IT'S ALL TRUE. WHEN THE SQUAD CAR ROLLED UP BEHIND me and the loudspeaker blared, "Hold it, right there!" I was, in fact, trying to break into George Dishey's house. But I had an excuse. Really.
It's true that I had chosen to attack a window at the back of the house so I would not be seen, but think about it: If I'd thought I was doing something wrong, I would have at least waited until dark. I wasn't standing there in those shrubberies, hurrying the job, jamming that knife blade into that window sash that recklessly because I was afraid anyone would think I was breaking in, which I of course was; no, I was hiding in the backyard because I was afraid the neighbors would see me and make unpleasant presumptions about my social life.
It was that kind of neighborhood. George had taken pains to let me know that. "They're good Mormons," he'd told me the evening before, lowering his voice as if they could hear him, even with the doors and windows locked, in the so-called privacy of his own living room. "You know how it is," he had continued, with a dramatic sigh. "Here I am, the eligible bachelor, making a decent living. Those good Mormon mommas watch me like a hawk." He'd lifted an index finger to one eye, demonstrating the look with all the dramatic flair forwhich he was famous. "Guess they think I'd make a good catch for one of their umpty-jillion daughters to breed with." He had laughed, throwing his unlovely head back so that his grizzled beard stuck out like a shelf, and had cast a sidelong glance at me to see how I was taking his bait. "Hah! They think there's still hope of converting me!" Here he'd smacked his lips, as if he'd just consumed an especially rich morsel of food.
I hadn't replied. I couldn't imagine any self-respecting Mormon targeting a "Gentile" with a grizzled beard. And even as un--politically correct as I am, I don't like that judgmental kind of talk; it always leaves me cold. And I know that George Dishey had a reputation for being outspoken, even argumentative, for the sake of the publicity that picking a fight would bring him, so why argue? Give me a break; he was the internationally famous Dr. Dishey, and I was just Em Hansen, the barely-made-it-through-undergrad hack geologist from Chugwater, Wyoming. Besides, he was at least twenty years my senior and paunchy, so my candid reaction to his implied overture would have been downright rude. And I was, in fact, in the delicate circumstance of being his houseguest, he was an unmarried man and I an unmarried woman, neighbors do talk, and, well, even in my moments of greatest self-confidence, I hate engaging in controversies or otherwise attracting attention to myself.
So. So I fell for his line and did my best to pretty much sneak in and out of his house, sneaking my bags out of my rental car in the dark as if there was something wrong with my being there. Which there wasn't. Okay, so I wasn't proud of the fact that I was taking lodgings with this peculiar man in Salt Lake City rather than coughing up the money to stay at the posh ski resort of Snowbird with the rest of the conference attendees. You see, that's why I was there, to speak at a symposium on forensic paleontology at the annual conference of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Or at least that's what George Dishey had told me I was there to do.
But back to that highly embarrassing moment when I was caught trying to break back into his house. It was a Sunday morning, the first day of the conference, and George had left early, without telling me where he was going or why. I wouldn't even have known he was gone, except that when the phone rang, it woke me up, and even through two closed doors and the veil of sleep, I could hear him hollering into it, and then I heard the door slam and the sound of his vehicle starting up and pulling away from the parking slip. The forensics symposium wasn't scheduled until the afternoon, so I'd gone back to sleep for a while, then later had gotten myself up and showered and stumbled around until I found an iron and an ironing board, and had pressed the creases out of my best blouse and slacks and gotten dressed. As I helped myself to a breakfast of prefab frozen burritos, which the microwave had rendered scalding on the outside and still hard on the inside, I had wondered idly where he had gone and when he might return. By eight o'clock, I had grown restless. By 9:00, I'd begun to worry. By 9:30, it had occurred to me that I could leave any time I wanted, and I had complimented myself on having had the foresight to rent a car at the airport so I'd have my own transportation. George had argued hard against this, saying we would of course go and come from the conference at the same times anyway, but I had learned too often that when working with men, independence of motion is essential.
On top of everything, I was supposed to deliver that speech at the symposium, and I was a bit nervous about it. Okay, I was scared stiff, and pacing up and back in George Dishey's kitchen, wondering where he'd gone, wasn't exactly soothing. I decided to drive around town awhile before heading up into the mountains to the east, where the conference was convening. It was a nice sunny autumn day, the city had a smile on, and I had not seen it since I was too young to remember. So I wrote George a brief note saying I'd see him at Snowbird, gave my hair a lastbrush, cussed under my breath that it still didn't look quite right, walked up to the front door, and then stopped.
What if the neighbors saw me leaving? What, in fact, would they think? Was this town still so conservative that having a woman in his house without benefit of wedlock might compromise his career? And worse, might I draw an unwelcome opinion-fest from some self-righteous church lady?
In the end, I had waited until I saw the neighbors file out to their minivans in their Sunday finest, gave them ten extra minutes to make sure they didn't double back for their prayer books or something, and all but dashed out to my car, slamming the front door behind me. That was silly, I know, but there you have it. I was sprinting down the sidewalk, thinking nothing more clever than, Will some tardy church lady see my slacks and know I'm not heading to church? when I realized I had left the keys to my rental car in the house. As I skidded to a halt, that realization collided with the next, which was that I had no key to George Dishey's house, either. He had not offered me one. Good old George had managed to exert some control over my comings and goings after all.
So you see, it was all very innocent, and, in fact, it was with the best intentions that I was breaking into George Dishey's house. And if I was acting a mite covert, it was because I was worried about his honor, not my albeit felonious-looking activity. Honest.
When I heard that loudspeaker go off behind me, I about jumped out of my skin. The pocketknife I was using to jimmy the lock on the bedroom window jerked free of my grip and gouged deeply into my left thumb. That left me stunned for a moment, and of course an instant later my thumb began to hurt like fury, but at least that gave me something to squeal about while I tried to organize my thoughts.
Imagine the scene. Baritone voice through loudspeaker: "You there! Drop your weapon!"
I: "Hey, no problem!" I tossed the knife onto the lawn and clutched the wound shut with my right hand. It was starting to bleed, fast.
Voice: "Now back away from the building, slow and easy."
I: "Okay, I'm--this hurts!" I stumbled out of the bushes and turned gingerly to see what was behind me. The lights on the top of the car were wheeling about. My heart began to race, and sounds seemed to recede from my head.
The cop, who was by then out of his car and halfway up the lawn, moving toward me with one hand hovering over his now-unlatched holster, eased in toward the window and with one foot kicked my old beat-up two-blade Buck knife farther away from me. "Kneel down and put your hands apart on the ground!" he ordered.
"Hands on the ground!"
Blood began to drip from between my fingers. "I ... I can't. I'm, ah, bleeding." The blood was escaping my grip now, plop, plop, plop. I didn't want to get it on my slacks. They were the only really good pair I owned, and they fit well, and when you don't really have a waist and you're a bit thick through the thighs like I am, a fit like that is hard to find.
The cop noted the blood as he quickly surveyed the scene. "What are you doing here?" he asked brusquely.
I opened my mouth to tell him but couldn't think of a good answer.
"What are you doing here?" he repeated. His hand still hovered above his holster.
I wondered thickly what all the excitement was. Sure, he had caught me outside a man's house on a Sunday morning with no church to go to, but was that a capital offense? What if this were my house? Was this how Salt Lake City's finest approached well-dressed home owners who chose to fiddle with their window locks on Sunday mornings? Or was therean all-points bulletin out for a female cat burglar of medium height, brown hair, sort of forgettable-looking, who liked the challenge of broad-daylight theft? "I'm ... um ..."
The moment was so unreal that I found myself watching him as if he were a movie. That impression was amplified by the fact that he was movie-star good-looking and very fit. Sharp blue eyes with heavy black lashes. Black hair. A ruddy, healthy pallor, roses and cream, like the best of the Irish. His uniform was perfectly pressed, and it fit him like something in a clothing ad.
In an effort to make sense of what was happening, my mind decided that if I were watching a movie, I must be on a date. Yes, that fit, because I was, after all, wearing some of my best clothing, and I'd just showered and done what I could for my face. I felt embarrassed that my date had caught me kneeling on the lawn, and I hoped he wouldn't think I was some kind of slob. Here he'd been so kind to invite me to his movie, and I'd gone and knelt in the dirt. I didn't want to disappoint him. He seemed so ... authoritative.
I shook my head, trying to clear it. My mind was going. For a moment, I wondered if it were loss of blood, but I hadn't lost that much, not yet. Then I remembered that with any injury, no matter how slight, there is some measure of shock.
With some effort, I cleared my throat. Try it sometime, when you're on your knees in front of a policeman while bleeding from a fresh knife wound. The old pipe can grow tight. Finally, I managed to say, "I'm a guest of Dr. Dishey's," and tipped my head toward the house. "I have to get to this conference I'm attending, and I got out here to my car and realized that I'd forgotten my keys. They're right in there, on the um--" I peered up toward the window. My stomach was beginning to flutter. I'm usually tougher at the sight of blood, having done my share of ranch chores in my day, but I began to feel the need to put my head between my knees. "Can this wait?" I mumbled.
The cop unclipped his microphone and called his station. "Central, this is Raymond. Got a female Caucasian here, medium height, brown hair, gray eyes, early thirties. She's cut and bleeding. Request backup to take her to the hospital."
He needed a backup to take me to the hospital? What? "Listen," I said, "if there's any problem, you can talk to Dr. Dishey about it. I don't know where he went, but I'm sure he'll be back any time now. We're supposed to be at the conference by noon, so I mean ..." A wave of nausea swept over me. "Please?"
Another police car pulled up at the curb, siren bawling to a stop. My head was beginning to ping. I looked up into the firm, handsome face of my non--guardian angel, or at least this angel who appeared to be guarding the world from me, and found him studying me with a mixture of detachment and concern. He neither looked away nor met my eyes, but gazed at me steadily, as if watching for signs that would alert him if I was about to attempt flight. I felt a growing need to lie down on the grass.
With an effort, I stared up into his eyes. They were like a mountain lake at dusk, almost indigo, very deep. "My car keys are inside," I said softly. "My luggage is inside. George will be back, I swear it. He can explain everything."
Still he did not make eye contact. I looked away--at the ground, at the grass stains on my knees, at the sticky blood that was accumulating between them. Then, as the legs and feet of two more policemen hove into my darkening view, he said, "That's not hardly likely, is it, ma'am? Because we found George Dishey an hour ago, and he's dead. But you already know that, don't you?"
Copyright © 1999 by Sarah Andrews Brown.