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AWLL 2 - Book 9 - Kami

Michael Loucks



For Stephie

Copyright © 2015-2020 Michael P. Loucks

First publication date: 2018-09-01

First revision publication date: 2020-04-12

You may contact the author at: author@michaelloucks.com



October 6, 2012, Oguni, Yamagata Prefecture, Japan

"Thanks for coming," Sensei Jim said when I stepped off the train in Oguni.

"I only wish I could have been here to say 'goodbye'."

"You spoke to Robert-san after his first heart attack."

"I did," I said. "Undetected coronary artery disease almost killed Jessica's father, and he's a doctor. I just wish I could have been here at the end, the way I was for Hiro-san."

"Robert-san knew your thoughts were with him. And I have to say the revelation about Jessica's true father really threw me for a loop back when it happened. And speaking of fathers, yours turned 95 this year, right?"

"In August. He's 95 and going strong, with a plan to make it to at least 100!"

"Those are some good genes you inherited! Come on, Hideki-san and his family are waiting for us."

We walked to Sensei Jim's Toyota for the short drive to the compound where, in 1994, I'd finally found myself, and because of that, been advanced to 5th Dan. I'd also met someone who was, even eighteen years later, still very special to me.

"How is Will?" Sensei Jim asked.

"Great, but I agree with his priorities."

"Me, too! His wife giving birth to twins two weeks ago basically precluded him coming. We all understand. And I'm very glad you could make it on short notice."

"Me, too. I brought both kimono with me, and this time, I'm prepared with more gifts!"

"How long are you staying with us?"

"I haven't decided. I'll be here at least through the 15th. I have an open-ended ticket. I like it here, and I'm VERY sorry I haven't been back since that business trip in December of '94."

"It is a long way to come, and Will has been here twice since his first visit. It really is his responsibility as master of the dojo."

"I understand, but it's more for my own personal situation than for the school. Is Yoshiro-san still alive?"

"He is. He's hoping to see you."

"And I, him. Good."

We arrived at the compound and I smiled when I saw Mitsuo standing just outside the main house, sporting a worn, and somewhat tattered, Pittsburgh Penguins cap. In my bag I had a new one, from the 2009 Stanley Cup. I'd been hoping for another championship since then, but even with Crosby and Malkin, it hadn't materialized.

Next to him was a young man I only recognized from a recent photograph - Hiro; great-grandson of Hisakawa Hiro, the founder of the dojo. He was twelve, and I imagined he looked very much like what his great-grandfather would have looked like at that age. He was wearing his most recent birthday gift, one I'd purchased with severe internal conflict, but with much amusement from my dad - a Los Angeles Dodgers cap.

When I got out of the car, they came over to greet me, and I returned the bows. Hiro took my bag and started off towards the cottage where I'd stayed all those years before.

"I meant to ask, how is your Japanese?"

Sensei Jim laughed, "A lot better than it was. Robert-san had more than twenty years to practice by the time you arrived. Fortunately, Sakurako has taught Hideki some English. She's done that for her children as well. Hideki can't speak English to you in the dojo without violating tradition, but outside the dojo, he can carry on a decent conversation."

"You know me and protocol!"

He laughed again, "I do. It's on your list of favorite things like bee stings or getting chewing gum stuck to the sole of your shoe!"

"Exactly! But here, it seems correct to follow it."

"Indeed," he replied, using one of my favorite responses.

Sensei Jim and Hiro led me inside where Hideki received me in his private room. We bowed and he greeted me in English.

"Steve-san! Welcome!"

"Thank you, «Shihan»! I wish I were here under better circumstances."

"It is a long way to come, and your life is in America. How is your family?"

"Everyone is fine. And yours?"

"The same. My wife has prepared the guest cottage for you. Would you please join us for our family breakfast in the morning? Emiko would be most unhappy if I did not invite you!"

I nodded, "I'd be honored to. Do you mind if I get cleaned up and change into Japanese clothing?"

"Not at all. Would you do me the honor of teaching while you are here?"

"It is you who honor me with that request," I said,

We bowed and I went out to the cottage and smiled at the beautiful young woman who was waiting just inside.

"Steve-chan!" Sakurako said happily.

I bowed and she laughed, pulling me into her arms for a loving - but chaste - hug.

"Sakurako-chan, it's good to see you. You are just as lovely as the last time I saw you eighteen years ago!"

She laughed softly, "You lie very well!"

"It's no lie," I said. "You aren't a young girl, but you are just as lovely."

"Steve-chan," she said with the slightest of smirks, "this is my daughter, Yukiko, who will care for you while you are here."

I turned to my left to see a young woman who was the very image of her mother at age fifteen.

"Good afternoon, Steve-san!" she said, with a bow, then straightening with a quick glance at her mother. "I promise to serve you at least as well as my mother once did!"

I suppressed a combination of a laugh and a sigh. How DID I get myself into these predicaments?

Chapter I - A Dangerous Environment

July 28, 1995, Chicago, Illinois

"What?!" Jennifer gasped. "Missing? Are you sure?"

I sagged against the door jamb as the adrenaline rush threatened to overwhelm me. I took a couple of deep breaths and managed, just, to keep it under control. It seemed like minutes, but it was less than ten seconds before I responded.

"He said he was going to play with his brothers. He's not in the main house or the yard. And he's not here. Matthew said he hadn't seen him. And now Jesse just said the same thing."

"I'm calling the police right now!" Jessica said, sounding panicked and on the verge of tears.

She moved quickly to the phone hanging on the kitchen wall and dialed 9–1–1.

"I'm going to call Patrick Shaughnessy. Hopefully Albert pressed the button on his locator device!"

"What about the cameras?" Josie asked as I pulled my cell phone from my pocket.

I sighed, "They only cover the front of the main house. That HAS to change. We'll deal with that later."

I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and speed-dialed Patrick's mobile number. He answered on the third ring.

"Patrick? It's Steve Adams. One of my kids is missing!"

"For how long?"

"I'd guess about an hour, maybe ninety minutes."

"Which one?"


"OK. Let me call Ted Farley and find out if the locator device was activated. I'll call you right back!"


I hung up and walked over to where Jessica was speaking to 9–1–1. She covered the mouthpiece.

"They're sending a patrol car right now," she said.

"Patrick is calling his investigator here to check on the locator," I said.

The door to the yard opened and Jon walked in with Albert in his arms.

"I believe you're looking for this young man?"

"Albert!" Jessica squealed, dropping the receiver and rushing over to Jon and taking Albert into her arms.

"Jon, where'd you find him?" I asked.

"He just walked into the house."

"Albert!" Jesse said sharply. "Where were you?"

"Playing with Timmy!"

Timmy lived across the alley from the coach house.

"Somebody should tell 9–1–1 before we have half the cops in Chicago here," Jennifer said.

I went over to the phone and picked up the dangling receiver. I explained what had happened and told 9–1–1 we no longer needed a response. The operator said that the patrol officer would come by anyway just to make sure. I thanked the operator and hung up. I dialed Patrick back and got his voicemail, so I left a message letting him know Albert was home safely.

"Albert, you scared us!" Jessica said, her voice still trembling. "Nobody knew where you were!"

"I came home for dinner!" he protested.

"But you said you were coming here to play with your brothers," I said.

There was a knock at the front door, and the doorbell rang immediately, a sure sign of a police visit - they always did both. Jennifer went to open the door and returned with two police officers.

"Sorry for the false alarm," I said. "He was across the street at a friend's house and didn't tell anyone where he was going. He was supposed to be in the house here, and when he wasn't, we called 9–1–1."

"A woman called," one of the officers said.

"That was me," Jessica said. "I'm his mom. This is Albert."

"Do you have some identification, please?"

"Tiger, would you get my ID from the house, please?"

I nodded and quickly left the coach house and went to our bedroom in the main house where I got Jessica's hospital ID and driver's license, and then went to the kitchen where I got Albert's school ID. I took everything back to the coach house and handed it to the officer. He quickly scanned the cards and handed them back.

"Thanks. Unless there is something else, we'll simply call this in as a false alarm."

"Thank you, Officer," Jessica said, still clutching Albert tightly. "Everything is fine now."

As the officers left, Albert looked at me, then at Jessica.

"Am I in trouble?" he asked.

"You didn't say where you were going!" Jesse stated firmly.

"Jesse," Jennifer cautioned, "let your dad and Aunt Jessica deal with this, please."

"Let's go back to my study to talk," I suggested.

Everyone left the coach house except Josie, Jesse, and Jennifer. Jessica, Kara, and I took Albert into my study.

"What's the rule for visiting friends?" I asked gently.

"Tell an adult where I'll be."

"And get permission first," Jessica said.

"Sorry," Albert said, burying his face in Jessica's shoulder.

"What do you think, Tiger? No video games for the weekend?"

I nodded, "I think that's fine. Albert, did you hear what your mom just said?"

"Yes," he sighed. "No video games."

"OK. Then let's get dinner. Jess, Kara, I have a meeting at 7:00pm with the union guy at the coffee shop on 55th. It shouldn't take too long."

"Tonight?" Jessica asked. "A Friday?"

"He called just as I walked into the house. I suspect he left messages at the office but if he didn't say it was urgent, Kimmy would have left it for Monday. It really won't be too long."


The four of us joined the rest of the family for dinner, and when we'd finished, I left to meet Theo while my wives cleared the table and did the dishes.

"Hey, Kid," he said, standing up.

"Hi, Theo. What's up?"

He stood up, "I need to check..."

I nodded and he quickly frisked me for a wire. I wasn't surprised he was being cautious and wondered why he hadn't ever done that before. I'd been wary to start with, and now I was very much on guard.

"So?" I asked, trying to sound curious and annoyed at the same time.

"Lisa Glass. Do you know her?"

I nodded, "I'm good friends with her dad and do a lot of business with him. Lisa fucked me over which ultimately led to her going to prison for murder."

"John Lentz, right?"

I nodded, "She was engaged to him and when she fucked me over, I told him she was cheating on him."

"And that led him to break up with her and her to have him killed."

I nodded, "Yes. And get forty years in prison."

"She's out."

"I'm aware," I said. "I've seen her because I'm working on a real estate deal with her dad."

"Do you know how she got out?"

I shrugged, "I'm assuming her dad being worth a couple of hundred million bucks had something to do with it."

"And you're aware she's the one who gave the Feds what they needed to take down Hart-Lincoln and finalize the racketeering charges against our capo and the others?"

"I can put two and two together," I replied. "You know we helped the FBI with Hart-Lincoln's computers."

"That has Frank Senior, very suspicious."

"I'm not sure what he wants me to do," I said. "We have nearly all the major law firms as customers and the FBI would be very suspicious if we refused to help them get data from computers we sold and support. I've had enough run-ins with the FBI! You know they investigated me for espionage. And earlier this year, they even ran my gun to see if I killed Brandon Littleton!"

"So you know nothing about what Lisa Glass said to the FBI? It had to be good to get her out of prison."

"I have no idea what she said to them! After she got out of prison, I only saw her when I went to Alex's house for dinner. And then, when he and I struck a deal on a building for the karate dojo where I teach, she showed us the space. I didn't talk to her at all about what she said to the FBI and I have no clue what it might have been."

"Mr. DiFronzo isn't sure about that," Theo said.

Suddenly, for the first time since that night when Theo had been shot, I was seriously worried about what might happen.

"I don't know what to tell you," I said warily, "other than the fact I've done everything I've been asked that was within my power to do, I've been loyal, and I've kept my mouth shut."

Theo nodded, "I know. Mr. Marcello vouched for you, but you aren't Italian, Kid."

"What are you telling me?"

"Don't do anything, and I mean anything, that makes it look like you're working for the Feds."

"Theo, I can't prevent the FBI from talking to me or questioning me. I have NOTHING to say about my Italian friends. Nothing."

"We don't want you talking to them without a lawyer. OUR lawyer. If they contact you, you call Elliot and tell him. One of our mouthpieces will go with you."

"They know my lawyers, Theo. If I show up with a new one, they'll ask questions."

"So give them answers. You switched lawyers so that your business and personal stuff is with different firms. Or some other story. Just make it good."

I shook my head, "Jack Switzer has been my personal attorney for nearly ten years. He works with Jamie Ferguson who is my corporate attorney. There is literally nothing I can say to them which they'll accept as honest."

"Kid, I'm not kidding. If you don't do this, some people are going to get VERY nervous."

"I hear you, but your plan WILL draw suspicion from everyone. Right now, NOBODY is suspicious or has any inkling I'm working with you. There has to be another way."

"I don't think there is. Let me talk to the Consigliere, Mr. LaPietra; but don't expect anything to change."

"Mr. LaPietra knows I'm loyal, just as Mr. Marcello does."

"I'll call you in a day or two," Theo said.

"Isn't that dangerous? Isn't THIS meeting dangerous?"

"It's not dangerous if I call you from the Union office. You still do our computer work. And that's what this meeting was about. You were in Europe and California the past two weeks and I needed to catch up with you."

He was sending a message, telling me that the Outfit knew where I'd been. It wasn't as if I'd hid that information, but for Theo to know it, there was a leak SOMEWHERE. I'd have to talk to Patrick about 'Operational Security' or 'OpSec', as he called it. I'd also need to talk to him about adding cameras to the security system.

"OK," I nodded, trying to keep my composure despite my discomfort.

I paid for the coffee as I usually did, and left a tip, and started walking home. Once I turned onto Woodlawn Avenue, I pulled out my cell phone and called Patrick.

"I got your message," he said. "Everything OK?"

"Yes. But I want to talk to you about more cameras for the house, as well as what you called 'Operational Security'."

"The cameras make sense, and we'll do an upgrade on your motion detectors as well. Why are you asking about OpSec?"

"The fact that I was in Europe and California the last two weeks seems to be public knowledge."

"There are a hundred ways that information could get out. And if you're traveling for business, too many people have to know where you'll be. What's your concern?"

"I guess all the things that went through my head in those ten minutes when we didn't know where Albert was."

"It's good to be aware, but unless you're able to buy a private jet and convince the FAA to mask your flight plans, it's almost impossible to hide your movement. All it takes is a few bucks to a secretary at the travel agent you use, or your receptionist, or any of your staff. It doesn't even have to be malicious in that case. It could be as simple as one of your kids telling a friend you were traveling and that kid telling their parents. Or a friend.

"Look, the people who are seriously concerned have bodyguards and drivers, and they travel by private plane and keep their schedules completely secret. I can't keep my flight plans off the FAA's list, even given what I do. There are things that can be done - assumed names, and so on - but those are more and more difficult to do with the security checks for flying. The bottom line is, we can deal with specific threats, but not with theoretical or general ones. You'd have to be a sheik or someone like Warren Buffett to afford anything more. Well, unless you can get the taxpayers to foot the bill."

"So having my own 'Praetorian Guard' like the Secret Service is out," I chuckled.

"Yes. You carry, you're trained in karate, and you have a top-notch security system on the house. We'll do some upgrades to improve it, but really, you're in good shape."

"OK. Have your guy call me."

"Will do. I'm glad Albert is safe."

"Me, too!"

We ended the call just as I walked up the front porch steps at the house. I went inside, took off my shoes, and went to join my wives.

"You doing OK?" I asked Jessica.

"I'm fine. I was a bit unnerved earlier."

"I talked to Patrick again. We're going to add more cameras, so at least we'll cover the back yard and the alley, and also upgrade some other parts of the system."

"Have you ever considered moving to a place where we could have a fully gated and walled setup?"

I shook my head, "I love this house and I love living in this area. I don't want to move. And even then, what would we do? Keep the kids captive in the compound?"

"No, I suppose not," Jessica sighed. "I want to get all the kids cell phones."

I nodded, "I think that's a good idea, at least for the kids who go to school."

"Which is everyone but Ashley," Kara said. "Stephie starts kindergarten in August."

"OK. Let me talk to Elyse. We can probably make arrangements through NIKA so we can get our corporate discount. Is she here?"

"She left with the boys to go to Eduardo's for the night. She'll be back tomorrow."

"OK. I'll clear it with her, though she'll likely send me to Keri or Chris to get it done. I'll make sure it happens on Monday."

"I think we need to reiterate the rules to the kids, too."

"We'll do that on Sunday at the family dinner."

"What are we doing for the rest of the evening?"

"Unless my wives object, a sauna, then lovemaking. Any objections?"

"NO!" they both squealed.

July 29, 1995, Chicago, Illinois

"It's good to see you after two weeks," Sensei Jim said when I walked into the dojo with my wives, Michelle, and Birgit on Saturday morning.

"And you, Sensei," I said.

We went to his office and sat down to talk.

"Did you finalize everything for the new building?" he asked.

"Yes. The lawyers are drawing up all the necessary documents. I figure it'll be another two weeks until everything is signed and filed with the government. Then it will take a week or so to fund the LLC. Once that's done, the loan proceeds will be escrowed and we can finalize the purchase. As soon as that's done, Brown Construction will start work. Right now, my best guess for a date we can move in would be September 11th."

"When do you propose we have our first class there?"

"Honestly, there isn't a lot to move, so we could do it any time after that. How about Saturday? That would be the 16th."

"A 'grand opening', so to speak?" he asked.

"I think that's a good idea as part of our marketing strategy. We've added a dozen students since we started marketing ourselves."

Sensei Jim smiled, "We're now at a point where we need to seriously consider adding another class on Saturday afternoon. I spoke with Therese about leading it and she agreed, if we decide to do it."

"An excellent choice," I said. "Are you intending to promote her?"

"Yes, to 2nd Dan. We'll do that on that Saturday when we open the new dojo. Do you have any objections or reservations?"

"None whatsoever. It's well deserved. Did Marcia get her confirmation for the Labor Day tournament?"

"Yes. Do you know if Molly's student will be there?"

"I haven't talked to her in a couple of weeks because I was traveling, but I can't imagine he won't. I planned to call her on Monday."

"You know, I should have asked. How was your trip to Europe?"

"Too short," I said. "But given how young some of the kids are, I think it made sense. We're going to Disney World next Summer."

"With all the kids?"

"And some friends with their kids!"

Sensei Jim shook his head, "Two was plenty!"

"Speaking of kids, in Sakurako's most recent card she let me know she's five months pregnant."

"A honeymoon baby!" he said with a laugh. "They only married in January!"

"I'm not surprised at all," I said. "It fits their traditional world view perfectly. And, out of earshot of a certain yellow belt, I'm hoping they have a boy. That would fulfill Hiro-san's dying wish."

"A great-grandson to assume the mantle of «Shihan»."

I nodded, "Yes. And it wouldn't surprise me to see Hideki become 'emeritus' when his son is old enough to assume the mantle. One last act of respect for Hiro-san."

"That would violate tradition, but in a way which makes sense. But we're probably about thirty years ahead of ourselves! Shall we deal with the 'here and now'?"


We left his office and went out to our waiting students.

July 30, 1995, Chicago, Illinois

"When are you going to Mayo for your tests?" Jon asked as we drank coffee early on Sunday morning.

"A week from tomorrow," I said. "Kimmy relayed a message from Doctor Whittaker that she has everything lined up."

"Dissection?" Jon laughed.

"I did NOT sign up for vivisection, Mister Todd!"

"To be honest, and all joking aside, we aren't able to do that kind of procedure on a living patient."

"Do YOU have a diagnosis for me?" I asked with a grin.

"Acute encephalofecalitis," Jon said with a smirk, but then he shook his head, "I spoke with Al and Doctor Washington at length, and I agree with them. Hopefully this rising star of an endocrinologist can discover something. You're going to see her annually?"

"That's the plan. She's going to do a baseline next week, then begin consulting with experts around the world on how to figure this out."

"Adams Syndrome?" Jon laughed.

"Hell no! She can call it 'Whittaker Syndrome' or any other thing she likes, but I do NOT want her to name it after me!"

"Changing topics, how would I go about getting gridiron tickets to see your Bears play?"

"Ask Samantha, or I can ask Alec Glass. They both have access to a skybox at Soldier Field. Pick the game you want to see, and they'll accommodate."

"Excellent. Amanda is taking me to a baseball game today. She agreed to go to a cricket match in Naperville next weekend. A group of Indians have a cricket league with four teams. Now, if you only had proper football here!"

"They've tried, several times, but it simply hasn't caught on. The NASL, the North American Soccer League, failed, as did the attempt to make the game 'American' by playing inside. The Major Indoor Soccer League failed in '92 after fourteen years of mixed results."

"You Yanks have never really taken to proper football or proper racing. Even your elite racing is mostly on ovals rather than proper road courses. Ovals are for horses, but even then, some of the best racing is National Hunt racing, what you would call 'steeplechase', though they do run some flat courses. You might have heard of the most famous one, the 'Grand National', which is run in Liverpool each year."

"Wasn't there some sort of disaster with that race a few years ago? I seem to recall a few seconds on ESPN about it."

"Complete chaos, that," Jon said. "Two failed starts, and many of the horses ran at least the first lap, with nine completing the course. They voided the result and called it 'the race that never was'."

"And they didn't re-run it?"

"No. They chose not to, which created complete havoc with the bookies, who were forced to refund something on the order of £75 million."


"They've changed the rules and put procedures in place to try to prevent it in the future."

"Speaking of racing, would you like to go to a NASCAR race in three weeks?"

"And watch cars go round in circles for three hours?" he laughed. "I suppose it's worth that torture simply to say I've done it!"

"Then you and Amanda are welcome to join us."


"We have the ones Penny and Terry used," I sighed.

"How is that going?"

"About the way you'd expect any divorce to go, but at least it's reasonably amicable."

"A mess, no matter what. Anyway, I need to get going. I'm playing golf this morning with Pete, Kurt, and Karl."

"Enjoy that. I sure wouldn't!" I said.

"You simply don't have the patience for it," Jon said matter-of-factly.

"I simply don't find it relaxing!"

"It's not all that different from your game of pocket billiards," he said. "You stand around, take turns doing your play, and gab for a while. In golf, at least you do more exercise, walking around, swinging the clubs."

I shook my head, "I find it to be the most frustrating game on the planet, bar none!"

He laughed and got up from the table and went to his room, and I went to the sunroom to sit with Jessica while we waited for Kara to get up. When she did, we'd have breakfast and then Jessica would go to bed so she was ready for her 10:00pm shift.

That evening, at our family dinner, I reiterated the rules for leaving the yard with the kids.

"Albert was bad!" Stephie said.

"That's not for you to say, Little Bunny Rabbit. Your moms and I dealt with that. I want you all to understand the rules and why we have them."

"To keep us safe!" Albert said firmly.

"Yes," I agreed. "That's exactly why. It was OK to play at Timmy's, but only with permission. Even the adults let everyone know where they're going to be. It's all on the calendar or on the white board in the hallway next to the kitchen that leads to Doctor Jon's room. For Jesse, he needs to make sure one of his moms knows, or come talk to me if they aren't around.

"The other thing that's going to happen is the security company is going to add two cameras - one for the back yard, and one for the alley behind the coach house. They're also going to do some upgrades on the motion sensors. And, if Jennifer and Josie want, add an alarm system to the coach house."

"We talked about it, and we think that's a good idea," Jennifer said.

"And the cell phone for Jesse?"

"So long as we pay for it, yes," she agreed.

"I wouldn't have assumed otherwise!"

"They'll need to make sure the phones are silenced and in their bags or pockets, and never take them out at school," I said. "I don't want the hassle of dealing with the school administration."

"What do you mean, Dad?" Jesse asked.

"Some people don't like cell phones, so we want to make sure nobody gets upset and interferes with our family decisions. The phone is only for emergencies, and mostly you would call one of us, not us call one of you."

"Could we call each other?"

"Yes, if you aren't in school and it's necessary. You also don't want to take it into church. Just leave it in the car, please."


"And at hockey, in your locker with your clothes."

"Got it!"

"Can I call you, Daddy?" Birgit asked.

"If it's truly important, Pumpkin."

"Saying 'I love you!' IS important, Daddy!"

"I agree, but the phones are for emergencies."

"Like needing cuddles?" she giggled.

"Don't look at me, Snuggle Bear!" Kara teased. "YOU created this little monster!"

"I am not a monster!" Birgit protested.

Jesse, Matthew, and Michael all looked at each other and smirked.

"Are, too!" they declared in unison.

"Am not!" Birgit declared. "Quit being dumb boys!"

They just laughed and she fumed. They could needle her and get her 'off her game' fairly easily. Her sisters had figured out that if they just ignored the boys, the boys would leave them alone. But Birgit made it obvious they were getting under her skin, and that only encouraged them to do it more. Jesse had it down to an art form, being able to take her from calm to outraged in a split second, often with just a glance.

"Kids, you know that's not appropriate," Elyse said, as she struggled to suppress a grin.

"Yes, Mom!" Matthew and Michael chimed together, though they were smirking.

"Yes, Aunt Elyse," Jesse said with an even bigger smirk.

"Those three are going to be holy terrors," Stephanie whispered.

"Going to be?" I chuckled.

July 31, 1995, Chicago, Illinois

"Welcome back!" Lucas said when I walked into the office on Monday morning.

"Anything exciting happen at the end of the week?"

"Not really. Kimmy has messages for you, but nothing urgent as far as I'm aware. There's nothing on the calendar for today except the Leadership meeting."

"Thanks. See you later!"

I waved my pass card over the reader and when the door unlocked, I went into the main office, then up the stairs, and finally, to my office.

"Hi, Penny!" I said, after confirming with Kimmy that I wanted Earl Grey tea.


"How are things?"

"OK, I guess. Gwen has all the paperwork drawn up. We'll sign everything on December 31st. That makes it easier for tax purposes."

"How are you handling the kids?"

"Tax-wise? One each, given we make similar amounts of money. That makes the insurance a bit more expensive, but compared to what our least favorite Uncle siphons from every check, it's a pittance."

"Are you going to stay in the house in Bridgeport?"

"No. We agreed to sell it and divide the proceeds. I'm going to move in with my mom and Bart."

"You're what?!" I asked, aghast.

"I'll eventually inherit the house, and ultimately, it doesn't make sense to buy something else, and renting is expensive with no return. I worked out an arrangement with them, and I'll have my freedom, unlike when I was younger."

"They gave you a LOT of freedom, Pretty Penny!"

She smirked, "Certainly enough to have you fuck me all night in my own bed!"

"A wonderful night, if I do say so myself...and I do!"

"I do have this itch that needs scratching..."

"No, Penny. First of all, you're still married. Second of all, you work for NIKA and that's against the rules. Third of all, we agreed that was over and done with on your sixteenth birthday."

"You're just no fun!" Penny groused.

"Oh, I'm plenty of fun, Pretty Penny, but we can't go back, we can only go forward."

"I know," she sighed. "If only..."

"I don't do 'What if?' because all it does is cause me to lose focus on the present. I also don't want to ruin what we do have. And neither do you."

Penny sighed deeply, "Sometimes life sucks."

"Yes, it does. And we find our character when we face that reality, conquer it, and move on."

"Can I move back in here?"

I nodded, "I think so. Just remember, you need to work with the team, and be a good team player."

"Dave was pretty clear about that," she said. "Don't worry. I have my head screwed on straight. Now, if I could only get something ELSE straight and get screwed!"

"Behave, Penny!" I grinned.

"You are just NO fun anymore!" she said, but she was laughing as she left the door.

She was still beautiful and, like Samantha, could easily pass for a woman five years younger. But like many other thoughts, they were - had to be - suppressed.

I turned to my desk and looked through messages, then checked my email. There was nothing pressing, as Lucas had stated, so I checked Usenet news, then headed to the conference room for the Leadership meeting. Kimmy conducted the regular part of the meeting, and then we addressed the issues relating to Lone Star.

"I've found some good space in Durham," Mario said. "Steve, do you want to see it before I sign the lease?"

"No," I replied. "I trust you."

"Thanks. I'll start the new lease on December 1st, which gives us all of December to move, and plenty of time to get the phone and network set up."

"That sounds good. How are we doing with gaining new consulting clients?"

"We'll have work for four full-time consultants by the end of September. Charlie and I are working on recruiting them."

"Good. Barbara, what did you decide about Reno?"

"It makes zero sense to have anyone there. We'll manage from Colorado Springs and our satellite office in Los Angeles. I'm going to move Gabe to Colorado Springs, and we've already spoken about Philip moving from Chicago to Colorado Springs."

"Proceed," I said. "Anything else on this topic?"

No one spoke up.

"Cindi, any change with Peach?"

"No. They're doing exactly as we expected, and exactly what they should do for a January release with support for larger offices. We're starting to run into their proposals for smaller offices, mostly in the Southeast, but that will expand. Whoever is running that company now, setting strategic direction, they know what they're doing."

She knew, but she didn't know who else knew for sure, which was why the obfuscation. But at this point, the entire team knew.

"Dante Puccini," I said, "is no slouch. He may be an ass, but he's a good businessman, at least as far as the standard model goes. And he'll follow that, as Cindi says."

"I give it two years and they'll be our biggest competitor," she continued. "Lone Star won't recover, but they could hang on as a niche player while Dallas Capital tries to get something of value from it."

"You think Peach will eclipse Mill Software and Chickasaw Systems?" Julia asked.

"I do," Cindi said. "Think about how Dante ran M&M when it was DP Engineering. As Steve says, he was an ass, but he was a good engineer and knew how to sell his equipment. Despite what we like to think, software isn't rocket science. If you have a good engineering mind, and Dante does, you can work out everything Scott taught us at IIT. Steve, has he made a move on M&M yet?"

I shook my head, "No. We're sure he's behind LP Engineering, but he hasn't done anything to directly violate the non-compete, and we'd need some kind of evidence to break through the LLC and determine who the partners are. Unless he makes a mistake, and his ego is such that he might, M&M will continue as they are.

"I do have one other thing. When I was in Russia, I was approached about expanding in Europe. I don't think we can do so directly. The logistics just don't work, but I am considering finding someone who is willing to start a company in Russia which would be something of a sister company to NIKA."

"One of your Russian friends, I assume?" Julia asked.

"Potentially. I need to talk to someone, though I have a serious doubt about their interest."

"How would that work?" Zeke asked.

"Licensing and sharing skills would be one way," I said. "But unless I know and trust the person, it's not going to happen. It would be too easy to get in way over our heads and end up with serious problems. One step at a time. I'll have more to say about it if anything comes of it."

There wasn't anything else to discuss, so we ended the meeting and I went back to my office to begin making phone calls. My first one was to Melissa to schedule lunch, which we set for Thursday. My second call was to Doctor Whittaker at Mayo to confirm I'd be at the clinic at 8:00am on Monday the 7th and would depart late on Tuesday evening. That involved using Samantha's plane, the one exception I decided to make with regard to her immense wealth.

My third call was to Molly Kraus.

"I had a blow up with my sensei in Milwaukee while you were away," she said.


"I pointed out the serious differences in how your school is run and how he runs things. He didn't appreciate it. At all."

"Did you talk to him or confront him?" I asked.

"Confront," she admitted.

"That was a mistake," I said firmly. "He's your «shihan», and that means paying him proper respect. Talking about it is one thing; confronting him is another thing altogether. And if you used names, that probably only made it worse. What all did you tell him?"

"Everything - about you teaching and about your evaluations."

"That was a huge mistake," I said. "I'm surprised Sensei Jim didn't say anything about that to me."

"Why? How would he know?"

"I assumed your sensei would call mine to complain, rightly, that I was interfering with his dojo, something I shouldn't do."

"Bullshit," Molly spat. "You're right and he's wrong!"

"That may be so, but your approach was wrong. You're still his student, even though you're 4th Dan. I would approach Sensei Jim or «Shihan» Hideki with humility, and discuss it with them, not confront them!"

"I thought you would be on my side!"

I sighed, "I am, Molly. But you took the wrong approach. How did you leave things with him?"

"I hung up on him."

From bad to worse! I didn't see how this was going to end well at all.

"Not good," I said. "You know your students won't be allowed to compete without the signature of a 5th Dan or higher master. If your sensei withdraws his signature, your students are out of the tournament."

"I know," she sighed. "I suspect he's already done that. I need to call the organizing committee today and see what can be done."

"Nothing," I said. "No accredited 5th Dan will sign for your students if your own sensei refuses to allow them to compete. It's just not done. And without a 5th Dan, your school doesn't qualify for accreditation because you aren't a fully-qualified instructor."

"Do you think your sensei would allow me to transfer?"

"Only if your sensei in Milwaukee agrees, formally, to release you. If we don't, we risk losing our accreditation and earning a very bad reputation."

"But isn't there a procedure if a sensei is abusive or derelict in his duties?"

"You would have to report him to the ISKC, which is part of the Japan Karate Association. If they stripped him of his right to run a dojo or his accreditation, THEN you would be free to seek out a new master. If you do anything else, you're like the vagantes Roman Catholic bishops - ones with valid holy orders, but outside the canonical rules of the church."

Molly laughed, "You mean like the Society of Saint Pius X? Our nuns told us to avoid them like the plague!"

"You went to Catholic school?"

"K through 8," she said. "I went to public High School."

"Yes, something like that - they have valid holy orders, but are not allowed to serve. That's the situation you would find yourself in - your belt is validly bestowed, but you wouldn't have accreditation and as such, your students couldn't participate in competition. You need to fix things."

"Why not just ask for him to release me?"

"You could, but I'd go to him, apologize, and see if you can work things out. That's the best approach."

"Apologize? For being right?"

"No, for being impertinent! Apologize, discuss the issues with him, and come to a conclusion about a way forward TOGETHER. And do it soon, if you want Ted to compete in the Labor Day tournament." Then I added, teasingly, "Not that it'll matter!"

"How about you and I spar?! Sine missione!"

I chuckled, "I don't think 'to the death' is something I could sign up for! Giving the missio sign is NOT a sign of weakness in modern life! But that said, you would win by default, as I'm not permitted to spar by my doctors."

"That's too bad," she replied. "I can think of some ways to make it VERY interesting!"

"I bet you could!" I said with a smirk she couldn't see, but could probably hear. "Did I tell you about my High School girlfriend inventing 'strip chess'?"

Molly laughed, "No. I don't play chess, though."

"All the better!"

"There's always strip poker!" she countered.

"I only play Texas Hold 'Em, and I don't lose. That game doesn't really lend itself to stripping."

"I'd like to see you. Could we have dinner again?"

"Sure. This weekend is out, though. Next weekend, maybe? That will also give you time to work things out with your sensei."

"The 13th? That would work."

"Good. Call your sensei and apologize. Then talk to him about your issues. Do NOT suggest changing dojos. Just discuss your issues and how to resolve them."

"I will," she sighed. "Is it OK to call you afterwards?"

"Yes, but I won't come between you and your sensei. I can listen and give general advice, but you need to follow his direction."

"You are a pain in the butt!" Molly groused.

"You are far from the first person to accuse me of that!" I chuckled. "And I suspect you won't be the last!"

Chapter II - Dalliances?

August 1, 1995, Chicago, Illinois

"Steve, there's a man in reception who says he urgently needs to see you. He won't give his name, but says it's an important financial matter and I'm quoting, 'it would be in his best interest to talk to me.' Do you want me to call the police?"

"No, I'll come down," I said.

I didn't put on my blazer or a sweater as I usually did to hide my pistol, but I changed shoes and then went downstairs to where Eve Falvey was sitting.

"I need you to come with me," I said. "And take off your blazer so it's obvious you're carrying."

"What's going on?"

"I don't know for sure, but there's someone in reception and he made Lucas nervous."

She nodded and took off her blazer, displaying her compact Sig pistol in a waistband holster. We walked out to reception, both clearly displaying our firearms.

"I'm Steve Adams," I said to the 5'11" dark-haired, obviously Italian, man who was standing in the lobby.

"I know who you are," he said menacingly. "We need to speak privately about a business matter."

If this man was who I thought he was, and I was sure my thoughts were correct, he'd be carrying a pistol and I wanted to make a point.

"If you're armed," I said, "leave your gun with Lucas at reception, and I'll be happy to speak to you in the conference room there."

I pointed to the 'Tretiak' room.

"Now why would I do that when you're both openly displaying guns?"

"My place of business, my rules," I said firmly. "Consider it similar to an old-fashioned saloon where you have to check your guns at the door, you know, like in the old Westerns. The bartender kept a shotgun behind the bar for safety. That's what this is."

I patted the gun under my arm, and stared him down. I knew if he tried anything either Eve or I, or both, would put him down before he could draw from a gun tucked into the back of his pants or in the pocket of his sports coat. And in close quarters in the conference room, my karate skills would rule the day.

"I'm not going to give up my piece."

I shrugged, "Your choice. Tell whoever sent you I won't be intimidated."

"Bad decision," he said.

I ignored him and turned to go back into the office, while Eve stayed facing him with her hand on her hip, just inches from her Sig.

"Lucas," I said firmly, "if he doesn't leave, call the police. I'm sure he doesn't have a permit for whatever he's carrying."

"Will do," Lucas said, but he sounded nervous.

I went through the door and stopped, then leaned against the wall and blew out a long breath. I had a VERY good idea who I'd just come face to face with, and that did NOT bode well. About thirty seconds later, Eve came through the door.

"He left. Care to explain what THAT was about?"

"I'm guessing a shakedown or intimidation from a reeling Outfit. You know what happened with Hart-Lincoln, right?"


"Guess who their clients were?"

"Those mobsters the FBI busted last week?"

I nodded, "One and the same. The evidence which the FBI found at Hart-Lincoln was the proverbial nail in the coffin for the racketeering charges. I suspect our involvement, even as consultants to the FBI, bothered some people."

"Damn. You need to talk to someone about this."

I nodded, "I'll call Patrick Shaughnessy at Global Security. He's advised me on security for about twelve years now, ever since the FBI tried to get me to roll over on my Russian girlfriend!"

Eve laughed, "Your life grows more interesting by the day! Let me buy you a beer! I want to hear more!"

"Bourbon is a better choice, and it's WAY cheaper to just buy the bottle! You're welcome to come by the house if you like."

"Sure. I'll bring a bottle. I can probably drink you under the table!"

"I've spent a good amount of time drinking with Russian soldiers, so that might be a real challenge for you!"

She laughed, "We should go shooting soon. We might need the practice."

"Yes, but not after we've been drinking!"

"No way! My dad would kill me if I was that irresponsible! He'd be WAY less upset if he caught us screwing on the kitchen table than if I handled a firearm while I was drunk!"

I laughed, "Good to know!"

"You should go talk to Lucas. He looked like he was about to piss his pants."

"I'll do that now. Come by the house after 8:00pm if you want that drink."

"I have to get up for work tomorrow!" she protested. "And my boss is a slave driver!"

"Oh, please!" I laughed. "There are no whips and chains here!"

"Too bad!" she smirked with a twinkle in her eye.

"Go back to work, young lady!" I chuckled.

"See? Slave driver!"

She turned and went to her desk and I went back to reception to talk to Lucas.

"Sorry about that," I said.

"I was scared shitless!" he said. "What the heck was that about?"

"Either a shakedown or intimidation. You know we helped the FBI and our help led to all those outfit arrests last week."

"Uh, just how dangerous is this?"

"For you and anyone else here? Probably not very. He asked for me by name and knew who I was. You saw my response."

"Yeah. But you started carrying a gun before that stuff went down."

"That's not the first threat that's been made," I said. "That's why all the security. Make sure you save today's tape, please."

"I will. What do I do if he comes back?"

"Call me. I'll handle it. And you can go into the office if you want, instead of staying at the reception desk."

"With you and Eve to protect me? I feel pretty safe."


"Now, about the combat pay..." he grinned.

"When there's combat, then you'll get combat pay!" I said with an equally silly grin.

"I hope to NEVER see it."

"You and me both," I agreed.

I went back into the main office and up the stairs. I stopped in the 'Orr' room and dialed Joyce's number. Nancy put me right through to her.

"Tell Connie to call off the dogs," I said.


"I just had a visit from Peter Scuderi. He didn't give his name, but I'm sure it was him. He looks just enough like Don Carlo for me to be positive it was him."

"What happened?"

"He showed up here saying he needed to talk to me about a financial matter. I didn't put on my blazer so it was obvious I was carrying, and had Eve, one of my staff with a carry permit, go with me, with her gun exposed as well."

"Jesus, Steve! You can NOT mess with him!"

"No, Joyce, you're wrong. He can't mess with ME! Tell Connie to back off or she'll regret it."

"You have no idea who you're dealing with!" she protested.

"Oh, yes I do. I got a complete report on him from my security company. I'm also convinced he's the one who 'pushed the button' on Brandon Littleton."

"How the heck do you know THAT?" she asked.

"I don't KNOW it, but I'm sure of it. It has all the hallmarks of a professional hit, minus using the same gun on multiple hits, though that can be a signature. And I know Scuderi and Littleton were all part of Anthony and Connie messing with me."

"Do not tangle with him, Steve!"

"What's your advice, then? Give in to Connie's demands? Tell you what, YOU give them the $2 million and I'll happily let it go."

"No fucking chance," Joyce spat.

"Yeah, well, there you go. Neither of us expected Anthony to throw in with Detroit and the drug trade. And everyone who could protect me here is in jail, minus two very high-up guys. But from what I hear, Scuderi is a 'for hire' guy, and doesn't take orders from anyone."

"A professional hit man. One of the very few who actually exist. Despite what the media portrays, there aren't very many professionals in that business."

"I don't get using the same gun," I said.

"Consider it a trademark, and his clear statement that the police and FBI can't touch him because he's smarter than they are. It's like 'The Dove' in For Your Eyes Only. Rather than leaving a pin with a dove, Scuderi uses the same gun and signs his name, so to speak."

"Eventually, the feds catch guys like that."

"They all think they're smarter than the government," Joyce said. "In most cases, they're wrong. In this case, Scuderi might be right."

"Yeah, but is he smarter than ME? Does he have bigger balls than ME? And is he willing to take it all the way and risk ME taking HIM all the way out?"

"He's a psychopath! He doesn't think in those terms."

"Well, even psychopaths are vulnerable to 9mm hollow-point bullets. Just tell your sister to back off. Or else."

"She's stubborn and vindictive," Joyce said.

"Yeah? And who plays this game better than ANYONE? Remind her of that. I've beat them at every turn."

"Until Scuderi puts a bullet in your head as you're walking down the street."

"I have a $2 million life insurance policy," I chuckled. "It's the old adage. If you owe the bank $100,000, they own you. If you owe them $100,000,000, you own them!"

"You're playing a dangerous game!"

"I don't have a choice, do I? They're going to keep coming at me. If I show weakness or I waver, they'll put on even more pressure. Pushing back is the only option. Tell me I'm wrong."

"You aren't," she sighed. "But be careful, Steve. Scuderi is very dangerous!"

"So am I," I said flatly.

"And that scares me."

We said 'goodbye' and I hung up. Despite how firm I was with Joyce, I was concerned about the situation, but there really wasn't an alternative. Unless and until Connie and Anthony gave up, the pressure would be there, and I'd have to push back equally hard, if not harder. There was a risk, but I felt the risk would be worse if I did nothing.

The only question in my mind was whether or not I should say anything to Elyse. It was a question of which would be worse - me telling her or her finding out. And in my mind, there was no question that her finding out would lead to a serious confrontation, and a severe dressing down. I got up from my desk and left my office. I walked down the hall to Elyse's office and shut the door.

"I had a visit from Scuderi today," I said.

"Oh shit!" Elyse gasped. "What happened?"

"I had Eve walk to reception with me and make a show of force, if you will. He left, and I called Joyce and told her to tell Connie to back off. If you think about it, I hold all the cards."

"Until they have you whacked!"

"Which gets them nothing," I said. "They're looking for my Achilles' heel, and I don't have one. They think I'll crack under the pressure. I won't. And if they try something, anything, you know exactly how I'll respond. They won't know what hit them."

"Steve, this whole thing is spiraling out of control!"

"Look, they locked up most of the South side mid-level and street leadership of the Outfit. Pretty much nobody is left to give orders at the street level. And the two top guys in Chicago are men I know and who have trusted me as far as they can trust any non-Italian. We're talking Tony and Connie, not Al Capone or John Gotti! Heck, a word to Grandma Grossi would make life VERY difficult for 'Little Tony' and his bitch of a wife!"

"YOU slept with her!"

I smirked, "All three cherries, too. That's a tidbit I'm sure Connie isn't interested in her husband finding out, as we've discussed. Let them play their games."

"You seem awfully calm for a man who was just threatened by a professional hit man!"

I shrugged, "The word is 'professional'. That means unless someone pays him to push a button, he's not going to. I haven't done anything to the man personally; it's just business. And if he's acting on Connie's behalf, that means they're paying him. And having him try to take me out won't get them their $2 million back!"

"But still, Steve! What about the kids? And the business?"

"You know full well they wouldn't do anything like that because everyone knows exactly how I'd respond."

"The Untouchables. Are you sure Tony and Connie know that?"

"Positive. You know what happened when they messed with me eight years ago. I'll remind them, if necessary."

"You're playing a dangerous game, Steve. And all of us are at risk."

I shook my head, "I don't think so."

"Which is why you're upping the security at the house?"

"You know full well what caused that! Albert decided to go across the alley to play at Timmy's house. We agreed to add cameras to the back yard and front of the coach house."

"And the OTHER changes?"

"Based on Patrick Shaughnessy's recommendations. We should have added a full alarm system at the coach house when we put the one it for the main house. It had NOTHING to do with any Outfit stuff!"

"Did your friend Theo get arrested?"

"Surprisingly, no. I'm guessing they decided to only deal with the big fish. Either that, or they're going to take him down when they finally take down the unions."

Or other Chicago aldermen, perhaps, I didn't add.

"When do you think that will happen?"

I shrugged, "Who knows? I'm not privy to the FBI investigations. They put a pretty big smack down on the Outfit here for the first time in decades."

"I have faith in you, Steve, but I'm worried."

"I know. Just trust me, please."

"If anything changes, I expect you to tell me immediately!"

"I will."

August 3, 1995, Chicago, Illinois

"How was your trip?" Melissa asked when we met at Takumi for lunch on Thursday.

"Pretty good. I got to see some dear friends who I don't see often enough because of the distance."

"Did everyone else enjoy it?"

"I think so. We did a bit of sightseeing, and the kids got to see some friends they don't see very often. I also got to show Birgit where the young woman she's named for is buried."

"I'm not sure I've ever met anyone whose life is stranger than yours!"

We were shown to a low table in the Japanese section of the restaurant, and placed our order.

"That's been said many times before," I grinned. "How have things been while I was away?"

"Busy. Sales are good and we're close to completely replacing all of the older testing equipment in our product line. Jennifer has been a godsend!"

"And Callie?"

"A competent programmer. She's reliable and efficient. I can't ask for much more."

"And no trouble from the outside?"

"Dante or his family? No. That all seems to be done. There is the issue of LP Engineering still hanging out there."

"Sure, but nothing overt, right?"

She shook her head, "No. Just the usual competition. They announced a new piece of testing equipment that I swear had to have been designed by Dante."

"Is that going to cause you any trouble?"

"That's the weird thing," Melissa said. "If Dante put his name behind it, we'd have real trouble competing against it. BUT, if it's just another piece of equipment from the former Atlanta Test Engineering, it's not a big threat."

"Which tells me he's going to do SOMETHING which opens him up to a charge he's violating his non-compete. His ego just can't take it! All he has to do is be patient the way he is with Peach. But the length of the non-compete is really gnawing at him, I'm sure."

"What's your advice?"

"Just wait and see what happens. You aren't hurting for revenue or profits, so let him make a mistake, and then decide what to do. I made a mistake in overreacting and going off half-cocked with the whole Lone Star situation."

"I hope you don't have that problem in bed!" Melissa smirked.

"And see, YOU were the one who said I shouldn't go 'too far' with the 'coarse jesting'!"

"And I told you it was OK, so long as you weren't rude about it."

"No," I smirked, "I have NEVER gone off 'half-cocked'! Well, OK, maybe when I was fourteen and it was my VERY first time!"

The kimono-clad waitress brought our lunch and we began eating.

"You're very sure of yourself," Melissa said a few minutes later.

I shrugged, "In pretty much everything I believe I'm good at, yes, I am. But so are you!"

"True," she said with a wry smile.

"But not the topic at hand?"

Melissa laughed nervously, "The guys have never complained, but I guess if they score, they don't really complain. And I hardly think I'm an expert on the topic! I told you that you've had more lovers than the number of times I've had sex! And that excites me AND frightens me."

"Frightens you?"

"What if I'm boring? What if you don't like it? What if I'm not that good? I doubt I'd measure up."

She sounded like a teenage virgin about to go to bed with an experienced boyfriend!

"First of all, I do my best NOT to compare, and to simply focus on the girl I'm with," I said gently. "Second, as I told you, I'm mostly conventional myself. I can probably get as crazy as you can imagine, but mostly, I don't. And thirdly, from where I'm sitting, I'm pretty sure I'd like it!"

"Oh please," she laughed. "Give me a break!"

"Why? You have exactly the body type I prefer!"

"Now you're just patronizing me!" she protested.

"No, I'm not. Ask Cindi Spanos if you don't believe me!"

"The girl with the best boobs I've EVER seen!"

I shrugged, "Eh, whatever. Some people think they're impressive. They've never done anything for me."

"Seriously? I thought that was every guy's dream!"

"Not mine. And I'm serious about that."

"You are very strange!"

"So people keep telling me!" I grinned. "And yet, you're having lunch with me!"

"Maybe I'm attracted to strange men!" she teased.

"You had said you were going to think about it," I said.

Melissa laughed, "And that's ALL I've thought about! It's been driving me to distraction!"

"Sorry," I said with a smug grin.

"Don't be an ass!" she laughed. "But despite being distracted, I'm still not sure having an affair with a married man is a good idea."

"Don't violate your principles just to get laid," I said.

"JUST TO GET LAID?!" she growled, too loudly for the room we were in, drawing stares.

"Lower your voice, please," I said quietly. "I didn't mean that as an insult or to make light of your dilemma. But we're not talking about being in love or anything like that!"

Melissa took a deep breath and let it out, "No, of course not. Sorry. It's just, well, confusing. What I want versus what I SHOULD do."

"The lifelong struggle I've had to deal with. I think, actually, it's the basic human condition - to desire things which we know aren't a good idea, or which are questionable. We find our character in how we deal with those desires."

"You're telling me not to do it?"

"I'm telling you to do what you believe is right for you. I'll do what's right for me."

"If you've been with over a hundred girls, tell me when it's NOT right for you."

"A dialogue I've had with myself in my journal for the past eighteen years," I said. "Not to mention lengthy, heart-to-heart talks with some young women who are, or have been, very close to me."

"So, within your rules, there are girls you wouldn't do it with?"

"Yes, of course. And the rate of new girls has gone down dramatically."

"Lack of opportunity?"

I laughed, "No! Lack of desire."

"There's that smugness again!"

"It's true, though. There is always plenty of opportunity. I just haven't been as interested as I was."

"Failing libido?"

I chuckled, "Never! It's not like I'm lacking for sex!"

"Then why?"

"Why not? It's something I enjoy and nobody is harmed if everyone consents. But I'm sensing real conflict on your part. I'm curious, have you had a love affair go bad?"

Melissa laughed ruefully, "Have I had one go RIGHT?"

"I think I'm beginning to understand," I said. "You've had several failed relationships and you're wondering if having an affair with a married man who will rock your world is the right thing for you. But I'm curious - what about a husband and kids?"

Melissa frowned, "Nobody I'd be interested in is asking."

"Is that because you're sending the wrong signals?"

"What do you mean?"

"Do you remember that first meeting? I felt you were a cold, prudish nerd."


I nodded, "Seriously. If that's the vibe you normally give off, it's going to seriously limit your chances of meeting the right guy. If the woman I've gotten to know is the REAL you, let her out to play more often. I think you'll find things are very different."

"Easier said than done," she sighed.

"Perhaps, but you won't know until you try."

"How many times have you used THAT line?" Melissa smirked.

"I don't usually use lines, but I have been known to say that in the past. You do have to think about one thing."

"Which is?"

"Is an affair with a married man the solution to a series of bad relationships?"

August 4, 1995, Chicago, Illinois

"I need to stop in at the union office this morning," I said to Elyse on Friday morning. "You and Michelle can drive in and I'll be in later. That will let me spend another half hour with Kara."

"And me!" Birgit declared.

"Yes, Pumpkin," I chuckled, "and you."

I wouldn't see Jessica because her shift didn't end until 10:00am. Elyse and Michelle headed to the office and I made some tea and sat down at the kitchen table with Kara and Birgit.

"I plan to go shooting with Eve tomorrow afternoon," I said. "It's been over a month since I've practiced. I'll leave after lunch and be home before dinner."

"Out in Naperville?"

"Right on the border with Aurora, but yes."

"Are we still going to see First Knight tonight?"

"If Jessica is up to it, yes."

"Can I go?" Birgit asked.

"That's up to your mommy," I said.

"We'll talk about it after Daddy goes to work," Kara said.

That told me she was going to say 'no' to Birgit and didn't want Birgit appealing to me to change the decision. Birgit understood as well, and a frown spread across her face. She knew better than to say anything, though, as I'd already put the decision in Kara's hands.

"What time are you going in today?" I asked.

"After lunch. I need to make sure all the lab supplies arrived and start getting everything ready for school to start in three weeks. I'll work most afternoons for the next few weeks, then school starts on the 28th."

"Daddy, when do I go to visit Katy and Amy?" Birgit asked.

"You leave a week from today and you're staying five days."

"I love Katy!" Birgit said.

"And Katy loves you! She and Amy are both looking forward to your visit."

We finished our tea and Kara and Birgit walked me to the door. I kissed them both goodbye - Kara on the lips, and Birgit on the forehead - and then headed to the union offices where Theo waited for me.

"Kid, your request was granted. Mr. LaPietra agreed it would be risky to have you change attorneys. He suggested using two attorneys, ours and yours. Mr. LaPietra says that won't raise any questions with the government, and you can tell your attorney you want a second opinion from another lawyer. Your attorney would be in charge; ours would simply listen and offer opinions."

There really wasn't any way around what he was suggesting. I'd need to explain things to Jack and Jamie, but I could come up with a reasonable cover story. I also had a few backchannels to the FBI if I needed them.

"I think that will work. I'll figure out a way to explain it to Jack and Jamie."

"Any contact has to be reported, Kid. I mean any. They call and ask you the date and you tell them you'll only answer with your attorney present and you call Elliot and let him know."


"No fucking around, Kid. «Capisce»?"

"«Sì ho capito»," I said.

Theo laughed, "Not bad, Kid."

I had to keep things under control with Chicago so I could focus on Anthony and Connie, and keep my eye on Peter Scuderi. If that meant doing a service for the Outfit, I'd find a way to do it.

"I learned a few things from my «padrone» back in Ohio. Please express my gratitude to Mr. LaPietra. As always, I offer any service I can do for Mr. LaPietra, within the agreement with my «padrone» before he died."

"I'll convey the message."

"And my thanks."

"I will. I'll be in touch."

I nodded, we shook, and I walked home to get my car for the drive to the West Loop. I was walking a tightrope, and so far, I was managing to keep my balance. The problem was that a single misstep could have seriously negative ramifications - ones that could land me in jail, or perhaps even dead. I didn't think it would come to that, given my relationship with James Marcello and Angelo LaPietra.

I wondered if I could talk to one of them about Peter Scuderi, but I had no idea what their relationship with him was, if they even had one. If he truly was operating independently, there wasn't much they could do, and there was simply no way I was going to ask for THAT kind of favor. Doing that would suck me back in even further. I chuckled to myself as I recalled the line from one of the worst movies I'd ever seen - The Godfather, Part III. Michael Corleone complained that 'Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!' and that was how I felt right now.

I pulled into my parking spot without a resolution to the issue and pushed it from my mind. There would be plenty of time to worry about it later.

August 5, 1995, Chicago, Illinois

I met Eve at KS Shooting Sports in Naperville at 1:00pm, we donned our eye and hearing protection and went into the range area. We used up ten boxes of range ammunition between the two of us, firing both our concealed-carry pistols as well as Eve's .357.

"You're getting better with that heavy gun," she teased as we left the range. "But this girl still outshoots you with it!"

"My manhood is NOT wounded by that fact," I chuckled, "I don't believe male anatomy is required for pulling a trigger any more than my friend in the Navy thinks it's necessary to be on a warship!"

"She's assigned to the 'Big E', right?"

"Yes, but she's has 'squadron duty' because she's pregnant. She'll have her kid in late December or early January, then go back to sea."

"Coffee?" Eve asked.

"Sure. Let's go to Blueberry Hill again."

We left our firearms with her dad and walked the short distance to the restaurant next to the Walgreens at Eola and New York in Aurora. We were quickly seated and the waitress poured our coffee.

"You decided against the bourbon?" I grinned.

"It can't be a 'school night' because I have to come out west after work, and that makes it tough. It's easy enough to take Metra into the city and out of the city during normal commute hours. At night, it's a pain."

"A good point," I said.

"I really would like to hear the story about your own personal Tatiana Romanova!"

I chuckled, "Believe it or not, her name is Tatyana, but it's Grigoryeva now. It was Voronina when I was dating her. She's a diplomat and starting next month she'll be based in Washington. Her husband is a retired general. It was one of his tanks that Boris Yeltsin was standing on during the counter-coup."

"You have a friend who was a general in the Tamanskaya Guards? Holy crap!"

"And before that, a colonel in the 1st Guards Tank Army."

"You do get around! How did you meet him?"

"Through my friend Tatyana. She and I met in Austria and a few years later we dated when her father was assigned as Trade Attaché to the US. Our career choices and the political situation in the mid-80s made it impossible for us to move forward, and a mutual friend, who was, at the time, a colonel in the KGB, introduced her to then Colonel Dmitry Sergeyevich Grigoryev. They have a daughter named Lara, with whom my son Jesse is smitten."

"So he got to see her when you were in Russia?"

"Yes, and his Swedish girlfriend Marta, when we were in Stockholm."

Eve laughed, "Like father, like son?"

"So it would seem! He has a steady girlfriend here who he's been with since he was about six months old."

"No way!"

"Yep! And a gaggle of other girls who are interested in him."

"Is that how it was with you growing up?"

"Not until Junior High. Then it got kind of crazy."

"I bet, given your current situation!"

"You'll have to wait for the novel for THAT story!"

Eve laughed, "I bet that'll be interesting reading. So, about that Outfit guy..."

"Just a messenger," I said. "I've had some run-ins with a few other connected guys, union officials, and crooked aldermen as well. You know we have unions as clients, but we used to do construction and logistics before you joined. We sold off that part of the business years ago."

"Construction and trucking? Talk about mobbed up!"


"So, you need a bodyguard now?"

I chuckled, "More like a wingman!"

"Bummer. Because if you needed a bodyguard, I'd need to do a very thorough examination of the body I was supposed to be guarding!"

"You know the rules," I said gently.

"So no screwing on your desk, then?"

"About as soon as we screw on your dad's kitchen table!"

Eve smirked, "That could be arranged!"

"You read the rules in the NIKA Employee Handbook," I said. "And honestly, why? You're pretty, you're smart, you're a crack shot, and you have a great personality."

"And you're good looking, extremely intelligent, a decent shot, and have a great personality!" she smirked.

"Decent shot?" I said in mock offense.

Eve laughed, "Compared to me?"

"Yeah, OK. And compared to my friend the US Marshal and my friend the Navy firearms instructor!"

"Do you have fantasies?"

"Sure. But just because an idea springs to mind doesn't mean we should act on it!"

"True, but I know you have freedom. I'm free. We both want it and we both KNOW we want it!"

"We do, huh?" I asked keeping as straight a face as I could.

Eve smiled, "I hear you're the best fuck in the state, if not the country. And I've seen you look at me! I can guess what you're thinking!"

"The rules are in place for a reason. And I'd get in serious trouble with the Board, not to mention Elyse, Dave, and Julia if I acted on those fantasies."

"So don't tell them."

"The problem is, the price of freedom is telling my wives, and THEY will hold me to the rules as well."

"No exceptions?"

"Eve, think how dangerous it could be. If anyone found out, there could be accusations of favoritism, and worse, potential claims of harassment."

"I'd never, ever do that."

"You wouldn't have to. Other female employees could complain that it made for a hostile workplace."

"Well, bummer," she sighed. "I like working for NIKA too much to consider the alternative solution."

"You're THAT sure I'll say 'yes' in that circumstance?"

"I believe I'm exactly your type, so yes!"

"Now I have to ask who you've been talking to."

Eve shook her head, "I'll only answer THAT question in bed!"

I smirked, "I thought it was my desk or your dad's kitchen table."

"Whatever. I won't rat anyone out."

"I didn't really expect you to. Let's just put this behind us, OK? Just shoot and work together?"

Eve nodded, "Sure."

We finished our coffee and walked back to KS where I collected my gun and headed out to my car for the drive home. When I arrived home, I got out my cleaning kit and went to the kitchen to clean and oil the gun.

"Hi, Snuggle Bear!" Kara said, coming into the kitchen.

"Is Jess asleep?"


Jessica was keeping to her schedule every day, as that made it easier to get through the 10pm to 10am shifts.

"Eve asked for an exception to the rules."

Kara laughed, "We expected her to do that. I assume you told her 'no'."

"I did. I'm not going to break that rule. Can you even imagine the trouble I'd have with the Board, Elyse, and Jamie?"

"I'm just curious, but how would they find out?"

"Don't go there, Kara. Secrets are nearly impossible to keep. In fact, that's part of the issue."


"Someone, or someones, talked to her about my alleged skills."

"Alleged?" Kara laughed.

"At least one member of the 'Club' told her how good I am. Add that to her initial attraction, and, well, you get the conversation we had today."

"Do you want her?"

"In different circumstances, in the past, she'd have been a candidate for a dalliance. But I have to stick to my rules."

"Is it that? Or are you no longer interested in dalliances?"

I shrugged, "They don't hold the same attraction they once did."

"Except for Molly?"

I shrugged again, "We'll see. We're having dinner next weekend. And before you ask about Melissa, she's talked herself out of it twice now."

"I'm curious again, but were you interested in Jasmine now that she's no longer working for a customer?"

"I have no idea, Kara. Right now, I'm focused on work and family. You, Jessica, the kids, and Michelle have to take priority over playing around. Penny tried, by the way."

Kara laughed, "She won't give up that easily! When her divorce is final, you'll get the full court press. She'll pull out every stop! Heck, you might find her naked on your desk one morning!"

That was a preview of AWLL 2 - Book 9 - Kami. To read the rest purchase the book.

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