Thursday, August 22, 2013

No Pity for the Dead: Chapter Ten

"So, they're safe?"

Louden had asked that seven times. This was the eighth.

"Yes, they're safe," I repeated. "Vivian doesn't even know I have them."

"So," said Louden, smirking at me in the rear-view. "It's Vivian now, is it?"

"Just drive, you crazy mick," I said. I looked away from his gaze, out the window.

"Christ, Zed," said Louden. "What is it with you? And how can I learn that?"

"Why would you want to?" I asked. "The wife not enough for you?"

"Aw, the wife's fine," said Louden. "Just wouldn't hurt to show her there's other...interested parties. Might make her show a little more respect."

"She ain't already showing you respect in your own home," I replied. "There's nothing I can teach you could learn."

"Well, with a stand like that, no wonder you're such a devil with the girlies," he said. He was grinning back at me again.

"Let's concentrate on what's important," I said. "Three-Fingers is apparently setting up shop here again, so whatever spooked him before, he obviously got over it."

"Yeah," said Louden. "Like, you pick up a gat, it goes off in your hand, you put it down again and you wait a bit before you pick it back up. And when you do, you do it slower."

"Okay," I said. "Yeah, that sounds about right. So now he's got his virgin blood, and partners with Vivian for the Codex and the Claw, likely promising her riches and power in return. But then she loses them thanks to her no-good ex-husband. She thinks Three-Fingers stole them. That's the only reason I can believe that she'd admit to him that she lost them. Why admit your bargaining chip is gone unless you think the one you were bargaining with took it?"

"Sounds about right," said Louden.

"So Three-Fingers manages to convince her he doesn't have them," I continued. "But they're still missing, so, no problem. He sends her straight to my door to go looking for them. Distract me with a second case, make it so my attention is split and I'm not looking for the girl full-time, plus, he knows I'm the one most likely to find them."

"And now they've fallen into your lap," said Louden.

"Be fare," I said. "I found where they were. Just didn't know how I could take them from Probst. What he could do to stop me."

"Sheesh, yeah," he said. "I saw him, don't forget. He was making some mumbo-jumbo, sure. Bullets hardly seemed to slow down Cicci. No reason to think they'd work on Probst."

"Cicci's dead," I said.


"Yeah. Don't know if it was our bullets or what was inside him still trying to squirm its way out. But Cicci's gone. Sandy told me, and he don't say for sure unless he knows for sure."

"So," Louden said, eyes back on the road. "What's the plan now?"

"Way I figure it," I said. "Three-Fingers has to have this girl with him. He'll want to know where she is at all times. Likely when he split town, he took her with him, which is why she wasn't at the ransom exchange. This address...hey, where are we going?"

"Center of town, Zed," said Louden. "The address you gave me? It's City Hall."

"What?" I took another look at the slip of paper I'd given him. Sandy had to have known himself where this place was, but didn't dare say it out loud. As for me, I had no reason to know City Hall's address. Town center activities rarely involved me. "What in God's name would they be doing there?"

"No clue," said Louden. "Maybe the mayor's in on it?"

"Or maybe they've got the mayor in thrall," I said. "Three-Fingers loves to brag that he's the real power in town. Okay. Our job just got harder. We've got to get inside City Hall without being seen, get the girl, and get out."

"Oh. That's all."

"If you don't have anything useful to contribute," I shot back.

"Hey, Zed, you're the brains," he said. "I'm the muscle. That's what I'm here for, that and the driving."

"Forgive me if my travels haven't taken me into breaking into City Hall before," I said. I closed my eyes and thought. Forcing our way in wouldn't work. Neither would any attempt to break in. The place was likely wired up to alarms down to the smallest basement window. The quickest way to get Betty Harkins killed was to alert Three-Fingers that we were there. Besides, if he didn't have the book, he'd be unable to do much with her blood anyway...

"Hey," I said. "Three-Fingers probably has no idea that Vivian doesn't have the Codex or the Claw yet. In fact, I'm sure of it. I was at her house, left intact, and there's no way she'd admit to him that she's still failed to get her hands on her property again."

"Yeah," Louden said. "So?"

"So, we do have them," I said. "What was once Vivian Vanderhoff's bargaining chip is now ours."

"Wait," said Louden. "So you're suggesting that we offer that book and stick in exchange for the girl?" He sounded like I'd gone crazy.

"Well," I said. "I was hired by his associate to find them. And I have. As for Betty, we argue that he can always find another virgin. But that book and stick are unique. There's little chance he'll find more virgin blood in time for what he's planning, but there's zero chance of him finding another Codex Rusembrae or Claw of Hargon."

"Yeah, but we'd be handing him the thing he needs," said Louden. "He knows as well as you that he can find another virgin."

"Exactly," I said. "So he'd be crazy not to make the deal."

"But what are you gonna do about him ending the world?" asked Louden. "According to Elms, he can use that book and stick, along with virgin blood, to...well, you remember. Ending reality, and all that. You just gonna let him do that?"

"That's the part I'm still working on."

"Jesus, Zeddicker!" Louden turned around to shoot me a glare. "Isn't that the whole reason we're going here?"

"No," I said, calmly. "We're going here to complete my job and get a little girl back to her daddy. That was the case I took, and that's the case I'm working. The other one is to find the Codex and the Claw. I did that, and now I expect payment."

"I can't believe I'm hearing this," said Louden. "You're just gonna hand a really bad guy a really big weapon and then walk away. What kind of world would you be releasing Betty into? Ever think about stuff like that?"

"Don't shout at me," I said. My voice was normal volume, but it still echoed through the flivver. "Listen. The only way to deal with guys like Frankie Three-Fingers is to make them think they've got the upper hand. And that means that we play this one straight, at least at first. And I need you to go along with me on this. We've known each other too long for you to start questioning me now."

"Stakes never been this high before," he said. His voice was low, too. He sounded like he'd love to put a fist through my mug. I couldn't blame him. We were playing this one mighty fast and loose. I'm the kind of guy who don't usually like to gamble without an ace up my sleeve. I sat quietly and tried to think of any aces I might be holding.

City Hall was dark, but heaps of all kinds lined the front entrance. A guard was on duty at the gate, waving us down. I rolled down the back window and put on my grimmest face. The guard came over to me, probably expecting some power player. A brief look of surprise crossed his features when he saw me.

"You expected?" he asked.

"Name's Zeddicker," I told him. He didn't react. "The boss will want to speak to me."

"Mr. Harrell?" the guard asked. He looked young; maybe only twenty or so. "He runs security."

"No," I said, slowly, as if talking to a very stupid sheep. "The boss. The man running this show."


"I think you know better than that," I said, fixing him with a cold stare. The guard's face turned white. Oh, yeah, he knew. "You should let me in," I said, never wavering. The kid ran back to the gate house like I'd set his hair on fire. A few seconds later, the gate swung open.

"They took the bait, seems like," muttered Louden. He still sounded angry. My head began to hurt. Nothing about this felt right, but my brain still told me it was the only option left.

There was a squad of goons in dark suits waiting at the steps of the hall. I knew they would all have heaters in their coats. I checked ol' Pappy, took off the safety. Louden pulled to a stop in front of them.

I opened my door and got out to face the goons. This could go one of two ways. They'd ask my why I'm here, or I'd get some daylight opened up in me. I prayed silently that they'd see the wisdom of the first course. Three-Fingers had sent them to meet me; surely he'd want to know why I was here so openly. He'd set me on a course to find a book and a stick. He'd want to know if I'd found them. Surely he would.

The head goon stepped forward. "You Zeddicker?"

"That's me," I replied. He gave me the up-and-down.

"You don't look like much," he said. A smirk crossed his feature. "We all been warned about you. But you just another flattie. I zotzed me twenty-two flatties before you."

"If you were here to pop me, you'd have your bean-shooter out by now," I said. "I came to see Three-Fingers. And I'm pretty sure he wants to see me."

The punk's smirk got broader. I could tell he was weighing whether to just plug me on the spot or do as he was originally ordered. Finally the latter decision won out.

"Take his rod, boys," he said to two of the hatchet men standing next to him. I let them take ol' Pappy, though it hurt to feel him loose his holster. I knew any resistance would not serve me here. I'll get you back, I silently thought.

They led me into the building and down the central hallway. I wondered again how the mayor had gotten mixed up in this. It was a new level to the case, and it had come too late. I didn't like that. Somehow I thought this wasn't a question these goons would want to answer. I counted them as we walked. There were ten of them. Apparently after our alleyway meet, Three-Fingers wasn't taking any chances.

We stopped at some large, fancy-looking doors. They didn't look like they opened on anyone's office. I was right. When one of the goons pushed them open, I saw that we were entering the main reception hall. This would be where official functions were held, dinners for visiting dignitaries, or what not. It didn't look so official now.

Situated around the room were statues of creatures that looked like the great grandpappy of whatever was inside Cicci. Long staffs with burning torches were beside each one. They formed a zig-zagging pathway, and I noticed that at each of them was a stash of unburnt incense. At the end of the zigs and zags lay the altar. And chained to it in a pure, white dress, was a small blonde girl. Betty Harkins.

Her eyes were closed and she wasn't moving, but the altar was clean. Drugged, then. There was no way they'd kill her before bleeding her. Corpses don't bleed, they just leak.

Three-Fingers stood at the far end of the room. Beside him, to none of my surprise, stood Vivian Vanderhoff. The two couldn't look more in cahoots if their names had been Fred and Ginger.

Around the room I could sense more than see other bodies. Other than the torches, light was just simply not there. The windows were all covered, and an atmosphere of complete gloom permeated. I took a second for my eyes to adjust, but the muzzle in my back told me I'd better move. I stepped into the reception hall and kept my eyes on Three-Fingers and Vivian.

"Stop!" Vivian shouted when I was a few steps in. "You will not sully the pathway by treading it." She sauntered a few steps in my direction. All of the sultry fervor from the previous night was in her eyes, but the smoldering held a sort of thinly veiled contempt. "I admit, Det. Zeddicker, to being impressed by your iron nerve. Not many would think to steal from me, and then march in so brazenly. Tell me, what did you plan to do when you got here?"

"Bargain," I replied. I kept my voice businesslike.

Three-Fingers laughed. "Bargain, he says."

"What," began Vivian. "Could you possibly have to bargain with? The car you stole? I could buy a hundred of them."

"How about the Codex Rusembrae?" I asked. "And the Claw of Hargon?"

Three-Fingers's eyes widened but Vivian was unmoved.

"Arnold has them. You said so yourself."

"Had them," I corrected. "But he's dead, now. And the book and Claw are with me."

"Search him!" barked Three-Fingers. Shadows began moving behind the torches.

"It's not here, you idiot," I said casually. "Why would I bring it right to you when I want to bargain with it? It's safe, and intact, but nowhere near here. Where it is now is for me to know. And if you agree to my terms, it's yours."

"And what 'terms' are those?" asked Three-Fingers. He stepped forward a bit himself, now. I'd seen him before, but never this close. I had never realized until now just how fat he was. The buttons on the vest of his three-piece suit were bulging.

"The girl," I said. "She comes with me. Now. And later, in a public place, I'll bring you the book and the Claw."

At that, Three-Fingers started laughing uproariously. "You believe the stones on this punk?" he asked, turning to Vivian. "Seriously, you thought you was gonna come in here and take the girl, just like that? Come on, Zeddicker. I thought you was supposed to be smart. Just what makes you think anything you just said would possibly happen?"

"You need the book," I replied. "And you need the Claw. You don't need the girl. This city's full of girls like her. The problem is, only I know where they are. My driver doesn't know. My secretary doesn't know. But here's the facts. I was hired to find the book and the Claw, and I have. They're in my possession now. That means you owe me for the job, Ms. Vanderhoff, but that's another conversation. But before I give them to you, I plan to make sure the girl is safe, which was my other job. If you kill me, or hold me, or anything of that nature, then you lose the book and claw. Trust me when I say, you're never gonna find them without me." Unless you kill me and think to loot my office, crack my safe, I thought. But I decided to keep bluffing. This was my only ace. "With them, you can try this again, but with a new girl. Without them, you're up a creek without a paddle."

Vivian's face had grown dark, and I could tell she was mulling my words over. Frankie was shaking his head.

"You think I'm gonna just be able to find another girl, just like that?" he asked. "It ain't just bein' a virgin what's important. She also gotta be this age. Now, I dunno what kinda world you live in, hot shot, but there ain't many girls left like this. So, no dice. Instead, here's what's gonna happen. We're gonna lead you back through this door to your car. Then I'm gettin' in with ya, and you gonna take us right to where you left the stuff."

"No," I said calmly.

"Did he..." Frankie turned to Vivian in stard disbelief. "Did he just say what I think he said? I'm Frankie Three-Fingers, pally. People don't say no to me. The mayor didn't say no when I set up shop here. Nobody says..."

"No," I said again. "See, here's the thing, Three-Fingers. Torture me, kill me, you're never getting the Codex. I walk out of here with the girl or I leave here feet first and you're stuck. That's the deal."

Three-Fingers's eyes narrowed. Cold fury radiated from Vivian.

"Suppose I test your resolve," growled Three-Fingers.

"You got that kind of time?" I asked. The room was set up for the ceremony. I could only assume they were waiting for the book to be in hand.

Three-Fingers drew his gun and pointed it at my head. "Where's the book!?" he shouted.

"Go to hell," I said. He lowered his gun to my crotch.

"I'll send you there first," he said. "Tell me!"


"Don't play hardball with him, Frank," said Vivian finally. "He's as stubborn as a mule. I tried seducing his secrets out, and he still told me nothing I didn't already know. But he's right. We can find another girl. Let him go."

"Nobody makes a fool out of..." Frankie began.

"I'm serious, Frank," she said. "It's the only way."

Frankie was sputtering with rage, but Vivian sauntered farther and fixed me with a glare that could have frozen a desert.

"Double-cross us," she said. "And you die. Meet us here, on the front steps, in one hour."

"How about mid-town square," I said. "Lots of witnesses there. Sorta makes me feel like I got less to lose."

Her next words were through out teeth. "Fine," she growled. "But you still only have an hour. And come alone."

"It's always 'come alone'," I smirked. "Very well, but this time, just you and me. Frankie likes to send chopper squads and not show when he says 'come alone'. You understand."

"Just me, then," she practically hissed. "One. Hour."

Getting out of there was a blur for me. The next thing I knew I was in Louden's car, the limp form of Betty Parkins sprawled beside me. We were heading back to my end of town.

"Well, Zed?" he finally asked me. "Got a plan from here?"

"Yeah," I said. "And Vivian just handed it to me."

Thursday, August 15, 2013

No Pity for the Dead: Chapter Nine

I don't remember making it back to town, or going to my apartment, but that's where I was when I finally woke up.

I was clutching the book and staff tightly to my chest. I was still clothed, head to foot, including my shoes and my flogger. I even had my hat on.

"All in all, a better way to wake up than with a psycho bitch," I murmured.

The sun was streaming through my bedroom window. I glanced at the clock ticking away beside my bed. It was half past noon.

I grunted and stood, stretching my weary arms and legs, feeling and hearing everything popping and cracking back into place. This felt like routine. And I was glad for the feeling.

I stripped to my skin and headed for my tub. I felt like I was wearing a swamp's worth of grime. I lathered up a few minutes later, creating a game plan in my head.

Step One: make sure the Codex Rusembrae and the Claw of Hargon are safely out of dangerous hands. Check. I would take them to the office and put them in my safe.

Step Two would be harder: find Three-Fingers. He was the only piece of this puzzle that had completely eluded me. I was gonna need Louden's help for that.

Step Three would be simple once I accomplished Step Two: find, and rescue, Betty Harkins. I briefly considered showing up at Vivian Vanderhoff's door with ol' Pappy in hand and Louden at my side, blasting our way through the Vanderhoff estate until we got some answers. I said briefly considered it. Practically as soon as the thought crossed my head, I decided that a much quicker way to commit suicide would be to simply walk naked from the tub and walk off the end of the fire escape. It would unquestionably hurt less, and be over much sooner.

Vivian Vanderhoff's time would come, but I couldn't take on her whole goon squad on my own, or even with just Louden. I wasn't sure just what she might have at her disposal when it came to  supernatural defenses, but something had been bothering me about how long that dog had managed to keep going after a shot that should have put it down.

I finished in the shower and dried off, then got dressed. I was somewhat relieved to see that no one had broken into the apartment and stolen the book and claw. But then, unless Vivian had other ways of watching me, and I didn't think she did, there was no way she'd know I had the Codex or the claw. She probably thought they were still locked up tight with Probst at the room above Racks. Poor old Probst, I thought. All he ever wanted to do was make a dishonest living.

Of course, seeing what became of him, I had decided already that no matter how long they remained with me, I was not going to even open the Codex, not to mention read from it.

I walked into my tiny parlor and called the office. Glenda's eminently professional voice greeted me. "Zeddicker, Private Detective, Glenda speaking."

"Glen, it's me," I said quickly. "Listen, my case is starting to blow itself wide open. Tell me you have some calls for me."

"Well," she said, sounding a little wary. I don't often get brusque with her. "I got a call on behalf of Vivian Vanderhoff, but it wasn't her. Guess it was someone on her staff. She would like you to call her asap. Something about a stolen car? Is there any truth to that?"

"Not stolen," I explained, trying to sound casual. "Borrowed. I'll have to deal with that later. Anything else?"

"That's all I got for right now," she said. "So, Zed...I gotta know if everything's okay. I got a funny feeling about this case, and you don't usually shut me out like this."

That was my Glenda. She can usually tell what's going on with me, and the more I try to keep her out of harm's way, the more she realizes something is up.

"I'll be okay," I told her. I knew she didn't believe me. I could practically see the expression on her face. "Listen, it's better if I don't say anything more for now."

There was a long silence on her end of the phone. "Okay," she said. "For now."

I walked to my office along my normal route, stopping at Sandy's news stand. The old vendor was there, as usual, snipe in his mouth and a frown on his face. I didn't like that. Sandy usually looked cheerful.

"Sandy," I called when I was nearly at the stand. He hadn't looked up and didn't seem to hear my approach. At my call he turned and fixed me with that frown.

"Zeddicker," he said. His voice sounded strangely monotone, like he was trying to keep emotion out of it. "What the hell are you involved in? I'm hearin' things I can't believe. I told my guy no way, that ain't true. Tell me it ain't true, Zed." His face pleaded louder than his flat words. I felt bad for the old guy. He'd been a good source of buzz for years. I had a feeling this particular well was about to dry up.

"The less you know," I said. "The better. I know that's never been the case for you, but it is now."

"Jesus to Christ, Zeddicker," said Sandy. "The things I killed Cicci, didn't you?"

I sighed and decided the unvarnished truth was best. "I don't know."

"Whaddaya mean, you don't know?" he practically shouted. "You either plugged him or you didn't!"

"I shot him, yeah," I said. "I just don't know if I dropped him or not. Look, Sandy, Cicci was into something hard. Harder than anything his type usually gets into. It...changed him." I paused for a second and reflected how often lately I'd said the exact truth out loud, only for its meaning to be completely lost. "I don't know what happened to him. I just knew I had to shoot or he'd do something to me. Something to make me wish all he'd done was hurt me."

Sandy stared at me for a long time. His face told me I'd confirmed what he'd heard.

"These ain't normal times," he said. "But I know Cicci's dead. I'll give you that one for free. I know that when they found him he...he didn't look like Cicci. But they knew it was him. Somehow." He paused and took another drag off his snipe. "But I heard somethin' else. Somethin' that's gonna cost you a couple a' sawbucks."

"I'll take it," I said, digging out my wallet.

"Before you do," he said solemnly. "You gotta understand somethin'. This is it. This is the last you get from me. After what I been hearin', I got no further interest in keepin' my ear to the ground. Understand?"

"I got it," I said. "And I'm sorry. You're a good man, Sandy. I never meant for you to get drawn into this."

"Well, what they say about the road to hell," he muttered. "Sorry, Zed. It's been a hard couple a' days." He took the rhino from my hand. "Three-Fingers," he said. "He surfaced a couple of days ago. He's at a penthouse on Northampton Drive."

"You got an address?" I asked. Sandy grabbed a grease pencil and a scrap of newsprint. He scribbled for a few seconds and handed the paper to me. "Thanks," I said. I pulled another five-spot out and handed it to him. "You earned this," I said. "You've been my best stoolie for years now, and losing you hurts." He took the money and nodded, barely. He looked like he might have tears in his eyes.

"Listen," I began. "I know you got some green put away. My advice? Pack up and head for a safe place. Being in this town is dangerous right now, especially for a man known for keeping his ear to the ground." He nodded again, tipping me a small salute. "It's been nice knowing you, Sandy."

I left him sitting there behind his kiosk. I felt like I was losing a family member. Sandy was only one source of street buzz, but he was the best. I'd just cut off my thumb and still expected to be able to hold a gun.

Louden was waiting for me in the heap when I got to the office.

"I hear there was some excitement?" he asked.

"You could say that," I answered. "It's getting hot out here, but I think we're getting the upper hand finally."

"Yeah?" Louden pushed his cap back from his eyes. "Do tell."

"In the car," I said. "Here's the address. I'll formulate a plan on the way."

Inwardly I added the words, I hope.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

No Pity for the Dead: Chapter Eight

I ditched the flivver about a mile out of town and took to the woods, heading west toward where I knew the city to be, but protected by the dense layer of trees.

Me and nature rarely get along, though. I'm not used to thick clusters of trees behind me, and lately, I trust shadows less and less. I know now that things can hide in them, and it's bad for the ego the number of times someone has managed to get the drop on me lately.

In all honesty, though, what was really on my mind was the last thing I'd heard Vivian say before leaving her bedroom. We need her...and remember, we cannot use it until the time is right. If the book is opened without her, all is lost...

Vivian had Betty Parkins. That much was clear. Where, though, was another story. Would she have let me in her home, and attempted to keep me there, if she had the very girl I was looking for locked in her basement, or somewhere else on the grounds?

My other theory was starting to develop as I moved from tree to tree, here slowing, there jogging, so that I didn't look too obvious from the road. Vivian Vanderhoff was in league with Frankie Three-Fingers. She had to be.

First, Three-Fingers kidnaps a young girl, hoping to use her in this ritual to thin the barriers of unreality and let through...whatever was coming through. Vivian is there to provide the book and the Claw of Hargon, and will gladly join him in his venture, assuming she gets a share of the power. I already knew enough about Vivian to know she enjoys power.

But then, problem; she loses the book when her ne'er-do-well ex-husband, probably driven mad by his desire to possess the book, steals it. So what does Three-Fingers do? He sends his accomplice straight to my office. What better way to distract me from the case of the missing girl than to send a high-class broad with pins that don't end through my door with a possibly well-paying case? If the case itself or the idea of money didn't distract me, those gams might have. And they did.

But now Three-Fingers was gone, and who knew where? I certainly wasn't going to get the answer out of Cicci, even assuming there was anything of Cicci left. His other goons were too scared to squeal, and activity in gangland was locked up tighter than a drum. I had left the only person who could tell me where Three-Fingers or the girl was in my dust.

Did something just move in between two trees up ahead? Now, I was definitely imagining things. I had to get out of these woods. But no, something definitely did move that time, and I wasn't imagining it. Had they found me? Was someone following me?

I slowed again, and took a look around. Nothing seemed to be moving now that I was still. I moved a hand to the holster under my flogger and kept my eyes sharp.

"I can tell you're here," I said. "Come on out."

Silence answered me. I stood in one spot, craning my neck one way and then the other, my hand on ol' Pappy.

A twig snapped to my left and I turned that direction; the direction of the road. I drew ol' Pappy and kept looking. It still seemed that no one was there. I began to relax a little.

And then one of the trees moved. Just enough movement that I could say it wasn't the wind, but little enough that if I had blinked, I would have missed it. I raised ol' Pappy and pointed it at the tree.

As my eyes adjusted, I began to see that whatever it was, it was no tree. It was tall, gaunt and covered in rags, but the thing, whatever it was, was man-shaped, if vaguely. One of those beings. It found me.

I stood rooted to the spot as the tall, gaunt thing took another step in my direction. Well, this is it. This is how the great Detective Zeddicker meets his end. Abyssinia, Zed.

Its face came into the light, or what passed for a face. It looked ruined, stretched beyond all boundaries of skin and getting ready to peel right off. My trigger finger flexed and I came close to pumping metal into the thing. It didn't seem to notice, and kept on coming, slowly, hesitantly.

I heard scraping noises coming from the thing. Was it growling? No, I realized a moment later, it was trying to clear its throat. The thing can barely speak.

"Yuuuhhh..." it groaned. " Zeddicker?

I almost dropped ol' Pappy in surprise, but I kept my grip and didn't back up.

"Yeah, that's me," I said.

"I...thought so...I went to...Vivian's."

Another pause, and the scraping sound came back. Finally the thing hawked up a huge ball of phlegm and spoke again, and I realized I recognized the voice.

"I saw you race for the garage, saw the hound chasing you. I can barely drive anymore, but I got in one of her cars and followed you as far as I could. I wanted to talk to her, find out what's happening. But I couldn't get close to her."

"Good lord," I said. "Probst. It's you."

"I used to be Arnie Probst," said the gaunt thing. "I don't know how much of him is left in me now. There's nobody else in here, though. The book won't listen to me anymore."

He had something in his arms, I noticed for the first time. Wrapped up in cloth, but shaped just like the book. And the claw was in the crook of his arm.

"You took it back there. You hoped it would listen to her again."

"Hoped she would...stop it. I thought...thought using this book would make me rich. Make it so I don't have to be a two-bit flim-flam artist. Such a loser. But look at me now. I probably won't even make it to morning."

"I can't argue with that, Arnie. So what changed? What made you see that you weren't gonna profit from this?"

"Something came into me when I used the book that night," he began. His voice still sounded hoarse and scratchy, but at least he could talk. "It filled me, showed me all the power and glory in the world. And it was glorious. I thought I was about to become master of everything. The presence and my mind seemed to be as one, unified in purpose and being. And showed me that all of the power and glory belonged to it, and none of it to me, and that I would never see the glory it promised. And it left me. Left me like this."

"And you realized that it can do that to anyone," I broke in. "And that if more beings like that come through, then it's goodbye, humanity."

"I never bothered to stop and think about it," he said. "All I could think about was riches and power. And this is what it got me."

"Well, pally," I began. "If you're thinking of heading back to Vivian's to get her to stop it, you're barkin' up the wrong tree. Looks to me like she's drinkin' out of the same bottle as the guy who started all this."

"I know," he said. "I saw. When I went back. That's why I followed you when I saw you leaving. It feels like I can trust you."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"The book," he rasped. "And the Claw. Take them. Take them and make all this stop."

I shook my head as I felt an incredulous grin cross my mug.

"Hey, boyo," I said. "I'm just a private dick. What do you expect out of me?"

"I don't know," he wheezed. Speaking was getting difficult for him again. "But you're the only one I can trust. Take them, please!"

He dropped them on the ground before me. His arms dropped to his side like he couldn't hold them up anymore.

"I don't have much time," he said. "But you gotta take these and make sure Vivian don't get 'em back. Keep 'em away from Three-Fingers, but remember, don't use 'em without knowing what you're doing. Otherwise, you'll end up like me."

"Come back with me," I said. I remembered Elmebrigge, and his vast knowledge. "I know a guy who might be able to help you."

"There's no help for me," he whispered. He sank to his knees. "I know that, and I made my peace with the maker. I prolly still go to Hell...but at least...I'll fit in there..."

He collapsed in a heap of bones and skin. I looked at the items on the ground before me for a few seconds, making up my mind.

I could bury them here and no one would be the wiser...

No. I couldn't trust that Vivian Vanderhoff wouldn't be able to hunt them down. All I could do is be ready for her when she did. That, and get the girl away from her.

I picked up the book and staff and resumed running through the darkness.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

No Pity for the Dead: Chapter Seven

The first time I woke up in a place I wasn't familiar with, I panicked. I was nine years old. The second time wasn't so bad, and the more it happened, the more used to it I became. I'd open my eyes and take stock of what lay over me. An open stretch of sky, most like, or the roof of an abandoned barn or shack, and, increasingly as I got older, the ceiling of an unfamiliar bedroom or hotel room.

I'd never seen a ceiling like this one before, at least not in these circumstances. Two chandeliers, smaller than the ones in the parlor, but plenty big, hung from a ceiling that had to be twenty feet high.

The bed was huge, as well. Vivian seemed very far away for such an intimate setting. She had her back turned to me.

In past situations like this, I've quietly dressed and left. Could I do so now? Did I have any clue how to get out of here? I could barely remember how we got from the parlor to this room. I also began to understand that my clothes weren't here. That was right; we'd both left them on the floor of the parlor right before we tested all the sofas and settees in there.

I tried to retrace the steps from last night's flurry of activity to this room, and gradually, a path formed in my mind. I stood, and tried the first of four doors leading from this bed chamber. The first led to a powder room, the second to a closet larger than my apartment. The third was the door I was looking for. A long hallway, dimly lit and obviously for no one's use but Vivian's, would lead back to the private sitting room we defiled last night.

Just as I was about to leave, I heard a voice from behind me. It was Vivian. She was talking in that firm, authoritative voice she'd used in my office. The sultry purrs of last night were nowhere evident.

"No," she said. I spun on my heel, firmly suspecting to see her sitting up in bed with a heater aimed for my chest. Trust me, it's not an unfamiliar sight.

But instead, I found her still asleep, only she'd rolled onto her back. Her eyes were closed, but her face had twisted into a mask of disgust.

"You cannot indulge yourself this time," came her voice again, from lips that barely moved, but every word was clear. "We need her, and we need her as she is."

Instantly Elmebrigge's voice swam through my ears. Some have been known to talk in their sleep...

I turned back to the hallway and crept quietly along it. Her voice continued behind me. "And remember, we cannot use it until the time is right. If the book is opened without her, all is lost."

I stopped listening and walked faster. I reached the parlor, quickly hugging the wall with my back and making sure I wasn't about to walk in on a guard patrolling. Hey, I don't make a habit of spending the night in mansions, and too many times I've had to do just this to avoid being seen.

But the room was empty. I guess it truly was a private parlor. Servants had to come and clean it, but it would appear they didn't do so overnight. Vivian's dress was just where she'd dropped it, near my coat. My clothes were everywhere, as I recall Vivian was rather eager to get down to business even before everything of mine was off.

Enough light was coming through the windows for me to do a pretty thorough search of the room. Probably about ten minutes later, even if it felt like an hour, I managed to find everything I'd brought in with me, and put it back where it belonged. I immediately felt a little better; a little more like me. My training came back, and I realized that even without knowing how I got here, I could find my way out.

Chauncey thought he'd tricked me last night by taking me up two flights of stairs and then down one. He hadn't. Even a person without the training I have can count floors. After ducking down a quiet hallway, I can to a staircase, and began my descent. In a few heartbeats I was on the ground floor. I found a large window that looked out on what had to be the back yard, and got my bearings. I would, regardless of the twists and turns the corridors took, continue to head in the opposite direction of this wall. The house was not designed as a labyrinth, even if Chauncey had tried to turn it into one. My only real worry was running into someone who might alert the house to my presence.

I crept quietly along the corridors, turning left if I came to a fork, and found that a large majority of the house was quiet and still. This bothered me. The woman was worth a mint; did she have nobody to keep an eye on things while most of the others slept?

I did hear some murmurings from behind a few doors; sounded like people muttering as they worked. Okay, so there were people up. I kept my strategy of hugging wall as I rounded corners, and only once did I see the retreating figure of a night watchman. This was starting to feel too simple.

And then, in the sprawling foyer, his back to me and watching the door, stood Creepy. I sighed inwardly. I had to have known there would be some challenge getting out.

Creepy was a breed apart; I'd gathered that much last night. If he worked for a possessed woman...might he be possessed himself? I still wasn't sure if I believed Elmebrigge that anyone who talks in their sleep had to be possessed by these beings, but then, he'd never said that, had he? Just that it was one possible sign of possession. To be honest, it wasn't the fact of her talking in her sleep that had set my regard of Vivian Vanderhoff back a few paces, but what she had been saying. A new level had opened up in this case, and it made me distrustful of her and everyone in her employ. But especially Creepy, here.

They hadn't taken my gun. I'd found ol' Pappy still in his holster by my shirt, and he was snug against my chest right now. I kept one hand ready to dart for him, and began to walk toward the door. Creepy kept his back to me. I closed the distance. Fifteen feet. Ten feet. Five feet.

"That will be far enough," said Creepy, without turning around. I froze, my hand just inches from ol' Pappy. If he tried anything, I would draw. Slowly, Creepy turned to face me.

"I don't want any trouble," I said. "But I'm not staying here. Step aside, and I'll go."

"I cannot allow you to leave," said Creepy, his inflection never changing. "Miss Vanderhoff was quite clear on that point. You are to stay, and I am to make certain you do not leave this house."

"So, I'm her prisoner," I said grimly.

"Her guest," replied Creepy. "Until such time as she has finished with you. Until then, here you will stay. I suggest you return to where you slept. You might even find Miss Vanderhoff is still in...good spirits. But press me, and you'll find yourself wishing you had not."

"I don't care for forced guesthood," I said. I moved my hand closer to my gun. "Listen, gee, I'm in the business of answers. Staying here has piled on question on top of question and I somehow doubt the answers are here. So, unless you're prepared to answer these questions I've got, I'm afraid you and me are gonna have a problem."

"There is no problem," said Creepy. That calm monotone was getting on my last nerve. "And some questions should remain unanswered. Now, if you will kindly..."

"If you will kindly," I cut him off. I drew ol' Pappy and aimed it between his beady little eyes. "Now, I don't know how many guys like me a daisy boob like you had the misfortune of crossing before, but you are one seriously odd bird, and I have no problem putting daylight through your skull if you don't stand aside."

Creepy did the one thing he could have done that was virtually guaranteed to piss me off. He started laughing. Even his laughter had a hollow, unreal quality.

"Detective Zeddicker," he said. "Even if I let you go, how do you expect to leave the grounds, much less get back to the city? The grounds are patrolled by dogs, and the gate is locked, and the city is miles away."

Damn. He was right. Time to re-think this.

"Okay," I said, keeping ol' Pappy trained on him. "You're the driver. Drive me."

"Absolutely not," came the calm reply.

"I'm guessing I pump metal into you, you get blipped off same as any other bird," I replied, just as calmly. "You're really willing to die for your boss?"

"I have nothing to lose by staying put," he said. "If you shoot, you will alert half the estate to your presence, and if you don't...well, I suppose it's what your type might term a 'Mexican standoff', you might say."

I sighed, and turned ol' Pappy over in my hands. To Creepy, I'm sure it looked like I was getting ready to return him to his holster. I took a few more steps forward.

"What are you doing?" he said, a tinge of alarm in his voice.

"You're right. I can't shoot you." As I spoke, I swung. The butt of ol' Pappy met skull with a sickening crunch, and Creepy folded like a sheet of paper. I bent immediately and frisked through his pockets. I found a giant ring of keys in the breast pocket of his jacket and pocketed them in my flogger. The door was locked, but with a simple twist of the gleaming glass nob, I heard a small click, and the nob now could be twisted freely. I flung open the door and booked it down the front steps...

...There was no car. Nothing in sight except that ludicrous fountain and the trees lining the driveway. I heard a baying from the side of the house. Creepy was right; dogs were out patrolling the yard, and who knew what else?

A small dirt drive seemed to head off to the left side of the house from the main circle of the driveway. I ran in that direction, and heard the baying again, this time closer, and from behind me. They had my scent.

I saw a small building in the distance. It seemed as far away as the city itself, but I was closing the distance faster than I would have thought. As I got closer I saw three large doors on the side and realized that it had to be her garage. I kept running. I fumbled in my pocket for the giant key-ring, wondering how many I would have to try before I found the one that fit the lock, never mind which one would start a car.

By the time I reached the middle of the three large doors, the baying sounded like it was right behind me. I turned to look, and bounding around the corner of the house was one of the largest dogs I'd ever seen. It didn't look like a rottweiler. It looked like it could eat a rottweiler. It was grey or greyish black all over, with a large scruff of fur around its head, small ears that stood straight up and a mouth that was all teeth. I don't just think, I know, that it could have closed those jaws around my neck and pulled my head from my shoulders with minimal effort.

I pulled out the keys. There looked to be at least thirty of them. Creepy was a driver; surely he had to have a key to the garage on him. I immediately eliminated a large number that didn't even look like they'd fit in the lock, palming them as I began trying the others while the dog continued inexorably toward me.

One key; no luck. Two keys; nothing. A third. I kept going. I kept trying to slow down my senses, tried to compensate for how fast things felt. My hands were steady, but I couldn't ignore the five hundred pounds of fur and fury that was nearly on me. Seven keys; all failed. Eight. Nine. Ten. I was starting to feel panic building. worked! The door swung open and I darted inside, slamming it closed behind me...

...And realized that it only locked from the outside. I ran between three long lines of cars, more cars in one place than I'd ever seen other than outside a public building. They began about two car lengths from the door, and the three lines were spaced about a car length apart from each other. I briefly saw an Alpha Romeo, a Cadillac V-16, a Lincoln Model K, a Marmon, a Ford V8. I turned and faced the door, gun drawn.

The baying became a growling, as if the dog knew where I was and knew there was nowhere for me to run. On foot, he was right. But I wasn't planning to escape on foot. For what seemed like an eternity, I stood, facing the door, hearing that growling grow closer.

It came through the door in slow motion. I saw its jaws, lined with teeth like a band saw, and watched its eyes, full of murder, as the bear-like body came in behind it. Moonlight silvered its fur, made the fangs glisten.

I fired. My hand was as steady as a rock, and the aim was between its eyes. I fired again. Blood was spurting from the creature's head now. But it kept coming. I fired again, this time aiming for its leg. The dog faltered, losing its footing, but hopped up again. I fired at its other leg, and it went down.

I stared at it for a few seconds. The thing was determined. With a fatal wound in its forehead and both front legs out, it still was trying to get up and run for me. The growl was weaker now. A large pool of red was forming under it. I felt bad, like I'd broken an antique vase. An animal like this didn't deserve to be cut down by a guy like me.

"At least you died in the course of your duties," I murmured to it. Then I went to the Ford V8. Of all the vehicles I could see, this was the one with the speed I was looking for. I sorted through the keys. It was a little easier this time, as the keys had the names of the makes they went with stamped into their metal, and there were only three Ford keys. Within a few moments I had started her up.

Rover was gone, now. No longer moving, and not breathing that I could see. "Abyssinia," I muttered, tossing a useless salute.

A few moments later I crashed through the gates of the estate, headed back to town. Behind me, lights were coming on all through the house, and I knew that I would need every ounce of the flivver's speed.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

No Pity for the Dead: Chapter Six

It was well past midnight when I got back to my office. I do keep a small apartment nearby, but when I'm working a big case, I tend to live out of the office for the most part. In the past forty-eight hours I had seen the inside of my apartment all of once.

There were two messages taped to the phone. Glenda was long gone, so these messages likely were both aged at least a couple of hours. I picked them up and carried them with me to my inner office. I poured a scotch into my tumbler, which was still sticky with the last swigs I'd had earlier, and sat down to read them.

Phil Parkins called. Sounds frantic. Wants to know where his daughter is. This one finished with Phil's number, which I already knew. I had told him I'd call him when I had a lead. I didn't have one yet. In all fairness, I should have called him when the ransom went bad, but I was fairly certain even then that I could have found her by now. I'd have to give him a call tonight.

The other was from Vivian Vanderhoff. Finally, I had a way of getting ahold of her. She also wanted a progress report on her case. Well, I'd give her a report, all right, but not one she'd much care for.

I took another sip of scotch and dialed Phil's number. I knew he'd probably still be awake. You don't sleep much when your little girl is missing.

He answered on the third ring. "Zeddicker?" he whispered.

"Yeah," I said quietly. "It's me."

"Where the christ have you been?!" he practically shouted. "I get no call, no visit! You were supposed to pay the ransom and get my Betty back!"

"Calm down, Phil," I said, uselessly.

"Calm down!?" Phil shouted even louder. "Is it your girl missing, Zeddicker? Is it you who can't sleep for worry of what's happening to her? Is it you who wonders if you'll ever see her alive again?"

He went on for a bit, saying a few things he never would in his daughter's presence. I let him rant. I've never been a dad, that I know of, and situations like this make me a little glad of that. I'm not really the family type; makes you too vulnerable. Phil here was proof enough of that.

His angry, anguished stream of words finally ended and he broke down in tears.

"Phil," I began. "I'm sorry. Sorry I didn't call and sorry that I didn't find Betty. The deal went bad. Three-Fingers didn't show and sent some goons to grease me. Almost worked, too." I sighed, and decided he would never know what really happened that night. "I got a lead," I said. "Somebody told me that Betty wasn't taken because of what you owe; that was just an excuse. Apparently Three-Fingers...has plans for her."

A long silence came from the other end. Phil had stopped crying. I imagined him sitting there in stunned silence.

"You mean," he managed. "Something like...trafficking? Is he trying to turn my daughter into a...a...slattern?"

Of course Phil still had no idea the direction this case had taken, and for a brief moment I considered telling him the truth, at least to put his mind at ease about that. If a virgin was necessary for what Three-Fingers was planning, young Betty Parkins's virtue was likely still on the table. But considering what they really were planning for her, I decided telling him was worse, whether he believed me or not.

"No," I said. "Not as far as I know. I believe she's still alive, Phil. That's all I'm saying. I've had some ugly conversations in the last few hours, and they're all leading me closer. Just remember, I'm doing this pro bono, and cases like this take as long as they take."

"Just find her, Detective Zeddicker," he said, barely audible. "Just please, find her."

"I'm not stopping until I do," I said back. The conversation dwindled on a few more minutes with some anguished pleasantries back and forth. I finally hung up and took a breath. I needed a snipe, but I'd finished my deck on the way back. I took another drink.

Vivian Vanderhoff seemed like the type of dame who kept odd hours. Chances were good that she was still up. The message left on Glenda's stationary was short and simple; V. Vanderhoff expects a call tonight, and the number scribbled at the bottom. I stared at the number a few minutes longer, both eager to call the number and uncomfortable at the thought of what I'd find out.

The possessed may not even realize they're possessed. The thought came unbidden to my mind. Their memories and personalities are left intact, and the being sits behind their consciousness, controlling their every thought and action, never detected, never known. Had I ever mouthed the words of a newspaper article as I read it? Had I ever idly shaken my leg as I sat? I couldn't recall. Nor could I remember if I'd ever seen Louden or Glenda doing either one. Surely not everyone who idly did things like this had one of these...things inside them? Surely not every one. I wanted to tell myself that Elmebrigge was full of it, but I'd sat there, and listened to him tell it, and my gut never spoke up to tell me there was anything wrong with him. He wasn't crazy, and he wasn't lying. And whatever was going on, Vivian Vanderhoff was mixed up with it. Maybe even at the heart of it.

Elmebrigge had seemed afraid of her family. He didn't want to associate with them, but then, he also seemed to know quite a bit about them for someone so eager to disassociate himself from them. I finally picked up the phone and dialed Vivian Vanderhoff's number.

"Is this Zeddicker?" came her sultry voice. It sounded like she may have a couple of drinks in her.

"This is he," I said. "Sorry to call so late."

"Oh, that's quite alright," she purred. "I'm something of a...night owl. So," I could hear her take a drag from a long cigarette. So, she did smoke. "Any progress?"

"Some," I admitted. "You were right. Arnie Probst has the Codex and the Claw."

"So, you know where he is?" she asked. "Have you seen him yet?"

"I saw him," I said. I waited a bit for a reaction, but she apparently expected more. "We need to talk," I finished.

"We're talking now," she breathed. I heard her take another drag.

"In person," I said. "There's things you didn't tell me that I need to know."

"What did you see?" she asked. A tinge of fear in her voice? Hard to tell.

"I'm not saying another word over the phone," I told her. I was about to tell her to get her pleasingly round posterior over to my office, but before I could, she spoke again.

"Very well," she said. "I'll send a car around for you. I expect the journey to take approximately twenty minutes. I know your man left for the day, and likely took the car with him, and walking here would not be possible. Also, this way there would be less...unpleasantness at the gate."

After that, the line went dead. I slowly placed the receiver back on the cradle and ran a hand through my hair in concern. Unpleasantness? And how did she know Louden was gone, or that he took the car? I was liking all this less and less.

A car did show up a short while later. A tall fellow with a natty little mustache in a grey driver's uniform came up the elevator and offered to escort me down. He said little more than he had to, and never looked me in the eye. My detective nose started twitching. The driver looked afraid, and not of me, or at least, not just me.

He led me to a long Rolls that looked like it cost more than a year's rent on my office and apartment combined.

"Take the rear compartment," he intoned in a clipped voice. "The rear and front are separated by a pain of glass. The glass is bulletproof and soundproof. Make no attempt to exit the vehicle until I have opened the door and instructed you to. Make no attempt to speak to me or distract me from the road as I drive. Do you understand?"

I nodded, a glower on my face. This guy was shaping up to be a seriously wrong gee, and to be honest, as classy a dame as Vivian Vanderhoff might be, the company she kept left a great deal to be desired.

Nonetheless, I found myself seated in the back seat, looking out as we left the dark side of town and headed in the opposite direction from the Waterfront. I began to realize that he was about to take me out of town. That didn't feel right. My home turf is where I operate, and taking me out of it always sets me on edge. Even the Waterfront was in town. But as the little creep kept driving, I watched us cross the northeast bridge and head out into the surrounding country side.

The house wasn't that far out of town, but calling it a house would be like calling the Titanic a canoe. Of course, I knew houses like this existed. I'd even driven by a few of them. But I never knew anybody who lived in one. I had known Vivian Vanderhoff was money, but I'd never believed it could be this much. Based on all I knew, this was old money, and she likely had resources well beyond hiring a down-'n-dirty old private dick to find her missing stuff. She must have been desperate to come to me.

Creepy drove the Rolls up to the front gate, and I immediately understood what Vivian had meant by "unpleasantness". Lining the gate were four tall men with Winchester '94's, and looked like they knew how to use them. But when they saw the car, one of them flipped a switch and the gate began to slowly swing open. They kept their heaters lowered, but looked ready to raise them again at the first sign of trouble.

The driveway was longer than some streets in my area of town. It ended in a long round-about that encircled a giant fountain, carved to resemble a Pegasus prancing among some cherubs. The reek of wealth poured from this place like water from the cherubs' wings. 

The creepy driver stopped at the front steps and opened the rear door. "You may enter the residence now," he said that same clipped voice. I decided if I never saw him again it would be too soon.

If there are castles bigger and more opulent than this place was, I've never seen one. I wasn't even sure the White House was this big. I walked up the steps for what felt like an hour before being met at the top by a tall, thin older man with the same sort of expression the driver wore.

"I shall take you to Miss Vanderhoff," he informed me before turning on his heel and stalking off down a long, buttressed sidewalk. He took me through what had to be a servant's entrance, and from there I honestly don't recall much of the journey deep into the house's inner rooms. Ol' Chauncy here led me down so many hallways, up about two flights of steps, and a few times I'm sure he doubled back and led me in the opposite direction he had started taking me in. I gathered that he didn't want me remembering how to get to her parlor again should I ever decide to come here uninvited.

He finally took me into a parlor larger than most public reception halls. Plush couches and chairs were everywhere, as were live plants, including a few trees planted directing in small earthen areas in the floor. About two dozen hearths, a fire burning in less than half of them. Floor lamps, candles, some lit, some not. Two chandeliers, each larger than Louden's Model M, and both lit rather dimly. In fact, despite the lights in the room there was an atmosphere of darkness, of wishing to hide or not be seen clearly.

Chauncy had stopped, and didn't appear to be getting ready to lead me anywhere else, but I didn't see Miss Vanderhoff anywhere.

"She will be with you momentarily," he assured me, and then he quickly stepped away, disappearing through a different door than the one he'd led me through, and leaving me completely alone.

A puff of smoke came through a far doorway, and following it a few seconds later was the shapely silhouette of Vivian Vanderhoff. Her hair was loose, and hanging about her shoulders, which I could tell were bare. As she sauntered a bit more into the light, I saw that she was clad in an evening dress that would make Mae West blush. What wasn't on full display was wrapped in clingy fabric so that its shape was readily evident. Her back and shoulders were completely uncovered, and she threatened to spill out of the front. The evening gown looked satin, and was red. This was not going to end well.

I have this hang-up, you see, and I mentioned it earlier. Female clients and me, we seem to come to a point where...things happen that shouldn't. Like I said, I ain't proud of it, but I can't deny it, either. I wouldn't consider myself the most handsome gee out there. I'm definitely a few rungs below Cary Grant. Hell, I'm probably a few rungs below John Garfield. The girl standing in front of me? Rita Hayworth. Rita Hayworth didn't make eyes like that in front of John Garfield. She didn't slink toward him with that look in her eyes. She certainly didn't invite him into her private parlor and wear that dress for him.

I decided I had to keep it professional. "The book," I said. "What's it for?"

A look of annoyance came into her eyes. "I told you," she said. "There are things you don't need to know."

"I need to know this," I said. "Looking for this book has nearly gotten me killed. I found Probst, but you led me to believe he was a small-time hood that I would have no trouble dealing with. What I got was a voodoo man or something. He's been reading the book, and doing something with it. It's your book, and you can tell me what he was up to."

Her eyes widened. "The fool!" she hissed. She went to a nearby sofa and stabbed her cigarette out in a standing ashtray. "I knew he wanted the book but I never thought he would be idiotic enough to actually try to use it!"

"Why did you think he wanted it?" I asked.

"For money, what else?" she growled. The Hayworth act wasn't quite over, but it was put on pause for a bit of Bette Davis. "That's all the man ever cared about. It's the only reason he married me!"

"We've covered that," I said. "But did you ever consider he might think that reading the book might bring him much more wealth than selling it ever could?"

"If he thought that," she answered. "He has no brain in his head. That is pure, unadulterated power, Detective Zeddicker. Power that you cannot take lightly. I owned the book, and the Claw, yes, but I was never foolish enough to use them. If he's actually done something..."

"He's definitely done something," I said, relating the story that Manny Eyes had told me. "And by the time I met him, he looked like he'd seen the abyss. He talked like the book recognized him as its master, and challenged you to come and try to take it back."

"'Master'?" she laughed. "He honestly thinks he's the book's master? Oh, poor, deluded Arnie. The book has mastered him now. He's a slave to its will. He was right about one thing, though. He will be the doorway. Only not for long. What he's summoned up will destroy him on its way through. This world is too small and helpless for the power he has summoned."

"What's he summoned?" I asked.

"Hargon itself," she answered, barely whispering. "Hargon's minions are already here. May have been here for centuries. You met one of them in that gangster's body, and you likely met another, or several others, in Arnie himself. But Hargon? They're the warm-up act. He's the show."

"And you think he's bringing this Hargon through?"

"He may already have started," she replied. She sauntered back toward me. Her anger was gone and she was looking at me the way a builder might look at a tool. "From what you've said, he tried. If he was successful, Hargon is even now preparing to come through."

"How do I stop him?" I asked. She had moved very near to me now and had run a finger down the lapel of my flogger. There were stirrings going on that were sure to lead to trouble.

She laughed derisively. "Stop him?" she grinned. "You don't. If he's here, he's here. The only thing you can do is close the doorway so that none of his brothers follow."

"There's more like him?" Elmebrigge had referred to Hargon as an "it", but Vivian was personalizing him. I didn't like it.

"Countless more," she said. "Arnie has no clue what he's unleashed. But you must get the book back from him, Zeddicker. It's imperative."

"One step at a time," I said. I realized my hand was on her bare shoulder. I decided to leave it there. "First I want to know what this Hargon needs with the girl."

"What girl?" she asked, pulling slightly away.

"Betty Parkins," I said. "The one I was already looking for. The people who took her, they're...involved in this somehow. I was told that there are plans for her. Apparently a virgin is necessary."

"Well," she said. "Then both of us are safe. As for the girl, I don't know anything about her or who took her, but if a virgin is involved, I now know for a fact that Arnie is trying to bring Hargon through. Her blood will be the key."

"And without her?"

"Hargon will still be able to influence Arnie and others who get close to the barrier," she said, moving closer. Her hips wriggled against my abdomen. "But he'll remain confined on his side."

"So, I find and rescue Betty Parkins," I said. "And I stop this?"

"They won't have harmed her," assured Vivian. "They can't until the ritual begins. The only questions are when and where."

"Oh, I'll find out when and where," I replied. "And I'll get her away from them."

"I'm sure you will," she said, snaking an arm around my neck. "But it won't be tonight. Before you start the fresh search, you should rest."

"And maybe take a load off?" I ventured.

"Yes," she breathed into my ear. "Do something that relaxes you."

"Lots of things relax me," I said, unable to stop myself.

"Such as?" she purred. Her mouth was less than an inch from my own.

"Should I show you?" I asked as my coat fell to the floor, followed seconds later by her dress.

"Yes," she sighed. "Show me..."

Oh, indeed. Trouble had found me.