Delilah Preston pushed her way up Congress Avenue. There was a parade taking place and the crowd had made leaving her bookstore nearly impossible. The location was her bread and butter, so she couldn’t really complain, but it was such a damn hassle anytime there was a community event.
The parade made headway slow and arduous. All along the avenue for ten blocks, people lined the streets to cheer on one of their own, Senator Carla Matthews. She was an Independent who was making waves, having already gained nationwide fame as a tough state senator. It was common knowledge that she had designs on the White House. Today the crowds were honoring her for the donation of her family’s two-hundred acre ranch that was to be renovated as a camp for disadvantaged and at-risk, future generations of Texans.
If Dee Dee had the courage, she would vote for Matthews, but like many things ordinary people took for granted, she couldn’t dare provide any non-essential links to her whereabouts. It was hard enough trying to maintain tax records. She was very careful about her life. She had to be, since it was a risk every time she signed a lease, applied for her merchants permit, or renewed her driver license.
The last several years of her life had been a constant struggle to remain anonymous, and the battle had taken its toll on her peace of mind. But life in the “Live Music Capital of the World” had actually allowed her to ease her panic, and after four years here, she’d begun to relax and regain a sense of security. Though she had to admit to herself that the methods she employed to deal with her unsettling situation were originally meant to be a temporary fix, and not something she’d ever wanted to depend on in the long run.
Over the last several months, she’d only had to take a Valium occasionally without wine or other controlled substances, although she’d been known in the past to indulge in marijuana every so often for the serenity it gave her. It also helped her fall asleep at night. Addiction didn’t seem to run in her family, but she knew the true test would come when she stopped refilling her prescriptions. She wasn’t ready to do that yet, because as much as she hated to admit it, there were times when her only relief came from knocking herself out. Unfortunately, it left her completely incapacitated, and in her situation, that was never a good thing.
She would be the first to acknowledge there were too many discrepancies about her past, and it would not withstand close scrutiny. If she’d learned anything in her years of subterfuge, it was to tell as few lies as possible and stick as close to the truth as she could.
Turning the corner onto Eighth Street, she made her way to the parking garage. As she walked up the incline, a dollop of rain hit her head, and she looked up at the scattered clouds in the late afternoon sky. Another drop fell on her oversized sunglasses, and she raised a finger to wipe it away. Even though it was late October, it was hot and the rain would be a welcome relief to the Texas heat if it actually turned into a downpour.
She usually got her exercise by walking up the nine levels to her reserved spot. However, her day had been particularly draining after spending the better part of it dealing with a shipment she’d been billed for and had never received. She was ready for a long bath and a quiet night of television, deciding to forgo the mini workout. Instead, she opted for the elevator, barely noticing the man already standing there as she approached. She looked through the leather briefcase hanging from her shoulder and double-checking that she had the files she needed. The elevator’s ding made her look up as the doors opened, and the man held out his arm in a gesture for her to enter ahead of him.
“Thank you,” she said and got into the elevator just as her briefcase slipped off her shoulder, spilling the contents of the side pocket. Crouching down with a muttered expletive, she tried to clear a path for him, but then stared in confusion at the closing doors. She was alone.
Every hair on her body stood up. She’d only seen him for about a second, but it was long enough; due to the observational skills she’d honed over the years, she’d taken it all in. He was wearing dark sunglasses and the attire of most of the businessmen who worked in corporate downtown Austin with the exception of a full-length leather overcoat that was much too hot for October in Texas. She was thankful her own sunglasses hid the dark eyes that made her identifiable. Icy terror gripped her. She was sure Cap had finally found her.
Suddenly, the confined space sent waves of claustrophobic panic throughout her body. She frantically pressed the nine and fell back into the corner, clutching her briefcase against her chest. Struggling for each breath, she searched her mind for a plan, any plan, but as her initial fear began to subside, reason slowly sank in.
He hadn’t followed her. He could have done her in the elevator and walked away without a second thought. Then again, he hadn’t ridden with her, and she wondered why.
As she reached her floor, she braced herself as the doors opened. No one was there.
Cautiously she exited, she scanned the area expecting an ambush at any moment, but the garage was deserted. She spun around, the sound of the elevator doors startling her as they closed. Moving to the shadows, she kept her eyes glued to the panel as the digits lit up in descending order until the elevator returned to the ground level. Her heartbeat thudded loudly in her ears as she watched the numbers now glowing in ascent, but she felt no relief when they lit up all the way to the roof.
She breathed a sigh of relief and assessed the situation. When recognition of the man below first squeezed the breath from her lungs like an invisible vise, she was sure it was the end of the line for her. She knew he was known as Leo the Lion but had never been introduced to him. She had seen him on a few occasions discussing “business” with Cap’s brother and father. When Cap’s mother first told her his name, Dee Dee thought the elitist old bat was trying to make her look uncouth for cracking a joke about a breakfast cereal character.
“Actually, he was born in Battle Creek, Michigan. His mother was Carlo’s goomah for a while.” Dee’s mouth formed an O as her large, almond eyes registered shock at the older woman’s casual reference to her husband’s former mistress. “You’re more astute than I’ve given you credit for, Dee. Serial is definitely an apt analogy for his professional background,” she commented in a sly condescending manner. She had not realized at the time the woman was not referring to the type of cereal one ate for breakfast.
If he was here, she doubted it was a vacation. Most likely it was a business trip, and his business was eliminating “problems.” Luckily, it appeared that she wasn’t on his agenda. So who was, and why was he here in her parking garage? A growing roar from the crowd in the street drowned out the thud of her heartbeat. Slowly, the cool level-headedness she’d acquired through pure survival instinct began to return, and with it came a sinking suspicion.
She tried to dismiss it before the sensations began to invade her body; she wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of here. But then her head began to tingle, and her toes turned to ice. She desperately wanted a Valium more than anything as the paralyzing grip of anxiety began to overwhelm her and damned the panic that made her physically and psychologically ill whenever she thought of Cap. She knew that in a few more minutes, she would lose control and become incapable of maintaining coherent thought.
The tingle made her nerves raw and she couldn’t stand it. Fumbling in her pocket for her keychain, she pressed the buttons and popped the trunk and unlocked the doors of her metallic green Pontiac Grand Am. She all but threw her belongings inside, and slammed the trunk shut. She was on the verge of jumping into the front seat when the sound below rose to a fevered pitch. Unable to help herself, she walked to the ledge and peered over.
“Walk away!” she told herself, fiercely. “You cannot get involved. Just get your ass away from here. If you don’t, very soon you won’t even be able to string two sentences together, you pathetic, crazy bitch.”
Driving home would be a nightmare, she knew. With her thoughts still clear in her mind, she started to turn away. Senator Matthews’s car was making its way down the avenue, and Dee Dee could see the woman waving to her constituents. A sixth-sense made her glance up, but oh, she wished that she hadn’t because what she saw was from her worst nightmare. She knew from experience it was the barrel of a sniper’s gun, a silencer covering its tip. What to do, what to do?
Obviously, there was a contract on Matthews. Delilah knew all about contracts. Hadn’t she been avoiding one for the last several years? If she did nothing, the motorcade moving slowly down Congress Avenue would soon carry a dead legislator. If she attempted to contact one of the many police officers lining the streets, she would be dragged into the ensuing investigation. But could she do nothing? More to the point, could she do anything?
Of course she could. A spontaneous realization crept over her as she recalled certain steps she’d taken to increase her own chances of survival. Through blood, sweat, and tears, she’d earned a second-degree black belt in Kung Fu.
“Martial arts is not only mastering the body, it is mastering the mind,” the words her sensei had repeated many times during her instruction, echoed in her head.
He’d disapproved of her “medicinal regime” and told her she would never be strong if her mind was weak. Over the years, she’d learned to defend herself. Now she was the time to use that knowledge to focus her mind, or her combat skills would be useless. If there was ever a time to test her Kung Fu, it was now. She forced herself to think of a plan.
“Strategy, strategy, strategy,” she chanted, struggling to keep her thoughts in order. Then it hit her. If she could disarm the gunman and run like hell, it might work.
Her mind felt like a sieve, even though she’d decided on a course of action, and she had to maintain focus. She may not always trust her mind, but her instincts were never wrong, even if she hadn’t always followed them. Time to act.
Driving up to the eleventh level, she focused on getting to the man in time. She parked the car and pulled the keys out of the ignition just enough to turn off the door chime. As she stepped out of the car, she tossed her sunglasses onto the dashboard and left the door ajar. Relieved that her thoughts were clear, she reminded herself to follow her gut and ignore her nervousness. She chanted her yin and yang, psyching herself up, as she jogged up to the roof.
She’d only begun to feel safe in the last few years. Austin was the first place she’d really settled down since leaving Chicago. Seven years ago, innocent lives had been lost because she hadn’t intervened, hadn’t listened to her instincts. Both mistakes had haunted her ever since. Killers were free because she had run, and she continued to run ever since. In this one act, she could right a wrong; do one unselfish deed. If she failed, she would be killed, but she might lose even more if she succeeded.
With methodical actions and practiced caution, she made certain her movements would not alert Leo to her presence. She needed the element of surprise. She slowed her pace as she came to the top of the ramp and hugged a concrete column as she peered around it to scan the rooftop.
Leo had his back to her as he crouched down just out of the line of sight of the police and security officers standing guard on the street below. The leather coat had been discarded, as was the jacket of the thousand-dollar, gray Versace suit he wore. Leather gloves still covered his hands. He practiced his aim through the sniper’s scope of the high-powered rifle.
Only a few cars dotted the top level of the structure. Delilah crept forward, darting between the vehicles and using them to camouflage her stealthy approach. Her primary objective was to get close enough for a quick, silent strike. He was still squatting and had the weapon resting against the wall of the ledge. When he reached for something between his legs, she strained to see what he was doing.
A glint of metal flashed as it caught the sun’s reflection breaking through the scattered clouds. She assumed he had another firearm and contemplated how to relieve him of both weapons. If that wasn’t possible, she’d have to decide which one to concentrate her efforts on. She quietly sighed in relief as he picked up a pair of binoculars.
She held her breath and observed him from the undercarriage of a car. He unexpectedly pivoted on the balls of his feet, scanning his territory, and she recoiled to hunch herself tightly behind a tire. As she shrunk against the pavement, her heart leapt up into her throat.
She strained her ears, listening for approaching footsteps, but the noise from below made it impossible. She considered peering over the vehicle when she noticed that she could see his partial reflection in the side mirror.
He was facing the street again, but as an added precaution, she carefully removed her shoes, grateful the rain hadn’t continued. She flattened her body against the concrete and gauged his position from that angle. The last thing she wanted was to have him get the drop on her.
The car she used for cover sat low to the ground, allowing her a very limited view. She could see him by the ledge and that his shoes were pointed away from the parking garage. That was all she needed to know. Having a clear view of him before she moved to another vehicle was vital, so she dragged herself on her elbows to the end of the car. Once she abandoned her hiding spot, there would be nothing to hide behind when she made her move, so she needed to be sure he was distracted.
Saying a quick prayer, she silently leapt one . . . two . . . three times.
Running out of time, she recklessly covered the distance to another vehicle, once again briefly visible and unprotected. She’d gained considerable ground even with her short legs, but it was doubtful she could catch him by surprise from her current position. She had to get to the vehicle that was closest to the gunman, and she had to do it now.
It would do no good to run straight to the vehicle; it was too far away. It would be smarter to move with caution and stealth. Recycling her earlier prayers, she led off like a ballplayer stealing third base, never taking her eyes off the man at the edge of the building, terrified he would sense her presence. She nearly wet herself when he cocked his head like he’d heard something.
She froze in panic, causing her to stumble, but she quickly regained her footing. This spooked her, and she dove for cover behind a Jeep Cherokee. It wasn’t where she’d intended to go, but it hid her well enough.
Perhaps, she thought fleetingly, God had heard her prayers. The Jeep permitted her to have a generous view from underneath, while still protecting her from detection. From her vantage point, she saw Leo look in her direction. Petrified, she didn’t even dare breathe for several moments, her body coiled and ready to spring, if it became necessary.
Leo seemed satisfied that he was alone because he didn’t move from his perch. He turned his attention back to the tools of his trade, raising the gun to his shoulder and checking the crosshairs. Timing was critical at this point.
Leo the Lion was highly sought-after, and not just by law enforcement. He wasn’t perfect, but he was pretty damn close. Sure the Feds knew him and had tried to connect him to a whole slew of hits, some of which he hadn’t even done, but so far they were unable to make anything stick.
He took pride in his work; he wasn’t just some thug. Men and woman in his profession followed a set of standards. They maintained their own ethics and learned from on-the-job training. There were dos and don’ts, and they just weren’t found in any trade magazine. Ideally, a professional took out his mark with the first shot. Missing the target meant having to expel a second round, and the possibility of detection increased dangerously. But it was generally an acceptable risk in order to complete the job, because it demonstrated a direct reflection of your competency, and that was important to one’s reputation.
The major risk of not taking out a mark with the first shot was that it endangered the opportunity for a clean escape. A good cop might be able to tell where the shot came from, and your position could be compromised. A lot depended on where the first bullet hit. If it struck something else, like a building or a tree, conditions might still be favorable for a clean hit. However, if it struck the mark but wasn’t fatal or hit someone other than the mark, that was a major fuck-up and could lead to dire consequences.
Successful or not, the tools still needed to be disposed of immediately.
Leo almost never took a second shot. He managed to complete about eighty-five percent of his contracts. One of the great things about being self-employed, he thought smugly, was that he could pick and choose his assignments—most of the time. Sometimes in his profession, you did a job because you owed someone or you wanted someone to owe you, such as competitors, people in powerful positions, or crime bosses. His single-shot clause was often a non-negotiable stipulation of any job he accepted. Sometimes it was a deal breaker.
He considered each job like a movie with him as the director. The setting was essential to the plot, so it could only be manipulated by various angles, lighting, and placement of the players. It had to remain unchanged, and Leo had to make sure every actor hit his mark, the props were arranged correctly, and he was positioned at the best angle. If he did his job right, he created a blockbuster. If not, then it was a flop.
He’d set the binoculars down after one final glimpse of the other buildings, noting the position of security cameras and law enforcement personnel. He was confident nobody was close enough to identify him. If this has been another venue, he would have been concerned about security in the air; but the recession, and some might even say, the idiocy of the governor’s political decisions, made the state’s budget less than accommodating. Taking aim at his target in final preparation, he stood completely still, poised and ready, waiting for the approaching motorcade to occupy just the right spot.
“Lights, camera . . . ,” he said aloud, just like he always did. A few seconds more, he thought.
Dee Dee took in the intensity of his focus and knew it was time to make her move. She was still about twenty feet away, and she would have only one chance. If she faltered, she was as good as dead. Taking a deep breath, she took off in a silent run.
At that moment, some instinct must have alerted Leo. Years of being a professional killer had honed his senses. He whipped around and blocked her roundhouse kick with the butt of the rifle, but she managed to keep her balance and landed on her feet, ignoring the pain from the blow. In those brief seconds, everything changed. She’s lost her greatest advantage—the element of surprise. She went from an offensive position to a defensive position and hoped that the time and determination she had invested in her training would truly be enough to save her life.
Suddenly his eyes widened in disbelief and recognition. “What the fu—hey . . . Hey! You’re Grimaldi’s lady, ain’t you?” Then he grinned. “I know it’s you. The one that ditched and ran. You know, that black hair doesn’t suit you. I kind of liked the red.”
She froze and said nothing.
“Well, bitch, you’ve just cost me some money, but your ass will pay even better and the escape is easier. Jeez, he’s had a bounty on you for years. Cap will be so pleased when I deliver your body to him. Maybe I’ll tie a big red bow around your neck.”
She shivered, and not just because of the cold amusement underlying the threat in his voice. That name would forever elicit fear and loathing from her. It was the absent menace he referred to, the image of who now flooded her mind.
“Any last words for your husband?” he taunted.
Despite all the effort she’d put into protecting herself, she wasn’t sure she had it in her to take another life. She’d lived with so much guilt and sorrow over the past several years and had remained alone because she couldn’t risk getting close to anyone. No family, no friends, no lover, all because it would put them in danger. She would not, do that to someone she loved ever again.
She could never be free, not until Cap was dead. It had been seven years—seven years! She’d cut off the hair she’d loved; the glorious locks that reached her waist once upon a time were now gone and dyed black as ink. She knew she’d never see the natural color again. Then there were the panic attacks and the years of agony as she lived with the paralyzing fear she’d fought to suppress, convinced that sooner or later she would go insane.
And for what? This piece of shit had no problem recognizing me.
She looked at Leo with all the hate and loathing she wished she could choke her husband with and knew she could get in another blow but wondered if the power of her kick would be enough to send him over the side of the building. God, she fucking hoped so!
“Welcome him home when he joins you in hell!” she spat, leaping up, spinning around, and kicking him in the chest with the force of all her rage.
His surprise was only slightly greater than hers as the blow sent him back against the wall and over the side. She didn’t have any time to contemplate that she’d just killed a man. No time for remorse or satisfaction that she’d rid the world of a very bad person, saved a woman’s life, or managed to keep her whereabouts and identity a secret from the husband she’d fled when she was eighteen.
There was no time. As Leo went over, the rifle went off. Whatever thoughts she had were erased by the pain exploding in her head, and then her world went black.
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