An excerpt from Protector


Detective Jane Perry woke up with a start. For a second, she had no idea where she was. Her breathing was fast and labored, as though she’d just run a marathon. Jane closed her eyes and let out a loud grunt. Catching her breath, she stared at the ceiling in a slight daze. “Fuck,” was all she could utter in a raspy whisper.

She’d had the same bloody nightmare again. But it was different this time. There was something else; something incongruous to the usual pattern of violence. But that something else was ominously intangible to Jane. It was as though she could damn near taste it and smell the scent of danger but her rational mind couldn’t define it. Whatever this was, it felt patently real, as if it had already happened. She’d always accepted her sixth sense — gut intuitiveness that some cops coined “The Blue Sense.” But that only came into play after exhaustive logical reasoning. Now it appeared that her intuitive mind was morphing into a chaotic, precognitive monster that hid between the shadows of her conscious mind. Jane tried to chalk this tender sense of doom to her five-day booze binge. But she’d hit the bottle hard many times and never felt the queasy uneasiness that was beginning to take on a life of its own. The thought crossed her mind that she was finally losing it. After 35 years of barely holding it together, she feared she might be unraveling. That fear alone jolted her back to her senses as she lay alone in her bed staring into the void.

Jane coughed deeply — the kind of gut cough that comes from over 20 years of chain smoking. She reached over to the bedside table feeling for a pack of cigarettes. The table, just like the rest of the house, was a mess — the tactile consequence of her binge. A dozen empty cigarette packs, three drained bottles of Jack Daniels and a thick coating of ashes from the overturned ashtray littered the small table. Coming up empty handed, she leaned over to the other side of the bed where another table sat askew from the wall. Opening the drawer, Jane found a full pack of Marlboros and a lighter. Her gut-wrenching cough continued as she peeled off the wrapping, jerked a cigarette out of the pack and lit up. She sucked the nicotine into her lungs like a seasoned pro. As the smoke peeled out of her mouth, she examined her bandaged left hand.

The emergency room doctor said the burn could have been worse and told her to apply the silver ointment twice a day to speed the healing. That was 10 days ago and she’d plastered her hand with four coatings of the stuff before she gave up on it. Jane would be hard pressed to find the ointment underneath the debris that cluttered her bedroom. Dirty clothes intertwined with empty take-out cartons. A neat stack of beer stained yellow legal pads covered with writing sat on a pile of The Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News newspapers. In the ten days since “the incident,” as it became known at Denver Headquarters, she and her partner, Detective Chris Crawley, made the front page of both papers seven times. One photo of her in the Rocky was the same mug on her I.D. badge. There she was with that sullen, pissed off expression. In contrast, Chris’ adjacent front-page photo with his sweep of blond hair and narrow, ruddy cheeks, made him look like an altar boy. Subsequent stories on the pair featured a large photo from the disastrous press conference that left more questions unanswered about the explosion. It also left the public wondering if Denver Homicide was as inept as the media portrayed them.

To say the incident haunted Jane Perry was putting it mildly. It was one thing for her to replay the whole thing in her mind second by second and ask herself what she could have done differently. But it was quite another to relive the disjointed images over and over again every night in her dreams. Sitting in the patrol car with Chris. Checking her watch. Chris calling the undercover cops on his cell phone and getting Stover’s ETA. Seeing the Range Rover coming down the street. Observing Bill Stover, his wife Yvonne and their 10-year-old daughter Amy wave toward Jane as they pulled into their driveway. Feeling that instant between the silence and the chaos. Seeing the hood of the SUV explode in a burst of flames amidst the yellow smoke of the C-4 explosive. And then racing toward the burning car and finding Bill and Yvonne slumped across the dashboard and Amy with her hands pressed against the glass, screaming. Trying to open the back door and finding it locked. Then punching her fist against the glass to try and break it as the flames shot around the SUV from the hood. Feeling the icy burn across her left hand as Chris held her back from the car and smelling the melting paint and metal and flesh. Then staring at Amy’s fixated eyes as the life drained out of them. It was that last moment that always shot Jane out of the nightmare and back into her life of hell. And it was just another reason to get loaded.

Jane took a long drag on her cigarette and coughed hard enough to pop a lung. She reached for the empty Jack Daniels bottle in hopes of finding a trickle of liquid relief. No luck. She tossed the bottle across the room and looked at the clock. 8:15. “Shit!” Jane exclaimed as she threw back the covers and struggled to her feet. Clenching the cigarette between her lips, she pressed the palm of her good hand to her forehead in hopes of pushing back the pounding pressure. A helluva way to start her first day back. She had 45 minutes to get dressed, collect her paperwork, fight the morning traffic to DH and be seated in Sergeant Weyler’s office.

As Jane made her way across the bedroom to the bathroom, she tripped over the answering machine with its flashing message light flickering like a warning beacon. Kicking it aside, she peeled off her sweat soaked undershirt and panties and started the water in the shower. She plopped down on the toilet seat and caught her reflection in the bathroom mirror. The term “rode hard and put away wet,” crossed her mind. There she was, cigarette dangling precipitously from her mouth, her brown, shoulder length hair falling across her sallow face and those bloodshot, brown eyes staring back with dark circles and bags underneath them. “What would Weyler think?” she wondered.

A million thoughts raced through her head as she showered and toweled off. She may have taken medical leave for five days but that didn’t mean she hadn’t organized a few scenarios that could have led to the car bombing. Sure, some of them were pretty wild and the result of a fifth of Jack but Jane still thought they were worth pitching to Weyler. That was the crazy thing about Jane — she could have the biggest load on and still pitch a rational series of probabilities for a crime that would prompt further investigation. Her fellow homicide detectives might call her a “rebel,” “an outsider” or a “bitch,” but no one could deny her intelligence, diligence and that palpable intuition that played a role in solving many of Denver’s most baffling homicides.

Jane settled on a pair of brown slacks and a plain light blue oxford cloth shirt. She found one rough out western boot and uncovered its mate after overturning several discarded pizza cartons. 8:35. She was cutting it close as she walked down the dimly lit hallway and into the kitchen. After adjusting her shoulder holster and securing her Glock pistol, Jane lit a new cigarette on the dying ember of the last one before tossing the butt into the sink, amidst more discarded bottles of Jack Daniels, Corona and dirty dishes. Checking around the corner into the living room, she found the TV on with the sound muted. The bedding was still tucked into the couch where her brother, Mike, had slept the night before. No sign of him. Jane turned to the kitchen counter and found a note stuffed into the mouth of an empty Corona bottle. It read: “Tried to wake you up but you wouldn’t budge.” Jane’s eyes lingered on Mike’s version of the word “budge,” wondering when he was going to learn to spell. “Gotta work the early shift today. See you at his house tonight. 6 o’clock, right? Good luck at work! Mike.” At the bottom of the page, there was one more sentence, written in caps. “DON’T FORGIT THE BEER!”

Jane opened the refrigerator. A quick check resulted in the discovery of five-day-old milk, expired bacon and an assortment of decaying fruit — a get-well gift Mike delivered a couple days after the incident. Slamming the refrigerator door shut, Jane spun around and poured what was left in the coffee maker into a mug. She knocked back the cold, black liquid. The caffeine cut through her foggy head as an unexpected scene flashed in front of her. There was a little girl and the brief swath of navy blue. There was a gun — a Glock outstretched and the blitz of reflected light that blinded.

And there was unmitigated terror — the kind that chokes and paralyzes.

The images lasted only a second but burned like lye into Jane’s head. She felt as if she’d already experienced what she saw but there was no link to reality. There was a sense of merging…yes, fusion into another reality…or someone else’s reality. Jane leaned across the sink as a disturbing disconnection took hold. If this was what it felt like to go insane, she wasn’t up for it today. Gathering every last bit of mental reserve, Jane forced herself back into her body. “Not today,” she whispered, more as an order. Once settled, she collected several legal pads and scraps of paper. Stuffing them into her worn leather satchel, she grabbed her keys, opened her front door and faced the world.

Half a dozen plastic wrapped newspapers sat in a heap outside her doorway. She had given up on them after reading too many stories about the car bombing. The pathway that led from the front door of her drab, dirty brick house and to her car was about 30 feet — a distance that should ensure an uneventful journey. However, Hazel Owens, her 65-year-old next-door neighbor on Milwaukee Street was perched on her front porch, dressed in a chenille robe and sipping juice.

“Mornin’, Detective!” Hazel exclaimed in her over-the-top chirpy voice. “Happy first day back!” Jane stole a quick glance in Hazel’s direction, her dangling cigarette dropping ashes on her shirtsleeve. Hazel held up the front section of The Denver Post and pointed her arthritic finger toward the story featured above the fold. “You find the awful people who did this to that poor little child!”

Jane had no idea what the old woman was talking about. Sometimes she would respond to Hazel’s regular morning send-offs with a simple “Uh-huh” or “Yeah.” But the only acknowledgment the old broad would get this morning was a slight raise of the head and a quick turn as Jane tossed her satchel into her ‘66 ice blue Mustang. If she drove like a demon, she might be able to make the two-mile trip to Headquarters in Denver rush hour traffic in less than 10 minutes.

Jane peeled away from the curb as if the flag had been dropped at the Indy 500. Barreling down Milwaukee Street, past the neat rows of two story brick houses, she shoved Bob Seger’s Against the Wind CD into the player and turned up the volume on “Betty Lou’s Gettin’ Out Tonight.” She sped up to 13th Street and turned left onto the one-way, four lane thoroughfare. From there, it was a straight shot to the corner of 13th and Cherokee where the six story, barrack-like structure, better known as Denver Headquarters, stood. After weaving in and out of traffic like a skilled race car driver, she squealed into the underground parking garage. Seger sung the chorus of “Fire Lake” as she swung into a spot near the elevator. She downed another swig of cold coffee, grabbed her satchel, slammed the door shut and raced toward the elevator. 8:58. Jane slapped the button and shoved the heel of her boot into the closed elevator doors. “Come on, goddamnit!” she shouted. The elevator doors opened, as if in response to her barking order. Jane lunged in, punching the third floor button with her fist.

The elevator stopped on the main floor and a young Mexican woman in her late 20’s got on, hand in hand with a terrified looking child who Jane figured was around eight years old. A front desk officer accompanied them. Without looking at the buttons, the woman quietly said “Third floor,” in broken English. Jane gave the button another hard whack. The doors closed and the officer stole a glance at Jane and her cigarette, tapping his finger on the “No smoking” emblem. Jane threw the cigarette on the elevator floor, crushing it with the toe of her boot.

The officer looked straight ahead. “You can’t leave that butt in here.”

Jane would have ripped him a new one if the woman and kid hadn’t been there. Instead, she picked up the crushed cigarette and threw it in her satchel.

The little girl turned her body to face her mother, burying her face in her mother’s stomach. “Tengo miedo,” the little girl muttered.

“Is okay,” the mother said, patting her daughter’s head and leaning down to kiss her. “Momma gonna make it okay.”

Jane suddenly felt that same disjointed sense of reality hit again. She tried to quash the mounting tension that bled across her shoulder blades but it was no use. “Tengo miedo,” meant “I’m frightened.” Those were two words Jane heard on a daily basis from children when she did her four-year stint in assault during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. She hated every second of it but she made it through by maintaining emotional distance with the children and never getting close to the victims. She figured if she busted her ass and nailed some of the Denver’s worst violators of women and children, she’d have a better chance of getting into homicide — the top of the heap, as far as she was concerned. Tengo miedo. So why was the little girl frightened? Jane noticed that the slim woman was a bundle of nerves. Her facial muscles twitched and she continually licked her lips as she fixed her eyes on the elevator door. A lifelong student of human behavior, Jane concluded that if this woman wasn’t a criminal, she was certainly planning to become one.

The elevator doors opened onto the third floor. The woman and child got off with the officer as he motioned to the left, “Assault’s this way, ma’am,” he said. Jane stopped for a second and watched how the kid clung to her mother. If Jane weren’t already late to Weyler’s office, she would have followed them down to assault to get the skinny on the story. But instead, she took a sharp right and another left into the homicide department.

on October 10 • by

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