The city streets were unusually quiet for the large Southern French City, or so it seemed. Traffic was light to the point of being virtually nonexistent. Traffic seemed limited to the occasional taxi and a patrolling police vehicle. It was as if the night was patiently waiting on the first light of dawn.
A tall couple walked hand in hand along the empty street, a striking pair even in the unflattering glow of the sodium street lamps. She was every bit of five-ten, with silky black hair catching the cool night breeze. The color morphed from black to almost purple and back as the moonlight alternated with the streetlamps. Her eyes of blue seemed luminescent in the moon’s reflected light. She strolled with effortless grace, gliding more-so than walking. To say she was stunning in a white summer dress, hanging delicately off her left shoulder was too simple.
She rested her head on the right shoulder of the man she strolled with. Her black hair set-off against the blond highlights of his shoulder-length light brown. His hazel eyes seemed always moving, a man cognizant of his surroundings. They never stopped tracking as he swept the area around them. There was no sign of fear or indecisiveness. Even to the untrained eye he had the demeanor of a man who was always on guard yet seemed never a bit concerned. The couple leisurely angled towards a sidewalk café, having decided a warm cup of tea would cut the morning-chill.
Seventy yards to the south, deep-set dark brown eyes tracked the meandering couple from within a shadow thrown by a nearby streetlight. Even if you knew where to look, you would be hard pressed to see the owner of those eyes. A man, six feet tall, medium build – trim and muscular, though you could not tell by looking. Dressed head to toe in black, standing motionless made him invisible – not the same thing as truly.
The brown-haired man spotted his observer with a glance over his left shoulder in the general direction of the stalker. He was able to pick the man out by not looking directly at him. Looking straight at the man in black would have made him impossible to see. It was the difference in shades of black that the brown-haired man saw the shadow within the shadows. A flicker of a smile danced across his face, gone before it started.
He had known he was being followed for the last three days, spotting the tail in the reflections of storefront windows, and passing vehicles. The man following him kept at least fifty yards behind, often seeming to disappear for five to fifteen minutes before returning to his task.
Enough was enough. Play time was over for the unknown tracker. While he had yet to appear as a threat, in this man’s mind nothing good ever came from being followed so persistently.
He kissed his female companion on the forehead and pulled a burner cellphone from his pocket and punched in an Italian phone number.
In the shadows, another phone began to vibrate. The watcher retrieved it from his inner jacket pocket; an old flip-phone with no screen to light up when opened. He placed the phone to his ear, not speaking and waited.
“You answered,” said the brown-haired man, now speaking Italian. “I wasn’t sure you would.”
Silence greeted him.
“Now, now,” he said, “don’t be a spoil-sport just because I spotted you. Hell, I have been aware you were following me for three days now. To be honest, you are not very proficient when it comes to shadowing someone. Your objective is to not be seen. You failed. If this is your primary job, you need to consider a career change. You have been following someone with whom you are simply no match. I am not insulting you; merely speaking the truth.”
Still no answer from the shadows.
“Now, at this juncture you have two options. You can speak to me as you step out into the light or die where you stand.” A Tanfoglio Witness LTD Custom appeared in his right hand, modified for a silencer as he turned away from his female companion.
She glanced at the weapon as he turned to his left, back the way they had come. With a half-smile she whispered, “Lazarus, my love, you look as though you were born with a gun in your hand.” Kissing his cheek, she released his arm, stepping out of sight behind a tree.
“Well?” asked Lazarus.
Slowly, imperceptibly, the shadow began to move. He stopped at the edge of the light cast by the streetlamp.
He finally spoke. “Do you truly believe you can hit me from that distance?” It was at least seventy yards, no easy shot with a rifle in this light, let alone a handgun. He would quickly regret the challenging tone of his voice.
The man in black suddenly doubled over as though he had been kicked in the solar plexus. Dropping the phone, he cursed softly to himself. “Fuck, I didn’t think he could do it.”
He slid down the brick wall until seated in the damp alleyway. His body felt as on fire, then the shock began to take over, slowly dulling the pain. “I just don’t fucking believe it,” he whispered as he slid over onto his right side, closing his eyes as his life-force ran out into the alley.
His last words, mumbled through the rattle of death, “I never should have come after him alone. Grasso’s ego just got me killed.”
Lazarus was gone before the dying Italian drew his last breath. Having gently pulled the trigger from hip-level, he rejoined his lady as he slid the silenced 9 mm into a shoulder holster; never looking back. Years of training assured his aim was true. His suit, an Armani was well-tailored. There was no indication a weapon hung beneath his right shoulder.
He held out his left elbow and Angelique slipped a delicate hand into the crook. Together, they resumed their stroll through the quiet streets of the European city. A city which held over a decade of memories for Lazarus for he spent much of his youth in the city of Châteaurenard, and in the South of France.
“It seems years have passed since that night I got myself shot in Key West,” said the man on the water side of the fire pit. His profile was lit by the burning logs; the stone fire-pit more for appearances than warmth. “ I’m just glad the paralysis was temporary, otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to kick your ass for putting me there in the first place.” The night was muggy, to the point of intolerable. The swimming pool behind the two men was getting plenty of use.
“I know what you mean, Derek,” answered Lazarus from the other side of the fire. “Yet, at times it’s like it was yesterday when I got the letter.” He either didn’t hear the little barb from Derek, or his mind was clearly taken with the loss of his close friends, HH and Darnell.
Anyone close to Lazarus knew about “the letter”; it was always referred to as such. The letter he received the night of his reunion with Derek Grimsrud, the CIA operative across the fire-pit.
It was a night of complete absolutes. It began with absolute joy when Derek stepped out of the wheelchair at the restaurant. He had been paralyzed from the neck down by a round taken in his upper back. It was as close to miraculous as Lazarus would ever concede.
Moments later, Lazarus was taken to the depths of sorrow as he read a letter from his close friend, Darnell. The letter bore news of the death of Darnell’s wife, Lazarus’ closest friend, Helen; gunned down in the street by one of the Tongs in South Chicago.
Lazarus never heard from Darnell again. The word on the street was the former shock-collar for the Dark Lords of Chicago, took over two dozen members of the responsible Tong before being killed himself.
Darnell had requested an oath from Lazarus to not come to Chicago. Lazarus had new responsibilities in a world he was just beginning to understand; a world where the man who had been a virtual island for three decades, now found himself with a family.
Lazarus honored his promise in his own way – the only way he could and live with himself. There was no way in any world he would let the deaths of his friends be without repercussions.
Lazarus traveled to China under a rarely used identity, that of a former missionary to China. It would explain his relative fluence in the language. Lazarus traveled to Beijing, preparing a special gift for each of the five Chicago Tong. Not just the one who had killed HH.
It is no small challenge to ship questionable packages from the Mainland. Fortunately, Lazarus knew his way around the Party Regulations, using a gift shop to send the packages for him. He paid the elderly man and his wife five thousand in American bills. They would have no problem using the money, China is always looking for foreign currency.
For an extra thousand, they agreed to delay shipping them for a week, allow Mr. Hawthorne to leave the country prior to their release.
The five packages, clearly marked in Chinese, didn’t raise an alarm with any of the targets. One of the packages arrived at the main location of each one of the Five Tongs in Chicago on the same day.
Filled with curiosity, the offices where they were opened were packed. The explosives performed with the precision of their maker, sending ball-bearings in every direction, piercing walls, and shredding not only he assembled members of the Tongs, but others as well. The police estimated the death toll in the eighty to ninety range, but consensus was the number was well over one hundred. A number which satisfied Lazarus’ need to avenge the deaths of his two closest friends.
The men sat in comfortable silence, enjoying the Highland Park 18 scotch while savoring a Gurkha Chairman Select – an excellent cigar by any standard. Lazarus had saved Derek’s life twice now – Derek’s parents spared by the same man. The man they first knew as the Chameleon; sent to kill them. Lazarus voided the contract after doing his due diligence on the targets, deciding they did not deserve to die at his hand. To say it was a rough start would be an understatement. It was Lazarus’ unvarnished and direct delivery of the circumstances, coupled with the assurances of Derek, Dan and MJ came to accept the man as he was, and a strong friendship developed.
It made for a unique relationship between Lazarus and Derek. One, an international assassin, wanted in at least a dozen countries, the other, CIA Black Ops team leader with a father who was an NSA analyst.
It was the friendship with Derek which drove Lazarus to all but eradicate a Mexican drug cartel and kill CIA Special Agent, Phillip Steven Weaver. Weaver had set the wheels in motion that resulted in the wounding of Derek and two members of his team. One fully recovered, however, former Delta Ranger, Sergeant Jason Johnson, lost his left eye in the Key West attack. It took everything he had to prove he could still function at the highest level, one eye or not. He succeeded in his efforts.
The events were over a year behind them now, but not the fallout that came with “The Chameleon’s” aerial assaults on Chihuahua, Mexico and the mountain stronghold of the former Cartel, Los Zapatos de la Muerte. It followed Lazarus like a shadow for over a year. He had garnered international coverage during the air-strikes from American and Mexican news services. The positive side of the coverage was his stature and reputation had grown to almost mythical proportions. The negative repercussions were evidenced with the attempt by one of the Chicago Tongs sending someone to take him out.
Fortunately for Lazarus, the shoulder-launched missile used by the man charged with bringing down the AC-130, was an old British design, The Blow Pipe. It was, quite possibly, the most inaccurate missile ever created. It hit the mountain side hundreds of yards behind the banking Spectre. The fact of the matter was Gustaf Reichard, one of the CIA operatives supplying support had shot Tommy Huang immediately after launch. Without the operator to guide the missile, it was destined to miss.
The entire mission was driven by Lazarus anger for Derek being first kidnapped, then shot. He got support in very non-typical fashion. Primarily the assistance came from Retired Marine General Nick Fisher, Director of Covert Operations for the CIA and Ferdinand Villa, the newly elected President of Mexico.
The Mexican government went as far as flying an old C-130 into a remote mountain valley as a cover for Lazarus. The official word was “The Chameleon” was killed in the crash; not that many of the criminal contingency bought the deception.
“When are you heading back to El Paso?” asked Lazarus.
“Day after tomorrow,” said Derek. “Fischer is sending an Air Force T-39 to pick me up at Homestead. I will be flying in style; not as sweet as your Gulfstream, but it ain’t bad.”
Lazarus nodded. “The Sabreliner is a fine aircraft. Fitting for a hot-shot CIA operative such as yourself.”
Lazarus got the middle finger in response, and a chuckle for his effort.
“Fair enough, Mr. Black,” said Lazarus, using Derek’s cover name.
“No problem, Camo-man,” dead-panned Derek.
Their repartee was interrupted by a disembodied voice coming over the hidden speaker on the deck. “Dinner is ready, that is if you two are done reminiscing.”
“Was that Rebecca?” asked Derek.
“Yep,” replied Lazarus.
“You think she made dinner?”
“If she did, we are going to eat it without complaint, got it?”
“Copy that,” said Derek. “I just hope her cooking has improved.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers, Grimsrud, get your ass in there and man-up.” Lazarus delivered the statement flatly, but his eyes betrayed his concern of the evening’s cuisine.
Together they marched into the house, for all the world looking like two condemned men walking the final mile to their execution.
Dinner turned out to be a pleasant surprise all around. Rebecca Newton, personal assistant to Angelique Shaloub, had indeed improved on her culinary skills. Thanks in no small part to Leonard James, aka LJ to practically everyone. LJ was Lazarus’ most trusted associate. He could never think of LJ as an employee, though he was. LJ was completely dedicated to Lazarus, as well as his alter-ego, The Chameleon.
LJ was Cuban by birth and was quite handy around the kitchen. He had taken Rebecca under his wing, and for the last twelve months he had worked with her in the kitchen almost every day. As a result, Rebecca had developed not only a taste for Cuban cuisine, but a talent for preparing it.
Tonight’s menu featured Cuban beef empanadas; baked hand pies filled with a spiced ground beef mixture. Rebecca made them with lots of sliced green peppers and served it up with a chimichurri sauce. They were quite the hit.
Angelique, the woman who captured Lazarus’ heart while he was executing a contract in Rockport, Texas, was the reason Rebecca was there. They had a unique bond far beyond that of friendship. One not even Lazarus understood.
Rounding out the dinner table, seated next to LJ, was Katsumi Tanaka, Lazarus’ tech genius and hacker extraordinaire. Katsumi had been with Lazarus since her 16th birthday, loving him as a father. She had willingly dedicated her life to serving him.
It was not simply because Lazarus had rescued her from the hands of a brutal sadist. It was because he had set her free to live whatever life she wanted. Lazarus Solaris was the center of her world, and she loved him for giving her freedom after years of living hell on earth; first with a Chinese Tong that hooked her on drugs and forced her into prostitution at the age of 13; then being sold to a sadistic man who kept her locked up for two years; routinely beating and raping her as well as sharing her with his “friends”.
That ended on her 16th birthday, the day she met Lazarus. He came back in the middle of the night, the very same day and took her away. Together with his long-time friend and mentor, Dr. Helen Hudson and her husband Darnell, Katsumi eventually found herself again, and then her freedom under the watchful eye of Lazarus.
As for the man who kept her captive, he died a long and painful death at the hands of Lazarus, along with the head of the Tong who had enslaved her. Yes, Lazarus was capable of almost unbelievable acts of violence, delivering death without hesitation or remorse when called for. Yes, Lazarus was also capable of equally unbelievable acts of kindness at the most unexpected times. Katsumi was proof of the light within the killer, as was Derek and his parents, all of whom owed Lazarus their lives.
Lazarus was also the founder and Chairman of the board of directors for the Second Chance Foundation, located in Miami. Many an at-risk teen as well as former convicts, had benefitted from his generous scholarships – awarded on an annual basis to as many as 100 individuals. Dr. Helen had often referred to him as a sociopath with a conscience. Lazarus wasn’t sure about it, but his life demonstrated Dr. Helen was right.
Dinner wrapped up at around nine, and Lazarus took them all for a quick spin on the “Ziva”, the tri-hull sailboat named after his Aunt who raised him in France after the death of his father.
It was Angelique who picked up on Lazarus’ mood. Little escaped the Lebanese born woman who loved Lazarus, even knowing the dark side of his life.
“What is it?” asked Lazarus as Angelique took his hand in both of hers.
“It is not about me, Lazarus. I see the longing in your eyes.”
“Indeed Mon Chérie ?”
“Oui, Monsieur Solaris. It is clear as the night air to me.”
Lazarus did not respond.
“Lazarus,” said Angelique, “it has been over a year since Mexico.”
Lazarus nodded, watching the horizon from behind the wheel of the Trimaran.
“I am grateful for the time you have spent with me, truly I am. I am also very much aware you have been more distracted of late. Your mind wanders. I feel the longing in you.”
Lazarus glanced at the 5’10” woman by his side and smiled.
“It is time, Lazarus.”
“Yes, time. Time for you to return to being who you are.”
“And who am I?”
“You are two persons, my love, Lazarus Solaris and the one they call the Chameleon. It is time to set the Chameleon free from the place where you have held him captive.”
Lazarus clenched his jaws and stared ahead into the fading light. “Have you forgotten what happened last time?” he asked softly.
“No, my love, I have not. Ben died. Derek was paralyzed for weeks. The young man named Johnson lost his eye. Then you destroyed the Zapatos cartel before kicking Camacho out of an airplane at twenty-thousand feet. Then, you sent the traitor Phillip Weaver to his death for betraying Derek. Does that about cover it?” she asked with a hint of a grin.
Lazarus chuckled. “Yeah, I’d say that sums it up pretty well.”
“Yet you still blame yourself, my love, for Ben and Derek and Mr. Johnson.”
Lazarus sighed. “Only because I am to blame, Mon Cherie.”
Angelique raised his hand to her lips and kissed it. “You are a stubborn man, Lazarus. You are not to blame for any of it. You did not kill Ben, or harm Derek or injure Sargent Johnson. They were there of their own free will. Ben would have died for you in an instant if called upon. Derek and Johnson are agents who deal in death and danger on a regular basis. You saved Derek. Camacho is responsible for the death of Ben and the injuries to others.”
Lazarus looked Angelique in the eyes and saw something there. Something that raised goosebumps on his arms. It was a look of ferociousness he had not expected, a look close to rage.
“I love you, Lazarus. I would die for you if necessary, as surely as LJ or Derek or any one of those who owe you their lives. It is simple. I owe you my life, Lazarus, and I will not stand by while the man I love fades into something he was never meant to be.
“You are the Chameleon. You are an assassin. You are as dangerous as you are kind. That is the man I love, the man who sent his friends to rescue me from the cartel soldiers. The man who spared the life of one while taking the lives of many. The man who saw to it that a woman and two children lived to be reunited with the man you spared.
“You are all that, and more, my love.”
Angelique stopped speaking abruptly and leaned her head on Lazarus’ shoulder. The warmth of her touch reaching deep into Lazarus’ heart. She had spoken to him without fear or hesitation. She told him he must be who he is, not who he thinks he should be, simply because he now had a family to look after; to protect. They stayed that way, standing by the wheel until the Ziva was back at the compound on Duck Key.
Neither said a word to anyone when they docked, and no one took offense or made a comment. Together they strolled arm and arm into the house, down the hall to the master bedroom. There, Lazarus let himself go for the first time in over a year. The results left Angelique sated and satisfied, Lazarus, too.
Tomorrow morning would bring the Chameleon out of the mental cell Lazarus had locked him away in. Tomorrow, he would once again take up the hunt; be who he was born to be; a death dealer of nearly unparalleled expertise.
Lazarus slept dreamlessly for the first time since he rained death from above on over 250 souls.
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