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After breakfast they took their coffee upstairs to Camilla’s bedroom veranda. Camilla sat on one of the two cushioned wicker chairs and placed her cup on the matching occasional table. She settled back and crossed her ankles on the table next to her cup, then gazed out at the ocean through half closed eyes.
Sam admired again how long her legs looked in his denim shirt, and how the shirt did a poor job of covering her up. Camilla seemed not to notice his admiring gaze, or if she did, not to care.
The beach seemed to be her more natural environment. She looked right at this place. Sam wondered again why she hadn’t settled in her second home here by the ocean rather than in the inland boonies.
“This is nice,” she said. “It’s just how I pictured it—us out here enjoying the view with not a care in the world. This is what I wanted.”
“So what do you want in the long term?” Sam said.
“How do you mean?”
“I mean we’ve talked about being neighbors with benefits. Is that your long-term goal, or are you looking at something else, like a long-term relationship?”
She frowned. “We’re already in a relationship so I’m not sure I understand your question.”
“I’m talking about the future. Permanence. What do you hope for, if you’re hoping for anything beyond what we’re doing?”
Camilla opened her eyes fully but kept her gaze on the ocean. When she spoke she seemed to be talking to the distant horizon. “I’ve come here a few times since I moved to Millville. When I’m here I sit right in this spot. When I came here before, oftentimes I used to imagine that as I sat here I would spot someone out there on the beach—this handsome man, walking by himself. He’d see me sitting up here. Maybe he’d wave, and I’d wave back. And one day when he waved I’d motion him to come to me. Or maybe he’d see me sitting here and come on his own. By the time he got to my door I’d be downstairs to let him in. And without a word we’d come up here to my bed, and that would be the beginning of us, forever.”
“Sounds like a fairy tale,” Sam said. “A nice one, I guess.”
Camilla smiled wistfully. “I guess a stranger walking on this romantic beach was asking for too much. Instead I saw him on a country road, jogging past my house.” She turned her head from the ocean to look at him. “I don’t need or want the fairy tale with the wedding and living happily ever after. I’m not opposed to marriage again one day, but I’ve been there. I know the positives and negatives, enough to know that for me it isn’t the be all and end all. I want something else.”
“I want to enjoy my life. I want to consume it; devour it like a ravenous beast and relish my feast right down to the marrow. And what I want from a man is for him to be strong enough to not get in my way, but to dine with me. I want to share my feast with him.” She sighed at the ocean. “But I don’t think most men are strong enough, or maybe just not willing to be with the kind of woman I want to be. No, let me correct that; the kind of woman I am. I’m claiming it because I’m not going to compromise.”
“Should I be worried?”
“Are you worried now?”
“Good. So I’m being practically hopeful about us, because I think you get me. That’s what I’ve seen this past week.”
“Yeah, I think I do get you,” Sam said. “I know you’re confident, aggressive…and beautiful. You definitely don’t have a problem saying what you mean and asking for what you want. You go after what you want. That’s why you knocked on my door last Friday.”
Camilla rolled her head on the seat cushion to look at him. “You think so?”
“Yeah. You looked nervous when I opened the door, but looking back, I think that’s because you weren’t sure how I was going to respond to you; you know, the black-white thing. But once you saw I was cool with you as long as you were cool with me you kept your intention moving forward. Am I right?”
She turned her gaze back toward the beach. “You’re right. And very perceptive, I might add.”
“So based on this past week, where do you see us in, say, six months; a year?”
“Realistically? Only time will tell. Hopefully? We’ll be together, enjoying each other. Our fantasies will be our bucket list, so anything we want, we’ll have. If it happens like that then I’m not opposed to all the rest, if you want it.”
Cautioning himself that it had only been a week, Sam said, “Like you said and like I think, time will tell.”
Suddenly Camilla sat up and leaned forward. “Oh, damn…”
“You see that woman out there?”
Sam followed Camilla’s gaze. There was a woman on the beach, walking just beyond the reach of the of the surf. She wore a floppy hat over a windbreaker and khaki pants. “Yeah. What about her?”
“I told you the Bartons were nosy,” Camilla said. “That’s Pen.”
“Penelope Barton-Schubert. She’s John’s cousin. Her father is the president and CEO of Barton Enterprises. Translated, that means he’s the king of the family empire.”
“You think she’s spying on you?”
“Well, I can’t swear to it, but I’d bet money she doesn’t usually walk this far down the beach from her mansion. I bet she doesn’t do any exercise that doesn’t involve her on-call personal trainer, who last I heard, since she became a widow she might only need to roll over in bed and wake him up to get him to work her out.”
“So you don’t like her.”
“They don’t like me so I don’t like them. And I guarantee you, even if she isn’t spying, if she saw us out here she’ll make sure her whole family knows I’m at the beach house with a man.”
“Do you care?”
“No. I just hate them knowing anything about me. I’m not one of the Barton second-class-citizen wives anymore.”
“You shouldn’t care what they think,” Sam said. “Caring gives them power over you, without them even trying.”
“I don’t care; honestly I don’t. I just hate them knowing. It’s not their business.”
Sam decided not to respond to that, because the emotion shading Camilla’s face told a story different than her words.
They sipped coffee for a few minutes while holding their own personal conversations with the ocean. When Camilla spoke again her mood had brightened.
“So handsome man, should we discuss the elephant in the room…or should I say the elephant on the veranda?”
“That you’re black and I’m white.”
“What about it?”
“Well, how you feel about it,” Camilla said. “And if you think it’ll be a problem.”
“A problem for us?”
“I don’t think for us. The only concern I had was what you said before—how you’d react to me. That’s not a thing anymore. What I mean is other people.”
“You care what other people think?”
“I care if you care. Okay, I don’t think you do. When your cousin came over unexpectedly you only seemed worried about what I was wearing—or not wearing, actually.”
“Because that was my only concern,” Sam said. “My feeling about you is you’re a beautiful woman, period. You just happen to be white. I don’t give a shit, because a beautiful woman is a beautiful woman. You just happen to be my beautiful woman.”
“Yes sir, I am. So you don’t care that some won’t see things the way we do?”
“One thing my mother always told me was that if I was doing the right thing, no one had a right to judge me, because they haven’t traveled my journey and they’re not going where I’m trying to go. So fuck ‘em. Okay, that last part she didn’t say, but it amounts to the same thing.”
“I wish I could’ve met your mom. I think I’d like her.”
“She’d like you too. You’re honest. She never liked fake people.”
“So if she asked me what I was doing with her son I’d have to be honest and say mostly sharing coffee and sleeping with him.”
“As of today you’d only be telling half the truth.”
Camilla uncrossed her legs, straightened up and retrieved her coffee from the table. She took a sip and grimaced. “Ugh, cold. If you want more I’ll run down and grab the carafe.”
“Sure. It’s nice out here.”
Camilla turned in her chair to face him, then stood up. “Be right back sir,” she said.
When she was gone, Sam sat looking out at the ocean without seeing it. His sight was turned inward, and was replaying what he’d seen as Camilla rose from her chair wearing just his shirt—what she hadn’t tried to hide.
He wanted in.
Detective Michael Anastasia knew that the common belief that more people committed suicide during the Christmas season than other times of the year was based largely on myth, but being a myth didn’t mean it never happened. Like with this guy jumping off the roof of a six-story hospital tonight.
The guy’s name was Russell Baker. A colored fellow who worked in the hospital kitchen. Well, he used to work in the kitchen. He’d just resigned from his job the hard way.
The incident seemed to be a cut and dried suicide, but over the course of his sixteen years on the force, Detective Anastasia had learned that often, when you assumed a case was cut and dried, it turned out not to be. So before he went back to the station to fill out his report he figured he’d talk to some people and look at some things. Just in case.
Detective Anastasia had the hospital kitchen and cafeteria workers currently on duty under orders not to leave until he’d interviewed them. But first he wanted to take a look at the scene of the crime, such as it was. He’d already seen the blood-spattered snow in the hospital’s loading dock service lane, where Baker had kissed the concrete face first. He’d taken a quick look at Baker’s body before the emergency crew bagged him and ambulanced him around to the hospital’s morgue entrance. But that wasn’t the scene Anastasia wanted to see now.
The hospital’s plant manager, a prick named Wilson Moore who was supposed to be the only one who had access to the hospital’s roof, had been irritated that Anastasia wanted him to show him up there. Moore complained that because of the suicide he was already late going home. Anastasia didn’t give a damn. Overlook one thing because it didn’t seem worth the trouble, and as sure as Roy Rogers’ horse was named Trigger, that’s the one thing that would sneak up and kick you in the butt. Because every now and then, what looked like it ought to be cut and dried wasn’t cut or dry.
They rode the service elevator in silence up to the sixth floor, and the disgruntled plant manager led Anastasia to an upper level maintenance room. The detective followed the plant manager through a maze of humming and clanking machinery and standpipes, to the far end of the room, where stood a set of three concrete steps. A metal door stood at the top of the steps.
“Roof’s through there,” the plant manager grumbled.
The door had been secured on the inside by a small padlock that looked like one a kid from a nice neighborhood would use to chain up his Schwinn when his mother sent him to the corner grocery. The padlock lay on the top step, with its shank snapped in two. A heavy duty screwdriver lying at the foot of the steps looked like the tool likely used to pop the lock.
“You might want to replace that lock with one made for grownups,” Anastasia said to the plant manager.
The plant manager sniffed, “Yeah well, I didn’t expect somebody would want to get out there and take a leap.”
“If you’d had a better lock you might still be batting a thousand on that opinion. Stay here, and don’t let anybody else out there without my say-so.”
Anastasia climbed the three steps and pushed the heavy door open. A heavy winter wind slapped him about the head and shoulders and reminded him that this was a cut and dried suicide, and that he didn’t need to go out onto the roof and let his stones get frostbitten just to prove the obvious.
Yeah well, sometimes the apparent obvious could be just as shaky as the cut and dried.
Standing on the top step and making himself ignore the wind slipping its arms up under the cuffs of his slacks and caressing his legs with icy hands, Anastasia examined the surface just outside the door.
There were footprints in the thin layer of snow blanketing the rooftop, leading away from the door. The prints were made by a single pair of shoes with lugged soles, maybe a work shoe or boot. The detective looked back at the plant manager, who was standing a few feet away from the steps, now looking more irritated as he shoved his hands into his pockets against the winter air pushing in through the open door. He wore the gray shirt and slacks of a utility worker, but with a necktie, probably to signify his status as king of all hospital maintenance personnel. His shoes were brown loafers. Those shoes didn’t match the prints out on the roof.
“You got a flashlight up here?” Anastasia asked.
The plant manager said, “Yeah,” but didn’t move.
“Go get it for me.”
The plant manager’s eyes gleamed a challenge. Anastasia met his stare, and imagined himself unholstering his .38 and seeing if he could hit that necktie dead center.
Maybe the plant manager picked up on his wavelength, because the gleam in his eyes dimmed, and he stormed off to go fetch like a good boy.
The detective placed one foot outside the door, next to the footprint, then retracted his foot. His footprint was slightly smaller than the one in the snow. The wearer of the work shoe was maybe a size eleven. Anastasia extracted a notepad and pencil from the inside pocket of his overcoat. He jotted down the possible shoe size, and made a quick sketch of its sole pattern. Probably Russell Baker’s shoeprint. Didn’t hurt to double-check, though. Better to check and not get kicked in the butt.
When the plant manager returned with the flashlight the detective said, “Now you can go somewhere else. Just don’t leave the hospital, in case I have questions. The best place for you to be is down in the cafeteria with the rest of my interviewees.”
Anastasia didn’t wait for the prick to protest. He stepped out onto the roof, and the wind coming off the ocean attacked, flinging angry icy razors of frigid air at him. He yanked his coat collar up and cursed himself for never wanting to get kicked in the butt by things overlooked.
The flashlight beam revealed a single set of footprints in the otherwise pristine snow, leading away from the maintenance room door, toward the east.
Anastasia leaned into the wind coming off the ocean and followed the footprints to the eastern edge of the roof. There, the footprints veered south along the roof’s edge. After a few steps that way, the flashlight beam fell upon an almost empty whiskey bottle.
Today’s snow had come and gone quickly, had fallen just long enough this afternoon to leave a half-inch coating before calling it quits. There was no snow on the whiskey bottle. So it was placed or dropped there after the snowfall ended.
Hunched against the chilling wind as he followed the footprints along the southern edge of the hospital’s roof, Detective Anastasia considered the possible scenario: Despondent for whatever reason, Baker had gotten himself liquored up to build up his nerve. He’d walked around a bit, either to finish the bottle of whiskey, to find what he considered the best place to jump, or maybe just to think about his miserable life and how much better off he’d be not living it. A coward’s way out, for sure.
But that’s not my concern, Anastasia thought as he reached the roof’s western edge. Just make sure everything is cut and dried, then let the workers downstairs go home and get yourself back to the station to wrap this up.
The footprints in the snow led Anastasia to the roof’s northern edge. He turned there, and headed back toward the hospital’s eastern edge, moving almost without thought to the spot from which Russell Baker had jumped. This thing was looking pretty cut and dried after all, and—
Hold your horses, ladies and gentlemen. What the hell is this?
Just past halfway along the northern edge of the hospital’s roof the flashlight beam washed over another set of footprints.
Unlike the lugged print of the shoes the detective had figured belonged to Russell Baker, this shoeprint was smooth, with a distinctly separate sole and heel pattern. The shoe had a pointed toe. The heel was narrow. And, these prints were smaller.
The snow blanketing the hospital roof had fallen today, this afternoon. That meant one of three possibilities: One, whoever made these footprints was on the roof after the snow fell but before Russell Baker got here, or two, they had come onto the roof after Baker jumped and left very quickly after, or three, the person was on the roof when Baker jumped.
The only things Detective Anastasia was sure about was that someone else had been on the hospital roof before, when or after Russell Baker jumped to his death.
And, that person was a woman.
In the wee hours of the morning the huge Value-Mart Superstore parking lot was almost empty. Sam parked halfway across the space from the store entry; a good long walk.
Camilla had brought along a Persian blue T-shirt mini-dress and black pumps for the occasion. As Sam parked his Jeep she slipped into the dress and heels and they headed for the store.
Once they were in the Value-Mart Sam put his cell phone in video standby mode as they scouted for the best place to play.
The hardware section located at one far end of the store seemed the ideal spot. After all, who goes shopping for light bulbs and toilet seats at 2:00 in the morning?
The hardware section aisles lined up perpendicular to a narrower aisle. Beyond the narrow aisle was a wall stocked with water filters and plumbing supplies. Sam checked that aisle; to the far right it opened onto the Lawn & Garden Center. To the left the aisle ended at an industrial metal door with a porthole window with the advisory EMPLOYEES ONLY stenciled below the window. The door didn’t have a knob or handle, just a brass push plate and a steel kick plate.
Camilla stayed at the end of the paint aisle with her back to the wall stocked with water filters. With his heart trying to imitate a bass drum Sam moved back to halfway up the paint aisle. He aimed his phone at Camilla and started recording video.
Camilla blew a kiss at the camera, then grasped the hem of her dress.
Sam shot a look over his shoulder, checking for silently walking shoppers and graveyard shift store employees. The coast was clear. He looked back down the aisle in time to catch Camilla whipping her dress over her head. Then she almost gave him a heart attack by flipping her dress away and out of sight behind the aisle end cap.
His heart thundering, Sam recorded Camilla as she strolled up the aisle toward him wearing nothing but her pumps.
This is crazy, he thought. What would happen if they got busted? Would some shopper report them to the store? Would the store call the police, or just kick them out? And what about everybody but newborn babies having cell phone cameras today? If they got busted tonight, tomorrow images of Camilla naked could be all over the internet.
Sauntering up the aisle, Camilla’s long-legged stride made her hips pendulum. Her heels tapped out a slow, sensual but predatory rhythm. It reminded Sam of the feminine stalking scene in the film noir horror flick Cat People. That’s what Camilla brought to mind—a cat on the prowl, unconcerned about who might see her. Hell, they might become her victim.
But she was naked, in a store, exposed under the white glare of overhead fluorescents.
The door of a cell in the dungeon of Sam’s fantasies slid open. The beast within sank its fangs into the flesh of his worry and ripped away a chunk. The beast swallowed his apprehension and spit out the bones of a desire to see what happened next.
With his ears perked for the sound of footsteps and shopping carts Sam backed up to keep Camilla in frame. He reached the main aisle and stopped beside the end cap.
Camilla kept coming.
Sam leaned back and checked left and right. The main aisle—a broad walkway running from the front of the store to the back—was empty.
Camilla reached him and stopped a couple of feet from the end of the aisle.
Their choices now were to retrace their steps back down the paint aisle or take a chance and step into the main aisle, then circle around the end cap and take the adjacent aisle back to the water filter wall.
For a couple of reasons Sam thought they should go back the way they’d come. One, though the main aisle was currently empty, he’d seen a handful of shoppers and night shift workers when they entered the store. Any one of those people could enter the main aisle at any moment. Two, he’d noticed blue half-globes mounted in the ceilings above the store’s main aisles. He was pretty sure the globes concealed security cameras. If Camilla stepped into the main aisle his camera wouldn’t be the only one to capture her wearing nothing but black pumps.
New apprehension jangled Sam’s nerves. Camilla had been naked in Value-Mart for about a minute, longer than he’d planned. He’d anticipated that if they found a safe spot she’d whip her dress off and keep it handy, he’d get a few seconds of hot video, then she’d put her dress back on and they’d haul ass out of the store. But she’d been naked longer. Maybe too long. And if the worst happened right now and somebody walked up on them her dress was nowhere in sight.
Camilla was waiting for him to instruct her to do the next thing; whatever he wanted. As she waited she flashed a bottom lip-biting smile for the camera. She was digging this.
Keeping his voice low, Sam said, “You look beautiful.”
He intended in his next words to be to tell Camilla to go grab her dress. But before he could she said, “Touch me.”
Okay, Sam decided, a few seconds more. Still listening for anyone approaching, with his free hand he grazed his fingertips over Camilla’s breasts. Her nipples were stones. He was sure it had nothing to do with the store’s air conditioning.
Camilla grasped his wrist impatiently, spread her legs with a double-tap heel click and guided his hand down between her legs. She pressed his fingers into her moist softness.
In a voice too loud for Sam’s comfort she said, “Make me come. I’ll be quick.”
He found her in the kitchen, standing at the stove working on breakfast. She was wearing his denim shirt, which she hadn’t given back after he’d draped it over her shoulders on the beach. This shirt wasn’t as long as his ABU shirt, which had a straight-cut hem and had fallen to high one Camilla’s thighs. His denim shirt had a rounded hem, and in the front and rear was just long enough to cover her goodies, as long as she didn’t take a deep breath. The shirt’s higher cut sides exposed the curve of her hips and made her legs look a mile long. The shirt made up the entirety of her morning ensemble.
“Smells good,” Sam said as he entered the kitchen.
Camilla looked around and smiled, “Good morning. How’s bacon and eggs?”
“Fried or scrambled?”
Sam reached the stove and they shared a soft kiss. He let one hand drift from the small of Camilla’s back down to where the shirt ended. As he fiddled with the hem his fingers brushed her bare bottom. “I’m sorry—what was the question again?”
“You’re being a bad boy, making things worse.” She made no move to reposition his hand.
“Making what worse?”
“I tossed and turned all night, thinking about you coming to my bed. Every time I heard the house creak I thought it was you. I hoped it was you.”
“I was thinking the same way. When the tests come back we can quit hoping.”
“Mmm, promises, promises.”
“And by the way, keep that shirt. It looks better on you than me.”
“I don’t plan on needing it after the tests come back.”
“You might need it to wear to get from your house to mine,” Sam said.
Camilla gave him an odd look and turned back to the stove. “Like I said, I don’t plan on needing it.”
Is sleeping with your best friend the best of both worlds or a disaster waiting to happen?
Long Branch, New Jersey Thursday Evening
Mavis threw a punch at him. Actually balled up her fist and threw a punch.
Kyle saw the blow coming and snapped his head to the side just quickly enough to avoid kissing her knuckles, but her fist clipped his ear and stung like hell. “Hey! What-the-are-you crazy?”
Mavis swung at him again, but this time he was ready. He grabbed her right wrist and stopped her punch in mid-flight. She made an awkward, flailing attempt at a left hook but he grabbed that wrist too, and held her arms up and immobilized between them. “Quit it!”
“You hit me, motherfucker!” Mavis growled between clenched teeth as she struggled without success to break free of his grasp.
“You walked into me!” Kyle shouted back.
“Uh-uh, no man puts his goddamn hands on me…”
She wriggled her arms harder, trying to escape his grip. It wasn’t happening. Mavis weighed more than him, but she was a woman and couldn’t out-strength him. He wasn’t going to let her go until she calmed down.
He hadn’t hit her. They’d been in the middle of yet another shouting, cursing argument—this time in the kitchen of his apartment—and he’d been gesturing to emphasize his point when she stepped to him and right into his pointed index finger. When his fingertip accidentally contacted her shoulder she reacted as if he’d slapped her—went all wide-eyed and slack-jawed—and then threw a punch at him.
Kyle kept his grasp on her wrists and his eyes on her legs in case she tried to knee him, then pushed forward, backing the woman-gone-crazy up until he had her trapped against the kitchen counter.
This is insane, he thought, too fucking crazy.
He couldn’t do this anymore. It had to end now; today.
He held Mavis’ wrists and let her struggle and curse at him until finally she’d exhausted herself. She stopped trying to break free and gasped, “Let me go, Kyle.”
“Are you done acting like you’re crazy?”
“You hit me.”
“I didn’t, and you know it. Now are you finished, Mavis? You know you can’t fight me; you can’t beat me. I don’t hit women, but I swear to God, if you—”
“Let me go.” She didn’t seem angry anymore. At least not as enraged as a minute ago.
As usual with Mavis, her rage exploded out of nowhere without warning, like a volcano erupting. The verbal lava of her fury would spew out in the form of insults and curses to scorch whoever had gotten under her skin due to some real but more likely imagined slight. Then when her rage was expelled, she’d return to calmness as if nothing had happened, while her victim was still scalded by the heat of her fury.
This time she’d gone off because he’d decided to trade in his eight-year-old Toyota for something new. He’d decided on a 200; a nice but practical ride. Mavis hadn’t agreed with his choice. That was fine; they didn’t have to agree, and anyway she had no say in the matter. They’d only been seeing each other for three months, and he was spending his money, not hers.
As was all too typical when disagreeing with Mavis, disagreement turned into debate, and debate turned into argument when she took the disagreement as a challenge, and then as a personal attack against her. And then the explosion happened, and she attacked.
Until this evening Mavis had only attacked with her mouth, using vicious insults and curses as her weapons. Until this evening Kyle had never known her to get physical. As he held her pinned against the kitchen counter he decided that it wouldn’t happen again, at least not with him.
The wildness in her eyes softened. Her feral snarl had vanished, replaced by her mouth quivering as if she were trying not to cry.
Kyle figured that if her evil ass was upset enough to cry it was because she’d just lost a battle, so to speak. He made himself not feel sorry for her.
He was done with her. Three months of this bullshit was long enough. He let her wrists go and backed away, out of range of her fists in case she tried to slug him again.
She didn’t. She crossed her arms defiantly over her voluptuous nightshirt-covered bosom and snapped, “So do you feel like a big man now?”
Damn it, she just wouldn’t quit.
“There’s nothing to feel big about,” he said. “All I did was stop you from busting me in the head. Now I’m stopping this relationship. You need to go, Mavis.”
Her eyes widened, showing her surprise, but she recovered quickly and shot back. “See, that’s your problem, Kyle; you can’t handle a strong woman.”
“You don’t know what a strong woman is. A strong woman doesn’t have to go psycho every time she thinks somebody is challenging her just to prove that she’s badder than every man and woman…” Why am I still arguing with her? “You know what? Fuck that; I’m done arguing with you. Leave, now.”
Mavis stared at him for a few long seconds as if trying to decide if he were serious, and if he were, how she could salvage some dignity. Apparently she decided that arguing against breaking up would be too demeaning, because she clicked her tongue and shoved her way past him, out of the kitchen.
Kyle watched the sway of her round hips and bottom in her nightshirt as she stormed down the hall on her way to the bedroom to get dressed. Though it was early evening, she’d put on the nightshirt as soon as she’d arrived because they’d planned to get some early sex because they both had to work in the morning. He told himself that he wasn’t going to miss her curvy, full-figured body and the sex, not with what he had to put up with to have them. The tradeoff wasn’t worth it.
Being involved with somebody was supposed to enhance your life and make it better, not add drama and stress to it.
He was tired of the drama and stress.
Kyle got up off his sofa and looked around his living room, frowning. Something felt different.
His first thought was that Mavis had taken something of his as her parting shot, a way to strike one last blow against him. But he couldn’t see anything missing.
And then he realized that something was missing.
With Mavis gone for good the dark clouds of tension that had hovered over him almost since the beginning of their relationship had dissipated, allowing relief to shine through. He and Mavis were finished, and so he didn’t have to juggle the need for feminine companionship with the anxiety of wondering what the next pointless argument was going to be about and how he might avoid it. And now that it was over and the stress relieved, he realized that the companionship and sex hadn’t been worth it. Yes, at forty years old Mavis was in her sexual prime and when she’d wanted it—which was often—she’d wanted it, and that was all good. But looking back, it seemed that just as often sex didn’t happen because she was pissed off about something.
Now that he was out from under the shadows of the clouds of their relationship and could see clearly, he knew that she hadn’t been worth the aggravation. Pussy wasn’t worth sacrificing his peace of mind.
So good riddance.
His ear still hurt. Mavis’ parting shot. He touched the sore spot and checked his finger. No blood. What the hell had he been thinking, getting involved with a woman ten years older than him who was as evil as a pit viper and wanted to run his life? How had he let the misery go on for three months?
He should have known that Mavis was trouble when on their first dinner date she almost bit the waitress’s head off because the girl brought her a glass of water that she hadn’t asked for. But he hadn’t been paying much attention to that. Instead on the night of their first date his focus had been on the way Mavis’ skirt laid on the twin-basketball cheeks of her ass, and the way her chest stretched out the front of her sweater, and her thick, sexy legs perched in heels that had to be four inches high.
And he remembered thinking how pretty she was with her flawless milk chocolate complexion, and that there was a girlishness about her that belied her age. But as time went on he saw less of that girlishness. Instead, more often than not her brow was creased with a frown, her eyes bore the hard glint of anger, and the lines around her mouth had nothing to do with smile-induced dimples. It seemed that she was always upset about something or somebody: the people on her job, her two teenage kids, her mother, the sun shining too brightly. It was always something with Mavis. It had gotten to the point that when they got together he would check her mood to make sure that she wouldn’t bite his head off for trying to give her a hello kiss. You don’t stick your hand in a viper’s nest.
As he sat down again Kyle wondered how long he would he have put up with that miserable relationship if she hadn’t tried to hit him. How long would he have been blinded by his desire for a woman in his bed? Before he could consider an answer to that question his house phone began ringing.
Kyle felt a spike of anxiety lance through his chest. Barely an hour had passed since Mavis had left and she was calling already, probably because she hadn’t been able to stand to leave things as they were. She always had to have the last word.
He reached for the phone determined not to argue with her, but also not to let her shout him down. If worse came to worse he’d just hang up on her, as immature an act as that might be. But when he grabbed the handset its display showed that the caller was Baron Harris, one of his crew from work.
“What’s up, B?”
“Hey man, I just wanted to yell at you real quick, unless you’re too busy playing with Ms. Lovely Thickness.”
“I’ve got time.”
“Say what? She’s not with you?”
“Well damn man, let me look out my window and make sure the world’s not coming to an end. I thought after work sex with her was your regular.”
“You can look all you want. I’m done with that.”
“Since a little while ago and our last straw argument.”
“Damn, you’re fighting again?”
“Yeah. I had to cut her loose, man. This time things got kind of physical.”
“Oh man, you didn’t –”
“No, not like that. We were arguing hot and heavy—again—and I accidentally poked her in her shoulder, and she tried to go Mike Tyson on me. So I got sick of the BS and told her we were done.”
“Damn, sorry bro.”
“I’m not. This might sound crazy, but I feel like some kind of pressure is off me, like I can breathe again.”
“I feel you Kyle man. From what you’ve said before, it seemed like you two were fighting more than fucking.”
“Yeah, I bet it was about equal.”
“So you’re cool?”
“I’m so relieved that I’m not even a little bit pissed. I don’t know what the hell I was thinking, letting things go on for so long when they were so bad.”
“I’ll tell you why: That good older woman pussy had your mind befuddled, bro. She cougarized your ass.”
“Hey, don’t tell her I told you, but after the first time we met Mavis, Charlene told me it wasn’t going to last. She said the vibe between you two was off.”
Charlene Williams was the third member of their three-member IT crew at STC Technologies. Kyle was the supervisor of their team, but their relationship was more like three friends hanging out and playing with technology than that of supervisor and subordinates.
“I wish she’d told me,” Kyle laughed. “It would’ve saved me a lot of aggravation.”
“Would you have listened to her, I mean with Mavis’ big titties and hot, thick body all up in your face? And I tell you man, she had some legs on her; strong, like she could kick holes in brick walls. Damn! You sure you’re not gonna miss all that?”
“Nope.” In truth Kyle hadn’t seen much of Mavis naked. Even though he’d often told her that he was cool with her full figure, she’d been too self-conscious about her body to take all her clothes off around him. The most she would do was wear nothing but a loose tee-shirt so that she could show off her ass. He hadn’t tried to push to convince her to get naked because that would have led to yet another argument. “I’m not going to miss jack. If you’d been in my shoes you’d understand.”
“Yeah well, it’s all good, I guess. Maybe now you’ll quit coming to work frowning like you’re pissed off at the world.”
“I bet Mavis’ problem was that she wanted herself a young thug, and she figured since you’re a thirty-year-old black man, you’d fit the bill. But you’re too nice to females, man, so she probably wasn’t feeling that. So she tried to push your buttons, you know, to bring out the thug in you. Women do that kind of shit.”
“Or maybe she’s just an evil bitch.”
Baron laughed, “Okay, or maybe that. Damn Kyle, she must’ve really gotten under your skin if you’re calling her a bitch. That’s not your style, bro. Yeah see, and that’s what you should be looking for next time: a nice girl who matches up with you.”
“Just a babe you match personalities with; laid back, nice, somebody who likes watching all those corny old movies you like, things like that. But I don’t know where you’re gonna find her unless you go up in the Ozarks somewhere and find some babe who’s never seen cable TV and thinks getting wild is putting on shoes when she dances to banjo music. Yeah, that’s what you need man—a backwoods hillbilly babe.”
“You know what, Baron? Fuck you.”
“Anyway man, the reason I’m calling is because Charlene wants to switch shifts with me for the New World upgrades tomorrow. That cool?”
Kyle and his IT team at STC Technologies had been tasked to upgrade the operating systems and memory for the computers at New World Laboratories in Holmdel. STC and New World Labs were sister companies, subsidiaries of St. Christopher Enterprises, the conglomerate founded and owned by billionaire Julian St. Christopher. New World had had its own IT staff, but they’d all just been fired. Rumor had it that they’d been trying to hack into the work files of some New World scientists who were working on some special secret project. So Kyle and his team were going over to install a new, modified, secure operating system on New World’s servers and workstations, and install enough additional memory to run it.
Based on the number of machines at New World, Kyle expected the upgrade job to take two or three days to complete. The original plan had been for him to take the morning shift over there starting tomorrow: Friday. He’d get a feel for the place while most of the New World employees were at work, and then switch off with Charlene at lunchtime. On Saturday he’d planned to work the morning shift and switch off with Baron, and hopefully they’d be done before their entire weekend was shot. Now Charlene wanted to switch days with Baron.
“Yeah, that’s cool,” Kyle said.
“So I’ll be over there at one, one-thirty, right after lunch,” Baron said. “Where will we meet up?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never been inside, but it’s a pretty big place. Give me a call when you get there and we’ll hook up.”
“Should be a pretty smooth job, huh?”
“That’s what I’m thinking.”
“Yeah, you’ll probably be bored to death hanging around a bunch of scientists who’re bigger eggheads than us.”
“Right,” Kyle said. “That’s why I’m having us share the pain by splitting days. I’m expecting nothing over there but boring.”
Tinton Falls, New Jersey Thursday Night
“My god you’re gorgeous,” Matt gasped, then kissed the tip of her nose, rolled off her and onto his back on her bed.
“Do you always compliment women right after you come?” Britt teased.
Matt grinned his crooked grin up at the ceiling. “Oh yeah, even the ones I’d don’t have sex with. I get really weird looks after masturbation.”
“It’s not about coming, but hey, that was gorgeous too, thank you very much. I was just thinking…looking at you…touching you…your skin is so soft, golden. You’re like living gold, Britt…just so beautiful.”
“So it’s a racial thing?”
He rolled his head back and forth on the pillow. “Come on Britt, we’re scientists; physicians. We know there’s really no such thing as race. That’s just crap people made up to justify not liking each other. And it’s not what I was talking about.”
“Matt, I was kidding. Don’t let white paranoia shake you up.”
“I’m not paranoid.”
Okay Britt, shut up, she warned herself. He just made nice love to you and paid you a compliment, and you’re ruining the moment with bad humor. She patted Matt’s sweaty chest, and let her fingers linger on the slicked down hair there. “Sorry, I was just messing with you.”
Matt propped himself up on one elbow and let his brown eyes scan her nakedness from her face down to where the sheet covered her hips, and then back up to her eyes. “Well, I wasn’t kidding,” he said. Sometimes I look at you, even at work, and I can’t believe how amazing you are. Not just beautiful, but brilliant, funny…”
“Okay, my head is swelling, so stop.” Don’t stop.
“I thought that on the day we met Britt, that you were just amazing. That was my impression of you within a couple of hours of meeting you.”
When they met she hadn’t thought Matt was amazing because she hadn’t wanted to like him. He was hired at New World Labs after her, brought in to work with her and her teammates on the Passion Project. She and Matt both specialized in Behavioral Neuroscience, and at first she’d felt threatened and challenged by his presence. She’d wondered if her supervisor, Dr. Glenda Engerman, had thought she wasn’t up to handling the work alone because at age twenty-eight she was the youngest member assigned to the project and had the least amount of hands-on experience.
But Dr. Matthew Garrison had quickly won her over with his charm and self-depreciating sense of humor. He’d put her at ease, and as they’d worked together she became thankful that he was there, because their workload was brutal. There was no way she would have been able to handle the hundreds of volunteer test subjects alone, not to mention the lab work. And okay, Matt was good-looking; dark-haired and softly handsome in a John Cusack kind of way.
As they’d worked together she got to know Matt, and then to really like him. He was thirty-six and a single dad. His son Davy was six-years-old.
They’d moved to New Jersey from Seattle after Matt was hired by New World. He’d told her that he’d wanted to start a new life after his wife Allison left them for a man old enough to be her grandfather and who had enough money to buy the American West Coast.
Matt leaned over, kissed her softly on her mouth and asked, “What’re you thinking?”
“Oh, nothing…just enjoying the moment.”
“We have some good moments, don’t we?” he asked. “Not just like this, either. Because of you I actually look forward to going to work.”
Now it was her turn to kiss him. She did, and then lay back again. She started to try to imagine a future with Matt, tried to see herself as his wife and as a stepmother to Davy. Then she told herself to quit it. She’d only known him for six months. They’d only been seeing each other for four months, and in accordance with her two-months-dating-before-sex rule, had been sleeping together for two months. Okay, not sleeping together: having sex with each other.
This was Episode No. 11 in their sex life. Nine of those episodes had occurred right here, in her bed in her condo. They’d done it once in the cargo space in her Land Rover in the parking garage at work, and had had a lunchtime quickie a lab storeroom. Those times were fun and hot but too risky to make a habit. Because of Davy they’d never done it at Matt’s house.
Matt was that rare man who liked to cuddle after sex, so Britt expected him to lie back down and snuggle with her for a little while the way he usually did. But instead, after he’d caught his breath he turned away from her, sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
“Yeah, but Davy was sniffling a little this morning and I’m thinking I should get home and relieve the babysitter.”
Another thing she liked about Matt was that he was such a good father. She touched his perspiration-slicked back and asked, “Do you want me to run down and grab you a bottle of water?”
He looked over his shoulder at her. She couldn’t see his mouth, but his shining brown eyes told her that he was smiling. “No thanks, there are gallons of it in the shower.”
“Yuck! How can you drink bathroom water?”
“Come on Britt, do you really think bottled water comes from some crystal clear babbling brook in the snowcapped Rockies?”
“Really, you should know this stuff better than me since you graduated high school as an embryo.”
“Hey, I was seventeen…well, almost seventeen…chump.”
“Still, you should know about drinking water. I bet they’ve got old Grandma Johnson in Detroit filling bottles in her bathtub.”
“No they don’t.”
“Probably while she’s taking her bath.”
“You can’t taste that old lady toe jam in each refreshing swallow?”
“Shut up! Go take your shower!”
This was the best thing about Matt, his quirky sense of humor. It was his sense of humor that had taken them from being coworkers to being in a relationship.
Well, sort of a relationship.
They’d been at work four months ago, in the lab reading together the first test report on the formula that would become the wine called Passion’s Nectar. The report had been submitted by Dr. Engerman herself, on a woman she’d called Subject 0. According to the report, after drinking an early version of the Passion formula Subject 0 had become so aroused that she’d had sex with multiple men over the course of a single night.
Standing next to her as they’d read the report on a monitor Matt had asked, “Do you think Glenda is really Subject 0?”
“Dude, you read my mind. I’m standing here thinking that she self-medicated.”
“I bet it is her,” Matt said. “The way she describes the subject’s physical reaction to the formula, it doesn’t read like observation or a transcription from a test subject interview. It reads like actual experience.”
“That’s what I was thinking. And what about the latent effects? Do you think our boss is walking around here horny all the time?”
Matt chuckled, “Now I’m scared to be alone with her.”
“Shoot, you and me both.”
Matt turned from the monitor to look at her. There was a mischievous glint in his chestnut eyes. “Knock, knock.”
Okay, seriously? “Who’s there?”
“The Passion formula is going to change lives.”
Okay, his made-up joke was terrible, absolutely terrible, but he’d flashed her a boyish, crooked grin, as if he were proud of himself for having been so clever.
It had been his crooked grin, not his awful joke that made her laugh and that had made her see how it was possible for a woman to love Dr. Matthew Garrison.
And then, somehow, his crooked grin and her laughter had become them kissing.
To this day she didn’t know how it happened. One moment they’d been standing next to each other in the lab, laughing over his stupid made up joke, and the next moment, they were kissing.
It wasn’t a long kiss but it wasn’t a peck, either, and then Matt had backed away and stammered, “Jesus Britt, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…I’m sorry…”
He’d looked on the verge of panic, as if he’d thought that at that very moment the Human Resources storm troopers were thundering down the corridors on their way to the laboratory to take him down.
“Hey, it’s okay; no need to apologize,” she’d said. “Maybe we’ll have dinner or something before the next time.”
He’d given her a confused blink and frown. “Dinner? The next time? Oh sure, right…dinner. I’ll definitely take you out to dinner.”
“Matt, you don’t need to take me out. We’ll go Dutch.”
He blinked again, and this time his confused look was a revelation. His expression told Britt that probably in all the time Matt had known and been married to Allison, he had never not paid for the pleasure of her company. In the end he’d paid with his heart.
“You’re not gonna join me?”
Matt’s question pulled Britt out of her reverie. He was standing in the bathroom doorway, peeling the condom off his limp thing.
Britt slid out of bed and grabbed another foil packet from her nightstand. Okay, maybe this evening they’d knock out Episode No. 12, too.
 These events are detailed in the novella PASSION’S NECTAR by The Black.
I’m working on a major revision of THE WAY OF A MAN WITH A NEIGHBOR, but it’s coming soon. NEIGHBOR was inspired by the 1908 erotic novel “The Way of a Man with a Maid” but now the title is where the similarity ends.
You can drop NEIGHBOR into many genre categories and subcategories, to include Romance and Mystery, but let’s be straight here: It is first and foremost Erotica, and not for the faint of heart.
Here’s an excerpt:
Sam tightened the first bolt on the swimming pool pump and moved to the next. “Funny funny, or funny odd?”
“Okay, so you and Camilla got these houses that look like they were built by the same contractor. They’re just alike, except they’re mirror images…”
“Okay, so how long has she been here?”
“Since last fall.”
“So both houses were already built when she bought hers, right?”
Technically Camilla didn’t buy her house; she won it in her divorce settlement. But Sam figured that fact was irrelevant to whatever Cutter was talking about. “Right. Both houses were built two years ago.”
“So your house has this nice sunroom and deck and pool and all Camilla’s got is a back stoop. Seems to me if she had first crack at these two houses and everything inside is the same, she’d go for this one.”
From the pool deck Ricky said, “Maybe she didn’t want to spend the extra money.”
“Nah, she’s got money,” Cutter said. “People who’ve got money and are used to having it have a vibe about them. She’s got that rich chick vibe. I just wonder why she didn’t buy this house, since she had a choice.” Cutter had the same look and tone he’d used a couple of months ago when he’d described that cheating husband case he’d been working on. He was in private investigator mode again now, working his way verbally through his thoughts.
Sam tried to recall what Camilla told him about how she got her house. He remembered she said her divorce was a two-year battle between her and her ex-husband’s lawyers. She got the new construction house next door and the seaside residence in Atlantic Beach as part of the settlement.
“I think her house was one of her ex-husband’s properties,” Sam said. “That’s why she got it.”
Cutter said, “And yours wasn’t, even though they look like they were built at the same time by the same contractor? This isn’t some development. It’s just two houses on a country road in the middle of nowhere.”
Sam shrugged. “Beats me. Maybe once they were built they went to different realtors to sell.” As Sam said that he remembered Camilla telling him that her ex’s family once owned all the land on their road. Had they owned his house too?
Ricky said, “Maybe she’s just fucking you so she can use your pool.”
That broke the serious moment. Cutter grinned, “I know, right? She’s just using Sam to get her swim on.”
“Then it’s a nice tradeoff,” Sam said. “Especially since bathing suits won’t be part of her world.”
Simultaneously Ricky and Cutter said, “Say what?”
Sam tightened the last bolt on the pool pump. He kept his eyes down on his wrench. Okay, here we go, he thought. “Ever heard of CMNF?” he asked.
“Uh-uh,” Cutter said.
“What’s that?” Ricky asked.
“It’s a thing: Clothed male, nude female.”
Cutter struggled up from the ground with a grunt and brushed dirt and grass off his knees. When he had his breath back he said, “Okay, and?”
“That’s us,” Sam said. “That’s how we are together. How we live.”
Ricky said, “So she gets naked and you keep your clothes on; like that?”
“Yeah, but it’s deeper than that,” Sam said. “A lot of women get naked around their men. But it’s like, only when they feel like it or when they’re about to get busy; whatever. For us it’s our normal thing.”
Cutter frowned toward the back of Sam’s house as if he could see Camilla inside through the wall. “Hold up, so that’s like some BDSM thing? Like somebody is the submissive and the other person is in charge of them?”
Ricky was coming down the pool deck steps, frowning too. “So ya’ll are into all that rubber suits and gags thing, like on Real Sex?”
“Not like that,” Sam said. “None of that. Just the no clothes thing.” Though Sam was revealing something about his and Camilla’s lifestyle to his cousins he didn’t feel like he was telling the complete truth. So far it was just the nudity thing, but the door was open to much more.
Cutter said, “So you’re saying Camilla stays naked all the time?”
Sam nodded. “If you dudes and Mackey weren’t here that’s how she’d be right now. That’s the rule.”
“Your rule?” Ricky asked.
“And she’s down for this?”
“Actually, it’s more her than me. She’s into it. I mean, I am too—who wouldn’t be into their woman being naked all the time?—but some of the stuff we do, I’m the one who’s apprehensive about it. She never is.”
“What kind of stuff?” Cutter asked.
Sam told them about the ride home after Aunt Helen’s birthday party with Sol following them, and he told them about Camilla going from his house to hers wearing nothing to get her robe while Sol was there, and how though she didn’t know it at the time, his brother saw her.
Cutter said, “And that didn’t bother her, that Sol saw her naked?”
“Nope. I told her after he left, and she was more about apologizing to me for going to get her robe without my permission. She wanted me to punish her for it; spank her or use my belt.”
“Damn, cuz,” Ricky muttered. But he was grinning.
“She got down on the kitchen floor, kind of bowed her forehead to the floor. I looked it up later. It was some kind of BDSM slave position.”
“So did you?” Cutter asked. “He was frowning a different kind of frown now—a serious frown.
“Did I what?”
“Lay hands on her,” Cutter said.
“I’m not into that shit.”
Cutter smacked his meaty thigh with the wrench. “Good. Be as freaky as you want but be careful, man. You don’t want to be putting your hands on a woman, especially a white woman, even if it’s a consensual sex thing. That shit could go wrong for you in so many ways. One minute it’s like—here Cutter raised his voice to a mock feminine timbre—‘Ooh, spank me harder, Daddy’—and the next you’re in cuffs, and not the fuzzy pink kind. I’m talking law enforcement steel.”
“Trust me, that’s not how she is,” Sam said. “Nothing like that is going to happen. We’re not going to do anything that would get the cops involved.”
As it turned out, Sam was wrong about that.
Back in the days when I was two-finger banging stories out on an Casio typewriter I wrote some short stories and poems I titled Excerpts from Life. The works were inspired by my own experiences, the experiences of people I knew, or just things I observed. For all, I applied my “What if?” and let the tale run wherever my imagination led. This tale, Jerry’s Story, was part of a larger tale. I pulled it out because I think it’s just creepy enough for a Halloween read.
This story is a work of fiction inspired by a bit of truth. The names have been changed to protect…something.
I don’t know what it was—something just made me go over to Jerry’s crib in base housing instead of to the gym to shoot some hoops that late summer afternoon. I don’t believe in all that supernatural bullshit, but Jerry and I were as tight as two brothers could be without being real brothers. So maybe that’s why I had this vibe—this sudden urge—to go by his crib to check him out. Maybe something inside me sensed the cry of a friend in need.
The speed limit in base housing is 20 miles per hour because of all the kids who live there. I had to fight to keep myself from gunning the accelerator as I cruised through the rows of identical brick and shingle duplexes. I didn’t want to get a speeding ticket, but that voice inside me was screaming for me to hurry the hell up.
As it turned out, it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d been ripping through housing at 80 miles an hour with a can of brew in each hand, because there wasn’t a cop anywhere to be found along the route to Jerry’s house. But when I got to the last intersection before Jerry’s block there were two Security Police sedans stretched across the street, blocking the way. The light bars on the vehicles were rolling and flashing red and blue, indicating that some bad shit was going on up ahead.
As I neared the roadblock, a freckled-face Air Force cop who looked like he was about 15 years old started waving his arm frantically, indicating that I should turn right or left, because there was no way in hell was I getting through straight ahead. I kept moving forward anyway, just slower, in case this kid had some Clint Eastwood thing going. There’s nothing worse than an idiot carrying a badge and a gun.
The cop strode up to my window, unsnapping the strap on his holster as he approached, as if that was supposed to impress me. Fucking idiot. I rolled down the window of my Dodge. Before the kid cop could open his mouth I whipped out my ID card to show him that I was a Staff Sergeant and said, “Airman, I live on this block and I need to get home.”
My rank and authoritative tone knocked him down a few pegs. He might be a cop, but he was still just an airman. I was a Non-Commissioned Officer. That shit carries weight no matter what your job is.
The cop hesitated for a moment, and then stammered,“Well…um, sir, you can’t drive down there right now. You’ll need to park and walk to your residence.”
“Fine,” I said, pretending to be pissed off at this inconvenience. I parked and hurried up the sidewalk past the barricade before he could think to ask which residence I lived in.
When I got near Jerry’s unit it looked like every Security Police vehicle assigned to the base was parked in front of his house. There was an ambulance and a fire department emergency van in the street as well. All of his neighbors were out in front of their homes, staring and whispering questions among themselves. I saw Colonel Stanton, the base commander, standing at the edge of Jerry’s lawn talking to another officer, a major. When I passed them I heard him say to the major, “When the media gets wind of this, make damned sure they only talk to me or to Public Affairs. Everyone else keeps their mouths shut.”
Security Police were filing in and out of Jerry’s front door like bees around a hive. I was looking toward Jerry’s house, wondering what the hell had happened. I wasn’t paying attention to the cop cruiser parked along the curb until I heard a voice call out my name from inside it. I turned around and saw Jerry sitting in the back of the vehicle. From the way he was leaning forward and by the elevation of his shoulders I could tell that his hands were cuffed behind him.
Jerry was being arrested? What the hell was going on?
Stunned, I walked to the side of the cruiser. I was more shocked than I was when I discovered that straight-laced, square-looking Jerry could pull more ladies than anybody but Hugh Hefner.
I guess my surprise and the question swirling around in my mind must have shown on my face, because from the back seat of the police cruiser Jerry said, “Will, I couldn’t handle it anymore.” He said it in that same calm tone he used when he was talking about how jazz music was timeless or how if only half of the eligible black Americans decided to vote we could have a black man in the White House in the next election. This time I had no idea what he was talking about.
“Man, what happened?” I asked.
In answer, Jerry’s eyes cut from my face toward the front of his house. I looked around in time to see two med techs from the base hospital wheeling a gurney out of the front door. Whoever was on that gurney was covered from head to toe by a white sheet. I was thinking that they should have used a dark blanket instead, because that sheet was soaked bright red. Even from the sidewalk I could see that the red was wet and shiny, telling me and all who observed that whoever was under that sheet had some very large and very nasty holes in them, and that those holes were still oozing.
From behind me Jerry said, “I couldn’t handle it any more. How could any man handle it?”
I turned back to the police cruiser and to my friend, who sat handcuffed inside. “What happened?” It was the only question I could think to ask.
Jerry looked up at me. “How could any man handle it?” he asked me again. “How could any man handle knowing that his wife belonged to any man but him?”
Even as the shock of Jerry’s question settled into my system, I felt a strong hand on my shoulder, yanking me back and away from the cruiser. It was a cop pulling on me, not the kid at the roadblock but an NCO, someone with enough experience not to go for any bullshit.
“This area is secured,” he said. “Either return to your residence or move back beyond the established perimeter.”
There was no point in telling him I knew the guy in the back of the cruiser. This dude wouldn’t give a damn. I backed off.
After about a dozen steps I looked back. I watched as the cruiser carrying my best friend sped away with its lights flashing. A minute later the ambulance followed with its lights going and siren wailing. I thought that entire racket was pointless. Whoever they’d loaded into that ambulance under that blood-soaked sheet wasn’t going to be in a hurry ever again.
I thought again (how often do I think this?) that we never know what really goes on in anyone else’s life. We don’t know what goes on when they close their doors and pull their shades for the night. That’s when the masks come off.
Some of the faces beneath those masks are far from pretty.
I’ve got some buddies in the Security Police squadron, so I got the basic scoop on what happened on that hot summer afternoon.
Jerry’s beautiful wife Carol was dead, viscously murdered with the nasty end of a claw hammer. Jerry was the one who called the Security Police to the house. When they arrived, he led them to the kitchen. They found her splayed out on the kitchen floor in her robe. There was blood everywhere—on the curtains, the cabinets, the table and chairs, on the tile floor, and of course, on her body. The cops who responded to the scene called for backup and medical assistance even though Carol was way past anything a doctor could do for her.
I felt a little ill thinking that someone I’d known had gone out so horribly, but what really chilled me was the way my cop partners described Jerry’s actions. They said he just stood in the kitchen entry with his hands in his pockets, watching them from behind his wire-rimmed glasses as calmly as you please while they gave futile emergency first-aid to his wife’s lifeless body. He was calm—completely serene. It made me think of the way he’d looked that day in his carport when I’d told him about the issues I was having with Angela. How the hell could a guy be calm while his wife lay bloody and dead on the kitchen floor?
One of the cops had turned back to Jerry and asked him what happened. In that calm, matter-of-fact tone he answered, “I’m afraid I’m responsible for this.”
One cop got up quickly and drew his weapon. He’d ordered Jerry to get his hands out of his pockets and get on the floor. Jerry put his hands up and said, “My clothes are already soiled,” indicating the blood splatters on his shirt and slacks. “But if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not get down in this mess and make it worse. Why don’t we go into the living room?” The he’d turned and walked away as if he weren’t even worried about the .9mm semi-automatic pistols pointed at his back.
“I fucked up,” he said.
Yeah, no shit, Jerry.
“We’ve been married for eight years,” he said. I lucked out and found the perfect wife—more than I could ever have imagined in my best dream. Carol is more than most men could imagine, and I love her with all my heart. Still, I went and fucked up.”
I got the feeling he wasn’t talking about killing her. At least not yet.
“I was as happy as any man could be in my marriage,” Jerry continued. “I never had a desire to cheat, because I knew no woman could give me what my wife did. I’m not talking about her looks or in the bedroom. I mean the love. Will, she really loved me. Do you know what it’s like to have someone really love you? If you ever get that, brother, don’t blow it like I did.”
I had to say it. “You say you never had a temptation to cheat on her, but since I’ve known you, you’ve really been out there.” By out there I meant in the club every weekend. And more often than not when he left the club he didn’t leave alone.
Jerry held his hand up to stop me. “I know, I know. But that was after. And that’s what Carol wanted. And it’s what I had to do to keep my sanity.”
“It happened about a year and a half ago, just before we got assigned here, when we were stationed back in Illinois. There was this hot sister on my job, a civilian. She’d been wanting to get together with me for a while, but I wasn’t playing. I mean, she looked good—real good—and she was nice and all that, but like I said, I wasn’t thinking about cheating. Well, she knew I was leaving, and as the time got closer, she really started pushing. She’d tell me how she wanted me so bad, and how since I was leaving it wouldn’t hurt for us to have one night of pleasure together. So I fell for it. I screwed up and took the bait.”
“And Carol found out?” I asked.
“Yeah, she found out. I made two mistakes. One, I shouldn’t have fucked around in the first place. Two, I never should have done it in my own house. We did it while Carol was at work and our daughter was in day care. The next day that bitch called Carol at work and told her what we did. To make sure Carol believed her, she described to a T the bedspread and sheets on our bed, the layout of the furniture, everything. There was no way I could deny it.
“Well, Carol lost her mind. She was so angry and hateful she actually scared me. I’d never seen her that way before. She told me all kinds of shit, about how she could have had any man she wanted, but she married me because I was a good man and she loved me. She told me about all the men who hit on her since we’d been together and how she’d always turned them down. Then she called me every kind of low-life bastard in the book. And she told me that I was going to pay for what I did. She told me that from then on, she was going to fuck everybody but me. She said that if I wanted a divorce she would take everything I had, plus have me busted for conduct unbecoming a non-commissioned officer. Did you know they can bust you for adultery under that clause in the UCMJ?”
I shook my head.
“Well, they can,” Jerry said. So once we got stationed here Carol started going out. She told me that I might as well go ahead and get mine too, because she damned sure was going to get hers. She said I could either stay at home while she was out and think about what she was doing with other men, or get out and get some myself, because I was never going to touch her again.
“I didn’t want to be with anyone else. I’d cheated one time in our marriage, and I regretted that. So I didn’t plan to be with anyone else. But when I was home alone I did think about her out there and what she was doing, and it was killing me. And when she came back home—sometimes after being out all night –she’d look at me…”
At this point Jerry had to stop. He raised one hand and pressed his fingertips to his temple, as if he were experiencing the onset of a migraine. For the first time I saw my friend look other than calm. His faced was wrinkled with emotion as he tried to hold back his tears. It took him a minute or so to get himself back together.
“Will that way she looked at me…knowing that I knew that she’d just had another man inside her…looking at me like she hated me and was laughing at me…laughing at my pain. Goddamn, that was too much. So I had to go out. At least when I was with another woman I wasn’t sitting home thinking about what Carol was doing. You could say I did it in self-defense. I did it to protect my head and my heart.”
I tried to imagine that. I tried to picture the woman I thought Carol was—quiet, intelligent, friendly and beautiful—going out to sleep with other men right in front of her husband’s face. I would never have imagined that the woman she appeared to be would do something like that. Well, it just goes to show how little we really know about people.
Jerry continued, “I thought eventually she’d come around. I thought she would get over hating me and then somehow she could forgive me and we could get back what we had. Yesterday I told her that that’s what I was hoping for. She was in the kitchen. She’d just had a bath and was in her robe, getting ready to…to go out. She looked so beautiful, Will. It made my heart ache just to look at her. I wanted to take her and hold her in my arms and never let her go. I asked her not to go out, to just stay home with me so we could talk, to try to start to work things out.
“She laughed at me, Will. It wasn’t some made up ‘fuck you’ kind of laugh. It was a real laugh, like what I’d said was the funniest thing she’d ever heard. When she was done laughing she called me a lovesick fool. She said that we’d never have a real marriage again; that she was going to punish me until the day I died. She said she hoped the pain I was feeling would help put me in my grave even sooner. Then she said that besides, some of the men she’d been with put me to shame. She said there was no way she could ever be satisfied with me after some of the lovers she’d had.”
I slumped back in my chair. I didn’t say anything. What could I say to something like that?
Jerry continued, “Thank God our daughter was out west with Carol’s parents. I don’t remember hitting Carol, but I did. I hit her hard, and left her laying stunned on the kitchen floor while I went to the carport shed to my toolbox. I knew what I was going to do. I could visualize that hammer, could see myself holding it, swinging it.
“I went back into the kitchen with the hammer in my hand. Carol was just getting up off the floor. She saw me. Then she saw the hammer. She tried to straighten up and run. I didn’t let her. I didn’t have any choice in the matter. You understand that, don’t you bro?”
I wasn’t thinking about what choices Jerry had. I was thinking about all the months we’d spent hanging out. I was thinking about how he’d always seemed so calm and in control, and how because of that I’d valued his opinions and advice. And I was thinking that during all that time, Jerry might very well have been as crazy as hell.
I got up and pushed away from the table. “Hey bro, I’ve gotta run. But I’ll talk to you soon, okay?”
Jerry looked at me with that old calm expression. At least I thought it was calm. But now I wasn’t so sure. Maybe that calmness was just a cover, a mask of serenity to hide the raving madness that lay beneath the surface. I felt a chill claw its way up my spine.
“No, you won’t be back,” he said. “You think I’m insane. You can’t wait to get the hell out of here—to get away from me.”
He held his hand up. “No, no Will, I understand. If our situations were reversed, I’d feel the same way. So you don’t need to come back. I understand completely.”
He smiled at me. It was the phoniest smile I’d every seen. That chill along my spine was turning icy. I headed for the door.
I was halfway there and thinking I was home free when he said, “Let me ask you something, Will…”
I stopped and turned around. “Yeah, sure Jerry.”
He still wore his fake smile. “Did you want to fuck my wife?”
“You heard me, brother. Did you want to fuck my wife?” He was watching me with hard, examining eyes.
As I’ve written, I always thought Carol was fine. But I never thought about messing with her. I respected my friend and I respected his wife. Still, as I stood there under Jerry’s cool stare, I started to feel guilty for even thinking about her at all. Jerry was still watching me closely. “No man, that’s crazy,” I said. My words felt like a lie.
His smile faded. “Yeah…okay,” he said. He didn’t look like he was feeling okay.
I was ready to turn around and try to escape again, but he wasn’t done.
“You know Will, at one time I thought about following Carol whenever she went out. I wanted to find out who the men were she was sleeping with. I wanted to kill each one of them. I wanted to remove them from the face of the earth for committing the sin of touching my wife. Maybe that’s what I should have done instead. Maybe I killed the wrong person.”
I decided to get the hell out of there. I turned around and headed for the door that looked a mile away.
Jerry spoke to my back. His words stopped me again. He said, “I think you’re lying, Will.”
My hand was frozen on the doorknob, but I didn’t turn around.
“I think you wanted to fuck my wife. I know she wanted to fuck you, because she told me so. She wanted to kill me with her adulterous ways, and she thought it would be a real kick to fuck my buddy. That would really hurt me.”
I tried to open the door. My sweaty fingers slid on the knob. Damn it!
“Would you fuck her, Will? Would you fuck my wife if she spread her legs for you?”
“No,” I said to the door. You couldn’t pay me to turn around and look at his face. Or maybe I didn’t want him to see my face. I wiped my hand on my thigh and turned the knob. Thank God.
Behind me Jerry said, “I think you’re lying. I think you wanted to fuck my wife. I think you would have done it if she gave you the opportunity.”
I did look around then, even before I knew I was doing it. Jerry was smiling at me. It was not a friendly smile. His right hand was closed as if he was gripping a hammer, and he was making striking motions in the air. His smile snapped off.
“See you around…bro,” he said.
The last I heard Jerry was still in a federal penitentiary. It’s hard to keep track of the friends you make in the military, even one who might be in a cage. But I try to keep track. I have to keep track so I can sleep at night. I need to know that Jerry is still locked up, just for my own peace of mind.
But the truth be told, I don’t have much peace these days. I don’t have much peace because I know that if Jerry ever gets out of prison, he’s coming after me. I saw that on his face on the day I visited him. He truly believes that I wanted his wife. He believes that because he saw the guilt on my face. And for that, he wants to kill me.
Sometimes when I lay awake at night listening for ominous sounds and squinting at shadows, I wonder if I’d been lying to myself where Jerry’s wife was concerned. Yeah, I knew she was fine, and she’d seemed to be a good woman and a perfect wife. That’s the kind of woman any man would want.
So maybe I was wearing a mask too. Maybe I was wearing a mask that disguised myself even from myself. But Jerry was always good at analyzing people. Maybe he saw something in me that I couldn’t see in myself.
I’m going to end this now. I think I heard something downstairs, and I need to go check it out.
Just in case.
“You think so, huh?” Sam pressed the washcloth between Camilla’s shoulder blades and watched soapy rivulets slip down her flawless back and disappear in the valley between her cheeks. He wondered how effective a lube his shower gel would make.
“I do,” Camilla said. “That’s what Sol was talking about, about you being something you didn’t want to be. The beast is in you. I’ve seen it, a little.”
“When you tied me down out on the deck. And the way you were on the back road. And last night, at that store. When I came out of the restroom you called me to you even though people might see.”
“Nobody was going to see you. Okay, if Sol hadn’t been there, maybe.”
“You want me like that.”
“It would be interesting.”
Camilla turned around to let the shower spray rinse her back and so she could look at him. “You say just interesting. But the beast wants it. The beast craves it.”
Sam held the washcloth at face level and squeezed, letting soapy water trickle onto her luscious breasts. Her nipples stretched taut, wanting more contact. “And you want the beast to show you off,” he said.
“I want the beast to have whatever it wants.”
“Uh-uh. Ass out honesty, young lady. You want to be seen. It gets you wet. Admit it.”
Camilla tried to hold back her smile but couldn’t. A dimple-popping grin split her face. “Just thinking about it gets me dripping. I was so ripe after we left that store.”
“Yeah, too bad Sol was there.”
Camilla used her hands to slather soap onto Sam’s chest. “So it seemed like you guys were having an interesting discussion in the kitchen before I came out.”
“Kind of. He saw your underwear on the passenger seat last night so he was curious,” Sam said. “He wondered what we were doing on the drive home. I think he figured I was feeling you up or something.”
Camilla’s eyes sparkled interest. “What did you say?”
“I told him I like you undressed. So now he knows you were naked when we were at the store.”
“Does that bother you?”
“I’m happy you’re comfortable telling your brother I’m yours and how I’m yours. He’s family so it feels right.”
“He’s family but I’m not sharing anything with him but information.”
“I know. You’re not like John.”
“Not just that. You’re mine. Yeah, that means what you always say—that my limits are your limits—but another man touching you is way past where I draw the line.”
“I know that too. You’re my Sir and I’ll never refuse you anything, but I’m glad you don’t want anyone else to touch me. I’m happy I mean that much to you.”
Thinking about Camilla’s ex Sam said, “I can’t see how any man who cares about his woman could do otherwise.”
“So, speaking of looking but not touching, were you worried about how I might come to the kitchen this morning?”
“I didn’t really think about it. I think in the back of my mind I figured you’d put on my ABU shirt again.”
“Is that what you wanted me to wear?”
Sam thought not. His old military camouflage shirt showed off Camilla’s hot legs from her heels almost up to where her legs ended, with just a couple inches to spare. Wearing that shirt, if she sat or bent or even inhaled too deeply she’d be showing Sol her goodies. It wasn’t like when she’d worn that shirt when Cutter came over. That time she mostly sat at the table, and Cutter left right after having coffee. Sol would be hanging around today until early afternoon. He might have told his brother his business but he wasn’t going to show him.
“No,” Sam said. “You definitely need to be covered up while he’s here.”
“So if it were anyone but your brother would the same rules apply?”
Sam’s imagination clicked on. Visions of Camilla sunbathing nude on his deck or swimming naked in his pool played on the movie screen of his imagination. He could see other people out on the deck, but their images were just shadows at the corner of his mind.
Down in the dungeon of his fantasies a new kind of beast paced anxiously back and forth in the darkness at the back of its cell, alert and waiting.
“I think that’s entirely situational,” Sam said.
Sol looked around as he spoke to make sure everyone was in on his joke. A few of the women tittered like school girls with a crush even though many were family members. Sol had that effect on women. He always had.
“If you’d keep the same number longer than a month you might get a call,” Sam shot back. He wasn’t about to let his brother embarrass or intimidate him, or let it appear that he could, especially not with Camilla standing right there. And what had they been talking about anyway?
Sol grinned like it was all good but Sam could see the cold calculation in his brother’s eyes. He knew him too well to fall for his bullshit.
Sol stepped away from the wall and spread his arms. “Aw hell man, c’mere and give your big brother a hug. I ain’t seen you in what, five years?”
“Something like that.”
Sam hugged his brother. While they were embraced Sol muttered in his ear, “Boy, she got titties and ass for days. I hope you’re man enough to handle all that. If you need some help let me know.”
As they separated Sam gave him a hard eye. “I’ve got it covered.”
“I know you do, boy. I’m just messing with you, having a little fun. This is supposed to be fun, right? We’re celebrating Aunt Helen’s birthday.” He said it like he was the one who’d thought of throwing the party instead of arriving as it was wrapping up.
“When did you get here?” Sam asked.
“Just a minute ago. Man, I left Jersey in the wee hours.” He looked around at the thinning crowd and then over his shoulder at Camilla. “Looks like I didn’t miss the good part though.”
Aunt Helen was one of the people standing near the wall. “That’s all right, baby,” she said. “You came, and that’s what matters.”
“You know I wouldn’t miss this,” Sol said. He looked sincere now. “You’re Ma’s only sister and me and Sam love you like our own mother.”
That drew a few “Aws” from the remaining crowd. Aunt Helen gave Sol a hug and kiss on the cheek.
Sam took the opportunity to move closer to Camilla. She took his hand.
“Okay, I need to grab me some of whatever grub is left,” Sol announced. “I been on the road all day and I’m hungry as the stepchild of a refugee.”
Aunt Helen lived to feed people so that was all she needed to hear. She grabbed Sol’s hand and hauled him off to the food table.
Sam didn’t want to seem insecure but he knew how good his brother was at spreading bullshit and making it smell like flowers. “So what was he talking about?” he asked Camilla.
“He was nice,” Camilla said. “He said he was proud of you, the way you stuck it out in the Air Force and made it your career. He said even though you’re his younger brother he’s trying to catch up to you.”
If that was more of Sol’s bullshit it was a new line. The last time his brother had expressed an opinion about him joining the Air Force was right after he’d been sworn in. Sol told him he was selling out to a system that didn’t give a damn about the black man.
Sol came back carrying a sagging paper plate loaded by Aunt Helen with a mountain of soul food. He gnawed off a hunk of drumstick and said, “Little brother, I can’t be a country bumpkin like you but damn these southern people can cook! Reminds me of how Ma used to throw down in the kitchen. So hey, I’m hearing you got you a nice crib down here.”
“I like it,” Sam said.
“You got room for me to squat tonight?” He cut a smile at Camilla. “I mean, if you trust me around your pretty lady, since she lives right next door to you and all.”
So either Camilla or somebody else had been telling Sol his life story. “I don’t trust you but I trust her so it’s all good.” Sam smiled as he spoke but he wasn’t lying.
“Yeah well, don’t worry too much; I got to leave tomorrow so I can be at work on Monday.”
Sol had a job? A real job? “Where’re you working?”
“Down in Asbury Park, at Green’s Fine Autos.”
“And selling them well. Your big brother was tops in sales three out of the last four months. The manager says I could sell barks to a dog.”
“Yeah, that I believe.” Sol was a con man to his soul.
“So can I crash at your place?”
“Yeah man, it’s no problem.” Sam hoped that would be true.