The Outlaw Among Us is a novel of psychological suspense by Nathan Dodge (available August 14, 2012).
Martin Tucker is a working-class average Joe from New Jersey who lives a simple life: husband to his high school sweetheart, father to two young sons, and retainer of a ton of bills, even though most months the mortgage gets paid on time. It may not be the ultimate realization of the American Dream, but Martin’s comfortable with it, and he’ll take what he can. That is, until new neighbors Johnny and Rachel Outlaw move in two doors down, and everything changes.
Johnny’s the youngest partner at a high-powered Manhattan law firm, and Rachel is probably the hottest woman Martin’s ever seen. For the life of him, Martin can’t figure out what people like the Outlaws are doing in this quiet suburban neighborhood. But as Martin tries to uncover the truth, Johnny Outlaw shows him a devil of a good time and Rachel captivates him with her irresistible beauty and charm—right before everything starts heading straight to hell . . . .
I really thought he was kidding when he introduced himself. The first time he shook my hand and gave me that perfect, completely self-assured grin.
“Hi, I’m Johnny,” he said smoothly. “Johnny Outlaw.”
I mean, who has a name like that? Maybe a Hollywood legend or the lead singer of a bad-boy, rock-and-roll band. But not a guy who just moved into the three-bedroom cookie-cutter two doors down from mine. Not a young attorney on the fast track at his high-profile law firm in Midtown Manhattan.
It wasn’t just his name that grabbed my attention like a powerful gust of the coming storm, or the first insane drop of a killer roller coaster. He had this air about him, too, like he might try to slip something past me. Not to make me look bad in front of anyone, but to see if I’d believe him. To see how far I’d follow him down the path of promises toward the gates of hell.
All of that made me think twice about him, but twice wasn’t nearly enough.
See, Johnny Outlaw wasn’t kidding . . . about anything.
“Let’s go!” Johnny yells over the crowd noise. “I don’t want to get caught in traffic!”
He leans close to me so he’s sure I’ll hear him. “Now, Martin,” he says in a vaguely irritated tone, like a parent starting to scold a child in earnest. “I told you this would happen. And I warned you not to get pissed.”
I haven’t been to a professional football game in years, and I’m amped. Only four minutes to go and my New York football Giants are down by two. But they’ve got the ball and they’re driving. The crowd’s going insane and I’ve got mind-blowing chills racing up and down my spine listening to sixty thousand maniacs screaming all at once. Plus we’ve got these primo seats on the fifty-yard line fifteen rows up from the field. Seats this blue-collar guy from North Jersey never thought he’d find his way to without the lottery. This is way better than watching on TV like I do any other Sunday, especially with the huge screens at either end of the stadium constantly showing high-def, slow-motion replays.
And Johnny wants to leave? Is he crazy?
He sees what I’m thinking, but it doesn’t sway him. He’s staring at me in that fascinated way he has with those mesmerizing turquoise eyes. Eyes that look like they could burn through steel faster than a diamond drill bit. I hate to think it, but it’s almost as if he’s enjoying my frustration. There’s a hint of amusement in that soulful stare.
“I hate traffic.”
“Absolutely hate it.”
“Maybe we could—”
“Hey, pal, who got you these tickets?”
I knew he’d throw that out there and right into my face sooner or later. I just knew it. “You did,” I mutter grudgingly.
Technically it was his law firm, but that makes this even worse. These are season tickets, and he says he gets them whenever he wants. The senior partner rarely uses them, and apparently he loves Johnny. Like everyone seems to.
“You want to do this again,” he says, standing up, “don’t you, Martin?”
It’s like he’s reading my mind, and it’s not the first time I’ve felt like he was in there looking around. It’s like déjà vu but even eerier.
“Yeah, I do,” I admit as I stand up and trail him and his slightly pigeon-toed stride like a puppy dog trailing its mother.
I’ve had quite a few beers this afternoon, so I put one foot in front of the other carefully as we climb the stadium stairs. A lot of high rollers sit in this section, and I feel like I’m being judged. It makes me keenly aware of who I am—and who I am not.
A few rows up Johnny stops to talk to someone, probably a client. I can tell he doesn’t want to introduce me, and I don’t blame him. Johnny’s wearing a blue Oxford shirt, cuffed charcoal slacks, shiny cordovan loafers and a stylish overcoat that falls a few inches below his knees. I’m wearing a Giants sweatshirt, jeans with the knees blown out because they’re old and not because I’m making a fashion statement, along with high-top Nikes. He’s dressed like he belongs, like he ought to be sitting on the fifty-yard line fifteen rows up from the field with the rest of the high rollers. I’m dressed like I ought to be in that nosebleed section with the six half-naked morons who spell out G-I-A-N-T-S on their shaved chests even when it’s twenty degrees out just so they can get on TV and get their few seconds of idiot-fame. Introducing me could be bad for business. I understand that.
Johnny and the guy chat for a few moments, then he gestures at me reluctantly, like he has to. “This is Martin Tucker,” he says to the other guy, who’s also dressed like he’s starring in a Brooks Brothers commercial right after the game. “Marty, this is Stephen Harper.”
Harper and I don’t bother shaking hands. It’s obvious he doesn’t want to and I don’t care. So we give each other quick nods, then make certain we don’t catch each other’s eyes again until “see ya later”s seem imminent. I don’t even listen to what they say, I just watch the field. Unfortunately a time-out’s been called, so the players are just standing around.
“Come on,” Johnny finally says as he shoves his cell phone back in his pocket and bids Harper goodbye. “Let’s go.”
The time-out is just ending and the crowd noise is ramping up again as the ref blows his whistle for play to resume. Johnny sees my disappointment resurface as he glances over his shoulder at me.
“You don’t want to stick around, Martin,” he calls out loudly. “I’ve got a feeling it’s gonna get bad.”
“No way,” I call back defiantly, hoping maybe I can change his mind at the last second and we can stay. “The Giants are gonna win. They’re gonna score, and I’m gonna miss it if we leave now.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about.”
He’s not slowing down. There’s no chance I’ll change his mind. “Then what are you talking about?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
A few minutes later Johnny and I are out of the stadium and racing through the fading light of the late autumn afternoon in his big BMW. It’s powerful, smooth and quiet, with a control panel that looks like it was lifted from an F-16 cockpit. But the best thing about the car is the way it smells. Ever since I was a kid I’ve loved riding in cars that have real leather upholstery. The few times I have, anyway. Fake leather can feel real, but it doesn’t smell real. That’s how I can always tell the difference—by the smell.
“Mind if I turn on the radio?” I ask.
“Not at all. Help yourself.”
Very quickly I pick up the game on an AM station up the dial, but it’s strange. The announcers are talking in low, somber voices, and there’s hardly any crowd noise behind them. I start to wonder if this is the right game.
Then the play-by-play guy mentions how one of the Giants stars just sustained a terrible neck injury in a head-on collision with another player, and that he isn’t moving at all as he lies on the field. That he hasn’t moved since he fell to the turf after the hit several minutes ago. Before the announcer finishes telling us that an ambulance is racing to the field, I switch off the radio and stare at Johnny.
I’m about to ask him if that’s what he was talking about when he said it was going to get bad, but he veers off the Turnpike before I can, and that quickly we’re into a semi-seedy-looking commercial district of Newark.
“Where are we going?” I glance around, distracted from what happened to the player and how Johnny seemed to know it was going to happen. It’s not a terrible neighborhood, but it isn’t great, either. “Why’d you get off here?”
“I’ve decided I don’t like the name Martin.” Johnny chuckles like what he’s about to say is really funny. “Martin.”
I’ve known Johnny for six months so I’ve grown accustomed to his habit of ignoring questions he doesn’t feel like answering. And to him saying what he feels like saying whenever he feels like saying it.
“You need a slicker handle,” he says matter-of-factly. “Martin’s not working for me. I can’t have someone hanging around me with a nickname like Marty. I mean, Jesus Christ. You can understand that, can’t you?”
“What’s your middle name?”
He tries on Bill and Billy a couple of times under his breath but shakes his head. “Nope, still no good.” Then his expression brightens. “Hey, I got it. I’m calling you Buck from now on.”
“Buck?” For a moment I figure he picked it because it rhymes with the first syllable of my last name, but Johnny’s more deliberate than that. He rarely decides on anything in such a simple or random way. He wants me to think he does, but I know better. “Why Buck?”
“You’re a deer hunter. Didn’t you tell me that?”
“I used to be.” I don’t remember telling Johnny that. The last time I shot a deer was a long time ago.
He nods to himself twice, then grins a little, like in his mind he was dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s to his story and now he’s done with it. “Okay, here’s how it goes. You shot this monster deer when you were young, when you were . . . let’s say . . . fifteen. You were in the woods with your father one day out in Pennsylvania somewhere and—” Johnny interrupts himself and looks over at me. “Your dad’s dead, right? Didn’t you tell me that?”
His memory’s amazing. “Yeah.” I think I mentioned that to him once a few months ago.
“Great.” Johnny glances over at me again, warily this time. “I mean ‘great’ because we won’t have to bring him in on this. Anyway,” he continues, aware that he just stepped in shit and needs to move on quickly, “you nail this big deer in the shoulder. It’s just about this time of day,” he says, gazing out the windshield with this incredibly nostalgic expression, “about this time of year, too. It’s overcast and raw and daylight’s fading. But instead of dropping to the ground or running away after you shoot it, the damn deer turns on you and charges. He comes straight at you with his nine-point rack, five on one side and four on the other.” Johnny motions to me. “See, that’s a good detail because it’s unusual. Nature’s usually symmetric, so that little tweak makes the story better. It’s more memorable that way, and it distracts people from the real point.”
I’m not sure what the real point is, but before I can ask he keeps going.
“You’re only fifteen years old, but you’re an ice man. You bring that thirty-thirty up to your shoulder and your cheek real calm and steady like you’re some kind of Special Forces sniper. At twenty yards you squeeze the trigger and bam! You nail the thing right between the eyes and it drops dead at your feet. If you’d missed, it would have killed you.” Johnny eases the car to the curb and relaxes, obviously satisfied with his creation. “Ever since then your dad’s called you Buck. So that’s what I’m going to call you from now on.” He reaches over and pats me on the shoulder. “Thanks for telling me that, Buck.”
Amazing. In the time it’s taken Johnny to create the yarn, it’s like he actually believes his own bullshit. “Peg will be surprised to hear all that.” He’s usually one step ahead of everyone, and I laugh as though I finally have something on him. Like he’s forgotten this one small but critically important detail that’ll blow the story to smithereens. “She’ll know it’s a lie, Johnny. She never heard my father call me Buck.”
“Your wife will just be happy to have something else to call you,” Johnny says as he opens his door. “I’ve heard how she’s been saying Marty lately. It isn’t good, pal.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Forget it,” he says impatiently. “Just follow me.”
I thought I heard him whisper “forever” at the end of that sentence. I guess it was my imagination, but I really thought I heard it. I even get a quick case of goose bumps.
I like Johnny Outlaw. Once you get past the bravado, he grows on you big time. He’s not like anyone I’ve ever met. You never know what he’s going to do or say next, but you know you’ll always have a great time with him; he never backs down from anything or anyone; and he always seems to win at everything he does.
My friends from the old neighborhood talk a lot of smack after a few beers, but they wilt when it matters. I mean, look how they’ve turned out. They’re losers with dead-end jobs that pay next to nothing an hour. But Johnny’s a winner, and I want that attitude of his to rub off on me. I need him to push me if I’m going to break the blue-collar cycle that’s trapped my family ever since they floated across the North Atlantic from Scotland and landed on Ellis Island a hundred years ago with big dreams and no money.
That’s where I am right now—dreams of big money but not much in my wallet—along with my two siblings I never see. Basically, my family’s made no progress in a century.
“Where are we going?” I ask as I climb out of the Beamer.
“To see some friends of mine,” he says as an extra sparkle dances in those glistening blue eyes of his. “You’ll like them.”
I check my watch. It’s after four. “I’ve gotta be home by six-thirty, Johnny. Peg’s going out tonight, and I told her I’d watch the kids.” My wife and I have two boys. They’re seven and five and they’re a lot to handle, especially together. But I sure do love them. “I can’t be late.”
“Take it easy, Buck. You’ll be fine. I’ll make sure.”
I’m already starting to like the new handle. But Johnny’s wrong about Peg. She’ll shoot it down right away. Not because she won’t like it—she probably will. She likes catchy names. Our sons’ names are Brendan and Lance, and she’s the one who chose them because she thought only cool kids would have names like that. But she hates lies, no matter how little and white they are. She’ll call me out on the Buck story before it has a chance to take hold.
Half a block back from the car he stops at a big metal door, glances over his shoulder as if he’s casing the area, then announces his arrival with his signature knock. Two quick raps, a pause, then one single hard knock. It’s always the same no matter where he does it or who he does it for.
The door inches ajar for a moment, then swings wide open and I’m hit with loud, grinding music. Johnny disappears inside for a second as I stand there on the sidewalk like my feet are stuck in cement.
He leans back out and waves me in impatiently. “Come on!”
As soon as I’m through the doorway I get it. This is a strip club. It’s got three stages, with two floor-to-ceiling poles on each stage, and all six of them are occupied. Not by little sisters of the poor, either. Not by the pasty-looking, fat or painfully skinny and no in-between, bad-teeth girls a lot of strip clubs offer. These women are beautiful, and you can tell by the way they walk around they’re accustomed to being spoiled. By the way they hold their heads high; push their chests out and pull their shoulders back; strut around confidently on their silly six-inch heels; and wear disinterested, sultry, I-don’t-really-need-to-be-here expressions on their pouty faces.
Not only is there quality in here, there’s quantity, too—lots of beautiful women everywhere. They’re hanging all around the comfortable-looking sofas and easy chairs arranged in front of the stages and by the pool tables in the back, and they’re gazing at us coyly. Whoever runs this place knows exactly what he’s doing.
“Johnny!” I yell. He’s handing money to a woman standing behind a counter off to one side. “Hey!”
“Don’t worry,” he calls back. “I got you covered, Buck. come on.”
It’s not the money that’s making my feet feel like they’re nailed to the floor. It’s something else. When I don’t move, he and the woman behind the counter trade a knowing glance and a roll of the eyes. Like they’ve seen this reaction before.
“Hey,” he says sternly as he ambles toward me, “I don’t want to physically drag you in here. That would look pretty pathetic. But I will if I have to. Now let’s go.” His steely glare goes soft and he smiles. “I’ll take good care of you. Don’t worry, Buck.”
I’m literally in his shadow as he heads toward an open booth against the far wall—a prime spot that hasn’t been taken yet. He walks through the place like he owns it, and the girls notice him right away. Even the ones who’ve already settled into crowded tables of men. I can see them thinking that maybe they shouldn’t have staked out their territory so early in the evening. Like they recognize the new sheriff in town and they want to check out his star and his gun. He’s damn good looking, but, more important to the strippers, he’s got that money look about him—that sleek air and that smooth gait that advertises his ability to buy his way into or out of anything.
I haven’t been to a strip club in years—not since my brother-in-law’s bachelor party—and I forgot how uncomfortable they make me feel. The club we went to for his party was a dump compared to this one, so it wasn’t nearly as intimidating. It was out on Long Island somewhere and we were pretty much the only people in there other than the girls, most of whom looked like they were out on parole or on the run.
I’m not sure what it is that puts me so on edge in these places. Maybe it’s because I know Peg wouldn’t want me in here. Or because I’ve never been comfortable around women I don’t know, especially pretty ones. I get tongue-tied and all caught up in my words. My throat goes dry, my mind freezes, and I can’t think of anything interesting or witty to say. Maybe that’s one of the main reasons I settled down with Peg so fast. I got comfortable with her quickly, and I didn’t see any reason to go through the stress of looking around anymore. Peg’s no beauty queen, but I don’t care. We have a meaningful relationship and two great boys, and that’s what’s important to me at this stage of my life.
After Johnny and I sit down, he pulls out a cigar and lights it up as he sizes up the situation. He’s got his eye on these two hot blondes. They’re sitting a few tables away, squeezed in among five black guys. They’re clearly taken, but he keeps staring at them anyway.
“Where’s your wife going on a Sunday night, Buck?” he asks, taking his first puff of the cigar.
I didn’t think he heard me mention that. “She didn’t tell me.”
“I bet she’s fucking around on you.”
I can’t believe he just said that. “What?” But that’s Johnny.
“I bet she’s having an affair.”
“You’re out of your mind. There’s no chance she’s—”
“What can I get you guys?”
I’m interrupted by a waitress in a short black fuck-me dress who’s pretty but nowhere near as pretty as the strippers—by design, of course.
“Grey Goose and Red Bull,” Johnny answers, and he points at me. “Make it two.” Then he motions for her to lean down and he whispers something to her I can’t hear.
I grin and shake my head as I watch her familiar reaction. It’s the same reaction most women have when they meet Johnny. They get this far-off expression on their face like they’re going into a trance. Their eyes open wide, their head tilts to one side, they smile faintly, and I can just see them wondering if they’d ever have a chance with him.
He’s really handsome, I have to admit. He’s got sharp, dark features, but there’s something else that takes him to a different level with women. Maybe it’s those turquoise eyes or that charismatic smile, or maybe it’s how he makes them feel like they’re the most special person in the world, even if he only has a few seconds with them. It’s amazing how he can do that. He knows exactly what to say every time. He seems able to reach into their souls so easily, without even really trying. I see it in their haunted expressions as he says goodbye.
When the waitress leaves, I start up right where I left off. I don’t want any doubt in Johnny’s mind about the state of my marriage. “Peg and I have been together since eleventh grade, Johnny. I love her, she loves me. We’ve only ever had each other, and that’s important to her. To me, too, pal. Believe me,” I say confidently, “she’s not screwing around on me.”
He points the cigar at me but keeps his eyes trained on the blondes. “You really think Peg’s only ever been with you?”
She told me she was a virgin the first time we did it in the backseat of my parents’ station wagon right before school let out for the summer all those years ago. But I’d heard a rumor that she’d been with this one other guy before me. He was a football star and he took her out a few times that fall, then dropped her like stolen goods.
I don’t think it was true, though. About him doing her, I mean. I think he got tired of her because she wouldn’t put out, then ditched her and started the rumor to keep his reputation intact. It was six months before Peg and I climbed into the backseat of that station wagon, and the other guy only went out on a couple of dates with her.
I’ve asked Peg about him more than a few times since we’ve been together, and she denies having sex with him every time I do, even when she’s mad at me and it might feel good to hit me with it. She looks right at me without blinking and tells me I’m crazy for caring so many years later. I think I’d know if my wife was lying to me.
“Yeah, she’s only been with me,” I say with conviction.
“Don’t be naive.”
“She’s in her early thirties, right?” Johnny asks.
“Her eyes are wandering, Buck, believe me. And it’s not your fault. It’s only natural for a woman her age to start looking around. To wonder if she made the right decision all those years ago and do a little second-guessing.”
I don’t know what on-line college Johnny got his psych degree from, but he’s way wrong. “She loves me and the kids.”
“Of course she does, Buck. Every mother loves her kids, even the ones that don’t. But women want excitement, too, especially married women in their early thirties. Those hormones start acting up and there’s nothing they can do about it.”
“Oh, so I’m not exciting?”
Johnny stares at me as he puffs on his cigar. “How long have you been with Peg?”
I’m kind of glad he didn’t answer that last question of mine. “Fifteen years.”
“Just with her, right?”
“Never strayed the whole time?”
“Never had anyone before her?”
“Wouldn’t lie to me?”
“No,” I say firmly. Johnny’s a hotshot litigator in Manhattan, and it feels like he’s doing to me what he’d do to a hostile witness. Boxing me in with questions he already knows the answers to.
“And she hasn’t strayed, either? You’re sure of that?”
He shakes his head like he can’t believe it. Like it’s wonderful and pathetic at the same time. “A marriage can’t stay exciting for fifteen years if it’s straight sex with you and her all the time. It’s just not possible.” He finally takes his eyes off the blondes and glances at me with one eyebrow raised. “Unless you two are doing things you haven’t told me about. Because playing around with the other person’s permission isn’t cheating.”
This isn’t the first time Johnny’s alluded to Peg and me doing things we wouldn’t do, and it makes me uncomfortable, even more than being in this strip club. I mean, Peg and I talk a lot of shit when we’re in bed, but we’d never actually do any of it. The crazy fantasies we both come up with are just mattress talk. It isn’t like we make love all that much anymore, anyway. Our boys usually have us so exhausted by the end of the day we just want to stare at the TV when we’re finally able to crash-land on the bed.
“Are you saying I shouldn’t trust my wife?”
Johnny taps a perfectly cylindrical inch-long ash off the end of his cigar. “I’m saying any time you aren’t with her she could be with someone else.” A pretty brunette wearing nothing but a tiny red teddy and red heels starts toward our table, but Johnny waves her off. “Of course, Peg’s not really beautiful, so you don’t have to worry that much.”
It’s the first thing he’s said today that crawls all the way under my skin, and I have to bite my tongue to keep from firing back. I have to remind myself that he’s paid for everything and it’s one of the best times I’ve had in years, even if we did leave with four minutes to go and the game on the line. And I can’t get too amped up about what he said because he’s right. Peg isn’t really beautiful. She’s pretty in a plain sort of way. I think she’s sexy, but she’s not the type of woman who short-circuits conversations and spins heads when she walks into a place. She could lose a few pounds and add a little makeup to the canvas. She still wouldn’t be a stunner, but that would spice up the package a little and take it to another level. Thing is, she’s not that interested in sex anymore. So, from her perspective, what’s the point?
“Do you trust your wife?” I ask Johnny.
Rachel Outlaw is absolutely gorgeous. There’s really no other way to describe her. Raven-haired and slim, with long legs, perfect breasts and a face I know other women would kill for because Peg’s told me so. It wouldn’t surprise me if Johnny found her in a strip club—maybe the one we’re sitting in right now. She wears skimpy clothes and makeup just to go to the grocery store for God’s sake. Her outfit at the neighborhood Labor Day party had all the guys going gaga. You could have cut glass with her nipples, they were so hard beneath the tiny white top she was wearing. A top that had only slightly more material to it than her white shorts, which didn’t even make it to the bottom of her buttocks. And she had on these wild white high heels.
That outfit made a hell of an impression. At least I didn’t snap a picture of her on my cell phone like a lot of guys at the party did when their wives weren’t looking. Johnny had to have noticed what was going on, but I guess he didn’t care. I didn’t see him say anything to anyone.
“No, I don’t trust her,” he answers.
It’s amazing how candid Johnny can be. “That sucks.”
“Well, it’s really the guys around her I don’t trust. I know most of them would do almost anything to bang her just once.”
The image of her in that outfit at the Labor Day party swings through my mind again. He’s right: A lot of guys in the neighborhood would do almost anything to have her once. And they might do even more to have her for good. Scary but true.
“You saw her at the Labor Day party.”
It’s like he’s reading my mind again. “Yeah, I sure did,” I admit softly. Sometimes I really think he can see what I’m thinking. I never believed in that stuff before I met him, but I’m starting to now.
“I could make her dress more conservatively,” Johnny says. “But then she’d be more likely to cheat.”
“Yeah, well, I’d keep her covered up.”
“Of course you would, but it wouldn’t do any good. Hell, she could have any guy in our neighborhood she wants.” He snickers. “But why would she waste her time?”
It doesn’t even dawn on him that he just dissed me pretty thoroughly with his blanket statement, but I don’t care. Again, he’s right. Why would Rachel waste her time with any of the guys in our blue-collar neighborhood, including me? And who cares if she would or she wouldn’t? I’ve got what I want.
“What I worry about,” Johnny continues, “is her walking into some bar in Manhattan where the Wall Street guys hang out. Because she could have any guy she wanted in those places, too.”
At least for a night she could, I think to myself as the two blondes stand up. The black guys are waving fives at them and hollering, but it’s not doing any good. It must be the girls’ turn on the main stage.
“You think Rachel’s cheating on you today?” I ask boldly.
“No. I’d get a call if she was.”
“I have her followed all the time.”
I can’t believe it. “Seriously?”
“Whenever she’s not at the house one of my guys is on her ass.”
Johnny must be making some serious coin if he can afford to have someone follow his wife all the time—if he really does. Sometimes I think he stretches the truth. Although, every time I’ve thought that, I’ve been wrong.
“Having her followed doesn’t mean she won’t cheat,” I point out as the waitress puts our drinks down and then hurries to the table of black guys who are waving at her. “It just means you’ll know about it.”
“She knows she’s being followed, Buck. I told her. Besides, I’ve got her wrapped up.”
I take the first swallow of Grey Goose and Red Bull I’ve ever had. It’s surprisingly good, and I feel the energy part of it kick in right away. “What do you mean you’ve got her ‘wrapped up’?”
“She didn’t have a nickel to her name when we hooked up, so I made her sign a prenup. If she cheats on me, she gets nothing, not even her clothes. She’ll be out on her beautiful bare ass as soon as I get the word.”
“Wow,” I mutter quietly as the two blondes take the stage in the middle of the place and start hugging the poles like they’re expecting an earthquake. “Is that . . . well, do you think that’s healthy?”
“It works for me, Buck, and that’s all that matters. Besides, Rachel’s got it good. She doesn’t have to work and she gets to shop all the time. She’s a happy woman.”
I wonder. Most women aren’t that superficial. Most women need a lot more from their husbands or boyfriends than credit cards and time to use them. I don’t know Rachel that well, but she seems like a sweet girl with a good heart. She doesn’t seem like a user.
“How did you two meet?” I’ve asked Johnny that a couple of times since I met him, but he never answers.
Johnny watches the blondes undulate onstage for a few moments. “You know, Buck, I don’t like that guy who lives between us.”
Here we go again.
“I don’t like him at all.” His expression turns serious—then angry—as he taps another ash from his cigar. This time it misses the tray and falls to the floor, but he doesn’t notice. He’s still staring at the blondes, who’ve already stripped down to just their six-inch heels. “What’s his name?”
I’ve never met anyone who ignores questions like Johnny does. “Salim Abboud.”
“Yeah, that’s it. Salim Abboud. Jesus Christ, how many other camel jockeys live with that guy anyway? It’s like he’s got his whole tribe in that cave of a house with him, and he’s the warlord. And his place really looks like shit lately.”
The situation’s annoying, I’ll admit. People come and go at all hours of the day and night. The cars parked in front of Salim’s house or in his yard are in terrible shape. And his kids never put away their toys. It looks like a junkyard over there.
But Salim’s a good guy. He helps me with my computer when I have a problem, and he’s constantly giving Brendan and Lance new video games. He’s some kind of Web consultant and he works from home. We don’t talk that often, but every time we do he seems like a really nice guy.
“That’s just how some people are,” I say, checking out the blondes. They’re grinding on each other and hamming it way up now that they’re naked. A couple of the black guys have gone to the stage to get a close-up look, and to let everyone know where the girls are going after their turn onstage is over. “Salim takes care of a lot of people. He’s got a lot of responsibilities. He’s just trying to keep his head above water.” I can relate. I’m just trying to do the same thing. Maybe that’s why I’m not as upset about his trashy lawn as Johnny is. “That’s all.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t like him. One way or the other I want to get him out of the neighborhood. Are you with me on that, Buck?”
I shake my head as the blondes finish up to the end of the song and the crowd roars. “I don’t know, Johnny. Salim isn’t bothering anyone.”
“He’s bothering me, Buck.”
“The Giants are playing the Packers at home on Monday night next week,” he interrupts. “Want to go?”
I look over at him as the music and the cheers for the blondes fade, wondering if going to the game and falling into line with his view on prying Salim out of the neighborhood are directly linked. “Of course I do.”
“Good. I’ll get us a limo so we can drink all we want. We’ll come here before and after the game. I’ll put it on my law firm and write it off. You can be a client for the first time in your life. Can you get off work early on Monday? Can you be home by five o’clock?”
I’m usually home by four-thirty every day, but it’s the one thing Johnny never seems to remember. It’s like he’s got a mental block about it, because he seems to remember everything else with that steel-trap mind of his. It’s like he doesn’t want to think about me being a carpenter because being a carpenter is a blue-collar job and he’s a white-collar guy. Or maybe it just doesn’t occur to him that anyone could get home that early from work. Sometimes he doesn’t make it home until eight or nine at night, sometimes even later.
I nod. “Sure I can.”
The next thing I know the blondes have painted their tiny outfits back on their smoking-hot bodies and they’re sitting down at our table—and the black guys are looking at us like they want to start a war. That must have been what Johnny whispered to the waitress after he ordered our drinks. Having the girls come to our table when they were done onstage.
Right away Johnny tosses two twenties at one of the girls and points at me. She doesn’t waste a second. She pulls off her skimpy top, straddles me and pushes her soft, warm breasts into my face. Just like that, the rest of the world disappears.
Other than Johnny’s wife, I’ve never seen a woman this beautiful up close. On TV and in magazines, of course, but not live and in person an inch away from me like she is. I feel the warmth between her legs; her long fingernails running through my hair; the tip of her nose barely grazing the sensitive skin of my neck. I smell her perfume mixing with the natural scent of her body and the smoke from Johnny’s cigar. And suddenly this place doesn’t bother me anymore. All it took was a little Grey Goose and Red Bull. I never would have known that if it hadn’t been for Johnny Outlaw.
When she’s finished she crawls off me, but she doesn’t go far. She pulls her legs up and leans against me on the bench seat like suddenly I’m her boyfriend, then looks up innocently at the waitress who wants us to think she just happened to appear at our table at that moment. But it’s all so perfectly choreographed. The girl orders a Grey Goose and Red Bull, too, and of course it’s on us, but I don’t care. I would have ordered her a BMW if I could have.
“What’s your name?” I ask her.
I actually laugh out loud when she says it. “And your sister’s name is Felony, right?”
She laughs right back without missing a beat. “How’d you guess?”
“What’s your real name?”
She puts her hand on my thigh and squeezes. “What difference does it make?”
“It doesn’t. I just want to know.” I spot one of the black guys coming toward us and I kick Johnny under the table. The guy’s huge.
Johnny turns just as the guy taps him hard on the shoulder.
“Hey, motherfucker,” he says in a deep voice, “what’s your problem?”
Johnny looks up from his lap dance. “Motherfucker?” he says with this hurt look, guiding the girl gently toward the inside of the booth as he points at himself. Then he gives the guy his smoothest I-could-buy-and-fucking-sell-you-in-a-heartbeat-if-I-wanted-to smile. “That’s kind of rude.”
“Fuck you. Look, these are our girls. Finish your dance and send them back over to us. You got it?”
Johnny shrugs and gives the guy a smirk. It’s the same smirk he’s giving the world in his picture on his law firm’s Web site. “Why don’t you ask her where she wants to hang?” he says, gesturing at the girl.
She looks down right away. So does the one sitting beside me. It’s clear they want to stay with us because Johnny’s handing out twenties and the black dudes were dealing fives. But we might leave soon, or run out of cash. They don’t want to burn any bridges, because in the end it’s all about money in this place. In the end it has nothing to do with how handsome or nice Johnny and I are. These girls would hang out at a table of lizards if there were Benjamins involved.
The black guy sees her reaction and goes ballistic. “Fucking stripper bitch!” he yells over the music.
The girl’s head snaps up. “Fuck off!” she shouts.
He reaches for Johnny, but, like apparitions, three bouncers appear out of nowhere, railroad the guy straight to the exit and throw him out.
The other four guys don’t so much as look at us the rest of the time we’re here.
It’s eight-thirty when we finally head for Johnny’s car. We were in the club for almost four hours, and I can’t believe how much money he dropped. The two blondes stayed with us the entire time, except when they had to go onstage, and Johnny picked up the tab for everything. He told me as we were getting up from the table that they were coming with us Monday night. That they were going to ride around with us in the limo, go to the game, and hang out with us afterward.
If I thought he was serious, I wouldn’t go. I couldn’t do that to Peg. But it has to be just talk this time. I get that he and Rachel may have a not-so-traditional marriage, but I don’t think Johnny would push things that far. Down deep I think he loves Rachel, and he wouldn’t do that to her.
My head’s spinning as we walk along the darkened street. I lost track of how many drinks I had tonight, but I know it was a lot. I pull out my cell phone and shudder. Three missed calls, all from Peg. She’s going to be so pissed off when I get home. I hadn’t tried her once since Johnny and I left for the game this morning, which was before she and the boys got home from church.
Then I remember that she wanted to go out tonight. That completely slipped my mind. There’s no chance she’ll let me go to the Monday-night game now. I’ll be in the doghouse for weeks, with no chance of parole.
“The girl got pissed when that guy called her a bitch,” I mutter, remembering her instant reaction to the word as soon as she heard him say it. “Really pissed.”
Johnny shakes his head. “It wasn’t that he called her a bitch. I’m sure she didn’t like it, but that wasn’t what really bothered her.”
“What do you mean?” I peer into the darkness ahead of us. I thought I saw something. “She went nuts.”
“It was that he called her a stripper.”
“Huh?” That makes no sense. “She knows she’s a stripper.”
“Ask any girl in that place what she does for a living,” he says, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. “She won’t say she strips. She’ll say she dances.”
Someone’s lurking near Johnny’s BMW. I see a silhouette—barely—but I see it. “Nobody calls it a dance club,” I argue. “Hell, the girl I was with even called the place a strip club while we were talking.”
“But I bet she never called herself a stripper.”
I try to remember, but it’s tough with all the vodka swirling through my brain at light speed thanks to the Red Bull. “You know, maybe she didn’t.” In fact, I do remember the girl calling herself a dancer a couple of times, now that he’s said something—but never a stripper. “I guess you’re right.”
Johnny laughs sarcastically. “It’s the stripper phenomenon. They actually think we care if they move other than to take their clothes off. They convince themselves that dancing’s an important part of the show, which is so pathetic. But it makes them feel better. It makes them feel like they aren’t really one step from the whorehouse like they really are.” He laughs harshly again. “It’s just another beautiful example of human beings completely deluding themselves. They do it every day so many times.”
It occurs to me that he isn’t including himself in that delusion pool, but I can’t think about it for long because I see the guy who was near Johnny’s car. He’s moving through the shadows toward us. “Johnny, there’s a guy—”
“I see him,” he says calmly.
The guy steps into the glow of an overhead streetlamp and stops a few feet in front of us. I recognize him right away. He’s the black guy who was pissed at us about the girls and got kicked out of the club for it. He’s even bigger than I remember. He towers over me, and I’m not a small man. I can see him smiling at us like he’s a big male lion and we’re lame gazelles. Then I see the knife.
“Oh shit,” I mutter, taking a step back. The blade’s at least six inches long and it’s flashing in the light coming from above.
“You guys were pretty cocky back in the club,” he snaps, “but not now, huh?”
My eyes dart back and forth between Johnny and the guy. My pulse is going ballistic and sweat’s starting to ooze from every pore of my body. But Johnny shows no emotion whatsoever. He’s cold as ice, like I was supposed to be while that deer was charging me in the woods when I was fifteen.
“We don’t want any trouble, mister,” Johnny says smoothly.
“We sure don’t,” I chip in.
“Yeah, well, you bought yourselves a truckload of it when you stole those girls away from me and my boys. I’m gonna cut you cock-blocking motherfuckers real good.”
“You want money?” Johnny asks. “Is that it?”
“I’ll take whatever I want after I’m done with you.” His voice goes high as he waves the huge knife slowly back and forth in front of us. “You’ll both be lying here on the sidewalk in your own blood, and I’ll take my time going through your pockets while you moan like little pussies. This is my town.”
“I’ve got cash,” Johnny offers.
“I don’t care what you’ve got.” He spits, and it lands on Johnny’s coat. Then he moves behind me quick as a cat and wraps one massive arm around my neck so my windpipe is compressed. “Hey, motherfucker,” he whispers in my ear. “How you feel now?”
I lift my chin as high as I can when the sharp point of the blade digs into the skin just below my earlobe. I can smell alcohol on his breath as I feel something warm dripping down the side of my neck. It’s blood, my blood.
“Shut up!” the guy hisses, tightening his grip on me so I can barely breathe.
“Cash,” Johnny says calmly, reaching into his overcoat, “that’s what you want. That’s what all you little black boys want.”
What the fuck did Johnny just say? I ask myself.
“What the fuck did you just say?” the guy asks loudly.
“I said eat this, motherfucker.”
Johnny doesn’t whip out a wallet or a money clip. He whips out a pistol, aims it at the guy’s head and fires. Smooth as silk, like he’s Wyatt Fucking Earp and this is a dusty street in Tombstone.
The bullet nails the guy square in the middle of the forehead and drops him like a sack of coffee beans. He lands on his back and for several seconds he stares up at me with a terrified expression, gasping words I can’t understand as blood pumps from the wound and tremors surge through his body.
I stare down at him in horror. He must know he has just a few seconds left to live and it must be the loneliest feeling ever. Then his body goes still, and though his eyes are wide open, I know he isn’t seeing anything anymore.
I fall to my hands and knees on the sidewalk next to him and stare at the blood that’s still pouring from the hole in his head.
Johnny kicks the knife away, then quickly kneels down and grabs his wrist. “He’s dead.”
I can’t lift my gaze from that horrible expression on the guy’s face.
“Hey!” somebody yells from down the street, from in front of the strip club entrance. “What’s going on up there?”
“Let’s go,” Johnny orders.
“We can’t leave. We’ve got to tell the cops what happened.”
“Are you out of your fucking mind, Buck?” Johnny’s eyes are flashing brightly in the dim rays of the streetlight. “We’re getting out of here and we’re getting out now!”
My heart’s racing and I’m breathing hard. Johnny’s talking crazy, he’s not thinking straight. “That guy was going to kill me. It was a justifiable homicide. The cops won’t even arrest you.”
“The cops will definitely arrest me,” he hisses. “This is Newark Fucking New Jersey, you idiot. It’s a black town and I’m a white man. Now, come on!”
We race to the car, and that big Beamer engine gets us out of danger fast. Johnny doesn’t turn the lights on for two blocks so there’s no way anyone could have seen his license plates.
I don’t take a normal breath all the way home. It’s a hell of a thing to watch a man die in front of you like that.
It’s a hell of a thing to know the cops are after you for murder.
It’s been three days and I haven’t heard anything from Johnny.
I haven’t heard anything about the killing, either, and I’ve been checking everywhere for news of it—Internet, TV, radio, newspapers. There haven’t been any calls from cops and there haven’t been any official-looking cars parked in front of his house—or mine—so I’m starting to relax. I’m starting to talk myself down off the ledge. It looks like Johnny’s going to get away with murder.
I know how this sounds, but I’m okay with that. I’m sorry the guy’s dead, especially sorry for his wife and family if he had one. But better him than me. He was going to carve me up like a Thanksgiving turkey over where two strippers were sitting, for Christ’s sake. If there was ever a justifiable homicide, that was it. Maybe the bastard had a record that went on as long as a bad movie and the cops are happy he’s dead. Maybe they aren’t even trying to find his killer.
Johnny saved my life, I have to accept that. If he hadn’t shot the guy, I’d probably be dead. Of course, if it wasn’t for Johnny I wouldn’t have been standing there with a knife at my throat, either. He put us in that life-or-death situation, not me.
I’m in front of my bathroom sink with a towel wrapped around my waist, standing at a right angle to the mirror. I’m doing that “before and after” routine every guy my age does who eats two helpings of dinner a night but never bothers to break out running shoes. I’m trying to convince myself during one of the “after” poses that if I started working out again and reined in my appetite a bit I’d look pretty good.
The bulge around my waist is barely noticeable, but without an exercise routine landing in my life sooner rather than later I’m going to end up being one of those guys I swore I’d never be, one of those guys who wears sweatsuits a lot. It’s just that I love dinner so much. I mean, I look forward to it from the moment I leave the house in the morning. Even as I’m eating lunch at the job site I’m looking forward to it. Dinner’s the highlight of my day, and maybe Peg is no beauty queen, but she sure can cook. Everyone in the neighborhood agrees on that. Her seven-layer lasagna is to die for. We don’t have much sex anymore, but she always makes sure I have a great dinner.
I turn to face the mirror. I’m six-feet-two-inches tall and weigh two hundred pounds—a number that’s only gone up a few digits since my senior year of high school. I have dark hair like Johnny’s, dark blue eyes versus his light blue ones, full lips, a roman nose and a scar over my right eye from a fight I was in a long time ago. I’ve got big arms and a broad chest and people thought I should have been a good athlete in high school because of my build, but I wasn’t into sports. I’m a big sports fan now, but I never had any interest in playing anything back then. I was into cars.
In fact, I always wanted to open a garage in the old neighborhood. That was my dream from the time I was in tenth grade, which was when I got my license. I could make any engine sing, and my friends in high school were constantly pestering me to work on their cars. I loved doing it, and I figured why not make a living doing what I loved.
The problem was Peg didn’t want to be married to a grease monkey. She said it was beneath her, beneath us. She was the one who guided me into carpentry. She told me I could own a contracting company someday if I dedicated myself to the profession, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Sometimes I really regret not opening that garage. Some days it’s all I can do to swing that hammer because every nail seems the same. But every engine’s different. I never would have gotten tired of working on cars.
Peg shuffles into the bathroom. She’s wearing her frumpy pink robe and matching bunny slippers that are frayed and worn. She hikes the robe up, pushes her panties to her knees and sits down on the toilet. There’s no little private room off to the side just for the toilet in our bathroom, but after fifteen years, we’re comfortable with each other. It doesn’t bother me that she goes right in front of me.
Peg has shoulder-length dirty blond hair, hazel eyes and a wide face. She’s not heavy, just big-boned, and she has huge breasts. She always has, ever since I first met her in eleventh grade. They’re all natural and they’re even bigger than Rachel’s surgically enhanced ones, which are firm and round and perfect— which they’d better be for what Johnny told me he paid. Peg’s sag, so she has to wear these massive bras that look like a pair of matching pup tents and have lots of metal in the cups. Of course, she’s had two kids. Rachel and Johnny haven’t taken that plunge yet, and I doubt they ever will. For some reason, I can’t imagine him being a father—or her being a mother. If they ever do have kids, I bet he’ll make sure there’s a nanny for each one.
“Hi, Buck,” Peg says, smiling up at me.
That’s strange. I know I didn’t mention my new nickname when I got home the other night. I just went straight to the fridge and grabbed a beer. I wanted to flood my system with alcohol because I was sure the cops were about to show up at my front door, and that I’d be led away in handcuffs to the nearest precinct. Peg never said a word about how late I was or got on me because I hadn’t called. In fact, she couldn’t have been nicer about the whole thing.
“Where’s that coming from?” I ask as I move to the sink and turn on the hot water. I haven’t shaved in a week, and my boss mentioned something about it yesterday. My company tries to portray a clean-cut image, but I hate to shave. I always nick myself in the same spots—at the corners of my mouth and the left side of my neck near this mole I have, and it seems like it takes hours for me to stop bleeding. “Buck, I mean.”
“Johnny called after he dropped you off the other night,” she explains. “He told me about it.”
That’s right. She was talking to someone on the phone when I came in the house, but I didn’t bother asking her who it was. I just wanted that beer so badly.
“He apologized for you being late. He said it was his fault. He’s so nice.”
She might not think he was so nice if she knew why we were late. I just hope she doesn’t ask.
“He told me the story about you shooting that deer when you were fifteen,” she goes on, spinning the toilet paper roll hard.
“The one with that weird nine-point rack and how it charged you. God, I can’t believe you were so cool like that.”
She spins out way more paper than she needs, and it piles up in a mess on the tiles beside her slipper. I get on her about that all the time. At least once a week the toilet clogs up because she uses too much, and I’m the one who has to fix it.
“Why didn’t you ever tell me about that?”
I smile at myself in the mirror as I spread shaving cream on my cheeks and under my nose. Johnny was right: Peg loves my new name, I can tell. She swallowed the story hook, line and sinker, and I can’t believe it. The guy’s incredible. If it had been anyone else, Peg wouldn’t have gone for it. But Johnny seems to have this way of convincing anyone of anything. I guess that’s why he’s a trial lawyer. Juries buy him, too.
“I don’t know,” I finally answer, still thinking about Johnny’s powers of persuasion. “I guess I just never got around to it.”
“Mind if I call you that from now on?” She pads herself gently, then stands up, flushes and comes over to me. “It’s sexy,” she says in a soft voice, running her hands across my chest. “I like it.”
“I don’t mind.”
She passes a finger gently over the thin red scab on my neck. It’s the spot where the black guy cut me right before Johnny drilled a perfect round hole in the middle of his head. But she doesn’t ask me how I got it.
“I’m horny, Buck,” she whispers. “Really horny.”
I look down at her, shocked. She hasn’t said that to me since before our younger son was born.
Then she does something even more amazing: She pulls the robe off her shoulders and lets it fall to her ankles. And I don’t see the extra pounds she’s put on over the years. All I see is that girl I made love to in the back of my dad’s station wagon. That eleventh-grader who caught my eye in the hall on the way to English class the autumn I turned seventeen.
I’m still holding the can of shaving cream as she drops to her knees and pulls the towel from around my waist. She runs her hands up my thighs, and the touch sends shockwaves up my spine. And then it’s her tongue and her lips creating the shockwaves.
I guess it’s terrible of me, but as Peg starts taking me deeper and deeper into her mouth, I close my eyes and think about Rachel and that tiny white outfit she was wearing at the Labor Day party. I think about how her beautiful ass was hanging out of those shorts, and how hard her nipples were beneath the top. And that makes me grab Peg’s head and thrust deeper.
It’s over quickly, but it gets ruined at the last moment. As I lose control, I happen to glance out the bathroom window that overlooks Salim’s cluttered front yard and Johnny’s meticulously groomed one just beyond that.
There’s a police cruiser parked in Johnny’s driveway.
Copyright ©2012 Nathan Dodge
Nathan Dodge is the pseudonym of a New York Times best-selling thriller writer.
Nathan Dodge is the pseudonym of a New York Times best-selling thriller writer.