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Ambush

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I hadn't gone out that Sunday afternoon early in '38 looking for trouble, but I was still coming back with one hell of a shiner.

Between the eye and my suit, I'd considered detouring to Saul Panzer's until I remembered he was busy down in Atlantic City. My forgetting that kind of detail gives you some idea of my state of mind, Still, I doubt I would've ended up visiting Saul. The way I looked required explanation, and I wasn't in a mood for wit right then, not even my own.

Obvious concern would've seemed even worse although I wasn't sure why. Only my knowing Fritz was still out on the town enjoying his day off, let me try the back way into the brownstone.

Although there was nothing unusual about my entering the brownstone through the small rear garden, that was the first time I'd made sure the lights inside were off before I let myself into the kitchen. Wolfe should be done improvising his dinner, which would give me my chance to get upstairs to my bedroom and make some repairs before anyone saw me.

Too bad Wolfe had decided this was the moment to interrupt his reading and replenish his beer supply. I turned away from closing the door just as he flicked on the light switch. Even I am prepared to admit the sight that confronted him must have been a lulu.

He didn't say a word, but he did grunt. His eyes narrowed, too. But I'd worked for him long enough that he knew not to ask questions.

Since he was Wolfe, this didn't mean he kept quiet. Instead he said, "There's raw steak in the refrigerator, but I would suggest ice."

I wanted to make some crack about his defending Monday's lunch, but it seemed like too much of an effort. His eyes narrowed a bit more and he told me, "Sit down."

"I'll get blood on the chair."

"Pfui."

I realized I'd also used up my daily ration of arguing. I sat.

He ran the cold tap over a dishtowel and handed it to me before he took a second towel and bundled up some chipped ice. After I had dabbed the worst of the grime off my face, he passed me the wrapped-up ice, and I tried pressing it against my eye.

All my knuckles were in bad shape. My right hand also wasn't doing well since I hadn't entirely avoided the stomp before I rolled away and got back up onto my feet. I had maybe twenty seconds to assess this joy before Wolf sat, repossessed the ice, and held it against my eye.

"More than one man. Two. No, three," he said.

I closed my remaining eye and tried ignoring how close he was, how his other hand was moving slowly through my hair to check my skull. Once I couldn't see him, his irritated tone made it easy to reply, "Yep," using the side of my mouth that wasn't going to swell.

"Belt buckles. Boots. At least one heavy ring. A truncheon, but not expertly wielded. From the state of your hands and head, the ambush wasn't successful. You gave almost as good as you got." There was a pause before he continued, "According to the Gazette, the German American Bund will have a rally this evening. I assume their so-called security squads were out roaming the streets, looking for victims, like the carrion eaters they are. You chose to meddle."

"Gosh, you could be a detective," I managed to say, all admiration. Okay, maybe I wasn't entirely out of the mood for wit.

"Shut up," he told me. He shifted the ice pack a little, and I could feel it when he carefully coaxed some hair free, probably before it could stick to my forehead. "Are you going to be intransigent about seeing Doctor Vollmer?"

"Not tomorrow, I won't."

"Your ribs?"

"Fine. They concentrated on stomping, not kicking."

"Poor tactics. I assume the brawl didn't last long enough for them to correct their error."

I would've laughed if I hadn't known it would've hurt. "This is the only time I expect to see Meyer Lansky's goons joining me as cavalry"

"Indeed." He removed the ice and gently took my chin in one hand, my cue to open my eyes. He was going to examine the size of my pupils, double-checking for a concussion.

He'd fought against the Germans in the Great War, and I'd heard what he thought of the Nazis. Why I was taken by surprise by what I saw in his face, I don't know. Maybe it was the memories of him teaching a brash young kid not to pick unnecessary fights while on his business that had made me expect condemnation.

Even though it hurt, I felt myself grinning.

"Don't preen," he told me. The exhalation of the words was warm against my skin. His big hand kept cradling my chin. What was in his eyes still gave him away.

My grin widened. That also hurt.

I don't think he meant to do more than brush his lips briefly against my cheek like some French general. In fact, I don't think he meant to do that, but it is what he did. I'm the one who shifted, slowly stropped the side of my face against his, and kept going when he went very still. But I could hear his harsh inhalation.

"I'd do this again," I told him.

He knew better than to ask what. But I also felt the slight tightening of his fingers, the low, hot thrum of my own response, and knew I'd used one wrong word.

"I'll do this again."

He let go then, leaned back, and scowled, but too late. What happened next also hurt my lip, but not enough to stop me, not even enough to ruin my fun.

There are choices worth risking a set of lumps.