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The Devoted One
The brick felt as heavy and hard and cold as the broken heart in the Devoted One’s chest.
Launching it into the air provided a sense of power and control the Devoted One hadn’t felt in a long time.
The back window of the house exploded into a dozen shards that tinkled as they fell to the concrete patio and the wood floor inside. Safety glass, my ass.
The brick might just be a rectangle of baked clay, but it would send a clear message. We’re not over.
Fort Worth Police Officer Megan Luz
On a Monday night in early August, my shepherd-mix partner Brigit and I were out on patrol, working the night shift. Well, at least I was working. Brigit snoozed away on the carpeted platform in the back of our specially equipped K-9 cruiser. A human officer would have been fired for sleeping on the job, but K-9s? They could get away with it. Lucky dog. She wasn’t quiet about it either, snoring loud enough to wake the dead. Way to rub it in.
Her snooze came to an abrupt end when a vandalism call came in over the radio. She snuffled and raised her head from the comfy cushion I’d bought her, casting me a bleary-eyed look that said she was none too happy about her sweet dreams being interrupted.
“We’ve got a report of a broken window,” the dispatcher said. “The victim reports she believes her ex-boyfriend tried to break into her home.”
Ugh. Domestic violence is the worst.
The victim’s address was on College Avenue in the southern part of the Fairmount neighborhood, only a few of blocks from our current location. Brigit’s unique K-9 skills could be especially helpful in a situation like this, where the perpetrator would have left a scent trail.
I grabbed the microphone from my dashboard and responded to the call. “Officers Luz and Brigit on our way.” I slid the mic back into its holder and punched the gas. Off we go!
Three turns and less than thirty-eight seconds later, my cruiser rolled to a stop in front of the address. While the historic Fairmount neighborhood boasted some beautifully restored homes, many of which were quite large, this single-story white house was among its more modest dwellings. My eyes took in the place, while the brain behind them performed some quick computations of its own accord, estimating the home to be approximately twelve hundred square feet given its width and depth.
White oleander bushes flanked the front porch and spanned the width of the house. Hmm. You’d have thought the owner might have planted pink oleanders to add some color, but who was I to judge? There was no garage. The house had been built long before cars were common and the owner had apparently decided not to add one, though there was a short paved driveway in which a beige Hyundai Accent was parked. The porch light was on, as were lights inside the front room, the glow visible around the edges of the slatted wood blinds in the windows. The broken window must be around back.
I climbed out of my car and opened the back door to let Brigit out. After allowing her to take a quick tinkle in the grass, I clipped her leash onto her collar and led her up the single step to the front door. While many of the other houses in the area sported cheery floral wreaths on their front doors, a large sign that read NO SOLICITING was plastered across this door. Even the welcome mat wasn’t very welcoming. Instead of greeting visitors with a simple WELCOME or funny phrase—the one at our house read WIPE YOUR PAWS—it looked more like a torture device, all stiff and bristly.
I raised my hand and knocked. Rap-rap-rap! A moment later the door was answered by a pretty, petite Latina woman. Being of both Mexican and Irish descent, my skin, like this woman’s, was slightly darker than that of most Caucasians, though mine bore a scattering of freckles while hers was more uniform in color. She appeared to be in her early thirties, giving her a six or seven-year lead on me. She stood a couple inches shorter than my five feet five inches, putting her around five three. As long as we were talking in numbers, I’d put her around an 8 on the attractiveness scale. As for myself, I’d let others be the judge of that. The number I was more interested in was my IQ, which was above average, thank you very much.
The woman wore a drab gray bathrobe over pajamas, no makeup, and a strained expression. Her dark hair was messy from sleep, loose curls playing about her head, much unlike the taut bun into which I’d pulled my dark locks. Her eyes flickered down to Brigit, who was sniffing at something through the wooden boards of the porch, and she took what appeared to be an involuntary step backward. Not unusual. Many people found police dogs intimidating. Rightfully so. Brigit could just as easily rip a person’s throat out as lick him or her to death.
“He’s at it again,” the woman said, gazing downward and speaking so softly I could barely hear her.
I pulled out my notepad. “I understand someone attempted to break into your home?”
“Not someone,” she said, a little louder now, her gaze moving up to my badge. “My ex-boyfriend.”
She could very well be right. But she could also be jumping to conclusions. I’d learned early on in my law enforcement career not to take everything at face value. “What’s your name, ma’am?”
I noted her name on my pad. “What happened exactly?”
“I was in bed sleeping a few minutes ago,” she said, gesturing back into the house behind her, “when a loud crash woke me up. I turned on my lamp and found one of my bedroom windows broken and a brick lying on the floor.”
“Did you see anyone?”
She shook her head. “No. I didn’t try to look. I was too freaked out. I grabbed my phone and took it into the closet and called 911 as fast as I could.”
“What makes you think it was your ex?”
“It had to be him,” Adriana said, her feeble voice finally wielding some force as her gaze met mine for the first time. “Nobody else would have a reason to do something like that.”
Juvenile delinquents did things like this all the time without a reason, but no sense arguing with her. “Can you show us?”
“Us?” She glanced down at Brigit again. “The dog’s coming with you?”
“I’d planned on bringing her inside, yes.” She was my partner, after all.
Adriana’s lips pursed and her nose twitched. “Does she shed?”
Brigit was a furry, hundred-pound shepherd with approximately eighty billion active hair follicles. She shed enough hair each day to stuff a sofa. So, naturally, I said, “Not much.”
Adriana looked skeptical, but stepped back to let me and Brigit inside, gesturing to the door mat. “Wipe your feet, please.”
Well, all righty then.
Once I’d scrubbed my feet across the bristly mat, she said, “The bedroom’s back here.”
I stepped into the house, Brigit alongside me. The place had been built in a shotgun style, the rooms in a single row from front to back. Brigit and I followed her through a tidy combination living and dining room decorated in colors that hardly qualified as such. Muted beiges and ivories with no accents. Oddly, the living room featured only a love seat, no couch or occasional chairs. Ms. Valdez must not have people over much. The throw pillows on the love seat were perfectly positioned in the corners, and the books on the bookshelves were arranged fastidiously by height, each row precisely level. Not a speck of dust appeared atop any of the furniture surfaces.
The door at the opposite end led into a small kitchen with a butcher-block island. A circular rack of pots and pans hung over the island, while a wooden white bistro set sat in the back corner. The place gleamed and smelled strongly of disinfectant, as if she’d recently cleaned.
As we passed through, I took a quick glance around. A set of herb pots sat on the windowsill next to a metal baker’s rack loaded down with more cookbooks than I’d ever seen outside of a bookstore’s shelves. There were a dozen books on dieting, too, everything from the raw food craze to books with titles suggesting hormones, blood sugar, and renal function could all be controlled via food intake. A toaster and pasta maker stood on the counter to the left of the stove, a blender, a juicer, and a sparkling top-of-the-line silver Cuisinart food processor to the right. From the looks of it, Adriana could slice, dice, and perform brain surgery with the complicated thing. A carving knife and a long meat fork with two pointy prongs lay drying in a dish rack, along with a single plate and glass.
No coffeepot was in sight. How anyone could survive without caffeine was beyond me. I’d never get through my night shifts without a thermos or two of the stuff. A large rack mounted on the back wall was loaded with a combination of cooking spices and vitamins arranged in alphabetical order, the vitamin B12 tablets coming just before bay leaf.
We exited the kitchen into a small bedroom being used as a home office. Like the other rooms, this one was perfectly tidy, a place for everything and everything in its place, looking like a model home where people only pretended to live. The door on the opposite end led to a hallway with a bathroom to the side. A shelving unit in the bath was loaded down with every cleaning product on the market, from antibacterial wipes to citrus-scented degreaser to wood floor cleaner.
A second, larger bedroom spanned the back of the house. The overhead light was on, illuminating the interior of the master bedroom. Two narrow windows flanked the queen-sized bed, which was covered in a plain ivory spread. The window on the left was indeed shattered, the damaged wooden miniblind hanging cockeyed, the slats splayed. Broken glass littered the night table and the floor below the window.
I’d need to take a closer look, but I didn’t want to risk Brigit cutting her paw on the shards. “Sit,” I ordered my partner, giving her a scratch behind the ear and a “good girl” when she obeyed. I eased around the bed and spotted an orange brick lying amid the glass, the word ACME imprinted on the end. I glanced out the window and, noting the backyard was not well lit, pulled out my Maglite. When I switched it on and shined it around the patio, a pair of big, round eyes stared back out of the darkness.
“Holy crap!” I shrieked, jumping back in surprise. “He’s still back there!” My heart pounded so hard it was a wonder we couldn’t hear my rib cage rattle.
Adriana sent a disdainful look in my general direction. “That’s not my ex. That’s a garden gnome.”
A gnome? Sure enough, when I shined the light out the window again, I saw a foot-high garden gnome with round, unblinking eyes. He wore blue overalls, a yellow hat, and a smile so creepy I was tempted to whip out my pepper spray and douse him.
Taking the beam off the tiny man and playing it about, I saw a wide slab of concrete and a narrow vegetable garden situated along the perimeter of the yard. A dozen gnomes of various ages, genders, and occupations stood among the plants. A white-haired female gnome with a pink dress and a basket of apples. A dark-haired male gnome pushing a wheelbarrow full of rocks. A young, blond girl gnome scattering food to the flock of ceramic chickens at her feet. My light moved from the gnomes to the plants. They were loaded down, bending under the weight of their produce. Looked like Adriana had raised a bumper crop of tomatoes and zucchini. She must have a green thumb.
While I aspired to become a detective one day and had been working hard to develop my investigative skills, this situation required little analysis. Someone threw the brick through the glass. This woman assumed that someone was her ex. She could very well be right. People who once loved each other could be capable of doing some very spiteful things. But if I were going to accuse the guy and arrest him, I needed to get my ducks in a row first, collect some evidence. “Mind if my partner and I take a look out back?”
“I’d appreciate it,” Adriana said. “There’s a door from the kitchen.”
Brigit trotted along as I followed Adriana back to the kitchen, where she opened a side door adorned with a set of café curtains. The porch light mounted next to the door provided some illumination, but the light didn’t go far. I used my flashlight to light the way along the narrow flagstone path that ran between the house and the privacy fence.
“Stay where you are,” I told Adriana, as I stopped at the edge of the concrete patio and shined my flashlight about, looking for evidence. At first all I saw were the questioning eyes of the gnomes peering at me from among the plants.
Nothing over here.
Nothing over there.
Nothing by the house.
But then, bingo!
At the back edge of the concrete was a man-sized footprint next to a small, half-ripe tomato that appeared to have been knocked off the vine. The muddy print showed a clear waffle pattern. I carefully circled closer for a better look, crouching down to look among the tomato plants. The beam of my flashlight revealed another footprint between two plants. Looked like whoever had thrown the brick must have veered off the path in the dark.
I glanced back toward the side gate, which hung open a few inches. “You don’t keep a lock on your gate?”
“No,” Adriana replied, seemingly focused on something over my left shoulder. “I use a mowing service and the gas meter is on the wall behind the fence so I have to keep it unlocked for the meter reader, too. Besides, the latch is off-kilter and doesn’t catch. I’ve reported it to my landlord, but you know how they are.”
I knew exactly how landlords could be. Dismissive. Unconcerned. Miserly. The guy who owned the studio apartment where Brigit and I used to live had refused to replace the air-conditioning unit until it went up in smoke and threatened to take the entire building with it. Cheap son of a bitch. Thank goodness I didn’t live in that rat-infested hellhole anymore.
I stepped over to the gate to take a closer look. Sure enough, the latch needed to be repaired. “Did your ex-boyfriend know the latch was broken?”
“Yes. He said he’d fix it for me but you can tell how good he was at keeping his word.”
Not at all, it seemed. “So he’s taken a look at the gate before?”
The fact that he’d touched the hardware in the past meant that if his prints were found on the latch it would not conclusively prove he’d been the one who’d come into the backyard and thrown the brick. “What about the brick?” I asked Adriana. “Did that come from your yard?”
“No. I have no idea where it came from.”
In other words, if the ex’s prints were on the brick, it would link him to the crime. Of course he might have been smart enough to wear gloves, and if he didn’t have a record his prints wouldn’t be in the database anyway, but it was worth a shot.
“I’d suggest you have the latch fixed right away,” I told her. “Call a handyman if you have to. And put a lock on the gate. You can give the lawn care company a key. The gas company can tell you what day your meter is going to be read so you can plan ahead and remove the lock for that day only. You might want to add some more outdoor lighting, too. Maybe something with a motion sensor. Those types of lights tend to act as a deterrent.”
I’d given the same advice to people in the Berkeley Place neighborhood recently when a Peeping Tom had been creeping around the area, spying on women. Criminals tended to like dark, shadowy spots where they could hide. Shine a light on them, though, and they scattered like cockroaches.
I snapped a few photos of the footprints with my phone, returned it to my pocket, and pulled out my notepad. “I have some questions for you. But let’s g-go back inside.” No sense waking the neighbors if the crashing glass hadn’t already.
Once we were back in the kitchen, I readied my pen. “What’s your ex’s name?”
I jotted the name down. “You said earlier you hoped we could put a stop to things ‘this time.’ Has there been a history of this type of incident?”
“History?” She scoffed. “There’s enough history to fill a textbook. It’s been one thing after another since I broke up with him a month ago. He was putting too much pressure on me, wanting to get too serious too fast. To be honest, I just wasn’t that in to him. We’re too different. At first he tried to get me back. He came by here every day for a week, sometimes more than once. When I stopped answering the door he left flowers and gifts on the porch. He’s the one who gave me the gnomes. If they weren’t so cute I’d get rid of them.”
Hmm. If I had a beef with an ex and something around my house reminded me of him, I probably would have gotten rid of it, cute or not. But I knew not everyone thinks the same way, so I accepted her explanation.
She opened a drawer and pulled out a stack of greeting cards. “These are the cards he left after I dumped him.”
She held them out to me. I took them from her and quickly looked them over. Each of them was a typical, vague “thinking of you” type of card. He’d scrawled handwritten messages on each one.
You should be with someone who deserves you.
Your soul mate is out there. Don’t keep him waiting.
You won’t be alone much longer. Someone’s going to snatch you up!
Ryan’s words could be seen as encouraging. Then again, they could be taken as veiled threats.
I handed the cards back to her. “Hang on to those.”
“You think they’re important?”
“They could be.” It was too soon to tell.
She nodded and returned the cards to the drawer before turning back to me. She seemed to be addressing my earlobe. “The last time Ryan came by, I told him in no uncertain terms that we’d never get back together. After that he started doing mean, vengeful things. He stole my mail and poured salt in my garden to try to kill the plants. He’s also driven by late at night several times and thrown tennis balls at my car to set off the alarm. My neighbors have complained to me about the noise. It’s a nightmare.”
“Did you see him do these things? Pouring the salt and stealing your mail and throwing the tennis balls?”
She frowned. “No. But like I said, there’s no reason for anyone else to be doing things like this to me.”
Again, she could be right. But she could also be wrong. It was my job to gather facts and explore all potential leads. Could the brick be the result of a petty sibling squabble? Brothers and sisters could do some pretty mean things to each other under the right circumstances. I’d once broken up a fight between two brothers, but not before one gave the other a bloody nose. “Do you get along with your family?”
“As well as anyone does, I guess. We’re not exactly close, but there’s no animosity between us.”
“Do they live here in town?”
“No. My parents live down in Waco where I grew up, and my brother is in graduate school in Austin.”
Looked like the immediate family could be ruled out. “What about your friends?” I asked. “Have you had a falling-out with anyone?” Women could be petty, too. One wrong look at another’s boyfriend and a woman could find Whore! scribbled across her windshield in red lipstick.
“No. I haven’t had any problems with friends.”
“How about coworkers?” I asked. “Do you get along with everyone at the office?”
“I don’t work in an office,” she corrected, a hint of impatience in her voice. “I work at a rehabilitation center. My work is pretty solitary. I mostly just interact with patients, and even then it’s not often. Only two or three times a day.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a clinical dietitian.”
That explained all the tomes on diet and cooking. “Your n-neighbors,” I said, noticing her gaze went to my mouth when my stutter manifested again. “How are your relationships with them?”
“Fine, I suppose. We say hello if we happen to pass each other on the street or see each other getting the mail, but other than them complaining about my car alarm, that’s been the extent of our interactions.”
She didn’t appear to have a dog that might be barking and annoying anyone, and I hadn’t heard any noisy wind chimes dinging and donging in the breeze. Still, in these types of situations the culprit was sometimes a neighbor who’d reached the end of their rope. I told her as much. “Do you have a noisy hobby or play music loud in the backyard? Maybe have an outdoor cat that uses someone’s flower bed for a litter box?”
“I know what you’re getting at, but no. I don’t have any pets and I’m quiet and I keep to myself. The perfect neighbor.” She threw her hands in the air, her voice growing shaky and high with emotion. “The cop who came out before asked me virtually the same questions. I’m telling you the same thing I told him. Ryan is behind this. I know it!”
I raised a palm. “I’m not saying I don’t believe you, Ms. Valdez. It’s my job to ask questions and rule out other possibilities.”
She crossed her arms loosely over her chest. “I understand.” Though her words said she knew where I was coming from, her tone told me she didn’t like it.
“Do you recall the name of the officer who came out before?” It couldn’t hurt to have a chat with him or her, compare notes.
“Mackey,” Adriana snapped without hesitation. “Tall, redheaded guy. No offense, but he was useless. Do you know him?”
Hell, yeah, I knew Officer Derek Mackey. Derek, a.k.a. the Big Dick, had been my training partner. He was an asshole of epic proportions. He’d once sent me out into a monsoon to buy him a bag of chips at the convenience store, then locked the doors on me and cackled when I yanked on the handle and banged on the glass, trying to get back in the squad car. There was an inch of water in my shoes by the time he let me in. He passed gas in the cruiser on multiple occasions and held the button down so I couldn’t unroll my window. He never asked where I wanted to eat lunch, stopping once or twice a week for meals at Hooters or a topless bar, claiming a regular police presence was a help at the latter due to the crime associated with sexually oriented businesses. Yeah, right. He’d just wanted a cheap lunch and cheap thrills. I’d learned to pack a lunch box and eat in the car by myself.
“Sure, I know Officer Mackey.” I hoped my distaste for my former partner wasn’t evident in my voice. “He and I were partners a while back.”
Adriana gave me a pointed look. “I hope you’ll do more than he did. He took my statement but that was it. He said that since there was no property damage and no witnesses, it would be a waste of time to talk to Ryan or take the tennis ball in to be checked for prints.”
Though I didn’t exactly feel inclined to defend the bastard who’d made my life miserable for months, I did feel the need to defend the integrity of the Fort Worth Police Department. I also felt the need to make this woman feel safe again. “Officers have to make case-by-case judgment calls,” I said. “Officer Mackey must’ve thought it would be futile to check with Ryan because people rarely admit their crimes. As for the tennis ball, it’s virtually impossible to lift prints off them due to the texture of the covering. But I’ll speak with your ex. If he’s behind these acts, he might back off if a police officer shows up.”
“Tell him he needs to move on,” she said. “I already have. I’m dating one of the doctors from work now.”
“Good,” I said. “It’s nice to have a special someone.”
I had a special someone of my own. Seth. While my life had seemed full enough before him, he added something I hadn’t realized I’d been missing. Romance. Companionship. A pair of ears to listen and broad shoulders to lean on.
I held my pen at the ready. “What’s Ryan’s address?”
She rattled off the name of an apartment complex on Hulen Street, which sat at the western edge of the W1 Division, my usual beat.
“He lives in apartment 206.”
“Got it.” I also asked if she knew his middle name, which she did.
“I’ll need to run his name through the system. See if he has a record of any sort.”
“He never mentioned having one.”
“Most people who have a criminal record don’t speak of it.” Especially if they wanted to get close to someone, to be trusted. “I’ll be right back.” I returned to my car with Brigit trotting along behind me. After retrieving latex gloves and a plastic evidence bag from my trunk, my furry partner and I went back to the kitchen. I ordered Brigit to stay put while I ventured again to the bedroom, picked up the brick, and dropped it into the evidence bag. Why the guy had thrown a brick instead of a garden gnome was beyond me. But maybe he didn’t want to end an innocent little life.
Adriana stood in the doorway, watching as I collected the evidence. “I appreciate you taking this seriously. I guess because you’re a woman you understand how scary something like this can be.”
“It would certainly be unsettling,” I agreed. Still, a brick through a window was child’s play compared to a sociopath strapping a bomb to your chest, gang members aiming guns at your face at point-blank range, and a stranger slamming his SUV into you on the highway, running you off the road into a construction zone, and opening fire when you were trapped in your car. But no sense one-upping her with my dangerous on-the-job exploits. Besides, a stalker could pose a real threat. It was never clear how far a stalker would go. Some merely exacted a bit of petty revenge and moved on. Others escalated their threatening behavior, doing more and more dangerous things until they were either caught and jailed, or until they killed their victims. I had no idea what type Ryan Michael Downey would prove to be but, for everyone’s sake, I was hoping he was the petty type.
I tucked the bagged brick under my arm, removed the gloves, and tossed them into Adriana’s trash can. After obtaining her cell phone number, I slid my pen and notepad back into my pocket. “I’ll let you know how it goes.”
“Thanks, Officer Luz.” She blinked several times, as if holding back tears. “I really hope you can put a stop to this. I just…” Her breath hitched. “I just want it to be over.”
Copyright © 2017 by Diane Kelly