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DARK ROAD RISING

 

Even when you're undead, being a top mob boss doesn't put you on Easy Street.

Jack Fleming's wounded partner is on the critical list, and his star-struck girlfriend is tempted by the siren song of Hollywood. He's ducking cops looking to pin him with a double murder rap and two hit men who don't care who gets between them and their target.

Old and new enemiesand even friendsare gunning for Jack, but his toughest job is keeping track of Gabriel, a dangerously unstable vampire with deadly secrets to hide.

Jack must stand alone against his own worst fears, making hard and fast life-and-death decisions.

But no good can come from any path he takes.

Because for a vampire, all roads lead into darkness...

 

 

Praise for

Dark

Road

Rising

 

“P.N. Elrod ups the stakes (pun intended) in this latest, and best, installment of the Jack Fleming saga. Chills, thrills, and dark doings in '30s Chicago, heralded by the arrival of a darkly fascinating new vampire character with a deadly secret. Elrod takes her universe into unexplored territory with Dark Road Rising!"

 
Rachel Caine, author of The Morganville Vampires Series
 

 

 

 

Dark Road Rising is a refreshingly different vampire novel. The setting is captivating, the characters are original, and the plot will leave you hungry for more.”

Lori Handeland, author of Thunder Moon

 


_______________________________________________________________

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

Chicago, February 1938

When I set the brake and cut the motor the dead man in the backseat of my Nash shifted, groaned, and straightened up to look around. He suppressed a cough, arms locked against his bloodstained chest as though to keep it from coming apart.

“You okay?” I asked.

“Peachy.” His voice rasped hollow and hoarse. He was lying, but that’s what you do when you feel like hell and don’t want to give in to it.

His name was Whitey Kroun. He was a big bad gang boss out of New York who had come to town to oversee my execution.

That hadn’t worked out very well.

He’d taken a bullet through the chest only a couple hours earlier and should be healing faster than this. He needed blood and a day’s rest on his home earth, but that would have to wait; I had one more thing to do before either of us could have a break.

“What’s this?” His dark eyes were bleary with fatigue and pain.

We were in a parking lot close to the hospital. “I gotta see a man about a dog.”

He grunted and pushed up his coat sleeve to squint at his watch. The crystal was gone, and the exposed hands swung loose over the numbers. “Well, it’s half-past, better get a move on.”

I slammed out of the car and hurried toward the hospital entrance.

The streets weren’t awake yet. At this bleak hour they seemed too tired, unable to recover from the pains of an over-long night. The smack of pre-dawn air felt good, though, and I consciously tried a lungful. Clinging to my overcoat was the smell of Kroun’s blood. The scent had filled the car, but with no need to breathe I’d been remarkably successful at pushing away the distraction.

Dried stains smeared the front of the coat, but the material was dark, no one would notice. Even if someone did I had more serious concerns. I needed to check on my partner. The phone calls made hours ago to the emergency room and later to the doctor in charge weren’t enough, I had to see for myself.

After convincing a lone reception nurse that I was the patient’s cousin she got my name and other necessary information before giving away Charles Escott’s location. He was in the men’s ward.

I made sure that would change. “He gets a private room,” I said, pulling money from my wallet. From her shocked look the stack was more than she’d make in the next two months. “He gets whatever he needs before he needs it.” I folded the cash into her hand.

She stared at the money, uncertain. “Mr. Fleming, I—”

“Consider it a personal thank-you. Do whatever you want with it so long as my friend gets first class treatment. I have to see him now.”

“He shouldn’t have visitors.”

“We’re not gonna play cards, I just need to check on him. Please.”

She read my mood right: determinedly polite but not leaving until I got what I wanted. She slipped the money into her clipboard, hugged it to her front, and led the way down the empty corridors herself. Maybe I couldn’t hypnotize people any more, but a good-will gift in the right place can take you far in the world. It had worked well enough for Capone, up to a point.

The ward was clean, but still a ward: a high, dim room full of restive misery. Some of the bodies shrouded under their blankets were frozen in place by injury, others twitched, sleepless from pain or illness.

I had a brief flash of memory of a similar place in France back when I was a red-faced kid still awkward in my dough-boy uniform. There, the ward had been full of nuns gliding back and forth between the wounded. Some of the guys played cards one-handed, getting used to the new amputations, some groaned despite their dose of morphine, some slept, some wept, and one poor bastard at the end was screaming too much and had to be taken to a different part of the building. After twenty years the picture was sharp, but I couldn’t recall why I’d been there. Probably visiting someone, same as now.

Escott was second in from the door, lying slightly propped up on the narrow metal bed. His face was puffy and turning black from bruising, his ribs were taped, his hands bandaged like an out-classed boxer who’d unwisely stayed for the full twelve rounds. He seemed to be breathing okay, and when I listened his heart thumped along steady and slow as he slept. But he looked so damned frail and crushed.

That was my doing. My fault.

He shouldn’t be here. I’d been an incredible, unconscionable fool, and he was paying for my lapse with cracked, maybe broken bones, pulped flesh, and slow weeks of recovery. God help us both, I’d come within a thin hair of killing him. He still wasn’t out of the woods. If I’d broken him up inside he could bleed to death internally.

Not recognizing my own voice I asked the nurse about that.

She consulted the chart at the foot of the bed. X-rays had been taken, though how anyone could make sense of a mass of indefinite shadows was beyond me. She told me what was wrong and more importantly what wasn’t wrong. It was cold comfort. I’d only half-killed my best friend.

I wanted to help him, to do more than what had already been done, but no action on my part could possibly make up for such stupidity. This was true helplessness, and I hated it. My hand went toward him on its own, but I made a sudden fist, shoving it into a pocket. The nurse read this mood as well.

“He’ll be all right,” she said. “It’ll just take some time.”

It could take years, and still wouldn’t be all right.

One of his eyelids flickered. The other was fused fast shut from swelling.

Guilty at disturbing him, I started to back out of view, but it was too late. He was awake, if groggy, and fixed me in place with his cloudy gaze, not speaking.

When I couldn’t take the silence any more, I said, “Charles…y-you don’t worry. They’ll get you whatever you want. It’s taken care of. You just say.”

His eyelid slowly shut and opened again and there was an audible thickening of the breath passing through his throat. I took that to mean he understood.

“I’m…I’m sorry as hell. I’m so sorry.”

He continued to look at me.

“I’m sorry as hell, I—I—” I would not ask for forgiveness. I didn’t deserve it and never would.

He shook his head and made a small sound of frustration.

I understood. He was afraid for me…afraid I’d try to hurt myself. That had been the cause of the fight. My face heated up from shame. “I’m sorry for that, too. It won’t happen again. I swear. On Bobbi’s life, I promise you. Never again.”

The corner of his mouth curled in a ghost’s smile. His lips moved in the softest of whispers. “Jack.”

I leaned in. “Yeah?”

About damn time, you bloody fool.”

He lifted a bandaged hand toward my near arm, gave my shoulder a clumsy pat.

Sleep took him away.

Men aren’t supposed to cry, but I came damn close just then.



# # #

 

Whitey Kroun, the corpse I’d left waiting in the backseat of the Nash, now slumped on the front passenger side with the door open, feet on the running board. His left trouser leg was rusty with dried blood, and he cautiously unwound a similarly stained handkerchief from his left hand. He flexed his fingers, checking them. Whatever damage he’d gotten seemed to be gone. He threw the grubby cloth away, hauled his long legs in, and yanked the door shut. The effort made him grunt, and he went back to favoring his chest.

He didn’t say if he wanted to be dropped anywhere, and I didn’t inquire, just started the motor and pulled away, mindful of the shortening time until dawn. We’d have to go to ground soon.

Shadows caught, lingered, and slithered quick over his craggy features as we sped under streetlamps, his eyelids at half-mast from pain. In good light Kroun’s eyes were dark brown with strangely dilated pupils; now all that showed were skull-deep voids, unreadable.

Life had gotten damned complicated lately. It happens sometimes; for me it started when I tried to be a nice guy and do a favor for a friend in need.

That favor, along with circumstances beyond my control, had put me in the short line for the gang version of the hot seat. Kroun’s arrival in Chicago was to sort things out and put me to bed with a shovel. Or an anchor. Lake Michigan makes for a very big graveyard when you know the wrong people.

But after looking me over Kroun decided against carrying out the death sentence.

Mighty generous of him, except at the time I didn’t know the real reason behind his choice. Outwardly, I’m not special; I own a nightclub that does pretty well, have a wonderful girl, a few good friends—I’m worse than some, better than most. Average. Most of the time.

Not ten minutes after we met Kroun figured out about my being a vampire—you heard it right—and in the nights to follow never once let slip that he was also a card-carrying member of the union. I’d been tied up too tight in my own problems to notice anything odd about him or even remotely suspect. It had been one pip of a surprise when the boom came.

I was still getting used to it, the topper of a very busy evening.

It began with one hell of a fist fight between me and Escott, which was what had landed him in the casualty ward. I’d done something really stupid and his attempt to knock some sense into me set me off. I hadn’t meant to hurt him, but woke out of my rage a little too late. Before I could follow his ambulance to the hospital I’d been sidetracked by a phone call from my girlfriend, Bobbi. In so many words she let me know there was a man in her flat holding a gun to her head.

That confrontation had ended badly.

Bobbi was fine, thank God, but there’d been quite an ugly fracas before the dust settled. Kroun had been present, caught a stray bullet, and died.

Apparently.

The shooter was also dead, and I was left with a nasty mess to clear up: two corpses, a shot up flat, and me desperately trying not to go over the cliff into the screaming hell of full-blown shell-shock.

By the grace of God, Escott’s right fist, and Bobbi holding onto me like there was no tomorrow, I did not fall in. It had been a near thing, though. I was still standing closer than was comfortable to the edge of that dark internal pit, but no longer wobbling. Given time I might even back away to safer ground.

As I’d sluggishly tried to work out the details of what to do next Kroun picked that moment to stop playing possum. One minute he was flat on the floor with a thumb-sized hole in his chest, the next…

Well…it had been interesting.

It took hours to clear the chaos at Bobbi’s. I saw to it she was driven to a safe place to stay then arranged to disappear the dead gunman. For this, I got some reliable if wholly illegal help involving the kind of mugs who are really good at guaranteeing inconvenient bodies are never found.

Before the cleaning crew arrived Kroun made himself missing. Temporarily. He hid out in the back of the Nash until the fuss was over.

That I was no longer the only vampire (that I knew about) in Chicago hadn’t really sunk in yet.

Since we each had secrets to keep we’d formed an uneasy alliance out of mutual necessity, and there was no telling how long it might last. I had fish of my own to fry and didn’t particularly want to be looking after him—but he needed a favor, and, God help me, I turned sucker yet again.

I didn’t want to think just how badly this could end.


# # #


Kroun seemed to doze. He’d not asked about our destination. I took for granted that he wanted a ride away from the trouble and a chance to get his second wind, figuratively speaking. He had some serious healing to do; it might as well be in the company of someone who understood what he was going through.

He took notice when I made a last turn and pulled into the alley behind the house. Escott and I hung our hats in an elderly three-story brick in a quiet, respectable neighborhood. Not the sort of place you’d expect a vampire to lurk, but I’m allergic to cemeteries.

“What’s this?” asked Kroun, blinking as I eased the car into the garage.

“Home. I’m all in. You’ll have to stay the day.” Maybe he had plans, but I wanted ask a few hundred questions, but later, when my brain was more clear. Right now it felt like street sludge.

“There’s no need. I found a bolt hole for myself,” he said. “I got time to get there if you call a cab.”

“At this hour?” I set the brake, cut the motor, and yanked the key. The ring felt too light.

“Cabs run all the time now, Fleming. It’s a big burg, all grown up.”

“That’s just a rumor. . .ah. . .damn it.” I searched my pockets.

“Something wrong?”

“The house key’s back at my nightclub. Left so fast I grabbed the wrong bunch.” The wrong coat, too. Along with the Nash—which was Escott’s car—I’d borrowed his overcoat. He wouldn’t thank me for the bloodstains.

I cracked the door, careful not to bang it against the wall of the narrow garage, and got out. Kroun did the same, moving more slowly. Something must have twinged inside, for he paused to catch his breath, which was an event to note. Like me, he wasn’t one for regular breathing. This had to do with pain.

He left a dark patch on the center back of the seat, transfer from a much larger stain from the back of his coat. It’d been hours; his wounds would have closed by now. The blood he’d leaked should be dried. Must have been the damp. The heavy air smelled of snow, but not the clean kind out of the north. This had a sour, rotting tang, as though the clouds were gathering up stink from the city and would soon dump it back again.

Going easy on his left leg Kroun limped across the patches of frozen mud and dingy snow that made up the small yard, then stalled halfway to the porch. He began to cough, a big deep, wet whooping that grew in force and doubled him over. It sounded like his lungs were coming out the hard way. I started toward him, but there’s nothing you can do to help when a person’s in that state. The fit comes on and passes only when it’s good and ready to go. Spatters of blood suddenly bloomed on the untracked drift in front of him.

I couldn’t help but stare at the stuff. The smell had filled the car, but I’d successfully shoved it aside. This was fresh, dark red, almost black against the snow. He wasn’t the only one with a problem. Mine was less obvious. I waited, holding my breath, unable to look away.

Waited…

But—nothing.

Nothing for a good long minute.

Couldn’t trust that, though.

Waited…

And finally took in a sip of air tainted with bloodsmell…

Dreading what must happen next…

But no roiling reaction twisted my guts.

No cold sweats.

Not even the shakes.

It was just blood. A necessity for survival, but nothing to get crazy over. No uncontrolled hunger blazed through my gut, not even the false starvation kind that scared me.

So far, so good.

I relaxed, just a little.

Cold, though…I was cold to the bone…but that was okay. It wasn’t the unnerving chill that left me shivering in a warm room, but the ordinary sort that comes with winter. I’d thought I’d lost that feeling.

Kroun’s internal earthquake climaxed, and he gagged and spat out a black clot the size of a half dollar. He hung over the mess a moment, sucking air, and managed to keep his balance. My instinct was to lend him an arm to lean on while he recovered, but he wouldn’t like it. I didn’t know him well, but knew that much.

He’d made a lot of noise, perhaps enough to wake a neighbor. I glanced at the surrounding houses, but no one peered from any of the upper windows. The show was over, anyway. Kroun gradually straightened, his face mottled red and gray. He kicked snow to hide the gore.

“You okay?” I asked. I’d have to stop that. It could get irritating.

“Still peachy,” he wheezed. When he reached the back porch, he used the rail to pull himself along the steps. He looked like hell on a bad week. “No house key, huh?”

“Yeah, but—”

He fished a small flat case from the inside pocket of his tattered, filthy overcoat. A couple of nights ago it had been new-looking, but an explosion and fire had turned it into something a skid row bum would have tossed in the gutter. Kroun might well have been rolling in that gutter. His craggy features were gaunt now, his hair singed—except for a distinct silver-white streak on the side—and when I inhaled he still stank of smoke and burned rubber. He opened the case, revealing a collection of lock picks. “Lemme by.”

“No need,” I said—and vanished. Into thin air. I was good at it. Didn’t think twice.

Shit!” Kroun hadn’t expected that.

His reaction was muffled to me. My senses in this state were limited, but it did have advantages, like getting me into otherwise inaccessible places. Damn, I felt smug.

“Fleming? You there?”

I’m busy. I pressed toward the door, sensing the long, thin crack at the threshold, and slipped in. Though I could have passed right through the wood this path of least resistance was less unsettling. Going solid again on the other side, I unlocked and opened up, gesturing Kroun in.

He looked like he wanted to say a lot of things, but held back. I thought I understood his expression: an interesting combination of annoyance mixed with raw envy. It only flashed for a second, then he pocketed his case. “Nice trick.”

“Just a way out of the cold. C’mon.”

He stepped into the kitchen, and I locked the door again for all the good that would do. Even the dumbest of Chicago’s countless thugs knew how to break and enter in the more conventional sense, though none of them had any reason to do so here. Quite the contrary. I’d gotten into the habit of thinking that way, though. Blame it on the scurvy company I kept.

“Phone?” he asked.

“The wall by the icebox.” Actually, it was a streamlined electric refrigerator that looked out of place in the faded kitchen. I dropped my fedora on the table and shrugged from Escott’s coat, folding it over the back of a chair. “But you can stay here. It’s safe.”

“I don’t think so.” Kroun wasn’t being impolite, just preoccupied as he crossed the room, got the phone book from a shelf, and flipped through it looking for cab companies. He found a page, running a finger down the columns of fine print.

I flicked the light on. Habit. We could both see well enough in the dark.

He murmured an absent-sounding noise and stared at the listings. “How many of these companies have the mob on them?”

“They all pay dues. The hotels, too. Shocking, ain’t it?”

“Cripes.” He put the book back. “It’s as bad as New York.”

To his former associates in crime, along with everyone else, Whitey Kroun was supposed to be dead. Not Undead, which none would know about or believe in, but the regular kind of dead, and he wanted to keep it that way. He did not need a cabby remembering him and blabbing to the wrong ears. There were ways around that, but Kroun must have been considering the trouble and worth of it against the shrinking time before sunrise.

He was clearly exhausted. He’d barely survived getting blown up, gone into hiding God-knows-where for the day, and only hours before had taken a bullet square in the chest. The slug had passed right through, ripped up his dormant heart, maybe clipped one of his lungs before tearing out his back.

My last twenty-fours hours hadn’t been even that good. We both needed a rest.

“Spare bedroom’s up the stairs, third floor,” I said. “All ready. Just walk in.”

Kroun frowned. “Is it light-proof?”

“The window’s covered. You’ll be fine.”

“Where do you sleep?”

“I have a place. In the basement.”

He gave me a look. “What? A secret lair?”

That almost made me smile. “It’s better than it sounds.”

Not by much, but it sure as hell wasn’t a claustrophobia-inducing coffin on the floor of a ratty crypt like in that Lugosi movie. Just thinking about a body box gave me the heebies. My bricked-up chamber below was a close twin to any ordinary bedroom, being clean and dry with space enough for a good arm-stretch. I kept things simple: an army cot with a layer of my home earth under oilcloth, a lamp, a radio, books to fill in the time before sunrise, no lurking allowed.

“Room enough for a guest?”

“I can only get into it by vanishing.” That was a lie. There was access by means of a trapdoor under the kitchen table, hidden by expert carpentry and a small rug. I just didn’t want Kroun in my private den. Since he was unable to slip through cracks I was pleased to take advantage of his limitation. Just because we had vampirism in common didn’t mean I should welcome him like a long lost relative. He’d sure as hell not tipped his hand to me about his condition.

“You maybe got a broom closet?” he asked.

“Yeah, but you wouldn’t like it.”

“I could.”

“C’mon, Whitey, no one knows you’re here—”

“Gabe.”

“Huh?”

“My real name’s Gabe.” His eyes were focused inward. “Mom’s idea. Gabriel. Hell of a name to stick on a kid. Got me in a few fights.”

Now why had he told me that?

He got a look on his face as though wondering the same thing. Maybe he was dealing with his own version of shell-shock. Well, I wasn’t walking on eggs for him. “Okay. Gabe. No one knows you’re here, and no one’s looking for you. The cops are still sifting through what’s left of that car. By the time they don’t find your body in the ashes it’ll be tomorrow night and you can start fresh.”

He seemed to return from memory lane. “You get day visitors? Cleaning lady? Anyone like that?”

“Nobody.”

“What about Gordy’s boys? Strome and Derner?”

“They know not to bother me with anything until tomorrow night. No one’s gonna find you.” There was no point telling Kroun to lay off being paranoid; the kind of stuff he’d been through would leave anyone twitchy. I understood him all too well.

“That won’t discourage my pals in New York. First Hog Bristow gets dead, then me.”

“Chicago’s rough,” I admitted.

“They won’t blame the city.” Kroun frowned my way so I’d be clear on who would be held accountable. He had good reason. Bristow’s death was the mug’s own stupid fault, though at the end I’d done what I could to help him along. Anyone else would consider my actions to be self-defense, just not his business associates out east.

Whitey—or was I to call him Gabe now?—Kroun had been my ostensible guest and looking into the Bristow situation when another mobster tried to take him out with a bomb. Kroun’s apparent and very public demise had happened right in front of me, on my watch, and that made me responsible. The big boys he’d worked with in New York were bound to get pissed and react in a way I wouldn’t like. Maybe I should try faking my death, too.

“Will your pals be sending someone here to deal with me?” I asked.

“Count on it. Unless Derner or Gordy can head them off.”

Derner was my temporary lieutenant when it came to the nuts and bolts operation of mob business. His boss, Gordy Weems—a friend of mine and the man usually running things in Chicago’s north side—was still recovering from some serious bullet wounds of his own. I’d been talked into filling his spot until he was back on his feet. He couldn’t get well fast enough for me. I had to be the only guy west of the Atlantic who didn’t want the job. “Gordy stays on vacation. Derner and I will look after things and no problem.”

“If you say so, kid.”

Kroun had a right to his doubts. Running a major branch of the mob was very different from bossing an ordinary business. For instance, firing people was murder. Literally.

Another coughing bout grabbed Kroun. He tried to suppress it, but his body wasn’t cooperating. He made his way to the sink and doubled over, hacking and spitting. When it subsided he ran the water to wash the blood away. There wasn’t as much as before; he must be healing.

I inhaled, caught the bloodsmell…and again waited. Nothing happened, no tremors in my limbs, no urge to scream, no falling on the floor like a seizure victim.

Very encouraging, but instinct told me I was still rocky and to not get over-confident.

“Cripes, I hate getting shot,” he muttered.

“It’s hell,” I agreed.

He cupped hands under the water stream and rubbed down his face. “You’ve been through this, too?”

“Not if I can help it. But whenever I caught one I always vanished. When I come back I’m tired, but usually everything’s fixed.”

“The hell you say.”

“You didn’t know?”

He gave no reply.

“Didn’t the one who gave you the change tell you anything?” I was very curious as to who had traded blood with him, allowing him the chance to return from death. When had he died? How long ago? He’d dropped no clue as to how long he’d been night-walking. He could be decades older than me in this life or months younger.

That streak of silver-white hair on the left side of his head marked where he caught the bullet that had killed him. Who had shot him and why? How had he dealt with his dark resurrection? The lead slug was still lodged in his brain, and the presence of that small piece of metal was enough to short-circuit his ability to vanish. It also prevented rejuvenation, kept him looking the same age he was when it happened. Instead of seeming to be in his twenties like me, he outwardly remained in his forties.

But Kroun wasn’t sharing confidences. Making no answer, he twisted the water tap off and dried with one of the neatly folded dish towels Escott kept next to the sink. In the harsh overhead light Kroun looked even more gaunt than a few minutes ago. The coughing fit had sapped him.

“You hungry?” I asked. He had to be. He’d lost plenty of blood tonight. It would put him on edge, maybe make him dangerous. That’s what it did to me.

“A little, but I can hold out ’til tomorrow.”

I went to the icebox. In the back were some beer bottles with the labels soaked off, topped with cork stoppers. The dark brown glass obscured what was inside. They represented an experiment that had worked out. I pulled a bottle and handed it over. “It’s cold but drinkable.”

He eyeballed it. “You’re kidding. You store the stuff?”

“Only for a few days. It goes bad once the air hits. Like milk.”

He took the cork out and sniffed it. “It’s animal?”

“Yeah.”

He shot me a look. Checking. Appraising. “Good.”

Damn. That angle…and he’d thought of it first. “Hey, you don’t think I’d…”

“What?”

The son of a bitch. “I don’t take from people.”

“Sure you do. Your girlfriend.”

“She’s not food.” I felt myself going red.

“No. There have been others who were, though.”

“Where the hell do you—” I nearly choked.

He cocked his head. “Yeah?”

I shut down, because I was within a hair of knocking his block off, and that wouldn’t accomplish anything. He was guessing, goading for information. And gotten it. “How do you figure?”

“The other night…in Gordy’s office.”

When Kroun first clapped eyes on me. “But you didn’t know about me right away.”

“No, I didn’t. There was a point in the proceedings, though. You put on a face I didn’t understand at the time, but afterwards I got it. You were looking at me, at the whole room, and realized you were in charge.”

My nape prickled at his insight. I remembered that moment and wasn’t proud of it, yet the idea had bolstered me when I was in need and gotten me out of a death sentence.

He went on. “You’d just figured out you were the big fish and big fish feed on little fish. Only with us it’s a literal thing. The question is, do you make a habit of feeding from people?”

“I goddamn don’t.”

He made a “no problem” gesture. “That’s fine then, fine.”

“And you?” I’d once encountered a vampire who took human blood—often and any way he liked. I saw to it he came to a bad end.

“I’m not in the habit, no.”

“That’s not an answer.”

“It’s the only one I got.” He scowled when I didn’t respond. “Get off your hind legs, Fleming, I’m no menace to society. I’m retired now.”

Time will tell, I thought.

He waved the bottle under his nose again. “You get this stuff from the Stockyards?”

I nodded.

“Pretty smart. Good for emergencies, but someone could find it.”

“Who looks twice at an old bottle? Nobody but my partner is ever here anyway, and he’s wise.”

“That would be guy in the hospital? Charles Escott?”

“Yeah. This is his house.” Kroun had never actually met him, but had gotten plenty of information about my life and hard times from long talks with Gordy, who was also wise. Escott knew Kroun by sight and reputation, the latter being very grim, indeed. Somehow the reputation didn’t seem to match up with the guy in front of me. Lots of people were good at hiding their real side, though. I was an expert.

“And he knows all about you?”

“Yeah. Everything.”

“You trust him with this?” He lifted the bottle, not talking about blood, but rather the condition that required I drink it.

“Completely. He’s been one hell of a friend.”

Kroun shook his head. “You’re nuts to leave yourself open like that.”

“Guess I am.”

“Well, I don’t want him knowing about me.”

“He doesn’t. Last he heard you’d been blown up in the car. Killed.”

“Keep it like that.”

“No problem.” Escott was in no shape to be told. I also wanted to have some space between him and potential trouble.

“That girlfriend of yours…”

“Won’t talk.” Some edge slipped into my tone. Kroun heard it and picked up the meaning. Bobbi was strictly hands-off. He got the message.

He had a sample sip from the brown bottle. From his grimace it wasn’t perfect, but drinkable; the blood would cure his hunger quick enough and speed his healing. He suddenly tilted the bottle and finished it off in one quick guzzling draft. The stuff must have charged through him like a bull elephant. Head bowed, he gave in to a long shudder as though it had been one-eighty proof booze and not cattle blood.

“Wow,” he whispered, almost in awe.

I knew the feeling. Taken hot from a vein the internal kick is astonishing. When cold from storage the reaction isn’t that strong unless you’re on the verge of starvation. Kroun possessed one hell of a lot of self-control to be willing to stick it out going hungry. If I went too long between meals I got crazy—tunnel vision, unable to think straight, a threat to people around me, nothing pleasant. I made sure to feed every other night, though lately I’d been overfeeding like a drunk on a binge. It was a considerable relief now not to have that tug of mindless appetite urging me to clean out the rest of the cache in the icebox.

“That hit the spot, thanks.” Kroun handed the empty bottle over, and I rinsed it in the sink. He looked improved, even filled out a little. Blood worked fast on our kind. The whites of his eyes were flushed dark red and would stay that way for a short time, iris and pupils lost to view. I tried not to stare.

“Another?”

“No thanks.” He moved into what was originally meant to be a dining room, but Escott wasn’t one for fancy eating, preferring the kitchen. His old dining table was a huge work desk decked with orderly piles of books and papers. There was a big sideboard along one wall, but it served as a liquor cabinet and storage for odds and ends. Kroun paused and peered through the glass doors at all the bottles.

“Your partner a lush?”

Once upon a time. Back then a very good friend of his got tired of the drinking and tried to beat some sense into Escott about it. It’d worked. “He likes to be prepared for company.”

The next room was the front parlor with a long sofa, my favorite chair, and the radio. I didn’t bother switching on a lamp; the spill from the kitchen was enough for us. It also wouldn’t reach the window and give away that anyone was home.

Newspapers were stacked so precisely on the low table in the middle that you couldn’t tell if they’d been read yet. They were yesterday’s editions, and Escott would have gone through them, it just didn’t show. He was that neat about things.

I grabbed the one on top, which bore a headline about the mysterious deaths of nightclub singer Alan Caine and his ex-wife Jewel.

Damn it all.

The story itself was thin on facts, padded to two columns by biographical sketches for them both. The police were investigating what appeared to be a murder-suicide. The estranged couple had been seen arguing in public and so on and so forth.

Damn again. Removing the accusation of murder and stigma of suicide from Jewel’s name would be impossible. The killer was on his way to the bottom of the lake by now. He had no direct connection to either of them that could be proved. Any stepping forward on my part would be a futile gesture that would pin me square under the cop’s spotlight.

I couldn’t risk it and felt like a coward by giving in to common sense.

But still…maybe I could fix something up…get some of Derner’s boys to phone an anonymous tip or three to the rags while the story was still newsworthy, sow some doubt. A double murder was a juicer story to sell than a murder/suicide.

I’d have to talk to Derner about funeral arrangements for poor Jewel. She hadn’t had two dimes; I didn’t want her going to the potter’s field just because her ex hadn’t kept up the alimony.

I’d get things moving and hope it wasn’t already too late. The world spun on relentlessly. New disasters rose up to overshadow the old as I discovered when I quit the parlor for the entry hall and opened the front door. Several editions lay piled on the porch. I swept them up, kicked the door shut, and dropped them all on the parlor table. To judge by the headlines the presses had been stopped in order to fit in something special.

They all had the same story.

The only event that could eclipse a nightclub headliner’s murder was the shooting of a movie actor. It warranted larger, bolder type to convey the importance of a near-fatal assault on the life of Roland Lambert, one-time Hollywood matinee idol.

Roland would hate the “one-time” part, but ignore it with bemused grace. He and his ballerina wife, Faustine, did exhibition dancing at my club, working to raise grubstake money so he could go back to California in style for a return to films. Toward that end he’d made the most of the free publicity, having apparently granted an exclusive interview to every reporter in the country.

Above the fold in one journal was a picture of Roland in his plain hospital whites, managing to look devil-handsome, gallant, brash, and charming, just like the sword-fighting heroes he’d played on screen. Faustine sat bravely at his bedside holding his hand, decked out in the best Paris could offer, exotic and erotic as always. He wouldn’t be dancing much now, having been shot in the leg.

That was my fault. Sort of. Roland had been in the wrong place when a bad guy had cut loose with bullets meant for me. The shooter was dead now. Not my fault—for a change—and someone else had bumped him off in turn. Roland didn’t know that part and never would.

He had quite another story to tell, though, and it was a pip.

He’d sold the reporters the malarkey that he had run afoul of some real Chicago mobsters, and the tale was developing a life of its own.

“ ‘SHERLOCK’ LAMBERT TAKES ON THE GANGS!”—no kidding, that’s how they’d printed it—headed an over-written four-column section of a sob sister’s feature. It was long on emotion, purple prose, with damn few facts, but why let the truth get in the way of such thrilling entertainment?

According to that version of events, a mysterious underworld figure had imposed his unwanted attentions on an innocent bride—at this point it was noted that film legend Roland Lambert adoringly kissed the hand of his beautiful wife, the famous Russian ballerina Faustine Petrova.

After a brisk bout of fisticuffs the gangster had been sent off in round order by her valiant husband, but that wasn’t to be the end of it. Strange threatening letters began to arrive, compelling Roland to investigate and deal with their source. He was making serious progress at tracking the bounder to his lair, which was too close for comfort for at least one of the miscreants, and resulted in the present small setback. Here Roland gestured ruefully at his dreadful wounding.

Oh, brother.

At the time of the shooting I’d been in a blind panic that I’d gotten him killed. Nothing like a little rest and a lot of personal moxie to turn things on their head. With a trowel in each hand he’d plastered it on thick. I had serious doubts that any of the mugs in the gangs even knew the meaning of “miscreant,” but had to admire him. Roland’s eyewash was a great misdirection. He’d made himself into a crime-busting hero, and my name was never once mentioned. What a relief.

The sob sister went into grand and glorious detail about how Roland rescued his lovely bride from conflict-torn Russia. Their daring escape culminated in the Lambert’s romantic shipboard wedding amid the threat of lurking German submarines. Somehow, routine lifeboat drills took on an ominous significance, and the fate of the Lusitania twenty years back was remembered as though it had occurred yesterday. If there was ever going to be a war in Europe stories like this would be one of the causes.

The couple had actually met over cocktails at a cast party for one of Roland’s London plays, but that didn’t make nearly as exciting copy.

The next paper went one better and compared Roland and Faustine to Nick and Nora Charles, speculating that a movie of their real-life adventures should be filmed, something that would even top The Thin Man for popularity.

Sleuth away, old sport, I thought.

Below the fold were a few short paragraphs about the mystery explosion in Chicago’s Bronze Belt. It was old news compared to the rest, but could still sell a paper. A stark photo showed a smoke-filled street and staring bystanders frozen in the moment, but the camera flash hadn’t reached far enough to show what was burning. It was a good shot, though, the photographer must have arrived with the fire trucks. 

“You see this?” I asked, showing the page.

My houseguest was also catching up on the news and shook his head. “Huh. Doesn’t look like the same place.”

“You saw it from a different angle.”

“I didn’t see much but smoke.”

Kroun had hurtled from the bomb-gutted car and hidden behind some curbside trash cans before going to ground for the day, leading everyone to believe he’d been blown to hell and gone. Our kind is pretty damned tough, but there are limits. Kroun had only survived because of the car’s armor plating and the devil’s own luck. He’d gotten seriously hammered around and burned, though. It was really too bad he was unable to vanish and heal the way I could.

The story was little more than a thin rewrite of yesterday’s edition, but this time had names. Someone had traced the car’s owner. The police wanted to question underworld figure Gordy Weems about the incident. He’d love that.

Kroun read the piece through and snorted. “They don’t know anything. This guy got it all wrong.”

“It happens. For you it’s better if they don’t have the facts.”

“You used to do that, didn’t you? Reporting?”

“Yeah. About a thousand years ago.” I dropped into my chair, putting my feet up on the table.

“I hope that’s a joke.”

It occurred to me that he didn’t know my real age, either. I was thirty-seven, but looked a lot younger. I felt a brief, smug grin stretch my face.

“So how long have you been like this?”

Just the question I wanted to ask. “You first.”

“Uh-uh. You.” He went past me to peer out the front window, pulling the curtain open just a crack, perhaps checking for the first changes that marked the coming dawn. You couldn’t always trust a clock.

“Happened a year ago last August,” I said.

“When you came to Chicago?”

“Yeah. Slick Morelli and Frank Paco did the honors.”

They’d murdered me—a slow, vicious process—but I’d gotten some payback in the end. Slick was dead and Paco raving in a nut house God knows where. There was a lesson in that mess someplace about picking your enemies carefully, but I didn’t like thinking about it.

“Morelli and Paco?” Kroun sounded like he’d met them once upon a time. “What’d you do to get noticed by those two?”

“Nothing I want to talk about.” And he would know it already. He’d spent time with Gordy, who knew all the dirt about my Undead condition and how it had happened. Kroun would have used hypnosis to pick Gordy’s brain clean about my death, so what was his game asking me? Probably to see if the stories matched. Suspicious bastard. I could get annoyed, only in his place I’d have done the same. “What about yourself? How did you buy it?”

He didn’t answer, closely watching something outside. The only reasonable activity at this hour might be someone leaving for an early job or the milkman making his round.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Car’s stopped in front of the house.”

Now what?

“You know a big colored guy? Well dressed? Drives a Nash?”

Oh, hell. “What about him?”

“He’s coming up the walk. Looks pissed, too.”

“Let him in.”

“It’s your door, and I’m no butler.”

The man outside began ringing the bell and pounding. I tiredly boosted up.

Kroun stepped into the entry hall. “Oh, yeah. He’s pissed. I’d stay to watch, but—”

“Upstairs. Third floor. Keep quiet.”

He went quick despite the limp, not making a lot of noise, though I couldn’t hear much over the racket. He ducked from view at the top landing, stifling a cough.

I got the door. “Hi, Shoe.”

Shoe Coldfield filled a very large portion of the opening, his anger making him loom even larger. Before I could say anything else, a word of explanation, an invitation to come inside, he slammed a fist of iron into my gut.

 





CHAPTER TWO


He had an arm like a train. All the breath shot out of me. I folded and staggered and kept my feet only by grabbing the stair rail with one flailing hand. This wasn’t as bad as it might have been for anyone else. I didn’t want a second helping, though.

Coldfield’s dark face was darker than normal, suffused with barely controlled rage. “You know why I’m here,” he rumbled. Volcanoes reach that kind of deep pitch before they blow.

Took an experimental sip of air for speech. “Oh, yeah.”

“Why the hell did you do that to him?”

“How’d you—”

“I got people who work at the hospital. One of them saw Charles brought in looking like he’d been worked over by a bulldozer and called me. They wouldn’t let me see him. Took one look and knew I wasn’t a relation. I tracked down the ambulance drivers and got them to talk. What the hell did you do?”

I’d grown a thick hide over my ability to feel guilt over some of the more objectionable things I’d done in life, but it was no protection now. I was in the wrong, and there were consequences to face.

“Charles and I had a fight—”

“The hell you did! What about?”

The words got stuck long before the halfway mark. This was edging close to being a reprise of my fight with Escott. Sweat popped out on my flanks.

“What?”

I shook my head. There was no way I could tell Coldfield what I’d done that had infuriated Escott enough to beat the crap out of me—and then my going bughouse crazy out of control and returning the favor. All I could do was thank God that I’d stopped short of murder. I couldn’t remember much about the fight, but the aftermath was clear and sharp, especially those frozen-in-lead moments when I thought Escott was dead.

What?” Coldfield loomed again.

“Charles was pissed with me about something and we got into it. It’s not important now.” Favoring my middle, I straightened, knowing what was coming. No way out.

“Goddammit, you put him in the hospital!” Coldfield piled in a rain of gut-busters, grunting from the effort. He was in on my secret. Had been for awhile. He also knew about the ugly business with Hog Bristow, what the bastard had done to me. For all that, Coldfield didn’t pull a single punch.

And I took it.

He finally knocked me ass-flat on the floor. I stayed there, not quite keeling over.

Talk to me, you sonovabitch!”

He wasn’t going away. Come sunrise he’d probably continue beating on my apparently dead body to make sure I had more damage than Escott.

I raised one hand in surrender. Seemed like too much trouble to stand. He’d just put me back again. It hurt to draw breath to speak. Took a minute to get enough air inside to do the job. “Look…you once socked him for his own good…didn’t you? You got fed up?”

Coldfield nodded slowly. “What about it?”

“This time it was my turn. He did his damnedest to pound some sense into me. Nearly took my block off.”

“You don’t look it.”

“I heal fast, remember?”

“And then what?”

“I wouldn’t listen. So Charles kept at me…until I hit him. That’s where the ambulance came in. I’m sorry, Shoe. I didn’t mean for it to go that way. I’d take it back if I could.”

“You can’t.”

Bowed my head. “No. I can’t.”

He made no comment, but I could still feel his anger. He wanted to hurt me and make it last.

I used the stair rail to pull to my feet. Damn, but he’d caught me good and hard, without brass knuckles, either. If he was like that with bare fists…

He laid in again once more with enough force so I’d remember not to forget. I dropped all the way, curled, and stayed there, gasping. Pain. More than I expected. Wouldn’t be surprised if he’d ruptured something. I wouldn’t vanish to escape and heal, though. That’d be spitting in his face. I’d take what he dished out and like it.

He stooped into my view and his voice went low, and for a chilling instant I glimpsed what was inside him that made him the boss of one of the toughest mobs in the city. “You ever cut loose on Charles again I will kill you.” He knew exactly how to do it, too.

I believed him.

“We clear on that? You understand me?”

“Yeah,” I said, talking sideways because my mouth was mashed against the floor. “Never again. Promise.”

Coldfield left, slamming the door hard enough to shake the house. A moment later he gunned his car, shifted gears, and roared away.

Good thing he was a friend or we might have both been in trouble. I don’t take this kind of crap from enemies.

Another moment or three passed, then the stairs creaked as Kroun came down. He squatted on his heels next to me, hands clasped loose in front of him, and cocked his head. “You okay?”

Now that was one goddamned stupid question. And he wasn’t a stupid man. I eyed him. He was concerned, just not one for mother-henning. “I’m great. Tomorrow I sell tickets to the real show.”

“Huh.” He got the message. It was none of his beeswax, but he almost smiled. “And he knows about you, too?”

“Yeah.”

“F’cryin’ out loud, put it on a billboard, why don’t ya?”

“Okay.”

A moderately long look from him, followed by a dismissive headshake. “I can’t find soap.”

Soap? While I got pulped he was looking for soap? What kind of a loon was he?

“Try the second floor bath,” I mumbled.

His eyes went wide. “You got two johns in this joint?” My getting a beating was nothing to sweat about, but a house with two toilets keeled him right over.

Actually there were three. Escott had put in a bath all to himself just off his bedroom, which was overdoing things, but it was his house, after all. I didn’t say anything as Kroun was already impressed and mention of more would be pretentious. As a kid back on the farm in Ohio I’d been told not to brag about our three-seater outhouse lest the neighbors think the Fleming’s were getting high-hat above themselves with extravagance.

“What was his problem?” Kroun asked, rising as I slowly found my feet again.

I checked my middle. Carefully. Oh, yeah, that hurt. A lot. At least Coldfield hadn’t used wood. A baseball bat would have done some truly life-threatening damage on me, but then I’d have fought back. “Nothing to worry about.”

“I’m not, but why’d you let him do it?”

“He had to work off steam. And he had a point to make. That was my way of listening.”

Kroun thought that over, looking at me the whole time. “You,” he concluded, “are crazy.”

No reason to deny it. Tonight I happened to agree with him.

“Who was he? Looked familiar.”

“Shoe Coldfield. Heads the biggest gang in the Bronze Belt. He’s best friends with Escott. He was in that grocery store we walked through to visit Gordy the other night. You may have seen him there.”

“Gordy said Coldfield was looking out for him. What’s the angle?”

“It never hurts to have someone like Gordy owe you a favor.”

“So I’ve heard. Is that what this is about? You wanting me to owe you a favor?”

“Huh?”

He stared a second. “Ahh, never mind.” He rose and went upstairs, dodging into the hall bath long enough to grab soap from the sink, then continuing up to the third floor. Soon water was running in the pipes, making its long journey up from the basement heater tank.

When I felt like moving again I checked my ribs, but Coldfield had focused on the softer target of my mid-section. He’d inflicted ample bruising and spared his knuckles. The man was a smart thinker when it came to his brand of mayhem. Everything still hurt, and I stubbornly held onto it as though that would somehow help Escott.

I hobbled into the kitchen to blink at the clock. If he rushed things Kroun could get cleaned up and make it to bed before dawn. I could take my time.

I made sure the front door was bolted, checked the back again just-because, then vanished, sinking down through the kitchen floor. Once solid again in my hidden alcove the bruising and pain were magically gone, but I was tired, very tired.

The small table light next to my cot was on, so I didn’t reappear in fumbling blackness. I’m a vampire who’s gotten really allergic to the dark. I didn’t used to be that way, but after the crap I’d been through since my change anyone would want to leave a lamp burning in the window.

No windows were in this artificial cave, but that was fine what with my allergy to sunlight. Kroun had a right to be concerned about avoiding it, but he could manage. Things had to be a lot better for him in this place than wherever he’d hidden after the big boom. Did he have a supply of his home earth with him? I’d not thought to ask.

Damn, I didn’t want to think about him and what to do with him and all the attendant complications concerning his apparent death. But the problem would be hanging around like an unpaid bill when I woke again, no way out of it. The mess Kroun had come to town to clear up was worse than before.

Derner—following my orders—had the right story to give to the New York mob bosses about Kroun’s demise, but the details might not satisfy them. They were told that Kroun had been killed in the car explosion, then the man who rigged the bomb was in turn killed by me in a shootout. Very tidy. Too much so.

“They won’t swallow that goldfish,” I muttered, shrugging from my suit-coat and prying off my shoes.

It would get out that there was no body in the destroyed car. The bomb had been big, but not so much as to wholly obliterate its intended target. Unless Kroun did something New York would only send another man to find out why and then bump me. I’d gotten myself noticed by the wrong people one too many times. The idea of getting clear of town for awhile was tempting, but that would leave Gordy holding the bag.

My other option was to just get it over with and let the mob do the hit. Let them think they’d executed me, then they could go home satisfied. Easy enough. I’d survived such attacks before. The problem with that was I’d not be able to go back to my business again. Just getting the legal papers to a new name forged would be a pain in the ass. I had friends, family, a club to run, things to do, and I needed to be able to do them as myself, Jack Fleming.

I stretched flat on the cot, loosening my belt, and felt gravity tug me toward the center of the planet. Illusion. The pull was really from the spread of earth under the protective oilcloth. This was my portion of the grave I’d never gone to, a tiny scrap of peace in the red chaos, protection from the insanity of my subconscious. My body seemed to weigh a ton; the feeling was surprisingly pleasant.

If I could hypnotize that next mobster into forgetting his job all would be well, but even thinking about using one of my evil-eye whammies made my head buzz like a too-crowded beehive. The last time I’d employed that talent had damn-near exploded my brain. Deep down instinct said another attempt would kill me. My nights of pretending to be Lamont Cranston and clouding men’s’ minds like the Shadow were over.

Kroun was not crippled in that area, though. I could probably talk him into fixing things, especially if it meant his own safety. If I was him, I’d be cooperative and willing to try.

Only he wasn’t me.

Who the hell is he? I wondered—my last thought as the rising sun swept me into the dreamless abyss for the day.


 

 

 


KROUN


God, my chest hurts.

Not as bad as before, but it was like a hangover that wouldn’t quite give up and leave.

The through and through Gabriel had taken was healed; he could tell that much because the itching deep under his knitted skin had almost stopped. It still felt as though pieces of himself had torn loose and hoped to wriggle their way back into place again. What wouldn’t fit kept trying to migrate up his throat. If he was careful not to breathe or move fast it wasn’t too bad. But just when everything seemed settled the internal prickling would rise, crest, and set him off hacking like a lunger on his last legs. Gabe was damned bored with it.

He climbed the stairs slowly, hoping there would be no more visitors to make things exciting. He went to what Fleming called the guest bath, twisted the sink’s hot water tap, waiting, waiting, waiting until it ran hot.

Gabe stared at the mirror over the sink. His faded, near-transparent reflection stared back. The ones like Fleming had no reflection at all. How did he get by without being able to see himself? Shaving must be an ordeal.

On the other hand he could disappear and get well again any time he pleased. Gabe would have given much to have that; it would have saved him a lot of pain the last couple nights.

Leaning close, he checked his tongue and eyes, didn’t find anything of interest, then scratched his chin and neck. Yeah, a shave would be good, but have to wait. No razor. Did he need a hair cut? If he could grab his hair in the back then it was too long. Gabe ran a hand over his head. Yeah, half an inch there at least. Time for a trim, get rid of the singed areas.

The ridge was still there of course—the one in the bone on the left side of his skull. It marked where the bullet that originally killed him had gone in. And stayed. That small piece of metal allowed him to discern a remnant of his presence in mirrors.

His head hurt. Not like when it first happened, but bad enough, aggravated by the latest calamities. People had tried killing him yet again, and he didn’t like the violent reminder that not so long ago someone had actually succeeded.

He also didn’t like thinking about how many other people wanted him dead. One fewer to their numbers, but still—

I’d trusted him. Goddamned Mitchell. Goddamned bastard. I should have seen that coming.

It wasn’t as though Mitchell had intentionally shot Gabe tonight at the girl’s flat, but he had planned the bomb for the car. What a dirty way to kill a man.

Too bad only Fleming got to have all the fun of beating the hell out of—

Jack Fleming. Now there was one crazy noodle. One minute trying to be helpful, the next letting himself get pulped flat in his own house. What kind of a screwball was he? He seemed to know all the ropes about being a—Gabe stumbled over “vampire”.

Ugly word.

He’d read up on it, of course, and other details had just come to him from God knows where. Northside Gordy had filled in more blanks, but getting the first hand knowledge from a guy who’d actually been through the same mill was much more useful. Getting it without raising too many questions was the problem. Fleming was curious and had only begun to start with the snooping.

Reporters. They’re incurable.

Gabe was inclined to shed him fast then get lost, but Fleming might come looking, full of good intentions. With the whole of Gordy’s organization on the hunt Gabe wouldn’t stay lost for long. He’d have to handle this carefully, keep the man on his side until a real exit could be managed.

He had been lucky at surviving until now, until they sent him to Chicago to take out the piss-and-vinegar punk who’d iced Hog Bristow.

Having other errands to see to Gabe had gone, hoping to figure a way to avoid killing anyone. Fortunately the punk had been smart enough to save himself.

Finding out that he was in the same bloodsuckers club—well, that had been a real distraction.

But while the company was interesting Jack Fleming was too reckless about who he let in on his secret; sooner or later, he’d tell others about the new guy in town. Though he seemed all right for the moment, he could turn on a thin dime.

The man was nuts.

That was plain from their first meeting. It’d been damned hair-raising when Fleming had gone into that fit. Gabe couldn’t recall ever seeing anyone acting like that before, the sudden uncontrolled shivering, the eyes rolling up, then the poor bastard vanished into nothing. He said he was better now, but if he forgot himself and tried to hypnotize anyone again…apparently that’s what set him off.

Gabe felt sorry for what had been done to Fleming. Torturing a bystander had never been part of the plan to get rid of Bristow, and it was just as well Fleming didn’t hold a grudge. For now. The guy was trying hard to keep himself together but was still loopy as a bedbug, and that made him dangerous to be around. Soon as Gabe was on his feet and able to make a good job of disappearing he’d get clear.

For that he would need a car and money.

Lots of money.

There were ways to get it, but later, when he wasn’t wheezing like a bad engine.

Moving with great caution to keep from coughing, Gabe stripped to the waist and ran a hot, soapy washcloth over his face and neck, going easy over the fresh scar on his chest. There wasn’t enough time for a shower-bath. He would only have to put on the same wrecked clothes again. It felt like he’d worn these for a week. If this was what being dead involved then he should have planned it better.

God, what have I let myself into? Is this going to work?

Gabriel Kroun wasn’t a nobody who could leave the party without a ripple. He’d been through that before the first time he died and found himself trapped in his previous life. Things had to run differently this time, and he had to work it better to avoid the same problems. The boys back home either liked and feared him or hated and feared him, and at least one who couldn’t let his very public death slide without doing something.

Fleming didn’t seem to be too worried about that and he should be; he was either an idiot or counting on Gabe to step in and help.

I might. But not if it ended with old enemies finding out he was still walking around. Gabe had gone through too much to waste this opportunity to get away from the mob life.

Some of them were okay guys, but then Mitchell had seemed to be an okay guy. With a hypnotic nudge for insurance the man was made incurious about where and how Gabe spent his days, and that had been enough. Not once had Gabe thought to add, oh, by the way, don’t try killing me.

On no account was he going to go back to that. Somebody up there had handed him a new start on a platter. He was certain he didn’t deserve it, and suspicious that it might be yanked away.

Money and a car. Have to figure out something

The guest room was clean, but basic. There was a wardrobe, no closet. None of the rooms on the floor had closets. Except for spare blankets, the wardrobe was empty and too small to hide in. He pulled all the blankets out and spread them on the bed. Damn, that looked vulnerable.

The room had one tall, narrow window with curtains and a pull-down shade that would dim the full daylight when it came. Easing it aside he peered at the street below and each house within view. A few lights showed in windows. Early risers were getting ready for work, their wives making coffee, eggs, hot cakes, bacon. He could remember eating those things, but not their taste. It had been good. He was sure of that.

Bacon…greasy, hot, crisp when fried right, but was it sweet, sour, bitter, or salty? He just didn’t know.

He put the shade back and yanked the heavy curtains together. The pre-dawn light was strong, leaving painful afterimages on his eyes. Damn, his head got worse because of it.

He shucked his shoes and trousers, folding himself into a clean, soft bed. Not bad. Damned good, in fact. The sheets seemed too short for his legs, so he messed them around until they were loose enough to pull over his head along with the extra blankets. Black as a mine now, dark enough for—

Just a few seconds to go.

His head pounded in weary anticipation. The left side. Always.

Gabe slipped into absolute immobility swiftly, managing to shut his eyes at the last instant. He’d forgotten once and spent the day with them open. When night came they’d felt like razor-edged rocks.

Images flashed over the inside of his lids. His own little movie show. He got to relive Mitchell shooting him all over again. Several times. Even once was too many. Then memory swept Gabe back to that damn car and the explosion. He stayed there in the searing heat for a long, long while, tasting the smoke, feeling the blind panic, the pain, tearing his hands as he slammed out the door and rolled clear before hell could suck him in for real and forever.

He was trapped in that bad spot much too long, going through it too many times. After a very long, long eternity it finally lost strength, like a storm wearing itself out. The inner lightning and thunder ceased, leaving only the wind.

That was a good sound.

When the nightmares faded he dreamed of wind whirring through pine needles. It was hollow and haunting, sad, cold music; he thought he should be afraid of it, but just never seemed to feel anything but comfort. He was safe here. At peace.

The sound gradually merged with shapes, pale light, and shadows. He lay on his back under a black sky shot with stars. Raw bare ground chilled his body, the scent of pines and the bruised smell of fresh-turned earth filled his head. A pine tree loomed tall over him. Its boughs waved in the wind, restless, singing to the night. Theirs was the sweetest, most calming song he’d ever heard. He had never before felt so relaxed and content.

It lasted until a heavy wedge of damp earth slapped over his face.

What are they doing? Why are they doing this to me?

His face was soon covered, his body frozen, his mind screaming and impotent. He couldn’t see, only hear: the grunt of a man, breathing hoarse as he labored, the scrape of metal in the dirt—a shovel?—somewhere in the distance a woman sobbed. Hers was the anguish of the heartbroken. It hurt to listen to that kind of pain. He felt sorry for her, grieving for him so hard. If he could just wake up he could tell her it was all right. There’d been a mistake. He wasn’t dead. He tried to remember her face…

But a fire-hot flare sizzled through his skull, obliterating everything. When that faded it was too late for anything but blank terror. He was completely buried. Earth clogged his eyes and ears. No more singing from the wind, only silence like death, but worse because he was aware of it, of being dead.

Other, much more fragmented, scenes shot past. Some were good, most were not. They flashed and flitted too quick to grasp and study. Green land, deep water, a sky so solidly blue it hurt to look on; a room stinking of blood, his own laughter sounding too open and happy for that place; a tall man standing over him, swinging the buckle end of a belt, face blank, eyes crazy.

He taught me to kill. Why?

The horrors rose and ebbed, and in the pauses between the soft deep rush of wind through pine branches gradually returned, offering a temporary ease. That never lasted, and he wanted it to, but in the end, at the very end, he would begin to shift and struggle and push at the earth until it crumbled away from his face and harsh, cold air dragged him fully awake.

Gabe pitched off the smothering blankets, yelling. Without air in his lungs no sound came out. There was a moment’s absolute certainty that he was still buried, and then he drew breath, abruptly aware he was in Fleming’s guest room. Sunset had freed him from the steel grip of the monsters in his head.

Somewhat. They’d retreated only as far as the shadowed corners in his mind, grinning, waiting for their next chance to come at him again.

He leaned over the side of the bed and coughed. A glob of blood and tissue splattered the floor.

Damn it.

Another night to get through, alive or dead or whatever hell it was for him now.

At least his head had stopped hurting.


 

 


FLEMING

I woke instantly, my mind sharper for being rested, the question about Kroun still there, if no closer to an answer. Pulling on last night’s clothes, I vanished and floated, going solid in the kitchen. The house was quiet, though I could hear Kroun stirring upstairs. He gave a groan and coughed wetly. I felt sorry for him, for not being able to heal faster. We needed a trip to the Stockyards to get him some stuff fresh from a vein. That would help.

The phone rang. It was probably Derner, following orders. I’d told him to call me only after a certain hour, keeping any mention of sunset out of the conversation. He just might be imaginative enough to put two and three together about my condition and didn’t need more clues than he already possessed. Like most of the mobsters I dealt with, he knew I was uncannily tough and had earned Gordy’s friendship, which was usually enough to keep them from asking awkward questions. Now more than ever, since I couldn’t hypnotize people any more, I had to be careful.

I finally answered. “Yeah?”

“Boss?” Derner’s voice. Terse. Tense. He could pack a lot into a single word.

“Yeah. How’d things go today?”

“No hitches at this end. Everything went smooth on that job.”

I took him to mean the cleanup at Bobbi’s flat. Derner and I were both wary that the phones might be tapped. It was illegal, but that detail was not something J. Edgar was too particular about. So long as his name didn’t come into things and his agents didn’t get caught, he’d turn a blind eye if it got him good headlines as a gangbuster. Thus ran the scuttlebutt I’d heard from others, especially Gordy. I wondered how he’d come to learn it.

“Anything else?” I asked Derner.

“There’s some guys here. They’re upset about their friend having car trouble.”

That would be muscle from Kroun’s New York mob, pissed about the bombing. “How bad is it?”

“Real bad. I told them what you said and that you’d talk to them here, but they went looking for you.”

New York would know about my nightclub, Lady Crymsyn. The muscle would be waiting there. The sign tacked on the front door with its “Temporarily Closed—Back Soon!” wouldn’t discourage them. “I’ll just talk to them and—”

“Those guys who blew in were hopping mad. They won’t be talking. No chance. You gotta disappear yourself. This is serious.”

“They serious about the big guy, too?” I meant Gordy.

“Just you for now. They heard he wasn’t involved, but you have to get out of town. I told them who was really behind it, but you were the boss at the time, so you get the blame.”

“That figures.” Doesn’t matter what kind of job you’ve got, doctor, lawyer, Indian chief, when a disaster happens while you’re running the show it’s your fault.

Derner said, “I can get you a ride out of town, money, too.”

“No need.”

“But—”

“It’s all right. I’ll deal with them.” There was the sound of footsteps from the hall; Kroun had come downstairs. If I explained the situation to him in the right way he might be open to helping me out of this jam. He couldn’t vanish, but was still able to make people change their minds to his way of thinking. If he wanted to stay dead to them he could arrange it. “When the coast is clear I’ll stop by and fill you in.”

Silence from Derner’s end. He must be getting used to how I worked. He’d been there the night I’d faced down Kroun and survived. Maybe he thought I could somehow talk my way out of this one as well.

“How many of them are there?” I asked.

“There’s two of us, pal.”

I jumped. The reply hadn’t come from the phone, but from directly behind me. A stranger’s soft voice. Something, probably a gun, prodded my lower spine, forestalling further motion on my part. People who interrupted calls in this manner always had guns. How long had he been here? Not long enough to have searched as far as the guest bedroom. Or maybe he had—and discovered what appeared to be Kroun’s dead body. Oh, hell.

“Say you’ll call him back.” The man’s tone was almost conversational and very confident.

“Boss…?” Derner sounded odd. He must have heard.

“I’ll call you back,” I said and dropped the receiver onto its hook.

The man said, “Good boy. Put your hands on the wall. High up.”

I did so, and he frisked me, making a fast, efficient job of it, finding nothing threatening. My gun was in the overcoat hanging over the kitchen chair, well out of reach.

“You Jack Fleming?’ he asked.

“Yeah. You one of Whitey Kroun’s people?”

“No. Whitey was one of my people.”

Oh, hell, again. Kroun’s boss. Not that this should be a surprise. He sounded calm, but I sensed otherwise. Some of them could do that, hold a relaxed front, yet be flushed with rage. I was better at dealing with the ones who lost control and gave in to their emotions. This steadier type was a lot more unpredictable.

He went on. “Mitchell was also one of my people. So was Hog Bristow. They’re dead and you’re not. You understand why I’m here?”

“You gonna buckwheats me?” I asked. My mouth went dry, just like that, at the word.

It was how the mob dealt with some of their enemies. Buckwheats meant a slow, hideous death, lots of blood, lots of screaming. I’d been through it and would not suffer again. I would kill to avoid it, no matter the consequences. Despite this internal promise, cold sweat flared over my skin, over the thin scars Bristow had carved into me. My gut gave the kind of fast light flutter that presages vomiting. I leaned hard on my hands and took a deep breath, trying to stifle the nausea.

“That was Bristow’s hobby,” said the man. “I heard he did some knife work on you.”

“Yeah. He did.” The long icy threads left by his blade pulled tight on my flesh.

“And somehow you’re still walking? Whitey said as much, but I didn’t believe him.” The man spoke quickly yet with careful, educated articulation. He wasn’t any jumped-up street mug.

“He told you right.” God, I was sick. Dizzy sick. A wave of it went over me, cold as gutter slush. If I fell into one of those damned fits…no. Absolutely not. Too humiliating. Swallowing dry, I let out my breath and sucked air, tasting my fear. “Whitey decided I’d paid enough.”

“I get that. It’s paid. Whitey let you off for Bristow, but I can’t let you off for Whitey. How did you arrange the bomb?”

“Not me. Mitchell. He was behind it.”

“You got Mitchell to—”

“No, he was on his own!” My voice was high and harsh. I pulled it down, fighting my not-unreasonable panic. Jeeze, when had I started trembling? “I didn’t know or I’d have stopped him. He wanted Kroun’s job. If it’d worked right I’d have gone up as well. Mitchell got his for it.”

“So you say.” The pressure of the gun muzzle increased and I couldn’t help but flinch. “All the same, Whitey got blown to hell and you didn’t, and that’s what matters to me.”

This bird had not searched the place thoroughly, else he’d have found Kroun upstairs, dead to the world, and this would be a different conversation. Where the hell was Kroun, anyway? If he’d just walk in… “You know I didn’t kill him. It was—”

“Not my concern.”

Screw it. I wasn’t going to beg for a chance to explain.

“I came to do a job,” he said. “That’s all.”

I stared hard at the black phone. “One thing,” I said.

“Yeah?”

“Who else is on your list?”

“Why do you ask?”

“I don’t want others to pay for what you think I’ve done.” The muzzle shifted and now rested hard against the back of my head. It felt good. It’s a bad night in hell when the prospect of a bullet in the skull seems to be the easy way to get clear of problems. No bullet, lead or even wood, could slow me for long, but I did think about that kind of total oblivion for a few seconds. I wouldn’t go there, though. Not ever again. I’d play the cards I’d been dealt and see the game through…with a moderate amount of cheating. “So when you’re finished here—”

“You’re it, pal,” said the man. “No one else.”

But I couldn’t trust him.

I let myself vanish. I’d been fighting the urge to do so, and now I went out like a light, but only for the barest second, long enough to shift and return with death’s own grasp on his arm. The gun went off. Twice. Right next to my ear. I barely noticed, twisting and slugging hard, anger blurring my senses. He grunted and sagged but got a strong left in with his free hand. Tough guy. But my second punch took him out, and he suddenly weighed a ton. I let him drop, dragging the gun clear of his grip, and stifling the itch to kick him for good measure.

He said there were two of them. I vanished again before the second guy could come running. My hearing was diminished, but I’d know if anyone was close. Nothing stirred. I swept the downstairs quicker than wind—no one else around—then went solid to check on the fallen.

He was taller than average, with a hard-packed build under the expensive coat. Considering his high level of confidence he was younger than I’d expected, not far into his thirties. Despite the winter his skin was tanned and healthy, and he might have given Roland Lambert a good run for his money for film star looks. Jobs in the gangs tended to age a man, but this bird seemed immune. Myself, I felt about a hundred and ten, give or take.

The back door was unlocked. Damnation. I’d brick the thing over, but the bastards would probably just drop down the chimney like Santa. I turned the bolt (for all the good that would do), as Kroun came in, but I saw him as a corner-of-the-eye movement. I was startled enough to swing the gun on him.

He froze in place, genuinely alarmed, palms spread. “Easy there, it’s me.”

As if that was reassuring.

Kroun wore only socks, skivvies, and had dragged on his bloodied shirt in lieu of a bathrobe. He frowned at the man on the floor. “Cripes.”

“Friend of yours?” I asked.

“Unfortunately for you, yes.”

I put the gun on the table, within easy reach. “He was shooting up the place. I had to clock him.”

Kroun took that in along with the holes in the wall. “Well, you both made a good job of it.” There was no rasp in his voice tonight. The day’s rest must have fixed that, but he didn’t look happy. “Is he broken?”

“Not permanently. Now what?”

“ ‘Now what’ what?”

“He’s after me because of you. I’d have to kill him to stop him and then someone else will follow and someone else and I’ve got enough goddamned dead guys on my hands.”

He gave me a funny look. “You all right?”

No, I’m—” I shut down, getting control. I still felt the gun’s muzzle kissing the back of my head and couldn’t believe I’d found that a comforting thing, even for a second. Shoving away the memory, the anger at myself and the circumstances, and taking a breath, I began again. “I am not all right. I got mugs like him breaking into my place to kill me. There’s at least one other waiting somewhere else for his chance, and I’m damned sick of it. If you’ve got any influence over these bastards get rid of them. I want them off my back for good.”

He just looked at me, pupils dilated and unreadable, but his mouth went tight. He didn’t like being ordered around, but then who does? “I can’t do that,” he said.

“You’re the only one who can.”

“I—” He bit off the reply, then looked at the fallen man again. “If I do that, they’ll know I’m alive. I don’t want them to know I’m alive.”

“Hypnotize them to not remember you.”

“It won’t last.”

“Long enough to buy you a head start.”

“Hell, kid, you’re not asking much. You know what I went through to get dead?”

“Yeah, actually I do.”

That got me double-take.

“Welcome to the club,” I added.

“Cripes,” he muttered again. “All that for nothing?”

“It’s how the world works.”

His next remark was back-alley foul.

“You’ll be a hero for surviving it—and you can tell them who’s really responsible. That lets Gordy off the hook.”

“And you, too.”

“What’s the big deal? Fix this mess, then take a vacation. Retire if that’s what you want.”

Kroun stared like I’d gone around the bend. Retirement in his line of work nearly always involved a funeral.

“You’ll have to do the fixing anyway,” I went on. “Odds are they’re already wise to there being no body in that car, and they’ve been asking questions. My way they go home alive. Your way they either get killed or kill other people, making an even bigger mess, and—”

He held a hand up, forestalling further persuasion. “Yeah-yeah, okay, enough already. I’ll put the fix in. But you are going to owe me.”

I worked hard not to show too much relief. He’d made a choice I could live with. I’d worry about the debt later.

“But not like this,” he added.

“Like what?”

He gestured at himself. “Looks are everything in this game.”

What?

“You want me to play? Get me cleaned up first.”

He had to be kidding.

“Use your noodle. I’m not going anywhere fast looking like a train wreck.”

I got my mental gearbox shifted. Finally. He did look pretty ridiculous. He must have clothes back at his hotel or wherever he’d stayed before the explosion. We could go there and pick them up.

“What about him?” I pointed to Handsome Hank on the floor.

“You got rope, don’t you?” Kroun turned and went upstairs.

 

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"In Dark Road Rising, P.N. Elrod adds a masterful entry to her Vampire Files series. The book is as dark and decadent as blood and chocolate. The writing pops, and Jack Fleming is a narrator to die for. Elrod crafts an irresistible tale of gangsters, girls, double-crosses and old sins, told with the tantalizing bite of vampire fangs. In the words of "Whitey" Kroun, this tale is a real humdinger."


Caitlin Kittredge, author of Night Life

 

 



"I love getting into bed with Jack Fleming. Vampires, Chicago, jazz, and mystery—nobody does it better than P.N. Elrod. Dark Road Rising kept me up all night. A satisfying, smart, genuinely savvy read--with a lot of bite!”


Lilith Saintcrow, author of The Dante Valentine Series