Getting Into Character
Sometimes it’s not about how you feel, it’s just about knowing what you have to be and making yourself be that. When I wake up in the morning I don’t feel like a killer, but still, I know that when the sun goes down I have to find it in myself to be that guy.
At eight a.m. I carry a shallow ceramic mug full of strong coffee out of the sliding glass door of my apartment and sit on my four foot by eight foot second floor patio. I drink my morning java on plastic lawn furniture and admire the low morning sun over the lifeless retaining pond that was built at the same time as the complex. It’s the suburbs.
It’s hard to feel more than two dimensional living in the burbs. They’re flat and endless with no character or energy. At six o’clock the parking lot of my building is packed with blue and gray four door sedans and minivans. By seven it’s virtually empty. The residents parade out single file like it’s some national holiday celebrating mediocrity, then at six in the evening they shuffle back in and you’d never know anything had happened.
It’s a slow, long, tortured purgatory, like being drawn out on the rack for twelve hours a day. I feel the boredom as a physical pain and it pushes me to be who I have to be. It reminds me that what I do at night, while not noble perhaps, is necessary. Necessary for me.
At eight p.m. the cool evening air begins to roll in, and with it come the clouds. I shower and shave. I poor vodka from the freezer over two olives and set the glass on my dresser. Drinking helps. It helps set the mood, but it’s a fine needle to thread. Too much, even a little too much and I’m foggy and unreliable.
I dress in exactly what you’d expect. Black slacks, white shirt, black tie and jacket. My hair is short and clean cut, parted neatly and free of product. I have a Beretta .45 in a hip holster under my jacket and a small four inch switchblade in my right pants pocket.
By nine o’clock the sun has dipped below the horizon and the moon is a washed out blotch of white light halfway up the sky. The thunder started half an hour ago and now the rain is falling in huge drops the size of alligator teeth. I’m wet by the time I reach my car, and even with the wipers on full blast the windshield is a streaky watercolor of yellow and black.
When the engine of my twenty year old Cadillac starts up the cassette in the deck clicks on and Johnny Cash announces loudly that God’s gonna cut me down. I nod my head in silent agreement and brush the wet hair out of my eyes. I look at myself in the rearview mirror, squint and wipe my face with my hands. I grip the steering wheel at ten and two and inspect my worn out knuckles. It’s about making yourself believe you are who you need to be.
My knife finds its way out of my pocket and I push up on the sleeves of my jacket and shirt. The blade snaps open with a deadly sounding switch and I slide the tip into my forearms just deep enough to draw blood. I make fists, tight desperate fists and the blood from the wounds begins to flow down my arms and between my fingers. I pump the fists open and shut, forcing out more blood until I’m covered wrists to fingertips.
I close the knife and slide it back into my pocket, then I pull my sleeves back down. The open flesh on my arms burns and draws my focus. I feel damaged, broken, and I watch as the crimson begins to soak into the clean white fabric of my shirt cuffs. The rain pounds the steel and glass of my car and the hillbilly on the radio shouts at me about God’s wrath and suddenly I feel myself slip into the person I’m looking for. The transformation feels oily and sick like a fever about to break.
I drop the car into gear and feed gas to the hungry engine. The beast machine screams and I hold the wheel tight as my iron dragon caries me towards the fiery lights of the city.
I wish it harder to do. It seems to me that killing a man should be difficult, and what does it say about us, people, that we’ve worked harder and harder to make it easier. It isn’t hard to do though, and it only takes a moment.
I park my car in a tower a few blocks away and walk in the drowning rain. When I get to his building I stand on the stoop and stare up at the flat brick face of it. He lives here. He has a sofa and a television, plates and bowls and probably cereal. He thinks he’s just a guy and tonight is just a night. It should be harder to prove him wrong.
I walk half a block into the alley between his building and the next and find a spot just in the shadows and wait. The rain slows and I watch it peter out in the yellow glow of the street lamps. It isn’t long after that.
The steps come slow and casual, splashing lightly across wet cement with a patience I wish I felt. Then his profile breaks through the edge of my field of vision and for just a moment he’s perfect. A beautiful dark silhouette on the oil painting of my city and I want nothing more than just for him to live. Moments like this are painfully short.
I step forward into the light and before he turns his head my switchblade snaps open like a thunderclap and the blade is between his ribs. He gasps and chokes and my left hand is around his throat. I pull him in and hold him against me like a lover, whispering in his ear that this will be short, that I won’t let him hurt too long. I turn us in two steps and throw him against the weathered soft brick of his home. His head bounces off it like a rubber ball and I see the confusion vanish from his eyes as they roll up into his head. He collapses on the pavement in a crumpled mess of bloody laundry.
The candy apple red from his side mixes with rainwater and my own vital fluid creating a cascade of pale pink liquid that pools at my feet. I bend over and pat him down but find only a crumpled pack of Marlboro’s and a lady’s Zippo lighter.
I pull my gun and crouch across from the man, watching the vanishing rain dance on his pale face. I light one of his cancer sticks and smoke while I wait for him to come back to me. Towards the end of the butt his eyes flutter and open with a desperate rattled expression.
I level the barrel of my weapon between his eyes.
“Hi Chris,” I say.
He’s bleeding and not sure where he is. It hurts for him to breath and the pain in his ribs is preventing him from sitting up.
“It’s okay Chris, you don’t have to sit. Just lie there for now. Try and stay comfortable.”
He’s frightened, not sure what to make of me. Not sure if I’m his friend or his monster. He breathes shallowly and winces when he tries to move. Eventually he takes my advice and settles into a position that provides the least amount of agony.
“I know it hurts, and I am sorry for that. Chris, I don’t want you to feel like you have to do a lot of talking tonight, okay? I know it’s difficult so I’ll try and keep the conversation centered on yes or no kinds of questions, okay?”
He looks at me pitifully and I really wish I could make it all better for him. After a moment he nods and I smile.
“Good job Chris. You got it perfect.”
He coughs and his lips turn red. I put the cigarette out on the pavement and lean in a bit.
“We’ll start simple,” I say. “Do you know who I am Chris?”
His head shakes no.
“Of course not, no reason you should. Do you know why I’m here?”
A pause, then he coughs again and tries to speak.”
“Money,” he wheezes.
I shake my head.
“Oh Chris, no. No it’s not money.”
I crouch and get very close to the ground. I turn my head sideways and look the man deep in his eyes.
“Do you know Kelly Phillips, Chris?”
His shallow breath stops and the pupils in his eyes go wide.
“Right,” I say. “That’s what I thought.”
I sit up again and watch him try and move. His breath is back but short and fast and his face is painted with panic. He’s coughing and I can hear the blood in his lungs. He’s trying to talk, he wants to explain. They always want to explain.
I let out a long sigh.
“You what Chris?”
I see tears beginning to pool at the corners of his eyes and his chokey bloody breaths take on the telltale characteristics of crying.
“Yes you did Chris. You did. Right? You wish you didn’t. Right now you wish you didn’t, but you did.”
He opens his mouth and his teeth and tongue are covered in blood.
“Can I tell you a secret Chris? I wish you hadn’t. I really do, and not just for Kelly’s sake. I mean, the poor girl, she didn’t deserve that. But even if it had had to happen, I wish it hadn’t been you. Every time I sit here like this I wish for it to not be the guy.”
He looks at me like he’s begging. Begging me to walk away. To let this be enough. To let it be over.
“Just once,” I say. “Just once I want them to get it wrong. To give me a job and have it turn out they had the wrong guy. Then I could actually sleep. I could go to Mica and says ‘sorry, you made a mistake, I had to let him go’.”
He’s outright sobbing now, and blood is running down his chin and neck.
“I just want to be done with this,” I tell him. “I just want one excuse to tell them I won’t do it anymore. But every time I have one of you pieces of shit like this, spitting blood and asking me to grant you mercy, every time you’re guilty. How do I let you walk when you did what she says you did?”
I stand up.
“How do I pretend you didn’t hurt that girl? How do I pretend you won’t do it again?”
“I won’t. I can’t. I can’t pretend.”
I look at him for a long time, then I lift the gun and click the trigger as simply as taking a picture. There’s a flash and the air shatters around us. I feel the detonation of the ammunition crash hard against my hand and the pressure wave moves through my arm and dissipates in my back. When the ringing in my ears stops I’m sitting in my car. I light another one of his cigarettes and crack the window an inch. I drive home on auto pilot, not thinking about where I’m going or where I’ve been. I sleepwalk into my apartment and stand in a hot shower until the water runs cold. I dry my hair in a soft warm towel and put bandages over the holes in my arms.
My gun and knife go in a safe in my closet and I slide into a pair of thin cotton pajama pants. I slide silently into my cool crisp bed and lay my head on a firm memory foam pillow. As my mind grows foggy and distant I feel my wife roll over and wrap herself around me. The world grows quiet and I drift away to sleep.
When I wake up my wife is in the shower singing to herself. I roll over and put my feet on the floor. I’m tired still and my body aches from the unused adrenaline produced last night. I cough up some brownish phlegm from the cigarettes and spit it in a tissue.
I hear the shower stop. My wife walks in the room naked and traipses over to her dresser with an energetic spring in her step.
“Good morning love,” she says cheerfully.
“Good morning Elle,” I say while rubbing my eyes with both hands.
“How was work?”
I cough again.
“Long,” I say.
“Tough client?” she asks.
“Not particularly,” I say. “Pretty standard, just a late night.”
She turns and looks at me sympathetically while she steps into her panties.
“Did you talk to Mica about cutting back on some of the night shifts?”
I yawn, stretch and stand up.
“No, it was too late when I got done. I just wanted to get home. I thought I’d swing by this morning and have a few words with her.”
“Well, be tough. Stand your ground. You’ve been doing all the over nights lately. She’s got to have someone else that can take a night shift or two.”
I laugh and walk over to her. I kiss her forehead.
“I’ll do what I can,” I tell her.
I walk into the bathroom and sit on the toilet. I grab the toothbrush from the shower and scrub my teeth while I’m doing my business. Elle come in, dressed now. She’s in three inch nude heels, stockings and a skirt suit that is more than a little flattering on her. She spritzes her hair with some aerosol product and comes over to kiss me goodbye.
“Hey, how come everyone at work gets to see you all decked out in the naughty lawyer garb, but all I get is the jammy pants and t-shirt?”
“You got to see me naked two seconds ago.”
“Not the same thing,” I argue.
“Well, I’ll tell you what. You go tell your boss to stop hogging all your evenings and I’ll show you just what a naughty lawyer I can be.”
“Deal,” I say.
“Okay,” she says. “Gotta go put away those bad guys.”
She kisses my lips and saunters out of the bathroom with a sassy sway in her hips that is intended to show me just what I’m missing when I work late.
“Time to put on my big boy panties and talk to the boss.”
Another shower and I’m back in my uniform. I holster my weapon and comb back my hair. I’m out of the house by nine a.m. I steer my car back towards the city, rehearsing my conversation in my head.
“Look Mica, I owed you. I owed you a lot, but that was fifteen years ago and I’ve been working it off ever since. Don’t you think maybe we’re even by now? Can’t we just call it square? Can’t I ever just walk away?”
I chuckle to myself at the absurdity of it. I work for Mica Kole. That’s a present tense statement, always. No one ever says they worked for Mica, because anyone in the position to say that honestly isn’t so much talking anymore.
On paper it seems like Mica is the good guy, or gal as it were in this case, but that’s on paper. It’s like saying the Pharos of Egypt were amazing because of the beautiful pyramids they built. You’re kind of leaving out how they managed to get that done in the first place.
I’m not saying I’m a slave, I’m just saying I work for Mica and to my knowledge anyone who works for Mica only ever works for Mica. Mica does good things. She gets real scumbags off the streets. Not petty crooks, real assholes that hurt people. She does this in one of two ways. Either she “converts” them like she did with me, or she sends a convert to eliminate them.
A lot of folks like this system fine. The lawful system doesn’t work for shit here, so folks who just want their daughters to be able to walk home from school without being shot… or worse, well, they think Mica is a hero. Hell, I used to too.
When I was nineteen I was a piece of shit. The only reason I graduated High School was that failing me would have hurt the school’s graduation stats more than it would hurt my future. I dealt ecstasy and heroin and quite a bit of pot to kids at the Jr. College near my house as well as the High School, and even the Jr. High if they had money.
I screwed a lot. I’d tell girls anything they wanted to hear to get in their pants, and if that didn’t work I’d trade them drugs for sex. I smacked girls around and beat the shit out of any guy that I thought I could take just to show that I could. I stole… anything. From anyone. Family, friends, strangers. It didn’t matter. I was an absolute waste of the air around me and I thought that acting that way made me look powerful.
I wasn’t powerful though. I wasn’t even weak really. I was nothing, and I didn’t even know it until that night in the city. I’d grown up in the suburbs and all my thuggary had been inflicted against other suburban kids. Kids who had easy lives and wealthy parents. Kids who were easy to take advantage of. I found the city to be a much different place.
I had a “client”, a kid at the High School who I sold a lot of E to. He told me he had a cousin in the city that was looking for a big supply for a party. She didn’t have any money, but she was fine and she’d do a three way with me and her girlfriend for fifteen pills. I wasn’t going to say no to that.
The kid set it up and that weekend we drove to the city. Her place was a run down public housing tower across the street from a boarded up apartment building that had black burn marks around all the window openings. There was no security door at the entrance, so we made our way to her place unannounced. When we rang the bell at her door it was opened by her old man.
He was old and gnomish in a greasy undershirt with his belly hanging out like he was eight and a half months pregnant. He didn’t seem phased by our request to see his daughter so we slid past him to a small bedroom just past the kitchen.
The girl was cute, and her friend was really hot. The started kissing as soon as we sat down, then they both made their way over to me and started reaching for my fly. That’s when I put on the brakes. I told them I wasn’t going to fuck them a room away from her craggy old man, and I certainly wasn’t going to do it right in front of her pervy cousin.
She suggested we head across the street to the other building. I don’t know what made me think that shagging in a burnt out condemned building was better, but I was pretty wound up at that point so, I suppose I just wasn’t thinking at all.
The building next door was like standing inside a filthy fireplace. Soot covered the walls and there was charred debris everywhere. In the corner of the entryway, just ten feet from the front door, was a thick dirty mattress.
The girls jumped on it immediately and looked back at me while running their hands up under each other’s shirts. My brain was on fire, and I had pins and needles running down my neck. I had tunnel vision looking at the two of them kissing and touching each other. In retrospect, it’s not surprising that I forgot to close the door we came in through.
I walked over to the bed and let them undo my pants. They pulled them down to my knees, then did the same with my boxers. The friend took my junk in her hand and squeezed tight. I looked down at her to tell her to ease up and noticed they were both looking right past me with matching grins.
Then I heard the click.
The girls jumped up on the mattress and started laughing and squealing with overhyped teenage glee. They were bouncing and laughing and pointing and calling me profane names. I turned my head to see the father standing behind me with a dull, beat up revolver pointing right at my head.
They took the drugs, my wallet, my shoes and socks, my car keys and some pot I had on me for later, then the old man told the girls to get gone and they did. He told me to get on my knees. I did as I was told. I started crying, kneeling there with my bare limp dick swinging between my pasty thighs, waiting for the sound I probably wouldn’t even have time to hear.
When the sound came it was different than I expected. Less of a bang and more of a crack. Then a loud grunt and a thud. After a moment of silence a new voice told me to get up. There was a new man standing behind me. He was dressed like he was going to a funeral and holding a long wooden baseball bat. Next to him, on the ground, was the girl’s dad, lying unconscious.
I was a blubbering mess. I tried to say thank you, but the man told me I’d better not. He told me that the day would come when thanking him would be the last thing I wanted to do. That’s when he took me to meet Mica Kole.
I park my car in a spacious parking lot on the near north side of the city. Behind me is a wide, low, brown building with a red clay roof and a man made brook that tumbles through dense coniferous vegetation. There’s a small stone bridge that arcs over the water between the parking lot and the flat river stone path that leads to the entrance.
The double doors at the front of the building are wide and fashioned out of two solid pieces of weathered wood. They’re thick and heavy and hung with black iron hardware. Inside, the lights are low and everything has a vaguely reddish glow. The space is divided into two large dining rooms separated by a wide open air kitchen. All the tables are low to the ground and, absent chairs, are surrounded by colorful overstuffed pillows.
I approach the host stand and tell the smiling young japanese girl to let Mica know that Malcolm Karma is here to see her. The girl smiles, bows politely, and disappears into one of the dining rooms. When she returns she smiles again and tells me that Mica will see me.
I walk to the back of the dining room to a small doorway covered by a dense curtain of tiny beads. Outside the door stands an imposing man in a dark suit. Exactly the same one I’m wearing. Don is Mica’s body guard, as if she needed one, and is the one person on earth you don’t want with your name in his pocket. Don knows two things, one is that Mica lives, and two is that everyone else is expendable. He nods at me as I pass through the beaded curtain.
The room is small and painted a deep rusty red. The floor is made of narrow planks of bamboo and there are several well kept bonsai trees on low platforms throughout the space. Mica is sitting barefoot and cross legged on the floor behind a wide mahogany table that supports a laptop computer, a large black softcover ledger book and various scattered file folders and loose sheets of paper. She smiles up at me warmly as I remove my shoes and take a seat across from her on a large forest green silk pillow.
“Good morning Mal,” she says sweetly. “I had kind of thought I would see you last night. Everything go okay?”
I nod the affirmative.
“Yeah, it was just late,” I say. “I wanted to try and catch Elle before she fell asleep.”
“I see,” she says.
There’s an extended moment of silence, made longer by unbroken eye contact.
“Well,” she says, finally looking away. “Here’s your fee.”
She lifts a wide business envelope off the table and holds it out to me. I stare at it for a moment before leaning forward and taking it out of her hand.
“Thanks,” I say.
“So, I don’t have anything else for you today, but I’ll give you a call later this week when something comes up.”
I sit paralyzed, unable to get up, but equally unable to say the words I’ve been practicing for days. The moment grows and quickly becomes uncomfortable. Mica tilts her head and squints at me with a suspicious gaze.
“Everything go okay last night?” she asks again.
I nod silently feeling my face drain of blood.
“Was there something you wanted to talk about?” she asks.
I feel a lump form in my throat and my hands go cold and clammy. My tongue dries up and my stomach starts doing cartwheels.
“Mal, what’s on your mind?” she asks with a bit more urgency.
I feel myself breathing too heavily and I start to get light headed.
“Mal, if you need-”
“I want out!” I blurt.
Mica stops and stares at me blankly.
“I- I know what you did for me. I- I know I owe you- owed you I mean. Uh. I just. Ya know that was fifty- I mean fifteen years ago and I’m just- I’m not that kid anymore and uh-”
I’m spinning my wheels, trying to get traction on the subject. I’m trying to be cool, but it’s totally getting away from me.
“I love Elle. I- I want to have kids. I don’t want-”
I feel like I’m going to throw up. I put my hands out on the table for balance.
“Malcolm!” Mica says firmly.
The room is spinning and I lean forward and put my head on the table. Mica stands up and walks around to me. She kneels down and puts and arm around my shoulders.
“Slow down,” she says. “Take it easy. Slow down. Deep breath, it’s okay Mal. Don’t go passing out on me now.”
I start to calm down. My breath slows. I feel her delicate fingers on my back rubbing soft circles, then up and down, caressing my neck with her finger nails. I take a long deep breath and begin to regain my composure. I’m suddenly very embarrassed.
“Shhh,” she hushes me. “I know it’s hard. It’s scary quitting your job for the first time. I know, I’ve been there too.”
I look over at her. Her face is soft and friendly. She has deep emerald eyes that sparkle against her campfire red hair. She pats me on the shoulder and smiles genuinely, then stands up and walks back around the table.
She crouches and lifts up an expertly hidden section of floor and presses her thumb against a raised glass square. Theres the sound of two hollow clicks and she lifts a door open and pulls a stack of manilla envelopes out of the hole in the floor. She flips through the stack until she finds what she is looking for, then removes a single envelope and places the rest back in the hole. She closes the heavy metal door and replaces the bamboo planks. When she’s finished I can’t tell where the spot even was. She reaches out to hand me the envelope.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“Your retirement package,” she says.
“Like a pension,” she says. “I set a little aside after every job so when you’re done you have something to get you going on your own.”
I look at her dumbstruck.
“What did you think was going to happen Mal?”
I don’t say anything.
“Malcolm, you’ve done well. You’ve grown up and improved your character significantly. Hell, you worked for me and married a prosecutor. That takes a special kind of balls if you ask me. You deserve to enjoy the rest of your life. Go, move out of town, put a baby in your wife and enjoy being unemployed for a bit. I promise, we’ll get by without you.”
I let out a huge high and feel a thousand pounds of worry run off my shoulders like sand. I smile and grip the envelope tightly.
“Thank you,” I say.
I stand up and give a deferential bow.
“Thank you again,” I say.
I slip my shoes on and turn and walk out the doorway. I’m ten feet away when I hear Mica call Don into her room. As I walk out the front doors I see don stepping inside her office.
I drive home with a smile. The first envelope Mica gave me has nine hundred dollars in it. That’s my fee per job. It’s an ironic statement because I didn’t set the rate, Mica did. Also because I didn’t choose the job. I was never given a choice. Mica’s guy saved my life that night in the city and the price has been my indentured servitude.
I’ve always believed that I would have to die to escape her grasp. I’ve never heard of anyone that retired, so I’m more than a little surprised to find the second envelope contains just over ten thousand dollars. Ten thousand one hundred seventy eight dollars to be exact. A retirement payout from a job I thought I’d have to die to leave. I’m over the moon.
I stop at the florist on the way home and grab a dozen roses and baby’s breath in a glass vase for Elle. Then I call and make reservations at our favorite french bistro for dinner. At home I clean the house to perfection, even dusting the vertical blinds and scrubbing the outside of the fridge with Windex.
I strip our bed and remake it with our “special” sheets, then set candles up around the room. I put on nice clothes. Ones with color in them and make Elle and I cocktails in our fancy glassware.
She walks in the door at eight p.m. with a sour look on her face. I’m on the sofa watching the news on a comedy station. I hop up and grab her by both hands. She sighs and wiggles a bit to try and escape, but I hold on tight. I crouch a bit to get eye level with her and flash her a big grin.
“What’s wrong with you grumpy pants?” I say playfully.
She sighs and pulls her hands out of mine.
“Nothing, just a rough day at work,” she says.
I turn and grab the flowers from the table next to us and hold them out to her.
“Maybe these will help,” I say.
She looks at them, then looks back at me with raised eyebrows.
“What did you do?” she asks.
I feign being wounded.
“What, a guy can’t buy his sexy wife flowers without being accused of committing some atrocity?”
She takes the flowers and inspects them.
“These are beautiful,” she says. “So beautiful in fact that if I had to guess, I’d say they cost at least a hundred bucks. So I’ll ask again Mal, what did you do?”
I look at her and grin. She sets the flowers down.
“Oh boy,” she sighs.
I dash to the kitchen and return with our drinks. I hold hers out to her.
“So I’m going to need a drink for this?”
I smile and she takes the glass.
“Yes,” I say. “For a toast.”
“And to what are we toasting?”
My smile widens and I hold up my glass.
“I quit my job today.”
Elle sets her drink down hard on the table.
“You did what?”
I nod my head.
“Yup, I went in and said that the job was interfering with our time together. That we were talking about starting a family and that I didn’t see anyway to make both work, so I wanted to leave.”
Well, ya know, close enough.
Elle stares at me dumbfounded for a moment, then a smile starts to spread across her face.
“For real?” she says.
“For real for real,” I say.
Now she’s laughing. I hold up my glass and she retrieves hers. We clink them together.
“To a fresh start?” I say.
“To a family,” she says.
We sip our drinks and she throws her arms around me. We kiss. Hard, like we did when we were dating. I’m holding her face and her arms are around my waist. She goes for my belt buckle and I grab her hands.
“We have dinner reservations,” I say.
“Honey, the only thing I want for dinner tonight is you.”
I look in her eyes and slowly let go of her hand. We hold eye contact and she undoes my belt and button and fly. She takes me out of my pants and kisses my mouth while she strokes me. When I’m hard she gets on her knees and takes me in her mouth.
I close my eyes and run my fingers through her hair, savoring every minute sensation. I relish her tongue and lips and cheeks. I shiver when I touch the back of her throat.
I pull her up and kiss her mouth. My hands run down her neck and back and around her ass. I reach down and pull her pencil skirt up around her waist. I run my fingers down her bare thighs to the tops of her stockings, then back up the insides to her damp panties. I push them aside without taking them off and lift her up on the table.
I stop kissing her and lift her chin with my fingers. I gaze into her deep hazel nut eyes. I tell her I love her. I whisper I need her, then slowly as our breath gets shallow I push myself inside her. She lets out a long, low moan and I pull her close and kiss her again.
We make love on the table, in the bed and again, clumsily, in the shower. When we’re done at last we lay sprawled out naked on the sofa. My fingers trace heart shapes on her bare tummy.
“We missed dinner,” I tell her.
“Yeah, we did,” she says. “But we had lots of dessert.”
I smile at the corny joke.
“Are you hungry?” I ask.
“No,” she says, “but I could use a cigarette.”
We both used to smoke, but quit when we started talking about getting pregnant. We still keep a small box though, for special occasions.
“Well, I’ll take that as a compliment,” I say.
“Take a walk with me?” she asks.
“Gladly,” I say.
We grab the box of Camels and the lighter from the drawer in the bedroom, throw on some sweats and head out the back to walk around the pond and smoke.
“So, what was rough at work today?” I ask.
“Oh, it’s just frustrating. We had a witness for this case die. He was killed actually. It looks like the suspects had it done and it means we may have to drop the charges.”
“Wow,” I say surprised. “I didn’t think things like that happened out here in the burbs.”
“Thankfully they don’t really. He was in the city last night and it looks like the suspects’ gang took him out.”
I stop walking.
“Last night?” I say.
“Yeah,” she says. “He was out there tutoring some kids on the south side and got jumped on the way back to his car. Stabbed and shot in the head.”
I feel my throat close up and I start sweating.
“What was the case?” I ask.
“Sad one,” she says. “Young woman, a wife and mother. She was beaten pretty badly in a home invasion. Police think it was a robbery gone bad. Husband comes home in the middle of it and manages to chase the guys off, but the woman is in a coma in critical condition. Husband was able to pick two of the guys out in a photo lineup though. He was set to testify, but now we’re back to having nothing.”
I feel tears forming in the corners of my eyes. I choke on my words.
“I think I- uh- I think I read about that one. What’s her name again?”
My wife looks at me with sweet concern.
“Yeah, you might have. It was in the papers a lot about a month ago. Girl’s name was Kelly Phillips.”
My world comes crashing down around me. I picture the man lying on the wet pavement. I see his terrified eyes light up when I mention her name. I feel myself pull back the trigger and smell the acrid sulfur scent of the gunfire mixing with the copper odor of the blood as it pools on the ground. I bend over and throw up on my shoes.
“Oh my God, honey are you-”
There’s a clap of thunder and the sudden roar of rain, but the skies are clear and dry. I look up and see red. My nausea turns to panic and my eyes go wide as saucers. Elle turns, following my gaze and we stare together as our apartment building is consumed in flames.