Chapter 1: The Hat Makes the Man
It’s Friday. You are only vaguely aware of this because you slept through Speech Communications, which is a dumb class anyway, because you can already give speeches. You’ve got a shit ton of charisma. Seriously. Have they met you? Actually, Speech Comm isn’t the only reason you know it’s Friday. You know because last night was Thursday, and you know last night was Thursday because Thirsty Thursday is one of those college things you do. Another cool college thing you do is stumble around a little apartment near campus in candy corn boxers.
“D-did you l-lose your pants somewhere, or s-simply n-not feel like, ehm, wearing them?” Pip Ingraham asks you from where he’s highlighting a book on your shitty couch. He’s a nerd, and you’ve never met anyone so debilitatingly nervous, but you roomed with him freshman year too and he’s actually a pretty swell guy. He helped you get through more than one class. You kind of have each others’ backs.
“Came back with an extra pair, actually,” you say, and start some coffee going. It is...two thirty in the afternoon and you have officially missed designated meal time on campus. So much for the meal plan you invested in. It doesn’t do a thing for you when you sleep through two out of three meals. Toast for lunch seems like a good option and you plug your toaster in. It stays unplugged most of the time because your place might burn down if anything gets left in that one particular socket, as you and Pip learned the hard way within the first few days.
You put some clothes on in less time than it takes for bread to become toast and come back out with your bookbag. Nothing has entered or left it since your last class on Tuesday, but that’s alright, because you just carry the bare minimum around and make it work. It’s two thirty-five and you have an Intro to Sociology class at three, which leaves you about thirty minutes to be where you need to be without consequences. That leaves enough time to sit down and have a breakfast of champions with Pip, even if he doesn’t seem to notice you exist sometimes.
“What’re ya studying?” you ask, because that’s what you talk to Pip about: Whatever he’s reading.
“Particles and waves,” he answers, and doesn’t look up. “I h-have an...an exam. T-this evening.”
“Uh-huh,” you say, munch some toast and chug some coffee. Your stomach isn’t especially pleased but you’re a tough kind of guy that can handle anything, or so you like to think.
“I know what particles are, thanks. I did graduate high school. I got an honors diploma and everything.” Pip laughs this quiet, squeaky little laugh, and smiles at you with thin lips. Apparently he thinks that’s funny or something. “What? I did!”
“Of c-course, Patrick. I d-do believe you.”
“Good,” you say, because you’re actually pretty smart, just maybe not as smart as he is and maybe you weren’t so good at Pre-calc last year.
“You s-should g-get to class.” He’s always saying things like that. You used to find it annoying, but you guess he just wants you to succeed or something. You can’t really hold it against a guy with your best interests at heart.
“Looks like. Dinner at five?”
“Class at five-thirty.”
“Right. So, dinner at five,” you repeat, and sling your bag over your shoulder. Your cup gets a refill for the road and you leave, locking the door behind you because Pip is really anal about that kind of thing.
Sociology is...fine, you guess, but you’re halfway through your sophomore year, and still haven’t declared a major. You like people but don’t want to go into business. You like solving weird puzzle shit, but there isn’t really a Rubik’s Cube major with a minor in Figure Out How Keys Work. It’s kind of a problem and you hate wasting time and money when you don’t know what you want out of your life. Something challenging and impressive to the ladies. You used to want to be a secret agent, but that’s kid’s stuff, and you can’t be James Bond. That’s not a thing that people can actually do.
You are contemplating the harsh realities of the world when a half-full cup of soda splashes open at your feet. You look up in time to see a middle finger and a big, black car with tinted windows roll past. You expect something assholish on the license plate, like IRUNOVAU, but it’s just a mix of random letters and numbers that you actually have a difficult time memorizing. Sensible. Someone knows how to throw others off.
Do they even go here?
Whatever. It’ll dry. Maybe you’ll track those guys down and...nah. Track them down? You aren’t some kind of...investigator, or something. It’s not worth the effort. You go to class and fume vaguely about dicks in cars that probably cost as much as two years’ tuition. You sit through a lecture on structural functionalism, and doodle in your margins. The coffee is keeping you going but you are starving halfway through and flooded with relief when four thirty rolls around. You loiter for half an hour outside of the dining hall, because you’re a good friend and Pip is just as likely to walk on by and not eat for a while if you aren’t waiting for him at five.
The school’s whole rugby team passes you by while you lounge and pretend to read your Russian book. They, like the guys in the car, are a bunch of dicks, and you wouldn’t join up with them if it meant ladies and a scholarship. You took Russian because it reminded you of your old spy dreams, but it’s a pretty bleak class and you’ve never read about such a depressing set of people.
“Heya, Stewart,” one of them calls, and you vaguely wave. Ackerly Dwight should not know who you are and you would really rather he didn’t, but you’re usually nice to everyone, and if you just give him the bare minimum of friendliness he’ll keep walking. Guys like that don’t break rank and leave the pack.
He doesn’t keep walking.
“‘Sup, Stewart?” he asks, and you look up at him. He’s short, round, and wears beanies constantly.
“A.D.,” you say back, and give him the cursory male chin bob. “How’d the game go?” You don’t even know what people score in rugby.
“Trounced the Midnight U pussies,” he says, and even if his face is normally unhappy, this seems to please him. You just find it obnoxious.
“Awesome,” you say, and give him a thumbs up.
“Fuck yeah.” He doesn’t really seem to have a lot of this conversation planned out, and just sort of stands there. Since he’s standing, the unfortunate series of events that starts the rest of your life is initiated by A.D. spotting Pip before you do, and before Pip spots him and can abscond immediately. “Owl eyes! Finally come out of the bat cave?”
You flinch. You know Pip does. You know A.D. is apparently unaware that the two of you live together. You think it would be really cool to call your apartment the Batcave.
“I-I--w-what--” is about the time you stand up and put your book in your bag.
“Good chat, A.D.,” you say, and step around him.
“Right, forgot you were friends with that skinny freak,” the guy says, and scoffs at you. You hate it when people scoff. Seriously.
“Roommates, actually,” you say.
“You guys live together? Well, ain’t that just cozy.”
Pip stares at his shoes, the wall, anywhere but you or Ackerly.
“C’mon, Pip,” you say, and hit his shoulder, lightly because you’re pretty sure you could knock him over.
“Like I said, cozy. Didn’t think you were like that, Stewart!”
You direct Pip toward the cafeteria because you are so hungry and you will eat tonight if you have to go through Ackerly Dwight to do it.
“Like what?” you ask. Pip, for all his intelligence, stops. He should be used to you standing up for him but it still somehow comes as a surprise every single time. “Not a dick?”
“Somethin’ about dicks.”
“Let’s not do this, Ackerly. You’re really making an idiot out of yourself. This isn’t high school.”
“Don’t call me Ackerly, Stewart.”
“Fine. Whatever. A.D. Ace Dick.” You grin, because that’s actually pretty funny. “I’ve got better things to do than listen to you run your mouth.”
He’s following you into the dining hall. “Like dinner with your boyfriend?”
“Fuck off, Ace Dick,” you say, and various people look over at you as you give him the cold shoulder and walk away like a cool guy walking away from an explosion. He’s off your back for now. Well done. Let’s see how long that lasts. You grab a plate, load it up with nondescript food of the pizza and mashed potatoes variety, and get back to a table before Pip comes back with tea. He’s shaking, and sullen, and silent.
“T-thank you,” he says, and sits at the table. He keeps his head low and picks at a muffin you grabbed for him.
“My pleasure. Sometimes I just want to piss on everything that guy loves.”
You earn a weak little chuckle out of Pip, who goes back to eating and tea and thinking about other things while you scarf down two platefuls of food. He’s uncomfortable and awkward, worse than usual. You’ll find out why later. You’re good at getting people to tell you things.
“I n-need to g-get t-to my c-class,” he says, fifteen minutes later, because sometimes he wanders and freshman year had a real problem getting to class on time. He has since adjusted and leaves early for everything.
“Good luck on your test,” you say through a mouthful of pizza. Your right-hand man leaves and you watch him go, determined to talk to him about it later.
Sometimes, later on in life, you’ll wonder what would have happened if you’d seen Pip first. You’ll wonder a lot of things about that day, and varingly want to give A.D. a manly bro hug or punch him in the face (again). If you try to bro hug him, he will tell you to knock it the fuck off, you’re grown ass men. If you punch him in the face, he deserves it.
On your way home, the black car rolls by again, slower this time and with the windows down. Four passengers to your count. A foreign student from your Russian class glances out at you from the wheel, utterly disinterested in your existence like you’re a bug on his windshield. You see a sharp-toothed grin in his passenger seat, but like the Cheshire Cat, nothing else. Black-on-black-on-black everything. Maybe they’re with the mob. You chuckle at your fanciful ideas more than your gross cultural stereotyping on the way back to your apartment.
When Pip returns around seven, you’re sitting around in a hoodie your parents bought you from the school shop (because you do not buy anything there, ever, on pain of death, those price-gouging bastards) and scrolling through some useless website where you waste time looking at five people posting the same picture or something. He enters silently and slouches toward his room. Oh, no. Nope. You are not letting him get away. You appeal to Pip’s crippling sense of politeness.
“How’d the test go?”
There it is. He cringes and stops in his tracks. “P-perfectly well, th-thank you.”
“Sorry about dinner. Ace Dick is an asshole. You know he just does it to feel better about himself, right?”
Pip gives a feeble nod and you notice his eyes are red-rimmed and moist. You are on your feet and going over to him before he can duck into his room and hide.
“Talk to me. C’mon. We’re freinds.”
“P-please, Patrick, this, this isn’t....”
“Something happened, don’t lie to me, I can tell, and I just want to--”
“Ackerly,” he mutters. You go silent and let him continue. “I--he--f-forget it. He j-just t-t-talks, and...”
“What did he say to you?”
Pip grimaces, and you know it was wrong to ask. You’ve got a pretty good imagination, and there are just so many things... “It w-wasn’t j-just me, he s-said t-things, ah, about y-you, er, us, and I d-didn’t....”
You sigh and stick your hands in your hoodie pocket. “That kind of shit is sexual harassment,” you say, because you’ve got a pretty fine-tuned sense of just and unjust, and laws just sink into your mind. “You could report him.”
“He’s...no one will...” An incredibly pained sigh leaves his small chest, and your perfectly manly heart aches for your best bro.
“If someone is doing something wrong, they shouldn’t get away with it.”
“I am...d-done with this c-conversation, Patrick.” He is more forceful than you’ve maybe ever heard him, so you drop it.
“I’m not going out tonight,” you inform him casually, even if you did in fact have a date with Heather Dailey. Bros before...perfectly respectable if somewhat hysterical and dramatic young women.
“Wanna do something? Watch a movie? We’ve still got some popcorn.”
“Y-you d-don’t need t-to b-babysit me, Patrick. You c-can g-go out. You d-don’t have to--”
“I don’t have to do jack, I get it, but I’ve got an open night and the only thing that isn’t a piece of shit in this apartment is our TV, so we might as well use it. God knows our phone is never going to work again.”
“I will always w-wonder where all of those b-buttons w-went,” he admits, and almost smiles again. Almost.
“Pick something. I’ve seen everything I own at least three times. I’ll throw a bag of popcorn in.”
You take action before he can object. It’s your own brand of diplomacy and it works every time. You plug in the microwave (five minutes shouldn’t turn the world into a flaming ball of wreckage) and set a manual time, because the popcorn setting is too convenient to possibly pop a whole bag of buttery, salty kernels the right way. You hear Pip start setting up a movie, and wonder which of those terrible black-and-white flicks you are going to sit through because you are the best friend anyone could ever have.
“What’s on the schedule?” you ask, and fall into the couch with the popcorn in a bowl. You really shouldn’t do that, because every time you do, the wooden support makes a sound of objection, and you don’t want to have to find a new couch.
“The M-Maltese Falcon,” he says, and folds onto the couch next to you, legs under him.
You put a handful of popcorn into your mouth and wonder aloud, “Is it about birds?”
“N-no. It’s about...d-detectives. And...d-dames.”
“Dames? Like, women?”
“Yes,” he says. You like the sound of that. Detectives are cool, you guess. Not as cool as spies, but alright.
“Are there guns?”
“M-more hats than y-you will know what to d-do with. Now please, shhh. J-just w-watch. I...t-tried to p-pick s-something you m-might enjoy.”
You give it a chance.
What followed was the most intense and life-changing one hundred minutes of your life. You have never seen anything like Sam Spade, anyone like him. He lives in a world of dames and problem sleuthing and...
“He is so hard-boiled,” you say, because you are still gaping and, and...you will never be the same. You know that. “He’s just...so...”
“Hard-b-boiled?” Pip suggests.
“Yeah,” you breathe.
“You l-liked the m-movie, then?” The tall man takes the DVD out of the player, and continues smiling to himself.
“I want to be a detective.” Just like that. Those words. They sound so right.
“Of c-course. S-Sam S-Spade has that, ah, effect, on people.”
“No. Seriously. I want to be a private investigator.”
“Like you w-wanted to b-be a spy?”
“No, like I’m going to the Registrar on Monday morning and declaring Criminal Investigations.” The two of you look at each other, neither any less surprised than the other. “That’s a thing, right? I mean, a private investigator is a thing you can be? They’re real?”
“Perhaps you s-should know if a j-job is real or not b-before you d-decide on it...”
“I could be a consulting detective. I’ll make it a real thing.”
“S-Sherlock Holmes n-now?”
“N-never m-mind. Y-you have n-nothing b-but my support,” Pip says, and you let him retreat to his room for the evening. You think over those words for the rest of the night: Nothing but his support.
You’re gone before he wakes up the next day and don’t return until after dinner (which you have again missed). When you get back the lanky genius is splayed out on the couch, reclining and reading, as always. You drop several books on him without thinking he might break. Your backpack has some things in it too, but you mercifully drop them next to the couch and give your best friend you biggest grin.
“W-what--!” he splutters and sets his own book down, surprised by the sudden rain of books. He picks one up, looks at it, gapes at you, and then back. “The Private Investigator’s Handbook,” he reads. Then another: “How to Open and Operate a Financially Successful Private Investigation Business.”
“Y-you w-were s-serious.”
“Look at what I got, Pip.” You open a large plastic bag that sits with your backpack and shrug into a light beige coat, almost white but just a little more hardcore than that. Then comes the hat. A fedora, light brown, perfectly matching the coat. You put it on your head.
“Y-you aren’t g-going t-to b-be able t-to eat or t-travel f-for--”
“A while, yeah, I know, but look! I can do this. This is gonna be a breeze. This is...it’s perfect, Pip. Come on. We’ve got to start looking through these things.” You shove his legs off the couch and he gapes at you some more, like a wide-mouthed, large-eyed, pale, lanky fish (all of which are completely true except for the fish part).
“You said I had nothing but your complete support. A good detective needs someone watching his back.” You look at him, confused by his confusion. This should be obvious. He’s a smart guy. “I need a partner.”
“A--! Oh, n-no, P-P-Patrick, I--”
“Come on! You’re the smartest guy I know! You said it yourself: Everyone wants to be a detective. We could do it.”
“Oh, no. Oh, n-n-n-no,” he splutters and flees the couch. He knows as well as you do that if you can just lasso him long enough to let you talk he’ll follow you wherever you lead.
“Yes! We’re a great team! You remember debate club last year, right?”
“T-t-t-totally d-d-d-different! N-n-n-not the s-s-same!”
He’s heading for his room again and you pull your trump card. You were going to save it for when he said ‘yes, Patrick, I would be absolutely tickled to join you in adventure and crime solving.’
“I got you something, too,” you say.
“N-n-n-no! I h-have a p-p-plan for m-my l-life, a-and--”
“It’s a hat. Isn’t as cool as mine, but it’s pretty goddamn noir.”
You flick the white bowler at him and he fumbles the catch, getting it only before it hits the ground. He gapes at you some more. It’s all he can do.
“Put the hat on, Pippin Meriadoc Ingraham.”
He flinches at the use of his full name that you only know because you’ve seen some of his official documents, and you pick up on details. Of course you do. You’re going to be an awesome detective, details have to be your thing.
“I w-won’t d-do it!” he squeaks.
“You want to be a detective. I’ve seen you with these books before I knew what they were. Half of your movies--”
“YES! We can be perfect, why don’t you see it? We can be so fucking noir the dames won’t even know what to do with themselves! We can solve cases! You’re smart, I’m smart, we are a couple of talented fellas, we could do this! Now put the hat on!”
It’s cheating, because Pip has never taken yelling well, gleeful or not. When someone orders him to do something, he does it, and he finally caves and puts the hat on. It fits snugly against his blond hair and when he tips his head, probably with disappointment in his own lack of backbone, this shadow gets cast over his eyes and that twig of a man actually looks...sort of kind of hard-boiled.
“We’re doing this,” you tell him, grinning in awe at how well this has worked. “We’re making this happen.”
Chapter 2: Sharp Things, Like Words and Knives
Who knew you could actually enjoy studying? Certainly not you. It was strange to cram on your poor, fading couch with Pip at one end and you at the other, books open. It’s sort of like quiet bonding time. Sometimes you can even pry him away from astrophysics or whatever dense crap he’s reading to shove a chapter or a paragraph or a sentence from one of your sleuthing manuals in his face. He always ends up forgetting to hand the book back for at least an hour, so you really are cheating, but this is important. Your partner has to know his stuff as well as you do.
When Monday comes you go to the Registrar and get the paperwork to pick up a major. After the winter break you’ll start the core classes for Criminal Investigations, and you finally feel excited like you did as a freshman, like you’re finally going to be doing something with your life. You walk into Russian, feeling satisfied, until it occurs to you that you have no idea what to do with your hat and coat when you sit at the tiny desk-chairs. It is a hot, uncomfortable class, and you learn absolutely nothing. The learning comes after, when you loiter around one of the gazebos to have a smoke. It’s a terrible habit, but for the first time in your life you’re happy about the drain on cash, because everyone knows how cool and hard-boiled smoking looks.
“Excuse me,” asks a low voice as you light up. You turn and there’s the hipster foreign student from Russian class, with his military jacket and his red plaid scarf.
“I might still be unclear on American traditions, so do correct me if I am wrong.” You don’t like the sound of this. This guy has a smooth voice and an accent and every fiber of him screams pretentiousness. “But, Halloween was a month ago, was it not?”
“Yeah. October thirty-first. Why?”
“Because you still seem to be dressing up, and I am confused.”
He is clearly every bit the asshole you had him pegged for. You sort of want to break his stupid black glasses just to bring him down a notch. He probably doesn’t even need them. “I’d say you’re confused. I’m not...dressing up.” You turn up your collar because you’re on edge, but can’t say you aren’t satisfied when popping it makes him flinch.
“Well, then, my mistake. I’m sorry.” He tips his hat to you. Maybe you were wrong. “You just seem to be missing some key aspects of your look.”
“Oh, yeah?” You flick your cigarette and breathe out smoke, but not anywhere near him, because he’s a little intimidating. Almost as tall as Pip, dark hair, built like a runner, and the way he holds himself says he’s pretty confident he can take care of himself.
“Yes,” he affirms, as if you actually care and don’t just want him to go away and leave your awesome coat and hat alone. Then he lights up cigarettes that are brown instead of white and Jesus is this guy made of money? “You clash. If you are going to do something, do it right.”
“Good to know the fashion police are always on patrol,” you say. Yeah, that sounds good. You give him a little smirk just for added measure. His eyes get narrower, and you think maybe you have offended him. That...actually seems like a pretty questionable idea, now that you stop and think about it.
“It’s simply a matter of you looking like a complete fool. I thought I might do the world a favor. Clearly, no good deed goes unpunished.”
You shove your free hand in your pocket, because this guy is making you feel like a bug under his shoe. His expensive leather short boot, actually. “Whats your name, buddy?” Your question goes unanswered and he just keeps smoking, as if he didn’t even hear you. “Hey. I said, what’s your name?”
“I heard you the first time. Clearly I didn’t feel like answering.”
“That’s sort of rude.”
“The fashion police aren’t required to give out identifying information,” he says, and grinds out his cigarette. He pulled straight through his faster than you, and got the last one liner before leaving. You watch the cinched back of his coat while he walks away from you with perfectly dramatic timing and perfect posture. You aren’t sure how such a fucking hipster can be quite that hard-boiled, but you intend to find out.
Right after you buy a pair of decent slacks. Maybe a tie. Perhaps if you ask your parents....
You make it home before Pip. You love your roommate, really you do, but there’s something to be said for the peaceful solitude of walking into an empty apartment, being the one to turn on the lights, sit back and relax. You don’t take your hat off, just your coat, and toss it over your chair because no one in college has a coat rack. Dinner is -2 to your food supply of Easy Mac and you can feel your heart get a few beats closer to a major malfunction.
When Pip finally arrives, late, and sort of beaming, you sit back with your feet on the table and shoot him a grin right back. Neither tardiness nor joy are especially common to him.
“I-I. Well.” He sets his bag down and stands here with his fingers tapping on his palms. “I...r-ran into Heather.” You perk up a little, because she’s your girlfriend, and maybe you should call her sometime.
“Y-yes. She. Had a f-friend with her.”
“She’s a popular doll.”
“You r-really shouldn’t actually call p-people that, Patrick.”
“Psh. Says you. I’m sure the ladies are gonna love it. Anyway, her friend.”
“Her name is Nancy.”
He fidgets, but he’s still smiling. “Nancy B-Brett.”
“Okay, good, Nancy. You aren’t smiling like that because you learned some broad’s name.”
“Really, Patrick, I don’t th-think anyone is g-going to want to be c-called a--”
“Answer the questions, Pip.”
“She...liked my hat.”
The two of you stare at each other. He’s wearing his bowler hat and is a veritable nesting doll of sweaters, and they don’t add much bulk. The hat looks a little dorkier with the sweaters, honestly, but he’s wearing it because you told him to, which is now sounding like a better idea than ever. Said bowler actually manages to keep his insane hair down some.
“You doffed the hell out of that hat, didn’t you.”
“I. I did. Yes.”
“Heather introduced you to her friend, you doffed the hat, and all the dames went wild.”
There is a shared laughing fit, and you aren’t surprised to find that he does’t take his hat off in the house either. He’ll probably never take it off again, not after someone actually complimented him on it. There’s kind of a spring in his step, you think. He’s like a flower, easy to wilt but willing to perk right back up again with a little attention.
You know, things were really going good for a few days there, if you think about it. Which is to say, nothing memorable happened, and that’s better than the alternative. At least you finally have a chance to test out your hard-boiled...ness? You really need a new word for that. Something about charisma and being tough. Maybe something from Latin. Someday you’ll find a word for that. Right now you’re a little busy.
You light up a cigarette as loudly as you can, and...okay that cough wasn’t totally intentional, no, but you roll with it when attention turns to you. You’re on the street, just at the edge of a circle of streetlight, and down that alley there is a guy roughing up another guy.
“It’s a great night for...” Shit, shit, what’s it a great night for? “...not getting arrested, don’t you think?”
There assailant in this case is the shorter of the two men, with a voice like metal scraping on concrete. “Get the fuck outta here!”
“Sorry, I called the cops, they may want a witness statement, and they’ll find me easier if I stay right here.” That’s not a bluff. You actually were smart enough to call the cops. You want to be a detective, not a vigilante. Batman came even earlier than the whole spy thing and was an even less plausible career choice, as your dad sat you down and explained. You were a middle-class kid with all his family and friends intact. You had neither the money nor the angst to be Bruce Wayne. Privilege never broke your heart so badly.
“...the actual fuck?” He delivers a last kick to whatever poor sap he’d been beating on and comes toward you. The ungrateful guy who’d been getting shit kicked until you came along bolts without so much as a thank you. “Who the fuck d’you think you are?” The way he walks is best described as stalking, because his shoulders are squared and he walks with his upper body in front. He’s got his teeth bared and they’re immaculate and have a little natural sharpness to them. Actually, all of him has more than a little natural sharpness to it. Including, uh, the knife in his hand.
You don’t hear sirens yet.
“Maybe you should get out of here too, pal. Cops’re gonna be here any minute.” You stand there and smoke, and hope this is not your greatest and last moment of bravery.
“Do you have any fuckin’ idea--” He’s practically spitting with anger, can’t even finish a sentence, and gets his fists in your collar. That puts his knife (which is serrated who carries a serrated knife to use on people who carries a knife to use on people in the first place oh God he is going to gut you this was such a terrible idea) too close to your face for comfort. “Any idea how bad you just fucked up my night? Who the fuck’re you? ...what the fuck’re you wearing?”
“You’re like, eighteen! Yer not a sleuth, what’s fuckin’ wrong with you?”
Something unexpected happens, which is great, because if the expected happened you would’ve gotten a Game Over. He laughs at you. What is it with people laughing at you? It isn’t like he’s any older than you are. Twenty-five, tops, and that might just be the mean talking. You’d say something but he probably isn’t going to stab you while he’s laughing, so you smile nervously.
“Who says I’m not?”
Yes. Yes good, he laughs harder, and actually lets go, to clutch his sides. You would be excited if it weren’t for the kind of relief that made you sigh. This only lasts so long, though, and when the laughter ends you don’t have time to switch over before he nails you in the stomach. Shit shit shit! You double over, because the little guy can pack a punch, and you’re afraid for a moment that he punched you with his knife. You aren’t sure he hasn’t until your hands come away clean.
“All jokin’ aside, this ain’t fuckin’ funny,” he says, and lifts your wallet out of your pocket. Maybe you should’ve kept that in your jeans instead of your coat. “Patrick Stewart. Tha’s really yer name?” He smirks at you while you gasp for air. You’re pretty sure he cracked a rib. “I’m holdin’ onto this. Y’made a real big mistake t’night, sleuth. I ever fuckin’ see you again, and you’ll wish. Uh. You’ll wish....”
“...I’d never been born?” you choke.
“Yeah. That. Why the fuck not.” He pockets your wallet, punches you again for good measure, and takes off. He’s up and over a fence in no time even if it’s three feet taller than him and leaves you on the ground waiting for the police. Someone’s life is worth losing your student ID; license; social security, insurance and ATM cards and the last ten bucks you had for the remainder of the week. Probably. Maybe.
That could have gone better, you think, and try not to throw up the nice dinner you’d just eaten with Heather.
The next day is only just better, by virtue of running into the asshole you know instead of the one you don’t, and not being in danger of stabs. You hadn’t anticipated spending hours last night actually telling the police what happened (they laughed at you, too) and filing reports on your stolen cards and agreeing to testify as a witness if need be. By the time you get home you are running on coffee again and have an hour until your class. The semester is ending and you have no more cuts left. Besides, it isn’t hardcore to give in to sleep and pain when you have things to do.
You should have. Your day would have been easier if you’d just slacked off and skipped class. Let it never be said that you make life easier on yourself, because seriously, you just don’t. By the time lunch rolls around you’re exhausted and hungry--surprise, surprise. Pip is meeting you and paying for your lunch, because you can’t swipe in and can’t buy another ID because, hey, some asshole with a knife mugged you in the line of duty.
You really didn’t need to take any more shit, and didn’t have the patience for it. Not to mention Not Taking Shit is part of your mental/emotional training course for being a private investigator, and then definitely don’t mention the promise you made yourself not to let Ackerly mess with Pip or yourself anymore. It is a perfect storm, and only through really bad luck that said rugby player decides to bother you again. Poor guy probably doesn’t even mean to hassle you.
“Hey Stewart. You look like shit.”
In retrospect he just might have been concerned, if you were clear-headed and spoke Neanderthal. Regardless, you aren’t going to make any friends today.
“Fuck you, fuck your absolutely stinging wit, and fuck your...your stupid hat! Everyone knows why you wear them, Dick. You’re bald. Just accept it and move on with your life, it worked out just fine for Bruce Willis. Have a good day, asshole.” That's when you should have left, thrown him the middle finger and walked away like a cool guy from an explosion, but you just keep going. “I get it. You’re just such a miserable excuse for a human being that you take it out on everyone else. Well, guess what, I’m pretty fantastic, so you can take your shit to one of the knuckle heads you shower with, because I’m not putting up with it, and if you’ve got a problem then come at me.”
Goddamn if he doesn’t laugh at you. You are going to jump him, you swear to God, you are going to jump him and show him your own special brand of diplomacy, until someone taps your shoulder and grounds you from a tired high of rage. Pip’s nervousness and giant blue eyes can diffuse anyone, and by the time you’re coherent again, AD is gone.
“Y-you shouldn’t have g-gone off on him like that.”
“Why does everyone do that?” You fume as the two of you walk to the grill. He, however, seems to be in a less-than-hysterical mood. “I’m not some kind of joke!”
“Well, y-you are, um...a, a bit...anachronistic. That’s--”
“I know what it means Pip.”
“Th-there’s that. Y-you also...haven’t finished y-your look yet, I d-don’t think.”
You stop and turn on him.
“What did you say?”
“J-just that y-you don’t look...Patrick, you’re t-taking this the wrong way.” He pouts at you, and you can’t stand that, so you stop frowning quite so intensely. “You n-need polish.”
“You aren’t the first person to say that,” you say, and put your hands in your pockets. “What’s got you in such a good mood? Nancy comment on your hat again?”
“W-what? Oh. Oh, ah, no. N...not quite.” He smiles a little, but tries not to let you see it, so you know something’s up.
“C’mon. I could use the good news.”
“We g-got our final assignment for p-painting today.”
You cannot possibly see why that would make Pip smile. “You love that class.”
“P-precisely. It’s...a, um. It’s a...good project.”
You don’t actually care and he’s not playing it straight with you. Your patience meter and fucks given gauge are still too low to properly follow through on this conversation that you should probably be more invested in. “Sounds good,” you say noncommittally.
“Yes,” he agrees, still smiling. The New Hat Experiment seems to be making a world of difference for him, and drawing all of the trouble to you. You wonder if that’s how detective partnerships go and decide to sit down with another noir book later to find out, since they are such accurate life studies.
He’s saying something about portraits while you eat, but as a famous engineer said, “If you try to combine talking and eating, you’ll end up doing neither very well.” You nod through and only catch some spare details about it being a cooperative effort and he might need to have someone over to the apartment sometime. That you only catch because he never has people over. Ever. You can’t remember a single person.
“No problem,” you say quickly. It’s an important point to make so that he never feels squeamish about it in the future. “You pay half the rent. Anyone you want to bring over, okay by me.” You’re in a much better mood with food in your stomach. “I’ll even help clean up.”
“P...perfect. Thank you.” He’s still smiling, only it’s more to himself than you. You wonder if this has to do with Heather’s friend. If you were better at this investigation thing and actually asked your best friend and partner more questions, you might have found out a lot sooner.
Chapter 3: Papa Midnight
A little father-son chat between the city's two stabbiest fellas.
Your name is Spades Slick. Fuck anyone who tries to say otherwise, and fuck your old man. You are twenty-one years old and he shouldn’t be able to just haul you into his office like you’re ten and set a cat on fire. You hate that fucker. You hate your family’s house. There’s a reason you moved into your own place when you turned eighteen. The property is pretentious as hell, with a whole lot of marble and gold leaf and shit that breaks real easy. You don’t know why, because your pops is just as likely to break things as you are when he gets mad. Except maybe he has a little more leeway to break people, or entire business ventures, or politicians, and you’re stuck breaking people who try to mess with your rackets.
Your family built this city and kept a chunk of it for themselves. This property, and the house has only gotten bigger over the years. It’s a mansion by this point and you grew up here, and you hate every hallway and hard-oak door. It all makes you think of him, because it’s just the kind of place he likes.
You’re gonna get reamed . You aren’t sure why, there’re a lot of things that could piss your dad off if he got wind of them, but you won’t tip that hand. He called you over to the house main, and demanded you “get right the fuck to his office, now .” He buzzed you in, but you didn’t knock at the big, thin, detailed double-doors that take you into his personal space. He looks up immediately, a little like a dog, and he might as well be snarling. He is grade-A pissed.
“Sit your ass down, Junior.”
“Yeah, I’ll stand.”
“You’ll sit or I’ll make you.”
You sit, because he will make you and you won’t like it, and the incredibly comfortable leather chair in front of his desk feels like defeat. The office feels like him too, but if you gave it a makeover, you wouldn’t mind it. A bit more black. Metal instead of wood. No ridiculous trinkets from his travels and conquests. You don’t even know what half of that shit is .
“What the fuck do you want? I’ve got better shit to do than heel when give the word.”
“Like hell you do. Watch your fuckin’ mouth when you’re talking to me, kid. You wouldn’t have shit if it weren’t for me.” He points at you, and you just glare harder. He’s been wearing your mother’s wedding ring ever since she died, and it pisses you off. You don’t really know why, it just does. You don’t think about your feelings too much.
“...whaddya want, sir? ”
“That’s more like it. Swear to God you’ll learn to respect someone, sometime.” He sits back in his chair and just frowns at you. It’s like looking in a mirror. A future mirror, where you’ve got some real permanent frown lines and just a few gray streaks in your air, and you’ve grown a couple inches. You know you have respect for a few people, just not him. You’re snapped out of thinking about how much you really don’t like the way he demands your presence by more of his bitching: “You look like shit, kid. We raised you better than that, and it ain’t like you’re broke.”
“Fuck you, I can dress myself now.” Okay, you’re looking a little rougher for wear today, because you haven’t actually slept or changed clothes in a while. It was kind of a rough night. Lots of running was involved.
“ Watch your mouth . Get a suit or somethin’, Chrissake, respect yourself.” He’s always talking about respect, but hasn’t got any for you, and you just slouch more because it drives him up the wall. “Anyway, I’m gonna ask if you know why someone had to keep you out of jail, again . For a guy who fancies himself a real gangster, you’re sure good at getting caught.”
“Doesn’t matter if they get me, they’ve got nothin’.”
“Shut your goddamn mouth. You were almost hauled in and you don’t even know it. That is how far up your ass I have to stay if I want your record clean. But, y’know, it’s not like I was even doing the work. I got people for that. Desya, gimme that file.”
Then there’s another person in the room. You didn’t even notice him, but fuck , you jump when he moves. He’s been doing that your whole life. Tall, dark, and creepy. Your father’s lawyer, and by proxy, yours. You can’t hate the guy, he’s done your life a whole lotta good. Kept you out of jail more than a few times (apparently), mediated between you and your dad when things came just short of a knife fight (he would’ve won), and hauled his nephew over from whatever God-forsaken frozen tundra he lived in. That last one basically armed you to the teeth and gave you the tools to really put together your own crew .
Desya Durchenko is one of those people who have your respect.
He doesn’t give your dad the file, not quite, just sets it on the desk and flips it open to the correct page. His finger runs down the line, and he mutters something. You’re three feet away but he might as well have said nothing, because you certainly can’t hear it. Guy’s quiet like a shadow and blends in just as well. It has always scared the shit out of you, in a very different way from your dad, and you’ve tried to avoid getting caught alone with him.
“Armed robbery. What the fuck, kid? Are you some low-life mugger now? I put you in charge of a drug operation and you steal some prick’s wallet?”
Oh. That. That . You cackle, because you’re still laughing at that schmuck. The guy who thought he was a detective. You grab your own wallet and pull out his school ID. Patrick Stewart. What a retarded name. “Yeah. Caught another dealer in town and thought I’d show him the door, but I got interrupted. He called the cops.”
“He got interrupted, Desya. So he thought he’d knock around his interruption and stroll off. Christ, I raised a bright kid, didn’t I?” He’s beaming, but it’s all sarcasm, and even though Mr. Durchenko has not changed expression, it’s clear he thinks you’re the biggest idiot. “Well, the guy went with the cops and spilled every bean he had. Got a perfect description of you, and they were going to bring you in for armed robbery and assault.”
You frown, because, yeah, you guess both of those things would’ve been totally provable, especially since you’re carrying around the victim’s card in your wallet. Which...okay, maybe that isn’t the brightest idea ever, but the guy gives you a laugh.
“Yeah. So?” You don’t really have anything witty to say. You normally don’t, you’re a bit lacking in rapier wit, but you’re particularly un-witty right now. Your dad and his buddy just kept you out of jail. Awesome.
“Yeah, so, quit fucking up . Learn to use your head instead of your stabs, Jack.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“What? Your name? It’s your fucking name and it’s my fucking name so it’s exactly what I’m going to call you. What’re you running around calling yourself now? It’s somethin’ stupid. DD, what’s his street name?”
“Spades Slick,” he answers, and folds your file up again. He stands and dwarfs your dad, going still and almost becoming some frightening statue while he looks down on you, too. That shit’s gotta run in the family, or Dmitri asked him for lessons of something, because he does it too.
Your dad sneers. “That’s a stupid name. Your name is Jack , and you should be proud of it. You’re a Noir and we--”
“Yeah, yeah, ‘we built this city,’ what the fuck ever, I get it. Christ, it’s like some family motto, why don’t we just carve it into a shield and hang that shit in the parlor?”
“You don’t get it, Junior. You never fucking have and you never fucking will.” He rubs his eyes, other hand gripping his chair, and you know he’s about to explode. He just needs a little push and you’ll be back to the family tradition of solving problems by screaming at each other and trying to assert dominance.
You never helped keep the peace because you never let yourself get pushed around by anyone. Not your beautiful, distant mother, and sure as hell not your asshole dad. “What don’t I get? When you’re gone I’ll run this place better than you ever did.”
He growls, and Desya steps away. He’s been around longer than you have, knows your dad better than anyone, and when he removes himself from a situation it’s your first warning that you might actually have fucked up bigger than you thought. But, that’s your problem. You don’t stop and think, you just run your mouth and hope your fists and knives can back you up. Fun fact: Against Jack Noir, Senior, they never have.
“You can’t do shit! ” There it is, the classic Jack Noir yelling. He’s like a snowball rolling downhill, he just builds. “You can’t even do the simple fucking things I tell you to do, whether they’re in your own goddamn interest or not! How the fuck do you expect to run everything that I’ve got goin’? Which is, by the way, a whole lotta shit that I gotta do! It isn’t fuckin’ sunshine and rainbows, kid, it’s hard work, which is something you haven’t had to do a day in your life, because your FATHER has been WIPING YOUR ASS SINCE DAY ONE.”
His voice rises and so does he, shoving his chair back. You’re starting to think it might be a good idea to get up too, before he comes over his desk. You start to get up.
“Fuck you!” It isn’t exactly a stinging comeback. “I don’t have to listen to this shit!”
“ Sit down! ” You don’t, but you do freeze. “You sure as shit have to listen to this! You think you’ve done anything to deserve any of this? Fuck, no! You’re a screw up with shit for brains who’ll screw himself over so long as it gets a rise out of the other guy! You know what? You know who that other guy usually is? IT’S FUCKIN’ ME, JACK. I AM THE OTHER GUY YOU ARE USUALLY SCREWING. I HAVE PUT PEOPLE IN THE FUCKING RIVER FOR A FRACTION OF YOUR SHIT BEFORE YOU WERE EVEN EIGHTEEN!”
“Yeah? So try it! Try your shit on me I fuckin’ dare ya! ” He fumes and looks at you like he just might, like he wants to grab you and throw you out his second-story office window, then maybe shove his desk out on top of you for good measure. He settles for stalking around his desk, and you try to shove him away before he can grab you, but it’s too late. He’s got you, he’s stronger than you and faster and better with his stabs, he’s smarter and you’re the failure 2.0 version of your father, and that is why you hate him. You sort of think about that when he tugs you around and slams you into his desk.
“ You think anyone would give a shit if I did?! ” He shakes you and your back hits wood, and you try to shove his face away, but end up two inches off from a knife pinning your hand to his desk. It just goes through your sleeve as-is. There are perks to a wooden desk, obviously. “I wouldn’t even have to cover it up! If I put you down like a fucking dog, Droog over there would have less work to do than you stealing some asshole’s wallet! You think you can do what I do? FUCK. NO. YOU CAN’T STEAL A WALLET WITHOUT GETTING THE COPS INVOLVED. YOU THINK YOUR FUCKING HIGH SCHOOL CLIQUE IS A CREW? THINK A-FUCKING-GAIN. YOU THINK YOU MATTER IN THIS CITY? YOU DON’T. YOU ARE WHO YOU ARE BECAUSE I’M REALLY FUCKING TRYING, KIDDO. I’M TRYING. YOU COULD BE LIKE ME IF YOU’D PUT IN THE TIME TO RUB TWO BRAIN CELLS TOGETHER BEFORE YOU JUMP.”
He’s terrifying when he’s like this, because you haven’t been sure since you were about fourteen whether he will actually gut you or not . You still entertain more than the casual suspicion that he killed your mom, after all, and then it hits you that that is why you hate him wearing her ring like some grieving widow.
“Maybe I don’t wanna be like you!” And maybe you sound like a whiny teenager. Either one is a real possibility.
“Know what your problem is?”
“I don’t think, I’m useless, I--”
“All those things and you don’t know what you want! Let me spell it out for you Jack: You want to clean your fucking act up, you want to be a decent fucking continuation of this family, and you want to STOP BEING THE SORT OF INSUFFERABLE PRICK THAT EVEN MAKES HIS OWN FATHER WANT TO STAB HIM. ” He grabs you up, ripping your sleeve on his desk in the process, and shoves you across the room. You stumble, but somehow keep your footing. “ Now get the fuck out! If the cops wanna haul your stupid ass in from here on, I’ll let ‘em! These guys--” he gestures quickly between himself and the cold slab of marble next to him that was probably a person named Desya at one point, “--aren’t gonna bail you out anymore! Save your fucking phone call, because I’M DONE. ” He throws something near your head, and it shatters against the wall when you duck. “Get him out of here.”
At a word, the non-human next to your raging ball of anger parent comes alive and moves toward you. His hand on your shoulder steering you out of the office is firm and you don’t resist or try to shake him off. You’re pretty sure he was in the KGB and you’ve heard of him doing unspeakable things involving a meat hook and someone’s clavicle, and he makes you shiver without any skin-on-skin contact.
He steers you through the house, and you aren’t sure if he’s keeping you safe or threatening you. Regardless, he speaks to you, quiet and flat. “You would do well not to provoke him. I do not know how many chances you have left, Jack.”
“Call me Slick,” you mutter.
“I will call you Jack, because that is your name, and because Slick makes you sound like a second-rate back-room bookie.”
“It’s a great name....”
He stops, you stop with him, and he checks his phone. He looks at it, then you, then back at it. “Apparently I am not only your baby sitter, but your personal secretary, delivering your messages.”
“You...you, uh, aren’t any of those things, Mr. Durchenko.” He’s the sort of family friend some people would have their kid call Uncle or something unofficially familial like that, but he’s Mr. Durchenko to you. “I don’t think yer any of that shit. Seriously.”
“It would seem my nephew disagrees. I quote: ‘Kindly inform the asshole that his phone is turned off and certain people might be trying to get his attention. Yours, Dmitri.’ “
“...what kinda fuckass actually writes texts like that?”
He shows you the screen of his phone, which probably cost about as much as a cheap car, and yeah, it looks like your buddy writes texts like that. You’re going to have to have words with him about that later. How dare he be so literate on a phone.
“ Ano jest kak ano jes.” It is what it. He leads you to your own goddamn door in your own house, though you’d bet anything he feels more at home there than you do, if the freak even has any feelings. “Jack, straighten out, and...turn on your phone.”
“...yeah.” You shrug, and pull on your jacket. “Thanks, sir.”
“Of course. Also, I do believe your father was quite serious, regarding your new lack of protection. Stay away from the law.”
“That mean he can stop blowing my inheritance on your retainer?”
“We will see. Go on.”
You were just kicked out of your own house. Again. You think you leave that place less often of your own free will than you do by force. When you collapse into your car, and collapse you do, it’s shaking with rage and maybe a little terror. At least it isn’t Christmas. There’s usually blood. You pull out your phone and turn it back on, too absent-minded to remember you turned it off earlier, and the thing vibrates for a solid thirty seconds with texts. Henry’s all up in arms about something and Dmitri started trying to get your attention, too.
You notify the three people in the world who possibly don’t think you’re a worthless piece of trash that you need to have a meeting. Crew business. Serious shit. It’s time to get your act together, and you don’t mean the free-form jazz set.