Read an Excerpt
Lewis lay in the darkened bedroom, under the blankets, trying to control his nervous breathing. He stared at Monica. She was beautiful -- her light brown skin, big black eyes, and full pink lips. But she lay next to him, silent.
He was waiting on her decision.
Lewis tried to stop telling himself that it still was too soon, but this week he had bought the ring anyway and, moments ago, presented it to her.
She had been asleep only five minutes when Lewis pulled the ring out from under his pillow, slipped it on her finger, then kissed her.
Monica stirred. Lewis kissed her again till she had woken.
"Are you okay?" Monica asked, her voice groggy.
"Will you?" Lewis said, smiling.
"What? Will I what?"
"Will you marry me, baby?"
There was no answer. That had been like a minute ago, and still no answer came.
Lewis rolled over in bed, turned on his bedside lamp.
When he turned back, he saw Monica, her black hair falling into her eyes, staring down at the ring with a pained expression.
"What's the matter?" Lewis said. "It's a simple question. Yes or no."
"You know it's more complicated than that."
"No I don't," Lewis said, throwing the blankets off and climbing out of bed. "Just answer it."
"I haven't even been divorced a year yet. I'm not trying to jump back into a marriage this minute."
"Or you aren't trying to jump back into marriage with me?"
"Lewis," Monica said, turning, glancing at the alarm clock. "I'm not having this conversation. It's almost two in the morning."
"Fine," Lewis said, moving his tall brown frame to the dresser and sliding open a drawer. He pulled out a pair of jeans, put them on.
"What are you doing?" Monica said, sitting up.
"I asked you to be with me. You said you don't want to, so I'm leaving." He pulled a T-shirt over his muscled torso.
Monica hurried out of bed, around to him. "I didn't say that. I said I wasn't ready to get married yet."
"It's the same thing."
Lewis had on shoes now. He moved quickly through the room, grabbing a bag, stuffing it full of the first clothes he yanked from the closet.
"Where are you going?" Monica asked after Lewis opened the bedroom door.
"I don't know. We'll find a place."
Monica halted there in her nightgown. "What do you mean, we?"
"I'm not leaving my daughter here with you. You don't want me, you don't want her either," he said, staring right in her eyes, as if expecting this to change Monica's decision.
Lewis turned, walked down the hall toward the three-year-old's room.
Monica followed behind him, whispering, "Why are you doing this?"
Lewis carefully opened his daughter's bedroom door. Inside, a night-light burned, painting the entire room a dim gold color.
He bent over her small bed, slid his arms under her, and scooped Layla up in her blankets.
Monica pulled on his arm.
"Don't. Don't do this now. At least wait till the morning."
"So you can say no then." Lewis turned to her, the child in his arms. "You know what'll make me stay. Just say yes."
Monica loved the man and his daughter. She didn't want them to leave. But she could not let herself be manipulated into agreeing to marry him. She dropped her head. "I can't do that right now."
Lewis held out his palm.
Monica glanced down at it. "What?"
"The ring, please."
Copyright © 2008 by R. Marcus Johnson
Five A.M. Tori Billups lay in the center of her king bed, staring through the darkness toward the ceiling, her eyes filled with tears.
She clutched one of her pillows tight to her breast as though it were her husband, who had been missing now for seven days.
He would call, she told herself, the cordless phone just to her left on the nightstand. But until now, he had not.
One morning a week ago, after she had made Glenn breakfast, had handed him his briefcase and kissed him on the lips, he walked out the front door to take a business flight to Detroit. He did not return.
"He'll be back," Tori's girlfriend told her after he had been gone for two days. She held Tori's head in her lap, smoothed her hand over Tori's sandy brown hair, trying to comfort her. "Maybe his plane got rerouted and he lost his cell phone. He'll be back, girl."
But as Tori lay there, wetting Sarah's skirt with her tears, she didn't believe the words her friend said to her.
The next day, Tori went to the police to file a missing persons report.
"The moment we hear anything, we'll call you... Mrs. Billups," a square-jawed, graying detective named Reynolds said, having to glance down at the paperwork to remember Tori's name.
She returned home, sat in a kitchen chair for hours, staring at the phone, crying.
"Why are you doing this to me?!" she screamed, grabbing the glass pepper shaker from the table and slinging it across the room, where it shattered against the far kitchen wall.
When she first met Glenn, Tori had only been in the small California city of Torrance for two months. She had fled Chicago with more money than she thought she'd ever see in her life, and she wanted to make a new beginning for herself.
She bought a house and settled in.
The first month had been bearable. She allowed her thoughts to be consumed with what color to paint the walls, the style of living room furniture, and whether the blinds she hung should be vertical or horizontal.
The following month, loneliness had found her. Most often it was at night, while she lay in bed alone, after spending the entire day by herself.
She wanted love again but was afraid.
One night she suffered from a terrible migraine. She walked into the bathroom in her slippers and robe to take some medication. Standing in front of the open medicine cabinet, she eyed the bottle of Tylenol. She pulled out the bottle of prescription sleeping pills instead, thinking, Maybe if I just slept.
Tori shook one into her palm, then two. She paused, looking up into the mirror, thinking about her lonely nights. They were becoming insufferable. If she wanted, she would never have to deal with them again.
Tori tilted the bottle, letting the remainder of the pills fall into her hand.
She grabbed the glass of water from the edge of the sink. It would take just two quick motions -- pills, water. Down her throat they'd go, she'd fall off to sleep, and she'd never be lonely again.
That night, Tori stopped herself and was glad she did. For if she hadn't, she wouldn't have known Glenn.
She met him in the cookie aisle at the grocery store.
"Which are better? Chips Ahoy or Oreos?" he said, holding a bag of each.
It was a come-on line, but Tori was lonely, and the man was strangely cute, with squinty eyes and a deep dimple in his right cheek.
She stopped her empty cart, leaned on its handle, allowed herself to play the game.
"Why ask me? You're the one that has to eat 'em," Tori said.
"You're right. Then I guess there's only one way to find out." He opened the bags, pulled a cookie from each, and took bites from both.
Tori could not help but laugh.
"Have one?" he said.
"I think I will."
Two weeks later, Tori lay in her bed, receiving a good-night kiss from Glenn after the first time they made love.
Four months after that, as they walked hand in hand at dusk down a wooded bike trail, Glenn stopped, pulled a ring from his pocket, lowered himself to one knee, and proposed.
"Yes," Tori said, a lump in her throat so big, she thought she would choke.
She had fallen in love with this man, even after Chicago, even after she had endured the hateful things Nate Kenny, the last man she loved, had done to her. Now Tori was in love again and getting married.
Two months after their wedding, Glenn told his wife, "I'm going to start my own consulting firm. Why do for them what I can do for myself?"
She held her husband's hand tight from across the kitchen table, smiled, proud of him. He was brilliant and already a success, could have run the financial consulting firm he worked for by himself.
"I just have to find some investors. This is gonna cost," Glenn said.
"Don't you worry about the cost or the investors," Tori said, taking both his hands in hers. The money Tori had left Chicago with amounted to well over a million dollars. She had wondered how she would invest it. Now she knew.
"What are you talking about?" Glenn said.
"I have a little something in the bank that I've been waiting to do something with."
"Are you sure?" he said.
"Positive," Tori said, smiling.
Glenn threw his arms around his wife.
His hands on her shoulders, he said, "Then we're partners. Okay, honey. You and me!"
Tori now turned her head away from the clock: 5:08 A.M.
It had been almost eight days and no word from her husband. An image of his face, covered with blood, flashed in her mind. His body was twisted, clothes torn. He lay in a Dumpster, shot in the chest.
The phone rang.
Tori gasped, rolled in bed, lunged for the receiver, pressed it to her face. "Glenn!"
"Mrs. Billups?" a firm voice said.
Tori was hesitant, frightened. "Yes."
"This is Detective Reynolds. You need to come to the city morgue. We found a man matching your husband's description."
Then it was all true, Tori thought two hours later as she was being led down a narrow tiled hallway, under bright fluorescent lights. Someone had killed Glenn, robbed him, taken everything from him, and left his body in the trash.
That's where the detective said the unidentified body had been found, and it explained why Tori's credit card had been declined yesterday when she had tried to buy groceries.
She had reached into her purse, tried the other three she had.
"I'm sorry, ma'am," the cashier said to her. "They've all been declined."
"All of my money has been stolen," Tori had told Sarah later that day, pacing frantically in front of her.
"I'm sorry," Sarah had said, stepping to Tori, her arms open. "It's not your fault you trusted him with your money."
"Who are you talking about?"
"Your husband. Isn't that why he hasn't -- "
"No! You don't know him. He wouldn't do that!"
The detective stopped Tori and stood with her before a thick glass window, shielded from the inside by a white rubber curtain. If nothing else, Glenn's death proved that Sarah had been wrong about him.
Of course it was no consolation that the man she loved, planned to spend her life with, was lying dead just beyond the glass before her. She tried to stop her sobbing, but could not, and just pressed the tissues the detective had given her hard against her eyes.
"Are you ready, Mrs. Billups?"
Tori prepared herself as best she could. "Yes," she sniffled, not looking up.
Detective Reynolds rapped twice on the glass with his knuckle.
Tori listened as the metal rings of the curtain slid back across the metal rod.
"Take your time," Detective Reynolds instructed.
Tori looked up. The body on the table was sheathed in a white bag. It was unzipped from the top to expose the head, face, and shoulders. Tori saw the gunshot wound that penetrated his left lung and started crying harder at the sight. She dropped her face into her hands and sobbed loudly. The detective placed an arm around her.
"So is that him, Mrs. Billups? Is that your husband?"
"No," Tori said through her tears.
At her front door, Tori wiped a hand across her cheek, smoothed the last tear away, then slid the key into the lock. When she turned it, the tumbler inside did not move. She twisted the knob. It opened. The door was not locked.
She quickly recounted her movements before leaving and knew she had locked the door. That meant only one thing to her. Tori quickly pushed through the door, hurried into the living room, and stopped. She stood silent, feeling a presence in the house.
"Glenn? Is that you?" Tori called, feeling her heart pounding in her chest.
"Up here," she heard him call, his voice muffled by distance and walls.
Tori took the stairs quickly, pulling herself up them two at a time.
Across from the bedroom, Glenn's home office door was slightly ajar. Tori stopped just in front of it, took a deep breath, and tried to suppress the huge smile on her face, telling herself she needed to be mad.
She pushed the door open, saw the man sitting in there. Tori gasped, staggered, and almost fell.
Copyright © 2008 by R. Marcus Johnson
Nate Kenny, now forty-one years old, sat in Glenn's office in a tailored beige suit that contrasted sharply with his maple brown skin. He relished this moment.
Tori had stumbled backward, and if it wasn't for the wall behind her, she would've fallen at the shock of seeing him there.
It had been a year since Nate had seen her. The last time was at the divorce hearing.
Nate had sat confidently beside his high-priced attorney, knowing he was just going through the formalities. His soon-to-be ex-wife, Monica, had no leg to stand on. She had cheated on Nate, he had proof, and per their prenuptial agreement, he had the right to divorce her without having to give her any financial compensation.
Nate looked over at his wife. She did not return his stare, but continued looking down at her hands. He did not want a divorce, but regardless of how many times before the trial he had tried to reason with her, Monica still wanted to go ahead with it.
So be it, Nate thought. I'll keep my sixty million dollars, and she'll have nothing.
That was until Mr. Spiven, his wife's aging, white-haired attorney sat up in his chair and said to the judge, "We have a piece of evidence that I believe will alter the outcome of these proceedings." He held up a videotape. "May I?"
The judge glanced at Nate and his longtime attorney, Jeremy Talbert, then said, "Be my guest."
Mr. Talbert turned to his client. "What is this, Nate?" he whispered into Nate's ear.
"I don't have the slightest idea."
Mr. Spiven slipped the tape into the VCR, punched a couple of buttons. The screen went black. Then an image of Nate, stark naked in a hotel room, screwing his secretary, Tori Thomas, blinked onto the screen. She was on her back, her light brown hair fanned out over the pillow, golden tan legs spread open, hooked over Nate's shoulders. Nate was on his hands and knees, thrusting himself into her. Spiven quickly fumbled with the volume, turning it down as the loud groans and grunts of Nate and Tori filled the conference room.
Monica turned away in disgust.
"Note the date and time displayed on the video, Your Honor. This occurred before my client filed for divorce, meaning that Mr. Kenny also violated the terms of the prenuptial agreement."
"Nate, is that you in that video?" Mr. Talbert said in Nate's ear, his hand pressed down hard on Nate's arm. "Is that the real thing?"
Nate sat there, seething, knowing the tape could have only come from one person -- Tori Thomas.
She had been his secretary for five years. He had dated her, knowing it was wrong because she was under his employ, and for that reason, he knew it could not last.
When he met Monica, Nate ended things with Tori. Not long after, Nate married Monica. But three years after that, he had discovered some shocking news that Nate knew he could never deal with, and this was what ultimately motivated his need to start divorce proceedings. Only then did Nate realize that Tori would've been a better candidate for marriage than Monica had been. So he restarted his affair with Tori, telling her, "Once my divorce with Monica is final, I'll marry you and you'll have my children."
Tori was reluctant at first, said she did not want to get hurt again by him, but Nate wore her down. She warmed to the idea of being Mrs. Kenny, then fell in love with it, as she had fallen back in love with Nate.
But Nate changed his mind and decided he wanted to stay with his wife. Then Nate not only dumped Tori, he also fired her.
To Tori, the turn came from nowhere. One moment she was to marry a millionaire and have his children; the next, she was manless and jobless.
Not a week later, scorned and determined, she had phoned Nate.
"Meet me or your wife will know every sordid detail of this affair, down to the brand of wine we drink before sex."
He had no choice. Nate met Tori at the hotel she designated, discovered that his desire for her had never waned. She said she wanted him. He told her it would be the last time. She smiled as she disrobed. "I understand."
What happened that night was what Nate and everyone else in the conference room was looking at right now.
"Turn it off!" Nate's attorney said, rising from his chair.
The tape was as damaging as Tori knew it would be.
Monica's offense, her infidelity, was negated by Nate's, so the proceedings now carried on as though it was a normal divorce, entitling Monica to everything she normally would've had right to -- half of all Nate's assets.
Nate knew Tori, and as he sat there, seething, learning of all the money he would lose because of the new "evidence" that had been introduced, he knew Tori wouldn't have just given that to Monica free of charge. Tori had sold that tape to his wife, and that was only possible because she had planned the entire event.
Nate had been tricked, double crossed, and that day he vowed that whatever happened, he would get his revenge on Ms. Tori Thomas.
Now, as Nate sat in Tori's house, in the office that she had made for her husband, he smiled and told himself the day had finally come.
His hands were folded in his lap. He appeared calm, tranquil, the smooth brown skin of his face without worry, his dark, normally fiery eyes smoldering. Nate's right leg was crossed casually over his left knee. The expensive Italian shoe on his right foot bobbed up and down as if he were grooving to a song he liked.
"Hello, Tori," he said, as though they had just spoken yesterday.
"What are you doing here? Where is my husband?" Tori said, as though she knew Nate was involved.
She had never been more right.
"You thought I wouldn't find you?" Nate said. "Do you know the money I lost because of you? How much did you make out of the sweet deal you brokered?"
"Where is my husband?" Tori said again, frenzy in her voice.
"You could've come to me. I would've given you as much. More. But you had to be conniving. You stole from me. You thought I would not find out?"
"Where is my husband? Have you hurt him? Where is Glenn?"
Nate chuckled. "You haven't gotten this yet, have you? He's not your husband, and his name is not Glenn. He's an employee of mine, paid to come to California, find you, marry you, and get my money back."
"No," Tori said, her back against the wall, her face dropping into her hands. "He loves me."
"He doesn't love you."
"He does! You're wrong. Bring him back."
"Tori, he doesn't -- " Nate said, standing.
But Tori staggered across the room, threw herself at Nate, grabbing him by his lapels. "I don't care about the money. Keep it. But that man loves me, and I love him. You promised you'd marry me, and you left me, fired me. I just wanted money for a new life. Didn't I deserve at least that?"
Nate did not want to admit it as he looked at Tori, her face wet with tears, but she might have been right.
"I move away, find a man I love, and you come and take that away from me. No!" Tori said, beating at his chest now. "Bring him back! Please!"
Nate grabbed her by the wrists, tried to steady her. When he knew she would not fall, Nate let her go. He pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket, extended it to her. "Pull yourself together."
Tori took the cloth, dabbed at her eyes and nose. Her uncontrollable shaking lessened to a tremble.
"I know you don't believe me, but he loves me, Nate. Please bring him back to me."
"I can believe you, because I loved you before. The fact of the matter is he has no feelings for you. You were a job, an assignment, nothing more. I came because I wanted to see your face when you found out that what you stole from me, I've now gotten back," Nate said, beginning to feel sorry for the woman. "If you know what's best, you'll get over him. Understand?"
Tori dabbed at her eyes again with the handkerchief, then gave it back. "Yes, I understand," Tori said, her voice a whisper. "I'll be right back."
Nate watched her step out of the room. He shook his head, turning his back, leaning his hands on the edge of the desk.
Surprisingly, Nate wasn't as satisfied as he thought he would have been after pulling off this caper. Oh well, the money had been retrieved and was resting securely back in his account. That counted for something.
Behind him, he heard Tori step back into the room.
He turned and was mildly surprised to see her pointing a gun at him. His heart did not thump in his chest, nor did his palms coat with sweat, because he knew Tori. He knew she could not kill a man, or even shoot a man for that matter, especially not him. And even if she did have it in her, he was confident in his ability to convince her to lower the gun without incident.
"You're not going to do that, Tori. So put it down."
"You are a hateful man." The gun trembled in her hand.
"Tori, put it down." He took a step forward.
"I thought I loved you then, but I realize I never could have. Not you."
"Just put it down." Another step. "Killing me would solve nothing. You'd still have to live with your pain."
By the look in her eyes, Nate could see something click in Tori's head.
"You're right," she said, quickly turning the gun, pressing the tip of the barrel to her temple.
Nate threw himself over the few short steps between them, lunged at her. He was too late.
Nate heard the deafening blast. Saw the flash of orange fire spurt from the gun's barrel, and saw the fine red mist of blood spray from the side of Tori's head. She went limp, the gun dropped from her hand, and Nate caught her in his arms before her body fell to the floor.
Copyright © 2008 by R. Marcus Johnson
Monica sat on her best friend Tabatha's sofa, wearing house shoes and a trench coat over her nightgown. Her eyes were bloodshot, her nose pink from crying.
Tabatha, who was tall and thin and never regarded as much more than cute by men, walked in from the kitchen, her brown hair pulled back into a ponytail, carrying two cups of tea. She set one down in front of her friend, beside the box of Kleenex she had gotten Monica a moment ago.
"There's a little something in there to help you calm down," Tabatha said, sitting right next to her. "Now what happened?"
"He proposed like I told you he was going to."
"And you told him no, right?"
"I told him I'm not ready, which I'm not."
"And then he started grabbing shit out of the closet and just left."
"Aww, baby," Tabatha said, giving Monica a hug. "Where is the little girl?"
"He took her with him."
"You're better off."
"I don't feel that way."
"You know it was never supposed to go this far anyway."
Monica knew that. She remembered the night her divorce from her husband had been finalized.
She had shed tears, cried painfully at the thought of never being with Nate again.
Tabatha had come over to comfort her. She had held Monica in her arms. "It's okay. Everything's going to be all right," Tabatha said that night.
"I should never have gone through with it," Monica cried. "I should have stayed with him."
"As messed up as it sounds, he didn't want you anymore, Monica."
"But I loved him," Monica said, smearing tears across her cheeks with the back of her hand. "I still do. I always will. I need to call him." She tried to pull away from Tabatha.
Tabatha held tight to Monica's arm. "No. After what he did, you needed to go. You run back to him, he'll know he can treat you any old way he wants. If you two are meant to be together again, he'll come to you."
"And what if he doesn't? I don't want to be alone. After almost four years I don't know how to be alone," Monica cried, lowering her head onto Tabatha's chest.
Tabatha smoothed her hand over Monica's hair. "You'll find someone else."
"There is nobody else."
"Then stay with Lewis, the man your husband hired to seduce you."
Monica lifted her head, leaning away from Tabatha, giving her a questioning stare.
"I know he isn't the man he said he was, but you said you
liked him. I know it's not right. But it'll be something to do, someone to be with until Nate finally comes to his senses."
Monica sniffed, her crying finally stopping. "Do you think that I should?"
"At least you won't be alone."
"It wasn't supposed to last, and it didn't," Tabatha said now, bringing Monica out of her thoughts. "At least now you won't have to be the one who breaks it off."
"I don't know if I still want to break it off."
"The man has nothing. He's twenty-seven years old, he works part-time. He has no money, no common sense, and no education. The only reason he's trying to get one now is because you're paying for it."
"I'm just saying," Tabatha said, springing from the sofa. "The nerve of his ass, trying to demand that you marry him when he ain't got shit!"
Monica dried the last of her tears with a Kleenex. "This is the third time he asked. Maybe I should just... I'm raising his child... he bought me a ring."
"Was it real?"
"It looked real."
"Then he bought it with that bank card I told you not to give his ass. Monica, there are plenty of other men out there. Men who are worth a damn. Hell, if you don't want any of them, there's always your ex-husband."
"I've gotten over that fantasy. It's been a year, and I haven't heard a thing from him."
"Yeah, well a year ago you were saying how you would never stop loving him."
"Like I said, I've gotten over that."
"And if he were to contact you, would you -- "
"Lewis is the man in my life now. I don't know how many times I have to tell you that before you accept it," Monica said with the slightest bit of attitude. "All he's done is treat me with respect and love me unconditionally. I know the plan wasn't to stay with him, but maybe I should change the plan."
"That would be the biggest mistake you could ever make. He is not the man for you."
"Thanks for your opinion, but I think that's my decision to make."
Copyright © 2008 by R. Marcus Johnson
In the pitch-black basement, Freddy's eyes were open wide.
He listened intently.
His girlfriend Kia stirred beside him.
"What are you -- ," she tried to say.
He spun, covered her mouth with one hand, showed her the gun he was holding in the other.
"Somebody's upstairs," he whispered. "Stay here."
Freddy eased out of bed and cautiously climbed the stairs from his basement apartment.
At the door leading to the first floor, he held the gun high beside his head, listening. It could've been his mother moving about, but those weren't her familiar, slow sounds. As he pressed his ear to the door, he knew there were at least two people shuffling about. Then he heard men's voices whispering.
Freddy's heart pounded in his chest. His hands coated over with sweat. He grabbed tightly to the gun, slowly twisted the door's knob with the other hand. He swallowed hard, then swung the door open. He saw shadows, heard a glass break, a chair skid across the kitchen floor. He saw the silhouette of a man dart through the room. Freddy leveled his gun on the figure, pulled the trigger, squeezed off three shots. Fire blew from the gun.
"Motherfucker!" someone yelled.
A shot was sent back at Freddy. He heard something whiz past his head. The wood of the door frame splintered beside him as a bullet tore through it.
A kitchen window shattered as the man dived out of it.
Freddy ran through the dark hallway, the gun pointed in front of him, into the living room, where he heard another man.
He saw a form speed past him, cloaked in shadows.
Freddy fired a single shot. The man cried out, turned, fired back at Freddy.
Freddy dived behind the living room sofa.
He heard the front door swing open, the intruder scurrying through it.
Freddy raised his head, fired two more rounds through the door. The room went silent, and Freddy stood slowly, his face covered with sweat. He hurried to the door, looked out. A dark-colored older Chevrolet roared to life, then raced away.
Freddy heard a noise behind him. He whirled around, leveled the gun again.
He pulled the trigger. The gun clicked on an empty chamber. Freddy gasped. He'd almost shot the girl standing there in the doorway.
"Are you okay?" his girlfriend said, shaking, crying. She stumbled toward him.
"Go back downstairs!" Freddy ordered her.
"But -- ," Kia said.
"Go back downstairs. I got to check on Moms," he said, running to the stairs, taking them two at a time, the empty gun still in his fist.
If something had happened to his mother, he thought, he would not be able to forgive himself. Never. Freddy ran down the hall to the last room, stopped at the door. Pressing the side of his face to the door, he said softly, "Moms?"
Freddy forced open the door, prepared to give his life. The door slammed against the back wall. He rushed in, the gun raised, but did not see his mother in her bed.
"Moms!" Freddy yelled.
Freddy followed the faint voice, saw his mother cowering on the floor beside her bed.
He set the gun on her dresser, rushed around the bed, helped his heavy, sixty-five-year-old mother from the floor. He hugged her tight, thankful she had not been hurt. Fearful tears ran down her sagging, copper-colored cheeks. "Was it another break-in?"
"Yeah," Freddy said, desperately trying to control the rage he felt filling his body. "It was another break-in."
Copyright © 2008 by R. Marcus Johnson
Nate was meeting with Aaron Hunter, a.k.a. Glenn Billups, in the California office of one of his associates. Aaron was six feet tall, broad shouldered, and neatly groomed. He was ex-military and carried that demeanor about even after working for Nate for the last two years.
As Nate sat up in the executive chair behind the desk, Aaron Hunter stood straight, arms stiffly at his sides.
"Let me ask you again, Aaron," Nate said. "Did you have feelings for Ms. Thomas?"
Aaron looked straight ahead at the space a foot above Nate's head.
"You gave me the assignment, Mr. Kenny, and I did it. I believe that was all that was required of me."
"That's correct, but -- "
"You said I was successful. I was, wasn't I?"
"Yes, but -- "
"Then with all due respect, sir, why must I be questioned about my emotional position regarding -- "
Nate quickly stood from his chair. "Because I want to know." His voice was not loud, but it was firm. There was silence in the room. Nate took his seat again.
"She said you loved her. Is she telling the truth?"
Aaron Hunter continued staring ahead, making no comment.
"Well, she loved you. As you probably would have assumed, she was pretty distraught at what happened. She pulled a gun on me, threatened to kill me."
"I see she was not successful," Aaron said, glancing at Nate, then looking away.
"No, she wasn't. But then she turned the gun on herself."
Aaron turned to Nate again, fear on his face. "Is she all right?"
"Tell me what I want to know. There will be no repercussions. Just -- "
Aaron quickly stepped to Nate's desk, threw his hands on it, leaned over. "The woman is still my wife."
"And you are still my employee. Now tell me. Tell me, and I'll take you to her."
Aaron looked up, resentment on his face. "Yes, I love her, Mr. Kenny. And I didn't want to leave her, but I kept my agreement with you."
The man who stood before Nate and Aaron wore pale blue hospital scrubs and a white lab coat. His name was Dr. Frist.
"This is Mrs. Billups's husband, Aaron," Nate said, as the three men stood just outside the door of Tori's hospital room.
"Well," the balding doctor said, pushing his glasses up his nose. "She missed. The bullet did tear into her skull, chipping some of the occipital region away, but the wound was largely superficial."
"Will she be okay?" Aaron asked.
"She'll be fine," Dr. Frist said, smiling a little. "She's recovering from surgery, but she should be awake by now. You can talk to her if you like, but only for a moment."
"Thank you," Aaron said.
"Thanks again," Nate said, shaking the doctor's hand, then following behind Aaron toward Tori's hospital room door.
Aaron stood at the door's entrance, staring in.
Tori lay under white sheets, bandages wrapped countless times around her head. Her eyes were closed, tubes seeming to run from every part of her body to bedside machines that beeped, blinked, and charted her vital signs.
"What can I say that will make her forgive me?" Aaron said, his eyes still on his wife.
"She'll forgive you. Just tell her the truth."
"And what if she doesn't accept that?"
"Then you'll have work to do," Nate said. "I never meant for it to go this way."
"But it did," Aaron said. "I should talk to my wife alone now."
"Wait." Nate pulled a brown envelope padded with cash from his breast pocket and handed it to Aaron. "You take some time and let me know when you're ready to come back to work, okay?"
Copyright © 2008 by R. Marcus Johnson
Lewis stood over his daughter while she slept in the big hotel room bed.
He felt awful for taking Layla away from what had been the girl's home for the past eight months. It had been a good home. But Lewis had always felt that it was temporary. He had tried to make it permanent.
Layla coughed a little in her sleep. Lewis pulled the blankets up over her shoulders.
Layla had always been sickly, always had respiratory problems. As an infant, she would catch a cold or come down with a fever if the wind changed. It had been that way since her birth.
It was because of Selena, Layla's dead mother, a drug addict.
She had quit her old habit when she found out that Lewis had gotten her pregnant, but Lewis still feared the lasting effects of the poison had taken their toll on his child.
When Layla was an infant, Lewis and Selena often had to sacrifice paying a utility bill or buying food to afford the pink stuff prescribed to Layla by the overworked doctor at the free clinic.
The medicine would work fairly quickly, but when they couldn't afford the drug, they would have to nurse Layla back to health themselves, allowing her weak immune system to slowly fight off the illness. It was torture to watch his child suffer like that.
Lewis always tried but never managed entirely to avoid laying blame on Selena. But it was his fault as well. If Lewis had had a decent job, he would have been able to take his child away from there. He could have put Selena in a real drug addiction program, and maybe she would never have done the heroin that killed her.
He remembered the last time he went to visit Selena, pushed open the unlocked door of her project apartment to find the woman dead on her sofa. A needle was hanging from the vein in her arm. Worst of all, their child, Layla, was on her mother's chest, bawling her eyes out, screaming. The child had witnessed it all, seen her own mother die.
Lewis told himself he would never subject his daughter to a life like that again, no matter what he had to do.
So now here he was, Lewis thought as he lowered himself to the bed, sitting beside his daughter, wondering if he had made the biggest mistake of his life.
The truck that brought Lewis and his daughter to the hotel was the Land Rover Monica had bought him.
The ring he had bought Monica was paid for with the card she had given him. It had his name on it and everything. And it was to her bank account, with over a million dollars in it. The woman had trusted him that much. And he had up and left her. What the fuck was wrong with him?
Great going, Lewis, he thought to himself, standing and peering out of the hotel curtain.
But he prayed it would work out.
He had been put out of Selena's place when she was tired of him, when he wasn't making much money, and Selena didn't have a damn pot to piss in.
For the eight months that Lewis had been living with Monica, he had always felt he was just a moment away from being asked to leave.
He wasn't supposed to be with a woman like her.
She had everything, and he had nothing. But he loved her, and even if she did not love him the same, he told himself, he would make it work. Not just for his sake, but for the sake of his daughter. He wanted her to have a good home, have a mother who cared about her and loved her.
Monica was that woman. But Lewis always felt there would come a day when she realized he wasn't enough.
That was the reason for the proposal tonight -- for the last two proposals. Yes, she had taken care of the both of them, gave Lewis money whenever he needed it, loved him, gave him exhausting, passionate sex to prove it. But there was never a guarantee it would last.
He felt she didn't think much of him, and he knew that was the reason why she pushed and pushed for him to go back to school. He figured she wouldn't want to admit to her friends and colleagues that not only was she dating a man who didn't have much of a job, but one that had no education as well.
This was her way of shaping him, trying to improve him.
Lewis told himself he would play along as long as she guaranteed they would be together, but now she had made her decision, and he had foolishly run out without a plan.
He pulled his wallet from his pocket, parted the billfold to count the forty-six dollars he had there in small bills.
He would have to do something. He just didn't know what.
Copyright © 2008 by R. Marcus Johnson