Actions

Work Header

Shadow of a Doubt

Chapter Text

It was Patrick who first saw the pattern. Good old Patrick Irving, skinny as a poor man’s wallet and tall enough to crack his skull on doorframes if he wasn’t paying attention. Given that his head was always in the clouds it was a wonder the bruises on his forehead ever had the chance to heal. Anytime I heard that telltale thwack I would question Pat’s career choice. It was baffling that a man who couldn’t manage to keep himself from habitual doorway harm would go into a business that required careful observation of one’s surroundings.

Then Patrick spread out a map of clippings and case files tied together with colored lines and illegible scribbles looking all for the world like what a madman would scrawl on his psyche ward walls. He explained what we were looking at and it might as well have been another language for all the sense it made. When he left the room Ace questioned Pat’s tenuous grip on reality in his crude, unimaginative way. I made some distracted quip and tried to make sense of the information spread out on my desk, starting to wonder if had been a good idea to go into business with these two.

A couple weeks after Patrick had fixed me with his disquieting ogle and insisted there was something in the tangled mess he handed me, I caught a glimpse of what he saw. Subtle, nearly missed it, just a certain way the woman held herself at certain questions. It nagged for reasons I couldn’t quite place. Then there was the truck driver’s tone, the nervous glance of the shop lady, all tiny grains of sand that added up to a mountain.

I went back and looked at the tangled map clippings again. It was still another language, still the work of a madman, but I was beginning to realize that Patrick Irving hadn’t lost his mind. When I went to him and told him that my investigations were starting to line up with his theory he just stared back, red hair glowing in the sun like a fiery halo and his twitchy hands tapping out the tune to music only he could hear. No, he hadn’t lost his mind; it was just a lot more interesting than mine.

Ace Dunherst didn’t have time for such dramatic crap. In his opinion we had a string of perfectly normal private investigator cases and that there was nothing nefarious lurking in the shadows. He declared us both paranoid loons. He kept calling us paranoid loons until a simple fact gathering mission to the warehouse district landed him in the hospital with a broken nose and cracked ribs. When he saw me charge into the ER, Pat drifting along behind, Ace’s expression went from pained to sour. He gruffly told me I should keep my ‘I told you so’ to myself or I’d be in the next bed looking a hell of a lot worse than he did.

Our client wanted us to find out if his nephew was dealing drugs. Turns out that was true and only the tip of the iceberg. This wasn’t nickel bags of weed from someone’s basement, this was big. And us, being the idiots we were, just bumbled right into it. Now the man in charge thought that we knew something and had roughed up Ace in a clear message that we were to stop snooping around.

They clearly didn’t do their research on us before picking the message. Ace was pissed at being poked with a stick and he wanted to poke back. To Pat it was a fascinating puzzle he was itching to solve. As for Paul Shepard? Well, my survival instincts have never been as sharp as they should be.

The file graduated from a crumpled ball in my desk drawer to a whole wall of the office. Patrick did his thing and made it completely incomprehensible, so I made a second version for mere mortals on the adjoining wall. Crime trends, scandals, lists of perfectly respectable businesses, suspected officials paid off, all the tangled lines coming together under a fuzzy newspaper photo and the initials ‘MK’. Mark Kohler, up and coming mobster, building his empire from the ground up. The leads came together and painted an ugly picture and I knew we were out of our league. Ace grumbled but I took what we had to the badges. They looked down their noses at the weasel PI, of course, but they got interested when they heard what I had to offer. Then Armand Rousseau, chief of homicide, was talking to me personally and it was getting very clear that Kohler was bad, bad news.

We probably should have taken that as a hint.

A few months of sticking our noses were they didn’t belong and I was tied to a chair in the backroom of an old time strip club. The room was spinning and the heavy jazz beating through the walls was not helping. I wasn’t sure if I was suffering a concussion or a brain hemorrhage but I did know that I would have gladly died for some shut-eye. I also knew that the chances of that happening went up every minute MK’s goons spent working me over for what I knew.

The goons went through shift changes and I guessed it was nearing two days when my salvation arrived. There was a sudden shout that the muscle was needed to break up a fight and then I was blissfully alone. I was still trying to gather up the will to try and fight out of my bonds instead of just going to sleep when she slipped through the door. Normally a guy would be pretty excited to see a curvy woman walk in the room wearing nothing but a lacy bodice and gauze skirt combo straight from the Roaring 20s, but the situation was anything but normal and any thought of passing out evaporated in the face of indignant, woozy rage.

“Helen, the fuck?” I asked, my usual eloquence with the fairer sex abandoning me completely. At that point I had lost enough blood that I wasn’t even sure if I was whispering or shouting.

“Shut it, Paul,” she hissed in reply.

“Does your brother know about this idiotic plan?”

Suddenly her nose was an inch from mine and she shrieked, “SHUT IT, PAUL!” Her expression was that of irritation, anger, and worry in a thin veneer over mounting hysteria. Helen Dunherst was no wilting flower, but however much she was five foot two of spitfire she wasn’t an undercover agent.

Speaking of wilting flowers, a wisp of a thing in a corset and stage makeup was standing there wringing her hands. ‘Nervous Nancy’ the goons had called her when she brought them coffee, and it was no wonder the name stuck. At Helen’s sharp request for some damn help with the ropes the stripper squeaked and I guessed she was probably more likely to faint that I was. Between the two of them they managed to haul me up, if barely, and I tried my best to walk as we made our way out the back. We were just clearing the outside door, the stinging cold winter air never more welcome, when the sound of goons discovering their hostage was gone echoed behind us.

The stripper dropped me and Helen fought to keep me upright as she shrieked her brother’s name into the night. I stared up at Nervous Nancy, who somehow managed to hunch into herself despite the corset, and watched her struggle with whatever it is Nervous Nancies struggle with when their boss’s goons are bearing down on them after they’ve decided to help spring a captive PI. Whatever it was that led her to help Helen was apparently stronger than the fear because she shouldered my weight again and did her pitiful best to haul me through the snow.

Ace rounded the corner just as the goons appeared in the doorway. It was impressive, really, how his first priority was throwing a coat at his kid sister so hard she nearly fell over, his second was ordering her to put it on, and only after his responsibility to Helen’s modesty was complete did he brandish his tommy at the approaching muscle. The stripper fell to the snow and put her hands over her head when Ace fired a second’s worth of ammo into the wall. By the time the goons had recovered Ace was dragging me like I was nothing and Patrick had stepped up to cover us.

Pat’s hair was bright as a beacon as he slid around the corner, trading shots while reaching down with his free hand to help Helen pick the stripper up out of the snow. Nervous Nancy probably didn’t weight much more than the feather boa still wrapped around her neck so he was able to pull her up with ease and oh my lord. His arm went around her waist and she clutched at his shirt as she just about swooned and you could have snapped a picture and used it for the cover of a romance novel for beanpoles.

I lost time as I lost blood and the next thing I knew I was being unceremoniously shoved into the backseat of Ace’s car.

“What the hell is she doing here?” he shouted as he burned rubber the hell out of there. I fought to know my orientation and determined I was lying on the back seat, the stripper folded up in the floorboards next to my feet. She was the very picture of terrified and she flinched at Ace’s words. He was always sharp as an anvil when it came to matters of subtlety and tact and that went double in his dealings with the fairer sex.

Luckily for Nancy she had a fiery sister in arms sitting in the back with my head in her lap. “You uncultured, uncivilized, unbearable ass! What, did you want me to leave her there?”

“It’s her boss who’s trying to kill us!”

“She’s just trying to make a living and she helped me save Paul so she is coming with us end of story!”

You don’t get to make that decision!

Like hell I don’t!

I had long since learned that trying to mediate a fight between the siblings Dunherst was a good way to get yourself injured and I couldn’t afford to lose any more blood. As they got loud enough to rattle the windows it was plain to see that the stripper was just this side of a panic attack. I nudged her arm with my foot and tried to put on my best charming smile, which probably would have been more effective if my face wasn’t covered in blood but you do what you can.

“Don’t worry about them,” I reassured. She looked at me like she expected me to either die on the spot or grow an extra head. “They’re brother and sister so this happens all the time. Screaming is how they show affection.”

“Screaming is how I show that he’s a pigheaded moron and oh god, Paul,” Helen went from furious to drowning in babbling worry in under a second. “I didn’t know if you’d be alive when I found you or if you’d even be there Paul you’ve been gone for three days—“

“Three?” I mumbled, noting that my clock was off. Either I’d been hit in the head harder than I thought or MK kept his goons on some long shifts. The argument over Nervous Nancy was put on hold as the boys filled me in on three days I’d never get back. Patrick leaned around the passenger seat and coaxed all useful information out of me in that thousand yard stare sort of way he has, and then it was a flurry of nurses and doctors and orderlies fussing over me.

I lucked out and didn’t require surgery, though I’m sure a quintuple bypass would have used less stitches than they put into me that night. The others hovered by the bed while I was sewn back together. I amused myself by watching the stripper, who had lost the boa and gained Pat’s trench coat, alternate between jumping at every sound and smelling the collar of the coat with a shy smile. Patrick, for his part, was completely oblivious as usual when it came to dealings with the human race. I hoped for her sake she didn’t start pining for her knight in a coffee stained shirt too hard; all evidence pointed to Pat being as sexless as a rock. I wasn’t sure if he even knew what dating was.

Just as the doctor was tying the last knots Vannie showed up in a maternal flurry. She hugged me, apologized for putting pressure on my aching ribs, and then turned to lecture her husband on the merits of letting his better half know when he was going to go do something incredibly stupid. Vanida Dunherst was a soft spoken woman, but when Ace did something requiring a lecture she went off like the mother superior reaching for the metal yardstick. When it became apparent that this plan lead to her dear sister in law in a strip club in a negligee Vannie got real quiet and gave Ace a look that could peel paint. He didn’t seem to catch it at first, going on about how she was supposed to be a cleaning lady and her jumping in saying she had to improvise, but even Ace couldn’t miss the hint when his wife poked him in the chest and told him they’d be discussing this at home.

When her attention turned to the stripper huddled in the corner Ace proved to have some measure of self-preservation, however small, as he was able to keep his mouth shut as his wife talked to the stripper. After some coaxing from both Vanida and Helen the girl spoke for the first time, her voice so timid it was hard to hear her. She said she couldn’t just let me rot after learning exactly how scary her boss was, but in the aftermath of bullets whizzing through the air she couldn’t stop thinking about exactly how scary her boss was. Vannie preemptively glared at her husband and told Nervous Nancy that she was staying the night with them, and that in the morning her boys would escort them to her apartment and help her pack up for a week out of town.

I checked myself out of the hospital against doctor’s orders, as was the usual. Vannie declared me unfit and Helen concurred, so I ended up slumped in the passenger seat of a pink caddy while Helen and Vannie tried to make small talk with the stripper. I think she thought that I had passed out or died because she opened up to the women, if timidly. Nancy Broadway’s tale was a story I’d heard before, not as hard as some but hard enough, and I believed her when she said she was just trying to scratch out the rent and had nothing to do with MK’s dirty dealings. If not for the thigh highs and corset hidden underneath Pat’s threadbare trench—I wondered if he’d turned into a particularly tall icicle yet—I wouldn’t have believed she was a creature of the night at all.

I ate half of the leftovers in the fridge and blissfully passed out. I was roused at one in the afternoon, which was a full fourteen hours later but it still didn’t seem like enough. However, when Ethan “Ace” Dunherst is standing over you with that particular twitch in his eye you don’t lay around. I stretched out my sore muscles, feeling like I was ninety instead of twenty-five, and fumbled into my clothes which had been washed and pressed and were free of bloodstains. Vannie was magic that way.

Crumpled and bruised I shuffled down to the kitchen and poured coffee down my throat until I bore some semblance to the living. Once I was awake enough to retain new information Ace informed me that if he had to play bodyguard to that lacy tart then so did I. Then he was off to his den to call Pat, a decision which surely had nothing to do with his wife brandishing a mixing spoon like a machete.

The stripper was skittish as a twice branded horse being lead back to the fire. Helen kept her from bolting with small talk so bland it seemed impossible that less than twenty-four hours before I was tied to a chair in a dingy back room, Vannie kept a sharp eye turned on her husband, Ace pretended that he wasn’t scared of his wife as he drove, and I tried to feel useful by acting as an admittedly terrible navigator. How we beat Pat there I will never know.

At the time I lived in a rundown building with an absentee super, but even I raised an eyebrow at the state of Nervous Nancy’s living conditions. The apartment complex was a conglomeration of crumbling brick, cracked plaster, and water stains. The women got her packed and we men stood in the hallway. We started off discussing what my capture meant to the MK case but then Helen poked her head out and informed us of what the stripper paid in rent and the subject changed to highway robbery. Even Ace couldn’t help but pity the poor girl, and reluctantly agreed with my suggestion we keep an eye out for ‘help wanted’ and ‘rooms available’ signs while we were out sticking our noses where they didn’t belong.

The girls were finishing up when Patrick finally got there. He caught us up on what the badges knew about my little vacation, which was just shy of nil. There really wasn’t much I could have given them; I was hit in the back of the head and never saw the initial assailant and once I woke up I was in a dim room and nursing a concussion, so my confidence in my ability to identify anyone involved was more than a little shaky. Better to let MK think that he had us too scared to talk to anyone, anyway, lull him into a false sense of security.

Plus, at the time of my capture I might have been engaged in activities that, if looked at with a certain slant, could have been considered breaking and entering to install an illegal wire tap, so the boys were hesitant to dial 911 and bring that avalanche of paperwork down on our heads. Not to mention that the badges would have had to follow proper procedure in storming the strip club and that would have taken time I probably didn’t have.

The three of us agreed to count this as a case of ‘better lucky than good’ and were in the middle of strategizing when the girls finished and walked out. Nervous Nancy must have taken a shower to dislodge the heavy makeup and oversprayed hair; she emerged with tasteful liner and shadow, her hair curled in a feminine bob, and she was wearing a pretty blue dress with white lace around the edges. If that was the first time I’d seen her then I never would have believed that she took off her clothes for a living.

She was hugging a bundle of cloth to her chest like it was a teddy bear, and after a moment I identified it as Pat’s coat. Nervous Nancy stepped forward, nervously of course, and offered it to him.

“Th-thank you,” she said softly. “It was v-very kind of you to lend it to me.” She took in his wardrobe—which consisted of a crumpled white collar, a faded vest, bowler hat, and a light spring jacket—and worried her lip in concern. “I h-hope you weren’t too c-cold without your coat.”

He stepped towards her and took the offered trench with a tip of his hat. “Not at all,” Pat said as he shrugged it on. “It was a pleasure to offer assistance to a fine lady such as yourself. It would have been awful if you caught sick after everything you went through last night.”

Patrick Irving was one of the most unfalteringly polite people I had ever met. You could spit in his face and he’d distractedly offer you a handkerchief to wipe the corner of your mouth. However, that kind of personal concern was not something I had heard a lot of and it gave me cause to stare. The three Dunhersts were also staring, and the fact that even Ace picked up on the subtlety of what we were staring at made it clear I wasn’t just imagining things. Pat had his eyes on Nervous Nancy’s face instead of some interesting cracks in the plaster halfway down the hall, which was unusual in of itself. It was pushed straight on to miracle when he awkwardly offered to carry her suitcase and asked her about her travel plans.

I rolled my eyes and shuffled after them, amending my theory that Pat was as sexless as a rock. It would figure that he’d have no interest in the girl when she was half-naked, but as soon as she was looking like a debutant from the 50s he couldn’t keep his eyes off her.

“Well,” I drawled after Pat helped Nervous Nancy into the car, “at least something good came from MK’s goons doing a dance on my face.”

Patrick blinked at me. “What?”

“It’s about time you showed some interest,” Ace put in his gruff two cents. “Unhealthy not to.”

“I’m pretty sure she likes you!” Helen said with a wink. “You should ask her out.”

“Give her some time to recover before you do that,” Vannie chided. “She’s still raw from her experience and you don’t want to scare her off.”

Pat boggled at the lot of us while Nervous Nancy peered out of the closed window with an air of confusion. I laughed, even though it made my bruised ribs ache. With the chances we took the game of life was never an easy roll, but at least it was always interesting.

Chapter Text

There was half an inch of ice on the trees when we first crossed paths. I was down by the bay in a section of the city you’d only call a slum if you were trying to flatter it, wearing my oldest most ragged coat and worn out shoes in my best attempt to blend into the landscape. I was walking the narrow line between housing and cannery looking for someone’s missing heroin riddled son, just another day, when he walked up. Anyone who would walk right up to a stranger in this part of town warranted closer inspection than most.

The first thing I noticed was his hat. I was a member of the dying breed of men who wore hats that didn’t come with sports logos, and I tended to judge people harsher than most when it came to a poor choice of headwear. My hat was hand crafted of the highest quality and palest tan felted wool and it was one of the most expensive things I had ever bought. Modern society might think differently but hats were important damn it, and the stranger who walked up to me that day appeared to be of the same mind. His fedora had a wider brim than mine, with just a touch of flop, something I wouldn’t be able to wear in good conscious but I thought that it suited the cut of his jaw. It was at least as expensive as mine and probably as old; the fine felt was dyed the deepest black but it was ever so slightly charcoal around the edges. Worn, but worn with care. This was a man who took care of his hat.

His coat was as worn and as well cared for as his hat, though probably not as expensive. It was a duster, black to match the fedora, buttoned up all the way to defend against the cold. His pants were your standard twill slacks, dark gray, his shoes were serviceable leather, black, and I caught a glimpse of the collar of his shirt between the lapels, light gray. Black stubble on a pointed jaw, eyebrows confirmed it was his natural color. Black eyes sharp as a razor. The only part of him not in grayscale was his olive skin and I wondered absently if he owned a single thing with some color to it.

I mentally subtracted the hat and guessed I was eye level with the top of his head, which meant he straddled the line between the short side of average and flat out short. Nothing as extreme as Ace, who only barely came to my chin if I slouched and he stood straight as a board, but it was worth noting. Not for the biology of it but rather because of how it meshed with his demeanor. His posture was perfect but it wasn’t the result of any military upbringing. It was too relaxed for that, relaxed but ready. The way he held himself was arrogant, but not in the pig-headed arrogance that gets you killed sort of way. It was the justified arrogance of a man who knew he was good and had either the skills or sheer dumb luck to back it up.

It wasn’t a question of if this guy was packing, it was what, and after a long cold day shuffling up and down the icy streets showing the addict’s picture and getting doors slammed in my face I didn’t particularly care to find out. I pulled a lighter out of my pocket and held it up to the black wrapped straight. When the second-hand smoke came back smelling of cloves my interest was officially piqued. His clothes were serviceable, years old, and well cared for, which could have put him in the income range of that neighborhood provided he was frugal. However, any man who stood in the middle of a street so potholed it looked like swiss cheese smoking a Djarum Black like it was no big deal didn’t belong to the lower tiers.

In all likelihood a man with that kind of money in this kind of neighborhood was a few steps up on the dealing ladder, and that made him likely to be affiliated with MK. My little vacation to the back room of a jazzed up strip club was still very fresh in my mind and I didn’t particularly want to make a repeat visit so soon. I regarded him with the same respectful caution you’d treat a grizzly, and just as with a wild animal the number one rule in dealing with dealers was to never let them see you sweat.

I pulled out my own pack and lit one off. He didn’t bother hiding the eyeroll when he saw my Luckies.

“Not everybody has the luxury of imported,” I said with a shrug.

He looked at me with the same measuring look I was giving him. “So, what’re you doing in this particular neighborhood?”

There was an implied sense of ownership in that statement, but it didn’t sit right in my head. He was claiming it, that was certain, but it was like he was trying to put on shoes that didn’t quite fit. It could mean that he was making his first bid for the area and hadn’t moved in yet, that he was in drug management and was only there once a month to inspect the troops, or he could be some inspector taking a break from nosing around the cannery and I was imagining everything. Paranoia kept me alive but the suspicion did tend to get in the way of making new friends. Thus why it took two background checks before we let Helen move in with Nervous Nancy—something I was not allowed to call her, Patrick had informed me in a tone bordering on irate, which by his standards was flat out uncouth. It was amazing how fast those two walking string beans took to each other.

I took a long drag to collect my thoughts and decide on the best course of action. Careful planning gave way to my gut and I went with honesty.

I fished out the picture of the heroin addict and showed it to the stranger. “I’m looking for this boy,” I said, rattling off the same thing I’d been rattling off for three days previous. “He’d be a couple years older than in this photo, skinnier too. Boy’s got a problem with heroine and his dad’s got a mind to stick him in a tough love detox joint.”

There was a loosening in the man’s shoulders. He wasn’t letting his guard down by any means but he seemed to think the worst was adverted. “So, you’re a private eye, huh?”

“That’s what I’m aiming for, at least.”

He chuckled and I realized that he thought I was a badge.

“Is there a problem with that?” I asked, my hand itchy for the grip of my gun.

“Problem? I don’t have a problem, sleuth,” he said in a tone that made it clear he thought he was being witty. The last word was said as an insult, but I would have bet money I didn’t have that he’d have spat at the word ‘cop’. The chances of him being there for the cannery were going down by the second.

“So... have you seen him?” I pressed. I had a job to do after all. He looked at the photo, then at me, then he stared off in contemplation while he blew spiced smoke into the wind.

“For all you know I’m the kid’s dealer. I might not want to give up the client,” he said with a deliberate carelessness that I saw straight through. There was an edge to his tone, a sneer he probably thought he was hiding but he didn’t quite manage, and I could make a reasonably certain guess that he didn’t think much of the drug trade.

“If you are this kid’s dealer then it would be in your best interest to give him up,” I replied. “If this turns into a real missing persons then you’ll have badges down here. It’s doubtful they’ll stick anything to you but they will put a crimp in your business.”

There was a satisfied flavor to his smirk and I guessed he was congratulating himself for pulling the wool over my eyes about the dealer thing. After a moment he schooled his featured to casual threat.

“So, sleuth, if I am the kid’s dealer what are you going to do, take me out of the picture? Save the world one street at a time?”

Given the emphasis he put on ‘sleuth’ I had the sneaking suspicion I’d been given a nickname. It was grating, but as I didn’t particularly feel like giving this man my name I decided to tolerate it.

As for his question, honesty was still the best policy. “Look, mister, I’m just trying to make a living. I don’t have the time or energy to chase every illegal activity that may or may not even be there. If I was that kind of idiot I’d have a badge.”

He chuckled at that; if there was one thing a private detective and a likely criminal could bond over it was a mutual distain for the men in uniform, though for different reasons. I didn’t exactly have an overwhelming hatred for the force—I consulted with them often enough and Rousseau was all right if overly enthusiastic—but badges could be irritating sometimes.

As for whatever activities of questionable legality this man was getting up to, there wasn’t anything I could do about it. The only thing he’d semi-confessed to was being a dealer and I knew that wasn’t true. I didn’t get the feeling he worked for MK—for one thing, I would have already been in a car trunk—so I didn’t have a personal interest in sticking my neck out.

I finished my Lucky and stomped out the butt. “Have you seen the kid or not?”

“Nope, can’t say I have.”

I couldn’t help the defeated slump to my shoulders; hint of danger notwithstanding this had been one of the more pleasant interviews of the case and it would have been nice if it ended on a high note. He seemed to find it amusing.

“Well, it was a nice smoke anyway,” I muttered. I took mental stock of which doors had not yet been slammed in my face. I turned down the street but was stopped by a tap to my shoulder. I turned back and looked at the stranger, who seemed to be enjoying a private joke.

“Don’t worry, sleuth, I’m sure you’ll find your mark,” he reassured in the most irritating condescending tone. To add to the insult he dramatically swept his hat off and placed it over his breast. “My heart goes out to the poor addict and his concerned father.”

I glanced up at the top of his head and his black hair slightly mussed from the fedora. It was stupid and juvenile but for some reason I couldn’t stop the sarcasm from welling up. I tipped my hat and most sincerely said, “Thanks for the support, slick. It means a lot to me.”

He looked confused. “Slick?

I shrugged. “As in the oil slick on top of your head.”

It was plain to see that his hair’s sheen was natural, but I think that accuracy is overrated when it makes a guy turn that particular shade of purple. I tossed a careless wave over my shoulder as I headed on down the street. He was still spluttering with rage when I turned the corner.

I put ‘Slick’ out of my mind and focused on the task at hand. Four days later I found the kid in a holding cell on possession, another two days of borderline harassment from the father, and so it was that I walked into the precinct a week after the encounter by the canneries. The bonus in my pocket was nowhere near worth the favors I’d have to cash in but getting this client off my back was worth the world. I was weaving through the pigpen trying to find the relevant badge when I caught sight of the whiteboard and saw Mr. Nochrome staring back at me. The photo was from a bad angle and grainy as a wheat farm but that wide brimmed fedora was unmistakable. His photo was one of four set in a blurry pixilated square under the all-caps heading ‘SUSPECTS’.

Never let it be said that my curiosity sometimes got the better of me. There’s never a time it doesn’t.

I wandered over for a closer look. The picture was just as bad close as it was far away, most of his face either in shadow or covered by his hat, but I knew that razor chin and devil-may-care smirk. Details were listed out beside his photograph in black sharpie. ‘Spades’ was listed first. I blinked at that a couple times as it slowly dawned that I knew him before I met him. By reputation only, and even then barely—even in the right circles not much was known about the Midnight Crew. Before then all I knew was that there were four of them nicknamed after the four card suits, not the most creative names for a band of thieves but there’s something to be said about a matching set.

Given the mystery surrounding their daring heists I was surprised to find a real name listed under ‘Spades’, and what a name it was. ‘Jacques Louvel Raoul Moreau-Noir’, a long name for a short man. My eyebrows climbed to my hairline as I took in that mouthful, then my jaw dropped as the last four letters sunk in. The whole area was nothing but rocks and dust before the Noir family set up shop in the early 1800s and built Midnight City from the ground up. They controlled this town for over a century but The Great Depression hit the dynasty hard. They never climbed back to their former glory and the various cousins scattered, little left for them in the town that used to be theirs. Those who stayed found that the Noir name retained only a chip of its former power.

Any further contemplation on the man’s name was interrupted by the kind of badge that gives the rest a bad name among the private eye community. He got all pissy about me looking at the white board as though my presence anywhere near the thing was 100% guaranteed to destroy the case. When I did my civic duty and reported that I’d seen the guy it was suddenly clear that I was deliberately withholding case important information from the force. Luckily for me Rousseau was making a visit to the trenches and heard his detective flipping his lid.

“Shepard, what’s all this commotion?” he asked in his sternest I’m-going-to-be-chief-of-police-one-day-so-straighten-up voice.

I turned on my heel to face him and in my best I’m-going-to-be-a-sarcastic-shit voice said, “Chief, I’d like to report something! The other day I was down by the cannery and this guy asked me for a light. He sized me up, I sized him up, I asked him about my missing person, and then we parted ways. I had a gut feeling that he wasn’t completely on the up and up so I thought I’d come down here and make everyone drop their real leads so they can focus on this all-important new case.”

Either the sarcasm sailed over Rousseau’s head or he wasn’t sure what direction the sarcasm was going and didn’t want to commit to an assumption yet. His eyes narrowed and he replied, “Don’t waste my time.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think so,” I said with a dramatic eyeroll for the belligerent detective’s benefit. “I ran into this guy a week ago and I’m pretty sure it was this Jack Noir character.”

Rousseau didn’t get to be head of homicide by being completely dense; his next glare was aimed over my shoulder at the belligerent detective. “How do you know?”

“It’s a nice fedora.”

He did that thing where his eyes stay firmly on your face and yet you still get the feeling he’s rolling them at you so vigorously they’re about to fall out of his head. “Hats,” was his only comment about my fedora-based ID. “They broke into the plant head’s office and stole some folders from the safe. Given the behavior of everyone involved the papers are likely blackmail.”

I nodded. “He was probably checking escape routes when he spotted me going door to door. He probably thought I was a plainclothes and asked for a light to figure out if the heist was compromised.”

The belligerent detective tried to voice his angry opinion about me learning anything about the case, but Rousseau’s sharp dismissive wave neatly ended the conversation and we all went back to what we were doing.

Once I put a wrap on that headache of a case my curiosity led me back to the whiteboard, and this time to a friendly badge. He didn’t have any issue telling me what they had, probably because they didn’t have much. Only child of Élodie Melaena Jaquelle Moreau-Noir, short name Melody Noir. Father unknown. No juvey record. They scoured the newspaper archives for any mention and dug up a couple piano recital announcements from his childhood. Good grades, not excellent but steady, all the way up until he dropped out of his second year of college with a 3.2 GPA. That’s when the cops assume the Midnight Crew was formed. They assume because it was one of those cases where everyone and their blind, deaf, and dumb dog knew this was the guy but they couldn’t make a shred of evidence stick.

After learning what little there was to be learned I decided it wasn’t my problem. I had my hands full trying to nail down that slippery asshole MK, and from what I saw I didn’t think that the Crew were on his take. Until that changed I wasn’t going to give myself any extra ulcers. I put it out of my mind.

It’s funny how your plans can fail you.

Chapter Text

The weeks passed and I forgot all about Jack “Spades” Noir; I had bigger fish to fry. Specifically I had a smug and unnaturally agile whale in need of a good harpooning. Even at the time I was well aware that I was making MK my Moby Dick except this was one dick who actually did deserve being hunted down.

The Dunhersts were on a trip out of the country to visit Vannie’s extended family back in Sangli and so Nancy was home alone watching the late night news. She called Patrick, he drove out and felt completely unequipped to deal with the situation, and that’s how I came to open my door at two in the morning to the sight of Patrick looking more terrified and human than I had ever seen him and Nancy looking more scared than the night I met her. She was white as a sheet and wrung her hands so hard it was a wonder she didn’t dislocate any fingers.

I approached her carefully, mindful of how skittish and fragile she was acting, and tried to gently coax the details out of her. She started hyperventilating and promptly fainted. Luckily Patrick had been following behind her like a lost, worried puppy as she paced my living room and he rushed forward to catch her. He then glared at me—not a vacant ogle but a genuine I-will-punch-you glare—and carried her to the couch. He didn’t seem to know what the problem was and surprisingly seemed more concerned with comforting her than solving the mystery; the man had it bad.

Nancy came around quickly and did the fluttery Oh Mr. Irving thing when she saw him hovering over her worried. She was still terrified but with him stroking her hand and talking to her in that hypnotic tone she calmed down enough to tell the story without passing out again. Turns out that when she was watching the news she saw a few familiar faces in the missing persons reel. Two, to be precise, both of whom were former coworkers of hers back at the strip club. Nancy was convinced that something terrible had happened to them, and nothing Pat and I said could convince her otherwise.

I offered her my bed and a couple swigs of vodka, both of which she accepted. She was out like a light as soon as her head hit the pillow. Unable to resist I grinned and asked Pat if he wanted to curl in next to her, just to make sure she was okay. His face didn’t quite get as red as his hair but it got damn close. I made a mental note to get him into a state where he could actually ask the poor girl out on a date, closed my bedroom door, and made a few calls.

I wished I could have given her good news when she woke but it just wasn’t in the cards. I found the two missing persons in the morgue. One had a crushed larynx, one had been shot in the throat, and both had nasty pre-mortem gashes on their tongues. There was a clear message in the attention paid to mouths and voice boxes; they talked, and people who talk end up in fishing nets. After some more digging and with Nancy’s help we were able to find other strong possibles for the MK wall, all having suffered some heavily symbolic torture. Lacerated tongues for those who talked to the wrong person, destroyed hands for those caught embezzling from the extortionist, pierced eardrums and gouged eyes for those who heard or saw too much. Some were still alive but most ended up in the bay.

Nancy went into another fit wondering what her former employer would do to her, that quickly shifted over into intense fretting over the danger she was posing to her roommate, then she panicked over what MK was going to do to us boys if and when he caught up to us. She returned to pacing my living room as she babbled about a few scenarios she thought were likely; they were painful, messy, and probably not even close to what MK would do to us if we continued being a thorn in his side. I didn’t tell her that. Neither did Patrick, even though he was usually the worst about running his mouth about the most gruesome facts at the most inopportune times. Instead he resumed the lost puppy routine and did his pitiful best to comfort her while I got on the line with Ace and explained the new development.

The new question was why we were still breathing. Usually that would be the sort of puzzle that Patrick would find inappropriately fascinating but he was well and truly distracted with Nancy. I quietly boggled at that while I tried to piece it together Sudoku style like he did. The similarity between the woman having an extended case of the vapors in my living room and the two bodies in the morgue ended at a mutual place of business. Nancy was an honest, law abiding, hard worker who was just a little down on her luck while the dead girl was addicted to just about all of humanity’s favorite poisons and the dead guy was an illegal from one of the former Soviet states. The junkie’s roommate put out the missing person’s but a quick call revealed the woman upset but not grief-stricken; roommates and nothing more.

I checked a few of the unsolveds. Addicts, prostitutes, thugs, bookies, white collar roaches, all members of the dregs of society club. People who lived on the unfortunate intersection of the invisible and people who had pissed MK off.

That was that question answered. We were still alive because we were visible. There were people who would miss us and make sure the murder investigation stayed on course. I realized that, even more than the presence of our loved ones, one Armand Rousseau would give MK pause. I wasn’t exactly the best of friends with the chief, but we had a mutual respect. If the boys and I ended up in bodybags then Rousseau would probably take it as a personal insult. He had a reputation for latching onto a case with the determination of a dog laying into a pair of fine Italian leather shoes. I couldn’t guess if Rousseau would be able to nail MK with anything solid, but at the very least he’d make business difficult for a long time.

I resolved to get Rousseau something nice for Christmas. Something whimsical. The man took life far too seriously.

Once Nancy was stable and Patrick could focus we decided that it was time to get a little more proactive. Less than legal wiretaps could only do so much; it was time to do some undercover work so illegal and non-authorized Rousseau was probably choking on his coffee without knowing why. We needed a glimpse inside to gather more datapoints for Pat’s web of connections so we would be better equipped to be at the right place at the right time to catch MK’s employees in the act.

Ace had both the subtlety of a brick and a wife waiting up at home so he was right out whether he liked it or not. It came down to Pat or me. Patrick was a surprisingly good at acting like an average guy when he put his mind to it, and he reasoned that while I was an excellent detective I wouldn’t catch every tiny clue that he would. I sure wasn’t going to argue that point—his mind was like some fractal net that skimmed a dimension I could never hope to comprehend—but that was exactly why I wasn’t going to let him take this job.

Usually I didn’t stick my nose in the risks my partner’s took, aside from occasionally talking Ace down to a more reasonable level, because it usually wasn’t any of my damn business. Patrick might look like he could be snapped in half by a stiff breeze but I knew that he was one tough customer. Just being tall, skinny, and scatterbrained would have been enough to earn him some bruises growing up, but he was also a genius. He could take a right hook and a few kicks to the ribs and it wouldn’t even register.

That was for the average cases with average risks. If our man was discovered he’d get a hell of a lot worse than heavy bruising. Pat was the one who figured this out before it really even began, he was the one who caught the things everyone else missed, and that made him infinitely more valuable than I was. The team would have a better shot at solving this without me than without him. He knew this, of course, and so I was the one who got plopped down in the Dunherst bathtub with the girls clucking over the box of dye.

So it was that I sauntered down to a smoky seedy bar in a part of Midnight City that makes the wrong side of the tracks look like a fine gated community. My light caramel hair had been taken down to the darkest brown which could be managed while still passing for my natural color. I was impressed with the job Nancy did on my brows. When she manhandled my head around for a better angle to brush in the stuff it was the first time I’d ever seen her assertive. She’d been coming out of her shell under Helen’s generally pushy influence, though more surprising was the calming influence Nancy was having on Helen. Gave me something to ponder while they scolded me for trying to touch my head before the stuff was ready for a rinse.

Aside from making it brown they gave me a less than stellar trim—deliberately so, Helen knew her way around a pair of scissors—and after a lot of arguing I was convinced to shave off my excellently trimmed goatee. After the mourning period it was decided that my three day stubble was dark enough to mesh with my new hair color and that it would help add to the scruffy look. I couldn’t wait until that job was over and I could return to a little long but neatly trimmed with a proper sort of beard, none of this ‘I’m too lazy to shave’ nonsense. For good measure I was wearing a pair of contacts with the slightest yellow tint, taking my hazel eyes to something a little more brown. Put it all together and no one would recognize Kyle Fuller as Paul Shepard, provided that they didn’t look all that hard. The larger part of the disguise was being as unnoticeable as possible.

Until then it was scruffy hair, worn out denim, threadbare flannel, a worn bomber jacket, army surplus boots, and a faded gay newsy. I dressed the dress, walked the walk, talked the talk, and wormed my way into a ticket to talk with one of MK’s mid-level goons. I was posing as a potential middle-man for smuggling. Kyle Fuller was in the business of shipping Sculptor’s Row busts of famous people out of the bay, and he had the means to fill the busts with contraband and then the statues would sail right through customs. It was a smooth imaginary operation. When Patrick launched the idea I breathed a sigh of relief that he decided to stay on the straight and narrow—less than legal wiretaps and undercover work aside. I don’t know if I could have survived going up against PI the criminal mastermind; I could barely survive PI the PI.

Things were going really well. I’d successfully hornswaggled Tony the Goon into thinking the smuggling deal was good. Tony was pretty sharp and only gave me the details of the operation that I needed to know, nothing more and nothing less. If he blabbed about his business then he wouldn’t have lived long enough to be in charge of an entire branch of MK’s smuggling operation, after all. In spite of this he turned out to be an indirect goldmine as he was one of the worst gossips I’d ever come across. It was all piddling stuff, mostly centered around the love lives of his immediate circle, but all the grains of sand eventually add up to an oily beach. Vivian’s man was still mad about her staying late at work a couple weeks ago, and Glen’s girl was starting to cause a ruckus since he got assigned to the red light district on Monday, all of it committed to memory. Things were going very well.

I should have known it was bound to blow up in my face.

Tony was in the middle of the dramatic tale of Clara’s unplanned pregnancy when they walked into the club. Tony trailed off and looked behind me towards the door—it went against instinct to put my back to the door but a junior bust smuggler wouldn’t think of that kind of thing—once a frown crossed his features I guessed it was worth looking at who had him irked. They were across a smokey room so I couldn’t see their faces but the outline of that fedora was unmistakable.

I turned back to Tony with my heart hammering in my ears, though of course it didn’t show on my face.

“Who’s that, then?” I asked, even though I already knew.

Tony humphed. “That’s the Midnight Crew. They’re small time cat burglars.”

I hadn’t taken a particular interest in the Crew’s capers but I knew that ‘small time’ was an outright lie. They were strongly suspected for the theft of Doctor Argent Scratch’s trademark antique gold pocket watch; word was they lifted it from his bedside table while he was sleeping and that his security team didn’t have a clue until they were already off the grounds. They were so good at what they did that the badges only had a positive ID on Noir up on their whiteboard, Spades and Diamonds were the only aliases they had pinned to a face, and none of the bits taped around the edges spoke of a shred evidence stronger than suspicion. They were thieves so successful no one could tell exactly how successful they were.

“Oh, okay,” said with an uninterested tone. I tried to catch sight of where in the club they were without it looking like I was looking. Outside I was collected with only the hint of nervousness a newcomer to the smuggling scene would show, but inside I just about had a heart attack when they passed right by our table.

Noir led the way dressed what looked to be the exact outfit he was wearing when I met him, wrinkled shirt and all. He was closely followed by a huge man in an akubra. Right behind the giant was the only person I’d seen over the age of six who was shorter than Ace, aside from the lovely Mrs. Dunherst. He had a felted boater, something which I had never seen before, that was half squished like he’d slept on it. The badges’ whiteboard was unsure as to which of these two was Hearts and which was Clubs.

Trailing behind was man in an immaculate black suit, a white tie that probably cost more than my rent, and a spotless ink black homburg—the badges had his alias down and no wonder he took Diamonds. Everything about him looked sharp. On his arm was a woman who had not been on the whiteboard at the station. While the men were dressed exclusively in black with a few dark charcoal accents for flavor, she had spiced up her sleek pinstripe skirt suit with a few deep red feathers in the touring style fascinator she wore. It was pinned to the side of the pile of curly black hair twisted up and secured with two sticks. Her lipstick was the same shade as the feathers, as was the eye shadow that framed mismatched eyes: one blue, one gold.

The entire Midnight Crew, plus one. Walking through the club. Past the table where I was sitting. Past the table where I was sitting with someone more than high enough in MK’s tree to make things very uncomfortable for the rest of my very short life if Noir outed me. I drew my arms in and tilted my head down as much as was possible without attracting attention to my posture and silently willed the Crew—or at least Noir—to the far side of the room.

So of course Slick, that sorry apparently psychic bastard, decided he needed to come over and talk to Tony.

Chapter Text

“Sorry, Kyle, this is usually a nice place but sometimes the riff raff gets by the bouncer,” Tony said to me, loudly, as Noir approached the table. I tilted my head slightly down and away as though I was scared of the big bad thief. I’d only met him once and we only talked for a few minutes, but if he was sharp enough to tell that I was some flavor of law enforcement then there was a chance he might see through the disguise.

The Crew slowed and turned to watch and I saw the big one glare. The short one looked interested and a little confused, as though he didn’t get why everyone was staring but it would be neat to find out. Diamonds looked vaguely annoyed but I couldn’t tell if it was directed at Tony or at his own boss. The woman looked amused.

Slick put a hand on the back of an unused chair and leaned on it in what he probably considered a tough guy pose. Tongue in cheek he eyed Tony as though he was something stuck to the bottom of his shoe.

“Your horse is riffraff and I bet you ride it every night,” Noir scornfully spat out. The line was so bad it hurt and it was embarrassingly clear that the thief was proud of coming up with it. In spite of the very real danger to my life I had to fight the urge to roll my eyes at him. At least I wasn’t alone; it looked like Diamonds was struggling against the instinct to slap his forehead in exasperation.

Tony didn’t have to worry about a lack of self-control getting himself killed so he was allowed to let out a loud vexed sigh. “What are you doing in here with your boys, Spades?” He sneered in the woman’s direction. “I see you brought your whore with you.”

The big one growled and took a hostile step forward while the short one looked like he was so outraged he couldn’t even string together a counter-insult. Diamonds remained stoic but there was a tightness to his jaw that betrayed how he was gritting his teeth. The object of the insult tilted her head to the side and pursed her lips.

As for their boss, Noir’s expression turned from a scowl to a wide, friendly grin. “I don’t know who you’re talking about,” he said in a very deliberate tone. “All I have are my boys: Diamonds, Hearts, Clubs, and Dead-Hand. You need to get your eyes checked.”

“Please, as though the whole underground doesn’t know you’ve got some in-house sugar,” Tony shot back.

Noir just stared.

When the two of us had shared our smoke by the bay his posture and mannerisms gave the definite impression that he wasn’t a man to be trifled with, but it was garden variety ‘don’t mess with me’. On that day he’d been putting out vibes that if I tangled with him I’d end up with one hell of a shiner, maybe a cracked rib provided I did something to really piss him off. At the time Noir had presented himself as no worse a threat than any other man who could confidently say that he could defend himself against muggers in the rougher parts of Midnight City.

That was then.

There was still a sense of carelessness about him, the reckless air of a loose cannon. It was stronger than it had been by the cannery, spelled out in the way he flexed the fingers in preparation for grabbing a weapon. That gesture said that he might just be dumb enough to make good on his unspoken threat even though he and his Crew were outnumbered, and the glimpse of something vicious behind that jovial smile said that he might just be crazy enough to win in spite of the unfavorable odds. Diamonds seemed to be the one who brought that card to the Crew’s poker table; his ice blue eyes flicked over all the possible players and he measured each in turn. He was cool and collected with all the deadly precision of a scalpel excising a tumor. Noir’s nerves were steel to be sure but he was in no way a sterile razor; he was a rusted bear trap full of ready tension and ready to spring with vicious aggression on whoever made the mistake of setting him off.

That day by the bay when I called Jack Noir ‘Slick’ in childish retribution for nicknaming me ‘Sleuth’ I hadn’t been worried about any backlash of note. Slick was a man who could defend himself if attacked but he had enough sense not to assault a private detective in broad daylight. Even if Slick had acted rashly it would be a simple matter of a wild swing of a fist. Slick I could handle.

That was Slick. This was Spades. I stopped worrying so much about what MK’s goons would do if Noir recognized me and started worrying about short, dark, and scruffy.

Luckily my fortunes turned for the better, and about time because I’d had a rotten time of it ever since me and the boys first shook the hornet nest. Noir dismissed me as an unimportant third party—aside from my apparent insignificance there was the fact that Tony was drawing all his ire—and so he hardly spared me a glance. The girls did a good job on the physical part of my cover and any sweating I was doing was perfectly in character for a humble mover of marble busts, so while I was definitely not going to let my guard down a fraction I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. I just had to stay invisible.

While Tony was dumb enough to get tangled with MK he wasn’t a moron and so he picked up on the metaphorical bear trap that was just itching to make somebody bleed. He backed off on the confrontational attitude and shrugged.

“Whatever. I guess it’s no matter to me as long as you don’t slum it up where my boys are sitting.”

The grin remained fixed. It was impressive how prominent and sharp Spades’ canines were. He toned down the threat level as well, though he was still clearly ready for a fight, and took a few steps forward. While his right hand still flexed for a knife to twist into someone’s gut his left was occupied by a glass of ice in a precarious pinched grip as well as a very expensive looking bottle of imported Turkish raki. Noir set the glass on the table in front of Tony and poured, then as an afterthought he tipped some into one of my empties.

As the milky liquid flowed over the ice the heady smell of anise filled the air. Tony coughed and made a face, but when Noir lifted the bottle in a silent toast MK’s man played along. He downed it like a shot but I took my cue from the long, slow drag Noir took straight from the bottle. I sipped the stuff and damn but it was strong—it was no surprise that Tony was doing a post-shot ‘what is this lighter fluid’ jig where he sat—but taken in slowly it was smooth. My feelings for licorice were pretty ambivalent but the raki wasn’t oversweet and the quality of that particular brand was apparent. Noir spared a glance my way and I prepared for the worst but all he saw was an unimportant smuggler. He gave me the slightest approving nod, I would guess because I drank the alcohol properly, and then with a mock salute he and his Crew crossed the room and sat down at a table; I absently noted that while the woman had come in on Diamonds’ arm she sat down in Spades’ lap. Once they were settled and clearly not going anywhere I had to smother a sigh of relief. That shave was so close it skinned me but I came out none the wiser to my real identity.

I got to hear an earful about the Crew from Tony once they were out of earshot. Most of it had the ring of baseless insults with the overall flavor of MK not liking the ring of thieves. From Tony’s formless bitching I figured that MK had offered the Crew a place in his organization and that their boss turned him down cold. Spades didn’t strike me as the kind of guy who liked taking orders from anyone so it didn’t surprise me that they were unaffiliated. I was just glad that the two groups didn’t get along since it meant that Noir was on the other side of the room.

After Tony wound down on being pissed I made my stammering exit, playing up Kyle-the-statue-man’s fear of being jumped by the scary types in the club. Tony insisted that as long as I was a good little smuggler I’d be protected by MK’s network. That was true enough; valuable assets were well taken care of. Tony left out the part where you get chopped into fish bait the second you outlive your usefulness. As I pulled down my cap and walked out the door I wondered how many poor dead bastards got the same speech from Tony.

I got myself across the street and sagged against the brick in the entrance to a narrow alley, the anise still burning on my tongue. I am of course a man of incredible bravery, self-control, and yes I am man enough to admit more than a little stupidity, but damn if I hadn’t hit my limit. My legs were halfway to jelly and my hands were trembling—thankfully none of that started until I was in the dimly lit alleyway—and even though there was a pressing need to put some distance between me and the bar I wasn’t confident in my ability to walk without falling over. I lit up a Lucky and took a few long, soothing drags to steady my nerves.

I wasn’t even halfway done when the woman, Dead-Hand, walked out of the club. There were a few moments when I thought she’d come for me and by then I was so drained I could barely summon the sense to care, but then she turned and walked a ways while staying on that side of the street. I stayed in the shadows and watched her cautiously, however, it didn’t look like I was her game. She glanced my way as she turned up her coat collar and dismissed me in a flash; I doubted she’d care what I did as long as it wasn’t in her direction so I decided to stay put until her business outside was done with.

After a minute some guy walked by and a moderately subtle exchange went down when he passed her. It was probably an envelope with intel about a job, floor plans and whatnot, and boy did I not give a fuck. Interesting though it might have been to chase the elusive Crew I had bigger problems and the scene in the bar made it clear that the thieves weren’t on MK’s payroll. Not to mention that they were smart enough not to kill people on their jobs—homicide has a way of bringing the badges in to breathe down your neck in a way that simple theft can’t hope to match—so there wasn’t any major threat to public safety that needed neutralized. If the lack of solid evidence as to which heists were theirs was any indication they were able to avoid even minor injuries; take away the option of killing witnesses to silence them and the best course of action is to avoid all contact with anyone so there’s no witness needing silencing in the first place.

In summary, not my problem. It was also very much not my problem when some of MK’s goons came out of the side door and moved to intercept the woman.

The smart thing to do in a situation like that is to walk away. At that point I was getting away with sitting in a room full of MK’s goons while they happily told me their secrets while a man who knew me as a private eye sat a few tables down. That was enough danger and stupid risk taking for one night. Not to mention the fact that Dead-Hand, whoever she was, didn’t strike me as the type of beauty with nothing between the ears. She had to have known what she was getting into when she got mixed up with the Crew and if it landed her in trouble then that would be nobody’s fault but her own.

Besides all that if the opening blows were any indication she didn’t need my help in the first place. As soon as she sensed the danger she had pulled the two sticks out of her hair and she was swinging them at her attackers like they were knives. There were three of them, all hanging back in a loose circle around her as they tried to comprehend a girl who fights with her hair ornaments, and even when they decided to get a little more hands on Dead-Hand she danced and parried like a pro.

Definitely, absolutely, one hundred percent not my problem.

One of them managed to shove her off balance and she fell back into the wall. Dead-Hand hit her head on the brick and it left her dazed. The goons jeered amongst themselves and cracked their knuckles over her prone form.

Smart never had been my game. I flicked my cigarette into a puddle and took off like a shot.

Surprise was on my side when I crashed into the closest walking meat locker. I had him reeling with minimal difficulty but the second one was ready for me. Grappling with him was enough of a distraction for Dead-Hand to shake herself out of her daze and leap back into the fray. It wasn’t long before she had hers down with a few well placed blows to the solar plexus and other nerve bundles while I had taken a significantly less elegant approach in which I did my best to break all the bones in his face. My fighting style wasn’t without its sophistication but I still felt like a drunken brain-dead bruiser next to that obscenely graceful woman.

Unfortunately while we were dispatching those two the one I’d attacked first had managed to stagger up and back to the bar to fetch reinforcements. There were a few seconds to breathe as they ran towards us and Dead-Hand regarded me with suspicion but as they came down on us she shrugged in an obvious gesture of don’t-look-a-gift-horse-in-the-mouth as we tried to put down six more thick slabs of muscle.

Things were just starting to go grim—a loud slap giving Dead-Hand smeared lipstick and a split lip while I earned a bruised lung from a blow that hit like a sledgehammer—when the cavalry arrived. The Crew must have seen the new goons leave in a hurry and known that something was up, for there the thieves were and they were there with a vengeance. Unfortunately it looked as though their exit hadn’t gone unnoticed and I lost count of how many we were up against.

Diamonds came in swinging a cue stick at out assailants’ heads while the short one grabbed a chair leg out of the alley debris and started thwacking at kneecaps. The two fought in parallel, one of them knocking a guy off balance and the other close behind with a more devastating knock down blow. There was no miscommunication as to the order of the blows, the whole thing very methodical and efficient. Noir and the big one also fought in tandem but their style was far looser and more brutal than the quick precision of Diamonds and shortstack. Spades was a vicious butterfly with a butterfly knife darting around opening thin red lines on arms and cheeks and while the goons tried to catch that slippery bastard the giant would haymaker them out of consciousness. At some point he salvaged an old TV antenna from the piles of trash and started leaving stinging welts on the ones he really didn’t like but I didn’t have the time to focus on that as Dead-Hand and I had found our own duet rhythm. She danced a ballet as breathtakingly beautiful as it was deadly while I played the role of follow up knockout blows. Fighting alongside her was embarrassingly exhilarating and as the last asshole fell I had to remind myself of who she was.

Then it really hit me that I was standing in the middle of the entire Midnight Crew and my mind glazed over. All of Diamonds’ focus was on Dead-Hand’s split lip and other injuries. His inspection was very professional but there was a hint of tenderness peeking out from underneath the stoic ice. As for Dead-Hand there was a touch of warmth in her voice when she told him not to worry; small glimpses under the masks on both counts but I would have bet money there was something going on between the two of them, her sitting in the boss’s lap notwithstanding. I was jolted out of the romance novel by the big one clapping me on the back hard enough that I thought I was going to cough up blood. In a boisterous voice flavored with a Russian accent he complimented me on my fighting skills. Then the short one was shaking my hand and thanking me for helping out Dead-Hand. Then Noir was there offering up a rakish grin and a witty one liner so mangled it probably would have made me wince if he actually finished it, if he didn’t trail off as his dark eyes got wide and he knew, fuck but he knew.

We stared at each other for I don’t even know how long. I ran the numbers a million times in the space of a heartbeat and in no scenario were the odds even remotely in my favor. It was clear from the look on his face that he knew who I was, for whatever reason he remembered the random PI on a missing persons by the canneries, and he knew that I knew that he knew. It was an old fashioned showdown and sooner or later one of us was going to have to draw, except Kyle the statue man had to come to the MK meet and greet unarmed for it to be a believable cover and Spades probably had more sharp things on his person that he had teeth. Then when you took into account the fact that the big one could probably knot me into a pretzel barehanded, whatever brutality the short one was capable of, and I didn’t even want to fathom what cruelty Diamonds and Dead-Hand could get up to if they really put their minds to it... in summary, I was one dead detective.

Noir was just opening his mouth—to out me, to call his boys to action, to say ‘hey aren’t you’—and then there was a soft gasp of pain behind me. He looked over my shoulder and his expression turned troubled. I figured that since I was already screwed there was no further harm in offering Spades my back and so I turned to see for myself. Dead-Hand was holding up her arm while Diamonds carefully poked at it. There was a thick line already darkening—towards the end of the fight she had to block a pipe with her forearm while I took out a guy sneaking up on the short one—and given the fact that it already looked swollen she was probably looking at a hairline fracture at best.

“We need to get off the street,” Diamonds told his boss curtly. His eyes flicked over to me and he politely said, “Thank you for your assistance.”

I turned back to Noir with defiance in my eyes, ready for him to get his words back and tell his boys who I was; I was going down but I was going down swinging. He took that in with a contemplative sort of look. Then he glanced over my shoulder at Dead-Hand once more time and then gave me the slightest nod.

“You helped Dead-Hand,” was all he said. It took a moment for me to realize that he wasn’t stating the facts of the current situation but that he was answering the unspoken question of why he was letting me go. He didn’t thank me for helping her and I wasn’t going to thank him for keeping my identity to himself. There was no need because this made us even.

I knew I wasn’t going to get the same courtesy again—probably the only reason I got it in the first place was because neither of us was a fan of MK—and I didn’t want to stick around and chance that he changed his mind. Once I got to the end of the street I ran the two blocks to where the boys were waiting with the car. I ignored all questions about my bloody nose and spent the ride in silence. When we got to Patrick’s cluttered apartment I moved a stack of books about fractals off the couch on automatic, sat down heavily, and summed up the day.

“I could really use a shot of whiskey right now.”

Chapter Text

The heart attack with the Crew turned out to be well worth the premature gray hairs it gave me; Patrick flipped that data on its head and turnways and figured up some new leads. A couple of those finished out gold and we passed the juicier bits on to the proper authorities. We were still very much independent private investigators but we were ‘consulting’ with the badges more and more as we found more and more arrestable material to give them. Coloring outside the lines to get the evidence the cops couldn’t, that was fine by us, but we weren’t going to take that leap to full on vigilantism.
Most of the intel we handed directly to Rousseau since he was one of the few who were too principled to ever be on MK’s take.

I didn’t actually expect him to wear the thank you present I got him for Christmas but there he was blazing through arrests and interviews with a bright yellow caution tape tie. Just shows you how people can surprise you.

It was pretty clear that MK was starting to feel the heat. A couple weeks after Tony spilled his metaphorical guts to me he ended up spilling a significantly less metaphorical set of guts into the bay. I wasn’t happy that MK was getting away with any kind of murder but given the number of poor saps Tony led to the same fate I didn’t lose any sleep over my being the reason he drew his boss’s deadly ire. MK was running out of closets to stash the skeletons and as the net closed he grew more and more dangerous—mostly to his own boys. His scramble to strike fear into his lackeys’ hearts turned into one of our greatest assets as the threats had the opposite effect; instead of cowering under his control some of his goons ran scared to the cops for protection. Good thing it was the smarter goons, middle management and up, the ones who had the valuable information and the brains not to get their throats slit on the way to the station.

Brick by brick it was all coming down.

Our progress towards cutting off the head of the snake was measured in fangmarks on our own skin; the closer we got the bigger the bulls-eye we painted on our backs. MK was fond of going after the softer targets, or at least, those he viewed as the softer targets. Patrick was of course the logical choice of an investigator to attack; he was this skinny collection of long bones and freckles who was unfalteringly polite and perpetually had his head in the clouds. They must have figured that Pat would make an easy target when he was off on his own, without Ace or myself to drag him back down to reality, and to a certain extent they were right. Pat had a habit of wandering into dangerous situations and it was up to the more boring members of the team to supplement his staggering deficiency of common sense. That man would follow an interesting butterfly into a burning building.

What MK seemed to forget was that Patrick had been a lone investigator for three years before that fateful case that showed the three of us the true power of friendship and other such bullshit. MK also forgot that Pat grew up with his absent minded and gentle nature, a lingering touch of an Irish accent, and the build of a beanpole in an exceptionally unforgiving school district in the Chain Projects. The goons who attacked him really shouldn’t have called him ‘ginger’.

The thought of those idiots reporting back on how a walking zipper beat the tar out of them was enough to take Pat’s encounter from alarming to amusing. The attack on the girls, not so much. Nancy got a message from someone she used to work with in MK’s employ. The woman said that she was scared of how things were turning and she wanted out, but needed someone on the outside to help her. Nancy knew the feeling of being trapped from her Nervous days and if it wasn’t for Helen’s tenacity in the overprotective best friend department I doubt that she would have stuck with it, so add that up with her caring nature and she was able to overcome her lingering shyness to help this lady out.

Nancy was still nervous about it being a trap, of course. In this case it was a legitimate nervousness, or at least a shared one, as the rest of us worried about that too. In the end it was decided that I’d take the boys down to case the place and once we gave the all clear Helen and Nancy would roll in. Unsurprisingly our paranoia turned out to be completely justified and we had to deal with some exceptional meatlockers at the dame’s place. No problem, Ace’s hand was probably broken and I think I chipped a tooth biting the hand trying to strangle me but we made it out all right.

Got back to the girls’ house and found the door open and Helen knocked out cold in the entryway. I dropped to my knees to make sure she was still breathing while the boys rushed off, Patrick primarily driven by a need to make sure Nancy was okay and Ace primarily driven by the need to find whoever hurt his baby sister and shatter their face. Ace bolted up the stairs and Pat was off like a shot to the back yard. When he got to the top of the stairs Ace was just in time to see MK himself push Nancy out of the window. One thing in this mess fell slightly in our favor and Patrick had a little more time than Ace did to react. Pat had a few seconds leeway after he saw her standing on the tiny balcony with her legs against the low broken railing and a meaty hand on her shoulder, and he spent those seconds running.

Patrick couldn’t have been much of a cushion to land on but I guess even his bony ass was better than there being nothing between Nancy and the hard ground. The two of them came out of it with a laundry list of broken bones but pain is just your body’s way of letting you know that you’re not dead yet. Helen was okay too, or at least, she was as okay as you can be with a moderate concussion and badly bruised ribs. Luckily Vannie wasn’t with them; if both his sister and wife had been bruised up by those lunkheads I’m not sure if I would have been able to keep Ace from doing something stupid. I barely kept myself from doing something stupid. As it was it was a battle in itself screaming at Ace to get down there and cover Pat and Nancy while I ran first aid on Helen; we had no choice but to let MK get away.

The dust kicked up by the ambulance hadn’t even settled when Chief Armand Rousseau roared in at exactly the speed limit. I was too tired and had lost too much blood to muster a proper outrage at what had happened but that was okay because he was pissed off enough for the both of us. Rousseau ended up riding in the ambulance with me and Pat. I was well past paranoid and spent my time suspiciously eying the paramedics who were splinting up my associate—the man always looked gaunt but with his skin pale, his dark circles helped along by a fist, and an array of sensors taped to his bony chest, Patrick looked like death itself—and paid only have a mind to what Rousseau was going on about. Righteous rage, mostly, but around the time they got around to shoving a breathing tube down Pat’s throat Rousseau had pulled it together enough to talk crime-fighting strategy.

He’s a good cop, better than most, but somehow even after years of standing over corpses Rousseau still retained some bright-eyed idealism that would occasionally rear its innocent head and blind him to reality. He thought this was the break needed to haul MK in, the act that finally opened the door to a search warrant and hard evidence, but I’d spent enough time on the wrong side of a pair of knuckles to know how it was going to end. There was no way MK would so carefully plan his little daytrip without covering his ass, and sure enough by the time Rousseau got back to the station there were a dozen witnesses waiting to confirm that MK was clear across town at the time of the attack. I hope he paid through the nose for that alibi.

Fueled by indignant fury, Rousseau tried to break the story anyway. A week after that mess this postwoman Rousseau was notoriously embarrassingly sweet on ended up with a knife in her chest. Luckily for her the blade stuck in her breastbone instead of slipping between her ribs and the ‘muggers’ were interrupted before they could pull it out and try again. Other members of the badge collective had received similar threats via loved ones. Not all of them were as lucky as Rousseau’s crush. Two deaths.

Rousseau called me out for drinks while his postal pretty was being helped home by a rival for her affections. Apparently this guy offered to drive her home before Rousseau had the chance, and he was from a tiny war torn country that used to be Soviet, he united the reluctant soldiers on both sides of the pointless battle and took down his own corrupt commanding officer, so he’s a legitimate hero big deal, what’s he got that a homicide detective doesn’t, and a great many other things that were too muffled by the rim of Rousseau’s glass to make out. I had no idea what the hell I was doing there but I sat and listened to him complain about his tangled romance; I had the feeling he’d get to the real point eventually. Besides, I could sympathize with the sentiment ‘love sucks’.

After a while he got quiet and then he asked me what the team was doing. For a second I thought he was asking about our progress on the case, but the set of his jaw and the worry in his shoulders said otherwise. I ordered another round and told him that the girls let their lease terminate with the current month. Helen moved in with her brother and I ended up entertaining both the toothpicks at my place while they recovered. Once they were healed up enough to take a step without wincing they were going to go back to Patrick’s place. I relayed how Pat hadn’t appreciated my congratulatory wink or sly suggestion as to how the two of them could pass the time. I also expressed my hopes that Nancy wasn’t going to get her heart broken; when we all decided on that course of action she had blushed at the thought of sharing an apartment with her tall, skinny, and perpetually sleep-deprived knight in a rumpled shirt. Meanwhile, Patrick had been all business and didn’t seem to pick up on any possible implications this arrangement had. I still thought that he looked at Nancy differently than anyone else and my gut said there was something there, but I wasn’t sure if it was enough.

I shrugged and made a toast to the strange ways of human courtship. As an afterthought I added that it’s a wonder the human race has managed to sustain itself when it has a mating dance more prone to blow up in your face than lead to getting your pants off. Rousseau huffed in annoyance but he still clinked his glass against mine.

He asked where that left me and I said alone in my brand new shitty duplex with my ass hanging out. My live in landlord upstairs was an angry retired highway patrolman who I knew from a past case; he was as coarse as sea salt in an open burn and as hard as a blade made out of a particularly foul-mouthed form of diamond. If any muscle aimed my way ended up in his kitchen he’d be able to handle the heat, in fact, he seemed to be looking forward to the attack which I was deliberately provoking. Any chance for action, I suppose. It was plain to see why he’d been discharged for reckless behavior.

Rousseau offered me a plainclothes watch. I gave him a look. He rolled his eyes and said something unflattering about private detectives and their inability to accept help from the long arm of the law. The pause that followed had a different sort of weight to it and I knew that we had gotten to the real reason he called me there.

“Shepard...” he faltered and downed the rest of his drink for fortitude. Then he was out of the gate running with a full blown speech. “Shepard. The law is all we’ve got to hold onto in this unforgiving world. You can’t let your grip on it loosen or else justice will slip through your fingers! The way things are in Wes’s home country are grisly proof of that; when the upholders of the law grow lax in their duties then the whole system is sure to—“

He stopped with the abruptness of a puppet’s strings being cut and flopped down to rest his head on his arm. He turned his glass in his hand, watching the last few drops swirl around the bottom, and continued in a low tone.

“There’s corruption on the force,” he admitted through gritted teeth. “The sickness runs deep. It’s in the marrow, Shepard. They swore an oath to uphold the law and instead they’re enabling that, that, that king of illegality! You and I, we’ve known for a long time what a menace Michael Kohler is, but gut isn’t enough and that’s fine. That is how it should be! Evidence is proof of the truth and the truth is the backbone of justice... but what can be done when that backbone is ripped out?”

I stared, a little wide eyed, not entirely sure what to do about a chief of homicide having a crisis right in front of me. “You’re talking about the alibis for Helen and Nancy’s beating, right?”

He nodded into his sleeve, the very picture of misery. “It’s not as though I haven’t dealt with bought and paid for alibis before. This was on a larger scale than usual but it’s still nothing that couldn’t have been handled... if we were being given the proper support to do so. Kohler’s activities are being ignored. Those who pledged to protect the citizens of this city are helping to hurt them.”

I sighed and drained my glass. “I never cared for politics.”

“Is that why you didn’t go to the academy?”

“The academy?” I raised an eyebrow. “You actually think I’d’ve made a decent cop?”

Rousseau shrugged. “Probably not. You’d never be able to take orders on patrol and you’d never be able to buckle down under the orders of your superiors.” He glared at me. “Not to mention that you can’t keep your smug smartass commentary to yourself for ten seconds... but, other than that...”

I kept my smug smartass commentary to myself for ten seconds. I knew how high of a compliment that was coming from Rousseau.

He sighed and turned his glass in his hand. “You’re a responsible private detective... mostly. I have my suspicions about the legality of the means by which your team have come to possess some of the information you’ve passed along to me—“ he sat up and gave me a sharp, measuring look, which I returned with a wide eyed ‘who me’ expression, “—but in spite of my misgivings about that I still believe that you are on the side of justice.”

It wasn’t exactly a query, but I could see the question mark hanging in the air. “MK hurts people. Good people. Someone’s got to take him down... heh. You know that we didn’t go looking for him to start with? It’s just that the three of us have gotten a reputation for taking cases involving drugs, something else we didn’t intend to happen but you roll with what life hands you. Then that lead us stumbling into MK and what else could we do but keep pulling that thread?”

“How so?”

“How so what? How we ended up with a lot of drug cases or how we ended up on MK’s trail?”

“Hm... Both.”

I nodded and took a moment to collect my thoughts. “One mother or husband or other loved one hires us to find their missing drug addict. Or sometimes they’re not missing and the client is dishing out some tough love, you know, hires us to weasel out something that will get them arrested for possession. Took one case like that, the client refers us to someone in their support group, we take another case, and it dominos from there. Most PIs are smart enough to specialize in something that involves less risk of being assaulted by a drug dealer, infidelity and the like, and aside from a lower risk to our health there are other things that pay more... but then again we’re not that smart.” I laughed. “Besides, it’s good job security. Do the job no one else wants and you’ll always have that job.”

Rousseau nodded thoughtfully. “So these cases in which you followed those involved with drugs, they led you to Kohler? We suspected that he received his startup cash from dealing.”

“The cooking side of things more than dealing, I figure. To start with anyway, then he branched out to everything. In retrospect we can tell that his metaphorical prints were all over this one brand of nasty as soon as it hit the streets. If it was in one area then I’d say he was on the chain of dealers, but this stuff was in multiple districts very quickly. I don’t get the vibe that he’s a chemist, but supply, that I could believe. Best info we’ve got suggests that he got his start as a buyer of the ingredients and then once a pet cook of his came up with Whapum he streamlined the distribution and through that started rocketing up the ladder. Soon enough he had his fingers in all the pies.”

“Forgive my ignorance but narcotics is not my division,” Rousseau tilted his head in confusion, “but ‘Whapum’?”

“Short version of ‘What Pumpkin’. The stuff looks like day glow orange colored taffy and apparently there was some hilarious injoke among the cooks which lead to that name.” I grimaced as though my whiskey had gone foul. “Got dosed with it once—nasty stuff. Hallucinogen. The urban equality mural across from my office window came to life and attacked me.”

Rousseau was a very serious man, but there were moments when some humor showed through. Wearing the tie I gave him was one such instance of whimsy, the way he chuckled at the thought of me fighting off an imaginary living painting was another. After a few seconds he schooled his features back to intrigued professionalism. “I know about all the times you’ve been taken in for medical care—don’t give me that look, Shepard, I have good reason to keep my eye on you and you know it—and I don’t recall any such visit.”

“We didn’t go to a hospital. For one thing that stuff leaves you paranoid when it’s on its way out of your system, for another thing we’re dumbasses, but mostly we were embarrassed about what we got up to while we were high. Fucking shenanigans, I tell you.”

“Wait... ‘we’?”

I snorted. “Pfft, yeah, that was the epic event that got me, Ace, and Pat to work together. As we eventually found out this dealer was worried about how close Ace was getting on a case looking for a missing addict, however, all the dame knew was the address of the building and all three of us were on the same floor. Since she didn’t know which one of us had the case she decided to hedge her bets and dose all of us. While we were in the early disoriented stage she and her people locked us in our offices and cut the phone lines. Ace was poised to interrupt some deal going down so they needed their mystery detective detained until it was over.”

“Surely you were discovered quickly?”

“I wish. This happened late on Friday, and that building was shit for maintenance. Cleaners for the common areas didn’t come but once a week. Nope, we were locked up good with a slow burning high to work through. Sooooo even though we hated each other back then we wanted the hell out of our offices, so we managed to stop pissing at each other long enough to get some teamwork going. We ended up all over the damn place. Unfortunately our building was used as a gin mill during prohibition and once we remembered those passageways were there it was one bumbling adventure after another.”

“Like...?”

“Like windows that were portals to another dimension, floating monsters, Patrick split himself into several copies at one point... oh, best part...”

I dug my keys out of my pocket and held the ring up. Along with the various modern cuts there was an old fashioned jailer’s key which I had used as a keychain since I was a teenager.

“I became convinced this key was also my gun, and somehow managed to infect the others with that delusion, so at least we weren’t waving real weaponry around. Pat found a hairpin in the passages and decided it was a machine gun that was too heavy for him to lift. Later on he found some candy in his desk and fashioned weaponry out of that.” I shook my head. “It took us a day to come down off it enough to gather enough reasoning skills to actually get the fuck out of our own offices.”

Rousseau’s eyebrows were up around his hairline. “That’s... quite a story.”

“Didn’t you meet your mistress of the post, whatshisname the conqueror, and the fucking CEO of a massive Prospit architecture firm via a mutual GPS disaster that stranded the four of you out in the desert?”

“Point taken.”

I waved the bartender over for another round. “Anyway... that was one of the things that eventually tipped Patrick off. Once we pooled out clients and files he had more data to play connect the dots with, and he saw that there was a common denominator in a growing number of our cases. We kept an eye out, figuring that MK was a rising star that would need to be taken out eventually—you know, whatever we can do to help out the badges in blue—but we weren’t actively going after him. I guess he thought we were already on his heels because they roughed up Ace to try and scare us off. Terrible idea on his part; Ace takes that kind of thing as a challenge and once he sinks his teeth into a target he’s not going to let go until one or both is dead.”

That earned a scolding glare.

“Dead in the metaphorical sense, unless they threaten lethal force first. We’ll do what it takes to defend ourselves but we don’t instigate the violence, okay?”

Rousseau didn’t look entirely convinced.

“What do you want from me, an oath written in blood?” I threw my hands up in exasperation. “Let me just state this for the record. The other guy throws a punch, I will gladly return in kind. Guy starts shooting at me, I won’t feel bad for nailing him first. Same for Pat and Ace. But we won’t toss back more violence than is thrown at us first.”

He seemed to accept that answer.

“So, yeah, that’s the story of how three feuding detectives learned the true power of friendship like in a Saturday morning cartoon for toddlers, except with a lot more swearing and alcohol. And how we stumbled onto MK’s tail—we didn’t start this war but we’re damn well going to finish it.”

“Interesting,” Rousseau said in answer. He seemed distracted.

“Look... not that this wasn’t a good chat and all, but why am I here? I doubt I’m your first choice for a drinking buddy, and I’m picking up the vibe that you have something else you want to say.”

The guilt and anxiety were suddenly bubbling to the surface. Rousseau looked around, suddenly paranoid about being overheard, and it was only when he had confirmed that no one was near that he leaned in conspiratorially.

“Look, Shepard, I’m in a tough place,” he whispered. “Kohler needs to be stopped but the people who should be working with me to end his reign of crime are looking the other way or worse, actively helping him. I used to be sure that I could trust the others on the force, within reason at least, but this...” He shook his head. “It’s an upside down world when the man I trust the most in the pursuit of justice is a private detective with certain shady and loudmouthed tendencies.”

The silence that settled between us had the weight of an aircraft carrier.

“Do... do what you have to, Shepard.” He suddenly leaned back and shook his head so fast I thought he might sprain his neck. “No, no forget it, this was a terrible—“

“It’s perfect.”

“No it isn’t,” he snapped. “Clearly, the attack on Persey has worried me so much I’ve temporarily gone insane if I’m telling a loose cannon to go on breaking the law just to—“

“Yeah, just to catch someone who does a lot worse than an illegal wiretap or two,” I confessed in a low voice. “Look, we don’t bend the law like that for our normal cases, just MK. And okay once on a missing child case but—“

“Exactly!” Rousseau hissed. “You’ll be tempted to break the law for other things.”

“Not with you holding the leash.”

He looked at me like I was crazy. I probably had gone a little wild eyed; I knew that this could be what we needed to go deep enough to nail MK to the wall and damn if I was going to let the opportunity slip by.

“Look, Chief, you probably don’t even have to polish your badge to keep the tarnish off. You’re just that incorruptible. Why do you think I kept coming back to you when we had information to pass on to the proper authorities? First couple cases were your jurisdiction but pretty soon after that it spiraled up into the territory of organized crime. Narc, even, before homicide.” I poked him in the shoulder. “But I could tell right off that you actually gave a shit about the job, what the job should be at least. You don’t care if the body you’re standing over is a pillar of the community or a scumbag with more cocaine in his system than blood; you work just as hard for their justice either way. You’re an idealist, which is a rare find nowadays. Particularly in this town.”

“Your point?”

“My point is that I’m a cynic. It’s something that comes in handy in a job where assuming that everyone is lying is generally the smarter option, but if I lose all my faith in humanity then I’ll burn out to a cinder by the time I celebrate the big three-oh—if I even live that long on bitterness and booze. But I know that, and I know I have to balance it out, which is why I work with the boys. We have to haul Patrick back down to Earth, but he drags us up a little bit so we remember that there’s a reason to keep protecting people. Out of the three of us he easily had the roughest childhood and yet he still sees the best in people. Gives you reason to keep looking for the good stuff too. Then Ace has absolutely no imagination and a stubborn temper, but he’s got a sharp instinct and he’s far more practical than Pat or me. He’s in charge of budgets and tempering us when we get too creative.”

The panicked expression had left Rousseau’s face, replaced by a wary calm. “And you?”

“Like I said, I’m a cynic. Ace says that my problem is that I think that life should read like an old black and white movie. He’s probably right. As for what I bring to the team, I bring the team. I have an easier time talking to people than either of them and I can be a damn good negotiator.”

“I can believe that,” he grumbled. “You’re trying to negotiate me out of my good senses.”

“Is it working?”

His eyes narrowed. “That remains to be seen.”

I leaned in, thrumming with excitement and one too many shots of whiskey. “My point is that you’re an idealist. Which is good, we need more badges who actually believe in justice. But ideals won’t fly on their own, not in a town like this and not against a man like MK. You need a cynical realist on your side.”

“You talk of give and take, Shepard. What would you be getting from this arrangement?”

“It’s hard to tell where the boundary is when you’re in the middle of it. We need someone on the outside, someone who doesn’t bend the rules, to say when we push it too much. We’ll be your bullet; you’ll be our safety.”

Rousseau’s face was stony and unreadable. This was his interrogation face, the one that betrayed nothing, and it was pretty jarring to see such an impenetrable defense when he’d just gotten done having a personal crisis and a near panic attack. Since I’d seen him talk about justice like she was a lady he was aiming to court for ten years, ask her father for her hand in marriage, and have twelve law-babies with, it was easy enough to forget that there was a reason they made him chief of homicide in his district. He was the short side of average, granted, but he was also stocky and solidly built with well-maintained muscle bunching under his sleeves. Steel-blue eyes were sharp as a blade when he got into interrogation mode, and combined with his dark skin and lingering German accent he cut an intimidating picture.

I kept negotiating “I’ll have to talk it over with the boys first, obviously. If they go for it, how about I give you some standing evidence. Something that you could use as leverage for an arrest if we really go off the rails. Right?”

Rousseau took a deep, measured breath. “You do what you must to bring down MK, do what I can’t and what the corrupted part of the force won’t, and I act as your moral compass?”

I held out my hand. After a few more moments’ thought Rousseau reached out. We shook on it, sealed the deal with one last drink, and caught a cab to our respective homes.

MK was going down.

Chapter Text

It was beautiful, really. Gorgeous. Absolute masterpiece. If it had been a movie and it had netted fewer than a dozen awards then I would have called it an outrage. Instead I had to call it my life.

Mark Kohler. My Moriarty. Except that would imply that I was Sherlock Holmes and even at my most arrogant I would never claim to be that smart. Patrick could pull it off, if Holmes had no presence and a stammer, as he was certainly the brains of our operation. Really, if MK wanted to play Moriarty to any of us then Pat would be the one who did the most damage—without him we wouldn’t have even known that the web of crime existed—but I stood out as the leader apparent so I was the one with the biggest target painted on his back. Which suited me just fine as the boys were catching enough hell as it was.

I should have seen it coming. Pat never had a chance of predicting this since it concerned rumors and reputations and social skills. Ace, as always, lacked the imagination. But me, I should have seen it. That was the way it was supposed to work with the three of us. Patrick had the creativity, the imagination, the capacity to glance at a thousand datapoints and graph it out to perfect scale on the back of a taco wrapper. Ace had the grounding, the stone cold sense, the ability to see straight through all the clever lies to the simple truth. And me, I was the joe in the middle. I had the creativity to weigh the options and see where the future was heading and the sense to realize when my theories were getting implausible. That was my job and I failed at it. I didn’t see the steamroller coming until it rolled over my ankle.

It didn’t take much. A few planted invoices. Some guy in a pale fedora and trench coat wandering around an eventual crime scene. A couple willing fall guys spinning tales to the badges. It was nothing more substantial than smoke and mirrors but that’s all you need when you ruin people’s faith in a man’s good word. A reputation was nothing but smoke and mirrors to begin with, so that’s all it took to bring it all crashing down.

I didn’t see it coming until it hit me, and once it did I had to move fast. First move was to break off all contact with Rousseau; we couldn’t afford my tarnished reputation rubbing off on the shining beacon of idealist hope in the force. It itched that I was playing right into MK’s plans, but I didn’t have much of a choice. If I cut off contact with Rousseau then he’d have fewer leads to chase, but if I stayed in contact then I’d end up dragging him down. Either way was a win for MK.

I was painted into a corner. Except instead of paint it was blood.

Once I cut off Rousseau I tried to cut off the boys, who of course were too dumb to play along. No matter how much I argued the points in favor of my plan they refused to abandon me to the wolves. They wouldn’t even leave well enough alone after Patrick’s place got broken into by a junior hitman—a fact almost overshadowed by the fact that Nancy was there when it happened at three in the morning, the sly devil—and while their stubbornness meant more worrying it was also comforting. If everyone had leapt on believing the lies... well I’m a big boy and I would have dealt with it just fine, thank you very much.

So our hunt for a place to stick the knife went off the deep end. I spent a lot of time ducking around corners and getting my ass shot at; I still kept the boys out of the line of fire as much as possible since they had their girls to worry about. I dropped as many hints as I could about what I was learning to the cops via anonymous tips, but there was a limit to what I could get away with telling without it leading back to me and my tarnished name. Still, I was able to get enough names into the hands of the badges to feel like it was making a difference.

There were a few unexpected names on the list. When I first caught sight of them running a heist for MK I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’d seen the scorn up close and personal and you just can’t fake that kind of venom. And yet, there he was plain as day. Jacques Louvel Raoul Moreau-Noir taking orders from MK’s goons.

It just didn’t make sense.

I lurked in the shadows trying to wrap my head around it. Spades, with a knife up his sleeve and a razor in his smile, was leashed. To say that he didn’t look happy about taking orders was an understatement but regardless of his feelings on the matter he did what he was told without any complaint past the occasional silent glare. The short one, who I heard Noir call Clubs, followed along behind his boss and dutifully wired up a number of explosive devices. It wasn’t my specialty, but I knew enough about bombs to guess that the goal was to blow the large, armored door clean out of its frame. That didn’t make sense either. The Crew were fond of their C4, but typically in smaller, directional charges that did the job with the least amount of excess noise or collateral damage. You couldn’t help but admire the finesse, particularly since the expertise apparently came from the guy who thought that ‘hit it with a table leg’ was the epitome of fighting strategy. But what I saw that night was excessive and clumsy, if doubtlessly still effective. I managed to get close enough to hear them talking and knew it was already too late to call it in—all I’d accomplish is getting some badges caught in the blast—so I made a quick circuit of the likely blast radius, cleared a few homeless out of the crumbling warehouse next door, and slunk off into the night just before it lit up like noon.

In the next few weeks I kept catching the Crew on the fringes of MK’s dirty work. Clubs laying explosives, Hearts busting heads, Diamonds running recon, Spades giving and taking orders. My best guess was that they had decided they’d end up in the bay if they didn’t play ball, which would account for why they didn’t seem too happy about what they were doing, but something about that didn’t seem to fit quite right. It’s like your teeth after you get a cavity filled and even though everything works your bite just feels the tiniest bit off. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what the problem with my theory was. Nothing else made sense, so I told myself that it had to be it.

Maybe if I’d spent a little less time feeling sorry for myself I would have figured it out without Diamonds’s help. And by ‘help’ I mean I was prowling around near MK’s main place of residence and when I turned a corner in the abandoned house across the way I found myself face to fist with the man. That first sucker punch had me tasting blood and I came back swinging. In the first few seconds I expected the same methodical surgery I’d seen when I fought beside them that one time, but it quickly became clear that the doctor was out. He was a solid ball of wild screaming rage. I managed to wonder what the hell I’d done to him and then it was all duck and weave and try and fail to not get stabbed by the wicked blade dancing through the air. Let’s be honest here, I spent most of the fight getting thrashed. Luckily for me, Diamonds made mistakes when he didn’t keep his cool, and finally a wild haymaker brought him to ground. I slammed into the side of his head with my knee and knocked the deadly bastard out cold. After taking a moment to pull his knife out of my shoulder I hauled his ass to a radiator and cuffed him to it.

Then I stood there.

Our fight did a number to both our clothing but his shirt was wrinkled past the point of a little scuffle. He didn’t have a jacket and his tie was poorly knotted. There had been the slightest bit of a smudge under his eyes the first time I met him, but there lying on the dusty floor it had progressed to great big dark circles. His skin was waxy and pale and I’d have thought him a corpse if I hadn’t checked his pulse while cuffing him. None of the Crew had looked happy as of late, but Diamonds wasn’t just unhappy. His knife dripped my blood on the ground and fuck if it shouldn’t have been in my neck.

I knelt down next to him and thought about things. I thought about his clothes. I thought about the way he looked like death warmed over. I thought about the way he fought. I thought about seeing him and Hearts and Clubs and Spades out around town. I thought about how pissed off and stressed the four of them looked. I thought about how word on the street was that I was MK’s most trusted goon. That little nagging voice was bellowing.

“Diamonds, what the...fuck!”

I didn’t have to look up. The voice belonged to Jack Noir. The little metallic click belonged to a gun which had just been cocked and was surely pointed square at my head. Spades walks in to see one of his boys unconscious on the ground with a guy kneeling over him with a bloody knife? It was a simple equation.

I tossed the knife aside and put up my hands. Slowly, ever so slowly, I shuffled back and stood up. Noir kept the barrel trained unshakingly on my forehead as I moved. I looked down at Diamonds, I looked up at the man who would easily be my grim reaper, and I sighed. The odds were not in my favor.

You,” and didn’t that just sum up his impression of me. Funnily he sounded almost disappointed. “You better hope he’s still breathing or—“

“How long has he had Dead-Hand?”

He opened and shut his jaw a few times but no sound came out.

“That’s why, isn’t it?” I continued. “That’s why I haven’t seen her out with the rest of you. That’s why the Midnight Crew is working for Kohler and looking none too happy about it.” I jerked my head at the unconscious heap on the floor. “That’s why he looks like utter crap—don’t think I didn’t notice how he looked at her after she had been attacked. Kohler’s holding her hostage, isn’t he? That’s what’s going on.”

I laughed.

“Well, good going detective,” I said self-depreciatingly. “Didn’t even know you were working that case and you nailed it! And now I’m going to get nailed in a coffin because MK did his job so well, my credibility is tanked, and everyone things that I’m doing that slimeball’s dirty work including the guy who’s got a gun trained on my skull for some very good reasons.” I shook my head. “No wonder Diamonds tried to gut me like a fish. If I thought a man had something to do with the woman I loved being held hostage for... what would it have to be, two months at least? I’d try to gut him too.”

“Anyone ever tell you that you talk too much?” Noir snapped.

My shoulder hurt like burning. I dropped my hands and he twitched, but he didn’t shoot me. “Yeah. A few people have, that is.”

“I’ll bet it’s more than a few,” he mumbled as he took cautious steps towards his man. I backed up and gave them some room. After kneeling down and checking Diamonds over, the gun’s aim never wavering as he did, Noir stood up and gave me an appraising look. His face had been unreadable but the stress and the fatigue were starting to show through the cracks, not tiredness of body but a bone-heavy emotional weariness. I saw the gears turning. I saw him reach a decision.

Noir lowered his gun. He rubbed his chin with an expression that screamed ‘what the hell am I doing’ and then he turned to glare in the direction of MK’s manor.

“Well, Sleuth,” he said at last. “Are you ready to end this?”

I retrieved my gun from where Diamonds had kicked it. My shoulder was throbbing but it was a manageable pain. If Noir was ready to run in guns blazing with me then that spoke of a certain kind of desperation. That could only mean one thing.

“They’re going to kill her, aren’t they?” I asked rhetorically.

“We couldn’t make the heist,” Spades growled. “Each job’s been more impossible than the last, the bastard’s just having fun watching the puppets dance. Hearts is in the hospital, Clubs is playing clean up, and Diamonds ran off like the loose cannon he isn’t and—“

He must have realized that this counted as a sort of confession. I shrugged and headed for the door; I didn’t really care what jobs they pulled while under duress or otherwise. I had one target and one target only.

Noir seemed to get the picture. He took one last look at his man and then followed me to the side door. I stared at the shadows moving across the windows in MK’s house.

“So, Slick,” I said, not forgetting his earlier dig. “I have floor plans memorized but I’ve never had the honor of being invited inside. You?”

“Twice,” he spat. “From the looks of things he’s holding them in the south wing, second floor. If we go the long way around to the alley next to that blue house and then keep to the servant stairwell then we should be able to avoid most of his muscle.”

I nodded. “Got to keep it quiet until we get to her.”

Noir was eyeing me suspiciously.

“Got a problem, Slick?”

“I can’t help but wonder why a supposedly on-the-level private detective would go breaking and entering with a thief.”

“You’re only a suspected thief at this point,” I said with a shrug. He raised an eyebrow. “Look, I know Kohler’s game. Kidnapping Dead-Hand would be par for the course. Not to mention that it’s a lot easier to believe a hostage situation than the idea that you spontaneously decided to work for Kohler. I don’t know if you forgot but I was there having a panic attack when you snarked at Tony the Goon.”

“Yeah, I remember,” he grumbled. “So you believe me? I can buy that. But what about storming the fortress?”

I gave him my best winning smile. “It’ll piss the fat bastard off.”

Noir rolled his eyes. “A noble cause to be sure but probably not risking your life over.”

“I would disagree with you on that point.” I could see he still wasn’t convinced. “Dead-Hand needs help, that’s all. There’s a clock ticking and, what can I say, I’m a sucker for a dame in trouble.”

He blinked at me. “Did you seriously just use the word ‘dame’ in everyday conversation?”

“This is every day for you?”

“Maybe every other day.” He looked at the sky in exasperation. “I’m going up against armed gunmen in the enemy stronghold with some nutjob P.I. who thinks he’s in a black and white detective movie from the fifties.”

“I would have thought you’d be a fan of film noir,” I grinned. “Looking at your complete lack of color how could I say for sure I’m not in a black and white detective flick?”

Damn, but that man could glare. “If we’re alive tomorrow then I’m planting a switchblade in between your ribs.”

“If we’re alive tomorrow then I’m buying you a drink.”

He stuck his finger under my nose. “I’m holding you to that, Sleuth.” Noir turned a grim eye towards the manor. “Let’s get this over with.”

After that it was all business. Noir outlined what few details he had, but for the most part we were flying blind. Still, I thought we had a decent chance. It was only the second night I’d been skulking around MK’s doorstep and Noir didn’t have much more experience, but there was an overpowering impression of overconfidence. MK was a badass and he didn’t expect anyone to be stupid enough to march up to his front door and ring the bell. It’s a sad day when your plan’s best hope came from being stupid but then again when have I ever been smart?

We snuck through an overgrown garden and around to a door that looked like it saw little use. Noir picked the lock with practiced ease, sparing a glance up like he expected me to scold him about it. I flashed the picks I carried in an inside pocket and he finally seemed to accept that I was in fact on his side in this. We slipped inside what was probably once a mudroom for garden work. There was a layer of dust on everything, which boded well. Getting across the room was a game with dire stakes, both of us well aware of the dangers of an old house, and so we made our slow way across the creaky floorboards. Noir paused at the door and after a tense minute with no sign of life on the other side he eased it open. Since we didn’t have a good bead on shift changes and schedules for the guards, if they even had any kind of regular schedule, waiting around was as risky as just going for it. We darted down the hallway as quickly as we dared and ducked into a narrow servant’s stairwell.

Noir looked back at me and his gaze drifted to the left. My shoulder hurt and it was still bleeding, but Diamonds didn’t get his blade in all that deep and it wasn’t my dominant hand. Given that Noir’s other option for a partner was unconscious across the street I didn’t see how he had enough wriggle room to be picky about my physical condition. Besides, given how Diamonds flew at me in a rage he probably would have been less than useless. I figured I was a glorified meat-shield anyway; if I showed signs of getting in his way then he’d probably just ditch me and call me a distraction. And yet I was still there.

Dead-Hand was lucky she was gorgeous. It made it easier to do the stupid thing. I was just hoping that it was also the right thing.

Apparently convinced that I wasn’t about to keel over, Noir continued to the top of the stairwell. He repeated the performance at the door, listening for movement and after a minute deeming it relatively safe, and then we were in a hallway that saw more regular vacuuming than the first one. I eased the hammer back and with a quiet set of clicks Noir had a butterfly knife out and at the ready. We slid around the corner, so far so good, when we saw shadows moving on the far wall.

Quick as you please I spotted the doorknob that was different—the old houses in that district tended to have a different style for the lockless bathrooms—and I yanked Noir into the hopefully unoccupied washroom. I nearly caught an instinctive swing of honed steel but Noir was collected enough not to stab me on accident. We stood shoe to shoe in front of the closed door, both of us listening intently. To our great chagrin the two slabs of muscle decided to stand in the hallway and talk about shipments, though at least they seemed to be content to stand in one place and not go poking their heads into washrooms. It was as close to a reprieve as we were going to get until this was all over, and we both took the opportunity to uncurl our fingers from around our weapons lest they cramp before we even had a chance to make someone bleed.

I opened and closed my hand to get proper circulation going even as I looked down at the blood on my jacket. I suppressed the urge to sigh in annoyance; it was a nice wool jacket that now had a stain. Noir probably had it right, wearing all black and dark grays. Hide the damage a little easier.

Noir unceremoniously reached over and pulled my collar to the side to get a look at my injury.

“At least buy me dinner first,” I whispered as I brushed off his hand.

For the hundredth time that night he glared at me. “Don’t even pretend you’re not easy,” he hissed back.

I made a vague gesture towards the toilet. “I grant you, it is hard for me to argue that point while I’m standing crotch to crotch with a strange man in a strange bathroom.”

“’Strange’? We shared a smoke and a fight, we’re practically married.” He mock-shuddered. “Just disturbed myself, there. Me and a law abiding detective, blech.”

“I’m breaking and entering right now. I think ‘law abiding’ is out the window.”

“Are you flirting with me, Sleuth?” Noir asked drolly.

I rolled my eyes. “You’d be too high maintenance. Who even drinks imported magical color changing licorice liquor?”

Noir tapped me in the chest with the tip of his knife, which I probably should have been worried about but I’d already left my survival instincts across the street in a heap next to Diamonds.

“You shut about my liquor, Sleuth. I have no problem drinking cheap but if you’ve got the green why not live it up?”

“This got philosophical,” I muttered.

Noir made some noncommittal noise and that signaled the end of the conversation. The joking around had done the job of releasing some of the pent up tension knotted in our bellies; my nerves were no longer singing and he looked far less jittery. In time the two chattering goons decided to leave and we edged back into the hallway. We passed a few more doors without incident before arriving at the ‘right’ one. I would have preferred Noir’s expression be a little more definitive but it was a little late to start worrying about accurate data. After glancing over to make sure I was ready Noir reached down and opened the door.

Three goons looked up from their game of poker. If only I had a camera; the whole scene was quite comical in a surreal we-are-about-to-die sort of way. A cigarette dangled from one slack mouth, the dealer was paused mid-shuffle, and from our angle at the door we could see an ace up the closest one’s sleeve.

I closed the door behind me and, with every ounce of my not inconsiderable abilities as a smartass, smiled brightly and asked, “Did anyone here order pizza?”

Chapter Text

As it turned out Dead-Hand was not in the poker room, just goons. The boys were too busy trying to comprehend how two of their boss’s worst enemies got into the house to put up an immediate or effective fight. We each knocked out one and by the time the third had managed to wrestle his gun from his holster we had him pinned to the floor. He really should have put his effort into yelling instead of reaching for his weapon, but at least for the moment Lady Luck still favored the intruders. I flipped my tie off—it was a Christmas gift from Patrick and was therefore hideous—and used it to gag the guy. He made a spirited attempt to get away but I was able to persuade him to stay. Tied to a chair and sporting a brand new busted lip the goon glared at us with considerable spite.

The fight in his eyes quickly changed to barely concealed fear once Noir started twirling his knife and talking about anatomy. I was surprised at how knowledgeable he was about the vascular system. A few minutes of being scared out of his wits and the guy gave up directions to the right room via a series of wild headshakes and nods. Once we believed him a quick blow with the butt of my gun had him unconscious and unable to raise the alarm by knocking something over.

“You know,” Noir said quietly as we listened at the door, “It’s possible that Diamonds tried to kill you because of that awful tie.”

I glanced back at our captive goon’s gag. It was mustard yellow, deep burgundy, navy blue, and just as an added bonus it had flecks of metallic silver and vibrant red. The pattern looked vaguely fractal, which would explain why Patrick thought it was a good idea to touch the thing. Given Diamonds’s impeccable and very stylish pre-Dead-Hand-getting-kidnapped look I could see where such a textile blight would make his eye twitch.

“It was a gift from my coworker,” I said in explanation.

He looked at me like I was crazy.

I thought about the way Patrick beamed when I opened the package and managed to fake an ‘I love it.’ And the way he lit up anytime I actually wore the monstrosity. “If you make Patrick Irving sad then you officially do not have a soul.”

“You’re actually telling me names?”

“Hey, our names are printed on our office door. We don’t run around calling each other card suits and poker hands.” I sidled up next to him and pressed my ear to the door. “Why isn’t she Joker, by the way?”

“Dead-Hand fits her better.”

I thought about the way she was in that one glorious fight I shared with the Crew. I remembered the way she spun and danced around me, the graceful and efficient way she menaced our attackers so that while they were distracted by their winces I could come in swinging like a caveman. She was as beautiful as a polished blade.

There were a number of very, very good reasons she’d featured in a significant number of my steamier dreams since that night.

I grinned at Noir. “Yeah, it does fit her.”

He raised an eyebrow and grinned back, mirroring the appreciative—okay, let’s be honest, lewd—look on my face. Then after a moment he sobered and cracked the door. “Coast is as clear as it’s gonna get.”

I nodded. “Let’s go.”

Lady Luck smiled on us until we reached the last branch in the hallway, and then with a sudden cry of alarm they were on us. There weren’t that many and their superior numbers didn’t help all that much in the tight quarters, but we still had to earn every inch of that twenty feet. On the way into what looked like a disused painter’s studio I caught bullet to the leg—only the calf and only a graze but man did that sucker sting. I executed a limping wild charge that was almost as ineffective as it was inelegant. My shoulder had opened back up in the hallway and even though I wasn’t hemorrhaging I was starting to creep into dizzy territory. Between that and the pain my edge was gone. I was grateful in my clumsiness that Noir had my back, and is that ever a sentiment I’d never dream of thinking before that night, because he was able to turn my failed attack into a distraction. He knocked out the last guard in the room and with that the first wave was unconscious.

He spared me a glance to assess my injuries—thoughtful of him, really, given the circumstances—and then ignored me entirely to dart over to the area of the room with the most tracks through the dust. As a storage closet the room was a big one to match the grandiose estate, but as a bedroom it was cramped. Then again, it wasn’t a bedroom but a jail cell, and by that standard it was about the right size. I tripped over a pile of blankets on the way to the one the captive was lying on and that nagging feeling kicked up full force. I was too tired to listen at the moment, and too busy trying to strategize our escape when my body was a pint short.

Dead-Hand was a ghost of her former self. Noir spit out a steady stream of curses like a prayer as he checked her skull for fracture and lifted her shirt to feel her ribcage. She was a far cry from the graceful and confidant woman I had danced with. Instead of being a fine porcelain example of her Far East heritage her skin was sallow and would have served as a fair guide for the different stages of a healing bruise. Instead of richly raven locks carefully styled and pinned into an elaborate updo her hair was dull and woven into a messy, lopsided braid. Even the color of her eyes seemed muted; what was once a pair of topaz and sapphire mysterious as they were rare had become a weird mismatched set full of fear. She was the picture of a damsel in distress waiting for her knight in shining armor, and that unsettled me. Her assurance was the hottest thing about her. Damsel didn’t suit her.

The detective-voice chimed in with the observation that she looked less like a scared adult and more like a scared five-year-old and that this was often associated with an old childhood trauma. I pushed it away because I didn’t have time to dissect the likelihoods of her past as whatever they were the solution was the same: get her the hell out of there.

Her mouth was dry and she could barely croak out a few words. After, “Jack, oh god Jack,” I stopped paying attention in favor of watching and listening for the second wave. Even thought it only took a couple minutes it itched at me how long Noir was taking checking her for injuries. we needed to leave and I was getting less useful by the second. After what seemed an eternity Noir hoisted her up onto weak legs. She wasn’t emaciated by any means but she was skinnier than when I last saw her, and I doubted there was enough adrenaline in the world to keep her off the floor without help. Once he had her as stable as she was going to get I took point and started for the door. I made it two steps.

“Sleuth, get your dumb ass back here,” Noir snapped.

I turned to issue a clever retort along the lines of your ass is dumb but was derailed when he transferred Dead-Hand to my shoulder. It took a few precious moments for the gears in my brain to click forward a few rotations and realize that probably was the best option; Noir was sporting far lighter injuries than I was so he would be the better choice to be unfettered. My leg hurt but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t force through until we got to relative safety. As I slipped an arm around her too-thin waist I moved to holster my gun.

Noir stopped me. “You’re going to need that. Get out fast, get down the street, call an ambulance.”

“Uh, shouldn’t you be doing the dialing?”

“I’ll meet you there.”

Dead-Hand might have whispered, “Thank you.”

With that he was off like a shot.

I wasted another few seconds wondering what the hell just happened. Then I remembered where I was, shook it off, and started back the way we came. I was to the last room when I heard a commotion upstairs. A distraction, what was left of my analytical mind wondered in the back of my skull. It didn’t make sense, though, because Noir clearly cared about Dead-Hand in some capacity beyond honor amongst thieves and yet he was abandoning her to a man he barely knew. An injured man he barely knew, one whose reflexes were not at their sharpest and who was further burdened by the woman herself. And she had thanked her boss when he left her to my devices.

We were on the street a house away from MK’s when it clicked. Two piles. There had been two piles of blankets.

I called Rousseau for the first time in weeks. He was full of questions and lectures but I managed to interrupt.

“Party at Kohler’s. All the badges and bandages are invited.”

There was a heartbeat’s pause. “How many laws did you break tonight?”

“Hmm...”

I could hear Rousseau roll his eyes. “Try not to do anything else illegal in the next fifteen minutes.”

“No promises.”

It only took ten—Rousseau knew how many laws I could break in the span of a quarter hour—and the boys and girls in blue were roaring up with lights blazing. When it came to maintaining the friction between the private and public sectors of our line of work I was as guilty as the next guy, but I had never made an enemy of the badges and this was why. When you’re bleeding out and shouldering a woman who’s spent the better part of two months locked in a closet those sirens make the sweetest song. The cavalry had arrived and I didn’t have to stand up anymore.

They decided that the spot where they first spotted Dead-Hand and me was as good a place as any to corral the horses. The badges blocked off the street and sent the boys in body armor up ahead to the house. Rousseau, ever the gentleman, swooped in and made sure that Dead-Hand was taken care of. Ever the cop he eyed her suspiciously—maybe they’d added her picture to the wall since I’d seen it—but he didn’t try to interrogate her. He was too busy chewing me out anyway, going on about what was I thinking as a twig of a paramedic fussed with my shoulder. That was as far as they were getting for the moment; I was seeing this through. Noir and I might not have been friends by any stretch of the imagination, but we had gone into that house together and I felt I owed him at least seeing him come out. I explained this to Rousseau a little sluggishly when he said he could yell at me over the phone while I was on my way to the hospital. I think his acceptance was less due to understanding the sentiment and more due to knowing that I could be the biggest stubborn jackass of them all if I set my mind to it and he didn’t want to waste the breath arguing. He left to do badge things and I stared at the middle distance vaguely listening to what was being barked over the radio.

Bring a van to escort all these felons to lock up, they said. We’ve got a mess down here, they said. Kidnapping, whoo boy, maybe we’ve finally got him, they said.

Somebody call the coroner, they said.

I drew some logical conclusions from that comment. Given the odds it should have been impossible that the morbid black bag, terrifying in a way a gun could never match, could have been meant for anyone but Noir. But that was just the blood loss making me forget that this was the Jack of Spades, or maybe he was the Ace hidden up his own sleeve. Somehow, someway, Noir walked out of that manor on his own two feet.

While it was a bit of a shock to see Noir alive, it wasn’t a surprise that the second hostage was a child. The boys of the Crew might have cared about Dead-Hand but they were too well controlled for MK’s only bargaining chip to be a woman that strong. Still, it was staggering to see Spades the wanted criminal saunter up with a five-year-old girl on his hip. Her arms were wrapped tightly around his neck and she fearfully took in the chaos surrounding her. She didn’t inherit her mother’s two-toned eyes but aside from that she was Dead-Hand’s mirror image. Speaking strictly physically the little girl looked better off than the woman; she didn’t have that hollowed, too skinny look and her skin was free of bruises save for a dark purple bracelet. Dead-Hand had protected her daughter from beatings and from hunger as best she could. My respect for the woman grew.

So did my respect for Noir. ‘Slick’ fit him for reasons that had nothing to do with taking childish cheap shots at the state of his hair. Against impossible odds he got his girls out alive, and himself, and me, and the poor sucker who was still handcuffed to a radiator. As Noir made his way towards me I flagged down a shiny new badge and told her about the loved one of the kidnapped in the abandoned house. My bullshitting abilities were somewhat hampered by the fact that the morphine was kicking in, but I managed a decently convincing story that was mostly true except for the part where he didn’t stab me.

Fresh-from-the-academy scampered off to tell someone with shoes older than she was about this new development. As soon as she left Noir had weaved his way over to me.

“Okay, kiddo, this is Mr. Sleuth.” he said with a completely straight face. “Sleuth, this is Aradia.”

“Hello, Aradia,” I greeted, trying to look as non-threatening as I could with a bloody shirt half cut off of my torso.

She buried her face in Noir’s neck and hugged him even tighter. “No, don’t go!” she cried.

“I’m sorry, kid,” he said, the very picture of regret. “I’ve gotta go.”

It occurred to me that the burly badge standing nearby was fiddling with a pair of cuffs.

“Your momma’s safe, Aradia,” I said as gently as I could. “They took her to the hospital where they’re going to make her all better.”

She calmed at that, if only a little. “Can we go see her?”

Noir set her down with practiced ease and then knelt down so he was eye-level with her. “Sorry, but I’ve got to go with this officer. There’s... there’s grown up stuff that has to be taken care of.” He tapped her nose. “But you’re going to be very brave, because you always are, and Mr. Sleuth is going to take care of you until your dad gets here.”

Her face fell at the phrase ‘grown up stuff’ and she didn’t plead with him again. She did, however, eye me with suspicious fear. I didn’t take it personally; she had been through hell and she had earned paranoid. I was impressed with how composed she was. Aradia was crying, and when Slick handed her off to me she started all out sobbing, but she wasn’t hysterical even though she had every right to be. I was getting close to the right to be hysterical as I tried to figure out why Noir thought I was a good choice of babysitter. I awkwardly held her hand, which she flinched away from, but then Noir clapped me on the shoulder and thanked me for my help and Aradia was somewhat soothed by the gesture. It was a good thing it did work or I’d have broken Noir’s jaw then and there; he had grabbed the bleeding shoulder. I swallowed the variety of creative curses on the tip of my tongue, mindful of the little girl who was by that point clinging to my good arm, and nodded at the bastard.

“I’ll make sure she’s safe,” I told him.

The struggle that played over his face was plain as day. He didn’t want to leave Aradia even in the midst of dozens of badges. But he felt she was safe with me. Not that we were old friends, but in the course of that night my respect for the thief had grown considerably. I already knew he had some measure of honor given that he didn’t rat me out on that night I became a member of the Midnight Crew for an hour, but I didn’t know the extent of his loyalty to his people. It wasn’t like MK who used them up and tossed them aside. Noir took care of his own, and that was an admirable quality that I had a hard time believing in after the hell I’d been through when MK dragged my name through the mud. Insane as it was to think, Noir helped take the edge off the bitterness.

Strange, isn’t it? The odd places you can stumble into a silver lining.

With a resigned look on his face Noir let the badge cuff him.

Chapter Text

The ride to the hospital was... interesting. Aradia, still wearing my hat, sat cradled in her father’s lap while an IV dripped saline into her dehydrated veins. One paramedic tended to the mess he had made of his wrist while trying to fight free of my cuffs. The other finished cutting off my shirt and clicked her tongue over the mess Diamonds had made of my shoulder. He missed the tendons, at least, which really just went to show how far he was off his game. Diamonds looked at the injury he caused, then the injuries MK’s goons caused, then at his daughter, and his expression actually turned to something approximating sheepish. It was barely visible under the thrumming tension, though. When the medic prodded my shoulder he winced with me. It was less the guilt over causing that pain and more the fear that I would press charges for assault with a deadly weapon.

I could have, I very easily could have. It was very rude of him, and there I was thinking like Patrick which was a sure sign the shock was finally setting in, and if I pressed charges for the assault then the badges could use that as a stepping stone to nail the Crew for their other crimes. I had documentation of places I’d seen them, pictures I’d snapped, other things that might not make the case on their own but combined with what the badges would find with a proper warrant it would almost certainly put most of the Crew away. All I had to do was tell Rousseau how the fight with Diamonds had gone down and hand over that folder.

Thing was, though... all the evidence I had came after their girls got kidnapped. Diamonds only attacked me because he thought I had something to do with that.

“What did you do to your shoulder this time, Shepard?” the orderly asked as he got me settled in a wheelchair, and when did the bus stop moving and when did the doors open and most importantly when the fuck did I get to be on such a familiar basis with night shift hospital orderlies that I knew the guy’s name without even looking at the tag.

“Hi Rob,” I greeted. Louder, and not really directed at him, I added, “Some brain-dead meat locker working for that bastard caught me with a knife when I stormed the castle. Didn’t really get his face, though.”

“Sounds like you’ve had enough excitement for one night,” Rob commented mildly. He paused in the lobby while a nurse figured out which room to put me in. Diamonds was standing a few feet away telling another nurse about his kid’s medical history; he couldn’t fill out the paperwork himself as she was still clinging to him like a barnacle. He still seemed a bit lost, particularly when a doctor materialized and started barking out orders pertaining to my impending surgery and I still failed to have him arrested for assault, but he was starting to look a little more like the collected man I had met previously.

Things got kind of hazy after that, the usual floating bullshit accompanying blood loss and local anesthetics, and I ended up dozing off as soon as they tucked me in for observation. When I woke up I was starving and my head felt significantly clearer in spite of the jackhammer going to town on my left temple. For a few minutes I stared at the ceiling just trying to take it all in. MK was dead. Kohler, bane of my existence, was dead. And Spades Slick killed him, and I helped get him that far. After a while I decided that I was still too tired to take in the emotional breadth of that mess. I decided to focus on something simpler.

Proving once again that I well deserved the trophy for worst patient aside from those who had been to medical school, I pulled the IV out of my arm and rolled out of bed. My bloody shirt and jacket were gone, spirited off to the biohazard heap or possibly the evidence locker. Someone had tossed a gown over my torso; I fixed it as well as I could with one arm cradled against my chest. At least I still had my pants, though one side was cut off at the knee. At least that injury wasn’t all that bad, leaving me with a bit of a limp but I could put my full weight on it. My shoes and socks were missing. Either that or they were under the bed, in which case they might as well be in China as there was no way I could bend down to look and not pass out. My weaponry was also missing, definitely in the evidence locker, and I couldn’t help but utter a swear when I thought about all that time I’d spent in an unsecured double room while unconscious and unarmed. I checked the other side of the curtain and found it empty, but the paranoia remained.

Itchy to move and to be out of that killbox, I left the room and easily evaded the nurse on duty. I pounced on the first vending machine I saw and was forever grateful that there was still a few loose bills in my back pocket. After wolfing down a candy bar and a bag of pretzels I felt a little more human. I was also awake enough to wonder why I didn’t wake up in cuffs for the breaking and entering at least. While I had the capacity to be confused I didn’t have the energy to puzzle it out, nor did I quite feel steady enough to argue with them when I signed myself out against the doctor’s recommendations. In the meantime I wandered the halls, keeping moving to stretch out my muscles and to make it harder for some lowlife to introduce a pillow to my face. Before long I was wandering with an actual goal in mind, eavesdropping on janitors and sweet talking nurses to get the information I needed. Even when dizzy I was a smooth bastard and it didn’t take me long at all to learn where Dead-Hand was staying.

I rode the elevator up to the swanky floor with the private rooms that didn’t look like depressing conglomerations where everything was off-white like bleached bones. At first I was thinking that the Crew had spent some of their ill-gotten gains to get her up to that floor, but as I turned the last corner the first thing I saw was a behemoth of a man, even taller and broader than Hearts, standing next to her door. I stopped dead and he turned to eye me suspiciously and clench his hands into something more resembling a meat anvil than a fist, but I was too busy staring open-mouthed at his green suit to immediately recognize that I was in immediate physical danger.

“Son of a bitch,” I commented as the walking freight train took a menacing step forward. “She’s Hanae Scratch.”

I had never been one for the gossip rags but even I knew about the infamous runaway heiress to the Scratch legacy. Maybe if I had stuck my nose into the tabloids more often I’d have recognized Dead-Hand for who she was to begin with instead of being blind sighted by a giant in that trademark green worn by members of the Doctor’s most trusted staff. Eight years prior you couldn’t take three steps without hearing someone’s theory as to why Argent Scratch’s only child had disappeared from high society. They ran the gambit from her simply being sick of the life to her dismembered corpse being buried throughout his gardens. Apparently the correct answer was that she was cavorting around with the Midnight Crew.

I was shaken out of my stupor—literally. The hulking man poked me in the shoulder hard enough to make me stumble and thank god it wasn’t my injured side or I probably would have passed out.

“What do you think you’re doing, chump?” he asked in a growl. I was still trying to wrap my head around the situation and had not yet eaten anything to help my body replace the lost blood, so I found myself at a loss for words. Luckily, Diamonds stuck his head out of the door and I never thought I’d be so glad to see that psychopath.

His eyebrows rose when he saw me but he didn’t look surprised; it seemed as though he’d regained his composure and was back to doing the ice-man routine. With a sigh and a tone of regret he said, “He’s not a threat, Cans.”

The man in green, ‘Cans’ apparently, looked at Diamonds as though he thought the skinny man was very much so a threat. Talk about a rough time with the in-laws. The bodyguard listened regardless and turned down the intimidation a few degrees. He didn’t turn it off but then to be fair it was probably next to impossible for him to appear as anything other than intimidating. The man was taller than Hearts and broader in the shoulder.

A tiny voice asked if it was safe, and at Diamonds’s assurance a girl about nine poked her head out of the door. The degree to which Dead-Hand’s—Hanae’s—daughters took after her bordered on uncanny. This older girl had inherited her mother’s mismatched eyes and there were a few differences in the facial structure, but no one would ever have trouble telling that the three shared DNA. She looked at me suspiciously and tugged on her father’s sleeve.

“Who is that?” she asked, her words colored by a Japanese accent. It looked as though the people who guessed that the errant heiress ran off to her mother’s homeland were at least partially correct.

“He’s...” Diamonds didn’t seem to know exactly how to describe me. “He helped save you mother and sister.” His eyes narrowed. “What he’s doing here, I haven’t the faintest.”

I attempted to put my hands up in a charmingly disarming gesture of surrender but ended up biting back a curse when it pulled at my stitches. “Ow. Look, I just wanted to see if they were okay.”

Diamonds looked as though he accepted the reason, but Cans didn’t seem inclined to move.

“Look, pal, I lost a lot of blood getting those girls out of there. I couldn’t cause you trouble if I tried.”

“Cans, it’s okay,” came a weak voice from inside the room. The giant reluctantly resumed his post, shooting me a scorching glare in the process. I took shelter inside.

Hanae Scratch looked like death warmed over, but she didn’t look like an icy corpse so that was some progress. Another man in green, this one short and skinny as a skeleton, stood at the head of the bed and glared at me like I was pond scum. Aradia, wearing an overly cheerful kids’ gown, was standing on the other side of the bed and was holding her mother’s hand. When she saw me come in she smiled and ran over to hug my legs.

“Thank you, Mr. Sleuth,” she said in that particular type of earnest that only little kids can pull off. “Thank you thank you!”

I did my level best to appear as a hardboiled detective who definitely had all that planned and hadn’t stumbled into it ass first. “All in a day’s work for the best sleuth in the city.”

She looked up at me in wonder. Diamonds was starting to look uncomfortable about the whole thing and, hey, I think a man is allowed to be a little petty when he lets another man get away with stabbing him in the shoulder. I knelt down and tapped the little girl’s nose.

“You, my dear lady, were very brave. I’m very impressed with you.” That much, at least, was not an exaggeration. “You’ll bounce back from this in no time.”

“Your hat is like an aramologist hat,” Aradia announced. There was a time when the nonsensical way children jumped topics would give me trouble but then I spent a few years in the company of Pat Irving.

Even so, it took me a second to work ‘archeologist’ out of that. She clearly thought this was a compliment so I took it as such. “Thank you, dear.”

She took it off and held it out to me. “It’s yours,” Aradia said as though she was sad to see it go but knew she had to give it back to its rightful owner.

Call me a fool, but I’m a sucker for polite little girls.

“Naw,” I ruffled her hair and then set the hat back on it. “It looks good on you, kid. It’ll bring you luck.”

Aradia beamed. Diamonds did not look altogether convinced, probably because he was a man who knew how much a fedora cost. I shrugged at him; there were some nicks in the side of the brim and the edge of the band was starting to get a little frayed. I was coming up on needing a new one anyway so why not make a traumatized kid happy? He seemed to catch my drift, or at least decide that I wasn’t going to say I was kidding and take it back, and relaxed back to his usual level of guarded. The older one was hiding behind him and peeking around his side at me.

“Sorry, must have left my manners in the ambulance,” I smiled. “My name is Paul Shepard.”

“I thought it was Mr. Sleuth,” she snapped.

It took effort to hide the grimace. Damn that Slick. “That’s... a nickname.”

“Damara,” Dead-Hand said with as much chiding force as she had, which wasn’t much. She tried to wet her lips with a dry tongue and made a limp gesture in the direction of the wall. The skinny guy tried to follow where she was pointing. Diamonds and I both made a valliant effort to get to that side of the room so we could assist her, but Damara was still hiding behind him and I was having a lot of trouble getting up.

“Sink,” I groaned. Skinny guy got the message and fetched her a glass of water while Diamonds was quite the gentleman and offered me a hand. I got up and focused on the difficult task of breathing through the shooting pain emanating from my shoulder. To his credit, Diamonds let slip a tiny empathetic wince. I still didn’t need pity from anyone, though, and let go of his arm sooner than I should have.

Once Hanae had her drink she beckoned me over and I gratefully exploited the opportunity to lean on the foot of her bed.

“Die,” she rasped, and for a moment I thought she was worse off than I thought. But the man in green turned at the word. Strange place, Scratch Manor. “Could you step outside for a moment?”

He argued that point most vehemently in a Southern accent. She didn’t fight him on it but the tired sigh she managed was all it took for him to very reluctantly do as she asked. Had to have been someone she liked back before she ran away, I figured. This Die person wasn’t exactly falling over himself with paternal care but he wasn’t as detached as he would have been if he was just there for the job. It meant they were safe, at least, as safe as they could be. MK was gone but his people could still go looking for revenge.

It was at that moment that the realization that Kohler was dead cut through the shock and hit me square between the eyes. He was dead.

Once he left Dead-Hand thanked me for all I had done for her family on that night, and then told me that she knew it was selfish considering how seriously I had been injured—I must have looked worse than I thought—but she had one more favor to ask of me.

Given what she’d gone through there was no possible way I could begrudge the paranoia that came with her request, and I couldn’t imagine denying her anything at that point. Dead-Hand had been a beautiful enigma wrapped in black silk ever since I met her. Ever since we danced. My subconscious had not entirely against my will made her into this archetype of the woman on the wrong side of the law who was all the sexier for how dangerous she could be. I could romanticize things sometimes, the product of thinking I was a protagonist from an old black and white detective film and reading one too many guilty pleasure mystery novels in which the murder was just a thin excuse for the characters to get steamy. I built Dead-Hand up to something more than she was in my head, but Hanae, she was a different story. Hanae was a terrified mother who would put her own health at risk to protect her daughter. Hanae was real, not that Dead-Hand wasn’t but Hanae was real in a mundane, ordinary, breathtaking way. I had placed Dead-Hand on a pedestal and ringed it with security glass and a rope the same dark red as her lips, but Hanae was approachable.

I think it showed on my face because Diamonds’s guarded but neutral expression flashed to a ghost of the same feral protectiveness I got full force when he buried his knife in my shoulder. I hastily put Hanae back on her pedestal; her unexpected humanity had caught me off guard but I wasn’t stupid. Aside from the fact that I preferred my organs to stay inside of my skin, I wasn’t so tired that I missed the look that crossed his face when she asked her favor. Nor was I so dead on my feet that I couldn’t work some basic algebra, and given when Hanae Scratch disappeared and when the Midnight Crew first started showing on the radar it was overwhelmingly unlikely that Damara was Diamonds’s biological daughter. My mother was my stepmother so I have a particular respect for anyone who can get over themselves long enough to give a single parent a chance.

So I swallowed the pain and put on my best disarmingly charming smile. I chatted up no fewer than seven nurses before I was satisfied with the target’s credentials. I made sure to take the scenic route as I led him back to Hanae’s room, to take him by the people I had questioned without their realizing it to confirm that he was who he said he was. The skinny one, Die, was still standing outside the door when I came back and the look he gave the two of us could only be described as withering. Had I less bravery or more sense I might have taken it as a hint to keep my nose in my own business, but with the man at my side faltering someone had to step up.

“Her. Choice.”

Not my most eloquent argument but then again sometimes simple is better. Doctor Scratch was not known to be a soft man and it was all too easy to guess where that childish fear on Hanae’s face had come from. I would hazard that this Die was unerringly loyal to his employer, but that didn’t mean it was a fool’s bet to put chips on him having a soft spot for his errant little mistress. I wasn’t wrong, and while Cans had the confused look of a fresh face unaware of all the skeletons in the closet a grim sort of reluctant agreement crossed Die’s features. He didn’t stop us when we went inside.

Hanae and Diamonds both looked surprised at the bouquet I held in each hand. Going to the gift shop was a believable reason to backtrack for verification of identity, and really, the only guiltier pleasure than the smutty novels were the soppy ones.

I shrugged, once again forgetting the stitches and wincing. “Every bride deserves flowers on her wedding day,” I offered as reason for the sentimental gesture. The clergyman stepped forward with a clipboard and started getting all the legal stuff taken care of while I divvied up flowers and roles for the girls. After a brief discussion which they took very, very seriously Aradia was given custody of the roses and the title of maid of honor while Damara plucked the heads off the daisies so she could properly scatter them as flower girl. His name was actually Daniel Droog, something which suited him completely. Hanae Scratch was in fact Hanae Megido, which I vaguely recalled was her mother’s name, and as I stood witness she added five letters and a hyphen.

As I was signing the paper stating that I, Paul Marlow Shepard, witnessed the legally binding ceremony which meant that her new husband would make her medical decisions instead of her father, I realized that in a strange, twisted, Twilight Zone sort of way I had become Daniel “Diamonds” Droog’s best man. That made me think about the man who probably would have taken that role if the wedding hadn’t happened in a hospital.

I hurt, I was tired, I was still hungry, and I wanted nothing more than to curl up for a long hibernation. But other than that my head was finally clearing from the shock and the meds.

So instead of going back to my bed and sleeping for a month I called Ace for a change of clothes and a ride.

Chapter Text

“Mr. Shepard, you need to go home and rest. Or back to the hospital.”

The detective’s chidingly paternal tone was spinning me into a level of pissed off I had not been in a long, long time. When I started out the night I was focused on finding some sliver of information to dig me out of the hole I was stuck in, then it was a raw rush of adrenaline when I was fighting Droog, then the focus of the task at hand when we stormed the fortress, and then the choppy numbness when my injuries caught up to me. Before that it was months of constantly looking over my shoulder, nose to the ground, with the singular goal of catching MK. The fight was far from over—he had lieutenants who could carry on the business if they weren’t collared soon—but knowing that MK wasn’t part of it made me relax enough to really notice the full weight of the toll this mess of a case had taken on me.

I didn’t need one of Rousseau’s boys telling me to go home. I still had a job to do, and momentum was the only thing that was going to carry me through it.

“Are you listening to a single thing I’m saying?” I asked in a voice entirely too even to be genuinely calm.

“You’re putting your health at risk.”

“My health? My health?” I went straight from false calm to shouting. “I could be standing here with my intestines in a pile on the floor and I would still be less concerned with my health!”

The detective had the gall to be personally insulted. “Shepard, I can assure you that we can maintain our own—“

Oh, I was sick of talking to this ignorant, well meaning man. “Get him out of the tank or it’ll be filled with fucking blood!

When I first arrived at the station I could not have imagined that MCPD would be so dense, so arrogant, so stunningly stupid as to put the man who killed Mike Kohler in general population. For the moment Slick was still sitting in an interrogation room—surely driving the detectives up the wall—but his next stop was the station’s tank and after that...

“So tell me,” I seethed, “is it just that the entirety of MCPD is insane, dense, or are you just—“ just corrupt enough to send him to his death “—whatever your problem is you need to get the fuck over it and put him in protective custody. Solitary! Something!

I was loud enough and insulting enough to call the attention of a less maternal badge. She at least I could trust not to be on MK’s payroll—she was sort of like a female AD in that she didn’t have the imagination to be a dirty cop—but damn was she a hardass. She took issue to the fact that I had not yet been put in handcuffs for breaking and entering. Aside from talking her out of literal cuffs given the state of my shoulder I didn’t argue; I had been breaking and entering and with a man suspected of several high key heists, and MK had done his damndest to cause a rift between me and the force. It looked bad enough without my help.

Lady Luck, the finicky tramp, took pity on this poor stupid sap. Rousseau and the other badges who still actually worked for the city made a definite point of going through MK’s papers and computers before the body had even had a chance to cool, and they were smart enough to set up enough checks and balances to keep anyone from setting fire to the whole lot. One of the first things they found was the evidence of MK’s efforts to smear my name, so that took the interrogation down to a tolerable level. They still weren’t very happy with me but hey, I’m a sleazy private eye who bends the rules and they were true blue academy born and raised.

I told them a version of the story which was very nearly the truth. I let out the part where I went undercover as a potential mule as the badges tend to get their panties in a twist when they find out that you jeopardized months and months of surveillance and careful planning, instead claiming that I was there incognito interviewing the barkeep on the sly and happened to witness the exchange and subsequent fight. I also glossed over exactly how vicious Diamonds—Droog—had been. He meant to kill me and it probably wouldn’t have been a quick death, but he was out of his mind with his fiancée and baby girl in the hands of a man who barely batted an eyelash before opening someone’s artery. I had to say it a few times but eventually they believed that I was serious about refusing to charge him with assault.

The ADA was excessively kind and upon her arrival dealt with me first. Well, she was her version of kind.

“Private Investigator Paul Shepard,” she said as she entered the room, each syllable heavy with weariness. She dramatically collapsed into the chair, somehow managing to look graceful while doing it, sitting sideways with her legs crossed at the knee. Her trademark red tinted lenses glinted under the florescent lights.

“Assistant District Attorney Scarlett Pyrope,” I greeted in kind. I then proceeded to keep my mouth shut, something I hadn’t done since I entered the building. On the few occasions I spoke with Pyrope I always had the sense that she was sizing me up like a cat eyeing a mouse. Except that a cat didn’t seem fitting for her. A dragon eyeing a mouse was a more accurate description. Regardless, I knew her well enough to respect her and didn’t know her well enough not to fear her, and my head hurt, so I let her lead me.

Pyrope bounced her leg as though she was bored, as though anyone in law enforcement could be bored on a night like this. Hell, she was crazy enough that maybe she was bored; she was this unusual mix of no-nonsense married to the job and completely fucking nuts. Her whole demeanor made it impossible to get a read on her on my best day, let alone right after checking myself out of the hospital against doctor’s wishes.

She let me sweat a bit as she flipped open her briefcase and shuffled through a few papers, humming and hahing as she did. Finally, she really looked at me and whistled low.

“I have to say, Mr. Private Dick, you look like hell.”

“Ace is the ‘Dick’,” I mumbled.

Her grin was all teeth. “Did he have anything to do with this pile of paperwork I have to deal with?”

“No,” I replied firmly. “All he did was pick me up from the hospital and drive me here. There wasn’t time to call anybody.”

“Yes, yes, because Mr. Noir was going in and you felt it would be less hazardous to everyone involved if you chaperoned instead of calling the police. You know, the ones who are supposed to do these things?”

“And what? While your boys were on their way he would have been inside without eyes on him. No one was going to stop him from going in after those girls.”

“No one?” Pyrope pointedly raised an eyebrow. I bet she practiced that in front of the mirror. “Really? Aren’t you selling yourself short?”

I scoffed. “I’m no stranger to a fight, true, but that wouldn’t have been an even match at all. Until I helped him he was under the impression that I was on MK’s roll and if I tried to keep him from going into the manor then he would have had desperation on his side. Not to mention that he could have done it without putting me out of commission. That bastard is fast; he could have just knocked me off balance and been off like a shot and into the grounds before I could catch him.”

“Hmmm...” she hummed as though she wasn’t really interested. It was no surprise that she had gotten so many crooks to plead out for information; with a poker face like that they wouldn’t be as prone to argue about negotiations. “So then, do you regret your flagrant break with the law?”

“Have you seen the hospital’s reports on Hanae and Aradia Scratch? Well, Megido.”

“Droog,” she idly corrected, answering my question at the same time. “Isn’t this the part where you ask me if I’m glad that Kohler is dead?”

I was one of those old fashioned sorts, the kind who still reads a newspaper. More detail than what’s on the TV. So I knew about the gas explosion at the DA’s office. Tampering was suspected but I never saw anything about an arrest or about an investigation into poor city maintenance, so it must have been deliberate but with insufficient evidence to prosecute. And who else would do something like that and still get away with it? Who else but Kohler would plan it on Take Your Child to Work Day?

There were other things for me to worry about so I never delved too deep into that, particularly since the badges were of course all over it, but I vaguely recalled something about one or both of Pyrope’s daughters ending up in the hospital afterwards.

Her question still lay between us like a landmine. I knew that taking a lot of time to answer would ring of untruth, but I decided I’d rather take that chance than to phrase something poorly in my haste. Pyrope waited patiently without even clicking her nails against the desk or making some other show of impatience.

“I think that you’re glad that he’s off the streets in whatever capacity,” I said slowly, “but I also think that, professionally, you’d rather he was in a cell than a body bag. Privately...” I shrugged. “There’s only so much we can do about what goes on in the corners of our minds.”

She stopped pretending to read whatever report she was holding and looked up at me. I could make out the shape of her eyes behind the tinted lenses—some condition with her retinas made them necessary—but I still couldn’t read her expression with any certainty. She was just too good and I was just too damn tired.

Finally, Pyrope broke the silence with a deep sigh.

“Plea out for the maximum number of community service hours I can possibly throw at you.”

It was very clearly not a negotiation, and I wasn’t stupid enough to make it one.

“Where do I sign?”

Pyrope gave me a quick tour of the paperwork. The whole time there was a hint of challenge in her posture and the way she looked at me sidelong. I remained completely and utterly meek. I knew the only reason I was getting off that easy was because she had a whole tank full of bigger fish to fry, what with MK’s meticulous records being combed through for names, and if I gave her half a reason to think I was looking this gift horse in the mouth then I’d be looking at a court date. I had no doubt that she’d be able to make it stick.

Once she had explained everything she clicked her briefcase closed. She tossed a ‘stay out of trouble’ over her shoulder and was out the door.

I got everything handed off to the right people. Slick... it was still a problem, but the dizziness hit me full force when I had the nerve to stand up. I was starting to feel queasy, too, so instead of upchucking on some poor rookie’s desk I decided to pass the buck until I’d gotten a few hours of sleep. I flagged down one of the less terrible badges and told him to make sure Rousseau knew about Jack Noir’s accommodations. I was then collected by a still very much angry Ace. He chewed me out the whole way to his house—he refused to drive me to my place—and as soon as I got in the door there were roughly twenty too many voices yelling at me. Well, it was Ace and Helen doing the yelling while Vannie lectured and Nancy fretted. Patrick, the detached son of a bitch, kept trying to ask me inane questions while the rest of them were busy being pissed the fuck off. I’m sure the questions would turn out to not be so inane, knowing him somehow he’d turn the hue of the coffee stain on the kitchen floor into something profoundly useful, but right then I was too out of it to remember that.

The pain in my shoulder was starting to slide down into the stage where it didn’t really get any better but my brain had given up on feeling it, and without that throbbing so much I was starting to feel the bruising to my ribs and stomach. One of those suckers had tackled me and we ended up crashing into something—a chair, maybe—and I was due for some interesting colors come a couple of days. The queasiness had segued into nausea, it was getting hard to follow what anyone was saying to me, and it wasn’t until my vision blurred dramatically that I realized how exceptionally stupid I was for not staying at the hospital. I was still trying to share this with the others when I heard a cry of dismay. I don’t remember hitting the floor.

Things got fuzzily surreal for a while. I went to a dark, formless place and I was wearing bright, pristine white. A ballerina—not a real dancer but one out of a music box—appeared in front of me and I thought she was going to show me the way out, but then she disappeared into the nonexistent distance. Then there was only darkness and this gentle rumble in my bones. I wondered if it was time to go to sleep, but right as I was about to close my eyes there was this distracting sensation on my cheek. I got a glimpse of the world, bright and beige, and was just fading out again when the initially subtle sensation turned into something a little less subtle.

I blinked back to reality. The rumble was the vibration of the gurney. The bright beige was the ceiling of the emergency room. The less subtle touch was a light slap, and as I focused enough to tell who was responsible I realized that the first touch was a kiss.

Helen glared at me. There were tears in her eyes. “You’re not allowed to die,” she was saying. “You hear me? I do not give you permission.”

“Yessam,” I slurred. I gestured to my face, or at least I think I did, and tried to put on my best charming grin. “How’s ‘bout you do th’first n’gain?”

Her retort was drowned out by a doctor telling me that I had something and it needed surgery. I waved, I think, and told him to go for it.

The first drip of drugs in my IV and I was out cold.

Chapter Text

“So, what’re you in for?”

It would have been a great opening line to some first class low class banter, but then his crooked grin triggered a sharp intake of breath and what thin bit of façade was left crumbled and fell away. I watched him shift from hardened thief Spades to a plain old guy named Jack. He looked weary, something a step beyond tired and a step left of exhausted. With a deep sigh I watched him raise a hand and rub at the side of his face that was still intact.

I was leaning against the wall and I stayed there; sitting in the car while Patrick drove me to the prison was as much bending at the waist as I wanted to do for a century. There’s a big difference between a deep bruise earned from taking a mean right hook and the sort of deep bruise that fills up your entire abdomen. In my opinion, when it comes to injuries that don’t outright kill you there’s little worse than gut wounds.

“Ruptured spleen,” I said at last.

He made this careless sort of gesture accompanied by an expression that said ‘sounds about right’. He then made a definite point of keeping the crooked grin on his face even though it had to be tugging at the stitches. “Mine is more befitting of a hardboiled badass than yours.”

If Slick had it in him to make tasteless jokes about losing an eye, then I could pull up the energy to do the same. I artfully raised an eyebrow and asked, “Getting stabbed in the face with a toothbrush is badass?”

He laughed like a madman. I shook my head.

“Slick, I’m kind of amazed you didn’t chew your own hands off to get out of the cuffs.”

“I’m pretty fucking flexible but I’m not the kind of Chinese acrobat who can get their hands out from behind their back,” he drawled in a tone that simultaneously called me a moron for not figuring that out and lewdly suggested what context his flexibility would be useful.

I shook my head and chuckled. “So if they’d cuffed you in front you’d be short an arm instead of an eye?”

“Maybe I could have found a mad scientist to make me a robot arm.”

It was morbid, but not nearly as morbid as the big bloody elephant in the room. Slick looked to the side and sobered, as if he could actually see the damn thing. I stared at the same spot on the wall.

“Thanks, you know,” he mumbled after a long stretch of silence. “For helping me get the girls.” I looked at him and there was a wry, guarded look on his face. “She was an old flame of mine, nothing serious, but I guess the kingpin read something into it that wasn’t there. Even though we weren’t anything to each other anymore I couldn’t leave a helpless woman and her little girl in that place, you know.”

‘Helpless’ was not a word that described Hanae Dead-Hand Droog and I knew it. Slick knew that I knew it; you don’t see a woman move with that kind of deadly grace and not remember it until the day you die. She wasn’t just some old flame either, but hey, that was a good cover. It was Slick’s not so subtle way of telling me what story he spun for the badges in the hopes I’d play along. I was starting to realize that this whole thing, the way he went quietly when they approached with the cuffs, was part of a plan he hatched ages ago. He was the willing fall guy, taking the blame so the rest of his boys and girls would be safe.

When it came to the law, I sure as hell wasn’t a Kohler. But, then again, I wasn’t really a Pyrope either.

“Yeah, she had the look of someone who’d never done anything harder than break into daddy’s liquor cabinet at the ripe old age of nineteen,” I said with my best fake sincerity.

Slick looked intensely grateful, a look which he buried after a couple seconds. Not that the badges wouldn’t already suspect that Hanae was far more involved than an old flame, but there’s no reason to give them cause to chew on the suspicion.

He was looking at the wall again. I decided it was time to address the elephant.

“Slick... you’ve got to give them something.”

Jack Noir became a study in contradictions, his expression cycling through confusion, amusement, resentment, defiance, and resignation. “What, we storm one castle to save a pair of princess and you think you’ve gotta save me too? Hate to break it to you, Sleuth, but we’re not friends. You might have been a useful tool, but you’re still a tool.”

“You’re right, we’re not friends,” I snapped back, stupidly angry. His growl was a knife, but the weariness had dulled its edge. It was altogether wrong to see the cancer that was the corruption in the force wearing down a piece of work like Spades Slick. “But that doesn’t mean I want to see you sentenced to death without a trial, and regardless of what all these dickless assholes try and claim that is exactly what they’re doing by putting you in general pop with all of MK’s fallen goons.” I shook my head in disgust. “Even the ones who have an actual sense of justice are busy and don’t give a fuck. So, while I might not be your friend, I’m the closest you’ve got right now.”

I didn’t add that his friends were busy keeping their distance. I would have considered being outraged on his behalf except that their stories lined up perfectly save for a few strategic details. This was always the plan if one of them got collared.

Slick didn’t look particularly thrilled with my statement, in fact I think the only thing keeping him from looking more pissed off was the white bandage covering a third of his face. He didn’t argue, though. He knew it was true.

“What the fuck do you want me to do, then?” He spat. “Like you said they’re busy untangling this web. Why bother with a straightforward bullet to the heart? As much as I appreciate this visit it’s not as though you can do anything even though you’ve decided to be sickeningly noble.” He wiped the snarl off his face and leaned back in the chair, putting his hands behind his head. “But hey, while you’re here, if you could pick me up a pack of cards I’d appreciate it. See, there was this monthly game I’d go to, kind of like a woman’s cycle except I’d be bleeding imaginary chips instead of my insides. Maybe I can convince the next guy who tries to shank me to give me one last game before I get it through the neck.”

I rubbed my temple to try and ward off the tension headache building. “Jesus, Slick, I will come play cards with you every month if you just give ADA Pyrope something so she can plea you into solitary for the duration of your stay at the concrete Hilton.”

Slick stared at me like I’d grown a second head. I kept going.

“I get that you don’t trust anyone official right now—boy, do I not blame you on that fucking count because I don’t either—but Pyrope is pretty much corruption-proof because it’s way more fun to her to be a curvy short little woman with an eye condition and ridiculously angular sunglasses marching around the courthouse. Also, MK is almost certainly responsible for her youngest going blind. On the badge side of the law you’re going to want to talk to Rousseau of homicide, who is corruption-proof because he seriously is that much of a fucking idealist. So, since you have now been handed a choice of two people who won’t screw you over for the hell of it, how about you stop with this bleedingly fake noble bullshit where you go to your death with a cocksure grin and not a care in the world and actually do something to keep your obnoxious ass alive.”

By the end of my rant, which I could not stop to save my life thank you painkillers, Slick looked less surprised and more... it was probably about the same expression I had on my face while we traded barbs in MK’s bathroom. You don’t want to see a guy like that dead, not necessarily because of any personal attachment but because you want to keep watching the train wreck.

It probably says a lot about me that I took that sentiment as a compliment.

“I’ll hold you to that,” Slick said at last, a wry look in his remaining eye.

I stared blankly.

“The card game,” he clarified. “If I go talk to these goodie two shoes of yours and somehow end up still breathing by week’s end, I’m going to hold you to that.”

I grinned, my mission at the prison complete. That meant I could go home and pass out. Gut wounds were the worst. I took my weight off the wall and called for the guard to let me out.

“Hey, Sleuth,” he called to my back. “Not that I asked for it, but thanks for the tip.”

“Hey, Slick,” I tossed back over my shoulder. “Thanks for the light.”