Chicago, February 1937
Tired to the bone, I slumped in the front seat of Shoe Coldfield's big Nash, wedged between him and my partner, Charles Escott. The car's heater was going full blast, but I still shivered like a malaria victim. I'd never been this cold before in my whole life, but that's what happens when you take a dive off a boat into Lake Michigan in early February.
Coldfield, a large, grim-looking black man in his middle thirties, glared down at me with a combination of relief and exasperation, then shifted the glare in Escort's direction. "Charles, he's half-dead. I'm taking him to a hospital."
Escott bent forward so his pale, sharp-featured face was more or less in my field of view. The effort made him grunt. One of his eyes had a bad shiner, the other was swollen shut, and he held his left arm protectively close to his lean frame. He'd been through the wars tonight himself, I dimly recalled. "My dear fellow," he said, addressing Coldfield, not me, "that really wouldn't be a good idea for any of us, and you're well aware of it."
In response, Coldfield snarled a ripe curse as he hauled at the steering wheel. He made a smart U-turn along the beach road and got us pointed back toward Chicago.
"Jack's a little shell-shocked, but he only needs a warm place to thaw out and rest." Escott went on, peering at my no-doubt-glazed eyes.
"No shit. Then what? We wait for pneumonia to set in?"
I got annoyed at their talking over me. " 'M a'right," I managed to puff out through chattering teeth. Bad idea. It made me cough. Escott thoughtfully shoved a handkerchief in my face before I dribbled more lake water onto the overcoat he'd loaned me.
"Like hell you are," said Coldfield. He glared briefly at me again, like all this was my fault-and he was right-then focused on the road and the rearview mirror. I was glad I was low enough in the seat so he wouldn't notice anything odd about the reflection.
"Anyone following?" asked Escott.
"Let's keep it that way. No hospitals, Shoe, as a favor to all of us. We must assume that Kyler's gang or Miss Paco could have informants anywhere in the city and-"
"Yeah, yeah, well, they won't have any in my neck of the woods. I'm bringing in Doc Clarson to look at you both."
"I can manage without."
"Oh sure, I've seen how well you've managed with those busted ribs."
"They're only just cracked a little."
"Charles..." Rising impatience in Coldfield's tone. Couldn't blame him.
But Escott's attention was centered on me. "Jack? Are you up to seeing Dr.
I shook my head. A doctor meant an examination, which meant that the first time he tried to take my pulse he'd find out I was a bit more than just half-dead. In fact, I'm Undead, which was why I'd had such a tough time with the free-flowing water of the lake. Right now I didn't want to bother dealing with anything beyond getting out of my freezing wet clothes and maybe crawling into a nice hot oven for a few hours.
"What are you asking him for?" Coldfield demanded.
"I thought I'd give him a choice in the matter."
"Huh. Shape he's in he couldn't think straight if you gave him a ruler. Same for you."
"I'm also trying to keep the number of people involved in this mess to a minimum."
"Clarson's family, he won't talk."
"I know, but I'd rather not put him to any unnecessary risk."
"It's in my territory, I'll be the judge of what's a risk for my people."
"Charles, just shut the hell up and let me drive."
Escott subsided. As far as I could tell through my fog of nausea and disorientation, he seemed perfectly unoffended by Coldfield's manner. They were old friends from back in the twenties when they'd both been actors in some touring company in Canada. A decade and then some goes by and now Escott's calling himself a private agent-I suppose it's got more class than "keyhole peeper"-and Coldfield's heading one of the larger criminal gangs in Chicago's Bronze Belt. How they ended up in two such opposite fields and remained friends I was still trying to figure out.
Coldfield drove fast and the car got pretty warm-for them. I was only just starting to feel a little less like an iceberg, but my bouts of shivering gradually shortened, and the teeth-chattering business finally ceased. I could still taste the sour metallic flavor of the lake in the back of my throat, but that would go away if I could make a quick visit to the Stockyards to feed before dawn. Not much chance of doing that with Shoe Coldfield along; he didn't know about me being a vampire.
I'm not like what you saw a few years back in the Lugosi movie. There're some similarities between me and old Count Dracula, but I don't turn into animals or quake at crosses or silver bullets, flop in a coffin or stuff like that. I do drink blood to keep body and soul together-still have one of those as far as I know-and it's usually animal blood, but that little detail can still hit people the wrong way. Because of it I hadn't made up my mind whether to let Coldfield in on the news yet.
Escott knew all about it, of course, and could more easily break it to his friend, but once told me it was really my decision and my job. It would save a lot of trouble right now, but dammit, I was just too tired to open that can of worms tonight. You can't just tell people that you're a vampire and have them accept it, you have to prove it to them and then give out the whole history of how you got to be that way. In my case, I fell in love with a beautiful, but unusual woman, and we exchanged blood.
Last summer I was killed by a mobster, but much to his surprise I didn't stay dead.
How I got back at him for my murder is another story.
Half an hour or more passed with no one saying a thing. I liked their silent company. It was nice, so very, very nice to be with people who didn't want to kill me.
That and the warm air helped me relax until I was as near as I could get to dozing. I don't sleep, not like I used to when I still breathed regularly; at night I'm always solidly awake for the duration. When dawn comes, I'm so close to being dead it ain't even remotely funny. I've no control over it, and lately it's been damned inconvenient, if not downright dangerous. I miss a lot.
I opened my eyes when the car came to a halt, but it was only for a street signal.
Coldfield was in the thick of the city now and began driving sedately, easing into the start and stop of the wee hours' traffic, signals with care. Maybe he didn't want to jar us more than necessary, but you could also figure that he didn't want to attract cops.
Too many of them were still on the take despite attempts to clean things up since the Feds whisked Capone away on that tax rap, and as Escott said, people like Miss Angela Paco could have eyes and ears anywhere in the town. It was because of her I ended up in the lake tonight, another casualty in her gang war.
"Where we going?" I asked, blinking against a barrage of neon from an all night drugstore's sign.
Coldfield seemed surprised I'd spoken. "Someplace safe and warm."
" 'M all for it. Where's Isham?" He was one of Coldfield's men and had been with them earlier. He'd tried his best to pull me to safety when all hell broke loose at Angela's place earlier this evening.
Escott-bad ribs, shiner, and all-had been her unwilling guest, and I'd snuck into her house to try getting him away, but we tripped a burglar alarm on the way out.
Her thugs started shooting at us; Isham started shooting at them, and there was a lot of yelling and noise as Coldfield tore across the grounds in his armored Nash trying to get to us. Isham and "Escott managed to reach the car, and I'd almost gotten aboard, but little Angela started throwing hand grenades, which screwed everything up. They'd quite sensibly hightailed it out of there with me weakly waving them on. Coldfield's Nash was tough, but not that tough.
"I told him to get scarce after Charles made his call to arrange to get you back from Angela Paco," said Coldfield.
"She was going to do a double-cross. Try to kill him."
"I'd figured that much by now. You wanta tell us what happened?"
I shrugged, staring straight ahead at the dashboard. "Tried to walk home from a boat ride. It didn't work so good."
"The hell you say."
"Would you care to expand a bit on the subject?" Escott asked. "We rather lost track of you when Miss Paco lobbed that last grenade."
And what a sight she had been with her throwing the thing as far as her tiny form could manage, then running flat out in the other direction to hit the dirt a half second before the whole night went up. She'd been laughing the whole time.
"Yeah, Fleming," said Coldfield. "We wanted to come back for you. Sorry."
"I'm not. None of you needed to be there. Angela's her father's daughter and then some when it comes to being crazy."
"So what happened? How'd you get away?"
It would be much easier if I could give him the truth of it, of how I'd nearly checked out four times over this night. First by getting shot up by a wiseguy named Chaven, which weakened me; I can survive bullets, but can't tolerate blood loss too damn well. Then later, while trying to get away from Angela Paco, I caught a load of grenade shrapnel. The stuff had gone right through me, of course, but it hurt like blazes and weakened me more. The third time, while I was locked up and alone, one of Angela's mugs came to work off a grudge by trying to beat my brains out. I was only just able to stop him, and in the aftermath, I'd fed from him to stay alive. It saved me, until the morphine in his blood kicked in and laid me out flat. That's when Angela, figuring me to be dead, decided to drop my body into Lake Michigan. The only reason I was moving at all was that with my condition I'm a lot tougher than I used to be-though at the moment I was feeling pretty damned fragile.
A real hell night for yours truly, Jack Fleming, and there was still more of it left.
"Kyler had Frank Paco prisoner," I said, trying to sort what to say and what to leave out. "Was going to use him to get full control of the old Paco gang away from Angela. When Kyler pegged out, that lieutenant of his, Chaven, cozied up with her to get her to trade me for her father." And one other hostage, a walking adding machine named Opal who knew how to work the gang's books.
"The hell you say. Why did Chaven want you?"
"He needed a patsy to blame for Kyler's death. Probably pretty embarrassed, what with aiming at me and getting his boss instead when I ducked too fast. After he gave back Paco, he hauled me, Kyler's body, and what was left of a guy called Vic who was playing both sides, aboard the Elvira and was going to dump us all in the lake for fish food. I waited until I had a chance, then jumped Chaven. He's dead now.
Charles, it was with your gun."
Escott offered me a thin, glacial smile, his face alight for a second. "I'm delighted to hear it was put to such good use, though there might be trouble should the police trace it to me. I suppose I'd best report the gun has been stolen."
"They won't trace anything even if they do find the body. The bullet went right through him."
He might not have thought so had he been the one pulling the trigger.
"What's become of it? My Webley?"
"Still aboard the yacht, I think."
He merely nodded. "Who knows, perhaps I can recover it some day."
Escort's got a dark streak in him and it's icy like the lake. Once in a while I run into it. The encounters don't always leave me in a cheerful mood, and I was feeling rotten enough already.
"Are you really all right?" he asked, looking at me as closely as his good eye allowed.
What was making me sick was remembering the feel of Chaven's death, not the sound, though that must have been loud enough when the Webley I'd turned on him went off and shot out the artery in his throat. I remembered his hot blood bursting forth, striking me, coating me, the weightless, screaming instant as we both fell into the water and the sudden hellish silence that followed when freezing death closed over my head.
I huffed out something that was meant to be a laugh but failed. "I guess so," I said, lying. I looked down at my clothes, but the lake must have washed them clean.
Too bad it couldn't have done as much with my memory. Turning someone alive into someone dead, even scum like Chaven, made for a black ache inside that no doctor could ever fix. This nightmare would be living with me for a while yet.
"Then what?' asked Coldfield, wanting me back on the subject.
"Then I jumped ship and swam for my life."
"You outta your mind, kid."
"I didn't have a lot of choice. There was another guy there, Deiter, he was all ready to ace me. Between him and the lake I figured I had a better chance in the water." That was total falsehood. Deiter had been too shit scared to even think of shooting, and my ending up in the drink had been a mix of accident and bad luck.
Never mind the cold, that's the least of it; because of my supernatural condition free-flowing water and I just don't mix. It's bigger than me and infinitely stronger. If I'd not been able to vanish and float up over the surface soon after going under, it would have been fatal. And that's vanish, not turn into a mist. Another handy talent of mine, but exhausting.
"Deiter, you said?"
"That's what they called him. One of Kyler's boys. His job was to bump off Gordy so Kyler could take over his part of the town, then cut a deal with the New York bosses. With Gordy's rackets in hand he could up their take by five percent and keep the rest. Of course, that was before he got dead. Chaven's not here to pick up the reins, and now I don't know what they're going to do."
"Holy shit." He glanced at Escott, who was shaking his head. "This town's gonna blow wide open once word gets out. Without Kyler to take over Paco's territory-"
"Hey, don't forget Angela," I added.
"What can she do? There ain't a wiseguy in the town who'd let himself be bossed by a woman."
"She's more of a girl, but don't underestimate her. She's using her father as a front man, that's why she wanted him back so bad." Well, to be fair to Angela, she wanted Frank Paco back because he was her father, period, but she still had more ambition than Napoleon and twice the nerve.
"You think she'll be able to take over?"
"I'd make book on it. She's smart, moves fast, and if things work her way she'll have the whole operation's coded account books sometime tomorrow. She sweet-talked little Opal into working for her."
"She traded Opal back to Chaven to get Paco out, but Opal's not staying long."
"My God," said Escott, his tone full of admiration rather than dismay. "Between the two of them they could have the city in hand by the end of next week."
I was going to say he was probably overstating things on that point, but shut up.
Opal, Kyler's former accountant, was the best soldier in Angela's small army. Never mind all the gun-packing goons, brute force was nothing compared to a balanced ledger sheet showing all the profits, and Opal could do numbers the way the rest of the world breathes-without even thinking about it.
"Let's continue to assume that despite these distractions Miss Paco is still in a murderous frame of mind toward us," said Escott after a minute.
"Toward you," I put in. "She thinks I'm dead, courtesy of Chaven."
"Unless Deiter talks with her."
"He might think I'm dead, too. A swim at this time of year..."
"Yes, yes. And we know for certain that it was an obvious trap Shoe and I were driving into."
"Told you so," Coldfield muttered. "If Fleming hadn't been weaving on the road like a New Year's drunk we'd be in the lake by now, too."
"Angela will still have a hit out on you, Charles," I said. "She thinks you're a loose end."
"So I am."
"You're pretty cool about it."
"Part of the job," he said with a shrug of his eyebrows. "Right, I've not shown up for my meeting with her, she'll assume I'm onto her game and expect me to go to ground or to the police, or both, which means she will likely also drop from sight for a bit until things settle. All we need to do is discover where she might go."
"Good luck," said Coldfield with a snort. "What do you do when you find her?"
Escott looked at me. One eyebrow twitched a question.
I sighed. "I'll think of something."
Our drive finally ended somewhere in the middle of Chicago's Bronze Belt, and I was wondering if this was such a good idea. If Coldfield wanted to keep a low profile he was doing it with the wrong people what with our white skins- well, Escort's was gone fairly gray by now. I hoped he wasn't buying trouble for himself taking us in.
The entry to sanctuary was in a trash can-lined alley between some drab structures that must have been built right after the O'Learys' cow changed all the real-estate values. Coldfield stopped, cut the engine, and got out, telling us to wait.
As he went up a couple steps to the rear of an old brick building I checked my watch, but the water had screwed the works. Damn. I wanted to know how long until dawn.
He came back a minute later, opened the passenger side, and tried to help Escott out.
"I'm fine," Escott insisted. "Just let me take it slow." But the wind was cruel, and I still had his coat. He hissed when the cold hit him and started to double over against it, then hissed again as his ribs protested.
"Slow is the only way you can take it, you fool."
"Hah," agreed Escott, and allowed himself to be steadied on the steps. The screen door popped open to receive him. By then I'd climbed out and shut up the car. The shift from slouching comfortably in the warmth to standing tall in the winter air the took me by surprise. Something unpleasant suddenly burbled deep in my belly. I hurriedly staggered to one side, stopping short at a frozen puddle, and threw up.
Nasty, but mercifully brief. I'd swallowed some of the lake and my inside works hate that kind of thing. Pain lanced behind my eyes as I spat out the last of it and wondered how far we were from the Stockyards. I needed a drink. The right kind of drink.
"Fleming?" Coldfield waited at the door for me, peering at what to him would be thick shadows.
I raised a feeble wave. "Coming."
"That bad stomach of yours?" he asked when I joined him.
"Yeah." It was as good a story as any to explain peculiarities in my behavior.
"Don't know, don't care."
We pressed ahead and the screen banged behind me. I shut the inner door and was buffeted by a wall of moist warmth, bright light, and the smell of fish and grease.
We were in a kitchen, a pretty big one: three stoves with oversized cooking pots on them were going at full steam and made the air like August again. Some kind of eatery, then, that was either still open from the night before or getting ready for breakfast, or maybe it just never closed at all. Several black people wearing stained white aprons were gathered by one of the stoves, their watchful faces displaying a variety of expressions ranging from alarm to annoyance.
"Sal," said Coldfield, addressing one of the men, "I need you to-"
"The hell you do!"
This came not from Sal, but from a slim black woman in her thirties who suddenly burst in on us like a cavalry charge. She wore a sober, dark blue dress and a no-nonsense, God-help-you expression as she halted in the front of the group, hands on her hips and disgruntlement in every line of her well-shaped body. She treated the whole room to a piercing once-over, then came forward to stand nose to nose with Coldfield. She wasn't nearly his match in height, but made up for it with force of temper.
"Clarence, just what the hell do you think you're doing here?" she snapped.
Clarence? I thought. I caught Escott's eye. He made a small, hasty cutting motion with one hand.
Coldfield offered her a winning smile, holding his palms up. "Just bringing you a couple of strays. It's only for a day or so until we-"
"You know I don't want anything to do with your crap- no offense," she said in an aside to Escott. Brows high, he pursed his lips and gave a minute shake of his head. "You damn well know I run a clean place here and I'm not about to-"
"Please, Tru, this is serious. I wouldn't have come if it wasn't."
She crossed her arms and glared. "Uh-huh. I'm sure you'll have a good sob story all ready for me."
"And you know you'll do what I ask if I ask nice enough, so how 'bout we pretend you've heard it all and I go straight to the please-pretty-please-with-sugar-on-top part?"
My eyes were ready to pop. This was Shoe Coldfield?
Tru saw and slapped his arm. "Oh, stop embarrassing yourself in front of the bum. No offense," she added, nodding at me.
"None taken," I whispered.
"He's no bum, he's just had a hard time tonight, and Charles, too. You remember Charles Escott, don't you?"
She rounded on him. "I remember, but he's sure changed. Is that really you under those bruises?"
"Indeed it is, Miss Coldfield. I do apologize for not being in a more presentable state, but as your brother was about to say, this is a rather serious occasion and-"
"It's you all right. Still using ten words when one will do, huh? Well, don't stop, I like that English accent. Come on and sit by the stove. Sal, got any stew ready? Okay, then pour him a cup and get it into him." Sal, a very large man, topping even Coldfield's size by a few inches, instantly stepped forward to carry out this order.
"Now, who are you?" She looked at me again. I'd heard a little about her from Escott, and by a roundabout way she'd once sent a case in our direction. Don't know what I expected her to be like, but whatever it was fell short of the reality.
"My name's Fleming, I work with Charles-"
Coldfield interrupted. "Tru, this can wait, the man took a dive in the lake and he's half froze to death."
Her dark eyes flashed fire on him. "You and your-your whatever the hell it is! I don't want to know."
"Oh, don't worry, I'll take care of them, but you get out of my way until I stop being mad at you for it."
"How about I go get Doc Clarson?"
Her brows came down and she scowled first at me, then Escott, giving us each a thorough looking over. "Let the poor man get his rest, I can manage these two. They don't seem ready to die just yet."
"But Charles has broken ribs-"
"Only cracked," put in Escott helpfully.
"Shut up, Charles-and Fleming's probably got frostbite by now."
"No I don't," I put in, also helpfully.
"Shut up, Fleming-"
"Clarence!" Her eyes narrowed and she jerked a thumb in the direction she wanted him to go. "Out of the way."
"You run everything else, I run this place, I call the shots. Those are the rules.
Coldfield put a lid on it and, throwing a quick glare at each of us, found an unused corner and hunched there, shoving his hands in his coat pockets. I had the strong feeling Escott and I would owe him big time for this favor.
Escott, now seated on a stool by one of the stoves and hugging a mug of hot stew to his chest, apparently decided he was at the Vanderbilt mansion for a debutante ball. He cleared his throat. "Please allow me to make proper introductions: Miss Trudence Coldfield, this is Mr. Jack Fleming, my friend and business associate. Jack, Miss Coldfield."
"Pleased to meet you, ma'am," I said humbly.
She rounded on me again, along with another piercing look. She wasn't beautiful in the Hollywood way, but her manner alone was the kind to stop traffic. Maybe not Hollywood beauty, but they didn't know everything. Fine bones, fine smooth skin, really good legs from what I could see of them-she had all the right equipment and then some. Like her brother, she projected an arresting sense of power and energy, but hers was more overt and in motion. Her eyes- well, they were the kind that could look right into you, and when they did you better make sure everything inside was up to snuff or she'd know the reason why. That's how she struck me, anyway, after only ten seconds of her hard scrutiny. What she made of me I couldn't tell.
"Likewise," she said. "Now what happened to you?"
"Fell in the lake. I only need to dry out and warm up. But Charles is the one to-"
She raised one hand. "I'll deal with it, Mr. Fleming. You just come along." She moved past me, motioning toward a door. I followed her through a hall, up some narrow stairs to another hall. The sagging wood floors creaked, but were polished and the paint on the walls was fresh.
"What is this place?" I asked.
She glanced back at me. "Miss Tru's," she answered, as though that was explanation enough.
"What do you do here?"
"Help people who need it."
"Like a soup kitchen?"
"More'n that. Here." She opened the door to a frighteningly clean bath, went straight to the huge, claw-footed tub and twisted the hot-water tap. "Get your clothes off an' we'll dry 'em. You want some stew, something hot to drink?"
"Thanks, but I'm not hungry."
She frowned at me. "All right, I'm going to be rude and ask you-you got any problems being in a colored place?"
"I didn't think so since Clarence brought you, but I had to be sure. Now strip."
She went to a cabinet and rummaged in it. I hesitated and she noticed right away.
"Don't be bashful, I'm a nurse, and I've seen more naked bodies than most army doctors. You're not going to surprise me."
"A nurse?" I asked in a prompting tone. I slowly shrugged out of Escott's overcoat and took my time on the rest. Nurse or not, she was still female, very female, and I was reluctant to bare all.
"I got a hospital job, sometimes help Doc Clarson and a few others, and I run this place. I don't know what Clarence was thinking bringing you here; I'm just trusting that he had a good reason."
"You don't like his work?"
"His rackets," she corrected with a sniff. "Says he only provides what people want to have, but I know better. You and Charles will have to leave as soon as you can.
Sorry I can't be more gracious, but I won't have Clarence bringing me his broken toys to fix all the time. Next thing I know, this place becomes just another flop for the riffraff, and the people who really need help will be too afraid to come in for it."
"You think your brother's riffraff?"
"Yes, and he should be ashamed of himself. Aren't you out of that wet stuff yet?"
"I'm waiting on the tub water."
She gathered up an armful of bandaging and other medical junk and went to the door. "Men," she said, shaking her head. Her heels made a determined clacking sound in the hall and on the stairs. I carefully eased the door shut and breathed a sigh of relief.
The water was almost too hot. I loved it, stepping gingerly in before the tub had quite filled up. The taps were full on, and I wallowed in the rushing heat. When it was deep enough I held my nose and submerged, scrubbing my hair with my free hand. This was so much better than that damned lake. After a minute or so I noticed a change in the light above and surfaced, shaking water from my ears. Shoe Coldfield had come in.
"How's Charles?" I asked, pretending to puff for breath.
"He's getting his chest taped up right now. Would you believe it, she got him to shut up and sit still."
"I can believe it. She seems quite a gal."
"That she is." He started picking up my discarded clothes. "She's got a half-dozen others to do this, but I'm the one she sends up. Her idea of atonement for me."
"She said she helps out people, what's the whole story?"
"That's pretty much it-but she's choosy about who she helps. None of my gang, that's for sure. Women 'n kids come here a lot. She feeds 'em, gets 'em work if she can, or they work here to help pay for themselves. Remember Cal with the shoeshine box? He's one of her projects."
"Who pays for it?"
"She does, with her being a nurse, and people donate, help out."
"You donate, too?"
"She won't take my money. Says it's dirty. She's strict about that."
He left and I resolved to try making a donation myself. This bath was certainly worth a fortune to me. I lolled in the heat, stretched this way and that, moaned and groaned with it. In a little wire rack hanging from the tub I found a mirror and a safety razor. The mirror was of no use to me, but I soaped my face good and had my first shave in I don't know how many nights. Maybe I'd look a lot less like a bum to Miss Coldfield.
Figuring it'd take some time to dry my stuff out, I lay back, prepared for a reasonably long soak. When the water cooled, I let some run out the drain, then topped it off with more hot. Escott had a similar tub; but his water heater wasn't nearly this good. The only thing I needed now was some fresh blood and a bolt-hole to sleep the day away. And some of my home earth. Without it with me I wouldn't get much rest; my body would completely conk out, but my uncontrolled mind would keep running frantically on, usually with a series of bad dreams. Waking up after one of those rides left me more tired than when I turned in. I didn't understand why, but had to respect it, so I always tried to have a bit of my earth with me.
My belt was gone. It was the kind with a hidden pocket for money, only mine was stuffed with some good old Cincinnati soil. Probably Cincinnati mud after my dunking, but I could live with it if there was enough left. I wasn't too worried if it was cleaned out, though, since I had more caches of earth hidden around the city, one up in Escott's attic, one in the attic of the house next to us-they didn't know about that-one at my girlfriend's place...
Time for a stab of guilt as I thought of Bobbi. Last I'd seen of her was hours ago when she was on her way to the safety of a mobster's lawyer's house. I had no name, no phone number, no way to contact her except by talking to the mobster-and I didn't know where he was, either. Things had gotten pretty crazy and hurried earlier, but this was ridiculous.
I put it off for as long as my conscience could stand, then lurched out of the water, grabbing a towel Trudence had left for me. The floor was cold on my feet, but the rest of me was a nice cherry red as I dried, wrapped the towel around my waist, and padded downstairs.
Coldfield, overcoat off and cup of coffee in hand, was at ease in the kitchen talking with a couple of women as they worked on food preparation. One of them looked up and giggled at the sight of me in my vulnerable and draft-ridden state. I hesitated and shifted from foot to foot, holding on to the towel for dear life.
"Your clothes ain't ready yet," she said.
"I'll take 'em as is, ma'am, if you don't mind."
"What for, you goin' someplace?" asked Coldfield.
"I wanted to check on my girlfriend and have to make some phone calls. Thought it'd be safer if I made them somewhere else."
"Don't have a phone here anyway. No skin off my nose if you want to catch pneumonia, but Tru might have something to say about it."
"I'll risk it."
"A worried one-my girlfriend..."
"Yeah, yeah, women, I know all about that. Get his stuff together, sweet thing," he said, addressing the giggler.
"You ain't my boss, Mr. Coldfield," she stated, lifting her chin.
His jaw sagged a bit, then he recovered. "Okay, okay, I forgot where I was for a minute." He went to a clotheshorse rack that had been set up before an open oven and yanked my pants free of it, tossing them at me to catch one-handed. If not completely dry, then they were at least not soaking. My leather belt was intact; I could smell the damp earth hidden inside. Good, one less thing to think about.
"What the hell... ?" Coldfield held up my shirt and undershirt, which were riddled with holes: four distinct large ones front and back and a number of smaller ones where the bullets and grenade shrapnel had gone through. Most of the blood had washed away, but there was some faint staining. My quite visible hide, however, was all healed up by now.
"It was Charles's idea of a disguise," I said, improvising. "He's got a closet full of things a ragman wouldn't touch."
Coldfield grunted with distaste and threw the stuff at me. I went back to the bathroom and dressed, came down again.
Coldfield pulled on his overcoat. "You'll need a ride," he told me.
"I can walk."
"The hell you can. Show your white ass in this part of town and someone'll take offense at the sight. I gotta protect their sensibilities. Not everyone's as tolerant as me 'n Tru."
The pea jacket I'd worn since the start of this business was still pretty spongy, but I thought I could handle it now that I was warmed up. Most of the time excess heat and cold doesn't bother me, but Lake Michigan was just too damn much at once. The jacket was also marked by a number of holes, but I pretended not to notice them.
The girl giggled again as we left. It might have been fun to go invisible and stick around to see what she and her friend would be talking about for the next few minutes, but I followed Coldfield down the steps and back into his Nash.
"Tru dragged him upstairs to get some rest. Last I saw she was tucking him in and making him swallow a bunch of aspirin. Only reason she's not done more for you yet is that accent of his keeps her hanging around him. He can just open his trap and charm the feathers off a goose without even trying."
"He going to be all right today? Your sister said we'd have to leave."
He hit the starter, fed it some gas. The motor muttered to smooth life and started purring. "She talks tougher than she is, no need to worry about him, but I'll catch hell for taking you out before she's had a chance to check you over."
"Blame it on me." The last thing I wanted was her trying to find my nonexistent pulse.
"Oh, I plan to."
He pulled out of the alley into a larger street. I turned for a look at the front of the place. Still drab, like the rest of the neighborhood, with no sign to indicate what was inside. I asked him about it.
"She runs it like a speak," he said. "You have to know about it to go there."
"Why's that? If she's helping people, what's she hiding it for?"
"Something to do with her bein' a nurse. She thinks if the hospital she works for finds out about it she could lose her place with them, get struck off or something like that."
"But if she's doing good for people, why should they-"
"Because it's an unofficial kind of place. She's trying to get it legitimate, permits and stuff, but it's taking time, and the way she sees it, a hungry baby can't wait until someone in the city office gets off their butt long enough to find the right stamp for the papers. And you don't talk about this, yourself. She worked too hard to get where she is, first one in the family to really go to school and finish it out. She's got more guts than me."
"You didn't finish?"
"I had to make money and my feet itched, so I built me a shoeshine box for a nickel and started walking and working. That's how I ended up in Canada knocking on the back door of a theater there. They needed someone to fix their shoes and Charles talked 'em into hiring me for that, then into taking me on for backstage carpentry work. Don't know how he did it-they didn't exactly want a black hanging around the company, but when that guy makes his mind up to it, he could sell snow to a polar bear. Before I knew what was happening, he had me building sets and reading and memorizing everything from Bertolt Brecht to Oscar Wilde."
"Yeah, him, too."
"Must have been some life you had."
He laughed once. "Heaven and hell. Times be that I was the only colored man in the whole territory. Some people would come to the plays we did just to get a look at me like I was some kind of a zoo display, then the company wised up and took advantage of it. Once I got billed as 'the famous Mr. C. Coldfield of London as seen by royal command at Buckingham Palace'-I got good at copying Charles's accent-that was when we did Othello. Nobody in the berg knew any better, so we got away with it."
He made a flat, disparaging snort. "Hell, any idiot in blackface can do the part. I never really enjoyed playing it. What I really wanted was the lead in Richard the Second. And don't tell Charles I said that, he busted his ass to get the Othello performance set up for me."
"Ever want to go back to acting?"
"Hell, yes, but I don't see how, the way things are these days. Closest I get is running my club. Besides, I got political ambitions. Ain't no one going to elect an actor to anything important, which is stupid, since that's the one person who knows best how to swing a crowd."
"All politicians are actors, though, one way or another."
"Yeah, but the voters don't like having their faces rubbed in it, gives the whole business away for the farce it is when you get an actor up there telling them what they want to hear. Just look at Hitler, the way he hypnotizes 'em. That bastard should be doing opera, not running a country."
"Yeah, he's got a beautiful voice."
"All that screaming?"
"Huh, you should hear him when he's just talking normal. It's terrifying. That big radio of mine picks up Germany and I listen in sometimes. He's got the most compelling, beautiful voice I ever hope to hear this side of heaven, but the stuff he says..." Coldfield shook his head. "Got more venom than a cobra and he'd be happy as hell to see people like me dropping dead at his feet, only it'd spoil the shine on his boots. Musta tied his gut up in knots but good when Jesse Owens won all those medals last year." He broke off and chuckled for a while over that one.
"You know German?"
"Enough to listen to. We had a kraut in the company and Escott would get him to talk German in exchange for cleaning up his accent so the audience could understand him. It was really funny trying to do Hamlet when King Claudius was sounding more Deutsche than Danish."
I laughed. "This is all new to me, he doesn't say that much about what he did in those days."
"Has a reason for it."
My ears pricked up. "What's that?"
He shook his head. "When he's ready to tell you, he probably will."
Familiar territory there. I wondered what Escott's big secret was. "It have to do with why he's always sticking his neck out farther than what's good for him?"
He shot me a hard glance. "Guess you got some brains rolling around in that head of yours, kid."
We were about the same age. My condition made me look younger. I let it pass.
"Guess I do. So what is it?"
"Uh-uh. Not my table. Tell you what, get him drunk some night. Once he stops quoting Shakespeare you might learn something. In the meantime keep an eye on the fool so he doesn't get himself killed."
"Do my best. You, too?"
"My best, though he makes it damned difficult. Always ready to run into a riot.
Like tonight, going to see Angela. I knew it stunk, but he talked me into going anyway. I got more sense than that, but once he gets aimed at something..."
"I know. Like a train on a track."
He shook his head again, then asked, "Where you want to go?"
"Just drop me near the Stockyards."
He misinterpreted, as I'd hoped. "There's bound to be someone watching Charles's office."
"Just one of the things I want to check on. If it looks clear I'll go in and make my calls, then find a place to flop for the day."
"The hell you are. I'll catch it from both Tru and Charles if I don't bring you back."
Damn. And I was hoping to avoid this. I kept shut until he pulled over and parked. His car had a lot of nice extras, like an overhead bulb that came on when I opened the door to get out. It gave me the light I needed to focus on his eyes... and get his full attention.
"Shoe, I won't be coming back until tonight," I told him, holding his gaze steadily.
"But that's all right. You can go along to your sister's place and take it easy."
His normally tense expression was relaxed now, almost serene. "Yeah, sure," he murmured in a distant voice.
"I'll call your club around sundown so we can hook up again then. You guys just sit tight and don't worry about me, I'll be fine."
"You got it," he promised.
Then I let my control over him slip away nice and easy. I didn't care much about doing this kind of thing, especially to someone I liked, but I was getting good at it.
He had no idea of what had just hit him and would think everything I'd said to be perfectly normal and reasonable. "Make sure Escott gets lots of rest, he needs it. Sit on him if you have to, okay?"
"I'll leave that to Tru, she intimidates the hell out of him."
"Maybe he enjoys it."
I levered from of the car, then turned and put my hand out. "Thank you."
It seemed to startle him, but he recovered and we shook briefly. "Keep your head down, kid."
"I will." I hurried away. He put the car in gear and took the next turn back to his part of town.
Over the last several months I'd gotten thoroughly acquainted with the layout of Chicago's smelliest landmark, the Stockyards. Coldfield had dropped me within a block of the southern end of things. Five minutes later and I'd either walked or passed invisibly through all the various barriers meant to keep the cattle in and the public out and was in the midst of the smaller pens, looking for a likely dinner.
It was noisy, with all that mooing, and it never stopped, like they knew what they were there for. Maybe they did know, since mixed in with the thick farmyard stench and the mud was the smell of blood from the slaughterhouses and processing plants.
Unless you were used to it-or craved it like me-it could really ruin your night.
I breathed in the bloodsmell and felt my teeth budding in response. Yes, I'd fed not so many hours ago, but the morphine-tainted stuff had messed me up something bad, had nearly killed me by default. Time now to replace it.
One of the pens had only three occupants, and they looked somewhat cleaner than average. That's an important detail to me, considering what I have to do to get my dinner. I slipped inside and made calming talk with the nearest cow. This was another version of the hypnosis I'd done to Coldfield, but much more basic and less of a blow to the old conscience. I talked and stared and got Bossy to hold still, then eased down on my heels to find the big vein in one of her legs. She remained quiescent as my corner teeth swiftly cut through her tough hide and the first burst of red life hit my tongue.
God, it had been forever since I'd had anything this good.
Or felt this good about having it.
My girlfriend Bobbi had been a big help to me there. Being a vampire didn't mean I was automatically comfortable with the business of drinking blood. Just talking cold on it and it sounds pretty revolting, but Bobbi finally got it through my thick skull that this was nothing to be ashamed about, especially when it was the only game in town when it came to my continued well-being. I finally stopped worrying about what other people might think if they saw me-fat chance of that since I'm always careful-and just drank it down, having finally admitted to myself just how much I really enjoyed it.
It's hard to explain what the stuff does to me, only that prior to my change I'd never felt anything quite like it before. Sometimes it soothes; others, it hits like a hammer. Either way was fine, more than fine. Since my heart doesn't pump I don't know how the stuff flushes me with that special kind of heat that flows from deep inside right out to my toes and fingers. But it feels great. Better than great.
Sometimes when I'm really starved, the tide of it flooding through me is almost as good as sex-but only almost. Making love to Bobbi is something else again.
But I'll talk about that another time.
After a few minutes I had as much as I could hold. Unless I got on Angela Paco's shit list once more and she started throwing hand grenades again, I'd be good for two or three nights now. Usually I made a stop like this every other night to keep myself feeling fit, and I never went more than four nights without feeding, too dangerous. Not that I'd turn into some kind of mad-dog maniac and attack people, but it screws up my being able to think straight and I could get clumsy, get caught.
I pulled back and pinched the vein, blowing on the two wounds I'd made until they clotted over, then I vanished and drifted free of the pen. The animals didn't like that and protested, but by then I was streaming away from the area. Back outside I partially re-formed just enough to see where I was and if it was safe to go from ghost to full solidity. It was. With no one else about, I materialized in a dark patch between two streetlights. Checked the time again, then remembered my watch had stopped.
Have to get it fixed or buy another, I thought as I got my bearings and pressed on in the direction of Escott's office.
His rent was cheap owing to its location near the yards. He could afford better, but seemed to like this joint. Also, he was the half owner of a tobacco shop backing his place that faced the street on the other side the block, so maybe he stuck around to keep an eye on things. It was convenient for both of us.
I checked the street in front of the office, but saw no stray cars that didn't belong.
That didn't mean much, though. I went around the block and entered through the closed tobacco shop, then up its back stairs to a jumbled storage area full of old boxes and junk. One particular crate against the back wall marked the location of the concealed door Escott had installed there. He always excused his indulgence in something so theatrical by saying it was indeed a leftover habit from his life on the stage, but I knew better. He was like a schoolkid about having secret passages and hidden exits handy.
Myself, I just flowed through the cracks in the wall and went solid again on the other side, standing quiet in the tiny washroom for Escott's office and listening.
Nothing to hear. That was a relief. I'd been afraid one or the other of the gangs had sent someone over to lie in wait, but the place was empty. However, I did find that people had been through it pretty thoroughly. Plenty of light came through the broken blinds for me to use. Just as well, because the lamps were wrecked. The back room where Escott stashed a cot for catnaps was all torn up. Someone had kicked everything around: cot, radio, a few books and papers. The front where he received clients was in the same shape: desk overturned, file cabinets open and gutted.
Nothing that couldn't be cleaned up and replaced, but it made me want to crack the responsible party's head in just to hear what kind of sound it made. No telling who was behind it, the ex-Kyler faction or the struggling-to-come-back Paco gang. Flip a coin.
The phone was off the hook and making funny noises. I dropped the receiver back in place and righted the desk. The drawers were all out, their contents thrown around. I put them back, found the chair that went with it all, marveling that it was still in one piece. Tried the phone. It clicked a few times, then the tone came back and I dialed the Nightcrawler Club. I let it ring a long, long time.
Everyone was probably asleep, in jail and trying to get out, or elsewhere laying low. Much earlier this night the late, unlamented Vaughn Kyler arranged to have the cops in his pocket raid the place. I arrived just in the nick to keep his man from bumping off the manager, Gordy, who was a friend of mine.
Friend. He was a gangster as tough as the rest, cold as sleet when he needed to be, and I'd once let him beat me up last summer when I'd been trying to learn something from his now deceased boss. Still, he knew about me being a vampire and it didn't bother him, and he was very protective of Bobbi. That counted for a lot in my book. One of these nights I'd have to ask what his other name was.
Then miracle of miracles, Gordy answered.
"Jeez, am I glad to hear you," I said, my voice full of relief. "How's-"
"Your friend's okay," he said abruptly.
"My friend... ? What the-" I broke off, belatedly figuring out something was wrong. He would never normally refer to Bobbi that way. He'd use her name. "I'm-
I'm glad to hear it. What else has been happening?"
"The bulls are gone, we're just doing a little cleaning up."
"You all right?"
"Want me to come over and help out like earlier?"
"It's nothing like that. I'm fine, we're all fine for real, but I don't have a lot to say to you right now."
Bullshit. He had plenty to say and hear, but someone-as in John Law-was tapping his line. "I understand. But I'd like to talk with you sometime soon."
"It's late, maybe you can come by tomorrow just like you did the last time when you surprised me and those other guys."
Right, he wanted to see me, but that I should sneak into the club. "Yeah, I can do that."
"Nothing's going on here, now anyway." A pause, then in a tone more like normal, said, "You okay?"
"Can't complain. Been busy, too. Tell you later." Maybe I could have figured a way to tell him about Chaven's death and that Angela had gotten her father back safe, but Gordy had other methods of finding out stuff like that, so there wasn't much point to it. "And tell my friend... send 'em my warm regards. They're really all right?"
"Annoyed, but safe and sound."
"Will I be able to see 'em there?"
"You can make book on it."
"Thanks. Thanks for everything."
"No problem. See you then." He hung up.
I didn't think we'd been on long enough for the call to be traced. Fine by me; I could imagine all too well the fun and games if the cops tried arresting this creature of the night. I'd had enough laughs for one evening.
At least a big load of worry about Bobbi was off my mind. Next to me she couldn't have a better guardian angel than Gordy.
Went to the back room, fiddled with the radio, but the works were all smashed in.
No way to tell the time with any accuracy except by instinct and a look at the sky-
and Gordy's left-handed warning about it being late. I peered out the broken slats of the blinds and saw things were getting lighter, with more traffic taking up space on the slush-covered roads. Not long now.
Through the washroom wall into the shop's storage. One of the boxes there was much larger than the rest, but you couldn't tell that since only the narrow end was visible. The bulk of it was hidden by others stacked around and on top. Under the raspy dust and the rich smell of the tobacco I could scent my earth. Without disturbing the other boxes, I sieved inside.
Tight squeeze when I went solid, and I hate small spaces. I hoped I wouldn't be awake for long.
Dark. Totally black. My eyes can pick up and use the least little shred of light so long as there's some available. Nothing like that here. Didn't help my claustrophobia at all.
I shifted noisily in the damn thing, knees and elbows knocking the sides, until the bag of earth was sitting on my chest, not poking into my back.
I hate this part, too, the waiting until the sun comes. It makes me think about death.
The daylight comas are my portion of that long sleep, my payment for cheating it the rest of the time, I suppose. I don't mind them too much, just the waiting for them to happen. At home, in my hideaway in Escort's basement, I'd sometimes put off dropping into my earth-lined bed until the absolute last second. It gave me a moment's illusion that I had some control over the process. No such luxury here. Nor as safe. Once I was out the whole block could burn to the foundations and I wouldn't know I was being killed all over again.
Damn, but I hate-
My eyelids slammed down, and I stopped being me for the day.