THAT sick bastard should have kicked off years ago.
Gabriel walked quickly despite the snowdrifts on the sidewalks, despite the ice hiding underneath. He wanted distance between himself and the venom-spitting monster locked away in that nuthouse.
And Fleming with his damned questions.
I should have had him wait in the car.
Too late, he knew the worst of it now.
"Not the worst," Gabe muttered aloud.
He missed a step, skidding on one heel before gaining his balance. Where had that come from? He glanced around, but the street was empty. No one had heard him. God, he should not be talking to himself, even when he was alone; he couldn't take that chance. Only crazy people did that, and he wasn't going to end up like Sonny.
Before that happened... well, he didn't know.
Maybe I should back off on this.
Tempting. He had money, easy enough to buy a cheap car and get clear of Chicago. He could disappear himself in Minnesota or Canada, find a place to live and... do what?
He didn't know that, either. But it would probably take care of itself.
Fishing would be good, but after what Sonny had said... there was now a taint on that pleasure.
Gabe couldn't kid himself, he had to find the cabin and get things settled. The last time he'd been there-wherever it was-he'd gone up with a driver and some woman. Had she been the one weeping over his death? His driver back in November had been a mug named Ramsey, who'd dropped out of sight. If he'd been the one to put a bullet in Gabe's skull, then making himself missing was the smartest thing to do.
What had happened there? Even if Gabe found the cabin, he had no guarantee it would convey anything useful. Backing off now would leave him with unanswered questions, but he could live with those...
No, he would not. Good or bad, bad or worse, he had to find out.
The goings-on Sonny had implied made Gabe's stomach turn. Those pictures so carefully torn from the papers... disgusting, sick. How could they allow that?
The old bastard's crazy, that's why he's locked up.
One of the reasons why, anyway. Gabe didn't want to think about the others and kept walking.
The street, a nice one with big trees on either side, opened to a wider road with businesses and more traffic. A hotel took up a sizable portion of a block on his side. There were a couple cabs out front. He opened the door of the nearest and got in, giving the driver an address. The phone work he'd done in the Nightcrawler's office had paid off, giving him two leads to check out. This second one promised to be considerably different.
The driver was apparently familiar with the number. He smirked when Gabe paid him off.
Gabe went up the steps of a large, prosperous-looking brick house similar to the other two-story houses along the street. Each had a small yard, some protected by iron-barred fences or painted wood pickets. Driveways had cars in them, walks were shoveled. The Depression seemed to have passed this area by, which could mean that mob money was all over the block. The big shots didn't always hang out at the bars and pool parlors. Even Capone had parked his family in that sweet place over on South Prairie.
No need to ring the bell. A bouncer on duty opened the door. His eyes flashed wide in recognition, then he shifted from surprise to stone-faced neutrality. His body tensed.
Gabe was almost used to it. He took his hat off and waited with the bouncer in the small entry until a pleasant-faced woman wearing a soft print dress and a long rope of pearls came. She also underwent a not-so-subtle transformation of expression, going on guard.
"Hello, Mr. Kroun," she said.
"You have anything for me?" he asked, radiating affability. He couldn't remember her name, but so far as memory served, most madams were alike. He thought she'd been pretty once, but life had a way of eroding one's assets.
She hesitated. "We're very busy tonight. It will be hours before anyone's available."
He looked past her into the parlor beyond where a radio played dance music. "Seems to be plenty available."
"I mean anyone suitable for you."
He was in strange waters now. Gabe knew in this area his appetite-there was a word as loaded as a set of crooked dice-had undergone a major change. He'd not availed himself of the services of the houses in New York, playing things safe. Out here in Chicago he felt better about indulging himself-except for the madam's manner with him.
He put on one of his best smiles. "Let me be the judge of that."
He started in, but she halted him with a hand on his arm. "Listen, Mr. Kroun, I got a business to run. You hurt my girls, and they can't work, then you gotta pay extra."
Gabe didn't know how to react to that so he went stone-faced, too. It clearly frightened the woman, but she stood solid. He put his hand over hers, patting lightly. "I'm not here to hurt anyone. Let's go in." He kept hold, taking her along.
Several young women sat around the parlor, some in Oriental-style silk robes, others in evening dress, one in a pale blue slip and nothing under it. They looked good; the place was high-class enough to have very presentable merchandise for the clients. None seemed too enthusiastic, though. A couple of the girls clearly recognized him. They whispered to the uninformed, who avoided his eye.
The madam pulled free and pointed to a thin, angular girl by the radio. "That one," she said. "She doesn't mind your games."
He managed to not inquire just what those games might be and focused on the girl. Nice, but with an edge that had nothing to do with her lean frame. He'd slice himself up on those bones and suspected she used morphine. She wasn't his type. He wasn't sure what his type was, but she wasn't it. He checked out the rest. A shorter, more rounded one caught his eye. She wore her dark hair almost like Adelle Taylor, though the face and figure were different. She'd been one of the girls who recognized him.
He smiled and nodded. "She'll do."
The madam opened her mouth, but he looked at her. No need to put any special weight behind it. Early on he'd come to understand that people were afraid of him. He made use of it. She backed down from voicing whatever objection she had.
The girl flinched when called over and avoided his eye. He could get around that. What he could see of her arms showed clean of needle pocks. Good, he didn't want a doper. He couldn't understand why people did that to themselves. It had to hurt.
However fancy the place, it was payment in advance. He settled with the madam, then went upstairs with the girl.
Her room was much as he expected: a big bed, satin pillows, a few bottles of booze on the dresser, a curtain partway open to a closet full of clothes, heavy curtains over the window so she could sleep during the day. A small sink was in one corner, a lamp with a red silk scarf over it stood in another, imparting a rosy glow to things. She had a radio and a record player. Not too bad. The mirror on the dresser was thankfully tilted away from him.
Soon as he shut the door she dropped to her knees and started unbuttoning his pants. Her hands shook.
"Hey, slow down, sweetheart," he said, catching her wrists. She flinched again, going pale. He drew her upright. "What's the rush?"
"No rush, but the others said you was a busy man."
Probably said a few more things besides. "Not that busy. How about we have a drink first?"
"I'm not allowed. Mrs. Temple marks the bottles. It's only for guests." She stumbled over the word. He thought she'd nearly said "customers."
"How about you have one and I'll say it was for me?"
She thought a moment, then nodded. "Vodka. Straight."
A good choice, it wouldn't leave much of a smell on her breath. He went to the dresser, poured a double. The damn stuff was strong, nearly made his eyes water. He took it over to her, but didn't release the glass as she reached for it.
"Look at me, honey," he said.
They were close, she had to raise her head up quite a bit.
"Well, don't you have beautiful eyes? How do you like mine?"
She gave no opinion, but he had her full attention now.
"What's your name, honey?"
"Okay, Lettie, I don't know what you've heard about me, but I'm not going to hurt you. I want you to relax and"-he recalled one of Fleming's quirks-"just pretend we're old friends. You like me a lot, and we're going to have a good time, got that?"
He shut it off and gave her the drink. Her manner changed just that quick. She was suddenly at ease and even dug out a smile for him, a sweet one. Then again, he'd paid well for it.
He looked at the bed, but wasn't quite ready to start. It reminded him of the one in Sonny's room. Fine thing to think of now.
A soft creak from the hall froze him. Someone was coming up to their door, being stealthy, but like a herd of elephants to Gabe's hearing. Either the madam or the bouncer was checking on things. What the hell had happened on his last visit?
He opened the door. The bouncer loomed tall, solid, unapologetic.
"We're okay here," said Gabe.
The man remained.
Goddammit, I can't do anything with him listening. Gabe focused on him. "I said we're okay. Go downstairs and don't bother us again. Everything's fine."
That worked. The man left. Gabe shut the door.
She'd quickly finished the vodka and even washed the glass in the little sink. She came up to him and put both hands on his waist in the front, fingers slipping inside his pants. Very friendly. Her robe was open. Under it she wore red satin step-ins with lace around the legs. Nothing else. Her breasts were nicely rounded, more than enough for...
He cleared his throat, backed off a step, and put his hat on the dresser. His overcoat went on a chair next to it. The gun he'd taken from Michael weighed heavy in one of its pockets. He took care to not let it bump anything. "Uh, tell me, you know anything about cutting hair?"
Her smile faltered. "W-what?"
"Can you give me a haircut?" He rubbed a hand over his head so she'd know just where he wanted the trim.
"Yes, I am. Another day, and I'm gonna look like one of those English sheepdogs. If not you, then one of the other girls...?"
She laughed, a small one. "I used to cut my brother's hair. He didn't like it much, though."
"Hey, brothers are put on this earth to not like things." He took off his suit coat, watchful for her reaction to the gun he wore in a shoulder rig. She made no comment, didn't even seem to notice it. He slipped free of the leather straps, flexing his shoulders. "I bet you did a good job."
He undid his tie, then the buttons of his shirt collar. "Yeah. Where do you want me?"
Bemused by now, Lettie took charge. She moved his overcoat to the bed, put some newspapers on the floor and the chair over the papers. Again, a reminder of Sonny's room. That had to stop, or he wouldn't enjoy any of this. He took his shirt and undershirt off next, but was strangely shy about his trousers. Damn fool way to be at his age, but he couldn't help it.
"Come on," she said. "You don't want to get hair on them; they'll itch."
He let her talk him out of his pants, socks, and shoes, then sat, feeling vulnerable in just his skin and skivvies. The room was warm, but goose bumps whispered down his arms as she pushed his head forward and started work on the back of his neck with scissors.
"You really needed a cut," she said. Snip-snip-snip. "I'll try to get it even, but you should have a barber with one of those electric-shaver things for this."
"Lettie, when I have a choice between you and some guy talking baseball, you'll get the job every time."
She snickered. "Short back and sides?"
"Yes, please, and some off the top."
"Yeah, I know how to do that. I never had anyone want a haircut, lemme tell you. The others'll think you're crazy."
"You girls talk about us?"
"Sure, not much else to do."
"Remember the last time I was here?" The snipping ceased, and he was acutely aware of a stranger standing behind him with something sharp in hand. He hoped his suggestion about being old friends was still strong. "It's okay, Lettie. I want you to tell me everything. Who did I see then?"
He held off on further questions, letting the name sink in, waiting for something to come to him. Nothing. "She have dark hair like you?"
"I guess. She went blond though. They get picked more often. She went blond. You know. All over. The men really like that."
Not the kind of information he sought, but interesting nonetheless. "And I liked it, too?"
"You liked the things she... didn't mind doing."
Gabe wasn't ready to go into that just yet.
Lettie resumed trimming. He kept quiet while she navigated the critical areas around his ears, then started working the top. She used a comb in some way that yanked at his scalp. No wonder her brother had complained. "What's this white patch?" she asked. "You didn't have it last time."
"Accident at my job, nothing much. Did I take Nelly out?"
"Don't you know?"
"I tied one on that night. It's fuzzy. I thought we went out."
"Yeah, you did. For the weekend. You made a deal with Mrs. Temple. Nelly put on her best dress, got a bag, and you went off in a big car."
"I had a driver?" Ramsey, perhaps?
"Sure did. Other girls was jealous, but Mrs. Temple said to shut up and not talk about it."
"I made her nervous?"
"She didn't let on, but we could tell she was scared."
Yes. He did that to people. Some of them. "And then what?"
"Yes, you do. Tell me, Lettie." He stared straight ahead and would have held his breath had he a need to breathe.
"Next morning Nelly showed up real early. Woke the whole house, carried on like it was the end of the world, screaming and crying. Scared me good."
"What had happened to her?"
"Donno. All she had in one piece was her coat. Her dress was all tore up and bloody, and she was black-and-blue and... and tore up. You know. Down there. Called a doctor for her, and Mrs. Temple sent her off again. She never come back. Not here, anyway."
He couldn't speak for a long time.
Lettie finished, got a damp towel, and brushed at his shoulders to clean off the clippings. "I'm done, Mister."
He shut his eyes. After a few minutes, the bedsprings squeaked.
"Gabe," he whispered. "Gabriel."
"You want to do anything?"
He blinked clear of the empty dark. She sat on one corner of the bed, bare feet dangling, the robe hanging loose and open. "Where did Nelly go?"
Lettie shrugged. "One of the girls said she went back to her mother. They brought in a new girl and told us to keep quiet. It was like Nelly was never here to start with. Mrs. Temple won't let us talk about her, gets mad if anyone says her name."
"But she's all right?"
"I guess. You'd have to ask Mrs. Temple."
Indeed he would, but not until the cold, sick roiling in his gut eased. A drink would help, but he couldn't touch the stuff on the dresser. As for the stuff in the girl's veins... he was sure he could not touch that, either.
Lettie slipped off the bed. "You wanna see how I did?" She picked up a hand mirror and offered it to him. "I think it's okay, but it's your hair."
He held the mirror and checked the faded image in it. The features were vaguely familiar, but he didn't know the man wearing them. "Best I ever had."
That he could remember. He gave back the mirror.
She was pleased by the praise, and he knew he had to get away from her. Lettie was pretty, and he'd wanted her, but that wasn't going to happen. He would talk with Mrs. Temple, find out what she knew about Nelly Cabot, and get the hell out.
He stood and reached for his pants. There, that hadn't changed, one leg at a time, pull them up, button the buttons.
"But... did I do something wrong?"
No, but I might have. "Nope."
"You can't. I mean... Mrs. Temple will-"
"I'll fix it with her, don't worry."
"At least stay a little longer. They're gonna think I didn't do a good job for you."
He touched her cheek briefly. "I'll say you were terrific..." Her confusion got to him. Love was all she had to offer, paid for or not, and rejection hurt. She'd recover. He found his wallet and pulled out a century note. He folded it into her hand.
She gaped. "But I-but..."
"Call it a tip," he said. "For the barbering." He pulled his undershirt on, tucked it in. His feet were cold, in more ways than one. He sat on the chair and snagged his socks. When he straightened, Lettie suddenly crowded close and parked her duff on his leg, arms around his neck to keep from falling off.
She wouldn't get up. "Hey, yourself. You wanna pay for nothing, that's your business, but I gotta do at least this much."
"I donno. C'mon. We're friends, ain't we?"
Well, he'd been the one to put the idea in her head. Must have been one hell of a strong suggestion.
She squirmed, and he had to bring his legs together to balance her, dropping the socks. Her robe was wide open, and everything was close and smelled good. He didn't know what to do with his hands, finally giving up and letting them hang at his sides.
"You're not making this easy," he said.
She giggled. Damn, she was cute. She squirmed some more and gave him a closed-mouth kiss. That was first-class. Yes, he'd have some of her lip color on him, more than enough proof that they'd...
Lettie wriggled off his lap, turned, and straddled him. Her arms went around his neck again, but now they were face-to-face. "You're a good-looking man," she told him.
She was paid to flatter, but he liked hearing it. "Lettie, I-"
Another kiss, warmer, softer, her mouth opening just a little. She pressed close, but he cringed away. He couldn't do this.
"It's all right," she said. She stood, backing off him, her hands running the length of his arms. She tugged on his wrists until he stood as well. "C'mon."
"What, you're sick or something?" One of her hands dipped to his crotch, lingering. "You feel fine to me."
This time she was much slower unbuttoning his pants. They slid to the floor, and he stepped clear of them, getting just that much closer to the bed. She helped with the undershirt, too. The gooseflesh returned to his arms and thighs as she dragged his underwear off.
"That's better. Right over here."
Yes. The bed. It hadn't moved an inch.
She pushed him onto it.
Any protest at this point would be ridiculous. He made room for her, and she climbed in next to him.
"You like anything special?"
"Just you," he heard himself saying. He pulled her onto him, full length. The step-ins were in the way. She wiggled around and got rid of them. No bleach job that he could see. She was soft there, very soft; his tentative caress made her smile.
"You're beautiful, Lettie."
She didn't disagree with him.
He wanted to touch every inch of her. He could not remember how he'd been with women before his change but appreciated that he was different now. What his mind could not recall, his body did. His big hands slid over her smooth, smooth skin, and he found himself kissing her shoulders and breasts, going lower and lower. He finally rolled atop her and tasted that musky softness between her black curls. She writhed under him, and he held on to her hips.
How quiet she was, but her breath came fast, and her heart beat faster. He lifted enough to kiss the insides of her thighs. One of her hands was on the back of his head and pressed him down low again. She'd liked what he'd been doing there. He took his time, until the musk turned sweet and silky in his mouth.
She abruptly shuddered under him, which startled him until he realized what was going on. Well, anything to please a lady. He continued until she settled a little, then moved his way up, going slow.
Her eyelids were half-closed, a dreamy expression on her face. He nuzzled her breasts, then her throat. Yes, the big vein there, easy to find, too easy to damage. Just a little ways past it, then.
But first... there. He slipped right into her as though they truly were longtime lovers. Yes, that felt good, damn good. Her legs wrapped around his, hips moving for him.
Lettie did not quite match his rhythm, just enough out of sync to press herself against him. Her breath shortened again. Damn, the girl was going for a second helping.
He slowed, smiling when she made a somewhat frustrated moan.
"More, baby," she whispered. "Just a little harder."
His open mouth ranged over her throat, seeking that one spot. Yes... his corner teeth were out and had been for some time. His own throat ached. How he wanted her.
Her palms pressed against his backside. "Just a little more... please."
She arched under him again, trying to hold in her cry.
Now or never. He bit into her, not deeply, but enough. Her blood was better than the sweetness between her legs, and he drew strongly on it, tasting her climax as it whipped through her. An overwhelming release surged through his body in that moment, and he was able to draw it out in a way wholly new to him. Another taste, another crash of ecstasy for them both, over and over and over. She moved under him, hands clutching and beating against the mattress.
He held on, making it last, pushing gently inside her, drinking from her. He needed it to last, because to his wonderment he was able, for just a little while, to forget the pain of not remembering who he'd been.
In this room, and for this here and now, it was all about who he was learning to be.
Gabriel drowsed, arms around Lettie as she lay on him. She didn't mind being held. She was solid but soft weight, and he liked the feeling of her heartbeat against his chest. He'd not realized how much he missed that sensation. From now on he'd have to borrow from others. Hell of a life, but better than that grave in the woods.
A clock ticked somewhere, other people in nearby rooms laughed, murmured, or grunted with sweating effort, beds squeaking under the pressure. Sometimes he wished his hearing wasn't so sharp. He wanted to come back to this place again, but with more privacy and less distraction.
Maybe that was what had happened with Nelly Cabot. He'd wanted to take her to a better, quieter spot, had arranged for a weekend out... then something had gone wrong. But it couldn't have been his fault. Mrs. Temple had to be mistaken about him. He could never hurt a woman, it just wasn't in him.
The driver... Ramsey. Gabe couldn't remember the man's face, just the name, and then only because he'd asked others. The people who knew him didn't know that much. Even with hypnosis to push things, Gabe got nothing more than that Ramsey was a tough son of a bitch who knew guns, cars, and kept his mouth shut. Indispensable traits for a mob bodyguard and probably why Gabe had chosen him. Certainly it meant the Gabriel Kroun of that time had secrets to hide. Ugly ones, if Sonny's ravings had any truth in them.
Why would I bring the girl to the sanitarium?
Showing her off to Sonny? Checking his reaction to her? Or had she been there for Sonny to play with? No... not that, or the old bastard would have bragged about it and demanded more.
I have to finish this.
Which meant speaking with Mrs. Temple.
Gabe checked his watch. He'd been here long enough to ensure Lettie's reputation in the house was secure. He unwillingly quit the bed and dressed. His movements woke Lettie. She got out on her side and pulled on her silk robe but not the step-ins. God knows where those had ended up.
He adjusted his tie by touch, but Lettie came over to make some small change for him. He caressed the side of her throat, close to the marks he'd left. They'd soon heal, but for the present looked alarming.
"You have anything to cover that?" he asked. "Beads or a collar or...?" Damn, what kinds of stuff did women wear?
She went to the dresser mirror, checking. "It's not so bad. I've had worse."
He fixed her with a look. "Forget that I made them."
Her eyes clouded for a moment, then cleared. "You ever come back, ask for me, okay?"
He couldn't think of anything to say to that. Maybe she liked him, or his money, or it had to do with that suggestion about being friends, but it was nice to hear.
He bent and gently engulfed her in a bear hug. He held her tight for a long, sweet, contented moment, then reluctantly eased away and departed.
The bouncer was at the foot of the stairs when Gabe came down. The man threw him a quick glare and went up, probably to check on Lettie. The madam hurried out of a back room, her face taut with a frown.
She lifted her chin.
"Got a private place to talk?"
She went pale.
Not his easiest interview. Mrs. Temple had imbibed earlier, and it was hard to get past the booze; the effort made his head ache. Gabe got the name of Nelly Cabot's mother and that she ran a diner someplace, but no address. He also got the name of the doctor and where he might be found. As for what had happened that night, Mrs. Temple simply did not know, nor had she the curiosity to find out. The hysterical girl had been turned over to the doctor, and that was the extent of Mrs. Temple's responsibility. Asking questions about the private habits of the big bosses could make you dead.
The doctor, annoyingly, had since moved to another state. She didn't know which.
Gabe persuaded the bouncer to drive him to the Nightcrawler Club. The man hadn't known anything useful, so the trip was utterly silent. Plenty of time to think.
None of the previous goings-on at the brothel had gotten back to Gordy, or Gabe would have already found out from him. But Michael knew more than a little, though. He'd been in a lather to turn Gabe away from that cabin and from Sonny. Was that from having a guilty conscience? Might he have been involved and have something to hide?
I should have thought to ask Sonny, dammit.
But just looking at the old bastard made Gabriel's guts spin like a mill wheel. It'd taken everything he had not to puke all over those torn-up newspapers. He'd been playing that talk wholly by ear, improvising to get any information Sonny might have. Then came a point where Gabe couldn't stand to hear another word.
The easiest path would be to talk with Michael and get his end of it.
Which would mean coming clean with him. About everything.
Gabe wasn't ready to take that road yet. It would leave him too vulnerable. The less Michael knew about the whole blood-drinking angle, the better. Anyway, he would simply discount it and believe that Gabe had gone dangerously insane like Sonny and had to be put down. There would be no lingering in a loony bin.
I could disappear myself, but sooner or later he'd find me, and he'd kill me.
Yes, that was a given.
Mike would feel really, really bad about it-
But do it all the same.