CHAPTER 37

White door, #128, with crime scene tape.

Dee and Tad, looking exhausted and displaced, stood before the broken and splintered door of their apartment and stared at the jumble of yellow crime scene tape piled at its threshold. They’d spent the night—actually, the morning—at a nearby motel. It was nearly four a.m. before the police and techs had finished processing the crime scene and the detectives had finished interviewing Dee. It was during the interview that Dee learned an anonymous neighbor had called Crime Stop after hearing the breaking glass—Dee’s living room window—and that her assailant, Mark Smith, a.k.a., Markie, was now a suspect in a long list of burglaries and rapes within the complex.

The first officer on the scene, the officer who had broken through Dee’s front door and fought with the suspect before knocking him to the ground with his baton, had attended to Dee and Tad throughout the ordeal, wrapping them in blankets and calming them with his soft-spoken yet reassuring words. Were it not for Officer Dawes’ comforting presence, Dee could not have held herself together during the chaos of the investigation, nor managed her fragile emotions in the face of the cold indifference of the two detectives handling her case.

And it was Officer Dawes who recommended the nearby motel. “You’ll be safe there,” he told Dee before following after her and Tad in his cruiser to make sure they got checked in and situated okay. It wasn’t until after Dee saw, through the motel room window, Dawes’s squad car leave that she collapsed onto the bed and fell to pieces, finally releasing all the emotions she’d been stoically repressing all night long. Seeing her so distraught, Tad had climbed into the bed next to her and wrapped her in his small arms, holding her as she cried, holding her as he cried with her, holding her close and tight and for always and forever, vowing to never let go; holding her until their sobs eventually quieted as they both succumbed to troubled sleep.

It was well past two when the afternoon sun broke through the crack of the motel room’s curtains and awakened Dee from her fitful slumber. A soft knock sounded on the door:

“Housekeeping…”

“God, what time is it?” asked Dee, in a panic. “Come back in a few minutes!” she called to the maid. Still wrapped in his arms, Dee shook her son: “Tad, honey, wake up. We’ve overslept; it’s past the check-out time.”

The woman at the desk gave Dee a kind smile when she and Tad entered the motel’s office. When Dee tried to pay for the extra day, the woman shook her head, “Don’t worry about it. It’s already been taken care of by the nice man who came by this morning to check on you.”

“What man?” asked Dee.

“Black. Handsome. He didn’t give a name. But he did have a very nice smile.”

“Oh,” said Dee, surprised. How, she wondered, had Eli heard about the break-in or found out where they were staying? She felt a twinge of guilt at having written Eli off so easily the night before. Perhaps he was a ‘giver’ after all.

It was only a few blocks back to their apartment, but the short drive there was so fraught with dread, it seemed to take an eternity. And, now, here they stood, before the broken door, trying to build up the courage to step over the pile of yellow tape and enter into the scene of last night’s horrific crime. As Dee and Tad stepped toward the door, a crashing sound inside the apartment made them both freeze in their tracks…

It was the sound of shattering glass.

“What the…wait here,” Dee told Tad. The shattering of glass continued as she edged herself nearer and nearer to the door’s opening, until she was close enough to peek inside.

A man was kneeling down on the far side of the living room in front of the broken front window, his backside to Dee—and a nice backside, it was, thought Dee before immediately shooing the thought from her mind. The man raised his hand, revealing a hammer, which he deftly swung down upon a large shard of glass on the floor in front of him: Crash! The hammer rose again…

“Hello?” asked Dee.

The man, still holding the hammer aloft, turned to the door. Upon seeing Dee, he pulled himself upright and removed the pair of safety glasses he was wearing.

It was Officer Dawes. “Hey, there.”

Dee tried to reply but found she couldn’t utter a sound as her horrified eyes took in the state of her apartment. A million pieces of broken glass on the floor; the living room window but a jagged hole adorned with more of the yellow crime scene tape. Furniture pushed into corners, some upended. The pull-out bed stripped bare, the blanket, sheets, and pillowcases all taken as evidence. Black fingerprint powder everywhere—on the walls, window sills, furniture, counters, appliances, floors. A large bloodstain on the carpet.

“I was hoping to get this all cleaned up before you got home. You’re paid up for another night at the motel so you might want to stay there tonight.”

Dee recovered her voice. “How did you know that, about the motel?”

“I stopped by earlier to see how you were doing, but you were both still asleep. It was close to check-out time, so I took care of things with the desk clerk.”

“That was you?” So much for Eli, thought Dee, as she sized up Dawes, who looked very different in the light of day. Last night, in the glow of his flashlight, he looked every bit the superhero, standing tall and broad-shouldered in his uniform and gleaming badge. Today, in his civilian clothes—a pair of black Vans, crisp denims, and a navy T-shirt bearing the Phoenix Police Academy logo—he looked more human than superhero. Beautifully human, thought Dee, whose eyes had involuntarily fixed on the well-defined biceps bulging beneath the short sleeves of his T-shirt.

“Where’s your son?”

“My son?” mumbled Dee, eyes still riveted on Dawes’s biceps. “Oh, my son!” she exclaimed, ripping her eyes away as she rushed back to the door. “Tad, you can come in now.”

Tad peered around the splintered edge of the door’s frame, looked at the catastrophic mess inside, then at Officer Dawes, and began to cry.

“It’s not you,” said Dee, apologizing. “He’s just shy…and still traumatized from what happened last night.”

Officer Dawes quietly set down his hammer. “I understand. I’ve got two little boys myself, just about his age.” He approached Tad, carefully kneeling down in front of him.

“Hey. Do you remember me from last night? I carried you from your bed and took you to your mommy.”

“You caught the bad guy?”

Dawes smiled. “Yeah, that was me. I caught the bad guy.”

Tad threw his arms around Dawes’s neck and hugged him for dear life. Dawes hugged him back. By the time Tad broke his hold, there were tears in Dawes’ eyes. He rose and turned to Dee. “It’s moments like this that make me love my job.” He offered Tad a hand and led him into the kitchen where a half-dozen bags of Arby’s take-out and a carrier of soft drinks lined the counter.

“I figured you’d both be hungry after such a long night. I didn’t know what y’all liked so I just got two of everything. I planned to run them over to the motel when I got done here.”

 “You didn’t have to do all that,” said Dee as she struggled to lift up the dining table.

“Let me get that for you,” said Dawes, pulling the table upright and pushing the chairs into place.

Dee wiped the fingerprint dust from the table with a dish towel, then fished some sandwiches and fries from the Arby’s bags. She motioned to Tad and helped him into one of the dining chairs. She looked at Dawes, “Which sandwich would you like?”

“None for me. I ate just a while ago,” he said, then turned to Tad. “Now—Tad, is it?—I want you to promise me you’ll stay out of the living room until I get all the glass cleaned up.”

Tad nodded.

“And don’t let your mother go in there, either, okay?” Dawes turned to Dee and winked. “I’m going to head over to the management office. I told them first thing this morning to send someone over to fix the door and the window. They should’ve been here by now.”

“You should be spending your time off work relaxing at home. I can take care of things here.”

“No, you’ve been through enough—both of you. Let me help with what I can. You two just need to take it easy and eat something. After you’ve eaten, if you want something to do, I brought a bunch of supplies with me for cleaning up the fingerprint residue. They’re over there, in the white bucket. I shouldn’t be gone long.”

Dawes returned in a matter of minutes with four workers in tow. Two set upon the entry, replacing the splintered frame and rehanging the door, while the other two cleared the remaining bits of glass from the window’s frame and installed a new plate of glass. Dawes finished cleaning up the broken glass on the rug while Dee scrubbed clean all the fingerprint smudges and treated the bloodstain on the carpet. All the while, Tad played in his room, poking his head out every now and then to check on the progress of the adults. When he heard the buzz of the vacuum, he came out and watched Dee as she vacuumed up the last of the glass bits and loose fingerprint powder from the floor, then gawked in awe as Dawes muscled the furniture back into some semblance of order.

By the close of day, the apartment looked like its old self again. All that remained of the hellish night before were the godawful memories—memories that, Dee knew, would haunt her and Tad for a long time to come.

Officer Dawes began collecting his tools and cleaning supplies as he prepared to leave. He stood at the door to say his goodbyes to Dee and Tad. “You two gonna be okay staying here tonight? There’s still the motel room.”

“We’ll be okay,” Dee assured him. “Markie’s in jail and, from what the detectives told me this morning, he doesn’t have the money to bail out, so he’ll be there until this goes to trial.”

“Okay, but if you need anything, if you see anyone suspicious, or if you get scared and just need to talk, you can call Crime Stop or the Union Hills substation and ask them to send me over. You’re in my beat and I’ll be in the area working until seven tomorrow morning, so if you need anything, anything at all…”

“I will. Thank you so much, Officer Dawes.”

“Cornel.”

“Tad, say goodnight to Officer—to Cornel.”

Tad pulled away from Dee and ran to Dawes, bear-hugging his leg. “Don’t go!”

Dee gently pried Tad loose. “Tad, honey, Cornel has to go. He’s got to get home to his own family.”

“I live alone, actually.”

“I thought you said you have two little—”

“I do. Two boys. Terrance, he’s six, and Lamonte’s three. They live with their mother. We’re separated, almost a year now.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. It must be hard, being apart from your children.”

“I get them every other weekend. But, yeah, it’s hard. I miss them all the time.” Cornel’s gaze settled on Tad, a deep sadness in his eyes. “Well, you two take care. And call if you need anything.”

Dee and a tearful Tad bid him farewell and watched as he disappeared into the night. Dee closed the door, making sure to lock it, then sank back against it, flagging from the weight of the past twenty-four hours. Tad leaned against her, eyes red from crying, lids heavy from exhaustion.

“What d’ya say we go to bed early tonight?”

Tad nodded. “Can I sleep with you?”

“Sure,” she replied, then remembered all the linens for the pull-out bed had been taken as evidence. “How ‘bout I sleep with you, in your bed?”

Tad nodded his approval then ran off to his room. “Beat you there!”

“I’m sure you will,” sighed Dee as she dragged herself across the living room. She stood a moment in the hallway, hand on the light switch, and looked out at the living room, at the newly-installed window, at the door, at the pull-out bed neatly tucked away and hidden beneath the sofa’s cushions. To see it now, she thought, you’d never guess that, less than 24 hours ago, it was the scene of her worst nightmare. Everything was back in its place, back to normal. And yet, not normal. The whole place—not just the living room, but the entire apartment—felt different somehow. Emptier. Why it felt emptier perplexed Dee; aside from the sofa bed linens, she could think of nothing else that was missing from the apartment.

An impatient Tad called out from his bedroom: “Mommy, are you coming to bed?”

Dee flipped the light switch and padded off, taking one last backward glance through the dark at the front door before entering Tad’s bedroom. It was then that she realized what—or rather, who—it was the apartment, and she, herself, was missing:

Cornel.

CHAPTER 36
CHAPTER 38
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