Death is my beat. I make my living from it. I forge my professional relationship on it. I treat it with the passion and precision of an undertaker — somber and sympathetic about it when I’m with the bereaved, a skilled craftsman with it when I’m alone. I’ve always thought the secret to dealing with death was to keep it at arm’s length. That’s the rule. Don’t let it breathe in your face.
But my rule didn’t protect me. When the two detectives came for me and told me about Sean, a cold numbness quickly enveloped me. It was like I was on the other side of the aquarium window. I moved as if underwater — back and forth, back and forth — and looked out at the rest of the world through the glass. From the backseat of their car I could see my eyes in the rearview mirror, flashing each time we passed beneath a streetlight. I recognized the thousand-yard stare I had seen in the eyes of fresh widows I had interviewed over the years.
I knew only one of the two detectives, Harold Wexler. I had met him a few months earlier when I stopped into the Pints Of for a drink with Sean. They worked in CAPS together on the Denver PD. I remembered Sean called him Wex. Cops always use nicknames for each other. Wexler’s is Wex, Sean’s, Mac. It’s some kind of tribal bonding thing. Some of the names aren’t complimentary but the cops don’t complain. I know one down in Colorado Springs named Scoto whom most other cops call Scroto. Some even go all the way and call him Scrotum, but my guess is that you have to be a close friend to get away with that.
Wexler was built like a small bull, powerful but squat. A voice slowly cured over the years by cigarette smoke and whiskey. A hatchet face that always seemed red the times I saw him. I remember he drank Jim Beam over ice. I’m always interested in what cops drink. It tells a lot about them. When they’re taking it straight like that, I always think that maybe they’ve seen too many things too many times that most people never see even once. Sean was drinking Lite beer that night, but he was young. Even though he was the supe of the CAPs unit, he was at least ten years younger than Wexler. Maybe in ten years he would have been taking his medicine cold and straight like Wexler. But now I’ll never know.
I spent most of the drive out from Denver thinking about that night at the Pints Of. Not that anything important had happened. It was just drinks with my brother at the cop bar. And it was the last good time between us, before Theresa Lofton came up. That memory put me back in the aquarium.
But during the moments that reality was able to punch through the glass and into my heart, I was seized by a feeling of failure and grief. It was the first real tearing of the soul I had experienced in my thirty-four years. That included the death of my sister. I was too young then to properly grieve for Sarah or even to understand the pain of a life unfulfilled. I grieved now because I had not even known Sean was close to the edge. He was Lite beer while all the other cops I knew were whiskey on the rocks.
Of course, I also recognized how self-pitying this kind of grief was. The truth was that for a long time we hadn’t listened much to each other. We had taken different paths. And each time I acknowledged this truth the cycle of my grief would begin again.
My brother once told me the theory of the limit. He said every homicide cop had a limit but the limit was unknown until it was reached. He was talking about dead bodies. Sean believed that there were just so many that a cop could look at. It was a different number for each person. Some hit it early. Some put in twenty in homicide and never got close. But there was a number. And when it came up, that was it. You transferred to records, you turned in your badge, you did something. Because you just couldn’t look at another one. And if you did, if you exceeded your limit, well, then you were in trouble. You might end up sucking down a bullet. That’s what Sean said.