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2013
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Evan Arden 2
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Otherwise Occupied

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Bitten by Treachery

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Otherwise Occupied

By Shay Savage





Copyright © 2013

Shay Savage

All Rights Reserved

Cover design by Mayhem Cover Creations





Table Of Contents

Chapter 1 – Hired Relief

Chapter 2 – Annoying Rival

Chapter 3 – Conjured Plan

Chapter 4 – Patient Research

Chapter 5 – Tense Situation

Chapter 6 – Brief Surrender

Chapter 7 – Easy Murder

Chapter 8 – Wretched Patient

Chapter 9 – Evening Interlude

Chapter 10 – Abrupt Change

Chapter 11 – Painful Betrayal

Chapter 12 – Lost Sanity

Epilogue

Otherwise Unharmed Preview





Chapter 1 – Hired Relief


It’s fucking raining.

Again.

It wasn’t that I minded the wet or the cold – I really didn’t, but it screwed with my aim and I was still trying to get back into the boss man’s good graces. I couldn’t really afford to miss. Against my better judgment when it came to an easy escape, I had put myself a little closer than I liked to be for this sort of job. I had to be sure to be successful, and if it cost me my life…well, that was better than failure at this point.

With my left eye closed, I looked through the scope of my Barrett M82 rifle. The crosshairs focused on a set of double doors made of glass and metal. The doors led inside of an office building, and there was a large “space available” sign over the entryway with a phone number to call if you wanted a thousand square feet, which was just right for your office needs. If you were to call the number, someone would answer, but you’d find there wasn’t really any available space.

Not unless you had the right connections – preferably Russian, quite probably illegal Caspian Sea caviar, and definitely heroin. Those connections might get you a little corner office, but they would not, however, endear you to Rinaldo Moretti – my boss and sole owner of all the Moretti businesses. Some of those businesses were even legal.

Well, one of them was.

Sort of.

I shifted my hip and stretched my back a bit. I had been in the same position for a good seven hours, and I was hungry. I brought a couple of protein bars ; with me, but they were long gone. This job wasn’t supposed to take this long, and I was getting frustrated and annoyed. I forced my breathing into a slow, regulated pace.

Frustration and annoyance were not my friends, not when I was on the job. I needed to keep my shit together long enough for my target to walk out the door and die.

Maybe the weather was causing a delay.

I reached up with my hand and tightened the cloth around my forehead. It was doing a decent job of keeping the rain from my eyes, but it wasn’t helping with the whole comfort level. I didn’t stop watching the door as I adjusted the bandana – never that. I had to be quick, efficient, and deadly.

No fuckups.

The last fuckup nearly cost me my life and had ended with me exiled to the desert for months, and that was just for killing the wrong guy. Missing the right one would be a lot worse. Of course, I couldn’t hit or miss him if he didn’t show up where he was supposed to be when he was supposed to be there.

“Calm, Arden.” I blinked as I realized I was actually talking out loud to myself. Not good. I didn’t like that shit, so I clenched my teeth a bit to remind myself not to do it again.

Everything had been perfect up until this point. After a week of scouring the Chicago city skyline, I had found the perfect building with the perfect view of the front doors. No visibility from the street directly below and nicely shielded from view of both the Willis Tower and the John Hancock Observatory. I only needed to be patient until…

…there he was.

I had no doubt the man in the grey trench coat was my target, though I had never met him before. I had studied his picture for hours yesterday to be sure I wouldn’t make a mistake. I’d probably been through his family photos more often than his wife had.

I blinked once, placed the crosshairs in position, and smoothly pulled back on the trigger.

Only a muted thump could be heard as I sent the bullet down the barrel and into his left eye. Before he hit the ground, I was already back away from the ledge of the building and disassembling my rifle to shove it into a gym bag. I moved the clothes around inside to cushion the metal and make it undetectable from the outside of the bag and then headed swiftly to the rooftop entrance.

Three minutes later I was on the other side of the building, out the door, and then taking the stairs into the parking garage across the street. At the top of the garage was a gym where I held a membership, and I made my way to the locker room inside. With my bag padlocked into a locker, I hit the Nautilus equipment.

It felt good to work out a bit. I had been slacking.

All thoughts of Thomas Farmer, chief board member of Electro Industrial (now deceased), vanished from my head by the time I had done my third set of weights. If it sent the right message to others about which crime lord you should align with, I might get a bit of a break, and Moretti might put me back on my normal pay scale.

Probably not.

Sweat replaced the rainwater in my hair, and after I’d done a rotation on the Nautilus, I went for the treadmill. From the front counter, there was a chick there who kept giving me the eye. She even brought me a towel when I finally got off the machine. She’d done the same thing the last time I was here, but I didn’t see her do it for anyone else.

“How was your workout, Evan?”

“Fine,” I replied. “Thanks.”

Great – she even bothered to look up my name.

She was twenty-four or twenty-five, five-foot-seven, blonde, and she had recently gotten a haircut – the ends were crisp and blunt – but she didn’t like how it had turned out. She was trying to pull off a little ponytail for a hairstyle that was far too short, using a rubber band from around a newspaper. She didn’t normally wear it that way, or she’d have one of those scrunchie things.

The first thought in my mind regarding her hair was to agree – it was too short. It also wasn’t dark enough. She didn’t have that classic Italian beauty look I preferred.

Preferred?

I wasn’t actually aware I had a preference, and I considered this as I gave her a smile, a quick thanks, and then headed to the shower. While the water poured over me, images of long, smooth dark hair – almost black, but not quite – and matching dark eyes flooded my mental vision. I could almost feel her smooth skin against my palms.

I shook water from my head and quickly changed my thoughts.

I was probably going to have to change gyms even though I had only recently joined this one. I didn’t need anyone paying attention to me, remembering me, and hitting on me. It was too bad, really, since the place was big enough to have a short wait time for the machines. Oh well. I could always work out at the gym adjoining my apartment, but the wait time for a treadmill meant spending half the day there for a sixty-minute workout.

Home again.

My apartment was a high-rise building right near the Chicago River. My boss owned the place, and it came with the job, so I didn’t have to pay any rent or anything. It was a nice perk, though I would have preferred living in the country somewhere. I had never lived in the country, but I always thought I would like it – open spaces for target shooting and enough room for Odin to run around and chase squirrels and shit.

I nodded at Pete, the security guard, as I walked by. I had no idea what his last name was, but he was on Rinaldo’s payroll. He smiled back at me, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes like it usually did.

I glanced over him and quickly took in other changes. He was usually dressed pretty nicely, but on this day his normally ironed shirt was wrinkled, and the tie didn’t match. His eyes were a little bloodshot from either lack of sleep or possibly actual crying – I couldn’t really tell the difference.

It made me wonder if the wife had left him or if he left the wife, and then I decided it was probably the former. He had a kid, too – a young one not yet in school. I wondered if she found out about who he worked for and walked out. I wondered if I’d have to kill him.

Or her.

Maybe the kid.

Nah, probably not. Rinaldo was a businessman, and killing a kid rarely achieved anything that couldn’t be achieved just as well by killing the parent.

The elevator dinged, and I pressed the button for the seventeenth floor. My apartment was the perfect location as far as I was concerned – right on the corner of the building, up high enough for my rifle to be very effective from a distance, and just two stories above the adjoining building. If I needed to get out via the balcony, I could. I usually took the elevator up and the stairs down but not for any particular reason. I was used to doing little things like that to keep myself in shape, and it was just a habit.

My eyes traveled over the door to my apartment, automatically looking for any signs of forced entry. There were none, but you couldn’t be too careful. I slipped the key in the lock and opened the door.

“Hey, bud.”

Odin jogged his way across the living room to greet me, and I rubbed his shaggy head. It was good to see his hair growing back in again – he looked better with it longer. Well, he at least looked more like a giant mop, a.k.a. a Great Pyrenees. When we had been out in the Arizona desert all that time, I had to keep it closely clipped to keep him cooled down. His buzz cut had been nearly as short as mine.

Maybe dogs did end up looking like their owners. Or was it the other way around?

Whatever it was, if dogs were man’s best friend, Odin did his best to live up to the job. He had been with me for years and was about the only living thing around me I felt like I could actually count on. He would always be there when I got home from whatever I was doing. He never judged, never asked me a bunch of questions about why I was the way I was, and he never looked at me with fear.

He was my buddy, and it was one of the few things that scared me. I kept quiet about him because making it known I had something to care about – even a dog – was enough to bring those who had something against me out of the woodwork and into my private life. I didn’t need that shit, and I couldn’t always be around to protect Odin. As big and ferocious as he could look to some people, he was an easy target to others.

I started up my netbook computer before heading to the kitchen for some orange juice. It was the good stuff – fresh squeezed. I had been splurging on little things like that since returning to Chicago from the cabin in Arizona. The little things were so much more important than people realized when they had to go without.

Not that I had taken any of the small creature comforts for granted beforehand, either. It had been like that in the Iraqi desert, too, even at our base. Ration everything was the rule. It sucked, but it beat being left for dead in a hole.

Odin rubbed up against my leg, and I realized I had been lost in thought for a moment. I patted him in thanks and wondered for the hundredth time how he knew to do that. Like those service dogs that would get epileptics to lie down on the floor before a seizure starts to keep them from hurting themselves, Odin always seemed to know when I was thinking too much about the past.

He worked better than the drugs the doctors had prescribed.

I finished the OJ, took Odin out for a quick walk, and checked my email.

More lotto winnings.

Amazon would like me to review my purchase of a new set of headphones. I hadn’t actually tried them out yet, but I’d be hanging out with Jonathan tomorrow and would probably need them. The dude smoked a lot of weed and usually started babbling when he was stoned.

A dating site called Lost Connections wanted to hook me up with an available woman in my area. I licked my lips and thought I was going to need a little company for the weekend but not from a fucking dating site.

Lost Connections.

Before I could stop it, expressive and soft brown eyes in the center of a heart-shaped face invaded my thoughts. Long, dark hair and a fucking luscious ass came next, but I pushed the rest of the memory away before it could really take hold and turned back to my email.

Pizza Hut had free cinnamon sticks with any large pizza.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” I muttered to myself. I clicked on the pizza link and quickly ordered a large stuffed crust with mushrooms and pineapple to be delivered.

Hey – it’s what I like.

Fucking sue me.

When the pizza showed up, I sat on the floor of the living room with my back against the couch and dug in, tossing bits of crust to Odin as I ate. It was a good thing I had gone to the gym today because I had eaten a shitload of pizza since returning to the city.

More thoughts about the simple things spun around in my head. Pizza, beer, coffee – even a gym where I could work out properly. For some reason, my pleasure at the thought of the mundane alarmed me. My tongue moistened my lips, and I grabbed the remote to find something to watch on the television.

I was definitely thinking too much. I had to stop.

Television wasn’t a necessity; it was a luxury and a way to pass the time. I never really liked television much as a kid but found it was good for helping me relax now.

This History Channel was always good for a few z’s, and it was playing something about dinosaurs. I tossed the half empty pizza box up onto the coffee table and lay down on the couch. The throw pillows picked out by Luisa were soft and comfortable, and I wondered how Rinaldo’s youngest daughter was doing. I hadn’t seen her in a while.

Not that I would go too close to her – I wasn’t stupid. You didn’t date the boss’s daughter unless the boss told you to. He hadn’t done that, though she was my age and I was considered one of Rinaldo’s favorites.

Had been, anyway.

If he ever gave his blessing, I’d do her. She was hot and had a smart mouth that made me laugh. It didn’t seem too likely now, not with me on the shitlist indefinitely. It was enough to make anyone paranoid, and I was already a little bit on the unstable side.

An animated T-Rex took a bite out of a Stegosaurus as my vision blurred.

Head throbbing…and the taste of dirt in my mouth. On my stomach, coughing, trying to get the dust from my lungs…but only inhaling more of it. Hands bound behind me, and I can’t turn enough to the side to get my face off the ground…

I woke, startled, and glanced up at the television to see a bunch of World War II footage on the screen. I quickly shut the damn thing off. I sat up and put my head in my hands, trying to clear the memory-dream from inside.

A large wet tongue against my forearm centered me, and I reached over to scratch the base of Odin’s ears.

“I need a better distraction,” I muttered to myself.

Odin huffed at me as I grabbed my jacket and keys and shoved a Beretta down the back of my pants. He was probably looking at the clock and assuming I was going to work, but I’d gotten my job done earlier. Now I needed to spend some of my cash.

My parking spaces in the garage held two vehicles – a used black Mazda hatchback I had purchased on my way back from Arizona about an hour after my old Chevy truck died and a silver Audi R8 convertible that I rarely ever took out unless it was one of the high-end social occasions I sometimes felt obligated to attend.

The public transportation in Chicago was awesome, and I was a big fan of it ninety percent of the time. Every once in a while there was a need to get from one place to another door-to-door, though, and that was what I needed on this night. I slipped behind the wheel of the Mazda and headed south to the area where the gentlemen’s clubs tended to spill out onto the street corners.

There were a hundred reasons I loved Chicago. Someone could live here for twenty years and still have new stuff to do. Jobs were everywhere, despite what the dudes sitting in the doorways of rundown buildings holding out cups and signs claimed. They might not have been good jobs, but there was shit to do and ways to make money. I loved the buildings the most – the whole concrete jungle idea. I loved figuring out how to get to the top of them and look down over the whole city. The Skydeck on top of the Willis Tower was an awesome place to relax.

Okay, maybe not to everyone, but I loved it.

I slowed the car as I approached the corner, and a half dozen girls and one guy took a few steps closer to the passenger side door. One of the girls actually came around to my side and laid her boobs over my windshield, smiling and grinding away at me. She was way too skinny though and had that junkie look about her. I checked the rest of them out quickly, and it didn’t take me long to decide on the one with the biggest ass. My finger depressed the window button, and the guy placed his hand on the roof of the car to lean it.

“You lookin’ for somethin’ special tonight?”

“All-nighter,” I told him. “Gimme the dark-haired girl with the round ass.”

The dude leaned in a bit more, and I tilted my head a bit so he could get a good look at me.

“Yeah, I know you,” he said. “One of Rinaldo’s guys. Arden, right?”

“You got it.”

“You sure you want that one? She’s new and givin’ me a bit of trouble.” He snickered. “Nothing you couldn’t handle. Fuck, might use you to make an example out of her, ya know? You do side jobs?”

“Yeah, sure,” I said with a shrug. “She won’t give me no trouble, though.”

“Well, you give her a little discipline if ya need to, ‘kay?”

“’Kay,” I repeated. Like I was really going to fuck up a girl I was fucking. Pimps were assholes, no doubt about it.

“Employee discount!” he announced with a laugh and a wink. “Come over here, Bridgett.”

The black-haired girl walked over to the side of the car, and the pimp opened the door for her. She looked up at him with a bit of concern.

“You’re gonna be taking care of Mister Arden tonight,” he said as he gave her a little push inside. “He’s a good customer, so you be good to him.”

She only hesitated a moment before getting inside. Her tiny skirt rose up and gave me a view of her little black panties. She had on stupidly high heels – like they all did – which were going to look pretty good over my shoulders. She shivered, but I didn’t know at first if the motion was from the temperature change or from nervousness.

I gave the pimp half the cash before I drove off with her. I’d owe him the rest when I brought her back, assuming she took care of me the way she was supposed to. I knew she would. However she ended up in this business, they all knew better than to piss off a client. Those who didn’t know the rules ended up in the river or the lake.

“What’s your name?” I asked. I knew what it was – the pimp had called her by her name – but I wanted her to say it.

“Bridgett,” she replied quietly. She looked down at her hands on her lap and then tried to pull her skirt down a bit. I saw her hand tremble slightly before I looked back up at the road.

“I’m Evan,” I told her. “Evan Arden. You haven’t been doing this long.”

“A while,” she responded.

“You’ve never had anyone take you home before.”

She glanced sideways at me and then shook her head.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” I told her. “That ain’t my thing. I’m an ass-man, though. You take it in the ass?”

She blinked rapidly a few times, and her fingers tensed around themselves.

“I have,” she said quietly.

Her throat bobbed up and down, and her eyes tightened along with her jaw. She’d been hurt – I didn’t have any doubt about that. Hookers often were, and I didn’t think there was such a thing as one who wasn’t broken in some way or another. This one was new, though – recently damaged.

I pulled the car over to the curb and turned sideways. Her whole body tensed up, and she pushed herself a little towards the door. I reached over and took her chin in my hands.

“Hey,” I said. “I told you I wasn’t going to hurt you, right?”

“Yeah.” She nodded rapidly as her eyes widened.

“I meant that. I got lube, we’ll go slow, and if you decide you don’t want it, we’ll stop. I can always just fuck you from behind – I’m good with that. Okay?”

She nodded again and relaxed slightly. I leaned over the console and placed my lips against hers firmly. She responded like she was on autopilot, which she probably was. After a couple of kisses, I backed away and looked her over once more as I tried to decide if she was going to be all right with this or not. She looked good, though – the right hair color, at least. Her eyes were light brown, though. I wasn’t sure what her nationality might have been, but she wasn’t Italian. Regardless, I really wanted to keep her. It was too much trouble to go all the way back and pick out another one.

“You okay?” I asked.

She nodded her head a few times, so I pulled back into traffic.

Bridgett was obviously new. She was young – maybe twenty or so – and definitely didn’t have the demeanor of a street-hardened hooker. If I was a different kind of guy, I would have just taken her to some motel and given her the night off or whatever, but I was more pragmatic than that. If I wasn’t doing her tonight, some other guy would be. Maybe he’d be a nice guy and maybe he wouldn’t, but at least she wasn’t going to get hurt with me.

At a red light, I looked over at her again, and my mind immediately began to catalog information. Long, soft-looking black hair – maybe Latino, but no accent, so she wasn’t an illegal from Mexico or Cuba or anything like that. She was dressed in the typical whore attire – red mini skirt, thigh-high stockings, black lacy top that showed her lack of bra quite clearly. Nice, big, round nipples.

“Bridgett?” I asked quietly. It took her a moment to look from the window over to me. Bridgett wasn’t her actual name, and she hadn’t been going by it for very long. People responded very quickly to hearing sounds even remotely like their own names, and her delay was far too long. “You hungry or anything?”

“No, thank you,” she replied. “I’m fine.”

“There’s a restaurant in my apartment building,” I said. “We could eat first, if you want. It’s a nice place – good food, maybe get you a drink or two? I know I could use one.”

Come on, baby – go with me here.

“If you want to,” she finally said.

Very complacent.

It was almost ten-thirty, and the full menu wasn’t available after ten, but I ordered a couple of sandwiches with chips and a beer for me. I got her one of those vodka martinis that were a lot stronger than people realized. I tried to get her to relax a bit, but she kept glancing around the restaurant.

I contemplated for a moment.

“No one here cares what you’re wearing,” I told her.

Her eyes found mine.

“I look like a hooker,” she said quietly.

No shit.

“You are a hooker,” I said. I waved my hand towards the two servers near the bar. “They all know that. They’d know that if I put you in a cocktail dress, flats, and one of those little old lady red hats, too.”

“How would they know?”

I laughed.

“Because you’re with me.”

I managed to get her to settle down a little after that, and she did eat part of her sandwich and polish off two martinis while we talked about the weather and the Chicago Fire soccer team. Mostly I talked – she didn’t seem to know shit about soccer. I finished my beer, tossed cash onto the table, and led her by the hand to the elevators. As soon as we stepped inside and the doors closed, I could feel her tension mount again, so I leaned over close to her ear.

“Not going to hurt you,” I reminded her, and my lips pressed lightly against her neck, just below her ear.

Bridgett nodded slowly but still jumped a bit when the elevator went ding, signifying my floor.

I led her out into the hallway and to my apartment door. Her eyes widened a bit as Odin came up to sniff at her. He could be a little intimidating, and he didn’t usually let people touch him. However, since he didn’t bark much, he didn’t often end up frightening anyone badly, and Bridgett was no exception. I didn’t give them much of a chance to get to know each other as I grabbed two bottles of water from the kitchen counter and brought Bridgett to my bedroom.

My foot connected with the edge of the door, blocking Odin from the show as it slammed shut. I could hear him snuffle at the crack before he gave up and moved away. Placing the water bottles on the nightstand, I sat down on the edge of the king-sized bed and started to untie my boots.

“Those look like army boots,” Bridgett observed. “A friend of mine went into the army. Are you in the army?”

“No,” I said. Her babble amused me a little. “Ex Marine. Don’t you know what ARMY stands for?”

“Um…no.”

“Ain’t Ready for the Marines Yet.”

She snickered at the lame joke, which I figured was a good sign. Laughing brought people’s guards down, and if she didn’t relax, it was going to pretty much ruin my evening. I smiled up at her, and she returned the look before walking up to me and standing between my knees.

She placed her hands on my shoulders, and I tilted my head up to meet her lips as she bent over me. She tasted like vodka and pomegranate juice in my mouth, and she felt soft and warm in my hands. My fingers moved up to her shoulders and then back down again as our tongues moved around each other.

She pulled at the hem of my T-shirt, and we broke apart long enough for her to lift it over my head. Her hands came back to my shoulders, and she stroked her fingers down my chest.

I watched her eyes as she took me in. I was used to women looking at me in the gym or even going down the street. Even in the military, the chicks I served with favored me. Women usually liked what they saw – toned muscles, six pack abs, no scars.

Well, none on the outside.

My captain told me I intrigued them, which was why they seemed to flock to me. I was a quiet guy – a mystery for them to solve. I didn’t know why girls ate that shit up, but he said they did and he was right. As soon as they figured you out – really figured you out – they didn’t want anything to do with you.

It was part of the reason I preferred hired company.

Bridgett’s soft lips molded against mine again, and her tongue played around in my mouth as her hands continued to explore most of my upper body. I got a good grip on her plump ass, pulled her into my lap and down against my waiting cock. Rubbing against her little thong panties felt good – too good. I needed something a little quicker for now.

“How about you blow me first?” I suggested as I pulled back a bit and loosened my belt. “It’s been a while, and I want to be able to concentrate.”

“Sure,” she said.

“Take all that off first,” I said with a flick of my finger towards her clothes. I flipped the buttons of my jeans open and slid them down my legs along with my boxers. “Leave the stockings and shoes, though. That’s hot.”

“Whatever you want,” she said with a smile. Her eyes tightened a bit as she looked at my cock, and I knew what she was thinking. I wouldn’t push her though, and she smiled up at me again like I didn’t scare her.

She faked it all well. I hoped she’d get something out of it, too.

I sat back against the headboard, and Bridgett crawled over between my legs. My fingers ran through her hair as she leaned over and took me in her mouth. Warm and wet – just what I needed. She licked around the head first, and then tried to go down too far. She gagged a little and moved back, refusing to meet my eyes as she tried again.

“Look at me, sweetheart,” I said, and she complied. “How long you been doing this?”

“I…um…”

“It’s okay,” I said. “Tell me.”

“Since Monday.”

“Shit, are you serious?”

She nodded.

“You want to stop?”

“No,” she shook her head. “I gotta make a living.”

I looked at her for a long time and wondered why I was even asking her. Since when did I care how much experience a hooker had? Even if she had been turning tricks less than a week, she might have already had more partners than I ever did.

“Go slow,” I told her. My hand moved over her cheek, and she nodded slightly before wrapping her lips back around the head of my dick. I spread my arms out across the headboard and let her make the moves. “You don’t have to take it all – just use a lot of tongue. That’s it…look at me…show me how much you love my cock.”

Her dark eyes stayed on mine as she sucked, licked, and ran her hand over what she couldn’t get in her mouth. I didn’t try to hold back, just let her work on me as my thigh muscles tightened along with my balls. The tingling sensation rose up, circled the base of my dick, and then focused through the tip of my cock as I let out a muted grunt and poured into her throat with a single thrust of my hips.

“Fuck, yeah,” I muttered. My hand passed over her hair again as her throat worked to swallow it down. She moved me back and forth in her mouth a couple more times before I placed my hand on her cheek again. “You’re good…come here.”

I gave her one of the water bottles and watched as she drank half of it down while I got my breathing under control. Maybe the asshole pimp wasn’t taking care of her like he should. That shit didn’t make sense to me. Why have expensive pieces of merchandise you can sell over and over again and not take care of them?

At least this one wasn’t strung out. I hated junkie hookers.

She placed the bottle back on the edge of the nightstand, and I pulled her to my chest. For a minute, I held her to me. Feeling her weight on top of me was kind of nice and made me feel warm and sleepy. Maybe I didn’t need the sex as much as I needed the company.

“I’m gonna sleep a bit,” I told her. “You can sleep with me if you want, or there’s a TV in the other room, cable and everything. There’s pizza in the fridge, too.”

“I could use a little sleep,” she admitted. “I don’t usually get much.”

“Hard to sleep during the day?”

“Yeah, it is.”

I shifted around until I could pull the comforter and the sheets down enough to get our legs underneath the covers and then pulled her back to my chest. She settled her cheek on my shoulder and closed her eyes. My fingers stroked through her smooth hair, and she blew warm breath over my skin.

Sleep came soon, and with the warmth of another body next to mine, it came without thought or dreams.

There was just no substitute for a good hooker.





Chapter 2 – Annoying Rival


“That’s custom.”

Jonathan Ferris tapped the police report on the laptop’s screen right above the bullet hole I left where the board member’s eye used to be. I wasn’t sure how he managed to get into classified information online, but he always had all the same info the Chicago Police Department had in its system. I wasn’t sure if the CPD realized how many people ended up with all their classified records, but Jon was the kind of guy who was brought up sharing.

“That’s what you always say,” I reminded him

“It’s always true,” Nick replied. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of you actually missing. Well, sometimes you might kill a few extras, but who’s counting, right?”

Nick Wolfe had a way of putting a lot of emphasis on various words in a sentence for no particular reason. It gave him a hippie-stoner vibe, which wasn’t totally inaccurate, but didn’t completely fit, either. The guy was a classic chick-magnet, too – both in looks and the ability to get a group of women around him and listen to him tell stories. He’d always leave with at least one of them, sometimes two. He was completely uncockblockable at a club or a bar, but that would be a whole other story all by itself.

He could also get away with shit other people couldn’t, like bringing up the reason for my exile without me smashing his face in. I had no idea what he actually did for Rinaldo, but even with all the bullshit, I liked the guy. Everyone liked him. I did narrow my eyes at him, which made him smile and laugh a little.

“Just saying, dude.”

I rolled my eyes and looked back at the computer screen.

“You’re the fucking master, Evan,” Jonathan said, and I thanked him.

It had been a pretty nice hit.

“It’s good to know you didn’t lose your touch out in the desert, Arden.” I turned towards the voice and watched Rinaldo Moretti walk into the plush office where he conducted a lot of his business. He wasn’t much to look at, my boss – average height, mostly bald, mid-fifties, a bit of a gut on him – but what he lacked in looks, he made up for in power. The man could make shit happen with a couple taps of his finger.

He was nervous about something today. Even though he walked with confidence and showed nothing in his face, there was something bothering him. The vein near his temple was beating rapidly, and his left hand kept clenching into a fist.

Behind him were two other men – Mario Leone and Terry Kramer. Mario was a huge guy – towering over my six-foot-two frame by a good five inches with enough muscle to deter most anyone from taking a stab at the boss. Of course, that was exactly why he was hired. Terry was a little wiry guy who looked like a dwarf next to the massive pile of muscle. If Mario fell over, Terry would get crushed, and it would suit me just fine if he did, too.

Leone was okay – he would sit down and have a beer with you when he wasn’t working and just shoot the shit. Terry was a whole other story. He was an obnoxious kid who rubbed me the wrong way even before he started trying to take my job.

None of them looked unusually concerned about anything – just Rinaldo.

“No, sir,” I responded automatically. I gave Mario a nod but ignored Terry completely. I took a long breath in slowly and silently, hoping we weren’t going to spend the entire afternoon reminding me of where I had fucked up. I’d already paid my dues as far as I was concerned.

“Good to know because this next one’s going to be a little more challenging.” He dropped his ass onto one of those big, leather executive chairs and leaned back.

“Whatever you need, sir.”

“Show him the picture.” He huffed a quiet breath through his nose and glanced away from the desk. He was annoyed with this person he wanted me to kill, no doubt about it.

Leone walked over and dropped a magazine on the desk in front of me. On the front page was a man I recognized immediately – I’d seen him in at least a dozen Bruce Willis style action films.

“Brad Ashton,” Jonathan said. “I saw him in that terrorist movie with the chick with the boobs.”

“Angelina Jolie,” I reminded him.

“Yeah – that one.”

“He’s got round the clock surveillance and never goes anywhere without a guard,” Rinaldo said. “Paparazzi follow him everywhere, too. The guy is never alone. He even fucks in pairs.”

“Makes him harder to hit,” Terry said.

Like I needed his fucking opinion.

“It’s gotta be close,” Rinaldo said as his eyes turned to me. “In his face, you know? Up close and personal.”

“I’m a sniper, sir,” I reminded him.

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew I shouldn’t have said them. My eyes closed a little longer than a normal blink as I tried to reset and get my head back on straight. If I didn’t, it was likely going to get knocked from my shoulders. There was no doubt that most of my work was from afar, but I had done plenty of hits up close and personal, too.

“Whatever, dude,” Nick snickered.

Rinaldo glanced at him, and he replied with a toothy grin.

“You tellin’ me you don’t know how to shoot a handgun?” Rinaldo raised an eyebrow at me as he leaned forward a bit in the chair. “Because I happen to know you’ve done that once or twice before.”

“No, sir,” I responded. I hoped the tension I felt in my body wasn’t outwardly visible. I didn’t think it was – I tended to stand up pretty straight anyway. I didn’t miss Rinaldo’s jab – the reason I had been sent into temporary exile months ago had to do with putting someone down with my Beretta. Like Nick bringing it up wasn’t bad enough.

I had never heard of James Carson prior to killing him, but he was apparently pretty important to his cousin, Miss Fiona Carson. When the wife wasn’t around, Fiona happened to be sleeping with Gavino Greco, my boss’s primary competition. Her cousin had been a witness to an assassination where Rinaldo had ordered the hit, and I had made it happen. I hadn’t known who the guy was; I only knew he had been behind the dumpster when I killed Robert Franco, the idiot who dared dip into Rinaldo’s casino profits.

I thought I had cleaned up the scene, but it was a bigger mess than a witness, according to Rinaldo.

“I’ll take care of it for ya, boss,” Terry piped up. “I took care of plenty for ya while he was on vacation.”

Vacation.

Asshole.

I was sorely tempted to show him just how accurate I was with a shorter-ranged firearm.

“That you did, Kramer,” Rinaldo said with a nod. “That you did.”

I stood there and watched the exchange in silence. Showing any kind of annoyance at this point wasn’t going to get me very far. Rinaldo Moretti was watching me and watching me closely. I wasn’t going to let that stupid little shit Terry get to me.

“So this one’s mine,” Terry said with a big, toothy grin on his face.

Rinaldo cocked a half smile at the kid, who beamed back.

Idiot.

Nothing good ever came of that smile.

“Not this time,” Moretti said. “I need Mister Arden for this one.”

“I’m just as good as him,” Terry hissed back. He started to say something else when Mario placed a hand on his shoulder, effectively silencing him.

I tried not to smile as the boss turned back to me.

“The fact is,” Rinaldo continued, “he knows I’m gunning for him. Anyone who knows I’m gunning for them knows they can’t walk out into daylight, or they’re gonna have a bullet in their brains. Now I have you to thank for that, and I’m grateful, but don’t give me a line of bullshit. Let’s be perfectly clear, now – you are familiar with other firearms, are you not?”

“Yes, sir, I am.”

“This needs to be done quick, easy, and quiet,” he continued. “This isn’t your usual where you don’t give a fuck who sees you, Arden. Nothing can lead back to my organization. You got me?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now you go collect your short-range, in-your-face weapon of choice and kill that motherfucker.”

“Yes, sir.”

Everyone was dismissed from the office except for Nick and Mario. I tried to get the fuck out of the building before Terry could catch up with me, but it didn’t work out that way. I maneuvered to get a bit ahead of Jonathan to put some pace between me and Terry, but Jonathan was a quick walker.

“You want me to help ya scope him out?” Terry asked as he ran up beside me. He reminded me of those hyper little terrier dogs, and I kind of wanted to kick him.

“No,” I replied. I knew exactly where that would end – the little fuck would either get in the way and screw it all up or take the actor guy out himself. Though it would ultimately piss off Rinaldo because it wasn’t Terry’s assignment, credit was credit.

Actually, he’d probably try to take me out first. The credit would be a lot higher then. Not only would he have eliminated the target, but he would have done it when I couldn’t. Just taking me out would give him a reputation that wouldn’t be easily matched.

“What the fuck is wrong with you, Arden?” he yapped.

“You’re annoying,” I replied.

“And you’re an asshole!”

“Whatever.” I passed Jonathan and shoved the door that led into the stairwell and began clomping down the stairs. As much as I wished Terry would stay where he was, I heard two sets of footsteps behind me.

“You think you can treat everyone like shit,” Terry babbled.

“Just some,” I countered.

“You think you’re better than everyone else,” he continued, “just ‘cause you were all military hero and shit.”

“Not a hero,” I muttered under my breath. I quickened my pace as Jonathan moved in a little closer behind me – separating me from the little shit trip-trapping down the stairs in my wake.

“Like it takes a hero to get himself captured.”

I stopped in my tracks, just at the bottom of the second landing. Jonathan had to veer to the side to keep from running into me. I turned slowly, my narrowed eyes finding the smirking little fucker standing just a few steps above me.

“Crack in that armor, hey Arden?”

“You shouldn’t speak shit you know nothing about,” I said. My hands were shaking a little but not enough that anyone would notice except for me. “Mention it again, and maybe I’ll go dig a hole and show you what it was like.”

Turning on my heel, I quickened my pace down the rest of the stairs.

“Fuck you!” Terry called out as I clomped down the steps and out the back door with Jonathan still beside me. The heavy metal door slammed with a bang.

“You all right, brotha?” Jonathan asked as we walked across the parking lot to his white F150 Ford Pickup.

“I’m good,” I replied. “Why?”

He furrowed his brow a bit, looked back towards the closed door, and then shrugged. He knew me pretty well and knew when to change the subject.

“Because since you got back, you’ve been a little off,” he finally said as he pulled a pack of Marlboro’s out of his shirt pocket and fished out a cigarette. He shoved it between his lips as he hunted around in his pants pocket for a lighter. “You were gone a while.”

I just shrugged as I climbed into the passenger seat. Jonathan tossed his Luke Skywalker style hair out of his eyes as he maneuvered himself into the driver’s side.

“I think that would drive me nuts,” he said, “sitting in some piece of shit cabin for half a year by myself.”

“It was just a little over three months,” I corrected. “Not a half year. It wasn’t that bad, and I had Odin with me.”

“Still…” He whistled low and shook his head. “Three months without pussy would suck balls.”

I glanced sideways at him and raised my eyes at his choice of words.

“Just sayin’ it would suck,” he said with a shrug. He turned the key and rolled down his window to blow smoke back past his shoulder. Reaching forward, he fiddled around with the radio controls until he tuned it to a classic rock station.

“Well, you know me,” I said, “I always find a way to get shit done.”

“You got blisters on your hand?” he snickered as he put the truck into reverse.

“Nope.” The corners of my mouth turned up a bit as visions of that long, dark hair spread over the creamy skin of Lia Antonio’s back filled my head. I could almost feel her pussy gripping my cock as I thought about it.

Jonathan blew smoke out the open window, shoved the gear shift back into park, and turned to look at me.

“No way,” he exclaimed.

“What?” I asked.

“You were out in the middle of fucking nowhere and you still got laid?”

I smirked.

“Now that’s custom!”

Jonathan had worked in an auto shop prior to his first stint in prison for dealing. He specialized in tricking out people’s cars with all kinds of shit, so anything remotely out of the ordinary was always “custom.” It was mostly his code word for anything he thought was worthy of his admiration.

“I need some deets, brotha!”

I rolled my eyes.

“You that interested in what my cock does?” I asked.

“I just don’t understand how you manage to get pussy to fall into your lap no matter where you go.”

“It’s a gift,” I replied.

Jonathan shoved the truck back into gear and started backing out.

“So who was she?” he asked.

“Just some chick lost in the desert,” I told him. “Her boyfriend, or whatever, was an asshole and dropped her off on the road when they were fighting. She didn’t have anywhere to go and it was getting late, so she spent the night riding my cock. That’s it.”

“Custom.”

“Worked for me.” I leaned back and let the smoke from his cigarette waft around me. I didn’t indulge anymore myself, but I liked getting some second-hand every once in a while. As much as Jon lit up, I probably smoked a couple cigarettes worth any given hour I was with him.

“How was she?”

“Fucking fine!” I responded.

We both had a good laugh until Def Leppard started playing, and Jonathan quickly turned up the volume and started air jammin’ at red lights. I stared out the window at the line of people waiting for Garrett’s Popcorn and tried not to let thoughts of Lia invade my head too much. If I did, I’d start regretting shit, and I tried not to do that.

Jon followed me up to my apartment, and we immediately started researching Brad Ashton. There was so much shit on him, it was hard to separate the real stuff from the gossipy crap, but we started with the basics.

He was twenty-nine years old, born in Australia, six feet tall, blond hair, and grey eyes. Though he made himself famous with action films, he had his start in the porn industry, and I had to admit some of the footage made me feel a little uncomfortable.

Maybe it was because Jon was watching it with me.

“Do you really have to play more of that?” I asked as he flipped from a scene with one pair of writhing bodies on a bed to a video with two pairs.

“It’s pretty good,” Jonathan said. “Might have to download a full copy of this one.”

I shook my head a little, but my mind was wondering about the possibility of Bridgett spending the night again. I must not have hated the porn too much. I was going to have to take a little trip later.

I’m going to kill a guy I’ve watched fuck two sorority chicks and a frat boy.

Shaking my head again didn’t seem to completely rid my mind of the thought, so I headed to the kitchen and popped open a couple of beers.

“Here’s his schedule of appearances,” Jon said as he yanked a piece of paper from my printer. “He’ll be here in the city three times between now and February.”

“Not gonna kill him here,” I said. I silently berated myself for saying gonna. The nuns would have smacked my mouth for such abuse of the English language. I blamed Jonathan’s influence. The “Midwest meets southern twang” of his was addictive. “I think away from here will be better. There are ties to Rinaldo with anything done in Chicago, and I want nothing to look suspicious. Where else is he going to be?”

We went over all the various options and finally decided Atlanta was the place. He’d be there the first week of January, and that was when he was going to die.

Jonathan headed out, and I fed Odin and tossed his rubber bone around for a while. He actually got tired of the game before I did, which reminded me that he wasn’t a young pup anymore. He’d be nine in the spring, which was getting up there for a good-sized dog like him.

I rubbed my eyes; it was getting late, and I was tired. After I tossed the beer bottles in the recycling bin and drank one of those protein shakes, I headed off to bed. Odin followed, whining slightly. I gave his head a rub, but he just kept looking at me.

I peeled off my shirt, dropped my jeans, and tossed all of it into the hamper next to the dresser. My watch and keys went in one of those little ceramic bowls for such things, which made them clang against the set of dog tags on a chain coiled up at the bottom of the dish. With a heavy sigh, I lay down in the bed and stared at the ceiling until my eyes couldn’t stay open any longer.

On my stomach…unable to bring my knees to my chest to try and right myself. There’s something cutting into my wrists – wire or those plastic ties – I’m not sure which. It’s pitch black, and I can’t even hear anything around me. The sand below me is cold, and I think I might be underground.

Minutes. Hours. Days.

I can’t tell the difference. I try to swallow, but I don’t even have enough saliva left to do that. I’m going to die of dehydration, and I wonder if it’s a blessing.

Footsteps. Loud voices speaking in Arabic. I can’t make out enough of the words to make any sense of it. I hear and feel a presence beside me just before I’m grabbed by the neck and forced into a kneeling position. Water is poured over my face, and my mouth opens to receive it before it can choke me…

Sweat was pouring into my eyes as I woke with a start. My breath was coming in short, staccato gulps, and my hands were shaking. Odin was there beside the bed, whining slightly. I should have reached down to him, but I couldn’t move.

Why? Why now? I had barely thought about any of it in over a year.

I wiped sweat from my forehead before I shuffled over to the bathroom to wash my face. I stared at myself in the mirror and kind of hated what I saw looking back at me. I was pale, and it made my dark blue eyes stand out in my face like I was in shock or something.

Maybe I was.

I reached up and rubbed at the back of my hair. It was getting to be kind of long for me, and I decided midnight was as good a time as any to give myself a trim. The clippers were in the linen closet, and within a few minutes I had a haircut that would make any Marine officer proud. It was very short around the sides and the back with just a little more on the top.

It also seemed to make my dark blond hair look a lot lighter and kind of reminded me of how it would look in the summer when it got all bleached out in the sun and from the chlorine in the community pool. I shaved my face while I was at it, too. I hated having a face full of itchy scruff.

Odin sneezed behind me, and bits of hair flew up into the air. I brushed some of the hair bits from my shoulders, but I started to itch anyway. Once I cleaned up the mess I made on the floor, I jumped in the shower to get the rest off of my skin.

I found myself out on the balcony staring across the buildings towards Lake Michigan. I was wide awake, and I knew sleep wasn’t going to come very easily. It was just a bit past one in the morning, and I didn’t have any early morning plans other than some more research and the usual jog with the dog. I thought about ordering a pizza, but all the good places that delivered would be closed.

Some company would be nice.

A few minutes later, I was in the Mazda, heading to a particular street corner.

Her pimp was there, but I didn’t see Bridgett. I had been telling myself the whole way over that I was coming out to get a hooker, not that particular hooker. That didn’t seem to stop me from looking for her as soon as I pulled up.

“Mister Arden!” the pimp called towards my open window. His collection of ridiculous gold chains hung down, and I tensed a little. If it scratched my car, I’d kill him. “Pleasure seeing you again. You going to become a regular of mine?”

“Depends,” I said noncommittally. “Where’s Bridgett?”

“Blowing some dude in the alley,” he replied.

I nodded as I ignored the creepy feeling the thought and mental image gave me. She was a hooker, for Christ’s sakes. Of course she was blowing a guy in the alley.

“You wanna wait?” the pimp asked. He took a half step back away from the paint job, which helped me relax a bit. “Maybe you wanna taste of Candy over here?”

Another slim brunette sauntered over with her hips swaying. She gave me a big smile and a show of tits as she leaned over the car, practically crawling up on the hood. Long legs, nice shape, cute as hell, but she had a totally flat ass.

Definitely not my type.

“I can wait a minute,” I replied with a shrug. Candy pouted and licked her lips at me as she backed up onto the sidewalk again.

After about three minutes, Bridgett appeared from the darkness of the alley behind the liquor store. It was getting to be damn cold out, but that didn’t stop her and her coworkers from wearing those skimpy hooker outfits. The cold was making her nipples practically leap right out of her tank top.

“Bridgett!” the pimp yelled out. “Git yer ass over here!”

She walked up to him and handed him a wad of cash. He counted it carefully, jammed his finger under her chin, and said something in a voice too low for me to hear. She shook her head quickly in response, and he took a step back and pointed to my car.

She climbed in and settled into the leather seat.

“All night?” she asked quietly.

“That’s how I roll,” I answered.

She gave the pimp some hand signal, and I drove away from the curb.

“It’s a little late for a good night’s sleep,” she said.

“What do you mean?” I turned around and started heading back to my apartment.

“Last time you didn’t even fuck me,” she reminded me. “We just slept.”

“You blew me.”

“You could have gotten that for a lot less cash.”

“Maybe I’ll make up for it tonight.” I glanced over at her and half grinned.

We didn’t say much the rest of the trip back to my apartment. Everything was closed, so we didn’t make any detours or anything, either. Odin was waiting by the door when we came in, and she reached out and touched his nose.

Odin sneezed at her before he walked back to his dog bed and flopped down. I snickered as I headed into the kitchen and got myself a beer. I offered one to Bridgett, but she declined.

I wondered if she was actually old enough to drink.

I popped open the bottle and took a long pull from it. Bridgett looked at me, and I was trying hard to figure out her expression. She seemed almost shy, and it wasn’t just her general newness to the oldest profession but something else.

Her cheeks suddenly darkened in a blush.

Holy shit.

You have to be kidding me.

She had some kind of crush on me, and now that I was paying attention, it was obvious. Take the girl off the streets where she’d been hurt and treat her nice for a few hours, and suddenly you were some kind of goddamned hero.

“We’re just fucking here, Bridgett,” I said darkly. I narrowed my eyes and tilted my head a little to the side.

She blinked a few times before licking her lips nervously.

“I…I know that. What do you mean?”

“You know exactly what I mean. You keep that shit up, and I’ll pass you over for another bitch. We clear?”

She nodded slowly. I could feel the tension rise in the room, and knew I had taken the whole warning thing overboard. I probably could have blamed it on the lack of sleep, but it still needed to be said. I didn’t want her thinking this hookup was going to change into something else.

“Good,” I said. I watched her as I drained the beer. “Now get in my bedroom and take your clothes off.”

I followed on her heels, glad to see she wasn’t wasting any time when she passed through my bedroom doorway. As soon as she was inside, she pulled her top up and over her head and then looked at me over her shoulder with one of those little, secret smiles hookers thought they could get away with, but they couldn’t. I smiled back anyway as I moved across the room and sat on the edge of the bed to take off my boots.

“Keep going.” I nodded towards her.

I pulled my shirt off as well, and Bridgett took a couple of steps to the side until she was standing right in front of me. She rubbed her hands down her sides and moved her hips as she leaned over a little to unzip her mini skirt.

“You can take the shoes off, too,” I said.

Ditching my boots and socks towards the end of the bed, I popped open the buttons on my jeans before I leaned back on my elbows. It was definitely more comfortable that way as I watched Bridgett strip in front on me.

Ultimately, I was still too tired to stand up, but I had to keep up pretenses.

Unlike the rest of me, my cock was all too willing to join in a little late night fun, and I could see Bridgett’s eyes move to my crotch a few times as she removed the rest of her clothes.

I took a good look at her for the first time. When she had been at my place before, I really hadn’t looked at much more than her ass, which was definitely “custom,” as Jonathan would have said. Now I checked out her equally round tits – not too big, but nice and fleshy – and curved hips. She was built like a woman, not a twiggy little thing, which I appreciated a lot. She had good skin, pale and perfect.

“You really want the shoes off?” she asked.

I nodded my head, and she removed them before climbing over the top of me and pressing her lips down to mine. I kept myself propped on my elbows and just let her do what she wanted for a few minutes while I kept looking at her.

Long, dark hair and a little patch of matching triangle lower down tickled as she ran her hands up and down my sides. She straddled me lower, kissed down the center of my chest to my stomach, and then got off the edge of the bed. I raised my hips as she pushed my jeans down my legs until she was kneeling in front of me. Her hands caressed my thighs, and I closed my eyes as the warmth of her mouth covered my cock for the second time.

“Fuck, that’s nice…” My hand reached down and grabbed her shoulder, encouraging her to come back up and stop sucking me off. I had another idea this time. “Lay on your back.”

She did as I said, and I raised a leg up to straddle her this time. I watched her tongue dart over her lips, and I moved up her chest with my dick pointing towards her face. My hands came up her sides and took hold of both tits. My thumbs grazed over the nipples until they stood out nice and hard and then pushed them both together and around my cock.

Bridgett sucked her lower lip into her mouth and bit down on it a little as I started to fuck her tits. Rocking slowly back and forth, I didn’t quite go up far enough to touch her mouth with the tip. I probably could have, and she would have given me both the tit fuck and her mouth at once, but the angle wasn’t quite right, and I wanted to be done soon.

Moving a little faster, I felt the pressure building in my balls as my thighs trembled a little. I leaned my head back and let out a moan as the first shot coated her skin between her breasts. I looked down as the next one went higher, coating her neck, and the third stream further soaked her tits.

With a final groan, I climbed back off of her. On shaky legs, I quickly went to the bathroom and soaked a washcloth, then took both it and a dry towel to hand to her. As soon as she took them from my hands, I dropped to my back on the bed. I stretched my arms up over head and yawned loudly as she cleaned herself up. Once she was done, she curled up against my side and ran her hand over my chest.

I reached over, twisted my arm a little around hers, and gripped her hip to pull her against me. This effectively cut off her reach to my cock as well, which was going to make it a little easier to get some sleep. My head was getting that foggy feeling again, and I closed my eyes to let myself go.

“You’re going to fall asleep on me again, aren’t you?” Bridgett said with a bit of a giggle.

I grunted but didn’t open my eyes. A moment later, I felt her fingers against my jaw.

“Really?” she asked quietly. “You’re going to spend all that money and not even fuck me? Twice now?”

I opened my eyes half way and looked up at her.

“What do you care?” I mumbled. I was starting to feel the warm cover of sleep moving over my body, and making sounds wasn’t helping at all. I needed the rest, and she was going to pepper me with questions.

“It doesn’t make sense,” she said.

I ignored her, figuring that was the best way to get her to shut up. I tucked my head into the pillow and subsequently against her arm as well before I closed my eyes again.

“You paid for me all night last time for a blow job and this time for a tit fuck? Do you really have that much money to throw away? I mean, I figure if you’re Moretti’s killer then–”

I rolled quickly, covered her body with mine, and placed my hand over her mouth. I felt her fingers grip into my arms, but she wasn’t even close to matching my strength and remained immobilized. Completely awake now – unfortunately – I stared down into her eyes with as much menace as I could muster.

“Some things aren’t discussed,” I said slowly and quietly.

I raised an eyebrow and waited for her to acknowledge what I said. When she nodded quickly, I released her mouth, but the damage was already done. A single tear fell from the corner of her eye. Part of me wanted to apologize, but she had to know she couldn’t just open up her mouth and talk about that kind of shit – it didn’t matter where we were. Next time we’d be in a bar or someplace, and she’d end up getting us both killed.

Pushing off of her, I landed on my back against the mattress. The ceiling needed to be painted, and I spent a moment wondering if I should put on a fresh coat of your basic ceiling white or maybe try something at little more interesting.

“I’m sorry,” I heard from beside me. “If you want to…to just sleep or whatever, that’s cool.”

Swallowing down whatever tetchiness was still left in me, I nodded and looked at her. Though her eyes were dry now, I knew I had scared her, and that’s not what I really wanted to do. She needed to remember what kind of life she was leading and what kind of people ended up around her because of it. She was young, but she couldn’t afford to be stupid. If she did, she’d die young, too.

“I…I sleep better with someone here,” I finally admitted. “I’m not seeing anyone, so…”

I let my voice trail off in hopes that the whole conversation would go away, but Bridgett was the most inquisitive of streetwalkers.

“You have nightmares?” she asked.

“Sometimes.”

“Bad ones?”

My eyes narrowed at her slightly. I didn’t want to go in this direction, and I also didn’t want to have to throw her out. I nodded once without speaking, but she still didn’t take the hint.

“What about?”

“For fuck’s sakes,” I growled. I resisted the urge to get up and drag her ass back to the street corner but only just barely. “Look, I’m tired, okay? I haven’t slept in two days because I have shitty dreams, and the last time you were here, I slept really well, okay? Now can you just shut up for a few hours, or do I have to drag your ass back to your pimp and find a new whore?”

My heart was starting to pound faster, and if this kept up, I wasn’t going to be able to sleep no matter who was here. Thankfully, Bridgett finally understood and lay her head down beside mine.

There was just no reason to go into the details.





Chapter 3 – Conjured Plan


“So tell me what brings you here, Evan.”

I leaned back against the back of the chair and closed my eyes for a minute. Mark Duncan, the military counselor assigned to me after I was discharged and moved to Illinois, seemed to be a patient man. Though we had only spoken once before – the same month I relocated to Chicago – he understood it took a while for me to get going.

He was a short guy with dark hair and glasses. He must have loved what he did because he didn’t make enough money to get glasses that actually fit, and the little marks on the side of his face where the frames bore into his skin were red. There were papers all over his desk, and his bookshelf was disorganized to the point of annoying me. There was a picture of a young woman, but it was an old picture. Her hairstyle and clothing screamed the nineties. There weren’t any other pictures of her, and I figured she must be an ex since she was too old to be his daughter.

There weren’t any family-type pictures, though he was prime age to be married with a couple of kids. There were other pictures on his desk and on the window sill behind his chair, but they consisted of what looked to be a build site for a new house and a huge group of people holding tools. There were also pictures of groups of kids holding banners that showcased various walk-a-thons and similar functions.

“I’m having dreams,” I told him.

He scribbled on his notepad, which made me want to roll my eyes, but I managed to refrain.

“Bad ones?”

“Not awful,” I said. “Not like I’ve had in the past when they put me on meds. It’s just that I haven’t had any like that in a couple years, and they’re keeping me up at night. I don’t know why they’re coming back.”

“Can you tell me about them?”

“I…uh…”

Fuck.

I should have realized he was going to want me to talk about them. Talking about the dreams meant talking about what happened in the desert, and I didn’t want to go there. All I really wanted to do was get some sleep, and this option seemed to be the most expeditious.

“Just…just about the past,” I finally said. “I just want to know why they’re back. Why now, when I haven’t really thought about any of that crap for a long time?”

“If you don’t tell me what they were about, I’m not sure how much help I’m going to be,” he urged softly.

With my eyes closed, I went through some of the deep breathing shit the first counselor taught me to do when I had panic attacks. I didn’t get those any more – not since the first year – but the breathing still helped sometimes when my brain went into overdrive.

“I’m…I’m in the hole.”

“Where you were kept prisoner?”

“Yeah.” I swallowed a couple of times. “I’m just waking up, like I did every day when it got hot. I kept trying to spit sand out of my mouth, but I never could, you know? There was always more of it.”

I swallowed hard, but the dryness in my throat made it feel like I was swallowing sand again. I could almost feel it scratching my larynx.

“Fuck.”

“Where are you now, Evan?”

“Chicago,” I said quickly. “I’m not there. I know that.”

“Can you go on?”

“Yeah.” I leaned forward, put my head in my hands, and took a minute to center again. “There isn’t much more, really. I’m just in the hole, waking up over and over again, and trying not to eat the fucking dirt. It made me cough, and it would get in my lungs, too.”

“You haven’t told me much about what happened there,” Mark said.

“Not something I like to talk about.” I hoped my succinct words and terse voice would dissuade him, but he was a fucking counselor, so that wasn’t going to happen.

“It was a very significant life event, Evan. You were a prisoner of war for eighteen months. Don’t you think that warrants some discussion?”

“I talked about it with the last guy,” I reminded him. “The one in the hospital – in Virginia. He cleared me.”

“He cleared you from the psychiatric hospital,” Mark clarified.

“Yeah,” I responded as I looked into his eyes, “where I was held for observation only, evaluated, declared unfit for further duty, but otherwise unharmed.”

“And when was the last time you talked to…” he glanced down at the file in his hands, “…Doctor Hartford?”

“Before I moved here.”

“Before you were discharged?”

“Around the same time,” I said. “He’s the guy who discharged me.”

“With a diagnosis of PTSD.”

“Look,” I said, “I know all this, and we went through all this shit when I saw you the first time. Do we really need to do it again? I was really just hoping you could tell me if there’s some kind of sleeping pill or whatever I ought to be taking.”

Mark looked over my file, glanced up at me, and then back to the file again. He adjusted his ill-fitting sports jacket before settling back into his chair with one leg crossed over the other.

“I’m a psychologist,” Mark said, “not a psychiatrist. I can’t prescribe medication, though I can make a recommendation to your regular doctor. Honestly, I think you’d be better off if we just talked for a bit. It was recommended that you visit with me at least every other week after you moved here two years ago, but this is only the second time you’ve been here.”

“I don’t usually need it.”

“But you do now.”

I shrugged and leaned back against the chair. I glanced at the couch, and though lying down did sound good, I had never felt comfortable on a shrink’s couch. It was just too cliché. I was glad he had the high-backed chair as an option because Hartford never had.

“I just want to get some decent sleep without…”

“Without what?” he asked when I stopped talking.

I took a long breath. I was so off my game, I was going to fuck up at my job which was completely unacceptable. I needed sleep to focus, and I couldn’t seem to get any rest without Bridgett, the newbie hooker, in my bed. That was about as fucked up as some of the shit I went through in the Middle East.

Well, no, it wasn’t, but it was still fucked up.

“I just need some sleep,” I finally said. “I really think if I just got a couple nights of decent sleep, I’d be fine.”

“How about I make you a deal?” Mark said. “You tell me a little more about your time in the desert, and I’ll talk to your doctor about the possibility of getting a prescription for sleeping pills.”

“I don’t have a doctor,” I admitted.

He eyed me again, wrote something down on his notepad, and then looked back up.

“Taking care of yourself isn’t much of a priority for you, is it?” Mark leaned back a bit in his rolling desk chair. He put the end of his pen in the corner of his mouth and chewed on it a bit. I wondered if he was a smoker because it reminded me of Jonathan and how he would play around with anything even slightly cigarette shaped.

I checked out his fingers and noticed slight yellowing. Inhaling slowly, I detected the slight scent of tobacco smoke in the office. He didn’t smoke in here – it wasn’t strong enough for that – but the scent was on his clothes.

I looked up at him through narrowed eyes.

“It’s a little hectic at work,” I snapped. “The place doesn’t offer health care.”

Quite the opposite, really.

“There are still some basics you should be considering. When you were in the Marines, you had regular physicals. Don’t you think that’s important now?”

“I’m not sick,” I stated.

“Sickness is relative,” Mark replied. “You are here for a reason, just like you might go to an urgent care facility if you had a cold you just couldn’t shake.”

“I’m not sick,” I repeated, “and I don’t go to the ER for a fucking cold. I know what I was diagnosed with, and I know I didn’t go and get every single checkbox checked that I was supposed to after discharge, but I also didn’t see the point. I wasn’t getting severance since I didn’t have six years of active service. Hartford gave me the diagnosis just to make sure I could still see him after I left the hospital.”

“And did you?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

I sighed.

“This is totally irrelevant,” I said. “I didn’t come here for this.”

“Your health is exactly why you are here,” he countered.

“Just forget it.” I stood and began to walk to the other side of the room.

“I’d like you to stay,” Mark called out. He stood up and took a couple of steps towards me, which emphasized a slight limp. When I glanced down, I could see he wore a shoe with a thicker heel and sole on his right foot. “There’s only twenty minutes left in the session. You can stick it out that long, can’t you? I really would like to talk to you some more.”

“Morbid curiosity?” I sneered.

“No,” he replied sincerely. “I’m concerned about you.”

“I don’t want anyone writing a fucking book about it, all right?”

“All right,” Mark replied through narrowed eyes. “What makes you say that?”

Tensing a little, I tried to keep myself from actually balling my hands into fists. Whenever I thought about Hartford and his ideas, I wanted to punch something.

“Hartford wanted to write a book.”

“Ah.” Mark shifted in his seat. “Well, I’m not much of a writer, and I really just want to know how you are doing now, so can we finish the session? I mean, you already paid for it.”

Forcing myself not to roll my eyes, I sat back down in the chair and looked at him.

“What do you want to know?” I asked.

“All I really know is the part that is a matter of public record,” Mark said. “Anything you want to tell me that isn’t still classified would be a good place to start. If you’d rather talk about the known stuff, that’s fine, too. It’s up to you.”

There was a lot that was still classified as far as I knew. It wasn’t like there was anyone coming out here to debrief me of any changes, of course. Regardless, it was best to go with the things that could be found by anyone who did some digging.

“You see the video tape?” I asked. An involuntary cold shiver went down my back, and my stomach tightened up.

“I have,” he admitted. “I watched it again when you were assigned to me, but I had seen it on the news before then.”

“That guy – that writer guy,” I said. Inside my head, tiny little explosions began to commence in the center of my skull. My hands clenched without my permission, and my mind fought to only say the words, not actually see the pictures. “You know the one? When they had us all on our knees in front of the camera – right after the bags were taken off our heads – he was on my left.”

“I know who you mean.”

“He kept saying he had a wife and kids,” I remembered. “He kept begging them and talking about his two little girls.”

I hesitated. Most of this was on the tape – the one they played over and over and over again. There were probably five hundred copies of it up on YouTube. Most of it, but not all of it. There was a whole bunch of it before that part that never got out of the government’s hands.

“Before they had us on camera, when the guy was talking about his kids – there was one of them – one of the insurgents – he said someone had to die, and I told them to just shoot me instead of the writer guy because I didn’t have a family. It didn’t make any difference though. They shot him anyway.”

Pain in my lungs made me stop speaking for a second. They were trying to go into overdrive or something, and it took all my concentration to stop myself from hyperventilating. My fingers gripped onto my knees in an attempt to stop shaking, but at least my voice remained steady.

“Sometimes I think he got off easy,” I said. “Thinking that sometimes makes it hard to sleep, too.”

“That’s a change in your thinking,” Mark said. “At least, as far as what you talked about when you were here before. There’s nothing about the video in Doctor Hartford’s notes.”

“Maybe it’s still classified and no one remembered to tell me.” I shrugged. “If you see any MPs coming up the driveway, give me a chance to run, okay?”

I laughed, but he didn’t smile, and I couldn’t really hear the humor in my voice, either.

“It was on the news a lot.”

“I was still in Saudi Arabia when it broke out,” I said, “then Germany, and then the hospital in Virginia. I didn’t see it for a couple of months – not until they were discharging me. It was a year old by then, anyway. It’s not like I had paparazzi following me or anything when I got back. Instead, I had freaking MPs. The whole media circus didn’t have any effect on me.”

“You think something like that just goes away after a year?” Mark asked.

“No,” I said, “but it wasn’t the worst anyway.”

“What was?” he asked quietly, but I shook my head. He must have realized he wasn’t getting any of that because he changed tactics.

“Did you dream about that time?” he asked. “Did you dream about the video?”

“No,” I said, “just the hole.”

“Your focus when we first met was on the others who were with you when you were captured. Your dreams then revolved around feelings of guilt – that you should have been able to do something to save them.”

“Yeah.” I cleared my throat, and my head began to pound a little under the effort of not remembering. “Not those dreams. None like that this time.”

“You still blame yourself,” he observed.

“I fucked up.”

“You were ambushed.”

“I was the one tasked with not letting that happen,” I said. “I was their officer. I was in charge. I fucked up, and they died.”

“Do you expect yourself to be omnipotent?”

“Yes.”

“Evan,” Mark sighed, “you know that isn’t reasonable.”

“I don’t give a shit about reasonable,” I said. “It’s what I should have done. They were counting on me.”

“I have the files,” he reminded me. “Full investigation. You were found to be completely without…”

“I don’t give a shit about what they said!” I snapped.

Mark’s eyes went wide for just a half-second before his carefully constructed therapist’s mask came back into play. He couldn’t completely hide his shock from me. I could almost hear little gears clicking in his head as he considered this new information. He wrote on his notepad while his eyes stayed on me. I could just imagine the words on the page.

Evan Arden does actually have an emotion in there somewhere.

“Sorry,” I muttered. “I guess I’m a little on edge. Work has been a little hectic, and with the nightmares…well, I’m not sleeping much, like I said. Very sorry for my outburst, sir.”

Mark stared at me for a moment, undoubtedly wondering what he could say to make me explode again.

“What you went through was horrific, Evan,” Mark finally said.

Like I needed to be reminded.

“You’ve come a long way since then, haven’t you? You still work at the gym?”

“Not right now,” I said. “I took a little extended vacation. Just got back into town a month ago.”

“So where are you working?”

“Nowhere at the moment.”

“You just said work had been a little hectic.”

Shit.

“I…ah…” Damnit! What the hell was wrong with me? I never made such stupid mistakes. “I don’t have a real job. I’ve just been helping out a friend.”

“Evan, I can’t help you if you keep things from me. You have to trust me if this is going to work. You know whatever is going on, you are completely protected by doctor-patient privilege. Unless you tell me you’re going to hurt yourself or someone else, it will all be totally confidential.”

Well, that was the problem there, wasn’t it?

“It’s just…not completely on the up and up,” I said as I tried to buy a little time for a plausible story. I was falling into a pit of lies, and I needed something simple so I could keep it straight. I had already said far more than I had planned to say.

“Doing what?” he pressed. He wasn’t going to let this go until I gave him something he would take to be me opening up – trusting him more. What I had said before was in the files – he could have read it already. He needed something new.

The story actually came pretty quickly.

“Well, it’s just…” I hesitated and rubbed my fingers in my eyes. I was surely the perfect picture of angst. “It’s not totally legitimate, you know? I’m doing some roofing work for this guy’s brother. Strictly cash, all under the table, you know?”

“Yes, I know.” He did a wonderful job of not showing his disappointment. I was just pleased he bought it.

“You’re not pissed?” I asked, supposedly surprised.

“Not at all,” he said. “I can’t say I think it is the best thing for you because legitimate work will always be in your best interest, but I’m not pissed, as you put it.”

“My Marine buddies would have a fit,” I said. It was the truth, or at least would have been if I had any Marine buddies. “Everything has to be on the up-and-up, you know? It’s a matter of pride.”

“And does doing that kind of work hurt your pride?”

“Yeah, a little,” I admitted with a shrug. In my mind, I considered what I actually did to make my illegitimate cash. “I know it is ultimately illegal and immoral, but if I don’t do it, someone else will. The gym wouldn’t hire me back since I didn’t exactly tell them I was going to be gone for a while.”

“So where did you go on your trip?”

“Arizona.”

“You went to the desert on vacation?”

I looked up at him, and we just stared at each other for a minute.

“Yeah…um…I guess I did.”

“And you’re wondering why the dreams came back?”

“Well, now that you put it like that…”

I leaned forward and rested my forearms over my knees. The throw rug in Mark’s office really wasn’t all that interesting, but I stared at the blue, swirly patterns in it anyway.

“Did your vacation remind you of the Middle East?”

“I didn’t really think about it while I was there,” I admitted. “I mean – it wasn’t the same at all. Just a little cabin, me and the dog…it never even crossed my mind while I was there.”

“What did you do while you were there?”

“Nothing,” I said. It was accurate enough.

“Sounds like an exciting vacation.”

I glanced up and raised an eyebrow at the sarcasm, but Mark wasn’t apologetic.

“I wasn’t looking for any excitement,” I said. “I’ve had enough excitement in my life. I just hung out in the cabin. I didn’t go anywhere or do anything, really.”

“Did anything significant happen while you were in Arizona?”

My eyes dropped back to the rug, and my tongue darted over my lips. I could still taste her there, the brunette beauty who stumbled across my path in the middle of nowhere, spent the night in my bed, and then disappeared from my life.

Lia.

Did she ever go back to that rickety old cabin? Did she call my name, wander inside, and find the lame-ass excuse for a note I left her?

Would I ever know?

“No,” I finally said. “Nothing happened while I was there.”

*****

Much like the other times I had visited a counselor before I had been discharged, I was left feeling empty inside, more unsure than I had been before I walked into the office, and in need of a lot of distractions to keep my mind from dwelling on whatever was said. Keeping myself occupied usually came in one of three forms: throwing myself into exercise, spending all my free time with a hooker in my bed, or focusing on my work.

Sometimes doing all three was the only way to keep my mind off of whatever was bothering me. When I wasn’t even sure what was quite literally keeping me up nights, even that didn’t help. For the moment, my best distraction was work, which meant digging into my target’s life.

Brad Ashton was not an easy guy to get close to, that was for sure.

The whole Hollywood scene sucked, whether you were in LA, New York, or downtown Chicago. Red carpet events weren’t overly common in the area, but I guess when you’re into a mob boss for a shitload of gambling money, you do what you need to do.

The premier of Ashton’s new movie was all over the place, and this was just the Chicago leg of the tour. I knew I wasn’t going to get close enough to him tonight – not with all the insanity going on at the AMC River East 21. There had to be at least ten thousand people there, and every one of them was trying to get up close and personal with the dude. The vast majority were women, mostly in their mid-forties, and mostly crazy.

They had to be.

I mean, some of them were actually carrying cardboard cutouts of the guy and trying to get him to sign his own face.

That shit’s weird.

There were at least two dozen people acting as a human shield at any given moment. They were all decked out in basic B-movie secret service attire – black suits, receivers in their ears, sunglasses regardless of the weather. They were pretty comical to watch.

As far as my cover went, they were going to be my best chance to get to him.

I heard Ashton was staying at the Embassy right next door, so I made myself comfortable in the bar there and sipped club soda while a scotch sat untouched next to me. It was a long while before the noise of screaming females alerted me to the star’s arrival. He was escorted by the caricature guards to the bank of exclusive elevators and disappeared.

Just a little longer.

A few more patrons were hanging out and watching various sports on the large screens around the bar, but no one paid any attention to me except for the bartender. The next time he came around, I ditched the soda and started sipping the scotch.

Two guys in black suits, sans ties, and unbuttoned white shirts came out of the same elevator where Ashton had disappeared and headed towards the bar. Not surprisingly, they opted for a bar-side seat instead of a table.

I watched from the end of the bar.

They were both in their mid twenties, which was convenient. As they talked, I picked up that one was named Jim, but no name was mentioned for the other. They drank cheap beer in bottles and watched football until closing time but didn’t talk about work. Jim was apparently a Raiders fan.

They sat reasonably close like they knew each other, but not close enough that they might accidentally touch one another in passing. They both had short hair but not military cut like mine, just neatly short. There were little marks around their right ears where the receivers had pinched them.

They were career guys, not just hired for this event. They would go with Ashton when he left Chicago, which was exactly what I needed. I kept my head down, turned my body away as they passed me, and finished my scotch before heading home.

The next day was a television appearance for the popular actor and then back to the same hotel for some beauty sleep before he flew out to LA. The same two guys came down to the bar again the next night. I sat in the same spot as well, but this time I was wearing a Raider’s jersey.

Fortune was on my side, and after the first drink, Jim’s buddy called it a night, but Jim didn’t seem ready to turn in just yet. It didn’t take long for him to approach me and start talking football.

Too easy.

“Raider’s fan, huh?”

“Like anybody with a lick of sense,” I replied. “Best team in the fucking world!”

I held up my glass of beer and clinked it against his bottle. The beer was still light, same as his, but just different enough not to appear suspicious. This guy knew security, and I couldn’t be that obvious. Even wearing his team’s jersey on a day when they weren’t playing was a little risky.

“Damn straight!” Jim replied. “I’m Jim Conner – mind if I join you?”

“Marshall Miller,” I said as I shook his hand. “You staying here at the hotel?”

“Yeah, I’ll be heading out in the morning. I work security, and my boss is staying here.”

“That’s cool,” I replied. “I hear the rooms here are really nice.”

“You aren’t a guest?”

“Nah,” I said. I wiped the back of my arm across my mouth. “I just like the bar. Other sports bars around have kind of a crappy crowd, you know?”

“I do,” he agreed.

I made a point of scooting my chair a bit so he could sit down without going all homophobic on me or anything. Sports guys could get kind of uptight sometimes, and I didn’t want something that simple to blow my chances. We talked about the team’s performance over the season and their chances for the Super Bowl and then went on to politics.

I argued with him about one of the viewpoints expressed on the nightly newscast. I took it just to the precipice of pissing him off and then dropped back down. We eyed each other cautiously for a moment before touching our drinks together once more in a truce sort of toast.

It was all about as perfect as it could be until he insisted on shots. I probably should have known better – really wasn’t much of a drinker. I’d have a drink or two, yes, but that was usually it. Being out of control wasn’t my favorite feeling, but sometimes the job called on you to do shit you didn’t want to do.

“Did you play?” I asked Jim as I tipped back the third.

“Nah,” he said. “I love the game, but I was never good enough to play more than JV. You?”

“In college, yeah,” I said with a frat-boy grin. “Tight end freshman and sophomore years and then screwed up my knee. There went my scholarship. I couldn’t keep up with everything after surgery, and I never was the same again.”

“That sucks, man,” Jim said. As some sort of celebration-slash-condolences he bought the next shot, which we both downed too quickly to count, so we had another.

“I always thought I’d play for the Raiders someday,” I mused. “I guess since that didn’t happen…well…you know. Life and shit.”

“I do know that,” Jim agreed.

I didn’t really think he had any idea what he was agreeing with, but it didn’t really matter. We did another shot, and my head was getting a little fuzzy. I didn’t drink often, and it was hitting me a little harder than I expected.

“I got laid off a week ago,” I told him. “I was a mall cop, if you can believe it. It was kind of a crappy job – mostly chasing teenaged shoplifters – but it paid the bills.”

“Have you been looking for something else?” Jim asked.

“Looking, sure,” I responded. I waved down the bartender for two more shots since it was my turn to buy them. “Finding is a whole other thing. I like the security stuff, though.”

We did a couple more shots, talked more football shit, and bitched about the economy until the hotel bartender finally tossed us out. Jim and I shook hands, and he wished me the best of luck. I jotted my cell number down on the back of one of the cardboard coasters used at the bar and asked him to call me if he heard of any work.

Once Jim was out of sight, I pushed my way through the revolving doors and hailed down a cab to take my drunk ass home. I hadn’t actually planned on drinking as much as I did – I didn’t like the out of control feeling of intoxication – but it seemed to have served its purpose as far as “bonding” with Jim was concerned.

I stumbled into my apartment and nearly fell over Odin twice as I attached his leash and took him out the back door. My head was swimming, and I had such a rough time just getting Odin outside in the first place that I decided to forgo the leash law and just dropped the people-end of the thing. Odin never wandered off anyway, and it allowed me time to lean against the wall of the building and debate the merits of puking in the bushes versus puking on the rocks.

Splatter was bad, so I maneuvered a little closer to the bushes.

The dog went about his business, watered down a couple of sticks that were likely going to be bushes in the spring, and then took a shit next to the sidewalk. That’s when I realized I hadn’t brought any doggie bags down with me.

There was no way in hell I was going to make it all the way back up to the apartment and then down again to clean up shit. It was going to have to wait until morning, and whatever neighbor who was out at this time of night to complain could suck my cock.

I whistled, and Odin lumbered up next to me. I checked around to see if anyone had noticed my dog-owner’s ultimate sin, but there wasn’t anyone around. Just as I was picking up the end of his leash to take him back inside, Odin decided there was something seriously interesting about the “flower bed” recently constructed in the park. There weren’t any actual flowers or even any dirt – just a lot of slate rocks. I was actually considering puking on them, but Odin was more interested in what was down around the brick base. I sighed and let him continue on – it was easier than moving, anyway.

Odin suddenly stopped sniffing at the ground and let out a growl.

I looked up through blurry eyes at the two kids who were walking across the grass of Lake Shore East Park, coming from between the buildings on East Randolph Street. It really was too late for them to be doing anything legal, and the way they looked up at me and nudged each other was so obvious, it was almost pathetic.

At least, it would have been pathetic under other circumstances.

Normally this situation wouldn’t have concerned me. Two punk teenagers didn’t tend to be much of a challenge, but I was drunk. Aside from drunk, I was also unarmed and feeling pretty damn stupid to boot.

The two kids moved off to one side of the walkway where the light wasn’t as good, but I could still see them pretty well. One had dark hair and a pretty beefy build, and the other was smaller, thinner, and had red hair in a greasy mop on the top of his head falling over into one eye.

The dark-haired one reached around to the back of his jeans and pulled out something shiny and sharp looking. Whatever doubts I might have had before about motives evaporated.

Odin growled again before he took a couple steps to move himself between me and the two teen boys. I put an end to that immediately because the last thing I needed was for the dog to get knifed. I wasn’t in any shape to drive him to the vet. I cut him off with my legs, forcing his bulk behind my knees and partially into the rock garden.

“How about you give me your wallet,” the kid on the right said. “Maybe then I’ll decide not to leave you and the pooch bleeding in the street.”

I debated telling him that the street was a good hundred yards away but decided against it. The other dude snickered, and I just shook my head a little. That action caused enough vapor trails to make me stop moving immediately. Taking a step back, I almost tripped over the damn dog again.

“The dude’s fucked up,” the red-haired kid said. I couldn’t help but look at his hair and remember David Hasselhoff in Piranha 3-DD. He had played himself in the ridiculously campy horror movie Jonathan once made me watch. In the movie, he kept going off on a little red-headed kid who was too stupid to live through to the end. He kept calling him by the same nickname throughout – little ginger moron.

I heard myself snicker.

“You think this is funny?” the darker kid asked.

“Now that I think about it, yeah,” I answered. “You gonna knife me and the dog here in the park and then drag us over to the street? What exactly does that accomplish for ya?”

My vision blurred again, and the next thing I knew, there was a sharp pain in my side and I dropped to my knees on the cement as Odin let out a short bark.

There was just no way this night could get worse.





Chapter 4 – Patient Research


I landed on the ground, not because of the hit – it wasn’t that hard, though somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought a rib might be bruised – but because my body decided it was just the right time to get rid of the alcohol in my system.

Fortitude only goes so far, and I wasn’t able to hold it in any longer.

My mind tried to count the number of shots I must have done with Jim, the security guy, as I retched into the shrubs near the edge of the park. The commotion going on around me barely made sense as I fertilized the rock garden and reminded myself over and over again why I didn’t make a habit of drinking too much.

I hated puking.

Just hated it.

Even when I was a kid, the very notion of puking was abhorrent. The slightest feeling of nausea had been enough to nearly send me into a panic attack, and if I had an actual stomach bug, I would cry and scream between stomach heaves. I honestly thought major organs or other important bits of my insides would come out if I threw up too much. I remembered the feeling of terror and helplessness as I knelt over the grimy porcelain bowl at the convent and tried to keep my insides actually on the inside of me.

There was one nun who would smack me and tell me to stop being such a baby; I think I had been about four at that time. Needless to say, that didn’t help me get over my fear of vomiting, and though adulthood had given me a more realistic perspective on the whole thing, I still hated it with a passion.

By the time I was starting to get a bit of control back, everything seemed to have quieted down. It didn’t make any sense at all, but the commotion that had been all around me as I was sick had vanished. The scent from the ground below me was nearly enough to make me puke again, so I started pushing myself backwards and onto the walkway – trying to get away from the stench in hopes of saving myself. My knees scraped the rough asphalt, and I cringed as I finally regained enough sense to look around me.

Odin sat next to me, wagging his tail and lolling his tongue to one side.

Some guard dog.

He tried to lick my face, which was just disgusting. I pushed him away as a pair of feet came into view right in front of me. Dirty tennis shoes and bright white socks over hairy calves bounced around in my vision as my head spun in a steady circle. I knew I needed to lift my head to see who it was, but I didn’t have quite enough muscle control.

“You look like shit,” a familiar voice said.

My fingers rubbed into my eyes to try to un-blur my vision while the other hand wiped a sleeve across my mouth. It took a minute, but I was finally able to look around with some clarity only to find both the kids who had come after me were gone. In their place, Terry Kramer was grinning down at me.

“What the…” I shook my head, earning me more woozy feelings in my head and stomach. Terry blurred in and out of existence while I tried to keep myself from puking again. With herculean effort, I swallowed back bile and willed myself not to be sick as I looked up at Terry. “What are you doing here?”

“Saving your ass,” he replied with a big grin.

I looked around, but I didn’t see the two kids anywhere. There was a little switchblade-style knife lying on the walkway next to the grass a couple of yards away, but no one around to wield it. Looking over the park, I saw no signs of anyone walking around, so they must have gone around the front of the building. It didn’t make sense – they had come from the park.

“Great timing I got, huh?” Terry said as I forced myself back onto my feet.

Wobbling slightly, I reached down to Odin’s neck and grabbed a hold of his collar. My fingers worked their way around to the edge to the leash, and I wrapped my hand around it. He wasn’t going anywhere, but I needed something to help ground me. I kind of needed him to help get me off the ground, too.

With shaking knees and Odin as leverage, I managed to stand up but continued to stare at the concrete as it spun around in my vision. I had to focus. I had to get the shit out of my system, so my body would stop revolting against me.

I turned towards the decorative pile of stones and puked again.

“Oh, man!” Terry exclaimed. He took several steps backwards to avoid the splatter. “You’re in bad shape!”

Responding to him would have been pointless, not to mention impossible given the current situation, so I didn’t. Besides, I had the feeling opening my mouth again would cause problems.

“You’re really lucky I was walking by,” Terry said. “Those kids might have given you some hurt.”

A lot of potential responses bopped around in my head like a Teen Beat celebrity, some with words and others with actions. At least one response included my knuckles. I might have tried to say something, but I really was a little afraid that if I opened my mouth, I was going to puke again.

I needed to brush my teeth and drink half a bottle of mouthwash.

“Where you going?” Terry asked as I picked up Odin’s leash and started back towards the building.

I pointed at the door of the apartments and then moved up to swipe the security badge you needed to get in late at night. Terry stayed at my heels, but when he started to walk in with me, I put a hand out to his chest and stopped him.

“What the fuck?” he said. “I just saved your life, and you don’t even let me in to wash my hands or something?”

“Not exactly in the mood for company,” I said.

“I just saved your ass!”

There were very few things that annoyed me more than someone who fished for compliments. Whether it was a chick wanting me to tell her she didn’t look fat in the fucking dress, a server batting her eyelashes for a bigger tip, or a punk wannabe thinking I needed to thank him for hanging around my apartment at an opportune time, I found the very act pathetic and undeserving of praise.

“What the fuck are you doing around here anyway?” I asked. Now that my mind was going in that particular direction, I did find it odd. I’d never seen Terry around this area before. “You don’t live anywhere near here.”

“I was down at Sweetwater’s watching the game and having a beer,” he said. “I needed to walk and clear up my head, so I cut through the park – figured I’d take the Red Line – it’s the only one running this time of night.”

The places he was talking about were close, at least. I shook my still fuzzy head and waved a hand at him.

“Go home,” I said. “I’m going to bed.”

The door shut behind me, and I didn’t look back to see whatever annoyed expression might have been on his face. Instead, I let Odin lead me to the elevator and then down the hall to the apartment. I didn’t even make it to the bed, but just the few steps it took to get to the couch and pass out.

As the room spun around and around and consciousness started to leave me, I realized the walk from Sweetwater Tavern and Grille to the Red Line train was the opposite direction from my apartment. There was no way a Chicago native like Terry would have walked the wrong direction to get to the L.

He lied to me.

*****

Most people probably thought my line of work was always dangerous and exciting. It could be, I supposed, but most of it was fucking dull. There was a lot more research than target practice or killing – that was for sure.

I Googled. I clicked. I hovered the cursor over balloon links to other sites. I read celebrity gossip websites and websites that debunked various celebrity gossip websites. Ashton was represented in every one of them, of course. Women couldn’t get enough of him, gay dudes couldn’t get enough of him, and straight ones put up with it because their women came home horny and ready to blow them.

I couldn’t seem to find any pictures of Ashton in compromising situations with any of the women, though. No scandalous love affairs with senators’ daughters or the co-star from his last movie. No groupies getting groped at parties or secret rendezvous in shady hotels with cute little American Idol starlets.

If anything, he seemed more likely to hang out with the starlet’s brother.

Interesting.

He wasn’t openly out of the closet, but he hadn’t denied anything, either. I was perfectly straight, but if he wasn’t…well, it was something I could possibly use to my advantage. Whatever got the job done, got me back on my regular pay and off of Rinaldo’s shit list worked for me.

The whole watching every word I said thing was getting old. I didn’t mind being overly polite to the boss – I was used to calling people above me sir, so it came pretty naturally anyway. Still, I felt like he was always waiting for me to screw up again, and I hated feeling like I was being evaluated all the time, especially when he compared me to a second-rate little shit.

There was the added little tickle in the back of my head that told me I was going to have to kill Terry Kramer.

He was in my thoughts a lot as I lay on my stomach at the local shooting range with my rifle up against my shoulder. With a twelve round magazine instead of a ten, I made multiple holes in the center of the target’s forehead.

“Nice shootin’.”

“You ain’t supposed ta smoke in here,” I told Jonathan. I cringed as I realized his accent was being extra contagious today.

He laughed out loud and made a grand gesture as he looked around for some stupid motherfucker to argue with him about it. I rolled my eyes and squeezed the trigger again. I was pretty sure Terry’s face would look pretty nice with a little round hole between the eyes.

At least thoughts of killing him were keeping my mind occupied. It seemed every time I wasn’t thinking about killing someone, thoughts of a brunette riding my cock in a hot, stuffy cabin in the middle of the desert kept coming back into my mind.

Terry Kramer’s little appearance at my apartment building at three in the morning hadn’t been a coincidence. He had spent his whole life in Chicago and wouldn’t have gone the wrong direction from a bar to the train, no matter how much he had to drink. Aside from that, he had been