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I first met the man who got me shot at his home in Lincoln. It was a cold fall day. Dark clouds spat gusts of rain-laced wind at my windshield. The Honda’s automatic rain sensing windshield wipers didn’t know when to start or stop. I had no such trouble. I’d Googled his house, printed out the directions, punched the coordinates into the Accord’s sat nav and plugged them into my iPhone. Before pulling into the half moon driveway in front of his million dollar crib, I cruised past the place. I pulled a u-turn at the abandoned construction site at the end of the dead end road, careful not to get mired in patches of thickening mud. From a security point of view, the place was a nightmare. The question was: would Terrence Dupree want a wake up call?

“You Smith?”

Terrence Dupree opened the door and leaned against the huge frame, all six foot seven-and-a-half inches of him. His body language was straight out of a spaghetti western: the “I’m so tough I’m lazy with it” pose. Somewhere up there near the ceiling, he nodded his head slightly. Like I was the new guy delivering his coke supply.

“No I’m Wesson. Smith will be a little late.”

It was a stupid joke that I’d told a thousand times. But I delivered it well and the comeback put the ball back in Dupree’s court. Metaphorically speaking. On a real basketball court I’d have about as much chance against the NBA All-Star as Ugly Betty at a Victoria’s Secret casting call.

Dupree may have known nothing about home security, but he was, now, an ex-con. At some point during his incarceration, he’d learned to dominate the silence. So we both stood there, saying nothing, looking at each other, waiting.

The face staring down at me was dominated by his nose, with huge nostrils suited to his sport. The eyes on either side were brown and relatively lifeless. No biggie. Like cops, professional athletes’e eyes “light up” at game time.

The silence was no problem; I’d gone to a Quaker school. A “moment of silence” lasted years. Quaker Meeting stretched to infinity (and beyond). I swear we eyed each other for a full two minutes before another black man, as wide as Dupree was tall, appeared behind him.

The house within a house, a bodyguard of some sort, put a hand the size of a ham hock on Dupree’s shoulder. He was telegraphing the fact that the NBA player belonged to him. That was enough for me. I was ready to leave.

Before I broke eye contact, I saw something in Dupree’s face: a momentary sense of extreme discomfort. A fleeting expression that said I’m nobody’s bitch but I have to be because I’m scared. No man should have that look in his eyes.

“This guy giving you trouble?” Haystacks Calhoun asked semi-rhetorically.

Clocking a suit that was two sizes too small cut out of some sort of fireproof material, I was going to mention the bodyguard’s troubles with the fashion police. I didn’t get the chance.

“Nah. Chookie, say hello to Mr. Smith. His partner Mr. Wesson will be by shortly.”

I smiled. Dupree had made us silent conspirators against Chookie’s stupidity. The bodyguard stepped out from behind his “main man” and extended a hand, like a fisherman setting out a lure. Like a savvy fish, I ignored it completely.

At some point, so did Chookie and Dupree. They turned and walked into the house. Chookie led the way, waddling slightly. Dupree loped behind him. It would have been comical—except for the fact that the man in charge of protecting Dupree’s life had his back towards a stranger, exhibiting about as much situational awareness as stoner in a bathtub.

We entered a vast open space. The ceilings so high I wondered if the room had its own micro-climate. Dupree gestured me onto the bottom of an L-shaped sofa. Luckily, it was facing the windows. He settled into the opposite end of the sofa. Chookie stood behind him, playing Secret Service agent man.

I heard a distant TV and then the sound of cheering. The noise seemed to be coming from the basement. A carefully arranged selection of expensive beers lined-up next to iced bowls with cans of soft drinks. Plates of healthy-looking food rested on the open plan kitchen counter top.

“My agent says I need your services,” Dupree said.

“My ex-wife says she needs more money.”

“I’ve had death threats,” Dupree countered, jumping straight to the “this is serious” part of the program.

“So you know her then.”

Dupree smiled, despite himself. It was a wonderful expression: clever, self-deprecating, open and generous. The man had nothing but teeth, and they were all perfect. I decided right then and there to help him.

“Alright,” I said, going for the assumptive close. “If you want to stay alive, I’m going to need a lot of information. Personal information. And you’re going to have to change things. A lot of things.”

Like Chookie. There was no way I could do my job with an intellectually challenged  four-hundred-pound bouncer having anything to say about it. Sensibly enough, Chookie knew it was a “him or me” deal, even before I rang the bell. I wanted him to see it as a “He’s the boss” deal, but I had a mountain to climb. So to speak.

In fact, Chookie was spoiling for a fight. As I spoke, he sneered, shifting his considerable bulk from one foot to the other. His gun was “printing”; it was some sort of compact-sized weapon perched under a fold of fat on his right hip. I knew I could take him. Unless I couldn’t. I’ve always operated according to the principle that the only gun battle you’re sure to win is the one you don’t have.

I stood up. Chookie almost lunged forward.

“Down boy,” I said, using the exact same tone of voice I use for my dogs.

“Chill Chook,” Dupree said waving his hand laconically. “Let’s hear what the man has to say.”

“How do we know they didn’t send him to kill you?” Chookie demanded, gesturing with worrying violence.

“Because he’d be dead by now. And so would you.”

Chookie was having none of it. He took two steps forward. I took two steps back and crouched slightly.

“I’m going to fuck you up,” Chookie announced.

Dupree sat up. He was ready to yank Chookie’s chain. I got there first.

“No you’re not,” I replied in a calm, measured tone. “I’m a guest in this house. You lay one hand on me and your boss will cut you out of his life like you never existed. All the food, all the pussy you never thought you’d have? That nice comfortable bed upstairs? Gone.”

Chookie looked over at this boss. Dupree remained expressionless. Fair enough.

“As for me, you lay one hand on me and I’ll call my pals down at the State police. They’ll bust your ass and rip your concealed carry permit into tiny little shreds.

“You do have a concealed carry permit, right Chookie? That’s a legal gun on your hip, right? ‘Cause if it isn’t, your boss is in a world of trouble. He could even go back to jail. For a lot longer than last time.”

Dupree tilted his head slightly and raised an eyebrow. Chookie clocked his employer’s expression. I could see the bodyguard physically shrink within himself.

“Yeah I got one,” he said without a hint of conviction.

“Well,” I said, moving slowly, pretending to take in my surroundings, like a tourist ambling down a shopping street. “If you don’t, I might be able to help you out. Guide you through the process. Put a word for you here and there. It would be nice to carry legally. Eliminates a lot of needless worrying.”

It was like I’d set a freshly-cooked steak in front of him, with all the trimmings. Chookie’s head started bobbing slightly.

“You a Glock man?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Chookie said.

“Me too,” I lied. “You and me work together, I can show you how to run that gun. Plus you’d keep your job. Isn’t that right Terry?”

Dupree hesitated, torturing his over-sized amigo. “That depends on how much Mr. Smith’s gonna cost me.”

“It’s tax deductible,” I lied, again.

“You in Chook? Or you think we should kick this white guy out of the house and take our chances?”

Before he could answer, a woman entered the room from the kitchen. She was dark haired and as sleek as a Jaguar, with green eyes that put Maui’s rainforest to shame. She was wearing tight jeans and a man’s shirt tied at the waist. Jangling silver bracelets announced her arrival.

In a Herculean display of self-control, I only glanced at her out of the corner of my eye. I kept my eyes focused on Chookie. I could tell he appreciated the respect.

“We gotta deal?” I asked, walking over to him extending my hand.

My mitt disappeared into his. His hand was surprisingly soft.

“Mr. Smith,” Dupree said, standing up. “I want you to meet my cousin.”

“Cousin?” I asked, without thinking.

“She’s the white sheep in the family,” he said, smiling again.

“That makes one of us,” I said, turning to shake her hand.

Which was true. I doubt Dupree and his pack would have been glad-handing me, preparing to put their lives in my care, if they’d known what had happened to my family ten years before . . .

[Click here to read Chapter One]

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