"You been calling here before?" I asked.
"Yeah, get over here."
"What's the problem?"
"The front door will be open, use it. Come to the office."
He hung up.
Okay, something was seriously wrong. I assumed it had to do with Sullivan, and Gordy wouldn't or couldn't give me any other details. Changing my shirt would have to wait. I locked up-for all the good it might do-and hurried out to my Buick.
At other times when I'm in a rush, it always seems to take forever to get where I need to be; not so for this trip. I had no idea what to expect and so I wasn't all that eager to arrive. Perversely, most of the stop signals were in my favor, and I made my best time ever getting to the Nightcrawler Club. I didn't park right away, but circled the place, looking things over; that's how I spotted the two cars the thugs had used escaping away from the hospital. The driver's door on one of them wasn't properly closed. I must have wrecked it a little yanking it open.
The next interesting thing I noticed was a Packard parked within sight of the club's front entrance. Not too new and pocked with bullet holes; I was surprised at Gordy for taking such a chance. Of course, if he'd knocked off Calloway and Baker, then he was removing witnesses who could connect the car to him. I wondered if he had it in mind to try killing me, but not for very long. He knew better.
Not Sullivan, though. I had no reason to take him out of the running. Maybe they'd split the job, Gordy doing the hotel hit and Sullivan burning the roadhouse.
All of that would put Angela out of the picture but good.
The club was dark, which was wrong. The raid a few nights back shouldn't have kept the joint closed for this long a time. Maybe Sullivan didn't like the noise.
I parked and thought about slipping into the building quietly just to see what might be lying in wait. Gordy's specific mention of the front door was too important to ignore, though. If he'd wanted me to sneak in, he'd have found a way to say so.
Unless he had a gun to his head.
Walked fast down the street, eyes wide to take in every shadow, every window.
Nothing to see worth seeing until I got to the front steps. There were grills on either side of the door. Men usually sat in little rooms behind them to check out the customers as they came in. I couldn't see past the grillwork too well, but did spot movement beyond each, so someone was on watch.
Opened the door, half expecting to see goons standing there with guns, but the outer lobby was empty. Only one light was on over at the hatcheck counter. I crossed to the next set of doors that led into the club.
The joint had been busted up, but cleaning had taken place since then. Chairs were piled onto tables, the tables shoved to one side, giving the floor cleaners room to work. The darkened stage and bandstand looked lonely. I hurried along to a door marked private and pushed through.
The damage here was much more obvious. Every gambling device from the slot machines to the roulette wheel to the blackjack tables had been thoroughly worked over by sledgehammers. Nothing to do with the remains but haul them out to the junkyard and start over.
My shoes crunched against broken glass and splinters as I walked toward the back. Nobody here either. I was starting to get a good case of the creeps.
Another door marked private; it opened to the back hall with the kitchen, various small offices, and stairs to the second floor, which was populated. Four men were hanging around the lower landing having a smoke. They all stopped talking and stared at me as I came through. I recognized them as regulars with Gordy. They knew me by sight and that Gordy had given me full run of the place.
"The boss in his office?" I asked.
One of them nodded. "Yeah, go on up."
"What about his boys?"
"Why do you think we're down here?"
"Don't like 'em?"
"What I like don't come into it."
Went upstairs. Heard several radios playing, each set on different stations. The floor was fixed out with bedrooms and some of the men lived here. Not a bad place to flop if you didn't mind the hours.
Three guys on the top landing. They looked a lot like me as far as their clothing went, with it being in less than perfect condition. One man had a black eye, another had his wrist bandaged; neither looked happy about it or about me. Though it seemed too late for it, I thought it best not to remind them of the riot by the hospital because they weren't hiding their guns.
They glared plenty hard, but didn't speak or make a move to stop me as I took the few steps to Gordy's office. I knocked twice and opened the door.
I don't breathe regular, but still held my breath, all tensed, more than half expecting a bullet.
Nothing. Just Gordy's voice telling me to come in, so I did.
He sat behind his desk, playing out a hand of solitaire. Half a dozen more goons from the hospital fight were scattered around the room. It wasn't all that big, so they made for a good crowd. On the couch, the crease still fresh on his pants, was Sean Sullivan reading a magazine. He put it to one side and stood, looking me over.
"You've been busy tonight, haven't you, Fleming?"
I couldn't tell if he wanted an answer to that and knew if I opened my mouth it'd just annoy him. I shrugged. Shot Gordy a questioning look, but his face was way past being just deadpan.
Sullivan went on. "I heard you had a bit of an altercation with my boys. They were full of wild stories about you."
He gave me a long dead stare, and during that time I got the impression he had some specific questions to ask about the fight, but didn't dare ask them, not in front of everyone in a well-lighted room. You can't start asking a guy how he kept disappearing and coming back, how he survived a bullet in the belly, and not lose face with the hired help. He wouldn't get any straight answer out of me anyway, and probably figured as much.
So he left that and tried a different tack. "Why did you pretend to be working for Angela?"
"What's with pretend? I do work for her." It seemed best to continue that fiction.
"No, you don't."
"You're working for Gordy-or at least you were."
"Uh-huh." Okay, so Gordy had fed him some kind of story, but I wasn't sure how to go along with it just yet. I looked at him. He looked back, still deadpan, and put a red queen on a red king. His hands were steady, but either what was going on was distracting the hell out of him or he was trying to tell me something. "So I was working for Gordy and then what? I quit and worked for Angela?"
"No, you sidestepped all of us and went to work for yourself."
I shifted on my feet. The goons came alert. Two of them came forward and patted me down, but all they found were keys and an empty wallet. They looked disappointed as I put the items back in my pockets.
"So I'm self-employed?" I asked brightly. "The pay is lousy, then."
At a nod from Sullivan one of the goons rapped the back of my head with something hard. It wasn't too forceful, being meant to get my attention, nothing more. "Hey what's the idea?" I looked at the goon, who had a blackjack in his fist. He just grinned at me.
"The idea," said Sullivan, "is you planned to take the books and bookkeeper off on your own and go into business for yourself-that is, after Angela and I killed each other for you."
Gordy glanced up at me a moment, then went back to his cards. Now he put a black nine under a black ten. He held to the stone face, but had given a very slight lift of his chin, so small that it could have been a normal movement of his head. I was to go along with this line.
Sullivan continued. "Of course there were no guarantees we would be so cooperative, so you were setting things up to make sure the right people died."
"Like the hit in front of the hotel? I'd set a hit on myself and Opal?"
"No, that was the responsibility of this gentleman." He gestured at Gordy.
I didn't want to hear this. Thinking and suspecting is one thing, but it's quite another to have to face it, face the ugly truth. "Gordy? Were you behind that?"
"What do you figure, kid? That I'm gonna let you get away gypping me? I've had my eye on you for months."
My mouth dropped open. It was with vast relief, but Sullivan read it otherwise, as shock maybe, and that pleased him.
"Gordy has a lot of eyes and ears in this town. He got a tip you and Angela were at the hotel and sent some of his boys over thinking to do me a favor. They made a sorry job of it. Who did they think all those cops were, a girls' glee club?" He addressed the last to Gordy. It obviously wasn't the first time he'd needled away on the subject.
Indifferent, Gordy lifted his big shoulders a quarter inch. "They saw a short woman with a lotta guys that might have been bodyguards, and went in shooting. A mistake. Easy to make with the car moving so fast and it being dark. That bookkeeper could have been Angela."
"Too bad she wasn't."
"Where is she?" I asked. "Where's Opal?"
"She's all right," said Gordy, giving me another unblinking look. "We got a doctor looking after her. She's going to be fine."
He didn't absolutely have to add that last part. I was glad he did. "Good."
"Good for all of us," said Sullivan. "All but Angela, that is-and you."
"Hey, I-" Another crack on the head. A little harder than the last. The guy still grinned, daring me to try something.
Sullivan crossed his arms, cocking his head to one side. I'd bet money it was a trick he'd used on the old college debating team. "So when you come into my place you give me to think you work for Angela and can talk her out of the books. I took a chance on you, but you didn't meet your obligations. Instead you gave Calloway the slip so you could get that drunk doctor out and kidnap my secretary. By the way, where is Maxwell?"
I had to dish him anything but the truth. "He's okay. I got him stashed at a warehouse I know. It ain't the Ritz, but it's warm."
"We will discuss his release momentarily, then. Why did you take the doctor?
What use was he to you?"
"He was my ticket to get close to Angela."
"You could have told me the truth instead of implying you had some assignation with her that would take all night."
"Yeah, I could, but I knew you wouldn't have let me walk out of there with Doc."
"No, but I could have gotten the required information from him by other methods."
"And maybe killed him before he talked. He's a stubborn bird and loyal to Angela.
He'd have died before giving you squat. But by getting him free, he was ready to trust me and take me right in."
"Why didn't he?"
"Who says he didn't?"
That hooked his attention. "What are you saying?"
"That I finally got to her. She's not someone you need to worry about anymore."
"Leaving town. You've got a clear field to-"
"Not good enough."
"That business with the roadhouse."
"What about it?"
"Gordy and I are agreed that Angela is responsible for the deaths and damage.
I've informed some friends of mine about the incident and the decision is that there has to be an accounting. If she wants to play rough with the big boys, then she'll get a bloody nose and more, the same as anyone else."
If it came to a face-to-face showdown with Sullivan, my money would be on Angela-unless he got the drop on her. I shut up to think a minute, but nothing wanted to jump into my brain just then. All I could figure was one was lying to the other for his own reasons. Gordy didn't have anything to gain by destroying the roadhouse, though, but Sullivan did. He was probably playing some kind of a cute double game with New York to secure his place here. Set the fire, kill his pet cops, blame Angela for everything, get a contract on her, and… "So you've got permission to rub her out?"
"I've always had that as an option, should it become necessary, but it's nice to have it all official."
"Well, you can call it off. She and her mob are blowing this town for good-but she left the books behind."
He smiled, all tanned and true. He could have posed for a portrait of Jack Armstrong just then. "I was wondering when you'd get around to mentioning those."
"I don't have them-"
"You astonish me."
"But I know where they are."
That made him uncross his arms. "You'd have to prove that, and right now I've absolutely no reason to trust you with so much as a burned match."
I thought he was trying for some joke connected to the roadhouse, but he seemed unaware of it. "I guess not, but you've got nothing to lose-I do. The feeling I'm getting here is that I'm dead meat."
"That's for certain."
"I got a little ambitious, so you're gonna make an example of me, is that it?"
Gordy nodded. "That's it exactly, kid." Now he put a red three on a black four. He was square with me again, giving me a warning to watch my step.
"But-" I spread my hands. "Do I look like a man scared of being killed?"
"It just means you're a good liar." Lots of contempt in Sullivan's tone. He expected people to lie to him, it was part of the trade.
I snorted. "Before you think that, check with Gordy. He'll tell you what kind of poker player I am."
Gordy almost cracked a smile. "It's true. He stinks. If he says he has the books, listen to him."
"In which case," I continued, "we're going to have to work out something different from what you've got planned or you don't get the books."
Sullivan came within a foot of me, maybe hoping to intimidate. "Such as?"
I liked the way he met my gaze, it made things very easy. "Let's keep it down to simple basics: I give you the books, and you let me go free."
He went blank for as long as it took me to say it, then I backed off. He didn't move right away, just blinked a lot, as though trying to remember something. I couldn't do much more or his goons would notice and get uneasy.
"Sullivan?" Gordy asked. He'd been watching, saw what I'd done, had been looking for it. "What do you think?"
"I… I… don't like it."
"Neither do I, but let's play along just for laughs. It's not like the kid's gonna disappear on us."
I chose to not take that as a signal to do so and waited.
"He's a liar, he turned on you."
"Then he's my problem to deal with, not yours. If he's got the books then take 'em and get outta my place. I got a business to run here and you and your boys are crowding me."
Sullivan gave me a sharp look. I returned it with care. "This is on the up-and-up,"
I said. "You can have the books, and I'll get clear of your business."
He shook his head, probably wondering what hit him. I sensed his men shifting on either side of me, ready for trouble. They were aware something was off, but not sure what.
"What's your answer, Mr. Sullivan?" I prompted.
He made an impatient gesture. "All right. But you even think of pulling a double cross…"
"Then hang me from a meat hook," I suggested.
The guy with the blackjack had an expression like he'd be pleased to do the honors.
"Let's get started," said Sullivan. "Where are they?"
I put a hand up. "Not until I see Opal."
"She's a friend of mine." I was ready to give him the eye again, but Gordy spared me the headache.
"Let him. It'll only take a minute. I'll send someone down to warm up the car."
"Cars," Sullivan added. "You want us out, we're leaving. I haven't had a decent meal the whole time I've been in this dive." I guess manners weren't part of the Ivy League curriculum these days.
Gordy produced another slight twitch around his mouth. It gave me the idea that maybe his cook for the duration of Sullivan's visit had been told not to make any special efforts at the grub. "I'll take him in to see the girl," he said, and rose. As he stood he swept his hands over the unfinished game of solitaire, gathering the cards together in a neat stack, wiping out their message.
"Come on, kid."
He took up a lot of space and Sullivan and his boys had to stand aside as he passed. No one stopped me as I went with him into the hall. Neither of us said anything because Sullivan was right behind us.
Gordy called orders about the cars to his men downstairs, then turned and led the way to the far end of the hall. The big bedroom there had belonged to his former boss, now deceased, Slick Morelli. His stuff was all cleared out and replaced, different wallpaper, different pictures. The bed looked the same except for Opal being in it. I made a beeline for her.
She seemed smaller than before. Her face was too white and reminded me of a crushed flower. I was scared to touch her.
"Here, now, what's this?" A fussy-looking man in sober dark clothes came out of the bathroom. "Mr. Sullivan, this simply won't do."
"Dr. Balsamo, I presume?" I muttered.
"And who might you be?" Neatly trimmed beard on his chin, dark features, not old, not young, a slight foreign accent I couldn't place. When I didn't answer he went to talk to his boss in hushed, but insistent tones. His theme was that visiting hours were over. Gordy came up next to me to look down at Opal.
I took the opportunity while I had it. "Did you really do the hit at the hotel?" I asked, barely moving my lips.
"Why say so?"
"Because it was a good idea at the time."
"You know who did do it?"
"The hit car's out front, a Packard full of holes. You can't miss it."
He made a small grunt of acknowledgment.
"You know I can get the truth out of you if I have to."
"I know, kid. Truth's what you're getting now."
"What about the fire? Who did that?"
No time to tell him different, Sullivan came over. "That's it. We're going."
It wasn't enough. I wanted her to be awake so I could apologize. Selfish thing to do, robbing her of sleep just to ease my conscience. Managed not to do it, but I did pause on the way out to talk with the doctor.
"Is she really going to be okay?"
"She should be, unless she develops an infection from having all of you in here breathing your germs into her air."
"She doesn't look so good. You sure? Why doesn't she wake up?" No one was being any too quiet.
"That's the sedative. She was up earlier and beating me at checkers. Now, everyone get out of here this instant."
He was fussy, but I liked that. It meant he was looking after her.
I said goodbye to her for now. Apologies would have to wait for later.
We trooped downstairs, Sullivan's men lording it over Gordy's, not enough to cause a fight to break out, but sufficient to drive their point home that they were with the winning boss, the man with all the power. I'd seen it before, but it's usually on a grade-school playground.
Sullivan's two cars weren't enough to hold us all; Gordy sent someone to bring around his Cadillac. He drove and Sullivan sat up front with him. I was in the back between two goons. None of Gordy's men went with us, which had a funny smell I didn't like.
"Where to?" Gordy asked.
"Flora's Dance Studio," I said.
Sullivan looked ready to choke. "My people went over that place, every inch."
"It's not my fault you've got a bunch of dummies on the payroll."
"Where are they?"
I assumed he meant the books, not the dummies. "Upstairs, not too far from the manager's office." If Angela hadn't lied to me, that is. I didn't think she had, but if so, then I'd have to take the hint from Gordy and disappear. I was planning to anyway.
Once I had the books in hand, I'd get scarce and let Sullivan and his boys go chase themselves trying to find me. With any luck, Adkins could start working on their codes before dawn. As for Opal, she was going to stay well clear of the mess from now on if I had anything to do with it. Her part was over.
Our caravan trundled through the thinning traffic, Gordy holding to a nice comfortable pace, sometimes pausing if one of the cars behind got caught by a stop signal. The drab studio and its neighborhood was on the other side of the world compared to his swanky club, but both were linked tight as twins to the common need of people wanting risky distractions. Rich or poor, it went to all levels. I wondered if the mobs would go out of business if suddenly all the current vices became legal. Probably not; they'd just find a way to take their usual cut, only it'd be aboveboard.
Not my worry, though; Gordy found a spot across the street to park and slipped in. The other cars cruised forward to the end of the block and made U-turns, stopping in front of the studio. Everyone got out. Some of the bums hanging around the all-night theater stopped trying to panhandle tickets and turned to watch our particular show instead.
Our group waited until Sullivan's boys broke the doors open and went through.
The building had been boarded up by the cops, but no one was on watch. The place was a dump, so why bother?
One of them came out and waved, then we started across the street. Way at the far end of it a car rounded the corner, the headlights flashing in the turn, then shutting down. No one else noticed because of the dark, but I recognized the Packard. Something was up, and I didn't know who was behind it, Gordy or Sullivan.
Gordy might have lied to me when I'd asked about the hotel hit, knowing I couldn't seriously try getting the truth out of him in front of the others. Maybe all he'd wanted was some time to set up another one, and I'd provided a convenient way of having it take place far from his club.
Talking to him about it was impossible, of course. For the moment.
With Sullivan's men on either side like an honor guard, I was ushered through the studio doors with a lot more ceremony than on my last visit. Someone hit the lights, only half of them came on. The place looked cavernous with all the dancing couples gone. Overturned chairs lay here and there by the walls and on the floor were hundreds of torn ticket stubs. We walked over them and went upstairs, leaving most of the goons to cool their heels below. Sullivan must have been comfortable with just the two guarding me.
I took them down to the manager's office, passing wrecked rooms on the way. The damage was severe, a lot like the gambling area of the Nightcrawler Club, full of broken machines and similar litter.
The glass panel on the office door was smashed through. I went in and tried the light so everyone could see the wreckage, too. The bowling trophy still lay on the floor, but it was easy to overlook amid the smashed desk and pulled-out drawers. Not so easy to miss was the manager's blood. No one had had time to clean it up before the raid.
I went past it all to open the second door onto the back hall. It was freezing, the fire-escape window still gaped wide. The two goons outflanked me when they saw my interest in it, putting themselves in my way in case I got any ideas about leaving in that direction. It seemed best to ignore them.
The door to the janitor closet also sagged open. The threadbare rug was all rumpled, but still pretty much in place covering the trap. Even the dim light worked.
There wasn't much room for the others, but they crowded together on the threshold to watch as I yanked the rug back and pulled the door up.
"My boys already searched that place," Sullivan informed me.
I ignored him, too, for a closer study of the trapdoor. It was heavy, but not unexpectedly so, and a few inches thick. I ran my fingers along the front edge, looking for some way in. A board shifted under them. I gave it a push and it swiveled, revealing a cavity. Angling the door just right, I could see down inside, glimpsing the thin flat spines of ledger books.
"Bingo," I said by way of announcement, and leaned back so they could get a look.
After the first wave of satisfaction passed, Sullivan seemed disappointed. Now he'd have to let me go. Then again, my influence on him wasn't so firmly fixed that he couldn't overcome it if he wanted to badly enough.
"Get them," he ordered.
I tried reaching in, but my hands were too big. Not so for little Angela, or even Opal. "Have to fish them out with something unless one of your boys is on the dainty side."
"Don't be smart."
"Then have someone turn up a wire coat hanger so I can snag this stuff."
He sent one of the goons away and we stood around with our hands in our pockets and not saying anything. There was quite a chilly draft coming from that window. It made the exit door at the bottom of the hidden stairway bump against its latch. I checked down there, but it was empty.
"Where's that go?" asked Gordy.
"Comes out in an alley. Opal and I used it the other night to get away from the raid." I might use it again once the books were out, just vanish and pop down the rabbit hole with them, leaving Sullivan with one hell of a mystery on his hands. It might be tough for Gordy, but he could take care of himself, probably pretend to be as astonished as the others. If it seemed necessary, I could always dump the books someplace safe, like the roof, then hurry back to help him. The chance might even come up for me to grab Sullivan for a little private talk. Then Maxwell wouldn't be the only guy telling his life story to Merrill Adkins. Now wouldn't that be sweet?
The goon was taking his time. Sullivan snarled at the remaining one to go find out what the holdup was. Another few minutes crawled by with everyone getting colder.
"They're not gonna find anything," he finally concluded. "Here-" He pulled a claw hammer off its peg and gave it to Gordy. "I'll watch him, you break it open."
Gordy shrugged, but the room was too small for both of us, so I eased out to give him space and he went to work on the wood joints, thumping away on them, then trying to pry them apart. It made a lot of noise and at first masked over what was going on below. I was barely aware of it, all my concentration being on Gordy. The sound only registered with me as a random banging that might have been a freak echo of Gordy's hammering coming up the narrow stairs.
Then Gordy paused and we all heard it, muffled by the many walls between but unmistakable: the sound of a machine gun stuttering.
It went on for only a second or two and stopped and was answered by some scattered individual shots from semi-autos.
"What the hell… ?" Sullivan must not have spent any time in the streets and didn't know the universal rule about always running away whenever you hear gunfire, preferably in the opposite direction from its source. He hauled out a shiny new .45 and rushed off toward the ruckus.
"What is it?" I asked Gordy. "Something of yours?"
He shook his head. "Damned if I know, kid." He left off with the hammer and pulled his own gun clear. I followed Sullivan's path, with Gordy behind me.
More guns going off, men yelling. Jeez, how they were yelling. The machine gun started up again, getting louder the closer we got-no, there were at least two of them, maybe others.
Gordy hung back out of sight of the main stairs while I pressed forward. Sullivan crouched at the corner, peering down, not moving.
"What is it?" I called.
He jumped and turned like I'd hit him with a live wire. His face was sheet white and his hands shook. He was better for giving orders to send his mugs in for strong-arm work than doing the work himself. "Th-they're shooting 'em."
I'd figured that much. "Who?" I got up next to him and peeked around the corner.
Couldn't see a lot, part of the stairs, a man's very still body on it. He'd fallen forward trying to run up; big bloody holes marred the back of his pale tan coat. Saw another body farther down, also not moving. The rest of what lay below was blocked off by architecture and smoke. Cordite stink filled the air; that and the bloodsmell.
It was enough for me, I pelted back and grabbed Gordy's arm, heading for the fire escape. I went through first and retreated just as fast when I spotted a man below.
He'd been waiting for someone to try using the window and fired off a couple rounds to cheat us of escape. Didn't recognize him beyond the fact he was a threat.
"In here," I said. But Gordy was way ahead of me, moving for the closet.
"Tight fit," he commented as he eased into the stairwell.
"The door at the bottom just might be watched. Stay in there until you hear from me."
"I gotta see what the hell's going on."
"Screw the books, get 'em later."
As soon as his head was below floor level, I lowered the trapdoor on him. The top part of it wouldn't lie flat because of damage from the hammer, but I threw the rug over it, then pulled a rolling bucket and mop cart over on top of everything. It would survive an initial look-see.
I went back to the fire-escape window, this time putting only as much eye past the sill as was necessary. The man was still down there. Apparently all he had to do was make sure no one got out. Going invisible, I did exactly that, feeling my way along the metal framework until I reached the ground. I didn't go solid again until I was well behind him, and then only enough so I could see.
All alert, he was engrossed with looking up the stairs, gun out and ready to shoot.
Not one of Gordy's men, and I didn't recognize him as being with Angela's crowd, but he seemed familiar nonetheless. Whoever he was with, he was dangerous, so I went completely solid and popped him one just as he turned to see who was making the fast footsteps. He dropped and I grabbed at the gun to keep it from landing wrong. A no-nonsense Thompson fitted out with a fifty-round drum. These boys meant business. I shoved it high on the fire stairs out of the way.
Gunfire. Echoes cracked off the buildings. A few spatters of it, then silence.
Down the alley, turn two corners, and I was out front. The bullet-pocked Packard was slewed across the path of the other cars, and had company with a year-old Ford, which similarly blocked the Caddie.
I saw movement at the front entry of the studio, a couple of men, postures tense, looking the street up and down for trouble. One of them held another Thompson at the ready. His gave the area one last look then went into the building, leaving his friend on watch. I ducked back to where I'd come from and slipped up the fire stairs the easy way, going solid once inside.
Listened. No more shooting, but who could say how long that would last. I worked slowly toward the front stairs. Sullivan was gone, maybe hiding in one of the rooms, or he'd slipped out the escape while I'd been away.
Couple more steps and look around the last corner. Dead man still sprawled on the stairs, only another man-machine gun in hand-loomed over him, checking him.
He reacted instantly, bringing the gun around fast enough to give anyone else a heart attack. I conquered my shock enough to put my hands up and told him to hold off a second.
"It's me-Jack Fleming! What the-what the hell are you doing here?"
He waited and two more men joined him, also with Thompsons. There was something strange and bulky about their clothing until I realized they were all wearing bulletproof vests.
"What is this? Some kind of raid?"
"Some kind," Adkins snapped. "Take him below."
"Hey, I'm one of the good guys, remember?"
"Sure, that's why you're so cozy with your friend Gordy."
One of them came up and grabbed the back of my coat, shoving me downstairs, ignoring my protests. Then I saw what was waiting below and couldn't talk anymore.
Cordite and bloodsmell. Lots of both.
Couldn't move, could only stare. It was too much to take in.
Blood flooded the floor. Bodies everywhere, all with that peculiar stillness of death hovering over them. Nearly a dozen men were scattered across the huge room. Dead.
Except for the War, I hadn't seen anything remotely close to it, not even in the news photos of the garage that made the headlines on St. Valentine's Day.
Had to shut my eyes a moment and fight the rising nausea. Gulped it down until I was dizzy, then looked again. The sight hadn't gotten any better. Noticed one standout from the rest, a smaller man in an expensive dark coat I thought I knew.
Walked over on wooden legs, knelt, and turned him over.
It was Maxwell. Had been Maxwell.
I looked up at the faces of the other men, of Adkins and the two with him. They stared back, their eyes full of darkness, the souls that should have been there long gone.
"What have you done?" I whispered.
"Just made the world a little cleaner," Adkins answered.
"You murdered them."
"They had guns. It was a fair fight."
"And him?" I pointed at Maxwell. "He had a gun?"
"He will before we're done here." He gave an order to the others and they split off to run upstairs.
I focused hard on Adkins, rage welling fast. Tried to damp it. "Stop them. You hear me? Call them back!"
He squinted a little like I'd blown smoke in his eyes, then shook his head.
Too late. I heard Sullivan's distant panicked shout before machine gun clatter abruptly shut him down.
Took a step toward Adkins, but his gun was square on me. I held off a moment, tried again to get past his darkness, put on all the pressure I had. I let the rage loose, felt it leaping forward. "You call to them and get them down here. You listen to me and call them back now!"
But my anger, the same kind that had shattered Frank Paco's mind, had no effect on this bastard. He was already too far gone for my influence to touch him. "Like hell I will," he said evenly, and lighted a cigarette.
I staggered back as if he'd been the one trying to do the hypnosis. Fought the sickness again; this time it was more emotional than physical. I'd heard about such monsters, had done news stories on them, had even met a few, but not like this, not in the middle of their handiwork while the blood was still fresh.
"You did the hotel hit, didn't you?"
Adkins shrugged, puffing.
"You nearly killed an innocent girl."
"She works for scum, that makes her the same as them."
"She's a girl, not much more than a kid."
"Sometimes they grow up wrong. I heard about her, about her not being right in the head, so it wouldn't have been any big deal. There's too many freaks as it is."
This was like picking at a scab, knowing it would bleed. "And the other two cops, the fire…"
"We had our eye on that bunch for a long time. Didn't take a lot to get them out to the roadhouse, get some dirt on Sullivan from them."
"Then shoot them in the back."
"They were crooked. Crooked cops are cancers, when you find them, you cut them out."
"And what are you? Your world must be wonderfully black and white. People are either good or bad with nothing in between, is that how it is for you?"
"We do what we have to do."
"You didn't have to do any of this! That's why I gave you Maxwell. He could have helped you put them all away- without killing."
Shook his head. "I know better. Months of courts and fancy talk with fancy lawyers, and even if some do go to jail it's nearly always a fluke. I'd rather have my taxes going to pay for new roads than buy room and board for this kind of garbage."
He nudged Maxwell with his foot.
"The others that Charles and I turned over to you-they dead, too?"
"What do you think?"
Then I couldn't look at him anymore. If I did, I would kill him. Once started, I might kill them all. I held it in so hard it hurt.
One of them shouted that they couldn't find Gordy. "Must have used the fire escape. Conrad's out cold in the alley."
"Then we'll catch him later. Let's get this organized first."
Only now did they come down, dragging Sullivan's body along.
"Won't it look funny moving him?" one of them asked.
"We're the ones who'll write the report. No one's going to question anything."
"They never have yet," the other man assured his friend. They let Sullivan's body drop. The second man pressed the plated .45 into Sullivan's relaxed hand. I noticed the safety was still on, not that it would matter much.
Adkins kept watch on me while they went outside to retrieve Conrad and the other man out front. Conrad was groggy and uninformative about his attacker and very annoyed that he couldn't find his Thompson.
"Gordy probably took it," Adkins concluded. "We'll get it back, don't worry."
Now it was time for them to have a quick cigarette and make sure their stories matched up. They'd say they'd gotten a tip about a mob meeting from Maxwell and came to check it out, but it had been a trap. The shooting started, begun by Sullivan and his men and finished by Adkins.
"Does Charles know what you do?" In any other place or time I would have the answer, but here and now…
"Not yet. Maybe sometime later when he's ready to step up from his nickel-and-dime problem solving and do some real work. Then he'll be ready."
"What about your bosses?"
"We get results, they never mind those."
"But how you get them is wrong."
They looked at me, uncomprehending.
I struggled to find words to make them see, but my emotions kept choking me.
There were no words for it, only feelings, and these men were past anything so human. "It's not just to clean up the world, Adkins. You want the headlines that made your name big before Repeal. The next one will be a real doozy: 'G-men Nail Hoods in Fiery Shoot-Out,' or do you prefer 'G-man'? You can be the spokesman for this fine group of outstanding law officers."
"So what if I am? I've done a lot of good work. We all have. It deserves recognition."
"You just murdered a dozen people!"
"Scum, Fleming. All scum-who would have murdered any one of us given the chance."
"Not this way."
"Of course, this way. You just don't get it, but then you're one of 'em."
"Oh, I am?"
Contemptuous laugh. "Remember those calls to Gordy?
Like tonight, him calling you to come help him out."
"The wire on his phone."
"Easy as follow the leader."
"But you can't kill me."
A shrug. "Wait and see."
"Escott will know better. He won't believe any lie you feed him about me being with the mob."
"Then you'll be a tragic accident. You got curious, wanted to tag along with us, and got caught in the cross fire when all hell broke loose, very sad."
"He won't believe that either."
"If he doesn't, then accidents can happen to private agents the same as anyone else."
I bowed my head. I couldn't change his mind by any means. He was too far gone.
With those words he'd made the decision for me on what to do. Like it or not, I was slipping into their darkness. I would have to kill, after all. Turn executioner. Watch my own soul slide away forever.
Hesitated. Wanted to hang on to who I was for just a moment more.
That wasn't going to happen. They'd have to finish up fast here before anyone else came.
"Stand him over there by the stairs," said Adkins. "We'll say he started going up and that's when they got him, that's what started it all."
"Don't think it'll work," one of them commented. "Why should they all come down here if they had the high ground? No need to get all dramatic, Merrill. Just say he lost his nerve when the shooting started and ran out in front."
"Okay. Get one of their guns and do it."
The man stooped and plucked a gun from someone's hand. Checked the clip for ammo. Raised it up. He hardly needed to aim at this distance.
I was set to vanish, to start my way to hell. The scene was already burning itself into my memory. I'd carry this and what I was about to do with me for the rest of my life.
Burst of fire above and behind me. The man staggered and dropped. Strings sliced.
Before the others could react, another burst rattled the room, it seemed to go on much too long. Could have been only a few seconds' worth. Felt like eternity. Instinct made me hit the floor and curl up as the slugs hammered overhead and cut down Adkins, cut down all of them.
The last man toppled.
I couldn't believe the silence. Shut my eyes against it for a moment.
Didn't want to see, but looked anyway.
Head shots. All head shots. To get past the vests.
Looked up the stairs.
Angela Paco stood on the top landing, that silly hat still precariously clinging to her hair, her face new-penny bright. She had Conrad's machine gun in her firm grip.
She laughed down at the slaughterhouse, then whipped away.
Bloodsmell making me gag. I stumbled up the stairs to escape it.
Past the office, down the hall to the closet. She was there, pushing back the bucket and mop to lift the trapdoor slightly, just enough so she could slip her hand inside and pull out the first of the books.
She saw me and grinned. "You know how to throw a hell of a party, don't you?"
"You came back for the-"
"Yeah, a double cross against you, but I got to thinking I really should have them after all. Like insurance or something. I won't need Opal, though, so you play Salvation Army with her, okay? How's she doing?"
"She's fine. How long were you listening?"
"Long enough to know you were in over your head."
She was right about that in more than the obvious sense.
Before she could continue, Gordy surged up from his hiding place. Angela squawked and fell back, landing flat on her butt.
For a second no one moved, then: "Hi, Gordy!" she said, beaming.
" 'Lo, kid."
"I don't want any trouble." Her hand was on the machine gun, but it was too bulky to bring around in the confined space. Besides, Gordy already had his gun on her.
"Neither do I. How's your old man?"
"I came to get some stuff."
He nodded. "So get it."
She cautiously reached forward and drew the books out one by one until five were stacked in her arms. "I'm going now," she announced.
We made no objection.
She stood, leaving the gun behind, and started walking.
"Where you going?" I asked.
She paused. Turned enough to smile at me. "I thought maybe Switzerland."
Gordy nodded at the books. "Think you'll need those there?"
"Probably not, but you never know."
"Maybe you'd like to cut a deal for them."
"Call me at the club before you leave, we'll talk about it."
She continued toward the fire-escape window. I followed while Gordy struggled out of the stairwell.
She stopped at the window to look back. Big smile for me. She was a killer like the ones below, but unlike them, still strangely alive and enjoying that life.
She came back, snaked an arm up to pull me down close, then planted a solid one right on my lips. "You owe me, blue eyes," she whispered, then ducked through the window, her heels clattering on the metal escape as she descended. Her laughter, schoolgirl giddy, floated up to coldly tickle my ear like the wind.
Gordy had a look at what was downstairs and came back. Even he was shaken and suddenly in a hurry. He wiped the machine gun down and left it in the closet, then we followed Angela's route down the fire stairs, got in his Cadillac, and drove away, simple as that. The bums by the movie house, if any remained, were well out of sight.
He wanted to know what had happened. I told him.
"Will there be reprisals from New York?" I asked, after a long thinking silence.
"Not over this."
"I mean against you or Angela for Sullivan's death."
"Not after I give 'em my version of the story. She ain't even coming into it.
Neither are you. So long as I'm running things, you and your buddy are strictly hands off from every wiseguy in this town. That's a promise. I owe you, Fleming."
"Uh-uh, we both owe Angela."
"They couldn't have killed you."
"But I would have had to kill them."
"You ain't cut out for that kind of work."
"I know. And I'd have had to do it. Then she stepped in. She can handle it a lot easier than I. I feel it, she doesn't."
He shrugged. "Yeah, she takes after her old man and then some."
I rubbed the spot on my chest where Frank Paco's bullet had cut through my heart and changed everything. My heart didn't beat anymore, but it was still there instead of a scraped-out empty space. The darkness hadn't taken it away just yet.
Angela had spared me from that, so yeah, I owed her. I owed her big time.
I wondered if she'd ever try to collect.READ MORE >>