THE lines on the map and the written directions bore no resemblance to the actual lay of the road, Gabe decided.
He'd planned to be patient, aware he was exploring unknown territory, knowing it might take a while to find the right turnoff, but after a futile hour of cruising up and down, backtracking, and finding one dead end after another, he was justifiably irritated.
Somewhere he'd missed something. That, or Fleming had written things down wrong.
Or Sonny had given the wrong-
Gabe allowed himself a snarl of disgust, then hauled the wheel around in yet another U-turn. He went back three long miles in the country darkness to the last intersection, where a crooked sign pointed the way to the nearest town. The name held no meaning for him; it was ten miles distant and not on the route.
He stopped the Hudson, letting it idle, and got out to look at the sign.
As he thought, it was loose in the ground. Some fool had knocked it over and put it back, pointing in the wrong direction. A swell joke to play on a nonlocal, yessiree, that's a real knee-slapper.
Gabe slammed the wooden post into the ground so the sign was parallel with the road, then checked the written directions against the map.
Okay, that made sense.
Back in the car, he turned left from the intersection and covered five empty miles, counting them off and slowing. The trees were thick and grew close to the road, their black branches arching over and meeting high above, making a skeletal tunnel. Snow, unbroken except for animal tracks, lay heavy over humped shapes that marked brush and stumps. Plenty of deer were about; he'd seen a few dead ones on the way up. No roadside bodies mangled by hurtling machines were here, though. If Farmer Jones hit one with the old truck, then it would be fresh venison for supper that night. Country folk knew better than to high-hat a free meal.
The tires crunched a new path through the snow. No one had been up this way at least since the last fall, however long ago that had been.
Some flash of memory had him hitting the brake without benefit of thought, and the Hudson slewed and skidded to a reluctant halt.
He stared at three oak trees on the left, each more than a foot thick and planted so close that the trunks were fused together for about fifteen feet before separating into different directions. Some of their upper branches had twined as well in the struggle to obtain more sunlight. The thing was one huge, ungainly knot. The ground was distorted on one side where the roots were exposed, poking up from the snow in a black tangle, their fight continuing on under the earth. Rot had set in on one of the trees, and in the course of time it would spread and kill the others. Though not in the directions, this was a landmark he recognized; he could not recall details, only that it was important.
Just past the oaks was a break in the woods lining the road, no more than eight feet wide and overgrown, very easy to miss. The snow looked deep, and not even animal tracks crossed it. This was the turn he wanted, the one that would lead to the cabin.
He worked gears, fed the car gas, and urged it in. The Hudson rocked and slid over ruts hidden by the snow until it bumped something that scraped alarmingly along the undercarriage. It pressed gamely on, but Gabe judged that was far enough; no point in breaking an axle. He was well out of sight from the road. Anyone driving past might notice the tire tracks, but he doubted there was much traffic at this time of year. This area was disturbingly isolated.
He cut the motor and got out, feet sinking deep into a drift. There was less snow under the trees, so he floundered toward their cover, then threaded cautiously forward. Ahead, he heard the murmur of flowing water, lots of it.
The cabin was a few hundred yards in and dark. He expected as much, but studied the area carefully, looking for fresh prints in the snow as he made a wide circle. No recent visitors. Good.
The structure was about twenty feet to a side, with a stovepipe piercing a roof that extended out over a porch that ran the width of the front. Its one door faced a gradual downward slope that led to a wide black river. The far bank was a thin gray line covered with unbroken pine and beeches.
Gabriel couldn't remember its name but knew that he had fished there, his legs hanging over the edge of a boat dock, bare feet in the water, a blue, blue sky above, and sweet summer sun pleasantly baking the top of his head. In the mornings and late afternoons, the sun would spark on the water, the reflected light dazzling him.
Very unexpectedly he choked and felt chill, wet trails from his eyes. He swiped at them, embarrassed, ashamed... and suddenly afraid. Men don't cry. Especially if... but he couldn't carry the thought further than that; his memory failed yet again.
He'd fished in that river, but not here. No dock was in sight, nor the remains of one. The solitary picture from a long-ago summer vanished from his mind's eye.
When Gabe refocused, he took in the cabin and grounds in more detail, hoping the sight would kindle some other recollection to explain his bad dreams.
Nothing was familiar. The old wooden building had been constructed God knows how long ago. It needed paint but seemed sturdy, the walls and roof solid. A pump stood in the middle of what served as a front yard, and about a hundred feet to the right, downstream and built out over the river, was an outhouse, the door hanging open. No prints marred the snow between it and the cabin.
The wind kicked up. The place had been silent except for the river and his footfalls. Now he heard the soft whirring song that only pine trees sang, sounding exactly as it did in the dreams-only this time there was no peace to it. He thought of graveyards and ghosts. He didn't think he believed in ghosts, but if he did, then that was the kind of noise they'd make. Gooseflesh shot up his arms, spread over his spine, and down his legs. He wanted to put his back to something, anything, and had to quell the urge to pull out his gun.
When no invisible beast from the beyond leapt out, Gabe shook off the fit, if not his apprehension. He was sensibly afraid of what he might find here.
And more afraid that he might not find it.
He had to know what had happened in December, the why behind his very quiet trip to this lonely place, what had happened to the girl, what had happened to his driver...
And who put the bullet in my head.
He trudged toward the cabin, mounting an ice-coated wood step to the shallow porch. A small, uncurtained window on one side of the door gave a limited view of the interior. Nothing fancy, plank floor, some basic furnishings, no electricity or plumbing, but once upon a time it might have been someone's idea of a good place to live.
Gabe pushed the door open. It had no lock, just an old metal latch to hold the panel shut. After a moment, he went in.
His night vision was such that the ambient glow from outside was enough to see by. Even so, he made use of a candle stub shoved in a holder on a shelf across from the door, using his new silver lighter to bring it to life. The action reminded him of lighting Sonny's cigar, leaning in to the old bastard's ravaged face, smelling his breath, and hearing the creak of his finger joints. Gabriel had felt uncomfortable being so physically close, but he'd taken care not to show it.
He pushed away the memory and turned his attention on the rest of the cabin. It was depressingly plain. A sagging bed leaned in a corner next to a rusting potbellied stove, a narrow table, and two simple benches made from planks took up space under the front window. More planking formed a waist-high shelf that held battered cooking gear-and a dusty white fedora.
He looked it over carefully before picking it up. It was his size, and the label matched that of identical ones in his closet back in New York. No doubt of it now, Whitey Kroun had been here. This was the source of his nickname and a damn-fool thing to wear at any time of the year. The bold white made him a walking target in a crowd. Maybe that was part of his bravado: Whitey Kroun, afraid of nothing and nobody, just try starting something.
Clearly someone had, or the hat wouldn't still be here. He put it back.
I must have been an idiot. He touched the dark brim of his new hat, reassuring himself that he'd grown more sensible in the last couple months.
Shelves above the counter had a store of canned goods so old the labels had faded gray. Below was a stash of wood for the stove and several booze bottles, empty or nearly so.
All very innocuous-except for the splashes of dried blood on the floor by the bed. A rumpled and moldy blanket on top was also stained with the stuff.
He first took it for black paint that some vandal had splattered there; breathing in, he caught the thick, rusty scent.
After a long, long time of staring, he realized the stains were also from his bad dreams. In the dreams the stuff was fresh, red, and he'd been laughing for some insane reason.
He felt his throat tighten again.
Was that his blood? His head wound would have bled...
He felt physically sick as possibilities slithered through his mind. He'd seen blood before, damn it. He drank the stuff, for God's sake.
He still wanted to vomit.
Or had it come from the girl? What had happened to her?
The left side of his head throbbed wearily. He swept off his fedora and gently touched the ridge in his skull. The nascent pain bloomed into something truly awful, as though his brain had swollen too large for the surrounding bone.
Gabriel stumbled outside, slipping on the steps, grabbing at a support post to stop his fall. He forced his legs not to buckle.
He clawed for a handful of snow and pressed it against his scalp, biting off a cry. The agony was so bad that for a long, terrible moment he couldn't see. He held hard to the post and waited for the torture either to fade on its own or kill him.
Such vulnerability was foreign to him. He shouldn't be like this. It wasn't going to happen. He wouldn't allow it. He blinked until the black veil dissipated.
The compress of snow helped, really helped, but it was slow. Minutes crawled by, then bit by bit the pain reluctantly ebbed.
Breathing in icy river-tainted air helped, too. He made his lungs pump until his guts settled. It took longer for his brain to clear. Speculation about what had happened in the cabin could wait until he was calmer. He shut that part away for the moment, like closing a door. Out of sight, out of mind; he was good at forgetting, after all.
Gabe straightened, brushing snow from his hand. His fingers looked blue, but didn't feel cold. He cautiously put on his hat. No internal explosions sparked. He should have bought earmuffs at that store; fedoras weren't right for woodland expeditions.
Once he was sure his legs could manage the labor, he made another slow circuit of the area, this time facing outward.
He struck off, moving away from the river. No conscious memory prompted him, only some wisp of dream that made him think the area was familiar. The snow confused and concealed things, though. The place would look very different after the thaw in a couple months; he should come back then...
Like hell. He couldn't live with the not-knowing for that long. He had to get this over with-
The wind started up again, making the surrounding pines sing louder. He paused and knew he was close to something important. Looking back, he judged himself to be about fifty feet from the cabin. The candle glow through a side window seemed about right. Oh, yeah. Very close.
The glow flared and died, and he had to work to keep from twitching.
The nearly spent stub had finally guttered, that was all. No one had blown it out. He'd have heard company long before seeing them.
Unless Fleming followed me.
Not likely, but not impossible. The loon might have somehow managed to tag along; his ability to vanish was damned handy. He could have hidden in the trunk and-
Gabe held still and waited, but no ghostly gray shapeless thing floated between the trees. That was how Fleming looked while in that form, though Gabe had the understanding that regular humans couldn't see it. Just as well, too; it was hellishly creepy.
He wondered what it felt like: being bodiless, able to go through walls, instantly heal. Damned useful, all of it.
The snow layer thinned. The pine branches above had prevented serious drifts from forming. He picked out animal tracks: deer and rabbit, and several kinds of paw prints. He couldn't tell wildcat from wolf, but took for granted that four-footed observers might be lurking in the silent woods. Those he didn't mind so much.
An unevenness of the ground, a mound hidden by the snow, nearly tripped him. He backed off and studied things. The snow lay smooth, softening the irregular surface beneath. He crouched and brushed until reaching old leaves and earth. Nothing to get excited about, probably just a covered-over garbage pit dug for whatever wasn't burned or tossed in the river.
But the mound was grave-shaped.
And leaning against a pine trunk, only a few paces away, was a shovel.
Its wood handle was aging fast in the weather, the metal rusted. Someone had left it there, but had he simply forgotten it, or was it to mark a special place?
Gabe's hands closed on it, and that felt familiar. He dragged it free and used the blade to clear the snow away.
The pine tree... he looked up, hoping for a clue, but nothing came to him. Still, this had to be the place. The wind in the branches sounded the same.
He began to dig.
The frozen ground was not as solid as it should have been, but he had to work at it. His improved strength was a great help, though a few times he had to go easy as the handle threatened to break if he applied too much pressure. He slammed the blade in, cut deep, loosened, then cleared, his movements machinelike, giving him to understand that he was used to such labor. He felt like he was accomplishing something.
About three feet down, the shovel hit something that was not dirt, and he stopped.
By now he was sure of what would be there. The scent of the turned earth had done the trick, had merged what lay before him with what he'd dreamed.
He hated it, but continued, slowly.
The stink of decay rose and mixed with the pine, snow, and river air.
Soon he uncovered the man's face. There was enough left to recognize features, but Gabe's patchy memory failed him again. He had to dig farther to reach the rest of the body to check the pockets, finding a wallet. It held a few hundred in twenties, the tough paper still intact as legal tender. A New York state driving license was readable, identifying one Henry Ramsey, born July 15, 1912. Date of death? Sometime in December, 1937. Just a kid. His friends probably called him Hank.
Cause of death? Less certain, though Gabe thought the damage and stains on the front of the clothes might have been caused by bullets. There was a leather shoulder rig similar to his own on the body, but no gun in it. That lay in what remained of the corpse's right hand, fingers curled around the grip, index finger against the trigger. It was a.32 revolver, rusted and caked with dirt.
Gabe carefully worked it clear of the dead man's grasp. Four bullets were still in the cylinder. He wondered if one of the two missing slugs was lodged in his brain. Where had the other gone? Since Ramsey was holding a gun, chances were good he'd not been caught unawares. He might have gotten one shot off before dropping. Then what? The killer had dug a long hole and rolled him in?
The grave was too shallow. Come the spring thaw, animals would find, dig up, and scavenge the remains for food. Sooner or later a passing hunter, curious about the cabin, might discover it. It was a miracle that hadn't already happened. Was the hole deeper... yes... someone had dug a much deeper grave.
Instinct, not memory, provided that conclusion.
With a bullet in his skull and all signs of life gone, someone had buried Gabriel Kroun a few yards from the foot of the pine. The first shovelful of wet earth had covered his face and, quickly after, the rest of him.
And at some point along the way, Ramsey had been dropped in as well.
Did we die together? Or was I first, then Ramsey?
In the dream-memory, Gabe had clawed his way toward the sky, pushing aside some heavy obstacle that lay on him. The rounded thing he'd touched, recognized, and recoiled from had been Ramsey's head. What happened afterward Gabe could not recall. His resurrection was a hazy, disjointed, painful event. The agony in his skull from the bullet wound had kept him thoroughly distracted. After dragging free from the grave, he must have reburied Ramsey before moving on. That didn't seem too likely, though.
Gabe straightened, the wallet and its contents in hand. He put the license back and, after a moment, the cash as well. It made little sense not to keep and use the money, but with some surprise he discovered within a profound loathing for robbing the dead. He returned the wallet to its pocket and went to work with the shovel, burying the man again.
The sky had changed by the time Gabe finished. He'd not be able to make it to that town before the dawn overtook him but had allowed for the possibility.
He was exhausted and half-frozen by the time he got to the car and folded himself into the backseat. The four heavy blankets wrapped around him would block the weak winter sun and keep in his remaining body warmth. He chose not to worry about anyone finding him during the day. No one had been out to the cabin in months, after all.
He lay still, eyes closed, listening to the wind beyond the rolled-up windows. It whirred between the pine needles and hissed through the bare branches of other trees. Rather than being at peace, he felt lonely... and afraid.
Gabe sensed the sun, the change it forced upon his body, the slowing of his perceptions and thought as conscious control slipped away. This day's bout of dream torture might be the worst yet. He'd have to get through it somehow; he had to know.
He shifted to a more comfortable position, arms and shoulders stiff from the recent exercise. It didn't work. He'd be creaking around like an old man when he woke. He should have ordered up a small panel truck. He could have stretched out in the back...
Why hadn't he dropped off yet?
He should be out by now, not grousing to himself for picking the wrong kind of vehicle. What the hell...?
He sat up, pushing off the blankets.
Yes, he was sore and cold and creaked, his muscles cramped from staying in one position for far too long-the whole damned day as it happened. One sniff of the damp air, one glance at the painfully bright sky with its last gilding of sunset, and he understood he'd slept right through the day, no dreams, no memories at all.
He'd been cheated.
He needed that internal hell. With the things he'd just learned, he had to dream again to find out what had happened. Awful as they were-
Damn it. God damn it.
He pitched from the car, looking around as though to find someone to blame. The woods were as empty as before and silent; the wind had died.
How was it that, after all this time, he'd finally-
Gabe looked down. His shoes and pant legs were caked with dried-out mud from his grave, enough to do the job. He knew from his talks with Gordy that Fleming kept packets of his home earth in his sleeping areas. He even carried some in a money belt should he get caught away from those shelters. Until now Gabe had been dubious about the idea of the stuff providing true rest during the day. It struck him as just being another kind of superstition associated with his condition. The sight of a cross and the touch of holy water didn't bother him, so why should grave dirt have such an effect? What a damned stupid thing that was. It had robbed him of that day's progress toward what had gotten him killed in the first place.
He grumbled and stretched out the kinks, which weren't too bad, considering. He did feel rested, far more energetic than he'd been in weeks. Okay, there was a good side to his mistake.
Gabe followed his tracks back to the cabin, wanting another, much more thorough search before leaving.
The dried blood still very much in place, he lit another candle and checked every corner, every stick of furniture, tapped each board, looking for anything resembling an explanation.
He soon found a six-shot.22 revolver, bullets spent, blood-smeared, rust creeping over its surface. It was behind one of the benches, not hidden, just not in plain sight. Perhaps the shooter had dropped or thrown it there. The numbers were filed away, and it had the kind of checkerboard grip that didn't hold fingerprints. A feeble weapon for some, but mob soldiers who favored the caliber liked the gun's small size and low level of noise. Fold a pillow around it or hold it directly against a target and it sounded like a balloon popping, if that much.
Gabe didn't know how he knew that, but was not surprised such details lurked in his mind.
Maybe Nelly had brought the gun, unless a fourth person had crashed the party.
Complications, he thought. They annoyed the hell out of him, but Gabe had to keep them in mind.
He left the bed for last. Gingerly, with thumb and forefinger, he pulled the top blanket off and spread it out on the floor. There was no pattern to the bloodstains; it was a mess. Someone had bled there.
A mildew-eaten gray sheet beneath was also bloody, most of it in the middle. He recalled what Lettie had said about Nelly Cabot's injuries and fought past a bout of nausea. He lifted the sheet to reveal an ancient stained mattress that also stank of mildew. The stuff was all over, dormant from the cold, but still disgusting. Touching as little as possible, he dragged the mattress away from the bed, which was made from simple planks nailed across a box frame, nothing store-bought about that operation.
In the spaces between the planks, the floor beneath was visible, and something shiny caught the light.
He tore a plank away and got it. Got them.
Should have looked there first.
He closely examined a small, empty amber vial and a syringe. Whatever had been inside them was long dried and gone.
The fourth person.
A complication. A damned big one.
Maybe he'd hurt the girl.
And maybe he killed me. Or had Ramsey do it, then killed him to keep him quiet. But when I came back Mike thought the job had been botched and that I didn't suspect him. No wonder he didn't want me up here.
Upon his return to New York, Gabe had been very careful not to let on about his loss of memory. It was easier to do than he'd hoped. He was in a position where no one questioned him. You could get away with a lot using a stern look and not saying much.
Michael had been out of the country at the time, or so he said. Distracted by his own problems, Gabe hadn't thought to check.
He peered through the side window into a very silent night. The woman weeping in his dream-memory-had it been from terror instead of grief? While Ramsey filled in the grave, Mike could have been in the cabin with her, doing God knows what to ensure she would keep quiet.
Then I get the blame since she was last seen with me.
He put away the items. They clinked against the rusted revolver. He shifted the gun to a different pocket and found that his hands were shaking.
Rage. Yeah, he had plenty of that.
Soon as I see Mike again...
He pinched out the candle flame.
Grabbing the white fedora, he let the latch fall on the door and walked to the pump. Its works were frozen for the winter. The bucket next to it meant to hold priming water was topped with snow. He went down to the riverbank, loaded the inside of the hat with a few rocks, using a handkerchief to tie the brim tightly over them to keep them in place. He flung the hat far out over the water. It splashed once and vanished in the black flow.
Next he scooped sand and icy water and scrubbed his hands until the mildew smell went away, all the time regarding the dark cabin and what was inside.
He wanted to burn it.
Tempting, but a bad idea. However secluded, flames and smoke could draw the wrong kind of attention to this place. Someone might feel bound to track down the property owner... Gabe realized he could be the owner. He just didn't know.
Better to leave it for now. He could always return with a few gallons of kerosene.
That would cleanse the place... every square inch of it.
The miles back to Chicago seemed to have stretched themselves. He had too much to think about and wished for company. Even Fleming, with his endless questions, would have been welcome. Gabe turned on the car's radio, and the noise of a comedy show helped.
Michael would not be in a good mood tonight; he was probably making Derner's life miserable. Half of the muscle at the Nightcrawler was probably out looking for the green Hudson and its missing driver. Fine. Let 'em earn their keep.
Gabe took a wrong turn, tried correcting at the next street, got lost, and pulled over to study the map. He wondered if getting lost was part of his lack of memory or if he'd always been like that.
His clearest postdeath recollection was waking in a cold barn loft where he'd hidden from the sun behind stacks of hay bales. From there he'd gone groggily down, washed off blood and grave dirt in an ice-crusted water trough, and taken his first feeding from one of the milk cows. That had awakened him fully, though the agony in his head kept him from indulging much in the way of thinking. He seemed well able to look after basics like getting food, of knowing how to deal with his change if not the how or why of it.
The circumstances-his blood-drinking, the bad dreams during his daylight sleep, lack of memory of how he'd gotten into such a spot, and all that came before-didn't really bother him. It seemed normal to be different. Not knowing himself was just how the world ran, and his instincts told him he'd be fine, just fine. He had a wallet with a driving license that provided a name to use, an address to go to, and more than enough money to get there.
A few nights later, first hitchhiking on country roads, then taking a train, then a taxi, he used a key from that wallet to get into a hotel flat in New York. Though he couldn't remember it, he assumed it to be his. Old mail scattered over a desk bore the name on the license. The flat was nice, and the clothes there fit. He moved into a stranger's life.
Pretty soon friends turned up.
They showed him respect and something he later came to recognize as fear. A very few asked about the white streak in his hair. He found a smirk and a shake of the head to be sufficient reply.
Mike had walked into the flat as though he'd been there many times before, looking uncomfortable and on guard. In retrospect could it have been guilt? He was the only one who met Gabe's eye and stood up to him like an equal, though.
They had a business meeting, which required going to a bar and sitting in a booth across from a tough-looking man. Michael talked a lot of business that didn't make sense. The man challenged him on a point. Mike looked at Gabe. At a loss for what to do, Gabe looked at the man, who abruptly backed down, agreed to something, then left, sweating. Mike said thanks in a flat voice and departed as well.
From that point Gabriel decided he'd better learn what the hell kind of job he had.
It didn't take long. He killed people. He was good at the work.
He wasn't sure how he felt about that. Not then. Later, he decided that cold murder wasn't something he wanted to do to anyone.
The roughhouse when he and Fleming had taken on Mitchell didn't really count. Heat-of-the-moment shooting was one thing, but to walk up and coolly put a bullet into a stranger... that was just wrong.
There had been a couple of times when he'd felt angry enough to do violence, such as when he'd thought Fleming responsible for blowing up the car. But Gabe had wanted to punch him in the nose more than anything else. The gun had been a tool, little more than window dressing to get attention.
On the other hand, Fleming had been pretty clear about what had happened after the car crash last night. Gabe couldn't remember anything after their car left the road, but something had upset the kid. The lapse was disturbing, but there was damn all to be done about it.
In that first month in New York, Gabe worked out how to hypnotize people. They told him a lot he didn't like and much he didn't believe. He decided the whole crowd, including Michael, were considerably crazier than he and far more dangerous. The only way to keep from being consumed by them was to maintain the long-established outward front.
Strangely, no one noticed anything different about him. They all had certain expectations as to how he should behave, and, when he drifted outside those expectations, the mugs simply stretched their limits to accommodate. It was their fear of him. They put on their own fronts, acted friendly, shook his hand, laughed at his jokes, but were still pissing in-their-pants terrified of him.
Gabe observed carefully and from them learned how to impersonate the man he'd been. It wasn't perfect; he'd sometimes surprise an odd look from Mike, but the guy never said anything.
Down deep he had to be terrified of Whitey Kroun, too.
That covered who he had been, next came the what he had become.
He eventually went to the big library with the lions out front and looked up stuff about vampires. It was crazy as well, but since some of it seemed to apply to him, he shrugged, accepted, and moved on, keeping his lip shut.
Gabe had yet to find out exactly how he'd come by the condition.
Somewhere out there a woman-he was sure it was a woman, Fleming's reckless dig notwithstanding-had done something quite out of the ordinary to Gabe. The details were lost, taken away when the bullet had ripped into his brain.
Very damned annoying, that.
Once the dust was settled on his current problem, he might have to try finding her.
Gabriel navigated the gradually thinning traffic, pulling up in front of Fleming's brick house a little after midnight. No lights showed, just like the cabin. He pushed the thought away, strode up the walk, and used his picklocks to get in.
That was also a skill he could not recall learning. Useful, though.
He listened before shutting the door, noticing that the broken window at the far end of the hall had been replaced. Hand it to Gordy, he ran a tight ship.
The place was empty, but Gabriel checked through it before turning on any lights. He didn't need them, but they'd let Fleming know company was present should he return. If the kid had any sense, he'd be cheering up that sweet blond girlfriend of his. Bobbi. Funny name for a dame, but it suited her.
Gabe got both suitcases and went up to the third-floor guest room. The rumpled bed was as he'd left it, and it almost looked like the one in the cabin, but without the blood.
I gotta stop that kind of thinking.
He straightened the top spread, opened the cases, found a crisp new shirt and the second suit he'd bought. It was identical to the one he had on, black with a charcoal pinstripe, very sharp. He didn't like to fuss over clothes, just pick good quality and forget about it.
Stripping and taking a shower-bath was a little piece of heaven. He stayed in until the hot water ran out, but emerged clean, shaved... and still feeling well rested. That grave dirt... well, clearly it worked. He'd have to start sleeping with a bag of it in the bed. What a luxury to be dream-free once this was over.
He thought he should save the residue on his discarded clothes and bundled them into a pillowcase and put it in the small wardrobe. Was it too close to the bed?
Only if he slept here for the day. He would use that abandoned store again. Broder and Michael didn't know about it.
Gabe dressed slowly, liking the feel of new clothes. Fresh and ready for anything, he went downstairs to phone the Nightcrawler.
Derner sounded harried. "Mike's on the warpath and wants to talk to y-"
"Give him a Bromo-Seltzer and a blonde."
"I would, I really would, but he's in Cicero."
"Well, that's his hard luck. What's he doing in-no, forget it." It would be business. With Mike it was always business. He could do half a dozen things at once and give each his full attention. Smart guy. Very smart. "Where's Broder?"
Interesting. Broder must have spun one hell of a story to get himself off the hook for the grenade job-unless Mike had lied and faked his surprised reaction. If Broder's task had been to kill Gabe, then it made sense for Mike to keep him around.
But why does Mike want to kill me? Was it on general principles or for a specific reason? Why wait two months for another try?
"When will they be back?"
"Didn't say, but I've got a number you're to call."
Gabe wrote it down on a notepad by the phone. Cicero wasn't that far. He was reasonably sure he could find it, but a local guide would be better to have along. "Has Fleming turned up tonight?"
"Huh? Uh-no. Probably at his club. He usually calls in before now. You gonna talk to Mike?" Derner seemed worried. More so than usual, that is.
"In about two minutes." He pressed the hook long enough for the connection to break, then tried the new number. It turned out to belong to a hotel. He asked for Mike and got put right through.
He picked up on the first ring.
"Hello, Michael." Gabe used a friendly, cheerful tone, intending to be as irritating as hell. "Problem?"
"Where have you been?"
"Are you going to tell me to go back to New York again? Because the answer's no. Now that that's settled, how long will you be in Cicero?"
Mike made some strange choking noises. "A couple of days."
What the hell...? Gabe continued the good cheer. "Fine. I'll keep busy. The old bastard wanted to get some air. I thought I'd take him fishing in the morning. It'd do him good to get out, have a little fun."
Dead silence. Lots of it.
Well, I wanted to stir things up.
Pleading? That was a surprise, though Gabe wanted him off-balance and scared. "I've been to the cabin. The place looks great. You should see it."
"What have you done?"
"Nothing yet. You think I should do something?"
"No games... let's talk first."
"When can you get here?"
"I've had enough driving. We'll meet at Gordy's club." Mike would think twice about getting frisky in front of wit nesses and be more likely to keep Broder in line as well.
"Okay. I'll get there soon as I-a couple hours."
"Why so long?"
Gabe snorted and hung up. Must be some business. From keeping company with a girl to calling in extra muscle. Or arranging an exit.
For himself or for me?
Mike had agreed too readily. That could mean a lot of things. Gabe started to list the possibilities and how to counter them, then abruptly let it go. He'd find out soon enough and deal with it then.
Broder would be along, somewhere in the background, watching. Gabe knew how to keep his back to a wall, but Broder was nearly a ghost himself. He moved fast, quiet, and was a dead shot. If Fleming could be talked into helping out... but did he really need to know all this?
Yes. Better to have him as a friend than not. He'd want an explanation for the sickening things Sonny had said.
Both of us want that.
Waiting around the Nightcrawler held no appeal. Derner would be trying too hard not to ask questions. Gabe wanted a couple hours of not being watched like a zoo animal. He looked up the number for Fleming's club but got no answer. He would wait there; Broder and Michael wouldn't expect him to go to a closed club, and maybe Fleming would show. It would also be quiet. You could hear if someone tried to sneak in.
He snagged a newspaper from the pile on the front porch, kicked the rest inside, and relocked the door, then drove to Lady Crymsyn. Funny name for a club. Maybe Fleming had gotten the idea from his girl and her funny name. He could have spelled "crimson" right, though.
Gabe recognized enough landmarks on the trip to avoid getting lost. The club's inside lights were on, including the one in the upstairs office. A little glow escaped around the drawn curtains. Fleming must not be answering the phone or had just arrived himself. The parking lot was empty. He'd have walked or cabbed over, what with his car being all blown up and burned.
The street was clear of stray cops; Merrifield and Garza apparently had other duties tonight, leaving no one to watch as Gabe let himself in the front. He left things unlocked. It was always a good idea to have an escape route ready.
The light behind the lobby bar was on, and something was odd about the bar itself. As he drew closer he saw that dozens of matchbooks with the club's name on them had been propped open and set on end. Little red inverted Vs marched every which way, covering the whole length of the bar. What the hell...? If Fleming had been here, he had some pretty odd ideas about how to fill the time.
The bar light flickered, not quite going out.
Gabriel stared, then called Fleming's name loud enough to reach upstairs.
No one replied. Why had he left all the lights on? Spendthrift.
The building was empty and dead silent. And big. Big, silent, and...
The light steadied.
Then the lobby phone rang. Louder than should be normal.
He didn't jump, but jerked around, stopping in midreach for his gun. He debated whether to answer or not.
The ringing was continuous, and then trailed off as though the bell had exhausted itself from the effort.
He waited, but no second ring came. Wrong number or a phone-company hitch.
The bar light flickered again. Fleming had said there was a short.
His problem, not mine.
Gabe went upstairs to the deserted office. It wasn't as fancy and large as the Nightcrawler's but had the usual stuff except for a gaping space opposite the desk. From the dust pattern on the floor some large piece of furniture had been removed from the spot. A couch, maybe.
On the desk were several oilcloth packets. They were heavy and smelled of earth.
Well. Damn. What was Fleming doing? Moving house?
He checked the lock on the door. It was a particularly sturdy model: wood panels over thick metal. The windows-bulletproofed, with heavy curtains-confirmed that this was one of Fleming's daylight bolt-holes. Not bad. He did all right for himself.
Gabe shed his coat and hat and sat behind the desk. The chair was comfortable; you could tilt back and put your feet up. Not bad at all. He dropped the packets out of the way into one of the drawers, opened his paper, and settled in to read. It had been a busy day. New pieces had effectively edged out further mention of the car explosion in the Bronze Belt, the Alan Caine murders, and even that movie actor and his flashy foreign wife.
Those were all that interested him; the rest just didn't mean anything. He looked for and found the funnies. Hey, a crossword puzzle-he liked those.
The radio came on. All by itself.
He looked at it for a good long while, considering a variety of causes. The elusive electrical short seemed the most likely. Someone leaves the radio on, when the power returns, it warms up, then surprise: dance music.
He didn't mind, but wouldn't be able to hear anyone coming in. He shut the radio off.
While trying to work out if the clue to seven down was "gable" or "table," the front door downstairs opened and closed. Gabe listened, following the progress of the ensuing footsteps... a man's shoes by the sound. He got partway across the lobby and paused.
Bet he's wondering about the matchbooks, too.
The newcomer started up the stairs. "Jack?" he called.
Gabe didn't know the voice. He shifted his gun from its holster to the desk, slipping it under the paper.
The visitor pushed in and froze at the halfway point, his body partially shielded by the door. He was surprised for a moment at seeing Gabe, but clearly recognized him. The man was tall, lean, and angular. His face was all angles, too, with bony cheeks, a big blade of a nose, and needle-sharp eyes. He looked familiar... the dying man from the hospital. Gabe's last recollection had him flat on his back, unconscious, black-and-blue, and with a death stink rising from his skin. He'd been in bad shape then, the worst.
"Hey, pal, you're looking better," Gabe said.
"Thanks to you, Mr. Kroun."
English accent. Fleming hadn't mentioned his partner was from that far out of town. The way he spoke, this bird apparently knew everything. Until he had come to Chicago no one had known about Gabe being a vampire. Fleming might as well be broadcasting on the radio.
The man continued. "I'm very grateful for what you did. It can't have been easy. Thank you for saving my life."
"So long as it worked."
"Was there any doubt?"
He didn't know how to answer that one. "It's Escott, right?"
"Yes. Charles Escott. Jack said you were staying at the house."
"Only part-time." Why didn't he come the rest of the way in? Why the stony expression? Usually people relaxed after introductions. He probably knows my reputation. "I'll be leaving soon."
"I can leave tonight if you want."
"No need to trouble yourself." He took a quick look around the room, his gaze pausing on the empty space on the floor. "Why are you here?"
The man's tone was off. He had things on his mind. "Catching up on my reading. Yourself?"
Escott made no reply, but glanced at the paper on the desk and must have made a fast guess about what lay beneath the pages. He moved, smoothly, with much confidence. He'd been hiding one hell of a big damn revolver behind the door. He aimed it at Gabe's chest. "Raise your hands. Now."
"Hey, just hold on a minute..."
Gabe hesitated, throwing an involuntarily glare. He didn't know what he looked like, but the outward change always took the starch out of the toughest mugs in New York.
Escott, however, seemed immune. "I know how fast you are, but I can get one clear shot. It may not kill, but it will hurt. As you cannot vanish, you will require time to heal, during which interval I can inflict a great deal more damage."
Gabe assessed his options and reluctantly concluded the man was right. And certainly insane. He was breathing a little too slow for the situation, and he looked ready to follow through on his threat. Did his gun also have a hair trigger? "Come on-this is a new suit."
"Don't give me cause to ruin it."
Gabe slowly raised his hands. "What's this about?"
"Jack Fleming." Escott watched him, not blinking, holding the gun dead center and rock-steady.
He finally shook his head. "Still don't understand."
Apparently that wasn't the right answer. Escott cocked the gun.
Gabe felt a small jolt in his chest in response, as though his dormant heart tried to jump out of the way. "Hey! Slow down, pal, I'll help if I can. What do you want?"
"Jack Fleming," Escott repeated through clenched teeth. His eyes were the same color as steel and not nearly as soft. "Where the hell is he?"
Gabe thought his first reply-along the lines of How the hell should I know?-would get him shot. His second-What? You lost him?-was idiotic and would also result in gunfire. He did his best to read the stranger before him and decided that now would be a good time to cease being Whitey Kroun.
"Tell me what's happened," said Gabe.
"It's about what has not happened."
"Okay... tell me that, then."
Escott continued to study, probably trying to read him right back. Something changed behind those hard eyes. He took the revolver off cock, but otherwise kept it ready and centered. "Every night, without fail, as soon as he's awake, Jack calls his girlfriend or she calls him. That may seem trivial to you, but it is not. For him it is cast-iron habit. Also, without fail, he contacts a certain Mr. Derner at the Nightcrawler Club-"
"Yeah, he stays in touch 'cause of the business. So he's late on a couple calls, that's enough for you to want to shoot me?"
"A few minutes late, even an hour is acceptable, but not eight hours. That's much too long. Something's happened to him."
"And you've tried to find hi-"
"Of course! I've called everyone and been everywhere. The previous evening he went to visit Miss Smythe, and no one's seen or heard from him since. That is highly atypical behavior. He is not to be found. His car wasn't here, but I saw the lights on and hoped-"
"You talk to Derner?" Now was not the best time to let the man know the fate of Fleming's car.
"He wasn't forthcoming with information. He did admit that Jack had not checked in tonight."
"How about I call and straighten this out? Will that make you put the gun down?"
"Look, I don't know where he is, either. Last I saw he was behind the Nightcrawler talking to one of the guys; after that, I couldn't say."
"Aside from myself and Miss Smythe, the only person he's spent any time with has been you. Mr. Derner did impart that you and Jack went on an errand for several hours last night."
"We did, but came back to the club, and I don't see how it could have to do with him taking off tonight. A man's got a right to keep to himself if he wants t-"
"No. There's something wrong. Seriously wrong."
That was uncompromising. "You know him better than I do. You say he's missing, okay, I'll help you find him. Lemme use the phone. I'll see what I can get from Derner."
Escott nodded, just the once.
It took Gabe a moment to remember the number for the Nightcrawler's office phone. Having a cannon aimed at his chest made him that nervous. You learned something new every night.
The connection went through. "Yeah, what is it?"
"This is-" Damn, what was he calling himself to this guy? "Whitey."
Derner got more respectful. "Yessir."
"What's going on with Fleming? Where is he?"
"He hasn't checked in is all I know. Did you call Mike?"
"Yes, but forget that-I need to speak to Fleming. Now."
"Hang up, make calls, find someone who knows where he is. Five minutes, then you ring me back here." Gabe read the number off the dial and dropped the receiver back on the hook.
"You enjoyed that," Escott observed. He seemed slightly less on the edge-by at least a quarter inch.
"It's good to be top dog, yeah." He'd bought five minutes, but didn't know what to do with them. Trying to sit still with a crazy man ready to shoot if he heard the wrong word was not a good way to fill the time. He gave Escott a serious appraisal and thought about hypnotizing him. That would bring on a headache; Gabe couldn't risk a reprise of the blinding skull-breaker he'd had at the cabin. "Look, I've been on the road since I left him in the alley last night, you can believe that or not. He could have had a fight with his girl, gone to a movie, be holed up in a pool hall. That guy Coldfield is pissed with him, maybe-"
"I've asked. He's not seen Jack. He's angry, but he'd tell me..." Escott paused, assessing. "You've been up to that cabin." Statement, not a question.
His mouth went dry. "What?"
"You heard. What did you find there?"
"Nothing I want to talk about." Gabe wasn't sure that was his voice.
"Something important, then." Escott showed a tiny glint of satisfaction.
How did he even know about... oh. Yeah. "Your partner talks too damn much."
"He was only expressing his concern about certain aspects of your visit to the sanitarium. He could not understand why you allowed him along on so private an interview. Perhaps he heard things he should not have known, thus giving you a reason to keep him quiet."
"In which case I'd have knocked him off after we left."
"And you would certainly know how to do that."
Gabe held his most intimidating gaze on Escott, who failed to react at all, much less show fear. The man knew how to focus. "Only I didn't."
"Your original purpose for coming to Chicago was to kill him."
"Funny, but that didn't happen either. I've got no motive."
"Then perhaps someone with you does. This Michael or Mr. Broder."
"I'm gonna do you a favor and ask-I just said ask-you to back away. If they're involved, I'll handle 'em. The worst thing you can do is let them know you exist."
"The best thing you can do is tell me the why of it."
Gabriel considered, then shook his head. "I'll pass. What's going on with them has nothing to do with Fleming."
"Michael sent him to watch you. That, sir, is not to be ignored."
He had a point. Maybe Fleming hadn't delivered enough details to satisfy. Michael could have gotten fed up and finally turned Broder loose to do something. Broder might well have turned himself loose without telling Mike. That would be bad for everyone.
The phone rang. Before Derner could speak, Gabe interrupted. "Hold on a minute. Whatever you have on Fleming, I want you to say it to this guy first." He held the receiver out.
Escott reached to take it, still keeping the gun level. "Yes?" Apparently Derner did not have good news. Escott fired off questions, but the replies were clearly not to his liking. He said thank you and hung up. "Very well, no one at the Nightcrawler has seen or heard from him. That leaves you."
"Only I wasn't around to do anything." He'd finally got that the man with the gun was deeply afraid and only barely able to keep himself from flying apart.
"Yes. You were at the cabin. What did-"
"It's a fishing cabin. I went up there to fish."
"In the dead of winter?"
"I never said I was good at it."
Escott wasn't amused. "That... that is the most bloody stupid thing I've ever heard."
Gabe shrugged. "The night ain't over, pal."
Another change-lightning fast-shifted everything behind those steel gray eyes. They somehow got harder and abruptly blazed with a lunatic fury. He raised the gun until Gabe found himself looking right down the barrel.
Gabe tore his gaze from the gun and stared at Escott. No chance of hypnosis pushing through those emotions. He was too far gone.
Escott's heart pounded loud in the silent room, and now his hand shook. But at this distance he wouldn't miss.
"Why?" Gabriel blurted out the word.
Escott blinked once. Better than shooting.
He trembled all over, visibly slipping.
"Tell me, dammit!"
A thin crack in the man's intent. He blinked rapidly now, like a sleeper waking. "W-what?"
"You're not mad at me-who then? Why?"
The crack widened, and the moment stretched, and gradually Escott's pounding heart slowed. The gun lowered by an inch. Then another. It was a long progression, but Escott finally sagged and put the cannon away in a shoulder holster.
Gabe felt like falling over, but resisted.
"Mr. Kroun, I apologize for this." He spoke in a strangely neutral tone that sure as hell didn't sound right for the situation. "I shall not waste any more of your time." Escott turned and left, just like that.
It took a few seconds for Gabe to find his feet and lurch from behind the desk. Escott was halfway down the stairs.
Amazingly, he did.
"Get up here."
Escott wavered, then turned and trudged back. He walked past Gabe, not meeting his eye, and on into the office. He went to the window, standing before the closed curtains, hands at his sides, shoulders down.
Gabe came around and peered at his face. There was a lost soul if he ever saw one. He went to the liquor cabinet, picked something strong at random, and poured. He had to fit the glass into Escott's hand and lift it to get him started. He drank without reaction, and the glass slipped from his fingers. Gabe caught it, not spilling a drop, and guided him toward a leather chair in a corner, making him sit.
The radio blared on, the volume all the way to the top.
This time Gabe jumped. He crossed the room in two strides and shut the damned thing off again. When he looked back, Escott was slumped forward in the chair with one hand over his face.
"Oh, Myrna, what's happened?" he whispered, very, very softly.
Myrna again. Who the hell is Myrna? "What do you think has happened?" Gabe asked aloud.
Escott glanced up, surprised, perhaps, that he'd been heard. He shook his head.
"You've got an idea, or you wouldn't be like this. So give."
He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Gabe put the glass in his hand again. Escott eventually finished the rest of the drink. He still looked lost.
"You're scared," Gabe said. "But Fleming's a tough bastard and can take care of himself. Why are you so worried?"
"Things." Escott cleared his throat. He sounded like a strangling victim. "Things have been... difficult, because of what he went through with Bristow."
Gabe frowned. "Yeah. Go on."
The man stared at the empty space on the floor where the furniture piece had stood and didn't speak for a long time. Then, "Here the other night... Jack tried to kill himself."
"And..." Escott's face worked as he fought to keep control. "And I'm afraid he might have tried again... and succeeded."