Pigeon-Blood Red Preview

Book 1 in the Thrillogy




The Hawthorne Race Course in Cicero is about twenty minutes from downtown Chicago. Robert McDuffie, a proud member of the black upper middle class, was there for at least a few hours on most days during the racing season, and he always sat in the same section, so he wasn’t hard to spot when Rico and Jerry came looking for him. As the horses entered the clubhouse turn, Rico and Jerry approached him from behind, and before he knew they were there, Rico tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Let’s go.” Robert didn’t bother to ask why. He knew. And he was pretty sure they didn’t care whether he saw the end of the race or not. So without a peep, he stood and walked with them to their car like a puppy on a leash.

When they got there, Robert said, “What about my car?”

“It’s not going anywhere,” Rico said.

Robert shrugged and they all got in. Their destination was an unassuming ten-story office building a few blocks south of the Loop. Constructed of stone and brick that would have taken an earthquake to dislodge, it was a rock-solid edifice worthy of a place known as the city with broad shoulders. The men rode there in silence while they listened to jazz on the car radio. Robert tried to convince himself that, despite the personal escort, there was no reason to panic, so he closed his eyes and tried to stay calm. The music helped. Soothing sounds from Terence Blanchard’s Billie Holiday Songbook filled the car, dampening his fear, and soon he had gone a long way toward persuading himself that everything would be all right.

They arrived at Frank Litvak’s building twenty-five minutes later. His office was on the second floor and they took the stairs like always. It was good exercise. When Litvak saw Robert, he greeted him with a smile and a friendly pat on the back. With that gesture, Robert’s remaining apprehension melted and he exhaled audibly. Litvak pretended not to notice and motioned him to have a seat in one of the two high-backed chairs facing Litvak’s large, richly appointed mahogany desk that, except for its glass cover, was completely bare. Rico and Jerry relaxed on a polished leather couch behind Robert.

“So, what do you think of the Cubs’ chances this year?” Litvak said after everyone sat down.

“I don’t know. I’m more of a Sox fan,” Robert said, only a tad self-consciously.

“I can see how you might be,” Litvak said. “The Cubs suck. Always have.” Then, without warning, Litvak’s mood changed. He leaned forward and his voice dropped several octaves. “Where’s the rest of my money?”

“Frank, you know I’m good for it and—”

“Bullshit. Where is it?”

For the first time since Rico and Jerry scooped him up from the track, Robert started to sweat.

“I can get you five thousand this afternoon, but—”

“Five thousand, my ass,” Litvak said. “You owe me almost fifty, and counting.” He was a corpulent yet menacing man with a puffy face, a pink complexion, and an ever-expanding bald spot on the top of his head. He looked like somebody out of the pages of a wrestling magazine from a bygone era: a brawling street fighter who didn’t mind drawing blood or kicking his opponent when he was down. Nearing fifty, he still exuded an air of intimidation, born of, ironically, a deep-seated insecurity, which demanded of his underlings both absolute loyalty and maximum obsequiousness.

“Come on, Frank. You got to give me a little time.” In a matter of seconds Robert’s armpits were soaked and beads of perspiration collected above his upper lip.

Litvak, as mercurial as he was menacing, rubbed his chin and thought for a moment. What the hell. Today was going to be a very good day. Under the circumstances, he could afford to be a little charitable. He leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands across his girth. “Perhaps I was being a little dramatic to make a point. Tell me, how much time do you need?”

Caught off guard, Robert, the man with the velvet tongue, tried to collect his thoughts but no words came. Litvak shrugged, raised his eyebrows, and curled his lips downward. “Well, I’m waiting.”

“Give me a couple of weeks and I’ll have everything I owe you.”

Litvak leaned forward. “Seriously?”

He hadn’t asked for an explanation but Robert knew he expected one. “I have a buyer for one of the stores…I turned them down, but I know I can get them back on board. They practically begged me to sell it to them.”

“So why didn’t you?”

“You know how much I love those stores. But if you aren’t giving me any choice…”

Litvak was skeptical. “Which store is it?”

“The new one—my baby.”

“How do they think they can make that store pay off when you can’t?”

“Their pockets are a lot deeper than mine. Even with what I got from you, it was never enough to turn things around.”

Robert lowered his head and rested his chin in his hands. He didn’t have a buyer with deep pockets. He didn’t even have one with shallow pockets. He had dug a hole for himself and Litvak was standing on his fingers as he tried to pull himself out.

Litvak heaved a great sigh. “How much time did you say?”

Robert lifted his head, hopeful. “Let me talk to them. I know they’re still interested.”

“I ask again. How long?”

“A couple of weeks, but…”

Litvak was smiling now. Robert had picked the time frame out of thin air, but Litvak intended to hang it around his neck, charitable mood or not. “But what?”

“It may take a little longer.”

“You said two weeks.”

“I know but—”

“But, nothing. Two weeks.”

“Sure,” Robert said and sweated a little more. “That sounds good.”

Litvak stood and pointed to the empty anteroom. “Wait outside a minute while we attend to a little business.”

When the door closed, Rico said, “By the way, where is Mickey?” Mickey was Litvak’s bodyguard. He usually sat in the anteroom with Litvak’s secretary, who was at lunch.

“He had a toothache, so I let him go to the dentist. Don’t worry. I still know how to take care of myself.”

Rico said, “Who’s worried?”

Litvak stood. “Sometimes I wonder.” He faced an oil painting that hung behind his desk. It was a reproduction of Two Girls Lying on the Grass by John Singer Sargent. Other paintings by lesser artists depicting assorted landscapes and still lifes hung on each of the remaining walls. The Two Girls was special, though, because Litvak’s wife had bought it for him. But it was special for another reason: It covered an old-fashioned wall safe.

“I didn’t know they still made those safes,” Jerry said. But Rico knew and he knew the combination, too.

Litvak rotated the circular dial right, then left, then right again, opened the door, and extracted a pink velvet pouch. He loosened the string at the mouth, turned it over, and allowed its contents to slide into his palm: a necklace with sixteen color-matched rubies, each a prized pigeon-blood red. He held it up to the light from a window, marveled at it a moment, and carefully returned it to the pouch as though it were a delicate flower. He handed it to Rico. “You know what to do with this.”

Rico slid it into his right front pants pocket, scarcely looking at it.

His given name was Richard but only a handful of people knew this. Growing up he had been called Rich until some Puerto Rican kids in his neighborhood translated that to Rico. He liked the sound of it and it stuck. Over the years it had become the only name he’d needed.

“Careful with that,” Litvak said.

Rico raised an eyebrow but didn’t say a word. He glanced at his watch and started for the door. Handsome in a sinister, foreboding way, he had an air of danger that seemed to attract women as much as his rugged good looks did. He was big and solidly built, well over six feet tall with dark sunken eyes, curly black hair, and a perpetual five o’clock shadow. Jerry, a little shorter and much more slender, got up to leave with him. He had a pale complexion, sandy brown hair, and wafer-thin lips. No matter the enterprise, he always tried harder than Rico because things never came as naturally to him as they did to Rico. Most of the time Jerry accepted this as a fact of life because dwelling on it only depressed him. He knew he wasn’t the man Rico was or wanted him to be, and that wasn’t going to change, no matter what he did. So why worry about it? Besides, he could take solace in knowing he wasn’t alone in this matter. No one else could measure up to Rico either.

“Wait a minute.” Litvak stopped them. “I almost forgot about our friend Bobby. Give him a ride back to his car.” He yelled in the direction of the anteroom door. “Bobby, get in here.”

Not certain what Litvak planned for him, Robert had stood near the door the whole time, his ear almost touching it, trying to decipher what was going on inside. He had heard Jerry’s remark about the safe (although Jerry hadn’t seen it before, Robert had) and Litvak’s comment about being careful, so he surmised that Litvak had taken something out—probably something valuable—to be delivered somewhere. When he heard his name, he tiptoed back a few steps from the door before going in.

“Bobby, I’ll see you in two weeks.” Litvak ambled over and stood in front of him, a few feet separating them. His patronizing tone was almost fatherly. “Don’t make me come looking for you, okay? I like you, kid. You remind me a little of myself before I smartened up.” Robert flashed the smile Litvak expected but his stomach still churned.

“I thought I knew everything, too. I didn’t and, trust me, you don’t either. And now, you ask? Well, now is a different story, right guys?”

Rico and Jerry had been standing at the door patiently waiting for Litvak’s lecture to end. Being the good soldier, Jerry looked at Robert and said, “You can take that to the bank.”

Rico, meanwhile, made eye contact with Litvak and started out the door.

Jerry had felt obliged to deliver the affirmation Litvak’s insecurity demanded, but Litvak still needed Rico’s endorsement. He repeated, in a tone that didn’t so much demand as plead, “Right, Rico?”

Rico paused and produced a smile that was barely there. “Anything you say.”

Litvak frowned but the comment would have to do.

The three men quietly walked out to the stairs and down to the street. Rico turned up his collar against the March chill and handed the pouch to Jerry. “Take this. I’ll drive.”

Jerry looked puzzled but didn’t object. He handed the key to Rico and deposited the pouch in his own front pants pocket. Robert reached for the back door.

“Hold on,” Jerry said. “Get in front. If he’s driving, I may as well stretch out.”

“Don’t get too comfortable back there,” Rico said. “We gotta make a stop on the way.”

Jerry shot him a look of worn exasperation but said nothing. He knew it would do no good.


“Are you guys going to be long?” Robert asked after a few minutes. His wife Evelyn was leaving town with a friend for Honolulu in a few hours, and although they were barely speaking, he didn’t want to make matters worse by not seeing her off.

“Don’t worry,” Jerry said. “This won’t take long.”

A half hour later they stopped in front of a four-story apartment building on South Paxton Avenue. The new owners had done an excellent job of rehabbing the place, which, befitting a neighborhood in the midst of gentrification, looked almost new while maintaining the patina of the original grand construction.

Rico went into the foyer and rang one of the apartments. Someone buzzed him in and he disappeared behind the inner door. A few minutes later he emerged with Jean. Her fiery red hair, blowing freely in the March wind, framed a nearly flawless oval face. While it hardly seemed necessary, it was obvious that she worked at looking good. She wore stiletto heels, a sheer white blouse, a black leather miniskirt, and a matching leather coat, long to her ankles.

As they approached the car, Jerry got out and greeted her by name. Jean smiled sweetly, like a fairytale princess, Robert thought, and she and Rico got in the back seat. Rico told Robert to keep his eyes facing forward. He obeyed but wondered what the hell was going on.

From time to time Rico had Jerry drive him and Jean around the city in the daylight—usually with an unsuspecting passenger in the front seat who was instructed not to turn around—while the couple came as close as possible to having sex without actually having it. This was one of the few expressions of Rico’s freer spirit that rarely surfaced from below his otherwise gruff exterior. He got a kick out of people passing by and falling dumbstruck at the sight of him and Jean in any state of undress. Equally amusing was the plight of the front seat passenger, aware of what was happening behind him, dying to turn around yet unable to do so.

Jerry started to drive. “Eyes forward,” he told Robert.

“Is anything wrong?” Robert asked.

“Just keep looking straight ahead.”

Jerry drove on South Paxton until he reached the railroad tracks that ran parallel to East 71st Street. He crossed the tracks and took East 71st toward Lakeshore Drive. There were two lanes of travel in each direction on East 71st Street, and a car occupied by a middle-aged couple pulled alongside them when they stopped at a traffic light. The man in the passenger seat noticed first. His eyes widened and he leaned toward the window to get a better look. Then he tugged on the sleeve of the woman driving the car. She gasped and brought a hand to her mouth. Though visibly appalled, they couldn’t help but hold their gaze, mouths agape, on the shameless indiscretion taking place in the car next to them.

Jerry slowly pulled away, enjoying the spectacle, and eventually turned north onto Lakeshore Drive, where the vehicle, and what was taking place within, continued to attract looks of disbelief from passing motorists or their passengers.

Robert, meanwhile, successfully resisted the urge to look. Once out of the corner of his eye he managed to glimpse Jean’s perfectly contoured breasts, barely restrained by her black bra, which Rico worked methodically to free. When a portion of bare thigh flashed in the passenger side view mirror, he quickly turned his head and forced his eyes forward. Jerry looked over at him and smiled.

“What’s the matter?” Jerry asked.

“Nothing,” Robert said.

“No? It looked to me like you’d nearly snapped your neck a second ago, jerking your head around like that.”

Robert nervously shifted positions in his seat. “Did I?”

Jerry looked at him with a sideways squint, let the air weigh heavy between them, then delivered his judgment. “You know what I think. I think you were looking back there.” Jerry glanced at the rearview mirror, then flashed a menacing grin. “Yeah, you were taking a peek all right. Didn’t I tell you not to do that?”

“I didn’t,” Robert said quickly, his shoulders suddenly stiff, his hands opened in a plea for mercy.

Again, Jerry feigned a weighted silence, a pause that had Robert twitching, blinking, shifting his head from side to side.

“Okay,” he said, “I’ll take your word for it. But don’t let me catch you looking back there. Not even once.” He checked the rearview mirror again and smiled. “And that includes me.”

A few minutes later they were back in front of Jean’s apartment building. She and Rico rearranged their clothes and got out of the car. Jean hadn’t said a word the whole time. In that respect, Robert thought, she and Rico made a perfect couple. Jerry sent Robert to sit in the back seat and scooted over to the front passenger seat as Rico walked Jean to the door.

“What was that all about?” Robert asked.

“What do you mean?” Jerry said.

“Whatever was happening in the back seat.”

“Oh, that. Listen, Rico has this thing. He gets a kick out of going at it with Jean in the back seat while I drive them around. Don’t let it bother you.”

“Going at it?”

“Getting close to doing something. But not quite.”

“And you’re okay with that?” Robert asked, genuinely appalled.

“I’m used to it,” Jerry said. “Besides, they don’t mind.”

“Sounds sick to me.”

Jerry laughed. “Sick? Where’s your sense of humor?”

Robert sat back and felt something lodged in the crack between the cushions. He reached behind him and pulled it out. It was the pouch Litvak had entrusted to Rico. He slowly removed its contents. The snippets of conversation he’d heard now made sense. Litvak had removed this from his safe. It looked expensive. But how valuable was it? He looked up. Rico was heading back to the car. He returned the necklace to the pouch and slipped it into his sock.

When Rico opened the door, Jerry was still laughing. “You told him?” Rico asked.

Jerry cleared his throat and managed to restrain his laughter. “He said it sounded sick to him.”

“Nobody’s ever said that before,” Rico said.

His tone was a little too serious for Robert. He quickly explained, “I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Life’s too short,” Rico said. “She has a nice body, doesn’t she?”

“I guess so,” Robert said.

“You guess?” Jerry said.

“Then, yes,” Robert said.

“She works hard to keep it that way,” Rico said. “No reason to hide it.” He turned to look at Robert. “Right?”

“No. No reason.”

Rico turned back around and gave Jerry a wink. “Glad we straightened that out.”

Robert was glad Rico was facing forward again. He couldn’t concentrate with Rico looking at him. His mind raced. Was he being a complete idiot to even consider what he was contemplating? He knew he couldn’t come up with the money he owed Litvak in two short weeks. He didn’t want to think about what Litvak would do then. But he knew what Litvak would do if he actually stole the necklace.

Then there was the whole idea of taking something that didn’t belong to him. He was a lot of things, but he wasn’t a thief—yet. But was he really a thief if he stole from an unsavory character like Litvak, a loan shark and probably worse? He convinced himself that he was not.

Still, it was a gamble. But he was a gambler.

He had time to pack and make it to the airport. If Evelyn’s plane wasn’t full…How long would he be gone? He had no idea. Nor any idea what he would do with the contents of the pouch. But now wasn’t the time to worry about it. He’d have time to think after the plane took off—assuming Rico and Jerry didn’t kill him before he got to the airport. Until now he hadn’t entertained that possibility, but suddenly he could focus on nothing else.

He stared at the bulge in his sock. It wasn’t too late to put it back where he’d found it. They’d never know. He perspired heavily. The resolve he’d felt an instant earlier had melted away, and in its place was indecision rapidly morphing into panic. He froze and as he did, the car stopped in front of the racetrack. He didn’t move.

“Get out of the car,” Jerry said without looking back. Still Robert didn’t budge. Jerry and Rico both turned around and stared at him. “Hey, you going deaf or something?” Jerry asked. “Get out of the car already.”

The decision had been made for him. They looked right at him, close enough to touch him. He couldn’t return the necklace now even if he wanted to. He could explain finding it in the back seat, but he couldn’t explain how it got in his sock.

“I’m sorry,” Robert said. “I don’t know what I was thinking.” He got out of the car and stood transfixed at it as it sped away. Robotically, he drove home and made his way to his apartment, locked the door behind him, and sank to the floor in a sitting position, his legs stretched outward and his back against the door. Staring at the ceiling like it wasn’t there and clutching his chest with both hands, he inhaled deeply and tried in vain to slow the pace of his galloping heart.

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