The Price You Pay Is Red by Carlie St. George (Spindle City Mysteries #2)
Published 11/24/2015 | 13,714 Words
“All women are dangerous,” Rose said. “Anyone underestimated is.”
When Jimmy Prince—excessively stubborn gumshoe and maker of terrible life choices–stumbles on the corpse of Spindle City’s darling actress and heiress Sarah “Snow” White, he and street-savvy sidekick Jack are once again on a case that threatens to expose ugly truths from Spindle’s dark underbelly. Turns out Snow’s death is no ordinary open-and-shut case involving something as mundane as a jealous coworker or spurned lover. Her murder points to a much deeper, insidious plot that involves some of Spindle’s biggest criminals–as well as some of its greatest, most celebrated citizens.
At stake is a rumored vaccine that could save thousands of lives from the Pins & Needles plague–a disease for which there is no cure, and that has already affected Jimmy’s friends and family in irreparable ways. But as Jimmy Prince knows all too well, hope is for saps, and The Spindle is not a city for those who believe in happy endings. Even when they want to, above everything else.
It was snowing by the time I split, a solid six inches on the ground. Kind of night you wanted to close the curtains and warm your body with someone else. Maybe say some silly words about your heartstrings, about the gorgeous number pulling ‘em up and down—but silly words wouldn’t get you far in a city governed by cold cash and fear. Anyone who said otherwise was selling snake oil; anyone who believed otherwise was a sap. And this wasn’t a city for saps. Fools didn’t last long here, and they didn’t die pretty.
Maybe I felt regret at leaving so soon, but I didn’t say a word and I didn’t look back.
I cut through an alley on my way home, sliding painfully into the corner of a dumpster when I slipped and nearly kissed the street. Six months ago, I had a run-in with a dropper named Deanna Tremaine who took an unhealthy interest in chopping up feet. It was the long goodbye for two of my toes, and I’d had some trouble with balance ever since. I was still steadying myself when I saw her, lying on her back, still and stiff.
I knelt beside the body. Her face was as pale as the snow beneath her, framed by hair as dark as the sky. Made her sound beautiful, and hell, she probably had been. But the dead don’t look nothing but dead.
She looked familiar, but I couldn’t place her, and all the giggle juice I’d had earlier wasn’t doing much to clear things up. There was blood on her lips and on her cheap rags too. Red drag marks leading to the street.
I glanced through her purse. It was empty of dough—only a handkerchief and a business card for The Poisoned Apple. I thought about pocketing it, didn’t. This wasn’t my case, not without anyone paying me for it. But it bugged me that I couldn’t connect her face. I’d seen her before. I knew I had.
Her hair. There was something wrong with her hair.
I brushed strands away from her cheeks and was surprised when a whole wig fell back, exposing golden curls. Only then could I make her: Sarah, AKA, Snow White, stage actress and only child of a man who ran one of the best extortion rackets in town, only he called it a pharmaceutical company. Spindle City had been crippled by the Pins & Needles these past twenty years, and only Howard White had the pills that could keep it in check. Never cured, though. There was no cure. But if you had enough berries, you could keep pulling the long con on God.
Not many people had that many berries.
I needed to get up, needed to call the bulls. Sure didn’t need to sit there in the cold, getting more of Snow’s blood on my slacks. But I couldn’t. We hadn’t been friends, not really, but the Whites and the Princes went to all the same parties, and she’d helped me when I’d needed it once, even if she did do it for her own amusement. “Hell, kid,” I said. “How did you end up here?”
She couldn’t answer me, of course, but I sat by her side anyway, like she wanted to, like she might.
Eventually, I left to call the coppers. Jack was asleep on the couch by the time I got home, half-buried under a mound of blankets. I kissed her on the forehead and put myself to bed, not waking until the smell of her cooking reached my room. I didn’t want to move, but self-preservation instincts took over.
“For the love of God, kid. You cooking that pig, or cremating it?” At least the bacon was recognizably bacon—I didn’t even wanna know what charred goop was in the next pan. I made a move to chuck it, and Jack body-blocked me, like she was some giant goon and not a scrawny fifteen-year-old standing at five-foot-nothing.
“Not everyone can turn their nose up at free food, Prince,” Jack said. “No matter what some little rich boy thinks of it.”
I wasn’t convinced starving rats would eat this crap, but I also wasn’t the one who’d spent half my life on the streets. “Hardly a rich boy lately,” I said instead, glancing around the rundown closet I called an apartment. “But I can afford to avoid food poisoning, at least, so box that scrap up for your kitties and orphans and let me fry up some actual chow.”
Standing over the stove felt good; it was cold as Christ, this winter. Jack sat at the counter, judging me with her judgy little eyes. “You look like hell.”
“Let me guess. You have a suggestion.”
“Cut back on the hooch.”
“You never have any fun suggestions.”
“Maybe you’ve been having too much fun. You’re going out a lot lately.”
“Not enough hours in the day. Sleep, dead. You know how it goes.”
“I know people who court the big sleep usually nod off sooner than they mean to.” I served up a plate of eggs, and she snatched it from me. “At least tell me you’re doing some dancing with your drinking?”
“Ever seen an eight-toed man dance?”
“Prince, I’ve seen men with no feet dance. It’s not all about the steps. Doesn’t your dame like to spin?”
I carefully didn’t react to that.
Jack grinned. “I knew it! I knew you had a moll!”
I reached for the paper. “No moll, Jack.”
“You’re a lousy liar. You’ve been seeing her, what, four months now? How’d you meet? What she do for scratch?” Jack eyed me suspiciously. “You didn’t fall for another dropper, did you?”
I scowled. I didn’t fall for Ella, she just…had good stems. Good lips. Impeccable timing and stellar aim. Perfectly natural, I should appreciate the woman who saved my skin.
I wondered where Ella was now. She’d sent postcards over the past six months, but it had been a few weeks since her last one, and anyway, I didn’t really trust those Greetings from Wherever. Ella wasn’t exactly what you’d call an open person. She never even signed her name on the cards, only left a series of random sketches: on one card, an apple, another, an angel. The most recent card had some kind of sewing machine. I liked to imagine these drawings indicated a positive frame of mind, considering her more typical artwork tended towards sharp blades and bloody hands. “C’mon, Prince,” Jack said, drawing me back to the present. “Gotta give me something.”
Strategically, I picked up the paper and held it between us. A familiar face stared back from the front page.
“I don’t see why you’re being so squirrely. Except…Christ, she’s not respectable, is she? Oh, tell me she’s someone your mother would approve of…Prince? Hey, what’s got you in a twist?”
What had me in a twist was the rotten yarn I was reading. “Actress jumped near The Grand. Mugged and left for dead.”
“I read it,” Jack said. “You don’t think she was mugged?”
“Maybe,” I said. “But not where I found her.”
“You found her?”
“Did I forget to mention that?” I ignored Jack’s indignation by shoving eggs in my face. “Looks like I’ll have to shower and shave after all.”
“Seeing your moll already?”
“No moll, Jack. Just gotta see a dame about a stiff.”
“Hey, Doc. Remember me?”
The doc looked up. Moreno, didn’t know her first name. Mid-40’s and heavy around the middle, with exquisite sun-kissed brown skin and round specs that reminded me of Hank. She was also working at an autopsy table, elbow-deep in some stiff’s belly. Risky job, even with all that protective gear—plenty of white coats caught the Needles from a dead man’s blood.
“Sure,” Doc said. “You’re the shamus with the foot fetish. Fresh out of severed extremities today, sorry.”
“That’s okay. Here about something else.”
“Branching out into kneecaps?”
“Chest wounds,” I said, “and inconsistencies.”
Doc wasn’t honest, but she sure was sharp. “Don’t know what you mean,” she said flatly. “And can’t say I care to.”
“But it’s such a good tale.” I hopped up on one of the empty tables. “Famous skirt gets put on ice, stabbed, I’d say. Then a shamus with a foot fetish comes along and spots drag marks in the snow. The skirt, she’s bloody, all right, but she did most of her bleeding somewhere else. Still, the bulls say she died right there. What do you make of that?”
“Maybe the shamus didn’t see what he thought he saw.”
“Maybe the doc told the bulls what they wanted to hear.”
“Maybe she did,” Doc said. “What’s the shamus looking for now? Dough? There are safer ways to raise it. Knocking over banks. Insulting gangsters’ mothers.”
“Maybe he’s looking for justice.”
“Then he’s stupider than he looks.” Doc fished a bullet out of the stiff’s belly and carefully placed it in a tray. “Look, you wanna get yourself whacked, I’ll save you a table. But I’m not looking to move six feet under, myself.”
“Someone threaten to pop you if you flap your lips?”
She snorted. “Kid, I’ve worked in the City a long time. I know when to keep my head down. Besides, what if they did? You gonna use that bean shooter in your pocket to protect me?” She picked up a bone saw, held it with purpose. “I’m not looking for a hero, and I wouldn’t choose you if I was. I take care of myself, any way I can.”
“Needs a gravedigger, last I checked.”
I shook my head, hopped off the table. Nearly fell—my legs had fallen asleep, and my damn left foot didn’t want to hold me. “Just give me something to go on,” I said. “One clue, and I’m out of your hair.”
Doc gave me the up-and-down. Seemed ominous, but that was probably just all those metal teeth in her hands. “Snow was stabbed,” she said finally, “but not with a knife. Piece of glass did her in. Pulled a shard straight from her heart.”
“You’re saying fat chance of recovering the murder weapon.”
“I’m saying it’s not an easy implement to use without dicing yourself.”
Right. That was something at least. I patted my pockets, but she surprised me by taking a step back.
“On the house,” Doc said, smiling. “Can always take them next time. When you roll in here.”
I felt unreasonably exhausted, leaving the morgue. The Spindle had a long, ugly history of corruption, and some days it weighed on me more than others. Six months ago, word of a police cover-up wouldn’t have stopped me poking my nose where it didn’t belong; hell, it would’ve spurred me on because being disagreeable is what I do best.
But after a little bloody slipper nearly turned my world around, well. Some cases have a way of rearranging your priorities, and mine wasn’t to the dead.
When I got back to the office, Jack was sitting on top of her desk because sitting behind it would make too much sense. “Have fun at the stiff house?”
“Romp and a half,” I said sourly. My head hurt from bad memories and last night’s sauce, and my knee ached from slamming into the dumpster. Getting old was hell. “I was thinking. Maybe we should back away from this one.”
Jack raised an eyebrow. “Give up on a hinky case no one’s paying us for? You?”
“Shut it. What’s the word here?”
“Your mom called,” Jack said, grinning. “Left the name of some fancy dame she’d like you to meet. Guess you haven’t told her about your moll, either.”
“And we’ve got a new client, Mr. Nguyen. Stuck him in the back. Looks like bad news.”
“Wouldn’t say. But it’s fishy, whatever it is.” Jack tugged at her hopelessly tangled red curls. “He’s jumpy as hell.”
She shook her head. “Running.”
Great. Thinking about dropping one case for getting too hot and another one walks in with its hair still on fire. No use stalling, though. I lit a gasper, stepped past Jack’s desk, and walked into my office proper.
I learned a few things fast. One, Jack was right: our client was either behind the eight-ball or still shaking at cannon fire and old ghosts. Sat too straight to be anything but a soldier, and he’d turned his chair so his back was to the wall, giving me a good glimpse at his high cheekbones and broken nose. I suspected, too, that Mr. Nguyen had once probably gone by Miss, judging by how nothing bobbed in his throat when he swallowed at the door slamming behind me.
Third thing I knew: Nguyen had his hand around a roscoe in his pocket, and he wasn’t quite so shook he didn’t know how to use it.
I didn’t reach for my own. “You didn’t come here to kill me, did you, Mr. Nguyen? Be curing me of one hell of a hangover, if you did.”
“Wasn’t the plan,” Nguyen said, not letting go of that roscoe for a second.
“But plans change, is that it?” I sat down, kicking my feet up on my desk. “All right. I’m suitably alarmed. Now, suppose you tell me what the hell you want.”
He chewed on that for a minute, watching me. I watched him right back, noted how his hair was still hacked into the ugly regulation cut army men were known for. The war had ended two years ago. Still in the service? Or just lousy with clippers?
Finally Nguyen asked, “You’re the private eye who found Sarah White?”
I hesitated and took an extra long drag of my gasper to cover it, glancing at Nguyen’s viciously bitten nails and the shadows under his dark eyes. “Yeah, I tumbled across her. You two drink out of the same bottle?”
“I was hired to kill her,” Nguyen said.
So. Not friends, then.
I was starting to regret not pulling my gat, or at least not taking Hank up on those lessons he’d offered six months back. Tickled him rosy that a secretary could toss lead better than a gumshoe. But I’d always been better at puzzles than iron.
“Told you,” Nguyen said. “If killing you was the plan, you’d be dead. I’m good at my work.”
“I’ve seen your work,” I reminded him. “Effective, sure, but sloppy. Very sloppy.”
“I’m not sloppy,” Nguyen said.
I put out my cigarette, glanced at his hands. Bruised knuckles, but no glass wounds. “You’re saying you didn’t set Snow on ice?”
He shook his head. “Change of heart.”
“Heart, sure. Let me guess: you’re a sucker for a pretty face. Just couldn’t bring yourself to do it.” Nguyen shifted in his seat, and I stared at him. “You can’t be serious.”
“Doesn’t matter why I didn’t do it. I didn’t.”
“And when you told your client the deal was off?”
Nguyen grinned humorlessly. There was still blood on his teeth. “Didn’t take it well.”
“What about the payment?”
“Tried to give it back,” Nguyen said, “but all I got was a chopper squad for my trouble.”
I whistled. “Lucky they didn’t fill you with daylight. But I’m still waiting to hear what you need me for.”
Nguyen kicked a briefcase my way. I opened it and just looked for a while. “I want you to find Sarah’s killer,” he said. “Not the hatchet man who did it. I want the high pillow.”
“You never met face-to-face?”
“It’s not unusual,” he said. “Plenty of channels people use to get in touch with men like me. Only all my usual channels are suddenly dead, and I’m liable to be next. Whoever it is has deep pockets, and I can’t run forever.”
I looked back at the stacks of kale. Couldn’t retire on it, but it’d go a long, long way to paying the rent. Buy Jack some new rags, maybe make enough bacon to feed the Spindle’s orphans for a month. But green wasn’t worth much if you were too dead to spend it.
I lit another gasper. “Jack!”
Jack opened the door so fast I knew she’d been pressed against it. She looked at me, then Nguyen, then the briefcase between us. I could almost see the sums behind her eyes.
“Gonna be dicey. We don’t have to take it.”
Jack’s smile was sad. “Prince, we were always going to take it.”
“The job,” Nguyen said, “didn’t sit right with me from the start. Client wanted it ugly, slow. Asked for some file Sarah had on her, and a souvenir.”
“Do I wanna know what that means?”
“Some small bit of flesh, cut off or cut out. Proof of life, he called it.” Nguyen shook his head. “I never take the goofy jobs. Got no interest in torture. Cutting out hearts, hacking off heels. What’s the point in that?”
I winced. “Your get any details about that file?”
Nguyen shook his head. “Nope. Sarah tried to tell me about it—a secret, she said, something that could save Spindle City—but I shut that down fast. Better not to know.”
It was interesting that he kept calling her Sarah. “Not looking to save the city?”
“Who says the city wants to be saved?” Nguyen lit his own gasper, inhaled methodically, without relish. “I told Sarah to get the hell out of town. Should’ve gone with her. She was…vulnerable, a wounded thing. But protecting people, that’s never the part I was good at.”
Nobody needed to ask what he was good at. “Face like hers,” Jack said, “Snow would have been easy to spot, even with a wig. Maybe we should ask—”
“No.” I cut her off.
“She might know something.”
I snorted. “She probably knows the whole story, but I already owe the Godmother one favor. Can’t afford two. If my lead doesn’t pan out…then we’ll see.”
Jack jumped off my desk. “Then where are we going?”
“You’re going to the stacks to find out everything you can about the Whites. Look into anyone with a grudge against WH Pharmaceuticals— ”
“Oh, so everyone?”
“—and see if you can get a bead on with what Snow’s been up to lately. Last I heard, she’s been helping down at WH when she’s not on stage, something about proving a friend of hers wrong. Might be a good place to start.”
“And where will you be while I’m doing all the work?”
I smiled. “Getting a drink with an old friend. But first, I’ve got to make a call.”
I didn’t make the call from the office. Instead, I used a payphone outside, stepping over some sad sack so far gone in the Pins he couldn’t figure why his limbs weren’t responding.
“Need a favor,” I said when Hank picked up. “Take an early break?”
Hank laughed. “Not sure my boss would approve.”
“Well, you know how desperately I care about her approval.”
“It’d be easier on everyone if you actually didn’t.”
“Skip it,” Hank said, “and tell me about this favor. You looking for an extra gat?”
“Maybe,” I said sullenly. “Right now, I just need a babysitter. Caught a client who could spell trouble.”
Whatever Hank muttered, it didn’t sound complimentary. I really needed to learn Spanish.
“Look, I’m not wild about leaving him alone in my office. And if Jack wraps before I do—”
“You don’t want her alone with him?”
“Not really. Could be he’s on the square, but there are some funny angles to his story. Also.” I hesitated. “He’s a button man.”
This time, I deserved whatever the hell Hank was saying. “Is that a no?”
“The things I do for you, Jimmy.” But I could hear the smile in his voice, through the exasperation. “I should be able to duck out. Evelyn’s been unusually quiet today; I don’t think she’d mind some space. But you owe me.”
I grinned. “What have you got in mind?”
“Well, I don’t know. Make me breakfast?” When I didn’t respond, he only laughed. “Don’t worry. I’m sure you’re a terrible cook.”
I was terrible at a lot of things. Manners. Tossing lead. Relationships. I’d never made pals easy, and had trouble keeping the few I had. Friends, partners, they expected honesty, transparency. But exposing your underbelly was a dangerous habit to have.
“I’ll think of something,” Hank said easily after waiting a beat. “Maybe—“
“I make eggs okay,” I said.
Hank was quiet. Finally, “I like eggs.”
“Good,” I said, and hung up.
The Poisoned Apple was a gin mill and not much to look at, indoors or out. But people didn’t come for the fancy décor; they came for cheap booze and a bindle on the sly. They came for the music. They came for Rose.
She was singing today, something slow and aching. Rehearsing for the late night crowd. I only glanced away long enough to order a hooker of whiskey from the sloppy suit behind the bar, so stumbling drunk on his own hooch he’d started to slowly nod off. I snatched the glass and lifted it silently, meeting Rose’s eyes from across the room.
She had big eyes, big lips, big hips. Used to have big curls too, but she’d cropped her hair short and looked better for it. Got to see more of her face, her full cheeks and smooth brown skin. Everything about her was…ample, perfect. Women didn’t come much more beautiful than Rose.
We’d had a good time together, years back. But I never knew what I wanted, and she always knew she wanted more than me.
I emptied my glass as Rose finished her set. I looked to grab another, but the bartender was facedown and snoring. “Sorry about that,” Rose said. I turned, but she was already up and sliding across the counter in her tight red dress. “He’s not usually like this. Maybe D’s bad habits are catching.”
“D your man?”
She laughed. “Now, what would I want with a man who passes out before the fun begins? D is our piano man, least when he can kick the dope long enough to drag his sorry ass into work. What’ll you have?”
“Wouldn’t say no to a whiskey,” I said, “and some information, if you’ve got it.”
“It’s always information with you.” Rose waved off my green. “Hooch is on the house. But answers, those can be steep.”
“Shouldn’t you hear the questions before you start shaking me down?”
“You really gonna stand there and pretend this isn’t about that actress?” I must have pulled a face because she laughed. “Some rich white girl shows up, and a few days later she’s iced? Doesn’t take a dick, Jimmy.”
“It doesn’t,” I agreed. “But isn’t it more fun with one?”
“Well, I don’t always turn them down,” Rose said. “But sometimes they’re more trouble than they’re worth. A woman can get anywhere a dick gets, and usually twice as fast.” She waggled her fingers, and I choked on the last of my whiskey.
“Subtle,” I said, when I could breathe.
“Never been one to waste time, is all. Speaking of.”
I sighed and pulled out one of Nguyen’s C’s. Rose tucked the cabbage away. “Snow came here yesterday.”
“How did she look?”
Rose snorted. “Out of place. Tried to keep her face down, but a face like that? People notice. Stanley—” Rose kicked the bartender. “—certainly did.”
“Did Snow pick up on his attentions?”
“Pick up on? Incited, encouraged. Carefully cultivated.”
“You’re saying she liked him.”
“I’m saying she needed him. I don’t know what your princess was running from, Jimmy, but anyone could see she was in trouble. Needed a ride out of the City, and didn’t sound like she had means to get one. You can only use the weapons you got.”
I frowned. “She flutter her eyelashes at you?”
“Unfortunately not,” Rose said, “I did try to be a shoulder, but she wouldn’t lean on it. Couldn’t work me, so she didn’t trust me. Pity.”
Smart woman, I thought. Rose was ambitious, ruthless. The kind of friend you needed to keep an eye on. “She show any papers to you or your barkeep? Maybe a file?”
“Didn’t see one myself,” Rose said. “You can ask Stanley if you want, but it’ll be a while before you get any sense outta him. Or I might have another name for you, someone else your skirt talked to.”
She smiled. Spread her empty hands.
I sighed and pulled out my wallet again.
Turned out, Snow had met with some newshounds for the Daily Trumpet, Gail and Sammy Simms. I tried getting Jack or Hank on the horn, but no one picked up at the office. Didn’t mean much. Jack could still be at the stacks, Hank in traffic. Nguyen was a fool if he was playing receptionist. But I didn’t know all the players yet; hell, I didn’t even know what game I was playing. I’d have been easier, hearing Jack or Hank or even Nguyen’s voice.
Nothing being easy, I steered my heap downtown, cursing at the heater that had been working fine yesterday. I started wondering at the different faces of Snow—Nguyen had called her vulnerable, but Rose had described a player. I wasn’t sure if that said more about Snow, or Nguyen and Rose. I also wasn’t sure what triggered Snow’s change of heart: she’d seemed set to leave Spindle City but surely, a sit-down with two reporters suggested a priority shift.
The Daily Trumpet was about six blocks from my office and apparently suffering from its own heating woes. I shivered under my coat as I followed a man in rolled up shirtsleeves and tight, gray slacks—slacks I couldn’t help but notice and deeply appreciate the fit of. I tipped my hat in thanks as he left me at Gail Simms’s cubicle.
She sat near the back, scowling over a typewriter. She was incredibly short, maybe 4’4”, with light brown skin and dark hair half-hidden under a newsboy cap. I knocked against the cubicle wall, and she turned her impressive scowl on me. “The hell do you want?”
I opened my mouth to say something, probably rude, and someone sneezed behind me, presumably Sammy. He had maybe an inch on his sister, and his skin was several shades darker. “Jim Prince, isn’t it?” He offered his hand. “Please don’t mind my sister. Her bark is only as bad as her bite.”
Gail didn’t seem offended by this. She smiled, or maybe bared her teeth. I shook Sammy’s hand, noted his smooth, uncut palms. “I’m looking into Snow White’s murder.”
Sammy’s eyes were a startling shade of sea glass green. They also proved he was a lousy poker player. He immediately glanced at his sister.
“Not our story,” Gail said.
“Right. Listen, maybe we ought to take a walk?” There were plenty of ears about, and no way of knowing who was friendly.
Gail looked at Sammy. She spoke with her eyebrows; he responded by squinting. Being an only child, I couldn’t decipher a lick of it.
“The thing is,” Sammy said politely, “we don’t know you. Your name, of course, but your character? Well, that’s harder to make. And we try not to take walks with suits we don’t know.”
“Find many sources that way?”
“We’ve…had to be more careful of late.”
They were spooked. That was easy to see, but I wasn’t really the reassuring type. “Look, it wasn’t that hard to track you down. If I can do it, the people you’re actually afraid of can too. Whatever this is, I don’t think cowering under your typewriters is gonna save your heads. You let me in on the tale, maybe I can help write a happy ending. Why did you meet Snow? Did she pass on some kind of file?”
Gail and Sammy looked at each other.
“I’m sorry,” Sammy said finally. “We prefer to do our homework first. But we’re quick studies.”
Sammy sneezed again. I noticed everyone was giving us a wide berth—people were often edgy around any signs of illness, no matter if they were symptoms of the Pins or not. “You know Mae’s?”
“Waffle house. Sure.”
“They make a mean breakfast. Let’s say ten am. You check out, we’ll be there. Compare notes.”
It wasn’t the arrangement I was hoping for, but I didn’t think the Simms would fold under pressure. More liable to split and leave me with nothing, so I just nodded and left.
The chill was brutal outside. My back ached from the shaking. A cop car whizzed past me, then another, then another, all heading west.
The office was west.
Don’t be such a bunny, I told myself, even as I limped to the pay phone at the corner. The ice from the sidewalk had seeped through my battered shoes, felt like I was walking on bricks instead of feet. Half the damn city is in that direction.
But no one answered when I called.
Jack was thorough, could still be tracking down leads, but Hank should have been there by now. And he wouldn’t just sit idly by, letting the phone ring either. Would’ve given him an ulcer. Hank was a professional. He had standards.
Something was wrong.
I dropped the phone and ran.
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 Simms were seated by the time we walked in. Gail looked at Hank, then at me. “Didn’t say you were bringing somebody.”
“Wasn’t sure you’d show,” I said, sitting down. “And I hate eating alone. Anyway, you can trust him.”
“We can’t even trust you.”
“Let’s not go over this old hash again. You did your homework; otherwise, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. So how about you tell me what I came to hear.”
The siblings looked at each other. I tapped on the table impatiently. “It’s about the Pins, right? It’s about…”
But it sounded so ridiculous. Too stupid to even say out loud. The damn hope was heavy in my chest, and I was scared to give it voice.
Hank, though. Hank had never been afraid of hope. “WH stays on top by charging three arms and a leg for their product, but if there were no sickness to cure?”
If it could be eliminated, if I could be …
“Is there…” I stumbled, tried again. “Is there a cure?”
No one said anything for a minute, just four people contemplating each other’s sorry mugs. “We didn’t believe her at first,” Sammy said finally. “Gail never did, not until she was dead. Seemed too fantastical, a dream scoop. But Snow said she could prove it. She just wanted to do the right thing.”
“We don’t know that,” Gail said.
“Of course we—”
“No,” Gail said. “Maybe she wanted to do the right thing. Maybe she just wanted to fuck her parents over. Either way, she’s dead now. We can’t know what she intended.”
“She died trying to help people—”
“There’s a cure?”
Everyone looked at me, and no wonder; my voice wasn’t strong enough to carry that much want, cracked hard under the pressure. I white-knuckled my cup of joe.
“It’s a vaccine,” Sammy said, giving me the up and down. His voice was overly kind. “It wouldn’t heal anyone already infected, but for everyone else …”
I cleared my throat. “It could save Spindle City,” I said.
It was hard to think through the exhaustion, the disappointment. Thankfully, the waitress came by to take our orders and give me time. “You said she had proof. A file?”
Sammy nodded. “A formula. Something WH knew about and killed to cover up. She took it from Bobby Barksdale after he died, but she’d stashed it before she came to us. Didn’t say where, only that it was risky to go back.”
Gail snorted. “She was working Sammy. Wanted him to retrieve it for her.”
“She did,” Gail said. “She just did it without actually asking.” She glared down at her coffee, restlessly turning the cup in her hands. “Best case, Snow was lying, wasting our time. Worst, she was putting my baby brother in someone’s crosshairs. So I told her she’d have to get it herself.”
Sammy sighed, fell back in his seat. “It’s just if I’d gone with her…I don’t like it weighing on my conscience.”
“Then don’t carry it,” Gail said. “I can stand the weight.”
The waitress came back with our food. Gail, attacking her pancakes, said, “Anyway, it’s done now. Snow’s killer probably plucked that formula right off her corpse.”
“Actually,” Hank said, “we’re pretty sure they didn’t. But where she stashed it, that’s anyone’s guess.”
I’d been thinking about that. “We do know one place Snow stopped.”
I nodded absently, looking at Gail. She wasn’t wearing a cap today, and dark hair framed her face. Dark as the sky, I thought. “Say we get our hands on this paper. Say we pass it to you. Could be pushback, if you publish it. Could be a lot more than that.”
Sammy and Gail looked at each other. “Hell,” Gail said finally. “No one becomes a newshound seeking a long, comfortable life. You find that formula, we’ll see it makes the front page. Sometimes, you have to do the right thing. Right?”
Sure. So long as you could figure out what that was.
We left the Simms at Mae’s and headed down to The Grand. No sign of a tail, either, which was good unless they had double-backed to watch the house. I didn’t know if Jack was safer there or with us, and the thought made my skin itch. Or maybe that was the fever, burning underneath.
It was a miracle Hank hadn’t seen it yet. Distracted, I supposed: assassins, conspiracies, cures. There was a lot to think about. But I’d have to tell him, and soon. I just didn’t know how. Baby, I’ve got a death warrant and I can’t even kiss you goodbye.
The Grand was closed. Hank and I went around back and broke in to have a look at Snow’s dressing room. It was clean—too clean. Not a speck of lint on the carpet. No shoes kicked off in the corner, no shawl half-hanging off her chair. The scent of bleach was unmistakable. Nothing good had happened here.
Hank started rifling through drawers as I looked at the dressing table. There was a large oval mirror hanging over it. The glass was spotless. Cleaned, or new.
“You see any answers in that mirror?” Hank asked. “Because I don’t think I’ve got any here.”
“Actually,” I said. “Yeah.”
I knelt down and felt under the table with my fingers, cursing when they met something sharp. Glass, just a tiny shard. It could have been from anything: a broken ornament, a decanter, a slipper from the Godmother’s shop. It might not mean anything at all, but I didn’t believe that.
“Jimmy? You hurt?”
I dropped the shard in my pocket and hastily wrapped a handkerchief around my bleeding finger. “Just a scratch,” I said. “It happened here, I think. Maybe the mirror broke when Snow fought back. Killer stabbed her in the heart.”
“Did Nguyen say where he caught up with Snow?”
“It could’ve been here.”
I thought about that. “Makes sense. Snow finds Barksdale, grabs the research, and books it here. Puts her file away somewhere while she grabs a wig and frock. Nguyen comes to kill her, and she somehow persuades him to change his mind—or maybe he’s already decided not to ice her. Maybe he just comes to warn her off. Either way, she forgets the papers in her haste to get away and blow town. Later, she comes back for them and gets killed. But who did the deed? Not Mr. Almonds. Denny Carter, either.”
“What about whoever hired the hit in the first place?”
I didn’t know who that was. Although I had my suspicions—certainly one man stood a lot to lose if the truth about the vaccine came out. I just didn’t know if Howard White had it in him to stab his own daughter in the heart.
“Let’s go back to Denny Carter,” I said.
“He could have been anyone, Jimmy.”
“No.” Christ, I was tired. “No, there’s something there. I just can’t think…”
“All right,” Hank said. “What do we know? Daily Trumpet said he was white, a musician, a dope fiend. Said he—”
Least when he can kick the dope long enough—
“Wait,” I said. “Dope fiend.”
D’s our piano man. Least when he can kick the dope long enough to drag his sorry ass into work.
“He worked at The Poisoned Apple,” I said. “Must have been where he saw Snow, right? Recognized her face, wondered who she was hiding from, dressed-down as she was. Wondered if that was a scoop worth something to someone.”
“Could be,” Hank said. “So Denny, what? Put out feelers?”
Plenty of channels people use, to get in touch with men like me.
“Sure,” I said. “Say he follows Snow to the theater. Gets in touch with Mr. Almonds, or one of his contacts anyway. Gives up the location for a wad of green and ends up with a mouthful of Nevada gas for his trouble.”
Hank paced, working it through. “Maybe,” he said finally. “Can’t prove any of it, though. And even if it’s true, where the hell is that formula? Because we’ve got nothing without it.”
I dropped into Snow’s dressing chair, stared at myself in the mirror. Cheeks flushed, eyes bleary. Exhausted to the bone. What had Snow seen, when she looked at herself? Had she been sick long? Was that why she came back all alone?
Would she have come back all alone?
I’m saying she needed him.
There are a lot of ways to ask for something.
You can only use the weapons you got.
“Jesus,” I said to Hank. “I think I know where it is.”
The Poisoned Apple was hopping when we walked in. I didn’t see Rose on the floor, but this time she wasn’t the person I’d come to see.
Stanley was behind the bar, serving shots to some and sliding bindles to others. He seemed more awake today, or at least not so pie-eyed he was about to hit the floor with his face, but his hands shook as he poured drinks, and small wonder, what he was carrying.
I pushed a dozing hophead off his stool and sat down. Hank, ever polite, stood and waved Stanley over. “Name’s Prince,” I said when he came by. “You remember me? I’m the gumshoe investigating Snow White’s murder.”
Stanley swallowed. “I didn’t—they caught that—”
“Oh, relax,” I said. “I know you didn’t ice her. No cuts on your hands, for one thing. But you do have something of hers, and that’s probably something we should talk about in private.”
I motioned towards the back office, and when Stanley looked reluctant, Hank flashed a smile and one of his many gats.
Stanley took the hint.
Rose half-started as we came in. Looked like she’d been crunching numbers on those packets Stanley had been pushing. “Stan, I oughta beat you upside the head with a wooden spoon. Have you got no sense at all? Go back out there and—”
“Sorry,” I said. “But I need him to stick around.”
Rose looked at me. “Baby, you can shake him down for answers, but I don’t think he’s got none to spill.”
“Well, actually, I have information for you.”
Rose raised her eyebrows. “You don’t say?”
“Yeah, and cause I’m such a good guy, I’ll give it away for free.” I dropped in a chair and Hank dropped beside me. “You probably read some interesting fiction about your piano man, Denny, but what they left out of the papers is that he tipped Snow’s killer to her location, and that killer repaid him by making a patsy from his corpse. See, Snow knew too much—she’d gotten her hands on a vaccine against the Needles, but the formula itself is still missing.” I looked at Stanley. “Guess who’s been hiding it?”
Stanley shook all over now. “I—I didn’t—”
“See, Snow rarely did anything on her own,” I said. “She had a way with people, tipping them head over heels. I guess you know that. You must have fallen pretty hard, to go to The Grand with her that night. Still, when her killers came, you ran. Isn’t that the way of it?”
“I didn’t have a choice. I—”
“Could be she told you to run. Save yourself, get the truth out. Or maybe it was less heroic. Maybe you just left her to die. Either way, you made it, she didn’t. That’s just life sometimes. But you’ve been drinking yourself stupid since, trying to figure out what the hell to do.”
Stanley buried his ugly mug in his hands, like maybe the world wouldn’t exist if he couldn’t see it. “I didn’t want it,” he muttered. “I don’t—”
“Shut up, Stanley,” Rose said. She teased her thumbnail between her teeth. “All right. Say Stanley gives up this formula. What then? What are you planning to do with it?”
“Got a couple of newshounds on the line.”
“Say your killer buys them.”
“Don’t think they can be bought.”
“Anyone can be bought,” Rose said, disgusted. “But fine. Say your killer just buys the whole paper instead. He’s already got the bulls in his pocket—even if your formula makes it to print, who says the case even sees trial?”
“This isn’t any old murder,” I said. “The Spindle shrugs her shoulders at violence, at corruption, but a vaccine?” I shook my head. “No. The city will cry for blood. No matter how much green WH throws at it, they’ll be done.”
Hank turned to me. “Maybe,” he said. “But trials have been fixed before. Even if Snow’s killer makes it to a cell, he knows our names, our faces—”
“So what? You wanna bury this?” Impossibly, I felt betrayed, found myself standing without meaning to.
“I didn’t say that,” Hank said. He reached for my cut hand and stared at me when I pulled back too fast. “But Jimmy, you said it yourself. There could be a lot more than pushback if this story breaks. I don’t think we all walk away from this.”
Yeah. I didn’t think we did, either.
I paced around the room, staying close to the wall in case I needed the support. I could only see two options, and they both ended in the stiff house. I was dead inside a week anyway, but Hank, Nguyen, Mother. Jack. I had to keep them safe. There had to be a third option. There had to be—
“You’ve got that look again,” Hank said.
“I remember that look,” Rose agreed.
I sat back down, glanced at Hank. “It’s risky,” I said. “And it’ll mean doing some bad things.”
Hank smiled softly. “I told you,” he said. “I’ll play it any way you want it.”
I let out a shaky breath. “Okay, then Stanley? Time for you to make a deal.”
Rose closed The Poisoned Apple early that night and grabbed her purse. “Not that I don’t like you,” she said. “But I can’t afford to be here if things go south.” She kissed me on the cheek before I could stop her. If she noticed the warmth of my skin, it didn’t show.
Rose laughed. “Honey, I don’t think a kiss is gonna cut it this time.”
She took off, leaving Stanley and me in the bar, and Stanley wasn’t much of a conversationalist. It was almost a relief when the knock came at midnight. But I didn’t expect the person who walked in.
“The last time I saw you, Mr. Prince, you were hunting down a woman in a blue dress. Did you ever find her?”
“She found me, actually,” I said. “How have you been, Pat?”
Patricia White smiled tightly. She’d been quite the looker on stage, and neither age nor proximity detracted from that, but her years were settling in noticeably around her neck, a swan with loose, limp skin. There was also a gun in her hand, but it wasn’t the iron that interested me.
“I didn’t know if Howard could stab his own daughter,” I said. “But I’ll admit, I didn’t think it’d be you.”
She looked at the deep, ugly cuts on her fingers with something disturbingly similar to pride. “Howard falls to pieces if he nicks himself shaving. He has no stomach for business.”
I laughed. “Is that what you call this? Cause in my experience, stabbings are usually…emotional.”
Patricia’s smile went sour. “Please, Mr. Prince. Tell me your theory. What have you’ve gleaned from society gossip? I resented her superior talent on stage—no, her youth, her singular beauty.” She snorted. “As if I’d cling to my fading looks when the future of my company is at stake.”
“Who do you think runs it? Howard?” Patricia laughed. “Howard is a small man with small ideas. I’m sure he could run a drugstore quite adequately, but WH Pharmaceuticals takes a different sort of leader.”
She ignored me. “I used to take such triumph in it, you know. WH owns this City; I own this City, and no one has ever suspected. But years of being paraded around like walking jewelry, pretending to be just another simpering fool; well, it does take its toll. It’s a terrible thing, listening to someone get the credit for your life’s work. I’ve always wondered how your mother handles it.”
I startled. If she knew about Mother, about ETN, then she—she must have tried—I inhaled sharply, entirely unprepared for the sudden fury choking my lungs. “So, Snow was your little spy, after all?”
Patricia laughed. “Is that what Evelyn thought? No, I’m afraid Snow wasn’t my source, nor did she know anything about the assassination attempt. Would that I had hired Thom back then, instead of the Tremaines and their so-called invisible woman. She turned out to be quite visible, your lady in blue.” She shook her head. “I have had some very poor luck with hired killers, lately.”
“Gosh,” I said. “My heart bleeds for you.”
Patricia ignored that too, already looking back at her hands. “I must admit, though, I was almost grateful when Mr. Nguyen’s conscience got the best of him. Thom should have handled Snow himself, of course, but it was so much more satisfying to hold the glass, to get my hands dirty for once. Perhaps I’ll do it again soon. Now. Where’s the formula?”
There were a lot of cutting things I could say to that. Instead, I found myself asking, “Who the hell is Thom?”
“Mr. Almonds, I think.”
I turned. Hank walked through the back, smiling apologetically; immediately behind him was a white-bearded man carrying one of Hank’s gats. The smile cutting his face in half left little question as to his identity.
Mr. Almonds—I refused to think of him as Thom—pushed Hank towards me and stood by Patricia. She looked at Hank with interest. “You look vaguely familiar to me. Bodyguard?”
“Filing papers, were you?”
“We just wanted to make sure you were on the square,” I said. “Wouldn’t want to make a deal, only to run into a chopper squad outside.”
“I’m not interested in playing tricks, Mr. Prince. I only want my formula. Where is it?”
“First, you have to guarantee we all walk out of here alive. That includes everyone at my parents’ house, even Nguyen. I give you the file, and we all go our separate ways. Agreed?”
“Agreed. Where is it?”
This was the tricky part.
I opened my mouth—and then laughed. “Sorry,” I said. “I just can’t believe you did all this on your own. Not even a little bit of help, your husband, a partner—”
“A man, you mean?”
“Hey, doll, I’m just—”
“Howard doesn’t know about the vaccine. If he did, he’d just sell it at the highest number he could count to. I didn’t need his help or anyone’s, so give me my formula, Mr. Prince, or I’ll slice off that tongue of yours with glass.”
I stepped back quickly. “Okay, okay,” I said, interlacing my fingers behind my head. “But you really don’t need to use glass for every—”
I didn’t even hear it. Patricia White just suddenly had a small hole in her head.
Things happened very fast.
Patricia fell. Mr. Almonds tried to dive behind a table, but another shot came through the open window and blood erupted from his knee. Hank grabbed the gun that went flying from the assassin’s hand while Stanley, staring at Patricia White, slumped into the counter, heavy-lidded and pale.
I couldn’t blame him. Felt a little woozy myself.
“Jimmy? You okay?”
I blinked at Hank, then Mr. Almonds. Tears were leaking from his cheeks, but he was still smiling as he sat there bleeding. It was unsettling.
“Well,” Mr. Almonds said. “What’s the plan now, boys?”
I opened my mouth—and Nguyen limped through the door, supported by a girl who wasn’t supposed to be here.
“He couldn’t exactly get here on his own,” Jack snapped before I could say anything. “And it’d be nice if you stopped trying to cut me out. You can’t protect me forever, Jimmy.”
That was probably the ugliest truth of all.
Nguyen pulled out a chair and sat down heavily. “Thom.”
“Bao Huynh,” Mr. Almonds said. “Eyes had you clocked at the Prince estate.”
“Ah,” Mr. Almonds said.
Nguyen turned to me. “Am I killing him?”
“We don’t have to,” Hank said, not for the first time. “The bankroll’s gone now. No one else knows. He has no motive to murder us.”
“Revenge,” Jack pointed out. Her eyes kept straying to the body in the room, but her voice was steady. “Hard to know how a killer thinks.”
I glanced at Nguyen. “Would you come back? Get even?”
“No,” Nguyen said. “But I don’t take the goofy jobs.”
And Mr. Almonds did.
He might never bother us if we let him live. Might just go along on his merry homicidal way. Or maybe one morning I’d wake to find Jack dead, a laced cup of joe in her hands. Mother, too. Poisoned pie, maybe. Hank slumped dead by her side.
I looked at Mr. Almonds, and he just kept smiling at me.
“Do it,” I said, and Nguyen did.
Maybe it wasn’t the right thing to do. Maybe I should have been sorry.
But saps didn’t last long in Spindle City, and I wanted to last a little while longer.
In the end, I was right: the city called for blood.
Howard White was arrested the very next day. He blamed Patricia, but she had gone missing and public opinion was that he’d killed her when she discovered the truth. Patricia White became a victim and a hero. Funny world we lived in.
Doctors immediately began work on the vaccine. It would take time, they said, but the research was solid. In the meantime, something dangerous was bubbling up in the City, something a lot like hope. I hadn’t seen it on the streets since before the Burning Days, when Tommy and I chased each other, playing make-believe.
Rose said she felt it, too, when I went to visit her. She served me a whiskey, and I drank it slow.
“Something’s been bothering me,” I said.
“The case? I thought it wrapped up nicely.”
I could’ve argued that, didn’t. “When Snow left Nguyen, she was ready to run, but somehow she ended up with the Simms. Doubt it was Stanley who changed her mind.”
Rose didn’t deny it. “I didn’t know the specifics,” she said. “Only that she had a choice to make.”
“So, what? You pushed her towards the light?”
Rose laughed. “I don’t believe in altruism. You play it safe or you go for broke. I only encouraged her to be bold.”
She drained her drink, walked to the window. I stood by her side. “The Spindle is old, Prince. It’s used to doing things a certain way, the old money way, a white man’s way. But change is coming. This vaccine? It’s only the beginning. Everything’s going to get shook up hard, and I’m looking forward to seeing what crumbles. Aren’t you?”
I shook my head. “Rose, you’re a dangerous woman.”
“All women are dangerous,” Rose said. “Anyone underestimated is.”
True to his word, Nguyen gave me the briefcase. I should have taken it without question.
Instead, I took it and said, “You never called her Snow.”
“It wasn’t her name,” Nguyen said, walking away.
“Is Bao Huynh your name?”
Nguyen stopped. It was only us in my apartment—Jack had gone for celebratory “we aren’t dead” chow and Hank, well. I was dodging his calls for now, much to Jack’s disapproval.
“You’ve never said why you didn’t kill Snow. I started thinking maybe you don’t even know, why you did it. Snow was good at working people, after all: Sammy, Stanley, you. I figured you for shellshock the moment we met, and it’s more than likely Snow did too. Maybe she played on that. Maybe she knew you were looking for some kind of redemption.”
Nguyen didn’t turn. “You think that’s what I’m looking for?”
“No one says they’re bad at protecting people unless they’ve lost someone they were trying to protect. You lose someone like that, well. You can spend the rest of your life, trying to make amends.”
“Know something about that kind of loss?”
“Maybe,” I said.
Nguyen nodded. He was silent for a long minute, hands trembling minutely at his sides. “Sarah said Snow White was a character,” he said finally. “A catchy stage name that stuck, but it’s not how she wanted to be remembered. Snow wasn’t the person who died.” He did turn then, looked at me. “Who do you want to be when you die, Prince? Whose face do you think they’ll remember?”
I closed my hand around a stack of green. Didn’t answer, or couldn’t.
Nguyen nodded and left. I limped to my bathroom, threw some water over my face. Looked at myself in the mirror.
“Hell, kid. How did you end up here?”
My reflection couldn’t answer me. But I waited anyway, like it wanted to. Like it might.
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