The bullet struck her in the shoulder, and it happened so fast I barely registered the sound of shattering glass or Hank yelling. I caught her and Nguyen tackled us both to the ground, while Ella sprinted past, making a beeline for the basement. Bullets followed in her wake, and one clipped her across the back. Blood burst, and she dropped out of sight down the stairs.
Rose’s voice, somewhere behind me. I glanced over my shoulder and saw her crumpled on her side, lying in front of the couch. Rolled off it, maybe, when the shooting started. She wasn’t bleeding, at least.
I quickly looked around the room. What used to be the window was now just a large, useless rectangle cut into the wall. Hank was lying on his back underneath it, shards of glass all around him. Breathing heavily, but he didn’t seem hurt, either. There was a gun in each hand.
Jack—Jack was—I didn’t see Jack.
I looked up. Somehow, Jack had scrambled up a tall bookshelf, knees drawn to her chest, carefully balanced above everyone’s line of sight. Despite myself, I started laughing.
“Kid,” I said. “There’s something wrong with you.”
“Yeah,” she said, shaking. “I’m about to get killed because some broad stole a book.”
Rose ignored that, or didn’t hear. “Ella!”
Nothing. I pushed myself up, only for Nguyen to shove me back down as more gunfire erupted. “Stay low,” he said and scuttled away, not towards the basement but the front door.
I looked at Mother. Her face was white with shock, but she was conscious, one hand over her bleeding arm. “Keep pressure on it,” I said, swallowing. “You’re okay. You’ll be okay.”
More gunshots, this time from the front door. I drew my own gat, six slugs and one extra clip. “Rose? Any chance this is the Godmother?”
“If we’re lucky,” Rose said, still staring at the basement. “She’s less likely to set the house on fire with us inside.”
Hank’s lips curled, then, some ugly parody of his usual smile. Muttered something in Spanish I couldn’t catch.
“Henry?” Mother’s breath hitched. “Sweetheart, it’s going to be okay.”
Hank laughed. There was an unfamiliar note of hysteria riding it. “I’m not the one who got shot, Evelyn.”
“I’m fine, darling. Our new friends have poor aim. Teach them properly, won’t you?”
Hank grinned at that. “Love to.” He scooted backwards through the broken glass until he could crouch beside the window. “Definitely Moll’s people,” he said, and shot one.
He glanced at me bleakly. “Lots.”
How the hell had they found us? My engagement to Ella was common knowledge, but Moll had no reason to suspect that Rose was stashed here. Unless—if one of her goons had tailed us, while Hank and I were busy bickering, then we’d have led them straight to Rose. Moll’s man could’ve parked far away, maybe right where Nguyen’s car was now, and crept over the grounds to the basement window. Cut the brambles away and peered inside.
And went to fetch Moll’s army while we were busy telling stories. Great.
“We need to call the police,” Mother said.
“Screw the bulls.” Rose tried to push up to her hands and knees, but couldn’t manage it. “They only help the rich. We need to help Ella.”
“Ella is rich, dear,” Mother said, and lunged for the phone. She grabbed it with her good arm and huddled under the desk as Hank provided cover fire and I crawled to the window.
There were at least a dozen men and women scattered throughout the snow. I didn’t see Moll or the Merring sisters, but half the crew wore white coats or nurse’s dresses.
“Hello, operator? I need the police immediately.”
Rose tried to push up again, failed. “It’s okay,” Jack said. “I’m on it.” And before I could stop her, she hopped from the bookshelf to the loveseat like the suicidal monkey she was.
I fired to give cover, aiming for a blonde and hitting the brunette behind her when she ducked. Jack sprinted for the basement as Hank emptied one gun into an orderly.
“Yes, this is Evelyn Prince. Send people immediately—there are dozens of armed men outside, trying to kill us.”
“Keep pressure on that arm,” I reminded as she gave the address, then dropped the phone. I hadn’t heard anything from Nguyen in a while, and he didn’t respond when I called out. I tried not to worry about it, instead aiming for the big lug kneeling behind Hank’s car. I shot the hood instead.
Hank glanced at me sourly, and shot the lug without blinking. “We get out of this? You’re getting those lessons.”
“You can shoot my heap later,” I offered, “if it’ll make you feel better.”
“Slapping you silly might make me feel better.”
“You can’t still be sore,” I said, and then pulled back before the blonde could take my head off. Hank’s second gun clicked empty, and he cursed as she fired again. I took aim—but she went down before I could take the shot.
“Sore?” Hank said, pulling his last gun. “I can’t be sore?”
“Did you see—”
“A note, Jimmy. A note.”
“Maybe,” Rose said, “you two lovebirds can hash this out when no one’s trying to ice us.”
I winced and glanced back at Mother, who’d somehow made her way to Rose’s side. She shook her head, exasperated. “Oh, honestly. As if I didn’t know.”
Hank stared at her. “You—”
“Henry. You’ve been moping like a lovesick schoolgirl all year. Honestly, I thought I might have to intervene.”
“What happened to ugly truths?” I demanded. “Marrying a respectable dame?”
“I never said you couldn’t have lovers, dear. You’re all adults. I assumed you’d come to some sort of arrangement.”
My gun was empty, which was just as well. If Mother used the word ‘lovers’ again, I might eat a bullet. “Jack!” I yelled instead, fishing in my jacket for the extra clip. “Talk to me!”
“You done talking about sex?” Jack yelled back.
Jack darted from the basement staircase to the sofa, kneeling beside Mother and Rose. There was a glint of something metal in her hand. “Ella’s not there.”
“Not—does everyone in town have an underground escape?”
“That,” Jack said, “or she went out the window.”
Hank shot three rounds and then pointed at a tree, my tree, behind Moll’s people. “There.”
I couldn’t see her through the branches and snowfall, but I caught the flashes of gunfire. “Sneaky,” I said admiringly. “That’s one button man down. Nguyen? Come on, tell me you’re alive over there!”
Nguyen appeared in the doorway. One leg was bleeding, and I couldn’t quite figure what was in his hands. “Yeah,” he said, limping away again. “Probably not for long, though. Might wanna cover your ears.”
“Jesus, Nguyen,” Hank said. “Don’t—”
But he was already outside the house, throwing whatever he had at the handful of goons taking cover behind Hank’s car. I only realized it was a makeshift bomb half a second before the thunderclap and explosion of orange flame. Hank flinched hard, and the whole house shook from the force of the blast. Nguyen was blown back into the wall. He didn’t get up.
I tried to peer through the smoke. I didn’t see any more of Moll’s men, not in one piece, anyway, but I still couldn’t spot Moll. Couldn’t tell if Ella was okay, either.
Ella . . .
Jack stood up. “I’m gonna go check on Nguyen.”
“Wait,” I said, spinning around. “Someone needs to check the back of the house, make sure no one’s circled—”
The gunshot was impossibly loud.
She fell without sound. The glint of metal, a knife, fell with her, slipping through her fingers. The Santa hat, too, floated to the carpet, red splattered against the white trim, across her temple and down her cheek.
I think I screamed, then.
There were four of them, but I barely saw the Merring sisters in their respective red and green coats, or even Moll, standing calmly a few feet behind them. I zeroed in on the gorgeous orderly with the good arms: Damian Doan, roscoe still pointed where Jack had stood.
I flew forward.
Gunfire, in front of me, behind me. I heard all of it, none of it. I felt the slug to the shoulder, but it didn’t punch me back. I had too much forward momentum; fell straight into Damian, my gat in hand and pushing into his gut. Someone else screaming, a woman, two women. A gun clicking empty behind me. A voice—“Oh, thank God, darling,”—and Damian’s wide eyes.
I pulled the trigger. Then again and again, long after the bullets ran out.
I blinked hard, looked around. The Merring sisters were both down, eyes open, fixed. Hank stood just behind me, his last gun at his feet. Mother was shielding Rose and Jack with her body. Rose’s eyes were closed, and Jack—did she twitch?
Moll. Bleeding from the arm, but still on her feet, iron in her hands, aimed straight at me.
“Hello again,” she said, and shot once, twice, three times.
I staggered, as hands pushed me out of the way.
Mother screamed, and Hank hit the ground hard.
I dropped beside him. Two shots had caught him in the side, the other square in the chest. His suit’s ruined, I thought nonsensically, because his lungs were ruined. Every breath he drew was a sucking wheeze that hurt to listen to.
I squeezed his hand. “Baby? Hank?”
Hank mouthed something. I couldn’t make it out.
Moll looked at Damian. She did not weep, but the lines in her face seemed somehow deeper. “Thank you,” she said, turning to me. “I may never have found Ms. Briar without you.”
Rose’s eyes were still closed. Had she been shot? I couldn’t tell. I wanted to do something, even say something clever, but Hank was dying.
Moll stepped past and I let her, because Hank was dying and the gun was aimed at Mother. “Please step aside, Mrs. Prince.”
Mother bowed her head. She squeezed Rose’s hand and stood up slowly, circling around to kneel beside Hank. His mouth was moving again, but I still couldn’t make him out. Uma. Puma. Pluma. There were tears on his face, and he was dying, and I should’ve studied Spanish harder.
Mother nodded. “It’s okay, mijo” she whispered, feeling inside his jacket pocket, drawing out a handkerchief. Drawing out a pen. It slid, hidden, into her other hand as she pressed the handkerchief firmly against his chest.
Moll did not see; she had turned mostly away from us, looking down at Rose. “I spared you once,” she said. “I can see now that was my mistake. You were always a feral thing.”
She lifted her gun, and Mother stabbed the pen through the back of Moll’s knee.
Moll cried out. She stumbled to the floor, backhanding Mother as she twisted around. She turned back to Rose —
— But Rose’s eyes were open now, and she was sitting up, fingers flexing around something that glinted.
“A free thing,” she said, and drew the blade deep across Moll’s throat.
Moll choked, falling forward and soaking the carpet in red. Her feet kicked until she went still. It took no time at all.
“Okay, then,” Rose said, and collapsed on her back.
Footsteps, from the doorway. “Jesus,” Ella said. She had Nguyen in her arms, unconscious or dead, I couldn’t tell. “Looks like I missed a hell of a—oh, Henry.”
Hank weakly touched my face with bloody fingers, mouthing something again. The color had leeched from his skin.
I grabbed his hand. “Hold on, Hank. Hold on.”
Sirens, a few minutes out. Jack groaned at the sound of them, and I laughed, or sobbed, or both. “I thought—”
“Just a graze,” Mother said, then, urgently, “Henry.”
Hank’s eyes closed.
“Hank?” I shook him, hard. “Hank, wake up. Hank, look at me; wake up. You have to; you have to give me a chance to make it right…eggs, I’ll make you eggs, just like I promised. I’m good at them, you’ll see. We’ll have a future together, you’ll see. Hank?” My voice cracked. “Hank?”
His mouth was bloody. I kissed it anyway, tried to draw him back from the big sleep, the forever sleep, the long and silent ever after.
“Come back to me,” I whispered.
And Hank opened his eyes.
We only had one instruction for the meat wagons: any hospital but St. Katherine’s.
Somehow, the Godmother was waiting for us when we arrived. I was light-headed with blood loss and a probable concussion, but I’d killed at least one person today and figured I could cut down another. Nguyen and Jack were unconscious, and Hank could only blink, but I saw Mother’s chin raise, Rose’s fists clench, and God only knew when Ella had swiped that needle.
The Godmother laughed. “Relax, chickens. I only want to talk.”
What she talked about, I couldn’t say, because the croakers whisked Hank, Nguyen, and me straight into surgery. Bullet to my shoulder wasn’t a through-and-through like Mother’s, and they spent a while digging it out. Meanwhile, Nguyen had caught a bullet himself, and there was some damage to his ears from the blast. Half his hearing gone, they thought. Maybe permanent.
He’d disappeared, by the time I woke up. The Godmother, too. But Jack was awake, by my side.
“Full bill of health,” she said, and immediately swayed in her seat.
“Mostly full bill of health. Temporary vertigo.”
“No climbing IV poles for you, then.”
She stuck her tongue out and stole my pudding.
Ella wouldn’t be climbing anything, either; it was amazing she’d made it up that tree. The shot across her back had been shallow, a graze, but she’d broken her ankle and wrist going down the stairs. I found her nursing both at Rose’s bedside.
“Prince,” Rose said, as I leaned in the doorway. She patted the mattress beside her. “Word is, I owe you a rescue.”
I smirked, stayed where I was. Lit a gasper with moderate difficulty. “All I did was find you. Zero for infinity on actually rescuing anyone.”
“Maybe you’re trying to save people who don’t need saving.”
I inclined my head. “Maybe.”
“You,” Ella said, crossing her arms, “definitely needed saving. You’re just lucky I had the good sense to ignore you.”
“Disobedience.” Rose grinned.
“Get used to it.”
“So, that’s it then?” I asked Ella. “Leaving the spotlight for a life of crime?”
Ella shook her head. “No, but I can’t leave the shadows for the spotlight, either. Everyone in Spindle City lives a double life. I’ll find my own balance.”
“Sure,” I said. “Rose is gonna need help, now that she has Moll’s empire to run.”
Ella startled, but Rose only fluttered her eyelashes. “I can’t imagine what you mean.”
I laughed. “Save it. What was it you said last year? Out with the old? Change is coming?”
Rose eyed her hospital gown. “Not exactly how I planned it shaking out.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But still seems you came out on top.” I looked at the pair of them: beautiful, and just a little bit off the track. “I can figure why you two became friends, but I still can’t figure when.”
“Before I fled Spindle,” Ella said. “The Godmother found me a place to lay dormy—”
I turned to Rose. “And you had the extra cot.”
She nodded. “I knew I’d need allies. And Ella, well. We had some similar life goals, goals I may have played up.” She winced. “I loved them, my parents. But I didn’t do it for them.”
Ella rolled her eyes. “You say that like I don’t know you.”
Rose smiled. “Anyway,” she said, after a minute. “That’s all old news. I want to hear about you two. They say there’s trouble in paradise?”
More like stagnation. Ella and I needed to talk about our little arrangement, but I didn’t know what to say. Every time I tried . . .
“How’s Hank?” Ella asked me.
I tipped back my head and exhaled.
Hank was improving, but slowly. On the upside, he hadn’t contracted the Pins, despite any reckless kissing, so I could breathe a little easier about that vaccine, not to mention throw it in the faces of those Jesus-soaked lunatics outside. On the downside, Hank spent a lot of time in pain or asleep.
A week after the shootout, I sat by his side, stretching my legs on his bedrails, while Mother read the Daily Trumpet next to me. Between her connections with the bulls and my connections with the paper, we’d managed to spin a story close enough to the truth: disreputable gumshoe sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong, a drug lord retaliates, the bulls save the day.
Mother set the newspaper aside, touched Hank’s unshaven face. He didn’t react, out cold from the morphine. “I met Henry when he was ten. Did he ever tell you how?”
I shook my head, stunned.
“Well, then, I certainly won’t. That’s his secret to share. But he was such a sharp, brittle little boy. I had to help him. I couldn’t know how much he would someday help me.”
Mother’s fingers trembled as she smoothed hair away from his forehead. Twisted something in my gut, seeing her so vulnerable. It was like I didn’t know her at all.
“Hey, it’s okay,” I said, dropping my feet to the ground. “Hank’s gonna be fine. White coats all said so.”
“Yes,” she said, looking at me. “But are you?”
I swallowed, looked away.
“How are you affording the medicine? Can you afford it?”
I had six pills left. “It’s not—it isn’t—”
“You can’t, can you?”
I didn’t say anything.
Mother nodded. “You have to let me help you,” she said, and her voice wasn’t even at all. “With this one thing in your life, Jimmy. You have to let me help you.”
“Mother, I can’t—”
“No,” she said, and then she was crying, and I didn’t know what to do. “I won’t watch my son kill himself because he’s too proud to ask for help. I don’t care how much it costs or how far the disease has progressed. I don’t care if you still blame me for Tommy—”
“I don’t, Mother, I—”
“I will not watch you die. If I have to tie you to a bed and shove pills down your throat, Jimmy. I won’t watch you die. I won’t. I—”
I hugged her. She cried into my shoulder.
“Okay,” I whispered. “Okay.”
I spent Christmas at the hospital. Carolers came to visit the patients. Hank, more awake now, kept me from shooting them.
“Maybe homicide shouldn’t be our holiday tradition, Jimmy.”
“Little too late for that.” I dropped his present on the table: a plate of eggs with a big, red bow on the side.
He laughed, delighted. “You’re such a sap.”
“Shut up and eat em.”
Hank did, grinning the entire time. “So you know,” he said. “Your Christmas present is that I’m still alive.”
“Fine. But you can’t use that next year.”
I glanced at the clock. By now, Mother was probably sitting down to dinner with Father. He’d been by the hospital only once, told me he was glad I was alive, and that he wouldn’t see me until I stopped embarrassing the family with dangerous antics.
The conversation didn’t end well, but then, it never did.
Jack had invited Ella to come by, but we were still supposed to be fighting. Instead, she stayed home, eating Christmas dinner with Rose and, surprisingly, Nguyen. Somehow, she’d coaxed him into occasionally dropping by. His full hearing hadn’t returned, and she told me the shakes were worse, but he kept coming back, so that was something.
I was glad. We still weren’t friends, but when you nearly croak with someone, you start gaining a vested interest in their wellbeing.
“Jack should be here soon,” I said. “But before that—”
“You wanna talk about the Godmother? Or Ella?”
Both would have been good ideas. Ella and I still hadn’t made any decisions, and while Rose had somehow squared things with the Godmother, I didn’t know where I stood. Hadn’t kept my promise, after all. Found, but not delivered.
But those were tomorrow’s problems. “I figured out your secret,” I told him. “Didn’t mean to, but. You know how I am with a puzzle.”
Hank looked intrigued. “I have secrets?”
“Old ones,” I said. “About twenty years old now.”
I hated how the smile slipped from his face. “Suppose it was losing my head at Ella’s that gave me away.”
It was that. It was a few things. Knowing Hank and I were the same age, and that ten was a very bad year.
“My father got sick first,” Hank said. “Then my mother, my brothers. They threw us all in the burning shack. Already lit the fuse when Evelyn found us. But she got us out. She saved us.”
She couldn’t have saved his family. The pills wouldn’t come for years, but they didn’t have to die in smoke and flame. That meant something, anyway.
“Evelyn smuggled me out of Spindle City,” Hank said. “Set me up with some good people. I came back, years later, when I was grown. I wanted to help.” He smiled softly. “Nicer suits, too.”
I laughed. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because, Jimmy. She hadn’t come looking for me.”
Right. Right. She’d gone looking for Tommy, and found Hank instead. “You think I’d blame you for that?”
“No,” Hank said, after a minute. “I don’t suppose you’ve forgiven yourself yet, though.”
I didn’t say anything.
Hank’s eyes were kind. “That’s okay,” he said. “One Christmas miracle at a time.”
When Jack walked in, she was humming “White Christmas” and wearing her Santa hat, the one with bloodstains on it. I knocked it off and replaced it with my fedora.
“You forgot to get me an actual present, didn’t you?” Jack grumbled from somewhere underneath the brim.
I tipped it back so she could see the business card I slid into her hand: Prince & Jack, Detective Agency.
Jack’s eyes got big.
“Listen,” I said. “The, uh. Legwork. I won’t always be able to do it. Nothing’s gonna stop me chasing puzzles, but, well. You’re better at climbing trees than I am anyway, and let’s face it: you’ve been more gumshoe than secretary for years. Figured it was time to make it official, if you’re in.”
Jack bit her lip, looked away. I pretended not to notice her wet eyes. “How’s it look?” she asked Hank.
He smiled. “It suits you.”
“Yeah,” Jack said, grinning. “Yeah, I thought it might.” Then she hugged me, full-force, the hat sliding halfway off. “Merry Christmas, Jimmy.”
I kissed the top of her head. “Merry Christmas, kid.”