THIS bunch did not indulge in a tearful reunion over Kroun's miraculous return from the grave. Not that I expected anything in even distant view of the maudlin, but maybe at least a handshake traded between acquaintances. Michael had been willing to kill me over Kroun, after all, but that business must have been more to do with restoration of mob honor than revenge for the mobster himself.
Michael got over enough of his shock to speak. "What the hell happened to you?"
Kroun leaned against one end of the lobby bar, Broder anchored himself solidly at the other, and Michael stood slightly distanced, able to see them both. Occasionally, his gaze cut to me, but without hostility, just including me in the proceedings. He didn't have to bother; this was their business, not mine.
While Kroun related his escape from the jaws of death, I eased past Broder and checked behind the bar. Everything was normal, not a bottle out of place. Despite the unlocked front door, no one had burgled the joint, and I didn't think it was just good luck. Maybe I needed to thank Myrna for looking after things. She was quite a good guardian angel.
I noticed I stood on the permanently stained tile that marked the spot where she'd bled to death. No matter that the tile had been replaced several times, the stain just kept reappearing. I moved off it.
Broder watched me as though I might plan to slip arsenic into the gin and offer him the bottle.
"Like anything?" I asked.
That earthquake-deep growl would take getting used to, and I'd had more than my share of experience at dealing with intimidating types. He shifted his attention back to Kroun, and though his face was impassive, Broder's body was tense. From the look in his eyes, I got the idea that he actively hated the man.
"Mitch?" said Michael, all stunned disbelief. His reaction looked and sounded sincere, which meant he'd not believed anything I'd said back at the house. "But Mitch was-why the hell would he take the chance?"
Kroun did more explaining about his homicidal henchman. I wondered when he'd get around to hypnotizing them so they'd go on their merry way. I had to get to the hospital before visiting hours ended.
"Why didn't you call me, send a telegram?" Michael wanted to know.
Kroun explained that as well. He'd shrugged from his coat, placing it and the new fedora carefully on the bar, and eased onto one of the stools as though we had all night. I concentrated on being invisible without actually disappearing. The other two remained in place, sponging up his every word. He made it sound plausible. Hell, I knew the real story, and he had me believing the eyewash.
But Michael didn't like what he heard. "We came all the way out here, nearly killed him"-he jerked a thumb at me-"and that's it?"
"It's enough," said Kroun. "Don't go blaming Fleming, either. I told him to keep shut until I knew the score."
Told, I thought. Nicely chosen, having it seem like I was one of the boys following orders the same as any other soldier in their line of work. Fine, whatever it took to get rid of these two.
Counting Kroun, make that three.
He continued. "Fleming's off the hook for my murder and whatever else you can think up. Call Derner, tell him everything's squared, and take the next train back, we're done."
"They still made a try for you. I can't let that pass."
"There is no 'they.' Mitch was my man, and Hoyle was already on the outs here. No one else is responsible for their shenanigans. I know that, the question is why you can't get it through your thick skull."
Michael's eyes sparked and narrowed. Broder shifted.
Kroun didn't seem to notice. "C'mon, Mike. If it'll make you feel better, sock Fleming in the jaw a few times, call it payback, and have done already."
It wouldn't have hurt me much, but that wasn't going to happen this side of hell. Michael didn't bother looking my way, just shook his head at Kroun.
"Okay," he said. "I get it. Mitch was a bad apple, he's gone-and you're ready to forgive and forget?"
"That's not like you."
"What can I say? People change."
"Sure they do. See it all the time."
I'd long picked up on a deeper tension between them. Though Kroun was one of Michael's people, he behaved like the man in control. Michael made him work for it, though. Come to think of it, Michael could have been disappointed about Kroun's surviving.
"Maybe good old Mitch was acting on his orders," I said to Kroun. Not smart of me to provoke a fight, but I wanted him to start convincing these guys to leave.
He turned my way. "Ya think? What about it, Michael? You want my job?"
"Go to hell." Michael's reaction was instant, right on the surface. He made no effort to mask his disgust.
Kroun's relaxed expression remained the same, but he went utterly still. His friend had crossed a line. Maybe they both had. Oh, crap. Kroun was armed. If his eyes got empty again, I'd have to try and stop him. This was my place, and it had seen enough blood.
Myrna must have agreed. All the lights suddenly flickered, dimming, but not quite going out. This went on for maybe ten long seconds, then they steadied up normal again. It successfully broke the mood, creating a new one.
Michael snapped around at me, suspicious.
"Electrical short," I explained.
"Who else is here?"
"Nobody but us chickens."
He didn't believe me. "Broder."
Broder nodded, pulled out a revolver big enough to stop a charging rhino with one shot, and headed toward the main room. The curving hall leading into it was dark.
"Wait," I said.
"You might need this." I tossed him a flashlight. There were a dozen of them scattered throughout the club, Myrna was that playful. He caught it one-handed, neat and solid. "But it's just a short. Electric panel's over there." I pointed to a spot on the wall next to the lobby phone booth. The utility was hidden by a red velvet curtain. Michael crossed to check on it, then motioned for Broder to continue. His footsteps faded.
It got quiet enough that I could hear Michael's heartbeat. A little fast. He shouldn't be so nervous.
"Drink?" I suggested.
"No, thank you."
"At least a short beer." I drew one and put it on the bar. "You gotta be thirsty after that trunk business, which I'm sorry about, by the way."
His focus shifted from Kroun, finally, and he came over for the beer. "You got some nerve."
"That part was my doing," said Kroun.
Damn. I wanted him to shut up so I could keep his pal's attention divided. Kroun seemed hell-bent on thinking up new ways to be fatally irritating.
Michael downed half the beer. Booze would have been better for such a cold night, but he didn't strike me as one who went for the hard stuff. I'd hung out in my share of dives and had learned a little about other drinkers.
"I got your stuff," I said. I pulled out the spoils I'd taken from him, spreading them on the counter.
He went first for the glasses case, opened it, and put them on. The gold wire-rims reflected the lights, making it harder to see his eyes. He looked less like a film star and more like the kind of brainy guy who lived in the college library. Neither image was in keeping with the reality that he was a big wheel in the New York mob.
He checked the wallet, put it away, then gave me a hard stare, mitigated quite a lot by the specs. It was difficult to take him seriously while he had those on.
"What?" I asked.
"The money," he said with a pronounced frown.
"I've got it," said Kroun, casually. He was messing with his handkerchief, his attention wholly on it. He shook open and refolded it so four points spilled over the top of his breast pocket like a tired flower.
"Hand it back," said Michael.
"Hm..." Kroun pretended to think, then shook his head. "No."
"That's my money, dammit."
"You found where I hid it in my hotel room. I recognize the clips. Next time I'll trust it to a safe."
"I thought you were-"
"Dead? That's a good reason to take it. I forgive you."
"One of those is mine."
"Huh. You're right." Kroun searched, produced the cash, and removed the money, tossing the empty clip to Michael.
He caught it reflexively, scowling. "Funny."
"You can spare it. You must own a bank or three by now. I bet you've made more in the last ten minutes than most guys see in a lifetime."
Glowering, Michael finished his beer and turned down my offer for a second. I washed the mug, stacking it with the others under the counter, just your friendly neighborhood barkeep.
We all jumped when something big crashed in the next room. I recognized the sound: chairs clattering, hitting the floor, lots of them. Kroun's hand went to his pocket, but he glanced at me. I shook my head to signal "don't worry" and he eased off, doubtful.
Michael was just to the curved entry hall when Broder appeared, nearly running into him. For a big guy he had speed, but he hauled up short, as though he'd been caught in an embarrassing act.
"What is it?" Michael demanded.
Broder scowled. He was good at that. "Nothing."
No one bought it.
"The lights were out," he went on. "I bumped a table in the dark. Knocked things over. The batteries are dead." He threw the flashlight. I caught it less neatly than he had earlier but spared the bottles behind me from breakage.
Under the counter, I clicked the light's button. The thing worked just fine now. It would be unwise to point that out to anyone, so I quietly put it away. Myrna was expanding her activities. What a gal.
"Find anything?" asked Michael.
Broder holstered his cannon. "A lot of dark. Heat's off back there. Cold as hell." For all that, he was sweating, a sheen covered his broad face, and beads gathered at his temples. The heating was the same throughout the building. I'd not turned it down. He had a tan similar to Michael's, but under it, his skin had gone muddy. When he approached the bar, I tried catching a whiff of his scent and was rewarded with the unmistakable tang of fear.
Looked like Myrna had found a new playmate for the evening. What had she done? Maybe it was better not to know. I poured Broder a whiskey without being asked, and this time he accepted, downing it quick.
"You okay?" I asked.
That got me a suspicious look; he knew I knew something about what had spooked him. "I am fine."
"Are we done here?" Kroun asked.
"Yes," Michael said shortly. "There's a late train back to New York tonight-"
"Enjoy the trip."
Michael visibly steamed. "You're coming, too."
"Uh-uh. I've got unfinished business."
What the hell? The three of us glared at him, waiting for the rest. Kroun spread the handkerchief out flat, refolded, and tucked it back so two neat triangles showed over the pocket.
"Which one's better?" he asked. "This or the other way?"
"Like that," I said. "What unfinished business?"
"Don't get your feelings hurt, but I had other things to do out here besides bumping you off." He flicked at his pocket with one finger. "You sure? I liked the other way."
"So do floorwalkers. What other things?"
"A floorwalker? Nah... not in this suit."
"Whitey," said Michael. "We're going back to New York. You don't have any more business here."
"Actually, I do. It's none of your business, and it's going to take a while, so don't expect me back any too soon."
Michael's tanned face went muddy like Broder's. "No. We're all leaving. Don't cross me on this."
"Come on, Mike. I nearly got blown to perdition and back, then had to put Mitch down like a rabid dog. I'm taking a rest. You've got guys who can fill in for me."
"I'll hang around here, see a few shows, maybe do some fishing-"
"No!" There was angry force behind that, far more than the situation warranted. Not knowing Michael, I couldn't tell for sure, but his anger was covering up something else.
It was... fear. No such vulnerability showed on his face, but I could smell it. I remembered a moment when, with no small shock, I realized that Gordy was afraid of Kroun. Gordy didn't know about the vampire angle; it had been fear of the man himself. He and Michael had that in common. So, why were they afraid of him, and should I be worried?
Kroun's eyes were darker than before. His voice remained low and level and deadly patient. This was Whitey Kroun, not the more affable Gabe. "I'm not getting on that train. If I go back to New York, who's to say the next guy I run into won't try to finish what Mitch started? No, thanks. I'm staying here until you've done some housecleaning."
Michael recovered his self-control. Quickly. Throwing his weight around wouldn't work. His tone shifted, became the reasonable one of a man willing to compromise. "Okay... come and help me, then. Only you know who you've pissed off lately."
Kroun barked a short laugh. "That would be everyone."
"I'll make sure you're protected. No one's getting another chance at you. I guarantee that."
"Thanks very much, but I'm staying-until further notice."
Michael's hand twitched, reminding me of the gun no longer under his coat. Broder didn't make a move, just watched and listened. Apparently he'd seen this kind of thing before. I tried to read him for a clue as to how it might end, but would have had better luck with a brick wall.
"It's the old bastard, isn't it?" Michael asked. "You're here to see him."
"Yeah," Kroun admitted, after a moment.
"It's no good, he's crazy, you'll only stir him up. Stay away from him."
Kroun made no reply. Making an effort, I kept my yap shut, wanting to know more.
Michael glanced at Broder, who did not react.
Kroun poked at the handkerchief, pulling it out again. A quick refold and he put it back, this time showing a razor-thin edge of white. He looked at me for an opinion. I gave a thumbs-up.
"I'm gonna look up an old friend or two," he said. "No one you'd know."
"And do what?"
"None of your damn business, kid. I'm not repeating myself."
"Mike." Kroun raised one hand in a sharp "back off" gesture and met his gaze square and granite-hard. "Enough."
Silence stretched, but not to a breaking point, and the lights remained steady. Michael continued, body tense, but his voice was calm. "All right, fine. But since you're worried about people taking potshots, you'll have to have a bodyguard. Someone who will be the first person I hold responsible if anything goes wrong."
"Not him," Kroun nodded at Broder, who again did not react.
"No problem." Michael looked at me. "He'll do."
"Forget it," I said instantly.
"I can take care of myself," Kroun said.
Michael's mouth tightened, not in a smile. "You've got a point about being a target. Anything happens to you again, and I break this town like an egg-and Fleming knows it. You've vouched for him plenty tonight. He'll bust heads to keep you safe."
I'd also be motivated to get Kroun to leave as soon as possible. That might not be in keeping with his plan to retire from the business. I threw him an expectant look. Now was the time to put them both under and make them leave.
"Cripes," Kroun muttered.
"It's him, or Broder and I tag along."
"Go ahead," I put in. "I don't want the job."
"Gee, thanks," said Kroun.
"You can get out of this," I reminded, knowing he'd catch the meaning.
He shook his head once, surprising me.
"No. Drop it."
Damn him. The crazy son of a gun wasn't going to do it. I snorted, turning to Michael, framing an appeal. "Look-"
Kroun broke in. "Won't work, Fleming. He's made up his mind. I know what that means, you might as well learn it now."
I already did and didn't like it. He could force a change in Michael's views, but it wouldn't stick. Depending on how strongly a person felt, the hypnosis might last for weeks or just a day or so. It was worth the effort to me, though. However difficult to influence, once Michael and Broder were on their way out of town, they might think twice about coming back again.
I'm often a victim of my own optimism.
"It's just for a couple days," Kroun went on. To him I was hands down the lesser of two evils, giving him good reason to cave in so fast. "This place is closed, what else have you got to do?"
"Plenty," I said.
If I'd been asked instead of appointed, it would have been different. I'd been my own boss too long to go back to being pushed around by a bunch of murdering bastards. Yes, I was one myself by now, but... they all looked at me, hostility, assured expectation, and cynical resignation parceled out between them.
Oh, what the hell. I wanted to keep an eye on Kroun anyway.
He read my face easily enough. "That's settled. When's that train leaving?"
"Never mind the train." Michael held his glasses up to the light. He rubbed at a lens with the end of his tie. "Broder and I are staying in town."
"None of your damn business."
"You want to see how it turns out with the old bastard."
"Among other things."
God, were they going to start up all over again?
"Fleming watches you, Broder and I watch Fleming. Everyone's happy."
Except Fleming, I thought.
"You-" Michael pointed at me, then gestured me over to the side.
I hated being ordered around by anyone, especially in my own place, but put up with it in the interest of getting them out more quickly. From the signs, Michael wanted an off-the-record talk. He couldn't know that Kroun would be able to hear it from across the room.
"Yeah?" I said.
He put the glasses in their case and looked me up and down. "You understand how we do things?"
"We'll see. You look after Whitey, and when I ask about what he does, you will tell me."
"No problem." Look after? That was a funny way of saying it, like Kroun needed a keeper.
"Lie or leave anything out, I'll know about it."
Threats were easy to drop, but I had the feeling he was giving me a legitimate warning. "Okay. But tell me why you're so anxious to know what he's up to."
"You like him? Think he's a friend?"
"I like him. The jury's still out on the other." I didn't mind Kroun knowing that.
"Smart of you. It's okay to like him, but don't trust him even if he tells you the Pope's Catholic."
"He came here to kill you, and you have to ask?"
"It takes a certain kind of man for such work. He's one of them."
"You, too. You were ready to pull the trigger on me."
"Yes, that's true." He tilted his head. "But I would have felt really, really bad about it."
"You'd have felt bad?"
"For a long time. Yeah."
He'd had me fooled.
"Whitey doesn't have a conscience, he never did. He's amusing, can be very charming in fact, but killing is no more to him than driving a car is to you."
"You're worried he'll kill someone while he's here?"
"I don't want him stirring up trouble."
"Who's he after?"
"I wouldn't know. You get a hint of it, you call me."
If he knew, he'd probably tell me, and my job would be easier, but that wasn't going to happen. Admitting his ignorance would be weakness, and he'd never show that to the hired help. I hated games. "Where you staying?"
"Whitey's hotel. Derner has the number. This is important, Mr. Fleming. Important." He looked almost comically intense.
Kroun had him on edge, and it would be stupid to dismiss that. I nodded.
"What I hear from the crowd at the Nightcrawler is you have scruples," he said. "You don't like it when people die."
"I'm old-fashioned that way."
"Good. You watch him, keep him out of trouble, keep him from making trouble. Do whatever it takes."
"What do you mean by that?"
"That-despite what I said about you being the first to get the blame-I guarantee there will be no reprisals."
What the hell? I went cold inside. "Oh, now, just a damn minute-"
"You don't know him or you wouldn't balk." Michael sent me a long, level stare. He was smart enough to see past my third-best clothes and chin stubble, reading that I was a cut above the usual mugs in his line. For all that, he'd still misjudged me, and I resented it.
This smelled to high heaven. It could well be another version of what I'd just avoided: Kroun gets bumped-preferably by someone expendable like myself-then they bump me. "Fill me in."
"Get him to tell you. He seems to like you. He just might. As I said, do whatever it takes to keep him in line. If his stay here is quiet, you won't have to do a thing. When he's ready to leave, Broder and I will go with him."
Sounded great, except for going against Kroun's plan to retire. If he wanted Michael to know, he'd have mentioned it by now. It wasn't my place to bring it up.
"This is business, Mr. Fleming," Michael added, with a meaning to the phrase that was familiar.
I'd heard it from Gordy enough times to get the message loud and clear. Great, someone else to be on guard against. What the hell, it couldn't hurt to pretend to go along with him.
Well. Actually, it could.
"We're done," Michael pronounced. He should have told me not to repeat this conversation to Kroun, but hadn't. Did that mean he trusted me to keep shut, or he didn't care if Kroun knew?
Damn, I hate games.
Kroun snorted, eased off the barstool, and pulled on his new coat and hat.
"What the hell is that?" asked Mike, gaze fixed on the fedora.
Kroun took it off, checking it carefully. "Looks like a hat. What are you seeing?"
"Charcoal gray," Kroun corrected, putting it on.
"You always get white."
"People change. I have mentioned that, I know I just did." He must have noticed my expression. "Right?"
I shrugged, wanting to stay clear. "Who wears white in the winter?"
Mike seemed puzzled. "Whitey does, always has. It's how he got the nickname."
"I thought it was from the-uh-" I made a vague gesture on the side of my head.
"A white hat," said Mike. "Always. Since he was a kid."
How far did these two go back?
"It's the end of an era," Kroun pronounced. "C'mon, Fleming, close the store."
The clothing talk reminded me of something. "Minute. I'll be right back." I started toward the curving hall.
Broder got in my way.
I looked at Michael.
"What is it?" he asked.
It is infuriating to have to get permission to walk around in one's own place. I really missed my hypnosis, for then I'd have had the two of them out in the street dancing a fox-trot till dawn.
Pain like red hot railroad spikes in both eyes, followed by my brain exploding... but maybe worth it.
"Business," I said, deadpan.
Michael waved dismissively, and Broder made a slow nod. He wasn't moving, so I had to go around him.
In his low rumble-not directed at me-he said, "He'll be fine."
It's amazing what you can infer when your mind's working right. Michael must have signaled to him to follow me, and Broder had refused. He wasn't about to take a second trip into the main room. It was creepily dark in there. I'd not bothered with the lights, nor taken a flashlight, and couldn't blame him for hanging back.
There was enough glow coming from the high, diamond-shaped windows for my eyes. One thing I noticed right away: every chair and table was in place. There was no sign of what caused the big crashing noise that had chased Broder out.
"Myrna... you're the pip," I said at a conversational level.
No response. Maybe she was tuckered out from all the fun.
I crossed the dance floor, hopped onto the stage, and passed through the wings to the dressing area. There I did flip a light switch, as it was quite black with no windows, and went into one of the rooms.
Some of my clothes lay on the floor where I'd dropped them. That night, the damage Bristow had done to me wasn't healing and seemed to be getting worse. I'd come here hurting and afraid and had tried to wash it off my soul in one of the showers. When that hadn't worked, I'd tried to kill myself.
I snagged things up quick and piled them on a chair. Bloodsmell floated up, rusty and stale. That came mostly from my overcoat. It would need a good cleaning-if I could bring myself to wear-
No, definitely not. A dead man's blood was all over it, invisible against the dark fabric. I'd not killed him, but had drunk deeply from his twitching corpse.
Yeah. I'd done that.
Not something one can forget, not anything I wanted to remember, but there it was: insanity.
I was ashamed. Ashamed I'd lost control, crossed a line. If I was lucky, I would wince over that one for decades to come and learn from it.
If unlucky, I might do it again.
Face flaming, I rifled the pockets and found an address book, a plain thing in thin brown leather. It had belonged to the late Alan Caine. I'd taken it from his hotel apartment on the night of his murder on the off chance that it might prove useful in finding his killer. The problem had resolved itself, but now I had an idea for using the book to get the cops out of my hair. Derner could help, and it wouldn't cost a nickel in bribes.
Halting in midturn for the door, I realized I couldn't leave this stuff. If the cops ever decided to search the place... no... such complications I did not need. I spread the overcoat flat, threw all of the clothing on it, then rolled it into a bundle, ready for dumping.
I hurried out, bundle under one arm and the book in my pocket.
"What have you got there?" Michael wanted to know.
"That was your business?"
"Yeah. I'm short on clean shirts."
He snorted. "Let's get out of here."
"Car keys," Broder said, his hooded gaze traveling between me and Kroun, not knowing which of us had chauffeured.
I handed them over. It never occurred to me to argue about who was to drive. He stood by the front door, making it plain we were all to exit first.
The leather case with the syringe remained on the bar. I got it and quietly passed it to Michael. He shot me a sharp look, but I wore my blandest "I don't give a damn" face. He shoved the case deep in his coat pocket and moved on. If Kroun noticed, he didn't show it.
I locked the front door. As we walked toward the parking lot, the outside lights winked on and off. The others saw and looked back; I kept going.
"It's just a short," I said to no one in particular.
At the Studebaker, Michael turned and smiled. "It's been a pleasure meeting you, Mr. Fleming. I'm very happy I didn't have to kill you. Tonight."
Some guys enjoy being cute. Michael and Broder quickly got in the car first, locking the doors. They moved fast, as though rehearsed.
"What's this?" Kroun asked, pitching his voice to go through the rolled-up windows.
One hand cupped to his ear, Michael mouthed an unconvincing "What?" and met our irritation with a good-natured, innocent smile. Broder started the motor, shifted, and backed out.
"He's stranding us?" I stared as Michael did the kind of playful bye-bye wave usually reserved for small kids.
"That's what it looks like," Kroun just shook his head. "Payback for the money I took off him. Michael's a big one for payback."
"I'll remember that."
"Huh. He's got my new stuff," he added.
"He said he was at your hotel."
"I heard. I'll pick it up later. Where to now? This hospital?"
"Yeah. There's an el stop just up the street. It'll take us. Cabs don't like this area much when the club's closed."
I turned, walking into the wind. My hat tried to fly off, so I carried it. Kroun jammed his on tight and kept his head down. He muttered unkindly about the cold and folded his coat lapels over his chest, turning up the collar. Maybe he felt it more than I. That slug in his brain might make a lot of things different for him.
"So," I said, "is the Pope Catholic?"
"Mike doesn't know things have changed. I'm not the man I was. He wouldn't understand that, even if I gave him the whole story-which I'm not."
"Doesn't anyone know about you?"
"Hell, no. Just you and your girl. There's no need for it to go any further. I survived the car exploding. The exact how of it stays with us."
"What about the other stuff? You heard everything. Michael as much as said I should kill you if you got out of line."
"You can try."
"Don't give me that. He was serious."
"Yeah. He was."
Kroun shrugged. "I couldn't say."
"You could have asked. And gotten an answer. Why didn't you?"
"Because I learned more by letting him run off at the lip. If Michael makes a real nuisance of himself, I'll deal with him. You stay out of it."
What constituted being a real nuisance? Apparently the threat of getting killed wasn't enough for Kroun. Of course, he was already dead-Undead-and it might have changed his perspective on that point. Mine had certainly shifted considerably since my demise.
I tried another angle. "Who's this guy you want to see?"
"The old bastard," he said, with a finality that meant there would be no further elaboration.
"Where is he?"
"Not far away. It's my private business. I don't want you along."
"My hands are tied. I keep tabs on you or get in a bad spot."
Kroun could give me the slip easy enough, which we both knew. He seemed disinclined to run off just yet, though.
There was a drugstore open near the el platform. He turned into it. I followed to get out of the wind. We must have looked like suspicious characters, what with Kroun being dressed so sharp and me so ratty. The clerk behind the cash register straightened, his hand going out of sight under the counter.
Kroun ignored his apprehension and pointed to the goods behind the glass. "Cigars, please," he said. He pulled a ten from one of the money clips. "The del Mundos will do. The whole box. Thanks. Keep the change."
He put the box under one arm, leaving the guy to gape after him.
"A seven-dollar tip?" I asked as we took the stairs up to the platform.
"I can afford it."
"Thought you didn't smoke." The other night he'd expressed surprise that I indulged. My habit was infrequent and mostly for show; I could only puff, not inhale. Maybe I should try cigars.
"I don't. They're a gift. You'll find out soon enough. Now when's the next damn train due?"
The hospital was busier than the previous night, though things were slowing down. A different nurse was on duty at the front, and she gave me directions to Escott's room, along with that of Roland Lambert.
Her eyes sparkled at the mention of his name. "You're his friend?"
"One of them."
"Are you in the movies, too?"
Behind me Kroun stifled a snort, turning it into a throat-clearing noise.
"Only when I buy a ticket."
"I got his autograph," she said. "He was so nice about it."
"Yeah, he's a smooth one." In another day he'd be running the place. I led off down a hall, then toward an elevator. The lights were brighter here; I crushed my bundled clothes into a smaller wad.
"Laundry, huh?" said Kroun. "Like hell. I can smell the blood. Whose is it?"
"Hoyle's. I was standing too close when he bought it."
"Ain't life sweet? You're not sentimentally attached to that stuff, are you?"
The elevator doors parted, we got in, and I asked the operator where the hospital's incinerator might be. He didn't like my looks and wanted to know why.
"My cousin's got mumps, and I'm supposed to burn his clothes." I offered the bundle to him.
He dropped back against the wall and held his breath. No grown man wants to deal with mumps. He kept his distance and took us to the basement, no stops.
Kroun grunted amused approval when the doors slid shut behind us, then got distracted by our surroundings. He looked around the nondescript area as though we were in an art museum and not some man-made concrete cave. Further directions from a passing janitor got me to where I needed to be.
Hospital incinerators are pretty impressive in terms of size and noise, but the door was oddly small. I had to use a long steel poker to push my bundle through the little opening, shoving the clothes deep into the roaring fire. I watched, fixed in place as the blaze attacked and began to eat the fragile fabric, then I slammed the door shut.
Until then I'd no idea just how heavy the bundle had been. I instantly felt better.
"You did more than just burn evidence," Kroun said when we were back up in the hospital's public area looking for the right corridor.
"Getting rid of a bad memory."
"That easy, huh? What do you do about keeping the good ones?"
I shrugged. "Pictures, I guess. Keep a diary."
"What about regaining good ones you've forgotten?"
This was a screwy subject, but I was getting used to his being screwy. His fussing with that handkerchief while important stuff was being discussed was a good dodge to gain thinking time. Only I had the suspicion his main concern had indeed been the handkerchief. "Talk over old times with family."
"Huh." He gave that one more consideration than it deserved, keeping quiet for the trip up to Escott's floor.
His room was at the opposite end of the hall from some kind of commotion. A lot of people were gathered around one of the doors: doctors, nurses, curious visitors carrying flowers and candy boxes. There was a party mood in the air, and I was sure it had to do with Roland. For a man who'd come close to bleeding to death, he knew how to land on his feet.
The atmosphere was considerably more subdued at the other end. The only activity was one old bushy-haired janitor arthritically pushing a mop around. He wore a hearing aid that must have been switched off and paid no mind as we approached Escott's door, but someone else was alert. Bobbi was just within the room, keeping an eye on the hall. She spotted me and came hurtling. I almost braced for a well-deserved smack from her purse, but instead she nearly knocked me over with a hug.
That was nice, really nice. Then she pulled abruptly away, her face like a thunderstorm. "You-you..."
I put my hands up, offering full and humble surrender.
Damn, she had a cute scowl. Even when really serious, she was stunning with her big hazel eyes, platinum blond hair, and a face that always made my stilled heart leap. By some strange miracle, she loved me. How had I forgotten that? My death would have ripped her apart. Escott had called me a selfish, unthinking bastard. Guilty as charged. Again.
I still couldn't tell her what had been behind the fight.
"Jack?" Her storm clouds wavered. Maybe she'd expected more from me than hangdog silence.
"I'm sorry, baby. I mean that. It's my fault he's here, and I'm sorry as hell. Won't happen again." I meant it. She had my number and could always see right through me. Anything less than total honesty she'd throw right back.
"I don't have to yell at you any more about this?" she asked.
"Not about this. Anything else, I'll take my licks."
She nodded, still looking at me with wary deliberation, hopefully getting over being mad.
Without thinking, I raised one hand and gently brushed the side of her face, half caress, half reassurance. Suddenly I wanted to tell her I loved her, but you don't say such things in public. Touching her like this was the closest I could come.
Damned if she didn't get it. Her eyes blazed up, and I felt like she'd just kissed me.
My little corner of the world shifted an inch in a direction with no name, settled into place, and suddenly felt right again. How long that would last I didn't know, but I'd try to keep it that way come hell or high water.
"How are you?" she asked. There was a lot more to the words than their surface meaning.
"I'm fine, sweetheart. Believe it."
She got that as well.
"And I'm fine, too," put in Kroun, who had a ringside to our interplay.
Bobbi turned and smiled, which was usually enough to knock most men off their feet. "Aren't you trying to be dead?"
His expression warmed as he flipped his charm switch on. "It turned out to be impractical."
"Why are you here, Mr. Kroun?"
"Call me Gabe. Please."
"I thought it was Whitey."
"Not for ladies who try to stop my bleeding all over their floor. I'm just along for the ride. Your boyfriend needs a keeper."
He should talk.
"Keeper?" she asked me.
That was the wrong thing to say, and I'd said it one time too many. Her lips tightened; the storm gathered again, frighteningly fast. Her voice was low, but every word had the force of a thunderclap. "I've had enough, Jack."
I couldn't pretend not to know what she was talking about. No placation I could think of would make things better. Not after the horrors of last night. She was the toughest woman I'd ever met, but had limits. "I know. And it's over. I'm winding this circus up."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm turning the show over to Derner until Gordy's on his feet. Tonight. After I leave here, we're going to the Nightcrawler to fix things. Gabe said he'd help." I shot him a look.
He kept his face on straight and shrugged agreement. "Figured I owed him."
"No more 'business'?" she asked.
"Just Lady Crymsyn, nothing else," I said. "I'm a tavern keeper, not Al Capone." I meant that as well.
"And if trouble comes up again?"
That was the tricky part. "If it's to do with me and mine, I take care of it, but anything else can take a hike."
She knew how the world worked and that I might not be able to prevent mob business from horning in on my life. But she also knew I'd give it my best to steer clear. To my vast relief, that turned out to be sufficient. She smiled. Not a big one, not the kind that was like a sunrise in my heart, but it did the job.
"You're really okay?" she asked, one hand brushing my coat lapels and thus my scarred chest.
I had her meaning. After Bristow's handiwork, I'd not gone near her out of fear of losing control and hurting, even killing her. He'd given me something far worse than a few surface scars. The damage inside my head, my soul...
In reply, I pulled her close and held her tight. She didn't need to know why I'd been distant, only that it was past. "Yeah, baby," I whispered. "I'm really okay."
She abruptly relaxed and melted against me. It was a perfect moment, and those never last long enough. Had we been alone, it might have progressed to something even more perfect, but we were limited to a long hug in a hallway.
With people watching. I became aware of Kroun and the old janitor looking on. The latter sociably blew his nose, wiped his house-sized mustache, and adjusted thick glasses. Kroun wore an "ain't that cute" smirk on his lean face.
Just inside Escott's room stood Shoe Coldfield. He was scowling and stepped forward. The janitor quickly went back to his mop work.
Bobbi picked up on my shift of attention and self-consciously pulled away, patting her hair and smiling.
"Visiting hour's about over," growled Coldfield. He filled most of the doorway. I wouldn't be getting through unless he allowed it. Then he noticed Kroun. "What the..."
"Shoe Coldfield, meet Gabriel Kroun," I said.
Coldfield didn't move. "The guy in Gordy's car. The car that blew to hell and gone."
Kroun shrugged. "Hell doesn't want me yet."
They cautiously shook hands. I was glad for the distraction, not putting it past Coldfield to bust me one again just to make sure I knew my place. He stood aside to allow me in, then fixed his attention back on Kroun. Clearly he wanted more details, and Kroun would give him the same eyewash he spilled earlier. I passed up a second helping and went into Escott's room, halting short just inside.
Damnation, he looked worse. He'd been bad last night, but this...
His bruises had had all day to mature. The idea of beating someone black-and-blue was no abstract concept on him. Much of his face was nearly as dark as Coldfield's and the rest was a gray tone that put my hackles up. His eye was still sealed shut, but the open one blinked sluggishly at me.
"How are you?" he asked, barely above a whisper.
What the hell? "Charles, I-"
"No more bloody apologies."
"What?" Was he drugged? Feverish?
"You've done that already. Accepted. Now-how are you?"
"You remembered last night?"
"This morning. You were inconsiderately early. How are-"
"I'm fine, just fine."
"No more thoughts about pistols at dawn?"
I got his meaning. He was still worried that I'd try shooting myself again. I checked behind to make sure no one was hearing this and stepped closer. "No, Charles. No more. Word of honor, hand on my heart, I promise. On Bobbi's life, I promise."
He made no reply, and with his face so banged up I couldn't tell what he was thinking. He grunted. "Some water, please?"
A tumbler with a glass straw was on the bedside table. His private accommodation came with a tiny washroom with a shower. I made use of its sink for fresh water, then held the tumbler for him until he drained most of it. This close it was too easy to pick up the sickroom smell. He wouldn't be coming home anytime soon. "How are you?"
"Bloody awful. Can't sleep in this place. I want my own bed. And a beer. Something dark and a little sweet. Cool, not cold."
"Maybe Shoe can smuggle in a bucket for you."
"He won't. Stickler for hospital rules. I may have talked him into rye bread, though."
"I don't understand why, but I've developed a craving for some. Fresh. A very thick slice. With lots of salted butter. But it's no good without the beer."
Okay, that was odd, but a hospital stay can make you crazy for the damnedest things.
"Jack... about Shoe..."
"We're okay," I said quickly, not wanting to talk about it.
"I don't believe that."
You couldn't get anything by Escott, even when he was doped and wrapped like a mummy. "He's a little sore at me. He wants to know why this happened. I can't... I just can't tell him."
"Yes. It's private. I've said it's been resolved. He's not one to back down."
"I'll stay out of his way."
"Has Vivian been in?" I'd expected to see Escott's girlfriend here. After we'd saved her daughter from some brutal kidnappers, he'd gotten very close with the widowed Vivian Gladwell. Because of her, he'd lately drifted into the state of wearing a sappy smile for no good reason.
"I've not told her."
I was surprised at that. "You should."
He had me there. "Don't want to worry her, huh?"
"Precisely. And it would upset young Sarah to see me like this."
Sarah was in her teens, but mentally would always be a child. Escott had come to dote on her as had most of the people who'd met her, me included. She was a sweet thing, forever unspoiled by the adversities of growing up.
"Did you at least phone them?"
"Yes. Said I'd be out of town for a few days on a case."
It would take longer than that for his bruises to fade. I hoped there'd be no scarring under his bandages. My face went red again, and I had to work to keep from bumbling out with another inadequate apology.
He spared us both with a question. "Who's that with you? I heard another voice."
Escott gave me a good long stare with his working eye.
"He survived that bomb."
"Yeah. Surprised the hell out of me, too."
"Would you mind very much catching me up on events?" He still whispered, yet managed to pack in an acerbic tone.
"Didn't Bobbi say anything?"
To be fair, Kroun had asked her to keep shut about himself. "Well, it went like this..."
I was hampered, since Kroun didn't want others to know about the vampirism part. I had to respect that, even with Escott. In this case what he didn't know wouldn't hurt him. Leaving it out and keeping things simple, I told him what had happened to Mitchell, how Kroun had helped, and that a couple of his friends were champing to hustle him back to New York.
"Why does he not leave?" Escott asked.
"Says he's still got business here. I'm supposed to keep an eye on him till he's done."
"Then perhaps you should encourage him to waste no time concluding his errand. By all accounts, the man is dangerous."
"I'll do what I can. He's got his own mind." And more. I'd glimpsed Kroun's dark side and didn't like it. Other than that, he seemed friendly, but why take chances?
"A small favor?" said Escott.
"Please get everyone to go home. I think they may stay the whole hour, but this is as long as I can-"
"It's done. Go to sleep."
"Thank you." He relaxed into his pillows, looking completely exhausted and a lot older than his years. It struck me afresh just how awful he looked.
My fault. And he'd wanted to know how I had been.
I resisted the urge to ask if he needed anything. He'd have mentioned it already, like the beer and rye bread. I backed out, shutting the door.
"What's the matter?" Coldfield demanded. No doubt about it, I was on his shit list until further notice.
"He's tired. He asked for us to go home. He needs rest."
Bobbi touched Coldfield's arm before he could object. "Jack's right. Charles will be better tomorrow. You saw how he was fighting so hard to keep awake for us. We can come back in the morning."
Her magic worked. Coldfield unbent for her and agreed to leave, but muttered about returning later. If he wanted to keep an eye on Escott through the night, he'd damn well do it, everyone out of the way, especially me.
Saying good-bye to Bobbi provided an excellent reason to kiss her, and I made the most of it. My God, but it felt good.
More than good. It felt right again.
"Will you be by the hotel later?" she asked. She was staying at one of Coldfield's business investments while her flat was being scoured clean of violent death.
"Not tonight. I have to-"
"Tomorrow then." That was final.
"I'll have bells on."
She started to say something, then shook her head. Kroun was within earshot. She gave me a last peck on the cheek, squeezed my hand, then went off with Coldfield, who had driven her over.
Kroun and I still didn't have a car to get to the Nightcrawler. It seemed wise for the moment not to ask Coldfield for a lift. A cab then, unless...
The ongoing commotion outside Roland's room brought something to mind. I'd called in mob muscle to bodyguard him; chances were someone would still be on duty. I wanted to look in anyway.
"Gabe? One more stop."
"The movie star?"
"Five minutes. Gonna rustle us a car."
He liked that idea and found a wall to hold up. He still had the box of cigars tucked under one arm. Gift, huh? Not for Gordy; they weren't his brand.
Roland Lambert was a popular man tonight. I recognized newspapermen from their pencils and steno pads. Photographers also stood by, ready to record anything that a headline could make important. They glanced my way, took in my clothes and hobo beard, and dismissed me just that fast. Men who looked like me really were a dime a dozen in the street; I was just taller than most.
I'd spotted one of the bodyguards, didn't remember his name, but knew his face, and he knew mine. I waved him over. He pushed through with no real effort.
"I'm calling off the watch on the actor."
"You sure?" He looked troubled.
"Yeah, what's the problem?"
He shrugged. "It's just he's a regular guy, y'know? Treats me like I'm some kind of big shot. And that Russian doll, what a lady..."
If I left him here any longer, he'd be ironing their sheets. "You get his autograph?"
"First thing. He was great about it, even thanked me for askin'. What a guy."
"He's a sweetheart, but I need you to-"
"Jek Flem-ink! My heeeeeerrrrrrrro!"
No mistaking that accent. The crowd parted, and Faustine Petrova enthusiastically flung herself at me.
I love Bobbi, but there's much to enjoy about a jubilant Russian ballerina jumping on you and using her lips all over your face like a machine gun.