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ROGUE HITMAN: A Lazarus Solaris Novel. Book three of the Lazarus Chronicles: April 15 release.

Chapter one

June 18, 2011

A terrified young woman knelt in a shadow cast by the streetlamp at the center of the alley. She’d taken cover behind an old rusty dumpster, covered with years of dust and dirt. She was 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. 

She was the third daughter of an Iowan farmer with four brothers, and the youngest of the siblings. Also, 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 damn England. A dream come true which started like a fairy-tale and 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 she should have done that much cocaine with someone she didn’t know. On top of that poor decision came one even worse. She knew now she should never have ditched the agency’s personal security guard assigned to her. To top off a night of one bad choice after another, she should have never in a million years left the club without telling her best friend, Angelique. All that led up to something she didn’t know was coming – she was about to witness a murder.

The man she left with, mysterious and Italian, seemed so charming an hour ago when they left the club with his driver in a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. He wasn’t particularly handsome, but what he lacked in looks he compensated for with tailored Armani suits and money. Lots of money.

He received a phone call along the way, in Italian of course. She caught little of the exchange except the mention of a large amount of “American dollars”, and what sounded like an address. She was starting to get a little nervous with the call. When the surrounding buildings began to take on a forlorn and lost look, she got scared. When they stopped in the middle of what looked like two blocks of run-down warehouses, she hit terrified. 

They had been there less than ten minutes when a brown Mercedes van pulled up, killing 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. The packages anything but routine – girls. 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, as well, 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 3 years. 

The driver of the Rolls Royce and the man she was with both got out, seemingly forgetting she was there. She could tell something wasn’t right. She thought her suspicions confirmed when the driver retrieved a handgun from the back of his pants. Then another gun materialized as if out of nowhere in the Italian man’s hand – Benito, something or the other; she couldn’t remember his last name, other than she was pretty sure it started with a G.

She watched as Drago, a stout, balding man with a scrubby three or four-day growth. He was average height, 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, the girl realized the back door was open. Looking back at the trio, she could see they were completely focused on whatever the situation with the new arrivals might be. After taking off her five-hundred-dollar shoes, she slipped quietly out of the Rolls, heading straight down the alley between two crumbling brick buildings. She glanced back twice. No one saw her leave. She found herself a spot behind an old abandoned dumpster and buried herself in whatever she found lying about. Her black dress was a plus for hiding. Old newspapers and two wooden planks fallen from a boarded-up window provided some cover, though she felt like she was standing on a runway under the bright lights.

The guns had tipped the scales from terrified to panicked, which was enough to send the nineteen-year-old former Iowa farm girl scrambling down an alley to bury herself in trash. She fought back tears as the emotional impact of her present situation hit her between the eyes. She knew she was in way too far, way over her head. Worse still, she no idea how or even if she would escape or even survive. 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, who walked to the rear of the Mercedes van and opened the door. Pacelli came back dragging by the hair what looked like a teen-aged-boy. He threw him like a Frisbee or maybe a discus, using his left hip for leverage, spinning the boy six or seven feet through the air. He landed face down with a moan just in front of the Mercedes van at Benito’s feet. She didn’t know who the young man was. How could she? She’d never seen Andrew in the first place.

*****

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, and dragged Andrew out by his hair. 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. She nodded and got out on her own, heading towards the front car.

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 him over, 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 intelligent. Well, maybe not so intelligent, considering you are lying there on the ground. Regardless, you have disappointed me, Andrew. If you’d come to me and asked for the girl, I would have seriously considered selling her to you, if you had the money, that is. I’m certain you don’t, but no matter. Instead, you tried to steal her from me. A very foolish choice, I must say. So, now what am I supposed to do with you, Andrew? Hmm? What do you think?” 

Andrew knew Grasso was lying. He also knew he was going to die. So, for the first and only time in his nineteen years on this earth, Andrew Stephen Hatcher drew a breath and became a man of his own.

He threw back his head and started laughing. “Fuck you, Benny Grassi-ass you goddamn Sicilian piece of shit-salami. What the fuck are you trying to do? Scare me? Make me beg for my life? For fuck’s sake you bloody wanker, are you trying to bore me to death? Or are you, which I’m pretty fucking sure of, 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.

Grasso had listened to it all, despite his rising anger. Eventually his face turned red. The blinding rage eradicated his plan of making an example of Andrew by killing him slowly. Instead, he kicked the boy in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him and doubling him over. 

Screaming incoherently in what might have been Italian, Grasso put three rounds from his .45 into the top of Andrew’s head as though it were nothing. He stood shaking after he stopped yelling. Then, taking a deep breath, he turned toward the two men who had delivered the boy and smiled. It seemed like it went on forever; a smile that wasn’t. A smile that chilled them to their bones.

“You got a problem with this?” Benito asked through clenched teeth.

Drago held his meaty hands shoulder high, shrugging as he said, “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, “We’ll get rid of the body and be back for the pick-up in fifteen minutes if you have no disagreement?”

Benito grunted and waved at them with his left hand, turning towards the waiting Silver Cloud. It was then he noticed the open rear doors. 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. “You find the girl, Johnny. You find her in fifteen minutes, or I’ll be needing a new driver.” He released Pacelli’s arm and pulled out a cigarette as he sat down in the back seat of the Rolls.

The young model 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 screamed 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 the three shots and the screaming. Both echoed up and down the alley in an eerie dance of noises that blended into one. Then there was silence, and she finally 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 until it couldn’t fight gravity any longer. It made a muted thud when it hit the gravel, but not muted enough as the alley echoed the sound out to the street.

Pacelli heard it. Turning to look down the alley, he couldn’t see anything at first. He walked a few paces in and his eyes adjusted to the shadowy world between the buildings. He spotted the board by the dumpster, wondering what caused it to fall. He smiled as he realized a possible, if not probable cause.

With his gun in front of him, just in case it wasn’t the model, Pacelli moved slowly into the alley. He made almost no sound with each step he took. 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 instead of straight at the glimmer, a small women’s clutch took shape in the shadows. Soon, a shoeless foot revealed itself in the gloom. 

The model didn’t scream when Pacelli pulled the other board back, taking with it half the paper she’d packed around herself. She looked lost, her eyes not focusing anywhere, 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 Carter was in shock. She heard what Grasso said, it just didn’t register. With a faraway and somewhat glazed look in her eyes, she turned to him and asked, “Uhm, how did we get here?” She looked around for a moment. “And, where are we?”

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 half-pushed her into the back seat. He did make sure she didn’t hit her head. Once she was in, he fastened her seat belt and closed the door.

“Well, I mut 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.

.

   

Chapter two

Two Weeks earlier

It was a warm June evening in Chicago. Three people, two men and a woman sat on a bench on the Navy Pier, sipping coffee and enjoying the cool 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 with skin as black as night – 6’7” and every bit of nearly 300 pounds without an ounce of visible fat on him. His head was shaved smooth; eyes hidden behind a pair of mirrored Oakley’s. He wore baggy blue-jeans 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, white, was a bit over 6 feet tall, possibly 6’2”, fit and muscular; looked almost skinny compared to his black counterpart. His hair, light brown with sun-bleached blond streaks was unkempt, falling just 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 that caught attention, especially from women. They were 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 seemed fluid – constantly changing. 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 third member of the party was fond of telling everyone she was a 5-foot beauty, but she fell about 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. Her smile was infectious, even to those who didn’t know her, and she used it well to her advantage. She wore a simple black woman’s business suit; knee length skirt with an almost plain jacket, set off by an open collar pink shirt. 

The black male, Darnell who was known by most as simply ‘D’, was staring 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 bitching. 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.

“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 gets 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 batted his eyes like a teenager and 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 the special relationship between the three, even as a casual observer. There was a rhythm to their conversations which reflected a deep level of trust and commitment.

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 would appreciate it; waiting until I croak, that is,”

“No problem, Spike. It’s the least I can do for a friend.”

“I 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, “but 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 about three months ago. So, I’m zipping along in the Lexus and I see some guy walking along the highway about five miles south of Key Largo.”

“He was hitchhiking?” asked Helen.

“No, and that’s why I stopped. He had a backpack and walking stick and wasn’t looking back. He looked like someone on a mission – a mission he planned on completing on his own. So, I pulled over about a quarter of a mile past him and got out to sit on the trunk. I fired up a cigar and waited. He was making about 4 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 a lot of classes to better understand human behavior and typical reactions to certain stimuli, etc.”

D stared at him. “Like I know what that fuckin’ means. Forget I asked.”

“Done,” said Lazarus. “Now, as I was saying, I was sitting on the trunk waiting. The closer he got the more determined his stride became. There was no fear in him, simply preparing for whatever I might have in mind.

“I pegged him for about nineteen or twenty; definitely mixed race – black and some Island nationality. Turned out it was Cuban.

“He stopped about 6 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 want to go.”

“For some reason, what he said hit a chord deep in me. Maybe it was seeing a bit of myself in him. He had pride, no question. 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 hire me?” he asked. “You don’t know anything about me.”

I smiled. “Yes, I do, not your name of course, but I see a young man who wants to make 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; not if you are there because of circumstances beyond your control.

“He nodded, which I read as agreement. So, I asked him, are you ready for an adventure or do you just want to keep walking your ass to 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 am impressed. You – making a gut call is one thing. You, making the call to put a stranger in your midst is altogether different.”

“I know,” said Lazarus. “I also know I will never regret it.” 

“So,” said Helen with a sigh, “let’s get down to business.” She looked at Lazarus. “What do you need from us?”

“Honestly, HH, just the tour-boat we discussed, and I’ll need it moving towards the target at 2100 hours.”

“You mean nine at night, Spike?” asked a grinning D.

“Yes, that would be correct for most of your city-folk.”

D continued, “It’s all set. My cousin, Rodney Green, has a 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 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 and you know goddamn well I never talk about my clients.” His voice seemed to pick up an edge as he spoke, though it never rose or changed inflections.

D put up his hands. “I got you. There just ain’t no need to get ‘all-that’ goin’ about it.”

Lazarus didn’t smile. “There is no, ‘all-that’ D. It’s the way I am, and you already know it.”

Helen watched with casual amusement. The dynamics between the two men had been evolving for years. She was seeing Lazarus put D in his place, as it were, for the first time. Her student was becoming the teacher, and a damn good one. She knew it when D nodded his head in reply.

“True-dat, Spike. My bad for pressing it.”

“History, D,” said Lazarus. “You will read about it though. This is a first for me in two ways. There are two targets and I’m taking them out in public. There will be hundreds of witnesses.”

“Damn, dude. You sure about this?”

Lazarus smiled. “Is the Pope still a Catholic?”

“Point made,” was all he said. 

Lazarus stood and the two followed. “I need to get ready and I need both of you somewhere 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.”

“Looks like dinner in Milwaukee, 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.

Lazarus shook his head, turned on his heal and headed down the pier, flipping Helen off over his left shoulder.

It was critical to Lazarus to get them out of Chicago, and he’d succeeded. He couldn’t tell them about “the client”; there wasn’t one. Technically, Lazarus was his own client for this op. He was taking preemptive action to protect the business interests of The Dark Lords, the street family of his two closest confidants: friends even.

It was approaching dusk when Lazarus slipped out to hitch a ride on Rodney’s boat, hooking a carabiner through an eye hook. A bank of lights shone out from the boat on all sides, giving Lazarus an excellent view while completely hiding him behind the glare of the 300-watt bulbs. 

   

Chapter three

Charles (Chico) Lopez represented Chicago’s 25th Ward as it’s Alderman. He was presently serving his 5th term. The 25th Ward included the Chinatown district, and with it, the Chinese Tongs, or Triads as they were more commonly referred to – organized criminal enterprises that paid Alderman Lopez well. 

Of late, one Tong was attempting to expand operations into the Southside territory of the Dark Lords. One of the longest running and best organized of the Chicago street gangs. Ironically, the Dark Lords had the lowest murder rates of any gang, a rarity for the homicide plagued Mid-Western city.

Alderman Lopez loved Chicago’s Riverwalk and could be found there every Friday after 7:00 p.m. enjoying cocktails with his financial backers. His club of choice was on the South side of the river, located between Dearborn and State Street. 

He was meeting with Jimmy Chen on a warm June Friday to discuss the expansion of Chen’s organized criminal operations. Lopez had been singling out members of the Dark Lords for months for the police to roust and hassle.

“So, Mr. Chen, do you have the resources I need to pursue the acquisition of new operating territory for the 14K Triad?” asked Lopez.

The 14k was one of Hong Kong’s largest triads – quickly becoming the same in Chicago.

“It would be desirable for our organization, Chico, and very profitable for both of us.”

Chen smiled as he saw the look of greed work its way across the Alderman’s face. “However, we do not wish an all-out war. They are very bad for business, especially tourism.”

“I agree, Jimmy,” replied the Alderman. “I can’t have a street war in my district.”

Jimmy Chen smiled as he reached inside his well-tailored gray suit, producing an envelope, fat with cash.

He slid it over to Lopez. “This should make it more desirable to achieve our goal.”

The Alderman didn’t open it; merely slipping the cash into his pocket.

The two men raised their glasses in a toast.

Lazarus smiled as Lopez and Chen came into view. Chen would be taken out first, giving the appearance of a gang related hit. The Alderman would be collateral damage if the papers spun it right, and Lazarus had already paid to see the story he wanted. The sound of the engines and music blaring from various clubs wouldn’t drown out the sounds of the rifle shots. They would echo off the water and buildings so quickly it would be impossible to determine the direction. The flash suppressor, coupled with the flood lights, would conceal any muzzle-flash from the rifle.

The right side of Jimmy Chen’s face suddenly erupted in a mixture of blood and brain matter. The 30-06 full metal jacketed round, fired at an upward angle of almost fifteen degrees to avoid collateral damage, embedded itself in a concrete support twenty feet above the walkway. A woman seated at the next table screamed in horror; vomiting as the red mushroom cloud, formerly the brain and blood of Jimmy Chen engulfed her. As expected by Lazarus, the sound of the rifle shot resounded ten-fold off the surrounding skyscrapers. The ensuing panic was pure unadulterated mayhem as patrons ran helter-skelter in all directions seeking cover. Chen’s bodyguards spun in circles; weapons drawn in a futile attempt to locate the shooter. 

Alderman Lopez was staring in shock at the gore before him when the left side of his head replayed the devastation done seconds before to the right side of the now dead, Jimmy Chen’s head.

There was an abundance of Chicago police officers already on site, standard procedure because of the Alderman’s public exposure. They were running in all directions, weapons at the ready searching for the origin of the shots.

Rodney Green was close to panic. He’d been close to the river walk with his tour boat when the shooting began. As both men went down, Green realized the shot had to have come from his general direction. He scanned the north side of the river looking for any sign of a shooter. A police officer waved until he got Green’s attention.

“Get those people out of here now!” he shouted. Rodney throttled up the boat, wanting to get his passengers out of the line of fire, heading east under the State Street bridges.

Lazarus slipped quietly back under the tour boat. Checking, he saw he was good for another forty-five minutes on the air tanks. He field-stripped the Remington bolt-action 30-06 and scattered the pieces along the murky bottom as the tour boat sliced through the calm waters. 

The hit had gone as close to perfect as possible. The only variable he couldn’t control would be if the Alderman left early. That hadn’t happened. Lazarus had been in the river since before sunrise waiting for the tour boat to come by. He was warm enough in his wet-suit and with water and plenty of power bars to get him through the day. 

Two kills in less than five seconds. It was a very satisfied Chameleon who slipped out of the river four hours later and two miles away. He walked the shadows to the waiting 2016 Toyota Celica he’d left the day before for his get-away. His wetsuit was in the river with everything else. He had donned blue jeans, a grey tee-shirt, boat shoes and a navy-blue windbreaker he’d retrieved from under a bridge. He sent a short text message before breaking the burner phone in pieces, pulling the sim-card before tossing the pieces down a storm sewer.

“Done,” was all he had typed, alerting his support staff of his success.

*****

Lazarus took side streets, winding his way through Chicago heading south and east. He planned on leaving the Celica near the Gary, Indiana airport with the keys in it. He figured a day at the most before it found a new owner. The title was on the dash if the finder felt like registering it. Though the Celica was a foundation pool car, Arthur Higginbottom was listed as the previous owner, and he had signed the title. Lazarus would simply process a sale to Mr. Higginbottom when back in Florida.

The sun was coming up as he passed through Robertsdale on Indianapolis Blvd., aka US Highway 20, when he spotted a Dunkin Donuts. He pulled into the parking lot and went in for a large coffee and a couple of glazed dunkers. He hit the restroom and was back out the door in less than 20 minutes, refreshed and ready for the rest of the drive to Gary. 

Lazarus drove around to the back of the donut shop; throwing his trash into a container located inside a u-shaped brick enclosure with a cedar gate. He was walking back to the Celica when he heard a dog yipping and howling in pain. It sounded young to his trained ear and seemed to be emanating from a house just across Lake Avenue to the East of the parking lot. He scanned the area for onlookers, but it was early; there was no traffic.

He slipped along the north side of the house where the sound seemed to be coming from. The closer he got he was proven right. Lazarus lay in the shadows at the northeast corner of the residence before crawling out for a better view. What he saw hit him like a brick of emotion – something he hadn’t expected. Tied to a stake was a golden retriever puppy, no more than 4-6 months old by his estimate. The man, a white male who appeared to be in his fifties, easily no less than three-hundred pounds, was administering the beating had a belt folded over in his right fist. The leather whistling in the calm morning air as he rained blow after blow on the trembling puppy.

Lazarus would never be able to explain why he intervened; he moved without thinking of consequences as he raced across the yard. He grabbed the belt in his left hand when the guy brought it back for another swing, driving the side of his right hand into the big man’s throat – crushing his larynx. Lazarus wrapped the belt around the man’s neck while pivoting to his right. He leveraged with his left hip, pivoting to his right as he sent the three-hundred pounder sailing over his head. Just before the man hit the ground, Lazarus yanked the belt like a starter on a mower – snapping the neck. Death was instantaneous.

The only sound to be heard was the barely audible whimpering of the small retriever, bloody and missing half his fur, barely conscious if at all. The rage which had taken Lazarus by storm quickly dissipated. He didn’t look at the house or check to see if anyone had seen him. Crouching down, he cut the rope restraining the dog to a piece of rebar driven into the dirt. Gently, Lazarus wrapped the puppy in the small blanket he had been laying on; handling him with a tenderness in stark contrast to the violent and swift death he had brought moments before. He lifted the puppy carefully, glanced once at the dead man and cautiously headed back to the waiting Celica. Scanning the area one last time, still seeing no movement on the street. 

He took a left from the Dunkin Donuts parking lot, north at first. Five blocks up he took a left and cut west for 6 blocks before heading south on Calumet to 117thStreet, which took him back to Indianapolis and back on track for Gary.

*****

Once out on the interstate again, Lazarus called Katsumi.

“Good morning, Sir,” she mumbled through a healthy yawn.

“Sounds like someone was sleeping in,” he teased.

“Sir? It’s 5:10 in the morning. You don’t even get up before 5:30 when you are home.” Her voice carried a slight undertone of sassiness – a trait she’d developed over the last two years. It was music to Lazarus’ ears when he considered the memory of the girl so timid and fearful when he’d taken her into his care.

“Point made, and I’ll ignore that tone of yours simply because you just woke up.”

He was surprised when she blew a ‘raspberry’ into the phone. “I don’t have a ‘tone’, Sir. It’s just my ‘someone woke me up too dang early’ voice. So, how may I be of service this morning?” She finished with a voice much happier in tone.

Lazarus chuckled. “Nothing, sweetie. I am calling to let you know the trip went well, though I will be staying two or three days longer for a little boat shopping.” He didn’t tell her about the puppy. He wasn’t sure it would survive and didn’t want Katsumi weighed down by the possibility.

“Are you still looking at sailboats?” asked Katsumi.

“Yes I am. I’m starting to consider a catamaran for its added stability in rougher seas, but nothing’s set in stone.”

“No worries, Sir. Everything is under control. LJ is painting my apartment for me. He’s usually very quiet; doesn’t say much at all. I don’t mind. He kind of makes me feel safer with you gone

“I’m glad to hear it. As for his reluctance to speak, you’ll have to give him time, Kat. He’s had a rough road to where he is today.”

“Will do, Sir. Let me know when you are headed back, and LJ will meet you in Key West to pick you up.”

“Sounds like a good plan, sweetie,” said Lazarus. “I’ll call you day after tomorrow with an update. Stay safe.”

“You, too, Sir. OH, if you find one you like please send pictures,” she added.

“Done,” said Lazarus as he ended the call and started searching for an animal hospital in the Gary area. He would be checking references before leaving “Buddy” as he had taken to calling the puppy. He still had no idea why he’d risked so much for a dog, though he was past the second-guessing and in the mindset of ‘Karma is Karma’ as he closed the distance to Gary; now twenty miles to the east.

  

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