ICE COLD LULLABY: The Last Mickey Tod Mystery
The note that brought me and my partner Danny Vane to the Black Canary nightclub read simply, “Please stop my murder!” The note was delivered attached to a funeral wreath. I thought that was a nice touch. We traced the wreath to the florist who sold it and found that it was purchased by an “Erika Wolf.” Erika Wolf turned out to be the songbird headlining at the Black Canary. We arrived a few minutes before she was supposed to take the stage.
The Black Canary is a nightclub just over the edge from Chinatown. The police knew that the joint was run by the Crimson Butterfly Tong. I knew that the Crimson Butterfly Tong was just a cover for a shadowy Chinese syndicate called the Si Fan. Not just a criminal gang, the Si Fan were fanatics with their own superstitions and traditions. Just knowing the name was enough to get a guy killed. I’d decided that I didn’t want to know anything else about them. Right from the start I thought coming to the Black Canary was a bad move.
The Black Canary itself was the sort of place people with a lot of ill-gotten wealth came to spend too much money so they could feel upscale. It was a lot of expensive furniture, velvet curtains, and top shelf booze crammed into a run-down slum building.
The floor beneath the black carpet was cracked concrete. The pipes in the Men’s Room were perpetually clogged. That place was a bog in more ways than one. Large framed paintings of mid-level collectability covered the crumbling brick walls. Everything was done up in black with canary yellow accents. A lot of money went into making the place look like more than a dump frequented by lowlifes in expensive suits.
Right before showtime all the lights went down until only the candles on the tables were still lit. Flickering red lights illuminated coarse-featured, rough faces.
Danny leaned over to me, martini-olive toothpick between his teeth.
“I bet Hell looks a lot like this on a Friday night.”
Danny always thought the wrong things were funny.
Whatever I was going to say back to him was cut off by a dazzling white spotlight that snapped onto the stage, just as the curtains began to roll back.
Erika Wolf stood with her back to the audience. The dress she wore was black silk and left most of her back bare. Her skin was porcelain white, her hair, worn very long and utterly straight, falling to the middle of her back, was platinum blonde. Her arms were wrapped tightly around her chest, fingers spread across her own shoulder-blades. She wore canary yellow velvet gloves, elbow length.
“She coordinated her outfit with the club’s décor. Nice touch!” Whispered Danny with a snicker.
I was about to make some crack in reply, but then Erika Wolf turned around.
It was like being hit in the face with a bucket of ice water. I was both stunned and completely awake.
The platinum hair rose in one rolling curl over her forehead, like a golden sea wave about to crash on the shore. Her face was a regal ivory mask. Long straight nose, high cheekbones, delicately arched brows over eyes that were dark and shiny as obsidian marbles. Her mouth was a slash of crimson lips wearing a knowing smile.
From the front her dress clung like black ink spilled down a gloriously rounded figure. There was a deep ashen crevice between white breasts that rose so high and full that they stretched the silk over them to the breaking point. The silk flowed across a tight belly, navel a diamond-shaped shadow in the cloth, and over inward sweeping curves above her thighs. The rest of the dress was a shimmering curtain that fell nearly to the floor.
She reached out, wrapping gloved hands around the microphone, which she pulled close to parted lips. The gesture was slow, calculated, and communicated eloquently that she was experienced at wrapping her hands around things. Her red lips brushed across the mic, she breathed in a long sighing breath.
Her song began as a whisper.
The song was some slowed down lament for a lost love. The voice singing it was cold and sweet, like icewater mixed with honey. Cold chills rippled down my spine, prickled across the skin of my arms.
Danny stared at me with a bemused, quizzical expression.
I couldn’t tear my eyes away from that face, that ivory white, haughtily beautiful, sphinxlike face.
I recognized her, of course.
I knew exactly who “Erika Wolf” really was.
“That’s Anna Merrova.” I whispered.
Danny snorted a laugh.
“Anna Merrova? The famous Broadway actress?” he asked incredulously. “What would a high class dame like Merrova be doing singing in a dump like this?”
“A better question,” I replied, “Is what is Anna Merrova doing singing anywhere? She died over a month ago.”
“What?” Danny ran a hand through his thinning hair and squinted at the singer who was now gliding across the stage in our direction, singing almost directly to us. To me.
“Damn.” He muttered. “She sure does look like Merrova.” He admitted.
Danny shook his head as if to clear away cobwebs.
“She is Merrova.”
The singer slunk down the few steps from the stage and stood crooning above our table. Her eyes gazed pleadingly into mine. With a subtle tilt of her head and a casual wave of the mic in her hand she indicated something or someone on the other side of the room.
She smelled like rain and lilies.
The cleft between her breasts stretched like a canyon into darkness at eye level, snow covered hills rolling into a deep, deep valley.
She frowned, a smoldering flare that burned with a desperate fear and invitation flickered in her dark eyes.
She took the tip of my chin in her fingers and turned my head in the direction she’d gestured.
“Is the man who threatened you over there?” Whispered Danny, turning his back toward that side of the room.
She nodded almost imperceptibly, relief loosened the frown on her brow.
I glanced up and looked across the room.
At the far end of the stage a man sat at a table in the front. He was dressed all in black but he sat near enough that the reflection of the spotlight lit his face. His skin was chalky white, even paler than the singer’s, if that were possible. The most remarkable feature of the man was a pure white streak that ran through his dark hair from brow to the nape of the neck. It reminded me of a skunk’s stripe.
Apparently the man noticed my stare. He gave me a queer smile, half smile—half wince, and raised a glass in my direction.
Not quite knowing what to do, I returned the gesture and turned my attention back to Merrova.
We sat through the remainder of “Erika Wolf’s” set, taking turns watching the Pale Man across the room.
Other than his one gesture toward me, the Pale Man seemed purely fixated on the singer. There was a fierce longing in his eyes that rankled me. Periodically he squeezed his eyes shut, looking almost in pain, as he drank in the song. At least once he flashed her a white, wolfish smile that made her flinch.
In a flurry of waving arms, tossing hair, and swishing dress, the singer finished her performance. She disappeared utterly as the spotlight snapped off and blackness swallowed the stage.
The curtains swung closed with a dark ripple.
The applause was thunderous.
There was no encore, no bow.
“Erika Wolf” had fled the stage.
The Pale Man stared for a few moments, waiting for something that never happened. Muscles at his temples flexed as he ground his teeth. The red candlelight turned his white skin red as blood.
After a few seconds he slammed his hand on the table and seemed about to rise. Thinking better of it, he cast quick glances around the room, eventually flickering one in our direction. Then he untensed, smoothing his jacket with deliberately calm hands. He seemed to find something fascinating in the bottom of his drink and stared intently into it.
Jimmy Li Fang appeared suddenly at our table.
His round face was beaming a smile, his eyes crinkled down to bare slits.
“Lady wishes to speak with Gentlemen.” He announced, presenting a white pasteboard card to us on a small silver tray. The card read “Erika Wolf” and nothing else.
“Is big honor for Gentlemen, yes?” Jimmy continued slyly. “Is maybe great joy? Or important business?”
Jimmy Li Fang may be all smiles and comically broken English in a poorly fitted white suit, but I knew for a fact that he was a Hatchet Man for the Crimson Butterfly Tong and had killed five men that I knew of. The police suspected him of many more murders but could never prove his involvement.
“Thanks, Jimmy.” I said casually. “With a little luck it may be both.”
Jimmy hooted a laugh, wide eyed with hilarity.
“We may even get paid.” Danny grumbled hopefully.
Jimmy nodded knowingly.
“Gentlemen come with me. Show you way to dressing room. Fast way, short cut through kitchen.”
He held up his hand, palm out.
“Thanks.” I slipped a five into his hand.
Jimmy Li Fang looked at the bill and smiled with great glee.
“Thank you, most kind Gentlemen!”
I knew Jimmy owned a yacht, docked down the shore by a ritzy house that he may or may not own as well. He needed that five like I needed another parking ticket. But, it pays to keep up appearances while the game unwinds. At least until you find out just which game you’re actually playing.
Jimmy showed us through a windy labyrinth of narrow service passages into a brightly lit, brilliantly white industrial kitchen. A dozen or more cooks, prep cooks, and dish washers halted in mid-slice to star at us. A viciously scarred cook with a cleaver in hand gave us a glare as ugly as his face. Jimmy smiled indulgently and raised one hand. A brief chatter of Chinese later and everyone went back to their work as if we’d never interrupted them. No one even looked at us as Jimmy led us across the kitchen. It was as if we’d suddenly become invisible. One wrinkled dishwasher gave us a gape-toothed smile and winked as we went past.
Jimmy opened a nondescript pastel painted door and showed us into a back corridor.
“Gentlemen,” He said with a grin. He gestured with his hand and nodded knowingly as he closed the door behind us.
Danny and I found ourselves in a dimly-lit brick-walled hallway with a much scuffed wooden floor. Black and white photos were tacked to otherwise bare doors. We walked along until we came to one with Erika Wolf’s headshot.
“One of us should stay out here in the hall. To keep watch.” Danny said with a grin.
I knew what he meant.
I dug The Coin out of my pocket.
“Call it in the air.” I said, flipping a much worn “lucky” half-dollar into the air. It tumbled end over end, flickering in the light of an overhead bulb hanging on a wire.
A queer chill ran down my spine. My skin prickled.
“Tails! Of course.” Danny said with his stupid grin as I held out my hand to catch the coin.
“Damn.” He muttered. He gave me a hang dog look and shook his head.
“Go on. Talk to the pretty lady and find out what this is all about.” Danny said in a half-grumble. “I’ll be out here. Watching the hall.”
I couldn’t help but smile as I knocked on Erika Wolf’s dressing room door.
There was the click of high-heeled shoes, then a creak as someone leaned against the door.
“Who’s there?” whispered a breathy voice.
“Michael Tod, with the T&V Detective Agency. I believe you sent for us?”
There was a click, then the door swung inward. A cloud of lily-scented perfume mixed with clove cigarette smoke gusted out.
The blonde singer stood before me, gazing up at me with unreadable, luminous dark eyes.
“Come in, Mr. Tod.” She breathed.
“Damn.” Muttered Danny, grimacing and duteously studying the ceiling.
I slipped in through the door, squeezing past her as she closed and locked the door. Her breasts brushed my arm in the most calculated accident I’d ever experienced. They were quite soft.
“So.” I said, ambling behind her with an embarrassingly exaggerated casualness. “Care to tell me what this is all about?”
She stood with her back to me, studying my reflection in her mirror. There was a coldly appraising look in her eyes, like she was having second thoughts about something. She pulled the blonde wig off her head. Her own hair was black, curly, and cut short. She started pulling pins out of it, brushing out the tangled curls. She stood with her hands raised to her head for several minutes. That posture jutted her breasts out and pulled the black silk tight across them. Her nipples stood out like buttons under that silk.
She smiled, faintly, and raised one eyebrow. My attention returned to the matter at hand.
“I’ve already been murdered twice, Mr. Tod.” She said matter-of-factly. “I’m afraid tonight might become the third time.”
Her smile became grim and tight.
She pulled the neckline of her dress down far enough to reveal a nasty looking white scar that ran over the curve of her breast.
“Twice, Mr. Tod. Neither time was a pleasant experience.” She pressed her fingertips to the scar, breathing in tightly, then pulled her dress back up.
“The man in black by the stage?”
She nodded, wincing.
“So, Miss Merrova, this man has already attacked you twice before, causing you to fake your own death. But now he knows that you’re still alive and is stalking you with the intention of finishing the job?”
She looked up sharply when I used her real name.
“Something like that.” She nodded sadly.
“Mr. Tod, I am so afraid!”
She whirled around and threw herself against me, ice cold fingers gripping my shoulders. Her body was very soft, pressed hard against me. She was cold and shivering.
“Call me Mickey.” I said, somewhat breathlessly.
“Mickey.” She purred, pressing her forehead against my chest.
She looked up at me with those lustrous black eyes. Tears glittered in them like diamonds being born.
“Danny and I will do our best to ensure your safety, Miss.”
I did my best to sound thoroughly professional, but I was beginning to tremble a bit myself. Her heart, pounding inside her breast fluttered against my chest like a frightened bird.
“You will be well paid.” She said, stepping back from me, arms wrapped around her chest in apparent embarrassment.
“Let’s worry about that later.” I said smoothly. “First thing, we have to get you to some place safe.”
She nodded and stepped behind a screen to change clothes.
“Thank you, Mr. …Mickey.”
I stood and watched the silhouette behind the curtain for a moment, then coughed and went to tell Danny what was up.
As I pushed the door open, I noticed that the hallway was even dimmer than it had been. A couple more bulbs must’ve burnt out. Danny was slouched against the wall, backlit by a yellow light a few yards down the hall.
“We’ve got a job!” I exclaimed.
Danny didn’t say a word. He just stood there, back against the wall.
“Geez, Dan! We don’t but just get hired and you fall asleep on the job!”
I punched him lightly on the shoulder.
To my surprise, his head flopped to the side and he slowly slid down the wall until he was slumped on the floor. Light from the dressing room doorway fell on his face. His eyes were wide and unblinking with a look of startled surprise on his face. The whole front of his shirt was soaked with blood streaming from a razor thin cut across his throat. From the way his head lolled about, the cut was deep, sliced straight down to the neck bones.
The crunch of a foot on broken glass saved my life.
Hearing the sound I turned just in time to see the silvery scalpel slashing toward my own throat. Reflexively I fell backwards, narrowly avoiding the whistling blade.
I caught myself on the door jamb before I could tumble to the floor, which no doubt saved my life a second time in as many seconds.
The scalpel was in the gloved hand of a man dressed entirely in black. His face was so pale that it seemed to glow against the black of his trenchcoat and fedora. He had a tense, almost pained looking frown on his face. His lower lip was curled under the upper. He bit his lower lip while teeth showed at the corners of his mouth. His eyes were glassy and flat, the eyes of a dead thing.
It was the man in black from the other side of the stage.
I whirled around, slammed the door shut and threw the bolt all in one motion. The door shuddered as the murderer threw his weight against it.
Merrova stepped out from behind her screen, eyes wide and mouth open. She’d changed into a tight charcoal gray dress with a wrap around her shoulders.
“He’s outside the door!” I shouted. “He killed Danny!”
Fists pounded on the door. A shoulder slammed against it. I felt the wood shiver against my own shoulder. The door was solid, but cheap. It wouldn’t stand up to much more of this.
“Is there another way out of here?”
She stood paralyze with horror.
“Is there. Another way. Out of here?” I asked again through gritted teeth.
She nodded numbly then snapped into action.
“There’s a door to the loading room!” She cried. “With an exit to the walkway between the buildings. The performers use it to come and go without going through the dining room or front lobby.”
“We should go!” I said as a wood panel on the door cracked under the thud of another shoulder blow.
She grabbed a chair for me to jam under the doorknob then pointed toward another door half-hidden behind the privacy screen.
I nodded. On an unspoken cue, I kicked away from the door and we both ran across the room.
We had a nasty moment as she struggled to pull the back door open. The wood had swollen in the frame. The door was momentarily stuck. I grabbed the knob and yanked hard.
There was another crack from the hallway door. Splintered wood bulged inward. I could see that ghastly white face glaring at us through the broken panel.
The stubborn door finally gave as I yanked on it, popping open with an angry squeak.
“Go!” I shouted. I tried to pull the door shut behind us but gave up as I saw a black-sleeved arm reach through the broken panel and fumble for the knob on the hallway door.
“Run!” I shouted at Merrova, who once more had frozen like a deer in headlights.
We ran down a tight corridor and down a dusty flight of steps. Behind us were more thuds and the sound of cracking wood. The stairs came out into a large concrete-floored room filled with stacks of boxes and barrels. I briefly considered not opening the exit door, but hiding amid the jumble of stores, but our pursuer was too close on our heels. There wasn’t time to look for a hiding place. Besides, Merrova was already out the exit and starting to run. I caught up with her in a couple of steps and grabbed her by the arm.
“Not that way!” I shouted, pulling her toward the rear of the building.
“But…” Merrova stammered, pointing toward the street and the streetlights toward the front.
“He’ll expect us to go that way.” I explained, dragging her at a run. “It will buy us some time to go this way.”
She seemed unconvinced, but my grip on her arm settled the argument. I dragged her past trash cans and around the corner of the building. I held up at the corner and gestured for her to be quiet.
Peering around the corner, sticking to the deepest shadows, I watched as the door banged open and the man dressed in black burst out into the narrow walkway. He glanced back toward our hiding place but immediately turned his gaze toward the street. He pulled his black fedora off and wiped his brow. I couldn’t help but notice the white streak that ran through his dark hair, almost luminous in the half-light of the walkway.
After a moment he put the hat back on, squared his shoulders and began to walk briskly to the street.
As soon as he reached it, looked both ways, then stepped out of sight to one side, we began to run.
A long crooked alley ran behind the row of buildings housing the Black Canary. A trickle of foul dirty water flowed down the center of the alley. The only light came from lonely bulbs over back doors of steel.
We ran for half a block or so, then I pulled her into another cramped aisle between buildings. After a tight, undignified squeeze that left both of our clothes streaked with grime, we came out on a Chinatown street.
There were few street lamps and even fewer that were lit. Plastic Chinese lanterns swung unlit on lines stretched across the street and over shuttered storefronts. Only the occasional window was lit, rooms hidden behind red curtains.
I chose this way because I know Chinatown.
The street was guaranteed to be empty this time of night. The few persons we might encounter would be more concerned with hiding their own faces than looking at ours. The street looked deserted, nearly dead, but I knew that every one of the dark buildings around us hid a speakeasy, a gambling hall, an opium den, or a brothel. Chinatown was alive with business, but at this hour, all that business had retreated into secret rooms, or gone literally underground.
“C’mon!” I whispered as I pulled Merrova along behind me. She stumbled and staggered, staring at the indecipherable writing on the windows and the carved dragons over lintels with evident fear.
“Don’t worry.” I assured her. “No one is going to mess with us, so long as we don’t interfere with anyone’s business.”
We passed a heavily wrinkled old man curled in a doorway under a blanket of newspapers. He watched us go by with eerie intensity. Anyone else would have assumed that he was just an indigent sleeping rough, but I was certain that he was a lookout for the Crimson Butterfly Tong. Our presence in their territory had been noticed. From here on our passage would be followed with cold scrutiny.
We hurried on for another block or so, then ducked into a side alley that would lead to the brightly lit street beyond. As we paused to catch our breath, there was a rattle among the trash cans. An older man wearing the shabby pajama suit that was so common in Chinatown limped out. He squinted at us for a moment, seeming to weigh some grave decision. Then he crossed his hands behind his back and shuffled toward us.
As he came up to us, he reeked of sour sweat and many, many layers of tobacco smoke were wrapped around him like the winding shrouds of a mummy. Merrova wrinkled her nose and started to say something. I shushed her and nodded respectfully to the elderly man.
He grinned, baring a mouth almost completely devoid of teeth.
“The dark man follows.” He whispered. “He is closer than you think.”
With that he bowed politely to us and shuffled away.
Shortly thereafter we could hear the tick tick tick of shoes on the sidewalk, approaching quickly. I didn’t have to look. The cold chills on my spine told me that it was the Man Dressed in Black. I looked to Merrova, who had crammed fingertips into her mouth to keep from screaming.
“Go!” I whispered and we ran as quietly as we could out toward the street.
Once we were back on the lighted boulevard, I pulled her close to me and edged into the shadows beside a closed up newsstand. From our hiding place I could watch the mouth of the alley we’d exited.
A shadow appeared on the wall of the far building, cast by a lone light over a doorway halfway down the alley. The shadow appeared huge, gigantic, a hulking, menacing patch of living blackness three stories tall. Then it shrank, tightened down to a man-sized silhouette stretched like taffy across the bricks. A few seconds later the Man Dressed in Black strode out on to the street. He squinted around, seeming to wince with each passing headlight. He lit a cigarette and puffed at it for several long moments. Finally he flicked it away in disgust. He was biting his lower lip. His face was tight with barely suppressed rage.
With an annoyed shrug of his shoulders, he walked to the nearest stairwell to the subway. He disappeared into darkness and we both breathed sighs of relief.
“Looks like he’s given up the chase for tonight.” I said. “Does he know where you live?”
“I don’t know.” She said hesitantly. “I don’t think so I tried to be careful about choosing a place. I don’t think anyone knows where I live, except my manager.”
I thought for several minutes, weighing the possibilities.
“Better that we don’t take the chance.” I decided. “We can check into a hotel near here. I know the staff there. They are very discrete.”
She nodded tiredly.
When the Hamilton Hotel first went up in the 1840’s, it was a cutting edge, first class hotel. Eight stories tall, with cut-stone gray walls and carved lintels, statuary and curlicues decorating every corner and doorway, the Hamilton towered over the quaint shops and extensive gardens that surrounded it. Now, it was a dingy gray relic, dwarfed by the office buildings surrounding it. Tenements squatted on most of what had once been gardens. It was a remnant of a more elegant age, now engulfed in the grit and grime of economic practicality and poverty that was the modern city.
There was no doorman, just a portal of tarnished brass and glass with the hotel name stenciled across it in peeling white paint. We pushed through. The lobby was antique marble with a threadbare, worn maroon rug that might have been crimson in its youth. Pieces of overstuffed furniture in varying states of disrepair were strewn about apparently at random. There was a huge stone fireplace, cold for decades,that yawned like a gaping mouth over tables strewn with out of date newspapers.
We walked up to the counter, which was staffed by a bored looking young man in a poorly fitted gray suit.
“Yeah?” He asked, barely looking up from some Pulp magazine filled with Spicy stories.
“We’d like a room.” I said, sliding a twenty across the counter. “A private room.”
All the rooms in the Hamilton were private, of course. By using that phrase I was signaling that we wanted off the record service and no interruptions.
“Sure, Pops!” He said with a grin. He pulled down a key attached to a small wooden placard with the room number carved into it. “Enjoy your stay.”
He eyed Anna Merrova with a wolfish smile and winked at me. I gave him a tense smile back. Anna blushed, a faint pink fluttered across her white cheeks, flicking like tongues of faded flame. He went back to his Spicy tales with a “lucky guy” mumble.
The elevators in the Hamilton were open cages of wrought iron which gave riders a full view of the lobby from top to bottom. I liked the fact that you could see who was in the lobby before arriving there. Even better, while the view faced the lobby, the doors opened into an enclosed service hallway, so a rider could exit unseen until walking through one of the arched doorways to the lobby, instead of being spilled out onto the maroon carpet. That gave you a chance to slip out the back or head back into the stairwells in case there was someone in the lobby that you didn’t want to see you.
That feature had saved a few lives over the years, and an uncounted number of marriages.
We got out of the elevator cage on the sixth floor and walked to our room. Up here the carpet was dark green. Wainscoting woodwork along the walls was stained a reddish brown. The walls were painted lime-green. Spaced regularly along the walls in the long spaces between room doors were portraits of the once famous. In their day these men and women had been household names. Congressmen, City Councilmen, Socialites, Entrepreneurs, Military Men, and the occasional Sports Hero—all had stayed in the hotel at some point in their careers. Now they were forgotten everywhere except on the plagues beneath their portraits on the Hamilton walls.
The Hamilton had once made its business by preserving the memories of its heyday. Now the money came from forgetting who stayed there, an hour at a time.
“Six Thirteen, this is us.” I said.
I had to fumble a bit to unlock the door. Both the lock and the key were older than I was.
The room was nice, but forgettable. There was a separate sitting room with chairs and a low table, and a bedroom beyond a red oak door. The furnishings were all modern, the carpet a little less so. The walls had the same lime-green paint and red-brown wood paneling as the hallway. There were paintings as well, almost all of them pastel landscapes. There was one portrait of a smiling young woman with an improbably long neck, oval face, and a wardrobe that apparently consisted mostly of carefully draped swathes of green velvet. A little plaque identified her as a famous stage actress who’d stayed in this very room. I’d never heard of her but apparently Anna Merrova had. She cooed appreciatively at the thought of sharing a room with the long forgotten star.
She looked around the room rather bleakly, then gave me a wan but brave little smile.
“I need to call my manager and let him know where I am. He’s liable to panic and call the police if I don’t and he can’t contact me.”
I nodded warily.
“The fewer people who know where you are, the safer you will be.” I warned her.
“I trust him with my life.” She replied. “I have to.”
She gave me a shy, almost girlish smile as she ducked into the bedroom. I listened to her muffled voice as she talked on the phone. Peering through the slats of the blinds over the windows, I examined the street below. Black shapes stumbled along the sidewalks, emerging briefly into pools of white light beneath the street lamps before disappearing again into the darkness. The occasional car cruised by, yellow headlights, red tail lights like fiery coals. Store signs were half-lit under flickering bulbs.
The whole street seemed dark and threatening in some ill-defined way. Secrets and shadows, stumbling shapes and weak lights that hid as much as they revealed. The perfect place to hide a murderer.
I could hear Merrova’s muffled voice behind the closed doors. She sounded angry then apologetic in turn. I smoked my last cigarette and stared out the window as I waited. Not for the first time I wished I carried a gun. I hadn’t in years. There was an incident with a jealous husband. My license was revoked.
Danny always carried the heat, for all the good it did him.
Finally I heard a loud clack and the chime of rattled bells. She’d hung up, hard, banging the hand piece down on the cradle. There was some angry muttering I couldn’t make out. Then some rustling.
Reluctantly I let go the last puff of sweet tobacco smoke and stubbed out the cigarette on the window sill.
The door to the bedroom swung open. Anna Merrova stepped out, wearing only a black silk slip and lingerie. There was a look on her face that was both hungry and embarrassed.
“I want to thank you, Mr. Tod.” She said huskily.
“No need for that, Ma’am. Just remember to pay me.” I replied, all business.
She blushed again, this time bright red instead of faded pink. Her cheeks looked like they were on fire.
She half closed her eyes. Pursed her lips, which looked wet and glossy.
“I don’t think you understand, Mr. Tod.” She said, her voice barely a breathless whisper. “I WANT to thank you.”
My carefully maintained professional mask broke like glass. My heart pounded fiercely. My breath froze in my chest until my lungs ached. I’d never wanted something so much in my life.
I held out my arms.
She ran across the room on bare feet and threw herself against me.
Her lips crushed against mine, rubbing fiercely back and forth. I was sure her lipstick would wind up smeared all over my mouth.
Her hands slapped against my chest, then slid under my arms until they rose and hooked over my shoulders. She pressed her body against mine, smashing her breasts against my chest, her belly was pasted over my abdomen. Her body was cold. Nipples as hard and cold as ice cubes gouged my chest. I was sure they were leaving read marks across my skin as she ground against me.
She seemed hungry to warm herself with the heat of my body. I was eager to comply.
After a long, long moment of panting passion, she pulled a little away and stared into my eyes with a suddenly clinical look of appraisement. Her face was abruptly a cool, businesslike mask. Her eyes were still hungry.
I started to ask her what was wrong, but I found that my lips and tongue were numb. Only an inarticulate gurgle came out. She raised one eyebrow. My legs went numb and I crumbled to the floor, lowered softly by her arms which were still hooked over my shoulders. She began to breathe hard. A satisfied smile rose on her lips. I would up flat on my back on the carpet. She sat astride me, panting eagerly. She smiled down at me, suddenly as cold as her flesh felt.
“Thank you, Mr. Tod.”
She stood up, smoothing her rumpled slip with sweeping hands. Her nipples still stood out, sharp as tacks beneath the black silk.
She must have seen where my eyes were aimed because she smirked like a contented cat. She ran one hand over her breast, teasing that distended point with her finger.
“I’m glad to see that you like me, Mr. Tod. It will make the difficult task ahead a bit less horrible.”
I couldn’t move a muscle. My entire body was numb. I was fully alert, however, I didn’t feel drugged at all.
She walked into the bedroom. This time she left the door open. I heard her dialing on the phone.
“He’s ready now.” Is all she said, then she hung up. She walked back out, wiping her lips with a handkerchief. Still wearing her slip and lingerie, she settled into a chair to wait.
She watched me carefully with passionless eyes.
One bare foot tapped impatiently.
After a seeming eternity, there was a knock at the door.
She leaped to her feet and ran to the door, opening it hurriedly.
The Man Dressed in Black stepped into the room, a heavy doctor’s bag clutched in one hand. He swept the hat from his head and tossed it on a chair. I stared with helpless fascination at that white streak through his glossy black hair. He glared at me and winced slightly, before turning back to Merrova.
“I was beginning to worry.” He said in a quiet, surprisingly soft voice. “I thought perhaps you were having second thoughts. That you might actually be trying to run away.”
Merrova’s chin came up defiantly. Pink flickered across her cheeks.
“I know better than that.” She answered hotly. “I don’t want to die now any more than I did the past two times. I don’t like being dead.”
The Doctor gave her a crooked half-smile.
“He was cleverer than I expected.” She continued. “And he has friends in Chinatown. They helped us.”
The Doctor raised his eyebrows in surprise.
“Well, he’s here now.” He said at last. “We better get started before the curare wears off. It could get messy after that. Help me get him on the table.”
She took my legs while he grabbed my shoulders and together they lifted me on to the low table in the sitting room.
The ceiling light overhead was a softly glowing hemisphere of frosted glass with a dark bolt in the middle. It looked like a huge, luminous breast with a black nipple.
I was beginning to feel a bit delirious.
The Doctor turned to his bag and began pulling things out. I heard the clink of glass bottles, caught a glimpse of brown rubber hose.
Anna Merrova appeared, leaning over my face.
There was a pitying but half-excited smile on her treacherous lips.
“Don’t worry.” She cooed, taking my head between her hands. “I’ll be with you through the whole thing. You won’t be alone.”
She pulled the top of my head against her chest. I could feel her heartbeat, fast and growing faster, through the soft flesh against my ears.
The Doctor appeared, leaning over me. He looked me in the eye and gave me a half-wince smile. His eyes squinted slightly.
“Hello, Mr. Tod. I am Doctor Xavier. I wish that I could tell you that this will be painless, but that would be a lie. It is going to hurt a very great deal. I do apologize for that, but the procedure has to be done while you’re awake. I am going to cut into your heart, insert a rather large bit of tubing and pump out your blood. All of it. You are Blood Group One, and both I and Miss Merrova need Group One blood to stay alive.”
I tried to scream, but barely a gurgle came out.
This couldn’t be happening! A rush of pure terror washed through me like electrified ice water.
“Shh.” Said Anna Merrova, rubbing my cheek with cold fingers. She laid one icy digit across my lips.
“The curare should help a bit.” Doctor Xavier continued. “But it can’t deaden all the sensations. You needn’t worry about the curare poisoning your blood, by the way. It’s actually an ingredient of Dr. Fleg’s artificial blood formula. Having it already in your bloodstream makes the operation easer and saves time when mixing the final formula. A happy coincidence, no?”
Doctor Xavier smiled fully, bright white teeth, eyes glittering.
I wanted to scream but still couldn’t.
That’s when Doctor Xavier tore open my shirt and began to cut into my chest with a steel scalpel.
He was right, it hurt a great deal!
As I coughed and choked and ground my teeth, vein bulging at my temples, Anna Merrova leaned close.
She hummed an East European lullaby and stroked my hair. I’m told it was a traditional tune that bereaved mothers sang over dying babies to ease their passing into Heaven. It was sad and tender and slow as a dying heartbeat. Her eyes staring into mine were dark and hungry and filled with excitement.
Many red-hot agonizing minutes later, everything went black. The last thing I could remember was that honey and ice-water voice singing in my ears and the feel of cold hands on my face.
“So, Detective Kincaid, that’s the whole story of my murder. I know where the people responsible for my death will be tonight, at a quarter past ten. If you hurry, you can catch them!”
Detective Roy Kincaid listened to the final details and jotted them down in a little pocket notebook. When he was through, there was a click and the line went dead.
He stared at the black handpiece for several seconds, a bemused smile on his face.
The call had to be some kind of prank, he thought.
Some quick digging brought up some relevant facts: Mickey Tod, AKA: Michael Tod, AKA: Miklas Tedeschi, born to immigrant parents in Parma, Ohio in 1914. Served with the Cleveland police department, discharged due to Prohibition linked violations. He was rounded up off duty during a raid on a speakeasy. Moved to New York, applied for and received a private investigator’s license. Died over a month ago, body shipped to the Brixby Funeral Home and interred in the Saint Sebastien Cemetery.
Kincaid reread the report.
A man who’s been dead for over a month just called him and gave Kincaid details on his own murder.
“This has to be a joke!” Kincaid murmured to himself.
Still…perhaps since he had names, a place, and a time, he should show up, just to get to the bottom of the thing.
He stood and reached for his hat before one unsettling detail struck him. Detective Roy Kincaid was Blood Group One himself. He sat down abruptly. A cold chill rippled down his spine.
He sat still for a long time, staring at the black telephone on his desk through which a dead man had just spoken, and he thought very hard.