At Any Cost – Chapter Two

As nice it had been to have a whirlpool in her hotel room, Michelle Andress – better known as The Hawk – much preferred the condo she was now renting. The bed was about the same size, but the rest of the appliances and electronics were much bigger and there was a lot to be said for a full-size refrigerator and a stove. The condo had been subletted to her furnished, and the quality of the furniture was second only to the view of the Loop she had when she looked out over the city.

She was rummaging around in the refrigerator when her phone rang from where she’d left it on the coffee table. Michelle took a beer from the bottom shelf and twisted it off as she went to answer it. She wasn’t particularly surprised to see that the name on the phone was “Private,” and she picked it up and put it to her ear.

“Hello?” Michelle was careful to keep her voice neutral as she spoke, not wanting to give away too much information until she knew who was on the other end.

“Is this the Hawk?”

“Who’s asking?” Michelle couldn’t quite place the voice so she erred on the side of caution and went with authoritative.

“It’s Martin Caiber,” he said, not hearing the tension in her voice. Michelle relaxed and held her phone between her cheek and shoulder as she twisted the top off the beer. “I wanted to thank you for the money you deposited this morning, and also ask you how you got my account number to do it.”

“Probably the same way you got my private phone number,” Michelle said, sitting back on the couch and putting her feet up. “It’s my business to find people, and you’re no different. Besides, the account was in your father’s name. If you’re going to do your business behind closed doors, you should probably use someone else’s name.” She sipped her beer and Martin laughed.

“I’m using Dad’s account because most of the business is under his name and it makes things easier.” She could hear a smile in his voice and couldn’t help smiling herself. “I was surprised that you really gave me twenty percent.”

“I said you were cute,” Michelle said playfully. “Was that it? You were just calling about the money?”

“Actually, no,” Martin replied. “Since you paid me, that must mean you finished your job. Does that mean you’re going back wherever you came from?”

“Not right away,” Michelle replied, taking another drink of her beer. “I’m between jobs and I like Chicago, so I thought I’d hang around for a little while. My work is mostly mobile, anyway. I can do the majority of it on my computer.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Martin said. “This might sound strange, but have you ever done any kind of bodyguard work?”

“Not per se,” Michelle said, frowning. “I have self-defense training and did some Krav Maga classes with my father, so I can handle myself. I also make sure I have a gun on me when I do any sort of confrontation but that’s just a perk of having my PI license. Why, do you need someone to watch out for you?”

“Right now I just need someone to come with me to a meeting at a casino,” Martin said. “But I am looking for a bodyguard and you’re at the top of my list.”

“I am?”

“Yeah. I don’t know if you realize it, but you’re pretty intimidating.” He sounded completely serious but Michelle couldn’t help laughing. “So is that a yes or a no?”

“Sure, I’ll help you out,” she said, setting aside her beer. “After all, you put it so nicely. When and where do you need me?”

“Can you meet me at the club where we met in about half an hour?”

“Right now?” Michelle looked at the clock on the wall and saw that it was two o’clock. “It’ll take me at least forty minutes to get dressed and get there from the Loop. I’m still trying to figure out the streets here.”

“That’s fine, they can wait. Just get here as soon as you can,” Martin said. “What’s this going to cost me, by the way?”

“Buy me dinner and it’ll be on the house,” Michelle said, getting up from the couch and walking into the bedroom. She hadn’t had much to unpack, but the few things that had been in her suitcases were in the closet and they gave it a sort of forlorn hotel-like look. “Someplace fancy, though. No White Castle or anything like that.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever actually been to a White Castle,” Martin said. “If you’re not from here, you probably haven’t heard of it but there’s a place called Cerise that’s pretty nice on the Mile. I think you’ll like it.”

“Sounds like a plan. I’ll throw on some clothes and be there as soon as I can.” Without bothering to say goodbye, Michelle hung up and tossed her phone on the bed. Since she never knew when a client might call she made sure her suits were always pressed, and she took one out of the closet and tossed it on the bed beside her phone while she considered her shirts.

The last person she had expected to call was Martin, but she was glad he had. When they’d parted a week earlier she had felt a little like she’d missed out on something, but now that she had the opportunity to spend some time with him and get to know him better she wasn’t going to turn it down. She’d never directly put herself in a situation where she might have had to fight someone but she had a feeling her father would be proud of her.

When she’d left the hotel room, Michelle had taken the vase of fire-tipped roses with her. She’d bought them on the spur of the moment at a grocery store and had put one in her lapel when she went to meet Martin on a whim. Now it seemed like a nice, professional touch – the kind that would make her look as if everyone else was completely beneath her – and she wanted to impress Martin just as much as she wanted to intimidate whoever they were going to be pushing around.

Michelle smirked as she took a red pinstriped shirt out of the closet and tossed it on top of her suit. She couldn’t believe that anyone would find her intimidating enough to be their bodyguard, especially the son of a Chicago mob boss. He really was cute, though, and she supposed she had hoped something like this would happen when she dropped twenty thousand dollars in his bank account. Once they got through with his meeting, she was going to have dinner with him; she just had to possibly threaten someone first.

“Be careful what you wish for, I guess,” she said to the roses as she took off her t-shirt and dropped it on the floor.

She dressed quickly, then ran a brush through her hair before snapping a bloom off of the roses and tucking it in her lapel with a smile. Pleased with her appearance, she took her gun off the table and tucked it into the back of her pants. Then she went downstairs and out to her car to be on her way.

Michelle had only seen Trees after dark, so she was somewhat surprised by how small the club seemed in the daytime. She parked in the same space she’d used the night before, paid the meter, and went in. Martin was sitting at the bar and he looked up as soon as the door opened. Even across the room Michelle saw him freeze and she was struck by a moment of self-consciousness as she tried to figure out why.

“Sorry to keep you waiting,” she said instead. Martin recovered and smiled at her as he got up and put his phone in his pocket.

“You were faster than I expected,” he said, joining her at the door. When they’d met before he’d been sitting down, so Michelle was surprised to find that he was only a few inches taller than her. She only stood about 5’6” in her boots so she couldn’t have put him at more than 5’8”. Not particularly short, but not at all what she had expected either. “Come on, let’s get going. They’re not going to wait forever.”

“Right.” Michelle followed him out the back door and behind the club to where his car was parked. “Do you want me to drive? It’ll probably make you look powerful to have your bodyguard drive you to this meeting.”

“You think?”

“You haven’t been doing this very long, have you?” She held out her hand. “Keys, please. Your car is much nicer than mine.” Martin gave them to her and she got into the driver’s seat while he went to the passenger seat. “You can sit in the back if you want.”

“This whole thing is getting really weird really quickly,” Martin said, getting into the front seat and closing the door.

“So you’ve never had a bodyguard before?” Michelle turned the key and the engine rumbled to life.

“Of course not. Why would I have?” He reached forward and set the GPS to an address a few miles away. Michelle raised an eyebrow at him and he sighed. “Look—”

“So tell me more about where we’re going,” Michelle said, cutting him off. “How many guys are we looking at? Am I going to have to pull my gun?”

“I sure as hell hope not,” Martin said, looking slightly alarmed. “Before my dad died, he bought me some property and I’m building another nightclub on it. I’ve been trying to get some last-minute construction done and the contractors are trying to get more money out of me. If Dad was alive they wouldn’t be trying to screw me over, and I’m hoping having you there will make it look like I’m on his level.”

“I see,” Michelle said, nodding. “So you’re just a regular property owner being pressured by some shady contractors, and there’s nothing going on that might get me killed. It’s a good thing I don’t have any family in town.”

“No one’s going to try to kill you,” Martin said. “I just need it to look like I’ve got a bodyguard. I’ll explain more at that dinner I’m taking you to.”

“I look forward to it,” Michelle said. She nodded at a classy-looking building at the end of the block. “Looks like we’re here. I guess I’ll just park in front.” Martin didn’t reply so she pulled into the first empty parking space she saw and got out of the car before he could open his door so she could open it for him.

Michelle couldn’t help being a little on edge as she followed Martin into the half-finished club. She had a pretty good idea of the line of business Martin and his father were actually in, and she was almost certain that she was no match for a couple of mob enforcers. There was nothing she could do but trust that he knew what they were up against, and she was glad she had her gun on her.

“That’s them,” Martin said, indicating a pair of men leaning on the bar. In the interest of knowing what she was up against, Michelle sized them up as they approached. They didn’t seem like the kind of men who would threaten to break her fingers but looks could be deceiving. As soon as they saw Michelle and Martin, the two men pushed off the bar and met them in the middle of the room. “Nice to see you,” he said to the contractors. One of them eyed Michelle and Martin smiled. “This is Hawk. She’ll be joining us for the meeting.”

“What exactly are you planning that you felt it necessary to bring a bodyguard?” The larger of the two contractors looked at her suspiciously and Martin shrugged.

“Nothing in particular, Rich. I’ve discovered recently that it would be a good idea to have someone watching my back, and she’s one of the best,” he said. Michelle thought privately that he was going a bit far but she kept her face impassive and her arms folded over her chest. The contractors looked at her dubiously and she locked eyes with the bigger of the two until he looked away from her. “Let’s sit.” The men went to one of the booths that were still being installed and sat down while Michelle stood by Martin’s shoulder. He looked up at her. “There’s room for you too.”

“No thanks,” Michelle said, keeping her eyes on the contractors. “I’d rather stand.”

“Suit yourself,” the larger of the two said. “Now, let’s talk about the changes you wanted to make.”

Their talk turned to permits and installations, and Michelle let her eyes travel around the room that would, if these men could come to an agreement, soon be a club. It was larger than Trees, and the bar was central to the top floor. Steps led to an empty area below that looked as if it was made to be a dancefloor. Michelle could see that it would be a great place to dance and have a drink, and she hoped she would be around to see it. She felt a smile trying to surface and pushed it back down, turning her attention to Martin.

Even though she’d never met his father, she could tell that Martin had a long way to go before he measured up to him and the men he was speaking with knew it. Confident though he was, she doubted he was going to leave the room without paying something. All three men were smiling but she could feel the tension between them. Luckily, she didn’t feel that Martin was in danger, and when they shook hands across the table she began to relax.

“I’ll have the check over to you tomorrow,” Martin said. “Thank you for being reasonable about this.”

“I could say the same,” Rich said, standing up. He glanced over at Michelle. “See there? We didn’t even need to bring your bodyguard into it.” She didn’t reply to this, only kept her eyes on his until he cleared his throat. “In any case, we’ll look forward to seeing that payment. As a show of good faith, we’ll get started right away.”

“I appreciate it.” Martin stood up and turned to Michelle. “We’ll be on our way. I’ll be glad when this place is open and I don’t have five meetings a day.” She didn’t respond, only followed Martin toward the door. He smiled at her. “Have you ever had lobster Thermidor? Cerise has the best in the city.”

“No, I’ve never tried it,” Michelle said. “If you’re saying you’re going to buy me lobster, I’m happy to give it a shot.” Martin replied but she didn’t hear what he said, as the conversation the two contractors were having caught her attention. Michelle had been blessed since she was a girl with excellent hearing, and while it had saved her life on more than one occasion there were some things she hadn’t wanted to hear.

“I didn’t expect her,” the contractor whose name she hadn’t heard said. “I didn’t even know Caiber Junior had a bodyguard yet.”

“A woman bodyguard,” Rich snorted. “Guess he doesn’t trust himself around a male one, but I had no idea he even knew any women.” Michelle frowned and started to turn around to tell the man exactly what she thought about him but Martin grabbed her arm.

“Don’t bother,” he muttered. “I’m used to it.”

“You shouldn’t have to be,” Michelle said in an equally low voice. Behind them the contractors were laughing and it grated on Michelle’s nerves. She hadn’t heard what they said but a moment later she heard one of them use a slur that made Martin cringe. “Hang out for a second, will you?” Not waiting for him to tell her not to go over, she strode across the room and stood in front of the two men.

“I thought you’d be out the door by now,” Leon said. “Did you come over here to try and teach us a lesson?”

“Not at all,” Michelle said. “I never just try to do anything. Now I think you owe Mr. Caiber an apology.”

“Nothing to apologize for,” Leon said. “I was just saying what everyone already knows. I suppose you didn’t know you were working for a faggot.”

“Don’t use that disgusting word in front of me,” Michelle snarled. “Besides, whether he’s gay or straight isn’t any of your business.” She hoped she sounded tough in spite of the fact that her stomach had dropped like an elevator with a broken cable. He was gay. The one guy she’d liked enough in to flirt with wasn’t even interested in women.

“Let me guess, you’re a dyke. Guess you’re perfectly suited to one another.” Rich started laughing and his friend joined in, and Michelle took the opportunity to look them over. She could definitely take one of them but wasn’t sure she could fight them both. It had been years since her Krav Maga classes, and she was no doubt out of practice. Her best bet was to focus on the bigger one and hope that it would intimidate his friend. Michelle didn’t give him a chance to stop laughing before she stepped closer and drove her fist into his solar plexus. Rich doubled over, the wind escaping his lungs and giving Michelle a perfect target. She grabbed the sides of his head and brought it down onto her knee, and Rich crumpled to the ground with blood streaming out of his nose. Michelle turned her gaze onto the other man, who held his hands up in front of him.

“I’m sorry, lady. I don’t want any trouble,” he said.

“You really don’t,” Michelle said. She folded her arms over her chest. “I’ll accept your apology since you’re the only one conscious.” Aiming a kick at Rich as she went past him, she joined Martin at the door, where he was standing with his mouth slightly open. “I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.”

“Sure,” Martin managed, pushing the door open for her. “You, uh, you have some blood on your pants.”

“Do I?” Michelle groaned. “Would you mind if we swing by my house before we go to the restaurant? I want to put on some different pants.”

“I’ll do better than that,” Martin said with a grin. “They have some amazing shops on the Mile that are on the way to Cerise. How do you feel about Chanel?”

“I buy most of my clothes at Macy’s,” Michelle said, raising an eyebrow at him. Martin laughed and went around to the driver’s side, then took the keys from her hand. Shaking his head, he slid into the driver’s seat and turned on the car. Michelle hurried to the other side to get in. She wasn’t exactly sure what to say to him now. Flirting was obviously out of the question, but it was probably for the best. She’d never been good at it anyway, and now that she was out of practice she would have embarrassed them both.

“We should get you some shoes too,” Martin was saying, and Michelle looked out the window as they made their way down the street.

“Whatever you want,” she said, picking at the stain on her knee. “You’re the boss.”

Available at all retailers January 15, 2019 – preorder now for $0.99!

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07L2J1932

Nook, Kobo, Apple Books: http://books2read.com/BuyAtAnyCost

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