Authors: P. N. Elrod
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Song in The Dark
Book / published by arrangement with the author
All rights reserved.
P. N. Elrod
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Electronic edition: August, 2005
Ace titles by P. N. Elrod
The Vampire Files
ART IN THE BLOOD
FIRE IN THE BLOOD
BLOOD IN THE WATER
A CHILL IN THE BLOOD
SONG IN THE DARK
DEATH AND THE MAIDEN
DANCE OF DEATH
To my good friends
Roxanne Longstreet Conrad
Stand-up buds, all!
Chicago, January 1938
in the backseat of Gordy's Cadillac, the one that had just slightly less armor than a German tank, keeping clear of the rearview mirror out of habit, not because I cared one way or the other. The driver, a stone-faced guy named Strome, probably wouldn't have said anything about my lack of reflection even if he'd noticed. He almost certainly had other things on his mind, like whether or not he would be the one delegated to kill me tonight.
It was really too bad for him, because I got the idea that he'd begun to like me. I already had his respect.
A scant few nights ago Strome had seen me apparently dead, an ugly kind of dead, then had to contend with my quick and mystifying return to good health. I gave no explanations to him or any of the others who were aware of my experience, and soon he'd accepted that I'd somehow
survived. So far as he knew now I was still healing from that bloody damage, yet able to walk around and carry on with what passed for normal life, which in his eyes made me without a doubt the toughest SOB in Chicago. Strome couldn't have known about my supernatural edge; anything to do with vampires was well outside his view of the world, which was fine with me. Like others of his ilk, even if specifics about the Undead escaped him, he was aware that I was dangerously different. He knew which questions
to ask, and that made him a valuable asset to the mob. And me.
Most of the time he and his partner, Lowrey, were bodyguards to their gangland boss and my friend, Gordy Weems. We all tripped and fell down on the job a few nights ago, leaving Gordy with a couple of bullets in him. He'd survived, too, barely.
While he'd been out for the count, his lieutenants decided that someone had to step into his shoes to deal with the running of their mob during the crisis and elected me to take his place. I thought it to be a singularly bad idea, but took on the burden for Gordy's sake. I wouldn't have been any kind of a stand-up guy to have ducked out when he needed the help. I'd been too cocky assuming the mantle, though. Because of my edge, I'd come to believe in my own indestructibility. I thought I could handle anything.
Circumstances and a drunken sadist named Hog Bristow taught me different.
I got my payback on him. Bristow was dead. Ugly dead. I'd killed him, and now I had to give payback to someone else about my actions. Even Gordy couldn't get me out of this one. It was serious gang business, the resolution of which would take place in his soundproofed upstairs office at his nightclub.
Or the basement. I'd been there once or twice. Not on the receiving end.
“Turn on the radio,” I told Strome.
He obliged. Dance music flowed from the speaker grille. “You want this or something else?” he asked.
“That's fine.” Music helped to distract me, to seal over the fissures inside. I had lots of those going deep down into blackness full of sharp, cutting horrors along the way. If I focused on the radio noise, then I didn't have to think about certain things, like what Bristow had done to me after hanging me upside down from a hook in a meat locker.
That's what this ride was about: the repercussion over what I'd done to him once I'd gotten free.
It wasn't fair that I was being called on the carpet for that bastard's death, but the mobs had their own rules and ways of doing things. Bristow had powerful friends back in New York; they'd give me a few minutes to give my side of the storyâGordy had wrangled that much for meâthen I'd die.
Strome drove to the back-alley entrance of Gordy's club, the Nightcrawler, which was the normal ingress for bosses. The front was for the swells come to see the shows and try the gambling in a strictly private section of the club. The gaming was the main difference between my own nightclub and this one. If the stage shows were a bust, then Gordy was still guaranteed to make a ton of money from tables and slots. He thought I was nuts not having some as well as a backup, but I chose early on not to take that road. Sure, I had an accountant who could cook the books to a turn and, with Gordy's influence, could manage bribes and all the rest, but I wouldn't risk it even for that kind of money. All it'd take was one raid, one arrest, one daylight court appearance with me not there, and that would be the end of it.
Maybe I did some sweating when profits were thin or nonexistent, but that was better than losing the whole works.
Not that any of it mattered much to me now.
Strome parked. I quit the car, sliding across the seat to get out on the driver's side, slamming the door harder than was necessary. It drew attention. Despite the cold there were a number of guys hanging around the Nightcrawler's back door. Two of them were Ruzzo, brothers in Gordy's outfit, strong arms, bad tempers, and not much brain. Being too hard to tell apart, they went interchangeably by the one name.
A few nights back, in order to assert my authority as temporary boss, I'd had to punch them both out to make a point. Now they lurked close enough to force me to notice them. Both looked like they'd shared the same bad lemon. Ruzzo the Elder had a split lip; his brother had a black eye. Two ways to tell them apart. They must have thought my number was up and were already figuring how to get me alone for some payback of their own before the boom lowered.
Ruzzo the Younger showed an exceptionally hard glare. It effectively distracted me from his brother.
Who threw a punch toward my ribs as I walked past.
I took it solid, but didn't collapse the way I was supposed to; instead, I sliced out sideways with my forearm and slammed him broad across the middle. I'd seen something like it on a tennis court, only you're supposed to use a racket.
The Elder staggered backward halfway across the alley, folding with an
noise onto the cold pavement. The Younger blazed in to kill, pulling out a gun.
Which I plucked away from him almost as an afterthought.
He stared at his empty hand.
Strome finished up. He had a blackjack ready and swiped it viciously behind the man's left ear. The Younger dropped.
I held the gun out to Strome, addressing him loud enough for the others to hear. “These dopes shoulda kept in school. They could have found out how rough the big boys in first grade played. Maybe learned something.”
His turn to stare. “You okay? He caught you a good one.”
I pretended to shift uncomfortably. “Yeah, he did. Let's go.”
We climbed the loading-dock stairs to the club's kitchen, but instead of turning toward the stairs up to Gordy's office, Strome led the way to the main room of the club. Band music, live, played there, though the place was still an hour or so from opening. A last-minute rehearsal for their big star seemed to be going on.
“Have to wait here,” said Strome, gesturing at a ringside table. It was the one usually reserved for special guests of the boss. It was also the farthest from any exit, and my being placed here was no coincidence. A glance around confirmed I was expected to stay put. All the doors were covered by at least two mugs, armed, of course. Strome sat with me, keeping his hat and coat on. I did likewise.
“How long?” I asked.
He gave a small shrug. “Donno.”
No need to inquire whether word had been sent up about my arrival. That would have happened the instant we parked. I was supposed to sit there and stew about my fate.
Instead, I watched the rehearsal. Nothing else to do. As with the radio, the music kept me from thinking too much.
Things seemed to be running late and going badly. This week's big star was Alan Caine. I'd heard him on the radio, and he was a popular name in Broadway revues. He'd done speciality numbers in short-subject films I'd never seen. He
had a stadium-filling voice and was presently using it to hammer at the red-faced bandleader.
“Three in a rowâyou going for some kind of record? Read the damn music, if you can, and give me the right damn cue!” Caine wore his tuxedo pants and suspenders, an undershirt and dress shoes. He was so handsome that even men looked twice at him, and with women it was a foregone conclusion they'd faint if he gave them a half second's glance. The line of dancing girls behind confirmed it. Instead of being put off by his tone, they all looked to be in a giggly, flirty mood, eyes bright.
He eased into a gap between two of them, pasted on a huge, absolutely sincere smile and froze, waiting.
The band, for the fourth time, swung into the prologue for his number, and must have gotten it right. Caine and his leggy troupe stepped and strutted smarter than smart for eight counts, then the girls retreated, leaving him out front to sing the rest of his song. I didn't like him on sight, but he had a hell of a voice.
“Wanna drink?” Strome asked.
He got a blank look from me. Taking requests from the condemned man? Or was he in need of fuel for what was to come? So far as I knew he would be the executioner. He was like Bristow, a killer. Unlike Bristow, Strome didn't make a big thing of it, and if he enjoyed the work, kept it to himself.
Strome signed to someone I didn't bother to look at and got a draft beer, the glass opaque with frost. They knew how to serve things up right at the Nightcrawler: song, dance, drinks, girls, gambling, and death.
Alan Caine broke off in midnote. The dancers continued their routine for a few steps; the band continued as well until the leader caught on that he'd committed another sin. I'd
been listening and hadn't heard anything wrong. Caine heard different and laid into him on the brass being too loud.
“They're paying money to hear
not you,” he stated, his sincere smile on the shelf for the moment. “What the hell do you think you're doing trying to drown me out? That's
name on the marquee, not yours. Get your people in line or get another job.”
I waited for the leader to lay into him right back, but he just nodded and began the play again, starting a few bars before the interruption. This time the horns were softer, and Caine's voice went right to the corners of the room.
“Is he always like that?” I asked Strome.
“Since he got here.”
“Why does Derner put up with it?” Derner was another of Gordy's lieutenants and also the general manager for the club.
“The guy packs in the crowds.”
“No one's worth that kind of crap.”
“This one is. He gets every seat filled and has a standing-room line at the bar. Even on the weeknights we can charge a two-fifty cover, and they come in herds.”
“Two-fifty?” That was unheard of; some clubs in New York got away with charging so much for their cover, but less so in Chicago. You only did that on weekends and only when it was a real Ziegfeld-style spectacular. Nothing so elaborate was going on here with just Caine, the band, and eight dancers. There was no stage decoration, either, just the usual long curtains backing the musicians and someone to man the lights and keep the spot on the star. “He's worth it?”
“Depends who you talk to. The bookkeepers say yes, the performers say no. Bookkeepers win.”
“He must be blackmailing someone.”
“Hey!” Caine stopped the show again, this time his attention squarely on our table. He broke away from the dancers, striding over to glare at us. He was teeming with sculpted cheekbones, graceful jaw, and a perfect nose. Anger on him didn't look at all threatening. Maybe a little with his baby blues steaming up. He narrowed them, arching a too-perfectly shaped eyebrow. “I'm trying to
here. If you two can't put a lid on it, take your romance to the men's room.”
A week back I might have reacted to him; tonight I had no reaction at all, just stared. I chanced to take a breath and caught a powerful whiff of booze from him, as though he'd just gargled with it. “Just do your song and dance, Caine,” I said, hardly raising my voice above a whisper.
“Do I know you, punk?”
He was in his late thirties; I looked to be in my twenties. I was well used to the penalty of perpetual youth. “Be glad you don't.”
“A tough guy, eh?” He could belt a song, but delivering dialogue didn't quite work for him, especially when it came out of the wrong kind of films. He should have stuck to showbiz stories and not tried imitating movie gangsters.
“That's right. Go back to work.”
“Where's Derner?” he demanded, switching focus to Strome. “I want this punk tossed out on his ear. Go get him.”
“Sorry, can't do that, Mr. Caine. I'm working, too.”
Caine saw the beer at his elbow. “Nice job.” He swung around, eyes searching. “You there! Go find Derner and bring him here.”
The mug he addressed registered puzzlement at being ordered around by the stage talent.
Strome craned his head. “Never mind, Joe. Mr. Caine was just joking.”
“Joking? We'll see who's laughing before the night's out.”
Caine didn't appear to be drunk, but my instant-hypnosis act likely wouldn't work on him; besides, he wasn't worth the headache. I looked past him, hoping to spot the stage manager, but no such luck. However, a fierce-faced woman in a poisonous green dress and black fur-trimmed coat came barreling toward us from the front entrance. It was still too early to open. I wondered how she'd gotten in.
So, it seemed, did Caine. Genuine surprise flashed over him. “Jewel, what the hell are you doing here?”
Her lip color was so dark a red that it looked black, matching her hair. Two lines framing her mouth cut themselves into a deep, hard frown of contempt. Her eyes were wild, the pupils down to pinpoints. She braked to an unsteady stop. “The alimony is three weeks overdue, why do you
He recovered composure, shifting to pure smarm. “You'll just have to wait till I'm paid.”
She went scarlet, her whole body seemed to swell from outrage. “That's what you said three paychecks ago, you bastard!” She hit him with a green purse the same shade as her dress. He got an arm up to block any blows to his face and unexpectedly started laughing like a lunatic, which just made her madder. She cursed, he giggled. Funny on a movie screen, not so much ten feet away when all parties are dead set on inflicting damage, each in their own way.