The alleyway was cloaked in shadows, a grim canvas for the unfolding drama. Two men stood facing each other, the tension palpable.
“I said keep ‘em up!” The voice shattered the silence, its tremor betraying the ski-masked man’s anxiety. Cipher’s expression remained stoic; he had seen fear in countless faces, and this was just another chapter.
Cipher’s calm voice cut through the stale air. “You sure you want to do this?” His unwavering gaze locked onto the robber’s frantic eyes.
The ski-masked man’s head bobbed vigorously as he waved his twin pistols. “I’m sure.”
Cipher nodded slowly, a hint of understanding in his eyes. “Alright, when a man makes a decision, he’s gotta stand by it. You probably feel like you’re backed into a corner, and I can appreciate that.”
“You don’t get shit,” the masked man retorted, desperation clinging to his every word.
Cipher leaned in, his voice carrying a tone of genuine curiosity. “Then help me understand. Tell me what’s driving you to this.”
“She’s going to die.”
Cipher’s brow furrowed, and he spoke with a touch of empathy. “There’s always another way, my friend.”
“You don’t know me,” the robber snapped, his agitation mounting. “Just shut up and empty your pockets.”
Cipher complied, withdrawing wads of cash from both pockets, his movements deliberate. “Fear can push a man to do desperate things. But don’t let it consume you. I—”
“Shut the fuck up!” The masked man’s voice cracked, and he gestured with his guns. “Empty your pockets, and take off those chains, rings, and that watch too.”
Cipher raised an eyebrow, his demeanor unwavering. “You do know who I am, right?” The masked man remained silent, taking a step closer to Cipher. “Of course, you do. Listen, it’s just the two of us out here. I’ll let this one slide, consider it a parting gift, and wish you the best with whatever troubles you’re facing. But the ring stays.”
“I’m not telling you again,” the robber hissed, his frustration boiling over. “I’m taking whatever the fuck I—”
Three deafening shots shattered the night, the echoes resonating like thunder. The ski-masked man crumpled forward, bullets tearing through his back. Cipher approached the fallen figure with deliberate steps, lowering himself to eye level.
“You should’ve taken the money and walked away,” Cipher murmured. Carefully, he retrieved the pistols from the lifeless hands and set them aside.
The wounded man lay there, gasping for breath, his words caught in his throat. Cipher pulled off the ski mask, revealing a face etched with pain. Czar’a, Cipher’s second-in-command, stepped closer, her gun still trained on the two men.
“What are you doing, boss?” Her voice was tinged with curiosity as she surveyed the scene.
Cipher paid little attention to Czar’a’s inquiry, instead, he posed his own question, his thoughts focused on the fallen man. “You know him?”
Czar’a squinted as she studied the unmasked face. “Isaac, off of 79th.”
“He’s not involved, is he?”
“Nah, he’s just a janitor over at Hyde Park.”
“The high school?”
“Yeah,” Czar’a confirmed.
Cipher stood, methodically returning his money to his pockets and adorning himself with his jewelry. “Find out what pushed him to this.”
“Boss,” Czar’a began with a hint of irritation.
“Just do it, alright?” Cipher’s voice carried a rare note of compassion. He wasn’t one to easily forgive, but this situation seemed different.
Czar’a shook her head disapprovingly. “Already know. His sister has about three days left before she’s discharged from the hospital. She needs surgery, or she won’t make it.”
“Any other family?”
“Just his mother.”
Cipher nodded, his resolve firm. “Get me the sister’s information and make sure it’s taken care of.”
Czar’a couldn’t hide her disbelief. “Are you serious? After what he tried to do? He could’ve killed you!”
“But he didn’t,” Cipher stated calmly. “No need for that woman to bury both her children in the same week. Handle it.” With that, he strolled in the opposite direction toward his waiting car.
Czar’a watched him go, her gun still in hand. She called out after him, frustration evident. “I’m sending one of the guys to watch your back from now on. No more of this lone wolf nonsense.”
Cipher chuckled without looking back. “You worry too much, Czar’a.”
As Cipher navigated the labyrinthine streets of Chicago, his mind wrestled with the truth that Czar’a had laid bare. He wasn’t the biggest boss in the city, but his realm was well-defined, carved out with blood and sweat, and solidified through ruthless determination. Yet, at moments like this, he yearned for a taste of simplicity, to slip away from the relentless burden of leadership, even if just for a single night.
The traffic light ahead turned red, casting an eerie crimson glow over his thoughts. His phone’s incessant ringing jolted him from his contemplation. Cipher glanced down and saw his brother’s name flashing on the screen. He pressed the answer button.
“What’s up?” Cipher’s voice held a mix of curiosity and concern.
“I need you, man. I’ve been hit,” his brother’s voice crackled with pain.
Cipher’s grip tightened on the steering wheel, his heart racing. “You’ve been what? What’s going on, where are you?”
“47th St Pedestrian Bridge.”
“Hold on, G. I’m on my way…hello.” There was no reply from the other end. Cipher’s determination hardened. “Stay with me, bro. I’m right here, and I’m not going anywhere until I get to you.”
With unwavering resolve, Cipher kept his promise. He maintained the connection, talking calmly, offering comfort through the chaos of the city streets. Every red light became an irrelevant obstacle as he raced against time.
When he reached the 47th St Pedestrian Bridge, Cipher ended the call and swiftly got his unconscious brother into the truck. The silence from his brother was unsettling, but the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest assured Cipher that life still flowed within him. With tires screeching and urgency in his veins, Cipher sped toward Bernard Mitchell Hospital in Hyde Park.
On the way, he dialed Czar’a, his voice filled with urgency as she picked up on the first ring.
“Where are you?!” Cipher’s words were laced with desperation.
“I’m still taking care of that thing. What’s wrong?” Czar’a inquired, her voice a mix of curiosity and concern.
“It’s Parnell. It’s bad. Meet me at the hospital.”
“I’ll be there, boss,” she responded, her voice unwavering as she prepared to navigate the shifting tides of the criminal world to join Cipher in his time of need.
Cipher stood vigil at his brother’s bedside, an unspoken understanding passing between them. Although they shared the same age, Cipher had always carried himself as the elder, the protector. He remained in a trance-like state, his attention solely focused on his ailing sibling. As the door behind him creaked open, and the sounds of two individuals entering reached his ears, he didn’t turn to acknowledge them.
Czar’a, his second-in-command, broke the silence. “It’s been taken care of, boss,” she whispered softly as she took her place by his side.
Cipher’s gaze finally shifted to meet Czar’a’s. “The only people who need to know about this are in this room,” he declared. Czar’a nodded in agreement, then turned her piercing gaze toward Harrison, Cipher’s loyal and dependable lieutenant. Though only 19, Harrison possessed unwavering loyalty.
Harrison couldn’t hide his concern. “You sure you don’t want to put a couple of guys on the door, boss? I mean, I’ll personally handle it if necessary.”
Cipher placed a reassuring hand on Harrison’s shoulder. “I appreciate your dedication, but no one knows he’s here. There’s no need to attract unwanted attention. Besides, everyone will believe I’m him.”
Harrison questioned further, “And why are you doing this again?”
“My brother is the police chief. No one will dare harm a police chief, except maybe...” Cipher paused, and Czar’a finished his thought.
“Exactly,” Cipher affirmed.
Czar’a’s voice carried genuine concern as she asked, “How long do you think you can maintain this charade?”
“As long as it takes.” Cipher’s gaze returned to his brother, who drifted in and out of consciousness, his senses dulled by morphine. Cipher had pulled every string to ensure his brother’s identity remained concealed after the emergency surgery. He continued, “I have to go all in. That means Czar’a is #1. You’ll be her #2. Whatever she says, it’s as if it came from my own lips. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” Harrison replied, his eyes locking onto Czar’a.
Cipher continued with his instructions. “If anyone asks, tell them I’ve gone to check on my West Coast investments, and you have no idea when I’ll return.”
Both nodded in unison. Czar’a’s soft touch rested on Parnell’s foot as she asked, “What’s next, boss?”
“We find a Judas.” Cipher’s voice held a steely determination as he contemplated the betrayal that had brought them to this precarious moment.
Am I My Brother’s Keeper?
The red sedan rolled to a silent stop in front of the house, its manicured lawn a stark contrast to the clandestine mission at hand. Cipher emerged from the backseat, his every step laden with apprehension. He closed the car door with deliberate care and watched it pull away. Alone now, he advanced toward the front door, his heart pounding like a drum in his chest.
As the door swung open, Cipher’s brother’s wife stood on the threshold, her eyes locked onto him with an intensity that sent shivers down his spine. Nervousness surged through him, a feeling he couldn’t entirely conceal. While he was confident in his ability to deceive his brother’s colleagues, facing his own family was a different beast entirely. He couldn’t risk telling her the truth; the success of this masquerade depended on her remaining in the dark.
Cipher approached the door slowly, words unspoken between them. His sister-in-law’s gaze bore into him, her eyes as frigid as ice, casting doubt upon his ability to maintain this charade.
“Are you trying to go back to the hospital and send me there too?” She voiced her concern, her tone a mixture of frustration and worry.
Cipher offered no immediate response, opting instead for a sheepish smile. Her continued tirade pushed through the awkward silence.
“Stubborn tail couldn’t keep your behind in the hospital. Where have you been? I’ve been worried sick.”
Still, Cipher remained silent, standing there as she reached up, both hands cupping his face, drawing him into a passionate kiss. Her lips pressed against his, the embrace conveying both love and longing. As they broke apart, she wrapped her arms around his waist, and the two of them entered the house, closing the door behind them, sealing their secrets within its walls.