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Condolence Call

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"Good news, Philadelphia! Unless there's a big, bad, lurking booby trap out there somewhere, we did it. We survived Y2K! What've you got planned for 2000? Call me with your New Year's. . ."

John Quinn reached for the ignition key and turned off the car engine, cutting the DJ off in mid-sentence. New Year's resolutions? All he wanted was to get through the next half hour.

He glanced again at the house across the street as he had been doing since he pulled up ten minutes ago. The drapes were drawn, but the lights were on. Both cars were in the driveway.

Quinn hunched his shoulders against the cold and reached for the thermal mug in the beverage holder. It contained coffee, just the way he liked it, no sugar, no cream, strong enough to stand up and salute.

He took a long swallow from the mug. There was one moment of familiar pleasure . . . and then the liquid hit his stomach with a gurgle and acid surged back up into his esophagus.

He groaned, cursed, and set the mug back in the holder. One of the little by-products of getting shot in the gut . . . the wound healed but your stomach remembered.

He glanced at the house again. All right, get it over with. Get it done. And then maybe he'd be able to sleep. Claire would appreciate that. One more night of tossing and turning, one more nightmare, and he would be taking up permanent residence on the back-breaker designer sofa she had insisted on when they were buying new furniture three years ago.

Claire's patience was wearing thin. She had been there at his bedside when he was in the hospital, had done her best through his convalescence. But in her logical, lawyer's mind, it was irrational of Quinn to expect her to go on providing aid and comfort when he was doing a job that she despised and that had almost gotten him killed.

As she liked to point out during the arguments that alternated with the strained silences, he was a West Point grad with two master's degrees. Eleven years ago, when he'd left the Army, he'd had job offers. He'd had a couple more since then. And now he could add "hero cop" to his resume. Now was the time to quit, according to his wife. Now was the time to find another job -- a job that would allow them to have a life again.

Or was it for the first time? How Claire described the length of her disappointment with their lifestyle depended on whether she was in the mood to trace it back to the moment when she'd foolishly said "I do", or to a more nebulous and gradual "drifting apart" because he found it "far more interesting to spend time in alleyways looking at dead bodies" than with her. She was left to go everywhere -- corporate cocktail parties, gallery openings, out with their friends -- without him, making excuses for why he couldn't be there.

Whenever it was that their marriage had gone wrong, she now knew -- and told him often -- that being a cop's wife left much to be desired.

She was right. Being a cop's wife was not an easy job. Especially for a woman like Claire, who could have any man she wanted.

Quinn sighed. It would be a hell of a lot easier if they didn’t still love each other.

He shifted behind the steering wheel and felt a twinge in his midsection. He sucked in his breath. "You worked out last night." He said the words out loud, trying to focus on them. "You're sore from the damn workout."

No good. Sweat broke out on his forehead. He fumbled for the door handle and staggered out of the car. He held onto the hood of the black Bronco, drawing the icy air into his lungs.

When his heart finally slowed, he raised his head and glanced around, hoping no one was watching. The street of middle-class family homes was dark except for the light from the lamp posts. No one was in sight.

Better than yesterday when Mack Danvers, his partner for the past two days, had seen how his hands were shaking after he'd finished patting down the guy he'd just tried to shove through a wall.

"Never saw you go off like that, man," Danvers had said as he cuffed the guy. "You okay?"

Having a little problem with your temper? Having a little problem with your nerves? Maybe you came back too soon. Maybe you should still be behind a desk instead of out here on the street. Better go talk to the shrink again.

Danvers hadn't said any of that out loud. He hadn't needed to.

Quinn scrubbed the back of his hand across his mouth, still tasting the bitter coffee. All right. Go get it over with.

He imagined someone looking out and watching him cross the street, a tall man, over six feet, dark auburn hair ruffled by the wind, wearing worn blue jeans and hiking boots and a brown leather bomber jacket. A white man going to a black family's house, standing there on the doorstep and ringing the bell.

He shoved his hands into the pockets of his jacket.

It occurred to him a moment before the door was flung open that he should have put on a suit and tie for this.

A young girl, 9 or 10, huge eyes blazing in her heart-shaped mocha brown face, teetered there on the threshold. "Are you a reporter? If you are, we don't have anything else to say. Go away!"

"Sarah! I told you not to open the door without --" The man who had appeared in the hall behind her was built like a linebacker. But he was wearing a suit, white shirt, and tie. Had he been sitting on the sofa with his newspaper? Like Ward Cleaver waiting for June to get dinner on the table? Accounts manager not football player.

He stood there staring over his daughter's head at Quinn. "What the hell do you want?"

The girl said, "Who is he, Daddy?"

His gaze never leaving Quinn's face, Charles Adams said, "One of Philadelphia's finest. Detective John Quinn. The cop who killed your brother."

The girl stared up at Quinn, her eyes wide, her mouth open. Quinn looked away, at her father. "May I come in, please? I'd like to speak with you."

"We have nothing to say to each other. I would have thought that union lawyer of yours would have told you to stay away."

"There's no reason now. You have no case."

"Then why are you here?"

"I want to talk." Quinn shivered, and hoped they hadn't seen. He could feel the girl's stare.

Her father put his hand on her shoulder. "Sarah, go inside with your mother."

She backed away, her gaze still on Quinn. Then she turned and darted off.

Adams watched her disappear around the corner. Then he said. "All right, what do you want?"

"I have something I need to say to you," Quinn said. "May I please come in?"

"Why the devil should I let you in my house? What could you have to say to me that would --"

"Charles, what's going on? Sarah said --"

His wife stepped into the hallway. She was wearing burgundy velvet pants with a baggy Southern Cal sweatshirt. She looked older than she had the first time Quinn saw her. Dark circles made smudges beneath her eyes.

Those eyes widened as she recognized him. She made an audible sound before her hand covered her mouth.

Quinn said, "Mrs. Adams. . .I'm sorry to come here like this. But I need to speak to you and your husband. I won't take up much of your time."

Her hand dropped. "My time? All I have is time, Detective Quinn. What is it that you want?"

Her husband said, "He wants to get the hell out of here."

"No, Charles, I want to hear what he has to say."

"Mel, he --"

"I want to hear."

He turned back to Quinn. "You have five minutes."

"Thank you." Too warm, Quinn tugged at the zipper of his jacket.

When he looked up, the little girl, Sarah, was back in the hallway, hovering between her mother and her father. "Daddy, you aren't going to let him come into our house?"

"Go upstairs to your room, baby."

"But Daddy, he killed Zach. You said --"

"Upstairs! Now!"

She looked from her father to Quinn. And then her face squished up. She turned and ran up the stairs, sobbing.

Her mother looked after her, but stayed where she was. Her gaze came back to Quinn.

He turned to watch her husband close the door, shutting the three of them there in the hallway together. Quinn's fingers sought the little wooden bear in his jacket pocket. He clutched it as he fought down the lurking claustrophobia.

"Into the living room," Charles Adams said.

Quinn walked ahead of him, toward the woman. Melanie. Her name was Melanie, and she had wide hazel eyes like her daughter's. When a TV reporter had shoved a camera into her face as she wept, she had wished she were dead like her son. Dead like the child she had loved for every day of the fourteen years of his life.

What did he think he was going to say to her? That he had shot her son, the math and science honor student, because her Zach had walked into a deli with a gun, had shot a woman and then shot Quinn? She knew what had happened.

What had he thought he would gain by coming here? Absolution? Say "I'm sorry I was the cop who shot your child" and the parents would nod their heads and forgive him, and then he would be able to sleep?

Quinn swallowed hard. He should have taken another antacid tablet before he rang the damn doorbell.

Quinn stopped short in the doorway of the living room. For a moment, he felt dizzy as his eyes adjusted to the colors leaping out at him from the canvases on the white walls. The paintings were of the Caribbean, of festivals and street scenes.

"My father was an artist," Melanie Adams said. "These are some of his paintings of his home, Trinidad."

"They're nice," Quinn said, and knew his comment was inadequate.

"Have a seat," Charles Adams said behind him.

Quinn walked over to one of the armchairs. He waited until Melanie Adams had seated herself on the sofa. Then he sat down.

Her husband sat down beside her.

"I should offer you coffee," she said.

"He'd probably prefer something stronger," her husband said. "That's right, isn't it, Detective Quinn? After a hard day on the job, you cops head for the bars, knock back a few and tell 'war stories'. Like on TV."

"I'm married," Quinn said. "I usually go home."

Melanie Adams said, "Is your wife waiting for you now?"

Quinn shook his head. "She's a corporate attorney. She's working late tonight on a merger deal."

"Wife with a job like that you don't even need to work," Charles Adams said.

"I like to keep busy," Quinn said.

"Yeah," Adams said. "Killing kids."

His words hung there in the air, vibrating between them.

Then Melanie Adams sighed. She stood up. "I'm going to have a drink, Detective Quinn. Would you like one?"

"No, thank you," Quinn said. "I'm fine."

"Glad to hear that," Charles Adams said. "Damn glad to hear that."

His wife said, "Do you want a drink, Charles?"

"No. I'm fine too."

Melanie Adams poured herself half a glass of what looked like bourbon from one of the decanters on the sideboard. She took a sip and then came back and sat down.

She put the glass on the coffee table and looked across at Quinn. "You wanted to speak to us."

Quinn cleared his throat. "I wanted to say. . .I want you to know how much I regret what happened. I wish there had been something else that I could have done. When your son. . .when Zack shot the woman he had grabbed. . ."

"And then shot you," Melanie Adams said. She nodded her head once. "They said that you shot him after he had shot you."

"Yes," Charles Adams said. "We should be grateful that you waited until he gave you a reason to draw down. How many times was it again that you fired?"

Quinn felt the muscle in his cheek twitch. "The weapons that we use. . .They are semi-automatic. I was on the floor, wounded. I fired and. . .there was no way I could avoid firing more than once."

"Or seven times?" Adams said. "Then you could be sure he was good and dead."

His wife reached for the glass on the table. "Don't," she said. "Don't do this. I don't want to listen to this."

Adams watched her as she took a long sip from the glass. "Is that why you came?" he said, addressing Quinn. "To tell us that you're sorry?"

"Yes?" Quinn said. "I don't know what else to say. There is nothing else I can say."

"Maybe you want us to apologize to you," Melanie Adams said. "I am sorry my son shot you, Detective Quinn." She stumbled as she rose. Charles Adams reached out to steady her.

She smiled at him, and then turned back to Quinn. "I want you to see something, Detective Quinn. I want you to see my son's room."

"Mel --"

"I want him to see Zach's room, Charles. I want him to know who my son was. I want him to know that my son was not some child who grew up in the streets with a gun in his hand."

"I know that," Quinn said. "I know that your son. . .that Zach was a good student and that he. . ."

"He was not a killer. My Zach was not--" She choked. She reached for the glass on the table.

Adams took it from her hand. "Mel, you need to get some rest."

"After I show Detective Quinn Zach's room. I want him to see who Zach was."

Adams scowled. "It doesn't matter if he knows--"

"It matters to me," she said. "You have time don't you, Detective Quinn? You don't mind humoring a grieving mother."

"I have time to see anything you want me to see," Quinn said.

The acid in his stomach had become a steady burning sensation. He thought of asking for a glass of water. But the look on Charles Adams's face as he stared helplessly at his wife kept Quinn silent.

"Zach's room is upstairs," Melanie Adams said. She glanced at her husband. "You don't have to come if you'd rather not. I can do this alone." She turned back to Quinn. "Charles doesn't like going into Zach's room. It's too hard for him to see all of his things."

"I'll come with you," Adams said.

"No, stay here. It's all right. I don't want you to come. This is between Detective Quinn and me. The two people. . ." She pressed her hand to her mouth. "Zack's life and his death."

"I'm his father," Adams said.

"Were," she said. "You were his father. Shall we go, Detective Quinn?"

Quinn looked at Charles Adams. The man looked back, his gaze hard and angry.

"It's all right," Melanie Adams said. "This is difficult for Charles. But it's necessary for me."

Quinn followed her out of the living room.

Upstairs, she unlocked the door of her son's room with a key that she drew from her pocket. "Sarah kept coming in here," she said as switched on the light. "It's too morbid to have a nine year old sitting in her dead brother's room. Now, mothers. . . mothers are a different matter. Mothers are entitled to do that."

Quinn's gaze went first to the computer on the desk by the window. He suspected it was the computer that had been seized by the cops on the case to look for anything else the boy might have written. . .anything besides the note that had been found in his jacket pocket. Quinn knew every word of that note:

Dear Police:

I'm sorry to cause so much trouble. I don't know what else to do. I can't do it myself.


Zachery Martin Adams

It had been soaked in Zach's blood, a note from a well-brought-up, well-mannered kid who had decided to commit "suicide by cop" by forcing a police officer to shoot him.

Quinn forced the image of Zach Adams dead from his mind and glanced around the room. There was an aquarium with tropical fish. A bookcase crammed with books and a stack of comics on the floor beside it. On a table, a microscope that looked expensive and a tray containing slides. The bed that Melanie Adams had sat down on was made up with a plain blue spread, but a poster from the movie X-Men was on the wall above it. On opposite walls, facing each other, were two other posters, one of Tupac Shakur, the other of Albert Einstein.

"My son appreciated irony," Melanie Adams said.

"Irony?" Quinn said. "I'm not sure I understand."

"The irony that in this country little black boys are expected to grow up to be like Tupac not Einstein. Thugs or rappers. Combine the two if you want to 'live big'."

Quinn said, "What I don't understand, Mrs. Adams, is why your son didn't want to live at all. Why did he want to die?"

"Didn't they tell you about the girl in his class that he had a crush on who humiliated him when he asked if he could take her to a movie? Didn’t they tell you that he was teased and bedeviled by the other boys at his school because he was smart and small for his age and wore glasses and had a stutter when he was nervous?"

"They told me all that. I read all that. But there must have been something else, something --"

"Something that his parents should have known about." She shook her head. "We didn't know, Detective Quinn. We didn't know that our son was struggling with so much anger and sadness. His little sister knew that, but we didn't. Maybe if we had known, we would have insisted that he go to Winslow--"

"Winslow?" Quinn said.

"A school for gifted children. He was accepted but he didn’t want to go. He said he didn't want to be a 'freak'. It was bad enough being a 'nerd'."

"Even if you had made him go to the other school --"

"He still might have wanted to die? But when did it happen, Detective Quinn. Did it begin when he had colic when he was a baby, and I didn't know what to do?"

Colic when he was a baby? Quinn thought. "I'm sure nothing you did or didn’t do--"

"Are you? I'm not sure about anything any more. Maybe we did it all wrong when he being potty-trained. Or when we kept trying to find help for his stutter. Maybe we made him feel that he wasn't normal. Maybe somehow we broke something in him? Broke his heart or his spirit. Twisted him so that being turned down by a girl and being teased made him so sad and so angry that he wanted to die. That he took his father's gun -- and walked into a deli and shot a woman. And shot you."

"Mrs. Adams --"

Tears were glistening in her eyes. "What did we do wrong, Detective Quinn? Tell me? You're a detective. Look around this room and tell me if you can find the clues?"

"There's no way of knowing what's going on in another person's head. Even the people we love."

He thought of telling her about his father. About his father, the two-star general, who after surviving a lifetime of battlefields, had put a gun to his own head and pulled the trigger. His father had called him on the day that he shot himself, but he had said nothing to indicate what he was about to do.

Quinn thought that he could tell Melanie Adams about the guilt he felt every time he remembered that call, remembered how annoyed he had been by the awkwardness of his father's clumsy attempt to make small talk. He had said that he was busy, in the middle of something, and that he would call back later. His father had said, "Yes, we'll talk later, John." And that was the last time that they had ever spoken.

He thought of telling this woman that he should have known something was wrong when his father who rarely called, called just to say 'hello.'

But she was speaking again. "I'm sorry," Quinn said. "What did you said?"

"You said sometimes we don't know what's going on in another person's head. And I asked if that included your wife."

"My wife? What --"

"I saw her at the hospital. I was there because I wanted to speak to the woman that Zach shot. To tell her that I was sorry. But when I got there, I couldn't remember the woman's name. And I knew that I would have to ask for her and be humiliated when they told me that I couldn't see her. So I stood there in the lobby and realized that I had come down to the hospital for nothing." Melanie Adams paused. "And then I saw your wife on her way out. I had seen her on the news when the police chief did his press conference. Do you know what she said when they asked her about what happened?"

Quinn shook his head. "I didn’t see that press conference. I was pretty much out of it after the surgery."

"A reporter asked, 'How do you feel about what happened, Mrs. Quinn?' And your wife brushed back her long blond hair and looked into the camera, and she said, 'My husband was off-duty. We were shopping in a deli for cheese, and he was almost killed by a little thug who walked in with a gun. How do you think I feel?'" That was what your wife said."

Quinn winced. Claire was not prone to bite her tongue when she was upset.

"I'm sorry she said that. She was--"

"Distressed? So she called my son a 'little thug'."

"She didn't mean --"

"Yes, she did. And that was why when I saw her at the hospital, I wanted to speak to her. To tell her that she was wrong. That my Zach did not grow up in the street with a gun in his hand. I followed her outside, but just as I was about to call out to her, someone arrived to pick her up."

"Probably a friend who--"

"A man in a silver Mercedes. Silver hair to match."

"That sounds like the senior partner in Claire's law firm. He was probably concerned --"

"Yes, he did seem concerned. And affectionate."


Melanie Adams's gaze held his. "When your wife got in the car, they kissed."

Quinn's breath caught. His heart slammed against his chest. "You -- why --"

"I'm not telling you this to be vindictive, Detective Quinn. I don't hate you."

"But you thought you should tell me about my wife and --?"

"Your wife is obviously deceiving you. It's better to know that. It hurts now, but it's better to know and accept the truth."

"Is it?" Quinn said.

"I hope so," Melanie Adams said. "Because from now on, I intend to deal only in the truth." She sighed. "I think you should go now. We have probably said as much as we should to each other."

Quinn left her there in her son's room, sitting on his bed. He went down the stairs. Charles Adams was standing in the hallway.

"Is my wife all right?" he said as Quinn reached him.

"You'll have to ask her. She told me what she wanted me to know."

He opened the front door and stepped out into the cold night. The burning in his stomach had flared into flame.

He was sitting at the desk by the window when Claire unlocked the door of their apartment and walked in.

"Hi," she said. She dropped her purse and briefcase on the sofa and shrugged out of her black wool coat.

"Hi," Quinn said. "Finish the work on the merger?"

"Finally. Have you eaten?"

He thought she had never looked more beautiful. Her hair was swept back and confined in a chignon today. She was wearing "office clothes," a tailored emerald green suit and black silk blouse and black pumps that were discreetly sexy, showing off her long, slender legs.

"Eaten?" he said. "Yes. And you?"

She reached up and freed her hair from its coil. "We ordered something in."

"We? Who would 'we' be?"

"'We' as in the four of us that were working on the merger. What's wrong with you tonight?"

"Not enough sleep I guess. I'm sorry if I disturbed you last night."

"You know what I think about that."

"That I should turn in my resignation? Stop being a cop and I'd sleep like a baby." He held her gaze, looking into her clear blue eyes. "Will we ever have one?"

"One what?"

"A baby, Claire."

She grimaced. "I don't think now is the time to get into that again."

"Why not? I want to know if --"

"A miscarriage isn't pleasant," she said. "When it happened we agreed --"

"That we would wait. And we have."

"And at some point, when the time is right --"

"Or not at all?"

She was silent for a moment. And then she came over and stood facing him across the desk. "Do you think you'll ever be able to see this from my perspective? You were almost killed. You want to bring children into a marriage when at any moment, I could find myself a single parent and--"

"I'm a detective, Claire. The likelihood that I will be --"

She laughed, a short, harsh sound. "I was there when you almost died and you're telling me--"

"Is that also your excuse for the affair that you've been having with Peter Thornton?"

She opened her mouth and then closed it. Turning on her three-inch heel, she went back over to the sofa. She picked up her purse, opened it and took something out.

Quinn stared down at the photograph that she dropped on the desk in front of him. It was of the two of them. They had their arms around each other. They were laughing as they stood outside a tavern.

They had been on their honeymoon in Ireland. They had asked a man who was walking past to snap the picture.

"Do you remember that?" Claire said.

"I remember."

"How long has it been since we were that happy?"

"Claire, married life isn't one long. . .It's about the day to day--"

"The day-to-day sucks, Johnny. I can't live like this anymore."

"And so you had an affair?"

"Maybe that was my way of ending it. Of finding a way for us to end this." She lifted her chin and straightened her back. "I think I should go to a hotel tonight, don't you?"

"To a hotel? Or to him?"

"He isn't the issue. We are."

She went into the bedroom, leaving the door ajar, so that he had glimpses of her efficient process as she gathered what she needed from dresser and closet and bathroom. Then she came out again, carrying a suitcase. She put on her coat and picked up her briefcase and purse. "I'll call to discuss the arrangements," she said.

"All right."

She stopped and looked back at him. "I still love you. You must know that."

"I know. You just can't stand living with me."

"I wish I could. I wish like hell I could, Johnny."

And then she went out and closed the door behind her.

The click of the door was loud in the apartment. He sat there a long time. And then he opened the desk drawer and put the gun that had been in his lap inside.

He was not his father. He would have to go on living.

He would have to live with the nightmares, live with the thought that there must have been a moment when he looked at that little boy with the gun in his hand when he could have said something, done something that would have ended it before anyone was hurt. He would have to live with the nightmares of himself dying. He would have to live with the panic and the fear and the guilt until -- as the psychiatrist kept telling him it would -- it got better.

He wasn't his father and so he would have to go on living even though the woman he loved had betrayed him and the love and the passion between them wasn't enough. Would never be enough.

Quinn reached into his jacket pocket for the little bear. His great-grandfather, a Comanche, had given it him when he was a small child. A bear carved from wood. The bear for strength. The bear for healing.

He clutched it in his hand. He needed healing.

He stared out the window. Tears slid down his cheeks. Then the sobs came, and his body shook with them.

He hadn't cried in years, but he cried now because there was no other way to deal with the pain.

He cried because he had killed a fourteen year old boy and because Claire was gone and because he was twelve again, and his mother was leaving, going away and leaving him there with his father. He cried and wished as he had that day for someone to hold him and tell him that it would be all right.

Finally, when he was drained from the tears that his father would have called unmanly, he put his head down on his arms. He fell asleep there at the desk with the little wooden bear clutched in his hand.

The End

Copyright 2006. All rights reserved. This short story is intended for the individual use of visitors to this site. Do not reprint or distribute for any purpose without the express written permission of the author.

Short Stories


5 Jul 2020

Condolence Call is a fresh, utterly original "cop" story. Proof that, in the hands of a writer with a sense of style, a sense of characterization and pacing, a sense of taste, there is no line between genre and literature. Frankie Bailey is just such a writer.

(originally posted on Dec 22 2012)

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