Dark Road Rising Chapter 1

Author: P.N. Elrod

Series: Vampire Files #12

Genres: Fantasy , Mystery

Chicago, February 1938

WHEN I set the brake and cut the motor, the dead man in the backseat of my Nash shifted, groaned, and straightened up to look around. He suppressed a cough, arms locked against his bloodstained chest as though to keep it from coming apart.

"You okay?" I asked.

"Peachy." His voice rasped hollow and hoarse. He was lying, but that's what you do when you feel like hell and don't want to give in to it.

His name was Whitey Kroun. He was a big bad gang boss out of New York who had come to town to oversee my execution.

That hadn't worked out very well.

He'd taken a bullet through the chest only a couple hours earlier and should be healing faster. He needed blood and a day's rest on his home earth, but that would have to wait; I had one more thing to do before either of us could have a break.

"What's this?" His dark eyes were bleary with fatigue and pain.

We were in a parking lot close to the hospital. "I gotta see a man about a dog."

He grunted and pushed up his coat sleeve to squint at his watch. The crystal was gone, and the exposed hands swung loose over the numbers. "Well, it's half past, better get a move on."

I slammed out of the car and hurried toward the hospital entrance.

The streets weren't awake yet. At this bleak hour they seemed too tired, unable to recover from the pains of an overlong night. The smack of predawn air felt good, though, and I consciously tried a lungful. Clinging to my overcoat was the smell of Kroun's blood. The scent had filled the car, but with no need to breathe I'd been remarkably successful at pushing away the distraction.

Dried stains smeared the front of the coat, but the material was dark, no one would notice. Even if someone did, I had more serious concerns. I needed to check on my partner. The phone calls made hours ago to the emergency room and later to the doctor in charge weren't enough, I had to see for myself.

After convincing a lone reception nurse that I was the patient's cousin she got my name and other necessary information before giving away Charles Escott's location. He was in the men's ward.

I made sure that would change. "He gets a private room," I said, pulling money from my wallet. From her shocked look the stack was more than she'd make in the next two months. "He gets whatever he needs before he needs it." I folded the cash into her hand.

She stared at the money, uncertain. "Mr. Fleming, I-"

"Consider it a personal thank-you. Do whatever you want with it so long as my friend gets first-class treatment. I have to see him now."

"He shouldn't have visitors."

"We're not gonna play cards. I just need to check on him. Please."

She read my mood right: determinedly polite but not leaving until I got what I wanted. She slipped the money into her clipboard, hugged it to her front, and led the way down the empty corridors herself. Maybe I couldn't hypnotize people anymore, but a goodwill gift in the right place can take you far in the world. It had worked well enough for Capone, up to a point.

The ward was clean, but still a ward: a high, dim room full of restive misery. Some of the bodies shrouded under their blankets were frozen in place by injury, others twitched, sleepless from pain or illness.

I had a brief flash of memory of a similar place in France back when I was a red-faced kid still awkward in my doughboy uniform. There, the ward had been full of nuns gliding back and forth between the wounded. Some of the guys played cards one-handed, getting used to the new amputations, some groaned despite their doses of morphine, some slept, some wept, and one poor bastard at the end was screaming too much and had to be taken to a different part of the building. After twenty years, the picture was still sharp, but I couldn't recall why I'd been there. Probably visiting someone, same as now.

Escott was second in from the door, lying slightly propped up on the narrow metal bed. His face was puffy and turning black from bruising, his ribs were taped, his hands bandaged like an outclassed boxer who'd unwisely stayed for the full twelve rounds. He seemed to be breathing okay, and when I listened, his heart thumped along steady and slow as he slept. But he looked so damned frail and crushed.

That was my doing. My fault.

He shouldn't be here. I'd been an incredible, unconscionable fool, and he was paying for my lapse with cracked, maybe broken bones, pulped flesh, and slow weeks of recovery. God help us both, I'd come within a thin hair of killing him. He still wasn't out of the woods. If I'd broken him up inside, he could bleed to death internally.

Not recognizing my own voice, I asked the nurse about that.

She consulted the chart at the foot of the bed. X-rays had been taken, though how anyone could make sense of a mass of indefinite shadows was beyond me. She told me what was wrong and, more importantly, what wasn't wrong. It was cold comfort. I'd only half killed my best friend.

I wanted to help him, to do more than what had already been done, but no action on my part could possibly make up for such stupidity. This was true helplessness, and I hated it. My hand went toward him on its own, but I made a sudden fist, shoving it into a pocket. The nurse read this mood as well.

"He'll be all right," she said. "It'll just take some time."

It could take years, and still wouldn't be all right.

One of his eyelids flickered. The other was fused fast shut from swelling.

Guilty at disturbing him, I started to back out of view, but it was too late. He was awake, if groggy, and fixed me in place with his cloudy gaze, not speaking.

When I couldn't take the silence anymore, I said, "Charles... y-you don't worry. They'll get you whatever you want. It's taken care of. You just say."

His eyelid slowly shut and opened again, and there was an audible thickening of the breath passing through his throat. I took that to mean he understood.

"I'm... I'm sorry as hell. I'm so sorry."

He continued to look at me.

"I'm sorry as hell, I-I-" I would not ask for forgiveness. I didn't deserve it and never would.

He shook his head and made a small sound of frustration.

I understood. He was afraid for me... afraid I'd try to hurt myself. That had been the cause of the fight. My face heated up from shame. "I'm sorry for that, too. It won't happen again. I swear. On Bobbi's life, I promise you. Never again."

The corner of his mouth curled in a ghost's smile. His lips moved in the softest of whispers. "Jack."

I leaned in. "Yeah?"

"About damn time, you bloody fool."

He lifted a bandaged hand toward my near arm, gave my shoulder a clumsy pat.

Sleep took him away.

Men aren't supposed to cry, but I came damn close just then.

Whitey Kroun, the corpse I'd left waiting in the backseat of the Nash, now slumped on the front passenger side with the door open, feet on the running board. His left trouser leg was rusty with dried blood, and he cautiously unwound a similarly stained handkerchief from his left hand. He flexed his fingers, checking them. Whatever damage he'd gotten seemed to be gone. He threw the grubby cloth away, hauled his long legs in, and yanked the door shut. The effort made him grunt, and he went back to favoring his chest.

He didn't say if he wanted to be dropped anywhere, and I didn't inquire, just started the motor and pulled away, mindful of the shortening time until dawn. We'd have to go to ground soon.

Shadows caught, lingered, and slithered quick over his craggy features as we sped under streetlamps, his eyelids at half-mast from pain. In good light Kroun's eyes were dark brown with strangely dilated pupils; now all that showed were skull-deep voids, unreadable.

Life had gotten damned complicated lately. It happens sometimes; for me it started when I tried to be a nice guy and do a favor for a friend in need.

That favor, along with circumstances beyond my control, had put me in the short line for the gang version of the hot seat. Kroun's arrival in Chicago was to sort things out and put me to bed with a shovel. Or an anchor. Lake Michigan makes for a very big graveyard when you know the wrong people.

But after looking me over, Kroun decided against carrying out the death sentence.

Mighty generous of him, except at the time I didn't know the real reason behind his choice. Outwardly, I'm not special; I own a nightclub that does pretty well, have a wonderful girl, a few good friends-I'm worse than some, better than most. Average. Most of the time.

Not ten minutes after we met, Kroun figured out about my being a vampire-you heard it right-and in the nights to follow never once let slip that he was also a card-carrying member of the union. I'd been tied up too tight in my own problems to notice anything odd about him or even remotely suspect. It had been one pip of a surprise when the boom came.

I was still getting used to it, the topper of a very busy evening.

It began with one hell of a fistfight between me and Escott, which was what had landed him in the casualty ward. I'd done something really stupid and his attempt to knock some sense into me set me off. I hadn't meant to hurt him, but I woke out of my rage a little too late. Before I could follow his ambulance to the hospital, I'd been sidetracked by a phone call from my girlfriend, Bobbi. In so many words she let me know there was a man in her flat holding a gun to her head.

That confrontation had ended badly.

Bobbi was fine, thank God, but there'd been quite an ugly fracas before the dust settled. Kroun had been present, caught a stray bullet, and died.


The shooter was also dead, and I was left with a nasty mess: two corpses, a shot-up flat, and me desperately trying not to go over the cliff into the screaming hell of full-blown shell shock.

By the grace of God, Escott's right fist, and Bobbi holding on to me like there was no tomorrow, I did not fall in. It had been a near thing, though. I was still standing closer than was comfortable to the edge of that dark internal pit, but no longer wobbling. Given time I might even back away to safer ground.

As I'd sluggishly tried to work out the details of what to do next, Kroun picked that moment to stop playing possum. One minute he was flat on the floor with a thumb-sized hole in his chest, the next...

Well... it had been interesting.

It took hours to clear the chaos at Bobbi's. I saw to it she was driven to a safe place to stay, then arranged to disappear the dead gunman. For this, I got some reliable if wholly illegal help involving the kind of mugs who are really good at guaranteeing that inconvenient bodies are never found.

Before the cleaning crew arrived, Kroun made himself missing. Temporarily. He hid out in the back of the Nash until the fuss was over.

That I was no longer the only vampire (that I knew about) in Chicago hadn't really sunk in yet.

Since we each had secrets to keep, we'd formed an uneasy alliance out of mutual necessity, and there was no telling how long it might last. I had fish of my own to fry and didn't particularly want to be looking after him-but he needed a favor, and, God help me, I turned sucker yet again.

I didn't want to think just how badly this could end.

Kroun seemed to doze. He'd not asked about our destination. I took it for granted that he wanted a ride away from the trouble and a chance to get his second wind, figuratively speaking. He had some serious healing to do; it might as well be in the company of someone who understood what he was going through.

He took notice when I made a last turn and pulled into the alley behind the house. Escott and I hung our hats in an elderly three-story brick in a quiet, respectable neighborhood. Not the sort of place you'd expect a vampire to lurk, but I'm allergic to cemeteries.

"What's this?" asked Kroun, blinking as I eased the car into the garage.

"Home. I'm all in. You'll have to stay the day." Maybe he had plans, but I wanted ask a few hundred questions, but later, when my brain was more clear. Right now it felt like street sludge.

"There's no need. I found a bolt-hole for myself," he said. "I got time to get there if you call a cab."

"At this hour?" I set the brake, cut the motor, and yanked the key. The ring felt too light.

"Cabs run all the time now, Fleming. It's a big burg, all grown-up."

"That's just a rumor... ah... damn it." I searched my pockets.

"Something wrong?"

"The house key's back at my nightclub. Left so fast I grabbed the wrong bunch." The wrong coat, too. Along with the Nash-which was Escott's car-I'd borrowed his overcoat. He wouldn't thank me for the bloodstains.

I cracked the door, careful not to bang it against the wall of the narrow garage, and got out. Kroun did the same, moving more slowly. Something must have twinged inside, for he paused to catch his breath, which was an event to note. Like me, he wasn't one for regular breathing. His reaction had to do with pain.

He'd left a dark patch on the center back of the seat, a transfer from a much larger stain on the back of his coat. It'd been hours; his wounds would have closed by now. The blood he'd leaked should be dried. Must have been the damp. The heavy air smelled of snow, but not the clean kind out of the north. This had a sour, rotting tang, as though the clouds were gathering up stink from the city and would soon dump it back again.

Going easy on his left leg, Kroun limped across the patches of frozen mud and dingy snow that made up the small yard, then stalled halfway to the porch. He began to cough, a big deep, wet whooping that grew in force and doubled him over. It sounded like his lungs were coming out the hard way. I started toward him, but there's nothing you can do to help when a person's in that state. The fit comes on and passes only when it's good and ready to go. Spatters of blood suddenly bloomed on the untracked drift in front of him.

I couldn't help but stare at the stuff. The smell had filled the car, but I'd successfully shoved it aside. This was fresh, dark red, almost black against the snow. He wasn't the only one with a problem. Mine was less obvious. I waited, holding my breath, unable to look away.



Nothing for a good long minute.

Couldn't trust that, though.


And finally took in a sip of air tainted with bloodsmell...

Dreading what must happen next...

But no roiling reaction twisted my guts.

No cold sweats.

Not even the shakes.

It was just blood. A necessity for survival, but nothing to get crazy over. No uncontrolled hunger blazed through my gut, not even the false starvation kind that scared me.

So far, so good.

I relaxed, just a little.

Cold, though... I was cold to the bone... but that was okay. It wasn't the unnerving chill that left me shivering in a warm room, but the ordinary sort that comes with winter. I'd thought I'd lost that feeling.

Kroun's internal earthquake climaxed, and he gagged and spat out a black clot the size of a half-dollar. He hung over the mess a moment, sucking air, and managed to keep his balance. My instinct was to lend him an arm to lean on while he recovered, but he wouldn't like it. I didn't know him well, but I knew that much.

He'd made a lot of noise, perhaps enough to wake a neighbor. I glanced at the surrounding houses, but no one peered from any of the upper windows. The show was over, anyway. Kroun gradually straightened, his face mottled red and gray. He kicked snow to hide the gore.

"You okay?" I asked. I'd have to stop that. It could get irritating.

"Still peachy," he wheezed. When he reached the back porch, he used the rail to pull himself along the steps. He looked like hell on a bad week. "No house key, huh?"

"Yeah, but-"

He fished a small, flat case from the inside pocket of his tattered, filthy overcoat. A couple of nights ago it had been new-looking, but an explosion and fire had turned it into something a skid-row bum would have tossed in the gutter. Kroun might well have been rolling in that gutter. His craggy features were gaunt now, his hair singed-except for a distinct silver-white streak on the side-and when I inhaled he still stank of smoke and burned rubber. He opened the case, revealing a collection of picklocks. "Lemme by."

"No need," I said-and vanished. Into thin air. I was good at it. Didn't think twice.

"Shit!" Kroun hadn't expected that.

His reaction was muffled to me. My senses in this state were limited, but it did have advantages, like getting me into otherwise inaccessible places. Damn, I felt smug.

"Fleming? You there?"

I'm busy. I pressed toward the door, sensing the long, thin crack at the threshold, and slipped in. Though I could have passed right through the wood, this path of least resistance was less unsettling. Going solid again on the other side, I unlocked and opened up, gesturing Kroun in.

He looked like he wanted to say a lot of things, but held back. I thought I understood his expression: an interesting combination of annoyance mixed with raw envy. It only flashed for a second, then he pocketed his case. "Nice trick."

"Just a way out of the cold. C'mon."

He stepped into the kitchen, and I locked the door again for all the good that would do. Even the dumbest of Chicago's countless thugs knew how to break and enter in the more conventional sense, though none of them had any reason to do so here. Quite the contrary. I'd gotten into the habit of thinking that way, though. Blame it on the scurvy company I kept.

"Phone?" he asked.

"The wall by the icebox." Actually, it was a streamlined electric refrigerator that looked out of place in the faded kitchen. I dropped my fedora on the table and shrugged from Escott's coat, folding it over the back of a chair. "But you can stay here. It's safe."

"I don't think so." Kroun wasn't being impolite, just preoccupied as he crossed the room, got the phone book from a shelf, and flipped through it looking for cab companies. He found a page, running a finger down the columns of fine print.

I flicked the light on. Habit. We could both see well enough in the dark.

He murmured an absent-sounding noise and stared at the listings. "How many of these companies have the mob on them?"

"They all pay dues. The hotels, too. Shocking, ain't it?"

"Cripes." He put the book back. "It's as bad as New York."

To his former associates in crime, along with everyone else, Whitey Kroun was supposed to be dead. Not Undead, which none would know about or believe in, but the regular kind of dead, and he wanted to keep it that way. He did not need a cabby remembering him and blabbing to the wrong ears. There were ways around that, but Kroun must have been considering the trouble and worth of it against the shrinking time before sunrise.

He was clearly exhausted. He'd barely survived getting blown up, gone into hiding God-knows-where for the day, and only hours before had taken a bullet square in the chest. The slug had passed right through, ripped up his dormant heart, maybe clipped one of his lungs before tearing out his back.

My last twenty-fours hours hadn't been even that good. We both needed a rest.

"Spare bedroom's up the stairs, third floor," I said. "All ready. Just walk in."

Kroun frowned. "Is it lightproof?"

"The window's covered. You'll be fine."

"Where do you sleep?"

"I have a place. In the basement."

He gave me a look. "What? A secret lair?"

That almost made me smile. "It's better than it sounds."

Not by much, but it sure as hell wasn't a claustrophobia-inducing coffin on the floor of a ratty crypt like in that Lugosi movie. Just thinking about a body box gave me the heebies. My bricked-up chamber below was a close twin to any ordinary bedroom, being clean and dry with space enough for a good arm stretch. I kept things simple: an army cot with a layer of my home earth under oilcloth, a lamp, a radio, books to fill in the time before sunrise, no lurking allowed.

"Room enough for a guest?"

"I can only get into it by vanishing." That was a lie. There was access by means of a trapdoor under the kitchen table, hidden by expert carpentry and a small rug. I just didn't want Kroun in my private den. Since he was unable to slip through cracks I was pleased to take advantage of his limitation. Just because we had vampirism in common didn't mean I should welcome him like a long-lost relative. He'd sure as hell not tipped his hand to me about his condition.

"You maybe got a broom closet?" he asked.

"Yeah, but you wouldn't like it."

"I could."

"C'mon, Whitey, no one knows you're here-"



"My real name's Gabe." His eyes were focused inward. "Mom's idea. Gabriel. Hell of a name to stick on a kid. Got me in a few fights."

Now why had he told me that?

He got a look on his face as though wondering the same thing. Maybe he was dealing with his own version of shell shock. Well, I wasn't walking on eggs for him. "Okay. Gabe. No one knows you're here, and no one's looking for you. The cops are still sifting through what's left of that car. By the time they don't find your body in the ashes, it'll be tomorrow night and you can start fresh."

He seemed to return from memory lane. "You get day visitors? Cleaning lady? Anyone like that?"


"What about Gordy's boys? Strome and Derner?"

"They know not to bother me with anything until tomorrow night. No one's gonna find you." There was no point telling Kroun to lay off being paranoid; the kind of stuff he'd been through would leave anyone twitchy. I understood him all too well.

"That won't discourage my pals in New York. First Hog Bristow gets dead, then me."

"Chicago's rough," I admitted.

"They won't blame the city." Kroun frowned my way so I'd be clear on who would be held accountable. He had good reason. Bristow's death was the mug's own stupid fault, though at the end I'd done what I could to help him along. Anyone else would consider my actions to be self-defense, just not his business associates back East.

Whitey-or was I to call him Gabe now?-Kroun had been my ostensible guest and looking into the Bristow situation when another mobster tried to take him out with a bomb. Kroun's apparent, and very public, demise had happened right in front of me, on my watch, and that made me responsible. The big boys he'd worked with in New York were bound to get pissed and react in a way I wouldn't like. Maybe I should try faking my death, too.

"Will your pals be sending someone here to deal with me?" I asked.

"Count on it. Unless Derner or Gordy can head them off."

Derner was my temporary lieutenant when it came to the nuts-and-bolts operation of mob business. His boss, Gordy Weems-a friend of mine and the man usually running things in Chicago's North Side-was still recovering from some serious bullet wounds of his own. I'd been talked into filling his spot until he was back on his feet. He couldn't get well fast enough for me. I had to be the only guy west of the Atlantic who didn't want the job. "Gordy stays on vacation. Derner and I will look after things, no problem."

"If you say so, kid."

Kroun had a right to his doubts. Running a major branch of the mob was very different from bossing an ordinary business. For instance, firing people was murder. Literally.

Another coughing bout grabbed Kroun. He tried to suppress it, but his body wasn't cooperating. He made his way to the sink and doubled over, hacking and spitting. When it subsided, he ran the water to wash the blood away. There wasn't as much as before; he must be healing.

I inhaled, caught the bloodsmell... and again waited. Nothing happened, no tremors in my limbs, no urge to scream, no falling on the floor like a seizure victim.

Very encouraging, but instinct told me I was still rocky and not to get overconfident.

"Cripes, I hate getting shot," he muttered.

"It's hell," I agreed.

He cupped hands under the water stream and rubbed down his face. "You've been through this, too?"

"Not if I can help it. But whenever I catch one, I always vanish. When I come back, I'm tired, but usually everything's fixed."

"The hell you say."

"You didn't know?"

He gave no reply.

"Didn't the one who gave you the change tell you anything?" I was very curious as to who had traded blood with him, allowing him the chance to return from death. When had he died? How long ago? He'd dropped no clue as to how long he'd been night-walking. He could be decades older than me in this life or months younger.

That streak of silver-white hair on the left side of his head marked where he caught the bullet that had killed him. Who had shot him and why? How had he dealt with his dark resurrection? The lead slug was still lodged in his brain, and the presence of that small piece of metal was enough to short-circuit his ability to vanish. It also prevented rejuvenation, kept him looking the same age he was when it happened. Instead of seeming to be in his twenties like me, he outwardly remained in his forties.

But Kroun wasn't sharing confidences. Making no answer, he twisted the water tap off and dried with one of the neatly folded dish towels Escott kept next to the sink. In the harsh overhead light Kroun looked even more gaunt than a few minutes ago. The coughing fit had sapped him.

"You hungry?" I asked. He had to be. He'd lost plenty of blood tonight. It would put him on edge, maybe make him dangerous. That was what it did to me.

"A little, but I can hold out till tomorrow."

I went to the icebox. In the back were some beer bottles with the labels soaked off, topped with cork stoppers. The dark brown glass obscured what was inside. They represented an experiment that had worked out. I pulled a bottle and handed it over. "It's cold but drinkable."

He eyeballed it. "You're kidding. You store the stuff?"

"Only for a few days. It goes bad once the air hits. Like milk."

He took the cork out and sniffed it. "It's animal?"


He shot me a look. Checking. Appraising. "Good."

Damn. That angle... and he'd thought of it first. "Hey, you don't think I'd..."


The son of a bitch. "I don't take from people."

"Sure you do. Your girlfriend."

"She's not food." I felt myself going red.

"No. There have been others who were, though."

"Where the hell do you-" I nearly choked.

He tilted his head. "Yeah?"

I shut down, because I was within a hair of knocking his block off, and that wouldn't accomplish anything. He was guessing, goading me for information. And gotten it. "How do you figure?"

"The other night... in Gordy's office."

When Kroun first clapped eyes on me. "But you didn't know about me right away."

"No, I didn't. There was a point in the proceedings, though. You put on a face I didn't understand at the time, but afterward I got it. You were looking at me, at the whole room, and realized you were in charge."

My nape prickled at his insight. I remembered that moment and wasn't proud of it, yet the idea had bolstered me when I was in need and gotten me out of a death sentence.

He went on. "You'd just figured out you were the big fish, and big fish feed on little fish. Only with us it's a literal thing. The question is, do you make a habit of feeding from people?"

"I goddamn don't."

He made a "no problem" gesture. "That's fine then, fine."

"And you?" I'd once encountered a vampire who took human blood-often and any way he liked. I saw to it he came to a bad end.

"I'm not in the habit, no."

"That's not an answer."

"It's the only one I got." He scowled when I didn't respond. "Get off your hind legs, Fleming, I'm no menace to society. I'm retired now."

Time will tell, I thought.

He waved the bottle under his nose again. "You get this stuff from the Stockyards?"

I nodded.

"Pretty smart. Good for emergencies, but someone could find it."

"Who looks twice at an old bottle? Nobody but my partner is ever here anyway, and he's wise."

"That would be guy in the hospital? Charles Escott?"

"Yeah. This is his house." Kroun had never actually met him, but had gotten plenty of information about my life and hard times from long talks with Gordy, who was also wise. Escott knew Kroun by sight and reputation, the latter being very grim, indeed. Somehow the reputation didn't seem to match up with the guy in front of me. Lots of people were good at hiding their real sides, though. I was an expert.

"And he knows all about you?"

"Yeah. Everything."

"You trust him with this?" He lifted the bottle, not talking about blood, but rather the condition that required I drink it.

"Completely. He's been one hell of a friend."

Kroun shook his head. "You're nuts to leave yourself open like that."

"Guess I am."

"Well, I don't want him knowing about me."

"He doesn't. Last he heard you'd been blown up in the car. Killed."

"Keep it like that."

"No problem." Escott was in no shape to be told. I also wanted to have some space between him and potential trouble.

"That girlfriend of yours..."

"Won't talk." Some edge slipped into my tone. Kroun heard it and picked up the meaning. Bobbi was strictly hands-off. He got the message.

He had a sample sip from the brown bottle. From his grimace it wasn't perfect, but drinkable; the blood would cure his hunger quick enough and speed his healing. He suddenly tilted the bottle and finished it off in one quick, guz zling draft. The stuff must have charged through him like a bull elephant. Head bowed, he gave in to a long shudder as though it had been 180-proof booze and not cattle blood.

"Wow," he whispered, almost in awe.

I knew the feeling. Taken hot from a vein, the internal kick is astonishing. When cold from storage, the reaction isn't that strong unless you're on the verge of starvation. Kroun possessed one hell of a lot of self-control to be willing to stick it out going hungry. If I went too long between meals, I got crazy-tunnel vision, unable to think straight, a threat to people around me, nothing pleasant. I made sure to feed every other night, though lately I'd been overfeeding like a drunk on a binge. It was a considerable relief now not to have that tug of mindless appetite urging me to clean out the rest of the cache in the icebox.

"That hit the spot, thanks." Kroun handed the empty bottle over, and I rinsed it in the sink. He looked improved, even filled out a little. Blood works fast on our kind. The whites of his eyes were flushed dark red and would stay that way for a short time, iris and pupils lost to view. I tried not to stare.


"No thanks." He moved into what was originally meant to be a dining room, but Escott wasn't one for fancy eating, preferring the kitchen. His old dining table was a huge work desk decked with orderly piles of books and papers. There was a big sideboard along one wall, but it served as a liquor cabinet and storage for odds and ends. Kroun paused and peered through the glass doors at all the bottles.

"Your partner a lush?"

Once upon a time. Back then a very good friend of his got tired of the drinking and tried to beat some sense into Escott about it. It'd worked. "He likes to be prepared for company."

The next room was the front parlor with a long sofa, my favorite chair, and the radio. I didn't bother switching on a lamp; the spill from the kitchen was enough for us. It also wouldn't reach the parlor window and give away that anyone was home.

Newspapers were stacked so precisely on the low table in the middle that you couldn't tell if they'd been read yet. They were yesterday's editions, and Escott would have gone through them, it just didn't show. He was that neat about things.

I grabbed the one on top, which bore a headline about the mysterious deaths of nightclub singer Alan Caine and his ex-wife Jewel.

Damn it all.

The story itself was thin on facts, padded to two columns by biographical sketches for them both. The police were investigating what appeared to be a murder-suicide. The estranged couple had been seen arguing in public and so on and so forth.

Damn again. Removing the accusation of murder and stigma of suicide from Jewel's name would be impossible. The killer was on his way to the bottom of the lake by now. He had no direct connection to either of them that could be proved. Any stepping forward on my part would be a futile gesture that would pin me square under the cops' spotlight.

I couldn't risk it and felt like a coward by giving in to common sense.

But still... maybe I could fix something up... get some of Derner's boys to phone an anonymous tip or three to the rags while the story was still newsworthy, sow some doubt. A double murder was a juicier story to sell than a murder-suicide.

I'd have to talk to Derner about funeral arrangements for poor Jewel. She hadn't had two dimes; I didn't want her going to the potter's field just because her ex hadn't kept up the alimony.

I'd get things moving and hope it wasn't already too late. The world spun on relentlessly. New disasters rose up to overshadow the old as I discovered when I quit the parlor for the entry hall and opened the front door. Several editions lay piled on the porch. I grabbed them up, kicked the door shut, and dropped them all on the parlor table. To judge by the headlines, the presses had been stopped in order to fit in something special.

They all had the same story.

The only event that could eclipse a nightclub headliner's murder was the shooting of a movie actor. It warranted larger, bolder type to convey the importance of a near-fatal assault on the life of Roland Lambert, onetime Hollywood matinee idol.

Roland would hate the "onetime" part, but ignore it with bemused grace. He and his ballerina wife, Faustine, did exhibition dancing at my club, working to raise grubstake money so he could go back to California in style for a return to films. Toward that end, he'd made the most of the free publicity, having apparently granted an exclusive interview to every reporter in the country.

Above the fold in one journal was a picture of Roland in his plain hospital whites, managing to look devil-handsome, gallant, brash, and charming, just like the sword-fighting heroes he'd played on-screen. Faustine sat bravely at his bedside, holding his hand, decked out in the best Paris could offer, exotic and erotic as always. He wouldn't be dancing much anymore, having been shot in the leg.

That was my fault. Sort of. Roland had been in the wrong place when a bad guy had cut loose with bullets meant for me. The shooter was dead now. Not my fault-for a change-and someone else had bumped him off in turn. Roland didn't know that part and never would.

He had quite another story to tell, though, and it was a pip.

He'd sold the reporters the malarkey that he had run afoul of some real Chicago mobsters, and the tale was developing a life of its own.

"SHERLOCK" LAMBERT TAKES ON THE GANGS!-no kidding, that was how they'd printed it-headed an overwritten four-column section of a sob sister's feature. It was long on emotion, purple prose, with damn few facts, but why let the truth get in the way of such thrilling entertainment?

According to that version of events, a mysterious underworld figure had imposed his unwanted attentions on an innocent bride-at this point it was noted that film legend Roland Lambert adoringly kissed the hand of his beautiful wife, the famous Russian ballerina Faustine Petrova. After a brisk bout of fisticuffs, the gangster had been sent off in round order by her valiant husband, but that wasn't to be the end of it. Strange threatening letters began to arrive, compelling Roland to investigate and deal with their source. He was making serious progress at tracking the bounder to his lair, which was too close for comfort for at least one of the miscreants, and resulted in the present small setback. Here Roland gestured ruefully at his dreadful wounding.

Oh, brother.

At the time of the shooting, I'd been in a blind panic that I'd gotten him killed. Nothing like a little rest and a lot of personal moxie to turn things on their head. With a trowel in each hand, he'd plastered it on thick. I had serious doubts that any of the mugs in the gangs even knew the meaning of miscreant, but had to admire him. Roland's eyewash was a great misdirection. He'd made himself into a crime-busting hero, and my name was never once mentioned. What a relief.

The sob sister went into grand and glorious detail about how Roland had rescued his lovely bride from conflict-torn Russia. Their daring escape culminated in the Lamberts' romantic shipboard wedding amid the threat of lurking German submarines. Somehow, routine lifeboat drills took on an ominous significance, and the fate of the Lusitania twenty years back was remembered as though it had occurred yesterday. If there was ever going to be another war in Europe, stories like this would be one of the causes.

The couple had actually met over cocktails at a cast party for one of Roland's London plays, but that didn't make nearly as exciting copy.

The next paper went one better and compared Roland and Faustine to Nick and Nora Charles, speculating that a movie of their real-life adventures should be filmed, something that would even top The Thin Man for popularity.

Sleuth away, old sport, I thought.

Below the fold were a few short paragraphs about the mystery explosion in Chicago's Bronze Belt. It was old news compared to the rest, but could still sell a paper. A stark photo showed a smoke-filled street and staring bystanders frozen in the moment, but the camera flash hadn't reached far enough to show what was burning. It was a good shot, though; the photographer must have arrived with the fire trucks.

"You see this?" I asked, showing the page.

My houseguest was also catching up on the news and shook his head. "Huh. Doesn't look like the same place."

"You saw it from a different angle."

"I didn't see much but smoke."

Kroun had hurtled from the bomb-gutted car and hidden behind some curbside trash cans before going to ground for the day, leading everyone to believe he'd been blown to hell and gone. Our kind is pretty damned tough, but there are limits. Kroun had only survived because of the car's armor plating and the devil's own luck. He'd gotten seriously hammered around and burned, though. It was really too bad he was unable to vanish and heal the way I could.

The story was little more than a thin rewrite of yesterday's edition, but this time had names. Someone had traced the car's owner. The police wanted to question underworld figure Gordy Weems about the incident. He'd love that.

Kroun read the piece through and snorted. "They don't know anything. This guy got it all wrong."

"It happens. For you it's better if they don't have the facts."

"You used to do that, didn't you? Reporting?"

"Yeah. About a thousand years ago." I dropped into my chair, putting my feet up on the table.

"I hope that's a joke."

It occurred to me that he didn't know my real age, either. I was thirty-seven, but looked a lot younger. I felt a brief, smug grin stretch my face.

"So how long have you been like this?"

Just the question I wanted to ask. "You first."

"Uh-uh. You." He went past me to peer out the front window, pulling the curtain open just a crack, perhaps checking for the first changes that marked the coming dawn. You couldn't always trust a clock.

"Happened a year ago last August," I said.

"When you came to Chicago?"

"Yeah. Slick Morelli and Frank Paco did the honors."

They'd murdered me-a slow, vicious process-but I'd gotten some payback in the end. Slick was dead and Paco raving in a nuthouse God knows where. There was a lesson in that mess someplace about picking your enemies carefully, but I didn't like thinking about it.

"Morelli and Paco?" Kroun sounded like he'd met them once upon a time. "What'd you do to get noticed by those two?"

"Nothing I want to talk about." And he would know it already. He'd spent time with Gordy, who knew all the dirt about my Undead condition and how it had happened. Kroun would have used hypnosis to pick Gordy's brain clean about my death, so what was his game asking me? Probably to see if the stories matched. Suspicious bastard. I could get annoyed, only in his place I'd have done the same. "What about yourself? How did you buy it?"

He didn't answer, closely watching something outside. The only reasonable activity at this hour might be someone leaving for an early job or the milkman making his round.

"What is it?" I asked.

"Car's stopped in front of the house."

Now what?

"You know a big colored guy? Well dressed? Drives a Nash?"

Oh, hell. "What about him?"

"He's coming up the walk. Looks pissed, too."

"Let him in."

"It's your door, and I'm no butler."

The man outside began ringing the bell and pounding. I tiredly boosted up.

Kroun stepped into the entry hall. "Oh, yeah. He's pissed. I'd stay to watch, but-"

"Upstairs. Third floor. Keep quiet."

He went quick despite the limp, not making a lot of noise, though I couldn't hear much over the racket. He ducked from view at the top landing, stifling a cough.

I got the door. "Hi, Shoe."

Shoe Coldfield filled a very large portion of the opening, his anger making him loom even larger. Before I could say anything else, a word of explanation, an invitation to come inside, he slammed a fist of iron into my gut.

Next page