Blood on the Water Chapter 1

Author: P.N. Elrod

Series: Vampire Files #6

Genres: Fantasy , Mystery

It was war, then. The quiet kind that you notice only as an impersonal paragraph in the paper you read over the morning coffee or in the evening relaxing, after work. Bold black letters might spell out "Shooting Victim Found," and then go on to give some sparse details of the person's age, where they lived and died, and that the police were following some promising leads. Most of the time you never learn if they turned up anything or not. Life moves forward and new paragraphs on other casualties appear in the paper. New, but with a dreary similarity to all the others, as in any war.

In my case I might not even get that much of an epitaph. Vaughn Kyler's enemies tended to simply disappear. Without an inconvenient body to trip over, the cops couldn't be expected to make an arrest.

I gripped the wheel more tightly to control the tremors in my hands and took a second look in the rearview mirror. The Cadillac was still there and following close enough to make it obvious that the men inside wanted me to know about it. The side windows were smoked over, but I could make out four vague figures through the windshield, though little else. Maybe one of them was Kyler but that wasn't very likely. The wide streets of Chicago, even at night, were far too public for him.

Last August he'd taken control of the Paco gang, and since Frank Paco himself was confined to a lunatic ward and his brothers and cousins were missing and probably dead, no one was around to object. In six months Kyler had doubled the earnings and spread the profits around so his position was that much more secure, but he was always on guard against any threats to his authority, which, unfortunately, included myself.

In no uncertain terms he'd ordered me to leave town or die. His attitude at the time indicated that he didn't really care about my choice as long as one or the other removed me from his sight. I suppose from his point of view he was giving me a better break than I deserved. That or he was just being careful. Sooner or later he could overstep things enough so that the cops would no longer ignore the situation and be forced to officially notice him.

But last night's many events had crowded his threat right out of my mind and I hadn't left, much less even thought of alternatives. On the other hand, he'd had a long full day to recover from that particularly busy evening and decide what to do about me. Sending some of his boys in one of his Caddies to play tag had to be part of it.

I made a few turns just to be sure and the big black car echoed my course in a leisurely manner. They had enough power under that hood to make mincemeat of anything my humble Buick could do. If I wanted to get away with a whole skin, it would have to be with brains and not speed. I just wished that I felt smart instead of scared. Kyler had that effect on me.

They didn't seem to be in much of a hurry to push the issue. I could figure that they'd planned out what to do and were only waiting for me to make it easy for them with a wrong move. They didn't quite hug my back bumper, but kept close enough to edge up my nerves. Not a good idea on their part; a nervous man is liable to do anything. It would have been far better to tail me at a discreet distance until I'd arrived at the Top Hat Club and then pick me off as I left the car. They wanted to frighten me before moving in; Kyler apparently had no reservations against letting his boys have some fun.

Even as the thought occurred, my hands abruptly stopped shaking. I drew a short breath, releasing it as a brief, taut laugh that flushed away my vague fears. I suddenly knew exactly how to handle them and had only to find the right spot for it.

The setup was important. I'd have to let them think they'd succeeded in rattling me. Shifting into the right lane, I cut a sharp turn at the next corner and put my foot down. The Buick had enough in it to accelerate away at a good clip, and I left them behind for a few hopeful seconds.

Traffic was light in the area, which was just as well since I didn't want any bystanders or cops getting in the way. I hadn't seen a patrol car yet, not that I was remotely interested in involving the law over this. If the men in the Caddy ran to type they'd have no qualms about bumping off a cop to get to me. I was content to leave Chicago's finest out of the immediate line of fire and take care of these clowns myself.

I continued the illusion of a chase for several long blocks. At one point I thought I'd genuinely lost them, but the familiar pattern of their headlights swung into view again and caught up. Losing them without having to try anything fancy would have been just fine, but that kind of luck wasn't working for me tonight. I took the next corner fast and tight, the wheels squawking until they bit the pavement with a quick lurch. The Cadillac easily kept pace.

The corner coming up was to be my last one. Sooner or later I'd have to run into a traffic stop that I couldn't beat through, and this was it. The driving lane ahead was blocked with cars waiting for the next signal change. The curb was lined with parked vehicles. Oncoming traffic prevented me from making a U-turn, so I stood on the brake and stopped just short of the guy in front of me. For effect, I tapped the horn, but no one bothered to move out of the way.

Since I was giving the impression of a nerved-up and frantic man, it was time to do something desperate. I cut the motor and launched out of the car on the right-hand side, sparing only one glance back at the Caddy. They'd been ready for that move; the front and rear passenger doors opened and two guys in dark coats bowled out after me.

I slipped between the parked cars and darted a dozen yards along the sidewalk.

The street was well lighted, but that didn't matter as long as I managed to get out of their sight for a few seconds. I ducked around the corner of a building and vanished. Period.

My forward movement slowed, stopped, and reversed, but by then they'd pounded past and were just starting to wonder what had happened to me. Their puzzlement wouldn't last all that long, so I whipped back the way I'd come like an invisible cloud, hugging the side of the building for guidance. I couldn't see at all, which made it hard to gauge distance, but tried my best guess. It worked out.

When I re-formed into a solid man again I was twenty feet behind their car and in a position to do myself some good.

Vanishing was one of my more convenient talents-acquired, not inherent-

though at first it had taken some practice to get it right. I'm one of the Un-Dead-a nosferatu-a vampire-pick your own name. Any one of them is close enough to the truth, but I tend to ignore them all because of the dramatically bad press associated with such words. In my own mind, I have a condition; terrible in some ways, great in others, but not something to be lightly overlooked.

I wouldn't show in their rearview mirror, but crouched anyway as I ran up to their right rear tire. The cold wind blew the exhaust right in my face, but I don't breathe much except to talk; it was annoying mostly because it made my eyes water.

Fumbling out my pocketknife, I buried the sharp point into the side of the tire with one strong jab. It deflated in a most satisfactory way, getting the immediate attention of the people inside. The guy in the backseat rolled down his window to see what had happened.

He wasn't Kyler, though it would have been nice. I popped his unfamiliar face once on the chin and he dropped out of sight without a sound. The driver said something, but I missed it when I vanished again and poured through the open window into the car. Just as he turned around to check on his fallen buddy I went solid. There was an even chance that he never knew what hit him. In this case it was my left fist, the punch pulled enough so as not to break his jaw.

The car started to drift forward and I had to scramble over the seat to grab at the hand brake. I killed the engine, yanked the key, and tossed it out the rear window into a pile of gutter trash.

The other two would be coming back any second now. I quit their car for my own, gunned it to life, and made that belated U-turn into the oncoming lane.

Happily, no one got in my way, but I was beyond noticing such details, being in too much of a hurry to get back home again to see if Escott was still alive.

We were partners, sort of; he had a small business as a private agent, which meant that he didn't do divorce work, and I helped him out whenever he needed it.

The last case had involved a search for a diamond-and-ruby bracelet worth fifteen grand that sparked off three, almost four murders. Escott and I still had the bracelet. We couldn't return it to its owner without implicating ourselves in two of the deaths. Escott was innocent; I wasn't, but he was my friend and doing what he could to protect me.

In essence, Kyler was at the bottom of it all, and Escott was trying to figure a way of pinning things to him. He was planning to use the bracelet in some way, only it looked as if Kyler wasn't going to give him the chance. As far as Kyler was concerned the bracelet and the money it represented belonged to him now, and too bad for anyone who happened to get in the way.

There's a deep cold well inside all of us where we keep our blackest fears.

Mine had cracked open and was pouring stuff out like Niagara as I turned onto the last street and saw a twin of the Cadillac I'd disabled parked in the alley behind our house. This was a quiet little middle-class neighborhood where such cars are dreams just too good to be true. The smoked windows confirmed its ownership and the threat it represented.

I left my car on the street and tore around the empty Caddy to the back of the house. The narrow yard was silent. The garage was closed tight, but the roof of the Nash was visible through a side window. Escott had been home when they'd come calling. I vanished and seeped through the crack at the bottom of the back door and assumed a more or less vertical position just inside the kitchen.

Unable to see, I concentrated on listening, but heard nothing in the immediate area. I swept the room once to make sure it was empty and cautiously re-formed.

Nobody stared back at me.

The place was wrecked. Every drawer and cabinet was open, their contents dumped out. Escott wasn't too interested in cooking or it might have been worse, but it was bad enough. The refrigerator was open and humming away, trying to keep its stripped insides cold. I shut the door very quietly, my hands shaking again. This time with rage, not fear.

A variety of indistinct sounds were coming from all over the house. There were at least two men on the ground floor and two others upstairs. Nobody talked much. They knew their business.

Peering around the edge of the door, I could look through the dining room to the front parlor, where I'd left Escott listening to his radio. He wasn't in sight, but I did catch a moving glimpse of a dark hat and coat that didn't belong to either of us. I dropped back.

The bedrooms were on the second floor and my instinctive urge was to take the high ground first. Any other time I'd have used the stairs; now I vanished again and rose straight up through the ceiling. The room I materialized in was my own. I was prepared for a mess and they hadn't disappointed me. The barely used bed was torn apart, my books and papers and clothes scattered to hell and gone. It was just my good luck and his bad that the thug who'd done the tearing was still there.

With something like joy I grabbed him by the scruff of his neck, lifting him away from the bureau he was ransacking. He was too surprised to cry out, and then he didn't have the chance to as I slammed him face first into the nearest wall.

The first time wasn't satisfying enough, so I did it again, and once more because I was feeling mean. He left a bloody smear on the faded paper as he slid to the floor, a bundle of loose bones held together by his clothes.

It had made enough noise to draw the attention of his partner, whom I could hear in the bathroom next door.

"Arnold, what the hell was that?"

Arnold, being in no condition to answer, said nothing. The man in the bath emerged cautiously into the hall. He could see Arnold's fallen body from there. I waited behind the bedroom door for him to come in for a better look, only the guy was too wise to try that one. He crossed the hall to the top of the stairs and called down.

"Chaven, something's wrong."

Chaven's voice, familiar to me, answered, "Like what?"

"I dunno, but Arnold's out cold. The boss said to watch for anything weird and this is it."

I expected a derisive reply but was disappointed. "Okay, come down."

"But what about Arnold?"

"Come down, now."

He did.


It meant they knew more than what was good for me.

Their conversation drifted up from the foot of the stairs.

"What happened, Tinny?" Chaven asked.

"I dunno. I hear a thump and look in one of the bedrooms and Arnold's lying on the floor there."

"Out or croaked?"

"Jeez, I dunno. I din' like the feel of things so I stayed out."

"All right, we'll check on it together. You two stay back and cover us."

There was some shuffling followed by floorboard creaks as Chaven and Tinny slowly came up the stairs. I could have played more games, taking them out one at a time, but not knowing what had happened to Escott left me with a need to force the issue.

"Stop there, Chaven," I called from my room before he was halfway up. I made it sound as if I had a gun. I abruptly realized I did, since Arnold was sure to be carrying one.

The floor creaks ended. "Fleming?" Chaven's tone held equal amounts of caution and doubt.

"Yeah, and I've got your boy, so let's talk." I dug at Arnold's inert body, looking for the kind of argument that would be sure to work against these jerks.

Chaven used those few seconds to regain his balance, recovering too fast for my peace of mind. "Okay by me. Come out where I can see you."

"Sure." Maybe the ready answer surprised him since anyone else in my position would have been leery of getting his head blown off. But I finally emerged-holding the unconscious Arnold in front of me. Bullets can't kill me, but it hurts like hell to get shot, so I was only taking sensible precautions. I was also holding the gun I'd just salvaged.

Unimpressed, Chaven steadied his revolver on me, eye level. The sharp lines of his body and the set of his thin, hard face told me he was more than ready to use it. From ten feet away he wasn't about to miss. It flashed through my mind that I ought to go ahead and let him shoot since faking my death might get them off my back for a while.

Of course, Escott would then be stuck with them... if they hadn't gotten to him already.

Neither of our guns had gone off in the last five seconds but that could change if I even blinked wrong. I kept still and kept quiet. By letting Chaven be the first to speak it would give him the illusion that he was in control of things.

Tinny spoiled it by trying to be helpful. "I can get him from here." He was on the stair just behind Chaven.

"So can I. Lay off." Chaven never once looked away. "The bracelet," he said to me in the same annoyed tone.

"It's not here," I lied.

"Go get it."

"When you and your boys leave."

He had a sense of humor, if the noise he made was a laugh. "We go when I get the bracelet."

"What do I get?"

He thought about it for only a second. "Another chance to blow town."

"Like hell."

"Take it or die."

"Your boss has already decided that. Tell me another one."

"We can make it easy or hard, Fleming."

"You can't do anything to me or you lose the bracelet. Does Kyler think my hide's worth losing fifteen grand over?"

"You're worth nothing to him." But he was just talking to get the last word in and to think some more. "Besides, there's still your partner."

"Except he doesn't know where it is."

"He'll know, all right. He's too careful not to know."

"Then why don't you ask him?"

"With you here I don't have to. Now hand it over."

So Escott had managed to get away in time. They wouldn't have bothered ripping the place apart if they'd had him to question... unless they'd made a mistake and killed him outright. If they had, then none of them were leaving this house alive.

"Okay, but everybody get back. Crowds make me nervous."

At an invisible signal from Chaven, Tinny and the other two thugs retreated down the stairs to the landing. I could just see them through the banister. They still had their guns out and pointed in my general direction.

I hefted Arnold a little higher and took a step forward. Chaven didn't seem to notice that holding up all that extra weight with one arm wasn't bothering me much.

He backed off a pace, but to the side, not down the stairs. His mind was on other things, then. We locked eyes at the same moment of realization, only I was just an instant faster as I pushed Arnold straight at him and ducked.

Chaven's gun roared out in the confined space of the upper hall. He snarled something and tried to bring the muzzle down, but Arnold was in his way long enough for me to get my feet set and launch toward him. For a few seconds it was all blind pawing, thick coats, and elbows, then I took a chance opening and clobbered Chaven in the head with the side of Arnold's gun. He stopped moving. I tore the revolver from his hand.

Tinny and his two chums came up out of nowhere. I shoved a foot into Tinny's gut. He grabbed at it, dragging me free of Chaven, but lost his balance and fell backward, his arms suddenly wide. One chum tried to catch him at the same time the second tried to get out of the way and they all tripped each other and took a partial roll down the stairs. By the time they got themselves pulled together, I was up again and looking like William S. Hart with a borrowed gun in each fist.

I suddenly had their full attention. Except for myself, everyone was breathing hard and red in the face, some more than others, as they realized I had them square.

"You! Put it on the landing."

Tinny knew I was talking about his gun without having to ask, which made him a bright boy. He did as he was told, and so did the others when it was their turn. I kicked everything through the open door into my room.

Chaven began to groan and push at Arnold as he came around. He snapped abruptly awake and glared. I expected him to start cursing once he took in the altered situation, but nothing came out. The look on his face and especially in his cold, stony eyes was eloquent enough. We both knew what we thought of each other.

"You stand up slow," I said, and he followed my directions carefully. He lifted one hand to check where I'd hit him. His fingers came away with a little red on them.

"Yeah," he said, as though agreeing with some inner voice.

I waved a muzzle at Arnold. "Get him. Everyone downstairs."

They got him, struggling clumsily with his uncooperative body. Chaven let the others work while he watched me, no doubt making plans on what to do at our next meeting.

I herded them through the kitchen and out the door. They slow-marched to the Cadillac and got in. Chaven was the driver; I made him wait until the others were settled.

"You can tell Kyler that I got his message about the bracelet."

"I'll do that, Fleming."

"You can also say that I want a better deal before I hand it over."

"What kind of deal?"

"I'll talk that over with Kyler. Have him call me here. The number's in the book."

That was the end of our business for tonight. I hoped. He got in the car and quietly drove away with the search party. He was visibly frustrated and anyone else might have expressed it in their driving, but not Chaven. He could have been out on a Sunday jaunt with his granny for all the care he took over signals and speed. Maybe he wasn't in such a hurry to return to his boss empty-handed.

Trotting back to the house, I checked the place from the attic on down. It was still a wreck, but unoccupied. The last spot I checked, primarily because it was so well hidden, was the walled-off section of the basement where I slept during the day. I disappeared, flowed through the familiar pattern of bricks to the alcove beyond, and re-formed.

The small room was in total darkness. My night vision is excellent except in those rare spots protected from all outside light, like here in my private sanctum. I usually left the lamp over my desk on for that reason, but now it was off. The complete claustrophobic blackness pressed on me as it would anyone else, and I instinctively started to back out again when a low, soft sound stopped me. A heartbeat.


"Jack... thank God you're all right." It came out in a rush along with his pent-up breath.

With a click, the small light over the desk flashed to life. I winced and squinted painfully against the sudden brightness until my eyes adjusted. Escott was sitting in my work chair with my bathrobe draped over his clothes and a relieved expression on his bony face.

"You've been down here the whole time?"

He gave me a "what do you think" shrug and put the .38 he was holding back in his pants pocket.

"And with no light?"

"Out of necessity, I fear. It seemed preferable not to give them a lighted target if they chanced to find me."

Set in the ceiling above the folding bed was a trapdoor, visible on this side, but only a normal part of the kitchen furnishings on the other. It was centered under the old oak dining table and covered by a tacked-down throw rug. To unlock it, you had to open one of the cabinet doors back all the way. Once lowered, the trap automatically relocked. Escott had a penchant for such devices and the talent to design and construct them. Not for the first time was I glad that he'd indulged the theatrical side of his nature.

"You couldn't duck out of the house?" Given the choice of running or hiding in a dead-end bolt hole, I knew what my preference would have been.

"With them coming in both doors I was caught in a classic pincers movement.

As it was, I barely made it down here. I'd just time to slide under the table and drop through the trap. It slammed down over me as they broke open the back door, then I had a few bad minutes waiting to learn if they'd seen or heard any of it. For a while I was beginning to feel altogether too close in kinship with the unfortunate fish trapped in a barrel."

"I see what you mean."

He glanced at his watch. "Heavens, I would have sworn that more time had passed than this."

"It was long enough for them to tear the place apart."

"Looking for that bracelet, no doubt."

"And not finding it. You put it in the safe, then?"

"I didn't have it."

"But I gave it to you last night." A little wave of cold puzzlement washed over me.

"And I returned it to you before I had to leave." He held up his hand as I started to object. He took off the robe and pulled a black velvet bag from one of the pockets. A fortune in diamonds and rubies linked together by bright platinum spilled out and twined around his long fingers.

"Jeez, I don't remember." Then again, I really didn't want to remember. Escott had mentioned that I'd been in pretty bad shape and I was ready to take him at his word and leave it at that, but the sight of the bracelet started to bring things to the surface. I recalled its weight in my own hand and the way the light made the rubies look like fresh blood. A whole new tremor ran up my spine. Escott noticed and slipped the thing back in its

"I'm not in the habit of searching pockets that do not concern me, but when I borrowed this for protection, I couldn't help but find it." He hung the robe over the back of the chair.


"Yes. Despite its proximity to the furnace, this... ah... haven of yours was a bit chilly for me."

"Is it?" Since my change I'd developed a certain indifference against most temperature extremes. "Guess I better get you out of here."

"I was rather hoping you'd say that. Would you object if I bought a folding ladder to store here against any future emergencies of a similar nature? Just in case I must make an unassisted exit."

I told him to go right ahead, then vanished to float up to the kitchen. I pushed the cabinet door back until the catch clicked, then hauled up the trap. The big table had to be shoved to one side this time to give us both room to work. Escott reached high and I was just able to grasp his wrist and pull him out.

"Good heavens," he said the second his head cleared the floor. It was for the mess he saw, not the acrobatics.

He stood, his shoes crunching against a sea of spilled sugar, salt, coffee grounds, and milk. He walked slowly into the dining room and surveyed the broken liquor cabinet, the scattered bottles and glasses. He went on to the front parlor to find the overturned radio, tumbled furniture, and slashed cushions. I followed him upstairs, where the mess was worse. Drawers had been dumped, their contents pawed through. The books and souvenirs in his library/study were torn from the shelves. The overwhelming sick rage at the invasion hit me all over again; I could only imagine what Escott felt.

He was an extremely neat and organized man; Kyler's people couldn't have picked a better way to get him angry. He didn't show it much, only by the hardening of his eyes and the knife-edge thinning of his mouth.

"I'm sorry, Charles."

"Hardly your fault, old man. Looking at this, I can get an idea of what they might have done to me had I not been able to drop out of sight in time."

"I should have seen this coming. I could have stuck around and stopped all this."

He shook his head. "I wouldn't worry about it now. One cannot anticipate everything, otherwise life would be very dull, indeed. What did inspire you to return?"

I told him about the tail, how I'd slipped it, and what had happened when I found Chaven's party.

"You took care of all five of them? And by yourself?"

"With some help from Sam Colt." I pulled the guns I'd taken from my coat pockets. "There's more in there." I nodded in the direction of my room. That's when he laughed, actually laughed, out loud.

"I could almost wish to be a fly on the wall when Kyler questions his henchmen on this bit of business."

"They'll be back."

"I don't doubt it. I suppose he'll be calling any time now, unless he decides to forgo negotiations altogether after this. What will you say to him?"

"I'm still working on it, but I figure if he wants the bracelet this bad maybe we should give it to him."

"And you think you can convince him to leave us alone?"

I shrugged. "Unless you've got any better ideas?"

"Not at the moment, no. I see that surprises you."

"I thought you had a plan to plant it on Kyler and then call the cops down on him."

"Initially, yes, but I've had time to think it out. There's little chance of successfully pulling that off without drawing undue legal attention to ourselves.

While I may be able to weather such a storm, you are ill suited to spending any time in jail."

"You mean you can't just make an anonymous call?"

"The authorities in this city would require something more than that to justify issuing a search warrant against someone in Kyler's position. Nor can I really approach Lieutenant Blair on this. He's far too intelligent. If either of us turn up waving that bracelet about... well, I should not care to dwell on the consequences.

And if Kyler took it into his head to talk, even a partial telling of the truth of what happened last night would place us in a terribly precarious position."

"What do you call this? We're already there, if not with the law, then with Kyler."

Our problem was the fact that one of Kyler's lieutenants had murdered a girl and that I, in turn, had murdered him. It wouldn't take much for Kyler to twist the events around to suit himself, and he had enough power and influence to get away with it. At the very least, Escott would lose his license and probably serve hard time for his part in things. On the other end, Kyler could probably save himself a lot of trouble by having Escott just disappear like too many other people before him. At this time of year Lake Michigan made for an awfully damned cold grave.

"You might want to pack some stuff," I said.

"And run?"

"If I can't make a deal with him we're both up shit creek."

He nodded in reluctant agreement. He'd had plenty of time to think things through sitting in the darkness. "We might require a bit of breathing space before our next move," he admitted.

I started to ask him what he had in mind, but let that one lie for the time being.

Neither of us could really do or plan anything until we heard from Kyler.

The call came about thirty minutes later. I was in the kitchen sweeping up some of the mess and answered.

I'd been expecting Kyler, but Chaven was on the other end of the line.

"Get a pencil," he snarled.

Escott always kept one close to the phone along with some paper. I snapped it up in time to write out the phone number Chaven dictated to me.

"You call there exactly at eleven o'clock, y'hear?"

"I hear."

He slammed down his receiver, but I'd been ready for that and was holding my earpiece a safe distance away.

Escott had come downstairs to listen to my side of the conversation. I showed him the number. "Probably to a public box," he commented.


"Lieutenant Blair is a remarkably efficient investigator; perhaps Kyler is worried about wiretaps on his lines in connection with last night's deaths. If so, then this is one call that neither of you will want to have overheard."

"Or traced. Think I better do the same thing. Just in case."

"And from another neighborhood," he added.

Chaven's phone call only traded one kind of waiting for another. Having a specific deadline to look forward to was slightly less nerve-racking, but in some ways it was worse. My concentration for even the simple task of sweeping up the kitchen was shot all to hell; mostly I moped around and peered out the windows.

For a while I thought the clock was broken, but it matched my wristwatch minute for minute. Escort stayed busy upstairs. I wasn't sure if it was his way of handling the wait or if he was only avoiding my twitchy restlessness.

At one point I found myself dialing the number to the Top Hat Club to ask for Miss Smythe. I hung up on the first ring. Bobbi would be in the middle of one of her sets by now and the management might take a dim view of the interruption.

Besides, what could I say to her that wouldn't leave her alarmed and worried?

She still didn't know that I'd almost died last night, permanently and horribly.

She also didn't know how I'd gone over the edge and what had happened when I struck bottom. I could still feel the gun jump in my hand and see the blinding flash.

It didn't quite blot out the man's last scream or the look on his face.

No regrets, remember?

Yeah, sure. Easy to say, hard to do. I was coming to realize that it wasn't so much that I had killed, but that I'd been out of control at the time. I was caught up in the not unreasonable worry that it could happen again.

Damn the bracelet. Damn everything and all its relatives.

I grabbed the broom and made an effort to finish the job. By ten-thirty the floor was clean of every grain and speck, but I was still sweeping for something to do. The mindless activity kept me from thinking so much. My thoughts weren't exactly comfortable.

Escort wanted to come along and I had no objections to offer, especially since he volunteered the use of his Nash. The big car was armored, with an engine powerful enough to match anything Kyler had. Much safer than the Buick.

Exactly at eleven, in an outdoor booth about two miles from home, I dialed in the last number Chaven had dictated to me.

"What do you want?" No introductions, no preamble. Kyler knew I'd recognize his voice.

"A truce."

"Terms." He made it a statement, not a question.

"You and your people leave me and all my friends alone. We do the same for you. For that, you get the item you want."

"What else?"

This seemed too easy, but I plowed ahead. "Your word on it."


"As soon as possible. Tonight."

A pause from his end. In the background I heard muffled traffic noises, indicating that Escott had been right; Kyler was also in a public booth. For all I knew, we could be only blocks apart. "All right," he finally said. "And my word that we leave you and your friends alone."

"Good enough."

"Double-cross me and all bets are off."


"Come to the warehouse at midnight."

I covered the mouthpiece with one hand and hissed at Escott, who was just outside. "He wants to meet at the warehouse."

"Ask him why."

"Why the warehouse?" I said to Kyler.

"It's known to both of us. You'll be safe from me there. My word on that, also.


I didn't like it, but said yes. He hung up quietly, as though he'd eased a finger over the hook. The usual clicks of disconnection followed by the dial tone came a moment later.

"Not one for wasting words, is he?" Escott commented as I pried myself from the cramped booth.

"Yeah. And he was awfully damn cooperative. It makes me wonder what I just missed."

"He does seem to have you on the defensive. Why is that?"

"Why are people afraid of snakes?"

With no better way to spend the time, we went back home again. Escott hung his coat on the hall tree and disappeared for a moment, returning with a crumpled map of the city in one hand. I followed him to the kitchen, where he spread it flat on the table.

"I know where the place is," I said.

"As do I, but it is the surrounding area that requires my attention."

"You want to come along again, huh?"

"I have a more than casual interest in the outcome of this business."

A half dozen objections ran through my brain in as many seconds. Escott would have already thought of them all and then some and have counterarguments for each. "Okay, but I go in alone. If things go wrong, I'll need you in reserve to get us out of there."

We bent over the map. Escott was better at making sense of all the thin black lines and tiny letters and picked out a likely place to park. By eleven forty-five we were there. He rolled to a smooth stop on a side street about a quarter mile from the International Freshwater Transport warehouse.

"Good enough," I said.

"Not quite," he cautioned, and shifted into reverse. The car was now in an angle of shadow created by one of the many tall, ugly buildings in the area.

"You won't be able to see anything now." The high walls blocked all but a narrow view of the main street leading to the warehouse.

"Then, hopefully, they won't be able to see me."

Heavy winter silence closed hard upon us when he cut the motor. Each little tick it made while cooling down sounded like a firecracker to my sensitive ears.

"Have you a gun?" he asked.

"I've got the one I took from Chaven. I'm not planning to do anything with it, but can figure on a search; it'd be a shame not to give them something to find."

"And if anything should go awry?" His tone was matter -of-fact, but still expressed a reasonable concern.

I shrugged a little. "If I'm not back by half past, then assume something's fishy, find a hole, and pull it in after you. Same thing if it looks like you've been spotted.

Take off and stay away from the house and the office. If that happens and we get separated, I'll leave a message with your answering service."

"Presuming that you are in a condition to do so," he muttered. He wanted to go along, but we both knew that on my own I stood a better chance of bringing it off and getting out with a whole skin. There wasn't much they could do to me, and, if necessary, I could always vanish.

"I'll be careful."

Escott handed me the black velvet bag. I checked the contents out of nerves rather than any lack of trust and shoved it deep into a pocket.

"Good luck," he said.

I got out, shut the door, and started walking.

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