Fire In The Blood EPILOGUE

THE FACT THAT it was a whole different night when I awoke was of absolutely no comfort. It was still night, and some can be darker than others, as I'd come to learn, and I was starting this one with my equivalent of a hangover. My head and spine held fast to a residual ache and my muscles were cramped and tired and stiff as a...

Go on and say it, since it's true.

... corpse's.

I thought of a lot of unpleasant replies for that nagging voice in my head, but it hardly seemed worth the effort. If I felt bad, then no one could blame me for wanting to groan.

When I finally dragged myself upstairs to the parlor, I found Escott stretched out as usual on the couch smoking his pipe.

’’Are you all right?’’ he asked in his most neutral tone, but studying me closely.

’’Yes. I think I am, anyway.’’

’’You sound better.’’

’’How bad was I?’’

’’You were in some sort of shock. Last night your eyes looked like black pits with nothing in them. Most disconcerting.’’

Understatement was his specialty, but I didn't want to spend any time going over my troubles. Too much rehashing and they might come back on me. I dropped into the leather chair by the radio and asked a few questions about the events of the day and got an earful.

Soon after his arrival to view the smoking remains of Pierce's guest house, the cops came by with the bad news about Marian. Escott had gone with Pierce to identify her body.

’’How's Mr. Pierce doing?’’

’’As can be expected, he's carrying a heavy load of grief. It's very hard for him, since he doesn't know all the details and I can hardly tell him. He will find full enlightenment, perhaps, to he of little comfort.’’

I couldn't help but agree.

The warehouse murders had opened up a whole new line for Lieutenant Blair to follow and he was good at his job. My efforts notwithstanding, he'd figured that Hodge's suicide had been a complete fake and was looking for the third party who'd arranged it. Escott suggested burning the clothes I'd been wearing at the time, especially the shoes. I'd left a fairly clear footprint behind. That they might trace it to me was unlikely, but why take chances?

’’What do they call it? Accessory after the fact, or aiding and abetting?’’ I asked.

’’I call it keeping a friend out of trouble.’’

The back of my neck prickled. ’’Charles, I murdered the man. I had a choice, and I chose to kill him.’’

’’And we've been down this road before and survived. Would sou do it again under the same circumstances?’’

I dropped my eyes, giving him his answer.

’’We may argue the fine distinctions between murder and execution if you like, but it will eventually come out that you no more wish to turn yourself in over this particular business than I do.’’

’’It's just... just knowing that that kind of thing is inside me.’’

’’It's in all of us, not just you. Last night you asked me why I did not take that second shot at them. Believe me, I truly wanted to.’’

’’But you didn't.’’

’’The idea was to get you out of there as quickly as possible. That was much more important than killing Kyler. Perhaps I should have risked complications at the time and done so, because there are sure to be more problems to come from it.’’

’’Good God, he's going to be coming after you with an army.’’

’’When he gets the time. At the moment he is far too occupied with avoiding the authorities.’’

The police had quickly traced the ownership of Kyler's Cadillacs and were trying to locate him to get an explanation of why they were parked in front of a murder site.

Blair was also starting to turn up connections between Marian Pierce and Kyler and the gambling clubs he ran.

’’I doubt much shall come of it, though.’’ Escott sighed. ’’Kyler wields a great deal of power in this city, whether the city wants to admit it or not, and he's inherited some influential political allies from Frank Paco. There are threads to connect him to Marian Pierce, but I fear they are not plentiful enough or strong enough to twist into a rope for his neck.’’

’’We're talking stalemate.’’

’’For the moment.’’ But he looked thoughtful.

’’You thinking about the bracelet, Charles'?’’

’’Hmm.’’

’’Of using it somehow to nail him?’’

’’Somehow. But I haven't quite decided just how. It will come in time. I'm sure of it.’’

Doreen was far from well, but the doctor was more optimistic than he'd been last night. She'd regained consciousness long enough to state in no uncertain terms who had shot her-and why. Though they couldn't prove by paperwork that the gun found in Marian's purse had belonged to Stan McAlister, his fingerprints were still on the bullets. The bullets taken from Doreen by the surgeons were matched to the same gun. Since Blair's original case against Kitty Donovan was too flimsy to hold up, he was dropping it altogether and backtracking Marian Pierce. His talk with Harry Summers more or less clinched things.

Sebastian Pierce's load of grief was proving to be very heavy, indeed.

Some of my own load lifted, though, at the news about Doreen. While he lighted a pipe, I trotted upstairs and dressed. It didn't take long and I was coming down again, in my best suit and another pair of shoes. Last night's clothes were tied up in a bundle under my arm. I'd snipped off the laundry marks and anything else I could think of and had stuffed those into a pocket.

On the way to the hospital I made several stops, twice at gas stations to flush away labels, then I detoured over a bridge to scatter the buttons in the river. The latter was the most difficult because of the water;the physical discomfort reminded me of the warehouse, and the warehouse reminded me of Hodge. I was glad to leave.

It was more luck than looking, but I found an incinerator still going at full blast in a backyard junk pile close to the Stockyards. The air stank of burning rubber and meat, but I was able to slip in and out without being spotted. Invisibility has its advantages. Shoes and clothes safely disposed of, I stopped next at the Stockyards and hoped that the drink I took there would clear away the last of the aches.

Visiting hours weren't quite over when I reached the hospital, but Doreen was isolated from the other patients and the nurse was reluctant to let me do more than look through a window set in the door. Dr. Rosinski was with Doreen and I cornered him as he came out.

’’She's doing as well as can be expected,’’ he told me, which wasn't saying much.

’’So far there's no infection, which is a very good sign, but it will be awhile before she's past all the risks.’’

’’Is she awake?’’

’’Partially. If you went in there, I doubt that she would really notice.’’

’’Then it's all right if I go in?’’

He could see that it was important to me, but the casual way he ordered up a mask and gown left me with a bad feeling. Perhaps he was taking all the precautions he could to help her, but he still didn't think much of her chances. He told me five minutes and repeated the same to the nurse.

Doreen looked smaller, more crushed somehow. Even the color of her hair was muted. I said her name a few times and touched a limp, cold hand. She stirred a little and her eyelids shivered open to half mast.

’’Remember me, honey?’’

The corner of her mouth curled slightly.

’’No need to talk, I just came in to see how you were doing.’’

I suddenly felt incredibly awkward. There was no way I could say all I needed to say. I wanted to apologize to her like crazy, to tell her anything that would make it all better again, but it was impossible. The disappointment was a jolt;so much of a jolt that I finally realized why I was there. Sick as she was, I'd come to her to get comfort, not give it;to try to clear my own conscience at her expense.

The self-disgust I felt almost made me turn away, but I sat next to her and held her hand and smiled, though she couldn't see it through the gauze mask.

I kept up a one-sided conversation for another minute or so. Inane stuff, but she seemed to be listening. That, or I was fooling myself again.

’’You...’’

Her whisper was so soft I had to bend close.

’’... got away.’’

’’From Leadfoot Sam? Yeah, I got away. He won't be bothering you, either.’’

’’Yeah?’’

’’Promise. He's leaving you alone now. I made sure of it.’’

’’Thas’’ good.’’ Her eyes closed and opened. ’’Cops get her?’’

It took me a second to work out that she was referring to Marian. ’’Yeah, she won't be causing you any more trouble. You're home free.’’ God, I hoped that was true.

’’What's your name again?’’

That threw me until I remembered I'd given her one name and Sam another.

’’Jack.’’

’’Then thanks. Jack.’’

I said you're welcome and left it at that.

’’You got a nice girl home?’’

’’Yeah, you could say that.’’

She smiled a little. ’’Treat her good, huh? You... you're good people.’’

’’I'm glad you think so, honey.’’

’’Don’’ tell 'er 'bout us,’’ she slurred out, her eyes drifting shut. ’’You're the kind to c'nfess, you don'wanna do that. Not to her.’’

’’Doreen-’’

’’Lissen to me, I been there m'self. You tell her an'it'll change things. I know. If you got somethin'good, don'screw it up.’’

I wondered just how much she did know or remember about those few moments in her cold studio. Apparently it was a pleasant memory.

’’Yeah, honey, I promise. You just rest for now and I'll take care of things for you.’’

And so on, until she was asleep again.

* * *

I'd gone in for comfort, decided against seeking it, and got it anyway. Doreen was some woman and I'd keep my promise to her. Not all confessions are good for the soul;some can even tear them apart. The last thing I ever wanted to do was to bring more grief to Bobbi's life, so I would be silent. I knew now that I could visit her tonight and feel comfortable about it.

The hospital parking lot was fairly empty as I walked out into the brisk air. In a few more minutes I'd trade it for the lot at the Top Hat Club and sneak in once again by the stage entrance to her dressing room. After that, I'd try resuming my life again.

I pulled into the street and stepped on the gas. In the rearview mirror. I chanced to look back, and saw a silent Cadillac with smoke-dark windows doing the same.

Snake. I thought, and my hands began to tremble.


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