The Quick Way Down


Smashwords edition, copyright 2011, by P.N. Elrod
Originally in Mob Magic DAW 1998




Chicago, May 1937

       Gordy Weems trudged up to my table, his phlegmatic face showing a subdued combination of annoyance and disgust, which was as angry as I'd ever seen him. "I got a stiff in the men's john." he stated.
       I refrained from making an obvious joke. He was too serious. The Nightcrawler Club, of which he was the owner and where I was presently seated, was a class operation; bodies in the washroom were not normal despite Gordy's reputation. Sure, he ran a very large hunk of Chicago's underworld territory, but he was too careful and smart to bump anyone off in his own yard--not so he'd get caught, anyway.
       "Natural causes?" I knew the answer, but had to ask.
       "A pill in the heart. I figure a .22. There's not much blood. When his tie's in place, it hides the hole."
       I had no curiosity to ask how he'd determined that detail. "Who?"
       "Alby Cornish."
       "You're kidding."
       But Gordy is no kidder.
       Alby was--or had been--an up-and-coming boxer being groomed for more important fights. He'd been able to throw a right that could knock down a barn and known how to take a dive and make it look real. A number of big shots would be unhappy about his demise.
       Gordy would get the blame.
       He turned his head slightly, making sure no one was close enough to eavesdrop. He'd have done that before speaking in the first place. This told me how nervous he was. "Alby was here all evening with that singer, Ruthie Phillips. They were living it up pretty good until about an hour ago."
       "What happened an hour ago?"
       "Ruthie's boyfriend caught them."
       No need to say more. Ruthie Phillips tight as a tick with Soldier Burton, a tougher-than-average mug who got the moniker for his uncanny ability to march from courtrooms free and clear of all charges, if not of all suspicion. He started out as an enforcer during Prohibition and now ran a string of bookie joints. I could guess that he'd taken Ruthie to the fights one time too many, and the sight of Alby's sweaty, well-muscled body had made an impression on her.
       Gordy snorted. "The bouncers said everything looked okay. Nobody made a fuss. Ruthie took off, leaving Cornish and Burton at the table. They talked and had drinks, watched some of the show, then went to the lobby. I figure they stopped in the toilet for a leak, and Burton popped him during the drum finale."
The club's band had a hell of a drummer. Between his work and the blare of the horn section during that number Burton could have fired a cannon and no one would have noticed.
       "I need help, Fleming," Gordy said.
       Now I was surprised. He was a man more used to ordering up help, not asking for it. "You got it, but you have ten other guys who can move a body just as easy as me."
       "Yeah, but they don't need to know about this and be talking to the wrong people. Soldier Burton's got big ideas. He's been trying to bite pieces off my territory for over a year now. It's no accident he left Cornish here. He wants to put me in Dutch with the New York bosses. Short odds are that he's already called the cops."
       The drum finale had been about five minutes ago. "We better get the lead out, then."
       He nodded once, and I boosted from my regular table on the third tier overlooking the stage and followed him to the plush lobby.
       "Where was the wash room attendant?" I asked, pitching my voice low and casual.
       "On break, getting a sandwich. When a show's playing, not many get up to use the john, so he takes a minute. Tonight he comes back, finds what he found, and tells me about it."
       "Will he spill to anyone else?"
       "He'll keep shut. Likes his job too much. He's taking another break. A long one."
       The men's room was fancy: pale-veined black marble floors, gold-plated faucets. You expected the water flowing out of them to be perfumed. There was only one patron now, just drying his hands. We waited for him to leave, then Gordy went to the last stall and pushed the door wide. Alby Cornish was slumped on the toilet seat, legs splayed and arms dangling, looking asleep, but definitely not breathing. He'd had a fighter's beaten-up face, but was dressed sharp as a Broadway hoofer.
       Gordy had been right about the tie hiding the bullet hole, but I caught the tang of fresh blood the instant we walked in. I don't breathe regularly, but drew in air to speak and got the scent. It teased at me, as it always did, the way the smell of baking bread used to before I'd been killed last summer. Unlike Alby, I got over being dead, trading it for being undead. It has its advantages, if you're not squeamish.
       I'd fed earlier that night at the Union Stockyards, so my corner teeth stayed a normal length, but regardless of that the sight of Alby's pathetic remains would have dispelled any hunger. Damn, he looked young. I tried not to wonder if he had family somewhere, a mother with a heart to break when she got the news. I tried, but was not successful. That's why I would not do well as one of Gordy's employees: unlike the others I had empathy and too much imagination.
       I caught Gordy looking at me and knew he was reading things in my face.
       "Sorry, kid."
       "I know." I owed Gordy favors; he owed me favors. Neither of us kept track, but this wasn't about paying what's owed. When a friend calls for help, you be stand-up and help him, even if it costs a piece of your soul.






Smashwords Edition, copyright 2011 by P.N. Elrod
Originally in The Repentant, DAW, 2003

Chicago, 1937

       "He calls himself Slaughter. None of the guys knows his real name," said Gordy.
The self-named Slaughter had a booth to himself a few yards from where Gordy and I were seated in the dimly lighted nightclub. More than half in shadows, Slaughter had his back to a wall, but in Chicago that was just a healthy habit for certain guys. He'd popped up out of nowhere, and had apparently, without any fuss, taken over the running of one of the more active businesses under Gordy's protective eye. Well, it had something to do with protection. I rarely asked for details about his work. If he wanted me to know something, he'd say.
       "What's the story?" I asked, pretending to sip coffee. It was only coffee, too; Prohibition being a not-so fond memory meant you could now order the best from Brazil without getting something routinely added in the cup. Coffee and booze were the same for me: undrinkable. Thrift and principle dictated I not waste booze. The bonus with plain coffee was that it still smelled good to me.
       Gordy was slow to reply, being a man careful with words, never using many and often given to understatement. He frowned slightly over his drink, which was also free of alcohol. When on a business call he never had so much as a short beer. "Sent some boys here last night to collect the usual cut. They came back empty. None of 'em's talking much, and it's what they don't say makes me think he's like you."
       He had my full attention. Another vampire?
       We're a rare breed. It takes a deliberate conscious effort to pass the potential on to another person, and the effort doesn't always work.
       The buzz from a dozen conversations surrounding us faded to nothing as I studied Slaughter, trying to detect any sign of kinship. That would be impossible, not until I got close enough to discern the absence of a heartbeat or unless he chanced to walk in front of a mirror.
       "Can't tell from here," I said, anticipating the question.
       "Time for a word. I'll lead, you watch him," Gordy wore caution like his tailored suit, which was why he'd lasted so long in his ruthless line of work, and tonight I was his insurance. If Slaughter was like me, no ordinary human bodyguard would be enough.
       We left our table; Gordy's broad back blocked my view of a sizable portion of the club for a few moments. He was taller than me and a lot wider, all of it muscle. Through restless clouds of cigarette smoke people stared and some whispered recognition. No one noticed me, which was exactly how I preferred it.
       Slaughter watched our approach. He was young, reasonably handsome, on the good side of his twenties, dark eyes, tight mouth, and pale skin, but lots of guys were like that. His suit was sharp, expensive, and so painfully new it looked like it was wearing him. I tried to pick up his heartbeat, but the general noise prevented anything so subtle.
       "Slaughter," said Gordy from his height. "You know who I am." It was not a question. "We need to talk."
       Slaughter gave a half-smile to show he was amused, not intimidated. Wise men were respectful to Gordy; the rest tended to disappear. "Do we?"
       "Find a place."
       More smile. Slaughter's gaze flicked my way. He'd see a tall, lean man in a flashy double-breasted dark suit and silk shirt, fedora pulled low: probably the boss's pilot fish, errand-runner, bodyguard, or all three. No one important, easily dismissed. When his attention returned to Gordy, I could tell I'd conned another one. "Okay, come to the back."
       We threaded past the tables, drawing a share of attention from the dance music and couples drifting around the floor in front of the band. The ripples we made subsided along with the hubbub as Slaughter preceded us into the manager's office behind the stage.
       Gordy paused at the door. "Where's Herm?" Until last week Herm Foster had been running things here.
       "He left," Slaughter answered with a straight face. "Greener pastures."
       We went in. The room had the usual office stuff, plus a long couch. A large-busted blonde girl was sprawled on it, fast asleep, one arm thrown across her eyes against the glaring overhead light. She wore a shiny red evening dress, cut low, and it looked like she'd been wearing it for at least three days without a break. Slaughter went over and tapped the back of his hand against her hip. She woke slow, pitifully hung over.
       "Out," he ordered. "Go clean up. Come back tomorrow." Then he sat behind the desk, flopping back in the chair and putting his feet up, making it clear that she was of no further concern to him.
       She blinked, her sunken eyes smudged and disoriented. It took her a moment to stand, and then she tottered like a drunk. I put a hand out to steady her. Her eyes blank, she stumbled, arms falling heavily over my shoulders, half-turning us around. She sighed, pressed the length of her body against mine, and tilted her head back, smiling. I sniffed and got a whiff of stale sleep-sodden breath. She wasn't drunk.
       Gordy caught my glance over her shoulder. Yeah, he'd also spotted the clumsy bruising and red marks on her throat. Under her ghost-pale skin, her heart raced too fast, trying to pump blood that she didn't have.
       Proof enough. It told me all I needed to know about Slaughter.


Continued in the P.N. Elrod Omnibus


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