Lady Crymsyn Chapter 1

Author: P.N. Elrod

Series: Vampire Files #9

Genres: Fantasy , Mystery

Chicago, June 1937

I woke up in my basement sanctuary to the sound of a man's shoe heel cracking hollow against linoleum three yards over my head. It was exactly sunset so I'd be awake anyway without the alarm call; this was just my partner's way of telling me something was up and to get moving.

Having fallen into my daylight stupor still wearing a bathrobe and slippers, there was no need to don them as I rose from the army cot that was my humble bed. Being completely unconscious while the sun was high meant that comfort wasn't the big concern so much as having a layer of my home earth sandwiched in between two sheets of oilcloth on the thin mattress. No coffins for me; the damned confining things give me the creeps.

Escott thumped the floor again like a flamenco dancer with no rhythm and called down at me. "Jack? Are you there? Jack?"

It was a perfectly reasonable question. Sometimes I slept the day over at my girlfriend's place. Escott hadn't bothered to lift the hidden trapdoor under the kitchen table to see if I was in.

"Yeah, yeah," I muttered. My bricked-up alcove with its cot, desk, chair, and lamp vanished into a gray nothingness, and I shot upward until encountering the resistance of the ceiling. Like invisible vapor through a grille, I sieved swiftly through the minute spaces and cracks in the barrier until fully clear. How the process worked, I couldn't really explain, it just did, and though tiring, I often took advantage of the gift.

I materialized, annoyed and puzzled, in the bright light of the kitchen. "What is it, a fire?" I asked, squinting.

"A call," Escott said, pointing to the phone on the wall by the pantry.

"Something wrong with Bobbi?" Past events made me more than a little anxious about the welfare of my girlfriend.

"Miss Smythe is perfectly fine, so far as I'm aware. This has to do with that club of yours."

"Oh." A whole different kind of worry for me. I hurried to snag up the earpiece. "Yeah? Fleming here, what is it?"

"Mr. Fleming, we gotta problem." The voice belonged to Leon Kell, the foreman I'd hired to take care of the renovations of the property I'd leased. He sounded tense. "I donno how you wanna handle it, so I told the boys to back off until you got here."

"What's the problem?"

"I don't wanna say over the phone."

I kept my cursing to myself. He'd apparently seen one too many gangster films. "C'mon, Leon, the G-men don't wire phones of honest citizens," I lied. "What's wrong?"

"The boys found something when they started knocking through that last cellar wall you wanted cleared. It happened just before quittin', an' I told them to hang around until you got here to tell us what to do."

Which meant a crew of half a dozen able-bodied men were all standing about with their picks and shovels in hand getting paid extra by me to smoke cigarettes. "Okay, then let them go for the night and-"

"That might not be such a good idea, considerin'."

"Considering what?"

"I don't wanna say, Mr. Fleming, an' if you come down here you'll know why I don't wanna say it."

Shit and Shinola. This was a whole new side to Leon's otherwise sensible character that I could have done without. "Okay, I'll be right there." I slammed the earpiece back on its hook with more force than was really required.

"He strikes me as being a cautious soul," Charles Escott commented from his seat at the kitchen table, where he'd heard my end of the conversation. Before him was his modest evening meal, purchased on the way back from his office. A sandwich and spuds tonight, making a change from his usual white cartons packed full of Chinese food. "He gave you no clue to the problem?"

"Leon's crew found something in the cellar. He wouldn't say what."

Escott looked up, his gray eyes and lean face suddenly bright with interest and grim concern. "It must be a body, then."

"Now where the hell do you get that?"

"If they'd ruptured a gas or water main, Mr. Kell would have been much more forthcoming with information. If it had been buried treasure, he'd not have called, period."

It was too early in the evening for me to deal with this kind of thing, I thought.

"I'll accompany you, if you don't mind."

"You need to eat." It wasn't just his face that was lean. When he got busy on a case Escott sometimes forgot about food unless someone bothered to remind him. He didn't have a lot of friends, so that job usually fell to me. Besides, something was going wrong with the most important new thing in my life, and I didn't want to sit around waiting for him to finish his feed bag.

And damned if he didn't seem to read my mind. "I'll have ingested sufficient nourishment by the time you've finished changing, unless you plan to establish a truly informal atmosphere to the site by appearing in such attire."

I gave him a brief sour smile, then vanished between one eyeblink and the next to go upstairs for clothes. He must have expected the move, for I didn't get his usual comment of "damn" in reaction. Show-off antics like that nearly always got some kind of rise from him. I only did it now to divert myself from the gut-sinking idea that he was probably right.

This was post-Prohibition Chicago and still reeling from the aftermath of Big Al's near-uncontested reign. The old building I'd picked to house what would become Lady Crymsyn had a violent history; it'd be strange if there wasn't a nasty surprise in the cellar.

The creation of my own swank nightclub represented a lot more to me than just an interesting way to provide steady earnings for decades to come. It meant that for once I'd deliberately chosen a path for myself, not simply stumbled along on those created for me by the needs of others.

You see, unaware of committing my worst crime against myself, I'd wasted my first life.

I'd drifted, one year to the next, assuming I was in charge of my destiny until a murderous beating and a gangster's bullet put an abrupt stop to such foolish thinking. There it should have ended, my disappearance an open mystery to my distant family, but of no concern to anyone else, least of all to the men who'd killed me.

But much to their appalled surprise my weighted carcass didn't stay where they'd dropped it in the cold depths of Lake Michigan. The one good thing that had happened to me during that wasted life wouldn't leave me in such grim peace. I returned to the world of the living, confused and fired by rage, a dark rebirth attended by blood, madness, and, finally, no small amount of revenge. My killers were dead or the next thing to it; I was alive-or the next thing to it-and it was time for me to cease drifting and move forward.

And for once it would be on my own terms.

Not that God or Fate or whatever you believe in is stingy with second chances. Those are all around us, only we're too distracted to notice them. Most of the time they're a lot more mundane than the special one I'd been handed.

Mine had to do with being a card-carrying, dusk-to-dawn, stake-in-the-heart, you're-damn-right-I-drink-blood vampire.

It was a hell of a resurrection, but not so bad once I got used to things.

And since then I'd done rather well for myself.

A few months back, while flattening out a few wrinkles with a local mob, I discovered a hoard of their cash that they didn't know about. Though someone else walked off with the lion's share, the sixty-eight grand I'd stuffed into my coat pockets like a greedy kid in a candy store seemed more than enough to get me set up for good if I went about it the right way. I'd wasted one life; I wasn't going to repeat the mistake.

First I had to clean the money. Flashing around undeclared fistfuls of dough is a fast way to get the attention of the tax man. Capone himself got tossed in the clink on that little detail, but I could avoid landing in the next cell over by playing smart. The government doesn't seem to care how you make your money, so long as it gets its cut. Not much different from the mob, only there's usually less gunplay and more paperwork.

Presently, I was Charles Escott's nominal employee in his private detective business. (He preferred the more genteel title of "private agent.") Whenever we shared a case we split the payment fifty-fifty, but the huge amount I'd collected could not be declared as income from the Escott Agency without putting him in a bad spot. Uncle Sam would want to know what sort of work Escott did to justify such a generous payout to his staff, and, oh, by the way, we'd like to check your earnings as well...

Sure, I could sit on the dough and declare it a little at a time as cash earnings over the years. Escott was doing just that with his half of a ten-grand windfall we'd once gotten hold of by accident, but I was in too much of a hurry to wait. So with the help of a mobster who owed me a few favors I took advantage of a means to make my good fortune safely innocent. All I needed was a racing form and directions to the nearest line of bookies. Hell, all I needed to do was stand still, and they'd come to me. This town had them thicker than grass.

For a month I hung out in such company, going to various joints as soon as the sun was down in Chicago to put bets on horses about to run in California, where it still shone. Not big bets, but lots of them, to show or place, never to win, since that was more of a risk and could drive down the odds.

My mob advisor told me which horses I should play and which bookies to bet with. Not every race was rigged, but there were enough to slowly turn about half my fortune into legitimate-seeming wins. Only I wasn't really winning money so much as breaking even. For every ten dollars I bet, I'd get back twenty-but the bookie would get a twenty from me, not a ten. It was all numbers in a book.

Count the actual cash and you'd tumble to the game, but no cop or treasury agent ever interfered.

The bookies were all in on the scam and took their cut for cleaning services when I purposely lost every fourth or fifth bet to make things look legit. In this way they took between five and ten percent. I could spare it, figuring it to be a fair commission and much better than me trying to explain the real source of the cash to a nosy government accountant.

Duly entering every last dollar in a ledger, I kept careful records of my wins and losses. Declared cash all squeaky clean and financial records square enough for Euclid, I was free to get down to the real business of making my dream of a swank nightclub into a reality.

Location is everything. I soon found a former speakeasy on the North Side once run by a mug named Welsh Lennet. It closed years ago when thugs tossed a couple of grenades through the front doors as part of an ongoing territorial dispute. Lennet and a few others in his group were killed, with no one to take over for him. When Repeal went into effect, there didn't seem much point in trying to rebuild, so the gutted remains of his speak were left to gently rot.

The present owner was mob, of course, and unwilling to sell, but he could be persuaded into making a two-year lease. I knew the catch on that one: I get the club up and running, then discover I can't renew the contract or that the leasing price has suddenly tripled. Just in case I was unaware of the ploy, my mob mentor, Gordy Weems, mentioned it to me, which was damned decent of him. I decided to sign, though. If, at the end of two years the place was a bust, then I could slip out of it easily enough, and if it was a wild success, I had my own way of getting around the owner. Along with vanishing into thin air, I also possessed an innate talent for hypnosis. When the time came he'd think it was his own idea to cut me a break. If Gordy had figured out what I was planning, he kept it to himself.

Instead, he put the word out I was a friend of his to keep away the inevitable parade of shakedown artists wanting pieces of the club. Like it or not, to open so much as a hot dog stand in this town you had to give certain people their cut. Usually it was added in with the price of the permits or liquor or labor or deliveries. Gordy told me not to worry about it, so I didn't and just got on with the work.

There was a hell of a lot of it. No one had been near the joint for nearly five years. With its violent history, boarded-up windows, and the beginnings of serious dilapidation I couldn't blame people for staying away. It looked like it should be haunted, but I figured fresh paint and some neon lights would fix that, maybe even a fancy canvas awning going out to the curb...

As Escott and I pulled up to its redbrick front, he noticed the big sign above the door declaring: "Coming Soon: Lady Crymsyn."

"I thought it was going to be 'Jack Fleming's Club Crymsyn,' " he said.

"It was, until I figured that more than enough people in this town already know me." For fame, I had fond hopes of becoming a writer-hopes thus far not shared by those editors to whom I'd sent stories. Since it looked like I wasn't going to make any bucks in that direction in the near future, I needed the income from the club to keep my wallet filled. "I don't want the notice, just the money," I told him.

"Most wise. It is rather improved from when I was last here." The boards were off, and the broken windows replaced by diamond-shaped panes of red surrounding squares of clear glass in the center. The inside lights shone through them, bright and warm. Not a necessity in the summer, but come winter I hoped it would be an inviting sight to customers.

"You ain't seen nothing yet," I promised. He'd only been to the place once before, and then just after I'd closed the deal. At that time, my future top-of-the-tops club looked like an outhouse pit. Escott had kept diplomatically quiet.

We walked through the wide front doors to the lush lobby area. It was all finished, with pale marble floors, a substantial bar made of the same material, and a few discreet touches of chrome. Empty shelves made of inch-thick glass awaited their future stock of booze bottles and glassware. The lights underneath cast interesting shadow patterns on the walls and ceiling. It looked great, but they shouldn't have been on. I went behind the bar and found the off switch.

"What? No mirror?" Escott questioned, indicating the padded wall behind the glass shelves.

"Patent leather's got more class," I told him with a straight face.

"And safer for you. Are there any mirrors here at all?"

"Only in the public johns and dressing rooms." I'd just avoid them.

A double doorway sporting red velvet curtains led into the main club area. We went through, and Escott stopped cold.

"My God," he said. He was rarely awestruck. I enjoyed the moment.

On the wall opposite the entry was a larger-than-life-size painting of Lady Crymsyn herself, meant to be the symbolic personification of the club. I'd commissioned it from Alex Adrian-yeah, that Alex Adrian, the world-famous artist who could pick and choose his work. The Lady had only existed in my head, but his vision of her in oils made me believe her to be real.

A full-length portrait of a woman in a sweeping red gown, she looked down upon all lesser mortals with a sultry, striking face that expressed both mystery and seductive glamour. Yet her eyes sparkled with a kind of not-so-secret humor, making her approachable. The idea was for every man to want her and for every woman to want to be like her. Alex Adrian had outdone himself so far as I was concerned, and I judged the painting to be well worth the bundle I'd spent for it.

"You wouldn't happen to have gotten the model's phone number?" Escott asked after a moment of slack-jawed shock.

"I think Alex made her up, but on opening night I'll have a look-alike dressed exactly the same acting as hostess, you can try your luck with her."

"I shall do so," he solemnly promised.

We pushed on to the main area. What had been a one-story room was now two stories high since I'd had the crew demolish a large section of ceiling. Three broad tiers of deep, half-circle booths rose to fill the space with chrome divider rails between each level. The main color was dark red, of course.

I'd borrowed the idea of a multilevel horseshoe seating arrangement from Gordy's club. But instead of entering at the top tier and walking down to the dance floor, I'd reversed it. When you came in you could look up and see nearly the whole place. Anyone seated at the dozens of booths above also had the advantage of being able to check out new arrivals. I figured this might appeal to a certain type of customer who preferred not to sit with his back to a door. This place could easily seat about three hundred of them, four with the spare tables. A bar on each side of the room would serve them all.

The big dance floor had a fancy pattern of different kinds and colors of wood, and the stage two feet above it sported the same motif. It was thirty feet wide and almost as deep, which would allow space enough for nearly any act I cared to book, from a full band to a solo singer. In the center stood a white baby grand piano, protected for the time being by a canvas dust sheet. I'd already had in a special stage crew to set up the lights and microphone system. Because of it, there wasn't a bad seat in the house.

"My God," Escott repeated. He'd noticed the liberal use of red velvet upholstery, polished white-and-black marble tabletops, crystal chandeliers, and wall sconces. Gordy had also recommended a decorator.

"Class all the way," I said with a grin.

"I had no idea you were taking things this far. Most impressive."

"And this is with the dust still in the air. Wait'll opening night, when everything's all polished."

"I'll mark my calendar. What is Miss Smythe's opinion of it?"

"She's been helping. I let her have her way with the backstage dressing rooms. The performers are gonna think they died and went to heaven. She can't wait to sing here."

"There can't be that much space, though." Escott had been onstage himself once, and had an appreciation for the hardships of show business.

"I've got four good rooms with showers for the head-liners up on this level and cellar dressing areas for anyone else. We're still working on getting that cleared out so the plumbing can go in."

"You have thought it through quite nicely."

"Not me. Bobbi. The talent has its own entrance up top, and I've had a door cut in the backstage wall so we can haul in big things like scenery or that piano-"

"Mr. Fleming!" Leon Kell emerged from the service door behind the bar on the far side of the room. Since it was impossible for me to supervise anything during the day, I had to hire people to do it in my stead. Leon seemed the brightest and had the right kind of experience, so he was put in charge of hiring others and making sure things went smoothly. Every night I'd stop by to check the progress as his crew started from the top and worked their way down, giving Lady Crymsyn the works and then some. "You sure got here fast."

He was right on that. I hadn't stopped to shave. I shifted from being the proud entrepreneur to serious problem-solver. "What's going on?"

"This way." He motioned for us to come over.

I'd asked what, not where, but followed him downstairs.

The harsh glare of the unshaded bulbs strung along the cellar's exposed ceiling rafters showed up the labor yet to be done. Rubble was scattered over the floor, along with shovels and wheelbarrows to carry it away. Dust hung lazily in the close air, and behind me Escott gave in to an enormous sneeze.

The original cellar had been divided up-unnecessarily, I thought-by several thick brick walls, creating a number of tiny rooms and alcoves. At one point in the building's forty-year history those dismal holes were servant quarters. And I thought times were tough now. I replaced the walls with metal columns and cross beams to hold up the building. The basement gained floor space and lost rats' nests and other undesirable leftovers from previous occupants. Once the cleanup work was done, in would go a layer of cement to even out the floor and walls. It would still be a basement, but it wouldn't look like a medieval torture chamber.

Along with the lesser dressing rooms, the area would be used for storage and take deliveries via an alley doorway and ramp at the back. That door was wide-open, and clustered near it were the idle workmen, smoking on my time as I'd expected. They watched us come down the stairs, but didn't bother to move. It must have been a long day- most looked tired-but there was also a wariness to them as they frowned in my direction.

"It's over here," said Leon, guiding us across the room. He was short and wide and moved with a stumping kind of gait, but covered ground fast. His attitude seemed to be halfway between relief and agitation at my arrival, indicating he wasn't sure how I'd take his news.

The rubble got worse at the other end of the room. Leon picked a path to a corner where the last alcove still stood. Part of the divider was torn down, but there was something odd about the back wall it butted up against.

"You see it, Mr. Fleming?" he asked, pointing. "This here outer part goes right to the building's wall about twelve feet, but the room inside only goes back about nine."

"I see it," I said, doing my best to ignore the cold-pit feeling trying to situate itself in my gut.

There was a dank smell in the air I noticed while speaking. I don't breathe regularly and took an experimental sniff. It wasn't unbearable, only a musty mix of decay and dust. I'd known it once before about twenty years ago when I was serving in France. Me and a few of the boys in my unit got a furlough in Paris, and on one of our too-short days instead of getting drunk and enjoying female company as usual we took a tour of some old catacombs. We didn't stay long. The depressing sight of those endless dark tunnels and piles of ancient bones reminded us too much of what we'd seen on the battlefields. We got out fast and spent the rest of the day and night in a roaring alcoholic fog. The memory came back to me all over again here, razor-sharp.

"Jesus Christ," I muttered, not knowing if it was a prayer or a curse. Escort's face was serious, and he shot me an uneasy look. He'd have picked up on the smell, too.

Leon continued. "With all the crap down here and it being so dark and crowded with the other walls up, you wouldn't notice it so much. But after we got the lights in a couple of us wondered why this one wasn't as deep as the others. The bricks are a little different in color, too. Not as old as the rest. When we started this part of the job we found out." He pointed to a black opening in the newer brickwork about a yard above the floor. It was the right height for someone to swing a pick. A couple of courses had been pried loose and now lay with the rest of the rubble. The hole wasn't more than two feet across and half a foot high, and was the source of the musty smell.

Leon unhooked a flashlight from his tool belt and handed it to me, then stood back. From his manner and Escott's morbid suggestion I already knew what would be there, but I'd have to take a look. I was the boss; it was expected of me.

The flashlight beam was faded from use. Leon must have let the other guys have a good view, too. I angled it around, reluctant to get too close. The uncertain light at first revealed only that there was a space beyond the hole that stopped abruptly about an arm's length in. The opposite wall. The real one.

Now I aimed the beam downward and caught a glimpse of naked bones. I was half-prepared to see a grinning skull, but it wasn't visible. After a few seconds I realized I was looking at the regular knobby march of a spine. The body was lying facedown, then. Amid the pale bones was an incongruous glitter and matted twists of what had been bright red fabric.

Dear God. A woman. The glitter came from the sequins clinging to what was left of her evening gown. I stepped back and gave Escott a chance to look. He kept his expression impassive the whole time, but when he turned around all the blood had drained from his face. His eye-brows and the thin line of his mouth stood out against the gray flesh as though they'd been drawn on.

"Damn, but sometimes I hate being right," he said. His voice had a brittleness to it that I rarely heard. Only when he was deeply affected by something did he sound like that.

Couldn't blame him. I got the light and steeled myself for another look. There wasn't much more to see because of the narrowness of the opening, and I didn't care to pull any more bricks out. During my time in New York as a reporter I'd learned the cops get real annoyed when civilians disturb a crime scene.

The one new thing I did find out from this second glimpse turned me cold and sick. I could just see the hands-what was left of them. They'd been secured together behind her with handcuffs. Also, some stuff that looked like electrical cord started at her wrists and went up to the elbows. Whoever had done the job didn't want to risk her getting free, because a heavy chain led from the handcuffs to a thick bolt set into the inside wall.

"You noticed?" Escott was at my shoulder.

"Yeah," I whispered, with hardly enough spit in my mouth to talk. Dear God in heaven.

"I may be speaking without benefit of absolute proof, but from that and the odd positioning of the body-"

"Yeah. When they put her in there... she was still alive."

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