A Chill In The Blood (Vampire Files #7)

Chapter 11

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Bloodsmell in the car.

Some of it on me. On my hands.

Wanted to wash and change clothes, but it'd have to wait.

My turn to drive. Needed to, needed a simple mechanical activity to keep my hands from shaking from the unspent anger, from the aftershock of outrage. Held a heavy foot to the gas, wanting lots of distance between us and the battlefield casualties.

Coldfield sat partially curled around in the seat, knees drawn up, resting his back against the passenger door. He wasn't moving if he could help it. Since he'd had a chance to cool down, the knocks he'd taken were making themselves felt, and I'd hear him catch his breath every time we hit a bump. I tried to take it easy on the turns. I also tried to talk him into going to the hospital, but he nixed that.

"Trudence'll do better by me," he said, so I got us rolling toward her sanctuary in the Bronze Belt and didn't argue him out of it.

I drove for ten minutes before he looked up, squinting at me in the intermittent light as we passed under street lamps.

"You all right?" he asked.

"I'm fine."

"But they shot you. I saw."

"I'm indestructible, remember?"

"Saw you fall."

"Well, it hurt."

"You went away."

"I do that when it hurts too much." My voice sounded wrong. Tight. It takes time to lose a load of anger like that. I shifted my bunched shoulders and toned things down inside. "Don't worry about it. How're you doing?"

"I feel like how Charles looked the other night."

"You must feel a lot worse than that."

"I'll get better." He held an already well-stained handkerchief to the cut over his eye. His knuckles were scraped, but unlike the rest of him, their damage was in a good cause.

The thug I'd grabbed proved to be very informative, once Coldfield started in on him. It's one thing to gang up on a solitary man, and quite another for him to turn on you and you alone in a fair fight, to make you the special object of his attention.

The thug hadn't liked it one bit and started talking after a very short time. Coldfield never asked why I'd not used the hypnosis; I doubt it even occurred to him once he got going.

The news of the fire, murder, and Calloway being brought to the hospital had been passed to Sullivan via one of his other pet cops on the force. Sullivan, who had indeed moved out of the roadhouse before Angela came calling, harbored no doubts that she was behind the shootings and the fire, once he heard about them. He'd dispatched two carloads of stooges to check the whole business out, some to ask questions, others to keep watch in case Angela's goons turned up to finish the job on Calloway.

His men got a description of the Nash from the people at the emergency-room entrance, and that there was a black man at the wheel. They learned about me and Escott, but couldn't get near either of us in the hospital, so they opted to find and question the driver. They'd just located him and had started in with the fun and games at about the same time I was leaving Escott in the hands of Merrill Adkins.

Their question was the same one I was asking: Where's Angela? Coldfield sure as hell couldn't tell them, but even if he'd been able to, they'd have kept at it with him. They were in a killing mood.

That's why it was important to bring one of them back for him to work over in turn; getting news about Sullivan had only been the second thing on my mind when I made the grab. I'd done it for Coldfield.

Kicking unconscious men doesn't give you the same kind of satisfaction as taking out someone who can hit you back. By giving that man to Coldfield, I'd also returned his self-respect to him. Neither of us said anything about it directly, but after he was finished with the fists and questions and the man was taking his turn at lying bloody, beaten, and gasping on the ground, Coldfield looked up and nodded his thanks to me. Only then was he ready to let himself be helped into the car and driven away.

I found the right street, the right alley, and pulled in easy does it. Lights showed in the kitchen windows, and as I set the brake the back door opened up. The big man named Sal came out.

I waved at him. "Miss Coldfield's brother is hurt and needs help. Go find her, would you?"

He leaned down to peer in. He shot a look at me I couldn't read, then nodded and went inside. I went around to help Coldfield and we staggered toward the door like a couple of drunks.

Trudence hurried into the kitchen and paused just as I eased Coldfield onto a chair. Her face went all pinched like she wanted to yell at him, but she swallowed it back and went to work, issuing orders. People jumped to obey.

I got myself a corner out of the hubbub and settled against the wall to look on. It gave me the chance to check myself over. The bloodstains were alarming, but nothing was leaking out now and most of it didn't belong to me, anyway. Had holes through my shirtfront and back where the bullet had gone through, but they weren't too noticeable if I buttoned the jacket. My clothes were a lot less than clean and sported some tears, but I didn't look too bad for a guy who had done what I'd done.

It was bad enough for Trudence. She caught clear sight of me and came over.

"What's the damage?" she demanded.

"I'm just a little bruised up, Shoe got the brunt of it. Worry about him."

"I do. Too much. What happened?"

"A few guys with fists bigger than their brains. They won't be coming back."

Her dark eyes were hard. The look in them could make a stone wince. "You kill any of 'em?"

"Not that I know of." The last man had been breathing when we'd left, so he had a better than even chance of crawling his way to the emergency entrance if he wanted.

The others I wasn't quite as sure about, but maybe someone would find them and drag them in for treatment before dawn. The street wasn't all that isolated. "You won't be getting any trouble from this, I promise."

"I appreciate your promise, but there's always trouble. Always."

"This wasn't his fault," I said. "He was just trying to help me and got stuck in the middle."

She whisked away to see to her brother.

They'd eased some of his clothes off and went to work cleaning him up. From the practiced way they went about it, I wondered how often this sort of thing happened here, of hurt people turning up at the back door and being taken in without question. Probably far too often.

I left my corner long enough to wash off at the sink, scrubbing hard at the stubborn dried blood clinging to my fists. I didn't know how much, if any, was on my face or where. The sink was big enough, I put my whole head under the faucet flow and hoped for the best. Sal threw me a towel when I'd finished. I puffed a dripping thanks at him.

Someone put broken ice in another towel and gave it to Coldfield to hold on his swelling shiners and got hot water to wash away the gore from the eye cut. Trudence did the stitching herself. She must have been mad as hell from her set-in-stone expression, but her hands were steady as she worked. He wouldn't have much of a scar.

When things slowed down he thanked her and said he'd go off to the Shoe Box to get out of her way.

She glared down, a look of disdain mixed with triumph on her face. "I don't think so, brother of mine. You have a bill to pay."

"Well, sure, how much?" He made to reach for his wallet.

"Oh, it won't be in money."

"Come on, Tru-"

"The price is you stay here for the night."

That surprised him. "But I thought you didn't-"

"I don't, but I'm not having you slip out before I get the chance to say 'I told you so' to you a few hundred times. I'm thinking I'll sing you to sleep with it."

He choked and looked at me, a hint of desperation in his eyes. "Fleming?"

I gave an openhanded shrug. "It was your idea to come here instead of the hospital. Sounds to me like you're getting off easy."

"You gotta take me away."

"And look ungrateful? Besides, this strikes me as being a family matter, and I try to stay clear of those."

"You son of a-"

"Clarence!" she snapped. "You owe me."

He started to bristle back, but it must have hurt too much, for he subsided pretty quick. "Okay. But will you at least hear my side of it?"

She gave that one some thought. "Maybe. But only if you drink all your hot milk."

He groaned.

With Sal to steady him he was just able to go upstairs on his own feet. Trudence got the cleaning up started and turned to me again. "Your turn."

"I'm fine, really. I just need to go home for a wash and change."

"You look like you've been through a meat grinder."

"It's all from your brother and the other guys. I was moving too fast for them to touch me. I just got a couple of bruises, don't even need an aspirin."

"This is on top of what you had the other night."

"I was just cold then. I'm all better now."

A long study from her. "Well, I'd like to call you a liar, Mr. Fleming, but you do seem okay."

"I am. I also want to apologize for leaving so fast then. I had some things to do that couldn't wait."

"Must have been important to drag you out of here while you were still thawing."

"Yeah, pretty important, enough so I forgot my manners. I want to thank you for what you did. Could I make a contribution? Shoe said you-"

"I don't take mob money."

"This ain't mob. I worked for and earned every penny." And I had, too, helping Escott out on past cases. Before we left the house I'd grabbed some bills out of my half of the basement safe and stuffed them in my wallet. They weren't part of the stash I'd taken from the roadhouse, so I was telling her the absolute truth. I counted all of them, a hundred and ten dollars, into her hand. It didn't seem like a lot. I could send more later.

Her eyes popped. "This is too much!"

"You gonna say that the next time a woman comes in here with a hungry kid?"

Now her eyes flashed on me hot enough to scorch, then settled. "You know how to fight dirty, don't you?"

"On some things. Don't be too hard on Shoe, okay? He really was trying to fight on the side of the angels tonight, but there were just too many of the bad guys against him."

"What was it about?"

"It had to do with me, and he got stuck in the middle. I should have been the one there, not him."

"Where's Charles?"

"He's safe." Probably pretty annoyed with me, but safe out of the way.

"It's not over for you, is it?"

"No, but it will be soon."

"More beatings?"

"I don't think so. A little talk with a man I know should clear most of this up tonight."

A skeptical look, but she let it go. "You need a ride away from here?"

"I can find a cab."

"Not in this neighborhood and not without money you won't. I'll have Sal take you in Clarence's car."

"Thanks. That's kind of you."

"Uh-uh. Kind is you bringing Clarence here, giving me a chance to talk some sense into him before he gets himself killed doing what he does."

I wished her a silent good luck for that one.

Sal dropped me off at the corner nearest the house, and I quickly covered the rest of the way on my own power. Time was passing and I had to change and get my Buick on the road before Sullivan took it into his head to move again. His boys would have turned up by now with their tails between their legs and no doubt a weird story about fighting a ghost man. Whether he believed it or not, he might get nervous and decide to take another hike to safer pastures. And if he had a pet cop on watch at the hospital, he'd be wondering what the hell was going on now that Maxwell was with Adkins. That would make him more than nervous.

But I knew where he was for the moment, however long that moment lasted. No need to call Gordy for help, either.

Sullivan was with him at the Nightcrawler Club.

Should have figured it earlier. Gordy said he did what New York told him, and if one of their top boys turned up on the doormat asking for a room, like it or not, he'd have to take him in. If Sullivan had any suspicion about Gordy being behind the hotel hit, he'd have plenty of time to talk to him about it.

And then there was Opal. She'd be there with them.

She was alive. Thank God. The thug knew that much. One less anvil sitting on my head. Before another hour passed I hoped to shake another one loose by straightening things with Sullivan and then getting her out of there.

Trotted up my front steps. Dark night, and no lights left on in the house, the place looked haunted-house gloomy. Escott wanted it to seem like no one was home yet. I was tempted to just vanish and sieve inside, but spotted a couple of my neighbors coming along the sidewalk with groceries in their arms. We exchanged nods and said hello, and I used my keys like anyone else.

Just as well, for about five seconds later it eased a lot of potential complications.

I was aware of them the instant I shut the door. Froze in my tracks. The lights were out, but I saw all of them, all their guns. All pointed at me.

Slowly raised my hand and flicked on the hall light. No point in pretending the place was empty now. I had a houseful what with Angela and her friends making themselves so cozy.

Oddly enough, they seemed a lot more surprised to see me than the other way around. If I'd wanted to I could have shot out of there while they were still flat-footed with their jaws dragging on the floor, but this looked to be very interesting, so I stayed.

Doc was the first to speak. "Well, good night and little fishes, if you don't have more lives than a cat."

"You told me he was dead," said Angela, sounding accusatory. She was button cute in a red-and-blue striped hat that perched sideways on her head like a bird about to fly away. She really didn't need that .45 in her hand to stop traffic.

"He was dead! I know dead, and he was it!" Doc tried to look at both of us at once and it made him a little wall-eyed.

"That's what you said before they rolled me in the carpet with the weights," I put in. "But I forgive you."

That got me a long funny stare from him. "There's something not right about you, boy."

"I know, but no matter what, my mother still loves me."

"Knock it off," said Angela. "Newton, frisk him."

Newton stepped forward. He'd been one of the men who'd helped wrap me in the rug with the intention of dumping me into Lake Michigan. He liked milk, cookies, and reading The Shadow magazine. As he cautiously slapped me down I wondered if he'd had a chance to get the latest issue or if they'd all been too busy running.

He picked a gun out of my jacket pocket and put it in his own for the time being.

That was okay, I'd taken it from Chick the other night when that group had invaded the house, so it was no big loss. I made a mental note to talk to Escott about getting better locks put in. Maybe it would slow down the next army for a few minutes before they marched through.

Newton pronounced me clean-of weaponry, that is-and Angela had him back away.

"He was dead," Doc muttered.

"Well, he doesn't look much better now," she added. "What happened, someone drag you backward through a dog kennel?"

Doc continued, sparing me from thinking up an answer for her. "That little weasel friend of Sullivan's jabbed him with poison and I watched him die. It wasn't pretty, and he was dead."

Angela frowned at him.

"It was some kind of drug," I said, finally deciding to let him off the hook.

"Knocked me colder than mackerel… but I'm much better now."

He sneered contempt, not wanting to buy that one, kept shaking his head.

Couldn't blame him, it was a lousy story.

Before he could make an additional comment, Angela stepped in. "At least we know now why Escott didn't call the cops when he came and found them, why he'd move a dead body instead and keep quiet. We couldn't figure it, but you being alive explains all that. So where is he?"

"Someplace else. Why do you want him?" I kept the worry from my tone. It should have been too soon for my suggestion about her calling off the hit on Escott to have faded yet.

"We don't want him, it's Sullivan's secretary. He'll know where Sullivan went with Opal."

"You're too late, for Maxwell at least," I said, spreading my hands.

"What? Did you kill him?"

"No, though Sullivan will wish I had."

"What do you mean?"

"Maxie's singing up a storm with Merrill Adkins about now. Maybe you've heard of him."

That got me a truckload of shocked disbelief from them all as his name hit home; they'd been keeping up with the news-reels.

"You're lying." said Angela.

I shrugged. "Suit yourself."

"How is it you know someone like Merrill Adkins?"

"Doesn't matter, but you'll have the proof of it soon enough. It'll be in the papers for sure." Adkins would probably see to that detail himself. "The federal boys will soon start busting up all the hidden businesses in this town, not just Sullivan's, but the ones he was going to take over."

Her businesses. "Wh-what are you saying?"

"That it's all over any way you look at it, sweetheart. Armistice has been declared.

Once Maxwell is finished giving his life story to Adkins and his friends, Sullivan won't have anything in this town to run, and neither will you. What's left won't be worth having. So you won't need the books anymore." Or a bookkeeper.

I half expected her to put the .45 in my face and pull the trigger, but she just stood and stared, lips parted, eyes stricken. She'd get no apologies from me, though.

After the load of grief she and her pop had dumped on yours truly, I figured she was coming out damned well on the deal, especially if she still had that earful of money.

Of course, I planned to talk her into sharing some of it with me.

"Where's Opal?" she demanded after a moment; her voice sounded thin, shaken.

"Still with Sullivan the last I heard. She's alive, no thanks to the hit on the hotel-

"

"I didn't do that!"

" 'S okay, I believe you, lady." Thousands wouldn't, but mine was a front-row seat and she was getting me convinced.

The phone rang in the kitchen. No one moved, they all seemed to hold their breath. I followed their lead and kept shut, figuring they wouldn't let me answer anyway. It rang a dozen times before stopping, then they relaxed.

"Who'd be calling you?" asked Newton.

"Could be anyone." Escott, Coldfield, Bobbi, even Gordy, or maybe someone else entirely.

"They must want to talk real bad. It's been doing that every ten minutes since we got here."

Which meant there was some problem. Escott and Coldfield knew where I might be found. If there was an emergency with Bobbi, Gordy would send people out to look for me, starting with this place.

"Let me get it next time and I'll let you know."

That made him laugh. I should have known better.

"Angela! You should have had someone catch the phone."

Frank Paco's voice. From the front parlor.

"Another time, Daddy," she called in reply. "It wasn't for us."

"You don't know till you answer."

He sounded pretty lucid. My reaction must have been plain on my face. Angela gave me a smug look.

"Those head doctors had it wrong keeping him quiet. All the running around has done him good. Perked right up after the raid. Almost like he was before."

I didn't care for the sound of that. The last thing I needed was Angela thinking Frank was on his way to a full recovery. It'd give her a reason to stay in town. "May I?" I asked, gesturing toward the parlor. She stood out of the way and I walked in slow, mindful of all the guns centered on my back.

Frank Paco was on the sofa, listening to the radio, his hollowed-out face looking only slightly more animated than the last time I'd seen him. .He'd been cleaned up, combed, shaved, and was in a decent suit, one cut to reflect the weight he'd lost since last August when I'd shattered his world. As I walked in I wondered if he'd know me and remember what had happened.

He glanced up once, eyes as empty as ever, and I felt a familiar chill on my neck.

He was more walking dead than I'd ever be.

One glance, then he ignored me, staring with vast concentration at the lighted dial on the set as if trying to recall how to work it. Static came through the speaker.

My apprehension eased. He was in no shape to take over the running of a windup train set, much less what was left of his old organization. I took my usual chair opposite the sofa, getting comfortable. Angela, still holding her gun on me, sat next to her father, who didn't seem aware of her at all.

" 'Almost' doesn't cut it in his business," I said to her. "Look at him-he's nowhere close to being what he was and you know it."

Big brown eyes, snapping fire. "You son of a bitch."

Paco kept looking at the radio. "Hey, talk nice like a lady," he admonished her fondly. He sounded normal, but the blank look on his face didn't change. He reached across and played with the volume dial. The static rose to earsplitting levels. Without a word, Newton stepped forward and turned it down.

"You want me to find a station for you, Mr. Paco?"

"Always with the questions. Make up your own damn mind." Paco sat back and frowned at something past my right shoulder. I looked behind me, but nothing was there but the drawn curtains of the window.

"I rest my case," I said gently, almost whispering it. I began focusing on her, hardly thinking twice about it. It was safe enough even with all the chaperons watching. "Now, we need to talk, Angela."

She was falling into it. Not in a big way, but her grip on the gun eased and her expression softened.

"I need you to listen to me."

Then Doc stepped exactly between us. "Oh, no you don't."

Angela snapped full awake. "Doc, what are you-"

"I said there's something not right about him, and this is part of it."

"What do you mean?"

"You gotta take me on trust for this, girl, but he's got something up his sleeve what ain't normal. I seen him work it on Sullivan's men."

She didn't discount him. "Work what?"

"The stuff he was just starting on you. I once saw a sideshow magician do like that, had a hypnosis act going for him. He'd pick a yokel outta the audience and have him thinking he's a chicken quick as scat. This mug's got the same thing going for him, only better. He's not too obvious on it, but when he wants something from you, he can get it, and you'd never know what hit you."

I shook my head, smiling. "Where'd you get your booze tonight? I want some for myself and my friends."

Dead silence. They weren't in the mood for a comedian. Doc was a drunk, but he still had plenty of influence with them.

"Okay, I'll go with you on this," she said after a moment. "You watch him, and if you don't like anything he does, plug him one."

"I am a healer, girl. I don't 'plug' people if I can help it, it ain't in the oath I took."

"All right, then you give Newton the high sign and he can do the shooting."

"That's more like it." Doc settled in on the arm of the sofa and Newton made a, place on the other arm. They could look at each other over the heads of Paco and Angela.

This was the last thing I needed, and I felt like groaning, but held it in. I'd just have to persuade her without artificial help.

"You were talking pretty big last night," said Angela, addressing me. "Made a lot of promises. You remember the one I made you?"

"If I screwed up you'd hang me from a meat hook. It's kind of burned into my memory."

"Good, then you won't be too surprised when it happens."

"Uh-uh-I fulfilled my part of the deal. I got Doc out and you've got your payoff money. You shouldn't have any beef with me."

"Money?" she asked, looking innocent and blank.

Something lurched unpleasantly in my chest. This was no time to panic. I made myself speak. "Don't tell me you didn't find those bags in the car?"

The innocence turned cynical. "Yeah, we found 'em. I thought they were a joke."

Breath of relief. "A hell of an expensive joke for Sullivan."

"It's not Sullivan's payoff money, he wouldn't have that much cash ready at hand.

It's the stuff Kyler skimmed. You were trying to keep it for yourself."

"How do you figure that?"

"Because you forgot to mention it to Doc."

"Of course I did. I've learned to nail my trap shut in this town, you live longer.

Besides, for all I knew, he might have taken it and done a bunk on us both."

"Oh, yeah, sure, that was the first thing that crossed your mind."

She wasn't going to believe me, so I gave it up. I wasn't believing me, either.

"Okay, I won't deny I was tempted. It seemed a shame to leave it lying around for Sullivan to stumble on, so why shouldn't I make a try to get rich? I went to a hell of a lot of trouble to get it out of the basement and succeeded. Nothing left for me then but to get Doc out and make sure you and Sullivan settle up your own accounts- but Maxwell spoiled all that, so you've got your money and I'm out of luck."

"But what was in the car was not what I was supposed to get from Sullivan."

"Lady, what do you expect? You've got the cake, the frosting, the whole damn kitchen, now you want more on top of all that?"

"You better believe it. I want the money that was coming to me for selling the books to Sullivan."

Jeez. And I thought I was greedy. "And how much would that be? He'd have never given you anything near the amount you have now. It'd have been cheaper for him to kill you than pay you off with this kind of cash. Think it over. Put yourself in his place. Would you have paid him that much?"

That closed her down for a moment.

Doc snorted. "Balls and brains. Maybe you should marry him, girl."

We both shot him an annoyed look.

I picked up the thread again. "The way I see it, I've done my part of the deal. I got Doc back, you have your money, all that's left is your part of the trade, but now you give the books to me instead of to Sullivan."

"Why the hell should I do that?"

"Relax, it's not like I'm going into the business myself."

"Then what do you want them for?"

"So I can hand them over to Merrill Adkins."

"What! You're crazy!" She added a few other personal observations about me that I let pass. She was entitled to an opinion.

When she wound down, I said, "You ready to hear why yet? You just might like it."

She jerked her chin. It looked like a nod. A hostile one.

"Here's the picture for now: Sullivan is set to take over from you, and it's going to happen with or without the books or Opal. He can glean what he needs from local sources; it'll take time, but he can do it, leaving you out in the cold."

"I thought you said I'd like it."

"Now picture this: Give the books over to Adkins. He starts doing his sheriff act and cleaning up the town. The newspapers follow him like hungry puppies while he feeds them gangbusters for real, closing down business. The kind of stuff Sullivan does can't take too much publicity, if any. The revenues drop to nothing, he'll be sending excuses to New York, but all they'll be seeing is that he's bungled the job.

Before you know it, Sullivan's out in the cold-and without a earful of cash like what you've got."

"He'll find a way to cover himself."

"Maybe with the law, but not with his New York friends. And don't forget about Maxwell's vaudeville act backing up what the books will be telling all those busy little federal bookkeepers. It wouldn't surprise me too much if everything blows up in Sullivan's face like a two-ton bottle rocket."

"What made Maxwell turn stoolie?"

I shrugged. "Maybe he got religion. Who cares as long as Sullivan gets burned for it and you're in the clear?"

"Then I can move in."

"No, that's not the idea at all, Adkins will have done too much damage to what's there."

"I can always start in on new places."

Froze her with a look. "No, you won't!"

She gasped. Doc straightened and Newton brought his gun up. I threw my hand out and was within a hair of vanishing. It'd be a mess, but I'd deal with it somehow.

No bullet, though. Newton held off as Doc glared, but did not give the high sign.

"You just behave yourself, boy."

Gave him a thin spasm of a smile, no humor behind it. Too bad I couldn't hypnotize him, but you could smell the booze on his breath at two yards. It wouldn't take.

"If-" said Angela, all recovered from the push I'd given her. "If Maxwell is spilling his guts, then that should be enough for Adkins. He won't need the books."

"Oh, but he will. The courts like seeing things on paper."

"I need them more than they do."

"You're not getting the point-once they start investigating, the books will not only be useless to you, but pure poison. Whoever has them, whoever uses them will get caught. These guys know how to trace stuff, they'll find you."

"But-"

"And when they find you, they find your father. You want him to be turned over to one of their institutions while you're serving time? We already talked about this, and you weren't too happy about the idea."

She suddenly looked ready to boil over-onto me.

"On the other hand, giving the books to Adkins puts that many more nails into Sullivan's coffin. Maybe you won't have the business, but he won't get it either. He takes the fall instead, while you're home free with all that cash to play with. It sounds like a beaut of a deal."

She snorted. "And what do you get out of it?"

"I was figuring myself in for a small cut of the cash. Ten percent would be fine, I'm not too greedy."

This time she laughed out loud. "No, but you've got a hell of a nerve."

"Only for what I've earned."

"I'll have to disappoint you." She paused, waiting for me to protest, but I kept shut to hear her out. "You talk a good game, Fleming, but if I do have to leave town, it's going to be with Sullivan's cash as well. I sell him the books and have a good laugh on him. Adkins I could care less about. If he wants to put Sullivan away, he's welcome to it, but I'm taking my cut first."

I sat forward. "What, you're actually going to meet with-"

"With Sullivan, yeah. Maybe I won't get what was in the car, but it'll look funny if I don't take some kind of a payoff from him, no matter how much or little it is."

"Quit while you're ahead, Angela. As of tonight, it would be a really lousy idea for you to try dealing with him."

"Oh, yeah? And why is that?"

"Because of your little fire out at the roadhouse. He knows all about it and the murders."

Blank look. "What fire?"

"Forget the Sarah Bernhardt act."

"What murders?"

"Come on, I know Doc told you where to find Sullivan, so you and your boys had a little country drive to the joint then set the bonfire."

The collective looks they exchanged were too real to be discounted. There's always one bad actor in a troupe who gives away the game, but I didn't see any of that here.

"You saying the roadhouse is burned?" she demanded.

"Down to the basement steps."

"When?"

"Tonight."

"You're lying."

"If you think that, then call the papers, they should be finishing the report on it about now. It's probably too late for the morning edition, but they might squeeze it into the afternoon-unless with the cop killings they decide to issue an extra."

"Cop killings?"

"Couple of men named Calloway and Baker. Someone checked them out using your signature-a forty-five in the back of the head. They were working for Sullivan."

"Fine with me, I never liked the bums, but I didn't scrag 'em."

"She did want to go to the roadhouse, but I talked her out of it," said Doc.

I believed him, and the next few minutes really convinced me, since they had a few dozen questions about it that I couldn't answer. At the top of the list was who did do it and why? By then I was figuring Gordy was behind it, but kept the idea strictly to myself.

"It had to be Sullivan," Angela concluded.

My head was starting to hurt, and not from doing any fancy hypnosis. "You pick him for a reason or just because you don't like him much?"

"I don't know anyone else who would want to, including myself. That place was a real moneymaker, so why should I burn it? But I'm thinking if Sullivan does the job and puts the blame on me, then anything he does in reprisal gets full approval from his bosses."

It sounded plausible if you discount the fact that it'd still be cheaper for Sullivan to just kill her instead of burn the place; I let her keep on thinking it.

The phone rang. Kept ringing. I counted to fourteen before it stopped. No one moved the whole time.

"Angela! You should have had someone catch the phone." The same words as before from Frank Paco, the same tone. Same lack of expression. He still stared over my shoulder with his dead eyes.

"It wasn't for us, Daddy."

"You don't know till you answer."

Her face was all tight at she looked at him, bleak with heartbreak. It's hell when the kid has to become parent to their parent, and she was having a harder time of it than most.

"Angela." My tone was quiet, gentle.

"Go to hell."

"Look at it square. I know you wanted to hand the whole organization back to him, but he can never take it."

"Shut up," she whispered.

"It's not going to happen, not because of anything you did, but just because that's how things turned out. You've got to take the money you have and get away from this town."

"When I have the payoff from Sullivan-"

Held my hand palm out, calming gesture. "That's not going to happen either, because he's going to be thinking you torched the roadhouse, killed his men."

"But I didn't."

"But he'll think it, same as you thought he did it."

"If he didn't do it, who did?"

"It doesn't matter, but like you figured, blaming you is going to be his story.

Shutting you up is going to be his next step. You won't get money from him, but a whole lot of bullets instead. If you get killed, your father-if he survives- goes to an institution."

She pushed off the sofa and stumbled clear. Her breath came fast, her hands shook.

"I know this isn't what you want to hear, but this is what you're facing. You and your father can be alive with the cash you have, or risk death for a chance to have a laugh behind Sullivan's back. I don't think Sullivan is worth it. Any money you might get from him would not be worth it. If it comes to a choice between pride and living, I'll take living any old day."

She paced now, back and forth, her face flushed dark. She did this for a long time. Doc and Newton stayed where they were and stayed quiet. I did the same. The pacing finally, gradually slowed, and she turned to look at me.

"I suppose… I suppose I can already start laughing at the bastard," she said. "He never knew about the other money being in the basement. If he ever finds out about it and thinks that he burned up seven hundred grand…"

"He'd probably shoot himself-if New York doesn't do it for him. Then there's the other thing."

"What's that?"

"The money's clean now. If anyone should ever find out about it, that it ever existed, they'll think it went up in smoke like the rest of the joint. They won't be looking for it."

"Yeah, there's that." She liked that idea, warmed up to it real quick. "I guess you've done me a big favor, Fleming."

I let her smile over that one, it was a nice smile, for a killer. "Then lemme call it in."

"Your ten percent?"

"Forget that. Just give me the books, those useless to you, poison-in-your-hand books. You want a last laugh at Sullivan, then be the one who puts him in jail."

"Men like him don't go to jail."

"You never know. It's that or he takes a long walk off a short pier wearing cement galoshes. Either way, you win."

"What about Opal?"

"Let me take care of her. You don't have any work for her, do you?"

She shook her head. "Not anymore. Look, one thing about Opal? Don't play blackjack or gin rummy with her, she'll wipe the floor with you. You should find her a job at a casino. The odds favor the house, but guys never mind losing to a woman.

She'd be really cute if someone taught her how to dress and do her hair. What do you think?"

I started to automatically object, but on second thought it was a damned sensible suggestion. Playing cards were just numbers, after all, and the variables involved just might hold her interest. "I'll think about it. So will she."

"But how do you get her away from Sullivan?"

"That's my problem, but not to worry, I can do it."

"I bet you can, blue eyes."

"So-just where is that seven hundred grand?"

Another laugh. "Someplace else."

Well, I'd done my grieving earlier tonight. The money was gone and never meant to be mine. On the other hand, I'd already taken my cut from it with the cash I'd stuffed in my pockets. That was roughly ten percent. Nothing to sneeze at on its own.

"You gonna take it to Switzerland?"

"Maybe."

"I hear they never ask a lot of questions on where money comes from. I also hear that most of 'em speak Italian."

"You sound eager to get rid of me."

"Only because all the guns pointed in my direction, but yeah, it would be a good idea for you and yours to leave. Sullivan could be the next one through the door, and if it's all the same to you, I'd rather the both of you just keep missing each other."

"What, he'd come here looking for Maxwell?"

"You got it. Look at me…" I gestured at my scruffy appearance. "I got like this having a dustup with some of his boys. He'll know who to come looking for and where to start-"

"Okay, Doc, Newton, get Daddy out to the car."

"Not so fast, sweetheart-where are the books?"

For a second I thought I'd have to take a chance and give her a nudge, but she barked out a short laugh. "All right, they're at the dance studio."

"You figured Sullivan wouldn't search a place that was already raided?"

"Nah, we just didn't have time to get them out."

"Where are they?"

"Look in that stairwell. The trapdoor. They're inside it."

"Good place to hide something."

"I thought so. You just damn well better use them like you've said."

"Or it's meat-hook time?"

"It's a promise. Come on, you guys, let's go."

Doc and Newton were already helping Frank toward the back door.

"What?" I asked, all injured. "No kiss goodbye?"

She looked like she'd rather shoot me instead and held her gun steady on my heart as she backed from the room. When the door snicked shut, I dropped back in my chair and didn't do anything except feel like a wrung-out washrag for the next few minutes.

Then I felt it happen. Felt one of those anvils slipping from its previous spot on top of my head. It dropped fast and hard and made a satisfying clunk as it hit the floor. Jeez, but it felt good, just too bad about all the shit you have to go through before it falls off.

No time to celebrate, though. I still had a couple more firmly in place and had to get to work fast before I missed the opportunity of jogging them loose.

The phone rang. Whoever was calling was doing it every ten minutes or so, unless three people trying to call in were making a coincidence in their timing. I went to the kitchen and pulled the earpiece and said hello.

"That you, Fleming?" It was Gordy.

"In the flesh. Did you get the wires fixed?"

"Can it. Get over here to the club. Now."

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