When you finish a piece of writing, it’s a damn good feeling – even better when you feel it’s good enough to share with the world. Inspired by a prompt by a good friend and fellow writer (which wonderfully spun out of control), I give you “Smoke and Mirrors – Part 1.” Parts 2, 3, and 4 will be forthcoming. Stay tuned.
Smoke and Mirrors
By: Tiffany Michelle Brown
Karen wondered if she looked tired and, more importantly, if her husband would notice. She gazed at her reflection and then traced a fingertip down the bridge of her nose, brushed her lips, and stopped at her chin. A little make-up and no one would know she hadn’t slept, she decided. Karen had found herself thanking God for Clinique a lot lately. She was almost inspired to go to church. Almost.
She heard a long sigh from the adjoining bedroom, Jake’s lithe body moving through their 1200 thread count sheets, and then the consequent cracking of his back, one way and then the other. Karen grabbed her bathrobe off the door hook, draped herself in it, and quickly splashed some water on her face. She heard Jake approaching and turned to meet him with the smile that had inspired him to propose to her two years ago.
“Good morning,” she said, grabbing his face between her agile hands. She brought him close to her and kissed him softly.
“You’re up early,” Jake said, wrapping his arms about her waist.
“Mm. I have a meeting with a client at nine,” she said.
“Me too,” Jake said with a smile. He released his wife, walked over to the shower, and began to run the water.
Karen smiled into the mirror at him, admiring his tan skin and the birthmark on his ribcage they’d decided together looked like a pirate hat. Something about how his hair was disheveled reminded Karen of the boy he’d been in college, a rugby-playing psychology major with an addiction to bad samurai movies. She’d fallen quick for every small detail about him. And even now, watching Jake do the most mundane things still stirred something within her. She had the sudden urge to blow off her work for the day, ask Jake to build a fortress with her out of their pillows and bed linens, get day drunk, and maybe smoke a little weed together. That was followed by a sudden urge to tell him everything. She knew neither would happen. Not today.
“What’s wrong?” Jake asked.
Karen’s face was knotted with a frown, but she took a quick breath and smoothed out her features.
“Just feeling a headache coming on,” Karen said. “The client I’m meeting this morning is a piece of work. I’m going to need an extra large cup of espresso to deal with him.”
“Do you have time for me to make you some cinnamon toast?” Jake teased, knowing the childhood classic was her favorite.
“I’ll always have time for that,” Karen said.
Jake turned to feel the temperature of the water and Karen’s knees warmed. Inspired, happy, and pushing to the back of her mind what she was keeping from her husband, Karen let her bathrobe drop to the floor. She bit her lip, turned to face Jake, and waited for him to pull her into the steam with him.
Jake watched Karen’s hands as she moved about their kitchen, pouring coffee, slicing toast, picking up the newspaper for a cursory glance or two at the headlines. There had always been something graceful about the way she reached for a box of cereal at the grocery store or a bottle of Tabasco at their favorite Mexican restaurant down the street.
But those deceptively refined hands could also throw a mean punch. Jake had learned this one night when they’d just begun dating. A couple of Pilsners into their date, a slick-haired creep at the bar with a Jersey accent starting shooting lascivious comments toward Karen. Jake had wanted to punch him out, but it was only he and Karen’s fourth date, and he didn’t want to come off as a macho, testosterone-driven caveman who got into bar fights. He threw some stern words at the offender, but the inappropriate comments only worsened as a result. When he and Karen decided to leave, the man followed them outside. They had no sooner stepped onto the sidewalk when Karen spun around and laid a solid right hook to the man’s jaw. Stunned, the creep grabbed his face and stumbled back into the bar, muttering curse words.
Karen watched him disappear back into the smoky haze and then cradled her right hand in her abdomen and winced. Perhaps more stunned than the guy who took the punch, Jake guided Karen to a nearby bench, sat her down and took her right hand in his, gently inspecting for broken bones and trying to soothe the pain. They were silent for a moment and then Karen started to laugh, a deep genuine laugh that radiated from her and then echoed through the nearly-empty streets of Chicago. All Jake could do was smile, shake his head, and recognize that this was a girl he could learn to love.
And he had. He’d been in love with Karen for five years and was still enamored with the enchantment of her hands and the fact that she could surprise him regularly. He wasn’t sure if he’d ever know everything about her, something he was both excited and nervous to acknowledge.
Lately, nervousness had been taking over. He knew that there were nights when Karen wasn’t coming home until ungodly hours. But then again, he was guilty of the same. And so he never brought it up, pretended to sleep through her late arrivals, told her he’d taken some Ambien to help him pass out. Usually, he’d get home about an hour before her, so he didn’t think she’d caught wind of his late nights. But all too often he wondered if she suspected anything.
He knew they would have to have a conversation soon, and that meant he’d have to come clean.
Confession had never been his strong point. Though it pained him to keep secrets from his wife, Jake wasn’t ready to tell her everything yet. And honestly, he wasn’t ready to know what secrets her hands held this time around either.
For now, he’d watch her eat cinnamon toast and marvel at the question mark he’d married.
Karen wasn’t lying when she’d told Jake that the client she was meeting with at nine was a piece of work. Carlos thought he was a thug, all rough talk, threats, a serious look plastered across his face during their “meetings”. And for all intents and purposes, Karen supposed he was a thug. But more often than not he seemed like he was recreating a bad boy role he’d seen on an episode of CSI. She knew that deep down he wasn’t a bad person. A little rough around the edges, but aren’t we all?
In truth, Karen worked with Carlos because she could imagine him lounging on a battered couch, eating Cheeto Puffs, watching American Idol, and drinking a glass of wine. Yes, wine. She’d heard through the grapevine that Carlos loved a good merlot, reality TV, and had a five year-old daughter he regularly took to the playground on the other side of town. That domesticity ruined Carlos’ street cred for Karen and made him someone she could work for. Somehow, it was easier to do illegal things for someone who seemed at least moderately normal and relatable.
She’d experienced what it was like to work for the truly bad guys, and she wouldn’t do that again. She also wouldn’t leave the house for this kind of work without the small revolver she’d named Nixon strapped to the inside of her right thigh. She’d never had to use it, but had come close twice. Jake and Karen regularly visited the local gun club, and Jake was convinced it was just a hobby, that his wife was simply a cool chick with a badass side. She readily let him believe that was all it was.
Karen’s stilettos clicked down the alleyway and a calico cat scampered across her path. Carlos’ tan van was parked about 100 yards away. Karen smoothed her navy skirt as she approached the driver’s side window, but instead of Carlos’s pock-marked face, a stranger peered back at her. As the window slid down, Karen felt a heavy dose of adrenaline shoot through her and she readied her right hand to grab for Nixon. She hoped it wouldn’t be necessary, but the boulder in her stomach wasn’t the greatest vote of confidence.
Karen resolutely peered into the eyes of this stranger, who casually took a drag of his cigarette and regarded her with an equally cool and steady gaze.
“Carlos is indisposed today,” the stranger said. “You’re Colleen, right?”
“Depends on who’s asking,” Karen said.
The stranger chuckled. “Carlos told me you might be a bitch to work with today.” Karen stayed silent and the man exhaled dramatically in her direction. “But that’s good,” he followed up. “You trust no one. Very important in our business.”
“And what business is that?” Karen questioned.
The man sighed, but there was a smile tugging at his lips. Karen was immediately annoyed that this guy was finding their exchange amusing. It almost felt patronizing, like Karen was a child and this man knew everything. It was a power play, and Karen knew the fact she was wearing a skirt wasn’t helping matters. Karen clenched and unclenched her jaw, trying to assuage her frustration.
“Why should I trust you?” she finally asked.
“I have Carlos’ van, don’t I?”
“Yes, but how do I know he surrendered it to you willingly? How do I know you’re not a cop?”
She paused and then pressed him again. “How do I know you aren’t the competition and I’m just going to be your play thing for the afternoon?”
The stranger clucked softly and shrugged his meaty shoulders. “So many questions.”
The door clicked and Karen backed up to let the stranger out of the vehicle. He was stocky, shorter than her, and smelled faintly of Lysol. He started to whistle and walked heavily toward the back of the van. He opened up the back door, peeked out from behind it and asked, “Are we going to do this or what?”
Karen weighed her options. She could walk away right now. Carlos hadn’t contacted her about this change in plans and that was bullshit. She shouldn’t trust anyone but Carlos. But she knew there would be hell to pay if this was a substantial delivery and she didn’t go through with it. At the hands of an America’s Got Talent fan, no less. Shit.
Karen sighed, said a quick prayer to every god she’d ever heard of, and approached the back of the van.
Jake had only done it twice, once in college and once since then. Neither of those times had been a good experience, which is why he felt he was perfect for this line of work. Relatively experienced, reliable, and in no way, shape or form interested in the product. Briggs and Marco had dipped their greedy fingers into the merchandise recently and…well, Jake didn’t like to think about had happened to them. Their collective absence had created a whole lot of opportunity for him.
However, with this new opportunity, a sheath of unease had started to descend upon Jake. He wasn’t sure if it was the new clientele that made him more and more nervous, or if he was simply getting older and growing into his common sense. During his college days, runs were full of adrenaline and energy and sticking it to the man. These days, the thrill was replaced with restlessness and guilt.
Jake had been promising himself for weeks that today would be his last day, that he would walk away after the next drop. He would go home and sleep deeply, happy with his resolution, but when the sun came up the next day, he would return to the same seedy Chicago streets he’d visited the day before. He wasn’t sure why he couldn’t stop. He had a pseudonym; no one knew where he lived, or any personal information about him for that matter. He had a college degree and could easily find employment elsewhere. He knew in his gut he couldn’t do this forever, and no one was invincible. He would be caught eventually. It happened to all of them.
“Why do I stay?” Jake asked aloud as he leaned against a brick wall behind a gas station.
“Because you’re an addict, too,” a voice mused to Jake’s left. He flinched and then turned to see Giovanni standing beside him. Jake hadn’t heard the man approach and kicked himself for letting his guard down. “As much as you claim not to be, you are. Just a different kind,” Giovanni said.
Jake simply shrugged and looked down at his Chucks. They were battered, worn. He needed a new pair. Karen constantly teased Jake about how shiny and new his work loafers were, that he must spend a fortune on shoe shine stations…and why wasn’t he spending that money on presents for her instead? Jake would sling Karen over his shoulder, take her to their bedroom and promptly make her forget about the shoes. In truth, the loafers were so damn clean because he never wore them. The monkey suit Jake left the house in every morning was exchanged for jeans, T-shirts and Chucks on the first floor of their apartment building.
“Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone,” Giovanni said. “Everyone has moments of weakness when they want to get out. But you’re a lifer, Nick, I can tell.”
“How many kids today, Gio?” Jake asked, ignoring Giovanni’s predictions.
“Four, Nick,” Giovanni replied.
Jake took a sip of his gas station coffee. “Where?”
“The usual place. Your instructions will be with them.”
Giovanni began to turn and then stopped. He looked back over his shoulder and smirked at Jake. Jake pretended not to notice and took another sip of bitter coffee. Giovanni pulled a joint out of his breast pocket and then a lighter. Jake’s throat tightened. What the hell was he doing?
The older man lit the joint, took a deep drag and started to pass in front of Jake. He reached out a hand, took Jake’s coffee, and passed Jake the joint. Jake gingerly held the bud between his fingertips as if he was afraid it would revolt and attack him at any second.
“Nicky boy, you look like shit,” Giovanni said. His eyes flicked to the joint in Jake’s hand. “You need this. I can tell these things.”
He took a sip of Jake’s coffee, threw the cup to the ground, and said, “Call me when it’s done.” With that, the man disappeared behind the corner of the building.
Jake sighed. He breathed deeply, taking in the familiar scent of the weed. Something about it was comforting to him. He noticed his hands were shaking slightly. Maybe Gio was right. Maybe he did need this.
Jake raised the joint to his lips and told himself to take a deep breath.
Karen’s stilettos clicked steadily on the pavement and she knew that her hips were swaying jauntily. Despite the rough start, her morning had steadily improved and now she felt damn near invincible. This was the best part of her job, the part that made her feel like she was full of uppers and the center of attention. Of course, she was full of caffeine and nearly every passerby did a double take as she flounced by. This feeling made the daily dealings with Mafiosos and corrupt, materialistic socialites at least somewhat bearable. The euphoria would subside in approximately seven blocks, but Karen didn’t want to think about that.
It was genius really, this backwards smuggling thing. It didn’t even make it feel like smuggling, because there was no hiding involved. It felt like an honest delivery to clients. Okay, honest was a bit of a stretch, but there was something comforting about the concept of wearing stolen diamonds instead of stuffing them in boots or up a ballooned sleeve.
Karen believed that when you were actively hiding something, paranoia naturally took over; sweaty palms, insecurity, the constant feeling of being watched, the whole nine. When you were open about something, even if unsavory in nature, the pressure was off. Karen could toss her hair and act like she didn’t have a care in the world, because while walking these blocks, she was basking in the moment. During transit, she was confident and at ease, wrapped up in her own little world in which she pretended she was a lady who could afford such finery.
“Blue diamonds,” Carlos’s henchman had said earlier. “Very rare, very expensive. The clients…” He’d trailed off, but Karen immediately understood the gravity of the delivery. Blue diamonds meant important people. Important people with loads of money.
As Karen neared the end of the block, the smell of espresso hit her like a truck. It didn’t matter how much caffeine Karen had in her system, she always wanted more. Her gait slowed and she inhaled deeply. The world about her halted and Karen imagined herself enrobed in Arabica beans. Her shoulders relaxed, she closed her eyes and she paused on the busy sidewalk.
And that’s when it happened, what Karen had feared ever since she’d started delivering smuggled diamonds. She’d always convinced herself it was a one in a million chance, and her life wasn’t an action flick, so she had nothing to worry about. But fate and a red-headed kid that couldn’t have been more than eighteen both delivered a swift kick to her ribcage. And then the diamonds were gone.
There were more “kids” than Giovanni had said and Jake’s sarcastic side wished he had someone to feign annoyance to. I’m not a goddamn babysitter! he thought with a smile. He spotted a fat pigeon nearby and considered bending its ear, but then dismissed the thought. If someone happened to see him talking to a pigeon about kids…yeah, that wouldn’t go over well. Jake could imagine calling Karen from the clink and trying to explain that it was simply suspicious behavior that landed him in the cell, nothing serious, just the wrong place at the wrong time. Funny enough, Karen would probably just laugh, grab her coat and sail over as soon as possible. One of the many reasons Jake loved his wife.
Jake walked out of the alley and into the crisp sunshine with the drugs secured in the inner breast pocket of his light jacket. The drop-off location was about four blocks away, a pretty easy run for the day. Maybe when Jake called Gio, the old man would give him another assignment. Otherwise, it would be home for a hot shower and an afternoon of catching up on Breaking Bad. Jake thought that didn’t sound too shabby.
Without warning, beads of sweat began to gather on Jake’s forehead and his legs grew hot. He swiped his forehead with the back of his hand, took a deep breath, and looked up at the sky for answers. It was a sunny but cool day, with the sun ducking behind clouds periodically. At times, there was even a breeze. I’m much too young for menopause, Jake joked inwardly.
The humor dispelled as the heat continued to increase, throbbing in Jake’s temples and starting to turn his stomach. He stopped at the end of the block and leaned against the stop light post. He mentally ran through a list of what he’d consumed that day – eggs and cinnamon toast, some Jimmy Dean sausage links (but those were cooked well), the bitter coffee…the joint.
“Goddamn junky,” Jake said and a passerby eyed him suspiciously. “Sorry, not you,” he muttered.
The weed had to have been laced or cut with something. Heroin? No, that was what he was delivering and the trip he’d taken on that drug had not started like this. LSD? Probably not.
And then it dawned on Jake. Cocaine. He’d never tried it, but had heard of some of the telltale symptoms of a coke trip. Things were about to get interesting.
You felt like I needed some coke in my life? You old fuck.
Jake took a deep breath and swiped at his brow again. Every movement, every feeling was intensifying.
He considered his options. He could call a cab and go home right now to sleep off this trip. But catch the wrong cab driver and they would refuse him service or call the cops. A sentence for using coke-laced weed and delivering heroin. Yeah, that sounded glamorous. He could walk home, but he and Karen’s place was a good eight blocks in the opposite direction. He wasn’t sure if he would make it before the trip took over. He could continue on his run. The drop-off location was only two blocks away now, and surely if Jake explained the situation, the druggies would get it and they could all have a good laugh. Because you know, this was an episode of The Brady Bunch. It was a risk. But at this moment, it was a risk Jake was willing to take.
His head felt like it was treading water, so he started to swim down the block, crossing his fingers that someone, anyone would have his back today.
To be continued…