Lifeblood Chapter 1

Author: P.N. Elrod

Series: Vampire Files #2

Genres: Fantasy , Mystery

"BE A SPORT," I said to the bartender, not quite meeting his eye, "I'm nursin' a broken heart."

"Yeah, yeah," he replied, and continued polishing a glass with a gray rag.

"No foolin', I got the money." And I fumbled five singles from my shirt pocket and let them flutter onto the damp black wood of the bar. "Come on, that's worth a bottle, ain't it? I won't make no trouble."

"You can make book on it."

He had a right to be confident. We were nearly the same height, but I'm on the lean side and he was built like a steam shovel and just as solid.

He thought he could take care of me.

He stopped polishing the glass and put it down next to the bills. I smiled and tried to look friendly, which was a hell of an act under the circumstances. This was one of those cheaper-than-two-bit dives where you take your life in your hands just by going to the men's room. From the smell of things, the facilities were located just outside the front door against the wall of the building, gentlemen on the left, ladies I renewed my hopeful smile and rustled the bills temptingly.

He looked at them, then gave me a fishy eye, gauging my apparent drunkenness against the lure of the money. It was a slow night and the money won. His hand made a move for it, but mine was a little faster and covered three of Washington's portraits first.

"Wise guy," he said, and took a bottle of the cheap stuff down from the shelf behind him. Hell, it was all cheap, but that hardly mattered to me, I only wanted an excuse to hang around.

"I've had some, but not that much." I left two bucks on the bar, took the bottle, glass, and remaining money, and tottered to the second booth in line along the wall. With my back to the front door I settled in, using the careful movements of a drunk who wants to show people he isn't. I spent a lot of time counting my three dollars and putting them away before pouring a drink and pretending to imbibe. Ten cents for the whole bottle would have been an overcharge; the stuff smelled like some of the old poison left over from before repeal. I brought the glass to my lips, made a face, and coughed, spilling some of it down my well-stained shirtfront.

While I was busy dabbing at the mess with a dirty handkerchief, a big man in dark gray came in and went straight to the bar. He was in a suit, which was wrong for the neighborhood, and he was in a hurry, which was wrong for the hour. At one in the morning, nobody should be in a hurry.

He ordered a whiskey with a beer chaser and took a look around. It didn't take long; except for me, seven booths, and the bartender, the place was empty.

He studied me like a bug. I pretended real hard that I was drunk and simple-minded and hoped he'd buy the act. It helped that I wore rough work clothes that stank of the river and past debauches with the bottle--just another country kid corrupted by the big bad city.

Apparently I was no threat. He knocked back the whiskey and took the beer to the last booth next to the back door and sat on the outside edge, where he could see people coming in from the street. I used the tilted mirror hanging over the bar to watch him. It was an old one with flecks of tamish like freckles, but his reflection was clear enough. He hunched over the beer and drained it a sip at a time, with long pauses in between. His soft hat was pulled low, but now and then his eyes gleamed when he used the mirror himself. I kept still and enjoyed his slight puzzlement when he couldn't spot my image in the glass.

Another man walked in from the night and hesitantly approached the bar.

He was also too well dressed, but was a bit more seedy and timid. He had a tall, thin body with a beaky nose that supported some black-rimmed pince-nez on a pastel blue velvet ribbon. He wore a cheap blue suit, the cuffs a little too short and the pants a little too tight. His ankles stuck out, revealing black silk socks peeking over the tops of black shoes with toes that had been chiseled to a lethal point. He affected a black cane with a silver handle, which would buy him eternity in this neighborhood if he waved it around too much.

He tried ordering a sherry and got a look of contemptuous disbelief instead. He had better luck asking for gin, then made a point of wiping the rim of the glass clean with his printed silk handkerchief before drinking. After taking a sip, he dabbed his lips and smoothed the pencil line under his nose that passed for a moustache.

He looked around, as nervous as a virgin in a frat house. He noted me and the man in the back booth, and when neither of us leaped out to cut his throat, he relaxed a little. He checked the clock behind the bar, comparing its time to a silver watch attached to his vest and frowned.

The bartender moved away, no doubt driven off by the scent of dying lilies that the newcomer had doused over himself. A cloud of it hit me in the face like exhaust from a truck, and I gave up breathing for a while.

He looked at the watch again and then at the door. No one came in. He removed his hat, placing it gently on the bar, as though it might offend someone. From a low widow's peak to the curl-clustered nape, his dark hair had been carefully dressed with a series of waves that were too regular to be natural. He removed his gloves, plucking delicately at the fingertips, then absently patted his hair down.

The bartender caught the eyes of the man in the booth and shrugged with raised brows and a superior smile as though to say he couldn't help who walked through the door as long as they paid. The man in the booth hunched closer to his beer and watched the mirror.

Two minutes later a lady walked in, probably the first one to ever cross the threshold. She was small, not much over five feet, wearing emerald green with a matching hat and a heavy dark veil that covered her face down to her hard, red lips. She carried a big green bag trimmed with beads that twinkled in the light. Her green heels made quite a noise as she crossed the wood floor to the tall man at the bar. He straightened a little, because polite men do things like that when a lady comes up to them, and he did look polite.

She glanced around warily, her eyes resting on me a moment. She must have been pretty enough to be noticed even by a drunk like me; at least she had a trim figure and good legs. I gave her an encouraging, if bleary leer and raised my glass hopefully. After that she ignored me and tilted her chin expectantly at the tall man.

He frowned, worried, but gathered up his hat, cane, gloves, and drink and followed her to the second-to-last booth at the end. She sat with her back to me and the man slid in opposite her with his back to the big man in gray, who was now pressed tight against the wall. She seemed not to have noticed him.

The gin placed his cane across the table, the curved handle hanging over the outside edge. His hat went next to it and the gloves were tucked into a pocket. I could tell he was nervous again from the way he fussed with things. He quietly asked the woman if she cared to have a drink.

She shook her head. He repeated the gesture to the bartender, who then moved down to my end and picked up another glass to polish. He was watching me, but I was in a slack-jawed dream, staring into space, at least at the space occupied by the mirror behind him.

The man in gray leaned to the outside and craned his neck. He could see the bartender and was now worried that he couldn't see me as well, but it was too late to investigate the problem without calling attention to himself.

The woman stared at her companion, her breath gently ruffling the veil.

Her voice was pitched low, but even at that distance I had no trouble hearing the conversation.

"Do you have it?"

The man cocked his head to one side, favoring her with the stronger lens of the pince-nez. "I might ask you the same question." His voice was flat and breathy, as though he were afraid the let the words out.

She didn't like him or his answer, but eventually lifted the purse from her lap to the table. With her left hand she pulled out a slim leather case and opened it for his inspection. It was no larger than a pack of cigarettes, and she held it ready to pull back if he grabbed it. He peered at the contents a moment, then drew a jeweler's loupe from his pocket.

"May I?" He extended a manicured hand. She hesitated. "I have to verify that it is genuine. Miss er Green. Mr. Swafford was very clear on that point."

She put the case on the table, her right hand lingering inside the big purse. "Just as long as you know that this is genuine," she told him, and turned the bag to let him see inside.

He stiffened, his eyes frozen on her hidden hand. He licked his lower lip. "V-very well." Slowly he picked up the leather case, removing the pince-nez and screwing the loupe into one eye. He examined what was in the case for ten seconds and reversed the motions, replacing it back onto the scarred tabletop.

"Well?" she said.

"It is genuine." He settled the pince-nez back on his nose.

"I knew that, let's get on with it."

"Y-yes, certainly." From his coat pocket he produced an envelope and gave it to her. She opened it and examined the contents in turn, pulling out one of the hundred-dollar bills from the center. A second later she looked up and grabbed the leather case.

"You can tell Swafford it's in the fire," she said in a voice like ground glass.

His eyes darted unhappily from the empty spot on the table to her veil.

"But why?"

"These bills are marked. If there's cops outside you're a corpse."

"No, please, I didn't know about this, please wait!"

She didn't look like she was ready to move, but the man was unnerved.

Behind him the big guy had shifted a hand to the inside of his coat, which explained why she hadn't noticed him; there'd been no need to notice her partner.

"I-I don't understand this. Mr. Swafford entrusted me to verify the stamp and to pay you--nothing more. I assure you that I had no idea--"

"I said it's in the fire."

"But wait, please, you have no idea how valuable it is--

"Five grand. I only asked for half."

"I can help you. I know other collectors, ones who would ask no questions. They'd be glad to pay you its full worth. If I had the money, I'd buy it myself."

She took in his cheap clothes, her mouth becoming small and thin. "I'm sure you would." Her hand shot up and knocked the pince-nez from his nose, and his head snapped back a fraction too late to avoid it. They hung from the velvet ribbon, swinging free and hitting the table edge with a soft tick.

In turn his gray eyes hardened and his cowering posture altered and straightened. "We may still come to an equitable arrangement. Miss Green." His breathy manner of speech had been replaced by a precise English accent, and the prissy mannerisms dropped from him like sour milk.

"Like hell we will, Escott. Stand up and follow Sled out the back door."

Escott glanced up as the big shadow of the man in gray loomed over him.

"I meant what I--"

"Shut up or you get it now."

He shot her a glum look and stood. He put on his hat and reached for the cane, but Sled grabbed it first, grinning at Escott's discomfiture. Sled opened the back door and started through a short, dark passage that served as storage space and led to the rear alley. The bartender watched me and pretended not to notice his other customers.

I gave up my drunk act and vanished into thin air. Maybe he could pretend not to notice that, either.

Escott moved slowly through the passage after Sled. The woman was behind him, presumably with her hand still on the gun in her purse. For the moment I was only aware of their bodies and general positions. The woman shivered as I passed her, the way they say you do when someone walks over your grave. Escott paused when I brushed past him and had to be urged on; it was his way of letting me know he was conscious of my presence.

Sled was out the back door now, waiting as Escott emerged with the woman. I didn't know if Sled had his gun ready yet, but hers was, so she'd have to be dealt with first.

I melted back into reality and solidified. From her point of view I just came out of nowhere, which was essentially correct. I slapped the gun from her grip, put a hand over her mouth, another around her waist, then half lifted her away into the dark. She made a nasal squeal of outrage, her heels flailing against my shins.

Sled's attention cut from Escott to her, and the gun jumped from the shoulder holster to his hand like magic. Escott grabbed it, forcing it down, and used his body to ram Sled against the brick wall of the dive.

He was stronger than his thin frame promised, and the bricks did nothing for Sled's looks or disposition. He hit Escott with the cane, but it was at the wrong angle and he couldn't put his full strength in it. There was a meaty thump and gasp as Escott slammed the man's gun hand hard into the bricks. The gun dropped. The cane came down again. Escott took the blow against his side and at the same time led with a right that went halfway to Sled's backbone.

While they danced around, I tore the purse from the woman. Holding on to her was like trying to give a bath to an alley cat. I pushed her away from the melee, hoping she would have the sense to run. We wanted the stamp, not her. She was agile, though; one second she was getting her balance, the next she was making an unladylike tackle for Sled's gun.

She got it.

Her index finger slotted neatly over the trigger on the first try and she rolled and brought it up like an expert, firing point blank at me as I lunged. The yellow flash filled my whole world. I didn't hear the thing go off, maybe at that range it was too loud to hear. I felt the wrenching impact as the slug struck over my left eye and sent me on a slow, breathless tumble into white-hot agony.

Its duration was mercifully brief. I was writhing and solid one instant and weightless and floating the next. The shock and pain had knocked me incorporeal, temporarily releasing me from the burden of having a body full of outraged nerve endings. I wanted to stay in that non-place, but Escott's voice, distorted as though through layers of cotton, was dragging me back. He shouted my name once, and then the gun went off again.

I reappeared in time to see the smoke flaring away from its muzzle. Sled launched himself away from Escott, grabbed the protesting woman on the run, and dragged her off the battlefield.

Escott was leaning against the wall and had made no move to stop them.

He was doubled over, struggling to breathe, with his arms curled tight around his stomach. His pale face stood out from the shadows like a fun-house ghost. Even as I found my feet he lost his and sank to the ground.

I was kneeling by him in a second, heart in my throat. "Charles?" My voice was all funny, as though it were borrowed from some stranger.

"Minute--" he gasped. He shut his eyes, let his mouth sag, and concentrated on drawing in air. I eased him more comfortably against the wall and tried to check his damage, but he shook his head.

"How bad?" I asked.

He showed a few teeth, but I couldn't tell if it was a grimace or a smile: with him it could go either way. His breathing evened a little and his eyes cracked open. "Where's the stamp?" he whispered.

Stamp? What the hell did that matter? "I'll get an ambulance."

"No need, I'm not hurt."

"You're doing a good imitation of it. Just hold on and--"

One of his hands came up. "Give me a minute and I'll be fine."


The other hand came up. Clean. "I'm only winded."

"What the--

"My bulletproof vest," he said with an air of stating the obvious.

I checked; under the rumpled clothes was a solid-feeling something encasing his torso.

"Unlike you," he continued, "I have no supernatural defense against flying bits of metal and must provide an artificial one."

I was stuck exactly at the halfway point between relief and rage. He wisely chose not to laugh at the expression I must have been wearing.

"I think I shall purchase a more effective vest for the future, though, this one seems a bit too thin for the job. Now, where is the stamp?"

Mutely, I handed over the beaded green bag. I didn't trust myself to say anything yet as it probably would have been too obscene. While he rummaged for the leather case I got up and checked the alley exit, putting some distance between us for a minute. On top of everything else, the son of a bitch didn't need a punch in the chops from a friend who was glad to see him alive.

Sled and the woman were long gone. It seemed like a good idea for us as well; their bartender friend might come out any minute, and we'd had enough excitement for one night.

Escott found and checked the case with its faded smudge of blue paper.

"Philately is not an especial interest of mine. I fear I am quite unimpressed, even if it is worth five thousand American dollars."

"Yeah, well, let's make tracks before that girl remembers and decides to come back."

He saw the sense of it. "Would you help me up? I fear the bullet caught me near that knife wound, and things are still rather tender there. What rotten bad luck."

"I'd say it was pretty good since it missed your head." I got him to his feet and retrieved his cane.

"Heavens, are you all right? I saw you--

"She was using lead, not wood, so I'm just peachy."

He decided to ignore the sarcasm. I was justifiably annoyed with him and he knew the best thing was to let it run its course.

He leaned on my arm for support as we gingerly picked our way out of the alley. Though his was pretty fair, he didn't have my night vision and relied on me to keep him afoot. We found his big Nash a block away. He insisted he could drive, so I shoveled him behind the wheel and took my place on the passenger side with a sigh.

"What went wrong back there?" I asked.

"She recognized me, for one thing, but that's all right because I recognized her."

"Okay, I'm holding my breath."

He spared me a sideways look, started the car, and pulled into the street. "I can believe that. She still might have been willing to deal, but the whole business went wrong because of Swafford's marked money. I should have checked it earlier."

"You really think she would have chanced a deal, even after spotting you?"

"It was a possibility. Even knowing me. she might have taken the money and given you the chance to follow, but then the best-laid plans and all that. Safford has his precious stamp and cash, but he's going to hear a few words from me about it." He suddenly swung the car in a wide turn.

"I think we shall visit him now while I'm still angry."

He didn't look angry--a touch gleeful, but not angry.

"It's after one," I pointed out.

"Good, then it is unlikely we will be interrupting any of his other appointments."

He drove to a suburb that had the kind of big houses with hot and cold running servants, precision-cut lawns, and cars that always started in the dead of winter. He picked out a lumpy stone specimen, sailed through the decorative iron gates, parked, and motioned me to follow. Some lights were showing through the downstairs windows, but they were only to discourage burglars and to keep Jeeves from tripping over the Chippendale while answering the front bell in the very early morning.

The bathrobed butler opened the door, decided we were strictly servant's-entrance material, and was about to close it, but Escott got past him and requested to see Mr. Swafford.

"Mr. Swafford has gone to bed," he informed us in chilling times.

"Then I suggest you roust him or I shall have the unpleasant task of doing it myself."

Both of them had English accents, but Escott's was genuine, and the butler knew when he was outclassed. He sniffed at us, a bad mistake, because Escott still smelted like a stuffy church on Easter Sunday, and retreated upstairs. After a brief wait. Swafford came down under escort and gaped at us.

"Who the hell-"

"You engaged my services to recover your stamp," Escott reminded him.

Swafford squinted, trying to peer through the disguise. "Escott?"

"And my assistant, Mr. Fleming."

"What is all this, Escott?" he demanded in a small, thin voice that didn't suit him.

"We merely came by to return your property and discuss some details on the case."

"Then you have it? Where is it?"

"I see you have a library. Perhaps we shall be more comfortable there."

Escott led the way as if it were his own house. Swafford glared at his back and then at me, ineffectually. I just waited until he got tired of it, then followed him into the next room.

He was wide and stocky all the way down to his slippered feet, and even a fancy silk bathrobe had a difficult time making him look society smooth. My guess was he made his money the hard way and was using it now in an attempt to make people forget about the work. His library bore this out, and was done up like something out of a movie, with an eye to impress the audience. There was a Renoir over the fireplace, but its function was to hide the safe and not to express the owner's tastes.

"Where's my stamp?" he asked, planting himself at one end of an acre of desk.

Escott was busy admiring the Renoir. "I rather like this one. What do you think of it. Jack?"

"Nice colors," I said noncommittally, keeping an eye on Swafford. He was awake enough now to know something was wrong and to try dealing with it.

Escott drew out the envelope full of hundreds and tossed it on the desk.

Swafford grabbed it up and counted them. While he did this, Escott discovered a gold-plated candelabrum on an overvarnished table and lit all five of its candles. He carried it to the painting.

"Yes, either by diffuse daylight or by candlelight, that was how it was meant to be viewed." He placed the candelabrum on the desk. "I trust it is all there?"

"Yes, now where--"

"Then you may regard this case as closed."

Swafford looked up slowly and tried some hard thinking. "What happened to the stamp?"

"You signed a contract with me for my services, you should have read it.

A good contract is designed to protect both parties should one attempt to defraud another. You defrauded me of your trust. Our association is ended."

"What are you talking about? Explain."

Escott gestured at the money. "That should be explanation enough. You had it marked and rather clumsily marked at that. The thief spotted it easily enough, realized I was not the philately expert, and gave me this." He exhibited the new ventilation on his coat and vest. "You should have trusted me: your money and the stamp would have been returned as promised. Now you have only the money. You've forfeited the stamp."

Swafford flushed a deep red that slowly faded to a muddy pink as he thought things over. "All right, what do you want?"

"A telephone call to have the charges against Ruthie Mason dropped."

"What else?"

"First the phone call."

"But it's--"

"I know. Wake up your lawyer, that's what you pay him for. have him set things in motion."

"If I do this, will the stamp be returned? Do you have it?"

Escott dropped the case on the desk. It thumped once against the thick blotter before Swafford grabbed and opened it.

"Empty!" He froze. Escott held up a slip of paper folded into quarters.

He waved it dangerously close to one of the candles.

"For God's sake be careful. That's worth five thousand--"

"Get on with the call," he snapped.

Swafford got on with the call. Since he couldn't argue with Escott he took it out on the lawyer, and before five minutes were gone another Chicago citizen had had his night's sleep broken up. Knowing how fast some cops liked to work, it was a good bet that the lawyer would be tied up until well after breakfast. For that he would certainly gift Swafford with a whopping fee. Escott knew the art of a properly administered low blow. While Swafford was on the phone, Escott turned up some paper and a carbon from the desk and wrote out several lines.

Swafford hung up. "There, I've done it. Ruthie will be out in the morning."

"I doubt she'll wish to continue her employment here. Should that be the case, she will need references, and good ones."

"I'll have my wife do that--it's her job. The girl will have no trouble finding work."

"I also suggest a decent monetary gift to counterbalance her precipitant arrest."

"All right, you have my word and there's your witness." He nodded confidently at me.

"Excellent. Now there is only the matter of my fee--"

"But you've been paid!"

"A retainer only. Under the terms of the contract I am within my rights to cover my expenses." His thumb emerged from the hole in the vest and wiggled. "Had I not taken precautions, you most certainly would have paid for my funeral, since your interference nearly caused it."

Swafford's face closed in on itself warily. "How much?"

He indicated the twenty-five hundred-dollar bills lying on the blotter.

"I think that should cover it, but this time they're to be unmarked."

"But that's extortion," he grumbled.

"Earlier tonight you seemed eager enough to hand it over for the return of the stamp."

"At least then I might have gotten the stamp back."

"You may have that chance now; it depends upon how quickly you can open your safe. Our thief threatened to burn this when the marked bills were found; it occurs to me to be a very good idea. What a lot of fuss over a bit of blue paper the size of my thumbnail. Would the world stop spinning if I should commit it to the flames, I wonder?"

Before he could wave it near the candles again, Swafford had the Renoir swung to one side and was spinning the combination with nervous fingers.

There was plenty more in the safe than twenty-five hundred, and he must have been worried we were after that as well. He gave me a wall-eyed look, and with good reason--I was still dressed like a hard-nosed punk, and the cheap booze stinking up my dirty shirt added to the image. I shifted my weight forward and tried to look tough. He quickly drew out a bundle of bills and hastily shut the safe.

Escott stood very close to the candles, their light and shadows making his minute smile look evil. "Would you mind counting it. Jack?"

I didn't. It made a tidy little pile: twenty hundreds and ten fifties.

"It adds up right," I said, and pocketed it.

"Good. Now you will sign this, Mr. Swafford. It is nothing more than a receipt for my services, with a promise to pay that sum to Ruthie by tomorrow. I'm sure you'll find it as useful for your tax records as I do."

Swafford signed it and threw the pen down. Escott tucked away the original. He considered the folded paper between his two fingers, then suddenly put it into the candle flame. Stafford's eyes peeled back and he choked, one hand raised as if he were taking an oath. The scrap burned down to nothing and Escott dropped the ashes onto the desk. He looked thoughtful.

"Odd, I had imagined five thousand dollars going up in smoke would look much more impressive."

His former client was beyond speech and looked ready to have a coronary.

"Well, no doubt your insurance can cover it--oh, dear, you mean it is not insured? How careless of you to have something so very valuable and portable lying around uninsured. On the other hand there are taxes to pay on these things. But surely as a good citizen you pay your taxes?"

"I'll sue you," he whispered. "I'll have your hide--"

"Next time, Mr. Swafford, I suggest you follow instructions to the letter when they are given to you. It is simply good business practice, especially when not doing so can cost you dearly. I hope this has been a lesson to you. Remember it."

Escott swiftly crossed the room and we let ourselves out into the hall, leaving Swafford frozen in place by the desk. The butler was waiting and locked the front door behind us. Escott paused, counted to five, and went back to use the bell.

The butler was too sleepy to be annoyed. Escott extended his hand and gave him a folded paper identical to the one that had been burned. "I forgot to give this to Mr. Swafford. Please present it to him with my compliments."

He took it without comment and locked the door with a solid and final click.

Escott was still chuckling as we drove away.

"One of these days it'll be one of your own clients bumping you off for that kind of showboating," I said. "That's no way to attract business, either."

He shrugged. "His sort of business I do not need. Swafford nearly got me killed tonight. I thought I'd give him something equally unpleasant in return. For his sort, being deprived of money by his own folly is the worst kind of torture imaginable."

"Okay, he goofed in a big way, but then I nearly got you killed when I got optimistic about her brains and let her go too soon."

"An accident, nothing more. In the dark she could have just as easily shot her partner."

"She also could have run, but didn't. The lady wanted blood, Charles.

She tried to kill us both."

"Through no fault of your own," he insisted. "I'll admit to underestimating her professionalism, but I place no blame upon you or your actions tonight. Even if things had gone according to plan, I daresay she might have tried to kill me anyway. Had you not been along, I would certainly be lying in that alley this very minute."

I shook my head. "I'm too dangerous to have around; I'm only an amateur to this gumshoe business--"

" 'Gumshoe'? Really, Jack." He looked pained.

"All right, private agent, then. I'm supposed to be a journalist."

"I don't hold that against you."

I let that one pass.

He tilted the rearview mirror, stretched his upper lip, and peeled the tiny moustache off, rubbing the area with evident relief. "That's better, these things drive me mad. Would you mind opening your window? You may not breathe, but it's still a habit with me."

I cranked it down. "Between your cheap perfume and my cheap booze, it'll take a week to air this buggy out."

"Possibly. I hope it washes off." His nose twitched.

"The suit?"

"My skin. I'm considering the suit might be better off in the furnace."

"Isn't that a little extravagant?"

"You're right, I'll see if I can't have it fumigated and repaired, as this is an amusing persona; it's based on someone I saw once--the best disguises always are." With one eye on the road and the other on the mirror, he carefully removed his wig, lifting first from the base of his neck and bringing it forward.

"But she still saw through it."

"Not right away. She knew my name from Swafford's household, but had never seen me close up and had no reason to make the association. If he hadn't marked the bills"

"So who was she? You got Swafford so upset he forgot to ask."

"Dear me, you're right. She was his wife's new personal maid, the one with the unimpeachable references."

I recalled a photo of the house servants he showed to me earlier tonight when he asked me to help him. The idea was to keep my eyes open should any of them walk into the bar where the exchange had been set up. "That little thing? She's hardly more than a kid."

"Yes, a mere child of twenty-seven, with a demure manner and a youthful complexion. The Swaffords were correct to suspect one of the servants, but I fear their accusations against Ruthie were purely racial in origin. The other girl worked and waited until someone new had been hired onto the staff; Ruthie came along, the stamp was stolen, and she got the blame. The thief's real name is Selma Jenks, and she's done this sort of thing before."

"You got a police blotter for a brain?"

"Just about. Anyway, Ruthie called Shoe Coldfield's sister for help and Shoe called me. Swafford may have hired me to recover the stamp, but I really consider Ruthie to be my true client."

"I wondered how you got the job. Swafford isn't your type-"

"Too shady?"

"Too rich."

It was close to two when Escott turned the car into the alley behind his house and eased into the glorified shed that served as a garage. The interior was too narrow to open the car door very wide, and rather than struggle squeezing through, I disappeared and sieved out. I was sitting on the back bumper when Escott finally emerged.

He gave a start and caught himself with a sigh. "Damn, but that's--"

"I know--unnerving. Sorry."

"Quite all right. Let's go inside, I'm in need of something liquid and soothing."

"Like a bath?"

"Yes, that, too."

He cursed sedately as he struggled with the rusty lock on the back door.

It finally gave way and we walked into his large high-ceilinged kitchen.

His house was a big, roomy place; a three-storied pre-fire relic that in its better days (or worse) had been a bordello. As his time, money, and health allowed, he was gradually cleaning, painting, and restoring it into a livable home. But the kitchen was not high on his priority list and still retained an air of cobwebby disuse in the corners. Except for replacing the old icebox with a streamlined new refrigerator that crouched and hummed between sagging cabinets, he'd pretty much ignored the room.

In silent and common consent we peeled off our coats and dropped them on the battered oak table that had come with the house. An invisible cloud of booze and dead lilies filled the room and grabbed my throat.

Escott suppressed a cough. "Horrible stuff, that. Should I ever assume that persona again, I shall substitute something less lethal."

"Why use anything at all?"

"Attention to detail is the key to a good disguise."

"I think you poured on too much detail this time. You must have gotten perfume mixed up with cologne."

His brows went up. "There's a difference?"

"A lot, I think."

"What is it, then?"

"Now I was stuck. "Uh maybe you'd better ask Bobbi. She knows more about that kind of thing. All I know is there's a difference; one's stronger and you need less, or something like that."

"Hem," he said neutrally. "I know better than to offer you liquid refreshment. Do you mind if I indulge?"

"Go ahead. Just hold a glass under my shin and I'll squeeze some out for you."

He declined with a polite but decisive head shake and smile, and went into the dining room. There was no dining table yet, just a stack of cardboard boxes that hadn't been unpacked and a large glass-fronted cabinet on one wall holding a modest collection of bottles.

"Think I'll go and change. It's getting late," I said.

"You're welcome to use the bathtub if you like. The water heater is almost reliable now."

"Thanks." I left him pouring out a gin and tonic and trotted upstairs.

I'd scrub my face and hands off, but total immersion in a tub of possibly cold water was an experience I could do without.

My clothes were in a narrow bedroom next to the bath. The bed was long gone, leaving some holes in the floor where it had been bolted down and some rub marks from the headboard on the once florid wallpaper. There was no closet; my stuff was draped over a spindly wooden chair and more unpacked boxes.

Now that I was alone and changing back into familiar things, I felt a delayed reaction from the shooting tonight. I could avoid death in that manner, he couldn't. It didn't seem to disturb him, but I'd been thoroughly frightened, and I was far less vulnerable. If Escott hadn't been wearing that vest Maybe he could treat the whole business casually, but not me. He hadn't seen the gun swinging up in his face and the muzzle flash searing his eyes. I touched the spot where the lead slug had passed through; all trace of pain was gone, the flesh and bone were smooth and unmarked.

My hand was trembling as it came away: half in wonder of what I'd survived and half in fear of what I'd become. A small mirror still clung to one wall, reflecting only the empty room, and nothing more. I shivered the length of my spine, turned away from it, and finished dressing.

Respectable again, I joined Escott in his downstairs parlor, where he'd stretched out on the sofa. He looked tired.

"This should cheer you up." I put the money on a low table next to his glass.

"What?" He turned his head just enough to see. "Oh, I'd forgotten."

I dropped into a leather armchair. "How can you forget twenty-five hundred bucks?"

"Twelve hundred fifty. Half of it's yours."

"Come on, Charles, I didn't do anything except get in the way."

A faint smile twitched in one corner of his mouth. "As you insist. But whatever tonight's outcome would or would not have been, you are still entitled to something for your services to the Escott Agency. I'd give you all of it, but thought you wouldn't accept it."

"Don't be so certain."

"I'll fill out some kind of receipt later."

"For tax purposes?"

"Of course. I have always been impressed by the manner in which the government finally managed to take care of Ca-pone."

"What's that have to do with me?"

"With both of us, my dear fellow. Undeclared income and income without employment are things that are certain to be noticed sooner or later. A person with your particular condition need not call attention to himself."

"Okay, I see what you mean. What about that bundle we picked up from the Paco gang in August?"

"I said then we should consider it the spoils of war, but I plan to declare my half. I wonder if there is some sort of penalty in padding one's records in favor of the government?"

"In a bureaucracy do you think they'd notice? And it's gotten a lot bigger and more complicated since Roosevelt got in."

"I see, yes, what a ridiculous question. Still, I suppose the best thing is to store the lot in a mattress and declare it a little at a time over the years. Ah, well, here's to crime." He drained off his glass and grimaced.

"You all right?"

"Probably. I shall be stiff for a few days. Bad coincidence getting hit in the same spot."

"Let's have a look."

He'd already taken off his suit vest. Now he shucked the shirt and I helped him ease out of the bulletproof vest underneath. On his left side just below the line of his ribs was a thin red scar about four inches long where a thug's knife had cut him up not so long ago. He probed the area gently with his long fingers and winced a little.

"There, it caught me a bit lower than I thought. Nothing more than a bad bruise and some shock. Quite lucky, considering how close the gun was."

"Charles, about all you had going for you tonight was luck. If her aim had been a little better or worse she could have taken your head off."

"So you mentioned earlier."

"I'm gonna mention it again. You scared the shit out of me tonight."

"I truly appreciate your concern, but after all, nothing really happened, and I do intend to be more careful in the future."

"You mean that?"

"Certainly. This was an isolated incident. Before I met you the most violent encounter I'd ever experienced was a director with a vile temper who tried to kill me with his blocking of a stage fight."

I was verging on exasperation, but too curious to pass up the opening.

He rarely spoke about his past. "What happened?"

"It was the difference between his opinion and my facts. The man had concocted some ridiculous fencing movement and I tried to point out something safer and more natural for the circumstance. Since I was only a very junior member of the company at the time, he got his way. On dress-rehearsal night I slipped in my felt costume shoes, fell into the orchestra pit, and broke the poor violinist's collarbone and nearly my own neck when I landed on him. I was never able to convince that director I hadn't done it on purpose just for spite."

I pulled my mouth shut to control the laugh. "Now you're changing the subject--"

"But I have not. My point was that tonight was an unfortunate set of circumstances, nothing more. In all fairness, how could the director or I have known that the stage floor had just been waxed? How could you have known the young lady was so murderously and athletically inclined? Believe me, if any future jobs like this should come my way, there is no one else I would rather have to back me up. I know you have doubts now, but you've a quick, observant eye and with a little training"

I shot him a suspicious look. "What have you got planned? A little extra paint on the office door saying Escott and Fleming, Private Agents?"

"That would be interesting, but not possible. It takes several years of training to qualify for a license, and then you have to show up for the exam--in daylight. No, in practical terms that's quite out of the question for you."

"Then what is in the question?"

"I'm only proposing the odd job now and then, like tonight. I know you really consider this as just doing me a favor, but there's no reason why you can't make something for yourself out of it." He looked at the money and then at me.

"You trying to bribe me? Because it's working."

The faint smile appeared again in the same corner. "I had hoped you would consider it seriously. Of course one never knows what the future may bring; not all of my clients are as well off as Mr. Swafford, nor as easily bullied, but there should be enough coming in to keep gas in your car and so forth."

I put my half of the cash in my wallet. "This should buy a lot of so forth."

He smiled again at this obvious acceptance of his offer, briefly, this time in both comers.

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