A Chill In The Blood (Vampire Files #7)

Chapter 4

chapter
Chapter

CLICK TO ENJOY THIS WEBSITE!

It's a hell of a thing being a vampire with a conscience; maybe I wasn't so far gone as Bobbi feared.

And I'd better stop thinking so much and do something quick about Angela before anyone came in.

What hit first when I faded back into the real world was the bloodsmell. Dunbar had bled a sizable smear all over the floor. While my corner teeth didn't automatically bud, it was still a lousy distraction, exactly the wrong kind for me, considering the situation.

Next I took in a glimpse of the room: a small, seedy office with all the usual furnishings except for the bloodstain and a broken bowling trophy lying under a dent in one wall.

Finally there was Angela herself. Her back was to me, and she had one hand on a desk phone, but hadn't picked it up yet. Maybe she was just thinking about making a call. Right by it was a nickel-plated .22 semiauto, and I could guess that the muzzle was still warm from the shot. Must have been Dunbar's, I knew Angela usually favored a much larger caliber.

A tiny young woman wearing a dark print dress, she was delicate of bone and body, but with the soul of a grizzly bear and twice as mean. I could tell myself that in my brief contact with her I'd only ever seen her bad side, but it was such as to make me wonder if there were any others. There might not be room for them. Sure she cared about her father, but it was hard for me to balance that one good point against her easy willingness to kill people and still try to make it all come out even. My very first sight of her was to stare in disbelief as she put the muzzle of a .45 to the back of a man's head, pulled the trigger, and blew his brains over the street. For all the emotion she showed then and afterward, she might as well have been filing her nails.

Then there was the business of last night, when she'd been tossing hand grenades around like firecrackers. The shrapnel had nearly been too much for me on top of all the other damage I'd taken, and even with me trying not to look like I was dying and failing miserably, she'd not batted an eye except to flirt in an attempt to get information from me. She was cold as that damned lake where she'd arranged to have my apparently dead body dumped.

Yet for all that, she was cute as a ladybug, small features, short dark hair that curled around the edge of her face; she had Frank's big heavy-lidded eyes, but on her they were attractive, bee-stung mouth, and a little mole just over there…

She turned. Saw me. That sweet mouth opened in shock. Her hand scrabbled for the gun.

No more time to think. I drew a fast breath and locked my gaze hard and fast onto her dark brown eyes.

" Don't move, don't speak," I whispered, all urgency.

She forgot all about shooting me and rocked back on her heels from the force of it. Her eyes went too wide. I eased off from full pressure and waited, but she did nothing else. Her face ceased to express fear and went all blank. Not a comforting sight, but better than before. I realized my emotions had started to get in the way, emotions like my own inner terrors, just what neither of us needed.

I took another shaky breath and a few more besides. Found my shoulders were hunched up almost to my ears. Forced them down again. It was enough to make my concentration slip and I was too spooked to grab it back again.

Angela shook her head like a drunk trying to get sober fast. "You-you're not…

what the hell… ?"

"Never mind that, just be quiet."

"No, you-"

"Angela, you will be quiet and listen to me. That's the most important thing you can do right now."

Another head shake. She was really fighting this; I wasn't used to such resistance.

She either had a hell of a lot of willpower, had been drinking, or I was going too easy with her.

The last, I thought. If I wanted to get anything done, I'd have to hit it harder than this. After a moment to collect myself I moved in close until we almost touched. She had to look straight up to see me, making a long graceful line of her throat. I could hear her heart…

Don't go there, buddy.

But I didn't have to do anything; all on her own she put both her hands on my chest. They were so small, but even through my clothes I could feel, or thought I could feel, the quick pulsing of her blood just beneath the pale flesh. Sweet Jesus, I could smell it and tell the difference between the dead stuff staining the floor and the living stuff rushing through her veins.

No.

Backward step, my own hands out to keep her in place. From the floor below, the band struck up a slow tune. We could have danced to it. She even followed me a pace or two until I ordered her to hold still again, my voice thick and hoarse. I backed up more and kept going until the desk was between us. Might have felt silly about doing it but for the fact my teeth were out; we were both in danger. I looked anywhere in the room but at her and caught myself shuddering with a perilous combination of fear and arousal.

Dammit, but this was too much. It was past time I got square with myself again on this once and for all. I wasn't a mindless, ravening animal; I wasn't a rapist. I didn't have to give in to this kind appetite; I didn't have to lose control. Hypnotizing men sure as hell didn't do this to me, only women, women who attracted me, and all this was because I knew I could get away with it.

Taking all her blood would be great, the finest, I'd had enough of a sampling from the other woman to know just how fine it would be, but then I'd have to live with myself and the consequences for a very, long, long time. A few minutes of ecstasy followed by God knows how many years of regret. I had enough of those already from the normal events of living to be making new ones to throw on the pile.

Yes, indeed, it's a hell of a thing to be a vampire with a conscience, but then why not? Better to have a brief twinge of it now than decades of it eating away at my soul later, of wishing I could undo things. Better not to indulge to start with.

I took a long moment to mentally catch my breath, and it seemed to work. I got a lot calmer inside. My teeth gradually receded. The next time I looked at her I had myself all reined in, but she was half-awake and still fighting.

"Angela."

She stopped blinking and shaking her head, her attention arrested on me. I looked hard for a few seconds, then stared past her. That helped. So long as I kept the contact brief with pauses in between I might just be able to get away with this.

"Saw you… saw you dead," she whispered.

"I know you did, but it was a mistake. You're going to listen to me now."

"No… why… should I?"

I said her name again. Damn, but she was a tough cookie.

"Because you have to." Which was a pretty lousy reason to give, so I improvised a better one. "Because it will help your father."

There, she stopped fighting me so much. The part of her that was still thinking was all attention. "How?"

"Just listen and do as I ask. First off, I want you to cancel the hit on Charles Escott. I want you to forget he even exists."

"Escort?"

"Charles Escott, the tall, skinny guy with a big nose, you're gonna leave him completely alone. Far as you're concerned he's nothing and nobody, not worth your time. And tonight you tell your boys to do the same. Got that? Tell it back to me again."

She did so, but it was a struggle. I made her go over it twice more, then a third for good measure, until she was saying it smooth with no faltering. Only then did I relax with a sigh of relief. The really important item was finally out of the way; the rest was going to be my own personal ingenious plan. Not that it wasn't important, but I had some doubts about being able to force it through. With this kind of hypnosis you can get anyone to do anything, and I mean absolutely anything, right up to jumping off a building to admire the view on the way down. The normal kind used by doctors and in sideshows you can't take so far because it'd be against the nature of the person you put under. That was something I never had to worry about, but my version only lasted for a short while; any orders I gave against a person's basic instincts would wear off with time unless I reinforced them.

On the other hand, if I found a way of getting around a person's natural objections, so they wanted to go along with me on something, then it's back to anything goes again, and I already knew what angle to try on Angela.

"Now, about this Sean Sullivan and what you're planning to do…" I began.

Commotion downstairs. Couldn't ignore it, not when the music suddenly stopped and the shouts and screams started. Didn't know what the hell it was, a fight between the patrons, a fire, or worse. I told Angela to stay put and went to the door to see.

In the hall outside were a bunch of other men like me, craning their necks toward the source of the noise, trying to figure out what was happening. A few of them decided not to wait and were moving fast toward exits. The shouts got louder and at the far end of the hall I spotted a knot of bouncers tearing up the stairs, pushing men roughly out of their way. They were closely followed up by another knot. Those boys were in dark blue coats and carrying fire axes.

"Raid!" someone yelled a fraction too late. Maybe Angela had skimped with her payoffs to the cops this week. Everyone had the idea by now and was trying their best to escape. A dozen of them stampeded right at me. I tried shutting the door, but they bulled in, cursing and breathless, heading for a second door at the back of the office.

With all this going on, Angela woke right up and made a grab for the .22 on the desk. I swatted it out of her hand before she could bring it to bear. It thumped against the wall without going off and landed by the bowling trophy.

"None of that, sweetheart, we're getting out of here," I said.

She replied with a ripe and very unladylike word or three, the general meaning being for me to get out of her way. Her usual method of handling emergencies would put people in the casualty wards, so I slipped a quick arm around her waist, lifted, and threw her over my shoulder, intending to carry her out like a sack of potatoes if necessary. She swore and squirmed and clawed and kicked, but I gave her behind a couple of stinging swats and told her to shut up and behave. She squawked with sincere outrage and called me a really nasty name, adding in more verbal vitriol for good measure. At least I assumed as much from her tone of voice since she was cursing me in fast Italian now. I didn't know any of it, but was willing to bet hers weren't the kind of phrases that would show up in a Berlitz course.

With her under control, I joined the growing crowd flowing through the office.

They oozed into another hall and stairway, which were both choked with flailing bodies trying to get out. Some of the escapees were trying for the fire exit and crowding around an open window. Cold air blasted its way in, mixing with the stink of sweaty desperation.

"Not this way, you idiot," Angela snarled at me, beating a fist on my back to get my attention.

"Where, then?"

"Toward the office."

I looked. "We are not gonna get in there again."

"Not in the office, toward it. Put me down and I'll show you."

What the hell, why not? I thought, and did so. She eeled through the bodies, heading upstream with me right behind her, but instead of the office, she veered to the right and yanked open a door sporting a sign that read janitor. Maybe she was figuring to hide out there until the worst of the fuss was over. Seemed a fine idea to me. We could block ourselves in, and if there was any kind of light inside, maybe I could finish what I'd started with her then call it a night.

Crashing, splintering noises, and an odd, out-of-tune ringing sound. The cops with fire axes were making short work of the slot machines. Funny, you'd think they'd hold off on that for later. The usual routine was make arrests first, then chop up the property for the reporters and their cameras so the paper-reading public could see they were being well protected from the ravages of vice. More shouting, but no gunfire, not yet. All I had to do was keep Angela out of things and maybe it would stay that way.

She dove inside the janitor closet with me at her heels. I slammed the door against further interruptions. The place smelled dank and dusty from the mops, buckets, and brooms. Angela found a switch and flicked on a twenty-five-watt bulb overhead. I looked for some kind of inside latch or lock, but had no luck there, just an empty keyhole. I'd have to jam a foot against the door and lean on it.

Angela glanced up at me, her face alight from the excitement of the moment. Oh, but didn't she remind me of Escott and the way he liked living on the edge? He should be the one alone in a closet with her, not me. She bent, reaching for a thin cloth rug to drag it out of the way. A rug? Why would anyone put a rug in here? She twitched it to one side, revealing the rectangle of a trapdoor.

"Help me pull it up," she said.

"Where's it lead?"

"Where do you think? Jeez, were you born yesterday?"

I hauled at a rope handle and the thing came up on its hinges. Not as smooth or subtle as the one in Escott's kitchen, but it worked well enough. Within was a glimpse of steps going down into utter darkness. Even my eyes couldn't get past it.

Unhesitating, Angela swung her legs into the narrow space.

"How far?" I asked.

"Find out," she answered, going in.

I followed, thinking this was a really lousy idea, especially with my claustrophobia trying to kick up. The walls were so close here I barely had room for my shoulders to squeeze in. Once away from the dim illumination of the closet above, I felt a fist going all tight around my heart. God, but I hate small dark places.

"How far?" I repeated. There was a distinct whine in my tone.

"Don't be such a baby. Hurry."

I could hear her clattering away from me. Had to take the stairs by feel now, couldn't see a damned thing in this pit.

Then she stumbled. That's what it sounded like. Thumps, heels cracking on the wooden steps. She cried out.

"What?" I called.

"Help!" she called back, desperation and pain in her tone. "Oh, God, help me!"

I pressed forward, heart galloping up to my throat. Going too fast and likely to stumble myself. "I'm coming, hang on."

Something solid caught me around the ankles and pushed up hard and fast. It was too quick, too unexpected; I toppled forward. Hell's bells, I was falling. Panicked, I lashed out with my arms to try to stop my momentum, but there was no banister to grab, I just slammed them into the walls. The solid thing pushed higher against my legs, and I tumbled headlong. At the last, the very last second, I managed to vanish so I wouldn't crush her when I landed.

Damned convenient talent, but invariably disorienting. I spun faster than before, couldn't get out of that part of it just yet. Damn, damn, damn-

The spinning slowed, I got myself in check, finally stopping to bounce lightly between the walls, trying to figure which end of me was up. My first guess was wrong as I floated one way and concluded I was heading toward the ceiling. Wanted to call out to her, find out what had gone wrong, but no voice in this state. A moment later I located the regular right angles that marked the steps. No sense of Angela, though, I must have floated well back up above her or had gone ahead and was below wherever she was. One way to find out. If she noticed anything odd I'd fix it later.

I materialized cautiously. Dark piled on top of dark met my eyes. I looked up, saw a very faint dim light. Rectangular. The trapdoor. Then it suddenly slammed down and the darkness got as bad as it could get without my actually being in hell.

Ironically, that's when the dawn started to break in my brain.

It was muffled, but I heard her triumphant, exhilarated laughter coming through the trap, the same kind of laugh as when she'd been throwing hand grenades.

"You goddamned little bitch!" I found myself shouting as I finally figured out what she'd done: faked a cry for help, dropped into a ball to trip me as I rushed to the rescue, then shot back up the stairs while I was still playing avalanche. If I'd been a normal man I could have broken my neck in the fall. She sure as hell hadn't stuck around to find out.

Using my hands to climb, I charged up, vanished halfway along, and smoked through the trapdoor. Went solid. The closet was empty. Damn, but she was fast.

Eased open the door to the hall for a peek. The place was still crowded with dozens of men, all in a sweat to escape. I joined them, trying to spot her small figure in the press.

Like I said, fast. She could be halfway to Cicero by now, dammit.

Milled around looking for her, but my heart wasn't in it, besides the cops were starting to make real headway into this part of the building. It seemed a good time to disappear again. I could find a quiet corner, wait until the fuss died down, then maybe grab one of Angela's inside boys to get a clue on her next bolthole, if she had one. Probably did. She was one lady it didn't pay to underestimate.

The janitor closet was still as good a place as any to lie low. Small, but not like that damned passage, and I could leave the light on. If anyone opened the door to check inside, I'd have plenty of time to not be there for them. Went back to it-none of the other men had noticed it yet-and closed myself in and listened, putting one eye to the otherwise useless keyhole. More of the same riot going on in the hall, then the cops really started in, ordering everyone to shut up and make a line. No one was in a mood to cooperate just yet and punches were thrown. Fresh outbreaks of yelling, cursing, I heard Irish accents dominating the rest; it was a real donnybrook for everyone.

Then my peephole was abruptly yanked away as someone opened the door. I backed up and straightened; a small figure charged in, slamming hard against me before I could disappear.

Female, but not Angela, not nearly small enough. For an instant I thought she might be one of the taxi dancers and changed my mind as soon as I noticed the baggy woolen clothes and galoshes. She looked up and there was the familiar pinched face and thick glasses.

"Why, Opal, what a pleasant surprise!" I said, grinning down at the Paco's bookkeeper.

Alarm washed over her features; she expressed it with an inarticulate chirp and tried to back out, but I had firm hold of her, dragged her in, and kicked the door shut with my foot. She went all fists and feet, hitting hard, but I caught her hands, looked into her eyes, and told her to knock it off. She did exactly that.

Okay, so I'd lost Angela, but Opal was the next best choice, having very quickly become Angela's fair-haired girl of all numbers. Of all the people in the Paco mob, she would probably know where her boss lady would run for cover.

"Where's Angela?"

Mouth open, Opal shook her head. "Dunno."

Well, I could trust the truth of that, not just from my brief influence over her but from her very literal mind. I broke off and she woke right out of it to stare up at me.

"They said you were dead," she stated in her flat voice.

"They were wrong, then."

A scowl for me. "You should be dead."

"Stop, you're hurting my feelings."

"Because you're so mean. And don't make fun of me!"

"Okay, okay, I'm sorry, I apologize. Let's start over again."

"I don't want to. Just go away and let me by."

"Taking the scenic route out?" I gestured at the trapdoor.

"No." She gave me a look like I was prize pupil for the dunce's corner. "The stairs."

"Fine with me, I'll help you."

"I don't need your help."

I got out of her way and let her wrestle the trap up. "Where will you go?"

"None of your business."

"It's really dark in there, be careful."

Another withering look. She opened her huge purse and pulled out a flashlight, switching it on. Down she went into the passage, a real Girl Scout, prepared for anything. I followed, pulling the trap shut behind.

"I don't want you to come," she grumbled.

"Too bad." The place was still too narrow for my comfort, but the bobbing beam of light made me feel almost brave. "Not much you can do about it."

No reply, maybe she was trying not to slip around in her galoshes.

The walls were bare plywood and threw back what noise we made with interest. It was like walking around in a drum. She reached a tiny landing and tried the doorknob. It turned, but the door wouldn't budge more than an inch. She pushed against it. Two inches more, but it tuckered her out.

"Lemme try."

She pressed herself small into a corner to avoid all contact with me. I put my shoulder to the cold metal of the door and shoved. With a scraping sound something reluctantly gave on the other side. Another effort and we had enough space to squeeze through.

"Some escape tunnel this is, when you need to be King Kong to get out," I said.

"I'd have gotten through."

"Oh, yeah, in a week or three."

"Lemme past."

"After me," I said, going first to check things. I nearly tripped on a hunk of wood sticking out; it was incongruously attached to the lower part of the door. I saved myself by grabbing the jam.

An alley. Strong icy wind whipped between the buildings, rattling an army of dented trash cans waiting in hope for someone to empty them. One had been pushed in front of the door to block it. The can's base was partially eaten away by corrosion and had been patched over with a small load of cement, about a hundred pounds'

worth. Opal could have moved it and maybe even Angela, but not easily. There'd have been hell to pay with the fire marshal, but someone had painted a "no-entry-no-exit"

sign on the door. A couple of two-by-fours had been bolted across it, top and bottom, the lower one having caught my ankle. The effect, when the door was closed, was to make it look completely boarded up. Pretty clever.

Opal slipped out and started walking down the alley.

"Hey, wait up!"

"No!" She kept going, her purse banging hard against her hip. She brought it around and dropped the flashlight in.

"You got no choice in the matter, lady. You're stuck with me."

"I don't like you."

"Your loss, but I'm coming with you no matter what."

"Why?"

"Because I need to talk with Angela, and sooner or later you'll lead me to her."

"No, I won't, so leave."

"No."

She growled something and walked faster, but I kept up the stray-puppy routine.

"It'll be all right, Opal. Angela and I were talking just before the raid hit. All I want to do is finish our conversation. Angela wants the same thing. Of course, if you can tell me where to find her, then I'll go away so fast you'll feel the draft."

She had plenty of time to answer, but didn't give me one. Another confirmation that she didn't know where Angela was just yet. She probably knew how to contact her, though. "She wanted to kill you."

"Nah, we worked it all out, we're all roses and sunshine now."

That one got me a snort of disbelief. Couldn't blame her. "You were sick the other night. Really sick. I saw."

"I got better, honey."

"Don't call me honey!"

"Whatever you say. Where you going?"

No answer. She got to the end of the alley. It was a different street from the one across and down from the all-night theater and looked a lot nastier, but there was no commotion of cops and paddy wagons here. I noticed a number of hard-looking men hurrying along, keeping their heads down when they weren't glancing behind. They must have been lucky escapees from the raid.

Opal brought her purse around again and began digging in it. I heard the jingle of keys. She cut left onto the sidewalk and approached a parked Cadillac. From the smoked windows I recognized it as having belonged to the late Vaughn Kyler.

As new as it was, no one had put so much as a finger mark on its fresh wax job, let alone attempt to hotwire and steal it. The locals knew better.

She unlocked the driver's door and climbed in; I hitched a hip next to hers and slid her over.

"Get out!" she screeched.

"No!" I shouted back. "No more arguments, lady. Just give me the keys and tell me where to drive."

She fumed, breathing hard. Not really enough light coming in for me to bring her around to my way of thinking, but it turned out to be unnecessary. She slapped the keys into my open hand, scooted as far as she could over to the passenger door, crossed her arms, and stared straight ahead, disgust showing in every line of her body.

I found the ignition, the starter, got the motor turning, and fiddled with the gears and clutch. "Where to, ma'am?"

She looked too mad to talk and only jabbed her index finger in a forward direction. Probably too much of a lady to use a more obvious digit, that or she didn't know to use it in the first place. Her worldly education had some gaps in it, I knew.

I pulled sedately away from the curb. Smooth ride, quiet and secure as we all but sailed along. I could get used to it real fast, and the crazy thought flitted through my head that maybe I could talk Angela into giving the Caddie to me as a gift. After all the shit I'd been through with her, it was the least she could do. Escott's bullet-pocked Nash was in for repairs, he could drive my Buick until…

Corner. "Left or right, Opal?"

She pointed left. I brought the steering wheel around and drove us well away from the dance-hall area. Cop cars passed us, going the other way. It'd be a busy night in the holding tanks. I wondered if they chopped up all the gambling equipment. Usually they kept some intact for evidence, but from the sound of things, they weren't being all that careful.

"What happened back there?" I asked. "Did some big shot downtown decide he wasn't getting paid enough to look the other way?"

Opal shrugged.

"You feel okay?"

"No."

"You're not hurt, are you?"

She shot me a quick look. "No."

"Good. That's good." I sneaked another gander at her, but she seemed all right. In her young twenties, but with a hard face, I wondered what it would take to make her soften up and smile. Maybe she didn't know how. She knew squat about the social graces; the only thing that mattered to her were numbers. Vaughn Kyler had discovered her performing math miracles at an eatery, saw the potential of her bizarre genius, and hired her away to bigger and better things than collecting tips for parlor tricks. She did the books for him until his death, then switched sides to go to work for Angela. The last I'd seen of Opal had been on the yacht Elvira. Maybe she was intellectually short in some areas, but she must have had the instincts of a Houdini to get herself and Kyler's coded account books away and clear. My hat was off to her.

"You want to tell me where we're going?"

"No, I don't."

Damn, but I'd have to get used to her literalness all over again and watch how I phrased my questions. "All right, but I'm gonna have to know sooner or later or we'll just drive in circles until the gas runs out."

After a moment she said, "I don't have the address, just how to get there."

I told her that was fine with me and she fed me directions as needed. The blocks sped by, getting newer, more respectable, then decaying again. We reached a kind of halfway point between two such areas when she ordered me to stop at a run-down hotel.

"This is it?"

She nodded.

"You live here?" I remembered that Angela had promised to pay her fifteen hundred a month to keep the books. She could do a lot better than this joint.

"No, I'm supposed to go here when there's an emergency."

"Does it come with a parking space?"

Apparently not, so I had to find one. I finally nabbed a spot across the street, but only after making a quick and illegal U-turn. No cops around to notice. Maybe they were still at Flora's studio primping to get their picture in the morning papers. I levered out, holding my hand toward Opal to help her. She glared at it and slid across the seat without assistance. I locked the car up and kept the keys.

She jaywalked over to the hotel entry, me sauntering close behind.

Once upon a time there had been a doorman out front, but he'd either retired or died a long time back and no one had bothered to take his place. The closest they had now were a few winos huddled over a steaming grate. Opal sped briskly past them and pushed through a door with an etched-glass panel. The glass was cracked.

The inside lobby was all faded glory. What had been beautiful at the turn of the century looked pathetic and used up now. The once proudly polished brass of the showpiece staircase was dim and dark with neglect. The patterned marble floor was scarred, stained, and dull with decades of dirt. The rest of the place, from the reception desk with holes kicked into its front, to a cobweb-decorated cage elevator, told the same sad story.

The place was strangely busy, though. Three or four men were lined up at reception. One impatiently slapped down a dollar, grabbed the key the old clerk offered him, and took off up the stairs. I saw no sign of a registration book, but you didn't need a genius brain to figure out why. Waiting for the man at the first landing was a tired-looking woman with too much makeup, fighting middle age with every dab of paint and powder she could muster. She'd squeezed her ample body into a tight satin skirt, gaudy polka-dotted blouse, and topped it with a fancy hat. Her heels were much too high for normal walking, but then I was guessing she wouldn't be on them for the next little while. The man caught her arm, and she tottered the rest of the way upstairs with him.

"Nice place for Angela to put you," I commented as we paused just on the threshold.

"It's safe," she said, and pushed past me toward the reception desk. The old manager blinked at her.

"Angela sent me," she stated.

"Huh," he replied, checking her over. She didn't look like she belonged anywhere but at a library, sorting through the decimal system. Certainly she didn't fit into this place. He nodded, reached to the wall behind, and took a key off a hook separate from the others, handing it over. "Stairs, second floor, straight down to the end of the-"

"I know the way."

"I'll bet you do, girlie," one of the men in line said, all bloodshot nose and leering mouth. "How 'bout you show me?"

She kept her eyes down and moved away. He made a grab for her. I stepped in and caught his arm before he connected.

"The lady," I said, "ain't interested, bub."

He was just drunk enough not to take the hint. He swung at me with his other hand, but I hardly felt it. In fact it only made me grin. I caught hold of his coat and lifted until his feet cleared the floor. He was too surprised to do anything but gape.

He wasn't as tall as me, but considerably wider, and I shouldn't have been able to hoist him up like a baby.

"Hey, no trouble, no trouble!" cried the manager.

Yeah, there wasn't much point in my breaking some drunk in two. He'd only forget about it the next morning, if he lived that long. Hell, his hangover would do worse things to him than I could. I eased the guy back down and thoughtfully dusted his shoulders.

"No trouble," I repeated, still grinning. "Right, bub?"

"R-right." He backed off a few steps, falling against some of his friends in line.

Half of them wanted to see a fight and egged him on, the other half told him to get out of the way so they could go upstairs. He disappointed them both by holding his place and plopping his dollar down on the desk.

Opal had watched at the foot of the grand staircase. When she saw I was finished and coming toward her, she started scuttling up.

"Nice place," I said again, hurrying fast to catch her.

"It wasn't like this earlier."

"When was that?"

"Today. I met Angela here."

"With all her muscle around to keep you safe from the patrons, I'm sure things were just dandy. It's always a different story at night. All kinds of creeps are out then."

"I know," she said, pausing to give me a pointed look.

"Hey, unfair."

"You're a creep."

"Yeah, the creep that saved you from getting groped."

"I can take care of myself."

Never argue with a lady when she says that, even if she is a half-pint in galoshes.

Bobbi usually carried a blackjack in her purse, and God knows what Opal could stuff into the junior suitcase she was hauling around. "You must really trust Angela," I said.

"Trust?" She looked like she'd never thought of that one before. "I'm doing what I'm told."

"And if she tells you to run in front of a machine gun, will you do that?"

"She wouldn't tell me to do anything that dumb. Anyway, she needs me to do the books."

"So she has Kyler's account books now?" I already had the answer, but wanted to get her to talking on nice and steady. Maybe then she'd let drop something useful I didn't know.

"That was part of the deal we made the other night. I kept them, so now I work for her."

"How'd you swing getting away with them?"

"Why do you need to know?"

Good point. It didn't really matter how she'd done it, so long as it was done.

Angela had the world by the short hairs all right.

Once on the second floor, Opal went straight to the door at the far end of the hall and tried out the manager's key. It fit the lock without a hitch.

"Angela got this set up just for you?"

"No. She does a lot of business here, she said. This was where she told me to bring the books."

"The books still around?"

"No."

Well, it was really too much to hope for, but I did have to ask. As she opened the door we had a little dance routine when she tried to slip in and slam it in my face. I was wise to that and sidestepped her. She looked pretty annoyed, but I was used to that by now.

The room was a cut above the rest of the joint. The furnishings weren't new, but not nearly junkyard leavings yet, and it looked like someone had cleaned it within the last week. It was a suite, or what passed for a suite at the turn of the century; it was small, but we had a sitting room with sofa, chairs, tables, radio, even a phone.

Striped curtains covered the windows. I took a quick tour of the bedroom and found all the necessaries, including its own private bath. Very cozy. Once upon a time this must have been the place for honeymoons. It still wasn't all that bad except for the noisy neighbors. I could hear several of them through the thin walls making a night of it-or a quarter hour of it, anyway.

"Get out of here," Opal stated, holding the door open.

"Not yet. I have to talk with Angela, and that hasn't changed. The fastest way you can get rid of me is to call her." I nodded at the phone, making an "after you"

gesture.

She shut her mouth hard, thinking things over. "It's not right having a strange man in my room."

"Honey, in this place strange men in the room is normal."

"Not for me."

"I get the idea, but you don't need to worry about my harboring designs on your virtue. All I want is to finish my business with Angela and then you'll never see me again, promise."

She didn't look like she believed me. I thought about giving her a little mental push, but she saved me the trouble and closed the door. Nearly closed it. She left it ajar a few inches, probably so she could scream for help if she felt the need. Not that anyone here would bother to come running.

I got well out of the way so she could get to the phone. She dialed a number and waited, biting her thin lower lip. I could hear the faint ringing on the line, but no one answered. She waited a full two minutes before giving up, then looked at her watch.

"I'll try again in a little while."

"Okay," I said, dropping into a chair. "Want to call room service and order champagne and sandwiches?"

"Stop making fun of me, I know this place doesn't have room service."

"I wasn't making fun of you, Opal, that was a joke."

"Oh."

"It wasn't much of one," I admitted.

"I don't like jokes."

"Maybe I don't tell them so good." The radio was within reach. I turned it on and waited for the tubes to warm up. "You like music?"

"Sometimes."

No music just then, but I found some comedy show, to judge by the laughter. She didn't crack a single smile through the whole thing. It was painful to watch. Any other time I'd have left the radio off and toughed it out, but the moans, grunts, and squeaking bedsprings I was picking up all around us were distracting. Everyone in the joint was having a good time but me. And possibly Opal. I was sure her idea of a good time had to do with a balanced ledger sheet.

The radio-audience laughs died away, and after a cold-remedy ad the announcer introduced a band that did a catchy number I'd not heard before. That was saying a lot considering how much time I spent with Bobbi; she knew all the new music.

"Ever go dancing?" I asked.

Opal stared like I'd sprouted a new nose. "No, I haven't."

"Should try it sometime."

"I don't know how."

"That's easy enough to fix. Why don't you let me teach you the fox-trot while we wait?"

"No."

I hadn't expected her to give any other answer, but there was no harm in trying.

"Then what do you do for fun?"

"Fun?"

"When you're not doing numbers and playing with the books, what do you do?"

"I read."

"So do I. What kind of books you like?"

She shrugged, bored with the conversation.

"I like magazine stories myself, stuff like The Shadow. You ever hear his show?

It's pretty good."

No comment to that one. She looked at her watch and dialed the phone again.

This time she waited at least three minutes before giving up.

"Nobody home, huh? Where you trying to call? Maybe I could drive you there."

"I do what I'm told."

"In other words, you don't know."

"I'm not stupid!" she shrilled, startling me.

"Whoa, I didn't say that." I must have hit some sensitive phrase she'd heard too many times before. "Of course you're not. Anyone says otherwise and I'll punch 'em for you."

She snorted. More disbelief, but she settled down a bit. "What's your name?"

"I thought I told you the other night."

"I forgot it. I'm not stupid, I just forgot."

"That's okay. I'm Jack Fleming. You do remember the car ride?"

"The one that made me throw up? I remember."

"Uh, well, sorry about that. I didn't intend any harm."

"Yes, you did. You're mean."

From her point of view I was exactly that and beyond redemption. "If I'm so mean, how is it you can work for someone like Vaughn Kyler and now Angela? They gotta have me beat six ways to Sunday."

Opal continued to stare at me like I was a particularly ugly bug.

"You must know what's going on, the kinds of things she does. She kills people.

Those were hand grenades she was throwing last night, not rice at a wedding. Why are you mixing yourself up with this crowd? Sure, the money's good, but there's another side to think about. It could get you killed."

Opal swallowed, brows down with concentration as she struggled to release an answer. "She… she…"

"She what?"

"Angela respects me."

I traded stares with her. "Respects you?"

A lift of her chin. Defiance. "Yes. And so did Vaughn."

It made sense. Opal probably didn't get a whole lot of regard, high or low, from most people. My guess was, if not for her weird talent with numbers, she'd be nothing much at all to anyone, which was a damn sorry state to be in. Even with her talent, she was more likely to be viewed as some kind of a freak rather than as a person with feelings. Having someone's respect, even if that someone was Angela Paco, would make for a very strong loyalty.

"Respect is a good thing, but what happens to you if Angela goes out of business?"

"She won't, business is good."

"Other people think so, too, they want to take it away from her."

"Like Sean Sullivan?"

"So you know about him?"

"I heard them talking. I met him once when I was with Vaughn."

"What was he like?"

"A jerk."

"You know he's going to try taking over Angela's territory?"

"They won't let him."

"It could happen. The mugs here won't want to work for a girl, even if she is Big Frankie Paco's kid."

"She's just filling in until he's better."

"They won't believe that story for long, and when she runs out of payoff money, the whole setup will come apart."

"She won't. The daily receipts give her plenty to work with. Then Vaughn had a big packet of cash hidden away."

"He did? How much?"

"About seven hundred thousand. He didn't let me count it exactly, but that's my estimate based on the subtractions he had me-"

" Seven hundred thou-" That's as far as I got as all the air rushed out of my lungs for the next few moments. "Good God in heaven. Where is it?"

"Someplace safe." She was pretty smug, which I took to mean she knew exactly where.

"How'd he get so much together without his bosses finding out?" With that kind of money I could figure he had to keep it all very quiet. The mobs didn't mind taking from other people, but thieves within the organization were just begging for an early funeral.

"He had me fix it for him in the books. I did a good job."

"I'm sure, but it's not something you want to talk about to just anyone."

"Doesn't matter. Angela's going to get it soon."

"You're turning it all over to her?"

"It's not mine."

"But you helped Kyler steal it. If the boys in New York find out what you've done, they'll kill you."

"I was just doing what I was told, why should they?"

"They shoot cookie-baking grannies just for the hell of it, Opal. If I'd been one of Sullivan's men, you'd be scragged right now."

"No I wouldn't. You'd want to find the money first."

"Which wouldn't be too hard. They know how to hurt people and they would hurt you to make you tell."

Her face darkened. "I don't want to talk about this anymore."

"It ain't gonna go away just because you don't like the subject."

She crossed her arms and stared at the floor, mouth set.

I shrugged. "Right, have it your way, but do yourself a favor, Opal, and don't mention that money to anyone else. Not even to Angela's lieutenants, one of them might start to get big ideas and then you'll all be in the soup. You got that?"

She finally glanced up. "I got it."

While we were looking at each other I did a little hypnotic push on her and waited until her face went blank. "Where is the money hidden?"

"At the roadhouse," she said with hardly a blink.

"The one where Kyler died?"

"Yes."

"And Angela's not gotten to it yet?"

"No."

Well, glory hallelujah. I just found something that I wanted more than Kyler's used Caddie.

"Where in the roadhouse?" I asked.

"Basement. Behind a panel in the wall."

"How about you draw me a picture of what to look for?"

"All right."

I fished out my notebook and gave her a pencil. She went to work and soon had a fairly clear sketch I thought I could follow. When she'd finished I went back to my side of the room, tucked the book away, and told her to forget all about the artwork.

She went back to stewing and glaring at the telephone, and I shut my eyes and let the numbers for seven hundred thousand float across my brain.

What an awful lot of zeros.

Sure, I could do the honorable thing and disdain all that Ill dirty, ill-gotten cash, but I wouldn't be human if I didn't at least learn more about it. What went through my mind was that in reality I didn't stand a chance in hell of getting it, but the mere thought of it was very much of the mouthwatering kind, and I might as well pursue it as sit here and twiddle my thumbs waiting. With that kind of money I wouldn't have to wait for a magazine to buy my stories, I could get myself a whole frigging publishing house of my own.

Or I could buy my own nightclub and make Bobbi the permanent headliner if she wanted.

Or put my parents-my whole family-on easy street for life.

Or… a hundred other quite wonderful things.

Of course, there'd be hell to pay with the taxes, but I could think of some way to smooth it over. Or pay someone to do it for me.

That was how I spent the next half hour as Opal kept trying the phone over and over again. Very pleasant stuff, if on the daydream side. Maybe I'd get the cash, maybe not. It wasn't exactly real to me and probably wouldn't be until I actually had it in my hands. And that couldn't happen until I got things wound up with Angela tonight.

"Try again," I said to Opal after another wait.

Until now I'd been Mr. Patience himself, but after her initial surprise wore off, she dialed. Another full minute of ringing and the start of the next.

Then someone picked up the other end. I heard their faint hello.

Opal sat up straight, identified herself, and asked for Angela. A pause and she had the boss lady herself. "I'm at the hotel like you said, but that man Jack Fleming is here with me. He wouldn't go away. What do I do?"

READ MORE >>

You can use arrow keyboard to go to pervious/next chapter. The WASD keys also have the same function as arrow keys.