Aubergine. Yes, Karen had decided it was the color of eggplant. The girl’s dress had fluttered and shifted deliciously for two blocks. Now they were on Sixth Street and Karen had yet to devise a plan as to how to get the diamonds off this young girl’s neck.
Excuse me, but do you know you’re wearing stolen diamonds? Yes, they are pretty, gorgeous even, but I’m going to be in big trouble if I don’t get them back from you. I’m sure that ginger-haired ass gave them to you as some sort of lover’s present – oh, he accidentally ran over your cat? That’s terrible, but I’m going to need that necklace. Yeah, right now. Maybe he can take you out for Mexican food or something in penitence.
Somehow Karen didn’t think that would work. She sighed and stuck her hands in the pockets of her jacket, her footsteps steady, her eyes never drifting from the auburn hair 20 yards in front of her. She’d figure a way out of this…somehow.
Karen’s ears picked up the sound of a motorcycle approaching, the engine purring and a bawdy rock song playing from its jimmied radio station. Jake wanted to buy a motorcycle, but Karen would never let him. She had no interest in throwing her skinny legs over the seat of one, even if it was behind her devastatingly handsome husband. Besides, she was afraid Jake would break his neck. Sometimes he was a real speed demon–well, as much of a speed demon as you can be in a Volvo. Karen rolled her eyes and smiled.
As her sight readjusted to the sidewalk before her, Karen saw that her target had stopped. The girl stood 20 yards away, wisps of her auburn hair blowing gently in the breeze, her focus turned toward the street. The motorcyclist had pulled up next to the curb and was staring the girl down, a disgusting smile plastered on his mug.
Men are so stupid, thinking they can just pull up and get a girl on a bike. Someone needs to stop this cree–
That’s when Karen noticed the girl’s right hand was at her throat to cover the diamond necklace protectively. She was gesturing wildly with the other hand as she spoke. Karen couldn’t hear anything the girl was saying over the loud music blaring from the motorcycle, but she could tell there was pleading involved, and the girl kept nodding her head dismissively.
Karen’s focus shifted to the cyclist. He looked to be in about his mid-40s, greasy, hard as steel, dressed in all black, tension radiating from his body, an amused smirk playing on his lips as he watched the girl squirm. The cyclist’s hands barely rested on his thighs, encased in black leather gloves, a holstered gun nearby on his right hip. The hint of a smile suddenly dropped from the man’s lips and his gaze hardened with hostility.
Karen’s throat froze. There’s something really wrong with this picture.
The man astride the bike made a quick movement by his right hip, aimed his gun toward the girl on the sidewalk, and fired off three shots into her chest. As the shots sounded, a woman coming the opposite way down the street fell to the ground and then scrambled on her hands and knees into a retail shop nearby. Karen heard a scream, but didn’t know where it came from, didn’t know if perhaps it was her own.
Karen watched in horror as the girl’s innocent knees collided with the pavement and then the rest of her body crumpled to the ground.
As Karen’s body lurched forward, she was vaguely aware that the motorcycle was gone, leaving behind only the faint stench of oil and leather. When she reached the girl, she dropped to her knees and covered her mouth with her hands, watching crimson and aubergine paint the sidewalk. The girl was convulsing, gasping for breath, and staring up at the sky. Karen reached out a hand and cupped the young girl’s cheek.
Shiny leather loafers and suit pants appeared in Karen’s line of vision. She looked up and found a businessman looming over them, a disturbed and questioning look on his face.
“Call an ambulance. And duck into that shop to see if they have scarves, shirts, anything to help with the bleeding.” Karen surprised herself with the quiet and controlled nature of her voice.
The man nodded. As he retreated into a store nearby, Karen heard two cars whizz by in quick succession. Both of them slowed, but neither stopped. She looked around. On the opposite side of the street, about a block away, a small group of people were gathering, pointing, whispering, and on their phones, but no one made any moves to approach the scene. A homeless man about 30 feet away made eye contact with Karen, yawned, and then looked away. A boy in his late teens rounded the corner, stopped dead in his tracks, and then threw a hand over his mouth. He pulled out his cell phone, started dialing wildly, and then disappeared around the corner he came. Another car drove by and Karen blinked hard and sighed.
“It’s fucked up that no one’s stopping,” she shouted, and then softly to the girl on the pavement, “It’s fucked up that this happened to you.”
The girl’s eyes darted to Karen’s and she made a gurgling sound. Air rushed haphazardly through her windpipe and her brow furrowed with effort. Karen felt a pull on her blouse, followed by the wetness of pooled blood reaching her exposed kneecaps. The girl pulled Karen an inch closer and opened her mouth as if to speak.
“What…what is it? Who did this?” Karen whispered.
“I…..” the girl started and then looked exhausted. Her eyes rolled, closed, reopened.
The girl swallowed hard.
Karen’s blood ran cold as she pieced together the young girl’s sentence. I’m…not…Karen. A new panic swept through her body and she muffled a sob with her free hand. She closed her eyes and felt hot tears fall over her cheeks. It was supposed to be her on the sidewalk, surrounded by blood and trying to hold on. This had been an orchestrated hit.
But why didn’t that bastard take the diamonds?
Karen clenched her jaw and forced herself to breathe, her heartbeat pounding in her ears. When she reopened her eyes a few moments later, it was with new resolve.
In a calculated daze, Karen reached down, grabbed the diamond necklace with bloody hands, and with a jerk, freed it from the young girl’s neck. The girl’s body shook with the jolt and then stilled as her skull hit the pavement with a dull thud. Her chest continued to rise and fall raggedly, but her eyes closed.
Karen stood, one hand clutching the necklace, the other clutching her abdomen. She was having trouble breathing, animal-like noises escaping from her mouth as shock took over her body.
It was then that she registered the suit standing nearby, watching her with a horrified expression on his face, an open cell phone in one hand, bath towels in the other.
Karen didn’t think. She ran.
Jake glanced over his shoulder for the fifth time since starting his trek toward…he didn’t know where. Paranoia sat on his shoulder like a pirate’s parrot, balking in his ear and making him twitchy. His palms hadn’t stopped sweating since leaving the apartment building, which Jake attributed both to the aftereffects of the coke and the fear he was experiencing. Every man who passed him resembled Gio somehow and Jake braced himself to get punched in the gut each time he turned a street corner.
Jake’s stomach growled and stopped him in his tracks. He chuckled and did the math. It had been nearly nine hours since his last meal. His brain was fried and he felt empty.
The aroma of pastries and curry suddenly hit Jake’s nose and his mouth watered. He turned his head to the left and found himself peering through a large window into a small café that was a mix of modern and Mediterranean flair. A Middle Eastern man, Jake was guessing the owner, met his gaze. The man at first looked surprised and then happy, and gestured for him to come inside.
Every man should be entitled to a last supper, Jake thought whimsically and he grabbed the handle of the door.
When he entered, the Middle Eastern man strode to him from a black leather couch nearby, abandoning what appeared to be coffee.
“Welcome, welcome,” the man said in a heavy accent. “Care for an afternoon coffee or refreshment?”
“Yes,” Jake said. He pointed to a dark wooden table in front of a black leather chair. “Can I sit here? Or do I need to go to the counter to order?”
The Middle Eastern man gestured to the leather chair and Jake sat down, stretching his limbs and sighing heavily.
“You need something with a kick, young man. I can tell,” the man said.
Jake recoiled slightly, remembering his conversation with Gio that morning. Gio claimed to have known what Jake needed. Asshole.
Jake shook off the thought, cocked his head to the right, and looked at the man.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Adeel,” the man said. “My wife and I own this shop.”
Jake nodded and relaxed.
“Well, I definitely need some caffeine,” Jake said.
“Perhaps a Thai coffee then?” Adeel asked.
“No, no, no,” a voice piped up from behind Adeel. “Too much sugar. He’ll be up all night. Although maybe you want that?”
A slim woman with almond-shaped eyes had joined Adeel. Jake smiled at her, appreciating her warmth and humor immediately.
“He needs our dark roast, with a hint of cocoa and rosemary. He needs a plate of olive bread, cheese, and lamb, too,” the woman said matter-of-factly.
She turned on her heel and disappeared into the back of the shop to prepare the meal.
“My wife, Majidah,” Adeel said with a shrug. Jake nodded.
Adeel stood there for a moment, staring off into the distance, and rubbing his fingertips together. Finally, he returned his attention to Jake.
“Do you mind if I join you to finish my coffee?” Adeel asked.
Jake hesitated. He’d envisioned this meal as a solo venture so he could recharge, refuel, and refocus. He had a lot to think about and not a lot of time to do it.
“I can see you are…busy,” Adeel said, but did not turn away.
“Uh, no, no,” Jake stuttered. He swallowed. “Of course you can come sit with me. I mean, you own the place, right?”
Adeel’s face lit up with a smile. He retrieved his coffee and took a seat in a matching leather chair to Jake’s left. Majidah suddenly appeared with a large, steaming mug and Jake graciously accepted it. The woman gave him a smile and then scuttled away. Jake raised the cup to his lips and took a quick sip. The liquid was piping hot, so he’d have to let it cool, but the seemingly strange combination of cocoa, coffee, and rosemary was delicious.
“So, what do you do, Jake?” Adeel asked.
“Marketing and advertising,” Jake answered, his standard response when asked about his job.
Adeel nodded sagely. “I had a desk job once,” he said. “Finance. But I grew tired of the suits and politics.” He paused and then said slowly, “I prefer to do things my own way now.”
He nodded in Jake’s general direction. “Is this business casual these days?”
“Uh, I, uh, actually have the day off,” Jake muttered and took a sip of his coffee.
“Must be nice,” Adeel commented. “I don’t get many days off. People love their coffee. And when we aren’t open, we are arranging new shipments, testing new recipes…” He gestured to suggest the never-ending cycle.
Jake nodded politely.
“It’s Jake actually…”
“Yes, yes, Jake, you’re married, too, huh?”
Both men paused.
“I saw your wedding band,” Adeel explained.
Jake didn’t answer. Something about this conversation was making him nervous.
Wait, I never gave him my name…
“Your wife was in earlier today,” Adeel said brightly.
At that moment, Majidah reappeared with a plate of food–salty olive bread, a soft, white cheese, and little cubes of cooked lamb on skewers.
As she set down the food, Jake digested Adeel’s last admission. Was Karen in here earlier buying coffee or something and she mentioned they live nearby? But how would Adeel know what Jake looked like? How…?
Instead of retreating, Majidah strode to the front of the café and turned the lock on the heavy entrance door. She flipped the placard hanging on the door from “OPEN” to “CLOSED” and released a curtain to cover the front window. The room darkened and the hairs on Jake’s arms stood on end. Realization hit him in the gut like a bowling ball.
Of all the shops to stumble into today…I pick the one with connections, Jake thought glumly.
“Jake, I lied–or maybe it was just an omission,” Adeel said. “This isn’t my only business. You see, I never truly abandoned finance. I just don’t do it in an office building these days. It’s more like backrooms and alleys, places like that. I’m sure you’re familiar with them in your sort of marketing and advertising.”
Adeel took a long swig of his coffee and then sighed appreciatively.
“It tastes good, doesn’t it?” he asked. “But I’m off topic. Jake, coffee isn’t the only thing that is delivered here. There was supposed to be a delivery at two o’clock today, but it never came. My delivery boy said you never showed up…There’s been a lot of this fucking up lately.”
Jake swallowed. He couldn’t speak.
A phone rang in a back room somewhere and Majidah left to answer it.
“Now, if you work with me,” Adeel said, picking up one of the lamb skewers and taking a bite, “nothing will happen to your pretty little wife.” Jake had officially lost his appetite.
Adeel ran his tongue under his lips and across his front teeth. “She’s a beautiful woman, too,” Adeel said. “I would hate to have to do something to her.”
“The fuck you will,” Jake breathed.
“He speaks,” Adeel said. “That’s good. You’ll need to do some talking in the next few minutes or I’m going to have to make some decisions.” Adeel threw down a skewer and Jake shuddered as it clanked on the serving plate. “And you aren’t going to like it if I have to make decisions, Jake.”
Home. It was the only place that Karen could think to go. But even as she thought of the serenity of her worn leather couch and a Sade CD, Karen knew she wouldn’t be safe there. Regardless, she felt it was her only option, so she was homeward bound. At least there she would be able to wash away the rest of the bloody aftermath of the morning.
Karen had already made a pit stop. She’d ducked into a busy Starbucks a few blocks from the shooting to use their bathroom, ignoring the shocked looks of the customers and one of the baristas asking if she were okay. She wondered briefly if someone might call the cops or an ambulance thinking she was hurt.
Once inside the ladies room that smelled of orange cleaning liquid, Karen had crumpled neatly in the corner and had a good cry. No one knocked on the bathroom door and Karen relished the opportunity to clean herself up the best she could. She still had crusted blood beneath her fingernails and her skirt was stained, but at least she was no longer a walking HAZMAT case.
She’d holstered the diamond necklace next to Nixon on her thigh, reapplied her lipstick from Majidah, and exited the bathroom.
Now, with every step, she felt the necklace twitch and shift against her thigh, a constant reminder of what had happened. Karen’s memory unceremoniously played over and over the moment when the girl’s knees hit the pavement. It made her shudder.
Between the recollections of the shooting, Karen’s brain had been swarming with questions to which she had no answers. Why the hell hadn’t the thug taken the necklace? It’s clear that’s what he was after…besides my head. Who would have sent him? Is he connected to that shifty guy from this morning? Is he connected to Carlos? Do they know where I live? How do the diamonds fit into all of this?
One thing was painfully clear to Karen. She had to get the hell out of Chicago. And she had to tell Jake everything. Dear God.
The necklace shifted and Karen could feel one of the delicate hanging jewels come free from the holster. Karen stopped walking to halt the motion of the necklace. She was successful and after a moment’s pause, she began her trek again, the small jewel repeatedly hitting her thigh like the beat in a pop song.
She wanted nothing more than to rid herself of the necklace, but in her gut, Karen knew she needed to keep it until this whole mess was figured out. Survival was the name of the game at this point, and the necklace might be her key to it. Without it…she didn’t want to think about that.
Karen suddenly became aware of footfalls sounding resolutely behind her. Her heartbeat sped up and so did her pace. At first, the steps behind her didn’t seem to quicken, but as Karen continued to listen, the steps became more pronounced…and closer.
She had to think fast. Karen didn’t feel like pulling Nixon out on a public street. There had already been enough public gunplay today. She hurriedly wondered if the diamond necklace would impede the retrieval of Nixon from her thigh holster. Well, only one way to find out.
Karen ducked into the next alleyway and walked about halfway down the corridor before letting her right hand drop to her thigh. In one quick motion, she turned toward her predator and attempted to pull Nixon from her holster. The gun didn’t come free with the first tug, but on the second the necklace clattered to the pavement and Karen was able to raise, aim, and cock the gun.
Surprise coursed through Karen as she recognized the man who had been following her.
“Carlos, what the hell? You scared the shit out of me.”
Carlos sighed heavily and showed Karen his palms to signal that he wasn’t carrying a weapon.
“Carlos, I’m sorry, but show me your waistband, remove your coat, and take off your shoes.”
Carlos didn’t move.
“Do it!” Karen shouted.
“Okay, okay,” Carlos breathed.
Karen watched as the man first removed his shoes and then his jacket, which he tossed at least six feet away. With his hands in Karen’s sight, he performed a full turn. Satisfied that Carlos was unarmed, Karen let the gun drop slightly.
“Seriously, Carlos, what’s the hell is going on? First, you don’t show up this morning, then this girl…I…I…”
“It’s Mario,” Carlos said.
“Mario?” Karen said wondrously. “He got out early?”
“You really think they’d let that hombre out early? He escaped.”
“Yeah, that’s what I said when I found out.”
The two shared a moment of silence and Karen put Nixon back in her holster.
Mario was a bad man. He’d been canned for tax fraud, the only crime the Chicago PD could book him for since no one was brave enough to testify against him. His sentence had been abnormally long since the judge presiding over the case knew Mario’s laundry list of crimes. Karen shuttered as a memory of Mario smoking a cigar and drumming his fingers on a wooden table flicked across her mind.
“You owe him a lot of money, Carlos.”
The diamonds. The delivery. The set-up, Karen thought. She kicked the diamond necklace toward Carlos and it rattled against the pavement.
“Is this his?” she asked.
“And this morning?”
“Not my guy.”
“Where the fuck were you?”
“I overslept,” Carlos said with an embarrassed shrug.
Karen let out a grunt of disapproval and ran her hands through her hair.
“Do you know what’s happened?”
“Goose told me they put a hit out for you.”
“Yeah, they did. They did, Carlos. I almost died,” Karen stated. Carlos looked down at his feet. “But right before the hit, I got mugged. This stupid kid stole the necklace, which he gave to his girlfriend. And she’s probably in an ICU right now…if she isn’t dead.”
Carlos met Karen’s gaze, regret heavy in his eyes. He gestured down at the asphalt.
“But you have the necklace now.”
“Not something I’m proud of.”
“It was a smart move.”
“It was a selfish one.”
Karen took a few steps to her left and leaned up against the wall of the alleyway. She was tired, spent, utterly wiped out. But there were a few more pieces to put together.
“So,” Karen said, “since you haven’t paid up…and probably won’t, no offense…Mario’s men are taking out your people to get to back to you…”
“And then he’ll come after me,” Carlos finished.
Karen closed her eyes and shook her head. She’d been a pawn for the better part of the morning. How humiliating.
“If he doesn’t get caught first,” Karen offered. “I’m sure every cop in Chicago is looking for him right now.”
“I don’t know. I think the cops might be scared to go after him.”
“They should be,” Karen muttered.
She scratched her neck and then her gaze drifted back to the dirty necklace between them.
“Today had nothing to do with diamonds, did it?” Karen asked. Carlos simply looked at her with a frown.
On a hunch, Karen picked up the necklace and walked over to a wall covered in graffiti to her right. She took a deep breath and grated the largest stone of the necklace on the wall. The concrete slowly but surely gouged the large jewel and its beauty dissipated.
“It’s a convincing reproduction,” Karen muttered and tossed the fake to the ground while Carlos’s mouth hung open. She wiped her hands on her skirt.
“I’m getting out of town, Carlos. I suggest you do the same. For your daughter’s sake.”
Karen glanced down at the asphalt. The fake diamond necklace glittered dully, blood money as beautiful as rubies against the muck of the alleyway. It was no longer an insurance policy but a pawn in a gruesome game of chess that Karen was sick of playing.
She walked toward Carlos, gave him a quick nod, and then continued out of the alley, determined not to look back. It was time to leave all this behind.