Blood on the Water

Chapter 6

chapter
Chapter

"Hello?"

A feminine voice; flat, impatient. "I am hurrying… No, it's quiet here… I tell you, I'm just finishing up. If you hadn't called I'd be in the elevator now… He's down warming up the car… All right, I'm on my way."

She hung up with an exasperated sigh and moved off. I returned to the hall once more and went solid, regaining sight and better-than-normal hearing. The muffling quality of the carpet and the many intervening walls had prevented me from picking up her soft movements earlier. Now I crept to the edge of the doorway, peering around for a glimpse at my unknowing hostess.

Her back was to me as she busily shrugged into her overcoat. She already had her galoshes on; both struck a chord of recognition in me. For a few seconds I debated on how to make an approach without scaring her to death, finally deciding that it couldn't be done. I simply rapped a knuckle against the door panel.

"Keep your shirt on, Chick, I'm c-" She froze in midturn.

It was bad enough that I'd come out of nowhere, but I was still dressed for a dockside riot.

I put on a friendly smile and pretended hard that I was clean shaven and in a natty tux. "Opal, isn't it? We met the other night."

No bells rang for her.

"I'm here to see your boss."

"He's gone," she blurted.

"I noticed. Where is he?"

"I don't know. I don't pay attention to things like that."

Too much explanation coming too fast. "We're not off to a very good start, are we?"

No comment to that one. Maybe I wasn't her type-or Kyler had primed her with dire warnings to look out for a bloodthirsty monster. Her nervousness was understandable, but scaring women has never appealed to me. I could calm her down, influence the fear right out of her, but shied away from that all -too-easy ploy.

We stood in a well-furnished living area. Like the rest of the place, it was cleaned out. The only personal item left was her handbag, clutched protectively in white-knuckled fingers.

"Come on," I said, deciding that any action was preferable to waiting.

"What?"

"Down to the car. Chick's probably wondering what's keeping you."

The reminder that possible help was at hand wasn't enough to encourage her to move. "But I…"

"Come on, Opal. I'm not going to hurt you."

She took a tentative step forward on stiff legs, then balked. "No. I'm not going anywhere with you."

"You'll be all right. I'm just going to walk you to your car." I moved toward her, slowly; she was faster and backed away. Since she was determined to keep a maximum distance between us, I used that to herd her from the room.

The elevator was something of a dilemma for her, being too small for comfort.

She scurried to the end of the hall and took the service stairs instead. I followed, but not too closely. I didn't want to crowd her too much or she'd trip and break something. She was wheezing badly by the time she'd reached the bottom landing.

She burst into another short hall and out a metal door to the outside, going fast despite her short breath and slipping galoshes.

A new-looking DeSoto was idling across the narrow street, a heavy cloud of exhaust streaming from its tailpipe. Opal charged straight for it, screaming Chick's name.

Chick must have been primed and ready for trouble; he came boiling out of the driver's door, gun in hand. He wore a few visible lumps from last night's encounter with Udo and Jurgens, but they weren't slowing him down. He recognized me instantly and got the gun up and aimed, but Opal plowed right into him, spoiling his shot. He cursed and shoved her headfirst into the front seat to get her out of his way, then brought the gun to bear again.

I was moving too fast to stop, grabbing the gun and pushing it to the outside with my left, throwing a desperate gut punch with my right. The breath whooshed out of him and he doubled and fell, nearly dragging me down, too. But I hadn't hit him hard enough. He landed on his side and turned around just enough to sock me a solid one in the jaw with his free hand.

As socks go, it was a good one, because I felt it. I was already bent over and off balance, trying to wrest the gun away and making a lousy job of it. This one jarred me to my knees, leaving my butt up in the air. Chick seized the opportunity to awkwardly smash one of his size twelves into the seat of my pants. I sprawled, still managing to clutch the gun, and collected another punch in the ribs.

That's when I lost my temper and put the pressure on his hand. He gave out with a yell right in my ear. I kept twisting until something snapped. The yell turned into an honest-to-God shriek, and he finally let go of the gun. I swatted it well away and staggered to my feet, but he wasn't ready to give up yet and tried to belt me once more.

"Stay down, dammit," I roared at him, slapping at his head the way you do an annoying bug. He suddenly dropped flat onto the pavement and stopped moving.

Oh, shit. Had I broken his neck? I knelt next to him to see.

Fingers shaking from exertion and sheer nervousness at what they might find, I checked his throat for a pulse. Thank God. His heart was working fast, but it was working. Good. One less thing to worry about. Even as I straightened, he began to moan, getting ready for the second round.

Opal's initial screams had drawn a few people toward us. Three men stepped from the rest, trying to decide whether or not to interfere. They had me outnumbered, but I was a rough-looking customer. Maybe I'd had a good reason to accost an obviously respectable citizen and flatten him.

Opal had recovered and was sitting up in the seat. Once she'd realized how the fight had come out, she screamed again, nothing articulate, just earsplitting and attention-drawing. The three heroes made their decision, surging forward to protect her. Time to get the hell out.

I forced my way into the waiting car, pushing Opal over. There was a bad moment fumbling with the gears before the thing finally responded. One of the men almost caught at the handle, but I hit the gas just in time. The door swung loosely shut as we lurched forward.

Opal made a lot of noise and attempted to crawl out the other door. I got a handful of her coat collar and yanked her back. She clawed blindly, fingers jabbing into my vulnerable neck. I gave her a rough shake to stop that nonsense.

She did, but the distraction was nearly enough to smash us into an inconvenient wall. I got the wheel pulled around in time, but overcompensated. We missed the driveway and bumped violently over a high curb into the street. Opal bounced halfway to the roof, came down hard, and slipped under the dashboard with an outraged squawk.

I yelled at her to stay put as I fought to keep a straight course. We managed to swerve away from an oncoming car, miss a parked one, and pick up more speed.

I'd need it. As far as those people in the street were concerned, I'd just kidnapped an innocent, albeit noisy girl, no doubt for some horrible purpose. They were probably calling the DeSoto's license number in to the cops right now.

It had finally penetrated to Opal that this would not be a good time to make an exit. She crouched under the dash, holding on to the seat for balance and glaring at me, anger overriding fear for the moment.

"Your glasses are crooked," I told her.

She straightened them automatically. "Where are you going?"

I surprised her and myself with a laugh. "Damned if I know, sister. Your boss has made this town too hot for me to be anyplace."

"Let me out. I mean it. Let me out right now."

"Uh-uh." But I checked first before answering to make sure she didn't have a gun to enforce her demand. More complications I did not need.

She climbed from under the dash, straightening her clothes with jerky, frustrated movements.

"Sit on your hands," I ordered.

"What?"

More slowly. "Sit on your hands, Opal. If you don't, I'll have to deck you just like I did Chick."

She was smart enough not to argue. Grumbling, she squirmed around on the seat.

"Get them well under, put your weight on them."

"Okay, okay."

We were approaching a stop signal; she settled in just in time. The line of cars ahead indicated we'd all have a long wait. She simmered and looked longingly out her window toward escape, but behaved herself until the signal changed and our turn to move came up. While I was busy with the gears and wheel, she wrenched her hands free and tried to get out the door.

I grabbed her arm at the last second and hauled her back. "Relax, sister, or it's beddy-bye time." The threat wouldn't have fooled a ten-year-old, but worked on her. She chewed her lower lip into a fine shade of pink with her small teeth.

"Please let me go." Just beginning to understand her new situation, she was hard put to keep the whine out of her voice.

"That sounds like a good idea, honey. Where shall I take you?"

She came that close to blurting it out, but her mouth snapped shut before she could betray her boss.

"All right," I sighed. "Then we'll have to do it the hard way."

"What do you mean?"

"You'll find out." Eventually, I located the perfect spot, coasting to a stop in front of a closed gas station with an outside telephone box. Opal squeaked when I took her arm again and tried to shrug away.

"Leave me alone."

"At the first opportunity," I promised. With a little forceful coaxing, I drew her out of the car, squeezing us unhappily into the phone box. She kept as far away from me as possible, which was not easy, given the circumstances. I blocked the door and fumbled out a nickel.

Escott answered before the first ring had finished.

"It's me."

"Are you all right?" he asked cautiously. It was a loaded question. Translation: had I killed Kyler yet?

"Just peachy. Kyler's flown the coop, but it wasn't a total waste of time. I've turned up a new angle."

"What sort of angle?"

"Remember the other night at the Satchel? Kyler's accountant, Opal?" Opal glared at me, her jaw working.

"Certainly."

"I've got her."

"You've-" He broke off as the implications soaked in.

"Yeah, and I want to bring her over, but you need to warn our temporary landlord to keep out of the way so he doesn't get drawn into this mess. The fewer people she sees, the better. You know what I mean?"

"I understand perfectly."

"Okay. I'll come by in the same door that I used to leave. We'll be there in about ten minutes."

"I'll be prepared."

We hung up, then I had to expend some effort to wrestle Opal back into the car without hurting her. She started to screech, leaving me with no option but to clamp a hand over her mouth and lift her bodily up and in. She ran out of breath before I ran out of determination. The street was momentarily deserted, but enough noise could change that in short order. I hauled ass out of there.

"This stinks and I hate you," she announced, verging on tears.

"And you're the light of my life, too. Now get under the dash."

"What?"

"Just do it, Opal!" The tone of my voice got through to her. She ducked down, fast.

After a peaceful interval, she complained, "This thing's digging into my back."

"Then stop trying to sit up."

"Why can't I?"

"You don't need to know where we're going."

"But I'm getting carsick down here."

"Fine. If you puke, be sure to keep it on your side."

"You…" But she was too nice a girl to use that kind of language. She tried another tack. "I can sit on my hands again. I promise I won't make any trouble."

I didn't answer.

"Really, I won't. I'll even keep my eyes shut."

"Better if you stay put."

"You-you won't think so in a minute," she gasped.

Alarmed, I checked on her. A person doesn't turn that shade of light green voluntarily. She was gulping, too. I hastily pulled to the curb and rolled down my window to give her air. "Better?"

She shook her head, her eyes desperate. Damnation. I leaned over and opened the passenger door. She crawled forward and got her head out just in time. I gripped her collar to keep her from bolting, but it wasn't really necessary. When she finally finished and I pulled her back onto the seat, she was exhausted and puffing like a beached fish, tears streaming down her swollen face.

"You all right, kid?" I found a handkerchief and offered it. She glared and wrinkled her nose. "Go on, it's clean." I pushed it into her hand.

"Why don't you leave me alone?"

"Just blow your nose."

She did, several times.

"You can keep the handkerchief," I said, suddenly inspired to generosity.

"Will you please let me go?"

I ignored the subject. "Feel better now?"

Sniff. "I guess so."

"Good. Get back under the dash."

Her mouth popped open and as quickly snapped shut. She looked ready to burst into real tears now, not just the by-product of being sick. "You're mean."

"Yeah, I cheat old ladies and kick dogs all the time."

"This stinks. Vaughn's going to get you for this." But she got back down and I resumed driving.

To keep her mind off getting carsick again, I asked, "How'd you come to work for a guy like him, anyway?"

She scowled as though I were a total idiot. "I'm a great accountant. You ask me anything about numbers and I know it."

Off the top of my head I asked: "The square root of pi, what is it?"

"Pi is a transcendental number, you can't take its square root. Ferdinand Lindemann's already proved that. Since it's an irrational number its numerical representation can only be an approximation of its value, and those numbers'

square roots will also be approximations. That's algebra, anyway. I can do it, but accounting's better. In a correctly balanced ledger, numbers are always sensible and clean."

I gulped, knowing that I'd seriously underestimated this little gal. "Ah …

whatever you say, but doesn't it bother you how Kyler makes the money you're adding up for him?"

She shrugged, indifferent.

"Or that he kills people?"

"Will you let me go? I won't tell on you."

"No."

She crossed her arms, resting them on the seat cushion, and stared at the door handle. "This stinks. Vaughn's going to get you good for stealing his car. He'll get you good for doing this."

I shot her a look. Somewhere along the way I'd missed something and it was just now catching up with me. "What's fifty-six times eighteen?"

"One thousand eight," she replied in a bored tone.

"Fifty-six divided by eighteen?"

"Three, remainder two or three point one one one one…"

"I'll take your word for it."

"Told you I was good," she said smugly.

"How old are you?"

"Twenty-three years, four months, and eleven days."

"Now you're just showing off."

"Am not. That's the truth."

I tried a few more sums and the answers poured out of her as fast as she heard the questions. It kept her occupied until we reached Coldfield's building. I backed the car deep into the alley shadows. Just as I cut the motor, Escott opened the side door for us. I urged Opal to come along, aware that I sounded like a dog owner working with an especially difficult pet. Hugging her purse, she finally climbed out, and I guided her inside.

"Opal, this is Charles… Charles, Opal," I said once he'd locked the door.

"Delighted to meet you again, miss," he responded, with a slight inclination of his head.

She pouted at him, suspicious. "You were at the Satchel. You didn't have a black eye then."

He glanced at me. I gave him a "be careful" expression. "Yes. That's where we met."

She put a disapproving twist to her lips, but decided not to hold it against him.

"We only just met here; the Satchel was where I saw you," she stated, then pointed a finger straight at me. " He won't let me go. Will you?"

He instantly came out with a thin but charming smile. "Won't you come inside and warm yourself first? It's much too cold for traveling right now." He gestured upstairs, managing to get her there with no more fuss.

She glared at the sparse furnishings and kicked at the empty packing crate that served as a table. "This stinks."

I told Opal to be quiet and read a magazine. We backed out the door, but kept it open to make sure she left the phone alone.

"Jack…" he murmured from the side of his mouth.

"I know. At first I thought she was just acting cute, but it's no act."

"And you're certain she's his accountant?"

"Oh, yeah. I don't know how, but she's some kind of a genius when it comes to numbers."

"Even if she is a bit wanting in the social graces. You're sure about her being the new angle you mentioned on the phone?"

"Mostly she got dragged along for the ride, and now I'm kind of stuck with her, but I think she may know where Kyler is."

"In which case it should be easy enough to persuade her to part with the information."

"I was thinking maybe you could charm it out of her with that Ronald Colman act of yours."

Instead of bristling with his usual reply to the joke, he said, "You really don't want to hypnotize her, do you?"

No use trying to hide anything from him; he was too damn sharp. This was a talk I'd been dreading, but would have to have sooner or later. God knows, I owed him an explanation.

"Something's happened," he said. He was trying to make it easy, but I was wincing inside.

"It's too dangerous."

He paused over that one. "For you or the subject?"

"Both."

"How so?"

"It's a trap. The last… the last time I was talking-starting to talk, starting to get information… I lost control."

"In what way?"

Dammit. "I nearly killed her."

"Miss Grey?" He kept his tone low and neutral, a vocal counterbalance to my obvious twitchiness.

"Yeah."

That answered a lot of questions for him, but not all. He waited for me to go on.

"We were alone in her studio and I'd just put her under to get some answers.

Then it just… took me over. I got caught up in something I couldn't control.

That's when I stopped thinking."

Stopped thinking and began feeding, draining the blood from her as though she were one of the cattle at the Stockyards. Helpless, but uncaring, she'd been swept away and submerged in the sensual pleasure of that joining. I had played upon it, used it to satisfy an appetite and desire blended together to the point of destruction for us both. She'd have lost her life and I… what? Illusions about myself? My sanity? My soul? None would have mattered; she'd have still been dead.

"I… broke away before it was too late, but it was hard. I almost didn't."

"This aspect of your condition has always bothered you," he pointed out.

"Jesus, Charles, every aspect of it has bothered me at one time or another; I may never get used to being what I am. But this… I don't want to put anyone through that risk again."

"But you've done it many times before, what made this particular one different?"

That I'd been alone with her, or mildly attracted to her, or feeling the first inevitable pangs of hunger? "It doesn't matter."

"It does, my friend, because there are other lives than your own or even hers to consider." He wasn't indifferent to Opal, or using guilt to pressure, only stating facts that I'd already considered. Opal watched us from the windowless room, trying to read our faces for a clue to her future.

"Which puts me right between a rock and a hard place," I grumbled. "So what do I do?"

"I cannot decide for you. There are other ways of finding out what we need.

Shoe or Gordy can probably help, but this will be quickest."

I turned away and paced down the hall and back. My choice was no choice, not when it came between promises to myself or protecting my friends. Opal would be safe enough with Escott acting as chaperon, but it was cold comfort at best. My hands were starting to shake.

Opal hadn't liked waiting and said as much when we came in to sit with her.

With that very clear opinion out of the way, she hunched down in her coat and crossed her arms protectively against any possible counter argument. Escott gave me a silent nod to indicate that it was my show, content to melt into the background.

In an attempt to change the subject and to get her more relaxed, I said, "You know you never really answered my question about how you came to work for Kyler."

She sensed some less obvious purpose than curiosity behind the question, and used her earlier answer. "Because I'm a great accountant."

"That tells me why, but not how. When did you meet him?"

"Two years, two months, and fifteen days ago."

I should have been prepared for that one but wasn't. My expression amused her. "That's very good."

"I know."

"How did you meet him?"

"I was a cashier at a restaurant. They wanted a singing cashier, but I didn't sing, I did numbers instead."

"Did numbers?"

"Like I did for you in the car. People'd ask me to add and subtract and stuff like that in my head. I'd do numbers for the customers to make tips. Vaughn ate there one day and asked if I could do bookkeeping and I said yes."

"If you knew bookkeeping, why weren't you doing that?"

"Because bookkeepers make eight dollars a week and no tips when they start out. I was making fifteen at the restaurant… plus tips."

"So Vaughn offered you a new job and you took it?"

"For a thousand dollars a month."

Wow. "What's your family think of your work?"

"They don't care about me. When I finished school, they told me to move out."

"Just like that?"

She shrugged. "They never liked me."

"Your own parents?"

"I'm smart, but in my own way. I wasn't smart in the way they wanted, so they didn't like having me around. Everything I said and did was wrong. I was glad to leave."

"I'll bet you were, kid."

"Don't call me that." She pulled her shoulders tighter, the corners of her mouth turning sharply down. "You're like them, too. Treating me like I'm a baby because I'm different from everyone else. They'd talk about it and think that I didn't hear or care, but I did."

"How does Kyler treat you?"

"He doesn't laugh at me or act embarrassed or talk like I'm not in the room, or talk out in the hall so I don't hear anything." She glared at us. Justifiably so, I thought.

"I'm sorry we have to do this. Opal. We-"

"Nuts to you. This stinks." She turned her back and stared at a dingy wall.

"Yeah, it does. Kyler's probably the best thing that ever happened to you."

"He's okay."

"Even when he kills people?"

"I've never seen him do that."

"Or talk about it? He wants to kill me, you know."

She looked around sharply. "So you're the one."

There went my plan to relax her. "Yeah. He ever say anything about me?"

Her eyes went solemn; her little mouth clamped shut.

"What'd he say?"

But she only shook her head, preferring refusal over lying. At least she didn't seem to be frightened of me. It would be easy enough to push her into answering.

Too easy, as I knew it would be. Always far too easy.

We soon learned that Kyler had forsaken his downtown fortress in the Travis for a more isolated roadhouse he'd recently bought. The purchase had been so far under the table that only a select few in his organization knew about it. Opal, fortunately, had been one of them and freely parted with details on the price, location, and normal hours of operation. It was open now with business as usual to avoid attracting attention, but tonight they would have an extra patron dropping in on them.

"It is most likely that he knows about Opal's disappearance," Escott pointed out. "And he may act upon it."

"Probably so. Chick wasn't that far gone when I left, but this is all I've got for now. I'll give the place a going -over and see what's there. Kyler can't hide forever."

"He's really mad," Opal volunteered in her flat voice as she drifted softly between consciousness and sleep.

No new information there, but was she talking about Kyler's mental state or his feelings? "Mad at me?"

"Oh, yes. Really mad because of last night. Those men you killed."

"I didn't kill them."

"Okay, the men the big guy had killed for you."

"Who? You talking about Gordy?"

"Uh-huh. He's going to get it bad tonight."

"What do you mean?"

"Vaughn's going to get back at him."

I flashed a look at Escott, but he was already on the phone, dialing the Nightcrawler's number. "What's he got in mind?"

"I don't know."

"You have to, Opal. Tell me everything he said."

"I didn't hear the rest. I was busy packing to leave."

Escott had gotten through to Gordy by then. "Yes, we're all right, but we've learned that Kyler's made plans for some sort of reprisal against you… Because he thinks that you were involved with the shooting of three of his men last night when they tried to kidnap Jack… No, I don't know what it could be."

"When will it happen, Opal?" I asked.

"I don't know."

I shrugged at Escott. She had an exceptional memory, but there was no way I could get information that she didn't have. He relayed it to Gordy and hung up after a minute. "He's been expecting something like this since last night, when they went after us. But he appreciated the additional warning."

"What about Bobbi?"

"He said for you not to worry."

"I'm going over there, anyway."

His eyes glinted. "I rather thought you would. Your presence may be of considerable help."

"Only if I get there in time. Will you be okay baby-sitting her?" I jerked my chin at Opal.

"She seems quiet enough."

Something that wouldn't last until my return. I knelt close by her, taking care not to touch her, and did what I could to ensure that Escott would have a peaceful evening.

Her lids slid shut and she curled comfortably upon the cot. Asleep, her pinched face smoothed out, easing the creases of determined concentration that were already gathering around her mouth and brow. Escott pulled a blanket up over her legs, then removed her glasses, folding them neatly on the packing crate.

"Are you all right?" he asked.

It hadn't been as bad as I'd anticipated, but my gut felt like jelly and he could see the tremor in my hands. I balled them into fists and shoved them into the pockets of the pea jacket. Car keys scratched my knuckles. "Go ahead and call Shoe. Let him know what's going on. I'll take the DeSoto over to the club."

"But-"

"Yeah, I know it's hot, but I'll have to chance it. I'm not waiting around for a cab."

He nodded, then I was out the door and down the stairs.

I had to fight to keep within the limits of the traffic around me. Running into another cop I could handle, but it would cost time. My too-fertile imagination worked full blast throughout the trip, coming up with a variety of attacks that Kyler might try. He could strafe the place with machine-gun fire, as with Escott's car, or lob grenades through any of the windows. The aftermath would bring out the Feds like flies on a corpse. Between them and the local law…

And Bobbi was smack in the middle of it. I sneaked up the pressure on the gas pedal and tore around a slow truck.

Things must have also gone wrong for Angela Paco. Vic might not have been in a condition to carry whatever message she had for Kyler. He could have died on her by now or she had needed both of us and I'd slipped out and spoiled it all.

Whatever the reason, Kyler didn't know about her involvement and had logically blamed Gordy for the mess she'd left in the street. That's why his goons had been waiting near the club and opened up the moment Escott's Nash showed with me in it.

But that had been last night and a full day had come and gone with no further trouble. If he was spooked enough by Gordy's apparent involvement, why had he decided to wait? It would only give his opposition time to set up defenses or a counterattack. His hope might be that Gordy would leave rather than risk an open gang war, but he couldn't count on it.

Or maybe he was just waiting for me to turn up again and knew that would happen only after dark.

I left the car in a deserted spot a block away from the club. Going by foot was slower, but it gave me plenty of time to check the area. I kept to the shadows, becoming invisible whenever I had to cross an open space or pass under a streetlight. Halfway there, I had to quit because other people were turning up, well-dressed men in polished shoes hurrying along with their polished ladies. Some looked worried, glancing back over their shoulders, others giggled with tipsy relief.

Club patrons, then, and too rushed to wait in the lobby for a cab to come for them.

It looked like Kyler had started without me.

Ahead, the flash of lights played along the high walls of the buildings. I picked up the busy commotion of human voices and the grunt of car engines and moved faster against a thin tide of people flowing from the club.

Cops and cop cars everywhere, their lights snapping in endless circles. No ambulances, at least not yet, but a couple of paddy wagons blocked the front entrance and were doing a good business.

A raid?

Gordy had been through this drill more than once, but he was a good businessman and paid his bribes like everyone else to avoid such problems. But Kyler had used the police before, trying to trap me at the warehouse, so why not again to get at Gordy?

The cops were probably all over the casino tagging the slot machines for evidence or pounding them to junk with sledgehammers just for the hell of it.

Some sawhorse barricades were up to keep out the public, including me. Fat lot of good it did them as I slipped around to the side of the building and picked out a window on the club's second floor.

I re-formed in an unoccupied bath and shot out to the adjoining bedroom.

Bobbi's room was just across from it. The door was wide and her things scattered about, but she was gone. That could be good or bad.

Staying solid, I left the outer bedroom for the hall. It was empty for the moment, but I heard voices coming from Gordy's office. Time to get some answers.

Three men looked up at my sudden barge through the door: Gordy standing by the far wall, a uniformed cop next to him, and a plainclothes man in front. All but Gordy jumped a little. He was deadpan by nature, but there seemed to be a hint of relief in his small eyes and an undeniable sheen of sweat clung to his temples.

Something was wrong, wrong, wrong.

The uniform had his gun out and it hovered uncertainly between me and Gordy. I fanned both hands up in a placating gesture.

"Take it easy, boys, I'm just here to cover things for the Trib."

"You sure as hell don't look it," said the other man.

At least he didn't question the presence of the press, however seedily it was clothed. On raids like this, the cops don't mind having reporters around; it made good publicity for the department. "I was working a skid-row story and saw the ruckus. You can't blame me for wanting to drop in for a look."

"And that's all you'll get: Beat it."

"Aw, c'mon, Sergeant." I had to guess at his rank. "Gimme a break, I gotta wife and kids to feed. How 'bout a short interview? I'll make you the hero of the day. What's your name?" I fumbled for my notebook and pencil, stalling for time.

"That's Lieutenant Calloway, you asshole." He was keeping himself on a short leash; I'd read that from him the instant I'd walked in. The tension washing around the room was thick enough for swimming. The uniformed man was as cool as Calloway was hot. On the desk was a gun, taken from Gordy no doubt, and a stupid thing to leave lying around. There was more going on here than a simple arrest. These guys had other things on their minds.

"Lieutenant Calloway asshole…" I repeated, pretending to write it down. I shouldn't have done it that way, but he'd left himself open and I couldn't resist. It was one way to bring things to a head.

"Baker, get him outta here!"

"Just joking, Lieutenant," I said as Baker closed in. "Okay, you're officer Baker and what's your badge number?"

Baker started to hustle me out. There was no time to think up anything fancy; once I was out of the room anything could happen. Shrugging off his grip, I turned for a parting shot. "And how much is Vaughn Kyler paying you for this hit?"

Calloway's eyes got big. Baker froze solid. I didn't catch Gordy's expression, but he made a small noise in the back of his throat to communicate that I'd just thrown an appallingly large hunk of shit into the fan.

"Bring him back," Calloway said. "And this time lock up."


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