AS the night crept by, the nurse periodically checked Escott, making notes on a clipboard for whatever good that would do. Coldfield kept up with the compresses. The doctor came again, but didn't have anything new to say, just looked tired.
Escott got worse, sinking as we stood by. The sound of his fast, shallow breathing filled the little room. It was the only sound in the world. I hated it, and I didn't want it to stop.
I thought about calling Vivian Gladwell. Escott hadn't wanted her to know he was in the hospital. Would he want her here now? Would it help? I couldn't work it out, couldn't decide, couldn't do anything.
Faustine came in. Gordy's man had gone off, maybe to get her. She'd shed the reporters. I hardly noticed when she hugged me, then moved on to speak to Bobbi. Couldn't hear what she said, but after a minute the two of them left. Bobbi held herself together until they were in the hall. Soon as she was out of my sight, she broke down sobbing. I went to the door. Bobbi wept and clung hard to Faustine, who slowly took her toward Roland's room, speaking in Russian. The words didn't matter; the soft, caring tone in them did.
Kroun was still out there holding up the wall, hat in hand, overcoat draped over one arm. He watched Bobbi, frowning.
"Hitting her pretty hard," he observed. "Must really like him."
"They're close friends, yeah."
"Friends with a dame. How 'bout that?"
I'd heard him say it before. "It can happen. Like me and Adelle Taylor."
The mention of her name caused Kroun to crack a brief, pleased smile. When it came to Adelle, he was starstruck. "She's friends with your pal in there?"
"Yeah. She is. Listen, you don't have to stay."
He shrugged. "When you gonna do something?"
I shook my head. "They can't do anything."
"Yeah, I got that from the doc. What about you?"
"I can't-I... what?"
"Give him some blood."
Must have misheard him. "What?"
"You know what I mean."
I did. I'd thought of it. A lot. But I couldn't decide; I just didn't know what Escott would want. "It might not work. He might not change. It hardly ever-"
Kroun gave me an odd look, then went in the room. The nurse was writing a new entry on the clipboard. He walked around her to the bedside. Coldfield straightened to glare first at him then me.
"He looks like hell," said Kroun, his attention on Escott. "Why haven't you done anything yet?" This was directed my way. He dropped his coat and hat on the chair.
"Done what?" Coldfield rumbled.
"He wants me to do an exchange on Charles." There was only so much I could say with the nurse present. I closed the door to keep things private.
"The kind that made me... like I am."
"Like you?" That shook him. "He knows?" Coldfield straightened to face Kroun.
"Yeah. He's in the same club."
"Hey!" Kroun hadn't wanted that news spread.
"What's it matter?" I said.
Coldfield pointed at Kroun. "He's like you?"
"That a problem?" Kroun asked.
"I donno yet."
"An exchange," I said again with enough emphasis so the meaning was clear. "You know Charles best, what would he want?"
Coldfield visibly fought to focus. He must have gotten details from Escott at some time or other about how vampires are made. I take in blood, let it work through me, then give it back again. After death, Escott might return, but it rarely worked, or there'd be a lot more vampires in the world. He might not come back as I had done. "It would make him like you?"
"It probably won't work. Long odds, Shoe. Real long. Against."
It was a lot to take in, a lot to think about. He looked at Escott, then at me.
"What would Charles want?" I asked.
"To live, goddammit! What the hell you waiting for?"
"I can try, but you've got to understand that-"
"Cripes," said Kroun, disgusted. "Stop wasting time and just give him blood before it's too late."
The nurse had picked up that something out of the ordinary was afoot. "A transfusion?" she said.
"Yeah, sweetheart, one of those."
"Let me get the doctor." She sidled toward the door.
"Ahhh, cripes." Kroun slipped his suit coat off and unbuttoned one shirt cuff, rolling it up.
"Sir, you can't just-"
He ignored her. The tumbler with its glass straw was still on the bedside table. He took the straw and snapped it in half, then dumped the leftover water on the floor and put the tumbler back but nearer the edge.
"Sir? What are... stop!" Her voice shot up.
Kroun let out a few ripe words as he swiped the jagged end of the straw hard across his exposed wrist. Blood suddenly flooded out. He held his wrist over the glass to catch the flow.
We stood rooted-me, Coldfield, and the nurse-too shocked to move or speak while Kroun freely bled.
He grimaced and cursed some more and finally grabbed up a discarded compress. Shaking it open he wrapped it tight on the cut. The bloodsmell hit me hard.
"Not now." Kroun tapped Escott's face with the back of his hand. "Hey. Hey, pal. Wake up. Come on!" He hit harder, once, twice, and Escott's eyelids fluttered. He made a protesting moan. He wasn't awake, but could respond a little. Kroun held the glass to Escott's lips and tilted it.
The nurse screamed and surged forward. I caught her and kept her back. I didn't see what good this might do, but Kroun seemed to know his business.
"Come on... drink up, pal," he murmured. "That's it."
Some of the blood trickled down one side of Escott's mouth. The rest made it in past his clenched teeth.
Coldfield gaped at me, out of his depth. I shook my head.
The nurse got to be too much of a struggling handful, so I swung her toward the door. She pushed it violently open and kept going, shouting for help.
"He got most of it," said Kroun, putting the glass on the table. "Didn't choke." He went into the washroom. He twisted the sink spigot and carefully undid the cloth, holding his cut under the stream of water. "Damn, that stings."
He'd heal quick enough, but Escott...
Bobbi rushed in. "Jack?" She froze, seeing the blood that smeared Escott's face and pillow. "My God, what are you DOING?"
The doctor, arriving with what seemed like half the hospital, asked the same thing and almost as loudly. While he checked Escott, he also instructed several heavyweight orderlies to escort us from the building. Things might have devolved to a fight, but Kroun caught the doctor's eye for a moment. I was too busy to hear, but the eviction was abruptly canceled, and the orderlies and everyone else were kicked out of the room instead. Confused, they hung close, peering in with other bystanders attracted by the commotion.
I shut the door on them, leaving me, Bobbi, Coldfield, and Kroun inside with the oblivious, hypnotically wham mied doctor.
Kroun sat the man down and told him to take a catnap. Things fell quiet except for the fast, labored saw of Escott's breathing. He was fully out again.
Bobbi started up. "What did you do to Charles?" She'd aimed both barrels in my direction.
"It was me," Kroun muttered. "Just trying to help." His bleeding had stopped, leaving a hell of a red welt on his wrist. He frowned at it.
She put that together with the blood on Escott. "How? How does that help?"
He didn't answer, just shook his sleeve down, buttoning the cuff.
I stumbled out with a half-assed account of what he'd done.
Bobbi looked at Escott, then at us. "Will it help him?"
Kroun shrugged. "Maybe. Left it late. Have to wait and see."
"Jack, will this turn Charles into-"
"I don't know. Gabe?"
He shrugged again, pulled on his coat, buttoned it, checked his handkerchief. If he started fiddling with it again, I'd knock his block off.
"C'mon... talk to us. How did you know to do that? I never heard of it."
"Well, it's a big world, you learn something new every day."
"Not something like this!"
"Hey! Sickroom! Pipe down!" Hat on, he slung his overcoat over his good arm and started for the door.
"You gotta talk, dammit."
He paused, back to us, head half-turned, considering. Then, "No. I don't."
He went out.
"Son of a bitch," rumbled Coldfield. "The son of a bitch is crazy as a bedbug."
"You're all crazy," said Bobbi. She went to Escott, found a clean, damp cloth, and dabbed at the blood. It took her a while; her tears were back.
I went to her, but she didn't want to be held.
Someone ventured to open the door. It was Faustine.
"Things go-ink how?" she asked, gently easing inside. A damn good question. "Bob-beee, poor da'link. You let me help, yesss?"
"I'll be all right, I need to stay."
Faustine looked hard at the doctor, who was still out for the count. "Zen I find coffee. Yesss?"
No one turned her down. She swept out. I heard her dealing with the crowd in the hall, telling them to leave, all was well, all was fine. I recognized the nurse's voice raised in challenge, but Faustine wouldn't let her by and kept asking about coffee.
Hours of hell later I went looking for Kroun.
He was in a dark waiting room at the far end of the hall, feet up, nose in a magazine. The glowing spill from the corridor was more than enough for our kind to read by, but it looked odd. I turned the light on.
He squinted. "Ow. Too bright."
"How's your friend?"
It was hard to speak. Almost too hard. I had to swallow, and my mouth was cotton dry. "His... his fever's down. He's breathing better."
"Is he going to need a second dose?"
"Nope." Kroun turned a page.
"The doctor woke up."
"He remember much?"
"Not a lot."
"That's good, too."
"He checked Charles out, took a blood sample, did some other stuff. The infection's... Charles seems to be throwing it off. The doc said it's a goddamn miracle."
Kroun shrugged. "Maybe it is. Thanks for telling your big friend about me. Next time use a megaphone."
"He had to know."
"No, he didn't."
"Coldfield won't say anything. Who'd believe him?"
"That's not the point-"
"Where'd you learn that angle on the blood? Who told you?"
"Doesn't matter." He continued to read.
"The hell it does. The one who made me didn't know, and neither did the one who made her. Who did your initiation?"
"Drop it, kid."
Was he ashamed? Granted, such things could get embarrassing. "You don't have to go into detail."
"I'm not going into it at all."
"Where'd you meet her? When?"
"You deaf? I'm not-"
"Or was it a man?"
That netted me a beaut of a "what the hell did you just say?" expression.
It lasted about two seconds.
I blinked at dark green linoleum, disoriented. I was facedown on the floor with no understanding of how I'd gotten there. My jaw hurt and hurt bad. I tried moving it, and some dim insight-along with a sudden burst of agony and the taste of my own blood-told me it was broken. Shattered maybe. In several places. The rest of me wanted to vanish, and I didn't fight the urge.
When I resumed solidity, everything was in working order again, though I still drew a blank on what had happened. I found my feet, taking it slow.
Kroun sat in his chair as before, but leaning forward, rubbing the knuckles of his right hand. They were raw and red. His expression was calm. "Are you anywhere near the point of backing off, or do you want your face rearranged more permanently?"
I stared at him, wiping leftover blood from my mouth with the back of one hand.
He snorted and picked the magazine up from the floor. "And the man said I was crazy. I heard him." He flipped pages filled with pictures about hunting and fishing. "I need to get out of this town."
"Thought you still had business."
"I do. Tomorrow night. 'Till then, I got nothing else."
"No need to hang around here."
"Some babysitter you are. Forget about Michael and Broder already?"
"You could say."
"Word of warning: don't. Mike looks nice, but he isn't. Broder looks dangerous, and he is."
I'd figured that out already; Kroun just wanted a change of subject. "I'll keep that in mind."
"Smart boy. I'll need a ride tomorrow night."
"No problem." I could guess that it had to do with those cigars. It seemed a good idea to not try any more questions. I'd goaded him enough for one night. "Lemme tie things up here then we'll go. Thank you."
"Thanks for what you did for Charles. I owe you."
He grunted again and found a page to read.
Bobbi looked up when I came in. She smiled-a small, sleepy one-but my world tilted another notch back toward its proper place once more. I could deal with anything so long as she smiled like that.
"Faustine's left?" I asked.
"She's bunking in Roland's room," she said. "If there's more excitement she doesn't want to miss it. You got more waiting in the wings?"
"Not that I know of."
I checked Escott over again for the umpteenth time, looking for changes. His heartbeat was strong and steady, no longer racing fit to tear itself apart.
"It's getting late for you," she said.
"I'll be fine. Shoe and I are staying."
Coldfield didn't speak, but his expression was eloquent. Yes, Escott seemed to be safe now, but that did not mitigate the fact that I'd nearly killed him. If not for Gabriel Kroun and the devil's own luck, Escott would almost certainly be dead by now. However matters had turned out, I had been stupid, and Coldfield did not forgive stupidity.
We were very much alike on that point.
The blue tinge to Escott's skin had faded. His color was nearly normal except for the bruises, and he looked to be in a natural sleep instead of deeply unconscious. That death smell was still present, but it was old air not yet cleared by the ventilation. What I got from him now was ordinary sweat, and that more than anything reassured me that he was truly recovering.
It'd happened extremely fast. In a tiny span of hours he'd drifted back from the brink. I'd watched the process and hardly dared to hope. The doctor had muttered about a miracle and recorded it on the clipboard. The nurses would glance at me and whisper to others, and on down the ladder went the story. Even the deaf old janitor must have gotten word; he kept his back to the commotion, clearly not wanting any part of it.
What the consequences might be later for Escott I couldn't begin to guess. Bobbi-all of us-wanted to know if it would change him in some other way.
I only knew of one means to turn a person into a vampire and just how rarely it worked. A blood exchange takes place, but with a normal human donating first, then taking in the vampire's blood; that was how it was done.
Kroun's variation was new to me, only he wasn't talking, which was nuts. What harm was there in telling?
Would Escott recall anything about drinking Kroun's blood? Perhaps as a fever-induced dream?
Coldfield might tell him. I wouldn't know where to start.
Bobbi promised to phone me at sunset tomorrow. I kissed her good-bye, nodded at Coldfield, who did not react, and left.
I drove to the Stockyards.
Snow sifted down, cheerful as Christmas. It was pretty until the window wipers began to clog. The milk trucks were out, as were the newspaper trucks, not a lot of cars. We made good time.
Kroun was pale as paint, though he wouldn't admit to being hungry. I was, mildly. Before Hog Bristow put me through hell, I'd gotten into the habit of never letting my hunger go beyond the mild stage. I found a place to park under a broken streetlamp and we got out.
"Cripes, what a stink," he complained.
A high fence separated us from the source of the stink. Not a problem for me, but he'd have to climb get in. He studied the fence and shook his head, apparently mindful of his new clothes.
"It's not that bad," I said.
"Yes. It is. You have more of those bottles in your icebox?"
"I know. Not fresh. I'll get by. Hurry it up before we're under a drift. I'll be in the car."
He had a hell of a lot more self-control than I did. By now I'd have been crazy-starved, shaking, and suffering tunnel vision. Maybe the bullet in his skull had something to do with it. Kroun sauntered back to the Buick and shut himself in.
I vanished, passed through the fence, and re-formed on the other side.
After my resurrection, it'd taken months for me to get used to my new diet. The profound physical satisfaction I got was one thing; it was the part about biting into a living animal's vein and feeding from it that had bothered me for a long time. The benefits outweighed the unpleasant details, though, and eventually I reached the point of not thinking much on them.
Getting blood while it was still flowing and hot might not have the same importance to Kroun. Some people demanded bread straight from the baker's oven while others were happy enough with two-day-old leftovers. Others wouldn't even notice a difference. Maybe he was like that.
These nights I had to be cautious about choosing a four-footed victim. My hypnosis had been handy for soothing skittish animals; now I had to find ones that were already calm. Not easy. Cattle could be deceptive: one second lethargic, the next trying to trample you. Horses were easier prey; they were used to being handled. The shorter hair on their hides was a bonus.
Three tries to find an animal that allowed me to do what I had to, then I rushed the process. Things were getting damned cold. The snow swirled and fell more thickly, caking on my shoulders. Kroun's idea of going to a butcher shop was looking better by the minute.
The cattle in the next pen over abruptly stirred, restless and noisily fretting. They might have smelled their impending death on the freezing air, but if not, then something else had bothered them. Kroun's advice about being more careful was still fresh in my mind.
You can't be paranoid if someone really is after you.
I broke off feeding and looked around, listening hard, but I heard only lowing and the wind. Sight was limited because of the falling snow. The cattle could have been reacting to the weather or one of the yard workers. I'd learned to avoid them, but sometimes got spotted. Usually a man would shout, which was my cue to vanish, leaving him with a mystery. I was sure stories were circulating about a dark-clad specter haunting the stock pens.
Had it been a worker, he'd have yelled by now. My neck prickled the way it does when you think you're being watched. Most of the time we're wrong, and no one is around, but I paid attention to such warnings. The instinct is there for a reason. The last time I'd felt it, Hurley Gilbert Dugan had stepped out of the cold shadows and shot me.
He didn't seem to be around, which was just as well for us both. I'd have killed him on sight. Not a lot of people inspired that kind of reaction in me, and I wasn't proud of it. On the other hand, given the opportunity to bury him in the lake, I'd do it and no second thoughts.
I had come a long way down my private road to damnation.
Sparing my shoes further damage, I vanished and floated out, not re-forming until I was close to the Buick. If anyone saw, then their view would be as impaired by the snowfall as mine.
I took a last gander at what I could see of the empty street, got in, and wasted no time flooring it.
"What?" Kroun asked. "Something wrong?"
"Not much. It's been a hell of a night."
No disagreement from him on that.
The house had been broken into, again.
Any other time, I'd have gotten somewhere a few miles beyond mere anger, but it was late, and I was tired. I should have a revolving door installed so the next wave of house-breakers would have an easier time of it.
Instead of picking a door lock, someone had let himself in the hall window at the back with a brick, smashing out the glass near the top so he could twist the catch, lift, and climb in. The front door looked straight down the hall, and right away I noticed the curtains fluttering. The window was wide open, and glass shards gleamed from the melted snow that had blown in. It overlooked the alley behind the house. The neighbors had missed the noise, else the cops would be waiting.
"Your friends were here again," I said, disgusted.
Suitcases full of his new clothes in hand, Kroun put them down by the stairs, balancing the box of del Mundo cigars on top of one. He walked to the window and studied smears left by the intruder's wet shoes. "Don't think so. Michael can open any door, and Broder would just kick it in. They're not this sloppy."
Yeah, maybe. I did a quick search of all three floors, attic, and the basement, but no big bosses from New York lurked in the shadows. Sweeping outside, I looked in the garage, but Escott's Nash was safe. I found footprints in the snow by the house, but the fresh fall had nearly filled them in-not that I was an expert tracker. The intruder had pushed a garbage can under the window and used it to boost himself up; ignoring the locked doors, he'd left the same way. His prints led toward the alley entry and the street beyond.
"Michael's got no reason to return," Kroun said when I came back. "If he wants to know more about you, there's other ways for him, like talking to Gordy."
"What if they were here for you?"
"Then they were disappointed, but this doesn't smell like either of them."
"They're trying to shake me up."
"Why should they bother?" He shut the front door, cutting down on the cold cross draft from the broken window. "Anything missing?"
"Don't know." I made a second search of the place. Escott and I didn't have much in the way of valuables. He had an old gold pocket watch, but kept it in a safe hidden under the basement stairs along with his petty cash. I had a few cigar boxes stuffed with money there, too. Neither of us trusted banks much. The safe hadn't been broken into, but throughout the house someone had rummaged around in the drawers and closets. Nothing seemed to be gone, though.
"Not a burglar," said Kroun. "A reporter after dirt? There were plenty of them around when that Russian dame was all over you."
"Maybe. Faustine wasn't shy about naming names. But if anyone wanted to know about me, he could ask for an interview. No need to do this."
"What about the FBI?"
I didn't like that one. "I'm not important enough for them to bother with."
"Don't be so sure. That Hoover is crazy. He tells his boys to do something, and they do it, whether it's a good idea or not. Like me with Gordy's bunch."
"But-" I broke off.
"You think of something?"
"But worth considering?"
"Gilbert Dugan-that society bum behind the kidnapping I worked on? He was going to send anonymous letters off to a lot of places, the cops, the FBI, the tax people, to let them know that I was a suspicious character they should investigate. I got rid of those letters, but he might have written more."
"They'd pay attention to mail from some lunatic?"
"Probably not, but it'd only take one guy having a slow day to set a ball rolling. Maybe the G-men would burgle a joint, but this doesn't make sense. They'd pick me up for questioning first."
"Who else has it in for you?"
"Hand me a phone book."
"Don't stay here then. I'm not." He went into the kitchen and opened the icebox. He pulled out a brown bottle and yanked the cork. I'd seen drunks guzzle a beer that fast, but not often. As before, it hit him like a jolt of hard booze. "Wow. That's good stuff you keep there. Thanks for the hospitality." He left the empty in the sink and went toward the front hall. He looked at his suitcases a moment, shook his head, and walked out the front door without them.
"Hey, I'm supposed to keep an eye on you," I called from the porch.
"I'll stay out of trouble, I promise."
"Where you going?"
"Don't know yet. Safer that way."
"You need a ride there?"
"You coming back?"
"Tomorrow night, first thing. Still need to wind up some business." He moved briskly down the sidewalk, ignoring the snow.
No point asking what the business might be. He would return, if only to get his clothes.
I shut the door and muttered unkind things about the ass who'd broken the window. The place wasn't secure for me, not during the day.
My secret room under the kitchen... well, someone had found it.
The heavy kitchen table and the rug under it were slightly out of place. Escott was meticulous about keeping one of the table legs squarely over a small cigarette burn he'd made on the floor. He'd put it there on purpose, claiming it was a kind of burglar alarm, and damned if it hadn't worked. The burn was visible now. I was seriously spooked.
The intruder had not made it down into the room. A normal human could drop in but needed a ladder to get out. I had a folding one kept out of sight under my cot, and it was still out of sight, unused.
The intruder chose to avoid getting trapped in my basement lair, but he'd still seen it. What had he made of it? I didn't keep any secret diary or important papers there, just my attempts at writing lurid fiction for dime magazines. One close look, and he'd probably laugh himself silly.
A sense of violation, shaken confidence, and rage-I had the whole list of what it feels like when an unknown threat invades one's supposedly safe castle. This was far from the first time I'd been through the experience, but you never get used to it. If I found the guy... he wouldn't be happy. With both arms broken, it's hard to climb into people's houses.
I scavenged scrap boards in the basement that were long enough and got the hammer and nails. Fastening the boarding to the sash, I stuffed layers of newspapers in the gap between them and the remaining glass. If anyone wanted to get in again, he could do it; this was just to keep the weather out. As a repair it stank, but I felt better for the effort.
It was too dangerous to sleep the day here, and there wasn't time to drive to Lady Crymsyn and hide out in its hidden sanctuary-if it was indeed still hidden. The bad guys might have found it as well. I thought of calling the Nightcrawler and having a couple of the bouncers come over to watch the house, but for all I knew they might be in on it. Maybe it had been an overeager reporter looking for dirt. Maybe it had been those two cops, Merrifield and Garza.
Locking the front and back doors-including shoving a chair under each knob-I inspected all the windows, pulling shades, seeing to it the catches caught. It was more habit than expectation of keeping anyone out. I worked my way upstairs.
The clock on my dresser showed I had enough time to take care of some much-needed details so long as I was quick. One scalding-hot shower and a close shave later put me in an improved state of mind. I dressed to be ready for tomorrow night, intending to waste no time getting back to the hospital to see Escott. Yes, he was better, but a relapse could happen. Hope and worry chased themselves around inside my skull, each feeding and exhausting the other turn on turn, no end in sight to their insane race.
Grabbing two spare blankets from a cupboard and an oilcloth packet of my home earth, I went up to the attic.
A determined break-in artist could still get in despite a heavy trunk I'd dragged over the trapdoor, but I wouldn't be sleeping there. Stooping to avoid rafters, I walked to the far end of the narrow space where a small window with cloudy glass peered at a similar window across the alley. Vanishing, I sieved through, floated over, and re-formed in the neighbor's attic.
I got my bearings, went semitransparent, and drifted to a dark corner behind some junk that hadn't been moved in years. Solid again and moving quietly, I put one blanket on the dusty floor, lay down, and wrapped up in the other. Very cozy. I'd done this before for a little peace of mind. The packet of earth was snug under the small of my back. It was cold, but nothing I couldn't handle. I'd rest well for the day, as safe as could be improvised, and not too worried the neighbors would find me. Spring cleaning was weeks away.
What arrangements would Kroun make? Perhaps something similar. With those picklocks he could walk through most any door. He could also hypnotize people into forgetting his presence. He'd look after himself well enough, hopefully without hurting anyone along the way.
That gave my conscience a pang. He was supposed to be a bad guy, same as his friends. Michael had specifically warned me to beware of him. But Kroun's reputation wasn't matching up to the side he'd shown tonight. If he was that bad, then why had he saved Escott? So that I'd owe him twice over? Maybe, but he had looked genuinely concerned at the time.
Why wouldn't he talk?
Cold town. Damn cold town.
Gabriel felt a lot better with a bellyful of blood, but even that wasn't enough to take away the heavy weariness that had crept up on him over the last few hours.
He needed rest, the kind he only ever got from sleeping on soil, but that was a luxury he'd just have to put off. Leaving himself open to having the dreams, nightmares, night terrors in the day, whatever they were, was more important.
Mixed in with their horrors was information... memories.
Bad ones, like the bomb ripping through the car, but if they also led to something useful-like how he'd known his blood would help that man-then Gabe would take the bad with the good and get through it.
Fleming was getting too pushy with his questions.
Gabe hadn't enjoyed busting the kid, but sometimes you have to make a point when the other guy's playing dumb. Fleming wasn't dumb, not for damn sure, but he had a hell of an instinct for getting under the skin. No wonder Hog Bristow had...
Gabe's shoulders jerked. No, better not to be thinking about that mistake just before bedtime. The memories he courted had to be his own, not imaginings about another man's run of bad luck. He did not need to dream about being skinned alive. How the hell had Fleming survived the ordeal? Even Gordy didn't have those particulars.
Looking over his shoulder more than a few times, Gabe checked to see if anyone followed. Whoever had gotten into Fleming's house might have been watching from a distance, waiting to come after one or the other of them.
No one showed himself on foot or in a car; what could be seen of the street through the thick snowfall was clear. Fleming was the target, then. Presumably he would find a safer haven for the day than that drafty brick barn.
Not my problem.
Long strides eating up the pavement and the snow filling in his tracks, Gabe left the rows of houses, entering the beginnings of a business area. This was where the neighborhood wives bought their groceries, where their husbands worked, where their kids ran errands. A good life when you could find it. Gabe's life before his change had not been so tranquil, he was certain of that.
He found the shop he wanted, one that Fleming had driven past on the way back to the house. On second look it still seemed suitable. The dingy window fronting the street was obscured with sheets of yellowed newspaper to discourage the curious from peering in, and a faded CLOSED sign hung crookedly on the door. The alcove entry was littered with minor trash, indication that no one had been there for months. Make that years. The papers dated from '33.
The picklocks got him inside.
It might have been some kind of store before things went bust on Wall Street. There were a few long tables, shelving, and a single counter for the clerk and cash register, but no other indication of its history. The dust was thick and the stale air cold, but Gabe had known worse places to spend the day.
He found a small storage closet in the back. Solid door, no windows. Good. No room to lie down... not so good, but he'd live with it. He scrounged around the shop and found a spindly wooden stool that would serve. A few swipes with a forgotten rag cleaned the dirt off the seat. Gabe took it in the closet and positioned it just right. He sat, back against the closed door, legs braced so he wouldn't fall over. No one could sleep like that, but then his bout of daylight immobility couldn't really be called sleep. Better this than sitting on the floor in his new clothes.
Gabe let his head droop forward, shut his eyes, and waited for the sun to smother his conscious mind for the day.
The dreams did not disappoint.
The monsters that had retreated into the shadows hurtled free again. There was no losing them, not when they called the inside of his head home.
His trip through hell began with the exploding car. He felt the fire, the ripping within his chest as the smoke seared him from the inside out. Close, too close. He could have died there. Died again. The changes in his body prevented that, but the awful recovery...
He was swept farther back and heard the wind threading through the pine needles again. How he loved that sound. Peace, pure peace. It did not last. The soothing music cut off as earth, wet and icy cold, was heaped over his inert body.
Yes, it was bad. One of the really bad memories.
He'd been buried and would stay there, deep in his grave.
No ending to this one. Death was like that. It was forever. He was dead and aware of every grinding moment, every second passing him by.
Aware of the loneliness.
Never mind the soul-killing panic, the weight crushing his chest, the dirt clogging his mouth, nose, and ears, the absolute paralysis, the cold; he was completely alone in the blackness. No angelic choir, no hell's chorus, no afterlife at all, only infinite, unrelieved isolation. He'd go mad from it; anyone would.
No. Not for me.
He had to get free, somehow.
The earth was heavy, but he could shift it if he tried. Maybe.
Some shred of will returned to what was left of his consciousness and transferred to his dead limbs, generating feeble movement.
He struggled and squirmed, gradually working upward. He hoped it was up. There had been stars framed by pine branches above him before that first shovelful hit his face. He just had to dig toward them.
Hard going, though. The hardest thing he'd ever done. Had they heaped rocks atop his body? He pushed at whatever it was, shoving it to one side rather than lifting-
His frozen hands clawed air.
More effort, and he worked his torso free, then his legs, boosting himself upright but dizzily swaying. He grabbed at a tree trunk and held on, spitting dirt, blinking.
Woods. Darkness. A small cabin not fifty feet away through the trees. No lights. No sound but the wind and the soft lap of water. A lake... no, a river. He came here to do his fishing. That, and... and... what was it?
He was filthy, and he stank. Smells were painfully sharp: the clean cold wind, the scent from the pine trees, the muddy earth, the blood. His clothes were soaked with it.
And God in heaven, his head hurt. He pressed palms to his temples and tried not to whimper like a sick dog. Take a lifetime of headaches all at once, triple their pain, and it might come close to what he felt. It rushed over him like a lightning storm.
It hurt the most... there... some kind of bump... no, a ridge, right in the bone. As he touched it, the pain exploded. He dropped in his tracks, unable to bite off the scream. He writhed on the broken earth of his grave and shrieked until his air was gone. Not replacing it seemed to help. Strange as it was to go without breathing, he understood it was all right. He was dead, and things were different now.
Dead. Just not a ghost. Something else.
He'd remember when the agony eased.
Only it didn't.
After a long, long time he realized it wasn't going away.
He swiped dirt from his eyes. His vision blurred and failed for a few moments, then returned. Blinding pain: he had the firsthand meaning of that now. He'd just have to get through it. He was in danger from... something... the sun. It would rise soon. He had to find a place to hide from it.
Back under the earth?
His grave? No. Not there again. Not ever.
Besides, there was... no, that couldn't be right. For a tiny instant he forgot his pain, trading it for curiosity.
Gabe touched an oddly familiar shape half-submerged under the loose clods and rust brown pine needles.
His numbed fingers slid over a layer of grit, brushing it off.
When he realized what it was, he yanked his hand back as though from a fire.
Gabriel shot awake, one hand twitching up to the left side of his head as though to keep his brain from bursting through the bone.
He had no comparable pain, but remembered what he'd felt then. How the hell had he gotten through it?
Where was that place? Not near Chicago. It was... the cabin... and it was...
Gone now. The sunset took it from him, damn it.
The thing he'd found... what was it? He could almost feel it again under his fingertips...
The sunset took that as well.
His raised hand was a fist now, and he considered punching a hole in the wall, then thought better of it. This deserted and forlorn old shop wasn't his property to damage. He made himself relax and stretched out of his braced posture.
Not too bad, just a little stiff. He'd lose that on the walk back to Fleming's house. Gabe wasn't fully rested, but he would make up for it later.
Patience. Another day's worth of dreaming might get him everything.
In the meantime he'd talk to the old bastard and see if that would help.