I thought to go for my car, didn’t. Parking had been a nightmare; getting out of the garage would take more trouble than it was worth. Instead, I ran for the office, slipping and sliding until I made it to my block. There I jerked to a stop across the street. Saw a crowd outside, people who worked in the building, and cops swarming around them like flies. Three different meat wagons parked on the curb, and something being loaded into one, a small body bag. A tall child. A petite woman.
My legs didn’t give warning, just collapsed out from under me. Barely even felt it, when I hit the ground. Maybe I didn’t breathe. Maybe I breathed too fast.
Get a grip, Prince. You don’t know. You can’t know until you get up and find out.
I didn’t want to find out. But I tried getting up anyhow, tried and failed. My legs wouldn’t hold me. The numbness had spread from my feet to my calves, like they weren’t even there, like my getaway sticks had been cut short at the knee. But chill didn’t work like that, not that quick. I punched my leg, punched it hard. Didn’t feel it.
Now I was breathing too fast, and shaking all over. Of course you’re cold. You’re ass deep in the snow. Doesn’t mean—
But of course it did. Had Gail been shivering? The man with the rolled up shirtsleeves? Had the other journalists been avoiding Sammy or me? And at the stiff house, when my legs had fallen asleep—it was always the first sign, and I didn’t, I didn’t even—
I rolled my pants leg up, past the knee, and there was the cut, all right. Plenty of white coats, I remembered thinking. Caught the Needles from a dead man’s blood. My coat wasn’t white and the dead man had been a dead dame, but I guess it was close enough.
I started to laugh.
Some shamus I was, some great detective. I was…I was…
I was looking at Jack.
She was standing in the crowd, searching for something, and my lousy brain wouldn’t process the relief. I started to leak and couldn’t stop, so I viciously dug my knuckles into my eyeholes. By the time I looked up, Jack was crossing the street.
“Jeez, Prince,” Jack said. “I thought I was having a rough day.” She glanced at the meat wagon, and her face softened. “Oh—Jimmy, everyone’s okay. Me, Hank, even Nguyen. He did take a—no, let’s get off the street first.”
She offered her hand. I didn’t take it. Took a breath instead and tried to wiggle my toes.
“What do you—of course you can. Look, I’ll help.” But I saw it, the flash of understanding, as she examined my flushed mug, my shaking shoulders. “Come on, I’ve got you.”
She stared at me. I let my head drop forward, and she touched my cheek. “Oh, Jimmy,” she whispered.
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just took her hand and held on.
It took about ten minutes for the feeling to come back to my feet. The numbness was intermittent for the first few days, temporary until it suddenly wasn’t. Jack pulled me towards the parking lot. “We’re meeting Hank by his heap. He’s smoothing things over with the bulls.”
That meant green, and a lot of it. “Maybe you should start spinning that tale now.”
“Well, I didn’t catch the show myself—”
“—but from what I understand, Mr. Nguyen smelled almonds and, what with our lack of pastries, decided to book it fast.”
“Someone pumped Nevada gas into our office?”
Jack laughed at my outrage, though her eyes were still wet. “ So, Mr. Cheery—”
“The other dropper.” Jack shrugged at whatever face I was making. “Hey, that’s how Hank described him. I guess he grins a lot. Anyway, he cut Nguyen off, and the two tossed lead for a while. Mrs. O …”
I nodded. Mrs. O rented the office beside mine. She was sweet and tenacious and very short. I knew what had happened to Mrs. O.
I spotted Hank’s car, leaned against the trunk. “You say Nguyen got hurt?”
“Bullet to the leg. No real damage, but there probably would have been if Hank hadn’t shown up.” Jack smiled sourly at me. “I guess it’s lucky you called a babysitter.”
“Yeah,” I said, not apologetic in the slightest. “Where’s Nguyen now?”
“Oh,” Jack said. “Somewhere safe.”
She sounded entirely too pleased with herself. It took me a minute to puzzle out why. “For Christ’s —”
But I heard familiar footsteps, and I turned.
And there he was, man of the hour. Bronze skin, easy smile, and never mind the firefight with a hatchet man—his tailored waistcoat was still buttoned, his silver specs firmly fixed. He was ridiculous. Perfect. Kind of number who’d wrench your heartstrings up and down, too good for a palooka like me but still hoping I’d stick around, making him eggs.
Hank’s smile dipped. “Jimmy. You look like hell.”
“Maybe I’d look better, if my office hadn’t been shot up and you and Jack hadn’t stashed a fugitive at my parents’ house.” I shook my head. “You need a new job.”
“Prince and Delgado, Gumshoes for Hire?”
“Well, why not?”
Hank laughed. “I could take the long hours and terrible pay, but this tie, Jimmy.” He stepped in close, straightening my knot. “The most fashionable shamus I ever met still wore last year’s coat. I couldn’t make the sartorial sacrifice.”
He’d made one last night, all those silver buttons. I wanted to grab him by his waistcoat again, rip him out of it, bring his mouth to mine—but I couldn’t, and not just because Jack was watching. Never again—
I stepped back. “What about the suit who redecorated the building?”
“Long gone,” Hank said, not pushing. “Shot that lady. It was give chase or try to stop the bleeding. I made a call.”
For all that it had mattered, in the end. “The right one.”
“I know,” Hank said, like he did know. Sometimes, I envied that about him. I never knew what the hell I was doing. Less so today than ever.
“Jimmy,” Hank said. “Everything okay?”
Jack wouldn’t look at me.
“Yeah,” I said. “Aces.”
My parents’ house was cream-colored and stupidly big. Armed Brunos walked every inch of it—Mother had beefed up security six months ago when she’d nearly been popped at her own party. Presumably, she’d been targeted because of her involvement in ETN, a sort of Robin Hood outfit, except they stole pills instead of riches, pills I now needed if I wanted to see next week.
Jack was wrong about me—I’d never courted the big sleep. But those pills were meant for people whose folks didn’t rest on a bed of berries, and I sure as hell wouldn’t ask my parents to just buy me a future. I didn’t want to owe them anything, and anyway, some things shouldn’t be for sale.
Mr. Porter, the rickety butler who’d been at the house longer than I’d been alive, met us in the foyer. Supper had been served. Attendance was mandatory.
“Do rich people eat off gold plates?” Jack asked as we followed Porter. “Or are they just like really shiny silver?”
“Yeah,” I said. “This is going to go great.”
Dinner was uncomfortable, and not just because Jack couldn’t stop smirking or because my folks and I didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye. It was like the setup for a bad joke: a button man, a gentleman, a street kid, a gumshoe, and two drug smugglers all chow down at the same table. Joke was on Father, though, who didn’t know what Nguyen did for scratch or what his frau and her secretary were really up to. Almost felt sorry for the old man.
“It’s a tragedy, of course, what happened to Snow,” Father said. “But this is what happens when a woman runs around without an escort.”
Of course, it never took long, getting over any misplaced sympathy. “Dame gets whacked, and you blame the dame for it? Why am I even surprised?”
Father bristled, but Mother put a hand over his. “I wish she had taken more precautions,” Mother said, “but Snow could be quite resourceful, in her own way.”
Nguyen’s head lifted. “You knew her?”
“A little,” Mother said, “although perhaps not so well as I thought. Actresses are difficult, in that way. They wear so very many faces.”
Nguyen narrowed his eyes, though in thought or anger, I couldn’t tell. “In my experience,” he said. “Everyone’s two-faced. Sometimes, three.”
Father harrumphed. “Perhaps you’re associating with the wrong sort, Ms. Nguyen.”
“Mister,” Nguyen said, not even glancing at him. “And there are all kinds of reasons to wear more than one face.”
“Not for any man of principle.”
Principle, I mouthed at Hank, disbelieving. He shook his head at me, more warning than agreement.
“Not everyone can afford principles,” Nguyen said. “And not everyone gets a choice, how many faces they keep. World decides for you, how you’re supposed to look, who you’re supposed to be. Faces are forced on you. No one wants to acknowledge the one you’ve already got.”
Father, lacking a response to that, grumbled dissent into his food. Mother met Nguyen’s eyes and inclined her head.
I eyed her for a minute, tapping my fork thoughtfully against my plate. “You seemed pretty chummy at that party,” I said suddenly.
Mother turned to me, sharp. “What was that, dear?”
“Snow. Half a year back, that fundraiser you held. I remember you chatting her up right before your big speech.”
Mother’s face didn’t change, but I noticed she was suddenly squeezing her fork a little harder than necessary. Interesting. “I believe you’re right,” she said, voice even. “If memory serves, she had some interest in the cause.”
I paused. “Which cause was that again? You have so many.”
Mother blinked innocently at me. “Endangered gorillas, of course.”
“Of course,” I said, mostly to myself.
Mother’s fundraisers were all about one thing: skimming money to help fund Equal Treatment Now. If Snow had some interest in that cause…well, she was sick, or had been, anyway. Easy to see how she might have some sympathy for ETN’s mission. Still, it wasn’t like Snow needed them for their smuggled supply; she’d been heiress to the WH throne. The pills had practically been her birthright.
“I’d have thought she’d have her own…causes,” I said, stumbling for a word that wouldn’t give the game away. I’d never been great at doublespeak. “You know, ones closer to home.”
Hank shrugged easily. “Well, Snow didn’t get along with her folks, did she? Probably wasn’t all that interested in their pet projects.”
Didn’t want her parents’ help, Hank meant. Well, that was something I could understand, at least. Except…Snow had been interested in WH, or had feigned interest, anyway, all to prove some friend of hers wrong.
What had she said, the last time I’d seen her? Maybe it’ll be good for you. Maybe you’ll learn something.
But wrong about what? Who’d been that friend? And did she learn something that got her killed, something to do with that file, maybe? Or was WH just another red herring?
“Snow certainly never got along with her stepmother,” Mother said, drawing me back to the conversation. “Rumor is that Patricia’s envious. She used to be an actress herself, you know, though I must say I’ve always suspected her true talents lie behind the curtain.”
Her eyes cut to me. I frowned, but Father was already clearing his throat, probably afraid to continue a conversation that he couldn’t keep up with, much less lead. “Tell me, what is your line of work, M—Nguyen? More respectable than a common gumshoe, I hope.”
I opened my mouth, and someone kicked me under the table.
“This and that,” Nguyen said. I snorted, which only got me another kick to the shins. “It’s been hard, after the war.”
“The…oh.” Father squinted, trying to make sense of Nguyen’s face. “I didn’t realize they let people like you into the military.”
“Christ on a cracker,” I muttered, gulping wine.
“They don’t,” Nguyen said evenly. “Not on paper, anyway, but you offer to bleed for someone, they tend to care less if your pants are filled with sausage or socks. And I was good at what I did.”
“Medic?” I guessed hopefully.
Naturally. I poured myself more wine.
Father couldn’t get past the sausage. “There were others? Like you?”
“In the war? Sure, but not in my platoon. All men except one woman, dressing up like a bird so she could serve.”
“But isn’t that the same—”
“No,” Nguyen said. He pushed up to reach for another slice of duck and winced. I wondered what kind of story Mother had spun to explain a bullet wound. “Prince, that lead pan out?”
“Maybe,” I said. “Got a follow-up in the morning. How about you? Heard you ran into an old friend.”
“Not how I’d describe him,” Nguyen said dryly. “But yeah. Came for a file he thought I’d collected.”
There was that file again. “Disorganized guy, huh? Sloppy?”
Nguyen shook his head. “Careless, sometimes,” he said. “But never sloppy.”
So, Mr. Almonds didn’t knock off Snow either. Then who did? And how was he involved? I desperately wanted to ask Jack what she’d managed to dig up, but I didn’t know how to without Father catching on.
“Oh, Jimmy,” Mother said. “You did get my message, didn’t you? About Ada Singh?”
I sighed. “That the broad you want to anchor me to?”
“She’s new to Spindle,” Mother said, ignoring that. “In fact, I believe she just moved into the Tremaine manor.” I tried not to startle, with limited success. “You’re so picky. I’m sure you two would get on, if you just gave her a chance.”
I was less picky than most people, and Mother knew it. Father didn’t, though—I’d learned the cost of not guarding my secrets from him a long time ago. “You’re always trying to chain me to the same kind of cookie pusher. You think some fancy dame and I will make each other happy?” I didn’t look at Hank. “Maybe I want someone outside all that.”
Someone kicked me again, but gentler, bumping ankles.
“You want to marry some common girl?” Father asked, aghast. He flushed almost immediately—hardly good manners, bringing up dough when half the guests were common. “Honestly, Jim, isn’t that business of yours an eccentricity enough? Are you so determined to make our family a laughingstock?”
I smiled. “It’s a funny world we live in,” I said, “when you can bring shame to your family just by marrying the wrong sort. I guess I never understood anyone’s principles. No one seems to mind hoarding wealth, hypocrisy, letting little boys burn.”
“Jimmy,” Mother said.
But Father only shook his head. “What are y—oh, for God’s sake, Jim. That was twenty years ago!”
I laughed and it must have sounded ugly because Nguyen stopped eating and Jack took my hand. “There is a statute of limitations on murder these days?”
“It was the law!”
“Funny, I notice we’re still— ”
“Some lives are worth more than others. That’s the reality, son. Your friend Timmy— “
“Tommy,” I snapped. “You pompous sonofa— ”
“I think we’ve gotten off topic,” Hank said.
I glared at him. “That’s right, we were talking about my love life. Care to weigh in?”
“Your father’s right,” Mother said before Hank could, and I turned to stare at her. “There are some ugly truths in this world you’ll have to face eventually. One of them is marriage. There’s no harm in seeking…alternative…experiences when you’re young, but no one stays young forever, dear. You’re 30 years old now, and it’s high time you started acting like it. You will settle down and marry a respectable woman because that…that is what’s done.”
I couldn’t say anything for a minute. Finally, I shook Jack off and threw back the rest of my wine. “Believe me,” I said. “Today has been all about facing ugly truths.”
Dinner was mostly silent, after that.
I turned in early that night, pushing off the case till morning. It was time we couldn’t afford, not with a grinning psychopath looking to kill us, but I didn’t have any energy left to give, and it was only a matter of time before I dropped.
It was still dark out when something woke me, a loud click-clacking sound, high heels against hardwood floors. Not Hank, then, and not Jack, who would probably eat a pair of heels before wearing them. I rolled to reach my gat just as the bedroom door creaked open.
“Oh, for Heaven’s sake, Jimmy. Put that down.”
I slumped into the mattress, letting the gun slide through my fingers. “The hell time is it?”
“Two,” Mother said, and mercilessly switched on the light. I groaned and threw a pillow over my mug, though not before noticing her fancy dress and serious expression. Still in her eveningwear this late—must have just come home from some ritzy shindig.
“If you’re here to tell me more about that dame—”
“Snow called me yesterday.”
My eyebrows rose, and I let the pillow fall away from my face. “Guess you knew her better than you let on. What did she say?”
“I wouldn’t know. I didn’t call her back. We hadn’t spoken in some time.”
I squinted at Mother. She looked tired, and I didn’t think it had anything to do with the late hour. She’s been unusually quiet today, Hank had said. I hadn’t thought anything of it, at the time. “You two have a falling out?”
“She may have wanted me dead.”
I stared at her for a minute, then scrubbed my face and sat up. “How about you tell me the whole story?”
Mother sat down at the edge of my bed. “ETN was providing Snow with medication,” she said. “The drops were anonymous in order to protect the organization, but I felt that Snow could be a valuable ally, considering her access to WH. I decided that unmasking myself was worth the risk. The party was our first meet.”
“And five minutes later, Ella was supposed to retire you.”
Mother smiled thinly. “You can see why I was wary about taking Snow’s calls.”
“I’ll say. That’s one hell of a coincidence.” But you couldn’t count out coincidence. Life was hinky that way. “So now you think Snow was on the square after all.”
“Maybe,” Mother said. “It’s impossible to know for sure. Anyone might have wanted her dead. But the last time we spoke, before I cut her off for good, I suggested that she should look into her family’s company, see what skeletons she could dig up. I warned her she might find bloodier secrets than she expected.”
I stared at her. “You were the friend she talked about, the one she wanted to prove wrong.”
Mother raised an eyebrow. “I suppose so. I told her to be careful, to not underestimate her parents…but Snow didn’t always listen to me. She was so certain she knew best.” She paused. “I always felt you two would have been an excellent match.”
I rolled my eyes, but let it go. “Thanks for the scoop.”
She nodded, chin falling forward, slow, like her head was too heavy, or her heart. I didn’t like it. Defeated didn’t look right on Evelyn Prince.
“Hey,” I said, stopping her as she stood. “Even if Snow was telling the truth before about not being involved…you couldn’t have known. It wasn’t your fault, what happened.”
Mother smiled down at me. “It very well might have been,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean I’d go back and change what I did. That’s life in the Spindle, dear. If you can’t make the hard calls when you need to, well. You’ll never make it out at all.” She touched my hair briefly, then walked over to switch off the light. “Sweet dreams, Jimmy.”
She shut the door behind her.
“Yeah,” I said, laying back down and closing my eyes against the thoughts spinning in my head, all the secrets and blood and Snow’s dead face, staring up at me. “Yeah. Sweet dreams, Jimmy. Good luck with that.”
It took me a long time to fall back asleep. When I woke, it was morning and Tommy’s name was still on my lips. Also, Jack was poking me in the ribs. “Might wanna get up.”
I had zero interest in doing that. “Something happen?”
“Cops found Snow’s killer.”
That got me moving. “Who?”
“Some junkie. They’re saying he killed her for dope money.”
“What’s he saying?”
“Not much. Hard to talk with six holes in your chest.”
Yeah, that would present a problem. “Everyone already up?”
Jack nodded. “Hank’s making eggs,” she said, tentatively, like she knew those words meant something else to me. Probably did. She was gonna make one hell of a detective someday. “Prince? How long—”
“Steady? About five months. But we’ve been dancing around it a lot longer than that.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
I looked up at the ceiling. “I’ve never cared much what anyone else thinks,” I said. “Never been ashamed of it. But it’s one thing to be something, another to declare it. To always be seen as it. And I do care what you think.”
“I’d rather be shamus first. Rich boy first. Pain in the ass first.”
“You’re brother first,” Jack said. She kissed me on the cheek and frowned at the heat of my skin. “Jimmy—”
“One problem at a time.”
“This isn’t a problem that will wait long.”
Or, anyway, it wouldn’t be a problem for long. But I tried not to think about that.
Hank was, indeed, making eggs when I walked into the kitchen. “I hear the bulls cracked the case,” I said. “Who wants to take the day off and celebrate?”
Jack hopped up on a stool by Nguyen. “Who wants to bet Mr. Cheery killed this patsy and fed his corpse to the bulls?”
I groaned. “We’re really going with Mr. Cheery?”
“Got something better?”
“Mr. Almonds,” I said.
“He does strongly favor cyanide,” Nguyen said. The shadows under his eyes were even darker. I wondered if he’d slept at all. “A gun is never his first choice.”
“In that case,” Jack said, “I’ve got someone else Almond Joy knocked off: Bobby Barksdale.”
Jack grinned and stole bacon off my plate because the streets don’t teach you mercy, even for the dying. She spelled the results of her inquiries. “Last week, Snow was doing some kind of PR campaign for Daddy’s company. Whole thing about how devoted WH is to finding a cure—”
“Bullshit,” Nguyen said. “Who would profit from that?”
“Exactly,” Jack said. “So, somehow, Snow makes her way to Bobby Barksdale. Barksdale’s a nobody, but his sister worked at WH, some hot shot stethoscope.”
“Died three years ago. Lost her wallet, heels, and toes. Meanwhile, Bobby Barksdale died two days ago. Had a rat problem. Cops are saying the extermination went wrong.”
“You’re sure it was cyanide?” Hank asked.
Jack nodded. “Saw some pictures. Egg’s cheeks were so pink, you’d think he was ashamed of being dead.”
“So, someone hired Nguyen and Mr. Almonds at the same time?” I frowned. “Seems desperate.”
“Maybe the client didn’t want them connected,” Nguyen said. “Or maybe he just needed the job done fast.”
Maybe. But what was the urgency? Snow’s file? Had she given it to Barksdale, or—no, had Barksdale given it to her? Had it once belonged to his sister? Why had the croaker been murdered in the first place? Was it something she knew, or…something she discovered?
All at once, I felt something dangerous bubbling up in my chest, something an awful lot like hope. I pushed it down. “Let me make a call to the coroner’s office, see if I can’t find out what’s what. Then I’ve got another breakfast to get to.”
Hank nodded. “I’ll come with.”
“Not a request, Jimmy.”
I opened my mouth, and Jack cut me off. “You aren’t going by yourself. Nguyen’s got one hole in him already, and it’s bad business to get your client dead. So it’s Hank or it’s me.”
“Unless you’d rather wake your parents,” Hank said, grinning. “They could tag along instead.”
“Jack, you stay. I’d miss you if you were dead.”
“Ouch,” Hank said. “See if I make you breakfast again.”
Predictably, Doc refused to verify anything over the phone, but I could read between the lines: Denny Carter, Snow’s supposed killer, had been poisoned first, shot second. No cut marks to his hands or wrists. Something about Denny was ringing bells, but I couldn’t seem to tie his name to a face.
We were barely out of the driveway before Hank picked up on the tail. “Should’ve taken the underground escape.”
“There’s an underground escape?”
“Evelyn takes a hit on her life pretty seriously,” Hank said. “Even when the dropper changes her mind.”
Droppers had been doing that a lot lately. I still didn’t really know why Mr. Nguyen hadn’t taken the shot. Maybe she seduced him, but he seemed too guarded for that. “You knew, didn’t you?” I asked him. “About Mother and Snow.”
“Sure,” Hank said easily. “You gonna get all riled that I didn’t spill?”
I thought about it. “No,” I decided finally. “Can’t expect you to break Mother’s confidence, even for me. I get that.” Didn’t have to like it, though.
Hank must have seen that in my face because he smiled. “Been known to keep your secrets too,” he reminded me.
But you don’t know all my secrets, I thought, not anymore.
I cleared my throat and eyed the black sedan in the side view mirror. “Can you lose it?”
Hank grinned. “It hurts,” he said, “that you even have to ask.”
By the time we pulled into Mae’s, we’d lost the car. I started to get out, but Hank just sat there, tapping his fingers against the wheel. “We can play this however you want it.”
“Didn’t have a strategy in mind. I’ll growl. You’ll be charming like always, and—”
“Not that,” Hank said.
“I can be a bird on the side. You decide to make your parents proud for once, hitch yourself to some fancy dame? I can keep being your secret. I’ve been all kinds of secrets before, and more dangerous ones than this. I don’t need to be your one and only.”
“But if you wanna defy the world like you always do, take my hand and tell ’em all to go to hell? I’ll do it, Jimmy. I love your mother and I don’t think she’d fire me, but if I’m wrong? Well. Prince & Delgado, right? I was lying before. I’d wear an ugly tie for you.”
“I want you, Jimmy,” Hank said, searching my face. “I want however much of yourself you’re willing to give.”
I opened my mouth. Couldn’t use it.
Hank smiled. “Just something to think about it. I’m gonna let Jack know someone has eyes on the house.”
He hopped out of the car. I let my head fall back. “Christ,” I said. “I want to give you everything.”
But ugly truths, right? Everything I had to give was diseased.
The Price You Pay Is Red continues next week when Jimmy discovers who killed Snow, and why..