Blood on the Water

Chapter 9

chapter
Chapter

Escott may have noticed it or not, but knew instinctively that I was in more than ordinary trouble. "Come, get up on this bench by the door."

I slowly obeyed. It was better than giving in to the cold clot of fear creeping up my throat. My body seemed heavy, as though it were sunrise already, with my limbs stiffening and mind slowing. I tried to shake out of it, but that made me dizzy again.

"You're unable to vanish? Is that it?" he asked, once I was settled.

"Guess so." I was reluctant to admit it and thus make it real.

"Has this ever happened to you before?"

It was difficult to think. "That time I got stabbed. And wood does it, too."

"What about those shots you took earlier? Would they have this kind of effect on you?"

"Maybe. Lost some blood then… shook me up bad. It's never hit as hard as…

I've been doing too much of the Cheshire cat stuff tonight." Far too much, I thought unhappily.

"Perhaps you've discovered your limits, after all," he mused, but he wasn't trying to be funny.

I again mopped at the uncharacteristic and disturbing sweat. Its deathsmell remained, clinging to the sleeve of my coat like some perverse perfume. "I feel like a squeezed-out sponge."

"You look it."

"Thanks."

"Right, then let's see about getting out of here for that trip to the Stockyards.

I've no doubt that you need to replenish your internal supply as quickly as possible."

He started knocking on the door to get the guard's attention. It took forever.

Escott kept himself close to the window so the man wouldn't see me.

"I say there," he began loudly to make himself heard. He was putting on his broadest English accent. It was a parody of his normal pattern of speech, different enough to tip me off that he was up to something, but only because I knew him.

The other guy didn't.

"Yeah? Whatizit?"

"I've been in here for hours, old man, and very much need to relieve myself."

"Yeah? Well, you'll just have to hold it."

"That's exactly what I've been doing and I won't last much longer."

"Yeah? Well, too bad."

"Indeed? I don't think Miss Paco would be too terribly pleased were I to…"

The guy laughed. "Okay, okay. But don't you try nothing."

"I assure you that I can barely move with these ribs. I shall make no trouble at all."

Outside, the man juggled with whatever they'd fixed up to lock the room and pulled the door open. Escott was still effectively blocking the guard's view and mine as well so I couldn't see what was going on. He shuffled forward, his breath straining and his heartbeat high, so it wasn't all acting. The man kept him in front as they started across the gym.

My turn. If I could take it; but walking was less tiring than vanishing, and the chance of escape inspired me to throw off some of the weakness. I dragged to my feet and managed to get out. A few steps away was a tempting rack of Indian clubs. I gingerly lifted one out and tiptoed after Escott, who was moving slowly and complaining about his injuries. His talk was enough to cover any small noises I made.

"Yeah," said the guy with a minimum of sympathy. It must have been his favorite word. It was also the last thing he said for the time being. I thumped him once with the fat end of the club and once was more than enough. He dropped flat.

"Good man," approved Escott. "Now, let's try that window."

Moving a little faster than before, but still obviously uncomfortable, he beelined to the far side of the room.

I felt marginally better but didn't want to rely on it lasting and wasted no time in raising the window.

Somewhere, something that sounded like a continuous telephone bell went off.

Escott cursed and tapped at a metal plate set into the windowsill.

"Burglar alarm. That's torn it. They'll be here straightaway."

I popped out the copper screening. The drop to the ground was only four feet, nothing to me, but awkward for Escott.

"I can manage," he assured me, as though reading my mind, but said it through his teeth as he shifted painfully on the sill to get his legs out. He bit off a strangled noise in his throat when he jolted to the ground, throwing a hand against the house to steady himself.

"Isham's waiting over there," I said, pointing at the clapboard shed across the yard.

He hugged his aching chest with both arms and shambled ahead. I crawled out after him. The alarm bell seemed louder outside than in; the night air vibrated from it. Behind, somebody called for me to stop. I glanced back and saw Newton fast struggling out with Lester following.

Isham was ready to cover us. He stepped clear of the shed and waited for Escott to pass his line of sight before taking a potshot at the pursuit. It was purposely wide in order to miss me, but I found myself ducking anyway. Newton growled something obscene and followed it up with a shot of his own. Several shots. With me smack in the middle.

I dropped and rolled, hoping the dizziness wouldn't kick up again, but was disappointed. The night world whirled and twisted; earth, sky, and earth. My stomach and head spun with them.

More gunfire. Over me. Passing me. Then a horn blowing, coming closer.

I was on my stomach and gulping air. My toes dug into the damp earth. I levered upright. Newton and Lester were ahead of me now, using the shed for cover.

Horn.

Coldfield's Nash tore over the grounds toward Escott and Isham. He swerved around them, the heavy car skidding sloppily as he put it between them and the shooting. He leaned across to open the passenger door for them. They dived in.

Escott pointed at me, yelling something. Coldfield was nodding.

He slammed gears and hit the gas. The engine roared, the wheels slipped, gouged, and caught. He was coming straight for me. I moved more to the right, ready to make a grab for a door handle when it came.

Lester broke from the shed and began firing at the car. With all its armor he'd have had better luck stopping an elephant with a peashooter. Newton was more on the ball and decided to shoot at me, instead.

I dodged and staggered to make a more difficult target. He was too damned close.

Then the car was in front of me. I seized a handle and got a foot on the running board. Coldfield hardly slowed down and I could hear him cursing through the thick glass as he fought with the wheel.

Except for the handle, I had nothing else to hold. Inside the car, Isham threw himself over the backseat to get to me. He popped up immediately and rolled down the rear window. He got a handful of my coat collar and shouted for me to climb inside.

It might have worked if I'd had my full strength and if circumstances hadn't suddenly changed.

I didn't hear it so much as feel it, a heavy shock like a drumbeat hitting me from the outside in, going right through me. My bones literally rattled from it. My muscles gave in to it. Dozens of fire-hot bee stings tore at my back. Red dots splashed the car and spotted Isham's face. Involuntarily, he winced away from it.

Blood. My blood. Then Isham wasn't there anymore, though I had a last impression that he'd made a futile grab for me as I slipped away.

Hard ground hit me all over. Lights too bright to exist flashed within my brain.

Silence. The thick, ringing kind you get after something's deafened you.

I raised my wobbling head and saw the red taillights of the Nash bump along and close together as the car swung around. Searing white beams from the headlights replaced them. Coldfield was coming back for another try, but I knew it wouldn't work. I got as far as my knees and frantically waved him off, telling him to get out, to get the hell out. I couldn't hear myself shout.

Something arced over my head and bounced toward the car. It was oblong, about the size of a potato. I waved once more, screaming this time.

The Nash swerved away from it. Coldfield must have known what it was, too.

His car wasn't that heavily armored. I threw myself flat and covered my head the way I'd been taught in the army. Despite the deafness, I heard this one go off.

Once more the shock pulverized me. I felt like an ant under a hammer.

It stuck.

Heavy clods of earth hailed on me.

Something smashed into my hand.

Silence.

I couldn't see the car anymore. The blast had flipped me right over. Groggily turning, I was just able to see its lights skimming away. He was trying to put some distance between us, correction, between himself and them. He couldn't help it and I wasn't blaming him for going. That had been the idea behind all the waving and shouting, after all.

Movement. I followed it.

Angela Paco darted past me. Her legs flashed below the flowing hem of her dark skirt. She had something heavy in one hand. She stopped, fiddled with it, and drew her arm back. The thing arced high like the others but didn't fly far. She was small and probably not strong enough to throw it with much safety for herself. As soon as it left her hand, she rushed back.

Her face was unnaturally bright. Her breath smoked freely from her open mouth. She was laughing as she dropped on the ground not ten feet from me.

Drumbeat.

Farther away. Not so bad, but enough to shake us. When I looked up again, Angela was just dragging to her feet, still laughing with childlike delight.

The last grenade hadn't landed anywhere near the retreating Nash, which was just as well. Angela had thrown it as a parting gift to keep them moving, or maybe just for the sheer fun of it. Coldfield had taken the hint. The car bolted around the bulk of the house, heading for the front gate. They were gone.

I sighed and let my head fall back onto the earth. Clouds marred the wide sky, blocking the stars. I shut my eyes miserably against their gray monotony. It would have been nice to see the stars one last time.

They stood all around me, looking down. Angela was smiling. Newton scowled. Lester slammed another clip purposefully into his gun and chambered a bullet. I had no doubt that he was planning to use it on me.

The belated realization that my condition had limits shouldn't have surprised me, but did. Tonight I'd pushed myself too far, used up too much of myself. The raw strength and powers that I'd come to take for granted were either dampened or gone.

I felt betrayed, by myself, by my changed body.

I felt hunger.

I needed blood.

With that thought, I could almost taste it again. The smell was all around me.

My canines budded. I brought my hand up to cover them.

Bloodsmell. My own.

There was a gash on the back of my hand. Precious life that I couldn't afford to lose seeped out. What would otherwise be a negligible annoyance easily taken care of was now too threatening to ignore. The red stuff, even my own, had its expected effect on me.

No, don't let them see.

They were talking. I could catch a word or two as the deafness slowly faded.

Lester held his gun ready, but Angela stopped him with a curt gesture. When he put it away, I felt safe enough to turn over as though to stand up. Better to be on the ground with my back to them than for them to see. Distinct points of pain flared along my back. I'd been hit by shrapnel. It had gone through me, compounding the blood loss from Chaven's bullets. Not needing to pretend weakness, I rested a moment with my wounded hand right under my mouth.

No good. The taste was wrong. Filtered through my body and the changes within that made it so different also made it wrong. I might as well have tried drinking my own sweat to quench a bottomless thirst.

Hands under my arms, lifting me. I did nothing. They dragged me into the house. Lights. Hall. Doors. Lights burning through me, burning me up.

Heat lamp. I was in the gym, sprawled on the same massage table where they'd worked on Vic. Doc loomed over me and asked a question. I couldn't answer.

Didn't dare. He'd see the teeth.

Angela stood next to him, her big dark eyes interested, but without compassion. Her dress didn't have much of a collar. I stared at the slender lines of red life rushing beneath the flushed skin of her neck.

Doc peered and poked, then pressed fingers on my wrist to check the pulse. I jerked my arm away. He shrugged and let it pass.

"Just a little stunned," he pronounced, his voice distant as though coming through a wall. "Still got some fight in him, though. Should be all right after he cleans up."

So much for his medical expertise. If I closed my eyes and kept very quiet, he might declare me fit for a six-day bicycle race.

"Good," said Angela. "We can use him."

"And just what the hell were you thinking lobbing grenades all over the place, girl? This isn't the Fourth of July by a long shot."

"I had them, so why not use them? That car had more steel than a battleship, or couldn't either of you figure that out?" She looked expectantly at Newton and Lester.

Both shrugged. "Not our fault," said Newton. "Things were jumping too fast. I think it's a good thing you came in when you did."

"Uh-huh." She saw through the flattery, but in a good-natured way. "All right, get things put back together here. Lock that window shut and set the alarm again. I don't want them creeping back on us."

"There's still a hole in the works somewhere," Doc said. He nodded at me.

"How else could he have gotten through?"

"Okay. Check the rest of the house, too. What I'd like to know is how he got out last night."

"Maybe your daddy put a secret passage in the steam room," he deadpanned, pulling out a sizable drinking flask. He drank deeply. I watched with a terrible envy.

"Don't be an ass. Go check on Mac. See if he's okay."

He pocketed the flask. "Yes, ma'am."

She crossed her arms, studying me narrowly. "How did you get out?"

I barely opened my mouth. "Wasn't easy."

"How?"

"Waited 'til no one was looking." It was the truth, more or less. I studied her in turn, drawn by her brown velvet eyes and cupid's-bow lips. Drawn by her… no…

I can't do that again.

"What's wrong?'

"Nothing. Just… you're very beautiful." I squeezed my lids shut and tried not to breathe in her scent.

"Oh, ho," she said. "At death's door and still able to flirt. You guys are all crazy."

"Yeah. I'm crazy. Go away."

"When I'm ready, Fleming. You've cost me, so there's going to have to be a payoff and you're it."

"Only part of it."

"What do you mean?"

"Opal's the other part. She's what matters. You don't need me to make a trade for your father."

Her voice lowered and sharpened. "What do you know about him? Kyler's had a lid on the whole business from the start. Tell me."

"Wasn't on that tight. He's got your father-you want him back. You first figured to trade me and Vic for him."

"But then you got away."

"Vic's not important enough to trade?"

"Vic makes the arrangements. He thinks he'll be traded. He'll be lucky if he survives another day, the lousy, two-faced rat."

"Used to work for you, huh?"

"That's the problem, he decided not to-" She caught herself. "Why are you so interested?"

"I just want to get out of here alive, Miss Paco."

She smiled, offered a short laugh, and turned to check Doc's progress with Mac. The latter was sitting up, head between his knees. Doc probed at the damage and got a moan of outrage from his patient.

"He'll be all right. Just needs an ice bag. What'll you do with that one, Angela?"

Doc gestured at me.

"Same as the other. Put him away until we set a deal with Kyler."

"You think he'll be interested in dealing after what you did to Red and the others?'

"He can buy more soldiers. And he'll deal. Opal is one of a kind for him. He doesn't dare let her go."

"Or maybe let you get away with it. It's one thing to trade somebody he wants dead for your daddy, but another to grab one of his own people. He might not be very forgiving."

"Once Daddy's back and safe, I'll be able to fix that."

"Go easy, girl."

"Ha."

Lester returned just then. "Telephone, Angela."

"Is it Kyler?"

He shrugged. "Won't say who he is."

She pushed past him to see for herself. Doc watched her leave with a fond smile, which he turned on me.

"You need anything, kid?"

"A blood transfusion?" My teeth were safely retracted by now, but I was still weak and impossibly hollow inside.

He shook his head. "Fresh out. Better luck next time. 'Course you had some luck tonight or you wouldn't be talking now."

"And how long will that last? She doesn't need me to get her father back."

"True, but Angela and I have an arrangement: I don't try to run things and she doesn't practice medicine."

"She might listen to you."

"Don't count on it." He went away to another room for a moment, returning with a damp towel, which he used to clean up my face. "You are quite a mess, boy, you know that?"

"Mm."

"Now let's see what the rest of the damage is. You've got more holes than a sweater full of moths."

I waved him off. "I'm all right."

But he was evidently used to protesting patients and Lester was there to back him up. I couldn't fight them both. The shrapnel hits in my back were closed up by now. The metal had been moving too fast and gone right through, presumably to bounce off the car's body. I hoped the stuff had missed Isham. Doc compared the holes and stains on my clothes to the unmarked skin below and asked me an obvious question about the discrepancy. I made an uncooperative grunt to indicate that I had no answer. Thankfully, he shrugged it off for the moment. I silently blessed his lack of medical skill and the booze dulling his brain.

Doc washed off the gash in my hand. It had stopped bleeding, but still looked nasty and raw. Perhaps some flying fragment of wood had caused it.

"How about some stitches?" he suggested cheerfully.

"Never mind. Just bandage it."

"You'll have a scar."

Lester laughed. "Doc, the kid ain't gonna be 'round long enough for that."

"I know, but I need the practice. I'm not so steady as I used to be." He spread his fingers flat and exaggerated a tremor.

Then they looked at me for a reaction and found much to amuse them. Doc tied some gauze around my hand, finishing up just as Newton came back.

"I couldn't find where he got in," he said. "Everything's shut and locked. He musta come in the window there." He pointed across the room.

From the floor, Mac groggily disagreed. "Then the alarm woulda gone off."

"The alarm did go off."

"Yeah, but it wasn't going when I got hit, and the only one who coulda hit me was this guy." He jerked a thumb at me.

"Maybe the other guy socked you and you don't remember. Why the hell'd you let him out?"

"He said he hadda use the can."

"Oh, great."

"You'da believed him, too. Besides, he could hardly walk."

"Yeah, he was saving it up to run."

"If you'd seen that fall he took down the stairs… ah, forget it. What I'm tryin'

to say is that he was in front of me the whole time and I got hit from behind. It was this one, all right. So how'd you get in the house, kid?"

"Through a window," I answered truthfully. "Maybe the alarm's busted in one of 'em, huh?"

"Oughta bust you myself, smart-ass."

"Lay off," said Newton. "I mighta missed something. You and Lester go check it again. And check on Angela, too. Make sure Vic's behaving himself."

"Where's Opal?" I asked.

"Why you want to know? She your girlfriend?"

"Just wondered if she was okay, is all."

"She's just peachy. Come on, you mugs. Get the show on the road."

Lester got Mac to his feet and helped him wobble out.

I appealed to Doc. "She all right?"

"Don't worry about her, kid. She's being looked after. She likes this place a sight better than where we found her."

Angela barged in just then, her brows drawn together and her little mouth tight with a frown. "Newton, bring him along to the office." She pointed at me and whipped out again, skirt swirling.

Newton got me off the table, but my legs were not cooperating too well. The shift from horizontal to vertical didn't help my head. The ceiling swooped down, or seemed to, and I ducked in reaction.

"Hey, this ain't a marathon dance, dummy," he complained. " Walk."

I did my best, but God, I was weak, like a battery out of juice. My cure, I desperately hoped, was simple enough. I needed blood, but was I too far gone to get it? And where to get it?

Newton grunted as he hauled me along. His heartbeat was steady and strong.

No. I stumbled away from that one.

"Doc, f'cryin' out loud, gimme a hand with this wet noodle."

Doc came up to take my other arm. "Sure he's not malingering?"

"Huh?"

"Faking it."

"Wish I were," I gasped.

"What's wrong with you, kid?"

"Angela dropped a grenade on me, what d'you expect?"

"Got a point there," he admitted.

We reached the office and they hurried across the last few yards to dump me onto a sofa. It was crowded. Next to me and unmoved by the ruckus was Vic. He looked like I felt.

"Jeez, he's heavy," said Newton, puffing. Doc grunted agreement and headed for the liquor on the other side of the room. He poured out some whiskey and brought it over to me. I turned my head away from it, lips sealed tight with revulsion.

"Do you good, kid," he advised.

My throat constricted. "Later. I… I couldn't keep it down now."

"I can believe that." Doc decided not to let it go to waste and finished it off for me.

"What's the matter with him?" demanded Angela, who was at the desk.

"Bad stomach," I mumbled. "I'll be all right."

"Probably a case of the shakes," said Doc. "Just a little reaction to what he's been through."

That's for damn sure. I closed my eyes so things wouldn't slip around so badly. If only the inside of my head would stop lurching as well.

"What's going on?' he asked her.

She sank into the big chair under her father's portrait. "I got a call from that English guy who says he's Fleming's friend."

"The guy that just broke out? He's got some nerve. Where is her?"

"He'd hardly let that slip, would her?"

"You never know. What's he want?"

"He said he's got information that's going to affect my deal with Kyler. He'll trade it for Fleming. I stalled him and told him to call back later."

Doc put the glass back next to the bottle. "Must be a lie or else he'd have been using it to bargain for himself when we had him."

"That's what I'm going to find out. So what is it he knows, Fleming?"

"I couldn't say."

"Uh-huh. You'd better come up with something. I'm setting up a deal in a few hours that's going to go right or else nobody's walking back from it."

Doc added, "That includes your friend Opal, kid."

Angela picked up on his cue. "Newton, bring her down."

He lumbered out. No one said anything while he was gone. Vic seemed to be asleep or passed out. Doc poured another drink and found a chair. Angela drummed her nails on the desk. When I shifted to a somewhat more comfortable position, she opened a drawer and drew out a gun. I behaved myself, being incapable of much else for the moment. Some of the nausea passed off, but I was still light-headed.

"This stinks," came a familiar flat voice from the hall.

Newton pushed Opal into the room, still in her coat and galoshes, and shut the door, leaning against it. Opal glared at him, at all of them in turn, then, with some surprise, at me.

"You again?"

"It's your lucky day, honey."

She crossed her arms in disgust, her face set and hostile. "No, it's not."

I'd forgotten how literal she was.

Angela played with the gun, looking thoughtful. "Since she's an accountant, she doesn't need to walk much, does she?"

Opal's attention shifted. Her eyes went wide.

"Now how about you tell me a few things before I blow off one of her kneecaps?"

She was her father's daughter, all right. "Okay, you've made your point," I said. "You can put that away."

"When I'm ready. What is it your friend's talking about?"

"I figure it has to do with Kyler."

"So could any grade schooler. What is it?"

"Look, I don't care anything about your deal with him. I just want to get away from this place and be left alone. I'll trade what I know for a fast route out of here."

"That depends on what you know." Her tone was cautious, but she was interested.

"It'll help you all right. None of this is really my show now, but I'd like to see Opal back where she belongs-"

"Then talk."

My lids suddenly shut down. Instant day. I wasn't there for her to yell at anymore.

(Talk, Fleming. I swam in my own sweat, sick from fear and the stink of Morelli's damned cigar and Frank Paco breaking my ribs and laughing about it…) My head twitched, as though I'd been lightly slapped.

Liquid fire seared my tongue. A few drops got down my throat before I suddenly choked and coughed explosively.

"Shit," complained Doc, who had been in the way. "What a waste of good booze."

"What's wrong with him?" Angela irritably demanded.

"Damned if I know, girl."

Like the room, time had shifted, tossing me back to last summer for a hellish second. There's nothing in the human experience that can be fairly compared to the memory of one's own death. I'd remembered mine just then because I was facing it again.

Doc looked me over, his expression growing long and serious as he peeled back my eyelids. He tried to get my pulse again, but I yanked my arm away. He settled for putting the back of his hand on my damp brow. That's when he must have caught the deathsmell scent coming from me. If a smell could have a color, this one was yellow. Nothing to do with personal courage, that's just how it seemed to me.

Maybe to both of us; he straightened and turned to Angela and didn't say anything. She got the message. She came around the desk to see better. It confirmed what she'd read from Doc, and her manner changed somewhat.

Her voice softened, no longer resembling her father's buzz-saw snarl, which had helped push my memory down its unpleasant path in the first place. "Come on, Fleming. You tell me what you know and I'll send you back home, safe and sound." A softer voice and her eyes… Lord, I could get very seriously lost in those big brown pools.

Then it seemed as though my deafness returned for a few moments. I forgot about all the others around us. I could hear only Angela's heart, sense only her light breath whispering in the air between us. She caught and held it and leaned closer to me. Her eyes went dull, locked solidly upon mine.

This was as different from my normal hunger as a bonfire is to a candle. She was entirely desirable, but not as a woman, as food. I recognized the feeling well enough, but was too far gone to worry about the immorality of it. A starving man doesn't care much about such details; he just knows his need, and the hell with everyone else. My instinct to survive had simply taken over, trying to reach her, to bring her to me.

"Angela?"

And so Doc inadvertently cut the link I'd almost established with her. Half hypnosis, half sexual desire for beautiful Angela, all desperate, screaming appetite for me. I'd grown that hungry.

She, of course, had been unaware of any of it. "What?"

"You gonna talk with him or kiss him?"

"Don't be an ass." She automatically dismissed his suggestion rather than make a conscious admission that something out of the ordinary may have touched her.

Just as well.

He gave a small shrug to indicate it was her business, not his. The damage had been done, though. The effort, slight as it was, had tired me further. Now I had just the one card left, the one Escort had managed to slip in through Angela.

She smoothly picked up where she'd left off. "How about it, Fleming? You're right, I really don't need you to pull this off, but if you can give me an edge over Kyler…" Then she began to shovel the snow on thick and deep and went to some trouble to pack it down solid.

"Deal," I croaked, before her generous promises to preserve and reward me for my help got too embarrassingly out of hand.

Angela smiled, sunshine with dark eyes. And for me now, in this weakened state, sunshine was a guarantee of irreversible death.

I turned from the thought, concentrating on the real business. "Okay. Just a couple of questions: have you talked to Kyler already?"

"Yeah. We used Vic to get things rolling. Kyler's thinking things over."

"And you called him just a little while ago, right?"

She nodded.

"But did you actually talk with him?"

Her face darkened. "What are you getting at?"

I glanced at Opal, but couldn't think of a way to make it easier for her. "Kyler's dead. He's been dead since before I came here."

Opal made an indignant squeak of disbelief. Angela and Doc shifted with more subdued reactions.

"How do you know?"

"Because I was there when Chaven shot him."

"Chaven?"

Then they crowded in to demand more details, first as total skeptics, then as half believers. I gave them the version I'd told Shoe Coldfield. There were a lot more questions and interruptions from them, but I had no trouble keeping my facts straight. I would not be forgetting what had happened for a very long time-

if I had any left to me.

Angela may have known she wasn't getting the whole story, but looked almost ready to accept what she had. "Can you prove this?"

"Not directly. If you send someone up on the main road to town they'll find one of Kyler's Cadillacs parked on the left-hand side. I hot-wired it to get clear of them."

"Anyone can grab a car," Newton pointed out from his post by the door.

"Sure," I agreed. "Nothing direct, like I said. You tell me, Miss Paco, who did you talk to on the phone?"

"With Chaven," she cautiously admitted.

"As valuable as Opal is to Kyler's organization, do you think he'd trust something as important as getting her back to one of his lieutenants?"

Her eyes got a lot brighter. "No. That's the last thing he'd do."

"I'd say that this is what Escott meant about it having a direct effect on things, wouldn't you? Who you're dealing with is just as important as what the deal's all about. And if you're still using Vic as a go-between, I'd watch him a little more closely than before."

She glanced sharply at Vic, who had woken up at the news.

"He's gotta be lying," he mumbled out. "Chaven wouldn't dare kill the boss."

"Maybe not," I said. "But he's running things now and he needs Opal back."

Opal sputtered, then found some words. "I don't want to work for him!"

"Pipe down, cutie," Newton told her.

"No. I worked only for Vaughn. I'm not working for Chaven."

"You can hash things out with him yourself," Angela snapped. "I'm getting my father back. You're my best chance at it."

Before Opal could open her mouth and possibly make trouble for herself, I interrupted. "I saw him tonight, Miss Paco."

That grabbed her attention far better than the announcement of Kyler's death.

"They had him off by himself in one of the rooms at Kyler's roadhouse. He seemed okay."

"You're lying."

"I've got no reason to. He's a little thinner and thinks he's still running all this." I waved vaguely. "He called you mia Angelina."

That tore it. Angela erupted from her spot, the energy all but sparking from her.

She rapidly paced the office end to end; Doc and the others backed off to give her room to move. She stopped just as abruptly in front of me, her jaw working.

"Okay," was all she said, talking more to herself than to the rest of us. She hated the fact that I'd seen him and she hadn't. She hated it, but it was the proof that she needed. I was telling the truth, or as much of it as was good for me. I got the feeling that if her deal to get her father back didn't work, she'd either keep me alive to drag out more details about him or use me as a target for another round of grenade tossing.

My distinction wasn't enough to put off Opal, though. "Miss Paco?"

She turned a hostile face toward the girl, who was quite oblivious to her irritation.

"I said I don't want to work for Chaven."

"That's your problem."

"I thought I could work for you, instead."

Angela's jaw dropped. So did a lot of others, including my own. Angela wasn't the only one who could toss a grenade. "You…"

Opal anticipated the first questions, her ready answers coming out in a monotone rush. "You can trade me, but I could come back. I'm good at numbers.

I'm the best, that's why Vaughn hired me."

Doc came out with a noise that could be mistaken for laughter. "I'm sure that was very generous of him, little lady, but we've already got-"

"But I'm the best. You ask me anything about numbers and I know it."

Doc nearly spoke again, but Angela waved him off. "Kyler wouldn't waste his time on…" She struggled to come up with another way to finish her sentence.

Opal calmly finished for her. "An idiot. I know what you think. A lot of people think that way. All except Vaughn. He knew different. He was different. He could scare people for no reason. I'm different, but if it scares people, they hide it.

That's why they've always made fun of me, to show they're not scared.

"He tell you that?" asked Angela.

"I figured it out. But I don't want to scare people. I just want work where I can do numbers."

"Damnedest job interview I ever heard of," Doc muttered. "I'm sure you're real good at those numbers, hon, but there's more to it than that."

Opal's eyes narrowed with disgust. "Don't call me 'hon'."

He sketched a mock salute. "Yes, ma'am."

The sarcasm was lost on Opal. She turned her attention back to Angela. "What about it?"

"Doc's right. In this kind of business you can't just change sides without making a lot of trouble for yourself." She looked significantly at Vic, whose jaw was still dusting the floor. "You can make a lot more trouble for me, because Chaven's not going to be happy when he learns what you've got in mind."

Literal as ever, she said, "I don't care how he feels. I don't want to work for him."

"You've got my sympathy, but there's nothing I can do to help you. No offense, but you're just not worth the trouble you'll cause."

The idea that clicked on in Opal's head was almost audible and certainly visible to all. She lobbed in her second grenade. "I can fix that. I could bring all the organization's books out with me. That would make me worth the trouble, wouldn't it?"


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