Song in the Dark Chapter 2

Gordy's office was several times larger than mine and filled with lush furnishings in black leather and chrome. He liked lots of cushioning on stuff sturdy enough to hold his big frame. In contrast to the streamliner-inspired couch and chairs were several wall paintings of soothing landscapes. The vivid greens, blues, and browns were like suddenly discovering a park in the middle of a concrete sea.

There were more guys here, but they moved, clearing my view to Gordy's massive desk. Behind it, sitting easily in the huge chair, was the man I assumed to be Whitey Kroun. He was lean and long-boned and even at a distance I felt a powerful presence about him. I tried not to let Gordy's summing up of "scary" influence me, but it was hard going.

What I picked up the strongest came from the men around him. These were some of the toughest guys in the mob, and they were giving Kroun plenty of space.

He focused wholly on me as I crossed the room to stop before the desk. There was a radio on it playing dance music.

It was out of place, and I questioned why it was there now, then remembered it was a way of foiling eavesdropping microphones. Some of the smarter guys in the gangs knew that the FBI tapped phones. It was illegal as hell, but still went on. If the phones had wires, then so might the walls. That made Kroun smart or paranoid or both.

I couldn't tell what kind of impression I made. His eyes were warm brown, a solid opposition to the cold cast of his craggy face. He couldn't have been much into his midforties, his brown hair going iron gray except for a surprise streak of silver-white that cut oddly across the left side of his skull, obviously the source of his nickname. He spent a long slow time scrutinizing me, which I imagined was supposed to be unnerving, but I'd long grown immune to that kind of thing.

Certain protocols were to be observed, though. He was the big boss. So as not to let down Gordy in his own place I had to show respect.

"Mr. Kroun." I took off my hat, holding it straight at my side. Humble.

"Fleming," he said. No "mister" in front, but that was all right. I knew his voice, which was deeper for being undistorted by the long-distance wires.

"Glad to meetcha."

"We'll see."

Opening courtesies-such as they were-finished, the guys standing nearest made more space around me. There was one chair square in front of the desk that was evidently to be my very own hot seat. It put about seven feet between me and Kroun, hardly suitable distance for a private conversation. Maybe he was going to go for a public dressing-down. It didn't seem to suit the situation unless he wanted plenty of witnesses to see me killed as an object lesson.

Hoyle and Ruzzo were nowhere in sight for the show, but I spotted Derner, who was the club's general manager and also in charge of the day-to-day running of this mob's business. Since the run-in with Bristow, Derner and I had had discussions over what to say about it. Derner would stick to the script we'd agreed on; it was in his own best interest to let me take the fall for him, too. He'd probably already been questioned thoroughly while I'd been down in the main room. He was projecting total neutrality. Smart guy.

Strome stood off to my left, hands clasped in front of him. Mitchell was behind me.

"Sit," said Kroun. To me.

I unbuttoned my overcoat, put my hat next to the radio, and took the chair. The immensity of the desk was before me, and looking across that dark ocean of wood, I realized that Kroun was not overwhelmed by it; he had a surfeit of authority packed into his lean frame. It wasn't anything physical, but you could feel it coming from him like the low hum a radio gives when the sound is down.

More staring. He was good at it. No one moved. It was disturbing, like being in a zoo cage with a lot of meat-eating animals who'd figured out I was on the menu.

"You're just a kid," Kroun finally said. To someone with his no-doubt colorful past giving him more than enough experience at life and hard times, I would be young-ridiculously young-to have been placed in charge of Gordy's organization.

I lifted one hand a little, palm up. "I've proved myself. Ask them."

Some of the men stirred, possibly reluctant to admit anything in my favor.

Strome jerked his chin. " 'S true, Mr. Kroun." That was a surprise. He'd been told to keep shut, the same as Derner.

I'd not expected any volunteered support. "He's stand-up."

"Oh, yeah? How so?" Kroun continued to study me, his dark eyes almost hypnotic.

"He took the worst Hog Bristow could dish and came back swinging."

"So I heard. Swung so hard he killed him. The other guys, too."

"Hog went buckwheats on him. I saw. Fleming-"

"Buckwheats," Kroun repeated.

"Yeah. Ugly."

This was news to a few of the men and sparked a whispered reaction among them. Giving a guy the buckwheats treatment was to kill him slow and painful. It was an object lesson, not so much to the victim, but to others who might dare to cross the mob. But sometimes it was for the satisfaction of the killer.

Bristow had thoroughly enjoyed trying to turn me into a permanent corpse. My changed nature had worked against me, keeping me screaming and aware long after a normal man would have found merciful release in death.

I could almost smell my own blood again. I flexed my hands, but they were quite clean and whole, not the skeletal claws I'd used to drag myself across the slick concrete floor to...

Bracing inside, I waited for the wave of nausea, for the shakes to return. Now would be the worst, the absolute worst time, for them to hit, so of course they would. There'd be no sympathy from this bunch. They'd see my real face, learn firsthand what Bristow's knife work had done to me...

"What's the matter?" Kroun gave me a narrow look. "You sick?"

"Not much."

I breathed in warm air that smelled of booze, stale smoke, sweating bodies, bay rum aftershave... and blood. Not a ghost scent from my imaginings, nor the fresh stuff of a flowing wound, but the muted kind that lurked beneath the skin. It was always present, but I wasn't always aware, like the way you ignore traffic noise. For a few deep and profound seconds it struck me that every one of the tough guys crowding this room, the muscle, the sharps, the thieves, the killers, from Strome to the boss in charge, were all little more than walking bags of blood. I could feed myself sick on any of them. They had no way to expect it, no way to stop me if I made up my mind to do it.

Even the biggest, deadliest, meat-eating predator was my food.

So it had proved at the end when I'd killed Bristow.

I held on to that most interesting thought, sat a little straighter, and slowly breathed out again.

Well. How about that? Not one hint of tremor in my whole body. Skating so close to the memory should have had me doubled over and whimpering again, but it was like a switch had been flipped, and I was in control.

For how long I couldn't say.

Kroun still watched me, hardly blinking. "He doesn't look like he's got so much as a stubbed toe."

"He was hurt bad, Mr. Kroun," Strome continued. "Derner saw, too."

"I'm a fast healer," I said.

"Convenient," said Kroun. "What'd you do to get Hog Bristow pissed enough to go buckwheats?"

"Being stand-up for Gordy. Hog jumped things when he shot him out of hand like he did. I stepped in. Hog didn't like it much."

"What'd you think to get out of it by helping Gordy?"

"I wasn't thinking to get anything. I stepped in because that's what you do for friends."

"You had a two-grand hit out on Hog."

"Not a hit. That was a reward for finding him, nothing more. If you'll recall, I told you several times over the phone I wanted to keep Hog alive. I knew what kind of trouble it would make if he got killed. But at the end he didn't give me any choice."

Kroun's brown eyes were odd in this light, hard to look at, with strangely dilated pupils like holes into hell. He must have known their effect and used it plenty. "And that may just be something you came up with to cover yourself with me."

"You talked to Derner? Then you know it's what happened."

"Doesn't matter. Someone has to pay for killing Bristow. You're it."

Still behind me, Mitchell shifted, and I felt something pressing cold against my skull. I turned only enough to confirm it was a gun muzzle. One trigger pull and my brains would be all over Gordy's rug.

I nodded. "No problem."

"What?" Must have been a disappointment to Mitchell, me not being terrified. I just didn't give a damn. After surviving Hog Bristow there was little that could scare me these nights. Just myself.

My reply was to Kroun, not the hired help. "I know the rules."

Kroun watched me closely. I still had that strange serenity gripping me. He was food. Walking, talking food.

I smiled at him.

"You think I won't?" asked Kroun.

"You'll do what you have to do. But one question: after I'm gone is Gordy still running things? I'd hate to think I went through all that shit with Bristow, then got scragged by you and it be for nothing."

No one spoke, but another murmur ran through the room about that fine point. I could feel all of them looking at me. Impossible to tell what they might be thinking.

The simple response for Kroun would be something smart-sounding and harsh, but he didn't do it. "You're ready to die?"

I shrugged. "During my time with Bristow I kinda got used to the idea. If you need to kill me, there's nothing I can do to stop you. I just want to make sure Gordy gets something out of it."

His dark eyes flickered once. "You sound like you got an angle to bargain with."


"What would that be?"

"Nothing you'll want to share with so many ears flapping." Even with the radio to mask most of our talk, there were plenty of listeners at hand. Too many for a paranoid man.

He thought it over. They'd seen Jack Fleming the wiseacre, not the wiseguy, called on the carpet and giving respect to the boss. Kroun had made his point. He shot a look to Strome and signed to Mitchell. The muzzle went away.

Strome told the boys to leave.

There were protests from those who knew the best part of the show was about to take place. Others flatly refused, standing firm, arms crossed.

Kroun stood up. There was nothing threatening to his posture, and the lines of his natty brown suit were undistorted by hidden firearms of any size. Many of the guys here were taller or wider or both, but to a man, they fell silent. He didn't make a sound either, just looked at them while the radio blared. He was quite still, just his head moving enough so he could rake them with those intense dark eyes.

Damned if it didn't work. Some grumbled as they left, but they filed out. Derner, Strome, and Kroun's man Mitchell remained.

"Private enough?" Kroun asked. He turned those eyes on me.

"If you trust your guy like I trust Gordy's."

He gave a short grunt. Couldn't tell if it was a laugh. He came around the desk to look down at me. "What's your angle, kid?"

"You. You being smarter than you let on to me over the phone."

"Oh, yeah?" He hitched one hip onto the desk.

"For which I want to apologize. I got a mouth on me, nothing personal. Whenever you called things were running tense on this side, so I was talking short without much time to think things through. But that's changed, and since then I've seen what was going on more clearly."

"Which was... ?"

"For starters: why your boy was sent here in the first place. Gordy told me Bristow had powerful friends he'd convinced that he could do a better job of running the Chicago operation. Gordy was expected to hand it over. If he didn't, he'd be killed or in the middle of a gang war. That, Mr. Kroun, was... extremely brainless."

"Uh-huh." He wasn't agreeing, only encouraging me to continue.

"You guys had to know Gordy would never roll over for the likes of Bristow. Now it was either New York being stupid and for the hell of it putting him and Gordy in the same pen like a couple of fighting dogs just to see what happens or... you had something else going."

"Which was?"

"Playing Hog Bristow to the limit. You sent him out here, apparently to give him what he wants, then Gordy does what he's best at: listening, collecting information. He got plenty out of Hog every night until the guy was too drunk to talk. And all that time Hog is feeling sure of himself because he has New York to back him up and thinks Gordy's got no choice about handing over the operation. But I'm betting that every night Gordy called you up afterward to give you an earful."

"This is what Gordy told you?"

"All I heard from him was the first part, that Bristow takes over or Gordy dies, which struck me as fishy. I went along with it since Gordy's a friend, and the talks were taking place at my club. He probably thought that was all I needed to know. The rest of it... well, Hog Bristow was a loudmouthed drunk and dangerously dumb, certainly the worst kind of man to put in charge of anything. Guys like him are a liability and never last long. You either let them go-one way or another-or send 'em someplace where they can't do any harm. But for some reason you couldn't do that with Hog. You had to find a less direct means to bury him. My guess is he's got important relatives protecting him, or he had to know a lot of stuff, damaging, dangerous stuff. The only man you could trust to shake it out of him was Gordy."

"Maybe." There was a subtle change in Kroun. He gave no clue on whether I was hitting home or not, but was listening hard.

"Gordy did his job, but Hog got impatient and frustrated. He set deadlines, forgot them, then set more, but eventually he had enough and made his hit. He wasn't supposed to, but someone back home knew him well enough to gamble he'd sooner or later go over the edge. Gordy must have known that would happen, but not when. The night of the shooting we thought Bristow was too drunk to know which end of a gun to point. Maybe he had one of his boys do it for him, but the result was the same. He'd overstepped the rules and could be considered a legit target in turn."

"Gordy put himself in front of a bullet so as to do all that?"

"He didn't intend to get shot; he'd have some alternative planned out, only Hog threw a wrench into the works, surprising everyone. Then I got into the middle of things-"

"Yeah-yeah, and he went buckwheats on you. Except you don't look hurt."

"I'll be glad to show you my scars when the bandages come off. In the meantime, I get a cigar for hitting the bull's-eye."

"Ya think?"

"I know."

"It's a sweet story, kid, but that's not enough of an angle to get you off the hook. We wouldn't like any of it generally known, but blabbing it around won't help you."

" 'S nothing I wanna do. Your boy came out to take over this town, and him being stupid got himself and the others killed. Someone's supposed to pay for it. Gordy's in the clear, which is fine with me, so I'm the one who's elected. I get that."

"What if Gordy was the one who set you up from the first to take the fall?"

I laughed out loud. I laughed long and heartily, right in his face. And damn, it felt good. "Oh, no. That was my own doing. Before I ever got involved, Bristow didn't like my looks, and things went bad from then on with us. If I'd been more on the ball, I might have sidestepped him, but it didn't work out that way, which was my own bad luck. Well, I took it on the chin good and hard, and what I am thinking is that I've paid for killing him and his boys. I've paid several times over. What he put me through has to count for something. I survived it; I've earned the right to live."

"If he went buckwheats on you even halfway," said Mitchell, bending close, "you wouldn't be sitting here. And you sure as hell wouldn't have done what you did downstairs." I'd forgotten he was behind me. As if that mattered.

"What happened downstairs?" Kroun asked him.

"He punched out a guy who was getting rough with one of the chorus girls. Never saw anything move so quick."

"That was adrenaline," I said. "I paid for it afterward, which is why I was in the john for so long, or did you forget that part?"

Mitchell wasn't buying. "From what we heard Bristow skinned you alive. Even if you got through it, you should still be laid up in a hospital."

"What d'ya want from me? I said I healed fast."

"Prove it."

"Okay. Seeing's believing." I stood and shrugged carefully out of my overcoat as though I were in discomfort and stiff. "Mr. Kroun? In the washroom, if you don't mind. These mugs don't need to gape at the freak show." Without waiting for a yea or nay, I moved slowly toward a door that led to the toilet. I went in, swatted the light on, and stood well out of their view. It was a big room, bright, black-and-white tile, a hefty tub. Gordy occasionally stayed over when work demanded, and he liked his comforts.

In the office the radio volume went up. Loud. Good. We'd have privacy from the boys listening in. Hopefully, they would stay out. All my worst scars were on the inside, but that wouldn't count with this bunch.

After a minute, Kroun came to the door and stepped through. He'd produced or borrowed a gun from someone and held it ready in one hand. Talk about being cautious. He waited, head tilted slightly, and holding very, very still. He didn't need a gun to fill the place with himself.


"No tricks," I said wearily. "Just the truth."

"Which is... ?"

"That Bristow chained me upside down from a meat hook and..." I stopped there, the words clogged in my throat.

Weakness showing. Not something I intended. "Oh, jeez."

"Just show."

I had my suit coat open, but my hands hung straight at my sides as I looked steadily into his eyes. "I want you to listen to me, Mr. Kroun. Listen hard..."

He wasn't the only one with an effective stare.

It didn't work immediately. He might have had a drink earlier. He stared in puzzled annoyance for a moment as I focused hard on him and kept up the soothing drone that would put him under. Then he gave a small headshake and blinked once, twice, before his eyelids sagged to half-mast. I had him hooked, landed, gutted, cooked, and on the plate.

His gun was pointed in the wrong direction, at me. I calmly told him to please put it away, and without fuss he shoved it into a pocket. His eyes were flat and dull. Perfect.

But inside my skull things began to thump badly, a building thunderstorm. I had to make this quick. Very fast and intense, I whispered some choice and vivid word pictures about what damage my torso was supposed to have. Kroun's face went the same color as that white streak in his hair. For a moment I thought he might be sick, which meant I'd overdone it.

"Take it easy," I murmured. "Nice and easy. We're friends now. You remember that. Remember that you look after your friends and help them. Watch out for me, I'll watch out for you. I just want out of this alive and no problems for Gordy, okay? None at all. He's been loyal."

Though positive I could have ordinarily talked him out of killing me, this would speed the process. I was fed up having a death sentence hanging overhead. But the thunder in my brain was starting to boom. Insistent, distracting. I licked my lips and tried to concentrate.

Kroun nodded agreement to my suggestions, his eyes still empty.

I had plenty more to say to him, only it never came out. A pain like nothing I had ever known before blasted through my skull. For the briefest instant I thought I'd been shot, but no one else was with us. Kroun stood motionless and staring. That was the last glimpse I got before the agony doubled me down. I clutched my head with both hands, biting off a cry. They couldn't see me like this. God, what was wrong?

The pain rose, tripled, tripled again. My head would explode from the pressure if I didn't-

Then peace, sudden as flicking a switch, plunging me into sweet gray nothingness.

I'd vanished.

Sometimes that happened to me involuntarily when I got too badly hurt to control the reflex. How I'd wished for it when Bristow had been skinning me, but a piece of ice pick buried deep in my back prevented that escape.

This was like heaven after hell. The pain went away, but not the memory or the fear that it might be waiting to fall on me again when I went solid.

I'd have to risk it, though. If the others got too curious and came for a look-see... I told myself it would be all right.

Vanishing always healed me, bullets, paper cuts, even headaches went away. So it was now.

Melted back slowly. If Kroun was aware he didn't show it, continuing with the empty-eyed gaze into the distance.

That was good. Hypnotizing people had always made my head hurt, but the pain had gone way out of hand now.

Why, though?

Solid again, I moved away and sat on the edge of the tub, biting off the groans because I couldn't afford to give in.

But for an awful second I actually felt on the edge of tears. My face twisted, and I rocked back and forth, arms wrapped tight around myself, resisting the urge.

My body was just fine. Healing had taken place. The head agony was gone, but inside I was a train wreck.

"God, I'm so tired." I was unaware of speaking until the words were out. I hoped the overly loud radio covered it.

There would be no more evil-eye work for me tonight. Maybe I was too nerved up for it. Kroun would come out of the trance on his own in a few minutes. I'd better use what was left of them.

"Okay, Mr. Kroun. You know Bristow hurt me. I just want to go back to my job and forget any of this ever happened. Keep Gordy in charge and go on your way home and no harm done, okay?" I did not look too directly at him.

He mouthed the word "okay." That's all I needed. The suggestion would last for a few weeks-months, even-after that, if I was lucky, he'd have other things to concern him, shoving out any second thoughts over tonight's


By the time he surfaced I was pretending to settle my coat and tie back into place. I walked past him into the office and slowly resumed my chair.

Kroun emerged from the washroom after a few moments, face still pretty pale. "He got the buckwheats treatment all right," he announced.

Strome and Derner gave me bleak looks, the closest they could come to sympathy. Mitchell was clearly mystified and stepped in front of me.

"Lemme see."

He got a glare instead. I was careful not to put any power into it.

"Come on."

"No." Absolutely, categorically.

"Boss." He appealed to Kroun.

Kroun waved Mitchell down and sat behind the desk. "Lay off him. That's Hog's work for sure. You don't wanna see, trust me. Fleming, how the hell are you able to walk around like that?"

I eased carefully onto the chair. "I got a good doctor. Jabbed me full of some great medicine. It blunts things. It's no circus, but I can do my job. I'm about ready to go for another shot, so if you don't mind, let's wind this up."


"Like I said-I've paid for Hog Bristow's death. You can convince New York of that. Go back home, tell 'em I'll finish out my turn at watch nice and quiet. When Gordy's fully on his feet again I'll fade away and just pretend none of this happened. You guys forget about me; everything goes back to normal. Upheavals are bad for business. It's time this one blew itself out."

He thought it over. The new attitude that I'd forced on him would hold firm, but he still had to work out how to square it with whatever orders he'd have from his pals back home. "I should be able to do that."

I hoped so. I didn't want to have to hypnotize every mobster in New York into leaving me alone. It'd kill me. "I would be very appreciative."

"You'll get it. But there's other things I gotta straighten out."

"Name 'em. I'll help if I can."

"Where's Bristow? I need to know."

I glanced at Strome.

"He and the rest are in the lake," he answered.

"The lake." Kroun frowned, and I got the idea he hated watery graves as much as I did. "That's not good. Bodies always float to the surface no matter how much weight you use."

"Not these guys. We know how to do it here so that don't happen."

"And how do you do it here?"

"You get a really big oil drum, bigger than you think you need. Put the guy in it and pour in cement good and tight, no air pockets. The trick is to make sure the cement weighs more than twice what the guy does. You punch a hole in the lid to let the gas escape, then take 'em way far outta sight of land and dump 'em."

"That's the trick?"



"It helps if you cut the body up and use two drums, three is even better..."

"Strome," I said, correctly reading the look on Kroun's face. He'd had enough.

Strome shut it off.

I'd been told in only the most general terms of what he and a couple of other carefully picked cleanup men had done to get rid of Bristow, and wanted to keep it that way. The bodies had been in a meat storage locker, and there must have been butchers' cutting equipment conveniently at hand... I gave a headshake to try to jostle that picture out of my mind, with indifferent success.

"Anything else?" I asked Kroun.

"I wanna know about this Dugan bird that you got it in for."

He'd taken his time getting to that one. Hurley Gilbert Dugan, society swan, blackmailer, murderer, kidnapper, and all-round useless bag of poisonous air, held a unique place in my life. He was the one man on the whole planet I wanted dead. I wanted to kill him the way Bristow wanted to kill me. I'd put a bounty on him, and had every gangster in Chicago and beyond looking for him.

"No one's told you?" I would have thought Derner might have filled Kroun in.

"Only that you want him alive, and you'll pay ten grand to anyone bringing him in. That's as much as Hoover put up for Pretty Boy Floyd."

"I didn't know that. The reward on Dugan could be a lot less than ten by now. He took off with that much cash on him. I let the boys know whoever brings him in alive gets to keep what's left, and I'll make up the difference out of my own pocket."

"Why you want him?"

"Personal matter."

"Details. Give."

I pretended a sigh. "Maybe you didn't get word of the society kidnapping case we had here. Gilbert Dugan was the big mastermind, killed some innocent people that didn't need it. He's garbage. I tripped him, made an enemy. It was because of him Hog Bristow was able to get me, so I owe him for that. When Bristow and the others died, Dugan was there. A witness. Neither of us needs him running loose. The cops are looking for him for the kidnap and murders. If they get him first, he could and would try making a deal that puts us all in the clink."

"Dugan saw you kill Bristow?"

"And what they did to me before that. Everything. If you thought Bristow was a liability, then don't meet this guy.

He's a thinker. He can talk his way out of just about anything given the chance. He's full of more shit than a goose, but smart. People trust him. Even ones who should know better."

"You want him bad."

"Just looking after the company's best interests."

"Why you want him alive?"

"To prevent mistaken identity."

"What do you mean?"

"If the boys found someone who only happened to look like Dugan and killed him... not good. I don't want accidents on my watch, so I'm making it worth their while to be careful."

"How long's he been gone?"

"About a week. He could be anyplace." Each night right after waking, my first phone call was to Derner for a report on whether Dugan had been found. So far, no good luck.

"You'll never catch him now."

"I'm hopeful." But I thought Kroun might be right. With his head start, Dugan could be nearly anywhere. If he was ever found, it'd be by accident. "He's got smarts, but not for practical stuff. I heard that Einstein guy wears loafers because he can't figure out how to tie shoes. The same goes for Dugan. All he has to do is hide out in the wrong flop, and one of the boys spots him."

"What'll you do if you get him?"

"Depends on the situation, but... I'll maybe need a couple of oil drums."

That amused him. Kroun's frown lines eased a bit. "I'm seeing why you got put in charge."

"It's also because I don't want to keep the job. Gordy knows I won't get attached to it. It won't be for long. He's getting better every day." If he took care of himself. I hoped Adelle had tracked him down and hauled him off to sensibly rest.

"I can offer you another job when this one's done."

This guy was full of surprises. Maybe I'd laid it on too thick about us being friends. "No thanks. I don't belong.

That's why some of the guys kicked such a fuss. They know I'm not one of them."

"Oh, yeah, you are." Kroun actually smiled. On him it was damned unnerving. "You just don't know it yet."

Word of my reprieve spread fast.

By the time I'd wound things up with Kroun, put on my hat and overcoat, shook hands like we were dear old pals, and left, the guys waiting in the hall had either magically vanished or were lying in wait to congratulate me. How they learned was a mystery unless they were the ones with a microphone hidden in the office. Not that it would have worked with the radio on in there and Alan Caine's show playing downstairs.

Or they'd just pressed ears to the door and, when no shots were fired, figured it out.

One of the hall mugs pumped my hand and made to thump my back, but Strome got in between.

"The boss needs to leave," he said, and ran interference for me through the rest of the gauntlet.

Belatedly, I reminded myself that I was still supposed to be healing from Bristow's torture and should act accordingly. Strome was trying to protect my hide from further damage. He must have thought I had a truly amazing painkiller working away. I considered asking him what he thought was going on, but I'd have to hypnotize him afterward. Not worth it. Let him think what he liked.

We emerged from the kitchen entry into freezing night air. It was heavy with damp from the nearby lake and seemed much colder. The wind was up and on the hunt, knifing through my coat. That I was able to notice the chill told me I was tired, the weariness wholly mental and emotional. The interview with Kroun and reaction to the hypnosis had wrung me out, but I'd not been hung up to dry. Not as bad as it could have turned out.

Of course, there were still guys who thought that had been a cheat. Ruzzo, for two.

They were standing by a fat panel trunk parked behind Gordy's car, and their mad must have been pretty serious to keep them out in this wind. Moving like one man, they straightened to face me as I descended the loading dock steps.

Strome started to move past, but I stopped him.

"No. It's got to be from me, or they won't learn."

He grunted displeasure toward them and hung back. I could be reasonably certain that he had a hand closed around the gun he kept in his overcoat pocket.

I decided to steal from Kroun's bag of tricks by going up to Ruzzo and stand in place and not say anything. It would get a rise of one kind or another.

"You lettin' him get away with it?" Ruzzo the Younger demanded of me.

The problem with some guys is that they will chew over whatever's bothering them, be extremely familiar with every tiny part, and fully expect you to know exactly what the hell they're talking about when they finally blurt it at you. This was out of the blue. I thought they'd be challenging my right to be their boss.

"Let who get away with what?" I asked patiently.

"That singer you're soft for. He owes."

"Yeah, owes," echoed the Elder. "You make bets and lose, you pay the markers."

Cripes, I should send them off to Tierra del Fuego to breed-wombats. "Not my business," I said.

"You stopped Hoyle from doin' his job."

I'd have to use small words with these two. "Hoyle can collect from him off the premises-after Caine's done his act.

If Caine can't sing, he can't pay."

"That's bullshit."

Dangerous words in this gathering, meant as a challenge; I couldn't let them go by. "You're calling me a liar," I carefully informed him. Them. I hoped theirs was a very small family.

"The singer owes. You talk to Hoyle. He'll tell you. You don't know everything."

"Neither does Hoyle."

"He's the boss on this."

"Sez him. I'm running things, not Hoyle."

"Sez you." Ruzzo grinned. Both of them.

Then they stopped being there. Both of them.

I couldn't understand it. Had the night swallowed them up? Were they like me and had disappeared into thin air?

What the hell... ?

I was lying on my face on cold metal, which was moving under me. Rumbling through my body was the throaty noise of a truck motor going at a good clip.

Ow. Head pain. Not right.

What the hell... ?

Ow. Bad now, very bad.

What the hell? Again.

I repeated that several times, eventually working out that I'd been bushwhacked. While Ruzzo kept me distracted someone must have come up behind and... ow... yes, the back of my head. A familiar tenderness, bruising, and a knot.

That's where he'd got me. With wood. Had to be wood. It was the only thing that could put me out without causing me to vanish. So... was it dumb luck or had someone known what would work?

Strome? Sure, he was a killer, but he had no reason to lay me flat. Unless he had special orders from Kroun. But I'd neutralized the threat.

Hoyle. Much more likely. He wasn't the forgiving type, not that I'd have apologized to him for busting him one over the dancer. He and Ruzzo were shoulder-to-shoulder apparently. Against me. Despite Gordy. Despite Kroun.

Oh, hell. This crap I didn't need.

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