THE KNEES OF THE FAITHFUL
By D.V. Bennett
Aaron Culp is a fishbone caught in the throat of my pride. At thirty-three, he’s twenty years my junior, devilishly good-looking and worst of all—too ambitious. I don’t need the headache. I solved major cases long before my new partner came along.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy working with people who want to get the job done, but I detest working with someone whose eagerness drags me along at a pace I’m uncomfortable with. Having Steven Stunning in my life right now is simply more than I want to handle.
As his superior officer, the conflict arises when I urge him to slow down. I can see it on his face…he hopes I’m ticking off the days until early retirement because he’d prefer me out of his way.
When Chopin’s funeral march sounded from my phone, I took my time answering, “Detective Chambers.”
“Wait Aaron, who’s dead?”
“She’s been murdered outside of her apartment building.”
The news left me feeling a warm rush of blood to my face, like pins were pricking my skin. As reporters go, they don’t come much better than Sue. She broke the story on the Dead-End Killer, tying all the loose information together and seeing the connections a month before we did.
I gathered my things and left the precinct. It’s a fifteen-minute drive to the address and the techs were already there.
“Who notified Crime Scene?”
“I did.” Aaron didn’t bother to make eye contact. He almost never did with me. “First thing you told me when I joined the squad. We account for everything. I thought it would be best to preserve the chain of evidence as soon as possible.”
I suppose if it had been anyone else but Aaron, I would have acquiesced, but I couldn’t help myself, “Yes, account for everything, but in the future, I’d like to be consulted prior to calling them in.”
“They have to be called in, right?” He emphasized right like an arrogant football coach. No room for argument. Ultimatum clear.
“It can often be in our best interests to view the crime scene before all of the tape goes up, the bags come out and their shit gets real.”
“That’s not protocol.”
“To hell with protocol.”
“Call me first next time—and use my damned title in the field.”
“Yes, Detective Chambers.”
I knew I was being bitchy, but I didn’t care, “Tell me what you know.”
Fifteen feet from the body, Aaron spilled out details. I sent him to Sue to discuss her coverage of DEK, so nicknamed by the press. In truth, I had given Aaron something to do involving a pretty woman, hoping a horn dog like him would stretch the interview and be out of my hair for a while. That fact made her death more painful to me.
“It’s our guy. Ligature marks on her neck. Beaten senseless.”
“Abrasions on her knees like all the others.” Neither of us brought up the inevitable answer to the question of rape. “When she didn’t answer her door, I tried calling. When that didn’t work, I decided to look around outside. Her sedan is in her numbered parking slot, so I walked around the complex to see if I could find her.
It’s cold out, so I went to the grocer’s there,” he pointed to the front of the building, “to get one of their roasted hazelnut café lattes. I decided to cut behind the store through this alley on my way back to her apartment. That’s when I saw a foot sticking out through a pile of garbage bags. I felt for a pulse, but she was gone.”
Sue and I were acquainted through our jobs, but outside of those spheres we never interacted. I would have liked to, but it would never happen now. She became the final headline in her life, written beneath cold, rancid-smelling bags of wet trash behind her local greengrocer.
I wiped my dripping nose, “It doesn’t make any sense.”
“No detective, I mean—she’s the only person DEK ever chose to communicate with. He’s effectively closed any conduit we had with him through her. Why would he do that now, at this juncture?”
“He’s a creature of habit.” Aaron turned, inclining his head toward the striped guardrail fifty yards away at the end of the street, patrol car lights rhythmically flashing off the row of reflectors, “Look where she lives.”
Shit. In all the times I’d spoken with Sue, I never thought to ask her whether if she lived on a dead-end street. Homeowners near dead ends in our town were adding exterior lighting, installing deadbolts and alarm systems or just saying screw it and moving out. Perhaps Sue never envisioned her connection to DEK’s criteria, believing her relationship with him bought her immunity from his insane hunger.
There were plenty of homes full of people upon whom he could vent his rage. When I’d been assigned to the case, we found nearly five-thousand houses in real estate listings alone, “nestled in” or “situated” by a “tranquil, quiet, serene” or otherwise inviting dead end setting.
Time produced several suspects for us. They were all eliminated by DNA.
“Location, location, location…”
“Thanks, Aaron. I get it.”
I did get it, too. After returning to the precinct ninety minutes later, I enjoyed a forty-five-minute joy session in the office of our lieutenant, Marty Bravo. I ran him through my evening and what I’d learned after visiting the crime scene and we talked strategy.
Marty’s eyes rarely revealed much to people who don’t know the man. I could tell he was pissed, when he re-covered some of the same ground, “Who else knew Detective Culp was going to interview the reporter?”
“I know her name, Detective. Who else knew?”
“Nobody,” I could feel my chest begin to rise and fall and my face get hot, “I gave the task to Culp myself. I didn’t run it past anyone else.”
“And why didn’t this loop include me?”
“You would have been apprised when I submitted my daily report. Obviously, I didn’t expect Sue to get killed.” Feeling the tears well up and spillover made me feel like a rookie.
Bravo stood and slowly shut the door as the outer offices emptied for the evening, “I’m sorry Diana, I didn’t know you two were close.”
Yanking upward violently, I pulled three or twelve tissues from the box on his desk, “We weren’t.” I blew my nose. Sounded like someone strangling a goose.
“Then what’s with the waterworks?”
“Because I sent the kid over to Sue’s place to get him out of my hair, and now she’s dead, okay? As if that wasn’t bad enough.”
“I know you don’t care much for him Diana, but not so long ago, you would have been there with him.”
“Maybe I should have been. I don’t know.”
“Everything okay, Diana? I mean, in your life?”
“Yes—everything is okay.”
“I’m only asking because lately you’ve seemed tired.”
“Lots of cops get tired.”
“Bordering on exhaustion-tired. You’ve never been the tired type. Do you know what your behind-your-back nickname is around here?”
“I’m not sure I want—”
“I see.” I wanted to laugh, but I didn’t feel like giving Marty any satisfaction for the moment.
“Look, I buried my mother a month ago. There have been things to take care of.”
Marty rocked slowly back in his chair, stretched his arms out and placed his palms on the desk between us, “Why the hell didn’t you tell me this and take some time off?”
“It’s a personal thing.”
“Hence the designation, personal time off.”
“It’s taken care of.”
“You may have buried her, but it’s never taken care of.”
“Not that it’s any of your business Marty, but it is for me. We were estranged for years. I’ve done the daughterly thing and I’m moving on.”
He was quiet for a few moments, “Grief is a funny thing. Life doesn’t give us many hints about how to handle it.”
“That’s great, but if you need to speak with other officers about what you’re going through, maybe find out how they deal with this kind of thing, I have some names and numbers.”
“Group therapy, Marty?”
“Wise counsel never hurts. If it means anything, you can come in here whenever you want to. I can be an idiot at times. My ex will tell you that, but she’ll also tell you I’m a good listener, and I’m willing.”
“You’re one of my officers, Diana, and I take care of my own. Let’s stick to what we’ve discussed here and do this my way.” He pointed gingerly to his own face, “You might want to fix your makeup, and remember—the moment you’re ready, when you think you’ve had enough, just say, “Help me.”
Had to give it to Marty for having my best interests at heart.
Leaving his office, I closed the door with my butt and leaned over, resting my hands on my knees. I stayed that way for a minute until I sensed another presence in the room. When I stood, Aaron Culp set his blue eyes on my blue eyes. I turned away and hoped I was wiping away my runaway mascara.
“Are you alright, Detective?”
My breath came out a little fast and heavy as I pulled my purse from my desk drawer, “Yes Aaron, I’m fine.” I almost walked out without another word, but stopped short by the door, “I’m sorry about earlier. The whole,” I threw my hands up, “Use my title, thing.”
“Forget it.” His eyes were still on mine, but with an impish smile going, one to make a grown woman forget how one foot goes in front of the other. “It’s been a long day. I could use some good coffee. Would you like some?”
Ordinarily I would have gone straight home to my shower and bed, but the smile and his eyes held enough of my interest. I didn’t want to steam them away. A cup of coffee sounded perfect. “As long as I’m buying.”
“I can live with that.”
* * *
Drinking coffee when it’s chilly outside is ecstasy for me. It’s best when I’m able to lounge next to my living room window with my feet wrapped in a soft blanket and read a good book. Sanity-maintenance. Sitting across from Aaron as he leaned his elbows on the table in a small bistro hardly seemed sane.
After having worked so hard to confine our relationship to a professional level for nearly three months, his conversation wasn’t what I anticipated. I was expecting a stream of millennial drivel, to hear his gushing take on the latest machination of Fortnite or World of Warcraft.
Instead, I was surprised with substance. I became distracted. He continued to talk while I appeared to listen, hearing very little of what he said. My thoughts were running elsewhere, imagining what it would be like to be out on an actual date with him, what it would be like to have him in my house and to have him in my bed.
“What’s the matter Diana?”
“Oh—nothing.” I realized I was shuddering at my own thoughts. He was so damned good-looking, but so damned young. “I just got a little chill.”
“Would you like more coffee?”
“No thanks.” I reached for my purse, “It’s late. I should be home—not out on the town with a younger man.” I was shameless about the tease, and Aaron didn’t miss a beat.
“It’s not that late.”
“Oh yes, it is.” I smiled as I laid a twenty with the tab under my coffee cup and headed for the exit. Aaron walked with me to hold the door and followed me out.
“Are you sure you want to call it a night?”
“Under other circumstances I wouldn’t, but we have to be back at work in five hours.” Under other circumstances…I was doing it again.
He gave my arm the briefest squeeze before walking to our cars to drive away from the bistro. Merging onto the highway to cut across town I picked out his Silver Honda Accord in my rearview as it passed beneath the streetlamps. I sped up. He sped up. I eased up and he eased up too.
By the time I got to the off ramp I figured the cat and mouse was over. I was wrong. He should have passed me by and taken the exit three miles past mine, but he stayed fifteen seconds behind me, following me to my home. I pulled my key from the ignition, grabbed my purse, closed the door and rushed up the sidewalk to my front door as I heard his car door thump shut.
Glancing over my shoulder, I wiggled my key into the slot and saw him silhouetted by his dimming headlights, heading for me, straight across my lawn. I pushed against the metal with the faux oak pattern as the deadbolt gave way and stepped inside to shut the door behind me, but Aaron was already there, one hand on the outside of the knob and the other on the doorframe, staring into my eyes.
I took several steps backward, dropped my purse and coat onto the hardwood floor in my entryway as he leaned back, closing the door behind himself. We stayed like that for a few seconds before I stepped out of my shoes to take him by the hand and walk him back into the shadows of my bedroom to lie down across my bed.
I couldn’t believe what was happening between me and this beautiful younger man. He was the last person I imagined who would show this kind of interest in me, up until he straddled me and pinned my wrists together with his right hand.
“What are you doing?”
“Do you pray, Diana?”
I stared up at him, fighting the urge to struggle against his grip. His eyes, striped by the glow of the moon through my curtains, bore into mine. “Let me go.”
“In a minute, Diana. First answer my question…do you pray?”
“Sometimes…I guess. I don’t know, Aaron. Why?”
“Sometimes…” he seemed to wander, “that will have to do.” Reaching into his jacket pocket, he withdrew a length of nylon rope and laid it across my neck, “We’ll get on our knees and pray together. We’ll pray for permission, and then you’ll make your confession.”
He was much heavier, sitting on my stomach than I’d imagined, and my first reaction was to heave upward to try and buck him off, but I didn’t know if I could, and I didn’t want to spoil what could be one of the most memorable evenings in my life.
“Yes, Aaron, yes. I’ll pray with you.”
“Yes, you will—and then you’ll confess.”
“What will I be confessing?”
His eyes relaxed for a moment, and then ducked out of the faint light a second before his hand struck the side of my head. The one you don’t see coming is always the worst, but it was dark, and luckily the blow glanced across the side of my forehead.
I spoke quickly, trying to avoid another hit, “Did you and Sue pray together?”
“Oh yes,” as he leaned down toward my face, I could feel his breath on my lips, “we prayed.”
“Did you meet her in the alley, or did you walk there together?”
“I had the luxury of her trust, Diana, and I know you don’t trust me the way she did, but she confessed her love for me, and so will you.”
I had enough. I stared up at the figure on top of me, “Help me.”
With his eyes acclimated to the darkness, Aaron squinted as my bedroom lights were switched on and three SWAT team members moved into the room and knocked him to the floor. Pinning his arms behind him, one man fastened thick plastic zip ties around his wrists and ankles.
I don’t know why I expected him to scream in defiance, but my instincts were wrong. He stared silently at the wall, his eyes once again avoiding mine, or those of anyone else as he was Mirandized and hauled from my house to a waiting transport van.
I sat on the edge of my bed as Lieutenant Marty Bravo stepped through the door, radio in hand, barking a stream of orders to people on the other end, “You okay, Diana?”
“I’m fine, Marty, and don’t make me say it.”
“You were right. Yours was the best way to handle this. There. Happy now?”
He pursed his lips, sat next to me and smiled sheepishly. I was glad he didn’t say anything. I was also glad after leaving Sue Hightower’s murder scene that I stopped at the grocer’s behind her apartment to interview their employees.
No one could recall having seen Aaron Culp in the store or remember selling him a roasted hazelnut café latte. In fact, they were out of it that night. A review of their surveillance tapes confirmed he was never there.
We account for everything, even the reporting of a fellow officer.
Marty stood and jerked his head toward the door. I rose to wobbly legs and followed him outside. We stood together on my front stoop as the van containing Detective Aaron Culp pulled slowly away from the curb and made a U-turn before leaving my dead-end street.
D. V. Bennett is an emerging author, like most with a day job, but who still insists that writing is the thing that keeps him up nights. He lives in southern Washington State, and enjoys spending time with his family, training in martial arts, and woodcarving, all of which have been lifelong passions.