"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."