Flowers for Janice

by Verlaine


I never can remember when her birthday was, so I bring flowers on the anniversary of the day she died. That day I can always remember. I suppose if I wanted to, I could look up her birthday in the files—the one thing the agency never seems to lose is paperwork. But there really isn't much point. 


It's not as if anybody else pays any attention. I suspect I'm the only person left to whom she isn't just another meaningless name on a headstone in a half-abandoned graveyard. Poor damned doomed Alex has been in his grave nearly twenty years now. There were no children, and the agency never encouraged friendships.


I always bring roses and daisies. Janice loved daisies, loved their bright unpretentious cheerfulness and warmth more than any fancy hothouse flowers. Alex always wanted to spoil her with expensive gifts, but what she really enjoyed were the simple things. She'd have traded all the material possessions he could give her for a quiet walk on the beach or an evening spent cuddled together on the couch. 


The thing she valued most was time with her husband—and that was the thing the agency took away from her. Always another assignment, always another emergency that only someone with his special talents could deal with. We didn't want to admit that we were pushing him harder than any human being should have been pushed, and by the time we saw what was happening to him, it was too late.


If there was any mercy in all that tragic waste of life, it was that Janice never lived to see the disintegration of what was once a fine man. How much strength it took for Alex to hold himself together for her as long as he did, I can't even begin to imagine. How long he would have been able to go on—


Well, we'll never know. For all intents and purposes the man who was Alexander Drew died with the bullet that killed his wife. She wouldn't have recognized the killing machine that was left behind.


And the question that sometimes troubles me is this: who will remember Janice Drew when I'm gone? 


I don't know why this one woman, out of all the innocent victims I've known in my career, should be the one to haunt me. I barely knew her, except as Alex's wife. And what did I really see her as in those days? A potential liability, a potential hostage, a distraction for a man who needed to be superhumanly focused—nothing else. Yet every year, through sleet and cold and biting wind, no matter how tired or ill I am, no matter what other duties I have to set aside, I bring flowers for her grave on the day she died.


Today, I get a surprise. There's another car in the little parking lot at the end of the road. It's a bright red Prowler with California plates and a jaunty little dreamcatcher hanging from the mirror, and it looks as out of place as a spider on a birthday cake. I've never been able to understand why in 2005 anybody would want to drive a car that looks like it came out of a Bogart film from the thirties. 


Years of habit have my hand on my sidearm as soon as I see the car, but there's no sign of anybody else in the area. As I pull in beside the Prowler, I scan the hillside and the road behind me, and then shake my head. Once I'd have been in danger of ambush, or a prize for a prisoner exchange; now I'm an old man, out of the loop for nearly a decade, and any worth I ever had to the intelligence community pretty well evaporated the day Boris Yeltsin climbed on that tank in Moscow. 


I pick up my bouquet, and make my slow and aching way up the hill, pausing at the top to get my breath back. Every year the walk up the little incline to the churchyard seems to get steeper. I wonder how many more times I'll be able to make the journey. They say old soldiers never die—not true, my friends, not true. I can feel my mortality in every weary bone of my body.  


There are two figures ahead of me on the path, and as I get closer, I realize with a shock that it's Janice's grave they've stopped at. It's the first time in all these years there's been anyone else here during my visits, and my hand once more instinctively goes to my sidearm. All my training tells me to retreat as quickly as I can, back down the hill to the shelter of my car, the illusory link to safety provided by my cell phone.


Instead, I give in to my curiosity, and keep walking. There's something inside me that needs to know who else is thinking of Janice on the anniversary of her death, something that drives me to go forward in the face of all common sense. After all, I'm nearly eighty. If the last thing I do is stand witness to a good woman's death, it won't be a bad way to end my life.


When I come up to them, I see that it's two men: a tall greying blond with one of those little chin-warmer goatees, leaning on a cane, and a slightly shorter fellow with salt and pepper curls. They've been talking quietly, and haven't noticed my approach at all. Salt-and-pepper takes a bouquet from Cane Guy, and leans down to place it on the grave; his companion reaches out and gently touches the headstone, and says something too softly for me to hear.


As Salt-and-pepper straightens up, he catches sight of me past Cane Guy, and nods politely, then suddenly freezes. Cane Guy's head snaps around, ice blue eyes pinning me, a big hand reaching under his jacket. I spread my hands out carefully.


"Agent Cole?" Salt-and-pepper says in disbelief, and suddenly the years roll back and I see two young hot-shots, full of righteous indignation, defying the power of the government that I represent in an effort to get justice for their fallen friends. A pair of street-wise punks who weren't prepared to let their ideas of right and wrong stand aside in the interests of national security. 


I nod, and slowly let my hands down. "Detective Starsky. Detective Hutchinson. It's been a long time."


"Not long enough." Hutchinson doesn't sound like he's changed a bit.


Starsky nods at the flowers I'm carrying. "Kinda sentimental for a guy in your line of work, isn't it?"


"Janice Drew was a good woman.  Nothing that happened to you or your friends was her fault." I look down at the headstone. They've brought a bunch of bright mixed flowers, and I kneel carefully and place my bouquet beside theirs. My knee joints protest stringently when I try to get up, but I'll be damned if I ask either of them for a helping hand. 


When I'm on my feet again, I stand for a moment, just looking at the headstone. Like the lady it shelters, it's simple and elegant. Janice Drew. Beloved Wife. Nothing else that needs to be said.


"Which one of you was it?" I didn't expect my voice to be so harsh, not after all these years. I hadn't even realized that the question was there in the back of my mind, until I spoke.


Hutchinson shakes his head. "It was Mac."


"The car bomb."


They nod. 


"If it makes any difference," Starsky says quietly, "Mac woulda ripped himself apart over it, if he'd known. He—he'd never shot anybody before."


"Well he sure picked a lousy first time." I can't help the anger that seeps into my words, and I feel ashamed. I sound like a whining old man, embittered over a past that can't be changed. Both Starsky and Hutchinson stiffen, and start to speak, but I hold up my hand. "I'm sorry. That was uncalled for. If anybody's had experience about how badly things can go wrong in the heat of action, it's me."


They both nod again. 


"What happened to Drew?" Hutchinson asks. "Assuming it's not a national security risk to tell us."


"His mental condition deteriorated steadily. He died in hospital." I catch the glance between them. "He died. Of natural causes. We're not monsters in the agency, even if it suits some segments of the media portray us that way. Alex was taken care of to the best of our ability as soon as we realized there was a problem."


"Too bad nobody bothered to worry before there was a problem." Hutchinson's voice is caustic.


 "Hutch." Starsky reaches over and gently grips his partner's arm. "It's over. This ain't the place. Let the lady rest."


Hutchinson nods and reaches up to run his hand along the top of the headstone again. "Rest."


I don't even notice when they leave. I stand there for a long time, stiffening up in the raw winter breeze, looking down at the bright flowers already beginning to wilt around the edges from the cold. Finally, when my feet and hands feel half-frozen, I shake myself out of my memories, and reach out to touch the headstone too. I want to say something, something that will have meaning, but nothing comes into my mind, and finally I just turn and shuffle my way back down the hill to my car.



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