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The Midnight Special

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1925

It is exactly 7:00 post meridian. Mordecai knows because they let him keep his pocketwatch.

It's the strangest thing. Being booked was one of the more humiliating experiences in his admittedly short life (against some strong competition, too) but they let him keep his watch. His fedora is gone, which bothers him a great deal. His cufflinks are gone, which bothers him less. His cufflinks are expensive. His fedora is unique. The Lackadaisy Speakeasy has enough money to replace "expensive," but replacing "unique" is a tall order better put to William Randolph Hearst than Atlas May. It does not seem likely that William Randolph Hearst will pluck Mordecai Heller out of the North County Precinct Station.

Being perfectly honest with himself -- and when am I not? -- it does not seem much more likely that Atlas May will pluck Mordecai Heller out of the North County Precinct Station, either.

He was processed by two officers. There's the one who arrested him, a brute with a drawl that annoys him, to say the very least. A lot of people drawl around here. Most everyone drawls around here, point in fact. Mordecai hates it. He hates hearing Yankee, a jovial jeer, because he can't sound like anything else. He hates jumping and feeling the jolt of panic when he hears it, and he hates settling down and hearing "whoa, take it easy" because people who drawl and say Yankee have no idea what it is like to be wanted by the police.

He hates a lot of things (you hate a lot of things, observed Atlas once affectionately, draping his arm around Mordecai's thin shoulders) but at the moment the Midwestern drawl has quite neatly catapulted itself to the top of Mordecai's list, above misspelling and cockroaches, even, because Officer Plum happens to have it. But not above anti-Semitism. Because, funny story, very funny, hysterical as a matter of fact: as it turns out, Officer Plum happens to have that too.

Officer Plum is his arresting officer, who is far from arresting, as a general descriptor, but certainly had no trouble with it at the time. When they were taking down his information, he was the one who twisted Mordecai's cuffed arms behind his back while Officer Callahan -- that's the other charming fellow -- took down his information and searched him. Callahan is a nervous, exacting man. Irish. Probably contributes a tad to the nervousness, Mordecai imagines: as long as there are Mordecai Hellers for Plum to exert his schoolyard dominance over, he'll be keen to forget that his darling bosom friend Callahan is a goddamned Mick, as Plum might put it. But there might not always be. Until then Callahan will stay nervous. Mordecai does not feel for him. He imagines God will understand why.

Nervous and exacting are fine traits in a bookkeeper, but they are humiliating ones in a copper who happens to be searching you. Mordecai remembers standing still for what had to be two-thirds an eternity while Plum chortled and twisted his arms to their buckling point while directing Callahan to "look hard now, you never know where one of them'll be hiding something."

Mordecai hates being touched. Well, no. Mordecai hates being touched without his permission. Thus for a short while, Mordecai hated Officer Callahan with a fire not even reserved for Officer Plum. Every time his nervous freckled hands patted Mordecai's body and Plum chuckled. Every time he took something new out -- his wallet, or Atlas's papers -- and Plum sneered, "we might have to impound that," ratcheting up the pain in Mordecai's shoulders as he added, "for evidence." You know, in case they might have had to impound it for something else.

Goddamned worthless idiots and bigots and bullies all. Mordecai hates them. He hates them so very, very much, for all the good it does him. He hates them with the very center of his being, and it is a very poor substitute for being able to do anything about it.

It is only his own God-forsaken pride that has landed him here.

Now he sits straight-backed on the bench suspended on the wall of the cell he's been allotted. At least, small favors, he doesn't have a cellmate. He's not sure he could stomach the company of another human being right now. The best he could hope for would be an unconscious drunk. The worst would be, well. He doesn't have his guns on him. In that worst case he will bash him with the chamber pot, he decides: this hypothetical cellmate of his bent on violence. There is something very satisfying about this idea. It's more satisfying, he discovers, if he substitutes Officer Plum for the cellmate, but much less realistic.

Truth be told, he has spent the last two hours with his heart in a thrum of fear. In case it needs to be said, he hates fear too, but who doesn't? He doesn't hate pain. Pain he is accustomed to. Pain is a test, an opportunity for him to glare defiantly at Callahan like he isn't hurting at all. But fear is a strange bedfellow nestled in beside him, only come recently since he has had something to lose. He is not at all accustomed to having any sort of life to lose.

But they booked him without even a blink of suspicion. Thank God for disconnects between county departments of justice. But then, from Callahan as he locked him in his cell: "The Commissioner will be in tomorrow."

Well, that is that. The Commissioner will be in tomorrow. Commissioners are a death sentence, will propel him straight from the St. Louis County Jail all the way to the chair, Mordecai knows. Because commissioners keep up on national criminal justice and commissioners telephone New York if a suspicious character reminds them of someone from New York. Hearing that, Mordecai could only be stunned at the time. Now, sitting in his cell in his shirtsleeves, he is beginning to despair.

He doesn't slump. That would be ridiculous of him. And most of all, most of very, very all, he loathes despair.


1920

Viktor Vasko never would have let this happen to himself. Of course, Viktor Vasko would've broken Plum's arm at the elbow and Mordecai would have shouted at him about it later. It's funny how things go.

He met Viktor in the dead of winter. Winter, Mordecai concluded, had only been mostly dead in New York City. By the time it reached St. Louis, someone had definitely finished it off.

He was going to die of the cold. Of this much he, aged twenty-one, was certain. Before he ever had the chance to shoot, be shot at, be shot, bludgeoned, pummeled or otherwise abused, he would simply freeze to death.

Mordecai endeavored not to shiver. This just caused Atlas to laugh and put an overcoat (another overcoat) on him, which hung off him like he was a coatrack. Atlas's young wife laughed too. Mordecai damned them both in his head. Never mind that it was only due to them that he was alive, or had a life worth speaking of. Then more than ever he could not abide being laughed at.

Out in the blistering cold after nightfall, behind the garage of the Little Daisy Cafe, they introduced him to Viktor Vasko, who lumbered out of the garage moments after they arrived like some kind of mountain yeti.

He was huge. That was Mordecai's first impression of him. That was most likely anyone's first impression of him, to be sure. Mordecai was a little insubstantial at twenty-one, but even if he hadn't been Viktor would have towered over him anyway. As it stood he was head-and-shoulders over him, and he glared down with full awareness of it. He was a big Slav somewhere in his thirties or forties, burly, just about twice Mordecai's size in his estimation. Missing one eye: that was the second thing to notice. He looked at Mordecai like he was something he'd scraped off the bottom of his shoe.

Mordecai's spectacles slid down his nose; he had to push them back up before he could resume glaring defiantly back up at him. Something about this entire tableau provoked Atlas into more laughter. Damn him.

Viktor looked a little incredulous and glanced at Atlas and Mitzi: "Him?" he said simply.

He had a deep voice, a growling bass. He was a thug, pure and simple. Mordecai turned up his nose a little.

"That's our man," said Atlas, patting Mordecai on the shoulder. He had the benefit of very thick gloves and the bulkiest scarf Mordecai had ever seen. "Viktor, this is Mordecai Heller, late of New York. Mordecai, this is Viktor Vasko, our oddjobsman. You can imagine how odd the jobs get around here. Go a little easy on him, would you, Viktor? He'll catch on, I promise you, but he needs a little time."

Viktor's eyebrows went up: "Jew?"

"Yes, I'm a Jew," grated out Mordecai before Atlas could intercept him. "Thank you for noticing. Do you have any more observations?"

Viktor ignored him. "How old?"

Atlas cleared his throat. He and Mitzi exchanged a significant look, a practice of which Mordecai was already beginning to tire. No one ever exchanged significant looks with him. They only exchanged significant looks about him. Mitzi was just a little bit older than him anyway, he thought a little sourly. He didn't know what all the fuss was about. Crime wasn't an old man's work, least of all shooting. And he was the best, wasn't he? He knew he was the best. Everyone told him he was the best.

Atlas opened his mouth. "Twenty-one," said Mordecai abruptly, before anyone else; Viktor went back to looking back at him. "I'm twenty-one years old." He crossed his arms. "Got any more questions?"

To his astonishment, Viktor broke into a smile at this. Not a teeth-bared, predatory smile like the one Mordecai had cultivated to try and inject a semblance of intimidation into his presence. A lopsided one, roguish even. Mordecai hated it. He must have been making a face that indicated so, too, as Viktor let out a short bark of a laugh and shook his head, clearly amused. Damn him. Damn him more than Atlas and Mitzi May put together. This was not the finest hour of Mordecai's dignity.

"He is a boy," said Viktor Vasko, still shaking his head. "A boy. No good for this work. I won't work," he gestured, perhaps trying to convey something for which his English had no room, "with boy like him."

At this time Mordecai was fairly sure that if you took the alchemical essence of fury and boiled it down into one singular mass it would resemble himself at this very moment. Looking back he would realize that he had, indeed, been a skinny Jewish boy in two overcoats and tiny spectacles looking extremely put out. But at the time: alchemical essence of fury, he was sure of it. Viktor glanced over him again with an odd look on his face. He was hard to read. There would be a lot of times when Viktor was hard to read.

Atlas cleared his throat. He stepped up and wrapped his arm around Mordecai, as he was prone to, squeezing Mordecai's left shoulder. He patted him on the back and turned him slightly to face Viktor a bit more. Mordecai allowed himself to be moved with a surly look. There was a moment of long silence between all four of them, including mink-clad Mitzi who peered at the three of them like they presented the most curious sort of spectacle.

"Viktor," said Atlas after some contemplation, "this boy was born with a gun in his hand."


1925

Mordecai turns his watch over in his hands. Now it reads 7:49.

They say that a watched pot never boils, or, more to the point, that time staggers along when you attempt to keep track of it. Mordecai has never experienced this: for him, time has always been slow. He has spent most his life impatient with the inexorable, inescapable, incontrovertible slowness of the world, which for him has always turned at a pace ranging from a crawl to a standstill. He is aware that this is not true for other people. It has always conferred upon him a certain irritability: not that it's the only thing that makes him irritable, of course.

It was better in New York. People were still slow, but faster, and things happened at a more sensible pace. In St. Louis at times he feels he's wandered into a mythical land of molasses.

He's discovered he's faster to think, faster to read, faster to respond, and, of course, the clincher, faster to shoot. He doesn't shoot on reflex, like a gunslinger from a dime novel. He lines up every shot. But he does so in the time it takes others -- crawling, agonizing others -- to blink.

And he does so with each hand. He is also aware that others perceive the world in two distinct halves, a leading half and a receding half: that there is a foot people will always put forth, a way they will turn, a side from which they will better fend off attack. This isn't true of him, either. To Mordecai his perception exists in two separate and symmetrical halves. He does not prefer one hand to the other -- he signs his name with one, and then with the other, and the signatures are only as differentiated as they might be when a man signs his name twice.

He knows this isn't common. Not even for other people who are ambidextrous: a word he learned from Atlas, though he will never admit that now. People are impressed with it. It is his distinction as a gunman. It is what Atlas saw in him, all niceties about "potential" and "talent" aside. It is to what he owes his life.

Viktor is not impressed with it. Viktor is never impressed. It still galls Mordecai to think about. Viktor, Mordecai thinks, has seen him gun down rooms full of men. Rooms full of armed men with their guns drawn, and he's taken them all out without so much as a scratch on his person. He's done it singlehandedly, only to have his sole acknowledgment from Viktor be the words, "too reckless," followed by, "you, you will get in trouble."

It galls him beyond belief. In no small part because Mordecai, and this he will never admit, is impressed with Viktor. It's impossible not to be. Viktor cuts through crowds like a blade. He reacts like an animal, like centuries of blood are telling him what to do. There is no environment Viktor can't use to his advantage, no weapon that he can't derive from his surroundings. Mordecai isn't entirely sure he could kill Viktor, and there aren't many people he affords that distinction. In fact, there aren't any others at all. Gunfire tends to be fairly unhealthful.

Too reckless. He has gotten in trouble. Mordecai pinches the bridge of his nose with two of his fingers, resting his other hand flat on the bench next to him. Somewhere a clock is ticking, somewhere he can't see. His watch reads 7:51. This time tomorrow morning he will be prison-bound.

Who, he wonders, has noticed that he's gone?


1921

As dangerous as they made being "out on assignment" sound, what it actually turned out to mean was playing delivery truck: Viktor in the driver's seat, Mordecai riding shotgun, each time with some nondescript (or entirely bizarre) locale scrawled on the back of a ticket for them both to decipher.

 

The first few times they went "out on assignment" Mordecai spent the duration of the trip jittery, high on his nerves, and so ready to draw his Walther at the first sign of trouble that Viktor hissed at him not to shoot pedestrians or taxi drivers. The next few times he was wary, eyes darting to and fro at flickers of movement, but his hands stayed in his lap. The next few times he was just bored. By New Year's of 1921 Mordecai was fairly certain that the job description triggerman had come with a silent hypothetical that he'd neglected to notice. Perhaps somewhere in the fine print. He never did have very good vision.

 

Then again, there was a club pinned to the inside of his lapel. He had a lapel. Two of them. If that wasn't an indicator that Mordecai Heller's fortunes had changed for the better, he wasn't sure what was.

 

And so the first time that his job stopped being hypothetical, he was caught entirely by surprise.

Viktor drove with one hand on the wheel and his left arm resting out the open window, and both eyes on the road. He also drove in near-silence. Mordecai felt loud around him, which made him uncomfortable. His fidgets were loud. His breathing was loud. Even the way he buttoned and unbuttoned his suit jacket, he was quite sure, was loud in the presence of Viktor Vasko. He couldn't say he hated it, exactly, but it frustrated him. He was very sure that he would never come to know this man at all. (He was very sure that he would never see any action, either. At twenty-one he was very sure of a lot of things.)

He didn't want to stare at Viktor, so he looked out the window instead, a little unfocused. Somewhere between the horizon and the sky. This was how he missed the first gunshot.

It was a bang that staggered the motorcar and shook his gun into his hand before he knew it. Viktor swore in Slovak and accelerated -- but the car spun, and it dawned on frozen Mordecai that they'd taken out one of the tires.

Bang. No. Two now. They spun. There was a ditch next to the road, thought Mordecai in dreamy slowness. Fish in a barrel.

He was aimed and ready, he'd been aimed and ready twenty seconds ago, for an enemy he couldn't see. It occurred to him like molasses that this might be the end of him.

Then a gunshot shattered their rear window and things were fast again. The windshield cracked, Mordecai ducked, hazarding a glance at Viktor, but there was no time, there was no time. There was a car behind them glinting. Mordecai lined up his shot, pulled the trigger. The recoil hit him, the other windshield cracked. No time to check the results. Shattered rear window offers a good shot, Mordecai thought, important thing to take note of. He ducked behind his seat again as a shot whistled through the air next to him. Good shot for them too, then. No time. Too close. Too close.

Then he could think, finally he could think. "Viktor," he said, sounding very quiet next to gunfire. He took aim, fired. Long as he was firing they wouldn't focus on the driver. With Viktor dead he'd be dead in short order. Couldn't be having with that. "Viktor? Viktor, they have a rifleman, but just one."

In response Viktor swerved the car again, which only served to make it spin again and was in no way whatsoever a response to the very important information with which Mordecai had just provided him. Mordecai braced for a ditch impact and fired off a few rounds, more for cover than the hope that he could realistically hit anything while spinning in a circle. No impact came, though they came speeding to a halt, blocking the country road. Passenger's side faced the oncoming car -- it was far off, but not that far -- this was a stupid way to die, Mordecai decided as he heard the screeeee of the other car's brakes and closed his eyes --

And then he was out of the car. He didn't understand how that happened, though he was sort of standing next to Viktor, whose hand was fisted in his shirtcollar, and he put the pieces together eventually. At least his gun was still in his hand. The other car scree'd to a sideways halt clear of them and both he and Viktor hit the ground an instant before the car's remaining windows were punched out by gunfire.

Still just the one rifle. Strange. "They should have BARs," wondered Mordecai aloud, his head not six inches from Viktor's. "I wonder -- a broch!" Bang. They were two inches away from being dead: they moved away from each other and Mordecai switched hands before he fired, his last round, and dropped his first pistol. The rifleman cursed and withdrew. He'd give him a few seconds in the comfortable wondering if that was Mordecai's only gun.

Viktor had got himself a tire iron from somewhere, Mordecai noticed. At the present moment he was in the process of trying to get to the trunk, but the fire was too heavy for that. Viktor's rifle. Wouldn't save them, but would delay their demise a little. What would save them --

Figures were stalking around to either side of the car. What Mordecai glimpsed in their hands was death. They did have BARs. They had merely opted not to use them until this moment.

It must have been the cargo, Mordecai mused, that they were worried about: now that they could flank them, Mordecai and Viktor would be gunned down in the roadway and the cargo would sit safe and sound without so much as a nick or a graze.

His other gun was in his hand. Viktor had his tire iron ready to kill. Both of these things had a very small chance of doing them any good. Fish in a barrel.

Mordecai stood in one moment, fired at the gunman to his left in another, and dashed out from behind the cover of the car in the next. Automatic fire followed him, he knew that would happen: from Viktor's side of the car? Belatedly, it occurred to him that his one shot had been a kill. No time to think about that -- he ran, followed by the rounds of a BAR. He ran in the best zig-zag he could manage (God knew what Viktor was saying in Slovak right now, but it wasn't happy) and the rat-a-tat of the BAR tore up the ground by his feet, the blam-blam! of the rifle afer it. No time to worry about that either. Something grazed his arm, which was suddenly very cold: he took out the other BAR-wielder with a shot centered in his forehead while the man stared and mouthed the beginnings of a plea.

Back to the rifleman. Where was the driver? No matter. Mordecai zig-zagged to the other car, inasmuch as one could zig-zag between two rather proximate objects. Well, he tried to. There was another blam, and at the same time someone hit his leg with a sledgehammer. Or that was the effect, anyway. He felt dizzy. He fell.

He heard another rifle report, and imagined that this would be the one that went through his head. It didn't. He realized it was very loud. In any case, he was on the ground.

There was continuing gunfire, but none of it seemed to hit him. Lots of rifle rounds. Then a pistol thrown in there too: not his pistol, he was still holding that, he checked. Was it his femoral artery hit? he wondered. That would definitely be the end of him. He was very dizzy.

At a later point a few things occurred to him all at once: one, that he was flat on his back, two, that everyone was dead except for three, Viktor, who was dragging him to sit up.

"They had BARs," burst out Mordecai, blinking. Suddenly he could talk. He could talk. He could talk to Viktor Vasko. "They had BARs -- I told you, one rifleman and BARs. They were after our cargo, I knew they were after our cargo: they had a pistolman too, they knew what they were doing, they had us outgunned by far -- Viktor. Viktor?" This was more words than he had ever spoken to Viktor Vasko at once before. He was dizzy. "They had us outgunned by far, we were sitting ducks. We were fish in a barrel. We were, we were --"

"Shh," said Viktor, with effort, "shut up -- stupid boy --"

"That's very uncalled for! I did that on purpose, you know!" Mordecai wondered if this was what delirious people sounded like to themselves. "To draw their fire. Away from us, towards just me. It worked. I do not feel very appreciated. I have to say you're not a very civil partner. Viktor -- Viktor are you listening to me? Viktor-are-you-listening-to-me. Viktor?"

"Be quiet and let me --" Viktor was staunching his leg with something. Mordecai was forced to conclude that it was not his femoral artery.

"Oh, never mind that. I'm a triggerman. Really, now, Viktor, that doesn't mean anything." Mordecai was laughing by this point, which earned him the most absolutely suspicious look he had ever seen Viktor give anything, this including Mitzi May's clothing choices and the substance the Lackadaisy saxophonist rolled into his cigarettes. "Viktor. Viktor, I'm fine. I'm a triggerman, Viktor, it's nothing to me --"

"Mordecai --" It was the first time Viktor Vasko had ever spoken his name.

"It's nothing to me, do you know why? Because I don't need my legs."

Mercifully, for Mordecai's dignity and perhaps for Viktor's peace of mind, it was at this point that he passed out. He would not gain a full apprehension of what all had transpired until Mitzi took it upon herself to explain it to him, patiently, at his bedside with a very skeptical doctor. In fact, she took it upon herself to explain it to him more than once. Credit that to the laudanum.

But after that, he started speaking to Viktor. And Viktor spoke to him back. Perhaps not as much. He spoke to him all the same.


1925

Who has noticed that Mordecai's gone, anyway?

Mordecai leans back on his hands on the bench and watches Callahan stalk through the hallway, looking for all the world like he's had an awful day. Mordecai is not sure how Callahan thinks he has had an awful day. Mordecai has had an awful day. Callahan, at worst, has had a bad day, unless he has just found out he is dying of tuberculosis or leprosy, which is the only thing that Mordecai can think of right now that compares to Mordecai's inevitable prison sentence.

Maybe Atlas will buy him a good lawyer. Unless he scrounges up Marcus Tullius Cicero, Mordecai isn't getting his hopes up.

Who has noticed that Mordecai's gone, Mordecai thinks, depends on exactly how long he has been gone. He checks his watch again. It is 8:41. The minute hand clicks neatly to 8:42 as Callahan's dusty head disappears from view through a doorway, about 8:42:15 as the door slams shut again. Doors are heavier in jails and police stations, or at least at the North County Precinct Station. This stands to reason. Before now he never had an opportunity to consider this. It makes escape a much more dismal prospect, which, were he building a jail, would likely be one of his aims. More congratulations to whoever built these. He'd like to shoot them too.

How long he's been gone -- it's 8:42 (soon 8:43). He has been gone four hours.

At the Little Daisy, when they eat dinner together, they tend to eat around 6:30. It's not uncommon for Mordecai to miss this. I's not uncommon for Mordecai to miss it without saying anything, either. He's a busy man. That's what he always tells them. In truth he isn't a very busy man at all, but he needs a lot of time on his own where people aren't being loud and wrong about things and he's not sure if he's supposed to interrupt and people make jokes and he doesn't get them and -- he doesn't really like to eat with other people.

All the same, he does. He stays very silent during, which is his "most charming routine" as Atlas once said when he was being unkind. Tonight was going to be one of those nights. Then at 7:30 he was going down to the Lackadaisy with everyone else.

That he never misses. Not by a minute. So rightly speaking, he's been gone one hour and thirteen minutes. One hour and thirteen minutes for someone to first notice that he's gone, and then inform the others, and then maybe discuss what they're going to do.

Who will that person have been? (Who will that person be, you mean? says a nasty part of him that doesn't believe they've noticed at all, but he shuts the door on that part.)

Here are the possibilities:

- Atlas May. Atlas has known him the longest, and spent nearly the most time with him. Atlas knows Mordecai's habits, and he knows how seriously Mordecai takes his work, and how seriously he takes lateness. If Atlas is at the Cafe, then Atlas will have noticed. If Atlas is at the Cafe. If Atlas is at the Cafe. This is not remotely guaranteed. It could be that he's lunching or dinnering (?) with some associate, dining at the Marigold again perhaps. Or perhaps busy already downstairs, no time to mingle with the common folk like Viktor and Mordecai. He might have been expecting him, but it's not necessarily true that he first realized something was wrong.

Well, surely he knows -- does he? Does he, now? If he's away, maybe he doesn't. Or maybe no one thinks it's urgent enough yet to tell him. Maybe it just hasn't occurred to Mitzi to let him know. Which brings Mordecai to Possibility No. 2:

- Mitzi May. Mitzi is not as acquainted with Mordecai, but she's acquainted enough. He's her bodyguard, after all. He takes his work very seriously. They've spent enough awkward time in one another's company, in various hotel rooms while Atlas was off negotiating a deal that might or might not turn sour, and might or might not kill him and send the Reaper clamoring up the Ritz-Carlton stairs for Mitzi May. She's seen him take off his jacket with his back to her while she undressed: he'd turn back and find her in her nightgown staring at him in his shirtsleeves and shoulder holsters. They're acquainted.

Maybe it's occurred to her, but the urgency likely hasn't -- or if it has, it takes a second priority to the damned facade to which she is so very devoted. She would not disrupt business to tell her husband that Mordecai Heller was missing. Not in front of people. Heavens no.

So, this brings him to:

- Viktor Vasko. Of course. Viktor will have noticed. He spends nearly all his waking hours with Viktor now, and Viktor knows everything from the way he buttons his shirt to the way he drinks his tea. If some villain were to abduct Mordecai and replace him with his long-lost, previously unknown, but deeply sinister twin brother, to whom he was physically identical, Viktor would spend about two hours with the impostor and promptly break his thumbs.

The phone rings in the other room and Callahan picks it up. Mordecai tries to muffle the noise, cover it with cotton batting in his head. Viktor has probably known something was off for a full two hours, at least. The trouble and blessing with Viktor is that he does not feel the need to share everything that goes through his head. At 6:30 he may not have seen fit to mention that Mordecai was gone.

By 7:30 he would have. Mitzi may have dismissed him, or told him to deal with it on his own, but he definitely knows something is wrong; then again, what good does that do Mordecai? Next to nothing. Mordecai could be anywhere. He could be dead. Likely that's what Viktor fears; it's what he would fear in Viktor's place, and it's what he has feared every time Viktor has vanished, which has happened more often. Punctuality is one of those things that Viktor does not value as highly as Mordecai does. There are a lot of those things. Mordecai does not like those things.

Mordecai does value punctuality. He does not miss work. He is never late. Not on anything short of a night like tonight, when --

He is cut off by the unmistakeable clatter of a baton dragged over the bars of a cage, moving towards him, and he glances up. His eyes flicker to his watch. It is 9:00.


1922

Before 1921 Mordecai had never been shot -- never been shot at, either. By September 1922, he was already having his fifth bullet pried out of him while he ground a dishrag to ribbons in his teeth, Viktor pinned his arms to the table, and Mitzi hovered over him, disapproving.

"Mordecai," she was saying. "Mordecai, are you listening to me?

Well, he was in agony and drunk out of his mind. So no. "Yes," he said anyway, trying to sound nonchalant. This was difficult around a dishrag. It was difficult in general; the gunman who'd gotten him had been carrying a pistol, and while it hadn't packed much of a punch it had punched straight through the muscle of his stomach, through the fascia and fatty tissue, and hopefully stopped right there. At least that was his estimation. He'd only read one anatomy book. Maybe two. No, one. The other one was -- chemistry, no, chem-, chemical -- organic chem -- something. The dime novels never talked about gunslingers dying of peritonitis, he thought through the faint mist of whiskey.

To add insult to injury, they hadn't any laudanum on hand, they'd used whiskey. Mordecai was the one rumrunner in the world who could not remotely hold his liquor. In this case this was actually good for him. But not for his dignity. He could not name a single element of this experience that had been good for his dignity.

Mitzi wasn't convinced. "Mordecai, Mordecai. What are we going to do with you."

The question annoyed him. No, to be accurate, lying here in a haze of pain and sick to his stomach from the liquor, it made him angry, as did every similar question to come. What in the Hell did they think they'd hired him to do? Guns were a bloody business. They couldn't hire a man to shoot and expect him never to get shot. And he shot, didn't he? He damned well shot. He damned well shot enough to impress Atlas and frighten Mitzi and still not get a damned blink out of Viktor, damn him. Mordecai was drunk.

Once he'd promised himself something. He'd been ten and getting the tar beaten out of him for a penny or two, again, and with both his arms twisted till he felt like they were about to snap he made a promise: no human who walked this earth would ever hear him cry out in pain. Never again. Not once.

He kept his promise in New York. He kept his promise through what school he went to, a few sprained ankles, countless bruises, his years working for a bookie under a false surname and even falser age, a broken arm even. He kept his promise in 1920. He kept his promise in 1921.

The surgeon dug something metal into the wound, like he was hollowing him out from the inside like a cored apple. Mordecai cried out. He was kicking: Mitzi took a hesitant step away from him and the table, to avoid his spasming, but the doctor said something incomprehensible to him through the thick hot fog of drunkenness and Viktor was talking now. But what Viktor was saying was in Slovakian and it couldn't have been good anyway, and the doctor was still flaying him, so he cried out again, and again, and again once the doctor took out another instrument and used that too. Through it all he thrashed and Viktor's hands kept his arms pinned to the table like manacles while Viktor talked in what sounded like the language of Babel.

By the end of it someone had gotten laudanum, and Mordecai was administered that too. He would heal up fine, he was told. Or someone was told. There was telling. Just some rest and relaxation, and care that the wound didn't fester, mind you. The pain was bad, but it went away. He was staunch enough with the laudanum not to find it addicting. He had time off work, and he'd wanted that.

He could not recall a time when he was more miserable.

It was the fifth time he'd gone down, and as Atlas phrased it so delicately, this was "starting to be a problem, Mordecai." For all he protested the risks of the job, it was the fifth time he'd gone down. Mitzi despaired at what to do with him. Atlas called him reckless. Atlas had a funny kind of face: he could smile with his mouth, and crush any hope you had for his approval with his eyes. Mordecai denied that anything needed to be done with him, reminded them that other gangs had started giving up without a fight now once they'd heard of him, even finished it off by demanding a raise in pay -- which, of course, earned him a raised eyebrow, a remark complimenting his nerve, and not a dime.

He didn't really want the money. He didn't really want anything. He just wanted to be left alone to nurse his side and his dignity and not be bothered by anyone. And that wish, at least, was granted. As soon as the doctor turned him out to his apartment, the fuss disappeared without so much as a puff of smoke. In case Mordecai had had any notion that anyone gave a damn for Mordecai Heller once it was clear they weren't going to lose his guns to peritonitis. But he hadn't. He wasn't a damn fool.

It was autumn again in St. Louis and he pushed his chair to the window. He had two chairs by the fire. One was a rocking chair. Not being a senile grandmother wittering away with her knitting, he chose the other. Something felt infinitely undignified to him about sitting with a blanket, so he bundled himself up in his coat and nursed a mild fever while he watched people on the street three stories below.

This was not, Mordecai promised himself, the place in the world where he was going to die. Anywhere but here.

On his second or third day alone, his only breath of human contact the meals the landlady left at his door, he had a visitor. It was another sign you were moving up in the world, he was bewildered to realize, if someone came up and announced your visitors for you. In this case: "You've got a caller, Mr. Heller," said Mrs. Nichols, and without waiting for him to respond she went down to let the caller in.

(Later, older and wiser, Mordecai would tell Mrs. Nichols to ask any visitor their name and their business and report such back to him before she let them in. In 1924, Mrs. Nichols would be gunned down at her door for doing just that. He would move into the bottom floor of a property leased by a Mr. Appelbaum. Mr. Appelbaum was wealthy, acquainted with Mr. May, and would know better than to answer doors for the likes of Mordecai Heller. Or to ask questions if something dreadful happened to him while he lived there, or do anything else but clean out the carpet and re-open it for lease. But now --)

Mrs. Nichols' stairs shook like a frightened old woman as someone took lumbering, clunk-clunk steps upstairs, and Mordecai knew his visitor right away.

He unlocked the door before Viktor reached the top and opened it before he knocked. He was twenty-two; he hadn't gained an inch in height, so he still came up to about Viktor's shoulders.

Despite all this foresight, though, all he could think to say in greeting was the obvious: "Viktor?"

The burly Slav appeared to be having more difficulty. He was dressed like he tended to, in a big work shirt and a sweater and suspenders: about half of what Mordecai was presently wearing, though Mordecai had a fever and, from Viktor's scowl of inspection, he likely looked it as well. Viktor glanced over Mordecai head to toe, like a schoolmaster checking for uniform violations, and then he wasted no time with formalities. Viktor could at least be counted on for some things.

"Atlas send me tell you," he said a bit roughly, "that you are stupid, will die within year if you keep on way you do. Why he send me, I don't know. I tell him I don't think you need obvious told to you, from me. But he send me."

There was a long silence between them. There used to be a lot more of those, Mordecai thought. Why wasn't he used to them?

"Well," said Mordecai, in the doorway, "that doesn't sound to me like something Atlas couldn't have said to my face. So I'm afraid I'm rather at a loss," he stared at Viktor for a while before continuing, as if this carried some sort of significance, "for what you're doing here either."

Viktor said nothing and stared at Mordecai back, which made him uncomfortable. He had combed his hair this morning with shaky fingers and shaved with cold water from the basin. Under the coat he was a mess of bandages colored with his own gore, and over that his pyjamas. He wasn't going anywhere. He hadn't been expecting any visitors. There hadn't been any reason for not-pyjamas.

"Did he tell you," Mordecai said, "that I was a substantial -- no, I'm sorry, this is Atlas -- hefty investment that he'd hate to lose on account of my own youthful stupidity?"

"He --" Viktor started to say something, but Mordecai cut him off.

"Did he tell you that I was a good marksman, and a good marksman is damn well hard to come by, Viktor, pardon my language, in today's market, if you get me?"

"Mordecai." This marked the second time Mordecai's name had left Viktor's lips. Mordecai was too despondent to notice.

"Did he tell you that you should find some way to make me come to my senses, because I'm a bright lad but a little full of myself, jumped-up thug that I am, and all the same to be careful not to set me off?"

One moment he was in the doorway and Viktor was in the hall. The next, he was in his apartment and Viktor was in the doorway, and then they were both in his apartment, for Viktor's only response to his angry outburst had been to place both of his hands on Mordecai's shoulders and steer him back into the room. Mordecai was too dumbstruck to resist. Then Viktor turned back and locked the door behind both of them while Mordecai still blinked at him, momentarily silenced.

He really shouldn't have been surprised. Viktor Vasko saw problems and looked for solutions. When he found them, he solved the problems. There had been a problem. For the moment, it was solved.

No one from the Lackadaisy operation had been inside Mordecai's apartment before. Mitzi had seen the outside once when he was driving her around and had to get something. He hadn't invited her in. She hadn't asked. He hadn't invited Viktor in, either. And Viktor, to think of it, hadn't asked.

"The chain," he said, blinking at Viktor.

Viktor stared at him in a manner that clearly conveyed: ?

"The chain," Mordecai said again. "The burglar chain. You have to lock it. Not that it would stop any burglars, but -- I always lock it, it's what I do. You have to lock," he said, a little wide-eyed, "the burglar chain."

Slowly, with incredulity, Viktor turned again and slotted the burglar chain into place.

Mordecai nodded and glanced away. He didn't invite Viktor to sit down and Viktor didn't ask, but he didn't go ahead and do so of his own volition, either, despite having demonstrated the rather clear capacity to do so. Maybe he didn't want the rocking chair. Maybe he didn't want to force Mordecai to take the rocking chair. Maybe not everyone was as absurdly concerned with rocking chairs as Mordecai was.

Against his better manners and better judgment, Mordecai turned his back on Viktor and went to the window again, presumably to pull the blinds shut. It was a silly urge. They were on the third floor. Any would-be snoops would have to spy from the building across and there was nothing to spy on. So once he reached the window he just lay his hand flat on the pane and looked outside again while Viktor stood still near the door and made no move to join him. There wasn't any need. It wasn't a large apartment.

Viktor broke this silence first, though he spoke more quietly now, and lower. He had a deep growl of a voice, but most of the growl was gone. He sounded even. "Why," he said, with some difficulty with his words, "do you want to die?"

Mordecai glanced over his shoulder. "Excuse me?"

"Atlas sent me here, said you were stupid, going to die within year. I told him yes, but I see you, I see you more than him, and I know," Viktor gestured, as he did when he had words that he knew but couldn't find, "that you want to die. I do not say this to him. But why?" He threw up his hands in apparent frustration. "Why should not I say this to him? Because I know you hate it. I come here. So I ask you: why do you want to die?"

"Viktor, I have no idea what you're thinking," said Mordecai, bristling, "but I can assure you that I --"

"Liar," said Viktor, under his breath.

Mordecai fell silent. He didn't turn away from him again because that would have been stupid, childish, as good as an admission. He did tense himself up waiting for another lacerating blow to his pride, but Viktor didn't say anything. His apartment was a little chilly in the fall, before they lit the central furnace but after St. Louis had lost most of its warmth. His exposed hands were cold. He pressed the back of one to the colder windowpane again as he thought about what to say, wondered what Viktor hoped to accomplish.

He said eventually, in the evenest tone he had at his disposal: "I don't like it here."

It was Viktor's turn to struck silent and not know what to say. Or maybe it was always Viktor's turn for that. Eventually he said, in typical Viktor form, "Family?"

Mordecai didn't answer that.

With careful footsteps -- he always could walk very quietly, for a man his size, if he so decided -- Viktor made his way across the apartment, over the pale uncertainly-blue possibly-green rug in front of the hearth, and over the floorboards to join Mordecai at the window.

"You don't like it here," said Viktor, who was awkwardly taller than the window. "You don't want to die here."

"Pardon?" Mordecai glanced at him. They were about a foot apart and Mordecai was still wearing his coat. It was a bit odd.

"I said, you don't like it here," Viktor gestured again, with more difficulty, not really looking at Mordecai, "so leave, some other place. Or stop acting like stupid boy." He was back to glaring at Mordecai; but Mordecai prided himself that he was one person who would never be cowed by Viktor Vasko's glaring. "Or you die here, I bury you here, and you never leave here. Ever. You understand?"

Mordecai stared straight ahead.

"You die somewhere else, someone else bury you, someone else problem." Viktor glanced back at the window. "Fine. No my problem. You die here, I bury you here. You understand me?"

Eventually he wound up making tea for him. It was a strange day.


1925

The baton clatters across the bars of the next cell over and hits Mordecai's. He is already on his feet. Moments later the blue uniform swaggers in and Mordecai recognizes Officer Plum before he sees his red, smirking face.

Plum stops in front of Mordecai's cell and leans on the bars like a jeering boy at a zoo. He's about Mordecai's same height, but Mordecai stands straight as a ramrod and Plum is a terminal sloucher. Plum slouches just about everywhere, not out of any apparent desire to be unobtrusive, but rather a sort of pervasive insolence. It pervades his posture, drawling speech, lazy smirks, and even the slight but maddening crookedness of his hat. Mordecai has no real reverence to speak of for the station of police officer, but he's pretty sure he has more than Officer Ethan Plum.

They stare at each other. Plum says, taking his delicious time of it, "Well, if it ain't Mr. Metzger his own self."

Mordecai says nothing. In truth he has no reply to this incredibly self-evident statement. What is there to say, anyway? 'Yes?'

"Elijah Metzger" is one of the aliases he uses in St. Louis. The one he used when he'd first run into Atlas May was "David Goldberg." At one time, when he'd finally told Viktor the story of his arrest warrants in New York, Viktor had suggested to him -- in fewer words -- that Hasidic blood or no Hasidic blood, he could pass for a dark-haired Gentile, so he could call himself something different. It was a young Jew wanted for murder, after all, not a young Pole or Russian. Mordecai ignored the suggestion, head high.

Stubborn, Viktor had called him. And now here he is.

Plum stares at him, tries to bore right through him with those mean blue eyes of his. He succeeds just in looking like a dying fish, Mordecai decides with disdain.

But he's beginning to wonder what Plum wants with him, and Plum has his truncheon and Mordecai does not, and Plum has backup and Mordecai does not. Gawking like a half-wit is not the worst way Plum could be occupying his time right now.

But instead he just says, "You got yourself a visitor, Mister Metzger. Half hour's time."

That sends a thrill of hope up his spine. "Someone's offered to pay my bail?"

Plum snorts. "You think you have bail, boy?"

Still -- a visitor. All his calculi have come to nothing. He was wrong about everything. People already know, wheels are in motion, plans are being put into action: how do they know? Ah, yes. The phone ringing. Somewhere in that tangled list of people someone had thought to call the St. Louis Police to see if anyone of his description had been picked up: in a cell or in the morgue, no doubt. Mordecai is giddy. This is such a complete reversal of his previously dismal fortunes that he is about ready to smile and shake Officer Plum's hand for delivering the happy news. All he says is, "Thank you," and he even tacks on, "Officer"; and even as Plum walks away chortling, he finds he doesn't really care.

It is another slow half-hour. Mordecai checks his watch, 9:02, and then checks it again, 9:04. 9:05. 9:07. 9:13. Mordecai resolves not to check his watch. 9:18. Mordecai breaks his resolution. 9:22. Mordecai resolves again, and nearly digs his nails through the bottom of the bench he's sitting on, waiting.

At 9:34 the door on one end of the hallway opens and Officer Callahan leads Atlas May down to his cell, but by the time Atlas and Callahan get there Mordecai is already at the bars, staring. He doesn't put his hands on them, because that would be desperate. He waits for Callahan to leave them both alone, which Callahan does -- after Atlas slips him a sawbuck -- before he starts talking.

"They picked me up for the stupidest thing," he is saying with an air of disgust, as if this were all a dratted inconvenience to him rather than the foreseeable end of his life and living, "the stupidest little thing, I didn't even do anything, Atlas. I did not do a single thing except mind my own business."

"I believe you." Atlas is wearing tweeds and a bowler, like he does, and he reaches through the bars to grasp Mordecai's arm. He breaks into a smile. "Well, son, I'm glad to see you alive and well. Half the gang's convinced you're anything but."

"Alive?" Mordecai smiles back unwillingly: Atlas has that ability. "They're melodramatic. I'm fine."

"Oh, you should've heard Mitzi." Atlas makes a gesture he's made before, which Mordecai is uncertain about but which he thinks is meant to indicate something about women and the impossibility thereof. "'Mordecai wouldn't be late for his own funeral,' she says. And Viktor, I tell you he would've had my head if I hadn't been calling around -- well, no matter. Look at you. Wrong side of the bars -- I hope the boys in blue didn't treat you too badly?"

"I'm fine," Mordecai repeats, and that's the end of that.

"All right," says Atlas, jovial. "Well, good to see you safe and sound and among the living, let me tell you. Try to stay out of any more trouble for the rest of the night, all right? I'll send Viktor to pick you up when you get out."

For a moment Mordecai doesn't understand.

Atlas is saying more: "I'll send a change of clothes with him, in case you wouldn't rather go home: I understand you've got a lot to catch up on, if I'm right?"

Mordecai stares at Atlas. There's no hint of jest in his broad, jowly face, nor any sign that he thought Mordecai would expect him to say anything different. For another moment, he is sure he misunderstands, because Atlas is still staring at him, brighter than sunshine. Like everything's right as rain.

He says, finally: "No." And again, "No, you don't understand -- Atlas, you don't understand. I'm sorry, but I --" He casts a glance down the long hallway, and then back the other way. Callahan is nowhere to be seen, nor Plum. The next prisoner over is three cells over. He leans in to speak quietly, near Atlas's ear: "Atlas, I'm wanted. You know that. When the Commissioner gets in, if he places a phone call -- Atlas, I don't have to explain this to you."

In this outburst Mordecai had said the word "Atlas" exactly three times. He does not repeat people's names unless he was delirious or agitated. He knows that. Atlas knows that. Atlas clears his throat, at ease, as he spools together what he's about to say, and Mordecai hopes childishly for a miracle solution. But what Atlas says, in all the tones of I'm-being-reasonable and you're-being-unreasonable, is, "There's no posted bail, Mordecai, or else I'd have you out of here right now. It's only the night. You're frightened over nothing."

"Atlas, you know that's not true," Mordecai pleads (Atlas May is the only person he would still plead with), reaching through the bars -- but Atlas heads him off, takes his hand and squeezes it painfully. "You can't just let this happen. You've got to do something. Damn you, Atlas, I'm your employee -- do something, you just bribed him, can't you bribe him again? Do something?"

"Bribe the entire North County Precinct Station?" Atlas looks incredulous. In fact the Lackadaisy Speakeasy could afford it right now. It would be a bite, but they could afford it, barely. But would Mordecai win that cost-benefit analysis? "You're frightened over nothing, Mordecai. Look, calm down and think about it -- it's only a night in jail. I swear to God I wouldn't let anything happen to you, kid, all right? In fact, I already swore to God, and I haven't. Why would I break that winning streak?"

"Atlas --"

Atlas claps him on the shoulder through the bars. "Listen to me. It'll be fine."

"Atlas!"

"Mordecai," he says, damningly, "it'll be fine." It's a punch in the face, not just because it's not true, and Mordecai knows it's not true, but because -- and this is the real punch, that one that lays Mordecai out flat next to his hope again -- he knows Atlas knows it isn't true, either.

Cost and benefit, on the scales. Mordecai has turned out to be the lighter one.

"I see," he says, drawing himself up and taking a step back: because at moments like this, he thinks distantly, composure is all that matters any more. "Give Mitzi and Viktor my regards, then."

It is 9:38.


1923

Mordecai was Mitzi's bodyguard. Is Mitzi's bodyguard, properly speaking, but was also. From the time her body first needed guarding, which was not long after her marriage to Atlas. He's Atlas' too, but they have a cadre of toughs with guns who tower over Mordecai. He outshoots them all, of course, which is why he is Atlas's shadow up until Atlas requires him to be Mitzi's -- "I don't trust 'em with her," says Atlas, and in what respect Mordecai has never asked. He trusts Mordecai with her, apparently.

In 1923 there was a party at the Hotel Maribel. Atlas was in rooms with Asa Sweet several floors up, in talks. The underground ballroom was raging a few floors down, where the Lackadaisy band had joined up to play improv with the Marigold band. Somewhere between the two the Mays had rented a room for the night, which seemed a little excessive to Mordecai, given that they lived in town, but, well, Atlas' wish was his command. For the night he was on Mitzi detail, which was not the most enjoyable detail, as she wanted to spend it dancing. In case it wasn't obvious, it was not what Mordecai would call a relaxing experience to try to keep an eye on someone who wanted to spend all her time on the dance floor.

A few floors up somewhere Viktor was on "room detail," which apparently involved sitting in the Mays' room. Viktor had not been pleased either. Viktor could stuff it. Mordecai would gladly trade.

But Mitzi wanted to dance, so she did, while Mordecai stood looking frustrated and forbidding on the sidelines. He was glaring at anyone who gave him a sidelong look, including a few young ladies. He was too distracted to think about that very much. But everyone knew he was with the Lackadaisy outfit, so to make a gesture towards politeness he took a champagne glass and sipped at it with his nose wrinkled.

Mitzi reappeared. He wasn't pleased. "For all I know you're drunk out of your mind and getting carried off by the first handsome face that presents itself," he snapped at her, gesturing with his glass. "Stay in my line of sight."

"You're a charmer tonight," she observed, and linked her arm with his before he could object. "You're also paranoid. I am not about to be abducted from the middle of the Marigold Speakeasy not ten yards away from my dedicated protector. Though I do appreciate his concern."

"Mitzi. Has it escaped your notice that we're in public?" He downed the rest of the champagne -- how on earth did they have champagne, anyway? Asa Sweet was some kind of black magician, he swore. "I think you've had too much to drink."

"Mordecai, I haven't had a thing to drink," Mitzi said gaily, the sort of I-am-a-bright-young-thing gaily she adopted when she wanted you to drop a subject. "You, on the other hand. You oughtn't, you know you can't hold your liquor." Then, almost as an afterthought: "Here, I'll bet you never learned the lindy hop."

He was alarmed. "Mitzi, you're not --" She was. "For Heaven's sake you can't --" She could. While he protested she slid her hand into his and dragged him, stumbling, out onto the floor, catching the eye of a few amused revelers. It was a simple step, she explained. She took his hands and demonstrated the footwork, to which he caught on without trouble: then how to spin her under his arm, which he resisted. Unflappable, she spun herself under his arm. Things went from there.

One of the Lackadaisy band, a violinist, yelled an inquiry as to whether Mitzi's "gentleman" was "treating her right," drawing laughter from the crowd and Mitzi. Mordecai went red. "You're so awkward," Mitzi accused him, and dipped herself without shame.

He thought he was going to burst from sheer embarrassment. By the time the song was done he gladly passed her off on a young investor who haunted the Marigold and contented himself with glaring at both of them.

The French liqueur was giving him a headache. He needed to sit down.

He decided to call it a night before she did, which was a brief tug-of-war of irresistible force and immovable object: he took her arm and announced that they were going up, to which she replied inquiring where he got this information, to which he replied that they were going up, to which she noted he was making a scene, to which he informed her that he didn't care. She would complain to Atlas, she told him. He didn't care. That was a lie -- he knew if he ever told Atlas about her behavior in full it wouldn't paint a good picture of her, either, and he knew she knew that. But he never did. And, he supposed, she knew he never would. Oh, the tangled webs.

They took the elevator up in silence and reached the room without incident. Mordecai knocked once at the door and then stepped aside immediately, pushing Mitzi behind him -- just in case. "Paranoid," muttered Mitzi.

Viktor was waiting for them behind the open door, looking extraordinarily more relieved to see another human being than Mordecai had ever witnessed before. "Room detail" had not sat well with him. Mitzi waved hello to him and tiptoed right past to the bed, where she set about taking off her shoes. Mordecai stood awkwardly in the doorway until Viktor moved to close the door behind him.

"I'm going to sleep," said Mitzi incongruously, which baffled Mordecai as minutes earlier she'd been claiming she could dance until dawn. Maybe she really had had too much to drink.

With some reluctance, Mordecai said to Viktor, "You can head on down if you like; I'm afraid I've had enough wine, women, and song and I'm afraid it's only fair." He anticipated a long night of guarding a dark room. It would be much easier than a bustling dancefloor, certainly, but also infinitely more boring. Maybe Mitzi would sleep heavily enough to let him read.

Viktor raised his eyebrows at him. Mordecai was puzzled for a moment, then abruptly colored. "I said it's only fair, but if you'd like to stay up here and continue your thrilling duties I have no objection."

"You know, Mordecai, there's actually a ready-made guard built into this room," offered Mitzi from the washroom. "Lock the door."

It was a brief impasse. Mordecai refused to leave on account of Viktor's absolutely ludicrous suspicions which he most certainly did not need to dignify with explanation. Viktor was unconvinced. Mitzi told them both to be quiet several times, with which they had no trouble complying, really (did they ever?), but that wasn't really the problem. Finally, at loggerheads, they settled on the uneasy compromise of locking the door while Mordecai stepped out long enough to find a third party to take over for both of them. This wasn't the compromise most preferable to Mordecai. In that it was a compromise at all, really. But his face was heating up the longer they had this conversation in Mitzi's earshot and by the end of it he was glad for the chance to step out, Viktor or no Viktor, damn him.

He thought of taking the stairs. There was something that chilled him a little about elevators. Perhaps it was that if he wanted to kill someone in a hotel, he'd wait on the landing on the floor he knew they were bound for, and then open fire: it was a perfect setup for that. A defenseless one. Fish in a barrel. But that was a ridiculous fear; they were in the Marigold, he was armed, and besides, he always stood behind the buttons when the doors opened. Just in case.

Mordecai punched the elevator button. It arrived, a little crowded. He stepped in.

"Going up?" said one of the people. The doors slammed shut before he could say he wasn't.

For company in the elevator, he now realized, he had Asa Sweet and three of his men, tall and suited in black. Asa was, as Atlas put it, "the only other Jew in St. Louis rumrunning." He was a big, bulky man with burly arms, and he had a cigar in his mouth -- he always had a cigar in his mouth. Mordecai stared at him while Asa looked him up and down, casually, like a steer up for auction, and said, "Fancy seeing you here, Mr. Heller."

"I'm not going up," said Mordecai, while the elevator lurched upward. He had backed towards the door a little.

"Ain't you? That's a shame. Well, you can take the ride with us up," Asa winked at him, "and then we can take the ride with you down, and it shouldn't be more than a minute out of your day, don't you think?"

Two of the men were bigger than Mordecai, though none looked like fools. One of them was a little shorter and wirier, which worried him slightly. This wasn't an elevator ambush, he reminded himself, he was being silly -- Atlas and Asa were friends after a fashion. It didn't escape his notice that if Asa had abruptly decided to stop being friends with Atlas, however, Mordecai would present a smart first target.

"So, Mr. Heller," Asa remarked, filling the elevator with white spirals of reeking smoke, "you spend a lot of time with little Mrs. May?"

Mordecai stared at him.

"Cute, ain't she? With that little ucah -- u -- guitar she's got."

He turned his back on Asa and his goons. This was rude, and moreover, a little stupid, but he couldn't care less, and it put a little more space between them and his burning embarrassment. "Mr. Sweet, if you have any remarks to make about Mrs. May," he said as coolly as he could manage -- which was surprisingly coolly, maybe he wasn't so bad at this after all, "I advise you direct them towards Mr. May. But if you'd like me to pass them on, I'll be certain to let him know for you."

This provoked an unsurprising laugh from Asa, which made Mordecai turn to look at him. Bastard. Asa had known Atlas longer than Mordecai had, and quite nearly spoke to him more often.

"Feisty," he said, in case Mordecai needed more reason to hate him. "Settle down, boy. I wasn't implying anything unwholesome about Mrs. May. Wouldn't ever cross my mind. Swear to God."

He took a drag off his cigar, and one of his goons, a blonde one, sniffed at the trail of smoke. Mordecai hated cigars. "I'm just saying if I were him and I had a handsome young fella like yourself," he smiled lopsided at Mordecai, like they were sharing a joke, a devilish joke, one that Mordecai just didn't get, "well, I'd have that big old Slav watch her instead, you know? Quis custodies, you know."

Mordecai went back to staring at the wall. "Please never attempt to use the Latin language again for any reason."

"Jeez, kid, cut me a little slack. I'm just Asa Sweet," said Asa with a chuckle, turning his palms up as if this explained anything at all, "Just a boy trying to make my way in the world as a night manager. Nothing high-falutin' about me. Unlike you, eh?" He chuckled again, this time a bit slowly, as he flooded the room with smoke.

Mordecai ignored that too, but it wasn't enough to stop him growing hot in the face.

"Anyway. I didn't get on this elevator to torment you, kid -- well, in fact I got on to get to the twenty-fifth floor, but that's neither here nor there. I ain't here to torment you either, Mr. Heller. Fact is, I don't think you're having a little hanky-panky under the boss's nose with Mrs. May, and I don't think you want to, either. That ain't your style. And it sure as hell ain't what my buddy Atlas saw in you when he picked you outta the gutter."

Asa Sweet took another long, considering breath of smoke. His voice had changed entirely in tone: not that it wasn't lighthearted, as it seemed he was virtually incapable of being anything but lighthearted. But he'd made an about-face, sounded sympathetic now. And if Mordecai hadn't heard what he'd just said before, it would've been convincing, too. There was something altogether very frightening about Asa Sweet.

"Let's face it, kid. You're an animal." Asa clapped him suddenly on the back, making him flinch. "A deadly animal. A phenomenal animal. And I think I know that better than Atlas does, and you know that too," he ruffled Mordecai's hair, "so what I'm offering you ain't gonna come with any bullshit, nor any need to take any ladies to their debutante balls, because I know that ain't where you excel, you understand me, Heller? In return I trust you're not going to go crying back to Atlas, but why would you? I'm offering you double. Serious. What Atlas pays you, I'll pay you twice. And I'm not saying you gotta take me up on it now," he winked again, "but if things go south at all for you, well. Doors are open, you get me."

"I'm not a turncoat," said Mordecai.

"We're not enemies, Heller. There's no sides to switch. I'm just offering you a better deal. No reason you shouldn't take it."

And there wasn't, at that. Taken from a coldly practical standpoint, there was nothing at all. Lackadaisy and Marigold weren't enemies. It would be one awkward goodbye, and that would be it. He'd see everyone again. Probably fewer shootouts, less risk -- no one preyed half as much on the Marigold operation, not since it had arms like the Hydra. And no more parties. No more socialization, where as Asa said, that ain't where he excelled. It was just a job offer. Nothing more complicated than a job offer. And notwithstanding the prospect of interacting more with Asa Sweet -- which, admittedly, was a severe handicap to the whole idea -- it was worth considering. A smart man would have considered it. A triggerman who cared for his life and livelihood more than anything else, Mordecai knew, who knew the true miser's value of loyalty in a business like this, would have considered it.

"Stop talking to me," said Mordecai. "Or else I will tell Atlas his friends are trying to seduce away his hired men, because I never assented to your assumption that I wouldn't, you damned two-faced bastard."

"Charming," said Asa, now not lighthearted. "Well. Offer's open, Heller. I'll drop you off on the floor you're looking for, how's that?"

In response Mordecai pushed the button for the first floor himself, and turned and faced the row of buttons as if he had no company in the elevator whatsoever.

"All right then. Well, see you around."

He counted the buttons.

"Give my regards to New York."

He was too well-schooled to flinch; but the doors opened on the twenty-fifth floor, all four others got out, the doors closed again, and he shivered.

 


1925

Now that rescue is a dwindling dust cloud on Mordecai's horizon, Plum is back. Mordecai doesn't even look up this time when he hears the boots tramp-tramp down the hallway, nor does he bother to get up when they stop in front of his cell.

He feels like he had when he'd had the gutshot in St. Louis in the fall and wanted to die and Viktor came to snatch him back from the jaws of self-murder, except it is the spring and there is no Viktor coming for him this time and he doesn't want to die. That's a revelation. He hasn't actively wanted to die for a long time now, but now he actively wants to live: and wanting to live is so much more terrifying. The thrum of fear in his chest has crescendoed to a hammering, because he wants to live. And the hammering threatens to drown out everything when he sees Officer Plum lean on the bars of his cage again like a cat over the mouse trapped between his paws.

Mordecai narrows his eyes and leans back, folding his arms. Ethan Plum will not see him frightened.

Says Plum slowly, "Well, if it ain't the Fightin' Kike."

An officer Mordecai hasn't met joins Plum at the bars, a shorter, whey-faced man who chuckles, no, giggles at what Plum says. The reason why they find this funny, Mordecai supposes, is that in the incident that had landed him here in the first place, he'd claimed to be a businessman going about his business before Plum shoved him over the hood of his car. That was the humiliating thing. He wasn't here because he'd killed more men than the Lackadaisy band had fingers and toes. He wasn't even here because anyone had suspected him of being mixed up in the Lackadaisy gang. He was here because he'd been a Jew in St. Louis driving a car that Ethan Plum thought should've belonged to a good old American, and because he'd given him lip -- stubborn, said Viktor Vasko, again and again in his head -- and because Ethan Plum wanted to teach him a lesson.

And the shoulder holsters, of course, turned up rather readily on a search. So now they are impounded at the department, along with Mordecai's hat, and Mordecai is acquiring a fast-growing name for himself in the Precinct Station as -- ugh -- the "Fighting Kike."

"We're gonna look you up in the morning, Metzger," Plum is saying, his face pressed closed to the bars. Mordecai wonders how fast he is. He's fast. He has to be fast. He could break Plum's nose before Plum could react. But things would just go worse for him from there. "We're gonna look you up and see what you're wanted for, and then we're gonna find out where your buddies live. Because it ain't that often a Fightin' Kike running rum walks right into the station for us to book."

Mordecai stands up and Plum and his friend smirk, encouraged. Plum goes on: "Oh, I'm sorry, what was that you had those pistols for? Self-defense? Dangerous bank you work for, is it?"

He grits his teeth and imagines what Mitzi would think of that piece of spur-of-the-moment lying. Well, what the hell do you say about a pair of semi-automatics?

"I wonder who his friends are? Who do you think his friends are, Cooley?"

"Maribel, I bet," opines Cooley, goggling at Mordecai a bit like another child at a zoo. This is getting tiresome. "They've got another kike managing over there. They'd probably hire him. Sure looks fancy, don't he?"

It wouldn't have been that hard for them to guess that Mordecai was wanted for something. It's hard to be the primary gunman for a rumrunning outfit without being wanted for something. It's hard to be the primary anything for a rumrunning outfit without being wanted for something, notwithstanding maybe "accountant." And thanks to his personal unwillingness to go anywhere unarmed, and his personal unwillingness to shoot a police officer, it's not hard for them to guess that he's the primary gunman for a rumrunning outfit, either. Which is why they're dancing in their half-witted, bigoted little boots right now. They don't know who he is. But they know they have someone.

They have no idea, Mordecai broods, exactly how right they are.

"C'mere," says Plum, beckoning Mordecai with one of his fingers. "I want another look at you."

Mordecai has no idea what Plum thinks is incentive to do this. He stays right where he is, on his feet in case Plum decides he's not having enough fun on this side of the bars and decides to join him on the other. He's not sure what Plum thinks is incentive for Mordecai to answer him, either. So he doesn't. He just stands there in his shirtsleeves and wonders how much he has to bore them to make them go away.

"C'mere," says Plum again. "Hey. Metzger. I know that ain't your real name, I'm not a goddamn fool. I got a deal for you."

The word "deal" perks up Mordecai, as much as he hates to admit that it does, because any sliver of hope will at this rate. He's fairly sure of the way bigoted cops' deals tend to run, though, and Mordecai isn't an idiot who thinks that Ethan Plum down at St. Louis Station has any power to commute his sentence to something milder. He stays where he is.

"I said, I got a deal for you. Look, here's the thing. I don't really give a damn about you. I know, I know, it's hard to tell, but I really won't give a shit if I have to let your weaselly little Jew ass go if I get something nice out of it -- I swear I'm not going to miss you. I know you work for rumrunners, kike boy," continues Plum, his hands wrapped around the bars of Mordecai's cage, "I know you use those pretty German guns for them. You know what else I know? I know you use 'em on our boys." This is a lie. Mordecai has never shot a cop: it's a resoundingly stupid thing to do. It is in upholding this rule that he's in this Godforsaken place at all. "But I know you won't mean a thing to Mr. Commissioner if he could get the whole outfit instead -- are you following me?"

It's not hard to follow the deal offered by an unsubtle, slow-witted, singleminded lunkhead of a copper. Mordecai is following. He was following before Plum started talking. "You don't have the power to do that," he says finally. "Leave me alone."

"You know, if you opened your ears a little you might hear I said I'm not actually a goddamned fool. I'm not offering you a goddamned plea bargain, Shylock. I'm offering to let you go."

Let him go.

"For what?" says Mordecai, guardedly, but he is listening.

"Tell me who you work for. What're their names. Where do they operate out of. We know enough to know if you're making it up," says Plum, dead serious. Mordecai believes him. The St. Louis County Police are corrupt -- not stupid. "Just give me your boss's name, where you make your moonshine, where you sell it, whoever the hell pours the money in allows you to dress like that --" Plum gestures to Mordecai's clothes. "I'm not interested in you, boy. Neither's anyone else. Could let this door open and let you scurry out like a little mouse if that's what you want. Nobody gives a damn about you. Just talk."

"I've got no guarantee you'd let me out after I did." Mordecai stares back at Plum and takes a step closer, but there's still one pace between them, a safety buffer.

Cooley sniggers, "That wasn't part of the deal."

Plum cuffs Cooley. "Shut up. Of course it's part of the goddamned deal. Does it look like the St. Louis Police would catch any more goddamned fish if it had a reputation for turning on snitches?" He has a point. "Don't be an idiot, Metzger."

"When would you let me out?" Mordecai, against his everything, is interested -- hope is fluttering a bit in his chest and he's trying to think if there's anything he can tell them that wouldn't bring everyone in. Maybe that would be all right. Maybe.

Plum doesn't miss any beats. "Come a little closer and I'll tell you."

Very reluctantly, Mordecai obeys, tense all through his spine: but when he comes to face the two policemen on the other side of the bars, neither of them make any sudden movements. Plum is no longer slouching, so he meets Mordecai's height. Cooley does not. Plum stares Mordecai in the face -- he has blue eyes, and he's staring a little more intently than the occasion deserves, so Mordecai surmises he's finally noticed the odd color of Mordecai's own -- and continues on, "Right now. In the night, when no one's around. No one else would ever have to know you're here."

It really is tempting. Mordecai believes Plum. Policemen, Mordecai knows, have their own kind of twisted honor among thieves.

"Have a good night, Officer," says Mordecai, and in a moment of defiance, bottled anger and poor judgment, sucks in a breath and spits on Plum's uniform. "I'll see you when I get out in the morning."

In the next moment Plum's hand is -- unsurprisingly -- fisted in his shirt, and slams back to slam Mordecai into the bars of the cell; while he's still reeling Plum's other hand finds a fistful of his hair and slams his head into the bars again with a throb of pain and disorientation. He's not so disoriented, though, that he doesn't know what's happening when Plum lets go of his hair and traces his fingers down almost finickily to take hold of Mordecai's spectacles: and before Mordecai knows it, he lifts them handily off Mordecai's face, through the bars of the cage and passes them somewhere, probably to hand to Cooley.

Then Plum punches him, hard, in the face. But that was probably an afterthought.

He can't see anything other than colors and blurs at this point, really: but he can infer quite readily when he sits up from where he's fallen, shoulders and arm hitting the edge of the bench painfully, that the blue blur walking away down the hall is Plum, and his hearing is more than perfect enough to hear him say, "I gave you a chance, Metzger," and then, "See you in the courthouse."

Mordecai drags himself to sit on the bench, and then sits straight upright with some painful effort. He tries to check the time on his watch. But the minute hand has blurred into the second hand has blurred into the face, and all he can hear is the miniscule, quiet, tick, tick, tick.


1924

Nothing consequential happened in 1924. Well, that's not true. Deals were made. Shootouts happened. People died, some at Mordecai's hand, some at the hand of the other side while he and Viktor tried to staunch blood but not fast enough. Parties were thrown; Mitzi asked him to dance; Mordecai tried and failed to decline; the band played on, moonshine was brewed and run and sold. Atlas and Mitzi were making more money now. They could afford all kinds of luxuries, and she was getting a little too used to living in that kind of luxury -- she, like Atlas, like Mordecai, had not come from anything like it. Mordecai was shot once in 1924, even, but it was with a pea-shooter in the arm by a terrified young woman in her bedroom. He answered it with a pistol round into her head. Not everything he did was a fair fight. Most of the times it wasn't.

Nothing consequential happened in 1924, except that Mordecai Heller and Viktor Vasko went out in the car once because Viktor wanted to show him something. "What?" said Mordecai immediately, who was not much of one for dramatic suspense. Viktor refused to answer. "What?" he said again in the car. Viktor said nothing. Mordecai would not be turned away. He demanded this same one-word question five more times until Viktor threatened to pull over and throw him out of the car, and then four more times after that just to prove that this was an empty threat.

Viktor did pull over, causing Mordecai to wonder if he was actually going to have to walk home on one side of a deserted St. Louis road. But instead he said, with some exasperation: "Sunset. Over Mississippi. You live here four years, still never see it."

"Well, that's because it's just the sky turning pink and fuschia, is why," said Mordecai, less in frustration than confusion. "I never understood what the fuss was. I've seen the sun. I've seen it setting. We do have that in New York, you know. I can imagine what it looks like over --"

"Be quiet," muttered Viktor, and started the car again, and they drove out.

They drove out to a place where the road curved out over a little outcropping, where the Big Muddy, as they called it around here, was particularly wide and the trees were a fair number; and there they waited outside the car. Viktor lit a cigarette. He smoked back then sometimes, before a bullet to his left lung rendered it not only unpleasant but unhealthful for him to do so. Mordecai never smoked, as he disliked the smell of cigarette smoke nearly as much as cigar, but he leaned against the car with his arms crossed and watched the sky turn pink and fuschia, much the same way it did in New York. But it was maybe a little different in St. Louis. Maybe.

"You live in a place," Viktor explained without much awkwardness -- Mordecai envied him that, the ability to do that, in so few words and even less embarrassment -- "you go see sun set once over water. Otherwise you not really live there. True everywhere I live," he announced, a bit proudly.

"That's a silly rule," said Mordecai, sticking his chin in the air a little. "Besides, I'm fairly certain that sooner or later you wind up seeing the sun set anyway, incidentally. You didn't have to make a special excursion over it. I'm sure I'll see the sun set dozens of times over the Mississippi, whether I'd like it or not," he made a face, "before I'm through with my business here."

"Well, now you see it once," repeated Viktor, and still sounded absurdly pleased with himself, for some reason. "What if you die tomorrow, and never see it again? You see it once first."

"That will never happen," Mordecai pronounced, sure of himself, and he closed his eyes smiling.

 


1925

Mordecai Heller has resorted to that most desperate and humiliating last resort, prayer, by the time that Viktor Vasko comes to rescue him. He's resorted to it in Hebrew. He's resorted to it in Yiddish. He's resorted to it in a sort of Yid-Hebrew hybrid, which is kind of more what his Hebrew is anyway, to be honest. Look, he didn't exactly go to a damned synagogue school. But his pride is on the floor, in shards and tatters, and he doesn't look up from his clasped hands when the cops come galumphing by back and forth, nor when the prisoner across from him calls out a familiar slur. He is going to die. Not tomorrow, or the day after that, or the week after that. But not next year, either, and not in fifty years.

There was a time when Mordecai had been resigned to that probability. He finds himself distraught by it now.

So distraught, in fact, that in between entreating his Lord for some kind of mercy he neglects to notice that his entreaty has been granted. He hears the slam of the station door. It has to be sometime around midnight, but his watch is no more of a talking watch than it was three hours ago, unfortunately. He hears -- loud talking? well, it is a police station -- and then some things, err, falling off desks? He pauses in his rediscovery of religion to listen, and then goes back, shaking his head. He vaguely remembers that the last blue blur to cross the hall in that direction had been a short one, so of the three officers on late-night duty, Cooley is probably working at the front desk right now. Apparently he keeps knocking things over, too. Well, he is the stupidest one, and that's saying a great deal.

Abruptly Cooley's clumsiness goes quiet. Mordecai realizes that all the other prisoners in the cells have gone quiet, too, and it's at about this point that he realizes something is very out of order.

He still can't see very well. He hears footsteps down the hallway, and then -- the bang of a rifle, he nearly jumps out of his skin. One of the cell doors bangs open, he hears, and running footsteps go through the door and disappear -- bang, another rifle round. Is someone going through and killing the prisoners? Dear God. He hasn't got anything, he hasn't even got his spectacles. But no -- there keep being running feet. No. No, Mordecai, he chastises himself, no, Mordecai, you idiot, someone is going through and shooting out all of the locks.

Mordecai stands up and goes to the bars, as if it would offer him a better view. It doesn't, though the gunshots are louder. Well, that's quite all right. Gunshots do not remotely make him flinch.

By the time the shooter reaches his cell, he has a better idea of what's going on, because he can see the blur and he can hear the footsteps: and he thinks he is very well justified in what he has to say, which is, "Viktor, what in God's name do you think you're doing?"

To answer him Viktor shoots out the lock on his cell too. He's already standing away from it and he doesn't flinch at the shot. However, when he steps out of the cell, a little gingerly, Viktor has laid his gun to rest briefly against the bars and has taken him by the shoulders to look at him.

"Nothing serious," says Mordecai in response to the question Viktor doesn't have to ask, "one of the officers is a bit of a -- well. Not that it matters. I can't believe you're doing this, does Atlas have any idea you're staging a jail break on the entire --" he's a little giddy on adrenaline right now, to be honest, and he's not totally sure it's happy adrenaline, but he's not totally sure it's not happy adrenaline, either. "-- on an entire police station? Why on earth are you -- Oh my God," he feels the need to remark as Viktor apparently tires of the conversation and shoots out another lock on a prison cell.

"Have you turned into idiot since you got into jail? I just let you out," Viktor takes him by the arm and drags him, against his mild protestations, "everyone after you. I let everyone go, no one knows who did this, or for who. No witnesses."

"Are you kidding? Of course there are witnesses! Notwithstanding all the criminals -- who I suppose won't -- there's at least two more --"

Thudding boots, followed by blurs of blue, come whirling through the hallways, and Viktor shoves Mordecai bodily into his old jail cell. Mordecai doesn't have time to be surprised. Viktor lets off one more round out of his rifle -- that would be the last one, Mordecai's counted -- and then strikes one of the blurs with the butt of it while the other one runs past them.

Mordecai watches in some degree of horror as Viktor-blur and -- Plum-blur -- it has to be, from the voice that's voicing the grunts and curses, while the one screaming the alarm from the front room has definitely got to be Callahan. Oh, but they are in trouble. It's no matter. Plum and Viktor struggle; Mordecai gets to his feet, staring, but not terribly worried, as he hears the thud of a nightstick into flesh and the crunch of Viktor's fist into someone's face. In all his time with Viktor he has never seen him lose a fight. Least of all a fight with someone else when the other person doesn't have a weapon and Viktor has, well, Viktor for a weapon.

A pistol round goes off with a crack -- oh. Well, then.

Mordecai doesn't wait to find out if Plum's shot hit its mark: he's already out of his cell before there's time to ascertain this, and he lunges for Plum in the next moment, blindly. He hits a column of surprised police officer and feels metal that he presumes is Plum's gun. Viktor is swearing in Slovakian.

Mordecai Heller is not a man who is helpless without a gun. He can turn a lot of things into a weapon. He can fight unarmed. This is not fighting unarmed. This is close to flailing blindly while a man with a revolver hits him with it over and over, and thuds the nightstick hard into his head, which knocks him into the bars of his cell again -- at which the pistol discharges one more, loyal round, which Mordecai feels hit him in the shoulder with a familiar percussion.

A moment later he hears a crunch, and hears Plum's revolver skitter across the floor. He hears another crunch -- his shoulder feels chill, like there's wind blowing through it -- and then another. Plum is blurred out on the floor.

Viktor, he realizes a little coldly, pressing a hand to his wet shoulder, has just killed a police officer. That is it for Viktor Vasko's career in St. Louis, Missouri. All on Mordecai's account.

Possibly Viktor Vasko hasn't realized this. He's not even taken a moment to stare dumbfoundedly at Plum's corpse, he's bending over Mordecai. He's saying something in Slovakian again. Now he's saying, "Stupid, why are you always stupid," which does not sound at all thankful to Mordecai, actually, "you're bleeding like ridiculous, here."

He shoves something large and clothy (clothy?) into Mordecai's shoulder, which Mordecai realizes is Viktor's hat. He is using Viktor's hat as a tourniquet. "This is your hat," he says a little unnecessarily.

"Yes."

Mordecai is a little dizzy, but not so dizzy he's not in possession of his wits. He's in pain, to be certain, but what else is new? "We need to get to the office," he says, sounding more dazed than he feels, definitely, damn you Viktor don't give him that look, "They took my -- they've got my -- we need to get to the office. And then out of here, God, I cannot believe you, Viktor. Viktor, we are wanted criminals. Has it occurred to you that we are wanted criminals?"

"We are always wanted criminals," says Viktor with more than a tinge of frustration. "We are never not wanted criminals. Can you walk? Never mind." But Mordecai's uneasy on his feet, so without waiting for him to protest Viktor slings Mordecai's uninjured arm over his shoulders: but their heights aren't really close enough for that, either, so he half scoops him up, too, and ignoring Mordecai's inevitable protests, they go to the office.

Viktor sets Mordecai down in a chair, and before Mordecai can protest that too, he feels something slide onto his face.

And like that, he can see again. They're sitting in the darkened station office, the one he'd been processed in mere hours ago by Plum and Callahan. There's the phone where Atlas called, if he'd even bothered to do the calling personally. There's the desk where Callahan sits, actually, it's where Mordecai's sitting right now. There are the evidence drawers. And yes, there is Viktor's hat, under his hand, staunching the otherwise profuse blood flow from his shoulder.

And there is Viktor Vasko, looking relievingly unhurt, though Mordecai checks him over for any gunshots anyway. Viktor can be stubborn about these things. It's good Viktor has him to counterbalance his natural stubbornness, he thinks kind of nonsensically.

"My hat's on the shelf," says Mordecai. "Would you kindly retrieve it for me?"

Viktor shakes his head, but does so. Mordecai makes an effort to take it from him, but Viktor settles it on Mordecai's head while he makes a face.

"Get me my guns from the second drawer," he says too.

While Viktor does Mordecai turns his head to glance at himself at the oval mirror in the office. He looks terrible. He hadn't accounted for how terrible he looks. One of his eyes is blackened and his lip is split, and he's even paler than usual. He takes both pistols and the magazines offered and clicks them both into place, taking a few more pains than necessary, just to savor the feeling. He can't put his holsters back on, but he swings himself up from the desk -- Viktor moves to intercept him. Mordecai glares at him. "That's enough," he deems, and Viktor listens to him this time.

Sweeping his coat off the coatrack, he walks out into the hall on what he feels are light feet, down the empty rows of cells. He has a purpose now: it has sharpened him to a keen edge. Mordecai Heller is a professional. Viktor follows him as he goes, but he is traversing the shortest distance between several points. The first point is the corpse of Officer Ethan Plum. He gives it a glance over. The head is bludgeoned in -- a few shots from one of his guns, and the face is ruined beyond recognition. He fires another shot into the bloody mash, and then another, until Plum's head is indistinguishable from ground meat with the slimy traces of eyes.

"He do something to you?" Viktor asks, behind him.

The truth is yes. Mordecai sidesteps it, shakes his head, answers with the other, more important truth: "I have to have murdered him."

Viktor opens his mouth to say something but Mordecai steps over Plum's body and takes off down the hallway in long strides. In the front room Cooley is on the floor, breathing but not moving, and Callahan is crouched by the desk with the phone pressed frantically to his ear. When Mordecai steps in Callahan leaps from the desk and zigzags across the room -- he's no fool. Then as Viktor steps into the room after him Mordecai ignores Cooley and follows Callahan out the front door of the police station. "Stay here," he orders Viktor on his way out, and gives him a look that says he means it, and goes.

There's a crowd outside. Mordecai hardly notices, or cares: he's already taken this element into consideration in his calculations. Callahan flees in a wavy Flight-of-the-Bumblebee pattern as people scream, which Mordecai takes little notice of either: people will find any excuse to scream. He walks after Callahan, in no hurry.

Callahan's retreating back grows smaller and smaller and Mordecai discards one of his pistols, lifts the other in both hands and lines up the shot. People are definitely screaming. He pulls the trigger.

Callahan falls a little comically, first to his knees and then forward. Mordecai pockets both guns and turns away. A camera's shutter goes off. He ignores it and walks back in.

"You're not a wanted criminal," he says to Viktor, rather casually, straightening his hat: "I'm a wanted criminal."

"I'm already wanted criminal," Viktor reminds him.

"Yes, well," Mordecai is a little ruffled at the slight ruination of what he thought was a rather dashing line, "you're wanted for labor unrest, and now I'm wanted for killing a police officer. Two police officers. Let's leave it at two," he says with distaste, glancing at slumbering Cooley, "unless, well. Did he get the chance to see anything?

"He was asleep at desk," offers Viktor. "I make him stay asleep at desk."

"The point is," says Mordecai, putting his hands on his hips, "we need to get out of here, because we've got some rather unfortunate news for Atlas."

The car is parked somewhere inconspicuous. Mordecai is a little sick and lightheaded from blood loss by the time he gets in, and Viktor drives him back to the Little Daisy in near silence. For once Mordecai lets the silence stand again, and just looks at his watch over and over, now that he can read it again: 12:10. 12:12. 12:19.

He does say eventually, "It was the best thing to do."

Viktor looks grim the entire time: grimmer than usual, even, and now he looks even grimmer as he glances at Mordecai. He says nothing. Mordecai wonders if he's concerned. Mordecai wonders if he feels bad. Mordecai wonders if he will ever understand what goes on inside of Viktor Vasko's head.

"It was the best thing to do," he says again. "I'm less distinctive than you. I'd be better at avoiding arrest. You know I would be. It's the professional thing to do, Viktor -- for the good of the outfit. In fact, it's quite nearly self-interested."

Viktor says nothing.

"Have you ever known me to do anything unprofessional, Viktor?"

Viktor says nothing until they park the car in the Lackadaisy garage, and then he gets out, goes around to Mordecai's side of the car and hefts him up without a speck of room for complaint. "I never should have work," he says finally, sliding one of his arms under Mordecai's knees, "with boy like you."

"Viktor," Mordecai protests, lightheaded. "Viktor, that's a lie and you know it. Are you listening to me?"

The moon is bright and full, one of the objects he can pick out in his sick, swimming vision. It is spring in St. Louis. The temperature is mild, though his shoulder still feels cold. His head is against Viktor Vasko's bicep. His guns are -- somewhere? -- and his hat is still in the car, but his watch, his watch is in his hand.

He clicks it open and stares at it. It's 12:23.

Mordecai Heller passes out. But in his brief and bloody time on Planet Earth, he will see the sun set over St. Louis at least one more time.