HE had an arm like a train. All the breath shot out of me. I folded and staggered and kept my feet only by grabbing the stair rail with one flailing hand. It wasn't as bad as it might have been for anyone else. I didn't want a second helping, though.
Coldfield's dark face was darker than normal, suffused with barely controlled rage. "You know why I'm here," he rumbled. Volcanoes reach that kind of deep pitch before they blow.
Took an experimental sip of air for speech. "Oh, yeah."
"Why the hell did you do that to him?"
"I got people who work at the hospital. One of them saw Charles brought in looking like he'd been worked over by a bulldozer and called me. They wouldn't let me see him. Took one look and knew I wasn't a relation. I tracked down the ambulance drivers and got them to talk. What the hell did you do?"
I'd grown a thick hide over my ability to feel guilt over some of the more objectionable things I'd done in life, but it was no protection now. I was in the wrong, and there were consequences to face.
"Charles and I had a fight-"
"The hell you did! What about?"
The words got stuck long before the halfway mark. The situation was edging close to being a reprise of my fight with Escott. Sweat popped out on my flanks.
I shook my head. There was no way I could tell Coldfield what I'd done that had infuriated Escott enough to beat the crap out of me-and then my going bughouse-crazy out of control and returning the favor. All I could do was thank God that I'd stopped short of murder. I couldn't remember much about the fight, but the aftermath was clear and sharp, especially those frozen-in-lead moments when I thought Escott was dead.
"What?" Coldfield loomed again.
"Charles was pissed with me about something and we got into it. It's not important now." Favoring my middle, I straightened, knowing what was coming. No way out.
"Goddammit, you put him in the hospital!" Coldfield piled in a rain of gut-busters, grunting from the effort. He was in on my secret. Had been for a while. He also knew about the ugly business with Hog Bristow, what the bastard had done to me. For all that, Coldfield didn't pull a single punch.
And I took it.
He finally knocked me ass flat on the floor. I stayed there, not quite keeling over.
"Talk to me, you sonovabitch!"
He wasn't going away. Come sunrise he'd probably continue beating on my apparently dead body to make sure I had more damage than Escott.
I raised one hand in surrender. Seemed like too much trouble to stand. He'd just put me back again. It hurt to draw breath to speak. Took a minute to get enough air inside to do the job. "Look... you once socked him for his own good... didn't you? You got fed up?"
Coldfield nodded slowly. "What about it?"
"This time it was my turn. He did his damnedest to pound some sense into me. Nearly took my block off."
"You don't look it."
"I heal fast, remember?"
"And then what?"
"I wouldn't listen. So Charles kept at me... until I hit him. That's where the ambulance came in. I'm sorry, Shoe. I didn't mean for it to go that way. I'd take it back if I could."
Bowed my head. "No. I can't."
He made no comment, but I could still feel his anger. He wanted to hurt me and make it last.
I used the stair rail to pull to my feet. Damn, but he'd caught me good and hard, without brass knuckles, either. If he was like that with bare fists...
He laid in again with enough force so I'd remember not to forget. I dropped all the way, curled, and stayed there, gasping. Pain. More than I expected. Wouldn't be surprised if he'd ruptured something. I wouldn't vanish to escape and heal, though. That'd be spitting in his face. I'd take what he dished out and like it.
He stooped into my view and his voice went low, and for a chilling instant I glimpsed what was inside him that made him the boss of one of the toughest mobs in the city. "You ever cut loose on Charles again, I will kill you." He knew exactly how to do it, too.
I believed him.
"We clear on that? You understand me?"
"Yeah," I said, talking sideways because my mouth was mashed against the floor. "Never again. Promise."
Coldfield left, slamming the door hard enough to shake the house. A moment later he gunned his car, shifted gears, and roared away.
Good thing he was a friend or we might have both been in trouble. I don't take this kind of crap from enemies.
Another moment or three passed, then the stairs creaked as Kroun came down. He squatted on his heels next to me, hands clasped loose in front of him, and tilted his head. "You okay?"
Now that was one goddamned stupid question. And he wasn't a stupid man. I eyed him. He was concerned, just not one for mother-henning. "I'm great. Tomorrow I sell tickets to the real show."
"Huh." He got the message. It was none of his beeswax, but he almost smiled. "And he knows about you, too?"
"F'cryin' out loud, put it on a billboard, why don't ya?"
A moderately long look from him, followed by a dismis sive headshake. "I can't find soap."
Soap? While I got pulped he was looking for soap? What kind of a loon was he?
"Try the second-floor bath," I mumbled.
His eyes went wide. "You got two johns in this joint?" My getting a beating was nothing to sweat about, but a house with two toilets knocked him right over.
Actually there were three. Escott had put in a bath all to himself just off his bedroom, which was overdoing things, but it was his house, after all. I didn't say anything as Kroun was already impressed, and mention of more would be pretentious. As a kid back on the farm in Ohio, I'd been told not to brag about our three-seater outhouse lest the neighbors think the Flemings were getting high-hat above themselves with extravagance.
"What was his problem?" Kroun asked, rising as I slowly found my feet again.
I checked my middle. Carefully. Oh, yeah, that hurt. A lot. At least Coldfield hadn't used wood. A baseball bat would have done some truly life-threatening damage on me, but then I'd have fought back. "Nothing to worry about."
"I'm not, but why'd you let him do it?"
"He had to work off steam. And he had a point to make. That was my way of listening."
Kroun thought that over, looking at me the whole time. "You," he concluded, "are crazy."
No reason to deny it. Tonight I happened to agree with him.
"Who was he? Looked familiar."
"Shoe Coldfield. Heads the biggest gang in the Bronze Belt. He's best friends with Escott. He was in that grocery store we walked through to visit Gordy the other night. You may have seen him there."
"Gordy said Coldfield was looking out for him. What's the angle?"
"It never hurts to have someone like Gordy owe you a favor."
"So I've heard. Is that what this is about? You wanting me to owe you a favor?"
He stared a second. "Ahh, never mind." He went upstairs, dodging into the hall bath long enough to grab soap from the sink, then continuing up to the third floor. Soon water was running in the pipes, making its long journey up from the basement heater tank.
When I felt like moving again, I checked my ribs, but Coldfield had focused on the softer target of my midsection. He'd inflicted ample bruising and spared his knuckles. The man was a smart thinker when it came to his brand of mayhem. Everything still hurt, and I stubbornly held on to it as though that would somehow help Escott.
I hobbled into the kitchen to blink at the clock. If he rushed things, Kroun could get cleaned up and make it to bed before dawn. I could take my time.
I made sure the front door was bolted, checked the back again just because, then vanished, sinking down through the kitchen floor. Once solid again in my hidden alcove the bruising and pain were magically gone, but I was tired, very tired.
The small table light next to my cot was on, so I didn't reappear in fumbling blackness. I'm a vampire who's gotten really allergic to the dark. I didn't used to be that way; but, after the crap I'd been through since my change, anyone would want to leave a lamp burning in the window.
No windows were in my artificial cave, but that was fine, what with my allergy to sunlight. Kroun had a right to be concerned about avoiding it, but he could manage. Things had to be a lot better for him in this place than wherever he'd hidden after the big boom. Did he have a supply of his home earth with him? I'd not thought to ask.
Damn, I didn't want to think about him and what to do with him and all the attendant complications concerning his apparent death. But the problem would be hanging around like an unpaid bill when I woke again, no way out of it. The mess Kroun had come to town to clear up was worse than before.
Derner-following my orders-had the right story to give to the New York mob bosses about Kroun's demise, but the details might not satisfy them. They were told that Kroun had been killed in the car explosion, then the man who rigged the bomb was in turn killed by me in a shoot-out. Very tidy. Too much so.
"They won't swallow that goldfish," I muttered, shrugging from my suit coat and prying off my shoes.
It would get out that there was no body in the destroyed car. The bomb had been big, but not so much as to wholly obliterate its intended target. Unless Kroun did something, New York would only send another man to find out why and then bump me. I'd gotten myself noticed by the wrong people one too many times. The idea of getting clear of town for a while was tempting, but that would leave Gordy holding the bag.
My other option was just to get it over with and let the mob do the hit. Let them think they'd executed me, then they could go home satisfied. Easy enough. I'd survived such attacks before. The problem with that was I'd not be able to go back to my business again. Just getting the legal papers to a new name forged would be a pain in the ass. I had friends, family, a club to run, things to do, and I needed to be able to do them as myself, Jack Fleming.
I stretched flat on the cot, loosening my belt, and felt gravity tug me toward the center of the planet. Illusion. The pull was really from the spread of earth under the protective oilcloth. This was my portion of the grave I'd never gone to, a tiny scrap of peace in the red chaos, protection from the insanity of my subconscious. My body seemed to weigh a ton; the feeling was surprisingly pleasant.
If I could hypnotize that next mobster into forgetting his job all would be well, but even thinking about using one of my evil-eye whammies made my head buzz like a too-crowded beehive. The last time I'd employed that talent had damn near exploded my brain. Deep-down instinct said another attempt would kill me. My nights of pretending to be Lamont Cranston and clouding men's minds like the Shadow were over.
Kroun was not crippled in that area, though. I could probably talk him into fixing things, especially if it meant his own safety. If I were him, I'd be cooperative and willing to try.
Only he wasn't me.
Who the hell is he? I wondered-my last thought as the rising sun swept me into the dreamless abyss for the day.
God, my chest hurts.
Not as bad as before, but it was like a hangover that wouldn't quite give up and leave.
The through and through Gabriel had taken was healed; he could tell that much because the itching deep under his knitted skin had almost stopped. It still felt as though pieces of himself had torn loose and were wriggling their way back into place again. What wouldn't fit kept trying to migrate up his throat. If he was careful not to breathe or move fast, it wasn't too bad. But just when everything seemed settled, the internal prickling would rise, crest, and set him off hacking like a lunger on his last legs. Gabe was damned bored with it.
He climbed the stairs slowly, hoping there would be no more visitors to make things exciting. He went to what Fleming called the guest bath, twisted the sink's left-hand tap, waiting, waiting, waiting until the water ran hot.
Gabe stared at the mirror over the sink. His faded, near-transparent reflection stared back. The ones like Fleming had no reflection at all. How did he get by without being able to see himself? Shaving must be an ordeal.
On the other hand, he could disappear and get well again anytime he pleased. Gabe would have given much to have that; it would have saved him a lot of pain the last couple nights.
Leaning close, he checked his tongue and eyes, didn't find anything of interest, then scratched his chin and neck. Yeah, a shave would be good, but have to wait. No razor. Did he need a haircut? If he could grab his hair in the back then it was too long. Gabe ran a hand over his head. Yeah, half an inch there at least. Time for a trim, get rid of the singed areas.
The ridge was still there of course-the one in the bone on the left side of his skull. It marked where the bullet that originally killed him had gone in. And stayed. That small piece of metal allowed him to discern a remnant of his presence in mirrors.
His head hurt. Not like when it first happened, but bad enough, aggravated by the latest calamities. People had tried killing him yet again, and he didn't like the violent reminder that not so long ago someone had actually succeeded.
He also didn't like thinking about how many other people wanted him dead. One fewer to their numbers, but still-
I'd trusted him. Goddamned Mitchell. Goddamned bastard. I should have seen that coming.
It wasn't as though Mitchell had intentionally shot Gabe tonight at the girl's flat, but he had planned the bomb for the car. What a dirty way to kill a man.
Too bad only Fleming got to have all the fun of beating the hell out of-
Jack Fleming. Now there was one crazy noodle. One minute trying to be helpful, the next letting himself get pulped flat in his own house. What kind of a screwball was he? He seemed to know all the ropes about being a-Gabe stumbled over vampire.
He'd read up on it, of course, and other details had just come to him from God knows where. Northside Gordy had filled in more blanks, but getting the firsthand knowledge from a guy who'd actually been through the same mill was much more useful. Getting it without raising too many questions was the problem. Fleming was curious and had only begun to start with the snooping.
Reporters. They're incurable.
Gabe was inclined to shed him fast then get lost, but Fleming might come looking, full of good intentions. With the whole of Gordy's organization on the hunt, Gabe wouldn't stay lost for long. He'd have to handle this carefully, keep the man on his side until a real exit could be managed.
He had been lucky at surviving until now, until they sent him to Chicago to take out the piss-and-vinegar punk who'd iced Hog Bristow.
Having other errands to see to, Gabe had gone, hoping to figure a way to avoid killing anyone. Fortunately, the punk had been smart enough to save himself.
Finding out that he was in the same bloodsuckers' club-well, that had been a real distraction.
But while the company was interesting, Jack Fleming was too reckless about who he let in on his secret; sooner or later, he'd tell others about the new guy in town. Though he seemed all right for the moment, he could turn on a thin dime.
The man was nuts.
That was plain from their first meeting. It'd been damned hair-raising when Fleming had gone into that fit. Gabe couldn't recall ever seeing anyone acting like that before, the sudden uncontrolled shivering, the eyes rolling up, then the poor bastard vanished into nothing. He said he was better now, but if he forgot himself and tried to hypnotize anyone again... apparently that was what set him off.
Gabe felt sorry for what had been done to Fleming. Torturing a bystander had never been part of the plan to get rid of Bristow, and it was just as well Fleming didn't hold a grudge. For now. The guy was trying hard to keep himself together, but he was still loopy as a bedbug, and that made him dangerous to be around. Soon as Gabe was on his feet and able to make a good job of disappearing, he'd get clear.
For that he would need a car and money.
Lots of money.
There were ways to get it, but later, when he wasn't wheezing like a bad engine.
Moving with great caution to keep from coughing, Gabe stripped to the waist and ran a hot, soapy washcloth over his face and neck, going easy over the fresh scar on his chest. There wasn't enough time for a shower-bath. He would only have to put on the same wrecked clothes again. It felt like he'd worn these for a week. If this was what being dead involved then he should have planned it better.
God, what have I let myself into? Is this going to work?
Gabriel Kroun wasn't a nobody who could leave the party without a ripple. He'd been through that before, the first time he died and found himself trapped in his previous life. Things had to run differently this time, and he had to work it better to avoid the same problems. The boys back home either liked and feared him or hated and feared him, and there was at least one who couldn't let his very public death slide without doing something.
Fleming didn't seem to be too worried about that, and he should be; he was either an idiot or counting on Gabe to step in and help.
I might. But not if it ended with old enemies finding out he was still walking around. Gabe had gone through too much to waste the opportunity to get away from the mob life.
Some of them were okay guys, but then Mitchell had seemed to be an okay guy. With a hypnotic nudge for insurance, the man was made incurious about where and how Gabe spent his days, and that had been enough. Not once had Gabe thought to add, Oh, by the way, don't try killing me.
On no account was he going to go back to that. Somebody up there had handed him a new start on a platter. He was certain he didn't deserve it, and suspicious that it might be yanked away.
Money and a car. Have to figure out something...
The guest room was clean, but basic. There was a wardrobe, no closet. None of the rooms on the floor had closets. Except for spare blankets, the wardrobe was empty and too small to hide in. He pulled all the blankets out and spread them on the bed. Damn, that looked vulnerable.
The room had one tall, narrow window with curtains and a pull-down shade that would dim the full daylight when it came. Easing it aside he peered at the street below and each house within view. A few lights showed in windows. Early risers were getting ready for work, their wives making coffee, eggs, hotcakes, bacon. He could remember eating those things, but not their taste. It had been good. He was sure of that.
Bacon... greasy, hot, crisp when fried right, but was it sweet, sour, bitter, or salty? He just didn't know.
He put the shade back and yanked the heavy curtains together. The predawn light was strong, leaving painful after-images on his eyes. Damn, his head got worse because of it.
He shucked his shoes and trousers, folding himself into a clean, soft bed. Not bad. Damned good, in fact. The sheets seemed too short for his legs, so he messed them around until they were loose enough to pull over his head along with the extra blankets. Black as a mine now, dark enough for-
Just a few seconds to go.
His head pounded in weary anticipation. The left side. Always.
Gabe slipped into absolute immobility swiftly, managing to shut his eyes at the last instant. He'd forgotten once and spent the day with them open. When night came, they'd felt like razor-edged rocks.
Images flashed over the inside of his lids. His own little movie show. He got to relive Mitchell's shooting him all over again. Several times. Even once was too many. Then memory swept Gabe back to that damn car and the explosion. He stayed there in the searing heat for a long, long while, tasting the smoke, feeling the blind panic, the pain, tearing his hands as he slammed out the door and rolled clear before hell could suck him in for real and forever.
He was trapped in that bad spot much too long, going through it too many times. After a very long, long eternity, it finally lost strength, like a storm wearing itself out. The inner lightning and thunder ceased, leaving only the wind.
That was a good sound.
When the nightmares faded, he dreamed of wind whirring through pine needles. It was hollow and haunting, sad, cold music; he thought he should be afraid of it, but just never seemed to feel anything but comfort. He was safe there. At peace.
The sound gradually merged with shapes, pale light, and shadows. He lay on his back under a black sky shot with stars. Raw bare ground chilled his body, the scent of pines and the bruised smell of fresh-turned earth filled his head. A pine tree loomed tall over him. Its boughs waved in the wind, restless, singing to the night. Theirs was the sweetest, most calming song he'd ever heard. He had never before felt so relaxed and content.
It lasted until a heavy wedge of damp earth slapped over his face.
What are they doing? Why are they doing this to me?
His face was soon covered, his body frozen, his mind screaming and impotent. He couldn't see, only hear: the grunt of a man, breathing hoarse as he labored, the scrape of metal in the dirt-a shovel?-somewhere in the distance a woman sobbed. Hers was the anguish of the heartbroken. It hurt to listen to that kind of pain. He felt sorry for her, grieving for him so hard. If he could just wake up he could tell her it was all right. There'd been a mistake. He wasn't dead. He tried to remember her face...
But a fire-hot flare sizzled through his skull, obliterating everything. When that faded, it was too late for anything but blank terror. He was completely buried. Earth clogged his eyes and ears. No more singing from the wind, only silence like death, but worse because he was aware of it, of being dead.
Other, much more fragmented, scenes shot past. Some were good, most were not. They flashed and flitted too quick to grasp and study. Green land, deep water, a sky so solidly blue it hurt to look on; a room stinking of blood, his own laughter sounding too open and happy for that place; a tall man standing over him, swinging the buckle end of a belt, face blank, eyes crazy.
He taught me to kill. Why?
The horrors rose and ebbed, and, in the pauses between, the soft deep rush of wind through pine branches gradually returned, offering a temporary ease. That never lasted, and he wanted it to; but in the end, at the very end, he would begin to shift and struggle and push at the earth until it crumbled away from his face and harsh, cold air dragged him fully awake.
Gabe pitched off the smothering blankets, yelling. Without air in his lungs no sound came out. There was a moment's absolute certainty that he was still buried, and then he drew breath, abruptly aware he was in Fleming's guest room. Sunset had freed him from the steel grip of the monsters in his head.
Somewhat. They'd retreated only as far as the shadowed corners in his mind, grinning, waiting for their next chance to come at him again.
He leaned over the side of the bed and coughed. A glob of blood and tissue splattered the floor.
Another night to get through, alive or dead or whatever the hell it was for him now.
At least his head had stopped hurting.
I woke instantly, my mind sharper for being rested, the question about Kroun still there, if no closer to an answer. Pulling on last night's clothes, I vanished and floated, going solid in the kitchen. The house was quiet, though I could hear Kroun stirring upstairs. He gave a groan and coughed wetly. I felt sorry for him, for not being able to heal faster. We needed a trip to the Stockyards to get him some stuff fresh from a vein. That would help.
The phone rang. It was probably Derner, following orders. I'd told him to call me only after a certain hour, keeping any mention of sunset out of the conversation. He just might be imaginative enough to put two and three together about my condition and didn't need more clues than he already possessed. Like most of the mobsters I dealt with, he knew I was uncannily tough and had earned Gordy's friendship, which was usually enough to keep them from asking awkward questions. Now more than ever, since I couldn't hypnotize people anymore, I had to be careful.
I finally answered. "Yeah?"
"Boss?" Derner's voice. Terse. Tense. He could pack a lot into a single word.
"Yeah. How'd things go today?"
"No hitches at this end. Everything went smooth on that job."
I took him to mean the cleanup at Bobbi's flat. Derner and I were both wary that the phones might be tapped. It was illegal, but that detail was not something J. Edgar was too particular about. So long as his name didn't come into things, and his agents didn't get caught, he'd turn a blind eye if it got him good headlines as a gangbuster. Thus ran the scuttlebutt I'd heard from others, especially Gordy. I wondered how he'd come to learn it.
"Anything else?" I asked Derner.
"There's some guys here. They're upset about their friend having car trouble."
That would be muscle from Kroun's New York mob, pissed about the bombing. "How bad is it?"
"Real bad. I told them what you said and that you'd talk to them here, but they went looking for you."
New York would know about my nightclub, Lady Crymsyn. The muscle would be waiting there. The sign tacked on the front door with its TEMPORARILY CLOSED-BACK SOON! wouldn't discourage them. "I'll just talk to them and-"
"Those guys who blew in were hopping mad. They won't be talking. No chance. You gotta disappear yourself. This is serious."
"They serious about the big guy, too?" I meant Gordy.
"Just you for now. They heard he wasn't involved, but you have to get out of town. I told them who was really behind it; but you were the boss at the time, so you get the blame."
"That figures." Doesn't matter what kind of job you've got, doctor, lawyer, Indian chief, when a disaster happens while you're running the show, it's your fault.
Derner said, "I can get you a ride out of town, money, too."
"It's all right. I'll deal with them." There was the sound of footsteps from the hall; Kroun had come downstairs. If I explained the situation to him in the right way he might be open to helping me out of this jam. He couldn't vanish, but was still able to make people change their minds to his way of thinking. If he wanted to stay dead to them, he could arrange it. "When the coast is clear, I'll stop by and fill you in."
Silence from Derner's end. He must be getting used to how I worked. He'd been there the night I'd faced down Kroun and survived. Maybe he thought I could somehow talk my way out of this one as well.
"How many of them are there?" I asked.
"There's two of us, pal."
I jumped. The reply hadn't come from the phone, but from directly behind me. A stranger's soft voice. Something, probably a gun, prodded my lower spine, forestalling further motion on my part. People who interrupted calls in this manner always had guns. How long had he been here? Not long enough to have searched as far as the guest bedroom. Or maybe he had-and discovered what appeared to be Kroun's dead body. Oh, hell.
"Say you'll call him back." The man's tone was almost conversational and very confident.
"Boss...?" Derner sounded odd. He must have heard.
"I'll call you back," I said and dropped the receiver onto its hook.
The man said, "Good boy. Put your hands on the wall. High up."
I did so, and he frisked me, making a fast, efficient job of it, finding nothing threatening. My gun was in the overcoat hanging over the kitchen chair, well out of reach.
"You Jack Fleming?' he asked.
"Yeah. You one of Whitey Kroun's people?"
"No. Whitey was one of my people."
Oh, hell, again. Kroun's boss. Not that this should be a surprise. He sounded calm, but I sensed otherwise. Some of them could do that, hold a relaxed front, yet be flushed with rage. I was better at dealing with the ones who lost control and gave in to their emotions. This steadier type was a lot more unpredictable.
He went on. "Mitchell was also one of my people. So was Hog Bristow. They're dead, and you're not. You understand why I'm here?"
"You gonna buckwheats me?" I asked. My mouth went dry, just like that, at the word.
It was how the mob dealt with some of their enemies. Buckwheats meant a slow, hideous death, lots of blood, lots of screaming. I'd been through it and would not suffer again. I would kill to avoid it, no matter the consequences. Despite this internal promise, cold sweat flared over my skin, over the lines of scars Bristow had carved into me. My gut gave the kind of fast light flutter that presages vomiting. I leaned hard on my hands and took a deep breath, trying to stifle the nausea.
"That was Bristow's hobby," said the man. "I heard he did some knife work on you."
"Yeah. He did." The long icy threads left by his blade pulled tight on my flesh.
"And somehow you're still walking? Whitey said as much, but I didn't believe him." The man spoke quickly yet with careful, educated articulation. He wasn't any jumped-up street mug.
"He told you right." God, I was sick. Dizzy sick. A wave of it went over me, cold as gutter slush. If I fell into one of those damned fits... no. Absolutely not. Too humiliating. Swallowing dry, I let out my breath and sucked air, tasting my fear. "Whitey decided I'd paid enough."
"I get that. It's paid. Whitey let you off for Bristow, but I can't let you off for Whitey. How did you arrange the bomb?"
"Not me. Mitchell. He was behind it."
"You got Mitchell to-"
"No, he was on his own!" My voice was high and harsh. I pulled it down, fighting my not-unreasonable panic. Jeez, when had I started trembling? "I didn't know or I'd have stopped him. He wanted Kroun's job. If it'd worked right, I'd have gone up as well. Mitchell got his for it."
"So you say." The pressure of the gun muzzle increased and I couldn't help but flinch. "All the same, Whitey got blown to hell, and you didn't, and that's what matters to me."
This bird had not searched the place thoroughly, else he'd have found Kroun upstairs, dead to the world, and this would be a different conversation. Where the hell was Kroun, anyway? If he'd just walk in... "You know I didn't kill him. It was-"
"Not my concern."
Screw it. I wasn't going to beg for a chance to explain.
"I came to do a job," he said. "That's all."
I stared hard at the black phone. "One thing," I said.
"Who else is on your list?"
"Why do you ask?"
"I don't want others to pay for what you think I've done." The muzzle shifted and now rested hard against the back of my head. It felt good. It's a bad night in hell when the prospect of a bullet in the skull seems to be the easy way to get clear of problems. No bullet, lead or even wood, could slow me for long, but I did think about that kind of total oblivion for a few seconds. I wouldn't go there, though. Not ever again. I'd play the cards I'd been dealt and see the game through... with a moderate amount of cheating. "So when you're finished here-"
"You're it, pal," said the man. "No one else."
But I couldn't trust him.
I let myself vanish. I'd been fighting the urge to do so, and now I went out like a light, but only for the barest second, long enough to shift and return with death's own grasp on his arm. The gun went off. Twice. Right next to my ear. I barely noticed, twisting and slugging hard, anger blurring my senses. He grunted and sagged but got a strong left in with his free hand. Tough guy. But my second punch took him out, and he suddenly weighed a ton. I let him drop, dragging the gun clear of his grip, and stifling the itch to kick him for good measure.
He said there were two of them. I vanished again before the second guy could come running. My hearing was diminished, but I'd know if anyone was close. Nothing stirred. I rushed through the downstairs quicker than wind-no one else around-then went solid to check on the fallen.
He was taller than average, with a hard-packed build under the expensive coat. Considering his high level of confidence, he was younger than I'd expected, not far into his thirties. Despite the winter, his skin was tanned and healthy, and he might have given Roland Lambert a good run for his money for film-star looks. Jobs in the gangs tended to age a man, but this bird seemed immune. Myself, I felt about a hundred years old, give or take a week.
The back door was unlocked. Damnation. I'd brick the thing over, but the bastards would probably just drop down the chimney like Santa. I turned the bolt (for all the good that would do) as Kroun came in, but I saw him as a corner-of-the-eye movement. I was startled enough to swing the gun on him.
He froze in place, genuinely alarmed, palms spread. "Easy there, it's me."
As if that was reassuring.
Kroun wore only socks, skivvies, and had dragged on his bloodied shirt in lieu of a bathrobe. He frowned at the man on the floor. "Cripes."
"Friend of yours?" I asked.
"Unfortunately for you, yes."
I put the gun on the table, within easy reach. "He was shooting up the place. I had to clock him."
Kroun took that in along with the holes in the wall. "Well, you both made a good job of it." There was no longer a rasp in his voice. The day's rest must have fixed that, but he didn't look happy. "Is he broken?"
"Not permanently. Now what?"
" 'Now what' what?"
"He's after me because of you. I'd have to kill him to stop him and then someone else will follow and someone else, and I've got enough goddamned dead guys on my hands."
He gave me a funny look. "You all right?"
"No, I'm-" I shut down, getting control. I still felt the gun's muzzle kissing the back of my head and couldn't believe I'd found that a comforting thing, even for a second. Shoving away the memory, the anger at myself and the circumstances, and taking a breath, I began again. "I am not all right. I got mugs like him breaking into my place to kill me. There's at least one other waiting somewhere else for his chance, and I'm damned sick of it. If you've got any influence over these bastards, get rid of them. I want them off my back for good."
He just looked at me, pupils dilated and unreadable, but his mouth went tight. He didn't like being ordered around, but then who does? "I can't do that," he said.
"You're the only one who can."
"I-" He bit off the reply, then looked at the fallen man again. "If I do that, they'll know I'm alive. I don't want them to know I'm alive."
"Hypnotize them not to remember you."
"It won't last."
"Long enough to buy you a head start."
"Hell, kid, you're not asking much. You know what I went through to get dead?"
"Yeah, actually I do."
That got me double take.
"Welcome to the club," I added.
"Cripes," he muttered again. "All that for nothing?"
"It's how the world works."
His next remark was back-alley foul.
"You'll be a hero for surviving it-and you can tell them who's really responsible. That lets Gordy off the hook."
"And you, too."
"What's the big deal? Fix this mess, then take a vacation. Retire if that's what you want."
Kroun stared like I'd gone around the bend. Retirement in his line of work nearly always involved a funeral.
"You'll have to do the fixing anyway," I went on. "Odds are they're already wise to there being no body in that car, and they've been asking questions. My way they go home alive. Your way, they either get killed or kill other people, making an even bigger mess, and-"
He held a hand up, forestalling further persuasion. "Yeah- yeah, okay, enough already. I'll put the fix in. But you are going to owe me."
I worked hard not to show too much relief. He'd made a choice I could live with. I'd worry about the debt later.
"But not like this," he added.
He gestured at himself. "Looks are everything in this game."
"You want me to play? Get me cleaned up first."
He had to be kidding.
"Use your noodle. I'm not going anywhere fast looking like a train wreck."
I got my mental gearbox shifted. Finally. He did look pretty ridiculous. He must have clothes back at his hotel or wherever he'd stayed before the explosion. We could go there and pick them up.
"What about him?" I pointed to Handsome Hank on the floor.
"You got rope, don't you?" Kroun turned and went upstairs.