GABRIEL blundered his way clear of the alley before the nightclub's muscle turned up to deal with the noise. He ducked behind a parked car for cover and kept going until his legs decided they'd had enough. He ended up sitting on a curb, holding his head, in too much pain to even groan.
It was almost as bad as his first waking. The main improvement was that he wasn't covered with earth, blood, and Ramsey's body.
Broder must have used a blackjack, not that his fist would have caused less damage. He'd hit the perfect spot on the left-hand side.
Gabe found a patch of mostly clean snow, balled some up, and pressed it to his skull. That helped, but he felt sick throughout his body, not just his head. He wanted to hole up somewhere and, if not die, then sweat through this agony undisturbed until he healed.
After the snowball melted to nothing, he was able to stand without wobbling too much.
The next street over had a few other night owls prowling about, but no cabs in sight. He dug out another ten-dollar bill, stood under a streetlight and held it up at passing cars. As it represented over a week's wage for the lucky ones with jobs, it didn't take long for someone to pull over. The risk for this kind of hitchhiking was being found by a mug looking to take the rest of the money. Gabe was in no mood for games.
The man at the wheel checked him over. "You inna fight?"
Perceptive of him. "Yeah, can you get me out of here? My wife's on the warpath and-"
The driver was cheerfully drunk, in a let's be pals mood, and happy to commiserate about matrimonial tribulations. Gabe turned down an offer to share booze from a pocket flask and talked him into driving clear of the Loop, all the way to Fleming's house.
"Sure about this?" asked the man when they got there. "Won't she be waitin' for you?"
"Home's the last place she'll look," he assured his bleary Samaritan, who thought that to be extremely funny. He drove off laughing, ten bucks richer.
Gabe had trouble with the picklocks. He couldn't get his fingers to work together. It took nearly a minute to break in. He was well aware that he wasn't thinking too clearly, but willing to risk that Mike wouldn't come nosing around. He had a pounding to recover from himself, and Broder might still think his assault had been fatal.
As for Escott, well, he was supposed to be smart and good at his job, but his choice to follow them...
"Nuts. Everyone in this town is goddamned nuts," Gabe muttered to the empty house as he trudged upstairs in the dark.
He made his way by the faint glow coming in around the window curtains. It was brighter than before, too early for dawn, he thought, until checking his new watch. Damn. How long had he been sitting on that curb? It had seemed only minutes. Maybe he'd blacked out. He'd lost time after the car crash. Wouldn't that just be the pip if Fleming turned out to be right?
Gabe dug his earth-crusted clothes from the bottom of the wardrobe, grabbed blankets from the bed, and went hunting for the attic.
Behind a hall door he found a narrow stairs that ended in a ceiling trap, which at first seemed to be locked, though there was no mechanism, just a handle. He gave a hard push and the door lifted when something heavy fell away on the other side.
Somehow a trunk had been left on top of the trap. How the hell...?
Oh. Fleming's disappearing trick. He'd pushed the trunk on the door, then slipped down past it. He probably used the attic for refuge, and this was how he locked himself in.
Gabe shoved the trunk back and cast around for a place to flop. There was a dusty window at one end; he found a spot far from it and curled up around the wad of clothes, covering himself completely with the blankets.
Just in time. His adrenaline gave out. He couldn't move another inch. Even fresh blood wouldn't have helped. He needed absolute rest to heal, and the earth would give him that. He cushioned his head on one arm, gritting his teeth until the rising sun brought oblivion.
No dreaming today, but this time he didn't mind.
He was only aware that he'd slept by the fact his pain vanished between one blink and the next.
Damn. That was... good.
And disorienting. One second it's dawn and the next full night. He didn't like that. Unpleasant or not, the dreams gave some sense of passing time. Without them, Gabe felt as though those hours had been stolen from him.
Michael would have had a whole day to get himself out of town to-where? He had friends in Havana... but why should he leave if he thought Broder had-
Take it slow and in order. Mike tried to kill me. He managed to miss. On purpose?
Probably not. That he'd botched it said something for his ultimate reluctance, but he had been serious. The look on his face... that was real. He'd attempted the murder of his brother.
He'd have felt bad afterward, though.
Mike then lost the fistfight, Broder stepped in with his cosh, then gunfire from a third party cleared the playing field. Chances were good that lunatic Escott was behind the noisy interruption. Who asked him to horn in?
Maybe Fleming was back by now. He sure picked a rotten time to run off and sulk about his girlfriend-or else was showing sense by keeping himself clear of the mess. There was a first time for everything.
Gabe pushed upright in stages, cautious about sparking another fireball behind his eyes. He was rumpled and stiff, but otherwise felt fine. He checked his head and so far so good.
Someone was moving around below. Gabe froze. The sounds, muffled by the floors between, were too indistinct to follow. Perhaps the burglar who'd broken the window had returned.
Hell, it's probably Fleming.
But there was no harm in being careful. Gabe left his makeshift bed, quietly moved the trunk off the trap, and edged his way downstairs.
His gun was still in his overcoat pocket. He pulled it out on the second-floor landing. The other person was in the front room playing with the radio. Static and music, then it steadied on Bergen and McCarthy trading quips. Trusting that the program would cover the sound of his footsteps, Gabe made it to the ground floor and looked in.
Strome was comfortably ensconced in a chair that faced the hall. His feet were up on the low table before the sofa, and he was just raising a beer bottle to his lips. He noticed Gabe right away, nodded a greeting, and drank deep.
Thankfully it was real beer.
"What's up?" Gabe asked, not putting his gun away.
Unconcerned, Strome reached over to turn the radio down, cutting Charlie McCarthy off in mid wisecrack. "I was told to wait here in case you showed."
"That English guy asked Derner, Derner told me. If you showed, I was to drive you over to Fleming's club."
"You sure it was Escott?"
Strome shrugged. "I'm goin' by what Derner said."
"Is Fleming back?"
"Didn't know he was gone."
"What do you know?"
"Nothing, Mr. Kroun. Not one thing."
"Good way to get along."
"Yessir." He drank more beer.
As Strome didn't seem to be in a hurry, Gabe went back up to change his shirt and shave and felt better for it. He was out of suits; the one he was wearing would have to do, though it was creased, and the knees were muddy. The overcoat was past salvage, but Fleming wouldn't mind loaning him another. The one left folded over a chair in the kitchen was still there; Gabe pulled it on, and the fit was pretty good. He thought he could ignore the bloodsmell since it was his own.
Strome had nothing to say on the trip to Lady Crymsyn. He wouldn't know anything useful, so it was pointless to ask him stuff like "Does Michael know I'm alive?"
Once again, Gabe pushed away the urge to plan against the unknown. He might have done that in the past, but at the moment it seemed a waste of time. Actuality was always different from one's expectations. Better to see what's there, then figure out how to deal with it.
If Escott had arranged this trip over, it meant he'd have news.
If Michael was behind it, then Gabe wouldn't have to spend the night hunting him down.
The green Hudson was the only car in the Crymsyn parking lot. Gabe had Strome circle the block, but there was no sign of the Studebaker. Strome stopped at the canopied entry, leaving the motor running. Gabe got out and looked things over, ready to duck, if need be.
Escott opened the front door. Lights were on in the lobby behind him. "Ah. Very good. Thank you, Mr. Strome."
Strome lifted one hand to sketch a salute, shifted into gear, and rolled away.
Escott frowned. "That's my coat."
"Mine needs a clean. Why'd you want me here?"
"In the event that Jack turns up. When he does, it will be here, my office, the Nightcrawler, or with Miss Smythe. If he knows what's good for him, he will have an apology ready for her."
"What if he turns up at the house?"
"Mr. Strome left a note where it would be found." He stepped back inside, and Gabe followed, checking the room. They seemed to be alone.
Escott went to the lobby phone booth, thumbed in a nickel, and dialed. "Mr. Derner? The prodigal's returned, all's well. Mr. Strome is on the way back. Thank you so much for the help." He hung up. "Excellent fellow. Very well organized."
"I noticed that, too. You answered why you're here, not why I'm here."
"Sorry, I've rather a lot on my mind. I thought you'd want to know what's happened since we parted company. You're much improved from last night's misadventure. I thought that large fellow had split your skull open for sure."
"Me, too." Gabe removed his hat, brushing one hand over the white patch. "When did you get to the party?"
"Just in time, apparently."
"What did you hear?"
"I was too distant to follow your conversation. When things went against you, I decided to make a nuisance of myself."
"Are you a bad shot?"
"Not at all, but causing injury to your attacker was not needed. Do sit down." He nodded toward the bar, which was clear of matchbooks. There was no telling if Escott or the supposed ghost had cleared them away. Myrna. What kind of a name was that for a spook?
A light was on behind the bar. It went out while he was looking at it. There was no popping noise from an expired filament; it dimmed and went dark just like the ones in theaters.
Escott was nowhere near a wall switch. He saw it, too. "Myrna? Perhaps you would rather wait in the office with the radio on. If Jack returns, he will go there first." Again, he spoke with a completely straight face as though someone was there to hear him.
Wary, Gabe put his hat down and eased onto one of the stools, angling so he had the lobby door in sight. He decided to ignore Escott's digression. "What the hell were you thinking taking off after them like that?"
"I wanted to see where they went."
"Could have told you."
"They might have changed their locale. As it was, I enjoyed a drive to an unremarkable hotel in Cicero."
"Broder didn't spot you?"
"Right away, as it happened-traffic was very light at that hour. I let him lose me, then resumed tailing at a more prudent distance. He's a relative stranger here, whereas I know the streets quite well."
"Good for you."
"They seemed to settle themselves in for the night. I returned to find you long gone and the staff at the Nightcrawler considerably mystified about the contretemps in the alley."
"You always talk like that?"
"Never mind, go on."
"I drove around and found you only a block away sitting on a curb like a vagrant. I tried to get you in the car, but you took a swing at me, used some foul language, then sat down again."
Escott searched his face. "You don't remember. Not any of it."
"Because it didn't happen."
"Of course it did. One can hardly blame you for wishing it to not be so. It's terribly disturbing to have a lapse like that."
Much too disturbing, Gabe didn't want to accept it. "What did Fleming tell you?"
"I've not heard from him since that message. What would he add, were he present?"
"He-" Gabe bit it off. No need to get started about the car wreck. He couldn't deny that he'd lost some time afterward, same as last night. "You left me there?"
"You were in no temper to be helped. On my second attempt you drew a gun, threatened to shoot my nose off, made a crude observation about its size, damned me to hell, and sat down again to hold a snowball to your head." He paused as though waiting for a reaction, then went on. "You did not recognize me at all."
What's he want, an apology?
"You have a serious problem, Mr. Kroun. It is most certainly to do with the bullet in your brain."
"Ya think?" Gabe thought hypnotizing Escott into a lapse of his own might be worth the headache. But the man knew where Mike was staying and had a car.
On the other hand he doesn't need to know about my business to play chauffeur.
Escott went behind the bar and built himself a short gin and tonic, heavy on the tonic. "Let's put that aside for now. You've recovered and seem to be yourself again. Perhaps if you simply avoid further injury-especially to your head-you can get by without threatening bodily harm to others."
Or shooting people in the woods. One minute the car's leaving the road, the next I'm tied up and Fleming's talking crazy. Gabe's face felt warm.
"In regard to your visit to the sanitarium..." Escott paused again, but Gabe remained silent. "Why did you let Jack come along? You must have known there was a possibility he would learn things you would prefer to keep private."
"It just happened. I'm not happy about it."
"Please, Mr. Kroun, I respect your intelligence. If you needed to exclude him, you'd have found a way of doing so. You wanted someone to hear your father. Certain details about your previous visit-"
"The old man is nuts. It doesn't matter what he says or who hears him."
"Indeed? Then what occurred at that cabin two months ago?"
Good question. "I hired a girl to keep me company up there, that's all. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I'm just trying to find out if she's okay."
"Then let me alleviate your worry. She's well enough."
"How do you know? Where is she?"
"I spent a portion of the day finding out things."
"The reason why Michael wants you dead." Escott drank half the gin and tonic, then hauled his cannon of a revolver from its shoulder rig and aimed it at Gabe. "And I agree with him."
Gabe took in the gun and the gray ice of Escott's gaze and whatever expectations he might have planned against would never have included this. "Why is it you keep pulling a gun on me?"
"The first time was a mistake on my part."
"So's the second."
"Be so kind as to remove my overcoat."
"Don't want bullet holes in it?"
"Certainly not, but I'd rather the weapon you have in the right-hand pocket remained in place. If I asked you to surrender it, you'd be fast enough to risk a shot at me. Neither of us would be pleased with the outcome. It's best if you just put the coat on the bar."
Gabe undid the buttons and shed the coat. He thought about throwing it as a distraction, but Escott would be wise to that one and shoot first. "What's your game?"
"Justice, whenever possible. In this instance, justice for a young woman named Nelly Cabot."
There was only one way he could know that name. "You talked to Michael."
"Not easy, but I managed."
Gabe snorted. "What'd he tell you?"
"Many things. Now I want to hear your version of events at the cabin."
Well... he was the one with the gun, why not? "It's just over the state line. I went up for a look the other night. There was blood and the body of a man named Ramsey, who'd been my driver."
"That's what you found. What happened?"
"Someone shot us both and buried us in the woods. Only I didn't stay dead."
Escott had a good poker face, but his eyes widened at that news. "So that's when... you are new at this, aren't you? Who shot you?"
He shook his head. "Ramsey, I think."
"Don't remember? Jack had a similar problem. Bit of amnesia about his death, but the memory came back after a week or so."
Yes, Gordy had mentioned that. Fleming had thrown his weight around in a big way trying to find his killers. Not smart, but effective.
"Miss Cabot was the girl you hired?"
"Yeah. I think Ramsey was supposed to kill me, and she witnessed it." Gabe's mouth was dry.
"That sounds reasonable."
"I'm sure Mike was at the cabin, too, but last night he started shooting before I could get him to talk."
"He was in a calmer frame of mind today-as you will shortly see."
Cripes. He palmed the ace right in front of me. "That call wasn't to the Nightcrawler. Okay, I get it, fine."
"He'll be here soon."
"Good." It was last night all over again. Escott had his facts wrong and needed proof from a third party to straighten him out. Before it had only taken a call from Derner. This time... "Look, you want the truth here, the real truth, right? I can get it for you."
Sharp guy. "If you let me."
"What do you propose?"
"I put Mike under, and you do the talking. Keep the gun on me the whole time and ask him anything you like."
"I expect Mr. Broder will be along."
"You can tell Mike to order him to go outside. You'll be in control. I won't do anything."
"That sounds... reasonable as well."
"This is too easy," Gabe muttered.
"It's an excellent idea, Mr. Kroun. We'll see how it works out. Before he arrives, perhaps you can clarify a point or two. If Mike was at the cabin, why did he allow Miss Cabot to leave?"
"He's soft on dames."
"And why was he not surprised to see you alive later?"
"He thought I'd gotten away."
"But this was a clandestine excursion. How did he even know you were there?"
"Broder can track anyone, anything, without getting noticed."
"Why would Mike want you dead?"
"You tell me." Gabe nodded at the gun. "You said you agreed with him."
Escott's mouth thinned. "Yes. I do."
"What'd he tell you?"
Outside, a car pulled up, the motor cut, and doors slammed. Gabe turned from Escott and toward the entry.
Broder barged in first, his gun out. He was hard to read at the best of times, but tonight was different. He looked ready to kill. Though used to Broder and his ways, a jolt of pure terror lanced through Gabe like an electric shock, leaving his fingers suddenly numb. Until now he'd always felt himself unquestioningly in control of everything. The look on Broder's face told him otherwise.
So did the look on Mike's face when he came in. The usual impatience, frustration, anger, apprehension, and all the shadings in between were gone, replaced by straightforward disgust. He stopped just inside, holding the door open.
A woman in a dark winter coat, a thick headscarf tied under her chin, reluctantly came in. Mrs. Cabot glared at Gabe with undiluted loathing.
"It's okay," she said. "They got him covered. He ain't movin'."
A younger, prettier version of her crept forward and paused on the threshold. She was paler than paint and visibly trembling head to toe. When she saw Gabe, she jerked and looked ready to run out again.
Can't blame her, seeing a dead man back on his feet would shake anyone.
"Nelly?" said Gabe.
She made a little choking noise and tottered into her mother's arms. She began sobbing.
Gabe closed his eyes. For an instant he was in his grave again, drifting in that brief moment of absolute peace and calm despite the sound of a woman weeping her heart out. He listened to the echoes in his tattered memory and matched them exactly to what he heard now.
"It's all right," he whispered. "It's all right."
When he opened his eyes, they all stared at him as though expecting him to say more.
Except Nelly, who continued to cry. Her mother opened a big black purse on her arm and groped for a wad of tissues. The girl soaked them through.
No one moved. Taking it slow, he reached toward his breast pocket for the silk handkerchief there. He held it out. The mother hissed and pulled back, dragging Nelly along.
"You don't touch her!" she snarled.
"I'm just trying-"
"Shuddup!" Mike got between them and suddenly plowed in with a vicious sucker punch. Gabe caught it under the ribs and dropped back, surprised as hell. Mike loomed over him a moment, then turned away, angry, but keeping himself in check.
For once, Gabe decided to listen and made no comment. He glanced at Escott for some clue, but the man was coldly hostile.
Whatever it was had them acting crazy. Gabe wasn't running things now, couldn't order them to tell him what was going on. If he waited long enough, one of them might talk; but the tangible fury hanging in the air was just short of catching on fire.
Mike was the key. Gabe focused on him, putting effort into it to get him under, make him calm.
"Mike, I need you to listen to me..." Usually that was enough. Catch their attention, throw a hard look, and they got cooperative.
Instead, Mike faced the Cabot women. "You don't talk, Whitey. Not another word."
Gabe next tried Broder, who was staring right at him. It should have been easy, but nothing got through. As he suspected, the man was too focused, and that was better than armor.
As for Escott? No point in trying; he was little better than a bystander now.
"I didn't think you'd bring the ladies along," said Escott.
Mike gave a small shrug.
"My girl should see him," Mrs. Cabot said. She made Nelly straighten up. "You look at him. You look at that son of a bitch and see how afraid he is."
Gabe went still. He was indeed afraid. He's stepped in something again, and there was no bluffing his way clear. He looked at the girl, but absolutely nothing sparked in his memory about her. Her face and form were unfamiliar, though he liked what he saw. She was dark-haired with a soft, rounded figure... but Lettie had described her as being blond. A trip to the beauty parlor would change her quick enough.
Lettie had mentioned other things, but Gabe had dismissed them.
She's wrong. She has to be.
Only one person could set things straight.
He focused on Nelly, and it was nothing to break through to her. She was too vulnerable. She ceased crying and stared blankly back. Once he was sure she was hooked, he shot a glance at Escott.
"Ask her," he said. "You want to know what happened, ask her."
Escott looked startled.
"He's already heard," said Mike.
"Well, I haven't. Nelly-tell them what happened at the cabin."
Despite his influence, she was slow to speak. Mrs. Cabot stepped into the gap.
"No! You don't put her through that again!"
Gabe moved forward, stopping when Broder shifted his bulk in the way. "Let her talk, dammit!"
"Mr. Kroun," said Escott, "do not continue with this. She's been through enough."
"I got a right to hear what you have against me."
The sound of his voice startled Nelly awake. She scrabbled one-handed at the black purse. Instead of tissues, she pulled out a revolver, the same one her mother had used the other night, swinging it around.
Gabe made himself a moving target, but there wasn't space for it. He threw himself to the side away from Escott just as the gun roared. Something kicked his left arm, hard. His legs went out from under him, and he smashed back-first against the tile floor. Rattled, he tried to roll and get upright, but Nelly stood over him, the gun's muzzle right in his face. She was shaking and crying too much to hold it steady.
He was fast enough to grab it away, but unable to move. The rage in her face stopped him.
What did I do to you?
The answer was there, and he could not accept it. It was impossible.
I'm not like that!
Not now, but two months ago he'd been a murdering bastard capable of doing anything. And what he'd done to Nelly...
No. That was wrong. That kind of horror just wasn't inside him.
Broder yanked the gun from Nelly's hand and bodily pushed her toward Mrs. Cabot. The woman grabbed her daughter, her own anger shifting to fear.
"You can't hold that against her!" she yelled. "You know what he did!"
Michael went to her, and they held a short, intense exchange, which Gabe was too distracted to follow.
He was bleeding. It wasn't like that chest wound, but by God it hurt, and he couldn't afford the blood loss.
The bullet had torn a chunk from high in his left arm and out again, and even as he pressed a hand over the wound, it began to burn with hell's own fire. He snarled and cursed and couldn't see straight. The pain didn't fade so much as he made himself ignore it. He forced himself to his feet, trying to get a look at Nelly, but Mrs. Cabot put herself in the way, protecting her.
Escott was still behind the bar. He seemed unfazed by the gunfire. He found a towel and slid it over to Gabe. "Put some pressure on it."
Nodding a silent thanks, Gabe did so. The least movement made it burn worse. His blood was all over the place. It was stupid, but he found himself annoyed about his ruined suit. That lasted two seconds, then Broder was dragging him over to a chair and shoving him down. His big paws lay heavy on top of Gabe's shoulders, holding him in place.
Mike went from Mrs. Cabot to talk with Escott. "We have to keep this quiet."
"I am no representative for the police in this. Punish him as you see fit, but take him elsewhere when you're done. Mr. Fleming will be none too pleased to have his club so ill-used. I'll clean up."
"And keep quiet?"
"So far as I am concerned, this is a family matter between you and your half brother and none of my business. Once you leave, I shall do my best to forget this entire day."
"What about Fleming? He was supposed to keep an eye on things."
"As I said, he had some personal affairs to look after, but be assured, he will say nothing."
"Gordy said he was stand-up."
"You may have complete confidence in that assessment. What about the ladies?"
"The old girl said she wants to see it through. Thinks Nelly will sleep better at night, but there's some things you just can't make up for."
Mike came to stand before Gabe. "I didn't think I could hate anyone as much as the old bastard, but you... you're sick-crazy like him, and your kind of sick doesn't get better. You've gone too far."
"Doing what?" Gabe asked. "Say it."
"You're not worth the breath." Mike reached into his overcoat's inside pocket for a leather case, not the one he used for his glasses. He opened it, revealing a clean glass syringe and compact amber vials within, setting them out on a table.
What the hell? "Escott?"
But Escott put his back to him. He began cleaning blood from the bar top.
Mike loaded the syringe with the contents of all the vials.
"That's too much," said Gabe. "You'll kill yourself."
Mike ignored him. "Broder?"
Broder ripped away the towel and smashed his fist against Gabe's wound three times with bone-breaking force. Blood went everywhere. The pain exploded into a white-hot fire-storm, unbearable. He tried to bite off the scream and failed. He dropped from the chair, consumed by it, unable to move. Someone grabbed his right arm and pushed the sleeve up. He didn't feel the sting as the needle went in; the other agony simply blotted it out.
"I don't know how you got through the day without this stuff," said Mike from somewhere above him.
No, this is wrong, it's not me, no, no, no...
Gabe felt the poison go up his arm, spreading throughout his body. It was a delicious cold balm to his wound. One second the pain's so bad you want to die, then the next it's gone. A dark miracle, almost like sleeping on his earth.
The chill slithered through him, curling around his brain, pressing against the spot on his skull and winding down to his feet. They lost feeling immediately, as though they'd somehow detached themselves and drifted from his body.
The cold flooded and filled him, and for a few moments he saw everything with bewildering clarity...
And it was beautiful.
The people stared at him with such unconditional hatred, but he couldn't hate them back. They were too wonderful. Every detail of their faces, the depth in their eyes, how they stood, each little movement-they had no idea just how perfect they were.
The room with its clean lines and stark colors was only the antechamber to a wider space of concrete and starlight and motion and more and more perfect people. There were so many to see and meet and cherish, so many bright marvels waited for him beyond these walls.
He loved them, loved it all; the whole goddamned world was his, and he loved it passionately.
A stranger used his voice to laugh for him.
Not a stranger.
It was one of the monsters that hid in the shadows of his mind, only emerging during his day sleep. One of the countless tormentors within that knew the truth but refused to make it clear was now awake, aware of him, and amused.
Looks just like me.
The poison inside lit it up like an actor onstage. It was handsome and confident, though possessing no substance, no more solid than the shadows it hid in.
But it was in charge now.