The young man who had just entered the coffee shop had tried to conceal that he was carrying a piece under the red varsity jacket. To all but one in the clientele of this mom and pop place, he had succeeded.
The man had textbook fierce and hawkish latin good looks, easy on any girls eyes and it was fairly easy to say from his smooth, light movements that he knew exactly this and that he had worked for it. A gym surely, maybe some ballroom or dance to add fluid grace to his manliness.
He tried to scan the cafe with his eyes as coolly as he had hid the gun on his waistband. Neda raised the Chicago Tribune from her table in exaggerated manner and waited him to approach the sidetable in the booth.
"You are ...her?"
"The last time I checked, sit down, please"
Young man followed suit with a brash smirk on his face.
"Look lady, I'm here cause Ramon asked me to but I don't think we need to waste each others time anymore"
"Is that a fact?"
His eyes ran the typical course: cleavage, lift to face, at lips, down to waist, back to cleavage and then to her face.
"Really now I mean no offense but I am here only cause he was adamant. And from what he told I expected a six foot seven amazon, not a petite black woman. And now I can say that I came to meet you and I've done it"
He kept smiling as he rose up.
"Sit back down and quit being a jerk"
"'scuse me?" the smile widened
"Put your booty down or I put you down."
Her voice was flat and clear.
"listen now, this was a mistake and.."
"And your were told to come unarmed and I only came here as a favor to Horns. Sit your pretty ass down or I'll cap it"
He sat , trying to do it dominantly, but his face squirmed.
Neda took a sip from her black coffee.
"Now, you put your machismo back into a deep dark hole it usually hides and you tell me word to word the trouble your family has or I have to go and explain to my old buddy why I had to waste his punk-ass little brother. Not something I'd like to do as I really like Horns"
"Ramon, his name is Ramon"
"In your family,maybe. In mine: he is Horns. And you are Jorge. The lil´one. It's about Ezzie, right? now talk, no BS"
He sighed and compressed as much as pride gave away.
"Ramon wanted me to tell you that he wants your help in rescuing Esmeralda. She's basicly being held hostage by that fucking maricón Oscar. But he's the second-hand lieutenant in Latin Dukes so I really don't know why I'm telling this to you. There's one of you and tens of them, so.. "
"Sorry sir , can I get you anything?"
The blonde waitress managed to startle Jorge but Neda already replied "He'll have a coffee and we'll both have one of those great cinnamon rolls of yours"
As she departed Neda pushed a napkin across the table.
"Write his address down in something that can be read and your own phone number also"
"Didn't you hear me? That Oscar´s running a gang?"
"Sure. And some weightlifting moron from another gang that you know from your school or gym or whatever gave you that gun you are wearing and told how they'll help you fix it alright."
"God damn, did I say I finished? Unh huh. Your pretty, but clearly not the sharpest pencil in the bunch. You got a delicate face and soft hands and no doubt your good for pulling chicks for at least a few years still.
And that's awfully cute. That's mainly why they´d want you in their crew."
"But they are about as bright as you, hiding glocks up your pants. You'd probably shoot yourself in leg or blow off your cojones before you ever got the piece out. And your new little gangland buddies at their very best would off only Ezzie by accident while spraying the place in a drive-by. "
She pushed the napkin.
"I don't have a pen"
Neda flicked her purse open and reached for a pen, that was wedged between lipstick, mascara, gravity knife, S&W M&P, spare clips, wallet, another pair of sunglasses and lipbalm.
Jorge obediently wrote the address down and Neda grasped it over the table as the waitress returned.
Neda drank her coffee and grabbed one of cinnamon buns rising up.
"He's paying. I'll call ya" and walked out.
As much as she loved GTO and Olds 442 Neda knew driving them down to Auburn Gresham would be less discreet if she had installed flashing neon lights on them and towed trailer behind filled with a live mariachi band. The ironically named Plymouth Reliant looked like it had gone a few rounds against Ali in his prime. Even so the beaten up heap of junk ran and kept her warm enough.
People who didn't get why it was called the windy city had never strolled down chitown streets in mid-winter or when fall rains and bursts of gale decided to shear down to your spinal cord.
She wore her version of city camouflage: from the worn leather gloves to long off-grey wool cardigan over navy blue cowl neck top and down to her dark denim leggings and stripy legwarmers over Converse high tops everything proclaimed her belonging to lower middle class .
Someone proud but buying secondhand and the less accurately witnesses could describe her, the better.
Honest blue collars zombied off to work passing her by as she sat in her parked beige K-car. The plywood boarded shops nearby were tagged with lazy profanities, in their usual, both verbally and artistically challenged, manner.
She had a clean view of her target down few blocks. A single story redbrick house surrounded by a wire mesh fence.
She had taken both, the common binoculars and the russian surplus thermal imagining scope, on the job. The scope wasn't pretty or light, but it worked in all conditions and it doubled as a slightly radioactive truncheon in melee.
She had counted six people inside.
Ezzie was easy to recognize. She had lost the cherubial baby fat from those childhood photos Horns had always displayed back in the bad old days. And her eyes had dimmed.
Not like the other woman's in there. Even through binoculars you saw that while lights were on she saw all the colors in quantum rainbows the chemicals made possible.
Ezzie's eyes had a different glint. A broken hue, still beautiful but drained, void, tomorrowless gaunt setting in. Making itself home.
You could tell. She had obviously learned that while there is a river in Egypt it doesn't help or make you forget.
One of the four men was constantly by her side. Making sure.
But while others stayed close by only one showed ownership in his actions and in the way he put his hands on her.
It would be reaching to call him handsome and had Neda not heard what Horns told her about the situation, especially on what he did not say, and had she not seen already enough of his behaviour she would have have been fooled by the same mix of a bit roguish, assured looks.
His lackeys tried to emulate their boss in swagger and appearance department with less convincing results.
Neda knew she had a problem.
Four or five opponents was manageable.
But they had dogs.
Why did they always have to have dogs?
Mowing down people? Piece of cake. Especially those with morals of a slug.
But gunning animals she didn't intend to eat?
Neda started the car and drove off. There was a way. A violent one but Ezzie and the dogs would survive.
After nearly hours worth of being stuck in traffic she heaved the Plymouth into a garage yard and stepped out.
"Holy hell! almost didn't recognize you ms Ebony" Darnell's earnest husky voice rumbled. He sounded like James Earl Jones's bigger and heftier brother. And his body matched the sound.
" This here doesn't look like one of yours but I hope you came to have checked up"
"Sorry, but no. Is Towel there?"
The man-shaped whale slumped.
"Yeah. Yeah he is. He's in the back."
Neda stroked the giants cheek gently.
"No. Please don't ms Ebony. I don't want to know about it. Just...Just..He's there"
She strolled through the car body shop, passing the other employees until she came to a small caucasian man in dirty coveralls. He was short and bony, the grease spattered cloth looked it was at least four sizes too big for him, like he was an infant playing dress up in their parents clothes.
"We need to go to a ride Towel"
He looked meekly up and hunched down, nodding and started to shuffle to the door.
His silent resignation made her stomach turn.
She was no angel, well an angel of death every now and then, but with that she was ok with.
You had to settle for the least fucked up choice of the fucked up choices in this fucked up world.
Liking it was a whole another ballgame.
The small white man passed silently Darnell and got into the Reliant.
"Dar, you know I'll bring him back"
"I know, Neda, I know."
The big man wanted to add 'alive too?' but he held his piece and watched the vehicle roll away, it's taillights disappearing from view.
Neda explained the situation to Towel while driving.
The wiry man replied that he understood and fell back into his own world behind his sunken eyes.
Neda drove past Oscar's little base of operations to point it out and to check the occupancy. She made Ezzie and five others.
She dropped off Towel some blocks away with his orders.
Then she took a longer route to circle back to her observation post. Breath in, steady yourself, do checkup.
As soon as Neda had known that it would be a hard entry she had cut down all the excess bling bling. The gang members might be meth heads but they would in close range and Ithaca pump action would them cut down.
She jacked a round ready in the chamber.
P345 was in right hand jacket pocket in case finesse was required and in left hand
pocket was a snubnosed .38 revolver as a backup. P345 was disposable, but it was a modern gun and like too many modern things the Ruger was over-engineered and over-complicated.
Her plan was anything but.
Neda kept Plymouth idling waiting the hunched figure to appear.
As he waddled to view, Towel marched straight up to the house and started to bang the door.
Neda put earplugs in and then grasped the steering wheel as Towel kept on banging the door. There was movement in the house, rattling of the curtains.
Towel banged on, thin arms flailing at the door.
He was making a heck of a commotion at a gang hideout. Neda had counted on three separate things: that while the neighbors weren't blind on the fact that hoods lived next door any disturbance gave a reason enough, a drop of fake courage, to make a anonymous phone call to the police.
The gang members would not call the cops themselves.
And lastly, she counted that Oscar and his crew were cowardly sadists. Only strong if in superior numbers to their opponent.
The door swung open and for a fraction of a second Neda was sure bullets would fly out and turn Towel into puffs of red mist. But they had played right into her hand.
Both pit bulls leaped at Towel with ferocious power, grinning wider then their owners in the doorway.
Neda stomped on the Plymouth's gas pedal.
Pit bulls have a reputation as a dangerous animal to the nth degree. They are the name and face presented when canine kingdom has to be shown as a nightmare from bowels of Hell. Strong, fast, ridiculously muscular, tremendous biter, stubborn and hard as nails are all correct descriptive adjectives and sadly one of main reasons most people get one.
They want the image, the ego-boost and the badassery as a by product.
Or in places like Chicago: if it's illegal to get a gun you can still buy a living, primal weapon.
The dogs pounced hard on Towel and he swayed. But he didn't go down. The dogs had hit their kin.
Years back when they had met the wiry white man had told with his squeaky voice what he remembered of his past. His childhood was series of same events repeating: getting beaten and then put in a pit or cage to fight.
Only thing that changed was what he was fighting against : other kids, adults, dogs, cocks, cats, pigs, snakes, gators.
And every now and then being sold to someone else in the same circuit. No schools, no friends, just endless combat.
Until his path had crossed with Neda's.
They had buried his last owners in the hard ground of their own farmland and Towel had followed her home.
He stood holding the pit bulls against himself, seemingly oblivious to their tearing fangs as Neda plowed through the fence and swerved cross the yard, past Towel and the hounds, as close to the door as possible. Before any of the three men in the doorway had time to realize what was happening she had pulled the handbrake, opened both : the car door and deadly salvoes from the shotgun.
The hoodlums were urban guerrillas, brutal and violent criminals. Neda mowed two of them three down to mincemeat, spending half of Ithaca's seven rounds. Third spun around for dear life but not fast enough. Her fifth rapid shot dissolved his right knee and tendons, sending him in a free fall to hallway.
Neda sprang after him spraying full force of the scattergun at the back of gangbangers head.
In Hollywood movies, starring John Wayne, rules of not shooting in the back applied.
Neda was no pilgrim and these were no misunderstood indians on the hill.
She was a battle-forged valkyrie stomping out vermin. Storming their fort.
Stepping across their twitching bodies she entered the premises. The shotgun was purpose built to sweep closed spaces, clear rooms with it's superior stopping power. But it's strength was a downfall too. A precision weapon it was not.
Neda was there to save Ezzie, not to cut her in two also.
She had mowed down his henchmen, but Oscar and the other woman remained. She hurried after muffled clatter to semi-open area, an adjoining dining room and kitchen.
Of course he had to reach for something right next to the women. Of fucking course. Neda dropped the shotgun and went for her .45.
He turned with one those cheap knockoff machine pistols that spray half the world with lead. Ruger spewed three successive double taps, center mass, repeat and two to the face. Down goes Oscar.
She marched at the corpse and kicked the streetgun away from him to be sure.
At that moment Neda's right arm exploded with pain.
Gun flew off her limp fingers and Neda had mere moment's to duck under the returning baseball bat. The meth-head chick. She flailed with the bat at Neda like windmill coming off rails in a hurricane.
Neda managed to sway and tumble just out of slugger´s reach and be hit merely by woman's saliva and barrage of her spanish slurs.
The stricken arm was gloriously numb piece of flesh flowing with Neda's movements. She had broken her bones in fights before and was glad that wasn't the case.
But her good arm was out of it, nerves and muscles were a mess and the gangs woman wasn't just armed. She came at her with wanton blind rage of a junkie.
Neda was a warrior, but not a ninja out of Bruce Lee's filmography.
If she tried to get the revolver with her off-hand she'd lose concentration on evading constant swings of baseball bat.
And then she'd go down. For good.
They leaped and danced in deadly spiral circling and bucking each other for anguishing long seconds until the meth heads balance faltered. She lost her footing for a fraction and Neda dove for floor. The Ruger was too far, Oscar's machine pistol even further and she had no time to scramble for the revolver.
Neda grasped the shotgun and raised it as the bewildered fury flung herself at her.
The room roared with the shot and Neda's attacker fell to floor with her weapon.
Neda walked up to her getting the snubnosed finally out of the pocket.
There was no anger, spite or revenge of her either arm, right had burning tingling sensation coming back and her left wrist hadn't enjoyed taking all the recoil from wielding a shotgun.
The junkie woman was surely dead, but by slow, agonizing, sucking chest wound. No matter what choices she had done, drowning into your own blood wasn't a way to go.
One to the head, one to sternum and it was over.
Ezzie cowered against kitchen wall. She trembled.
"Hello there chica. I'm sorry. Your brother, Ramon, sent me to get you. You hear?"
Neda had to repeat it three times, but she got her out of shock enough to move. Neda picked her arsenal up and tossed a crumpled note to the floor. It had a scrawled Latin Kings logo with phrase: Amor De Rey written.
It would mess up the investigation at first and spark enough of gang war to muddle the rest of it. Increasing limits of her public service to the fine city of Chicago.
The women stepped out to the yard.
The whole thing had taken few minutes, she was getting slow.
Right by the Plymouth Towel sat in the ground, drenched in his own gore, slowly and gently petting heads of two panting, deeply confused pit bulls.
He almost seemed smiling, not quite, but almost.
"I know,they'd be put down. Just pack them in, like it happened yesterday."
Neda could swear that that was a smile.
They got in the car, the three bloodied drooling beasts in the back seat, Ezzie shivering at front while Neda drove them zigzagging out of city limits to their getaway car.
They drove near to Elgin to meet a vet Neda and Towel knew. She checked her arm out, gave Esmeralda blankets, a decent meal and some sedatives, did a check up on the dogs and finally, after he had passed out couple of times, added some more stitches to Towel.
Neda knew what to expect. Her silence at first and then bawling, tears of terror and joy. She coached her through, told Ezzie how she had managed to escape by chance these strange attackers. And how this was finally her chance to escape captivity, slavery, awaken from nightmare.
It would take time, maybe years, and all family love and therapy she could get, but she would get there.
Finally Ezzie fell under combined power of exhaustion and meds and slept.
The morning came and Neda recapped her legend and dropped her off at a safe place, near a pay phone in vicinity of the city where Jorge was waiting. The young man hugged his sister and they wept together.
Before either could thank her Neda was gone.
She drove Towel and his slobbering all over the upholstery new friends back to Darnell's garage yard.
The flesh mountain stepped out to greet them.
"ms Ebony, Towel and... four new friends I see"
"There were just two, but we had to stop at a vet's animal shelter. They would've been put down otherwise"
The unimposing ragged man led the dogs to second fence surrounding the yard, where a huge pack of canines gathered to meet them. Towel's figure descended further and he ran with the pack, on all fours.
" I managed to talk it down to just four dogs" she said handing down a roll of bills "For dog food and..expenses"
The shovel Darnell called his hand pocketed it.
"Thank you ms Ebony for bringing him back"
"De nada. De nada"
The funeral was nearly four months later.
The gang war that had raged in the slaughters aftermath had almost cooled down and the police still had no solid clues. Thankfully there hadn't been much collateral damage in way of bystanders getting caught in crossfire.
Neda wore crisp small black dress that hugged her form. Her eyes below the black pillbox hat sent daggers to any mourners that tried to make it look like they were just counting medals off her cleavage.
They were split on two groups in Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery: on one side was Ramon's family, his parents with Ezzie and Jorge with his obviously insecure and jealous girlfriend followed by small flock of cousins, aunts and uncles.
And on the other side: Neda, Reb, Threegun, Freaky and Josie alongside some VA personnel .
The friends of Horns. The ones who had walked into foreign lands guns blazing, under the same moon but on unknown soil. Sometimes for freedom, but mainly that meant for oil.
Few small words said of Horns's service to his country.
The coffin looked very tiny for such a big man, even after the IED.
They walk in cozy formation to their cars, old soldiers. One more is down. And Neda knows her friends. One is down but not forgotten and tonight they will down many drinks for that one and remember and laugh.
Hell, Josie's already had a few too many and needs Threegun and her to walk him to the car. By the time they've left the gunmetal grey skies over them behind and hit the bars the balding irish will sing and prank once more.
And then comes tomorrow.