Nikki is absolutely crazy for her boyfriend Dee. Though he often seems distant, she rationalizes his behavior. After all, among his many tattoos is the one she is can’t help bringing her lips to–N–for Nikki.
As Criminal opens, Dee and Nikki are getting out of bed to head to the police station for questioning–and getting their stories to line up as they drive. The reader doesn’t know what has happened, but it’s clear that Dee has done something, and Nikki is involved. She thinks about wigs and clothes and wonders what to do with them. Nikki knows that she heard gunshots, but Dee won’t say what that was about. When she asks, he tells her, “‘You don’t need to think. What you need to do is shut up and just sit tight. Do what I tell you.’”
Blinded by love, she is willing to obey. She hasn’t known real love in her life. Her mother is a drug addict who tries to sell her in exchange for drugs. So, Nikki must stick by Dee no matter what he’s done. But by lunchtime, she sees that a man–a retired deputy–was killed the day before at a house where Dee had jumped out of the car, telling her to wait for him around the corner.
Nikki tries to help Dee by cleaning fingerprints off of her friend Bird’s Mustang–the car that Dee and Nikki used without permission. What Nikki doesn’t realize is how much trouble she is in. The police are going to find the killer. And Nikki is an accessory to murder—she aided the murderer by driving the car. She doesn’t seem to have a clue that she is headed to prison, or that by using Bird’s car, Dee has Implicated Bird, Nikki’s only friend, in the murder.
What Nikki does learn during her first round of police questioning is that Dee has a girlfriend named Nicole, and he has been in contact with her, writing her love letters. So who is that N tattoo for?
Nikki has time to sort it out in prison, to think about Dee and his other girlfriend, Nicole. Even though she’s given Dee everything, he expects her to stay quiet about what he’s done. But if Nikki expects to survive, she’s going to have to face the truth. About Dee. About herself.
High school housekeeping: Nikki is such a hot mess. She is needy, needy because she hasn’t gotten the love that helps a person to have a bit of self-esteem. But, boy, does she pick the wrong guy to give her heart to. Dee plays her for his own secret purposes. You’ll be fully engaged in her story, because you can see how she’s been fooled. But Criminal has more to show you. About how to finally grow up, how to become self-reliant.
Early on, Nikki feels that Dee completes her. “[M]e just wanting him to take it all for himself.To give him comfort. And to fill me up so that I wouldn’t have any more room for stupid, ugly, disappointing me. . . . I was something of worth then. I had given to him, and he had taken, and we were both complete.” To keep this feeling, she betrays her friend. And as Bird tells Nikki when she tries to explain, “‘It don’t matter what you meant. What matters is what you did.’”
That’s an important lesson for anyone to learn. And, hopefully, much sooner and more easily than Nikki learns it.