“You think I won’t do it?” the man shouted. “Is that what you think? Well, you can damn well think again!”
Dave DeMarco bowed his head and let out a breath of frustration. This was not going well.
Five minutes ago, he’d pulled his patrol car onto Highway 4, heading back to the station after a particularly demanding shift, when the guy caught his attention. He was maybe fifty years old, sitting there in his immaculate suit, polished shoes, silk tie, and sixty-dollar haircut, just sitting there, as if he had nothing better to do than watch the world go by. And Dave might not have thought a thing about it, except for the fact that the place he’d chosen to sit was on a highway overpass, his legs dangling over rush hour traffic.
Dave had radioed the situation, asked for backup, then pulled his patrol car onto the overpass. He couldn’t say for sure whether the guy was serious or not, but most of the time if potential jumpers chose a public venue they were just attention seekers, hoping for somebody to give a shit long enough to tell them not to take a dive. With luck, this guy was one of those.
Right now Dave stood ten feet from where the guy sat on the retaining wall, easing as close as he dared. He ticked off the procedures in his mind: Get his name. Establish rapport. Keep him talking.
He inched forward.
“Don’t come any closer!” the guy shouted.
Dave held his ground, glancing down to the highway below, not surprised in the least to see that several cars had pulled to the side of the road to watch the festivities. And already they’d been joined by a Channel Seven news van. Wonderful. An audience. This was going to be a regular dog and pony show.
“Hey, I’m warning you!” the guy shouted. “Back off, or I’m going over!”
Not likely. If he really did have a death wish, the coroner would be zipping the body bag right about now. But Dave still had to play by the numbers. Patrol cops were taught to be patient problem solvers, and he’d always been damned good at his job. But right now, for some reason, he felt edgy and irritated, wishing the guy had chosen any overpass but this one on which to make his point. Maybe it had just been a very long day. Most days in recent memory had seemed like very long days.
“What’s your name?” Dave asked.
“Now, something tells me that’s not really your name. Try again for me, will you?”
Finally the guy’s belligerent expression faded, and Dave saw a tiny window of communication creak open. “Frank,” the guy said. “My name’s Frank.”
“Are you armed, Frank? Gun? Knife?”
“No. Of course not.”
“Okay. Tell you what. It’s a little dangerous on that wall where you’re sitting, and I’m thinking maybe you ought to get off it. What do you think?”
“I’m thinking maybe I ought to stay right where I am.”
“Okay, then. Tell me why you’re doing this. What’s the problem?”
“Like you give a shit about my problems?”
Dave didn’t want to deal with this. He just didn’t. He saw a couple of patrol cars lining up behind his on the overpass, and if he could have handed this one off to anyone else he’d have done it in a heartbeat.
“Just get down from there,” Dave said, “and we can talk about whatever’s bugging you.”
“Yeah, right. Talk. Just how stupid do you think I am?”
Dave glanced at the gold band on the guy’s left hand. “Tell me about your wife.”
“What’s to tell?”
“Got any kids?”
“Yeah. So what?”
“So maybe they’d like their father alive. You suppose?”
He made a scoffing noise. “Right now I don’t know anyone who gives a damn if I live or die.”
“Now, Frank, you and I both know that’s not true.”
“You don’t know shit about me. If you did, and you were me, you’d be up here on this wall, too!”
Dave started to say it. He started to say, You don’t really want to do this, do you? Don’t you know that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem?
But as the words ran through his mind, all at once they sounded like some stupid cliché that even the biggest idiot on the planet wouldn’t buy. Lately he was having a hard time believing any of the bullshit he told people in his line of work: That if a husband and a wife would just calmly talk things out, they’d come to an understanding. That if a crackhead only went into rehab, he could kick that nasty habit and his life would be rosy. That suicide wasn’t the answer, because it was a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Had there ever been a time when he’d believed any of that crap?
The truth was that anyone who even thought about committing suicide just might have a few problems that were going to stay with him pretty much through eternity. Dave would bet his last buck that within days of the obligatory psych consult Frank would be back at it again one way or another, figuratively screaming at the world, trying desperately to make somebody else solve his problems because he sure as hell couldn’t.
Well, Dave had news for the guy—bold-type, front-page, above-the-fold news: He couldn’t solve them, either. Didn’t want to solve them. Christ, he didn’t even want to stand there and pretend he did. And as he continued to stare at this man who thought nothing of displaying his mental malfunctions for the entire city of Tolosa, Texas, to see, something inside him snapped.
“So what’s the deal here anyway, Frank?” Dave said. “Are you one of those corporate executives who played loose with the budget and sent his company into the toilet?”
The guy gaped at Dave, his expensive silk tie fluttering in the breeze. “No! Of course not!”
“Find your wife cheating on you?”
“Lose your life savings betting on the horses?”
“No! Nothing like that! I just—”
“To tell you the truth, Frank, I don’t give a shit what you’re doing here. And you’re right. I don’t know a damned thing about you, which means that for all I know, you might be on the right track.”
The guy swallowed hard, his eyes as wide as searchlights. He looked down at the traffic whizzing by beneath him, then back at Dave. “What?”
Dave took one step closer and lowered his voice. “Jump.”
“Simplest thing in the world. Just jump the hell off this bridge and get it over with. Then maybe I can get the paperwork done in time to grab a beer and watch the Mavs game.”
“But . . . but I don’t want to jump!”
Dave drew back with feigned surprise. “Oh, really? You don’t want to jump? Then would you mind telling me why the hell you’re sitting on this goddamned bridge during rush hour, screwing up traffic and dragging half the cops and paramedics in the city out here to deal with this?”
“Wh-what I mean,” the guy said, “is that I don’t want to jump, but I will. I will, if that’s the only way—”
“The only way to do what, Frank? To show all those people who have been making your life hell that they shouldn’t have? To show them that they never should have ignored you and all your problems? To show them the consequences of fucking you over? Is that what you’re talking about?”
“No! Leave me alone! That’s all I want you to do! Just leave me alone!”
“No,” Dave said, taking another step forward. “You don’t want to be left alone. If you’d wanted to be left alone, you’d have gone into the executive washroom, locked the door, and put a gun to your head. You wouldn’t be sitting on this overpass, stopping traffic and providing the local press with a really juicy story for the evening news.”
“No! That’s not true!”
Dave inched closer. “If it bleeds, it leads, Frank. But you know that, don’t you? You know that because you’re sitting on this bridge, the press will gather around and the whole world will see all your pain in living color. Isn’t that what you really want?”
“Shut up! Just shut up!” Frank clamped his hands onto the edge of the wall, his fingers turning white with the effort. “What kind of cop are you, anyway? I pay my taxes, and this is what I get?”
That really fried Dave. Like he was some kind of social worker? What in the hell did the guy expect? Day in and day out Dave dealt with this shit, playing Mr. Negotiator with wife-beating men, smart-ass kids, drug-addicted prostitutes, and other assorted users and abusers. And what he’d found out was that there was no solution to any of it. If the guy got up the nerve to jump, Dave could send somebody to pick up the pieces after the fact, but he couldn’t fix what drove him out there in the first place, no matter how much tax money Citizen Frank poured into the city coffers. And speaking of tax money, far too much of it was being wasted right now.
Before the guy knew what was happening, Dave took one last step forward and wrapped his arm around Frank’s upper chest. In one swift move, Dave pulled him backward off the wall, scraping his suit pants along the weather-pocked concrete and knocking the hide off the heels of his Bruno Maglis. Dave tried to cuff him, but the guy scuffled with him just long enough that his last thread of patience finally unraveled. Dave ordered him down on the ground in a tone that didn’t leave any room for disobedience. Once he was licking asphalt, Dave yanked Frank’s arms behind his back, clipped on the cuffs, then pulled him back to his feet.
“What’s the matter with you?” Frank shouted. “Are you nuts?”
“Yeah, Frank. I’m nuts.”
Frank’s belligerent expression slowly crumpled, giving way to a look of total despair. As his eyes welled with tears, Dave walked him to his patrol car amid a smattering of applause and whistles from the road below. He opened the back door and deposited Frank inside.
As Dave was shutting the door, he saw his brother Alex approaching, walking with the self-assured gait and commanding manner of a police detective born to the job. Essence of cop oozed out of every pore in his body, but that wasn’t surprising. Law enforcement was a profession as inherent to the DeMarco family as politics were to the Kennedys.
“Heard your radio call,” Alex said. “Thought I’d come by and see what all the commotion was about. You okay?”
“Nice work. Got here just in time to see you pull him back.”
Yeah, he’d kept Frank from taking a dive today. But who was going to stop him next time? And there would be a next time.
There was always a next time.
“Pretty slick,” Alex said. “So what did you say to the guy to get in close enough to grab him?”
Dave looked away, hating the admiration he saw in his brother’s eyes. I told him I didn’t give a shit about his problems, that he could leap off that overpass right into a body bag for all I cared.
“The usual. Got his name. Established rapport. Kept him talking. Told him that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. You know. Procedure.” He nearly choked on the word. He wasn’t sure he was in the frame of mind to follow procedure again as long as he lived.
“I heard the lieutenant say once that they should loan you out for the Middle East peace talks,” Alex said. “In twenty-four hours the Arabs and Israelis would be one big, happy family.”
Dave faced his brother. “To tell you the truth, Alex, right about now I’d tell both sides to solve their own problems and leave me the hell out of it.” He turned to get into his patrol car.
“I’ve got to get this guy to Tolosa Medical.”
“Yeah, okay, but when you’re finished, why don’t we go for a couple of beers? I’ll buy.”
“I’ve got to get home.”
“Aunt Louisa will keep Ashley a little longer.”
Dave turned back. “No. Not tonight. She’s been having a little trouble at school, and—”
“Nothing big. Big to a five-year-old, I guess. I’ve got to get home.”
Dave started to get into the patrol car again, and Alex caught his arm. “Then forget you. Think about me. I don’t get a chance to go out very often, you know. Ever since Val and I got married, she’s been keeping me on a pretty tight leash.” Alex leaned closer and spoke confidentially. “She’s got an evening surveillance tonight. If I play my cards right, she’ll never know I stepped out for a drink or two.”
That was as big a load of bullshit as Dave had ever heard. As a private investigator, Val was hardly one of those women who expected their men front and center at the dinner table every evening at six o’clock. Dave heard what Alex was really saying. Something’s eating you. Have a beer or two. Forget about it, just for a little while.
Dave sighed with resignation. “Okay. I’ll come by for a quick one.”
Alex stepped away from the car. “I’ll call John and tell him to come along.”
Their brother, John, had also embraced the family business, which meant it had been a triple victory for their father, Joseph DeMarco. Even years after being killed in the line of duty, he was still a legend in the Tolosa Police Department. Growing up in that kind of shadow, had any of them really had a choice of occupation?
Alex pointed at Dave as he walked away. “The Onion. Six o’clock. Be there.”
Dave nodded and got into his car, refusing to acknowledge the fact that Frank was sitting in his backseat, tears streaming down his face and dripping onto his silk tie. And it wasn’t until Dave was halfway to the hospital that his hands started to shake and the realization of what he’d done smacked him like a brick to the side of the head.
You told that poor bastard to jump.
And now all Dave could think about was, What if he had?
* * *
The Blue Onion was a grubby little beer joint and pool hall, the hangout of choice for most of the cops who worked the south side. Dave had never been able to figure out why. Grime coated the tables, the rancid odor of stale smoke filled the air, and the felt on the pool tables looked as if rats had gnawed on it. It was just the kind of dirty, rowdy, in-your-face establishment that he generally took great pains to avoid. Among Tolosa cops, though, tradition died hard.
He met Alex at six o’clock, just as he said he would, intending to stay for a couple of drinks, watch a little of the Mavs game, then head out. They grabbed a table next to the wall, and John joined them a few minutes later.
“About time you came out for a beer,” John said as he pulled out a chair and sat down. “I was beginning to think you’d forgotten how to have a good time.”
“I’ve been busy.”
“You’ve been a hermit.”
“Will you shut up? I’m here now, aren’t I?”
John glanced at Alex with one of those “yep, something’s up with him” looks. Subtlety had never been one of John’s long suits.
“Heard you had a jumper today,” John said as if he was just making idle conversation. “Talked your way up to him, then grabbed him right off the ledge. That took balls.”
Actually, balls hadn’t been required. A eunuch could have pulled that one off, as long as the eunuch was a fed-up cop who didn’t give a damn if he stepped over the line.
As Dave was transporting Frank to the psych ward at Tolosa Medical Center, he kept picturing him sailing over that wall, his coat ballooning up behind him, his tie quivering in the wind, falling like a hawk taking a nosedive—right up to the moment when he wasn’t falling anymore. Then somebody would have cleaned up the mess and everyone would have patted Dave on the back and told him that of course he’d done everything he could. That you couldn’t win them all. Better luck next time.
“It was no big deal,” Dave said to John. “He had no intention of jumping.”
“Bullshit,” John said. “You can never tell. You think you’re dealing with rational people, but they’re not rational. Not even close. Saw a cop talking a woman down once who swore she wasn’t going to jump. He almost had his hands on her when she shifted gears and took a dive.” He snapped his fingers. “Just like that.”
Thank you, John, for making me feel so much better.
Dave drained his first beer, wondering how many more he’d have to drink before it took the edge off the way he felt right then. All he wanted to do was shove what had happened today to the back of his mind and pretend it had never happened.
“You said Ashley had a problem,” Alex said. “What’s up with that?”
Dave sighed heavily. “It’s nothing. Some boy on the playground smacked her with a swing.”
“So tell her to smack him back,” Alex said.
“She sat down in the corner of the playground and cried.”
“Well, that’s not going to cut it,” John said. “She needs to learn not to take any crap. Once the other kids know she’ll stand up for herself, they won’t bother her anymore.”
“Come on, John. Can you really see Ashley hauling off and belting another kid?”
His brothers looked down at their beers.
Timidity was an unheard of characteristic in the DeMarco family, and it worried Dave that it seemed to dominate Ashley’s personality. Then again, Ashley took after her mother far more than she took after him. She had none of the dark ruggedness of the DeMarco family, her face instead reflecting the tender features of her mother: sandy blond hair, brows fanning out in a gentle arch, ivory skin, delicate mouth. Even though Carla had been dead over four years now, barely a moment passed when he looked at his daughter that he didn’t see his wife’s face.
That night four years ago, Carla’s car had sailed through the guardrail and off an icy bridge, plunging nose-first twenty feet down into the vast darkness of the frigid water below. What Dave had never told his brothers, never told anyone, was exactly what her death had done to him, and how he could live to be a thousand and he still wouldn’t be able to put that night out of his mind.
“Maybe I need to go out on that playground,” Dave said. “Grab the kid by the collar. Have a word with him.”
“Yeah, and then his father’s attorney will have a word with you,” Alex said. “It’s one thing for Ashley to beat up on a kid. It’s another thing for her father to do the job.”
“You’re a cop,” John said. “I can see the headlines now.”
“Let her fight her own battles,” Alex said. “Eventually she’ll learn to kick some ass.”
“Not that you can’t teach her a move or two,” John said, then turned to Alex. “But excuse me. If a boy hurts a girl, it’s not his ass that needs kicking.”
“Great,” Dave said. “Next I’ll be stashing a grenade in her Barbie lunch box, just in case something really big goes down.”
“Barbie?” John said, rolling his eyes. “Jesus, Dave. There’s half your problem right there. Give her a role model with puffy blond hair and thirty-eight double-D boobs. I’ll bet she takes all kinds of crap off Ken."
"I hear they have Barbies now that look like regular women," Alex said.
"Who told you that?"
"Brenda. She said it was the greatest step forward for womankind since the Equal Rights Amendment."
That didn't surprise Dave. Their cousin Brenda was a sharpshooter for the SWAT team who wholeheartedly believed estrogen trumped testosterone any day of the week.
“A doll is not a role model," Dave said.
“So get her a mother.”
So get her a mother. As if it were that easy. “Yeah. I’ll pick one up tomorrow on my way home from the station.”
“At least date once in a while. When’s the last time you even went out? You can’t buy a thing if you don’t go shopping.”
Dave expected those kinds of questions from his sister, Sandy. That his brothers were starting in on him, too, told him his dateless status had reached crisis proportions.
“How long has it been since you got up close and personal with a woman?” Alex asked. “Maybe that would improve your disposition.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my disposition.”
“Why don’t you let Ashley stay with Renee and me one night?” John said. “That way you can invite a woman over. You know. Have a little privacy.”
Privacy. Right. He might as well plaster a sign on his front door in big red letters: DAVE’S FINALLY GETTING SOME—DO NOT DISTURB. As if his family didn’t already stick their noses into every other aspect of his life, they were moving in to take a ringside seat around his bed, too.
“I’ll pass on that,” Dave said. “But you know, the second I decide I want the whole world to know I’m getting laid, you’ll be the first one I call.”
“Hey, just trying to help.”
His family. By the time they got through helping him, he really did need help.
Dave tried to turn his attention back to the game, but all at once he was struck by a monumental case of envy for what his brothers had that he didn’t. Their wives moved in symbiosis with them, filling in their blanks. Renee was a calming influence over John, arresting his hotheaded nature, while Val was the only woman on earth who could kick Alex’s ass and leave him with a smile on his face. Not that they didn’t fight once in a while. Both couples could go at it like the WWF on a Saturday night. But their love for each other was never in question, and Dave wondered every day how he’d ended up the odd man out.
So get her a mother.
Everything came right back around to that, because, you know, after four years, he really ought to be getting on with things. After all, he’d taken Carla’s death so well. That was Dave. He always made the best of things. Stuff rolled right off him, and then he moved on.
There had been a time in his life when he’d felt sure of everything, but with every year that had passed since Carla’s death he’d become more and more certain that he had no control over anything. Where Ashley was concerned, all he wanted to do was love and protect her, but sometimes he felt as if he was doing a really shitty job of being Mom and Dad all rolled into one. Hell, if he didn’t have a clue what to do about her kindergarten playground problems, what was he going to do when things really got tough?
He knew what it was like to grow up without a mother. His had died when he was only six. So for Ashley’s sake, he knew he needed to be thinking seriously about getting married again. And if he did, he would just keep on wearing that mask that said he had it all under control, that life was just wonderful, that he’d weathered the storm of his wife’s death and gone on to find love and happiness a second time.
But he would always know the truth.
The Mavs tied it up by halftime. During a news break, Dave pulled a ten from his wallet. It was time for him to hit the road.
“Hey, Dave!” John said. “Is that who I think it is?”
Dave turned his gaze back to the television. A cable news anchor was saying something about a plane crash. Something about the pilot being killed.
Then a photo flashed on the screen.
Dave froze, feeling as if the blood had thickened in his veins, slowing to a crawl, making him unable to move a muscle. Stabbed by recognition, long-buried emotion burst to the surface, and only by swallowing hard and grasping the edge of the table with tense fingers was he able to keep his face impassive.
“That’s her, isn’t it?” John asked. “Lisa Merrick?”
“Yeah,” Dave said on a hushed breath. “It’s her.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw John and Alex gauging his reaction, but he couldn’t tear his gaze away. After all this time, he was astonished to see Lisa’s face and even more astonished that she looked nearly the same as she had in high school—strong features, sleek, dark hair, and searing green eyes that radiated raw passion. In the dark of night sometimes he still thought about her, and when he did, this was the face he saw.
Beside Lisa’s photo was one of a forty-something man, Dr. Adam Decker, who was with her at the time the plane went down. Then the report quoted Dr. Robert Douglas, who was the administrator of an organization that flew doctors into a remote area of Mexico to provide health care at a free clinic. He told reporters Lisa took off near the town of Santa Rios yesterday evening on a volunteer mission, then crashed into a river. They didn’t know the cause of the accident. There was speculation that the bodies might never be recovered.
“So Lisa Merrick became a pilot for a humanitarian organization?” John said. “Holy shit. Can you believe that?”
Yes. He could. John thought it was unbelievable only because he hadn’t known her like Dave had. Nobody had. It didn’t matter that she was a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, who apparently had nothing but a dead-end life ahead of her. All that mattered was that she’d wanted out of her situation. She’d wanted desperately to be a pilot, and it looked as if she’d accomplished that. She’d yanked herself up out of that quagmire loosely referred to as a family, gone after what she wanted, and gotten it. He felt a rush of admiration for what she’d accomplished. She’d lived her dream.
And now she was dead.
“Hey, Dave,” Alex said. “Are you all right?”
Dave continued to stare at the screen. His relationship to Lisa had been a mystery to his brothers in high school. The physical attraction part they’d understood. After all, Lisa Merrick had been a well-endowed girl who dressed provocatively, who’d been the subject of more locker-room talk than any other girl in Tolosa South history. But trying to explain to John and Alex that he saw something in Lisa beyond her bad-girl reputation had been a losing proposition.
“I guess it’s kind of a shock,” Alex said. “I mean, I know how you felt about her—”
Dave whipped around. “You don’t have a clue how I felt about her.”
Alex and John looked at each other, and then Alex turned back to Dave. “Okay. So how did you feel about her? What really happened between you and Lisa Merrick?”
Dave gave his brother an icy stare. “Nothing happened.”
“Yeah, that’s what you said back then. But this is now.”
“Are you asking me if I slept with her?”
“You wouldn’t have been the first guy to,” John said. “Or the second.”
“Or the tenth,” Alex added.
“I was engaged to Carla! Do you really think I’d do that?”
“I can’t imagine that you would,” Alex said. “But I know what Lisa Merrick was like. Once she had a guy in her sights, it was all but over.”
Dave leaned in and skewered his brother with an angry glare. “Look, Alex. I know what you thought of her. What everybody thought of her. But there was more to Lisa than you or anybody else ever knew. I don’t expect you to understand that. But I do expect you to respect the fact that she’s dead and shut the hell up about her.” He shoved his chair back and stood up. “I’ve got to go.”
“Aw, come on, Dave,” John said. “We didn’t mean to piss you off. Will you just sit down?”
Dave tossed money on the table. “You guys have another beer on me. It appears you’ve got a lot more speculating to do.”
Over his brothers’ protests, he turned and walked out of the bar. By the time he reached his car, he felt a little shaky. He got into the driver’s seat, closed the door, then stopped and leaned his head against the headrest, closing his eyes. Seeing Lisa’s face on that television screen had awakened something hot and intense inside him, a reminder of the passion that had once oozed from her like hot lava.
She’s dead. Lisa is dead.
The next hour passed in a daze. Dave picked up Ashley and brought her home, thinking he ought to have another word with her about standing up for herself with the swing smacker, but he couldn’t think of a single useful thing to say. He gave her a bath, then tucked her and her stuffed rabbit into bed.
Pulling up a pillow, Dave sat down on the bed beside her, leaning against the headboard. She slid a bedtime book off her nightstand. Fortunately, she knew Stellaluna by heart and ended up reading it to him, so he could pretend to be listening when he couldn’t have focused on the story if his life depended on it.
Ashley’s voice was little more than white noise to him as the minutes passed. All he could think about was Lisa’s plane going into that river in the Mexican wilderness and the tragic loss of a life that had clearly held more potential than even he’d been able to imagine. And he couldn’t help wondering if she’d forgotten him the moment they’d parted, or if or carried his memory around inside her for the past eleven years, just as he’d carried hers.
Dave heard his phone ring. He turned to Ashley. “Back in a minute, honey. Your bunny can hold the place, okay?”
Dave grabbed one of her rabbit’s floppy ears, laid it across the page, and closed the book. Ashley smiled up at him. He patted her on the arm, then rose from her bed, went down the hall to the kitchen where he’d left his phone, and caught it on the fifth ring.
He heard a woman’s voice. Soft. Grainy. Almost a whisper. “Dave?”
He pressed the phone tighter to his ear. “Yes?”
“This is Lisa Merrick.”