The Dark Sleep Chapter 2

Gordy Weems, manager of the Nightcrawler and resplendent in the new tux he'd had tailor-made for the opening, loomed over me with a hint of smile on his normally phlegmatic face. "What's up, you see a ghost?"

"No, but you sure as hell move like one." He was a huge man, not fat, and amazingly light on his feet for his bulk.

Despite the surrounding babble I should have been able to hear his approach. Maybe I was having a case of opening-night jitters myself. Or more likely a hangover from a not-so-long-ago closing night.

"You looked like hell for a moment," he said. "Anything I should know about?"

I shook my head. "Just remembering that damned dance hall."

What little hint of pleasure he'd shown instantly disappeared. "One rough job."

"And then some." He'd been along with me, and I'd helped him survive the killings and get away. Apparently he had his own bad memories to look after.

"Where's Bobbi?" I asked. I knew where she'd be, but wanted a change of subject.

"Backstage getting warmed up. Might be a good idea to keep clear."

"Yeah, I will." Better I stay out front so she could concentrate on her work. Bobbi would be nervous enough without having me underfoot. Besides, I'd already offered my good-luck wishes the night before, having Escott's answering service order a big bunch of flowers sent to her dressing room today. Daisies and carnations, mostly, her favorites.

He glanced at his watch. "We got thirty before the show, let's go upstairs."

"Won't you be needed down here?"

"Not unless there's a riot. The staff's got brains, they can handle anything short of that. The rest is the stage manager's problem."

I followed him off to the right toward a door marked private, where we were nodded through by its tuxedo-clad (and discreetly armed) watchman. No cover charge was necessary for this area; if you knew about it, you were expected to spend your dough here. Inside, the din was much more subdued, as the crowd concentrated on their games of chance. The only real noise came from the cranking of the slot machines and occasional exclamation of joy or disappointment from the players at the craps or roulette tables.

A different kind of atmosphere held sway here, made up of hope, desperation, amusement, and terror, depending how the dice rolled or a card fell, often all four at once. From this nearly soundproof sanctum the booming band was distant background music; I relaxed, sighing out a breath I didn't know I'd taken.

We walked down the length of the tables, through another door into the back hall, then upstairs to Gordy's office, or rather his new office. It had been his dead boss's bedroom once upon a time, and Bobbi had had her own bedroom within the suite. All the sumptuous sleep furnishings had been removed from both, replaced by sumptuous office furnishings. The kind of people Gordy dealt with were impressed by the silent language of expensive trappings, so he had the decorator pull out the stops. The effect was rich, but not too gaudy, in some ways overwhelming, in others almost homey. All trace of his predecessor was gone; Bobbi's small room had been converted into an accounting office.

"Have a seat," he said, gesturing at a leather-upholstered monster that wasn't designed for sitting so much as wallowing. He made himself a drink, knowing better than to offer me anything, and eased onto the oversized sofa across from me.

"Looks good," I said, with a nod to the surroundings.

He grunted a thanks. "Yeah, you haven't been up here since the last raid."

The club had been turned upside down by the feds following the dance-hall deaths. Some of the gangsters involved had been seen at the Nightcrawler shortly before their demise, so it was a matter of guilt by association. The club had already been raided and everything reduced to a shambles, so Gordy kept his hands in his pockets, his poker face unchanged, and let them wreck what was left in their search for anything incriminating. In vain. All that had long been moved elsewhere. When the dust settled, he repaired the damage and opened for business as usual.

"I've seen the backstage area, though. Quite an improvement."

He crinkled the corners of his eyes. "That's Bobbi's doing. She said if she was to come back, she wanted showers and heaters in the dressing rooms. The builder thought I was nuts."

"Is it paid off yet?"

"It took care of itself the first week of running the casino. That's where the real money is."

"But if you didn't have the casino, how long before it paid out?"

"Maybe eighteen months, call it two years to be safe. That includes the fact that not every night's a sellout. Why you want to know?"

I took a moment before answering, savoring the anticipation. Until now I'd kept my ideas to myself. "This is for this room only, not even Bobbi knows what I'm planning yet."

His brows twitched ever so slightly. Raging curiosity for him.

I took in half a breath, then plunged ahead. "I was thinking of opening my own place. Smaller, though, and no gambling."

Gordy gave nothing away, but I could tell he was surprised and thinking hard. "What sort of place? How small?"

"About a thirty-foot stage, tables for three fifty, four hundred, dance floor, bar, a kitchen to make hors d'oeuvres.

Maybe expand it later to do dinners." Small compared to the Nightcrawler, but with the right trappings just as impressive. The main reason the Nightcrawler got hit so often was the casino. Every cop in Chicago knew about it, and not a few of the city and state politicians were its regular customers. The idea was for my place not to be such a conspicuous target. I'd have less profit without slot machines, but would get to keep it rather than plow it back in the business with repair work and rising bribes.

"I figured you for a tavern with peanut shells on the floor," he said after a long moment.

I spread my hands to indicate my new clothes. "Thought I'd move myself up a bit."

"That's a hell of a big stage for that size an audience."

"Not for the performers." Too many times I'd seen bands stuffed like an afterthought into a spare corner with hardly enough room to play in.

"Where's the money coming from?"

"Call it an inheritance." Which was close enough, since the gangster who stole it in the first place was dead.

He gave me a look to indicate he knew better, but wouldn't press. "How much can you put up?"

"Twenty-five grand."

"The wiseguys in town will want their cut for letting you operate."

"I'm figuring it in along with the taxes, permits, and licenses."

A slow nod. "You just might bring it in for that, but six outta ten places go bust the first year."

"Then I make sure this one doesn't."


I had a specific idea on that, but didn't feel like sharing just yet, if ever. "By hiring in good acts."

"Like Bobbi?"

"You got it."

"She won't be around forever, y'know."

"What d'you mean by that?"

"She's moving up, too. Tonight's a big step for her. She's bound to get noticed."

"I hope she does, but she knows fame and fortune are as hard to find as a lightning strike." We'd had a lot of midnight talks about her dreams. She was realistic about her chances.

"Unless you're sitting on a flagpole," he said, looking mildly smug.

"What do you know I don't?"

"You'll see."

He wasn't the sort to give away a secret until he was ready, so I'd have to wait it out.

He drained away half his drink. I got the impression it was to cover an honest-to-God smile. If so, then he was in a hell of a good mood. "Ike LaCelle," he said.

"What about him?"

"You want to open a club, you should talk to Ike. He knows all the show people. He can introduce you around."

"Great, more wiseguys."

He spread one hand, palm up, unoffended. "It's how we do business in this burg, kid."

"What's he do?"

"He arranges things."

"That could mean anything from setting up a crap game to taking someone for a long ride off a short pier. What's his specialty?"

"More in the line of crap games and doing favors. He makes sure the right people get together at the right time, then takes a cut of the action. Mostly he's starstruck. Likes to make friends with actors, showbiz types, then show them off to impress others. Think of him as a middleman who don't know he's a middleman. Once you've met the talent, you can deal with their agents. For my money I'd rather deal with the wiseguys, they're not so dangerous."

Coming from him that meant something, but I quelled the tiny, rising doubt about my ability to make the club happen. Of course anything could go wrong and knock my plans flat, but if I could make enough things go right...

I'd been researching the idea of owning a nightclub since acquiring my windfall of cash. Though I'd have taken Bobbi out on dates regardless, for the last two months we never went to the same place twice unless there was something about it that appealed to me. Then I made a lot of mental notes to figure out what it had that I liked and how I could reproduce it, only better.

"I thought you wanted to be a writer," said Gordy, drawing me reluctantly back to the present.

"I do-that is, I am. I am a writer. I just haven't found a publisher yet who agrees with me about it."

"Don't you become a writer only after you sell something?"

"Already did that when I worked for the papers, but even without a sale I'm a writer because I picked up a pencil and started scribbling." It was something I'd read somewhere and fervently hoped was true. "That includes everyone from speechwriters to bathroom-wall poets."

He didn't look convinced, but made no arguments. "How's this club you want to start fit in with that, then?"

"It could take me years to get self-supporting as a writer, if ever. I like working with Charles, but the agency is his business, not mine. I want a place of my own, something for myself." Something that would provide me with a fairly steady income for decades on end and yet be interesting enough to hold my attention. It's a fever that runs in my family. My dad had never been content working at a hardware store until he was able to buy it and be his own boss.

He had to work three times as hard, but never complained, he was too busy enjoying himself.

Gordy must have seen more than a hint of the need on my face. He nodded without comment. "I hope you can do it. If I can help..."

"I'd appreciate a word of advice now and then."

"That you can get right now: make sure the location ain't too close to this joint."

He got a laugh from me for that one, but I knew he was serious. Even if his place had been paying off like a triple bonanza, he wouldn't welcome any nearby competition. "You can make book on it." There was a big silver and black clock on the wall behind him, very modern, with symbols shaped like arrowheads where the numbers should be. "It's nearly show time. We oughta get downstairs."

"We oughta," he agreed. "Ike LaCelle's supposed to be here tonight. I'll introduce you. Make friends with him."

I took that to be more advice and resolved to do so.

We returned to the club proper again by way of the casino, skirting the whole backstage area. From what I heard coming through the walls, mostly voices of the chorus girls, it was barely controlled pandemonium there. They sounded more excited than panicked, though, a good sign.

Gordy had the best table, right in the center front of the stage off the dance floor. Some other people that I recognized as regulars were already seated and greeted us with louder-than-normal good cheer. They'd apparently kept the drinks flowing free for some time now. I squeezed in between Cathy Bloom, the buxom wife of Gordy's lawyer, and a guy with buckteeth and blank eyes who was supposed to be an enforcer.

Ted Drew's Melodians had taken a short break, allowing the dance floor to clear. A guy I recognized as the stage manager emerged from the wings to check the area and exchange a few words with Ted, then ducked back again as the orchestra took their places and tuned up. Mrs. Bloom began telling me some story about Bobbi, so I lost track of things until the lights went down.

At Ted's cue, the Melodians' horn section crashed into a mournful minor-key overture. The audience hushed, except for a noisy drunk in the back who was wandering from table to table. His evening clothes were the worse for wear, and he had a three-day growth of beard. I wondered how he'd gotten past the bouncers out front, but figured the ones inside would take care of him pretty quick.

"You seen 'er?" he groggily asked some grinning patrons. He didn't wait for a reply, but staggered to another group to put the same question to them. "You seen 'er? Anybody here seen my Lil?"

He tottered all the way down to our tier of the horseshoe without getting caught. I glanced at Gordy, but he stayed in place without so much as a nod toward any of his people to take care of the problem.

The drunk made it nearly to the dance floor and stopped at the last table, leaning heavily on it. His hand groped for a customer's glass, and he raised and drank from it before anyone could react.

"Hey, you lush!" complained a man at the table. He grabbed the glass away, but it was empty.

"You seen 'er?" asked the drunk piteously. "You seen my Lil?"

The man got an unpleasant smile on his face and flashed it at his friends. "Yeah, I was with her last night. She was one hot pippin."

"Why, you... !" The drunk took a wild punch at him.

Gordy still wasn't doing anything, just watching. Everyone was watching, some were even laughing, including the bouncers.

The man ducked the punch, grabbed the drunk by the shirtfront, and swung him roughly around. He hauled back for a right cross and let fly, but from my angle it looked like he missed by a handbreadth. Still, the drunk went reeling back, down two steps to sprawl in an ignominious heap on the dance floor. To add to the humiliation some bozo in the lighting booth aimed a merciless white spot on him.

That's when the music came up in another plaintive crash and died down. The drunk on the floor wearily found his feet, squinted bleary-eyed at the audience, and began to sing.

Oh. He's part of the show.

I was very glad that light wasn't on me, because I felt myself going red. I'd been had. The hook, line, sinker, caught, hauled ashore, gutted, and scaled for dinner kind of had. It was a blessing I'd held off from attempting to do anything about the man before realization set in. Dammit, but I'd have to pay more attention to Bobbi when she talked about her work. I had a dim memory of her mentioning the prelude to the show.

The drunk turned out to be a sailor named Bill who had jumped ship to look for his girlfriend, Shanghai Lil, which also happened to be the name of the song he was singing. The plot sort of followed the specialty number that was in the Cagney film a few years ago, but without the fantastic set pieces or endless lines of chorus girls and other extras.

The Nightcrawler did a respectable salute to it, though. A line of about ten joss-house girls, complete with black bobbed wigs and exaggerated makeup to suggest slanting, mysterious eyes, emerged from the wings, dragging canvas flats painted to depict shabby buildings. They transformed the dance floor into a Shanghai street. The girls arranged themselves around the stage for Bill to inspect, but none of them was his beloved Lil. Their bright satin costumes were tight-fitting Chinese dresses, but with side slits all the way up the leg allowing them freedom to dance. You could also see the tops of their stockings and garter straps.

Not a bad show at all. And this was just the beginning.

Bill faded to the background while the girls swept around the floor with mincing little steps, waving painted fans and bowing. They took up the song, echoing Bill's words about his search for Shanghai Lil.

He wandered from one end of the canvas flats to the other and mimed knocking on doors, still looking, while the girls tried to interest him in their stunning charms. Bill tried a few dance steps with them, but at the last minute resisted temptation and got away from them. Ten more girls, costumed like American sailors, emerged from the doors and paired off to dance with their joss-house sisters, and was that ever an interesting sight.

Bill was still without a partner and drew a gun from his pocket. Just as he was about to end his lonely misery something like a shot went off, followed by several more in very rapid succession, like a miniature machine gun.

I sneaked a quick look at Gordy, but he was intently watching the show, unmoved by the noise. It was just part of the act. In this place that was reassuring to know.

The gunshots turned out to be fireworks. The girls, both dancers and sailors, scattered, screaming in mock terror as a bloodred Chinese dragon lurched onto the stage. It snaked this way and that and ended up circling Bill, its head shaking and hinged mouth flapping up and down as though from laughter. This annoyed the hell out of Bill, who finally lost patience and lifted the head off the person who had been controlling it.

The puppeteer inside turned out to be Shanghai Lil, and Bobbi never looked so good. She beamed at the audience and threw her arms wide, as though to catch their wave of applause. Bill embraced her and somehow her red satin pajamas got ripped away to reveal a brief scarlet jacket and pants so short they might have well started as a bathing suit. She wore red tap shoes and stockings that went all the way up into the pants with no garters showing at all, which I thought to be a good trick. Topping her head was a black wig like the rest of the girls, but sporting red bows on either side of her face. She was also made up like a Chinese doll, managing to look virginal despite her joss-house past.

She and Bill sang the greeting part of the number to each other, then broke into a tap routine. Bobbi had not been wasting her time with all those dance lessons. She told me the key to selling a number was to make it seem easy while at the same time looking like you're enjoying yourself. She accomplished both goals so far as I could judge, and the audience seemed to agree with me and started applauding again before she'd quite finished.

Bill faded again, allowing Bobbi to do a solo dance, then she joined him so the chorus could come forward.

The "sailors" did a respectable hornpipe, which led to a medley of military type songs, like "Over There" and

"Columbia the Gem of the Ocean," which got cheers from the veterans. Then the other girls joined in for several fast-moving bars of solid American swing that quickly turned into a jitterbug. I never saw so many legs moving so wild and fast. You sure as hell couldn't see anything like it in a movie now, not since Willie Hays had been called in to spoil everyone's fun.

The dance interlude was to allow Bobbi to catch her breath so she could belt out the closing of the number with Bill. They returned to the stage riding in a rickshaw pulled by four girls from the joss house, sang their piece, then rolled off in triumph, waving to the cheering audience.

The response was every performer's dream, not only a standing ovation, but one that started before the singers even came back for their bows. I yelled with the rest for an encore, and Bobbi must have picked my voice out of the crowd, for she looked in my direction, flashing the special smile she reserved only for me. I felt a lurch in my chest like my heart suddenly decided to start beating again, and had to sit down. God, what an effect she had on me.

Cathy Bloom looked in my direction. "It must be love," she wryly observed.

I couldn't deny it if I wanted to, and I sure as hell wasn't about to do that. I applauded until my hands stung.

The chorus and Bill vanished backstage and the lights brightened as Bobbi stepped up to a microphone near the Melodians so she could get her cue from Ted. They led off with a sprightly introduction, and she sang "Chinatown, My Chinatown." Not a real showcase for her voice, which was just beautiful, but it allowed her to work the personality angle. She really looked like she was having fun. Only I knew better. She was absolutely having the time of her life.

She bowed and hurried backstage while the applause was still strong and the Melodians' resident crooner took her place for a couple of songs. It also gave her a chance to change costumes. When she appeared a second time, she wore a delicately flowing set of pajamas in pale blue satin and held matching fans in each hand. Topping her black wig was a silly-looking hat shaped like a cup sitting on a saucer.

She did a few turns, waving the fans gracefully about, before being joined by six of the chorus girls dressed in similar outfits. They also used the fans, seeming to flutter and fly over the stage before bunching them all together like a giant flower. "Bill" suddenly burst from its center, dressed in a sailor suit now. He did a forward flip and landed lightly on his feet just as the Melodian crooner launched into "She Was a China Tea Cup, and He Was a Coffee Mug."

It was a very physical number for Bill, as he pursued his "tea cup" all over the stage, doing cartwheels and somersaults, all in time to the music. It looked to be a difficult piece to execute, but he hit all his cues and made it look easy. He got a special round of applause all for himself, and I wondered if he'd still be available for work by the time I got my own club up and running. It was something to dream about, anyway.

The show was an hour long, but seemed to flash by in half that time and ended with another standing ovation at the finale. The lights went out for the stage and came up in the rest of the house along with the level of conversation and activity. Orders for more drinks were requested at most tables; very few were being vacated.

"Looks like your customers are staying to see it again," I said to Gordy. "The ones in the lobby will be out of luck."

"There'll be other nights for them. In the meantime everyone's drinking. That's cash in the bank."

For him that was practically being garrulous. He was in a good mood.

Figuring it would be safe to see Bobbi during the break, I excused myself and headed backstage. I got caught up with the exiting Melodians, and for a few minutes the press was like Times Square on New Year's Eve. Mostly they were headed outside for a breath of air, some elbow room, and a smoke, since it was forbidden in the stage area, and I nearly ended up with them in the alley running behind the building. I fought clear and beat my way upstream until feminine voices predominated.

It was a lot more fun being surrounded by the chorus girls than the Melodians. Giggles and squeals of delight filled my ears, though it wasn't from my presence, but rather for the obvious success of the show. I wasn't the only boyfriend looking for his girl, but certainly the only one who could achieve a bit of privacy with her. The door to Bobbi's dressing room was wide open, unfortunately, and blocked with bodies, all of them giving her congratulations from the sound of things. I heard her laughter and knew without seeing she would be shining brighter than the spotlight out front.

And so it proved when I hacked my way through the mob. Some of the well-wishers knew me and simultaneously tried to get out of the way while pushing me forward. Every little bit helped. Suddenly I was next to Bobbi, grinning like an idiot. She let out a shriek of delight and threw herself in my arms. There must be a few things in the wide world that are better, but I sure as hell couldn't think of any. I planted a big kiss on her to the hoots of everyone in the room.

Reaction seemed evenly divided from "Yeah, give 'er one for me," to "Jeez, throw a bucket of water on 'em."

Rachel, the woman who was in charge of costumes, read the writing on the wall and told everyone to clear out.

"She's gotta rest and change for the next show," she bellowed to one and all.

"Tell us another," someone yodeled back as a challenge, but people were gradually leaving the room. It was small to start with, and with a dozen or more squeezed in, there was no room to turn. Most had to back their way out. Rachel was the last to go.

"Don't forget to lock the door, honey," she advised as she pulled it shut with a wink.

I practically pounced on the key.

Bobbi was executing a neat pirouette, arms up and her head thrown back, laughing. "Wasn't it just the best thing you've ever seen?"

"Only because you were in it, sweetheart." I leaned against the door and crossed my arms, enjoying my own private show. Now wasn't the time to attempt another kiss; she was all but bouncing off the walls from sheer excitement. It was her moment and more than fine with me just to be able to watch her have it. After a few minutes the excess energy ran down enough for her to throw herself in my arms again for a big hug. I lifted her high and made a slow spin, laughing because she was laughing.

She looked down at me and giggled. "Look at you, your face is covered with my makeup."

"Now, how in hell can I look at me?" I asked, and stepped before her dressing-table mirror. It reflected back an image of Bobbi suspended by some invisible support in midair. Generally I avoid mirrors; not seeing myself in them always gives me the creeps, but this was a whole different kind of reaction. I spun her again, faster. She yelped and wrapped her legs around me. I halted and considered the image. "That looks interesting, don't you think?"

"Oh, God, Jack!" Suddenly horrified, she started to let her legs drop, but I shifted my grip and hugged her close.

"Just a minute, baby, this has possibilities." I turned her one way and then another to get all the angles, and each one looked better than the last. She tried to catch sight of herself over her shoulder.

"What, with my butt hanging in the air like that?"

"Yeah, I like it."

"I thought you hated mirrors."

"I think I'm about to reconsider my opinion."

"This is wrinkling my costume," she said, eyes narrowing.

Never argue with a lady about her clothes while she's still wearing them. I set her down and forced myself to be patient until the inconvenient garments were hanging up in their tiny closet. For once she had on underwear, a brassiere.

"What's this for?" I asked, fingering a satiny strap.

"My breasts bounce around too much when I'm dancing. I don't want to be sore, especially there."

"Hmm, yes, but doesn't it restrict your breathing?"

She snuggled close. "Well, maybe a little bit. Besides, I'd like to find out how good you are at taking one off."

I love a challenge.

"One-handed, from the front," she added.

"You are one hard-to-please woman," I grumbled, but went to work. She held still, but her hands were busy unbuttoning my pants, which made me squirm. Once they were unbuttoned, she started up a whole new kind of assault, which was extremely distracting.

"What's taking you so long?" she inquired, somewhat too innocently.

"I think it's welded shut."

"Keep trying."

"Ah! That tickles!"

"Does it? Oh, good, lemme try here... and maybe here ..."

The damn thing finally came unhooked, allowing me to wreak the kind of revenge that left her gasping.

Someone knocked on the door.

"Later!" we shouted together at the offender. The knock was not repeated, and we got down to serious business.

In the cold light of practicality, it should be difficult, if not impossible, to shuck one's clothing while trying to give your partner a tonsillectomy with your tongue. Somehow, and I'm still not sure how, we managed.

I had some small section of my brain working on a related subject: the mirror. The aforesaid possibilities intrigued me. Since my change, all mirrors had ever aroused in me was annoyance-until I'd seen Bobbi suspended in midair and in just that position. Now it was arousal of quite a different sort.

When we worked our way down to the point that it was skin to skin, I lifted her up again, cupping my hands to support her butt.

"Jack, you can't be serious," she protested, but she snuck a look at her reflection.

"Let's just give it a try. If you don't like it, I'll stop."

"Like has nothing to do with it, I'm just trying to get used to the idea."

I put my back to the mirror. "How do you like the view?"

"My God, I can see right through-oh, this is crazy!"

And, apparently, arousing to her as well, to judge by things. She locked her legs around my hips, and once we got ourselves properly adjusted, it went just great for both of us.

Her eyes were half-shut, and she was holding on for dear life. As if I could drop her at this critical point. "Jack, are you ready? I'm almost there-oh-it's-"

I'd been ready for this all night, every night, and every moment that I was with her. My corner teeth were out. I pressed my lips hard against the flushed and hot skin of her throat, drawing another moan from her. The timing had to be just right, but we'd had plenty of practice. I knew exactly when to bite down... she held in her scream-ecstasy, not pain-and spasmed against me. I'd turned sideways and now watched her writhing image in the mirror as the pleasure rolled over her, over us both. I drew gently on her life, extending the moment.

"It's too much," she whispered. "God, I can hardly... hardly..."

I knew better. She hadn't had nearly enough yet and neither had I. Nuzzling deeper, I took another sip of her red fire; she urged me to take more. I did, but very, very slowly.

She sighed, soft, shuddering breath warm against my ear.

I made it last for us both.

Then, enough. I didn't want to exhaust her for the next show or she'd kill me later. She was groggy from the exertion, though, as I carried her over to a sofa and stretched her out on it. The marks on her throat still seeped. I knelt and kissed them clean, tasting her makeup, the thin sheen of salty sweat, and the blood. Its flow finally stopped, and I held her close, my lips against her temples to feel the tickle of her pulse there. It gradually slowed to normal. I pulled a blanket down from the back of the sofa and tucked it around her. While she rested, I got dressed again, stealing looks at her the whole time. Her makeup was smeared and the black wig askew, revealing her platinum hair beneath, and still she seemed to be the most perfect angel, even more beautiful than the night I'd met her.

She stirred sleepily. "Why'd you stop?" she murmured.

"Didn't want to wear you out."

"I think it was more of a case of me wearing you in. Did I look good on you?"

"Magnificent would be the right word."

I wanted her all over again. Resisting temptation-this time-I pulled my pants up and made sure I got the buttons done up right. It wasn't that I was hungry for more blood-I could satisfy mere appetite feeding from the cattle at the Stockyards-I was hungry for more Bobbi.

Her eyes drifted shut, and I moved quietly, allowing her to doze. There was a covered tray on a table. I peeked, discovering a pile of sandwiches and a big glass of grape juice sitting ready. After such a demanding show, and certainly after what we'd done, she'd wake up ravenous.

I sat and watched her, and knew myself to be one hell of a lucky guy. Our first meeting hadn't gone too smoothly.

She'd been told to lure me into a trap, which happened to be where I wanted to go, and though scared of the man who had ordered it, she'd tried to warn me away, to save me. Our first kiss had been my idea; I'd made it happen using hypnosis. I broke it off, though, knowing it was wrong. It felt wrong; it tasted wrong. But our second kiss had been her idea. And since then things had been nothing but right for us.

It happened fast, our romance, fast-without thought or plan beyond an immediate sating of physical and emotional need while we were both in a tense and dangerous situation. Things should have fallen apart for us afterward... but never did. That made me think that if we'd met in more normal circumstances, taken time to get to know each other first, dated, and talked like other couples, the same thing would have happened.

She was a wonder. Inspiring. I hadn't always been so uninhibited at lovemaking. I'd learned a lot from sweet Maureen, but Bobbi always seemed to push me further, and I would try new things, casting off old restraints. With her telling me what she liked and when, and me adding in a few variations of my own, we'd done better than all right by each other. It had taken us a while to get it right, though, but the best way to get good at anything is to practice, practice, practice. I learned how far I could safely carry things with her, how much to take, when to stop, when to keep going. What we felt was one long climax, but I took care not to go too far. If I truly abandoned myself to her whispered urgings, I could drain her too much, and the last thing I wanted to do was to hurt her.

She woke up suddenly, inhaling a sharp breath and looking wildly around. "The time... !"

"It's okay, you've got thirty minutes."

She visibly relaxed. "Whew, I thought I was a goner."

"Not while I'm around." I got the tray and put it on the low table in front of the couch. "Here, get this down."

"Just a little, I don't want to be burping through the next show. Is the juice room temperature?"

" 'Fraid so."

"Good. Could you draw me a cup of hot water from the tap? It'll cut the sugar in the juice." The heat also kept her vocal cords from seizing up. Cold refreshments were only for after a show. I got her water from the bathroom sink while she ate half an egg sandwich, leaving the crusts on the plate.

"You need more than that," I said as she covered the tray up again.

"I'll have it later. This is enough to keep me from collapsing-oh, don't look so worried-but it won't slow me down. I can't be dancing up a storm if my stomach's busy trying to digest stuff."

"And you're going to be doing this twice a night for the next four weeks?"

"That's showbiz," she said brightly.

"And in the final week I'll be rehearsing my next show here-unless

something comes up."

"Something like what?"

"Oh, anything, really."

"Y'know, Gordy hinted that there was-does the name Ike LaCelle mean-"

"He didn't tell you, did he?" She looked dismayed.

"Who, Ike?"

"No, Gordy. What did he say about Ike LaCelle?"

"Only that he knew a lot of show people and might be here tonight. What's he to you?"

"Nothing right now, but through him I can meet people who really matter in the business, people who can do me some good."

This sounded familiar. "Good as in the big time?"

"Good as in the really big time, as in what I've been dreaming about since I first walked into a picture house. I wanted to tell you about it myself. Now, why are you so long in the face all of a sudden? I thought you wanted me to-"

"I do, honey. I want you up there, but sucking up to some mob middleman might not be the way to go about it.

Who is he anyway? If he's expecting some kind of casting-couch shenanigans, I'll pop him into next Sunday."

"You're cute when you're jealous, Jack-"

"I don't feel cute."

"-but you don't have to worry about him. For one thing, I can take care of myself, and for another he's never going to cross Gordy, so you don't need to waste time frowning in his direction."

I was sullenly reassured. Having seen Bobbi in action with both a gun and a blackjack, I knew very well that she could take care of herself. I shrugged and nodded, letting it go. Anything else would annoy her, make her think I didn't trust her. The man she'd been with before me kept her on a leash so tight as to nearly strangle. After some of the stuff she'd told me about what life had been like with him, I privately vowed never to be so stupid.

"I see you got my flowers," I said, changing the subject.

She slid from the couch to come over and thank me. If she'd been wearing any clothes, I might have ripped them off her in response.

"They're beautiful, and in my favorite colors, and I loved the orchid." She sat before her dressing-table mirror and made a face at her smeared makeup.

"Orchid? I didn't order that."

"They all came in the same delivery, from the same florist."

"Where is it?"

"Over there with the rest somewhere."

She had quite a horticultural collection in the far corner from a number of friends, including an impressive horseshoe display on a tripod with a red ribbon sash wishing her good luck. That one was from Gordy, I noted with relief. I found a purple box with a cellophane window so you could see the perfect white orchid on its satin bed within.

"See who it's from, okay?" I asked, handing it to her.

"You're not jealous again, are you?"

"Not a bit," I lied, illogically wishing I'd thought to send such an elegant flower. Next to it the daisies and carnations looked a little on the plain side.

She opened the box, exclaimed over the orchid, and went all soft smiles at the card. "Oh, that's just so sweet of him!"

"Of who?" With much effort I managed not to pluck the card from her fingers.

She read from it. " 'My best wishes for a successful performance, break a leg, Charles." "

Escott? Oh. Well. It was all right, then. I relaxed my shoulders. "Yeah, that was pretty thoughtful of him. He never said anything about it to me."

"You know how he is. He likes me but just doesn't show it openly. If he wasn't English he'd probably duck his head and go 'aw, shucks' every time I said hello to him."

True enough. Charles did very much like Bobbi, but I could trust him to be a gentleman. "What's this 'break a leg'


"It's one actor's way of saying good luck to another. I don't know how it started, but it's supposed to bring the reverse of what you wish for. Is he here tonight?"

"He had to work, but he told me to give you his regards. He'll catch the show later."

"I hope he doesn't leave it until too late. He gets so tied up in his work he forgets what month it is. What's he doing this time?"

"Getting love letters back from a blackmailer. I helped him out earlier, but it fell through. Tomorrow night he might have something for me to do."

She arched an eyebrow, but it had to do with her makeup repairs. "Burglary again?"

"Maybe. He'll figure some angle, he always does."

"So you're free the rest of the evening?"

"At your service, lady."

"Good. Gordy's having a private party after the club closes for the night. You're my date."

"None other, I hope."

"No chance of that, lover. Oh, damn, would you get the door for me?" She grabbed up a long silk dressing gown and pulled it on.

It was the stage manager calling the time until the next show. The now open door created a kind of burst dam effect, with people first trickling, then flooding in, all with business to accomplish in a very short time. Bobbi continued to repair her China-doll face and set the wig straight, an island of calm in the noisy waters. I waved mournfully at her from the doorway.

"After the show gimme a chance to clean up and I'll see you then!" she called over the press of bodies.

"I'll be here," I promised, and slowly made my way out front again.

There'd been a modest shift change in the audience as new customers were seated for the next performance. At Gordy's table the Blooms were gone, along with the bucktoothed assassin, a foursome having taken their place. A good-looking, sharply dressed man was in my chair. Next to him a strikingly handsome couple, and next to them a guy I recognized as one of Gordy's mob cronies. I'd seen him around the club a few times, Gil Dalhauser. He had something to do with running a truckers' union.

"Evening, Dalhauser. Where's Gordy?" I asked, fastening on him as the only familiar face. The others studied me in a not unfriendly manner, especially the raven-haired woman.

"In the other room, some sort of business. He said I should introduce you around."

The other room meant the casino, and maybe not everyone at the table knew about it. That, or Dalhauser was just displaying the ingrained caution that came with his work. He was a tall, loosely built man in his forties with a mournful cast about him. He had thinning blond hair cut army short and steady, pale blue eyes, the kind that were shuttered so you couldn't see in, yet he was able to stare out, usually right through you. He duly made introductions.

The gorgeous woman was radio actress Adelle Taylor; I'd heard her name in lots of broadcasts from dramas to comedies, and currently she was a singing regular on the Archy Grant Variety Hour. She was about thirty or so, elegantly dressed in black velvet with leopardskin trim on the collar, cuffs, and hat. She held her head high like a queen, showing off the clean line of her chin and throat and the string of black pearls that dipped down out of sight between her breasts.

Her once-over of me with crystal cold baby blues was thorough, her response to my greeting polite but with a wait-and-see attitude. I could almost hear her thinking, Are you important? Do I need to know you? With some show business people this was necessary for survival, so I took no offense.

The handsome man with her was Archy Grant himself, looking the same as he did in the Sunday entertainment magazine inserts. He'd started out as a singer with a talent for comedy, and in ten years built up his reputation and following to the point of hosting, and starring in, his own show. He had a national broadcast once a week out of Chicago that I listened to more often than not. I got a firm, friendly handshake from him and a sincere hello in his familiar voice. He was stocky-framed, all muscle and energy, and his dark eyes were the kind that missed nothing. A useful ability to have, since he was famous for his ad-libbed patter.

Now that my mind was routed in that direction I wondered if he could be persuaded to perform in my club someday. That would be something to see, in which case a five-dollar cover would be entirely appropriate.

Get it bought and open for business first, Jack, I told myself, then worry about what to charge for the acts.

The last man was Ike LaCelle. He seemed as sharp as his clothes and had a good-natured spark in his eyes. His reddish hair was slicked back from his high forehead, but a stubborn cowlick gave the impression that he was more an overgrown schoolboy than a mobster. He pumped my hand, grinning broadly, and mentioned that he'd heard of me, and that it was fine, mighty fine, to meet me at last. I almost believed him. He gestured at Grant and Miss Taylor.

"Archy and Addie here thought they might like to see the show," he said. "I told 'em I could get 'em in, but they didn't believe me."

Adelle Taylor visibly winced at the shortening of her name, but did not correct him. She put an apparently careless hand on Grant's arm instead. He didn't seem to notice.

"That's the ticket," said Grant agreeably. "Ike said he knew the owner and could get us the best table for the opening. Took a while, though. Thought I'd drink myself blind at the bar." There was only a hint of a glaze on his face, so he was either exaggerating or had a high capacity for martinis.

"I happened to notice you in the lobby, Mr. Fleming, and saw you going right in," said Adelle in a tone to indicate she expected an explanation from me.

"Only because I'm a regular here."

"Ike said you're friends with the star... ?"

"Yeah, Miss Smythe and I have been dating for a few months."

"Lucky man," put in Grant, full of warm enthusiasm.

"I saw the portraits of her in the lobby. I understand she's also very talented."

"You'll see for yourself shortly."

Adelle's chin lifted very slightly and her eyelids dipped for an instant. I thought I'd caught the drift of things and put all my attention on her, smiling with vast appreciation. "It's such an honor to meet you, Miss Taylor. I hope you don't mind, but I have to tell you how much I've enjoyed your work on the radio. Your voice is so beautiful, and now to find that you're even more so in person..."

She beamed, obviously delighted at the topic shift, and I knew I'd called it right. "You dear man, how very sweet of you to say so. Do tell me more."

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