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.
The Price You Pay Is Red is complete, but Spindle City Serials continue onward with the first episode in Jimmy’s final adventure, The Long and Silent Ever After…