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Dark Lady  A new Vampire Files story! July 20, 2010

A shy client brings trouble to the Lady Crymsyn club.

Myrna the ghost is not amused.

 

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ISBN13: 9780312598341
ISBN: 0312598343

 

Dark Lady

My name is Jack Fleming. I am owned by a nightclub. As a sideline I have been known to help damsels in distress, though in my experience the damsels of the Windy City are well able to look after themselves. Now and then I’ll step in, against my better judgment, and attempt to lend a hand; just call me Don Quixote with fangs.

 

  Chicago, April 1938

“Myrna,” I said to the apparently empty room, “you are the pip.”

Myrna wouldn’t leave the office radio alone and kept changing the station to dance music when I wanted to hear the sports scores. I’d dial it back, but soon as I sat down, she’d switch to dance music again.

“Five minutes,” I said, twisting the knob. “Just lemme listen for five minutes, then pick whatever you like.”

She gave no reply until I was behind my desk, then Bing Crosby crooned from the speaker, smooth as butter, the volume twice as high as normal.

“Okay. You win. Just turn it down so I can work.”

After a moment, the volume eased. She’d made her point.

Arguing with a dame gets you nowhere fast.

Arguing with a ghost dame who happens to be haunting your nightclub is just plain screwy, but some nights I’m a slow learner.

I could imagine her putting on a smug smile, though I had no idea what she looked like. She’d been a lady bartender killed by shrapnel from a fragmentation grenade during a gang war that began and ended years before I bought the building. The bloodstain marking where she’d bled to death was visible on the floor behind the lobby bar. I’d replaced the tiles a few times, but the stain always reappeared.

Myrna was quirky, but as ghosts go—and I don’t have much experience—she was okay. She seemed to like me and my friends, and even helped out at the club’s bar, moving bottles around. Sometimes she played with the lights, which was hell when we had a stage show going, but I didn’t mind much. She was usually undemanding, comfortable company, just not at present.

Maybe she was bored. I could sympathize. The nights got long for me, too, though I had worldly distractions to keep me busy.

I hammered various keys on my adding machine, pulled the lever, then wrote the result into the correct ledger column. It being Sunday night, my club was closed, and I used the time to check stocks and balance the books. The place was quiet, except for the radio.

Myrna must have changed her mind: Bing’s voice faded and ceased altogether with a soft click. The dial no longer glowed. She’d switched it off, which was odd. I held still and listened, and downstairs in the chrome-trimmed lobby a visitor rapped insistently on the front door.

Someone must have spotted my Studebaker in its reserved slot in the side parking lot and knew I was putting in extra time. A customer would have seen the closed sign and noticed the lights were off. A friend wanting to visit would have phoned so I could leave the door unlocked. My partner and my girlfriend had their own keys, so it could be anybody. Might as well find out what the problem was, and it would be a problem, hopefully not a lethal one.

I’m not being melodramatic. I have aggravated a number of people in Chicago’s underworld. My last two years have, to wildly understate things, been harrowing. On my first day in town I ran afoul of some gangsters, which led to my untimely death, which led to a lot of other things that I would rather not go into. The end result put me in this office doing the books on a Sunday night and wondering if yet another mug on the wrong side of the law had plans to ventilate me.

Taking a shortcut, I vanished, sank through the floor, angling to the left, and then re-formed in the lobby with nary a hair out of place.

It’s ghostlike, but I’m undead, not dead.

That’s spelled v-a-m-p-i-r-e.

Look it up in Webster’s, but don’t take the definitions as gospel. It’s given me an edge on life and hard times, and I keep quiet about it. People will forgive you for having mob associations, but let them find out you visit the Stockyards every few nights to drink blood and it’s a pitchfork parade with torches followed by a hammer-and-stake party.

Okay, that was melodramatic, but why take chances? What I drank in private was my own business.

The small light behind the lobby bar was on; Myrna liked it that way, but the rest of the space was dim and echoed the rappings of my visitor. I could make out a shape through the frosted-glass windows set in the doors. The height and build indicated the caller was female, and so it proved when I opened up. She was plump, looked as if she’d just come from church in her best black clothes, and under one arm was a paper-wrapped parcel tied with string. She wore a short-brimmed hat, and a thick black veil obscured the top half of her face. A purse dangled from her other arm, which was raised to knock again. She rocked back with a little “oh” of surprise.

“Jack Fleming,” she said decisively, taking in my rolled-up shirtsleeves and unbuttoned collar. The day had been warm, or so I’d been told, the night temperate enough to throw open the windows.

“Maybe.”

“I’m Emma Dorsey. You don’t know me, but I do costuming work over at the Nightcrawler Club.”

Good enough. The memory prompt reminded me that I knew her by sight, if not to speak to; I recalled a youngish woman of her proportions floating about backstage with the leggy, giggling dancers. There should be a pleasant face under the veil, a match to her soft voice, and neatly combed hair the same color as her dress.

 I motioned her in with a word of welcome.

“What is it, something for Bobbi Smythe?” My girlfriend was a professional singer and might have placed a costume order. If her outfit was so skimpy as to fit inside the parcel, which looked about half the length of a shoebox, then I couldn’t wait to see her in it.

“N-no, nothing like that. I need help, and I shouldn’t even ask, but I’m scared, and Bobbi’s always said you’re a straight-arrow guy and—”

I let her run on, steering her toward the bar.

“C-could you lock the door?”

I took a quick gander outside to see if anyone was hanging around who might spook her. The street was clear of suspicious characters. I locked up.

The general darkness within was no problem for me, but her human-normal sight and the hat veil limited her view. She finally brushed the obscuring barrier out of the way. She usually wore glasses for her work, but they were gone now, and for the first time I got the full impact of her lustrous dark eyes. Wow. Film stars would kill for big, expressive glims like those.

“Drink?” I asked. Whatever her story, it might require a jolt of alcohol.

“Oh. No, thank you. I don’t drink.”

“Good habit to get into,” I said. I gave her a moment to explain herself, but she was taking in the high ceiling, red velvet curtains, and black-and-white marble tile floors. Mine was a swank operation, and I was proud of it. “Like my place?”

“I’ve seen it from the outside, but never been in. It’s very nice.” She sounded distracted. Her heart pattered fast, and I could smell fear.

“I’ll put some lights on, give you a tour.”

“Oh! No lights. Please! I’m sorry, I’m doing this badly. I don’t know where to start.”

“You’ll get to it. Let’s go to my office. Bar stools aren’t comfortable when you’re sober.”

She made a little hmm sound of hesitation but followed me upstairs. The office door was open. It had been shut when I’d vanished from the room. Myrna was being helpful, probably curious, too.

I got Emma Dorsey to sit on my new sofa and pulled up a chair to face her. She perched primly on the edge and fumbled the parcel so it rested on her lap. The way her gloved fingers twitched around like nervous butterflies gave me to understand that she didn’t care much for the contents. It was wrapped in plain brown paper, just the way those ads in the backs of magazines promise, and the string was a thick, sturdy twine tied in a bow. No address was visible.

“What do you need help with, Mrs. Dorsey?” I asked.

“Um…it’s Miss Dorsey, but call me Emma, everyone does, and it’s about my boyfriend…my fiancé, I mean. I’m still getting used to that.” She plucked off her gloves and put them in her purse, then tusked it next to her. No engagement ring, so the change must have been recent.

“Congratulations. Who’s the lucky man?”

“Joe Graedon.” She briefly pulled in her lower lip, her breath giving a hitch as she waited for a response.

“Don’t think I’ve met him.”

“Um…yes, you have. He works for Gordy. At the Nightcrawler.”

“Lots of guys do.”

“You might know him as Foxtrot Joe?”

“Ah.” I tried not to give a reaction, but she was watching and saw what she expected.

“He loves me,” she said, as though that explained everything.

Love is responsible for nearly every kind of insanity in the world, though greed,  vanity, and pure meanness contribute their portion to the general misery. I’m usually in favor of love, the good kind, the kind that’s between me and my girl, but Bobbi and I were a match. I couldn’t see Emma and Foxtrot Joe passing each other on the street, much less walking hand in hand in the same direction. She was plump and cheery, he was hard edges, as personable and tough as a brick wall, but crazier matches have happened.

He worked collections with Gino Desanctis, who answered directly to Northside Gordy, who ran the Nightcrawler Club and a large chunk of territory in Chicago. Gordy was a good friend of mine, one of the few who knew about the vampire stuff.

Relations sorted, I asked, “What’s going on?”

“Joe did something stupid. He did it for me, for us. He’s crazy about me, and it’s not really his fault, but if I make it right, maybe Gordy won’t…do anything.”

A well-considered euphemism, that. It covered all manner of mayhem from a severe bawling out to sinking a bullet into the head of an offender as a cautionary lesson to impart wisdom and prudence upon potential offenders.

Gordy was capable of ordering up all kinds of havoc when required, though I never stuck around to watch if I could help it. He also owed me a few favors. Emma might have heard and hoped I could work a miracle for her.

“What did Joe do?”

He’d dropped from sight with money that was not his. When a collector goes missing—along with cash—guys like Gordy tend to get homicidally annoyed. While the gangs had no problem skimming a share off the various businesses of the city, they took a dim and grim view when one of their own skimmed some for himself. Joe’s continued employment, not to mention his ability to keep breathing, was in peril.

Collectors worked in pairs so they could keep an eye on each other and not get ideas, but Joe had earned a reputation for reliability, so his boss, Desanctis, let him loose on his own once in a while.

“Then,” said Miss Dorsey, “Joe started talking about us getting married and how we didn’t have enough money, but I thought we did. I don’t need a fancy ring. A plain gold band was good enough for my mother and it’s good enough for me, but Joe said he wanted only the best.”

It didn’t sound right. She was sincere, but none of this tender consideration for a prospective bride went with what I knew about Foxtrot. He had gotten the name from the way he’d roughhoused a slow-to-pay gambler twice his size. The larger man took a swing; Joe took a swing. The gambler staggered back several strangely graceful steps before slamming into a slot machine, which fell on him when he hit the floor. It knocked him out for a week, and when he woke up he didn’t remember the debt. He still had to pay it—and for the machine. Joe hung around the hospital and made sure. After that, Joe had only to smile at deadbeats and ask if they wanted to dance.

“It’s not like he took the money that was going to his boss,” she went on. “He had people put a dollar or more on top of that, and it added up. He wasn’t stealing, this was more like getting a tip.”

Foxtrot raised a total of eight hundred bucks, which gave me an idea of just how profitable and wide-ranging an operation it was. He’d collected almost a year’s pay in less than a week. I was in the wrong business, what with trying to be honest.

“A tip.” My tone was completely neutral.

“He did it for me. He’s crazy about me. I told him not to, but he just couldn’t help himself.”

 If he was getting tips on top of regular collections, no one would say a word. A few bucks going to Foxtrot was cheaper than a hospital stay.

 “Look, if Gordy doesn’t know about these tips, then—”

“He does know. Someone complained last night to him, now Gino Desanctis has people looking for Joe. That’s why I asked you to lock the door. They’ve been watching my place, I guess to see if he came by. I sneaked out with my landlady’s family. They were going to evening Mass, and I just stayed in the middle of them and got on the El. I was going to the Nightcrawler, but I got so shaky and scared. Then I remembered Bobbi talking about how you sometimes helped people, so I took a chance that you might be open tonight but the place was dark, and then I saw the lights in the upstairs and…”

“What do you need me for?” I could guess, but she’d worked herself up to it, and it wouldn’t be polite to take it from her.

“I was hoping you could go with me to see Gordy. I–I don’t think I could get the story out with Gordy watching me.”

Gordy was intimidating as hell to guys who killed for a living, never mind the effect of his steady gaze on this plump little seamstress. But with or without me, she had a bad night ahead.

“I’ll go along for moral support, but understand that Joe’s in for it. I can’t interfere with how Gordy does business.”

“But don’t you work for him, too? You ran the club and–and the other things…”

I’d reluctantly filled Gordy’s big shoes for a brief and terrible time while he recovered from a case of lead poisoning caught during a botched assassination attempt. “Just the once, and I wasn’t in charge so much as a target. Some of those guys still hate me for it.”

Desanctis was one of them, but he’d been smart enough not to act on it at the time. He’d kept his distance to watch and wait for me to fall on my face, which didn’t exactly happen. He wouldn’t appreciate me putting my nose into this, though.

“You think they’ll kill Joe.”

“I couldn’t say.” There was a remote chance that they’d beat him to hell and gone and kick him out of Chicago, but I didn’t want to get her hopes up. An execution was far more likely.

“But if he gives back the money, wouldn’t that make a difference?”

“It’s not about the money, but the fact he took it in the first place. They can’t trust him. Crazy as it sounds, the gangs run on trust same as any other business. If a clerk steals money from the till, they’re gonna fire him, no matter if he returns everything.”

She looked down, visibly crushed, fingers brushing the sides of the parcel.

“What d’ya have there?”

“Joe left it for me. It was outside my door this evening. With a note. He explained what he did and why and what I had to do. I tried calling him, but I guess he’s hiding. It’s the money—all of it. He wrote that if I took this to Gordy, it would make things right. He doesn’t dare go in himself.”

“May I?”

She handed it over with no hesitation, a gleam of hope in her gorgeous dark eyes. I felt bad for inspiring that kind of trust. In my heart I knew hers was a lost cause.

The box felt a little heavy. Even eight hundred one-dollar bills wouldn’t weigh much of anything. Maybe some of it was in coin. I shook it, but nothing shifted or clinked.

“Here,” she said, pulling the loose ends of the bow. “He told me to wait for Gordy to open it, but you should check—”

 The bow did not come undone; the twine slipped an inch and caught. She automatically gave it a strong yank with me reflexively tightening my grip on the box to brace it, and suddenly the string dangled free in her hand, a large metal ring looped fast to the intact bow.

In the space between one of her heartbeats and the next, I glimpsed a slit in the paper where the ring had popped out and a dreadful understanding jolted me to panicked action. I lobbed the parcel behind the couch and flung Emma bodily through the doorway so quick and hard, she didn’t have time to blink.

I can move fast, but even my unnatural speed wasn’t enough for me to follow and pull the door shut behind. Instead, I used my momentum to slam it closed and vanished just as a hideous flat bang clubbed the room into perdition.


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 

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ISBN13: 9780312598341
ISBN: 0312598343

 

 

 

© Copyright 2010 P.N. Elrod