TO keep from toppling, I had to grab Faustine bodily. Staggering back, I hit a wall, but she didn't seem to notice, rattling on in Russian between the loud wet smooches she planted all over. I found out firsthand why the front of one's head is called a kisser.
Wow. Something began coming loose inside. I had no need to breathe, yet desperately sucked air, but it wouldn't stay in. For a second I didn't understand what was going on. I thought it was a bad cough or some strange hiccups, then it was both at once. The strangest damned choking noise clawed its way out of my throat.
Laughter. I was laughing.
Hadn't done that in a while.
Faustine laughed as well, a very full one, happy.
I couldn't stop. It felt good.
We were lunatics, much too loud for a hospital, but for a few moments we just had to cut loose. I hugged her, and I laughed.
Making a mwah-mwah noise she kissed each of my stub-bled cheeks in turn then yelled, "Godt blezz Am-er-i-ka!"
Flashbulbs exploded, blinding, disorienting. Faustine posed with both arms around me, a big smile showing all her white teeth, except when she planted another kiss. Right on my mouth. My lucky night. This inspired hoots of encouragement from the audience and some applause.
In the back of my mind, I knew the cameras could have mirrors in their works, which meant no catching of my image on film. That could be trouble somewhere down the line, but I couldn't bring myself to worry about it. It just wasn't important right now.
She pressed me forward into the crowd. It was easier not to resist. A few strangers thumped me on the back, others shook my hand, an eager young nurse tried kissing me, too, and managed to bruise my ear in passing. Apparently they were willing to ignore my scruffy exterior so long as Faustine liked me.
What the hell had they been told?
Just inside the room stood a tall, round-bodied guy in a pale blue tropical suit and a melon orange shirt that had to have been custom-made because I'd never seen anything like it before. He grinned and grabbed my hand, pumping away as though I'd just flown over the South Pole.
"Hiya, hiya, name's Lenny Larsen! I wanna talk with you about a movie script!"
"Sure, first thing tomorrow!" I said, matching his hearty good cheer. It worked, and I got my hand back, albeit with his business card pressed to my palm. Faustine pushed us farther into the so-called sick room.
Roland looked just like his pictures in the paper, but more so. Cameras loved his handsome face, and he was sharply turned out despite the pajamas and hospital trappings. His thickly bandaged leg was elevated by a sling, wires, and a pulley device, the rest of him lounged comfortably against half a dozen pillows. Along with more well-wishers he was surrounded by a greenhouse of flowers and a shop's worth of fancy chocolates in ribboned boxes. Except for the pale cast to his skin, he seemed to be having a great time and smiled broadly.
"Jack! Welcome to the party. Toss me my wife back, would you?"
At no urging from me, Faustine flew to his side, managing to make it look effortless despite the people in the way. The Lamberts had already suffered some rough patches in their new marriage, but all seemed forgotten. She leaned in and kissed his forehead, then thoughtfully brushed at the red lip color she'd left behind. "My poor da'link," she murmured. "Doz et hurt steel?"
"Just a twinge when I laugh, m'dear."
The members of the press made notes.
I knew what was coming; there was no stopping it. Better to play along, then get out.
Roland introduced me as the man who'd saved his life.
More pictures. I wished them luck in the darkroom.
Floods of questions. They wanted to know who was gunning for Roland Lambert, did I have any leads, had the cops caught the shooters, was I in the mob... that one made me twitch.
I held my hand up, mouth open to make a statement, which brought a temporary hush. "Sorry, folks, I am just as puzzled as you, but I know that Chicago's finest-" Some goof in the back, who probably covered local crime, snorted loudly. "That Chicago's finest are on the job and will no doubt make an arrest."
That was the kind of statement I'd heard often enough while on their side of the fence. We all knew what it meant. I got hit with more questions but shook my head and waved them off. "I'm just glad Roland's going to be fine." So I assumed from the circus; I'd had no chance to ask.
"Is it true you've sold your nightclub to the mob?"
That was a new one. "No. It's just closed until my star act is back."
Taking the cue, the Lamberts beamed. More flashbulbs died.
"What about your gangster friends?" asked another wiseacre.
"Don't have any, sorry to disappoint you. Why don't you come by the club when it's open and see for yourself-first round's on the house!"
That turned the tide. There's nothing like an offer of free booze for distracting the Fourth Estate from the scent of a story. Faustine, a most canny woman, passed a big box of chocolates around the room, further distracting them and at the same time drawing attention back to herself.
"Jek iz Am-er-i-kan he-rrro, joost like my da'link huz bendt. Jek doez not like the geng-sterz, they do not like heem. When they shoot, my brafe Rrrolandt throwz heem self een way! He savez Jek's life, Jek rrrushes heem to hoz-peetle."
Pencils scribbled more slowly than usual as their owners dug their way past Faustine's accent. It seemed heavier tonight, whether from the excitement or by design. Faustine glowed as they peppered her with more questions.
"Yez, I am Amer-i-kan by the marry-ink of Rrrolandt, but I vish to be more Amer-i-kan and take tezt for eet. I loff thees con-drrry!"
That went over well.
The guy in the orange shirt loomed next to me, big teeth in a tanned face. "That's right folks, you can call Faustine Petrova our own little Miss Russian America! You never saw a more patriotic dancer, and you'll see more of them both when we make the movie! The name's L-A-R-S-E-N, Lenny Larsen!" He passed out more cards. I pocketed mine and hoped never to see him again.
Faustine and Roland were clearly in on the details. I went along with them, figuring it had to do with Roland's Hollywood comeback. He'd left some years ago-too much drinking got in the way of his career-but he was on the wagon and might be worth something at the box office again after this debacle.
I waved to let him know I was leaving, eased into the hall, and found myself next to a doctor. I asked him about Roland's health.
"He'll be able to go home in a few days," he said. "We took out the slug. It's just a question of watching for infection. So far, he's clean."
That was good. When I'd been in the army, more often than not it was the blood poisoning that took a man, not the bullet.
The bodyguard didn't want to meet my eye. He looked forlorn. "You sure they're safe, Boss? I mean, ya never know."
"You're right. Stick around, then. I want you to keep an eye on Charles Escott, too."
"The guy in 305. He's with Gordy's outfit." Damn, but I really was getting better at lying, and the name-dropping tipped things. "Look in on him, make sure things are copacetic, send up a flag if they ain't. But I need your car."
"Sure! No problem!" Happy as a puppy with a new bone, he dug out a key, told me what kind of car and where he was parked. I said I'd be at the Nightcrawler Club, then got clear.
Kroun was still holding up the wall and shook his head. "That's quite a rash you got there."
"The crazy dame who jumped on you. You're smeared with more war paint than she is."
I got my handkerchief and rubbed my face. It came away covered with Faustine's deep red lip color. "Jeez."
"You said it. So... how do I get your job?"
The only parking at the Nightcrawler was in the alley behind the club. There was a guy hanging around to shoo away anyone who didn't belong. I eased into a spot. There wasn't a lot of space; Kroun had to slide across to the driver's side to get out, grimacing more than the effort required. After what he'd been through, I gave him credit for just being able to get into a car, period.
The man on watch at the back door nearly swallowed his cigarette when we climbed the steps. He'd apparently heard the news about Kroun's demise. I asked if Derner was in, knowing he would be; he was always in. This was my way of letting the guard know it was business as usual.
Don't think he bought it.
The kitchen staff was too busy to pay notice, but a couple of mugs in the rear hall exchanged looks and quickly got out of the way.
Kroun grunted, putting in a note of disgust. Coming back from the dead clearly annoyed him.
We got a similar reception walking into Gordy's office upstairs, but more of it. Derner was on one of three phones now on the big desk. He glanced over, then did one hell of a double take.
"I'll call you back," he said into the blower then hung up, missing the first attempt, knocking the phone over on the second. He stood up, eyes big as he threw me a what the hell? look. "Boss...?"
"Good news. Mr. Kroun's back," I announced cheerfully.
Kroun snorted and went past to drop himself into a deep, overstuffed leather couch. He kept his coat and hat on, cigar box balanced on one knee, telegraphing that this better not take long.
"Gee, that's great," said Derner, his voice faint. "What's goin' on?"
I gave him as much explanation as he needed to pull himself together, then tossed the ball to Kroun. Leaning back, ankles crossed and feet on a table, he issued a number of succinct orders, most of them to do with taking me off everyone's execution list and putting forward Mitchell as the ringleader of all the trouble. Derner had gotten that from me the night before, so it was no surprise, but he wanted to know why.
"Tried to give himself a raise the hard way," said Kroun. "He's in the lake, right?"
"Yeah, sir. Couple of the boys took him over to the meat packers and-"
Kroun raised a hand. "No details."
Couldn't blame him for that. I didn't like thinking what the cleaning crew had to do to distribute a man's body into several fifty-gallon drums along with enough cement to keep it all on the lake bed.
"Get New York on the phone, and I'll put the fix in," he said. "This should be Mike's job," he added, aiming that at me.
"I think people are more scared of you," I said.
He gave a grunt. "Good point."
In ten minutes, regardless of whether the lines might be tapped, Kroun got me cleared of trouble with everyone else who mattered. He shot me a look as though to say, Happy now?
Relieved was the word.
Kroun got up, went to the desk, and just stood, looking down. Derner quickly relinquished the chair to him. Kroun switched on the desk radio, searched the phone book, and made a call. He kept his voice lower than the music and scribbled something on the inside of a matchbook. Derner and I exchanged looks; neither of us knew what was going on. I could figure it had to do with the kind of stuff Michael wanted to know about.
Hanging up, Kroun arranged to have someone pick up his carload of new clothes. He informed Derner that Broder and Michael would be staying on for a few more days and might be dropping in. Derner took it in stride. Entertaining the big bosses was easy enough. Booze, girls, gambling, and more booze usually did the job.
"We still got a problem about Alan Caine," he said. "Should they know about it?"
"No," said Kroun, moving back to the couch. "I'll handle them."
Caine's murder had had the cops sniffing around the club. The latest news reported that Jewel Caine's death had not been suicide after all. Small comfort to her family, if she'd had any. Derner had found out she didn't.
"Okay," I said. "Get something organized on services for her. She was friends with the girls here, make sure they show up and give her a good send-off. Tip the papers. Find people to say nice things about her."
"The cops will want to know why we're paying."
"An anonymous cash donation to the funeral home. I'm sure you can find one that understands what's expected."
He started with another objection. Kroun cleared his throat. Loudly. Derner nodded and went back to the desk to make phone calls.
"That's the only good part of this job," Kroun muttered. "I say frog, and they have to jump."
"Thanks," I said.
"Why do you let him argue like that?"
"He brings up things I need to remember." I had more to do before calling it quits for the night and told him as much.
"What else is there?"
I showed the leather address book, not quite taking it from my pocket. "This belonged to Alan Caine, I have to leave it in a spot where the cops can find it and solidly link Hoyle and Mitchell to the murders. Should take the heat off the club and send it Mitchell's way. We can put a rumor out that he ran off to Havana after killing Hoyle-"
"The guy who rigged the bomb. The clothes I burned... that was his blood... remember?"
"Who killed him?" he asked.
"Doesn't matter, I just make sure the cops blame Mitchell. He'd have bumped Hoyle anyway to cut a loose end about the car bombing. No one's found the body yet, but it's only a matter of time. This book on him might suggest to the cops that Hoyle killed Caine for gambling debts." It was thin at best, but better than nothing.
"Did you kill Hoyle?" Kroun's voice was conversational.
"No." I had the impression he wouldn't care if I had, he just wanted the facts straight.
"And this Hoyle is dead?"
"Yeah." Thoroughly. What was bothering Kroun? Did he have any reason to doubt my word on it?
"He's not going to surprise you the way I did?"
That was straight out of left field and right between the eyes. "Uh."
"You never know," he said, matter-of-factly.
Damn. The possibility never occurred to me. There had been no blood exchange, no chance that he'd rise again. I'd drunk from Hoyle only after he was dead. There was also no way that Kroun could know what I had done. Even Escott didn't know, no one ever would.
For a bare instant I'd been thrown off-balance, but decided Kroun was just stirring things up for the hell of it. He was damned good at that. He had a point, though.
"What do you know?" I asked.
"Enough to not take anything for granted."
"But what do you know?"
"I'm only trying to get you to think, kid. You've been lucky and done okay for yourself, but one of these nights it'll catch up to you."
I thought of Bristow. "It already has."
"If we're here, there can be others." He cast a glance at Derner. The radio was still on, masking our low voices. "You think you'd have run into more like us by now? Not if they're more careful than you. You didn't get my score because you weren't even looking."
Another good point, but I couldn't agree with him on the rest. I'd always kept my eyes open at the Stockyards on the chance of spotting another member of the club. Nothing had come of it yet. "Why think that about Hoyle?"
No arguing with that. "Okay, I'll be more paranoid."
"The only way to live," he said. He went on. "So how does that book connect Hoyle to Mitchell?"
"Mostly it connects Hoyle to Alan Caine, who owed money to Mitchell. The cops can ask stoolies all over town and get the same story of Hoyle and Mitchell having a falling-out over who knows what. Derner will see to it."
He shook his head. "Needs more. Gotta cover the 'who knows what' part."
"Caine gambled. You need markers. With the right dates. Mitchell's name on some, Hoyle's name on others, and Caine's signature on them all to clinch it."
I got him. "Plant 'em where they'll be found."
"So the cops figure Hoyle killed the Caines, one for not paying his debts, the other to shut up a witness. This shorts Mitchell out of his marker money. Mitchell kills Hoyle for shorting him. It's not what happened, but it's reasonable. Cops like reasonable, don't they?"
"Son of a bitch."
"Glad you agree."
Derner earned his keep that night. He contacted a specialist and had the guy in the office thirty minutes later. Samples of Caine's writing came from the address book, and we kept it simple. On various types of plain paper and using different pens the forger wrote several IOUs, signed Caine's name, collected a fee, and left. I don't think he said ten words and never once asked a question, the perfect mob employee.
Hat over his face, Kroun stretched on the couch and pretended to nap until it was done. "Ready to go?" he asked, standing.
I'd hoped he would stay at the club waiting for his clothes to arrive while I finished things. Despite orders to babysit him, I didn't want company. "This won't take long," I said.
He left the cigars on the table and strode out. I had to follow.
Derner had called in additional help for this last errand. As I rolled to a slow stop up the street from a battered parking garage, another car turned the corner and pulled in behind me. Kroun went alert, maybe thinking it was cops again, but I told him it was okay, and we got out into the icy air.
Strome, the stone-faced guy who'd been my lieutenant since I'd taken over for Gordy, got out and stood ghost-quiet. He had shot Hoyle the night before, thinking to save my life, and I couldn't fault him for that. Of course, given the right circumstances, he'd shoot me without a second thought; it was just another job to him.
He glanced once at Kroun and left it at that; apparently Derner had filled him in. Strome gave me a hard look, though. "You okay, Boss?"
That surprised me. "Yeah."
He nodded, just the once. Granted, the last time he'd seen me-sprayed with Hoyle's blood and brains-I'd fallen into a seizure, and it had left one hell of an impression.
Best to change the subject. "That girl who was down there..." Hoyle had kidnapped a little cutie who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time during a murder. She'd been in need of a rescue. It was just her hard luck Strome and I were the ones to do it. "Did he hurt her?"
Strome understood what I meant. "She didn't say, but I don't think so."
"How is she?"
He considered, then shrugged. "Blubbed a little, then made me buy her supper and take her home. Guess she's okay. Dames." Clearly he found women to be a vast, if not-too-troubling, mystery.
"Let's wind this up," I said, taking the lead.
The garage had a tin roof that bucked and banged in the wind. The place was mob-owned; chances favored the vehicles inside were, too. Hoyle had chosen it as an emergency bolt-hole to hide from the world, and it had almost worked. The whole area was empty of foot traffic, and cars passed it by. The surrounding small factories and shops were closed tight. Every city had deserted pockets like this. They look dangerous and lonely after dark, but are often safer than a bank vault simply because no one's around to make trouble.
We crowded down a short flight of concrete steps to the basement entry, and Strome handed me a set of keys. On our last visit he'd picked the lock to get in.
From the doorway you could see a light on at the far end of an otherwise black basement. I'd not expected that. It was as though Hoyle were waiting for me to return.
Strome hung back to watch the street. I was highly aware of the bloodsmell tainting the freezing air and tried not to take any in as I entered. There was decay in it and the strong odor of something else unpleasant. Kroun followed, looking around and frowning. He'd caught the scent, too.
Ducking to avoid the low ceiling, I trudged the length of the basement to the curtained-off room at the end. Harsh illumination came from a mechanic's light hung on a nail. The too-bright bulb hurt my eyes and made the shadows just that much blacker. I cast around, trying not to be nervous about it, but no one was hiding anywhere. It felt like we had company, Hoyle's ghost perhaps. If that was the case, he wouldn't be a nice one like Myrna.
I told myself to shut the hell up.
One of the mystery smells was from an electric heater I'd left running. It had burned itself out. The rest was from Hoyle when his bowels and bladder had given way in death. He wouldn't be coming back. The smell of his advancing decay confirmed it. He lay facedown, a hole in the back of his skull. There should have been more blood, but I'd-
"You waiting to sell tickets?" Kroun asked. The top of his hat brushed the low ceiling. He hunched to avoid problems.
There was an old cot against one wall. I shoved the book under the thin pillow.
"Fingerprints," said Kroun.
Damn. He was right. I'd been careful about wearing gloves so only Alan Caine's prints were on the brown leather, but it wouldn't sit right if Hoyle's were absent.
Hoyle's left arm was flung wide. It'd have to do.
Even with gloves on I didn't want to touch him, but it was unavoidable. His arm was heavy and stiff as I lifted it. Rigor would have worn off by now; this was a result of the cold seeping down from outside. If he stayed here, he could freeze right through.
I pressed his fingers to the book and the IOUs, hoping something would stick. He'd not washed since going on the run. I got a few greasy smears no one could miss. Good enough. I left the book on the floor, dropping it so the papers would spill out, sufficiently obvious to catch attention.
Then I backed away, grateful Hoyle's face had been hidden. Dying was bad enough, but to peg out in a dank, deserted basement where only your killer knew where to find you...
"C'mon, Jack." Kroun's voice jarred the silence. His tone was different. Was this his version of concern?
"Yeah, okay." I followed him out, leaving the light on. No need to look back; that tableau would be in my head for a long, long time.
Strome would make a phone call to the cops sometime in the morning. He'd ask if they wanted to know where Mitchell stashed Hoyle's body. The question would make sense to Merrifield and Garza.
Soon after, the cops would give the place a good going-over, find what I wanted them to find and more that I didn't. Along with the bullet entry and exit holes, the coroner would certainly note the ripped flesh on Hoyle's throat and wonder at the lack of blood in the corpse. I'd been clumsy and crazy with hunger, but if the guy was good at his job, he might determine the damage had been caused by something akin to human teeth. There was nothing I could do about it. Hoyle's body was needed to set up a false trail to Mitchell, and that was more important. The authorities would be more inclined to think "mad-dog cannibal killer" than "vampire." When working as a reporter, I'd seen stranger things while covering the crime beat.
I emerged into the fresh air, thankful to be clear of that claustrophobic tomb. What I'd done there was shameful and would always be with me, but I had gotten good at distracting myself from the darker memories swarming in my skull. In time, the worst of them would fade.
That was what I told myself.
Kroun and I headed back to the Nightcrawler. Strome went off to God knows where to do God knows what. I did not care to inquire.
I drove slowly, certain that Derner would have more minutiae requiring a decision from me. When I'd taken over this branch of the mob, the arrangement was for me to be just a figurehead until Gordy got better, but somehow it had turned into real work. I figured I should get paid for services rendered, and the sum should be offensively high. Derner would squawk, but that was chump change compared to what the Nightcrawler raked in from the gambling in the private club. Gordy would shrug it off and call it a bargain.
Once I had the cash in hand I'd turn the reins over to Derner. Bobbi would be happy. That was all I wanted.
Derner, again on a phone, hung up when we came in. His hands weren't shaking this time so his aim was better.
"Your car's back from the shop," he told me. "It's parked out front."
That was good news. I'd had it towed to get new tires and some eager beaver decided it needed to be fancied up. I tossed the keys to my borrowed ride on the desk. "Have someone get these back to the guy on watch at the hospital. I got another car to fix." I told him about the bloodstains on the upholstery in Escott's Nash that needed to be cleaned off. No need to explain to him how they got there; this was a messy trade.
"They'll just replace everything, it'll be easier," Derner said. "Like another color?"
"Just match what's there and have them put on a new steering wheel. The old one's bent."
He did not ask how it had come to be damaged either, only made a note. "Your girl's hotel flat is clean. She can go back tonight."
Somehow I didn't think Bobbi would want to do that just yet. "Thanks. I'll let her know." I'd tackle the details about my getting paid when Kroun wasn't around. He might not care, but then again, he might. "Anything else?"
"Everything's copacetic." That meant all other business was under control, no immediate problems, but Derner glanced at Kroun as though expecting a cue, mindful there could be more. Kroun just stood in place and looked back steadily, which was confusing until I caught on. He was doing the same thing that the cops had done to us earlier. Stare long enough, and you'll get the other guy feeling guilty about something.
"My new clothes?" Kroun prompted.
Derner looked relieved. "Yes, sir, got 'em downstairs in a dressing room. The costume lady's in tonight, I told her to get the stuff packed for you-if that's okay?"
"Sure, fine. Which dressing room?"
"Uh, not that one." He meant where Caine had been strangled.
"Good. When she's done, have a guy put them in Mr. Fleming's car."
My, weren't we formal? On the other hand, he'd just let Derner know I was back up on my rung of the ladder. However temporary, I was to get respect, same as Gordy.
Remembering something I should have asked Bobbi hours ago, I gave an internal wince. "How's Gordy doing? Any news?"
Derner's usually gloomy face brightened a little. "I talked with him on the phone for a minute today. He sounded good."
"You sure?" I knew Gordy could put up a front. There wasn't a poker player born who could beat him at a bald-faced bluff.
"Yeah, Boss. His girlfriend said he'd be resting for another couple weeks, maybe more, but he was feeling a lot better."
Okay, Gordy could lie, but Adelle would not. "That's great." I'd risked myself, pushing right to the edge to impart one last hypnotic suggestion to Gordy so he'd stay in bed until fully recovered. I'd come that close to blowing up my brain from the inside out, but it was worth it if it kept him alive.
"We're done, let's go," Kroun announced. He'd reclaimed the box of cigars-no one had dared touch them-and resettled his hat.
Fine with me.
Outwardly, my Buick looked exactly the same, just cleaner. The paint and chrome gleamed as though fresh from the factory. There wasn't a scratch or dent to be found, and I knew there'd been more than a few scars in place the last time I'd seen her. The windows were different, the glass thicker, but that was the only other sign of the special tinkering.
Kroun's suitcases were on the backseat, and the keys were in the ignition. Just like the cigars, no one had dared touch the car, not while it was under the eye of the club bouncers.
We got in, I tried the starter, and damned if the motor wasn't running more smoothly than before, and the gas tank was full. I could get used to being the boss with stuff like this as part of the job.
Shifting gears, it took a firmer foot on the accelerator to get her to move the extra weight. Just how much armor plating had they put in? She rode heavy; I had to haul the wheel to make the corners and put the brakes on sooner with more force. The solid-rubber tires gave off a different sound against the pavement, and despite the special shocks, I could feel the change in how they handled the bumps. No improvement there.
I'd just have to get used to things unless I wanted to buy a new ride. That Studebaker came to mind, but there were still plenty of miles left in the Buick. It didn't make sense to spend the money.
"Wanna stop at the Stockyards?" I asked. If Kroun had further business tonight, he'd made no mention of it.
"Why? You hungry?"
"I could be. You have to be."
He appeared to think about it. "Guess so. But find a butcher shop instead."
"There's only so many times you can tell the counter guy your wife's making blood pudding."
"Huh." That amused him. "I'll take the chance."
"It won't be fresh."
"I just got these clothes, and I'll be damned if I'm going to slog through a stinking stock pen just to get a meal. I'll make the counter guy forget."
All right, put it that way.
Only I wasn't sure where to find a shop. I knew every angle about getting in and out of the Stockyards, but not much about where to buy their end products. "There's a place near the house. Charles goes there when he wants to cook something." Which was almost never. The butcher's was next door to a Chinese restaurant, and Escott was their chief source of income. He loved his chow mein.
Behind us, a car horn blared. I checked the mirror. The vehicle's headlights flicked on and off. The driver hammered the horn again, rapidly.
"What the...?" If it was a hit, they'd have pulled up even to us without warning. I slowed and stopped at the next corner.
Kroun shifted slightly. The cigar box was on the floor, and he had a gun in hand instead.
"I think I know 'em," I said.
If there was a problem, I did not want to be trapped behind the wheel. I put the car in neutral, pulled the brake, and got out.
The other driver did the same, trotting quick to meet me. He was one of the bouncers from the Nightcrawler. "Derner sent me," he called.
"What's wrong?" Something like this could only mean trouble.
The man's face screwed up with thought, apparently recalling specific instructions. "He said to say your girlfriend said to come to the hospital right away."
"What's wrong?" I repeated, my gut going hollow.
"She said to say your partner's gotten worse, and you're supposed to-"
I dove back into the Buick.
Kroun at my heels, I charged past the hospital's main reception. When the elevator didn't open fast enough, I tore up the stairs to the third landing, finding the right hallway in the maze.
Bobbi stood a few steps from Escott's door, her posture tense, arms tightly crossed as though to hold herself in one piece. Coldfield had his back to the wall opposite. There was no anger in him. Anger would have been normal, welcome. Instead, he seemed lost, punch-drunk. More than anything, that scared me.
Bobbi turned, tears brimming in her eyes. She didn't move, just waited for me to come up and took my hand in both of hers. I couldn't speak. The look on her face...
"What's happened?" Kroun asked.
"They won't say," she whispered. "Relatives only."
That said just how bad it was.
A nurse inside the room heard and came out. "Are you the family?"
I remembered putting myself down on paper as being Escott's cousin. "Me. It's me. Is he okay?" It was a damned stupid question, but the kind that pops out when you desperately want a positive answer. Of course he wasn't okay, not with so many people in white uniforms milling around in there. They were busy, which was hopeful. It was when they stopped work and didn't meet your eye that-"What's going on?"
"The doctor will tell you." She went back in.
I could feel it swelling, a mix of rage and terror growing too quick and too strong. I flinched when a hand dropped on my shoulder.
Kroun. He shook his head once. That was all. Then he took his hand away.
It was enough.
One instant I was ready to hit the roof, and the next a chill calm replaced the anger. I still wanted to punch through walls, but that wouldn't help. That was why Bobbi and Coldfield were so pulled in on themselves. They had to be, to keep control. Kroun, on the outside of things, took up a post next to Coldfield.
"Tell me?" he asked softly.
Coldfield blinked. "It... uh... it was Gordy's man, the one watching the actor. He checked on Charles, didn't like what he saw, got the nurse, started things moving. When they couldn't find Fleming, they knew to call my place. Bobbi called the Nightcrawler, and we drove..."
The guard himself came up. "Boss?"
"What'd you see?" He didn't hear me the first time; I had to say it again.
"I looked in like you asked. His color wasn't so good, and he was breathing funny, sweatin' bad."
But Escott was all right. Just hours ago he had been weak, bruised, and tired, but otherwise all right. A good night's sleep and he'd be better in the morning...
"I seen it before," the man went on, shaking his head, not meeting my eye.
"Mr. Fleming?" This from a doctor. He looked-I didn't want him to look like that.
"Yeah, what's going on?"
I didn't want him to say what he said: his words came out in a low sympathetic tone, words that said my friend was dying.
The words washed past. I just stood there. It was someone else doing the listening. Some other guy was going through this, not me.
"Can't you do anything?" Bobbi asked the doctor.
"We're doing what we can."
"But he was fine earlier."
"I'm afraid septicemia can work very fast. Once an infection's passed into the bloodstream..." He went on, not pulling punches. The odds were against Escott. Six out of ten people died from blood poisoning, died quick and ugly. I grabbed at the hope that he might get lucky and be among those who threw it off and recovered.
They finally allowed me in to see him.
I knew he wouldn't make it.
But I wasn't a doctor. I could be wrong, desperately wanted to be wrong. I found myself in a chair by the bedside, looking at Escott's face. His skin had a blue cast; he was sheeted with sweat yet shivering, jaw clenched, his breath coming fast and shallow, eyes sealed shut. He didn't react when I said his name. I got a whiff of his sweat when I spoke, and that took me back twenty years to some nameless hospital in France where young men who had survived gas and bullets and shelling and disease succumbed to infections just like this one.
The stink was the same, exactly the same. My friends had died then, and my friend was dying now.
I'd put him here. I'd killed him.
Bobbi slipped up next to me. "He's going to be all right, Jack."
"They're gonna do something?" Maybe they had better medicine now. Twenty years was a good long time. Someone must have figured out how to cure this.
She made no answer.
"We just need get his fever down," said Coldfield, who seemed to be talking to himself. He'd come in to stand on the other side of the bed. His sister was a nurse; he might know more. But all he did was put a damp cloth on Escott's forehead. "We need some ice in here, that's all. A little ice."
The doctor was out in the hall talking to Kroun. I didn't bother listening. Only one nurse remained; the others had vanished. The old janitor from earlier worked his way slowly past, pushing his mop around an already clean floor.
"Some ice, please?" Coldfield said, his voice mild. He used another cloth to dab at Escott's face and neck.
The nurse nodded and left, not hurrying, and she should have. If Escott had had any kind of chance, she'd have moved faster.
Eventually she returned with a bowl of ice and a full ice bag. Coldfield took them both and thanked her. She backed off to stand by the door.
It was my fault. I did this.
Coldfield shot me a murderous look, and that was when I realized I'd spoken out loud. "You're goddamn right on that," he whispered. "And you know what's going to happen next."
Coldfield would kill me.
I didn't care.
"Stop. Both of you," said Bobbi. Her fingers dug into my shoulder. She was trying to keep her balance. Tears spilled steadily from her eyes. She couldn't have been able to see through them.
I got up and made her sit. She gently took Escott's near hand and bowed over it, bowed until her cheek lay on it, her face turned away from me.
That smell again, the rapid rasp of his breath, his shivering-he wasn't going to wake up. They wouldn't even try to wake him. Better that he just slip away in his sleep, that was what they'd say.
The room went blurry.
My hands closed hard on the cold, white-painted iron of the bedstead, and I held tight to keep on my feet. Something was wrong with my knees; I couldn't feel them or anything else except the nausea slithering in my gut. A knot of it clogged my throat, high enough to choke on, but too low to swallow.
I couldn't take this. I couldn't stay here and watch.
But I'd have to. Somehow.
He'd stay for me.