John sifted listlessly through the pile of reports on his desk. Still no new leads in the Killing Club case. He’d tried to disappear into his work, but he couldn’t seem to go five minutes without thinking of Evangeline. Her face smiled up at him from an invitation to the Women of the Year benefit to be held that night at the Palace. A dull pain started to throb in his head. He remembered the day they’d met for lunch and she’d told him she was up for the award. He’d been so happy and proud, he’d volunteered to wear his monkey suit, even though he hated formal affairs. He’d actually been looking forward to seeing her all dressed up and shining in the spotlight. She deserved it. The hammering in his head got louder. She certainly deserved better than him, a disgraced, emotionally stunted FBI man hiding out in a suburban police department.
It had been a week since he’d confronted her in the park. A week since she’d slipped out of his arms and out of his life. A week since he’d come home to find she’d gone through his apartment like the Grinch who stole Valentine’s Day, leaving him only a framed photo and her scent on his bathrobe. She’d even taken the gin and olives.
Ever since she shut the door on him, he found himself racing to catch up with random tall, dark, shapely women on the street, only to watch them turn and not be her. Or he’d tear around a corner or burst into an office at the LPD when he thought he heard her voice. But it was never her. Coffee, Chinese food, high heels, flowers, laughter, all music and most colors reminded him of her. Damn, breathing reminded him of her.
Worst of all was having to deal with Natalie Vega every day. Despite his universally recognized foul mood, Natalie seemed galvanized by the news that Evangeline had broken up with him. Several times a day she’d find an excuse to bounce into his office, say something trite, then linger until he told her to leave. Just seeing her alternately hopeful and sullen face reminded him of his own stupidity and stubborn fearfulness that cost him Evangeline’s love.
As if on cue, Natalie strode into his office, manila folder in hand. “Hi John, I’ve been thinking about this Killing Club case,” she said sidling up to his desk. The minute she’d hit the door, he could smell the candy sweet perfume she got at Roxie’s beauty parlor. That and her tight pale orange T-shirt made him think of Circus Peanuts candy.
He ran his hand over his clean-shaven jaw and sighed. It even made him sad when the bruising from Evangeline’s punch faded and his split lip healed. Last week Natalie had tried to get the story of what happened to his face and the missing beard out of him, but he’d shut her down. Now he had to deal with her latest lame excuse for entering his office.
“Oh really?” he said wearily.
Ignoring his disinterest, Natalie brightened. “Yeah. I’ve been thinking that since the last victim looked so much like me and since I was probably the original target, maybe you could use me to trap the killer. You know…”
Before she could finish her half-baked thought, John leapt up and grabbed her by the shoulders.
“Have you lost your clam-digging mind?” he thundered. “You are not going to be bait for a killer. Do you understand?”
Natalie felt John’s fingers digging into the soft flesh of her upper arms. She stared into his blazing blue eyes and tried to send him a mental message: “Kiss me John. Kiss me.”
Noticing a slick smirk creeping across Natalie’s face, John took his hands off her and put them in his pockets. He stepped away from the desk and took a deep breath to stem the wave of anger and aggravation rising in his gut. He lowered his voice. “Look, Natalie, your job here at LPD doesn’t include going undercover. You need to leave the crime-fighting to the professionals. We would never sanction using you as bait for a murderer.”
Natalie cocked her head and gave him a sharp look. “That didn’t stop you when you came to town and roped me into working with you on that Vegas case.”
In the months that John had been with Evangeline, he’d managed to go days at a time without thinking about Natalie and the way he’d involved her in the case that had apparently ended her husband Cristian’s life. “Yes, and I know what that cost you. I’ll never take a chance like that again.”
“It’s because you really care for me, don’t you, John?” Natalie said, easing back and settling her butt on his desk. As she slid up to get her other butt cheek onto the desk, she managed to knock over a framed photo of John and Evangeline at Nora’s wedding. The picture hit the ground and the glass cracked.
“Oops!” she said, glancing down and giggling. “Well, you didn’t need that anymore anyway.”
Rage dark blood flooded John’s face as he reached for the photo. “What I don’t need is you. I can get my own files. I can run my own cases. I know what this is about.”
She pursed her lips and made her eyes round like a cartoon kitten. “Oh? What what’s about?”
“All these pretexts for coming into my office. This stupid idea of putting yourself in danger to catch a killer. I know you think you have a chance with me, but it’s not going to happen. Natalie, I’ve tried to be nice. I guess I haven’t been clear. I care for you as a friend, but even that is wearing thin. You and I are not going to be together. I don’t want you.”
He watched Natalie’s soft, pale face start to quiver like a plate of the milk pudding his mother used to make when he and Michael were boys. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she slid off the desk and drew herself up in indignation. “You keep telling yourself that, John. But one day you’re going to wake up and realize it was me you wanted all along. And the sooner, you do, the sooner you’ll be happy. The best thing that ever happened to you was breaking up with Evangeline. She doesn’t understand you like I do.”
John couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He’d always tried to cut Natalie a lot of slack because she’d had a hard time growing up with that trifling boozehound Roxie Balsom for a mother. And he’d only made her life worse when he lured her into working with him on that ill-fated Vegas case. He still wasn’t sure he was doing the right thing in keeping his promise to Cristian that he wouldn’t reveal his true identity. He wanted Natalie to be safe – he felt he owed her that. But he couldn’t take anymore of her bold-faced denial of the facts: he just wasn’t into her.
“What do you mean you understand me? I just spoke to you in small words of plain English and you’re acting like you don’t understand that.”
“But John we have a connection. And Evangeline’s not like us. We have so much more in common than you two do.”
Not liking where he feared Natalie might be heading with this line of non-reasoning, John replied, “What do you mean, she’s ‘not like us’?”
“I mean, she’s spoiled and a snob and we’re real. She’s not real like us, John. She didn’t have to grow up struggling in Atlantic City like we did.”
“Natalie, it takes more than growing up in Jersey and a love of greasy food to make a romance. You don’t know anything about Evangeline or where she comes from or what we share. Her parents were civil servants like my dad. She worked hard in school and so did I. She still works hard and so do I. She’s devoted her life to helping other people – opening that battered women’s shelter, working for the Innocence Project, mentoring young women in Center City – that’s why she’s getting that Woman of the Year award tonight. I know you’ve had a hard life, but what have you done with your opportunities as a Buchanan? You wouldn’t even have this job you’re hardly doing if it wasn’t for your family connections.”
Natalie’s face looked like a huge red grape about to pop. “Fuck you! Fuck you John McBain!” she screamed as she slammed the door behind her.
John put his hands on his hips and shook his head. “In your dreams, little girl. In your dreams.”
He picked up the Woman of the Year invitation on his desk and made a decision and a phone call.