ON the way over to Escott's office, I stopped at a couple places and bought a couple things. I was unsure if they'd do much good, but what the hell, why not?
Not knowing what lay ahead, I approached the block slowly, on the lookout for Coldfield's Nash. It was a newer version of the one Escott drove, armored, of course... and parked right in front of the outside stairs leading up to the office.
I cruised past, circled the block, and stopped to wait far down at the end behind another car.
Yes, I was being chicken. Coldfield had already clobbered me this week, and I was in no mood to risk more of the same or worse. Not so long ago I'd have tried an eye-whammy to cool him down, but I couldn't play that card again; I'd just have to tough things out. Besides, Escott might get in the middle and he had to have enough on his mind already.
Just as I set the brake and cut the motor, Coldfield came downstairs onto the sidewalk. He looked both ways but didn't see me, got in the Nash, and drove off, alone.
Lights remained on in the office.
Not knowing how long that would last, I grabbed my parcels and moved quick.
I clumped up the stairs to the door with THE ESCOTT AGENCY painted on its pebbled-glass window. He'd have heard me, but I knocked twice before trying the knob. The door swung open easily with a soft creak.
Escott sat at his desk in the small, plain room, pipe in hand, stacks of mail in front of him, business as usual. I damn near choked at the normalcy.
"Busy?" I asked, keeping on my side of the threshold. I couldn't help but recall the first time standing there, pretending to need an invitation to enter, while he gave me a good long look to figure out if I was friend or foe.
He gave me another good long look, his lean face just as wary. By God, his bruises were gone. He looked the same as ever... but things were changed. Break a leg, and the bone could heal straight, and you might not even limp, but you'll still feel it, you'll always feel it.
What I'd broken was the trust we'd had.
"Were you waiting long for Shoe to leave?" he asked.
That was normal, too, him figuring things out so quick. "Just parked. You send him away?"
"I needed an uninterrupted hour to myself. Business." He indicated the mail.
I halted my turning to leave. Looked back. With the pipe he gestured at one of the empty chairs before the desk.
"Come on, old man," he said, not unkindly. "Let's get it over with."
I shoved the door shut with one foot and sat facing him. Things got quiet, and I didn't know where to look.
"Well. This is bloody awkward, isn't it?"
"Oh, yeah." I checked over the small office, avoiding his eye.
"What have you there?" he asked.
The parcels. I put them on the desk. "Peace offerings."
He pulled the paper from one, which uncovered a bottle of dark beer, cool, not cold. The others held a fresh loaf of rye bread and a quarter pound of salted butter.
His eyes went wide. "What the devil...?"
"You asked for them the other night."
"Before the fever really took hold."
"They had me doped with some awful stuff. I don't remember."
Just as well. "You hungry?"
"As it happens, I am. This is perfect." He had a flat sharp letter opener handy and used that to cut the bread and spread on the butter.
I didn't much care for the food smells, but he was eating... and drinking. He knocked the bottle top off using the edge of the desk and washed down the bread with a healthy swig.
He noticed me watching. "Worried that I picked up one of your habits?"
"Swilling blood instead of this excellent brew?" He tilted the bottle.
"Shoe told you what happened?"
"In rare detail. I missed the show, but he was highly impressed."
"Kroun laid us in the aisles all right. How are you?"
"Remarkably well, thank you." He brushed two fingers along the side of his face. Last night his eye had been swollen shut, his face more black than blue; not a trace of injury remained. "All better."
Jeez. I was used to that sort of thing for myself, but not for others. This spooked me. "You remember anything about that part? Drinking the-"
"Thankfully, I do not. Shoe's description was vivid, and I shall do my level best to forget even that much." He slapped on more butter.
The food smells didn't agree with me, but thank God he was eating. He was alive to do it.
Another slug of beer, and he set down the brown bottle, politely suppressing a belch. "Who would have thought such blood to be a curative? It's like some patent concoction from the back page of a dime magazine, only it clearly works."
"And Kroun knew about it. I tried to find out more from him, but he wouldn't talk."
"Doubtless he has a reason."
"We have to know if it's going to have a permanent effect on you."
Escott seemed to be at a loss there. "Hopefully, your friend might be persuaded to part with information on that point. I am understandably curious."
"You sure you feel okay?"
"Never better. Which disturbs me because I recall feeling damned rotten the last time I took stock."
He caught my meaning. "Ah. Well. I've not exhibited any extranormal strength, my vision at night hasn't improved, nor have I experienced any sanguinary cravings. My canines are their usual length, and mirrors still work for me."
I was relieved. "That covers it."
"Of course there was an alarming moment when I woke from a nap and found myself floating just a few inches short of the ceiling..."
"Tell me that's a joke."
"A poor one, to judge by the look on your face. Sorry."
Some of the starch went out of my spine. Then I couldn't say anything, just sit in my cold sweat feeling sick and helpless. This was how I'd been before, and it had led me to put a gun to my head. I didn't want to be like this.
"What?" he asked, his gaze sharpening with concern.
His trust in me was broken, maybe never to mend. He would always wonder if I'd do something stupid again. "I... I waited too long."
"I didn't know what you'd want. I couldn't think."
"In regard to...?"
"Trying to save you. Whether I should have tried a blood exchange so you might have a chance-"
"Ah. Shoe told me about that as well, along with your reluctance to act."
"That's what he saw."
"You made your point that it had only a slim chance of success. We all know that."
"I wasn't sure he understood. And I couldn't make the choice for you; he did."
"But Mr. Kroun stepped in."
"Yeah. A good thing. We might not be here."
That hung in the air for a moment. Escott had more beer, looking patient.
"But I waited too long."
"Because you did not know my preference in regard to a choice between being dead or Undead?"
"God forbid this ever happens again, but what do you want?"
For the second time that night I saw a man suddenly unsure of himself, hesitating. "I have thought about it," he finally admitted. "And thought and thought. I honestly don't know."
"How can you not know?"
"Some days it seems a good idea; youth, long life, strength, all the other advantages, those balanced by certain disadvantages to which one must adjust. But other days... it seems like the worst thing in the world. Your decision was originally based on wanting to be with the woman you loved."
And lost. Yes.
"My circumstances are different. Whether I returned or not, either outcome would effectively remove me from my life as I know it now."
"You're thinking of Vivian?" If she was a part of the decision, then he'd gotten pretty serious about her.
"She's a very intelligent, knowledgeable woman, but I shall risk underestimating her and judge that she would not be at ease knowing of such matters."
"That's not fair to either of you. Just talk to her."
"Have you spoken to anyone in your family about your change?"
He stumped me on that one. "They wouldn't understand."
"My point exactly."
"You can't make a choice based on how another might react to it."
"Of course I can. It's done every day. Sometimes one stumbles in the process."
He was referring to my attempt at suicide. I'd gone into that with no regard for the harm it would bring to anyone else.
"Things might change in the future," he said. "For now, I just don't know. If-God forbid-another similar situation falls upon you, all I can say is use your best common sense in regard to whatever circumstance you find yourself."
"That's only if I have time to decide. What if you get hit by a truck or something?"
"Then it is my fate to be hit by a truck. But in the meantime, I shall endeavor to avoid wandering into the street."
"And if the truck jumps up on the sidewalk?"
Escott opened his mouth but hesitated again. He could read me easy, and saw that I was serious. An odd smile came and went on him, and he shifted a little. "All right, I'll tell you this and you can believe it or not. The other night some part of me was aware of what was happening. I recall that much."
"That I was dying."
"Jack, let me assure you... it was all right. It really was."
This had to be a leftover from that time in Canada when all his friends had been murdered. Surviving that horror had changed him, made him careless about his own life in the years that followed. I'd thought he'd gotten over it, though. "There's nothing all right about wanting to die."
"I'm so glad to hear you say that."
"It's not about me."
"Nor is it about my wanting to die. Wanting was not a factor. I was simply aware that I was dying, and it did not trouble me. It was... not being forced upon me by the ill will of another, but just something that had come to happen."
"But my fault," I said. "I'm the one who-"
"Oh, don't start, you sound just like Shoe."
"No, he's not. You and I sorted our credentials, and that's the end of the matter. My going septic afterward was just bad luck. That sort of thing could happen anytime and come from a paper cut. I wish to hear no more about the business. Please."
"Okay," I muttered.
"Thank you. What I'm trying to say is that if you find yourself unable to offer your unique help to me, don't be troubled too very much. I'm refusing to worry about it, though I will give more thought to the matter. For now-again-I just don't know."
"You sure? That you're not sure?"
He shrugged. "Should I make a determination one way or another, I will tell you. I promise."
The way he said it told me the discussion was closed and only he could open it again.
"Besides, Mr. Kroun's unexpected hand in my recovery may have resolved things already. We need to question him. I thought he'd be along with you. Shoe had the idea you were looking after him."
"Kroun went for a walk. He's not exactly leash-trained. I put him up at the house at first, but last night he disappeared into some bolt-hole of his own."
"Not in the literal sense?"
"Bobbi mentioned his inability to vanish." Escott raised a hand. "Please, she didn't purposely break her silence about him. After Shoe told me what happened, I asked her to fill in the gaps."
"Kroun's gonna love that."
"Secretive, is he?"
"Like a safe."
"Well, he is among strangers, all of whom know how to remove him. When one is wholly helpless during the daylight hours, one must be careful."
"Yes, one must."
"I would like to meet Mr. Kroun and thank him. Is that likely to come about?"
"Oh, yeah, I just don't know when. He's up to something I can't figure, and it's got a stink to it."
It was enough of an opening. Something shifted in the air between us, and we were suddenly back on another case again, same as ever. It was a conscious thing, and if a little forced for the effort, reassuring for being familiar.
I told him everything I'd told Gordy, then what Gordy had given to me about Kroun. It didn't take long, though it felt like hours before I ran out of words.
Escott finished his bread and beer, digesting both along with my information. "That business with Sonny is something I can look into."
"You stay clear of it. Kroun wasn't happy telling me the guy was his father."
"Yet he did. Why?"
"Moment of weakness?"
"I doubt that. It's odd. No idea where he went afterward?"
I shook my head. "He was plenty upset. Maybe he did just want to walk it off."
"His friends from New York will be less than pleased with you for not keeping track of him."
"They can take a flying leap, I've got my own row to hoe."
"Tomorrow I'll see what I can turn up on them, especially Sonny."
"Be assured I shall be most circumspect. A phone call to the sanatarium while impersonating a physician should be enough, then I won't have to go near the place."
"Good. You don't want Kroun hearing you've been nosing around. He's going to figure I talked to you anyway, but..."
"Yes, yes, caution, absolutely. The directions to that cabin might prove helpful."
"He's going to be touchy about it. Don't go looking for trouble, okay?"
"You're not driving up there without me."
"Wouldn't dream of it. Word of honor."
While Escott sorted through his stack of mail, I transcribed the smudged shorthand on my shirt cuff to notepaper, making three copies. Kroun would want one.
"Now, about the Alan Caine case-"
"It's over," I said. "There is no case. I left a false lead for the cops, and they're off and running."
"Something went wrong for you on it. It had to do with Hoyle's death."
Escott was too sharp by half.
"What went wrong doesn't matter now," I said. "I wasn't thinking straight and wound up being stupid. You showed me just how stupid, and I nearly killed you. I can't apologize enough for that."
"You don't have to, old man. It's past, my number was not called that night. I've miles to go before I sleep."
My gut gave a twist at that thought. He'd come too close.
"Keep whatever it is to yourself if you must, I understand that. But I am still angry with you on Bobbi's behalf."
I felt myself go red. It was shame. Out-and-out shame. It blazed through me, intense as fire. It was worse than when I'd shot myself. "I get you," I whispered. "Never again. I swear on Bobbi's life."
"You gonna clobber me again?"
"If I have to."
"You won't have to."
"Are you going to tell her what you did?"
I gaped in shock. "Hell, no!"
He relaxed a bit. "I'm most relieved to hear it."
"She's asked why we fought... I can't tell her. She'd never be able to trust me again."
"Good instinct. It would only adversely taint her affection. What she doesn't know won't be a constant reproach to you and worry for her."
That told me how he was thinking. This was going to be a long road. "She's going to keep asking, you know that."
"Tell her that I made you promise. Pretend I was the one in the wrong about something and began the fight. You're only protecting my good reputation with her."
That was one hell of a favor. Too much of one. He'd done enough. "She'd never buy it. I can't-"
"You most certainly can and will. It worked tolerably well on Shoe."
The implications of that sank slowly into my thick skull. He'd put one over on Coldfield? I couldn't see how Escott had gotten away with it, but if anyone could... "Really?"
"Best to agree before I change my mind."
"Okay, okay!" I put my hands up, surrendering. "Is Shoe going to ease off being pissed at me?"
Escott went somber. "I doubt it. Not for a long, long while. Whatever the circumstances that led up to this near disaster, and whatever the miraculous cure that averted it, he's not going to cease blaming you."
I didn't expect otherwise. But, damn, it was tough. I valued Coldfield's friendship.
"Just give him time, Jack."
He glanced at his watch, shuffled the mail and food leavings to one side, and tapped his pipe empty. "Well, nothing here that cannot wait until the morrow. I'll be glad to sleep in my own bed tonight."
"Uh-there's one thing..." I told him about the break-in at the house. "It could be Kroun's two buddies messing around. Until I know what's going on, you should stay at Shoe's hotel."
"Bloody hell. I don't want some unknown thug dictating where I sleep."
"Me neither, but you're settled in already, aren't you?"
"At Shoe's quite forceful insistence."
"Go along with him. There's no harm in it. He'll feel better."
"Where will you doss down?"
"I'll be at Lady Crymsyn. If it looks safe. For all we know, it was just a regular burglar."
"You don't believe that."
"Not these nights, no. Another thing-your Nash might not be home for a couple days. I'm having the steering wheel fixed." I thought he'd be happier not knowing about the bloodstained upholstery. "You can call Derner at the Nightcrawler about it."
"Why, thank you. I'd not given it any thought."
Well, he had been sidetracked.
A car door slammed down in the street. "I think Shoe's back."
"Somewhat early. He's giving me a ride over to see Vivian."
It occurred to me that Escott could stay with her for the night, but I kept quiet. How he conducted his big romance was his own beeswax. "You going to tell her any of what's happened?"
He gaped in shock. "Hell, no!"
While I stood quiet in the office's back room, Escott locked up and went off with Coldfield. The lights were out, but enough glow came through the blinds to allow me to dial the Nightcrawler.
Derner picked up on the first ring. "Yeah, what is it?"
He must have been having a full evening, too. I let him know it was me and asked how things were going. Michael and Broder had come by and were down in the club. They wanted a word with me-or Kroun, who was keeping his head low in the office. Derner gave the phone to him.
"Thought you'd be here by now. What's the holdup?"
"I had things to do. I still have things to do."
"You can kiss your girlfriend later. Come over. Quick. I'll meet you on the street in the back."
It didn't sound like an emergency, more like impatience. If so, then why wait for me? He could get a car and go off on his own easy enough. He damned well better not want to make an expedition up to that cabin. It was distant enough that we couldn't manage a round-trip in one night, and I was not leaving town without seeing Bobbi again.
Good thing Kroun waited outside, there was no parking anywhere close, including the alley behind the club. A delivery truck blocked the entry. Several large guys in dark coats (and probably up to no good) glared my way as I rolled by at a snail's pace. Stuff was being dropped off or picked up-bodies or booze, I couldn't tell what-business as usual for the Nightcrawler Club.
Kroun emerged from a shadow, stepped up on my running board, and opened the passenger door.
"Keep moving," he said before I could hit the brake.
I kept moving, feeding more gas once he was inside and had pulled the door shut. Even he had to work hauling it to, because of the armor and thick glass. "What's the deal?"
"Just head west and watch the mirror."
"What's got you spooked?"
"Broder. I think he saw me. I ducked and got scarce, but you never know with him."
"Why not just hypnotize him?"
Kroun didn't answer.
"Or maybe you tried once, and it didn't work? Crazy people are immune. Is he crazy?"
He thought that one over. "Single-minded. He's Michael's watchdog. Won't work for anyone else."
"Nice pals you got. Just talk for a minute and get 'em off your back."
"I have nothing new to say and better things to do. Michael will see it differently and waste time for everyone."
Sounded reasonable. "Why am I here?"
"I need you to drive while I figure the roads."
"Where're we going?"
"That mirror clear?"
I made sure. Broder was the kind of mug one should always avoid.
Kroun twisted around to watch for tails. His mood was considerably improved and more energetic, and I wondered why until an intake of breath tipped me to a faint trace of perfume clinging to his clothes.
I got uncomfortable pretty fast and opened my mouth without thinking. "Is she all right?"
"The girl you were just with. Is she all right?"
"You followed me?" He was more surprised than anything.
"I can smell her on you. Is she-"
"She's fine. Cripes, can't a man have some privacy?"
"How much did you take from her?"
He didn't reply, apparently overcome by sheer disbelief for the question. "What the hell-?"
"Figure it out. The things Sonny said, the hints Michael dropped about you making trouble, and the other night you were harping at me about feeding from-"
Kroun cut me off with one burst of gutter language and slammed the back of his hand against the door in frustration. I kept driving, ready to hit the brake in case he took a swing. Instead, he steamed a while, shaking his head, then barked a short laugh.
"Fleming, it is no goddamned wonder that people want to kill you."
"Just doing my job."
"Now you start," he muttered. "Okay, fine. I understand. I've got a bad reputation, so I'll let this pass. On the level-the lady is just peachy. But don't take my word for it, find a phone, pull over. I'll even give you a nickel to call the joint."
He named one of the more expensive brothels under Gordy's supervision, the name of the madam, and the girl in question. A phone call wouldn't take long. My eating crow was preferable to letting him get away with something ugly. Of course, Kroun could have hypnotically primed everyone with a story.
His reaction was not that of a guilty man, but then Michael had mentioned Kroun's lack of a conscience. Gordy's accounts of cold executions backed it up. Sonny's obscene ravings-none of it seemed to fit the man on the passenger side of my car. I measured that against Kroun's saving Escott's life, getting me off the death list, and his behavior in general.
But some people were very good at hiding the dark inside.
I glanced at him. He was angry, but there was no sign of that hell-pit emptiness in his eyes. For all I knew, the same thing showed in me when I went off my rocker. Maybe it was part of our shared condition.
"I'll check on it later," I finally said.
"Lemme know what you find out."
"I have to do this. It's not connected to Michael's orders."
He thought that one through. "Yeah. I see that. You're a stand-up guy, you can't help it."
I didn't expect that response.
"But you know," he continued, "you could try, just try not to be such a pain in the ass while you're at it."
That was more like it. "Just part of my charm."
A few miles of twisting and turning around the Loop convinced him we were in the clear. He gave me a direction.
"West," I said. "Not Wisconsin." And I'd been braced for a fresh new brawl for refusing to head north.
"Nope. I want what you wrote down on getting to the cabin, though." He had a pencil and another Nightcrawler matchbook.
Rather than drive while reading from my shirt cuff, I passed him the copy I'd made.
He grunted a thanks, then checked the paper. "This is word for word."
"Just a knack. Again-where are we going? And how long will it take?"
"Can't say. I don't know the area." He folded the paper into the matchbook, shoving both in a pocket, brought out a map, and wrestled it open. A black circle around a thread-thin line of country road marked our general destination.
Closer than Wisconsin, but not all that close, and I'd planned to see Bobbi tonight. I pressed hard on the gas. "You need a chauffeur, not me," I grumbled.
"I'm keeping you clear of Michael."
"So he doesn't know about your visit to Sonny."
"He'll find that out on his own. This is just to keep the peace."
"You're both used to being in charge, and neither of you likes to be bossed. He pushes people, that's how he operates. If he pushes you the wrong way, then Broder has to step in; someone could lose an eye."
"You don't trust me with your friends?"
Kroun didn't laugh but was mightily amused. "You trust me with yours?"
"I didn't have a choice. What's going to happen to Charles?"
"Like he was never sick. And he's asking questions. Is he gonna become like us?"
"Why should he?"
"Because our kind of blood is different. It changes things."
He stopped smiling. "Sure as hell does."
"You knew it would help him, but how's it gonna be for him later?"
"Damned if I know."
"You don't know?"
"Yes, I said that. I really did. You wanna figure it out, read a book."
"There aren't any. I've read everything on what we are, and nothing mentions a word about what you did. All I've got is you."
"Then you're out of luck, because I don't know. I'll say it again if that hasn't sunk in."
That exasperated me, and I let him see it.
"I don't," he repeated. "Really."
"And why is that?"
He shook his head.
What the hell? But more questions wouldn't work; he'd pulled on his poker face. Escott might have better luck getting an answer.
Maybe-and I was disinclined to believe it-Kroun was giving me the straight dope after all.
I'd suffered a blackout about my death. I'd lost days of time, though most of the memories had eventually come back. Perhaps he had that, too, and didn't want to admit the weakness. It would explain a lot. The bullet in his skull might make his case worse, blotting out who had made his change, how he knew certain things.
I opened my mouth to throw that at him, then caught a glimpse of his profile. His head was pressed against the window so he could gape up at the buildings as we rolled along State Street. His grimness was gone, and he suddenly looked like a farm kid marveling at the wonders. Everything would seem different because of the internal changes. Those towers would be new, shining and miraculous under a night sky that wasn't dark anymore.
No need to interrupt that. I turned on the radio and found some music to distract me.
Go far enough away from Chicago, and eventually you run out of city. It trails off grudgingly. In the last ten years a million people had moved in-I was one of them-and while most clustered in close to the lake, there were plenty spread around the outer areas. Instead of tall buildings full of flats, you saw individual houses that gave way to fields and trees with no sidewalks running under them, no fences cutting between.
The roads turned rough, the solid-rubber tires made them bumpy as hell, and most corners lacked a signpost. If you didn't know where you were, tough luck. There hadn't been much traffic to break up the last snowfall, so I had to go slow in spots. The heavy car skidded uneasily when the solid tires weren't trying to rattle our teeth loose. It got too noisy to hear the radio. I shut it off to focus on driving.
Kroun scowled at his map and didn't answer questions. Annoying, but nothing new. I played chauffeur and paid attention to the route to remember it later.
"Pull in there," said Kroun after half an hour.
Suspecting he'd lost his bearings, I did, braking near some gas pumps standing sentinel before a run-down white building. Dropped onto a wide patch in the road, it was shaped like a shoe box with square windows cut into the long sides. Faded signs informed drivers that they could buy gas, hamburgers, and hot coffee, the latter two emphasized by bold, inexpert artwork.
The place was open; a lone light, the only one in view, shone over the screen door. Even in the most isolated spots out in farming country you can nearly always spy a light in the far distance and know that people might be there or had once been there. This would be the joint shining that light. Nothing else but trees and wind and loneliness lay beyond in all directions. When I cut the motor, the silence crowded in like an unwelcome witness.
The muddy slush between the building and the gas pumps indicated customers had been by that day, but no sign of them now. Kroun got out and looked around, his manner telling me that this was his intended destination. Who the hell did he know here? Another crazy like Sonny?
He struck off, heading for the door. I followed, and we went inside.
Like any hunter I scented the air: the stink of old cooking grease, onions, and stale coffee dominated. I'd eaten in countless diners just like this during my newspaper days. For twenty-five cents you could get a filling meal that sometimes digested without incident and flirt with the waitress if she was in the mood for it. This country-cousin version inspired the kind of nostalgic pang that made me glad I was now drinking blood.
The woman behind the counter looked to have had a hard life, but a lot of that was going around. Her black-and-gray hair was pulled back and pinned tight, her face amiable enough despite the lines. She had to get all types in, but nothing recent that looked like us. We got the quick assessing stare reserved for newcomers, and she asked if we needed gas, food, or both.
Kroun took his hat off. "No, ma'am, thank you. I'm looking for Mrs. Cabot."
"Who wants her?"
"I'm supposed to deliver something."
"You're no mailman. What is it?"
He hesitated, then pulled out a letter-sized envelope, holding it up. "Not sure. Looks like money. They don't pay me to be curious."
"Money for what?"
"I don't know. Are you Mrs. Cabot, Nelly's mother?"
She went dead still, her eyes going flat. "What about Nelly?"
"I'm here to make sure she's all right. If I could talk to her a minute..."
The woman pointed toward the door. "Get out, the two of you. Now."
"OUT!" she bellowed.
He moved closer instead, but she was faster. Before he could even begin to give her the evil eye she pulled a Colt six-shot from under the counter, leveling the muzzle square on his chest.
"Our mistake," I said, and backed toward the door. I caught Kroun's arm and tugged. He retreated a few steps, reluctant.
"Please, ma'am, I only want to talk, there's no need-"
"OUT!" Her eyes blazed wild.
"C'mon, Kroun." I pulled harder. "Haul it."
She gave a double take. "Y-you're Kroun?"
He offered a hopeful smile. "Yes, ma'am. If you'd put that d-"
The barrel roared fire, short, ugly, and deafening in the confined space.
Kroun had hellishly good reflexes and ducked a bare instant ahead of the shot. I vanished entirely, came back, and grabbed him while the smoke still billowed.
The next second we were out the door in craven retreat for the car. Mrs. Cabot was right behind, taking aim, one-handed. Shaking and cursing as she was, she missed. Kroun slammed the passenger door shut in time to stop the third round. The thick glass chipped and went opaque right where his head was; he flinched back in the seat, and in a strange, strained voice told me to get us moving.
Good idea, but under certain circumstances it takes a damned long time to start a car and work the gas and clutch just right. I managed. In the meanwhile, she slammed two more shots into his window, each making progress toward shattering it completely.
We were suddenly bouncing onto the road, the motor howl drowning out any more gunfire though I was sure something pinged off the back. I didn't slow until a sharp turn half a mile down made it a necessity.
"Pull over," said Kroun.
"No, thanks." Just because I was more bulletproof than when I'd been alive didn't mean I enjoyed getting shot.
I put another mile between us and Mrs. Cabot, and he repeated himself. I'd gotten my own shaking under control by then and obliged. An unpaved lane leading into trees opened on the left. I went far enough in so we were hidden, cut the motor, got out, and went still.
Kroun got out on his side. "What is it?"
Held my hand up. "Listen."
He did, then shrugged. "Nothing. Just wind."
"Yeah, no siren. She should have called the cops by now. Even the ones in the sticks have radio cars."
"Maybe Sheriff Hickory is on the other end of the county ticketing cows without a license."
Good point. "What did you do to that woman?"
"Nothing. I wanted to talk to her daughter if she was there."
But he wasn't sharing. The wind threw itself through bare tree limbs and brush, which always made me nervous. It sounded like a ghost army was prowling around us. I was born on a farm but preferred the city. The sharp angles made it easier to pick out people when they came at you.
"Back in," I said.
"We gits while the gittin's good, before the law comes."
"So they can find us? They know these back roads and can figure where we might hide. I'd rather be a moving target. We leave now, and we might slip clear."
"Jack, calm down. I can handle any cop who comes by."
"Like you handled her? No thanks, I've had enough." I got in, and so did Kroun, but he yanked the keys out.
"We're waiting," he said.
Goddammit. A flash of anger went through me, and I understood that woman's urge to shoot him. "Just tell me what you're trying to do!"
To give him credit, he thought about it. I could see wheels spinning and gears grinding behind his dark eyes, and for one naked moment glimpsed painful indecision there. Then he shut it down. He shook his head, pressing his palm against that white streak as though it hurt. "Can't."
I thought about slamming his forehead into the dashboard a few times but decided it wasn't worth the effort. By tomorrow Escott might have the whole story. "Okay. Why are we waiting?"
"For her to settle down."
"That could take a few years."
"You see her nose?"
"Not really." All I could see was the Colt swinging my way.
"A nose like that means she has a bottle. She'll lock up, reload, have a drink or three, and fall asleep. We go back on the quiet, get inside, then I talk to her."
"Get inside? She's going to hear you sneaking up, I don't care how asleep she is."
He nodded. "I got that. The sneaking up is your job."
"The hell it is."
"All you have to do is hold her until I can put her under. I'll calm her down, make her forget everything."
Since Escott took me on as a silent partner in his business, I'd slipped into more than one place on the sly, but always in a good cause. Trying the same gag on Mrs. Cabot... no. Not without an explanation. "You tell me why, first."
Kroun gave a frustrated snarl, but cut it off. "I said I can't. I'm only here to find out if her daughter is all right and where she is. That's all. Don't ask who her daughter is. I can't tell you that, either."
He made it sound as though he was working under duress for someone else, but I wasn't buying. He'd ask the lady a lot more than just two questions. From those I'd learn more about what was going on with him. I'd pass what I knew to Escott, maybe Gordy, and they might be able to fill in the picture.
"We wait an hour," I said. "That's my limit."
He scowled, then gave a nod, handing over the keys.
That was one damned slow hour. I couldn't play the radio in case it ran the battery down, and neither of us was in a mood for conversation. For something to do I turned the car around so it faced toward the road. That filled up a whole minute.
The rest of the time it was dead quiet inside except for the wind outside and the tick of our respective watches. I'd gotten used to hearing breathing and a heartbeat with other people. Kroun had neither. Now and then I'd check to make sure he was still there, just my bad luck that he was.
It got cold, too. Even for me.
I wondered about Mrs. Cabot and her daughter Nelly and what either of them had to do with Kroun. My half-formed speculations were on the dark side.
Five minutes short, he had enough. "Let's get this over with."
Finally. I returned to the main road, keeping the speed sedate, slowing as we approached the diner. The CLOSED sign was up, every light was on, and a car was parked in front, partially obscured by the gas pumps.
"She called someone to come sit with her," I said. "No deal. Try again tomorrow."
"Just as easy to hold two down as one," he said.
"No, it isn't. She could have her whole family in there waiting with shotguns. Tomorrow." Before he could object I hit the gas.
We sailed by. Kroun grumbled to himself, looking back. "He's following."
I checked the mirror. The other car had pulled onto the road, headlights off. Anyone else would have missed him, but Kroun and I had the advantage at night. I picked up speed; the other guy matched me.
"Cops?" I asked. "Unmarked car?"
"I don't see any radio antenna. Some friend, maybe."
"We'll lose him in the city. Not much I can do out here. What'd you do to piss them off?"
But he didn't answer and continued to watch the other guy. "He's catching up."
I fed more gas, but didn't gain speed. Derner's garage pals might have tuned the motor, but they couldn't make it produce more power to compensate for the weight of the armor. My once fleet and sweet Buick was now a turtle.
Our shadow's windows reflected the surrounding snow, so neither of us could see inside. All I saw of the driver was a hunched form with his hat pulled low. The other car-it looked like a Caddy-came up fast.
He bumped hard into us, and I automatically hit the brake. He wouldn't slow, and on the slick road he was able to push and keep pushing. I floored my gas pedal, but it wasn't enough to get ahead until we started down a long slope. We gained a whole inch on him.
Crump, as he bumped again, much harder.
I fought to keep control. He hit the horn, which was supposed to unnerve me, and made a pretty good job of it.
Kroun rolled down his fractured window. He had his gun in hand.
"No shooting!" I yelped.
He looked pained. "Just going to discourage him. Drive."
The Caddy slewed toward the left as Kroun's first shot made a hole in the passenger-side windshield. Was his eye that good or had he gotten lucky? Before he could aim again, the other car hit the gas in earnest and plowed into my left back bumper. I nearly tore the wheel off keeping us straight and yelled at Kroun to get himself inside. He was half-out the window.
"What'd you say?" he asked, sliding back down.
"Stop shooting, you just made him mad."
It was a bigger and uglier sound than before, and the shock of impact went through the whole car. The Caddy had darted forward and slammed us broadside. I had the weight to resist, but no purchase with those damned solid-rubber tires.
We shot off the road.