Gordy and Bobbi were long gone; I sat in the darkness behind the theater screen feeling worried about myself at a time when I didn't want to feel worried about myself. I had enough trouble on my hands not to be borrowing a fresh batch by looking into a mirror for something I couldn't see in more ways than one.
Along with singing, one of Bobbi's many other talents was for slicing through the fat to get straight to the bone; she was right about Gordy, and my instincts said she was right about Escott. As for being right about me, well, thinking about it gave me the creeps, so I tried not to and failed, of course, pacing around in the small space looking for a wall to climb if it got bad enough.
For distraction I checked on the Stooges, but they were all quiet, if probably cold and uncomfortable on the bare concrete floor, but too bad for them. I wondered when the hell Escott planned on coming; I wanted to be shed of this pit and away from my thoughts, to be doing something. Deiter had given out with a possibly hot lead that could take me straight to Angela, and it needed checking before tomorrow arrived.
The movie kept my impatience at bay for a time, but the voices were unfamiliar and I wondered who was in it; I thought I'd seen and knew 'em all. Since my charges were tied up safe, I used a narrow passage that Delemare had taken earlier to go out front and followed it, eventually finding a peephole in the thin plywood wall that looked into the auditorium. What lay on the other side brought me up short.
I expected the audience to be black, but not the actors on the screen. I'd heard of such pictures, but never actually seen one with an all-black cast. Now and then you'd spot a performer doing a specialty number in a film, like Bill Robinson or the Nicholas Brothers, but not a whole movie like this. I was fascinated. Except for the Cotton Club in New York and the Shoe Box here in the city, there wasn't a lot of mixing going on between the races, and people on both sides of the fence often actively discouraged it.
The plot was about a guy accused of murder who had to prove that a gang had done the dirty work. It was no worse than others I'd seen along the same lines and this one had, surprisingly, worked musical numbers into the story, only they looked like they belonged to a totally different movie. The thing wound itself up with a gunfight and a deathbed confession; the guilty man had done it to remove his rival and get the girl. As she and the hero had a final closing clinch, the music soared, faded, and was replaced by the authoritative tones of a newsreel. The news was all about white people. The audience began pulling on their coats and hats and filing out, except for a few staying on to see the show again.
When the film started up with the opening fanfare, Delemare came back and found me getting absorbed in the story.
"What the hell you doin'?" he demanded.
"Shh," I said, whispering. "You want them to hear? I'm watching the show."
"But that's an all colored movie."
"I had noticed."
"What is it? Some kind of curiosity for you like Believe it or Not!"
"Huh? I was just trying to see how they did the frame against Johnny."
"What the hell for?"
Then someone in the audience told us to shut up. I shrugged and went back along the passage to the backstage area, Delemare right behind me.
"Why you watchin' a colored movie?" he still wanted to know. I got a better look at him now, medium in height and build, balding, gray hair at the temples, age anywhere between forty and sixty. He had a set-in, grim expression that may have been the result of the hard times or just the natural bent of his personality.
"Why not? I like movies and that's what's running. I'm going nuts waiting back here in the dark. You got something against me watching the show? I'll pay for it if you want."
"I don't need your money."
"So what's the problem?"
"Just ain't natural, I'm thinkin'."
"What? For a white guy to watch a black movie?"
He grunted and it could have meant anything from contempt to an affirmative or maybe both.
"Well, it's interesting to me. Where'd it come from?"
"Hollywood, where else?"
"Yeah. This is what gets shot when the white crust is put away for the night."
"And there's no white people in any of 'em?"
"You see many black people in the white films?"
"Good point. No wonder we're so pig ignorant about each other."
"Oh, jeez, you're not gonna start about how them actors are a credit to their race and all that crap, are you? If there's one thing I can't belly it's some do-goodin' social soldier-"
"Whoa there, I'm not-"
"-out to raise me above myself an'-"
"You've got the wrong-"
"You comin' in here an' staring bug-eyed-"
"Now just a frigging minute-"
"Makin' judgments about what you don't know-"
Then several people on the other side of the screen told us to shut the hell up or take it outside. Delemare and I glared at each other for a moment, then he made a shrugging, throwing-away gesture and walked off, though he didn't get far. Someone knocked at the back exit. He beat me to it, brought up his flashlight, and opened the door a crack. It was Escott. Delemare blinded him with the light, then grudgingly admitted him to the inner sanctum.
"Mr. Coldfield sends his regards," he said to Delemare, who was unimpressed.
"You tell that snot-nosed kid he's gettin' too big for his britches, an' I'm only doin'
this for his sister, for her being such a lady."
"I'll be sure to pass that along to him."
"You do that. Now get this trash outta my theater."
Delemare shot him an annoyed look, but Escott was all sincere respect, then moved off down the passage again.
From what I could see in the faint and shifting illumination filtering through from the screen Escott looked better than the night before. He wasn't moving around as freely as normal, but he was moving, and his expression, though still bruised, was sharp with interest rather than dulled out with pain. Trudence Coldfield must have worked a small miracle on him.
"Interesting fellow," he observed when Delemare was out of earshot.
"If you like rabid wolverines. You got here just before another Great War broke out."
"Indeed? He must have liked you."
" Liked me?"
"Oh, yes, Shoe mentioned that Mr. Delemare enjoys a good fight more than anything else, but only indulges in one if he likes a person."
"Jeez, I stay here much longer and he'll put me in his will."
"Then we shall delay no more. I didn't see your car outside, how did-"
"Gordy came by the house and helped load the goods, offered me a lift."
"That was most kind of him."
"I don't think kindness was what he had in mind. He also offered to bury these guys in the next WPA project, but I told him you had first dibs."
"Thank you, I think."
"And there's some more stuff: now that Kyler's out of the way New York is sending in a heavyweight called Sullivan to take his place."
That caught his attention. "Sean Sullivan?"
"According to sleeping beauty over there." I motioned at Deiter.
"I've certainly heard of the man, a rotter by all accounts. What else have you learned?"
I quickly filled him in on what I knew from Gordy and what I'd gotten from Deiter.
Escott gave a slight head shake. "From the sound of this you may not be required to do anything at all, simply sit back and see what develops."
"I don't have to see, I know. Angela's going to put up a fight and more people will get killed."
"If the Hydra we're facing wants to chop off a few of its own heads I think it is in our own best interests to move out of the way and let it get on with the business."
Well, I already knew about his streak of darkness, but what Bobbi had said about him came back to me, and I found myself staring at his battered face, trying to see what was behind his eyes. For right here and now it looked like a wall made of ice-cold iron bricks.
"I'll try my way first, if you don't mind," I murmured.
"As you wish. Best get going, then, our transportation is waiting."
"What is it exactly?" Needing something else to think about, I poked my head out the door and caught sight of a dark panel-sided truck that had somehow squeezed into the alley. The Stooges wouldn't lack for room in it.
"I contacted a federal friend of mine, a Mr. Adkins. It took him a bit to make the arrangements, but he's come through for us, as you can see."
The name tripped a breaker in my brain. "Adkins? As in Merrill Adkins?"
"The very one. My, but his fame does seem to be spreading."
"Well, yeah, when you mount a plow on the nose of a truck and charge into a distillery with machine guns blazing it does make for headlines."
During Prohibition Merrill Adkins created a name for himself by busting up more stills per week than any ten treasury agents put together. When Repeal came he shifted into tracking down federal fugitives. Last I'd heard he'd taken part in the gangster hunt and shoot-out disaster that had enabled Baby Face Nelson to escape capture sometime back. It had been an all-round embarrassment for everyone. After that he'd dropped from sight.
"He hardly ever does that sort of thing anymore," said Escott. "Much too noisy."
"What's his connection to you?"
"We share a common interest in fighting the Hydras. I met him a year or so back on another case."
"So you're bringing him in on this? It's important enough to get noticed by the feds?"
"By this particular one, at any rate."
"On what kind of charges? Even if Deiter and his pals intended to commit murder, breaking and entering's not exactly headline stuff these days." Adkins had always been there for the newsreel cameras, looking closemouthed and modest.
"Not to worry, Adkins is more than willing to take things in hand at this point."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Oh, he shan't interfere with anything you have planned, particularly since he doesn't know that you have plans, but he will relieve us of the responsibility of these three burdens."
"And do what with them?"
Before Escott could answer Adkins himself walked through the door. It's a bit of a jolt to be face-to-face with someone you've seen in the newsreels and all the papers.
This guy had even gotten into The New York Times, which is some trick since his line of work was more suited for the Hearst rags. He was in them, too, a lot, a real somebody who had done things to deserve the fame, if you could believe the reports.
I tried to match the black-and-white shadows I'd seen in the reels to the reality.
You know exactly what celebrities look like, what they're doing that made them famous, even admire them for it, and there they are with you, close enough to touch.
You want to but you don't because of the combination respect and bashfulness reflex most people get when they have a brush with a big shot. They don't know you from Adam, and probably have no reason to correct the oversight, but because they're famous, you want them to know you, you want to matter to them in some way. Even if it's just for a minute, it ends up being your minute, your little piece of them to take away. Nutty stuff, but that's human nature, and I was no different from anyone else on it, and even with all this in mind I found myself straightening my hat and touching my tie.
Adkins was less formally attired in a short hunting jacket, a striped scarf wrapped around his neck, and a sweat-stained newsboy's hat. He seemed about my age, had a thin hard face, small mouth, heavy lids over slightly protruding black eyes, a determined, unsmiling expression, just like in the reels. Not handsome, but he didn't have to be. Escott introduced us and we shook hands. I said it was a real pleasure. Adkins gave a noncommittal grunt for a reply and didn't bother removing his work gloves.
"This it?" he asked, gesturing at the Stooges.
Escott nodded. "Three less heads for this Hydra to turn upon us."
"We'll take care of 'em."
By that I understood he had friends waiting outside. "You want a statement or anything from me?" I asked.
He gave me a once-over glance, shook his head. "Don't need to right now."
That didn't sound kosher. Government guys were sticklers for paperwork. "When, then?"
"Later, we'll let you know."
"Where you taking them?"
The glance was turning into a stare. "Out of the way."
"Out of the city? Out of the state?"
"You don't need to worry about it, kid, they won't be sneaking up on you anytime soon." There was more than a hint of condescension in his tone.
So my restored youth was working against me, that or he was a career asshole. I shoved whatever hero worship I might have had in a deep pocket and put on an expression of earnest relief. "Well, golly gee, I sure am glad to hear it. I wouldn't want to have to hurt 'em all over again."
His small mouth got smaller, and I wondered for a moment whether he'd try punching mine. If so, then he'd only get the one attempt. But his gaze flicked around me and to the side the way you do when you're dismissing something way beneath your notice, and he told Escott he'd be back with help, then went out.
"He always like that?" I asked.
Brows high, Escott went innocent. "Like what, old man?"
"Forget I asked. Think I'll go find Delemare again so we can have a nice cozy race riot."
He had time for half a chuckle then held the door open as Adkins returned with two more men dressed like himself. They ignored me and went about the business of hauling Stooges out to the truck. I didn't offer to help; I'd done my share and figured to have more work ahead tonight.
"You're going to look for Miss Paco?" asked Escott, only just loud enough so I could hear him over the sound from the movie.
"And find her, if what Deiter gave me was straight."
"You might want to consider holding off a bit until Sean Sullivan gets settled in."
"Uh-uh, I'm finishing things up tonight. She's not going to be so busy with him as to cancel the hit on you."
"My thought was to spare you undue disquietude. You gave me to understand that you're not quite comfortable about employing your persuasive talents on young ladies. By holding off and waiting, you need not distress yourself at all."
A few nights back I'd told him about a still-too-fresh crisis I'd had when hypnotizing a woman to get some information. While she was under my influence I'd started taking her blood, way too much of it. That loss of self-control had scared the hell out of me. I was still scared, of myself, of my questionable ability to keep my own dark side in check in the future. I hoped I was scared enough.
"Can't get out of it, Charles. I'll be careful."
He looked at me like he wasn't all that convinced of my assurance. His cautious attitude didn't offend; it just made for two of us. "You may avoid any problems altogether by waiting a day or so."
I cocked a sharp eye at him. "You know something I don't?"
"Only a bit more about local gang politics. Even if Angela does manage to get Kyler's account books the other mobs are not going to want to deal with a woman. If they don't already know, they will soon find out about the pretense of her using her father as the front man and won't stand for it. She will soon be brushed aside."
"Translated, that means a gang war."
"Fewer heads on the Hydra. Angela Paco is only one of them. The world has thousands more. When a war breaks out they only kill each other, so I say why not let them get on with it?"
There was that cold streak again, and it made a kind of crazy sense up to a point.
"I'm all for it, but we both know innocent people get hit in the cross fire. And if you get scragged who's going to pick up my laundry?"
No answer for that one.
Adkins and his boys got the last Stooge tucked away in the truck. He came over to speak to Escott.
"Can't give you a ride back," he stated. No apology in his tone. No emotion whatsoever. I didn't have to wonder what Bobbi would have made of him.
"I'll find other means of travel. Should there be any new developments will I be able to contact you at the same number?"
"Yeah, sure, something will get through to me." If he didn't watch it his piss-and-vinegar enthusiasm could sweep us off our feet. Maybe Escott found him useful, but to me he was about as charming as a dead mackerel three days gone. Adkins jumped in the cab of the truck with his buddies and the thing trundled out of the alley, gears grinding, exhaust billowing and stinking the place up before the wind got to it.
"You going back to the Shoe Box?" I asked Escott, shutting the theater door on the parade.
"Not right away. I thought I'd take in the show, then see if Mr. Delemare won't give me a ride."
That'd be a good trick, but then Escott was a genius at talking people into things.
I fished out his requested pipe, tobacco, and the fifty bucks and gave them over.
"Excellent," he said, pleasure evident on his face. "Cigarettes are a quick convenience, but there's nothing quite like a pipe for a real smoke."
"And here's a bonus." I hauled his Webley-Fosbury automatic revolver from my coat and presented it to him, enjoying the expression on his face.
"My dear fellow, you are a miracle worker. Wherever did you find it?"
"Deiter must have taken it as a war prize. Sure you want it back? The last two guys who had it weren't exactly lucky."
"My delving into the realm of myth and superstition is strictly limited to the theatrical profession, not cases like this." He checked the cylinder and muttered a grudging approval for the ammunition it held.
"What about me? Ain't I a myth?" I vanished and reappeared a foot to his left to illustrate the point.
"You," he said, not looking at all impressed, "are merely a scientific puzzle that wants a bit more research."
"Thanks a heap."
He put the Webley away in his overcoat pocket, wincing at the movement.
"Shouldn't you be someplace safe and quiet? Resting?"
He made as expansive a gesture as his taped ribs allowed. "Who would look for me here?"
"You're kind of noticeable, pale face."
"Not to worry, I'll sit way in the back and not make any trouble. Hopefully, Mr.
Delemare will vouch for my good behavior should anyone take offense."
I got out my little notebook and wrote a number, ripped the sheet free, and handed it over. "This is where you can reach Bobbi if you need to. She'd probably like to hear from you."
"Is she all right?"
"Worried, wants all this finished and done." Another reason for me not to delay.
"Oh, and if you need to talk to Gordy, it can't be to his club, there's a tap on the line."
"Does he know what you're going to do?"
"He didn't exactly ask and I didn't exactly say. Maybe he talked some with Bobbi and has a notion about things from her. He gives me the idea he's waiting to see what happens and then will go from there. His New York bosses told him to stay out of it, presumably to give Sullivan some elbow room."
"Or to provide reinforcements should they be required. I'd advise you to be cautious with him, not rely on him if you can at all help it. Gordy may be helpful now, but if push comes to shove..."
Gordy was a businessman, and he wouldn't put himself out for anyone if it jeopardized his spot in the organization. He was too fond of breathing. "Yeah. Tell me about it."
"I was rather hoping that would be unnecessary."
* * *
To avoid drawing more attention I left by the back door and started walking until I found an L-train to take me to the neighborhood I wanted. Chicago is a hell of a sprawl, swallowing up little towns one by one, making them part of the big one. My destination was one such spot. At the turn of the century it was probably a rustic delight, but the boom brought on by Prohibition had turned it into a square mile of brothels, gin joints, and burlesque houses, blocks of 'em only occasionally interrupted by an eatery, a grocer's, or some other more ordinary business. The population lived cheap and died young, usually just a few steps ahead of a landlord with his hand out for back rent. Oddly enough, the Depression hadn't hit here as hard as in other places, since people could always be counted upon to have enough money to spend on their vices.
Just on the edge of things was the all-night movie house that was one of my regular haunts. I was usually out this way a couple of times a month when I got tired of staring at the walls of my room on those evenings when I didn't have a date with Bobbi. For other people, when the bars closed down and they still didn't want to go home, this was the place to spend the rest of the night. During the winter, if they could scrape up a dime for the admission and not spend it on booze, the bums would come here to get a warm place to sleep. They could stay at one of the rescue missions for nothing if they wanted, but most preferred watching a movie to being preached to, and second runs of a Shirley Temple feature was close as they wanted to get to redemption. I was here often enough that they knew me by sight and that I wasn't a soft touch for drink money. Once in a while if it was really bad weather, I'd pay the way in for a regular or two, but I handled the tickets to keep them from being traded off for a share in a bottle.
The neighborhood didn't appeal to me beyond the movie house, so I'd never paid much mind to it beyond the attention necessary to avoid getting mugged. This time when I strolled along the sidewalk from the L-stop, I had more eyes for my surroundings. Sure enough, there was Flora's Dance Studio across and down the street just like Deiter said.
Passing the theater (it was a Marlene Dietrich film tonight), I walked unhurriedly along until I was opposite my goal. For a cold, windy night they seemed to have plenty of business going for them. A dozen or so men were gathered under the bright lights of the entry, and whenever the doors opened I heard the brassy tones of a live band banging out a fast version of "Melancholy Baby." Once past the glitter, I saw an old, rambling two-story structure that must have stood duty for dozens of other businesses over the decades; you could see where past signs in the wood had faded and been painted over. One of the current signs read fifty-count them!-
FIFTY BEAUTIFUL GIRLS WHO WANT TO DANCE WITH YOU!
Lights showed on the top floor, but the blinds were down.
I crossed the street and joined a line of men in front of a ticket kiosk. So it wasn't an instructional studio, but a hall for taxi dancers. The men paid out one or two bucks for a string of ten or twenty tickets, then a bouncer pretending to be an usher motioned the way inside. I bought ten tickets and followed the rest through the door.
To the right was a place to check your hat and overcoat, but some of the men kept theirs, leaving them draped on chairs lining the sides of the hall. I left mine on, same as a few others who weren't trusting in the integrity of their fellow citizens not to steal. My reason had to do with the fact I didn't know how long I'd be staying, and if I had to leave in a hurry I'd rather have my property with me.
It was a pretty big place, with a low ceiling held up by thin metal columns at regular intervals. The noise was high over the music, shuffling feet on the scarred wood floor, a woman's artificial laugh, a man's hopeful voice, muttered conversation everywhere between strangers holding each other in an imitation of passion.
Everyone was well behaved, though, there were lots of bouncers to see to that. For some of the customers this was the closest contact they could manage with a woman, and they weren't about to screw things up for themselves by getting thrown out. I saw men of all ages and backgrounds, and just standing there heard five different accents asking the girls variations of "what's your name?" and "will you dance with me again?" Most had taken the trouble to dress themselves up; even if the suit was twenty years old, it was brushed clean. I saw little old guys with hair parted in the middle like they did when the century turned, and gangly kids that were all pimples and buckteeth, hair slicked back with half a jar of Vaseline in hopeful imitation of George Raft.
The girls were mostly young, some were even pretty, but moved slow on obviously sore feet as the evening was not new. A couple of girls still kept their energy up and it was making them money. When a song ended-none went on longer than two minutes-it was time to rest or change partners, or dance one more time with the same guy. Signs on the wall declared you could only dance with a girl twice in a row, then had to switch. I suppose it was meant to keep you from becoming too attached.
Jeez, you could fall in love with her and suavely sweep her away from all the glamour to a fifth-floor walk-up and half a dozen kids neither of you could afford. Couldn't have that.
The music stopped and a girl with frizzy yellow hair and a bored face came over and asked if I wanted a dance. Her satin dress needed to retire; she'd tried sprucing it up with some paper flowers, but they were crushed now, probably had been for days. I gave her one of my tickets and caught a flash of leg as she lifted her skirt hem and shoved the bit of pasteboard into the top of her stocking along with a wad of other tickets. Other girls across the floor were doing the same. You could tell who the popular ones were by the size of the distending lump on the front of each thigh. I wondered how much of that ten-cent ticket they were allowed to hang on to for dancing with the customers. Enough to keep them in paper flowers, no doubt.
A slow waltz started up and I took my gal in hand, and in deference to her sore feet led her around a few snail-like turns so I could get a better look at the place. The band had a trumpet man, a snare drum, piano, fiddle, and a couple others I didn't catch right off, all playing loud so they could be heard on the other side of the hall.
Around the edge of the dancers were guys holding tickets waiting for the number to end so they could cut in and get the partner they wanted. There were few wallflower girls, none were shy about going up and asking a guy to dance with them. Anyone acting coy here wouldn't make the rent for the week. Even if the girl was plain as an unpainted barn, her offer was usually accepted; you could practically smell the loneliness coming off the men, mixed in with the scent of bay rum.
Plenty of bouncers stood around keeping an eye on everyone, but it looked to be a quiet night. Compared to some of the other Paco businesses, this was as respectable as a church picnic. I knew for sure now that it was connected with Paco, because with no small satisfaction I spotted one of his men going up some stairs at the far side of the hall. His name was Newton, and I would have recognized him for a ringer no matter what. The difference between the regular bouncers and Angela's professional killers was pretty obvious if you knew what to look for, kind of like being able to tell a peashooter from a machine gun.
Now that I'd seen one of them, I noticed there was a lot of coming and going on the stairway, all men, some in cheap flashy suits and loud ties, others apparently just finished with their jobs in drab work pants and oil-stained shirts. None matched up with the would-be Fred Astaires I was rubbing elbows with.
More went up than came down and this was where the bouncers were really concentrated to keep out the unwelcome. Quite a mixed crowd it was, and I had a pretty good idea what was drawing them together, but wanted confirmation.
"What's upstairs?" I asked the girl.
"I dunno," she mumbled through her chewing gum. "Manager's office, I guess.
He's always up there."
"He must have a lot of company. Who are all those guys going up?"
She shrugged. "Customers, I guess."
"I dunno. Dance lessons maybe."
She wasn't holding back as far as I could tell; it's hard to fake that kind of supreme disinterest. The waltz finally ended, and I gave her the rest of my string of tickets, which woke her up.
"Hey, I can't dance with you for all these," she said.
"Pretend," I said with a wink, and walked on toward the stairs, losing myself from her in the general crowd.
There was a men's room along the same wall, which was a bit of luck. I waited until another dance started and pushed in, standing in line for one of the closed stalls. My idea was to go in, vanish, and find my way up to the second floor, but now it didn't seem so hot. The next guy in line might start wondering why I didn't come out. Then he'd check and find I was gone. Not that he could do anything about the mystery, but it was better to keep my head low and unnoticed for as long as I could get away with it.
I obligingly let others ahead of me and moved to the back of the line. A fast check to make sure none were looking my way and I vanished with nobody being the wiser for it. As far as I could tell, I got away with it since there was no immediate reaction.
That gave me a pretty smug feeling, being able to pull something like that off. I let it carry me as I filtered through the porous resistance that was the ceiling to emerge onto the floor above.
Since I'm blind in this state it's always an adventure trying to get my bearings.
Hard enough to attempt in familiar surroundings, it could be a real circus for my brain in strange territory like this. I bumbled along a wall, found a corner, turned, and soon turned again, bouncing lightly against oddly placed surfaces. There didn't seem to be anyone about, so I chanced partially forming again and found my ghostly body floating about a foot off the floor in the stall of another men's room placed exactly above the first. No big surprise there, it was probably for the convenience of the water pipes. I drifted down to the floor and went solid.
Someone in the next stall flushed and left. The rest of the place was happily clear, so I eased out to hear better. Music and the drone of the crowd came from below, efficiently masking over anything useful I might pick up. I opened the door a crack and peered out into a hall. Cheap wood panel gone dark with age halfway up the walls, the other half all peeling paint and water marks, with light fixtures hanging by rusty chains. I swear some of them were still sporting their old gaslight fittings. Lots of men milling around or waiting to get into certain rooms, but no sign of Newton, at least from this view. I chanced poking my head out to check the other end of the hall.
More doors and crowd. Okay, so where was the big attraction?
Then I picked up the unmistakable sound of slot machines being worked and a roulette wheel spinning. Great, I'd guessed right, give the man a cigar.
No one paid any mind to me as I stepped out for a better look around. What conversation I picked up had to do with every conceivable sporting event going on that week and how much to lay out on which risk. The numbers were pretty low, a reflection of the general poverty of the neighborhood and the times, but there were plenty of bettors to make up for the lack. I was in the wrong business if I wanted to make money. Maybe I should invest in a good solid, tried-and-true gold-plated vice, then sit back and watch the dollars roll in until I had my own mansion and twelve-car garage. Of course, there'd be the tough part of explaining it all to the tax man, but that's where accountants like Opal come in, making fancy with the bookkeeping until it looks all clean and sweet. But then there's other guys in the same vice business, your rivals, all trying to take the butter off your toast, so you either make a treaty or shoot 'em, simple as that. Then you hire lawyers to keep you out of court, or have enough dough to pay off the judge when they can't, or buy off the whole goddamned jury when...
I shook my head. Too much trouble. When I wound all this up I wanted to go back to my battered typewriter and make up nice simple stories about man-eating spiders, and then maybe Bobbi wouldn't worry so much.
Being just another face in dim light I had no problems making my way from one side of the hall to the other. Everyone was more concerned trying to figure a new angle on how to get some free money than to notice a fake in the crowd. The bouncers were another matter, though. As I worked my way around I checked each one against my memory on the theory that if I knew one, he'd know me, then it'd be time for my vanishing act again and the hell with the consequences.
There were a few closed doors at the far end of the long hall, one held a sheet of pebbled glass that had a light showing through. Maybe it was the manager's hiding place. Might as well start there. I did the same as in the men's room, put my back to a wall, waited until no one was looking my way, and disappeared again.
Invisible now in a forest of feet, I slipped along, keeping the baseboard on my left so I wouldn't get mixed up until striking the end wall, then it was a matter of pouring through the gap where its door didn't quite meet the threshold.
Unlike the other mugs out there, this was my lucky night. The first voice I heard was Angela Paco's. I found an unused corner, took up post there, and waited and listened.
"They should have called in by now," she snarled. She seemed to be moving, probably pacing back and forth. This was one gal who didn't know how to hold still.
"Every hour on the hour," added a man in an agreeable tone. I recognized the voice as belonging to Doc, a joyfully inebriated crony she'd inherited from her father.
Whether Doc was a real lieutenant with power in the organization or just a sometimes useful hanger-on, I still hadn't figured out. Last night, when some morphine-laced blood I'd been forced to take to keep alive knocked me flat, he'd pronounced me to be deader than Dixie, which decided Angela about dropping me in the lake. It was no reflection on his medical abilities- not that I had much trust in them-but when I'm out for the count and unable to speak or move, anyone could mistake me for dead. Depending on how things went tonight, Angela was in for a hell of a shock.
"Where are they?" Another snarl from her, and it sounded like she'd been asking that same question for some time now.
"You can try calling them."
She muttered and grumbled out a negative reply. "If he's pulling a double cross on me with Sullivan, I'll string 'em both up by their balls."
So... she definitely knew about Sullivan coming into town and was obviously not happy about it.
"Now, now, you know your daddy doesn't like such language."
"You and I both know' he hardly notices stuff like that anymore. Why the hell don't you do something about him? You're supposed to be a doctor."
"Indeed I am, good for busted bones, lancing boils, and patching up the odd bullet hole or two. Frank needs a head doctor to fix him, not a quack like me."
"They're all quacks with their hands out for cash and none of 'em doing him a damn bit of good as far as I can see. I had him in that sanitarium for months and all they did was make him worse."
"They got him so he could dress himself and eat okay."
"He's like a kid, I don't want a kid for a father, I want my dad back and running things like before."
"I know, girl, but sometimes we can't get what we-"
"For God's sake, Doc, don't give me that load of crap again or I'll start screaming."
Doc subsided, and I heard Angela's heels clacking on the floor as she walked back and forth.
"Where the hell are they?" she repeated.
This time Doc made no attempt at an answer. I wished he'd take a trip to the John so I could do something about her; I was getting tired of concentrating to stay invisible.
" Where?" A loud crash across the room as a heavy object hit the wall. I got the impression she'd thrown something.
"I do want to remind you that this is not your office and that was not your property," said Doc.
"Screw it. With the money he makes here, Dunbar can buy himself another bowling trophy. I know he skims off the top, they all do. As soon as Opal gets herself set up I'm going to nail the whole pack of 'em to the wall to dry out in the sun."
Someone knocked and the door opened. "Angela... ?" Another man's voice.
"That's Miss Paco to you now."
"Uhh-yeah, Miss Paco. What's wrong? I heard-"
"Nothing, you heard nothing."
"Yes, Miss Paco. Ahh, as long as I'm here, you got a minute?"
"What do you want?"
A shuffling as the owner of the voice and several others came into the room.
"What is this, a convention?" she demanded.
"We really need to talk to you, Miss Paco." He sounded more confident, probably because of all the people backing him up. There seemed to be seven or eight of them.
"The way the business is going."
"Last I looked it was just peachy. Those roulette wheels are still spinning and the slot machines are raking in more dough than a bakery. You complaining?"
"I don't mean what's in here, it's the rest of it."
"Which isn't exactly your concern."
"We don't think that way, Miss Paco."
"Oh, you're thinking now. Please enlighten me, Mr. Dunbar."
"Well, it's like this, we know that Big Frankie ain't feeling so good lately an' that you been running things for him."
"So we wanted to know how long it would be going on."
"Only until Big Frankie's better."
"But how long?"
"As long as it takes. I'm not making you poor, am I?"
"Well, no, but it just-it just ain't right for a girl to be doing this kinda thing."
Dunbar hemmed and hawed, then finally came out with it.
"We know that Sean Sullivan's comin' in to take over for Kyler. There might be trouble."
A long silence on Angela's part; then: "And you boys don't think I can handle him?" Her voice was low, clear, and very cold.
"Maybe if Big Frankie was-"
"Answer me, Dunbar."
"You're-you're just a girl, Miss Paco."
A very brief silence, then a gun went off. Loud, but not too loud, like a balloon popping. A .22 perhaps, great for indoor work. I heard a thud as a body hit the floor, a man's drawn-out cry of extreme pain, then a series of grunts and groans mixed with cursing.
"Any of you other bastards think I can't handle myself?" she asked, her voice even, like she'd commented on the weather. "Come on, talk to me about it."
Not too surprisingly there were no takers.
"All right, now I'm going to give it to you straight: Sullivan's coming into town, and yes, he'll try to make some trouble, but you can make book that I'll be able to dish back anything he throws at us, but doubled. Anyone got any doubts, then have another look at Dunbar."
"You damned bitch," said Dunbar, apparently through pain-clenched teeth.
"You're right about that," she said. "I am a damned bitch through and through and you're one lucky bastard. You caught me in a good mood tonight or I'd have aimed higher and changed your voice the hard way. As for the rest of you, if you plan to give me any grief, then you'd better put that out of your heads right here and now because I've got no belly for it. This is a steady, profitable organization that's made you a ton of money and will continue to do so while I'm running things for Big Frankie Paco. Nothing's changed and nothing will change. Got that?"
"But-but what about Sullivan?" asked one brave soul.
"We treat him the same as any other asshole trying to muscle in on Paco territory. Kyler tried and failed, this won't be any different, because I'm going to run it the same as Big Frankie, which means I need you to do your jobs same as before.
I've got all the account books, and you know they mean I've got the world by the short hairs. I'm not afraid to give 'em a yank when it's needed."
A murmur and a nervous laugh of approval for that one.
"When my father's all recovered I'm handing the whole caboose back to him, and you can bet that I'll have a list in hand of anyone who turned chicken and let him down. You want to face that? I didn't think so."
I heard more shuffling and murmurs. No one seemed ready to disagree with her.
"All right. I'm not saying things are going to be smooth. I'll need every one of you helping out before the dust settles, but when it does, you won't find me ungrateful.
I'm thinking a hundred-dollar bonus for each and a couple of free nights at the Satchel with all the booze you can handle might cheer you up. All I ask is that you don't break the girls, 'cause I'll need 'em for the regular customers later."
That garnered the start of a general laugh. "Sure, Miss Paco," someone said.
"That's better. Big Frankie'd be proud. Now, a couple of you get Dunbar out of here, he's making such a mess I'll have to call for the night maid."
Another short laugh, followed by movement. Dunbar cried out again as he was carried away.
"Doc?" she said when they were gone.
"Don't worry, girl, I'll get my bag. I swear, you keep this up and I'll run out of bandaging."
"I do whatever it takes."
"That you do, that you do. You put this fire out well enough. You impressed the hell out of this bunch by making sure Dunbar ain't gonna be bowling again for the rest of his life, but what about Sullivan? You won't sweet-talk the likes of him out of town with a promise of free booze and broads."
"I told you: whatever it takes."
"Huh. I'd warn you not to get carried away, but what's the point?"
"That's right. A dozen down, three to go."
"Deiter, Tinny, and Chick. Finding out what the hell happened to them. If I don't hear from them in the next five minutes I'm going over myself to see what's wrong."
Invisible and formless, I still managed to grin. Good luck to her in trying to find her missing stooges.
"Be better if you send someone else."
"You think I can't-"
"You can handle it fine, girl, I was thinking it might make you look too anxious if you go yourself. Don't want the others to get the idea that you're worried about a routine hit on some nobody."
I'd better not tell Escott that Doc thought of him as a nobody or he'd be hell to live with at the slight.
Angela didn't care much for Doc's recommendation and told him so.
"Like it or not, your best course is to always ask what your daddy would do in the same situation. My guess is he'd send someone else to check on the problem for him.
Let the rest of 'em see that you're just as big and busy as he was, too big and busy to be bothering yourself with small-fry stuff."
"I'll think about it."
"Good. Now, where'd I leave my bag?" His voice faded as he left.
She called after him. "Doc? Find Opal when you get a chance and send her in."
He grumbled back an affirmative and was finally gone. I heard the door shut.
Alone at last. But I hesitated at re-forming.
A mistake, since it gave me time to think.
My lover Maureen, the woman who, with the exchanging of our blood, gave me the possibility of living again, had talked to me about her ability to hypnotize people, about how dangerous a thing it could be if it got away from her control. Back then it had only been a distant concept for me and might not ever happen since neither of us knew whether or not the exchange would work. If I did become like her and returned, I fully expected her to be there for me to guide me through everything and keep me out of trouble, but life never hands you what you expect. Five years later I returned from death all right, but was very much on my own, and soon discovered firsthand what could happen when my unnatural concentration locked hard onto a vulnerable human mind while my own was fogged over by strong emotions.
The first result was the total shattering of Frank Paco's sanity. I saw it in his eyes, watched the devastating change take place when my white-hot rage slammed through him like a train.
It didn't mean much to me at the time, even seemed to be a kind of justice for what he'd done to me, but then I didn't want it to mean anything more than that because of my hatred for the bastard for killing me. I still hated him, but now more for what he represented than what he'd done. He was a reminder of my ignorance, of a lapse in judgment and loss of self-control. A living reproach.
The second incident was when I found myself alone with that woman I needed to question. It started the same as others before her: just get the information, then leave was the plan, but it didn't work out that way. She was temptingly attractive to me, and I was hungry. Even as I hypnotized her I got caught up and lost in her total vulnerability to me, with the heady realization I could do anything I wanted to her and get away with it. Then I gave in to that temptation and started kissing her throat.
It was like someone else was running things for me. I knew it was wrong and did nothing about it until it was almost too late. Instead of pulling back, I bit hard and began taking her blood into me. Seductive, irresistible, and entirely illicit, it was the best I'd ever had, and in my greed I wanted all of it-even if it killed her.
My conscience tardily kicked in, waking me out of the fever in time to stop. She was weakened, but never knew what really happened, of how close she'd come to dying. I did, and it made me ashamed and disgusted with myself and terrified of repeating the experience.
And here I was, alone with another attractive, tempting woman.
I'd killed before, but not by draining another's life away to feed my own, to feed something as ephemeral as appetite and desire. I'd come close, too damned close already. Those other deaths were hard enough to live with, I didn't want this hovering over my shoulder as well.
But what else could I do? I had to hypnotize Angela and make her call off the hit on Escott. An easy job-unless I killed her.
The assurance I'd given him about my being careful now seemed like so much hopeful bullshit.