Breaking the Cycle – A Short Story
In this short story, Kate Bynum is a patrol cop working the graveyard shift. She has seen more than her share of domestic violence calls. More often than not, these besieged women are unable to find a way to stop the torment on their own.
When she meets a young woman who is trapped in an abusive marriage by her politically connected and powerful husband, Kate knows she must find a way to help the woman escape and break the vicious cycle of abuse.
The complete short story is available below.
Breaking the Cycle – A Short Story
The moment she opened the squad car door, Kate Bynum heard raised voices coming from the townhouse. It was her second domestic violence call of the evening – this one had been phoned into the 911 dispatcher by a neighbor. She radioed the station about her arrival at the scene and stepped out of the police car.
She made a quick survey of her surroundings before making her way up the front walk. It was close to one in the morning and most of the units were dark, with the notable exceptions of the one she was heading to and the one next door to it. She saw the curtains part at the neighbor’s home, a face peer out intently, and then a hasty withdrawal. The curtains swayed for a moment before growing still.
When Kate arrived at the front door, she paused, listening intently. She could hear a man and woman arguing, but no sounds of anyone being hit, no crying, no furniture being tossed across the room. That was a good sign. Maybe she had arrived before the fight had escalated into violence.
With her right hand resting lightly on her service revolver, she pressed the doorbell with her left. The voices from inside stopped mid-sentence, and there was a moment of silence before she heard the man’s voice. “Who the hell?” As she listened to the footsteps approaching the door, she felt the adrenalin rush through her system. She was on full alert as the door swung open and a man leaned out, his eyes bulging, his face mottled red. He opened his mouth, ready to yell at the intruder, but when he saw her uniform, he clamped it shut.
Kate kept her voice calm, as though she were talking to a frightened child. “Good evening, sir. I’m Officer Bynum with the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office. Everything okay in there?”
She could see hatred burning in the man’s eyes. “Fine,” he spat out.
“One of your neighbors called us. Said it was a little noisy over here. Mind if I come in and take a look around?”
She saw the man hesitate before he stepped back. “There’s nothing to see.”
“Well, then, I won’t take up much of your time.” Kate kept her gaze riveted on the man as she stepped quickly through the doorway, her hand still poised over her gun. Once she was safely past him, she allowed her arms to drop to her sides. She searched the living room, looking for telltale signs of violence. She didn’t have to look far – an overturned chair, a hole punched in the wall, a lamp lying shattered next to a bare table top. No wonder the neighbor had called.
She turned to the man, who had remained at the door like an immovable boulder. “Where’s your wife, sir?”
In response, the man slammed the door, crossed his arms, and bellowed out, “Angie, get your ass in here.”
A woman stepped into the room, and Kate studied her. She appeared to be walking with no impediment: no limp, her arms moving naturally. Other than a bright red mark on her left cheek, she seemed to be all right.
“Good evening, ma’am. I’m Officer Bynum. How are–”
“We didn’t call the police,” the woman interrupted.
“No, ma’am. Your neighbor did.”
“Nosy asshole. It’s none of his damn business.”
“So then you’re all right, ma’am?”
“I’m fine.” The woman’s eyes were as belligerent as her husband’s. “You can leave now.”
“And what about that mark on your face? It looks like someone hit you.”
The woman snorted. “Yeah, well I got my licks in too, so don’t you worry about me.” She put her hands on her hips, staring Kate down.
“Are there any children in the house?”
“No, we don’t have any kids.”
Let’s hope it stays that way, Kate thought. “And you’re sure you’re okay? I’d be happy to take your husband down to the station for a little cooling off period.”
“I said I was fine. All I want is for you to leave.”
Kate stood watching the woman for a minute, willing her to change her mind. “You know, you don’t have to live like this. There are shelters.”
“You don’t get it. My husband and I fight once in a while. It’s no big deal. Maybe you and your husband don’t fight.” The woman paused and glanced down at Kate’s empty ring finger. “Oh, I guess you’re not married. You wouldn’t know.”
Kate gritted her teeth. “No, ma’am, I’m not married and I’m not judging you. I’m just letting you know you have options.”
“You hear that, Billy? I got options.” The woman winked at her husband, and they both cracked a smile.
Kate could feel the tension in the room drop, like someone had turned off a gas burner. Whatever the fight had been about, it was over now. As soon as she left, they would probably head straight for the bedroom for some make-up sex. As if on cue, the man walked over to his wife and put his arm around her.
“You folks have a nice evening now,” Kate said, making her way to the door. When she turned around, the couple was gazing at each other, oblivious to her departure. As she walked to her squad car, she shook her head. Sometimes she felt more like a marriage counselor than a cop. When she worked the graveyard shift, half her calls were domestics, and most of the time they ended up like this one, where she diffused the situation without having to make any arrests. And the times when she did take the husband in, it was usually the wife who came to bail him out the next morning.
What was frustrating was that most of the couples acted as though their behavior was perfectly normal. Husband and wife scream at each other; husband slaps wife around; and then it all blows over until the next time. It was a never-ending cycle, but neither husband nor wife cared. No doubt they had been raised in families where their parents had fought like this – just as Kate’s had. But that’s what she couldn’t understand – why so many children from abusive families ended up in abusive homes as adults. Living through what she did as a kid, she knew she would never allow a man to mistreat her.
She got in her squad car and radioed in an all-clear report before she started the engine. Closing her eyes, she leaned back against the headrest. A memory of her parents fighting played through her mind as unwelcome as it was insistent. When the radio squawked and the dispatcher called out a report of kids spray painting graffiti at the local high school, she breathed a sigh of relief. Graffiti would be a nice change of pace.
* * *
Kate parked her squad car in front of the house – no, make that a mansion. She peered through her windshield at the towering red brick Georgian. A woman had called 911 to say that she had fallen down a staircase. The dispatcher had managed to find out that she was alone in her house except for a baby before the woman apparently passed out. The phone line was still open, but there had been only silence for the last five minutes, the amount of time it had taken for Kate to arrive.
Her shift was almost over, so this would probably be her last stop of the night. She expected to go in the house, do whatever she could to help the woman, and wait for the ambulance that had already been summoned. Kate jogged up the front walk, knowing that every second counted, mentally reviewing her CPR training as she went. She rang the doorbell, not expecting anyone to answer, but hoping it might jar the woman into consciousness. She yanked at the door handle, but it was locked tight. Looking through the glass panel, she could see a curved staircase and a marble floor, but no body. If the woman had fallen down these stairs, she must have crawled somewhere else to get to a phone.
Kate raced around to the side of the house and found herself at a French door leading into a kitchen. It was dark, but she could make out what looked like a leg sticking out from behind an island. She rattled the door, but this one was locked too. Without hesitating, Kate drew her gun and used its butt to knock the glass out of one of the panes. She reached through the jagged opening, unlocked the door, and pushed her way through. She paused for a second to find the light switch, and when she hit it, the room lit up like a lightning bolt.
As Kate sprinted around the island, a body took form – a woman lying on her side, her leg twisted underneath her in an awkward angle, her arm thrown out in front of her, inches from a cordless phone. But what made Kate gasp was the woman’s face: a swollen lump of clay, blood streaming from her nose and mouth. Kate dropped to her knees, fumbling for the woman’s neck, feeling for a pulse that was just barely there.
She jumped when the woman’s eyes fluttered open. “Help me, please.” The words were barely a whisper.
“An ambulance is on the way. Just hold on. I’m right here with you.”
“My baby. She’s upstairs.” The woman went into a spasm of coughing, blood flying from her mouth. “My neighbor, Jackie. Her number’s by the phone. Call her. She’ll come…” There was a soft sigh and then the woman’s eyes closed shut.
Kate squeezed the woman’s hand, not knowing if she would hear her words. “I’ll call her as soon as the medics come. I won’t leave until she gets here. Is there anyone else to call – your husband?”
The woman’s eyes flew open and Kate saw the terror. “No, no. He can’t know I called you.”
Kate cradled the woman’s face in her hands. “Did he do this to you? You can tell me. You can trust me.”
A tear escaped from the woman’s eye, rolling down her cheek, mingling with the blood and turning it a light pink. “I can’t. I can’t tell anyone. He’ll kill us.”
“Me, my baby. He’ll kill us both.”
“I won’t let that happen. We’ll find you a safe place.”
The woman made a gurgling sound, half laugh, half cry. “You don’t know who he is, do you?”
Kate looked away, racking her brain. The dispatcher had given her the name registered to the address. Melanie and Charles Martin. Charles Martin. There had to be a thousand Charles Martins. And then it hit her. Isn’t Carl a nickname for Charles? Could it be Carl Martin – the Chatham County District Attorney? She turned to the woman. “The D.A.?”
There was just the slightest nod, and then the woman’s whole face crumpled as she began to sob. “I won’t file a report. I’ll just say I fell down the stairs. You can’t protect me. No one can.”
Kate didn’t know what to say. With a sigh of relief, she heard the ambulance siren wailing as it careened up the driveway. “Help’s here. Just hang on.” She lay the woman’s head gently on the floor before she got to her feet and raced to the front door, throwing it open. “She’s in here! Hurry! You’ll need a stretcher.”
She waited for the medics and then led them into the kitchen.
“Jesus, what happened to her? I thought she fell down the stairs.”
Kate met the medic’s eyes. “That’s what she says.”
The medic shook his head. “Right.” He turned to the woman, and Kate watched as he and his partner went to work. It took them just a few minutes to have her strapped onto the stretcher and ready to move.
Kate led the way out of the kitchen, down the hall, and through the front door. She watched as the medics loaded the woman into the ambulance and then took off, tires squealing, sirens blaring. She stood for a moment before she turned and walked back to the kitchen, looking for the neighbor’s phone number. When she located it, she called, and heard a groggy voice answer on the other end. Kate explained what had happened.
“Just give me a minute to get dressed. I’ll be right there.”
Kate hung up the phone and made her way up the winding staircase, noting the distinct lack of blood anywhere on the steps. In fact the only place she had seen any blood was in the kitchen. When she got to the landing, she began to search the bedrooms. The third door she opened led her into the nursery, decorated in candy-cane pink, looking as pure and innocent as the baby herself, curled up and sleeping soundly in her crib. As Kate looked down at the sleeping child, she whispered a vow. “I don’t care who your father is. I’m going to find a way to protect you and your mother.”
* * *
After the neighbor arrived to take care of the baby, Kate drove to the station. Her shift was over, and she spent the next half hour filling out paperwork. When it was time to write up the report for her last call, she weighed her options carefully. Finally she decided to write that the woman claimed to have fallen down the stairs, but that in Kate’s opinion, she appeared to have been severely beaten. She knew these words would protect the woman if her husband were to ever see the report.
When she finished her paperwork, Kate spent a few minutes chatting with the other officers before she clocked out. She headed to the parking lot and started up her Honda, but kept it in park while she debated her next steps. She still wasn’t accustomed to the graveyard shift and her body was begging her to go home, pour herself a glass of wine, soak in a nice hot bath, and then go to bed. Instead, she drove to the hospital, hoping that Melanie Martin had been admitted and that Kate would have another chance at trying to convince the woman to file charges against her husband.
When she got to the hospital, her uniform opened all the right doors, and she was led directly to Melanie’s room. The nurse informed Kate that the patient was being kept overnight for observation and would probably be released later in the day. Kate thanked the nurse and then entered the room. At first glance, Melanie appeared to be sleeping, but as soon as Kate crossed the room, her eyes flew open. Kate had the distinct impression that this poor woman probably never allowed herself a good night’s sleep: that she spent her life in a state of constant vigilance.
“Good morning, Mrs. Martin. Do you remember me from last night?”
“Yes, Officer, and you can call me Melanie.”
“Thank you. May I sit down? I’d like to ask you a few more questions about last night.”
Kate saw the look of resignation in the woman’s eyes before she responded. “Look, I realize that you know what really happened last night, but like I told you then, I won’t press charges against my husband. He’s too powerful. He’s a huge player in this whole old boy’s network that’s running the justice system in Chatham County. He’s close friends with judges, the mayor, even the governor. They play by their own rules, and they will never turn against one of their own.”
Kate pulled the guest chair next to the bed and sat down. “I promise I won’t put any of what you tell me into a report, but maybe there’s some other way I can help you.” She paused, memories flooding her mind. “I know what you’re going through, Melanie. My father abused my mother. I know how a woman can feel trapped. But if you talk to me about it, maybe together we can figure something out. I really want to help you.”
Melanie looked down at the bed sheets, not meeting Kate’s eyes. “I’ve never told anyone about this. I feel like such a failure.”
“That’s how your husband wants you to feel, but it’s not true. He’s the failure. He’s the one who can’t control himself.” Kate waited, letting her words sink in. “How long has the abuse been going on?”
Melanie closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Kate could tell the woman was struggling to decide whether to speak out about the violence she was living with. Finally Melanie opened her eyes, and her gaze was steady. “Since about six months after we were married. He was a perfect gentleman while we were dating. I occasionally saw a hint of a temper, but he was never physically abusive. The first time it happened, I was so shocked, and then he was so apologetic afterwards. I didn’t think it would ever happen again.”
“But it did.”
Melanie crossed her arms, rubbing her hands up and down her forearms as though to warm herself. “Yes. It’s not usually as bad as last night.”
“Have you been hospitalized before?”
Melanie hesitated before answering. “Twice. Once with a broken arm – I told them I slipped on some ice. And once with cracked ribs – that time I said I had fallen off a horse.” She smiled sadly. “I haven’t been on a horse since I was twelve.”
“Then there’s a history there, Melanie. Your previous injuries would help to support your accusations.”
“There isn’t going to be an accusation. It’s not just what Carl does for a living or who he knows. It’s who he is. He’s sworn to me that if I ever tried to leave him, he would track me down and kill me and our baby.”
“Do you believe him? Do you think he would actually kill you and his own child?”
Melanie’s eyes filled with tears. “I think he’s capable of it. And I’m not going to take the chance.”
“Has he ever hurt the baby?”
Kate reached down and took Melanie’s hand. “You know it’s only a matter of time. Eventually he’s going to lose his temper with your child. And even if he never does, she’ll still be exposed to his violence towards you. Do you want her to grow up in that kind of environment?”
“I just want her to grow up, period. As long as I stay with him, I can try to protect her. If I leave him…” Melanie shook her head. “I can’t take that risk.”
Kate opened her mouth to reply, but stopped when she heard a sound behind her. Before she even turned around, she knew who was there. The fear on Melanie’s face told her everything.
Kate pushed back the chair and stood, turning to face the man she had seen a hundred times on TV and in the newspaper. She watched as he took in her uniform and then turned to his wife, manufacturing a look of concern on his face. “Darling, are you all right? I got home and Jackie was there with the baby. She told me you fell down the stairs. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there.”
He turned to Kate and extended his arm. “Officer, I’m Carl Martin. May I have a word with my wife alone, please?”
Kate ignored his gesture. “Actually, sir, I’d like to have a word with you first. May we step outside?”
She waited, watching as he hesitated. She could tell he wanted desperately to know what Melanie had told her. Finally, he turned and she followed him out of the room.
Kate pointed to an empty waiting area. “We can go in here, sir.”
“What is it, Officer? I’d really like to be with my wife.”
Kate stood her ground, leaning close to the man, getting into his space as though he were just another common criminal. “You and I both know what really happened to your wife. She did not fall down the stairs. You did this to her.”
She saw the fury in his eyes. “Did she tell you that?”
“No, she denies it. She’s sticking to her story, but I know she’s lying. The injuries she has are inconsistent with falling down stairs.”
The district attorney’s mouth curved into a vulgar smile. “And you’re some sort of medical expert, are you?”
“I have eyes, and I’ve seen enough domestic abuse cases to recognize one when I see it.” Kate jabbed her finger at the man. “I don’t care who you are. If you ever touch her again, I will haul you in.”
“Try it, and I’ll have you thrown off the force so fast you won’t know what hit you.” His hand reached out to touch her shield. “Officer Bynum, badge number 4033. I think I’m going to have a little chat with your supervisor about your insubordination.”
“You do that, sir. And I will tell him what really happened last night. That you beat your wife so badly, she could have died.”
“I will deny that and my wife will deny that. You have no proof. The best thing for you to do is to forget about last night and go back to your little beat – while you still have a job.” He leaned forward, his breath hot in her face. “You do not want to mess with me. I will crush you.”
He turned and stormed out of the waiting room. Kate sank into a lounge chair, clasping her hands together to keep them from shaking. God, what did I just do? she thought. My first year on the force is going to be my last.
* * *
The next night, she drove to the station in a state of panic. Did the D.A. call her boss yesterday? Was she going to be fired for – what did he say? Insubordination? She parked her car and walked slowly into the building. This was the first time she’d dreaded coming to work since she had started eleven months ago. The minute she saw her boss’s eyes, she knew she was in for it.
“In my office, Bynum,” the captain barked at her.
Kate held her head high as she walked by the other cops. She was not going to show any fear. She stepped into her boss’s office, wondering if this would be her last visit.
“Close the door,” he ordered.
Kate did as he asked and then stood, waiting for further instructions.
Captain Barnes sat down behind his desk and pointed to a chair across from him. “Sit.”
Kate did as she was told, her hands gripping the armrests.
“I got a call from District Attorney Martin yesterday. He says his wife fell down some stairs yesterday. He wasn’t home at the time, but she called 911. You took that call?”
“Yes, sir. I stayed with her until the ambulance came, and then I went to see her at the hospital after my shift.”
“And I take it you don’t think she fell down any stairs. You think Martin beat her up?”
“I know he did, sir.”
“And you know this how, Bynum? Is that what the wife says?”
Kate blinked rapidly. She didn’t want to look like an idiot, but she had to protect Melanie. “No, sir, but it was obvious. There was no blood on the stairs. It was all in the kitchen. And her injuries — you could tell someone had pounded on her face.”
“But he denies that and she denies that, right?”
“Then let me explain something to you. Whatever you think might have happened is irrelevant. We are not going to bring charges against someone as well connected as Carl Martin unless we have absolute proof, including, but not limited to, his wife’s statement.”
“But she won’t file charges. I think she’s too afraid of him.”
The captain leaned forward, his gaze like darts, and she was the dartboard. “Maybe you’re right, but that doesn’t change things. There’s nothing we can do without her cooperation, and even with it…” He shrugged and sat back in his chair. “It’s a long shot. Carl Martin is a very powerful guy. He’s not going down easily. There aren’t many people I’d say this about, but the fact is, the man’s untouchable.”
“No one should be untouchable, Captain.”
“You’re new here, Bynum. You’ve got a lot to learn about how this county works. You’re lucky that Martin just called me and not the sheriff, or you’d be handing over your badge. I stood up for you, but don’t prove me wrong.”
“I appreciate what you did for me, sir, but –”
The captain held up his hand. “Not another word. I am officially ordering you to close the file on this incident. Can you do that?”
Kate’s hands clenched the armrests, but she kept her voice steady. “Yes, sir.”
“That’s all then.” The captain leaned back in his chair. “Be safe out there.”
Kate nodded, and she turned to leave. Apparently it’s not the criminals I have to be afraid of, she thought. It’s the vipers nesting in our own system I have to worry about.
* * *
Kate bided her time. She let six months go by without saying another word about the district attorney to anyone. She wanted to make sure she put a significant amount of distance between her previous encounter with Carl Martin and her next one. During that time, she found out everything she could about the man. The more she learned, she more she came to hate him. Not only did she discover that his office was teeming with corruption: she also learned that he had been married before and that his first wife had died under mysterious circumstances. She had drowned in a bathtub after overdosing on sleeping pills. Given what Kate knew, she could only wonder whether the D.A. had killed her and then staged her death to look like an accident or suicide.
Kate kept digging into the D.A.’s life, even though she knew she would never be able to formally charge him with any crimes. And she made it a point to keep in touch with his wife. Never pushing her, never bringing up what had happened, but just checking in, like a friend. So when Melanie mentioned that she and the baby were leaving the next day to visit her parents for a long weekend, Kate wished her a safe trip. And then she hung up the phone, and smiled and knew that the time had come.
The next night, Kate worked her usual graveyard shift. When it was over, she drove to the station, filed her paperwork, and followed her usual routine. Then she got into her car and drove to the Martins’ house. She parked halfway up the mile long driveway – there were no visible neighbors – the house sitting in the middle of ten acres of silent woods. She knew that the district attorney’s security detail left him alone during the night – after all, he had a top-of-the-line security system. But the times she had spent dropping in on Melanie had given her all the information she needed to get around the system. Kate knew that when she broke in, she would have twenty seconds to enter the code before the alarm sounded. The Martins had it programmed that way so the district attorney wouldn’t wake the sleeping baby when he came in late at night, as he often did.
After she entered the house and disabled the alarm, Kate crept up the stairs to the master bedroom. She remembered exactly where it was: the second door on the right, just next to the nursery. She opened the door and stood quietly, allowing her eyes to adjust to the darkness. She saw the figure on the bed, motionless, except for steady breathing, the covers moving up and down in rhythm. She inched her way into the room, until she stood next to the bed, looking down at Carl Martin, his face as sweet and innocent as his baby’s.
In one quick motion, she yanked the covers back, revealing his upper body. As his eyes flew open, she stabbed him in the heart and then watched as he gasped and grabbed for the knife. Before he could pull it out, his fingers loosened their grip and fell away, his hand resting on his chest, as the last of his life blood pooled out onto his pajama top.
Her hands covered in surgical gloves, Kate reached down and felt for his pulse just as she had felt for his wife’s six months ago. “That’s for Melanie,” she whispered. With the D.A.’s track record, she knew there would be plenty of suspects in his murder. The man had made lots of enemies, and no one even knew she was one of them.
On her way home, Kate stopped at the cemetery. The sun was coming up, and the groundskeeper was unlocking the gates. He smiled and waved at her – she was a frequent visitor. She drove in and parked her car near her mother’s grave. As she knelt next to it, she pulled at a few weeds that had sprouted during the week since her last visit. “I’m so sorry that I couldn’t save you from Dad, but at least I saved another woman’s life. And I hope her daughter grows up never witnessing any abuse – that she breaks free of that ugly cycle.”
# # #
Copyright 2012 Linda Johnson
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Breaking the Cycle is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.