The man with the gun surprised Natalie in the parking garage of the hospital. She was in her car with the AC on high, answering emails on her phone. She didn't notice him until he knocked on the window. The man was tall and slender with a slight smile on his face. He was dressed business casual in a pale blue polo shirt and dark-colored pants. He didn't look dangerous but what did she know about real danger? He gestured for her to roll the window down. She tried not to be a fool. She lowered it an inch.
"Natalie, I need you to come with me." He stuck the muzzle of a gun in gap between window and frame. She cursed and tried to jump away from the window but her seatbelt held her in place. How did he know her name? She kept her eye on his clean-shaven face and slowly reached for the gearshift. She could get away. Then the man held up a phone. There on the screen was a picture of Charlie Buchanan, healthy and whole. He was smiling, a cigarette halfway to his mouth. Three days' worth of stubble on his face making him look rough and sexy, the way Natalie loved him best. She'd taken that picture two years ago and had it framed. It hung on the wall in the hallway that led past her son's room and to her bedroom. She could see a piece of the off-white matte she'd chosen for it. The man with the gun had been in her home.
"You won't be hurt," he said.
Natalie looked at the gun then back at him. He smiled and removed the gun. She threw the car into reverse only to see the black sedan blocking her in. There were cars on either side of her too. She was out of options. She looked back at the man, who only shrugged, and she turned off her car.
"I know you probably want to scream right now or run but I swear, I'm not here to hurt you." He took her car keys and made her leave her purse and phone in the car. He walked her to the black sedan and opened the door for her. Then he got in, pointed her key fob at her car and set the alarm. "Can't have anything happen to that." He patted her knee. "Try to relax."
As they spiraled down from the third level to the street a storm that had been building all day let loose its rain, giving the city a reprieve from the sticky humidity. He made small talk as they drove through the city, but he wouldn't tell her where they were going. He adjusted the AC and asked if she was cold. He asked about her car and if she liked driving it. He asked her about Las Vegas and how was it to live around this many bright lights all the time. For her part, she tried not to allow her trembling to become a quaver in her voice. No, she wasn't cold. She said the car had great gas mileage. She told him the lights of Vegas were like a Christmas tree left up too long after the holidays. Eventually you stopped seeing the lights and you stopped noticing the tree until the needles started dropping and getting everywhere and finally, you couldn't stand the sight of it anymore.
"Then what do you do? You can't throw out Vegas."
Only Natalie had stayed. She couldn't imagine a life without her mother or a life away from this town she had always lived in. Even when Charlie had shown up at her mother's door, three weeks before his wedding, begging Natalie to come away with him. He had enough money and they could make a life but by then she could see the path that Charlie's bad habits, the drugs and the drinking, had put him on. Natalie was in deep with the escort service and making the kind of money she thought only Charlie had. She turned him away and they had never been the same.
The car turned a corner and they were downtown, with its newly renovated outdoor spaces in front of new, expensive trendy restaurants that were empty because of the weather. Bored staff gazed out windows and doorways at the rain. The car slowed to a stop in front of a restaurant. "Stay put," he said. He walked around to her door, opened it and unfurled an umbrella for her. He extended a hand to her. She didn't take it.
"Why am I here?"
"Come on, Natalie. No point in hesitating now."
He was right and she knew it. She took his hand and let him lead her into the restaurant. The place wasn't open. It was quiet. Chairs were upside down on tables. He guided her through the restaurant to double doors off to one side.
"What's the chance this is a surprise party?" she asked.
"Slim to none. You're going to be fine. My name is Jaime, by the way." He opened the double doors and gave her a little push into the room. In the room were three white men and a woman who was tied to a chair and had a hood over her head.
"Hello, Natalie," said a man she knew as Mr. A. Natalie hadn't seen him in years. He gestured to the empty chair next to the hooded woman. She sat. She looked over at the hooded woman and back at Mr. A. He sighed. "Take the hood off."
One of the men pulled the hood from her head. Sharron Buchanan had dark brown hair, salon-tanned skin, and wide, panicked brown eyes. Her gag was removed but they didn't untie her. The women locked eyes. All these years and there was a still a sliver of Natalie that hurt when faced with her replacement. Natalie looked at Mr. A.
"What the hell?" Sharron said. "If you want him this bad, you can have him."
"Mrs. Buchanan, Natalie didn't cause this. Your husband did," said Mr. A.
"Why are we here?" Natalie said.
"Because Charlie owes me money. I understand his accident has left him in a coma."
"How much does he owe?" Sharron asked.
"One-hundred-fifteen thousand. Incurred over several bad bets and taking part in a number of parties where he did a lot of drugs he didn't pay for. Now to be fair, he's paid a great deal of this debt off and to be kind, I'm willing to forgive part of it. So you ladies only need bring me one hundred thousand dollars." Mr. A sat back and waited.
"I don't have that kind of money," Natalie said.
"What does she have to do with this?" Sharron said.
"Natalie attended and reaped the rewards of association. Didn't you?"
Natalie thought of the last party from a year ago, a fight night in Vegas. A Holyfield fight. Charlie had been particularly handsy that night and she had missed him so she had let him cling to her, kiss her, bed her.
"You were supposed to have nothing to do with him," Sharron said without looking at her.
"And you were supposed to keep him in L.A."
Mr. A clapped his hands. "Ladies, I need my money. Soon. But I'll give you some time. Come up with plan for repayment. I expect to hear from you within forty-eight hours."
They untied Sharron and blocked her when she took a step toward Natalie. Eventually, they maneuvered her out of the building though Natalie was sure she'd be lying in wait for her somewhere. They had an uneasy truce.
Natalie turned to Mr. A. "I really don't have any money."
"I really don't care."
She nodded and stood to leave. "Talk to you later, Mr. A."
"You do remember me," he said.
"Of course, I do."
"It's been a very longtime and I was an old man even then."
Mr. A was and looked every bit of seventy now. He was fully bald and age spots dotted his head. His face had gone jowly but ten years ago when Natalie was working the escort service, he had barely looked fifty. Mr. A had been a regular. She'd see him three to five times a year. He liked to stay in and play the piano and she would sing for him whatever he was in the mood for. It's what he liked. One memorable night they had pulled up on YouTube songs from the eighties and she'd sang Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl" and the Go-Gos' "Vacation" and they both sang Prince songs together and danced around. Later, she'd play him and make him say her name. That's also what he liked.
"When I knew I was getting out and cutting down on who I would make time for, you always made the list."
He sat up a little straighter. "How many of us were on the list?"
Natalie walked over to him and caressed his cheek. "You were one of four. There was never any overlap. When I was with you, I was only with you."
He patted her ass. "Bring me my money and we'll stay friends."
The next morning Natalie was back at the hospital to see if there was any change. Charlie needed to wake up. He had to fix this. Natalie didn't have fifty thousand dollars. She barely had four thousand in savings. Enough to cover a few bills if she ever found herself unemployed. The door to Charlie's room opened and there was Sharron, sunglasses atop her head, without a smile to wrinkle her smooth face.
"I didn't expect to see you," Natalie said.
Sharron closed the door to the room. "This wasn't a good idea."
"Yeah, well, it was your idea and we agreed," Natalie said.
Sharron brushed manicured fingers across his bandaged hand. "Why didn't he just kill him?"
"He who?" Natalie asked.
Sharron glanced at her. "I don't know. God, I guess."
"Does it matter?" Natalie said.
They stood on either side of Charlie's bed looking at him. One thinking of him at his best back when they were young. The other was thinking of him passed out next to their pool. Sharron had called her with the idea. Charlie was going to kill himself from drink or worse. Sharron wanted to scare him straight. She knew a guy who could help, all she needed was Natalie to call Charlie and get him to a bar. He'd get beat up. They'd swipe his wallet and he'd come home, beaten and contrite. Sharron would get him back into rehab. Didn't Natalie want what was best for him? Natalie didn't want Charlie anywhere near her life anymore. She hadn't seen him in over a year, but she had agreed. She wanted him better. So she called him and had to close her eyes against the unfiltered joy in his voice. He'd meet her in Vegas. They'd have drinks. It'll be like old times. But something had gone wrong. He'd been beaten but then he wrecked his car driving away. Wrapped it around a light pole and now he was here in a hospital bed and Natalie and Sharron were on the hook.
Later Natalie found Jaime waiting for her on the stairs that led up to her condo.
"I'm just here to remind you that you are running out of time," he said.
"Right. Good to know you're still following me." She slipped past him. Half-way up the stairs she turned around. He was watching her. "Have you heard from Sharron?"
"She hasn't contacted us."
"Okay. I'm sure she will." She turned to go up.
"Are you?" Jaime asked.
She looked back at him again. "What does that mean?"
He shrugged. "You're both on the hook for it. Even if one of you isn't around."
"You think she'd run? Did you scare her too when you brought her to Adams?"
He chuckled. "I didn't bring her. You were my focus."
I bet, she thought. "So, you did want to scare me."
"A little fear goes a long way. Sorry." He leaned back against the railing, loose and relaxed, like they were just friends talking.
"Did you want to come up?" Did she want him to come up? If it would earn her some goodwill with him, she just might. "I have beer."
"I know you do."
That's right. He'd been in her home. She started up the stairs again.
"Hey, can I change my mind?" he asked.
Inside she directed him to the couch, but he sat on a barstool and watched her walk barefoot around her small kitchen.
"You've got a nice place. It's worth a bit," Jaime said. He looked around like it was the first time he'd seen it.
"Didn't you get a good look when you were here before?" She regretted the bitterness in her voice. She needed to make nice if she was going to get out of this predicament. She handed him a beer and before she could offer the bottle opener, he pried off the cap using the edge of her black marble counter. She tried not to let her displeasure show on her face. She'd spent her escort money on this condo and her mother's tiny house. Real homes no one could take away. Here he was breaking into her life and potentially chipping her counter.
"Yeah, I did. Is that kid Charlie's? Is he with your mom?"
She set the beer on the counter and held his gaze. She was his focus. He must know everything about her. "Not 'that kid.' My son and yes, he is with my mother. How long did you follow me? How long have you been watching me?"
"I watched you to figure out where you went and who you talked to regularly. But my job was just to bring you to Adams. Nothing else. Charlie doesn't know about the kid?"
Natalie shook her head. "What happens if we don't pay the money?"
"Look, it's between you and Adams but he can't afford to let you walk."
"Does he owe you money?"
Jaime smiled a little at her. "Adams owes the people I work for so he's calling in markers from everybody."
"This isn't about Charlie."
"Charlie's a good guy. If you give us some time he will wake up. He can make good on this."
"Such a good guy you kept his kid from him."
"You'd have to know Charlie's mother. To her, he wasn't a son, he was an asset. He performed for her and he got rewards. Charlie was her crowning achievement. Her beautiful, perfect boy. At least he was in the pictures and at public events, but he never wanted kids. He's the last Buchanan male. He always said, 'It stops with me.'"
"Poor little rich boy and his rich wife." Jaime rolled his eyes. He stood and drained his beer. He went to her sink, rinsed the bottle out and set it on her counter. "Thanks for the beer." He leaned in close as if he meant to kiss her. His nose grazed her cheek. "Less than a day. Come up with something. Be seeing you."
Natalie locked the door behind him. He had her worried now. Maybe Sharron had left town or left the country. Natalie went to her son's room, reached behind the dresser and pulled the phone hidden there free from the tape holding it in place. After the initial phone call, they each bought pay-as-you-go phones to plan Charlie's set-up, just in case it went wrong they could claim innocence. Could it have gone any worse? She called Sharron's other phone.
"What do you want, Natalie?"
"I just got a visit from one of Mr. A's guys reminding me of the ticking clock."
"You call him Mr. A?"
"I knew him from before."
"From before? You mean when you were a hooker."
Natalie closed her eyes. It wasn't worth the argument. "Yes, from when I worked for the service."
"The service," she scoffed.
"Do you have any way of paying him? I don't."
Sharron sighed. "There's nothing. No assets of any kind to liquidate. He spent it all. There's not nearly enough money on the credit cards to cover even half."
"Maybe we can convince them to give Charlie time to wake up."
"Ha! He's never waking up. That's the definition of brain dead, Nat. How could he spend everything? Didn't he think that maybe he should have money socked away? Did he think he could just keep going on his good looks alone? Hello? Are you still there?"
Natalie was doubled over taking shallow breaths. "Brain dead?" she whispered.
"Oh. Oh, you didn't know?" Sharron laughed then sobbed a breath. "Yeah, he's brain-dead."
"Why is he still hooked up to those machines?" Natalie asked then she understood. "Jackie."
"You got it. She doesn't believe the doctors. She convinced some miracle will happen and he will open his eyes."
"He's everything to her," Natalie whispered.
"Do you think she'd give up the money? I mean, she never wanted to cover for him. She always wanted him to stand firm on his two feet, but she must've been paying for things all along, right?"
"I think I know a way," Natalie said, an idea forming.
"Oh my god, I have a plan. Meet me at Jackie's at three," she said and hung up on Natalie.
The Buchanan house had two stories and a circular driveway up front with a tennis court in the back. People who owned homes on that block owned property all across the city but none of them owned more than Charlie's mother. When she died it would all go to him, her only heir. Natalie was sure that with the right push she'd come across the money. In her purse was the proof she needed. The birth certificate alone wouldn't do it but with pictures, Jackie would believe. Natalie's son looked more like Charlie than her, right down to his cleft chin.
The clouds heaved again, and the rain fell faster in bigger, messier drops. Natalie would be soaked by the time she got to the front door. She took a deep breath and bolted from the car, slamming the door behind her as she ran for the slim covering of tree limbs that shadowed the front door.
Sharron opened the door. "There you are."
"You said three o'clock."
"I know but then I thought better of it. Where did you park?"
"On the street."
"Where the neighbors can see?"
"Let me in the house."
Sharron stepped back and Natalie stepped in, her wet sneakers slipping a little on the slate floor. "Welcome to the castle," Sharron said.
Sharron led the way. Her footsteps were loud on the slate that ran from one end of the house to the other. The interior was as Natalie remembered. Straight out the pages of Town & Country. Along every wall were columns covered in field stones and bookshelves artfully decorated with books and pictures and sculptures. The center of the house had a double-sided stone fireplace. Big and grey and imposing. The house had six bedrooms and a bathroom for each. Natalie had spent time here back when she and Charlie were teenagers in love. Back before Mrs. Buchanan made him give her up.
The foyer was dim. "Why is it so dark?" Natalie asked.
Sharron sighed. "The storm has her spooked. She won't turn on a single lamp."
Natalie had forgotten about Jackie's fear. "She was always afraid of storms."
"Well, we are sitting in the near dark, drinking. Follow me."
Sharron led her through the front living room, past the double-sided fireplace and into the rear living room. Jackie Buchanan was on her long black couch, backlit by the grey light of the day through a wall of windows, a glass of dark liquid in one hand and a cigarette in the other. She was Audrey Hepburn chic in her black turtleneck and grey pants with a deep cuff. Her silvered hair was up in a bun and her eyes flicked over Natalie as she entered the room.
She waved. "Natalie. It's been awhile."
"Mrs. Buchanan, it's so nice to see you."
"Stop it. We've known each other too long for lies like that. Do you want a drink? Sharron, make her a drink." She lit another cigarette off the cherry of the last then stubbed the old one out in the glass ashtray on the cushion next to her. Jackie pointed her new cigarette at the armchair to her right.
"You look well. Are you?" Jackie asked.
Natalie sat down and wiped her hands on her jeans. Her purse thudded to the floor. "Well? I'm good. Work is good."
"Hmm." Jackie stared at the cigarette in her hand then she seemed to realize she'd been quiet too long. "Work? What do you do?"
"I'm a project coordinator at a civil engineering firm."
Jackie made her face look impressed. "Does it pay well?"
"I do alright."
Sharron appeared with Natalie's drink and shoved it into her hand.
"Good. I knew you were a bright girl," Jackie said. She took a long drag from her cigarette. Sharron sat in the other armchair at the other end of the couch facing Natalie. Jackie looked from one to the other. "Come now ladies, there's no need for animosity. I know you're a smart woman, Sharron. It's why I approved of you when Charlie brought you home to me."
"No animosity, Jackie." Sharron gave her a bright smile.
"Did you know that Charlie and Natalie used to play tennis right out there on that court when they were teenagers? As I remember, you had quite the backhand."
Sharron just looked at her. Jackie blinked slowly and rattled the ice in her glass.
"Charlie was a good teacher," Natalie said. This was not the Jackie Buchanan she remembered.
"Yes, Charlie told me they were young and in love." Sharron pursed her lips and knocked back her own glass of whiskey. "Jackie, can I refresh your drink?"
"I'll do it." Natalie leapt to pull the glass from Jackie's hand. Sharron glared at her.
"Good grief. Don't fight. Charlie is in the hospital. We cannot fight." Jackie raised her voice and slapped her hand down on the cushion next to her. "He needs us all."
"Yes, ma'am," Natalie said. "He does. I'm sorry."
"I'm sorry too. We're all under such stress. Give us a minute to compose ourselves."
They left Jackie on the couch to light yet another cigarette. In the dining room where Jackie kept the alcohol on top of the buffet, Sharron made new drinks. "What are you doing? We were going talk sweet to her and then hit her with the ask."
"Does she seem a little off?" Natalie asked. Sharron hummed and poured more whiskey into Jackie's glass. She pulled a little bag of white powder from her pocket.
"What are you doing?"
"Don't worry. I've been mixing a little into all her drinks."
"Yep. She has a whole draw full of drugs she's taken from Charlie when he's passed out here. Coke, pills, weed. I thought it would help loosen her up."
"If she's a day." She emptied the half bag into the whiskey and stirred it with her finger and sucked her finger clean. Then she did the same to her own glass.
"She could die."
"That woman is like Methuselah. She is forever. She is constant."
"Maybe you should layoff the coke."
Sharron giggled. "Let's go save our asses before Jaime comes for mine again." She picked up Jackie's drink and her own.
Natalie grabbed her arm. The drinks sloshed. "Sharron, what do you mean again?"
"He brought us to Adams. I don't need him in my life again. Hey, that hurts. Let go."
Natalie gripped her arm tighter. "No, he didn't. Someone else brought you."
Sharron opened her mouth to disagree but stopped the lie before it formed. "He came to me three weeks ago. Charlie was off somewhere, and Jaime showed up wanting the money Charlie owed."
Finally, Natalie understood. "He's the guy you knew. He beat up Charlie. That's what you meant. Charlie wasn't supposed to survive."
Sharron bit her lip. "I thought we had life insurance so that's what I promised Jaime. But Charlie had let it lapse. Fuck, he couldn't do anything right."
Natalie shoved Sharron away. "Did you even love him?"
"You don't know what it was like to be married to him. I did the best I could." She gave her back to Natalie and pasted on a smile. Natalie was right behind her.
Jackie was facing the bookshelves when they reentered the room.
"The storm seems to be letting up," Natalie said.
Jackie turned around, a cigarette in her mouth and both hands holding a silver gun. "It does. Made it easier to hear you two whispering."
"Oh, Jesus." Sharron froze.
Natalie walked around her and sat at the very end of the couch. "Jackie, why do have a gun?" Natalie kept her voice level, even as her heart tried to beat out her chest.
"Why are you here? What do you want? Girls are always whispering. That's why I had my boy and I was done. Sit down, Sharron. One of you is going to tell me what is going on." Jackie sat in the armchair and Sharron sat in the other.
"We were hoping," Sharron began.
Natalie cut in. "Charlie owes the wrong guy a hundred thousand dollars and because he isn't awake, they want us to pay the debt."
"It's not our fault," Sharron said.
"Well, it certainly sounds like it's your fault. You are his wife." When Jackie spoke, the gun moved dangerously in an arc between them. Natalie and Sharron watched the gun carefully.
"You have a grandson." Natalie's voice was a little tight.
Sharron and Jackie said, "What?"
"I need my purse. It's right there by your feet, okay?" Natalie asked.
Jackie waved the gun and blew out a stream of smoke. Natalie scooted down the couch and snagged the strap of her purse.
"Here's your drink, Jackie." The glass rattled as Sharron set it down. She slid it across the coffee table and Jackie stopped it with her foot. "Don't scratch my glass table, Sharron."
"Sorry. Sorry," Sharron said, her gaze never leaving the gun. She took large swallow of her drink.
Natalie pulled the stack pictures she had printed the night before from her purse. "Here."
Jackie set her cigarette in the ashtray and snatched the pictures. She flipped quickly through them. "He has Charlie's chin. That divot there." She looked up at Natalie, wonder in her voice.
"His name is Charlie, too."
"Well, he's beautiful." Jackie dropped the pictures onto the table and picked up her drink. "So you need money."
"To pay Charlie's debt," Natalie said.
"Charlie is unconscious in a hospital room. He doesn't need anything more than medical care. He isn't worrying about money." She sipped from her drink.
Natalie tried a different angle. "Sharron needs your help."
"I don't care about her. But you. For you, I'll do it. With one condition. I see the boy whenever I want for how long I want. He'll go to the schools I pay for. He'll be raised right." She nodded and murmured to herself, "raised right. No mistakes this time."
Natalie said nothing but she was shaking. She should say no, say never. All she could see was the life her son would have. Her Charlie in place of his father. The new Buchanan heir. Tied to rules and family money and spiraling down into a sad life. But she had to agree for now. She'd figure a way out later.
"No. What about me, Jackie? I took care of him. I tried to keep him healthy. What about all the work I did?" Sharron stood and stomped her foot.
"He's in the hospital, Sharron. All your supposed hard work while my money paid your life in California, it means nothing now."
Sharron stood up. "She only wants your money. She had a whole kid to take your money." She threw her glass down and it shattered against the slate floor.
Natalie stood up. "She set Charlie up to be killed."
Sharron lunged at Natalie. The women landed on the couch, pulling and punching at each other. Natalie got the upper hand and landed a punch that stunned Sharron momentarily. Natalie kicked her away. Sharron fell backwards on the glass table and it broke under her weight. She staggered to her feet.
Jackie was on her feet too. "I never should've picked you for him."
"And I never should have married him. I knew he was a loser. He ruined us both," Sharron said. She wiped her face and left a streak of blood across her cheek.
The gun trembled in Jackie's hand. Natalie heard the shots but for a moment she thought they had missed. Then she saw the blood. Sharron went to her knees then collapsed onto her side.
Jackie sat down in the armchair. She looked deflated. She tutted, "Who's going to clean this up?"
Natalie gently tugged the gun from her hand. "It's okay, Jackie. I know a guy. Let me make you another drink."
Copyright © 2020 Nikki Dolson.
Love and Other Criminal Behavior
Bronzeville Books : Available at Bookshop
Nikki Dolson is a writer primarily of short fiction, which has been published in places like Shotgun Honey, Tough, Thuglit, & Bartleby Snopes. She's also written a novel-ish thing, ALL THINGS VIOLENT, and put together a short story collection, LOVE AND OTHER CRIMINAL BEHAVIOR.