Song In The Dark Chapter 16

I HURTLED awake shrieking, then vanished almost in the same instant. The agony abruptly ceased, and, floating in the grayness, my dazed mind slowly grasped the appalling truth that I'd failed.

Solid again. Lying as before on the office couch. Blood-smell on my left. A spray of long-dried rust brown blood on the lighter brown leather by my head. Hole in the leather from my carefully crafted wooden bullet. It'd passed right through my skull.

I still lived. Would continue to live.

God damn it.

Then I noticed Escott standing over me.

I'd never seen such a look on his face. Infinite rage. Infinite pain. It was raw as an open wound and still bled, the pain carving deep lines into his gray flesh.

’’You bastard,’’ he whispered.

I made no response.

His eyes blazed, hot enough to scorch what was left of my soul. Why couldn't I have just stayed dead?

’’You bastard. You idiotic, selfish bastard.’’ There was enough venom in his voice to kill an elephant.

I stopped meeting his gaze. Maybe he would get fed up and leave, then I'd find some other place to be at dawn and try again. Next time, a shotgun. Wood pellets in the cartridges. Ugly. I'd have to blow my whole head off. So be it...

Anger like a living force rolled from Escott to smash against my body. For a second I thought he had hit me. His fists shook at his sides. He trembled all over. ’’You bloody coward! Did you even think how it would be for her walking upstairs, opening the door, and finding you?’’

Bobbi. He was talking about Bobbi.

’’How could you do that to her?’’

I'd done it for her. He just didn't understand. ’’She saw?’’

’’No, thank God. Instead I came in first and found you.’’

I shrugged. Better him than Bobbi, I guess.

’’I've waited all day to see if you'd bloody wake up. All bloody day, DAMN you!’’

’’And I woke up,’’ I murmured to myself.

His lips twisted. Teeth showed. ’’How could you do this to-’’

’’Because I hurt, dammit!’’

’’And how do you think she'd have felt?’’

’’She'd get over it. She's better off without me. Everyone is.’’

I saw it coming and didn't duck. He hauled back and landed one square and hard, one of his best. It knocked me clean from the couch. He'd know I wouldn't feel much;this clobbering was about expressing anger, not to cause pain.

I had plenty of that already.

’’Get your head out of your backside and think of somebody else for a change-’’

’’I was! Don't you see? I'm no good to her or anyone like this. And I hurt!’’

’’We all hurt! But you don't inflict your pain on others by doing this!’’

I dragged off the floor onto the couch again. ’’Yeah-yeah, well, too bad, I thought it over, and it's better for everyone if I'm gone.’’

He called me a bloody coward again and knocked me over again. Much harder. The second time made bruises.

Dammit. Why couldn't he just leave me alone? I started to get up...

He got a good one square on my nose. I heard and felt it break. While he rubbed his battered knuckles and glowered, I sat ass flat on the floor with blood slobbering down my chin.

’’What the hell's with you?’’ I snarled, snuffling messily at the flow. ’’You know what I went through!’’

’’That's no excuse!’’

’’It is. I'm never gonna get better from it-’’

’’Not by killing yourself you won't!’’

’’I can't live like this! Every night it gets worse-’’

’’So you have a few bad memories, poor, poor fellow. It gave you a reaction you don't like. Very scary, I'm sure.

You're going to let that destroy you? Destroy Bobbi-’’

’’It's not your business, Charles. This is my choice, only I know what it's like in my head, not you!’’

’’I know what it's doing to the people who care about you. Don't you give a tinker's damn what you're doing to Bobbi?’’

’’Since when do you have to butt in about her? I never asked.’’

’’But she did! We're here to help, but you shut us out-especially Bobbi. You're ripping her apart.’’

’’That's what I'm trying not to do! This is to save her, dammit!’’

’’How?’’ he demanded.

The words stuck in my throat.

’’How?’’ he roared. He rose, loomed over me.

’’Because...’’

’’What? Come on, tell me! Save her from what?’’

I couldn't. It was too much. ’’Go to hell. Just goddamn get out and go to hell!’’

’’Tell me!’’

I got up, grappled him, pulled him toward the door to throw him out before I lost myself. Bloodsmell clogged my nose, in another minute I'd fall into another damned fit. He could sell tickets to the freak show.

Then he got his arms up and twisted and somehow slipped my grip and threw another punch, this time driving deep into my gut. There was surprising force behind it, powered by adrenaline and sheer fury;I doubled over and dropped.

His face was so distorted I didn't know him. ’’Tell me! You don't know, do you?’’

I spat blood. ’’Get out! It's none of your damn-’’

Then he really started in. Brakes off. Down the mountain. Full tilt.

Escott was always in control of himself. That iron reserve had only ever slipped once. He'd been blind drunk, then.

Now he'd gone lunatic. He got me up only to knock me over, and when I was down he slammed my head against the wood floor again and again, cursing me over and over under his ragged breath.

Wood damaged, could kill me-and he knew it.

I didn't fight, wanting him to cut loose. If he pounded me unconscious, that'd be one less night I'd have to suffer through. He pummeled until his sweat ran and his face went bloated and scarlet from the effort, until his breath sawed and he finally lost his balance and fell against the desk and ended on the floor, too, glaring at me. That look said I'd made the right choice about killing myself.

He hated me, they all did for what I was doing to them. I had to get myself away from it, spare them from the wreckage Bristow's torture had left. No one needed to see me like this. I didn't want to see me like this.

Neither of us moved for a time. I lay in the pain and stared at the ceiling and ignored Escott. My head thundered, and when I blinked the ceiling dipped and pulled a sick-making half spin. Shut my eyes, kept still. With no need to breathe it was as close to being dead as I could get at night. Not close enough, though.

I felt it come. The churning within, bursting outward from my battered guts, settling cold into my bones, hearing that pathetic whimper leaking between my clenched teeth as the shakes took me.

Escott suddenly within view, staring down. Yeah, look, get a good look at the crazy man.

’’Jack... ?’’

Tried to vanish. Nothing doing. No escape. Was stuck solid because of the wood. Damn you, Charles...

’’Jack, stop it!’’

’’I... c-can't!’’

’’Oh, yes, you bloody can.’’

He hit me again, an open-handed crack across the mouth.

It didn't work, either. Another strike. Another.

I was kitten weak, limps thrashing, no control, and he kept hitting me.

Damn you...

’’Come out of it, damn your eyes!’’

Crack.

’’You're better than this!’’

Tried to push him off. Swatted hard with one arm, caught him firm in the rib cage.

He grunted, but kept hitting, harder, more frenzied. His eyes... he was right-out-of-his-mind berserk.

Using me for a punching bag. Wouldn't let up. All that rage...

’’Dammit, Charles!’’

’’... bastard...’’ Hitting. Hitting.

I hit back. Full force.

Wasn't sure when I woke out of it. Gradual return of awareness, of senses.

Of pain. A lot of that. Body pain for a change, not soul pain. That was there someplace, though. Had to be.

Pain followed by perception, then growing horror.

Escott's body lay across the office on the floor under the windows. He faced away from me and was very, very still.

Could not move myself. Only stare.

Oh, God... no.

’’Ch-Charles?’’

No response. Stillness.

’’Charles!’’

Nothing.

I crawled over to him, afraid to touch him, but I had to see.

A heartbeat in the silence.

His.

Damn near fainted from the relief. There was life in him, but... turned him, very carefully. He was a bloody mess in the literal sense. I checked his eyes, rolled up in their sockets. He was definitely out for the count.

Crawled to the desk, dragged down the phone, and called for an ambulance. I could barely see to do it, barely speak to the operator.

He groaned as I hung up. Went back to him.

’’Charles?’’

He took his time answering, seemed to have trouble breathing. I went to the liquor cabinet and got the brandy. Wet his split lips.

’’You bastard,’’ he finally said.

’’I'm sorry, Charles. I'm so sorry.’’

’’Good.’’

’’Help's on the way, you just hang on.’’

’’Oh, I'm not dying yet. I won't give you the satisfaction, you sorry bastard.’’

’’Just don't move. Is your breathing okay? Your ribs? I could have broken some.’’

’’Shut up, Jack. Check me, see for yourself.’’

I didn't understand him, but he clawed for one of my hands and pulled it onto his chest. Something hard beneath his coat.

’’Think I'm a total idiot? That I'd pick a fight with you without preparation?’’

He had on his bulletproof vest. There was steel plating under my hand.

’’I will have some hellish bruises, but nothing permanent.’’

’’Oh, God. I thought I'd killed you. I thought you were dead.’’

’’And how did it feel?’’

’’How do you think?’’

’’I already know, you fool.’’ He sounded tired, tired to death. ’’I went through it for most of the day looking at your corpse, wondering if you'd wake at sundown. Not knowing, not daring to hope. Hours of it. The whole time wondering what I'd done, what I'd not done, how I'd failed you. Reading over and over the unfinished notes you wrote. Wondering how I could ever break the news to Bobbi.’’

Stunned, I watched tears stream from his eyes. He seemed unaware of them.

’’And I hated you, Jack. I hated you for giving up. For not talking to us, to anyone. You gave up. I can't forgive you for that.’’

I lurched away, tottering blindly to the washroom, made it to the basin just in time.

It was all red. What was left of Hoyle's blood flooded out of me in a vast body-shaking spasm. I came close to screaming again. Or weeping. I hurt too much to know the difference.

When the bout passed, I crept back to the office and sat on the floor. I didn't trust myself not to fall out of a chair.

Escott had propped himself up a little against the wall. His puffed and bruised eyes were hot with fresh anger.

’’How long did Bristow torture you?’’ he asked.

What?

’’How long did it go on? Tell me.’’

’’Too long.’’

’’How long? An hour, two?’’

’’An hour, I guess.’’ I wouldn't have had enough blood in me to last beyond that. ’’So what?’’

’’An hour. Think of it. One hour.’’

I didn't want to think of it. ’’What are you getting at?’’

’’One. Hour. Out of the whole of your life.’’

What the...

’’How many hours have you lived, Jack?’’

’’How the hell should I know?’’

’’How many hours are ahead of you?’’

’’Charles-’’

’’An unlimited span if you're careful. Are you going to let all that's come before and all that can follow be utterly destroyed by one tiny increment stacked against the broader span of time? It's one hour of your life, Jack. Only one.’’

’’The worst I ever had.’’

’’There's worse to come if you don't do something about yourself. And I don't mean eating a bullet. You've been letting that single hour control you. Hog Bristow is still torturing you so long as you allow it.’’

’’Allow? You think I want this?’’

’’You're stuck in that damned meat locker until you make up your mind to leave.’’

’’You don't understand. I've done things.’’

’’Then cease doing them, you fool!’’

’’I can't help it.’’

’’Of course you can! You're the strongest man I know! It's sickening to hear you bleat on like that. While you're buried in your hole for the day, Bobbi and I have to wonder what it's going to be like when you wake up. We're walking on eggs the whole night catering to you, trying not to add to your pain. Do you think we can't see you bleeding inside?’’

’’She hates me.’’

’’You wallowing idiot! She loves you! You're so turned in on yourself you can't see that. You'd rather sit there and whine than accept such a precious gift.’’

’’I could hurt her, the way I hurt you. Worse.’’

’’Bollocks! Ultimately, you are in control, you are responsible. You can cower and let your fear run rampant like an ill-mannered child, or you can be in charge. Don't tell me you can't. If I can do it, you can, too.’’

’’What do you mean?’’

His look was steady and burning. ’’After what happened to my friends in Canada, those murders... they were my whole family for God's sake! Dead in one night. I couldn't sleep for months. Kept waking up screaming. Drank myself unconscious, and I still kept waking up. Nothing I ever faced in the War was that awful. It was Shoe who finally helped me realize I had to get control of myself or...’’

’’What?’’

’’Or he'd beat the hell out of me again.’’ He paused, his gaze inward for a moment. Then, ’’I had to climb out of that pit. You're stronger now than I ever was then. And you're not alone. You are still needed here. This isn't your time.’’

I wanted to believe him.

’’And however you think you could hurt Bobbi, it couldn't possibly be worse than taking yourself away. Don't put her through that, Jack. You're her rock. Don't crumble under her.’’

’’She's strong.’’

’’Because you're here! Stay! Stay for her sake. Or I swear I will beat the hell out of you again.’’

The white-jackets came with a stretcher and for a couple of guys who had to have seen everything, they gave us a double take.

’’You can't ride in with us,’’ one of them told me. I figured he wasn't chancing my taking another shot at Escott.

’’I'll follow then.’’

He didn't seem to like that idea. They carted Escott downstairs and were gone in a minute. I looked for my coat, couldn't find it, and borrowed Escott's instead. A very neat and organized man, he'd left it lying on the floor like old laundry. Must have had it draped over one arm when he'd walked in and seen the inert, bloodied mess on the couch.

He'd have stood frozen in the doorway a moment, the coat slipping away...

The office phone rang, jolting me.

It was Bobbi.

This wasn't a good time to talk, but Escott would kill me if I brushed her off. ’’Hello, sweetheart. How are you?’’ I hoped nothing to tip her off was in my voice.

’’Just fine.’’ she said, sounding very cheerful and awake. Quite a change from the last call. Certainly she was unaware of what I'd tried to do. ’’When you coming over, Sweetie?’’

Huh? ’’I can't right away, I've got to-’’

’’Oh, Jacky, you've been busy every night this week.’’ Her voice went sharp, shrewish, petulant.

What the hell...? I went cold. Deathly cold. ’’Well, Roberta, I got things to do.’’

She was pouty now, and completely ignored my use of her given name. ’’Oh, come on. I'll make it worth your while. Come on, you can spare a girl ten lousy minutes. Just come over and do it.’’

Sickness bloomed in my gut. ’’Well, maybe I could...’’

’’When you see what I'm not wearing, you'll wanna stay longer.’’ She giggled seductively.

’’Okay, but I gotta to do something first. I'll call again in an hour and let you know if I can get away. You'll have to hold your horses until then.’’

’’You'll call in an hour?’’

’’And you better answer, sweetheart, or just forget about having any fun tonight.’’

’’I'll be here. Make it a fast hour.’’ She hung up.

Before I was aware of having moved I was down the stairs, heart in my throat.

But an apparition stood square in the middle of the lobby, blocking my way. I was in such a panic that the out-of-place presence didn't register. I nearly collided, then halted at the last second, backing in confusion from a snub-nosed revolver shoved hard into my belly.

Looked down at the gun, bewildered, backed another step, then truly focused on the man holding it: Whitey Kroun.

He was worse for wear, eyebrows gone and some hair singed off. There were cuts on his burn-reddened face, and his left hand was crudely bandaged. His torn and bloodied clothes stank of smoke and sweat, but he was standing, solid, and very much alive.

’’Surprised?’’ he asked, his voice whisper-hoarse.

My lack of reply was answer enough.

’’Thought you'd be.’’ His dark eyes blazed. ’’All right, you son-of-a-bitch punk, you tell me why you tried to kill me.’’

’’What?’’ I didn't have time for this.

’’You set me up, but for the life of me I can't think why you would. What's your game, Fleming?’’

’’No game. It wasn't me.’’

’’I had the car, so I had to be the target. Was it some kind of deal with Gordy?’’

’’Kroun, listen to me-’’

’’Why?’’ His arm straightened to fire. He would shoot to wound. Killing would come later.

’’It was Mitchell, dammit! I got half of Chicago looking for him!’’

Kroun hesitated. ’’Mitchell. No... I don't think so.’’

’’Why the hell not?’’

He made no reply.

’’Listen, dammit-he got with one of his old pals from here and they cooked up the bomb. I donno if he wants to take over your spot in New York or Gordy's spot here like he wanted before, but you gotta believe me, he's the one who did it! Now put that damn thing away-I know where he's hiding!’’

’’Uh-huh. The hell you do.’’ He swung the muzzle up toward my chest.

I moved faster than he could fire. Snagged the gun from his hand and gave him a push. He spun around, but without his heater he was in no shape to take me. On second look he was banged up pretty bad. I couldn't see how he was able to walk. He should have been in the ambulance with Escott.

I started for the door, then thought better of it. ’’You're comin'with me,’’ I told him.

’’Where?’’

’’Mitchell's got my girlfriend. You want proof? Come on.’’ I hauled him out the door, pulling it closed behind, and going left. ’’Into that Nash.’’

Kroun was limping, his left trouser leg was crusted brown from dried blood. He wheezed badly. I gunned the motor, shifted, and shot us away.

’’What's with you?’’ I asked.

’’Got some smoke. Coughed most of it out by now, but jeez.’’

’’What else?’’

’’Some burns, the concussion from the boom was the worst. Like someone hit me all over with a building.’’

’’How the hell did you survive?’’

’’Gordy's car.’’

’’What about it?’’

’’The damned thing's built like a safe. There's so much metal in it I'm guessing most of the blast went down and sideways, not up and out. The bomb was bad, but not enough to get around all that armor. It bought me a few seconds. I didn't know what I was doing, only that I was doing it. The whole thing was smoke inside, and I couldn't see, but I found the door handle and rolled clear and kept rolling. My eyes were watering, but there was another boom, and I just kept going. There were some trash cans on the street, and I hid behind them. They were full and didn't go flying like everything else, so I stayed there.’’

’’And you didn't show yourself thinking I'd done that?’’

’’I was too damned hurt to think much of anything. The whole street was fulla stinkin'smoke, so I just got out of there before something else dropped on me.’’

’’Where did you go?’’

’’Found an empty building. Picked the lock, went in, and coughed my guts out for a few hours.’’

’’You couldn't call anyone? Even New York?’’

’’I was thinking again by then, and it didn't seem like such a good idea. With my looks I'd be too easy to spot walking around, and I don't know who's who in this town, so I sat tight and rested up. I thought I'd give it a day, then go after you for answers, but your goddamned club was closed.’’

’’Yet you came in.’’

’’I saw you and the guys with the ambulance. What the hell was that?’’

’’Me being stupid. Forget about it.’’

’’How do you know Mitch is with your girl?’’

’’I think he made her phone me to get me to her place.’’

’’She that singer, the blond?’’

’’Yeah. She tipped me off something was wrong, but I gotta get there fast in case she didn't get away with it.’’

’’God, I hate this business,’’ said Kroun, between clenched teeth.

I parked on the side of the hotel opposite Bobbi's flat. Mitchell could be watching from her windows and even from that high up might recognize me walking in. If he saw Kroun, it would be a disaster.

We went in through a smaller entry that led to the lobby and the elevators. There was still an operator on duty;I gave him the floor just above Bobbi's. He stared at Kroun, got a red-eyed stare in return then focused on his job. When he opened the doors again I waited until he descended before heading for the stairs at the end of the hall.

’’What's this?’’ Kroun asked. He was gray of face as we hurried along.

’’I don't want Mitchell hearing the elevator stop on her floor.’’ At the service door, I listened, then cautiously opened it. The hall, identical to the one we'd left, was empty. ’’Okay, here's the deal: There's a servants entrance to her flat, and I've got the key. I can sneak in that way, but I need you to knock on the front door to get his attention.’’

’’Then what?’’

’’Just knock. He might think it's me, so do it from the side in case he shoots through the door.’’

’’Yeah, okay. Hand me back my piece.’’

’’You won't need it.’’

’’I sure as hell will. Don't worry, I'll only shoot him, not your girl.’’

I didn't want to trust him on that.

’’I get my gun or you get no help. Come on.’’

Dammit. I gave it over. ’’But no shooting. You won't need to, anyway. I just need you to distract his attention.

Stay here, count to a hundred, then knock loud.’’

He went into ’’one, two, three, four,’’ and I counted along with him to match his pace. Kept counting softly as I slipped out, vanished, and sped forward, going solid just long enough to find Bobbi's door. Gone again, I sieved under it and listened as best I could in the grayness.

No one talking. Damn.

Nineteen, twenty...

Made a sweep of the front room and didn't encounter anyone. Tried the small kitchen. No one here, either. Decided to risk going solid.

Lights out, except for some spill from the living room. More than enough to see by. Listened. Would have held my breath if I'd had any.

Twenty-nine, thirty...

It took a few seconds to get it, like tuning in to a hard-to-find radio station. Vague movements, a heartbeat. More than one...

Invisible again, I floated toward her bedroom. Very much on purpose I wasn't thinking about certain things. If he'd touched her I would rip him apart. Literally.

No sound in this room. My muffled hearing worked against me. Swept through, located one person sitting on the bed, the second in a chair next to the telephone table. Another extravagant convenience of her very modern apartment was having two phones, one in the living room, the other just steps away, next to the bed. She usually kept that one in the bath so she could talk while soaking in the tub. Were they waiting for my call? And who was who? I could tell general shapes in this form, but nothing more specific. If one of them would just make a noise, I'd know who to tackle.

I drifted close to the one on the bed, brushing as light as I dared.

Unbelievable relief when Bobbi shivered and went brrrrr.

’’What's the matter?’’ Mitchell asked from his seat by the phone.

’’I'm cold. Can't I turn up the heat?’’

’’No. Pull on a blanket. Why is it you dames are always so damn cold all the time?’’

Apparently recognizing a rhetorical question, she didn't reply.

Where the hell was Kroun? He should be knocking by now. Had he mistakenly gone to the other end of the hall? I could go solid and jump Mitchell, but I wanted Bobbi in the clear. He'd be armed and too many things could go wrong. I wanted them both-especially her-alive and safe.

’’I know a way to warm you up,’’ he said. ’’We got time.’’

Of course, he didn't absolutely have to be undamaged.

’’Oh, puh-lease.’’ A tone of voice like that always went with a rolling of the eyes.

’’You turned into a real snot, didn't you? Slick had the right idea keeping you on a leash. You weren't too good for me then. You were plenty hot for me. I remember.’’

’’I'd have been hot for a baboon if he coulda gotten me out of there.’’

’’Well, you got a close second with Fleming. When the hell did he get to be such a big noise?’’

’’Just happened.’’

’’I'll bet. You smelled the money and-What's that clicking?’’ he snapped.

Clicking? Then I remembered Kroun was an expert with picklocks. He wasn't going to wait or follow instructions...

Mitchell left the room. I went solid.

Bobbi suppressed her gasp of surprise, but it was enough to alert the nervous Mitchell. He stood in the living room facing the front door, but swung his gun at me.

’’Fleming?’’ He was flat-footed for only an instant, then squared up the gun, Bobbi came forward;I shoved her back hard so she fell across the bed, then I started toward him. ’’Freeze!’’ he yelled.

I froze in the bedroom doorway, arms out. The .45 he carried would put holes through walls, and Bobbi was very much still in range. No shooting. Please.

The front door swung open. Kroun didn't show himself.

’’Who is it?’’ Mitchell asked me.

I was within tackling distance, but wanted him distracted from me. ’’Your boss. It's payback time.’’

’’What d'ya mean?’’

’’You missed with the bomb. Kroun's alive.’’

Mitchell laughed once. ’’No way. He's dead meat. Hoyle said-’’

’’Yeah, he did. He's dead, too, by the way.’’

’’You're lying.’’

’’Thought you'd be happy about it. You bumped Ruzzo, so of course you had to bump Hoyle. Can't leave witnesses to screw up you taking over Kroun's spot. That's what you're after, right? With Gordy still alive, you might never get a chance at this town, but there's no reason why you can't take Kroun's job if he's gone-only he ain't.’’

’’Kroun's dead.’’

’’Not so much,’’ said Kroun. He eased around the front doorway, gun in hand, aimed at Mitchell. ’’So what's the story, Mitch? Anything to it?’’

Mitchell didn't know how to handle failure and just stood there blank-faced a moment. Then he slowly went a deep, ugly red. I didn't read that as shame for what he'd done;this was sheer humiliation for having gotten caught. ’’How could you have... Hoyle said he'd-’’

’’Said what? Is that how it ran? You boys bump me to move up?’’

’’No! Hoyle was on his own. I didn't have nothing to do with-’’ Mitchell choked. It had to be impossible for him to think straight with a dead man asking such questions.

’’C'mon, Mitch. You can tell me.’’ Kroun's eyes seemed darker than ever, bottomless and hell-black.

Mitchell shook his head, abruptly recovering his internal balance. He wouldn't have time to aim the gun at Kroun, so he held fast on me. ’’Stand still, or I kill him,’’ he said.

Kroun shrugged. ’’Go ahead. He's just another mug.’’

’’I thought he was your new best pal.’’

’’You would.’’

Mitchell went dead white, then red again. ’’Shaddup.’’

’’With this in the picture some other stuff's making sense.’’

’’What stuff?’’ I asked, drawing attention back to me. If we could keep him distracted enough...

’’Alan Caine's murder,’’ said Kroun. ’’Check Mitch's hands.’’

I'd seen. Gouges and scratching from Caine's nails as he tried, in a very few seconds, to fight his killer off. ’’Heh.

Guess you could call that 'the mark of Caine.'’’

Kroun wheezed a short, unpleasant laugh. ’’Ya think?’’

Mitchell told us to shut up, face getting redder.

I didn't listen. ’’So why did you do it? Did Caine overhear you and Hoyle? Did Jewel Caine see you running away?’’

Sweat, lots of sweat pouring from him. The stink of cigarettes.

’’I'll tell you why,’’ Bobbi called. She'd rolled off the other side of the bed and was on the floor in the far corner against the wall. There was a full bookcase between her and harm. Sensible girl. ’’He had to shut Jewel up, too. Jewel would have guessed.’’

’’Guessed what?’’ Kroun asked, his thick voice still fighting against the smoke damage.

’’What Mitchell-’’

’’Shaddup!’’ Mitchell practically screamed it. ’’Shaddup or your boyfriend gets it!’’

But Bobbi could count on me being mostly bulletproof. ’’Mitch and Alan Caine got drunk one night. Real drunk. I heard it from Jewel. Alan bragged about it to her to hurt her, the bastard.’’

’’Shaddup, you lying bitch!’’

’’Alan liked women and men! Mitch was so drunk that-’’

Mitchell fired through the wall, too high. I was on him, a full body tackle. He kept shooting.

Grabbed his gun hand and yanked at a bad angle for him. He yelped and bucked, trying to twist around, but kept a solid grip. He was mad out of his mind and stronger than he looked. I used my other hand to slam his head sharp against the floor and still he fought.

I tried to take the gun. Another shot. The bullet went through my palm, but I was too pissed to feel it. Gut-punched him, blood flying. He didn't notice. Had gone crazy. We rolled and kicked and hit, and he fired again. How many goddamn bullets were in this thing?

His hand over my face, fingers digging in my eyes, I turned away...

And glimpsed Kroun, his arm out, his own gun ready, coldly and carefully choosing his moment. His face was blank, eyes gone black with that hell-pit look;he seemed a different man altogether. Fast as things were moving, I still felt a swift, icy jolt of panic. When a man's soul isn't there, you know, you just know it, and you don't want to be anywhere near what it's left behind.

Mitchell saw it, too, his own damnation staring down. He wrenched his gun around and up with that strange, desperate strength.

Two shots. Close. Deafening.

And it was over. Mitchell went inert, his body collapsing on top of me in a horrible reprise of Hoyle's death. Bloodsmell, blood pouring onto me, warm and still vital...

I threw him violently off, scrabbled over the floor to get clear of the thing he'd become, terrified that another seizure would rip away what sanity remained in me.

Then Bobbi was there. I caught her up, maybe too hard, but she kept telling me everything would be all right, it was okay... Jack, it's okay...

I waited, fighting it, waited, forcing down the shudder that tried to rise.

Fighting.

Her voice helped. A soft, melodious, songlike droning as she held me, reassured me.

I allowed myself a single, choking sob. There was more in me, eager for its turn to emerge from the darkness. I couldn't think about it, about what it might do if it got out, what it might be. Another seizure, or would the mindless craving take me over? If that happened and I hurt Bobbi...

I made myself focus on her sweet voice, the feel of her arms around me. I held on to that distraction from the internal demons. She was real, but they were so...

You are in control, you are responsible. You're stronger now than I ever was then.

Hard to believe. But Escott had never lied to me. He was right. I had a choice about being in charge or not. Of giving up and-

And however you think you could hurt Bobbi, it couldn't possibly be worse than taking yourself away. Don't put her through that, Jack. You're her rock. Don't crumble under her.

No. I wouldn't do that to her. She deserved better. I had to try, to believe that I could beat this.

Don't tell me you can't. If I can do it, you can, too.

Hell of a tough act to follow.

Stay for her sake. Or I swear I will beat the hell out of you again.

Damn you, Escott...

Something brittle and sharp inside seemed to break up and fall away, suddenly allowing my soul to breathe again.

There were no words for what it was, I just understood that something had shifted and it was gone.

Over.

Past.

Done.

It had been heavy. So damned heavy. Only when the weight was no longer there did I understand how heavy it had been.

Then it was my turn to collapse. I sank to my knees, and Bobbi came with me, letting me lean on her. God, but I needed her.

And Escott said that I was her rock.

’’Jack?’’

After a moment, I dredged a smile for her. ’’Hey, baby. You okay?’’

’’How 'bout yourself?’’

’’Just peachy.’’ It felt so good, her holding me, but the hurt on my hand... it was knitting up, but damn, that burned. ’’ 'Scuse me a sec.’’

I vanished, came back. Much better now. Much...

Kroun-he'd have seen-

Turned to look. He hadn't seen anything. He'd caught a bullet.

He sprawled flat, a hole in his chest that bubbled air every time he moved. The pain had him helpless and gasping, and blood ran from his mouth. I knew the signs, he didn't have a minute left.

I went to him. Knelt close.

’’Fleming.’’ My name made more blood come out of him. He coughed and tried to suck air past the stuff clogging his throat. The smell filled the room, but now I was able to ignore it.

’’I'm here, what can I do?’’ Hell, what can you do for a dying man? He looked like himself again, though. Whatever he had for a soul was back again, struggling hard to stay, but losing as his body failed.

’’Mitch. Dead?’’

Had to look. ’’He's dead.’’

’’ 'Fraid I'd missed. Your girl?’’

’’She's fine. You hold on, I'll get a doctor.’’

’’Past that.’’ Coughed. ’’Damn stuff. First I burn my lungs, now this. Life ain't fair.’’

’’No, it ain't.’’

’’Promise...’’

’’Anything.’’

’’No fish food.’’

What?

’’No lake. No chopping. No oil drums. You bury me proper. No cremat...’’

’’I promise. Kroun? I promise. You hear?’’

Then the rattle. His last breath going out. The slack stillness that went on forever.

Oh, damn. Damn it all. He couldn't have known about my nature. If he'd just held off I could have...

Feeling very old, I stood. Went to Bobbi. Had to hold her again, hold her and get and give comfort, quick before dread practicalities rose up.

’’Your neighbors... the shots...’’ I finally said.

’’We'll bluff them out. I'll say I was rehearsing a radio skit, a-a-and the fake gun was louder than it should be. I'll make 'em believe it.’’

’’Just don't let anyone in. You're not staying here tonight, either.’’

’’Damn right I'm not.’’

’’I'll get you over with Gordy and Adelle. Shoe can look out for you all until this is cleared.’’

’’God, Jack, what will you do?’’ She looked at the bodies. Any other girl might have fainted. Instead, she held on to me.

’’I gotta call Derner, get some boys over here to clean up.’’

’’But how will you explain?’’

’’I'm not. I won't have to with them, but no cops. We can't. I'm not putting you through that kind of hell. Mitchell can be disappeared.’’

She went pale, knowing what that meant. ’’And the other man? Kroun?’’

’’I made him a promise. You make a promise, you gotta be stand-up about it. Derner and I will figure something out, do the right thing.’’

Bobbi nodded, held me again, then suddenly went rigid and shrieked.

With a groan, Kroun rolled on his side. There was pain all over his face, but he used one arm to push and was slowly sitting up.

I gasped. Had an insane thought that he'd worn a vest like Escott's, but the blood was real, his absolute stillness, the wound...

Was closing.

He pressed his fist against it, wincing. ’’Ah, son of a bitch. That hurts!’’

I gaped and couldn't seem to come out of it.

He grunted, groaned, and snarled. Then glared at me. ’’What? You think you're the only one?’’

’’Oh, my God, he's like you,’’ Bobbi whispered.

Kroun's mouth twisted with disgust. ’’Ain't that the pip? And now you two know everything. I tried to not move, but damn...’’ He failed to suppress a cough.

I stared and recalled and wondered and realized. ’’You never told me,’’ I said, voice faint.

’’Why the hell should I? I didn't know you. You run with an outfit like Gordy's and think that's a good character reference?’’

’’But I hypnotized you.’’

’’You thought you did. I was wondering, 'What the hell?'and then played along to see what you'd do. Ahh! Damn!’’

He pulled himself toward Bobbi's couch and eased down with his back against it, long legs sprawled on the floor, arms tight around his chest, pressing hard, visibly hurting. Why was he putting himself through that? Why not vanish?

Bobbi broke away from me and into the kitchen, ran water, and returned with wet dish towels. She knelt and Kroun let her try to clean him up. He gave her a bemused look as she swabbed blood from his face.

’’You're all right, kid,’’ he concluded.

’’Are you?’’ She made him move his arms and opened his shirt. ’’The hole's gone, but...’’

’’Just on the outside, cutie. Inside stuff... it takes longer. I need to rest a little. I'll get better.’’ He winked the way you do to reassure someone, then made null of it when he began to cough. He grabbed one of the towels, hacking blood into it. The bullet must have gone through a lung.

She glanced at me, clearly thinking the same question. Why wasn't he vanishing?

When the fit eased, Kroun said, ’’You surprised me, Fleming. During the hypnosis when you were trying to get me to change things... I expected a left, and you went right.’’

’’What did you do?’’ Bobbi asked. ’’Jack?’’

I shook my head. ’’I just wanted him to keep Gordy in charge. That's all.’’

’’It was enough,’’ he said. ’’What you wanted told me a lot about you. You didn't order me around, you didn't do a lot of stuff that others might. Didn't ask for anything for yourself. All you did was look out for a friend.’’

’’But you weren't under.’’

’’I played along. You get that, yet? I faked being under to learn more. Then you went funny, had-whatever that was-some kind of fit, I don't know, you were bad off, then you just weren't there. And that clinched it for me on what you are, what I was dealing with. But just try to pretend to still be out of things when someone pulls that on you. I damn near lost it there.’’

’’Well, you fooled me.’’

’’You had other problems than just worrying about my taking you on a ride to the boneyard. I wanted to know about 'em. I figured it was to do with Bristow's work. What he did messed you up. With hypnotizing. That right?’’

’’I think so.’’ I flinched inside. ’’Yes.’’

Bobbi looked at me. ’’What's he mean?’’

She had to find out sometime. ’’I... I can't do that anymore. Whammying people. It's... like my head's exploding. I don't dare try it again. Maybe not ever. Bristow messed me up, all right.’’

Kroun snorted. ’’Face it, kid, what Bristow did left you crippled, the same as if he chopped off one of your legs.

You'll just have to live without. The way you looked, it could kill you if nothing else can.’’ He winced again, coughing more blood into the towel. ’’Damn, this hurts.’’

’’Vanish, then. Heal up.’’

He gave a short laugh. Coughing. ’’Believe me, I'd like to.’’

’’Why don't you?’’

’’You know why I was talking with Gordy so much? To hear about you. He's always a gold mine of news about all kinds of stuff, but this was the mother lode. He knew everything, including why you were hanging in the meat locker instead of kicking Bristow's ass. You had a piece of ice pick stuck in your back. The metal kept you solid.’’

’’What? So you've got the same thing? Shrapnel or something?’’

’’Or something. Remember I told Adelle Taylor about a guy getting cute and grazing my skull?’’ Kroun brushed at the white streak on the side of his head. ’’It wasn't a graze. That was how I died.’’

’’Oh, God,’’ Bobbi's jaw dropped. She started to sway. Kroun shot a hand out and steadied her a moment.

’’Sorry, cutie. You okay? Good girl. The bullet that killed me is still inside. I'm as crippled as you are, Fleming.

Between us we make a whole vampire-ya think?’’

’’But your looks,’’ said Bobbi. ’’When the change happens... you-you get younger. Don't you?’’

He shrugged. ’’Far as I know I look the same as the day it happened. Maybe the bullet screws that up, too. I can't exactly go to a doctor and find out, can I?’’

It made for a hell of a good cover. Now and then I'd look twice at some young mug in his twenties, thinking he might be a vampire. I hadn't once considered Kroun to be a member of the club. ’’Guess not,’’ I said. ’’But what now?’’

He waved a bloody hand. ’’Damned if I know. I can't kill you-not the state I'm in, anyway-and I can't make you forget, but I don't want anyone else knowing about me.’’

’’We can keep shut. You got my word. Both of us.’’

Bobbi nodded.

Kroun gave us each a long look with those dark, remarkable eyes. I wondered if mine had that kind of power behind them. ’’I think I can believe you. There's just one thing... I really don't want to go back.’’

’’Back to...?’’

’’Back to the business. It stinks. You know how it stinks. I'm tired of it. Mitch trying to blow me up... that could be my ticket out. A blessing in disguise. A real, real good disguise.’’

’’But there's no body in the car. The cops'll know that by now. That'll get public.’’

He pointed a finger toward his eyes. ’’There are ways around cop records. Maybe you can show me where to find them, then I do a little talking to the people who matter. Whitey Kroun can die in Chicago and stay here. Fake burial, the works. Shouldn't be too hard to fix.’’ He cocked his head. ’’Do me a favor?’’

’’No problem. And then what?’’

’’And then... maybe... maybe I go fishing.’’

I called Derner, told him how things had fallen out with Mitchell and what had to be done. I said I'd get Bobbi someplace else, and he was to send a cleaning crew over, not just to disappear the body but to scrub the place better than any hospital.

That took a while to arrange. He wasn't a happy man.

I had spare clothes in her closet and put on fresh ones. Blood was on my overcoat, but the coat was dark, so nothing incriminating was visible. Bobbi also changed and packed some things together. There wasn't much we could do to clean up Kroun. When he was able to stand, he washed in the kitchen, coughing over the sink to get his lungs cleared of blood. That done, he went down to wait in the Nash, out of sight.

When Derner's crew arrived, Bobbi left with one of them, bound for Shoe Coldfield's special hotel in the Bronze Belt. The way things were going, Escott could wind up recuperating there as well.

If he was going to be all right. He'd been sitting up and talking, but I knew how that could turn around in an instant. Before the night was gone, I'd have to see him, make sure he was all right, try again to apologize for what I'd put him through.

I'd tell Bobbi later why he was in the hospital;I hadn't quite figured out just how much to say about what prompted two grown men to beat the hell out of each other. She really didn't need to know about me trying to kill myself.

As for Kroun... I got the impression that he'd been alone and on his own with this for a long time. It must have been a hell of a novelty to meet people who could deal with his big secret, though I was still digesting what to think about him.

We're a rare breed. Hard to make. He'd not said anything about his initiation and who was responsible, what had led up to his death, how he'd dealt with his first waking. We would have to talk. Hell, maybe I could go fishing with him.

Derner's people came, and I handed over the key to Bobbi's place and left.

Kroun was in the backseat of the Nash, still hurting from the gunshot.

’’Is that bullet still in you?’’ I asked, getting behind the wheel.

’’Nah. They tend to go right through.’’

’’You've been shot other times?’’

’’Let's talk about something else, okay?’’

’’Like why you didn't just continue playing possum on the rug?’’

’’I couldn't help the coughing. Even without it you'd have tumbled soon enough. Besides, you told me what I needed to know. You made a promise about burying me and were going to keep it.’’

’’That's it?’’

’’Hey, come on. It's easy to make a promise to a dying man. Just as easy to break. You're crazy, but you're a stand-up guy.’’

I grunted. ’’Not an easy job.’’

’’Yeah. But you do okay.’’

’’And that's it?’’ I repeated.

’’There's one other thing...’’

’’Yeah?’’

’’Well, any guy who's that good of friends with Adelle Taylor can't be all bad.’’


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