Fire In The Blood Chapter One

Author: P.N. Elrod

Series: Vampire Files #5

Genres: Fantasy , Mystery

I WAS IN the process of tearing away the top half of Olivia Vandemore's silver-spangled evening gown when Escott abruptly opened the basement door and called my name.

"Are you down there?" His voice was necessarily pitched to carry through a brick wall.

"In a minute," I growled back.

The last fragile strap gave way under feverish, brutal hands. A terrible shriek of pure horror rushed from her perfect coral lips and echoed throughout the dank stone passages.

"Jack?" He was coming down the basement steps.

Her warm, white body writhed helplessly on the carved stone altar-an altar stained black with the Wood of uncounted victims hideously sacrificed to slake the unholy thirst of...

"Jack?" He rapped a knuckle experimentally against the wall of my inner sanctum.

... Sabajajji, the Spider God.

I hit the period and debated whether to turn it into an exclamation point. A quick look through the other pages confirmed that I hadn't used one for some time now, and it seemed appropriate for the scene. The reader was going to be far more concerned with the upcoming description of Olivia's writhing body than my punctuation. I backspaced, tapped the apostrophe key, and rolled out the sheet, adding it to the stack of deathless prose next to my portable. Further excitement would have to wait until after I found out what the hell Escott wanted.

"I was working, you know," I told him, emerging wraithlike from the basement wall and solidifying. It'd taken a couple of months, but he'd finally gotten used to such stunts from me-at least on those occasions when he expected it. This time he'd expected me to be behind a bricked-up alcove in his basement, so it was hardly worth his notice.

"Sorry," he said, his nervous fingers absently jingling his key ring. He was wearing his hat and coat.

"Something up?" I asked, tying my bathrobe. I'd started writing as soon as I'd woken up and hadn't bothered to dress.

"I believe so. I may have a job for us and thought you'd like to come along and meet our prospective client."

This wasn't his usual method of work, which was being a private detective, though he preferred to be called a private agent. Most of the time he'd have some job already in progress and only asked me in if he needed extra help. I always tried to keep a low profile and rarely saw the client. The fewer people who knew about me, the better.

"I'm kind of in the, middle of something," I hedged, reluctant to be dragged away from Olivia's impending sacrifice and last-second rescue. "Or are you getting a fishy smell off this one?" Sometimes he'd have me come along to watch his back.

"Such niceties of personal judgment are most difficult to ascertain, especially since I've had no actual contact with the client. I can positively state that the gentleman is determined, if nothing else, and possessed of some degree of consideration, in that he was kind enough to send his chauffeur over to make sure I did not miss his requested appointment." followed the cant of his eyes up the basement steps to the hall door. As he spoke, the doorway-the entire doorway-was blocked by the presence of a uniformed Negro. He was built like an industrial-grade refrigerator. Escott couldn't really say anything in so many words, but this was definitely one of those times when he wanted someone to watch his back.

"So, what's the client's name?" I asked, all interest now.

"Sebastian Pierce," he said.

"Never heard of him."

"He was quite a large noise in Chicago some twenty-five years ago. After making a fortune from various investments, he then retired to enjoy it."

"We should all be so lucky."

"And this is his chauffeur, Mr. Griffin."

Griffin nodded once at me. "Good evening, sir." The amused look on his face indicated that he'd noticed the pajamas and bathrobe.

"Good evening," I returned, and tried to look dignified in spite of the unconventional surroundings. Maybe Escott had told him I was checking the furnace. "What time's this appointment?"

"Eight o'clock. We can just make it if you hurry." Escott turned and trotted lightly up the basement steps, pausing only a moment at the top so Griffin could vacate the doorway. He hardly made a sound. Maybe Escott wanted me to cover him, but who the hell was supposed to cover me? I gave an inward shrug and followed. For the time being Olivia would just have to wait at the altar.

Escott and I started rooming together a couple weeks after the night I woke up dead on a Lake Michigan beach. He owned a three-story brick relic that had been a bordello in less innocent days. It had plenty of space and we'd both agreed that it offered me more privacy than a hotel. We shared the bills and I had two rooms upstairs with my own bath, but when writing, the basement was my exclusive territory. The intervening floors served as soundproofing, so the clack of my typewriter in the wee morning hours didn't disturb what little sleep his insomnia allowed him.

I'm up so late and only after dark because I'm a vampire.

Just like the folklore says, I drink blood for sustenance- usually at the Union Stockyards every other night, depending how active I am. The cattle there don't seem to mind. Human blood has its own special appeal, but like most people, I keep my nourishment separate from my sex life.

I don't have any aversion to crosses, garlic, or silver, though I do have a problem with wood and crossing free-flowing water. I can't turn into a bat or wolf, but can disappear, float around, and even walk through walls if required. Most of the time I use doors-it's less conspicuous.

During the day I'm stretched out on a fairly comfortable folding bed that has a layer of my home earth sewn up in a long, flat sheet of oilcloth. The bed is in Escott's basement, hidden behind a fire-resistant brick wall that he'd built himself. The tiny room beyond is located exactly under the kitchen, and Escott had thoughtfully fitted a trap into the floor there for emergencies. It was well hidden by his carpentry skill and a throw rug. I don't have a coffin. I hate coffins.

The room's pretty stark, but during the day I don't notice much of anything. It has an air shaft to the outside, electricity for the work light and radio, and a photo of my girlfriend Bobbi for decoration. My typewriter rests on a wide shelf attached to the wall. I enjoy the privacy when writing, but do my real living in my rooms on the second floor. There I keep my clothes and a comfortable scatter of magazines and books, and succeed in pretending that I'm no different from any other human. But the bed in the corner was for show only, and no mirror hangs over the dresser.

Tonight I picked out a plain dark silk tie to go with my second-best midnight blue suit. It was conservative without overdoing it. though next to Escott, I always look a little flashy. He feels the same way about double-breasted suits as I do about coffins and wouldn't be caught dead in one.

Escott and Griffin were in the parlor. Griffin was sitting on the edge of the big leather chair, his visored hat on one massive knee. He stood up smoothly as I came down. I couldn't figure his age, he had one of those thirty-to-fifty faces. Escott got up from the sofa and led the way out, locking up behind us. A minute later we were driving away in a shiny new Packard with Griffin at the wheel.

"Any idea where we're going?" I murmured to Escott, though there was a glass divider between the front and back.

He opened his mouth, shut it, and shook his head once, looking slightly embarrassed. "I asked all the usual questions, but Mr. Griffin deigned to answer only the most basic: the name of his employer and the time of the appointment."

"Nothing else, huh?"

"If his purpose was to inflict bodily harm upon my person, I think it would have happened by now. At least he had no objections to my request to have you along."

"If you feel so trusting, then why bring me at all?"

"I'm merely applying your own philosophy of not taking chances. Mr. Griffin did give me the impression that he wouldn't have been at all pleased had I refused his request to come."

He had a definite point there. I was much stronger than I looked because of my changed condition, but Griffin was not someone I'd cheerfully go up against just to see what happened.

"My belated apologies for dragging you from your work. How is it progressing?"

"Just peachy." I had a fanciful mental picture of the editor of Spicy Terror Tales breathlessly awaiting my latest contribution to the slush pile. Several years of background in journalism notwithstanding, my literary career at this point had been anything but lucrative, so my partnership with Escott was a financial necessity.

Vampires spend money like everyone else.

Griffin drove to a quiet street with only one open business at this hour, a bar called the Stumble Inn. He parked in front, got out, and opened the car door for us.

"You'll find Mr. Pierce at the last table on the left," he told us.

"On the left," repeated Escott, as though such meetings were normal for him.

Griffin gently shut the door, folded his arms, and leaned against the Packard, causing it to tilt a little. It was a freezing night, but he seemed to be as indifferent to the cold as I. He was breathing regularly, though, which meant he was human, after all. That was a relief.

We went inside. The bar lined one long wall and the man behind it had his ear pressed to a radio that was giving out with more static than program. The place had tables, but no booths, and as promised, only one customer in the back on the left.

He stood up as we came close, a tall, weedy-looking man with a lion's mane of wavy white hair, brilliant blue eyes, and a monumental nose. His handshake was dry and firm.

"Well, I thought there'd be only one of you, but I don't mind the extra company if it'll get the job done," he said in a soft, gravelly voice. "I'm Sebastian Pierce, which one of you is Escott?"

"I am Charles Escott, Mr. Pierce. This is my business associate, Jack Fleming."

"Pleased." He nodded at me, then turned back to Escott as we sat down together.

"English, are you? Is that a London accent?"


Pierce found it amusing for some reason and asked if we wanted a drink. I declined, but Escott said he'd have whatever Pierce was having, which amused him even more.

"Don't know as you'd like it, since it's only sarsaparilla. I got slinking drunk once in my life and swore never to repeat the experience."

"Sarsaparilla will be fine."

Pierce signed to the bartender, who brought over an open bottle and a glass, then returned to hunch over his radio.

"You think I'm some sort of lunatic, Mr. Fleming?" he questioned, reading my open-book mug correctly.

There were deep-set humor lines all over his face. It had been well lived in for the last sixty years or so, but they'd been good years. "I must know a hundred stories about what happens to the guy who walks into a bar and asks for what you're drinking," I said.

"Nonsense, you're only old enough to know two or three of those at the most."

I was in my mid-thirties, but looked a lot younger. I didn't bother to correct him and only shook my head a little.

"I happen to own this place," he said, moving his half-full glass around in smeary circles with long, flat fingers. On one of them, a huge ring made from chunks of cut-up gold coins winked happily in the dim light. "It's usually busier, but tonight I wanted some privacy, so DCS here shooed out the regulars for the time being. Griff will make sure no one else comes in."

That was for damned sure.

Escott sipped his foamy drink without visible harm. "You mentioned a job, Mr.


"Yes." He pulled out a photograph of a fancy-looking bracelet. It was covered in diamonds and some darker stones arranged in a spiral pattern. If the picture were life size the bracelet would be about an inch wide. "I was in Paris before the war and had this specially commissioned as a gift to my wife for our fifth wedding anniversary. It was and is unique, and as you can imagine, quite valuable, both in terms of hard cash and soft sentiment."

"What is it made of?"

"Diamonds and rubies on platinum. When my wife died some years ago, I put all her jewelry in the safe until our daughter came of age. Marian had her twenty-first birthday last month and took charge of it all, according to her mother's wishes."

"And this piece?"

"Has been stolen. I want it back, but quietly. I don't want publicity, and I don't want the police."

"Have you an idea who took it?"

"Oh, yes. Marian's best friend Kitty has a boyfriend. Now, Kitty is a little doll, but it's a sad fact that the sweetest girls can hook up with the most rotten men, and that's the case with her and Stan. He can put on a smooth kind of charm and generally fool those too young to know better, but it's all show. I've met his type before and they're always out for whatever they can get away with. Anyway, the two of them were over at our house for a Christmas party last week and I expect that that's when the bracelet was taken."

"But you've no proof?"

"Nothing I can go to the police with, but I wouldn't go to them, anyway."

"A week is a long time, Mr. Pierce."

"I only found out about it today."

"He may have pawned or fenced it by now."

"You think you'll be able to trace it if he has?"

"There are no guarantees, but we can try, if he is the culprit. Who else was at this party?"

"Myself, Marian, her current boyfriend Harry Summers, Kitty Donovan, Stan McAlister, and the servants who were working that night. They've been with us for years, though. It was Marian's maid who first told me about it."

"The circumstances?"

"Marian usually leaves the valuable stuff lying around on her dresser mixed in with the rest of her costume jewelry. I know it's careless, I've nagged her on it more than once, but in our house it was safe enough until now. Her maid was cleaning and straightening today and noticed that the bracelet was gone. She asked me if Marian had finally put it in the house safe. We checked, but she hadn't, so we went over her room again."

"Marian did not wear the bracelet today?"

"No, or in the last week, we're sure of that."

"And she has not noticed it's gone missing?"

"No. As I said, she's very careless."

"Has anyone else been in the house since the party?"

Pierce shook his head decisively.

"Could Marian have taken it herself?"

"If I thought that I wouldn't have to hire you."

"What made you choose me?"

"I didn't, you're Griff's idea."


"He said you came highly recommended by a friend of his. Shoe something."

"Shoe Coldfield?"

"I think that was the name."

Escott glanced at me, one eyebrow bounced, and a smile tugged briefly at the corner of his mouth. Coldfield was now a gang boss in Chicago's "Bronze Belt," but he'd shared some lean times on the stage with Escott in a traveling Shakespeare company years ago. Once in a while he threw some business in our direction, just to say hello.

Pierce continued. "Normally I'd ask Griff to handle something like this, but we thought it better to hire someone a little less noticeable for the job. Griff is a bit...

tall, and McAlister knows him."

"And if Stan McAlister should happen to mention the encounter to your daughter..."

"I'll be accused of doing all sorts of things for her own good," he concluded with a sigh of long suffering, and shrugged. "She's my daughter, but I'm damned if I know what's going on in her mind all the time. She would accuse me of being too nosy or something. She likes to think she's very independent and bitterly resents any implication to the contrary. If you have, or ever have, children you'll know what I mean. All I want is to get the bracelet back. After that it's going into the safe until I'm gone, and then she can do what she likes with it."

"Assuming we're able to locate the bracelet, have you a preference for any particular method of recovery?"

"Since it was stolen, I thought you could steal it back. Stan wouldn't dare squawk."

"If he's fenced it already, we may have to purchase it-if it is still in one piece."

He grimaced. "I hope it is, or Marian's feelings or not, I'll have Griff fold the little punk in two the wrong way. The bracelet's insured for fifteen thousand, I'll go that high, but would appreciate if you could bargain things down to the lowest possible amount."

"We'll see what we can do. I unfortunately do not have any of my standard contracts with me."

Pierce pulled out a wallet and casually gave us each a hundred-dollar bill. It was a sumptuous retainer when compared to Escott's usual rate. "That's all the paperwork I think you'll need for now, Mr. Escott. If Griff trusts you, I can trust you. If the trust is misplaced, then Griff has ways of evening the score."

"Of that I have no doubts. We'll need a description of Mr. McAlister. In fact, I would like one of all the principals."

He was prepared and gave Escott a sheet of paper with names, addresses, and a list of McAlister's favorite haunts. He also produced another photo. "I took this at the party, it's a little harsh because I didn't get the flash right, but they're recognizable.

That's my daughter." He pointed to a sleek brunette. "Fortunately for her, she took after her mother in looks. Unfortunately for me, she has my temperament and quite a lot of her own, besides. The handsome fellow next to her is Harry, and the two blonds are Kitty Donovan and Stan McAlister."

Escott carefully checked it over. "What does Mr. McAlister do?"

"Not very damn much, as far as I can tell. Stan has a taste for gambling and no inclination to work."

"Does Kitty work?"

"Yes, but mostly for amusement. Her parents left her with a comfortable trust.

She augments it by designing hats for one of the big stores around here, custom stuff. She glues a few feathers and sequins to a strip of ribbon and charges a fortune for it. That's how she met Marian."

"What about Mr. Summers?"

"Harry's from a decent family. Not much money, but good people. Marian met him while he was working as a waiter at some party. He'd worked his way through school that way and now he's trying to start up his own business in radio repair, so I give him credit for some ambition."

"Does he also gamble?"

"No, Harry's pretty much of a tight fist with his money, which is sensible if you don't carry it too far."

"You think he does?"

Pierce nodded, amused again.

"You approve of him, though?"

"He's a cut above most of the losers Marian's brought home, but I'm not taking it too seriously. She changes boyfriends as frequently as I change socks. She'll fasten onto someone else when she gets tired of going to the park and museums with Harry.

They're free, you know."

"Does Marian work?"

"Has hell frozen over lately?"

Escott almost laughed. "Where may I reach you?"

Pierce mumbled and growled a little under his breath, and reluctantly parted with his home phone number. "But don't call it you can help it, I'll check with you every evening at about five."

We wound things up and left Pierce at the bar ordering another sarsaparilla. As Griffin drove us back home, Escott studied the party photo by the intermittent light from the street lamps.

"An interesting group, wouldn't you say?" he asked.

"I guess so. Funny how he's so leery of his daughter finding out about any of this."

"The extent that some fathers are dominated by their offspring would probably astonish you, and a man may go to absurd lengths in order to preserve the illusion of peace in his household."

"While disrupting others," I added.

"Yes, he did initiate this business in a somewhat unorthodox manner. At least it added a touch of interest to an otherwise commonplace case."

"That's what you figure?"

"This time, yes. The man didn't strike me as a fool. If he thinks McAlister took the bracelet, then it's likely to be true. We have only to find the fellow and verify things one way or another."

"Sure you need my help, then?"

"Most certainly. I could cover all of the places listed here alone, but it will go faster for your assistance... Tell me, is Miss Smythe still headlining at the Top Hat?"

"For another month yet." Two weeks ago Bobbi had landed the star spot singing in one of Chicago's best nightclubs.

"Now, that is most convenient. It's down here as a place frequented by Stan McAlister."

I could see what he had in mind a mile off. "Aw, now don't go asking me to mix Bobbi up with this business."

"Miss Smythe need not be involved. All you have to do is look the place over and see if McAlister is present. Don't you visit there each night, anyway?"

"Yeah, but only just before closing so I can drive Bobbi home. Her boss said no husbands or boyfriends during working hours for any of the girls, no exceptions. He thinks they take up valuable space."

"He can't object if you're a paying customer. Mr. Pierce's retainer should be more than sufficient to cover your expenses for now."

He'd made up his mind, so there wasn't much point arguing with him. Chances were, McAlister would be in some other joint and I could take Bobbi home as usual, with the added bonus of getting paid to catch her show. "Okay, I'll go have a look.

What'll you be doing?"

"Checking some of his other haunts, and then I'll run by his hotel to see if he's in.

If I find him, then I can sort things out right away."

Griffin dropped us at home and drove unhurriedly away, the Packard's exhaust a thick, swirling fume in the winter air.

"How you plan to handle it?" I asked Escott as I walked to my car and unlocked it.

"I'm leaving myself a wide range of options by not deciding that until I've met the man. If he's reasonable, I'll reason with him. If not..." He spread his hands in a speculative gesture and walked away, taking the narrow alley between his building and the next so he could get his Nash out of the garage in back.

Since my suit was good enough for the Top Hat, I could start right away as well.

The sooner we got the bracelet back, the sooner I could return to the typewriter and rescue Olivia from a horrible fate at the hands of the dreaded spider cult.

My mind was busy with permutations on the story's ending as I made a U-turn and followed Griffin's route out of the neighborhood. I was halfway to the club before I noticed the car following me. A couple of turns later and I was certain about the tail; not a new experience, but decidedly uncomfortable. For the time being I did nothing and drove to the Top Hat. As I parked, the coupe drifted past, looking for a spot of its own. It was a neat little foreign job I'd never seen before, driven by a woman who looked vaguely familiar. Maybe she was some friend of Bobbi's, but I didn't think so. I left my car, walked in the club entrance, and offered my hat and coat to the check girl.

The claim ticket was hardly in my pocket when the other driver charged through the door, looking a little breathless. She spotted me looking at her, pretended not to notice, and marched past to toss a wide silver fox wrap at the girl. She made quite a business of putting away her own ticket in her tiny purse and then pretended a vast interest in a placard advertising the club's entertainment. I hung around the lobby, not making it easy for her.

A noisy group came in and she used them as an excuse to glance around, but I was still looking right at her. She flushed deep pink and went back to riddling with her purse again, this time pulling out a cigarette case. I crossed the dozen feet separating us and fired up my lighter. Startled, her eyes flicked up to meet mine.

They were huge, very round, and a pure and lovely blue. Her thick sable hair fell back freely from cream-colored shoulders. They were bare except for two braided metallic straps holding up the silver sheath of her evening gown.

"Thank you," she said, and lighted her cigarette. She briefly locked eyes again, made a decision, and blinked prettily. "What's your name?"

"Jack. What's yours?"

She giggled, schoolgirl seductive, and shook her head, letting her hair swing a little.

I recognized her now and wasn't happy about it. Sebastian Pierce had been very insistent about keeping his daughter ignorant of his business.

"You always follow strange men around?"

"Only the ones I might like."

"That can be dangerous, Miss Pierce."

Her head jerked in surprise, then her eyes dropped. "So I've been found out. Are you going to tell Daddy?" She looked up from under her bangs, as appealingly as possible.

"Depends. Why don't you drop the high school flirt act and we talk about it?"

Now she did blink. I might as well have smacked her face with a wet towel.


"You're right, and if you're so innocent, you shouldn't even know such words."

She took another breath, held it, and indecision flashed over her face. She would either cuss me out or smile. I got lucky and she burst into laughter; the genuine article this time.

"Drink?" I gestured to the bar in the lounge, a smaller, quieter room away from the stage show.

"Why not?"

As we turned to leave., I heard the orchestra finish its fanfare and Bobbi's voice soared up, filling the next room. I couldn't help but pause, and it was a physical effort to resist the urge to go in and see her.

"Something wrong?"

I was a man in love and bound to turn sappy at any given moment. "No, not a thing." Marian Pierce latched on to my arm and led off in the wrong direction. Not that she didn't promise to be attractive company and was part of the job at hand, but she just wasn't Bobbi.

A waiter read the signs right, at least the ones Marian was giving out, and seated us in the back, behind a row of short palm trees. She ordered scotch and water. I ordered only the water.

"Trust Daddy to find another teetotaler," she said, pretending world-weary disapproval.

"I drink, but not on the job."

"Oh, are you working or something?"

"Would you have followed me if I weren't?"

She puffed on her cigarette and thought it over. "Actually, I was following Daddy."

"Any reason why?"


It was going to be one of those nights. "Then you started following me. Any reason for that?"

She smiled, trying to charm her way out again. "I liked your looks better than your partner's."

And maybe she thought she could more easily get around someone who seemed to be closer to her own age. "I'll be sure and tell him."

"No, promise you won't tell anyone you saw me."

"Daddy wouldn't like it?"

Her eyes went down. "Something like that. Why did he hire you?"

"Your father is a client, which means I don't talk about his business. You won't talk about yours, either. We're not going to get anywhere fast like this, Miss Pierce.

One of us needs to go home."

"My name's Marian, but then if you're following me, you already know that."

"Why do you think I'm following you?"

"I really wouldn't know. Daddy... well... maybe he thinks I'm just a teeny-weenie bit too wild." She was back doing the vulnerable-little-girl act again. Any more of it and, job or no job, I'd leave to watch the rest of Bobbi's show. Escott could have my half of the retainer and good riddance to it.

"Why?" Impatience crept into my tone. It couldn't be helped, I was impatient.

"I can't really talk about it. But really, there's nothing to talk about."

"Well, that's too bad, then." I made to go and she caught my arm.

"No, please wait."

"For more runaround? Make up your mind, lady."

"All right. You can't tell me why you were hired, but can you tell me why you weren't?"


"Did my father want you to spy on me?"


She sighed. "Well, that's something, at least."

"What are you hiding?"

"Nothing, but I do like to know what's going on around me. Daddy still treats me like a six-year-old." Her drink arrived and she put half of it away as though it were my glass of water. "How many six-year-olds can do that, Mr... ?"

"Jack Fleming," I reminded her.

"That's a nice name. Why did you come to the Top Hat if you weren't spying on me?"

"My girlfriend works here."

"You would have a girlfriend, wouldn't you?" She pretended hurt. "Which one is she?"

"Let's never mind that."

Her face lit up with wicked mischief. "If you say so." She abruptly leaned over and fastened her mouth to mine like a lamprey on a fish. I could taste the scotch on her tongue. She fell back, looking flushed and triumphant, and finished the rest of her drink.

"Any reason for doing that?" I asked.

"Because I felt like it."

"That can be dangerous, too, you know."

"Oh, pooh, you're all right."

"Looks can be deceiving."

"That works both ways, darling. I could be a terrible vamp." She leaned back in the booth, crossing her arms to emphasize her cleavage.

"Then I'd better get out of here while my virtue's still intact."


"Marian, you're a wonderful girl, but I have to be going."

"But why?"

"Uh-uh, we've already been down that street. I can't talk and you won't, and that makes for a dull evening."

She uncrossed her arms and moved in closer. I braced myself for another assault.

This time I tasted the cigarette mixed in with the scotch. She released me, but didn't fall back. "It's about time you learned there's more you can do with your lips than talk," she stated, her voice husky and mature all of a sudden.

I showed my teeth and shook my head. It was safe enough to do this time; my canines hadn't lengthened by even a fraction of an inch. Like I said, she wasn't Bobbi.

"Thanks, but maybe some other night, sister."

"Don't you like me?"

"Kid, you make a great first impression. I'm going to remember you for the rest of my life..."

Then some bozo grabbed a fistful of my suit and yanked me from the booth onto the floor. What breath I'd drawn in order to talk got knocked out when I landed, not that he gave me much chance to say anything. Marian screeched a name, which I didn't catch, because the guy slammed into my ear with his knee. My head took a wild spin in the other direction, and I flopped out flat with the man towering over me like a building.

He got his balance fixed and carefully drew back one of his rough leather toes to kick my skull into the next county. I could disappear and let his foot sail through empty air, but this was the wrong place for that kind of fancy work-too many people and too many eyes. Just in time, I got my hand up and caught his ankle. He grunted at the initial shock and then gasped when I squeezed and twisted. He had to turn with it or suffer a green-stick fracture. Arms pinwheeling, he hopped once on his other foot and crashed into a waiter who had come up to stop the ruckus.

Both of them were on the floor in a sloppy football scramble. The guy that hit me started to hit the waiter, but I still had his ankle and gave it a sharp pull to remind him. He grunted out a very ripe curse, which upset some lady into calling for the manager at the top of her lungs. Another woman told her to shut up and a drunk said he would put ten bucks on the skinny guy in blue.

"Harry, how could you?" This from Marian, who had slid from the booth and was standing over us both.

Harry was in no mood to discuss motives and tried to kick me with his free foot.

He hit my collarbone-hurting, but not breaking it-then he tried to slam sideways and get my other ear. I got my hand up in time again and twisted him pigeon-toed.

He yelped, sat up, and tried once more to belt me, this time with his fists.

The waiter spoiled his aim by crawling out from under him just as another man was coming up. Together they tried to haul Harry away from me. I released my grip, still plenty mad, but content to let them handle him until it became clear they'd want help themselves. I got my feet under me, leaned over, and carefully pulled the punch I poked into Harry's gut. He only needed the breath knocked from him, not burst organs.

It worked. You can't fight if you can't breathe, and normal humans do need air on a regular basis. Harry stopped struggling with the waiters and rolled on his side, probably burning one of his own ears for a change as he scraped against the carpet.

He made choking sounds trying to refill his lungs.

A man in a tux appeared, took the situation in with an experienced eye, and jerked his head toward the exit. The waiters picked Harry up and marched him away, presumably to throw him out. He didn't fight them, but his mottled red face was eloquent. If I wasn't careful, I'd be in for an ambush when I went out for my car.

"I apologize, sir, I trust you are not injured?" The tux was not a happy man. I told him I was fine, and then he apologized to the dozen or so people who had watched with varying degrees of interest. Two or three left, and the rest settled down to discuss the fight and wait for signs of more entertainment.

I straightened and dusted my suit, took Marian's arm, and made a decent exit myself as far as the lobby before stopping to square off with her. "Okay, who was he?" I already knew, but had appearances to keep up.

"Nobody important. Are you all right?" Her face was bright with excitement.

"Give me a name."

"Just some guy I used to date."

I kept looking at her.

Exasperation superseded the excitement. "Harry Summers," she snapped. "Is nosiness a part of your profession? No, forget I asked, the answer's got to be yes."

"I always like to get the name of anyone who sucker-punches me."

"Harry's got a jealous streak a mile wide. I'm really very sorry." Her apology was light, just words she was expected to say. Her mind was on something else.

"I think you should run along now, the management is figuring that we're bad for business."

She saw the tux talking with another tux and both were looking our way. "I'm not worried about them."

"I am. I don't want my girl to get canned because of this."

"They wouldn't do that," she said with the airy confidence of the unemployed rich.

"Don't bet on it."

"Then come with me. I know a very quiet place that Harry doesn't-"

"Excuse me, sir." It was the second tux and he knew me by sight if not by name.

He'd seen me pick Bobbi up at the stage exit often enough.

"Never mind, I was just leaving."

"I think that would be best, sir."

I redeemed my hat and coat, Marian got her fox wrap, and we left with as much dignity as we could muster. It wasn't much; Marian started giggling before we were out the door.

"Did you see the look on Harry's face?"

"Yeah, we could sell tickets."

"My car's right over here." She steered me off to the left. I went along, keeping an eye out for Summers. Marian opened the passenger door, slid in first, and patted the leather seat for me to join her.

"Uh-uh. Time to say good night."

She shook her head in amused disbelief, then realized with a shock that I was serious. "But I want you to come with me."

"Not tonight, sweetheart." I shut the door on her. She flopped across the seat to try and open it again and, failing that, she rolled down the window.

"Jack, I said I want you to come with me."

"And it's the nicest thing I've heard all evening."


"Marian, to tell the truth, you're just too much woman for me." I backed away and walked fast, putting a line of cars and a lot of darkness between us before vanishing into thin air.

Distant and muffled, I heard her door open as she charged out to chase me down.

She called my name a lot, growing more und more frustrated as the minutes passed.

I simply waited and floated free until she finally gave up. It took a long time, and even then she didn't go to her car, but back into the club. The clack of her heels faded and I returned to solidity again with relief,

I was crouched next to a Rolls and a Caddy and straightened with care. No one was in immediate sight, which was lucky. Pulling my vanishing act in a public place was strictly for emergencies only, but Marian more than qualified. As far as I was concerned, she was about as welcome as a case of warts-and as hard to lose.

Belatedly, I remembered that I was supposed to be looking tor Stan McAlister.

Maybe he was somewhere in the club and Marian had been putting up her best smoke screen to distract me. It would mean that she was in on the bracelet business, but nothing much would surprise me about that girl.

I'd been distracted, all right, but if McAlister was here, I'd find him. I started to go around to slip in by the stage entrance and had to stop cold. Harry Summers was coming across the parking lot straight for me, looking like a bulldozer on legs.

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