Copyright Amy L. Montz
Some sick psychotic stalker had put a listening device on my dog’s collar, and I didn’t even know what to do about it. Take the collar off? Leave it on? My hand started moving in little panicked jerks, thumbing the collar over and over again.
In the end, Dominic reached over and put his hand on top of mine. “When we get home, we’ll get you something to take care of that bug.”
Right. Leave the collar on. I nodded and stared down at Artful’s red collar. It was a clue, an even better clue than we had yet to be given. It narrowed the playing field. Who all had come into contact with my dog over the past few weeks?
Dominic, Jackson, Mrs. Cunningham, Big Tony, Tommy, Bobby, Markus, Brian the barista, Vanessa Holladay, any number of cops at the police station, and possibly some Callaghans or Bineskis. Still, too many people, not enough motives, or completely wrong motives. I wanted to ask Dominic, but couldn’t. The guardian killer could be listening this very moment.
We rounded my street corner, parked in front of my building, and Dominic leaned over to unbuckle Artful’s collar. I left it on my seat and when I slammed the door, it felt justified, somehow.
“Nice call,” Dominic said in a low tone, as if we were still being listened to.
Maybe we were. Maybe that bump on Artful’s collar was just a bump, not a transmitter or receiver or whatever the technical term was. But I was sure of it. I felt it, deep in my gut, that we were right. “It’s someone who’s petted Artful, then.”
“That’s half of Chicago, kid.” He leaned forward to open the door for me. By now he had already learned that the locked entrance was just a sham. Mr. Cunningham had never gotten around to fixing the door he apparently broke three years before. “But it eliminates the ex. Let me run upstairs and get this taken care of.”
I nodded my head before I walked into my six-flat building that smelled like church, polished wood, a slight whiff of decaying carpet, long removed but lingering, somehow, underneath the revealed hardwood floor. The building was old, at least eighty years, and I had fallen in love with it the second I saw it. It reminded me of home, of Louisiana, of broad sweeping homes along the river, and tighter cramped histories dotting the curve of New Orleans.
When I saw my open door, cracked enough to show that no light peered through, the feeling doubled and tripled with alarming regularity because I knew what this meant. Something was wrong. Dominic had walked upstairs, alone, unsuspecting, perhaps, and something was terribly wrong indeed.
But I wasn’t stupid. God, no I wasn’t. I was collected, a still center of calm in a pocket of the world. I pulled out my cell phone, and called Jackson.
My voice was soft, so soft, a vast contrast to his louder, more even salutation of “Jackson.” “I need you at my apartment. I think Dominic’s hurt.”
“I’m coming now.” Just like that, all the emotion was erased from his tone. “Don’t do anything stupid.”
“I have to make sure he’s okay.” I took one step closer to the door, then two. There was a baseball bat, an aluminum baseball bat just on the inside of the door. If I could just reach it, I would have a weapon.
“I want you on the line with me until I get there. Don’t talk.”
I was even with the wall now and my left hand scrambled through the open doorway, trying to find purchase on the bat. My fingertips brushed it once and I felt, no, heard my breath grow louder, more rapid.
“I’m here, March,” Jackson said. “Just stay on the line.”
And just as my fingers grasped the baseball bat, a hand clamped around my wrist in turn.
I was yanked through the doorway, so hard and so fast that my right arm slammed into the wall and my cell phone flew from my grasp. There was a faint tinny sound of Jackson’s voice as the cell phone fell to the ground, but he wasn’t yelling of course because tough guy never yelled and the someone was gripping my arm and pulling me through the door and my stitches, God, my stitches.
Then the hand moved from my arm to my throat and I clawed at it, felt flesh slide under my fingernails as I scraped the hand raw. But it didn’t let go. It just slammed me against the wall and gripped tighter.
There were two ringing sounds. One sounded like it came from inside my head, and the other from outside. Then the ringing inside changed to roaring and I knew, I knew that in about ten seconds, I would black out. I clawed harder, clawed faster, struggled against the form against me. My breasts bumped against the someone’s chest and only then did the hand around my throat lessen.
“Natalia?” David said in my ear. He seemed surprised.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster, places and names and husbands you meant to love. I knew this place, had been here. The slight hesitation on his part was enough. I slammed my knee into his groin and managed to gain enough distance to connect my head with his nose. There was a brief spray of something wet across my cheeks before his hand slackened from my throat and he fell away from me.
“Fuck.” His voice was nasal, stopped up. I had broken his nose. Strange, I couldn’t bring myself to care.
I scrambled away from the wall and almost tripped over David, who was lying in a heap on the floor, his torso curved in, protective, over his genitals. But I made a mistake. He wasn’t completely immobile. His hand wrapped around my ankle and I went flying.
My arms shot out to brace my fall and a sick reverberating tremble ran from my hand to my stitched shoulder. As soon as I was down, David started pulling me back to him, but this wasn’t Baton Rouge. Not anymore.
I twisted around on the floor, shot both my feet out, and pushed. Only one foot found purchase, landed on something squishy that must be his stomach. His grip on my ankle lessened, and I pulled myself away.
“Nat’lie, wait.” It sounded like an effort to get those words out. “Need to talk.”
I said nothing, just half-crawled, half-ran to my bedroom, and my guns. When I got there, I skidded to a halt as I saw Dominic lying facedown on my bed, immobile.
“Dominic, get up.” My voice was a croak, barely audible even to me. Every word was broken glass in my throat. Unbidden, my right hand moved to my throat and rested there, comforting. With my left, I rolled Dominic over and stared at his pale, grayish face. “Goddamn you, get up.”
He didn’t move, so I slapped his cheek, harder than I would have liked, but he still wasn’t moving. “Reggianno, wake up.”
His head lolled to the side when I slapped it, but he was breathing, and I saw the pulse in his throat beat out. I pressed two fingers to it, found it steady and strong, and pulled my hand away. It only trembled a little. Just a little.
“Nathalie, I need to talk to you.” David’s voice was gaining strength and sounded closer, so much closer to my bedroom door.
With my right hand still cradling my throat, I walked to my nightstand, pulled out my Browning 9mm, and walked into the living room. David was standing now, one hand gripping the back of the couch. His body was still curved towards his groin, but the second he saw the gun, he straightened with only one flash of pain shooting across his face. “Put that down,” he said.
“What did you do to him?” Without my hand cradling my throat, the effort to speak seemed harder, more painful. David had hurt me again. Bishop was right. The art of losing wasn’t hard to master.
“I just hit him with a stun gun. He surprised me. That’s all.” David took a step closer, then two. “He thought I was a robber.”
I leveled my gun lower, aiming towards that delicate part of his body he seemed so keen on protecting. “Get out of my house.”
He held up his hands, palms out. “I didn’t know it was you. Shit, I thought it was another cop.”
Because that was a better excuse? I stood my ground, but my grip on the gun was wavering with shock and fear and effort and I knew David would notice. He was as perceptive as I was. “How did you know where I live?”
He shrugged and flipped a stray lock of black hair out of his face. It was a gesture so familiar, I almost lowered the gun and teased him about his outgrown hair. David, while so careful about his career, never believed in the value of a good haircut. “I finished with the cops and they let me go. I wanted to talk to you.” He gave me the smile, the charming, disarming little smile that made me fall in love with him all those years ago, and I remembered the annual trip to Gulf Shores, our first Christmas tree–only eighteen inches high but real–the three a.m. pancake run on our wedding night, talks of girls’ names–David wanted Emma, while I argued for Sanderson tradition and Norah, or Natasha. I remembered redecorating the house, and the day it snowed in Baton Rouge when we threw snowballs at each other and drank hot cocoa on the porch, buried deep in blankets and winter coats we didn’t ever remember owning.
I remembered my David. Not the David that hit me, not the David that screwed around with Maria Dugas for over a year, but the man I had loved. Once. “You just attacked me, and you… you hit me that night in November. How is that not hurting me?” I moved slowly as to not arouse his suspicion, to put the couch between us.
His eyes became thoughtful before they widened, flashing, for one brief second, surprise. I was right. David was a bad drunk. He didn’t remember that night. “That was because you were whoring around.” He walked closer to me, trying to shift around the couch.
I sucked in a breath. “I wasn’t the one sleeping with Maria Dugas.” I was behind the couch now, only a few dozen feet from my front door. If I could get outside I could get help.
“Who knows who you were sleeping with?” He was drunk now. Strange that it took me this long to see it, to smell the fumes from him. When did he start drinking so heavily? God, what had happened to him?
“Get out of my house. Now.” I raised the gun to emphasize my point and edged even closer to the door.
But David followed, worked his way so that he had his back to my bedroom. We were separated by five, six feet. “What, you’re going to shoot me? Don’t kid a kidder, Nathalie. You’re not going to shoot me. I’m unarmed. You’ll go to jail for second degree murder.”
“You just attacked a police officer. If anyone’s going to jail, it’s you.” But no, I couldn’t kill him. I could blow out his kneecap, but I couldn’t kill him.
When I lowered the gun to the body part in mind, David’s eyes widened and he took a step back. He could always read me. That was his gift. David had known me, and known me well. “The Brotherhood took Maria to the station. They won’t let her go. Call your brothers, and I’ll leave.”
“She’s in protective custody. There’s some psycho killer out there trying to protect me from everyone who’s ever hurt me, and he threatened you. Jesus Christ, I was trying to help you two, and I’ll be damned if I know why. You certainly don’t deserve it, or that snake you married.” It was an effort to get all of those words out.
“Don’t talk about her like that. She wasn’t doing anything you weren’t already doing yourself.” Those grey eyes lifted and they were bright and dangerous.
I took a step closer to the front door and prepared myself to run. “Like murdering babies? Right, I do that all the time.”
But David read through my shuffling. He shook his head in a slight movement and stood up straighter. “Who got you pregnant?” he said in a soft, still voice.
My arms trembled and the gun lowered. “What?”
“Because I know it wasn’t me.” His tone was casual, almost conversational, as if we were discussing the relative benefits of going out for dinner or ordering in. But his face became dark as his eyes raged deeper and deeper grey. “All I want to know is who my wife was screwing behind my back. Was it Bubba?”
And that’s what did it. That simple three-word question was enough to make my aim lower farther still, for me to forget the gun in my hand. “Bubba?” I asked.
He used the distraction to get closer to me, before I even comprehended what he was doing. This was the David hidden under the good ole boy lawyer. This was the wife beater, the bad drunk, the man I hadn’t known until that one fateful night in Baton Rouge. “Was it Bubba?” he asked in a still voice. “Or Alex Copeland?”
One was my brother Joey’s best friend, fellow ex-football star, and the other was another lawyer from David’s firm. Both were my friends. Both were married, happily so. And neither had spent so much as a second alone in a room with me. “What the hell are you talking about?” My voice cracked. I was beginning to crack and it hurt, hurt so much.
He leaned closer to me, and I could smell vodka on his breath. Vodka tonic with a splash of lime. David’s favorite drink. “I got scarlet fever when I was five. I’m sterile. So I couldn’t have gotten you pregnant, now could I?”
But no, the cracking wasn’t fear. It was anger, cold anger rushing through me and exploding into a thousand crystalline pieces. This wasn’t about me. This wasn’t my fault. For the first time since that night, something in me knew this wasn’t my fault. “Well check again, because you were the first, and only, man I’ve ever slept with.”
“You’re a fucking liar.” But he backed away, just a little. Uncertain, perhaps, unsure.
I stood up straighter and let my disdain, my hatred for my ex bubble through my voice and break to the surface. “No, technically, that would be you, on both counts.”
The anger, the accusation, all of it shrank away and he became, before my eyes, a broken man. “You’re serious.”
This time, I took a step closer to him, and he took a step away from me. “Of course I am. I never cheated on you. You were the one cheating on me. And Ava saw you and Maria that day in the library and she told me, you son of a bitch.” The last word ended on a hoarse croak.
His face flushed pale, and one fat water droplet caught on his lashes before it rolled down his cheek. “Then it was my baby?” His voice was a whispered apology, but it wasn’t enough. It would never be enough.
“You knew I was pregnant,” I said in a soft voice. “And you told Maria. You fucking bastard, you put Maria on me. She…” I paused as my voice cracked. “She killed the baby, David. She killed the baby.”
He shook his head in a fast jerky movement. “I didn’t put her on you. She heard the message.”
“What message? There was no…” my voice trailed off. Of course there was a message. My gynecologist married into the Sandersons, after all. What was she, third cousin? Third cousin by marriage, twice removed? She must have rushed the tests, called the house in excitement that after two years of trying, I was finally pregnant.
“One of the nurses from your cousin’s office called and left a message on the answering machine the morning before you left and… and Maria was there.” He wasn’t even looking at me now. His eyes had gone distant, vacant, staring at some scene far off in his memory. Maybe at a girl with black hair and Sanderson blue eyes. A girl I called, in my heart of hearts, Natasha.
His eyes cleared, Natasha faded from his view, and they met mine. “You weren’t whoring around.”
“Jesus Christ, of course I wasn’t.” I had said I would love and honor him, until death do us part, and I had meant those words, meant them with all my heart. Now the empty promise mocked me, as my feeble attempts at obtaining an annulment did, too.
“And we were going to have a baby and….” his voice trailed off as his eyes rolled back in his head, and then, he slumped to the ground.
I looked up to see Dominic standing behind David with a stun gun in his hand, his eyes a stark contrast to his white face. He knelt down and handcuffed David’s hands behind his back. When he was done, he stood up, rubbed his eyes with his fist, and then held out his hand for my Browning. After I passed it to him we stared at each other, unsure of what to do or say or where to go. We were still standing in awkward silence when the cavalry showed up not five minutes later.
“Want some tea?”
I glanced up at Bobby. For one second, the streetlamp haloed his head and made his hair shine gold. But then he crouched down next to me and the halo was gone. “That would,” I paused to swallow hard, “great. Thanks.” I shifted down on Dominic’s bumper to accommodate Bobby, but he remained crouched on his feet.
He handed me one of the coffee mugs from my eclectic collection, a Harry Potter Gryffindor mug a student gave me the end of last school year. I wrapped my hands around the mug and inhaled. Lady grey tea, with plenty of honey for my raw throat.
“Dominic wanted to make you coffee.” Bobby’s voice dripped with superior disdain. He was an herbal remedy kind of man. I was sure of it.
I took a sip, let the warm honeyed liquid soothe my raw throat. “So when can I go back inside?”
“Just a little while longer.” Bobby rubbed his nose with his balled fist. “Your neighborhood’s into the whole voyeurism thing, huh?”
I glanced around at the throngs of people loitering around my building, on the sidewalk, in the street. Some were even sitting on their porches, drinking and watching the red and blue police lights flicker over the darkness. “Smaller crowd than earlier.” After David was brought to the cop car in handcuffs, the majority of the gawkers wandered back to their homes. It was late after all, and his arrest seemed some kind of signal. Show’s over, folks. Nothing to see here. Just move it along.
“How’s your neck?” Bobby reached a hand towards me, but I pulled away.
“Better if everyone stopped touching.” Like The Special, I was dropping key parts of my sentences, looking for a more economic conversational endeavor. Who needed direct objects, anyways? But I gave Bobby a gentle smile to lessen the sarcasm. “No offense,” I said.
“None taken. You’re already bruising.”
“Irish,” I agreed, lifting my white arm to punctuate my point. “What they doing?” My head cocked towards my building to finish the question. “They” were any combination of cops and whomever Jackson had called in again, and “they” had been in my apartment for near an hour.
“Tearing your place apart.” He paused for a second. “Again. Seeing if Thibodeaux put anything in there.” He stumbled a bit over the Cajun French name, as if his mouth were trying to accommodate all of the hidden consonant sounds. Bobby pulled himself off of Dominic’s bumper and pointed a finger at me. “Stay put. I mean it.”
It was the third time I had received the same lecture in the past twenty minutes and I hadn’t budged a muscle the entire time. I glanced over at Markus who was standing not ten feet away, arms crossed over his chest and a sullen pout on his face. He was on Sanderson guard duty. “Why everyone think I roam?” There. Almost a complete sentence.
“You did it once before,” Bobby said, with a smile at least.
“Got kidnapped.” I tapped my temple with my index finger. “Me and Pavlov’s dog.”
Bobby chuckled, pointed at Markus so I knew who was watching me, and then melted away into the crowd. This crowd was familiar. An officer had been assaulted. This crowd had nothing to do with me and everything to do with Dominic. It happened back home, too, whenever someone in the family got hurt and all the boys showed up. When my brother, Jason, had been shot on what should have been a routine domestic violence dispute, almost every officer on call–and many that weren’t on call–appeared at the scene, or the hospital, or just dropped by and offered help.
“March? You all right?”
I glanced over at a man about my height or a little taller, with a Cubs hat pulled on his head and black framed glasses on his face. When the streetlight hit him, I saw slight lines at the corners of his mouth, familiar lines. And he knew my name. I peered closer at his face. “Brian?” I had never seen him in glasses before.
He nodded. “Just got off of work and saw the cop cars.” He took off his glasses, folded them with a careful hand, and looped them over the collar of his shirt. “And then I saw you. I was just wondering if you were a gawker or a victim.” His hand swept out towards the thinning crowd.
“Everything all right here?” another man asked, somewhere to the right of us.
I turned to see my watchdog, Markus, standing there with a suspicious look on his face. “Fine. This is Brian. Neighbor.” My right hand reached up to cradle my throat and I went to try again, but Markus beat me to the punch.
“Can I see some I.D.?” he asked Brian.
Brian gave me one brief questioning look before he turned to Markus. “Of course you can. One second.” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his wallet. As he handed his license to Markus, I got a brief glimpse of the word “Illinois” at the top.
Markus eyed Brian up and down, gave him a curt nod, and moved about ten feet away to call the I.D. in.
“What’s wrong with your throat?” Brian asked. He leaned closer and I could smell his cologne, something vaguely musty and citrusy, all wrapped up together. “It’s all bruised. Christ, you didn’t get thrown out of another car, did you?”
Something sparked, then. Something deep and buried in my mind. I grasped it, tugged hard, trying to hold on to it for all it was worth. “You were there that day.”
His lips pursed into a thin line. “You need to be careful. Seriously. Every time I see you, something bad is happening.”
Yes, every time he saw me something bad did happen. And he was always there, right after. God, how could I have been so stupid? My heart pounded so hard in my chest that I wondered if he could see it, see the fabric of my shirt lift and fall with every beat, with every rush of blood under my skin. “So you’re a neighbor, huh?” I glanced over and saw Markus still ten feet away, still talking into his radio, still checking on me every few seconds, that odd expression on his face. I widened my eyes at him before I turned back to Brian.
“Sure am.” He turned to look at Markus, too, following my eyes.
Markus looked up at the both of us, said one final thing into his radio, and then walked over. “Here you go,” he said, handing him the license. “Sorry about that.”
I deflated a little. I had been so sure. He was the perfect suspect, always fading into the background, always there whenever I needed a helping hand. Or maybe he was just the perfect red herring?
“No problem. I trust everything came up okay.” Brian reached into his pocket for his wallet again.
He and Markus shared a self-satisfied, can’t ever be too careful what with all the crazies chuckle. “Just fine.” Markus looked down at me for a second. “Drink your tea, Sanderson. See you later, Mr. Bourgeois.” And with that, he walked away.
Bourgeois was to Louisiana what Smith was to everywhere else. One of the most common Cajun names. My eyes darted over to Brian to find him with a little curved smile on his face. “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever asked,” he said. “Where are you from?” Then he held up his hand. “Wait, don’t tell me. Somewhere deep South. Bayou girl, through and through.”
I stared at his hand, at the scar across his knuckles reflected in the streetlight. Like carpentry. How incredibly biblical. “How did you know?”
Brian shrugged, a gesture that reminded me of my friend Casey Broussard from college. “I have a good ear for accents.”
Casey Broussard had been a good Creole boy, born and bred in the bayous and Cajun French settlements of Louisiana. And after my mother had met Casey, she had told him that the Cajun French had two things left over from their deeper French ancestry. One was the slight lilt to their voice, the cadence and shift in diction that implied something exotic in their speech. There was just something that implied bilingualism.
“Want to guess where I’m from?” he asked with that same shift, that same slight lilt that Casey Broussard had and I knew he was doing it on purpose. He was trying to make me hear and I did. The first was the accent. The second was the Gallic shrug. Only the French can shrug like that, my mother said. Most people shrug with their shoulders, but not the French. It was in the elbows for them.
“You’re from Louisiana.” The words fell out of my mouth before I could even comprehend them, my mouth making the connection before my brain caught up with it. And two seconds later, my brain did catch up. “Des Allemandes.”
His smile grew wider, genuine, and for a second, I hesitated. “That’s right,” he said, his accent coming out a little thicker. Just like mine did, two seconds back home or around other people from Louisiana. “You’re really good at this, too.”
When I darted a glance at Markus, he had his back turned to me. He didn’t know. God, how could he not know? “It was a good guess.” My throat was scraped raw by now, after talking to Bobby, to Markus, to Brian. My right hand still cradled it and I willed it away.
As soon as I did, Brian leaned closer to me. “Who did that to you, March?”
My hand slipped into the pocket of my sweatshirt instead. I may not be able to call out, to scream, but I had one very powerful weapon up my sleeve, or rather, in my pocket. “I never told you my name,” I said in a soft voice.
His look of confusion was either genuine or an excellent display of artifice. I was ready to go with door number two. “Of course you did,” Brian said. “That day at the coffeehouse.”
I shook my head and pressed “Talk” on my cell phone, twice. It would hopefully dial whoever it was I last dialed. “No, I didn’t. Artful’s name. Not mine.” Run? Don’t run? I had no idea what to do now.
He seemed ready to say something, something to keep up his artifice, his disguise. But in the end, Brian’s eyebrows lifted and his lips curled into an interested little smile. “You are so clever, catin.”
My heart froze as he said the word, his Cajun French accent thicker, the endearment familiar. All of my ex-husband’s male relatives–a vast quantity of Thibodeauxs that rivaled the Sandersons in size–had called me the same thing, at one time or another, along with cher and bebe. Finally, at a crawfish boil deep in the swampy hell of a Louisiana August, I sat next to David’s grandfather and told him that in traditional French, the term wasn’t very nice. He had just shrugged that Gallic shrug and said, “We’re not traditional French, cher. Here, it’s a sweet word. It means ‘doll.’” But when he gave me a toothless grin and put his pipe back in his mouth, I smacked him on the arm and told him that he shouldn’t lie to a lady. He just laughed and asked me to get him another beer.
Brian leaned closer still and I couldn’t move. God, why couldn’t I move? “Do you remember now? That day in Baton Rouge?”
“Yes,” I whispered. He was the Cajun from Des Allemandes, the one who called Remy on the phone for me. The good Samaritan who helped me after Maria’s attack. Just a face, just a nameless face in a crowd. That was Brian’s strength, his secret weapon. He melted into the background, an extra in an elaborate plot. I was such a goddamn idiot.
And then, my guardian killer trapped my hand on the bumper and immobilized me. “Don’t scream, catin.” A pause, then, “I don’t think your throat could handle it, do you?”