So…I may have lied to you all. Not a bad kind of lie – just the kind of lie that would light a fire under me to finish this project.
When I posted Part 1 of “Smoke and Mirrors,” I hadn’t finished the story. I was hoping by the time I was scheduled to post Part 4, it would be done. The joke’s on me, because my characters aren’t done talking yet. They have more to share and I have to listen to them.
So, here’s Part 4, but that’s not all she wrote. There will be more…which I’ll post sometime in the future when it’s ready for you all. And I promise I will…and next time, I won’t put time constraints on my creativity.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you as a reader think should/will happen next. What’s in the cards for Karen and Jake?
In any case, I hope you enjoy.
“We’ve been watching you for awhile,” Adeel said between sips of coffee. “I’ve known Gio for years, but I don’t trust him, especially after what happened a few weeks with those two guys…” Adeel paused and snapped his fingers together repeatedly as if trying to recollect something. “I don’t remember their names…but I do remember what they looked like on their knees and begging.”
Briggs and Marco, Jake thought.
“What do you know about what you’ve been carrying, Jake?” Adeel spat his name like an insult.
“W–“ Jake cleared his throat. “What do you mean? I’ve been carrying the usual.”
“It’s best not to fuck with me.”
“No, I…I really don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Adeel leaned back in his chair and sighed. He narrowed his eyes at Jake and then sniffed hard.
“I don’t know why, but I believe you.”
“That doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. My delivery didn’t come today…and it was a very special delivery, Jake. It wasn’t heroin–well, not just heroin. It was something much more destructive…something I’d like to play with.”
Adeel peered at Jake, examining his face for any signs of recognition. Jake simply shook his head and then buried his hands in his hair.
“I was drugged,” he tried.
Adeel looked suspiciously at Jake.
“Honest. By Gio. I made it to the apartment for the delivery, but then I passed out. I don’t know what happened to the merch after that.”
Adeel picked up another lamb skewer, took a bite, and chewed thoughtfully. He swallowed and then leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. Jake sunk a little further back into his chair.
“What makes you think I care about what happened to you?” Adeel whispered. “I care about my delivery.”
“Well, you have the wrong guy,” Jake tried. “Whoever I delivered it to…that man with the kid with the knife…”
“None of my people have kids.”
“Maybe it was a nephew,” Jake tried. He swallowed hard. “You know, babysitting or whatever.”
Adeel shook his head and clucked his tongue. “None of my men have any ties. No wives, no family, nothing. In this business, you need people who are…dispensable.” He snapped his fingers for emphasis and took another bite of lamb.
A light bulb went off in Jake’s head. “Gio. He set me up,” he breathed.
At those words, Adeel started to laugh, a hearty laugh that echoed through the small café. He coughed suddenly as the lamb trickled to the back of his throat and threatened to choke him. He took a swift drag of his coffee, cleared his throat, and then steadied his gaze on Jake.
“Well, it seems you’re out of luck, Jake. I like you, but people who cross me have to pay.” Adeel took another sip of coffee, the steam from the cup curling around his nostrils. He gave Jake a hideous smile. “Don’t worry. Gio will get his, too.”
Jake heard footsteps approaching and Majidah appeared before the men. She wore a smug smile on her face.
“That was an interesting phone call. It appears there’s been an accident,” she said. “A very pretty diamond smuggler was shot down, oh, twenty minutes ago.”
Jake’s brows furrowed. How did this have to do with anything?
Majidah inhaled in surprise and then clucked her tongue. “He doesn’t know,” she said, turning her attention to her husband.
“It keeps getting better,” Adeel commented, grinning fiendishly.
Jake’s brain buzzed with the effort of trying to put information together. A diamond smuggler. Pretty. What didn’t he know? Why would he care about the news of a pretty diamond smuggler getting…?
Recognition blossomed like a ball of dough in a vat of frying oil.
“Are you putting two and two together, Jake?” Majidah asked.
“K-, my…my wife.”
“Precisely,” Majidah said viciously. “And we didn’t even have to lift a finger.” Majidah took a step closer to the men. “It appears you and your wife are one in the same, Jake. Stupid criminals, the both of you.” She looked thoughtful for a moment. “Well, I guess I should say criminal at this point.”
Jake felt a surge of pain in his chest and he was afraid his heart would explode and paint his insides with grief. His breath grew shaky and haggard. Anger began to seep through his body, starting in his knees and traveling upward through his intricate system of blood vessels and tissue. Hate percolated in his brain and he felt his jaw twitch.
“It’s a shame, too,” Adeel said. “I was looking forward to hearing her scream.”
Jake’s body seemed to move without instruction. He grabbed his coffee cup with both hands and catapulted the hot liquid toward Adeel’s face. Though it was no longer scalding, Adeel’s hands flew to his face and he bellowed in surprise. Jake grabbed one of the skewers from the plate, raised it high, and brought it down into the man’s knee. Adeel’s wail intensified and he clutched his leg in pain. Jake rose from his chair, wound up, and swung a fist into Adeel’s ear.
He shook his hand to lesson the pain from the strike and then turned toward Majidah. She simply glowered at him. Jake took a step toward her, but she turned and ran into the back of the shop. Jake paused for a moment, deciding whether to go after her. No, it would give Adeel time to recover…and who knew what that woman had in the back of the café.
Jake picked up two more of the skewers off the plate on the table and then headed for the door of the shop. With trembling fingers he unlocked the front door and then threw it open.
On the sidewalk, he gulped in a breath of fresh air and then ran three blocks east in the direction of his and Karen’s apartment.
When his lungs were crying out from exhaustion and Jake was sure he wasn’t being followed, he ducked into an alleyway. He gasped and heaved for a few moments, then crouched down with his forehead against a concrete wall littered with posters announcing that Scissor Sisters would be in town the following week.
Jake squeezed his eyes shut and images of Karen fluttered and danced through his head – the way she looked when she was mad at him; the way she’d smiled on their first date; the way she danced to Bob Marley in their apartment while baking; the look she’d given him that morning before climbing into the shower with him.
Jake rose to a standing position, balled his fist, and punched the wall once, twice, three times before sinking back into a crouched position, his knuckles bleeding and his love for his wife a white, scalding pain in his chest. He opened his mouth and an animal deep inside him wailed and cried out, sorrow, fresh and hot, echoing through the alleyway.
Karen’s calves hurt. It was like that one time when she’d overzealously strapped two-pound weights to her ankles to intensify her regular gym workout. Yeah, that had been a bad idea. In fact, Jake had told her it was a bad idea, but she didn’t listen. The next day, Karen could barely plant her heels on the ground without excruciating pain and had sheepishly asked Jake to massage her calves. She found herself lying facedown on their expensive sheets, gritting her teeth and holding her breath, because the lactic acid squatting in her muscles was as stubborn as a toddler.
But this was worse. Karen’s whole body hurt. She could feel the tension mounting in her neck which would no doubt restrict her movements the next day. Her thighs felt like lead, heavy and obstinate. Her feet were swollen and her arches ached. She’d removed her stilettos two blocks ago, forcing the thought of unclean sidewalks from her mind. She thought about Maui instead–perfect, sandy, rum-laced Maui.
Karen stopped at a crosswalk and though a part of her wanted to get home as quickly as possible, another part of her was thankful for the “do not cross” sign. She closed her eyes and relished a moment of complete stillness. When she reopened her eyes, a young boy with a Popsicle stood next to her. He sucked on the Popsicle for moment, looking her up and down, a frown on his face. He was so serious! Karen bit back a laugh and cleared her throat. The neon sign across the street was counting down. 8, 7, 6, 5…
“Rough day?” the boy asked.
“Yeah,” Karen answered honestly.
“Me too,” the boy replied matter-of-factly.
The walk sign illuminated and the pair walked across the street with each other in silence.
When they reached the curb, the boy stopped and turned to his right, waiting for the other traffic light to turn red so he could cross. Karen kept walking straight, her shoes dangling from the fingers in her right hand.
“Hey, lady!” Karen heard from behind her.
She turned and the boy on the corner waved at her, a huge smile on his face, the Popsicle held at a dangerous angle, ready to tumble to the ground. He turned back toward the light traffic and stuck the Popsicle in his mouth. Karen wiggled her fingers at him though he was no longer looking in her direction, and she felt a little lighter when she began her trek again. One more block and she’d be home.
But then what? She didn’t have a key. She knew Jake wouldn’t be home for another few hours. No, Karen would have to come up with a novel way to get into the building. Maybe one of them had left the window close to the fire escape unlatched? Or perhaps Karen could catch the door when another resident of the complex came home and keyed themselves in. Of course, she’d have to be stealthy; her appearance, though better than before, was still shocking and worrisome.
In the end, it didn’t matter. Karen imagined touching the brick façade of her building and her heart warmed. Even if she couldn’t physically get into their apartment, she would be home.
She rounded the corner, inhaling the scents of Oriental spices and produce as she passed the Chinese market. Two little boys sat on the sidewalk just outside the entrance to the market, mahjong tiles splayed out between them. Jake had tried to teach Karen how to play about a year ago, but Karen had little patience for the strategy involved–much less the announcement of pairings in a foreign language. The only part of the game Karen enjoyed was the shuffling of the tiles, the delicious sounds they made as they clanged together. Sometimes she would pour herself a glass of wine when Jake wasn’t home, take out Jake’s tiles, close her eyes, and shuffle them around on the surface of their oak dining room table. The collisions resulted in beautiful, stunted music–at least in Karen’s opinion.
Karen’s thoughts turned to Jake and she wondered what she would tell him when he came home. The truth, of course, Karen’s brain piped up matter-of-factly. Of course. The truth, something Karen had been avoiding like the plague. Of course, only the truth would do. Even if she wanted to, there was no way Karen would be able to concoct a lie about the day’s events. Her days of well-imagined lies were over.
A vision of Jake, a disappointed look subduing his usual, goofy grin flashed through Karen’s mind and uncomfortable butterflies overtook her stomach. She sighed and shook her head. No, they’d promised each other “through good times and bad.” This was a bad time, but they’d get through it. They always did.
The brick building appeared before her and Karen’s steps quickened in anticipation. A full six feet from the building, Karen extended her hand, ready to feel the welcoming grit of the brick. But when she finally made contact, Karen didn’t feel warmth or belonging as she thought she would; she simply felt cold stone beneath her palm, mundane and unfriendly. She looked up, hoping that the vision of their small but treasured patio on the eighth floor would shock her with much-needed solace. The patio looked distant and dream-like.
Before she knew if, Karen cheeks were wet with tears and her small frame was shaking. She took a deep gulp of air and swallowed her unhappiness. Pull yourself together, girl.
She turned her back on the apartment building and crossed the street, wiping her tears away with the back of her hand. There, she sat on a bus stop bench and rubbed the tops of her knees with her palms. The tears came again, and this time Karen couldn’t hold them back, realizing that the apartment she loved so dearly was no longer her home.
Jake enjoyed the fuzzy feeling he got in his toes when he’d been drinking. It was best when he tossed back whiskey. Pins and needles would take residence on the pads of his feet and Jake imagined he was a robot in a science fiction flick. With electricity in his toes, he would defeat the bad guys and save the earth from mass destruction.
Jake belched and tasted Jameson’s. Not nearly as good coming back up, Jake mused.
He’d stopped into a biker bar, laying his skewers on the counter beside him, and hurriedly ordered two shots. The bartender had looked at the skewers and Jake’s bloodied knuckles, shrugged her shoulders, and disinterestedly poured him two doubles. He’d left her a good tip.
Jake stepped on an untied shoelace and stumbled forward, spanning his arms like wings to keep his balance.
“Whoa. No concrete sandwiches today,” Jake mumbled.
Jake thumbed his wedding band and a fought back a sob. His whole life had ended today, starting with Giovanni drugging him and ending with the news that his wife had been murdered in the unforgiving Chicago streets. He’d never felt so empty. Only the buzzing in his toes and the feeling of the platinum on his ring finger kept him tethered to the world around him.
He turned the corner just as a young Chinese boy shouted, “Pong,” snatching up a white tile from the concrete. The boy looked up as Jake approached and said, “Hey, Jake!”
Jake didn’t slow his pace or acknowledge Chin the way he usually did. He kept his sights forward and trudged along down the street, his apartment building now in view.
Keys, keys, Jake thought suddenly. Where are they?
Jake shoved his hands in his front jean pockets. Nope, they weren’t there. He did the same for the back pockets, but only the leather of his wallet met his fingertips. Jake paused on the sidewalk about a quarter of a block from his destination and began to rifle through the pockets of his jacket, his head down.
They must be–, Jake thought, and then he was hit with such tremendous force, he stumbled back a few steps.
Great, now I’m getting mugged, Jake thought, but then he realized that the person so desperately attached to him wasn’t searching him for possessions. The person against him didn’t budge, pinning his right arm across his stomach where it had been mid-reach. A blond head was nestled into his shoulder, crying softly. Jake’s left arm, which he had thrown into the air away from his attacker at first now wrapped instinctively around the familiar body.
“Karen?” It came out as a question first, a statement of sheer disbelief. But just as Jake felt the buzzing in his toes, he felt his wife’s slender body pressed up against him, her heartbeat racing against his pinned arm.
“Karen,” he said, more sure of himself this time.
And then he repeated her name again and again with the reverence of a sweet mantra that could never lose its power.
Karen flicked on the light to the kitchen and immediately plucked a package of Oreos out of the cabinet next to the oven. She perched herself on the granite island in the middle of the kitchen, kicked off her shoes, and started licking the filling out of one of the cookies. She stared absently at the humming refrigerator while she chewed, exhaustion settling into her bones.
Jake poured himself a glass of water, downed it, and then poured himself another. He rubbed the back of his neck for a moment and then cracked his neck. He looked at Karen and she could feel it between them, the silence, the anticipation, the inevitability–and most pronounced, the change. They were different people than they had been that morning. Jake’s gaze became too much for Karen to bear and she buried herself in another cookie, shifting her gaze downward.
Jake pulled one of the dining room chairs in front of Karen. When he sat, he guided her feet to rest on his knees, then leaned forward and kissed her left kneecap, letting his hands rest on her waist. The familiarity of Jake’s hands on her body immediately made Karen relax and she closed her eyes, grateful for the moment. As Jake sat back, his hands traveled down the outsides of her thighs, but the left one caught on Nixon’s holster on the way down, immediately shattering the tender moment.
Karen’s eyes snapped open and she stared down at her husband. This was it. Holy hell.
She swallowed and then guided Jake’s hands back to her kneecaps. Karen leaned back to perch on her elbows on the countertop. Balancing her body weight between Jake’s knees and her elbows, she lifted her hips and used her hands to pull her skirt up about her waist. She repositioned herself so that she was again sitting on the counter, removed Nixon from the holster, emptied the gun, and then placed it on the counter beside her. She took a deep breath and peered down at her husband, laying her deception bare.
“I’ve been lying to you,” she whispered, barely audible over the buzz of the refrigerator. “It wasn’t right and I’m sorry.” Silent tears fell down her cheeks and she wiped them with the back of her hand, tracking Oreo crumbs across her cheek.
Jake stared at Karen, stone cold and unreadable. Karen searched his eyes for any sign of emotion–disbelief, betrayal, sadness, glee, anything. He sighed, removed his hands from Karen’s knees, and stood up. Karen’s brain reeled with worst case scenarios. He was going to leave her. He was going to hit her. He was going to hole himself up in their room all night and never talk to her again.
Instead, he removed his jacket and reached into one of the interior pockets. He pulled out a small bag of weed and laid it gingerly on the counter. He ran his hands through his hair and sighed.
“This is my bonus from work,” Jake said softly. “I’ve been lying, too.”
Karen’s heart rung itself out and a sense of calm settled over her. She was finally ready to talk.
“This isn’t my blood. A girl got shot today. It was supposed to be me. I lost some diamonds. That’s Nixon.” Karen tilted her head toward the dismantled gun.
Jake nodded solemnly.
“I was drugged today, which is kind of ironic actually. I thought you were dead. And I stabbed someone with a skewer,” Jake confessed.
Karen’s eyes widened.
“But it was just in the leg…in self defense,” Jake added hurriedly.
Karen cocked her head to the side and stared at her husband. He was visibly tired and the ever-present glint of mischief in his eyes had dimmed. What’s happened to you, love? What’s happened to us? Jake met her gaze and in that moment, she decided that it didn’t matter. This man in front of her– though disheveled and worn and smelling faintly of Jameson’s–was her husband. Regardless of what had happened today, he was still–and always would be–hers. Karen looked down at her hands and tried to sift through the emotions pounding through her system.
Jake moved back to his position in front of her, scooted the chair out of the way, and let Karen’s forehead rest against his chest. The smell of Jake’s T-shirt and the rhythm of his heartbeat against her forehead was Karen’s undoing. The tears came, unforgiving and ugly, and Jake shielded her from the world, allowing her to come undone in his arms.
The water would need to be exceptionally hot. They both needed a thorough cleansing, maybe a baptism. Jake pulled the lever that would start the shower and then stuck his hand under the steady flow. With a nod to himself, he moved to the sink, splashed some water on his face, and then caught the image of a haggard man in the mirror staring back at him.
No, he thought. His skin was sallow, his eyes sagging, his hair cow-licked every which way. Who is this person? Certainly different than this morning.
Everything was different, in fact. Jake could feel the tension and uncertainty radiating from the walls of their home–and each other. The apartment didn’t feel like a safe place anymore. Jake was waiting for Gio to pop out of a utility closet or come pouring out of the kitchen faucet, ready to offer him some more dope–or worse, hunt him and his wife down like animals. Not to mention Adeel and his clever wife. Jake had ticked off the wrong people, skewered them even. He and Karen needed an exit strategy and they needed it quick.
Karen. Karen. Yes, there was also his marriage, which would be forever changed. It wasn’t as dramatic as walking on eggshells, but both he and Karen had become very self conscious in the short hour they’d been home – aware of lengthy gazes, careful movements, bit back statements, the untruths stretching out between them. He felt a little betrayed and a little sad, but he also felt he didn’t have the right to feel that way. He had his own closet chock full of skeletons. His and hers – how cute, Jake thought sadly.
Jake heard the tinkle of ice cubes falling into a glass and then the rustle of plastic packaging. Karen was after the Oreos again. Jake smiled. Okay, some things hadn’t changed. And he hoped they never would.
Jake sauntered back into the kitchen, ready to announce that a hot shower would be ready soon, but the sight of his wife stopped him short. Karen was sitting on the counter again, munching away at America’s favorite cookie, her legs crossed. Jake was suddenly transported back to college, to a time when Karen gravitated toward poetry readings, midnight showings of Purple Rain at the artsy cinema in town, and cheerleading at his rugby games. She also never went anywhere without a snack pack of Oreos stuffed in a purse, a messenger bag, sometimes the back pocket of her jeans. It was a quirk he’d always loved about her.
Karen licked the filling out of a cookie and Jake smiled.
This was still his girl. She was shaken, trying hard to keep it together, trying hard to keep them together. She was older and those hands of hers were more experienced, but she was still…
“What?” Karen whispered uncertainly.
Karen frowned and cocked her head to the side quizzically.
“My pretty girl.”
Karen snorted. “Right now?” She looked down at her lap and then back up at her husband. “Covered in blood and Oreo crumbs?”
Recognizing his serious tone, Karen looked at Jake and swallowed the last of her cookie. Her face was hard and perplexed at first, but then it smoothed and softened. She dropped her eyes, rubbed her hands together to rid herself of crumbs, and uncrossed her legs. When she was ready, she looked up at Jake again, her eyes reflecting with almost-tears. They disappeared in a cascade of vulnerability, the running water from the bathroom down the hall the only noise in the apartment.
Karen pushed a strand of blond hair from in front of her eyes. She sniffed, looked as if she were about to say something, and then bit it back in her throat. Jake waited patiently, knowing his wife, knowing her next words would be important ones. Sure enough, they came a moment later, soft, clear, and deliberate.
“Even though I’m a liar?”
“Yes,” Jake said without hesitation.
“You are, too,” she whispered.
“I know. I’m sorry.”
Karen nodded and she rubbed her hands on the tops of her legs nervously. Her gaze flickered to her husband’s and then she dropped it again. Slowly, her hands traveled to the top button of her blouse and she plucked it open. Her gaze returned to her husband’s and stayed fixed there. Jake gave her a small nod. It’s okay, baby. We’re going to be okay.
Karen took a deep breath. With a newfound confidence, she slowly worked her way down the blouse, unbuttoning her heart until Jake could see the freckles on her breasts and the soft outline of her stomach. She motioned for Jake to come to her. His hands immediately cupped her face and he leaned in to kiss her. Karen grasped the bottom hem of Jake’s T-shirt and pulled it up and over his shoulders, tossed it to the floor, and then held onto him as if her life depended upon it. In truth, it did.
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