Blood on the Water Chapter 2

My rubber-soled shoes made soft padding noises on the pavement as I covered the quarter-mile distance in short order. I was dressed to blend in with the neighborhood and the night with dark pants, shirt, no tie, and an old pea jacket borrowed from Escott's disguise closet. A cloth cap was pulled low over my forehead and I'd wrapped a wool muffler several times around my face and neck.

Since winter had set in I'd found it a necessary item to conceal the fact that I only breathed while talking. Most people probably wouldn't notice what was missing on cold, damp days, namely the usual dragon's puff of vapor, but why take chances?

This kind of worry coming from a man about to walk into a lion's den.

Correction: snake pit. Kyler was anything but warmblooded.

I got within a block of my destination without seeing anything worth notice.

One car went by, but I avoided it by slipping into a deep doorway until it was long gone. At the cross street I cut to the left, away from the river, then right at the next corner. Opposite the IFT warehouse was yet another large building and I was now walking behind it. The place had a back entrance for the heavy trucks; I hopped up on the loading platform and went straight for the nearest door.

It was locked, but I vanished and went inside anyway. My eyes adjusted quickly to the large dim interior once I re-formed. I took an experimental sniff of the place, catching the good clean smell of cut wood. Huge stacks of lumber loomed around me. So far, so good, as long as none of it avalanched down on my tender skull. I took great care not to bump into anything.

I crossed all the way to the front of the place but stood well back from the windows. They gave me an adequate, if somewhat grimy, view of the IFT

warehouse across the street.

It looked empty. No cars were parked anywhere near the place and even the outside light over the office door was off. I could just make out the glint of a new hasp and padlock, probably installed by the cops to keep people away from the scene of last night's crimes. Perhaps Kyler planned to make our exchange in the street.

Something snuffled and growled behind me. Claws clicked over the bare concrete floor. Turning, I immediately spotted a large pair of glowing green eyes winking balefully in the faint light from the windows. They were spaced very far apart. Below them was an endless row of shark's teeth, and from a vast chest came a continuous rumbling like an extra-large diesel engine. That's about all I really noticed about the dog in the half second that passed before it charged.

I suppose I could have handled it, could have used my special influence to calm it down and make friends, but logical, friendly ideas like that are for people with the time to think them up. When a mastiff the size of a calf with a mouth like the Grand Canyon comes barreling down on you, the first thing you really want to do is try to get out of its way. My abrupt disappearance was more of a knee-jerk reaction than a planned escape, but whatever works.

The thing bored through the space where I had once been solid and I heard a muffled crash as it slammed into the front wall. The sound it made was more irritation than pain as it recovered from the shock and turned. It yelped in sudden confusion when it butted into me again and sniffed frantically, trying to pin me down. Its claws dug at the empty patch of concrete where I had stood, gouging up chunks of it for all I could tell; the damn thing was big enough.

I'm a dog lover, but know when I'm outnumbered. Rather than argue with it, I floated up until I bumped into a scaffolding about ten feet overhead, and sieved through. It was the floor to an upper office I'd noticed on my way in and had the advantage of putting a locked door between me and the dog. The monster was still furiously investigating below as I became solid by slow degrees and in absolute silence.

By cautiously craning my neck I had the same view of the warehouse, just a slightly different angle, and could see more of the street. The wait was more uncomfortable since I didn't want to move around much. The dog was the persistent type, and if it got a clue to my location it would certainly follow. I didn't trust the door all that much, or the dog to be quiet about trying to break through to get to me.

With that comforting thought, I stood very still, indeed, and used my eyes and ears. The walls muffled my hearing somewhat, but some motor noises came to me. The vast dark bulk of the Chicago River supported some slow boat traffic, and thanks to my new perch I was able to see some of it. A couple of boats chugged lazily past and I did not envy their crews having to work on a cold night and at such a late hour. They reminded me that Kyler also had a boat and might even use it for his transportation, so I divided my watch between the street and the river.

At five to midnight I saw, but did not hear, Kyler's two Cadillacs pull up before the warehouse. The motors were very finely tuned; a cat's purr would have been loud by comparison. They cut the lights and I counted ten men as they emerged and crowded by the door. The cars blocked a lot of my view and I couldn't pick Kyler from the group. There was a brief pause as they did something to the padlock, then the door opened and they filed inside. So much for the police sealing the place off.

The outside light came on, then an inside one. Silhouettes bumped and thinned out as the men trooped through the office into the warehouse proper. I hadn't noticed any weapons, but all their lethal hardware would be easily concealed by their long, heavy coats. Kyler wasn't going to take any chances with me if he could help it. Maybe I should have felt flattered by all the preparations, but it was an honor I'd just as soon skip.

I pulled on a pair of gloves and checked the velvet bag again. The bracelet glinted, not evil in itself, but certainly an inspiration and a focus for the darkness in all of us. I polished it a little and hoped that it would be enough to buy me and Escort some freedom and peace.

Drifting down through the floor, I sailed past the dog, who was stubbornly on guard at the spot where it had last seen me. It whined once in puzzlement, but stayed put. I floated on a straight course between the stacks of lumber, brushed against the back wall, and was out again. It was just on midnight when I walked around the building and emerged onto the street.

No one seemed to be hanging around outside, which struck me as odd since Kyler was the cautious type. They were probably hiding somewhere, then. Yet another comforting thought.

The front of the warehouse was a blank, giving no clue to what was going on inside. Like the bracelet, it could be innocent or sinister. In my present mood I knew which one to pick. I walked slowly to the door and opened it. The mechanism sounded unnaturally loud to my keyed-up senses.

No one leaped out at me. So far, so good, again. Two hard-looking men I did not know stared back at me. One stood up from his seat on the desk, the other continued to lean a little too casually against a file cabinet. I kept the muffler in place. The fewer people who saw my mug, the better.

Neither of them moved. It was like a zoo when you walk past the exhibit with the big cats. You know the bars will keep them in place, but there's always that shiver of uncertainty in the back of your mind that they just might not be up to the job. The only restraints here were the invisible ones of Kyler's word.

I went through the inner door into the warehouse. The lights were on, but I was very aware of all the men I couldn't see. At least eight of them were lurking out there among the stacks of crates. One of them stepped into my line of sight. He said nothing as I moved forward. He waited for me and became my escort, leading me deeper into the building.

The line of crates ended, leaving free an open space, or it would have been free except for the ropes the police had left behind. Off to one side an abstract chalk design sprawled at the base of a crate. In the middle, near a closed trapdoor that led down to a river landing, was another. The latter was more recognizably the outline of a man's body, like a flat ghost. Next to the head was a spray of dark stain. In my mind I could still smell the cordite and blood.

I tore my eyes from the memory and made myself look at the man standing in the center of it all. Vaughn Kyler regarded me with equal amounts of tension and expectation.

He was in better shape than when I'd last seen him. The cut on his forehead had been neatly patched over, and either the vicuna coat had been cleaned or he was wearing a new one.

Chaven stood next to him, arms hanging free, his lean form all but vibrating from unspent energy. His forced retreat earlier had left him with a serious grudge against me.

The next few steps were difficult. The warehouse was partially built out over the river and the force of the free-running water below made an invisible but effective barrier to someone with my special condition. It was worry making.

Kyler had warned his men earlier to beware of anything unusual when they'd searched the house. I wondered if he had chosen this spot because he'd sensed this weakness in me and wanted to test it further. I pushed hard against the opposing press of the water and hoped that it wasn't too obvious. Once past the first yard or so, it wasn't so bad, except for all my back hairs standing at attention.

Kyler, Chaven, and the guy next to me-now, where were the other five? Two of them closed ranks about twenty feet behind us. Another stood off to the left, partially hidden by some loading equipment. The two remaining were to the right, concealed by crates.

I kept going until only a few feet separated me from Kyler. From the very first, he'd given me the panicky creeps, and time had not mitigated that reaction. He looked ordinary, just another businessman nearing his fifties in well -dressed affluence. I was beginning to realize that it was the absolute stillness of the man's manner that made me think of poisonous reptiles, that and his cold, unblinking eyes.

"You bring it?" His voice matched his eyes, cold.

I nodded. My mouth was dry. He waited for me to make the next move. I slowly pulled the black bag from my pocket and held it high. "Straight deal?" I whispered, hardly able to work up enough spit to talk.

"Let's see it first."

Right. Any promise he might give at this point was dependent on his taking delivery of the thing, and we were both very aware of it. I opened the bag and turned it over. The bracelet flowed and twined around my fingers, catching the distant lights, turning them into silver and red sparks.

It was his turn to nod and he held out his hand to take it. If anything was to happen to me it would be now. I was expecting either gunfire or a guarantee, war or peace, when I turned it over; anything except what did happen. The only warning I got was Chaven's mouth curling into a nervous twitch of a smile as the bracelet finally slithered into Kyler's possession.

A blinding explosion of white light froze everything in place for that instant. It came from the left, from the guy by the loading equipment. It was incongruous, yet horribly familiar to someone with my journalistic background. My eyes seemed to take an age to recover, but I didn't have to see to know that he was slotting in another film plate for a second photo. He knocked the spent bulb free of the flash.

As if in slow motion, it spun to the floor, scattering into a hundred glass slivers as it smashed against the scarred wood. The pop it made on impact acted like a signal for everyone to close in. The man next to me grabbed my arm.

They'd caught me flat-footed with this one. My instinct to vanish nearly took me out of things as it had before with the guard dog. I had to ice that for the moment, what with Kyler and all his men looking on. The two behind us crowded in and the other two on the right finally emerged from hiding. The medium tall one in the leather coat wore his hat at a dapper angle over his dandy handsome face.

His unexpected presence here only added to my shock.

The deal was off, but then it had never really been on. It was a trap. Not Kyler's, though... the cops'.

The man walking toward me was Lieutenant Blair.

"C'mon," he said to the one holding me. "Let's have a look at him."

Oh, shit.

The muffler was still around my face. He hadn't recognized me and things were going to stay that way if I could help it. I savagely shook off the guy's grip and bolted to the left. The photographer was encumbered by the camera, but tried to block me long enough to hold for his pals. I bowled past him and tore to the right.

I absolutely had to get out of sight, and my best hope was to circle around to the stacks.

They were wise to that one. Blair and another man outflanked me, the latter drawing his gun and ordering me to stop. I doubled back, making a feint for a side door on the other end. The photographer left his camera and tried to tackle me. I caught him before we both went off balance and swung him around sharply. He lost his footing and stumbled, blocking Blair's rush for a few precious seconds. I took the opening only to face two more men drawing their guns.

Cutting between them was not the best option, but the only one left. I was moving too fast to stop, anyway. A gun went off, probably by accident. I felt nothing and remained solid. Someone cursed and caught my arm again. I punched an elbow in his direction and got free. Blair shouted something, but I lost it as I gained the narrow opening between two long lines of crates. I was suddenly free of the uncomfortable pressure of the water below us.

At the far end and coming up quickly was one of the guys from the front office. Halfway along, he paused to pull out his gun and level it. Behind me, Blair and the others paused as well, abruptly aware that they were in each other's line of fire.

The crates stacked on either side were about four feet square, graduating to smaller ones on top like giant building blocks. I latched onto a narrow edge and heaved upward with desperation-inspired agility. Blair and his men suddenly closed in. One of them just missed grabbing my foot as I lurched up to the next tier. Blair ordered someone to run around to the other side of the stack to head me off.

I wasn't quite sure how, but I made it to the top of the wooden mountain about twenty-five dizzy feet up. A little belatedly, I remembered my fear of heights as I teetered on my uncertain perch. Blair yelled, telling me to come back before I got hurt. He stopped a man from following; evidently they were all cops except for Chaven and Kyler.

They were standing well back from the activity. Kyler had me in full view, still wearing a look of expectation on his normally blank face. He'd set me up good, and now I knew why.

Blair's voice cut through my disgust with the situation, reminding me that I had to keep moving. Fine, except that I was now limited to two directions, unless you wanted to count a sudden drop as a third. Cops were now on both sides of the stack, ready to nail what was left if that happened.

Fortunately, the boxes up here were small enough to be useful, as I discovered when I tipped one over and sent it crashing. The men scattered hastily as the thing tumbled down. Metal parts, shards of wood, and excelsior hit the floor like a bomb. Another gun went off-I couldn't tell from which side-and I ducked in reflex. Before he could get a second shot, I dropped two more boxes, one left, the other right, and then plastered myself flat. With everyone rushing to get out of the way I figured they'd be too busy to notice my disappearance. I also hoped that the angle and height of the intervening crates would help block Kyler's view of the stunt.

Two more random shots went off before Blair called for a stop, followed by a long, confused pause as they tried to locate me. I held my place, and figuratively held my breath, waiting them out. Confusion gave way to frustration, and a man was boosted up on the stacks for a look around. I flowed well away from any chance contact and let them get on with the search. After a time I eased my way down to the floor and tried to make sense of their shouts and rushing around.

"Where the hell is he?" was the most frequently repeated phrase. No one had an answer to it, either. Blair sent men to cover all the exits and to check the street.

The rest circled and recircled the place. After several minutes of futile combing they began to realize they'd been skunked.

Blair shouted a question at Kyler. Between the distorting echoes and the natural muffling caused by my unnatural state I could hardly make it out, and neither could Kyler.

"What?" he called back.

I zeroed in on Blair's voice. "I said, did he get past you?" He was striding toward Kyler. I froze onto him and held tight, letting him carry me along. With his unknowing help I was able to move out over the water again. Despite the heavy leather coat, he began to shiver.

"We didn't see anything," Kyler answered. I hoped that he was telling the truth.

"If you're trying a double cross, you may regret it."

"Lieutenant, I was only doing my civic duty. As you can see, we got the bracelet back for you and I understand that it is a crucial piece of evidence in the case you are working on. This lunatic has killed twice, one of them a close friend and associate of mine. I have told you before how much I want to bring this man to justice; I think my cooperation tonight in informing your department of this meeting proves my sincerity."

"And were you able to identify him, then?"

Kyler let the pause drag out and I moaned inwardly.

"Were you?"

"I regret to say that I did not recognize the man," was his bland reply.

Now, what the hell was he up to?

"You're certain of that?"

"Yes, Lieutenant. He was wrapped up in that muffler, but I am positive that if I'd had any previous contact with him, I would have remembered it. I have a very good head for names and faces, you know."

Blair had nothing to say to that and called for a report from his men. The answers were all negative. He walked off to join them. I hung back to eavesdrop on Kyler.

"Where do you think he went?" Chaven asked him in a low voice.

"Who knows? He might still be here."

"This is crazy, Vaughn."

"But you saw what happened."

"I saw a guy go up who hasn't come down yet. What's with him? How does he do it?"

"I'm working that out. Are the boys in place?"

"Probably. Tinny was on his way just as the cops arrived for us. His girl's practically-"

"Shut up," said Kyler, not raising his voice, but still managing to express urgency.

As Escott sometimes said, bloody hell. I whipped away from them and threaded between the stacks and occasional cop, feeling my way toward the front.

It was like blind man's bluff, except the goal was to avoid running into people.

I found the office almost by accident when I picked up half of a phone conversation. Blair was calling for reinforcements and giving out a description of me for the prowl cars in the area. He got the height and weight right and had noticed the clothes in detail, right down to the brown-and-blue stripe pattern on the muffler. Thank God he hadn't gotten a look at my face.

I slipped through the front door and bore left, moving fast over the flat plain of the street, using the curb as a guide. Whenever it curved sharply, it meant a corner, and I'd have to strike out for the other side and hope to hold a straight line. A car roared toward the warehouse; the buffet of wind from its passage threw me briefly off course.

A partial re-forming gave me fresh bearings and some much -needed orientation. I hadn't come as far as I thought and I was running out of time. Escott wouldn't wait forever and sooner or later a patrolman might pull up to ask him awkward questions. I dropped out of reality and sped along more recklessly than before, practically flying over the pavement.

The next time I went solid, I was within yards of his corner. Escott stood in a doorway covering the street and saw me melt out of nowhere.

"We're up shit creek," I said, slowing only a little. "Get the car in gear. We have to get to the Top Hat right away."

"Good lord, they're after Miss Smythe?" He darted around to the driver's side and threw himself in. I wrenched open the passenger door and chafed at the pause needed to start the motor.

"Something I heard from Chaven. Dammit, I thought she'd be safe from all this."

"No doubt Kyler has some excellent sources of information and an instinct for finding an opponent's vulnerable points," he said as he shifted and hit the gas.

"Hurry, but be careful. The cops are looking for me now." I tore off the cap and telltale muffler and dropped them behind the seat.

"What's happened?"

While he negotiated a route out of the district, I filled him in on things. "I guess you could say he kept his word; he didn't come after me, he only had to step aside and let Blair do the work."

"And yet he did not give you away to him."

"I think that whole fiasco was a test to see what I'd do when cornered. In one move he's gotten himself off the suspect list for the murders, shifted it onto someone else, and learned that much more about what I can do. He's probably figured there's no way to get a direct hold on me, so he'll try to get to Bobbi instead."

"Which indicates that he must want something of you."

"He wants me out of the way. Anybody who can do what I do is too dangerous to have loose. I'd just like to know what he meant about 'working that out.' "

"Perhaps he's researching the folklore section of the local library."

"Oh, great." I had a nightmare vision of Chicago's underworld searching for me, armed with crosses and draped in garlands of fresh garlic. It was just as well those items only worked at the movies. On the other hand, a hammer and stake were also part of the vampire hunter's traditional arsenal, and I knew from experience just how terribly effective those were.

"What about the photograph?" he asked.

I shrugged. "I'm not even sure I'll show up on the plate, but first things first."

"Absolutely," he murmured, concentrating on his driving. He beat through a couple of stop signals while I kept an eye out for patrol cars. The street traffic was mercifully light at this hour, but it still seemed to take a long time to get there.

It was the middle of the week, but the place had a good crowd if we could tell anything by the number of cars in the parking lot. Neon lights spelled out the name of the club against the clear sky and a glowing red top hat danced endlessly from side to side below them. Both caused confusing reflections on the windows of the cars, making it difficult to tell if any were occupied.

"I'll go check things inside," said Escott as he found a place to park. I started to object, but was interrupted. "They won't let you past the door dressed like that," he pointed out.

He was right and my regular clothes were inconveniently packed away in a bag in the car's trunk. We'd both prepared for the necessity of having to drop out of sight in case things went wrong.

"Besides, you could alarm the ones we're after if they should see you. Since they know what you look like, your sudden appearance could lead to an unfortunate incident."

"I'll do more than just alarm them," I growled, but saw the sense of things. I described Tinny as best I could. Escott took it in, then slipped out to go to the club. I got out on my side to make a more thorough search of the parking lot.

All I found were some courting couples in different cars who were generating enough personal heat to ignore the low outside temperature. They also ignored me, but then I was going out of my way to be quiet. I'd retrieved the cap and muffler from the back of the car and had wrapped up again. They linked me to the search Blair was conducting, but that was a few miles away, and I felt safe enough using them here. Nevertheless, I was quick to duck out of sight when a police car cruised past on its rounds.

A street ran behind the club and was where I usually parked while waiting to pick up Bobbi when she was through for the night. The manager and a few other employees also parked there, so I was familiar with their cars. The Olds on the end close to the back entrance was new to the spot, though, and there were two men sitting inside.

Maybe it was the jackpot, but I'd have to be sure first. There was no percentage in committing mayhem against innocent citizens. I assumed a casual walk and paused in front of it. The light was bad for them, but I gave them a chance to notice me and made a point of returning the favor.

The one on the driver's side turned on the headlights. The harsh glare was probably meant to discourage me; understandable, since I was more or less dressed like a suspicious character. I shaded my eyes against it and moved out of the way. The lights cut and they laughed a little. I nodded back in a friendly way and slapped my pockets for a battered pack of cigarettes, pulling one out.

"Gotta match?" I called so they could hear me through the windows.

Neither of them answered. I walked up to tap the driver's door and repeated my question. His hat was pulled low, so I couldn't see much above his hard jaw line. He rolled the window down and told me to scram.

"Kyler sent me," I whispered.

He and his partner exchanged looks. "Who?" he asked.

"You heard me. He said to say the deal's off and to get out of here."

"I don't get it. You trying to make trouble?"

"Just trying to keep you out of it. Let the cops nail you if you want, it's no skin off my nose, but I wouldn't want the boss to think I didn't know how to listen to orders."

The driver frowned deeply and I wondered if he'd recognized me despite the muffler. By now I was fairly sure he was one of the mugs who had invaded the house. I was ready for a hostile response; instead, he leaned forward to start the car.

"What about Tinny and Chick?" he asked.

"They're leaving with me. It's safer."

He nodded once, shifted the gears, and pulled out of his slot. As soon as he turned into the main street, he hit the gas and didn't stop for as long as he was in earshot.

I gaped after them and indulged in a laugh of my own. This was almost too easy.

Escott would have the front of the club covered by now, but he might not have been able to invade the backstage area. I trotted up the steps to the rear door and slipped inside. A tall curtain blocked the audience's view of the utilitarian walls, but when the stage lights were on it was filmy enough to see through. I had a fine backseat for the floor show.

The band had just started up a bright and brassy fanfare, which brought on an abrupt burst of applause. I got a filtered view of Bobbi making her entrance for a novelty number. She was dressed like a feminized version of Frank Buck in white satin jodhpurs, matching bush shirt, patent leather riding boots, and a sequin-trimmed pith helmet. The explanation for the costume came when she launched into her rendition of "The Animal in Me." She charmed her way through the first chorus, skipped to one side of the stage, and pretended to hunt around for jungle dangers. As she returned, a line of tap dancers wearing tinsel grass skirts and strategic coconut shells followed.

They scattered across the stage to the delighted hoots from the audience and hammered out the number. A few bars later, the girls screamed and drew back in mock terror as a guy in a gorilla suit strutted out of the wings. He wore a white tie and collar and carried a walking stick. Bobbi sang more lyrics to the gorilla, then joined him in a little soft-shoe, hamming things up like crazy. The gorilla dropped to one knee to present her with a bouquet of fake flowers that magically appeared in his paw. Bobbi pantomimed a show of flattery, but decided to turn him down.

The gorilla roared to his feet, grabbed Bobbi, and threw her over his shoulder. She gave out with another chorus from there as he carried her around the stage.

Just as it looked like the gorilla would run off with her, a second gorilla appeared in their way. This one wore an apron and carried a comically large rolling pin, which she used to threaten her "husband." He hastily put Bobbi down, mimed unconvincing innocence, and got bashed on the head for his trouble. While he was still reeling, his "wife" grabbed his ear and marched him offstage. Bobbi shrugged elaborately, then she and the dancers went into another chorus. She eventually made her own exit on a papier-mache elephant pulled by an unseen member of the technical crew.

Even from my spot the show looked slick and full of fun. The applause didn't die down until she came back for a short reprise, sung from the back of the elephant. She made a final bow and rode away, waving and blowing kisses.

I couldn't hold still after that and worked my way around to her, arriving in time to watch her climb off the elephant by way of a ladder built into its upstage framework. The satin pants suited her admirably, especially from where I stood.

She was flushed and grinning, surrounded by the other girls for a brief moment until she caught a glimpse of me and stopped. I suddenly remembered to unwrap the muffler and her smile returned like a burst of light when recognition came. She threw her arms around me in a bear hug and I lifted her off the floor in delighted relief. All the pressures of the last few nights, all the fears, major and minor, dropped away from my overloaded brain at this expression of her honest, uninhibited joy.

For what seemed like a long time I'd been wandering blind and lost in one of the darker corners of my mind. I held on to her, feeling the warmth of her spirit and body soaking into my own. Maybe we both felt it, since neither of us was in much of a hurry to let go of the other. I kissed the top of her silky blond head, working my way down to her lips. When she finally came up for air my mood had undergone a considerable shift. My upper canines had started to bud.

She noticed right away. "Do I always have this effect on you?"

That raised a smile out of me, albeit a closemouthed one. "I've missed you, baby." I caressed the soft skin of her neck. Now was hardly the time or place for that sort of thing, but soon, perhaps.

A couple of girls whooped and whistled at this unintentional show until the stage manager told them to clear off.

"You too, Bobbi," he said. "Get your boyfriend outta the way or it's both our hides."

Bobbi's boss was not sympathetic to visiting friends, no matter what the circumstances. I put her down again and she took my hand, leading the way to her dressing room.

"Not that I'm not glad to see you, but why so early, and what's with the getup?" she asked.

"Charles and I are working late and there's been some trouble."

"It's that bracelet thing, isn't it?"

"Yeah, sweetheart."

"What kind of trouble?'

"You ever hear of Vaughn Kyler?"

She stopped short, her big hazel eyes freezing onto mine. "Yes, I have. My God, Jack, what have you gotten into?"

"Nothing I can't get out of, but he knows about you and I'm here to keep anything from happening."

"Me? What's he want with me?"

I explained the situation in a few quick sentences. The blood drained out of her face and the grip of her hand got tighter. "I already got rid of two of them," I said,

"but there are at least two more right here in the club."

"Where's Charles?"

"Out front, I guess, but I'm not leaving you to go looking. He can take care of himself. Whether your boss likes it or not, you've got a bodyguard for the time being."

"And who's going to bodyguard you?"

"I'm in no real danger; that's why Kyler's trying to get to you, honey. We've gotta come up with a safe place for you to stay until the shooting's over."

"You're not exactly inspiring me with confidence when you talk like that. Are you serious about shooting?"

"Very serious."

She shook her head, not in denial, but with stretched patience. "Okay. Let's sit down and see if we can figure out what to do next."

"In your dressing room, I want my back to a wall."

"I think that's where you'd rather have me," she said. The situation may have been threatening, but she was still flying high from the show, and detached her hand from mine to make a playful swat at my butt. I took what was dished out and tried to return the favor, but she just managed to dance out of the way in time.

Laughing, we reached her dressing room door, but she sobered and stood back so I could look inside first.

It was well that I did. I was all but nose to nose with Tinny. He'd found another gun and it was ready in his hand. The mutual surprise froze us both for a second.

Possibly as a distraction from the unpleasantness, I found myself noticing every detail of his plain face. Sometime tonight since the scuffle on the stairs at home, he'd acquired a road map of fresh scrapes. One of them was still oozing and I caught a whiff of the bloodsmell.

"Jack... ?" Bobbi couldn't see anything, but had picked up that something was wrong.

Tinny jammed the gun under my jaw. I decided not to move. He shifted a little, caught sight of Bobbi, and grinned. "Hold it there, cutie, or I make a mess."

Bobbi gasped once and held it, doing what she was told.

"Go get her, Chick," he ordered.

His big partner, who had been standing well behind him, nodded. "Three birds with one trip," he said. I wondered what the hell he meant by that, then put it together with Tinny's scrapes and immediately understood what had happened.

Chick started to shoulder his way past us to the hall. It wasn't deserted, but no one had noticed that anything was off, yet. Just as Chick came level with us, I snapped my left hand up and grabbed for the gun.

Tinny might have been expecting something like that, but couldn't have anticipated my speed. As I moved faster than their eyes could follow, their own movements seemed to break down for me. It was like watching a movie with the projector running the film a frame at a time.

Chick saw what was coming and had just enough instinct to duck back into the room. My hand closed over Tinny's and smashed it against the doorjamb. He grunted out a pain-filled objection, but didn't drop the gun. My other hand was still on the doorknob; all I had to do was pull on it. Fast. The edge of the door caught him sharply on the back of the head. The whites of his eyes flashed and down he went.

He was in the way as I forced the door open to get at Chick. The delay provided him a moment to do some reacting of his own. By the time I was through, he'd hauled out a blackjack as thick as a baseball bat and was all set to use it. He raised his arm for a short, vicious swing, then nearly lost his balance in his effort to stop. He let the blackjack fall and raised his arms high. The sound he made had no words, but somehow he was able to express surrender and a plea for mercy in one inarticulate, horrified gurgle.

I looked where he was looking. Bobbi had plucked the gun from Tinny's slack hand and was aiming it steadily at Chick's crotch. Her teeth were showing, and it was not a smile.

"Back," she growled.

I knew she was on my side, but found myself backing up a step myself.

She came forward enough so no one in the hall could see what she was doing.

"Jack, pull this lug inside."

I carefully kept out of her line of fire and got a grip on one of Tinny's ankles.

Bobbi followed him in without taking her eyes from Chick or altering the direction of the gun's muzzle. She shut the door, giving us some very necessary privacy.

Chick started to babble out an idiotic explanation, reminding me of the gorilla from the dance number. I told him to can it. My attention was entirely focused on Escott's inert form. They'd dumped him onto the chaise longue at the far end of the tiny room and had him trussed up like a leftover Christmas package. While Bobbi kept Chick sweating, I crossed to Escott in two fast steps and checked for a pulse, drawing in and releasing a vast sigh of relief when I found one. He was groggy, but breathing regularly and didn't seem to be bleeding anywhere.

I nodded an all's well to Bobbi, then fastened my eyes on Chick. "You got lucky," I said to him. "Now I don't have to break your neck."

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