The bullet whizzed by Mike Shepherd’s left ear and he threw his tall frame to the ground. He drew his Smith and Wesson in the middle of his leap to safety.

Well, relative safety, considering someone taking potshots at me.

The shot came from behind barrels stacked just inside a South Cicero warehouse. That warehouse, earmarked for destruction to make way for a high-rise, was not supposed to be used for target practice. Mike rolled for cover behind the rusting, black ‘95 Olds 98 he had been tailing for half an hour, which now blocked the alley next to the warehouse.

Mike Shepherd, sweating profusely in the sultry August evening, looked down at the knee that took the brunt of his dive into the gutter. “Hell!” He cursed the jagged hole in the pants of his only suit and the smudge of blood around the edge of the tear.

The Olds belonged to Ferlin Lewis, a nasty lowlife who had spent more time behind bars than in them in the past twenty years. Assault, grand theft, bank robbery, larceny and the current record in the Chicago Motor Vehicles files for delinquent parking violations populated his rap sheet. Ferlin had crammed a nearly unbelievable 422 traffic citations in the glove box of that Olds.

For five minutes Mike huddled behind the car waiting for some sign of movement or noise. The silence in this part of Cicero was eerie considering it usually bustled with gang bangers, prostitutes, drug dealers, or all of the above. Perspiration dripped onto the dial of his Desert Storm military watch. He raised himself to a crouch and peered around the fender of the Olds. Another bullet ricocheted off the concrete inches away from his hand and fragments of the pavement peppered the right side of his face.

Shepherd, you got yourself pinned down good here.

Twenty minutes ago he should have been sitting down in a restaurant with Diana Barton. She wasn’t going to be happy waiting there all alone. On top of everything else Mike had neglected to recharge his cell phone and had no way to call Diana. By now she’d be royally pissed and had probably informed everyone in the restaurant what a bum Mike Shepherd was and made a not-so-subtle exit.

Nuts! Bad timing. Horrible timing! But he’d spotted his nemesis tooling down the Dan Ryan Expressway and couldn’t afford to pass up the two thousand dollar reward a bail bondsman offered for Ferlin’s capture.

A door slammed somewhere deep inside the warehouse. Was Ferlin trying to get away or was he just wanting Mike to give him a target? Mike brushed off his clothes and ran the back of his hand across his forehead to swab away as much perspiration as he could. He waited beside the car for the next bullet to imbed itself, hopefully somewhere other than in his body. Nothing happened.

He took a deep breath. Now or never. Up and running.

Moving quickly past the open double doors of the warehouse, he paused long enough for his eyes to acclimate to the darkness. The only noise coming from inside was the click of his leather heels echoing off the walls as he began to creep across the concrete floor. Then, just outside, a car started up and screeched away.

Mike reached the other side of the building and hit the crash bar at a dead run. The clank of the door reverberated in the vastness of the building, but no alarm announced his exit. A lone streetlight brightened a large section of the alley, empty except for a dumpster buried in overflow against one wall of the warehouse. No Olds. Mike held his gun pointed toward the ground as he checked up and down the alley. No one was around. Ferlin and the Olds had disappeared.

Mike shoved his pistol into the shoulder holster, and then he noticed the untorn knee of his suit pants sported an oil stain, so big not even one of those fast-talking television spokespersons could claim to be able to remove.

Drat! Well, there goes my two thousand bucks and the date with Diana. Ferlin, when you take a shot at me, ruin both my only suit and my night out, you’re in for it.

Anger boiled over as he settled behind the wheel of his ’92 Buick Riviera. Even the stuffy August heat was no match for his internal thermometer. He’d been looking forward to a quiet night with Diana, which they had not had for sometime, and a great steak dinner. Shepherd, well-known in Chicago as a private investigator, hated the term private investigator because it sounded so old fashioned. He called himself a researcher. His latest jobs had demanded much fast-food and little sleep while delivering paltry paydays.

In the past three months Mike hadn’t even gotten a glimpse of Ferlin until tonight. Ferlin, arrested for a daring daylight bank robbery, had escaped from jail where he was being held until his trial and disappeared, avoiding his old familiar haunts. The robbery had netted two hundred thousand dollars, and his capture would result in a two thousand dollar reward from the bank. While collecting his booty, Ferlin had looked up at the bank’s video camera and thumbed his nose. Ferlin’s reputation had never included the word ‘smart.’ But he was daring.

What am I going to say to Diana? That’s assuming she would ever listen to another explanation. The truth sounds too hokey and nothing else sounds reasonable.

Diana lately had insisted if they were ever to have a more meaningful relationship Mike would have to be in a different job. She scolded him for wasting his mind and talents on such a dangerous and stupid occupation. She often said, “I would rather you drive a truck than to be out trying to get yourself killed.” Mike always made the same mistake, replying, “I’m not trying to get killed. I happen to like what I do. Someone has to do it, and I’m good at it.” Those arguments regularly surfaced, and occasionally Mike and Diana vowed never to see each other again. But neither one of them would ever let that happen.

Stopping by Diana’s apartment seemed like a good idea, until he discovered she refused to answer her buzzer. Mike pushed the button next to the name D. Barton at least twenty times. The building was one of the newer brick structures housing condos in Naperville, and Diana’s three bedroom apartment occupied almost half of the second story. Mike always wondered if the architect only had one set of plans or if he was just in love with a single design. The neighborhood included almost 100 identical units.

Diana was one of Chicago’s top decorators and Mike was proud that her condo had been featured in the May 2003 issue of Architectural Digest. Mike hesitated to touch anything in the apartment because he didn’t want to break something expensive. Diana always tried to calm his fears, telling him she didn’t care about “things” as she called them. But he knew she did because why else would she have them? Some of those “things” were worth more than his annual earnings.

Mike jabbed the buzzer another ten times in rapid succession.

“Come on, Diana, let me in. I want to apologize. It couldn’t be helped.” He hoped Diana was listening to the intercom. “Just let me in, please.”

“I never want to see you again. This is the last straw.” The words spit out of the speaker in a sputtering crackle.

“Di, I’m really sorry. Please let me explain. I finally spotted this guy I’ve been looking for for the last three months. Please?” Groveling was good. Groveling sometimes worked.

“Why didn’t you call me? I sat in that restaurant for almost an hour.”

“Honey, my cell phone was dead, and in the chase I couldn’t stop to find a phone booth. Please. I feel terrible. I thought I finally had everything in place to have a nice quiet evening with you. I even wore my suit, which is now ruined. I got shot at, and when I hit the ground I got oil or something on my pants.”

“You were shot at? Are you hurt? You didn’t wear jeans?”

“I’m okay. He missed. And no, I didn’t wear jeans. I was taking you to dinner!” The subject of jeans was a real sore spot with Diana. Every time they went anywhere Mike wore jeans. Sometimes he wore a sport coat to dress them up, but the jeans were always present. She had gotten to the point of not commenting on them, but she would roll those big, brown eyes at him in disgust. Maybe he had found a weakness with the admission he had worn his suit. After a few seconds of silence the familiar click of the door lock confirmed that she had granted him an audience.

His knock on her door was barely audible. The dead bolt lock clanked its release, but the door remained closed. There was no way to gauge the reception he would receive.