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June 18, 2011
A terrified young woman, Michelle Carter, knelt in a shadow cast by the streetlamp at the center of the alley. She’d taken cover behind an old rusty dumpster, coated with years of dust and dirt. Michelle looked completely out of place; attired in a skin-tight sequined black dress which left little to the imagination. Her brown hair was streaked with highlights and done up in a French braid which ended between her shoulder blades. Four-inch stilettos, matching ruby and diamond earrings and pendant, coupled with her alligator clutch purse completed the ensemble.
A million questions were running through her head. The loudest? ‘How the fuck did I get myself into this?’ Followed closely by, ‘How the fuck am I going to get out of it?’ She had no answer for either. Life had brought her to this god-forsaken piece of real estate on the south side of London. Life, and a series of bad choices that didn’t seem so bad at the time. They might have seemed logical to any nineteen-year-old girl out on the town in London – a million miles away from home and the life she’d grown up with.
Michelle was the third daughter of an Iowa farmer, with four brothers as well, and she was the youngest of the siblings. Michelle had been popular in her community and school. She was the 2009 Pork Queen at the Wilson County Fair, head football cheerleader, perennial honor-roll student and of late, up and coming fashion model in London, England. A dream come true which started like a fairy-tale, then quickly morphed into a real-life John Sanford story; caught up in a whirlwind with no idea how to get herself out.
There was no longer any question as to whether or not she should have done cocaine with someone she didn’t know. On top of that poor decision was piled one even worse. Michelle was kicking herself for having ditched the modeling agency’s personal security guards assigned to protect her and other models from the agency. Then, to top off a horrendous night of one stupid decision after another, she left the club without telling anyone, not even her closest friend, a model by the name of Angelique. Decision after decision which ended with her hiding behind a dumpster, God only knew where. All those choices would culminate in something she wouldn’t have believed possible in a million years. Michelle was about to witness a murder.
The man she left the club with, mysterious and Italian, seemed so charming an hour ago when they pulled away in a chauffeured a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. He wasn’t particularly handsome, but what he lacked in looks he compensated for with a bizarre sense of humor and hand-tailored Armani suits – and money; lots of money.
He received a phone call along the way, speaking to the caller in Italian, of which she understood almost nil. She did manage to eke out a little of the conversation. He made mention of a large amount of “American dollars” and gave the caller what sounded like an address. She already regretted leaving with him. She got more than a little nervous from the mysterious phone call. The surrounding buildings began taking on a forlorn and forgotten look; she got scared. The driver stopped in the middle of block after block blocks of run-down warehouses; she hit terrified.
Neither of the men spoke. They had been sitting in the idling Rolls for more than ten minutes when a brown Mercedes van pulled up. The driver in the van cut the lights as it coasted to a stop six feet from the Rolls.
It was supposed to be a routine pick-up for the two men in the van, though the packages anything but routine. Their cargo would be girls from the age of 14 to 19. Girls who had been lured away from homes, picked up at parties or hooked online with promises of greatness to come. The pick-up was quickly turning into anything but routine.
One of the men got out on the passenger side, a Croatian, by the name of Dragoslav Markovic. Drago had been buying girls from Benito for close to three years.
The driver of the Rolls Royce and the man she was with got out together to meet him, seemingly forgetting she was there. She thought she saw something strange in the way a look passed between the two Italians. She had her suspicion confirmed when the driver retrieved a handgun from the back of his pants. Then another gun materialized as if out of nowhere in the other man’s hand. Michelle felt unnerved by recalling his name when she saw the gun. It was Benito. Benito something or the other; she couldn’t remember his last name. It was dancing on the tip of her tongue because the name reminded her of a cleaner her grandmother used. Then it clicked. The cleaner was called Brasso – the name of the man was Benito Grasso.
She watched as Drago, a stout, balding man with a scrubby three or four-day growth climbed out of the van. He was average height, maybe 5’9” barrel-chested with deep-set eyes and thin lips. He looked to be in his late forties, maybe early fifties, she couldn’t tell. She watched as he approached the two Italian men. His massive hands were empty, held palms up and out to his sides, as if to prove he wasn’t armed. The man who was behind the driver’s wheel, waited in the van, an unseen AK-47 in his lap.
Looking to her right, Michelle realized the rear passenger side door was open. She glanced back at the trio who seemed completely focused on whatever the situation with the new arrival might be. The same could be said of the second man in the van. She appeared to be forgotten.
She slipped off her five-hundred-dollar shoes and slowly crept out of the Rolls, afraid of making any sound that would attract attention. She held her breath as she made her way into an alley between two of the crumbling brick buildings. She glanced back twice, moving as quickly as she dared. No one looked her way.
She found herself a spot behind the old forgotten dumpster, hiding herself in whatever she could find lying about. Her black dress was a plus for hiding. She found a few pages from an old newspaper and two wooden planks fallen from a boarded-up window. Together they provided some semblance of cover, though she felt like she was standing on a runway under the bright lights.
The guns had tipped the scales. Taking her from terrified to panicked in an instant. It was all the motivation needed to send the nineteen-year-old Iowa farm girl down the alley to end up covering herself in trash.
She fought back tears as the emotional impact of her present situation hit her between the eyes. She understood she was in way too far, in way over her head even before the guns came out. Now she was behind a dumpster; trembling in fear as the realization hit, she had no idea when or even if she could figure out a way to escape. That fear was quickly rendered impotent when reality kicked her in the ribs. She might not survive the night at all.
Closing her eyes, she prayed for the first time in God only knew how many years – prayers to which she expected no answer.
She heard the men talking and peeked around the dumpster. The recent arrival was waving his hands and speaking in what sounded nothing like Italian, with a few words of English thrown in randomly. He kept motioning with his hands toward the back of the SUV while Benito and his driver stood by the Rolls, their guns casually at their sides.
Benito nodded to the driver, a man by the name of Johnny Pacelli. Pacelli walked to the rear of the Mercedes van and opened the door. He returned from the van dragging what looked like a teen-aged boy by the hair. Pacelli tossed him like a Frisbee. Using his left hip for leverage, he succeeded in spinning the boy seven feet through the air. He landed face down with a moan just in front of the Mercedes van at Benito’s feet. He accepted a high-five from Benito and stepped back.
Michelle didn’t recognize the young man. How could she? She’d never seen Andrew until now.
Andrew had barely made a kilometer from the safehouse when he was cut off and then pinned between two older model Audis. One driven by Markovic and the other by his associate, Tomislav Novak.
Andrew could feel his heart pounding as bile fought its way towards his mouth. He turned to Stephanie, mumbling “I’m sorry,” just before he vomited on himself.
Markovic opened the door, after looking around and finding no one close, dragged Andrew out by his shirt. He saw the vomit and began cursing profusely in a language neither Andrew nor Stephanie was familiar with. Novak opened the sliding door on the curb side and leveled a gun at Stephanie. “I’m not supposed to hurt you in any way,” he said with a heavy Eastern European accent. “If you fight me, or scream, well…” he shrugged his shoulders and mimicked shooting her. That was enough for Stephanie, who seemed unaffected by the threat. She was Sicilian. She’d seen her parents gunned down in front of her, stealing her future. She wasn’t afraid of dying, only of not killing the men responsible, saving Benito for last. She gave Novak a curt nod, climbing out on her own, heading towards the front car without waiting for him. It sent a shiver up his spine which he quickly shook off as nervousness being out in the open as they were.
Markovic soon joined them after locking Andrew in the trunk. They left the van and second Audi where they were. Neither could be traced back to them or Grasso. Smiling at the extra five thousand he would be getting for the boy; Drago took the first left and began to wind his way through London to the Southside warehouse.
Benito flipped Andrew over onto his back, all the while shaking his head in an obviously exaggerated arc. “Andrew, Andrew, Andrew…I thought you had a real future with me. You’re young, reliable and I thought you very intelligent. Well, it seems not so intelligent after all, since you are now lying here on the ground at my feet. Regardless, you really have disappointed me, Andrew. If you wanted the girl so much why didn’t you come to me? You only needed to approach me like a man and asked for the girl, I would have considered selling her to you, if you had the five thousand dollars to purchase her, of course. Maybe you do have it and maybe you don’t, but it is of no consequence now.
Instead of coming to me, you tried to steal her. That was very disrespectful of you, and a very foolish choice, I must say. So, now what am I supposed to do with you, Andrew? Hmm? What are you willing to do to regain my trust?”
Andrew knew Grasso was drawing it out, making him look like he capable of forgiving him. Andrew had no delusions if he was going to die. So, for the first and only time in his nineteen years on this earth, Andrew Stephen Hatcher drew a deep breath and became a man of his own.
He threw back his head and started laughing. “Fuck you, Benny Grassi-ass-o. You’re nothing but a greasy piece of Sicilian shit-for-brains fuck-twat. What the hell are you trying to do anyway? Scare me with your stupid fucking monologue? Make me beg for my life? For fuck’s sake you bloody-pillow-biting-take-it-in-the-arse wanker, are you trying to bore me to death? Because you are so far. Or are you, and I’m pretty fucking sure you are. Are you just one more gutless-grease-ball-garlic-eating-bitch-dago, afraid to do what needs to be done by a real man, one with balls between his legs?” With that, Andrew spit at Grasso, hitting his left shoe and trousers.
Grasso had listened to it all, despite his rising anger he simply froze. No one had ever spoken to him like this; full of rage, filled with contempt and not one shred of fear. As Andrew mocked and berated him, Benito’s face began to color. By the time Andrew spit on him, the color was almost purple.
Andrew got what he wanted from Grasso’s blinding rage. A rage which eradicated his plans of making an example of Andrew by killing him slowly. Screaming incoherently in what sounded like a wordless stream, he kicked Andrew in the stomach, knocking the wind out and doubling him over. Without hesitation Grasso put three rounds from his .45 into the top of Andrew’s head in rapid succession. Smoke from the gunpowder drifted lazily out of the gaping wound: his hair smoldering from the blasts.
Benito stood there shaking for every bit of five minutes after he shot Andrew. He was angry because he’d been manipulated and goaded by this punk, this nobody.
He took a deep breath, exhaling slowly as he turned to face Drago. Grasso imagined he was calmly smiling at the two Croats who had delivered the boy. It seemed like it went on forever; it was anything but a smile. It was more the wide-eyed look of a man standing on the verge of insanity. A dark look which chilled both to their bones.
“Do we have a problem here?” asked Benito through clenched teeth. “Well? Do we?”
Drago raised his meaty hands shoulder high, shrugging as he spoke, “Why would I. He was your boy and he needed to be killed for showing such disrespect. Me? I would have carved him up with a knife, but hey, to each his own.” He motioned to the younger man in the van to join him.
Novak slid the AK down to the floor as he climbed out.
“Tomislav, help me with this trash.” He turned to Benito in an attempt to calm him, “We’ll get rid of the body for you, no charge. We should be back for the pick-up in fifteen to twenty minutes. I hope this bit of necessary unpleasantness won’t affect your plans for the sale.”
Benito grunted, “That’s fine. I’ll give you thirty.” He waved them away with his left hand, turning towards the waiting Silver Cloud. It was then he noticed the open rear door. He froze and began scanning the area, grabbing Pacelli and spinning him around.
Grasso was furious, so he spoke softly with his eyes locked on Pacelli’s. “Go find the girl, Johnny. You go find her in fifteen minutes, or I’ll be needing a new driver.” He patted Pacelli’s arm and pulled out a cigarette as he eased himself into the rear seat of the Rolls.
Michelle had watched and waited, holding her breath though she hadn’t realized it. Wondering if Benito was going to shoot the young man on the ground. It looked as though Benito was talking kindly to the boy, then, all hell broke loose. She stifled a scream when Benito kicked the boy in the stomach, slapping a hand over her mouth. She pushed herself as tightly as she could into the wedge shape the dumpster made with the old brick wall.
Then came Benito’s tirade followed by the three shots, echoing up and down the alley in an eerie dance of noises blending into a single sound of rage.
Then there was silence. She took another breath, letting it out slowly as she fought to contain the tears which, once released would quickly turn into wailing sobs. She fought hard to contain them, holding them at bay with sheer willpower. She shifted her weight to get her left foot out from under her. She watched in horror as one of the wood slats she’d used tipped out from the wall. It moved slowly, as though it was a living thing, balancing for what seemed an eternity on the rocky surface of the alley. She wanted to reach for it, to pull it back where it belonged. The board had other plans as it slowly went out of plumb, agonizingly slow it seemed to teeter until it couldn’t fight gravity any longer. The result was a muted thud when it hit the gravel: not muted enough as the alley coached the feint echo out to the street.
Pacelli heard it. Turning to his right, gun in front, he looked down the alley. He could only make out formless shadows at first. Closing his eyes, he moved 10 paces in. His eyes, once open, adjusted quickly to the shadowy world between the buildings. He spotted the board by the dumpster. It looked out of place. If it had fallen off the window it would be close to the building, not half-way into the alley. He smiled as he realized the possible and most likely cause.
With his gun in a two-hand grip out in front of him, as a precaution, Pacelli moved slowly down the left wall of the alley, opposite the dumpster. He moved silently with each step he took, checking the placement of both his feet for stability before shifting his weight. Something he’d learned long ago as a boy sneaking into places he didn’t belong.
He was less than five feet from the dumpster when he spotted a glimmer of silver. As he looked beside the glimmer instead of straight at it, a small women’s clutch took shape\ in the shadows. Soon, a shoe-less foot revealed itself in the gloom.
Michelle didn’t scream when Pacelli pulled the other board back, taking with it half the paper she’d packed around herself. She didn’t make any sound at all. She looked lost, her eyes not focusing anywhere. Miss Carter was almost catatonic, frozen in the fear of believing she was about to die.
“There you are, Miss Michelle,” said Pacelli as he slipped the gun into the holster at his back. He held out his hand. “It’s okay, I’m not going to hurt you. None of this was your fault. Please, take my hand and let me help you up.”
In a daze she put out her hand. Pacelli lifted her with unexpected gentleness, holding her gently by the elbow until she got her balance back. He waited patiently as she put her shoes back on. Pacelli could see why. Running down the alley had left her feet bruised and bleeding from the sharp rocks and bits of glass strewn about.
“There you are, Michelle,” repeated Benito when Pacelli walked her out of the alley. “I’ve missed you. Why on earth did you run and hide? You were never in danger, nor would I allow you to be hurt.”
Michelle heard what Grasso said, it just didn’t register. With the faraway glazed look still in her eyes, she turned to him and asked, “Where are we? Did we leave the c-club?” She looked around for a moment. “I c-can’t remember how we got here. Is that bad?”
Benito gave her his best smile. “Not to worry, Michelle, you are safe now and all the ruckus has ended. Come, let me help you back into the car.”
Guiding her by the elbow, he helped her into the back seat, making sure she didn’t hit her head. Once she was in, he fastened her seat belt and closed the door.
“Well, I must say, Johnny, I don’t think Miss Carter is going to be very entertaining after all. Drive us around to the south side.”
“You sure about this, boss? No disrespect, but she probably saw you killing the kid,” said Pacelli who was backing away without knowing it.
“Stand the fuck still, Johnny,” barked Grasso. “Where in the hell are you going anyway?”
“Sorry. Boss,” he replied sheepishly as he stopped and stood stock-still. “I didn’t mean any disrespect and I would never leave you. I’m just still jacked up with adrenaline, I think, from the whole thing.”
Benito grunted. “Whatever.”
Johnny gingerly pressed the issue, “About the model?”
Benito looked at her for a moment. “Where she’s going, no one will even give a shit about me killing someone who betrayed me. So, get in the car and drive us around back.”
“Sure thing, boss. I was just looking out for you.”
“I don’t need you, or anyone else to ‘look out’ for me Johnny. It’s not what I pay you for.” Then, to temper the rebuke, he added, “However, I do appreciate you do consider how my actions might have a negative effect on my freedom.” He reached up and patted Johnny on the shoulder. “It’s all good, as the Americans say.”
Pacelli visibly relaxed as the tension left him. “Thanks, boss. I appreciate that.” He slipped the Silver Cloud into drive and made a sweeping U-turn. Two minutes later they were greeted by Sammy, who had been expecting them.
Two Weeks earlier
It was a comfortable 75-degree June evening in the Windy City. Three people, two men and a woman sat on a bench on the Navy Pier, sipping coffee and enjoying the refreshing northeasterly breeze coming across Lake Michigan. They formed a rather unlikely trio to the casual observer. One of the men; an intimidating man even when smiling, had skin as black as night. He stood every bit of 6’7” tall and an almost solid mass of three-hundred pounds. Under the closest scrutiny, you’d labor to find an ounce of visible fat on him. His head was shaved smooth; eyes hidden behind a pair of mirrored Oakley’s. He wore baggy, stone-washed Levi blue-jeans, the latest Jordan’s, and a white muscle shirt. Tattoos covered his arms and what was visible of his shoulders. Many were fine works of art – others obvious prison tats or gang related. Both were applicable.
The other male was white and a little over 6 feet tall, possibly 6’3”, 210 pounds, fit and in good shape. He still looked skinny seated next to his imposing counterpart. His hair, light brown and showing sun-bleached streaks of blond wasn’t unkempt, but it was close: falling two to three inches below his collar in natural waves. His profile was marred by a broken nose which was never set properly, leaving a bump on the bridge. It was his eyes usually attracting the most attention, especially from women. They were listed as hazel on his driver’s license, which didn’t do justice to the mix of green, gray and light brown, striated with lines of gold that sometimes seemed almost fluid – seeming to change, the gold slashes moving as you looked into his eyes. He was attired like the average businessman in Chicago; dark pin-striped suit with a white shirt and yellow tie. Rayban shades were hanging backwards off his ears, the tie and collar loosened with the suitcoat draped over a chair.
The third member of the party was fond of telling everyone she was a 5-foot beauty, even though fell half an inch short. Her hair, at least for now, was platinum with a single purple streak running from her left temple all the way back. The color might change, but the streak always remained. Her smile was infectious, generally putting those who didn’t know her at ease. She used it well to her advantage when necessary. Attired in a simple black woman’s business suit; knee length skirt with an almost plain jacket, set off by an open collar pink shirt. Even though she was under five-foot-tall she wore comfortable looking black flats.
The black male, Darnell, known to almost everyone on Chicago’s south side simply as ‘D’, was staring unhappily at his coffee. “One damn sugar wouldn’t hurt. It ain’t like I spend all damn day chewin’ on sugar cane.”
“D, sweetie,” said the lady, “quit your bitchin’. You’re a borderline diabetic as it is, and I have no intentions of pushing your three-hundred-pound black ass around in a wheelchair because they had to cut your fucking feet off.” She smiled as she spoke, looking D straight in the eyes as she batted hers.
“Damn, Dr. H.,” deadpanned the man across from them. “Don’t mince your words – tell the man how you really feel.”
“Lazarus,” said D, “shut the fuck up and stay out of it.” His glare would have been enough to make almost anyone wilt. Lazarus grinned and sipped his coffee.
“Why, Darnell,” he said, “don’t tell me you’re lettin’ this skinny white boy get under your skin so easily?”
Dr. H., aka Helen Hudson, aka HH laughed with gusto. “You tell him Spike. Don’t let his bluster get to you. He knows if he gets loosey-goosey with the sugar I will beat his ass like a Cuban bongo.”
D looked at his wife, the glare wavering as it morphed into a sheepish grin. “Baby, you know I ain’t sneakin’ no sugar.” He tried batting his eyes back at HH like a teenager. Lazarus lost it – snort-laughing coffee out his nose.
“That’s right, Spike,” laughed D, “I got your ass and you know it. Keep yukkin’ it up asshole.”
It was easy to see there was a special relationship and deep bond between the three, even to the casual observer. There was a rhythm to their conversations which was hard to follow, often reflecting a deep level of trust and commitment in strange ways.
As the laughter died out, Dr. Helen spoke. “How are things in Florida, Spike?”
Lazarus smiled. “Going quite well, actually. The renovations on the Duck Key property are all but completed. Kat is settled into her new digs and I’ve added someone to my security team; a young Cuban immigrant by the name of Leonard James.”
“How goes the old shape-shifting thing?” asked D.
“Shape-shifting?” chuckled Lazarus. “Gawd, D. Regardless of what you call it, I’ve been working hard on two more personas.
“The first is a North-Texas redneck I’m calling Cooper Johnson.”
“Cooper?” interrupted Helen.
“Yes, Cooper. You see, one of the few things I remember clearly about my father was how much he liked Gary Cooper and the movie ‘High Noon’. One of my earliest memories is sitting in his lap watching that movie back to back one rainy day on the farm.
“The other character is an eccentric recluse living in Key West. I bought a house and a boat shed, but I still don’t have a name for him. He’s a strange duck – rides a moped or walks around with two curved ‘canes’, which are actually Katanas.”
“I’ll come up with something for you,” said Helen. “I’ll make it interesting, and besides, it’s quite fascinating from a psychologist’s perspective. I’m referring to the nature of your disguises and the personalities you develop for them. I might write a paper on it – after you’re dead, of course.”
It was D’s turn to snort-laugh his coffee. Lazarus simply stared at the petite fireball with thinly veiled amusement. “I was hoping you would; wait until I croak as you so eloquently stated that is.”
“No problem, Spike. It’s the least I can do for a friend.”
“I do appreciate it, Helen. I really do,” said Lazarus with a roll of his eyes.
D chimed in. “I got a question for ya, Spike. What’s the deal with the Cuban kid? Seems out of character for you to just up and hire some kid for security.”
“True,” said Lazarus, “though I didn’t hire him for security, it just sounds better.”
“Details, dude,” urged D.
Lazarus took a sip of coffee before responding. “Gut feeling, D. That’s why I hired him in the first place. I know, I know – details. They’re coming.
“I was driving down to Duck Key to check on things after flying into Miami. This was, oh I’d say a little over five months ago. So, I’m zipping along in the Lexus and I see this guy walking along the Overseas Highway a little more than five miles south of Key Largo.”
“Was he hitchhiking?” asked Helen.
“No, and that’s why I stopped. He had a backpack and walking stick and moved with a steady gate. He looked like someone on a mission – a mission he apparently planned on completing without any help from strangers.
“I pulled over on to the shoulder maybe a quarter of a mile past him and got out. I fired up a cigar, leaned back on the trunk and waited. He was making about four miles an hour; about top end for the average person in good shape.”
D interrupted. “How do you know this shit, dude? Like how fast people walk and shit like that. It’s fuckin’ weird. You like some kind of Rain Man?”
“Darnell, I went to college for a reason. I took several advanced classes in psychology to better understand human behavior and try to identify different reactions to certain stimuli under duress.”
D stared at him. “Like I understand one bit of what you just said or what you mean. Forget I asked, Mr. Multiple Degrees.”
”Done,” said Lazarus. “Now, as I was saying, I was leaning against the trunk waiting. The closer this guy got the more determined his stride became. There was no sign of fear or indecision. He was simply preparing himself for whatever my intentions might be.
“I pegged him for about twenty to twenty-five; definitely mixed race – black and some Island nationality. Turned out it was Cuban.
“He stopped about six feet from me. A good distance for defending yourself if necessary and out of my reach.”
He asked, “Is there something you need, mister?”
“No,” I replied. “I was thinking more along the lines of you needing something, like a ride, perhaps.”
“ ‘I’m not hitchhiking,’ he said flatly. ‘I got two good legs and I don’t count on others to get me where I need to go.’
“For some reason, what he said struck a chord inside me. Looking back, I believe it may have been I was seeing a bit of myself in him. He had pride, no question about it. He also had nothing but the bag on his back. So, I offered him a ride.”
“He took it?” asked Helen, who was as curious as D.
“After ten minutes of back and forth. He didn’t want a free ride and wasn’t going to take one from me. So, I suggested he work the ride off at the new compound. I told him I was renovating and could use a good handyman to keep an eye on the work progress. That got him. He seemed ready to turn away before I offered him the job.”
“ ‘Why would you offer me a job, and why in your home, no less?’ he asked. ‘You don’t know the first thing about me.’
I smiled. “Yes, I do, not your name of course, but I see a young man carrying a lot of weight for your age. Someone who has always planned on making his own way in life. You don’t want charity, though I’d bet you’ve been living on the streets. He looked down when I mentioned the streets.
“There’s no shame in being homeless,” I told him, “especially not if you are there because of circumstances beyond your control.
“He nodded, which I interpreted as agreement. So, I asked him if he was ready for an adventure or he just plan to keep walking until he found himself at the end of the line?’”
D laughed. “I bet you said it with that look of yours. You know, the one where your eyes git a little blacker and you lean into whoever you’re wailin’ on at the time. Poor kid never had a chance.”
“Not exactly D. He hit me with something I never expected. He told me he would work for me on one condition. I couldn’t name an amount or promise a wage.”
“That had to be a first,” said Helen.
“Yep,” said Lazarus. “So, I asked him how the hell was I supposed to know how much to pay him. His answer was pure genius. ‘Pay me what you think I’m worth after the work is done.’ ”
“Damn, Spike,” said Helen. “That’s pretty gutsy, too.”
“Long story short,” said Lazarus. “After a week I knew this kid was special. Like I said, I think it’s because I see some of myself in him. I learned his father was killed by Castro and he barely made it out alive. Swam his ass to Florida, sharks, and all.
“I gave him a thousand dollars for the first week, which totally blew his mind. Then, I asked him to stay on permanently. He agreed after sleeping on it. Besides, Katsumi likes him. She said he doesn’t put off any negative vibes; he’s polite and calls her Miss Katsumi. He’s living in the boat house for now.”
“Damn, Spike,” said Helen, “I really am impressed. You, making one of your infamous gut calls is one thing. You, making the call to bring a stranger in your midst without a thorough background check is an altogether different universe.”
“I agree with you,” said Lazarus, “and I also believe I will never regret the decision.”
“So,” said Helen with a sigh, “I suppose we better get down to business.” She looked at Lazarus. “What is it you need from us to take care of your business in our lovely city?”
“Honestly, HH, just shadowing the tour-boat as we discussed, and I need it moving towards the target at 1900 hours.”
“You mean seven at night, Spike?” D inquired with a straight face.
“Yes, that would be correct for most of you civilian type folk.”
D continued, “It’s all set, about the boat. My cousin, Rodney Green, has a cruise boat you can use for cover. By the way, Spike, Rodney isn’t in on this. He’s not in the life and I don’t want him getting dragged into it.”
“Understood, D. He’ll never even know I was there.”
“Is there anything else we need to know?” asked Helen.
Lazarus didn’t answer. Rather, he laced his fingers behind his head, leaning back to watch the wispy cirrus clouds drifting with the breeze.
“Spike?” said D.
“Earth to Mr. Solaris?” added Helen.
Lazarus smiled. “I heard you, and to answer your question – no. I’ve got all I need.”
“Still ain’t gonna spill on the op?” asked D.
“It will be in the news tomorrow. You can read about it then.”
“Damn, Spike, that’s harsh,” said D, as Helen laughed.
“No, Darnell,” Lazarus used his full name. “It’s about client confidentiality. You know goddamn well I never talk about any of my clients, or their business.” His voice quickly picked up an edge as he spoke, though it never raised his voice, in fact it was the exact opposite.”
D put up his hands in mock surrender. “I got you. There just ain’t no need to get yerself ‘all-that-way’ goin’ on about it.”
Lazarus didn’t smile. “There is no, ‘all-that’, Darnell. It’s a matter of my principles and how I function, and you know it.”
Helen watched with impartial amusement. The dynamics between the two Alpha males had been evolving for years. She watched as Lazarus corrected D, putting in his place, so to speak, for the first time. The student was becoming the teacher, and she believed he would be a damn good one. She knew she was right when D answered with his eyes on the ground and not on Lazarus.
“True-dat, Spike. My bad for pressing it.”
“History, D,” said Lazarus with a smile and a shrug. “You will be reading about it though.
“This is a first for me in two ways. I’m eliminating two targets and, to top it off, I’m taking them out in public. There will be hundreds, if not thousands of witnesses.”
“Damn, dude. You sure about this?”
Lazarus smiled. “Is the Pope still a Catholic?”
“Last I heard the Pontiff was still keeping the faith,” D replied.
Lazarus stood and the other two quickly followed his lead.
“I need to get ready for this evening. Both of you need to be somewhere as far as possible away from downtown tonight with plenty of witnesses. I don’t mean the usual gang witnesses. You’re gonna need irrefutable proof you were not in the Chicago proper.”
“Wow, Spike, that sounds ominous. I guess we better be getting on the stick and head to Milwaukee and grab us some dinner, D,” said Helen. “Would that be far enough?”
Lazarus grinned. “As long as it ain’t a Dunkin Donuts, yes.”
“Bite me. Asshole,” said D as he turned away – a barely contained grin on his face.
“Even better,” said Helen. “The Brewers have a home game. We’ll try to get on the Jumbotron.”
“I’d pay to see that,” said Lazarus.
“You will be,” said HH. “You’re paying for the tickets.”
“That figures,” said Lazarus. “Going to use the Foundation’s box. are you?”
“Heaven’s no,” said HH. “I’m using your credit card.” With that, she flipped her hand over to display Lazarus’ American Express card. “I still got the touch,” laughed Helen. “Besides, now your ass will be alibied by good old E.X.”
Lazarus shook his head with an exaggerated sigh, turned on his heal and headed down the pier, flipping Helen off over his left shoulder.
It was critical for Lazarus to get them out of Chicago, and he’d succeeded. There was no reason tell them about the client or the reason for the hits; there wasn’t one. Technically, Lazarus was his own client for this op. He was taking preemptive measures to protect the business interests of The Dark Lords, the street family of his two closest confidants and friends.
It was just after 7:00, the sun was movin ever west ward. Dusk was still an hour or more away when Lazarus slipped out into the river to hitch a ride on Rodney’s boat. He hooked a stainless-steel carabiner through an eye hook. A bank of lights shone out from the boat on both side: giving Lazarus an excellent view while completely hiding him behind the glare of the 300-watt bulbs.
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