Just to be neat about things, I led Calloway back to the bedroom and tucked him up nice and sweet with his friend Baker, who I had to wake briefly in order to give him new instructions. It made my headache worse, but everything went smoothly.
They'd come to in the morning and swear up and down that after the call to Sullivan I'd knocked them cold and escaped, which was more or less the truth. Certainly Calloway had the physical evidence of it forming on his bruised jaw. This way, no matter how the night turned out, they'd be in the clear. Maybe. If Sullivan even knew what they were talking about. No matter, I could fix him just as easy.
I also planted the idea in them that they should start to back off playing stooge to the gangs. Not quit suddenly, which would get them dead fast, but to be less available in the future. It might not last long, but for that time they'd have something to think about, perhaps act upon.
Yeah, I was being too soft on 'em. Call it conscience. Or rather it had to do with what Bobbi had said to me. Gordy would have killed them, or made them disappear, which was pretty much the same, and Escott would have let them swing in the wind.
Because of what I'd become, I had a third choice open: Let them swing, but give them a way off the rope. There was a pretty good chance they wouldn't take it, Calloway thought they were in too far, but what the hell, it was worth a try, even a half-assed one.
That finished, I got the car keys from Baker's pocket and went out the fire-escape window again.
Didn't bother to open it this time.
I don't care much for sieving through glass, but cared even less for bumbling my way through the lobby to get past the two cops on watch there. Besides, having done this before, I was familiar with the territory. The regular angles and struts of the metal stairs were an easy path to follow, so down I went to re-form on the street, pressing myself against the hotel's shadowed outer wall.
Now I could take my time for a good look around. The cops in the patrol car were still on watch. There was no knowing why they were just sitting there all but asking to be targets; if another Packard tore by spitting lead they wouldn't last two seconds.
Except for them, the rest of the street was empty and cemetery quiet. No sign of Angela's goons, or even Gordy's. The party had shifted elsewhere, and I was ready to move my own part of it.
I slipped right past the patrol cops. Even if they'd known where to look and when, they'd have had a hard time trying to spot something as invisible as the wind-which was affecting my progress. Maybe I wasn't solid in the normal sense, but a strong breeze could still push me around if I let it. I fought the stuff, trying to estimate how far I'd come. Groping blindly forward, I could only rely on my vague sense of touch to keep on course. With the hotel on my right and the sidewalk below, it wasn't too hard, but you'd think I'd be used to the disorientation after all these months. One good thing, a few dozen yards later when I went solid again, my headache was all gone. I'd traded it for a wave of weariness, though, like a runner after a brief sprint.
At this rate, tomorrow night I'd have to hit the Stockyards for an extra feeding to make up for all the work I was doing.
The street was unchanged, only my view of it had altered; I was well behind the cops and a few steps from the Caddie. Keys jingling, I unlocked it and got in, starting her up. The motor was beautifully quiet. Keeping the lights off, I shifted her into reverse, gently backing along the curb to the next corner and around, well out of sight. One quick U-turn later, I had the lights legally on, and was on my way to the road-house.
Not much traffic at this hour, though there were some patches around theaters and late-closing eateries. No car sickness for me, but then I was in the front seat, could see where I was headed, and had the driving to keep me occupied.
Thinking it over, I suppose I could have taken care of the cops in the lobby and questioned the manager about Angela's whereabouts. She might be laying low for the present, but was still a loose cannon ready to go off. Getting to her first would have eased my mind quite a bit. But finding her… the odds were high the old manager didn't have a direct line to his boss, only to a middleman whose job was to pass on information to someone higher up. It'd be futile for me to try taking the same route.
She'd just get annoyed, be more on guard, and find a hole to drop into that even Doc didn't know about.
But on the other hand Doc would give her to me wrapped in a bow-with a little push applied in the right part of his mind, that is. I just hoped he wouldn't be too drunk to cooperate.
And most importantly, I could see Opal, check on her; another reason to let the problem of Angela go look after itself for now.
The miles flowed under the tires. The neighborhoods got drab again, thinned out, turned into semicountryside. The scenery grew monotonous, and the corner I wanted snuck up on me; I nearly missed the turning. I hit the brakes only just in time and swung into it a little too sharp for safety, but the big car landed back on all four wheels without much complaint, bounce or swerve. If I'd tried that in my smaller, lighter Buick, I'd have ended up sideways in a ditch.
The unpaved drive led right to the house, and the only cover was a thin line of scraggly bushes that had lost all their leaves. I wanted to park close enough for a fast getaway but not to the point where my car would be spotted. Soon as I made the turn I cut the headlights to lessen that chance, but still felt exposed and vulnerable. If they were on the ball, someone would have seen me already.
The darkness was reassuring, though. No moon showed, lots of clouds masked the stars, and we were out far enough not to have any glimmer of the city's glow reflecting back to the ground. I had to remind myself that though it was like diffuse daylight to me, to everyone else it would be solid murk.
I spotted some trees farther along the drive, but those were up well past the house. They would conceal the car, but if I had to make a quick exit, there was a chance of being cut off before getting to the main road.
What the hell, why not? I thought after some hemming and hawing. It wasn't like Sullivan's people could prepare themselves for anyone like me. How can you fight the next best thing to a ghost?
Lights still off, I eased along the drive, glad of the well-tuned hush of the engine, and the wind. The latter would cover the sound of the tires crunching along the dirt surface. Still, I had to pass fairly close, and because I was moving, I couldn't tell if any curtains twitched at those windows overlooking the lane. At most, I could hope that it was well traveled enough so that an occasional passing car would be ignored, but if anyone glanced out and saw this one easing by with its lights off, I couldn't expect them not to be curious. They might think Calloway had run into trouble-
which he had-and then do something about it.
Too bad I couldn't make the whole damned car invisible.
The trees, once I reached them, were ideal: nice thick evergreens with low branches all bunched together between me and the house. I found a spot to pull in, did some fancy wrestling around with the steering wheel to turn the car so it pointed outward, then shut it down and waited, listening to the wind, eyes wide for any and all movement.
If you could call a difference of five feet in elevation high, then I had the high ground. My perch, such as it was, overlooked the rear and part of the right side of the place. When I'd come in with Calloway, I'd noticed three cars parked in the back lot; now one was missing, and I couldn't recall offhand which, not that I'd noticed their make or plate numbers at the time. I wondered how many men had left in it.
The fewer soldiers inside the roadhouse to deal with, the happier I'd be.
Lights showed on the second floor. People were still awake and moving, but I didn't expect them to be up the whole of the night, especially since Sullivan thought I wouldn't be calling again until morning. Sooner or later they'd have to slow down and sleep. When that happened, then I would see what to do about getting Opal and Doc away. For the time being I had to wait until things got settled and quiet, which might take a while, but I knew how to keep busy.
After making sure the other doors were unlocked, I got out of the Caddie and closed the driver's side gently, just enough for it to latch. I checked my overcoat pockets to see that the guns I'd taken from Calloway and Baker were still in place.
The revolver on the right, Baker's semi-auto on the left- with the safety off. I probably wouldn't need them, but you never know when you might have to use a more normal kind of intimidation on someone than forced hypnosis. Another thought occurred to me, and I went around to the passenger side to check the glove compartment. It held the usual trash and a tattered road map, but I got lucky and turned up a flashlight. The batteries were less than new, but its feeble light would be like a search beacon to my sensitive eyes. So long as there was some illumination for them to pick up, they worked just fine, but I was anticipating a very dark place indeed, ahead.
Feeling ready for nearly anything, I walked to the edge of the trees, got a firm fix in my mind of the direction and distance, and vanished. Flowing fast along the ground-and still fighting the wind-I sped toward the right side of the house where I'd seen a line of small basement windows. When my now amorphous body bumped up against something large and solid, which could only be the building, I re-formed just enough for a quick look around.
The nearest window, like others I'd seen, was latticed over with a thick metal grate to keep out intruders. A good effort, but useless against me. I did my specialty act again and eased through the cracks.
Now I was floating blind in completely unknown territory. All kinds of obstacles loomed close as I bumbled around getting my bearings. One advantage of this state was I couldn't knock anything over or collect bruises from hitting them. Some of the objects were of a regular shape and height, probably crates, most likely liquor boxes.
When I found a clear space in their midst, I went solid again.
Dark, as I'd anticipated. I was well away from the windows. Just enough of their outside light came through for me to see I was in an aisle formed by boxes stacked shoulder high on either side of me, and I'd been correct about their alcoholic content, though it was beer bottles not booze. Empties on one side, full ones on the other, I catfooted along their length, going farther into the shadows.
It was a pretty big place, probably taking up the whole foundation of the joint, and had more than one stairway. The one I was looking for needed to lead to the kitchen.
When it got so thick even my eyes couldn't work, I switched on the flashlight. It was a risk, but I'd listened carefully and determined that everyone was safely upstairs, leaving me the free run of this area.
More odds and ends sprang out of the dimness, stacks of chairs and tables, some broken, boxes of Christmas and New Year's decorations, bags full of dirty tablecloths ready to be trucked off to the laundry, and junk like that. As I went deeper the inventory gradually changed, and I was walking between cans of lard and sacks of flour. Roaches scuttled boldly over the dusty floor. The stairs here went straight up to a closed door and a thin line of light showed along its base. I'd found the way to the kitchen.
Cutting my flash, I vanished and floated up, slipping through the slender opening under the door. It was like squeezing through the narrow neck of an hourglass and seemed to take ages before I was completely clear, but it was better than pushing my way past the more resistant material of the wood. All was quiet on the other side as far as I could tell with my blunted sense of hearing, so I went solid.
The kitchen was empty and clean, really clean. The table where I'd put Opal and the linoleum around it had been thoroughly scrubbed down. Lingering in the air was the astringent bite of some kind of harsh soap. The sting of it reminded me of hospitals. Every sign of what had happened earlier was quite gone.
Maxwell had said she was all right, and I'd wanted to believe him, but she could be dead. My guts twisted hard at the thought, but it wouldn't go away. If she hadn't made it, they'd have taken pains to clear out all evidence that she'd ever been here.
Heart heavy, I went to the door leading to the rest of the house, intent on finding out what was going on.
After a cautious quarter-hour of partial to fully invisible poking around, I determined that not very damned much was going on at all.
I counted ten men populating the upstairs, and no one anywhere else. Five were gathered in one of the larger rooms playing poker, the others scattered around the rest of the floor, two listening to a radio, two sprawled asleep on sofas, and one on a phone away from the others negotiating for a date with someone he called
"Sugarbun." The big office was empty. Of Sullivan, Maxwell, and Opal there was no sign, but I did find Doc. By accident. I materialized in a windowless storage area for a moment to think through the situation and discovered his semiconscious body in the same small closet.
I sensed him first by his breathing and the nearness of his heartbeat, and that made me jump, but fortunately the place was coal-mine dark. Flailing my hand about, I found the pull cord to the overhead light and gave it a tug. The dim bulb revealed lots of shelves crowded with cleaning supplies, rags, and similar junk. Most of the floor was taken up by a gigantic vacuum cleaner… and Doc.
He was curled on his side on the bare wood, knees drawn up and a bleary grimace on his face as the sudden glare caught him. He shaded his eyes and squinted up at me.
"What the hell are you doing here?" His voice was thick. Drunk, drugged, or roughed up by Sullivan's clowns, take your pick, he wasn't in very good shape.
"Where's Opal?" I whispered, dropping to one knee.
"They took her away. Sullivan, some of his boys. Tol' 'em not to…"
"Where'd they take her?"
"Damned if I know, son. Little bit after you went they came and got her." He pushed himself upright and rubbed his face.
"How was she doing?"
"Poorly. I got the bleeding stopped, but she needed a blood transfusion and other kindsa stuff I couldn't do for her. If'n I'd had my bag with me-"
"You got any idea where she is?"
He shook his head.
"Didn't they say anything, give any hint?"
"Wish I could tell you otherwise, but they wasn't much for talking. They were bein' careful with her, though. Wrapped her up warm and pulled the car right up to the door so she wouldn't get bumped around too much being carried out."
That sounded better than I'd expected, but not all that satisfying. "How many of them? Who?"
"Sullivan, a couple others."
"What about Maxwell?"
"Don't recall, maybe. He's not the sort you notice much an' they were hustling me back up to this hole at the same time. What the hell're you doin' here?"
"Keep your voice down."
Lower tone. "What the hell're you-"
"I'm going to try getting you out-in one piece."
"Well, son, then I'm on your side. What do you want me to do?"
I stood and tried the doorknob. Locked, as I'd expected, which was why I'd covered the action with my body so Doc wouldn't notice and wonder how I'd gotten in. Now I put an ear close to the jam and had a long listen. Heard the radio down the hall and the occasional mutter from the poker players farther on, the guy on the phone had hung up. The rest were too quiet for me to know what they were doing; still snoozing, I hoped. No one seemed to be immediately outside the closet. Good.
"Is the coast clear?" he asked. He'd been holding his breath.
"Not just yet. Our best chance is to wait until they're all asleep. It may take some time. Do they check on you often?"
"Not since they threw me in here after Sullivan left with Opal. Wish they would, I gotta take a leak."
I pointed toward one corner. "There's a bucket. Don't draw their attention if you can help it, I want them to forget about you for the time being. I also don't want them knowing I'm here, so keep shut."
"Can't blame you for that. How'd you get inside anyhow?"
"Jimmied a lock."
"I mean in here."
"Slipped in under the door."
"Smart-ass. Why you being so helpful to me?"
"While I was gone with Calloway, I had a talk with Angela and we made a deal. If I get you out safe, she'll think twice about a war with Sullivan."
"Musta been some talk. Nice of her to care."
"When we're clear of this joint, you're supposed to take me to her."
"She say where?"
"She said you'd know, so you tell me."
"Not so fast. You could have struck a deal with Sullivan an' be joshin' me. I'm not gonna be the one to get her in front of a bullet by-"
"Doc." I dropped to my heels in front of him, fixed a hard look on his lined face and baby-blue eyes. "Tell me where to find Angela."
He blinked a few times and squinted mightily. "Fleming, no offense, but you can go to hell."
I tried again, but it didn't work. There was too much booze in his brain for me to get past.
"What do you take me for?" he growled. "You must know I've got no reason to trust you, no matter what you say."
"Angela has pretty much the same outlook," I said sourly.
"All I'm trying to do is keep her and Sullivan from blowing this town apart-"
"And a mighty fine sentiment it is, to be sure, but I'm not sayin' anything until I have the go-ahead from her." He put a stubborn set on his mouth and crossed his arms.
Nuts. I'd just have to wait until he was sober or more willing to talk on his own.
To achieve the latter, I'd have to get us away from here, which shouldn't be too hard, but I wasn't all that happy over the prospect of hypnotizing ten guys into slumberland. I could do it, but it would be a whale of a chore and certainly bring back my headache. If some of them had been drinking like Doc, things could get even more complicated. My goal was to duck in and out of the road-house-Doc and Opal in tow-with no one the wiser, then clearing the mess with Angela and Sullivan long before the sun came up. Now I'd only get half of it accomplished. It was damned inconvenient for Sullivan to have gone running off, even if his intent was to help Opal.
"Okay, Doc, never mind. You got any idea whether Sullivan's coming back tonight?"
"I'll have to leave you here and scout around for the best way out. It could take a while."
"How long a while?"
"I don't know, an hour or two, maybe more, till they fall asleep."
"How 'bout I just come along and keep an eye on what you're doin'?"
"Too risky. I need to keep low and move fast and know where you are when the time's right so I can get to you."
He shot me a sour look. "Yeah, I get it."
"Not yet, you don't; I'm coming back for you, because that's part of my deal with Angela. You just take a nap until I get back, you need the rest." I wanted to force one on him, but spared myself the effort and likely disappointment. He was three-quarters gone, if I was any judge of degrees of inebriation, and would probably conk out five minutes after I left, anyway. I gave the light cord another pull and the closet went black again. "Stay put and keep quiet," I said in parting, then vanished and reformed just outside.
"Fleming?" he whispered urgently. "Fleming?" He made grunting noises as he heaved to his feet. The light came on; I saw its glow through the crack at the base of the door. He tried the locked knob. "Hey-!"
"Shut up!" I snarled back.
"How'd you get out there? I didn't see the door open."
"Tell you later. Now keep quiet."
He made noises to indicate his dissatisfaction with my reply, but offered no more arguments. I again listened hard for any reaction from the men down the hall, but none came.
Time to go to work.
My first choice was to find the guy who had been on the phone. Separated from the others, he'd be the easiest target. I swept through the room he'd been in and came up empty, which bothered me. I didn't like not knowing where he'd gone off to, since he could turn up at any given inconvenient moment.
Another invisible sweep. He wasn't anywhere on the floor. I went downstairs, thinking he might be after a drink at the bar, but that area was locked up.
Kitchen. Someone clattering around there.
Better and better. None of the other mugs would hear us this far away. I eased in and concluded by the sounds that he was fixing a meal. Drifting past his area, I took up a spot as far away from him as I could get and very slowly reappeared.
He worked using only the small light over a stove, but it was plenty for me. If I kept still and quiet, he wouldn't notice me right away while I got a look around. He had an icebox door opened wide and was very absorbed in deciding what food to take out. A fat block of cheese was already on the table, along with some bread and mustard. Nobody else was around. This would be my best chance. I went invisible for a moment, long enough to close the space between us, then solid just as he straightened with three eggs in one hand and an onion in the other.
Maybe I should have waited until he'd put the stuff on the table. He gave a terrific yelp of surprise at my sudden appearance and the eggs and onions went flying.
Some minutes later I had him thoroughly under my control, and the first thing I made him do was clean up the mess. If we got interrupted I didn't want anything to look funny, so I kept nervous watch as he got the broken eggs off the floor and retrieved the onion from where it had rolled.
The second thing he did was to tell me where Sullivan had gone, except he couldn't, since he didn't know. I made a thorough job of questioning him and could trust what he said, but it was still nothing worth knowing. He was just another soldier and not one with any kind of rank. He could only confirm Doc's story that Sullivan was gone with the girl to parts unknown and there was no telling when he'd be back.
But I already knew when: eight o'clock the next morning. Lousy for me since I wouldn't be making the promised phone call at that time. At least Doc would be out of the line of fire, and maybe I'd have Angela in a sweet-talking frame of mind by then, so the night wasn't going to be a complete water haul, but it could have been better. Nobody else was cooperating; I was starting to get into a bad mood from it.
Well… there were ways to fix things more to my liking.
Not wanting to interrupt his meal, I told him to continue with whatever he had in mind, but when he'd finished eating he would get very sleepy and take a nice long nap. He took the suggestion-along with the one to forget all about me- very well and got on with his preparations. It looked to be an egg-and-onion sandwich.
I vanished away from there before the onion stink got to be too much and floated back under the cellar door, materialized at the foot of the steps, then got out the flashlight. Next I fished out my notebook and flipped it open to the map Opal had drawn. Facing away from the steps, I walked about five yards along, stopped, and turned right toward the wall. It was fairly clear of clutter, compared to the rest of the place, just some old paint cans and a broken broom, exactly what she'd said would be there. I moved them out of the way.
My flash picked up the unpainted wood boards no different from those covering the rest of the wall. Halfway up, one of them sported a small knothole that had been knocked through. I hooked a finger inside it and first pulled, then pushed to work the latch mechanism.
Someone had done a great job of carpentry; a two-foot-wide, six-foot-tall section swung inward on a special concealed hinge. Escott would have loved it. I shone my light inside and was surprised to see a sizable chamber within. It seemed clear of booby traps and alarm wires, so I stepped in sideways.
With a low ceiling like the rest of the basement, the room was maybe five feet wide and twenty long and completely walled up except for the narrow hidden door. It looked to be part of the original layout of the foundation, but sectioned off from the rest by the phony wall. Comparing outside measurements to inside ones might reveal its existence, but there's not many who would bother with such a detail.
The stuffy air smelled of machine grease, wood, and excelsior. Some long crates lined one side. I found an open one and checked it, discovering a fine collection of brand-new shotguns and ammunition. A second box turned up a carefully packed Thompson machine gun with all the trimmings, a third revealed a number of hand grenades nestled all snug in their wood shavings. Vaughn Kyler had apparently been prepared for all kinds of fun up to and including an assault by the United States Marines Corps. Angela knew about the money; I wondered if she knew about all the weapons. She'd have one hell of a field day with those grenades.
Toward the back was an old cot, a lantern on the bare floor next to a pack of cards, and a scatter of dusty magazines with lurid pictures of half-clad girls (usually screaming in reaction to some grotesque menace) gracing the covers. Damned if one of them wasn't a copy of Spicy Terror Tales-I'd been trying to write a story to sell to them for weeks. Its latest page was still languishing all abandoned on the desk in my own basement sanctuary at home. I felt like years had passed since I'd last worked on it.
With all the guns at hand I knew the place wasn't meant to be a prison cell. My guess was when a member of the gang needed to lay low, this was where they took him. If the cops raided the joint all the person had to do was duck down here and fill the time in with reading or solitaire until the law got tired of searching and went away. If you didn't know where to look to get in, then too bad.
Enough of a chill hung in the air to let me know this was probably not a popular spot to visit and linger unless you absolutely had to, adding to its security. There was no real lock for the entry, just the trick of the latch, so few people would think to look here for anything really valuable other than the guns. It was secret, but not too secret. Whatever Kyler chose to keep down here would be safe from his own gang members.
At the farthest end of the room were four innocuous, unmarked crates piled on top of one another, no different from all the others. If Opal hadn't told me what to look for, I'd have passed them by.
Instead, I went straight to them. They were covered with dust, unremarkable, each about a foot high and two wide, maybe a yard long, with thick rope handles, and had most likely once held weapons the same as the other boxes. I tried to lift the topmost one and found it heavy, even for me, then got a good grip on the nailed-down lid and hauled sharply upward. The nails squawked against the wood as they reluctantly parted company. The case lid came suddenly free in my hand. I peered inside, holding the light high.
I don't have much need to breathe now, but caught my breath all the same.
Couldn't help it.
Crammed within were fat bundles of fives, twenties, fifties, and hundreds, row after row of them, an obscene amount of cash smelling of old paper, ink, and the hands that it had passed through. No way to tell how much of that seven hundred grand was in this one box alone, but it was still a hellacious amount of money before me, and all I could do was stare.
A lot of fast thoughts were rushing around in my brain, though. Embodied before me on these bits of paper was the potential of a dozen different futures for yours truly, all of them featuring extreme comfort and luxury as the main theme. Sure I was a vampire, but like everyone else on the planet I'm still only human. The idea of driving away from this place with all that cash packed into the trunk of the car seemed like the most sensible thing in the world I could do for myself.
My conscience chafed, though. It was, after all, dirty money, collected from countless brothels, gambling houses, the numbers trade, loan-sharking, protection payoffs, and the other varied rackets going on in this city. An unbelievable pile of cash came from those sources. The only thing more incredible was the fact that this cache was less than a fraction of a fraction of what was being moved through this city every month. Misery money. Every last dollar of it. Who was I to enjoy it?
On the other hand… who was I not to? Better me than some gangster, right? And it wasn't like I'd never done this sort of thing before. Only a few months back I'd lifted a briefcase with ten grand of Frank Paco's money inside and had split it with Escott, hardly thinking twice. We were still living well on it. At the time he'd said that a free agent was entitled to any reward his conscience would permit. After looking at all this cash ready for the taking, mine was getting more and more elastic by the minute.
But ten grand wasn't anything compared to seven hundred thousand. Dealing with that much money was bound to make for trouble. Vague thoughts of coming to a bad end because of its dark origins clouded my enthusiasm. It was too good to be true. I knew for damn sure that my mom wouldn't approve of this kind of thing at all.
I could just shove the lid back on and walk away from it… save myself a lot of trouble and maybe grief.
But only saps in the movies did that kind of thing. I wasn't that saintly or that nuts.
I kept staring and hoping some flash of enlightenment would clear away my sudden doubts, but none came. It was just too much to take in, and I had other things to deal with tonight.
Finally I gave a shrug. What the hell, I'd take it now and work out the moral problems later when there was more time for them; my immediate problem was figuring a way of getting the whole shebang out of here.
Lifting the crates was easy, I was more than strong enough, but I couldn't vanish and bring them along for the ride; they were just too big and bulky. I'd have to get creative. While I considered possibilities I broke open a big bundle of hundreds and began shoving the smaller bundles of bills-one thousand in each-into the various pockets of my overcoat, suit coat, and pants pockets. The stuff went away surprisingly fast and didn't take up that much room. This admission to bare-faced greed did have a practical inspiration: If I got interrupted, then I'd at least have some "spare change" to carry away. Call it a tip for all the trouble I'd been through up to now. There was no point in counting it just yet, but I knew it to be several thousands. I collected enough in the next couple of minutes to live high on the hog for a considerably long time to come.
God bless America.
The dam broken for the moment, I gleefully went to work.
Slipping back outside the hidden room, I located the bags stuffed with table linens. No one would miss a few of these; I emptied one after another onto the cold concrete floor. A quick retrace of my steps and I was stooped over the crate, busily transferring cash into the laundry sacks. I divided it into thirds, roughly estimating that was how much I could disappear with in order to safely carry it out to the car.
The estimate proved correct when I took a moment to test it by vanishing, hugging one of the heavily loaded bags close to my chest. It came along without a hitch.
There were nine of them in all at the end, and they took up a lot of space, and nine trips to the car and back took a hell of a lot of effort and energy from me. It did go pretty fast, since I can move very quickly once shed of the normal barriers of corporeal travel. No stumbling or noise and I can flit through brush and trees like smoke. Each jaunt left me feeling thinned out and more tired than the last, but soon the Caddie's trunk was full, with bags left over. The rest I shoved onto floor of the backseat, tired to the point of dizziness by the time I'd finished. Maybe I was better suited for sprints instead of marathons and sat on the running board for a time to catch up with myself and see if a little rest would help.
I was pushing things, but judged this onetime effort to be worth it. How many chances does a guy have to pick up this much money in one evening? Something less than none, so I'd take mine while I had it and deal with the physical consequences later at the Stockyards.
Before I completely quit the hidden room I put the empty crates back into place, their lids pressed down more or less as I'd found them. If by some chance Angela did manage to come here after the money, she'd know who had it, then it would be meat-hook time for me. Only I wasn't going to let it get that far.
Checked my watch, it was nearly two-how time flies when you're getting rich-
and not a peep from upstairs. While I kept myself busy with something far more rewarding than just twiddling my thumbs, the house had settled for the night as I'd hoped.
Time to get started with the next stage.
To conserve strength, I went up to the second floor solid, ears wide open for any sound. Nothing but snoring from a couple of the rooms, even the poker players had given up for the night. I catfooted to the storage closet and tried the knob, putting some elbow grease into it, twisting it right from the wood. It made a couple of sharp snapping noises, but not enough to disturb anyone enough to wake up for a look.
Still, I counted to a hundred before taking out the remains of the latching mechanism and pulling the door open.
Doc was asleep and muttered unhappily as I shook him. The flashlight batteries were nearly gone, but I flicked it on a moment so he could see, then helped him to his feet.
"What now?" he whispered.
"Down to the kitchen nice and easy and out the back door. I got a car up in the trees ready to go. I'm not figuring on trouble, but if we get interrupted, you duck and let me take care of them."
"You're welcome to it, son."
He hung on to my arm to keep steady, and I guided him carefully along the hall, thankful for the thick carpet. I was still dry-mouthed the whole way, feeling very vulnerable, mostly for his sake. He couldn't disappear if he had to.
The graveled lot was the same, no new cars. I got us moving forward across the highly exposed stretch of open ground as fast as Doc could take it. He picked up some speed toward the end, if only because I was half carrying him, but he was puffing loud.
We finally made the cover of the trees, and I paused to look back while he wheezed and gulped, trying to catch his breath. No new lights, no sign of movement at the windows. By God, we were going to get away clean on this one after all. Once inside the car I could gun it to hell and gone if I wanted and nuts to them.
Turning back to the car, the first sign I had of trouble was a glimpse of a shiny new green roadster parked in the trees just a bit farther up the rise. If my eyes had been human normal, I'd never have spotted it. The thing hadn't been there on my last trip out, and I didn't think it belonged to a courting couple looking for a quiet spot to neck. I stopped us cold, but by then it was too late to do anything.
Four of them emerged from where they'd been crouching behind the Caddie.
They must have seen it while driving down the road from the other direction or I'd have heard them pass the roadhouse. Maxwell, wrapped in a brown suede raincoat, was in front, and so confident he didn't bother to take his hands from his pockets.
The dirty work was for the other three mugs closing around us. Their hands were out and full of guns.
"Oh. Shit." Doc summed up my very thoughts.
"Why, Mr. Fleming, this wasn't part of the agreement you made with Mr.
Sullivan," Maxwell informed me in his radio announcer's voice. A gentle, unpleasant smile tugged at his normally bland expression. "You're supposed to be persuading Miss Paco to-"
"All right, can it. You caught me, we all know it. So now what?"
"So you and the doctor step away from each other and hold still long enough to be searched, then we'll all go back to the house."
"Where's your boss? Where's Opal? Is she okay?"
He didn't answer, only gave the nod to one of the gorillas to check us for weapons.
Doc was clean, but I was loaded down, and not with what they expected. The first pocket the gorilla checked was full of bundles of hundred-dollar bills. He pulled one bundle free from the rest and held it up, trying to see better.
"Hey, Max, lookit this. The guy's a frigging bank."
Their eyes all widened as they moved closer. Nothing like the sight of large sums of money to bring about a feeling of true reverence in a crowd.
I put my left elbow into the ribs of the guy behind me and slammed the side of my fist into the gorilla's belly. Both men doubled over. The last guy had his gun out and ready, but I was moving too fast for him to even begin to react. He hardly had time to look up before I clocked him one in the chin and sent him and his .38 flying.
As for Maxwell, he had only an instant to do a quick imitation of Harold Lloyd being surprised and then he was out for the count.
Doc, surprised as any of them, surveyed the bodies. "Hoowee, boy, remind me not to get you riled."
I stooped to pick up the bundle of cash. The homemade paper band holding it together was labeled with the amount. I'd used ten grand for a distraction, money well spent, I'd say, especially since it was going right back into my pocket.
"What is that?" asked Doc, peering.
"Never mind, get in the car before more of 'em show."
The two men I'd punched were starting to recover. I rudely interrupted, making sure they wouldn't be waking up any too soon, leaving them just where they dropped on the bare ground. It was too much to hope that they'd freeze. The air was cold, but not that cold.
I opened the rear door while Doc hobbled around to the passenger side and got settled.
"Now what?" he demanded.
I grunted, busily hefting Maxwell into the backseat. The floorboards were all full up with bulging laundry bags. "He probably knows where Opal is. When he comes to I'll have a few questions for him." He didn't make a sound as he flopped loose over the chill leather upholstery. After a quick search, I lifted a .22 semi-auto from his inside coat pocket. Either he relied on the gorillas to keep him safe or he was a good enough shot with it to be comfortable with a small-caliber gun. That, or anything larger messed up the lines of his suit. I shoved his legs in and slammed the door to stop them from slithering out.
Gave the house a glance, worried that someone had heard the noise, but it was so far so good for the moment. I hopped up behind the wheel and worked the key and starter. The motor made some sound coming to life, then eased back to its usual soft purr. Getting to like this car would be a very easy thing to do.
No need to spin the steering wheel much since we were already pointed in the right direction, so I hit the gears and gas and headed her easy does it down the rise toward the road so as not to draw attention from the house. The bigger the head start we had before the gorillas came to, the better.
We made it to the main road and I gunned it.
Doc sat halfway turned around to face me and to keep an eye on Maxwell in the back. "Well, I owe you one, Fleming."
"You sure as hell do."
"And you've got something in mind about how I should pay it off, don't you?"
"Just get us both to Angela tonight and I'll call it even."
"I'll think about it."
"You'll what?" The car swerved as my attention shifted toward him.
"Watch the damn road!"
I gritted my teeth to keep the bad language in so the air wouldn't go blue around our ears. When I had some control back I said, "You'll think about it?"
"You heard me. Getting out of there was just too easy. Great Aunt Hattie, three armed guys against just you?"
"I'm stronger than I look."
"They dropped mighty easy, maybe a mite too easy."
"You think it was a setup? A show? Why don't you check on Maxwell? See if his eyes are uncrossed yet."
"So maybe you didn't pull all your punches."
Actually, I had done just exactly that so as not to kill anyone, though God knows I'd had enough provocation for one night to forget myself.
"Maybe you got a feud goin' with Sullivan's watchdog and-"
"Oh, for cryin' out loud, can't you believe what you see with your own eyes?"
"Not since the last time the shakes got me and I had rats coming out of my shoes to dance the polka." He was absolutely serious.
"Then how about I turn back around and drop you on their front porch? I'm sure Sullivan'd love to see you again. When it comes down to it I don't really need you to find Angela, my guess is she'll find me, sooner or later."
"You're right on that one, boy, but I suspect it'd be a lot better for you if you found her first."
"There might be a few less bullets and grenades in the air, yes. It'd be better for everyone."
"Made an impression on you, did she? Quite a gal." He chuckled.
"So? Are you gonna tell me where to drive?"
"Just head on like you're doing and give me some thinking time."
There wasn't a whole hell of a lot else to do, so I shut my mouth and drove, keeping us steady and within the speed limit. The last thing I wanted was a cop pulling me over with an unconscious man in the back lying on top of all those bags of cash. It wouldn't be a problem to send him or anyone else along with a conveniently altered memory, but I just didn't want the bother or headache.
The cross streets slowed us with their signals. I was a little worried Doc might bolt while we were stopped, but he sat at his ease, occasionally glancing at Maxwell. I checked on him as best I could in the rearview mirror, but only saw part of his brown raincoat.
"Suede," I said, shaking my head.
"Huh?" said Doc.
"Why in hell would anyone want a suede raincoat? It shows all the water marks."
Doc considered the question and shook his head, too. "You got me there. Why not ask him when he wakes up?"
"I just might. You make any decisions about taking me to see Angela?"
"Up to a point."
"I'm wondering what you plan to do with four-eyes back there."
I'd been thinking about that myself, but was fairly certain Escott could help with that problem. All I had to do was find a phone. Luck was against me as there didn't seem to be any all-night drugstores in this area. The ones I knew about were miles away. A gas station, then. Jeez, but this part of town was deserted. Lonely spots like where we were driving always gave me the creeps. Crowded during the day and a ghost town at night, it just wasn't natural.
"Maxwell. What you got planned for him? Hey… you okay?"
"Yeah, I'm peachy." It was catching up with me, all the strain of the last few hours and the ones before them and the ones before them. Maybe I should make a stop at the Stockyards before I stretched myself too thin. Not much chance of that unless I could get Doc to take a doze while I went off to feed. Maybe he'd sobered up some and I could work with him.
"What about Maxwell?" he prompted again.
"He stays with me, Angela doesn't get him."
"But she might find a use for him in dealing with Sullivan."
"I'm sure she would-before plugging him once and dumping him in the lake."
Doc didn't contradict my prediction, only made a throwing-away gesture as if to agree with me. I felt a sharp pang in my chest, right over my heart where the bullet had gone in and changed my world forever. Angela's father had plugged me and dumped me in the lake not so very long ago. Perhaps it was a family tradition. Now and then the memory would still flash up in my mind, inspiring either a wince or a shudder, depending on my mood. This time I just ground my teeth some more and took one hand off the wheel long enough to rub the spot till it stopped tingling.
"It'd sweeten her up some to have Sullivan's secretary," Doc said after a moment.
"He'd make a mighty fine lever against that Irish bastard."
"What I've learned tonight is when the wrong side has you, your so-called friends start putting in orders for the funeral wreaths. She wasn't going to budge an inch for your sake, so why should Sullivan be different from her?"
"Good point," he admitted.
"And why should you want to cozy up with her again, anyway? She was willing to leave you to them."
He shrugged. "Because that's just how things are. Since you don't seem to understand it-"
"I understand all right, I just don't like it."
"Then the best thing for you is to get out while you're still in one piece. Whyn't you just drop me off by one of the L's and I'll find my own way from there?"
"I'll tell her you left town for good. She'd believe it comin' from me."
My head wanted to hurt again. "No. We're going to find a phone, and after I get some help with Maxwell, you're going to call Angela and persuade her to set up a meeting place for the three of us. Tonight." Whether Doc was sober enough for it or not, I'd make it happen.
I finally found a phone and dialed Shoe Coldfield's number.
Escott answered right away, and if he'd been asleep, his voice didn't sound like it.
"Are you all right?"
"I've been better. Things have changed since I talked to Shoe…" God, how long ago was it? I gave Escott a rough idea of what had happened since I'd been optimistic enough to tell Coldfield I was fixing up a truce with Angela. Not once did I make any mention of the seven hundred grand in the laundry bags. Doc stood hunched next to me just outside the booth and could hear everything. He wanted to wait in the car out of the wind, but even with the keys in my hand I didn't trust him enough to leave him alone in it. "I got one of Sullivan's top boys with me and need to put him on ice for a couple hours until I'm squared away with Angela. It needs to be someplace quiet, and you shouldn't have any trouble with him. He's out cold right now, but bring some rope and a gag, just in case."
"Done your Svengali act on him, have you?"
"More like a right cross, but I do have to talk to him, find out where they've taken Opal. Doc says she's being looked after, but I don't trust any of them."
"That goes without saying. I'm sure I can make some sort of arrangement."
"Can you come meet me? I don't want Doc seeing anything he shouldn't." Better for us all if he didn't know where Coldfield hung his hat. I gave him the name of the street and the nearest cross street. After backing the car into an alley, Doc and I had walked the dozen or so steps to the phone on the corner by a closed gas station. We were right under a lamp. It made harsh blue shadows on his creased face, aging him, and probably wasn't too flattering to me, either, not that I gave a damn. I heard Escott repeating the names aloud and Coldfield rumbling a reply in the background.
"Shoe knows the area. We should be there in about a quarter hour, perhaps a bit more."
"You in any shape to come?"
"I'm well enough."
He was probably lying so he wouldn't miss anything. Wouldn't his eyes pop once he saw what was in the laundry bags? He could watch Doc while Shoe and I shifted them. I wasn't about to take that Caddie with the cash anywhere near Angela.
"What about yourself?" he asked.
"I'm… tired." Escott didn't speak for a moment, maybe trying to figure out how much I wasn't saying because of Doc's presence. For me to admit I was less than perfect physically and in just that tone meant more than if anyone else said it. Escott knew how much it took to seriously knock the wind out of me. "Just get here as soon as you can and take this guy off my hands for a while."
"Things been quiet on your end?"
"Like a church."
"What about that friend of yours we met at the movie house?" No need to mention Merrill Adkins in front of Doc, either.
"What of him?"
"Think he'd be interested in taking in another boarder once I'm finished with him?"
"I'm sure he'd be delighted."
"But only after I'm done."
"Great. See you." I hung up.
Doc was shivering in the cold, so I led us back to the car and started it up to get the heater running. I let it idle for five minutes to take the chill off then shut it down.
The only thing interrupting the silence was the wind whispering outside, the engine ticking as it cooled, and the sound of blood being pumped through two living bodies.
Doc's breath grew harsh and sometimes uneven. He had the fidgets.
"I need a drink," he finally announced, looking miserable. "You got a flask?"
"What about him?" He nodded at Maxwell.
"Think I'll check him and find out."
"Leave that to me." I leaned over the backseat and slapped him down again and gave Doc the bad news.
On the other hand, Maxwell was awake. I sensed the change in him; something about his breathing and heartbeat tipped me off. I shook him good and told him to stop fooling around and sit up.
His eyelids dragged open, and after a minute he pushed away from the seat and looked around. Being new in town, he probably didn't recognize the area. If he was used to civilized ivy-covered walls, then this spot would be anything but comforting to him. He was in a bad place, in more ways than one, once he got a look at my sour expression.
"Where's Opal?" I asked.
He blinked a few times, coughed, and rubbed his bruised and swollen jaw. Taking stock, probably.
Now he took off his glasses, fumbled for a handkerchief, and cleaned them. He carefully did not look at me now, but let his gaze check out everything else, the doors, the alley walls, a glimpse for the laundry bags.
"I know a stall, Maxwell, so don't push it. Tell me where Opal is and I'll leave you all your teeth."
He gave me that gentle smile. The unpleasant tinge in it was gone, replaced by a touch of genuine fear. I hoped it would make him sensible. "Yes, I'm sure you're quite capable of that sort of violence, Mr. Fleming. I just wanted time to think things over."
It must be catching, I thought, sparing a glance for Doc, who gave an amused snort. I worried that he might notice something if I had to put the eye on Maxwell, but maybe hypnosis wouldn't be necessary. Max seemed willing to talk. "Got everything worked out, I hope?"
"Sadly, yes, and I will cooperate so long as you refrain from further mayhem." He lightly touched his jaw.
"Deal. Where's Opal?"
"She is in a safe place and being very well looked after. Mr. Sullivan was quite upset about her injury, so he is seeing to it she has the best care at his disposal."
The smile went all chagrined. "This is something of an embarrassment. I know how to get there, but I didn't take an exact note of the address. I'm not all that familiar with the town, you see."
"Uh-huh. Doesn't make you much of a secretary, does it?"
"An oversight that won't happen again, I promise."
Stalling again. I was ready to put him into zombie land.
He must have picked up on my loss of patience and raised an unsteady hand in mild protest. "However, I can give you directions on how to get there. I'll write them down. It's sort of a clinic, not too very far from the roadhouse."
I looked at Doc. "You know of any place like what he's talking about?"
"Well, now that he's bumped my memory, I think I do. One of Kyler's projects I heard tell of, but I figured it to just be one of them stories that goes around."
"What is it exactly?" I asked Maxwell.
"Something like a way station for men who wish to drop from sight. They get a chance to rest and think while they put a new face on their situation, you might say."
"What-like plastic surgery?"
"If it's necessary. Very expensive, of course, but worth it if it successfully puts the police off your track."
Doc shook his head, amazed. "Well, if that don't beat all."
Maxwell fairly glowed with pride. "Oh, yes, and it's quite up-to-date. None of the old chamber of horrors makeshift and hope for the best. The place has a nice little operating room, very clean, and a qualified surgeon. Mr. Sullivan notified him of our problem with Miss Opal, so he was more than happy to make himself available to see to her care."
"Who is it?" asked Doc.
"Oh, I doubt that you're acquainted with him," he said with a sniff. "Our man managed to graduate from medical school."
"You son of a-I'll have you know I-"
"Put a lid on it," I said. "Okay, Maxwell, give with the directions."
"I've pen and paper in my pockets, if you'll allow me to-"
He fumbled with his coat, searching. His hands brushed the pocket that had held his .22, but if he was disappointed at it being empty, he covered it well. "The light here is very bad."
I turned on the small overhead bulb.
He hauled out a little leather-bound notebook and tore out a page, then produced his fat-bodied fountain pen. Pricey stuff, I noted. Probably had it custom-made, though he wasn't vain enough to have his initials stamped on in gold lettering.
"Here now," he said, starting to scribble a rough map. "You go up the lane behind the roadhouse… oh, damn. What a time to run dry." He fiddled impatiently with the pen, making a face. I wondered for an instant if he was going to be stupid enough to try squirting ink in my eyes, but he made whatever adjustment he wanted and tried writing again. "I'm terribly sorry, but the blasted thing is-have either of you a pen or pencil?"
Doc snorted in disgust and leaned back against the door to pinch the bridge of his nose. "I really, and I mean really need a drink."
Keeping my eyes on Maxwell, I reached into my inside coat pocket and found a pencil by touch, held it out to him over the seat.
"Thank you. I'm afraid all this activity has me a bit rattled. Usually I'm not like this."
"Just write," I said.
"Yes, yes, of course," He nervously reached for the pencil, pen still in hand.
He should have put the pen away. The movement suddenly became too aggressive, too fast, and it was over and done before I even thought about reacting.
He caught me right on the inside wrist with the pen, only instead of a stab with the blunt point of a nib, it was something sharp, stinging.
I snarled and yanked my arm back like I'd been burned, dragging the pen with me. It startled Doc, who looked up, eyes wide.
Maxwell hit the latch on the door and scrabbled clear of the car.
The pen stuck up at an incongruous angle from my wrist and hurt like blazes. I figured it for some kind of a retractable stiletto, as there was a long needle coming out of it that he'd buried in me. Nasty little weapon. I slapped it free like swatting an especially ugly bug, and madder than hell shot out of the car to chase Max down. He hadn't gotten far, was probably still rocky from the punch I'd given him earlier. I caught up with him in ten steps, snagged his coat to haul him into range of my fist, and gave him another sock to remember me by. He dropped.
Leaned wearily against the side of a building, my head spinning. Jeez, what a night.
I checked back to see what Doc was doing. He'd levered from the car as well, but was coming toward us rather than attempting to escape. He probably knew better than to try in his shape, since I'd be able to catch him just as easily. He had the pen with him, but held it gingerly between his fingertips like it was some fragile piece of glass.
"Holy hell, you ever see anything like this in your life? Wonder where he got it?"
he said, looking down at Maxwell. "What a little weasel. I think I owe him a kick for that crack about my not graduating."
"Let him be, he's not going anywhere. What is that thing?" I took the pen from him for a closer look. I didn't care much for what I saw. The needle was hollow, a hypodermic. I examined my wrist. There was a hole in it and a little blood. Nothing to worry about, I hoped, except that there was now a knot under the skin, which felt very cold.
"Lemme see," said Doc, squinting at the damage like a fortune-teller. He clamped his fingers above the knot with one hand, then gently squeezed it. I didn't feel a thing. A very small amount of clear fluid came out the hole, then nothing as it swelled shut. He bent low and sniffed my skin. "Gimme that pen again."
I held on to it, but let him check things. He worked some tiny mechanism in the fat barrel with his thumb and a drop of fluid appeared at the end of the needle. He sniffed that, too.
The cold was starting to travel up my arm, fast. "Something's wrong…"
He shot me a sad, worried look. "What d'you feel?"
"It's gone all numb." My arm was too heavy to move. It drooped from my shoulder, a deadweight.
"Sit down, son. Take it easy."
"What the hell'd he stick me with? Morphine?" But it didn't feel like morphine.
"Just sit down," he insisted.
I didn't want to, but my body gave me no choice. The cold blossomed out from my shoulder, spread over my chest, down my legs. They also went numb, and abruptly Doc was supporting me, easing me onto the hard pavement. I tried to take a breath to speak, but it felt like my lungs were stuffed with cotton.
"Easy, now," he kept saying over and over. Whatever was wrong with me, it had to be bad to get that sort of reaction out of him. You're only kind to your enemies when they're dying.
"It's nothing I can do anything about," he said, but he sounded like he was telling that to convince himself, not me.
"It's full of something nasty."
No shit, I thought as the numbness swooped down my other arm. I was cold, very, very cold inside.
"Just take it easy…"
"Wha-" I managed to gasp out with a last little bit of air. Kept staring at him, desperate for an answer.
"Got a smell to it. I think it's some kind of cyanide. You know what that is?"
I knew. With the numbing cold came paralysis. My sight clouded over. Tried for more air. Nothing. Tried to move. Nothing.
Saw a shifting blur above as he felt for a pulse in my neck. Couldn't find one, of course. "Oh, Lord, but I'm sorry for you, son. It's hell, but there's harder ways to go."
True, but this one was bad enough.
Couldn't move, couldn't think. Could hear, but not react. It was like being caught away from my earth for the day. Part of my mind was conscious of activity around me, but utterly unable to do more than absently note it down. I should have been silently screaming in my brain from the panic, but I couldn't remember how.
Another blur, then darkness. He'd shut my eyes with his fingers.
I heard other sounds from him. A long, sad sigh, a soft grunt as he stood up, a curse or two, his shoe soles scraping as he slowly walked away. Farther off, the clunk as he shut the Caddie's door, the motor turning over and catching. A stuttering grind as he struggled with unfamiliar gears and fed it gas. The tires whined against the road as he turned them, then the wind and exhaust from the swiftly passing car washed over my cooling body.READ MORE >>