Home > Dark Road Rising (Vampire Files #12)

Dark Road Rising (Vampire Files #12)
Author: P.N. Elrod

Chapter 1

Chicago, February 1938

WHEN I set the brake and cut the motor, the dead man in the backseat of my Nash shifted, groaned, and straightened up to look around. He suppressed a cough, arms locked against his bloodstained chest as though to keep it from coming apart.

"You okay?" I asked.

"Peachy." His voice rasped hollow and hoarse. He was lying, but that's what you do when you feel like hell and don't want to give in to it.

His name was Whitey Kroun. He was a big bad gang boss out of New York who had come to town to oversee my execution.

That hadn't worked out very well.

He'd taken a bullet through the chest only a couple hours earlier and should be healing faster. He needed blood and a day's rest on his home earth, but that would have to wait; I had one more thing to do before either of us could have a break.

"What's this?" His dark eyes were bleary with fatigue and pain.

We were in a parking lot close to the hospital. "I gotta see a man about a dog."

He grunted and pushed up his coat sleeve to squint at his watch. The crystal was gone, and the exposed hands swung loose over the numbers. "Well, it's half past, better get a move on."

I slammed out of the car and hurried toward the hospital entrance.

The streets weren't awake yet. At this bleak hour they seemed too tired, unable to recover from the pains of an overlong night. The smack of predawn air felt good, though, and I consciously tried a lungful. Clinging to my overcoat was the smell of Kroun's blood. The scent had filled the car, but with no need to breathe I'd been remarkably successful at pushing away the distraction.

Dried stains smeared the front of the coat, but the material was dark, no one would notice. Even if someone did, I had more serious concerns. I needed to check on my partner. The phone calls made hours ago to the emergency room and later to the doctor in charge weren't enough, I had to see for myself.

After convincing a lone reception nurse that I was the patient's cousin she got my name and other necessary information before giving away Charles Escott's location. He was in the men's ward.

I made sure that would change. "He gets a private room," I said, pulling money from my wallet. From her shocked look the stack was more than she'd make in the next two months. "He gets whatever he needs before he needs it." I folded the cash into her hand.

She stared at the money, uncertain. "Mr. Fleming, I-"

"Consider it a personal thank-you. Do whatever you want with it so long as my friend gets first-class treatment. I have to see him now."

"He shouldn't have visitors."

"We're not gonna play cards. I just need to check on him. Please."

She read my mood right: determinedly polite but not leaving until I got what I wanted. She slipped the money into her clipboard, hugged it to her front, and led the way down the empty corridors herself. Maybe I couldn't hypnotize people anymore, but a goodwill gift in the right place can take you far in the world. It had worked well enough for Capone, up to a point.

The ward was clean, but still a ward: a high, dim room full of restive misery. Some of the bodies shrouded under their blankets were frozen in place by injury, others twitched, sleepless from pain or illness.

I had a brief flash of memory of a similar place in France back when I was a red-faced kid still awkward in my doughboy uniform. There, the ward had been full of nuns gliding back and forth between the wounded. Some of the guys played cards one-handed, getting used to the new amputations, some groaned despite their doses of morphine, some slept, some wept, and one poor bastard at the end was screaming too much and had to be taken to a different part of the building. After twenty years, the picture was still sharp, but I couldn't recall why I'd been there. Probably visiting someone, same as now.

Escott was second in from the door, lying slightly propped up on the narrow metal bed. His face was puffy and turning black from bruising, his ribs were taped, his hands bandaged like an outclassed boxer who'd unwisely stayed for the full twelve rounds. He seemed to be breathing okay, and when I listened, his heart thumped along steady and slow as he slept. But he looked so damned frail and crushed.

That was my doing. My fault.

He shouldn't be here. I'd been an incredible, unconscionable fool, and he was paying for my lapse with cracked, maybe broken bones, pulped flesh, and slow weeks of recovery. God help us both, I'd come within a thin hair of killing him. He still wasn't out of the woods. If I'd broken him up inside, he could bleed to death internally.

Not recognizing my own voice, I asked the nurse about that.

She consulted the chart at the foot of the bed. X-rays had been taken, though how anyone could make sense of a mass of indefinite shadows was beyond me. She told me what was wrong and, more importantly, what wasn't wrong. It was cold comfort. I'd only half killed my best friend.

I wanted to help him, to do more than what had already been done, but no action on my part could possibly make up for such stupidity. This was true helplessness, and I hated it. My hand went toward him on its own, but I made a sudden fist, shoving it into a pocket. The nurse read this mood as well.

"He'll be all right," she said. "It'll just take some time."

It could take years, and still wouldn't be all right.

One of his eyelids flickered. The other was fused fast shut from swelling.

Guilty at disturbing him, I started to back out of view, but it was too late. He was awake, if groggy, and fixed me in place with his cloudy gaze, not speaking.

When I couldn't take the silence anymore, I said, "Charles... y-you don't worry. They'll get you whatever you want. It's taken care of. You just say."

His eyelid slowly shut and opened again, and there was an audible thickening of the breath passing through his throat. I took that to mean he understood.

"I'm... I'm sorry as hell. I'm so sorry."

He continued to look at me.

"I'm sorry as hell, I-I-" I would not ask for forgiveness. I didn't deserve it and never would.

He shook his head and made a small sound of frustration.

I understood. He was afraid for me... afraid I'd try to hurt myself. That had been the cause of the fight. My face heated up from shame. "I'm sorry for that, too. It won't happen again. I swear. On Bobbi's life, I promise you. Never again."

The corner of his mouth curled in a ghost's smile. His lips moved in the softest of whispers. "Jack."

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