A Chill In The Blood (Vampire Files #7)

Chapter 6

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I yanked hard on Opal's arm and we half dropped, half fell on the unforgiving concrete, then I rolled on top of her. It was pure instinct, my body wouldn't stop a bullet now, and God knows there were plenty of them flying. They cracked and thundered all around us, and I pressed my face against Opal's shoulder and prayed for it to be over. It took me back to the War, to the one time I saw any fighting, and I'd moaned a similar prayer then when I'd crouched in a ditch while a bunch of strangers in a machine-gun nest tried to kill me. The noise had gone on and on and on and there'd been an unending supply of it, and that's what was the worst: the sound hammering into my ears as if to beat the brain from my skull. I got the insane thought that maybe if they actually shot me and saw the blood, they'd finally stop the damned noise.

It was like that all over again, only without the ditch. We had no cover at all and didn't dare try for any. I glanced up and saw the slow passage of the Packard as it swept regally by, though it must have been going a good clip. My terror turned it into a snail's crawl.

Calloway and the others were also caught up in the crawl as they ducked and tumbled or tried to run clear. The ones who had their guns out returned fire, but I couldn't hear the smaller cracks of their pistols against the fire-spitting roar of a full automatic.

It tore up chunks of pavement; it splintered the hotel doors; it scattered frightened men; it did everything but shut the hell up.

And when I was ready to start yelling just to try drowning out the bedlam, it was suddenly gone.

If there was silence, I couldn't appreciate it. My ears felt stuffed, like I had a cold, and seemed to ring like a phone on the fritz. Down the street the Packard's red taillights vanished around the corner. It could come back, no reason why it shouldn't.

Calloway's men were no match for it, that was for damned sure.

I checked on them. One was down on the walk and not moving, two rushed past trying to catch up with the car, firing as they ran. The others were out of sight.

Calloway was just in front of me and starting to stand; he yelled at the pursuers to come back, sounding like he was behind a brick wall. I could hear him, but not too well.

"Opal?" I knew I was talking too loud; it was all reaction.

She didn't answer right away. I looked down, trying to read her pinched face. Her glasses were half off. I straightened them for her with my free hand. Her eyes were squeezed tight shut and she was half-curled on her side. I told her it was over and tried to coax her up, but she wouldn't move.

"Hey, honey, you okay?"

All she did was groan.

Bloodsmell.

Oh, damn. Oh, goddammit. Couldn't tell where she'd been hit, her coat was dark.

"Calloway!"

He turned, looked down, and took it all in, then started cussing.

"Call an ambulance, you bastard!"

"Screw it!" he yelled back, and stalked over to his fallen man. It didn't take long to check him out; at twenty feet I could tell he was dead. One of the others had caught a slug in the leg, and was limping back, supported by a luckier friend.

Opal whimpered.

" Calloway!"

He twitched as if from an electric shock and rounded on me. Had his gun in hand. Three quick steps and he brought it level with my eyes, inches away. The fast movement surprised me, but the real shock was his expression.

I'd heard about blind rage, knew all about it from feeling it myself, but this was the first time I'd actually seen what it did to anyone. His face was distorted, teeth bared, eyes wide and blank, all the cords and veins showed through his mottled red skin. Unrecognizable. I stared right up the barrel of his .45, the hole in that yawning muzzle blacker than hell. It was a meaningless tool. Nothing was more dangerous than the man himself. I tore my gaze from it to his sightless eyes and knew what birds know when they freeze just as the snake takes them.

Before I could vanish, he pulled the trigger.

My heart jumped into my throat, a cold ball made of iron and ice that made me choke. It slammed back down into my gut again. No time to brace for the pain.

But… nothing.

Used-up round in the chamber.

He tried three more times before the idea penetrated that it wasn't going to work, then I thought he'd throw the revolver at me. One of his men bellowed at him, and that seemed to help. He came out of it by degrees, but very fast. One moment trying to kill me, the next shouting back at his man and getting reorganized, and in between he visibly hauled in his fury hand over hand to shut it away for later. It had to be for later. A man doesn't get crazy mad like that without having a lot of it stored up inside.

Then Opal made another pain-filled sound and I got mad again myself.

"Calloway, stop screwing around and take this kid to a hospital."

"I'll take you both to hell!"

"She's no good to you dead!"

Baker put in his two cents' worth. "We gotta scram, Lieutenant. We can't explain this."

Calloway said "shit" a few times under his breath while he was thinking. "Okay, we'll scram, but not all of us. Get the Caddie and bring it over here. You and you are with us." He pointed at the cops who'd tried chasing the Packard.

Baker gestured at the dead and wounded. "What about-"

"They stay." He looked at the wounded man's partner. "You're both going to cover for us. Here's the story: You heard something at the raid about this place, that the Paco gang might have holed up here, so the three of you got ambitious and came to check it. Before you could get inside, the shooting started. Blame it on Paco. You leave everything else out, understand? The rest of us weren't here."

The men wearily nodded. One looked down at the dead cop on the sidewalk.

"Lieutenant…"

"I know, but it's done. You cover for us and you're covering for him. You're going to give him an 'in the line of duty' finish. Make him a hero and no one touches the rest of us, got that?"

"Yeah." They nodded again.

"Now get in and fix it with the manager, make sure he knows what's good for him. You two stick together and just follow normal procedure. Do the job right and I'll see to it you get extra this week; botch it, and we're all in the can. Go."

They hobbled off.

He turned to me. "How bad is she?"

"She's bleeding, Goddammit, how bad does she have to be for you to do something?"

He didn't bother to answer, just came close and knelt. He pulled Opal's coat open.

The white blouse underneath was stained with bright, fresh red. He undid the buttons and peeled back the right half. There was a hole just under her collarbone, seeping more red at an alarming rate. The blood made steam in the cold air. He pulled out a folded handkerchief and pressed it against the wound, then rose and nodded at his two remaining men. "Get them in the car."

"Where we going?"

"Sullivan's."

Baker got the Caddie started and swerved it in against the curb. Calloway climbed in the front, and the other two helped me get Opal in the back. I told them to take the cuffs off to make things easier, but no one listened. Wedged between them, I held Opal on my lap. She wasn't big, but completely limp, making her strangely heavy. I pulled her coat close around her, hoping to keep her warm, and kept up the pressure on the sodden handkerchief.

"Hey, Opal, come on, sweetheart, wake up."

She made a protesting sound. God, she was pale.

"Hospital, Calloway," I said as Baker hit the gears and pulled into the street.

Calloway looked at me over the seat. Didn't say a word.

" Hospital." I was focused on him, but didn't think there was enough light.

He jerked his chin at the men. "Keep him quiet."

"She's bleeding to death, you-"

The cop on my right cracked me across the forehead with the side of his revolver.

Not full force, but enough to hurt, to get my attention. It made a white flash under my eyelids, and my head snapped back over' the top of the seat. I blinked at the padded cloth of the ceiling for a few seconds before straightening.

"Quiet," the cop said, pointing with one finger like a parent to an especially backward child.

I glared at him. "This girl is bleeding, dammit, it ain't gonna stop just because-"

His partner got me from the other side. More flashing lights. More pain. No vanishing for me, it wasn't to that point yet, but would be the next time I opened my mouth. I weighed the pros and cons of vanishing. It would throw these two for damn sure. I could get in the front seat, take out Calloway, and get Baker to… no, bad idea.

He was going over the limit just now. Any surprises at this speed could be fatal. I'd have to wait until we got to a stop signal.

Checked Opal. Her lids cracked open.

"Hey, sweetheart, come on and talk to me." No hits from my friends for this. They only took offense if I tried speaking to them. "Opal?"

She winced and shifted in my arms, then made a soft cry.

"It's all right, we're getting help." I looked at Calloway for some crumb of confirmation, but saw only the back of his head.

"It hurts," said Opal.

"I know it does, honey. Just hold on for a little bit."

"My shoulder burns… it hurts."

" Calloway-"

The guy on my right put his gun to my temple. "This one's all loaded again. You can shut up on your own, or I can do it for you." The look on his face told me he wasn't even remotely kidding.

It wouldn't do Opal any good if they shot me. I'd just disappear, and whatever happened next would be out of my control until I finally recovered. Best not to push them or pull any supernatural surprises until an opportunity occurred. If only they'd put the inside light on; I'd whammy them so fast they wouldn't know what hit them.

But Baker kept up the driving, sliding illegally through stop signals. Never a traffic cop around when you needed one, not that getting pulled over would change things. All Calloway and the others had to do was show their badges and move on. He had plenty of rank to get away with nearly anything. He must have been one hell of an asset for Kyler; now he was Sullivan's man, and that made me wonder what Sullivan was like. I was getting a good idea from watching Calloway, though. Before, with Kyler, Calloway's attitude was that of any worker for his boss, respectful, but impersonal. Now he was showing a lot of anger, but it was of the kind that meant underneath he was really afraid.

The tension in the confined space was smothering. They were utterly silent, which wasn't right; people always have to talk. On the other hand, one of their own had been killed right in front of them. Any of them could have caught that hit. That sort of thing was a tough deal to approach no matter what direction you took. No wonder they wanted me quiet.

Not that I gave a tinker's damn for what they were going through. Opal was my only concern. I tried to get her to talk again, but she'd only shake her head and mumble about hurting. All I could do was keep the pressure up on the wound. My right arm was curled around her to hold her close. Before too long I noticed a warm wetness there. Blood, of course. It had soaked down from her shoulder. The whole car reeked of it.

Had to take a risk. I kept my voice low and even. "Calloway, she's bleeding to death from this. It's no flesh wound. It's serious. She needs help."

He looked over the seat again, sending a silent signal to his men not to hit me.

"We're taking her to help, pretty boy."

"She needs a hospital. Get us to one. I'll give your boss anything he wants on the Pacos, I help him put them right out of business, but this girl has to come first."

"Can't do that, but she'll get help, I promise. Now shut the hell up." He turned away. The guy on my right wore a face that was just waiting for me to say one more thing so he could shoot.

The signals thinned out, as did the traffic, and we were on a long dark stretch of road that was almost but not quite in the country. The city was growing in this direction, and stores and gas stations were making steady headway against empty fields. A lot of the businesses had gone bust because of the crash, though. The remaining ones were most certainly tied to the mobs and had another, hidden business on the side, like the dance studio. You could tell which ones, too, they just had that look.

I recognized the route. We were going to Kyler's road-house. Unlike Angela, perhaps Sullivan felt he had no need to keep his head down. Or maybe he knew about the seven hundred grand hidden in the basement. Opal's diagram was still folded away in my little notebook, safe for the moment. They'd only checked for guns earlier.

A few minutes more and Baker hauled the wheel around, turned into a discreet unpaved drive, then we pulled into a graveled parking lot. It served a big joint, two sprawling stories of brown brick with white trim, a wide porch going all the way around the front and sides. In the summer tables and chairs would be there for the patrons to enjoy their drinks and food while counting the stars. No one was out now.

The place was closed tight, all the windows dark, the outer doors shut, the lot itself empty and bleak. Quite a change from last night, when everything was jumping like New Year's Eve.

We drove around to the back. Three cars were parked close by the delivery entry.

A single cold blue light glowed over the metal door. It looked to be hard to get through. All the windows on this side were webbed over with metal lattices. If anyone wanted to break in, it would have to be elsewhere on the building.

Baker braked and cut the motor. My hearing had fully recovered during the trip; I tried to listen and pick up Opal's heartbeat, but the others made too much noise piling from the car. They ordered me to get out and I did so, trying my best not to bump Opal around too much. She whimpered and cried again, holding weakly to me with her free hand. I carried her up half a dozen wood steps to a loading platform, where Baker and Calloway were just going in the back door.

A good-sized kitchen. I had a feeling of deja vu, but only for a moment. Trudence Coldfield's place had been full of light, warmth, and company; this one was dim, chill, and crowded with seven or eight hard-looking men. A swell welcoming committee, if you didn't mind all the iron they were packing under their armpits.

The shadows here were big; a single light shone at the far end over one of the stoves, but it looked to be enough for me to work with-if I was careful. Calloway was edgy; Baker, alert and ready for trouble, was right behind me along with the other two cops. Crooks and cops, each group eyed the other warily.

A slight-figured, greasy-haired man with pale, cold eyes behind tortoiseshell-framed glasses stepped forward. He wore a silk shirt, suspenders, and a neatly done up bow tie. He looked me and Opal over with mild interest, then turned to Calloway.

"What happened?"

I caught a whiff of sweaty fear from Calloway as he hesitated over answering.

Opal didn't have time for this.

I pushed forward past all the men, past Calloway. "Are you Sean Sullivan?"

He quirked his lip and lifted his chin. "I'm Maxwell, Mr. Sullivan's secretary."

"Well this is his bookkeeper. She's been shot and needs a doctor."

"You're Fleming? Calloway told me about y-"

"Later. You just get some wheels moving."

Cold eyes on Calloway now. Leisurely. "How did this happen?"

He shifted once on his feet, visibly uncomfortable, then gave a succinct report of the basics. "I think it was Paco's people."

"Hitting their own place?" Maxwell shook his head, amused. "Why would they do that?"

I bulled closer, this time to make eye contact with him. "Talk about it later. You need to help this girl. Now. Nothing's more important than that."

He rocked on his heels.

A couple of his boys stepped toward me. I felt something cold and hard pressing on my temple. Calloway had his gun on me. "Shut up, pretty boy."

Maxwell wobbled again like I'd slapped him, then recovered his balance. He came out of it, raised one hand. "That will be enough, Lieutenant. He's perfectly right. We really must see to the welfare of the young lady."

Calloway shot me a murderous look. "What did you do to-"

"Later," snapped Maxwell, suddenly all bustle and business. "Put her on that table. One of you find a pot, get some water heated. Find some towels."

The whole troop stood stunned for a moment by this change in him, but Maxwell told them to move again, and that did the trick. Finally. They scattered to obey his orders.

I eased Opal onto a big, white-painted preparation table. She was very heavy now; she'd passed out.

I focused on Baker, held up my cuffed wrist. "Key. Use it."

He started to reach for it, but Calloway put a hand out to stop him. "What do you think you're doing?"

Baker shook out of it, and couldn't come up with a good answer. They both glared at me, Calloway all puzzled anger until Maxwell stepped in.

"Yes, unlock those things," he said.

Baker looked first at Calloway, but got the nod from Maxwell. He unlocked the cuffs. Opal's skin was marked red where the metal had bit, but that was the least of her worries. I tried to be gentle as I wrestled the coat off her; the wet, folded handkerchief dropped away to the floor, spattering blood as it landed.

Her coat had soaked up a lot of it, but more was coming out. One of the men found towels; I grabbed one and pressed it against the hole. At least it wasn't pulsing, otherwise she'd be dead by now.

Maxwell told one of his men to go upstairs and get someone. Another man was busy at a sink, running hot tap water into a big pot, the rest, including Calloway, just stood about and stared hard at me. Probably wondering what I'd done to put the corncob up Maxwell's ass. Let 'em wonder.

"Get some light in here," I said.

Someone found the switch, brightening things instantly. The man with the water pot put it on a massive stove and turned the gas on. Blue and yellow flames licked high, hissing. It was the only sound besides their breathing until I caught a double set of footsteps coming our way. One heavy, the other shuffling.

Maxwell's errand runner came in, holding the arm of a thinner, slightly older man. He was stooped over, like a fighter guarding his belly, and had a sizable shiner forming around his left eye.

What the hell?

It was Doc.

They must have grabbed him at the raid. Worked him over a bit, too, to judge by his faltering walk. I didn't think he was in shape to treat himself, much less another, but any port in a storm.

"Doctor, your services are required," said Maxwell, gesturing him toward the table.

Doc squinted against the light. Took in me first. Mouth wide. "Son of a bitch. I thought you were-"

"Can it," I snapped. "You were drunk and made a mistake."

He scowled. "Wouldn't be the first time."

Next he'd be asking me how I'd got off the yacht alive. Best to change the subject.

I pointed at Opal. He squinted again, rubbed his good eye, and came closer.

"Sweet Jesus, what'd you do to her?"

"She caught a forty-five. She's bleeding bad."

"No shit." He tsked over her.

"You sober enough to work?"

"Yes, unfortunately. I do better drunk. Now get outta my way." He went to the sink, started running the hot water, and soaped up his hands. They were trembling.

I turned to Maxwell. "Get him a drink. He's no good to her if he's got the shakes."

Calloway stepped forward. "Listen, you punk-"

But that was as far as Maxwell let him get. "Another time, Lieutenant."

A quiet order from him sent a man off to play waiter. The rest stared at Maxwell, astonished. Calloway stared at me, still murderous. He didn't know exactly what was up, what I'd done, but he didn't like it. I'd let too much show, but didn't care.

"Clear out, the rest of you," said Maxwell. "Give the man some room. Lieutenant, please come upstairs with me."

"But what about-" He gestured in my direction.

"I'm sticking here," I said, ready to give a push where it was needed.

"He'll be fine," answered Maxwell in a gratifyingly normal tone. "I'm sure his concern for Miss Opal will be sufficient to keep him from wandering off, and there will be a man here on watch. Come along, Mr. Sullivan is not very patient."

The mention of Sullivan's name had its own special influence. Calloway holstered his gun and went quietly with the rest.

"My, but don't you have a way with people," said Doc, witnessing their exodus out of the corner of his eye as he scrubbed. We were alone except for one man left behind on guard. I could take care of him easily enough and bolt now if I wanted, but didn't see much advantage to it at the moment.

"It's just a knack. What about getting her to a hospital?"

"Fine with me, but not yet. She's likely in too tender a condition for moving around. Lemme get a look-see first."

"Got your bag?"

"Nope. Just have to make do with what's on hand. Not much difference between a kitchen and a surgery, though, the tools for cuttin' are just a sight bigger."

Another man came back with a couple of bottles of booze. Doc ordered a triple whiskey, neat. I poured it out, then had to hold the glass so he could keep his hands clean while he drank. He took in a sizable jolt, squeezed his eyes shut in reaction, and shook his head.

"Hoo now, but ain't that the cheap stuff? Thought they'da drunk up all the deer piss left over from before Repeal. Okay, put the rest here." He held his hands out from the running tap. I dumped the glassful over them. Doc scrubbed in it, then held his hands high, inspecting them. "Lorda mercy, any germ alive after a shower of that rotgut gets my respect. Now, let's see what's wrong with the little gal."

I took away the top towel and pulled open Opal's stained blouse. He studied the damage. The hole looked too big, too ragged.

Still bleeding.

"Huh. She got lucky. Missed her lung. Might have some bone fragments. Have to clean her up some first. Not just a bullet in there, might be some fabric inside from her clothes when it punched in."

"What about getting her to a hospital?" I asked.

"Not just yet. Bleeding's not too bad now, but she don't need any more moving around if we can help it. You start opening drawers and let me see what I got to work with."

Me and the other guy did so while the third watched. Doc picked out what he wanted and had us dump them into the pot of boiling water. From his choice of instruments I was very glad Opal was out cold. Just looking at the things made me go all queasy.

"Could use some tweezers," he said. "Rubbing alcohol, sterile dressings, blankets, a pillow."

I turned to the man. Pushed. He went off to search.

Doc hadn't missed what I'd done. "Y'know, my granny used to do what you do,"

he muttered, barely moving his lips. "But then she was older'n God an' a lot more strict, so folks did what she told just to avoid her fussing at 'em. But somethin's different about you. Ain't natural for a punk kid like yourself to get those kind of men to tuck in their tails so easy."

"No need for you to worry about it."

"Maybe not, but you just keep doing what you're doing and maybe we can get out of this alive. 'Less you're on their side." He gave me a narrow look.

"I'm on my side, but I'm all for getting out of this alive. They take you as a hostage?"

"S'pose they did, for all the good it'll do 'em. Angela's a spunky gal, she won't lose any sleep if something happens to me so long as she keeps her daddy's organization solid and running."

"She's crazy."

"Pragmatic's the word, my boy. Oh, she'll spit and holler when they hold a gun to my head, but she won't give an inch to Sullivan. When the smoke settles she'll shoot a dozen of his men to get even, then give me a beautiful funeral."

"If we both get out of here with Opal, no one has to die."

"Suits me even better. I'd sure like to get a lot more drinkin' time in before I check out."

The man came back, arms full with a white bundle. "Don't have no blankets here, just tablecloths."

"Bring 'em over," I said. I tucked them around Opal, then stood back, watching, feeling drained and helpless now that I was out of things to do for her.

"You're wanted upstairs," the man told me as I went to the sink to wash the blood from my hands. It was all over my coat, especially the sleeve.

"Doc?"

He waved me off. "Go on. I don't need someone breathin' down my neck the whole time. You can't do nothing here."

But I probably could do something upstairs. Once I got to Sullivan I could have an ambulance, doctors, and maybe even some cops not on the take swooping in like the marines. They'd find the whole nest of roaches asleep and ready to cart away.

I left Doc and his guard and was guided out of the kitchen and through a darkened dining area where all the chairs were stacked on the tables. Deserted stage for the band, empty dance floor, the kind of o'pulent decor that only vice money can afford. It should have been filled with lights, music, and laughter, but not even the ghost of a past customer stirred the place. I was glad when we left it behind.

Upstairs was more of the same, with carpeting so thick and soft a hummingbird would have sunk in up to its beak. Some of the crowd from the kitchen had congregated in the hall, smoking and talking low. They stopped doing both when I came into view. Everyone watched as we walked between them toward a door paneled with fancy wood inlay at the far end. There was a brass sign stuck to it with the word manager cut into the metal in curving script letters. My escort opened the door and motioned me in first, then kept close behind, an armed shadow, ready for trouble if I even thought about stepping out of line.

It was the room where Kyler had died. A big place, designed to impress the peasants. Lots of money in the trimmings, but not enough to take the bloodstains out of the pricey carpet. Dried out and gone dark, they were still where he'd dropped.

Maxwell stood attentively next to the vast desk at the far end, hands loose at his sides, looking on everyone with apparently benign interest. Calloway, Baker, and the two other uniforms were in front and turned as I came in. The man seated behind it didn't bother to get up.

"That's close enough," he said when I was still a good thirty feet from them. He looked at Calloway, who must have given him an earful about me while I was busy downstairs. "Satisfied?"

Calloway licked his lips, staring at me with intense hate. A glimmer of the rage he'd shown before at the shooting lurked in his face, and he was aiming it in my direction. "Blindfold him. Put a sack over his head."

"Later. I like to see a man's face when I talk. Helps me to know when he's trying to lie."

"You Sullivan?" I asked, already knowing the answer this time.

"That I am." His accent was more of Boston than of Ireland, but that didn't mean anything. The Irish gangs had had a firm hold all over the East Coast for years, what with their rumrunning during Prohibition. Hell, some of them were even starting to put on respectable airs and sending their kids off to places like Yale and Harvard to learn polo. Sullivan looked to be one such example of the coming generation; he was younger than I expected, early thirties. His conservative and costly suit draped a stocky but solid frame, topped by brown hair with a red cast to it. The stockiness extended to a square face with a cheerfully pleasant expression, and he was probably handsome to the girls except for those hard eyes. They were flat as paint. I couldn't read a thing from his expression, a natural-born poker player. He gave me a long, careful looking over. If he was trying to make me uncomfortable, he was already too late. I was way past being either intimidated or impressed by his kind, all I could feel was a weary disgust. Just when you think all the roaches are gone, another one turns up.

"Fleming, is it?" he asked, also already knowing the answer, if I could tell anything by his tone and self-assured manner. If I thought of him as a cockroach, then he must have pegged me for a dung beetle. This was going to be interesting.

I nodded once. Calloway kept watching, damn him. If I so much as winked, he'd probably plug me one. Didn't matter. I was too far away from him and Sullivan to do anything fancy. Just have to wait for the right moment when it came.

Sullivan indicated his pet cop. "The lieutenant here says you're working for the Pacos."

"I was just looking after Opal." There, not exactly a clear answer, but not really lying, he could take it any way he liked.

"Didn't do too well at it, did you?"

"Out of my control."

"Why were you two at the hotel in the first place?"

"Everyone scattered after the raid. We were to wait there for Angela to call us so we could hook up with her someplace else."

"And did she?"

"Yeah. Told us to lay low until she could send someone for us, only your stooges got there first."

"And who do you think is behind the hit?"

I had a very good idea and hated it, but wasn't about to say anything. The situation was dangerous enough. Shook my head. "The Pacos have a lot of enemies.

Maybe some smaller bunch wants a cut of their pie. Maybe the hit was meant for Calloway, and Opal and I were just unlucky to be there. Anyone at the hotel who was wise to the situation had plenty of time to call for friends to come over and get a job organized. Calloway and his boys weren't exactly subtle."

"Calloway seems to think it was the Pacos."

"Making a hit on their most valuable asset? Oh, sure, that makes lots of sense.

They need Opal to decode the account books for 'em. Without her, they're useless."

"Maybe they didn't want her coming back to work for me again."

"Could be. Of course, you could have done it yourself to cripple the Paco operation."

He went frozen-faced for a moment, then chuckled. "Maybe I did. But she's back with us now, so it's all under the bridge."

I threw a quick glance at Calloway, who was looking at Sullivan and trying to keep from showing anything but a blank face at my latest suggestion. Apparently there wasn't a whole lot of trust built up between either of them yet. Fine with me; I could play the divide-and-conquer game. Let him wonder if his new boss set him up.

Sullivan arranged his face to display the smile of a reasonable man. "What I need now are the books Opal took away to little Angela. Oh, and don't think any of us are fooled by her scam. We all know Big Frankie's not the man he once was."

"Angela's just as dangerous. More so."

"That's why we want her out. She's too flashy. She draws attention into areas we would rather have go unnoticed."

That was for damn sure. "And you want the books in exchange for…"

"I don't buy back my own stolen property, Fleming. But I am willing to return Doc to her, if she chooses to be sensible."

"What makes him so valuable?"

"He's been with Big Frankie for years, practically another father to Angela. I'm not above using her sentiment against her."

Gave him a nod. This wasn't the time to tell him he was following the wrong trail with that ploy.

"Doc's other value is that he knows where all the bodies are, so to speak. I'm figuring a little persuasion and he'll be too glad to tell us all of the Pacos' hiding places, then I send my boys in to smoke 'em out one by one. The books are bound to be somewhere in the rubble."

"Not a good idea, Mr. Sullivan."

Brows high. "Oh?"

"It'd take too long and you'd lose a lot of soldiers. Operations like that are expensive and make noise. It draws the kind of attention you say you don't like. This ain't the same wide-open town Big Al ran a few years back. You make enough of a stink and the reform crowd gets ants in their pants and start putting on the pressure to the politicians. You may have a lot of them in pocket, but not all. They'd have to do something. Then there's the federal side of things. Nasty bunch of Boy Scouts is what I hear about 'em, and they can play tough and dirty as anyone. And don't forget the tax people. You won't want them checking up on your income records any more than Capone did, and all that and more would just be for starters. I'm thinking the bosses who sent you here would prefer you to go completely unnoticed by any of that crowd."

Elbows on the desk, he clasped his hands together and rested his chin on them, amused. "Got it all figured, have you?"

"It's pretty obvious."

"Then how would you recommend I get my books back without drawing all this disaster and grief down on my head?"

I was hoping he'd ask. "Let me get them for you."

That made everyone laugh except Calloway.

Sullivan recovered first. "And how do you plan to do that?"

"I talk with Angela, feed her a line about you setting up a hit on me and Opal-

she'll be thinking that anyway because of you being behind the dance-studio raid-

then tell her she needs to scram before Doc spills his guts. She's stubborn, but not.

stupid, she'll find some hole Doc doesn't know about and take me along. She'll have the books with her, so-"

"You know a lot for some punk who just started working for her," said Calloway.

"It only makes sense. Without them, her whole business is crippled, so she's gonna keep 'em tight as her own skin."

"And you think she'll just hand them over to you?" asked Sullivan.

"She'll raise a royal ruckus-unless I can promise her some additional compensation besides Doc's safe return. I can talk her into it, but she'll want money."

"I don't buy back my own-"

"I heard you the first time, but you're gonna have to bend a bit on that point. You gotta give her something so she thinks she's saved face and come out ahead on the deal."

"Bend how far?"

"Give Angela enough so she can take Big Frankie off to some sanitarium to get his head shrunk. I heard Switzerland has good doctors for that kind of thing."

He gave a snort and derisive shake of his head.

"Her father is what all this is about," I said. "What she wants from the Paco territories is money to get him well again-which probably ain't gonna happen, so you won't have to worry about him coming back. One or two days at the most and they're both out of the country, out of your hair, no one gets killed, and the papers and reform groups don't have anything to kick about because nothing's happened."

"Except for me being out of a ton of cash."

"A week's receipts for the territory at most. Compare that to a full-blown war-

and she's ready to fight it-and you've got yourself a bargain. Think of the expenses saved on funerals alone."

Calloway sneered, but Sullivan slapped the desk and burst into laughter again.

"You got balls coming in like this and telling me how to run things, kid."

"I'm just making a suggestion or two for everyone's benefit, Mr. Sullivan."

"And don't be pulling that 'aw, shucks' routine on me. We both know you're a smart operator or you wouldn't have lasted this long in the business."

I gave a noncommittal shrug.

"What I'm thinking is you're trying to go into business for yourself. Maybe you've figured a cute way of arranging for me to hand over this compensation to Angela, and then it disappears and so do you."

Shook my head. "How you make the payment is your problem. Work it out with Angela, use your own people. Just give me the chance to convince her and the rest is your game. I want no part of it."

"I almost believe you. What makes you so special that she'll listen to you?"

Gave a laugh this time. "Well, she and me… we got us a sort of understanding… if you know what I mean."

"The hell you say." He exchanged a look with Maxwell. "First I've heard of it. How

'bout you, Calloway? You know about this?"

"No." He was watching me like a rattlesnake.

"Maybe we should ask Doc what he knows."

"Go ahead," I told him. I was willing to gamble that Doc would tumble to things and play along. He was a drunk, but an instinctive survivor. "But let him take care of Opal first before you start dragging him up here to play twenty questions. Oh, and if you want to make sure she stays around so she can decode the books once you get them back, get someone better than Doc to look after her. You must have somebody who knows of a safe place she can go for proper treatment and no questions asked, otherwise…" I raised one hand and made a casting away gesture. Anything more would have been too much for this crowd.

Maxwell looked at his boss. There was a very, very slight change in his manner, an indication of my earlier influence on him. I only noticed because I was looking for it. "Shall I see to that task?"

Sullivan cocked a brow at him. "You think?"

"The young lady was in a bad way, I assure you. Doc can patch her up for now, but I doubt that he can keep her alive given the limits of his circumstances."

For a long moment I mentally held my breath.

Sullivan watched me the whole time. If I knew what he wanted to see, I'd have given it to him. He finally quirked a corner of his mouth and nodded. "Okay."

Let out the mental breath. But didn't show it. I still got the feeling that Sullivan noticed.

Maxwell went past me to the door. I caught the scent of bay rum coming off his hair. Put him in seedier clothing and he could have been any of the lonely hearts cooling heels at the dance studio. He spoke with the men outside for a moment, asking for information, then issuing quiet orders. He didn't raise his voice beyond a murmur, but he initiated a lot of movement in response. Either he had hidden depths to inspire such swift obedience or it was enough that he spoke for Sullivan.

No matter to me so long as it got help to Opal that much faster.

"Fleming." I turned back to Sullivan. He'd gotten up from the desk and crossed to the bar. He browsed through the various bottles, but couldn't seem to find anything to his taste. "It's time you told me what it is you want from this deal."

"To get out of it with a whole skin."

He shook his head. "We all want that, but what else is there?"

"I just said."

"Uh-uh. Everyone has an angle, especially smart operators, and that's you."

I'd have to throw him something. "All right. What I want is after this is all settled for you to forget I was ever here. I got mixed up in this by accident and want to get clear, completely clear of all this. You and yours pretend that you never heard of me and I promise to return the favor."

He put his back to the bar, leaning on it to regard me. The crease on his pants was fresh, his shoes were new and well polished. And he was still too far away for me to do anything constructive. "That's all?"

"I'm a smart enough operator to know when it's time to leave the game."

"You leave the game when you're ahead."

"I'm ahead if I leave this one alive. I'm way ahead if I'm anonymous to the other players and team captains. They can go on without me."

That raised another chuckle. Maxwell took his spot by the desk again and continued with the benign expression. I wondered if he'd look so harmless without the glasses and bay rum in his slicked-down hair. Easy subject for hypnosis or not, there was something about him that was starting to make my skin crawl.

"Ready to leave your girlfriend, are you?"

"Don't worry, I'll let her down easy."

More laughs as Sullivan returned to the desk, too, and motioned for Calloway and his group to move off. They came to stand near me, but not too near. Calloway made it obvious that he didn't like my getting on with his boss. Maxwell leaned forward, head cocked in a listening pose. Sullivan murmured very quietly so no one else could catch any of it, but I had no trouble at all hearing the conversation, only with keeping my face composed while they talked.

"Can't trust him," said Sullivan. "Not the whole way."

Maxwell was probably good at poker. His lips barely moved. "No, but if he could do the job, it would save you a lot of effort."

"He's too confident. He should be scared."

"Indeed he should be."

"Hasn't even broken a sweat. He's worried about the girl, but that's all. He's got another game running. You think?"

"Maybe."

"He talks to Angela, sure, but then does a double cross and turns on us. Leads her right back here for a hit."

"Endangering Doc?"

"That's what I'd do to get rid of a threat like me. Position she's in, she can't afford to have friends in this business."

"It would endanger Opal, too."

"I don't think she's that important. Not as important as getting me out of the way. So what if the books are coded, we just find someone to figure them out for us.

She could do the same."

"Have to get them back first," Maxwell pointed out.

"So I should use this punk?"

"As long as he's on a leash. Opal can be the leash. Let him run and see what he does."

"You think she matters that much to him?"

"I saw how he was downstairs with her. Since you can't trust him, your best bet is to trust the soft spot he has for her."

"God knows why."

"Some people take in stray cats and get quite silly about them. I expect the same thing has happened here; that, or he thinks he's some kind of knight in armor trying to save the damsel."

"Yeah, he looks the type," he said, tossing a sidelong glance my way. Apparently Sullivan wasn't too impressed by common human decency. He didn't look the type.

"Okay, watch my dust." He turned to face me, smiled like a carnival barker, and waved an open hand at the phone on his desk. "Okay, Fleming, I'll buy your goods.

Let's get things started. Call Angela."

First check and a bad one, but I had an answer ready. "I don't have the number.

It was Opal's department."

That garnered a snort from Calloway. "He's been lying his head off. He doesn't have anything going with her or he'd know where to call."

I looked at Sullivan "Hey, I can't help it if the boss lady plays her cards close.

She's cute, but careful. Do you give your private number out to every guy you hire for muscle? Do all your girlfriends know where to find you every minute of the day?

What I can do is ring the hotel and leave a message with your number for her to call, but that would let her know where you are. Besides, it's the long way around things."

"And the short?" asked Sullivan.

"Have someone drive me back to the hotel. She'll have the place under watch-"

"It'll still be crawling with cops investigating the shooting."

"I can get around them."

"How?"

"I got a phony press pass." Actually, it was real, left over from my time as a reporter in New York. One of these nights I'd have to clean out my wallet.

Head shake. "I'm thinking you'll want to slip away for good instead."

"Why should you think that?"

"Because that's what I'd do."

I hate it when guys like Sullivan measure me against themselves, against their own personal standards. It's never complimentary. "You mean if I'd asked for money as well, that would give me a reason to hang around until things got cleared with Angela?"

He smiled. "Exactly."

"But I've asked for anonymity with that freedom. If I took a walk now there'd be nothing to stop you from coming after me. Take it as the other half of the deal that will keep me in line."

"There's a better way."

"Yeah?"

"You do exactly what you've promised and I won't dump Opal in a field somewhere."

I pretended to choke. "What? You can't, you need her to-"

"No one's that important, Fleming. I've other accountants to take her place.

Losing her would be inconvenient, but not a disaster."

Struggled to pull the anger in. Though I'd known what bluff to expect, it wasn't hard to believe in it, so my reaction wasn't all pretend. In fact, for Opal's own good, I'd better believe his threat whether he was bluffing or not. "You lay one finger on her…"

He kept up the smile. I was feeding him exactly what he wanted to hear. "She'll be safe, so long as you behave."

"You've got my word on it. I'll swing this deal for you."

"Good, because if you don't, if Angela turns up here and tries acting cute, Opal is crow food."

"I get you. I still have to see Angela to make this work."

"That I can believe," muttered Calloway.

I spared him a glance. "Have Calloway and his men take me back. You know he'd never let me out of his sight."

"Damn right I wouldn't. But we cuff and blindfold him first."

Sullivan gave a half snort. "He's really got you spooked, hasn't he?"

"I'm not shitting you on this, Mr. Sullivan. There's something really weird about this bird. He can get people to do things, all he has to do is look at 'em."

"If that's true, then maybe he can get Angela to play ball with us. Do whatever you want, then. Max, give the kid our number."

Okay, so my idea of putting them all to sleep and calling in the marines didn't happen. I knew my limits. If it had just been me alone, I'd have taken the chance, but there were too many of them, and she was too vulnerable. Doc as well.

Maxwell drew out an oversized fountain pen and wrote something on a slip of paper, blew on the ink, then walked over to hand it to me. "When you've got things arranged, call. You'll have until midnight to make an initial report. To us. After that and we won't answer to Opal's safety."

I automatically checked my watch, but found my wrist was clean. There didn't seem much use to wearing a broken timepiece, so I'd left it on my bureau at home.

"How long till then?"

"A couple hours."

"It may take more than that to fix things."

"Nonetheless, you will call in."

Focused on him. Light. Casual. Didn't want to give any clue of it to Calloway.

"Take care of Opal, would you? Like she's your own kid sister."

Maxwell blinked behind the glasses. Wasn't sure if I got to him or not, but I didn't dare do more. He stepped out of Calloway's path; he and his cops closed on me, and I was hustled downstairs.

Out through the kitchen again. The bloodsmell was mixed with the sting of rubbing alcohol and the sour smell of cheap booze. Opal lay small and forlorn on the table, covered to the chin with white tablecloths, her skin nearly the same color. I tried not to think about how much the sight reminded me of a corpse in a morgue.

Doc sat on a steel stool next to her, drink in hand and a mournful look on his face.

"How is she?" I demanded. If she was dead, then all bets were off, and Sullivan and his crew were just so much cold meat.

"She's hanging on. I've done as much as I can with what I've got. She could use a transfusion. Might help her chances."

"Talk to Maxwell. He's supposed to be arranging things to get her to a better place."

He sipped from his glass, winced and hissed in reaction, then looked at me. "You must be some kind of a fancy talker, kid. What's going on up there?"

"Never you mind," said Calloway. He found a spare tablecloth and used his pocketknife to cut a wide strip from it. While Baker pulled my arms behind and cuffed me once more, Calloway tied the strip tight around my head, cutting off my vision except for a slice of floor I could just glimpse if I lifted my chin and looked down far enough. Insofar as hypnotizing anyone went at the moment, I was out of the running.

"Take care of her," I called as they pushed me toward the exit. "I'll be back."

Calloway laughed once.

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