I could spot one from across the room. Forget that. I could spot one from thousands of miles away with nothing more than a picture or post on social media. That ability had kept me alive from a very young age. Life was a great teacher, and I'd learned my lessons well.
With time and tenacity, I had overcome what many couldn't or didn't. Between the GI bill and some help from a friend, I had more than life's lessons. I also had an education. The degrees in business and finance supplemented the accumulation of my experiences. Together it allowed me to excel at many things. My interests and abilities were vast; however, it was watching, analyzing, and understanding people that I kept honed. That simple tool of observation kept me at the top of my game.
In my life, my world, the consequence of losing was death.
Currently, my sights were set on an exquisitely beautiful woman. There were countless reasons why she'd garner my attention or that of any red-blooded male. Of course, those reasons were in my mind. Yet my attraction was focused on more than her appearance.
Even from this distance I knew she wasn't exactly what she appeared to be.
While the alarm bells were ringing, I couldn't look away.
Working as I did with my associates and those who worked under me wouldn't be possible if I wasn't able to read expressions and anticipate reactions. If a person was being genuine, each reaction varied by some degree. It didn't matter if the person was male or female, rich or poor, educated or not, or even intelligent or not.
No, education didn't equate to intelligence. The streets were full of people with intelligence---street smarts---who may not have seen a classroom since a very young age.
Appearance meant little. Beauty was most often simply a veneer. Some of the darkest, coldest hearts I'd encountered were covered by the prettiest of packages.
I supposed I could qualify in that regard.
While I'd been a skinny, starving kid, that was in my past.
Though taking me on a tortuous long road, fate had ultimately been kind.
A desperate decision landed me in the right place with the right group of guys. Those guys were now men, and together, we ruled this city. Some referred to what we did as the underground or organized crime. In some respects, they were right.
We were incredibly organized.
And we dealt in many activities that some would consider crimes.
One could either ignore the existence of this world or flourish within its realm. For better or worse, I was a piece of Chicago's puzzle, part of the Sparrow outfit.
Sterling Sparrow's name was on the buildings, respected in high society, and whispered in the dark alleyways. Nevertheless, the saying was true: no man is an island. Success at the level of the Sparrow outfit wasn't accomplished alone. It took a trusted team.
It took men capable of looking death in the face, washing blood off our hands, and coming back for more, all while appearing refined. Maintaining our wolf-in-sheep's-clothing appearance was part of our success.
There were other names besides Sterling Sparrow that evoked the appropriate respect, names that had been with Sparrow since the fateful night he acquired what had been his father's and more recently, to the afternoon when the city became united under one name.
One of those names that garnered respect was mine.
The skinny kid I'd once been grew into a man capable of more than he ever imagined.
Over the years, I'd moved on from my less-than-humble beginnings. I tended to my body and mind, growing both, refining both, until they were perfected.
I'd learned that to be truly intimidating it took more than an outward appearance. I had that, being called scary more than once. What was more frightening was a person with a clean shave and trimmed hair in an expensive designer suit and Italian loafers who was capable of the unthinkable. It was the illusion of civility that gave men like me and those I worked with and called my friends the advantage.
People ran from the boogeyman.
I was the man they ran toward.
In some cases, it's worked out well.
In others it was a deadly mistake.
The handsomer the face, the easier it was to deceive.
No longer a fighter striving to live on the streets, today I was part of the elite, the royalty of Chicago. If Sparrow were a true monarch, I supposed Reid, Mason, and I would be considered dukes or lords, those men appointed at the king's whim to stand beside and behind him, to risk body and soul for his success, because in doing so, we also ensured our own.
The three of us had repeatedly proven ourselves worthy of our accession. Today the boy who once slept in gutters and beneath underpasses lived in a glass castle high in Chicago's skyline. Today along with a chosen few, I ruled the same streets where I once scrounged for food and shelter.
While Chicago was our kingdom, the reach of the Sparrow name stretched beyond the city limits. Our armies marched throughout the country and beyond. Sparrow wasn't alone in his level of success. Other cities and other families held power. Nevertheless, each day we worked to expand the Sparrow umbrella, to make nice when possible and topple if necessary.
One was either the arrow or the target.
The Sparrow outfit was the arrow.
My gaze zeroed in again upon the extraordinary beauty across the room---my target---for tonight's discovery. A ghost from the past, she brought my worlds colliding. My past and present were now both here.
Seeing her brought life where there had been death. Like a stray spark landing upon the dry underbrush of a forest, being in her presence lit my body on fire. My visceral reaction to her caught me unaware. My heart rate increased and my senses went on high alert.
It wasn't simply her beauty.
Daily, I was in the presence of beautiful, intelligent, and strong women. I respected their fortitude as much as the men's. Those women didn't cause my heart to race or breath to catch. The small hairs on my neck didn't stand to attention nor did my dick wake from its long hibernation.
As I took in her presence, I found myself both enthralled and somewhat dumbfounded that I was capable of such a visceral reaction. It wasn't as if I'd lived the life of a monk. I hadn't. Nonetheless, this was different. She was different.
I wasn't near enough to smell her perfume or feel her soft breath upon my skin. Yet from the way my body was reacting, I could be.
I had been.
That was before.
Time was a merciless bitch, stopping for no man or woman.
I never thought I'd see her again---that it was even possible---and yet with everything within me, I knew it was her when I first saw her. After all these years, she was back in my city as if she'd never left.
With her death never verified, over time, I had looked for her periodically. Each fruitless search was more confirmation of her demise.
That was until now, until tonight.
I entered this conference hall with the intention of overseeing the poker tournament at hand. It was a million-dollar tournament. That kind of money didn't change hands without Sparrow knowledge. Fate had brought me to Club Regal tonight, to this room.
The tournament's purse was big, and the bets being placed even now were impressive. Millions of dollars had come to our city, and I was here as a reminder that taxes were due. It wasn't that the players per se would hand me cash. The tournament itself would pass on a percentage to Sparrow. It was how it worked.
Imagine my surprise upon seeing her again after all this time.
With my errand at hand momentarily forgotten, I was staggered as years of memories flooded my mind along with a myriad of emotions.
Madeline was alive.
She'd never died.
As the disbelief faded, I had one conflicting thought.
Though I would always love her, now I hated her.
Parts of my mind had forgotten the woman I knew, put her aside. That was then. In the split second of seeing her, my body was reminded of all she'd been, that we'd been. Not many of us made it off the streets. Some died trying. Others died not trying---giving up or giving in.
Few went on to live in the lap of luxury.
While I wasn't certain of her living arrangements, by the appearance of our current surroundings and the stack of $1000 poker chips before her, she did not fear for her next meal. No one could place the monetary bets I'd watched her place---win or lose---without some financial stability. The high-stakes games that occurred on this floor of this private club couldn't be financed with good looks or credit.
After all these years, Madeline had returned, not as the pauper I'd known but as a member of the elite in her own right.
As I continued to take her in from afar, I couldn't help but marvel at her outward calm. She was a true showman when it came to this arena. In the last hour, I'd watched as she'd won thousands of dollars, make that tens of thousands, and lost equally as large pots. Her dark green eyes, the same ones that haunted my dreams over the years, remained steadfast.
However, Madeline had her tells.
I doubted the other players saw them.
The others were too busy calculating their own strategies of success, or perhaps, mesmerized by her beautiful packaging. It could be the way her raven black hair cascaded over her slender shoulders or her sensual neck straightened.
My mind tried to process the teenager I had known, comparing her to the woman now before me. Yes, Madeline was no longer eighteen. If my simple math was correct, she was thirty-five---the same age as me---and even more beautiful than I remembered.
A notable difference now was the amount of makeup she wore. It was too much for my liking. Seeing that didn't cause me to turn away. On the contrary, it flamed a desire deep within me to strip her of each layer until I was privy to the true beauty beneath.
Taking a sip of the bourbon remaining within my tumbler, I allowed my mind to fantasize about removing more than her makeup. First would be her silver strapless dress with a neckline that plunged between her round breasts. Each time she contemplated her next move, those same breasts pushed against the fabric as her breathing deepened.
Yes, I'd noticed.
While the pressure against the round globes was sexy as hell, it was also too regulated, too predictable. Even the way she tugged at her brightly painted red lip was practiced and perfected.
A hint of a smile came to my lips.
Yes, Madeline, I see the real you.
Once a con, always a con.
It seemed that now instead of taking advantage of tourists' naïveté by picking pockets or stealing apples on the crowded streets of Chicago, Madeline had moved on to stealing people's money in plain sight. A twinge of pride came over me as I observed her progress. There was no doubt that her current targets had more to lose.
Who was I to judge?
My pulse quickened as Madeline folded her cards, smiling at the dealer and the other players. The man behind her helped her with her chair as she stood. I knew from his uniform that he wasn't with her. He worked for the club. His job was to oversee her chips until she returned. She whispered something to him, handing him one of her poker chips---a $1000 tip.
He responded with a nod.
There was showmanship in each move by these high rollers.
Downing the rest of the bourbon, I handed the crystal tumbler to an attentive waitress.
"Mr. Kelly, may I get you another?"
I barely noticed the girl before me. My sights were set on only one woman as my pulse beat in triple time with anticipation.
It had been too long.
I turned toward the purple-haired young woman with the tray. "No, thank you."
My final sentiments weren't spoken aloud. They were waiting for the appropriate audience. After all this time, I'm on my way to speak to my wife.
DECEIT OR DESIRE!