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.
The Price You Pay is Red continues next week when Jimmy confronts a harsh truth and makes a discovery about Snow’s real goals…