Cold streets, p.1
Cold Streets, p.1part #10 of Vampire Files Series by P. N. Elrod / Fantasy / Mystery & Detective
Chicago, January 1938
I REMAINED invisible during the ride to the ransom drop, with no idea where we were beyond the few verbal cues passed to my partner, who was playing chauffeur. Our cue-giver and client, Mrs Vivian Gladwell, didn't know I was floating next to her in the rear seat of her Cadillac. Her daughter had been kidnapped two weeks ago, and the poor woman had enough on her mind without having to deal with a supernatural gumshoe.
"He said to stop on that bridge just ahead," she told Escott, using the speaking tube that served the driver's compartment. I could imagine my partner nodding.
"And then what?" His voice was thin through the tube, my bodiless state muffled the sound almost too much to hear him.
"I'm to drop the money off the right-hand side. "
"Very well. "
We'd been on a merry little tour of Chicago for some time now, driving from phone box to phone box. Each time we paused, she had to rush out and wait for it to ring, then get fresh instructions from the kidnapper on where to go next. He said he was watching, so Escott faithfully followed instructions, just in case.
The big car eased to a halt, skidding a little on icy slush, motor thrumming impatiently. I hoped this wouldn't be another water-haul. Not waiting for Escott to come open the door, Vivian slid across the seat toward me. I kept my incorporeal self out of her way, clinging weightlessly to the suitcase she pulled along. It was full of cash meant to buy back her daughter's life.
The bridge didn't seem to be over water, a complication we could do without.
I have a problem crossing the free-flowing kind. Vivian gave a small ladylike grunt of effort, lifting the case, banging it against something. I sensed the shape of a wide railing. Just as well I couldn't see how far the drop would be. I hate heights.
Wrapped around the case, I gave an internal wince for what was to come.
A shove, then a horrible, time-suspending plunge, truly awful. I couldn't force myself to hang on. It didn't matter that in this state I'd suffer no hurt from the fall; instinct took over. I whipped away a crucial second early and made a slower landing.
Oddly, there wasn't a lot of impact noise from the case when it hit. Just a soft thump. Maybe it was in a snowdrift. I sensed the ground and tried to figure out where the cash had gone. It would have been nice to be visible, enabling me to see, but too much of a risk. The kidnapper had brains behind his efforts. I had to respect that.
From what seemed like the far distance came the rumble of the Cadillac driving across the bridge above me. Escott would return Vivian to the Gladwell estate, and there they'd have a long, grim wait for news of the daughter's pickup location.
Hopefully, it would come from me, not the gang.
I hovered close, wondering if I dared move off, find a secluded spot to hide, and melt back into reality to get my bearings.
"Hurry!" called a man's voice. Urgent. Not close, but too close.
Someone rushed up, apparently grabbing the case. I shifted to wrap around him. He muttered a curse against the sudden chill but kept going. This was familiar. I'd had plenty of practice hanging on to people in such a manner.
He moved fast, puffing hard with his burden. I stuck with him as he ran, stopped, turned, and sat. We were in a car. A door slammed, the motor gunned, and away we went.
It seemed safe to flow clear and explore the confines of the vehicle. I reached out with what would be my hands and felt my way around, craving orientation.
The buoyant freedom of this form was extremely enjoyable, but going on for this long was turning it into too much of a good thing.
The front seat held two men, the back was empty but cluttered with unidentifiable stuff. I bumbled my way behind the seat, down to the floorboards, and cautiously went solid amid a debris of cast-off clothes, musty blankets, and empty beer bottles. Drained and dizzy, I ached to stretch. It had been a while since I'd spent so extended a period in a formless state. If either of the two men happened to turn, they'd spot me, but I was willing to chance it for the reassuring relief of having my body back to normal again.
For the time being, the men were too distracted with jubilation to bother.
They'd just picked up the ransom-a neatly packed hundred grand-and the guy on the passenger side was doing a rough count. Eavesdropping, or in this case backseat-dropping, I'd learned his name was Ralph; the driver was Vinzer.
Mine is Jack Fleming. I should mention that I'm a vampire. I drink blood and can hypnotize most people into doing what I want, but vanishing's one of the best aspects of the condition. No turning into mist or fog, but absolute invisibility, more presence than person, very handy in tight spots.
It made me the ace up the sleeve for the kidnap victim's family, so forget the stakes and garlic, I'm one of nature's good guys.
"Anyone following?" asked Ralph.
"Then let's go back. "
"Dugan said to be sure. I'm gonna be sure. "
A third member to the party? I decided to hold off breaking heads until we met up with this Dugan bird. Maybe the girl they'd taken away was with him.
Turns were made; so far as I could tell, speeding laws were observed; then Vinzer slowed and stopped, motor running. "There he is. "
A window was rolled down. I felt a wash of icy air.
"Is it all there?" a man called to them.
Vinzer repeated the question to Ralph.
"Gimme a minute. "
It took Ralph longer than that to count the cash, during which I remained absolutely still and quiet, easy enough with no beating heart or need to breathe.
These clowns were in for a truckload of trouble. I could afford to wait before running them over with it.
Only a patch of night-gray sky was visible through a grimed window. I thought we were still well within the city, though, just not in an area with high buildings to give me a landmark.
"Yeah," said Ralph. "It's all here, Dugan, small bills. We're rich!"
"Right then," said the third party. "Lead on, and I'll watch your backs. "
The window went up, and Vinzer shifted gears. We rolled forward, apparently on a more direct course to our destination. There were fewer turns, and I saw the rise and fall of telephone wires and passing streetlights. No way to tell where we were heading.
"Watch our backs," Vinzer muttered. "More like watching us so we don't run off with the dough. "
"I'd do the same if I was him. Just makes sense. Dugan trusted us to meet up with him. "
"Only after he told me how tough it would be to do anything else. "
"What d'ya mean?"
"He didn't come out and say it, but he let me know. "
Ralph persisted with the same question.
Vinzer snorted. "He told me it would be too bad if the cops got a description of us and the plate numbers of the car. "
"It was how he said it. Like he'd phone it all in if we didn't show. "
"Well, we did show, so now it don't matter. "
"He don't trust us, so I don't trust him. "
"You worry too much. Dugan's been straight from the start, just careful, you know? This was being extra careful. I'd do the same if I was him. "
"If you was him, you wouldn't need the money. "
"He said he was broke. "
"Yeah. He said. You ever once live in a place like he's got? I don't buy his story. "
"Don't matter to me. This job worked out. That's what matters. "
Vinzer muttered again but subsided.
The steady undulation of phone wires threatened to make me carsick, so I looked away. I'd materialized down in the foot well, which was unpadded, with a blackjack in one coat pocket and a . 38 revolver in another. Both seemed to be burrowing toward each other as each bump and pothole in the road telegraphed through my long bones. I settled in as best I could for the duration and hoped my unaware companions continued to be preoccupied by thoughts of Dugan. He sounded to be the possible brains behind their operation and apparently lived somewhere nice enough to impress Vinzer. Maybe it was too nice and needed a lot of expensive upkeep, so he chose kidnapping over bank robbery to acquire some big cash.
As a crime, kidnapping used to be almost respectable, a popular, low-risk way of getting rich quick. All you had to do was walk off with someone's kid for a day or so, trade the tot for a box of spending money, then hope to lam it before the cops caught up. The American public had developed a sneaking admiration for such criminals, almost like for Robin Hood. It was a lark, an adventure, and no one was ever really hurt. Until the Lindbergh case showed everyone up. The fun had gone out of the game. Now it was as deadly as it had always been, maybe more so. Harsh federal penalties had raised the ante for the criminals, so the more ruthless ones made killing the victim part of the job. If they were really sadistic, torturing the victim's family with a mixture of hope and anguish kept things even more entertaining.
The family in this case was a widowed mother who had inherited a Great Lakes shipping business. Mrs. Vivian Glad-well, short, a little wide in figure, in her young forties, had been content to host bridge parties for her friends and attend church and charity events. Her only offspring was Sarah. She was physically sixteen years old. Mentally, she would never progress much farther than ten. She would always be a harmless, loving child. Vivian doted on her.
Two weeks ago, Sarah took her French poodle for a walk on the estate grounds, where she always stayed inside the wall and gates. The dog had come back to the house, but not the girl. A terse message was tied to its collar like a Christmas tag. In block letters it said Sarah would die if the police were brought in; the place was under watch.
My partner, Charles W. Escott, a detective for all his protest at being a private agent, had worked for Vivian on something minor a few months ago. He was evidently still fresh in her mind when she phoned with barely suppressed hysteria.
He told her to bring in the cops. She refused and begged for his help. He reluctantly involved himself. He instructed her to send her chauffeur to his house with a spare uniform and to take a long, zig-zag route.
I'd just woken up for the night, emerging from my hidden sanctuary in the basement to find my sometime partner apparently changing trades in the living room. He said the chauffeur would be staying over a while, then explained why.
Escott's impersonation idea was good, allowing him to gain unnoticed entry to the Gladwell house, but the flaw in the plan jumped right out at me. While Escott buttoned up the dark gray uniform coat and gave a last buff to his high boots, I took the chauffeur aside for a little chat. A short bout of forced hypnosis eased my worry that the man might be in on the crime. It wouldn't be the first time a servant had been turned by a bribe. Escott tipped his peaked hat in salute to my idea but showed a grim face.
"I've rather a nasty feeling I'm in over my head on this one," he said, his way of asking for help. Until now, the only kidnapping case he'd ever dealt with had to do with a purloined pooch he once stole back for a client.
"No problem. " I got dressed, called the head bartender of my nightclub to tell him not to expect me any time soon, and we loaded into the Gladwell Cadillac. I invisibly smuggled myself into the house, was introduced to Vivian, and made it my business to hypnotize all the rest of the staff on the sly. They were in the clear, which was too bad. A solid lead would have finished things right away.
For the next two weeks, Escott remained on the estate, phoning brief reports to me and the chauffeur just after sunset. The kidnapper called the Gladwell house several times, usually in the middle of the night. Vivian's conversations were short and heartbreaking, pleading for her daughter's return and to speak with her; the muffled voice on the other end of the line hissed dire warnings against involving the law.
The man eventually lowered his ransom demand for a million dollars to a more reasonable hundred grand after Vivian swore she couldn't remove such a huge sum from her bank without drawing notice, which was true. Twice she'd gone out to hand it over. False alarms. Escott judged the apparently cruel ploy was to see how obedient she would be, and he assured her none of it was unusual.
"I do not think we're dealing with a professional," he confided to me in private.
"How's that?" I asked.
"A smart man would want to finish the job quickly. Keeping a person confined against their will is a difficult and consuming task. Delay increases the risk of discovery. This fellow makes me think he saw a film about the topic and took it as a pattern to follow. Amateurs are unpredictable, more dangerous. I don't hold much hope for Sarah. "
It was rare for Escott to be pessimistic, but he was too well aware of the seriousness of this job, and the pressure ate steadily at him. Lean already, he lost weight, and from the hollow cast of his eyes, I was sure he wasn't sleeping. If Sarah came to harm or had already been killed, he would carry it the rest of his life.
But today the last post brought instructions. Escott phoned me just at sunset. I hurried over, again sneaking into the house.
In a plain envelope was a blurred, inexpertly shot photo of Sarah Gladwell staring in wide-eyed confusion at the camera, holding a two-day-old copy of the Tribune. The background consisted of churned snow and the white clapboard side of a building, with no other clue to her location. A block-printed card stated calling the police would get her throat cut. To bring home the point, the bottom corner bore a large red smear. It could have been ink, but I'd instantly picked up bloodsmell. No matter whether the blood came from Sarah or not, the effect on her mother was the same. She'd shown an astonishing amount of restraint so far, but she didn't have much control left. Tears streamed, but for the moment, she held off breaking down completely.
"We'll get her back, ma'am," I said and hoped like hell I'd be right.
No way of setting the odds for that, but they were bad. Unless the kidnapper wore a mask, the unblindfolded Sarah would have seen him. Maybe he thought a girl with her limited mental state posed no threat. Otherwise, he would kill her. He may have done so right after taking the picture, but there was no point saying that aloud to her mother.
Fortunately for me, he liked working after dark. Soon after I arrived, the hissing voice was on the line with directions and more threats. Escott put on his chauffeur's cap.
The first time we'd made a run, he'd told Vivian that my job was to trail the kidnapper from the drop. She'd objected, even though my sudden inexplicable appearances in her home with all the doors and windows bolted convinced her of my talent for getting around unobserved. This still wasn't enough for her to risk Sarah's life. Escott and I had exchanged a look. From that point forward, I'd pretend to stay behind but would vanish into the car, and off we'd all roll.
And this time, finally, it turned out to be the end of the line, one way or another.
"Wish it was closer in," said Ralph, sounding impatient. "I wanna cut free and leave. Is he still there?"
"Yeah," said Vinzer. "Right with us. "
"You don't like him, do you?"
"That crap don't matter. You just do the job. "
"He's doing the job. Job's done. Know what I'm gonna do with my share?"
"You only talk about it fifty times a day. "
"I'm going to Miami," Ralph continued, ignoring him.
"Gonna get one of those fancy places on the beach, buy a joint with some good-looking girls, and have them do all the work. Have fun with 'em any time I want. "
"Miami's too expensive. Go to Havana. "
"But they got horse races, dog races, everything-an' they talk American. "
"Once you hit the tracks, you'll be broke in an hour. "
"Not if I win. Everyone knows when you lay down the big money you get back bigger money. No more stinking two-dollar windows for me. "
"Same horses run at two bucks as for twenty-five Gs. Same horses lose. "
By that division of the money, I could deduce there might be four in the gang.
Three to make the pick up and one left behind to watch Sarah? I could hope.
I'd gotten used to thinking we were dealing with a single man. Not easy to tackle four, but possible by taking out one at a time, and only after I got the girl clear. If she was still alive. I was tempted to make my presence known to these goofs right now and hypnotize them into submission, but I'd tried a stunt like that once and had nearly wrecked the car and me with it. Besides, there was the guy following us. Dugan. Better to let things move forward, then jump in once I had the whole picture.
"You just don't want me havin' fun," Ralph grumped. "I got all the money in the world now and you act like it's nothing. "
Vinzer sighed. "No, I'm acting like you're an idiot. If you played it smart you could make your share last the rest of your life. You almost got it right about buying a business, but go anywhere near the tracks and you'll be back here again. "
"Holding a suitcase with a hundred Gs?" Ralph snickered.
"Aw, shuddup an' lemme drive. "
One of them turned on the radio. We listened to Bergen and McCarthy fading in out of the static. I was too nerved to laugh at the jokes. Ralph hooted and repeated punch lines to himself.
After an entirely too long but favorably uneventful ride, Vinzer made a turn onto an unpaved road. We left behind the march of phone lines that comprised my only scenery except for occasional looming trees. I wanted to sit up for a look, eager as a kid for the end of the trip. They had the car heater going the whole time, and in my heavy coat and gloves, I'd grown warm, weary, and cramped. If I'd still been human, I might have disastrously dozed off.
The road got rougher; we skidded on icy patches. Vinzer grumbled under his breath. He finally braked and cut the motor. He and Ralph left the car. At nearly the same time, another car door slammed shut close by. The sound was flat, isolated. I counted a slow ten before raising my head in the hard silence.
Empty, snow-covered countryside, no lights showing except from a small clapboard house that had seen better days. Vinzer and Ralph went right in. I sieved-out of a fairly new Studebaker and made note of a battered old Ford parked next to it. No other cars were in sight.
Partially materialized, I floated lightly over the snow, drifting close to the building. Escott said I should rent myself to haunt houses for Halloween. The ghost gag was damned helpful for this kind of work; it made me harder to spot, left no tracks, and I could still discern things fairly well through the gray fog that hindered my sight.
The stark structure was no more than fifteen feet wide but went back three times that distance. I knew the type. If you stood at the front door, the hall lined up with it so you could see to the back of the house. Every window was shaded or thickly curtained, not one crack to peer through.
Going to the side, I went solid near a front window that served the living room.
Within, the men whooped and laughed like Dodge City on a Saturday night. Vinzer and Ralph were the heroes of the moment with their delivery.
Guessing the presence of so much money would keep them occupied, I eased down to the next window. Less noise here, perhaps an empty room. As good a place as any to start. I had to brace internally. Sieving through the tiny spaces between wood and lathe was different from flowing through a gap like a mouse hole. It was more a mental than a physical sensation, not a favorite, but the unpleasant restriction was brief as I passed from outside to in, no invitation required. I listened for signs of company in the space around me, then slowly went solid.
Some nights it's great to get out of bed. Sarah Gladwell was fast asleep on an army cot shoved next to one wall. Her breathing didn't sound right, kind of hoarse, but she was breathing. She didn't wake to my intrusion. I hoped it meant she'd been drugged and wasn't sick. The room was cold; she had only one blanket.
The door was wide open to a narrow hall. Any second one of the men might walk past and look in. I couldn't carry her out that way. They had to be taken care of before I could get her clear.
Barging in on them like a fist-swinging gangbuster had appeal. Even at four to one, I could win with my strength, but fights were unpredictable. If the men were armed and quick enough to shoot, the walls were too thin to risk having bullets flying around. I could survive getting shot, but not Sarah. She was going back to her mother in one undamaged piece.
Getting the gang separated so I could more easily take them was best. I just had to figure out how. Making a racket to draw them to the rear of the house would put them on guard, bring them running, alert and suspicious. If I waited, something would turn up in my favor. They wouldn't stay in the front all night. My betting money was on the bathroom. Sooner or later, someone had to use the toilet. Did this old place even have one? No matter, an outhouse would work even better for me. I wouldn't have to worry about making noise during the bushwhack.
Hiding behind the open door, I went still again and paid attention to the conversation in the next room. The guy named Dugan seemed to be in charge. His accent was from Chicago, and he spoke like he'd had some education. He praised Ralph and Vinzer for a job well done, then announced it was time to pack up and leave.
"Aw, but it's late, and we been on the road all night," Vinzer objected. "My ass is numb from all the driving. "
"Your posterior got paid enough for it," said Dugan. "We've been here too long. I want us away before morning. You and Ralph go over the whole house, clean it thoroughly. Should the police find this place and find even one fingerprint, the game is over, so dust like your grandmamma used to. "
"I ain't doing no woman's stuff. "
Dugan's tone was patient. "Very well, you and Ponti finish the job in the yard.
Ralph and I will clean house. Where are the gloves?"
"In the kitchen. I wanna beer. "
"Then get your beer and let's all get to work. The sooner it's done, the sooner we may leave. "
There were some vague noises, then two men clumped past, going toward the back of the house and outside slamming a door. I went invisible, waiting to see where Ralph and Dugan would start. Dugan, I presumed, also went toward the back, seeking gloves.
"Hey!" Ralph called after him. "How 'bout we have some fun first? Work out the cramp from that sittin' an' drivin'. "
"Fun?" Dugan slowly returned. They stood almost in the doorway, perhaps looking in at Sarah. "What on earth do you mean?"
"You know. "
The dawn came. "Are you mad? She's just a child. "
"So? Her body's full grown. Female is female. "
"That's disgusting. "
"She won't even notice, Ponti's stuff has her out cold. "
"Why not wait until she's dead, then? The effect would be about the same. "
"I ain't kiddin' here. You gonna stop me?"
"Just make it quick. I am not cleaning this pigsty on my own. "
Ralph laughed, short and ugly, came in, shut the door. Even in this state where most sounds were muted to me, I could hear his breathing. The boy was worked up plenty. Must have been the influence of the cash that put him in the mood. I floated close as he moved toward the cot, materializing in time to see his pants drop. Not a pleasant sight. They remained at half-mast after I clocked him from behind with the blackjack, catching him before he made a noisy crash to the floor.
I wanted to put in a strategic kick to discourage future amorous ideas, one brutal enough to last him a lifetime, but that could wait. Such lessons worked better when a man was conscious. Instead, I used his belt to tie his hands and wasn't careful about leaving slack for circulation.
One down, one to go in the house. Dugan made an easy target. He'd begun cleanup in the front room and never saw me coming, never knew what hit him.
Brains of the outfit or not, he dropped just as fast. He wore suspenders, but they served just as well as a belt for tying him up. Better. I had plenty left over to loop his ankles together, leaving him trussed tighter than a Christmas turkey.
Two to go, outside. I hurried past empty rooms, pausing in a dark kitchen to look out a window. The yard job, whatever it was, had taken Vinzer and Ponti out of sight, but I heard thumping and hammering. They were making too much rumpus to hear the back door open; I went through the normal way. From the high porch I was able to see an outhouse off to one side, what was left of it, anyway.
The two men were busy dismantling it by lantern light. The roof was off, lying in dirty churned snow. They were busy pulling the walls and plank seat apart. The wood was old, easy prey for their mallets and crowbars.
I couldn't understand right away why the hell they were doing such work. Just as well my mind doesn't go to places like that without some effort. It took a minute, but realization finally came. We were smack in the middle of winter. The ground was too hard to dig a hole for a grave, so why not use one already dug?
They intended to drop Sarah's body into a pit where it would never be found, probably filling the rest in with the broken wood. If they left the intact roof on top of the mound, people would guess what had stood there and avoid the area.
Dugan or one of the others had some brains to have thought this up. No heart, but lots of brains. I felt like beating them till gray juice leaked out their ears.
Taking on two surprised men while I was this pissed off was effortless. The hard part was holding myself in check so as not to kill them. I'd spared the near-rapist, Ralph; I could spare these undertakers. For what they'd planned and what they'd put Vivian and Sarah through I wanted them to live long, miserable lives in a federal lockup.
I left their unconscious bodies in the snow, returning to the house to make sure no one else lurked behind the doors. All was quiet. I checked Sarah more closely this time. She wore the same clothing from the photo, and when I happened to take a breath, it was plain she had on the same outfit as when she'd been grabbed two weeks ago. Didn't matter to me, I only breathed regular when talking. God knows, Vivian wouldn't care so long as her girl came home.
Sarah refused to wake. Disturbing, but perversely convenient if she slept through the trip home. Pushing her sleeves back, I found needle marks on the inside of her elbows and sniffed the bruised area. There was a taint to the bloodsmell under her skin. Morphine. Jeez, if they'd turned her into an addict. . .
Couldn't worry about that now. Her mother was waiting. Wouldn't you know the damn place didn't have a phone so I could tell her to relax. All the calls had to have been done from booths to make them hard to trace. Smart, smart boys.
I wrapped the blanket close around Sarah, then went out to the car. It had plenty of space once I'd thrown the junk out. I shoved Dugan and Ralph into the trunk. Tight fit for them, they might smother or freeze, but life's tough. After tying Ponti and Vinzer up, they got the back seat to themselves along with the suitcase of cash.
Sarah I eased onto the passenger side, where she slumped down with a sigh.
With no idea where I was, I started the car and followed its tracks in the frozen mud until reaching paved road. Since we'd turned right on the way in, I turned left and kept my eyes peeled for a clue to our location. The stars were out; I found Polaris and drove toward it. Soon a garishly painted road sign urged me to Phil Your Tank at Phil's Phil-Er-Up! only half a mile ahead. At this hour the place was closed, but it had an outside booth. The phone book hanging from a chain in the glass box was a skinny volume for Lowell, Indiana. The name didn't mean anything to me. Maybe Escott would know.
I got a handful of change ready and asked for the longdistance operator. She told me how much for three minutes. My hands were shaking. I dropped more coins than I put in. Not a lot of traffic on the lines; she got me straight through.
Vivian Gladwell answered before the first ring had finished.
"Yes, yes? Where is she?" she blurted. "Please give her back!"
God, what a terrible mix of agony and hope was in her quavering voice. A big load of weight slipped from my hunched shoulders as I identified myself and delivered the good news. She let out a scream that nearly broke my eardrum, but it was one of joy, not anguish; then she started sobbing in relief. The next voice I heard was Escott's.
"Mrs. Gladwell is rather overcome," he stated, his British accent very pronounced. It made him sound lofty and calm, but I knew better. Inside his head he was probably grinning like a chimp. "I expect once she recovers, she will have questions. "
Anticipating what those might be, I supplied answers, which he relayed to her.
Most of it was reassurance that Sarah was alive and well, what her mother needed to hear the most. Such was Vivian's state that she forgot to ask how in hell I'd managed to pull off this stunt after being left behind in the first place. Later on I could hypnotize her into forgetting that detail completely.
The operator interrupted, wanting more money. I dropped in change.
"I'm in Lowell, Indiana," I said to Escott. "Where is that from Chicago?"
Over the wires, paper rustled. He'd kept maps ready by the phone. "You're about twenty miles due south of Gary, twenty-five more miles from there to the house. " He gave me highway numbers and directions to follow.
"I'll get Sarah home as soon as I can. Have a doctor on hand; they pumped morphine in her to keep her quiet. You calling in the cops?"
"That's up to Mrs. Gladwell. I shall recommend it, though. "
"Convince her. These bastards need locking up. Hard time. "
"I trust your judgment, old man. In the meanwhile-"
"Already on my way. "
The reunion was a real heart-warmer. Vivian, a couple of housemaids, a medical-looking man, a nurse, and even the French poodle swooped on the car before I'd quite stopped, accompanied by tears, gushing, shouted orders, and excited barking. I carried the still-sleeping girl upstairs to her room, then got out of their way so they could take care of her.
Escott had hung clear of the circus, waiting in the entry hall for me to return and give him the details of my outing. He was a great one for self-control, but the dam finally burst. His eyes flashed a smile, and he wrung my hand and thumped my shoulder a few times.
"Bloody fine work, Jack. Bloody fine!"
"Not bad," I said, but I couldn't help grinning, too. It would have been good to have a drink to celebrate, which, of course, was impossible. My body refused to take in booze anymore, but old habits, customs, what have you, die hard. I settled for a cigarette. Couldn't inhale, but it was something close to what living used to be like.
"It would be for the best if you avoided telling Mrs. Glad-well of Ralph's carnal intentions toward her child," he said after he heard the short version of my outing.
"No problem. He can do that himself when he and the others go before a judge, anything that might get him a long sentence. That is, if she's willing to prosecute. "
"She is, now that Miss Gladwell is back. I'm to phone the police. I take it you intend to persuade the gang to make a full confession of their misdeeds?"
"Every last one of those bastards is in for my special evil-eye triple whammy.
Once I'm done, Clarence Darrow couldn't clear them if he brought in Jesus H.
Christ as a character witness. "
Escott bounced one eyebrow. "You seem a touch peeved. "
I jerked a thumb at the stairs. "I got a sister with almost the same name. Sarah Jane. She's older than the kid and got all her brains, but still. . . "
"Quite," he agreed. "Thank you for saving her. "
"Anytime. " I'd saved him, too. He had very much been in over his head, had needed me and the advantage of my special condition to change the odds. He wasn't shy about asking for help, but we both knew I was the one who made the miracles happen. There was no competition going on; neither of us was stupid enough to go down that road. Without him there would be no jobs; without me on some of them, no successful finish. We each contributed, so far as I was concerned, an equal share of effort. Corny as it sounds, what really mattered was looking out for our clients.
He fished a cigarette and lighted up, a sign of a shift in his mental gears. After inhaling a deep draught of smoke, he nodded toward the car. "Well, shall we see to it?"
"Yeah, but include me out of the official investigation. " My condition precluded all daylight activity; when the sun was up, I was literally dead to the world, meaning I could never testify in a court. Too bad, but the hypnosis would make that unnecessary.
We briefed the now-happy household to forget about me, but it was a headache-making hour before we were set to call the law. I'd knocked the gang out good, and it took a while to bring them around. Their collective grogginess helped shove my Svengali act on them, though. My kind of hypnosis works best when the subject is off guard and sober. Escott saw to it I had plenty of privacy to prime the boys to be chatty as parrots for their confessions. His contribution was evidence: the notes, shorthand transcriptions of each phone call, along with his exhaustive report on the whole business. He'd been waiting for my arrival to type the last of it, but legally it was very thin pickings. Circumstantial, unless Sarah could identify her abductors, and any lawyer could muddy that up. The confessions were crucial.
"This is the tricky bit," said Escott. "What made them turn themselves in?"
I'd thought that through on the long drive back. "A two-fisted Good Samaritan happened to stumble across their country hideout, caught on to their game, and tackled the gang. He slugged information about the girl from them, dropped them off here for the law, then vanished into the night. That's the story they'll remember.
None of them got a look at me, and neither did you. You only just heard the car drive up and went outside. I kept my gloves on, no prints for the cops. "
"Most dramatic. Let's hope the authorities don't assume you were a member of the gang who chose to remove himself. "
"They won't. The girl's back, the money's back, the bad guys are marching themselves to jail, nice, neat, tied with a bow, and you'll be the hero of the hour. "
"I hope not. " He seemed alarmed at the prospect. Couldn't blame him. The bulk of his trade depended on keeping his face out of the papers. His clients liked their privacy; a too easily recognized detective-or private agent-didn't get a lot of business.
Escott would soon have his hands full, but it'd give him a chance to work off all the nervous energy he'd bottled up. He was an expert at showing a poker face but couldn't quite keep his fingers from twitching. He'd taken on a hell of a responsibility and had felt its bone-breaking weight, though he never said anything, always projecting a staid, confident front to Vivian. Once the matter was over and done, he'd probably sleep for a week.
"Eat something," I told him by way of farewell. Don't know if he heard me.
Like my mythical Samaritan, I faded into the night, taking a casual exit down the driveway, guiltlessly pleased to be clear of the approaching mess. I'd just left the front gate behind when a cop car zoomed past, heading for the house. More cars followed; some were police, others could only be reporters.
Blocks from the hubbub, I flagged a cab and went home. The Gladwell chauffeur was gone from his guest room by then. Escott must have told him the coast was clear. Fine with me. I don't mind company, but I have to whammy them so they don't think it odd about my snoozing all day in the basement and not eating. Not a whole hell of a lot of people believed in vampires anymore, but why take chances?
After a shave and a change of clothes, I was ready to get back to my own trade, that of being a glorified, high-hatting saloonkeeper, loving every minute of it.
Time to go see Lady Crymsyn, the second most important woman in my life.
Cold Streets by P. N. Elrod / Fantasy / Mystery & Detective have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes