Blood on the Water

Chapter 3

chapter
Chapter

He went white at the lips. Despite my assurance, he saw something in me that frightened him more than the threat of Bobbi's gun. He started to bolt for the door, but I was on him too fast. I caught his collar and swung him against the wall, rubbing his face in it.

"Be careful, Jack," Bobbi warned. She wasn't worried about either of us getting hurt, but that Chick might see more than what was good for him. The mirror over her dressing table reflected all this side of the room.

I locked my eyes onto his. He had defenses up that he was unaware of, but those quickly crumbled beneath the tidal force of my own anger and fear. His pupils shrank to pinpoints and his mouth sagged as I began to tear into his mind.

"Jack?" Bobbi's voice was troubled with the first hint of alarm.

Part of me knew what I was doing to him and that I should stop, but it was easier for that part to simply get out of the way and let the terrors within rush free.

"What are you doing? Jack?" She touched my shoulder, then shook it, trying to reach me.

His legs started to go.

"Jack?"

It was the dust-dry scent of her fear that finally broke through and saved him. I shut everything down, pulling back before it was too late, pulling back and turning away from her until I had myself under control.

"What is it? What's wrong?"

Three nights now of uncertainties, frustrations, deaths, and near death, and no end in sight; Bobbi's presence had only eased the darkness, not removed it.

"You all right now?" She ran her cool fingers lightly over my forehead. I caught her hand and pressed it against my cheek.

"Yeah, I'm all right." For the moment, but it was enough. I flushed out my lungs with a cleansing breath and felt the stuff ebb away, leaving behind only a faint shadow on my soul. It could return or not. The choice was mine.

"Then what… ?"

It was safe to look up. Chick was still conscious, but confused. I told him to close his eyes and go to sleep. He did and I let him slide to the floor.

She watched him go, biting the inside of her lip. "This is part of that kind of hypnosis you do?"

I nodded. "When I'm upset it can get away from me." I tried to say more, to explain it somehow, and couldn't.

"It scares you," she said.

"Yeah."

She left the borrowed gun on a table and came over to hold me, which was exactly what I needed. It didn't last long, because we had to see to Escott, but it helped. She gave me a final squeeze, then found a towel somewhere and wet it down at a tiny sink in the corner. I fished out my pocketknife to cut away the bindings on Escott's wrists.

"What is this stuff, anyway?" I complained, sawing through the fabric with some difficulty.

Bobbi tried unknotting Escott's gag. "It used to be one of my stockings. If they're this tough, how come they get runs so easily?"

"Don't know, but at least they did him up in style. You okay, Charles?"

He made a glottal noise that sounded like an affirmative, but wasn't all that convincing. One of his eyes was starting to puff up and his knuckles were scraped. He winced as Bobbi finally tugged the knot loose.

"Looks like you've been to the war, buddy." I broke through the last strands of silk.

"Several, I think," he muttered thickly, working his sore jaw.

"You want a doctor?"

He shook his head. Cautiously. "I'll be fine." Bobbi dabbed his face with the towel and he was content to lie back and let her fuss over him.

"What happened?" I asked when he looked up to answering.

"I'd come backstage for a quick look round and discovered Tinny waiting here, ready to accost Miss Smythe at the first opportune moment. I'd almost settled things in my favor when the other fellow turned up. After that …" He shrugged and touched the back of his skull, wincing again.

I looked at the discarded blackjack and figured that Escott had gotten off very lightly. "We're going to have to get out of here. Are you up to it?"

"You've got to be kidding," objected Bobbi.

"Don't I wish, but those other two mugs I got rid of could be back at any time with reinforcements, and they're going to be pretty sore. There's no law that says Kyler's going to be busy all night making excuses to Lieutenant Blair. If he and his crowd turn up, I don't want you or Charles caught in the cross fire."

"Fine with me, I don't like this kind of roughhouse, but Charles is still-"

"Capable of moving if necessity calls for it," he told her. "The sooner the better, if you please."

She gave him a look of mixed exasperation and affection, then got a bag and began stuffing her street clothes into it.

"It won't bother your boss that you're leaving early?" I asked.

"We just did the last show of the evening when you came in." She paused. "I can't go home, can I?"

"Not tonight. We'll find a hotel somewhere."

She considered the two of us with a raised eyebrow. " That should be cozy."

Escott sat up, rubbing his wrists. "Might I suggest a safer haven for all of us?"

"Suggest away," she said, sweeping some odds and ends from her makeup table.

"The Nightcrawler Club."

She stopped packing. That place had a lot of memories for her and the bad ones were still fresh.

Escott was well aware of them. "This is something of an emergency."

"I guess so," she admitted. "But for how long?"

Neither of us had an answer to that.

"And my job here?" She correctly read our faces. "Forget I asked."

"Sorry," I said.

She shrugged. "Don't be. It's better than being with Tinny and Chick. Staying there is a very good idea, I'm thinking maybe Gordy can help us out. If anyone in this town knows about Vaughn Kyler… but what do we do with these two clowns? We can't leave them here for the janitor to find."

"We could try questioning them," said Escott.

My recent loss of control had spooked me so much that the last thing I wanted to do was get involved in a hypnotic version of twenty questions. Besides, I'd made a private promise to myself about avoiding that particular mental trap. Now was not the time to inform Escott of my decision or the reason behind it.

I shook my head decisively. "Uh-uh. We've got to get out of here before their friends come looking for them. We'll pass them off as a couple of drunks who tried to get Bobbi's autograph. Where's the club bouncer?"

Bobbi had completed her impromptu packing and pulled on a coat. "I'll take care of it." She whisked out, her boot heels making no-nonsense clacks against the floor.

"As I've said before, what a very remarkable girl," Escott murmured.

"One in a million… and I just let her out of my sight." I hastily started after her, but she hadn't gone far. At the other end of the hall she was explaining things to the stage manager, jabbing a thumb in my direction to emphasize a point. He nodded with a grim but satisfied smile and quickly moved off.

Bobbi returned, looking smug. "He'll be back in a minute with Udo and Jurgens."

"Udo and Jurgens?"

"Busboys."

The stage manager soon reappeared with a couple of large young men who were enough alike to be twins. The seams of their white work coats were strained to the limit and I could have sworn that some of their arm hair was sticking out of the gaps. "What do they clear away, real buses?"

" Shh, they're really very sweet."

The trio lumbered past to stop only a moment at her dressing room. When they returned, Tinny and Chick were each dangling bonelessly from a massive shoulder. The stage manager brought up the rear, carrying their fallen hats.

"Drunken bums," he muttered. "We'll dump 'em outside, Bobbi. They won't be bothering you anymore."

The twins laughed and I was suddenly very glad not to be one of their parcels.

In the dressing room, Escott was on his feet again and working a dent from his hat. "This establishment certainly employs an effective cleanup crew. Those two fellows reminded me of the giants that built Valhalla."

"In Das Rheingold?" asked Bobbi.

"Why, yes. Do you enjoy opera, Miss Smythe?"

"If it's done right. Back in school I was in some Gilbert and Sullivan…"

"Are we ready to leave?" I interrupted.

"Wait a second." Bobbi got her bag of clothes and paused long enough to stuff Tinny's gun and Chick's blackjack into her purse. "You never know when one of these might come in handy," she informed us, then led the way to a side exit.

Once out of the building, my feeling of vulnerability became more pronounced with the abrupt slap of cold air. We hustled to Escort's car, crowding together on the front seat. Despite his protest that he was fit, I insisted on driving and told him to keep his eyes peeled for tails. Our route north was an indirect one and in the end I was satisfied that we hadn't been followed.

I stopped in the service alley that ran behind the Nightcrawler Club, cut the motor, and waited. The back door soon opened and a couple of mugs emerged to check on us. Escott rolled down his window and Bobbi leaned over to hail one of the men.

"Ernie? How you doing?"

The shorter man relaxed when he recognized her. "Hey, it's Bobbi. What're you doin' here, babe?"

"Come to visit Gordy."

"He's busy now, but he'll see you." Ernie made a point of noticing me and Escott.

"These are some friends," Bobbi explained. "They're okay."

He squinted, doubtful. " 'F you say."

"Can we park the car here?"

"Yeah, but not for all night."

"Good enough." At that, we piled out and Ernie escorted us into the building.

The kitchen was more or less familiar to me, as were the stairs and upper hall.

About six months ago Slick Morelli's goons had dragged me over the same ground for a little rough questioning and the memory of the event was still strong.

The circumstances were happily different this time, but I had a shiver of discomfort to suppress all the same.

Gordy, Morelli's lieutenant, had taken over the operation of the club and whatever else his New York bosses had an interest in; the Nightcrawler was only part of the iceberg. Most of the businesses were entirely illegal, but like any other, in need of good management in these hard times. He ran the operation efficiently, profitably, and with a minimum of trouble, exactly as required.

We were ushered right up to the office with its pastoral landscapes and comfortable leather furniture. Gordy loomed over a desk piled high with stacks of loose cash and canvas money bags: that evening's casino take. A huge, phlegmatic man, his eyes crinkled when he saw Bobbi, his version of a delighted grin. He nodded a greeting to me and Escott, then gave us all a second look, taking in Bobbi's flashy costume and bag as she removed her coat, my informal working clothes, and Escott's by now obvious battering.

"What's the problem?" he asked.

"Vaughn Kyler," said Bobbi.

Behind us, Ernie muttered something unintelligible. Gordy fastened his small eyes on him and jerked his head. Frowning, Ernie shut the door, his steps retreating down the stairs. Gordy gestured for us to take seats. Bobbi and I huddled together on the couch, Escott sank into its matching chair. Gordy came around the desk and leaned one hip on it, ignoring the bundles of cash as though they were so much confetti.

"Give," he said, never one to wait on ceremony.

By silent consent, I was elected storyteller. Maybe my past journalism experience had something to do with it. I went through all of it, starting with the original job Escott had taken on to recover the stolen bracelet, and ending with the disposal of Tinny and Chick.

"Right now, what we need is to drop out of sight for a while until we can figure out how to settle things with Kyler," I concluded.

"Don't see how you can do it. Kyler's gotten pretty big in this town. I can help some, but not that much. I don't want to risk a war and neither will my bosses."

"Can you at least offer Miss Smythe a place of safety?" asked Escott.

"No problem on that, same for you if you want it. Kyler's real target is Fleming and I can tell you he won't give up."

Bobbi didn't like his answer. "But what about Jack? You can't just toss him in the street to get run over."

"Gordy's saying that he doesn't have much of a choice," I told her. "If Kyler catches on to where I am-"

"Who's going to tell him?"

"Nobody," said Gordy. "He's able to figure it out for himself."

Bobbi read him right. "You mean he's already… ?"

"He called me about ten minutes ago."

Escott leaned forward. "Has he now? What was his purpose?"

"He wanted to know everything I could tell him about Fleming. I said I didn't know much, but he wouldn't have bought that. From what's been happening, I'm thinking he's got other places to go for news."

"And what has been happening?"

"You remember the Elvira?"

Slick Morelli's yacht. The scene of my murder. I remembered. Too well.

"When it went up for sale, Kyler bought it."

We all exchanged uneasy looks. "Why?" I whispered.

Gordy gave a minimal, but eloquent shrug. "He's after you, kid. That's all you need to know."

Bobbi wrapped her hands around one of mine. "Are we so positive that Kyler wants to kill Jack?"

When I'd summarized things for Gordy, I'd mentioned the death of Kyler's lieutenant, Hodge, but had been circumspect about the details. "Sorry, baby, but I'm stuck with it. He had a chance to call it all off tonight and didn't, and the proof is the easy fifteen grand he gave up in the trying."

"Then what will you do?"

Good question.

"Perhaps a little information gathering of our own is in order," Escott suggested thoughtfully. "Does Kyler still make his home at the Travis Hotel?"

"He's got the top floor all to himself," said Gordy. "If you're thinking on a visit, think again. He's turned the place into a regular bank vault."

"What may one expect to find?"

"Steel shutters on the windows, bulletproof glass, and an army of guys just looking for trouble to come their way."

"What does the management of the Travis think of their guest?"

"What can they think? He owns it."

"Convenient for him, I daresay."

"You got an idea, Charles?" I asked.

"No. But doubtless one will turn up. Some research is required first, beginning with what kind of questions Kyler had concerning you."

Gordy's eyes turned inward to his memory and he gave us a succinct recounting of the conversation. The more I heard, the less I liked it.

"He's too damned interested in what happened aboard that yacht," I said.

"Not to mention what you've done since then," Escott added soberly, letting all the implications sink in. "You haven't exactly led a quiet life lately. You've been fairly invisible to the papers and the police, but there are numerous other places to go for information, and Kyler would have gleaned each of them clean by now. I don't suppose you would consider allowing Kyler to go ahead and kill you?"

"I hope you mean that the way I think you do."

"Certainly. Arrange things in your favor so that he thinks you've been eliminated. You've done it before."

"By accident, and I only got away with it because no one was looking for anything unusual."

"That's for damn sure," said Gordy, who had been a witness.

"I can't count on Kyler to fall for that. If he has an idea about what I am, he'll know bullets won't do the job."

"And you weren't able to influence him, either," Escott said, referring to the attempts I'd made to hypnotize Kyler the night before.

"Nope."

"So forced persuasion or driving him insane may be eliminated as options."

"Yeah, though with him it would have been a short trip."

Great. Now I was making jokes about it. Maybe I was getting used to the situation. Or maybe it was the way everyone was watching me, as if I had the easy answer.

Gordy shrugged again. "If you want any advice, I'd say change your name and get out of the country. That… or kill him first."

Bobbi's hands tightened over mine.

That was Gordy's easy answer, and the one I'd expected to hear. "Okay, say that I did it. I'd have to take care of his lieutenants, too, because they'd know who to blame and still be coming for me. Where does it stop?"

No answer.

"And I don't know if I can do it. Not cold. Not just walking in on him. Could you?"

His expression was unchanged, which made his reply that much more disturbing. "Yeah, kid, I could, but I don't want a war. This has got to stay between you and him."

Escott gave me a long, steady look, which I did not return.

"Does it bother you being back here again?" I asked, holding the door for her.

"Back in the club or this part of it?"

"This part." I gestured around at what had once been Slick Morelli's bedroom.

"It's just another place now that he's gone."

Some of the furnishings were still intact: the bed, a few pictures on the walls, tables, but it had the impersonal look of a hotel. Bobbi ignored it all to push open a second door leading to a smaller bedroom and went in.

"But this is where I'll want to sleep," she added.

It, too, had been stripped down, but didn't look quite so empty now that she was there. She put her bag on the dresser and let her overloaded purse drop next to it with a thud.

"They've got you backed into a corner, haven't they?"

I watched as she began setting her things out. "What do you mean?"

"First Kyler, now Charles and Gordy. It's like they're all pushing you into something you don't want to do."

"But may have to."

"It's already tearing you up. What happens to you afterward?"

I had no answer for her, not having one for myself.

She stopped unpacking and looked at me straight. "We can leave town like Gordy said. That would save everybody the most trouble."

"How do you figure?"

"I don't need to give you a list, Jack, you'll have come up with enough reasons of your own by now."

"Yeah, baby, and every one of them has an argument against it. We could take off and disappear, but then what happens to Charles? Kyler's after him as well.

Say he decides to come along and we all start over some place else, we'll always have to be looking over our shoulder. I do enough of that already."

"Okay, but can you live with the other thing?"

"It wouldn't be any problem for me to float right into Kyler's steel-lined fort.

He has no defense against that. If I know where he is, I can get to him. I've thought it all out."

"But… ?"

To kill. I'd done it before. Once by accident, while unused to my new strength, again, and quite deliberately for personal revenge, and again in a black moment of insanity. So much had happened in so short a time that I was afraid of that blackness returning, perhaps for good.

"But I think too much," I concluded.

"Just don't shut me out, Jack. I'm in this with you. No matter what happens, you're not alone."

I looked at her troubled face, remembering all the rough spots she'd pulled through, and felt something like a lump coming up in my throat. I drew her close, both of us clinging hard to one another and shaking a little. She started to speak, but I shushed her. "No more talk, sweetheart. I'm all talked out for now and running out of time. I just want to be with you while I can."

"Especially here?" she murmured. "Where we started?"

"We started downstairs in the casino hallway," I reminded her.

"And ended up here. Where we first made love."

"Not ended, I hope."

"Never."

I kicked the door shut. "Gordy better not shoot the lock off this time."

We suffered no inconvenient interruptions, during or after. We were quiet and intense, both needing the reassurance of touch, not speech. For me the little room filled with the sound of Bobbi's quickening breath and heartbeat and the susurrant whisper of my hands over her skin. As it often did for me, time seemed to slow between one beat and the next, my own movements slowing to match. Our leisurely dance took us to her bed once more and with no less passion than we'd known the first time.

I drew on her life, on all that she was and was willing to freely give. We drifted for ages, without thought or motion to disturb that perfection of sensation. When at last I pulled away enough to look down at her, she was shivering-not with cold or pain, she insisted, but from the aftermath of the pleasure.

"Your eyes are all red," she observed. We'd forgotten to shut off the light.

"No, don't turn away. I like it."

"You sure?"

She chuckled. "My demon lover." .

We settled against one another. Bobbi fell asleep in my arms; I stared at the ceiling and dreamed.

Times like this were the toughest.

Not that there was a lot of misery in my life, but now I would have given almost anything to be able to drop off to sleep-real sleep-with Bobbi and wake to see her in the morning sun. My condition gave me many advantages, but intertwined were restrictions that could never be ignored.

One of them was immortality. Or the next closest thing to it.

It sounds like a good idea, but what do you do in decades to come as your family and friends age and die while you stay ever the same? Life was so ephemeral-if not for me, then for everyone else. What would happen to Bobbi and me? We'd exchanged blood on many occasions. There was a slim chance she might change to be like me, but absolutely no guarantees, only equal amounts of hope and despair until the day she died.

And what then, if I lost her forever?

I held her, listening to the long sigh of her breath, to the fragile rhythm of her heart.

I held her and ached with the awful loneliness that I had come to realize was special to my kind.

I held her and could have wept from it.

These were the tough times. When it's the deepest part of a midwinter night and you know you'll never sleep again, it's all too easy to fall into a bleak mood and think it'll last forever. Tonight I was especially vulnerable because I was contemplating another man's death and felt the memory of my own stir in fretful sympathy.

There wasn't much I could do about it, not here and now.

I faded away and floated clear of the sheets and blankets. The bed hardly creaked as my weight simply vanished and the covers caved in on the space my body had occupied. Bobbi lay undisturbed until after I re-formed and bent to kiss her lightly on the temple. She smiled and snuggled more deeply into the pillows.

Demon lover, indeed, I thought as I dressed, shut off the light, and silently glided out.

Escott and Gordy were still in the office. Escott had turned up an ice bag and held it to his eye to bring down the swelling. The stacks of money were gone, replaced by coffee and sandwiches. The air was thick with cigarette smoke. The number of discarded butts in the desk ashtray indicated that they'd gone through at least one pack while I'd been saying good-bye to Bobbi.

"Any more calls from Kyler?" I asked.

Gordy answered. "No, but there's a couple of cars covering the club that don't belong out there. He knows what's going on."

That was a hint I couldn't ignore. "Okay, no sense dragging you into this more than necessary. I'll make sure they see me leaving."

Escott put the ice bag down. "You've decided what to do?"

"Yeah." Then there was a long pause as they waited for me to go on, only I didn't want to. "I'll call later… let you know what happens."

"Do you wish some company?"

I was tempted to say yes, but shook my head. Danger to him aside, something like this would have to be done alone. "Just keep an eye on Bobbi. Don't let those goons come anywhere near her."

No more questions after that. None were needed. I took the steps downstairs slowly, as though I were going to my own execution, not Kyler's.

The kitchen was deserted, so I didn't bother opening the door, and just seeped right through it. The outside air seemed harsher than before. Between the high black bulks of the buildings a gray slice of night sky pressed down upon me. The Nash was long gone, presumably parked in some safer spot than the club's back alley.

Covering the right-hand exit to the street was a black Ford. I studied it a moment and checked my immediate surroundings. It was dark enough that they probably hadn't noticed how I'd left the club. I drew in a long breath of sharp air and puffed it out again, producing a long plume of vapor, then wrapped up in the muffler and walked toward them. I halfway expected-and maybe hoped-to see the passenger window roll down and a gun to poke out. It would be so simple to mime taking a fatal shot and let them charge eagerly back to Kyler to report their success.

But they weren't about to make it that easy for me and they'd be too suspicious if I returned the favor by directly approaching them. As soon as my foot hit the sidewalk I turned south and moved away rapidly, the back of my neck prickling.

After I crossed the street and kept going, their motor whined and caught. I glanced back. They were keeping pace some yards behind… maybe setting me up for a hit-and-run? Well, I'd been through that before and survived, though a repeat of the experience was nothing to look forward to. The second car pulled up behind them. Better and better; I wanted us all well away from the Nightcrawler before the party started.

By the time I'd crossed another street to the next block they were ready to move in. I broke into a run, fast, but nothing the Ford couldn't easily overtake.

They let me get halfway down, then whipped past and stopped square in my path.

The second car closed in behind.

No cover presented itself. On my right was the brick face of a tall building, showing windows only, and those too high up for a normal man to break into. On the left was more of the same with a broad bare street between. They'd picked their spot well. I skidded to a stop and waited for them.

The two men in the Ford were the first out. Their guns were ready and covered me while two more emerged from a familiar-looking Olds. The driver of that car knew me right away.

"He's the one," he told the others. "Think you're a smart-ass, don't you?" He was still stinging from my successful con back at the Top Hat.

I offered no opinion as he slapped me down for weapons. I was clean. It wouldn't have made much sense to pack something only to have it taken away again. All he did find was a rather slim money belt that I'd thought to carry. It contained no money, though. In the event that I got caught away from my usual daylight sanctuaries, the narrow pockets of the belt were loaded with oilcloth-wrapped packets of my home earth. It was a sufficient quantity to keep the dreams at bay and allow me full rest. The man only recognized the belt for what it appeared to be and started to remove it.

"Never mind that," I said. "Let's just get going."

He paused, holding his gun steady on my gut. "Tough guy," he said, pretending to be impressed. Then I looked him full in the face and his sarcasm abruptly melted off. He automatically put some space between us.

"Your boss still want to see me?" I prompted.

That got him back on balance. "Yeah," he said. "He's been waiting all night to see to you personally."

He jerked his head toward the Olds. I was in no hurry and moved reluctantly in the right direction. Before I'd taken three steps, the rough murmur of a heavy motor drifted in on the wind. Another car was turning onto our street. Correction, it was a big paneled truck. Kyler's men paused and two of them turned away from the glare of its headlights, their bodies shielding their drawn guns from obvious view. Our whole group must have looked odd, but not enough to inspire any investigation. Probably just as well. It pulled around the parked Olds, gears grinding.

As it came even with us, it downshifted and the brakes suddenly squawked.

The thing rolled another dozen feet, then stopped. The rear door was wide open, framing three men. All three were armed. The short one on the end took quick aim and fired. The man next to me gave out with a wordless yell and ducked. He got off a return shot that went wild and had no time for a second. Something invisible knocked into his chest and he spun to the pavement.

I dropped flat, eyes shut, and partially dematerialized. I didn't care who saw.

Explosions and shouts roared above and around me for what seemed like a very long time but couldn't have been more than a few seconds. Ringing silence followed. I found myself solid once more, eyes blinking against the acrid smoke from their guns.

The men from the truck were out and checking the four bodies that sprawled around me. One of Kyler's men still moved, trying to crawl away. The small newcomer stood over him, taking precise aim at the back of his head. I stared and breathed in the sharp metallic warmth of the blood. I had to swallow hard to keep down the rising knot of bile in my throat. My flash thought that maybe Gordy had decided at the last moment to join in the war went away. None of these faces were familiar or friendly.

The wounded man sensed something and twisted to look up. He froze, his eyebrows high and his eyes popping. It would have been comical except for all the blood.

He started whimpering. "Please… I didn't…"

"Shut up, Vic," said one of the newcomers. "Jerk never did have any spine.

Get him inside."

While the short one kept me covered, Vic was lifted and quickly loaded into the truck. Another of Kyler's men moaned and moved a little. We both noticed at the same time. One fast step and my guard was over him. Without hesitation, he pulled the trigger. The man's body spasmed in time to the blast of the gun, then quivered a few times after the echoes faded, but that didn't mean anything; he was dead.

The other two came out to check on the noise. Neither of them seemed surprised or very upset that their friend's action had taken away half of the guy's head. This was business as usual as far as they were concerned.

The guns were all pointed at me now.

More sudden silence as the one who'd delivered the coup d'grace gestured for me to climb in the back of the truck. I was given no chance to do anything else.

The other two each grabbed an arm and hoisted me up. I was dragged in. The doors slammed, shutting us into near darkness, and the driver got things moving.

The total elapsed time of the whole business couldn't have been more than forty seconds.

The short one turned on an overhead light and they all sorted themselves onto benches lining either side of the truck. Vic was curled into a silent bundle against the front wall. I remained on the floor, not so much because they wanted me there, but because I was still too stunned by what had just happened. I stared at each of them in turn, trying to separate them into individual faces rather than pale oval blurs that killed.

That's when the next shock set in as I realized that their leader was female.

She wore male clothing, except for the shoes, which were better suited for a tennis court. It was all a little large for her, but practical, once she'd pinned up the cuffs on the pants and overcoat. Her hair was covered by a flat cloth cap. Beneath it was a clean white face with a cupid's bow mouth. A small mole accented her left cheek. She had dark liquid eyes, and didn't look much older than twenty. She took her semi-auto off cock and tucked it into a shoulder holster as though it were something she was used to doing. She watched me watching her and didn't appear to be overly concerned about it.

The two men were older and more obviously tough looking, one with a badly broken nose, the other with a scar like an old burn marring his chin. He tapped out a cigarette and stuffed it in his face with one hand; the other was busy holding a gun on me. He offered one to his buddy and then to the girl, who took it absently, as if her mind were on something else. Probably me. She looked like a starved cat at feeding time and I was the first course.

"Gotta match, Angela?" he asked, not moving his eyes from his target.

She shook her head once, plucked the cigarette from her mouth, and gave it back to him. He took it without comment and returned it to his pack. His buddy produced a match and the air soon got cloudy as they puffed away.

If they meant to unnerve me with their combined stares, it was working pretty well, though once I became aware of my own reaction it lost some of its power.

Cautiously, I got to my feet and sat on the bench opposite them. No one objected.

No one said anything at all during the whole ride. We were sealed in without windows; I had no clue to our route or destination. Only by a few moments of uncomfortable pressure, mitigated somewhat by the close presence of my earth, did I know we'd crossed water. I could make a reasonable guess that we were somewhere west of the city. Maybe. I asked them no questions, figuring that that opportunity would come when we finally stopped.

So there were more guests at this party than me and Kyler. I could, of course, take care of these three if I chose. I was fast enough in a fight, or could just vanish. They gave me the creeps-hell, Angela was positively terrifying-but I was in no real danger unless they knew about my problem with wood. I was willing to take that chance to find out what they were after.

Our silent ride went on. I didn't bother looking at my watch, not wanting to drop my guard. We took a few more turns, enough for me to lose any sense of our direction and come dangerously close to one of my occasional attacks of claustrophobia.

Another turn. Our speed dropped and the road surface changed, growing rougher. My companions were as stone faced as ever, but I got the feeling that we'd arrived.

The brakes whined for the last time and the motor stuttered to nothing. I'd grown so used to all the vibration that it still felt as if we were moving-that or I just didn't want to get out and face anything new. The one nearest the door opened it and jumped down. Angela jerked her chin at me and I shifted to my feet and followed, a little unsteadily. I kept thinking about how easily she'd killed off that wounded man. There had been deliberate thought behind it, but no feeling that I could see. Reflexive, like smashing a roach.

The third man dragged Vic out. He stumbled from the truck bed and collapsed on his face.

The driver came around to join us. He was a big mug with a lantern jaw who looked vaguely familiar. He checked me up and down once, but registered no return recognition, then helped pull Vic to his feet.

We stood on a white graveled drive next to the back door of a very large house. I made out two stories of expensive architecture that, again, was familiar.

The driver, half carrying Vic, led us inside. Angela remained by me, on guard and looking like she wasn't. The other two brought up the rear. We walked through a plain entry-no frills for deliveries-took a few turns, and found a long hall lined with doors. It was dingy and our feet scraped against stiff, water-damaged carpet.

We went through the last door. My stomach started to itch from the inside out as I began to realize where I was.

The room was a vast office, cleaner than the hall, and rich with leather and velvet furniture. The walls were lined with landscapes, traditional, solid, and giving the impression that money wasn't all that important to the people here. I drifted to a halt, Angela and the others pausing with me as I took in the office's showpiece: a larger-than-life portrait hanging behind the desk. The artist had painted to flatter, but I knew the stocky form and large, protruding eyes. In memory and-if I was caught away from my earth-in dark dreams his face haunted me with the recollection of shattering pain and death.

My death. I was standing in the home of Frank Paco, the man who had murdered me.


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