In a possible near future
1: Mean Street
The sky a sunny blue over Chicago, Hank lengthened his stride and sliced through the noontime trudge of pedestrians on Michigan Avenue. He didn’t want to be late—it isn’t every day an NRA executive calls you up and says he has a mission for you.
Oh, man, to have a life again. While he sure as hell didn’t miss the army, he hated not being a cop anymore, sworn to protect and serve. His sense of duty needed something to do.
He shoved aside a spike of fear that his PTSD would get in his way today—lifted by a rare rush of well-being, he felt sharp, at his best. This could be his road back.
No, more. A road forward.
Damned if he was going to be another digit in veteran suicide stats.
A tiresome clump of a half dozen gang jerks swaggered toward him with cocky menace, three of them with pistols in their hands. Sure, they had the right to carry them, but these guys were pushing it. The gangbangers blocked most of the sidewalk, forcing people to step off the curb or sidle along a building front.
He locked his gaze onto the eyes of the center guy, who carried a Glock semi-automatic. Hank slid his hand inside his Windbreaker to the familiar feel of the .45 Colt semiautomatic in his shoulder holster and walked straight ahead.
The kid held onto his cool until they came together but, one stride from colliding, he dropped his gaze and sidestepped. Never slowing, Hank walked on.
This was going to be a good day.
* * *
Jewel Washington pushed through the lunchtime flow of people that filled the plaza beside the Chicago River, searching for Murphy. The lard-ass cop said he’d be here, and her brother would be hurtin’ bad if she didn’t get the pink Timmy needed.
A clot of gangstas swaggered through the crowd, dangling pistols in their hands, radiating dares no one answered. Creeps oughta get a life. Jewel cut wide, careful to avert her gaze even though she’d rather glare at them. But that could set them off.
Instead, she lifted her face to the spring sun. Its warmth promised good things. Maybe it would add new dots to the spray of freckles like chocolate dots across her brown cheeks.
She spotted Murphy, a fat blue boulder parting a stream of girly secretaries hurrying to cram in their noontime shopping, a boulder that leered at their bobbing chests.
His piggy eyes stumbled across her when she closed in on him. He sent his gaze on its usual tour of her body—yeah, she was wearing a scoop-neck top and a miniskirt, but what the hell, couldn’t a girl enjoy a spring day without some slob feeling her up with his eyeballs?
When she got to him, she held out forty bucks for a packet of pink, the only thing that could stop Timmy’s withdrawal agony—for a while.
Murphy ogled her. “I decided to take it in services insteada cash.” He aimed a fat thumb at Pioneer Court behind him. “Got a spot for a quick hummer behind them bushes over there in the courtyard.”
In the shadow from the Equitable Building, raised beds of marble broke up the dreary pavement with boxes of green shrubs, trees, flowers, and a fountain.
She didn’t have another way to get the drug, but this was bullshit. She lifted her chin and looked him in the eyes. “You don’t want my cash, there’s dealers in the ’hood.”
“Bitch.” He snatched her money and handed her a packet of pink just as a bony white teen shuffled up to them, his nose leaking, body shivering, winces flickering across his face. Jewel had seen the same thing in Timmy—it had been too long since the kid’s last hit of pink.
He held out a handful of grubby bills. “N-n-need one.”
Murphy took his time counting the money while the kid jittered. It hurt to look at him, he was so much like her brother—she turned away. No, she wasn’t gonna go there. Too nice a day and nothin’ she could do about it.
The clock on the Wrigley Building said she had time to do a little window-shopping before she had to be back at work, so she headed north toward Water Tower Place, not that she could afford anything in the boutiques there. A breeze reeking of car exhaust swirled between the skyscrapers, but she liked its touch.
She stopped at a restaurant window to eye a cupcake display. Her ice-blue eyes, donated by some honky ancestor, reflected back at her. So did her scar, a three-inch trail curving down from high on her cheekbone.
Jewel gave her body the once-over like Murphy had. Still lookin’ good . . . Wait a minute, was that a little bit of extra tummy? She turned sideways. Damn, gettin’ poochy. Should she diet? Exercise? Both? She sucked her gut in and walked on.
Two white dudes slouched against a gun store smacked kisses at her. A green stripe ran down the center of the blond’s buzz-cut hair, and a red do-rag decorated the smaller guy’s shaved head—he cupped his balls and licked his lips. Ugh. She lengthened her stride, her mini skirt riding high.
They pushed off from the store and swung into step on each side of her. Green-Stripe crowded against her. His sour stink assaulted her, and the skin on her arms goose-bumped. He said, “Hey, brown sugar.”
She wanted to say, “I’m not your sugar,” but no, she just kept going. Staring straight ahead, she said, “There’s a cop back there.”
He laughed. “Yeah. Murphy.”
Wishing she wasn’t wearing heels, she broke into a run and darted between a couple holding hands.
Do-Rag flashed past Jewel and then stopped a few feet ahead, arms spread wide. A hand grabbed at her elbow from behind. She jerked free, cut around a woman with a stroller, and then ran back toward Murphy.
Green-Stripe caught her arm and yanked her to a stop. He swung her to face him and leaned close. “You need somethin’ to relax you, chocklit, and I’m it.”
She yanked free and spun.
His partner stood waiting for her.
They grabbed her arms and forced her toward Pioneer Court. They hauled her behind a clump of bushes—they could be seen from the plaza, but only above the waist. She pulled with all her strength, but couldn’t tear free.
Thirty feet away, Murphy stared at her.
She cried, “Murphy?”
He didn’t move.
But there were a ton of people walking by. “Help me! Somebody! Hey!”
Glances flicked in her direction from the throng on the sidewalk and then skittered away. See no evil, don’t get involved, stay safe; she’d done the same a thousand times.
Okay, what she had to do now was live through this.
* * *
A shout from behind Hank cut into his thoughts. He turned to see two scruffy punks pull a young woman behind a cluster of bushes in the courtyard. A reflexive impulse to go to the rescue fired up . . . but a policeman was close by. She’d be all right.
The woman’s cry came again. “Murphy!” The officer, a wide man with multiple chins, faced the action.
Hank stayed where he was. What the hell, he could spare a minute to lend a hand if needed. He still had his old badge and the sense of duty that went with it.
The shorter punk held the woman’s arms from behind while the blond with a stupid green stripe in his hair ripped her shirt open. She wasn’t wearing a bra.
She yelled to the cop, “Murphy! Murphy, it’s me!”
Quick, smooth, Clothes-Ripper slipped his hand inside his Bulls jacket and pulled out an automatic pistol. He jammed it under her chin and forced her head back. Then he gave the officer a screw-you smile.
Hank knew what he’d do, and he was a good-enough shot to do it, but how would the uniform handle it?
The cop moved on, hands clasped behind his back as if just out for a stroll in a peaceful park.
Rage fired in Hank. The son of a bitch turned his back on his sworn duty!? Hank clenched his fists, tempted to go after the coward, but the woman needed help.
The kid stuffed his pistol back under his jacket and unzipped his pants. A yell from the woman shriveled into a wail. “Murphyyyy.”
The cop didn’t look back. People flowed past, unseeing, as if they wore blinders.
The woman staggered her attacker with a kick to his leg. He slapped her, and then had to dodge a knee aimed at his crotch. Girl had guts.
Hank moved closer, stepping behind a tall shrub that concealed him from the passing crowd. He drew his .45 Colt automatic from the holster under his Windbreaker. He pulled the silencer from his pocket, twisted it on, and settled into a marksman’s stance, legs spread, both arms up, his gun hand steady.
The punk holding the woman’s arms saw Hank, and his grin O’d toward a shout. Hank couldn’t allow a warning—the one with the gun was fast. Hank’s bullet stopped the kid’s yell in his mouth and slammed him back. His hands didn’t know he was dead, and he pulled the woman on top of him when he fell away from the little garden. They sprawled on the pavement, and the woman gaped at Hank as he swung his gun to the other guy.
Hank shouted, “Freeze!”
The tall one spun toward him. Green-Stripe jerked his gun out of his jacket as he yelled, “You’re dea—”
Hank shot him in the heart. The kid staggered back and looked down at his chest and then up at Hank, his eyes wide like those of a scared little boy. His knees buckled and he collapsed, his gun clattering on the pavement.
Hank spun around—if there was any law nearby he was willing to be late for his meeting to show his badge and square things away, but the chicken-livered cop was gone and there were no other uniforms in sight. Passersby glanced at the bodies beside the garden and then focused on where they were going. He took a deep breath to ease the rush of adrenaline and concentrated on the mechanical rhythm of removing the silencer and stuffing his pistol into his holster. He’d call 911 and report the shooting.
The NRA had the right idea when they said, “The surest way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
The woman scrambled to her feet. Clutching at her torn top, she stared at the mess that had been her attackers, then at Hank.
She looked like she was okay, and he had a meeting. He turned his back on her and stepped into the mindless herd, looking for the cop. He wanted to bury a fist in his fat gut, but there was no sign of the creep. Hank picked up his pace. He needed some action to keep his head straight, and maybe this NRA thing could generate something. Too much downtime was . . . well, too much. Stuff kept bubbling up that his meds and pot had trouble handling . . .
* * *
Jewel trembled, the scar on her cheek throbbing as though it remembered old trouble. She breathed deep and settled herself down. Her mama had always said, “In this world, you got to be hard. Ain’t nobody there for you but you.” Hallelujah, Mama.
She’d been lucky this day. She had to thank the guy, even if he was white—Mama’d taught her manners, too. Jewel hurried after him, trying to arrange her torn top into decent coverage, but one boob or the other kept falling out. Great, now she had to walk down Michigan Avenue with her tits on display. And wouldn’t they love it back at the office.
She spotted her rescuer knifing through the crowd. She really should get back to her job, but, hell, he’d pretty much saved her brown ass. “Hey!” she shouted. No response.
He crossed the street. She hurried after him; damn, the man could move. The crossing signal switched to “Don’t” as he entered the Chelsea Hotel.
Jewel ran for it.