo Kepler folded her hands on the desk and waited for her patient to compose himself.
“This is so lame,” Detective Thomas Nolan said, squeezing he eyes with his thumbs. Teardrops dotted them like beads.
His florid face, showing the strain of his nineteen years on the job, turned away from her. “You must think I’m a total pussy.”
Jo Kepler smiled in a way that managed to be genuine and clinical at the same time. A single mother in her late 30s, she was pretty in a subdued, unaffected way.
“We’ve been coming to this point for weeks now,” she said gently. “It’s a sign of growth, of emotional maturity, that you can risk showing me how you feel.”
“And none of this gets written down in your report, right?” Detective Nolan asked, glancing at the file folder on her desk.
“I’m a therapist and you’re my patient,” she said. “The fact that I work for the Department doesn’t change that. What happens in this room is confidential. What I do in my report is make my recommendation to your supervisors as to your fitness for duty.”
He gave a dark laugh. “And you base that on what, exactly? My drinking, the panic attacks, the sleepless nights? Hell, I wouldn’t sign off on me.”
She didn”t respond, letting a silence fill the space between them. Bright morning sunlight baked the walls, warming the thick air. Soon it would be stifling. It was August in Los Angeles.
Nolan stirred, uncomfortable. Sweat glistened on his forehead. He was 45, according to his personnel file, but looked ten years older. Though big and tough as a bear, his body had already begun to sag. He had a cop’s beer gut, a cop’s stiffened joints, a cop’s dour, suspicious squint.
A look Jo Kepler knew well, and not just from the patients she treated. She’d seen it for years in her father’s eyes, before he was killed in the line of duty when she was twelve.
Now Nolan was training those cop’s eyes on her. “You know why they’re makin’ me come here, don’tcha? It’s just the Department coverin’ its ass before they yank me off the Task Force and stick me behind a desk.”
“There are concerns, Tom,” she said carefully. “I’ve seen too many good, solid cops get overwhelmed working a case like this.”
“You think I’m wiggin’ out?”
“Why? ‘Cause I just blubbered like some loser about my baby brother? We used to be best buddies, and now we hate each other’s guts. Boo hoo. End of story.”
“Your “blubbering,” as you put it, is the good news. The memories of your bond with Eddie when you were young, your grief over the way things are now, it’s the most human I’ve ever seen you. Frankly, I was beginning to wonder.”
“Thanks a lot, Doc.”
She smiled “I’m on your side, remember? And like it or not, we’re stuck with each other.”
Nolan sat forward, head hanging between his shoulders. “Maybe. But once it gets out that a guy’s been sent here.”
“We try to see that it doesn’t,” she said. It was an understatement, she thought. As a police psychologist, one of a dozen on permanent staff at the LAPD, she worked in a small, single-windowed office in a nondescript bank building in Chinatown. You couldn’t even see Parker Center, police headquarters for the city, from here.
Everything was done to normalize the experience for the cops sent to her, including allowing them to keep their guns. Jo could see the bulge under Nolan’s blue jacket. A lot of people questioned the wisdom of this policy, which was why therapists like Jo also had a panic button installed within easy reach under their desks. If a cop became violent or self-destructive, a guard stationed out in the corridor could be summoned in seconds.
In her six years with the Department, Jo had never had to push that button. Things had gotten pretty intense more than a few times, but she’d handled it. She was good at her job.
“I meant what I said before,” she went on now. “All of your feelings are welcome here. About anything going on in your life. God knows, you’re under tremendous stress. With all the political pressure, the media…”
“And it’s only gonna get worse.” He shook his head. “We just found victim number eight last night. Eight women, Dr. Kepler. The bastard’s laughin’ in our faces.”
Jo lowered her eyes. “Same as with the others?”
Nolan nodded. “Prostitute. Beaten to death. No evidence of rape, no usable forensics at the scene. He’s gotta be wearin’ gloves. Only blood is always the victim’s.” He paused. “He must surprise ’em. No defensive marks, no skin samples under the vic’s fingernails. Perp just uses her for a punchin’ bag til he hits something vital, and that’s it.”
He looked off, grimacing. “Can you imagine the rage, the fury it takes to beat someone to death with your fists? I mean, Christ…”
His words hung in the air for a few moments, then he reached in his jacket pocket and withdrew a manila envelope. “This is weird, and probably grosses you out, but I gotta show ’em to you.”
“I understand,” she said. “I’m getting used to seeing them. God help me.”
Nolan’s eyes flickered up at this rare personal disclosure. Jo took a fresh breath and chastised herself. It wasn’t that she had professional qualms about sharing personal feelings with a patient, when appropriate. It was just that, as a police psychologist, she needed to maintain a slightly more authoritative stance with the officers assigned to her. Cops–especially males–responded to hierarchy and chain of command, and it was always a battle gaining their respect. And an even tougher one keeping it.
Nolan spread the crime scene photos on her desk. Steeling herself, Jo examined them. The poor girl. Sad, lifeless eyes peering up at her. Bloodied, broken body splayed against the throw rug, like some discarded toy.
“Her name’s Gina Hill,” he said. “Twenty-six. Lived in West L.A. Three arrests for soliciting.”
“Pattern’s the same,” Jo noted, struggling to keep her voice calm. “Naked, except for the St. Christopher medal.”
“Perp loops it around her neck. Since, it’s not blood-spattered or marked up, the M.E. figures it’s placed there post-mortem. Some nutso message from the killer.”
“Or maybe some kind of ritual. Isn’t Christopher one of those saints the church has discredited””
“Yeah, but tell that to a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic like my mother. She still won’t eat meat on Fridays.”
Jo carefully picked up one of the photos by the edges. “Christopher was the patron saint of travelers, right? People prayed that he’d guide their souls to heaven.”
He shrugged. “You’re askin’ the wrong guy, Doc. I haven’t seen the inside of a church in twenty years.” He sat back in his chair and unwrapped a fresh pack of Camels.
“Your team have any idea why victim number five, that girl down in Palms, didn’t have the medal on her?” Jo asked. “She’s the only break in the pattern.”
“Maybe the killer forgot,” Nolan said. “Or maybe he got interrupted by something, heard a noise and took off before he could put it on her.” He lit up a cigarette and inhaled gratefully. “By the way, thanks for bendin’ the rules about the smokes.” He nodded at the ashtray she’d begun leaving out for him.
“No problem. You have enough on your plate without taking away your nicotine fix,” she said.
“Thanks, I think.”
They share a smile as she got up from behind her desk and went to the window. As she turned up the dial on the venerable A.C. unit, she could feel his eyes on her body. It wasn’t the first time she’d been appreciatively appraised by one of her patients. While this was due in part to the fact that, in the words of her adolescent daughter, she was “still a quasi-babe,” she also knew it was an attempt on the cop’s part to maintain some macho distance, some sense of control. Okay, so maybe the Department did give her the right to evaluate them, testosterone gave them the right to evaluate her.
At least that’s how her ex had explained it. A lawyer in the district attorney’s office, Steve claimed to know a lot about the police. “With cops,” he’d state in that patronizing tone that set her teeth on edge, “it’s pure siege mentality. Us versus them. They think it’s the best way to keep the upper hand.” Then, with a grin: “Hey, what can you expect? Basically, they’re all Neanderthals. Except for you old man, of course.”
Of course, she’d thought. Prick.
Of all the things she didn’t miss about her ex-husband, his pompous lectures were near the top of the list. Along with his politics, questionable ethics and flagrant womanizing. That his genes could help produce a daughter as wonderful as Jenny baffled her to this day.
The air conditioning came on suddenly, swirling the smoke from Nolan’s cigarette as he scooped up the crime scene photos and put them back in the envelope.
Still standing at the window, Jo felt the thick knots in her shoulders, the strain in her lower back. She needed a two-hour workout, a massage, something.
She loved her job, but there was no denying its emotional–and sometimes physical–rigors: rushing in the middle of the night to some cop’s home to defuse a violent domestic dispute; advising Department negotiators during hostage situations; cradling grief-stricken widows outside the E.R. Plus her first-year-trial-by-fire, when an armed robbery turned a peaceful North Hollywood neighborhood into a war zone, and she’d found herself strapped into a flack jacket to deliver psychological triage to embattled police at the scene.
It took a toll. Dealing everyday with stressed-out cops complaining about their work, their spouses, their addictions to booze and drugs and danger.
Or else not complaining. Keeping it all locked inside. The ones who didn’t talk, didn’t do much except sit and glare at her, like problem kids sent to the principal’s office. Which is how most of them saw it. Their bosses turning them over to some shrink, some stuck-up bitch who thought she could get inside their heads.
They rarely talked. Instead, they developed ulcers, sexual problems, busted marriages. Sometimes they got put behind a desk. Sometimes they just ate their guns.
At least Nolan talked, Jo thought, coming back to her desk. It had been tough getting him to open up, to trust her, but he’d come a long way in their two months together.
Then, earlier in today’s session, to her utter surprise, he’d even shed some tears. Not about the job, or his frustrations heading up the Task Force trying to stop this serial killer. Not even about his recent divorce. His tears had been for someone else.
“I know our work has been primarily about the case,” Jo said now, settling in her seat. “But I’m grateful that you’re letting me see into other parts of your life as well. Earlier, when you were telling me about your brother–”
“Eddie’s just an asshole,” he said, stubbing out his cigarette. “A total screw-up. The crap he’s put our family through…”
“And the tears when you were recalling the way you were as kids, the powerful bond you shared…””
“So I lost it for a couple minutes. So what?”
“It seemed to me you were in touch with some deep, painful feelings.”
“Don’t you get it? It’s this damn case!” He stood up violently, the chair tipping back, clattering on the linoleum floor. “It’s messing with all our heads. Like Charlie Greer. Did I tell ya about that? I had to cut him loose, send him back to Vice.”
“No, you didn’t tell me.” He’s wired tight as a spring today, she thought. Handle with care.
He rubbed his eyes. “Greer got the call on Roberta Ruiz, while I was with the lab guys workin’ on victim number four. So he had to deal with Roberta. Man, it really shook him up. He said he can’t look at no more naked dead girls.” Nolan’s laugh turned into a smoker’s cough. He spoke between spasms. “Hell, maybe he’s healthier than the rest of us.”
“Maybe,” Jo said. “At least he acknowledges his limits.”
“Yeah, well, tell that to the next vic. We gotta keep our shit together if we’re gonna nail this wacko. That’s our job. You gotta just let it go through you, like a bullet that misses all the internal organs and comes out the other side.”
Jo shrugged. “That still leaves a wound. A scar.” She shifted in her seat. “But let’s get back to Eddie.”
He wheeled on her suddenly, hands slapping down hard on the desk, making her jump. He seemed to tower above her. Jo tensed, aware of the power in his huge arms, the bulk of his shoulders. “Leave my brother outta this,” he said angrily. “What is it with you shrinks, eh? No matter what the problem is, you gotta dig around in the family.”
“Take it easy, Tom.”
He leaned in closer. “Besides, aren’t we supposed to be talkin’ about how my parents screwed me up? Hell, I’ll lay it out for you. My sainted mother, the delicate Irish colleen. My violent, abusive father. Every damned night, Mom weeping and praying. Dad drinking and screaming. Me and Eddie caught in the middle. You do the math.”
Jo kept her face composed. It was important to keep him talking. Whether he knew it or not, he was finally letting her in. His anger was a window to a deeper part of him, where the pain lived.
“You loved your younger brother. You protected him, looked out for him.”
“That’s what brothers do, isn’t it?” He glared down at her, hands on the desk closing into fists. She pretended not to notice.
“Covered for him when he lied,” she went on, “or ditched school, or shoplifted at the mall.”
“You wanted better for him. You said so yourself, at the beginning of today’s session. You hated seeing how he broke your mother’s heart when he got arrested for drunk driving, or–”
“Again, what’s the point?” He moved to a far corner of the room, fidgeting with his tie, his anger fading. “So we’re like a bad movie, ok? One brother becomes a cop, the other a low-life scumbag.”
Jo let out a breath. “Pretty active guy for a low-life. Assault charges, drug convictions. I guess the deeper he sank into his world, reveled in it, the more you felt an obligation to be a cop. Get the bad guys. Balance the scales.”
“Puh-leese.” Nolan laughed. “They actually pay you to do this to people?”
“Tell me you’re not John Wayne out there,” Jo said, pressing him. “Explain your two commendations for bravery above and beyond the call.”
“I lost my head.” A wry smile. “Twice.”
“Bullshit. You’re always volunteering for extra duty. Didn’t you even volunteer for this Task Force””
“So I’m a civic-minded guy. Big deal. I’m still countin’ the years ’til I put in my twenty and can pension out. Just like everybody else.”
A thick silence. Nolan just stood there, looking at her. He seemed to deflate a bit.
“Tom, I’d like you to sit down, all right?” She nodded at the overturned chair. “And easy on my furniture.”
He smiled sheepishly and sat. But his face was still flushed, his breathing labored. Fumbling with his pack of Camels, he finally managed to light another one.
“Remember our first meeting,?” Jo said, “how you described yourself?”
“Yeah. I said I was always the first cop on the scene. First through the door. Kind of a precinct joke.”
“You care, Tom. About your family. Your brother. You care about doing your job, stopping the bad guys. That’s why these murders are eating you alive. Why you always have to show me the crime scene photos. So I’ll get it. See what you see. Understand the pain you’re feeling.”
“Yeah”” He blew a smoke ring. “I figured I showed ’em to you to gross you out. Knock you down a peg. Show you what goes on in the real world, outside of this nice, safe office.”
“Maybe at first that was true. But not now. Now you want me to understand you. Your heart. Your cause.”
He waved her off. Then, after a heavy silence, he said, “I don’t wanna talk anymore. Can I go now?”
The sharpness in her own voice surprised her. But she couldn’t let him leave. Some vague notion was taking shape in the back of her mind, like a photo slowly developing, coming into focus.
Nolan’s eyes, meeting hers, were opaque. Unreadable.
Jo steadied herself. She had to do this just right. “Where’s Eddie now”” she asked.
“Ungrateful shit’s back at my folks’ place, living over the garage. He always crashes there when he’s broke, or when there’s too much heat. Last time, he stole money right out of my old man’s wallet, wrecked their car.”
“Why do your parents put up with him? What is he, thirty, thirty-two?”
“He’s their son, for Christ’s sake! Their blood!” He spat the words at her, as though they tasted bitter. “You wouldn’t understand. The way we were raised, you don’t turn your back on your family. Not even when–” He stopped himself.
He didn’t reply.
“It’s killing you, isn’t it”” she said.
His face grew darker, etched with pain and anger. “I don’t know what the hell you’re–”
“He’s evil, Tom. You know it and you hate him for it, and you also love him.”
“That’s what’s eating at your insides. The love and the hate and the guilt.”
“I said, shut up, bitch!” His hands gripped the chair arms, propelling him out of his seat.
Jo’s heart was pounding, but she kept on. “You can’t stop him, and you can’t turn him in. And yet you have to do something for his victims, even if it’s just a gesture, a token to guide their poor souls on their way out of this life.”
Nolan was standing now. He brought his huge hands up, fingers spread, as though to shield himself from her words.
“You–you don’t know–” he said, almost stuttering.
Jo took a breath. Under the table, she shifted her knee a few inches to the left, feeling for the panic button. Where the hell was it?
“I do know, Tom,” she said, softening her voice. “I know because you want me to know. Remember what you said? You’re always first on the scene. The first to get close enough to the victim’s body to slip on the St. Christopher medal, before the other cops see, before the M.E. arrives to examine her. That’s why victim number five, Roberta Ruiz, wasn’t wearing the medal. It was the one time you weren’t first on the scene. Greer was. By the time you joined the team there, it was chaos. Cops, Crime Scene techs. There was no chance to bless her, to protect at least her soul, if not her life.”
Nolan was backing away, eyes wide. His mouth was moving, but making no sounds.
“Tommy…” Jo got carefully to her feet.
Finally, Noland found a voice–one she’d never heard before, a high-pitched sputter, the keening of a child. “Sweet Jesus, stay with me. Sweet Mother of God, protect me.”
Jo gasped. She knew now, with blinding clarity, the price Tom Nolan had paid for keeping his horrible secrets. Now, with the truth revealed, his psyche was literally unraveling…
Instinctively, she came around her desk, hands reaching to touch him, as though to pull him back from some dark place.
The blood was roaring in her head. Fear knotted her stomach. It all seemed unreal, like a feverish nightmare unfolding… “I understand, Tommy,” she heard herself saying. She forced her legs to move her toward him, as he backed up against the far wall. “You were doing the only thing you could do.”
The detective’s eyes were blinking, as though against a harsh light. His voice had sunk to a whisper. “Holy Mary, Mother of God…”
Jo took another step closer. “But it has to stop now, Tom. We have to call Lt. Rossi. Get him to send a unit to your parents’ house and pick up Eddie.”
But Nolan was shaking his head.
“We have to, Tommy. You know that.”
Her eyes searched his face, beseeching him. Looking for the man behind the grief, the terror, the guilt.
His words were choked. “He’s not there.”
“Not there” Did you tell him you knew? Did he run?”
She took his hands in hers, gripped them with a fierce strength. “Where is he, Tom?”
“Where he can’t hurt anybody anymore.”
He leaned back against the wall, as though finally giving up the ghost. He closed his eyes, let his shoulders slump.
Jo froze where she stood, as the implication of his words sank in. The breath seemed to go out of her.
With an effort, she steadied herself. Suddenly, absurdly, she was conscious of the noise from the air conditioner. The car sounds from outside. But at least the roaring in her ears had stopped.
She grew calmer still. No, this wasn’t a nightmare. This was real. And Detective Tom Nolan, regardless of what he’d done, was first and foremost her patient.
“Tommy…” She stood next to him, stroking his arm. He was docile as a child, head hanging down.
Voice quiet, almost serene, he said, “I buried him behind the batting cage at Beeman Park. We used to play there every day as kids. We were a team. Second base and shortstop. The Nolan brothers, guarding the infield.”
“You’ll have to take the police there,” she said softly. “Show them exactly where you put Eddie.”
He nodded, oblivious. “It’s okay, though. I put the Christopher medal around his neck. And I said some prayers. God will understand. Eddie–I mean, it wasn’t really his fault. Those girls…he just wasn’t in his right mind. You know?”
“Yes, I know,” Jo said. She returned to her desk and picked up the phone.
Tom Nolan stayed where he was, huddled against the wall. His lips were moving again, perhaps in silent prayer.
Jo paused, phone in hand, and looked at him. She wished she shared his faith in the power of the St. Christopher medal and that she had one to give him for the journey he was about to take.
Written expressly by Dennis Palumbo for WRITTEN BY, Copyright 2002.