Collin Aday held his head high as he walked out of the Richard J. Daley Center in Downtown Chicago wearing a gray suit and salmon tie that he loosened as he searched the busy traffic for a cab. He dug into his pocket for a pack of cigarettes and offered one to the short, tan-skinned woman next to him wearing a black, sleeveless dress and cream-colored heels. She waved them away with one hand as she pulled a black luggage bag with the other. Collin frowned.
“I quit before trial,” Theresa said as she zipped open her bag, pulled out a pair of black sandals, and slipped her manicured feet into them. “Don’t take it personal.”
“Personal?” Collin asked with a slight chuckle while he watched her stuff her heels into the luggage bag. “I’m jealous. I won’t light one in front of you then. Need a cab? It’s the least I can do.”
“I think my attorney fees have been plenty, don’t you?” Theresa said before raising her hand to hail a blue taxi cab. “What you’ve been through is bad enough. I only did my job.”
“And for that I’m eternally grateful,” Collin replied as he opened the car door. “At least let me put some money toward your ride home.”
“You know, Collin,” Theresa said as she patted his shoulder, “maybe offering your money all the time is how we got into this mess?”
Collin nodded his head as Theresa stepped in. She was right of course. Theresa hadn’t missed a beat all trial when it came to both legal and personal matters. For the past few months she played his lawyer and his life coach, a role she claimed to play with all her clients. In her words, such is the nature of divorce. He shut the door for Theresa and she rolled down the window.
“Call me if you need anything else, but it looks like you’re all set,” Theresa said. “For what it’s worth, congratulations.”
“Thanks,” Collin said as the blue taxi drove off. He just ended a ten-year nightmare of a marriage with Ruby, a woman who wanted everything, playing the man who was happy to give her anything she asked. Cars, clothes, two apartments, exquisite dinners and vacations. He gave everything because he loved her. Collin thought she loved him until he noticed some odd expenses on his bank account. The first hotel room was no big deal. He sent Ruby and her girlfriends to Aruba for her birthday. Staying in a hotel suite was a given. The second hotel room was suspicious. She said it was for her bachelorette party. That was innocuous in itself but his gut told him otherwise.
The third hotel room tipped him off because she didn’t tell him about it. His financial adviser called him asking why he would spend money on a hotel in Chicago when he was away on business in Amsterdam. His wife used his credit card to purchase a hotel suite for the weekend. Upon further investigation, she bought room service, including food and champagne. Collin’s private eye found the rest and followed Ruby and her boy two for two weeks before reporting back. When Collin confronted her about the affair, she grew enraged. She accused him of trying to take away the life she deserved before storming out of their condo. Collin changed the locks and left her belongings outside along with divorce papers.
He couldn’t figure out where he went wrong. He showered her with gifts. He always left the office by 5 pm and took her out every weekend. He made it a point to be a good husband and father to their nine-year-old daughter, Nathalia. In return, Ruby cheated on him with five different men, including one of her broke business students. Collin paid his private eye extra to find that out and let Theresa’s investigators double-check.
Now that the divorce finalized, Collin would just have to focus on being a good father. Theresa argued for custody of Nathalia after presenting evidence of Ruby’s affairs, alcoholism, and even drug use. Ruby’s attorney tried arguing that Collin was abusive, but thankfully the judge didn’t buy it. Collin won, if you can ever call a ruined marriage a victory. Now he puffed his cigarette as a new man.
He needed to blow off some stress. Nathalia was at his mother’s for the weekend. He no longer had to worry about Ruby watching his every move. Tonight, Collin would call up some friends so they could barhop through River North. He was going to have the most fun he’s had in years. Collin pulled out his cell phone to call a buddy who owned a bar on Hubbard Street when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned and saw a green-eyed, dark-skinned woman wearing a white t-shirt and blue jeans with blue and white sneakers. Were it not for those eyes and her smile, Collin would’ve ignored her. He generally only spoke to woman who dressed the best and these were clothes Ruby would never wear in public. Still, he couldn’t turn away from her eyes.
“Hi, I’m so glad I caught you,” the woman said with a voice that sounded silky but husky at the same time. “I saw you trying to share a cab with Theresa. I’d be happy to split one with you.”
“How do you know Theresa?” Collin asked.
“Oh, excuse my manners?” the woman said as she extended her hand. “Natasha Aguilhar. Theresa and I went to DePaul together. She told me she had a big case, and when I saw your suit, I assumed you were him. Don’t worry, she didn’t share details. She wouldn’t do that.”
“I believe you and her,” Collin said as he shook her hand. “Collin.”
“Pleasure to meet you.”
“So you’re an attorney as well?” Collin asked.
“Yeah, criminal defense,” Natasha said as she raised her hand and a red cab stopped on the corner. “The best part about my job is I don’t have to dress up unless I have to go to court.”
“When do you not go to court?” Collin asked as he reached for his wallet. Natasha grabbed his wrist with a firm grip and shook her head.
“You think I’m taking money from a man who just got divorced?” Natasha asked. “I’ve got this one, honey.”
They stepped into the cab and Collin stared at Natasha’s tight stomach as she leaned back against her seat. Even through her jeans he could tell she had the kind of strong legs that came from years in the gym. Ruby had legs like those. He enjoyed her legs until he saw photos of them wrapped around someone else. Collin stared out the window for a moment until Natasha poked his shoulder.
“How close are you?” Natasha asked.
“I’m on East Division Street,” Collin said.
“Closer than me,” Natasha replied. “We’ll go to your place first.”
Collin told the driver his address and the cab driver pulled off the curb.
“I don’t think I answered your question,” Natasha said. “I’m in court three times a week. The rest of my time is spent making sure my clients don’t speak a word to the police unless I’m there. I come to their homes and consult them on what happens next.”
“You’re wondering why I wear sneakers to work?” Natasha said with a cocked eyebrow.
“Since you brought it up, yes.”
“You were wondering that before I brought it up,” Natasha said with a laugh. “Just like I was wondering why you’re still wearing a tie after trial’s over. If I were in your shoes, I’d be ripping that thing off. God, how do you men do that to yourselves every day? It’s like you’re literally choking yourselves to make money.”
“I…never thought of it that way,” Collin said as he stroked his tie. “I’ve always seen ties as a sign of power.”
“Maybe,” Natasha replied with a shrug. “You’re not alone. But I see power in making a living while doing whatever the fuck I want. I argue for my clients just like anyone else. Better than anyone else. I also go to the gym and take dance classes. I’ll be damned if work is my whole life.”
“Absolutely not,” Natasha said. “What do I need a husband for?”
“I don’t know,” Collin said.
“Me neither,” Natasha replied. “Think about it. You just got divorced. Now I don’t know the facts of your case, but I’ll bet money if Theresa wasn’t there you’d be paying out the ass in alimony and child support. She’s a damn good attorney.”
“Now listen, nothing against marriage,” Natasha said with her hands raised, “but you’ve got to wonder about someone who rushes into it when divorce is this ugly. How soon did you propose?”
“I would’ve said no,” Natasha said. “Well, I would’ve said not yet. You seem like a nice guy, but a year for a lifetime doesn’t seem like an even trade.”
“It was time,” Collin replied. “You don’t date a woman that long and not get married. It’s expected.”
“Oh?” Natasha asked. “Maybe she expected it because she wanted a man who could afford a six grand suit. I’m wrong. She didn’t want you. She wanted the income, right?”
“How would you–”
“And here’s the good part,” Natasha spoke over him. “I’ll bet money she cheated with a man who doesn’t make a dime. That’s how it works you know.”
“Yes…yes, she did.”
“Ha!” Natasha cackled. “Sorry, I’m not laughing at you. I’m laughing at marriage. It’s a bad joke unless you two really love each other. I don’t know a man I can love, so no husband.”
“The way you described it, marriage would be advantageous to you.”
“Yeah, if I was a bad person,” Natasha said with a snort. “And if I was interested in a man who views me as a child who needs to be coddled and paid for. I take care of my own shit.”
The cab arrived in front of Collin’s brick condo in the Gold Coast.
“Thanks for the ride, Natasha,” Collin said as he extended his hand. “I think I’ve learned a lot from you. Perhaps we should grab coffee and–”
“Don’t even think about it,” Natasha snapped.
“Oh, then I guess this is goodbye.”
“No, I mean don’t bother with a date,” Natasha said as she pulled out a wad of cash and handed it to the cab driver. “If we’re grabbing coffee, we can grab it here if you don’t mind.”
“Um…don’t you think it’s rude to invite yourself into someone’s home?” Collin chuckled.
“Yes,” Natasha said as she looked him in the eye. “I’ll soften the blow by offering to help you forget about your sham of a marriage for a night.”
“That’s very forward,” Collin said. He struggled to suppress a grin as Natasha stepped out of the cab and hooked her arm under his.
“Forward’s what I do,” Natasha replied.
“All right, I can make us some coffee then–”
“Let’s just start forgetting.”
Collin had barely made it through the door before Natasha grabbed him by his shirt and yanked him in for a kiss. Hours later they lay in bed and Collin stared at his ceiling as Natasha slept next to him. He stared at her bare shoulders just out of reach of his turquoise bed sheets. It had been a while since he slept with a woman with shoulders that smooth and firm. No matter how many came his way, Collin never cheated on Ruby. Now he had a chance to do whatever he pleased when it pleased him, and he smiled at that thought as he swept his legs out of bed and pulled up his boxer shorts. Natasha grabbed his arm with an even tighter grip than earlier. Were all dancers this strong?
“Where are you going?” Natasha asked.
“It’ll be easier to forget if I make you dinner,” Collin said as he patted her hand until she let go. “I’ve got a couple steaks in the fridge. I figure we eat, you stay the night, we keep going.”
“I like your plan,” Natasha replied as she rested her hands behind her head. “Do your thing.”
“Good,” Collin said with a kiss on Natasha’s forehead. “Just relax here. Remote’s yours.”
Collin strolled into his wood floor kitchen, grabbed steaks from his stainless steel fridge, and grilled them on his balcony on the third floor. He watched the bar-hoppers on the corner of Division and State congregate in their fluorescent dresses before stepping toward McFadden’s, likely to get drunk and dance together while rejecting nearly every guy who approached them. Ruby used to tell Collin stories like that. She said she would go out with her girlfriends, guys would hit on them, and she would tell them she was married. He stopped believing that the moment his private eye took photos proving otherwise. Collin sighed as he flipped one of his steaks. He jumped when he felt a pair of arms rub his shoulders.
“Careful or you’ll drop those,” Natasha said with a laugh as she patted his back.
“I didn’t hear you coming,” Collin said while turning to face her.
“I noticed,” Natasha replied. She wore one of Collin’s old Yale T-shirts, and no pants, as she leaned her forearms against the balcony. Collin’s heart rate increased just at the sight of her thighs. Amazing. He had already seen her naked, but that t-shirt alone gave him a new urge to hold her again. Collin looked her up and down as she pointed at the women on the corner before they turned down State street.
“I’ve been to McFadden’s,” Natasha said. “Overrated.”
“Never been,” Collin replied. “I prefer Paris Club.”
“Of course you do.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Collin asked.
“Must everything be expensive?” Natasha sighed.
“Nope,” Collin said. “But everything must be of high quality. I’m willing to pay for the best home, the best neighborhood, the best–”
“Wife?” Natasha asked with a cocked eyebrow. “I think you and I have different definitions of what’s best. Do you have a kid?”
“Is your kid going to live down the block from a line of bars?”
“No,” Collin said. “This isn’t my only place. I have another in Old Town on LaSalle right by the Latin School of Chicago and another in Edgewater a stone’s throw from the Waldorf School. She got accepted to both, and I’m waiting for her to decide where she’s happiest. I’ll walk her to school through the week.”
“Which do you prefer?” Natasha asked.
“I like them both, but I won’t pay for a school my daughter isn’t happy with,” Collin said. “That’s what I mean by paying for the best.”
“Did you pay for your wife’s happiness too?” Natasha quipped. “And have you considered getting a refund for yours?”
“That is none of your business,” Collin snapped.
“Oh,” Natasha said before clapping her hands. “So you do have some balls hidden in there. That’s what I like to see. You just turned me on again.”
“You’re very close to turning me off,” Collin said before turning to flip his steaks.
“All right, I’ll back off,” Natasha replied with a shrug. “Since you shared so much, you remind me of a man who thought money could buy everything. He thought it gave him the right to treat me like dirt.”
“A business associate sort of,” Natasha said. “I did real estate before this. He thought he could fuck me then help bring me clients.”
“He has no right to call himself a businessman,” Collin said as she shook his head and wagged his finger.
“You never mix sex and business. Every successful person knows that.”
“Well he didn’t,” Natasha said. “He literally shoved his crotch into the back of his head.”
“Did you call the police?” Collin asked. “He would’ve deserved it.”
“No, but he did,” Natasha said with a flicker in her eyes. “After I kicked his ass around his own office.”
“That was the last time I dressed up for work,” Natasha sighed as she craned her neck and stared at the sky. “When I realized what I wore didn’t really get me any respect. It never does. No matter how much people tell us what to wear, we’re still objects to pigs like him. Clothes mean nothing.”
“I’m sorry you experienced that,” Collin said. “Sexism has no place in business. It’s as wrong as it is counterproductive. How can you expect to make a real profit by mistreating an entire gender? It makes no sense.”
Natasha frowned and squinted her eyes at Collin.
“Can I ask how you got divorced?” Natasha asked. “I know the cheaters when I see them. You’re not one. I’ve been abused and you’re no abuser. You put your child first to the point of moving across the city. What the hell could’ve motivated this woman to play you?”
“I wish I knew,” Collin said. “Sometimes I think she saw everything you said and decided it should benefit her with no effort on her part.”
“She hooked you and used you,” Natasha said. “That’s typical.”
“Good people are always targets for narcissists and sociopaths,” Natasha said. “My father was one.”
“A target,” Natasha said. “My biological mother was the sociopath. Still is. I wish she’d die already, but I know she’s out there.”
“Was she the one who abused you?” Collin asked.
“Every day,” Natasha said as she looked out at the street. “Until my father took full custody anyway. I could never repay him.”
“Sure you can,” Collin said as he piled the steaks on a plate as their salty aroma filled the patio. “You can keep doing what you’re doing now. As a father, I can tell you I want nothing more than for my daughter to become her own woman and find her own happiness.”
“And you think I’m happy?” Natasha asked.
“I think you will be,” Collin said as he walked inside. “You’ve learned that money doesn’t buy happiness, and you didn’t need an expensive divorce to teach you.”
Natasha stared at Collin and stroked her hair. Collin couldn’t help but stare back as the shine from the street lights below reflected off her green eyes. If he didn’t know any better, Collin could’ve sworn her eyes glowed a little. He must’ve been seeing things. He closed his grill and set the steaks in a plastic container.
“I’ll toss a salad,” Collin said. “Want to eat outside?”
“Yes, please,” Natasha replied with a smile.
Collin brought a couple plates and Natasha carried the tray tables out to the balcony. They ate and watched Division Street bustle with party-goers in their twenties. Natasha giggled and pointed at a couple making out across the street. She clapped her hands when the man tugged at the woman’s skirt. Collin shook his head at how she treated their make-out session like a basketball game.
“We should party too,” Natasha said with a smile.
“You want to go down there now?”
“Nope,” Natasha said as she patted his chest. “Got music?”
Collin pulled out his iPod stereo and Natasha picked salsa music. It was the song Collin played when Ruby brought family over. She never bothered to teach him salsa, so he watched her dance with her uncles and cousins. Tonight, Natasha grabbed Collin’s left hand and held his right shoulder. When he grabbed her hip, she pulled his right hand to her back.
“You’ve never done this before,” Natasha said as she looked him in the eye. “I can tell. Your confidence just sank to the corner over there.”
“First timer,” Collin said with a weak smile.
“I’ve got you,” Natasha replied as she stepped back with her right foot. “Now you step forward…”
She taught Collin basic salsa and then replayed the song. He tried his best, but Natasha twirled and swung her hips to the drums and wind instruments with precision he had never seen before. With each spin, Collin’s shirt flowered just high enough to tease his eyes, but too low to expose herself, and he found himself watching until Natasha flicked his shoulder.
“More dancing, less watching,” Natasha said with a smile before pulling him close and kissing him. “I’m just kidding. You can watch if you want.”
When the song finished, Collin and Natasha made out against his railing as the bass from the Division street bars vibrated the patio under their feet. Natasha rubbed Collin’s arms before kissing his neck and wrapping her arms around his waist. She laughed as Collin lifted her by her feet and sat in a chair with her in his lap. The kissed again and Natasha ran her finger along his chest.
“I have to ask,” Collin said. “What you made you come my way?”
Natasha stared out into the street as the bright lights reflected off her green eyes. She sighed and smiled.
“I’m not the relationship type,” Natasha said. “But I can’t sleep with men I don’t trust. Well I can, but we don’t have dinner after. Who better to trust than a guy like you?”
“How would you–”
“I’m a woman, Collin,” Natasha said. “We know the trustworthy guys when we see them.”
“I’ve seen quite the opposite,” Collin muttered.
“No you haven’t,” Natasha snapped. “Not unless you watched a true manipulator in action and most people of either gender aren’t that good. You watched damaged women gravitate toward the abuse they know and settle for it. Some even like it because they only feel alive when there’s a conflict. There’s a lot of reasons why a jerk has a girlfriend. Just because we can spot a trustworthy guy doesn’t mean he always gets a shot.”
“So nice guys finish last?” Collin asked.
“Not with me,” Natasha said. “Not after watching what my father went through.”
“So because I’m a good guy, you decided to sleep with me?” Collin asked. “Just like that?”
“Just like that,” Natasha replied. “I don’t need money. I don’t need a boyfriend. Sometimes I just need this.”
“Well, yes,” Natasha said with a snort. “But also nice company. I don’t have much nowadays.”
Collin patted Natasha’s lap and they stood up as he watched a fight break out down the street. Two women grabbed each other’s hair and fell on the pavement as the men near them laughed and took photos with their smart phones. After a few minutes of videotaping, they tried to pull the women apart. The fighting continued until a police cruiser pulled up. Collin shook his head.
“Those fights break out every weekend,” he said as Natasha leaned into his chest and pinched his shirt.
“Grabbing hair is child’s play,” Natasha replied as she ran her fingers through Collin’s hair. “They key isn’t to yank loose. You go into your opponent and use the momentum to knock them senseless, preferably with an elbow to the jaw if you can get that close, or to take them down to the ground.”
“So that’s how you beat up that guy,” Collin chuckled.
“No,” Natasha sighed. “No, I choke slammed him, lifted him clean off his feet. He only weighed about 230 pounds, so it was easy.”
Collin flew into the house and slammed against his wall. When he fell to his knees and grimaced from his pulsating spine, he saw Natasha’s silhouette in the balcony door way stepping into the house. He couldn’t make out her face, but her eyes glowed like northern lights. This time he was sure of it. Her eyes were definitely glowing. He frowned at first, but when he blinked, she disappeared. He then gagged as he felt an arm wrap around his throat.
“Listen very carefully,” Natasha whispered into his ear. “It should be obvious by now, but I’m not who you think I am. I am very dangerous. Do you understand?”
Collin nodded his head.
“Good,” Natasha said. “My real name isn’t Natasha, so don’t bother looking. You can ask Theresa about me if you want, but you’ll find her unwilling to talk. We didn’t sleep together, but we’ve had a similar conversation to this one. Forgive her for setting you up. She wants to live long enough to get married just like you.”
Natasha released her grip and Collin fell to the floor coughing for air. After a couple minutes of struggling to breathe, Collin scrambled to think of a strategy to escape. If he could get to the front door and get the cops, he might make it. He looked up and saw Natasha kneeling over him. She was wearing the white t-shirt and blue jeans again. How did she change that fast?
“I enjoyed our time, Collin,” Natasha said as she caressed his chin with her finger and kissed him on the forehead. “But it’s imperative that we never see each other again. I hope you forgot about Ruby for a few moments. I don’t like her very much. Sleeping with you was the alternative to breaking her legs.”
“And your daughter won’t be attending Waldorf School,” Natasha said. “You’ll find that she has a free ride to the Latin School from an anonymous sponsor. That sponsor is technically Ruby, but she doesn’t know it yet. As far as she’s concerned, one of her boyfriends stole her identity and ripped her off for thousands of dollars. Well, he did, but I made him donate the money toward your daughter’s education.”
“That’ll come back to me,” Collin whispered as he massaged his throat. “It’ll look like I–”
“With no communication between the two of you, not even a meeting in person?” Natasha asked. “Not a chance. At most he’ll look like Robin Hood. Besides, she’ll never tell the cops. The guy who ripped her off was her dealer, and he stole the card after she used it to cut her lines of cocaine.”
“Why would you do this?” Collin asked.
“Because you’re a good man, Collin,” Natasha said as she rubbed his hair. “And I always take care of good men.”
“Did you have to rough me up?” Collin demanded. “That’s how you treat good men?”
“Of course,” Natasha said as she walked past him. “How else should I intimidate you into never telling anyone about our encounter? I have to protect my secrecy too.”
“Wait!” Collin said as he stood up and watched her walk down his steps and toward the door.
“Was anything you said tonight true?” Collin asked. “Any of it?”
“Oh, it was true,” Natasha replied. “Except my name. I told you I needed someone I could trust.”
Collin glared at her.
“Don’t get all attached,” Natasha snapped before lowering her head. “I told you I’m not the relationship type. We had fun and I helped your kid. That should suffice.”
“If anyone here is the manipulator, it’s you,” Collin said.
“Guilty,” Natasha replied with a shrug as she opened the door. “But I use my powers for good. No need for thanks. You and your daughter’s happiness is good enough for me.”
Natasha(for lack of a real name) walked out the door and Collin sat at the top of his steps. He cringed and rubbed his lower back where he hit the wall earlier. He weighed two hundred pounds. No woman should’ve been able to toss him ten feet. Still, he couldn’t resist the feeling that she went easy on him. Very easy.
Collin felt sorry for whoever got on her bad side. He wouldn’t wish an angry Natasha on anyone, not even Ruby. Someone that strong, smart, and cold had to be a formidable enemy. Knowing that a woman like that was walking around Chicago with the rest of society unaware of her presence made him shudder. Collin shook his head and walked back to his patio. He was going to call his private eye in the morning to ask how much he would charge for screening the next woman he met.
Achilla Johnson has arrived in Chicago and made herself at home. Why is she there and what’s the next step? Be sure to read Strike of the Mantis when it comes out June 12th. You can pre-order your copy of the e-book here for 50 percent off with the promo code DQ83W. Until next time.
Stay faithful, my friends.