The Dark Sleep Chapter 1

Author: P.N. Elrod

Series: Vampire Files #8

Genres: Fantasy , Mystery

Chicago, April 1937

Normally I wouldn't be caught dead-or even undead-in this kind of eatery anymore, but my partner Charles Escott needed my help with a case. He had a skittish client who insisted on being along for the ride and wanted someone to hold her hand and keep her out of trouble-that is to say, out of his hair-while he worked.

I looked across the table at Mary Sommerfeld, and tried to give her a reassuring smile, but she wasn't having any of it. She kept darting nervous glances to her left, my right, and several times I had to stop myself from doing the same. If I wanted to see what was going on there, I could use the pocket mirror cupped in my palm.

"Keep your eyes on me," I muttered. "Try to eat something." After all, I'd bought her the more expensive fifty-five-cent dinner (beverage extra), and I hated to see good food going to waste. I assumed it was good, anyway. My judgment on fine dining was no longer reliable. The only thing that didn't smell nauseating to me in this joint was my untouched coffee.

"But he's not doing anything," she muttered back.

I took her to mean my partner. "Mr. Escott's had lots of experience at this kind of thing. Give him time, he'll come up aces for you."

She grimaced and seized a fork, glared at it, and made a point of wiping it thoroughly with her napkin, which I thought unnecessary. Granted, the joint wasn't the Ritz Hotel, like what she was used to, but then it was a few steps above a greasy spoon, like what I'd been used to before I stopped eating solid food. It was clean and well lighted, with no lip-rouge stains on the glasses, and the ashtrays were emptied regularly. Not my kind of place these nights, but still fairly respectable.

Escott had chosen it because you could seat yourself, hence my place in a booth with Miss Sommerfeld, and his at a table twenty feet away with Jason McCallen. From my vantage I could easily block the front and back exits in case McCallen decided to hoof it before our business with him was done.

Our client wasn't too happy being so close to him, but with her short dark hair hidden by a gray cloche hat and the rest of her covered up with a matching coat and galoshes, she looked like a thousand other Chicago women for this time of year. Besides, McCallen was angled away from us, and would have to turn to spot her.

I'd tried to dress to blend in as well, leaving my pricey double-breasted suits and silk shirts in the closet in favor of a nondescript jacket and slacks, both in dark blue. My newsboy's cloth hat was stuffed in a pocket, and I wore black shoes with gum soles. My hair was trimmed, combed, and slicked straight back from my face. The impression I hoped to give was that of a laborer taking his girl out on a Friday-night date. Nothing fancy, but not insultingly cheap.

Miss Sommerfeld pushed her vegetables around and savagely speared a single kernel of corn. She shoved it into her mouth and chewed on it for half a minute.

"Stop staring at me," she growled.

I broke off and looked down at the mirror. Instead of paying attention to business, I'd been distracted by how long it took her to eat the corn kernel.

The tiny image in my hand shivered and settled. It was the same as the last time I'd checked, with Escott and McCallen at their table facing off over cups of cooling coffee. My partner was lean and tall, beak-nosed, dressed neatly in a stuffed-shirt sort of way, looking like a fussy bank teller. McCallen was just as tall, but more massive, with at least an extra fifty pounds of solid muscle riding easily on his shoulders and arms. He was big, hairy down to his knuckles, and dressed like a longshoreman. I couldn't blame Miss Sommerfeld for seeking help with the Escott Agency in dealing with him.

According to her story, McCallen had taken away an envelope of papers that were not his. They were worth a lot to her, enough to hire us to get them back again. She didn't want publicity, so the theft went unreported to the cops, and her lawyers had no clue about the incident.

When she first came to Escott's office early this afternoon to rent his services as a private agent, he made a good stab at trying to find out the contents of the envelope, but she clammed up and shook her head.

"It's personal and private," she told him. "Nothing illegal, I assure you, but they don't belong to him. Will this cover your fee?" Then she put five matching pictures of Andrew Jackson on his desk and that was that.

He called home at sunset to give me the short version of the deal and what sort of help he would need from me if I was available. I was-at least until around two in the morning when my girlfriend got off work.

"Are you out of your mind accepting a case without knowing the whole story?" I asked, running a hand over my beard stubble as I leaned toward the mouthpiece of the kitchen phone.

"Miss Sommerfeld's within her rights, Jack," he said lightly. "And it's not as murky as you think. I happen to have more background on her than you do."

The background being that she was an heiress to a fortune in saltine crackers. No, really. McCallen had been a foreman in one of the factories or plants or bakeries or whatever it is you call a place that makes crackers. He'd been romantically linked with Mary for a couple of months, until her parents in Michigan heard what was going on and packed her off to Europe. A little hobnobbing with other rich kids in the south of France had done the trick. Mary found herself accepting a marriage proposal from some minor prince and returned home in triumph.

"It is my opinion," said Escott, "that the diamonds on her engagement ring could easily buy my house with some considerable change left over for lavish decoration."

"So you do a good job for her and maybe she recommends you to rich friends in need?"

"That's always a possibility." He made no effort to dampen the smug satisfaction in his tone.

"What about the papers? Got any idea what they might be?"

"From her manner I'm assuming they're indiscreet love letters written to McCallen when things were still amicable between them. She must have gotten them away from him at some point, then he thought better of it and stole them back. Her royal engagement could go up in smoke if he decides to use them against her."

"Where do you come by that?" I shifted from one bare foot to the other. He'd caught me just as I'd opened my eyes for the night. I'd launched straight out of my basement lair to catch the ringing phone and had only thin pajamas between me and any lurking draft. I don't feel the cold like I used to, but I hate drafts.

"She's both angered by and frightened of him," he answered. "I also believe there is more than a touch of guilt involved. You'll see for yourself when you meet her."

Which I did after catching a shower, shave, and dressing according to his suggestion. I arrived at Escott's office ready to play muscle for him should the need arise during his negotiations. He introduced me to Miss Sommerfeld as his assistant. She gave me a regal nod, perhaps practicing for her future life with her prince, then insisted on coming along to supervise. Escott started to object, but bit it off. I could almost hear him thinking about the hundred she'd dropped on the desk. With that kind of money involved, the customer is always right.

Earlier that day he'd worked out a money deal with Miss Sommerfeld and arranged a meeting with McCallen by telling him he would hear something to his advantage. The idea was simply to buy the envelope and contents back from him. If McCallen decided to be cooperative, all was well and good, and we could close and tie it up in a bow tonight; if not, then Escott would have to get sneaky and really put me to work.

Knowing a thing or two about human nature, I figured McCallen to be a blackmailer. All he had to do was sell what he had to any of the more jaundiced tabloids and he'd not only rake in a pile of dough for himself, but break up his old girlfriend's pending marriage. That was the lesser of two evils, though. Another strategy would be for him to wait, then quietly squeeze money out of her over the years, which would pay a hell of a lot more in the long haul.

Either way, Miss Mary Sommerfeld was in for a rough time.

"Well, Mr. Fleming?" she asked through clenched teeth. She'd resisted looking across the room for several minutes now.

"They're still talking. Eat some more. You don't want to draw attention."

She subsided and pushed her food around. No one was paying any mind to us, but I wanted her quiet. The place wasn't noisy, but there was enough conversation going on to make it difficult for me to pick out Escott's voice from the rest. A couple at a table in between us finished and left, and once the busboy had cleared things I was just able to eavesdrop on my partner's negotiations.

"It's a perfectly fair offer," he said in his most reasonable tone.

McCallen, whose voice started somewhere near his feet, rumbled a response. I couldn't catch the words.

"I cannot answer that," Escott replied. "I'm only acting on her behalf, a neutral go-between and nothing more. All she asks is that you return the entire item, no questions asked, in exchange for a substantial reward."

"The goods belong to me," said McCallen, loud enough for anyone to hear. Mary gave a little jump, and I put up a warning hand. She'd gone beet red from suppressed fury and her eyes glittered. It was even money whether she'd break into tears or charge across and attack him with the steak knife she clutched in one shaking fist.

"Let Escott do his job," I said in a soothing tone. "He's just getting warmed up."

She finally put the knife down and drank a gulp of coffee. It could have been sulfuric acid and she probably wouldn't have noticed.

I checked the mirror again and listened hard, but now Escott was talking low and quiet, leaning slightly forward.

He must be to the point of laying the law down for McCallen, letting him know that petty theft was one thing, but extortion quite another. McCallen's face was hidden to me, but the set of his shoulders screamed alarm bells.

"One hundred!" he yelped in disbelief. "That's ridiculous. It's worth far more than that!"

His outburst drew notice from the other patrons and even the sleepy girl at the cash register bothered to look up from her receipts. McCallen had no mind for them, though, only his own troubles.

"I refuse, categorically," he said. "You can tell her that, or better, I'll tell her myself." Now I picked up a distinct Scottish accent. I wondered if Escott's own English accent was working against him for once. I'd read somewhere that the English and Scots didn't get along too well.

Mary started to gather herself to rise, but I fastened her with a warning look. I didn't put anything behind it and was doubly gratified when she chose to stay seated in reaction to my one raised eyebrow. I took it for granted that I might have to make my next suggestion a little stronger, though. She seemed ready to boil right over.

But Escott was still talking and McCallen still listening, which was a promising sign. He must have wanted more than a month's good wages out of the deal. Mary had authorized a payment of up to five hundred dollars to get the stuff back, which was a hell of a lot of dough for anyone's pocket.

McCallen was shaking his head. It wasn't just an ordinary refusal, but something in that categorical class from the way he wagged back an forth like a bad-tempered bear. He sneered at Escott's latest offer. "Two hundred-it's worth ten times that much and more. Greedy? I'm not being greedy, only practical, and if she'd wake up she'd see it herself.

No, sir, I'll not be listening to you or to anyone else she sends. Tell her to call me when she comes to her senses and not a moment sooner."

Everyone in the joint heard him and paused in their eating to stare. Escott started to speak, but McCallen was already boosting from his chair and turning to leave. He had a solid square face, piercing brown eyes under thick brows, a grim set to his mouth, and looked about as easy to stop as a runaway bulldozer.

I pocketed the mirror and slid to the edge of the booth to be ready in case Escott wanted me to do anything, but Mary was faster. She tore out and put herself right in McCallen's path.

"You're not going anywhere, Jason McCallen," she snapped.

He stopped in his tracks, surprised by her sudden appearance, and looked down at her, for she was tiny next to him. "Well, well," he said, a bemused smile supplanting the irritation on his mug. He spared a quick appraising glance for me as I stood by her, and evidently decided I was no real threat, then pressed his full attention on the girl. "Mummy and Dadums let you out with only two chaperons? You are taking chances."

"I want those papers back. You must give them to me."

"Oh, I must, eh? Or what, you'll throw a tantrum?"

"They're not yours!"

"They were the last time I looked."

By now Escott had come up to join the party. He didn't appear too ruffled. "Perhaps if we adjourned elsewhere we could settle all this tonight without getting acrimonious," he suggested.

"Give them back!" insisted Mary, ignoring him.

McCallen only grinned. It was in the wiseacre class, with intent to annoy. "No, I won't."

"You have to."

"Girl, I don't have to do anything-except this." He seized her head in both his hands, bent low, and planted a kiss right on her mouth. She struggled and beat on him, but he just as quickly released her, grinning ear to ear.

Bad idea to let her go like that-she cut loose with a scream. It was short, but made up for its brevity in loudness and outrage. She took a swing at him, which he blocked like flicking off a fly. Then Escott stepped between them. I didn't have time to tell him that that was also a bad idea, and if he'd bothered to think it over he would have agreed with me. Instead, he charged into the thick of things and landed one solid punch against McCallen's jaw, which wiped most of the grin away. McCallen staggered back a step, but swiftly came around and went under Escott's guard, catching him in the gut. The force of the blow knocked him smack into me, and we both went tumbling down. I heard several women screech at this, but ignored them because the back of my head cracked against a table as I fell.

A very sturdy table.

Suddenly boneless, I dropped the rest of the way to the floor and stayed there, half-blinded by the intensity of the pain.

God damn it, that hurt!

I couldn't do much, only put my hand on the blazing sore spot and curse the pain. Any other man might have been knocked cold, but no such luck for yours truly. I stayed conscious through the worst of it, aware of the uproar and gaining another bruise or two as Escott scrambled off me to go after McCallen again. Too late, through slitted eyes I saw he'd already made it to the front door. He turned and flashed his teeth, barked a single laugh, then out he dashed to lose himself in the evening crowds.

Escott looked winded, but rounded on Miss Sommerfeld, either to breathlessly reassure her or to apologize. She didn't give him the chance. She shrieked one more time, embarrassment, anger, and massive frustration all packed into one short outburst, then tore off in tears for the ladies' room, rubbing at her mouth with the back of her hand.

He looked down at me, wheezing and a little doubled over from the punch he'd taken. "That didn't go too terribly well, did it?"

"Uh." I grunted in agreement from the floor. Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn, it hurt.

"Jack? You all right?" he asked, peering at me.

I held the back of my head hard, as though to keep my brains from leaking out, shut my eyes, and tried not to swear too loud.

"Was it wood?" he continued, not without sympathy.


"Fortunate, that."


"Were it metal instead, it might have been a bit awkward if you'd disappeared in front of everyone."

At the moment disappearing was one thing I wanted to do, but couldn't. Wood injuries have that effect on me. It's stupid, but nothing I could do anything about. "What 'bout you?" I asked between one wave of crashing pain and another.

"Winded only. Can you stand?" He helped me up, but I was still unsteady. When I staggered against him I figured out how he'd missed more serious damage. He was wearing his bulletproof vest. He usually did while working a case.

In the winter he claimed the layer of small overlapping steel plates kept him warm by cutting the wind. McCallen was probably nursing some knuckle bruises himself for his punch.

"Charles, this stinks," I groaned, fighting for balance.

"Indeed. I believe the management is about to ask us to leave."

That was putting it mildly. The manager stormed up just then and told us to get the hell out or he'd call the cops.

Lots of other people were talking at once, wanting to know what was going on and if there would be more of it. One couple ducked out, forgetting to pay their bill, and that set up a squawk from the girl at the register. Escott was on top of things, though, and waving a five-dollar bill under the manager's nose to catch his attention.

"I believe this will be more than sufficient to cover the various damages, sir. I'll just retrieve our lady companion from your powder room and we shall be happy to vacate the premises." He put the five in the man's hand then tottered toward the back to bang on the door, calling for Miss Sommerfeld to come out. He was careful to use only her first name. She eventually emerged, sniffling and red of eye. He took her arm and swept her away, urging me to hurry as well.

I heal pretty fast, even from wood, but it still hurt like the devil as I stumbled out after them accompanied by laughter, hoots, and other verbal disapproval from the cafe patrons. Not the best of exits, as Escott might have said.

He'd parked his big brown Nash fairly close and was handing Miss Sommerfeld into the passenger seat as I came up. I crawled into the back and resisted the temptation to lie down again. The change in elevation I endured while standing up had been enough sick-making fun for one life.

Escott hit the starter, flicked on the lights, and shifted gears, easing us into the traffic. He threw a wry look at the cafe front as we sailed past. "I'm glad that's not a place I normally frequent lest I should regret its loss. I fear we none of us will be welcome back there again."

It didn't matter to me: I'd stopped eating-so to speak-last August. Miss Sommerfeld had probably never been in such a place before and likely never would be again. We'd come out ahead on that, at least.

She seemed pretty much recovered in terms of self-possession, but was in need of outside repairs. Her lip rouge was smeared across her chin and her mascara had melted and run down both sides of her nose. She was also very much on the boil.

"Now what?" she demanded, her voice thick. "He's still got my papers."

"Mr. Fleming and I shall recover them," said Escott, sounding more confident than I felt. I noticed my specific inclusion on the deal. He had some dirty work planned for me. That's how it usually worked when something went wrong.

"How? Jason knows about you and will be on guard. He's sure to move them, or put them in a safety-deposit box."

"Not to worry. We'll merely fall back, regroup, and plan the next attack."

"You're not going to hurt him, are you?" She sounded excited at the prospect.

"I doubt that will be necessary. Have you his home address?"

"Yes, of course, but-"

"Excellent. As you stated, he will be on guard, but in a day or two he will relax and be more vulnerable to-"

"A day or two? Do you have any idea of the kind of damage he could do in that time?"

"Yes, Miss Sommerfeld, but he appears to be an intelligent man. He's not going to spoil his opportunity to profit from his situation. Am I correct in my assessment that we are not dealing with a merely greedy man, but a man who has been seriously injured in an affair of the heart?"

Her mouth popped open, then she looked down. I didn't need the occasional flash from a streetlight to see she was blushing. "He took my engagement to Prince Ravellia pretty hard and wants to get back at me. That's why he's being so mean about this."

"Then it is not so much money he wants from you as revenge?"

"He's a pigheaded idiot!"

I could almost say the same for Escott. The bonfire in my skull subsided enough to allow me to think again, and react, and I wasn't too happy with him. He should have let me handle McCallen, and not just from when things fell apart, but from the very first. I could have looked him right in the eye, told him to hand over the stuff and walked out, saving us a load of bruising and the client a truckload of annoyance. I'd tell Escott so, too, but not in front of Miss Sommerfeld.

It would be a repeat of what I'd said to him many times before and probably have the same impact as ever-none at all. His agency was his business; he called the shots. I was, in a manner of speaking, only the hired help and did what was asked of me. Though I could do a hell of a lot more and with much less risk, the danger was what he loved about his work. All it did for me was inspire a lot of hair-tearing worry that he'd someday get himself killed.

Ninety-nine percent of the time business was of the quiet sort; only rarely did things get rough, but when they did, Escott always put himself in the middle of it. He used to be an actor once upon a time; maybe he'd never gotten over that craving to be stage center with the spotlight burning on him. The trouble with that is you can't see who in the audience is about to toss the first tomato.

We made it to his office, and as though to put the last nail in our coffin, the wind had changed, saturating the area with the unique stench of the nearby Chicago Stockyards. Mary Sommerfeld wrinkled her well-bred nose and hauled out a sodden handkerchief to block the stuff. As usual, I just stopped any pretense of breathing. Escott was on his own.

After all, it was his office. At least the rent was cheap.

Our client decided to hop into her own car and go home. Escott's talk on the drive back had persuaded her to keep us on for one more try. She threw a hasty good evening to us, hurriedly revved up her brand-new Pierce-Arrow, and sped off into the night. I hoped she'd think to roll the windows down to flush the inside air once she was upwind.

Escott was already trudging up the steps to the second-floor rooms that were the official address of the Escott Agency. The name itself was neatly painted in gold and black lettering on the pebbled glass insert of the front door. He unlocked and walked in, shedding his hat and topcoat, placing both on a hall tree just inside.

The front room was small and plain, with durable furniture and blank white walls. He had his operator's license framed and standing on one of the file cabinets, more as a declaration of his legal right to work than as decor. He claimed that clutter was a distraction to clear thinking, both for himself and the customers. If they had nothing interesting to look at, then they could better concentrate on their business with him.

The place had been tossed over by some mob goons a couple of months back, but you couldn't tell it now. Escott was ferociously neat about his person and surroundings. His desktop was bare except for a receipt book and an ashtray. He put the book away in a drawer and hauled out some paper from another, then pulled out a fat-bodied fountain pen.

"Jeez, you still carrying that?" I asked, gesturing at the pen.

"War booty," he said.

It gave me the heebies just looking at the thing. Though it could write same as a regular pen, it also had a trick reservoir inside that had once held cyanide, not ink. Push a catch on it and out came the hypodermic needle that delivered the poison. Not too long ago the damned contraption had caused yours truly a whole lot of grief that still made me shudder whenever I thought of it.

"Jack, you look as though you've bitten a bad lemon, and we both know the impossibility of that," he said, scribbling the date at the top of the first page.

"Only because we both know I could have handled this without the fun and games. If you hadn't stepped in like that, I could have fixed a whammy on McCallen and had him purring like a kitten."

He shrugged, quite unconcerned. "When he so grossly insulted Miss Sommerfeld I just couldn't help myself. I do apologize for your bang on the head, though. Most unfortunate."

"It's part of the game, but about me taking the lead on some of these..."

He paused in his writing and lifted his chin, one eyebrow going up and the rest of his face like Fort Knox.

I sighed in disgust and turned away to look out the window. The blinds were down, so I didn't see very damn much. "Cripes, Charles, I thought the idea was to deliver what the client wants, not get ourselves killed."

"Too late for that-at least in your case."

I ignored that one. "You know that in a deal like this I should have been the one talking to McCallen."

"First come, first served."


"I was the one to set up the meeting with him in the first place. He would deal with me because he'd know my voice. Having another man to reckon with might have scared him off."

"Nothing short of an earthquake would have scared that bruiser off."

"True, but I didn't know that until I saw him. Next time you set up the appointment, then you can make the negotiations."

"Not fair, you know I'm out of things during business hours. How about we take turns?"

He didn't say no right away, but pulled his pipe out and took his time getting it stoked and smoking. "I'll think it over," he finally said.

"Bullshit, Charles."

"I beg your pardon?"

"That's another way of saying no."

He gave a mild scowl. "I'm discovered, then. Very well, I concede that you have a valid point about raising the success and efficiency of this firm by making use of your abilities, but I was under the impression you were reluctant to do so. After the incident with that woman-"

"I was stupid and made a mistake. I'm past that now." Stupid and greedy and out of control with my appetite. The woman he referred to had recovered from my feeding, thank God, with no memory of what I'd nearly done to her, but the whole thing was burned forever into my mind. It would never happen again.

"Right, then. We'll take turns, providing your involvement is appropriate to the situation."

"What d'you mean by that?"

"Should the next case be the mere delivery of an item, such as the last time, I should think you'd feel rather wasted.

It required a cross-country train journey, which for you is a rather complicated."

"What complication? I just lock myself into my trunk and have it shipped to the right city."

"Really, Jack." He sounded pained.

"Yeah, I know, the porters could load me onto the wrong train and I end up in Cucamonga instead of Boise. Okay, I'll concede some as well, but if we get in another like this one, you put me on the front lines."

"Done and done, but the final decision is mine."

I wanted to argue him out of that one, but held off. It was his agency, after all. I could count myself lucky to have gotten this much from him and quit while I was ahead. "Okay. What else do you have planned for tonight?"

"Writing out a report on what happened for the files, then I'll probably go home." He opened a panel in his desk and drew out a portable typewriter.

"Have you eaten lately?" Sometimes he needed reminding.

"I'll pick up some Chinese on the way back," he said absently, fitting two sheets of paper and a carbon into the carriage.

More than once my girlfriend, Bobbi, had insisted that the odd plate of chow mein did not make for a good diet, but Escott seemed to thrive on the stuff. He rarely cooked for himself beyond opening a can of soup or beans, more often than not eating the stuff cold from the can. Only his passion for neatness kept the kitchen from collecting cobwebs.

"Will you be going to the club as usual?" he asked.

"Yeah. Bobbi's been rehearsing that new show all week and it opens tonight. You're welcome to come along; she'd love to see you there."

"Tomorrow, perhaps. Let them work out of their opening-night jitters." He spoke from experience.

"I guess. She said the last rehearsal was a disaster, people missing cues, sets falling down..."

"Really?" He looked up from the typewriter, his expression warming. "Excellent."

"Excellent? How can you say that?"

"Because tradition has it that when you have a smooth dress rehearsal, the opening will be a flop, but if it's a string of disasters, then success is guaranteed."

I digested that one. "I'll let her know."

"She already does, I'm sure. Do give her my regards."

A clear signal for me to remove my charming self so he could get to work. "Right, see ya."

I shut the door and went downstairs to my waiting car as he began hammering away on the machine, which was something of a reversal for us. At home I was usually the one doing the typing, with him providing the interruptions.

I harbored a dream of becoming a writer of fiction, having until some months back been a writer of fact in my career as a newsman. I'd worked for one of the minor New York papers for several years, fighting for bylines, fighting for this, fighting for that, before deciding that I needed a change; hence my move to Chicago.

Most of it had been inspired by the disappearance of my girlfriend at that time, Maureen. Hell, we were lovers, passionate, devoted lovers. She was a vampire, though that had never been an obstacle to either of us. The lovemaking was incredible and created the potential for my own possible conversion. Then one night she just wasn't there, and the cryptic note she'd left me about returning when things were safe nearly drove me out of my mind with doubt, worry, surmise, betrayal, and a hundred other forms of self-torture. My one defense against them was the solid knowledge that I knew she loved me and that only something very extraordinary had to have come up for her to leave as she'd done.

And so I waited for her to return, placing ads in all the papers for her every week like clockwork. I waited for five goddamned years before despair finally set in and I decided to move and start fresh in Chicago. There were too many memories in New York, too many people who knew my problem, too much cloying sympathy from some or exasperated chagrin from others who thought I was a sap and wasting my time. I left plenty with forwarding addresses in case Maureen returned, and she knew my parents' address in Cincinnati. If she wanted to contact me, she could.

She never did, but other things happened to keep me busy. My first day in Chicago I got caught up in some mob business and shortly thereafter was murdered because of it. But Maureen's unique gift to me during our many exchanges of blood allowed me to come back from death. I suppose some might think it a ghastly life to return as a vampire, but for my money it beat the hell out of a cold unmarked grave at the bottom of Lake Michigan.

While I was attempting to wreak havoc on my killers, I met Escott and not long after started rooming with him, eventually becoming his mostly silent and, when required, invisible partner. To earn my living I provided occasional supernatural muscle, and he gave me protection while I was helpless during the day; it was an arrangement that suited us both.

As for what happened to Maureen, that's a dark story I've told elsewhere. Look it up sometime.

I climbed into my Buick and headed home to change clothes. Though I had the pull to get into the Nightcrawler Club as is, it would hardly be, as Escott might have said, "the done thing." Tonight was the opening of a brand-new show, The Shanghai Review, starring Bobbi Smythe. My girlfriend. My lover. The light of my otherwise murky life. I wanted to dress up sharp and do her proud.

The review was an important step up in her career. When we'd met she was the top singer at the Nightcrawler Club-and also the mistress of its mob manager. He was dead now, replaced by another mobster named Gordy, who was more of a protective big brother toward her than anything else. He didn't have a problem with me courting her, which was fortunate for us all. I considered Gordy to be a friend by now, and I don't hypnotize friends into being cooperative to my wishes.

Not unless it's absolutely necessary, of course.

Bobbi's singing earned her a steady living at various Chicago clubs, but she wanted to move up in her corner of the world. Last fall she'd been featured on a nationwide radio broadcast, but she and her agent waited in vain for fresh offers to come in afterward. She went back to nightclub singing, but during the day invested in dance lessons and an acting coach. Her dream, like others before her, was to take on Hollywood and win, but she knew she'd have to work for it.

"One step at a time," she said. "First the clubs, then some shows, mixed with more radio to get noticed. One step at a time, but walk fast."

She wanted to be in films, but going out to California and knocking on studio doors like five thousand other girls wasn't her style. Bobbi was a bombshell with lots of talent, but she knew she'd get lost in the crowd unless she could get herself established, recognized by the right people, and specifically invited. She was now walking very fast indeed, because at twenty-five, she worried that she might be getting too old to be considered for movie work.

I parked the car as usual on the street in front of Escott's house. The garage in the alley running along the back of the house was for his Nash. I didn't mind, it only meant I could come and go that much faster. One of our neighbors walked past and threw a half wave at me. I responded in kind and decided not to go transparent and slip through the cracks between the door and its frame as I sometimes did. Key in the lock like everyone else this time.

Inside, I turned on a few lights, not that I really needed them, but so things would look right, then went upstairs.

Escott had done a lot of work on the place, knocking out walls here and there, making small rooms big. The building was old and a couple decades back had been a brothel, and while a chamber just big enough to hold a bed and a night table was all the management needed then, the new owner had other ideas.

Escott had picked up a lot of carpentry skills during his acting days and put them to good use knocking through walls. He made himself a princely suite at the far end of the hall with its own bath. My territory was just off the upper landing, slightly smaller because the bath was the next door down, but more than enough for my needs. The third floor he worked on when the mood struck and he had the time. I didn't know what he eventually planned to do with it.

My room had two windows overlooking the street, a bed that I never slept in, and a pleasant mess of magazines and books that had piled up during my occupancy. The closet and drawers were stuffed with clothing, most of it new.

Two months back, in the course of trying to prevent a gang war, I'd walked away with a sizable chunk of money that the mob didn't know existed. For all the crap I'd been through it seemed a fair enough compensation. At just a hair over sixty-eight grand, I was a rich man for the time being and still figuring out what to do with it. That kind of big cash could make for all sorts of problems.

There was Uncle Sam to be reckoned with for one. He didn't care how I earned my money so long as I paid the taxes on it, which I intended to do. Honest. But until I came up with a way of legitimizing the stuff, I pretty much had to sit on it. A part-time employee at an extremely modest investigations agency doesn't just walk into a bank with that kind of dough and no explanation, especially in this town. So I bided my time, bought a lot of pricey clothes, took Bobbi out to expensive restaurants, and generally celebrated my good fortune, albeit quietly.

With the window shades safely down, I took a moment to vanish, which cured my head of any lingering ache from the knock against the table. After that I changed into one of my two tuxedos. Yeah, I went nuts and bought two. The one with the snow-white dinner jacket was at the cleaners. The black one looked just as sharp, or so I'd been told since mirrors are as useful to me as a third thumb. Because of this handicap I had to make my best guess whether or not my tie was straight. I'd never been especially vain, but I did miss the satisfaction of seeing the final result once I was ready to leave.

The Nightcrawler Club was up on the north end of town and, museums, aquariums, and public parks aside, was still fairly close to the lake. It really shouldn't have been in the area, but when it was built the mobs were openly running things in this patch, and if they wanted something done, it got done.

It was both a showplace and a fortress, though most people would miss the subtleties of the latter. There were grilles set in the walls on either side of the entry where armed goons could keep an eye on things. The walls were angled to create a cross-fire area on the street and fitted with steel shutters. All the windows in the joint also sported steel shutters on the outside, though whoever built them did a damn good job of disguising them as ordinary painted wood. The glass was thick enough to be bulletproof.

The upstairs was sort of a free hotel to a few of the men working there, and sometimes a way station for guys passing through town. The previous manager used to live there, but not Gordy. He preferred to keep moving around.

The basement had plenty of storage and a very well-concealed escape hatch leading to an ancient brick-lined passage that eventually emerged in a building some distance away. We'd used it once to avoid some crooked cops during a police raid.

Those happened more or less regularly because of the casino that took up half the ground floor. The room was invitation only. If the goon at the door didn't like your looks, you didn't get in. The raids weren't much of an inconvenience to Gordy. He just rode them out, had his lawyers deal with the law, paid his fine out of petty cash, and was usually back in business a day or so later. Sometimes the interruption was mob-ordered to distract the public from some other embarrassment and to make it look like the cops were on the job. Gordy found the notoriety good publicity; the place rarely had a slow night.

The only thing they didn't think to do for the place was improve the parking, but the whole city was like that.

Most of the customers were well-heeled enough to take a taxi or have their chauffeur drop them off. I wasn't one of them and circled the block a few times to find an open spot. Ordinarily I could could find one, but the papers had carried plenty of advertising on the show; it looked to be a full house for the nine o'clock opening. I finally gave up and used the valet parking, trusting the thin kid who took my keys would bring my buggy back.

I checked my topcoat and hat and threaded through the drinks crowd in the club's outer lobby bar to see if the hostess remembered to hold a table for me. In a black dress covered with silver sequins forming a spiderweb pattern, she wore a silly little hat made to look like a cheerfully smiling spider. The other girls had similar costumes, but with shorter skirts. The hat bobbed and the spider's googly eyes rolled as the hostess pored over her seating roster.

"I'm sorry, but we had to give your table to another party," she said, sincerely apologetic. "Gordy said it was okay and for you to find him so you can sit at his table." This drew the jealous attention of a few eavesdroppers who would have to wait for the second show.

Well, it sometimes pays to be a privileged character.

Not that I'd been worried or even annoyed about having my table yanked from under me. Being a familiar face here by now, I knew I'd easily find a spare chair with some acquaintance, but so much the better to get with Gordy as he'd have the best view in the house. And thanks to him I had the run of the place. After I saved his life a couple of times, he thought it was the least he could do.

The orchestra was Ted Drew's Melodians, and they were in full swing as I pushed through the dividing curtains into the club proper. They were ensconced upstage on risers overlooking the dance floor, which was surrounded by three ascending tiers of chairs and tables for the audience in a wide horseshoe shape. Gordy wanted an outrageously high cover charge of five bucks for tonight's show, but that didn't seem to deter anyone; the joint was packed. Dancing couples bumped shoulders in a haze of colored lights and cigarette smoke, and the padded walls were having a hard time muting the clamor of a large crowd trying to make themselves heard over the music and each other.

The sight of it jolted me like a physical force. The faces all seemed to smear and blend into one anonymous mass. The music and talk were unnaturally loud to my sensitive ears, and when I bothered to breathe, the smoke clogged my throat like a clenched fist. Most of the time I could ignore such distractions, but not now. The fancy clothes, perfumes, expensive surroundings, the clink of glasses, and shouts of laughter devolved into the sharp memory of a dingy dance hall, the bite of damp wool clothing, old sweat, and shuffling feet on an unswept floor. Then, involuntarily, came the next inner picture of that floor cluttered with fallen bodies, the blood spreading wide and far, and the stink of cordite hanging in the air.

I shut my eyes against the vision, willing it out of my mind. It had been two months, more than two months, since the killings at what had come to be known as "The Dance Hall of Doom" occurred. You'd think I'd be over it by now.

I'd gotten away clean from the slaughter-except for the crap lingering in my head. The various investigations had pretty much closed the case; the smarter ones even hastened the closing lest some bright light decided the official version and the facts didn't jibe quite as well as they should. It was a shoot-out between law and crooks with both sides killing one another off, no survivors, and that was that. Several government agents gave their lives in the performance of their duty and were honorably laid to rest, their sacrifice held up as an example to their peers. Nobody needed to hear the true story; times were discouraging enough.

" 'Lo, Fleming," said a deep voice above and behind me.

I gave a start in spite of myself. If my heart had been beating it might have gone on strike just then.

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