Better Choices
Chapter 5 - Digging

Shane Ellis just wanted to get ahead for once. And if that meant breaking the law for a cool ten g's, so be it. What he didn't expect was a job offer...

Shane Ellis.jpg

Digging

 

The police hadn’t asked too many questions. And Jack hadn’t offered any more details. They hauled off the man, a Dave Eggers, according to the I.D. in his wallet, in handcuffs. His nose was broken judging from the amount of blood on his shirt and Jack’s marble floor, and his eyes were unfocused. 

His partner hadn't held back. The second he had seen the gun in Eggers hand, he had attacked.

Jack had left the gun where it was. It had skittered across the floor as the two men fought. The second man, his partner in crime, had fought with precision and skill, obviously trained in martial arts.

He’s familiar with Bokator if I don’t miss my guess.

“Mr. Benton, do you need for us to call the paramedics to look at that head wound?” the police officer asked him as he closed his notebook and dug for a business card. 

Jack reached up and wiped the blood that had gathered there. The wound was seeping and clotting. He was fine.

“I’m fine. I’ll have my physician look at it later.”

The officer raised an eyebrow. “After midnight?”

Jack smiled and shrugged, “He’s on call.”

“Must be nice,” the officer muttered as he nodded to his partner. His partner had just finished placing the revolver from the floor in an evidence bag.

“Well, Mr. Benton, we will be in touch.”

“Thank you, Officer.”

As soon as the door closed, Jack turned on his heel and headed for his office. It was time to find out just who the second man was, and why he had turned on his partner. 

After all, I owe my life to him.

Six hours later, his phone chimed, notifying him that the front gate was open. The sound jolted him from a light doze and he had forgotten about the wound on his forehead until Azule walked in the front door and gave a bloodcurdling shriek. 

Jack winced, his head still hurt. He put up a hand as she dug into her enormous purse for a phone in a panic. 

“I’m fine, really Az, it looks worse than it feels.”

Azule paused, glared at him, “You been to the doc yet?”

“No, but…”

“No, but nothing. We going, right now.” She glanced again at his wound. “I’m gonna drive your car, though, Jack, I don’t want you getting blood all over mine.”

Jack held both his hands up. “Seriously, Az, I’m fine. A little headache, but nothing bad. I don’t need to see a doctor.”

“The hell you don’t!” The woman puffed up her chest, “You are the best boss I ever had and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna have to go and find some other boss after you die from a bleedin’ brain. I got my aunt to care for, too. That’s two people’s on your conscience when you go into the great beyond!”

Jack stifled a laugh. Trust Azule to find a way to make me getting hurt somehow about her.

“The doc will be here in an hour or two, less if you do the honors. That’s a quicker option than us driving there and waiting in the waiting room around sick people. Besides, I doubt we would survive you driving one of my sports cars.”

Azule was bloody dangerous on the road. Barely a week went by when she didn’t have another dent in her car, thanks to taking a corner too tight. The large black woman had come in last week hyperventilating after she had hit three squirrels over seven miles and dented her fender on a tree, avoiding a fourth fluffy-tailed victim. 

The woman harrumphed and, her mouth set in a firm line, marched to her office in the south wing, to make the call. A moment later, she reappeared. “He’ll be here in twenty minutes,” she said. “I told him there had been significant blood loss.” She turned to go back to her office, stopped, and turned back around. “Weren’t you supposed to be in D.C.? What are you doing here?”

“I got to the airport, learned the meeting had been canceled by the committee chairman due to illness, and returned home.”

“Uh huh, and how did you get that injury?”

“That was from the two men, well one of the men, who broke in here last night.” He said it matter-of-factly, wincing again as Azule shrieked in response.

“What?!”

“Everything is fine, Az, I promise.”

“Everything is not fine when bloodthirsty burglars are breaking in and trying to kill you!” Her eyes were bulging out of her head in alarm. 

“Technically, I don’t think they planned on killing me. I took them by surprise. They definitely did not expect me to be here.”

“Well?”

“Well, what?” Jack asked, a hint of playful innocence in his voice, a smile creeping up at the edges.

She swatted at him. “Jack Benton, you tell me right now what happened last night. Or I swear I’m gonna go get my mama to come give you what for!”

He grinned at her, “I happen to like your mother, Az, she’s a fine woman.”

Azule harrumphed again. Injury or not, Jack knew if he didn’t tell her the whole story and stop teasing her, she would be in a snit for hours.

“Sit down, Az, you look like you are courting a coronary.” When the woman didn’t move, Jack went ahead and sat down in one of the hall chairs. He sighed, rubbed his eyes. It wasn’t as easy to stay up all night as it had been in his 20s and early 30s. “Two men broke in at around 10:30 last night. I’m guessing they expected me to be out of town. And obviously, I was still here. One of them was armed, he pulled a gun and the other guy disarmed him, kicked the shit out of him, knocked him out, and then took off.”

Azule sat down muttering under her breath in a matching chair. “Fool white man, no security service. Lucky didn’t get iced, and then where would I be? Out of luck, I’ll tell you, all ‘cause some rich folk got no common sense.” The moss-green velvet armchair that creaked slightly under her bulk. 

He smiled at her. “Azule, I’m fine. And if it helps you to know, I’ve already made arrangements for you in my will.”

The woman glared at him, “As if money was the only thing that kept me coming back here.” She shook her head, “Coulda been killed.”

He shook his head, then winced. Moving it hurt, and if he were to admit it, he was glad she had called the doctor, it was turning into one hell of a headache. 

“I need you to do some digging, Az, and find out who the second man was.”

Her eyes lit up. “You gonna go and find the little shit, Boss? Make him pay?” Azule was crazy for Clint Eastwood movies, an avid fan who hadn’t missed a single theater release. 

“Something like that. Will you see what you can find out?” Giving Azule a pet project would keep her occupied, which meant less fussing over him.

In truth, Azule was often bored by the simpler tasks Jack gave her. She enjoyed the challenge of research, and she grinned at his request, “I’ll see what I can find out.”

The gate alarm sounded and Jack pressed the button to let the doctor in. A few minutes later, the concierge physician that Jack kept on retainer was examining his head wound and checking his pupils. 

“You have a slight concussion.” 

“I knew it!” Azule crowed, triumphant.

Jack sighed and sat still as he cleaned and disinfected the small wound on his forehead. “Take it easy for a couple of days and let me know if your headache lasts longer than a day. Other than that, plenty of fluids, rest, and feel free to call if you have any questions or concerns.”

Azule continued to hover after the doctor left, following Jack as walked from the entry towards the grand staircase, which led to the bedroom suites upstairs. “You know, Az, there is also the question of how the men knew I was going to be gone.” He looked behind him and her steps had slowed. “While you are running down those two guys, will you also see if you can figure out how they might have known?” 

He looked again and Azule had stopped midway up the stairs, her face perturbed. Azule wasn’t the type to hide her emotions, and he could see them clearly on her face as she visibly paged through her interactions over the past few days and possibly weeks. He was careful about that sort of thing, and he hadn’t been at any recent social engagements, so no one should have known. Someone, though, somewhere, had said enough to the right, well, wrong person and his itinerary had been leaked. Setting Azule to work on that problem, especially since it pertained to someone she had potentially spoken to, was like setting a bloodhound to work.

Az is loyal, rabidly so, and she’ll find the leak, guaranteed.

He finished climbing the stairs and watched her disappear out the side door heading for her office. 

Excellent. I’ll take two Tylenol, have a short nap, and I’ll bet there will be answers when I wake up.

By the time he woke up two hours later, the afternoon sun was pouring through the window. The warmth of it was like a drug, and he came awake slowly, fighting to wake up. The headache had eased, but every limb felt limp. The warmth of the sun had turned his arms to the consistency of noodles. Far from his sun-drenched room, he could hear Azule’s voice. She didn’t sound happy, not at all. Jack rolled out of bed, his left knee creaking, popping. 

Damned knee, I’m too young for this.

It popped again with the first step he took, thankfully that seemed to straighten it out and the aching pain disappeared, at least for the time being. He had gone skiing in Vail last year, and each evening when he returned from the slopes it would have swollen so much he had difficulty removing his snow gear. 

Charming Latia had helped with the injured knee, and other things.

He smiled at the memory as he headed downstairs, Azule’s voice rising in anger the closer he came to her office. He walked past it, and on into the kitchen. He hadn’t eaten since last night and his stomach was registering its protests. 

At least my headache is gone.

He rummaged through the fridge and found leftover dolma, along with some pita bread, hummus and baba ghanoush. He set them on the counter and reached for a plate. Azule’s voice raised, then quieted, and he waited for her to finish the call and seek him out. He reached into the pantry to open a container of Castelvetrano olives, their skins an almost neon green. He added a small handful to the plate. A distant stomping that grew closer with each authoritative step encouraged him to reach for another plate, adding a large helping of baba ghanoush to it, and a small stack of pita bread. He pushed the plate towards her and smiled. 

She was angry, her brown eyes snapping, her breathing coming sharp and fast. She glared at him for a moment before realizing he wasn’t the one she was angry at. She shook her head, grabbed a pita bread piece and dragged it through the baba ghanouj before shoving it in her mouth. Jack watched as she repeated it, clearing the plate of the food in hurried bites. 

“Would you like some more?” He asked when the plate was clear.

“No,” she snapped in return and reached for the leftovers, attacking the containers as if they had wronged her in some inexplicable way. She devoured another mountain of pita bread and baba ghanouj, then turned to the olives. Jack suppressed a smile. He wondered if she realized that she used food to mediate her moods.

Jack waited. Azule would tell him what she had learned in her own time. As it was, he knew better than to step between her and food when her eyes were pinwheeling with anger. He almost felt sorry for whoever had screwed up and pissed her off so badly. After the second plate was scraped clean, the woman heaved a large sigh and stared at him critically, assessing him.

“How is your headache?” 

He smiled, “Almost gone. The nap helped.”

She nodded, idly running her finger along the edge of the plate, picking up the last little dabs of baba ghanouj. “It was Marley.”

“Your cousin?”

“Yes.” She met his eyes, still angry, a flush of red blooming on her brown cheeks, “He was over visiting his mama two weeks ago. I asked him if he could help out this weekend because I was planning on a little mini-vacation while you were away and someone needs to watch Auntie Lorna. He knew your schedule because I, like a fool, mentioned it to Auntie and he overheard. The guy who approached him, he said he was skinny, tattoos and greasy hair, and higher than a kite at the time. But he sold you out, hell, he sold me out, for a lousy two hundred bucks.” 

 

She had described the guy who had been holding the gun, the one who had been arrested by the police. The other guy, who Jack had watched run off into the night after knocking his partner out, looked nothing like that. 

So, who was the second guy? He had handled himself well, fighting efficiently. Just a few well-placed kicks and a punch to the nose had laid his partner out on the floor.

Jack had lied to the cops, letting them assume he was the one who had disabled the burglar, and never mentioning the second man at all.

 

There had been that moment when the younger man had looked at him, his eyes wary. “I’m sorry. This was a mistake.” Then he had turned and ran out the door, leaving the heavy front door standing open, rain and wind misting the entry, as the car the two men had come in disappeared into the gloom, squealing tires, taillights disappearing as the car angled to the left and out of sight on the long drive. 

Azule misinterpreted his silence as some sort of condemnation. “I should have known better, Jack. I should have never said anything in front of Marley.”

Jack was jostled out of his thoughts. “What? Don’t worry about it, Az, no harm done.”

She gaped at him. “No harm done? Jack, I…”

He smiled at her. “Examine the security footage and see what you can do as far as identifying the second man, the one who took off. I’d like to know exactly who he is.” He turned away, then spun on his heel. “And Az? Keep it under wraps. I didn’t tell the police about him.”

He walked out of the kitchen as she sputtered in shock and called after him, “Oh no, boss, you are not adopting another stray!”

“Just find him, Az.” He called over his shoulder.