Song in the Dark Chapter 1

Author: P.N. Elrod

Series: Vampire Files #11

Genres: Fantasy , Mystery

Chicago, January 1938

I slouched in the backseat of Gordy's Cadillac, the one that had just slightly less armor than a German tank, keeping clear of the rearview mirror out of habit, not because I cared one way or the other. The driver, a stone-faced guy named Strome, probably wouldn't have said anything about my lack of reflection even if he'd noticed. He almost certainly had other things on his mind, like whether or not he would be the one delegated to kill me tonight.

It was really too bad for him, because I got the idea that he'd begun to like me. I already had his respect.

A scant few nights ago Strome had seen me apparently dead, an ugly kind of dead, then had to contend with my quick and mystifying return to good health. I gave no explanations to him or any of the others who were aware of my experience, and soon he'd accepted that I'd somehow survived. So far as he knew now I was still healing from that bloody damage, yet able to walk around and carry on with what passed for normal life, which in his eyes made me without a doubt the toughest SOB in Chicago. Strome couldn't have known about my supernatural edge; anything to do with vampires was well outside his view of the world, which was fine with me. Like others of his ilk, even if specifics about the Undead escaped him, he was aware that I was dangerously different. He knew which questions not to ask, and that made him a valuable asset to the mob. And me.

Most of the time he and his partner, Lowrey, were bodyguards to their gangland boss and my friend, Gordy Weems. We all tripped and fell down on the job a few nights ago, leaving Gordy with a couple of bullets in him. He'd survived, too, barely.

While he'd been out for the count, his lieutenants decided that someone had to step into his shoes to deal with the running of their mob during the crisis and elected me to take his place. I thought it to be a singularly bad idea, but took on the burden for Gordy's sake. I wouldn't have been any kind of a stand-up guy to have ducked out when he needed the help. I'd been too cocky assuming the mantle, though. Because of my edge, I'd come to believe in my own indestructibility. I thought I could handle anything.

Circumstances and a drunken sadist named Hog Bristow taught me different.

I got my payback on him. Bristow was dead. Ugly dead. I'd killed him, and now I had to give payback to someone else about my actions. Even Gordy couldn't get me out of this one. It was serious gang business, the resolution of which would take place in his soundproofed upstairs office at his nightclub.

Or the basement. I'd been there once or twice. Not on the receiving end.

"Turn on the radio," I told Strome.

He obliged. Dance music flowed from the speaker grille. "You want this or something else?" he asked.

"That's fine." Music helped to distract me, to seal over the fissures inside. I had lots of those going deep down into blackness full of sharp, cutting horrors along the way. If I focused on the radio noise, then I didn't have to think about certain things, like what Bristow had done to me after hanging me upside down from a hook in a meat locker.

That's what this ride was about: the repercussion over what I'd done to him once I'd gotten free.

It wasn't fair that I was being called on the carpet for that bastard's death, but the mobs had their own rules and ways of doing things. Bristow had powerful friends back in New York; they'd give me a few minutes to give my side of the story-Gordy had wrangled that much for me-then I'd die.

Strome drove to the back-alley entrance of Gordy's club, the Nightcrawler, which was the normal ingress for bosses. The front was for the swells come to see the shows and try the gambling in a strictly private section of the club.

The gaming was the main difference between my own nightclub and this one. If the stage shows were a bust, then Gordy was still guaranteed to make a ton of money from tables and slots. He thought I was nuts not having some as well as a backup, but I chose early on not to take that road. Sure, I had an accountant who could cook the books to a turn and, with Gordy's influence, could manage bribes and all the rest, but I wouldn't risk it even for that kind of money. All it'd take was one raid, one arrest, one daylight court appearance with me not there, and that would be the end of it.

Maybe I did some sweating when profits were thin or nonexistent, but that was better than losing the whole works.

Not that any of it mattered much to me now.

Strome parked. I quit the car, sliding across the seat to get out on the driver's side, slamming the door harder than was necessary. It drew attention. Despite the cold there were a number of guys hanging around the Nightcrawler's back door. Two of them were Ruzzo, brothers in Gordy's outfit, strong arms, bad tempers, and not much brain. Being too hard to tell apart, they went interchangeably by the one name.

A few nights back, in order to assert my authority as temporary boss, I'd had to punch them both out to make a point. Now they lurked close enough to force me to notice them. Both looked like they'd shared the same bad lemon.

Ruzzo the Elder had a split lip; his brother had a black eye. Two ways to tell them apart. They must have thought my number was up and were already figuring how to get me alone for some payback of their own before the boom lowered.

Ruzzo the Younger showed an exceptionally hard glare. It effectively distracted me from his brother.

Who threw a punch toward my ribs as I walked past.

Bad move.

I took it solid, but didn't collapse the way I was supposed to; instead, I sliced out sideways with my forearm and slammed him broad across the middle. I'd seen something like it on a tennis court, only you're supposed to use a racket.

The Elder staggered backward halfway across the alley, folding with an oof noise onto the cold pavement. The Younger blazed in to kill, pulling out a gun.

Which I plucked away from him almost as an afterthought.

He stared at his empty hand.

Strome finished up. He had a blackjack ready and swiped it viciously behind the man's left ear. The Younger dropped.

I held the gun out to Strome, addressing him loud enough for the others to hear. "These dopes shoulda kept in school. They could have found out how rough the big boys in first grade played. Maybe learned something."

His turn to stare. "You okay? He caught you a good one."

I pretended to shift uncomfortably. "Yeah, he did. Let's go."

We climbed the loading-dock stairs to the club's kitchen, but instead of turning toward the stairs up to Gordy's office, Strome led the way to the main room of the club. Band music, live, played there, though the place was still an hour or so from opening. A last-minute rehearsal for their big star seemed to be going on.

"Have to wait here," said Strome, gesturing at a ringside table. It was the one usually reserved for special guests of the boss. It was also the farthest from any exit, and my being placed here was no coincidence. A glance around confirmed I was expected to stay put. All the doors were covered by at least two mugs, armed, of course. Strome sat with me, keeping his hat and coat on. I did likewise.

"How long?" I asked.

He gave a small shrug. "Donno."

No need to inquire whether word had been sent up about my arrival. That would have happened the instant we parked. I was supposed to sit there and stew about my fate.

Instead, I watched the rehearsal. Nothing else to do. As with the radio, the music kept me from thinking too much.

Things seemed to be running late and going badly. This week's big star was Alan Caine. I'd heard him on the radio, and he was a popular name in Broadway revues. He'd done speciality numbers in short-subject films I'd never seen. He had a stadium-filling voice and was presently using it to hammer at the red-faced bandleader.

"Three in a row-you going for some kind of record? Read the damn music, if you can, and give me the right damn cue!" Caine wore his tuxedo pants and suspenders, an undershirt and dress shoes. He was so handsome that even men looked twice at him, and with women it was a foregone conclusion they'd faint if he gave them a half second's glance.

The line of dancing girls behind confirmed it. Instead of being put off by his tone, they all looked to be in a giggly, flirty mood, eyes bright.

He eased into a gap between two of them, pasted on a huge, absolutely sincere smile and froze, waiting.

The band, for the fourth time, swung into the prologue for his number, and must have gotten it right. Caine and his leggy troupe stepped and strutted smarter than smart for eight counts, then the girls retreated, leaving him out front to sing the rest of his song. I didn't like him on sight, but he had a hell of a voice.

"Wanna drink?" Strome asked.

He got a blank look from me. Taking requests from the condemned man? Or was he in need of fuel for what was to come? So far as I knew he would be the executioner. He was like Bristow, a killer. Unlike Bristow, Strome didn't make a big thing of it, and if he enjoyed the work, kept it to himself.

"No thanks."

Strome signed to someone I didn't bother to look at and got a draft beer, the glass opaque with frost. They knew how to serve things up right at the Nightcrawler: song, dance, drinks, girls, gambling, and death.

Alan Caine broke off in midnote. The dancers continued their routine for a few steps; the band continued as well until the leader caught on that he'd committed another sin. I'd been listening and hadn't heard anything wrong. Caine heard different and laid into him on the brass being too loud.

"They're paying money to hear me, not you," he stated, his sincere smile on the shelf for the moment. "What the hell do you think you're doing trying to drown me out? That's my name on the marquee, not yours. Get your people in line or get another job."

I waited for the leader to lay into him right back, but he just nodded and began the play again, starting a few bars before the interruption. This time the horns were softer, and Caine's voice went right to the corners of the room.

"Is he always like that?" I asked Strome.

"Since he got here."

"Why does Derner put up with it?" Derner was another of Gordy's lieutenants and also the general manager for the club.

"The guy packs in the crowds."

"No one's worth that kind of crap."

"This one is. He gets every seat filled and has a standing-room line at the bar. Even on the weeknights we can charge a two-fifty cover, and they come in herds."

"Two-fifty?" That was unheard of; some clubs in New York got away with charging so much for their cover, but less so in Chicago. You only did that on weekends and only when it was a real Ziegfeld-style spectacular. Nothing so elaborate was going on here with just Caine, the band, and eight dancers. There was no stage decoration, either, just the usual long curtains backing the musicians and someone to man the lights and keep the spot on the star. "He's worth it?"

"Depends who you talk to. The bookkeepers say yes, the performers say no. Bookkeepers win."

"He must be blackmailing someone."

"Hey!" Caine stopped the show again, this time his attention squarely on our table. He broke away from the dancers, striding over to glare at us. He was teeming with sculpted cheekbones, graceful jaw, and a perfect nose. Anger on him didn't look at all threatening. Maybe a little with his baby blues steaming up. He narrowed them, arching a too-perfectly shaped eyebrow. "I'm trying to work here. If you two can't put a lid on it, take your romance to the men's room."

A week back I might have reacted to him; tonight I had no reaction at all, just stared. I chanced to take a breath and caught a powerful whiff of booze from him, as though he'd just gargled with it. "Just do your song and dance, Caine,"

I said, hardly raising my voice above a whisper.

"Do I know you, punk?"

He was in his late thirties; I looked to be in my twenties. I was well used to the penalty of perpetual youth. "Be glad you don't."

"A tough guy, eh?" He could belt a song, but delivering dialogue didn't quite work for him, especially when it came out of the wrong kind of films. He should have stuck to showbiz stories and not tried imitating movie gangsters.

"That's right. Go back to work."

"Where's Derner?" he demanded, switching focus to Strome. "I want this punk tossed out on his ear. Go get him."

"Sorry, can't do that, Mr. Caine. I'm working, too."

Caine saw the beer at his elbow. "Nice job." He swung around, eyes searching. "You there! Go find Derner and bring him here."

The mug he addressed registered puzzlement at being ordered around by the stage talent.

Strome craned his head. "Never mind, Joe. Mr. Caine was just joking."

"Joking? We'll see who's laughing before the night's out."

Caine didn't appear to be drunk, but my instant-hypnosis act likely wouldn't work on him; besides, he wasn't worth the headache. I looked past him, hoping to spot the stage manager, but no such luck. However, a fierce-faced woman in a poisonous green dress and black fur-trimmed coat came barreling toward us from the front entrance. It was still too early to open. I wondered how she'd gotten in.

So, it seemed, did Caine. Genuine surprise flashed over him. "Jewel, what the hell are you doing here?"

Her lip color was so dark a red that it looked black, matching her hair. Two lines framing her mouth cut themselves into a deep, hard frown of contempt. Her eyes were wild, the pupils down to pinpoints. She braked to an unsteady stop. "The alimony is three weeks overdue, why do you think I'm here?"

He recovered composure, shifting to pure smarm. "You'll just have to wait till I'm paid."

She went scarlet, her whole body seemed to swell from outrage. "That's what you said three paychecks ago, you bastard!" She hit him with a green purse the same shade as her dress. He got an arm up to block any blows to his face and unexpectedly started laughing like a lunatic, which just made her madder. She cursed, he giggled. Funny on a movie screen, not so much ten feet away when all parties are dead set on inflicting damage, each in their own way.

It went downhill from there.

Not inclined to interfere, I watched the domestic drama with an equally unmoved Strome, content to let other guys rush in to bust things up. Several of the bouncers who'd been on the exits moved remarkably fast for their size. That would have been the ideal time for me to make an escape, just dart to the front lobby, duck around the corner phone booth, and vanish. It was one of my specialties. Instead, I kept my seat and wished I could still drink beer. A cold one would have gone down good about now.

It took three bouncers to remove Jewel Caine: two on her left side for her shoulders and feet, one on her right for her middle. She didn't make it easy for them, bucking and cursing the whole way as they carried her bodily from the room like a log, green purse and all. So far Lady Crymsyn, which was my nightclub, had suffered no drunken rows on this level, only comparatively mild, easily dealt with skirmishes. I could count myself lucky.

Alan Caine, grinning wide, called after her: "Why don't you get a job?"

She heard. "I'll kill you, you son of a bitch! I'll cut your throat if you don't pay what you owe me!" The rest was incoherent and, from the tone, likely obscene. Closing doors spared us from more opinions and threats.

One of the chorus dancers trotted up. "Alan, that was awful. Are you okay?"

"Yeah-yeah, Evie." He waved her off. "Back on your mark, let's get this over with."

She seemed disappointed he wasn't making more of a fuss over the disruption and visibly swallowed back the load of comfort and sympathy she must have had ready to pour out. Evie was just about the cutest little doll I'd seen in many a week and affected a tiny Betty Boop voice. I thought she could do much better than Caine. "Well... if you're sure..."

"I'm sure. C'mon, bub." He turned her around and gave her a light swat on her nicely rounded rump. This cheered her up, and she went trotting back to her envious and/or amused sisters. They formed their line again. Caine called a cue to the band, and they began in midstanza, this time making it to the end. He cut an exaggerated bow to them.


"About damn time," muttered Strome. He wasn't one for offering much in the way of comments. His beer, which he'd drained off, must have loosened him up.

"How's that?" I asked.

"He's been at it all day. If he was a dame, he'd be one of those primer dons. He better pray he don't ever lose his voice. That's all that's keeping him alive. Derner's been busy just holding off people from busting him one."

"Yet he packs the club?"

"He keeps that mean side away from the audience. With his looks they think he's an angel. People in the business know he's a jerk-off but they put up with it. He's got enough push from bringing in cash to get them fired."

"Or tossed out."

Strome spared me a look. He must have thought I was referring to myself, not Caine's ex-wife. "Derner woulda talked him out of it. Caine don't know who's who in this town yet."

"In my case it doesn't matter."

His stony face had almost become animated, but shut down at the reminder of why we were here. "It's just the business," Strome said. This was the closest he would ever get to making an apology to me for whatever was to come.


A business where a guy like Strome could come up to me, his former temporary boss, and tender an invitation to take a ride that I had to accept. He'd been so sure of the end result that he'd left the motor running in the car when he walked into Lady Crymsyn to deliver the summons. We eyed each other in the yet-to-open lobby, as though either of us had options. He had to bring me in, and the gun he carried under his arm was the last word on the subject. I glanced around at my people, who were getting things ready for the evening, oblivious of any threat. Strome shook his head, letting me know they weren't on his list.

He wouldn't use them against me. I liked that.

I got my hat and coat and went along, turning the opening of Crymsyn over to one of the bartenders. There was no point putting things off. This way I had some control over the situation. If the bad guys insisted on killing me for killing Hog Bristow, it would be at a safe distance from friends who could get in the cross fire.

The men who took away the acrimonious Jewel Caine returned, two of them resuming their posts, the third pausing to glare at the empty dance floor. Caine and the chorus line were backstage, getting ready for the night's performance. The third guy shifted his glare toward me, but whatever bothered him was none of my doing, and he got a blank look in return. I was getting good at those.

His name was Hoyle, and like the brothers Ruzzo, I was not anyone he liked. He'd resented my taking over for Gordy. Hoyle thought he should have been the one to pinch-hit, but his name never once cropped up. If I'd turned down the job, then Derner would have taken in the slack. Hoyle didn't see it that way, and I heard he'd started blaming me for everything up to and including the Depression itself.

Some people have too much time and not enough to do.

After a minute Hoyle got tired of trying to intimidate me and moved on to the bar, snapping his fingers for a drink.

Strome's partner, Lowrey, emerged from a door with a private sign on it and came down to us. He was shorter and wider, with a cast to one eye and few enemies. Live ones, that is.

"Boss wants to see you, Mr. Fleming," he said.

I was surprised. "Gordy's here?" He was supposed to be anyplace else, resting, healing from his gunshot wounds.

"In the casino." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder.

The two of them followed as I hurried though the door into the Nightcrawler's illegal but extremely profitable gaming room. The lights were low, the place gloomy and strangely quiet, like an empty church. I spotted Gordy at the far end by the back exit, seated in one of the semiprivate alcoves favored by the cardplayers. He was fully dressed, and his girlfriend-nurse for the time being-was nowhere in sight.

My escorts hung back as I went forward and slipped into a chair on the other side of his table and nearly echoed Alan Caine's question. "What the hell are you doing here?" I kept my voice low, swallowing anger. Shouting didn't work on Gordy.

His skin was sallow, sagging, but his eyes were clear. I didn't like that. His doctor had him on pain pills, and they tended to dull everything about him. Clear eyes meant he was hurting. "It's business," he said.

"You can deal with things on the phone, and Derner and I do the rest. You're still supposed to be in bed. Where's Adelle?" She'd been looking after Gordy since the shooting.

"She went to the stores to get some stuff, so me an' Lowrey scrammed to here. I had to give her the slip for a couple hours. Makes me crazy, lying around and her playing nursemaid like I was sick."

Adelle Taylor, actress on stage, screen, and radio, and sometimes a headliner singing at my club and his, would throw a fit when she found out. I said as much to Gordy, who gave only the smallest of shrugs. He was a big man and didn't have to move much to make a point. "I left her a note."

"She'll come straight down here. Loaded for bear."

"I'll be done by then."

"With what, exactly?"

"You. Maybe."

"If you wanted to see me, I'd have come over, there's no need to-"

"Wasn't my doing bringing you here. I've been stalling them. They wouldn't stall no more."

"What? Who?"

"New York. Bristow's friends."

"You been running interference for me? In your condition?"

"I'm better off than you were, kid." Gordy knew my real age, which was about the same as his, but sometimes he seemed a lot older. When it came to mob business, he was decades my senior.

"What do you mean?"

"I got from the boys what happened to you. What Bristow did."

I felt my face go red. Mortification does that to me. "I told them to keep shut about it."

"They did, until I woke up enough to ask."

"Gordy, you don't need to be bothering with this. Just go back to bed and get better. I'll take care of things and no problem, okay?"

He just looked at me, eyes sleepy-seeming, but still not dull. "You up to it?"

"Of course I am. I appreciate what you've done, but-"

He raised one hand, shutting me down. "Fleming, I know Bristow put you through something worse than hell. A man don't get over that in a couple days, not even you."

"I'm fine, everything's healed up. Really."

Another long look and a twitch of his lips. He was usually as poker-faced as they come.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

"There's a hammer about to fall on you. It should have happened days ago, but I put them off."

"New York?" Gordy's bosses.

"I got my orders. I'm supposed to kill you."

"Yeah? So?" I'd been half-expecting that for days. If Gordy thought I'd get upset at the idea of him having to kill me, he'd have a long wait to see it. Besides, he knew what I was. Maybe he would have to do his job. It could be arranged. Wouldn't be the first time I'd died.

"I put 'em off, did some talking, bought some time, but stalled them too much. Another guy's doing the job. I gotta stand aside while he deals with you or get rubbed out, too."

If my heart had been working, it would have stopped. "Another like Bristow?"

"No. Smarter."

It wouldn't take much. Bristow had been dumb as an empty box. Maybe this guy would be sober for longer than five minutes, and I could evil-eye whammy him into changing his mind.

"He's the one who sent Bristow in the first place. One of the big shots. Name's Whitey Kroun."

The big boss himself. One of them, anyway. "Why should he come here? He couldn't phone?"

"He had enough of you over the phone."

I supposed he had. Our conversations during the turmoil following the murder attempt on Gordy had been brief and curdling, and I'd not made any friends. Kroun didn't know me from Adam and was already allergic. He'd been one of the brains who, in a fit of idiocy, sent Hog Bristow to shake things up in their holdings here. The idea was to make Gordy turn over the Chicago operation to Bristow, only that didn't happen. Of course, it was clearly all my fault.

"Kroun... he doesn't much like me."

Gordy almost smiled. "You should try harder to make more friends."

"Not with my smart-ass mouth. Listen, I'll face the music, get the heat off you, off us both, but you gotta get home and let Adelle spoil you for a couple more weeks." Gordy was doing a decent job of hiding it, but was visibly weak to my eyes. And ears. His heartbeat was up, and a sheen of sweat was on his forehead. He'd gotten out of bed too soon, pushed himself too much, and there was no need. "When's Kroun due in?"

"He's here now. Waiting upstairs. My office."

Oh, great, fine, wonderful. "Got any advice?"

"Don't get killed."

Huh. Easy for him to say. "What's he like?"


He got a double take from me. Gordy using a word like that? "In what way?"

He shook his head. "Just tell him the truth. Play straight with him."

Strome came forward. "Boss?"

Gordy and I looked his way at the same time. I'd gotten used to answering to the title at Crymsyn and again from being in charge of Gordy's mob. The first time Strome had addressed me as such I nearly told him to stop, but held back. It was a show of respect, for the office if not also for me, and however much I hated to think of how I'd won both, I accepted the dubious honor. Once I completely stepped down he could go back to calling me "Mr. Fleming," or

"Fleming" or, like a few others in the organization, "that creep son of a bitch."

None of them called me "Jack," and I was glad of it.

I was conscious of my face shutting down, slamming into the deadpan frown Gordy's kind of job demanded, and replied for both of us. "Yeah?"

"Mitchell's here." He jerked his chin at the back exit, where a man stood in the doorway.

Who the hell was Mitchell? He seemed almost familiar, but wasn't local. I knew most of the boys here by sight, and he matched their type. He stood motionless, hands in his coat pockets, giving me the hard eye, shifting his hostile gaze for a long moment to Gordy-no love lost there, I thought-then back to me. Not the genial sort, but few of them are.

Gordy motioned him over, moving just his fingers. Saving his strength, I hoped.

Mitchell came close. Hands still in his pockets. If he'd had a gun in each one, I would not have been surprised. He would be from New York and represented the big guys, the serious hoods who gave Gordy his orders.

Strome did the honors. "Mitchell... Mr. Fleming."

"You kiddin'?" Mitchell asked no one in particular. My apparent youth must have been working against me again.

On the other hand, it was often a good thing to be underestimated. He stared like I was a bizarre zoo specimen.

Strome, stony-faced, reiterated. "This is Jack Fleming-the guy who took care of Hog Bristow."

"New York?" I asked. Just to be sure.

Mitchell's gaze nicked in Gordy's direction. "It's time." He said it like an executioner might. One who enjoyed his work.

Gordy started to get up, but I stopped him. "It's okay, I'll see to this on my own."

"You sure?"

"Go home. Look after yourself, would ya? I gotta see a man about a hog."

Easing from the table, I followed Strome to the back hallway, with Mitchell right behind us. Strome looked over his shoulder at me as though trying to figure out a tough problem. I was unafraid when I should have been puking my guts out. It seemed to bother him. I could still feel fear, but not just now. For the last few nights I'd been working at not feeling much of anything if I could help it. That's why pretty-boy Caine had been so unsuccessful at trying to embarrass me. After what I'd been through, his guff was less than a kiddie game.

We had to pass close to the backstage area to get to the stairs leading to Gordy's office. There was some kind of ruckus going on. The bulk of the gathered crowd of chorus girls, kitchen help, stagehands, and tough guys blocked the view, but I did hear a thump and grunt. The sounds of a basic beating going on, nothing I'd not heard before.

"Now what?" asked Strome. He pushed his way through. At the sight of one of Gordy's lieutenants, looking pissed, most of the people melted off, finding better things to do. A few mugs hung around, including Ruzzo. Both of them. Recovered from the alley dusting, they hadn't noticed me yet.

The hall was more spacious than normal since it served the stage. Dressing rooms opened to it, their doors wide, including the one for the star, Alan Caine. He was pressed against the wall next to it, held in place by Hoyle. His forearm was braced on Caine's chest; his other arm was free and swinging. He landed what was apparently another punch into Caine's breadbasket. Caine oofed as all his breath left him, but couldn't double over.

"Hey-what gives?" Strome demanded.

Hoyle barely noticed him. "He owes money."

"So collect after the show, we need him tonight."

"This is just a warm-up, so he knows it's serious." Hoyle started to back off, but I heard a quick march of little trotting steps, and, tricked out in her brief dance costume, Evie the chorus girl burst out of nowhere and jumped onto his back.

"Leave him alone-oh!"

That's as much as she got out before he threw her off. She landed on her perfectly padded duff, stockinged legs all over, and still full of fight. She rolled and grabbed one of his ankles and pulled, throwing off Hoyle's balance. He staggered, threw a hand on the wall to recover, then hauled back his other foot to kick her.

I don't know how I got into it so fast. I wasn't aware of moving. No decision to take action went through my brain, suddenly I was just there and throwing the punch that took him down. Almost as part of the same movement I bent and lifted Evie, quickly passing her to a startled Strome. Only then did I stop to look around and wonder what the hell... ?

Hoyle was quicker on the uptake, realizing a new player had crashed his game. He got up and shook his head like a boxer, fixing his gaze on me. "You-? This ain't your business."

"We don't hit ladies around here," I said.

"Lady? You calling that piece of-"

He didn't finish. My fist derailed his train of thought, knocking him sideways and down like hammering a nail the wrong way. I was holding back, and it was hard going. Something thick and black and vile in me was just short of exploding, and I didn't know where it'd come from. Instinct told me it would be a very bad idea to let it get out.

I flinched when Strome dropped a hand on my shoulder.

He flinched in turn when he caught my look, but didn't back off. "Is the show over?" he asked.

Hoyle was on the floor with a bloody nose and likely to stay there for a while. Ruzzo (the elder) bent over him, checking for permanent damage; Ruzzo (the younger) gave me the eye, hand in his pocket where he kept some heavy and no doubt lethal object in place of the gun I'd taken away. Alan Caine had wisely removed himself from the field of combat and stood next to Mitchell, who almost looked curious about the proceedings. Evie, white of face, stared at me.

Feeling perverse, I winked at her.

"Yeah, show's over," I said.

Caine stepped forward. "Then someone remove him." He indicated Hoyle. "If that fool has damaged my throat, I'll see him in jail. And then I'm suing this place for every penny it's got. To hell with that, I'm suing anyway."

Strome said, "You. Put a lid on it."

"How dare you talk to me that way-I'm the one who pays you."

"Caine"-this from Mitchell, who apparently knew him-"shuddup and go to work before you get a spanking."

Caine's attention shifted quickly, and he grinned. "You'd like that wouldn't you?" He stole the idea from me and winked, too.

Mitchell's eyes sparked murder, but before he could respond, Evie rushed in and took Caine's arm, pulling strongly.

"Come on, Alan. Don't waste your time on them. The' show's gonna start soon..."

He laughed like a jackass, but she was insistent and succeeded in getting him into his dressing room where she, could fuss to her heart's content.

She glanced once at me before going in. "Thanks, Mister."

What the hell did she see in that guy besides the pretty face?

Then I caught a whiff of something that froze me out of distracting speculations. Bloodsmell. It was all over my knuckles, Hoyle's blood. Now that there was time to notice, the living scent of it flared through me, abrupt and too harsh to tolerate. I wasn't hungry; it was the memory of a different place strewn with bodies and awash with their blood and mine that made such a strong reaction.

It took a moment, and in that time I was oblivious to everything else, which was damned careless.

It took only a moment, and these were the wrong circumstances to let my mind wander.

Blinking hard, I wrenched back to the present, hoping no one had noticed.

There was a washroom on the left. I pushed my way in and shut the door. Cold, cold water straight from the cold, cold lake. Sluice that over the stained skin, scrub and scrub with the harsh green soap and hope its chemical stink would win out over the bloodsmell.

I suppressed a groan, feeling my corner teeth emerging. I wasn't hungry, dammit. Not hungry.

A shudder went through my whole body, and for a second I felt falling-down sick, but kept to my feet by hanging on to the washbasin. Something was wrong inside me, and I didn't know what.

I stared at the empty mirror, trying to hold steady. This had happened before. The last time I'd been in the throes of shock and quite insane. Another me had been there then, a me who had been visible in the mirror. He'd been ironically amused by the whole business.

He wasn't here tonight. I had to deal with this alone.

Another tremor started, turning my skin to ice, but I fought it off, panting, though I had no need to breathe. When I got control again I slapped cold water on my face, hardly feeling it for the inner chill. The runoff in the basin was pink.

I was sweating blood. Bad. Very bad.

Knock on the door. Strome's voice. "Mr. Fleming?"

"Yeah, yeah, gimme a minute."

Teeth receding. Good. Water running clear. Better. The fit passing off, leaving me shaken and trying not to shake. I dried and swallowed back the fear, trying and for the most part succeeding in shutting down the emotions. For me more than for anyone else, I couldn't let them see me scared.

The hall was clear, the lights down, and the band out front playing to the now-open club. How long had I been in there? Just Strome and Mitchell were left, the latter looking impatient.

"Trying to put it off?" he asked.

That didn't warrant a reply.

Strome went ahead of us. Mitchell kept close to my heels. We marched through the kitchen, stopping work for a moment as awareness of our presence rippled through the place. The noise picked up again as we reached the back hall, and I trudged upstairs, taking it slow. They seemed steeper than I remembered.

More mugs lounged about the upper floor. I walked the gauntlet. Did everyone in Chicago know about this? I nodded to a few, gathering dark looks or grim curiosity in return. Some respected me, others were like Hoyle and resented the punk kid clumping around in Gordy's big shoes.

Oddly enough, the attention revived a strange kind of confidence inside that I'd not felt in a long, long time. I speculated on whether this surge was what happened at the last moment for some prisoners as they took those final steps to the guillotine. Probably not.

Next page