Option Play

“What’s the matter baby.  Aren’t you in the mood?”

Sheila rolled onto her side and stared at the wall.

“No, I guess not,” she sighed.  “But it’s not you.  I just can’t relax until this mess with Nick is cleared up.  God, I hate that man for doing this to me!”

Dan reached out and gently stroked her hair.  “Please let me help.”

Sheila turned back toward him and tried to smile.  “It helps just having you here.”

Dan sighed heavily and rubbed his temples.  “I mean, maybe I could talk to him or something.”

Sheila tilted her head up and stared at the ceiling.  “I wish somebody could talk sense into him”, she said.  “Today he actually said that he would sign the divorce consent.  All I have to do is come up with a couple thousand in cash.  His ‘grubstake’ he calls it.

Dan kissed her lightly on the forehead.  “You know I’d give it to you if I had it.”

Sheila looked at him and stroked his cheek.  “I know you would,” she whispered.  “But I couldn’t come up with it even if I sold everything I own.”

Dan brushed his lips across her eyelid and nuzzled the hair above her ear.  “You know,” he said suddenly, “maybe we could work a deal with him.  If we could scrape together a couple hundred bucks and then promise to make payments….”

Sheila opened her eyes with a start.  “You’re kidding!”

“No, seriously.  Think of it like paying off a car loan.  Nick gets a signed promise for the money and we get a signed divorce consent.”

Sheila lay silent as she struggled to comprehend Dan’s suggestion.  “I don’t know, Nick will never go for it.”

Dan reached out and put his hand on her hip.  “Think about it”, he said.  “He’s got to know that it’s his only chance to get any money at all out of you.”

Sheila pursed her lips.  “Maybe.  Just maybe.”

Dan pulled her gently toward him. “Trust me baby, it’s gonna work out.”  Sheila wrapped her arms around his shoulders and closed her eyes.  Dan pressed his lips to hers and felt her respond.

                              *****

Dan flopped down on the sofa and dropped his hat onto his lap.  “Well, I pawned my guitar and called in a couple of IOU’s but it still only comes to about $300.”

Sheila sat down next to him and leaned her head against his shoulder.  She reached over to pick up the hat and began to trace the letters embroidered on the front of it.  “You know,” she said softly, “I’ve got some money stashed away.  That might make it enough.”

Dan leaned over to kiss the top of her head.  “That’s supposed to be for your trip to see your sister.”

“I know, but I just don’t think we have any other options.  Maybe I can go next year.”  Sheila got up and went into the bedroom.  As she pulled open the nightstand drawer the gun came into view.  Dan had insisted on leaving it there since the last time that Nick had stormed in.  He thought it might help her to feel safer when he was out on the road, but she was almost more afraid of its presence than comforted by its promise of protection.  Carefully she reached behind it and pulled out the envelope that held her vacation fund.

Dan looked up as Sheila walked back into the living room.  Opening the envelope, she pulled out a few small bills and quickly handed them to Dan.  Slowly she drew the last bill out of the envelope and fondled it for a few seconds before extending her hand once again.  “Take good care of Mr. Ben for me,” she said.  Dan gently grasped the top edge of the hundred dollar bill then waited for Sheila to open her hand.

                              *****

Sheila was always worried whenever Dan was on a long haul, but this time had been particularly difficult for her because he had arranged to meet with Nick on the way back.  When Dan finally came through the door she wrapped her arms tightly around him and pressed her head against his chest.  The rhythm of his heartbeat filled her head and began to push out her fears.  As she slowly withdrew her arms, her hands glided along the sides of Dan’s coat and brushed against the cold hardness that hid within his pocket.  Startled, she quickly pulled her hands away and locked up at him.

Dan stared back at her, then pulled a folded paper out of his shirt pocket and handed it to her.  Sheila studied his face for a moment then cautiously took the paper.  Opening it, she saw Nick’s signature scrawled across the bottom.  Staring down at the paper, she began to tremble and tears welled up in her eyes.  Dan reached out to her and cupped her face in his hands.  “It’s over,” he said.

                              *****

Sheila peered through the peephole in the front door.  Seeing that it wasn’t Nick, she released the breath she had been holding and opened the door.

“Mrs. Bratton, I’m Detective Jensen.  I’d like to ask you a few questions about your husband.”

“Yes,” she said a little too eagerly, “come in. And please call me Sheila.”

Jensen flipped his badge wallet closed and slid it back into his coat pocket.  Sheila led him into the kitchen and gestured toward one of the chairs.  “Can I get you something?”

Jensen dropped heavily onto the chair.  “No, but thank you anyway,” he said.

Sheila poured herself a cup of coffee then settled into the chair across from him.  “I don’t see Nick much,” she said.  “Haven’t even talked to him since he signed the divorce agreement.”

Jensen leaned forward and folded his hands on the table.  “Can you remember when that was?”

“Yeah,” she said.  “You don’t forget a day like that.  It was a week ago Sunday.”

Jensen picked at his right thumb.  “So how did he seem to you?”

Sheila pondered the question.  “Actually…,” she said softly, “…I didn’t see him.  My boyfriend went to talk to him.”

Jensen’s eyes flicked up toward her.  “Curious,” he said.  “Mr. Bratton’s landlady says that she hasn’t seen him for about a week.”

A wry smile pulled at the corners of Sheila’s mouth.  “Nick never was one to advertise his travel plans.”

Jensen reached into his shirt pocket and carefully pulled out a cellophane evidence envelope.  Sheila’s muscles tensed when she saw it contained a $100 bill.  Her eyes strained to focus on Jensen’s face.

Jensen turned the bill over and squinted slightly as he examined it.  Sheila’s mouth began to open but silence prevailed.  Finally she shook her head in an attempt to clear the fog.  “I… I don’t understand.  What is this about?”

Jensen lowered the bill slightly and looked straight at her.  “This bill was part of a bank deposit made by a grocery store near your husband’s apartment.  The bank did a routine check and found that this bill was traceable.”  Jensen set the envelope down in the middle of the table.

Sheila couldn’t help pulling her hands away and placing them in her lap.  “What does this have to do with me?”

The corners of Jensen’s mouth twitched up in a half smile.  “Probably nothing,” he said.  “One of the store clerks identified Mr. Bratton as the one who gave him this bill.  Says he remembers because he doesn’t usually see that kind of cash around there.  Guess I was hoping that you could tell me where I can find him.”

Sheila wiped the palms of her hands on her pant legs.  “I wish I could,” she said, “but I really don’t know where he might have gone.”

“Well thanks anyway.”  Jensen pushed back his chair and stood up.  Bending over slightly he picked the envelope up from the table and put it back into his pocket.  “Please give me a call if you hear anything.”  Sheila nodded slightly.

                              *****

Dan opened the front door and quietly stepped inside.  As he turned on the living room light he was surprised to see Sheila sitting cross-legged in the middle of the floor.  “I didn’t expect to see you still up,” he said.  “Don’t you have to work tomorrow morning?”

Sheila shaded her eyes against the sudden brightness but remained silent.  Dan walked to where she was sitting and squatted down in front of her.  Sheila dropped her hand from her eyes then looked at the floor.  “A cop came by today,” she whispered.  “He wanted to know if I knew where Nick is.”

Dan reached his hand out to her.  Sheila flinched as he touched her cheek.  Dan pulled his hand away then sat down beside her.  “Did he say that Nick was in some kind of trouble?”

Suddenly Sheila burst into tears.  “Damn you Dan,” she sobbed, “I thought they were coming to get you for killing him.”  Dan put both arms around her.  Sheila began to pull away but then turned and buried her face in his chest.  “I couldn’t stand it if they took you away from me.”

Dan stroked her hair.  “I’m sorry baby,” he said.  “But I can’t say that I didn’t consider it.”

Sheila lifted her head from Dan’s chest and wiped her eyes on her sleeves.  She reached out and took his hands then looked up at him.  “Talk to me Dan,” she whispered.

Dan took a deep breath.  Sheila had always told him that the toughest part of love was in letting yourself trust.  “Well,” he said, I had called Nick and made him the offer you and I talked about.  You know, he just laughed at me.”  Dan’s jaws tightened.  “At that moment I really wanted to kill the bastard.”

Dan shifted his weight slightly and cleared his throat.  “Out on the road I had a lot of time to think so I kept running different options through my head.  The only one that really seemed like it might work was to get enough money to buy Nick off once and for all.  I just wasn’t sure how to get it.”

“On the way home I stopped for breakfast up in Farley.  That’s where I spotted this little liquor store.  After dropping off the rig I waited for dark and then drove back out in my car.  I didn’t get a lot but it was enough to get Nick to sign.  Nobody saw me and nobody got hurt.”

Dan slowly opened the fingers of his hands as if letting a captive bird escape.  Sheila gripped him tighter.  “I love you,” she said.  “I know that the police will be back if they catch Nick, but it’s our word against his.”  She leaned forward and kissed him.

Sheila stood up and stretched.  Dan took off his hat and folded down the sweatband inside.  “One last thing,” he said as he pulled out a wadded up bill and placed it into Sheila’s hand.  “You better put Mr. Ben back where he belongs.”