Nothing good came of being conscious this early in the morning, but eating jelly donuts in the stiff house was a special sort of low. The sweet-voiced canary on the radio wasn’t helping any, either, considering the last time Santa came to town, I’d caught the Pins for Christmas. At this point, I could guess where I stood with that jolly old bastard.
Doc clearly wasn’t concerned with being nice herself, because she snatched a second donut off the morgue table and said, “Prince, stop being an asshole.”
I shrugged. “Not sure that’s possible. How about my results?”
“How about my dough?”
I slid over a tiny stack of green. A year ago, I’d been flush with cash, but medicine, well, that cost a pretty penny. My piggy bank was drying up fast, and in the last few weeks, I’d started skipping doses just to keep Jack and me fed.
Doc pocketed the cash. “You start taking your pills regular? You’ll live a good, long life. But I’m already seeing signs of permanent damage to your spinal column.”
“And that means…”
“Couple years before you lose all feeling in your gams for good.”
I leaned a little heavily into the table. Unperturbed, Doc took another bite of her donut. “The good news,” she said, “is that your paralysis shouldn’t advance past paraplegia, assuming you can stop being an asshole. Which is assuming a lot.”
I scowled at her and pushed my breakfast away. “Thanks, Moreno,” I said, turning to leave. “You’ve been a peach.”
I turned back. Doc set down her donut, readjusted her specs. “If you’re looking to kill yourself slow, congratulations, you’re doing a bang-up job. If not, a guy like you has options. Use them, will ya?”
“Would you miss me, Doc?”
Doc snorted and turned to one of the stiffs, patiently waiting for his Y. “Miss your green, anyway.”
It wasn’t exactly a rousing endorsement of sentiment, but then again, Doc had idly threatened me with a bone saw this time last year. Who said I didn’t know how to make friends?
On my way back to the office, I passed a group of religious protestors and crossed the street before they could assault me with their anti-vaccination pamphlets. Last time someone tried, I’d clocked him in the face. My knuckles didn’t need the abuse.
Even before the vaccine went into distribution, I figured there’d be problems. Exorbitant costs. Insufficient supply. Spindle City had a long, bloody history of crushing the poor beneath her heel, and I’d worried only the rich would benefit. Turns out, I’d had cause for concern—not only were the rich trying to hoard the vaccine, but there were people, flush and broke alike, who didn’t even want it.
There were Christmas carolers on the other side of the street. I was starting to wish I hadn’t rolled out of bed today.
Jack was sitting on her desk when I arrived at the office, playing a bad hand of solitaire. “You don’t got the cards,” I told her.
“Yeah,” Jack said, and kept playing.
Jack was my receptionist and roommate. She was also already a better gumshoe than any unschooled sixteen-year-old had the right to be, and I didn’t know what the hell I’d do without her. Of course, she was wearing a Santa hat on her head and humming Jingle Bells, so she did have character flaws.
“You have to do that?”
Jack smiled and hummed louder. “No calls,” she said between verses. “Just in case you were waiting for a certain someone to forgive you for being an unbelievably silly ass. That hasn’t happened yet. You should probably call him instead.”
I sighed and lit a gasper as I sank into a chair. “Are we having this argument again?”
“Depends. You realize you’re an idiot yet?”
I exhaled. “I’m not waiting for him to call. That was the whole point of the note. Besides, you seem to be forgetting—”
“Ada?” Jack snorted. “You two are a sham, and you know it.”
“You’re just saying that because you want to skip the rehearsal dinner tonight.” I sure did, anyway. My parents were going to be there. “Besides, I thought you liked her.”
“I do like her. You love Hank.”
Yeah. Unfortunately, that was still true. But my love life had always been, well, complicated. Rose had been sweaty sheets and dark secrets, great for a good time but too slippery for trust. Ella Shah, I fell for her, all right, even if she had been hired to fit Mother for a Chicago overcoat. But she’d been forced to flee the Spindle before that spark had a chance to become something more.
And then, Hank—Hank, who I’d known and flirted with for ten years, who worked side by side with my mother, assisting in all her clerical and terrorism needs. Hank was the only man I knew who always had three gats and a pen at the ready.
He’d told me he wanted me, however much of myself I was willing to give. And I’d been willing to give it all, until I knelt in infected blood and had nothing left worth giving.
He must’ve had the vaccine by now. Mother would’ve seen to that. If it worked right, I could kiss him again without sentencing him to the long and silent ever after. But why take chances, especially when my own life might not extend past the New Year?
If possible, Ada was even more complicated.
“Look,” I said. “It’s for the best. He’ll—”
The door opened, and I turned. For a second, I thought Hank would walk through, smiling, in a slim waistcoat and a fine hat. Ready to take me in his arms, offer up absolution.
But that wasn’t the kind of day I was having.
Instead, an enormous woman in a blue dress and blue hat walked in. She had wrinkled brown skin and suspiciously pointy teeth. It was unnerving as hell when she smiled at me.
“Hello, Prince,” the Godmother said. “I’m calling in that favor.”
The Godmother was smart, ugly, and one of the most powerful women in the City. Once upon a time, she’d patched me up. I’d been hoping to drop dead before she cashed in on that debt.
I led her into the back office, poured myself a drink. “Didn’t know you ever left that can house you run. Whiskey?”
“Bit early for me,” the Godmother said, sitting as comfortably as she could in the narrow chair. “You look well, Prince. I feared otherwise, when I heard of your condition.”
I took a sip of my drink. No point asking where she’d heard—info, after all, was half her business. But not many people knew I was sick. Hell, my own mother didn’t know. “Why don’t you just cut to the chase, Godmother? What terrible thing do you want me to do?”
“My, so dramatic. You needn’t fret. I only want you to locate a beautiful woman. From what I remember, that’s something of a pastime.”
There was a muffled noise from the other side of the door. It sounded suspiciously like a snicker.
“One of your working girls?” I asked, glaring at the door.
“Actually, she runs some cheap gin mill downtown, been missing about a day. Name’s Rose Briar.”
The snickering stopped.
Last time I’d seen Rose, we’d been in that cheap gin mill, talking about the people I’d had killed there. To be fair, they had tried to whack me first, but it’d still been more murder than self-defense. Kept me up at night, sometimes. Probably not as often as it should have.
“You wouldn’t waste this favor on just any broad,” I said. “What do you really want Rose for?”
The Godmother smiled. “I only want to make sure nothing’s happened to the poor girl.” She fluttered her eyelashes innocently and laughed when I flinched.
I couldn’t take her word, of course, but I couldn’t look away, either. Rose was a friend and she was in trouble, one way or another. I’d just have to find her and go from there.
“I spot her,” I said, “and we’re square?”
The Godmother shook my hand. “Bring her to me, and I’ll strike you off the ledger for good.”
I left Jack at the office, digging up everything she could on Rose, while I popped over to her apartment, looking for a smoking gun, a secret diary. Any push in the right direction.
Instead, I found the same things you’d find at my own place: unpaid bills and dirty dishes. Nobody left good clues anymore.
The apartment didn’t look much different than it had five years ago. Clothes draped all over the place. Blues records stacked near the gramophone. Some furniture had been moved around but not recently. No ominous bloodstains beneath the rug.
I walked into her bedroom, rifled through her drawers. There was a framed picture on her bedside table: a black man lifting a black woman slightly off the sidewalk, swinging her around. They looked about 30, 35. Both laughing. The picture was slightly discolored with age, the woman’s dress and the man’s jacket twenty years out of style.
I traced their faces with my finger. Rose had only mentioned them once, when we’d stumbled into her apartment one night after drowning a bottle of rye together. “It cost them,” she’d said, staring through the ceiling with glazed, bloodshot eyes. “It cost them, but Christ, Jimmy. How they were bold.”
I never asked what the cost had been. That, I figured, I could work out on my own. Instead, I asked how long they’d been gone, but the hooch had turned my tongue to slush, so maybe she couldn’t understand me, or just didn’t want to. We’d never been the kind of people to willingly share ghosts.
There was nothing here. Frustrated, I walked back to the kitchen, glared down at the offensively normal dishes, the familiar stain of red lips around a whiskey tumbler. I picked up the glass—and then the one beside it, identical except the pink kiss left behind. The color was wrong. So was the shape: Rose had bee-stung lips, but a small, pert mouth. Her smile could only stretch so far.
“Now that,” I said, “is a proper clue.”
“What, you want me to clap? You’ve proved that Rose knows another skirt well enough to invite her for a drink. They’re called friends, Prince. Most people have them.”
“Could’ve been more than a friend,” I said, leaning into the phone booth when my legs started to ache. “Rose is…like me. Not real particular about parts.”
Jack’s dismissive noise was none too polite. “So maybe she’s got some kitten on the side. Who says the dame’s even involved? That cup could be a week old.”
“Kid, can’t you pretend to be supportive for once?”
“Maybe,” Jack said. “Have you come up with a better plan than walking around the Spindle, checking out every sister’s lips? Because you should know, some women switch shades. Some even take the day off entirely.”
That hadn’t been my exact plan. “I’m going to The Poisoned Apple,” I said. “And I’m not taking any grief from you until you’ve actually uncovered something juicy.”
“Give me time,” Jack said.
“Yeah, well. We only get so much.”
Jack took a breath, and I cursed. I hadn’t meant to say it like that—or anyway, I hadn’t meant to say it out loud—but there it was again, hanging between us. She thought I should go to my folks, ask them to fork over the kale, but I couldn’t, I couldn’t do that. Even if I could, I’d waited too long. My legs were going to give. How would I work? How would I live?
I tried to imagine it. Wheeling through the uneven streets. Scooting up stairs when the elevator broke down. Not able to reach things. Not able to dance. Hell, forget about taking a spin—I didn’t have the first idea how a paralyzed guy even took a piss.
I’d given up a lot, when I’d contracted the Pins. Now it wanted to take my legs too?
“Jimmy,” Jack said. Her voice sounded far away over the phone. “You can’t pick pride over your life.”
Maybe I could. I couldn’t pick it over Jack’s life—but she’d be okay, when I was gone, maybe even better off. She sure would’ve been if I’d given her that briefcase last December instead of spending it all on a lost cause. But I hadn’t been able to shake the fear, and I still couldn’t shake it now. To be gone. To be gone—
“I’ll call you when I know something,” I said, and hung up before I could say anything I’d regret, or cry.
I took a few minutes to put myself together before driving over to The Poisoned Apple. The joint was nearly empty, but I did recognize one friendly face behind the bar.
“Oh no,” Stanley said as I sat down. “Not you.”
“Stan, that hurts. Whiskey, neat.”
He hadn’t changed much in the past year. Hands still trembling, pale face flushed red from drink. A bit more white in his hair. Last time I’d seen him, he’d had good reason to be this nervous. I didn’t like what that might mean for Rose now.
“Looking for your boss,” I said.
“Haven’t seen her since yesterday.” Stanley poured himself a belt of hooch, larger than mine.
“Say where she was going?”
He couldn’t hold my eyes. “Stan, all the dope you and Rose run here…how are you this bad of a liar?”
He ignored that. Tipped back his glass and tried to fix himself another. I reached over, grabbed his wrist. “Drink yourself stupid later. I want what I came for.”
Stanley tried to shake me off, but the booze had him off-balance and I wasn’t exactly known for letting things go. “Look, I liked Rose—”
He cursed. “I don’t know, not really. But she loves this shithole. She wouldn’t skip out, unless she’s not coming back.”
I released his arm. “Maybe,” I said. “But I’m not gonna stop looking till I trip over a cold grave, so how about you stop wasting my time and tell me where she was headed?”
Stanley rubbed his arm, glaring at me. “All I know is, the boss was looking for her.”
I frowned. Rose owned The Poisoned Apple, so he must have meant the dope they slung on the side. “All right, who’s that?”
Stanley laughed. “You don’t know? You don’t know the Dragon?”
I didn’t really appreciate the scorn, not coming from a rheumy-eyed boozehound with bad breath. “Well, sure,” I said. “But you can’t mean—”
I stared at him. “Rose works for Moll Chen? Directly?”
I’d never met Moll or knew anyone who had, but I’d heard of her, of course. Everyone had. Half Irish, half Chinese, and all scary—Moll Chen was the boss of bosses. She ran it all—smack, nose candy, the big O—and only fools and head cases tried to double-cross her. Presumably, they called her the Dragon because she was Chinese and the street wasn’t real creative, but also because Moll had a tendency to set anyone who’d offended her on fire. Not someone I was eager to meet.
I’d seen Rose crunching the numbers on the bindles in this place, but I figured she worked for someone who worked for someone who’d once eaten at the same restaurant as the Dragon. If Moll had been looking for her…well, Stanley was right to be all worked up.
The Dragon’s not-so-secret hideout was a goon-infested lounge that doubled as an opium den in Chinatown. “A trip to the Fox & Tiger,” I muttered. “That will make this day better.”
Stanley shifted. Suspiciously.
He fumbled for the whiskey again, and I grabbed it first, held it away from him. “Something you’d like to share?”
“Come on, man. They’ll kill me.”
“Who says I won’t?” I wouldn’t, but Stanley didn’t know that. After all, last time I’d come around, I’d ordered two executions about six feet from where he was standing.
“They’ll kill me worse,” Stanley said.
I leaned back in my chair, far enough to flash the gat at my side. “True. But tell me what I wanna hear, and you still got options. A dead man don’t got shit.”
I finished my drink. Smiled.
Stanley groaned and buried his head in his hands.
Turned out, the Fox & Tiger was only a smokescreen for bulls, and the woman who ran it wasn’t Moll Chen; hell, she wasn’t even Chinese. The real Moll Chen operated out of St. Katherine’s Hospital under the name Molly Chang.
St. Katherine’s was halfway across the city. I hesitated when I arrived, glancing at a nearby pay phone. I’d promised Jack updates; then again, I knew what she’d say, that I should turn heel and run. Frankly, I was half-inclined to agree—I wasn’t real keen on getting rubbed out by fire. It was a bad way to go, and it haunted my sleep: dreams where the Burning Days never ended, where the bulls still came for anyone who even looked sick. Dreams where they dragged my best friend, Tommy, away, where Mother couldn’t find him before they lit the fuse. Dreams that weren’t dreams at all.
I should’ve done a better job hiding Tommy. Should’ve fought harder, when they took him away.
I squared my shoulders and walked inside, ignoring the butterflies in my belly and the pins and needles in my legs. Not a good time, I told them, like my failing body gave a damn what I thought.
I didn’t run straight for the source. Figured a place like this might be a handy spot to hide someone, assuming you were in charge of all the needles. I made a quick search of it, peeking in rooms and chatting up nurses to see about any young black patients. I couldn’t help but notice that a number of the staff looked rough, especially around the intensive ward. One tall, heavy nurse had a black eye and two fingers taped together in a splint. Another woman—shorter, thinner, but with the same fair skin and perfect dimples—moved with a noticeable limp.
“She’s about 5’5”,” I told Damian, a good-looking Asian orderly with unbelievably cut arms and an ugly scratch over his eye. “Maybe 160, 170 pounds. Damn pretty.”
“Haven’t seen her,” Damian said. “But I’ve never been one to notice skirts. Pretty suits, now . . .”
I laughed. “Sorry,” I said. “Taken.” Too bad, though, because Christ, those arms.
Damian shrugged, and then froze up, seeing something behind me. “Molly—”
“I’ll take care of the gentleman, Mr. Doan.”
Damian winced at me, almost sympathetically, and walked away. I turned around, coming face to face with…well, nobody. The nurse couldn’t have been an inch over five-foot, which meant she didn’t even hit my shoulder. I put her at about 60, based on the lines in her forehead, which deepened into furrows as she raised distinctly unimpressed eyebrows. A smattering of unlikely red freckles stood out against her sandy beige skin. Thin lips. No lipstick.
I took a breath. “Moll Chen, I presume?”
Moll inclined her head. “Thank you.”
“For recognizing you?”
“For your fear. Even when the Dragon turns out to be an old woman, it’s apparent in your throat, your white knuckles. How you glanced to make sure of your exits.”
“Yeah,” I said sourly. “Happy to oblige.”
“Don’t be sullen,” Moll said. “It shows good sense. I’m too busy to waste time with fools. Come this way.”
Reluctantly, I followed her to a patient’s bedside. He was a middle-aged white man, muttering incoherently about monsters. Moll took his pulse and tipped his head to the side. Blood was dripping out of one ear.
“Nothing to be done,” Moll said. “He should die very soon, hopefully.”
I lit a gasper. “Is that mercy I detect? Or do you just need the bed?”
There went those eyebrows again. “You speak as though mercy and practicality are mutually exclusive. I assure you, they are not. I am as merciful as I can afford to be, Mr. Prince.”
I wasn’t real crazy that she knew my name when I purposefully hadn’t given it to anyone. Still, I followed her as she moved briskly on to the next patient. “Suppose we cut to the chase,” I said. “Word on the street is that you were looking for Rose Briar yesterday.”
Moll stuck a thermometer in the patient’s ear. “This word is true. Is she dead?”
“Missing,” I said, watching her carefully. Moll was hard to read, mostly because she went through her routine like I wasn’t even there: taking out the thermometer, nodding at it, laying a cool cloth on the man’s head. “What did you two discuss?”
“Care to be more specific?”
“No,” Moll said. “I do not.”
“Okay. How about you tell me how the conversation ended? Was kerosene involved?”
Moll smiled. “It is a rumor,” she said, “that I burn all my enemies alive. It is only necessary to do this a few times before a sufficient reputation is formed.”
I didn’t have a particularly witty response to that. “So, Rose is your enemy?”
Moll moved onto the next patient, grabbing a handful of syringes along the way. I kept what I felt was an appropriate distance. “She disappointed me,” Moll said. “But she left this hospital alive. Our conversation was interrupted.”
I heard something gurgling behind me and followed Moll as she walked back to the first patient. His whole body shuddered as he choked on nothing. More blood spurted out of his ears.
“Karen,” he whispered, and died.
My legs felt numb, and I wasn’t sure if it was the Needles or that cold panic in my stomach again, spreading down. This was how I was going to die, assuming Moll didn’t bump me off first: paralyzed and delirious in some hospital bed, calling for someone who wouldn’t be around. Because why would he be? That’s why I’d left him, after all, so he could have a real future and I could have…this.
I didn’t want this.
I looked up at Moll. She was studying me, still holding her syringe. “Everybody dies alone,” she said. “But some more so than others. Tell me, Mr. Prince: did you tell anyone you were coming here?”
I opened my mouth. But I didn’t get the chance to answer.
“Probably not,” a voice said. “Common sense isn’t really one of Jimmy’s strengths.”
So much for a real future.
And Hank Delgado walked into the room.
It’d been two months since I’d last seen him, though longer since we’d spoken. He’d grown a sliver of a mustache—elegantly trimmed, of course—but otherwise looked the same, slender and stylish, wearing a light grey suit tailored immaculately to his calves, thighs, and backside. Especially backside. Bronze skin and silver specs and a ready-made smile, like he’d been born slightly amused by the change of scenery from womb to world, and every passing day just made the joke that much funnier. But the smile went taut as he glanced at me.
“On the other hand,” Hank said. “I made sure to leave several messages regarding my whereabouts, and instructions on who to blame should I not return. Perhaps you’ve heard of my employer, Evelyn Prince? Or the lovely Ms. Ada Singh? Regretfully, they’re fond of Jimmy too, and I doubt they’d take it well, if he or I were to suddenly disappear.”
Moll inclined her head. “No. I’m sure they would not, Mr…?”
“Your precautions are unnecessary, Mr. Delgado, but they do you credit. You may take your unwise friend home with you now.” Moll pulled the white sheet over the dead man and looked at me. “I hope you find Ms. Briar soon, Mr. Prince. I’d like to finish my conversation with her.”
She twirled the syringe in her hand.
I took that as my cue.
Once we were outside, I started heading for my car, only to have Hank grab my wrist and all but drag me to his. It wasn’t a big loss, since my heap barely had four functioning wheels and Hank’s Buick was a thing of beauty, but it did mean I’d have to return to St. Katherine’s eventually.
We turned out onto the main road. “Silent Night” came on the radio, and I turned it off. Hank flipped it right back on. Hank didn’t like Christmas music anymore than I did.
“So,” I said, after a long silence. “How’d you find me?”
“Jack got antsy. Knew you were headed to The Poisoned Apple, so she shook down that bartender until he spilled the beans. Then she rang me.”
I nodded. “Thanks.”
Hank snorted. “Thanks, he says. Well, you’re welcome, Jimmy. I’m always happy to help con cualquier mierda en que te metas.”
I raised my eyebrows. “So, you’re still mad, then.”
Hank grinned, hard, and it didn’t look right on him. “It’s no wonder you became a detective,” he said. “Skills like that.”
I leaned back, watching him. He looked vaguely green around the gills, and his fingers were tight around the steering wheel. Nerves, maybe—or maybe he was just that sore. Long as I’d known him, I’d never really seen Hank angry before.
“You look good,” I said, because I never did know when to keep my mouth shut.
“You look like shit. You even taking your pills?”
“Sure,” I said. It wasn’t exactly a lie. “Otherwise, you’d have found me in the cooler, not the sick house.”
“You taking them every day?”
“What are you, my mother?”
“No, Jimmy. Evelyn doesn’t know to ask those questions because you don’t have the decency to tell her, and I, for God knows what reason, am keeping your lousy secret. So, let me ask again: are you actually taking your pills?”
I pulled back, stung. “You saying you still care?”
Hank hit the brakes, right there in the middle of the road.
Tires screeched behind us, followed by a string of Vietnamese cursing. “Jesus, Hank—”
Hank blinked and hit the gas again, taking a hard right into a narrow alley. He threw the car into park. “Listen,” he snapped, so I did: three minutes straight of violent and presumably creative Spanish. I waited for him to draw breath.
“Okay,” I said. “I got pendejo, pinche cabron, and I’m pretty sure you suggested I had an unnatural proclivity for farm animals.”
Hank narrowed his eyes at me. “Chickens.”
“Well, I figured it was that or sheep.”
“You didn’t know either a year ago.”
“Yeah, well.” I shrugged uncomfortably. “Maybe I’ve been studying.”
He stared at me and then, almost helplessly, started to laugh, tipping his head backwards and closing his eyes. “You—you told me you were dying in a note you shoved under my door two days before Christmas, breaking up with me for ‘my own good’…and now you start learning Spanish?”
Hank rolled his head to the side. His eyes were wet, but his smile was more natural, less like a wounded cat baring its teeth.
I shrugged. I couldn’t very well say that I’d been trying to hold onto pieces of him, like that would somehow make up for the whole. “You wanna yell at me some more?”
“Always.” But he didn’t, just started the car again and reversed until he was back on the main road. I realized we weren’t heading back to the office.
“Relax,” Hank said. “I’m not taking you to your parents’ house—”
“Just to your fiancée’s.”
The Long And Silent Ever After continues next week as tensions rise between Spindle City power-players Moll Chen, the Godmother, and Evelyn Prince—with Jimmy, Hank, and Jack caught in the middle.