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A Chill in the Blood

Excerpt from book 7 of The Vampire Files

 by P.N. Elrod

   

 

Chicago, February 1937

 

               Tired to the bone, I slumped in the front seat of Shoe Coldfield’s big Nash, wedged between him and my partner, Charles Escott.  The car’s heater was going full blast, but I still shivered like a malaria victim.  I’d never been this cold before in my whole life, but that’s what happens when you take a dive off a boat into Lake Michigan in early February.

               Coldfield, a large, grim-looking black man in his middle thirties, glared down at me with a combination of relief and exasperation, then shifted the glare in Escott’s direction.  “Charles, he’s half dead, I’m taking him to a hospital.”

               Escott bent forward so his pale, sharp-featured face was more or less in my field of view.  The effort made him grunt.  One of his eyes had a bad shiner, the other was swollen shut, and he held his left arm protectively close to his lean frame.  He’d been through the wars tonight himself, I dimly recalled.  “My dear fellow,”  he said, addressing Coldfield, not me,  “that really wouldn’t be a good idea for any of us, and you’re well aware of it.”

               In response, Coldfield snarled a ripe curse as he hauled at the steering wheel.  He made a smart U-turn along the beach road and got us pointed back toward Chicago.

               “Jack’s a little shell-shocked, but he only needs a warm place to thaw out and rest.”  Escott went on, peering at my no-doubt-glazed eyes.

               “No shit.  Then what?  We wait for pneumonia to set in?”

               I got annoyed at their talking over me.  “’M a’right’”  I managed to puff out through chattering teeth.  Bad idea.  It made me cough.  Escott thoughtfully shoved a handkerchief in my face before I dribbled more lake water onto the overcoat he’d loaned me.

               “Like hell you are,”  said Coldfield.  He glared briefly at me again, like all this was my fault—and he was right—then focused on the road and the rearview mirror.  I was glad I was low enough in the seat so he wouldn’t notice anything odd about the reflection.

               “Anyone following?”  asked Escott.

               “Not yet.”

               “Let’s keep it that way.  No hospitals, Shoe, as a favor to all of us.  We must assume that Kyler’s gang or Miss Paco could have informants anywhere in the city and—”

               “Yeah, yeah, well, they won’t have any in my neck of the woods.  I’m bringing in Doc Clarson to look at you both.”

               “I can manage without.”

               “Oh sure, I’ve seen how well you’ve managed with those busted ribs.”

               “They’re only just cracked a little.”

               “Charles. . .”  Rising impatience in Coldfield’s tone.  Couldn’t blame him.

               But Escott’s attention was centered on me.  “Jack?  Are you up to seeing Dr. Clarson?”

               I shook my head.  A doctor meant an examination, which meant that the first time he tried to take my pulse he’d find out I was a bit more than just half-dead.  In fact, I’m Undead, which was why I’d had such a tough time with the free-flowing water of the lake.  Right now I didn’t want to bother dealing with anything beyond getting out of my freezing-wet clothes and maybe crawling into a nice hot oven for a few hours.

               “What are you asking him for?”  Coldfield demanded.

               “I thought I’d give him a choice in the matter.”

               “Huh.  Shape he’s in he couldn’t think straight if you gave him a ruler.  Same for you.”

               “I’m also trying to keep the number of people involved in this mess to a minimum.”

               “Clarson’s family, he won’t talk.”

               “I know, but I’d rather not put him to any unnecessary risk.”

               “It’s in my territory, I’ll be the judge of what’s a risk for my people.”

               “But—”

               “Charles, just shut the hell up and let me drive.”

               Escott subsided.  As far as I could tell through my fog of nausea and disorientation, he seemed perfectly unoffended by Coldfield’s manner.  They were old friends from back in the twenties when they’d both been actors in some touring company in Canada.  A decade and then some goes by and now Escott’s calling himself a private agent—I suppose it’s got more class than “keyhole peeper”—and Coldfield’s heading one of the larger criminal gangs in Chicago’s Bronze Belt.  How they ended up in two such opposite fields and be friends I was still trying to figure out. 

               Coldfield drove fast and the car got pretty warm—for them.  I was only just starting to feel a little less like an iceberg, but my bouts of shivering gradually shortened, and the teeth-chattering business finally ceased.  I could still taste the sour metallic flavor of the lake in the back of my throat, but that would go away if I could make a quick visit to the Stockyards to feed before dawn.  Not much chance of doing that with Shoe Coldfield along; he didn’t know about me being a vampire.

               I’m not like what you saw a few years back in the Lugosi movie.  There’re some similarities between me and old Count Dracula, but I don’t turn into animals or quake at crosses or silver bullets, flop in a coffin or stuff like that.  I do drink blood to keep body and soul together—still have one of those as far as I know—and it’s usually animal blood, but that little detail can still hit people the wrong way.  Because of it I hadn’t made up my mind whether to let Coldfield in on the news yet.

               Escott knew all about it, of course, and could more easily break it to his friend, but once told me was really my decision and my job.  It would save a lot of trouble right now, but dammit, I was just too tired to open that can of worms tonight.  You can’t just tell people that you’re a vampire and have them accept it, you have to prove it to them and then give out the whole history of how you got to be that way.  In my case, I fell in love with a beautiful, but unusual woman, and we exchanged blood.  Last summer I was killed by a mobster, but much to his surprise I didn’t stay dead.  How I got back at him for my murder is another story.

               Half an hour or more passed with no one saying a thing.  I liked their silent company.  It was nice, so very, very nice to be with people who didn’t want to kill me.  That and the warm air helped me relax until I was as near as I could get to dozing.  I don’t sleep, not like I used to when I still breathed regularly; at night I’m always solidly awake for the duration.  When dawn comes, I’m so close to being dead it ain’t even remotely funny.  I’ve no control over it, and lately it’s been damned inconvenient, if not downright dangerous.  I miss a lot. 

               I opened my eyes when the car came to a halt, but it was only for a street signal.  Coldfield was in the thick of the city now and began driving sedately, easing into the start and stop of the wee-hours traffic signals with care.  Maybe he didn’t want to jar us more than necessary, but you could also figure that he didn’t want to attract cops.  Too many of them were still on the take despite attempts to clean things up since the feds whisked Capone away on that tax rap, and as Escott said, people like Miss Angela Paco could have eyes and ears anywhere in the town.  It was because of her I ended up in the lake tonight, another casualty in her gang war.

               “Where we going?”  I asked, blinking against a barrage of neon from an all-night drugstore’s sign.

               Coldfield seemed surprised I’d spoken.  “Someplace safe and warm.”

               “’M all for it.  Where’s Isham?”  He was one of Coldfield’s men and had been with them earlier.  He’d tried his best to pull me to safety when all hell broke loose at Angela’s place earlier this evening.

               Escott—bad ribs, shiner, and all—had been her unwilling guest, and I’d snuck into her house to try getting him away, but we tripped a burgler alarm on the way out.  Her thugs started shooting at us; Isham started shooting at them, and there was a lot of yellingand noise as Coldfield tore across the grounds in his armored Nash trying to get to us.  Isham and Escott managed to reach the car, and I’d almost gotten aboard, but little Angela started throwing hand grenades, which screwed everything up.  They’d quite sensibly high-tailed it out of there with me weakly waving them on.  Coldfield’s Nash was tough but not that tough.

               “I told him to get scarce after Charles made his call to arrange to get you back from Angela Paco,”  said Coldfield.

               “She was going to do a double-cross.  Try to kill him.”

               “I’d figured that much by now.  You wanta tell us what happened?”

               I shrugged, staring straight ahead at the dashboard.  “Tried to walk home from a boat ride.  It didn’t work so good.”

               “The hell you say.”

               “Would you care to expand a bit on the subject?”  Escott asked.  “We rather lost track of you when Miss Paco lobbed that last grenade.”

               And what a sight she had been with her throwing the thing as far as her tiny form could manage, then running flat out in the other direction to hit the dirt a half second before the whole night went up.  She’d been laughing the whole time.

               “Yeah, Fleming,”  said Coldfield.  “We wanted to come back for you.  Sorry.”

               “I’m not.  None of you needed to be there.  Angela’s her father’s daughter and then some when it comes to being crazy.”

               “So what happened?  How’d you get away?”

               It would be much easier if I could give him the truth of it, of how I’d nearly checked out four times over this night.  First by getting shot up by a wiseguy named Chaven, which weakened me; I can survive bullets, but can’t tolerate blood loss too damn well.  Then later, while trying to get away from Angela Paco, I caught a load of grenade shrapnel.  The stuff had gone right through me, of course, but it hurt like blazes and weakened me more.  The third time, while I was locked up and alone, one of Angela’s mugs came to work off a grudge by trying to beat my brains out.  I was only just able to stop him, and in the aftermath, I’d fed from him to stay alive.  It saved me, until the morphine in his blood kicked in and laid me out flat.  That’s when Angela, figuring me to be dead, decided to drop my body into Lake Michigan.  The only reason I was moving at all was that with my condition I’m a lot tougher than I used to be—though at the moment I was feeling pretty damned fragile.

               A real hell night for yours truly, Jack Fleming, and there was still more of it left.

               “Kyler had Frank Paco prisoner,”  I said, trying to sort what to say and what to leave out.  “Was going to use him to get full control of the old Paco gang away from Angela.  When Kyler pegged out, that lieutenant of his, Chaven, cozied up with her to get her to trade me for her father.”  And one other hostage, a walking adding machine named Opal who knew how to work the gang’s books.

               “The hell you say.  Why did Chaven want you?”

               “He needed a patsy to blame for Kyler’s death.  Probably pretty embarrassed, what with aiming at me and getting his boss instead when I ducked too fast.  After he gave back Paco, he hauled me, Kyler’s body, and what was left of a guy called Vic who was playing both sides, aboard the Elvira and was going to dump us all in the lake for fish food.  I waited until I had a chance, then jumped Chaven.  He’s dead now.  Charles, it was with your gun.”

               Escott offered me a thin, glacial smile, his face alight for a second.  “I’m delighted to hear it was put to such good use, though there might be trouble should the police trace it to me.  I suppose I’d best report the gun has been stolen.”

               “They won’t trace anything even if they do find the body.  The bullet went right through him.”

               “How fortunate.”

               He might not have thought so had he been the one pulling the trigger.

               “What’s become of it?  My Webley?”

               “Still aboard the yacht, I think.”

               He merely nodded.  “Who knows, perhaps I can recover it someday.”

               Escott’s got a dark streak in him and it’s icy like the lake.  Once in a while I run into it.  The encounters don’t always leave me in a cheerful mood, and I was feeling rotten enough already.

               “Are you really all right?”  he asked, looking at me as closely as his good eye allowed.

               What was making me sick was remembering the feel of Chaven’s death, not the sound, though that must have been loud enough when the Webley I’d turned on him went off and shot out the artery in his throat.  I remembered his hot blood bursting forth, striking me, coating me, the weightless, screaming instant as we both fell into the water and the sudden hellish silence that followed when freezing death closed over my head.

               “Jack?”

               I huffed out something that was meant to be a laugh but failed.  “I guess so,”  I said, lying.  I looked down at my clothes, but the lake must have washed them clean.  Too bad it couldn’t have done as much with my memory.  Turning someone alive into someone dead, even scum like Chaven, made for a black ache inside that no doctor could ever fix.  This nightmare would be living with me for a while yet.

               “Then what?’  asked Coldfield, wanting me back on the subject.

               “Then I jumped ship and swam for my life.”

               “You outta your mind, kid.”

               “I didn’t have a lot of choice.  There was another guy there, Deiter, he was all ready to ace me.  Between him and the lake I figured I had a better chance in the water.”  That was total falsehood.  Deiter had been too shit scared to even think of shooting, and my ending up in the drink had been a mix of accident and bad luck.  Never mind the cold, that’s the least of it; because of my supernatural condition free-flowing water and I just don’t mix.  It’s bigger than me and infinitely stronger.  If I’d not been able to vanish and float up over the surface soon after going under, it would have been fatal.  And that’s vanish, not turn into a mist.  Another handy talent of mine, but exhausting.

               “Deiter, you said?”

               “That’s what they called him.  One of Kyler’s boys.  His job was to bump off Gordy so Kyler could take over his part of the town, then cut a deal with the New York bosses.  With Gordy’s rackets in hand he could up their take by five percent and keep the rest.  Of course, that was before he got dead.  Chaven’s not here to pick up the reins, and now I don’t know what they’re going to do.”

               “Holy shit.”  He glanced at Escott, who was shaking his head.  “This town’s gonna blow wide open once word gets out.  Without Kyler to take over Paco’s territory—”

               “Hey, don’t forget Angela,”  I added.

               “What can she do?  There ain’t a wiseguy in the town who’d let himself be bossed by a woman.”

               “She’s more of a girl, but don’t underestimate her.  She’s using her father as a front man, that’s why she wanted him back so bad.”  Well, to be fair to Angela, she wanted Frank Paco back because he was her father, period, but she still had more ambition than Napoleon and twice the nerve.

               “You think she’ll be able to take over?”

               “I’d make book on it.  She’s smart, moves fast, and if things work her way she’ll have the whole operation’s coded account books sometime tomorrow.  She sweet-talked little Opal into working for her.”

               “What?”

               “She traded Opal back to Chaven to get Paco out, but Opal’s not staying long.”

               “My God,”  said Escott, his tone full of admiration rather than dismay.  “Between the two of them they could have the city in hand by the end of next week.”

               I was going to say he was probably overstating things on that point, but shut up.  Opal, Kyler’s former accountant, was the best soldier in Angela’s small army.  Never mind all the gun-packing goons, brute force was nothing compared to a balanced ledger sheet showing all the profits, and Opal could do numbers the way the rest of the world breathes—without even thinking about it.

               “Let’s continue to assume that despite these distractions Miss Paco is still in a murderous frame of mind toward us,”  said Escott after a little thinking time.

               “Toward you,”  I put in.  “She thinks I’m dead, courtesy of Chaven.”

               “Unless Deiter talks with her.”

               “He might think I’m dead, too.  A swim at this time of year . . . ”

               “Yes, yes.  And we know for certain that it was an obvious trap Shoe and I were driving into.”

               “Told you so,”  Coldfield muttered.  “If Fleming hadn’t been weaving on the road like a New Year’s drunk we’d be in the lake by now, too.”

               “Angela will still have a hit out on you, Charles,”  I said.  “She thinks you’re a loose end.”

               “So I am.”

               “You’re pretty cool about it.”

               “Part of the job,”  he said with a shrug of his eyebrows.  “Right, I’ve not shown up for my meeting with her, she’ll assume I’m onto her game and expect me to go to ground or to the police, or both, which means she will likely also drop from sight for a bit until things settle.  All we need do is discover where she might go.”

               “Good luck,” said Coldfield with a snort.  “What do you do when you find her?”

               Escott looked at me.  One eyebrow twitched a question.

               I sighed.  “I’ll think of something.”

 

qqq

 

Our drive finally ended somewhere in the middle of Chicago’s Bronze Belt, and I was wondering if this was such a good idea.  If Coldfield wanted to keep a low profile he was doing it with the wrong people what with our white skins—well, Escott’s was gone fairly gray by now.  I hoped he wasn’t buying trouble for himself taking us in.

               The entry to sanctuary was in a trash can-lined alley between some drab structures that must have been built right after the O’Learys’ cow changed all the real-estate values.  Coldfield stopped, cut the engine, and got out, telling us to wait.  As he went up a couple steps to the rear of one old brick building, I checked my watch, but the water had screwed the works.  Damn.  I wanted to know how long until dawn.  He came back a minute later, opened the passenger side, and tried to help Escott out.

               “I’m fine,”  Escott insisted.  “Just let me take it slow.”  But the wind was cruel, and I still had his coat.  He hissed when the cold hit him and started to double over against it, then hissed again as his ribs protested.

               “Slow is the only way you can take it, you fool.”

               “Hah,”  agreed Escott, and allowed himself to be steadied on the steps.  The screen door popped open to receive him.  By then I’d climbed out and shut up the car.  The shift from slouching comfortably in the warmth to standing tall in the winter air the took me by surprise.  Something unpleasant suddenly burbled deep in my belly.  I hurriedly staggered to one side, stopping short at a frozen puddle, and threw up.

               Nasty, but mercifully brief.  I’d swallowed some of the lake and my inside works hate that kind of thing.  Pain lanced behind my eyes as I spat out the last of it and wondered how far we were from the Stockyards.  I needed a drink.  The right kind of drink.

               “Fleming?”  Coldfield waited at the door for me, peering at what to him would be thick shadows.

               I raised a feeble wave.  “Coming.”

               “That bad stomach of yours?”  he asked when I joined him.

               “Yeah.”  It was as good a story as any to explain peculiarities in my behavior.

               “Ulcers?”

               “Don’t know, don’t care.”

               We pressed ahead and the screen banged behind me.  I shut the inner door and was buffeted by a wall of moist warmth, bright light, and the smell of fish and grease.  We were in a kitchen, a pretty big one: three stoves with oversized cooking pots on them were going at full steam and made the air like August again.  Some kind of eatery, then, that was either still open from the night before or getting ready for breakfast, or maybe it just never closed at all.  Several black people wearing stained white aprons were gathered by one of the stoves, their watchful faces displaying a variety of expressions ranging from alarm to annoyance. 

               “Sal,”  said Coldfield, addressing one of the men,  “I need you to—”

               “The hell you do!”

               This came not from Sal, but from a slim black woman in her thirties who suddenly burst in on us like a cavalry charge.  She wore a sober, dark blue dress and a no-nonsense, God-help-you expression as she halted in the front of the group, hands on her hips and disgruntlement in every line of her well-shaped body.  She treated the whole room to a piercing once-over, then came forward to stand nose to nose with Coldfield.  She wasn’t nearly his match in height, but made up for it with force of temper.

               “Clarence, just what the hell do you think you’re doing here?”  she snapped.

               Clarence?  I thought.  I caught Escott’s eye.  He made a small, hasty cutting motion with one hand.

               Coldfield offered her a winning smile, holding his palms up.  “Just bringing you a couple of strays.  It’s only for a day or so until we—”

               “You know I don’t want anything to do with your crap—no offense,”  she said in an aside to Escott.  Brows high, he pursed his lips and gave a minute shake of his head.  “You damn well know I run a clean place here and I’m not about to—”

               “Please, Tru, this is serious.  I wouldn’t have come if it wasn’t.”

               She crossed her arms and glared.  “Uh-huh.  I’m sure you’ll have a good sob story all ready for me.”

               “And you know you’ll do what I ask if I ask nice enough, so how ’bout we pretend you’ve heard it all and I go straight to the please-pretty-please-with-sugar-on-top part?”

               My eyes were ready to pop.  This was Shoe Coldfield?

               Tru saw and slapped his arm.  “Oh, stop embarrassing yourself in front of the bum.  No offense,”  she added, nodding at me.

               “None taken,”  I whispered.

               “He’s no bum, he’s just had a hard time tonight, and Charles, too.  You remember Charles Escott, don’t you?”

               She rounded on him.  “I remember, but he’s sure changed.  Is that really you under those bruises?”

               “Indeed it is, Miss Coldfield.  I do apologize for not being in a more presentable state, but as your brother was about to say, this is a rather serious occasion and—”

               “It’s you all right.  Still using ten words when one will do, huh?  Well, don’t stop, I like that English accent.  Come on and sit by the stove.  Sal, got any stew ready?  Okay, then pour him a cup and get it into him.”  Sal, a very large man, topping even Coldfield’s size by a few inches, instantly stepped forward to carry out this order.  “Now, who are you?”  She looked at me again.  I’d heard a little about her from Escott, and by a roundabout way she’d once sent a case in our direction.  Don’t know what I expected her to be like, but whatever it was fell short of the reality.

               “My name’s Fleming, I work with Charles—”

               Coldfield interrupted.  “Tru, this can wait, the man took a dive in the lake and he’s half froze to death.”

               Her dark eyes flashed fire on him.  “You and your—your whatever the hell it is!  I don’t want to know.”

               “But—”

               “Oh, don’t worry, I’ll take care of them, but you get out of my way until I stop being mad at you for it.”

               “How about I go get Doc Clarson?”

               Her brows came down and she scowled first at me, then Escott, giving us each a thorough looking over.  “Let the poor man get his rest, I can manage these two.  They don’t seem ready to die just yet.”

               “But Charles has broken ribs—”

               “Only cracked,”  put in Escott helpfully.

               “Shut up, Charles—and Fleming’s probably got frostbite by now.”

               “No I don’t,”  I put in, also helpfully.

               “Shut up, Fleming—”

               “Clarence!”  Her eyes narrowed and she jerked a thumb in the direction she wanted him to go.  “Out of the way.”

               “But, Tru—”

               “You run everything else, I run this place, I call the shots.  Those are the rules.  Move.”

               Coldfield put a lid on it and, throwing a quick glare at each of us, found an unused corner and hunched there, shoving his hands in his coat pockets.  I had the strong feeling Escott and I would owe him big time for this favor.

               Escott, now seated on a stool by one of the stoves and hugging a mug of hot stew to his chest, apparently decided he was at the Vanderbilt mansion for a debutante ball.  He cleared his throat.  “Please allow me to make proper introductions: Miss Trudence Coldfield, this is Mr. Jack Fleming, my friend and business associate.  Jack, Miss Coldfield.”

               “Pleased to meet you, ma’am,”  I said humbly. 

               She rounded on me again, along with another piercing look.  She wasn’t beautiful in the Hollywood way, but her manner alone was the kind to stop traffic.  Maybe not Hollywood beauty, but they didn’t know everything.  Fine bones, fine smooth skin, really good legs from what I could see of them—she had all the right equipment and then some.  Like her brother, she projected an arresting sense of power and energy, but hers was more overt and in motion.  Her eyes—well, they were the kind that could look right into you, and when they did you better make sure everything inside was up to snuff or she’d know the reason why.  That’s how she struck me, anyway, after only ten seconds of her hard scrutiny.  What she made of me I couldn’t tell.

               “Likewise,”  she said.  “Now what happened to you?”

               “Fell in the lake.  I only need to dry out and warm up.  But Charles is the one to—”

               She raised one hand.  “I’ll deal with it, Mr. Fleming.  You just come along.”  She moved past me, motioning toward a door.  I followed her through a hall, up some narrow stairs to another hall.  The sagging wood floors creaked, but were polished and the paint on the walls was fresh. 

               “What is this place?”  I asked.

               She glanced back at me.  “Miss Tru’s,”  she answered, as though that was explanation enough.

               “What do you do here?”

               “Help people who need it.”

               “Like a soup kitchen?”

               “More’n that.  Here.”  She opened the door to a frighteningly clean bath, went straight to the huge, claw-footed tub and twisted the hot-water tap.  “Get your clothes off an’ we’ll dry ’em.  You want some stew, something hot to drink?”

               “Thanks, but I’m not hungry.”

               She frowned at me.  “All right, I’m going to be rude and ask you—you got any problems being in a colored place?”

               “No, ma’am.”

               “I didn’t think so since Clarence brought you, but I had to be sure.  Now strip.”  She went to a cabinet and rummaged in it.  I hesitated and she noticed right away.  “Don’t be bashful, I’m a nurse, and I’ve seen more naked bodies than most army doctors.  You’re not going to surprise me.”

               “A nurse?”  I asked in a prompting tone.  I slowly shrugged out of Escott’s overcoat and took my time on the rest.  Nurse or not, she was still female, very female, and I was reluctant to bare all.

               “I got a hospital job, sometimes help Doc Clarson and a few others, and I run this place.  I don’t know what Clarence was thinking bringing you here; I’m just trusting that he had a good reason.”

               “You don’t like his work?”

               “His rackets,”  she corrected with a sniff.  “Says he only provides what people want to have, but I know better.  You and Charles will have to leave as soon as you can.  Sorry I can’t be more gracious, but I won’t have Clarence bringing me his broken toys to fix all the time.  Next thing I know, this place becomes just another flop for the riffraff, and the people who really need help will be too afraid to come in for it.”

               “You think your brother’s riffraff?”

               “Yes, and he should be ashamed of himself.  Aren’t you out of that wet stuff yet?”

               “I’m waiting on the tub water.”

               She gathered up an armful of bandaging and other medical junk and went to the door.  “Men,”  she said, shaking her head.  Her heels made a determined clacking sound in the hall and on the stairs.  I carefully eased the door shut and breathed a sigh of relief.

               The water was almost too hot.  I loved it, stepping gingerly in before the tub had quite filled up.  The taps were full on, and I wallowed in the rushing heat.  When it was deep enough I held my nose and submerged, scrubbing my hair with my free hand.  This was so much better than that damned lake.  After a minute or so I noticed a change in the light above and surfaced, shaking water from my ears.  Shoe Coldfield had come in.

               “How’s Charles?”  I asked, pretending to puff.

               “He’s getting his chest taped up right now.  Would you believe it, she got him to shut up and sit still.”

               “I can believe it.  She seems quite a gal.”

               “That she is.”  He started picking up my discarded clothes.  “She’s got a half-dozen others to do this, but I’m the one she sends up.  Her idea of atonement for me.”

               “She said she helps out people, what’s the whole story?”

               “That’s pretty much it—but she’s choosy about who she helps.  None of my gang, that’s for sure.  Women ’n kids come here a lot.  She feeds ’em, gets ’em work if she can, or they work here to help pay for themselves.  Remember Cal with the shoeshine box?  He’s one of her projects.”

               “Who pays for it?”

               “She does, with her being a nurse, and people donate, help out.”

               “You donate, too?”

               “She won’t take my money.  Says it’s dirty.  She’s strict about that.”

               He left and I resolved to try making a donation myself.  This bath was certainly worth a fortune to me.  I lolled in the heat, stretched this way and that, moaned and groaned with it.  In a little wire rack hanging from the tub I found a mirror and a safety razor.  The mirror was of no use to me, but I soaped my face good and had my first shave in I don’t know how many nights.  Maybe I’d look a lot less like a bum to Miss Coldfield.

               Figuring it’d take some time to dry my stuff out, I lay back, prepared for a reasonably long soak.  When the water cooled, I let some run out the drain, then topped it off with more hot.  Escott had a similar tub, but his water heater wasn’t nearly this good.  The only thing I needed now was some fresh blood and a bolt-hole to sleep the day away.  And some of my home earth.  Without it with me I wouldn’t get much rest; my body would completely conk out, but my now uncontrolled mind would keep running frantically on, usually with a series of bad dreams.  Waking up after one of those rides left me more tired than when I turned in.  I didn’t understand why, but had to respect it, so I always tried to have a bit of my earth with me.

               My belt was gone.  It was the kind with a hidden pocket for money, only mine was stuffed with some good old Cincinnati soil.  Probably Cincinnati mud after my dunking, but I could live with it if there was enough left.  I wasn’t too worried if it was cleaned out, though, since I had more caches of earth hidden around the city, one up in Escott’s attic, one in the attic of the house next to us—they didn’t know about that—one at my girlfriend’s place . . . .

               Time for a stab of guilt as I thought of Bobbi.  Last I’d seen of her was hours ago when she was on her way to the safety of a mobster’s lawyer’s house.  I had no name, no phone number, no way to contact her except by talking to the mobster—and I didn’t know where he was, either.  Things had gotten pretty crazy and hurried earlier, but this was ridiculous.

               I put it off for as long as my conscience could stand, then lurched out of the water, grabbing a towel Trudence had left for me.  The floor was cold on my feet, but the rest of me was a nice cherry red as I dried, wrapped the towel around my waist, and padded downstairs.

               Coldfield, overcoat off and cup of coffee in hand, was at ease in the kitchen talking with a couple of women as they worked on food preparation.  One of them looked up and giggled at the sight of me in my vulnerable and draft-ridden state.  I hesitated and shifted from foot to foot, holding on to the towel for dear life.

               “Your clothes ain’t ready yet,”  she said.

               “I’ll take ’em as is, ma’am, if you don’t mind.”

               “What for, you goin’ someplace?”  asked Coldfield.

               “I wanted to check on my girlfriend and have to make some phone calls.  Thought it’d be safer if I made them somewhere else.”

               “Don’t have a phone here anyway.  No skin off my nose if you want to catch pneumonia, but Tru might have something to say about it.”

               “I’ll risk it.”

               “Brave man.”

               “A worried one—my girlfriend . . . ”

               “Yeah, yeah, women, I know all about that.  Get his stuff together, sweet thing,”  he said, addressing the giggler.

               “You ain’t my boss, Mr. Coldfield,”  she stated, lifting her chin.

               His jaw sagged a bit, then he recovered.  “Okay, okay, I forgot where I was for a minute.”  He went to a clotheshorse rack that had been set up before an open oven and yanked my pants free of it, tossing them at me to catch one-handed.  If not completely dry, then they were at least not soaking.  My leather belt was intact; I could smell the damp earth hidden inside.  Good, one less thing to think about.

               “What the hell . . . ?”  Coldfield held up my shirt and undershirt, which were riddled with holes: four distinct large ones front and back and a number of smaller ones where the bullets and grenade shrapnel had gone through.  Most of the blood had washed away, but there was some faint staining.  My quite visible hide, however, was all healed up by now.

               “It was Charles’s idea of a disguise,”  I said, improvising.  “He’s got a closet full of things a ragman wouldn’t touch.”

               Coldfield grunted with distaste and threw the stuff at me.  I went back to the bathroom and dressed, came down again.

               Coldfield pulled on his overcoat.  “You’ll need a ride,”  he told me.

               “I can walk.”

               “The hell you can.  Show your white ass in this part of town and someone’ll take offense at the sight.  I gotta protect their sensibilities.  Not everyone’s as tolerant as me ’n Tru.”

               “Oh.”

               “Come on.”

               The pea jacket I’d worn since the start of this business was still pretty spongy, but I thought I could handle it now that I was warmed up.  Most of the time excess heat and cold doesn’t bother me, but Lake Michigan was just too damn much at once.  The jacket was also marked by a number of holes, but I pretended not to notice them.

               The girl giggled again as we left.  It might have been fun to go invisible and stick around to see what she and her friend would be talking about for the next few minutes, but I followed Coldfield down the steps and back into his Nash.

               “How’s Charles?”

               “Tru dragged him upstairs to get some rest.  Last I saw she was tucking him in and making him swallow a bunch of aspirin.  Only reason she’s not done more for you yet is that accent of his keeps her hanging around him.  He can just open his trap and charm the feathers off a goose without even trying.”

               “He going to be all right today?  Your sister said we’d have to leave.”

               He hit the starter, fed it some gas.  The motor muttered to smooth life and started purring.  “She talks tougher than she is, no need to worry about him, but I’ll catch hell for taking you out before she’s had a chance to check you over.”

               “Blame it on me.”  The last thing I wanted was her trying to find my nonexistent pulse.

               “Oh, I plan to.”

               He pulled out of the alley into a larger street.  I turned for a look at the front of the place.  Still drab, like the rest of the neighborhood, with no sign to indicate what was inside.  I asked him about it.

               “She runs it like a speak,”  he said.  “You have to know about it to go there.”

               “Why’s that?  If she’s helping people, what’s she hiding it for?”

               “Something to do with her bein’ a nurse.  She thinks if the hospital she works for finds out about it she could lose her place with them, get struck off or something like that.”

               “But if she’s doing good for people, why should they—”

               “Because it’s an unofficial kind of place.  She’s trying to get it legitimate, permits and stuff, but it’s taking time, and the way she sees it, a hungry baby can’t wait until someone in the city office gets off their butt long enough to find the right stamp for the papers.   And you don’t talk about this, yourself.  She worked too hard to get where she is, first one in the family to really go to school and finish it out.  She’s got more guts than me.”

               “You didn’t finish?”

               “I had to make money and my feet itched, so I built me a shoeshine box for a nickel and started walking and working.  That’s how I ended up in Canada knocking on the back door of a theater there.  They needed someone to fix their shoes and Charles talked ’em into hiring me for that, then into taking me on for backstage carpentry work.  Don’t know how he did it—they didn’t exactly want a black hanging around the company, but when that guy makes his mind up to it, he could sell snow to a polar bear.  Before I knew what was happening, he had me building sets and reading and memorizing everything from Bertolt Brecht to Oscar Wilde.”

               “And Shakespeare?”

               “Yeah, him, too.”

               “Must have been some life you had.”

               He laughed once.  “Heaven and hell.  Times be that I was the only colored man in the whole territory.  Some people would come to the plays we did just to get a look at me like I was some kind of a zoo display, then the company wised up and took advantage of it.  Once I got billed as ‘the famous Mr. C. Coldfield of London as seen by royal command at Buckingham Palace’—I got good at copying Charles’s accent—that was when we did Othello.  Nobody in the berg knew any better, so we got away with it.”

               “Sounds great.”

               He made a flat, disparaging snort.  “Hell, any idiot in black-face can do the part.  I never really enjoyed playing it.  What I really wanted was the lead in Richard the Second.  And don’t tell Charles I said that, he busted his ass to get the Othello performance set up for me.”

               “Ever want to go back to acting?”

               “Hell, yes, but I don’t see how the way things are these days.  Closest I get is running my club.  Besides, I got political ambitions.  Ain’t no one going to elect an actor to anything important, which is stupid, since that’s the one person who knows best how to swing a crowd.”

               “All politicians are actors, though, one way or another.”

               “Yeah, but the voters don’t like having their faces rubbed in it, gives the whole business away for the farce it is when you get an actor up there telling them what they want to hear.  Just look at Hitler, the way he hypnotizes ’em.  That bastard should be doing opera, not running a country.”

               “Opera?”

               “Yeah, he’s got a beautiful voice.”

               “All that screaming?”

               “Huh, you should hear him when he’s just talking normal.  It’s terrifying.  That big radio of mine picks up Germany and I listen in sometimes. He’s got the most compelling, beautiful voice I ever hope to hear this side of heaven, but the stuff he says . . . ”  Coldfield shook his head.  “Got more venom than a cobra and he’d be happy as hell to see people like me dropping dead at his feet, only it’d spoil the shine on his boots.  Musta tied his gut up in knots but good when Jesse Owens won all those medals last year.”  He broke off and chuckled for a while over that one.

               “You know German?”

               “Enough to listen to.  We had a kraut in the company and Escott would get him to talk German in exchange for cleaning up his accent so the audience could understand him.  It was really funny trying to do Hamlet when King Claudius is sounding more Deutsche than Danish.”

               I laughed.  “This is all new to me, he doesn’t say that much about what he did in those days.”

               “Has a reason for it.”

               My ears pricked up.  “What’s that?”

               He shook his head.  “When he’s ready to tell you, he probably will.”

               Familiar territory there.  I wondered what Escott’s big secret was.  “It have to do with why he’s always sticking his neck out farther than what’s good for him?”

               He shot me a hard glance.  “Guess you got some brains rolling around in that head of yours, kid.”

               We were about the same age.  My condition made me look younger.  I let it pass.  “Guess I do.  So what is it?”

               “Uh-uh.  Not my table.  Tell you what, get him drunk some night.  Once he stops quoting Shakespeare you might learn something.  In the meantime keep an eye on the fool so he doesn’t get himself killed.”

               “Do my best.  You, too?”

               “My best, though he makes it damned difficult.  Always ready to run into a riot.  Like tonight, going to see Angela.  I knew it stunk, but he talked me into going anyway.  I got more sense than that, but once he gets aimed at something . . .”

               “I know.  Like a train on a track.”

               He shook his head again, then asked,  “Where you want to go?”

               “Just drop me near the Stockyards.”

               He misinterpreted, as I’d hoped.  “There’s bound to be someone watching Charles’s office.”

               “Just one of the things I want to check on.  If it looks clear I’ll go in and make my calls, then find a place to flop for the day.”

               “The hell you are.  I’ll catch it from both Tru and Charles if I don’t bring you back.”

               Damn.  And I was hoping to avoid this.  I kept shut until he pulled over and parked.  His car had a lot of nice extras, like an overhead bulb that came on when I opened the door to get out.  It gave me the light I needed to focus on his eyes . . . and get his full attention.

               “Shoe, I won’t be coming back until tonight,”  I told him, holding his gaze steadily.  “But that’s all right.  You can go along to your sister’s place and take it easy.”

               His normally tense expression was relaxed now, almost serene.  “Yeah, sure,”  he murmured in a distant voice.

               “I’ll call your club around sundown so we can hook up again then.  You guys just sit tight and don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine.”

               “You got it,”  he promised.

               Then I let my control over him slip away nice and easy.  I didn’t care much about doing this kind of thing, especially to someone I liked, but I was getting good at it.  He had no idea of what had just hit him and would think everything I’d said to be perfectly normal and reasonable.  “Make sure Escott gets lots of rest, he needs it.  Sit on him if you have to, okay?”

               “I’ll leave that to Tru, she intimidates the hell out of him.”

               “Maybe he enjoys it.”

               I levered out of the car, then turned and put my hand out.  “Thank you.”

               It seemed to startle him, but he recovered and we shook briefly.  “Keep your head down, kid.”

               “I will.”  I hurried away.  He put the car in gear and took the next turn back to his part of town.

               Over the last several months I’d gotten thoroughly acquainted with the layout of Chicago’s smelliest landmark, the Stockyards.  Coldfield had dropped me within a block of the southern end of things.  Five minutes later and I’d either walked or passed invisibly through all the various barriers meant to keep the cattle in and the public out and was in the midst of the smaller pens, looking for a likely dinner.

               It was noisy, with all that mooing, and it never stopped, like they knew what they were there for.  Maybe they did know, since mixed in with the thick farmyard stench and the mud was the smell of blood from the slaughterhouses and processing plants.  Unless you were used to it—or craved it like me—it could really ruin your night.

               I breathed in the bloodsmell and felt my teeth budding in response.  Yes, I’d fed not so many hours ago, but the morphine-tainted stuff had messed me up something bad, had nearly killed me by default.  Time now to replace it.

               One of the pens had only three occupants, and they looked somewhat cleaner than average.  That’s an important detail to me, considering what I have to do to get my dinner.  I slipped inside and made calming talk with the nearest cow.  This was another version of the hypnosis I’d done to Coldfield, but much more basic and less of a blow to the old conscience.  I talked and stared and got Bossy to hold still, then eased down on my heels to find the big vein in one of her legs.  She remained quiescent as my corner teeth swiftly cut through her tough hide and the first burst of red life hit my tongue.

               God, it had been forever since I’d had anything this good.

               Or felt this good about having it.

               My girlfriend Bobbi had been a big help to me there.  Being a vampire didn’t mean I was automatically comfortable with the business of drinking blood.  Just talking cold on it and it sounds pretty revolting, but Bobbi finally got it through my thick skull that this was nothing to be ashamed about, especially when it was the only game in town when it came to my continued well-being.  I finally stopped worrying about what other people might think if they saw me—fat chance of that since I’m always careful—and just drank it down, having finally admitted to myself just how much I really enjoyed it.

               It’s hard to explain what the stuff does to me, only that prior to my change I’d never felt anything quite like it before.  Sometimes it soothes, others, it hits like a hammer.  Either way was fine, more than fine.  Since my heart doesn’t pump I don’t know how the stuff flushes me with that special kind of heat that flows from deep inside right out to my toes and fingers.  But it feels great.  Better than great.  Sometimes when I’m really starved, the tide of it flooding through me is almost as good as sex—but only almost.  Making love to Bobbi is something else again.

               But I’ll talk about that another time.

               After a few minutes I had as much as I could hold.  Unless I got on Angela Paco’s shit list once more and she started throwing hand grenades again, I’d be good for two or three nights now.  Usually I made a stop like this every other night to keep myself feeling fit, and I never went more than four nights without feeding, too dangerous.  Not that I’d turn into some kind of

mad-dog maniac and attack people, but it screws up my being able to think straight and I could get clumsy, get caught.

               I pulled back and pinched the vein, blowing on the two wounds I’d made until they clotted over, then vanished and drifted free of the pen.  The animals didn’t like that and protested, but by then I was streaming away from the area.  Back outside I partially re-formed just enough to see where I was and if it was safe to go from ghost to full solidity.  It was.  With no one else about, I materialized in a dark patch between two streetlights.  Checked the time again, then remembered my watch had stopped.  Have to get it fixed or buy another, I thought as I got my bearings and pressed on in the direction of Escott’s office.

               His rent was cheap owing to its location near the yards.  He could afford better, but seemed to like this joint.  Also, he was the half owner of a tobacco shop backing his place that faced the street on the other side the block, so maybe he stuck around to keep an eye on things.  It was convenient for both of us.

               I checked the street in front of the office, but saw no stray cars that didn’t belong.  That didn’t mean much, though.  I went around the block and entered through the closed tobacco shop, then up its backstairs to a jumbled storage area full of old boxes and junk.  One particular crate against the back wall marked the location of the concealed door Escott had installed there.  He always excused his indulgence in something so theatrical by saying it was indeed a leftover habit from his life on the stage, but I knew better.  He was like a school kid about having secret passages and hidden exits handy.

               Myself, I just flowed through the cracks in the wall and went solid again on the other side, standing quiet in the tiny washroom for Escott’s office and listening.

               Nothing to hear.  That was a relief.  I’d been afraid one or the other of the gangs had sent someone over to lie in wait, but the place was empty.   However, I did find that people had been through it pretty thoroughly.  Plenty of light came through the broken blinds for me to use.  Just as well, because the lamps were wrecked.  The back room where Escott stashed a cot for catnaps was all torn up.  Someone had kicked everything around: cot, radio, a few books and papers.  The front where he received clients was in the same shape: desk overturned, file cabinets open and gutted.  Nothing that couldn’t be cleaned up and replaced, but it made me want to crack the responsible party’s head in just to hear what kind of sound it made.  No telling who was behind it, the ex-Kyler faction or the struggling-to-come back Paco gang.  Flip a coin.

               The phone was off the hook and making funny noises.  I dropped the receiver back in place and righted the desk.  The drawers were all out, their contents thrown around.  I put them back, found the chair that went with it all, marveling that it was still in one piece.  Tried the phone.  It clicked a few times, then the tone came back and I dialed the Nightcrawler Club.  I let it ring a long, long time.

               Everyone was probably asleep, in jail and trying to get out, or elsewhere laying low.  Much earlier this night the late, unlamented Vaughn Kyler arranged to have the cops in his pocket raid the place.  I arrived just in the nick to keep his man from bumping off the manager, Gordy, who was a friend of mine.

               Friend.  He was a gangster as tough as the rest, cold as sleet when he needed to be, and I’d once let him beat me up last summer when I’d been trying to learn something from his now deceased boss.  Still, he knew about me being a vampire and it didn’t bother him, and he was very protective of Bobbi.  That counted for a lot in my book.  One of these nights I’d have to ask what his other name was.

               Then miracle of miracles, Gordy answered.

               “Jeez, am I glad to hear you,”  I said, my voice full of relief.  “How’s—”

               “Your friend’s okay,”  he said abruptly.

               “My friend . . . ?  What the—”  I broke off, belatedly figuring out something was wrong.  He would never normally refer to Bobbi that way.  He’d use her name.  “I’m—I’m glad to hear it.  What else has been happening?”

               “The bulls are gone, we’re just doing a little cleaning up.”

               “You all right?”

                “Can’t complain.”

               “Want me to come over and help out like earlier?”

               “It’s nothing like that.  I’m fine, we’re all fine for real, but I don’t have a lot to say to you right now.”

               Bullshit.  He had plenty to say and hear, but someone—as in John Law—was tapping his line.  “I understand.  But I’d like to talk with you sometime soon.”

               “It’s late, maybe you can come by tomorrow just like you did the last time when you surprised me and those other guys.”

               Right, he wanted to see me, but that I should sneak into the club.  “Yeah, I can do that.”

               “Nothing’s going on here, now anyway.”  A pause, then in a tone more like normal, said,  “You okay?”

               “Can’t complain.  Been busy, too.  Tell you later.”  Maybe I could have figured a way to tell him about Chaven’s death and that Angela had gotten her father back safe, but Gordy had other methods of finding out stuff like that, so there wasn’t much point to it.  “And tell my friend . . . send ’em my warm regards.  They’re really all right?”

               “Annoyed, but safe and sound.”

               “Will I be able to see ’em there?”

               “You can make book on it.”

               “Thanks.  Thanks for everything.”

               “No problem.  See you then.”  He hung up.

               I didn’t think we’d been on long enough for the call to be traced.  Fine by me; I could imagine all too well the fun and games if the cops tried arresting this creature of the night.  I’d had enough laughs for one evening.

               At least a big load of worry about Bobbi was off my mind.  Next to me she couldn’t have a better guardian angel than Gordy.

               Went to the back room, fiddled with the radio, but the works were all smashed in.  No way to tell the time with any accuracy except by instinct and a look at the sky—and Gordy’s left-handed warning about it being late.  I peered out the broken slats of the blinds and saw things were getting lighter, with more traffic taking up space on the slush-covered roads.  Not long now.

               Through the washroom wall into the shop’s storage.  One of the boxes there was much larger than the rest, but you couldn’t tell that since only the narrow end was visible.  The bulk of it was hidden by others stacked around and on top.  Under the raspy dust and the rich smell of the tobacco I could scent my earth.  Without disturbing the other boxes, I sieved inside.

               Tight squeeze when I went solid, and I hate small spaces.  I hoped I wouldn’t be awake for long. 

               Dark.  Totally black.  My eyes can pick up and use the least little shred of light so long as there’s some available.  Nothing like that here.  Didn’t help my claustrophobia at all.

               I shifted noisily in the damn thing, knees and elbows knocking the sides, until the bag of earth was sitting on my chest, not poking into my back.

               And waited.

               I hate this part, too, the waiting until the sun comes.  It makes me think about death. 

               The daylight comas are my portion of that long sleep, my payment for cheating it the rest of the time, I suppose.  I don’t mind them too much, just the waiting for them to happen.  At home, in my hideaway in Escott’s basement, I’d sometimes put off dropping into my earth-lined bed until the absolute last second.  It gave me a moment’s illusion that I had some control over the process.  No such luxury here.  Nor as safe.  Once I was out the whole block could burn to the foundations and I wouldn’t know I was being killed all over again.

               Damn, but I hate—

               My eyelids slammed down, and I stopped being me for the day.

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

               Jolt of panic when I woke, directly inspired by the absolute darkness cocooning me.  In my regular sleeping area I always leave a light on.  Muddled, thinking I was falling, I twisted in the narrow box and slapped my hands hard on what should have been an earth-filled mattress.  Struck wood instead. 

               Ow.

               Then I remembered.  Made myself relax. 

               Usually, my wakings are quiet and smooth, my daylight rest complete and oblivious, and I pick up exactly where I left off, but this time . . . this time I’d dreamed.  That wasn’t normal.  Though not nearly as clear and horrific as the ones that came when I was separated from my soil, these hadn’t been pleasant, what little I could recall of them.  Escott thought they went on regardless of the presence of my home earth, that it only kept me from being aware of them.  His idea was that the earth was some kind of safety valve attached to the larger one of the dreams.

               The falling sensation had been me taking another sickening headfirst dive off the Elvira, I was sure.  I glumly wondered if this was going to be a permanent thing.  Maybe my home earth was wearing out, but more likely it was a last shred of the morphine making itself felt, or perhaps too much had happened in too little time and my brain was having trouble digesting it all.  Either way I didn’t want a repeat come the next evening.  Not that there was much I could do about it.

               I floated out of the box and stretched.  Quietly.  From the sounds below, the tobacco shop was still open for business.

               Back through to the washroom, where I brushed my teeth with my finger and rinsed with mouth gargle, fighting off the urge to gag before thoroughly spitting the stuff out.  I don’t care much for the process, but sometimes the smell of blood could linger on my breath after a heavy feeding and be picked up by others.  Offensive to my friends, it was also a telltale clue to people who knew about vampires being real.  Not that there were many of those around, but I was only doing my part to keep it that way, since my one encounter with them had been a pretty lousy experience.  They’d decided I was a public enemy and nearly got me killed.  Dammit, Stoker should have written his big book from the vampire’s point of view; it might have improved things for the rest of us.

               Speaking of revealing smells, I was fairly certain my wool pea jacket was going musty.  Damn all this crap.  I wanted a real shave, fresh clean clothes, and about five years of vacation.  No rest for the righteous—or even those with seriously bruised consciences.  Time away from this dog-and-pony show would have to wait until I found out how the day went for everyone else.

               The outer office was as I’d left it.  I tried the phone, figuring it pretty unlikely for us to be tapped like Gordy, and dialed the private number for Coldfield’s club, the Shoe Box.

               Escott answered.  “Hallo, I thought it might be you.”

               “Time of day tip you off?”

               “More like evening, old man.”

               “You guys all right?”

               “Rested and restless.”

               “But quiet?”

               “If you like that sort of thing.”

               “Heart and soul.”

               “Fortunately one of us has his senses.  Shoe and I went out to the Paco mansion today.”

               If I’d had anything like blood pressure anymore, I’m sure the top of my head would have blown right off just then.

               “Jack?”

               “I’m here.  Charles, in the name of God, what the hell were you thinking?”

               “That I cannot operate in a vacuum of information.”

               The man was incurable.  I beat back all comment wanting to spill out on what an idiot he was and accepted the situation.  He’d probably heard it earlier from Coldfield on the drive out.  “What did you find?”

               “Aside from a few craters and lines of tire tracks weaving over the grounds, nothing.  I couldn’t persuade Shoe to go very close, but as far as we could determine with field glasses, the place appears to be deserted.  After a bit of futile observation we came back to the city and took a detour along Lakeshore Drive and noted that the Elvira is back in the yacht basin.  She also appears to be deserted.  Shoe refused to pursue that one as well.  If you were up to it, I thought—”

               “Oh, no, I’m not.  I’ve had enough of boats and that damned lake to last me forever.  Besides, we both know Angela and what’s left of Kyler’s mob have probably found holes to pull in after them.”

               “Actually, we don’t know that at all.  They could be huddled in the mansion cellar, or have left Chicago altogether.  Not likely, but it is unwise to overlook all possibilities.  I’ve asked Shoe about lending a hand in a search, but he is not too terribly inclined to risk any of his people by having them check around.”

               “I don’t blame him for that.”

               “Nor I.  He’s more than willing to help us get out of town, but that is not a path I wish to take in regard to the resolution of this situation.”

               I sighed, pinching the bridge of my nose.  “Yeah, same again here.  It ain’t gonna go away unless I put my foot into it with Angela one more time.”

               “Indeed.  The only way out that I can see is if you could privately talk to Miss Paco and firmly request she cease and desist any plans she may have to eliminate either of us.”

               “I can do that, but I have to find her first.”

               “If you’re not enamored of searching the yacht, then perhaps you would not object to looking the mansion over instead.  It might provide a suggestion as to where everyone has got to.”

               I groused and grumbled on for a minute, just so he knew I wasn’t a pushover.  My objections mostly had to do with personal comfort.  “This is something that can wait until I’m ready for it.  Trudence took one look at me last night and thought I was a bum, and I’m ready to agree with her.  I’m going to go by the house first and change.”

               “If you feel the need.”

               “You’re damn right I do.  I might as well check the mail while I’m at it.  You want anything from there?”

               “I left my pipe and a pouch of tobacco in the front room, and you might pull a bit of cash from the safe.  Fifty should do it.”

               He’d surprised me.  “That much?”

               “I don’t know how long all this will take and want sufficient funds for at least a few weeks.”

               “Jeez, Charles, if this goes on for that long, I’m gonna be bug-eyed crazy.”

               “Then we shall have to marshal our best efforts toward concluding things as quickly as possible.”

               We meaning me.  “Yeah, yeah.  But only after I pull on a pair of shoes that don’t squeak.  Gimme a couple hours and I’ll come by the club with your stuff.”

               “I’d be most obliged.”

               I cradled the receiver.  He’d want to hitch along, but on this I’d do my Rock of Gibraltar imitation against getting talked into it.  I’d cracked some ribs once—hell, they’d been broken—and hadn’t liked it one bit.  He was going to rest or I’d save him the trouble of suicide by overwork and to kill him myself.

               The next call was to Gordy’s; he didn’t let it ring so long this time.

               “It’s me, how’re things going?”  I could take a good and probably accurate guess, but wanted to give him the chance to recognize my voice.

               “Not so bad.  Your friend sends regards back, wants to talk with you pretty soon.”

               “It might be a while before I can come over, I got some business to clean up first.”

               “How about we meet somewhere?”

               “Sounds fine.  Maybe you and my friend could go out, get some air, then call me at home in about an hour.”  By then I’d be in a fit state to talk to my beautiful lady.

               “Can do,”  said Gordy, and hung up.

               One cab ride later—and looking the way I did it was damned difficult to find one—and I was approaching the house by way of the alley that ran behind the buildings.  Things looked all right there, though it’s a sad day when you have to act like your own home is a bear trap.  A shame, too, since it’s a nice enough place, certainly much better than the cheap hotels I’d flopped in since I first began writing for newspapers and found out not everyone, myself included, has Pulitzer potential.

               The house was three solid stories of brick.  A couple of decades back when the neighborhood wasn’t so nice it used to be the local brothel, then Escott bought the empty hulk last year and started fixing the insides up.  I had a couple of rooms and a bath on the second floor, and a very unofficial chamber hidden behind a false brick wall in the basement.  In its secret and silent fireproof safety I usually slept the day away in reasonable security and comfort.  At night it also doubled as my office, so the clatter of my typewriter wouldn’t disturb Escott’s attempts at overcoming his insomnia.

               I always entered this retreat using my sieving through the walls gimmick, but there was also a concealed trapdoor under the kitchen table.  Escott used it to duck down to my room the other night in order to hide out from yet more of Kyler’s men.  When they couldn’t find him, they ransacked the place and hung around waiting for me to turn up.  It wasn’t to present me with a bunch of posies.

               Because of me, Vaughn Kyler had missed collecting the payment on an important gambling debt.  He had one solution for those interfering in his rackets: make the poor bastards disappear forever.  He was too crazy for me to hypnotize and knew about my own kind of vanishing act, which made him a major threat to me and mine.  While I was still trying to figure out how best to deal with him, Angela Paco had dropped herself into the fight like one of her own grenades and with about the same effect.  Her game was getting her kidnapped father Frank back along with the control of his gang, and she didn’t much care who she had to kill to do it.  Since Kyler had felt the same way about her it was a hell of a mess for me, the cops, and all the other gangs in the city.  Though Kyler was safely dead, the dust had yet to settle.  I could figure everyone who had a hint of what was going on was waiting to see what would happen next between his lieutenants and little Angela.

               Just put me at the head of the line.

               All was dark and quiet now as I circled the area of the house, just the usual cars parked in their usual places, including my dark blue Buick out front.  Escott kept his Nash (a secondhand purchase from Coldfield) in the garage out back, only it was in a shop somewhere getting fixed.  The motor was fine, but when the cops see a car drive past with the glass starred and cracked and the body pocked with a hundred or so bullet dents along one of its extra-thick steel sides—all courtesy of Kyler’s goons—they get curious.

               The back door to the house was locked; I left it that way and slipped inside nice and quiet, re-formed in the kitchen, and listened.

               Nothing to hear but more quiet.  The place had a hollow, deserted feel to it that I didn’t like.  My back hairs were up, but I wasn’t sure if it was for something real or imagined.  Hard for me to tell the difference after all I’d been through, my nerves were much too sharp, the edges ready to cut.  A man shouldn’t have to live like this.  Grimacing, I shrugged the stiffness out of my shoulders.

               We hadn’t had a chance to clean up much since all hell broke loose.  I’m not as demanding as Escott when it comes to keeping things neat, so that wasn’t the problem so much as the fact the house had been invaded.  Someone had broken into my private territory and the violation hit me the same as with the office: I wanted some skulls to bust, preferably those of the ones responsible, except they were already dead.  Guys like Chaven, Vic, Hodge, Kyler . . .

               Had to stretch once more as my shoulders stubbornly bunched up again.  I was giving names to roaches, and who in their right mind feels guilty about a dead roach?  It was past time to stop doing this to myself or I’d be ready for the loony bin like Frank Paco.

               Walked slowly into the hall, still listening.  Nothing.  Good.  Went to the front door, unlocked and opened it, and pulled a wad of mail from the box, got the papers, too.  My arms were full when I backed inside, kicked the door shut, turned, and abruptly came nose-to-muzzle with a gun.

               I don’t know who was the more surprised, me or Deiter.

               Escott’s Webley, I thought a split second before disappearing again, mail, papers, and all.  Having been shot several times too many I didn’t care who saw.

               Through my distorted hearing I heard Deiter’s sharp cry of horrified shock.  He’d been on the boat last night, had pulled the tarp from my apparently dead body and dragged me toward the edge of the deck ready to roll into the water.  Chaven, repeating what Kyler had said, had told him about my being able to vanish; until now Deiter had no reason to believe him.

               Great, another loose end to tie up.  Well, I’d put a bow on this one.

               “Where are you?”  he said, his voice all shaky and hoarse.  “Where?”

               He had guts.  Given the same circumstances, I’d have hoofed it out of there and kept on going.

               I floated around him to the front room where he wouldn’t see me and went solid only long enough to drop everything on the couch.  No need to move after that, hearing the noise of it, he came to investigate.  He walked right through me, which was not so much fun for him because the air gets real cold in the space I occupy.  According to Escott, the chill goes a bit more than bone deep, as in right down to the soul.

               “Where are you?”  Deiter demanded, still sounding like a kid whose voice had just broken.  You could almost feel sorry for the bastard.

               I reappeared right behind him, grabbed the gun with one hand, and snaked my free arm around his neck, lifting him clean off his feet.  Being tall enough, I got away with it slick as sweat.  He choked and struggled, and managed a kick or two to my shins, but never really had a chance, and I think he knew it.  I wrested the gun away, firmly tapped the side of his head with the grip, and felt the sudden sag of his weight.  His heels making long black marks on the wood floor, I hauled him around, dropping him on the couch with the other junk.

               Listened again.  Nothing.  Not at first.

               I tiptoed into the hall and noticed the door to the understairs closet was open.  He’d been hiding there, being particularly quiet, and slipped out to shoot me—Escott really, since I was supposed to be dead—while I’d been busy with the mail. 

               Time to close my eyes and really concentrate.  Now that I was focusing on it I could hear them, like rats in the walls.  I’d almost rather have the rats, they’re smaller and harder to catch, but they don’t pack any heat.  Had to assume the human vermin lurking upstairs were all armed—they’d sooner be caught with no pants than leave their guns at home.  Couldn’t blame ’em for it, it’s a rough world.

               I checked the Webley.  Deiter had reloaded it, though where he’d turned up the .455 ammunition I’d like to find out.  Escott often complained about the stuff sometimes being too scarce for him to targetshoot regularly.

               Tempting as it was, I left the Webley on the hall table.  I wouldn’t really need it this time.  Too noisy.  No reason to disturb the neighbors, after all.  Besides, Escott did have a number of other useful weapons lying handy around the house.  Left over from his acting days were a few working crossbows, spears for the spear carriers—stuff he’d made as stage props.  There were other, more practical items tucked away in odd places and overlooked like old pencil stubs.  I tried the drawer on the hall table.  Pencil stubs.  Also a dried out fountain pen, scrap paper, rubber bands, a bowie knife that needed sharpening, and a couple of blackjacks—normal stuff for this joint.  Grinning, I picked out and hefted the larger blackjack, liking the feel of it.

               Near as I could tell from their breathing—the one sound besides their heartbeat they couldn’t stop—there was a guy in my set of rooms and another in Escott’s down at the end of the hall.  They must have heard the business with Deiter, but hadn’t moved.  Cagey bunch, I wondered how long they’d been waiting for Escott to come home.  I was pretty sure from seeing Deiter’s raw amazement that I was not their intended target.  That led to the question of who sent them.  Had Deiter taken over things from Chaven?  Was he trying to pick up where he and Kyler had left off?  Escott wasn’t much of a threat when compared to Angela, so why still be bothering with him?

               I’d get the answers shortly, first I had to flush out some rats.

               Ghosting upstairs and thus making no sound at all, I vanished completely to enter my rooms.  The door was nearly shut with the guy hiding behind it, probably peering through the crack to watch the upper hall.  It didn’t take much to put him out of business.  I went solid and whacked him behind one ear with the blackjack.  He dropped with a very satisfying thump.  Son of a bitch, but I was actually getting my wish about busting some skulls.

               Listened.  The other guy held his place.  I kept grinning, deciding to let him do all the work.

               “Psst!  I got him!”  I whispered, putting some excitement into it.  He took the bait and rushed out to see, but by then I’d vanished and got behind him.  Whack again.  At this rate I’d be breaking Babe Ruth’s record for hitting ’em home.

               No lights were on, so I remedied that for a closer look and was surprised to recognize them both.  They’d tried this hide-and-hit game the other night during an attempt to kidnap Bobbi from her dressing room at the Top Hat Club.  She’d helped me get the drop on them, then the club bouncers took it from there.

               The big one was Chick, and the shorter guy with the scraped face was Tinny.  Much more of this and there wouldn’t be any of the Kyler gang left to play with.  I relieved them of their supplies of deadly hardware and went down to the front room to check on Deiter.  He was still inert, but there was no need to take chances.  I found some rope and trussed them up good, using dust rags I found under the sink to gag them. 

               Then I stopped, stood back, and took stock of the situation.  All three were downstairs now, tied up snug—and me with no idea on what to do with them.  I couldn’t exactly take them to the cops.  The more I thought of it the more exasperated I got, which was not a good state for me to be in when I started with the questions that were already bumping around in my head.  The last time I’d done the hypnosis stuff when I was angry had been with Frank Paco.  That was why he went nuts, because my temper got away from me and tore things up in his mind.  I didn’t want to do that to anyone else, even if they were rats.

               But the longer I thought about them and how they’d been waiting here to kill Escott, the worse I got.  I needed time to cool down, to get in control again.

               So I said to hell with them and went upstairs to do what I’d come here for in the first place.

 

qqq

 

By the time I was clean, properly shaved, and in fresh clothes, I felt a whole lot better about me vs. the rest of the world.  My captive goons didn’t have it so good.  Chick had woken up and nearly spit out his gag—couldn’t blame him since it smelled (and tasted) like dust and furniture wax—but I stuffed it back in place despite his mumbled and no doubt obscene protests.  He started to thrash around, so I fixed him with a look, and when I had his undivided attention told him to take a long nap.  He instantly dropped off.

               No need to worry about Tinny, he was still out to lunch, but Deiter was starting to come around.  He was taking his time, though, so I went to the kitchen and called the Shoe Box again.

               Coldfield answered.

               “Something happened,”  I told him.  “Three of Kyler’s goons were at the house to jump Charles.  I got ’em all quiet, but I don’t know what to do with them.  Any ideas?”

               He said “shit” a few times then demanded details.  There weren’t that many to share—well, that many I could share—but I filled in the blanks a bit, giving their names.  He repeated the whole thing to Escott, then finally turned the phone over to him.

               Once more I said I didn’t know what to do with them.

               “You can’t let them wander loose.”  His voice went faint as he turned from the receiver.  “Shoe, do you think—”

               “Uh-uh, I’m in as deep as I ever want to get.  I ain’t playing zookeeper to Kyler’s leavings.”

               Escott came back to me.  “Give me a little time and I’ll see what I can arrange.”  He hung up just as I heard Coldfield start with another objection.

               It looked like we all had a peachy night ahead.

               I got a glass, put some water in it, and went to the front room, sitting on the coffee table to face Deiter.  Pouring the water on his face had been my initial idea to wake him, but Escott would only get all pained over having a damp couch.  Instead I dipped my fingers and sprinkled.  It had about the same effect.  Deiter squinted and groaned and tried to move out of range, then his eyelids flew open.

               After that he just didn’t have a prayer.

               He went under fast and hard, and I pulled out the gag, certain he wouldn’t shout the house down.  His eyes were as empty as a dead man’s.  I didn’t like the look, but tough knuckles and all that.

               “Deiter, we’re going to have a little talk.  You want to tell me everything.  When I ask a question you will answer.  Right?”

               His jaw trembled and went slack, matching the rest of his expression.  “Uh-huh.”

               “Now tell me what’s going on with Kyler’s people.”

               “Kyler’s dead.”

               “I got that, what are his people doing?”

               “Keeping low.”

               “And who gave you the bright idea of coming over here?”

               “Frank Paco.”

               That stopped me short.  Frank Paco was barely in shape to dress himself, let alone order a hit.  “You mean Angela Paco?”

               “She was just passing Frank’s orders.”

               So, she was bulling through with her game of using her father as the front man, enabling her to run his mob.  “You’re working for Paco now?”

               “He made us a sweet deal.”

               “I just bet he did.  Did he hire all of you away?”

               “Some.  Others are holding off, see what happens.”

               “You expecting something to happen?”

               “New York’s sending a guy out to pick up the slack.”

               “What guy?”

               “Sullivan, Sean Sullivan.”

               The name meant nothing to me, though Irish mobsters were not rare and as tough as they come.  While the others would kill you for a reason, the Irish would ace you just for the hell of it.  “What’s he going to do?”

               “Pick up the slack.”

               “Yeah, I got that part, but what’s he going to do about Paco?”

               “Don’t know.”

               “What’s Paco going to do about him?”

               “Don’t know.”

               Deiter was, after all, just one of the soldiers, why should Angela let him in on the big decisions?  Or maybe she didn’t know what to do herself. 

               Yeah, fat chance of that.  She’d moved in one big hurry today, hiring on muscle from Kyler’s leavings before they could scatter too far.  “You were supposed to come here and kill Charles Escott for Paco?”

               “Uh-huh.”

               “Where is he?  Where’s Angela?”

               “Flora’s Dance Studio.”

               “Where’s that?”  He didn’t have the number, but gave the street name and that it was close to a movie theater.  I realized the latter was an all-night place I’d been to a few times.  I dimly remembered seeing a sign in the area advertising dancing, but the joint was always closed by the time I came around to catch a late feature.  “How many people does she have with her?”

               And so it went, with me finally taking notes to keep it all straight.  Angela still had her core of insiders: Doc, Newton, Lester, and, of course, Daddy Frank.  No news of Opal, though.  She hadn’t arrived by the time Deiter left with his friends to settle Angela’s accounts with Escott.

               “When does she expect you to report in?”

               “When the job’s done.”

               “What, later tonight, tomorrow?”

               “When the job’s done.”

               I was getting a headache.  Too much of this eyeballing stuff makes me feel like I’ve got a rope twisted tight around my temples.

               The phone rang.  I told Deiter to take a nap.  Maybe Escott had a solution for me.  Only it wasn’t Escott, but Bobbi.  My headache lifted.

               “Hi, sweetheart,”  I said.  It was so great to hear her voice again I wanted to hug the phone.  “I’ve missed you.  Is it safe to talk?”

               “Yeah, Gordy drove us to a drugstore not far from your house.  We can be over in a minute.”

               “Hang on, there’re complications.”  I gave her the short version about my new guests and got some rather unladylike language back.  “Easy, this ain’t my fault.”

               “I know, Jack, but how much longer is this going to go on?  Oh, don’t answer, it’ll only aggravate me more.  Look, can you blindfold these jerks or something?  I want to see you.”

               I tried to think of a good reason for her to stay away, and did, several of them, but talked myself out of ’em.  In their present state Angela’s goons were no threat to Bobbi.  “Okay, but come in by the back way.  Gordy can put the car in the garage.”

               “We’ll be right there.”  She disconnected fast, maybe worried I’d change my mind.

               One minute, then two, with me waiting in the kitchen peering out the window every few seconds before I saw the car lights turning into the alley.  Like Kyler, Gordy favored a Caddie, and I had a bad moment before I got a good look at his big form behind the wheel and could relax.  He slowed and stopped long enough for Bobbi to slip out, then eased the car into the garage while she sprinted up the steps to the porch.  I had the door open already and she nearly knocked me backward onto the kitchen table when she threw herself into my welcoming arms.

               “Easy, baby,”  I said, laughing,  “it hasn’t been that long.”

               “It’s been years,”  she said, then fastened her lips onto mine as if to make up for lost time.  It was better than great until she had to come up for air.

               For someone who had been dragged without warning away from her club engagement and forced into hiding for the last few days, she looked wonderful.  Short platinum hair shining, hazel eyes bright, and a smile that made my knees go weak every time I saw it flash in my direction, I knew without a doubt I was the luckiest s.o.b. walking the planet.  When I last saw her she’d been in her stage costume, a white satin safari outfit with patent-leather riding boots, incongruously topped by a fur coat and hat.  She still had the latter two on, but had turned up a less showy pair of dark pants tucked into ankle-high hiking boots, and a red plaid flannel shirt.

               “What’s this?”  I asked, holding her away for a look.  “You going off to a cabin in the woods?”

               “Only if you come, too.  The wife of Gordy’s lawyer loaned them to me.  She loves to ice-fish.”

               “Well, the wife of Gordy’s lawyer has a helluva figure.  You keeping okay?”

               “I’m fine, but you—”  Her turn to look.  I collected a frown.

               “What?”

               “You’ve been through the wringer—backward.  Three or four times.”

               How did she always know?  I pulled her close, just wanting to hold her.  “Guilty.  But I’m feeling better by the minute.”

               “Glad to hear it,”  said Gordy, filling most of the doorway as he came into the kitchen.  I lifted one hand away from hugging Bobbi and put it out to shake his.  He always seemed a little surprised at the least sign of friendship from me.  “Want to tell us your side of things?”

               “My side?  What have you heard from others?”

               “Just rumors and not much of them because of the wire.  I gotta find me some bright boy who knows phones and can clean this one’s line.  It’s cramping my business.”

               “You need a vacation,”  Bobbi told him with a crooked smile; it went away a second later.  “Good grief, Jack, what happened here?”  She’d let go of me as she got her first glimpse of the mess.

               “Kyler’s men came by the other night and threw a party.  Then three of ’em came by again tonight for another one.  They’re in the front room with the sandman for the moment.”

               Gordy strolled through the dining area to the front and looked over the casualties.  “I can take care of ’em for you.  This time tomorrow they can be part of the nearest WPA project, canal repair, maybe a new highway.”

               I’d have laughed, but he was completely serious.  “Charles is already working on something.  He’ll call when he gets it all arranged.”

               Gordy shrugged.  Stuff like this was no skin off his nose; he was honestly trying to be helpful.

               “How are things at the club?”  I asked, wanting to change the subject.

               “Same as before, but with less broken glasses and more lawyers.  Should have it all nailed together and running tomorrow.”

               “You in any trouble with your bosses because of this?”  I knew he had to answer to people higher up.

               “They’re not happy.  A raid they don’t worry about; a raid started up by one of their own boys on their own place, they get annoyed.”

               “So they know Kyler ordered it?”

               “Pretty much.  He’d be in the stew now if he wasn’t already busy feeding fish.”

               “What’s your place in this fight with Angela?”

               “They want me to stay out of it while they settle things their own way.  I wouldn’t be here now except to keep an eye on Bobbi.  Be hell to pay with her when it’s time to leave.”  His gaze slid in her direction and a smile barely showed itself on one side of his mouth.  She made a face back at him.

               “To your lawyer’s place again?”  she asked.

               “Yeah.”

               Bobbi shook her head.  “But not before I get some magazines to read.  All they have are law books and stuff on sports.”

               “Can do,”  he said, all affability.

               “And we give the phone number to Jack.”

               I found some paper and scribbled as she dictated.  She was in the home of a mouthpiece named Anthony.  It sounded familiar.  “Do I know him?”

               “He’s the one who got Madison Pruitt out of jail that time.”

               Bobbi’s friend Pruitt, a dedicated communist, had the misfortune to be born into a very wealthy family.  He took every opportunity to publicly live down the shame of having tons of bucks coupled with a long pedigree.  A few months back he’d been arrested while helping some of his red brothers at a sit-down strike turned riot at an auto plant.  The muscle working for the factory owners broke his arm, and he was still having trouble keeping his eyes focused after a hit on the head with a club.  Soon as he was out of the hospital, the cops grabbed him, then Pruitt’s mother stepped in with lawyer Anthony and posted bail.  She’d reportedly whisked her wayward son off to a private island on a lake somewhere in upstate New York and was spoon-feeding him lots of castor oil to make him behave.  No one in Bobbi’s group had seen him in a while, but they didn’t mind, since he was a bore.  He was an even worse bore when talking politics, his only real passion besides food.

               “Has Charles got coffee here?”  asked Bobbi.  “I could use some about now.”

               “Try the fridge,”  I suggested.

               She gave me a “you must be crazy” look.  “He keeps his coffee in the ice box?”

               “Says the beans stay fresher.  I wouldn’t know, so don’t ask me.”

               She poked around the kitchen until she turned up the necessary items and started making a pot for herself and Gordy.  Usually, any odors to do with food and cooking made me nauseous, but coffee was the single exception to that rule.  I couldn’t drink it, but it still smelled fine, made me wish I could have a cup.          

               As the stuff brewed away I filled her and Gordy in on all the fun and games from last night, and discovered I was getting real tired of talking.  Repeating things made me remember them, when I really wanted to lock them all in a box and lose the key.  On the other hand, I could tell them the whole story.  With Coldfield last night I had to remember not to mention certain supernatural details, and it was a strain keeping things straight.

               “Sullivan?”  said Gordy, when I got to the part about questioning Deiter.

               “You know him?”

               “Not personally, but I heard a few stories.”

               “Such as?”

               “He wasn’t directly in on it, but he smoothed the road out so someone could bump his brother.”

               “Why’d he bump his brother?”

               “Sullivan wanted his spot in the organization.  Word was the brother was skimming off the top and would have been scragged anyway, but Sullivan made sure the right people heard about the scam.  One funeral later and he steps into his brother’s shoes while they’re still warm.  He didn’t raise a stink about the hit and that’s how lotsa guys figure he helped it along.”

               “Nice fella.  His own brother.”

               Gordy shrugged.  “It’s business.  There has to be some trust or everyone gets the screw.”

               I didn’t smile at Gordy for talking about trust in his line of work.  It was an important part of successful organized crime.  Without it, the body count hits the ceiling.  “So he’s someone I need to avoid?”

               “You and everyone else.  He may not know about you or Escott yet—”

               “I’ll try to keep it that way.  I got my hands full with Angela.”

               “Yeah, what’s she like?”  asked Bobbi.

               “Cross-eyed, bowlegged, and covered in warts.”

               “She must be some cute dish, then.  Do I need to be worried?”

               “I’ll tell you something I heard Chaven say, ‘I’d rather sleep with a tarantula.’”  Actually, he said he’d rather do that than trust her, but Bobbi didn’t need to hear the rest.  Angela was a cute dish all right, very attractive and exciting, but then so’s a box of dynamite on a bonfire.

               The phone went off.  It was Escott.

               “I’ve arranged something with a friend of mine,”  he said.

               “Not Shoe?”

               “He’s helping to some extent.  Can you load the goods into your car and transport them to another location?”

               “I guess so.  What’s the deal?”

               “My friend is a federal agent, but I would prefer not to have him or his cronies seen near the house.  Being part of an official group, they might attract the attention of the papers and—”

               “Don’t have to draw me a picture, I know what a reporter can do with this kind of story.  Where do you want me to take ’em?”

               He gave me an address and said to knock on the back-alley exit door.

               “I’ll meet you there shortly,”  he added.

               “Wait a minute, you’re supposed to take it easy.  Hello?  Hello?”

               He’d cut the connection.  Maybe I’d have to break my private rule about leaving friends alone when it came to hypnosis and give him a fish-eye whammy about taking a rest.

               Gordy asked what was going on, and I told him, then he offered to help me shift the bodies.

               “I can manage,”  I said.

               “My car’s already in the back.  What were you gonna do, haul ’em out the front door so some old lady walkin’ her dog sees and goes into fits?”

               Okay, . . . I let him talk me into it.

               But we didn’t get a chance to do anything about it right away.  First Bobbi all but shoved him onto a kitchen chair and made him have some coffee, to keep her company, she said.  I think it was more so she could keep an eye on me, get me to talk about other disasters than my own.  The ones going on in the rest of the world made my troubles seem small, like the Ohio River flooding.  It washed half a million people out of their homes, killed over two hundred, was turning Cairo into an island, the WPA and CCC were up to their asses laying down sandbags, and more rain and snow were on the way.  I wondered if I needed to be worrying about my folks and the rest of the family in Cincinnati.  The city was well downstream from things, but not all that far distant, and the water had to go somewhere sooner or later.

               But even with this bleak stuff for a topic it was good to just sit and gas on about it all with friends.  It was something normal, and I really needed a big dose of normal, a moment of quiet before the rest of the night jumped on my back and started beating me up.  Of course, it might not be that way, but recent events were to the point I was starting to always expect the worst.

               Not a good way to live.

               As for the wider world, Bobbi wondered what Escott thought about the way things were going in Europe.  I didn’t have much of an answer since we’d not really had much chance to talk politics lately, and what was the problem, anyway?  Turned out that the Germans weren’t giving the British a straight answer on making a lasting peace—when they even bothered to answer.  The fracas seemed pretty far away until I thought about Coldfield’s radio bringing Hitler’s voice right into his living room.

               “Think it’ll be war?”  Bobbi asked.

               I shrugged.  “You know more’n I do about it.”

               “They keep talking about peace all the time.  The British.”

               “Which means they’re scared shitless,”  said Gordy.  “Every fight I ever been in with the wiseguys in this town always happened right after the bosses arranged for an understanding.  You think it’s gonna be the usual business, just start to breathe easy, and next thing you know bullets are flying.”

               Which wasn’t exactly reassuring to me, what with my hopes of getting Angela to lay off and be nice.  I stared at the scarred surface of the kitchen table, idly picking at some splinters around a hole that happened when Escott and I had to fight a crazy man wielding an ice pick.  The place got quiet, and when I finally noticed, it was in time to see Bobbi and Gordy both looking at me like I’d sprouted a third ear.

               “What?”  I asked.

               “Think about something else for a minute, why don’t you?”  Bobbi suggested.

               She never lets me get away with anything, especially when it’s not good for me.  Well, if she wanted me to think about something else, we’d have to find a polite way of asking Gordy to leave us alone for a while.  That wasn’t too likely, so I settled for gently bumping my knee against hers under the table until she smiled.

               “I’m done,”  Gordy abruptly announced, standing and putting his coffee cup in the sink.  “Let’s get this show on the road.”

               Bobbi washed things up while he backed the Caddie out, spinning the wheel this way and that until the car was close to the door.  I kept my eyes open, but no neighbors got curious enough to take a look.  Maybe they were all cozy by their radios listening to Lum and Abner, or whatever was on tonight.  Too bad I couldn’t do the same.

               I slung Deiter over my shoulder like a sack and carried him out to the car.  My frame’s not as large as Gordy’s, but I’m a lot stronger, so it was no hardship.  Besides, I enjoyed the look on his usually phlegmatic face as I shoved Deiter into the backseat like he was a two-year-old.  Twice more and the Three Stooges were ready to roll.  I made a quick trip to the basement safe to get that fifty out and shoved it in my pocket with Escott’s pipe, tobacco pouch, and Webley.  Then I pulled on my long overcoat, third best hat, locked the house up—for all the good it seemed to do—and piled into the front seat of the Caddie.  Bobbi sat in the middle and snuggled hard against me as Gordy drove to the address I’d been given.

               It was near the edge of the Bronze Belt, an aging vaudeville house turned film theater, though the movie title up on the marquee was new to me.  I thought I knew ’em all.  Gordy passed it, made two turns, and rolled into the brick-lined alley running behind the place.  He cut the lights, but left the motor running.  I got out, found the back door, and rapped it a few times.  On the other side I heard music and dialogue from the show that was running.  It sounded like a drama.      

               The door opened and a flashlight beam caught me square in the kisser.  I winced against it.

               “Easy, brother,”  I said, putting my hand up.

               The light stayed put.  “I ain’t your brother ‘less you gone color-blind in a big way.”  I could guess the voice belonged to a black man, and he didn’t sound too happy.

               “Keep that in my eyes and I’ll go blind, period.”

               That got me a single dry cough of a laugh and he aimed the light at the floor.

               “My name’s Fleming, I was told to come here.”

               “I know.  I’m Mr. Delemare.”

               I stuck my hand out, but he didn’t take it.

               “Boss said you had a few bundles to store, but not for long.”

               “That’s right.  I’ll keep a watch on ’em until someone comes to take ’em off my hands.”

               “Okay, but you have to be quiet.  The audience is here to see the movie, not hear you banging around.”

               “No problem,”  I promised.  “Where do you want the bundles?”

               “Ten miles southeast of Halifax, but since that ain’t gonna happen, you can put everything just inside the door.  I’ll hold it so it don’t slam shut.”

               “Thanks,”  I said, and went out to the car and gave the news to Gordy. He nodded and cut the motor as I opened up the back.  I did the hauling again, though he helped pull them out.  Delemare watched, dark face made darker still by what seemed to be an expression of perpetual annoyance.  It could have been for me specifically or for the whole world in general, no way to tell, yet.  He didn’t seem to be in the least surprised that the bundles were three unconscious white men.  Most of his concern was for maintaining complete silence, though I didn’t see how anyone could have heard us above the movie.

               “I knew you’d come back, Johnny,”  a woman with a silken voice whispered above us.

               “But I can’t stay, doll.  I’m in trouble—bad trouble,”  a man, presumably Johnny, rumbled in reply.

               “Oh, Johnny!”

               The music soared dramatically.  From it, I got the impression they were kissing.  Couldn’t see anything of the screen, I caught only a few vertical slivers of light coming through a thick velvet curtain hanging behind it.  Its purpose seemed to be to keep the screen before it from being backlighted and thus spoiling the film’s projected image.

               I wanted to see more, but Delemare was in a hurry to lock up again because of the draft coming in.  He said it was twenty degrees out, and I believed him as I returned to the car to say good-bye to Bobbi.  Gordy was pretty decent about giving us some time and strolled a few yards off to have a smoke in the cold.  I slid into the front seat next to her.

               “Can’t we wait around a little longer?”  she asked.

               “Too much of a risk for Gordy.  He’s in enough hot water helping me this much.  He can do without calling special attention to himself by having Escott’s fed see him.  Don’t worry, after I deliver this bunch, I’m going to try to wind things up with Angela tonight.”

               “If she’s at this Flora’s place.”

               “I’m willing to bank on it.”

               “Just don’t get killed.”

               “That’s at the top of my list.”

               “I mean it, Jack.  When you were telling us about what happened last night I could tell how much you were leaving out so you wouldn’t scare me.  Well, it didn’t work.”

               “Next time I’ll have to try harder.”

               But she didn’t think that was even remotely funny.  “You wouldn’t say such things if you could see your eyes.”

               I glanced at the rearview mirror, touched it.  I made a fingerprint smudge, but raised no image.  “Don’t think I want to, I probably wouldn’t like it much.”

               “I sure as hell don’t.  I want you to come back in one piece—inside and out.  Don’t let this kill your soul, Jack.  I’ve seen it happen to others.”

               “What others?”

               “Gordy for one.  The things he does, the people he deals with, that’s what got to him.”

               “But Gordy and I are different.”

               “Then what about you and Charles?”

               “Charles?  You trying to tell me his soul is dead?”

               “Or so buried it might as well be.  Haven’t you figured that out by now?  You told me how cold he can be at times.  He wasn’t born that way, life did something to him and hollowed him out.  All the stuff he does now is to cover that space up so people won’t see it or ever guess it’s there.”

               “Bobbi, this is—”

               Not crazy talk.”

               “I wasn’t going to say that.” 

               “The hell you weren’t.  You can think it’s crazy, but trust me, I know what I’m saying on this.  I don’t want you ending up like Charles.  He’s charming, he’s fun, and he’s smart, but think about what’s underneath all that.  I don’t want the same thing happening to you, taking you away from yourself.”

               “Nothing’s going to take me away.”

               “Oh, sweetheart, don’t you know?”

               “Know what?”

               She touched the side of my face, looking as sad as a crucifixion angel.  “It’s already started.”

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

               Gordy and Bobbi were long gone; I sat in the darkness behind the theater screen feeling worried about myself at a time when I didn’t want to feel worried about myself.  I had enough trouble on my hands not to be borrowing a fresh batch by looking into a mirror for something I couldn’t see in more ways than one. 

               Along with singing, one of Bobbi’s many other talents was for slicing through the fat to get straight to the bone; she was right about Gordy, and my instincts said she was right about Escott.  As for being right about me, well, thinking about it gave me the creeps, so I tried not to and failed, of course, pacing around in the small space looking for a wall to climb if it got bad enough.

               For distraction I checked on the Stooges, but they were all quiet, if probably cold and uncomfortable on the bare concrete floor, but too bad for them.  I wondered when the hell Escott planned on coming; I wanted to be shed of this pit and away from my thoughts, to be doing something.  Deiter had given out with a possibly hot lead that could take me straight to Angela, and it needed checking before tomorrow arrived.

               The movie kept my impatience at bay for a time, but the voices were unfamiliar and I wondered who was in it; I thought I’d seen and knew ’em all.  Since my charges were tied up safe, I used a narrow passage that Delemare had taken earlier to go out front and followed it, eventually finding a peephole in the thin plywood wall that looked into the auditorium.  What lay on the other side brought me up short.

               I expected the audience to be black, but not the actors on the screen.  I’d heard of such pictures, but never actually seen one with an all black cast. Now and then you’d spot a performer doing a specialty number in a film, like Bill Robinson or the Nicholas Brothers, but not a whole movie like this.  I was fascinated.  Except for the Cotton Club in New York and the Shoe Box here in the city, there wasn’t a lot of mixing going on between the races, and people on both sides of the fence often actively discouraged it.

               The plot was about a guy accused of murder who had to prove that a gang had done the dirty work.  It was no worse than others I’d seen along the same lines and this one had, surprisingly, worked musical numbers into the story, only they looked like they belonged to a totally different movie.  The thing wound itself up with a gunfight and a deathbed confession; the guilty man had done it to remove his rival and get the girl.  As she and the hero had a final closing clinch, the music soared, faded, and was replaced by the authoritative tones of a newsreel.  The news was all about white people.  The audience began pulling on their coats and hats and filing out, except for a few staying on to see the show again.

               When the film started up with the opening credits, Delemare came back and found me getting absorbed in the story.

               “What the hell you doin’?”  he demanded.

               “Shh,”  I said, whispering.  “You want them to hear?  I’m watching the show.”

               “But that’s an all colored movie.”

               “I had noticed.”

               “What is it?  Some kind of curiosity for you like ‘Believe It or Not’?”

               “Huh?  I was just trying to see how they did the frame against Johnny.”

               “What the hell for?”

               Then someone in the audience told us to shut up.  I shrugged and went back along the passage to the backstage area, Delemare right behind me.

               “Why you watchin’ a colored movie?”  he still wanted to know.  I got a better look at him now, medium in height and build, balding, gray hair at the temples, age anywhere between forty and sixty.  He had a set-in, grim expression that may have been the result of the hard times or just the natural bent of his personality.

               “Why not?  I like movies and that’s what’s running.  I’m going nuts waiting back here in the dark. You got something against me watching the show?  I’ll pay for it if you want.”

               “I don’t need your money.”

               “So what’s the problem?”

               “Just ain’t natural, I’m thinkin’.”

               “What?  For a white guy to watch a black movie?”

               He grunted and it could have meant anything from contempt to an affirmative or maybe both.

               “Well, it’s interesting to me.  Where’d it come from?”

               “Hollywood, where else?”

               “Yeah?”

               “Yeah.  This is what gets shot when the white crust is put away for the night.”

               “And there’s no white people in any of ’em?”

               “You see many black people in the white films?”

               “Good point.  No wonder we’re so pig ignorant about each other.”

               “Oh, jeez, you’re not gonna start about how them actors are a credit to their race and all that crap, are you?  If there’s one thing I can’t belly it’s some do-goodin’ social soldier—”

               “Whoa there, I’m not—”

               “—out to raise me above myself an’—”

               “You’ve got the wrong—”

               “You comin’ in here an’ staring bug-eyed—”

               “Now just a frigging minute—”

               “Makin’ judgments about what you don’t know—”

               Then several people on the other side of the screen told us to shut the hell up or take it outside.  Delemare and I glared at each other for a moment, then he made a shrugging, throwing-away gesture and walked off, though he didn’t get far.  Someone knocked at the back exit.  He beat me to it, brought up his flashlight, and opened the door a crack.  It was Escott.  Delemare blinded him with the light, then grudgingly admitted him to the inner sanctum.

               “Mr. Coldfield sends his regards,”  he said to Delemare, who was unimpressed.

               “You tell that snot-nosed kid he’s gettin’ too big for his britches, an’ I’m only doin’ this for his sister, for her being such a lady.”

               “I’ll be sure to pass that along to him.”

               “You do that.  Now get this trash outta my theater.”

               “Immediately, sir.”

               Delemare shot him an annoyed look, but Escott was all sincere respect, then moved off down the passage again.

               From what I could see in the faint and shifting illumination filtering through from the screen Escott looked better than the night before.  He wasn’t moving around as freely as normal, but he was moving, and his expression, though still bruised, was sharp with interest rather than dulled out with pain.  Trudence Coldfield must have worked a small miracle on him.

               “Interesting fellow,”  he observed when Delemare was out of earshot.

               “If you like rabid wolverines.  You got here just before another Great War broke out.”

               “Indeed?  He must have liked you.”

               Liked me?”

               “Oh, yes, Shoe mentioned that Mr. Delemare enjoys a good fight more than anything else, but only indulges in one if he likes a person.”

               “Jeez, I stay here much longer and he’ll put me in his will.”

               “Then we shall delay no more.  I didn’t see your car outside, how did—”

               “Gordy came by the house and helped load the goods, offered me a lift.”

               “That was most kind of him.”

               “I don’t think kindness was what he had in mind.  He also offered to bury these guys in the next WPA project, but I told him you had first dibs.”

               “Thank you, I think.”

               “And there’s some more stuff: now that Kyler’s out of the way New York is sending in a heavyweight called Sullivan to take his place.”

               That caught his attention.  “Sean Sullivan?”

               “According to sleeping beauty over there.”  I motioned at Deiter.

               “I’ve certainly heard of the man, a rotter by all accounts.  What else have you learned?”

               I quickly filled him in on what I knew from Gordy and what I’d gotten from Deiter.

               Escott gave a slight head shake.  “From the sound of this you may not be required to do anything at all, simply sit back and see what develops.”

               “I don’t have to see, I know.  Angela’s going to put up a fight and more people will get killed.”

               “If the Hydra we’re facing wants to chop off a few of its own heads I think it is in our own best interests to move out of the way and let it get on with the business.”

               Well, I already knew about his streak of darkness, but what Bobbi had said about him came back to me, and I found myself staring at his battered face, trying to see what was behind his eyes.  For right here and now it looked like a wall made of ice-cold iron bricks.

               “I’ll try my way first, if you don’t mind,”  I murmured.

               “As you wish.  Best get going, then, our transportation is waiting.”

               “What is it exactly?”  Needing something else to think about, I poked my head out the door and caught sight of a dark panel-sided truck that had somehow squeezed into the alley.  The Stooges wouldn’t lack for room in it.

               “I contacted a federal friend of mine, a Mr. Adkins.  It took him a bit to make the arrangements, but he’s come through for us, as you can see.”

               The name tripped a breaker in my brain.  “Adkins?  As in Merrill Adkins?”

               “The very one.  My, but his fame does seem to be spreading.”

               “Well, yeah, when you mount a plow on the nose of a truck and charge into a distillery with machine guns blazing it does make for headlines.”             During Prohibition Merrill Adkins created a name for himself by busting up more stills per week than any ten treasury agents put together.  When Repeal came he shifted into tracking down federal fugitives.  Last I’d heard he’d taken part in the gangster hunt and shoot-out disaster that had enabled Baby Face Nelson to escape capture sometime back.  It had been an all-round embarrassment for everyone.  After that he’d dropped from sight.

               “He hardly ever does that sort of thing anymore,”  said Escott.  “Much too noisy.”

               “What’s his connection to you?”

               “We share a common interest in fighting the Hydra.  I met him a year or so back on another case.”

               “So you’re bringing him in on this?  It’s important enough to get noticed by the feds?”

               “By this particular one, at any rate.”

               “On what kind of charges?  Even if Deiter and his pals intended to commit murder, breaking and entering’s not exactly headline stuff these days.”  Adkins had always been there for the newsreel cameras, looking closemouthed and modest.

               “Not to worry, Adkins is more than willing to take things in hand at this point.”

               “What do you mean by that?”

               “Oh, he shan’t interfere with anything you have planned, particularly since he doesn’t know that you have plans, but he will relieve us of the responsibility of these three burdens.”

               “And do what with them?”

               Before Escott could answer Adkins himself walked through the door.  It’s a bit of a jolt to be face-to-face with someone you’ve seen in the newsreels and all the papers.  This guy had even gotten into The New York Times, which is some trick since his line of work was more suited for the Hearst rags.  He was in them, too, a lot, a real somebody who had done things to deserve the fame, if you could believe the reports.  I tried to match the reality to the black-and-white shadows I’d seen in the reels.

               You know exactly what celebrities look like, what they’re doing that made them famous, even admire them for it, and there they are with you, close enough to touch.  You want to but you don’t because of the combination respect and bashfulness reflex most people get when they have a brush with a big shot.  They don’t know you from Adam, and probably have no reason to correct the oversight, but because they’re famous, you want them to know you, you want to matter to them in some way.  Even if it’s just for a minute, it ends up being your minute, your little piece of them to take away.  Nutty stuff, but that’s human nature, and I was no different from anyone else on it, and even with all this in mind I found myself straightening my hat and touching my tie. 

               Adkins was less formally attired in a short hunting jacket, a striped scarf wrapped around his neck and a sweat-stained newsboy’s hat.  He seemed about my age, had a thin hard face, small mouth, heavy lids over slightly protruding black eyes, a determined, unsmiling expression, just like in the reels.  Not handsome, but he didn’t have to be.  Escott introduced us and we shook hands.  I said it was a real pleasure.  Adkins gave a noncommittal grunt for a reply and didn’t bother removing his work gloves.

               “This it?”  he asked, gesturing at the Stooges.

               Escott nodded.  “Three less heads for the Hydra to turn upon us.”

               “We’ll take care of ’em.” 

               By that I understood he had friends waiting outside.  “You want a statement or anything from me?”  I asked.

               He gave me a once-over glance, shook his head.  “Don’t need to right now.”

               That didn’t sound kosher.  Government guys were sticklers for paperwork.  “When, then?”

               “Later, we’ll let you know.”

               “Where you taking them?”

               The glance was turning into a stare.  “Out of the way.”

               “Out of the city?  Out of the state?”

               “You don’t need to worry about it, kid, they won’t be sneaking up on you anytime soon.”  There was more than a hint of condescension in his tone.

               So my restored youth was working against me, that or he was a career asshole.  I shoved whatever hero worship I might have had in a deep pocket and put on an expression of earnest relief.  “Well, golly gee, I sure am glad to hear it.  I wouldn’t want to have to hurt ’em all over again.”

               His small mouth got smaller, and I wondered for a moment whether he’d try punching mine.  If so, then he’d only get the one attempt.  But his gaze flicked around me and to the side the way you do when you’re dismissing something way beneath your notice, and he told Escott he’d be back with help, then went out.

               “He always like that?”  I asked.

               Brows high, Escott went innocent.  “Like what, old man?”

               “Forget I asked.  Think I’ll go find Delemare again so we can have a nice cozy race riot.”

               He had time for half a chuckle then held the door open as Adkins returned with two more men dressed like himself.  They ignored me and went about the business of hauling Stooges out to the truck.  I didn’t offer to help; I’d done my share and figured to have more work ahead tonight.

               “You’re going to look for Miss Paco?”  asked Escott, only just loud enough so I could hear him over the sound from the movie.

               “And find her, if what Deiter gave me was straight.”

               “You might want to consider holding off a bit until Sean Sullivan gets settled in.”

               “Uh-uh, I’m finishing things up tonight.  She’s not going to be so busy with him as to cancel the hit on you.”

               “My thought was to spare you undue disquietude.  You gave me to understand that you’re not quite comfortable about employing your persuasive talents on young ladies.  By holding off and waiting, you need not distress yourself at all.”

               A few nights back I’d told him about a still-too-fresh crisis I’d had when hypnotizing a woman to get some information.  While she was under my influence I’d started taking her blood, way too much of it.  That loss of self-control had scared the hell out of me.  I was still scared, of myself, of my questionable ability to keep my own dark side in check in the future.  I hoped I was scared enough.

               “Can’t get out of it, Charles.  I’ll be careful.”

               He looked at me like he wasn’t all that convinced of my assurance. 

His cautious attitude didn’t offend; it just made for two of us.  “You may avoid any problems altogether by waiting a day or so.”

               I cocked a sharp eye at him.  “You know something I don’t?”

               “Only a bit more about local gang politics.  Even if Angela does manage to get Kyler’s account books the other mobs are not going to want to deal with a woman.  If they don’t already know, they will soon find out about the pretense of her using her father as the front man and won’t stand for it.  She will soon be brushed aside.”

               “Translated, that means a gang war.”

               “Fewer heads on the Hydra.  Angela Paco is only one of them.  The world has thousands more.  When a war breaks out they only kill each other, so I say why not let them get on with it?”

               There was that cold streak again, and it made a kind of crazy sense up to a point.  “I’m all for it, but we both know innocent people get hit in the cross fire.  And if you get scragged who’s going to pick up my laundry?”

               No answer for that one.

               Adkins and his boys got the last Stooge tucked away in the truck.  He came over to speak to Escott.

               “Can’t give you a ride back,”  he stated.  No apology in his tone.  No emotion whatsoever.  I didn’t have to wonder what Bobbi would have made of him.

               “I’ll find other means of travel.  Should there be any new developments, will I be able to contact you at the same number?”

               “Yeah, sure, something will get through to me.”  If he didn’t watch it his piss-and-vinegar enthusiasm could sweep us off our feet.  Maybe Escott found him useful, but to me he was about as charming as a dead mackerel three days gone.  Adkins jumped in the cab of the truck with his buddies and the thing trundled out of the alley, gears grinding, exhaust billowing and stinking the place up before the wind got to it.

               “You going back to the Shoe Box?”  I asked Escott, shutting the theater door on the parade.

               “Not right away.  I thought I’d take in the show, then see if Mr. Delemare won’t give me a ride.”

               That’d be a good trick, but then Escott was a genius at talking people into things.  I fished out his requested pipe, tobacco, and the fifty bucks and gave them over. 

               “Excellent,”  he said, pleasure evident on his face.  “Cigarettes are a quick convenience, but there’s nothing quite like a pipe for a real smoke.”

               “And here’s a bonus.”  I hauled his Webley-Fosbury automatic revolver from my coat and presented it to him, enjoying the expression on his face.

               “My dear fellow, you are a miracle worker.  Wherever did you find it?”

               “Deiter must have taken it as a war prize.  Sure you want it back?  The last two guys who had it weren’t exactly lucky.”

               “My delving into the realm of myth and superstition is strictly limited to the theatrical profession, not cases like this.”  He checked the cylinder and muttered a grudging approval for the ammunition it held.

               “What about me?  Ain’t I a myth?”  I vanished and reappeared a foot to his left to illustrate the point.

               “You,”  he said, not looking at all impressed,  “are merely a scientific puzzle that wants a bit more research.”

               “Thanks a heap.”

               He put the Webley away in his overcoat pocket, wincing at the movement.

               “Shouldn’t you be someplace safe and quiet?  Resting?”

               He made as expansive a gesture as his taped ribs allowed.  “Who would look for me here?”

               “You’re kind of noticeable, pale face.”

               “Not to worry, I’ll sit way in the back and not make any trouble.  Hopefully, Mr. Delemare will vouch for my good behavior should anyone take offense.”

               I got out my little notebook and wrote a number, ripped the sheet free and handed it over.  “This is where you can reach Bobbi if you need to.  She’d probably like to hear from you.”

               “Is she all right?”

               “Worried, wants all this finished and done.”  Another reason for me not to delay.  “Oh, and if you need to talk to Gordy, it can’t be to his club, there’s a tap on the line.”

               “Does he know what you’re going to do?”

               “He didn’t exactly ask and I didn’t exactly say.  Maybe he talked some with Bobbi and has a notion about things from her.  He gives me the idea he’s waiting to see what happens and then will go from there.  His New York bosses told him to stay out of it, presumably to give Sullivan some elbow room.”

               “Or to provide reinforcements should they be required.  I’d advise you to be cautious with him, not rely on him if you can at all help it.  Gordy may be helpful now, but if push comes to shove. . .”

               Gordy was a businessman, and he wouldn’t put himself out for anyone if it jeopardized his spot in the organization.  He was too fond of breathing.  “Yeah.  Tell me about it.”

               “I was rather hoping that would be unnecessary.”

 

qqq

 

To avoid getting more attention than necessary I left by the back door and started walking until I found an L-train to take me to the neighborhood I wanted.  Chicago is a hell of a sprawl, swallowing up little towns one by one, making them part of the big one.  My destination was one such spot.  At the turn of the century it was probably a rustic delight, but the boom brought on by Prohibition had turned it into a square mile of brothels, gin joints, and burlesque houses, blocks of ’em only occasionally interrupted by an eatery, a grocer’s, or some other more ordinary business.  The population lived cheap and died young, usually just a few steps ahead of a landlord with his hand out for back rent.  Oddly enough, the Depression hadn’t hit here as hard as in other places, since people could always be counted upon to have enough money to spend on their vices.

               Just on the edge of things was the all-night movie house that was one of my regular haunts.  I was usually out this way a couple of times a month when I got tired of staring at the walls of my room on those evenings when I didn’t have a date with Bobbi.  For other people, when the bars closed down and they still didn’t want to go home, this was the place to spend the rest of the night.  During the winter, if they could scrape up a dime for the admission and not spend it on booze, the bums would come here to get a warm place to sleep.  They could stay at one of the rescue missions for nothing if they wanted, but most preferred watching a movie to being preached to, and second runs of a Shirley Temple feature was close as they wanted to get to redemption.  I was here often enough that they knew me by sight and that I wasn’t a soft touch for drink money.  Once in a while if it was really bad weather, I’d pay the way in for a regular or two, but I handled the tickets to keep them from being traded off for a share in a bottle.

               The neighborhood didn’t appeal to me beyond the movie house, so I’d never paid much mind to it beyond the attention necessary to avoid getting mugged.  This time when I strolled along the sidewalk from the L-stop, I had more eyes for my surroundings.  Sure enough, there was Flora’s Dance Studio across and down the street just like Deiter said.

               Passing the theater (it was a Marlene Dietrich film tonight), I walked unhurriedly along until I was opposite my goal.  For a cold, windy night they seemed to have plenty of business going for them.  A dozen or so men were gathered under the bright lights of the entry, and whenever the doors opened I heard the brassy tones of a live band banging out a fast version of “Melancholy Baby.”  Once past the glitter, I saw an old, rambling two-story structure that must have stood duty for dozens of other businesses over the decades; you could see where past signs in the wood had faded and been painted over.  One of the current signs read Fifty—Count Them!—Fifty Beautiful Girls Who Want to Dance With YOU!  Lights showed on the top floor, but the blinds were down.

               I crossed the street and joined a line of men in front of a ticket kiosk.  So it wasn’t an instructional studio, but a hall for taxi dancers.  The men paid out one or two bucks for a string of ten or twenty tickets, then a bouncer pretending to be an usher motioned the way inside.  I bought ten tickets and followed the rest through the door.  To the right was a place to check your hat and overcoat, but some of the men kept theirs, leaving them draped on chairs lining the sides of the hall.  I left mine on, same as a few others who weren’t trusting in the integrity of their fellow citizens not to steal.  My reason had to do with the fact I didn’t know how long I’d be staying, and if I had to leave in a hurry I’d rather have my property with me.

               It was a pretty big place, with a low ceiling held up by thin metal columns at regular intervals.  The noise was high over the music, shuffling feet on the scarred wood floor, a woman’s artificial laugh, a man’s hopeful voice, muttered conversation everywhere between strangers holding each other in an imitation of passion.  Everyone was well behaved, though, there were plenty of bouncers to see to that.  For some of the customers this was the closest contact they could manage with a woman, and they weren’t about to screw things up for themselves by getting thrown out.  I saw men of all ages and backgrounds, and just standing there heard five different accents asking the girls variations of “what’s your name?” and “will you dance with me again?”  Most had taken the trouble to dress themselves up; even if the suit was twenty years old, it was brushed clean.  I saw little old guys with hair parted in the middle like they did when the century turned and gangly kids that were all pimples and buckteeth, hair slicked back with half a jar of Vaseline in hopeful imitation of George Raft.

               The girls were mostly young, some were even pretty, but moved slow on obviously sore feet as the evening was not new.  A couple of girls still kept their energy up and it was making them money.  When a song ended—none went on longer than two minutes—it was time to rest or change partners, or dance one more time with the same guy.  Signs on the wall declared you could only dance with a girl twice in a row, then had to switch.  I suppose it was meant to keep you from becoming too attached.  Jeez, you could fall in love with her and suavely sweep her away from all the glamour to a fifth-floor walk-up and half a dozen kids neither of you could afford.  Couldn’t have that.

               The music stopped and a girl with frizzy yellow hair and a bored face came over and asked if I wanted a dance.  Her satin dress needed to retire; she’d tried sprucing it up with some paper flowers, but they were crushed now, probably had been for days.  I gave her one of my tickets and caught a flash of leg as she lifted her skirt hem and shoved the bit of pasteboard into the top of her stocking along with a wad of other tickets.  Other girls across the floor were doing the same. You could tell the popular ones were by the size of the distending lump on the front of each thigh.  I wondered how much of that ten-cent ticket they were allowed to hang on to for dancing with the customers.  Enough to keep them in paper flowers, no doubt.

               A slow waltz started up and I took my gal in hand, and in deference to her sore feet led her around a few snaillike turns so I could get a better look at the place.  The band had a trumpet man, a snare drum, piano, fiddle, and a couple others I didn’t catch right off, all playing loud so they could be heard on the other side of the hall.  Around the edge of the dancers were guys holding tickets waiting for the number to end so they could cut in and get the partner they wanted.  There were few wallflower girls, none were shy about going up and asking a guy to dance with them.  Anyone acting coy here wouldn’t make the rent for the week.  Even if the girl was plain as an unpainted barn, her offer was usually accepted; you could practically smell the loneliness coming off the men, mixed in with the scent of bay rum.

               Plenty of bouncers stood around keeping an eye on everyone, but it looked to be a quiet night.  Compared to some of the other Paco businesses, this was as respectable as a church picnic.  I knew for sure now that it was connected with Paco, because with no small satisfaction I spotted one of his men going up some stairs at the far side of the hall.  His name was Newton, and I would have recognized him for a ringer no matter what.  The difference between the regular bouncers and Angela’s professional killers was pretty obvious if you knew what to look for, kind of like being able to tell a peashooter from a machine gun.

               Now that I’d seen one of them I noticed there was a lot of coming and going on the stairway, all men, some in cheap flashy suits and loud ties, others apparently just finished with their jobs in drab work pants and oil-stained shirts.  None matched up with the would-be Fred Astaires I was rubbing elbows with.

               More went up than came down and this was where the bouncers were really concentrated to keep out the unwelcome.  Quite a mixed crowd it was, and I had a pretty good idea what was drawing them together, but wanted confirmation.

               “What’s upstairs?”  I asked the girl.

               “I dunno,”  she mumbled through her chewing gum.  “Manager’s office, I guess.  He’s always up there.”

               “He must have a lot of company.  Who are all those guys going up?”

               She shrugged.  “Customers, I guess.”

               “For what?”

               “I dunno.  Dance lessons maybe.” 

               She wasn’t holding back as far as I could tell; it’s hard to fake that kind of supreme disinterest.  The waltz finally ended, and I gave her the rest of my string of tickets, which woke her up.

               “Hey, I can’t dance with you for all these,”  she said.

               “Pretend,”  I said with a wink, and walked on toward the stairs, losing myself from her in the general crowd.

               There was a men’s room along the same wall, which was a bit of luck.  I waited until another dance started and pushed in, standing in line for one of the closed stalls.  My idea was to go in, vanish, and find my way up to the second floor, but now it didn’t seem so hot.  The next guy in line might start wondering why I didn’t come out.  Then he’d check and find I was gone.  Not that he could do anything about the mystery, but it was better to keep my head low and unnoticed for as long as I could get away with it. 

               I obligingly let others ahead of me and moved to the back of the line.  A fast check to make sure none were looking my way and I vanished with nobody being the wiser for it.  As far as I could tell, I got away with it since there was no immediate reaction.  That gave me a pretty smug feeling, being able to pull something like that off.  I let it carry me as I filtered through the porous resistance that was the ceiling to emerge onto the floor above.

               Since I’m blind in this state it’s always an adventure trying to get my bearings.  Hard enough to attempt in familiar surroundings, it could be a real circus for my brain in strange territory like this.  I bumbled along a wall, found a corner, turned, and soon turned again, bouncing lightly against oddly placed  surfaces.  There didn’t seem to be anyone about, so I chanced partially forming again and found my ghostly body floating about a foot off the floor in the stall of another men’s room placed exactly above the first.  No big surprise there, it was probably for the convenience of the water pipes.  I drifted down to the floor and went solid.

               Someone in the next stall flushed and left.  The rest of the place was happily clear, so I eased out to hear better.  Music and the drone of the crowd came from below, efficiently masking over anything useful I might pick up.  I opened the door a crack and peered out into a hall.  Cheap wood panel gone dark with age halfway up the walls, the other half all peeling paint and water marks, with light fixtures hanging by rusty chains, I swear some of them were still sporting their old gaslight fittings.  Lots of men milling around or waiting to get into certain rooms, but no sign of Newton, at least from this view.  I chanced poking my head out to check the other end of the hall.  More doors and crowd.  Okay, so where was the big attraction?

               Then I picked up the unmistakable sound of slot machines being worked and a roulette wheel spinning.  Great, I’d guessed right, give the man a cigar.

               No one paid any mind to me as I stepped out for a better look around.  What conversation I picked up had to do with every conceivable sporting event going on that week and how much to lay out on which risk.  The numbers were pretty low, a reflection of the general poverty of the neighborhood and the times, but there were plenty of bettors to make up for the lack.  I was in the wrong business if I wanted to make money.  Maybe I should invest in a good solid, tried-and-true gold-plated vice, then sit back and watch the dollars roll in until I had my own mansion and twelve-car garage.  Of course, there’d be the tough part of explaining it all to the tax man, but that’s where accountants like Opal come in, making fancy with the bookkeeping until it looks all clean and sweet.  But then there’s other guys in the same vice business, your rivals, all trying to take the butter off your toast, so you either make a treaty or shoot ’em, simple as that. Then you hire lawyers to keep you out of court, or have enough dough to pay off the judge when they can’t, or buy off the whole goddamned jury when...

               I shook my head. Too much trouble. When I wound all this up I wanted to go back to my battered typewriter and make up nice simple stories about man-eating spiders, and then maybe Bobbi wouldn’t worry so much.

               Being just another face in dim light I had no problems making my way from one side of the hall to the other.  Everyone was more concerned trying to figure a new angle on how to get some free money than to notice a fake in the crowd.  The bouncers were another matter, though.  As I worked my way around I checked each one against my memory on the theory that if I knew one, he’d know me, then it’d be time for my vanishing act again and the hell with the consequences.

               There were a few closed doors at the far end of the long hall, one held a sheet of pebbled glass that had a light showing through.  Maybe it was the manager’s hiding place.  Might as well start there.  I did the same as in the men’s room, put my back to a wall, waited until no one was looking my way, and disappeared again.

               Invisible now in a forest of feet, I slipped along, keeping the baseboard on my left so I wouldn’t get mixed up until striking the end wall, then it was a matter of pouring through the gap where its door didn’t quite meet the threshold.

               Unlike the other mugs out there, this was my lucky night.  The first voice I heard was Angela Paco’s.  I found an unused corner, took up post there, and waited and listened.

               “They should have called in by now,”  she snarled.  She seemed to be moving, probably pacing back and forth.  This was one gal who didn’t know how to hold still.

               “Every hour on the hour,”  added a man in an agreeable tone.  I recognized the voice as belonging to Doc, a joyfully inebriated crony she’d inherited from her father.  Whether Doc was a real lieutenant with power in the organization or just a sometimes useful hanger-on, I still hadn’t figured out.  Last night, when some morphine-laced blood I’d been forced to take to keep alive knocked me flat, he’d pronounced me to be deader than Dixie, which decided Angela about dropping me in the lake.  It was no reflection on his medical abilities—not that I had much trust in them—but when I’m out for the count and unable to speak or move, anyone could mistake me for dead.  Depending on how things went tonight, Angela was in for a hell of a shock.

               “Where are they?”  Another snarl from her, and it sounded like she’d been asking that same question for some time now.

               “You can try calling them.”

               She muttered and grumbled out a negative reply.  “If he’s pulling a double cross on me with Sullivan, I’ll string ’em both up by their balls.”

               So . . . she definitely knew about Sullivan coming into town and was obviously not happy about it.

               “Now, now, you know your daddy doesn’t like such language.”

               “You and I both know he hardly notices stuff like that anymore.  Why the hell don’t you do something about him?  You’re supposed to be a doctor.”

               “Indeed I am, good for busted bones, lancing boils, and patching up the odd bullet hole or two.  Frank needs a head doctor to fix him, not a quack like me.”

               “They’re all quacks with their hands out for cash and none of ’em doing him a damn bit of good as far as I can see.  I had him in that sanitarium for months and all they did was make him worse.”

               “They got him so he could dress himself and eat okay.”

               “He’s like a kid, I don’t want a kid for a father, I want my dad back and running things like before.”

               “I know, girl, but sometimes we can’t get what we-”

               “For God’s sake, Doc, don’t give me that load of crap again or I’ll start screaming.”

               Doc subsided, and I heard Angela’s heels clacking on the floor as she walked back and forth.

               “Where the hell are they?”  she repeated.

               This time Doc made no attempt at an answer.  I wished he’d take a trip to the john so I could do something about her; I was getting tired of concentrating to stay invisible.

               “Where?”  A loud crash across the room as a heavy object hit the wall.  I got the impression she’d thrown something.

               “I do want to remind you that this is not your office and that was not your property,”  said Doc.

               “Screw it.  With the money he makes here, Dunbar can buy himself another bowling trophy.  I know he skims off the top, they all do.  As soon as Opal gets herself set up I’m going to nail the whole pack of ’em to the wall to dry out in the sun.”

               Someone knocked and the door opened. “Angela. . .?”  Another man’s voice.

               “That’s Miss Paco to you now.”

               “Uhh—yeah, Miss Paco.  What’s wrong?  I heard—”

               “Nothing, you heard nothing.”

               “Yes, Miss Paco.  Ahh, as long as I’m here, you got a minute?”

               “What do you want?”

               A shuffling as the owner of the voice and several others came into the room.

               “What is this, a convention?”  she demanded.

               “We really need to talk to you, Miss Paco.”  He sounded more confident, probably because of all the people backing him up.  There seemed to be seven or eight of them.

               “What about?”

               “The way the business is going.”

               “Last I looked it was just peachy.  Those roulette wheels are still spinning and the slot machines are raking in more dough than a bakery.  You complaining?”

               “I don’t mean what’s in here, it’s the rest of it.”

               “Which isn’t exactly your concern.”

               “We don’t think that way, Miss Paco.”

               “Oh, you’re thinking now.  Please enlighten me, Mr. Dunbar.”

               “Well, it’s like this, we know that Big Frankie ain’t feeling so good lately an’ that you been running things for him.”

               “So?”

               “So we wanted to know how long it would be going on.”

               “Only until Big Frankie’s better.”

               “But how long?”

               “As long as it takes.  I’m not making you poor, am I?”

               “Well, no, but it just—it just ain’t right for a girl to be doing this kinda thing.”

               “Says who?”

               Dunbar hemmed and hawed, then finally came out with it.  “We know that Sean Sullivan’s comin’ in to take over for Kyler.  There might be trouble.”

               A long silence on Angela’s part, then,  “And you boys don’t think I can handle him?”  Her voice was low, clear and very cold.

               “Maybe if Big Frankie was—”

               “Answer me, Dunbar.”

               “You’re—you’re just a girl, Miss Paco.”

               A very brief silence, then a gun went off.  Loud, but not too loud, like a balloon popping.  A .22 perhaps, great for indoor work.  I heard a thud as a body hit the floor, a man’s drawn-out cry of extreme pain, then a series of grunts and groans mixed with cursing.

               “Any of you other bastards think I can’t handle myself?”  she asked, her voice even, like she’d commented on the weather.  “Come on, talk to me about it.”

               Not too surprisingly there were no takers.

               “All right, now I’m going to give it to you straight: Sullivan’s coming into town, and yes, he’ll try to make some trouble, but you can make book that I’ll be able to dish back anything he throws at us, but doubled.  Anyone got any doubts, then have another look at Dunbar.”

               “You damned bitch,”  said Dunbar, apparently through pain-clenched teeth.

               “You’re right about that,”  she said.  “I am a damned bitch through and through and you’re one lucky bastard.  You caught me in a good mood tonight or I’d have aimed higher and changed your voice the hard way.  As for the rest of you, if you plan to give me any grief, then you’d better put that out of your heads right here and now because I’ve got no belly for it.  This is a steady, profitable organization that’s made you a ton of money and will continue to do so while I’m running things for Big Frankie Paco.  Nothing’s changed and nothing will change.  Got that?”

               “But—but what about Sullivan?”  asked one brave soul.

               “We treat him the same as any other asshole trying to muscle in on Paco territory.  Kyler tried and failed, this won’t be any different, because I’m going to run it the same as Big Frankie, which means I need you to do your jobs same as before.  I’ve got all the account books, and you know they mean I’ve got the world by the short hairs.  I’m not afraid to give ’em a yank when it’s needed.”

               A murmur and a nervous laugh of approval for that one.

               “When my father’s all recovered I’m handing the whole caboose back to him, and you can bet that I’ll have a list in hand of anyone who turned chicken and let him down.  You want to face that?  I didn’t think so.”

               I heard more shuffling and murmurs. No one seemed ready to disagree with her.

               “All right. I’m not saying things are going to be smooth. I’ll need every one of you helping out before the dust settles, but when it does, you won’t find me ungrateful. I’m thinking a hundred-dollar bonus for each and a couple of free nights at the Satchel with all the booze you can handle might cheer you up.  All I ask is that you don’t break the girls, ’cause I’ll need ’em for the regular customers later.”

               That garnered the start of a general laugh.  “Sure, Miss Paco,”  someone said.

               “That’s better.  Big Frankie’d be proud.  Now, a couple of you get Dunbar out of here, he’s making such a mess I’ll have to call for the night maid.”

               Another short laugh, followed by movement.  Dunbar cried out again as he was carried away.

               “Doc?”  she said when they were gone.

               “Don’t worry, girl, I’ll get my bag.  I swear, you keep this up and I’ll run out of bandaging.”

               “I do whatever it takes.”

               “That you do, that you do.  You put this fire out well enough.  You impressed the hell out of this bunch by making sure Dunbar ain’t gonna be bowling again for the rest of his life, but what about Sullivan?  You won’t sweet-talk the likes of him out of town with a promise of free booze and broads.”

               “I told you: whatever it takes.”

               “Huh.  I’d warn you not to get carried away, but what’s the point?”

               “That’s right.  A dozen down, three to go.”

               “What?”

               “Deiter, Tinny, and Chick.  Finding out what the hell happened to them.  If I don’t hear from them in the next five minutes I’m going over myself to see what’s wrong.”

               Invisible and formless, I still managed to grin.  Good luck to her in trying to find her missing stooges.

               “Be better if you send someone else.”

               “You think I can’t—”

               “You can handle it fine, girl, I was thinking it might make you look too anxious if you go yourself.  Don’t want the others to get the idea that you’re worried about a routine hit on some nobody.”

               I’d better not tell Escott that Doc thought of him as a nobody or he’d be hell to live with at the slight.

               Angela didn’t care much for Doc’s recommendation and told him so.

               “Like it or not, your best course is to always ask what your daddy would do in the same situation.  My guess is he’d send someone else to check on the problem for him.  Let the rest of ’em see that you’re just as big and busy as he was, too big and busy to be bothering yourself with small fry stuff.”

               “I’ll think about it.”

               “Good.  Now, where’d I leave my bag?”  His voice faded as he left.

               She called after him.  “Doc?  Find Opal when you get a chance and send her in.”

               He grumbled back an affirmative and was finally gone.  I heard the door shut.

               Alone at last.  But I hesitated at re-forming. 

               A mistake, since it gave me time to think.

               My lover Maureen, the woman who, with the exchanging of our blood, gave me the possibility of living again, had talked to me about her ability to hypnotize people, about how dangerous a thing it could be if it got away from her control.  Back then it had only been a distant concept for me and might not ever happen since neither of us knew whether or not the exchange would work.  If I did become like her and returned, I fully expected her to be there for me to guide me through everything and keep me out of trouble, but life never hands you what you expect.  Five years later I returned from death all right, but was very much on my own, and soon discovered firsthand what could happen when my unnatural concentration locked hard onto a vulnerable human mind while my own was fogged over by strong emotions.

               The first result was the total shattering of Frank Paco’s sanity.  I saw it in his eyes, watched the devastating change take place when my white-hot rage slammed through him like a train.

               It didn’t mean much to me at the time, even seemed to be a kind of justice for what he’d done to me, but then I didn’t want it to mean anything more than that because of my hatred for the bastard for killing me.  I still hated him, but now more for what he represented than what he’d done.  He was a reminder of my ignorance, of a lapse in judgment and loss of self-control.  A living reproach.

               The second incident was when I found myself alone with that woman I needed to question.  It started the same as others before her: just get the information, then leave was the plan, but it didn’t work out that way.  She was temptingly attractive to me, and I was hungry.  Even as I hypnotized her, I got caught up and lost in her total vulnerability to me, with the heady realization I could do anything I wanted to her and get away with it.  Then I gave in to that temptation and started kissing her throat.

               It was like someone else was running things for me.  I knew it was wrong and did nothing about it until it was almost too late.  Instead of pulling back, I bit hard and began taking her blood into me.  Seductive, irresistible, and entirely illicit, it was the best I’d ever had, and in my greed I wanted all of it— even if it killed her. 

               My conscience tardily kicked in, waking me out of the fever in time to stop.  She was weakened, but never knew what really happened, of how close she’d come to dying.  I did, and it made me ashamed and disgusted with myself and terrified of repeating the experience. 

               And here I was, alone with another attractive, tempting woman.

               I’d killed before, but not by draining another’s life away to feed my own, to feed something as ephemeral as appetite and desire.  I’d come close, too damned close already.  Those other deaths were hard enough to live with, I didn’t want this hovering over my shoulder as well.

               But what else could I do?  I had to hypnotize Angela and make her call off the hit on Escott.  An easy job—unless I killed her. 

            The assurance I’d given him about my being careful now seemed like so much hopeful bullshit.

# # #

 

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© Copyright 2010 P.N. Elrod

The stories posted are not released from copyright, under creative commons or any other licensing procedure.  They are not for reproduction elsewhere, with the exception of small excerpts for the purpose of linking or commentary and other purposes covered under fair use.