Jerry got out of the car, closed the door, and stretched. He bent down in front of the side-view mirror to check his hair. Satisfied, he straightened up and casually patted his right pants pocket.
Incredulous, he patted it again, and again. Then his left pocket. He did a quick search through his coat pockets.
“Shit,” he said under his breath and flung open the car door with such force that it rocked back and forth on its hinges. Inside, he searched like somebody was holding a gun to his head and running out of patience. He rummaged between the seat cushions, under the seats, and under the floor mats on both sides of the car. Then he crawled between the front seats to the back and repeated the process.
Rico had gotten out of the car the same time Jerry did. By the time Jerry began his search, he had walked around to the passenger side and leaned against the car, arms folded across his chest. From there he watched the search, more bemused than concerned. When it was over he said simply, “He lifted it,” and when Jerry pounded his fist on the roof and kicked a tire, “Get in.”
They drove in silence, Jerry brooding and fidgeting the entire time. Rico looked over at him. “Relax.”
But for the circumstances, it would have been a good day for a drive. It had rained the day before, but now the weather was crisp and clear, and the water that collected on the street and sidewalks glistened in the mid-day sun. With rush hour still hours away, they sailed through traffic.
Jerry looked around. They weren’t heading in the direction of the racetrack, where they had dropped Robert McDuffie off forty-five minutes earlier. “I thought you said—”
“Jean’s place is closer. I’ll check her out while you take the car and check out the guy.”
“I’m ninety-nine point nine percent sure, but point one percent is still point one percent.”
Jean lived in a venerable four-story apartment building tucked away in a well-preserved neighborhood on Chicago’s southeast side a few minutes’ drive from the lake. When Rico pressed the buzzer on the ground floor, she was taking a shower so she didn’t hear it. He tried her cell and got voicemail. That was too bad because he couldn’t wait. He had to go up. He hoped she was there and just didn’t hear the buzzer because he liked her—no, he was crazy about her.
He didn’t have a key to the main door, so he waited in the vestibule between the inner and outer door for someone to show up. It didn’t take long.
A resident entered the building. He was in his mid thirties, already balding, two inches taller than Rico and several pounds heavier, though the extra weight was more blubber than muscle. He had had a fight with his wife and was in a surly mood. To teach her a lesson he was making her carry all the groceries. She arrived thirty seconds after he did, huffing and puffing, while his breathing was as tranquil as a kitten’s. He propped the outer door open with his foot and she struggled through with two heavy bags, brown paper with no handles, one in each arm like two large babies. Her husband had both hands free but didn’t bother to help. After the door closed, he turned to Rico, who was facing the inner door.
He had said nothing to Rico all this time and Rico hadn’t turned around to acknowledge him. He suspected that Rico intended to follow them into the building. He knew Rico didn’t live there and didn’t have a key. He didn’t like the idea of letting him in—not because it was against the rules or because he thought Rico might be an unsavory character. He simply wasn’t in the mood to be helpful.
Rico, a blank expression on his face, slowly turned and looked the man over from head to toe. The man glared contemptuously at Rico and turned his back to him while his wife, a plump woman with a round face and sparkling eyes, tried to keep the bags from falling by holding them up with one knee and then the other. Rico parted his lips to speak but before he could, the woman did.
“Henry, what’s the matter with you?” Her impatient voice twanged like a guitar string. “Will you please open the door? Can’t you see I’m about to drop these bags?”
“Shut up. There’s a rule against letting strangers in the building,” he barked, showing his bad teeth.
“Oh, Henry, don’t be so unneighborly. Open the door, why don’t you?”
“I said shut up.”
“Will you at least help me put these bags down?”
“Put them down yourself.”
Rico didn’t generally lose his temper or get excited. Still more rarely did he take things personally. If something had to be done, he did it in a logical, methodical way with as little disruption as possible, and his personal satisfaction was irrelevant. But once in a while, mission and satisfaction coincided—like now.
Getting the door open was his objective. Making Henry open it was going to give him a great deal of satisfaction, and it wasn’t even going to be disruptive.
Two sizeable steps put Rico directly in front of the woman, who by now was struggling mightily to put the bags on the floor without spilling their contents. He reached down and took one bag in each arm, then, as though they were filled with cotton balls, shifted them both to his left the moment Henry turned to confront him. He stared directly into Henry’s eyes, saying nothing, a faint smile on his face.
That was all it took. Henry’s body wilted and beads of perspiration sprouted on his forehead. He cleared his throat and almost gagged. He had swallowed his pride so quickly he almost choked on it. He hurriedly opened the door.
Not changing the expression on his face, Rico thrust the bags into Henry’s chest and, holding the door open, motioned to the woman to go through first. Embarrassed, she thanked him and smiled self-consciously. He walked past her, barely acknowledging her gesture, then turned on his heel before climbing the three flights of stairs to Jean’s apartment. He couldn’t resist. He caught the man’s eye and said, “Thanks, Henry.”
When Rico knocked on Jean’s door he was happy to hear the sound of footsteps. At least she was there. Maybe it was a good omen. Jean, a stunning redhead with a figure that made the heart leap, looked through the peephole, opened the door, and greeted him wrapped in a towel. She was even more tantalizing than she’d been in the car earlier that day. She wasn’t completely dry, and here and there tiny droplets of water glistened on her arms and shoulders. Rico inhaled the subtle fragrance of her shower gel, but before it could distract him, a voice in his head reminded him, “Point one percent.”
“I wasn’t expecting you back so soon,” she began, a playful, sultry smile on her face.
From the doorway Rico scanned the living room and saw nothing amiss. He walked in and closed the door behind him. Too bad. He only knew how to do this one way. “Jean, how long have you known me?” he asked stoically.
She was baffled. “You know as well as I do. What kind of a question is that?”
“I never tried to hide from you how I make my living, true?” They stood face to face, inches apart, before she took a few halting steps backward. “So you know what happens to people who don’t tell me what I want to know, don’t you?”
“Rico,” she stammered, her voice trembling, “you aren’t making any sense. What’s this all about? I don’t know what you’re accusing me of, but I haven’t done anything, I swear.”
He took a straight razor from his coat pocket and opened it. As he walked toward her, she covered her face with her hands. He stepped behind her, thrust his left arm through the triangle formed by her hands pressing against her face, and grabbed her right shoulder. With his right hand he held the blunt side of the open razor against her right cheek.
“Where is it?”
“Please, Rico,” she sobbed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He pressed harder and tightened his grip on her shoulder. “Please, please!”
“I don’t believe you.” He turned the sharp side to her cheek.
“Rico, not my face, please! I swear I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Her tears puddled where the razor met her skin.
As Jean cried out he let the razor fall from his hand and, in one uninterrupted motion, expertly muzzled her scream with the same hand before the razor hit the floor. She fainted.
When she came to, she was lying on the couch where Rico had carried her. He stood with his back to her, talking to Jerry on the phone. Jerry hadn’t been able to get past lobby security in Robert’s building.
“He palmed it, right?” Jerry asked.
Rico glanced over his shoulder at Jean. “I’ll be there in a few minutes.” He hung up. “I had to be sure,” he said unapologetically.
She shivered in her towel and glared at him, anger roiling in her eyes. He went to the bedroom and returned with a blanket, which she allowed him to drape around her shoulders.
“Sorry, baby. It was just business.”
Still too furious to speak, she defiantly turned her back to him and silently dared him to say anything about it. A small victory but it was something. Ignoring the gesture, Rico walked out and closed the door softly behind him.
She was enraged, as much at herself as at him, because she knew that the next time he called she would answer. She tried to justify her emotions by telling herself that he’d stopped short of actually harming her and that he never would have. But who was she kidding? She could hope but she could never know for sure.
When the cab pulled up in front of Robert’s building, Jerry was standing outside smoking a cigarette. It was an expensive high rise on the city’s Gold Coast along Lake Michigan’s north shore, with a security guard on duty twenty-four hours a day. There was no way around it; if they wanted to get into Robert’s apartment, one way or another they’d have to deal with him. This was admittedly a minor detail, more of an annoyance than anything else.
Jerry knew Rico hated cigarette smoke. An icy stare from him whenever Jerry lit up was as effective a deterrent as a punch in the gut, so he put the fag out as Rico left the cab. Rico kept his body rock solid by lifting weights at a neighborhood gym, jogging regularly, and minimizing his intake of junk food. He didn’t like the idea of second-hand smoke undoing any of his hard work.
“So what happened?” Jerry asked.
“She didn’t have it.”
“I could’ve told you that. She’s good people.”
“Don’t start with me.”
“But nothing. Anybody can cross the line.”
“Including me?” Jerry hoped Rico might exempt him but didn’t expect it.
“Yeah, including you.” The two men stared at each other for a long moment before Rico smiled. “No, not including you.” The smile vanished as quickly as it had appeared and his eyes narrowed. “You know better.”
The comment stung and Jerry hung his head a little, but it was true and he knew it. It wasn’t easy to get close to Rico and not many people did. He was loyal to a fault, yet distant and brooding. Deadly as a cobra but with a dry, sometimes biting sense of humor. Brutally honest, he lacked guile. Hated hypocrisy. Loathed arrogance. If you were in a fight for your life against hopeless odds and could pick just one person to help even them out, he would be your choice every time. But if you needed a shoulder to cry on or even a pat on the back, you’d have to think long and hard before you settled on Rico.
“Now, about this guy…” Rico said, ignoring Jerry’s reaction.
Jerry snapped out of it. “You have to tell the security guard who you want to see. He rings the apartment. If the person answers, the guard buzzes you in.”
“No wonder he’s always out of money.”
“How much traffic in and out?”
“Not too bad so far.”
Taking in as many details as his eyes could process in one sweep of the area, Rico slowly turned in a circle, looking for anything out of the ordinary, anything that counseled against getting on with the business at hand. Outside, there were pedestrians and cars passing everywhere, but it was a busy street, so there was nothing unusual about that. Inside, the foyer was empty except for the security guard. Nothing looked menacing. Nothing looked out of place. He nodded. “Okay?” Jerry nodded back. “Let’s go and talk to the man.”
They walked briskly to the entrance, donning sunglasses almost in unison, then glanced behind them one last time before opening the door. Rico nodded to a spot inside. Jerry planted himself there. Without slowing, Rico continued toward an oak-paneled counter facing the door, behind which sat an unarmed security guard casually reading a newspaper. He was about forty, with a gaunt face and stringy hair reaching below his collar. He was the kind of guy who went through life trying to keep from stepping on anyone’s toes and hoping everyone would try to avoid stepping on his. He looked up in time to see Rico, advancing quickly in his direction, throw open his coat and jerk a .45 out of a powder-blue shoulder holster. He leaped to his feet and raised his hands above his head. Rico slammed the gun on the counter.
“Put ’em down,” Rico said. Eyes bulging and hands shaking, the guard complied and his face took on the look of a condemned man who had just received word of a reprieve. “That’s right. Relax,” Rico said. “Now buzz Robert McDuffie’s apartment.” There was no answer. “Try again.” Still no answer. “Get the key and take me up there,” he ordered, then nodded in the direction of the .45 resting on the counter under his hand. “This’ll be pointed at the back of your head on the way. Any questions?” The guard shook his head. “Then let’s go.”
The guard got the key from under the counter. Holstering the .45 along the way, Rico followed him to a glass door that led to a bank of elevators. The guard inserted the master key card and they walked through. He pressed “up” and they waited, Rico standing behind him. When the elevator arrived, a woman got off and they got on.
The elevator had floor-to-ceiling mirrors on three sides, allowing the guard to steal a furtive glance at Rico, who noticed.
“Okay, I lied. The gun is not pointed at the back of your head. Any objection?”
The guard shook his head and screwed his eyes shut. The elevator reached the tenth floor. At Robert’s apartment Rico stepped to one side and, with a nod, signaled for the guard to knock. There was no answer.
“Open it,” Rico said.
The guard unlocked the door. Rico glanced behind him and nodded to the guard to go in. He pressed the gun against his back and followed him, closing the door behind them. No lights were on and it was clear that the place was empty. Rico flipped a wall switch and two lamps bathed the living room in light. “Nice place,” he mused. And it was. Off the expansive, tastefully furnished living room, with burnished hardwood floors and elegant artwork adorning the walls, was an equally elegant dining room, with a dazzling chandelier, matching antique table, buffet, and china cabinet. The modern kitchen had stylish stainless steel appliances, teak cabinetry, granite countertops, and marble floors. On one side of the kitchen was a bedroom and on the other a traditional library with mahogany-paneled walls and a wood-burning fireplace. Beyond the library was the master bedroom. Rico made his way there, guard in tow.
He waved the guard to the far side of the room, then surveyed the inside of a capacious walk-in closet from top to bottom, visually inventorying its contents, and rummaged through a dresser. He spied a small black book on a nightstand by the king-size bed. After flipping through the pages, he slipped it in his pocket.
He knelt to look under the bed where he found a duffel bag stuffed with gym clothes. As he pulled it toward him a photo tumbled out, which he scanned and pocketed. Keeping an eye on the security guard, he stepped into the master bathroom far enough to get a good look at the contents of the medicine cabinet behind the mirror and inside the drawers of the cabinet under the double sink.
“Let’s go,” he said tersely to the guard. He suspected that his search of the bedroom and adjoining bathroom had yielded as much useful information as the apartment had to offer, but to make sure, keeping the guard in sight, he made a quick check of the other rooms and found nothing.
At the elevator Rico opened his coat just enough for the guard to see the butt of the holstered .45. “I won’t point this at the back of your head going down either, but you know where it is.”
The doors opened to reveal two men and a woman. The security guard entered first and Rico stood behind him. The elevator didn’t stop again until it reached the lobby. The three passengers left the building and Rico followed the guard to the counter, where Jerry joined them.
“Well?” Rico asked.
“One guy came in. I told him the guard had stepped out for a few minutes and he said he’d come back.”
Rico started toward the door, then pivoted to face the guard. “By the way, nice talking to you.” The guard was still terrified but managed an uneasy smile. Rico turned and smiled to himself. When he and Jerry were safely out of the building, the guard wiped his brow with the back of his hand and immediately braced himself against the counter to prevent his legs from collapsing beneath him.
As they approached the car, Jerry said, “What do you think?”
Rico shrugged. “I think we got a problem.”