Afterwards, neither man would ever admit he’d been waiting for it, but they’d turned as though one, ball dropped and forgotten, and charged towards Ella Mulvaney’s property—“charged” covering both McCormick’s sprint, and Hardcastles eager, but prudent, jog.
Mark arrived first, of course, and didn’t wait for his back-up before hollering, “You okay?” as he approached the house.
To his relief, he saw Mrs. Mulvaney appear in an open second-floor window.
“Mark?” She was clutching something to her chest, half enveloped in the folds of her robe. “Wait, I’ll get the door.” She disappeared into the shadows but a room light popped on a moment later.
Hardcastle caught up, panting. “She okay?”
Mark nodded. “The front door.”
They trotted to that side of the house, the door opening just as they arrived and a cautious Mrs. Mulvaney peering out. “Come in, come in.”
Her command was echoed by a high-pitched keening sound, very near at hand—the bundle she was clutching.
“It’s Tinker,” she murmured. “One of them kicked him.”
“‘Them’?” Hardcastle said, pushing past her toward the stairs.
“The men—there were two. Misty was barking, I heard noises, a struggle. They were in Owen’s room. Tinker fought like a tiger, poor dear. I screamed. Misty went for the one man’s throat.”
McCormick noticed Tinker’s better half sitting on the third step from the bottom, shivering.
“They’re gone?” Hardcastle asked.
“Retreated. The cowards.” Mrs. Mulvaney jutted her chin, and then dropped it again. “Oh, poor Tinks.”
There was a rustling sound from the top of the staircase and a shadowy silhouette against what light there was from upstairs. “I’m okay.”
He didn’t sound all that sure of it. McCormick reached over, hitting the light switch and flooding the foyer.
Hardcastle helped Ella over to the chair that sat next to the phone table. Misty’s muzzle was pink with blood, though precisely whose wasn’t clear. She slunk down the steps and crept to her mistress’ feet. McCormick mounted the stairs, reaching the top just as Owen started to sink. He got him under the arms and lowered him to sit on the top step.
“Head down, slow breaths.”
“They didn’t hit as hard as you,” Warlow muttered mildly. “I’m okay.” But he followed instructions.
Hardcastle called up from the foyer, “How’s he doing? We need an ambulance?”
Warlow lifted his head to shake it no. He seemed to immediately regret the motion but didn’t change his mind.
“No,” McCormick relayed.
“Well, you call the cops; we’ll run the pup in to the emergency vet’s.”
Warlow lifted his head again, this time peering between the balusters. “How bad?”
“He’ll be fine, Owen,” Mrs. Mulvaney said stoutly. “Just lock all the doors and—”
“No,” Hardcastle interjected. “Back to Gull’s Way, both of you. Call Frank from there.” He cast a narrow look at Warlow. “We don’t know who these guys were or what they wanted. Better to have some firepower handy.”
He’d already fetched Ella’s coat and was draping it around her shoulders; she apparently intended to make the trip in slippers and nightclothes. Misty was still shivering slightly, but gazed up at her expectantly. Ella looked down and said, firm but kind, “Stay with Owen and Mark, dear. You’ve already done everything you could.”
Then she, the judge, and their bundle were gone. Misty paced back and forth a few times, with whimpering yips at the unyielding door. She finally turned, trotted up the stairs, gave Mark one quick desultory growl, and sat herself down next to Warlow, as if awaiting further instructions regarding anyone else whose throat he might need ripped out.
McCormick grimaced, then nudged the man—careful not to aggravate his best friend. “You up for a walk?
Warlow straightened up slowly and nodded once.
Mark thought this willingness added some ballast to Hardcastle’s unspoken notion. House-breakers didn’t usually tackle homes with a car in the drive and other signs of current occupancy, and they didn’t stay to duke it out when they stumbled into an occupied room—especially one with dogs, even small dogs. This, combined with the attack on Warlow, made it look as if he’d been the object of their attentions all along.
”Who were those guys?“ Mark asked, pointedly. There was no immediate response. ”More unhappy customers?“
This got him an unexpected snort followed by a stubborn silence.
”Come on, then,“ Mark said half-tugging and half-supporting for the trip down the steps. ”We don’t want to be here if they decide to try again.“
They made it back to Gull’s Way, with Misty following faithfully and no untoward events. McCormick parked Warlow in a chair at the kitchen table and brought him a glass of water—a nice smooth glass, and room-temperature water to prevent any beading on the outer surface.
”Need something stronger?“ he inquired politely.
”No water’s fine,“ Warlow said. He even took a sip, wincing slightly. There was obviously some new damage since the afternoon’s fiasco.
Mark looked at him appraisingly then turned toward the phone.
”Wait.“ The sudden plea made Mark glance back. Warlow’s flat look of resignation now had a sharper edge.
”Frank’s a lieutenant with the L.A.P.D.; he’s a friend of Hardcastle’s. He’s fair, and he listens.“
”‘Unhappy customers’,“ Warlow grunted. ”You don’t know the half of it.“
”So tell me,“ Mark said, sitting himself back at the table
Warlow gazed off, towards the window and into the impenetrable night. He finally sighed and turned back to McCormick. ”What the hell, why not?“
He reached down and scooped up Misty, setting the diminutive dog in his lap, where she spared a quick tooth-baring snarl for Mark, and then promptly curled up, tucking her chin onto her paws. Warlow stroked her absently for a moment.
”Okay,“ he finally said, ”I suppose I ought to tell somebody—before I end up being a guest at someone else’s séance.“ He quirked a smile. ”I’ve always wondered how that works; if I’ll be as good at sending as receiving.“
”Those guys,“ Mark prodded, ”who were they?“
”Good question.“ Warlow tilted his head as if he had to consider it. ”I suppose they might be Saderucci’s, though nobody works for him anymore—well, except maybe for me— since he’s dead.“
”Joe Saderucci, the mob boss? Dead? The cops would definitely like to know that.“
Warlow laughed. ”Yeah, well, there’s a catch.“
Mark though he might’ve guessed that. ”You mean you killed him?“
Warlow gave him a hard stare. ”No … hell, no. Nothing like that.“ He shook his head. ”No. I never even met the guy. Well, not in the flesh, anyway.“
”I think I need to call Frank. “
”No.“ Warlow held up a hand and then, finally sensing Mark’s rising impatience, he leaned forward. ”Okay, Saderucci’s daughter, his only daughter, Vera Delaroe—“
Mark frowned. He’d seen this in one of the files. ”Married to Frankie Delaroe, suspected hit man?“
”The same.“ Warlow nodded. ”Mafia princess, you know the type? And her hubby’s on the fast track, they say.“
”Especially if there’s a position open at the top,“ Mark said drily. ”So what’s your relationship to the nice folks from Murder, Inc.?“
”Vera is what we call a seeker—her mother died when she was very young. They say she’s been interested in the paranormal for a long time, everything from Bardo to EVP.“
McCormick stared at him blankly. ”Ah—?“
”Never mind—psychic stuff. The thing is, a friend of a friend put Mrs. Delaroe onto me, and, trust me, you don’t say no to a Delaroe.“
”Not even to a former Saderucci.“
Warlow grimaced and nodded. ”So I agreed to the sitting. She wanted me to put her in touch with her mom.“
”Your aim was a little off?“
”It’s not like I have a Rolodex or something. Sometimes the recently dead are stronger. Heck, there’s lots of reasons for interference. All I know is I tranced out, and next thing, I’m sitting there, my throat is hoarse and Vera’s having hysterics, screaming about her daddy. A half-dozen of Saderucci’s guys are already pushing their way in, wanting to know if they should rip me apart.“
”Lemme guess, that was the first word they’d gotten that the boss wasn’t gonna be home for dinner?“
”I was lucky, really. Somebody found Frankie, and Vera’s cousin showed up.“
”Little Joey—Saderucci’s nephew?“ Mark whistled. It was one long descending note. ”You do know how to attract sharks. They say the rest of the mob was happy when Vera married a hit man—it brought the sanity level up in the family.“
Warlow shrugged. ”I didn’t know he was part of the deal. Anyway, he and Frankie both pooh-poohed the whole thing. Little Joey said he’d just talked to his uncle on the phone. I think some of them still wanted to kill me, though, just on general principle, making the princess cry and all that.“
”You talked them out of it?“
”Frankie did. Surprised the hell out of me. He told two of his guys to take me out and rough me up a little, then drop me somewhere.“
”He’s trying not to take the hit man approach to all his problems?“
”Maybe. Anyway, three of ‘em put me in a car. I said, if I had a choice, could they drop me at the cemetery? They liked that. Thought I had cojones.“ Warlow smiled. ”Which I don’t, not really.“
”And when you got there …?“
”The spirits take care of me. I told you that. Everybody’s got something to say in a cemetery. And goons, they’re a pretty superstitious bunch. I think one of them might’ve had a couple previous victims buried there. They couldn’t get out fast enough once they’d been recognized.“
”It drains you, ya know that?“ Warlow sighed. ”I was stumbling around, trying to find my way out of the brier patch; I ended up near the Mulvaney plot. Ella had just arrived.“
”The spirits taking care of you, huh?“
”Yeah,“ Warlow said, a little defiantly. ”That was three days ago. I’ve been trying to figure out if it’s safe to go home.“
”Doesn’t sound like it,“ Mark observed drily. ”Sounds like you were onto something.“
”I’ve been reading the LA Times. Nothing. Three days. I finally put the word out to a friend of mine just this morning … an acquaintance, really. I just wanted him to check my place, see if anyone was hanging around. He must’ve run into somebody.“
”Threats … or a payoff.“ Mark pondered that for a moment. ”Somebody wants you back—Saderucci must not’ve come home. Did you recognize the two who came after you?“
Warlow shook his head. ”No, but that doesn’t mean anything. I only met a couple of Saderucci’s guys.“
Mark tapped the table-top and then got to his feet. ”We gotta call Frank Harper. Hardcastle, too.“
Warlow didn’t protest, but as McCormick was reaching for the phone, the doorbell chimed. Warlow jerked, nervously.
McCormick cast him sharp look. ”Kinda polite for goons, don’t ya think?“
Warlow frowned and kept his voice low. ”Hardcastle mentioned firepower?“
”Same direction as the front door.“ Mark gestured. ”I think we ought to stick together.“
He moved first, easing a peek around the final door edge before the front hallway. His forehead wrinkled when he saw a female outline in the diamond-paned glass but he strode forward, not bothering with the gun cabinet. The vague form was familiar from recent contact.
He unlocked the door and nodded politely to Victoria Emmers.
”It’s late, I know,“ she said coolly, but I tried to call Ella a little while ago, to see if everything was alright and there wasn’t any answer. How did the—?”
She broke off suddenly, having set eyes on Warlow, who’d finally edged out from the shadows in the rear of the hallway, still holding Misty cradled in his arms.
“Where is Judge Hardcastle?” she said, dragging her gaze back to McCormick.
“Tinker had a little emergency. He’s driving Mrs. M. over to the vet.”
“I knew something like this would happen,” she said sharply, glancing daggers at Warlow.
“Home invaders,” Mark corrected politely. “Owen here tried to fight them off. Tinker got in the middle of it.”
Mrs. Emmers sniffed, not looking very abashed for her spot assumptions, which Mark had to admit—only internally, of course—had been pretty much on target.
“Would you like to come in?” he added, thinking that might be the best way to get rid of her.
“Yes—yes, I think I will,” Mrs. Emmers said with dogged determination. “Ella will need comfort and guidance,” she added, implying that guidance was in short supply around Gull’s Way.
McCormick sighed and opened the door a bit wider. “Come on in. You don’t mind if I load a shotgun, and call the cops, do you? We’re feeling a bit twitchy.”
”Not at all. I think the police most definitely should be called.” Mrs. Emmers shot one more hostile look at Warlow, slipped by Mark, and descended the two steps, taking the same seat she’d occupied only that afternoon.
It might have been just that minor distraction, her regal progression into the den, that provided the cover—that and the usual protective spirits having fled Emmers’ hostile aura, and Misty being just about done in. There was no other explanation for the man who stepped into the hallway behind Warlow, taking all of them completely by surprise.