Banter avoided everyone she saw by staying in the shadows or altering her course. She didn’t approach from the north, so she knew she wouldn’t see Peter. Her approach down the alley behind the club was going to make her invisible to Bert. She really didn’t want him to see her, keeping up that allure of her skill set.
She was surprised to find the area clean and tidy, making her wonder why the area beside the club was so grimy on the night she had been laying in wait to shoot the drug lord with the paintball. The only explanation she could think of was that they were making sure the alley was passable for a car. There wasn’t any trash that a tire could hit and make a noise, which made her think back to the night she lay in wait. She hadn’t heard the car drive down the ally that picked up the drug lord. If she hadn’t heard him go through the side door, she wouldn’t have known anyone had left.
She kept her eyes scanning all around her, including upward. Her eyes saw no cameras. When she reached the alley that headed out toward the front, she could see there was no bulb in the light. She skirted across that opening by keeping to the far side and against the building.
There was only one dim light over a backdoor. She wondered why the drug lord hadn’t used that to leave on Thursday nights. As expected, the door was locked, but it didn’t take her long to pick it. In fact, there were three locks, but they were all easy. The hardest part was opening the door. It felt as if it hadn’t been opened in a long time. She expected to attract some attention by the noise of the door opening. There was no one in sight when she found herself in the kitchen. She waited a few minutes, but no one came running in.
The kitchen was spotless and looked unused. There was one microwave with dishes beside it. She wondered if that was how all the hor d’oeurves were heated. She sniffed, but smelled no food. No one came here to snack.
She stepped up to the swinging doors that opened out to the club area. The end of the bar that she usually couldn’t see was to her left. From this angle, she could see there was a door to her right. She hadn’t seen it before, because of how the bar and the last bench seat were positioned. It was such a narrow niche that no one would suspect a door there. It was practically invisible.
There didn’t seem to be a waiter this evening. She knew the bartender would serve any drinks for people who came in. At this end of the bar, she could see the manager on duty. He had the usual handlebar mustache. The manager didn’t seem too attentive. He was leaning against the bar looking at his phone. Everyone else she saw looked just as inattentive and bored.
Banter slipped through the door and into the door to the right.
Six men looked up. Three guns were aimed at her.
“Ah, think I found the right place,” she said, letting her natural Belgium accent come out.
Her nose instantly caught the whiff of cologne that marked the drug lord.
“Who the fuck are you?”
It was the drug lord who spoke. He was dressed finer than any of the managers she had seen. His mustache was just a little longer and curled just little fancier. She figured he probably shaved before he came since there was no sign of a five o’clock shadow. His nails looked manicured. She could even see the shine on his shoes.
“Ah am Annie Oakley,” she said.
He didn’t look amused.
One man with a drawn gun walked around and behind her. He tugged off her hood.
“She was here last week a couple of times, sitting at the bar,” a man positioned beside the drug lord said.
“Ah am looking for work,” she said.
The drug lord smirked.
“I don’t need any waitresses.”
“Ah, with the job board out of use, it’s hard to pay my rent. Ah don’t wait tables.”
“You ain’t no hired-gun.”
He raised his hands toward her as if presenting her.
“You’re not even carrying.”
“Ah, you’re a betting man ah see. Care to raise the stakes?”
“Ah’d have everyone holster their guns. I’ll show you mine. I don’t want some trigger finger getting happy.”
He snapped his fingers twice and all but one of the guns disappeared.
“Ah see you forgot one.”
There was a glare from the drug lord, and the man finally put away his gun. She was somewhat impressed that not a single name had been spoken.
Banter moved slow, drawing her gun and twisting on the silencer. She was careful not to point it at anyone.
There were a few concerned and surprised looks. The drug lord, however, kept his cool.
“Ah see you lost. You owe me a few minutes of your time,” she said.
She knew the silencer would carry more clout than just showing a gun.
“You still don’t look like a hire-gun. Why are you here?”
“Ah said the job board has been worthless lately, and Randy Coot wasn’t worth it.”
She also knew name dropping would be her best bet in gaining some credibility.
“Never heard of you,” he said.
“Ah, it’s the good ones you don’t hear about. Hear of John Drae?”
“Ahn he’s dead now. Copper plugged him, and he took a nose dive out of a chopper.”
“What was your last hit?”
“Ah took out five horny guys in a limo in a park last year.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“Ah said things have dried up. Job board is worthless. Ah like paying my rent and my yearly visits to the Caribbean. My pocket change is running out. Unfortunately, this means meeting and talking with the likes of you.”
There was mumbling and shuffling by two men behind him. The drug lord moved a hand and they were silenced. Banter knew this was a good sign.
“I might have something,” the drug lord said.
“Ahn do you want to talk now or later? Ah’m not liking this building. There are eyeballs outside.”
“Ah, you know? Shit. You like living dangerously? I don’t.”
“How do we get a hold of you?”
“Ah, thinks a little code here will work. You post on the job board that you’re looking for Mr. Peanut. I’ll meet you.”
“Where do we meet you?”
“Ah, think that’s where you tell me now. Or we meet back up here. Those eyes out there were staring at his phone playing games when I came through.”
“I’m busy tonight,” he said. “Come back tomorrow, but wait at the east end of the alley in the back. Ten pm.”
“Ah can do that.”
“Ah only work alone.”
“How do I pay you?”
“Ah like taking out Mr. Peanut. Put him on the job board. Ah’ll accept it. You can pay me through there.”
She knew this was a test if she knew how the job board operated.
“How did you get in here?”
Having been in the room this long, she knew at the end of the room and around a corner was the side door he went out.
“Ah like the kitchen,” she said.
“That door has three locks.”
“Ah, yes, it does,” she said. “Only a few locks out there that I can’t get through.”
“Where you from?”
“How long have you been state side?”
“Ah’ve been here maybe ten years.”
“And how long have you been a hired-gun?”
“Ah been one longer than you’ve had that mustache,” she said.
“Don’t come through the kitchen again,” he said, becoming serious again.
“Ah don’t like to wait,” she said, throwing sass back at him.
He waved a hand as if he was dismissing her.
“Tomorrow. East end of alley. Ten pm.”
“Ah take it you don’t want me leaving through the kitchen.”
He nodded his head and one of his guys motioned for her to follow. She removed the silencer and holstered her gun while she followed. Around the corner was the expected door. She saw why the light bulb was removed on Thursdays. The light switch was broken and the wires hung out as if someone had tried to fix it.
The lights went out in the room when she and the man she followed reached the door. She was impressed that they weren’t going to allow any light give away that someone was leaving. A moment later, the man slowly opened the door. It opened without a sound. She figured the hinges were now well oiled based on the comment from the drug lord when she first caught him going out this door. Banter pulled up her hoodie and slipped out. She edged along the building toward the back, cleared the open area where Bert might see her and broke into a jog.
She trotted along with care, listening hard. Her gut was tight. She knew he wasn’t a second rate drug lord. The men surround him were well seasoned and knew their job. Her peripheral vision caught what she was looking for. There were two men standing discreetly in the shadows. One peeled away from the shadows and aimed in her direction as if he was just out for a casual stroll. The other stayed in place. She dodged between some parked cars and down a dark alley. However, a few steps in, she stopped and slouched down. A few moments later the man she suspected was trying to follow her passed right by her. He picked up the pace when he couldn’t see her in the alley.
She stayed where she was. A few minutes later a man walked slowly by the alley. She recognized Peter immediately. He tossed a bottle into the alley at the same time he tossed a bag. It landed near her.
She opened it to find a wig and a loose dress. The wig was dark and fell to her shoulders. She slipped the dress over her jacket.
The street sounded empty, but she knew the other man was out there. She crept out next to the nearest car. It wasn’t locked. She opened the car door then closed it as if she had just gotten out. She walked down the street holding the paper bag.
A block down, Peter slid off a stoop and fell into step beside her. He handed her a soda. It was cold.
“Thanks sweetheart,” she said.
“You look hot,” he said.
She sipped the soda and said nothing.
“We’re clear,” he muttered.
Two blocks later they got into the unmarked car and drove off.
“We’re not dealing with a two bit dealer,” she said, taking a deep breath.
“No, with what you’ve told us, I’m not surprised.”
She felt that he was driving with a little extra care and being extra watchful. They drove to the garage and switched cars, but this time she ducked down in the back so it looked like Peter was the only one in the car. While he drove, she removed the wig and dress.
“Where am I taking you?”
“Grocery store on twenty-fourth and Parker.”
They were silent the remainder of the trip.
“Here you go,” he said.
Banter slid out the back and walked to her car. Feeling a little uncomfortable, she drove around, but saw no one following. She pulled over to wait and watch a few more minutes. While she waited, she checked the bug on Corey’s cruiser. It wasn’t home.
“What the fuck are you up to, Corey?”
She put the car in gear and headed for the same residential area she found him last time. When she reached the area, she drove down the street and saw his cruiser parked right in front of the same house. There were lots of lights on in the house. She parked a few houses down and walked up to his cruiser, standing in the street on the driver’s side.
It was now almost ten-thirty.
Another car pulled up and into the driveway. Banter realized she was probably still invisible with her hoodie. A man got out of the car and headed into the house. Even though he wasn’t in uniform, she recognized him as Walt, one of the traffic cops.
A few minutes later Corey walked out. Another policeman, also not in uniform, followed him out. She knew him as Jed.
“Thanks, Corey,” Jed said.
“Anytime. Call if you need anything.”
Jed nodded, shook hands with Corey, and stepped back into the house. Corey walked off the curb toward the driver’s side door.
“I know you’re not having an affair,” she said. “You can never stay awake long enough afterwards.”
Corey stopped in his tracks.
She could see him break into a smile.
“Where are you parked?”
“Just down the street.”
“Follow me home. We’ll talk.”
“You’ve been saying that.”
“We will talk. Let’s go home first.”
Banter headed for her car. Corey slowly drove up to her, then passed once she was in her car. She pulled out and followed him.
Once home, Banter expected a rush for bedtime with the kids.
“They’re already in bed,” Bea said. “I told them they could stay up, but they crashed.”
“They had a busy day.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“You don’t have to come so early,” Banter said.
Both she and Corey walked her out, then returned to the house.
“Let me change,” he said.
She followed him into the bedroom.
“Jed’s wife left him,” Corey said while he changed. “Today.”
“Why I had to leave and be with him.”
“What about the other times?”
“I figured you would finally check my bug.”
“You know who you are married to.”
“No matter how hard you hide things, people figure them out. Everyone knew I was having wife problems last year, even though I never talked about it. Jed remembered and so he came to talk to me. I went over to his place a couple of times. I even talked with his wife, Jean.”
Corey finished changing, and they moved out to the living room and sat on the couch.
“Men don’t like to talk that they have problems. He made me promise not to tell anyone. Even you.”
“You did a good job. Not one word came out of your mouth.”
“Jed’s been on the force for ten years. Married for seven. So you might say they reached the seven-year itch.”
“He’s probably working too much.”
“She doesn’t understand why when his shift is over that he comes home late. Why the overtime isn’t prearranged.”
“So he’s working too much, and she has some misconceptions.”
“A recipe for disaster in a relationship. I had the same problem. That’s how I lost mine.”
Banter eyed him.
“When you started watching me,” he said, speaking slowly, “you saw me leave and go home at seven. I was already trying to get back my wife. I used to work till ten or midnight. Use to work weekends. There weren’t the Sunday cookouts with mom and dad.”
“What got you to change?”
“Early spring, now over a year ago, a friend of mine took his life. I was devastated. I knew he was working long hours. I knew he had wife problems, then I heard his wife was leaving him. His kids hated him. He couldn’t turn things around. His death got me reexamining my life. That’s when I realized I was losing my wife. Going through the same thing. Until she left and you told me she was pregnant, I thought I had a chance to get her back. I didn’t realize it was too late, and I had already lost her months ago.”
“Your boys never hated you.”
“I guess I always managed to find time with them. Then I decided to do coaching. That and the mini vacations we did last year really brought us closer together. But did nothing for the marriage.”
Corey looked her in the eyes. Banter felt it was an intense look.
“I don’t want to lose you,” he said. “Now we both do police work.”
“We have lunch together. You meet me in the middle of the night when I come home,′ she said.
“We will continue to have cookouts with mom and dad. Smooches behind your closed office door.”
“Not any more. I have a glass wall.”
“We’ll find somewhere.”
Banter chuckled and crawled into his lap.
“It was Colo who helped me the most,” he said, wrapping his arms around her.
“When I started coming home early, he capitalized on it. He was so desperate for attention since he wasn’t getting it from his mom. He would start talking about his day. Followed me around. It really snapped my attention away from my day and into his day; what he thought was important or not important. It grounded me. And Kyle, jumping on the bed every night. At first I yelled at him. Now, I embrace it. I took over getting the boys ready for bed. The baths. The talks. Of course, their mother didn’t mind. She was already spending all her time away.”
“Now every night is dinner, talks, backyard time with the dogs,” she said.
“The boys now have you. I worry they will lose the time with you now that you’re working. You’ve done so much for them.”
“I’m still there for them at breakfast and dinner.”
He tightened his arms around her.
“We just need to keep in touch with each other. You, me, the boys.”
“Your damn agility course in the backyard is keeping them occupied. Plus we both text the boys during the day,” she said.
“We use technology to compensate,” he said.
“We still have pizza night. The weekends. Sunday cookouts with papa and nana.”
“My folks love it. Never did so much with them before. It wasn’t something that…the boys mother didn’t like to do that.”
“Maybe next time I can go with you. Have a group chat with Jed and Jean. Show them how we’re making it work.”
“I think that’s a good idea,” he said.
“Maybe I better tell you what I’m doing.”
He raised his eyebrows.
“At work,”she added.
“All I’m hearing is you’re helping everyone with their cases like you should be.”
“Yeah, the consulting part. Tonight I met up with a drug lord as if I was a gun-for-hire looking for work.”
“What is that going to do?”
“This is what Ray’s group has been working on.”
She told him all about the club and that it was a front.
“They’ve been blinded,” he said.
“This guy is good. He’s not a second rate drug lord. His men are seasoned and know their job. They are out-thinking the police. They are keeping more than a few steps ahead of them.”
“What are you going to do when you have to do a hit?”
“We will have to make the guy disappear or you let me do it. I doubt it will be someone nice.”
“I’m meeting up with him tomorrow. The whole point is to see if I can crack his organization and find out where they’re operating. It’s definitely not at the club.”
“You’re going in bugged I hope.”
“Yes, I was last night. After I had left the meeting, they tried to tail me. Peter helped extract me.”
“I’m not too happy about this. This is the last time you do this type of work. You’re too important, Banter.”
“Yeah, I’m starting to agree with you. We have a good family.”