Cold Streets Chapter 16

Stamped tin ceiling above me, painted white. Escott's worried face eclipsed my view of it.

’’Charles, let me see.’’ Now Bobbi's face. Also worried. ’’Jack?’’

I smiled. She could always make me smile.

Escott murmured. ’’For God's sake don't ask him if he's all right.’’

She nodded. ’’Jack, what happened to you?’’

I went on smiling, but felt it die. It seemed to make them more worried.

Worked my lips. Had to remember to breathe in to speak. Couldn't speak even then.

’’Jack.’’ She took my hand. ’’Look at me. What happened to you?’’

Shook my head. Smile twitching on and off. ’’Bad things. You don't wanna know. Wish I didn't.’’

She bent to kiss my forehead, which was nice. She smoothed my hair with one cool hand.

I felt tears spring up in my eyes. Blinked futilely against them.

’’You're all right now. Whatever it is, you're safe.’’

Wanted to believe her. Couldn't. A tear leaked out, trailed past my temple and into the pillow. Damn. She shouldn't see me like this. I had to stop. Sat up fast, found my legs, stumbled to the washroom, shut the door.

’’Jack?’’ Escott just outside.

I ran water into my cupped hands. Rinsed my face. Checked the mirror for results.

Oh.

Looked around for the spectator guy, but he was gone. Very lonely without him. He understood.

Bobbi called through the door. ’’Jack, we'll wait in the office. Take your time, sweetheart. Okay?’’

Thought too long over what answer to mumble. They shuffled out.

Stopped the water, dried, noticed I was cleaner than when I'd gone to bed.

Pants and socks gone. Fresh underwear on. I was even shaved. How had that happened? When? And those scars... long uneven white ridges threaded along my chest and arms. Lots of them. Too many. They felt tender and pulled uncomfortably when I ran my hand over them. But they were faded, might fade some more. Good. I didn't like them at all.

Through the wall Bobbi whispered, ’’Charles, what's wrong with him?’’

A pause. ’’Something truly awful.’’ He sounded helpless.

’’This is me. Don't pull punches. If you know anything...’’

’’Bristow made some threats toward him. From the evidence I saw at that...

that place, I believe he carried them out.’’

’’What kind of threats?’’

I turned the water on full so I wouldn't have to hear. Left it running as I softly opened the door. Crossed the small room to check the window. Dark out. Of course. Always dark for me. Always and ever.

Clean clothes on a chair. Mine. All the necessities, even a bag of my home earth. Where were my old clothes? No sign of them. Wallet was there. Keys. How did they... ?

Oh. He's seen. Had been there. Knew. Knew everything.

I dressed. Noticed a tang in the air. Bloodsmell. Human. On that wall. Nothing showed against the white paint, but it looked a little different from the rest, cleaner.

The smell lingered, though. Had a memory of making a mess on it. A mess all over the place. The washroom had been scoured with soap and bleach. Escott was a fanatic about neatness, but he'd not gotten everything. Wish he could scrub my brain out.

Awkward bending as I put on socks and shoes. There was a sharp, ugly twinge in my back every time I moved. Hurt like... well, not like hell. I'd learned what that was now.

How did Escott know about the meat locker? Who told him? Things had been going on without me today.

Shut off the water. They were quiet in the other room. They got even more quiet when I emerged. Bobbi was in one of the client chairs opposite Escott, who was behind the desk. She half rose, but I lifted a hand, halting her. She sank into place again. Escott had me under close, concerned watch. I couldn't quite meet their eyes.

Made a circuit of the room, peered through the blinds. Same old street.

Looking the same as it had through the other window. Dark out. I really didn't like that. Not a damned thing I could ever do about it, either.

Bobbi was next to me. Hadn't heard her move. She cautiously took my hand.

’’Come and sit down,’’ she said.

All right. She led me to the chair next to hers, still holding on. I didn't like that.

Gently disengaged and sat, arms draped loose on my knees.

’’Are we all sufficiently ill at ease yet?’’ Escott asked.

I breathed out an odd laugh. It hurt.

’’Good. Jack. Tell us what happened.’’ He clasped his hands on the desktop, leaning forward to listen as though I was one of his customers.

Oh, God. ’’Y-you first.’’

The eyebrow bounce. The left one. I wondered if he knew he did that. ’’Very well. Vivian and I went up to answer the door. Brockhurst and Marie Kennard were there-’’

’’Yeah, I know. After.’’

’’I heard a commotion coming from the basement and soon ascertained that Bristow and his men were an unwelcome presence on the premises. Vivian wanted to call the police, even if it gave away that she'd kidnapped a kidnapper. I persuaded her to do nothing, thinking that you would take care of the situation in your own way. I kept waiting for you to make a move, and for some reason, you did not.’’

’’I... couldn't. They hit me. Pretty bad.’’

’’I saw you being carried out and that they'd freed Dugan.’’

’’He offered Bristow five Gs. So off he went.’’

’’Not wanting to shoot them in the house, I tried to follow. I got as far as the street. One of them had put holes in my tires. Yours, too. By the time I got Vivian's car from the garage, you were all long gone. If I could have-’’

’’ 'S okay. You wouldn't have liked that party.’’

’’They took you to that meat locker... ?’’

’’Bristow promised buckwheats. He delivered.’’

Escott waited for me to go on, but I didn't. Bobbi reached for me again, but I leaned away from her, getting up to look out the window. Same street. This time with a car driving past. I watched it narrowly until it was gone from sight. Relaxed a little. Until the next car drove by.

’’Jack. What happened?’’

’’I got away. Came here. Your turn.’’

A pause. I could hear their hearts, their lungs, sighing. All that life rushing through them, and they couldn't have been aware of it. Not like me. I paced the room twice, going back to the window. No cars. Good.

Escott continued. ’’I phoned Shoe and asked him to put people out to search likely places for Bristow's damaged vehicle. Then I went to the Nightcrawler and talked to some very unpleasant sorts who were not very helpful. They said Strome and Derner were gone and could not say where. Like you, I suspected those two might have thrown their lot in with Bristow. Next I tried to find Brockhurst to see what his involvement might be. It could not have been a coincidence that he and Miss Kennard turned up at the same time as those brutes.’’

’’You find him?’’

’’Yes, at his flat. He was drunk. Seems to have a fatal, unrequited affection for Miss Kennard that keeps him in his cups. I learned that after they left Crymsyn, they were pounced upon and questioned by Bristow. He put the wind up them, right in your own parking lot, apparently gleaning that they all had common umbrage against us. This also reawakened Miss Kennard's resentment for you and her self-delusion toward Dugan. Bristow then let them go to find me. They knew I'd be at the Gladwell house that night. He may have been thinking to get to you through me, but he found you first, instead.’’

I rubbed a hand over my face. Sighed. And looked out the window. The night was still there. Hours of it lay ahead until I could be unconscious once more.

Bobbi next to me again. She was so serious. ’’Jack, talk to me.’’

Shook my head. Couldn't speak. Couldn't meet her gaze. If I did, the tears might start up again.

She backed away, went to stand behind Escott. He put a hand on her arm as though to steady her. Or maybe himself. He mouthed a word at her I didn't catch.

Two cars in the street. They passed each other right under the window. Were they the two I saw earlier or different ones?

’’Gordy woke up today, Jack,’’ she announced.

I'd nearly forgotten him. That crisis seemed a hundred years ago. ’’Oh, yeah?’’

’’This morning. The doctor took that as a good sign.’’

’’That's good, real good.’’ Not much point in saying more.

Escott cleared his throat. ’’Strome and Derner have nearly taken themselves from the suspect list. They went to Dr. Clarson's last night to see Gordy but were of course denied admittance and detained. Shoe held them incommunicado until he was able to get me there. They weren't inclined to speak about you but loudly denounced Bristow as the shooter and played up their part in removing his threat.

Just to be certain, I think you would be wise to interview them. They're at one of Shoe's garages.’’

I might. They'd had a hand in saving me, albeit unknowingly. ’’Did you... did you call here last night?’’

’’Yes, I did. Your man Wilton tried to phone me at Vivian's about hearing from you. She had Shoe's number and passed on the message. It was a great relief, but you were rather odd. Do you remember?’’

A breathless chuckle. I grinned out the window. ’’I was so drunk.’’

’’Drunk?’’ Bobbi whispered. ’’But I thought he couldn't-’’

Escott held up a warning hand. ’’How did you get drunk?’’

’’Oh... had some help from Bristow.’’ Wanted to change the subject. ’’Gordy's better, you said?’’

She grabbed the question like a life preserver. ’’He woke up, talked clear, and took some food. Dr. Clarson said if there's no infection, he should be just fine, but he has to stay in bed for now. Gordy wants to see you.’’

’’Later. When he's stronger. Okay?’’

’’Sure. No hurry.’’

’’Jack?’’ Escott. He looked real tired. ’’What happened to Dugan? Do you remember?’’

’’Oh... he ran away. He cut me free, and I got him out, and he ran away and didn't even say thanks. I really hate that guy. He did me a favor, but God, I really hate him.’’

Dugan had seen me with the mask off. Seen what was really inside me. Had carried that off with him. I couldn't have that.

’’We all hate him, Jack. Are you still interested in hunting him down?’’

’’My God, Charles, he's not ready for-’’

’’Yeah,’’ I said, coming away from the window. ’’Let's go hunt him down.

Where?’’

’’I've a spare overcoat in the closet in back. You go put it on, and we'll leave.’’

’’Okay.’’ I moved past them. Went to the closet and rummaged. He kept a lot of spare clothes here, some of them disguises he found useful in his work. It took me a minute to find the right coat.

’’You can't take him out while he's in that state,’’ Bobbi said, speaking low.

’’He needs to do something else besides stare out that damned window.’’

’’Yes, but is he safe? With you? With others?’’

A pause. ’’I don't know. But I suppose we'll learn soon enough.’’

I returned, coat in hand. ’’I need help with this. Putting it on.’’

They both looked puzzled. ’’Why is that?’’ Escott asked.

’’Bristow. He nailed me with an ice pick. Part of it's still inside. That's why I couldn't vanish when he had me. I'm sorry.’’

Bobbi went white. ’’Where is it, Jack?’’

I gestured vaguely at my back. ’’Just under the skin. You can feel it there.

Knew guys who had shrapnel the same way. Too deep or too much trouble to dig out. But I think I want to get rid of it.’’

’’Oh, dear God.’’ Escott looked appalled.

’’Yeah... You think you could get Doc Clarson to dig it out sometime tomorrow? If he does it during the day I won't feel anything.’’

’’We'll...’’ He swallowed hard. ’’We'll arrange something for you. I promise.’’

’’That's good. Real good. Help me with the coat?’’

’’Yes. Of course.’’

The fit was pretty good, us having nearly the same build. Escott helped Bobbi on with her fur-trimmed coat, and she stayed busy pulling on her gloves while he locked up.

’’Is that new?’’ I asked, pointing at the doorknob.

’’Yes, it is,’’ he answered evenly.

’’I broke the other one, didn't I? I'm sorry.’’

’’It's all right.’’

Down to his car. I opened the passenger side for Bobbi, carefully easing in next to her. Her leg happened to press against mine during the ride. Ordinary contact. Nothing to be worried about. Not too much. There was no room to shift away from her touch. Just had to endure it.

Escott drove around to Brockhurst's neck of the woods, and we went into his building and up. Escott knocked loudly, but no one answered, so he broke in using his lockpicks. Bobbi hung back while we made a quick search for Dugan.

No cousin Gilbert, but Anthony darling was snoring away in bed, the stink of booze thick and sour in the air. He wouldn't wake up, so dealing with him had to be postponed. Just to be thorough, we went through his papers and wastebaskets but found nothing useful, not even origami cranes. If Marie didn't believe in Dugan's guilt, then Anthony apparently did. We left him to finish his nap.

I envied him that superb unconsciousness. In such a state you didn't have to struggle to keep memories at bay.

Marie Kennard lived in the same area but in a different apartment building.

Respectable flats for the well-to-do. We walked unchallenged past the lobby's empty reception desk, into an elevator, and up to one of the near-the-top floors.

Escott led us to a door, knocking three times, very loudly.

Muffled reply within. ’’Yes, who is it?’’

He made his voice raspy and older, his accent pure Chicago.

’’Maintenance. You had a plumbing problem?’’

Marie Kennard opened the door. ’’What plumbing-oh God!’’ But she was a fraction too late trying to keep him out. She began a full-throated shriek, but he was quicker, clapping a hand over her mouth and grabbing her, half carrying her in. Bobbi and I shot through in their wake and shut the door. Walking fast, I searched each room and closet in the place, looking for Dugan, catching another sharp twinge when I bent to check under the bed. I emerged and shook my head.

Marie put up quite a fight, going red-faced and desperate. Escott needed help.

Moving hurt, but I got her ankles. Between us, Escott and I lifted her bodily and carried her to a chaise lounge in front of a set of windows with a nice view of the lake. We put her down and with difficulty kept her in place until she finally got too tired to struggle.

Bobbi leaned in close during the pause. ’’Miss Kennard, we're only here to talk.

Do you understand?’’

Marie's eyes blazed with full, murderous comprehension.

Escott looked at me. ’’Jack, would you mind very much making her a tad more cooperative?’’

’’Uh...’’

’’I know it's a great favor, but it will shorten our time here.’’

’’Yeah, okay.’’ I sat gingerly next to her, still holding her legs. She was terrifically on guard, but under her fury was profound fear, and I knew how to use that. It took some concentration on my part, though. I felt strangely rusty.

After a few minutes and some gentle words, it was safe for Escott to take his hand away, shaking it and flexing his long fingers. ’’Thank heaven she didn't think to bite me.’’

’’Is she all right?’’ asked Bobbi. She knew about my acquired talent, but rarely got a firsthand look.

’’Perfectly fine,’’ Escott answered for me.

Marie stared calmly at the lake. I got out of the way, going to stand by the window. I could see lots of cars from up here, but they were a long, comfortable distance away.

Escott asked the questions and got truthful replies;none of the news was good. Marie had no idea where Dugan might be or where he might go. The really bad flash was learning that he'd called her in the wee morning hours and arranged a meeting. She went to a place in a nearby park, bringing him a suitcase packed with ten thousand dollars in cash and a hacksaw.

Bobbi was livid. ’’How could you?’’

’’Because he's innocent,’’ was Marie's perfectly reasonable reply. She was under my influence, so that meant she said what she honestly believed.

’’After hearing those records?’’

Marie sniffed. ’’Fakes.’’

And nonexistent now. Dugan had thoroughly smashed them.

’’You idiot!’’

I flinched at Bobbi's tone but didn't think either of them noticed.

’’When will you see him again?’’ asked Escott.

’’He'll let me know. He'll send for me.’’

’’Don't hold your breath,’’ Bobbi growled, sotto voce.

Escott pressed forward. ’’When that happens, you're going to let me know as well, day or night. Jack? A little more suggestion work, if you would.’’ He explained what he wanted, and I planted the idea in her head. She wouldn't remember any of it.

’’How long will that last?’’

’’A few weeks, maybe a month. I can come back and bolster it again.’’

’’Then we are done here. Miss Kennard, would you be so kind as to let us out?’’

She serenely obliged.

There was a little table by the entry, a place for her to park her keys and purse.

Some other small object was with them as well. Escott noticed me staring, spied it, and picked it up.

’’What's this?’’

Marie, still under, said. ’’That's for Jack Fleming.’’

’’What?’’

I answered, taking it from him. ’’Dugan knew I'd be coming here. Knew I'd put the eye on Marie. That's why he didn't tell her anything. He'll probably never contact her again.’’

Marie made no response to this.

The object looked like an origami boat, but this one had no triangle sail, no folded superstructure like the others he'd made. It was a small, simple rectangle with a matching lid.

’’What is that?’’ asked Bobbi.

’’Message to me from Dugan. It's supposed to be a coffin.’’

’’Dear God,’’ Escott murmured. He took it back, carefully unfolding the pieces.

’’Nothing written on them-in green ink or any other color.’’

’’The coffin's enough to make his point. He's not through with me yet.’’

’’What more could he possibly want? The wise thing is to stay as far away from you as possible.’’

’’He's plenty wise, just not sensible.’’

I told Mane to forget all about our visit. She agreed and let us out, and we rode the elevator down.

’’Despite this little warning,’’ Escott said, refolding the coffin pieces, ’’That went rather well. A pity Dugan wasn't there.’’

I privately thought it was a good thing. I didn't want Bobbi looking on while I killed him.

Derner and Strome were next.

Bobbi must have sensed something, for she twice asked if we couldn't wait until I'd rested more.

’’It's okay,’’ I said lightly, watching the street. It was narrow and deserted. Shoe Coldfield had had Gordy's men disarmed and taken to an anonymous car repair shop, where they were confined to an empty garage. Escott had gone in ahead of me. I waited on the sidewalk;Bobbi stayed in the car. She had the window rolled down to talk with me, and the accumulated warmth from the Nash's heater soon dispersed.

’’But you're not okay, Jack. For God's sake, look at me.’’

It was difficult, but I managed a smile for her.

’’Whatever happened, I'm right here. I'm here whenever you need me. You can talk to me. You can touch me.’’

Instinct told me just saying ’’thanks’’ to that would have hurt her, so I nodded.

’’I said you can touch me.’’

So she had noticed. She held her hand out to me. I hesitated. The more I waited, the more upset she'd be. Finally took her hand. Couldn't feel it. Told myself it was her gloves being in the way. I didn't have any on;my fingers must be numb from the cold.

Comforting little lies.

Escott showed himself from the low brick building and said it was time. I broke away from Bobbi and went inside.

Dark. I froze in an entry that smelled of motor oil. Dark all around. Faint gleam of yellow at the end of a long hall. I hurried to catch up with Escott.

Light. Had to stifle showing my relief. On the right, an opening led to the garage. Coldfield wasn't there, busy with his own nightclub and watching over Gordy, but a few of his well-armed men stood guard on Derner and Strome. They were down in the grease pit and looked dirty and pretty pissed. Until they saw me;then they looked thunderstruck.

’’Jesus H. Christ,’’ said Strome, eyes popping.

’’Wait a second, he was-’’ Derner lost the thread of whatever he wanted to say as I crouched on the edge of the pit.

’’ 'Lo, boys,’’ I said evenly. My voice sounded lower than usual, more hoarse.

Maybe my vocal chords had been scarred from all the screaming. They should have healed.

Strome finally spoke. ’’Fleming. You okay?’’

I thought that one over. ’’What do you think?’’

’’That was you I saw. You was... was... I mean-’’

’’Yeah. Bristow gave me a bad night. I owe you one for taking care of him and his goons. You might have stuck around a little longer and cut me down, though.’’

’’Christ, but we thought you was dead!’’

Derner nodded agreement. ’’If we'd known, we'd have-’’

’’Yeah-yeah. Never mind. I got other things for you to do, now.’’

’’You mean, you're-’’

’’I'm still in charge until Gordy's on his feet. We straight on that?’’

Both nodded in fearful agreement.

’’Good. You can come outta there.’’ I glanced at the guards, jerked my chin toward the door. They slowly moved off. Escott remained in place off to the side, watchful. Whether for me or these two birds, I couldn't tell. Derner and Strome took the steep steps up out of the pit, futilely dusting themselves. The grease stuck with them.

’’You guys are gonna talk and then you're gonna listen,’’ I said.

’’Yes, Mr. Fleming,’’ said Derner.

I asked the questions that needed asking. Hypnosis was not necessary. They were too spooked to lie. Each searched my face for some sign of what I'd been through. I let them keep whatever they found. I'd earned it.

When they were done answering me, I said, ’’I'll fix things with New York later.

For now, you're gonna do me a favor. There's a man I want you to find. You know that society kidnap guy? Dugan? Picture's in all the papers?’’

’’We saw,’’ said Strome, guardedly.

’’I want him. Alive. He's got ten grand in cash and a head start, but you are gonna track him down and bring him back to me. Whatever it takes. Whoever finds him keeps the ten Gs. The faster he's found the more money he'll have left.’’

I had their full attention.

’’You use the organization any way you have to to find Dugan. He has to be alive or the deal's off. I'll give you a grand each to get you started. Use it for bribe money, whatever it takes. You two are gonna be stand-up with me on this or I will skin you alive. And I know how to do that, now.’’

Their color drained away under their face dirt.

’’Learn anything?’’ Bobbi asked when Escott and I got back in the car.

’’Just the refining of a few points,’’ said Escott.

She took my hand again as I eased into the seat. I didn't pull away because she told me I could touch her. I could touch, just not feel. Not like before. ’’What points?’’

He started the car and fed it gas. ’’That Derner and Strome made a decision last night to stick by Gordy and brave the consequences, if any, from the New York bosses. Bristow committed a breach of protocol by shooting Gordy, thus showing himself to be untrustworthy.’’

’’Took them long enough,’’ she grumbled.

’’Gang politics are often a complicated matter. Those two men had a good deal of thinking to do, and they're not too terribly good at it. Jack had a positive influence on Derner, though. Seems he posed the obvious question: Who would you rather have in charge? That simplified things.’’

’’It seems pretty simple to me.’’

’’But not to Mr. Derner. He had to take into account the dynamic of Gordy not surviving to return. In which case he decided the next logical man in line for the post should be Jack, not Bristow.’’

’’Jack? Running Gordy's operation? He'd hate it.’’

’’But Derner knew he'd be good at the job. Bristow would not.’’

A memory from last night-not one of the bad ones- dredged up. I said,

’’Derner argued with me all the way, though. I'd give an order, he'd argue.’’

’’Exactly,’’ said Escott. ’’Which is why he'd want you over Bristow. You let him have his say. Bristow would have killed him for it. Derner eventually figured that out.’’

’’What about Strome?’’ she asked.

’’Well, apparently last night Jack sent him packing home for a long nap to keep him out of trouble, which was interrupted by Bristow. He had approached Strome days earlier about betraying Gordy and was now in a perfect position to obtain information crucial to completing the assassination. By this time, Strome had done some thinking of his own. He agreed to Bristow's terms, promised to first set things up, then to rendezvous with them at the meat locker. Once on his own, he went to Derner to plan out how to eliminate Bristow. Neither of them knew Jack was going to be there.’’

If they had, would they have arrived sooner? Tried to help me?

’’But when they found out?’’

’’By then they thought he was dead. I'm not clear about the exact circumstances, but they must have been fairly grim.’’

’’Dugan was there, too. How could they have missed him?’’

’’They didn't know about him at all. He might have been tied up out of sight or hiding. I'm sure when Jack's ready, he'll fill in the picture.’’

She squeezed my hand again. I tried not to wince. Her touch didn't hurt;it was all the feelings behind the touch. Though warm and soft, they hit like spear points.

I couldn't respond to them, didn't dare. Inside I was scraped out and hollow, as though Bristow had stripped my guts and heart away along with my skin.

Escott settled a few more details for her, winding us back toward his office.

But he passed it by, heading toward the Stockyards, turning onto a particular street. One I never wanted to see again.

’’ No,’’ I whispered. I'd forgotten to breathe in, so they didn't hear.

He stopped before a high, flat, windowless building full of darkness and unthinkable agony. I felt clammy sweat popping out along my newly healed flanks.

Bobbi saw the look in my eyes. ’’Charles, what are you doing?’’

’’That which is necessary.’’

’’This can wait.’’

’’No, it can't. Strome and Derner are even now making arrangements to clean everything up before the mess is discovered. And I think it will be better for Jack to get this over with as soon as may be.’’ Escott cut the motor. He came around, opened my side. ’’It will be all right, Jack. I promise.’’

No it won't. Nothing's all right.

The place was nearly the same. The front door had been shoved back into place, held there by new hinges and a large, shiny padlock. He went up to it, unlocked, then returned for me. Held the car door expectantly, waiting for me to move.

’’You can do this,’’ he told me. ’’If you survived what happened here, you can survive this.’’

Dear God, I don't want to go in. I knew why he was doing this to me. I understood that it was necessary. All that awaited in there was harmless to me now. I just had to see it for myself. He wouldn't force me. No way he could. He'd wait for me to do it myself.

Standing firm in the cold he waited long enough. I inched out. Bobbi slid across the seat, taking my arm like I was an invalid. I let them lead me up and in.

Balked in the office. ’’It's dark,’’ I whispered, staring straight ahead. There was a ball of ice in my belly, heavy, weighing me down too much to move.

Escott hastily found the lights.

It was colder than it should have been. The door to the freezer was only propped in place, held there by a length of two-by-four angled against it. Escott removed that and with difficulty shifted the warped slab of a door over enough to allow entry.

Bloodsmell swelled at me like a tide. The stuff was old, stale, decaying, yet I felt the strong tug of my corner teeth trying to emerge. Maybe I wanted to forget what was in there, what I'd done, but my body remembered, and anticipated a return to the revel.

Escott put the lights on in there, too. From where I stood I could see the bodies, with Bristow hanging exactly as I'd left him. There was some irony in that, him ending up dead the way he'd planned for me, but I couldn't appreciate it. His face was bone white where it should have been purple with discoloration. I'd drained him dry, preventing that. His eyes were open and dulled, yet strangely less empty than when he'd been working on me.

’’Jack.’’ Escott held his hand through the opening.

I was expected to follow him in.

Bobbi looked anxiously at us. She couldn't see what lay beyond. I dredged up a memory of kindness and said, ’’You need to stay out here.’’

She shook her head, going stubborn. Couldn't remember her ever giving me a look like that. ’’You and me both, brother,’’ she said.

I hesitated. Part of me understood the why of this;all of me didn't want to go through with it.

Escott's voice was soothing, persuasive, almost like mine when I hypnotized people. ’’Jack, whatever happened in there, whatever you did, it was to survive.

There's nothing shameful in that.’’

’’But I...’’ He didn't know, could not know what I had done, how I'd gloried in it. If he did, then neither of them would be here trying to help me.

A ghost of a smile. It was sad with knowledge. ’’Jack, believe me when I say I also know what it's like in hell. We go mad for while... and then we get better.

Don't we?’’

Faces tight, they waited for my answer.

I felt it choking my throat. Shook my head. ’’There's more to it. What they did to me... what I did. I don't know if I can... if I can get well from that.’’

’’Do you want to?’’ Bobbi asked.

’’Yes... but...’’ God, it hurt to say it. ’’I don't know how.’’

She touched my face. ’’We'll help you find out how.’’

I didn't flinch away. Caught her hand. She wore black gloves;her rose scent was all over them. They were made of suede, very soft. Could feel their texture.

I could feel.

Closed my eyes and held her fingers against my face. They were warm, felt that even through the leather.

’’Jack, what is it?’’ Escott asked.

I gave one involuntary shudder, like a sleeper reluctantly waking, then looked him in the eye. Looked at her. Straightened my spine. That made my back twinge, of course, but the pain would go away soon enough. It would take longer for other agonies to depart, and I accepted that still others might always remain.

If I let them.

’’We can leave now,’’ I finally said. ’’I don't have to go in there anymore.’’

’’You're sure?’’ He seemed dubious about my sudden recovery.

I sketched a very brief smile. Didn't know if I meant it, but it was something they needed to see. ’’Yeah. I still have a saloon to run, don't I?’’

’’Yes, you do,’’ said Bobbi, barely above a whisper. Couldn't tell if she was buying this or not. ’’But-’’

’’I'll be all right. I promise. Let's go take care of business. Okay?’’

They exchanged quick glances. I didn't give them time to voice additional worries or think up objections as I led the way out, not looking back.

Once on the open street, I breathed out the last of the slaughterhouse stink, emptying my dormant lungs. The thin vapor plumed up and vanished in the icy night sky.


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