Thursday, August 5, 2010

“Kiss of Death” by Michael Power

He didn’t remember kissing her. She said that he had, and she seemed like an honest woman so he believed it was true, though he couldn’t help but suspect that it was out of character for him to kiss strange women on the street. The most compelling evidence in favor of her claim was the feeling he couldn’t shake; as a police officer she wouldn’t risk perjuring herself by filling out the arrest report, charging him with sexual assault, and starting the ball rolling in the case of The People of New York v. Thomas Crain.

Officer Lopez believed him when he told her his name was Tommy Crain, because of the way it dropped from his lips like a dare, but she was incredulous about his excuses for his lack of identification. There was something not right about a white man, affluent in appearance, without a wallet, and her suspicions were only reinforced by his claims that he didn’t need one. Her experience had been that people without identification were hiding something. Still, she proceeded with the rest of the questions on the arrest report, accepting his answers as truthful in anticipation of their verification.




There was a moment’s hesitation before it rolled off his tongue. “230 Bleecker Street, Apartment 2D.”

“Place of birth.”

“New York City.”

“Date of birth.”

“January 17, 1978.”


“Do the math.”

She stopped, did the math, and looked him over to answer the next questions for herself – sex, race, ethnic, skin. “Height.”

“Six – one.”


“One seventy five.”

His hair and eyes, she noted, were both brown and he wore glasses. She judged his build medium. “Marital status.”

“I’m free as a bird, baby. I’m all yours if that’s what you’re askin’.” She gave him a hard, unfriendly look and her lip curled. “US Citizen?”


“Social Security Number”



“The best.”


“None of your goddamn business.”

She set down her pen and took a deep breath. “Look, Mr. Crain…”


“You’re being charged with the assault of a police officer, which is a felony and for which you can be sent to prison.”

The seriousness of the situation reached him for the first time and it was shocking to him how little he was bothered by the prospect of imprisonment. “Aren’t we getting a little ahead of ourselves here? Look, it’s not like I raped you.”

“It’s a difference of degree, Mr. Crain, not kind.”

“That’s not true,” he snapped angrily enough to jolt her. He hadn’t intended to be so aggressive. “It’s very much a difference of kind,” he assured both of them. “I had no intention to do anything but kiss you.” He caught her eyes and returned her deep confusion. “I really, really wanted to kiss you.”

Officer Lopez looked back down at the arrest report. “Occupation.”

“I still do.”

She asked no more questions and filled out the rest of the form without his input. When she was finished, she typed it and presented him with a confession for his signature, advising the people of New York that he had, without provocation, assaulted an officer of their law. He pushed his glasses up on his nose and read it closely.

“Without provocation?” he asked.

“That’s right.”

“But I find you quite provocative.”

“Sign it,” she said, and he did. “Wait here,” she said. This time he was not as accommodating. He sat perfectly still and watched the movement of her legs as she walked away with his paperwork in her hands. Then his eyes scanned the room for the stealthiest escape route. The very thought of escape thrilled him to the bone. He thought it would be the perfect end to this confounding situation if he were to go down in a hail of bullets. He remembered the feeling he had as a boy when he played hooky from school — that sacred sensation that all the rules of the world no longer applied to him. Was that how all criminals felt? And to escape after capture — wasn’t that heaven?

His calculating gaze scanned the floors and walls, and then the desks piled with papers and computer monitors behind which his fugitive scalp could hide. Eventually he spotted a clear path to a stairwell. A red sign above it gave simple instruction to those hoping to escape fire or other disasters with one word: EXIT. He verified the passivity of everyone in his vicinity, dropped into a crouch, and hustled through a maze of desks, straightening his spine as he slowly descended the stairs. His breathing and footsteps slowed as he walked calmly through the precinct doors without looking over his shoulder. He reflected on the beauty of his fortune to live in a society where a well-dressed, mild-mannered white man’s stereotype is calculated to draw no suspicion.

“Where is he?” Officer Lopez yelled on returning to her desk. Several heads snapped toward her but only the one attached to her partner answered.


She sat down at her desk and took a deep breath. This was a lesson she had learned a long time ago from her father — the first thing to do in a crisis is breathe. Her father was a cop and he’d wanted anything but the same life for his daughter. She’d never wanted any other. He made sure his little girl went to college and studied; literature was her choice and that suited him fine. He didn’t see how she could get here from there, but she found the path illuminated by the writings of Poe and Dostoevsky. And there was nothing she read that interested her more than the calculated reasoning of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His writing kindled her desire to be a detective and furthered her quest to develop the qualities she needed most – observation and reflection.

She sat silently for a moment contemplating Tommy’s freedom. She wondered if she would tear up the arrest report if she hadn’t already filed it and concluded that she wouldn’t. She didn’t know enough about him yet, and she was determined that she couldn’t let someone like him remain loose on the streets of her precinct or her city.

“You’ve got to find him for me,” she told her partner, showing him Tommy’s mug shots. She supplied her partner with whatever sketchy information she had as her mind proceeded with a logical, methodic plan to track Tommy down, beginning at the residence he supplied on the arrest report.

Nobody answered the buzzer at Apartment 2D on 230 Bleecker Street, so Officer Lopez rang the super. She asked him about the tenant in 2D but even when she questioned him in Spanish he pretended not to understand. He did show her to the apartment and rang the doorbell aggressively enough to elicit a response.

“Who?” came a frightened voice on the other side of the door.

“Super!” he yelled and, after a series of tumblers clicked, the door slowly opened. A small Asian woman began shaking her head as soon as she saw the uniform of the NYPD.

“Thomas Crain?” Officer Lopez asked.

“No, no, no,” she insisted with more intense head shaking. “No. No Crain. No.”

“Do you know Thomas Crain?” She asked the super who also shook his head.

“Just started here. I don’t know.” Officer Lopez felt uncharacteristically angry toward the super. His instinct to withhold information struck an ugly chord in her personality. She was certain that the trail to her perpetrator ran through this building and she was determined to unravel his mystery if she had to arrest every person in it.

“Thomas Crain?” boomed a boisterous voice from down the hall. “Who’s lookin’ for Tommy?” A giant of a man closed in on the trio of much smaller people with disarmingly benevolent good humor. The wrinkles around his eyes and mouth had obviously been put there by years of intense smiling. His grey ponytail wagged from side to side as he approached them. The little woman retreated into her apartment and quietly locked her door. The super shot the giant a surly glance and also abandoned the hallway.

“What’s Tommy done now?” he smirked in such a way that Officer Lopez understood the man to believe Thomas Crain incapable of criminal activity.

“He assaulted a police officer,” she said.

“No shit?”

“What’s your name sir?”

“I’m Bobby. Bobby Jenks. Jenkins.”

Officer Lopez retrieved a small black notebook and a pen. “And you know Mr. Crain?”

“Yeah, sure, but I think you might have the wrong Tommy Crain. He’s not the assaulting kind. Anyway Tommy hasn’t lived here for years. He moved uptown in what … the nineties? Hey Honey,” he turned and yelled into his open apartment door, “when did Tommy and Caroline move?”

“Who wants to know?” came the sarcastic reply. The two walked automatically toward the door.

“The police.”

A slightly frazzled woman entered their view. She was visibly discomforted by the presence of the law on her doorstep. “Jesus, it had to be…it was…it was the end of ’96. Right after Christopher was born.”

“Yep, that’s right. Sure.”

Officer Lopez applied her pen to the notebook. “Do you have the address?”

“No,” the woman blurted.

“Sure we do, Hon. Check the Christmas card list.” Bobby was too busy congratulating himself on his civic responsibility to notice his common-law wife’s angry scorn. But Officer Lopez wasn’t.

“Oh yeah,” the woman scowled, “I’ll get it.”

“C’mon in officer,” Bobby smiled.

“Thank you.”

As soon as the door closed behind Officer Lopez, she recognized the faint sweet smell of marijuana smoke. “Can I getcha a drink or somethin’?” Bobby asked.

“No,” she said a little too harshly, then “thank you.” She stood perfectly still until the woman returned with her Christmas card list. The address was delivered in the sad voice of an unwilling traitor.

“I’ve got him at 714 West End Avenue, but I’m not sure that’s right.”

“Oh, sure it is. We’d know if he moved.”

Officer Lopez was too busy writing down the address to notice the sharpened blades shooting from the woman’s eyes. But Bobby didn’t miss it.

“Do you have an apartment number?” Officer Lopez asked.

“No, I don’t,” came the feeble denial. Since they all knew the apartment could be easily discovered, Officer Lopez let the matter drop.

“Thank you for your cooperation,” she said, and without another word from any of them she was out the door.

Officer Lopez had no difficulty finding the correct apartment at 714 West End Avenue. “Does Thomas Crain live here?” she asked the doorman.

“Yes he does. Apartment 17D.” He picked up the phone to call the apartment.

“Don’t call,” she said.

He pointed to a sign that read “All Visitors Must Be Announced.”

“I’m not a visitor.”

She took the elevator to the seventeenth floor. The hallway was immaculate. Its carpeted floor muffled the sound of her footsteps and a vague odor of pot roast penetrated the otherwise antiseptic atmosphere. She rang the doorbell on Apartment D. The door was opened by a well-kept Caucasian woman who Officer Lopez estimated to be between 65 and 70 years old. The woman looked surprised and a little frightened by the officer’s appearance. “Can I help you?” she asked with barely perceptible dread.

“Does Thomas Crain live here?”

“Yes. Please…is he alright?”

“He’s not here?”

“No. Is he alright?” The woman looked as if her life depended on the answer to that question.

“I’m sure he’s alright, ma’am. I’m just trying to find him. Are you related?”

“I’m his mother. Please come in. Why are you looking for him?” The words rattled from the older woman’s mouth in a nervous jumble. Officer Lopez entered the apartment and took in as much information as she could before answering. Thomas Crain was obviously wealthy, though not in an ostentatious way. The size and scope of the apartment and its location on the upper west side were evidence enough of that but it was the items filling it that cemented the impression. A grand piano dominated a living room whose other furnishings were spare but elegant. The works of art on the walls were original. Photographs of the family displayed their taste for exotic locales — India, Egypt, Paris, China and a part of Africa where elephants still roamed free. The photo that drew Officer Lopez’s eye was the simplest one — a wedding portrait. The man in it was obviously the man who attacked her, but he was also very different. His eyes, unlike those in so many wedding photos she’d seen, shone with the look she’d longed to see in a lover’s eyes — blissful contentment.

“That’s Tommy with Caroline,” the woman said. “She died two months ago and since then Tommy’s been…he’s…he’s inconsolable.” Her voice betrayed the depth of her longing to console her son. “Please…is he in trouble?”

Officer Lopez picked up the photo and regarded it with a heavy sigh. “No,” she said, “he isn’t.” Tommy’s mother fell into a chair with relief. “I just need to ask him a few questions.” The older woman nodded. She didn’t need or want further explanation. As Officer Lopez set the photo back on the shelf a young man wandered into the room.

“This is Tommy’s son, Christopher.”

Officer Lopez took the boy’s proffered hand and shook it. She felt the movement of muscles and bones within it but it otherwise felt like shaking the paw of a dog. There was no reciprocal handshake possible. His was a paw caught in a trap. She opened her mouth but before she could say anything her radio called her.

“Lopez,” she answered it.

“We got your boy.”

Tommy’s mother jumped up from her chair. “Is that him? Is he OK?”

“He’s fine,” the voice crackled through it tiny speaker. “We got him at the diner down the block. He had no money to pay.”

Officer Lopez brushed her cheek as she waited for the elevator. Once the doors clattered shut and left her in blessed isolation she produced a red notebook. This was different from the black notebook that she kept for official inquiries. In this one she jotted observations that had no basis in law but that sometimes helped her in deeper ways to understand and solve her cases. She scrawled a small, unsteady note, “shed a tear.”

Tommy was handcuffed and agitated by the time Officer Lopez returned to the station. He now had another charge against him and he knew he would not escape again. “What did I do now?” he yelled at her, jumping up from his seat. “Who’s harassing who here?”

“Mr. Crain, we need to talk.”

“I don’t want to talk. I want to get the hell out of here!” Officer Lopez waived off her partner. “What is going on here? I just wanted a goddamn cup of coffee. I’ll pay for it. I can pay for it.” He paced nervously, fearing the worst.

“Mr. Crain. I was just at your apartment. The one on West End Avenue.” He looked confused. “I spoke to your mother,” she continued.

“Mother?” he whispered. Did he have one of those?

“And your son.” She watched his face for signs of recognition. “Christopher.” That name obviously rang a bell. “They told me that your wife was dead. Caroline?”


“Oooooohhwww” he groaned as his insides constricted and the air was forced out of the gaping hole of his mouth.

The second he heard her name it all came back to him in a rush.

He had been walking on Leroy Street toward the river in a world he no longer understood. He’d been walking a long time, trying to burn off a restlessness that chewed on his muscles. Everything in his body was sharp and brittle, just about to the point of snapping. The wind, whipping down the Hudson, funneling through the rows of buildings, slapped at the delicate flesh of his cheeks daring him to hit back. Rather than hit back he walked, and walked farther, through a senseless world. Each brick in the buildings that surrounded him mocked him with their illusion of permanence. He looked above and beyond them into the same deep blue sky that had been watching over him his whole life, but it, too, no longer made sense. When he looked back down to earth his twitching bones were calmed. He saw something that made perfect sense.

She was scribbling notes in a small red notebook, oblivious to the groaning hunger of his stare. The hate, the anger, and the utter hopelessness drained from him and the wind’s vicious assault blew through him as if he was a chain link fence. The wind blew out his heart, blew out his aching memories and blew out the moral imperatives that had been so carefully constructed in him since infancy. None of that shit matters, he thought, just those lips. They were full, soft-looking lips, red and moist, curled up ever so slightly on one side and highlighted with a beauty mark just above the curl. He moved towards them with the slow deliberate steps of a predator. He was in her mouth before she even saw him.

He remembered it now so clearly. The taste of her! Cinnamon and vanilla. The smell of her, like fresh baked bread and the bottomless well of the fresh unknown shooting up from her feet through her soft, rolling tongue. He pulled her small, strong body tight to his and curled his arm around her skeleton to feel the bones of her ribs. Her mouth was a surprisingly hospitable hostess, not kissing back but allowing his kiss dispassionately, analyzing the data she received. The moment his grip loosened, in one fluid motion, like a dance, she twirled his arm around behind his back and slammed him face first into the cold stone wall.

The memory hit him as hard as the wall had, and now his knees buckled and he fell into a wall again, backwards this time. He slid slowly to the floor and looked up at Officer Lopez with naked anguish. “Caroline.”

She reached down and offered her hand, which he grasped tightly with both his shackled ones. With surprising strength she pulled him to his feet. He fought off the urge to pull her body to his, and as she looked into his defenseless eyes she had to fight a surprisingly similar feeling.

“Let’s go home, Mr. Crain.”

He smiled weakly, “Tommy.”

They didn’t speak on the drive uptown. Tommy’s head ached with a dull pain, as if someone was sitting in the back seat hitting him with a blunt weapon — not hard enough to crack his skull, just hard enough to torment him with reminders of his pain. He was afraid of the fresh pain he’d brought to his mother and son but even more daunting was the prospect of again having to make sense of this terrible new world in which he lived. Silence and a dull, blank mind seemed his best defense against the cramping of his brain. Officer Lopez remained silent as well, but her mind was far from blank. She was thinking, as she often did, about her father and how much his example still instructed her all these years after his death. She’d seen so many of her fellow cops grow jaded by having their noses rubbed in the worst parts of human nature. She knew that the same thing would never happen to her because she’d also seen the best. She turned to look at Tommy as they pulled up in front of his apartment. He didn’t seem to notice that the car had stopped.

“We’re here,” she said.

He fumbled at the door in the hopes of making another unobtrusive getaway but she stopped him. “I want you to take this,” she blurted. She pulled a card from her pocket. “It’s the number of a counselor. He’s very good. I know he can help you. I’ve seen him do it before.” Tommy was surprised by how quickly she spoke, as if she was possessed by a nervous energy. She turned the card over and scribbled self-consciously on the back. “I’m putting my number on here too. Give me a call if you have any questions.” She looked like she wanted to say more so he waited. “Or if you just want to talk.”

Tommy’s eyebrows pulled together as he looked at her and his brain started to uncramp. He let go of everything he was too tired to hold back. Then he did something that suddenly seemed inappropriate — he shook her hand. The flesh of her palm was a warm and supple reminder of her mouth as it firmly returned his gesture.

“Thank you Officer Lopez,” he said and then watched in wonder as her lips uncurled and spread apart at the edges to reveal a warm and winning smile.


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