The author says, "I wrote Freak after being stunned by responses from a couple of male readers, and took a departure from using a Law & Order character viewpoint. Velasquez, the female police officer Logan's run into a couple of times, tries to juggle the double-edged sword of being a woman and being a cop. Is Logan a hindrance or a help?"
By Marguerite Reed
It had been snowing for an hour. One of those dreamy, lazy snowfalls possibly remembered from childhood, when the whole world is so quiet one can believe in the sound of snow. Flakes like feathers drifted down, lighting on Velasquez' gloved hands, her thighs; and melting as her body heat permeated the material. Flakes spangled her horse's mane. Central Park looked like something out of a dream. A good dream. Something that would soothe away stinging memory.
"Good thing it wasn't doing this last night," Hansen said. He had taken off his glasses and was wiping them for perhaps the fiftieth time.
"Would have looked pretty -- the snow coming down and then ahh-ahhh! -- all those tree lights come blazing on."
"And afterwards car accidents would have gone up by what percent?"
Velasquez smiled. "Point taken." They walked the horses up to the crest of a small rise. Ceaselessly she scanned the surroundings, taking in bits of data even while she bantered with her partner. "This is better, I admit. Just two horse cops on a quiet early Sunday morning, and the snow falling for us alone."
And were Logan and his date enjoying the snowfall this morning? Hadn't they looked happy at the tree-lighting ceremony last night? From her seat atop sixteen-hand-high Brownie, Velasquez had glanced to her right and there they'd been, not five yards away, like a curse. Logan's arm curled around the woman's shoulders as she tucked her chin in a fatuous giggle. The white fur collar of her coat caressed her cheek, her brown eyes sparkling. And him. His heavily masculine face lit up by that triangular grin, hair disheveled -- by her hand, Velasquez thought -- big body in that ridiculous leather coat looming over her petite shape.
Velasquez had not realized she was staring until the woman did a double-take her way and then said something to Logan. Even from that distance Velasquez could read lips. At least a little. Dyke, the woman had said. No compression of the lips that could have meant bike or Mike. She might have said like, but the way her upper lip wrinkled erased that possibility. As in "that dyke's staring at us."
Of course Logan looked. Their gaze met over the woman's head -- more than met, soldered. How many missed phone calls, rotating schedules, and fits of pride had wedged them apart? The entire month of November was a crevasse.
Her body did not know that. Logan looked at her, and she looked at Logan; and she was thankful for the helmet and the Kevlar vest and the boots. Otherwise she would have dissolved.
Look away, dummy, she told herself. Look away now, smooth, slow; it never happened; you're looking at the crowd, at the kids running amok. See Mr. Slick up there behind the tourist? Be a presence, do your job. She eased the horse casually forward; and the skinny teenager who'd been loitering behind the fat guy in a bomber jacket faded into the crowd.
She never looked back to see if Logan and his date were still there.
"Wake up," Hansen said.
"I'm awake, damnit."
Hansen laughed. "You're in dreamland. Hot date last night?"
"With Mr. Sealy Posturepedic."
They rode on. For a moment Velasquez thought she heard chimes, a sound like winter given voice. In the snow-muffled air she could not make out what direction they came from. For all she knew they might have rung from the clouds above her.
She tilted her face upwards and let the snow caress her face. Quick little kisses, too fleeting to freeze or burn. More than she had had from Logan.
She and Hansen were approaching the Harlem Meer. This morning it lay like a pewter platter beneath the sky, the edges ice-scalloped. The cold had killed the algae, and the snow redeemed the littered banks. A glace of frost silvered the weeds choking the silty shallows.
"Yes." If Hansen called her by her first name, something difficult followed.
"Are you all right?"
She knew this dance. "Are you asking because I seem a little preoccupied, because you think I've been working too hard?"
"Well -- yeah."
These were the steps. I don't walk to talk about it, she would say. But I'm you're partner, and it affects me, he'd say. She'd relent with a sigh of feminine relief, glad to unburden herself. There's a guy, she'd say, and Hansen would nod, full of sympathy; for who alive hadn't grabbed the short end of the stick at least once when it came to matters of the heart?
Matter of the heart. Made her think of bloodless aortas, tallow, beef. It was all very well to play cowboy at a rodeo, to win a ribbon here and a trophy there for calf roping and barrel racing. The dark side of the coin was the feedlot, the shackles on the slaughterhouse assembly line, the stun bolt.
I'm in lust with the most physically attractive man I've ever seen in my life, and he's totally out of my star. Some of the cliches were true. It might be a relief to talk. She opened her mouth.
The shriek tore the morning apart.
Hoarse, low-register, a man's scream. Velasquez' gelding lifted his head, ears pricked.
"To the left," Hansen said. The excited horses moved into a canter with little urging. They burst off the East Drive and landed with a skid, passing one intrepid jogger who urged them on with a wave and a "back there!"
"Stick around!" Velasquez hollered over her shoulder. Hansen rode toward the direction of the Fort. A nasty tangle of scrub trees and debris spread out from the desolate Meer, just the place for some shitbag to lair. One of the footpaths remained moderately clear, room enough to ride abreast, with the southern bluffs of the Meer to their left and more snarl of barren trees to their right. They pulled the horses back to a trot and rode into the gloom.
Hansel and Gretel meet the Texas rangers, Velasquez thought. She ducked to avoid a weedy branch. "Hold up," she said. She reined her horse in and Hansen followed her example. "Let's listen."
Her breath. The pulse in her ears. The staccato quack of ducks overhead. Then she heard it: a bubbling moan, a word. "Please --"
They turned a corner and saw the man sprawled on the ground. Velasquez heard crackling in the brush as if someone was trying to leave the path. Hansen swung off his mount. "Go on," he called to her.
Goddamn, she thought, in there? She saw the bloodied gleam of the knife in the dirt and felt moderately better. She glanced at Hansen as she dismounted, but he was already beside the vic, whose clothes were dark and moist. Hansen had more medical training; she was supposed to be the cowboy of the two. So she filled her lungs, yelled "Police! Stop" at the indifferent growth, and plunged in.
Twigs and thorns snatched at her, clawed her trousers and jacket. Bit her face. Was that the perp she heard ahead of her, or only her own blundering progress? She saw a dark shape ahead, floundering in a tree's snare. The shape resolved into a man in a navy jacket, wool Jets cap, jeans. Black stains on his sleeves. Taller than she was, with maybe forty pounds on her. "Police," she called again. I'm gonna turn an ankle in here, damn if I don't. She took a few steps toward him, hand on her gun, trying to breathe evenly, the hairs in her nostrils crisping. "Come on, sir, stand still and let me get you out of these trees."
He struggled even more, thrashing. Flailing at the tree itself, his legs moving in aborted jerks. His foot, she realized, was caught. Wedged tight in a cluster of above ground roots. Like a dog in barbwire, he's gonna bite. She tried to control the shake in her voice. "Sir, it's cold out here. Just hold on, I'll get you out. Get you cleaned up. Get you some hot coffee, how does that sound?"
He threw a look over his shoulder, the eyes tiny and dark in the caramel-hued face. His breath came in gusting plumes. "Me cago in ti puta, bitch, you got nothin' on me."
"Hey, we don't have to talk nasty, senor. We got a misunderstanding here we have to clear up." She approached him slowly, her left hand out, palm turned up, right hand still on her .38. "Don't fight me now, senor. We don't need a fight. You don't look like a man who fights with a lady."
He spat. "Lady, huh! With a marimacha I give her all the fight she want." His right hand moved up to the breast of his coat.
"Get those hands -- don't do it, sir! Drop it!"
Brown hand reaching into the blue jacket. Blue, and the darker blue of the shadow within. The gray of steel. The black at the end of the muzzle, an eye, a void; the world like watercolors ran together and smeared beneath the sluice of fear that spilled all though her. Oh mama he's gonna kill me --
Velasquez pulled her gun and shot him.
Her slug took him in the chest and his body jerked with the impact. He could not fall to the ground, as closely grown as the underbrush was, but lay suspended on the blood-splattered bush behind him, arms flung out as if in surrender.
"Hansen. Goddamnit, Hansen, are you there? Is the vic alive? Good. Yes, that shot was me. I'm okay. I've already called it in; watch out for them. You're damn skippy I'm staying here."
Velasquez pulled off one glove and wiped her eyes. Fuck if anyone would see her cry. Nerves, nothing more. She took off her helmet and squatted down to her heels. She braced her elbow on her knee and rested her forehead in her bare palm. She heard a few twigs snap beneath the body's weight. She heard the blood drip onto the dry ground. No, look at him. Don't hide. So she let her hands dangle between her knees, feeling a cramp begin to murmur in her left instep, her gaze never leaving the cooling corpse.
She stayed that way until they came for her.
The M.E. redundantly declared the body dead. The techs barely glanced at her and then began crawling over the scene with many a stumble and a curse. Flashes broke the air. She watched them unwind the yellow tape. Ssorc ton od, she read.
"How's the vic?" she asked, keeping her voice low.
Hansen's eyes behind the wire-rimmed lenses searched her face. "A lot of cuts on his arms, stabbed twice in the belly. Looked worse than it was. St. Luke's'll take care of him. Just a jogger without a buddy who got stuck for his wallet." He touched her shoulder. "Are you all right?"
Her grin was bitter, but it was a grin. "Are you asking because I seem a little preoccupied, because you think I've been working too hard? Or because I blew some poor bastard out of his shoes?"
He gave her shoulder a little shake. "Cowboy."
"I sure cowboyed this one."
She felt like a pure ass watching someone else check the body for ID, seeing the notebooks come out. That should be her talking to the techs and rounding up witnesses. Seeing one of the techs pull a wallet from the dead man's jeans, she raised her voice. "Who was he?"
The tech was a good-looking man about her height, with inky hair peeping beneath his hat, maple-sugar skin. Muscles like walnuts clenches in the hinge of his jaw. Velasquez was afraid to import any adjectives to the expression on his face, and was relieved when he answered her. "This is the vic's wallet. Fifty bucks in cash. Name's Kerwin Buchanan."
"Kerwin Buchanan," she said. Good morning, Mrs. Buchanan, I shot the guy who stabbed your husband. Hey, all you little Buchanans, I popped the guy who put your dad in the hospital. You should see the exit wound, kiddies; looks like somebody put a cherry bomb in a side of beef.
Abruptly she leaned over, hands braced on her knees, throat working. She heard new voices, but she was so focused on not vomiting -- slow deep breaths, thinking of the most pleasant smells she could muster -- jam in hot tea, pinon smoke -- that they registered only dimly.
"Don't you dare puke," she heard Hansen whisper.
"Fuck you," she whispered back. "I'm thinking about a career in botany." She swallowed hard twice and straightened up. Only to see two precinct detectives picking their way towards her. Sargent Max Greevey, looking uncharacteristically avuncular. And Mike Logan, his face haggard even in the diffuse morning light, his eyes hematite.
She bit down on the inside of her cheek until she tasted blood. "Why, detectives," she said, "if I'da known you were comin', I woulda baked a cake." But all I got is that ground round over there.
"You want to sit down, Velasquez?" Greevey asked.
"I'm all right." She exchanged a wry little smile with Hansen. "Just a little taken aback."
Logan brought out his notebook, his gaze never leaving her. "You want to tell us what happened?"
"We were riding south on East Drive. We heard a --"
Logan swore and shook his pen, scribbled on the paper. "Max, you got a pen?"
Before Greevey could unfasten the top button of his coat, Velasquez found the Broncos ballpoint in her breast pocket and handed it to Logan. Their fingers brushed as he took it and once more she could have sworn the air between them undulated with heat.
Greevey looked from her to Logan. "Why don't you stay here and talk to Hansen, Logan? I bet Officer Velasquez would like to check on her horse. I'll just walk back that way with her."
Logan exhaled gustily. "Fine. See you around, Velasquez." Abruptly he became engrossed in writing.
With Greevey she could relax. Gratitude replaced the flare of irritation she'd felt at being pulled away from Logan. He asked no questions, merely offered a "watch your step" and a "careful" as they picked there way back to the path. More CSU techs swarmed over the stabbing scene. One of them was holding the horses, further down the path then she remembered leaving them.
Greevey jerked his head back at the choked woods they had just forced their way through. "You chased him into that?"
"Yeah. Hansen stopped to help the vic. I heard someone in there. I announced I was the police, and pursued." She told him the rest of it, trying to think of "I" as a third person pronoun.
Greevey spoke quietly. "There's gonna be some rough times ahead, you know that."
She settled her helmet back on her head. "From all sides."
"This year we've already had two shootings by officers in this precinct. Ugly cases, both of them."
"Parisi and Sandoval; I heard."
"But this was a righteous shoot, Velasquez. I don't think you'll run into any departmental problems there." A ripple of concern bisected his broad forehead. "You just keep your head up."
IAD arrived soon after and she and Hansen went through it all again. From time to time she noticed Logan and Greevey on the periphery, talking to CSU, to each other, writing. The spurt of adrenaline had left her; now all she fantasized about was her comforter and her flannel pajamas.
No, I didn't think he was armed when I went after him. Yes, I announced twice I was police. Yes, I told him to drop his weapon. No, I didn't wait for him to fire. Should I have?
"Okay," Pennebaker said. He stood no taller than Velasquez, a sandy little man with the yellow eyes of a tomcat and a moustache stuck on his upper lip like an afterthought. He looked like the sort of man, Velasquez thought, who would resent her for her height alone. He snapped the notebook shut. "You're done. For today. One of the blues will drive you back to your precinct house. You check in with your captain. He's prolly going to send you home. You look like you could use a nice long bubble bath, honey."
"Well, my God, how did you know my routine? I always soak in the tub after I waste somebody -- light some candles and put on Yanni --"
"Think I'll paint my toenails Arterial Spray Scarlet, how does that sound?"
"There a problem?" Logan. Behind her. Lovely.
"Just discussing the latest in relaxation techniques, weren't we, Detective?"
"We're through," Pennebaker said to Logan past her shoulder. "Take Annie Oakley here home and give her some Midol."
"Hey, pal --" Logan stepped forward and cuffed his lapel. "You ever shoot someone before?"
Velasquez had to give the guy credit for his expression of disdain, complete with a slow sweep of his eyes up and down Logan's frame. "I know how to keep it in my holster."
"So do I, sir," Velasquez said. "I know when to draw it, too." Buckling her helmet, she walked past the two men down the path to her horse.
"Officer! You're waiting for a uniform to drive you back!"
She took the reins from the uncomfortable CSU tech, put her foot in the stirrup, and swung into the saddle. "I'm riding back, Detective. A good rider always sees to the wellbeing of her mount before her own. You coming, Hansen?"
"Mee-yow," the other IAD detective said. "Go on, Hansen, she's calling you."
"Let's not do this again some time, whattaya say?" Hansen turned his back on them and strode toward her, head thrust forward, hands coiled into half-fists.
Pennebakker murmured something indistinct. Over him she heard Greevey's voice, Logan's voice.
"--That's enough, we've all had enough for one day--"
"--Lay off, Pennebaker--"
"She's a chick with a gun, whattaya expect? She's a freak."
Hansen mounted his horse. He looked at Velasquez and shrugged. Wordlessly they rode out from underneath the barren woods to the burgeoning sky.
The snow was still falling.
"You're going to take a couple of days off," her captain had said. "Get some rest. Put your answering machine on. The reporters are going to be calling you; don't talk to them. We'll handle it. Come back Thursday."
"Desk jockey?" she'd asked.
Cruz cleared his throat, put his hands in his pockets and jingled what sounded like keys. "For a bit. Not long. Maybe a week or so. There'll be a hearing, and a psych evaluation, and then you'll be 'back in the saddle again.'" He sang the phrase, making a joke of it.
At this hour the locker room was empty. Good, no waiting for all the men to clear out, or brazening it out in front of the eyes go what felt like the whole mounted force. Velasquez took her time.
Gunbelt. Spurs. Boots. The trousers, that had never fit no matter what department she'd been in. Some women she'd met took them in for alteration. God knew they weren't built like men, but the uniform company didn't. Tie. Shirt.
In socks and bra and cheap cotton underpants, she rested her head on the locker door, pressed her flaming face to the chilly metal. When she shut her eyes all she could see was the gun's black pupil. Her hand remembered nothing except the textured rubber grip of her revolver, that one moment of squeezing the trigger, the shock translating from metal to her own flesh.
Footsteps paused outside the door. She grabbed her sweatshirt and pulled over her head before the knob turned. Knuckles rapped on the glass as the hinges squealed. "You in here, Lara?"
"I ain't a ghost." She winced.
Hansen slouched toward his own locker. "Cruz told me to take the rest of the day off too."
"Wanna go to the movies?"
He laughed and sat down on the bench, rubbing the back of his neck. "Carol has a toilet kit at home with my name on it."
"Sounds like fun."
"But I can tell her what to do with it... if you need some company. If you really want to go catch a movie. I mean, you know, going home by yourself --"
"Why should tonight --"
"Because you shot a guy, is why, and there's shit waiting around the corner you don't even know about."
"I did what I had to do. I'm cool with it."
He sprung to his feet. "Oh, you're cool with it? You're cool with it? Well, that's great, that's just fine that you're cool with it. 'Cause I'm not!" He jabbed his chest with a rigid forefinger. "I'm as uncool as hell! Goddamnit, how do you think I felt, seeing you go after that guy yourself? I was fucking stuck there while who the hell knew what was happening --"
"You said go on --"
"That's the fucking problem! I said go on and then I heard the shot --"
Velasquez stepped into her jeans. "Don't blame yourself."
"I should've been there."
"I'm the one with the firing range medals. You're the one with the EMS training. If you'd left me with the vic, we might have two corpses instead of one." She reached out, her jeans still unzipped, and squeezed his shoulder. "I trust you, Chris. You trust me too, right?"
"Every time we split up, it feels wrong. I feel like I should be --"
"How long've we been partners?"
I saved your ass in Thompkins Square, buddy, and you're still worried about me? "In the two years we've been together, I've done everything I could to get that idea out of your head. And I'll keep on doing whatever it takes." She leaned down and tapped her shield. "I put this on, you gotta see me as a cop who's your partner. Not some chick playing dress-up. You keep seeing the tits behind the blue, you'll get us both killed someday."
Velasquez awoke in the night-someone was in her room; in one move she yanked the pistol out from beneath her pillow and pointed it at the doorway.
No one was there. The modest glow from the nightlight plugged in by the closet was enough to show her that.
Her heart galloped in her chest. What had she been dreaming, anyway?
The gun still on one hand, she prowled all through her apartment, to rest her mind. Checked the locks on the door. Checked the closed curtains. When she went to the bathroom, she left the door wide open, instead of pushing it to. Somewhere in her home there should be a cat, a dog, a ferret, even, washing its face or curled up on her bed. Somewhere there should be another body for her to reach out to, something warm that she could touch in her sleep.
She needed a lullaby. She plugged her headphones into the stereo in her bedroom and settled the antediluvian Melodiya LP of folksongs on the turntable. In bed she lay on her back, snuggling into her comforter, letting the supernally rich voices envelop her.
You killed a person today, Lara.
Bang. A third of an ounce of lead, traveling at nine hundred miles an hour, slamming into another human being. She did that. It had been her decision.
What did that make her?
There must have been something else you could do, Lara. Some other choice.
I could've chosen to let him shoot me. Would that be an improvement?
How could she talk about this, ever? She tried to imagine a civilian's response. All she could find was the darkness of disapproval, the accusing gaze. Withdrawal.
Who are you to assume the burden of life or death?
It comes with the job.
Who did you protect today?
The tears slid from the corners of her eyes and pooled between her skin and the headphones. She rolled over on her side, ignoring the crush of the plastic and foam against her skull, and wept.
"May I smoke in here?" When Dr. Olivet nodded, Velasquez pulled a package of cigarettes from her jacket. "I don't smoke," she said. "I thought I might start and see how I like it."
She was a little clumsy with the lighter, but managed to bring the tip of the cigarette to a satisfactory glow. She and the psychiatrist regarded each other through the smoke.
"When did you think of starting?" Dr. Olivet was attractive in a Manhattan sleek way, her lightly-fleshed bones draped beautifully in suit and silk blouse. Couldn't the Department have found someone a little more reassuring? Someone in glasses, perhaps, without art nouveau molding on the faux fireplace. The psychiatrist had she suggested she call her Liz. Velasquez did not offer the use of Lara in return.
"This morning. Kill someone yesterday, start smoking today. Why the hell not?" She coughed on an inhale until tears stood in her eyes. "That is, aside from the obvious."
"That could be considered a significant lifestyle change."
"I do things on whim. Doesn't it say that in my file?"
"How long have you been in law enforcement, Officer?"
"I was a beat officer in Albuquerque for two years. I moved out here in '83 and joined the New York PD. I asked to get into Mounted and got it in '88."
"Do you think you could have remained in law enforcement for nearly ten years if you were the sort of person who acts on a whim?"
Velasquez shifted in her chair. "You're sitting right across from me, Doctor. Don't you think this set up is a little confrontational?"
Dr. Olivet gestured with a graceful hand. "Feel free to sit anywhere you like, Officer."
"It's appropriate. I'm feeling a little confrontational."
Velasquez mustered a fraction of a laugh. "Killing someone is the height of confrontation, isn't it?"
"What's going to happen if you have another confrontation?"
"If someone else pulls a gun on me, if I feel my life or the life of another is threatened, I'll do the same thing. If there's no other way out."
"Do you believe you could have found another way out of this situation?"
Velasquez thought about smoking. She liked it well enough if she didn't inhale, and she could see why so many people tried to lose weight via smoking -- it gave one something to do with hands and mouth -- but if she didn't inhale, wasn't that cheating? Determinedly she pulled the smoke into her lungs. Countless bronchial sacs expanded in pain, and she began to feel light-headed. Interesting. Unpleasant. As sensory distraction she found nothing about it superior to a can of Pringle's. Or, hell, masturbation. "You should be familiar with my situation, Doctor."
"In what way?"
"As a woman. You and I are both females in a male-dominated field."
"Psychiatry is not a male --"
"But science is. Come on. Psychiatry is okay for women because it's such a nurturing thing to do. Come tell mommy about your bad day at school. And it requires a lot of talking. Aren't women supposed to be so good at talking, at communicating? It may be a science, but it's a soft science. If you were a man, Doctor, you'd be wearing a lab coat splitting protons or something."
"And if you were a man, Officer?"
"If I were a man -- if I were a man, I don't think I'd feel as if I'd failed."
"You think you failed?"
"You put a shield on a woman, people -- especially male cops -- think she's not going to be able to handle a situation. She doesn't have the size, she doesn't have the physical authority. So what's she gonna do? She's gonna pull her piece and kill someone. Ten years in a uniform, and I've seen some very nasty things, and I have never, never been -- I am a good cop, Doctor."
Olivet was looking at her with the same intensity Velasquez' cutting horse had had when pointed at a particular calf. "How do you feel toward the man you shot?"
Why be nice? "I'm pissed off at him. I resent the fuck out of what he did. He sticks a knife into someone, he gets chased down, what did he think was going to happen? Dumb proud bastard. The world is full of 'em."
"So; he made you doubt your ability, and you're angry at him."
The psychiatrist seemed content to let the silence grow, as if the absence of dialogue held a positive weight. Concentric rings spreading from omission. She held her breath for a moment and then made a rush for it. "I was scared. I was afraid he was going to kill me. I was trying to talk to him, to talk him down, and then he pulled out the gun." That lidless eye of intent. Intent for her. "There's another job I have out there, not just police work. I have to represent for every woman out there who ever stepped into a boy's club occupation. And I feel like I let a lot of people down. Not just cops, but women."
Olivet's voice was as mild as milk. "That's an awful lot to take on your shoulders."
"If I don't, who will? I can't just say 'Nope, enough, I'm done, couldn't hack it, I sure hope someone else is gonna come along.'"
"But you might be easier on yourself."
Velasquez shook her head and refused to meet Olivet's eyes. "This is just going to further cement those stereotypes, like those women who sleep with higher ranking cops to get --" She stopped. Looked down at her hands, and then crushed out the cigarette. She selected a few words for consideration. "There might be more to this therapist stuff than meets the eye."
Olivet smiled. "You're doing all the work yourself."
"I'm not crazy."
"Not in the slightest. But I want you to try this. Just repeat after me: 'I'm human.'"
Reluctantly: "I'm human."
"And I forgive myself for being human."
Velasquez hid her eyes in one hand and shook her head. The words could not get past her closed mouth.
A twitch is an old wrangler's trick: twist the horse's lip or ear while the farrier nails on the shoe, the vet cleans the gash. Images and concepts in Velasquez' head made her wince when she tried to handle them; and yet like anyone with a sore she could not keep from picking. She knew she needed a twitch. More than one, if she could manage it.
After the ordeal with the psychiatrist Velasquez went to the gym. Not to the civilian one she belonged to, but the department one. She felt too frayed to cope with the sight of pink spandex and eye shadow. No one held court in aerobics class in the cop's gym; the only sounds were the chinking of weights and male grunts and exhortations. And yet she felt the regard of the men, like ants' feet on her skin, crawling over her.
She loved that sensation, and she despised it. Sure, it's not too much to ask of a man, she thought as she pedaled. See me as a cop when I put on the uniform. See me as a woman when I take it off. She imagined Logan's hands, big, yet oddly deft, unfastening the buttons on her shirt. Maybe that's why it never went anywhere with him. Maybe he thinks I've got that shield pinned to my bra.
When the exercise bike's seat began too feel too intimate between her thighs, she attacked the rowing machine as if she could sweat the previous day out of her pores. She switched to her upper body routine, fly, bench press, pull-down. She found herself still thinking about Logan, and did it all again, increasing the weight.
After a bowl of ramen noodles in front of CNN she fell into bed with the belief that she was exhausted. An hour and a half later she found herself bolt upright in bed, her gun pointed at the door. She tightened the twitch. She got out of bed and went dancing.
This time, after returning home shivering in a dress soaked through with sweat, her feet aching, she was able to stay asleep for six hours without nightmares.
The tape on the answering machine had run out. Velasquez rewound it, dripping on the carpet, wrapped in bathrobe and towel and eating cashews out of the jar. Hangups. Reporters, from the Post, the Times, Newsday, the
; she knew Cruz was handling them. Hansen, asking her to call. Her mother's voice cooing the same request. The second day after the shooting was too soon for her to have heard, two thousand miles away, and Velasquez knew she should be the one to tell her. Next, Regine's voice, spiky with ill-suppressed frustration. "Where are you? Before you drop of the face of the planet, remember the contest tonight! You promised me that Absolut T-shirt."
Her finger was on the stop button when the next voice speared her attention.
"Lara... this is Mike. Are you there? ...God, I hate these things. Listen, I just thought I'd see how you're doing. I'm off for a couple of days. Call me, if you feel like it." He gave a number, and hung up.
She rewound it, played it again. Bravo, Logan, you make the banal heart-stopping. The call had come in last night, before the nightmare had woken her. She picked up the receiver and put it down. Coward.
What could she say to him? He never knew what it cost her each time she spoke to him. Their first communication had sprung from the spontaneity of anger and excitement; thereafter she had to chisel her conversation out of blocks of thought. Why couldn't he be ugly? She paced around the apartment, munching until she caught herself and put the jar on top of the cupboard, out of easy reach. On a surge of irritation she went to the phone and dialed.
His machine picked up. The wave of relief she felt disgusted her. "You know Trauma, down on 13th and Broadway? I'm going tonight after ten. Be there -- if you feel like it."
Now you've done it, she berated herself.
Relax. He won't even be there. And if he does, he's going to get a show that'll pop his eyes out.
Velasquez took the seven steps down to Trauma's front door. The stone-eyed bouncer checked her ID -- the first time she had tried to joke about being carded and learned that granite does not smile. Past the door, at the end of the black corridor a rectangle of light promised rebirth into illogical id. Faceless bodies lined the walls, hanging back from the uterine pulse that beckoned. She pushed past them and stepped onto the landing, where stairs led down on either side. If she wanted the bar, she had to cross the dance floor first.
Before the cab had picked her up, Velasquez had fortified herself with a drink from the cabinet below the microwave. Now she leaned stiff-armed on the railing, poised over the seething crowd. The mass of dancers swarmed like a sample in a petri dish; how many, fifty, a hundred elements to one hungry consciousness that subsisted on the beat thudding from the speakers. Lasers wheeled through the haze like Elijah's fiery chariot, searching for a prophet of flesh. A flash of vermillion light revealed Regine, writhing in front of a kid with a flattop.
The music seeped into her osmotically, dreamy vocals soaring in her forebrain, fat bass beneath assuming her pulse, her respiration, until she realized she was dancing in place. Adrenaline champed at her gut. She ran down the stairs and dove into the soup of frenzy. By the end of the song she was dancing with Regine, the two of them giddy with laughter. The fabric of Regine's dress stretched so tightly over her body Velasquez was tempted to bounce a quarter on it.
"Thought you'd never get here!" Regine bawled.
Velasquez leaned forward as the music permitted. "You should enter it yourself, if you're so anxious."
"You do it too!"
Regine shook her moussed head wildly. "No way!" She gestured with both hands in front of her modest breasts. "I don't got the chochonas for it!"
The music decelerated into couples clinch. Regine grabbed Velasquez's hand and pulled her to the other side of the room. At the bar they could speak in tones approaching normal. When their drinks came, Regine immediately ate the cherry and began toying with the stem. "You sign up yet? There's a girl making the rounds, asking who wants to."
Velasquez shook her head. The drink was cold and good; the scent of tequila made her saliva glands cringe, although she could not taste it. Involuntarily she looked up at the door.
"No, she's over there. She'll get here in a minute." Regine nodded toward a racoon-eyed redhead carrying a tray piled with slips of paper. When the waitress offered Regine the opportunity to be in the wet T-shirt competition, Regine shook her head and pointed at Velasquez. "There's your winner."
Velasquez laughed. "Aw, hey -- I'll do it, but don't crown me yet, okay?"
The redhead had a voice pulled right out of the maraschino jar. "Just fill out a few questions here, and we'll announce when it's time." She handed Velasquez a folded white shirt. "When the announcement comes over the speaker, you'll just go to the restroom, change from your top into the tee, and wait for your name to be called. There'll be a space on the bandstand where the guy with the pitcher will be. Just go to him and do your stuff." Her smile wanted to be conspiratorial. "Don't be shy. The guys love it."
"What is she, bucking for student council president?" Velasquez said when the waitress had left. She started to giggle and put a hand over her mouth. "I don't have a top."
Regine looked her up and down, beaming. "How about that? What are you going to do?"
"Hope she gave me a big shirt."
"You wearing panties?"
"Let me check." Velasquez pushed one hip toward Regine's lap and flipped her skirt up saucily. "Damn, I am. Will that disqualify me?"
Regine's hand smacked her ass. "Siddown before you embarrass me. Don't look now, but -- no, don't look, you hoochie -- there's a tall, dark, and luscious over there. He's gonna ask for a spoon, 'cause he thinks you're gelato."
Velasquez gulped her drink. "That's him," she choked out.
"Uh-huh. So, like, if you suddenly disappear during the evening, I'm not supposed to take it wrong."
Velasquez gave her a coyote's grin. "Something like that." She darted a glance over her shoulder, and saw Logan pushing his way to the bar. Light like water ran over the surface of his coat. The cosmos' sense of humor chose to assert itself just then as the DJ segued from the rayon-shiny ballad into Me So Horny. The spill of adrenaline through her body nauseated her vaguely. She could not keep still. She closed her eyes, took two deep breaths, and handed the shirt to Regine. "I'll be right back."
The insistent bass carried her up to him while he watched her, drink in hand, lounging against the bar. His eyes glittered like obsidian, pupils dilated, the lids half-lowered in appreciation.
"This is different," he said, indicating her dress. "How many other Laras are you hiding?"
"Call me Sibyl." She moved in next to him, resting an elbow near his highball glass, her body still tripping on the rhythm.
He ran a knuckle along her sleeve. "Isn't this a little cool for December?"
A spoon, Regine said. How about my bare hands? She reached up and slipped her finger between his collar and throat. "Isn't this a little hot for this place?"
"I wasn't sure how long I'd be staying."
Her smile widened as she felt the muscles convulse in a swallow and she ran her fingernail up beneath his jawline to his ear and gave the lobe a little scratching tug. "Should I take that as an insult or an invitation?"
Logan slid right up against her then; her hand reflexively clasped the back of his neck, fingers sifting the coarse dark hair. She caught the scent of alcohol on his breath -- likely he'd done the same as she had and arrived with a little antifreeze in his veins. "How do you want to take it?"
"Quickly and without permission."
She felt more than heard his brief laugh. "That could be arranged."
"I knew you were a tramp."
"You've said that before," he murmured.
The redheaded waitress' voice blared over the PA system. Velasquez and Logan winced apart, half-laughing, gazes still molten together. "That's what I'm here for tonight," she said.
"A wet T-shirt contest?" Was that incredulity or distaste in his voice?
"You gonna stick around?"
He picked up his drink and took a long pull, his face averted. "I won't tell IAD if you don't."
"I've said that before, too."
"You really want to do this?"
"What I want--" She plucked the glass from his hand and helped herself to a swig. Scotch. She shuddered. "I want to get smashed, show off my tits, and take you to bed."
That grin broke out before she finished. "Great minds think alike."
"And so do ours."
"But...." He tucked an errant curl behind her ear and traced the line of her cheekbone with his thumb. "I know you're going through a lot--"
"No. Work doesn't come up here." To shove away the shroud of gloom that threatened to overwhelm her, she eased her palm up his thigh to his groin and cupped him through his slacks. He bit back a gasp, tried to turn it into a cough. "Anything else does, but not work."
The restroom sounded like a 4H pavilion at feeding time. The number of women joining in the contest surprised Velasquez; Regine caught her looking around and scolded her.
"Give me your dress, I'll take care of it."
"There's so many --"
"Don't worry about that. You're having fun, remember? You don't care if you win. Besides," and Regine grinned, "I think you got the prize you were after anyway."
One by one the DJ called out names, adding vapidities that sounded as if they'd been culled from a Penthouse spread. "Sarita enjoys skiing and weekends in Atlantic City. Guys, wouldn't you like to cuddle up to her slot machine on a cold winter night?"
"Oh, God," Velasquez said. "I didn't drink enough."
"You'll be fine. You're gonna be 'Blonde Bombshell' or something."
"You gonna be out there?"
"Right in front."
"Next up is Lori Vasquez --"
"They got your name wrong!"
"I wrote it that way --" Velasquez drove her nails into her palms, inflated her lungs, and bared her teeth in a smile.
A corridor opened up between her and the bandstand. She could not hear the comments of the bystanders for the piercing natter of the DJ. "Lori's five foot seven of pure blonde dominatrix. She says her favorite toys are handcuffs and plaid ties. Better watch your step with her, guys!"
She had to laugh with the absurdity of it. Ridiculous! A masquerade. This was someone else, who strutted the rest of the way to the stage, the hem of the T-shirt grazing her thighs, the weight of her braless breasts disconcerting in a public place. The DJ had jettisoned the custard-smooth George Michael and Aerosmith tunes that he'd played for the other women in favor of something a little nastier, a little wilder--vocals an earful of tenor shards, drums and guitar and chugging bass cutting like a serrated knife through her head.
She's razor sharp
If she don't get her way
She'll slice you apart....
She's got the looks that kill
She spun onto the stage, acknowledging the audience with a smile, arms thrown wide to display the Absolut vodka shirt. Lights blinded her. Past the first row of people she could see no one, not Regine, not Logan. Her jacked-up nerves receded somewhat. You can do this.
The bouncer appeared at her side with a huge pitcher of water. To her surprise it was the hard-eyed guard from the door, his face unchanged. He gestured toward her with the overflowing pitcher. "You ready?"
For show she beckoned with both hands, fingers waggling saucily. He tipped the pitcher so that the water hit her just below her collarbone, completely dousing her from the neck down, and she nearly swallowed her tongue -- God, so cold! Ice cubes rattled around her feet. The shirt clung to her, a clammy skin molding to her breasts; she ran her hands over them to the accompanying cheers, and shimmied across the stage, nipples like icicles. Eyes lapped her up.
She's a number thirteen
The church strikes midnight
She's lookin' louder and louder
She's gonna turn on the juice, boy
Well then she'll turn on the power
The heat of the attention, the liquor, and her moronic naughtiness billowed in her and she waved the bouncer over for another pitcherful of ice water. The cold no longer mattered. This time, as he poured, she arched her back so that her breasts caught the full brunt of the deluge. She cupped them and caressed them while she danced, lifting them, pulling the fabric tight, throwing her head back and undulating in incitement. Look but don't touch, her body said, all promise, tease, denial. She beckoned to the bouncer for a third dousing, but the song was winding down; and with a jerk of his head he directed her off the stage. She shimmied one last time, blew Monroe kisses toward the caterwauling sea, and tottered out of the spotlight.
-Hey, baby, how 'bout a private dance for me?
-Can I warm you up, honey?
-I just wanna put my face between those and-
They didn't know. Didn't know who Velasquez was, didn't know she was a cop. Had no idea she was a killer. A grin she couldn't quell made her face ache distantly. She felt rat-tails of hair clinging to her jaw and neck.
Regine closed in on her with paper towels. "God, you must be freezing!" She began simultaneously blotting her and leading her toward the restroom.
"I did it!"
"You certainly did. Let's get you out of this wet shirt."
Excitement rolled through her in low, drumming waves. She expected to see steam rising from the cotton plastered against her body. "Just a minute."
Logan had not moved from the bar. As Velasquez padded up to him, he folded his arms. "What the hell was that?"
She crossed her arms in imitation, breasts burgeoning against the sodden material. His eyes cut to them, then back to her face. She managed not to smile. "That was a two-by-four for your benefit."
"You think I need one?"
Ice water trickled down her thighs. She pulled his arms open and crushed her body against his, dampening his clothes where the coat fell open. "I need one."
He took her face in his hands and kissed her as if they were alone. No reconnoitering brush of lips, no courteous hesitation. She opened her mouth to him, luxuriating in the slick satin of his kiss, the taste of cinnamon and scotch and flesh.
"Y'wanna just go at it in a bathroom stall?" she managed to say.
"...Find out who won?"
The cab smelled of garlic and tobacco. Light splintered on the scratched plexiglass partition between the seats. The sloe-eyed driver navigated with a two-handed grip on the wheel while Christmas music chimed quietly from the radio.
Logan sleeked back her hair, tacky with damp mousse, and cradled her cold skull while they kissed. "God, you're like ice -- let me warm you up."
Velasquez grinned against his mouth. "You're doing a good job."
"I can do better than that. Hold on --" He pulled away from her, apologizing, while she hugged herself for warmth. It took a minute for him to extract himself from his coat. She watched him openly, feeling her mouth curve in a lazy bonhomie of possession. So goddamned goodlooking. And hers, all hers, at least for now, from the soles of his size thirteen shoes to the dark crown of his head. Don't screw this one up, kiddo.
He folded the coat around her. She closed her eyes, the lining warm from the heat of his body, permeated with the cologne he wore, and, faintly, with the scent of his sweat. Catlike she rubbed her cheek along the collar.
"Is that better?"
For answer she swung her thigh across Logan's lap and straddled him. The coat draped their bodies; hid his hand when he caught hers and pressed it to the erection straining at his slacks. "See what you do to me?" he murmured.
"Are you through talking?"
"Are you always so --"
She shut his mouth with hers. Unzipped his fly and freed his cock, silky and so rampant she could practically trace the engorged veins with her fingertips. His groan resonated all through her body. He filled his hands with her breasts and she purred back in kind, stroking him slowly, firmly, while they fed off of each other and the cab ground through the frozen streets.
"Are we almost there?" he asked.
She grinned, and gasped as he thumbed both nipples at once. "Are we?"
"You know what I want to do to you?"
He dropped one hand from her breast to her thigh. Gradually he traced the trembling inner muscle upward beneath the hem of her skirt, and eased aside the elastic leg of her underpants -- glad I wore that Brazilian cut pair, she thought giddily. His thumb found her clitoris in a dazzling little shock; two fingers leisurely insinuated themselves into her slick cunt. She turned her head away.
"Let me watch you," he whispered.
She could not. He began caressing her from the inside, and for a moment she thought she was going to wet herself, those fingers beckoning forth blunt, mindless response; she crouched over him, whining beneath her breath, and dropped her head helplessly to his shoulder.
"You know what I'm going to do when we get inside?"
She nodded, still hiding her face.
"Ever since we met... I've thought about this.... God, you're wet."
"I should hope so."
The cab crunched to a halt. "Hokay, you lovies. You want to get a room to make sex, there you go."
They grinned at each other. "Make yourself decent," Velasquez said. She paid the cabbie, who winked at her broadly and knowingly.
"You have a wunnerful night, Miss Lady. You get a diamond from him, huh?"
Pearls, anyway. "I'll do my best."
Her boldness had fled with his tender invasion of her body. Her face burned; she kept her chin down and his coat pulled close as they walked up the concrete steps.
"Just a minute," Logan said, as she grasped the doorhandle. The wind had picked up; it whipped his hair into unruly curls. Color stood in his face as if he'd been slapped. "Are you all right? You wouldn't let me talk about it before."
"Why do you think you're coming in?"
"Okay, then. Okay." As if some inner barrier had disintegrated; but he did not touch her until the door to her apartment closed and she had sloughed off his coat. He wrapped his arms around her from behind -- had she not been drunk she would have flinched -- and bit the nape of her neck, the indentations of his teeth bracketing his laving tongue. She reached back and caught his hips, arching her back. She pulled him to her, rubbing herself against him until she felt his cock swell and nestle in the cleft of her buttocks. He wrenched the front of her dress, his breath a furnace in her ear. Pop, off flew a button.
"This is the part where I ask if you'd like a cup of coffee." Pop went the next button.
"Don't want any fucking coffee."
"Tea, then? Cocoa?"
Her dress came off in an abrupt fabric explosion.
"We'll just skip refreshments, then?"
He spun her around, his grin unrepentant and devilish in the dim light. "We'll play Mike and Lara in Wonderland. I'll pretend you've got a big eat me tag--" --he cupped her aching labia -- "--and we'll see how much bigger I get."
They did not make it to the bedroom that first time. They found a condom in his wallet. When they had collected themselves, they used a few more Velasquez hoarded in her bedside table. Greed fed off of greed; they never spoke except for typical lovers' exhortations as they cannibalized each other.
After yet another bout Velasquez fell back on the sweat-dampened sheets. Just a moment, she thought. Close my eyes, catch my breath. Logan panted beside her. She reached out and rested her palm against his chest to feel the tolling of his heart. Between one breath and the next, she fell asleep.
Velasquez awoke in the night -- someone was in her room; in one move she yanked the pistol out from beneath her pillow and pointed it at the doorway. The sight of her pistol lined up exactly at Logan's throat. Hands up in an involuntary defensive posture, he looked like a jacklighted deer.
"Oh, my God." Velasquez said. She let her arms drop. Logan ducked in and took the gun away from her. She shook as if palsied. Bang, she thought.
"Jesus, Lara." His voice was harsh. He put the gun in her dresser and slammed the drawer shut. "How many guys --"
"-- Get out the way, I'm sick." She tumbled out of the bed and scrambled to the bathroom, hand over her mouth. Thank God for small favors, she made it in time. Elbows braced on the toilet seat, hands locked in her hair, she produced nothing but foamy bile. Somewhere between one paroxysm and the next she heard water running. Logan knelt beside her.
"Go away," she said.
He held her hair back for her -- he'd been thoughtful in that regard earlier, she remembered -- and wiped her face with a damp washcloth when that spasm passed.
"I could've shot you," she gasped.
"You sure as hell could've."
She clambered past him on rubbery legs to the sink. Rinsed her mouth out with Scope, spat. She stood there, hands braced on the counter, head hanging. She looked up in the mirror to see him standing behind her, a guarded expression on his face. Even now she eyed him covetously, noting the sculpted shoulders, the crisp black hair beneath the collarbone, ornamenting each nipple, and arrowing below his navel to disappear beneath his boxers.
"Ever since the shooting," she said. "Nightmares."
"I keep waking up thinking there's someone in the apartment. And I'm ready for them. Ready to shoot."
"You tell the shrink about these nightmares?"
Velasquez shook her head.
He ran a finger down her spine and then moved up behind her, big hands working her shoulders in a light massage. Her breasts swayed. "You think maybe you should hang it up?"
"Hang what up? Being a cop?"
"For a while, anyway."
"'For a while?'" She squirmed around in his embrace until she could face him. "How long is 'a while?' What do I do in that 'while?'"
"Goddamnit, don't ask me! Forget it. Forget I said anything."
She pulled him out of the bathroom and switched on the living room light. As the lamp had failed to do, the overhead fixture threw the room into brilliant relief. She towed him to the far wall and knocked on the display cases with a knuckle. The mellow bronze of the medals within glowed. "See these? See all these?" She pointed to the framed newspaper clippings from the Albuquerque Tribune and the Albuquerque Journal. "These aren't for wet T-shirt contests, Mike. These aren't for recipes or clean toilets or blow jobs. I'm a cop."
He yanked his hand out of her grasp. "Okay, you're a cop! You're a cop and a hell of a marksman and you've got a fuckload of issues to work through."
She stared at him. "Well, yeah," she whispered. "I do. I killed someone, Mike. I became a cop to protect other people. From rapists and thieves and killers. And now I've become the killer. I've become the person I hate. How do I work through that?"
He could not answer her. No one could answer her, one question from one person. In a city of seven million people the single voice is lost.
Lost, Velasquez took Logan back to her bed and let him soothe her in the only way he knew. Within her blink of time she strove for her single soul to touch one other creature. Even though she knew the mathematics were faulty: that one in addition to one is still locked out; and can only remain one.
The snow fell.