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Skip didn’t have time for her until she propositioned him in their apartment complex’s laundry room. In fact, he wasn’t sure of her right name. Sex was not the problem in Chicago. Any given night in the clubs of the Warehouse District, and you had a fifty-fifty chance of scoring even if you weren’t as good-looking as Skipper Bayliss, but toss in the Christmas break, and your chances of scoring tripled.

She didn’t seem all that urgent while he put Skip Junior to work; in fact, she seemed bored. Later, adjusting her bra, she said to his back as he left the room “Don’t tell my boyfriend, ya see him.”

“Do I look stupid?”

By seven o’clock, he was finishing up the barbecued chicken wings from his GrubHub  order when someone knocked on his door. 

He was about to ask the big man standing there in a leather biker vest what he wanted when the man shoved him backwards into his own apartment and shut the door behind him.

“You screwed my girl.” No outrage behind the threat, more like a tort lawyer speaking for a client seeking recompense. The man’s size and eerie calm killed Skip’s first instinct, which was to bluster. Instead, he asked him: “How much?”

“Five,” the man replied. 

The bald giant in the vest stood there, his eyes boxing the room, assessing the décor, confident Skip was reasonable, not about to mount an attack that would have ended badly for him if he had.

“Look, I was born,” Skip said. “I wasn’t born yesterday. Your girl set me up. Even Chicago cops call that extortion.”

“Do you really want to spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder? Just write the check, man.”

“I’ve got a better idea,” Skip said, eyeing the thug and experiencing that frisson of insight that made him one of the rising stars of his firm. 

The giant gave Skip his full attention; his glare made Skip take an unconscious step backward. “What?”

“Fight me.”

“You moron, I’ll kill you.”

“You have to let me win,” Skip said. 

“Talk. Make sense.”

“This girl at work. I want to impress her. We’re going out tomorrow night. You confront us. I throw a couple punches. You run off.”

“I think I’ll stomp your ass right here.”

“Two thousand to make it look good.”

“I’ll show you how to throw a punch,” the big man told him, stripping off his vest. “You try to be a hero, you know what’ll happen, right.”

It wasn’t a question. Skip made space in the living room. 

He showed Skip a jab followed by an uppercut. 

“That’s it,” the giant said. “Two punches. You try to get cute, follow up with a right cross, and I’ll hit you so hard you’ll swallow half your teeth.”

Skip paid him half and watched him exit the parking lot on a Fat Boy Harley. 

Kasie Mulloy was the new hire, fresh out of some silo college with a bachelor’s in business. He used all his charm to get her to go on a dinner date. 

The “fight” wasn’t going to last more than seconds. Hugo, Skip’s nickname for the brute, would come from the alley between the restaurant and the parking lot, show a gun and demand money—“Don’t shit your pants. It’ll be phony.” Skip would throw the first punch. Bam! The jab would glance off Hugo’s shoulder. The uppercut would send him backwards, scuttling away in cowardly retreat. Perfect . . . 

He’d position himself for the phony uppercut so she wouldn’t see air between fist and jaw. He’d hustle Kasie off, play the modest hero while soothing her fears all the way back to his bedroom. 

*  * *

Kasie was impressed by the specialty meal served by the Greek restaurant on North Milwaukee: Royal Red prawns with black truffle orzotto, grilled turbot for her and crispy roast duck for him, which he insisted he feed her from his own fork. Chestnut porridge and an eighty-dollar Napa Sauvignon for dessert. Watching her mouth open to nibble gave Skip a tingle in his scrotum.

On cue, Hugo, in dark hoodie with face disguised in a red bandanna, strode up to them from the alley as they approached the lot where Skip’s sixty-grand “Baby Demon” Challenger waited.

“Give it up,” he demanded. He pointed a gun.

Skip stepped in front of Kasie, as though shielding her, threw the jab he’d practiced in the mirror. His knuckle grazed the biker’s ear lobe. Before he pivoted to throw his second blow at the man’s head, a jet of liquid streamed over his shoulder and struck the biker’s bandanna-wrapped face. Skip’s eyes took some of the pepper spray.

Kasie aimed another stream at the big man, but he dodged it. Skip wheeled about, intending to stop Kasie but took a direct shot at what was meant for the attacker. Skip reeled away, screaming, blind, stumbling off the curb, his eyes stinging like fire. 

Skip saw everything through a blur after that. He heard sounds—grunts, a roar, a curse. Nothing intelligible as human communication. Then a crunching sound like a melon dropped to the sidewalk. Echoes, voices. He retched, leaning over the curb to vomit his expensive dinner into the street.

People rushed over. A female voice yelled for an ambulance. Cell phones, calls to nine-one-one. Hands grabbing at him, pulling him to his feet.  

“Oh God, look,” a different voice close to him said. 

Someone else: “Flush his eyes with water.”

“Help her!” 

Words floated around in his brain. He couldn’t see yet and opening his eyes around the puffed skin hurt too much, but he had to kickstart his brain to get out of this clusterfuck. 

Sirens, ambulance. More commotion. He was aware of people surrounding him, pointing, talking about what had happened. He was terrified they might somehow know. 

He rode in the ambulance with her, holding her hand. Her head was swathed in a turban-like bandage. An EMT said she must have gone unconscious when her head slammed to the pavement. The EMTs talked in code to the dispatcher; he didn’t understand much of their jargon beside “massive head wound.”

Kasie never regained consciousness. 

He described their attacker to the two detectives as a Caucasian male in his late teens or early twenties with a slender build, acne-scarred face, and dirty blonde hair. He veered toward a description of a college kid in their IT department so that he wouldn’t forget what he’d said when asked later, as skip knew they most surely would. 

“You said he was wearing a mask.” That was the third time that question had been asked. And answered. “Like a Zorro mask?”

“No,” Skip repeated. “A Covid mask, you know, blue.”

“The gun,” the first detective said. “You said it was pointing at you. How come you didn’t see the tip was streaked? You can see pink where the Magic Marker didn’t cover. You’re a smart guy, but you don’t know metal from plastic?”

“It was dark,” Skip pleaded, trying to keep the quaver out of his voice. “The guy was on us too fast.”

They’d taken his prints to eliminate him from any at the alley where his attacker had lurked, “waiting for victims,” the cop said.

“You said you grabbed the gun,” the cop persisted. “You must have felt it was a toy gun, then.”

An accusation, not a question this time.

“I didn’t notice in that split-second, Detective.”

“You’re a brave guy,” the second cop interjected. That wasn’t a compliment but a snide comment, Skip knew. “Not many people being robbed at gunpoint do that.”

“I reacted without thinking.”


Their eyes were as cold as the temperature in that tiny interrogation room. They didn’t smile. No more sympathy for a victim as at the hospital where they first questioned him. It went on until the aggressive tone in their questions told him what they really thought. 

When Skip stood up and announced he was cooperating, the smaller detective said, “She’s braindead, Skipper. Her family is debating whether to pull the plug right now.”

* * *

Two days after Kasie’s funeral, more hard knocks on his door. 

He cracked it, the chain lock dangling. One thrust from the biker’s shoulder, and it blew off, screws flying everywhere and the hasp clattering to the floor tiles behind him.

She followed Hugo into the room. She wore a shiny metallic coat. He thought of a colorful banded snake.

“Hey, Skippy,” she said. “We thought we’d stop by, check how you’re dealing with grief over your dead girlfriend.”

She snickered. Her thug’s bulk dwarfed her.

“Cops know it was a phony fight,” Skip said.  

“Tough titty,” she cooed and cupped his chin as she went up to the kitchen to check out what he was having for a meal.

Skip called her a filthy name. Hugo’s punch snapped his head sideways; his legs went out from under him like a marionette with strings cut. When he came to, the big man’s boot was crushing his jaw into the floor.

“Jeez Louise, let him talk, babe.”

“We ain’t got all day,” he said. He withdrew pressure to let Skip’s face recompose. Skip drew in a lungful of air.

“Spit it out, shithead,” Hugo said. “You gonna pay up or do I have to persuade you some more?”

“C-cops . . .” Skip gurgled. “Know!

“You said that already,” she said, popping her gum. “What else is new?”

“Your problem, not ours,” Hugo added. 

A piece of paper fluttered to the floor in front of Skip’s face.

“The bank’s routing number is right beside the figure you’re going to put in that account on the first of every month,” she said. “Or the cops will know, shithead. Got it?”

Skip sat up, looked at the figure on the paper. He would be paying extortion until the day he died, he knew. 

“Aw, don’t cry,” she said. “You can afford it. We checked you out on Facebook. All these vacay photos from the Caribbean and Greece, was it?”

* * *

Sirens warbled through the parking lot. People stood around watching or staring behind their windows. Paramedics hoisted the gurney up the steps to Skip’s landing. 

A half-hour later, Hugo’s woman, cocooned in a black body bag, was carried out. The zipper stopped short of closing up her face. Her cheeks were cherry pink.

“Zip her, damn it,” the sergeant growled to the EMTs. 

Ten minutes later, the second gurney exited with a bigger body bag. 

His calculations were perfect—but then he was a mechanical engineer. A little midnight adjusting with wire snips, a ratchet, and a Phillips screwdriver on the HVAC unit’s gang box attached to the side of the building. 

Skip’s neighbors pestered cops. They wanted to know if their apartments were in danger of carbon monoxide poisoning, too.

“These apartments have detectors,” a resident told a cop. “How did this happen?”

“They do,” the cop said. “But you’re supposed to change the batteries.”

Even if they found the leak in the flue pipe leading to her apartment, they’d never match the tool marks to anything he possessed. Everything went into a dumpster miles away.

Skip wondered if they’d be interred in some desolate potter’s field in the boonies. He might want to piss on their graves someday. . .

While he savored that moment of whimsy, he turned his thoughts to the blonde in Accounting. He’d arranged a date with her. Her cleavage around the office turned heads. He couldn’t wait to see what she’d wear to go clubbing with him that night.

“Mister Bayliss,” the detective said. “You’re home.”

“Detective, I told you before. Talk to my lawyer.” 

His doorbell chimed. 

The two detectives stood there with a uniformed officer. Skip scowled at them.

“It’s not about Kasie,” the detective replied. “We need to know why your fingerprints are on two dead batteries in that CO detector across the hall.”



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