This book will launch on Oct 19, 2019. Currently, only those with the link can see it.🔒
Synopsis

At first, Detective Mike Hegan is baffled by what his superiors
in the Chicago Police Department conclude is a simple murder/suicide.
Hegan looks at the facts:
A thoroughbred racehorse collapses and dies after finishing
out of the money in a race he was favored to win. Hours later, the stallion’s
trainer, a young woman with a promising career, is found dead on a suburban
Chicago beach.
Hegan’s pursuit of justice takes him to an island in the Caribbean where
truth is found and lives lost.
Will there be a woman to blame?

CHAPTER ONE

   

           “What’s the mystery?” Mike Hegan asked as his boots shuffled a path through the newly fallen snow. They were not the words he would use when called to the scene of the most recent homicide in Chicago. As the icy winds of January sliced into the city from Lake Michigan, Hegan cared less about his destination. He wanted the slog to end so his cheeks, all four of them, could thaw.      

           “You’ll see. We’re almost there,” a warm, female voice answered with barely a trace of shiver.

           Hegan knew the voice belonged to Lucy. As they made their way up Michigan Avenue, she was barely visible. Her head was bent against the wind and snow sprinkles. Her body was swaddled in a floor-length, cranberry-colored down coat.

           “I heard a voice, but all I can see is cranberry Bubble Wrap.”

           “Hush. This coat is the best present you ever gave me. It’s warmer than you are some nights.”

           “What?”                                                                     

           Lucy stopped and pointed at a sign hanging above a stairway between Joe’s Shoe Repair and a Subway sandwich shop: Madame Stella’s Dance Studio - 2nd Floor.          

           The sign didn’t answer Hegan’s initial question but prompted a flurry of others he was about to unleash until the fingers of Lucy’s woolen mitten gently rested against his lips.

           “We’re going to be married in six months, and you dance like the creature in Young Frankenstein.”

           “I do not.” Hegan stopped protesting and launched into a heavy-footed-shuffle impersonation of Peter Boyle while trying to sing “Puttin’ on the Ritz” through pressed lips. Humor had saved Hegan from uncomfortable moments and situations since he was an adolescent. Now, he felt his comedic chops emerging to rescue him again.

           “Start climbing,” was all Lucy said as she headed up a long flight of steps to the second floor.

           During the six months Hegan and Lucy had lived together, he learned not to object or resist when the wind was at her back, otherwise he’d play Wile E. Coyote to her Road Runner. But, if he was creative, and he knew he was, there were alternatives to slavish submission.

            Hegan displayed a grumpy reluctance as he tromped up the steps while watching moisture slide off the thick rubber tops of his boots. He joined Lucy at the front door of Madame Stella’s studio and made his move. He looked at her with a smile of compliance on his face and not a bone of resistance in his body.

           “I see your point—about dancing—and would love to take lessons with you.” 

Lucy’s face flooded with expectation like a child discovering presents under the Christmas tree. Oh, what a good boy am I, he thought.

           “But, look.” Hegan pointed to his thick-soled boots. “Can’t. See?” He began a few jerky movements, his feet never once leaving the floor.                           

           Lucy’s nod spoke of understanding but not disappointment. She produced a pair of Hegan’s tasseled loafers from the gym bag slung on her shoulder. Her smile was more “up yours” than beatific.                 

           “Apres-vous, monsieur,” she said, not knowing how to say “gotcha” in French.

           Caught and trapped, Hegan slowly pushed the door open a crack, clinging to his freedom for another moment.

           A shout pierced the opening and echoed in the hall. He stopped trying to enter when he heard “D. E. A. D!”                                     

           Hegan listened at the door. No music. Scattering footsteps. Persons fleeing. He popped the snaps on his jacket and reached for his holster. Lucy pushed by him and threw open the door.

           Madame Stella, fortyish, a sheaf of red hair tied atop her head by a black velvet ribbon, stood in the middle of the studio with her arms gesturing wildly.

           “That’s it! D.E.A.D!”

           Hegan reached for Lucy’s shoulder to pull her to safety until he could determine what bizarre ritual was sucking them into its vortex. She slipped past him to get a better view.

           “Drop everything and dance!” Madame Stella encouraged about ten teenagers who immediately turned into a twirling, gyrating explosion of humanity, consumed and directed by their own inner music.

                                                                          ***

           “D.E.A.D.,” Hegan murmured to no one as he awoke and adjusted his eyes to the refracted glare of the Caribbean sun. He felt movement and slowly turned to find Charles approaching. Charles was his pathfinder, his brother-in-arms. Charles was his taxi driver on the island of St. Vincent.

           “They are here,” Charles said with a solemnity in his voice Hegan regretted hearing. He followed the turn of Charles’s head to find an electric baggage tug being driven slowly across the tarmac of the island’s Amos Vale airport. Two baggage carts were connected to the tug.

           The airport had a runway only long enough to accommodate commuter planes from Barbados and outlying islands in the Grenadines chain. It would never be mistaken for O’Hare.

The lone plane on the runway was the de Havilland turboprop that would initiate the first leg of Hegan’s trip back to Chicago. Two coffins were lashed to the top shelves of the carts as the tug stopped before the plane’s open cargo door.

           Hegan wondered yet again what brought him to this island in the Caribbean, a speck eighteen miles long and eleven wide which he imagined must look like a poppy seed from outer space.

           Of course, he remembered.

Burnt fish.      

           Seven dead.

           Two bodies traveling with him to Chicago.

           All died because someone cooked and burned fish.

           There was an eighth fatality.

           For that dead woman, he would always feel completely to blame.

                                                                          ***

           Johnny Faraci had new neighbors. He heard them moving in one night after ten. Several days later, he smelled what he thought was their dinner. Before the latest inhabitants of condo 32C—which had a partial view of Lake Michigan from high above Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive—actually appeared before him in material form, he judged them to be “loud and stinky.”

           One morning, weeks later, Faraci noticed an imbalance in the molecular particulate of his air. Though he tried, the offensive odor was difficult to ignore as it began to slip into his condo—32A, with a 180-degree view of the lake. Faraci, now remembering his earlier experience, was convinced the odor wafted from Mr. and Mrs. Ivanov’s condo. He knew their names from the directory in the lobby, because they were never courteous enough to formally introduce themselves. This lack of civility Faraci added to his carefully maintained list of personal slights.              What was worse, he wondered, the unsettling beginning of his morning or last month’s disruption of his nocturnal solitude?                                    

           Faraci shuddered, remembering how the splintering of his front door by the movers became an “introduction” to his neighbors who never apologized, causing another black mark against their names. Instead, they sent the building manager to arrange for a replacement. The anger that rose in him as a result of such irresponsibility brought Faraci back to the odor.

            He tried guessing what kind of meat they were cooking. Could food that malodorous enhance appetite? His mind visited the possibilities. Liver? He’d had calves’ liver a few times and didn’t remember its smell being so foul. Kidneys? Pigs feet, maybe? He’d had neither.

           Fish! Had to be. He remembered the dish of dry cod and potatoes his paternal grand- mother made for his father because Faraci’s mother refused to cook any dish that made her nauseous when not pregnant. The cod looked like a wooden plank and smelled like a burning rubber tire.                                  

           On the rare occasion when his father returned home, after visiting Grandma Maria, with a jar of . . . what to call it? “Stuff” was the only apt description, made especially for her “sonny boy.” Mrs. Faraci, Jr.—his mother—refused to heat it or stay in the same room while his father ate. Such was her revulsion that even in the winter all the windows were open. The wind could blow the curtains up to the ceiling, and their breath could freeze into icy droplets, but no window was shut until his father had finished eating that repulsive dish, its remains immediately wrapped in newspaper and buried at the bottom of the trash barrel in the backyard.

           During the winter before Grandma Maria died, Faraci remembered, his father ate the dreaded cod dish at the dining room table with his overcoat, hat, and gloves on.

           From those early years sprang Faraci’s aversion to offensive odor. No matter the source, including his own person. His cigar smoke excluded. He paid a bundle to have Cohibas—the real thing—smuggled across the border from Windsor, Ontario, and anyone who didn’t like his cigar smoke could blow smoke up their own ass. Nevertheless, Faraci took a solemn vow never to be offensive—at least in the odor department.

           Faraci started the day at peace with himself. After showering, he slipped into the black trousers of his silk suit, put on a starched white shirt, and added an Italian silk tie. For extra comfort he wore his new silk smoking robe. Hefner wore a robe over pajamas, and stupid Gigante wore a moth-eaten one before his conviction. Faraci’s was made of a maroon silk delicately festooned with a pattern of gold griffins that were embroidered with actual fourteen-carat-gold thread.

           Faraci eased his lean frame into a comfortably matured leather armchair in the corner of his forty-foot living room. He took great pride in maintaining his weight proportionate to his height. Measuring four inches below six feet, he weighed 155 pounds. That frame enabled him to wear contoured Italian silk suits and shirts.

           His living room was decorated in the manner of an exclusive British club, the kind he remembered from the movies of his youth. Chippendale this and Chesterfield that. Precisely what didn’t matter. He cared about totality more than specifics. The only exception to the decor was the lead-lined drapes. Faraci believed this precaution would prevent him from being harmed by the ultraviolet rays of satellite spy cameras while keeping his exposure to electronic surveillance to a minimum. Certain that many leaders of multinational corporations were safeguarded in like manner, Faraci never thought such precautions to be extreme.       

           Faraci considered himself part of the managerial class. He directed people and events, took issue when subordinates made mistakes, and meted out appropriate censure. His methods most likely would not be the subject of a Harvard Business Review story—not yet.

           If at any time in his life Faraci had ever recited “God’s in His heaven /All’s right with the world,” that’s what he would have repeated this morning as he opened the Chicago Tribune. As was his custom, he turned first to Doonesbury because the strip aggravated him. With luck, that would be the only agita he got - as offensive as a burp.                                                     

           He prided himself on an excellent sense of smell and, paradoxically, considering his cigar smoking, an educated palate as well. He enjoyed fine food and wine. His olfactory glands and taste buds could distinguish the ingredients of any dish, including its herbal content.  But his patience disappeared when the noxious odor from the adjoining apartment reached his lungs. This was his agita.

           In the twenty years he’d owned the condo, never had he been so offended, which was his second rule of life. Don’t offend and don’t be offended. Almost, but not quite, do unto others as they do unto you, though not as benign.

           Before acting in haste or prejudging the Ivanovs, he was determined to eliminate all possibilities, sniffing the drain in the sink, the refrigerator and vegetable crispers. The trash can still had a deodorant wafer affixed to the inside. He could check off the kitchen.

           The drain in the bathroom sink didn’t smell and neither did the drain in the shower. He sniffed above the toilet, confirming no odor came from the bathroom.

           When he returned to the living room, the smell intensified. Faraci lit a four-inch Cohiba earlier than usual. He saw no other option. He was in the midst of a malodorous fog that threatened to permeate every porous surface—from drapes to sofa fabric to his prized smoking robe. Better the smoke on my robe should come from my Cohiba, he reasoned.        

           As he drew in and expelled the rich, comforting smoke, Faraci thought he saw the odor actually filter through his walls like in some cheap horror movie and started to panic. But after a few more puffs, he remembered the windows were sealed shut and dismissed any hysterical notions. The only area he had not checked was outside his front door.

With the cigar in his mouth smoking like propitiating incense, Faraci, resolved to know the source of the outrage, headed for the front door. He took big puffs and blew clouds of cigar smoke to deodorize the air and provide a protective wreath around his head. As he put his hand on the door, the possibility that the CIA was trying to smoke him out of his condo using noxious fish odor gas made him stop.           

           Faraci was a private man, though his business made him a public figure. As he approached his seventieth year, he wanted more privacy than ever before. More than anything, he was determined to prove his mother wrong. She foretold his death when he was fifty. There was the possibility, and he eagerly embraced it, that since she was a native-born American, learning Sicilian dialect from her immigrant Aunt Evelyn, his mother may have mispronounced the word and he’d actually lived years longer than expected.

           No matter. He wasn’t taking chances. He was too young, too healthy, and too ambitious to die just now. And certainly not at the hands of the CIA or any of the other alphabet soup subsidiaries of Uncle Sam. 

           Even worse was the thought that the Feds would trick him and haul his ass to some max security dungeon. Just in case, he took a snub nose .38 from the drawer of the lamp table in the foyer and dropped it into the pocket of his robe. Then he felt like a stunatz, a first-class jerk. They’re outside—night scopes on M-16s with infrared sights and grenade launchers—and I’ve got a .38 as big as my limp dick, he thought.

           Nothing mattered. If they killed him, he’d die with a fusillade of bullets turning his body into chopped chuck. If he stayed inside, he’d puke himself to death on their putrid gas. Faraci pushed his right hand into his pocket and gripped the pistol as he flung open the door.

           Blam! He was engulfed in smoke. No Feds. The hall was empty, but his new neighbors’ door was wide open, propped open  by a three-foot-tall silver samovar.

           “Holy fuckin’shit! They’re killin’ themselves and want me to die, too.”

The open door was four feet away, and as he reached it, the ghostly shape of what he assumed was the Mrs. half of M&M Ivanov, partially shrouded in smoke, appeared in the foyer waving the latest copy of Cosmo and driving the smoke straight into Faraci’s face.                            

           “What the fuck are you doing?” he growled as the edge of the magazine almost hit him in the nose. “That shit stinks. You’re killing me!” Faraci puffed furiously to mingle his smoke with hers. When she emerged from the haze he was grateful they weren’t mingling bodily fluids.

           Mrs. I. wore a daffodil-yellow housecoat that matched her slippers. During her progress to the front door, her robe loosened. Thankfully—and here Faraci expressed rare gratitude to the Almighty—the robe didn’t open, altogether exposing the round mound of her being.

           When Mrs. I. saw Faraci puff, she yelled, “No! No! Out! Bad! Cancer!” But he continued to puff without speaking and pointed to the interior of her condo, pinching his nose with two fingers in a universal language that even she, he hoped, could understand.

           “Schmelt.” She nodded and flashed an embarrassed smile, exposing symmetrically placed gold teeth above and below each other. “Schmelt,” she repeated in case Faraci didn’t understand.

           He did. “Yeah, I schmelt it, and it schtinks ’cause it’s shit.”

She looked at him quizzically—to smile or not smile?

           At this moment, Faraci made a mistake that would set the wheels of fate in motion. They would move as inexorably as the troop trains positioned toward Sarajevo before the start and leading to the outbreak of World War I.

           Faraci held his nose with his left hand, leaving his right to communicate his displeasure and agitation. When events of such an urgent nature dictated, he was known to point at the offender in short, punchy strokes. So, Faraci pointed with his right hand.

           His right hand held the .38. It was unintentional, of course. How could he explain that to a fat woman who barely spoke English and cooked smelly fish? Nevertheless, his gestures pointed the barrel of the .38 into Mrs. I.’s face. 

           She was shocked and screamed. The robe fell open, revealing an undulating form with more hollers and valleys than Kentucky coal country. She retreated and slammed the door. He quickly closed his and immediately noticed a twenty percent decrease in the odor’s intensity. Now he could join Lenny for breakfast.

           Faraci sat in the last booth in the back of Benno’s, a small café off LaSalle in the financial district, one of few such establishments that had escaped the urban renewal bulldozer. Benno’s was a joint, a hangout where lawyers, politicians, and others like Faraci could meet in solitude. He looked around and saw maybe five booths altogether, with another three or four tables down the center and one lonely table for two squeezed by the front window. The heat from inside met the window chilled by the January air, steaming the glass opaque and making the joint more secluded. Faraci liked joints and didn’t feel the least bit uncomfortable eating in a suit that represented six weeks’ wages for fifty percent of the patrons and a mile beyond the aspirations of the workers.                      He sat alone at the last booth in a corner next to the kitchen. This was his preferred spot for a number of reasons. His back was to the wall, and he observed all who came in and out. If there was need to vacate the premises, he was into the kitchen and away in a second. Last, and most important for Faraci, his proximity to the kitchen insured his food was hot. All the waiters knew who he was and how he was capable of ruining their day, if not their gainful employment or, God forbid, their health if his food was not hot off the stove. 

Lenny Santoro was five minutes late, which was unusual considering he taught accounting at the university and believed in being precise in all aspects of his life. Faraci and

 Lenny knew each other from another lifetime ago—high school.

            Lenny graduated from college with a degree in economics, found the field too aggressive, and ultimately settled for a profession more suited to his personality. Faraci found a profession that was aggressive but wasn’t, strictly speaking, economics.            

           Lenny slid into the booth as Faraci looked away from his watch, one eyebrow raised. “So? This is abnormal, Lenny. Five minutes.” Faraci spoke across the rim of his coffee cup.

           Lenny was contrite and didn’t realize Faraci was reliving their high school days when they would take turns “ranking out” the other. Faraci saw the mortification on Lenny’s face and relented. “Come on. I know you...what, forty, years? Maybe more? So, you’re late.” His pronunciamento ended, Faraci waved for the waiter to take Lenny’s order.                                     

           He ordered a cappuccino and explained to Faraci, “I hate being late. You know I’d be here exactly as usual. I got delayed by a colleague. Nice guy. Family man. Tenured. Written a few papers. Speaks at symposia.”

           “No” from Faraci startled Lenny as he tentatively sipped from the steaming cup of cappuccino.

“No? What?”

           “I said no,” Faraci insisted. “I won’t marry him.” What resembled laughter tinkled from Faraci’s mouth. “Sounds like you’re giving me his pedigree. What do you guys call it? CeeVee?

Considering the way his day began, Faraci attributed his good mood to the swift and efficient solution to his odor problem. He liked solving mysteries as much as he liked creating them.

           “Curriculum vitae,” Lenny said before finally getting to the reason for the biographical details. “Johnny, you know, all the years since high school, I never intruded on your business. Never. Whatever I learned from the outside. Didn’t matter. You were always Johnny of Johnny and the Harptones, the doo-wop group we sang with down in the high school basement in that space near the boiler.” 

“The alcove,” Faraci corrected.

“Yeah. So, I know this guy, the C.V. guy, who teaches math and got some trouble.”

Faraci shrugged. “He teaches math; he should be able to figure things out.”

Lenny didn’t laugh and Faraci said, seriously, “What kind of trouble?” When he saw the you-know-what-I-mean look on Lenny’s face, he added “because if he knocked up some coed, that’s not my line” and smiled.

“Geez. You took comedian pills this morning. It’s the usual.” With that, Lenny rubbed the thumb and forefinger of his right hand together, the universal nonverbal gesture for money.

“Sure,” Faraci said. “For you, Lenny. Send him to my office. I’ll work something out, but not with a slide rule.” Again, the tinkle of Faraci’s laugh, to which he added a drum rim shot, ba-da-bum, on the table with the tips of both index fingers.

           Tension eased from Lenny’s body, and he managed a weak smile. “Thank you.”

They ordered breakfast and then got into an argument over putting a dome on Wrigley Field. Lenny was pro, based on economics. Faraci couldn’t care less but argued violently against, based on aesthetics. Faraci made Lenny pay for breakfast, and they left convinced the other was an imbecile. Next week they’d find something else to argue about.

                                                                          ***

           Vadim Ivanov got a call from his wife, Ivana, in the office of his commodities trading company before he’d had time to finish his second cup of coffee. She was in tears, and he could barely understand her rapid speech. The one word he did understand was gun. He rushed home, grateful she was alive and unharmed but worried nevertheless. Could it be a home invasion robbery, like in California? He hoped no one had discovered the concealed safe. He’d spent a million eight on the condo. They were supposed to provide the best security. First, he’d call his lawyer and sue the bastards. Then he’d call Gregori, who was more experienced in such matters.

           He called out Ivana’s name from the foyer. What the hell was she cooking? More importantly, why didn’t she answer? Vadim searched the rooms to find Ivana cowering in the kitchen corner where the sink met the stove, a clump of shivering flesh, her eyes red from crying. He held his wife as he would a child who had been awakened by a nightmare. After she stopped crying, he gave her a shot of vodka from the bottle in the freezer. She refused, but he insisted she bolt it down. It would straighten her spine.

           Ivana needed two more shots before all her vertebrae were aligned. It was then she told him every detail. She’d gotten a deep yen for fried smelts, the ones he’d caught ice fishing in Wisconsin the previous weekend. The phone rang. Her shrug filled in the gap. The fish started to burn. Smoke billowed throughout the condo. As she cleared out the smoke, the man next door threatened her with his gun.                              

           “The man next door?” he asked without indicating the one he hoped was not involved. “Ruski or Amerikanski?”

Ivana looked at her husband of fifteen years with doubts about his sanity. Of course it was the American; who else would have a gun in his condo?

“We do,” Vadim reminded her.

           They had to have a gun, she was quick to point out, because all the Americans were armed. Weren’t those stories in Pravda enough of a warning? Now, all she’d worried about before they left Kiev had come true. Her life had been threatened and she almost died because of a little burnt fish.

           Vadim called Gregori and left a message. Only his brother could help them now.

                                                                          ***              

           Dr. Santoro’s words during a phone call the day before echoed in professor Steve Gorman’s head as he drove downtown toward Navy Pier. “I’ve got this friend. Says he can help you. Whatever you decide is okay with me. Your business. I know nothing and want to know less.

You’re a big boy. It’s your call.”

           When Gorman heard the friend identified as Johnny Faraci, his emotions were jumbled. At first he felt too morally superior to sink so low. The newspapers called Faraci “a reputed mobster.” Having to deal with that sort of individual was way beneath a tenured professor. Yet, the reality was he needed help, and he needed it fast. Soon he was convinced that his greater intelligence would rule. Just as he’d gotten a good deal on a used car for his wife, that same combo of daring and intellectual brilliance would see him through to a successful—and favorable for him—negotiation with Faraci.

           Gorman smiled as he parked the car and, head down, forced his way against and through the icy wind blowing off Lake Michigan toward the entrance to the Chicago Clipper, an old Lake Michigan steamer-ferry. Decommissioned, the Clipper was now a floating restaurant and catering hall. The veteran of Prohibition was permanently moored to provide barely edible food to tourists and conventioneers. Two satellite dishes and other antennae were prominent aft of its smokestack. Gorman, intent on visualizing a positive outcome to his negotiation with Faraci, never raised his head to notice.      

           Gorman’s smile faded when he entered the foyer and encountered Jeff. With hooded eyes and a lean, angular face, Jeff presented an aura of controlled mayhem, like a falcon ready to strike. Jeff asked Gorman if he wanted smoking or nonsmoking. When Gorman asked to see Faraci, Jeff ordered, “Stay right here!” Without hesitation, Gorman stood still.  Jeff disappeared.

           After a few minutes of nervous waiting during which Gorman’s eyes stayed riveted on the pattern of red velvet wall covering, Jeff instantly reappeared and beckoned for the professor to ascend a dark staircase. What light there was shone off a highly polished wood banister. Jeff flicked his head toward the top of the stairs and waited for Gorman to go first. After three steps, Gorman looked over his shoulder and saw Jeff follow. Eyes poking out from under heavy lids met Gorman’s, and he broke contact only to note Jeff’s hand inside his jacket, at the level of his waist. Gorman took the next ten steps as if prodded by the devil’s pitchfork, his heart pounding as he reached the top.

The stairs led directly into Faraci’s office. The large space, with a semicircle of windows, had been the bridge of the former vessel. Faraci smiled across the room as Gorman tried to compose himself. Gorman inhaled deeply and noticed a bank of television monitors along a far wall. Even at this distance he observed horse races on two of the screens. Gorman didn’t expect Old World manners, but he didn’t get the barely intelligible speech of Tony Soprano either. What the professor couldn’t know was that Faraci liked to play “menace the pigeon,” which kept all supplicants off balance and gave him an edge from the first sit-down.

           Faraci, business-like, explained that he was in the catering business, and from time to time friends would recommend their friends for a helping hand. That was the occasion of their meeting. Considering the circumstances and nature of their mutual affairs, all involved must maintain decorum and discretion at all times.                                   

           Made perfect sense to Gorman, who had a reputation for being a take-no-prisoners professor. In his classes you performed or paid with a diminished grade point average. Across from him sat a man who shared a similar respect for responsibility.

           Faraci let Gorman explain his difficulty, holding a long-standing belief that words initiated and spoken in candor were the best traps. When he learned that some non-green-card-holding spic at the university was getting gobs of vigorish from students and faculty alike, he put his hand over his mouth to conceal his shock and surprise. Then, his anger rose.

“That prick is a janitor?” As if social hierarchy should determine who was permitted to charge outrageous interest. Never bothered the banks.

Gorman nodded. 

           Gorman related he was two months in arrears with payment and asked for more time. Trujillo—that was the prick’s name—threatened to visit his wife at home when Gorman was teaching.

“You got a preeeety wife.” Trujillo leered at the family photo on Gorman’s desk late one afternoon as he went from office to office ostensibly emptying the trash, while also collecting bets and intimidating those he determined were deadbeats.

           “Maybe she need a man like me. A real hombre,” Trujillo offered as he grabbed his crotch.

Gorman stood up and gave the janitor an impotent shove. The prick blurted a derisive laugh in return and wagged a finger as reminder.

“Maybe it better for her you no pay.” His hand shot to the inseam of his grey work pants.

Gorman grabbed a calculus book and prepared to slam it on Trujillo’s head when a student arrived for his four o’clock appointment.              

           Faraci listened to Gorman’s tale of woe with inner glee. He was willing to help Gorman as a favor to his good friend Lenny. Gorman’s look of relief sealed his fate. Unsaid was Faraci’s ire that an interloper—and worse, an illegal noncitizen—was usurping his income and decreasing his profits. American business could not sustain itself if healthy competition replaced cartels and monopolies.                                                                             

           Faraci had to do his part for the economy, but his attention to Gorman was replaced by action on one of the TV screens.

           “See that?” Faraci pointed excitedly to a race in progress. “It’s some horse running in Bumfuck, Missouri, and I’m gonna win a bundle.”

           Gorman paused at the interruption, thinking the last subject he wanted to discuss was horse racing. Faraci persisted. “Know why? I bet the trainer.” Faraci was pleased with himself and didn’t allow Gorman to respond. “I got ten winners this month just betting on this trainer. The beauty part . . . she’s a girl! Ariel something. A sure winner. Look it!”      

           They watched as Faraci’s horse crossed the finish line in an easy gait, ahead by four lengths. “You was sayin’?”

           Gorman explained how he owed ten thousand dollars, and each week the total increased by five percent.

“That much?” Faraci was being sarcastic, but Gorman was too consumed with his plight to notice. The ignorant spic and the dumb college guy didn’t know what a cheap deal they had in five percent a week. And it never, he reminded himself, ever pays to be an amateur. Faraci told Gorman not to lose sleep; the ten grand was his. No interest. No reimbursement. A gift.

           Gorman was speechless, and finally blurted his everlasting gratitude. He thought a little humble prostrating was required, even though he knew deep within it was the brilliance of Professor Steven Gorman that caused such a successful outcome.               

           But, it also wasn’t a gift, per se.  It was payment for information that would remove a predator from the scene.

“How?” Gorman gulped and expected Faraci to tell him the less he knew the better. But Faraci surprised him.

“You see the Discovery Channel program on wolves? No? Too bad. See, they catch the wolves, put a radioactive collar on them, and relocate them to another neighborhood. Consider the spic relocated.”

           Relocation was suitable to Gorman. He hoped Trujillo’s new environment would be thousands of miles away from his wife and that the temperature never rose above minus-forty-five degrees. They agreed to think about a proper time and place to pay off Trujillo, and Gorman left. A smile returned to his face as he reached the bottom of the stairs but vanished as soon as Jeff appeared. Gorman waved at falcon eyes and quickly left the Chicago Clipper.

                                                                           ***

           When Gregori finally returned his brother’s call, he apologized for the delay. His new Uzbekistan restaurant was opening in two weeks, and every day was another problem. He could sense the agitation in his older brother’s voice, but when asked for specifics, Ivan declined to speak on the phone. They decided to meet at the zoo.

           An hour later, in front of the polar bear exhibit at the Lincoln Park Zoo, Vadim gave his baby brother, Gregori, a bear hug. The brothers were surprised to find the polar bears hibernating inside. Only the brothers Ivanov were dumb enough to stand outside in the January cold. For what they had to discuss, speaking outside in hushed tones was preferable. They were used to cold.

           Vadim pushed Gregori an arm’s length away and eyed him head to shoe. “Little brother, little brother. You a good lookin’ guy. Like Putin.” In fact, Gregori had the same slim build and angular face as Vladimir Putin. He exuded power, too, but on a lesser, nonnuclear, scale.

           Though two months had passed since their last meeting, the brothers consumed by their respective businesses, the relationship had not diminished.

           “I hate you,” Vadim blurted. Gregori wasn’t surprised. He knew the reason and smiled. Vadim tried to grab Gregori’s midriff but couldn’t. “You got nothing. No fet, no fleb.” Vadim played his bulging stomach like a drum. “You eat like a musk ox and drink and smoke. Me, I’m wearing a pickle barrel under my shirt.”                                                          

           And so they ambled down the zoo’s paths, acting like a couple of forty something kids until Vadim got to the heart of the problem. All kidding stopped and Gregori paid more attention to his older brother than he did his professors at the polytechnic institute. Vadim recounted the entire story, from the phone call to how Ivana slugged down three shots of vodka, and then identified the gun wielder.

           Gregori didn’t offer a twitch or tick of expression, and Vadim took this lack of response as either fear or impotency. Then he wondered if Gregori actually grasped the true nature and reputation of the neighbor in Condo 32A.

“If this is too much to ask, Gregori, I’ll understand. I just thought, considering you have friends . . .”

           “Shh. Dear older brother. Consider it done. A way will be found. A serpentine way so that the victim will be totally at ease.” Gregori had already formed a plan, his eyes told Vadim.

“Do not take on this burden alone,” Vadim advised. “You must keep me informed. Likewise, whatever I learn about my neighbor, you will know, too.”

           “Good. For now, my first call will be to Zendofsky. He changed his name to Zenda, but no matter.”

The brothers Ivanov fiercely embraced in a display of affection and strength, each challenging the other to break contact first. Vadim lost and hoped it was not a bad omen.

                                                                           ***                                     

           Teresa Perino rang the front door to her brother’s row house in Chicago’s old Polish section where gentrification of the neighborhood was underway. Her children, little Michael and Michelle, stood on either side ready to greet their uncle. When the door opened, the children rushed inside, each grabbing one of Mike Hegan’s legs. Their momentum, even for little kids, caused him to take a step back before embracing them.

           When Hegan looked up, he saw a wan smile on Teresa’s face.

“Eddie working?” he asked, figuring with his brother-in-law—also a member of Chicago’s finest—a no-show, he must be in the middle of a case. She shook her head and put a finger to her lips.

“Kids, go see Lucy,” she said, and the children left.

           Hegan embraced his sister. “We’re going to counseling. Trying to work things out. I don’t want the kids to know. He decided not to come.”

           This was not the first time his sister’s nearly eight-year marriage had faltered. As tough as it was being a cop, being a cop’s wife was tougher. Hegan loved his sister but never thought she’d last this long married to Eddie Perino, one of his former partners, who never appeared marriageable. Is any cop marriageable, me included? Hegan thought. He worried about his own future.

           Sometimes impulsiveness is more constructive than tortured thought, he reasoned. All life’s a risk. A gamble. He was going to take the leap. What was the expression? Leaping into marriage? He knew the word wasn’t defined as a track and field term—leaping in the broad jump, truly a double entendre. Clearly, whoever came up with “leaping into marriage” defined leap as jumping off a cliff or a building. That was the kind of leap they meant. Nevertheless, Hegan was determined to take the leap and get married. No matter what.

           He kissed the top of Teresa’s head and gently led her to the dining room. “Let’s eat.”

           Lucy had coal-black eyes and a sharp, self-deprecating laugh that drew him into the kitchen. He found her playing with Mikey and Michelle. She looked up at Hegan. Her eyes met his, bathing him in a love he could never deserve.

           “Eddie not coming?” she asked Teresa intuitively.              

           “A case . . .” Mike blurted after an uncomfortable pause.

           Teresa swallowed hard and concurred. “Work.” She shrugged, covering. “Not easy being a cop’s wife.”

           “Oh” was all Lucy could answer, being polite and returning to the stove.

           Mike came up behind Lucy as she stirred a pot. She sensed his presence without hearing his voice and turned to read his face. Mike saw in her eyes that she was wary. Reading his emotions, Lucy threw her arms around his neck as if they hadn’t seen each other in a decade. Their lips stayed pressed together for longer than Teresa thought appropriate in front of the children, who giggled and pointed. Just when Teresa was ready to distract the girl and boy, the kiss ended.

           Lucy licked her lips. “Needs more salt.”

“Salt isn’t good for you,” Hegan replied. “Raises your blood pressure.”

           Lucy stirred the sauce on the stove. Suggestively, she pointed the wooden spoon at Hegan for emphasis. “I have enough salt. You need some to raise, ahem, your blood pressure.”

“Maybe we should come back at another time,” Teresa offered.               

           Before either could respond, Mikey started chanting, “Uncle Mike’s getting married. Uncle Mike’s getting married.”

           “How do you know that?” Hegan said, scooping up Mikey in his arms. “How come?”

           Mikey gave him the wisdom of his six years. “When two people kiss, they . . . they have to get married.” There. Cause and effect.

           “Thank you very much, Mikey. That will be all. Now, take your place at the table. You too, Michelle.” Teresa wrested control from the lovebirds, and order was restored through maternal fiat.

Lucy brought salad to the table and Hegan a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs. Hegan

loved Lucy’s cooking almost as much as he loved her. Sometimes he wondered which held first

place in his heart.

           Tonight was special in two ways. Lucy made her special spaghetti sauce. Eddie liked it and she wanted to please Hegan’s brother-in-law who would soon become hers as well. That Eddie was a no show did not dampen the occasion. .

           Second was the surprise. Hegan poured the adults red wine and raised his glass. They all clinked, the children with their milk.

“Enjoy,” he said and waited while everyone sipped and Teresa started eating. Hegan looked over at Lucy and was pierced by her eyes clear back to his vertebrae. “And while you’re enjoying, I want you all to know . . .” Hegan paused, waiting to get maximum attention.

           “What, Uncle Mike?” his namesake nephew asked.

“You want to know? Huh? You really want to know?” he asked his five-year-old straight man.

            “I don’t want to know,” Michelle said as Mikey nodded and kept on eating.

           “Enough! Tell us!” Teresa was no fun. Hegan decided his attempt at being a stand-up comedian needed to end.

           “Lucy and I are getting married,” he said soft and quick.

           “Yes! I told you!” Mikey said, pumping his fist into the air.

           “What?” Teresa’s eyes and head shot up at them. “Why didn’t you say so? You’re such a jerk,” she said, standing and slapping Hegan on the shoulder before hugging Lucy and kissing her cheek. “When? Have you decided?”

           “In six months. July twenty-sixth. Hope you all can come,” Lucy said. Hegan took her hand and kissed it.

“I can’t come,” Michelle piped up all of a sudden.

“What?” Teresa said.

           “I’m not going.” Reality intruded on fantasy and it hurt, even to a seven-year-old.

           “Young lady.” Teresa would brook no petulance or misbehavior from her children. She knew she was as old-fashioned as her mother, but she didn’t care. “We’ll have none of that” was her conclusion and dictate.

           Hegan gently patted his sister’s arm, a sign to cool it. “Why aren’t you coming, Michelle? We’d love for you to be there.”

           Michelle bowed her head and scrunched her mouth before deciding to answer. “You’re supposed to marry me, Uncle Mike.”

Hegan heard the beginnings of a guffaw from Teresa and slapped her leg under the table. She was silent.

           “I’m so much older than you, sweetheart. By the time you’re old enough, I’ll have a long white beard down to my toes.” The image made Michelle laugh, and Lucy saw her opportunity.

           “We want you both in the wedding party,” Lucy said and, as if waiting to present a big surprise, pulled a roll of paper from under the sideboard. She showed Michelle a sketch of the flower girl’s dress. “You’ll wear this, pink with white lace. And a garland of flowers on your head. You’ll carry a big basket of rose petals. As I come down the aisle, you’ll strew them on the carpet.”

Michelle’s eyes brightened. She bounced in her chair. “Yippee!”

           “And you, young man,” Hegan turned to Mikey, “will carry the rings.”

           “What’s a strew?’ Mikey asked.

Hegan showed him a sketch of the blue suit the boy would wear. “You’ll be the most important person in the whole church.” Mikey was too young to understand his uncle’s words, but the gravity of their sound made him giggle. “Without the rings, we can’t get married. Isn’t that right?” He looked over at Lucy for confirmation.

           “Well, not exactly.” She grabbed a hank of his hair and ran her fingers through it  possessively.

           Lucy saw Teresa look away, only the hint of an ambivalent smile on her face.

“Kids, go play with Uncle Mikey.” Hegan was surprised and protested. Dinner wasn’t over. He didn’t want to play. He was comfortable. Lucy ended the discussion. “Go play or you won’t get dessert. And I don’t mean chocolate cake.”

           “Oh. You mean . . .?”

           “Maybe I do and maybe I don’t. If you’re not out of here in five, four, three—”

           “Let’s go play with Uncle Mikey,” Hegan said.

           After they left, Lucy embraced Teresa, who accepted the comfort. The two women had grown to know and appreciate each other over the last few months as Mike made clear in his careful, painfully slow way that Lucy was the woman he wanted above all others.

           Lucy looked in Teresa’s eyes, noted Eddie’s absence, and knew. Teresa put her head on Lucy’s shoulder and let a few tears flow. Then she sniffled, wiped the tears from her cheeks, and offered Lucy a grateful smile.

           “Call me. Night or day,.” Lucy said, her intensity sparking a look of surprise in Teresa’s eyes. Support was needed and given. “We’re practically sisters, or will be officially in six months. I’ll always be here for you.”

They hugged and Lucy returned to the dessert phase. “Get the kids,” she said to Teresa, “and I do mean all three of them.”

                                                                           ***

           Gorman drew back the drapes of the room he used as a study and lit his pipe. Here he maintained order and protected himself from the chaos of his fourteen year marriage and the three children it produced. When all else was unbearable, this one room in his house was his refuge. After a few puffs, he focused on the low, grey sky indicating snow was imminent. He wondered if enough snow would fall on campus to cancel his classes on Monday. For now, only the threat loomed.

           As Gorman’s organized mind wrestled to a no-decision regarding the weather, his phone rang. That phone rarely, if ever, rang. It was a private line installed in his sanctuary so that the social calls of his wife and children would not intrude. Only a select few had the number: his department chair and the dean of the faculty.               

           As the ring persisted, Gorman experienced the eerie feeling that the caller actually knew he was in the room. Gorman grabbed the phone and answered. 

“Who?” Gorman asked at the voice, which he found deep in tone but uneducated in speech. There was a swagger in the voice that seemed unaware of a world beyond its own existence.

“Metcha at the Clipper. Mr. F. wants to see ya.” Jeff’s voice was the aural equivalent of walking down the street to the cadence of hip-hop.

           Gorman went through a Rolodex in his mind. Clipper? Mr. F. Finally, Faraci!

“Sure.” He recovered. “When does Mr. F. wanna meet?”

“Now,” Jeff said.

“Now? I can’t. My wife and I have dinner plans.”

“Now!” Jeff barked.

“We’re meeting friends,” sounding lame even to himself.

 “What part of now don’tcha unnerstan’?” Jeff asked.

Gorman was convinced this Jeff had rehearsed the line as an all-purpose response to any resistance. He tried to construct a logical retort, but the image of Jeff’s menacing, hooded eyes intruded.

           “I’m waiting,” Jeff said playfully, with no interest in fun and games. “Maybe you don’t remember, huh?” 

Gorman remembered all too well. “Of course. Jeff. From the Clipper. Let me see if I can rearrange my plans.” Gorman put Jeff on hold and puffed rapidly. Through the window he saw the grey sky getting darker. He didn’t want to venture out in bad weather. He and his wife had no plans except staying inside. If he didn’t go, Trujillo would only get worse, and he’d also have Faraci as an enemy.

           Gorman reconnected, but Jeff was gone. The phone rang again.

“Hey! What the fuck you think you’re doin’? Don’t you hang up on me.”

           Gorman patiently tried to explain the hold process, but it got Jeff more upset. He tried to reclaim the upper hand. “It’s possible I can adjust my plans,” Gorman began, only to get “I’ll adjust your life” from Jeff. When Jeff paused for a second, Gorman agreed to meet that night. He used a sharp tone and felt he’d gained equilibrium, if not a slight edge. He was told they would take care of Trujillo and given a time and meeting place to arrange details.

           Gorman was pleased Faraci at last decided to pay off Trujillo. He’d do as asked, and life would return to normalcy—whatever that was. For the last few weeks, Gorman, following Faraci’s instructions, had been stringing Trujillo along. He’d pay fifty bucks and, a few days later, two hundred more.

“Pay up. I ain’t no Bisa card,” Trujillo would say with annoyance. Gorman promised he’d pay all of it if only Trujillo had patience. He was cashing in his IRA. Or was it his 401(k)? Gorman couldn’t keep his lies straight, and Trujillo didn’t care.

***

           That night, Lucy hurried out of the bathroom and scrambled, naked, into their Ethan Allen sleigh bed. She snuggled up to Hegan’s body, also naked, for warmth from the cool January night air. This will be the start of sweet dreams, he thought as her erect nipples brushed his body until she found a comfortable position.

           Lucy wasn’t interested in more than warmth. Ever since the spaghetti dinner she had been pained by Teresa’s unstable marriage. “We’ll never break up, will we, Mike? We’ll always be together and always be best friends, won’t we?”

           “You’re stuck with me,” he replied, caressing the inside of her thigh. She pushed him away.

           “Maybe we should run away and get married now. Justice of the peace and all that. Do the ceremony thing for my folks later. At least we’ll know we belong to each other.”

           Hegan wrapped an arm around Lucy and bear hugged her closer. “And what do you call this?” he said, squeezing her again for emphasis.

           “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” She said it in a singsong fashion which was both light and serious.

“I know, I know. The cheerleader who screws the football team never marries the quarterback,” he answered.

           “I hope you’re not teasing me,” she said seriously.

Hegan went back to Lucy’s thigh, but she expressed more concerns about Teresa’s fragile mental health. Next, Lucy worried about Mikey and Michelle. What would happen to their growth and development if their parents divorced or continued to fight?                    

           “Geez,” he said with an exaggerated flourish. Lucy chuckled, knowing Hegan’s reaction was intended to lighten her concerns. “I’ve heard of nervous brides, but that’s right before the wedding. Will this go on for the next six months? Night after night. On and on and on.”     

           “Shut up,” she said playfully.

To prove it, Lucy covered his body with hers, pinned his hands above his head, and gave him a kiss full on his mouth. Her pelvis circled his, and she got the desired response, until finally she sat up, straddled his legs, and rode him with an intensity Hegan had never experienced from her before. There had been plenty of hot and sweaty days and nights with Lucy, going back to the first time the previous summer, but tonight Lucy had a hunger that would never be sated. Like a sailor on the last day in port before embarking on six months at sea, Lucy seemed to be storing up all the exquisite sensations she could receive from Hegan’s body for a long, long time.

           Hegan didn’t know what possessed Lucy but hoped he could replicate it and bottle it for future use, like solar panels collect sunlight. He was going along for the ride, in this case being ridden, and it didn’t bother his manhood a bit. Shake me, bake me, any way you want me, he thought as Lucy rhythmically impaled herself.                       

           Her intensity was such that he wanted to laugh but knew it would spoil Lucy’s enjoyment. Worse, she’d get angry, and that would shrivel his ardor until he could cover her face with kisses and restore the mood. The thought of kissing Lucy made him smile. Lucy would never know.

           “I knew I’d bring a smile to your face, big boy,” she teased seconds before releasing a spasm of pleasure and dropping the weight of her body down on him in a heap. Hegan rolled her over on her back without uncoupling, threw her limp legs over his shoulders, and a few seconds later they were unconscious in each other’s arms.

About the author

A Woman to Blame, re-release, is the first novel written by Vincent Panettiere. His second was the award-winning and critically acclaimed These Thy Gifts; followed by The Scopas Factor. He has also written a non-fiction book. The Internet Financing Illusion, a look at the dark side of the internet. view profile

Published on September 09, 2019

120000 words

Genre: Mystery & crime

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