The weapon was a Beretta, .22 caliber. Paul was disappointed to see that it was smaller than he remembered. Compared with the .45 that Marcus was packing, the Beretta seemed like a toy. But it was better than nothing. Quickly Paul jammed the gun into the waistband beneath his jacket and stood up.
Marcus rose at the same time. “What the hell are you doing?” he demanded.
Paul offered a sheepish grin. “Dropped my keys.” His hands were shaking so badly that he really did drop them, an unintentional yet convincing performance.
“Jesus Christ, what an asshole,” Marcus huffed. “Let’s go.”
Paul fumbled again getting the key in the lock, but at last got the front door open. The three of them paused in the vast entryway, unlikely refugees in a shared ordeal. For a moment, Paul saw his home through their eyes—the marble floors, the crystal chandelier that sparkled like a galaxy overhead—and realized the impression that this luxury would make was probably not a good one.
Just ahead was a curved stairway leading to the second floor. To the left, a carpeted hallway led to the living room. An eerie silence seemed to pervade the house, a hush that was broken as Minnie dropped the duffel bag on the floor with a sigh of relief. Paul was so tightly wound that he nearly jumped out of his skin.
Marcus didn’t flinch. He turned a suspicious glare on Paul and said, “Don’t you have an alarm system or something? All these big houses have them.”
“Christine must have forgotten to turn it on when she went to bed. See for yourself.” Paul showed them the panel mounted to the wall beside the door. Clearly visible on the panel’s display were the words SYSTEM OFF.
Marcus appeared to sense that something wasn’t right, but he looked exhausted and seemed overwhelmed by the size of the house. “Your wife is the only one home?” His burning eyes searched Paul’s face. “Because if you’re lying to me and there’s someone else here—”
“Just my wife, I swear to God!” Involuntarily Paul crossed an X over his heart with one finger, a gesture he probably hadn’t made since he was a kid in grammar school.
“Okay, Paul. This is what we’re going to do—” Without warning, the big man emitted an agonized groan and crumpled into a heap on the entryway floor.
“Marcus!” Minnie fell to her knees beside him.
Paul stared down at them, fingers twitching. He was physically—if not mentally—ready to go for the .22.
Minnie peered up at him through the tangled curtain of her long brown hair. “We’ve got to call an ambulance. He’s going to die!”
Paul did not think they were going to be so lucky, but reached into his pocket for his cell phone.
“Hold it!” Marcus gasped. Even when in pain he sounded menacing and Paul froze. “You’re not calling anybody.”
“Baby, please listen to me—” Minnie pleaded, her ringed fingers clutching his arm.
Marcus struggled to regain his feet while Minnie put his arm across her shoulders for support. “Help me, Paul!” she cried, her husky voice cracking with effort.
As Paul approached the struggling couple, Marcus scowled. “Listen, asshole. Have you ever heard that saying, ‘You’ll take my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hand?’”
“I know you been thinking about it.” Marcus glared at him, as if daring Paul to deny it. “I’m sick and you think that maybe you can take me. Maybe you got a chance. But know this.” He spat upon the marble floor. “You will die before I do. That’s a promise.”
Paul raised his hands in surrender. “I understand, okay? It’s…I’m cool.”
Satisfied, Marcus stuck the Ruger into his waistband and held out his arm for Paul to assist him. As he struggled under the big man’s weight, Paul was aware of how truly strong Marcus was—illness notwithstanding. Feeling the enormous muscles bunched beneath the clammy shirt, he wondered if the little Beretta would be enough to put the man down. Paul had to move carefully, hoping that Marcus would not feel or somehow sense the pistol nestled at the small of his back.
They made their way into the living room. Paul winced as the big man’s rain-soaked work boots scuffed along the plush Oriental rug that was the room’s centerpiece. All of the furniture was new and had been upholstered in the finest fabric. Paul attempted to maneuver his unwanted guests past the delicate Queen Anne chairs and the Chesterfield sofa, hoping instead to install Marcus in the guest bedroom, where the furniture wasn’t so extravagant.
But Marcus would have none of it. “What do you think you’re doing? Get me to the couch over there.”
“There’s a bedroom at the end of that hallway,” Paul said. “You’ll be much more comfortable in there.”
“I’ll be comfortable right here.” Marcus shook off the arms supporting him and made for the Chesterfield.
“Let me just put an afghan down first. You’ll be able to rest better if—”
“Shut up!” Marcus yelled. “You could care less about me, you’re just worried about your fucking furniture.”
Paul watched helplessly as the big man collapsed onto the sofa. Minnie hurried to get him settled. She placed a little embroidered pillow beneath his dirty hair and helped him get his feet propped comfortably at the other end. The mud-spattered work boots left ugly smears across the delicate fabric. Paul frowned. He knew that asking Marcus to take them off would be a mistake, probably the last mistake he would ever make. The entire sofa would have to be fumigated anyway.
“It’s cold in here, like there’s a window open or something.” Minnie said, shivering. “Paul, if you have an afghan, maybe we could use that to cover him.”
“Fuck the afghan! Get me some medicine.” Marcus gave another deep, belch-like groan.
His voice held a note of pleading now, which gave Paul a certain savage satisfaction. “Get me some Alka-Seltzer, Pepto Bismol, anything!”
“I don’t know if you should mix—” Paul stopped. What did he care if Marcus OD’d on a bad combination of over the counter drugs? “I’m sure I have something in the bathroom upstairs. I’ll go and check.”
“Minnie, go with him.” Marcus took the Ruger out of his waistband and waved it weakly in Paul’s direction. “If you’re not back in two minutes, I’ll come looking for you.”
Paul hurried down the hall, then through the entryway to the stairs. Minnie was directly behind him. On the second floor, they arrived at another long hallway with a series of doors that opened into rooms on either side. Decorative accent tables stood like sentinels along each wall. Each table had been topped with an extravagant flower arrangement and a gilt-edged mirror. The multiple reflections seemed to add another mysterious dimension to the second floor. The hallway ended at a pair of double doors.
The doors were tightly closed and drew Minnie’s attention like a magnet. “What’s that room, Paul?”
“The master bedroom. We’re not going in there.”
“Is your wife in there? Is she sleeping?”
Minnie seemed doubtful. “How can she sleep through all of this?”
“She wears ear plugs.”
Paul headed for the second room on the left, which turned out to be a bathroom. The color scheme was a nautical combination of blue and white. On the wall above the sink was a medicine cabinet.
“What a beautiful room!” Minnie gushed. Then, “Why does your wife wear ear plugs?”
“Hmmm?” Paul was preoccupied with a search of the available medications. Most of the serious prescriptions were kept in the master bathroom, and he was not about to lead Minnie in there. Still, there was a bottle of Xanax and a few expired Zoloft tablets. He was debating the wisdom of attempting to dose Marcus with Xanax when he became aware of the girl peering over his shoulder.
“I said, why does your wife wear ear plugs?”
“Because I snore,” he muttered, continuing his inventory.
Pepto Bismol. Alka Seltzer. A large bottle of Mylanta. Also Tylenol, Thera Flu, a can of Desenex. A bottle of cough medicine that was probably ten years old, a long drip of fluid congealed on one side. Three different kinds of cold tablets. Hand lotion. Advil. Contact lens solution. “There’s a lot of stuff in here," he said. "Do you have any idea what’s wrong with your boyfriend?”
“I don’t know. Just help him!”
The girl had left Paul’s raincoat downstairs and he noticed that her little flowered dress was almost dry. The cheap fabric still clung to her curves in a very tempting fashion. Trying to stay focused, he began grabbing medicines at random and putting them into a decorative basket meant for used washcloths. When the basket was full, they headed downstairs.
Marcus lay sprawled on the sofa, almost as they had left him. One leg was now propped against the floor, as if he had started to get up but changed his mind. He held the .45 cradled on his chest like a sleeping infant.
“Marcus?” Minnie whispered. “Are you awake?”
“Where the hell have you been,” he growled. “I’m dying down here.”
“Don’t worry.” Minnie knelt beside him. “We brought lots of good stuff to make you feel better.”
She reached out to stroke his forehead, but he brushed her away and tried to sit up. “Stop pawing at me and give me the drugs.”
“Sure.” Paul held out the basket like a bizarre offering of party favors.
Marcus leaned forward so abruptly that it looked like he was going to upchuck right into the basket. Another stomach cramp. Paul watched as the big man went with the pain, like a good boxer absorbing a blow by a canny opponent. When the agony had passed, Marcus emitted another sour belch and began fumbling through the bottles and boxes.
“What’s this…Tylenol. Are you kidding me?” He snatched up the red-and-white bottle and hurled it across the room. “What else you got. Mylanta. Is that like Rolaids?” When Paul nodded he said, “Then why the fuck don’t you just have Rolaids?” Marcus shook out a handful of the colorful, chalky tablets. Tossing them into his mouth, he began to chew.
Minnie looked alarmed. “Baby, you should check the dosage first!”
“Shuh uh,” Marcus grunted, the words muffled as a powdery residue filled his mouth. “Eh e ome waher.”
“What?” Paul said.
“He needs water,” Minnie said. “Where’s your kitchen?”
“It’s too hard to explain where everything is. I’ll go.” As Paul got up to leave, Marcus tapped the gun beside him. His mouth was full so Paul echoed the warning: “I know. If I’m not back in two minutes—”
He was back in even less time, carrying a plastic tumbler full of water. In that brief period, Marcus had indulged in self-medication. Open bottles, torn wrappers, and empty boxes were scattered everywhere. The big man downed the contents of the tumbler in one swallow, swishing the water around as if it were mouthwash.
“Feel better now, baby?” Minnie asked.
“Don’t know,” he murmured, more to himself than to her. He seemed preoccupied, as though some part of him was in silent communion with his own body, carefully evaluating the effects of everything he had just put into it. At last easing himself back down again, Marcus turned onto his side so that he lay facing the room, the Ruger clasped in one brutish fist.
“This is what you’re gonna do next,” he began, and it seemed to Paul that he was making an effort to sound more alert than he felt. “You’re gonna get me some coffee. Black. Strong. Now.”
“That’s going to take a few minutes,” Paul said.
“Then you better get started. Minnie, go with him.”
Once again Paul moved through the house with Minnie following close behind. He had left the lights on in the kitchen. Spacious and airy—even at night—the room had a bay window over the sink and a breakfast nook at the far end. The granite-topped counters seemed to stretch for miles. As he busied himself with the coffee maker, Minnie took in her surroundings.
“I would do anything to have a kitchen like this,” she gushed, her tone a mixture of admiration and envy. “Would you believe I’m a really good cook?”
“Can I have something to drink?”
Paul was measuring the coffee into the filter and didn’t want to lose count. But he heard the refrigerator open and close. Then the bubbly hiss of an opened soda can. When he turned around, Minnie was perched on one of the counter tops, sucking greedily at a can of Coke. Her dress was hiked up almost to her hips. Her long legs were swinging slowly, a childlike movement that was nevertheless flirtatious. Paul’s terror of Marcus had temporarily subdued his lust for the girl, but the sight of her now brought his desire rushing back.
As if she had read his mind, Minnie put down the soda and gave him an appraising look. Her eyes were green, the same color as her nail polish. “Tell me, Paul,” she said softly, “how long have you been married?”
The staccato bubbling of the Krups working in the background seemed to echo the pounding of Paul’s heart. The last thing he wanted to talk about was his wife. “Nine years,” he said.
“That’s a long time. No kids?”
Paul shrugged. “Christine can’t.”
Minnie favored him with an impish smile. “Maybe you just didn’t try hard enough.”
Paul’s gaze strayed to the doorway. The living room was several rooms away and could not be seen from the kitchen, but he was afraid that Marcus was going to make good on his repeated threats to check up on them.
Minnie dismissed his concern with a nod of her head. “Don’t worry. When Marcus curls up on his side like that, it means he’s down for the count. He’s asleep.”
Paul knew he was crazy for what he was about to attempt, but he was unable to stop himself. He moved in closer and the girl parted her legs slightly, as if to encourage him.
“Marcus is on parole right now,” she went on, shifting position so that her breasts were more fully exposed in the curved neckline of her dress. “I know the score. It’s only a matter of time before he’s back in jail. Or dead, maybe.”
“That’s too bad.” Paul’s hand drifted to her naked thigh as if to offer comfort. When she did not resist, his touch became a caress. And then they were kissing.
Her mouth was unexpectedly cool from the soda. But her body was warm, her breasts full and soft against his chest. Minnie let his hands roam wherever they wanted to go. She seemed equally eager to explore him. Several times he had to reposition her hands—or legs—when they got too close to the hidden gun. Paul realized with sudden disappointment that he wouldn’t be able to get his pants off without revealing that he was armed. In the next moment, he felt her back stiffen.
“I’m sorry, baby,” Minnie murmured in her husky voice as she pushed him away, “but this is a mistake…for both of us.”
Paul staggered backward with a groan of disbelief. He had been allowed to indulge a fantasy and just as unexpectedly wrenched back out of it again. For a moment he considered taking the girl anyway, pulling down those lace panties and bending her right over the countertop. But...
Was that a noise in the living room? What if Marcus wasn’t really asleep? His ardor cooled, Paul began to fear the consequences of his actions. What if the girl decided to tell her boyfriend what had happened? He cast a worried glance at Minnie. She was drinking her Coke and seemed indifferent to the entire episode.
Telling himself to remain calm, Paul began to pour the coffee. He tried to gather his thoughts. He had to make a plan and stick to it, otherwise—
“It’s about fucking time,” came a deep voice from the doorway.
Marcus stood in the entrance to the kitchen. He was pale but looked steady on his feet. The heavy Ruger protruded like a menacing appendage from one huge fist. Paul shuddered as he realized there hadn’t been a moment to spare.
“Hi baby,” Minnie said cheerfully as she hopped down from her perch. “Are you feeling better?”
Marcus ignored her and glared at Paul.
“Here’s your coffee.” Paul held the cup out, thinking that if he had to, he could throw it in the big man’s face.
“I heard something upstairs,” Marcus said.
Paul shook his head. “That’s impossible.”
“Your wife is awake.” Marcus’ lips stretched in a humorless grin. “I want to meet her.”
“Let’s leave her out of this, okay? She’s not going to do anything.” He locked stares with Marcus, a silent duel that Paul knew he was bound to lose.
“We’re all going upstairs,” Marcus said. “Right now.”